Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Charleston To Sweden--An Extraordinary Hotel That Hangs With The Trees

The tree is by far the biggest, tallest and most prolific of the living things with whom we share this beautiful planet. They have been venerated by ancient cultures and protected by modern laws--Summerville, SC adopted the motto "Sacra Pinus Esto"--"The Pine is Sacred."

The lungs of the earth, trees pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and return oxygen. They fuel the fires that keep us warm on frigid days, they provide the products we use to shelter our families, and are the inspiration of many poems.

Right here in our beloved Lowcountry, Angel Oak on John's Island is reportedly the oldest living thing east of the Rockies. Coming in at 1,500 years, it is not the tallest or the oldest, but its branches spread out over the landscape some 89 feet with a trunk circumference of 25.5 feet. Unknown to many Lowcountry residents, in the middle of Runnymede Plantation on the Ashley stands an oak tree with a circumference of 29 feet. Simply called the Oak, it is about 1,000 years old.

The biggest tree in the world is a giant sequoia named after a Civil War leader, "General Sherman." Located in Sequoia National Park in Tulare County, CA, it has a girth of 102.6 feet at ground level. The world's tallest tree is a coast redwood located in Redwood National Park, California. It is named "Hyperion," after a person in Greek mythology, and stands no less than 379.7 feet tall.

The world's oldest non-clonal tree is a pine tree located in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California. In 2014, it turned 4,845 years old. It is fittingly named after a Biblical figure of longevity, Methuselah. The world's oldest clonal tree is a mere 16 feet tall and believed to be 9,550 years ancient. It is a Norway Spruce located on the Fulufjället Mountain of Dalarna province in Sweden.

Once in awhile, I write about places to see and things to do at destinations other than Charleston and Sweden, the location of the aforementioned oldest tree, is home to an extraordinary amenity that leaps out of the box of conventionalism.

Sweden is a country with long, rugged coastlines, 95,700 lakes, deep forests, rolling hills, majestic mountains, hundreds of unspoiled islands, and summer houses. With a reputation for cold winters, the climate can be much milder than you might expect because of a warm Gulf Stream. The landscape is dotted with small villages and Harads is one of them--a village of 600 featuring a restaurant, shop and guest house. From there, it is just a five-minute stroll through the beautiful Swedish landscape to five treerooms with a fantastic view of the Lule River valley, miles of forest and the powerful river. It is aptly called the Tree Hotel and was inspired by the film "The Tree Lover" by Jonas Selberg Augustsen.

The Birds Nest
On arrival, you check in at Britta’s pensionat where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served Tree Hotel guests. A buffet breakfast is always included in the room price, as are all meals in the package deals. Britta’s pensionat has an authentic 1930-50’s setting and offers a restaurant, bar, sauna and relaxation area, TV, and internet. The treerooms do not have TV and internet. Focus is on nature.

The Mirrorcube
The list of activities is long and include a guided tour of the hotel, walking tour of Harads, Tree Sauna, trekking the Nordic flora and fauna of Storklints, mountain biking, kayaking the historic Lule river, tour by horse, midnight riding under the Northern Lights, fishing the beautiful Bodträsk River, and riding a zipline.

Treeroom rates: from 4400 SEK=$677.44 US to 4600 SEK=$698.09 US for two or 3300=$500.80 US for one. Extra adult: 850 SEK=$128.31 US and extra child: 450 SEK=$67.93 US. Rates may have changed. The Dragonfly rates are 7200 SEK=$1086.86 US 2 to 4 persons--6800 SEK=$1026.48 US in the summer season July-August.

View from the Blue Cone
It is a long trip from Charleston to the beautiful land of Sweden. The Tree Hotel is a once in a lifetime experience of the extraordinary kind. It is a place where you can forget about the time constraints of everyday life, enjoy the serenity of unspoiled nature, and rejuvenate in a sophisticated yet familiar environment. A place where you can become one with the oldest of our planet's inhabitants.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"The Three Musketeers" Is A Sword Cut Above The Rest--Now Showing At The James F. Theatre

In earlier times, a gentleman's way of addressing personal insults was to cross blades in an affair called the duel, which was all done in a very orderly fashion, and the insult could be something as simple as making fun of a man's horse or bumping shoulders on the street.

Can you imagine; Sir, I prefer you not park your Fix Or Repair Daily truck next to my Dodge Ram." "Sir, how dare you insult my truck. I demand satisfaction. Prepare to draw your sword." "I will be honored to accommodate you, Sir. Perhaps, we can settle this at 2 pm behind the James F. Dean Theatre."

You can get a glimpse of those colorful days, when tyranny and treachery were cloaked in elegance and le savoir-faire, in Jason Olson's adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers." It slashed its way onto the stage at the James F. Dean Theatre on Friday, May 23rd. The Flowertown Players cast and crew delivered a perfectly executed "coup de main,"--they killed it.

Alexandre Dumas was a practicing fencer and like many other French gentlemen of his generation he attended all the tops schools. With this knowledge, he created the ever popular story of "The Three Musketeers." It is a tale about the adventures of a young man named d'Artagnan(Zach Smith) and his quest to join the Musketeers of the Guard in Paris. D'Artagnan becomes a companion to the inseparable friends Athos; a man with a secret(Alex Smith), flamboyant Porthos(Jason Olson) and the younger, religious Aramis(Ian Bonner). Together they form a bond characterized by the motto "tous pour un, un pour tous"--"All for one, one for all."

As an adaptation, the incorporation of the narrative was brilliant and handled brilliantly by Adolphus Williams(Dumas) and Jamie Young(August). The pair drew much of the laughs as they set the scenes and filled in the finer details.

Behind the scenes, top honors go to the costume designers under the direction of Bruce Bryson. The costumes were appropriately fashionable to the time and quite colorful. They infused the play with life and added a sophisticated realism to the single set stage--the study of Alexander Dumas.

The cast and crew in this play are numerous. I counted 34 participants. At times, the action was furious and what I observed on opening night, was executed very smoothly. There are numerous duels and sword fights, a few chase scenes, and a fair share of romantic encounters. After all, it was an age of chivalry and they are French, for the most part. There is an Englishman called the Duke of Buckingham played by Christopher Miller. After observing his mannerisms and speech on stage, he could very easily pass for a renaissance man--nicely done Christopher.


Katie Sigg(love torn Queen Anne), Blair Cadden((the treacherous Milady de Winter), and Kaitlin Berry(irresistible Constance Bonacieux) added the softer, female touch to a story that was otherwise oozing with gentlemanly testosterone.

To close out the action, d'Artagnan finally gets satisfaction and faces-off in a duel with Rochefort(JC Conway). This in itself is worth the price of the ticket.

JC Conway, along with David Hatch, were the Fight Choreographers for the play. A salute goes to the director, Julie Hammond. This is her first production for the Flowertown Players. The play required a huge cast and was filled with complicated choreography. She brought it all together along with her supporting team. Other notables: Larry Wineland(Cardinal Richelieu) and Chad Estel(enthusiastic Treville); and congratulations to the rest of the cast--too many to mention here by name.

"The Three Musketeers" will be running from May 23rd to June 8th. Purchase your tickets here.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tranquil Halcyon Inn--An Enduring Icon Of Summerville's Prosperous Golden Age

Halcyon is likely not a commonly recognizable word by the average, everyday person unless you are of Greek decent or a student of Greek mythology. And may I add to this short list of the privileged few, the older residents of Summerville and the few observant Summervillians who have seen it while driving along S. Main Street.

To the Greeks, the Alkyonides Meres(Halcyon Days in English) is a name used to describe a two week period of warm and calm weather that generally occurs around the winter solstice, though not exclusively. They can also occur in February.

To a student of Greek mythology, the mythical explanation for the sunny days of calm seas and winds that appear every year between mid January and mid February in Greece is found in the story of the goddess Halcyon(Alcyone in Greek) and her mortal husband, King Ceyx of Thessaly. Their story is one of love, commitment, and death, but to make a long story short, ends with them being transformed into seabirds(many myths say Kingfisher birds) to be together forever. So her eggs can survive during the harsh winter weather, Zeus gave her 14 days of good and calm weather--thus the birth of the Halcyon Days. The term has come to signify prosperity, joy, liberation and, of course, calm.

To the older residents of Summerville, the word Halcyon is remembered as the name of one of the grand resort inns that served the town during its most prosperous days called the Golden Age. If you are a Summervillian who has traveled up and down Highway 17-A while going about your everyday business, you likely have driven past Halcyon Place many times. Perhaps, even casually observing the street sign bearing its name, but unaware of the unique history hidden beyond the tall trees, the white pillars and black gates.

The exact construction date of the house that eventually became known as Halcyon Place is unknown. The Colleton County records, the properties original county, were lost in a fire in 1865. The earliest surviving reference to the property indicates the house was built between 1830 and 1840 and was called Duke's house--the original owner being John R. Duke. It was built in the classic Southern style. A 12 x 50 foot spacious two-story columned porch greeted you on arrival. On the porch was a joggling board--one of its owners tells a story of acquiring the joggling board she felt completed the porch.

Inside, the first floor featured a 33 x 20 foot living room with 13 foot ceilings, a spacious 26 x 20 dining room, two large dens, a bedroom and stairs leading to the second floor. The second floor contained four bedrooms and a hall. The most unusual second floor feature was a door that led to nowhere, no stairs, no landing and no indication anything was ever there except empty space. Mrs. Dion, one of its owners, jokingly referred to it as the door for invisible inhabitants.

A 1909 plat of the property shows Halcyon Place covered eight acres, which included a pear orchard.
Aside from the house, on the grounds were some old outbuildings, service buildings, servants quarters and a gazebo. It was these buildings that were turned into guest houses when Halcyon Place served as an exclusive resort inn under the ownership of the Weeds. One of the guest houses was called "Magruder's House." It was named after a slave that lived there until the 1930's. Another, called the "Pink Cottage", was a former stable and still had the barn doors to prove it. Located in a garden with a bricked-in spring, the octagonal gazebo was considered a historic landmark.

Halcyon Inn is not known for accommodating any famous guests like the Pine Forest Inn and Carolina Inn--at least none I am aware of. Mrs. Caroline Parameter, daughter of Mrs. Weed, was well known for her delicious menus--at one time she ran the Tea Room at Middleton Place. To its Northern visitors, Halcyon Inn was an oasis of tranquility and calm, a safe haven away from the rough waters of life and harsh winters--many of them staying a whole season spanning from late October to April.

Today, it remains a picture of resilience and serenity with its beautifully landscaped grounds, safely tucked away under the properties old oaks and beyond its large black gates. Appropriately named and forever immortalized in the historic writings of Summerville's more prominent residents, it is a reminder of the town's "halcyon days" and a surviving icon of the Golden Age.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Spring Wednesday Wine Strolls at Middleton Place--Wine-derful

The weather and the setting were perfect. There was but a whisper of a breeze playing on the long branches of the old oaks. The fading sun cast a tranquil shade of pleasant over the beautified gardens--considered the oldest in America. The numerous reflective ponds, alive with the chatter of its amphibious residents, were one with the surroundings. Their mirror like surfaces disturbed only by the watchful eyes of the long-toothed reptiles common to these Lowcountry waters.

Beyond the gated ruins and overlooking the Ashley, the four strategically placed tables were elegantly set, two bottles of vino on each, servers in place. Friends, relatives, acquaintances, and couples with cups in hand soaked in the ambiance and engaged in light conversation as they walked from table to table and strolled the numerous intertwined paths of the plantation landscape. All this courtesy of Middleton Place and its Spring Wednesday Wine Strolls.

Not by any stretch of the imagination am I a wine connoisseur, but I am learning the finer aspects of the grape culture. I have twice indulged in wine tastings in the past two weeks. This by far was a top flight experience made even more rewarding sharing it with family and friends. And wine tends to loosen the lips, so making small talk with fellow imbibers comes as easy as an Ashley River current.

Now, here are some specifics. After checking in, you received a detailed list with the names and descriptions of each wine. There were eight offerings--an obvious fact seeing there were four tables with two selections per table. Actually, six were wines and two were Sangria's. Although the tables were numbered, you are free to take them in any order to suit your tastes.

Maybe, you are partial to a certain varietal or bouquet, you can eliminate one of your least preferred and double up on a favorite. The point is there are no restrictions. You are entitled to eight tastings--your way. We chose to sample them all and according to the list. We figured the person who arranged the list knew what they were doing in regard to when and in what order to sample so as to get the most from the tastings. Crackers were also provided to cleanse the palate.

You have two hours to complete your list, but that does not mean you have to leave. Middleton Place and the Ashley River are beautiful in the setting sun and you get 10 per cent off your dinner at its on-site restaurant.

These were the night's tastings. Table One--Trentino Pinot Grigio, Italy 2012 and Planeta la Segreta Blend, Sicily, Italy 2012-considered a Chardonnay. The Chardonnay was the winner for me at Table One. Table Two--Gancia Moscato D'Asti, Italy 2012 and Bolla le Poiane Valpolicella Ripasso, Italy 2012--70 per cent Corvino and Corvinone. I favored the Moscato. Table Tree--Don and Sons Pinot Noir, Sonoma County 2011 and Aquinas Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2012. I am a Pinot Noir fan because of its healthful qualities. Table Four--Red Sangria and Blonde Sangria. Between the two, I had no opinion.

The whole affair is twenty dollars per person and it is worth every dollar. The night was a perfect blend of weather, scenery, and fermented grapes. Middleton Place is a National Historic Treasure that cooks the imagination. Dowsing the imagination with some wine enhances and strengthens the experience. I will be doing it again. You can wager a bottle of Don and Sons Pinot Noir on it.

Enjoy the beautiful pictures of Middleton Place's Spring Wednesday Wine Stroll.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Lunch At A Plantation With The Oldest Landscaped Gardens In America--Middleton Place

The felled bricks strewn across the ground are all that was left--burned by the 56th New York Regiment in 1865, the Great Earthquake of 1886 finished off the remaining shell leaving the present heap of ruins. A black, iron-gated fence opening unto a chained walkway cuts through its middle. Beyond, the terraced landscape sloped gradually downward to the shore of the rising and falling tidal waters of the Ashley River. Looking landward, a spacious field of green grass accommodated gigantic oaks and grazing sheep. Little lambs scurrying about amused watching patrons. Moments later, a horse drawn wagon filled with tourists pulled up and paused outside the gate. The guide began her narrative, "This was where the main house of Middleton Place once stood."

Born in a time when trips into Charleston were excursions and the Ashley River was a thoroughfare, Middleton Place was a panorama of southern grace and opulent gardens. The Duke de la Rochefoucault, who visited in 1789, wrote, "the garden is beautiful." In 1941 the Garden Club of America conferred on Middleton Place the Bulkley Medal and declared the landscaped gardens not only to be the oldest, but also "the most interesting and important in America."

The original estate complex consisted of the afore mentioned main house flanked by two other buildings. The South Flanker, built in 1755, served as a gentlemen's guest quarters and the North Flanker, a library and conservatory. The South Flanker was the only to survive the Civil War conflagration with its structure in tack. It was restored and served as the families living quarters from 1870 to 1975. It is now a museum. Another building added in 1933, served as a guest house and later became the restaurant--the main reason I visited Middleton Place on this beautiful Charleston day.


There are two choices for seating at the restaurant--the dining room or the garden. The view from the dining room is stunning. Lined with large windows, it overlooks the old Mill Pond and picturesque Azalea Hillside. If available, the garden seating offers an intimate, quiet space with a view of the spacious green field in front of the South Flanker. Enclosed by a three-foot brick wall and draped overhead by Spanish moss, it is accented with a variety of potted plants--a perfect setting for sipping on an afternoon sweet tea or if you are feeling a little more fruity, a glass of wine.

Recipes from one time resident southern Chef Edna Lewis are featured with emphasis on authentic Lowcountry cuisine. Selections like she crab soup, SC collard greens with ham hock, corn bread, Hoppin Jon, pulled pork, fried chicken and corn pudding. Despite the varied menu, I kept it simple and chose the special of the day, which was a roast turkey sandwich topped with green fried tomatoes and field greens picked from their on site garden partnered with a side of French fries--simple and sublime.

On this April day, a casual lunch is all I was interested in. I was at Middleton Place for the historic surroundings and garden atmosphere its restaurant offers. With the warm, Charleston sun shining overhead, the setting was perfect for basking in the aura of an antique building and savoring a delicious meal under the shadowy canopy of an ancient oak tree. Well worth the visit.