Monday, September 30, 2013

A Late September Trip to Hatteras and Ocracoke

Despite living most of my life in Virginia, just a few hours away from North Carolina's Outer Banks, I never gave much thought to visiting these narrow barrier islands. I probably would not have gone there any time soon had it not been for my 80+ year old father fondly remembering past trips to the OBX which gave us the idea to do a family vacation there with him this September.  I found a house on Hatteras Island in Rodanthe for us to rent.
View of beach from our house in Rodanthe
I didn't know much about the Outer Banks before going, mainly imagining it to be an overdeveloped stretch of land with all-you-can-eat seafood restaurants, putt-putt golf and brew-thrus, and no atmosphere or culture whatsoever.  That's kind of how Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head were, but it was a pleasant surprise to go over the bridge onto Hatteras Island and notice the miles and miles of undeveloped land south of Nags Head.  It remains that way for 20+ miles all the way to Rodanthe - with the beach on one side and Pamlico Sound on the other.
Wide-open beach on Ocracoke
The ocean-side beaches in the Outer Banks are all straight and go on for miles in either direction.  That's great for walking long distances, but it's not as visually stunning as the crescent shaped beaches I've seen in places like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, or even Ireland.  I would like to have found a beach on the sound side where the water is shallow and calm and you can toss a frisbee or surf ball, but didn't put forth the effort to find such a spot.  (Perhaps the Salvo Day Use Area?).  It was easy to be lazy and sedentary on this vacation.  The Outer Banks has the effect on a person.

One of the main reasons for going was so that my dad could fish off of a pier, so we made sure to find a house close to the Rodanthe pier.  Unfortunately the wind made fishing undesirable.  Not catching much of anything didn't help either.  In addition to fishing, another popular activity on Hatteras island is kiteboarding.  It stays pretty windy, so there's always a lot of people trying out that crazy sport.  Next on the list of things to do would be hanging out on the beach, checking out the famous Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and going out to eat.  Going out to eat is a big deal in the Outer Banks.
Dad fishing on the Rodanthe pier
There's no shortage of restaurants and it's not long after lunch that you start to think about where you might want to go for dinner that night.  Some nearby places we liked included Waterman's Bar and Grill (excellent seafood, Carolina craft beers, friendly staff, sunsets, and a rum bar where you can order a bushwacker, painkiller, dark n' stormy, and more), Good Winds (somewhat bland atmosphere but well chosen beer selection and excellent views), Waves Market and Deli (awesome sandwiches and burritos plus basic groceries) and Lisa's Pizzeria (surprise - great pizza!).
The view from Good Winds of the Pamlico Sound
We were a short walk from the beach and the water in late September was still plenty warm for swimming, but it was so rough that being in the water or trying to boogie board was a pretty unpleasant experience.  So mostly I just hung around the house, played a bit of banjo, did some reading, and drank beer.  (We did take a fun side trip to the Full Moon Cafe and Brewery in Manteo - about 30 miles away - and I'll write about that in another post.)  On our last day, we decided to take the free car ferry over to Ocracoke.  That would prove to be the best decision we made all week!

The drive from the Rodanthe/Waves/Salvo to the Ocracoke ferry terminal in Hatteras can easily be made in under an hour at a leisurely pace.  Along the way you pass through the villages of Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras.  Ferries leave every half hour and can hold up to 30 vehicles.  It was a Saturday morning, so I was expecting there to be a long line, but we pulled right up and got on the ferry after a 4 or 5 minute wait.  Ocracoke is remote (you can only get there by boat/ferry or plane).  The 40-minute ferry ride quickly drops you off on the far end of the island and it's a 12-mile drive from there to get to the village.  There's nothing built up during those 12 miles - just ocean and sound until the narrow spit of land widens as you come upon Ocracoke village.
Looking out at Silver Lake from outdoor seating at Jolly Roger in Ocracoke
Unlike the other "communities" on the Outer Banks - which are all stretched out along of Highway 12 - Ocracoke actually has a town feel, with the village centered as it is in a semi-circle around a small harbor called Silver Lake.  There are some cool pubs right on the water, like Jolly Roger and SMacNally's, and several hotels and other modest accommodations with water views, plus a few artsy shops tucked away, historic sites, a lighthouse and some bike/golf cart rental places.  No chains.  Nothing corporate.  Fewer than 800 permanent residents.  Ocracoke had a vibe similar to other places that we have loved, and although we only spent a few hours there I'm already thinking about going back next year.

The only drawback that I could see to Ocracoke might be that there's no immediate beach in the village itself.  There is a 16 mile stretch of undeveloped beach that runs along practically all of the ocean side of the island, but beach access begins just a short ways out of town.  That's more of an observation than a criticism, really.  From what I saw, I'd have no problem returning Ocracoke for a week or more.  We also lucked out with a short wait before getting on the ferry coming back.  The ride each way was pretty smooth, even in rough, windy conditions, so there's little chance of getting sea sick on the ferry, even for a land lubber such as myself.
Flowers on beach in Ocracoke
I've done a few internet searches recently for islands worth visiting on the East Coast of the United States and the Great Lakes region, and I'm surprised that Oracoke didn't come up on such a query.  I enjoyed staying in Rodanthe, but based on what I know now I would definitely choose Ocracoke over any place on Hatteras.  It may not be the Caribbean, but for a quaint, sleepy, waterside village within driving distance of Central Virginia, you can't beat it!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Belle Layotte by the Etcetera String Band - mandolin tab and transcription

Here’s another transcription and audio posting of a tune off of the Etcetera String Band’s out-of-print Bonne Humeur album, which contained arrangements of early Caribbean dance/string band tunes.  The tune is called Belle Layotte and it’s a coonjaille from the book Slave Songs of the United States by William Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison.  Belle Layotte was among seven Creole songs collected by a lady who heard them being sung before the Civil War on the Good Hope Plantation, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.  The coonjaille dance is described as a sort of minuet. 

transcription by Nick DiSebastian

Belle Layotte a cool little tune in the key of F.  Very addictive.  You have to listen to it to really get the feel.  Note the call and response nature of the melody.  The blind mandolinist Kenny Hall said different keys make him think of different climates and F makes him think of ocean climates with the sun shining.  After playing Belle Layotte I kind of see what he means.  At first I thought I might want to transcribe it from F to G, but it’s actually a lot of fun to play in F.  I don’t have many tunes in this key but this is one that I’ve enjoyed learning.  Take a listen to it below and try to play along with it.  I’ve included a mandolin tab and sheet music transcription by Nick DiSebastian.

I hope you enjoy this tune as much as I do!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why Culebra? Here are 10 Reasons to visit this small Caribbean Island

One of the main reasons people go to Culebra is to do nothing.  Here are ten other reasons to visit.

Culebra is a small island about 17 miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico – close to the US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands.  But, it’s part of Puerto Rico, and for American travelers getting to PR is as easy as flying to any other state in the US.  No passport is required and you don’t have to pass through customs.  Your cell phone should work with no additional fees, they use US dollars, and most people speak English.  It’s easy to fly from the US to San Juan, Puerto Rico and from there you can either take a small puddle jumper plane to Culebra, or have a taxi take you to the ferry terminal in Fajardo.

There are round trip flights from Richmond, VA to San Juan, PR for $228.  Forget about taking a cab to the ferry (unless you’re really on a budget) because from San Juan you can “splurge” and book a flight from Isla Grande to Culebra on Air Flamenco for $70 each way.  (Make sure your flight into San Juan arrives in time to catch a flight to Culebra.  The last one leaves daily at 6pm).  With total air fare coming in at well under $400 from the mid-Atlantic it’s still cheaper to fly to Culebra than practically any other Caribbean destination, outside of mainland Puerto Rico.

Zoni Beach
The mile long, crescent shaped, white sand, clear blue watered Flamenco Beach is consistently ranked among the world’s best.  Many visitors come just for Flamenco Beach and that’s about all they see.  There’s also Playa Carlos Resario for snorkeling, Playa Melones for snorkeling and sunsets, and Zoni Beach for a less crowded hang-out beach almost as nice as Flamenco.  Adventure seekers can hike to the secluded and wilder Resaca Beach and adjacent Brava Beach, or hire a water taxi to take you to the tiny uninhabited island of Culebrita, where the beaches and tide pools are said to be even better.  Flamenco Beach has food kiosks, camping and other amenities.  None of the other beaches do so bring water and pack a snack.

A Very Cool Bar
The laid back, waterside Dinghy Dock is the kind of tropical bar island hoppers dream of.  Crusty locals sit alongside jaded Expats and in-the-know tourists.  Island drinks like the painkiller are strong and the vibe is such that you won’t want to leave.  You can also bar hop to nearby Mamacita’s or head over to Susie’s restaurant for a great meal and to try another island drink - the bushwacker.

Dinghy Dock
You can search all over the Caribbean, but you may not find a no-frills cottage, cabin or bungalow quite like the ones offered by Jacinto and Susie (of Susie’s Restaurant) called Casa Yaboa, located about 5 miles from Culebra's only town, Dewey.  (Rent a golf cart or jeep).  It’s not exactly cheap, but definitely worth it.  If Casa Yaboa is booked, there are several other guest houses and rentals to choose from, including Naniqui by the Bay, Casa SuMarco and Villa Boheme, but Casa Yaboa would be my first choice.

Undiscovered, Non-commercial Feel
From 1909 to 1975 the U.S. Navy used Culebra as a gunnery range and as a practice bomb site during World War II.  The military has since cleared out, but Culebra has remained undeveloped like the Caribbean of old.  There are no big casinos, no mega-resorts, no shopping outlets and no chain restaurants on Culebra.  There are very few tourist shops.  No stoplights.  There’s one gas station.  Sometimes you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself, especially if you choose a secluded accommodation like Casa Yaboa.  A refreshing change of pace.

Side porch from Casa Yaboa's Trees Nest cottage
Culebra is one of the most pristine places to practice snorkeling and scuba.  A barrier reef protects some of the beaches, making for tranquil waters where you can snorkel among turtles, sting rays and other marine life.

No Cruise Ships
This one's pretty self explanatory if you've ever experienced the masses of people who get off a docked cruise ship and stroll around the immediate vicinity of the port for a few hours each day, going to touristy places designed to accommodate them.  You don’t have to worry about that on Culebra.  The closest thing is the people from the ferry going back and forth to Flamenco beach, but that’s on a much smaller, and cooler, scale.

Palm trees and nice view from Casa Yaboa
Small Size
Culebra is only about 7 by 3 miles, so you can easily cover the whole island on a golf cart and be practically anywhere you need to be within 30 minutes.  But, you’ll probably be content to just relax in the "here and now", letting the day unfold as it may without feeling compelled to be constantly doing something or like you are missing something.

No Hassling
There's not much in the way of native culture on Culebra, and the constant hassling that can occur in other places like Jamaica just doesn’t happen here.  Crime is also not a problem.  The 2,000 or so permanent residents are mostly Puerto Ricans and Expats who have made Culebra their home since the military left in the 70's.  If you go to the pubs you might meet a few colorful local characters, but nobody is going to try to guilt you into buying a bracelet, necklace, key chain, et cetera. 

Culebra fauna
Did I make it clear that Culebra is smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean?  It has the same year-round warm, tropical climate of more well known places like St. Thomas without all the people.  If you’ve ever been to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, it’s kind of like that but in the Caribbean.  The landscape is dotted with scrub, cacti and coconut palms. 

That's actually 11 reasons to visit!  There are lots of places worth vacationing in the Caribbean, but none seem to have the same appeal as Culebra.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Musicians' Beer Drinking Formula

It's fun to have a beer or two while playing some tunes, although there's a fine line between inspiration and sloppiness.  This handy-dandy formula could help you keep things in check.
McGann's Pub, Doolin Ireland, November 2004
What you do is multiply the quantity (in ounces) by alcohol (percentage ABV).  The magic number is 250.  You want to stay at or below 250 for every 6 hours of drinking*.  For example, four 12-ounce bottles of 5% alcohol beer equates to 48 (ounces) x 5 (ABV) = 240. That's under 250 so it's in the safe zone.  Having a 5th one would be a no-no, since it would take you over that 250 mark.  By the same equation, if the beer was stronger than 5.2% alcohol, then 3 would be the max.

*Note: the 250 rule does not apply to Guinness Draught.  Drink a Guinness when you're tired.

A typical American pint glass is supposed to hold 16 ounces of draft beer when filled to the brim, although it's rarely filled to the very brim.   For the sake of the formula, let's say that an American pint is 15 ounces.  A British imperial pint, like the kind you sometimes see in Irish and British pubs, is about 20% larger, so let's assume that it is 18 ounces when filled.

12 oz. bottles
4.1% abv or less – maximum of 5 (60 x 4.1 = 246)
5.2% abv or less – maximum of 4 (48 x 5.2 = 249.60)
6.9% abv or less – maximum of 3 (36 x 6.9 = 248.40)
10.4% abv or less – maximum of 2 (24 x 10.4 = 249.60)

15 oz. American pint
4.1% abv or less – maximum of 4 (60 x 4.1 = 246)
5.5% abv or less – maximum of 3 (45 x 5.5 = 247.50)
8.3% abv or less – maximum of 2 (30 x 8.3 = 249)

18 oz. British pint
4.6% abv or less – maximum of 3 (54 x 4.6 = 248.40)
6.9% abv or less – maximum of 2 (36 x 6.9 = 248.40)

I'll let you do the math for other quantities, such as 11.2 oz. bottles or 16.9 oz. pub cans.  If you are drinking out of a 32 oz. or 64 oz. growler, you'll need to know how much you're pouring into the glass and of course the ABV.  The formula could get complicated if you are mixing different quantities of beer with varying alcohol content.  Another way of telling if you've had too much is if you are unable to mentally calculate the formula.

The 250 rule applies only to the playing of a musical instrument, and should be used with caution when judging whether or not you are capable of performing other actions requiring sharp motor skills.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Camping – Finally Got it Right! A review of the Eureka Copper Canyon 4 tent, Coleman Ridgeline III cot and Coleman 12’ x 12’ Gazebo

I’m not a huge, huge fan of camping but I have finally found the right mix of comforts to make it more appealing.  For starters, we now have an 8’ x 8’ tent with an interior height of 7 feet – the Eureka Copper Canyon 4 Family Tent.  For 2 people this tent is plenty big.  The fact that you can stand up in it makes all the difference.  Due to the Copper Canyon's vertical walls, it’s almost like being in an eco-cabin.  There’s lots of ventilation, courtesy of the screened in “windows” on each of the 4 sides, which can be zipped closed at night or in inclement weather.  I was concerned that it might not do as good in the rain as a tent with a full rain fly, but the first time we used this tent it rained heavily and we stayed dry inside.  The Copper Canyon might not be the warmest tent in cold conditions, but it’s great for 3 season use.
Eureka Copper Canyon 4 Tent
The vertical walls of the Copper Canyon allow for the use of cots, and that’s just what we did, after purchasing a pair of Coleman Ridgeline III cots from Home Depot at the discounted rate of $40 each.  Home Depot currently offers free shipping with this order.  These Ridgeline III camp beds are sturdy yet portable, and, most importantly, quite comfortable.  You can use the space under the cots to store gear.  It’s almost like sleeping on a real bed.  I got a much better night’s sleep on these cots than I had ever gotten from an air mattress or foam pad.  We put an inexpensive indoor/outdoor area rug on the inside of the tent under the cots too add comfort and protect the bottom of the tent.
Coleman Ridgeline III cot - $40
Completing the camping triumvirate is a proper EZ Up/gazebo shelter.  For some reason it’s reassuring to sit under a shelter while camping – perhaps it helps make your camp site feel like actual real estate.  We opted for the Coleman 12’ x 12’ Gazebo.  When compared to a 10’ x 10’ EZ Up, the extra 44 square feet of coverage of the 12’ x 12’ really makes a difference.  It’s big enough for a large number of people to gather under and provides more protection, so items left out overnight under the gazebo don’t gather dew like they would if they were exposed.  Two people can easily put up this Coleman shelter in under 10 minutes, and with 3 or 4 people helping it’s even faster and easier to set up.  I’m glad we got this shelter instead of a smaller and/or cheaper alternative.
Coleman 12' x 12' Gazebo
Now that we have the right combination of tent, cots and shelter, plus some other essentials like the camp stove and table, shade tapestry and coffee percolator, camping is a lot more fun.  We just finished our last planned camping trip of the season, but I’m ready for another one.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rockbridge Festival Re-cap - Pictures and Video

Rockbridge Mountain Music Festival, late afternoon/early evening 9/7/13
I’m still a newbie to oldtime music festivals, but having just returned from my 2nd ever Rockbridge festival, I can safely say that it is my favorite so far.  There’s a relaxed, friendly, openness to Rockbridge that makes it easy to feel welcome there.  It's never too crowded.  We arrived on Thursday afternoon and found a shady spot along the Maury River, which proved to be a great place to camp.  The weather was absolutely perfect all three days – in the upper 70’s during the day, mid to lower 50’s at night, and no rain.
View from the back screen window of our tent
As usual, we didn’t have to look far for tunes.  The people camped right around us were fun to hang out with and up for playing both old-time and a surprising amount of Irish music, although we did also venture out from our holler along the river a couple of times and found copacetic jams in other parts of the campground.  I certainly didn’t feel anxious or unfulfilled at the end of each day and was very content with the variety and quality of the music I was able to take part in.  I've worked hard over the last year or two to be more comfortable in these kinds of settings and that hard work is starting to pay off.  
Our campsite
There was a documentary photographer there all weekend named Chris Gibbs.  He was taking a lot of pictures and video so I’m excited to see what he comes up with.  Chris has already posted a video which was taken at our campsite on Friday afternoon featuring Sue and “Quat” from Morgantown (clawhammer banjo and upright bass), Josh and Melinda from Pittsburgh (guitar and fiddle) and Chris Hale on fiddle.  That’s Laura on baritone ukulele and me in the orange hat on tenor banjo with our backs to the camera.  The tune is Johnny Don’t Get Drunk.

Rockbridge has spoiled me for oldtime mountain music festivals and I’m looking forward going back next year and maybe even getting there a day or two earlier.

Sheet Music, Chords, Audio and Mandolin Tab for Caribbean Tune "Bonne Humeur" by The Etcetera String Band

I've received permission from Kevin Sanders (formerly of The Etcetera String Band) and music transcriber Nick DiSebastian to upload some audio and sheet music notation/mandolin tab for the out of print Etcetera String Band album Bonne Humeur.  This tune is the first one on the album and is also called "Bonne Humeur" -- a Haitian Meringue written by Arthur Duroseau.  Below are images containing the sheet music and a YouTube video with the audio.

Music transcription by Nick DiSebastian

Music transcription by Nick DiSebastian

I hope you enjoy learning to play this tune.  Check back soon for more uploads of audio and mandolin tab for tracks off the Bonne Humeur album.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Fiddlin’ Banjo Billy Mathews and Paddy O’Brien Tune Collections

I wanted to quickly point out two audio tune collections worth looking into – one by a fiddler/banjo player from the Ozarks (Fiddlin’ Banjo Billy Mathews’ 500 Fiddle Tunes Project) and the other by an Irish accordion player from County Offaly (The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection). 

Fiddlin' Banjo Billy Mathews
500 Fiddle Tunes Project
Fiddlin’ Banjo Billy Mathews is an old-time musician from the Ozark Mountains.  He has traveled extensively throughout the Midwest for over 40 years, picking up tunes along the way.  Billy has recently finished recording a collection of his favorite 500 fiddle tunes, with the goal of doing another 500 soon.  The idea is to present a reasonable rendition of the tune - not too fast, pretty much straight up with very little ornamentation - to provide a resource for learning these tunes by ear.

For the entire Banjo Billy tune list click HERE.
Click HERE to order the 500 Fiddle Tunes Project.

County Offaly Paddy O'Brien
Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection
The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection is a compilation of 1,000 Irish tunes from the repertoire of Paddy O’Brien of County Offaly, an All-Ireland accordion champion.  In more than five decades as a musician, Paddy has gained a reputation as a walking encyclopedia of Irish music.  It’s estimated that he carries in his head the melodies of more than 3,000 Irish tunes.  Created especially for serious students of Irish music, this unique collection can help today’s players learn Irish music the way it was traditionally handed down - by ear.

For the entire Paddy O’Brien tune list click HERE.
Click HERE to order the Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection.