Savannah, Georgia is known as “Hostess City of the South” and was named by TIME one of 100 “World’s Greatest Places on Earth.” To me, Savannah is New Orleans’ sweet little sister.
She, too, has iron Juliette balconies, French courtyards, gorgeous gardens, coastal cuisine, and pirate lore. But Savannah is old-school charm pulsing with new-school energy. Artists from over 100 countries attend Savannah College of Arts and Design because they’re inspired by the location and can choose from over 100 programs in creative careers.
When my niece, Emily Lancaster Salgado, became a freshman at SCAD, the area became one of our family’s favorite destinations. Savannah appeals to people of all ages. NashVegas may be the #1 Bachelorette Party Place in the country, but last year Emily and her bridesmaids (mostly Nashville natives) opted out of honky-tonks, flatbed trucks, Daisy Dukes, and cowgirl boots. Instead, they sipped craft cocktails in 1920s sequin dresses in Gatsby-worth Speakeasies, had Hemingway-sized moveable feasts, shivered under Spanish moss and magnolias on a ghost tour, and sunned on Tybee Island Beach. Below you’ll see some of the experiences mentioned in the post.
A working seaport since 1744 with the largest National Historic Landmark District in the country, Savannah is perfect for a walkabout.
Explore 22 town squares from Bay Street to Forsyth Park.
Stroll past Gothic, Greek Revival, and Georgian homes as church bells ring.
Or take a trolley tour or pedicab to hear pirate tales from locals.
We started listening to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — a true murder story set in Savannah —in the car. I hoped to finish before seeing the Mercer Williams House, but as is often the case when old friends reunite, we had too much catching up to do.
You know… some say Savannah is the most haunted city in the US.
Front steps and porches — many with classical design— are ubiquitous here. Some are so modest that I imagine Atticus Finch reading.to Scout in. a porch swing on one of them.
Pop in shops, or as Kate calls it, “have a snoop.”
In the Historic District, you’re allowed to carry an adult beverage in a plastic cup in one hand and munch on warm pralines like a kid from the other. There are also designer sweet shops. I LOVED Adam Turoni (below) where cases of chocolate are tucked into book shelves.
We nostalgic Baby Boomers chose The Thunderbird Inn located just around the corner from the Historic District and the Riverfront. We were transported to the 60s when we heard Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons followed by Simon and Garfunkel piped around the property, smelled fresh popcorn and donuts in the lobby, and found RC Colas and Moon Pies in our room.
On previous trips with family I’ve enjoyed other options: a seaside rental on Tybee and the iconic Marshall House on Broughton Street.
*Check Savannah hotel deals here. Note: I have had good experiences using Travel Zoo but haven’t used the site for Savannah, so, as always, do your research before booking.
Where to Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
Most important tip in this post: Reservation. Reservation. Reservation.
Once upon a time, booking a table wasn’t required, not even at The Pirate’s House or J. Christopher’s for brunch. This time not doing so meant Kate and I sat at the bar for every brunch and dinner we had in the city. Emily and Kate’s daughter had suggested The Grey— the hottest place in town for its food, drinks, and history. Formerly a segregated bus station, the restaurant is founded on inclusion. Sadly the hostess said tables in the main dining room had been booked 60 days in advance. They are open for dinner only on Wednesday-Saturday. On Sunday, they serve brunch and dinner.
We did snag a seat in their bar car (first come, first served) then thanked our lucky stars when one of the few tables along the windows opened. My Old Fashioned and Beef stew … her champagne cocktail and first piece of chess pie… Perfection.
We ate at Savannah Seafood Shack where the crab cakes were good, but the bar space was cramped and the oysters a bit small.
We really enjoyed Saturday Brunch at Common Restaurant, located on East Broughton Street across Marshall House, where I ate my weight in fat raw oysters. The last night we had dinner at Corleone’s followed by takeaway treats next door at Lulu’s Chocolate Bar, voted “Best Martinis” and “Best Desserts in Savannah” for the last 15 years. I saved my Banana Foster cheesecake for the next morning—an incentive to rise and shine before sunrise for the 8-hour trip back to Nashville. We did not have to wait for lunch at The Crab Shack On Tybee Island, a former fishing camp and must-do. Our secret? We arrived on Sunday when they opened.
Emily’s other suggestions for next time…
Jen and Friends for martinis
The Artillery for drinks
The Prohibition (Speakeasy beside Grey we wanted to do but it was booked)
Vic’s On the River for lunch or dinner (known for their she crab soup)
We found the monument below thanking the Freedom Fighters for defending Savannah. They were one of the few Black regiments that fought in the Revolutionary War. Next time I want to visit the First African Baptist Church, the oldest Black church in North America.
We saw the Tybee Lighthouse but next time I’d like to go scouting for Megladon teeth.
Your heart knows the way. Run in that Direction.–Rumi
Write what should not be forgotten.–Isabel Allende
Travel to have more to remember.–Cindy McCain
Do you need time away to jumpstart or finish a writing project? Do you have travel tales you need to tell?
Did you vow in 2020 pandemic lockdown that you would make travel a priority? Do you need to feel alive on new adventures… meet kindred spirits… fulfill new or old dreams?
Whether you’re a novice writer or pro honing your craft, on this retreat you’ll journal your journey with proven tools, inspiration, and a creative, supportive community in an exotic land. You’ll tell your best story and leave with the ultimate souvenir (remembrance). Your personal essay or memoir chapter will transport others and you back to Morocco (or whatever place you need to write about and never forget).
Though I’ve journeyed across 27 countries, nowhere like magical Morocco has provided me as much rest, adventure, creative energy, and beauty. While living there 2014-16, I fell in love with diverse landscapes, rich cultural experiences, and wonderful people. For me, the time was a life reset. If you follow this blog, you know that I returned to Marrakesh during the summer of 2018 and began planning this retreat. The pandemic placed it on hold as it did so many of our dreams. More than ever, I want to return and see the rest of the world because I’m not getting any younger and who knows what the future will bring.
I hope you’ll join me for opportunities your soul might need…
Journaling to the sound of courtyard fountains and on outdoor terraces of a private riad. Reading your work at a literary salon by the sea.
Truly, Morocco has been a creative hub for generations of artists, each meeting his or her respective Muse there. Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles… Josephine Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens … Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas. Here Laurence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones came to life. Teaching, writing, and wandering there, my life felt epic, too.
Join me in Morocco for some of my favorite local experiences from the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh to the African coast. Choose what your soul needs.
4 Workshop Sessions: Craft Study & Workshop with Feedback
Private Transportation to Essaouira, High Atlas Mountains, and Palmeraie
Mule trek and lunch in a Berber village
Luxury Resort for Lunch, Botanical Gardens, Pools, and a Camel Ride
Medina Guided Tour, Bargaining Assistance, Photo Walk, and Entrance to Bahia Palace and Ben Youssef
7 Breakfasts, 2 Lunches, 2 Dinners
*Does Not Include:
Travel Insurance (required)
3 Group Meals (order from menu): Rooftop Lunch in Medina, Dinners in a Former Pasha’s Palace and on a Rooftop by the Sea
Free time options and transfers (Suggestions: Amal Cooking Class, Lunch at Museum of Confluence, Hammam/Spa Day, Jardin Marjorelle, Lunch at other locations with gorgeous pools and gardens, volunteering if possible)
After the rush of the holidays, winter is a time to slow down, to get still, to sit by a fire in a quiet place where we can listen to longings and hear our hearts speak. For many of us, this requires getting away. We need a respite to reflect, recharge, reset. And if there’s been a stirring in our souls, if we’re seeking something different, a place to consider new possibilities. A place to ask, “What if?”
In mid-December, I drove into a town that had inspired the book I was reading. It looked like the set of a Hallmark Christmas movie and the community described sounded Hallmark-close and friendly, too. I couldn’t wait to meet the author who has created a one-of-a-kind experience. I did. After the weekend I drove out of town feeling rested and inspired to take on whatever the new year brings.
In a new year when we try to focus on the positive,she inspires us to see problems as possibilities, to create something for our souls and others, to remember what matters most, and to embrace our roots and spread our wings.
We met in Stanford, Kentucky where she lives on a farm with her husband, Jess. The novels of her May Hollow trilogy – Grounded, Guarded, and Granted– are based largely on life in this small town with a big heart. She and Jess are the creators of the Wilderness Road Hospitality Group that has built a stronger sense of community here. In Part 1 of the interview she explains how they went from milking goats to saving and renovating historic homes. How they built two restaurants, an Inn, and are building another. Angela talks about the importance of close community not only in Kentucky but in a Tuscan village, Montefollonico, where she and Jess have a home and are renovating rentals for retreats and vacations.
Like Annie and Jake in her trilogy, Angela and Jess have quite the love story. Their travel experiences are the stuff of fairytales, and they enjoy the best of all worlds with homes in Kentucky and Tuscany. What I love most is that while she was still a single woman who lived in Lexington with good friends and a job that provided amazing travel experiences, she felt a pull toward another life. She wanted to live on a farm. She knew that nature feeds her soul. She says she knew God was turning her in a new direction, but had no idea how she’d get there. God fulfilled the desires of her heart in ways she didn’t expect.
Lisa, our mutual friend who is also a writer and Italophile, introduced us by email because she though we had a lot in common. Angela and I both went to The University of Kentucky, lived in Lexington, and lived on farms. Our grandfathers were farmers. We grew up in small Kentucky towns. For her, it was Danville. For me, Hopkinsville. She strives to write about the “good, true, and beautiful” for a mainstream audience. No matter how much we love travel and exploring other countries, we recognize our native language — SouthernSpeak.
Angela’s books have been adapted to the stage for sold-out performances at the Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater. Their themes — navigating family, romantic love, purpose and passion, our need for community— are universal. Like Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town or Jan Karon’s Mitford series, her books are timeless.
We’re not super easy to get to. We’re an hour south of Lexington’s small airport but we think that’s part of the charm. When you come you’re going to pull away from everything. You can let your blood pressure drop, be fully present, and receive peace. –Angela Correll
I finished Grounded while I was on her stomping ground. Spending time with her characters felt like Old Home Week (a southern church tradition of my childhood that meant dinner on the ground or potluck in the fellowship hall). I recognized some of Annie’s grandmother in both of mine – one that fried country ham, then simmered it in water to make it tender every Christmas morning. Another who watched Billy Graham specials and tucked me in under quilts. I recognized generational struggles over the need for dishwashers, cable, and the internet. Over expressions like “You can’t expect a man to buy the cow if he is getting the milk for free.”
Her grandmother’s farmhouse with its creaking floors took me back to the homes in the country of 3 great-aunts. They, too, gathered eggs from ornery hens and didn’t lock their doors. Stripping tobacco, guns and gardens, Blue Willow China, Bluegills and the Farmers’ Almanac. “Widow Women,” “young folk,” “up North,” “down South”… all reminders of my childhood. The comfort food sent me back to Nashville on a mission to make break green beans, cook them with new potatoes, fry up some crappie, bake a chess pie, and chase it all with sweet tea.
Her reference to Genuine Risk, the 1980 Derby winner the year I married, took me back to Lexington when I lived on a horse farm. So did this description of Wildcat Mania.
The restaurant walls were covered with black and white pictures of local celebrities. Featured prominently were the University of Kentucky basketball and football coaches, and some of the players, both past and present. Even Hollywood stars like Ashley Judd, George Clooney and Johnny Depp were proudly featured Kentuckians. The fare was fine Angus steak, grass-finished and locally grown, served in an atmosphere of dark paneled walls and white table linens.
A romantic, I cried and was satisfied at the end of her first book, but I appreciate that the story didn’t stop there. She wrote a trilogy as if to ask, “What if … a fairytale ending of boy gets girl isn’t the end of the story? Aren’t relationships more complicated?”
Career struggles, abandonment issues, financial troubles, gossips, family secrets, depression… it’s all here. But there’s something about this place that is so familiar and comforting that I listen to the Audible versions as bedtime stories. Maybe because I spent a weekend in the world of the novel where people care for each other, stop and talk on the street, remembered my name. Maybe because in a world of troubles and negativity, I need to stay grateful and focused on the positive this year.
The Stanford Inn includes the cottages but in the works are additional lodging spaces including more hotel rooms (larger than the current Inn rooms) on Main Street.
If you need to finish an artistic project– book, painting, documentary–on your own or want the direction/support of a group, listen to Part 2 of the interview where Angela discusses her writing journey and options for retreats and creative community in Stanford and Italy.
*The post below was published in December of 2021 naming Fort Myers a 2022 Best Destination. As of this update published on October 16 2022, Fort Myers is rebuilding after the devastation of Hurricane Ian (see NPR photos below).
Do you have post-holiday letdown or New Year’s Eve dread? Do you feel deflated — like a Christmas yard decoration lying in a heap upon the ground?
There’s a way to flip your mood, stretch yourself like a starfish, and feel happy as a clam. Ok, cliches aside…
Even if you’re not a beach person, celebrating the new year on the southwest coast of the Sunshine State has many benefits. Booking a stay in Fort Myers, Florida, “The City of Palms,” is a really great plan.
If you’ve joined my two-year expedition down the southwestern coast of Florida, you know that I’ve fallen in love with this area of the state. Here I’ve found the white sand and clear aquamarine waters that I played in as a child on the Panhandle’s Emerald Coast. But I’ve also found educational, historical, and cultural treasures. I’ve felt welcome in a community that still marvels at manatees and dolphins and salutes sunsets with bagpipes, conch shells, and guitars.
If wellness is a goal for the new year, multiple studies have shown that merely planning travel gives our mood an instant boost. Amy Blankson, author of The Future of Happiness and authority on health and wellness in the digital era, explains in Psychology Today:
The anticipation and sense of hopefulness for better times can keep us motivated and excited for the delayed gratification of a getaway. This ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ often has a long-term mood-boosting effect and can help us relax as it puts us in the mind frame of a more soothing future.
And about that light…
Sunlight provides Vitamin D and releases higher levels of serotonin which lowers anxiety while elevating mood, focus, sleep, and immunity. (I can attest to the power of perpetually sunny skies. While living in Marrakesh, Morocco, I felt happier and had more energy year-round.)
Travel is also a way to reconnect with people we love as we create shared memories of precious moments. Solo travel provides opportunities to reconnect with ourselves and Creator as we discover (or remember) our passions and purpose. It can also push us to make new friends.
A getaway provides escape into a new world where we can try on another life, explore, learn. It provides not only adventure but also perspective. Miles create distance from our problems, sadness, or stress. We can rest, recover, rethink, and reset when we see the Big Picture. Sometimes this means rising above obstacles and changing our focus literally. I’ll never forget the beauty I saw and gratitude I felt looking down from a balcony on a Spanish hillside or out from ramparts on the African coast. Morocco taught me the gift of rooftops whether places to gather or to be alone. I started 2021 by looking down on the lights of Sarasota from a rooftop New Year’s Eve party at Art Ovation Hotel. I ended it by looking down on Fort Myers from Beacon, the appropriately named rooftop of the luxurious Luminary, another hotel in the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International. (No surprise that their 2022 Rooftop NYE Party quickly sold out, but you can still see fireworks and the Ball Drop at the New Year’s Eve Downtown Countdown. )
Finds in The Franklin Shops on Main Street, Fort Myers, reminded me that travel inspires us to…
Why Fort Myers?
If you like winters with sunny skies and 70 degree temperatures… a walkable downtown with eclectic shopping and dining outdoors on rooftops, by the river, or along a red-bricked Main Street… art galleries, live music, museums, theatre, symphony, opera, or ballet… Spanish Floridian, Art Deco, or Modern architecture… inspiring and beautiful places like the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, … then this is your place. Seriously, the downtown area is one of the prettiest I have seen.
Other Reasons to Choose Fort Myers for a Getaway
Approximately 20 miles from downtown Fort Myers are Fort Myers Beach located on Estero Island, Sanibel Island, and Captiva Island with world-famous shelling, wildlife preserves, and an “Old Florida” feel. And if you’re up for a vast adventure, The Everglades, an UNESCO World Heritage site, is only two hours away.
Fort Myers Beach Photo Courtesy of Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
Attractions for All Kinds of Travelers in All Seasons
In 2021, MSN, Travel & Leisure, HGTV, Fodor’s Travel, Fishing Booker, Country Living, U. S. News & World Report, Yahoo Life, Coastal Living named Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva as top getaways for many reasons, such as uncrowded family-friendly beaches and outdoor spaces, tropical beauty, charm, island living, wildlife, shelling, fishing spots, and other hidden treasures. And I can vouch for its allure for couple, family, friend, or solo getaways because I’ve experienced all of them there myself.
Located In the historic Downtown River District on the Caloosahatchee River, the AAA Four Diamond luxury property — the first in the area of the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International — first lit up the waterfront and city in late 2020. The hotel, decor, and restaurants are named for visionaries and innovators (such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford whose winter estates are within walking distance) who converted Fort Myers from a cattle town to a historical, cultural center. Today snowbirds, locals, and tourists flock to the 12th floor rooftop bar nightly to do what’s customary in these parts, watch legendary sundowns with a drink or meal. My room was perfect. I felt like Kate Winslet in The Holiday when she raised some fancy window shades with a remote, read in bed, and took a dip in the pool below. The shower/bathroom was the largest I’ve seen in a hotel suite and the branding throughout was very Gatsby.
Sincere thanks to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, Luminary Hotel, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, for your hospitality. You fed my mind, body, and soul with art, beauty, random roaming, and coral skies of hope.
Don’t know what gifts to buy for the holidays? Do you wish you could travel NOW?
My grandmother told us every year not to give her gifts. What she wanted was us at her table every Sunday for lunch. As a mom, I don’t want things from my adult children either. I want experiences with them. I’ll never forget the Christmas we spent together in London…the trip Taylor and I did to Captiva Island…the ride cross-country with Cole when he moved to Denver .
And if you’re looking for a way to bond beyond one experience on one day, I have more unique ideas… they are in this month’s newsletter along with suggestions for summer entertaining, travel planning, and other May fun.
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Disclosure: Thank you, VisitSarasota.com and partners, for the hospitality, education, and fun. Readers, as always, the opinions here are my own.
This last feature of a 3-part series celebrating Florida’s Cultural Coast pays tribute to Sarasota’s crown jewel, The Ringling. The 66-acre complex of world-class art and circus museums, an educational center, a glass pavilion, historic theater, arboretum, gardens, and palatial mansion is a place where lovers of all kinds can wander away from crowds. More a destination than an attraction, The Ringling alone is worth a trip to Sarasota County. It’s also a cultural center for local members and a dream venue for romance and weddings.
I took a three-hour private tour with Virginia Harshman, Ringling Public Relations Head, M.A. Harvard University in Museum Studies. She gave me a behind-the-scenes look, unlocking secret areas with keys, masterful storytelling, and passion for the property and the people who built it. I left wishing that I’d explored this hidden gem and national/global treasure a long time ago and looking forward to a future visit.
The Ringling is beautiful in any season. It’s not too late to plan the perfect Valentine’s, Spring Break, Remote School, or Summer Getaway.
Who loves The Ringling?
I Do! I Do! And if you’re one of these 10 Kinds of Lovers, you will, too…
1) Lovers of Love Stories & The 1920s American Dream
Even before I heard the love story of John and Mabel Ringling, American Royalty who owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, I fell in love at first sight with their home. Ca’ d’Zan transported me to my favorite era, the Roaring ‘20s, and two of my favorite places on earth. Its Moorish arches took me back to Morocco
and its overall design to Venice where I started another new year. Inspired by the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, the five-story Venetian Gothic Revival mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay.
The exterior’s stucco as well as many glass windows and bedrooms are pink hues. My favorite color, the breathtaking property, and John Ringling’s story reminded me of one of my favorite characters, Jay Gatsby, and his pink suit. John Ringling, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist, had humble beginnings and both tenaciously pursued The American Dream. I could imagine Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, called a “circus wagon,” parked in the driveway beside John Ringling’s Rolls-Royce, now on exhibit in the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.
Walking the grounds, I could imagine legendary ‘20s parties around Gatsby’s and on the Ringling terrace. John and Mabel frequently entertained celebrities, like Will Rogers who had his own guest room, movie directors, politicians, and actresses, such as Billie Burke, better known as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Jay was “The Great Gatsby”and “John was King of The Greatest Show on Earth.” Both built romantic palaces for the women they loved, but here the parallels end. Daisy rejected Jay and his new money. John and Mabel had similar values–maybe because she, too, came from a modest family. They were kindred spirits in their shared love for culture, art, and travel, as well as their desire to give back. Their legacy is now the State Art Museum of Florida administered by Florida State University.
Though Ca’ d’Zan means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect, it has been called John’s “love letter” to Mabel. They built it together, getting ideas as they traveled the world for twenty-five years buying art and new circus acts. She collected in an oilskin portfolio photos and sketches of architecture, gardens, and design. See the video below of my behind-the-scenes tour where I learned more about Mabel and why everyone at The Ringling adores her.
2) Lovers of Architecture and Design
In 1911, John and Mabel began spending winters in Sarasota on 20 acres of waterfront property they purchased. They continued buying real estate and at one time owned 25% of the town. In 1924 they hired architect Dwight James Baum to design and Owen Burns to build the 36,000 square-foot Mediterranean Revival of their dreams. In addition to the Doge’s Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grand Hotel d’Italie Bauer-Grünwald inspired the plans.
The roof was made of 16th century tiles John found in Barcelona and sent home in two cargo ships. The marble bayside terrace –now used for weddings, yoga classes, and other gatherings– was used by the Ringlings for entertaining. The orchestra played for guests from their yacht, Zalophus, beside Mabel’s gondola which bobbed in the bay. Their dining room table seated 22, and cocktails were served in style at parties and in John’s Man Cave.
Virginia gave me a look at the upper floors of the house which were closed due to Covid. I felt like I was a kid again–Nancy Drew on a snoop–when she showed me the secret Playroom. Overlooking Sarasota from the 82-foot tower is a moment I won’t forget. (See video below.)
3) Lovers of Art and History
After Ca’ d’Zan was completed, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the courtyard stands a cast bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David purchased from the Chiurrazi Foundry outside of Rome, Italy. It’s now the symbol of the City of Sarasota on Florida’s Cultural Coast.
Inside are collections of Classical and Modern Masters. In 1931, two years after the death of Mabel, John opened the museum to the public to promote “education and art appreciation, especially for our young people.” In 1936 he left it to the state of Florida upon his death. See the video above on the Rubens Gallery, the family crest John had designed, and Modern Art exhibits, such as the photography series, A Girl and Her Room . A world-class cultural center, The Ringling Art Museum was just awarded another grant–this one from the Andy Warhol Foundation.
It has been restored and moved into the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, designed by Yann Wemouth, architect for the Pyramide du Lovre, East Wing of the National Gallery in D.C. and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. See performing arts schedule here.
5) Lovers of Glass Art
Grouped by country of origin, works of art from the studio glass movement from the 1940s to the present are in the Glass Pavilion here.
Ok, I admit it. I’ve saved the best for near-last. One of my favorite movies as a child wasThe Greatest Show on Earth which I watched again this week while writing this piece. Director Cecil B. DeMille traveled with the circus for research and John North, John Ringling’s nephew, plays himself in the film as he tries to save the show in changing times. I loved seeing Sarasota where it was filmed–especially the parade down Main Street which included locals as extras. When it was made, there was no Walt Disney World; time under the Big Top was the premiere happy place for children. The movie was the highest grossing film of the year. Though some critics didn’t agree with it winning Best Picture, I’m with Stephen Spielberg, another fan. He said it was the first movie he ever saw and it inspired his film career. Since my mom’s generation, kids would say, “I’m goin’ run away and join the circus!” Swinging from a trapeze in sequins and feathers still looks pretty fun to me.
John was one of eight children of a German immigrant. Mabel grew up in a small farming community in a family of eight. John began in a small circus as a clown.
After making his fortune, he bought Saint Armand’s Key to develop it into a center for shopping, restaurants, and art. Though the Great Depression deferred his dream, it was fulfilled later by others. Today his statue overlooks Saint Armand’s Circle, a global destination. Here statues he donated to the city transport visitors to other cultural centers, like Rome and Athens. Other plans he had for Sarasota were thwarted by the times, such as a residence for a U.S. President and a Ritz-Carlton on Longboat Key. The statues today in The Ringing Art Museum Courtyard had been purchased for the hotel. One thing is for sure. He shared his love for mythology and was a muse and myth maker himself.
Disclosure:A big thank you to VisitSarasota for the gracious hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.
Please note: Decisions about traveling during the pandemic are important and personal. CDC guidelines are here. As I do when home, I take precautions, such as choosing restaurants and activities with outdoor seating/spaces, and on planes wearing a mask, sometimes with a shield. When planning a trip, check for the latest updates on what is open and closed in Sarasota County due to Covid-19 or weather conditions here.
In this series I’ll explain just a few reasons why Sarasota County has won so many awards. In 2020 Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice™ Awards ranked Siesta Beach #11 of the Top Beaches in the World and #1 Beach in the US. In 2020-21 Sarasota was named #1 Best Place to Retire and #16 Best Place to Live by US News and Report. In 2020 Southern Living ranked it #7 Best Beach Town for Retirement. In 2019 Conde Nast Traveler ranked it #2 for the Best Places to Retire and Rent.com named it the #1 Best City for Vegans in America.
I was swept away by Sarasota County on a quick trip there last summer when I saw its beauty and learned that it is Florida’s Cultural Coast.
I wanted to start 2021 in this sunny place for a brighter year. I especially looked forward to returning after quiet holidays when my family couldn’t gather as usual because Nashville was too cold for us to meet outdoors.
Snowbird friends nest in this area yearly. My sister and brother-in-law spent their honeymoon in Sarasota, and we hope to gather our adult children, cousins, and moms for a multi-generational reunion there one day. Since I was a child, Florida has been my Happy Place. My children loved it too. The Destin area is only 7 hours by car from Nashville so many families from here make it their go-to vacation spot. But over the last couple of years, I’ve been working my way down the west coast. Sarasota County truly offers the best of all worlds—the most beautiful beaches in the country, a welcoming community of locals focused on health and fitness, AND a big city art and culinary scene.
When planning a vacation, we can feel forced to choose between two types we love– exploring a new city or relaxing on a beach.The liberal arts instructor in me likes to nerd-out in artistic centers.
I’ve been moved by paintings in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome…
ballet in St. Petersburg and Bratislava… theater in New York and London…
Sarasota County also makes the ideal remote classroom. It’s why some parents working from home have moved their children’s virtual learning to Florida’s west coast. Here family bonds over all kinds of field trips–opportunities providing education and wellness for mind, body, and spirit.
Research shows that just planning a trip makes us happier. Even just a long weekend away can reduce stress. Sarasota is only a 2-hour flight from Nashville and much of the southeast. I flew Allegiant as I’ve done in the past and been very pleased. Last fall Allegiant added 8 new cities with flights to Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport. Other departures include Asheville, NC; Fairfax, VA; Louisville, KY; and Knoxville, TN.
Below is my 3-day itinerary of starting 2021 in Sarasota County. Please check out highlights in the video below.
The Pineapple Drop was cancelled but should be back to bring in 2022. Ubers were booked for the weekend. I had better luck scheduling ahead with Lyft. Other than wanting to stay longer…like a month…a year…I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
(Those I recorded in video removed masks for interviews only).
Art Ovation Hotel is located in downtown Sarasota, the heart of world-class culture and cuisine. Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Opera House , other venues and Main Street are steps away. The boutique hotel itself celebrates and inspires creativity with exhibits of contemporary artists throughout. I felt at home the minute I stepped out of the taxi when I heard salsa music playing throughout the lobby and Overture Bar where rotating art exhibits represent global cultures. Cuban art was in the spotlight while I was there– inspiring workshops, the menu, and the playlist.
Upon arrival I was given a guide inviting guests to ten events over the weekend including the New Year’s Eve party on the rooftop, tours led by cultural curators of art galleries throughout the property, live musical performances by Motown and jazz artists, and the weekly Vino Y Arte class where a local artist paints live, then teaches participants her/his techniques as they sip wine and create masterpieces of their own.
The hotel provides courtesy bikes and beach chairs. After the New Year’s Eve party I was tempted to grab a cabana poolside but instead took a bike to my yoga class, to lunch, and to check out the neighborhood.
The staff are consummate professionals. They were gracious and helpful with ordering a quick breakfast in the room, scheduling rides, and and providing insider tips on venues for Latin dance. My King Guest Room was on the 6th floor with a view of the city lights. In addition to luxurious bedding, walk-in shower, and bath products, in each room is a ukulele for find your musician within. Their commitment to inspiring creativity extends to all ages, even after you’ve returned home.
Since taking a quick spin around St. Armands Circle last summer, I was on a mission to eat at this award-winning institution. Being there on NYE was a real treat. Columbia’s, founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., has additional locations in Tampa, St. Augustine, and Clearwater. It has been owned and operated by 5 generations and is known as Florida’s oldest restaurant, the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, and was named one of the most historic restaurants in the country by USA Today. Like the food and service, the guest list is stellar– Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, and George Clooney.
After living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic I miss favorites enjoyed in my Piantini neighborhood and at Pat’s Palo in the Colonial Zone . Columbia’s has empanadas, croquettes, paella, sangria –oh my!–and so many other choices on the dinner and wine menus choosing is difficult. My server, Roxy, helped with this. I had the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquettes, the Original 1905 Salad, the Filet Mignon, and a glass of Don Cesar 2011 Ribera del Duero Spanish wine. Roxy recommended for another day one of their most popular dishes, Salteado . Was I pleased with my experience? See the highlight video above. Reservations recommended, and they offer catering.
I can’t believe they share recipes for their signature salad (above), popular Cuban sandwich, Mojitos and more here! Columbia’s makes not only guests happy but also servers and management who stay. Manager Richard Appelgren told me he came here from Chile in 1984: “It was my first job and I never left. I love it here.” When I asked how Covid-19 has affected business, he said they adhere to all safety measures and fill tables at 50%. He added, “People trust us, and that’s why they keep coming back.”
Around here exceptionally talented creatives aren’t just found on stages. They are found behind-the-scenes making magic. I love the stories of Executive Chef Nils and Chef Michelle . These culinary artists, a top-tier staff, an extensive wine list, and gorgeous setting make Element a favorite of local foodies and out-of-town guests. The modern dining rooms and candle-lit terraces make this restaurant a haven. Manager James Harries makes sure all feel welcome. My fun server, Phillipe, suggested the scallops. They were served on parmesan farro risotto with a citrus herb crumb topping and cucumber mint relish. The dish was incredible, and so was the white wine he turned me onto– a Sancerre named for the Upper Loire Valley in France. See highlights in video above. Recommendations recommended.
Morning Check out of Art Ovation Hotel
Private 3-hour tour of The Ringling with Virginia Harshman
An incredible behind-the-scenes look at the museums and Ca’ d’Zan will be featured in Part 3 of this series.
My condo was spacious–perfect for a family vacation. As always, my favorite room was the screened in lanai overlooking the pool, beach, and sea. I wasn’t there long enough to buy groceries or grill out, so for lunch I took a trolley a couple of miles down Midnight Pass Road to Siesta Key Village for oysters. (See video for highlights.) The sunset behind the Club was beautiful as expected, and I hear there’s a drum circle on Siesta Key Beach on Sundays at sunset. Check out other things to do here.
8:30 Dinner Ophelia’s on the Bay on Siesta Key
Ok, this is a Must-Do. Please see the video above with highlights. I understand why Ophelia’s on the Bay has received recognition from magazines such as Gourmet and Food and Wine. And why it is a popular wedding venue. In fact, a ceremony had just ended before I arrived. Owner Daniel Olson started working in his father’s restaurant in Maryland at age 14. In 2000 he moved to Sarasota and in 2004 became Executive Chef. His passion and creativity sustains a loyal following of locals and of tourists who always come back.
I loved eating under twinkling lights and a full moon reflected on the bay. I was thrilled to learn that my server, Cassy Belliveau. lived in Nashville six years and worked at one of my favorite restaurants there. She recommended what I believe was the best salad I’ve had in my life. The lobster and pasta made in-house are perfection. The creamy Champagne sauce made the dish so rich and delicious that I saved a bit to carry away for breakfast. Other recommendations are the Maryland Crab Cakes and the Eggplant Crepes, made with Mascarpone, Ricotta, Fontina, spinach, basil, and San Marzano Pomodoro Sauce–staples on the menu for twenty-five years. Reservations recommended.
Morning Check out of Sarasota Surf and Racquet Club
See the calendar of annual events in Digital Guide mentioned above — Pages 36-37. Below I’ve highlighted a few festivals and events happening in the next few months (one in November below) to get you started…
Once upon a time… before watching Game of Thrones or touring castles in Europe… I taught my children and literature students tales of fairies, dragons, and knights. That chivalry must never die and dreams do come true.
There I tried to teach my son and daughter archery as my dad had tried to teach me. I still remember the archery tournament in Kentucky where he’d won the “Robin’s Hood Award” for hitting the bull’s eye with his first arrow, then splitting that arrow with his second shot. He wanted me to compete in contests, too. No pressure. 🙂
Two decades later… a couple of weeks ago my daughter chose to celebrate her birthday at the Fest where we watched jousting and my son handed me a bow and quiver of arrows to see if I could still hit a target. Last weekend I returned to finally meet the man who created the beloved tradition that throngs of folks enjoy–many in costume–yearly.
Mike Freeman greets guests outside Castle Gwynn, located on forty acres he bought in 1976 near Triune. Friendly, fun, and sincere, he tells the inspiring story of a lifelong quest:
The first two most commonly asked questions are, ‘Do you live here?’ Yes I do. For the last 31 years I’ve lived here with my wife, Maggie, and our 2 dogs. The 2nd most commonly asked question is, ‘When are you going to get it finished?’ The answer: ‘When one of you wins the lottery, please remember me!’ I’ve been doing that for the last 34 years. It hasn’t worked yet. (laughs)
In 1970 I was a senior in high school who drew my dream house, a castle, in architecture class. Being a poor boy from Flat Rock, the only way I could do it was to build it myself. I am proud to say I built something from scratch, which means I started with zero. I did have a lucky break. By chance I got into photography my senior year of high school. My next door neighbor had been in Viet Nam and won a camera in a poker game and had forgotten how to work it. The deal was to learn how and teach him.
He did, and by graduation of his senior year, he photographed senior prom. Next he worked for a photography studio that needed 13 high school composite shots done in a month.
I got it done for them, and it only took me only 360 hours—90 hours a week. I used to think that was a lot of hours until I went into business for myself. (laughs) It you are willing to work 12-18 hour days, I guarantee that you can do absolutely anything in the world if you want to bad enough. I proved that, but to say I did this all by myself would be a gross exaggeration. I had a whole lot of help from a whole lot of people to make this dream possible including yourselves for coming out to the festival this year.
He gives credit to his wife, Jackie Harmon, who he married in 1988, the first wedding held at Castle Gwynn; to his parents, and to a master mason and his four sons who worked with him weekends for almost two years laying the brickwork in the kitchen. They started with 8 brick arches, but by the time they finished, they had 60 of them. 14,000 bricks Hosting four weddings helped with the cost. For the full story and credits of building the castle, go here.
I asked Mike what inspired a high school senior to want to build a castle. He said when he was five, his father returned from WW2 with a book of postcards of castles along the Rhine River. I asked if any movies or books were influential, and he immediately said Charlton Heston’s The War Lord, a 1965 film about Medieval warfare in 11th century Normandy. His interest in history and sense of humor can be seen throughout the property.
No costume? No worries! But if you want one… there are many on site.
I confess I returned, too, to stop by the Lady Smith Jewelry booth to look again at her cameo mermaids and sterling silver Celtic pieces.
The Fest runs yearly every weekend of May through Memorial Day. Check schedule for jousting, shows, and castle tours. Vendors for food, beverages, rides and games accept cash only though the admission gate and some vendors accept credit cards. Other Rules of the Realm are here. Stop by, sit a spell, and enjoy the magic.
Nine trips to Italy and I’ve just planned the next one. This year I spent New Year’s Eve in Venice, my birthday in Tuscany (below), and Easter in Rome, but I’m asking Santa for an extended holiday in the land I love.
Thanks to Chef Paulette‘s just-released book, Italian Cooking Party, this tour will last for years to come with 100 of her recipes, tips on how to stock an Italian kitchen, and secrets to throwing Italian parties anywhere. Details of how to order her book are here; and if in Nashville, you can purchase copies for the cooks in your life in time for Christmas at Parnassus Books.
Many know Chef Paulette from Channel 4 WSMV’s More at Midday and Today in Nashville (see her making Walnut and Chocolate Biscotti below) and have traveled with her to Italy. Or they’ve seen her perform with Duane in Duette. Upcoming shows in Music City are January 1, 2017 at Brown’s Diner and January 6 at The Frist Center. I met Paulette many years ago in one of her cooking classes in her Bellevue home. As Diana Krall crooned, the chef who had migrated from New York City from the kitchens of Mario Batali and Micol Negrin and learned from cooks in six regions of Italy impressed me with her signature recipes and soulful teaching. I knew we were kindred spirits when she sat with strangers as if family, lingering over the meal the class prepared. Her home soothed, transporting me to summers spent with Italian friends in Piedmont. Students left warmed by the wine and conversation.
Multiple cooking classes and a friendship later, I’m still drawn, wherever we meet over dinner, to her heaping hospitality and wisdom cultivated at her parents’ table. She laughs: “I always want to sit at table longer than anyone else. I don’t want to clear the dishes but keep hanging. I grew up in that. Mom would do the dishes but I sat listening to my dad. Dad was a philosopher. I remember crying at his philosophical life stuff. Coffee and cake would come and we’d still be sitting there.”
Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, advises: “Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with positive, nourishing, and uplifting people–people who believe in you, encourage you to go after your dreams, and applaud your victories.” Paulette is what southerners call “good people.” I asked her once if she ‘s a romantic. She said she takes chances and is generally optimistic–good traits for a time when nothing globally or personally seems certain.
This year the decision to sell our family home of 21 years was one of the hardest of my life. Leaving Morocco was difficult, too, although I wanted to be nearer family. Last February I had no idea when the house would sell nor where I’d end up working or living. When I told her my concerns, she wrote: “Isn’t that great? All sounds great — even the leap into you-don’t-know-where back home. Sorry about your house but maybe that was the only way for you to move from it and into this newer part of your life. I’m so glad Morocco was wonderful for you — (how could it not I guess!)…but what a way to evolve and find more of yourself.”
That’s Paulette Licitra, the consummate Renaissance Woman. Her story is the Portrait of an Artist who never stops growing, learning and laughing. A lady who reminds me that challenge brings change… reinvention…and despite growing pains it’s a good thing.
The Brooklyn-born Italian-American wrote novels and plays produced in New York City. When she won the Phoenix Theater’s national playwriting contest, her hip my heart premiered in Indianapolis, receiving nods for its multicultural casting and a “haunting ballad” she wrote. She also boosted women’s literacy rates in Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco with an Arabic version of The Electric Company while writing and producing for Nickelodeon and Children’s Television Workshop.
By September 2001 Paulette was on top of the world…literally. Perpetually peaking, she had climbed through a Costa Rican cloud forest on an Earthwatch Expedition to study the mating dance of the long-tailed manakin. Bound for the Northern Cape on a Norwegian cargo ship, she’d crossed the Arctic Circle prowling for Atlantic puffins. Trusted with national treasures in over twenty states, she had researched and recorded audio scripts and podcasts for land, sea and air: the Sky Tour at the John Hancock Observatory, Royal Caribbean cruises, the New York Botanical Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pearl Harbor, and the CN Tower Observatory in Toronto. Her expertise earned her the job of writing the audio script for a tour atop Tower Two of the World Trade Center, what would be “the tallest rooftop terrace on the planet.” In her New York Times piece, “The Tour That Never Was,” she later lamented: “I spent a few weeks haunting the observation deck, looking out the windows, spacing out the tour stops and figuring out how to direct a visitor’s gaze… (they) were setting up the kiosks that would hold the headsets when the attacks came.”
After the tragedy of 9/11, tourism tanked so Paulette Licitra decided in her 50s to become a chef and worked in New York kitchens alongside Mario Batali, Micol Negrin, and with cooks from six regions of Italy. Re-charting her professional course, she became Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Alimentumand moved to Nashville. She also reunited with a high school friend. After graduation they had gone to Woodstock together as purely platonic buddies. After years of living separate lives, they met again and something shifted. The intensity of this Duette is clear on and off stage. She showed me once the prophetic photos used by Joel Makower in his Woodstock: The Oral History of the soulmates’ teen faces peering at the camera from the crowd.
Juliette Child said, “Life is the proper binge.” A journalist, novelist, playwright and painter…chef, singer, tour guide and candlestick maker…. Paulette inspires me. I asked her about the courage it took to live the life of an artist–something I’ve always longed to do. To have the freedom to focus on creative projects–to make one’s own schedule–to give your first love first place until it’s time to return to an old love or try something new. She said:
“I was ALWAYS attracted to the road less traveled. The idea of a suburban life in a house with a husband and 2.5 children made me squirm a little. Somehow I think I was always afraid that my brain and spirit would be lulled to sleep and all my creativity would be silenced. Probably not true, but the idea pushed me in another direction.
From a little girl I wanted to be a dancer. In high school I wanted to an actor. In college I wanted to be a writer. All the things I’ve wanted to do—the things that compelled me forward– were always endeavours that didn’t make money unless you were a star and involved a big population that was trying to do the same. I really think an artistic life is like a calling. It comes from inside. You can try to ignore it but it is very insistent. And if you leave yourself open to listening and following its call then you’re always off the beaten path. Some people have to ignore it because of commitments. There’s a great book about women who have had to do this: Tillie Olsen’s Silences. I was always so afraid of being silenced, of not getting my visions made into something out there…and still…I feel like I really haven’t done it yet! SO many stories and ideas still jam my head constantly.”
She said career highlights were interviewing survivors for the Holocaust Museum tour in Houston. There was also the day Israeli and Jordanian producers were in the NY studios together. Paulette smiled and said, “It was fine. I remember thinking, ‘You see. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. Everyone is into creating great stuff for kids.'” She recalls making a video for choreographer Loretta Thomas: “We shot on the streets of NY for 24 hours straight. At 3 AM Martin Scorsese pulled up to his apartment in a limo in Tribeca. We made eye contact and he smiled!”
Christmas is a great time to thank those who call us to taste la dolce vita. The new year is a great time to host others at our table and celebrate the good together. Her book offers more than amazing Italian cuisine. It offers soul food meant to be shared.
*Chef Paulette’s winter cooking classes are sold out. However, you can buy friends gift certificates or contact her for information for the spring classes starting in March here.
When people ask How? Why? I moved to Morocco sight unseen, I think to myself, I didn’t. Though I’d never been to Africa, my soul brimmed with vivid images from exotic Arabian tales my grandmother read to me from my dad’s childhood book.
I was lured by sultry desert tents, regal riads, and secret gardens where princes and princesses lounged in plush, cushioned comfort. In my imagination birds sang- by- day and lanterns glowed- by- night in arched Andalusian courtyards of fabulous fountains, mosaic tile, and intricately carved woodwork. I was meant to come here–a place where so many desires of my heart have been fulfilled for which I am forever grateful.
Likewise, for some time I felt drawn to Riad Star, former home of Josephine Baker, Queen of the Jazz Age. I was first attracted by the place and a moment in time–the blending of beautiful Marrakesh design with an era I’ve loved since I was a little girl dressing up in my grandmother’s drop waist dresses and pumps. As an adult obsessed with Post- World War I Paris expats and Harlem Renaissance artists, I teach The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Jazz, and when living in the US had students play dress up, too, for annual ’20s Day events.
Recently I finally stayed at Riad Star and met “Jazz Cleopatra,” the legend for whom the boutique hotel is named.
I now realize that what drew me there was more than one period of history. It was a Renaissance Woman who before and beyond Harlem and the 20s never stopped changing, growing, giving, and overcoming. A woman of tenacity and tenderness.
When Aziz greeted me at the taxi, walked me to the riad, and placed my bag in her very suite, The Josephine Room, I was in awe. There, under a photograph of her close friend, Grace Kelly, my favorite American Hollywood actress since I was a teen…
I devoured Josephine’s biographies found in my room and the library downstairs.
In the afternoon sun on the rooftop
near the cool courtyard,
and under the covers at night,
like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris I was transported to another time.
There I discovered a new treasure in Marrakesh..the “Black Pearl”…the “Bronze Venus” who Ernest Hemingway, her fellow expat in Paris, called “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Or Angelina Jolie…
A dancer, singer, movie star, and mom energetically entertained crowds for fifty years and raised her “Rainbow Tribe.”
Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou(1934) and to become a world-famous entertainer. A superstar before Marilyn or Madonna, Josephine was named in 2012 Time magazine in the Top 100 Fashion Icons of All Time.
Likewise she was muse for artists and intellectuals of the 1930s such as Picasso, Pirandello, Georges Roualt, Le Corbusier, and e.e. cummings. Dance Magazine explained the allure of Josephine –the “geometry” of her oval head and lithe body–during the Cubist and Art Deco movements, both influenced by African art and sculpture.
A World War II spy for the French Resistance, Josephine Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle and the Rosette of the Résistance. At her death she was mourned in Paris by 20,000 people including Princess Grace who gathered for her funeral procession. She was buried with military honors in Monaco, a place she and her family visited often as guests of the royal family.
A civil rights activist, she was the only woman who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther, King. She told the crowd that day: You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.
Later she said of her personal victory:
Until the March on Washington, I always had this little feeling in my stomach. I was always afraid. I couldn’t meet white American people. I didn’t want to be around them. But now that little gnawing feeling is gone. For the first time in my life I feel free. I know that everything is right now.
And for a time, she lived in Marrakesh in a room I just stayed in.
Mike and Lucie Wood, British owners of Marrakech Riad, added Riad Star in 2010 to their collection of boutique hotels in the medina. Mike explained their mission:
We bought our first riad (Riad Cinnamon) in 2005 after I was introduced to Marrakech by a Moroccan friend. We are passionate about introducing our guests to Moroccan culture, especially first time visitors. As well as the riads we are very involved in a charity which we founded with another English couple. It’s called Henna Cafe and has an active programme of education.
The Pasha Thami el Glaoui formerly owned what is now Riad Star, a guest annex to the palace which is now the Marrakech museum. Mike says he learned Josephine Baker stayed there when talking to a neighbor. The people of Derb Alilich still remember her warmth and she appreciated theirs. In the Josephine Room there’s a window looking onto the street–nonexistent in most riads where windows, doors, and balconies face inward toward private courtyards. It is believed the Pasha of Marrakech paid children to sit outside Josephine’s window and read for her while she was convalescing after a nineteen-month stay at a hospital in Casablanca in 1941-42.
Mike Wood says of the purchase:
The restoration was extensive and took two years with a team of highly skilled local craftsmen. We did not really change much except adding the rolling roof which is very practical and putting in more bathrooms.
Ah, but the details the Woods added are symbolic of a spirit whose beauty, sensitivity and toughness transcended adversity. There are nine rooms at Riad Star, each named for a part of Josephine’s life, such as the Jazz room, Paris room, Chiquita room, and Rainbow room. Though historically themed, each room has modern conveniences, such as refrigerators, WiFi, and flatscreen televisions.
Josephine was born in 1906 in St. Louis to Carrie McDonald, daughter of former slaves, and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson who carried her onstage when she was a toddler but left the family soon after. She cleaned houses and tended children for white families who told her not to kiss the babies. One mistress burned her hands for using too much soap when washing clothes. At age twelve she began a waitressing job at The Old Chauffeur’s Club which led to being married off unsuccessfully at thirteen. At fifteen she was noticed for her street dancing and recruited for vaudeville. After witnessing the St. Louis race riots and experiencing abusive treatment which led to a time she lived on the streets and ate from trash bins, she moved to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and performed at the Plantation Club. As the last girl in the chorus line, her role was to make the audience laugh–something she loved doing her entire life. But in 1925 Paris she moved from last to superstardom overnight when she opened in La Revue Nègre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Continuing to amaze crowds with her sensual dances, costumes, and charisma, by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. And then she took on another continent…
In Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase wrote of Josephine’s “Arabian Nights” when “she came to Northern Africa with twenty-eight pieces of luggage and her animals.” Before she adopted twelve children from various countries (she suffered miscarriages and “many surgeries” trying to have her own and a complication that confined her to the Casablanca hospital ), she had a menagerie consisting of Chiquita, her famous leopard she walked on a leash; Ethel, a chimpanzee; Albert, a pig; Kiki, a snake, and a goat, parrot, parakeets, fish three cats and seven dogs. In Morocco her monkeys played in the orange trees.
Baker records accounts of his mother’s time at Riad Star :
Every morning, as soon as the birds started singing, Josephine was up and running around in the buff going to the kitchen to help the servants cook… The house had four bedrooms—one which had her big brass bed from France… She adopted Arab customs. She liked eating with her hands, wearing the loose djelleba, going with her maids to the hammam, the Turkish baths, once a week.
….And wasn’t it queer that Josephine, who had spent her childhood dreaming of kings in golden slippers, should find herself there? In a place where, even more amazingly, racial discrimination did not exist? Thami el Glaousi, pasha of Marrakesh and the most powerful tribal chieftain in French Morocco at that time, was himself black.
From northern Africa Josephine was safe from Nazi racism. Langston Hughes wrote she “was as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall in Africa today fighting his armies. The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Nonetheless, while in Africa as she’d done throughout Europe, Josephine continued entertaining troops for Charles de Gaulle and carrying information for the Allied forces from Spain. Among dignitaries who visited her while in the hospital in Casa was Jacques Abtrey, Head of Intelligence against the Germans. Outside as a military parade with American, French, and Moroccan troops marched by, he and Josephine toasted with champagne. He recalls: “We raised our glasses to America, to England, and to our eternal France.”
Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Director of the African and African-American Studies Research Center at the University of California – San Diego and author of Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image wrote of Josephine making Paris her home and learning not only French but Italian and Russian:
As a black woman, had she stayed in the United States, she could not have accomplished what she did….She never made a Hollywood film. But at the same time she was recording in France, you had the likes of Hattie McDaniel playing maids in Gone with the Wind…[She] was among the early path-breakers to use performance celebrity for political ends.
When in the US she refused to perform in venues that did not admit minorities. Says Jules-Rosette: “She was the first person to desegregate the Las Vegas casinos, not Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.”
Still, in 1951 she was refused admittance to some hotels and restaurants, and when she charged the Stork Club in New York City of racism when the owner would not serve her, she was placed on the FBI watch list and lost her US citizenship rights for over a decade. In 1963 she returned with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to speak at the March on Washington. She told the crowd:
You know I have always taken the rocky path…I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had.
Summing up her journey, Josephine said: “I did take the blows [of life], but I took them with my chin up, in dignity, because I so profoundly love and respect humanity…I believe in prayer. It’s the best way we have to draw strength from heaven.”
When not reading at Riad Star, I chatted over dinner with a lovely group of ladies on holiday from England. All moms, they had decided to treat themselves to a girls’ getaway. For information on package deals including a Girls Getaway and other specialty escapes, go here. I spent breakfast with a little bird by the pool, then took off with Aziz to see two other properties owned by the Woods.
Though all guests are provided a downloadable App and cell phone to navigate the medina, after two years here and still taking wrong turns at times in the medina, I was thrilled Aziz was happy to walk me to and from the taxi as well as show me two other riads.
Riad Cinnamon has five suites, each named for a city in Morocco: Fez, Essaouira, Chefchaouen, Casablanca, and Meknes. Since I’ve been to all but Meknes, four of the rooms transported me to fine Morocco Moments across the country.
After raiding my grandmother’s trunk for dress up clothes, I’d wear them out into her garden to watch butterflies playing in the flowers. At Riad Papillon (Riad Butterly), imagination takes flight in rooms named for blooms, such as Bougainvillea, Jasmine, and Rose known to attract those feathery-winged wonders. The riad is just off Dar El Bacha, one of my favorite shopping streets in the souks, while Star and Cinnamon are just around corners from Merdersa Ben Youseff, a medina must-see. All are also near the Spice Square and Henna Cafe.
I enjoyed the morning and my Midnight in Marrakesh experience. HBO’s 1991 movie, The Jordan Baker Story, winner of five Emmys and a Golden Globe now tops my list of Must-see films. In “My Josephine Baker” her son explains in The New York Times how and why he had to write a biography of her: “When she died, something was taken from me. I suffered a loss and I wanted to know who she was, that woman I had seen in so many ways, sometimes a criminal, sometimes a saint.”
When she passed away in 1975, no doubt there were mixed opinions of her because she was– and her critics are– after all, human. Her legacy lives on in Riad Star in the Red City where others find rest and shelter and at the Henna Cafe that promotes appreciation of diversity, cross-cultural communication, and understanding. Though Josephine left school to work as a child, she later learned French, Russian, and Italian, an inspiration to language learners everywhere.
Thank you to Riad Star for the hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.