Monday, March 22, 2010

A Laurel Highlands Adventure

I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is only an hour north of a most beautiful region known as the Laurel Highlands. In the past 3 or 4 years I've been (re)discovering fantastic places that were practically in my backyard, yet I rarely experienced until after I moved to Columbus. As a child, we went to Idewild Park and Seven Springs Ski Resort, but a 10-year old has no concept of distance. I had no idea how much fun there was, so close by! As an adult, I've come to appreciate how easily accessible the Laurel Highlands is from lots of cities, including Columbus.
The Laurel Highlands is a sprawling region, straddling the Pa. turnpike and includes some fabulous attractions, such as Seven Springs Mountain resort; Fallingwater; Kentuck Knob; Nemacolin Woodlands; Idewild Park; Fort Ligonier; and Fort Necessity- a national battlefield. The outdoor offerings are even more plentiful: state parks, the Great Allegheny Passage and one of the world's top ten rafted rivers. The village of Ohiopyle, located on the Youghiogheny River, is a popular launching point for all sorts of outdoor adventures, including white water rafting of all levels. There's a couple of little cafes and bars, and plenty of liverys, outdoorsy shops and access to hiking and biking trails. The picture at the top is of Cucumber Falls, an easy photo-op along the winding road, and also a popular fishing hole.
When driving from Columbus, we usually take I-70 East then hop off on Route 40 somewhere along the way, for a more leisurely drive into the Highlands. The National Road (a.k.a. Route 40), snakes through Ohio and into southwestern Pennsylvania, past quiet towns and idyllic landscapes. If you blink, you might miss Scenery Hill, where the historic Century Inn (c.1794) has been feeding and bedding weary travelers for two centuries. It is not in the Laurel Highlands 'proper' but as one of the country’s oldest continuously operated taverns is certainly worthy of mention. Also, it’s not surprising that several of our nation’s great leaders took a meal and a drink here: George Washington, Andrew Jackson and James Polk to name only the presidents. The golden stone building, which served as a stagecoach stop throughout the 19th century, is brimming with antiques. The inn’s place in history is emphasized by its prized possession- the only known flag in existence from the local Whisky Rebellion of 1794. I have not stayed here in a very long time, but recently had lunch. Food's OK. Nothing to rave about, but the atmosphere is what you'd expect- charming. It makes a nice first stop if you are embracing the scenic route. In the great meadows just beyond Scenery Hill, the French and Indian War held its opening acts in 1754 at Fort Necessity, now a National Battlefield with a new, well-designed visitors center.

A quick detour off of the National Road lands you back in the twentieth century at one of America’s greatest private residences, Fallingwater. The Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece was built in 1937 for Pittsburgh retail mogul, J. Edgar Kauffman as a weekend retreat- but this isn’t your average lake house! Fallingwater is a powerful and evocative place. The home is a study in the sublime. Highly informative, guided tours allow visitors to intimately experience the building’s nuances and the architect’s philosophy. Fallingwater’s modernity and innovation is overwhelming for the 1930s, especially given its relevance yet today. The house is built directly into the bedrock and utilizes many natural elements, but is most famous for overhanging a photogenic waterfall called Bear Run. Having been named to National Geographic’s ‘Top 50 Must-see Places in America’, Fallingwater is a Laurel Highlands destination in its own right.

Practically neighboring Fallingwater is Kentuck Knob, a prime example of later Wrightian architecture known as Usonian. Unlike Fallingwater, it is perched high on a hill offering fantastic vistas of the highlands. It was built in 1954 for the Hagen ice cream family and is open most of the year, but reservations are recommended.
Ten miles from Wright's iconic home is the world-class, five-star Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. Sprawling over 3,000 acres, Nemacolin has a little something for everyone, including an acclaimed spa; full-service activities center (complete with zipline, off-roading, & archery); private zoo; private fly-fishing lakes; equine center; and two championship golf courses- one being a traditional links course.
Anyone fortunate enough to pilot a plane can bypass Route 40 altogether to make a grand entrance on the resort's private landing strip, but those of us resigned to wheels, can start the visit off right with valet service. And service is truly what Nemacolin is all about, which is obvious in the mile-long list of spa treatments and family-friendly activities available year round. Among my favorite things to do is just wander the halls of the connected hotels, checking out out the eclectic art collection (one of my favorite pieces is the shirt Elvis wore in Blue Hawaiian).
Then again, laying by pool isn't so bad either, or shooting a game of pool, or having a glass of wine in the cigar lounge. The combination of fun and relaxation is endless. Nemacolin boasts 14 restaurants and bars, which includes the AAA Four-Diamond steakhouse, Aqueous, a cigar bar, sports bar, pub, bowling alley and a ‘50’s style diner. Not to mention, the largest wine cellar in Pennsylvania. The AAA Five-Diamond restaurant, Lautrec serves French nouveau cuisine, which means tiny portions with huge flavor. The ingredient-driven menu is shockingly avante garde, but an open mind allows for a unique and memorable experience. One of the nicest touches is the cheese and chocolate trolley- certain to fill you up if dinner doesn’t. Accommodations range from traditional rooms in the French-style Chateau Lafayette and the English-style Lodge, to private townhouses, to posh boutique rooms in the AAA Five Diamond, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Falling Rock Hotel where, if you can't afford to stay, cocktails on the patio is inspiring enough. Nemacolin is famed for its butler service. If ever you wanted a personal attendant to draw your curtains, lay out your clothes, bring you breakfast and organize your day, look no further.  An even greater frivolity is being handed a ‘bath menu’ from which your butler will draw a custom-scented bath at a specified 
temperature any time of day. It is an extraordinary experience to  

enter your suite to the aroma of lavender and hibiscus; the bathroom strewn with flower petals and tea candles. Towels and champagne glasses artfully arranged. “Jeeves” will even pour a little bubbly, if you insist. All you have to do is hop in and simmer! Here’s to the good life in the Laurel Highlands, where national treasures, stunning scenery and luxurious accommodations are well-worth the three hour drive from Columbus.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wunnerful, Wunnerful Champage Music

One of my fondest childhood memories is watching the Lawrence Welk Show with my grandparents. My grandmother's world came to a screeching halt every Saturday at 7PM. She sat in 'her chair.' I camped out on my favorite blanket. My grandfather scampered for whatever indulgences Nan and Shawnie required: Bottles of sasparilla or vanilla cream pop, Glen's custard, cheeseballs.... anything his footie pyjama-clad granddaughter demanded, she got. Nan was often at her most accommodating during the show so I could negotiate just about anything with her during commercial breaks, including a later bedtime.
I continue the tradition by DVRing Lawrence Welk every Saturday night on WOSU. Partly for its eternally classic music, but mostly because I just love the show in all its wholesome corniess and gut-wrenching nostalgia. Sometimes, I sit with laptop fired up, ready to download tunes that tickle my fancy. Times sure have changed, but in some ways they have not- at least not for an hour on Saturday night.
Lawrence Welk's autobiography, "Wunnerful, Wunnerful," was a best seller the year I was born. He seemed to do it all, but what's particularly impressive was that, at his peak of wealth, he was Hollywood's second richest entertainer (not surprisngly, behind Bob Hope) and his variety show was the second most popular tourist attraction in L.A (just behind Disneyland). Welk made a killing in showbiz, but it seemed he was as much a serious entrepreneur as he was a musician. He owned the rights to more than 20,000 songs, recording studios and was was heavy into real estate- luxury resorts, country clubs, retirement facilities and also mobile trailer parks. In fact, Welk properties are still around today. I tried my darndest to trade our timeshare for the resort near Palm Springs this May.... it didn't work out, but one of these days we will go. However, I have this sneaking suspicion we'll end up going to see the Lennon Sister(s) perform at the Welk Theatre in Branson, MO first. I hear it's a gas!!
Larry's early days were spent on a farm in North Dakota, where his home is now a landmark museum and the ND State University houses the Welk archives. His early bands from the 1920's, '30s and 40's had names that reflected their style: The Biggest Little Band in America, Lawrence Welk's Fruit Gum Orchestra, Novelty Orchestra, and The Hotsy Totsy Boys. (All of these photos come from wikepedia or the archives website). It is safe to argue that Welk spearheaded America's most successful band. But what made them such a hit? Their music targeted middle America. Who doesn't love a good polka? They also introduced America to that vague category then referred to as 'novelty music' - Latin love songs, French dance tunes and other exotic rhythms to which Americans were newly exposed during the world wars. The irony-- as Americana as Welk is, he brought world music into our popular culture.
One of the most surprising things I've learned was that a very young Lawrence Welk made his orchestral debut on New Year's Eve 1938 at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh (a place with which I am intimately familiar). This hotel is currently owned by Omni, but remains the city's Grand Dame, serving up one of the best brunches in town, hosting a daily high tea and offering old-school door service by a lanky man in tuxedo and top hat. Time has sort of stood still for this hotel. Fittingly, the William Penn is where the phrase "Champagne Music" was coined to describe Welk's sparkly music and ultimately came to define his style. Listening to Welk's orchestra was like sipping the bubbly! Also, it was here the concept of the "champagne lady" took shape. The leading (singing and dancing) lady, so to speak, of which there were eight through the ages. Who knew? I can't tell you how excited I was to learn this Pittsburgh-Welkian connection!

Interestingly, Welk's 1940's syndicated radio show was sponsored by none other than the "Champagne of Bottle Beer"- Miller High Life. I'm suddenly inspired to grab a six pack of MHL and make a toast to the Master of Mood music.

Good night, good night until we meet again
Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehen 'til then
And though it's always sweet sorrow to part
You know you'll always remain in my heart

Good night, sleep tight and pleasant dreams to you
Here's a wish and a prayer that every dream comes true
And now 'til we meet again
Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehen

Good night, sleep tight and pleasant dreams to you
Here's a wish and a prayer that every dream comes true
And now 'til we meet again
Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehen
Good Night!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pink Martini- What's in a name?

No booze here! Just heady, intoxicating music. Pink Martini is high brow and pop culture all at once. This band has resurrected beautiful old songs, written beautiful new melodies and more often than not, just makes me wanna dance! Which reminds me, the first Pink Martini song I ever heard is the islandy-sounding "Dansez- vous" (French for "Dance!) from their second album, Hang on Little Tomato.

Pink Martini is a totally swingin' big band (literally BIG, with 12 members) hailing from Portland, OR. They cover 1940s, '50s and '60s lounge music- my absolute favorite genre- but what I love most is their global flair. While many of the songs conjure images of old Hollywood, smokey lounges and Breakfast at Tiffany's, others put you smack in the middle of a Cuban street festival or a French bistro or an Italian palazzo. They more or less dig up songs from all over the world, like "musical archaeologists," creating wildly diverse and eclectic compilations.

The band members are as diverse as their music, including lead singer China Forbes (from Cambridge, MA) and bandleader, Thomas Lauderdale (from Indiana)- who come from multicutlural families and met while studying history and literature at Harvard. China Forbes has a huge voice, an alluring stage presence and an envious capacity for languages. She sings in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Croatian. In fact, they perform songs in 12 or 13 different languages, which is part of what captivated me from the start. The dazzling multi-lingual aspect brings a new (and refreshing) dimension to a period of music with which I am hugely fond of.

Not surprisingly, Pink Martini spends a lot of time the world stage with a tour circuit that stretches from Hawaii to South Korea to Germany and, as I just learned, to Cleveland Ohio! And yes, we got tickets. I am so excited to see them play in a few weeks at Severence Hall, which, to my mind, is the perfect "music hall" venue for this band whom I so often compare with Lawrence Welk... minus the leisure suits.

This is one of those bands whose music I can listen to over and over and over again, so thankfully, they have a new-ish album out called Splendor in the Grass. While downloading the album, one particular song caught my eye- Ohayoo Ohio- and it just happens to be my new favorite. Looking forward to hearing it performed live in Cleveland, Ohio.

Commence the bubble machine!

Veronica Tewkesbury: Queen of Steam

Ahhhh, Veronica Tewkesbury... where to begin?

I discovered Veronica during one of Ariana's fabulous Halloween parties. She was sipping cheap champagne from a crystal-cut wine goblet. Captivating the audience with impassioned readings from fine novels, such as "One Naughty Night" and "Between the Sheets". The Queen of Steam made a lasting impression. Think satin gown, big black hat and elegant cigarette holder. And how could we forget the silver fox fur (faux, of course) and enough makeup to make ladies-of-the-night seem "au natural". All things a trashy romance novelist should be! You know, hipper-than-thou... watching artsy flicks with her shades on while sipping campari- and not because she likes it, but because it was voted sexiest drink ever. If you knew her, you would expect nothing less from Miss Tewkesbury.

Alright. I confess. This was my halloween costume in 2005, but Veronica has since become my alter ego and, thanks to Andy VerHage's fascination with Upper Arlington street names, Tewkesbury was adopted as her surname. This will most likely be the nom de plume under which I publish any steamy bodice rippers. Admit it, we ALL have at least one trashy romance novel in us. It's just finding the best Harlequin series in which to publish. There's "Blaze" and "Romance" and "Superromance" and "Intrigue" and even "Medical" and "Historical" categories. Goodness. Which one shall it be? Each have different standards for the story lines, but all have (embarrassingly cheesy) vivid love scenes.

I recently saw a documentary on romance writing and learned it is the world's best-selling genre of books- even men are jumping on the sin-wagon, both as writers and consumers. That intrigued me. Men writing/consuming girl porn. Hmmm... makes me wonder if there's a niche for romances directed toward the male audience. Veronica, who's flirtatious, creative energy is allowed to run amok from time-to-time, is rallying to resurrect the trashy romance novel that has been in the pipeline for some time now. It might be time to dig out the satin gown and crystal goblet. Hey Andy! Veronica wants Campari!