Avoiding the gin-eric in South Carolina

I leave Sunday for three days in Charleston, South Carolina, and already I can smell the aromatics and botanicals, those ultra-fragrant plant compounds often used in alcoholic potables, most popularly in gin. Aromatics and botanicals furnish a strong herbal, floral or fruity tang that sets flowery, pungent gin apart from insipid vodka, which tends to smell and taste like undiluted alcohol (and which is why producers are always grossing up their swill with flavors like cherry, vanilla, mango and peppar, whatever that is). 

In Charleston is the award-winning High Wire Distilling Co., which claims to be the city’s first distillery since Prohibition. Like a boozy boutique, the outfit “produces a distinctive line of small batch spirits, including gin, rum, whiskey, and vodka using premium, specialized ingredients.” 

I’m there.

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And I’m taking the $10 tour and tasting, which (more canned copy here) “provide an overview of the distilling process and allow guests an opportunity to see the still, mash tun, fermentation tanks, barrel aging, and bottling operations.” Tour-takers “receive a traditional tasting flight of four High Wire spirits.” (Yes!)

This has got to beat the tragic, gimcrack Heineken Experience brewery tour I signed up for in Amsterdam last year (my head still hurts from the strobes and electronica). And it might just match the exemplary Russia Vodka Museum in St. Petersburg, where the tastings exuded high European class. Or the fine, frothy, free tour of the Sam Adams Brewery in Boston.  

I have my eye on one of High Wire’s specialty gins, which goes for $27 a bottle (I don’t yet know the size), the “Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin,” described in detail:

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“Made with crushed juniper berries and fresh lemon and orange peel, this bright and flavorful gin is well-balanced and pleasing to the palate. Balancing botanicals include licorice root, angelica root, coriander, and cardamom. From a straight up martini to a more complex Fitzgerald, this gin dazzles even the most discerning gin drinker.”

Proof: 88

Tasting Notes: Floral, licorice, lemon, orange, pine, rounded/full texture, well-balanced, long finish.

Cocktails: Gin & Tonic, Martini, Fitzgerald, Collins, Negroni, Gimlet, Martinez, Gin Gin Mule

I’m sure I don’t know what at least three of those cocktails are, but they sound ravishing with this nifty gin, which, you never know, might suck. I’ll taste it during the tour’s tasting segment. If I like it, I’m buying a bottle. And then, you know, drinks on me.

Doing the Charleston

History throbs and threads through Charleston, South Carolina, a city I haven’t visited for about 16 reasons, the biggest being I just haven’t made it down there yet. Part of that is because I feel I got my Deep South fix some years ago during a greatest-hits southern road trip with my brother in a brazenly purple Saturn sedan rental. It was a blast.

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Filled with barbecue, catfish and boiled peanuts, we shoehorned as much as we could into five days, pit-stopping in Nashville; Memphis; Sun Records; Graceland; Asheville, N.C., which is tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains; Montgomery and Birmingham; the dewey-eyed Dollywood Theme Park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; as well as Thomas Jefferson’s digs at Monticello in Virginia on our way back north to Brooklyn. For much of the journey we listened to the operatically twangy “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr., an aching ode to hillbilly pride suddenly apt for these puke-making MAGA days, which dominated the local airwaves. (Listen HERE. It’s impossibly catchy.)  

A native Californian who survived more than a decade in Texas, I’m now an inveterate Yankee. As much as that maiden journey was an eye-opening kick, the South doesn’t come naturally to me. On a later road trip I circumnavigated coastal Florida, from St. Augustine to Miami and the Keys, St. Petersburg to Panama City. (We cut through Alabama and landed in New Orleans, La.) I found Florida gauche, grubby and at times noxiously racist. You couldn’t bribe me back.

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Enter Charleston, S.C., above, a stately midsize city swathed in Civil War lore and, just as intriguing, boasting gourmet gold. I leave in two weeks for a fast three-day trip. Here’s Lonely Planet on the burg’s historical heft:  

“Cannons, cemeteries and carriage rides conjure an earlier era in this lovely city. Signers of the Declaration of Independence puffed cigars and whispered of revolution in historic homes, and the first shots of the Civil War rang out over Fort Sumter. The city was built on slave labor, and several sights are among the nation’s most important educators on the long-standing oppression of African Americans.”

This is a small jaunt — a two-hour flight (free, thanks to airline credits) and a reasonable if flavorless midrange hotel in the Historic District. I’m taking a walking tour of the cobblestone-paved historic hood, including the French Quarter, but I’m not overly excited about the glut of antebellum mansions — silk sofas don’t thrill me — sprawling parks or even fabled Fort Sumter, surefire soporifics I’d rather read about than actually visit.

In my sights is the Old Slave Mart Museum, which “recounts the story of Charleston’s role in the interstate slave trade by focusing on the history of this particular building and site and the slave sales that occurred here.” And I’ll meander through and photograph the history-rich spreads of St. Philip’s Graveyard and Magnolia Cemetery, morbid musts.

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Called the Holy City for contested and not necessarily pious reasons, Charleston keeps accruing accolades as the “friendliest city” and “best city to visit” and other breathless superlatives glossy magazines can’t help bestowing on every cool town (hello, Austin). 

Part of its cachet derives from its evolution as a culinary epicenter, with drooled-over fine dining spots like Fig and McCrady’s, which offers a rarefied tasting-menu experience — “inventive cuisine fresh from the farm” — with only 22 seats.

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Supreme southern chef Sean Brock

The McCrady’s kitchen is run by award-winning chef Sean Brock, who’s been extensively profiled on “Chef’s Table” and “The Mind of a Chef” on Netflix. Brock also co-owns the more casual Southern food destination Husk, where the crispy fried chicken skins are legend (and not always on the menu, drat). Brock and his famed dishes are a big reason I’m going to Charleston. Oysters are also a pull, with Leon’s Oyster Shop and its exalted shellfish and scalloped potatoes firm on my gastronomic itinerary. 

Call it my foodie expedition, brevity be damned. It’s also my overdue return to the South, a region rather alien to me, a cluster of unvarnished Americana, verdant beauty, rampant Republicanism and Confederate fervor that, if nothing else, will impart salutary exposure to the unusual, surprising and startling — a whole new world, exactly why I pack up and go.

The weird and wiggy, worldwide

As one who seeks out the freaky and far out in my travels, serendipity seems to be the best GPS for the fiendishly, often funnily, strange. Mostly this is in the form of art, mainly sculpture and statue and the occasional painting. (Or some decidedly unfunny human cremations in India and Nepal — I’ll spare you.)

Sure, it’s superficial this fascination. (So weird! So hilarious!) What does it mean? Not much. It’s aesthetics of the outré, stimuli out of left field, tailored, perhaps, to the oddballs among us. It’s striking, warped and wonderful. The more ghastly the better. The more shocking the cooler. (Note: I have yet to stumble upon art or artifact that’s sincerely blasted my senses. It’s out there, and I will find it.)

Here, meanwhile, are irresistible curiosities I’ve come across around the world: 

 

Cast of Joseph Merrick’s, aka the Elephant Man’s, skull, Royal London Hospital. One of the most interesting, most hideous and saddest skeletal specimens ever.
Latex cast of the Elephant Man from the 1980 David Lynch film “The Elephant Man” at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York. This is the mold they used to make-up John Hurt as the real-life Elephant Man.
“Crucified Woman,” an unsettling work by supreme provocateur Maurizio Cattelan, hanging in the Guggenheim in New York City. Note the pigeons. I have no idea what’s going on.
Cracked cherub in Iglesia de El Salvador, a gorgeous church in Sevilla, Spain. I love the little fella’s decrepitude and pink and bulgy doll-like creepiness.
Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Stacked: a sheep, a pig, a cow, all with unicorn horns. Interesting, until you realize it’s just bad art.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Rugged hiking man with primates. The bloke’s head is like a bobble-head.
The Met, New York City. Exactly how I wake each morning.
Body cast of Chang & Eng, original Siamese twins, Mutter Museum, Philadelphia. Gross and glorious.
A baby through Picasso’s eyes, Paris. I just like this poor warped toddler, so bulbous and twisted — and probably demonic.
Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia. At the resident Torture Museum. Highlight: the saliva string and puddle.
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Trump in two years, in his cell. 
Malformed Baby Jesus, flea market, Barcelona, Spain. So distorted and freakish I desperately wanted to take it home and cuddle it.
Hanging horses by crazy Cattelan, Guggenheim, NYC. Something out of Fellini. See the little Pinocchio puppet by its front legs. Discuss.
Monkey murder. I really haven’t the foggiest. I wish I did, but I don’t. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 

Pushing for Paris

I once knew someone who actually said this when I mentioned that my favorite city is Paris: “Huh? Even Munich is better than Paris.”

Deathly silence.

Munich?

Munich?

Thunderstruck, I retain this memory with terrible clarity. I crossed that person off my Christmas card list. 

(Now, nothing against Munich. Munich is neat-o. I thoroughly enjoyed Munich, if I didn’t fall in love with it. I like beer. And cuckoo clocks.)

When I was in Amsterdam in May, I was on a boat tour through the lovely canals and, coaxed by the pushy skipper, I was evidently dumb enough to say the city was beautiful, much like Paris, wherein the whole boat, about eight people, groaned, “Whoa! Amsterdam is waay better than Paris.” Murmurs and whispers ensued. (Oh, those awful French people, groused a ditzy Brit, echoing the laziest cliché in the history of world travel.)

I had to, first, snuff my indignation, then muffle my bemusement, then muzzle my laughter. Were they serious? Amsterdam is gorgeous and fun and historically and culturally robust, but it doesn’t hold a flickering little paper match to the overwhelming majesty of sprawling, art-encrusted, haute cuisine-infused, history-convulsed Paris, which boasts its own sinuous canal in the knockout, 483-mile Seine and all of its inviting, ancient quays. 

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The last thing Paris needs is some doltish American offering injured and angry apologias for the grand, gilded metropolis. Paris stands supreme, proudly independent, unimpeachable, a dazzling European peacock, plumage in full splay. Perhaps not everyone’s favorite destination, it remains high up, cleanly above Munich and Amsterdam. (I choose Amsterdam, which I adore for so many reasons, over Munich, for the record.)

Central Paris, that masterpiece of urban planning, conflates the antiquated and the contemporary for stunning treelined strolls. Magnificent parks, gardens and cathedrals stipple the cityscape and some of the most august art repositories in the world — Musèe d’Orsay, the Louvre, Musèe de l’Orangerie, Musèe Picasso, Centre Pompidou — unfailingly spellbind. Food, fashion, film — Paris is a throbbing epicenter for it all.

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Musee d’Orsay, November 2015

But we know this. Here I am describing, a mite defensively, the patent pleasures of this great city. All of it world-renown. For a reason.

While Paris preens and beguiles, some of my other eternal boldfaced cities include New York, Tokyo, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, Krakow and stately Istanbul, where I return this month, giddily. 

Reader: I’d love to hear about your favorite travel spots. Drop names in the comments section and be as brief or windy as you’d like. I’m curious if Paris makes the cut or not, or if I’m crazy, and if I’m overlooking other star locations, be it Botswana or Buenos Aires. Type away … 

Captivated in Cappadocia (Turkey Part II)

The stony hills don’t roll so much as jag and tumble. Fantastic rock formations — so often called “fairy chimneys” that the term, apt as it is, has become cliché — spiral from the clay-colored earth in tapered towers and stout tepees. 

Cave dwellings and ancient cave chapels adorned with shimmeringly preserved Christian frescoes honeycomb hillsides. Phallic boulders and chalky spires erupt out of the arid Anatolian plains. Horses graze amid tall grass and bright wildflowers and horse-pulled carts trundle down steep stone streets.

After a long time away, I am soon returning to this otherworldly, almost Martian landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey, where I will rent a motor scooter and buzz the hills, stop and gape at the underground cities and famed Open-Air Museum, stay in the obligatory cave hotel, tuck into lavish Turkish cuisine and partake of the modest nightlife. (I’m partial to the funky Flintstone Bar, which is also, yes, a cave.)

I was last in Cappadocia a decade ago and I marveled then and expect to marvel all over again at the sculpture-like topography — it’s a mushroom! It’s an arrowhead! — molded by the artistic hands of the heavens. This UNESCO World Heritage site, whose pink dawn skies are peppered with flotillas of touristy hot-air balloons, would make an exemplary location for a sci-fi or fantasy movie, and probably has. 

It’s practically a hop-skip from Istanbul to Central Anatolia — a 90-minute flight, that, at $25 each way, is a steal that can’t be denied. So back I go this fall.

These are scenes from my last stay in Cappadocia — looking back while looking forward.

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My cave hotel in Goreme, Cappadocia

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Cave hotel room

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And three bonus photos that really capture the magic, borrowed from the web:

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The pictures, and pull, of Istanbul (Turkey Part I)

Like regular human ardor, a love affair with a city is complicated — prickly, passionate, vexing, ineffable. We adore our favorite cities, which are not breathing creatures but quasi-animate entities that are unquestionably alive, pulsing and forever mutable.

When pressed, the two cities I enjoy the most intense romances with are Paris and Istanbul. Paris is my baby, but sometimes I think I love them equally. (Sorry, ma chérie.)

I fell in love with Istanbul in the spring and fall of 2008, two trips comprising some of my very peak travel experiences. There were times when I actually lost myself, and, this is spectacularly unusual, crawled out of my muzzy head, breathed a little and existed, if momentarily, in a vacuum of Edenic placidity, even contentment. I flew.

Ten years on, the country has hurtled into political tumult: multiple terrorist attacks, violent anti-government protests, an attempted coup and the burn marks of President Erdogan’s tightening authoritarian chokehold. The guidelines of a culinary walking tour in Istanbul actually state: “We are not responsible for acts beyond our control, including but not limited to …  acts of war, or other unrest caused by state or non-state actors.” Terrific.

I could boycott Turkey, but that’d be my loss. I miss the generosity of the people, the grandeur of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the majesty of the sun-twinkling Bosporus, the exquisite food, the dazzling cultural and religious breadth of East meets West. So I am returning this fall, with a two-day excursion amid the fairytale moonscapes of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia. (See them here. Ignore the festering hot-air balloons.)

These shots of Istanbul, snapped on my long-ago journeys, remind why I’m going back.

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The euphoria of traveling alone

This was a mistake: I once told a female friend to go ahead and meet me in Tokyo when I went some time ago. She was excited. Then I wrote in a blog that she shouldn’t be too excited because I need my space, that I, huh-hum, walk the Earth alone. This did not go over well. This was unmannerly. And dumb. Whatever. It was true.

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Louvre, Paris, 2015

Decidedly, defiantly, I am an incorrigible solo traveler. Occasionally I’ve traveled to Europe or somewhere in the States with a gal pal, but 99-percent of the time I’m a one-man production. Two weeks in Japan. Three weeks in India. Two weeks in Turkey. Ten days in Paris. Do I get lonely? Rarely. Embracing solitude and deflecting loneliness is an art form, and, done right, it’s invigorating.

Last fall, I wrote here about loneliness vs. solitude: “My own skin doesn’t fit well. Which means comfort among others doesn’t come easy. Traveling, I love to read in cafes, scribble in journals in bars, roam streets, cathedrals and cemeteries alone, without the nattering of companions. I move to my own beat …”

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So I am gladdened by the new book “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude” by journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom. Not only are the four cities she explores — Paris, Istanbul, Florence, New York — some of my absolute favorites, but her experiment in solitary travel is of course immensely attractive.

Despite spending undue verbiage defending solitude — feebly citing scientists, psychologists and philosophers who rail against the social stigma of aloneness, as if it’s some zany pathology — Rosenbloom says that solo travel is surging, and, a fine reporter, she provides the stats.

In a time when everything is socially entwined and extravagantly networked, the hunger for alone time is greater than ever, be it a solo trip to a movie or a solo trip to Morocco. I habitually go the movies alone, just as I unfailingly globe-trot untethered. As Rosenbloom learns, such excursions are steeped in rare splendors, from the placidity of eating alone and truly savoring a meal to the transformative power of focusing on the present moment.

“Alone, there’s no need for an itinerary,” she writes. “Walk, and the day arranges itself.” One can be “curious, improvisational, open to serendipity.”

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul, 2008

As when I spontaneously tooled through the fairy-tale hills of Cappadocia, Turkey, on a rented Vespa, or stumbled upon the ritual slaughter of sacred rams in a mosque abattoir in Istanbul, or visited an orphanage for critically ill children in Siem Reap, Cambodia, or, most harrowing, got myself detained by Hezbollah goons in South Beirut. And of course there are countless cordial encounters and forged friendships among fellow travelers and locals that organically blossom, and often last.

Rosenbloom had a plan: visit Paris in springtime, Istanbul in summer, Florence in autumn and New York, her hometown, in winter. Except for New York, she was only in each city for up to one week. Her aim was to peel back the delights of traveling alone in exemplary locations, ones awash in food, architecture and art, revealing how fine it can be to be unhurried, “accountable to no one,” exhilaratingly free.

The upshot is part vivid travelogue and vague memoir, filigreed reportage and free-floating opinion. “Alone Time” doesn’t provide the stunning personal epiphanies and life-altering experiences of Elizabeth Gilbert’s classic “Eat, Pray, Love” (nor the luxurious prose). It’s more a practical guide, a how-to on solo travel, including an epilogue, “Tips and Tools for Going It Alone.” (Though I had to roll my eyes at a few sections, like this one: “How to Be Alone in a Museum” — really?) She offers some gauzy instructions, like how “to be open to wonder,” which, actually, is much easier than you think.

Rosenbloom, diehard journalist, is wed to her sources, so that her rigorous apologia for eating alone comes with too many testimonials from psychologists and the like, bogging down what modest narrative thrust there is. I wanted to blurt out: “Eating aloneJust do it! It’s entirely fine and easy and acceptable. You don’t need a sheaf of Ph.D studies to validate this primal pleasure.”

For this introvert, whose two favorite cities happen to be Paris and Istanbul, “Alone Time” is a mild affirmation that my travel habits might have universal appeal, something I kind of already believed. Solitude -— not loneliness, which must be fended off —  is a source of power and creativity, great assets while on the road.

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East River, New York City, 2010

As I wrote last fall: “In solitude one reaps energy from oneself. You create your own space on your own terms, with your own powers, cultivating your mind, with the option of joining the wide world at anytime. Great freedom defines solitude. It’s the incubator of creativity and art. It’s the locus of self-communion.”

Rosenbloom, who began her physical journey and spiritual awakening in the City of Lights, sums up with characteristic pragmatism and admirable ambition: “My aim wasn’t to master Paris. It was to master myself: to learn how a little alone time can change your life — in any city.” And there she nails it.