Random thoughts and select articles that have been published elsewhere (but were cut severely in the process)


Visiting St. Petersburg, Russia in Wintertime

(Originally published in OverTime Magazine)

Traveling to St. Petersburg, Russia in the middle of February may seem insane to some, considering Russian winters are rumored to be some of the harshest on earth. Their freezing temperatures, fierce winds and epic snowfalls played a crucial part in defeating Napoleon’s armies in 1812. Those same conditions also helped keep the Germans at bay in WWII, during the 900-day siege at Leningrad.

But at the same time, as anyone who’s read or seen “Dr. Zhivago” or any of Dostoyevsky’s novels can tell you, the Russian winter also carries an elegant dignity to it, as well as some unexpected vibrancy. In St. Petersburg, winter brings some of the city’s most idyllic scenes: Barren tree branches looming over snow covered pastures in parks; sheets of ice covering the water in the many stately canals; and piles of snow and slush clinging to the stone buildings and sidewalks as if they were part of the decor.

More surprising still are the throngs of residents who ignore the cold and crowd the city’s streets and squares, both day and night. This is a cosmopolitan city, even in winter, and everywhere you look you’ll find crowds chatting in cafes or strolling down snow-covered sidewalks. That energy and sense of community makes St. Petersburg all the more inviting for exploration.

Also, most people visit St. Petersburg in summer so they can experience the region’s White Nights celebration. During this time, the city’s position near the Arctic Circle makes it possible to experience a few days of near-24-hourlong daylight, and visitors and locals alike use the opportunity celebrate the season and the city’s many cultural offerings.

While summer means more agreeable temperatures, as well as a cityscape filled with blooming flowers and foliage, it also means sharing St. Petersburg with thousands of other tourists.
That’s not the case with winter. The cold season brings considerably more affordable rates to hotel rooms and tours and allows you to experience the city’s many cultural offerings more intimately.

“In the summer, it is hard to find a room here,” said Victor, bell captain at the Petro Palace Hotel. “Winter, it is very slow though. We have 300 rooms but now [in winter] only 37 are full.”




Getting Situated

Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg stands on the Neva River tributary, making it, like Venice, a city set upon strings of islands and canals. (Like Venice, it’s also prone to heavy flooding, especially in the rainy late-summer season.) This is a city in love with its history. Nearly every monument found here attributes itself to some prominent role in Russia’s past, and many of the streets, squares and parks are named after important historical figures or events.
Architecturally, however, the city owes much debt to Paris -- no coincidence, considering the Francophilic nature of the Tsars. Buildings here, especially in the historic city center, look like they’ve been stripped from the streets of the French capital, and all the grand avenues here seem to point towards a majestic monument.

At night, this Parisian parallel gains greater perspective, as the city’s many sites light up for all to see and glimmer against the bleak wintry night sky. A walk past St. Isaac’s Cathedral after sundown proves particularly enchanting; if you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were nearing L’ Academie de Paris.

Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main avenue, takes its name from Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth-century Russian general who helped expand the country’s empire by leading forces over several Germanic tribes, but its inspiration also seems drawn from the French, namely Paris’ Champ Ellysees. Running north to south from one segment of the Neva to another, the bustling thoroughfare offers a home to hundreds of shops, cafes, cinemas, restaurants, tourist attractions and more, as well as some wonderful people-watching. If you’re looking for souvenirs, Russian foods like vodka or caviar, traditional clothing, Matreshka dolls (nesting dolls), evening folk music and dance shows and more, chances are you’ll find it here.

In fact, most of the St. Petersburg’s cultural high points can be found in the city center or along Nevsky Prospekt, and most are within walking distance of one another. (The Tsars’ summer palaces, which sit about 45 minutes outside the city, may require a taxi or guided tour for access.)  




Majestic Museum

St. Petersburg’s star attraction is the State Hermitage Museum (www.hermitagemuseum.org), a sprawling six-building complex that just happens to be the second-largest fine arts museum in the world (behind the Louvre, in Paris). The museum itself used to be the winter palace of the Russian Tsars, and much of its original splendor has been kept alive here, making a tour of the building often as spellbinding as the collection of art housed inside.

Visitors here literally can step into the shoes of the Tsars and imagine what life was like for these rulers. Walk up and down the many grand staircases in the palace. Marvel at elaborate stucco work surrounding many of the passageways and doorways, much of it encased in gold leaf. Stroll through rooms of intricate granite and marble work. Saunter down hallways that stretch for hundreds of yards, many of them covered with ornate murals and frescos. This is regal living at its finest, an experience as opulent as Versailles, but without all intentional ostentatiousness. Some highlights of the Hermitage include the Peacock Clock (an animatronic wonder given to the Tsars in the late 19th century from the King of Prussia), the War Gallery of 1812 (a vast room containing portraits of nearly ever general who helped lead the Russians over Napolean) and the Malachite Room (featuring enormous columns and vases made of the stone, as well as an assortment of Faberge eggs).

“Make a point to look at the floors while you’re there,” recommended one traveler. “I’ve never seen such beautiful wood and stonework.”

On top of this splendor is the museum’s art collection, which was started by Catherine the Great in the 1700s and now consists of more than 3 million items, 150,000 of which are displayed at one time inside the museum. Here, you’ll find rooms devoted to the works of Gaugin, Titian, Picasso, Rubens, Van Dyck, British art, French Impressionism, Egyptian and Greek artifacts and much more.
The entire complex sits inside Palace Square (or Dvortsovaya Ploschad in Russian), a sprawling area which connects the Hermitage with the General Staff Building (where the Tsarist armies once trained) and the Admiralty (where the Russian navy was once headquartered). In its center, you’ll find the towering Alexander Column, a 185-foot stone pillar made of a single piece of stone (an exhibit in nearby St. Isaac’s Cathedral shows how the column was hoisted into place) that -- like many of the city’s other monuments -- commemorates the country’s victory over Napoleon.



Other Museums and Cultural Offerings

Given the heady reputation held by the Hermitage, you would expect the rest of St. Petersburg’s cultural offerings to pale in comparison. But that’s not the case. Like Paris, this city wears its cultural pride on its sleeve and invites all who visit to delve deeper into it, no matter the season.

Just a short walk from the Hermitage and Palace Square is the city’s other cultural behemoth, the State Museum of Russian Art (or Russian Museum for short, www.rusmuseum.ru/eng/). Founded in 1898 by Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, the museum houses the country’s largest collection of nationally drawn art, occupying three wings of the Mikhailovsky Palace. Whereas the Hermitage is stately and elegant, this museum boasts a more playful, down-to-earth side, hosting exhibits by both modern and classical Russian artists alongside its main collection. Most surprising here is witnessing how Russian art, especially over the last two centuries, seems to have evolved in a similar manner as American art. Make a point to visit the rooms devoted to modernist and cubist styles for proof.

Continuing the city’s playful cultural nature is the monolithic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, just a block away from the Russian Museum. This towering cathedral, very Russian in design thanks to its five onion-shaped domes and bright coloring, was modeled after Moscow’s Kremlin and is built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. Inside, visitors will find all the walls and ceilings (including the inside of those onion-shaped domes) covered with ornate mosaics, some of which stretch hundreds of feet in height.

The city’s other grand church, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, is located a few blocks to the left of the Admiralty. This is the third-largest cathedral in the world, behind St. Peter’s at the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London, and in its heyday it could accommodate approximately 14,000 people for mass. Built in 1818 by Tsar Alexander I as a commemoration of (what else?) his defeat of Napoleon, the interior is cavernous and every bit as ornate as the grand halls inside the Hermitage. Frescos and mosaics of religious scenes, including panels that stand well over 30 feet high, line the walls and ceilings, many of them breathtaking in their epic scope. Also inside are several exhibits, which highlight the cathedral’s construction and history. If you’re legs feel up to it, make a point to climb the 260 steps to the top of observation deck, located around the church’s dome, and take in the grand views of the city available there. Be warned though that the wind chill will leave you shivering.




Military Past

St. Petersburg’s other great attraction is the Peter and Paul Fortress, located across the Neva from the Hermitage. (Just take one of the two bridges crossing the river and head for the walled fortress with a golden spire in its center -- you can’t miss it, really.)

Built in 1704 as a stronghold against the Swedish, with whom Russia was at war at the time, the complex never saw battle and instead became one of Russia’s most notorious political prisons. Some of its former tenants include legendary authors like Dostoyevsky, Chernyshevsky and Gorky, as well as Vladimir Lenin’s brother, who attempted to kill Tsar Alexander III and was executed here soon after he was incarcerated.  

The centerpiece of the fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, a more modestly sized (at least compared to the city’s other offerings) but no less ornate church that happens to be the city’s first religious meeting place. In addition to its glorious Baroque architecture and stunning frescos, it also holds the sarcophagi of all of the Russian Tsars, from Peter the Great through Nicholas II -- a feature that also adds an air of creepiness to your visit.

Also on hand in the Fortress are a dozen or so small museums dedicated to topics like Russia’s military past, Russian space exploration and the national mint. Particularly charming is the 28-room exhibit devoted to the evolution of the city of St. Petersburg, which tracks its history from its Norse roots through its communist heyday and its current role as Russia’s cultural capital.

Don’t Forget the Communism

With all of these cultural and historical sites around you, it’s often easy to forget the city’s prominent role in Russia’s communist past. Delve a little deeper, especially if you venture outside the city center, and those aspects become hard to miss.

A short distance north of Pulkovo International Airport is the monolithic Monument to The Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, which occupies an entire city block. The structure, devised by Stalin himself in 1951 and completed in 1970, pays homage to soldiers and citizens who survived the city’s 900-day holdout over the Germans in World War II. More than 2 million died in the battle and the massive famine that followed it, and this monument celebrates their spirit, strength, endurance and hardships.

Further north stands a large statue of Vladimir Lenin, who gestures out towards you from before the imposing Stalinist architecture of Finland Station. The site commemorates a spot where Lenin gave one of his greatest speeches -- from an armored car, no less.

Beyond that lay long stretches of communist housing projects, each one uniformed and colorless in appearance. Though several Western business signs can be seen among the drab facades, like those for McDonald’s and KFC, they still do little to inject life into these dreary surroundings.

What’s ironic is that these dwellings, once home to the city’s poor workers and soldiers, now come with some of St. Petersburg’s highest real estate asking prices.

“This is a very highly desirable area to live,” said Anna Lebedeva, a guide in St. Petersburg.  “The buildings have very high ceilings and are well-built. It’s very expensive to live here now.”

For those who do not wish to venture past the city center, but still want to experience some of St. Petersburg’s communist history, visit Decemberists’ Square, located across the street from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, or Palace Square, in front of the Hermitage. Both played integral parts in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which brought down Russia’s Tsarist regime and led to the start of the country’s socialist era.  


Russians take their national cuisine very seriously, and as a result nearly every restaurant or café menu you come across will feature classics like Borscht (beet soup, served either hot or cold and with or without meat), blinis (crepes served with various savory or sweet fillings), beef or venison stroganoff, caviar, pelmini (meat dumplings) and other traditional fare. Even the ever-increasing number of sushi restaurants popping up around the city offer these items.

It’s hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare, often loaded with cream or butter, that suits the country’s cold climates well but may sit heavily in Western stomachs. Quality varies depending on where you visit, but as a rule of thumb remember that places that specialize in one sort of cuisine (like the aforementioned sushi restaurants) tend to offer poorer versions of traditional Russian dishes, and vice versa.

Also, expect to find vodka, served by the glass or carafe, at nearly all Russian dining establishments. Russians often shoot vodka along with their meal, both as a means to enhance the festive nature of the dining experience and to aid in digestion. Toasts abound during mealtime, especially during dinner, and it’s not uncommon for a table of strangers to buy shots for everyone nearby. It’s considered rude to refuse a toast once you’ve been invited into one. If your not much of a drinker or do not like vodka, accept the toast and sip a little of the liquid as a gesture of thanks -- the locals will appreciate it.

If Russian food doesn’t agree with you, know that St. Petersburg also offers a wide variety of ethnic dining options, including fine eateries serving specialties from Georgia (which is like a mixture of Russian and Arabic cuisine), Indonesia, Armenia, China, France, American, England and more. Most of these places tend to be affordable and they usually provide fine alternatives to the often-heavy Russian entrée.

Also important: Café and restaurant experiences differ widely here. Cafes are informal places for quick meals and usually offer simplistic menus. Restaurants are more uppity affairs where guests can expect to spend a majority of their evening; they usually feature more upscale menus as well as live entertainment.

Night Life

Like most great European cities, St. Petersburg offers countless options for nighttime entertainment, including a bevy of bars, nightclubs, live music venues, theater and more.

Those looking to experience some high culture should head to the famous Mariisky Theater (http://www.mariinsky.ru/en), the city’s grand palace of opera and ballet. Built in 1860 and named after the wife of Tsar Alexander II, the theater has premiered works by such legendary composers as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov and has been the home to the world famous Kirov Ballet since its inception. Nightly opera and ballet performances are offered, and appropriate dress is required.

The Mussorgsky State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, named after the popular Russian composer, doesn’t share in the Mariisky’s celebrated legacy, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find lesser-quality performances there. Built in the 1920s as a means to promote communist Russia’s cultural talent, today the theater serves as the city’s premier arts venues for visiting and touring companies.


Despite the obvious spread of Western influence, most Russians still do not speak much English, and outside of your hotel staff, you are unlikely to find many who speak more than a word or two of English -- not even in such popular tourist-driven spots as the State Hermitage Museum.
A Russian phrasebook purchased from your local bookstore, along with some good natured gesturing and pointing, should help you with the basics, like ordering food at restaurants or purchasing admission tickets. However, if this grows tiresome or frustrating, or if you plan to venture off the beaten path, you may prefer to hire a guide, either for the day or for the length of your visit. Not only will this simplify communicative problems, but your guide may also point you towards locals-only places you might normally avoid because of the language barrier.

Also important: Please note that despite their surly facades, Russian people are very friendly and open to foreigners, and they are eager to help you learn about their country’s customs and history. They will accommodate you as best they can, especially if you can utter a few words of Russian in return. Best phrase to learn first: “Spaseeba,” which means “Thank you.”



Grand Hotel Europe

This ornate (and expensive) luxury hotel rivals the décor of the Hermitage for extravagance. It sits a half-block away from one of the busier intersections of Nevsky Prospekt and is mere meters from Gostiny Dvor, the city’s mammoth high-end shopping arcade.

Petro Palace Hotel

Though less ornate than Grand Hotel, this homey, affordable establishment sits just 5 minutes by foot from the Hermitage and half a block from St. Isaac’s Cathedral.



Often cited by local presses as the best restaurant in St. Petersburg, this opulent establishment, located inside Grand Hotel Europe, serves meticulously prepared French and Russian vuisine, along with some fine fusion dishes. Very elegant, but also very pricey. The Sunday jazz brunch is worth the hefty price tag. Reservations recommended.

Restaurant Baron

A modest fine-dining restaurant, located inside Petro Palace Hotel, serving well-prepared, reasonably priced Russian specialties. The pelmini are outstanding, as is the solianka (lemon and beef soup). The Russian folk music show is an interesting divergence (especially the man in the bear suit) but not worth planning your evening around.


Located at 22/24 Nevsky Prospekt, this Viking themed restaurant (the walls are literally covered with armor and furs) serves some terrific, reasonably priced grilled meat dishes, as well as delicious Russian plates like freshly made blinis with salmon caviar and smoked sturgeon salad.


This local fast food chain, with many locations throughout the city, specializes in freshly prepared blinis and soups, nothing more. Try the wild mushroom and cream blini with a cup of hot borscht with meat for an affordable, surprisingly hearty, delicious, pretense-free dining experience.


This humble eatery, set just a few blocks behind the Gostiny Dvor shopping arcade, sits alongside a majestic canal and serves sumptuous Armenian food. Try the mutton soup with potatoes (pito) or the kebabs made of beef and crushed walnuts. The waitstaff is very accommodating to non-Russian-speaking visitors.

James Cook Pub and Cafe

Divided into two parts, the café section of this eatery is well-suited for those wanting only a quick bite before hitting the nearby sites (like the Hermitage or Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood). The pub features a more relaxed atmosphere, some delicious, well-prepared food and an outstanding beer selection. Try the Beef Stroganoff or the grilled tenderloin dinner.


Anna Lebedeva
Office: +8-812-594-3772
Cell: +7-921-33-99122

Maria Rose Tours


Russia’s national currency is the rouble (also spelled ruble). On average, one US dollar is equivalent to about 25 roubles. Credit cards are accepted at many sit-down restaurants but not at smaller establishments or at many of the city’s attractions (including most churches).

Traveling to:

You will need both a valid passport and visa to travel to Russia, which makes the destination out of reach for those wanting to head there spontaneously. Tourist visas require a minimum of 4 weeks to process, and passports can take more than three months to get. Tour companies will help you get your visa and hotel voucher (required for the visa – essentially it shows where you will be staying while in Russia). Those traveling independently may want to contact services like Russia House ((http://www.russiahouse.org/)  or American Passport Express (http://americanpassport.com/) to expedite visa processing. Note: Both services charge fees for quick turnarounds.


Encore Las Vegas

On first impression, Encore Las Vegas, hotel developer Steve Wynn’s new $2.3-billion dollar extension to his $2.7 billion namesake hotel, feels like a paradox of our times.

After all, the country is in a recession, reports have stated that Vegas tourism has dropped significantly over the last year, and people on the whole are being more tightfisted with their spending money.

Yet here is a hotel (it opened officially to the public on December 22, 2008) that -- at least on the surface -- seems unbothered by the current economic climate in America. In fact, in touring the hotel, you may wonder if Wynn himself chose to open the hotel at this time as a means to offer Americans a chance to forget their financial woes -- at least temporarily, that is.

On the outside, Encore looks very much like its sister property, the Wynn: Although not as tall or wide as that establishment, it boasts a similar-looking exterior composed entirely of copper-colored glass. Inside, those thematic similarities continue, especially in the place’s emphasis on curved walls, lengthy esplanades and elegant chandeliers.

But where the Wynn’s décor takes a modern approach to art nouveau, Encore’s design takes many cues from Eastern cultures, primarily China and Thailand. Stepping through the place, you stroll under intricately carved ceiling and chandeliers containing hundreds of pieces of sparkling colored glass. You walk over floors covered with plush carpets and mosaics of dragonflies and butterflies. You pass Siamese statues, modern art paintings and found art, which pack the corridors, corners and enclave of the place. Even the staff (dealers included) come dressed in Chinese-inspired uniforms.

It’s a setting that feels miles away from the northern end of the Strip, whose empty construction zones and unfinished high rises sit just a few blocks away from the property.

Sense of Intimacy

While Encore certainly looks enormous on the outside, inside it carries a sense of intimacy that most other Vegas mega-hotels seem to lack.

This is best seen in the hotel’s casino. It’s smaller than most of the gambling floors in town (it houses approximately 65 tables and 860 slots) and has been designed with high ceilings, square spaces, straight lines and natural light (let in through windows and skylights) -- a far cry from the typical Strip casino, which usually features a maze-like design, low ceilings, dim lighting and loud noises.

As a result, walking through the casino to get to the hotel’s other hotspots becomes easier and feels less stressful than expected, which in turn lets you admire the design and artwork around you all the more.

That same mindset can be found on the individual room floors, which consist of short, curving hallways lined with modern artwork instead of sprawling, seemingly endless corridors of doors, as found in many other Strip behemoths. No room here is more than a few minutes by foot from the elevator.

The Rooms

While the rest of the hotel imparts strong Eastern flavors, the rooms themselves are decidedly modern American in design, with plenty of dramatic blacks and whites, as well as several mirrors to intimate a greater sense of space. The Encore houses 2034 rooms in all (the Wynn has 2716). The smallest suites offer approximately 700 square feet of living space, and the larger “Tower Suites” reach 5,800 square feet (for a three-bedroom apartment) in area.

Most standard rooms are split into three sections, each about equal in size: The bathroom, the sleeping area, and the living room.

Inside the bathroom, set at the front of the suite, you’ll find a glass-enclosed steam shower, sunken one-person tub, two-station marble vanity with stretch mirror overhead, a proper toilet closet and a 14-inch flat-screen TV set into the wall (so you can watch while you’re in the tub). All the fixtures are chrome and made by Kohler, and the marble tile on the floor has radiating heat coming through it to make sure your feet don’t get cold after you step out from the shower.

The back two-thirds of the suite (the sleeping area and living room) are separated by a half wall, which itself is topped by a 42-inch flat screen television that swivels 180 degrees so you can watch TV either in bed or on the couch in the back of the room. Each room gets a pillow top mattress and feather-soft linens, all of which are tailor made for the hotel (and available for sale in the Home Store boutique in the hotel’s 11-store shopping esplanade) and the room’s workstation/desk area contains everything from a fax machine to a complete set of wires for internet hook-up.

If that weren’t enough, the room’s lights and curtains are controlled by touch-button panels located by the door and bed, respectively. Those same panels signal housekeeping when to make up the room or when to leave you alone -- no need to hang a sign on the door.

The Spa

Ask any employee of the hotel what you should see at the Encore and they’ll all tell you without delay to visit the Spa. The instant you arrive, you understand why.

The spa here features more than 50,000 square feet of space, with an enormous gleaming white, cavernous central atrium that looks and feels more like the interior of a posh Eastern palace than the interior of a hotel. Standing here, you’ll find yourself surrounded by sprawling ceiling-high arches, intricate tile work reminiscent of those found in the Taj Mahal and countless Eastern mosaics and statues.

Inside are nearly four dozen treatment rooms, each connected via a series of golden passageways lined with urns, lanterns, statues and tapestries, where you can enjoy various forms of massage and wellness treatments, which range from traditional procedures like hot stone massages to more exotic rituals, such as the “shirodhara stillness enhancement.” Also on hand is a full-service salon and a fitness center.


Encore hosts five on-property restaurants, each of which wears the name of its executive chef like a badge of honor. (Wynn is the only hotel baron in Vegas to demand that his star chefs work on premises for part of the year.)

What’s unique about the hotel’s collection of eateries is that while they evoke the same spirit of elegance imparted by the rest of the hotel they also manage to work in several playful touches.

Sinatra is a high-end Italian eatery that pays homage to Old Blue Eyes via displays of memorabilia and a soundtrack of hits -- a unique mix of modern elegance and Vegas kitsch, if you will. Botero is a poolside steakhouse that fits its dining tables among an assortment of plump-bodied paintings, mosaics and sculptures by the famed artist. Wazuzu is a contemporary Asian eatery featuring elegant Eastern décor like gold-covered pears and a 27-foot crystal dragon, which sprawls across its back wall. At Society Café, the hotel’s only casual eatery (its décor seems inspired by “New Yorker” cartoons from the 1920s and ‘30s), servers greet guests with the cute line, “Welcome to Society” -- as if life outside its walls (or the hotel’s) doesn’t exist.

And finally there’s Switch, a French bistro whose décor literally changes every 20 minutes. Here, coinciding with the playing of some atmospheric music, whole walls slide into the floor beneath them, shelves of standalone art and other ornaments appear and disappear, and portions of the ceiling open up and swallow (or spit out) chandeliers.

It sounds corny, yes, almost Disney-like on the surface, and in a way it is, but at the same time the restaurant manages to exhibit some elegance in its execution. Park yourself on the esplanade outside the restaurant -- if you don’t want to go inside for dinner -- and watch the transformation take place for yourself.

Like the rest of the hotel, it’s another bit of Vegas magic that’s been created to help you forget the troubles happening to the rest of the country -- at least temporarily, that is.

For more information:

For more information or to book reservations visit http://www.encorelasvegas.com

Dress code:

While you can tour the Encore in any form of dress, the hotel enforces dress codes for its restaurants, including the casual café Society. Please call the hotel’s dining line for specifics: 888-352-DINE.

Travel deals:

Because of the city’s recent drop in tourism, several online travel companies, such as Travelocity and Hotwire, are offering great deals to Las Vegas, many of which include airfare and dining coupons in their packages.


DeBary Hall: One of Cental Florida's Hidden Historical Gems

Originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel and Volusia Forum

Most of Central Florida’s historical sites offer the same set-up: Pay admission, tour the grounds, get some historical perspective into the time represented -- and that’s about it.

      DeBary Hall, located off S.R. 17-92 in its namesake township, sets its sights considerably higher.

Take its “ride-movie,” for example. This unique attraction, housed in a theater set behind the site’s new visitor’s center, uses moving seats, a three-panel display screen and projected still photos to take guests on a virtual boat ride down the St. John’s River, circa 1900.

And that’s just one of the unique experiences found here.

In addition to its main draws, which include an 8,000-square-foot mansion and other historic buildings, indoor and outdoor exhibits and interactive demonstrations, the site also houses a paved bike trail to nearby Gemini Springs, seasonal farmer’s markets, and countless special events, like art exhibits, book signings, barbecues and holiday celebrations, among others.

In October 2005, DeBary Hall underwent a $1.5 million expansion, which added the aforementioned visitor’s center, “ride-movie,” bike trail and bike trailhead facilities building. In 2006, the property completed restoration of a post-Civil-War-era caretaker’s house and barn -- the latter of which will serve as a reception hall for hire.

We’re more than a museum. We have other events. We get out to the community. We host rentals. We have a lot of weddings here, host groups who need a meeting space,” said Amber Osmun, Site Director for DeBary Hall.

“Not everyone is interested in history, but I can give them other reasons to come here, and when they do come here, many are pleasantly surprised, that it’s interesting, it’s fun.”

According to Osmun, many of these new features have been added to spark interest locally. Besides providing a spot for visitors to explore the history of the region, she also wants DeBary Hall to serve as a place for area residents to congregate.

“We’d like to be a hub for the community,” said Osmun. “Debary is a very young city, it’s doesn’t have that historic downtown.”

Community outreach plays a large part in spreading the word, says Osmun. The staff regularly attends area festivals, where they set up informational displays, such as at the popular the Daytona Beach Garden Show, held every year in April. In addition, representatives frequently hold educational seminars and deliver multimedia presentations on Frederick deBary, DeBary Hall and the development of the St. Johns River to area historical societies.

“A lot of people don’t know about DeBary Hall, don’t know it’s here, and this is one way to get people to come here,” said Osmun. “Debary has a significant amount of history. It has a story to tell.”

In addition to building local ties, Osmun has also been trying to lure more tourists to the site -- a tricky proposition considering most visitors to Central Florida opt for glitzier destinations like Daytona Beach or Orlando’s theme parks.

Still, Osmun says the message has been getting across. Along with increased traffic from locals, several tourists from Daytona Beach have found their way to the site. According to surveys filled out upon guest departure, many learned about DeBary Hall through rack cards displayed in their hotels’ lobbies or through hotel concierges. (Though, it should be noted, that those information cards do little to explain the spelling differences between the town of Debary, DeBary Hall itself and Frederick deBary, the original owner of the property.)

      “It’s getting easier,” she said. “I’m finding that the more that we do, the more people are getting involved, which is great for us, because we haven’t had that involvement before.”

DeBary Hall opened to the public as a historical site in 2002. Before that, it passed through a number of identities.

Originally, in the post-Civil War era, the land was the winter retreat for Frederick deBary, a European-born wine merchant who purchased the grounds for hunting.

In 1871, deBary expanded the property to 6,000 acres, built a mansion, stables and servants’ quarters there, and established orange-growing and steamship transport businesses in the vicinity. (He sent the citrus he grew northward, via the St. John’s River, to Jacksonville, where it then boarded ships to New York City and other northern destinations.)

The property remained a vacation home until 1941, when deBary’s last American heir, Leonnie deBary, died. Soon after that, the property was donated to the State of the Florida, who first turned it into a school for the arts and then, in the 1960s, transformed it into a senior center. It remained as thus until 1990, when Volusia County took over operations and decided to make it a historical site.

By that point, around 1992, the area’s population was blossoming and much of DeBary Hall’s original 6,000 acres had been lost to development and other land deals. (Today, the property encompasses only 10 acres.) The site was also in a state of serious disrepair by then, the result of years of wear and tear and neglect.

To help with renovation, a group of concerned citizens and volunteers united (officially calling themselves DeBary Hall Incorporated) and joined forces with Volusia County Leisure Services, and, for the next ten years, restored the property to its current state. This included both cleaning the buildings and grounds and tracking down original furniture and artwork that had become lost over the years.

“I was so sad when I saw it, that it was in such disrepair,” said Peg McAllister, a volunteer at DeBary Hall and a member of the DeBary Hall Incorporated Board of Directors.

“I wanted to help out when the county got involved. There was no one onsite to do all those things {clean up], so we did it.”

The group continues to help DeBary Hall today with many of its day-to-day operations. Many of its participants serve as tour guides and fact finders, and some even aid in fundraising and grant writing efforts.

“They helped save DeBary Hall from certain ruin,” said Osmun. “It’s unbelievable how much work the house needed.”

Since its 2002 opening, DeBary Hall has seen a steady rise in popularity and funding. According to Osmun, attendance has increased by twenty-to-thirty percent since opening, and the 2004-2005 fiscal year saw 32,830 people visit. “That was a good year,” said Osmun.

Both Osmum and McAllister hope to use that foundation, as well as the site’s new attractions, as a base for future successes. But they also realize that sparking interest and maintaining it, both locally and with tourists, are two different goals.

“You can’t imagine how many people I’ve met people from the area who have never heard of this place, and that drives me up the wall,” said McAllister. “We need publicity.”

DeBary Hall is open six days a week. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

For more information, please call (386) 668-3840 or visit http://www.debaryhall.com.


Laureus Foundation Shows Sports Can Be the Great Unifier


This story was written for OverTime Magazine. All photos courtesy of Laureus.com.

Marcus Allen. Ronnie Lott. Tony Hawk. Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Mark Spitz. Boris Becker. Sergey Bubka. Roger Federer. Edwin Moses. Mike Horn. Nadia Comaneci. Marcel Desailly. Illie Nastase. Alexei Nemov. Kip Keino. Justine Henin.

These were just a few of the more than 25 world sports legends who attended the ninth Laureus World Sports Awards (www.laureus.com), which took place at the Mariinsky Concert Hall on February 18, 2008 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The gala celebrated the best in sports for 2007 and honored the competitive accomplishments of several top athletes from around the globe.

Switzerland’s Roger Federer, the world’s premiere tennis player, won the World Sportsman of the Year Award for the fourth year in a row. Joining him from the tennis circuits was top-ranked women’s tennis player Justine Henin, who won the World Sportswoman of the Year Award, and Esther Vergeer of Holland, a wheelchair tennis champion who won the Laureaus Disability Award; Vergeer won the same award in 2002.

British Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton received the Laureus Breakthrough of the Year Award after experiencing a monumental first year on the tour. South Africa’s national rugby team won the Laureus World Team of the Year Award, which honored their Rugby World Cup championship in 2007. American skateboarder/snowboarder phenom and X-Games icon Shaun White won the Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year Award. And British long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe earned the Laureus Comeback of the Year Award; she returned to competition after a two-year hiatus, during which she gave birth to her first child and recovered from a stress fracture in her lower back.

“I’m really thrilled to receive this Laureus Award,” said Radcliffe. “I’ve been nominated four times before, and that in itself has always been a special achievement and recognition for me. To finally win it this time really means a great deal. I think to win a Laureus is an amazing recognition.”

79782790JD009_L1ld.jpgIn addition to the award winners, the Laureus World Sports organization honored Ukrainian pole vault legend Surgey Bubka with a Lifetime Achievement Award and Canadian Dick Pound, who spent eight years as chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, with the Spirit of Sport Award. Finally, Americans Brendan and Sean Tuohey were given the Laureus Sport for Good Award for their involvement in the PeacePlayers International project, a charitable program that uses basketball as a means to unite children in divided communities.

The ceremony itself featured several celebrity guests, who were there either to present awards to recipients or show their support for the organization. On hand were actor-director Dennis Hopper, TV-star Kyle MacLachlan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, TV-star Kim Cattrall and Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr., who served as the emcee for the evening. Guests of the awards were treated to an original orchestral work by celebrated Russian composer Valery Gergiev and a performance by Uliana Lopatkina, lead dancer of the world famous Kirov Ballet.

Though considerably better known in Europe than in the United States, the Laureus World Sports Awards bills itself as “premier global sports awards honouring the greatest sportsmen and women across all sports each year.” Laureus officials state the 2008 awards show is expected to be broadcast to more than 180 countries globally.

What makes the awards unique is that unlike other prizes, where honorees are selected solely by a panel of individuals in their respective industry, Laureus winners are chosen by a distinct two-step process. First, a collection of sports editors, writers and broadcasters from around the world nominates six athletes as finalists in five of the awards categories represented (Laureus World Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year, Laureus World Team of the Year, Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year and Laureus World Comeback of the Year; nominations for the Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year and the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability are produced by specialist panels). Then, the members of the Laureus World Sports Academy, a group consisting solely of celebrated world class athletes, decide which nominee in each category is most deserving of the Laureus.

Currently there are 45 active members of the Laureus World Sports Academy; each has been invited by the Academy itself to be part of its panel, making it an exclusive circle indeed. Russian gymnast and Olympic champion Alexei Nemov and Mika Hakkinen, the great Formula One driver from Finland, were added to the group in February 2008. Past Laureus Award winners include bicycling champion Lance Armstrong, golfers Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia, the 2005 Boston Red Sox and current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few. Previous ceremonies have been held in such exotic locales as Barcelona, Spain, Monaco and Lisbon, Portugal.

Beyond the Awards

sfgsfg31.jpgWhile the Laureus World Sports Awards is the organization’s highest-profile event of the year, it is by no means its only activity. Beneath the glitz and glamour of the Awards lies the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, a charitable association that aims to bridge social gaps through sport. Simply put, Sport for Good assists in funding, initiating and maintaining facilities, tournaments, programs or activities in troubled or divided areas of the world and uses sport to help unify those communities.

Laureus was initially conceived in 2000 by South African entrepreneur Johann Rupert, a former club-level cricketer and currently the chairman of Richemont, the corporation that produces Cartier jewelry (among other luxury brands). Soon after devising the idea, he brought it to Daimler, who makes Mercedes-Benz, and the two companies teamed up to develop the concept fully. Richemont and Daimler currently donate $1 million collectively each year to the organization to help support its daily operations. Thanks to their assistance, the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation currently funds 50 projects around the world, many of which help young people overcome issues like poverty, homelessness, war, violence, drugs abuse, discrimination and AIDS. Since its commencement, more than 150,000 underprivileged youth have been helped around the world.

Some of Laureus’ most successful programs to date include: a Midnight Basketball League in Richmond, Va ., which tackles drug and crime problems in its community by setting games from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., when most vandalism and crime is prevalent; an “ After-School All-Stars” program in New York City, during which activities like basketball, volleyball and taekwando are offered as an means to thwart student drug abuse and gang involvement; and “Fight for Peace in Rio de Janeiro,” which uses boxing to create alternatives to crime and violence in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods.

“As you travel around the world, you see that there are three or four basic ways people communicate with one another: Music, arts, sports and love. Those are the four universal languages that are in common with everyone everywhere, so we know that sport definitely has an impact. A sport is something that everyone relates to everywhere,” said Edwin C. Moses. The Olympic champion and outspoken activist against anti-doping in competitive sports has been the chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy since 2000 and is also responsible for devising many of the organization’s official policies and procedures.

“Sport is the great equalizer, kids love to participate in sports, and our philosophy is to have sport change the world,” said tennis champion Boris Becker, a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy and Chairman of Laureus Germany. Becker has been involved with countless charitable and fundraising endeavors for Laureus over the years and also played integral parts in a Sutton Gymnastics program in 2001, which helped children suffering from the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and the aforementioned midnight basketball league in Richmond, VA.

“I think we’re very careful and measured in what we do. We’re not a super huge organization, but we’re effective,” added Moses. “We use our people well, and we take our time to find outstanding projects around the world. We’re good at that and we pride ourselves in finding people who do what they do well.”

Personal Involvement

IWC_Laureus_Polo-071.jpgThe Laureus World Sports Academy plays an major role with the organization. Not only do these athletes select the winners of the Laureus Awards, but they also volunteer their services and time to help struggling communities everywhere. Because of their celebrity status, they tend to have an easier time than most in bridging cultural gaps, and often they bring media attention with them, which helps spread the word on the events or programs they are participating in.

“It really focuses on the kids. It’s not a money thing. It’s really the joy of seeing the smiles on these kids’ faces, that you’re really helping them,” said middleweight great Marvelous Marvin Hagler, a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy since 2007. “That’s really the best reward that every one of these athletes here with me [in the Laureus Academy] gets when we talk about new projects. I’ve had the opportunity know the hurt and pain these young kids know because I came up the same way, and I was very fortunate enough to find sports to educate me and give me a dream and make me the person I am. I hope to give these kids a chance through my work with Laureus.”

Hagler recently visited Morocco for Laureus, where he set up a series of community-based sports activities within a group of women who were being suppressed by the male population there. As Hagler and his Laureus comrades played soccer, tug of war and other games with these women, they also taught them about cleanliness, self-confidence, self-esteem and hope. He claims he saw an immediate change.

“The men always pushed the women on their backs there,” said Hagler, “and with our help they were able to stand up and speak out for what they felt.”

NFL great Marcus Allen, an Academy member since 2007, sees his involvement with Laureus as a chance to extend his charitable efforts outside the United States. Currently, he, legendary NFL defenseman Ronnie Lott and NFL career-rushing-yards leader Emmitt Smith work together in a country-wide program that helps underprivileged inner-city children obtain worthwhile educations. Both Lott and Allen want to branch their aid program into other parts of the world, particularly Africa, and Allen believes his work with Laureus will grant him the opportunity to accomplish this goal.

“Once you evolve,” said Allen, “you see that touchdowns are great, but there are things that are much more gratifying, and that’s probably the best feeling I get. Wanting to travel and work internationally, this is the best opportunity for me. They’ve [Laureus] done incredible work internationally. It’s a great partnership with what we’re doing.”

laureus_world_s236.jpg Skateboarding pioneer Tony Hawk, an Academy member since 2004, finds a similar ideology with Laureus. Hawk currently works with Athletes for Hope and heads his own Tony Hawk Foundation -- that’s in addition to his efforts with Laureus. Because of his ties to the organization, he is able to combine his resources with Laureus’ and increase awareness to several charitable causes at once, instead of working with just one at a time. Such was the case with Hawk’s participation in the Mia Hamm Foundation’s Celebrity Soccer Challenge, held on January 30, 2008. In addition to this, Hawk teamed with Laureus for its “Right to Play” project in Sierra Leone, which trained adults to be coaches for children who had trouble assimilating to everyday life after the country’s bloody civil war, and its “Spirit of Soccer” program in Cambodia, which cleared minefields and converted them into soccer fields.

“A lot of it is intertwined, and it’s done to get other athletes involved,” said Hawk. “The bottom line is that you have to pursue what you truly believe in. That way you can speak from the heart. This is the heart of what Laureus stands for. When you see the work firsthand, and you see the kids don’t have much of anything, you get much pleasure.”

Laureus USA

Though its international efforts have given Laureus a high profile globally, the organization’s exposure in the U.S. remains strangely small -- a surprising fact considered the star power Laureus brings to the table.

sportforgood_78497.jpg Still, a lower public status shouldn’t imply that Laureus’ work in America has been any less effective or significant. Founded in 2003 as a 501-3c nonprofit, Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA (www.laureusfoundationusa.org) serves to express the Laureus vision in the U.S., and many of the programs installed here are similar in theme (using sport as a means to bring about social change) as the ones established abroad. Its operations are overseen by an Executive Director, John Miottel, and a Board of Directors composed of celebrated athletes and corporate stalwarts, which include Edwin Moses, tennis great John McEnroe, Olympic star Michael Johnson, gymnastics legend Nadia Comenici, Richard Beckman (CMO of CondeNast), Dan Mawicke (CEO of Richemont North America), Paul Halata (ex-CEO of Mercedez Benz USA), Callum Barton (ex-CEO Richemont North America) and Sandra Kelly (sister-in-law to Princes Grace). The organization holds regular fundraisers like the Laureus Golf and Tennis Invitational and the Laureus Celebrity Polo Challenge, each of which have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Laureus charities in the U.S. and around the world.

More recently, Laureus USA teamed with world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. Before facing Sultan Ibragimov in his title unification bout on February 23, 2008 in New York City, Klitschko asked fans to donate to Laureus in his honor. In exchange, he agreed to place the name of each contributor on his fight robe and wear that garment into the ring. More than 3,000 people responded to the request, which raised approximately $350,000 for the organization. The robe will be auctioned in April 2008; once that sale has been finalized, the entire project is expected to bring in more than half a million dollars collectively in funds, with all proceeds benefiting the Betances Boxing Program in the Bronx, which teaches children ages eight and up life skills, values workshops and academic support along with boxing skills.

Despite these successes, invading the American market has still been difficult for Laureus USA. The organization’s main sponsorship, Richemont and Daimler, as well as its business infrastructure, remains firmly planted in Europe at the moment (Laureus’ main office in London currently staff 40 full-time employees), which has posed some difficulty in helping the organization branch out. Cultural differences between the U.S. and European markets have also set up some road blocks.

“We have a foundation that’s set up here, and we have several great projects set up, but we have into invest a lot more in order to expand our reach,” said Edwin Moses. “We’re talking between $1 and $2 million spread over two years to get things rolling. As a foundation, you can’t always justify spending all that money on infrastructure. We’re obligated to spend 70 to 80 percent on projects at the moment. Even the way we raise money is restricted. We have to rely on smaller donations. There’s a lot of things that have to happen in order to make it work.”

Miottel concurs with those sentiments.

“In the U.S., it’s a little trickier because we draw the line between commercial and nonprofit,” said Miottel. “ We’ve started slowly but surely. It’s a growing process, but when we have the ability to, we will expand. There’s a lot of potential, and we’re getting things going.”

On the plus side, the belief now is that since Laureus USA has a body of work to show for itself, the organization can start thinking about climbing to the next level. For most Laureus supporters, there’s no question as to what that step should be.

“They need to bring the awards show out of Europe,” said Tony Hawk. “For them to bring it to the States, or even to North America or Australia, would expand their profile and get other companies interested in underwriting it.”

Moses agrees, adding that he’s been pushing for the awards to reach American soil for almost five years. He feels cities like New York or Miami would make ideal settings.

As of now, rumors hint that St. Petersburg will most likely host the awards again in 2009, though nothing official has been released yet. But with the high profile garnered by the Klitschko fight and fundraiser, as well as other efforts to promote Laureus in the U.S., one has to wonder if an American locale may soon find its way into the running.

“That’s one of the things I’d like to see in the next three years,” said Moses. “It’s just a matter of having our sponsors agree to it. Everyone who knows business and knows marketing knows that’s this is the direction we need to take. I think we’re sitting on a monster of untapped resources here.”


Laureus World Sports Academy Members:

  • Giacomo Agostini
  • Marcus Allen
  • Severiano Ballesteros
  • Franz Beckenbauer
  • Boris Becker
  • Peter Blake (In Fond Memory)
  • Ian Botham
  • Sergey Bubka
  • Bobby Charlton
  • Sebastian Coe
  • Nadia Comaneci
  • Yaping Deng
  • Marcel Desailly
  • Kapil Dev
  • David Douillet
  • Emerson Fittipaldi
  • Sean Fitzpatrick
  • Dawn Fraser
  • Tanni Grey-Thompson
  • Marvin Hagler
  • Mika Hakkinen
  • Tony Hawk
  • Mike Horn
  • Miguel Indurain
  • Michael Johnson
  • Kip Keino
  • Franz Klammer
  • Dan Marino
  • John McEnroe
  • Edwin Moses
  • Nawal El Moutawakel
  • Robby Naish
  • Ilie Nastase
  • Martina Navratilova
  • Alexey Nemov
  • Jack Nicklaus
  • Gary Player
  • Morné du Plessis
  • Hugo Porta
  • Vivian Richards
  • Monica Seles
  • Bill Shoemaker (In Fond Memory)
  • Mark Spitz
  • Daley Thompson
  • Alberto Tomba
  • Steve Waugh
  • Katarina Witt

Laureus Friends and Ambassadors:

Laureus Friends and Ambassadors are several country-based groups of celebrated athletes, both active and retired, who are recognized as role models and/or icons in their nation of origin. They volunteer their services to help the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in their own country. America’s Friends and Ambassadors include the following:

  • Nate "Tiny" Archibald
  • Jeremy Bloom
  • Jim Bouton
  • Len Elmore
  • John Franco
  • Jerry Kramer
  • Tony Mitchel
  • Shannon Miller
  • Donna Orender
  • Gale Sayers
  • Tony Siragusa
  • Dr.Tommie Smith
  • John Starks
  • Nelson Vails
  • Reynauld White
  • Alton Fitzgerald White

Upcoming Laureus events:

  • May 17 - 18, 2008: Laureus Celebrity Golf Invitational, Indian Creek
    Country Club, Florida
  • August 23, 2008: Laureus Hamptons Tennis Classic, The Hamptons, NY
  • September 23, 2008: Laureus Basketball Classic, Richmond , VA

For more information:



Spring beauty in Woodstock, England

This story was written for The Stuart News. 


T.S. Eliot called April the “cruelest month” because it toyed with people’s perceptions of a season commonly associated with rebirth.

“Lilacs out of dead land,” he wrote in The Wasteland, “mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

Traveling to Woodstock, England, in the heart of the picturesque Cotswolds, you get an idea of what Eliot meant by those words. This is a place that defies most expectations.

During this month in England, winter and spring seem to coexist. Temperatures fluctuate regularly between freezing and moderate. Rain turns into snow and then back into rain with little notice. Skies are cloudy in mornings, sun-filled in the afternoon and ominous at night. And amidst this climate-based confusion, the area’s daffodils are in full-bloom. The sleepy streets of this tiny town seem lined with them, their bright yellows brightening the dingy earth around them like small patches of sunshine.

Call it poetic justice, if you will.

Cozy, historic town

woodstock2.jpg Woodstock , founded in the thirteenth century, is one of those cozy little English towns you see in postcards. Sitting just about 10 miles from nearby Oxford, it’s a small place, with a population of about 3,000, most of which are well-to-do Londoners who spend their weekends and vacations here. (As with many resort towns, the folk who run or work the town’s many inns, shops and restaurants live either in Oxford or in the more modestly priced villages nearby.)

The town itself consists essentially of only three major streets, neither of them long enough to require the need of a car. High Street houses the area’s grocery, pharmacy and butcher, along with some restaurants. Market Street plays home to a majority of the town’s hotels and shops, as well as its lone church (which dates back to the 1400s). Harrison’s Lane is the residential part of town and where you’ll find a majority of those aforementioned vacation homes.

Chaucer, the legendary author of the Cantebury Tales, lived here for a spell in the 1300s, and the town has a short side street named after him, Chaucers Lane (just off of Market Street), on which you can pass the home where he once dwelled. The town’s lone museum, the humble Oxfordshire Museum, offers more information on Chaucer and the area, as well as an overview of the multi-century history of the region, for those who are interested.

As with most townships in the Cotswolds, lush, rolling hills and quaint English cottages, many dating back to the 1400s, greet you from every angle. Woodstock is no different. A short stroll through one of the many back-alley staircases found here will often lead you into hidden gardens, sprawling pastures or lazily flowing creeks. This is about as far-removed as you can get from the hustle and bustle of London. And judging by the number of Londoners encountered on my visit, that seems to be the point.

Noble residence

woodstock3.jpg Nearby Blenheim (pronounced “bleh-nem”) Palace is the county’s main draw (www.blenheimpalace.com). Home to the Duke of Marlborough, as well as the famous Spencer-Churchill family, whose decedents include Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, it’s a majestic estate boasting gardens nearly as extravagant and vast as those found in Versailles and a sprawling central building that rivals that French palace in terms of opulence.

That, ironically enough, is no coincidence. According to my guide, the palace itself was designed in the 1700s to be a rival of Versailles, and after the French Revolution in 1793, when that French palace was ransacked by revolutionaries and its contents put to auction, the Duke of Marlborough himself actually purchased a number of artifacts from Versailles for use in his home.

Blenheim Palace is also the birthplace of Winston Churchill, the legendary Prime Minister who led England against the Germans in World War II. A quarter of the house devotes itself to his memory, and within its walls you’ll find a large exhibit cataloguing his military, diplomatic and artistic efforts (few know he painted Christmas cards for Hallmark in the 1950s). The exhibit ends with a tour of the room where he was born; it comes filled with all its original turn-of-the-twentieth-century furniture.

Churchill’s legacy doesn’t end at the palace, though. A twenty-minute stroll through the palace’s vast gardens and estate (which boast everything from Baroque-inspired plazas to hedge mazes to sheep-filled pastures) takes you to the town of Bladon, where in its center you will find the former Prime Minister’s grave. It sits surprisingly unadorned inside the town humble church’s graveyard, alongside several other members of his family.

High-end dining

Considering its size, and England’s lowly reputation among world cuisine, it’s surprising to find dining in Woodstock to be high in quality and ambition. While there are pubs and fish and chip shops to be found, to be sure, many of the inns and restaurants here take pride in serving locally grown and caught ingredients. Game figures prominently on many menus, as does locally caught crawfish -- which look and taste more like langoustines than the variety more commonly associated with Cajun cuisine.

For a taste of the region’s offerings, visit the Kings Arms Restaurant for dinner, where you can dine on succulent dishes like a chestnut mushroom, sherry herb tartlet or Gloucester Old Spot pork fillet filled with Oxford blue cheese and sage. Just up the road, at the nearby ivy-covered Macdonald Bear, the town’s most upscale hotel, you can sink your teeth into dishes like pan-fried breast of Gressingham duck or roasted wild brill with caramelized chicory. It’s a gourmand’s delight, really, and a pleasant surprise to anyone thinking a sleepy little English town like this will offer anything but bangers and mash or shepherd’s pie.

Where to stay:

Where to eat:

For more information: