Spring debuts in the southeast as early as late February, then creeps into central North Carolina and up the coast, reaching the mountains a little later. Temperatures are a pretty consistent 60-70 degrees by mid-April. The weather’s nice, but some regional events are so large that entire cities or corners of the state may be booked. April is the most challenging month, with Wilmington’s Azalea Festival, Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Festival and North Wilkesboro’s MerleFest.
[pullquote align=”right”]Weather can change on a whim. It pays to layer, as temperatures in the 80s can drop into the 60s at night.[/pullquote]Summer is the high season: beaches are jam-packed, traffic is slow in the mountains, and across the state you’ll find festivals and events. Heat and humidity can be brutal, and the cooler mountains and coast draw the most visitors for this reason.
Autumn begins in the mountains and spreads across the state. Fall foliage accounts for the mountains’ second high season, running from late September through early November; it’s busiest in October, when cooler weather offers relief after sweltering September. Near the coast, fall doesn’t begin until after hurricane season has passed, in early November. Water along the coast stays swimmably warm past Halloween most years.
Winter is milder here than in many parts of the country, but many businesses in the mountains and along the coast reduce their hours or close entirely. West of I-95, the Piedmont gets a few snow showers, and the coast gets one or two every couple of years. In the mountains, temperatures are much colder and snow falls a few times a year. You’ll hear no complaints from skiers. If you plan to visit the beach or the deep mountains in January, book accommodations in advance.
What to Bring
Weather can change on a whim. It pays to layer, as temperatures in the 80s can drop into the 60s at night. Pack for chilly weather in the mountains, even in the summer. On the coast, it can be breezy and cool on the water even on warm days.
Cell phone signals are pretty consistent, but there are rural pockets on the extreme coast or in the deep mountains where cell service and 3G, 4G, and LET connectivity is spotty.
Set in a pine-forested highland valley midway between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, Siguatepeque (pop. 53,000) enjoys a cool and comfortable climate—a pleasant change for those coming from the steamy north coast. In spite of its long history—the town was one of the first bases for the Spanish in their conquest of Honduras—little colonial-era architecture remains in Siguatepeque. There are few attractions per se to interest foreign visitors, though the invigorating climate and fine countryside may inspire you to spend a couple of days hiking around the hillsides. Many highway drivers stop in Siguatepeque to eat at the buffet restaurants on the highway (my favorite is Granja d’Elia). A mini-mall of sorts right on the highway has clothing stores, a Wendy’s and a pupusería, a Banco Atlántida with ATM, and an Espresso Americano coffee shop, while a bigger mall off the highway has a larger selection of restaurants and shops.
Orientation and Sights
Siguatepeque has two main squares: The one with the church on it is known as the parque, while the other, two blocks west, is called the plaza. The center of town is about 1.5 kilometers off the San Pedro Sula–Tegucigalpa highway. The park has been redone with lots of lovely plants and flowers, as well as a rather bizarre, UFO-like concrete structure, which does not deter the townsfolk from congregating daily. The plaza, on the other hand, is a barren expanse of cement.
Next to the Hospital Evangélico on the edge of town is Calanterique, a 120-hectare park on a hilltop, perfect for a nature walk and for taking in views of town. Those looking for a more active way to pass a sunny afternoon can head to Water Island, a small waterslide park 300 meters south of the main turnoff from the highway to Siguatepeque.
About four kilometers down the highway west to La Esperanza is the village of El Porvenir, a local center for Lenca pottery, sold out of houses and shops on the road.
There is an abundance of places to stay in Siguatepeque, starting with Hotel Zari (tel. 504/2773-0015, US$10.50 s, US$17 d), just off the southwest corner of the park. With newly tiled, clean-smelling private bathrooms, cable TV, fans, hot water, and private parking, the Zari is the top budget option. Some of the hotel’s 53 rooms are in a second building across the street.
Hotel Gómez (tel. 504/2773-0868) has two types of rooms set around the parking lot—the smallish older ones have a fan (US$15 s, US$18.50 d), while those in the new wing have air-conditioning and are modern and spacious (US$21 s, US$27.50 d), with wireless Internet. Some English is spoken.
Hotel Plaza San Pablo (tel. 504/2773- 0700/4020, US$20 s, US$27 d, US$6 more for a/c), on the plaza, has 37 simple, slightly musty rooms, with hot water, TVs, and wireless Internet. The rooms are a bit worn, but the bedding looks relatively new.
The best place to stay in town is the sparkling Park Place Hotel (tel. 504/2773-9212, US$38 s, US$62 d, including breakfast). Don’t let the 1970s exterior fool you—Park Place opened in 2011 and is all shiny new and nice inside. Rooms are outfitted with imported linens, orthopedic mattresses, and flat-screen TVs, and the hotel has private parking, a restaurant, a small swimming pool, wireless Internet, an exercise room, and a computer in the lobby for guest use—all in all, a good value.
If the Park Place is all booked up, there are a couple more higher-end choices that are still pretty good. Estancia Flamingo (tel. 504/2773-9511, US$35–55 s, US$50–55 d, including breakfast) has airy halls and a mix of light and (very) dark rooms. All have air-conditioning, TVs, and wireless Internet, as well as hairdryers and mini-fridges. The hotel is a few blocks from the center of town, best perhaps for those with their own wheels. On the flip side, its location makes for quieter rooms. Prices vary according to the layout of the rooms.
Right along Boulevard Francisco Morazán, Vuestra Casa Bed and Breakfast (tel. 504/2773-0885, US$45 s, US$51 d) is a charming seven-room B&B with a pleasant garden and an outdoor patio where breakfast is served. Room decor is elegant and tasteful, and the double rooms are spacious (worth paying a few bucks more, even if you’re a solo traveler). The one drawback is the traffic noise from the boulevard, which is the main road between the highway and the town center, but it dies down after dark. While the hotel doesn’t serve dinner or lunch, you’re just two blocks from Del Corral Steak Ranch. From the highway, Vuestra Casa is 1.5 kilometers along the main boulevard into town, just after a small bridge, opposite the Panadería Estrella.
A few kilometers outside of town is a new spot for ecotourism and relaxation, the Cabañas El Gran Chaparral (tel. 504/8820-1127, US$75 s/d), surrounded by pine forest. The rustic cabins have furniture of rough-hewn wood and kitchens with hot plates and microwaves, and there are larger (and more expensive) cabins that can sleep up to five. Bicycles (US$5.25 per hour) and ATVs (US$10.50 per hour) are available for rent, as well as pedal-boats and fishing equipment, for use in their man-made pond. To get there, turn into the village of Villa Alicia at kilometer marker 124 on the San Pedro–Tegucigalpa highway. You will pass a church, then the offices of Caritas— keep going straight for another two kilometers to reach the cabins.
Food and Entertainment
La Siguata (tel. 504/2773-9555, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily) specializes in Honduran cuisine, serving dishes such as grilled meats, seafood soup, and pork chops in a casual setting. The best deal is during weekday lunch, when they offer an “executive lunch” for US$3.50, including a soft drink.
For some tasty fried chicken, head to Chicken’s Friends (US$3 for a chicken meal) opposite the Park Place Hotel.
Del Corral Steak Ranch (11 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5–9 p.m. daily), on Boulevard Francisco Morazán, is renowned for its steaks, while Del Corral Snack Bar is a popular place for snacks and coffee in the Del Corral Supermarket.
For a decent cup of coffee in town, the ubiquitous Espresso Americano has a branch 2.5 blocks north of the Banco Atlántida at the corner of the plaza.
Locals also like to eat at Mall Beit Jala, which is home to several restaurants (try Habana-Mex for Mexican and Cuban specialties) and a popular bar, as well as the usual shops.
On the highway to San Pedro, at kilometer marker 118, is a deli-supermarket, Granja d’Elia. All sorts of vegetables, meats, cheeses, and other goodies are available daily until 8 p.m. The adjacent restaurant (6 a.m.–9 p.m. daily), very popular with motorists driving between San Pedro and Tegucigalpa, serves a decent buffet with a wide selection of breakfasts, appetizers, meat and vegetarian entrées, and salads. They now have a hotel on-site as well. Also along the highway is Asados El Gordo, a reliable Honduran chain that sells hugely portioned and reasonably priced steaks. Another popular restaurant along the highway is Pizzeria Venezia (tel. 504/2773-5931, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. daily), serving decent pizza (US$7–9 for a large), as well as a large selection of fresh licuados. The branch in town has closed.
Just past Siguatepeque, at kilometer marker 122, is Villa Verde (tel. 504/2740-1001, 6 a.m.–6 p.m. daily), another restaurant/store combo. The produce is all grown on-site and organic; the fresh juices are especially good. Plants, handicrafts, and Honduran sweets are also for sale, and there is some kids’ play equipment if you have little ones that need to stretch their legs. A few kilometers down the road, at marker 125, is Fred’s Kitchen, which serves up decent versions of the usual food (chicken, beef, burgers) in a pleasant setting.
Five and a half kilometers down the highway to La Esperanza is La Cocina de Comal (tel. 504/2717-1629, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. daily). The food may be the usual Honduran specialties, but the fruit and vegetables are organic, and the restaurant is worth a visit to support the association (La Red Comal) that runs it, a network of producers that are striving for social justice and economic development. They have a store selling food products such as tea, honey, and coffee, as well as handicrafts. There is also children’s play equipment on-site, and it is possible to go for a walk in the woods.
Information and Services
Hondutel on the parque is open 5:30 a.m.–9 p.m. daily. Right next door is Honducor, with express mail service available.
Banco de Occidente, HSBC, and Banco Atlántida will change dollars and travelers checks. The latter two also have cash machines.
If you need to get connected, head to Zona Virtual (tel. 504/2773-4135, 9 a.m.–12:30 p.m. and 1:30–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., mornings only Sat.). Internet use is US$1 per hour.
Típicos Anardá has a few souvenirs.
Getting There and Around
Siguatepeque is 125 kilometers from San Pedro and 117 kilometers from Tegucigalpa, with well-maintained highway in both directions. Driving toward Tegucigalpa, the steep, winding stretch of highway down into the Valle de Comayagua is known locally as Cuesta La Virgen.
The easiest way to get to San Pedro or Tegucigalpa is to take a US$1.60 taxi ride out to the highway and catch the next bus that comes by in your direction. If you don’t feel like waiting on the highway, however, Empresas Unidas (tel. 504/2773-0149) leaves from the town center and runs rapiditos (minivans) to Tegucigalpa starting at 4:15 a.m., then every two hours, with the last bus departing at 4:15 p.m. (US$3.15, 2.5 hours). To get to Siguatepeque from Tegus, catch the bus in Barrio Concepción in Comayagüela, at the Mercado Mamachepa, in front of the Elektra store. The first bus departs Tegucigalpa at 5:45 a.m., and the last at 5:20 p.m.
Direct buses to Comayagua leave from the same parking lot (US$1.60, 30 minutes).
Kamaldy (tel. 504/2773-3034) has buses to San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa for US$8 either direction, departing from the restaurant Don Tiki, along the highway. The first buses depart at 7 a.m., then every 60–90 minutes until 5 p.m. There is one more late-night bus, departing around 8:30 p.m., although we don’t especially recommend nighttime travel in Honduras.
Etul (tel. 504/2773-0033) has buses to San Pedro Sula departing every 30–40 minutes starting at 4:40 a.m., with the last bus departing at 4 p.m. (US$3.15, two hours).
To get to La Esperanza, take a US$1.60 taxi ride to the highway turnoff, a couple of kilometers from the Siguatepeque turn on the way to San Pedro. From the gas station at the La Esperanza turn, Carolina (tel. 504/9945-9240) buses leave roughly every two hours (US$3, 90 minutes). The road to La Esperanza is 67 kilometers, dropping down into the Río Otoro (upper Ulúa) valley, past the town of Jesús de Otoro, and climbing back up into the mountains to La Esperanza.
To get to Jesús de Otoro, catch the bus next to Hotel Puesta del Sol, hourly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (US$1.75, 40 minutes).
A taxi to the highway should cost US$1.60; in town a ride should cost about US$0.50, although it’s possible to walk everywhere.
Attention, Moon fans—you have until May 14th to apply for the Butterfield Scholarship!
What is the Carol C. Butterfield Scholarship?
A grant established by friends and family of the late book publicist Carol C. Butterfield to honor her memory and to continue her efforts to help others develop their careers in book publishing.
Where does the scholarship money come from?
The Butterfield Scholarship Grant is administered by the Book Promotion Forum through an endowment managed by the Community Foundation for Monterey County. It must be used within one year of being awarded.
Who is eligible to apply for the Butterfield Scholarship?
Any resident of Northern California (defined as Monterey north) OR someone involved in an internship or taking classes in Northern California (if you aren’t a resident).
How can I use the $2,000 scholarship money?
In one of three ways:
To cover some of the cost of attending the Denver Publishing Institute, Yale Publishing Course, New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute, Columbia University’s Publishing Course, or another book publishing program
To finance a book marketing, sales, or publicity internship with a Northern California publisher, distributor, or bookseller
To take a class in book publishing, marketing, publicity, sales, or communications
How is the winner selected?
A panel of judges from the San Francisco Bay Area book community will review applications. The Scholarship Grant recipient(s) will be publicly recognized at a Book Promotion Forum event and asked to contribute an article for the e-newsletter.
How do I apply?
Send the following by mail or email by May 14, 2014:
One-page resume with educational/professional background and information about any previous book publishing experience
One-page description of how you plan to use the scholarship, how it will help with your professional development, your financial need, and a statement about your goals in publishing
Two professional or educational letters of recommendation
Butterfield Scholarship Application Committee
c/o Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
235 Montgomery Street, Suite 650
San Francisco, CA 94104-2916
Community tourism initiatives, whereby local Maya guides take travelers to seldom-seen locales in Guatemala’s rugged countryside, make for some extraordinary cross-cultural opportunities. You’ll have the chance to stay in basic accommodations with Mayan families along the way, thus contributing directly to their economic well-being and greatly enhancing the cultural experience. Although many areas of Guatemala feature community tourism initiatives, this strategy details a selection from highland regions of the country.
There are several excellent treks leaving from the town of Nebaj, in El Quiché department’s Ixil Triangle. Perhaps the most popular hike from here is a three-day Nebaj–Todos Santos trek across the Cuchumatanes mountain chain, where you’ll encounter Andean scenery the likes of grassy plains strewn with rocky boulders in addition to Mam-speaking indigenous peoples herding sheep and llamas. Other overnight hikes from Nebaj lead west to picturesque lagoons near an area known as Las Majadas or to the villages of Xeo and Cotzal. Many hikers favor this route for the chance to get up close with the local culture in seldomvisited Mayan villages. The Ixil Triangle, as you may recall, was hard-hit during the country’s civil war but is today one of Guatemala’s best-kept secrets. The scenery alone makes the trip worthwhile, but the chance to take in the friendly indigenous Maya culture makes this trip memorable.
Uspantán and Around
This town lies along a back-door route between the departmental capital of Santa Cruz del Quiché and Alta Verapaz, to the east. Recreational opportunities include hikes through the backcountry to the wonderful waterfall of Los Regadillos, hikes to Peña Flor and the neighboring site of Tzunun Kaab’, and hiking or biking to the agricultural village of Cholá, where you can bathe in a refreshing spring-fed pool. You can also visit Laj Chimel, the birthplace of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú and the gateway to Guatemala’s fourth-largest cloud forest. You can try your luck at spotting the elusive quetzal (Guatemala’s national bird) and other exotic species. Local Maya guides take visitors to far-flung locales such as Mirador El Quetzal, with spectacular views of the Ixil Triangle flanked by the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, and lovely Laguna Danta. The community provides camping in a covered platform and basic lodging in an adobe guesthouse.
East of Uspantán, the town of Chicamán has also caught on to ecotourism and serves as the gateway to the seldom-explored Rio Chixoy. About 14 kilometers away, it’s most easily visited from the hamlet of El Jocote via a community tourism initiative. A full day of river tubing includes three hours afloat on the cool, turquoise-colored river ending at a spectacular waterfall, a jungle hike, and lunch in a local community. You also have the option of staying overnight in a very comfortable and quaint wooden cabin.
Sierra de las Minas
Some of the best hiking anywhere in Guatemala, and Central America for that matter, can be found in the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve. Several trails wind through this remote wilderness, allowing the opportunity to spot Guatemala’s national bird, the quetzal, and explore its unique cloud forest habitat. Starting in the village of San Rafael Chilascó, hook up with the local Community Tourism Organization for hikes to the nearby waterfall of El Salto de Chilascó, one of Central America’s highest waterfalls. Longer, more challenging hikes take you up the mountain spine of Lomo del Macho and deep into the cloud forest to a research station at Albores and the Peña del Ángel rock formation.
Centuries of mariners have plied the waters off North Carolina’s coast, harvesting its aquatic beasts, protecting or prowling the shore, and skirting or foundering on its dangerous shoals. As beautiful as North Carolina’s lighthouses are, they were built to perform a service of life-and-death importance. Today, the historic lights—some still in operation—are popular destinations for visitors. Most are open for climbing and offer fantastic views. The following are some of North Carolina’s favorites.
Visitors willing to climb the 214 spiral steps to the top of Currituck Beach Lighthouse are treated to a dazzling view of Currituck Sound.
Climb to the top of Bodie Island Lighthouse, which overlooks Lighthouse Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. This striking structure has been sending its signal out to sea since 1872, but was closed to the public until 2013.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, has a black-and-white spiral exterior that makes it visible from miles away. Pay a small admission price to climb all the way to the top.
Whale oil originally powered the beam of Ocracoke Lighthouse, the second-oldest working lighthouse in the United States. Because it’s still on duty, visitors can’t go inside, but there are lovely places to walk on the grounds.
The black-and-white diamond-spangled Cape Lookout Lighthouse, one of the most iconic symbols of North Carolina, has stood watch since 1859. The nearby keeper’s quarters give an intriguing glimpse into the isolated and meditative life of the light keeper. While you’re there, explore Cape Lookout’s 56 miles of unspoiled beach, where you may have a close encounter with one of the Outer Banks’ famous wild horses.
Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson and built in 1817, Old Baldy Lighthouse is North Carolina’s oldest lighthouse. From its strategic point on the southern coast of Bald Head Island, Old Baldy has seen has seen nearly two centuries of commerce, war, and peace.
The best-selling thriller writer David Baldacci tells stories about the American Secret Service and the Washington DC corridors of power. Many of his plots and characters are based on his real-life contacts with undercover agents. He talks with Matthew Bannister about his latest book, The Target.
A car is necessary to reach some of Nashville’s farther-flung sights, but it is worth filling up the tank for these attractions.
Belle Meade Plantation
The mansion at the former Belle Meade Plantationx (5025 Harding Pike, 615/356-0501, Mon.-Sat. 9am-5pm, Sun. 11am-5pm. $16) is the centerpiece of present-day Belle Meade Plantation and one of the finest old homes in the city. Its name means beautiful pasture, and indeed it was Belle Meade’s pastures that gave rise to the plantation’s fame as the home of a superb stock of horses. Purchased as 250 acres in 1807 by Virginia farmer John Harding and his wife, Susannah, the estate grew to 5,400 acres at its peak in the 1880s and 1890s.
Belle Meade was never a cotton plantation, although small amounts of the cash crop were grown here, along with fruits, vegetables, and tobacco. Instead it was the horses, including the racehorse Iroquois, that made Belle Meade famous. The mansion was built in 1820 and expanded in 1853. Its grand rooms are furnished with period antiques, more than 60 percent of which are original to the house. The estate also includes outbuildings, such as a smokehouse, dairy, and the original log cabin that Harding built for his family when they moved to Belle Meade in 1807.
The plantation also includes a slave cabin, which houses an exhibit on Belle Meade’s enslaved population, which numbered more than 160 at its peak. Two of these slaves are described in detail. Susanna Carter was the mansion’s housekeeper for more than 30 years, and she remained with the family even after the end of slavery. On her deathbed, Selena Jackson, the mistress of Belle Meade for many years, called Susanna “one of the most faithful and trusted of my friends.” The other African American who features prominently at the museum is Bob Green, whose skill and experience as a hostler earned him one of the highest salaries ever paid to a horse hand of the day. Visitors to Belle Meade are given a one-hour guided tour of the mansion and then visit the outbuildings and grounds on their own.
Plan to spend a full morning or afternoon at Cheekwood (1200 Forrest Park Dr., 615/356-8000, Tues.-Sat. 9:30am-4:30pm, Sun. 11am-4:30pm, $12 adults, $10 seniors, $5 students and children, $3 parking) so you can experience the full scope of this magnificent art museum and botanical garden. Galleries in the Cheekwood mansion house the museum’s American and European collections, including an excellent contemporary art collection. Cheekwood has the largest public collection of works by Nashville artist William Edmondson, the sculptor and stoneworker. The museum usually displays items from its permanent collection as well as traveling exhibitions from other museums. Many exhibits have special ties with Nashville.
But Cheekwood is far more than just an art museum. The mansion overlooks hundreds of acres of gardens and woods, and it is easy to forget that you are near a major American city when you’re at Cheekwood. Walk the mile-long Carell Woodland Sculpture Trail past works by 15 internationally acclaimed artists, or stroll past the water garden to the Japanese garden. There are dogwood gardens, an herb garden, a delightful boxwood garden, and much more. Wear comfortable shoes and pack a bottle of water so you can enjoy the grounds in comfort.
Cheekwood owes its existence to the success of the coffee brand Maxwell House. During the 1920s, Leslie Cheek and his wife, Mabel Wood, invested in the new coffee brand being developed by their cousin, Joel Cheek. Maxwell House proved to be a success and earned the Cheeks a fortune, which they used to buy 100 acres of land in West Nashville. The family hired New York residential and landscape architect Bryant Fleming to create a 30,000-square-foot mansion and neighboring gardens. Cheekwood was completed in 1933. Leslie Cheek lived in the mansion just two years before he died, and Mabel lived there for another decade before deeding it to her daughter and son-in-law, who later offered it as a site for a museum and garden. Cheekwood opened to the public in 1960.
The former estate of country music icon Barbara Mandrell, Fontanel Mansion (4225 Whites Creek Pike, 615/727-0304, daily 9am-3pm, $22 adults, $20 seniors, $12 children) has become a surprising draw for locals and tourists alike since it opened in 2010. These 136 acres include walking trails, an outdoor live music venue, a restaurant with its own live music, an art gallery, and a gift shop. But the main attraction is the mansion, a 27,000-square-foot log cabin, which is the city’s only country music mansion tour.
Fans get to see how the most famous of the Mandrell sisters lived before her retirement. Tours are sometimes given by Mandrell’s daughter, who throws in lots of personal tidbits (such as stories of her brothers jumping from the second story into the pool). Even those who don’t love “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” will appreciate the music history, artifacts such as Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” Jeep, the former indoor shooting range, and the bucolic scenery and impressive architecture.
Founded in 1912, Hadley Park (1037 28th Ave. N., 615/862-8451, Mon.-Thurs. 6am-8:30pm, Fri. 6am-7:30pm, Sat. 8am-noon, $3 adults, $1.50 seniors and children) is believed to be the oldest public park developed for African Americans in the South and, most likely, the United States. The park got its start when Fisk University president George Gates requested that the city buy land and create a park for its black citizens. This was in the era of segregation, so other city parks were not open to blacks. The request was granted, and the park opened in July 1912. An old farmhouse was converted into a community center, and benches and a playground were installed. It is now home to a state-of-the-art gym and fitness center, computer labs, meeting rooms, and tennis courts.
Andrew Jackson’s plantation and home is Nashville’s best historical tourist attraction, even though it’s technically 16 miles east of the city. The Hermitage (4580 Rachel’s Ln., 615/889-2941, daily 9am-5pm, $19 adults, $16 seniors, $14 students, $9 children) is where Jackson retired following his two terms as president of the United States, and it is where he and his beloved wife, Rachel, are buried. Following President Jackson’s death, The Hermitage remained in family hands until 1853, when it was sold to the State of Tennessee to pay off the family’s debts. It opened as a museum in 1889 and was restored largely due to the persistence of the Ladies Hermitage Association. Because the property never left family hands before it was sold to the state, many of the furnishings are original, and even the wallpaper in several rooms dates back to the years when Andrew Jackson called it home.
The Hermitage tour and museum focuses not only on Jackson and the construction and decoration of the mansion, but also the African American slaves who worked at The Hermitage plantation. It makes no effort to gloss over some of Jackson’s less favorable legacies. Curators and archaeologists have studied The Hermitage to learn about the hundreds of men and women who made The Hermitage profitable and successful for so many years. The tour of the grounds takes visitors to Alfred’s Cabin, a slave cabin occupied until 1901 by former Hermitage slave Alfred Jackson. You also learn about the agriculture that took place on The Hermitage, and can see cotton being cultivated during the summer months. To learn even more about The Hermitage’s slaves, take an add-on wagon tour (Apr.-Oct., $10). Visitors to The Hermitage first watch a video about Andrew Jackson and The Hermitage, then can continue on to a museum. Even if you are not typically an audio-tour-type person, consider the one of the grounds, which includes a kids’ version narrated by Jackson’s pet parrot. Guided tours of the mansion are offered. Plan on spending at least three hours here to make the most of your visit. Try to come when the weather is good, so you can take in the grounds and not just the mansion.
Tennessee State University
Founded in 1912 as the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal College for black students, Tennessee State University (3500 John A. Merritt Blvd., 615/963-5000, daily 24 hours; campus tours June-July Mon.-Wed. 10am, Aug.-May Mon.-Fri. 10am and 2pm, free) is now a comprehensive university with more than 9,000 students. In 1979, as a result of a court order to desegregate the state’s universities, TSU merged with the Nashville campus of the University of Tennessee. Today, TSU’s student body is 75 percent African American.
Walking through the leafy, brick-building campus, which takes up more than 500 acres in North Nashville, you’ll pass the historic President’s Residence, the columned McWherter Administration Building and the modern Lawson Hall. Campus tours are offered twice daily during the school year.
Earlier this year, I was asked to review The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, journalist Julia Cooke’s insightful look at contemporary Cuban reality. Cooke lived in Havana at intervals over a period of five years, developing close relationships with a cross-spectrum of Cubans whose lives she intimately portrays. The result is a memoir that, as I wrote in my review, “paints a vivid and sensually detailed portrait of life on a surreal socialist isle in the sun.”
More recently, I had the opportunity to interview Julia.
Christopher P. Baker: Can you tell me about your first trip and how you came to fall in love with Cuba?
Julia Cooke: I first went because, well, anything you weren’t supposed to do was appealing. Actually, a good friend of my father was doing business legally with Cuba, selling food. I accompanied him to Havana for my twentieth birthday as a translator during his business meetings. I was well traveled—my father was an airline executive—but the experience was bizarre. Everything about Havana was strange and exhilarating. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was constantly engaging.
CB: What year was that?
JC: 2003. I stood on the balcony of my casa particular (private room rental) and watched the street life and felt like I belonged here. I plunged directly in. I took a semester off from university and found a study-abroad program in Havana. I spent ten months in Cuba during three stints, with breaks in-between.
CB: Tell me something about your studies and where you lived.
JC: I was studying on San Lázaro, in Centro Habana. As you know, that part of Havana is awesome. It was full of life, vibrant, non-stop, amid the decay. I rented an apartment on the edge of Miramar near Linea, close to the maquina [old collective taxis] line.
CB: Why did you decide to write about your experiences?
JC: It was coming back to the United States that made me want to write a book. There wasn’t a book that helped me unlock the experience. I was disappointed with the portrayals of the Cuba I’d come to know. I wanted to write a book I’d want to read.
CB: Do you still return to Cuba?
JC: I was back there in January. Part of the reason for the book was to catch Cuba in a moment of time. My heart would break if I had to cease going back.
CB: One of the things that struck me about The Other Side of Paradise is that so many of the people whose lives you closely follow share a common dream of escaping a sclerotic Communist system that, as you describe it, fails to provide. Is it because they feel stifled as individuals, or is it purely to better their economic circumstances? What’s the common denominator, if there is one? How do they feel about their decisions?
JC: Many of the people I knew have already left Cuba. The way in which they leave isn’t predictable. Many do so in a quixotic way. Some make peace with the fact that the Cuban system can’t provide. The yearning to leave is universal, but there’s something else. Now that Raúl has lifted travel restrictions and Cuba has opened up to the rest of the world, it’s clear that the yearning to leave has changed from an economic rationale to a quest to explore abroad. Many people I write about in the book are eager to know the world at large. The tides are turning. For example, younger Cuban-Americans born in the States don’t feel the same way about Cuba as their parents.
CB: Is the change that is taking place in Cuba as a result of Raúl’s reforms reflected in more hope among Cubans?
JC: No. There needs to be more fundamental changes for people to feel hope. So far, it’s not enough for the people I’ve come to care about.
CB: Do you consider the people you lived with to be “family”?
JC: Absolutely! They offer me advice. They chastise me! My real mother thinks it’s wonderful that I have so many mothers in Cuba. One of the qualities that’s so unique is the deep sense of community, of bonds that run deep. They deserve everything good in the entire world.
CB: Will you go back to Cuba to live?
JC: Absolutely, if someone makes me an offer I can’t refuse [laughs]. It captured my heart from the beginning. I hope I’ll never stop going. I have no Cuban blood, but it feels like home to me.
CB: You follow the life of a prostitute and portray other young Cubans who seek out relationships with foreigners. Did you receive marriage proposals?
JC: No, never! Cuban men are so flirtatious, it just becomes so sweet and tender and not serious. It’s not chauvinistic, but it takes some getting used to.
CB: Have you become a changed person because of Cuba?
JC: My boyfriend noted that! I love how improvisatory Cubans are. It forced me out of my comfort zone. They live such a moment-by-moment life, seizing opportunity whenever and wherever it arises. They don’t get too upset about anything. I hope I’ve taken those lessons to heart.
CB: Has the experience been good for your relationship?
JC: Yes… I left for Cuba after my boyfriend and I had been dating for only a few weeks. I went to Cuba and didn’t hear from him for a while. Then he came to visit, and he came to understand my passion. He was empathetic. Cuba is such an important place for me. He now understands my intellectual project and how it has consumed so much of me, and he understands the emotional pull Cuba has on me. Our relationship would be very different if he hadn’t come to Cuba.