If The Shoe Fits

 Lynchburg, Lynchburg VA, Craddock Terry Shoe Company, Craddock Terry Hotel, Downtown Lynchburg, Lynchburg Attractions, Brewery, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Big Red Shoe, Shoe Hotel, Hampton roads, Virginia, Loveva, Hotels Lynchburg VA

by JANINE LATUS
photography by KEITH LANPHER

In its halcyon days, the Craddock-Terry Shoe Company’s Southland Factory Annex in downtown Lynchburg roared and rattled with enormous leather belts that turned axles that turned smaller leather belts that turned the spinning wheels of sewing machines. There were days those belts snapped loose and whipped like lashes around the heads of the workers, days of 100-degree temperatures, relentless days of the cacophony of metal against metal as hundreds of mechanical arms advanced shoe leather while others lifted and lowered needles, in and out of the recent hide. The heat and noise and smell were crushing as women in long dresses bent over Singers, their hair bunned back to keep it out of flywheels, and men stood at the larger MacKays, sewing on soles.

“Shoe factories at the time sounded like hell,” says D.A. Saguto, an expert on the history of shoemaking whose credentials include being the shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg and working as consulting shoe curator for the Smithsonian and Mount Vernon.

Today that same building is serene, the rooms quiet, the original beams and rolling metal doors standing as polished backdrops to beds piled high with pillows. The lobby at the Craddock Terry Hotel pays homage to the building’s heritage with baby shoes and men’s work boots, flats and sandals and colorful displays of women’s pumps. The hotel dog’s name is Buster Brown. You can walk him if you’d like.

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If you’re a regular, the reception staff will call you by name. They’ll ask about your mother’s surgery, your grandbaby’s ball game. If you tend to buy peanuts and a soda in the gift shop, you may find them waiting for you in your room, compliments of the hotel. Come with a group of men and you may be met in the lobby with chicken wings and growlers of fresh beer from the brewery and restaurant downstairs. A more genteel group may find Champagne and berries.

The guest rooms are along thick-pillared halls or up industrial stairways. On each bed is a replica of a shoeshine box. Set yours outside the door at night and in the morning it will contain a breakfast of fruit and Brie, and a fresh croissant. Set out your shoes and they’ll come back polished.

The main building is connected by a walkway to more guest rooms in a converted 1890s tobacco warehouse, its original architecture attributed to August Forsberg, an engineer for the Confederate Army. The walls are solid, the floors thick planks of pine. There are two restaurants – the high-end Shoemakers American Grille and the pizza-centric Waterstone – plus a small-batch brewery and a pair of conference rooms, one with views of the river and the other looking like it was hewn straight from the granite.

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Hal Craddock, who had the vision to restore
his forebears’ factory, and the last shoe it made.

But the road from what was to what is was steep and rocky.  

The original shoe factory opened on the Lynchburg riverfront in 1888. Demand was steep, so in 1905 the company added an annex – the building that’s now the hotel. Other Craddock-Terry shoe factories sprouted in small towns throughout Virginia, Missouri and Ohio. The Lynchburg factory had a retail space the locals called the Shoe Room, and much of the town shopped there. Business faded during the Great Depression, then soared again as orders poured in for combat boots during World War II, eventually making Craddock-Terry the fifth-largest shoe company in the world. After the war the factories went back to shoes – and entire busloads of tourists were lured to the Shoe Room by billboards that featured 22-foot-tall red fiberglass pumps – but shoe manufacturing was increasingly moved offshore, and one by one the factories stuttered to a stop.

The giant shoes were carted to the bone yard behind the sign maker’s shop. Stores left downtown for the mod new strip malls a few miles away. Doctors and architects and lawyers followed. Restaurants closed. The downtown deteriorated and historic factory buildings and warehouses stood vacant.

But Hal Craddock had a dream.

Craddock, 64, is the great-grandson of John W. Craddock, one of the shoe company’s founding partners. He grew up in Lynchburg, left to study architecture at Virginia Tech, and spent two years in Brazil with the Peace Corps, then came home to partner with and eventually take over from an older architect, hoping all the while to help figure out how to revitalize the riverfront and downtown.

“I’d see all these beautiful old brick buildings and it was idiotic to me that everybody was moving away,” he says. “The stores, the residents, were moving to suburbs, everybody was driving around in cars, everything was starting to look the same. Downtown had all these beautiful old structures, and people were just ignoring them.”

So in 1980, he and two friends in the advertising and graphics business pooled their money to buy one. The one they chose was an 1899 Anheuser-Busch bottling plant just across the railroad tracks from the river and across the street from the shoe factory annex, Craddock’s family name still in faded paint on its bricks.

The former beer-bottling building was then owned by the Lynchburg Foundry, and Dick Gilliam, the man in charge of buildings for the company, wouldn’t sell it because it was full of casting molds for the iron parts the foundry made for giant earth-moving machines. Craddock and his friends decided they had to do something to get his attention, so one of the graphics guys created a mock front page of the local newspaper that included Gilliam’s photo and the headline “Dick Gilliam Sells Building to Young Entrepreneurs, Saves Riverfront.”

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Nods to heritage include shoeshine stands –
and the dog, Buster Brown (opening spread).

“We put it on his desk on a Friday along with a $35 box of cigars with a big sign that said ‘BRIBE,’ ” Craddock says. “On Monday morning he sold us the building.”

The headline was more prescient than they could have guessed. Craddock and his partners used state historic tax credits and spent about half a million dollars to fix up the space before they could move in. But Craddock has what he calls The Vision Disease, and he kept looking at the decaying buildings across the street, imagining what they could become.

One night he stayed in the Brookstown Inn, a boutique hotel in an old textile mill in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He struck up a conversation with the manager and learned that the hotel’s primary business came not from weekend visitors to the historic district but from business travelers. The hotel staff set out wine and cheese every weeknight. They made customers check out in person so the staff could get to know them, and created relationships by scheduling the same people at the front desk every time they knew a repeat customer was coming.

Craddock was so intrigued that he begged the manager there to tour the two old buildings in Lynchburg, and that manager reinforced what Craddock already believed. The buildings were in a reviving downtown, there was the railroad, the picturesque James River and neighborhoods full of historic homes. “You should do this,” the manager said.

Next, Craddock hired a graduate student at Virginia Tech’s hospitality school to do a market study for him. The student’s opinion was that a boutique hotel would suffer but an upscale restaurant would thrive, because there wasn’t another one downtown.

Craddock asked the city to go after an economic development grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“If anyone else came in here and said they’re going to put in a boutique hotel and several restaurants, people would have said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” says Marjette Upshur, Lynchburg’s director of economic development. “But Hal just comes and presents the case. He’s not trying to be some big slick developer; he just tells you the truth, good, bad and ugly.”

They got that first HUD grant, then a much larger HUD loan, but rehabbing the old buildings was going to take millions, so Craddock and his partners threw parties in the shell of the old building, wooing people for investments of $75,000 and $150,000 in exchange for shares in the project. Friends, family members, community leaders opted in.

Craddock drove up the hill to the old sign company and asked for one of the bright red fiberglass shoes that were rotting away behind the building. He didn’t have any money, he told the owner, but could give him a share in the company. The owner hoisted the 500-pound shoe and latched it onto the side of the proposed hotel.

Craddock wasn’t the only one with a vision for the downtown. The local Junior League was converting an old grocery warehouse into a children’s museum. A group of artists was creating a downtown artists’ loft.

And in the late ’90s Rachel Flynn, then-director of city planning, invited Charleston Mayor Joe Riley to town to talk about possibilities. Riley took pictures all over downtown Lynchburg and put on a slide show that showed downtown Charleston before and after its riverfront restoration. Then he showed the photos of Lynchburg, which looked just like the “before” photos of Charleston.

“Lynchburg can do this,” he told his audience. “It can be a smaller version of the success we had in Charleston.”

“That presentation changed everything,” Craddock says. “Everybody started paying attention to downtown.”

But then the planes hit the World Trade Center and banks didn’t want to hear about hotels and restaurants, so a real estate investment consultant told Craddock to forget about his plans for a hotel and restaurants – tell banks you have two beautiful old buildings with four guaranteed tenants. Never mind that the tenants were all Craddock and his friends in different forms.

Craddock had put seven years into making the dream come true. He had persuaded friends and family to risk their money alongside his, and now everything seemed lost. One night he told his wife, “I think we’re going to have to declare bankruptcy and lose all our money.” His eyes get misty as he remembers. “But that night I opened my computer and there’s a full prospectus from Wachovia Bank to develop the project.”

That was 2004, and it wasn’t over. The complicated deal took another year to coalesce. Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the price of building materials soared, forcing Craddock to have the project re-bid. The total had jumped a million dollars, but City Manager Kim Payne came through with city loans for almost all of it.

Construction moved forward.

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The hotel custom-fit each room with furniture
sourced locally, and has restaurants and a brewery.

Lynchburg, Lynchburg VA, Craddock Terry Shoe Company, Craddock Terry Hotel, Downtown Lynchburg, Lynchburg Attractions, Brewery, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Big Red Shoe, Shoe Hotel, Hampton roads, Virginia, Loveva, Hotels Lynchburg VAThe tobacco warehouse had been used for pack-rat level storage – furniture, tires, an entire car – all of which had to be cleared by the former owner before the partners would take possession. Twenty-five hundred cubic feet of stuff, plus 10 tons of rock to cut out to make basement rooms for the hotel.

Once again, money ran out.

“Things got so bad that Wachovia sent the trench coat guys from Philadelphia to tell us we were in trouble,” Craddock says.

Then Wayne Martin, a cousin-in-law of partner Cliff Harrison, visited from his home in Spain and wanted a piece of the project. He could afford to buy in at the $75,000 level, but Craddock had to say no. He needed to save every available share for the person who could come in with the $1.2 million he needed to finish the job.

Martin went back to Spain. Two weeks later he called back – “How about a million-two?” Again Craddock’s eyes get misty as he tells the story.

“That hotel feels the way it does,” he says, “because of all of the people involved.”

One of them is his business partner, Lynn Cunningham, who selected local companies for the furniture, the leather, making each room work despite the quirks of the floor plan. There are rooms with high ceilings and bolt-studded beams, and lower-level rooms with walls carved out of the original rock. There are jetted tubs and minivan-sized glass showers, tall windows and plush beds.

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Around the hotel – and some say because of it – there are loft apartments and restaurants and a city park with festivals all summer. The city is now building the Lower Bluffwalk Promenade, designed to be like the High Line in New York or the riverfront walkway in downtown Charleston, which will run for five blocks along the river from Amazement Square — the children’s museum that now attracts 90,000 visitors a year— to the balcony of Shoemakers, and Craddock is eyeing neighboring buildings for an expansion that would include 50 more rooms and a spa.

 “Hal’s like an evangelist,” says Upshur, the economic development director. “You really need people to show you how things could be, and here that was Hal.” The property went from paying $610 in property taxes when Craddock bought it in 2003 to paying $548,000 in lodging, meals, sales and property taxes in 2013, she says.

“Downtown’s where your history is. It’s where your personality is,” she says. “Nobody ever moved to a town because it had a strip mall, so our downtown is vital.”

“In this world we tend to want to know exactly how things are going to work out,” she continues, “but sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”

That sounds like something Hal Craddock would say.

The hotel – wearing a 500-pound shoe rescued from a trash heap – now is a linchpin of
Lynchburg’s reviving downtown, its annual tax contribution soaring to $548,000 from $610.

Bali

 

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Ku Dé Ta is one of the first beachfront sunset spots
that opened a decade ago. It’s still going strong.

photography and words by HYUNSOO LÉO KIM

The air in Bali is hot and humid. The island, at first glance, is chaos. Countless scooters intertwine with cars in impossible gaps, their drivers not too shy to stare at you. But when you begin to take a deep breath, try to let go the judgment and resistance from unfamiliarity, you start to see a harmonious order under the surface of the chaos. Like a swarm of birds, each person on this island gives in to accommodate the others. When an outsider smiles at them, they return an even bigger smile.

Distinction photographer Hyunsoo Léo Kim takes you inside the island, past the tourists, to the heart and the peace. He found a culture of appreciation that invites you to coexist within it. He found a magical place that keeps calling him back.

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Scooters are an essential part of transportation in Bali. The Balinese have mastered maneuvering, taking it to an artisanal level. Even dogs can be part of it.

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Balinese Hinduism is deeply interwoven with art and ritual – and includes lighthearted moments such as this one. To enter this temple, you must cover certain parts of your body.
The temples often provide sarongs for you to wear.

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When you smile at people of Bali, you are repaid with an even bigger smile.
It’s hard to believe Gusdy Triasa, who works at Bebek Tepi Sawah, has worked here
eight years, since he was 20.

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Beautiful tropical gardens serve as
a walkway at Bebek Tepi Sawah in Ubud. This place
offers a retreat set amidst peaceful and lush green areas.

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The view of the ocean from the balcony of the EWOW luxury duplex at
W Retreat & Spa, in the heart of the Seminyak area of Bali.
The W in Bali is one of four W high-end resorts in the world.

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W resort Bartender and Bar supervisor Arey Barker mixes up, from left,
a W2Tini, a Champagne and strawberry martini, a papaya martini, and a W Iced Tea

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Traditional hand-printed batik sarongs are ubiquitous in Bali.
At stores here, the price of the product always varies depending on bargaining skills.

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A woman balances the evening’s offerings on her head as she herself
balances on a scooter traveling through Ubud. The offerings encapsulate the Balinese culture
of appreciation. It invites you to coexist and give thanks to life.
When you do that, you will find an abundance of happiness within yourself.

 

EXTENDED GALLERY

 Alam Zempol

The natural bath and aroma goods studio Alam Zempol is located in a small village
in East Bali. Tucked behind an alley, this humble location belies the patrons who love it so.

One of the owners, Asako Ikeda, left, discusses the invoice items with employees at the studio. She came to Bali 13 years ago working in Japanese guest relations, but lost her job soon thereafter with the decline of Japanese tourism. Originally from the cold northern island of Hokkido, Japan, Asako decided to stay in warm Bali and began attempting to produce soap from local coconuts. With much local criticism, it took her and two crewmembers a painstakingly long 3 years to master producing all-natural no-color coconut soaps. That year, she made $300 by selling soap to her family and friends. Now her studio’s revenue exceeds $80,000 and her all-handmade products are favored by high-end luxury hotel chains and villas.

One of her famous products is this bath bomb with natural aroma oil. The studio
developed a unique way to produce it, with cutaway ice cube trays.

A Sweet flower lily bath bomb.

Asako says it was hard to train laid-back locals to produce world-standard products,
but now she works with 17 employees and gives job opportunities
to more than 60 local families.

Now her studio carries more than 50 products, including this heart-shaped aroma soap.

The studio is proud of their all hand-made
‘Simple Products’ with natural ingredients that added
a hint of Balinese.

Asako met her husband Igeda Rai, a local man, when they worked at the same hotel. And they have been working together since. Their love story is a simple success story.

MORE EXCLUSIVE BALI

Pura Taman Saraswati Temple, in Ubud, welcomes its visitors with lotus blossoms

Located in front of Pura Taman Saraswati Temple in Ubud, this Starbucks with a Balinese touch provides free wi-fi and a rendezvous spot.

Next 3 images: Located in Canggu, Bali’s Desa Seni village resort has well-known yoga programs as well as a perfectly manicured landscape. Its name translates to Art Village. The village provides 80% of its food from within its own garden. The yoga program at this hidden gem caters to all levels, is open to the community and is led by a team of very qualified teachers.

A new world-class restaurant is located above Ku Dé Ta, Megikawi. Its name translates to Sacred Table. With its open-style kitchen, patrons bow to chefs at the end of their meals. At this restaurant, local flavors are embraced and reborn. Executive Chef Benjamin Cross, right, is from Byron Bay, Australia, and Pastry Chef Will Goldfarb is a former celebrity chef from New York City.

Sopbuntut, an oxtail soup, is featured on Megikawi’s well-known menu.

A night scene at Bale Udang Mang Engking, a traditional Indonesian/Balinese restaurant. The restaurant has a large fish pond in the middle, surrounded by traditional huts that can accommodate 10 to 12 people. There is a sitting area as well. Reservations fill early.

One of the popular dishes at Udang Mang Engking is Udang Suna Cekuh, or sautéed prawn
in aromatic ginger spice. Behind is fermented cassava spring roll with cheese and caramel sauce.

Nasi Campur, or mixed rice, is an Indonesian dish of rice with several side dishes consisting of various vegetables and meats. The pictured dish was about $2.

Workers control the fire to make Babi Guling, a traditional pig roast at a restaurant. The Balinese respect their food and lavish attention on its preparation. Before spit-roasting the pig, they traditionally bathe it in coconut water.

A street vendor makes barbecue corn cobs with a spicy sauce. The price varies depends on your bargaining skills — 50 cents to $5.

Next 3 photos: Aqua Bali Villa is located in the quiet, secluded Umalas area.
The villa consists of 11 modern units in lush green.

One luxury Balinese-style room at the newly opened Aqua Octaviana Bali Villa.

Of the many massage parlors in Bali, locals choose the Antique Spa in Umalas for an authentic massage. Following the Balinese open tradition, patrons are free to stay and relax in a bath of scented oils without being rushed out. A 90-minute massage is about $40.

The hotel Alila Ubud’s outdoor bathtub gives a sense of a traditional Balinese bath.

The luxury hotel has 68 rooms nestled in the heart of nature.

Handmade bamboo bags are displayed at Ubud market.

Each Absolut bottle contains petroleum for scooter users who can’t make it to a gas station. Scooters are an essential part of transportation in Bali.

A man carries his workload at the end of his day at a rice paddy in Ubud.

Alila Ubud hotel offers traditional Balinese-style hospitality with its rich vegetation.

Balinese Hinduism is deeply interwoven with art and ritual — and includes lighthearted moments such as this one. To enter this temple, you must cover certain parts of your body according to their rules. The temples often provide sarongs for you to wear.

Ku Dé Ta is one of the first beachfront sunset spots that opened a decade ago and is still going strong. It attracts a handsome crowd with its food and ambience.

SKETCHES OF BALI

Drawing done by Yewon Kong of Desa Seni’s saltwater pool.
Her unique style of drawing originated from the way she remembers scenes by the compositing lines that make shapes. Yewon enjoys traveling the world with a notepad and fountain pen.

A drawing of Taman Selini beach bungalow. The hotel is located on the more secluded northwestern coast of Bali. by Yewon Kong.

A drawing of White Sand Beach in Karangasem area of Bali. Located in a remote area, the beach offers clear water and relaxation. by Yewon Kong.

Photographer Hyunsoo Léo Kim and his fiancée, Yewon Kong, in Bali.

Among The Vines

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by Kristin Davis
photography by Keith Lanpher

The harvest arrives on the eve of autumn’s splendor, in the still-warm days before these endless green hills turn golden.

Luca Paschina, winemaker and general manager at Barboursville Vineyards for 22 years, will taste each of the varieties of grapes dripping from verdant vines. Chemistry – sugar, acid and pH – will signal the magical moment when the fruit is ready to be turned into wine. But so will Paschina’s palate, honed since he made his first vintage under his father’s tutelage in Italy at age 14.

There is a saying among vintners and viticulturists: The wine is made in the vineyard. Fernando Franco, the latter here at Barboursville, tenderly examines the grapes this time of year. The way they shine in the sunlight reminds him of how the wine shines in stemmed glasses at a table covered in white linen or between the fingers of the thousands of visitors who step into the tasting room each year.

This is where we begin our journey along the Monticello Wine Trail, a swath of rolling land in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Coined the
Birthplace of American Wine, the trail is made up of some two dozen wineries, and it boasts about half of the state’s 2,000 acres of vineyards.

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It was here that Thomas Jefferson tried for years to cultivate European grapes at his Charlottesville home, for which the wine trail is named. The Founding Father, who even summoned the help of an Italian winemaker for his hopeful endeavor, never produced a successful harvest or a single bottle of wine.

The region would have to wait two centuries for Jefferson’s dream to come to fruition. It happened at Barboursville, on the grounds surrounding the ruins of a Georgian mansion Jefferson himself designed. Destroyed by fire on Christmas Day 1884, the bones of the former president’s architectural masterpiece still remain, and a visit here is not complete without looking in on them.

In 1976, another Italian winemaker, Gianni Zonin, bought the 800-acre Barboursville estate and planted the first vines. Some thought he was foolish, telling him he should raise sheep or plant tobacco instead. Zonin, the first in the state to focus on European vines, did what Jefferson couldn’t by grafting European plants onto the roots of native vines. [Read more...]

Inn At Perry Cabin

 

ST. MICHAELS, Maryland

by Kristen Davis
photography by Keith Lanpher

The Inn at Perry Cabin sprawls along the mouth of the Miles River, a stately colonial set amid gnarled old trees at the edge of the Town that Fooled the British two centuries ago.

Just how this Eastern Shore enclave outsmarted the Redcoats is not immediately obvious. The St. Michaels welcome sign that claims this distinction offers no detail. By the time

I have reached the far end of downtown’s Talbot Street, the Inn at Perry Cabin comes into view and takes hold of my attention entirely.

 The painted white inn looks as if it took root with the trees that tower over the property, and perhaps it did: The original columned manor house went up in 1816. More than 150 years later, a St. Michaels family turned Perry Cabin into a six-room hotel and restaurant; a decade ago, the inn’s most recent owner, Orient-Express Hotels, undertook a $17 million renovation that created the 78-room hotel, four-diamond restaurant and full-service spa rambling before me.

 Just a three-hour drive from Hampton Roads, this onetime shipping and shipbuilding community now attracts visitors with its charm – downtown streets lined with gift shops and antique stores, seafood-flavored restaurants and historic homes.

 The Inn at Perry Cabin sits on a grassy riverbank off Route 33.

A bricked, tree-lined drive leads visitors to the resort’s main entrance. Once you arrive, you won’t have to leave until the getaway ends – and chances are you won’t want to. The inn has two restaurants and a pub; the spa; and a library with shelves of old books and oversized furniture overlooking the river. Daily, there are activities like bocce ball and croquet; Sherwood’s Landing, the main restaurant, offers cooking demonstrations; and there’s afternoon tea in the Morning Room.

Nearly every hallway and corner offers a pair of chairs to sink into; nearly every shelf is filled with some special antique – Depression glass fills one built-in glass cabinet on a stair landing; a console table holds a giant model of the Amerigo Vespucci, a full-rigged, three-masted Italian ship built in 1930. Light pours in from endless windows, and the five working fireplaces make cold weather forgettable.

 I spend my first evening here unwinding with a pile of magazines on the balcony off my room, intermittently reading and raising my eyes to take in still water and graceful sailboats. I’ll soon be meeting my best friend, Jessica, here on this brisk autumn weekend for our fourth annual girls’ getaway – and what turns out to be the best yet.

We order room service Saturday morning, something simple     since we plan to indulge later: coffee and orange juice, pastries and fruit served on china with sea-green edges. The juice is fresh-squeezed, the pastries flaky, the fruit ample. We watch boats slip by while we eat, watch the sun rise high over the Miles River, a postcard-perfect view that is hard to take our eyes off of. But we want to explore the grounds and gardens, which are pretty even when many trees are bare. There’s a centuries-old holly tree that serves as St. Michaels’ official Christmas tree, magnolias, boxwood and towering pines. For now the vegetable garden lies dormant, but when spring arrives, rosemary, basil, eggplant, green peppers, tomatoes and more will flourish – and find their way onto the plates of restaurant guests.

 We begin our walk on the inn’s vast front lawn, where a stand of weeping willows spills tangles of branches from giant crowns and a few uninterested bees flitter around the apiary. We cross over Linden Tree Lane, where there’s a croquet lawn, a bocce ball court and a greenhouse; from here, a tree-lined path winds along the riverbank. All is silent except for gravel crunching under our feet and a cheerful hello called out by an inn employee who wants to know how we are enjoying our stay so far. Guests lounge in Adirondack chairs that overlook the water, and one couple, still in pajamas, eat breakfast at a table just outside their room.

 We could spend the rest of the day here, take kayaks out on the river or grab bicycles from the inn’s fleet or sink into the big furniture in the library with an old book. But we wander downtown instead, just an easy stroll from the inn, where the shops with their artful storefronts sell everything from antiques, toys and Christmas decor to furniture, art and knickknacks. Calico Toys & Games fills two floors on Talbot Street and every corner and cranny is crammed full of kid stuff. A Wish Called Wanda specializes in unique gifts and crafts by local artists. Old furniture, stained glass and decoys fill White Swan Antiques. At Silver Linings, a jewelry store, I find a blue crab pendant made from gemstones.

 Downtown St. Michaels offers at least half a dozen places to eat, and we ultimately settle on Big Pickle Food Bar for its quirky name and reasonably priced, wide-ranging menu: Fried pickles and fried chicken, crab soup and crab cakes, corned beef and pit beef. For lunch I get the crab cake sandwich, which comes with German-style potato salad. Jessica gets the pit beef sandwich, and it is piled so high that she needs a fork to eat it.

 By the time we leave, it is midafternoon, and we head to the centrally located Maritime Museum to catch a cruise on the passenger boat Patriot, which has plied these waters for nearly 45 years. Passengers get a narrated history lesson on the hourlong ride, and there’s a bar on the climate-controlled lower level. Soon after the Patriot departs, the narration begins, and we learn that the Algonquin Indians were this area’s first residents, long before there was even a Chesapeake Bay. They had all but vanished at the start of the American Revolution, when their successors made their living on the water – shipping, fishing, boatbuilding. The town might have disappeared altogether the night of August 10, 1813, had the townsfolk not fooled the attacking British by hanging their lanterns high in the treetops outside town. Only one building was struck when the British flung cannonballs from their ships – and no one died. The British had aimed for the light, and overshot the town.

This town is full of stories – of pirates and oystermen and the Underground Railroad, and out on the Chesapeake Bay estuary, where sailboats perch on the horizon like seabirds, they are easy to envision. Before we head back, the Patriot captain gives riders turns steering the boat. Jessica and I both give it a try. But it reminds me of when my mom would ask me to take the wheel of the car while she tended to something else, and I am petrified. The good-natured captain never takes his eyes off the water, though, and helps me steer safely around a sailboat.

An hour before dinner at Sherwood’s Landing, we get a drink at Purser’s Pub, just down the hallway from the four-diamond restaurant. The bar serves cocktails, wine, beer and signature coffee drinks from midafternoon to midnight. A wide, wood-burning fireplace puts off just the right amount of heat at the back of the cozy pub and there are lots of oyster tin from Quinby, Virginia; and a yellow and black can from Pocomoke Sound Oyster Company that once held one pound of “fresh oysters.”

 According to the inn, oyster companies were responding with a marketing campaign to bad press that followed the death in 1902 of a man in Atlantic City from tainted oysters. The massive campaign, aimed to convince wary consumers that oysters were plenty safe, included selling them in hermetically sealed cans kept on ice. Mermaids, maidens, schooners and sloops decorated the tins. The places to sit: a pair of facing leather loveseats, tables for two, deep wingback chairs, all arranged on dark hardwood floors. There’s also a big-screen TV closer to the bar, but we choose ambiance near the hearth. Two couples are celebrating wedding anniversaries. One group of guests is in town for a women’s conference.

 We enjoy our drinks – white wine and red – in two of the comfy chairs with a table between us. Prints of ships hang on white-paneled walls, and built-in shelves flank the fireplace. The shelves hold one of the Inn at Perry Cabin’s most special collections: antique oyster tins in a rainbow of colors. There’s the Montauk Saltwater Oyster tin painted in pretty red letters; a blue and white Quinby Brand campaign lasted for decades.

 A second celebrated collection – oyster plates – is on display at Sherwood’s Landing, where we settle for dinner after leaving Purser’s Pub. The plates came into fashion when oysters reigned king in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the inn, and the delicacy was at its best “in their most natural form” – on the halfshell. But melting ice made a mess. Oyster plates remedied that and other issues. The porcelain plates set inside a curio at Sherwood’s Landing have gilded edges, dainty flower patterns and pretty scrollwork. Some are more elaborate than others; one is painted in soft shades of pink and trimmed in gold.

Soon after we are seated, we are offered a bread basket with the standard rolls and croissants – and seven-layer herb and cheddar muffins baked by Gustina Harmon. Miss Gussie, as she is affectionately called, has made these muffins here for the past 20 years. She is also responsible for the perfectly baked chocolate chip cookies we will find in our room later tonight, for the cornbread that comes with the oyster stew and for the baked goods served at tea time each afternoon in the Morning Room – tea breads, scones, cookies and pastries. The muffins are fluffy on the inside and packed full of flavor, thanks to Miss Gussie’s painstaking layering. When the bread basket comes around again, I will myself to say no thank you.

Sherwood’s Landing partners with local farms and watermen, and the menu indicates exactly where many of the selections came from: Jameson Farms rack of lamb, Brandt Farm beef tenderloin, and a beet and goat cheese salad featuring Everrona Farm goat cheese and arugula from the resort’s garden. If you can’t decide – and I almost can’t – there’s a chef tasting menu that lets you get a little bit of a lot.

I at last settle on farm-raised chicken and crepes with fried kale, and cheddar and bacon crepes in a mushroom maple broth. Jessica starts with oyster stew and the beet and goat cheese salad, and finishes up with sauteed sea scallops. Afterward, we choose a dessert called essences of strawberry shortcake: strawberry sorbet with vanilla sponge cake and Chantilly cream.

We’ll have to save Miss Gussie’s cookies for later.

Sunday is a day of leisure. We rise just early enough to amble over to Linden Spa, where you can take a yoga class, hop on an elliptical or meet with a certified personal trainer who will develop a fitness plan tailored for you. Or you can just get pampered. This is what we are here for.

Linden Spa offers more than a dozen facial and body treatments with names like Five Flower Solace, Body Dessert and Back to Vibrancy. We want massages. Within minutes of our arrival, we’re handed slippers and robes and sent to the relaxation room that overlooks a garden. We help ourselves to cucumber water, nuts and granola, and berries, then settle into reclining chairs until a pair of massage therapists retrieve us.

An hour later, the lingering tightness in my shoul-ders has vanished. There is time for one final meal here before checkout: a late breakfast on the patio. The canine-friendly Inn at Perry Cabin is hosting a dog show on the grounds later today, and people wander along the gleaming river with their pets. Deciding on a selection this morning is as challenging as dinner the night before. For me, it’s a toss-up between the bananas Foster waffle with bourbon maple caramel, bananas and pecans, and the French toast with Grand Marnier chantilly. I order the latter. Jessica gets the Perry Cabin benedict with jumbo lump crab, hollandaise, Virginia ham and grilled asparagus. It is, as with everything else here, delectable.

We sit in the sun as long as we can, watching the water and the time, steeling ourselves for a return to reality – made a little easier with Miss Gussie’s cookies.

Life on the Water – Intro

photography by Keith Lanpher

Water is the driver of nature. Leonardo da Vinci uncovered this truth in 15th century Italy, and we live it here and now. We are surrounded by it; it compels us – to explore it, to sail it, to lose ourselves in the middle of it, to delight in its bounty. And so, we at Distinction celebrate it.

Here we introduce you to Old Dominion University’s sailing team, with its urban scrap and wild success. We take you inside a lighthouse that doubles as the ultimate party pad, and show you a man who is, piece by piece, building his own sailboat. And we take you to a few local fishmongers who deal daily in fresh food
from the sea.
Dip in.

Life on the Water – Maiden Voyage

 Building a wooden sailboat: A husband’s testament to love.

by Caroline Luzzatto
photography by Keith Lanpher

Hunter Gall’s baby is upside down, a shimmering blue with a slightly bumpy surface where it still needs sanding and scribble marks where it’s a bit too thin. It’s an object of love, frustration and fascination. When he lies on his back on the workroom floor and looks up into the bow, where the wooden ribs come together, he has trouble finding the words for what he sees. “For me,” he says, “it’s almost like a church steeple.”

It’s an early June day, and he is working to finish the hull of Scallywag, the 15-foot wooden sailboat he’s been building in his spare time for more than a year. Soon he’ll flip it over and begin the next stage of work.

For Gall, 43, who has found his way from Australia to Virginia Beach and from race-car engineering to computer-modeling medical equipment, this project has been an experiment and an adventure. “You grow a relationship with the boat – you become at one with it,” he says. Once the boat is done and he can actually step aboard, it will be a pivotal moment – and the end of the process. “That’s bittersweet. Because (then) it’s just a boat.”

 Scallywag was born out of a romance not so much with the sea but with a woman – his wife, Katherine GronesGall, “Chic” to everyone but her husband and mother. On a vacation, Gall realized that his bride-to-be loved boats, and the water, and the beauty of carefully worked wood. That love inspired him to design and build a wooden boat that they could
enjoy together.

“You look for connective tissue as a couple,” he says. A boat was something they could both love, and he would make it himself so it would be just right. “I’ve built everything that meant anything to me with my hands,” he says. “… I wanted a boat I built myself. I wanted it to be my baby.”

Scallywag – scamp or scoundrel – was Gall’s nickname from his grandfather, and then his own nickname for his wife. It was only natural the term of endearment would end up veneered on the side of the boat, too. But naming that boat has been the only easy part of this plan.

Gall started off ambitious – and a little scattered. He wanted to do it all himself, to learn enough to become a naval architect, but he couldn’t navigate the ocean of possibilities that presented. “I was lost for five years, floundering.” Then a friend called to offer him a 50-year-old, 20-foot spruce mast that needed a new home because its owner was moving into a retirement community. Gall decided to use it – and the limits the mast set on the size and design of the boat gave him new focus. “Being given that mast kind of tempered my hysteria,” he says.

Instead of creating his own design, he decided to use one by Dudley Dix – a 15-foot wooden sailboat, the Didi Sport 15 – and he’d be building the prototype, the first amateur build-out of the new design. “It’s nice to be building the prototype; it’s a real privilege,” Gall says. He admits, though, that he won’t be able to resist doing a little customizing.

“I’d like to interject here that Hunter never follows directions,” his wife says, laughing.

“I’ve learned to think for myself,” Gall replies, grinning.

That doesn’t mean he’s going it alone. Gall gives credit first to his wife, who has been his cheerleader and partner.

She calls herself a “boat widow” but shows off photos of the work in progress. She jokes about the time he bought her a portable boat toilet as a gift; she dons a pirate’s eye patch as a joke when she’s talking about the boat-building process. “Beautiful,” she sighs, talking about the delicately aligned wooden panels and the dye that gives the wood a stained-glass glow without hiding its swirling grain.

“Katherine called it my mistress,” Gall says. “It’s a funny relationship – she’s so involved in the boat, but it takes a lot of time. She does miss me.”

Then there’s Terry Moore, the co-worker and friend in whose workshop near Elizabeth City Gall is building his boat. Gall, who calls Moore his big brother, says, “Terry has a way of keeping me sorted when I’m in a quandary.” Like Gall, Moore is perpetually making things – right now he’s working on the second floor of his house and building the furniture to go in it – and is in and out of the workshop. He offers Gall tools, advice and – when needed – his eyes.

Gall is red-green colorblind, and when he needed help gauging how well the blue dye he used was penetrating the wooden hull of his boat, Moore was there. Side by side, Gall and Moore sprayed dye and looked for light and dark patches. The job done, Moore returned to his house.

When he did, his wife noticed a smudge of blue on his nose. Moore wiped it off. Then she looked more closely, and sent him to the mirror. Moore’s entire beard had taken on a blue tinge. He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. Also blue.

He returned to the workshop and took a closer look at Gall, still working on the boat, his nostrils and beard a surreal blue. “You’ve gotta go look in the mirror,” he told him. They still laugh about it.

There’s also the boat’s designer. “I would say Dudley is my mentor and Terry is my foreman,” Gall says.

Dix, originally from South Africa and now based in Virginia Beach, built his first boat in 1975 using plans from a Dutch designer. The 36-footer took him nearly three years to finish and eventually launched him into a career as a boat designer. Now he creates plans and kits for amateurs in addition to creating designs for professionals. He has boats being built in 87 countries, he says, even one in Siberia, to sail on Lake Baikal. He rarely gets to see the results in person: “They buy the plans over the Internet and I never meet them.”

Gall is one of the exceptions, though, since he’s working right here. “He is a first-time builder and he’s doing a very nice job of it,” Dix says. “At the end, he’ll have a boat he can be proud of.” But, he adds, “I would have built it in probably half the time.”

Gall can’t argue with that. By early June, more than 13 months into the project, he’d put in 500 hours of work on the boat itself – not including the computer renderings he had worked on just for fun. “We’ve had several deadlines, but they’ve kind of melted away,” he says. “I like to take my time. There’s a lot of contemplation for me.” He has labored over the details – making sure the wood grain lined up in the panels of the hull, keeping the alignment of the double-curved pieces true, tearing apart anything he’s done wrong so he can go back and do it right. Computer-assisted design doesn’t begin to capture the real sweat and tears of the project. Computer modeling “is what I do for a living. It’s a walk in the park. Building it is another thing.”

One way or another, Gall has been building since he was a teenager.

He grew up on a farm in New South Wales, Australia, part of a family he calls “very free-spirited,” and left home at 15. “Times were tough,” he says. “There was a drought on.”

He began an apprenticeship in metal machining, welding and fabrication and studied mechanical engineering in night school. One thing led to another. He detoured into racecar engineering, building and tuning specialty cars, dreaming of building the best car he could and racing it at LeMans. But the dream faded. After 10 years, frustrated and feeling adrift, he switched gears, turning to industrial design, model-making and prototyping. In the interim he began volunteering at a hospital with children who had HIV/AIDS. He even ended up studying clowning, which helped him reconnect with something buried during his years of work. “That reminded me of being a child,” he says. “I found a part of me that I’d forgotten. I loved being a clown.”

It wasn’t something he could see himself doing for a living – it’s emotionally taxing, he says – but he held on to that playful spirit and looked for other ways to express it. He also continued his work in industrial design, becoming a university instructor, but took another turn into building phantoms – materials that mimic human tissue in great detail. They are often used for determining what radiation dose a tumor would get or for training medical professionals to use imaging machines. That led him to the U.S., first to the West Coast, then to Norfolk, where he works for CIRS Incorporated. Among his projects: a phantom of a human head, complete with sinus cavities, trachea, an “average brain,” teeth with dentin and enamel, spinal cord and vertebral discs.

It also led him to his future wife. When he came to Hampton Roads to work for CIRS, he found a home in Virginia Beach, and met Katherine when Hurricane Isabel knocked out the lights in their neighborhood. They began fashioning a life together as a couple, marrying four years ago. Even the name the two plan to share is carefully crafted: She uses the last name GronesGall, a conjunction of their last names, and he plans to adopt it once his citizenship paperwork is done, in a little over two years.

That, like his boat, can’t be rushed. He’s enjoying all these experiences – work, marriage, the boat – and trying to make all the details right. As Dix puts it, when you build something like this, “you are creating something that wouldn’t have existed without you. You become part of the boat’s character and it becomes part of you.”

Gall dreams that one day there will be an entire fleet of the lively little sailboats, a sailing club for young people, a chance to mentor other boat enthusiasts – but first, there’s work to do on Scallywag. Thin spots will be reinforced, a skid plate will be added at the bottom, a veneer pinstripe will be fashioned and it will be sanded, sanded, sanded. Once the deck goes on – dyed red and then clear-coated, so the wood grain will still show – much of his interior work will be hidden, and no one will be able to see whether he’s gotten it right. Still, he’s careful and methodical. “I’ll know the difference,” he says.

 “People at work call me a perfectionist,” Gall adds. He hates the term. “It’s almost an insult. That doesn’t sit well with me. The best I can do – that’s all it is.”

Then he takes one more look around the workshop, where pop music is playing on the radio, tools line the walls, faint blue dogprints wander around the edge of the floor, “redneck wind chimes” made from beer cans hang in a corner – and returns to patiently sanding the hull. He grinds the latest layer of finish down another fraction of a millimeter closer to – well, maybe not perfection, but something in the neighborhood.

Life on the Water – Fish Mongers

Hampton Roads seafood lovers, living this close to the ocean, cannot help but pine for the culinary bounty it provides. These local seafood markets, specializing in catch that comes right out of local waters, aim to satisfy that appetite. 

by Carolyn Shapiro
photography by Keith Lanpher 

Dockside Seafood Market

Dockside Seafood Market, attached to Dockside Restaurant at 3311 Shore Drive and Vista Circle near Lynnhaven Inlet in Virginia Beach, specializes in domestic sources and mostly local catch. Its case of fresh fillets typically holds options such as flounder, striped bass (rockfish), mahi mahi, tilefish and tuna caught between North Carolina and Maryland, with scallops from New England and shrimp from the Carolinas or Gulf. Along the side wall are bluefish, croaker, speckled trout and other Virginia swimmers in whole form, buried in ice and available for Dockside staff to clean upon request. The market also carries an impressive wine selection, seasonings, groceries and a few Hampton Roads-made gourmet goods such as Rowena’s sauces and Lenora Belle cookies. Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. 757.481.4545.

 

Hampton Seafood Market

At Hampton Seafood Market, the focus is on crabs and crabmeat. It’s the sister operation of Graham & Rollins Incorporated, one of the last remaining crab-picking houses in Hampton Roads, on the Hampton waterfront. The seafood market, just outside downtown at 509 Bassette Street, sells female and male whole crabs live or steamed. Top-selling fish are croaker and spot, the area’s quintessential local catch, among typical consumer favorites such as swordfish, mahi mahi, tuna, salmon and shrimp – some of it caught locally. Whiting and trout come frozen from wholesale food distributors. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays. Hampton Seafood Market also operates a full-service restaurant, which opens at 11 a.m., with a traditional family-style seafood menu. 757.722.8168.

 

The Shellfish Company

Most of the seafood sold at The Shellfish Company has left the water within the previous 24 hours – much of it on boats the company owns through its affiliate, Lynnhaven Fishing Company. They bring in flounder, tilefish, striped bass (rockfish) and mahi mahi caught in nets and blue crabs for sale whole or picked. The owners know long-line fishermen who deliver sushi grade tuna. Clams come from the Eastern Shore and oysters from the James River. Whole fish – Spanish mackerel, butterfish, mullet and croaker – are arrayed on ice, open-air style on the deck in back. The sister shop next door to Bubba’s Seafood Restaurant & Crabhouse, at 3323 Shore Drive in Virginia Beach, also sells craft beers from breweries in Hampton Roads and as far as Hawaii, and “take and bake” prepared dishes such as clams casino, oysters Rockefeller and crab cakes. It is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily in the summer and closes at 7 p.m. starting in October. 757.481.7512.

 

Spots Fish Company

Tucked and hard to find behind a restaurant at Long Bay Pointe Marina, 2105 West Great Neck Road in Virginia Beach, Spots Fish Company sells local catch – and only local catch. Species such as croaker, spot, flounder, bluefish, trout, butterfish, striped bass (rockfish), spadefish, softshell crabs and cobia in the summertime arrive on boats that pull up right at Spots’ dock. Some fish travels by truck from the Eastern Shore, where watermen have caught it usually the same day. Most of Spots’ business is wholesale, packaging large quantities of seafood for shipment as far as the West Coast and even overseas. Retail customers can buy smaller portions, a pound or two or 10 at a time. Those buyers can’t mind cleaning their own fish, though. Spots only sells it whole – at a fraction of the price of fillets. Spots is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (and sometimes as late as 5 p.m.) Mondays through Saturdays. 757.481.1585.

 

Welton’s Seafood

Welton’s Seafood sells tuna caught off the North Carolina coast, striped bass (rockfish) from local watermen, and scallops from boats that dock on the Hampton waterfront and pack them dry – without preservatives, the only way Welton’s will offer them. The fish in Welton’s case typically are caught a day or two earlier, processed and delivered by a wholesaler, though the shop’s staff will clean local catch such as striped bass themselves. About 10 percent of Welton’s product, including lobster and salmon, is not local. Shrimp comes from the Carolinas or the Gulf region. Welton’s has only one store, at 940 Laskin Road in Virginia Beach, since a Norfolk location of the same name was bought out by its manager a year ago. Welton’s also sells homemade pies, chicken and potato salads, collard greens and fresh corn; it’s open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. 757.428.6740.

 

Life on the Water – Lighthouse

At the mouth of the James, a family and friends take history back from the seagulls.

by Roberta T. Vowell
photography by Keith Lanpher

Bob Gonsoulin is the happiest guy in the world right now.

His 21-foot fishing boat is flitting across the water on a clear summer afternoon. As he leaves dock in Hampton, he looks to his left, viewing the snarl of traffic on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. His sturdy boat settles into a steady pace. Ten minutes later, he glances over his right shoulder, checking out the matching backup on the Monitor-Merrimac.

Gonsoulin’s blue eyes sparkle against his deep-water tan. “There’s a little dot, right in front of us,” he says, pointing at miles of glassy blue water. “That’s where we’re going.”

His face relaxes into a broad grin. The happiest guy in the world is becoming even happier. “Going to the lighthouse,” he says.

Gonsoulin and his wife, Joan – and her sister Jackie and husband Dan Billingsley, who live up the coast in Annapolis – bought the lighthouse at auction from the federal government in 2005. It was a steal at $31,000. It was also a catastrophe; the last lighthouse keeper moved out in 1955 when the light was automated. The sea birds moved in. Gulls are lousy tenants. Every surface was covered with gull goo. Under that there was a layer of rust, and under that was a layer of rot.

Family, extended family, friends of the kids, friends of friends have come to the lighthouse. They’ve shoveled, scraped, painted and sanded. The light is at the mouth of the James River, and currents are crazy, shifting with the wind. There’s a ship-snaring shoal lurking underneath, which is why the Middle Ground Lighthouse was built in 1891, to warn away sailors.

“This right here is where the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac was,” Gonsoulin shouts over his roaring 150-horsepower Yamaha outboard. “One of the boats ran aground on the shoals to keep from sinking.”

He pauses, grins again. “I really oughta look up which one.”

But that can wait, because before us is the lighthouse. From the perspective of a commuter on the Monitor-Merrimac, it looks like a pudgy toy that a gigantic, petulant child has left squatting in the water. Coming upon it in a boat, it grows and grows until it is revealed as a massive metal structure looming over the boats, barnhouse red, ringed by black cast-iron railings and studded with white-rimmed windows.

The Gonsoulins originally planned to use the lighthouse as-is, as a camping spot for his children’s Sea Scouts troop (they’re a co-ed, teen branch of Boy Scouts). “We were just gonna put a Porta-Potty here, sweep the place out, pitch a tent in it and say, ‘We have a lighthouse,’ and that would be that.”

The “girls” – sisters Joan and Jackie – had other ideas, he says. “They wanted to make it nice.”

“Nice” proved to be an enormous amount of work. It helped that Bob and Joan Gonsoulin’s four children are all engineers, and Jackie and Dan Billingsley are engineers. Those “let’s-see-how-that-works” students had friends of a similar mindset, and their buddies came to help for a weekend, a spring break, part of a summer.

The pay for a day’s work is intangible, and unforgettable. A leap from grimy chores into cool water below, fish snatched from river to grill, sunrises, sunsets and fireworks from the best seat in the house.

Bob and son Brad – a 32-year-old computer systems engineer who lives and works in Hampton – dock the boat at a tiny wooden landing under a staircase. A knotted rope dangles; if wind and waves are hairy, you’ll grab it and swing across to the ladder. It’s a little adventure, just enough uncertainty to speed up the heart.

But once inside, oh, this lighthouse is civilized. It’s easiest to imagine by picturing yourself inside a wedding cake. The rooms are circular, stacked one atop another with spiral stairways and iron ladders inside. The rooms become smaller as you climb, ending with the room housing the light itself, which is just big enough for a bride and groom.

There’s a cellar that contains the freshwater cistern – rainwater streams in through a gutter system, and settles in the 2,400-gallon tank, clear as glass – and electrical stuff and tools and water toys, including inflatable tubes that tether to the lighthouse and drift with the currents, an activity that can take up an amazing amount of a summer day.

The main floor is the kitchen. Whitewashed walls painted with Jackie Billingsley’s charming folk art-style mural of a harbor scape. A semicircular table and bench hug half the wall in the round room; Joan and Jackie’s father, Eddie Prokop, crafted the set starting with filthy blackened wood ripped off lighthouse walls, which under his touch was revealed to be gleaming bald cypress. All the kitchen machines are lined up – stove, sink, fridge and microwave. A fish-shaped chalkboard offers a message, “Thought for Today: It’s all Bob’s fault.”

“Wrote that last time we were here,” he responds cheerfully.

There’s running water, pumped up from that cistern, and a shower and marine toilet and even central air conditioning. That AC came at a heavy price – 600 pounds, hauled up with an electric hoist, then man- (and woman-) handled around the curved outside deck and into the kitchen. Most everything in the house is hauled up that way, including bed, fridge and food.

A staircase runs in a spiral up a wall of exposed brick, leading to the bedroom. This room is brick, too, with a country-style bed of brass and weathered white paint. Again, the decorating is simple: paintings of local lighthouses given to the family.

Up again, another spiral staircase to the Porthole Room. Funny thing: The room didn’t have portholes, just tiny windows. When the family couldn’t find replacement windows in the odd square shape, they found brass portholes on eBay, and Jackie’s father created framing for them.

The room is kind of perfect. The nautical feel of the portholes is matched by a semicircular stretch of couches and giant hassocks in brilliant turquoise, totally island against the white walls. A short row of large starfish hang on one wall, a mermaid is painted on another, and the rest of the decoration is sky and water from the portholes.

Joan and Jackie made the curving couch, right there in the Porthole Room. Jackie and her son-in-law built the wooden frame, and Joan crafted the cushions. Under the couch seats are bins of bedding, and the whole room is considered sleeping space. The seating faces a flat-screen TV – excellent local reception – that is seldom used. Because the best part of the lighthouse is the three metal decks circling outside, offering a 365-degree vista, places to fish, to jump into the river, to read, or just to daydream. In fact, the family lives mostly on the decks. “It’s not so great in winter,” Brad Gonsoulin says. “All the fun is outside.”

 Joan Gonsoulin pulls open portholes and cool air rushes in. She is 60, a dental hygienist who likes order.

“What you have to know about me,” she says, “is that I get seasick. I’m a person who doesn’t like to get dirty. I used to be scared of heights.”

The lighthouse changed all that.

“The first time I was here,” she says, “I crawled from the hatch to the front door. I got over it when they had me hanging over the roof, 50 feet above water, putting in rivets.”

Bob estimates they’ve spent $200,000 in materials on the vacation home. It’s double what he expected.

But for $231,000, they have a hangout that will withstand a hurricane, or a hundred hurricanes. “It’s made it through storms for over 100 years,” he says. “That includes big stuff, like the Hurricane of ’33, the Ash Wednesday storm, and Isabel.”

Jackie and her son and friends rode out one hurricane in the cozy confines of metal and brick. “They said it was boring,” Joan says. “On deck, they’d get blown away, but inside, they couldn’t even hear the wind.”

Not even a little shaking; the lighthouse stands firm. It’s a little disconcerting, at first, to be surrounded by sea but not dipping like a boat. “Some people,” Joan says, “wear their lifejackets the first 20 or 30 minutes they’re here.”

The couple lives in Williamsburg, where Bob, 63, works for the state health department. He grew up on the water, though, on Willoughby Spit. His father died when he was young, his mother was absent, and he was brought up by grandparents.

“I grew up without much of a family,” he says.

So he created one of his own – three daughters, one son – and embraced his wife’s extensive clan of brothers and sisters and children. His father-in-law, Eddie, became the dad he never had.

“When we first bought the lighthouse,” Bob says, “he was old, and he felt old. He was a World War II vet, and he’d been an engineer. His wife had just died and he was depressed. He’d pulled away from everyone, into a shell. But he had worked with wood all his life, and he couldn’t resist all this.

“Joan’s dad died last year, and the most rewarding thing about owning this lighthouse was to see him come back to the world, to see him throw himself into this.”

Prokop died at age 88. He hopped on and off the boat to the lighthouse up until age 87.

Like ships that pass in the night, hundreds of people have come aboard Middle Ground Lighthouse. Up another steel ladder is the Watch Room, where lighthouse keepers stood watch, clanging the fog bell in heavy weather. The Watch Room is a small circle, where only about three people fit comfortably, and it is made all the smaller by the lingering presence of guests, who sign the curving walls. It’s a ship’s log of parties, work details and weather:

“I am the Gonsoulin’s #1 fan!” Susan Hay, 1/15/10

“Feel the Love!! Memorial Day Weekend,” 2010, Susanna

“1st Hurricane Party Survivor” – Scott G, 9/6/2008

“Is it time 4 poker yet?” Kelsey, ‘06

“Had a great time chipping rust here…” Heather, 4/25/10

There is one more ladder to be tackled. It leads to the Lantern Room, which is still maintained by the Coast Guard. It’s all Plexiglas-enclosed, just the big red light and sky and sea.

“Storms come out of the blue,” Bob Gonsoulin says, leaning over the black-painted railing. “From glassy calm like this to rough, the weather can change in five minutes.”

He lets out a deep breath, his eyes taking in water and sky, stained a crayon box-full of colors by the setting sun.

“People think we’re crazy,” he says. “Then they come out here. There’s nothing like this.”

Life on the Water – ODU Sailing


ODU’s sailing team is a scrappy champ amid the Ivies.
by Mike Hixenbaugh
photography by Keith Lanpher

Heavy metal blares from the far end of the weight room. The physical effort of the 25 sweat-drenched college students working out this morning almost matches the song’s intensity. Iron dumbbells slam down against a rubber floor; steel weight bars clang into racks; heavy breathing and exhausted grunts complement the distorted guitar riffs, blast beat drumming and growling vocals pulsing from the speakers.

This is the Old Dominion University sailing team.

Perhaps you would have pictured pampered prep schoolers in white slacks and navy blue blazers. A gentle breeze ruffling a James Dean hairdo. Floating over gentle waves, coasting toward a dazzling sunset along a rocky cove – sailing line in one hand, martini in the other.

Picture instead a group of average-looking college students. They’ve got backpacks stuffed with running shorts, protein bars and overpriced textbooks. Cue a Rocky Balboa-style montage. These kids are up before sunrise and pumping iron. Cut. Now they’re running for miles along gritty inner-city streets, past rundown college apartments and boarded-up houses. Cut. Now they’re sailing through light rain, unpredictable wind gusts and choppy waters. Cut. Now they’re downing energy drinks and writing research papers at 3 in the morning.

This is collegiate sailing.

The gentleman’s sport born some 150 years ago in the halls of privileged British yacht clubs  is no longer reserved strictly for the well-to-do. And nowhere is this more apparent than at ODU.

This public university fields a perennial powerhouse in a sport founded and dominated by the Ivy Leagues. Like other collegiate sports, a handful of programs are mainstays at the top of the national sailing rankings. Among them are Yale, Stanford, Boston College, Dartmouth, Georgetown – and Old Dominion University.

The program has won 15 national championships since 1982 and has sent numerous athletes to the Olympics. It’s one of only two schools to have won a national championship in all six of the Intercollegiate Sailing Association’s single-handed and team disciplines. Harvard is the other.

After nearly three decades of success, ODU has quietly solidified its place among the elite of college sailing. But the Monarchs aren’t exactly blending in with the competition. Consider where they compete. When Stanford sailors host a meet, they often race with the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop. Yale races are held in a rocky cove in Branford, Connecticut. Imagine the view from the water during competitions overlooking historic Cambridge, Massachusetts. At ODU, sailors practice and compete in the shadow of towering port cranes, in view of massive cargo ships and alongside the Lamberts Point Coal Terminal.

This is sailing for the working class. This is an underdog sports team that has found surprising success against the odds. This is a team that defies convention, routinely shocks the experts and just wins, baby, wins. The program is perhaps the perfect symbol for a blue-collar port town that’s constantly fighting for respect among more elite coastal communities.

There’s just one problem.

Most locals don’t know it exists.

 

The ODU Sailing Center  is tucked away on the outskirts of campus along the banks of the Elizabeth River. Nothing about the humble brick building distinguishes it from others on campus. A stroll through its halls, however, reveals some of competitive sailing’s biggest names. They’re spelled out on dozens of framed awards hanging from the walls. Names like Debbie Capozzi and Sally Barkow and Charlie Ogletree and Anna Tunnicliffe – all former ODU sailors, all Olympians.

Tunnicliffe won a gold medal in Beijing four years ago and was favored to duplicate that feat in London this summer. She showed up at ODU a decade ago with a passion for sailing but little to indicate she would someday become the sport’s top-ranked female athlete. Better known for success on the track, she wasn’t a star recruit out of high school. She left Norfolk four years later – muscles toned and ripped after countless hours in the gym – and on course to dominate the sport at its highest level.

Give some of the credit for that transformation – and the program’s success overall – to head coach Mitch Brindley. He has guided the school to seven national championships since taking the helm of the program 17 years ago. He had a hand in two other championships as a sailor at ODU in the late 1980s and another as an assistant coach here. Brindley is highly regarded nationally for his ability to turn average recruits into world-class sailors.

Just ask Gary Jobson, the president of U.S. Sailing and the lead commentator for most televised sailing competitions. “I’ve been around the college scene a long time, and I can tell you, ODU is an elite sailing program,” Jobson says from his home in Annapolis. “A big factor is ODU has one of the best coaches in America. This guy Mitch Brindley is excellent. I’ve spent some time down there, and he helps the kids beyond the technical aspects of sailing. He helps them with life. He’s really like an older brother figure, and he’s a big part of the reason they’re at the top of the rankings year after year.”

Like the program he guides, Brindley is an unassuming leader.  He says there’s a more important factor than his leadership for the team’s surprising success. The best coach in the world, he says, wouldn’t be effective without the full backing of the university. In a sport that doesn’t allow athletic scholarships, quality facilities and equipment are a major driving force in drawing recruits. The sailing team received $320,000  from the university and outside donors in 2010, according to an independent website that tracks college sports budgets. Brindley confirmed that figure. Only three other programs – Yale, Stanford and the College of Charleston – reported receiving more funding that year. “We’ve had incredible support,” he says. “The university recognizes that we’re a waterfront campus, and we should have a commitment to sailing. It’s something that really distinguishes the school from other universities.”

In the 1970s, around the same time Norfolk leaders began investing in downtown projects to enliven the city’s once-industrial waterfront, ODU began searching for ways to embrace its own location along the Elizabeth. Sailing had been a popular club sport here since 1964 , but the team wasn’t taken seriously by the varsity programs it competed with. The university appointed a sailing committee in 1977. Later that year, sailing legend Gary Bodie was named the waterfront coordinator and sailing coach, and within four years the school had allocated money to build a sailing center and elevate sailing to a varsity sport. Bodie went on to coach the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team, but not before guiding the young program to its first national championship in 1982. The team was an established force in national competition within a few years.

You’d think the world of collegiate sailing would have taken notice by now. Yet ODU continues to surprise the experts. The team frequently performs better than expected at national competitions, often beating teams ranked higher in the official coaches’ poll. Maybe it’s because the program is based at a
run-of-the-mill state university competing among academic elites. Or maybe it’s because the program doesn’t usually land the top recruits. Whatever the reason, ODU is a perpetual underdog. Brindley doesn’t mind, he says. “I like flying under the radar.”

That’s something the team does well, even here
in Norfolk.

Being underestimated on the national stage is one thing. Being overlooked by locals is another. It seems most Norfolk residents don’t even realize ODU has a sailing team, let alone one of the best programs in the country. Brindley says he has bumped into tenured faculty who were surprised to learn the team existed. Others, he says, often confuse it with the school’s rowing team.

Perhaps that’s because sailing doesn’t rank in our culture’s sports hierarchy. There are no dramatic game-winning homeruns, no bone-crushing head-to-head collisions, no brain-rattling knockout punches. As far as spectator sports go, sailing appears pretty dull from shore. Even with Jobson calling the action during televised competitions with multiple camera angles on ESPN-U, it can be tough for the layman to follow the jargon. Is he tacking or jibbing? Is “jibbing” even a word? Now who’s that trimming the sails – the helmsman or the crew? What  IS trimming the sails?

Factor in the general public’s idea of sailing as a leisurely sport for the rich. Like most stereotypes, there’s a bit of truth in this one. For decades the sport was known primarily as “yachting” and was accessible only to those with the resources to own their own boat and the time to spend hours out on the water. The growth of community yachting clubs and an increasing number of sailing teams at public high schools has opened the sport to many more children. (Though you still won’t see many minorities or inner-city youths out on the water. “We’re working on that,” Brindley says.)

“We’ve worked hard to get away from that image as a rich man’s sport because it’s too much work and too physically demanding,” he says. “These kids work hard and don’t get a ton in return.”

Unlike the NCAA, the ICSA – collegiate sailing’s governing authority – doesn’t allow athletic scholarships. At ODU, that means most of the sailors carry student loan debt and work part-time jobs to help cover rent. “We’re typical college students,” says team skipper Dillon Paiva, a rising senior. “We nickel-and-dime everything. My freshman year, I sold my textbooks so I could pay for a parking ticket.”

This kid doesn’t eat his ramen noodles with a silver spoon. Neither, he says, do most of his teammates.

And if you think for a moment there’s anything relaxing about competitive sailing, consider the mental and physical endurance required to lean back over the edge of a boat for several seconds – feet locked under hiking straps, legs trembling – while adjusting sails, keeping tabs on competitors and studying ripples on the water and cloud movements and other environmental cues that indicate how the wind or current might shift in the final stretch of a race. Known commonly as a physical chess match on water, the sport requires awareness, agility and endurance.

A big reason ODU often outperforms private schools with deeper roots in the sport: It was among the first programs in the nation a decade ago to acknowledge the sport’s physical demands by requiring sailors to spend time in the gym. The team hits the weight room twice a week and works with the same strength coach as the football team.

It’s that focus on the physical side of sailing that has transformed Paiva from a scrawny, unrecruited high school senior into the team’s top performer. After graduating next spring, the Raleigh native  plans to launch an Olympic campaign with an eye on Rio in 2016. “I don’t just want to go,” he says. “I want to win a medal. I’ll bust my tail to do it.”

Today that means pushing himself to the limit in the gym. He’s moving in rhythm with the pounding heavy metal beat while doing crunches. He tosses a 25-pound medicine ball into the air with each sit-up. A teammate throws it back and counts the reps out loud. Having already finished a complete circuit of upper-body exercises, Paiva’s arms are rubber. His face strains and he shouts in agony each time he sits up and releases the ball.

Catch. Crunch. Toss. Catch. Crunch. Toss.

He continues on like this for a few more repetitions. After the final toss, he collapses onto his back in a puddle of his own sweat, red-faced, hands on his head, chest heaving. A minute later he’s sitting up again and ready to start another set. If not for his undersized 5-foot-8-inch frame, you might guess that Dillon Paiva is a member of the football team. Maybe you’d guess scrappy wrestler.

You’d be wrong.

At ODU, this is what a sailor looks like.

Charleston – A Taste Like No Other City

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by Jim Morrison
photography by Keith Lanpher

     It’s Friday night at the modestly named FIG (Food is Good) on Meeting Street at the edge of downtown Charleston and every table is buzzing –  and will be buzzing well into the night, with empty seats quickly yielding to new diners. Five girls raise their cocktails to toast one another near the center of the room. Along one wall, a couple debate wine choices from a deep and diverse list. Opposite them, three guys tell tales.

    When it opened nine years ago, FIG became part of the first wave of restaurants transforming Charleston into a foodie fantasyland. The city has more than three centuries of rich history and lovingly preserved architecture in a remarkable number of styles from Colonial to Victorian. English colonists, among the wealthiest of their time, laid out the young burg in a series of elegant boulevards and narrow side streets. Walking through downtown Charleston after dark with its sidewalk tables, mixture of art galleries and specialty shopping, old churches and trendy bars softly lit by gas lamps or incandescent lights is as close to strolling an old European city center as you’ll find this side of the pond.

     But food now rivals history and architecture as the city’s signature charm – and attraction to visitors.

    Four million people visit annually. Last fall, Conde Nast Traveler readers named Charleston the top U.S. travel destination. Outside magazine listed it as the fifth best place to live. The 2012 PGA Championship will be held in August just down the road on Kiawah Island. The Spoleto Festival, from May 25 to June 10, is one of the spring’s signature arts events.

     “It’s a very sophisticated city in an unpretentious way,” says Mike Lata, the chef/owner at FIG who won a James Beard Award in 2009 (one of three in recent years from a city of 105,000). “Our customers eat whatever we want to serve and drink whatever we want to pour them. They’re ordering five items off the menu and sharing every one of them. The common thread is they want to have a great experience.”

     My long weekend wandering through Charleston is punctuated by a Triple Crown of meals at three of the finest restaurants in town – indeed, three of the finest anywhere.

     In a way, the culinary culture is following the lead of the preservationists, who built a local economy based upon making Charleston a historical neverland. They took the best local natural resources – great architecture and an old city perfect for pedestrians – and highlighted them, telling their stories with enticing narratives. And they served it with a charm that’s somehow both Old World and Old South.

     About the time Lata and others began looking for quality local ingredients, a number of purveyors in the area began resurrecting heirloom varieties of ingredients like corn, tomatoes, pigs and even native oysters. It’s a foodie’s virtuous circle: The farms exist because of the chefs, the chefs prosper thanks to the farms.

     At FIG, the menu changes daily, offering the best from nearby waters and farms, a culinary high-wire act Lata has performed for more than a decade. When FIG features stone crabs, the woman who catches them calls daily to see how many pounds it needs. When it’s soft shell crab season, she delivers them as soon as they’ve shed in holding tanks nearby.

     The story of those local gems begins with the cocktail offerings – five pages of them – serving notice that you’re embarking on an adventure. I eye the mix-and-match Manhattan menu. My server, Samantha, a foodie who moved to town 20 years ago, suggests Basil Hayden’s bourbon with Dolin Rouge vermouth and Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters. I’ve been on Kentucky’s bourbon trail, and while Basil Hayden’s is nice, it’s not my first or second choice for sipping. I’m also unsure about the chocolate bitters, but I’ve learned to trust the locals while traveling on foreign soil. Smart move. The drink is as complex as advertised, intriguing, not cloying.

     My main dish is local grilled gray triggerfish, once treated as a bycatch by shrimpers, with sauce romesco, sauteed young greens and bagna cauda. The fish is succulent, highlighted by an incredibly silky, light sauce.

    The centerpiece of my meal is the appetizer, a coddled Sea Island farm egg with beech mushrooms braised in red wine and bacon, celeriac cream and parmesan crouton. It’s a deep treasure of flavors, the earthy mushrooms, the salty parmesan and the silky, creamy super-fresh egg with a yolk so sunny it should have its own Crayola color. The egg is laid on nearby Wadmalaw Island by chickens free to roam their pasture, feeding on grass and bugs.

     When I ask him about it later, Lata says the idea was to take a high-quality local ingredient and create a memorable dish. “We said what’s going to tug at the heartstrings of customers is when they have a surprise, when they have something and don’t know how it’s made and that elevates it, gives it a celebratory feel,” he says. “There’s harmony there. There’s intellectual value. There’s something they’ll remember.”

     There’s also passion, ambition and an attention to detail I find throughout Charleston, whether it’s at the restaurant table, in the bricks and mortar of one gracious mansion after another, or the telling – and selling – of the city’s considerable history.

Saturday morning, the light streams through the old hay loft at 21 East Battery, the bed and breakfast part of the 1825 Edmondston-Alston House. I’m staying in the carriage house at the rear. Charles Duell – whose family in 1838 purchased this house and Middleton Place, a plantation up the Ashley River – lives on the third floor of the mansion with his wife. The bottom floors are open to the public as a museum.

     Rather than break up the carriage house into rooms, he kept the original walls, adding only a staircase to replace the ladder to the second-floor loft. The result is an expansive space with brick walls in the second-floor sitting area and wood beams in the master bedroom. The first floor has a small kitchen and a living room with a grand piano. Breakfast this morning is a crustless spinach and cheese quiche and banana nut bread, both made by Julie Lucas, the caretaker.

     While Charleston’s Colonial wealth built treasures like this, Duell says the city’s poverty in the decades after the Civil War helped preserve them; there was no money to tear down old buildings for something newer and “better.”

     The lower peninsula that is downtown Charleston has a west side that is quietly residential and an east side that caters to visitors. 21 East Battery has the advantage of being just on the residential side so it’s quiet, but within easy walking distance of the shops, bars and restaurants.

     It’s an unseasonably warm morning as I walk north along East Bay. People are already out, enjoying brunch, browsing the galleries. Horse-drawn carriages, their drivers often standing to tell tales of this house or that church, saunter along the narrow street.

     I meet Joyce Aungst in Washington Square Park near the corner of Broad and Meeting streets. Aungst moved to Charleston a decade ago after 25 years living in San Francisco and is an unabashed ambassador. Seven years ago, she opened Charleston History Photo Tours.

     We stroll out of the park to the first vantage, the city’s “four corners of law” at Broad and Meeting, a term coined by Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in 1930 because the seats of local, state, federal and religious law were built here. On the southeast corner is Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church, constructed between 1752 and 1761. To the north is Charleston City Hall, built between 1800 and 1804; on the northwest corner is the Charleston County Courthouse, built in 1753; and on the southwest corner is the federal courthouse, where one of the cases that would become Brown vs. Board of Education – and the landmark Supreme Court desegregation ruling – originated.

     Aungst shows me an angle from the steps of City Hall using a palm tree and a street lamp in the foreground to frame the courthouse. Again and again, on our two-hour walk, she’ll show one angle after another, offering suggestions for composition.

     Around every corner, down every narrow thoroughfare, there’s another story. On Tradd Street, Aungst says there are 22 homes that were standing when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Down another street is the house of Dubose Heyward, who wrote a story fashioned after a local character named Porgy, a story George Gershwin set to music and turned into a play that endures nearly 80 years later. Down on The Battery, antebellum mansions line the water with distant views of Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began.

     After lunch at Fleet Landing, an old concrete Navy building on the Cooper River with great views, it’s a short walk to enter City Market, four blocks of low-slung brick buildings with dozens of vendors selling jewelry, photography, T-shirts, pottery, food and used vinyl. It’s a city-sanctioned, somewhat upscale, flea market.

     Dotted throughout are the makers and sellers of sweetgrass baskets, a Charleston tradition for three centuries. They’ve become symbolic of the Gullah, people with their own language and well-preserved customs, who first came to the area as slaves largely from West Africa. Before the cotton gin, South Carolina was rice country and the baskets served as tools in the fields as well as on the farm. Like so many folk art traditions, sweetgrass basket making nearly died out in the early 20th century before the demand from gift shops, museums and collectors revived interest. Now, the baskets sell for $25 to $1,800, depending upon their size and intricacy, to tourists and collectors.

     From the market, I head north on Meeting Street, spending the early afternoon browsing the Charleston Museum, founded in 1773. It has a nice combination of natural and cultural history including exhibits on the Civil War, the Revolution, the Lowcountry and a few prehistoric skeletons.

     Then it’s west to King Street and a change of pace. King is shopping central in Charleston. I start on the upper, northern, end where there’s a newly designated design district and funky offerings favored by the locals. East Bay is where most tourists congregate; Upper King is where locals go.  I pass the Butterfly Women’s Consignment Shop, the tempting Cupcake, and Blue Bicycle Books, an enticing store of used (and new) books. Lower on King, sidewalk traffic increases, as do the rents. Once known as the antique district, now it’s a mix of upscale national retailers including Urban Outfitters, Brooks Brothers and Nine West as well as a plethora of high-end local stores like Ben Silver, the longtime clothier, The Silver Vault, which has original jewelry and silverware, and the Rebekah Jacob Gallery, which features the landscape photographs of Michael Kenna.

     I spend the late afternoon on a shady bench in Battery Park at the base of King Street, an antidote to a day of consuming – food, history and shopping. But soon it’s back to the table because no one leaves Charleston hungry.

     The second jewel in my dining Triple Crown for the weekend is Circa 1886, in the former carriage house behind the Wentworth Mansion, an oasis in the middle of a residential neighborhood about a 25-minute walk from my lodging. The mansion was built in 1885 and the dining room is Old World with white tablecloths, dim lighting and booths along the wall. Every table is occupied by a couple; this is a special date destination. The ambience is more formal, less adventuresome, and so is the menu. The centerpiece of the three courses – between the satisfying smoked veal ton toro and the wondrous warm, melt-in-your mouth texture of the blueberry preserves soufflé – is the antelope loin. It arrives rare, as requested, and is sweet and tender with a bit of whipped brie and Burgundy braised vegetables.

     Afterward I meander down Market Street and into Mercato, an Italian-American restaurant that’s featuring a local jazz trio, who provide the soundtrack for a glass of Italian red. With a seat at the long bar, it’s tempting to stay until closing, but there’s another establishment that showcases Charleston’s ambitious passion for food and drink that I want to try.

     Back on bustling East Bay, I wander into the Gin Joint, a locals’ favorite that proves as promising as its name. The place, with a center long butcher block table and booths, is packed, but I get the last seat at the tiny bar. “Charleston is a drinking town with a history problem,” Joyce Aungst had told me during our morning tour.

     In seconds, it’s obvious the two guys behind the bar in vests and bowties are artists. They crack their own ice and fire up a blowtorch occasionally to make an array of cocktails with names like The Original New Orleans Fizz and Penicillin. My choice is the Connecticut Shade Manhattan, Woodford Reserve bourbon infused for 10 days with fresh shade-grown tobacco leaves to give the classic cocktail a deep, earthy taste. It’s the definition of a Saturday nightcap.

My last, laid-back day in Charleston follows the theme of the weekend – an exploration of the city’s natural resources. It starts with a brunch at Husk, the hottest ticket in town, named the best restaurant of 2011 by Bon Appetit. I show up just before the 10 a.m. opening and within 15 minutes, I have a table on the second floor of the restored 1893 Queen Anne house. Like FIG, the menu changes daily, showcasing the best local ingredients. Chef Sean Brock, a 2010 James Beard Award winner, has taken the concept further, declaring that only Southern ingredients will pass through the door. So the Bloody Mary features homemade mix, a slice of pickled okra and a shaving of ham that transforms it into a Bloody unlike any other.

     For the first course, it’s the local Capers Inlet blade oysters with crabapple mignonette, small briny oysters with just enough sweetness prove an inspired match with the crabapple. Then comes the South Carolina quail stuffed with cornbread and house-made sausage, johnnycakes, and two poached farm eggs with spicy Hollandaise. The quail is moist, the stuffing just salty enough, the egg yolks like soft pudding, and the sliver of Hollandaise a perfect, light condiment.

     With the attention to detail, the sense of history, and the showcasing of local gems from ambitious farmers and watermen, it is a meal not possible anywhere but Charleston. When I spoke with Mike Lata later, his explanation of what’s going on in town rang true: Charleston has a taste like no other city.

     In a city like New York, he says, there is an abundance of culinary technique and talent. “But they don’t have a palate in New York City,” he adds. “You go to California and there’s a palate there. You can taste it in the food, the cuisine. I think Charleston, now more than ever, has a palate. When you come to Charleston, you taste what the city has to offer.”

     In the afternoon, I head away from the bustle of The Battery and East Bay, and over the bridge to Folly Beach where I make a quick stop at the Taco Boy, a local favorite. The spiced ahi tuna taco on a flour tortilla with cilantro Dijon sauce and salsa is so good that I dive in for more, and the kimchi beef with Korean barbecue sauce, kimchi and sesame seeds may be even better.

     It’s the right amount of fuel for my two-hour sunset kayak paddle with Tripp Copeland of Charleston Outdoor Adventures a couple of miles down the road.

     Like his counterparts in town, Copeland is an enthusiast, reciting pieces of natural history about the grasses, the bottlenose dolphins that have learned to beach themselves to fish, the oyster beds, and the bevy of birds like the American Oystercatcher. It’s a more organic, raw Charleston, a counterpoint to the refined food, history and architecture of the past two days. The freshness of the marsh with its green and tan grass, the solitude of paddling one stroke after another, and the curtain call – a brilliant orange sunset over calm waters – ease me back to simpler times on the edge of an old city made new again.

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