Armchair Traveler’s Series: Walking the Walls and Meandering the Streets of Old Town Dubrovnik

Note: Most of us have been grounded from traveling, so I continue the “Armchair Traveler’s Series,” a nostalgic look at my past travels in 2019. Come explore with me! (Photos by Bruce and Connie Holmes)

1082 Stairsteps and 2 Miles, But Who’s Counting?

I am! I proudly completed the challenging, but exhilarating, walk on Dubrovnik’s Medieval walls. I was terrified to attempt this trek. Why? Read on.

Would Cranky Knees Allow Me to Walk the Walls?

A long time ago, 2002 to be exact, my husband and I were power walking on a lovely five-mile trail that traversed a luminous lake, ambled through a dappled forest, and paralleled a shimmering river. As I set each foot down, leaves leaped in the air releasing a riot of red, orange, and amber. Unknown to me, hiding under the leafy carpet was a four-inch piece of a tree limb. My unsuspecting foot stepped on it, and suddenly, I went airborne, then crashed to the forest floor, landing on both knees. Ironically, my idyllic autumn walk set up a lifetime of pain and knee surgeries.

Fast forward to the present. Between meniscus tears and a knee replacement, I have had five knee surgeries. Because I am a “slow healer,” navigating stairsteps and uneven terrain one year after my knee replacement was a challenge. When the opportunity arose to travel to Dubrovnik, I had fears about whether I could do the iconic City Wall walk.

Fears Revealed

I asked myself the following questions:

  • Can I navigate the stairsteps without one of my knees buckling?
  • Can I handle the stairsteps and the distance without tiring out?
  • Will I be a nuisance to the other walkers, especially the vast majority who walk faster than I do?
  • Will impatient walkers push past and bump me as I walk down the steps, thus increasing my chance of falling?

Elusive Answers

These bothersome questions ricocheted throughout my brain without a resolution. Once I arrived in Dubrovnik and I saw the walls, my guard fell to their power. I felt like a sailor pulled to the dangerous sea by the Sirens’ songs. I couldn’t resist; I had to make the walk:

A bonus was knowing I’d see Game of Thrones filming sites, such as the Minčeta Tower, which is close to the Pile Gate and the highest point in Old Town. This was the location of the House of the Undying where Daenerys goes to free her imprisoned dragons.

In fact, Dubrovnik’s Old City is the home and fortifications of King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms. The epic Battle of King’s Landing was filmed here, and the Fort of St. Lawrence was the Red Keep of Westerosi Royalty. For more information about Game of Thrones’ sites in Dubrovnik and Croatia, check out Rick Steves’s blog:

Off I Go!

Determined to complete the walk with my husband, I took off using my walking stick to help me navigate the obstacles. The beginning of the walk was straight up several uneven steps, a daunting start to a challenging day.

Luckily, there were also long expanses of passages with gentle inclines. Looking around, I was enveloped by the warm terra cotta of the roofs, the glorious green of the mountains, and the brilliant blues of the sea and sky. Thus, I felt encapsulated in a colorful cocoon, wondering if all who had walked this fortification, starting in the 12th century, had felt the same way.

On a practical note, most of the walk is under the blazing Adriatic sun, requiring one to wear a hat and sunscreen. Pre-planning ensures success, and the benefits are numerous. For example, sea views evoked the romance of scenic modern sails, dashing pirate ships. and marine beauty.

The beckoning Adriatic Sea.

Questions Answered.

Yes, I am waxing poetic about this beautiful walk, but what about my mobility issues and fear? From my experience, I encourage those who are fit but challenged to consider making this walk. Here are my reasons why:

  • It’s possible to choose a time to walk when the crowds are at a minimum. Check the cruise schedules. Don’t arrive at the same time or day as the horrendous hordes. Also, walk early before the sun gets scorching hot. The day we walked, there was only one cruise ship in port. We arrived for the walk before they debarked, so we had no crowds.
  • Bring a walking stick. My knees didn’t buckle, but I couldn’t have completed the walk without it.
  • I found the other tourists to be incredibly polite. The fast walkers were courteous and careful when passing me. In fact, there were niches I could step into and let people by when needed. Also, I discovered some people walked even more slowly than I do.
  • On the subjects of tiring out or getting sun stroke, there are museums and cafes along the route. You can escape from the sun, sit for a while, and enjoy drinks and food. During your rest period, you can savor the views, which are a beautiful marriage of the ancient and the contemporary.

Photo taken out the window of the Maritime Museum housed in the St. John Fortress on the north-east side of the City Walls:
The Old Port bustling with tourists.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

I did it! My stubborn resolution beat my cranky knees into submission. While walking two miles is not a challenge for me, climbing up and down 1082 stairsteps is. Pacing myself and resting when needed allowed me to exit the City Walls without injury.

We left the Old Town, going to our hotel to meet our friends, Bob and Marcia, with whom we traveled for the next two weeks. The next afternoon, we gladly returned to Dubrovnik on the water ferry and explored the Old Town at street level. We started by walking the pedestrian-friendly, limestone-paved Stradun, the town’s main street.

We first explored some of the religious sites: Dubrovnik’s Cathedral, a baroque beauty built 1671-1713; the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Annunciation erected in 1877; and the 14th-century Franciscan Monastery and Pharmacy. The Old Pharmacy was tiny and so packed with tourists we couldn’t see the displayed artifacts, nor could we tell if the new products for sale are made locally. The scene was too claustrophobic, so we left:

I could not leave Dubrovnik without seeing the Game of Thrones’ location of Queen Cersei’s Walk of Shame where religious leaders forced her to atone for her sin of adultery. Stripped naked and long hair cropped, Cersei walked down a grand Baroque staircase and through the streets while her taunting subjects pelted her with fruits and vegetables. The scene was raw, emotional, and excruciatingly hard to watch. In other words, it was great television.

We found the site, the Jesuit Staircase, on the Old Port side of town. Cersei wasn’t there, but tourists descended the steps, mimicking her arduous journey. The street below the staircase was filled with contented outdoor diners and shoppers, but no hecklers.

Looking up the Jesuit Staircase.

The day was waning, and it was now time for some great food and adult beverages, However, I needed to make one more stop to visit the statue of Marin Držić, “Dubrovnik’s Shakespeare,” sculpted by Croatia’s most famous sculptor, Ivan Meštrović. Tradition edicts one must rub the statue for good luck, as evidenced by the shiny spots:

Hoping for good luck.

Good Luck and Good Night

I got my good luck since our friends and we finished our evening in Old Town at Fish Restaurant Proto, an excellent choice: We were seated on the second- floor terrace and enjoyed the cool breeze and the view of the street below. My dinner of scallops on a bed of two purees, potato and green pea, was as delicious as it was beautiful. Lovely!

Night falls on the Old Town. What a wonderful two days! I leave, Mistress of the City Walls, Conqueror of the Unknown, Tamer of Fears. I am happy.

Armchair Traveler Series: Hanoi, Vietnam

JW Marriott Hanoi, the “Dragon Hotel”
Photo by Marriott

Curses to the coronavirus, for flying anywhere stress-free for fun and relaxation is not an option. This time of “sheltering in place” allows me to catch up on sharing my travels. I leave the cockpit and transition to my blue leather armchair. Last fall, my husband and I travelled to Hanoi, Vietnam, for business and pleasure. Check it out!

Once upon a time in a land far, far to the east, the king of the dragons married a mountain fairy. Their descendants, the “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy, ” spread across the land, inhabiting the seashore and the highlands ( Their first-born son became the king of the first dynasty of Vietnam. Out of this creation story has come a deep respect for the dragon, the symbol of Vietnam. One of the best places to see the dragon’s significance is in Hanoi at a very special hotel.

Where to Stay?

The JW Marriott Hotel Settling Down the Dragon’s Body at Sunset
Photo by Bruce Holmes

Another legend says that in the 11th century, the king travelling in his royal barge landed in the area known today as Hanoi. He saw a golden dragon rising majestically into the sky. Taking that as a fortuitous sign, the king designated the site the home of the new capital, calling it Thang Long, meaning City of the Soaring Dragon ( Today, explore this myth by checking in to the 5-star JW Marriott Hotel Hanoi, the “Dragon Hotel.” This award-winning hotel’s symbolic design is that of a dragon ascending from Vietnam’s coastline (

The JW Dragon Waking Up to a Sunny, New Day, Its Head Peering Over the City
Photo by Bruce Holmes

This “Dragon” is a very hospitable dragon. In fact, the hotel is so well thought out, a traveler could stay inside for the entire trip and never get bored. It has luxurious rooms and suites, eight tantalizing restaurants and lounges, tempting boutiques, a state-of-the-art fitness center, an inviting pool, and an indulgent spa. You can easily and happily pass the day working out, swimming, and rejuvenating in the spa.

The Food at the JW’s French Grill: Oh Là Là Là Là !

After your righteous exercise regime, you can splurge on a memorable meal. If you want to eat at Tripadvisor’s #1 rated French Restaurant in Hanoi, the JW Marriott’s French Grill is une merveilleuse expérience gastronomique ( My husband and I experienced a meal there with eight friends. All the dishes were declared delicious; I can’t single out one that was better than the other. A highlight, though, was the “The Lemon” dessert. Not only was it luscious, the confection looked exactly like a real lemon. The photos below show that food is art at the French Grill.

Patagonian Toothfish: truffle, creamy polenta, mushroom, chestnut cream
Roasted Lobster: salmon and shrimp ravioli, vanilla beurre blanc

While it’s tempting to stay in the Dragon’s comfortable lair, of course you are going to venture outside and discover the area. If you want a place to overcome jet lag before taking on the busy city, I heartily recommend an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay, a two-hour drive east of Hanoi, where you will encounter more dragon mythology: Ha Long means “descending dragon.”

Cruise on Ha Long Bay

Vietnam in its early years was constantly fighting invaders from the north. Another legend says that the Mother Dragon and her children were sent from heaven to help the navy conquer their foes by incinerating them with blazing fire and hot, heavy emeralds. The emeralds scattered across the marine battlefield, eventually rising from the water to become the 1600+ islands and islets that dot Ha Long Bay. In solidarity with the Vietnamese people, the Mother Dragon and children became mortals and stayed to work in the area.

Today, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular tourist destination. Along with our friends, Dan and Judy, we booked a cruise with Paradise Cruise, so we could see the dragons’ geological jewels up close (

These limestone jewels stretch across about 600 square miles.

Forgoing the off-board trips, we stayed on our ship, Paradise Elegance, to relax and unwind in one of the most unique and beautiful locations in the world. We enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch and then retired to our comfortable cabins with their private decks to watch the marine life mosey by: kayakers, floating villages, caves, Tung Sau Pearl Farm, and the emerald formations. Finally succumbing to the time zone change, we peacefully napped.

We chose to stay onboard, relax, and savor the scenery. No guilt here!

My husband and I awoke at sunset in time to join the spring rolls cooking demonstration on the top deck. Bruce, who doesn’t usually enjoy potentially “hokey” experiences as I do, gamely agreed to join me. He was won over when the bartender put classic gin martinis in our hands. Cooking class on! Actually, it was fun, and we got to eat the savory results and finish with a local apéritif.

The evening culminated with a relaxing sit-down dinner and a perfect night’s sleep. I woke early the next morning and joined the tai chi class on the L’Odyssée Sundeck, delighted to see Dan and Judy there, too. We exercised as the rising sun’s rays sparkled across the blue-green waves, forming white diamonds scattered among the emerald islands. The slow, rhythmic stretching kindly revived my muscles still sore from a 30-hour trip from home to Vietnam.

A beautiful two-tone soup started the evening meal.

Back to Hanoi

Meeting Bruce for breakfast, we learned of a pleasant surprise: Our Vietnamese friend and host had arranged for us to have massages at the ship’s spa, La Parfum. By the time Bruce and I finished that kneaded (pun intended) experience, I had no aches and pains. Thus, we debarked, physically and mentally prepared to drive back and experience Hanoi.

Actually, Judy and I were going to experience Hanoi with a guide; Dan and Bruce had to work. Note: Take a taxi, hire a driver, but do not, I repeat, do not attempt to drive in Hanoi. The two motorcycles below are an exception. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there is a swarm of them flying around, over, and in front of your car and the crush of other cars around you. How the locals navigate through buzzing traffic should be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Seeing just two motorcycles was such an anomaly, I had to take a photo. A hundred more motorcycles soon caught up with them.

Old Town Hanoi: Kilomet109 Boutique

Our first stop was the fashion boutique, Kilomet109, an innovative eco-friendly shop marrying ancient traditions with modern techniques ( The designer, Vu Thau, is the creative force behind this impressive brand, The New York Times reports that “Kilomet109’s dyeing [which includes yam root and indigo], weaving, batik drawing and calendering (a finishing process) is done by nearly three dozen women artisans in four separate ethnic-minority communities across northern Vietnam…” ( These easy-to-wear pieces (blazers, tops, pants, dresses, etc.) are surprisingly affordable considering how labor intensive the processes are to make them. Prices are comparable to the Polo Ralph Lauren line. I was too busy ooo-ing and ahh-ing to remember to take photos. Mea culpa!

French Quarter Hanoi: Hanoia Lacquer Boutique in the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel

Our next stop was the Hanoia Lacquer Boutique located in the historic Metropole Hotel ( Drawing on the ancient tradition of painting lacquer on wood, Hanoia makes vibrant home decor and jewelry inspired by Eastern culture.

The Hanoia Boutique: Photo by Hanoia

Earrings for My Daughter-in-Law: The design reflects the ancient iron window grillwork in Old Town Hanoi. Photo by Hanoia.

Through shopping and needing a little lift-me-up, Judy and I enjoyed happy hour at the Metropole Hotel’s Le Club Bar (

Waiting for a Drink and a Snack

We then progressed to meet our husbands and three of their business associates at a very special dinner at a vegan restaurant. Don’t turn up your noses; this was one of the best meals we ever had.

Old Town Hanoi: Uu Dam Chay, a Vietnamese Vegan Restaurant

The advantage of having local hosts is that they introduced us to the “real” Hanoi. They took the guesswork out of choosing where to tour and where and what to eat. We wouldn’t have found Uu Dam Chay Vegan Restaurant on our own, nor would we have known what to eat ( Our hosts ordered for us, and ordered for us, and ordered for us, resulting in quite a scrumptious feast that we couldn’t finish. Below, you will see samples: spring rolls, sushi, stuffed tomatoes, fruit salad, and other un-nameable dishes. That’s not true. They have names: Delicious and Memorable.

After finishing dinner and arriving back to the hotel, we went to bed, sadly knowing that we had only two more days in Hanoi.. We had no clue, however, about the surprises that were to come the next day.

A Culture of Gift Giving

The beginning of the day dawned as expected. We knew that Bruce was working at the hotel, Dan was giving a lecture to aerospace engineering students, and Judy and I were attending the lecture at the university. As a retired teacher, I enjoyed seeing the interaction between Dan and the students.

A student answers a question with the help of an interpreter.

Returning back to the hotel, the surprises and gifts started. We had designated the rest of the day as a “down day, ” and I had no idea how relaxing this time would be. I had a message that our host had arranged a an appointment for me at the luxurious Spa by JW. Gratefully, I chose a massage with lemongrass essential oil (sigh!), preceded by a long visit to the hot tub and sauna. I had to pinch myself as I was having my second massage in three days. Let me put in perspective how often I have a massage: I have been home for seven months, and I have not had one since.

Admiring the Pool After My Massage

Last Day Revelations

The next morning, rested and relaxed, I started to pack, for we were flying later to Croatia. The phone rang, and I learned that thanks to our host, seamstresses were on the way to take my measurements to make an outfit for me. Wh-.-wh-aaaaaat?! Now, my incredulousness was causing me to babble incoherently.

Two seamstresses and an interpreter arrived, bringing a selection of colorful silk and brocade fabrics. I discovered that when I returned home, I would receive jackets and the áo dài, Vietnam’s traditional long gown worn with trousers. What an honor! I must have babbled “thank you” a dozen times. I could not believe my good fortune.

I love the traditional design of this beautifully tailored jacket.

Saying goodbye to the seamstresses, I rushed off to meet Bruce for lunch with our host and his business associates in the concierge suite. There, Bruce and I learned that Dan, Judy, and we had one more trip scheduled: a visit to Ha Mahn Thang’s art gallery in Old Town. Mr. Thang is one of Vietnam’s exciting young artists. In his words: ” My works usually weave images from my own cultural history and pop culture with the social exigencies I find in contemporary life…” (

Enjoying Tea with the Artist

I especially admired his large abstract canvases that on close inspection showed traditional motifs of birds and trees inspired by those found on antique wooden screens. I wish I owned a magical expanding suitcase that would have allowed me to take home the rose and teal painting in the photo above. Before we left, generous Mr. Thang made tea for us and gave each couple an autographed copy of his biography.

H. M. Thang’s Gift to Us

When we arrived back to the hotel, the surprises kept coming. The Vietnamese gift-giving culture is generous and sincere. Our kind host gave us a piece of original art, Vietnamese coffee, and a special lotus-infused green tea called Trà Sen, a fermented tea that comes from ancient trees that at one time were reserved for the royal family. All of these gifts made us feel like royalty in a fairy tale.

Good Night, Vietnam!

Unfortunately evening had arrived, we needed to leave for the airport, and it was time for the fantasy to end. There would be no more regal dragons, calming cruises, bountiful banquets, and hospitable gifts. Our four-night trip left us with gratitude and the wish to return. Adapted from the immortal words of Robin Williams: “Good Night, Vietnam!”

1 Seaplane + 0 Beach = What Would MacGyver Do?

ICON-nie at sunset on Lake Champlain

ICON-nie Lives the High Life

Our ICON A5, ICON-nie, has been a busy gal: flying Virginia’s waterways, attending a local Splash-in, and hanging out for “show and tell” activities at the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport. June came, time for our annual vacation to a camp on Lake Champlain in Colchester, Vermont. Of course, we would take ICON-nie there for fun on the lake. That’s a no-brainer. Right? Kind of.

At the time Bruce wanted to fly the aircraft to Vermont, ICON-nie got called to work by ICON Aircraft Company. Instead of implementing the original plan, Bruce left her at a Lamborghini dealership in Sterling, Virginia.

Lamborghini to the left, Rolls Royce to the right, and ICON-nie is the only girl in town.
(Thanks to Jimmy Buffett for inspiration.)
Photo by ICON Aircraft Company

ICON-nie’s job was to show visitors how smart and beautiful she is. She is very adept at making a positive first impression.

Imagine a Lamborghini as your wingman.

She hobknobbed with two new friends, a racy, red Lamborghini and an elegant, black Rolls Royce, which further enhanced her WOW factor. While ICON-nie was living the good life, Bruce and I were making the two-day drive to Vermont, our MDX laden with fishing gear, water toys, clothes, and food.

Challenging Revelation #1

On day two as we were leaving Kingston, New York, Bruce discovered that a front was marching menacingly toward Northern Virginia where it would bivouac for four days. Instead of bringing ICON-nie to Vermont the next day as planned, Bruce immediately needed to go to Virginia to rescue ICON-nie before low ceilings and high winds trapped her there.

I drove as fast as the WAZE poice alerts deemed prudent, while Bruce searched for and found a 1:45 PM flight from Burlington, Vermont, to Washington DC. I dropped him off and proceeded to check in at our rental. Twenty-one agonizing flights of steps later, I had unloaded the car while Bruce was comfortably on his way to Virginia. His plan was for ICON-nie to depart Leesburg Executive Airport (KYJO) by 6 PM and see how far he could fly before sundown.

Challenging Revelation #2

In the meantime, I discovered something that Bruce didn’t know which would impact ICON-nie for most of our stay. There was no beach! The lake was flooded because of heavy winter snows and spring rains. The lake had “been above its 100-foot (30 meters) flood stage for almost six weeks” and was just beginning to recede.

Flooded lake wiped out the beach in front of our camp. With no room for the fire pit, there were no S’mores this year.

With no beach, how was Bruce going to pick up and drop off passengers? Maybe even more importantly, how was Bruce and his flying gear going to get from the lake to the house?

What would MacGyver Do?

At 12:30 PM Bruce flew in from Sarasota Springs, New York, where he and ICON-nie spent the night. He landed in front of the house and tied up to a mooring buoy. With no other recourse, Bruce swam to shore since the water was over his head.

Bruce ties ICON-nie to the mooring and then swims to shore.

With some McGyver-like thinking and trial and error, we formulated a plan. Bruce decided to take the camp’s kayak out to retrieve his gear, not realizing he couldn’t get into the airplane without a high risk of tipping over the kayak when he stood up. Empty handed, Bruce kayaked back to the house and found the camp’s paddle board. Channeling MacGyver again, Bruce found a serendipitous piece of ratty, old rope on the beach, which he used to tether the paddle board to the kayak.

Try #2: Kayak tethered to paddle board.

Here We Go Again

Try #2 was a success, or so we thought. At 2:15, 45 minutes after he landed, Bruce was finally able to step from the paddle board to the wing, so he could get his gear and put it into the kayak for the trip back to shore.

With the help of a kayak and a paddle board, Bruce retrieves his gear.

At the house, Bruce lugged the kayak and paddle board out of the lake, hosed them off, and dragged them to their storage spots behind the house. He then changed into clean, dry clothes only to discover that he had left his phone and keys in the plane’s console. After uttering a few expletives and re-dressing in his wet, dirty clothes, he again tethered the paddle boat to the kayak and floated out to the plane. Try #3 finally got the job done. Almost three hours after he first landed, ICON-nie was resting at her mooring, and Bruce was united with all his gear. I have never seen him make a martini so fast.

The Human Tugboat

Fast forward from Sunday to Tuesday. The water had receded enough that Bruce believed he could beach the airplane. He wanted to move it manually to protect it from being damaged by the rocks, seen and unseen, on the lake’s bottom. In a practical move, he made a run to Ace Hardware to purchase a new piece of rope, stronger and longer than the found one. Back at the camp, he ditched the kayak, but took the kayak paddle, the paddle board, and the rope out to the plane.

Bruce discovered that the double blades of a kayak paddle worked better for his purpose than the single blade of a paddle board’s.

Bruce then tethered one end of the rope to the plane and tied the other end around his waist, making himself a human tugboat. By alternately dipping the paddle in and out of the water, Bruce was able to pull the plane sleekly towards the shore. MacGyver would be proud!

Like a tugboat, Bruce positioned himself to bring ICON-nie to the shore.

Out-of-the-Box Thinking Pays Off

The water at the shoreline was then shallow enough that ICON-nie could sit on the lake’s sandy, rock-strewn bottom.

With a rope tied around his waist and tethered to the plane, Bruce paddles ICON-nie to the shore.

Bruce and our friend, Jim, were able to board the plane from ankle-deep water. Bruce then pushed the plane backwards off the lake bottom, jumped into the plane, and started the engine.

With a push, ICON-nie is off to deep water.

Bruce then turned ICON-nie from the shore to head to deep water. The canopy came down when she was in the final position for take off.

Lake Champlain is a Disneyland for exploring by seaplane. Bruce and Jim are ready for fun.

A Happy Ending

Unlike MacGyver, we didn’t stop a nuclear arms seller or dismantle a bomb with a paperclip, but like MacGyver, our story has a happy ending. Who knew that a kayak, a paddle boat, and a piece of rope could rescue ICON-nie from an assault caused by flood waters? Every story should end like ours with big smiles. Roger and out!

Jim and Bruce are happily airborne over Lake Champlain on Malletts Bay.

ICON-nie: A Shape Shifter Caught on Video

A bird’s eye view of life on the Champlain Islands
(Photo by Bryan Holmes)

A Shift Shaper

Can a seaplane change to a rabbit to a bird to a fish and back to a bird again? Our friend and major airline captain, Brett Garner, thinks it can. If fact, he calls our ICON A5 a “Shape Shifter.” While we were vacationing in Vermont, my husband, Bruce, and Brett flew ICON-nie to explore beautiful Lake Champlain from the air.

The Transformation

At Northern Lights Airfield (VT46) in Grand Isle County, Vermont, the plane hopped high off an emerald green runway into a cool blue sky. Then like a confident Canadian goose, ICON-nie soared over rippled water and peered down on luxurious estates hidden on scattered private islands. Dipping earthward, she landed on and darted along the water’s surface like a lake trout chasing an eager fisherman’s lure.

Your Turn

Why am I telling you this when you can see the sights for yourself? Take a look at the ICON A5 Shape Shifter in action. Brett is the primary videographer and producer of this YouTube video, which he supplemented with some footage taken by ours sons, Bryan and Matthew Holmes. Check it out:

(Video by Brett Garner)

Flying fromVacaville to Virginia in the Amazing ICON A5

The following blog is a collaboration between Bruce Holmes, my husband, and me, Connie Waetzig Holmes.  The piece is written from his perspective.       

Long, long ago…

Ten years ago to be precise,  the ICON Aircraft Company’s founders, Kirk Hawkins and Steen Strand, had a dream to create an aircraft to stimulate new consumers of the experience of flight, or unbounded liberty in the air as I like to describe it, reaching consumers outside of the traditional markets for light aircraft, for example from the power sports communities. Their design had to have capabilities and style that would be innovative, safe, and fun to fly, landing on both land water (“Bad Ass” as the company likes to describe it). The result:  The amazing Icon A5 went into design and production.

Full throttle ahead to delivery in 2018: I and my wife Connie now own one of these awesome amphibians.  I took delivery at the ICON plant in Vacaville, CA, on November 19. The next day began the epic journey home to Virginia.  Why the ICON for me?  More on that question later.

Flying from coast to coast in any airplane is a great means of getting to know your machine, intimately – even more so if the aircraft is slow.  The A5 has a maximum airspeed of 109 mph or 176 kph. What it lacks in speed, it makes up in maneuverability and efficiency.

Delivery and Keys at the ICON Aircraft Company Plant at Nut Tree Airport (KVCB) in Vacaville, CA.

Oh Happy Day!


Passing of the Keys and the Delivery Inspection for My New A5.

Flight Day 1: Takeoff from Vacaville, CA. to Fuel Stop in Bakersfield, CA.

The beginning of the journey: takeoff from Runway 2 at Nut Tree Airport (KVCB), Vacaville, CA.  On the morning of departure, I called Flight Service, gave my flight plan for the route down the San Joaquin Valley toward the Tehachapi Pass.  The briefer said, “VFR Not Recommended …” and “…  expect IFR conditions all day, all the way to the southern end of the Valley.”  His caution was proper and was due to the smoke from the California wild fires, still burning north of us and farther south near LA.  Because of clear sky overhead at Vacaville, I decided I could take a safe look; I could always come back and re-plan if needed.  The briefer was accurate (about the smoke) but also inaccurate (about the ceilings and visibility).  Actually, the ceiling was unlimited, and the visibility was more than 6 or 10 miles all the way to Shafter-Minter Field (KMIT), a crop duster airport near Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.


Runway 02 at Nut Tree Airport (KVCB) the Beginning of the 2,613 st.m. Journey to Virginia. (Bruce Holmes)

The Plan

The final trip itinerary did not actually emerge until about Day 3, but here is the routing that I ended up taking.  As a means of managing total situational awareness for the mission, I enlisted the help of a long-time friend, fellow aviator, and business colleague, Robert Wright (Wright Aviation Solutions). He and  I organized the idea of a “virtual copilot” operation.  We would hold daily briefings on the usual matters of wind, weather, and fuel planning. We also discussed a range of ancillary issues such as lodging options, crew-car availability, fuel price, sunrise/sunset, density altitude considerations in runway choice, etc.  Many of these topics were much easier for my “co-pilot” to investigate ahead of real-time changes necessitated by unpredicted winds or weather, all making for a higher level of confidence and comfort along the way.

We also discussed, but did not execute, sight-seeing side excursions from the route plan (e.g., Grand Canyon).  My single-minded mission was to bring the airplane home.  The splash-ins sight-seeing can wait for future flights.  As you will see, this trip had plenty of eye-candy along the say.

We used satellite tracking and text messaging tools during the day for double checking each of the flight segments as they unfolded.  We can imagine that prospective ICON flyers using the A5 for multi-day adventure flying and visiting America’s waterways might have enhanced fun with an “adventure concierge” support mechanism such as we employed.

Vacaville to Virginia

The Route Plan: Vacaville, CA – Bakersfield, CA – Victorville, CA – Flagstaff, AZ – Santa Fe, NM – Liberal, KS – Clinton, MO – St. Louis, MO – Lexington, KY – Chesterfield, VA – Williamsburg, VA. (Bruce Holmes)

The ICON has a cosmic viewing portal (AKA windshield) to the world.  I can imagine how the astronauts on the International Space Station felt when they got their new panoramic viewing window a few years back.  Airliner windows are way too small; in fact, if they would fix up a viewing bubble with seating on top of the fuselage, I’ll bet they could find a new way to generate revenue.  The sun was in my face for the three hours of flight down the Valley, but my vision was saved by the sun film.


Simple and Low-Cost Sunscreen. (Bruce Holmes)


Smoke over the San Joaquin Valley from the Wildfires in California. (Bruce Holmes)

When I arrived at KMIT, the crop duster pilots were on lunch break and came up to the ICON exclaiming, “Wow, what IS that!?”  They would take pictures of each other with the aircraft, while I took pictures of them taking pictures.  This was the first of a performance that was repeated everywhere I stopped on the journey home to Virginia. After selling me some fuel, they asked if I’d had lunch and treated me to some of their box lunch offerings.  Below are pictures of my plane and two of the agricultural aircraft.


Navigating through the Tehachapi Pass into the Mojave Desert.

After eating a bite and filing the flight plan for the next leg, I took off headed toward the Tehachapi Pass, the entrance to the southwestern desert.


CA Route 58 Snaking Along the Tehachapi Pass from Bakersfield into the Mojave Desert.      (Bruce Holmes)

Spread below me in the Mojave Desert are Edwards AFB and NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center. These venues are where the future of aviation is unfolding with electric propulsion system research, supersonic boom flight testing to re-open the supersonic transport era, and the opening of space tourism with the recent successful flight of Richard Branson’s Virgin Spaceship Unity. It blasted to 51.4 miles above the earth and landed on the runway you see in the distance in the photo.  The spaceship/aircraft was created by colleague Burt Rutan and his The Spaceship Company. (Gotta love their address: Mojave, California, Earth.)


Edwards AFB, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center and the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Distance. (Bruce Holmes)

Next, I landed in Victorville, CA, at Southern California Logistics Airport (KVCV), kind of a “spook” airport. (Lots of aircraft festooned with lots of antennae and painted gray.)  I parked at Millionaire FBO.  Ramp crew showed up — wanted pictures of themselves with the ICON.  I think I held the record, at least that day, for the smallest aircraft on the field.  I took advantage of their waived parking fee for topping off my fuel load.  I imagine they were not thinking about an ICON showing up, needing only five gallons of fuel.  I picked up the keys to their crew car and headed to my hotel for the night.


Millionaire FBO Ramp Crew Member at Victorville (KVCV) Taking Pictures of Himself with the ICON. (Bruce Holmes)

Flight Day 2: From Victorville, CA, Across the Desert Toward the Next Fuel Stop in Flagstaff, AZ, then on to Santa Fe, NM.

I was up at dawn, dropped the crew car back at Millionaire. In my adrenaline-fueled excitement taking delivery on Monday, I flew away on Tuesday from Vacaville with the keys to my rental car.  Before I departed the FBO in Victorville, I left the keys with the person at the desk, who kindly assured me the keys would be shipped back to the rental car company on my behalf. Lesson: Take a deep breath every now and then and ask, “Self, what have I missed?”

The ICON A5 and I were then eager to continue the journey. I departed eastward from Victorville — into pure, beautiful, desolate desert. Over the miles, the hazy terrain gave way to unlimited views of desert and the distant horizon.


Looking north over Bullhead City, AZ, on the eastern side of the Colorado River and Laughlin, NV, on the western side, I saw green terrain. These two cities are known for their casinos, outdoor activities, and various sorts of nighttime entertainment.  Tempting, but not on my flight plan.  Bullhead City Airport (KIFP) has a runway long enough to handle private jets and the Sun West charter flights reserved through Harrah’s for “high-end gamblers.”  A Sun West Boeing 737 climbing out in the distance in front of me was one of the small handful of other aircraft I saw during the entire trip.  Needles, CA, is off to my right to the south.  These were the last fuel stop options for almost two hours to Flagstaff, AZ, ahead.  In the eastern U.S. from 10,000 feet, AGL, fuel stops are within gliding distance in many places.


The Colorado River Dividing Bullhead City, AZ, and Laughlin, NV. (Bruce Holmes)

I arrived at Flagstaff, AZ, Pulliam Field (KFLG), for fuel and lunch.  The field elevation is 7,015 ft. MSL with a runway length of 8,800 feet.  Even the ICON would need about half of the runway on a hot day because of density altitude.  Here, I saw the second aircraft in my airspace so far, a SkyWest regional jet headed to Phoenix.  As was the case for more than 90-percent of the journey, my awareness of other traffic was mostly from interactions with air traffic controllers helping the big guys at the flight levels find smoother rides.  This brings up a point:  I experienced virtually no turbulence for most of the trip.  I thought about giving advice over the air, but settled for automated Pilot Reporting (PIREPS) through the apps on the iPad.


Mesmerizing Canyon-land and Desert Scenery from Flagstaff, NM to Santa Fe, NM.

The view from just above the landscape of mesas, canyons, gorges, and desert looks like being on another planet.  Here are samples from the flight leg between Flagstaff and Santa Fe. A thought that recurred was, “I wonder what this all looked like a couple of millennia ago?”



Here are more samples of the captivating view getting closer to Santa Fe.  Except for the industrial site on the mesa in the lower left-hand image below, there were few signs of human activity for much of this part of the journey.



I touched down at the Santa Fe Airport (KSAF) and parked at their Signature Flight Support FBO for the night.  The next day would be one of the longest of the trip, so I found a hotel not far from the airport, called Uber, and prepared to be at the airport before sunrise the next day.

Signature Flight Support at Santa Fe Airport, NM (KSAF). (Bruce Holmes)

Flight Day 3: Dawn Launch from Santa Fe, Skirting Their Mountains, to Liberal, KS for fuel, then on to Clinton, MO and St. Louis, MO. Happy Thanksgiving!



I left Santa Fe at 0-dark 30 and headed toward Kansas. The orange sky in this sunrise image is a likely a lingering consequence of California wildfires that I witnessed as far east as Kansas City.  This is one of my favorite images of the trip.


Flying Eastward from Santa Fe. Orange Smoke at Sunrise from the California Wildfires.       (Bruce Holmes)

Sunrise East of Santa Fe, Turning the Corner Toward the Plains of Kansas.

Flying out of the desert to the plains, I saw irrigation crop circles in southwestern Kansas. I have been told that they are visible from space.


Crop Circles Dotting Southwest Kansas. (Bruce Holmes)

I re-fueled in Liberal. KS, about 70 miles east of the state’s southwestern border. I called the FBO manager the night before about getting gas on Thanksgiving Day.  He explained, yes, his kids would be running the desk and gas would be available. Aviation is often a family affair, and this family delivered.


Thankful to Find Gas on Thanksgiving Day. (Bruce Holmes)

After gassing up, I flew over Cheney Reservoir, northwest of Wichita, KS, a temptation for a splash and dash, but not on this mission plan. Eisenhower Airport (KICT) in Wichita.  Runway 32, aligned with the view in the bottom image, is the one I flew from on my first solo flight under my father’s watchful instruction. He exited our family airplane, stood in the grass along the runway on January 22, 1966, and witnessed the beginning of my 50+ years of flying.



Across the Kansas Plains from Liberal to Clinton, MO (KGLY), For Self-Fueling.

The left photo below shows the austere exterior of the pilot’s lounge at the unattended airport in Clinton, MO. It was not the least bit austere on the inside with leather seating and a large-screen TV.  Pilots like their comforts.  At first the self-service fuel pump would not read my credit card (oh-oh!).    I re-read the instructions and got it right, then continued on to St. Louis, flying over the Lake of the Ozarks.



Lake of the Ozarks.  

The Lake of the Ozarks is one of the largest man-made lakes in the United States and a playground for fishing enthusiasts, boaters, and seaplane pilots. In fact, while most of the state’s large lakes are open to seaplanes, they have some restrictions because they are Corps of Engineers Lakes..  The good news is that the Lake of the Ozarks is the only lake with no restrictions. It merits a return visit.


Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. Splash In Next Time! (Bruce Holmes)

The Junction of the Osage River Joining the Missouri River 

I had been following the contours of the Missouri River. I saw the Osage River to the right below and continued to follow the Missouri River straight ahead.  I plan to return in the future, following the trail of the 1804-06 Corps of Discovery Expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.


THE Missouri River of Lewis and Clark Fame to the Left and Straight Ahead. (Bruce Holmes)

Because I am flying low over the water, I have  limited ability to see the airport in the distance. The tower controller at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport (KSUS) in Chesterfield, MO. offered to help by turning on the approach lights,  so I could pick out the runway better from a distance.  Bingo, there we are!  In reality, the GPS-fed moving map does a great job of providing detailed guidance, but it is nice to have controllers who want to help.


Runway 08R at Spirit of St. Louis Airport (KSUS). (Bruce Holmes)

Arriving at Spirit of St. Louis Airport, Chesterfield, Missouri (KSUS).

This arrival at “Spirit” was at the end of the longest day, 8-plus hours of flying from Santa Fe to St. Louis, MO, about 1/3 of the distance across the U.S.  The flight reinforced for me how much the low-workload makes flying the ICON such a low-fatigue experience. Happy Thanksgiving indeed! It was show and tell time to the family and friends at Spirit.


Connie Meets Her New Aircraft with Family Members Enjoying the Fun.                               (Marlene Waetzig)


My Brother-In-Law, My First Right-Seater, but Only in the Hangar Unfortunately.                 (Connie Waetzig Holmes)


Introducing the ICON A5 to the Next Generation of Potential Pilots. (Connie Waetzig Holmes)

Flight Day 4:  St. Louis (KSUS) to Lexington, KY (KLEX) for Fuel and Final Overnight Rest.

Heavy rains in the area grounded me for two nights in Chesterfield, allowing me happily to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday and our nephew’s birthday on Friday with Connie and her family. I woke up on Saturday to beautiful blue skies and sparkling sunshine. Connie captured my takeoff from Spirit Airport in an awesome video.



A short 3 1/2 hours later, I landed in Lexington, KY., and spent the night. I do love a good bourbon, but this wasn’t the trip to imbibe.  I did, however, put a bottle of Kentucky’s finest in the baggage compartment.  Following Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail may have to be on my wish list for future trips.


No Problem Finding Great Bourbon to Toast the A5! (Bruce Holmes)

Flight Day 5: Lexington, KY (KLEX) to Chesterfield County Airport (KFCI), VA.

“Did the weather affect your flight?”  This is a common question from friends listening to this story.  The short answer is, not really, except for a six-hour fog delay in Lexington.  I eventually took off and knew I was almost home when I saw the beautiful blue haze blanketing the peaks and ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


The Last Leg from Lexington to Home Over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Virginia. (Bruce Holmes)

My goal was to land in Chesterfield, VA, before sundown.  Utilizing the advantage of good tail winds, I landed about five minutes before sundown. I then bedded down the A5 down at Dominion Aviation at Richmond Executive Airport in Chesterfield, MO.  Connie, flying Delta from St. Louis to Richmond, picked me up in our SUV, and off we went to the Williamsburg Inn in our hometown to celebrate our 48th wedding anniversary and our ownership of the A5. What a celebratory week!

First Engine Inspection at Dominion Aviation at Richmond Executive Airport (KFCI) in Chesterfield, VA.

Dominion Aviation at Richmond Executive Airport (KFCI) is an authorized ICON A5 maintenance center. The Rotax engine manufacturer (BRP of Wels, Austria), schedules a post-delivery inspection of the engine, including a download from the Flight Data Recorder of all the engine and flight information data from a plug inside the fuselage.  The technicians emailed the data file for the hours of flying to the engine company, to ICON, and to me.  Good news – No news!  In the future, perhaps these data can be sent to the manufacturers over a 4G or 5G LTE air-to-ground advanced connectivity solution for real-time analysis and pilot advisories.



After the inspection was completed, I returned to KFCI and flew the airplane on its first business trip  to Raleigh Durham Airport (KRDU) for work with my firm there. (I know, it is not really a transportation machine, but it works!) Finally a few days later, I flew the airplane to its home airport, Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport (KJGG) in Williamsburg, VA.

Since the airplane needs to work for a living, in addition to occasional business travel, I am working with the manufacturer to make the aircraft available for flight training and discovery flights in Virginia and Vermont, as well as in other parts of the eastern seaboard where water-flying has so much appeal.

The Flight By the Numbers

Here is a summary of the big numbers for the whole flight:Slide2The Aircraft By the Numbers (

Here are some specifications for the aircraft:


Aviation Aids I Would Not Want to Be Without

I employed the following leading-edge technologies available in aviation today:

  • Garmin inReach Mini (TM).  The device is a satellite-based position-reporting (over the GEOS system) and text message communication device (over the Iridium Next system).
  • Virtual Co-Pilot.  My long-time business and aviator colleague, Robert Wright, and I schemed up a trial of a concept for flight operations support (e.g., an “Adventure Concierge”) service using our texting capabilities and daily briefings, covering everything from fuel availability, to crew cars, to lodging, to winds and weather, to sights-to-see along the trip.
  • Garmin GDL-52 Navigator and Aera 796(TM) “Glass” Cockpit Technology.  The device integrates with the radio system to make radio management as simple as touch-screen can be.
  • iPhone and iPad – goes without saying.

In the not-to-distant future, we can expect to see advances in air-to-ground, air-to-air, and air-to-satellite broadband connectivity solutions that will enable many capabilities impacting efficiency, convenience, and safety for flight deck applications, aircraft systems management, and cabin and passenger services.  These capabilities will be enabled through bi-directional, low-latency, low-cost, highly scalable radio systems technologies that are undergoing rapid advancement today.  I expect these capabilities will be of increasing value to aircraft small and large, piloted and unmanned, fast and slow, and yes, even amphibians.  If you want to know more about what is coming, see SmartSky Networks, LLC.

Why the ICON A5?

As I described in the opening paragraph, the vision of the company’s founders to create new markets for aviation, markets beyond the past aging and mostly male consumer base, was compelling for me.    The A5 aircraft embodies both the new market appeal and nearly all of the technologies in which I had a hand in developing over the years. During my NASA career, I was involved in aeronautics research and technology development programs across a spectrum of speeds (subsonic to hypersonic); vehicle sizes (general aviation to large transports); and applications (from personal, to business, to public mobility).  The motivation that wove through all of those experiences was an early passion for flying and a maturing understanding of all that flight could mean for society.

Over the decades at NASA, I advocated for the idea that smaller, more advanced aircraft, advanced and simplified airspace management concepts, and community and neighborhood landing facilities would become vital to the mobility of future generations.  Today, we stand at the threshold of one of the most significant revolutions in aviation since the jet engine of more than 60 years ago: electrically propelled, clean, safe, and affordable aircraft. Electric aircraft are poised to transform the human experience of flight, the field of aeronautics, personal mobility, and even society itself over time.  While the ICON A5 is not powered by electric motors, all of the components of the aircraft — the structures and materials, the digital engine controls, the aerodynamics, and the flight deck systems — were  derived from work that I, my NASA colleagues, and our industry and university partners worked on over the years.  For me sitting alone in the aircraft, crossing the United States from Vacaville to Virginia, was “living in the message.” Now my ICON goes to work, sharing this message with fellow pilots, students, and the public who would like to learn about the joy of liberty in the air.

Question for Other ICON Owners:  What was your experience of flying the ICON A5 from Vacaville to your home?




Fjaerland: An Enchanting Book Town

History of the International Book Towns 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Or maybe not. Perhaps it was a “dark and stormy night” or even “once upon a time.” Whatever the inspiration, Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wey, Wales, founded the first book town in the late 1960s by turning abandoned buildings in his home town into second-hand bookstores. His success inspired other small towns around the world to emulate the concept. Fjaerland is one of those book towns, the first in Norway in 1995 and the eighth in the world at the time. This picturesque town is situated on the “iconic” Sognefjord, Norway’s largest fjord.


Travel to Fjaerland and Fjordstove Hotel and Restaurant

Fjaerland, an enchantingly lovely farming  town of about 300 residents, is not easy to reach.  We took a 1 hour and 45 minute boat trip from Balestrand to get there, but the journey is as rewarding as the destination. The fjord reflects the mountains, clouds, and land resulting in mirror  images that intensify the beauty. Our final destination was the Fjaerland Fjordstove Hotel, a haven of hospitality and gourmet dining perched along the shore.


When we opened the door to our modest, but comfortable, accommodations, I felt I had won the jackpot:  the book room.  An English teacher surrounded by books?  Quick.  Pinch me.  Is this a dream?


An Introduction to Bård Huseby

Concerning dreams, meet our handsome innkeeper, Bård Huseby.  Norwegian born and college educated in the U.S., Bård gives nightly welcoming talks before dinner. Guests learn about the area’s history, the farm-to-table dining options, and recreational activities–hiking in the area, exploring the nearby Jostedalsbreen glacier, and discovering the varied book stores. The books hide in abandoned buildings, hang on the sides of buildings, and loiter along the fjord.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, mountain, sky, outdoor, nature and water

Fjordstove Hotel owner, Bård Huseby, celebrates Norwegian Independence Day, May 17.

(Photo from Facebook)

Explore the Book Outlets

Come stroll with me as I seek the perfect souvenir to take home. This building held oodles of charm, but not a book I wanted.


The cute factor here didn’t increase my chances here either.


I also didn’t find success in more modest outlets.



A freestanding book shelf didn’t yield a result, but it did reinforce the honor system for paying.  You choose a book and either leave the money in a drop box or go to the grocery store or visitor’s center to pay.


The money-box in this outlet also didn’t get my krones; I am still bookless.


I thought surely I could find what I was looking for in this shabby chic location, but surely (and sadly) I didn’t.


Welcome to my favorite book outlet.  The turquoise bench called to me: “Connie, sit down and laze the afternoon away reading.” Big problem:  There were no books in English.  In fact, there were only a handful of English books in the town. Defeated again, on I went.


The stroll continued past abandoned buildings now repurposed as book outlets.  Some of these structures hold more than just books.


Is this an abandoned dog house or playhouse?  I don’t have a clue.


I give this outlet an A+ for the creative use of an obsolete phone booth.


Here’s my last chance, but this former office didn’t produce the perfect book either.


Explore the Humor

Feeling rather hopeless, I walked  back towards the town center and noticed that Fjaerland has a sense of humor.  Need a pit stop?  There are restroom facilities next to the boat landing, so you don’t have to “stop, press, and squeeze.”


On down the road, I laughed out loud when I noticed a cow with spectacles staring at me from the top of a building.


Then I chuckled when I saw a quirky mannequin in mountain climbing gear scaling a house being renovated.


Finally, this book outlet deserves accolades because of its humor combined with efficiency. You can search the bag of books, find one, put the money in the box, then sit on the shady bench and read to the affable man sculpted out of a log.


Explore the Locavore Movement

At this time, I was still bookless, but I was no longer despondent.  It is impossible to be sad in such a cheerful, beautiful place.  Walking past the peaceful farms, I wondered if the produce I saw would end up on my plate for dinner.


The cows and lambs may eventually find their way to Bård’s kitchen, too, because he showcases the locavore movement at his Fjaerstove Restaurant.


The proof of Bård’s commitment is this lovely meat dish bathing in a red wine and beet sauce garnished with berries. The meat, vegetables, and fruit are locally sourced.  Only the wine is outsourced–from France, of course. Only the best will do.


Perfection in Fjaerland

Are you feeling sorry for me about not finding a book on this outing?  Don’t be.  The next day, I checked out the bins and shelves of second-hand books in the visitors’ center. Ja! I found the perfect book to put into our guest room at home:  Mon Lille Sommer Sangbok (My Little Summer Songbook.) I don’t speak Norwegian, but even I could figure out this title.  Since this is a children’s book with simple vocabulary, I thought our guests might think it fun to try to guess the words.


I was confident that we could decipher a few words from familiar songs like “Row, Row Your Boat” below.  Wrong song!  Google Translate showed me my error:  This song is about catching fish for the family, not about rowing a boat down a gentle, dreamy stream. Even though the book doesn’t translate easily, it still is the perfect souvenir from Norway’s premier book town. Like Fjaerland, this book sings the praises of the simple life with joy and humor.


Back at the hotel, lounging on the deck surrounded by dignified mountains stately rising from the shimmering fjord, I salute the 300 residents of Fjaerland.  Bountiful books. Luscious cuisine. Spectacular scenery. You may be the luckiest people on Earth.


Why I Attended the March for Our Lives


February 14, Valentine’s Day.  The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, arrived at school with anticipation of gestures of love and friendship. Instead at the end of the day, they encountered a barrage of bullets blazing from an AR-15. Students fled from the halls, ducked into classrooms, hiding under desks and in closets. For an interminable 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the lone gunman terrorized the children and their teachers, indiscriminately shooting his innocent victims. Seventeen died; fifteen others were hospitalized.

Valentine’s Day will never be the same.  Gone will be the memories of fragrant flowers bought and shared, romantic texts surreptitiously sent, sweet treats from a favorite friend or teacher.  Forever will be memories of the incessant bullets’ rat-a-tat-tat-rat-a-tat-tat; the crushing fear and panic; the bloodied dead bodies of their friends and teachers; and for the fifteen survivors, the unfathomable pain of bullets ripping their young flesh.

MSD students’ reaction

The MSD students, fueled by their hurt and outrage, rose from the mayhem and carnage and ascended to being leaders for gun reform. Emma Gonzalez spoke at a rally in Ft. Lauderdale just four days after the massacre and criticized politicians and their B.S. for not doing enough to stop gun violence. Thus, a movement was born.

A short six weeks later, Emma and four other MSD student-activists are on the cover of the April 2 issue of Time magazine.  On March 24th, the MSD student group #NeverAgain and the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety organized and led a successful March for Our Lives rally in Washington DC that spawned supporting rallies all across the nation and world.fullsizeoutput_4339

The accusations

I attended that rally.  Why?  There are several reasons. One is as a retired teacher with thirty years of classroom experience, I had to go support those courageous, brilliant MSD students. They were not only terrorized by the shooter, but they are also being terrorized in the press and in social media. What has been said about them? Judgemental, erroneous remarks include the following:

  • The students are too young to have complex thoughts and to articulate them so well.
  • They are being manipulated to action by the liberal establishment.
  • They are actors, not students.
  • They are led by a “skinhead lesbian” and a “baldfaced liar” / “moron.”
  • They are not sincere in their efforts; they are looking for excuses to miss school.
  • They are trampling on the Second Amendment and want to ban all guns.
  • And the newest insult: a video of Emma supposedly tearing up the U.S. Constitution posted on Twitter by Gab, a “free speech social network.”
  • And the list goes on.fullsizeoutput_4324

My reaction to these accusations?

  • After teaching Advanced Placement Composition and Literature, which is a course of rhetoric that includes the persuasive argument; and coaching students in forensics, which includes competition in U.S. and Foreign Extemporaneous Speaking and Original Oratory, I know how knowledgeable students are about national and world issues.They do not need adults to tell them what to think and what to say, nor do they need adult actors to pretend to be them.
  • The Maine Republication politician running for office who called Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg names received so much criticism for his attack from both Republicans and Democrats that he dropped out of the race. Enough is enough.
  • Seeing the students in person, noting the passion in their message and the tears streaming down their cheeks, one cannot doubt their sincerity.
  • News outlets quickly jumped to Emma’s defense showing that the video was fake. The original animation, which had been doctored, is from a March 23 Teen Vogue story showing Emma ripping a target poster, not the Constitution.
  • Listening to the many students at the rally and studying their positions, I, like all that were there, know the following to be true:
    • The students want common sense gun laws, including requiring universal background checks, closing the gun show loopholes, and implementing digitized gun-sale records.
    • They want the age for gun ownership raised to 21.
    • They want guns to be kept out of the hands of the irresponsible and insane but kept in the hands of the responsible and sane.
    • They want the military-style AR-15 banned, not all guns.
    • They also want to ban high-capacity magazines.
    • They believe that these changes can be put into practice and still support the Second Amendment.fullsizeoutput_4344

A hopeless feeling emerges.

After I returned home from the March for Our Lives, I was checking news coverage on Facebook. Commentators on one conservative site wrote that the students want all guns banned.  I wrote that I was at the rally and no one ever said that. I had one person respond that he “found that hard to believe.” I answered that “I am not a liar.” Another person wrote that I am not a liar, but I am “sadly misinformed.” I was at the rally; they were not. Fruitless exchanges like this make me feel hopeless.


Emma recites the names of her 17 killed classmates and follows with a period of silence.


Hope is restored.

Hope returns again when I reflect on the leadership of not only the Parkland students, but also the leadership of students from other cities desecrated by gun violence: Chicago and Newtown. Their overwhelming message is to use the power of the vote to elect politicians who will support the needed reforms and not kowtow to the gun lobby in return for money to run their campaigns. For their weapon, the  students have chosen  the vote, not the AR-15.


To arm teachers, or not to arm teachers?  That is the question.

The student-led movement also supports arming teachers with the resources they need to teach, not arming them with weapons.  Let guns be in the trained hands of the professional security guards.  As a teacher, I also support this view, which is another reason I wanted to be at the rally.  The school where I worked for 25 years has to be in the top 1% in the nation for being an ideal teaching situation, but I still encountered the rare teachers who had short fuses and unstable personalities. I would have felt fearful for my students and myself knowing they were armed. I also encountered the rare students with short fuses and unstable personalities–ones who would be able to wrestle a gun away from a teacher and use it against him or her. We hire teachers, not Dirty Harrys.


Voters want action.

Finally, I attended the rally to be counted among the legions of voters who are demanding that our elected officials enact meaningful legislation to solve this complex problem. Thoughts, prayers, and then politics as usual is not a solution. No one wants our leaders’ children to go through what the Parkland students and others have. The big question is however:  What does it take for our legislators to realize how serious of a problem we have and do something about it?



Not a red state problem; not a blue state problem; it’s an American problem.

Trying to silence the children who have been traumatized by gun violence through bullying, name calling, and lying is not a solution to the problem either. American children deserve better.  How ironic that the Parkland students, not the adults of this country, have rallied the troops and are leading the charge in the war for common sense gun laws. They are the idealistic, committed brave generals we require.  Under their leadership, we all need to work together to make America safe again, so no child will ever have to say, “I don’t want to be next.”



Writer’s Block: Why Dresden?


About 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles recreate the Procession of the Saxony Kings.

Why have I been reluctant to write about Dresden, which I visited ten months ago?  The Florence on the Elbe is the awe-inspiring beautiful city of my paternal ancestors and a major player in World War II. Dresden’s place in 20th century history, however, raises a moral dilemma:  Were the Allies just in firebombing and destroying the city, obliterating historic architecture and museums, and most tragically, killing thousands of civilians as well as the Nazis?


My writer’s block comes from not knowing how to get my head around that moral dilemma.  Former RAF Warrant Officer, Harry Irons, reported that he was one of the bombers who dropped over 3900 tons of explosives on the city; his guilt haunted him for years. The issue is so complex, however, that no one even knows the exact number killed.  In 2009, the History Channel reported that between 35,000 and 135,000 people perished.  More current sources, including a BBC report on the 70th anniversary of Dresden’s destruction, state that the number was 25,000. Even if the lower number is correct, thousands died, mainly civilians. Was the attack a moral one?


Justification for the attack,  Peter Rowe of the San Diego Union Tribune explains, is based on the following two points:

Where are railroad yards?  They are in the middle of cities, so bombing Dresden meant killing civilians. The Allies, according to the History Channel, not only wanted to disrupt communications, they also believed it was imperative to “terror[ize] the German population,” thus “forcing an early surrender.”


A piece of the rubble from the Frauenkirche left as a memorial


Critics argue that the February 13, 1945, attack came at the end of the war when the Allies were the wrestlers on top ready to pin their savage opponents to the mat; thus, the bombing was unnecessary.  Rowe points out that argument is specious since the “aircrews, had no advance word of when peace would arrive” with Germany surrendering in May and Japan in August. The History Channel also supports critics’ views that while “no German city remained isolated from Hitler’s war machine, Dresden’s contribution to the war effort was minimal compared with other German cities.”

The truth still remains, however, that the Nazis were the first to firebomb cities; Warsaw, Rotterdam,  London, Coventry, and other cities were all victims. Their vampire-like thirst for the blood of innocents was insatiable. Their extermination of the Jews and other populations was barbarous and incomprehensible.  According to Dante’s Inferno, Hitler and his Nazi minions are incarcerated in Hell’s Circle 7, Ring 1, where those who wage war against their neighbors are immersed forever in a river of boiling blood and fire.  How appropriate.

Whether Dresden’s demise was necessary to topple the devil’s denizens will continue to be debated. Harry Irons, mentioned above, said  he has made peace with his conscience after finally visiting Auschwitz a few years ago and realizing that the inhumanity there could have been brought to England. Many still have no definitive answer for this moral dilemma.


I do have an answer for writer’s block, one I should have heeded months ago:  just start writing. I also have advice for tourists to Dresden:  realize that you are walking on holy ground. The city was re-built over the burned dead. All were not guilty. Some were innocents trapped in Hitler’s evil web.


Under tourists’ feet lie the ashes of thousands of people incinerated by the immense heat and fire of the bombing.


Do go, however, to Dresden which is now re-built and re-stored to its former beauty. There you will see the Frauenkirche, the 18th century Baroque Church of Our Lady, Dresden’s symbol of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. This building lay in a nest of ruins for 50 years before it rose up and flew over Dresden’s skyline again.  The rubble was left as a war memorial until 1989 when private citizens in Germany and abroad started an action group to raise funds for the church’s resurrection. The project was an ecumenical one. In fact, the son of one of the pilots who dropped the deadly bombs created the gold cross on top of the church’s bell tower; the English city of Coventry donated the cross.


The Lutheran Church’s Frauenkirche with the monument to Martin Luther in front


The Frauenkirche today is a testament to modern technology.  The architects and builders were able to construct the building using burnt stones from the rubble.  The result is an intricate jig saw puzzle of a project where the dark original stones pepper the light-colored modern stones.

The church’s website eloquently explains the effect of using the original stones: “The dark colouring of the old stones and the dimensional differences in the joint areas between the new and old masonry resemble the scars of healed wounds. In this way, the Frauenkirche will testify to the history of its destruction in the future too. At the same time, however, it is testimony to the overcoming of enmity and a sign of hope and reconciliation.” The building today is a testament to humankind’s belief that good will always overcome evil.


The dark stones represent both the terror of the past and hope for the future.


The Frauenkirche is not a lone Phoenix; there is a flock of them since most of the city was obliterated. History Today reports that 27 of Dresden’s churches were either destroyed or severely damaged, including the Catholic Hofkirche, the Court Church. The Hofkirche had 12,000 parishioners before the raid; afterwards, there were only 500 who survived.  


The Hofkirche’s spire points again to heaven.

Another notable resurrected building is the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, the Kunstverein. Its iconic glass dome is called the “Lemon Squeezer” because of its shape.


The “Lemon Squeezer” dome rises up from one wing of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.


Another risen Phoenix is the 18th century Baroque masterpiece, the  Zwinger, which held the electoral art galleries and library, showcased the court’s festivities, and displayed a garden and an orangery in its courtyard.


The Zwinger Today


Marcia and I are at the Crown Gate, ready to explore the Zwinger’s three museums.


In the 19th century, one side of the Zwinger’s courtyard was closed, and the Semper Building was built to house then, as today, the prestigious Old Masters Picture Gallery.  Among its many well-known masterpieces, the most revered is arguably Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna.


The well-known and well-loved angels rest at the Sistine Madonna’s feet. 


Also at the Zwinger is the Royal Cabinet of Mathematics and Physical Instruments, a museum devoted to the display of scientific pieces from the 16th to the 19th centuries. There are clocks, maps, globes, telescopes, and other mechanical gadgets that shaped the world of yore, making it the world of today. Clocks run from the fanciful . . .


Bear with me while I beat out the time.

to the elaborate: Eberhard Baldewein’s Astronomical Clock from the late 1500s.


This four-sided clock has beautiful, intricate details from every angle.

Mythical creatures snake around globes . . .


Baroque Celestial Globe

while maps chart the known world of the time.


Where are Washington, Oregon, and California?


The art gallery and science museum hold wonders, but the most delightful museum to me is the Porcelain Museum.  Who knew that hard china could elicit such warm feelings? The story goes that Augustus the Strong locked his apothecary in a laboratory until he could turn lead into gold, which he failed to do. He did, however, discover how to make white porcelain.  (The Japanese had kept their process a secret.)  Augustus loved this porcelain passionately, and we see his glorious collection today–a fanciful gathering of Meissen animals, birds, and flowers alongside inspirational Japanese and Chinese pieces.

Walking down the museum’s main corridor, I first noticed the artistic arrangement of Asian pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries.


There are porcelain pieces here in perfect condition that are over 400 years old.

When I reached the end of the hall, however, and turned the corner, I let out a gasp of delight.  Perched on Chinese-style baldachins were life-sized white porcelain animals.


Augustus the Strong’s Menagerie

I quickly rushed forward to get a closer look, realizing that the animals had  distinct personalities: proud, fierce, sedate, and so on.


Where else would a king’s pets sit but on golden boulders?

I walked slowly around the display until I found my favorite. All mothers can remember days like this one.


Mother monkey seems to have reached the end of her patience.

Other white critters lined the wall’s edges as shown in the mirror below. Overall. the room reflected an artistic elegance that was sophisticated and playful at the same time.


The Meissen porcelain animals are something to crow about.

The artistry spilled out of the zoo and into the garden.


You can’t touch the flowers, but you want to do so to make sure they aren’t real.

In the piece below, the animal world and the natural world co-exist with both humans and the gods. Augustus the Strong’s apothecary may not have made gold, but he left a new art form, one whose beauty has not diminished over the centuries.


Equestrian statue of Augustus III


Dresden’s beauty has also not diminished over time, thanks to the dedication of all of those who helped in her reconstruction–both financially and physically. While her history may be tragic and still fuels the discussion about a moral dilemma, Dresden is not an old lady wearing a sad face and tattered garments.  Instead, through her rebirth, she is a modern gal, proudly wearing her hopeful cloak of reconciliation.  She deserves a visit.


Your carriage awaits for your tour of Dresden.


The Lakewalk Along the Shores of Gitche Gumee

Not a lover of cold weather, I do not want to be in Duluth, Minnesota, in the winter.  The website 24 / 7 Wall St. lists Duluth as the fifth coldest city in our nation. The lowest recorded temperature is -39 degrees.  Brrrr!

The Lakewalk 


The Lakewalk, Duluth

Traveling to Duluth in the summer instead of the winter changes that “Brrrr” to a “Bravo!” My morning started pleasantly at Canal Park where my husband and I explored the Lakewalk, a pedestrian and biking path that meanders 7.25 miles along the shore of Lake Superior, otherwise immortalized by Henry Longsworth Longfellow as Lake Gitche Gumee, The comfortable 71-degree weather was partly cloudy with a slight breeze and not a shiver in sight.

Aerial Lift Bridge


Aerial Lift Bridge at Canal Park

Our research on the walk suggested that we start at either Canal Park or at Leif Erickson Park and the Rose Garden.  We chose the former, mainly because it was closest to our hotel.  We are glad we did because that site allowed us to view Duluth’s iconic landmark, the Aerial Lift Bridge. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see this massive structure actually rise up to allow ships to sail beneath it. Fortunately, we can turn to YouTube, to see this magic of 20th century technology happen.

The Lighthouse


Duluth Harbor North Pier Lighthouse

Also of 20th century technology, but not massive yet impressive never-the-less, is the 36-foot tall Duluth Harbor North Pier Lighthouse. Built in 1910, this working lighthouse guards the entrance to the Duluth Shipping Canal. Visitors who walk from the Lakewalk to the lighthouse pier and up the steps can see the lock on the door facing the lake. Unfortunately, no weathered lighthouse keeper greets them.  The last one served from 1928 to 1940; today, the lighthouse is fully automated.

Sights Along the Walk

There is never a dull moment on this walk.  In addition to the natural beauty of  Lake Superior, there is a series of  ancient anchors in repose along the shore.


One of several anchors along the shore

In addition, if you can’t find the banned locks of love on Paris’s bridges any more, you can find them on Duluth’s pier posts.


Locks of love

Sculptures also enliven the area.  Some are in front of shops,  a few blocks from the Lakewalk,


A sculpture celebrating family fun in the great outdoors

while others require you to exit the Lakewalk on strategically placed steps.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore this option.  If we had exited at Lake Place, we would have found Sister City Park and Enger Park and the sculptures gifted by Duluth’s Sister Cities. At the former park, there is The Green Bear from Petrozavodsk, Russia, and The Stone from Växjö, Sweden.  At Enger Park, we would have heard the mellow tones  of The Peace Bell, a gift from Ohara Isumi-City, Japan.


Exiti the park at Lake Place to find the Sister Cities’ sculptures.

We retraced our steps 1.5 miles back to the car, which we parked in one of the many lots in Canal Park, an area that prior to 1985 was a rusting industrialized area whose waterfront was shut off to the public.  Visionaries have revitalized Canal Park into a vibrant venue that attracts nature lovers, sports enthusiasts, gourmets, and art afficiandos.


The walk back to Canal Park

We relunctantly left the Lakewalk, but the serendipity continued. My favorite find was a fanciful fountain that spouted a lively spray on a sliding water nymph.


A fountain of fun

Another surpise was a brick wall that heralded the work of sailors, past and present, reminding us of the influence of the maritime industry on Duluth’s cultural heritage.


If walls could talk, what would these mariners say?

‘There are ample opportunities to both walk and shop until you drop. The revitalized waterfront also hosts a bevy of restaurants and shops from the familiar, like Cold Stone,  to the unfamiliar, like Antique Boutique.


Just a few of the myriad of shops in the Canal Park area

Arriving back at our car, I noted that according to my Fitbit,  I had walked three miles roundtrip, which leaves almost six miles of the walk yet to explore. There is nothing left to say except the obvious:  “Bravo to Duluth!” We will return.


The Best Free Thing to Do in Tampa

Put on your walking shoes and trek off to the best free adventure in Tampa.  You have two choices:  explore the Riverwalk or discover Bayshore Boulevard. Better yet, do both. Walk until your drop.  You won’t be bored.

Join me for a “speed walk” in Tampa through photos, starting at Riverwalk’s 2.5 mile pathway past the city’s best museums, parks, hotels, and restaurants. Being there at the end of a rainfall with the setting sun sneaking past the leaden clouds was a serendipitous experience. Reflections, refractions, rainbows, remarkable!








Walking Bayshore Boulevard the next day, I experienced a different vibe from Riverwalk’s urban scene , as the 4.5 mile path winds parallel to the expansive Tampa Bay.   Prestigious mansions, sculptures, and wildlife (elusive the windy day I was there) provide non-stop entertainment along this route.




If you are lucky enough, you will see another form of “wildlife”:  a pilot flying and landing the ICON A-5 Amphibian Aircraft.


Tired of walking but want to explore some more?  Take a short drive to Ballast Point Park and enjoy the views from a bench on the pier and reflect on your two days of walking in Tampa:  Cost:  $0.0; Experience:  Priceless.