One of the highlights of my road trip to the Carolinas was a performance of “Zelda: An American Love Story,” a big, Broadway-style musical based on the life of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and set in Asheville, N.C. The production was at the Flat Rock Playhouse near Asheville, where Zelda, diagnosed with what is now known as bipolar disorder, lived the last years of her life in a sanatorium and died in a hospital fire in 1948.
I enjoy seeing theatrical productions when I travel, and watching this play performed in the community where the story was set was a bonus. The lead actors were Broadway veterans — one was a Tony winner — with voices that could belt out the big songs.
I thought “Zelda” should have been Broadway bound. My friends and I were totally absorbed. Afterwards, I was surprised to learn that the play has been in development for seven years — an earlier version of the play was produced in 2005 and aimed at Broadway — but that it had not yet gotten close to the Great White Way. The “Zelda” team is still shooting for a Broadway production, and I hope the show makes it.
The moral of the story: Don’t limit yourself to Broadway shows, especially when you travel. It’s a great time to take a chance on regional theater. If you’re interested in “Zelda,” click here; the show runs through Oct. 28.
What’s up for Halloween around the country? Parades (like last year's Village Halloween Parade in New York, pictured above), haunted houses, zombie walks, and pumpkin-tossing contests, as well as the usual costume parties and trick-or-treating. Some events, like theme park parties, are not for the squeamish-of-wallet. Others, like many parades and zombie walks, are free. Here is a sampling of Halloween-themed events across the USA. And if you’re thinking about marking the haunted time of year at one of Florida’s theme parks, be sure to read Hannah Sampson’s review of the scariest events here, and check details of all the theme park parties here.
Photo: Tina Fineberg, AP
The first surprise when we get to the one-time home of Carl Sandburg is the crowded parking lot, the people wearing jogging attire or carrying walking sticks, and the number of people who have brought their dogs. Sandburg was a newspaperman, champion of the underclasses, laborer, wanderer, Pulitzer-winning biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Pulitzer-winning poet, and collector of American folk songs. His wife, Lilian, studied and bred goats. The sprawling grounds of their home and goat barn seems an odd place to visit with dogs and walking sticks.
But we soon learn that this National Park Service site in Flat Rock, N.C., almost an hour's drive south of Asheville near the South Carolina border, is a favorite walking and hiking spot for local residents. Except for the $5 tour inside the house, access to the grounds, including parking, is free. It's a quarter-mile uphill climb to the main house, further to the goat barn, trout pond and orchards. We watch a number of people walk right past the attractions that we've come to see and follow the hiking trails that branch off from there. And on such a pretty fall day in the foothills of the Smokies, why not?
But we are here for our own little literary celebration: a tour of the Carl Sandburg home, then across the street at the state theater of North Carolina, a performance of "Zelda: An American Love Story," a play about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Connemara, the house where the Sandburgs lived for 22 years, until Carl's death in 1967, is notable for its collection of 12,000 books, and the rooms where he wrote and Lilian kept records on her goats. A volunteer tells the Sandburgs' story as he leads us on a tour.
The outdoors -- flower garden, tiny amphitheater, vegetable garden with scarecrow, dairy barn, and chicken coop -- are just as interesting. We spend a lot of time watching the goats, talking to a ranger about them, and watching little children approach the animals.
By the time we leave, we feel like we’ve gotten to know this great American writer.
We started out in a public square in Charleston, tagging along after a fellow dressed in pirate get-up, and made our first stop at a pub. We ordered brews -- I had a White Thai, a local Belgian-inspired beer made with lemongrass and ginger root. We drank out back in the courtyard, amid the ruins of an old bank vault, as the pirate told us about the history of the Blind Tiger Pub and the state Prohibition-type laws that gave the pub its name.
At our next pub stop, Griffon, we heard a tale about a pirate, Anne Bonney, who set sail from Charlestown disguised as a man, and at the next, South End, about the man who hanged himself on the third floor of the building. Then we went up to South End's third-floor bar. Whaddya mean, his ghost never left the building? Did that chair just move on its own?
We were on an Oktoberfest walking tour of Charleston's historic pubs (a slightly different version of the tour is available year-round), and there was plenty of fodder for our visits to four pubs. In one of North America's oldest cities -- and a port city at that -- even the taverns have colonial-era histories.
The tour was scheduled to run from 5-8p.m., and our pirate-guide, Mike Coker, told us it's often closer to 8:30, depending on how much we eat at the pubs and how much he talks. Mike knows his local history -- he's written a couple books on Charleston -- and was quite entertaining. Plus, we were a congenial group. So by 8:30, we were just arriving at pub no. 4, Tommy Condon's.
Click here for information on the Charles Towne Pub Stroll. Unless you've been in training, four beers plus some pub food is plenty to consume. Don't kid yourself that you can walk it all off that night. But the tales are calorie-free.
Today for my road-trip entertainment, I went to A Taste of Charleston, a festival where you buy a taste of this from one Charleston restaurant and a taste of that from another. In a place like Charleston, capital of Low Country cuisine, it's a great way to sample both the traditional and contemporary riffs on the traditional.
The festival was held at Boone Hall Plantation, which has been in existence more than 250 years and is still a working farm in the suburb of Mt. Pleasant. We had to park way out on the far reaches of the property, where the tomato and squash plants are still producing, and walk in, past the historic slave quarters, the Gullah Theater, the alley of oak trees that are more than 200 years old.
Booth after booth offered small servings of two or three dishes each: jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp 'n grits, grilled skewers of meat, about 18 kinds each of fish tacos and sliders (mostly pork), key lime tarts, truffled mac and cheese -- you get the idea -- for $2 to $6. Plus there was a beer garden. The Biltmore Estate apparently had the wine franchise locked up.
I bought a tiny cup of she-crab soup and a serving of grits sticks -- cooked grits mixed with that old Southern favorite, pimento cheese, shaped into sticks, deep-fried and served with a sweet-hot sauce. Then I found a place to sit on the lawn and listen to the music. Alas, I soon discovered, the place had another Southern favorite -- gnats. Gnats in my face, my hair, my ears, under the straps of my sandals. Happily there was no charge for gnats.
Sitting there, I noticed a fashion trend: women in finely tooled cowboy boots. I'm usually oblivious to fashion, but when I was on the lawn, other people's knees were at eye level, and all the cowboy boots were impossible to miss. Apparently they go with everything (kinda like pimento cheese): Short shorts, ankle-length sundresses, mini skirts, leggings, peasant dresses, boots worn inside jeans, boots worn outside jeans. At least they would have kept the gnats off my feet.
On my next round I sampled two truly excellent dishes -- bruschetta with spicy grilled shrimp and arugula from Langdon's Restaurant & Wine Bar, and fried pimento-cheese ravioli from Cork Neighborhood Bistro. The ravioli was savory-sweet and almost could have passed for dessert. The filling was a combination of sharp cheddar and rosemary pimento cheese, but it tasted like it was part cream cheese. The ravioli had been lightly fried, then topped with peach-bacon marmalade. Yum!
(Photo: Best dish of the day -- spicy shrimp bruschetta with arugula)
I had to get moving. The gnats were driving me .... buggy. I heard they were selling tickets for A Taste of Marjie. I bought one more taste, a pumpkin cobbler dessert, and started waddling toward my car. Now, I realized, there was a purpose in making us park so far away -- to walk off all that pimento cheese.
I’m on the highway for my autumn road trip, heading toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the fall color should be terrific. I’m not far along yet though, and spent the morning doing some off-the-beaten-track sightseeing in Central Florida. My destination: Nehrling Gardens in the unincorporated community of Gotha, about 10 miles northwest of downtown Orlando.
The property is the house and about six acres that once belonged to Henry Nehrling, a horticulturalist who did extensive research on tropical and sub-tropical plants at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. Nehrling died in 1929, and the property changed hands a couple of times, but in 2009, it was purchased by a new non-profit, the Henry Nehrling Society. With the help of volunteers, the society is gradually reclaiming the gardens from the kudzu, air potato vines and other invasives that had overrun everything else. Some of the trees that Nehrling planted have survived and are now more than 100 years old.
Ultimately, the society hopes to open the gardens to the public on a regular basis (it now only offers pre-arranged private tours), hold community events and educational programs there, and develop a line of Nehrling plants for sale. But for now, in addition to the physical work on the property, the society members are working on fund-raising. If you’re interested, check out their Web site. And if you’re in the neighborhood at lunch time, try Yellow Dog Eats.
Fall colors are already starting to show in some parts of New England. In Maine, state forestry officials said last week that northern Maine was a third of the way to peak color. Leaves are still green in the lower two-thirds of the state. Similarly, northwestern New Hampshire is close to peak color. Leaves are turning in western Massachusetts. In upstate New York, local spots of color are visible, with the peak in the Catskills and Adirondacks starting this week into early October. In North Carolina, experts say to expect that state’s first color soon at Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rockies. If you’re planning a fall-foliage trip, click here for a story about five getaway packages. And go back a week on my blog (here) for links to foliage reports.Photo credit: The Biltmore Estate
Any South Floridian looking for an outing next week ought to consider the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival, which opens Tuesday and runs through Sept. 30. The Keys offer the last ground in the USA in the fall migration of birds headed to the Caribbean or Central or South America, and thousands of birds pass through, including some not seen any other time in the subtropics. The festival is aimed at families and has the fringe benefit of introducing people to parts of the Keys they might not have seen before. Read the full report here.