I read Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad,” long before I had a driver’s license. I was hooked on travel. So much adventure seemed to be waiting and somehow, someway, I was going to find a higher life. A promise made was a promise kept.
Travel is a reward, a gift to the body and soul longing to be replenished and uplifted. There is a fundamental distinction, however, from excess and embracing the many fine things created by the vision of masters. Being embraced by the majesty of crystal, brass, polished oak and translucent marble is ethereal. Dining with someone in a quiet elegantly appointed restaurant is a ritual, an unsurpassed way to honor friendship.
Far from being fairy tales, there are experiences just waiting for us. The entry into this wonderful world we’ve decided to explore isn’t intimidating. The best destinations are notable for their skill in welcoming. Hospitality isn’t a cliche´. It’s an attitude.
Hotels dominate, a right they earned. Once, Louis Prima and Keeley Smith performed regularly in New Orleans at the majestic Roosevelt Hotel’s Blue Room in New Orleans. A very young Dinah Shore sang with a big dance band on Saturday nights at Nashville’s opulent Hermitage Hotel. I hear great music somewhere deep inside with each visit.
In “The Great Gatsby,” the rich and decadent frolicked in Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel. Before fame and fortune, best selling novelist John Grisham enjoyed good wine and cocktails at the Peabody Memphis while mallards swam in the lobby fountain pool. They’re still featured, and on cue, march twice daily to the cheers of guests sipping Champagne.
The road is long but the journey is a path to spiritual enrichment. Without the drive of unrestrained wanderlust, my earliest adventures would have been missed. Visits to Washington, DC and a stint working for a noble cause led to lodging at the magnificent Hotel Tabard Inn. I had an apartment there, the same one Edward Everett Hale occupied where he composed “A Man Without A Country.” The halls of Congress and doings at the White House were daytime activities. Evenings were reserved for Georgetown watering holes where conversation often had a foreign accent.
There is an axiom guiding the traveler: Life is enriched by exploring. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama advises that “once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.” My journey isn’t unique. It’s a mere glimpse of those cultural Shangri-La’s everywhere. Inertia is a slow death. Wiser people pack up and leave, even if only for a few days.
Florida is second to none in adventure. St. Augustine harkens to ancient Spain. Tampa’s Ybor City honors its past at The Columbian Restaurant, Florida’s oldest, where I’ve dined on Andalusian cuisine while being entertained by captivating Flamenco dancers.
Coral Gables has restaurants representing many Latin American countries from Latin America. The stunning Sunday al fresco brunch at the stately Biltmore has few counterparts.
The Breakers Hotel, the palatial Palm Beach creation of Henry Flagler, was my haunt for years during newspaper days in South Florida. Big band dances, Bordeaux wine dinners, cocktails in the bar where Jackie and Jack were once regulars was routine.
Hotel Monteleone, the French Quarter’s everlasting tribute to a higher life calls me back if only in my dreams. Here, I was introduced to fine French Champagne and devoured gourmet treasures like eggs sardou before completing my freshman year at Florida State. Among the many advantages the hotel offers is convenient access to some of the most highly regarded restaurants in the western world.
Nashville’s stately Hermitage Hotel has hosted celebrity guests from Minnesota Fats and Gene Autry to John F. Kennedy and Taylor Swift. The Capitol Grille, the hotel’s acclaimed gourmet restaurant is one of the nation’s finest and if you have a couple of Jack Daniel’s Old. No. 7 (neat), your imagination might tune in to hear someone singing, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” with a dance orchestra in 1944.
While in Louisville, I always pay homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald by dining with friends at the Seelbach Hotel’s Oak Room. Another downtown hotel, 21c Louisville, offers a rare experience. Repurposing the former home of 19th-century warehouses to reflect both its historical bones and its contemporary new life, the high ceilings, large windows and spacious guest rooms are juxtaposed with thought-provoking fine art that fills the hotel’s museum galleries. Proof on Main, the hotel restaurant, has Louisville’s most daring menu.
Many city hotel’s are positioned for browsing. Louisville Sluggers, the company that made baseball bats for Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron is across the street from 21c. Near the Ohio River, the very popular Muhammed Ali Center is a short walk away.
Expect to be awed along the Gourmet Highway. Virginia’s Homestead, a historic hotel and resort, has special touches designed by Thomas Jefferson and hot springs galore. The drive into the main entrance becomes an out-of-body experience, a glimpse of paradise. And, if you haven’t indulged the good life at The Greenbriar, book a nice room and reward yourself. Chances are you’ll see members of congress and television news personalities who traditionally frequent the West Virginia landmark hotel.
I keep these words of Mark Twain posted near my laptop. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Choose happiness. Welcome all things new. Travel safely.