Mesilla, New Mexico: Discovering A Different Side Of The Southwest

mesilla
Alex Briseño, Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso on short notice for a magazine assignment. I found it enjoyable, but on my final day, I was itching to get out of the city limits and explore before my evening flight. Every local I talked to gave me the same response: go for a scenic drive out to Mesilla.

Located just 44 miles northwest of El Paso on the fringes of Las Cruces, Mesilla is a historic village established in 1848. Perhaps best known as the location for Billy the Kid’s trial, Mesilla has also played an integral role in the development of the Southwest, in part because it was along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. I’m obsessed with all things New Mexico, but despite numerous visits to the northern part of the state, I’d never been south of Albuquerque. I was an easy sell.

The drive to Mesilla presents a dramatic contrast in topography. About 30 miles past the arid plains and stark Franklin Mountain range of El Paso, the Rio Grande grows from a trickle to substantial enough to support lush vegetation. I’d never seen a pecan tree before, and suddenly I was passing thousands of acres of them, in all their towering, leafy glory (after Texas, this region – Dona Ana County – is the nation’s largest producer). There were fields of onions and chiles (Mesilla is just 42 miles away from Hatch), and vast dairy farms. As a former ranch kid, I instantly felt at home.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Cisco Photography

As you enter Mesilla off of Highway 10 West, there are indications you’re approaching someplace special. Walk a couple of blocks down to the historic Plaza, and it’s impossible not to be charmed. Despite the inevitable souvenir shops, of which there are only a few, a number of buildings are on the historic register. The vibe isn’t one of touristy kitsch, but rather, small-town Southwest. There are coffee houses, cafes, boutiques, antique stores, galleries, wine tasting rooms and museums. A chocolate shop sells small bags of dipped pecans, while Solamente!, a specialty food boutique, offers tastes of the region in the form of green chile-spiked pecan brittle and salsas.

I whiled away a few hours by strolling the Plaza and talking to the handful of vendors who sell their wares from tables around its perimeter. This is the place to buy a bag of pecans and homemade bizcochos (buttery little cookies), or a pair of earrings. The Basilica of San Albino dominates the north end of the Plaza, and is open to visitors from 1 to 3 p.m. daily, except on Sundays. Afterward, I sipped an icy horchata and read on the shady patio of a coffee house. It’s unthinkable (to me, at least) to be in New Mexico and not eat. The region’s most famous restaurant, La Posta, is around the corner from the Plaza. This stunning 19th-century compound was once part of the Butterfield Stagecoach Line, but today it’s better known for its green chile enchiladas and signature Tostada Compuesta.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Ken Stinnet

Before heading to the airport, I drove the few miles down a back road to Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. Unfortunately, it was still closed for the season, but the drive meanders past pecan orchards, crumbling adobe homesteads and tranquil farmhouses. Horses graze in verdant pasture, and fields of onion with their flowering lavender heads intersperse the orchards. It’s lovely, and a side of New Mexico I’ve never seen, used as I am to the dramatic ochre landscape, canyons and severe mesas of the north.

At the end of a business trip, I’m often content to just get to the airport early, and spend the time people watching and reading. My jaunt to Mesilla was a reminder that sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to hit the road instead.

5 Overlooked Castles Close To London

castles, England
England is famous for its castles. Giant fortresses such as Bamburgh Castle and Lincoln Castle attract thousands of visitors a year, but people tend to overlook the many smaller, lesser-known castles close to London. These are often as interesting as their more famous cousins and make for enjoyable day trips from London. Here are five of the best.

Hadleigh Castle
Near the town of Hadleigh in Essex stands the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, once a magnificent royal residence. It was started in 1215 and massively expanded by King Edward III (ruled 1327-1377) to be a fortified residence away from the stink and political infighting of London. Sitting atop a high ridge overlooking the Essex marshes, the Thames estuary and the sea, it held an important strategic position. Edward was obviously thinking of it as more than just a relaxing getaway.

The castle has suffered over the years, as you can see in this photo courtesy Ian Dalgliesh. Erosion crumbled the walls, and in 1551 it was purchased by Lord Richard Rich (real name!) who promptly sold off much of the stone. One tower stands to its full height and portions of the walls also remain, so you can get a good idea of what it looked like when it defended southeast England from French invasion during the Hundred Years War.

Hadleigh Castle is in open parkland and is free to the public during daylight hours.

%Gallery-185653%Hedingham Castle
Another Essex castle is Hedingham Castle, one of the best-preserved early Norman fortifications in the country. It’s a motte-and-bailey type, consisting of an artificial mound (motte) with a keep and wall on top, and a lower area enclosed by a wall (bailey). Both parts are surrounded by a ditch. Usually they were built of wood first and later replaced with stone when the local ruler got the time and money. These castles could be built quickly and cheaply and the Normans put them all over England after they conquered the kingdom in 1066.

At Hedingham you can still see the 12th-century keep, which rises 95 feet to give a commanding view of the countryside. It played a key part in the Barons’ War of 1215-1217, when several barons rebelled against the despotic King John. They eventually lost but remarkably this castle survived its siege. The four spacious interior floors are filled with medieval bric-a-brac and the banqueting hall is available for weddings.

Since the castle is still a private residence, it’s open only on selected days.

Longthorpe Tower
In the outskirts of the city of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire stands Longthorpe Tower, an imposing 14th-century tower that is all that remains of a fortified manor house. The outside is impressive enough, but the real treasure is inside, where the walls are covered with magnificent medieval wall paintings from about 1330. They are in such good condition because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation and weren’t discovered again until the 1940s. The paintings show a variety of religious and secular subjects such as the Wheel of Life and scenes from the Nativity and acts of King David.

Longthorpe Tower is only open on weekends. While in Peterborough, also check out the medieval Peterborough Cathedral.

Farnham Castle
An hour’s drive the southwest of London is Farnham, Surrey, where stands one of the most interesting medieval buildings in the region. It started out as a Norman castle built in 1138 by the grandson of William the Conqueror. Destroyed during a civil war in 1155, it was soon rebuilt and eventually became the traditional home of the Bishops of Winchester, including Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who presided over the trial of Joan of Arc and ordered her burned at the stake. In memory of that event, a local church in Farnham is dedicated to Joan.

During the English Civil War, the castle was “slighted” (partially destroyed to render it useless for defense) and it was no longer used for military purposes. The large circular keep still survives in a reduced state. The ornately decorated Bishop’s Palace is in better condition and is now a conference center.

Farnham Castle is privately owned but the keep and Bishop’s Palace are open to the public.

Berkhamsted Castle
An easy walk from Berkhamsted train station in Hertfordshire stands Berkhamsted Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle now fallen into picturesque ruin. While not as impressive as the well-preserved keep of Hedingham Castle, this place has the advantage of being free and open all day for seven months of the year.

Built by William the Conqueror’s half-brother in 1066, it became an important fortification and, like Hedingham Castle, was besieged during the Barons’ War. It was taken by rebel forces with the help of Prince Louis of France after they stormed it with a variety of siege engines, including what’s believed to be the first use of the trebuchet. After the war it was claimed by the Crown and used as a royal fortress until it was allowed to fall into ruin in the late 15th century. By this time castles were becoming outmoded thanks to the development of artillery.

[Photo by Ian Dalgliesh]

Bad Trip: How To Annoy Your Tour Guide

donkeyWe’ve all been there. Maybe we’ve been one. The person on a guided tour or trip who’s a complete, utter, pain in the ass.

Perhaps it’s unintentional. Maybe it’s due to deep-seated issues that would cause empathy in another situation. Or just possibly, it’s because the person in question gets off on being a jerk. Does it matter? Whether they provide unwitting entertainment or seething aggravation, that person manages to disrupt others’ enjoyment of the experience. The person who really suffers, however, is the guide.

I’ve had good guides, bad guides, guides who should be nominated for sainthood, but regardless of their skill, they have a difficult job. It’s not easy to wrangle any combination of clueless, headstrong, enthusiastic and grumpy tourists, and get them to points A, B and C on schedule – ideally with an unfailingly polite attitude and unwavering smile on your face. It’s a gift, being a guide possessed of technical, personal and mental skills.

Even those who love to travel solo occasionally require the services of a guide. Thirteen years as a travel journalist has given me a lot of material (in part because my favorite thing to ask guides for are bad client stories).

As a holiday gift, I’m providing a list on how to annoy your guide. Follow it, and I promise you’ll always be remembered – just not fondly.

Wear inappropriate clothing/shoes
I had an absolutely priceless two days in the Atacama Desert last year with two middle-aged Chilean couples. Read: they were such drunken louts, it was painful for the rest of us to keep our mouths shut. My favorite experience with them was on a late-afternoon hike of the stunning Kari Gorge.

The key word here is “hike.” To which one of them, a spoiled Santiaguino physician’s wife, wore staggeringly high boots with a narrow wedge heel. She was also completely shit-faced, so when she wasn’t face-planting on the rocky floor of the gorge, she was screaming at her worthless husband to help her climb up the craggier parts of the trail. The rest of our small group finally broke down and pitied her as we summited a steep, mile-long sand dune. She was openly weeping at that point, clutching her chest in panic (a chain-smoker, she thought she was having a heart attack; ironically, her cardiologist husband was the least concerned of all of us).

Because we had to spend so much time waiting for her, we nearly missed the highlight of the excursion, which was watching the sunset from atop a cliff. By not bothering to check what kind of outing she was taking, she kept the rest of us at her mercy, tested our guide’s patience, and subjected us to her marital issues. Um, awkward.whiningOverstate your abilities
Along the same lines, this woman wasn’t fit enough to master a climb up a flight of stairs. It’s not just inconsiderate to fail to accurately access your physical abilities; it can be deadly. At best, it will ensure you and your guide (who will have no choice but to coddle and devote extra time to you) have a miserable time; at worst, you may well end up having that coronary in a sand dune. Don’t be that person.

Bring your bad attitude with you
True story from a sea-kayaking/orca-watching trip I took last summer. We were on the northern tip of San Juan Island, just miles off of Vancouver Island (i.e. Canada). Our guide pointed out this interesting fact to us, which elicited the following response from the one unfriendly person in our group. She was a taciturn woman in her 30s, a self-professed “bird-lady” who owned 12 parrots.

Annoying Client: I made a promise to myself to never leave this country for any reason, whatsoever.

Hapless Guide: That’s an interesting promise. Why?

AC: Because I believe in America. I don’t ever want to support another country’s economy. Why should I? I even go out of my way to buy products made here.

HG: Aah….hmmmm. Okaaay.

I’m not sure what I love most about this incident: that this woman knowingly took a trip to the Canadian border, or that she supports exotic bird smuggling from foreign countries.

Be late/unprepared
A great way to piss off your guide, and everyone else in your group. Also helpful in ensuring you won’t get your money’s worth from your trip or tour, since the schedule will be compromised. This one’s a winner!

Whine
Because nothing is better for group morale than someone who complains about everything.

Engage in excessive PDA with your significant other
It may start off as amusing for your guide and fellow travelers. Trust me, by trip’s end, they’ll be ready to kill you. Get a room.
camping
Don’t pitch in
Hey, Princess. I know you paid a chunk of change for this (fill in the blank: raft trip/backpacking trip/guest ranch stay). So did everyone else. But your guide and support staff are working their fingers to the bone for very little pay because they love what they do. You know what else they love? Guests or clients who make even the smallest effort to help them out. Ask where you should stash your gear, collect firewood, help chop vegetables or cook dinner (right). Not only will you gain their respect and gratitude, you may even enjoy yourself.

Be high-maintenance
It’s not all about you. You have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into when you sign up.

Forget to mention your “dietary restrictions”/preferences
Travel companies are savvy enough these days to always include a section for this on their registration forms; I’m not talking about legitimate food allergies or intolerances. But please be honest, not ridiculous, and if you don’t like what’s being served, be polite about it – especially if you’re in a foreign country.

Refuse to interact with your group
I can be a bit of an introvert, so I get how hard it can be to socialize with a group when you’re just not feeling it. But guides tend to stress about the lone client, and feel pressure to ensure they’re having a good time. If you really don’t feel like socializing, assure your guide that you’re just shy, but having a great time. Otherwise, I really recommend faking it till you make it. Once I come out of my shell, I’m usually grateful, because I end up meeting fantastic people who make my experience that much more interesting.

[Photo credits: donkey, Flickr user jaxxon; sign, Flickr user frotzed2; cooking, Laurel Miller]

Presidential Road Trips You Can Take This Weekend

road trips

Road trips taken over the weekend can get us away from our normal routine and surroundings without a lot of planning or cost involved. Some people would like to get away from election season ads on television, websites, newspapers and magazines. Others are really into the process of selecting the next president of the United States and look for ways to feed their addiction. Here are some easy fixes for travelers who just can’t get enough of the election year hoopla.

Stop by any 7-11 store and cast your vote by simply buying a drink to participate in their 7-Election. A blue or red cup choice counts as your vote for either candidate and can contribute to a historically precise way of predicting the election outcome.

2004, the 7-Election predicted Bush would defeat Kerry 51 to 49 percent.
Actual vote: Bush 50.7 percent, Kerry 48.3 percent.

2008, the 7-Election Obama would defeat McCain 52 to 46

2012 election running totals are posted on the 7-11 website.

The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, features exhibits, special events, and educational programs. Like other presidential libraries and museums, replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room are a highlight of a day-trip visit.

Permanent exhibits utilize documents, photographs, videos and interactive stations. The National Archives has information on all the presidential libraries, mostly located east of the Rocky Mountains.

The Sixth Floor Museum At Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository has a permanent exhibit featuring films, photographs and artifacts that chronicle President John F. Kennedy’s life, death and legacy.

Another exhibit in Dealey Plaza, has been designated as a national landmark. The grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza is a small, sloping hill inside the plaza that became infamous following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The birthplace of President Grover Cleveland in Caldwell, New Jersey, has historical significance dating back to 1881 when Cleveland was running for governor of New York. Like other presidential birthplaces, the Grover Cleveland site preserves artifacts from Cleveland’s early years including his cradle and original family portraits.

Even those with no plans to travel (except out of the United States if their candidate does not win) have some help. JetBlue’s Election Protection will fly about 1,000 disappointed voters out of the country (and back) the day after the election.

“We decided to give people a chance to follow through on their claim to skip town if their candidate comes up short,” Marty St. George, senior VP of Marketing for JetBlue said in a Time report.

Still, if a road trip this weekend is in your plans, here are some tips for making it a great one.



[Photo Credit: 7-eleven]

Roadside America: Long Island Wine Country

While Manhattan has endless offerings for the curious traveler, the honking cabs and incessant chaos of the city can leave you needing a break from your vacation. For a laid-back day trip, head to eastern Long Island and explore their expansive wine country.

Getting There

From Manhattan, you can take a train from Penn Station to Ronkonkoma and then transfer for the train to Mattituck. Just be sure to check the schedule, as the train to Mattituck only runs a few times per day. You can also take the Hampton Jitney on the North Fork Line, with the best stops to get off being Mattituck, Cutchogue and Peconic. The wineries are close together, so you can technically walk from one to the other, although better options would be to take a taxi, bike, tour or car. Renting a car is a smart option as the trail is quite easy to follow, with most of the wineries being on Sound Avenue and Route 25. Your best bet, however, is booking a tour as it will allow you to have a designated driver. Some reputable companies include North Fork Wine Tours, Elegant Wine Tours of L.I., Long Island Wine Tours and North Fork Trolley Co.About The North Fork

Coming from Manhattan, you’ll be immersed in a completely new world as you pass farm stands, corn fields, rustic shops and bakeries that look more like homes than stores. As you can see from this map of Long Island Wine Country, there are numerous wineries, vineyards and farms to choose from. The region offers 3,000 acres of vineyards and over 50 wine producers, with a majority of Long Island’s wineries being on the North Fork. Because of its maritime climate, glacial soils and moderate rainfall during the growing season, the area boasts high-quality wine production, especially when it comes to Chardonnay and Merlot.

Where To Visit

Each winery offers something unique, whether it be the ambiance, offerings or way of producing wine. For a small fee, you’ll be able to sample various varietals and ask questions at each space, and can often tour the vineyard, enjoy live music and partake in onsite events. My personal favorite winery in the region is Pindar, the most popular winery on Long Island and for good reason. Their wines are made sustainably using power from a 156-foot tall wind turbine, and their Winter White, an off-dry blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Cayuga, is supposedly the most sold wine on Long Island. Other top wineries to visit include:

  • Bedell Cellars- This 30-year-old sustainably farmed estate vineyard and winery is family-owned and housed in a renovated potato barn from 1919. You’ll sample wines from some of the oldest vines in the region on an outdoor tasting pavilion with expansive views of open farmland.
  • Harbes Farm and Vineyard- This place has an extremely friendly staff, and the tasting rooms are housed in two cozy barns, Cherry Barn and Wine Barn. Also on the property is a large farm stand, apple picking, U-Pick pumpkins, a 6-acre corn maze, pedal carts, farm animals, pony rides and more.
  • Vineyard 48- While many vineyards offer live music and relaxing picnic areas, Vineyard 48 is well known for featuring live DJs every Saturday and Sunday. Not only do they have award-winning wines, but it’s also a great place for dancing and a more lively atmosphere.

[Flickr image via jiashiang]