Miami

South Beach, Miami, FL.

My family and I visited Miami. We had never been.

We went to

Biscayne National Park.

and saw

Biscayne National Park.

and also a manatee feeding alongside a dock but in the photos it looks like a submerged log.

We went snorkeling and saw

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park.

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park.

My oldest snapped those two photos with his disposable. The sea fans are every shade of purple and violet you can imagine.

The next day, me and this hot mama

Fire woman you're to blame.

rented bicycles with our sons. We rode them through Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and saw

Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.

and

Go go Godzilla.

Miami is overrun with iguanas. They’re everywhere — climbing palms, sunning themselves in the grass. Not just the darker kind seen here but also bright green ones like you see in pet stores. Once while we were riding, a herd of iguanas stampeded across the sidewalk in front of us. Let me stress those words again: a herd of iguanas.

In South Beach, I went on an art-deco tour.

No gods or kings. Only Man.

Remember that racy Obsession ad from the ’80s?

Could you pass the sunscreen?

It was shot on the — heh — backside of the Breakwater’s sign.

Breakwater, South Beach.

The deco buildings of Miami Beach were originally painted shades of gray, beige, or off-white. In the 1970s when many of them were threatened by demolition, a member of the Miami Design Preservation League attempted to enlist public support for the buildings by concocting a bright palette of pastel colors. Eventually these colors transferred from the buildings to local fashion, both of which were immortalized by Michael Mann in Miami Vice.

We swam a lot in Miami. Ate a lot. Later we went home.

Miami skyline.

But I want to go back.

The Incompetent Photographer

Biarritz, 1994.

Over at the WSJ, Kevin Sintumuang tells the story of a young man — a young man who goes backpacking through Europe only to return with terrible photos. Get out of my memory hole, Kevin Sintumuang!

In my quest for frame-worthy shots, I came away with a handful of boring ones: A street. A bridge. A church tower. An empty field. Another church tower. … But years later, flipping through the mix of matte and glossy 4-by-6 prints, I experienced my biggest travel-photography epiphany: The more you document seemingly insignificant details on a trip, the more vivid the memories.

See the top right corner of this website? The part where it says I’m “a writer, photographer, and historian?” I sometimes write stuff that doesn’t stink and I’m proud of my accomplishments as a historian, but I often feel the word photographer should be in air quotes. For years I wasted pounds of silver halide shooting empty landscapes from wide angles in an effort to capture the spirit of a place, only to end with distant and impersonal ghost towns that showcased nothing except my own detachment. I actually studied photography in college and though infatuated with Ansel Adams, somehow still managed to make the view from a summertime beach in Biarritz — populated by topless girls, no less — chilly, gray, and blurry, as you can see in the above taken during my 1994 European rove. I filled whole albums with castles and bridges and cathedrals. Cold stones, cold images.

Like Sintumuang, it took me more than a decade of thumbing through old albums or browsing desktop file folders to realize the most appealing shots were those featuring people or animals and often up close, not from some removed point.

Which isn’t to say landscapes aren’t worthwhile — just that I have to do better. I took hundreds of photos on a 1992 trip through the southwest, and yet the best of the bunch is a snap of my brother, diminutive against the vastness of the Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon

(I also like, because this is a scan of a print, how age has washed it through a natural Instagram filter.)

And occasionally loneliness is the objective, like this 2001 shot of a foggy early morning hike to Hadrian’s Wall.

On the trail to Hadrian's Wall.

So-so, if you can overlook the way too-dark tree trunks.

I remain a poor photographer. I fancy myself a decent composer, yet lighting confounds me and my post-production editing is atrocious. But these days, my more compelling subject matter often offsets my technical shortcomings.

New Hampshire.

Ireland

The Kuhls went to Ireland. It was a trip we’ve discussed for years — I had never been — and serendipitously Mrs. Kuhl was engaged to speak at a conference in London. Speech well received, we hopped a Ryanair flight from Gatwick to Dublin.

We spent two days in Dublin — Book of Kells, Guinness Storehouse, many pints of Bulmers — then drove a lonely single-lane road (which isn’t even printed on some maps) over and through the mountains south of the city to Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains National Park. The Glendalough Valley is the site of a monastic settlement founded in the 5th century. The cemetery is still in use.

I love the mohawk of trees edging the hill to the right.

A river runs through the valley, forming two lakes along the way. Visitors can hike the length of the valley to the feeding waterfall tumbling down the rocks. The terrain is almost Pleistocene.

Feral goats haunt the western woods of the valley, descendants of livestock raised by the workmen of a 19th-century lead and zinc mine. My son was sharp enough to spot a herd in the trees, so we crept up the slope to snap some pictures.

We stayed one night at Killiane Castle outside of Wexford. It’s a crumbling 15th-century castle with an attached 17th-century farmhouse. Guests sleep and eat in the farmhouse but you can tour the castle ruins. This is the view from the topmost tower, a precipitous structure without banister or parapet.

You can see cows and hens and there is an apple tree in the garden — all of which contributed to the fantastic breakfast we had. Even packaged produce like juice and ice cream we found in museum cafeterias originated in close proximity to wherever we were. You can’t not be a locavore in Ireland.

We were the only guests at the castle that evening so we had the run of the place. Kathleen Mernagh and her family are incredibly gracious hosts. Highly recommended.

Our boys have grown into terrific travelers, the result of vacations to Disney and countless long weekends away. They’re good-humored and fun, and even when they grow tired or cranky, it’s nothing food or a nap or a small treat can’t fix. We’re crazy about them.

When they’re big, I hope they remember the trips.

Old Terminal, New Purpose

The Port Authority wants to transform the sleek TWA terminal at JFK International Airport into a small hotel with a complex of stores and eateries:

After a bankrupt TWA was bought by American Airlines in 2001, the terminal closed. Jet-Blue Airways eventually built a new facility around the Saarinen-designed building. Since then, it has sat empty. Attempts to find a tenant fell short. So in 2008, the Port Authority decided to spend $20 million to remove asbestos and restore the interior to better appeal to developers.

Most of the story is behind WSJ’s pay wall but you can click over to the slideshow.

I hope they do something with it; the spy-jazz curves of the terminal scream for a restaurant and bar, and with most airport saloons nowadays kept past security, it’s often tough to find a place to meet when picking up or dropping off. It would definitely tilt my preference toward Jet Blue when booking if I could begin or end my journey with some Dr. No ambiance not unlike that of the Encounter at LAX.

But what’s notable here is that the Port Authority is actually investing in a historic property. By bringing it up to modern standards, they’ve reduced the risk for potential first-time tenants, who would otherwise have to do that work on their own or at least negotiate renovations with the PA, both of which would cost money the tenant may not recoup. And, even if the tenant should fail or leave, the terminal will still be usable by future tenants, keeping the PA on track to eventually see a return on that $20 million. This stands in contrast to the litigious breed of preservationist, who refuses to spend for anything beyond lawyers’ fees but then acts confused when no one wants to purchase a leaky, asbestos-filled ruin.

Historic preservation doesn’t require lawsuits or special designations of status. It’s very easy. If you want to save an old building, all you have to do is buy it and take care of it.

Surviving Disney

Because you can drag your kids to only so many science museums and historical sites before they just want to plummet down a water slide, our family recently spent a week at Walt Disney World. My folks took me there twice as a child, yet I enjoy it so much more as a parent. There’s lots to do because — and this is something its detractors never seem to understand — Disney World is a giant playground. As an obsessive-compulsive, I also admire the verisimilitude of, say, a centuries-old facade fashioned from concrete and fiberglass; and logistically, WDW is much, much less taxing than taking children to a city like New York or Philadelphia or Boston. Enjoyable as those places are, I feel the tension easing from my shoulders more so in Orlando.

Nevertheless, Walt Disney World presents one dire peril that must be endured.

The food.

WDW is well-known for serving atrocious slop, particularly at the Magic Kingdom. Disney has responded by including more unfried foods (like wraps) to the menus of the counter-service eateries. And, perhaps to bump up the average, they’ve also added more fine-dining experiences to the parks, but these are useless unless you make reservations at least six or even twelve months ahead of time. Le Cellier may be terrific but I wouldn’t know — like a lot of people, I’ve never passed through its doors.

Having suffered on previous sojourns, this trip I blazed a bold strategy for eating, which, like Arne Saknussemm, I now share with anyone intrepid enough to follow us.

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