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.

Central Park, New York City, NY

It took three or four trips to New York City before I finally took some time away from the big attractions – Broadway, the Met, MOMA – and spent some time in Central Park. It’s such a fantastic place, both removed from the bustle of the city and still a part of it, filled with bustling people choosing to take time out of their lives to stop and sit down in the grass for a while.

The official website calls Central Park ‘the first major landscaped public space in urban America’, which is a good way of saying that it exists as an oasis of green surrounded by blocks of skyscrapers; but it’s also very much tamed and sculpted, rather than growing wild. Central Park dates to the 1850s, a time Victorians were espousing walks in gardens and visits to the country for good health. 843 acres in New York City – a place where real estate comes at a high premium – are devoted to the first public park in the United States, which makes up part of the heart of Manhattan.

Central Park as we know it today is the result of a lengthy campaign to renew and sustain the park, and the hard work shows. In making a circuit of the park, you can see playgrounds, war memorials, sculptures, bridges, garden and forest walks, baseball fields and basketball courts, fountains, elaborate gates, historic fortifications, and much more. Getting around the park can be an experience, as well; if you don’t feel like walking, there’s a bicycle-rental program, horse-drawn carriages for hire, and multiple guided and self-guided tours daily. If you want to be more adventurous, boathouses offer a chance to go out onto the water and escape even further from the busy hubbub of city life.

Central Park has several famous attractions within its bounds: a winter ice rink which during summer months turns into an amusement park; a miniature castle which stands as a lookout point and visitor’s center; a carousel dating from 1908, which has been restored to its former glory; a zoo managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society; a six-acre formal conservatory garden featuring Italianate, French, and English gardens. The Delacorte Clock chimes nursery rhymes, seemingly played by statues of musical animals. The oldest building still standing in the park, the Blockhouse, is the last remaining 1814 fortification against the British in New York City. The Shakespeare Garden spans four acres of the park, and is filled with plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, accompanied by Shakespearean quotations on plaques. The Mall is home to one of the oldest and last stands of American Elm trees in the U.S.

Whether you come to bird watch, play chess, catch a live show, or just stretch out on a sunny rock, it’s worth it to take a time-out on your visit to New York and enjoy the quiet space inside the city.

Photos: Central Park NYC

Portneuf River Rapids, Lava Hot Springs, ID

If you’re a thrillseeker of the mild-to-moderate variety, there’s a fun summer activity you might be familiar with: river tubing. Portneuf River Rapids, in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, is an excellent place to hit the water.

As the name suggests, Lava Hot Springs is most famous for its natural hot mineral pools, and is a popular resort town for this feature. Even outdoors in winter, the hot pools channeling water into the Portneuf River are toasty enough to keep steam rising from the surface and soothe those bathing in the water. The ‘cooler’ pool is 102 degrees in winter, thanks to a snow melt system designed to keep ice-cold water running into the hot pool. If you’re in the area for the ski and snowmobile options, the hot springs are a great way to relax after a day on the mountain.

If you’re visiting during the warmer months, you can check out some of the other local attractions, such as the gorgeous Sunken Gardens, or local wagon rides and mountain tours. Lava Hot Springs is located in a valley surrounded by mountains, and the views are breathtaking. The town lies along the Oregon and California Trails, so history buffs (or those who, like me, grew up playing a certain computer game) might be interested in stopping by the free South Bannock County Historical Center & Museum. There’s also a local water park, which has pools and slides for hot summer days. Horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, and camping are among other great outdoor options.

One of the most popular summer attractions, however, and the one I went for several times over, is the tubing. Several vendors offer tubes for single riders, couples, or groups of four, and once you’ve acquired your tube, all you have to do is roll it up the hill to the easiest waterfall-entry to the river. Ride down the mild rapids for an hour, then hop out, roll your tube back up through the main streets of the town, and do it again.

One word of warning: The town is called ‘Lava’ Hot Springs for a reason. While the hot springs keep the water pleasantly warm even after joining the river runoff from the mountains, the bottom of the river is also covered with sharp, glassy, jagged-edged lava rocks. If you fall out of your tube (and there’s a very good chance you will), you could easily end up banged up and bleeding. The outcome seems to depend on luck, and on being able to judge the currents and hit the rapids in the right way; on some trips I ended up without a scratch; on others I went home covered in bandages. Bring a first aid kit.

If you’re willing to deal with a few scrapes, though, tubing the river is a fantastic experience, and a lot of fun if you’re with a group. Once you’re worn out and ravenous, I highly recommend the Chuckwagon restaurant, right up the street—there’s usually very little I want more than an enormous veggie burger and fries after a day out on the water, and the Chuckwagon’s are delicious.

EPCOT, Lake Buena Vista, FL

When I visited friends in Florida and they said, “We’re going to Disney World!” I was lucky enough to have one who said, “We’re going to EPCOT.”

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was designed to be a kind of permanent World’s Fair, showcasing technological advances, human innovation, and international culture. While it achieves this with the typical tourist-oriented diversions and oversimplification, it’s still a fascinating concept for a theme park: A theoretical utopian community in the guise of an amusement park.

Regrettably, Walt Disney’s original plan for a clean, futuristic, sustainable community did not come to pass; EPCOT was originally designed as a city with a population of 20,000, with its own business and commercial enterprises, and only a portion of its land dedicated to recreation. After Disney’s death, his company changed the plan dramatically from a residential city to a theme park. The conflicting ideas for the theme show in EPCOT’s current form—part of the park, Future World, is dedicated to the technology and ideas of the future, while another part, World Showcase, focuses on international customs and cultures, looking back toward their pasts rather than forward to an idealized and unified world future.

Spaceship Earth is easily the most recognizable symbol of EPCOT; a geodesic dome that rises 18 stories high and contains a ride dedicated to the history and future of human communication. Science-fiction lovers might be interested to know that both the dome and ride were designed with the help of author Ray Bradbury. Other attractions in Future World include the Universe of Energy, a ride which deals with energy sources, production, and use; Mission: Space, which simulates the training and experience of astronauts; and Test Track, which simulates high speed vehicle acceleration in addition to showing the many safety and performance tests given to car models in production.

EPCOT also has its own aquarium, The Seas, which has been remodeled on a Finding Nemo theme; and its own farm and greenhouse, The Land, meant to educate visitors about human interaction with the earth. Soarin’, one of the attractions within The Land, is an experience as close to virtual reality as I have ever come, with a screen that completely fills the sight of the viewer, and a motion simulator that creates the experience of hang gliding. It’s an experience that stimulates all of the senses; not only does it look and feel as though you’re hang gliding, but there are other virtual reality touches, such as the scent of oranges being released into the air just as the ride ‘flies’ over an orchard. If you have a chance to experience this, I highly recommend it. For me, it was the one attraction that really connected me with a vision of the future.

Innoventions is the other area that has stuck with me. Almost an independent museum, Innoventions showcases technological advancement through exhibits and demonstrations. While I was there, we saw a presentation on the design and practical applications of the SEGWAY people mover, used in some cities by law enforcement. Exhibits on computers, robotics, and other technology are paired with lessons on conserving and maintaining the earth’s natural resources, all on a variety of contemporary themes.

On the other side of the park, the World Showcase features tributes to 10 countries in addition to the United States, through a combination of rides, shops, restaurants, and carefully-tailored landscapes. A pagoda stands central in the Japanese area, while Germany has its own Oktoberfest-themed biergarten. As – dare I say it – cheesy as the entire setup is, it’s also a well-intentioned attempt at letting children get up close to architecture, cuisine, and exports they might not otherwise be able to experience firsthand. A Mesoamerican pyramid introduces visitors to the ancient cultures of Mexico, which they can learn more about while riding down the River of Time. In the Norwegian area, another boat ride, Maelstrom, takes visitors on board idealized Viking ships through an introductory lesson on Norse mythology. Chinese acrobats and Italian clowns are among the street performers that give their respective areas some cultural atmosphere.

Worth checking out is the Moroccan area, the only national exhibit within the World Showcase whose government had a direct hand in its design. There is a Gallery of Arts and History, a Fes House to show the architecture and lifestyle of many of the Moroccan people, a bazaar, restaurants selling Moroccan cuisine, and replicas of the necropolis in Rabat and minaret in Marrakesh. Moroccan King Hassan II provided artists and artisans to create a great deal of the décor, which follows Islamic tradition by not depicting people, who were made in the image of God. It is perhaps the most authentic and certainly one of the most exotic of the World Showcase areas, introducing visitors to a glimpse of a non-Western culture they may never see in person.

Photos: Disney World

Box Canyon Waterfall & Park, Ouray, CO

There is a tiny park tucked away in Ouray, Colorado, that I would have missed had my traveling companion not insisted we make a detour just to visit. It’s along the ‘Million Dollar Highway’ length of the San Juan Skyway - previously mentioned here - which is a gorgeous drive in any season (although beware winter snowfall) and home to several such treasures tucked just out of sight along the way.

Box Canyon Waterfall & Park is a gorgeous spot to go walking and take in the views. Formed by Canyon Creek, the waterfall rushes over soft limestone to create a steep, narrow, ‘box’ canyon. Box canyons are only accessible at the canyon mouth, and so the waterfall is framed by three high walls of rock. The area was originally a mining camp, and the city of Ouray grew out of this temporary settlement. There are several trails, none very long and all easy to complete in a short time. If you’ve been traveling (or even if you haven’t), I highly recommend bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy at the park. There are picnic tables and gazebos available with a view of the surrounding forest, several of which even have grills available for public use.

In the visitor center, you can learn about the canyon. There’s information on display for nearly every area of interest: wildlife, botany, geology, and local history. The Audubon Society declared the park an important bird watching area in 2001, so if you want to see some of the rare and majestic birds of Colorado, this is a great place to visit. The visitor center is only open during the summer, but the trails are available throughout the year.

The park does charge a low admission fee for access to the waterfall and trails.

Old Québec, Québec City, QC

Québec City was never on my to-do list until I went roadtripping with a Canadian through the north-east; she assured me that popular opinion said it was not to be missed. It is definitely a city with a feel and charm all its own, and is a breath of fresh air after traveling in busier urban cities. We spent most of our time specifically in Old Québec, the historic neighborhood and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1608, Old Québec contains original and restored buildings meant to give the district a French flair similar to that of the 17th century settlement.

The most prominent feature of the city is arguably its military history. Québec City is the only fortified city north of Mexico, and has preserved its ramparts, bastions, and gates, which gives it a feeling of being a true colonial city. Once the capital of New France, Québec City is divided into an Upper Town, with a citadel and defensive ramparts, and Lower Town, which spread between the fortifications and the harbour. The dividing line between these two districts is a steep cliff, chosen for strategic defense and overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Walls were built around the citadel in Upper Town, which were miraculously preserved by the government even past the practical need for them, and still stand today.

The Citadel, built after Québec City changed hands from France to Britain, is the largest British-built fortress in North America. Still active as a Canadian military base, guided tours are offered through the Citadel and on-site military history museum by Canadian infantry. Nearby Battlefields Park is another historic site; the 267-acre park was the site of the Battle of Québec during the French and Indian War, and is where the capital of New France was officially lost to the British in 1759. A mix of historic ornamental cannon and sculpted gardens, the park also has a beautiful riverfront walk looking out over the water. Battlefields Park is where you’ll find the Musée National des Beaux-Arts, a three-building art collection housed, in part, inside the former Québec City Prison. For another spectacular view, check out Terrasse Dufferin, formerly a military fortification and now a public park overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Guided tours for history buffs are available, or you can wander independently among the cannon.

In the Lower Town, 17th- and 18th-century houses, churches, and other buildings line the narrow cobblestone streets. The second-most prominent feature of the city, I would argue, is its religious history, which has also been preserved through historic churches, museums, and collections. The oldest stone church in Québec province, Église Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, can be found hidden among the shops, plaques, and statues in the Place Royale. Notre-Dame-de-Québec Basilica, one of the oldest cathedrals in North America, has stood in Old Québec since it was built there in 1647. The basilica has a marvelous collection of religious art and artifacts, in addition to the trappings that decorate the church itself, and the crypt – open for tours – houses the remains of more than 900 people, including notable figures such as archbishops, cardinals, and governors.

If shopping is your aim, or if you just need a break from wars and churches, there are two fun places to check out: the Quartier Petit-Champlain, the oldest shopping district in North America, and the Place Royale, which for more than a century stood as the economic, industrial, and business center of the French colony in Canada. Near the Place Royale, by the Québec City Old Port, is the Musée de la Civilisation, or Museum of Civilization, a collection devoted to the history and development of human society in Québec. Be sure to pause for a moment and snap a few pictures of the Château Frontenac, a Victorian-Era grand hotel and former British colonial governors’ residence that dominates the skyline from the cliffs.

One place I’m sorry I missed is the Morrin Centre, which was first a military and then a civilian prison through the 17th and 18th centuries, and then became the city’s first English-language college during the Victorian Era. The Literary and Historical Society of Québec has been in residence since this time, and assisted in the formation and development of the National Archives of Canada, and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board. Highlights of the guided tour include old jail cells, the Victorian library, and other historical gems.

To really learn in-depth about the city’s history, there are numerous tours available, but if you’re a do-it-yourself-er, Old Québec is a wonderful place to just wander and take in the sights and atmosphere an old colonial city.

Photos: L. Johnson

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, WI

The catch-phrase when I toured the Wisconsin state capitol building was ‘biggest, oldest, first, best’. While the building is technically none of these things, it does contain disparate components that are, and is said to be one of the grandest capitol buildings in the U.S.

The building that stands today was constructed between 1906 and 1917, and is filled with different types of stone from around the world—43 different kinds, from 6 countries and 8 states. The dome is made of granite, and the ‘biggest’ portion of the catchphrase refers it; it’s currently the largest granite dome in the world. The inside of the dome is painted with a mural entitled ‘Resources of Wisconsin’, which pictures classical figures posing with the various types of natural resources common to the state.

The capitol building is Edwardian opulence in every respect, which makes the rooms – particularly the Governor’s Conference Room, which is done in richly-painted dark red and cherry wood – a treat to marvel at and explore. The conference room is styled after the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and is filled with allegorical paintings, morality tales, inspirational quotes, and other noble artistic efforts.

The building was designed to make the most effective use of natural light, which means that beautiful stained glass skylights are present in several of the larger rooms, and even the second floor of the lobby was originally designed with clear, thick glass panes for the walkways, so that the light could pass unhindered to the first floor below. These now have an opaque, smoky quality to them, which my guide informed me had been added when women began working in the capitol building…think about that for a second, and you’ll probably be able to figure out why.

The current capitol building – the fifth in Wisconsin – replaced one that burned down in a fire in 1904. The tale of the fire was one of my favourites from the tour, and is a true comedy of errors: as with any large and important wooden building at the time, there was a water reservoir and advanced fire-combat system in place to protect the building. On the night of the fire, however, it had been drained completely for cleaning. Due to its state-of-the-art firefighting system and water tanks, the legislature had voted five weeks previously to cancel the building’s fire insurance. Madison is essentially sandwiched between lakes, ideal for use in firefighting; however, as the fire happened in February, those were all frozen over so thickly that the water could not be reached. Help was called in from Milwaukee, many hours away, where enormous tanks of water were rushed by train to the burning capitol building; but the night was so cold that the tanks froze, and all that arrived in Madison was more ice.

One of the items lost in the fire was the taxidermied body of Old Abe, the state’s mascot, a bald eagle who served with the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Old Abe is also the ‘screaming eagle’ shown on the U.S. Army’s 101 Airborne Division insignia, and was apparently quite a morale booster during her combat years. Poor Old Abe died in 1881, when she screamed to warn of a fire in the second Wisconsin capitol building, saving the building but too late to save herself from the effects of smoke inhalation. A substitute stuffed Old Abe, in memory of the original, now sits in the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber in the capitol.

These and other fantastic stories make the Madison capitol tour fun and entertaining as well as interesting; I enjoyed poking around so much that I went back a second time to take pictures and hear new stories from a different guide. To hear about how Wisconsin became the ‘badger’ state, the ghost of the civil war soldier in the Assembly Chamber, former Missouri Governor Sterling Price’s feelings on Old Abe, the irreplaceable types of marble used in the capitol, what’s ‘oldest, first, best’ in the building, and much more, I highly recommend taking a tour of your own with a guide. Tours are free, scheduled regularly throughout the week, and photography is encouraged. It’s a great chance to see the splendor of the era on display, preserved for future generations, and to hear some of the quirkier tales of American history.

Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia, PA

“America’s Most Historic Square Mile” can be found, appropriately, in the city of Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were born. Several historic sites related to the founding of the U.S. are now incorporated into Independence National Historic Park, which is overseen by the National Park Service, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The grandest attraction is Independence Hall, which was the home of the Second Continental Congress from 1775-1783, and later the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Inside Independence Hall, the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were debated and adopted, leading to the birth of the United States as a country.

Across from Independence Hall, Liberty Bell Center houses another iconic piece of American history, which is the most-visited location in the park. While each state capitol possesses a replica of the Liberty Bell, the original – believed to have rung to mark the reading of the Declaration of Independence in July, 1776 – remains in Philadelphia where it was first rung, when it reportedly acquired its famous crack with the very first strike. The Liberty Bell Center provides a visitor’s center atmosphere, where documents, photographs, and films on display provide a detailed look at the history of the bell.

Liberty Bell Center is part of the Independence Mall, which also includes National Constitution Center: a museum, convention center, and educational site devoted to the United States Constitution; the former site of the President’s House, residence first of George Washington and then John Adams in the 1790s; and Independence Visitor Center, which serves as a gateway to Independence National Historic Park and other nearby historical attractions.

If you want to get a deeper look at the history of Philadelphia and the American Revolution, there are many other places of interest in the park: the First Bank of the United States was the first bank chartered by the newborn U.S. Congress, followed by the Second Bank of the United States; and Carpenters’ Hall was the meeting place of the First Continental Congress, prior to the Second Continental Congress taking up residence in Independence Hall. Franklin Court hosts a Benjamin Franklin Museum, as well as the United States Postal Service Museum. Declaration House, restored to its 1776 appearance, is where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. Congress Hall, which served during the 1790s, American Philosophical Society Hall, Free Quaker Meeting House, and Old City Hall, where the Supreme Court resided during the 1790s, are within the bounds of the park, along with many other historic sites and buildings. Plaques, statues, and monuments can be found on nearly every street corner, and help to guide you through a walking tour of Old City Philadelphia.

If you’re looking for a specific slice of history, you can also check out the African American Museum in Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society Museum, National Museum of Jewish American History, or Christ Church and its accompanying Burial Ground, where Ben Franklin was laid to rest. There’s more to see in just a few blocks than I can even list, and depending on your interests, you might want to check out anything from the Betsy Ross House to the Battleship New Jersey.

There are guided tours for many of the historic buildings, although self-guided tours are also a great way to see the area. Most of the major attractions, such as Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall, are free to the public. If you’re making the rounds to some of the ticketed attractions, CityPass and Philadelphia Pass both offer discounts and combination passes.

Photos: Independence Visitor Center Philadelphia

Folly Island, SC

Charleston has all the charms of a southern coastal city—gorgeous parks, fine shopping, and beach towns. A friend took me out to Folly Beach – Folly in this case meaning ‘an area of dense foliage’ – to experience the different sides of South Carolina beach life.

Folly island has something of a morbid history; it was also known as ‘Coffin Island’ in the 18th and early 19th centuries, as plague and cholera victims were left there to die, so as not to spread infection inland to Charleston. Ships would drop off their ailing passengers before they made harbor, and then stop by when they set sail again, to have survivors board and bury the dead. In one of the most infamous incidents, 120 passengers on the brig ship Amelia died of cholera after it washed up on Folly – or Coffin – Island, during the cholera epidemic of 1873.

There are brighter notes, however—opera fans might be interested to know Gershwin wrote Porgy & Bess while staying on Folly Island. Rather than Coffin Island, locals refer to it as ‘The Edge of America’, due to its location off the coast. Folly has the feel of an old American beach town; ice cream stands, surf shops, crab shacks, and farmer’s market stalls line the roads, which are dotted with faded, pastel beach houses raised above the tide line on stilts. The generally-calm, warm water of the Atlantic has made Folly Beach a popular spot for surfers, kayakers, paddleboarders, and boaters.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to a boat, I highly recommend finding a nice sandy spot and having a picnic on the beach. During my visit, we took sandwiches out and then walked up and down the shoreline afterward, looking at the sea stars, sand dollars, and schools of tiny fish caught in the tidal pools. The bones of sharks and other, larger aquatic animals occasionally wash up on the beach, and brightly-colored periwinkle shells sparkle all across the sand. Near sunset, we watched dolphins feeding close to the shore; the first time I’d seen them in the wild.

If you want a quieter getaway, you can walk out to the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve, on Folly Island’s northeastern shore. We saw trees salt-pruned by the sand and water blown in from the ocean, which sculpted them into fantastic shapes, and climbed on the rocks weathering right at the edge of the ocean. The preserve is a gorgeous place to watch for wildlife, especially shore birds, and to just get away for a while and look out over the inlet toward Morris Island Lighthouse, formerly a coast guard station.

There’s one other major draw to Folly Island, if you’re fortunate and visiting at the right time: loggerhead turtles nest in the sand on Folly Beach, and during the summer months, hatchlings emerge from their eggs to crawl across the beach into the ocean. Folly Beach has its own Turtle Watch program, which provides information to visitors and assistance to nesting and hatching turtles.