Newport, Rhode Island: The sailor’s mecca isn’t just for the rich and famous but it certainly looks the part

The view of Newport Harbor from the Blooms' deck on Goat Island. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view of Newport Harbor from the Blooms’ deck on Goat Island. Photo by Marina Pascucci

NEWPORT, R.I. — I am prone, on my back at the bow of an 80-foot sailboat with my foot propped atop the railing. If I moved 12 inches to my left, the sun would set between my feet. But I’m too relaxed to budge. The glass of champagne in my hand convinces me that there’s no better place in the world right now than sailing in the Sailing Capital of the World.

My girlfriend, the lovely and uber-talented photographer Marina Pascucci, is sitting behind me. The descending sun and lights of one of the world’s prettiest harbors reflect off her glasses like fireworks. Her beaming smile reminds me of the same one she flashed in Positano and Paris.

A sailboat during the sunset cruise. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A sailboat during the sunset cruise. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Welcome to Newport, R.I. It’s a combination of Camelot and Monaco, America’s answer to every desperate immigrant’s question since they first started storming our shores: What is the American Dream?

Marina and I finished our nine-day New England trip with a visit to some friends who are living that dream. Gretchen and Peter Bloom have lived in Newport off and on since 1988. I met them in Rome where they lived for 17 years and escaped every sweltering summer to Newport. They haven’t changed their routine since moving from Rome to Washington two years ago.

She’s retired from the World Food Program and Peter, a native of Providence, R.I., 40 miles up the road, is retired from USAID. Between the two, they’ve been to 123 countries, including 40 in Africa. They lived in Sri Lanka. Yet there is no place in the world — not Rome, not London, not the beaches of Thailand — they’d rather be than Newport.

“I wanted a piece of Rhode Island,” Peter tells me. “I am a Rhode Islander. You have no idea how much of a Rhode Islander.”

He’s telling me this while we sit in their fifth-floor condo on a long deck overlooking historic, majestic and magnetic Newport Harbor. After three days, I learned how much of a Rhode Islander he is. It goes beyond the fact that this Harvard grad still pronounces my home state “Or-ee-GONE.” He’s as proud of Newport as I am of Oregon. He puts down his glass of wine and sweeps his hand across the bay. Pleasure craft from small motorboats to towering sailboats dot the harbor, some drifting in from a cruise around the Rhode Island Sound.

Newport is to sailing what Aspen is to skiing. That’s why Marina and I found ourselves on a sunset booze cruise of an 80-foot windjammer. The America’s Cup, the international sailing championship founded in 1851, was held here from 1930-1983. John F. Kennedy’s old boat is here. Ted Turner’s famed champion, American Eagle, is docked here. So is Intrepid, which won the America’s Cup twice. The International Sailing Hall of Fame is negotiating to move here from Annapolis, Md.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s not just sailboats. Jimmy Buffett has here a 245-foot yacht, the fourth-largest private boat in the world. Race car driver Roger Penske has a 200-footer. The harbor in Monaco may have more expensive yachts. But Monaco doesn’t have Newport’s ambiance, its casual sense of bliss. In Monaco, you go to be seen. In Newport, you go to do.

The Blooms go sailing but are smart enough not to own a sailboat. I’ve met too many people who say, “The second best day of my life was when I bought my boat; the best day of my life was when I sold it.” While boats may be money pits, they are the most leisurely way to travel. I’ve done week-long sailing trips in French Polynesia, the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands. Marina has sailed around Greece. There is no more restful sleep in the world than on the deck of a sailboat rocking on the South Pacific under a Polynesian sky. Peter was working in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1968 when he learned to sail 15-foot dinghies.

“I’m living in the sailing mecca of the world and I learned to sail in Lagos, Nigeria,” he says.

The Blooms actually live on Goat Island, a narrow islet less than a mile long and connected to Newport’s dock-lined southern shore by a short causeway. Goat Island is where they buried pirates they hanged in the 17th and 18th centuries, back when Newport rivaled New York as the most important port in the colonies. It later housed the Naval Torpedo Station until 1951. Today the Blooms look down along Goat Island’s southern shore lined with 19 modest harbor homes starting at about $1.3 million.

Sunset from the gazebo.

Sunset from the gazebo.

Romantic gazebos are spaced along the shoreline. Four big tables with chairs are pointed west for us to sit around and eat smoked gouda and drink good wine while a blood red sunset paints itself along the horizon. As the sun touches down, cannons go off from Newport’s three yacht clubs.

It’s the perfect spot for a wedding reception. In Newport, we were lucky to find a free gazebo. Newport is the nation’s second most popular wedding spot behind Las Vegas. But, as one local said, “Most of the weddings in Las Vegas are at 6 a.m. so I like to think Newport is No. 1.”

Every night we hear wild wedding receptions pulsating from a nearby building, forcing The Temptations’ “My Girl” to swirl in my head on a continual loop the next day.

On the harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

On the harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Walking around Newport, Marina and I feel like we’re exploring a nautical gingerbread land. The boating theme is everywhere on the long, straight boulevards lined with curiosity shops, tony cafes, sweet stands and souvenir stores. Down Thames Street we see U.S. flags with anchors in place of the stars. Flipflops sport fish on the soles. Jewelry are in the shape of nautical flags. A studio shows Onne Van Der Wal’s brilliant photos of giant sails and bows bopping up and down on the water, basked in a sunset. Then we pass the greatest name for a tackle store in the history of fishing.

Bite Me Bait Shop.

Try explaining that to an Italian woman still learning English. I admit, I had fun trying.

Newport’s action, however, is on the harbor. It’s like its own separate city. The southern shore of Newport is crawling with the breadth of American boating: kayaks, dinghies, motorboats, 15-foot skiffs, 22-foot J-class, historical windjammers. We walk in and out through the maze of shops and seafood restaurants and open-air bars where people eat thick clam chowder, drink big mugs of ice-cold beer and listen to The Doors’ “Light My Fire” over the loudspeaker. We can’t walk five minutes without running into little booths advertising harbor cruises scheduled from morning to sunset.

The Blooms pick us up and give us, not the nickel tour, but the million-dollar tour, which is the only way you can describe Newport. We drive by Washington Square, a wide swath of an area where they use a more civilized means of punishing thieves: a courthouse. People in red uniforms and black, three-point hats and wigs walk around in preparation for a reenactment of the Stamp Act protest from 1765. That’s when locals rioted over the British laying a tax on printed paper, one of the first direct taxes the British forced onto the colonies. We pass St. Mary’s Church where JFK married Jackie Bouvier, who grew up on nearby Hammersmith Farm, one of Newport’s mansions that became Kennedy’s summer White House. Later we see a photo of the Kennedys cutting their wedding cake.

International Tennis Hall of Fame. Photo by Marina Pascucci

International Tennis Hall of Fame. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We pass the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a miniature Wimbledon complete with the green wood architecture and grass courts. Two weekend hacks look astonishingly out of place wearing all whites while patty-caking shots across the net in front of an empty grandstand.

As we go by the massive gray-and-white Renaissance-Norman mansion used to house the New York Yacht Club, I ask Peter how much it costs to be a member.

“I’ll never get inside,” he says.

 The Breakers has 70 rooms and was built on 14 acres.

The Breakers has 70 rooms and was built on 14 acres.

We continue along stately Bellevue Avenue and turn left up Narragansett Avenue to what attracts most visitors to Newport. In the mid-19th century, wealthy Southerners wanting to escape their steamy summers built summer homes on Bellevue. Then came the wealthy Yankees who went one step up and built mansions along the north shore facing the ocean. Today the mansions remain, a remnant of America’s Gilded Age. We pass monstrous French-style chateaus, Italian-style piazzas and Elizabethan-style manor houses, many surrounded by American-style fuck-you fences. Running along the north end is the Cliff Walk that offers stupendous views of the mansions on one side and the deep, blue Atlantic on the other.

The crown jewel of Newport’s long mansion necklace is The Breakers. It’s a 70-room, five-story Italian Renaissance palace sitting on 14 acres near the far northeast end of the peninsula. It has 20 bathrooms with 15 bedrooms on the second and third floor that housed the 40 servants. Marina and I walk in and above us are four giant chandeliers with 16 bulbs each. The opera house in Paris inspired the fountains and curving staircase. The dining room is the size of a ballroom with two huge chandeliers over a 10-foot-by-10-foot table decorated with Baccarat crystal. The columns throughout the house are solid alabaster. The walls are made from the famed cipollino marble in Italy, the same marble Michelangelo used. One bathtub is cut from a single block of marble. Every light fixture is fitted for gas in case the electricity ever goes out. If everything goes black, there’s a six-foot-high fireplace.

The Breakers' entryway and staircase were inspired by Paris opera houses.

The Breakers’ entryway and staircase were inspired by Paris opera houses.

In 1855 Cornelius Vanderbilt III bought the grounds for $450,000 (about $12 million today) from money he earned in his huge New York Central Railroad empire. He hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a mansion befitting his label of “New Renaissance in the U.S.” Vanderbilt held huge parties on the gargantuan lawn that separates the home from the ocean. Walking around the grass you feel like you should be holding a champagne flute. CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper is Vanderbilt’s great, great, great grandson and is said to have stayed here on a few occasions.

Yes, Newport oozes money like honey squeezed from a tube. We see candy apple-red Ferrari convertibles and men whose shoes, shorts, matching sweater and shades are worth more than my entire wardrobe in Rome. The Brooks Brothers store has an elaborate flower garden in front of it. The city buses are as elaborately decorated as San Francisco cable cars. People rent cars that look like Lamborghinis.

Peter and Gretchen Bloom, Marina and I

Peter and Gretchen Bloom, Marina and I

But unlike in Monaco, where everyone lies to impress each other, Newport’s populace is as down to earth as the mansions’ lawns that could pass for fairways at Augusta National. Newport originated in the 17th century as a place where people could escape religious persecution. Everyone is welcome in Newport. People kayak and bicycle and jog. They barbecue on their porches. Peter cooked us incredible teriyaki swordfish one night; Gretchen cooked us massive scallops the next. Locals drink beer and watch the Newport Gulls, the highly popular college summer-league team that plays in 81-year-old Cardines Field sporting a retro sign reading “BASEBALL GAME TODAY.” One block off the ritzy harbor, the east end of Thames Street sports old-fashioned barber shops, take-away pizza joints and an old-fashioned malt shop called Gary’s Handy Lunch that serves one of the better cheeseburgers I’ve had. Even Marina, a third-generation Roman, said the tomato pizza slice at little Via Via “was great and similar to pizza in Rome on the street.”

We drive through Brenton Point State Park, on the southeast corner where people fly kites in an expansive grass area across Ocean Avenue from the Rhode Island Sound. People picnic. I see a kid playing with a yo-yo. We drink a Rhode Island tradition, Del’s frozen lemonade, from a truck stand. Newport is like a sultan’s palace with a country town right across the street.

The Aquidneck. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Aquidneck. Photo by Marina Pascucci

After seeing so much water, we decide to get on it. The Aquidneck is the longest boat for harbor cruises in Newport at 80 feet long. We leave at 6:15 p.m. with a full boat and jovial crew who start passing out beer and champagne before we barely exit the slip. The Aquidneck is modeled after a 17th century storage vessel that was used to mail cargo up and down the coast. “It was the FedEx of its time,” one of the sailing guide says.

We pass Fort Adams which was built in 1851 and lasted through five wars but never fired a shot.

“The only thing fought at Fort Adams was boredom,” the guide says.

Me and Marina on board the sunset cruise.

Me and Marina on board the sunset cruise.

The sun is starting to set through the clouds as a party boat motors past playing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” We pass the mansions standing like castles on grassy lawns. Seagulls fly through the setting sun slowly as if basking in the dwindling warmth. The temperature is in the high 60s but with champagne and Marina at my side, it feels much warmer.

Rome is paradise. But it’s paradise with flaws. The only flaw Newport has is maybe it’s too perfect. It’s like you’re afraid to knock a gum wrapper on the spotless street or you’ll suddenly burst into flames. Even the birds seem happy here. The opulence is gaudy. But you don’t have to be a member of the New York Yacht Club or bathe in a marble bathtub to enjoy Newport. All it takes is a seat by the water and a glass of champagne.

Of course, a sailboat helps.

Maine’s Decadent Coast: Art, seafood and witches brew up an inviting corner of America

Penaquid Point Lighthouse is one of 52 working lighthouses in Maine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Penaquid Point Lighthouse is one of 52 working lighthouses in Maine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — One of the reasons I travel, besides self-loathing insecurity in college, was my family’s bookshelves. Our back room in Eugene, Ore., was lined with National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s. I’d pick one and transport myself to the wilds of Papua New Guinea, an island in French Polynesia or a museum in Rome.

One day I ran across a story on the Maine Coast. I never thought much about Maine. Other than it being the far northeast corner of the U.S., I figured it was populated by lumberjacks firing slap shots from the wing and lobsters on city councils. I immediately recognized Maine natives when they mangled the name of their prize resort town of Bar Harbor into “Bah Hawbah.” My own naivete is usually an indication that it’s something I must explore. I read on. It told of quaint harbor towns, isolated islands, an artsy populace and lobsters. Lots of lobsters. The Maine Coast became one of the few American destinations on a bucket list the length of the Eiffel Tower.

More than 40 years later, I finally made it last week. My girlfriend, Marina, had visited the U.S. four times but never New England; I’d never been to small towns on the Maine Coast. With Norwegian Airlines’ bargain-basement 500-euro round trip ticket from Rome to Providence, R.I., (an unheard of price from Rome in August), it was a tailor-made for her August break.

We started in Portland, Maine’s major city, where we met my good friend, Hal, a fellow refugee from the Las Vegas Review-Journal in the ‘80s. We both survived a string of cretinous sports editors and a skinflint publisher to blossom elsewhere. He returned to his hometown of Portland where he is looking toward approaching retirement like a fisherman seeing shore. Hal is a true Mainer. He didn’t pronounce his first “R” until he was 28. Like most of Maine, which has voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1992, he has a liberal bent. He said the state is carried politically by Portland, No. 2-city Bangor and the nature-loving, arts-driven towns along the coast. It gets more conservative the farther north you go.

“The far north is Alabama,” Hal said.

The arts are big in Maine, even on Portland's Old Harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The arts are big in Maine, even on Portland’s Old Harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

He met us in Portland’s Old Harbor. It’s a huge stretch of inner-city portages that hasn’t lost its charm by its size. Big ferry boats and weathered fishing boats dock in the big harbor. Restaurants serving up lobster rolls and clam chowder line the docks, all overlooking a cobalt blue Atlantic Ocean. The smell of fish and salt and soup filled the warm air. Souvenir shops that were once rough-and-tumble fisherman bars are on nearly every corner. One sports a sign reading, “The lobster you’re eating now was sleeping on the bottom of Casco Bay today.”

I’d visited Hal before. That was two years ago in February when all of Portland was blanketed in snow and the temperature was in the high 20s. Its famed Portland Head Light, the oldest of Maine’s 52 working lighthouses, looked ready to guide Russian icebreakers.

Last week it was in the high 70s, marking Maine as one of the few places on earth comfortable to visit in August. The sky was the color of the South Pacific. Seagulls happily flew overhead, singing loud and sweet. Tourists were everywhere.

As we stood waiting for our ferry to my first Maine island, Hal talked about Maine’s political scene. I had trepidation about visiting the U.S. It was my first visit since the November presidential election sent my country and planet tailspinning into inevitable doom. I didn’t know how I’d react if I met a supporter of the Cheeto-faced cumsicle we elected. I promised Marina I wouldn’t get into any bar fights. The best way to avoid it is go against one of my tenants for travel: I would not talk to locals.

Peaks Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from Portland. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Peaks Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from Portland. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I shouldn’t have worried. In Maine I’m safe. Hal said Maine has a liberal soul but recently developed a conservative voice. The governor is Paul LePage, a small-town redneck who catapulted into the governor’s chair from his mayor’s job in Waterville, Maine. He made the biggest tax cuts in Maine’s history and disparaging remarks about minorities, gays and abortion among other liberal hot points.

Sound familiar?

“He calls Portland ‘The People’s Republic of Portland,’” Hal said with a proud smile.

This area we were exploring goes by another name: the Decadent Coast. It’s where artists and environmentalists, retirees and young couples tired of the city, gather to carve out a life where free thinking is the only thought worth having. If I’m going to spend 10 days in a country that has never been more divided in my lifetime, the Decadent Coast is my kinda place.

Peaks Island is one of 4,600 islands listing a Maine address. Along the 20-minute ferry ride, we passed what looked like a flooded fort.

“It’s our Civil War fort,” Hal said. “It was half completed and then the war ended.”

Peaks Island is one of the idyllic islands I may have seen in National Geographic. Its tiny two-lane main road meanders along the coastline dotted with big houses with sweeping verandas. People cruised by on bicycles and golf carts with not a tee box in sight. Lycra-clad yuppies on expensive bikes waited for ferries talked of staining their wood houses. Pampered dogs panted happily.

Me, Marina and Hal at the Inn on Pikes Island.

Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobsters last year.

Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobsters last year.

We sat for lunch at The Inn on Peaks Island, which occupies the bottom floor of a huge gray townhouse with a roomy dining porch. For months I had raved to Marina about Maine lobster. Last year Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobster worth a cool $533 million. More than 4,000 miles is a long way to get disappointed. She wasn’t. The lobster brought to our table filled the length of the plate and was as meaty and juicy as any in the world. The best part? Where else can you get two lobsters with salad and a large sandwich, plus beer for $70? In Rome you’d need a lobster loan.

On the drive north, Marina discovered one of the factors in America’s massive (pun intended) obesity problem. I don’t remember going 15 minutes without passing a Dunkin Donuts. It makes the near libelous claim of having “America’s greatest coffee.” Marina ordered a cappuccino and nearly needed a crane to lift the grotesque paper cup to her lips. Dunkin Donuts does, however, have fantastic donuts. Covered in chocolate and white icing and chocolate bits or chocolate glaze, they are as addictive as crack cocaine and nearly as dangerous. I tried explaining to Marina that when I lived in Denver donuts were the perfect hangover cure. Unfortunately, Italians drink so little the Italian language doesn’t even have a word for “hangover.” Marina looked at me savoring a speckled chocolate glaze with the same curiosity as someone watching a hippo eat in a zoo.

Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Our base for our Maine exploration was Boothbay Harbor, a village of about 2,000 people wedged in between two rivers flowing slowly into the Atlantic. It served as a fishing camp for the English in the 17th century and remained a fishing center through the 19th century. At one time, its vast harbor held up to 500 ships. Today, tourism has overtaken fishing as its bell cow. Its twisty, narrow, one-way streets above the still charming harbor attract visitors from around the state. Bar Harbor, spoiled long ago, gets more of the national mob.

We took one of Maine’s many bed & breakfasts and got a big break when we checked into the Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. A family had cancelled that morning and for another $10 a night we were upgraded to an executive king suite. It had a huge deck overlooking a peaceful inlet at the base of a forest. We stood on the deck and watched the sun glistening off the meandering river. A dog chased a ball into the water. Seagulls chirped above. The sun set just behind the pine trees as the temperature dipped to 70, which felt like a cloudburst in a desert after Rome’s sweltering summer. I took my novel to read but it remained overturned on my lap. I just wanted to look.

Me on the deck of our king suite. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on the deck of our king suite. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The suite’s bed was about a $5 cab ride to the bathroom. Complete with swimming pool and a breakfast featuring fresh blueberry muffins, fruit and frosted cinnamon rolls, we were in New England heaven. Not that Marina was happy but I heard her say “Boothbay Hawbah.”
Marina on the river behind our B&B.

Marina on the river behind our B&B.

Our next road trip was an exploration of all the cute Maine coastal villages I read about as a kid. However, before leaving Boothbay Harbor city limits, a public market rubbernecked us onto its grass lot. We wandered around sampling homemade maple syrup, local cheddar cheese, grass-fed beef jerky and fruity jams. Locals chatted about upcoming arts fairs and the weather. It’s a slice of Americana Marina never saw in her Italian textbooks.
Maple syrup at the public market

Maple syrup at the public market

Maine produces 90 percent of the world's wild blueberries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Maine produces 90 percent of the world’s wild blueberries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The drive up Maine’s Highway 1 (Marina: “Does every state have a Highway 1?”) is an environmentalist’s dream. A thick forest separated us from the crystal clear Atlantic. The small towns had as many dinosaurs as it had litter. Small blueberry stands lined the highway, reminding me that Maine produces 25 percent of the world’s blueberries and 90 percent of the wild ones.

Our first stop was Rockland, a community of about 7,000, seemingly half with a paintbrush and art studio at home. We stopped at a store called The Flower Goddess, a combination flower shop and art store. Co-owner Mark Anderson is from Long Island but has lived here 40 years and chatted with me about his personal paradise while Marina perused the collection of colored beads for her trollbeads bracelet.

“I would never live anywhere else,” Anderson said.

Rockland Photo by Marina Pascucci

Rockland Photo by Marina Pascucci

Tan, fit with thinning hair, Anderson calls Rockland “the arts capital of Maine” and it has attracted so many artists, “there are too many to count.” The Harbor Square Gallery has pieces such as a sculpture of the top half of a hippo for a cool $26,000. The nearby Farnsworth Art Museum is considered one of the top regional museums in the country.

Rockland is a friendly happy town that drops to about 2,000 inhabitants during the off season. Anderson never locks his home. He never locks his car. In fact, it stood outside the shop with the keys in the ignition.

“Why not?” he said. “That way I always know where they are.”

Harbor Square Gallery Photo by Marina Pascucci

Harbor Square Gallery Photo by Marina Pascucci

I asked about their wide, round candles. They seemed odd in an arts and flowers store. Not in Maine. New England has an eerie history, not just of revolution but of witchcraft. Salem, Mass., just 175 miles to the south, was the site of the famed witch trials of 1692 when 156 people were accused of witchcraft and many burned at the stake. While most were probably innocent, Anderson said witchcraft is still practiced in this part of Maine, putting the “decadent” in Decadent Coast. The place has a healthy dose of pagan population. The candles are spell candles to inspire feelings ranging from evil to stimulation. He also carries tarot cards and crystals, minerals capable of amplifying vibrational energy. I saw dreamcatchers, looped ornaments designed to fend off bad dreams.

I asked him if he has eye of newt.

“No, I don’t deal with perishables,” he said.

He thought I was serious.

Camden Photo by Marina Pascucci

Camden Photo by Marina Pascucci

Continuing north, we stopped in Camden, a former shipbuilding town that has the prettiest harbor in Maine. Long and broad, it’s lined with everything from motorized dinghies, to motor boats to tall, majestic windjammers. It’s all set in front of mountains of the Camden Hills State Park, so inspiring I wanted to drop my pad and pen for an easel and brush. Tourists sat under umbrellas along the harbor waiting for harbor cruises.

Marina panned her eyes along the water and towering boat masts and said, “No Italians come here.”

We later took a seat at the Seadog Brewing Company. Maine’s beer scene, befit a population with artsy tastes, has been booming for years. My fellow journalist, Kate Cone, even wrote a second book about Maine beer last year called “What’s Brewing in New England: A Guide to Brewpubs and Craft Breweries.” Every pub has a different local beer they boast and each one seemed to be better than the last. I had something called a Sea Dog Pale Ale. Ice cold, unlike some beers you get in Rome, it went perfect with my blueberry salad.

Blueberry salad

Blueberry salad

A note about the food in Maine: It’s more than Dunkin Donuts and lobster — (although that combination would be great for a hangover). The environmentalists and artists live healthy and eat healthy. The menus are dotted with seafood. Over three days we had stuffed amberjack, clam chowder, seafood chowder, smoked salmon and haddock. Combined with the lobster roll I had when we started the trip in Boston, if I had anymore seafood I’d meow.

We finished the day in Belfast where the working-class vibe and down-home eateries transport you back to Maine in the ‘60s. The shipbuilding plant the size of an airplane hangar housed a yacht that could comfortably fit the Maine Coast Guard. We walked along the harbor and rested on a grassy knoll where a young woman sunbathed and a man slept. An old man sat sunning himself with his feet on the rock wall.

Belfast is working class and a step back in time.

Belfast is working class and a step back in time.

While working class, Belfast maintains the same unwavering optimism and cheery outlook the Decadent Coast has about life. Buying groceries, I saw the clerk was a teenage boy wearing a football camp shirt. I asked how good the high school football was in Maine. He thought for a minute and finally said, “It’s not the worst.”

Badly in need of exercise after way too much driving — and stopping at nearly every Dunkin Donuts — the next day we drove around the peninsula from Boothbay Harbor. On Pemaquid Point is perhaps Maine’s most moneyed lighthouse. At least, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse is on the back of every Maine quarter. Built in 1827, leveled by the sea and rebuilt in 1835, the lighthouse itself doesn’t stand out. It’s the setting. It sits up the hill looking down at the royal blue Atlantic Ocean. Hard rocks form a comfortable walking path that lead to the shore where little pools form for wading. The temperatures were in the high 70s but the wind off the sea kept us as cool as clams before the chowder.

Me at the Dodge Point trail. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at the Dodge Point trail. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We backtracked around the peninsula and stopped at Dodge Point. It’s a network of trails snaking through a thick forest and empties out onto the Damariscotta River. It’s a leisurely, flat two-mile hike under a towering canopy where the sun breaks through the tall pines. We reached the river that was as calm as a countryside lake. We saw one lone house along the entire river. We didn’t see another person. We took off our shoes and waded in the warmest the river would be all year. In the 70s, maybe it’s not swimmable but definitely good to soak after five days in the Great Northeast.
Marina in the Damariscotta River

Marina in the Damariscotta River

Later in our room, ESPN blasted from our big-screen TV. I hadn’t heard American sports in nearly a year. Yet news of baseball and the McGregor-Mayweather fight and even the approaching season of my favorite sport, college football, couldn’t get me to turn my head. Instead I sat on the balcony, drinking a glass of Chardonnay, watching gulls dive for fish. I could smell the sea salt from behind the pines. The sun started to fade.

With all the turmoil and anger and separation in the U.S., it’s good to come home and see America is still beautiful. It’s decadent — in all the right ways.

Cleaning day: Clearing my past in Denver clears my future in Rome

My Public Storage unit was costing me $158 a month.

My Public Storage unit was costing me $158 a month.

DENVER — How long does it take to wipe out 23 years of memories? It turns out, about a week. That’s how long it took me to clean out my Public Storage space in my old stomping grounds in Denver.

Out went my collection of about 150 college sweatshirts and an equal number of T-shirts from around the world. For some reason, I could not get a single offer on my Cleveland State sweatshirt or KGB T-shirt I bought in that public market in St. Petersburg. I tossed blown-up, framed photos of native dancers in Yap and the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal. Also out went the comfy, leather office chair where I penned the vast majority of my stories and blogs over the past two decades. Along with it went my bed which …

… wait a minute. I don’t have many memories from that bed.

That’s just one of the reasons why this past week in Denver confirmed the feeling in my heart, soul and brain that Rome is home. I missed Rome from the moment I left and missed it more with every overpriced glass of wine I bought and every minute stuck in a growing traffic problem that reminded me of Beijing at rush hour.

I had 23 years of memories in that space.

I had 23 years of memories in that space.

The purpose of the trip was to downsize. Since moving to Rome in January 2014, Public Storage twice jacked up my rent from $100 a month to the larcenous price of $158. Emptying it will save me nearly $2,000 a year. Hell, that’s almost as much as I spend on wine. Besides, I will not pay $158 a month for furniture I’ll never sit on again and clothes I’ll never wear again. What good are college sweatshirts in Rome? I look so American I could have hopped off a Chevrolet commercial. If I walk around in a USC sweatshirt, I’ll look like I hopped off an American Express bus.
... and now there are none.

… and now there are none.

Home Again Furniture, a terrifically friendly and professional used furniture store, paid me $50 to take most of my old furniture off my hands and haul it away. I’m a guy. I didn’t get sentimental when I saw my old chest of drawers in the back of their van. Patio furniture? Good riddance. You were often covered in snow.
Isaac of Home Again Furniture gave me a huge assist.

Isaac of Home Again Furniture gave me a huge assist.

It was my first time back in Denver in two years. Unlike the first trip, this time I felt as if I’d been away overseas. I forgot how to find my local Goodwill store. I got lost in my neighborhood looking for a street I once drove by nearly every day. I forgot the number of the local bus I took. I found myself addressing people in Italian. “Scusa,” I would say to people I bumped into on the street. The grocery clerk looked perplexed when I accidentally told her, “Grazie mille.” However, I became more polite by reacting to a $50 parking ticket near a crowded park with “CAZZO!” instead of my old refrain, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” I drew only curious looks rather than mothers covering their children’s ears.

So much of my week in Denver made me chant my now steady mantra: Rome is home. On my first night shortly after checking into the guest room in my old condo building, I watched my first baseball game in three years. It was just a few innings of the Colorado Rockies game on TV and it hit me. I’d picked up where I left off three years ago. I was doing the same thing as when I lived in Denver. As I frantically drove around town, I listened to the same sports radio talk shows I heard before. I got so bored with Broncos talk I nearly drove off the road, my reaction usually reserved to when I accidentally hear a few chords of “Hotel California.” How long can two radio guys analyze the pass rushing ability of the weak-side linebacker?

I did meet old friends at Bastien's, my favorite steakhouse in Denver.

I did meet old friends at Bastien’s, my favorite steakhouse in Denver.

The thought of continuing these mind-numbing activities as a retired journalist made me shudder. I realized that my love for Italy is something I can’t get in Denver. The No. 1 reason I love Italy, besides having the prettiest girlfriend in Europe, is the lifestyle. It’s impossible to duplicate it in Denver. Denver has no piazzas. Its coffee culture consists of ordering a triple venti soy no foam latte at Starbucks and walking around drinking out of a disgusting plastic cup. I tried for 11 years to cook Italian in Denver. It can’t be done. The tomatoes aren’t sweet enough. The Parmesan doesn’t have enough bite. It’s impossible to buy fresh pasta. Soccer remains a third-tier sport in the U.S. The local Colorado Rockies play in Commerce City, an industrial suburb that in parts reminds me of Gary, Ind. People don’t meet in restaurants in Denver; they meet on the Internet. I don’t want to sit at my coffee table late at night, half buzzed, reading some woman’s profile about enjoying walks on the beach. Why would I want to compete with 1,500 other lonely men hoping for a thumbs up emoji?
Paella at Atticus.

Paella at Atticus.

Another area where I found comfort in Rome is Denver has gotten outrageously expensive. Rome is cheaper, not only for food and wine but housing as well. One of my many friends with no benefits helped me go through my condo with my rental agent and offered suggestions for a future renovation. As payback I took her to a new restaurant nearby. Colorado has three types of typical food: One, Rocky Mountain oysters. It’s an exotic name for what really are steer testicles. But that’s better than what they called them in the Old West: swingin’ steaks; two, buffalo. It tastes like rich hamburger but has less fat than chicken; three, garden-to-plate restaurants where all the ingredients are natural and locally grown. It’s healthy but often over-the-top au naturale where it takes longer to read the listed ingredients than it does to eat them.

Atticus fits in the third category. I ordered seafood paella. Neither seafood or paella is native to Colorado but the menu is, as its brochure states, “designed around Colorado’s small producers.” The menu listed paella including scallops, chorizo sausage, clams and shrimp. And it’s true. It did. It had one scallop, one slice of chorizo beef, about four shrimp and six clams. I’ve been to Spain. Paella is usually served in a dish the size of a pizza pan. Paella can feed a rugby team. At Atticus it’s served in what looked like a soup bowl. Price: $24. I didn’t find a glass of wine less than $9. I walked out paying $80. I also walked out hungry.

Then again, at least Atticus isn’t guilty of contributing to American obesity. Speaking of which, I guiltily admit I ate breakfast twice at one of America’s cholesterol castles: Denny’s. All fall I purposely avoided buying Bisquick pancake mix at Castroni, Rome’s international food store, so I could eat pancakes at Denny’s, which built its annual $500 million industry around them, among other deliciously fattening American breakfast standards. Denny’s is to American obesity what Donald Trump is to racism. Just looking at the menu can add five pounds. On the inside of their glossy four-page plastic menu is an item that sounded designed by an 8-year-old with marijuana munchies.

Denny's Peanut Butter Cup Pancake.

Denny’s Peanut Butter Cup Pancake.

Peanut Butter Cup Pancakes.

It’s chocolate and white chocolate chips inside two pancakes topped with fudge and drizzled with peanut butter sauce. Along with two eggs, hash browns and sausage or bacon, it’s $7.89. It looks like the winner of a giant cookie contest. I wanted to ask the waitress if the order comes with a gurney.

Cherry Cricket's bison cheeseburger.

Cherry Cricket’s bison cheeseburger.

Bastien's sugar steak.

Bastien’s sugar steak.

Devil's Food's breakfast burrito.

Devil’s Food’s breakfast burrito.

But I also had some fantastic American food that you can’t find anywhere in Italy. I did have the bison burger. They serve one of the best at Cherry Cricket, a dive bar in the hoity-toity Cherry Creek neighborhood where divorcees cruise the streets in convertibles hoping to find a man rich enough to buy her a new model. I had the legendary sugar steak at Bastien’s, a 1950s style steakhouse with red velour carpeting and a continuous loop of Frank Sinatra songs. You’re eating Caesar salad and you think the Rat Pack is going to walk in. At Devil’s Food, on the rollicking South Gaylord Strip, I had another great American breakfast standby: the breakfast burrito. It’s scrambled eggs, potatoes, green onions and bacon stuffed in a tortilla and covered in salsa and melted cheese. Someone mentioned that I looked as if I’d lost weight. I didn’t take it as a compliment.

Obviously, I did something about it.

Oregon State vs. Colorado at Boulder's Folsom Field.

Oregon State vs. Colorado at Boulder’s Folsom Field.

Food isn’t the biggest thing I miss about America. No. 1 remains college football. It has been my passion since my father took me to me my first Oregon game in 1962. It’s the sport I covered at The Denver Post for 16 years. I returned to Boulder where I watched Colorado play Oregon Straight, the team I grew up loathing like disease and Republicans. In the three years I’ve been away, Colorado has gone from one of the worst teams in the country to Top 25. They blew out the Rodents, er, Beavers, 47-6. The Buffaloes are fast, disciplined and skilled. Leaving in 2013 and returning this month was like going to sleep in Barstow and waking up in Barcelona. That’s one of the lines I used in a column I wrote for, the fledgling website started by my old boss at The Post.

However, as the game droned on to its conclusion, something hit me. Yes, it was fun to return to the old press box, see ex-colleagues and gasp at the Buffs’ improvement. But the thought of having to write another story for Monday and another for Tuesday and Wednesday and … made me realize that retirement was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Coupling it with retiring to Rome, I am living a dream none of Colorado’s marijuana edibles could produce.

I lived in Colorado for 23 years. I lived in Oregon for 22. But even jogging around my old gorgeous Washington Park, I came to inescapable conclusion. I wanted to go home.

I wanted to go home to Rome.

Playa del Carmen’s erotic Reina Roja Hotel “awakens your senses” among other body parts

The Erotica Room is one of six theme rooms of the Reina Roja.

The Erotica Room is one of six theme rooms of the Reina Roja.

Now for a break from kittens, beaches and scrumptious Italian food, how about a little lesbian S&M from Mexico?

(Boy, I bet that lead got your attention. If not, keep reading.)

Seriously, I had a travel experience that will never make “Lonely Planet” or the Los Angeles Times. Penthouse? Almost. That’s why I’m writing this here. The famous literary magazine (Hey, it does have fine writing, too!) loved the tale I told of a trip I took to a hotel that specialized in erotica. You’ve heard of hotels that cater to families and pets and football fans. Welcome to Playa del Carmen where the Reina Roja Hotel caters to sex. Sadomasochism. Pool-side fornication. Lighting out of a brothel. The Reina Roja, while also functioning as a regular hotel, invites anyone to explore their sexual fantasies — or find fantasies you never knew were legal outside Nevada.

In the fall of 2014 I spent two nights at the Reina Roja after a week of luxury in a luxurious timeshare on the beach. The editor scheduled it for publication in the spring of 2015. However, the story fell victim to a writer’s worst nightmare. Last winter the magazine got sold, the editor left and the new editors can’t find a place for it. They gave me the go ahead to send it to my readers.

So below, with some modifications and personal notes added, not to mention a little more sexual innuendo, is the story behind one of the most erotic hotels in the world. And if any of you ladies out there are interested in lesbian S&M, I’m your man:
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — The fluorescent red light bulbs shined through the dark haze of the hotel lobby. It was late morning on a sunny October day in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula yet the lobby was as dark as a cave in a Scandinavian winter. As I received my room key at the front desk, the odd, piercing red lighting illuminated a tall glass case next to me. Pleasure gels. Condoms. Body paint. The hotel’s theme was as subtle as the giant photo of a voluptuous blonde’s mirrored images — or were they twins? — staring down at the lobby wading pool behind me.
The bellman walked me past the pool as I glanced over my shoulder at mannequins dressed in law-enforcement hats and lingerie sitting in makeshift jail cells. I saw a four-poster bed with Jack Daniels pillows. The elevator door opened to a floor-to-ceiling photo of a smoking hot brunette in a swimming pool, her legs tantalizing apart, staring at me behind shades. The door closed behind us and I asked the tall, husky bellman named Yuri, “Do your eyes ever adjust to the red lighting?”

“I still haven’t gotten used to it,” he said. “I’ve been here two months.”
We took the elevator up one floor. The hallway was all polished wood and lined with potted plants. The lone lighting was the natural light from the windowed roof and the red neon room numbers that glowed like electro grams in an emergency ward.

He opened my room’s door and asked me, “Do you want to party or take it easy?”

“Define party.”

“Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night,” he said with a grin. “Big party upstairs by the pool.”
It was my introduction to the Reina Roja Hotel, the pride of party-hearty Playa del Carmen, Mexico. More than 1,000 years after the Mayans here ruled one of the world’s great civilizations, Playa del Carmen has something else of which to boast. It has Latin America’s most erotic hotel. That’s not exactly establishing the world’s most accurate calendar, but the ancient Mayans didn’t have as much fun as the Reina Roja guests have, either.

Established by Mexico City architect Alejandro Alarcon and opened New Year’s Eve 2009, the Reina Roja’s stated theme is “Awaken the Senses.” The black and red theme runs throughout the hotel with rooms featuring giant photos of bikini-clad women and Mexican pornography on TV after midnight. Six theme rooms, running at $200 a night, range from the benign of the Origenes Room, made from native wood, to the off-the-charts Erotica Room, featuring a black leather couch — with chains — and wall-to-wall photos of lesbian sadomasochism.

But Reina Roja management — and guests — point out that it’s also a normal hotel, with the same features of the others lining Playa del Carmen’s beautiful beach 40 miles south of Cancun. It’s also environmentally friendly. One of its theme rooms is even called the Green Space Room. The naked lesbians are nowhere to be found. In their place is wall-to-wall synthetic grass.

“The concept is defined by ‘adult contemporary,’” hotel manager Robert Gomez told me in a conference room, the only space I saw without a breast or a whip. “That is the concept. Because some people are thinking we are hard core. We are not hard core.”

I stumbled onto the Reina Roja the year before on a vacation. I was walking down the street one block off the beach and wondered what mannequins were doing dressed in black leather and jack boots hanging out on the balconies. I walked in and the inside was lit up in so much red light it looked like a radioactive bomb. I learned the Reina Roja is a normal, highly rated hotel, complete with restaurant and laundry service, but could be a pleasure palace if you want it. It is not a brothel. It’s just lit up like one.
My room was subtly sexy. Like the rest of the hotel, its theme was heavy fire-engine red and jet black. There was a red bedspread, a red curtain hiding a small gravel balcony and a red drape in front of a hallway window. A black sash across the foot of the bed offered contrast. The young blonde in a string bikini in a photo that stretched past the width of the bed offered a reality check. Coming back to a sexy hotel room alone is worse when you crawl into bed below a goddess in a bikini. It doesn’t help that at midnight a TV channel called MaxPlus starts showing videos of hot babes doing 15-minute strip teases.

It was still rainy season so the hotel was dead. But on that morning the sun shined brightly and I made my way up to the rooftop pool. It stretches about 25 meters but it’s only deep enough to swim for about 10 of them. It morphs into a wading pool, perfect for a couple to slosh around during parties. Or they could go where I was: a queen-size, four-poster bed right next to the pool. I saw one young Mexican couple lying back in the water talking as he took long drags from his bottle of Corona. Within 15 minutes, she was straddling him, dry humping him and nuzzling his neck. He somehow managed to concentrate enough to finish his beer.
“This hotel wakes up your senses,” Perez said. “Relax. Party. Crazy. Crazy life. La vita loca. The hotel maintains this: You wake up.”

Perez is a tall, burly 43-year-old Venezuelan who’s quick with a smile and handshake to guests which he resembles more than a product of corporate Latin America. He worked for the InterContinental chain and the Spanish hotel chain, Melia. The essence is the same. He still promotes the hotel strengths. At the InterContinental you boost the breakfast buffet; at the Reina Roja the full-length movable mirrors. So it’s the same, almost.

Rooftop pool

Rooftop pool

But Perez pointed out the contemporary theme goes beyond eroticism. The Reina Roja also has a nautical theme. Fishing nets hang over the hand railings and boat handles adorn the roof-top garden and lobby areas. It’s labeled “Ship and Chic.”

“It’s why we talk about contemporary adult,” Perez said. “The adult has an open mind. The adult is free. They’re relaxed.”

The clientele is primarily couples — both straight and gay — with about 80 percent coming from Mexico and the majority of the rest from Europe. But it has attracted its share of offbeat guests, attracted to Reina Roja’s open-minded outlook like rabbits to lettuce. There was the 50ish woman who dragged in her 60ish husband by a dog collar. He spent the entire weekend barking. One couple in their 70s requested the Erotica Room. Then there was the woman from Guadalajara who checked in carrying her octopus husband.


True story. She married an octopus found in a supermarket and even after it died, she carried it everywhere, holding it with the hand that still sported a wedding ring.

“They were there to celebrate their marriage,” said Daniela Suarez, the hotel sales manager. “She loved octopus.”

After Hours Room

After Hours Room

The pair then give me a tour of the theme rooms. Most are fairly tame. Besides the Origenes and Green Space rooms, there’s the Playa Room with a beach theme and the After Hours Room with the enclosed space behind the bed for private dancing.
Bar room

Bar room

Then comes the Erotica Room.

“Prepare!” Perez warned.

Erotica Room couch

Erotica Room couch

At the foot of the bed was a jet black couch, complete with chains. To the side of the bed was a white jail cell just big enough for two couples — plus an octopus or two. But what jumps out at guests more than any red lights are the photographs. From floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, are photos of women plundering each other. Women in black leather teddies and thigh-high dominatrix boots tie others in chains. They masturbate blindfolded women with vibrators the size of dough rollers. Cunnilingus. Penetration. No orifice appears safe.
They’ve toned down the S&M, however. Management learned S&M is a specific taste not shared by the majority of hotel guests. They swapped the leather and whips on the mannequins for lingerie. They even took out some red lights. The Reina Roja is only exotic if you want it.

Myself, I’ve had wilder nights at the Des Moines Marriott. The beaches in Playa del Carmen are still busy in October but the Reina Roja had only a few stragglers, couples and one very lonely, oversexed journalist. I saw no one at the pool; I saw no one at the bar. It was just me and the bikini babe on my wall. I’m real normal sexually. My creepy factor is very low. I don’t get excited seeing photos of a woman getting violated by a sculling oar.

I tracked down some past guests and they all had positive reviews with mixed reviews on the tall tales or eroticism.

“We were looking for something interesting, weird, but we didn’t want it too weird,” said Greg delNero, 44, a musician in Emeryville, Calif., who visited with his girlfriend for three or four nights and wound up returning for more. “We were skeptical at first. You see the pictures, the mannequins. The theme is kind of cool. Based on people’s experiences, it seemed like a decent hotel.”

Olivier Auvray, 35, a Paris banker, went for his wedding party and even brought his 65-year-old mother.

“The Reina Roja, you think it’s like an erotic hotel because of the decorations,” he says. “But the people there, they don’t do a lot of stuff. We were surprised. We were a little bit scared. I was with my mom and other old people but there was nothing crazy.”

Mural in the After Hours Room

Mural in the After Hours Room

But there certainly can be. The sexual vibe gets absorbed in the raging hormones after a few hours. Auvray said two of his wedding guests had sex with American tourists, one next to the pool. The swimming pool is as wet outside the water as it is in. Louis Gonzalez, 45, a Sony Music employee in New York, said he went to one of the legendary pool parties. By 2 a.m., he said everyone was naked and in the pool. At one point, he left the fray to find a bathroom. He stumbled onto a couple having sex. Their eyes met.

“They were cool about it,” Gonzalez said. “They weren’t freaking out. I was just trying to go to the bathroom and a guy had this girl from behind. It was hilarious.”

Anyone interested in the Reina Roja are advised to book well in advance. Their 63 rooms for this past January’s high season were sold out by July. And be advised.

Watch where you walk.

Isla Holbox is Yucatan’s anti-Cancun

The archway from my Villa Delfines leading to Isla Holbox's beach.

The archway from my Villa Delfines leading to Isla Holbox’s beach.

By John Henderson
Special to Tribune Newspapers
ISLA HOLBOX, Mexico – I watched the dolphins swim and play and feed in the little lagoon a 10-minute boat ride from my beach hut. If they kept swimming, turned the Yucatan Peninsula’s northeast corner and swam south, in 60 miles they’d hit Cancun.

Sixty miles? After one day too long in the cement jungle of American chains and drunk tourists of Cancun, the unspoiled island of Isla Holbox felt another galaxy away.

Isla Holbox (IS-la HOLE-bosh) is a sliver of white sand and crushed shells 18 miles long and a mile wide. There is no golf course, but golf carts are the main mode of transportation.

A golf cart taxi picked me up at the harbor after a 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland, and the driver whisked me down the dirt roads as if headed for the first tee. We passed the main village with its colonial square lined with outdoor restaurants serving local fish and guacamole made at your table.

We hit the white-sand beach and he dropped me off at my hotel. Like most Holbox accommodations, Hotel Villas Delfines ($80 a night) was built in Mayan tradition. They used the same round, bamboo design with pointy thatched roofs but those Mayans didn’t have hammocks on their decks and hot water pouring out of conch shells in the showers.

I spent my week in February reading in lanais chairs under palm trees on the beach and drinking at Bar Tuuch (“belly button” in Yucatec Maya), a small, square bamboo beach bar with swings as bar stools.

Holbox also rests in the Yum Balam reserve where a boat took me to see brown pelicans and herons, among 150 species of birds in the area, feeding chicks in treetops. It’s only crowded in July when snorkelers flock to swim with 15-ton whale sharks which come to Holbox to feed on plankton.

Tired of Cancun? Isla Holbox is the anti-Cancun.