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Travel blog: Miami Beach – art deco paradise

Miami Beach was developed as a luxury tourist resort in the early 20th century and the heyday of building was in the late 1920s and early 1930s during which the dominant design was arte moderne, or art deco, as it came to be known. Unlike in most of the USA, the buildings from that era have largely been preserved. They are concentrated in an area of South Miami Beach which is now known as the Miami Beach Architectural District – the area is in fact characterised by several architectural styles

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courtesy of the Art Deco Welcome Centre

However, the predominant syle is art deco

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The fact that so many of the original buildings have survived is mainly due to the efforts of the late Barbara Capitman who was instrumental in forming the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976. They led the fight against plans to demolish the historic buildings which made South Miami Beach so unique

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The stylish design and seductive colour of these buldings, especially the hotels, makes for a stunning sight as you stroll along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue and beyond.

We stayed at the Hotel of South Beach, formerly known as Tiffany, which is illustrated in the above poster. The Tiffany tower still beams out at night

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Here is a sample of some of the hotels we encountered whilst strolling through the district

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Hotel Delano

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Hotel National Bar

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sunrise at the Beacon

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Apart from the hotels and houses, the style even extended to the post office with its beautiful interior

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Close by is what used to be Hoffman’s Cafeteria but is now Senor Frogs, a Mexican restaurant

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To add to the period charm of the area, a few classic American cars from the 1950s can be found at various locations

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Along the beach itself are a stream of lifeguard towers that were introduced following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 which had destroyed all the existing towers. These have an appealing quirky design which adds a vibrant colour to the beach scene

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Towers receiving a new lick of paint

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Facing east across the Atlantic Ocean, Miami Beach is the perfect place from which to view the sunrise

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At which point it is time to take breakfast at the News Cafe, where to the backdrop of classical music, you can read the morning paper and enjoy Ocean Drive coming to life.

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Sadly, this was the last place visited by Gianni Versace, who after collecting his morning papers, was gunned down on the steps of his nearby mansion  in July 1997.

Travel blog: New Orleans – jazz and oysters

The musical heritage

Known locally as NOLA or by a wider audience as the Big Easy, New Orleans is probably best known for its musical heritage, most notably jazz. It is considered to be the birthplace of what has come to be known as traditional or dixieland jazz.

Wandering the streets of the French Quarter, jazz music seems to be alive and well alongside the blues and even DIY percussion

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Dedicated to keeping the jazz traditions of NOLA alive is Preservation Hall in which there are daily concerts celebrating the music

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Nearby in Treme is the Louis Armstrong Park, named after the most famous of the city’s jazz musicians, but which also includes the Mahalia Jackson Theatre. Like Armstrong the great gospel singer was born in New Orleans

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Just across the road from the park is the site of the old J & M recording studio which many see as the birthplace of rock n roll. It is now a laundrette –  a cool place to wash your clothes.

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The best live jazz and blues music in New Orleans can be found in Frenchman Street at the end of which lies the New Orleans Music Factory, an impressive music store

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The French Quarter

The most famous district of New Orleans is the historical French Quarter to which tourists flock in their thousands. Whilst little remains from the original architecture of the French colonial period of the 18th century, there is is still a distinctive architectural style which can be summed up as creole plus greek revival – complete with iron balconies.

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Faulkner House – where the novelist William Faulkner once lived (now a bookshop)

Despite the mainly easy going atmosphere of the local streets, we happened upon the aftermath of two separate car accidents in the space of an hour – much to the bemusement of the locals.

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Bordering on the French Quarter is Canal St. Among its buildings  is the magnificent Saeger Theatre which opened in 1927. At the time of its construction it cost $2.5 million and seated over 4000 people. It recently re-opened after being extensively damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

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A complex history

The history of new Orleans is long and complex but suffice to say that colonialism and slavery are at the heart of it.

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A poster for a slave auction from the 1850s – New Orleans Museum

Staying in the Garden District with its miles of leafy 19th century mansions, it is hard not to contrast it with other parts of the city where poverty is all too apparent. The few black faces we came across in the area only seemed to reinforce traditional racial roles – with a maid acting as nanny to white children, a man passed by with his bicycle….

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Also of note are the historic public cemeteries including Lafyaette no 1 which was the inspiration for Anne Rice’s vampire novels

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Two notable historic traditions of New Orleans are Mardi Gras and voodoo. Mardi Gras celebrations on Shrove Tuesday, which date from the 18th century, are evident all year round via the beads strung up in trees whch seemingly never get removed

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Meanwhile, Voodoo  has its roots in Afro-American religion, but has now become heavily commercialised for the tourist trade

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Streetcars

Despite the rather poor local public transport infrastructure (a car is essential for many journeys in the city), New Orleans boasts the oldest tram (or streetcar system) in America – the Charles St line which has run continuously since 1835. The current trams date from the 1920s and operate round the clock, if a little unreliably at times. More recently, the tram system has been partially restored after decades of closure (including the famous Desire destination of Tennessee Williams fame)

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The Desire line closed in 1948

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A Charles Street tram

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Two trams at City park terminus

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Canal St tram

Creole cuisine

New Orleans is renowned for its distinctive cuisine – a fusion of creole, cajun and soul food. Seafood is to the fore, especially oysters, which are served up in multifarious ways at amazingly low prices (compared to Europe)

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DSC09517The above picture features the Bourbon House restaurant which specialises in oysters and bourbon whisky. It is also home to the New Orleans Bourbon Society (aka as NOBS)

A more basic food tradition is the po’boy (derived from poor boy) – a thick sandwich containing meat or seafood

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A prominent local food company is Zatarain’s as highlighted in this colourful advertisement which fuses music and food, the lifeblood of the city

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Travel Blog: Denver to El Paso Road Trip

Denver: the Mile High City

With an elevation of over 5000 feet, Denver is known as the mile high city. Nestling in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, it is one of the fastest growing American cities reflecting its prominence in the hi-tech boom and its reputation as a centre of progressive liberal values (Colorado recently legalised marijuana). Like many American cities, its downtown area is undergoing a rejuvenation as reflected in new business towers, colourful murals and investment in public transport, such as the 16th St Mall bus service – a conveyor belt of free electric buses

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Some older buildings have survived such as the Paramount, an art deco cinema which opened in 1930

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Other buildings have been redeveloped – most notably the fabulous Denver Union Station which originates from 1914. It has become a hub of commuter services.

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Denver is also home to a range of art museums including one devoted to the relatively unknown abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still  

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Change US foreign policy?

Whilst in the Denver Museum of Art we encountered a charming museum guide who very kindly offered to drive us up to Red Rocks Amphitheatre a historic and atmospheric music arena in the hills overlooking Denver. Its illustrious list of performers includes The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Petty. Many thanks to ‘Paunch’ who is testimony to the enduring spirit of bohemianism.

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DSCF6229 On our journey south from Denver we passed through Walsenberg, an unassuming small town complete with faded main street. It was a pleasant surprise to see the old (dating from 1917) town cinema, The Fox, being restored. As a bonus, following our enquiry as to why the redecoration was proceeding, we were given a short tour of the cinema and a couple of souvenir t-shirts. Here is a brief history of the Fox cinema 

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Great Sand Dunes National Park

Containing the tallest sand dunes in the USA, the area was only given national park status in 2000, and so is relatively unknown compared to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain or Mesa Verde National Parks. Visiting in early November meant the temperature was near perfect for scaling the huge dunes as well as having the park much to ourselves.

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Taos

Situated in northern New Mexico, Taos Pueblo is the site of what is claimed to be the oldest continuous settlement in the USA, dating from between 1000-1450. The distinctive buildings are made of adobe – a mixture of baked earth, water and straw.

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Since being conquered by the Spanish, the Taos Indians who still occupy the village, are mostly Catholic but also retain ancient religious rites and beliefs.

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The most significant economic activity is now tourism, especially selling jewellery, although the turquoise jewellery for which New Mexico is famous, is now mostly imported from China.

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Taos itself is small town renowned for its art and bohemian legacy, including several hippie communes in the 1960s and 1970s. It still retains an air of laid back charm

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A frequent visitor to Taos was the film actor Dennis Hopper. Easy Rider, which Hopper directed, included some location shooting nearby, and Hopper’s funeral in 2010 was held at the St Francis of Assisi Mission church dating from the 18th century

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Hopper is buried in nearby Jesus Nazareno cemetery. His grave is suitably bedecked with Easy Rider regalia

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Tent Rock National Monument

New Mexico is blessed with a huge diversity of landscape. Using Santa Fe as a base enabled us to experience some of the state’s most striking scenery, not least Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. The name derives from the cone shaped volcanic rocks formed by erosion over the past 6-7 million years. A 1.5 mile hike takes you to the top of the mesa for superb views of the surrounding mountains.

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Even the plains below looked attractive in the Autumn colours

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Santa Fe

At over 7000 feet the state capital enjoys bright blue sunshine and chilly nights during the Autumn. The city’s architecture reflects its native American/Spanish historical roots, an attractive aesthetic which has drawn legions of artists – there are over 200 galleries, including one devoted to the most famous artist who established her home there, Georgia O’Keefe

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Santa Fe is also the town where Billy the Kid was finally captured (but later escaped)

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Santa Fe still has the splendid Lensic cinema dating from 1931 alongside other attractions

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The city also benefits from a new railway station with a commuter line to Albequerque which has revitalised the area of the city formerly dominated by freight yards

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We took adavanatge of the new commuter line to pay a day trip to Abuquerque.

Here are two contrasting views from the carriage window

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Albuquerque

Most recently Albuquerque has been the beneficiary of being the loaction for the celebrated tv series Breaking Bad. Prior to that, its reputation was due more to its location on the mythic Route 66 an association which is being exploited long after the demise of the famous cross country highway,

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Downtown Albuquerque like many other American cities is a mixture of poverty, homelessness, business towers, old warehouses converted into loft apartments and some long standing original shops such as the Man’s Hat Shop

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Better Call Saul

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Los Alamos and Bandalier National Monument

North of Santa Fe lies Los Alamos, the once secret site selected as the centre for the Manhattan Project between 1942-5. From this select scientific community led by Robert Oppenheimer, emerged the world’s first atomic bomb which was tested further south in the new Mexico desert. The bomb was subsequently dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of the Second World War, and ushering in the nuclear age.

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Close to Los Alamos is Bandelier National Monument an area where there is evidence of human settlements dating back over 10,000 years. This is evident from the numerous sculpted caves which can be inspected along the canyon walls, some of which require ascending a series of rope ladders.

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Leaving Santa Fe, we drove through freezing fog for a couple of hundred miles, but as we neared southern New Mexico the fog cleared and the temperature quickly rose from 0º to 20º C. There were few settlements along route 54, and little sign of human life in places such as Corona in Lincoln County (Billy the Kid territory) and Carrizozo, although the latter had a colourful ice cream parlour (closed)

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Abandoned cars and trucks gathering rust and weeds were a frequent sight in fields and enclosures

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Eventually we reached our next destination

White Sands National Monument

The world’s largest gypsum dunefield is a beguiling sight, especially as the sun is setting. Despite the harsh landscape vegetation manages to survive and reputedly over 800 species of animals. Fortunately, in November there was no need to carry extra water as the temperature was a balmy 20º

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We left as the sun set on the dunes with the Sacremento mountains in the distance

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El Paso

From the sublime solitude of White Sands we drove across the Texas state line to encounter the frenetic evening rush hour traffic in El Paso. A night at the Comfort Inn besides Interstate 10, within sight of the city’s refineries, is not the most tranquil scenario. However, a bus ride to the downtown area proved a pleasant surprise. We alighted in El Segunda Barrio a square mile of the city which is right on the US-Mexican border. The historic area is unsurprisingly domiated by Hispanic culture including the remarkable murals

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The area is not very affluent as reflected in some of the shops and services

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Nevertheless, El Segunda Barrio is a colourful and vibrant neighbourhood and deserves the case which has been made for preserving its historical status

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Adjacent to El Segunda Barrio, the central business district contains some striking buildings including the Convention Centre as well as signs of its commercial legacy before suburban shopping malls intervened

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We departed El Paso via The Sunset Limited, the historic rail service which links Los Angeles to New Orleans and now run by Amtrak.

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Waiting patiently for the Sunset Limited – it was 90 minutes late

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