Colonial Williamsburg: George Washington Slept Here Too

Governor’s Palace. Photo by Richard Varr

Fife and Drum. Photo by Richard Varr

Interpreters with costumes representing 18th century British colonists welcome visitors along the very streets where George Washington and Thomas Jefferson once walked, making it easy to imagine what it was like in the mid 1700s. And some of the structures are the actual buildings from that time period with the same facades and wooden floors.

Costumed Interpreters. Photo by Richard Varr

Thanks to support from philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. starting in the late 1920s, 88 restored original 18th and early 19th century buildings stand today, with others reconstructed on actual foundations. They include the Capitol with its upper and lower houses of the legislature, Governor’s Palace, Courthouse and original 1715 Bruxton Parish church.

Along Duke of Gloucester Street. Photo by Richard Varr

Raleigh Tavern. Photo by Richard Varr

Taverns were community centers of sorts as venues for lectures, plays, dining and private gambling and parties. I visited the reconstructed Raleigh Tavern and the original Wetherburn’s Tavern, which served as an informal town hall. Also original are the Wythe House where Jefferson studied law under owner George Wythe, and the maroon-tinted Peyton Randolph House, where you can see the very room where Washington, Jefferson and patriot Patrick Henry sat down for dinner. Other prominent buildings include the Courthouse where visitors can watch mock court cases. Cannon firing demonstrations take place outside the more than 300-year-old Public Magazine which has an impressive weapons collection.

Peyton Randolph House. Photo by Richard Varr

Silversmith shop. Photo by Richard Varr

Costumed interpreters also explain how tradesmen and women were a part of everyday 18th century life – blacksmiths, cabinet makers, tailors and printers. The wigmaker’s shop, for example, displays powdered white wigs and others made from human, horse, yak and goat hair. Silversmiths demonstrate how such colonial-era workshops made common everyday wares.

Palace Green with Governor’s Palace. Photo by Richard Varr

Along Palace Green. Photo by Richard Varr

What I found particularly informative was a tour led by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington – actually, a historic interpreter portraying Mrs. Washington around the mid 1700s when George Washington served as an elected representative. “We have a tendency especially with our Founding Fathers to cast them in marble, and we forget they’re real people,” says interpreter Katharine Pittman, dressed in a yellow colonial-style dress and a flat-crowned hat. “With Mrs. Washington, one of my goals is to make her human… and that she wasn’t this very stoic person you see in a portrait.”

Interpreter in the role of Mrs. Washington. Photo by Richard Varr





Seville: Lost in Santa Cruz, Finding Columbus and the Amazing Azulejos

Narrow streets in barrio Santa Cruz. Photo by Richard Varr

I always thought it was easy to get “lost” on the curving alleyways of Venice – between centuries old walls and walking on footbridges over snaking canals – UNTIL I visited Seville for four days and stayed in a hotel within the narrow and cobbled streets in the Santa Cruz barrio. It’s pretty much the same scenario but without the canals. I made mental notes of storefronts at corners to find my way, and after four days there, I still got lost.

Giralda. Photo Richard Varr

It didn’t take long, however, to learn the best route to the landmark Cathedral and Moorish Giralda Tower which dominate the skyline, adjacent to the horse and carriage-lined Plaza Virgin de los Reyes. I took the trek up Giralda – no steps involved, but instead a brisk walk up about three dozen walkways or ramps lining each side of the square tower until you reach the top for great city views (much easier than climbing typical European towers with maybe 100-200 winding steps, usually up narrow stonewalled passageways).

Columbus’ Tomb. Photo by Richard Varr

Columbus’ Tomb. Photo by Richard Varr

The Gothic Cathedral with its expansive nave dates back to the 12th century. The must see is the grand tomb of Christopher Columbus carried by four figures representing the kingdoms that made up Spain at the time of his voyages. But is it really his tomb? As the story goes, his remains bounced around between Seville, Santo Domingo and Havana, with both Spain and the Dominican Republic claiming they have his real bones. Recent DNA testing, however, has suggested at least some of the remains in Seville are indeed those of the great explorer.

Azulejos on bar facade. Photo by Richard Varr

Azulejos. Photo by Richard Varr

Azulejos. Photo by Richard Varr

What catches my eye seemingly on every street are the beautiful and artistically painted Andalusian ceramic tiles call azulejos, used in particular for street signs, wall decorations and as storefront signs as well. The technique for creating the colorful tiles seen all over Seville and other parts of Andalusia was first brought to the region by the Moors. The tiles add gleaming color to the Gothic balustrades and walls of palaces. Many sport Mudéjar-style geometric designs, while others grouped together create murals and billboards of images. And in the bohemian Triana neighborhood, stores and craft shops sell tiles and pottery with such colorful azulejos.

Azulejos store in Triana neighborhood. Photo by Richard Varr

Torre del Oro along the Guadalquivir River. Photo by Richard Varr

Torre del Oro. Photo by Richard Varr

Other important sights include the Real Alcázar or Royal Palace with its Mudéjar patios and halls. I walked along the Guadalquivir River with the rounded, landmark 13th century Torre del Oro (Gold Tower), now housing a small maritime museum. A tour of the bullfighting ring and museum known as the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, dating back to 1761, is well worth the visit – even if you don’t agree with the tradition. The expansive and heavily treed Parque Maria Luisa with its semi-circular Plaza de España lures crowds in warmer months for events, and is also where the city’s archeological and folk art museums are located.

Bullfighting Ring. Photo by Richard Varr

Azulejos. Photo by Richard Varr

But some of my best memories were evenings spent in lively tapas bars in Santa Cruz or attending Flamenco music and dancing concerts. Flamenco reveals the soul of Andalusia with its forceful artistic expression through foot-stomping dance accompanied with strumming Spanish guitars, highlighting both the happy and sad moments in life. The music style consists of the rhythm tapped out by wooden castanets clicked together by the fingers, as well as dramatic guitar rhythms.

Flamenco dancers and guitarist. Photo by Richard Varr

Andalusia’s Granada: Last Moorish Holdout and the Catholic Kings

Alhambra at nightfall as seen from the Nirador de San Nicolas. Photo by Richard Varr

There’s no better view of Granada’s imposing Alhambra – the fortified hilltop Moorish castle fronting the dramatic snow-capped peaks of Spain’s Sierra Nevada – than from the hilltop lookout known as Mirador de San Nicolás. The best views are at dusk, when the waning sunlight casts a golden glow on the 14th century palace, the last Moorish holdout in Europe.  And as the sun sets, the spotlights illuminate the palace walls. I enjoyed the view with a beer in one of the several restaurants and cafes lining the adjacent street, all with clear views of the Alhambra and across the valley. On the way up to Mirador de San Nicolás, you’ll walk up the central streets of the Albayzín Moorish Quarter with its Moroccan cafes and shops lining the hillside’s narrow streets.

Alhambra’s Courtyard of the Myrtles. Photo by Richard Varr

Islamic calligraphy in the Alhambra. Photo by Richard Varr

Granada was the last Moorish stronghold which fell to the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Alhambra’s stone walls shelter several structures including a museum, a fort with ruins and dominant tower, and the elegant Moorish Royal Palace with its courtyards, pools and seemingly starlit domed ceilings, where it’s likely that Columbus pitched his voyage to the Orient by traveling west, but instead ended up discovering the New World.

Courtyard of the Lions with the circular lions fountain in the Alhambra. Photo by Richard Varr

Part of Palicio Nazaries in the Alhambra. Photo by Richard Varr

I would recommend spending at least a half day or more touring and walking the Alhambra’s grounds. Timed entry tickets that should be reserved a few months in advance are required to get into the Royal Palace; or, you can take a guided tour usually the day you arrive. I would also recommend purchasing the Granada Card for access into the Alhambra and other sights around the city.

Plaza Nueva, central Granada. Photo by Richard Varr

View from the Alhambra. Photo by Richard Varr

What I liked most about Granada was in the town center – the Royal Chapel of Granada with its Isabelline Gothic-style architecture. This extension of the Cathedral holds the tombs of the Catholic Kings who brought Spain together after defeating the Moors. Grandiose marble tombs are the nave’s centerpieces, while a small stairwell leads to the actual underground crypt with a window to see their coffins inside. The chapel’s alter glitters with golden trim and features statues of the monarchs and Old Masters’ paintings, while Isabella’s crown and Ferdinand’s sword can be seen in glass display cases. The Cathedral, meanwhile, is vastly cavernous with Renaissance design and with Baroque-style side chapels. Unfortunately, taking photos inside the Royal Chapel is prohibited so none are posted here.

Gibraltar’s World War II and Great Siege Tunnels: ‘City in the Rock’

Rock of Gibraltar from the Spanish border. Photo by Richard Varr

A closer look at the famous Rock of Gibraltar reveals a peculiar façade. From a distance, I can see what look like tiny holes in the rocky mountainside ascending in a line of sorts. I soon learn those holes are actually cannon ports in the so-called Great Siege Tunnels, dug and blasted out of the Rock in the late 18th century.  The very next day, I’m inside the Great Siege and World War II Tunnels network, actually looking peering out several of those cannon holes onto dramatic waterside views.

Great Siege Tunnels with cannons and diorama. Photo by Richard Varr

View from Rock lookout with Gibraltar airport and onward toward Spain. Photo by Richard Varr

Since colonial days, the Rock has been a strategic military point – a British stronghold since 1704. Located on a narrow peninsula along the coast of southern Spain, it stands tall over the Strait of Gibraltar, the waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, and separating Europe from Africa.

View from the Queen’s Lookout. Photo by Richard Varr

Great Siege Tunnels. Photo by Richard Varr

Spain made several failed attempts to drive out the British, but it was during the 14th and last attempt, the 1779-1783 Great Siege, when the British decided there was apparently no better defense than hiding within the belly of the Rock. So they began digging and igniting gunpowder blasts to create what’s now the Great Siege Tunnels, taking only five weeks to tunnel 80 feet into the mountain. The British held their ground, afterwards extending the tunnel to 370 feet with cannons facing the southern border.

World War II Tunnels, with hospital diorama. Photo by Richard Varr

World War II Tunnels. Photo by Richard Varr

The same thought prevailed during World War II when the British feared a Nazi invasion, so 5,000 engineers and laborers drilled and blasted 24 hours a day, from 1940-1943, to dig most of the 34 miles of tunnels that remain today. The maze of tunnels housed living quarters, mess halls, communication centers and hospitals for 16,000 soldiers and the workers as well – a city within the Rock. Despite the efforts, a Nazi invasion never came.

World War II Tunnels, with diorama. Photo by Richard Varr

Today, a 45-minute World War II Tunnels tour brings visitors within the Rock, but only through less than a half mile of tunnels whose walls and concrete walkways are often slickened with rainwater filtering through the mountain. Life-sized dioramas depict living conditions for soldiers and ax and drill-wielding laborers who dug the tunnels. Panoramic views from a few mountainside lookouts stretch along the coastline all the way to Morocco.

World War II Tunnels. Photo by Richard Varr

“We have a saying in Gibraltar that there are more tunnels than roads,” says guide Kyle Gonzalez. “Visitors are amazed how the workers lived and how they survived the ordeals they went through. If you were on patrol here, you didn’t know what time of day it was. You’d never see the sunlight.”

Casemates Square. Photo by Richard Varr

Macaque monkey. Photo by Richard Varr

While in Gibraltar, hop a cable car up the Rock for stunning views of two continents. Taxi tours include the Great Siege Tunnels, the stalactite and stalagmite-clustered St. Michael’s Cave, and other mountain lookouts including the Queen’s Balcony. The territory’s macaque monkeys roam freely and often pick at tourists’ purses and food at the Apes Den. And Irish and British pubs serving fish and chips line Main Street and Grand Casemates Square in the center of town.

Main Street. Photo by Richard Varr


New York City’s 911 Memorial, a Solemn Place

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

I hadn’t been back to New York’s World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan for more than 10 years when it was – sad to say – still a hole in the ground, and well before the 911 Memorial was completed. Although it bothers me deeply to think about that tragic day in 2001, I thought it was about time I visit the site once more to see the completed memorial.

Photo by Richard Varr

It didn’t take long to feel the strong sense of sorrow as I walked along the grounds, passing others with hardly a word spoken – an awkward silence is how a local most accurately described it to me. The memorial includes the two pools in the large square footprints where the two towers once stood. Each has 30-foot waterfalls with water further plunging into a deeper center square.

Photo by Richard Varr

The names of the nearly 3,000 victims of that clear September day are inscribed in bronze panels along the perimeters of the two pools. They include not only the workers and first responders who perished in the towers, but also the victims of the Pentagon attack and the four doomed airplanes, including the one that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I saw pristine white and deep red roses wedged into some of the engraved names, later learning that victims get a rose on their birthdays.

911 Memorial Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

To one side of the grounds is the 911 Memorial Museum housed in a multi-sided, modern glass building. I just couldn’t bring myself to enter the museum. Like most of us, I watched coverage of the horrific event for three days and simply found it hard to relive it all by seeing the crushed and burned artifacts, including the recovered personal items from many of the victims.

Freedom Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

On a brighter note, I loved standing under the Freedom Tower with its twisting glass sides – a symbol of hope, recovery and resilience. As a native New Yorker, it was uplifting to see. Also on the site is the new World Trade Center Mall opened in 2016, with a sprawling white 160-foot-high “Oculus” design shaped to signify a dove being released.

Mall outer design. “Photo by Richard Varr

And a side note… adjacent to the 911 Memorial site is St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church, dating back to 1766. The church today looks the same as I recall it years ago – seemingly untouched – having survived the devastation of September 11, 2001.

St. Paul’s Chapel. Photo by Richard Varr

Paradise in The Bahamas – Holland America Line’s Half Moon Cay

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. Photo by Richard Varr

Finding a beach where the water is perfectly calm is not always easy. But that’s what I found on The Bahamas’ Half Moon Cay while on a four-day cruise aboard Holland America Line’s ms Nieuw Amsterdam last month. Also known as Little San Salvador Island, Half Moon Cay is now a private island leased for 99 years by Holland America – still pristine and beautiful, used as a port of call for day excursions.

Nieuw Amsterdam. Photo by Richard Varr

In fact, I found Half Moon Cay to be just about as perfect a Caribbean-like beach destination as you might find anywhere (I say Caribbean-like because The Bahamas are technically in the Atlantic Ocean and not part of the Caribbean islands).

Photo by Richard Varr

Half Moon Cay is so-named because of its elongated crescent-shaped shoreline which probably plays a role in protecting the white-sand beaches from any harsh ocean currents. During my visit, the aquamarine-tinted surf sparkled – while soothingly still like pool water. Rows of beach chairs line the beach along with hammocks and several cabanas available for rent.

Half Moon Cay. Photo by Richard Varr

Only 50 of the island’s 2400 acres are developed, leaving lots of green space for wildlife – the occasional iguana you might see, and waterfowl including ducks and geese. A staff of 40 or so live on the island year-round, while others working with water sports, hiking, horseback riding and other activities commute from nearby Eleuthera Island when a ship is in port.

On “I-95.” Photo by Richard Varr

During my visit, I joined a biking and kayaking excursion. Our biking journey took us along the island’s main road – “I-95,” as the guides call it – parallel to the beach, stopping at the horse stable and then at an inner-island lagoon for a half-hour or so of kayaking. Come lunchtime, a main fish-fry outdoor buffet-like restaurant offers many great food choices, while a lobster shack serves tasty lobster rolls (during my visit, lines formed quickly, so get there early). A few beachside bars are great places to relax and enjoy the views, including the one next to the sign reading, “I wish I could stay here forever.” Kids enjoy splashing at the Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park.

Photo by Richard Varr

Also look out for the island’s chapel, pineapple plants, and wandering goats and chickens. One activity gets you in the water with stingrays while glass-bottom boat tours offer a look at marine life without a snorkel mask.  And at the horse stable, you might run into the island’s most noted resident: Ted the Lucky Donkey. “He brought the island luck and guests love him,” says tour guide Wendy Symonette. “He’s not aggressive, but just a lucky donkey.”

Ted the “lucky donkey.” Photo by Richard Varr



Pink-tinted colonial architecture in Nassau. Photo by Richard Varr


Artist in the Straw Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Our cruise ship also stopped in Nassau, the Bahamian capital on Providence Island, which I found to be a thriving city. I strolled along downtown streets to visit a few museums and a fort, and along squares with swaying palm trees, including the courtyards of the pink colonial Parliament and other government buildings. Shops seemingly stretch for blocks just outside the busy cruise ship terminal. For the ultimate Bahamian shopping adventure, stop in the bustling Straw Market, where artists sculpt wooden figurines on the spot and where vendors hawk just about everything you can imagine that might be sold in such a sprawling marketplace.

Fort Fincastle. Photo by Richard Varr

Queen’s Staircase. Photo by Richard Varr

My first stop was the 1793 Fort Fincastle perched on Elizabeth Hill, and at the base of the 126-foot tall, white water tower, the island’s tallest structure. Below the fort lies the Queen’s Staircase, a stairwell with 66 steps leading down a shady and narrow walkway. While not so impressive from the outside, the two-story 18th century Balcony House is a Nassau landmark as it’s the oldest wooden structure on the island. Most impressive inside the elegant home is the mahogany staircase, thought to have been retrieved from the inside of a 19th century ship.

Balcony House. Photo by Richard Varr

The Octagonal Library, another old island structure, was once a prison and what were once its narrow prison cells now hold the library’s books, documents, old newspapers and more. I found this uniquely impressive, but unfortunately, taking photos inside the library is prohibited and thus no such photo for this blog post.

Octogonal Library. Photo by Richard Varr

Other downtown sights include the Pompey Museum, named after a rebel slave and housed on the site where slaves were once sold. The museum showcases the country’s slavery and emancipation history. The Bahamas Historical Society Museum is certainly not on the radar of most visitors, but I found it teeming with historic photographs, artifacts and explanations highlighting more than 500 years of Bahamian History.

Pompey Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Other popular island sights I didn’t have a chance to visit include the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas housed in an Italianate colonial mansion, the Graycliff Chocolate Factory, and John Watling’s Distillery featured in the James Bond movie Casino Royale. But I did have time to take a ferry boat over to nearby Paradise Island to see the sprawling Atlantis Resort with its casino, huge hotel towers and outdoor water parks. Particularly impressive are its surrounding aquarium-like pools, home to stingrays, fish and other marine life that can be easily seen up close through large glass panels – just like an aquarium – on the mega-resort’s lower lobby level.

Atlantis Resort. Photo by Richard Varr

Singapore: From Fishing Village to World Port City

Downtown with Fullerton Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Raffles Landing. Photo by Richard Varr

National Gallery Singapore. Photo by Richard Varr

When Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company first landed on the small fishing village’s shores in 1819, he probably never imagined that Singapore would be the world port city it is today. In the city center, cross the Singapore River and span more than a century in history. The 19th and early 20th century structures of colonial Singapore – the Old Parliament House, iconic and historic Raffles Hotel, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and Chapel of the Chijmes, for example, sit on the river’s north bank. Cross a bridge to the river’s southern bank and stand under ultra-modern glass and steel office towers.

Photo by Richard Varr

Super trees of Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Richard Varr

Leaving Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Richard Varr

Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

Long before Singapore’s skyscrapers took root, primary rain forests and mangrove swamps stretched across the island nation. Today, that raw environment remains in nature reserves including the Jurong Bird Park with more than 5,000 birds, the Singapore Zoo, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Botanic Gardens. In the city, Gardens by the Bay features a rainforest and waterfall inside one giant dome, and flower and plant gardens in another colossal domed structure. A ring of 16-story-high garden structures that generate solar power and collect rainwater dot the grounds, while a skywalk connects a few of these so-called super trees. The skywalk offers great views of the imposing three towers of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and mall complex.

High in the super trees. Walking along the skywalk, Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Cloud Dome, Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Richard Varr

VIDEOS: Waterfalls inside the Cloud Dome at Gardens by the Bay, and the finale act of one of the bird shows at Jurong Bird Park.

Little India. Photo by Richard Varr

Arab Street store. Photo by Richard Varr

Whether haggling in a Chinatown market or stepping into an ornate Buddhist temple, Singapore’s Chinatown and Little India have a feel of the mother countries. Chinatown bustles with eateries and markets in the so-called shophouses, while golden-domed mosques and Buddhist temples topped with colorful figurines of Indian gods embellish the neighborhoods’ ethnic skylines. Arab Street is a must see for those who love to shop in a souk-style setting, with shops selling everything from sarongs and Islamic prayer mats to jewelry and perfume.

Bassorah Mall pedestrian street and Masjid Sultan Mosque, Kampong Glam, Singapore. Photo by Richard Varr

Clarke Quay at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Shophouses in Kampong Glam neighborhood. Photo by Richard Varr

Singapore’s unique shophouses, adorned with pastel hues, large shuttered windows, balconies and ochre roofs, are two- and three-story houses sharing sidewalls like row houses – Singapore style. Typical of the city’s unique early architectural style, they house markets, shops, restaurants, bars and cafes. Shophouses line the

Chinatown with shophouses. Photo by Richard Varr

bustling waterfront streets in both Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. They come in five or so different styles of shophouse architecture ranging from early 19th century traditional design to later art deco and ornate styles.


Outside ION Mall, Orchard Road. Photo by Richard Varr

What might look like a downtown boulevard or a business district with office towers is actually a megalopolis for shopping. Those skyscrapers and large buildings on Orchard Road are actually home to atriums lined with shops, seven-story malls, department stores and specialty and antique shops. The twin towers of Ngee Ann City, for example, house 30 restaurants and more than 120 stores. The Centrepoint has six floors and a basement of household goods, while Paranakan Place is lined with Baroque Chinese shophouse facades.

Photo by Richard Varr