Monday, January 30, 2017

Visit a 12th Century Monastery on Miami Beach

One of the last things I expected to explore while visiting Miami Beach in Florida was a 12th century monastery, ancient and grand amid the hustle and bustle of swimsuit clad tourists. However, that is exactly what I found myself doing last October.

It wasn't as if I stumbled upon the monastery while strolling the beach. I had read about it prior to our Miami trip, and had already decided that I needed to check it out. It was still an unexpected find, and I was pleased that Miami Beach had some history to offer slightly older than the Art Deco movement.

Standing in the 12th century monastery on Miami Beach

How did a 12th century monastery show up on Miami Beach of all places? Allow me to explain. The monastery and cloisters are officially called the "Monastery and Cloisters of St. Bernard de Clairvaux", and originally come from Sacramenia, Spain. The structure was first built in 1133 AD and was completed in 1141 AD. That's some old monastery! Cistercian monks lived within the monastery and cloisters for nearly 700 years, but it was also at one time converted to a granary and stable during a revolution in the 1830s.

For almost 100 years, the monastery and cloisters were forgotten, utilized only as farming outbuildings. Then, in 1925, newspaper magnate and consummate rich guy William Randolph Hearst bought the buildings and decided they would better serve their purpose on Miami Beach. (?!) The monastery, cloisters, and accompanying structures were dismantled brick by brick, window by window, and protected in wooden shipping crates with hay. It took 11,000 crates to pack away the entire lot of St. Bernard de Clairvaux.

The monastery from the side - gorgeous!

Then a series of unfortunate events hit. Hoof and mouth disease experienced an outbreak, and immigration officials, fearing contamination, cracked open each of the 11,000 crates and burned the hay. Sadly, when they packed it all up again, they did not return the stones to their original and handily numbered crates, mixing up the entire lot. Oops is an understatement.

THEN Hearst experienced financial difficulties and was unable to reconstruct the monastery as planned. The crates were stored away and forgotten for almost 30 years. Thankfully, after Hearst's death, two gentlemen by the names of William Edgemon and Raymond Moss bought the dissembled buildings and began plotting to rebuild them as a tourist attraction. These men spent over $13 million in today's currency to reconstruct the monastery, with great difficulty considering the jumbled boxes and disorganized stones.

The vibrant courtyard in the monastery

Eventually the task was done, and today we have a gorgeous piece of history right there on Miami Beach to explore and admire. A friend and I decided to spend a morning strolling the grounds and buildings while our husbands attended their conference at the Fontainebleau. We grabbed an Uber and settled in. The drive took much longer than expected: the monastery is on the North End of the 'island' of Miami Beach at 16711 West Dixie Highway. We hadn't calculated that into our plan, and were a bit concerned about time, but there was no turning back so we just decided to enjoy what we could.

When you first enter the attraction, you find yourself in a small office type building with a reception desk, gift shop, and some museum exhibits set up to prepare you for the monastery itself. We paid our $10 admission ($5 for students and seniors), and began to look around the small museum displays. There was a great video playing on a loop about the deconstruction and reconstruction of the monastery that I enjoyed.

The Spanish hearse on display in the gift shop museum

The funeral hearse was the most interesting and slightly creepy object in the small museum. Beautifully carved ornate cabinets and pieces of furniture were featured, as well as giant candelabras, a suit of armour, strong boxes, and a very old and very large hand-painted hymnarium. I wanted to flip through it to check out all the beautiful and decorative pages, but of course it was protected by thick glass.

The ancient hand-painted hymnarium

Exiting the gift shop, we followed a pathway through a well-maintained, vibrant flower garden towards the monastery. The day was sunny and warm, and the stroll through the garden was a peaceful and also impressive way to approach the ancient monastery.

Our first view of the monastery

Stepping inside the building feels like walking back in time, especially after days filled with the vibrancy of Miami Beach. It is quiet and somber, yet still bright and relaxing, with sunlight filtering through the high arches and the bubbling of fountains soothing in your ears.

The monastery hallway with its sweeping arches

The monastery is in the shape of square, with four long hallways bordering an open courtyard in the centre. Each hallway is adorned with statues, arched ceilings, and sculptures on the walls.

This place was so stunning

Beyond walking the perimeter of the hallways and enjoying the beauty of the building itself, there isn't a great deal to see in the actual monastery. The stained glass windows were lovely and I was very taken with the ancient flat screen TV that hung in one of the side rooms. So after a couple of loops of the monastery and a quick walk through the sun-soaked courtyard, we headed out to explore the gardens.

The beautiful stained glass window and its colors

There are two very special aspects of the garden. The giant banyan trees that tower over all else was my favourite part. If you've ever seen a banyan tree, you will know why I was so excited about them. They seem to ooze their branches down to the ground, growing wider in circumference with each limb. In fact, that's pretty much what they do. Their 'vines' - called aerial prop roots - dangle down from the upper portions of the tree, and upon hitting soil, take root in the ground and eventually thicken to form yet another branch of the organism. The tree continues to strengthen and grow in this manner.

A giant banyan tree in the monastery's gardens

One banyan tree had a pathway cleaved into the centre of it, so we were able to wander into the belly of the tree, which was very neat.

Hanging out in the banyan tree

The other interesting aspect of the monastery gardens was the labyrinth. It is a simple labyrinth, made from stones set into a pattern in the ground. It isn't designed to lose or trap people like some garden labyrinths, with tall walls of boxwood. This one was created with contemplation and focus in mind - you are to walk the labyrinth in prayer or while concentrating on something within yourself. I was looking forward to walking its length.

Unfortunately, we picked a day when two young mothers had brought their many children with them to visit the monastery. The moms were chatting happily, sipping to-go coffees, while the kids ran around the labyrinth playing tag. It wasn't the most relaxing atmosphere to reflectively walk the path. The kids weren't being bad by any means - they were just having fun. I did manage to convince them to stand behind me for a moment while I took a few photographs of the empty labyrinth, and then they were back to running its course once again.

The labyrinth, without children for a brief moment in time

Beyond this, there wasn't much else to do at the monastery. My friend and I had been concerned that we wouldn't have enough time to explore it all, due to the long car ride to access it. However, we ended up having just the right amount of time, and made it back to our hotel right as our hubbies were leaving their meeting.

Although the monastery probably isn't a main attraction when visiting Miami Beach, it still is worth a look. If you find yourself with some extra time and want to explore something unusual yet beautiful, spend an hour or so checking out St. Bernard de Clairvaux!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bike Along the Shores of South Beach in Miami

During the planning phase of my trip to Miami, which happened in October, I read several blog posts and articles about how to get around Miami Beach most effectively. Walking along the boardwalk, taking shuttle buses to and from your hotel to the various beaches, grabbing an Uber - there are many different ways to access the different hot spots in Miami Beach. One that I knew my husband and I would want to try was to rent a bike and cruise along the streets and boardwalk, taking in the sights while getting some healthy exercise.

However, none of the articles or blog posts I read really explained what that entailed. So I will break it down in detail so that if any of my wonderful readers want to try to do the same, they will know what to expect.

Joey and I with our sweet Citi Bike rentals at Lummis Park on Miami Beach 

There are a few different companies that offer bicycle rentals on Miami Beach. You can choose from "Bike and Roll", "Miami Beach Bicycle Center", "Citi Bike Miami" and many more (I think there are about 10 companies). You can be picky and decide to rent from one specific company, or more likely, you can find the closest bike stand station and just rent from there. We were quite lucky, as there was a "Citi Bike Miami" rental station located just across the road from our hotel, the Fontainebleau.

The stands are all automated, like a pay-at-the-pump gas station. Bicycles are locked into computerized stands, and once you pay at the ticket station, you enter a code to unlock the bicycle of your choice. This is a very popular activity, and more than once we saw stations that had no bicycles available. My advice is to get there early, or be prepared to walk a few blocks away in search of another station that does possess bikes for you.

Biking along the Miami Beach Boardwalk

Prices vary. We paid $10.00 per bicycle for a two-hour rental, assuming that as out of shape as we were, two hours would be more than enough physical activity for us! You can pay to rent for as little as thirty minutes, all the way to a full day, which costs about $24.00 per bike. You must use a credit card due to the automated system, and also for bicycle insurance purposes. If you don't return the bike by the allotted time, you buy the bike. Simple.

My husband and I, being unfamiliar with Miami Beach streets and pathways, started to bike towards the Art Deco district on one of the main roads, Collins Ave. This street is filled with boutiques, hotels, restaurants, shops, and much more, and the sidewalk is filled with pedestrians, parking meters, palm trees, fire hydrants, and other obstacles. As a pedestrian strolling down this street, it would probably be quite lovely. As a person who hasn't navigated a bicycle in probably three years, this street was like pedaling through a minefield. I nearly took out several innocent bystanders, a few trees, and a dog. There was a lot of inappropriate vocabulary, some blame tossed my husband's way, and a scraped ankle.

Collins Ave was a little tricky to bike along!

Renting these bikes, I thought at that moment, was a huge mistake. I wished we had just opted to walk.

Eventually my husband and I made it to Lummus Park at nearly the opposite end of Miami Beach from where we had begun. We checked out some the cool Art Deco buildings (I may have thought they were more interesting than my husband did), and enjoyed the eclectic sights and sounds of this busy area.

Some of the Art Deco buildings were really interesting!

We witnessed some sort of dance-off occurring on the front patio of a restaurant, where burly men in sparkly bikinis were shaking their stuff better than Beyonce herself. We watched a bit of a beach volleyball tournament, where each player seemed more than well-prepared for the Olympics. Eventually it was time to turn around and head back before our two-hour window expired.

Joey on his bike rental at Lummus Park

It was at this time, while meandering casually along a beach-front sidewalk, that we discovered the Miami Beach Boardwalk. It is a smooth swath of wide pavement reserved for cyclists, rollerbladers, and pedestrians. Yes, that sounds a lot like a sidewalk, and yes, there were people, palm trees, and other such obstacles, but the boardwalk was much wider and easier to navigate than an ordinary sidewalk. I enjoyed it so much more than biking down Collins Ave.

The smoother Miami Beach Boardwalk was much more fun to bike along.

Rushing along that boardwalk on the bikes, with the salty cool wind from the ocean caressing my face, hearing the waves crashing, I felt so exhilarated yet so relaxed. The sky and ocean were a sparkling blue, and the beach a uniform creamy beige, off-set by the rainbow-hued lifeguard huts and the points of vibrant color that were the hotel umbrellas dotted into the sand. I loved it all. I think if I lived on Miami Beach, I'd be in incredible shape because I would bike that path at least twice a day.

I loved how colourful the lifeguard stations were on Miami Beach!

About halfway back to our hotel, we came across a man pushing a giant metal shopping cart heaped with green coconuts. He had a set of sharp knives in a bucket perched atop his wares, and a bag full of colorful striped straws hanging off the edge of the cart. I was thirsty from the biking, and convinced my husband to stop and have a drink of fresh coconut water with me.

Drinking from coconuts on Miami Beach

The man cut off the top of the coconut and cut a hole into the core. He plopped a straw inside and handed it to me. The coconut water was warm, sweet, and sticky, but very refreshing after our long bike ride. I wouldn't say it quenched my thirst quite like a tall, cold glass of water would have, but it was tasty, and hey, I was drinking out of a coconut!

The funky beach patrol headquarters on Miami Beach near Lummis Park

Finally we made it back to the bike rental station outside of our hotel. We slid the bicycles back into the locks with just a couple of minutes to go. Perfect timing! Then it was off to soak in the hotel pool, a much-deserved way to cool off after our excellent morning.

So, my recommendations on biking Miami Beach include the following:

1. The two-hour bike rental was perfect for us to get from one end of the beach to the other. However, we did not stop for a drink at a beach-side bar or grab lunch or anything like that, so if you want to really take in the scenery at Lummus Park or the surrounding area, I suggest renting your bike for a little longer.

2. Find the boardwalk as soon as you can! Don't stress about ramming your bike into a palm tree or pedestrian on Collins Ave! Just hit the boardwalk right away.

3. Wear a swimsuit or bring one with you. At times it got really hot and sweaty biking in the burning sun, and what I would have given for a quick dip in the ocean! There are places to store the bikes at the entrances to most beach access paths, so take advantage!

4. Enjoy the ride! I loved the feeling of the cool ocean breeze in my hair, combined with the mid-morning sun on my face, while I whizzed along the boardwalk. What a way to see the sights!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Touring San Francisco's Alcatraz Island

Today on Facebook, one of my friends shared a photo taken last September during our ladies' San Francisco trip. In the image, four of us are standing in the interior of a ferry, soaked to the bone. We are dripping wet, cold, and smiling like fools. The picture brought back such excellent memories, and now I have been inspired to write about that time we visited Alcatraz Island.

My ladies' group on our San Francisco trip: Jennis, Jyll, Tara, me, Kerry, and Elissa

To me, Alcatraz Island is one of the quintessential 'San Francisco' sights that can't be missed. And I know I am not alone in this thinking, because the tours book up months in advance. All of us had heard this information from various sources, so we'd made sure to book well ahead of our trip to ensure we didn't end up losing out on seeing the island-bound prison. We had booked a 1:00 p.m. tour on our first full day in San Francisco, as it was one of the few things we'd all agreed we wanted to see and we wanted to see it right away.

Some things you might want to know about booking an Alcatraz Island tour:

1. As I stated before, the tours book up quickly. So try to grab tickets months in advance. I did see people at a 'stand-by' area waiting for no-shows and free spaces, but they seemed to be waiting for a very long time, and there were no guarantees that after standing in there for half a day, they were actually going to get on the island. So if you know you will be in San Francisco, and you know you want to tour the island, just pay for tickets sooner rather than later.

2. There are day tours and night tours. Both offer great benefits. The day tours are more plentiful, so they have more availability and don't seem to book up as fast. They also provide better photography opportunities and, for those of you a bit jumpy in the dark, aren't as creepy. The night time tours have fewer time slots, and are perhaps even more popular than the day time tours, so they fill up fast. Obviously, photography is worse in the night time, but the ambiance and spookiness factors make up for that. Since none of us ladies on our September trip were into ghost-hunting, we opted for the day tour so we could take some great shots of the island and the prison.

3. Within those day and night tours, there are various tour 'levels'. Some are guided, some are of the basic prison area, and some go behind-the-scenes (like the gardens, which I didn't even know existed until we were leaving). Being a frugal bunch, we chose the cheapest version: the self-guided basic tour. No backstage passes, just an afternoon of wandering around the island on our own. It was more than enough for us. All of these different tours obviously cost different amounts, so I won't post any links or prices here, since a) it will take too long and b) no one is paying me to promote them, so I won't! ;)

Alcatraz Island as seen from the ferry

To access the island, groups travel by ferry to the dock at the island. To get to your ferry, you must wait in a crazy-long lineup at Pier 33 where the Alcatraz Tour boats await you. It is a little confusing and slightly over-whelming as the lines are so long, and zigzag across the entire width of the pier.

Pier 33 doesn't have much to do, other than stand in line, but there is this model of Alcatraz.

Once you figure out where the 12:30 line ends, and the 1:00 line begins, you are okay. I recommend lining up no less than 30 minutes before your boat ride so you can grab a decent spot on the boat. We wanted that front spot so bad, we made it happen. (It was worth it - we made friends with the security guy guarding the gangway entrance. He and my friend Jennis bonded over hair combs of a very different nature.)

Daniel the guard and Jennis bonded over beard and extension combs, respectively

I would have initially insisted that the best spot on the boat would be the front of the deck, with a gorgeous view of the bay and the approaching island laid out before you. That's where we first headed, being at the utmost front of the line. We packed into the front of the boat, on the bottom floor. Signs around the bow of the boat suggested we were in a 'wet zone', and we chuckled, as in, "Oh, a little spray will feel nice on this sunny day." Little did we know.

This is where we naively chose to stand during our ride out to Alcatraz

By the time we got to Alcatraz Island, we were saturated. The term 'wet zone' is understated. It was a 'soaked zone'. Between getting plastered with waves of salty water, however, we managed to see a dolphin leaping in the waves. So that was fun.

Dripping wet after our ferry ride to the island

We disembarked the boat at Alcatraz, wet and smelling of the sea. However, the day was hot and the sun shining bright, so we soon dried off outside. When you first arrive on the island, all passengers from your particular ferry are ushered to an area just outside of the prison walls, under a giant government sign, where a guide gives you a welcome speech, outlining where to go, what to see, what the rules are, and where to find the washrooms. After that, you disperse and go on your merry little way.

The giant sign that greets you upon arrival to Alcatraz Island. Photo by Tara L (maybe?)

We started our tour with a quick movie in a darkened room in one portion of the prison, then followed the crowd into a hallway where rooms had been designed as a museum exhibit. Some of the items featured were weapons, clothing, and various prison paraphernalia. This section of the prison was interesting simply because of the lichen-y walls and brickwork. It was oddly pretty.

The strangely beautiful walls of Alcatraz prison

I won't go through our tour step-by-step. I will recommend that you grab the audio tour with the headsets, as it nicely guides you from place to place on the island in a logical fashion. The audio tour introduces you to the various sections of the prison, who the guards were, who the prisoners were, special and interesting spots, narrates some of the violent history of the prison, and even has clips from past guards and prisoners themselves. It was well worth it, and free!

A typical prison cell at Alcatraz prison

I enjoyed hearing about the prison riot the most, as the audio tour makes you stop at a spot in the hallway where the actual riot first began. You could visualize it unfolding quite easily - they even had a few props and paper machee dolls inside of the prison cells to really set the scene.

I don't think being behind bars suits me

At one point I snuck in with a guided tour group (shh, don't tell) and got a free demonstration of how the triple lock system worked on the prison cell doors. It was very old-school but effective technology, involving a lot of pulleys, levers, and clanking sounds.

Rows upon rows of prison cells at Alcatraz Island

Some cells had artwork made by the actual prisoners during their time in Alcatraz, and some had books that the prisoners enjoyed reading. Placards on the wall depicted past prison personnel and inmates alike, with their biographies for you to read.

The two creepiest places, in my opinion, were the morgue (naturally) and the shower room. The shower room had been converted to the room where you grabbed your audio headsets, so you kind of had to ignore the long line-up of people to get the full effect. I shuddered at the thought of having to shower in that long, cold, open cement room, with guards pointing guns at you while you tried to quickly wash up with everyone else, freezing and miserable. It wasn't exactly creepy, I guess. More like despairing.

The creepy morgue at Alcatraz Island

At one point during the audio tour, the headset encourages you to wander outside towards some prison ruins. Just beyond the ruined administration building is a fantastic view of the city and the bay. You can see the outline of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. It is a very peaceful and gorgeous part of the audio tour.

The observation tower at Alcatraz

Before you leave the island, you must exit the prison through the gift shop. (Isn't this the case with just about everything? "Thanks for paying a lot to visit us. Here, please, spend some more money before you are allowed to leave.") It was here I had the chance to meet a former inmate, William Baker, who had written a book about his experience at Alcatraz. I bought his book and got to chat with him a little while he signed it. He wasn't a man of many words, but he was friendly all the same.

Meeting a true-blue prison inmate from Alcatraz Island

I really enjoyed the Alcatraz Island tour. People have asked me since if doing the tour was worth an entire afternoon in San Francisco, and I say it definitely is. The island is a huge part of San Francisco's history, its landscape, and its people. The building itself is interesting, the stories fascinating, and the views from the island are incredible. (Maybe just don't stand in the splash zone on the ferry.) Make sure you don't miss out!