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Banjo and Ukulele Festivals for the Whole Family

August 27, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The banjo and the ukulele, two musical instruments long considered just for novelty or just for old people, are lately making a resurgence. Riding on the fame of banjo-playing bands like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons and ukulele-playing groups like Beirut and The Magnetic Fields, the banjo and ukulele are more popular now than they have been since their heyday in the 1920s. If banjos and ukuleles are more than hipster accouterments to you—if you’re really serious about these ascendant old-time instruments—then you’ll be interested in all the banjo and ukulele action taking place around the country. Just like in the early ‘60s, when kids discovered folk music, all sorts of festivals, conventions, and workshops are sprouting up dedicated to these wonderful instruments. 

49th Annual Midwest Banjo Jamboree: La Crosse, Wisconsin 

When you think banjo, you may think of bluegrass, or you may think of the weird banjo kid in Deliverance. The banjo pickers at the Midwest Banjo Jamboree (September 20th- 22nd) will change your mind about all of that. The banjo is a very versatile instrument. And these pickers, who play mostly jazz—from Dixieland to a Django Reinhardt-inflected modern jazz—will show you just how versatile it is. This is a venerable old festival, appropriate for such a venerable old instrument. The oldest banjo festival in the country, the Midwest Banjo Jamboree got started during the early ‘60s, when folk music and what was called “trad jazz” (ragtime and Dixieland) were enjoying popularity among the young people in America and Britain. Today, the Midwest Banjo Jamboree proudly represents the jazz branch of the banjo-pickers family tree.

The Midwest Banjo Jamboree takes place in the charming small town of La Crosse, and the festival has a real small-town community feel. This is no big-time, worship-the-stars-from-afar affair. This festival is all about getting to know the music and the players up close. And if you’re a banjo picker yourself, it’s all about getting into the action during one of the festival’s open jams—such as that on the La Crosse Queen riverboat. The paddleboat cruise up the Mississippi River is a real treat. Nothing feels more American than playing a banjo on a riverboat on the Mississippi. You expect to see Mark Twain walk down the deck chatting with the captain at any moment. La Crosse is a college town, so there is no shortage of spots to eat and drink. And there is a thriving microbrew scene in La Crosse. So prepare for some great tunes, great food, and great brews!

2013 Wine Country Ukulele Festival: St. Helena, California

Taking place in St. Helena, in northern California’s picture-perfect Napa Valley, the Wine Country Ukulele Festival (September 6th-8th) combines fine wine and ukuleles—both of which will supply you with beautiful notes. There is nothing more satisfying than sitting under the California stars listening to Hawaiian-influenced music and drinking the finest wine in the world only feet from where it was produced. If you play the uke, bring it along. You will have ample chances to play it with other ukulele aficionados. There will be an open mic, jam sessions, and workshops. This is a family-friendly event. Sunday, September 8th, is Kids’ Day at the festival—a day when kids can get ukulele-playing instructions and perform for their parents. This festival will make you fall in love with California and with the ukulele (if by some chance you’re not in love with them already).

After a day of enjoying the joyful music and maybe making some, too, you’ll be ready to head back to a hotel that keeps the fun going. What you need is a suite with a kitchen where you can hang out with your family like you do at home. 

On the Trail of America’s Best Coffee Shops

August 23, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Coffee drinking is many things to many people. It’s the stimulative ritual that starts your day—stimulating your body and your taste buds—and the smell that lets you know morning has really arrived. It’s what you drink when you’re having a heart-to-heart with a friend or a business meeting with a colleague. It’s a pleasant after-dinner beverage best enjoyed with dessert and the laughter of friends. Coffee is the central non-alcoholic beverage in America. What tea is to the British, coffee is to Americans. As with everything else we take into our bodies, in the past twenty-five years or so, we Americans have become a good deal pickier about the coffee we imbibe. The gourmet coffee movement that once was strictly a coastal phenomenon is now country wide—though the best of the best, the cream of the coffee crop, is still to be found on the coasts.

Ultimo Coffee: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 The reason Ultimo is the country’s ultimate coffee shop is not only that you can get a perfect cup of coffee there. That’s part of it, of course. What puts Ultimo over the top is how nice and unpretentious the baristas are. True to the city’s nickname, you will find a whole lot of brotherly love here. If you are a coffee newbie, have no fear of asking your counterperson for a coffee education. Ultimo is all about connecting with its customers and helping them connect with great coffee. And they go beyond this sort of casual coffee education. Ultimo has regular coffee tastings (think of a wine tasting that’s just a bit less mellow) in order to form a bond with the community and to make sure that their customers have real relationships with the coffees that they are drinking.

Gimme! Coffee: New York, New York

 Gimme! Coffee, which has been around since 2000, pioneered what has come to be called “third-wave” coffee. Starbucks and the other mass-market, high-quality coffee shops were “second-wave.” What “third-wave” coffee shops seek to do is to improve upon Starbucks’ improvement of coffee by treating it as an artisanal product. Gaining traction along with the slow-food movement, “third-wave” coffee shops bet on the fact that people would be willing to wait just a little bit longer for a cup of coffee that is a whole lot better. And they were right. Shops that make single-serving drip coffee, the signal improvement of “third-wave” shops, are becoming more and more common—but the coffee they make is never common.

Ritual Coffee Roasters: San Francisco, California

Ritual is all about coffee. Walk into any of Ritual’s three San Francisco locations, and you will find scones and croissants. But you will not find baristas who have to waste time preparing bagels for people. At Ritual, the baristas are 100% concentrated on your cup of coffee. The coffee-making process will not take a second longer or shorter than it should. The reason that Ritual attracts such a diverse group of serious coffee drinkers—from hipsters to businesspeople—is that it takes coffee-making so seriously. You get none of the bitterness or acidity that can be a byproduct of an over-busy atmosphere. If you’re serious about coffee, this should be your favorite coffee shop.

After a day of drinking the best coffee around and checking out some of the best cities around, you’ll be ready for the best hotel around. At Extended Stay America, you get the sort of attention to detail that you get at the best coffee shops. For a very reasonable price, you get a hotel that feels a lot like home. 

Great Museums and the Great Buildings That House Them

August 14, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

People tend to visit museums for what is inside of them. That’s the idea, right? To see excellently curated collections housed in great spaces? Absolutely. People, though, tend to overlook the importance of the great buildings that house the exhibitions—the buildings that are the first thing you see when you arrive and that frame each exhibition during your visit. America’s earliest museums, like New York City’s American Museum of Natural History and Metropolitan Museum of Art, were architecturally modeled on the great Neo-Classical European museums. But during the twentieth century, we broke off on our own with cutting-edge museum designs, such as that of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle. Both the old-world museum designs of the nineteenth century and the experimental ones of the twentieth century have their charm and interact with exhibits in unique ways.

American Museum of Natural History: New York, New York

The American Museum of Natural History opened its column-flanked doors in 1869. Not yet 100 years old, the country was still being weaned off of an affiliation with European culture. It was European plays that were hits on Broadway, European opera singers who serenaded us, and European architecture that housed our greatest treasures. Though this has been modified to a degree by the addition of annexes to the Museum of Natural History over the years (such as the Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Gems and Minerals, the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, and the Rose Center for Earth and Space), the building’s rooms are firmly divided in that nineteenth-century way that represented the division between categories of knowledge.

Science in the nineteenth century was characterized by much cataloging and categorizing. In the twenty-first century, though, information moves much more freely—a fact that is reflected in more contemporary museum designs. The American Museum of Natural History (the name itself is anachronistic—“natural history” is a nineteenth-century term for biology), then, is not only a museum of science but also a museum of the nineteenth-century scientific mind.

Experience Music Project: Seattle, Washington

The Experience Music Project is the absolute opposite of the American Museum of Natural History architecturally. It is post-modern where the Museum of Natural History is Neo-Classical; it is fluid and kinetic where the Museum of Natural History is rigid and solid. Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum, dedicated to youth music from the ‘50s through the present, itself feels musical. In the same way that the songs in a great band’s or a great DJ’s set flow seamlessly into one another, the rooms housing museum exhibits flow together. The design of the building emphasizes the connection of all popular music in our global community. The newest exhibition, Hear My Train a Comin’: Hendrix Hits London, typifies this fluid, global ethos. The exhibit tells the story of Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix, who cut his teeth touring as a guitarist with acts like Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, jetting over to London at the behest of a Brit named Chas Chandler, who was more of a blues and rock-n-roll fanatic than many Americans were at the time. Hendrix was a global phenomenon from the start—a border-smashing rocker. The museum that houses his exhibit reflects the Hendrix border-crossing attitude—which is the post-modern cultural attitude that defines our age.

After a day of checking out some of the country’s most interesting museums and experiencing the interaction of their architecture and exhibitions, you’ll be ready for a well-designed hotel. Look no further than Extended Stay America: an amenity-rich hotel designed to make you feel at home.  

An Inspiring Vacation for Aspiring Writers

August 5, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August should be known as National Playwriting Month. Last year, a group of dedicated theatre-lovers, writers, directors, and producers started the annual 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge. Everyone who signs up to participate must write a play a day for the entirety of August. The challenge is such that you are forced out of the habit of restraining yourself, of checking your craziest, possibly most innovative ideas. Last year, many playwrights had giant breakthroughs and got into playwriting territory that had eluded them for years, because they were forced to work using Allen Ginsberg’s famous rule: “First thought, best thought.”

A great way to get rid of the cobwebs that check your most exciting literary ideas is to take to the road. When you dash routine, you become far more observant of what is around you. Novelty perks up the mind like nothing else. Also, when you leave home, you can see home in your mind’s eye much more clearly than when you are there. We travel to get another perspective on things. From a distance, you can take in your life back home as an observer rather than as an overwrought participant. And we all know that our lives make up the most fruitful fodder for our writing. The following are some destinations that have the literary pedigrees to prove just how inspiring they are.

Key West, Florida

When people think of Key West these days, it’s spring breakers and Jimmy Buffett that come to mind. In the not-too-distant past, though, the southernmost Key was a bastion for literary innovators of a hedonistic bent. The easy, beach-bum atmosphere that drew them there lives on. I love to start the writing day over a late morning café Cubano at one of Key West’s great breakfast nooks. Novelist and adventurer Ernest Hemingway called Key West home for many years and wrote novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not in between doing daring stuff like patrolling the Atlantic Ocean searching for Axis subs. When your writing day begins to sag a bit at midday, I recommend a trip to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. Another notable literary luminary who alighted on Key West and called it home was Tennessee Williams. Williams’ Night of the Iguana, which he wrote in Key West, is proof that the town can inspire playwrights to turn out true masterpieces.

New York, New York

So many great writers are associated with New York. If you like comedy, there’s Neil Simon and Woody Allen. If you like heavy literature, there’s Eugene O’Neill and James Baldwin. What all of these diverse writers have in common is that they spent an awful lot of time in Greenwich Village—a neighborhood with a small-town feel in ultra-urban New York City. The reason Washington Square Park, the Village’s meeting place (located right next to New York University) figures in so many novels and plays (the most obvious of which is Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park) is that their writers spent so much time there. If you spend time there, you will likely be inspired to get to work on some masterpieces, too.

After a day of inspiration and story creation, you’ll be ready to kick back and muse about your day spent with the Muse. The perfect place to do this is a hotel that has all of the conveniences of home (kitchen, free Wi-Fi, flat screen TV and laundry room)—so that you don’t have to run out for anything in the middle of the night.