Get in the Christmas spirit at the Galt House

by Herb Sparrow 22. November 2013 20:47

Although many people consider mid-November to be too early to usher in the Christmas season, it was impossible to be bah-humbug after my wife, Marcheta, and I attended a media weekend Nov. 15-17 in conjunction with the opening of Christmas at the Galt House Hotel in downtown Louisville, Ky.

Brightly colored larger-than-life luminaries created by talented Chinese artisans, restored vintage department store window displays, amusing animated stuffed animals, creative gingerbread houses, lessons in making paper snowflakes, a holiday dinner show with a talented cast of young singers belting out holiday favorites and even hotel bellmen dancing in toy soldier outfits made it hard not to catch the Christmas spirit.

Although Christmas at the Galt House Hotel has many features geared toward children, including an Express Kiddie Train in Candy Cane Forest and a Santa cam that allows parents to download videos of their kids talking with Santa, there is plenty for adults to enjoy and be amazed by. The signature feature of Christmas at the Galt House, an American Bus Association Top 100 Event in North America for groups, is KaLightoscope with its large luminaries that take you on a visit to the North Pole, where Santa is getting ready for the big night. When KaLightoscope debuted four years ago, it was the first time Chinese luminaries had been displayed in the United States on this scale and the first time luminaries had been used to create a non-Chinese Western theme.

Made with wire frames covered with silk and satins in bright reds, blues, yellows, whites, oranges, lavenders and greens and lit from within, the luminaries are an impressive display of craftsmanship and fun to boot. There is a candy house large enough to walk through, Santa frolicking on a snowboard, snowmen dancing on a frozen pond, giant-size toys and Santa and his reindeer flying overhead. The final scene is a Nativity rendered as a stain-glass window.

A new feature this year that was a hit at the media weekend is Santa’s sleigh in front of a green screen that allows you to download a video of yourself driving the sleigh over scenes from around Louisville and share it on social media.

One of our favorites was the window displays from the former Stewart Dry Goods Company store in downtown Louisville that were restored by Lou Nasti of Brooklyn, N.Y., who had helped make them in the 1960s. Marcheta and I have fond memories of standing in front of the windows at Christmas time when we were kids.

Candy Cane Forest also features 100 animated characters that are fun for all ages.

Another new feature this year is the dancing Toy Soldier Bellmen, who will perform at 5:00 p.m. each day in the Suite Tower lobby from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. After their dance, the bellmen will turn a page in a Countdown to Christmas book. They did a rehearsal in front of a large crowd on Saturday.

Christmas at the Galt House Hotel runs through Jan. 1, closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Colors of the Season Holiday Dinner Show runs through Dec. 14, with evening shows on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and matinees on Dec. 7 and Dec. 12. It is also closed on Thanksgiving.

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Christmas Attractions

Group travel gets hands-on

by Herb Sparrow 14. August 2012 01:53

Group travel today is much more than just sitting on a motorcoach. Today’s more active group travelers demand more chances to learn about and experience the destinations they are visiting. Over the past decade, many destinations and attractions have seen the value of providing such opportunities.

On two recent trips, I got to immerse myself in hands-on experiences in Columbus, Ohio, and Hershey, Pa. From petting a cheetah at the Columbus Zoo and printing a greeting card on a 19th-century hand-cranked press in Worthington, Ohio, to creating my own candy bar at Chocolate World in Hershey — complete with my photo on the wrapper — I had a blast.

It’s an axiom that people learn by doing, and it’s easy to see why such experiences provide greater understanding. And they are a lot of fun.

One particularly delicious experience was at the Chocolate Lab at the Hershey Story, the Hershey company’s museum located on, you guessed it, Chocolate Avenue.

“You are enrolled in a class where you will make a chocolate bowl. It is totally edible,” Denise, our instructor, informed me. I had just settled in at a stainless-steel workstation after thoroughly washing my hands and donning a plastic apron, latex gloves, a hairnet and, to top off the look, a beard net.

The six stations can hold a total of 35 people for a class.

The class was informative and fun. In between leading us through the steps for making a bowl out of chocolate, Denise gave us a history of chocolate and an overview of chocolate production, from beans to bunnies (chocolate, of course).

She told us that the cacao bean, from which chocolate is produced, needs lots of water and heat; thus, it grows only in the rain forest of a tropical band between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator, with 70 percent now grown in Africa.

After harvest, the beans go through several processes before becoming chocolate: fermenting for up to a week; drying; and roasting, which breaks them into small pieces called nibs, which we sampled.

“The process hasn’t changed in decades,” said Denise.

If you want to sooth your conscience when you overindulge, Denise informed us that chocolate is considered a health food because it is an antioxidant and is considered a fruit. “It is very close to the strawberry,” she said.

But, back to the bowl. The secret was a small balloon. We dipped the balloon in a bowl of melted chocolate twice, careful not to let it drip after the first time, then placed the chocolate-coated balloon on a paper plate and put it into a refrigerator to set. When the chocolate was firm enough, we popped the balloon with a pushpin, and we had a bowl, which we decorated with swirls of liquid frosting from a squeeze bottle.

And, yes, it was edible.

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Travel Thoughts

Why travel and insurance go hand in hand

by Herb Sparrow 11. May 2012 22:50

The excitement of preparing for a trip, especially one that is out of the country, should also include careful planning. One of the most critical things any overseas traveler should have is travel insurance that covers trip interruptions and medical emergencies.

I had a firsthand experience about the benefits of insurance on a 10-day Panama Canal cruise on the Island Princess with cruise-operator specialists Susan and Russ Rosenberry of Islands in the Sun. I purchased a policy from Travel Guard, one of several capable and reliable companies, on my own, although you can purchase insurance through a tour operator or the cruise line.

The second night at sea, after a long and enjoyable dinner with Susan and Russ, I began getting a pain in my lower abdomen that became progressively more intense as the night wore on. Having had an attack of pancreatitis three years before, I suspected I was having another attack. Pancreatitis is not something to take lightly.

I finally dialed the emergency number around 5 a.m. and went to the ship’s medical center, where they put me on intravenous pain medicine and did blood tests and X-rays. By midafternoon, the ship’s chief medical office determined I needed to be put ashore at our first stop in Aruba for further tests.

I was taken by ambulance to the Dr. Horacio E. Oduber Hospital in Oranjestad, where I spent nearly four days.

Travel Guard, which is picking up all of my medical expenses on the ship and at the hospital, was in daily touch, monitoring my situation. The company arranged for a hotel room after I was discharged and arranged for my return flight home in business class along with a ticket for my daughter, who flew down to accompany me home.

I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t purchased the insurance. Since it was an emergency, my health insurance might have reimbursed me for the medical costs, which I would have had to pay upfront, but I doubt it would have helped me get home.

I would also like to thank Princess Cruises, whose U.S.-based passenger assistance officers Mary Kessler and Don O’Neal were also in daily contact to offer any assistance I needed and called to make sure I had gotten home OK.

The medical staff on board, headed by Dr. Deon Venter, were very professional and competent in stabilizing my condition and making me as comfortable as possible for a full day and night at sea.

In Aruba, Carol Angie, managing director of the port agency, and Henry van Loon, the agency’s boarding officer, also looked after me, getting my luggage off the ship and storing it. Carol brought my carry-on with my toiletries to the hospital and took me to the hotel after my discharge and to a pharmacy to have a prescription (they call it a recipe there) filled.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who helped me.

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Travel Thoughts

Bats and a ballpark

by Herb Sparrow 24. May 2011 19:58

In the mid-1990s, Charley Trudeau was remodeling houses and playing vintage baseball on the side. One day, since he had all the woodworking tools, someone asked him to make them a vintage bat. The bat was so popular other orders followed. Soon Charlie was out of the remodeling business and into the bat-making business full time.

Today, the Phoenix Bat Co. in the Columbus suburb of Plain City turns out a wide range of wooden bats, from softball to baseball, from high schools to the pros. It is one of some two dozen companies that are approved by Major League baseball to make bats for major leaguers.

Seth Cramer, the general manager and majority owner of the company, gave us an abbreviated version of the hour-long tour he gives groups. "I enjoy doing bus tours," he said. "They are seeing something here they will not see anywhere else."

Seth showed us the computer where the minute details of a bat are calculated. The information is fed into a large state-of-the-art lathe in the back, which spits out maple or ash bats at the rate of one every two minutes. It can work on a dozen kinds of bats at once. Seth also showed us the stacks of squared billets that will be turned into round bats, and how the finished bats are carefully dipped in stain and hung to dry.

Then is was off to the new Huntington Park in downtown Columbus, where some of the bats are used. The park, now in its third season, is the home of the Columbus Clippers, the Triple-A farm team of the Cleveland Indians. Joe Santry, the team's public relations man and resident baseball historian, gave us a tour of the park, which not only has many fan-friendly designs — including openings in the outfield wall where fans on the street outside can view the game for free — but is a veritable baseball museum.

The concourses are lined with glass cases with a wealth of baseball memorabilia, such as a glove that belonged to Lou Gehrig. The walls of a second-story bar behind the left field wall are covered with bats, uniforms, gloves and other equipment of former Clipper players. An exhibit case has the uniform jersey Derek Jeter wore while playing in Columbus when it was a Yankees farm team. Numerous baseball cards, programs, photos, ticket stubs and other printed material are displayed under glass on the 110-foot-long bar's counter. An open-air rooftop on the third level has bleachers that are reminiscent of Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Bats at the Phoenix Bat Co. hang to dry after being dipped in a distinctive stain. Seth Cramer shows one of the bats made by the Phoenix Bat Co. Huntington Park is the charming home of the AAA Columbus Clippers.



Drawing with George

by Herb Sparrow 24. May 2011 00:55

Columbus native George Bellows always had a talent for drawing, even at a young age. And he also had a talent for baseball. When a choice between the two arose, Bellows chose art. He played baseball at Ohio State University in the early 20th century and was offered a pro contract by the Cincinnati Reds. However, he left school early and headed to New York City to study art under Robert Henri.

"George wanted to be an artist," his Aunt Fanny told us at the Columbus Museum of Art."He could draw from an early age." Aunt Fanny, actually a docent who did an amazing job staying in character, took us back to 1915 when Bellows was at the peak of his career and one of the best known artists in the United States. The real Aunt Fanny lived with the Bellows family when George was young.

"I was there to tuck him in at night. I taught him to whistle. I liked the idea of George drawing," she said. Aunt Fanny is part of the museum's innovative Artist for a Day program for groups. After meeting with Aunt Fanny, we were taken to the archives for a rare look at some of Bellows' etchings and drawings, including some early sketches. "it's an opportunity the average visitors doesn't get to do," said Ann, another volunteer. Then it was upstairs to try our hand at duplicating Bellows. However, Ann explained that the brief and basic drawing lesson was really intended to get us to slow down and look more thoroughly and thoughtfully at art.

"We ask you to use drawing as a way to see art," she said as we were handed a small easel, pad of paper and plastic bag with pencils and an art gum eraser. "We are not teaching you how to draw, but a new way to experience art." Sitting on small portable stools, we practiced drawing the motion in a contemporary sculpture of dozens of oblong glass pieces. Then we focused on lines. Finally, moving to a gallery filled with Bellows work — the Columbus museum has the largest repository of his work in the world — we took at stab at copying one of his paintings.

I found myself really focusing on the details in the painting, a wintery 19th-century scene of a tugboat on the East River in New York with workers removing snow in horse-drawn sleds from the river banks in the foreground. Nobody is going to confuse me with Bellows or Picasso, but I did come away from the experience with a heightened appreciation of the intracacies of art.

Aunt Fanny tells about her nephew George Bellows.



Scrapbooks and art

by Herb Sparrow 23. May 2011 22:23

It's like Main Street comes to the mall. Easton, about 10 minutes from downtown Columbus, was one of the forerunners in lifestyle centers, mixed use developments that combine shopping, dining, entertainment, hotels, office space and residential units in an area designed more like a small town than a suburban shopping mall. The 90-acre Easton Town Center features nationally known chains and specialty stores along tree-lined streets with pocket parks, fountains and benches. Tenants include Nordstrom, Macy's, Crate and Barrel, Apple, Tiffany & Co., Burberry and Henri Bendel.

"A lot of thought was put into every corner," said Bethany Braden, marketing manager for the center.

Our day sampling hands-on experiences for groups began with breakfast at Nordstrom's Bistro Cafe before the high-end store opened. "Personal stylists" Kevin Bailey and Maria Kontomerkos gave us a look at the latest styles in men's and women's fashions, including apparel, accessories and shoes. Flowery-pattern swim trunks are in for men. We then had the run of the store before it opened.

Our next stop was Archiver's, a scrapbooker's paradise filled with anything you could possibly want to save your memories in a scrapbook. Although we didn't have time for a full-blown demonstration, the staff explained how groups can take classes in making greeting cards, calendars or scrapbooks. "It is a very social experience," said staff member Courtney. "You can learn something you can apply to your own crafts or learn what is going on in the world of card making."

Groups can also have a cooking demonstration at Sur La Table with chef Brad Kovak.





Letter press and candles

by Herb Sparrow 20. May 2011 20:53

When Allison Chapman was young, she would help her grandfather demonstrate old-fashioned printing on a letterpress at living-history festivals and events. When he died, he left 14-year-old Allison his 1892 press. Chapman moved to Worthington, a Columbus suburb, two years ago from Minnesota and set up Igloo Letterpress in the historic downtown, turning out post cards, invitations, posters, books and all sorts of other printed material with the hand-made quality her grandfather taught her. And she is glad to share her profession with others.

She has several class options for groups, and she let us try a hand. I pulled a slot-machine-like handle to raise an impression on a business card and cranked the handle on a press that rolled red ink on a card to spell thank you — the sentiments I felt for Allison taking me back in time. We then walked over to the Candle Lab, where we got to make a natural soy candle. After sampling more than 110 fragrances from almond to yuzu, we picked out three we wanted to combine to make a candle. The choices also included everything from bubble bath and campfire to morning dew and summer lawn.

I chose dark chocolate, whipped cream and burnt sugar for a desert-style candle. Seated at a fragrance bar, owner Steve Weaver helped us mix fragrance oils in varying doses into a 170-degree base oil until we got an aroma we were satisfied with. It takes about an hour for the candles to set up, so we put the time to good use by walking next door to the House Wine to sample some of its large collection of more than 250 labels from an unusual wine-dispensing machine and then across the street for a delicious gourmet dinner at the historic Worthington Inn.







Hanna and the cheetah

by Herb Sparrow 17. May 2011 19:21

I almost expected to see David Letterman walk in next. There I was, petting a seven-month-old cheetah when in walked Jack Hanna.

“There are only a couple of zoos where you can get this close to a cheetah,” said Hanna, who has gained a worldwide following with his advocacy for wild animals on his own television shows and by regular late-night appearances on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and other national television shows with a fascinating retinue of animals in tow. I was at the Columbus Zoo, where Hanna is the director emeritus, on the first stop of a four-day press trip to the Ohio city to sample some of the many creative experiential opportunities the local CVB has developed for groups. The CVB is so dedicated to making group trips hands-on it has changed its name to Experience Columbus.

The trip got off with a bang at the zoo, where we got to pet Moyo, a runt of the litter who had been abandoned by his mother at the Wilds, the wild animal sanctuary in southeastern Ohio that the Columbus Zoo helps operate. Moyo will probably spend his life at the zoo as an educational cheetah, although this was one of the last chances people will have to touch him. We met Moyo and Hanna at the Polar Frontier area, the zoo’s newest addition, which opened last spring.Hanna exhibited his famous infectious energy as he told about his more than 30 years at the zoo helping build it into a world-respected facility, his efforts to preserve animals in the wild and his philosophy for the zoo’s operation.

“It’s just as much for people as for the animals,” he said. “People have fun here and go away loving the animal world.” Hanna helped rescue the zoo, which was on the verge of being closed when he arrived in 1978, jumping in to help paint and clean the buildings. He gradually built public support, and today the zoo, the third largest in North America, is considered one of the best in the world. “The zoo is my life,” he said. “I come in here at night and walk around. It is beyond a dream. It was a dream I got to live.”






A perfect beginning

by Herb Sparrow 28. September 2010 00:45

Pink and orange streaks of a beautiful sunset provided a perfect backdrop as Wynona Judd sang a stirring rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home,” backed by the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, to kick off the Opening Ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games Saturday Sept. 25 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky.

As I sat in the stands watching the elaborate gala ceremonies, I reflected on the first day of the 16-day event, which will decide the world champions in eight equestrian disciplines. After a week of record-setting 90-degree days, a cold front moved in Friday night and Saturday was a beautiful, sunny, fall-like day with temperatures in the 70s. That set the stage for what turned out to be a great day for all involved.

After watching from the side as family, friends and acquaintances poured a huge amount of hard work and energy for months and years into preparing for the games — the first ever held outside of Europe — and then waited with anxious anticipation for the opening day — someone likened it to the anxiety of waiting for a newborn — it was very gratifying to see the nearly universal acclaim from the more than 23,000 people who flocked to the park on Saturday.

More than 800 top equestrian athletes from 58 countries are participating in the games, and there was a mini-World’s Fair atmosphere Saturday as people from around the country and several foreign nations mingled and took advantage of the many things to see and do at the games in addition to the competition.

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and the thousands of volunteers helping with the games were, to a person, open, friendly and helpful. There were even volunteers that opened the trash receptacles and wished you a good day.

I spent most of my time at the Kentucky Experience, a three-prong venue created by Kentucky’s Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. The Exhibit Pavilion is a minitour of the Bluegrass State, with each of the state’s tourism regions represented by large panel displays with photographs of major scenic, historic and cultural attractions; large-screen televisions with videos about the regions; and items from several museums around the state.

There is Gen. George Patton’s sweater from the 1912 Olympics; an outfit worn by George Clooney in his latest film, “The American” and a dress worn by his aunt, Rosemary Clooney, in “White Christmas”; white fence from historic Calumet Farm; Shaker furniture from Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill; a red Corvette you can sit in courtesy of the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green; and on and on.

The Entertainment Pavilion features a stage with live entertainment throughout the day by Kentucky musicians. I relaxed listening to the Ritch Collins Three-O from Ashland and the bluegrass band Rick Oldfield and Company from Mount Sterling.

The Product Pavilion is loaded with quality Kentucky-made items, from funky folk art to exquisite jewelry and pottery selected for the show by the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea. One side of the tent is a long bar where you can purchase samples of Kentucky wines, Kentucky bourbons and Kentucky Ale beer. I watched as Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear dipped a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon into a pail of hot red wax.

I took a quick tour through the large pavilion of Alltech, the Nicholasville, Ky.-based animal feed and supplement company that is the sponsor of the games. Several different areas explain the many fields Alltech is involved with around the world. I will have to save a more in-depth exploration for another visit, along with the Equine Village with its demonstrations of many horse breeds, and the expansive tradeshow.

The games run through Oct. 10.


Sampling Kentucky-made Rebecca Ruth bourbon balls at the Kentucky Experience.

An imaginatively decorated horse at the Alltech Pavilion is part of Lexington's Horse Mania

A brilliant sunset over the outdoor stadium lent a perfect backdrop to the WEG opening ceremonies.

Sit in a Corvette at the Kentucky Experience.



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