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The Island That Time Forgot

At least once a month, a few dozen Amelia Island residents don Civil War uniforms, move into Fort Clinch and live like 19th-century soldiers and citizens. No one around here bats an eye, but then again this is an island of eccentrics. Lots of them.

“We didn’t have no mosquitoes down here,” explains merchant Bob Lannon, in a rich southern drawl, “before you Yankees started comin’.”

“That’s an interesting theory,” says Roger Esckelson, who runs the Book Loft, right next door, “seeing as how Bob’s from New Hampshire.” Then without missing a beat, Esckelson asks, “Want to see some of the mastodon bones I found this morning?”

Since 1562, northeastern Florida’s Amelia Island has been ruled by French and Spanish, English and Patriots, Confederates and Yankees.

At the turn of the century, Fernandina Beach was one of the most luxurious resort areas in the south. And the island’s American Beach was Florida’s only beach resort for blacks (see accompanying story).

But when Henry Flagler’s famous railroad brought wealthy Northerners farther and farther south, Amelia Island was left to rot in peace.

“Everybody just left,” said James Perry, curator of the Amelia Island Museum of History, the state’s only oral history museum. “It was a Pompeii-like flash – the boom was over and the town was frozen in time.”

Loving Restoration
The town was laid out in just the sort of Victorian style that makes entrepreneurs’ hearts sing, “What a place for a B&B!” Over the last 20 years, the town has been lovingly restored and a turn-of-the-century time-traveler would feel at home walking through the Historic Downtown District with its railway terminal, Palace Saloon and cobblestone streets.

Many area homes (including the one used in the 1988 Disney classic “Pippi Longstocking”) have been renovated and refurbished.

Today, those who make their home on Amelia are a tightly knit community. Non-residents are referred to as “off-islanders,” and residents are free to be as quirky and eccentric as they wish.

But what’s so arresting about the island is the open hospitality in every shop, restaurant, B&B and motel.

Islanders Bob and Karen Warner are used to people walking through their home, which happens to be the oldest hotel in the state of Florida. At various times and in various incarnations, their Florida House Inn (1857) has been host to Cuban freedom-fighter Jose Marti and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as to Rockefellers and Carnegies.

Today it’s a decadently comfortable B&B, whose restaurant is one of the best values – price, food and service – in the state (see “If You Go”).

They Visit, They Stay
Every year just before Christmas, the Florida House and eight other historic inns take part in the Amelia Island Christmas Tour. It attracts more than 1,300 visitors who listen to the histories, admire the restoration work, check under the beds and look into the closets for skeletons of a long ago past.

“I can name a dozen people who have stayed with us and then moved here,” says John Kovacevich, who, along with his wife, Rita, runs the Hoyt House, one of the B&Bs included on the tour. “And that’s not because of Rita and me or the resorts or the beaches, but because of the island – it’s so welcoming that it just grabs you.”

The Downtown Historic District is the main draw of Fernandina Beach, though other attractions are to be found on the island. The beaches are about two miles east of the city.

The Amelia Island Museum of History is in the former city jail (1879-1975). Volunteer-led tours are conducted Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The exhibits, while fascinating in and of themselves, are secondary to the oral history from the volunteers. Highlights are the Galleon Room, dedicated to Spanish explorers and gold ships, with not much treasure but heaps of artifacts, and the old drugstore soda fountain upstairs.

The museum conducts two-hour walking tours in the Downtown Historic District by appointment and strolls of Centre Street on Thursdays and Fridays at 3 p.m.

The neo-Gothic Episcopal St. Peter’s Parish (1881-1884) features impressive stained-glass windows and a magnificent Harrison organ. It’s at the corner of 8th Street and Atlantic Avenue. Great sign outside in a no parking zone: Thou Shalt Not Park.

Civil War Re-enactments
The U.S. government began construction of Fort Clinch, to the east of the town, in 1847. Today the fort is open as a state park, and re-enactors (whom most call authentic and whom others call nuts) hold open house garrison weekends, candlelight viewings and candlelight tours at least once a month, featuring demonstrations of the weaponry (the cannon are loud!), fireplace cooking, the fully equipped Civil War infirmary and the jail. The fort by candlelight is beautiful, and the re-enactors – who sleep in the fort during the garrison weekends to help them stay in character – are a treat, whether they’re playing Yankee or Confederate troops (they do both).

At the island’s southern end is American Beach, part of Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, a summer resort primarily for blacks but open to everyone.

At its heyday, American Beach catered to throngs of Northern blacks, who boarded buses that would arrive 40 and 50 at a time. Blacks owned the motel, the restaurants, the nightclubs.

Black entertainers performing at clubs in Jacksonville would head up to American Beach after their sets and play the rest of the night at the Ocean Rendezvous, then the resort’s largest nightclub. That club also hosted concerts by Ray Charles, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other stars of the day.

Ghost of a Resort
After desegregation the beach became less attractive than beaches closer to home, and business dried out. Though the resort remains open, it is a ghost of its former self. And surrounded by big business in the form of a multimillion-dollar resort complex, local residents worry that some of the 35 families who call the beach home will sell out to golf-course building developers.

You can visit for a tour any time. Resident and unofficial mayor MaVynee Betsch is always happy to guide tours personally, and she operates the American Beach Museum out of a small mobile home parked at the corner of Gregg and Lewis streets.

The most notable feature of the American Beach coastline today is the absence of the high-rise condominium and hotel towers that line the sand immediately to the north and south. Horseback tours, available at the southern end of Amelia Island, sometimes clop by; fishermen flock to this relatively deserted stretch, and camping is permitted in summer.

The stretch of coastline controlled by the town is, like the beaches on the rest of Amelia Island, made up of fine white sand that gets sprinkled with sharks’ teeth and fossils for about two hours before and after a tide change. You can almost always see locals out hunting and gathering these in the morning and afternoon.

Kindly, Fussy Bangaman (And Other Russian English)

Creative English is a worldwide phenomenon; Japanese tee-shirts or Indian shop signs written in it have been the subject of articles ad-nauseum.

But there’s a charm to the English spoken in Russia that must be mentioned. Often times – especially with names that go on forever – it’s simply a holdover from the USSR days: the ” Leningrad Order of Lenin Metropolitan Subway System Named After V I Lenin” springs to mind.

Sometimes it’s the Russian compunction when speaking the English to pepper the sentences with the articles so missing in the Russian: ” Tomorrow I am going to the Moscow” said one friend, whom we all dubbed ” The Daniel’.

But Russian English is its best when trying to be showy, especially in advertising. ” Two crumpled eggs served from the frying,” is how one menu (which gave a translator credit to a ” Dr of Philology’) temptingly described an omelette.

Pizza Pronto holds that it has a ” Comfortably and cozy atmosphere! Real hospitality of the personal!E’

Restaurant Austeria’s ad claims it’s ” probably the oldest resturant in the city and becouse of it “Austeria” suggesting you the traditional Russian cooking. Big choice at drinks and foods, not higt pricesure making “Austeria” a wonderfull places for lunch and dinner’

‘Bank MANATEP St Petersburg’, weE’re told, ” Invites to collaborate artificial personos and offers a wide range of banking services.’

Safety instructions are usually good for a laugh; the ” Rules of the Lift” in the lifts of the Pribaltiskaya Hotel warn that ” the cabin arriving at the floor produces both the light and sound signals; the light signal indicates further direction of the cabin but the direction of the cabin cannot be changed by pushing the buttons.’

Runner up for best Russian English appeared in the ” English’-language magazine St Petersburg Today. This is the introductory paragraph under the headline ” Our Advice” – not one word has been omitted:

“How is it possible then to know in which direction the numbers increase? Turn left of the building Number 20 and go straight. There is your building Number 40. Accordingly, if you are standing on the opposite side of the street, right side to the building, the beginning of the street is behind your back.”

But the winner in town is this sign, in the window of Pivnoy Klub, a small beer bar in Central St Pete, which promises the following:

“Only here country primitive kitchen all in the nature fire welcome to kindly fussy Bangaman.”

I collect these things, so if you find any more of these in your travels, please send them in to me.

I’m always on the lookout for the few new fussy Bangamans.

Blacks Fight To Block Developers, Save Heritage

When MaVynee Betsch heard developers’ plans to build a golf course and luxury housing here, she went to the media and stirred what has become a cauldron of local and national controversy.

During segregation this was Florida’s only beach resort for blacks. Betsch (whose first name is pronounced May-Veen) is the great-granddaughter of the beach’s founder.

“This place is a part of black heritage and culture, and they can’t just take that away,” said Betsch, exultant in the afterglow of recent sympathetic coverage on National Public Radio and in USA Today. The debate centers on a parcel of land sold during bankruptcy proceedings in the 1980s by the Afro-American Insurance Co., which provided the funding for the establishment of American Beach.

That land is owned by the Amelia Island Co., which also owns a nearby luxury resort, Amelia Island Plantation. The Amelia Island Co. wants to build 50 to 60 luxury single-family homes and a five-hole golf course.

But Betsch and other residents say the firm is trying to squeeze them off the land, thus robbing African-Americans of an important cultural and historic landmark.

American Beach is a featured stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, which, according to Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, is a guide to “landmark sites representing black contributions” to the state’s heritage.

Representative Bill Moore denies the Amelia Island Co. is doing anything discriminatory or unfair and cites compromises and reductions in scope of the proposed development. He points out that the development would be at the south end of the existing community of American Beach, not on it.

Amelia Island residents of all backgrounds are divided. One 17-year resident of Amelia Island Plantation suggests the fight is about publicity, and that the area is so unsafe and unsightly that development is essential.

American Beach homeowner Franklin Bell says he has nothing against development in general, but he “worries about encroachment and displacement.”

That worry is the crux of the argument: When does compromise become surrender? While Betsch and others call for a return of the land to the community, Moore points out that Afro-American Insurance did indeed sell the property, and that the Amelia Island Co. has every right to develop on it if the firm abides by local and state regulations.

But Rita Kovacevich, a Fernandina Beach resident, says she understands why American Beach residents feel that if they acquiesce now, they may lose everything later. And she agrees that preservation of the beach is important.

“This island,” Kovacevich says, “does not need another private golf course. It would be a shame to think that the charm that attracted us here at first – the homogenous, small-town feel with no one being pushed down – has disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Betsch is applying to have American Beach placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

An American Pilot In Europe

Flying over the verdant rolling hills of the Italian countryside, circling the ancient hilltop village of Urbino (birthplace of the painter Raphael), I looked at my wife, Corinna, and remembered just what it was that made me want to get that licence in the first place.

Every year, while thousands of licensed American pilots vacation abroad, few think of exploring the European skies. But in much of Europe, US pilots can easily rent a plane and make daytime VFR flights as Pilot In Command.

The linguistically challenged will be able to communicate: ATC, rental companies, instructors and even ATIS and AWAS all communicate in English.

A walletful of greenbacks doesn’t hurt. Anyone who’s ever filled up in a European gas station knows fuel prices over here are out of Mad Max: avgas runs about US$5.25 (you read that right, over five bucks a gallon). Hourly prices for plane rental can be almost double what they are in the States.

But what’s the price tag on an aerial trip up the Rhine, over Stonehenge, or around a castle? It’s the trip of a lifetime.

GETTING THE BASICS
The ICAO Chicago Convention says licensees from contracting states (including all European nations and the USA) are permitted to fly in other contracting states. The issue of national sovereignty is touchy in Europe, but if you have a valid FAA PPL and current medical certificate, you’re generally permitted to make daytime VFR flights.

In the UK and Holland, you can walk in to any flight school or Aero Club (as they’re called here) and after a checkout, rent a plane and zoom off into the sunset (though one zooms slightly differently over here. See Tips, below).

More rigidly legislated countries (like Germany, France and Spain), have red tape worthy of a Maastricht Treaty, but some advance work on your part can clear the way, at a minimum of fuss and expense, to recognition of your American PPL.

And good news: a certificate of recognition from any European Union member state is honored in all others.

So if you’re visiting, say, Germany, Spain and Italy, a certificate from one will be honored in any other. And best of all, the renter – usually a flight school or aero club that’s dealt with this situation before – will often assist with the paperwork as part of the rental fee. They will guide you through the process of getting a locally recognized “holiday license”.

You’ll usually need to send notarized copies of your PPL, medical, recent pages from your logbook, and your passport. Some countries, like Spain, also require a passport photo, so check whether you’ll need to send those.

Bring all of those items on your trip, too. And while we’re on what to bring, remember this: most planes here come equipped with just two headphones, so bring extra headphones if you’ll need them.

If you’re headed to the UK, Holland or Germany you can start checking into rentals and making reservations as little as a week before you arrive, but if you’re off to other countries start about six weeks in advance.

RENTALS
Renting a plane is almost as easy as it is in the USA, but there are differences. The best bet is to research using the search engines at flying websites, or by picking up flying magazines from the UK, such as Flyer (http://www.flyer.co.uk) or Pilot (http://www.hiway.co.uk). The back of these mags are packed with ads for flying schools, which almost always rent their airplanes.

Shop around! On a recent check of airports around Europe, I found major differences in rental prices, even in the same country. For example, I called Wycombe Air Centre (tel 011-44-149-444-3737), about 20 miles from Central London, and was quoted a price of 126 pounds (US$196) for a C-152 with an instructor, and 97 pounds (US$155) an hour for just the plane, wet, timing from brakes off to brakes on, including VAT (the notorious Value Added Tax). It was about US$10 extra for a C-172 with or without an instructor.

But a call to Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), about 10 miles from London’s Stansted Airport, got quotes of 89.50 pounds (US$143) with an instructor and 75 pounds (US$120) without for a C-152, and 102 pounds (US$163) with and 93 pounds (US$149) without for a C-172, on the same terms.

The Pesaro Aero Club in Fano, Italy (tel 011-3907-2180-3941), demanded the most I’ve ever laid out: US$210 for an hour and 40 minutes of flying, including 40 minutes with the instructor for the checkout, in a C-152.

The Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers, in Saint Maur, France, (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813) wanted 900 francs (US$138) with a (French language) instructor, and 744 francs (US$114) without one for a C-172.

But it can be cheaper (just a bit more than in the USA): Munich Flyers at Augsburg Airport, 45 minutes outside Munich (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761), gets DM240 (US$126) for a C-172 with an instructor, and DM 177 (US$95) without, including fuel, from wheels up to wheels down.

THE CHECKOUT
On that trip I took to Italy, I literally followed the low-flying planes I saw from the coastal road to the Pesaro Aero Club, on a grass strip just south of the city of Rimini. Showing my PPL and Medical at the flight school office, a teacher and I set off on a 40-minute checkout (really more of a brush-up on soft field landings and a lengthy description of the local airspace) and then I was off on my own, for a one-hour tour of the whole area.

A German instructor named Tom told me that he checks out people all the same way, even if it’s obvious they’ve been flying for years or are newly licensed.

“We do two traffic patterns,” he said, “to check their radio skills and landings, and then head for our practice area, where we do power-off and power-on stalls and steep turns. If they handle all that right, they’re on their own – and if not, they do an hour or two of brush-up lessons.”

I enjoy the rental checkride as much for the local air tour I get as I do for learning the different ways people teach flying in different countries (for example, in Germany, Tom wanted to see just the barest hint of an impending power-on stall, while my Italian instructor demanded – and demonstrated – something out of Snoopy and the Red Baron!).

The rental checkride is so important here because local regulations are dictated by many more idiosyncrasies and customs than in the USA. In the UK for example, noise abatement is so strict that procedures like, “On takeoff, make a right turn at 300 feet and head for the treeline before ascending,” and, “On downwind, approach from south of the village and then scoot round the village to the right and turn left again when you see the pub,” are more common than not.

And in Germany, where takeoffs and landings even on privately owned farms require clearance, strictly – even Germanly – regimented exits and entrances to the airport vicinity are required, using map points with names like Whiskey One and Echo One, as well as local conventions that aren’t even marked on the maps (see the box)!

The rental checkride’s good for learning all these, but even better is a visit to the tower. If you plan ahead, you can make the visit when you arrive – get off the commercial flight and head upstairs for a half-hour chat with the controllers. They’ll fill you in on restrictions, give you local flying tips, telephone numbers for weather forecasts, useful web addresses and tell you where you can buy charts of the area locally.

LANDING FEES
Most Americans are horrified to learn that practically every single airfield in Europe charges some sort of landing fee. In most airports it’s waived if you’re taking a local flight, but if you take a day trip to somewhere, be prepared to fork over anywhere from US$10 to US$25 in landing fees at the destination airport.

SOME TIPS
“The airspace is fairly restricted here compared to the USA,” said Carol Cooper, Chief Flying instructor at Andrewsfield Aviation.

“For your own sake, study the map, and the airspace where you can and can’t go – which is much different around here.

“Experience obviously matters, and radio navaids can help, but England’s a small place, and you’ve got to watch your proximity to Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick,” she continued, referring to the fact that all those airports’ airspace is completely off-limits to VFR pilots in single-engine planes without a special VFR clearance.

Which you almost certainly won’t get!

Noise abatement rules dictate that you avoid town centers and other populated areas.

Radio work is also different, and Europeans seem to think the American practice of repeating the last three registration numbers as acknowledgment of an ATC directive just a bit too, well…American! You’re expected to repeat all the instructions given you by ATC, each and every time.

And finally, if you’ll be travelling outside larger cities, brush up on your soft-field landings and takeoffs: many airports have grass strips.

MORE INFORMATION
Note that anywhere in Europe your American license gives you the same rights at you have at home if you are flying in an N-registered (US-owned and registered) aircraft. Regardless of registration, you need no holiday license or any additional paperwork other than your valid PPL, valid medical and pilot’s logbook to fly as PIC from the UK or the Netherlands (Holland) – even if you land in another country.

For other countries you will often need a holiday license, recognizing your American license. The most straightforward agency to deal with in Europe is Germany’s Regierung Oberbayern Luftamt Suedbayern, Maximillianstrasse 39, 80538 Munich (tel 011-4989-2176-2523). Send them a letter, telling them the dates of your travel in Europe, a request for a Holiday License and photocopies of your PPL, Medical Certificate and the most recent page of your logbook, along with a copy of the data pages of your passport. The holiday license they will send you (Bescheinigung ueber die Allgemeine Anerkennung eines auslaenden Lueftfahrerscheins; allow four weeks for processing) is good for six months and costs about US$30. It is valid everywhere in Western Europe, allowing you to rent nationally registered planes.

In France, contact Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile (tel 011-331-5809-4321, fax 011-331-5809-3636), License Office, 50 rue Henri Farman, 75015 Paris

Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), Saling Airfield, Stebbing, Dunmow, Essex CM6 3TH England

Munich Flyers Flugschule, GmbH, (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761) Hochederstrasse 2, 81545 Muenchen, Germany

Pesaro Aero Club (tel 011-3907-2180-3941) Via Dela Colonna 130, Fano, Italy 61032

Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813), 36250 Saint Maur, France

Where are the Nuclear Wessles?

subphotoI’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.

‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a “Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.

The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t “very closed” .

After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (“Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.

The “fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.

The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.

A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.

“Hi!” I said, with a smile, “May I take a photograph”

The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, “Why not?”

There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.

I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.

He smiled again and said, “Of course, go right up.”

I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.

On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.

“What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.

“He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.

The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, “You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”