Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Wolf Trap, VA

Opera-goers will most likely know this, but others may not: in the tucked-away town of Wolf Trap, Virginia, you’ll find the U.S.’s first and only national park dedicated to the performing arts.

National parks are chosen for their scientific, geological, and natural features; for their cultural richness; for their historical significance and value. Wolf Trap offers something else: a Foundation for the Performing Arts, with theatres housed on a former farm, donated for the purpose to the National Park Service. At Wolf Trap, you can experience live opera, jazz, dance, popular music, orchestra concerts, musicals, and much more. Traveling spectacles such as acrobats and circus acts perform on Wolf Trap’s stages, and the National Symphony Orchestra plays its summer concert series there, out under the stars.

Outdoor performances at the Filene Center are scheduled May through September, during the warm summer months. The rest of the year sees shows in a smaller theatre, The Barns – so named because it is, in fact, a former barn – which hosts touring musical acts of all kinds. In addition to performance, Wolf Trap supports arts education programs, including camps for children, internship programs, and a Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods with its own, smaller stage on park grounds. Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods offers puppetry, dance, music, theatre, and storytelling performances for families with kids, out of doors and surrounded by the gorgeous Virginia forest.

Wolf Trap’s unique set-up creates performance experiences I’ve never had anywhere else. It’s one thing to attend an outdoor rock concert at an amphitheatre, or to sit in a concert hall to listen to a symphony; it’s entirely another to be watching National Geographic Live! or The Lord of The Rings trilogy on an enormous movie screen, with the National Symphony Orchestra playing  the score – with full choral accompaniment – on a stunning stage inside a glorious theatre, while you’re having a picnic with your friends under the stars. Or to dance along with a New Orleans funk band in the Barns, or watch a Western-themed opera in the perfect rustic setting, on a stage approximately the size of a postage stamp.

In fair weather, I would highly recommend allowing extra time – outside of whichever performances you choose to attend – to explore the park itself. Rich farmland and wooded hills make Wolf Trap a picturesque place to visit, especially for an afternoon picnic or evening walk. Two of my friends eloped while at Wolf Trap, and were married in a grove there under the tall trees.

The heart of Wolf Trap is somewhat isolated from neighboring towns, so to avoid a drive (and the high concession stand prices), I’d recommend packing a picnic to bring to Filene Center performances. The regular audience members are pros—I’ve seen specialized wine glass holders deftly poked into the grass on the lawn, and elaborate cheese and fruit trays that appear from coolers as if by magic. If you want to picnic but don’t have time to plan, Wolf Trap does have its own catering company, who will provide you with your very own pre-packed picnic for performances if you place an order ahead of time. Bring sunscreen and bug spray as well; the temperature can easily pass 100 F in late summer, and there are frequently mosquitos.

Whatever you go to see – be it a musical sing-along, an international theatrical troupe, a film accompanied by a live symphony, a local singer-songwriter, or any of the other programs on offer – it will very likely be an experience you don’t soon forget.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota, FL

Unlike other botanical gardens, the Marie Selby  Botanical Gardens are devoted primarily to epiphytes. Unless you’re a botany buff – which I’m definitely not – you might need a definition for that, and Selby is definitely the place to go for it.

An epiphyte, as it happens, is a non-parasitic plant which grows on another plant, and which sustains itself through its immediate surroundings, using available water, air, and soil, rather than stealing from the plant providing it with an anchor. Many mosses, ferns, cacti, orchids, and bromeliads – such as the pineapple, and Spanish moss – are epiphytes. Epiphytes are commonly found in temperate and tropical climates, which makes the gardens’ home in Sarasota, on the Sarasota Bay next to the Gulf of Mexico, an ideal habitat for their study and cultivation.

The numbers attached to the Selby collection are astonishing: more than 20,000 plants from 6,000 species, including 6,000 live orchids, collected during over 150 trips across the world. A stroll through the gardens will reveal banyan trees, bamboo, palm trees, mangroves, wildflowers, and much more. I thought of it as the ‘water gardens’ when I arrived, but it’s more than that; there’s a feeling of wildness about Selby, of seclusion and age, where you can cross a bridge and completely lose yourself among the mangroves and banyans, out of sight of any other visitors.

When you learn about the gardens’ history, the reason for this becomes clear: Marie Selby, charter member of Sarasota’s first gardening club and active horticulturalist, had a strong desire to see Sarasota stay green, and planted a row of bamboo just to block her view of nearby condominiums. When she died, her will asked that her property be left to the community as a garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.” Selby Botanical Gardens has gone even beyond that dream, making its mark as an educational and scientific research facility as well as a place of leisure.

The Bromeliad Identification Center is an example of this; with over 2,000 photographic slides and 2,800 taxonomic files, it’s one of the leading information centers on bromeliads. The Orchid Identification Center is on par, with 20,000 taxonomic files and 24,000 preserved orchid specimens. The Research Library contains more than 7,000 books, 14,000 scientific journal issues, 2,500 microfiche, and a rare books collection that goes back to the 1700s. For an even greater curiosity, the Spirit Collection is one of the largest collections of fluid-preserved vials of flowers in the world, with nearly 26,000 specimens—a number second only to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London.

For less scientifically-minded visitors, the Christy Payne House hosts a botanic-themed art gallery, with rotating exhibits featuring visual art and photography. If you want to get out among the plants, there are greenhouses filled with orchids, ferns, and other gorgeous tropical plants. There’s also a tropical herbarium, with a great number of South American species of epiphytes. And there are of course the outdoor gardens, which take you down winding paths and around surprising corners through thousands upon thousands of plants, of all shapes and sizes. The gardens truly are right on the bay—a walk down the path will lead you to the Tidal Lagoon, looking out over the water.

There was so much in the gardens that surprised me. The mangroves and banyans made a considerable impression, but the tropical fruit garden, with the first pineapple trees I’d ever seen, was a delight. I remember seeing orange trees, and plantains hanging in ripe bunches, and marveling. The Selby Gardens feel exotic, and in touch with nature in a way other botanical gardens don’t always manage. For that alone I could have spent hours there, beneath the towering tree canopy, or in the greenhouse that felt more like a rain forest, or staring out at the open water. It’s a place that lets you be at peace, for however long you’d like to stay.

For a real treat, check the calendar for Sunset in the Gardens, which gives visitors extended evening hours so they can watch the sun set over the Sarasota Bay. The gardens also offer classes and educational programs on a variety of botanical topics. There is a café on site, but if you’re looking for more substantial fare than sandwiches, I’d advise eating before you come. And definitely bring your camera.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, Philadelphia, PA

Calling the Magic Gardens a ‘mosaic’ is both entirely true, and utterly fails to encapsulate the work of art half-hidden behind the gates on South Street. And it is art: ‘outsider art’ as the artist, Isaiah Zagar calls it, also called visionary art; which is to say that MOMA might not come calling for it, but it’s no less valid than anything in one of those galleries. Visionary art is created by those who work outside the art scene and the established artistic culture, who simply love and are inspired to create.

Isaiah and his wife Julia Zagar came to Philadelphia after working with the Peace Corps in Latin America, and brought with them some of the Latin American folk art they had discovered while working abroad. They opened the Eyes Gallery on South Street, still open today, and Isaiah began to cover the inside with a mosaic. Upon completion of this, he went on to create other public mosaics, some of them outdoor murals. 20 years ago, in 1994, he bought several vacant lots, and created The Magic Gardens over 3,000 square feet and a period of 14 years.

The gardens are made up of mirrors, bicycle wheels, ceramic tiles, glass bottles, and even some of the folk art that started it all. The inside of the building that serves as a welcome center is entirely decorated, with the exception of two galleries in the back used for exhibitions, and from there you step outside to enter the ‘Labyrinth’; a twisting, turning maze of narrow passages, staircases, and windows that is entirely transformed into a continuous work of art.

The Magic Gardens is powerful when it is taken in as a whole, but as you walk through, you can see isolated images and messages, repeated patterns or themes that tell one detailed story within the larger work. Here might be variations of butterflies, and over there a collection of Christian imagery. Folk art animals lead you down the steps to a landing where dozens of eyes gaze upward unblinking at your feet. A warning to parents: there are exaggerated cartoon nudes drawn into some of the tiles, or created from coloured glass, so use your best judgment there.

If you visit at the right moment, you might find the artist himself out in the garden, surrounded by his work. Isaiah Zagar still creates mosaics for Philadelphia spaces (more than 100 in the area), in addition to teaching classes and workshops, and guiding art tours through the fantastic ‘outsider art’ on display in Philadelphia; but in pleasant weather he says he likes to spend time in his ‘office’—a table with garden chairs set around it, on a patio within the labyrinth.

We talked for some time while I was there, he being as curious about my art and work in opera as I was about his, and he told me that inspiration came for him in stages. He would find a quote, or an artist with whom he connected in some way, and write it down. Then at some point he would find the right medium to paint the letters on, and the message or the artist’s name would be transferred, letter by letter, onto mosaic tiles. Then they sit in a box for a while, he said, where he can look at them, and when the time is right, he would know where they should go and how, and incorporate them into his mosaic with other patterns and colours growing out around them.

I spent most of my time in the labyrinth searching for these messages, and contemplating them for their part in the whole piece. I’m not a fan of modern art, but outsider art is something else—it’s not aspiring to be anything; it simply is. I find it easy to appreciate something that was made simply for the joy of creation.

A special note should be made about the exhibitions in the display gallery, because the one in residence while I was there made as clear a statement about the intention of the gardens as the labyrinth itself.  I saw Beyond the Wall, which had been created collaboratively by high-risk inmates in juvenile detention centers—those considered most likely to kill or be killed following their release. Those murals were transformative works that were important not just because of who had made them, but also the messages they contained, and the suggestion – the hope – that the artists would be transformed themselves.

Check the calendar to see what’s on the walls when you visit, and have a look at what else is going on at the gardens. ‘Twilight in the Gardens’ offers live performance art and music each month, and there are workshops and tours scheduled regularly. Unlike many other places in Philadelphia, street parking and bus access isn’t too bad here, and there are dining options within easy walking distance. Have a walk around the neighborhood after you visit—you might be surprised at how much hidden art there is to see.

Outer Banks, NC

I fell in love with the Outer Banks the first time I stood on the beach and saw the ocean. A string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, OBX has been a vacation hot spot for decades. ‘The kite boarding and wind surfing capital of the east coast’ is a huge draw for fishing, biking, off-roading, and other popular beach activities. Want to attend hang gliding school? Always wanted to try paddleboarding? At the Outer Banks you can do it all.

OBX stretches 200 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and the Currituck, Albemarle, and Pamlico Sounds. While the water on the side of the sounds might be relatively calm, the turbulent waters of the ocean just off the North Carolina Coast have earned the name ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’, due to the high number of shipwrecks. Approximately 3,000 ships wrecked just off the Outer Banks, and while some can be seen from shore, there’s also an adventure to be had snorkeling or scuba diving among the wreckage. 16th century Colonial ships, civil war vessels, and the most WWII German U-boats anywhere off the U.S. coast are on display under the waters of the Atlantic. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum memorializes these lost ships.

As with Assateague Island in Maryland, a shipwrecked Spanish Galleon is believed to be responsible for the herd of wild horses that roam the Outer Banks. They’re not nearly as accessible as the Assateague herd, but safari tours do venture out to give tourists a glimpse of the mustangs. There are some other fantastic and creepy tales of the barrier islands, including ‘land pirates’ who mimicked the lights of a safe harbor to drive ships onto the rocks, and ‘Body’s’ Island being named for the drowned corpses that washed up regularly on the shore from the many wrecks.

Fans of historic lighthouses will find a treasure trove at OBX. Bodie Island Lighthouse dates from 1872, built to replace one blown up by confederates to keep union ships from being able to navigate the treacherous waters off the coast. Currituck Beach Lighthouse dates from 1875 and is made of brick; as is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which at 208 feet is the tallest brick beacon in the U.S., raised in 1870. Older by far than those around it, the Ocracoke Lighthouse was built in 1798, and is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina. Finally, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is an example of a rarer ‘screwpile’ lighthouse, such as the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse that stands in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse functions now as a museum, housing exhibits and artifacts about the lighthouse’s history.

History buffs will also want to visit Kitty Hawk, where Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first manned flight on the North Carolina beach in 1903. The Wright Brothers Memorial stands there now, with a visitor center, exhibits, and reproductions of the 1902 Wright Glider and 1903 Wright Powered Flyer.

Of course, if – like me – what you really want is to stand on a beach and walk barefoot in the surf, there’s plenty of room for that, too. We visited during the off-season, so the water was colder, but the beach had this stark loveliness and solitude about it that I’ve never felt anywhere else.

Off the beach, you can visit a variety of natural wildlife habitats in the area: Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the largest natural living sand dune on the east coast; Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge protects wetland habitat for alligators, black bears, red wolves, and more; Hatteras Island Ocean Center offers wetland and coastal forest habitat, along with nature exhibits and access to the ocean itself; Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge has observation platforms for watching more than 360 species of birds; and The Nature Conservancy at Nags Head Woods Preserve is home to rare flowers and a huge variety of other wildlife in forests and freshwater ponds, as well as the ruins of a local community lost to time. For those seeking the iconic ‘beach’ experience, Cape Hatteras National Seashore extends for 70 miles – 30,000 acres – and has the honor of being the U.S.’s first national seashore.

Monuments & Memorials, Washington, D.C.

Some of the most famous U.S. monuments can be found in D.C., and I would say all of them are worth seeing at least once. The majority of them are located around the National Mall, at the heart of D.C., and it’s a fairly easy walk to see them. If you’re less mobile or simply don’t want to walk all day, there are bus routes that stop directly in front of most of the monuments.

At the top of the list is the Washington Monument, the well-known obelisk that stands over the National Mall. This monument is both the world’s tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk, standing just over 555 feet. It’s also one of the oldest in D.C., built between 1848 and 1884. My favourite quote regarding the monument comes from the Washington National Monument Society, laying out their dream for the design:

“It is proposed that the contemplated monument shall be like him in whose honor it is to be constructed, unparalleled in the world, and commensurate with the gratitude, liberality, and patriotism of the people by whom it is to be erected … [It] should blend stupendousness with elegance, and be of such magnitude and beauty as to be an object of pride to the American people, and of admiration to all who see it. Its material is intended to be wholly American, and to be of marble and granite brought from each state, that each state may participate in the glory of contributing material as well as in funds to its construction.” – Wikipedia

If you want to get a peek inside the structure, same-day tickets are available to board the elevator and ride 500 feet up to the observation deck at the top. Besides the exceptional view, you can enjoy exhibits on display inside ‘D.C.’s centerpiece’, and hear park ranger commentary on particular areas of interest on the elevator ride back down.

The Lincoln Memorial is nearly as famous, and on any given day you can see people sitting on the grand steps, chatting or relaxing, or reading books and newspapers at Lincoln’s marble feet, where speeches that have lived on in history – “I have a dream” was uttered here – have been given for decades. The Lincoln Memorial stands on the opposite end of the National Mall from Washington’s, and both line up directly with the White House. The Reflecting Pool lies in front of the Lincoln Memorial steps, often mirroring the Washington Monument on the surface of the water if you stand with your back to Lincoln. Lincoln Memorial is an important center for civil rights and African-American history, and the inside of the monument, open to the public, is filled with quotes, murals, and ornaments encouraging people to look forward to a better world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has his own memorial downtown; a sculpture featuring quotes from his life and work. It is built on a ‘Stone of Hope’, which takes its name from the “I Have a Dream” speech, and is viewed through the likewise-named man-made ‘Mountain of Despair’. Other reminders of that era are the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials, dedicated to those who lost their lives in those conflicts.

The Korean War Memorial honors not only the soldiers who fought, but also the nations that provided support in the war effort. The memorial is in the shape of a triangle, with three granite walls fencing in a circle containing a Pool of Remembrance. On the walls, among other inscriptions, are written the numbers of the dead, wounded, captured, and missing. It’s a striking and solemn memorial to visit. The Vietnam War Memorial is in three parts, including the Three Soldiers statue and Vietnam Women’s Memorial, but the most recognizable is the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, with its seemingly endless list of the names of those who died or went missing in the conflict. The wall is reflective, so visitors see their own living reflections over the names of those lost; a reminder in the present to remember and learn from the past. Visitors can reach out and touch the surface, and rubbings are often taken of names inscribed on the wall.

The largest of the presidential memorials by acreage, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is an inspirational monument to human spirit and contributions. Visitors can take their time wandering across its 7.5 acres through sculptures of FDR, his wife Eleanor, and even his dog Fala. Interspersed with these are sculptures modeled on photographs from the Great Depression, capturing an American era with scenes of bread lines and fireside radio chats. Along with quotes inscribed in rocks and other landscape features, the memorial has a series of small waterfalls. There are four, representing Roosevelt’s four terms in presidential office, and the political and social upheavals he faced and weathered along the way. The first waterfall represents the crashing Great Depression, a single long drop; the second splashes over stairs, representing the Tennessee Valley Authority dam-building project; the third is a chaotic and jagged jumble of falls to represent World War II; the fourth is a still pool, for Roosevelt’s death. In honor of Roosevelt’s physical limitations during his life, the memorial was specifically designed to be handicap-friendly; a courtesy which extends as far as braille inscriptions for the blind in addition to those written in print.

The Jefferson Memorial is an architectural reference to the Rotunda at Jefferson’s own University of Virginia. Inside is a statue of Thomas Jefferson looking toward the White House, surrounded by excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s letters. All of these memorials – Lincoln, Martin Lither King, Jr., Korean War, Vietnam War, and Roosevelt – stand near the Tidal Basin, a reservoir located between the Potomac River and Washington Channel, which comes alive in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom all along the banks.

Back along the National Mall is the World War II Memorial, a plaza with a central fountain surrounded by pillars and arches. The memorial is dedicated to everyone who served during the war, both in the military and as civilians. Two walls depict bas-relief scenes of the war, from enlistment to – finally – peace. A Freedom Wall memorializes those who died in the war in U.S. service. Farther afield near Arlington National Cemetery stands the famous Marine Corps War Memorial, depicting the raising of a U.S. flag on the Island of Iwo Jima, Japan, during WWII.

Arlington is also where you’ll find the very recent Pentagon Memorial, dedicated to those who died in the attack on the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001. Illuminated benches engraved with the names of those lost are arranged in two directions: The ones representing those lost on the ground face the south side of the Pentagon, where the plane crashed into the building, and those who died on the plane when it crashed are angled to look toward the sky. A wall encircles the benches, rising gradually in height to reflect the ages of those lost.

Photos: Washington, D.C.

Seward Highway, AK

When I worked in Anchorage, there was no reason to leave the city, really; Anchorage is a sprawling urban center with personality and plenty to do, even in the winter. Once, though, I remember a colleague telling me I needed to just get in the car so we could go for a drive, because I needed to see Route 1.

Route 1 in Alaska starts from Homer Ferry Terminal in the south, running east toward Canada through Soldotna and Seward until it hits Anchorage, where it turns north and ends at Tok. Along that route, the highway has several other names: Sterling Highway from Homer to Seward, Glenn Highway from Anchorage to Glennallen, and Tok Cut-Off from Glennallen to Tok. When my colleagues in Anchorage told me to drive Route 1, however, what they really meant was the Seward Highway.

Seward Highway is a 3-hour drive along Alaska’s southeastern coast, between the cities of Anchorage and Seward. It’s arguably one of the most scenic drives in the state, and certainly one of the most convenient; both Anchorage and Seward have terminals for most transportation needs, such as buses, planes, and rental cars. Both cities also have train stations, and if you really want to sit back and relax on the journey, you can take the historic Alaska Railroad on board the Coastal Classic, which parallels Seward Highway for part of its journey before ascending into the mountains and rejoining the road farther down the coast. On the train, you’ll be able to see enormous glaciers and isolated alpine meadows distant from the highway below, for an extended trip that lasts around 4 ½ hours.

What I remember best about Seward Highway is the contrast in views: On one side of the car, there were spectacular cliffs rising above me, where I was lucky enough to see mountain goats and Alaska’s magnificent native Dall sheep peering down at us from the rocks. On the other side, the cliffs plunged down to meet the Pacific Ocean, where waves crashed against the shore at the bottom of the drop-off. It’s been called the most beautiful drive on the planet, and definitely earns the title of National Scenic Byway. It’s also one of the few All-American Roads, made a triple-threat with the additional title of National Forest Scenic Byway.

If you leave from Anchorage, you’ll end up following the coast for 12 miles, looking down on the Gulf of Alaska. Above you will tower the Kenai Mountains, and not long after you’ll find yourself in Chugach State Park. If you continue on further, you’ll reach the Turnagain Arm waterway, one branch of Cook Inlet, and the intersection of Portage Glacier Highway. The Alaska Railroad’s historic cars may run alongside you here, before you see the Summit, Trail, and Kenai Lakes, and drive for 6 miles next to the Trail River. Inside the Chugach National Forest, the Alaska Railroad criss-crosses beneath Seward Highway, so the road rises in bridges at several points along the tracks, creating tunnels for the trains. The railroad tracks parallel the highway from Crown Point through the rest of the drive, where the road ends less than 100 yards from the Gulf of Alaska in Seward.

It’s a serene drive, free of billboard signs and complicated exit lanes, with relatively few stops along the way. Where you can pull off, however, there’s the opportunity to look down and see whales, or cascading waterfalls; to look up and see immense glaciers and snow-covered mountains. Just off the road – hopefully – you might run into moose, eagles, bears, or even sea lions. On the slopes, depending on the season, you might be treated to fields of blooming wildflowers. At the end of the highway (or beginning, technically, if you’re starting in Seward rather than Anchorage) is The Alaska SeaLife Center, Alaska’s lone public aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue center, which focuses on research, education, and rehabilitation for Northern Pacific ocean wildlife, while looking out on that very ocean.

I didn’t make it all the way to Seward; the dead of winter isn’t necessarily the time to make this particular drive, as Alaskan roads range from ‘unsafe’ to ‘impassable’ for rental cars even in the best winter weather. What I did get to see, however – the cliffs and the ocean, the sheep and the snow-covered mountains – has stayed with me ever since.

Bakeries, Charleston, SC

I have this recommendation for those visiting Charleston: don’t go grocery shopping. The food is so spectacular that you can spend weeks eating your way through the city without ever getting bored. I can recommend places for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner, but the one thing that shouldn’t be missed in Charleston is the baked goods.

Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts is, as far as I’m concerned, the only place to get a doughnut. The menu changes daily, with the day’s offerings announced on the shop’s website. Doughnuts are cooked fresh throughout the day and only available while they last—make sure you arrive early in the day, or they might be sold out even before closing time. These are not your average doughnuts, either: while the simple glazed or iced are delicious, you should treat yourself with one of the more unusual flavours. There aren’t many places that offer blue cheese cabernet, sweet potato, gingerbread cranberry, strawberry basil lime, or maple bacon (with real bacon). I highly recommend both the black & white and the berries & mascarpone.

King Street Cookies is to cookies what Glazed is to doughnuts. Their cookies are enormous, soft, chewy, and delicious. My favourite by far is the spicy hot chocolate, but other decadent offerings such as red velvet chip, fudge pecan, and pink lemonade should be given a try as well. You can also buy a whole box of bite-sized coconut or chocolate macaroons for an entirely reasonable price.

P.I.E. Bake Shoppe is short for Paige’s Incredible Edibles, but the do-not-miss is definitely the titular pies. P.I.E. has a full range of breakfast pastries, breads, and desserts, but you can feast your eyes and tastebuds on the incredible variety of miniature pies and tarts. Check out the petit four menu for bite-sized treats of all kinds, including miniature eclairs, cupcakes, and cheesecakes.

Baguette Magic is slightly off the beaten path, but so well worth the trip. A French-style bakery featuring croissants, baguettes, and brioche, they make sandwiches that are mouth-wateringly delicious. I took the feta, arugula, & honey sandwich on a croissant for a picnic on the beach, with an almond & chocolate croissant for a snack later. There are bread loaves for sale if you want to make your own sandwiches at home, but I recommend letting them work their magic at least once.

Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer is one of the best places to go in the morning (or the afternoon, or the evening) for a pick-me-up and a pastry. They have the usual assortment of coffeehouse delicacies – muffins, quiches, bagels, croissants, cinnamon rolls, sweet breads, and more – along with sandwiches made on fresh-baked breads. There were several days I started my morning with a pain au chocolat and rode the sugar high for the rest of the day. Kudu also has a great atmosphere, with a small enclosed porch where you can retreat with your treats and enjoy.

Caviar & Bananas is part-market, part-restaurant, with a deli-style counter for prepared salads and fresh-cooked meals, in addition to shelves of packaged products both local and imported from around the globe. Another counter across the store serves up coffee and pastries, made fresh in-house daily. The menu is rich—whole grain pancakes with roasted apple syrup and candied pecans, brioche French toast stuffed with strawberries and vanilla mascarpone cream, and a bakery case stocked with scones, muffins, croissants, cupcakes, cookies, and more. I was lured in by the fudge brownie more times than I ought to admit.

Christophe Artisan Chocolatier-Pâtissier is primarily a chocolaterie, but the shop also offers fresh French pastries, such as coconut macaroons and cream-filled tarts. On the weekends, you can pick up fresh-baked baguettes.

Leyla is not strictly a bakery, but they do make their own desserts, which are unbelievably scrumptious. You may remember my fondness for Lebanese food from a prior post; Leyla elevates Lebanese cuisine to an art, and the pastries are no exception. Not content with baklava alone (although the baklava is incredible), Leyla also bakes Halawat El Jiben, a cheese and semolina dough filled with cream; Osmalieh, a thin and crispy pastry topped with pistachios and syrup; and Meghli, a rice flour pudding with cinnamon, cloves, caraway, coconut, walnuts, and pistachios. I am a devotee of the Aish El Saraya, a sweet caramel bread pudding served with Ashta B Asal, which is a rich cream topped with honey, almonds, and crushed pistachios.

Photos: Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts; King Street Cookies; P.I.E. Bake Shoppe; Baguette Magic; Caviar & Bananas; Christophe Artisan Chocolatier-Pâtissier

Assateague Island, MD & VA

Like so many other horse-crazy children, I grew up reading Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. It was one of those dreams that carried over into my adult life: that one day, I would go to the islands and see the ponies.

I got the chance a few years ago, when a friend and I drove out to Assateague Island National Seashore. Assateague Island is home to a herd of wild ponies, believed by many to be descended from survivors of a Spanish galleon shipwrecked off the coast. An alternate theory, lacking the romance of this vision, is that early colonial settlers let their horses roam wild on the island to escape paying taxes on them, and the horses were eventually abandoned. Either way, the herd made their home on the island sometime during the 16th or 17th centuries, and now thrives on the somewhat barren island, adapted to life by the sea.

Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Sinepuxent Bay, Assateague’s habitat is a mix of open beach, sand dunes, wetlands, and marshes. Visiting the island truly feels like getting away from the rest of the world—it’s isolated enough from the mainland that you can go exploring and lose yourself among the wildlife. In addition to the ponies, Assateague features more than 320 species of birds, many of which rest there on migratory journeys before moving on. Among these are Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, and the threatened Piping Plovers. The island is a popular destination for fishing, crabbing, clamming, kayaking, swimming, and sightseeing cruises out on the water. Assateague claims to be one of the best beaches on the east coast, and I wouldn’t disagree. It’s a gorgeous landscape, far away from the bustle of the port cities. The island maintains a charming beach-town atmosphere as well, with beach houses for rent among local bed-and-breakfasts and cottages, and crab shacks for those who want to sample some of the most famous Maryland fare.

There are visitor centers for first-time tourists who want to learn more about the island’s history and ecosystem, or you can head directly out onto the soft white sand to collect shells and swim in the surf. There is a paved path available for cyclists, and several mild hiking trails that lead away from the beach into the heart of the island. You can also camp on the island, but check the calendar when you do—mosquitos on Assateague can be real pests.

If you need a taste of civilization on your trip, Ocean City Maryland is just across the bay, with a boardwalk and summer family events like free movies under the stars, concerts on the beach, fireworks and laser light shows, and beach ‘Olympics’. Northside Park in Ocean City is a fantastic picnic spot, and as with so many beach towns, you can find my favourite vacation recreation: mini golf. If, on the other hand, you want to get even further away from the world, Chincoteague Island is an even smaller island close to Assateague, with its own local museum, parks, and nature cruises. If you’re lucky, you might see dolphins or whales offshore in the ocean.

Every summer at the end of July, Assateague and Chincoteague Islands host their most well-known event, made famous by Marguerite Henry’s books: The Chincoteague Wild Pony Swim. Spectators crowd the beaches to watch the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s “Saltwater Cowboys” herd the ponies across the Assateague Channel between the islands for the Pony Penning, where the herd is checked over by veterinarians, and some of the foals are set apart to be sold at auction to keep the wild herd size manageable.

This festival dates in some form to the 1800s, although it became official in 1924. In its current incarnation, the festivities begin with the Pony Round Up and Beach Walk, where the ponies are moved to a southern corral. The highlight of the week, the Pony Swim, happens at ‘slack tide’ several days later, after the ponies have been checked over by a veterinarian. They swim from Assateague to Chincoteague Island, and after a brief rest, the official parade leads them down Main Street to the carnival grounds, where selected foals are auctioned during the Chincoteague Carnival the next day. The day after that, the remaining herd make the swim back to Assateague Island, where they roam free for another year.

Pioneer Day, UT

There’s one place in the United States where July 4th, Independence Day, isn’t the largest patriotic national holiday. In Utah, the big day is July 24th: Pioneer Day.

Pioneer Day celebrates the arrival of Brigham Young and the Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley, which is now a religious hub of the Mormon Church, and considered by Mormons to be their homeland, or ‘promised land’. Beyond the religious origins, however, Pioneer Day in Utah has evolved into a remembrance of all those who traveled west to settle in unknown territory—pioneers, who left their homes in search of something new.

Pioneer Day has expanded to include not only the Western-world travelers who settled in the American West, but also the native peoples who were displaced, fought, and joined in those parts of the country. An intertribal powwow is held in Salt Lake City, the Native American Celebration in the Park, which honours native tribes and peoples present when the Western pioneers arrived in their lands.

The first unofficial holiday was celebrated in 1849, two years after the arrival of the Mormons in Salt Lake, commemorating that event. In 1857, it was officially christened Pioneer Day, although the Utah War between the U.S Government and the Mormon militia put a damper on the celebration. Perhaps ironically, the holiday now has a strong patriotic theme, as well as a religious one. Pioneer Day is now also celebrated in Salt Lake City as the ‘Days of ‘47’, named for the year the Mormons arrived in Salt Lake Valley.

If you’re in Salt Lake, you can attend the Sunrise Service at the Mormon Tabernacle, an event which is open to the public regardless of religious faith. A pops orchestral concert, parade, ‘first encampment’ hike, period-costume ball, and rodeo are among the other holiday highlights.

If you’re elsewhere in Utah, you can still be sure to find a local festival, with musical performances, crafts, pageants, food vendors, and fireworks to rival the 4th of July. Some surrounding Mormon areas of neighboring states also celebrate Pioneer Day; notably Idaho, where it’s known as Celebration Day.

Pioneer Day still has strong ties to the Mormon Church, but even if you avoid the religious aspect, it’s an interesting holiday. It’s a celebration of an era, and the generations of people who both settled America and lost their homes to those new settlers. It’s meant to celebrate the human spirit, and the traits of perseverance and bravery which led so many to leave their homes in the early 19th century and head west. And it still celebrates pioneers of all kinds, in their most basic form: those who look to the future, and envision the possibilities.