Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sacramento, California: State Capitol

Most states have an impressive Capitol building, if only to copy the big one in Washington. California's version in Sacramento certainly qualifies.

It was judged completed in 1874, although the building was partially occupied in the years before that. It also has been fixed up a couple of times on a massive basis, the latter coming in the late 1970's.

Tourists can take a tour and see the place. It ends in the Governor's office, although he didn't come out to greet us. But they also get to see the paintings on a wall, which no doubt grabbed your attention.

One of the lobbies has pictures of the last several governors. On the far left of the hall is Ronald Reagan. The painting looks like a photograph. He's on the grounds, looks great with a big smile. You'd want to vote for him just for that. And next to him is Jerry Brown, whose official portrait is a bit more, um, minimalist. It could have been done in crayon. Almost worth the tour just to see those two paintings.

Sacramento, California: Old Sacramento

Old Sacramento dates back to the Gold Rush days. When prospectors came around 1849 -- ever hear of the 49ers? -- Sacramento grew quickly as an outpost leading into the hills. Old Sacramento grew up a few blocks on each side of the river.

Fast forward, now, to the 1970's, when the city decided to restore the historic district. The Sacramento city fathers obviously have put some time and money into the place, and it seems to be working reasonably well. There are shops in the area, restaurants, museums, boats -- even a couple of hotels.

San Francisco, California: Cable Cars

It's not easy to get around San Francisco ... and it wasn't easy in 1873 either, when the roads weren't in perfect shape. That's when cable cars were introduced to the city, and they never left.

The cable cars came close to disappearing. The 1906 earthquake damaged the system, so that was a good time to install electric street cars. Then there was talk of doing away with them in 1947, but the public voted to save the system. In 1964 it was designated as a moving national landmark. Now it's a must for every first-time visit to San Francisco.

You might say it's a San Francisco treat to ride it. Ding ding!

San Francisco, California: Fisherman's Wharf

Visitors coming to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco expect to have a choice of great sea food, and they do. There is a variety of markets and restaurants in the area that keep diners coming back. There are also museums, boat rides, and a number of other attractions.

Yeah, but you'll probably remember the sea lions more than anything else. They hang out at the end of Pier 39, and their barking can be heard throughout the area.


San Francisco, California: Alcatraz

Alcatraz has great views of San Francisco, and plenty of privacy. But you wouldn't want to spend 20 years to life there.

This might be America's most famous prison. It was open for more than a century, closing in 1963 when it became twice as expensive to operate as any other prison. Alcatraz served its purpose. Since it's in the middle of San Francisco Bay and its strong ocean currents, no one escaped from there.

Indians occupied the building for more than a year starting in 1969. In fact, you can still see the graffiti from that event on the walls. The occupation is a large part of the tour, which goes through the various parts of the prison. You can even have a door slam behind you in a cell, if you dare.

Two movie stories about Alcatraz: When we visited, "The Rock" was being filmed, so the exercise yard was filled with lights and props. No Sean Connery sightings, though.

Supposedly, George Lucas taped the sound of doors closing from here, and used it in "Star Wars."

Sequoia National Park, California: General Sherman Tree

Say hello to the world's largest living tree.

In fact, it could be the world's largest living thing, but scientists aren't sure whether some huge underground fungi complexes are technically bigger. But if the tree wants the claim, I'm not going to argue.

The General Sherman (the crew that worked on access to the area used to serve under the Civil War leader) Tree checks in at 2.7 million pounds, and its circumference is 102.6 feet. The museum has a stat about how many thousands of basketballs you could fit into the thing.

And it's still growing. It will catch that darn fungus yet.

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Sequoia National Park, California: The Sentinel

The Giant Forest Museum has a rather large "welcome mat" in front of it -- this tree called the Sentinel. It checks in at about 270 feet.

The fun part, though, comes on the pavement in front of the museum. There are markings to indicate just how long 270 feet is. It's almost a football field. It's a good way of showing just how big these trees really are. There are other sequoias in the grove by the museum, so it's an easy hike to see them.

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Sequoia National Park, California: Moro Rock

Feel like going up a few steps?

Moro Rock is the place to do it. The Rock juts out a bit into the canyon formed by the middle fork of the Kaweah River. After going up 355 steps (I counted), which luckily has some railings because you'll need them, you'll get to see one of the most spectacular views in the park.

These mountains are actually the divide of the Sierra Nevadas, as in on one side the water goes to the Pacific and the on the other side it goes toward Nevada. Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 United States, is part of this range, although it takes a hike to see if when visiting this part of Sequoia National Park.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Stockton, California: Asparagus Festival

It must be the biggest event of the year in downtown Stockton -- the annual Asparagus Festival.

Thousands jam into the center of town in April to engage in all sorts of activities -- visit exhibits, take paddleboats into the river, listen to music, and of course eat asparagus. The line for fried asparagus is a little daunting, but it doesn't seem to stop anyone.

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Venice, California: "White Man Can't Jump" Courts

If you take one of the tour buses that hit the attractions of Southern California, you'll visit Venice Beach. And the guy on the intercom/driver will tell you that the above setting was where the basketball scenes from "White Men Can't Jump" were filmed. The space was a parking lot, but it was converted into courts and apparently have stayed that way.

We drove past pretty early on the tour, which perhaps explains why there is no game going on. Or, the players looked in the sky and figured out it might rain.

Yosemite National Park, California: Glacier Point

From the bottom of the Yosemite Valley, it takes a while to drive up to Glacier Point. There are some bends in the road, and the scenery is mostly trees.

Then you arrive at the top and forget about that. It is very possible to hike up to Glacier Point or, better yet, go down hill. No matter how you get there, though, you should get there. Sorry about the shadows in the picture above.

By the way, during our visit we found a pay phone by the rest rooms at the point. So we did the logical thing -- called our mothers and tried to describe the view.

Yosemite National Park, California: El Capitan

You shouldn't take places like this for granite.


El Capitan is one of the highlights of Yosemite. It's the largest granite mountain in the world, going 3,000 feet straight up. El Capitan is an impressive site from anywhere in the valley.

That being the case, imagine what it's like to climb it. Many do, as it is an excellent challenge no matter where you climb it.

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Yosemite National Park, California: Ahwahnee Hotel

When Yosemite Village was in its infancy, developers thought that it was important to have a first-class hotel in order to lure wealthy guests (as if the part itself wasn't enough of an attraction). Therefore, the Ahwahee was constructed.

No one argues that they didn't succeed. It's a lovely place, surrounded by the mountains near the end of the valley. It was built to fit in to the surroundings. If you look at it from a distance and above, it really is difficult to pick it out.

The shot is the famous dining room, with big windows for spectacular views. It's pricey for most, but you should at least have breakfast here if you are in the area.

Yosemite National Park, California: Half Dome

There are few mountains that can be instantly recognized because of their shape. This is one of them. Half Dome looks like it was split in two somewhere along the way, but it really wasn't. That's just the shape of the mountain at this point.

You took can take this dramatic photo while visiting Yosemite. There's a meadow near the Ahwahnee Hotel. Take a walk to the middle and look up. This is the view. Aim and shoot.

Yosemite National Park, California: Mirror Lake

You see photos in travel books in which it is difficult to tell which end is up because of the reflection in the water. These shots are easier than you'd think.

Here's an example of this -- the appropriately named Mirror Lake. Find the right shot, put the top of the water at the halfway point of the picture, and shoot. Hard to mess this up. You might want to hurry, though. The lake is slowly draining and eventually will become a meadow.

Yosemite National Park, California: Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil Fall is a heck of a welcome to the Yosemite Valley. You can see it here above from an overlook as you approach it from the northwest, full of spring's fury.

Yosemite National Park, California: Tunnel View

For those coming into Yosemite Valley from the south, they drive for about an hour and wonder what all the fuss is about. They then go through a tunnel and pull into a parking lot.

This is what greets them. Everyone takes this photo; do an Internet search for the picture in winter, in storms, in sunshine. But it's pretty good as it is here. That's Bridalveil Falls to the right.

Doesn't look like anyone's home, does it?

Yosemite National Park, California: Fallen Monarch

There sure are some big trees in California. Yosemite has some in Mariposa Grove, near the South Entrance.

This is a good way to demonstrate just how big these trees are. Fallen Monarch died and fell over a while ago. This way, you can see the size of the roots. Yes, those are people in the background. And note how far the tree goes back into the distance.


Yosemite National Park, California: Grizzly Giant

It's easy to turn your camera sideways a lot in Marapose Grove. But it's still tough to get the big Sequoia trees completely in the picture.

Meet Grizzly Giant, not the tallest tree in the Grove but it is the largest. The tree is 30 feet around at its base.

Note the people at the bottom. This is one big tree.

Yosemite National Park, California: California Tunnel Tree

This gets blown up extra big so that visitors can see the bottom. You really can see through the bottom of this tree. What's more, you can walk through it.

The tunnel was cut in 1895. As you'd expect, everyone who goes either poses for a picture at the opening or takes that picture. The tree doesn't seem to mind a bit.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Gunnison National Park, Colorado: Black Canyon

The Gunnison River eventually joins to Colorado River, and it does some carving of the landscape along the way. Visitors to one of the newest of our national parks get to see some of the oldest rocks on earth. They ae dark, which explains the name of the place. The views are pretty impressive, such as the one from the overlook pictured above.

We stayed on the south side of the river, bouncing along from spot to spot and actually going down a winding road to the water level at one point. (It's a great test for a rental car's breaks.) The north side also is nice but not as developed. Some of the roads are not paved.

The picture shows the top of the gorge and the interesting rock formations just below it. I sure do miss my panoramic camera; you can't find them in stores any more.

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Black Hawk, Colorado

Black Hawk dates back to the 19th century, when gold was discovered in the region. It and Central City are tucked into a little valley in the Rockies. Once Boom Town ran out, the town remained. What to do?

Open some casinos, of course. That's what the town did in 1991. You can argue that it certainly changed the nature of the town. You also can argue that it had little to lose. The plan worked in the sense that tax money came rolling in, buildings were preserved, and people came back.

There isn't much room for parking in the valley, but there are plenty of shuttles from the parking lots.

Breckenridge, Colorado

Breckenridge is one of Colorado's top ski areas. There's a huge complex for skiing in the Rocky Mountains, and the town itself is practically exactly the way you might picture a ski-based village. There are plenty of recreational opportunities year-round, such as snowmobiling, golf, rafting, etc.

But here's the catch: Breckenridge is up in the mountains. Way up. And you know what that means. It can snow at any time.

If you'll notice the date stamp in the bottom right corner of the above photo, you'll see 6-7-03. I woke up early one morning, looked outside at 6:30 a.m., and was greeted with three inches of snow. This is the view from outside of the hotel. As you can, it's beautiful, but a little surprising for a summer vacation.

By the way, the snow melted by 10 that morning as the temperature went back above freezing. Nice of the town to give us a winter welcome, even in June.

Colorado Springs, Colorado: Air Force Academy Chapel

This is one of the best pictures on the site, architecture division. The Chapel at the Air Force Academy is known throughout the world for its distinctive look.

Visitor access is limited on the grounds, in part because of 9/11. My guess is that tourists can drop in on the chapel, visitor center and gift shop, but you might want to check in advance.

Colorado Springs, Colorado: Garden of the Gods

Two surveyors are walking around the area shown above in 1859. One suggests that it would be a great place for a beer garden. The other, apparently the more serious of the two, says it's fit for the gods. So it became the Garden of the Gods, a prime stop while visiting Colorado Springs.

The place has been a public park since 1909, although it has been open to the public for an even longer period. It is located at the base of Pike's Peak. A movie is shown at the visitors' center that explains of geology of the region.

Don't be surprised if you start humming "America the Beautiful" when you are in the area.

Durango, Colorado: Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Million Dollar Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the nation; it makes a loop in a particularly scenic portion of the Rockies. Here's the good news -- you don't have to drive all of it.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad will take you in places that the road doesn't go, and the views are excellent in spots (like the one shown, it's a long drop to the river). The "narrow gauge" refers to the size of the track.

If you are considering this trip, here's a travel tip: only take the train one way. The coal-fired locomotive is a bit hot and sooty, and the return trip merely goes on the same track in the opposite direction. You can buy a ticket that will get you via train to Silverton in the morning, give you time to look around and eat lunch (it's a quaint little place that lives off tourism), and then take a bus back to Durango. You'll see some different views on the way back, and it's quicker.

Fairplay, Colorado: Shorty and Bum

The good people of Fairplay, Colorado, sure know how to honor their favorite animals, according to Roadside America. Start with Prunes, a burro that worked in the mines for decades. He's honored by the display shown; his collar is underglass.

Shorty, meanwhile, was a burro that was virtually adopted by the community. Bum was a dog that hung around Shorty whenever possible. When Shorty died, Bum was so down that he plopped down on the grave and wouldn't move. When Bum died, the two animals were buried together.

This is all in the town square. It doesn't take long to drive around Fairplay to find it, as you might expect.

If you are driving into the Rockies and not taking the Interstate (such as on a trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park), this is a good place to stretch a bit. And congratulations on doing your homework and finding out about this place before you left.

Grand Junction, Colorado: Colorado National Monument

A National Monument is like a National Park, but not quite as good. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference, like during a visit to the Colorado National Monument.

It's located right outside of Grand Junction in Western Colorado, and has a variety of canyons and monoliths formed by erosion over the years. Rim Rock Drive does exactly what you'd expect -- it's the old "pull over, get out, gawk, take a picture, and get in, and drive away" type of journey. It's pretty spectacular, too.

Pictured is the so-called Coke Ovens -- ugly and beautiful all at the same time. It's all definitely worth the stop if you are in the area.

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Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

About 750 years ago, a civilization lived in what is now Southwest Colorado. The people there were smart enough to build dwellings on the inside of cliffs, blocking out the hot sun of the summer and the cold winds of the winter. It's the oldest known "city" in the United States. Around 1276, a drought hit, and after several years of "dry" weather the residents decided there had to be a better place to live. So they left.

It took hundreds of years for later settlers to even find the place, and a few more to figure out that the place needed protection from scavengers. So, it became known as Mesa Verde National Park. Scientists are finding out new information about the region all the time.

It's possible to tour the best sites (like the Cliff Palace, shown), although it can only be done through a guided tour. There are some warnings connected to a few of the tours; you'll need to go up and down ladders and squeeze through narrow passages in spots. Still, it's remarkable to see how well the remains have held up all these years later.

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Morrison, Colorado: Red Rocks Amphitheater

It's a little tough to get the beauty of this place in a Web page this size, but this picture gives you a little idea. The amphitheater was carved out of the sandstone without a great deal of work.

A concert here must be a wonderful experience. Practically everyone has played here at one time or another; perhaps you remember U2's live CD from here.

You can walk around the facility when there's no concert. In fact, when we were there a few amateurs took the stage and played some music just to see what it was like.

This is in Red Rocks Park, which is quite impressive in its own right. Worth the drive from Denver to Morrison.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

It's difficult to avoid seeing wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park, located north of Denver along the Continental Divide. The elk come out of the hills at dusk in the fall, as its mating season. Pick up the camera, aim and shoot. It's simple to get a shot like the one above.

As is usual with national parks, there are some drives with spectacular scenery. You can get above the tree line and see the Rockies in all their glory.

You're right - one photo isn't enough.

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Telluride, Colorado

Telluride started out life as a little mining town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. You can still see some evidence of it in the countryside.

However, somewhere along the line Telluride turned into a resort. The amount of land that's flat in town is pretty small, so you can imagine what it's like to buy property there. You don't have to be Oprah, but it helps. Then again, the views -- like the one above looking down the main street -- are pretty good. There's the usual golf and skiing in the area, as well as music and jazz festivals. It's a great place to visit, even if you wouldn't want to pay a mortgage there.

Ledyard, Connecticut: Foxwoods

Raise your hand if you thought 30 years ago that Ledyard, Connecticut, would host the world's largest casino.

What, no hands?

It's tough to tell if this or Las Vegas is a more unlikely place for such a huge facility, but Foxwoods obviously is here to stay. It's grown to an incredible size in its relatively short history, and is becoming more of a resort than just a place to lose dimes and quarters at the slot machines. You should at least walk through the place once if you are nearby.

Mystic, Connecticut: Mystic Pizza

Welcome to downtown Mystic's most popular spot for lunch. Or so it seems.

The lines were long during our visit. This may be due to the fact that there are few places for a fast lunch in downtown Mystic. Or, it's because tourists come to see the place which was used as the name for a movie, best known as the film that turned Julia Roberts into a star.

Or, a combination of the two.

Julia, a large pepperoni to go, please.

Mystic, Connecticut: Mystic Seaport

The idea behind Mystic Seaport is to recreate a 19th century fishing village. You'd have to say it succeeds at that. There are a variety of shops, buildings, etc. on the grounds and even a couple of museums. You can even see a ship being restored.

The stars of the show, though are the big ships. The Charles W. Morgan is the latest wooden whaling ship left, while the L.A. Dunton and Joseph Conrad also can be explored.

Mystic Seaport has its charms, particularly in terms of location. However, it reminded me a bit of Dearborn Village and Williamsburg. In other words, there's a good chance that some children of all ages might find it a little dull. So do a little reading about it before plunking down admission for the whole family.

Wilmington, Delaware: Winterthur

What did the wealthy do with their money? In the case of Henry Francis du Pont, spend it on your modest piece of land. And then when you die, have someone charge admission to see how you lived. That's Winterthur, an impressive complex outside of Wilmington.

This runs 979 acres and has the required big house, spacious garden area and tram rides around the complex. Less required but still interesting is the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens (look it up).

"What else do the simple folks do?"

Wilmington, Delaware: Old Swedes Church

Care to guess what the oldest church in America that's still used as a church is? That's right - Old Swedes Church (now formally called Holy Trinity) in Wilmington, Delaware. It was constructed in 1698-99. The church served as the center of life for the Swedish community in the pre-Colonial days. The yard around it serves as a cemetery.

The pulpit, pictured below, is the oldest in the United States. The dove above it is a gift from Sweden.

Drop by the south porch and say hello to Charles Springer (1658-1738), one of the church's founders. He might turn out to be a relative.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Washington, D.C.: Korean Memorial

It took a while for Congress to get around to erecting a memorial for those who served in the Korean War. Someone did a nice job on it when it was finally completed, though.

Pictured above are several soldiers going through an area resembling rice paddies. Nearby is a wall of images from the conflict.

As you can see from the picture above, it is relatively close to the Lincoln Memorial in the mall. Definitely worth a stop.

Washington, D.C. Supreme Court

No matter how tough he or she is, every lawyer in the country must have gotten a little nervous when walking up these steps. Entrances don't get too much more impressive than this, which fits the Supreme Court of the United States.

Inside, there are a few exhibits on the history of the court. There is public seating if the court is in session, and it's on a first come/first served basis. So if you like a good argument, you might want to check ahead to see if a case is on the docket.

By the way, how come the verb "render" is only used with the Supreme Court?

Washington, D.C. Garfield Statue

Some Americans don't even know that James Garfield was President of the United States, let alone assassinated in office. His statue isn't exactly on the list of must-see locations on Washington.

Still, it's nice to have this tribute to someone who paid the ultimate price for serving his country. And as you can see, it's in a pretty nice location. Take a moment if you are walking on the Mall and see for your self.

Washington, D.C.: Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is one of America's most beautiful and inspiring buildings. It's located on the Mall in Washington, and is a worthy tribute to one of our greatest Presidents.

I'll shut up now.

Washington, D.C.: Ford's Theater

President Lincoln was a lover of the theater, as he often went to see a play during his time in Washington. Therefore, it was only natural that he went to Ford's Theater shortly after the Civil War ended.

You know what happened next. John Wilkes Booth entered the room shown above, shot the President, and jumped on to the stage. Lincoln was taken across the street, where he died.

Ford's Theater is still open for business, decorated in a 19th century style. It was renovated in 2009. The basement has exhibits on Lincoln and the assassintation, and talks are given throughout the day on the act.

Washington, D.C.: Roosevelt Memorial

The Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, located along the Tidal Basin, is one of the newest historic locations in Washington. What's first striking about a visit is that it's a long tribute physically, going on and on ... some joked, just like his Presidency.

But that's fine, as it's still a nice tribute to one of the great Presidents of the 20th century. The memorial is split into outdoor rooms of sorts. Shown above is the one dedicated to World War II; that's dog Fala at FDR's side.

It's interesting that Roosevelt is shown in a wheelchair in one of the displays, since he never appeared in public that way. Political correctness or recognition of reality? That's up for you to decide.

Washington, D.C.: Oval Office

Yes, it's really oval.

The Oval Office is where the President of the United States works in the White House, and this is what part of it looked like during the Clinton Administration. It's a little intimidating being in the room, if only when all of the important decisions made in that room over the years come to mind. Be sure to note the Presidential seal on the carpet.

Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institute

The Smithsonian does a wonderful job of collecting a variety of items representing America. There are historically significant items such as flags that are more than 200 years old and a replica of the first atomic bomb.

Then there are pop culture items, like Fonzie's jacket from "Happy Days." It's easy to figure that everyone takes this picture -- the chairs that the Bunkers used in "All in the Family." You can almost hear Archie saying, "Get out of the chair, Edith."

Washington, D.C. White House Press Briefing Room

You've seen the picture about 8,000 times a year -- the President, the press secretary or some top aides briefs the media on an important matter at the White House. You can hear the reporters' questions, but you can't see the rest of the room.

Here's what the view from the podium is like. In fairness, it's probably be re-done a few times since this photo was taken in 1996. Still, you can tell there's not much room in there. There are small spaces in the rooms in the back for the media to work individually. And that's ex-Buffalo Sabre Dave Hannan taking a picture in the middle of this shot, with ex-coach Ted Nolan just behind him.

Daytona Beach, Florida: Daytona USA

The owners of Daytona International Speedway probably figured, if people wanted to come see the place year-round, why not give them something to see? Daytona USA is the answer. It's a small motorsports theme park with plenty of activities that should keep the kids pretty entertained.

The entrance, shown here, has a statue in tribute to Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in an accident there. There was a constant line of photographers taking a shot of the statue. Inside is an IMAX Theater, a simulated drive, pit stop demonstrations, trivia games, the last winning car of the Daytona 500, etc.

The best part, though, is a tour of the track itself. Those 31-degree banks in the turns look terrorizing in person. You also get to stand in Victory Lane -- another treat.

Daytona Beach, Florida: Jackie Robinson Ballpark

The integration of major league baseball after World War II had several small milestones, and not just the big ones like Jackie Robinson's contract signing and first big league game. His first integrated game took place in Daytona Beach, and the city fathers there have decided to honor the event. The Class A ballpark is named after Robinson, and a statue shows him reaching out to some local children.

Nice job, Daytona Beach.

Disney World, Florida: Christmas Lights Display

Visit Disney World in December, and you'll read about a light display. Yeah, yeah, yeah, how good can that be? Oh, right, it's done by Disney, which took over a display by the Osborne family. (No, not Ozzy.)

So the typical tourist rounds the corner to the urban movie set, Christmas music comes out of the speakers, snow comes from the rooftops, and five million lights in the distance welcome you. The effect is breath-taking.

The lights are only turned on for a short period of time after dusk, so make sure you are there on time. You can thank me later.

Fort Myers, Florida: Edison and Ford Winter Estates

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were two of the biggest names in America about 100 years ago. Edison was famous for his inventions, while Ford became a business magnate. The two men became friends along the way, and Ford decided to set up a winter home right next to Edison's place in Fort Myers.

Therefore, it's easy to tour both places at once. The gardens are nicely maintained and pretty spectacular. Above, you can see Edison's winter lab. Apparently he didn't do much vacationing there. Ford's house has been restored to the way it was in the 1920's; there are even some vintage cars in the garage.