Remembering Rio

By Michelle da Silva Richmond

I often dream about Rio de Janeiro, only my dreams have nothing to do with a desire to travel. They're drawn from recollections I have of growing up there as a child with my parents, who had a long history there before I was born. Although I was only eight when we moved away, their passion for it combined with my early memories left an indelible imprint. Later, as a Pan Am flight attendant I traveled there regularly and somehow, I always felt like I was returning "home." I still do.

The stately Belmond Copacabana Palace has welcomed travelers since 1923

The heat of Rio doesn't come just from the sun, but from the welcome its residents – known as “Cariocas”—give visitors to their city. It is a happy city, filled with laughter and music, but like many large cities it has been plagued by crime but if you take basic precautions, you shouldn't have any trouble.

Lisa Schroeder, author of "Chasing Brooklyn," aptly stated: "The beautiful thing is, music can be like a time machine. One song (the lyrics, the melody, the mood) can take you back to a moment in time like nothing else can.”

So true, and while the lyrics of Carnaval songs learned long ago do that for me, it's the sweet scents, particular to Rio that stir me: the salty surf; the tempting smells emanating from churrascarias as meat is grilled; the rich aroma of earth when I first step outside the airport terminal; freshly brewed coffee at the renowned Confeitaria Colombo, where my mother would take me for pastry.

Pão de Açucar as seen from the neighborhood of Botafogo

For most people, thoughts of Rio conjure up visions of long stretches of beach crammed with beautiful people decked out in skimpy tangas. For others, tales of the renowned and raucous Carnaval, where the samba beat goes on day and night for three days come to mind.

When I was a child the rowdy celebrations took place in local neighborhoods and since we lived in popular Copacabana, they woke us for three nights every time they paraded through our streets. In those days revelers carried cans of ether to spray unsuspecting women into unconsciousness. It was total debauchery. Nowadays, it's more subdued and most of the partying takes place in the Sambadrome (Sambódromo), a stadium designed by Oscar Niemeyer and inaugurated in 1984.

Signature Sights

Then of course, there are those visions of Corcovado, where the impressive statue of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), arms outstretched, watches over Rio from his perch high above the sea.

When the Portuguese first arrived in the 16th century, they named the mountain Pináculo da Tentação (The Pinnacle of Temptation), alluding to the Biblical Mountain. A century later, the mountain was renamed Corcovado, a name derived from its form, which resembles a hump or hunchback. In the 19th century, Vincentian Father Pedro Maria Boss arrived in Rio and suggested the construction of a religious monument, which was inaugurated in 1931.

Copacabana Beach on New Year’s Eve welcomes thousands of revelers

Another signature sight, opened in 1912, is Sugarloaf (Pão de Açucar), which is reached via a series of cable cars taking you to the top of the mountain high above Rio. Once there, you're treated to sweeping vistas of the city, the beaches hugging the Bay of Guanabara, and beyond.

There is no denying its inherent sexiness and natural beauty, but there's more to the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) than sun, sea and samba. Host to the World Soccer Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics, this city has morphed into a sophisticated metropolis boasting excellent museums, scintillating nightspots, a plethora of delicious dining spots and a collection of wildlife, unique attractions and breath-taking sights.

A melting pot of diverse cultures, it offers an interesting peek into traditions musical and otherwise drawn from its rich heritage.

For sun worshippers, the beaches, of course are the main draw with the most publicized: Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema made famous by the hit tune “Girl from Ipanema” leading the list. 

The Sambadrome is now the scene of colorful Carnaval festivities

Nature lovers will be drawn to the Botanical Gardens, (Jardim Botânico) created in 1808 offers an opportunity to get up close and personal with the area’s flora. With more than 8,000 plant species, it has been designated a "Live Museum" and is a popular destination for visitors and residents alike. Another natural beauty is Tijuca Forest, said to be the largest urban forest in the world. 

History buffs will enjoy a tour of Forte de Copacabana, built in 1914 on the promontory of the Our Lady of Copacabana chapel. The fort was one of Rio's premier defenses against attack and you can still see its original features, including the canons and a museum tracing the early days of the Portuguese colony to the mid-19th-century.

The renowned Belmond Copacabana Palace has been a favorite with the glitterati since it opened in 1923. Its privileged location on Copacabana Beach provides the perfect launch pad from which to visit the city’s sights.

It happens to be where I performed my ballet recitals as a child. I remember it as if it were yesterday and the music lives on in my memory, just as Rio does. It is without a doubt a unique destination…at any age and any time of year.

FALL FOR GLAMPING

By Carole Jacobs

Glamping. We’re talking 1,200-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, 5-star cuisine, designer spas, and outdoor pros who can show you the ropes—whether you want to bag a peak, cast a line, paddle a river or fly across the sky like Wendy on a high-altitude zip line.  From California to Maine, seven resorts let you embrace the great outdoors without carving a ridge in your shoulders or getting dirt under your fingernails. With no heavy lifting required, the only thing you really need to pack in is your credit card.

  1. Elk River Guest Ranch, Clark, Colorado

Bex, forefront, the owner of Elk River Lodge, leads a fall horsebacking excursion. Photo courtesy Elk River Guest Ranch.The dirt: Located just north of Steamboat, Elk River ( www.elkrivergr.com) is one of the few guest ranches in the U.S. that is owned and operated by a real cowgirl, Becky “Bex” Damman. Set on 40 pristine acres at 7,520 feet overlooking the rushing Elk River and surrounded on three sides by national forest and the saw-toothed peaks of the Continental Divide, this intimate ranch with room for just 15 guests offers all-inclusive, week-long vacation packages that are highly personalized -- you’ll feel like family within hours.

The ranch is also the perfect place to absorb a Rocky Mountain fall, with crisp mornings, sun-splashed afternoons, never-ending views of aspen torching the evergreen mountains and star-spangled skies.  If you’re looking for a quiet, unpretentious retreat where the Wild West vibe still shines through, and where you’ll have the trails, river, back country, 27 horses and staff all mostly to yourself, you are home.

The digs: Homesteaded in 1902, Elk River was a former summer base camp for miners searching for gold, rubies and diamonds in the local rivers and hills, a former hotel, saloon and horse outfitting business before becoming a guest ranch in the 1950s. Today, Elk River’s quartet of rustic log cabins have one or two bedrooms, living rooms and full kitchens. In the fall, the ranch operates as a B&B; do you own cooking or sign up for a package that includes home-style meals in the historic main lodge.

The doings: Hike trails that climb from the ranch through golden valleys and along rushing rivers, enjoy guided horseback riding and instruction and take an overnight camping trip in the wilds. Or try fly fishing in the Elk River, kayaking on Pearl Lake, white-water rafting/tubing, hot springs soaking at Strawberry Park Hot Springs, swimming at King Solomon Falls and evening entertainment at the Steamboat Pro Rodeo, which includes cowboy singers and campfires.

From Elk River Guest Ranch and Home Ranch, both in Clark, Colorado, it’s an easy drive to spectacular hiking near Steamboat Springs. Photo courtesy of Steamboat SpringsThe grub: “Most people when coming to a guest ranch are not expecting the food to be so good, so they get a pleasant surprise when they get here!” says Bex. “Our food is not your typical ranch fare. We offer a more upscale, healthy experience and cater to special diets. The salmon with maple Dijon glaze, creamy Parmesan orzo and sautéed garlic green beans with peppers is one of my favorite meals!” 

Down time: Head into Steamboat Springs (the ranch has a shuttle), the town is the epitome of Wild West chic where art galleries and eclectic eateries face off from opposite corners of Lincoln Avenue and antique shops, boutiques and stores stock everything you need to pose as a local. Choose from a dozen different takes on Eggs Benedict at the Creekside Café Grill overlooking Soda Creek or do lunch at La Montana, a Southwestern Tex-Mex restaurant serving sunflower seed–crusted tuna and bananas Foster spiked with a medley of Hispanic spices.

Don’t miss:  The Clark (general) Store, located a few miles from the ranch and your one-stop shopping place for anything you might need – from cookies, cosmetics and fishing licenses to craft brews, espresso and gourmet eats at the Clark Store Deli dished up by Home Ranch Chef Clyde Nelson. Have a Gorgonzola Burgers made from all-natural grass-fed cattle sourced from the local Sand Mountain Cattle Company or a salad comprised of fresh greens from the Firefly Farm. Want to mail a letter or need something to read? The local post office and library are both located here, too.

Start here: www.elkrivergr.com

 

2. Home Ranch, Clark, Colorado

For  blazing fall colors and panoramic views from a fire tower, hike Hahn’s Peak near Steamboat, just a short drive from Home Ranch and Elk River Guest Ranch. Photo courtesy of Steamboat Springs.The dirt: This 5-star stunner is Colorado’s only Relais & Chateaux guest ranch the only guest ranch listed in the first edition of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. It’s pricey – but you really want to leave it all to your kids?

Set at 7,300 feet and backed by a million acres of national forest and wilderness, the ranch has been in operation for 30 years and offers all the usual dude ranch doings (guided horseback clinics/riding, fishing, hiking, white-water rafting, kayaking) as well as yoga, gourmet dining with wine pairing (the ranch has its own wine cellar) and all-day children’s and teen programs that include guided outdoor activities, pool parties and overnight camping trips.

The digs: Home Ranch’s drop-dead-gorgeous log cabins (from 1-bedroom cabins with sleeping lofts to 3-bedroom cabins) are the epitome of rustic-chic. Overlooking meadows, aspen and streams and furnished with wood-burning stoves, hot tubs, porches, luxury furnishings and deluxe bedding, they even come with plush robes --Martha would approve. The deluxe lodge rooms are ideal for guests who prefer to be closer to the pool, dining room and library.

Visit Home Ranch in winter for dramatic horseback rides through the snow. Photo courtesy of Home Ranch. The doings: Home Ranch is also open in winter for guided cross-country skiing and skating, snowshoeing, tubing, sleigh rides, winter horseback riding and off-site skiing, snowboarding, dog-sledding and snowmobiling in nearby Steamboat Springs, the home of champagne powder.

The grub: Home Ranch is legendary for its “Colorado Haute Mountain Cuisine,” which revolves around produce, flowers and herbs grown in the ranch’s greenhouses, Home Ranch’s own Sand Mountain Cattle beef, pork and poultry, and fish from local lakes and streams.   During the summer, meals are served in the dining room or at the ranch’s al fresco venues, which include the Farm Kitchen and Campfire Cookout.

Down time: Check out the fall colors (and work off those haute cuisine calories) by taking a hike.  Follow the Elk River through blazing aspen to Three Mile Lake, hike to 280-foot Fish Creek Falls or climb to 10,839-foot Hahn's Peak. An old fire tower at the summit overlooks OMG views.

Don’t miss: Steamboat’s OktoberWest Sept. 15-17 celebrating Colorado brewed ale, local cuisine, food and festivities. The Friday Night Beer Stroll features 45 Rocky Mountain brews or come on Saturday for an all-you-can eat beef cookout, live music and gondola rides.

Start here: www.homeranch.com

 

3. Camp Ogontz, Lyman, New Hampshire

Saddle up for cattle drives, overnight campouts and rodeos at the Cattle Company and become a real-deal wrangler in just a week. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Cattle CompanyThe dirt: Set on a secluded lake in the White Mountains about 134 miles northeast of Manchester Vermont, Camp Ogontz began life as a turn-of-the-century exclusive girls’ camp/finishing school that lured the likes of Amelia Earhart. After falling on hard times, it was resurrected as a music/arts conference and camp in the 1980s. Today, depending on when you visit, your fellow campers could be anyone from classical violinists to members of a tuba convention.  Meanwhile, talk about cheap: For what it would cost you to overnight at a Motel 6, you and two pals or family members can share a rustic cabin and enjoy three home-cooked meals.

The digs: With room for 200 campers, Camp Ogontz has everything from Adirondack-style cabins with roll-down flaps (as walls) and shared bathhouses to luxurious homes like Mountain Meadows and White House that offer premium digs for multiple family members plus plenty of privacy.

The doings:  Go jump in a lake, ply the still waters in a canoe or kayak, hike trails along waterfalls, play tennis or volleyball—or perfect your pastry in a pie-making class.

The grub:  Think farm-to-table sustainable cuisine. Veggies are grown in on-site greenhouses and window boxes, the camp bakery cranks out homemade breads and goodies like hot-from the-oven sticky buns and all-you-can-eat buffet-style dinners feature entrees like stuffed pork tenderloin with pesto vermicelli stuffed tomatoes, gourmet cheeses made by local artisans and home-made blueberry pie.

Down time: Steam-clean in the old-time wood-fired hot tub, roast s’mores at the nightly bon fire, catch lightning bugs in a jar, or sneak into the rehearsal hall and spy on world-class musicians rehearsing for their next gig.

Don’t miss:  For breathtaking fall foliage, head 30 miles to Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park. From late September through early October, deciduous forests blaze orange, gold and red against the gray granite ledges and dark fir trees. Ride the park’s Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway to the top for panoramic views.

Start here: www.campogontz.com

 

4. Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado

During Sylvan Dale’s all-women’s week, you can hike, horseback ride and fly fish and return to the ranch for luxury pampering and gourmet cuisine. Photo courtesy of Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch.The dirt: Nestled on the Eagle and Thompson rivers just a half hour from Rocky Mountain National Park, this historic working cattle guest ranch (1920) offers a slice of the New West – “just like the Old West but a lot more comfortable,” the owners joke. 

The digs: Upscale cabins and historic farm/ranch houses furnished in Western décor overlook flower gardens, giant cottonwoods, towering blue spruce and the rivers.

The doings:  From guided horseback riding and instruction to hiking, bass fishing, white water rafting, an outdoor heated pool, campfires with s’mores and overnight camping, the ranch is a perfect family vacay and has a Morning Youth Program where kids between 3 and 12 can learn to ride/care for horses and help with ranch chores.  In winter, the ranch becomes a B&B and offers guided horseback riding in the snow.

The grub: Hearty meals revolve homemade everything – from pancakes and biscuits to salads made with locally sustained produce, fresh fish and grass-fed beef culled from the ranch’s herds of Charolais, Red Angus, Lowline Angus and Devon stock.

At Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch located just 35 minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re never far from a mirror lake or beautiful meadow. Photo courtesy of Sylvan Dale Ranch..Down time: The old-time front porch of the Heritage gathering room, with a vaulted log ceiling, large stone fireplace, hickory wood floors and picture windows overlooking flower gardens, is a perfect place to hunker down in a rocker and unplug from the 21st century for a spell. Or check out the craft breweries, antique shops and quaint restaurants in downtown Loveland, located seven miles away.

Don’t miss:  Rocky Mountain National Park. In autumn, quaking aspen torch the evergreen slopes gold, orange and crimson, lofty spires like 14,255-foot Longs Peak pierce the cobalt sky and snow glints from the aptly-named Never Summer range. With countless looking-glass lakes and tarns, deep moraines and miles of hiking, you’d need a lifetime to see it all. Drive Trail Ridge Road to 11,716 feet for eye-popping views.

Start here: www.sylvandale.com

 

5. Sequoia High Sierra Camp, Sequoia National Forest, California

Photo courtesy of Sequoia High Sierra CampThe dirt: Nestled on a steep wooded hillside overlooking Kings Canyon National Park in Giant Sequoia National Monument, this rustic-chic tent camp, built by owner/sustainable architect Burr Hughes, is the last luxury outpost before entering two million acres of High Sierra wilds (running from Sequoia to Yosemite national parks). Pack light!  It’s a mile hike into camp—but there’s a fresh-baked “Welcome Cookie” waiting for you upon your arrival.

The digs: Shuttered windows let in the views and forget about sleeping bags: The tents are furnished with flush-top beds made snug with high thread-count sheets, Pendleton wool blankets and down comforters. Your hand-crafted bed stand even has a reading lantern. The deluxe bathhouse has high-end toiletries, soft towels and a hair dryer so you can look cute for the chipmunks.

The doings: Enjoy guided hikes to Mitchell Peak for panoramic views of the Sierra’s sea of sheer rock mountains, waltz through thigh-high wildflowers at Rowell Meadow, or climb to Seville Lake, a crystal gem rimmed with granite cliffs. 

The grub: Chef Ryan Solien, a California Culinary School grad and former private chef to Bruce Springsteen and Faith Hill, serves up lumberjack breakfast (omelets, homemade muffins and granola and squeeze-your-own OJ), gourmet trail lunch sandwiches made from imported deli sandwich meats and cheeses, and five-course dinners. Lamb shanks in Chianti, New Zealand mussel amuse bouche and bananas flambee, anyone?

Down time: Get starry views through the high-powered Orion telescope, or curl up with a blanket before the evening campfire.

Don’t miss: Hiking beneath giant Sequoias, some as tall as 26-story buildings. Seven groves are within a round-trip day hike of the camp.

Start here: www.sequoiahighsierracamp.com

 

6. Colorado Cattle Company Guest Ranch, Raymer, Colorado

Visit Home Ranch in winter and enjoy skiing, snowboarding, sledding, ice skating, sleigh rides, hot springs soaking and upscale shopping and dining in nearby Steamboat Springs. Photo courtesy of Steamboat Springs.The dirt: Want to channel Annie Oakley but never been on a horse? This working cattle guest ranch (18 adults max) will have you roping live steer from horseback in a week. The ranch has a large herd of well-behaved horses so count on a perfect match whether you grew up in the saddle or have never ridden anything except the subway.

You’ll spend mornings riding alongside professional wranglers as they move cattle to the next pasture and check water tanks. Afternoon “Cowboy School” includes lessons on team penning, team sorting, cutting, tag, cowboy handball, barrel racing, obstacle courses and other games that teach cattle-handling while improving your riding skills.  Once you feel comfy on a horse, you can take a guided overnight camping trip or even participate in a real live cattle drive – yahoo!

The digs:  Restored guest rooms that were part of the original 1897 homestead and charming log cabins with porches have rustic log furnishings and deluxe baths with bucket sinks.

The grub: Hearty ranch fare includes "made to order" breakfasts, trail lunches (sandwiches, salads, fruit, cookies) and for dinner, BBQ ribs, chicken, beef and pork with all the fixings.  Tuesday nights feature “all you can drink” Margaritas.  

The doings: The ranch’s wide-open spaces beckon you to ride out and explore to find that missing calf or yearling or just to see what’s over the next hill. Or unwind with hiking, fishing, shooting sports, horseshoe and volleyball.

Down time: Saddle sore? The ranch’s hot tub and dry sauna will help get those kinks out.

Don’t miss: The Wednesday night campout, when wranglers guide you to a pristine campsite for a campfire dinner and sleeping under the stars. It’s magic.

Start here: www.coloradocattlecompany.com

 

7. El Capitan Canyon, Santa Barbara, California

The dirt:  Wedged between Santa Barbara’s unspoiled coastline and Los Padres National Forest, El Capitan Canyon is a luxury tent/cabin resort set on 350 acres of undulating hills and canyons. Located about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara in wine country immortalized in the Hollywood film, Sideways, the resort is also a five-minute walk from El Capitan State Beach.

The digs: “Rough it” in a canvas safari tent with screened windows and doors and a rustic tree-branch-framed bed; in a streamside wood-floored sleeping yurt with a domed ceiling and skylight; or in a spa tent or cabin a step from the massage table.  (Deluxe bathhouses are nearby.)  Or stay in a contemporary rustic-chic cedar cabin with a porch, peaked ceiling, kitchenette, gas log stove, and full bath. All resort furnishings, fences and signs are handcrafted at the El Capitan Canyon Workshop from reclaimed trees on the property.

The doings: Take a guided botanical hike, explore 3,500 acres of pristine nature preserve in Los Padres National Forest; hit the beach for a swim or stroll or borrow one of the resort’s complimentary bikes for a scenic spin.   

The grub: All digs come with picnic tables, fire pits and grills. BYO groceries or purchase BBQ kits for marinated steak or fresh fish (plus side dishes) at The Canyon Market & Deli, a barn-style structure with a corrugated tin roof. Don’t feel like cooking? Head to The Café inside the market for organic gourmet breakfast, lunch and dinner items or hire a “Butler Chef” to grill and serve your meal at your tent.

Down time: Get an “al fresco” hot stone massage at the spa,  swim in the solar-heated swimming pool, enjoy morning yoga, Thursday night outdoor movies, Saturday night BBQ dinners and concerts under the stars, and evening story-telling and star-gazing around the campfire.

Don’t miss! The Ellwood Butterfly Grove in nearby Goleta. From mid-November through mid-February, Monarch butterflies migrate here from the western Rocky Mountain and transform the trees into fluttering waves of orange, yellow and brown.

Start here: elcapitancayon.com

SKI BIG WHITE MASTERS

By Yvette Cardozo

The original ski week hit when the baby boom became yesterday’s millennials. They had money, they were skiing, they wanted the social experience.          

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Then boomers started having families and taking an entire week no longer worked. So short, specific clinics (racing, bumps, women) that lasted only a long weekend took over.

But why have ski weeks returned?

Because the kids have grown up, the money is available and so is the option once more of taking a week. Plus, it’s, well, your own age group. No trying to keep up with someone 30 years younger.

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“It started as 50 Plus in 2011, said Katie Balkwill, regional sales manager for Big White Ski Resort. “We ran it that way with very small numbers until 2013. There was a suggestion to change the name to Seniors Ski Club, which we did. And no one came the following week.

“Then we changed the name to Masters Monday and had 30 participants the next week. We average 45 people every Monday for most of the season now.

“It truly is all in a name.”

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As for the Masters Week, it has grown steadily from 23 the first year (19 of whom have returned) to 59, then 109, then last year, 229 broken into two weeks and after the second session, a third was added for the end of the season. I signed up for Big White’s Masters Ski Week, along with 90 others. We would ski together each morning and have a variety of social programs in the afternoons or evenings.

The first day of my week, when we were joined by the Monday-only groups, the resort was expecting perhaps 130 for lunch. Nearly 200 came (many signing up just that morning). There was quite a scramble for food, but nobody went hungry.

Since we had all filled out forms suggesting our ski level, we separated into skill groups the first morning ranging from novice to expert. Then, after a bit of skiing, a few people shifted around and we were set for the week.

Our group, Level 4 of 6, was perfecting its stance, getting more aggressive on our turns, and playing a bit in the year’s epic powder.

Anthony, our instructor, tailored exercises to each of the five in our class.

For Sandy, it was ski down holding polls horizontally in her hands which, Anthony said, helps you lead the turn with your lower body. Her upper body was turning into the hill, which throws you off balance.

For Norm, it was a “prayer stance” holding his hands together in front of his chest. This balances you and helps you lead with your legs, rather than your upper body.

For me, it was making sure I looked downhill when turning, not to the side ... again, helping with balance.

And for all of us, there was a maddening exercise where we dragged our downhill pole along the snow, which truly is not intuitive. This gets you onto your downhill ski throughout the turn, Anthony insisted.

And, well, it did.          

Each day after class, there was something ... a clinic, apres ski, a sleigh ride. One night, we met for beer and pizza at Dizzy’s Ski & Board Shop where Lindsay Bennett (aka Dizzy) talked about ski gear. Along shelves in the shop sat hundreds of old boots, some from the 1940s, each representing a tech breakthrough.

“I skied down in a bare sock more than once,” he laughed.

Boots are, Dizzy said, the single most important piece of equipment you can own. A decent boot will last for 200 days of skiing. And custom foot beds are perhaps the most important thing you can have in a boot, he added.

No one knows that better than me. Slower than most to catch on, I spent a decade trying to figure out how to turn at all. Then someone noticed my board flat feet. I splurged on custom footbeds, headed for a lift and in the space of 30 seconds went from struggling novice to solid intermediate. I had been making the right moves all along but my feet weren’t connecting with the boots.

A few tips ... get ski socks. They’re a blend that keeps you warm without being too bulky. Don’t pull the liner out of your boot each night. Electric boot dryers will do a better job. And park your boots up high for the night (where air in your room is warmer).

I went into the shop the next day and an added thin innersole and heel lifts helped my aging boots fit snug again with the added benefit of tipping me forward just a bit more.

The next night, my friend Kay and I went on the dinner sleigh ride, riding in a large sled pulled by two beautiful Clydesdale horses through an magic scene of snowy trees and swirling flakes. Dinner was both gourmet and rustic ... chicken cassoulet and bison ribs. We bonded with our seatmates, who produced bottles of good red wine and topped it all off with mini cheesecakes.

Our final gathering was apres ski at an Irish pub with good munchies, great beer and wonderful memories.

It snowed every day but one that week and on the last morning, fog settled in clear down to the village.

We all gulped, shrugged, and took off for lessons on how to deal with a whiteout. We headed for the Black Forest chair whose medium width trails were lined with trees heavily frosted in Christmas card snow. Ski along the trees, Andrew said. And sure enough, there magically was definition in the snow at our feet.

Don’t look at your skis, he added. Yes, it’s scary to peer into the white void, but find something ahead ... another skier, a line of trees, a pole, a lift, and keep your eyes on that.

It absolutely helps avoid vertigo and, of course, falls.

I had truly hoped that last day we could find some steep cruisers along one of the outlying chairs and some untracked powder but the fog and near blizzard conditions squelched that.

Instead, I took the lessons home where, yes, it all made a huge difference.                  

DETAILS

Big White Ski Resort’s Masters Week is actually five days, Monday through Friday. There are on-slope lessons each morning, then social activities in afternoon or evenings.

For 2018, Big White is planning at least two Masters ski week programs, Jan. 29 - Feb. 2 and Feb. 26 - Mar. 2, plus possibly a third at the end of the season.

Price for the week (lessons, clinics and most social activities) will be $278 Canadian. Canadian dollars have run about .75 per US dollar for a few years meaning $278 Cdn works out to about $208 US.

Masters Monday classes are held each Monday morning, for people who don’t want to commit to an entire week.

Links:

Big White: http://www.bigwhite.com/

Masters Ski Week: https://www.bigwhite.com/ski-school-rentals/camps-special-programs/masters-week

You’re invited to a countrywide party in Mexico

By Bob Schulman

Church in Dolores where Father Hidalgo gave El Grito. Photo by Bob SchulmanPhoto courtesy of the Mexico Tourism Board.

You’re in luck if you happen to be in Mexico on Sept. 16. Wherever you are down there, don’t be surprised if you’re invited to the likes of colorful fiestas, mariachi concerts, hotel fests, block parties and sing-alongs in the cantinas while fireworks liven up the sky that night.

That’s because Sept. 16 is Mexico Independence Day, marking the day in 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo, in an impassioned speech in the little town of Dolores, urged Mexicans to rise up against the Spanish government. They did, sparking what became a 10-year war for independence.

Mexico’s president will kick off the celebration on the 16th by ringing a bell – as Father Hidalgo did to gather his flock – and repeating the priest’s iconic “Cry of Dolores” (also known as “El Grito”). In past years, better than a half-million onlookers turned out for the presidential event followed by musical merry-making and one of the world’s most spectacular fireworks shows.

Similar celebrations staged around Father Hidalgo’s speech will take place on the 16th in cities across the country. Out on the Yucatan Peninsula at Campeche, for example, tourists are welcome to join townsfolk whooping it up at the city’s Moch-Couho Plaza next to the government palace. Down in Acapulco, you can join join the locals’ joyful chanting (all you need to do is shout “Viva” when everyone else does). Then enjoy the fireworks, visit food booths along the pier and party until dawn.

Bell rung by Father Hidalgo on display in Dolores. Photo by Bob Schulman.Here’s a sampling of festivities planned for the celebration at some of the top hotels in Cancun: At the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach guests can see a live TV broadcast of the Independence Day ceremony in Mexico City; at the Live Aqua, a “Chef’s Parade” will spotlight the celebration at a poolside food-tasting; and at the Grand Oasis, a special “Grito de Independencia” event will feature a Mexican “kermasse” or block party by the pool and garden.

Beach parties at the Bahia Principe hotels on the Riviera Maya will offer beach parties featuring Independence Day “charreria” shows (Mexican rodeos).

Among hotels celebrating the event in Puerto Vallarta, the Fiesta Americana will stage ballet and mariachi performances while hotel staffers mosey around in traditional outfits known as “charro and china poblana” before the night is wrapped up with – you guessed it – a fireworks show.

ROAD-TRIPPING ALONG THE MENDOCINO COASTLINE

By Carole Jacobs

I have vivid memories of driving across the Australian Outback 20 years ago as a storm of locusts battered my windshield; ringing around Cape Breton 15 years ago and stopping at every single tea house and following the wrong roundabout sign in Scotland 10 years ago a dark and stormy night, dead-ending in the front yard of a dairy farm at 3 am.

Ocean View from the Inn at Newport Ranch by Dave Mathews

“Who’s there?” the farmer had demanded, poking a rifle out a second-floor window before pounding down the steps and lumbering across the yard in a puddle of light to inspect me with his giant flashlight.  “Don’t shoot, I’m lost!” I had cried, handing him my map with the famous golf course circled.

He sighed and hailed his wife, still standing guard at the second-floor window. “Fiona, she’s just a bitty thing -- cold, wet, American? You’d better come down and put on the kettle.”

Over tea and cakes, he said I wasn’t just lost but on the wrong side of Scotland. “Best you stay with us tonight.”

Which brings up the best thing about road trips: You get to meet and bond with the locals, and maybe even become life-long friends.

I’ve done road trips all over the world, but until recently I’d never driven the back route from San Francisco to Mendocino, considered one of the country’s most dramatic scenic drives. When an opportunity arose this spring to visit Mendocino, I couldn’t fill my gas tank fast enough.

Sunset at Van Damme State Beach in Mendocino by Michael Ryan

You’re in the army now

It was nearly dark by the time I arrived in San Francisco, a 7-hour high-speed Interstate drive from my home in the High Sierra. But they had kept the porch light on for me at the Inn at The Presidio, a restored Georgian inn that once housed bachelor officers at The Presidio, once America’s oldest continually- operating military post and now a 1,491-acre national park and National Historic Landmark.

Perched on a hillside, the inn overlooked million-dollar views of the sea and twinkling city, with the Golden Gate Bridge outlined in white lights. Inside my quarters, the huge living room housed several period sofas, chairs and coffee tables – you could almost envision officers seated there discussing a The Battle of the Coral Sea. The king bed in the giant bedroom had crisp linens folded in military corners and the bathroom had a deep soaking tub with bath salts laid out. I was ready to enlist!

The next morning, following a hearty complimentary breakfast in the restored mess hall downstairs, I spent an hour trying to get a handle on The Presidio, but with 24 hiking trails, hilltop gardens, hidden beaches, wild coastal bluffs and headlands and countless facilities housed in restored barracks, officers’ quarters, pharmacies and storerooms (restaurants, cafes, bars, a spa, fitness center, museums and much more) you’d need a week.

The rebirth of the Anderson Valley

Back in my car, I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and took Interstate 101 north about 80 miles past Marin County’s exclusive suburbs and malls.

The minute I turned onto Highway 128, the pace slowed to a crawl and the rumble of Interstate 101 was replaced with the faint hum of distant tractors.

The barely-two-lane highway corkscrewed up and over the forested coastal mountains, throwing in some blind curves and loop-de-loops to ensure I was paying attention, and then crossed the 16-mile-long Anderson Valley.

The road told its own story as I passed smoke curling from a distant ridge and farmhouses that had fallen in on themselves, their chimney bricks scattered on the ground like a toy train.

At the bottom of the mountain, the highway headed west along the 16-mile-long Anderson Valley, a sleepy agricultural region through the 1970s, where tumbledown farms were dotted with cows, sheep, apple orchards and Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco Barns in various stages of decay.

Then someone discovered that the lost valley’s coastal fog, cool breezes, warm, sunny days and chilly nights were ideal for growing world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, White Riesling and Alsatian varietals -- and a star was born.

Today, the old farms and orchards have been replanted in vineyards that climb to the sky, and the hillsides are dotted with lavish estate wineries and villas that look like they were airlifted in from France, Italy and Spain.

Main Street Mendocino

A boom in Boonville

The Anderson Wine Region is now on every oenophile’s bucket list, and some of the region’s small towns have been gussied up, too.

In Boonville, once known for logging, apple orchards and sheep pastures and was now lined with trendy shops, cafes and eateries, every colorful mismatched table and chair was already taken inside the Mosswood Market Café & Bakery, where you could get anything from a Chicken Mango Wrap to a Potato-Basil-Goat Cheese Empanadas.

A barista told me that millennials who had grown up in the Valley but left to pursue careers in big cities were now moving back home in droves with plans to open boutique wineries, farm-to-table restaurants and yoga and Pilates studios.

The final leg to Mendocino

Just past The Philo Apple Farm, with an honor-system fruit stand, the vineyards gave way to the 11-mile “Redwood Tunnel of Trees,” the highway chasing the Navarro River past filtered sunlight and gigantic ferns before dead-ending at Highway 1 and the sea.   

Mendocino was another 10 miles north, the highway spiraling past verdant pastures, folded green hillsides, drop-dead cliffs and scenic overlooks. I stopped to peer down into a rugged cove where thundering surf was exploding in spray and leaving gleaming tidal pools in its wake.

Near Mendocino, lights flickered invitingly from barns, lighthouses and inns perched atop the town’s tabletop headlands and I made a mental note to explore it when I lodged in Mendocino later that week.

Home on the Ranch

For the next two days, however, I’d be staying 21 miles north at The Inn at Newport Ranch, a 2,000-acre working cattle ranch and luxury resort set on dramatic sea cliffs, rolling pastures and towering redwood ridges.

Even before I turned onto the dirt road leading to the Ranch complex, I could see it was a collection of minimalist architectural masterpieces – and was that a hot tub perched on top of the water tower?

I stepped inside the Main Inn to redwood planks, exposed beams and a 20-foot-wide fireplace made of massive stones; some so heavy they had been lifted in by crane before the walls or roof had been built. Complimentary wine, cheese and hors d’oeuvres had been set out and the manager said a complimentary farm breakfast would be served in the morning the kitchen table, a long, single plank of polished redwood.

A ranch hand escorted me across the grass to The Redwood House, an architectural marvel supported by 24 redwood trees that rose from the lower-level spa and up through three guest suites to the roof.   Then he opened the door to the Bird House and said “Welcome Home!”

Mendocino Headlands by Brendan McGuigan

Nesting at the Bird House

One of the most unusual “suites” I’ve ever stayed in, the Bird House was everything most hotel rooms aren’t: Whimsical, artsy and one of a kind, with seashells and other small treasures scattered on the top of bureau tops and an open floor plan of four small rooms, including a tiny, well-stocked kitchen, a designer bathroom bath with a pounding rainforest shower, and a living room with a gas wood stove and a bedroom with my own private redwood.

Handcrafted windows framed picture-perfect views of the pastures, cliffs and rugged coast and outside on my patio balcony, someone had thoughtfully removed the heavy lid from my wooden soaking tub and left a small stack of wood by the grill.

Nearby Fort Bragg was crammed with restaurants, but I love to cook, and how many hotel rooms had a set-up like this? I headed into the town’s Noyo Harbor. Nemos Fish Market was still open and someone had just snagged a salmon, so it was whisked it away and returned to me in a tidy package ready to grill.

A local market had crusty home-baked bread, butter, huge bouquets of organic spinach, gigantic local blueberries and fresh-whipped cream. Within an hour I was back in my “nest” soaking in the hot tub and keeping a hawk-eye on the grilling salmon.

A wild ride around the Ranch

The following morning, Will Jackson, founder of the Ranch, dropped by as we were polishing off omelets and homemade biscuits. In 1985, the self-described “Connecticut Yankee with a hankering for the West,” spied an ad in the Wall Street Journal for an 850-acre cattle ranch in Mendocino County featuring more than a mile of oceanfront. He bought the Ranch in 1986 and has spent the past 31 years expanding and developing it.

The Ranch has 20 trails you could explore by foot, horseback or ATV. I was only here another night, so I joined a couple for the ATV “Grand Tour” and hung on tight. Our driver, a Parnelli Jones in the making, zoomed to the edges of treacherous cliffs, deposited us at the foot of promontories for careful hikes down stony staircases and barreled up steep pastures into the redwood ridges, a moss-upholstered landscape where tiny streams trickled from unseen sources and miniscule wildflowers bloomed in puddles of light on the forest floor.

By the time I returned to my room, I was ready for a drink -- and it was only 11:15 am! Armed with one of the Ranch’s gourmet box lunches, I spent the afternoon exploring the Ranch’s miles of cliff-side trails and checking out several pristine beaches within a 10-minute drive. At Glass Beach, a former dump site that sparkled under the sun, I collected colorful pieces of sea-smoothed glass for a wind chime.

Light Dinner Buffet at Brewery Gulch Inn Photo Courtesy of Brewery Gulch Inn

A warm oasis on a rainy night

Storm clouds were gathering as I left the Ranch for dinner at The Little River Inn & Restaurant near Mendocino, a fifth-generation family-owned resort.

 By the time I reached the eatery 20 minutes later, the roads were slick and the shoulders flooded. I sat in my car for a few moments to collect myself as hail pinged off my windshield and the sky rumbled, then made a run for it just as a zag of lightning cracked open the dark heavens with a CR-ACK!”

Inside, the bad weather only seemed to amplify the restaurant’s cozy, candle-lit charm and when the waitress brought the menu, I knew I was in for a treat.

Executive Chef Marc Dym, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, cooked at many world-class restaurants before moving to Mendocino in 2006 to escape the LA rat race and take over the kitchen and menu at Little River.

He tweaked the American classics so they were more elegant and modern, developed creative small plates and tantalizing appetizers that became an instant hit with guests, and turned Little River into an award-winning restaurant.

An organic and locally-sourced gourmet feast

Every dish on the menu seemed to reflect his creative flair, and I had a hard time deciding what to order.  Since I was a guest of the chef, the waitress said he could prepare a “tasting plate” consisting of several small portions of entrees and sides I wanted to try.

I started with a delicate abalone fritter and fresh steamed clam chowder, polished off the pine-nut crusted salmon with spinach puree, parmesan polenta and basil coulis and demolished the “Osso Bucco”— slow braised pork shank over polenta with fennel marinara sauce, roasted garlic and red chili broccoli. Dessert was warm Olallieberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream “soup.”

As I was dawdling over my decaf cappuccino, the waitress came by to see if I needed help prying myself from my chair and then added she had taken the liberty of “jotting down a few things in Mendocino you seriously must see before you leave.”

She handed me a napkin listing 27 places. I’d need a Hovercraft to do it all in two days!

From a lumber town to an art colony

After breakfast, I put on my hiking boots for a long day of sight-seeing, bid adieu to The Birdhouse and drove into Mendocino.

Settled in the 1850s by New Englanders who came to work the mills, the thriving lumber town flourished throughout the 19th century but nearly went under during the 1940s and 1950s when the local sawmills closed and the New Englanders moved on.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, artists, craftspeople, hippies and back-to-the landers flocked in, lured by Mendocino’s spectacular setting and small-town charm. Today, the town has a thriving art colony and more artists per capita than any county in California.

The historic downtown was pint-sized, lined with B&Bs where flowers spilled from window boxes as well as several restaurants, cafes and bars (including one housed in a restored rectory), art galleries, a museum, book store and  a scattering of eclectic shops, including a toy store and chocolatier.

I dropped by The Good Life Café & Bakery, which the waitress had told me was a good place to see the locals in action. At a corner table, a group of young girls in mirrored peasant blouses were sitting on their long hair devouring hot cinnamon buns while two artists in paint-stained shirts and jeans were diving into steaming breakfast burritos bursting at the seams with organic eggs and veggies and an elderly couple dressed for afternoon tea sipped lattes and shared a homemade morning bun. Two grizzled cops who looked as if they’d had a rough night were trying to decide between the tuna and chicken salad sandwiches.

I walked up through residential neighborhoods lined with Victorian homes in Easter egg colors and saltbox cottages wrapped in roses and picket fences – both testament to New England craftsmanship that was built to last, and reaching the edge of town, followed a narrow footpath along a rocky, wind-lashed headland to the dramatic Blowhole at Mendocino Headlands State Park.

They grow it all here

By the time I got back I was hungry for lunch. At Rhody’s Garden Café, a pretty little outdoor eatery at Mendocino Coast Botanicals Gardens, the waitress swore everything from the Reuben sandwiches to the meatless barley soup was locally sourced and that the greens in my Salad Nicoise were grown right here at the Garden.

Afterwards, I wandered the grounds, a pretty place to hike with 47 acres of rose and dahlia gardens, camellias, rhododendrons, foxgloves, wildflowers, perennials planted in banks of color, succulents and a coastal forest of pines, magnolias and ferns leading to bluffs overlooking the Pacific.

Rhody’s Garden Café at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden By Roxanne Golnar

Stopping by Mendocino’s outback winery

There was no way I was going to drink and drive (or even wine-taste) while navigating Highway 1. But several people had had told me the setting at Pacific Coast Winery alone was worth the 9-mile drive, so I headed to Mendocino’s “outback winery.”

Perched on an earthquake fault atop a bluff the picturesque winery had a front porch lined with Adirondack chairs where guests were sampling unrefined sparingly-filtered signature blends and soaking up views of whipping winds and waves for as far as the eye could see.

I returned to Mendocino for a stroll through a prehistoric wonderland of sword ferns, moss-covered forests and cascading carpets of wildflowers at Russian Gulch State Park, a deeply indented, steep-sided little valley with many trails.

Then, with time for one more “must-see” before checking into my hotel for the night,  I drove three miles south to Van Damme State Park, where a quarter-mile elevated platform meandered through the little forest that could, an awe-inspiring forest of pine, cypress and redwood trees -- all under ten feet high!

The perfect inn for foodies and wine lovers

Brewery Gulch Inn, located two miles south of Mendocino, is a classy, sophisticated inn nestled in pines, redwoods, wetland ponds, gardens and wooden glens overlooking the beach.

Built in 2006 from redwood eco-salvaged from Mendocino’s Big River, the inn has 10 luxury suites, each one bathed in relaxing earth tones and decorated with craftsman-style furnishings and windows, a balcony, gas fireplace and a soaking tub with a private window overlooking the sea.

The inn also serves a daily complimentary gourmet breakfast as well as a daily complimentary gourmet “light dinner and wine buffet.” Both are prepared and served by the inn’s team of resident chefs in the inn’s beautiful Great Room, with a four-sided glass and steel fireplace, craftsman-style furnishings and a wall of windows.

Past favorites include Salad Cote du Nord, Mussel Bisque, Lentilles Du Puy, pepper-seared scallops, Moroccan lamb, Halibut Escabeche, Dungeness crab cakes and homemade pecan pie and the chefs are always working on creative new entrees to add to the mix.

Breakfast in bed

Dinner would be served in about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, my king bed beckoned, a still life in white, with silky, high-thread-count sheets, huge down pillows and comforters. I took a bubble bath and then slipped between the sheets for a cat nap before dinner.

I didn’t wake up until nearly 9 am the following morning. Fortunately, the inn was still serving breakfast and guests could order anything (or everything) on the menu – from fresh-squeezed juices to whipped Belgian hot chocolate and artisan coffee; house-made pastries to homemade blueberry pancakes, organic granola sundaes topped with yogurt and berries and custom egg dishes served with homemade bacon and toast.

I pondered the killer curves, drop-off cliffs and serpentine switchbacks between Mendocino and San Francisco, then picked up the house phone and ordered room service, deciding a long day of driving deserved a decadent breakfast in bed.

10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Charleston

By Rich Grant

Plenty of history drips continually from the Spanish moss on every corner of Charleston, South Carolina waiting to be discovered.  America's most fearless purveyor of truth, Stephen Colbert grew up here. Comedian, actor and writer Bill Murray is a part owner of the baseball team. Charleston is full of surprises…10 of those secrets are:

  1. Charleston was started as a colony of Barbados. 

    In the 1660s, Barbados, the tropical island off the coast of Venezuela, was the richest speck of land on earth.  And the most congested.  Every inch of the tropical island was covered with 800 sugar plantations.  An incredible 500 windmills used renewable energy to convert the sugar cane to the “white gold” used to sweeten tea throughout Europe. The little island’s population was larger than New England’s, but the majority of people were enslaved Africans, who did all the backbreaking work to make plantation owners rich.  There was only one problem with this scenario.  The island was starving.

    Because every inch of land was used for sugar plantations, Barbados couldn’t support the beef and crops needed to feed the island’s population.  So, much like the other powers in Europe, Barbados established a colony to support and feed the homeland.  The colony these Barbadians started eventually came to be the city of Charleston.

  2. You can see the many influences of Barbados all over Charleston.

    The names of the streets dating back to the Barbadian founders, in the vividly colored buildings of pink, yellow and lavender giving the town a Caribbean feel, and in the basic architecture of the houses, which came to be called the “Charlestown Single House.”

    This is the famous one-room-wide house facing the wind.  All the rooms in the house opened to a piazza, or porch.  The windows on both sides of the house could be opened to create a much needed draft in the heat of summer.  Any walking or carriage tour of Charleston will show you dozens and dozens of these Charleston single house homes – but the idea for them came from Barbados.

  3. Spirits are adverse to blue.

    The roofs of the piazzas on all the Charleston Single Houses are painted “haint blue.”  African slaves believed this color warded off evil spirits and they wouldn’t work in a house that didn’t have it.

  4. Charleston was the largest slave port in America. 

    Any history of slavery in America begins in Charleston.  Because it was founded by a slave plantation economy from Barbados, Charleston took on the same model and became the principle port where slaves entered North America with some 40 percent of them passing through Charleston.  By 1860, there were 400,000 slaves in South Carolina, more than 57 percent of the population; of the 15 people in America who owned 500 slaves or more, eight were in this state.

    In Charleston’s early days, slaves could be paraded and sold on any street corner that could gather a crowd, but by July 1, 1856, abolitionists forced the sale of slaves off public streets, and 40 slave marts were established for private sales.  Only one has survived, and today it is the Old Slave Mart Museum,   a http://www.oldslavemartmuseum.com/  one-of-a-kind place telling this chapter of the American story. 

    Enslaved Africans began their journey by sailing the “Middle Passage” in filthy, overcrowded ships filled with disease.  Those who survived, were brought to Sullivan’s Island in Charleston’s harbor, where they were interned to weed out the sick, weak and dying.  The survivors were then placed in a baracoon --- jails, where they would be fattened up, washed, clothed, have gray hair dyed black and their bodies greased, all to increase their market value on the auction block.  Ryan’s Slave Mart had one of the largest of the baracoons, and today it forms the heart of the museum.

    A top slave with a skill like carpentry could fetch $1,500 – about $38,000 in today’s value.  A young attractive light skinned woman could sell for even more.  “If God has bestowed beauty upon a slave woman, it will prove her greatest curse,” one slave woman wrote.

    It is an odd sensation to be inside the Slave Mart discovering the ghastly history that took place here, just a few hundred feet from carefree tourists clattering by in horse drawn carriages.   

  5. Charleston freely acknowledges the many accomplishments contributed to the city by enslaved Africans.

    Unlike Washington D.C., where politicians seldom mention that the White House was built by slaves, in Charleston the contributions of enslaved Africans are a principal part of any discussion of the city.  In the Charleston Museum (the oldest museum in the U.S.), the Fort Sumter museum, and on home and plantation tours, you learn that many enslaved Africans were skilled craftsman – carpenters, stone masons, brick makers, gardeners, painters, blacksmiths, iron workers, and plasterers.  Not only did slaves build this incredible city of homes and gardens, but they were also responsible for its wealth.  

    South Carolina was the only state that imported slaves for their knowledge.  Since it was the principle rice growing state in America, they imported slaves from the Windward Coast of Africa, from Senegal to Sierra Leone and Liberia, because these people had been growing rice in their homeland for a thousand years.  Rice production was tedious work – ten times the labor effort of growing cotton.  But the profits were gigantic.  Charleston became the rice king of America with 120 ships arriving in port every day.  By the time the American Revolution started in 1775, Charleston was the richest city in all the colonies, and the fourth largest.

  6. The planation at Middleton Place  https://www.middletonplace.org/  holds family reunions for descendants of former masters and slaves. 

    One spot that does an excellent job of illustrating how much Charleston owes to enslaved

    Africans is Middleton Place.  The plantation home was burned in the Civil War and today Middleton Place is best known for having the oldest formal garden in the country.  Gardens in the 18th century were based more on symmetry and contrasting the many shades of green to be found in hedges, trees and lawns, so this is not a garden of colorful flower beds, but a subtle, mathematical creation. 

    Like everything else from this period, these magnificent gardens were built and maintained by enslaved Africans.  Only here, they get credit for it.  Eliza’s House, a freedman’s house from 1870, has been restored into a small museum telling their story.  The names of all 2,800 slaves who worked at Middleton Place from 1738 to the end of the Civil war are listed, along with the jobs they held, and, chillingly, the price that was paid for them. There is Judy, a house wench and seamstress purchased for $70, and Cuffy, a carpenter who was bought for $60.   Old Jenny came for just $15, but it must have been a package deal because Paul, her son, a gardener, fetched $70.  

    Every year, Middleton has a reunion of the family members who trace their history back to the Middleton name.  Since 2006, the descendants of the 2,800 slaves who lived there have been researched and also invited; some 200 attended in 2016.

  7. Charleston was a major battleground in the American Revolution. 

    Mention the Revolution, and most people think of Boston, Paul Revere, Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell, but there were actually 135 engagements during the Revolution in South Carolina, more than in all New England.  

    As the richest city in the colonies, Charleston was a major prize and the British sent an expedition of nine ships to capture it in June 1776.  Quick thinking Americans built a fort out of rubber-like palmetto palm tree trunks and sand.  To the disgust of the British, their cannonballs bounced off the soft palm trees, or got imbedded in the sand, while the American guns were able to do great damage to the British Navy.  This attack failed, but in 1779 the British sent an even larger fleet and laid siege to Charleston.  The Americans surrendered in what was to be the largest colonial defeat of the war.

  8. Today, historic Charleston looks so much like it did during the Revolution.

    When Mel Gibson filmed The Patriot here, all he had to do was take down signs and put mulch on the streets.  The fire department wouldn’t let him remove fire plugs, so every time there was a fire plug in a scene, he placed a woman in a big hoop skirt directly over it.

    Fort Moultrie, where the first battle took place, disappeared long ago, but a second fort still stands and a museum tells the role this spot had in three wars.  After visiting, stop by the Poe Tavern for a drink.  Edgar Allen Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie in 1827 (although to escape gambling debts and family problems, he had enlisted in the army as Edgar A. Perry).  Several of his famous short stories were written here or based on the area.

  9. Another Revolutionary War battlefield is now the hippest place in town.

    The real fighting during the siege of Charleston in 1779 was right downtown in what is now Marion Square.  Not that long ago, there was little for tourists north of this park, but today, the Upper King Street neighborhood is the hippest hood in town and booming with new eateries and clubs, while the park hosts a weekly farmer’s market and art shows.

    When it opens in spring 2018, Hotel Bennett will rise from the park in attractive tiered building offering 179 luxury rooms and suites, many with spectacular views and balconies overlooking Marion Square.  With a rooftop pool, a 1,000-seat music venue, view bars, and indoor and outdoor meeting space, the hotel will have the grandest location in Charleston. 

    The eight blocks north of here are now one long string of James Beard restaurants, music clubs, and lowcountry cuisine cafes with tap houses and distilleries sprinkled in.  It’s packed with people and even lines on weekends, and busy every night.  The Ordinary http://eattheordinary.com/  deserves all the raves. From their spectacular shellfish tower signature dish to oyster sliders, the restaurant is simply amazing, transforming an old bank into a chic multi-level shellfish house.  The Macintosh http://themacintoshcharleston.com/   was the first big name on the street (Executive Chef Jeremiah Bacon is a five-time James Beard semifinalist).  How could you not love a place that has a Bacon Happy Hour?  Prohibition is a 1920s style speakeasy with live music six nights a week ranging from bluegrass to Cuban jazz.

    There are at least seven breweries in downtown Charleston with more on the way.  On Upper King, try the Charleston Beer Works and the spectacularly named, “Closed for Business” – both are tap houses with a wide selection of local beers, which, like anywhere in the south, tend to run to light, pales, sour, fruit and ambers.

  10. No one was killed in the battle of Charleston, the first of the Civil War.

    Everyone knows the Civil War started at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired the first shells at Fort Sumter.  Some 3,000 bombs later, the United States forces surrendered.  No one had been killed.   Less well known is that the American forces came back in April 1863 and commenced the largest bombardment in U.S. history.  For 20 months, the Union hurled seven million pounds of metal at Fort Sumter, and were never able to take it.  They also bombarded Charleston in what was to be the longest bombardment of any American city in history, destroying much of the town.  And regiments of African American troops assaulted Fort Wagner which protected Charleston, in an attack depicted in the movie Glory.  Nothing succeeded, and Charleston was only taken when Sherman marched to it from Atlanta.

    Charleston was destroyed by fire 23 years prior to the start of the Civil War. In 1838, 1,200 buildings burned.  Hurricane Hugo hit landfall in Charleston in 1989, damaging 80 percent of the homes and leaving 50,000 people homeless.  And if that’s not enough, Charleston is also on a major geologic fault and an earthquake in 1886 destroyed much of the city (and many experts think Charleston is way overdue for another). 

    All of these historic incidents are depicted at Fort Sumter National Monument.  A visit is mandatory, and free – if you swim.  But it costs $21 if you want to take the hour ferry each way.

    Unfortunately, yet another disaster (this one manmade) occurred on June 17, 2015, when a crazy psychotic killed nine members in a Bible study at the Emanuel AME church, just a few blocks from Marion Square. Through all of these tragedies, Charleston has survived, endured and come out stronger and better, proven by the fact that on the second anniversary of the shooting, it was announced that famed architect Michael Arad, designer of the National September 11 Memorial in New York, would create a piece to honor the victims of this tragic shooting.  

    It is perhaps because Charleston has endured so much that it is so beautiful.  Walking its quiet backstreets on tree-shaded brick sidewalks is one of the great joys of visiting this city.  On every block there’s something to admire.  Peek through a gate to see a private garden, duck down a tree-covered alley, wander through a graveyard, or read the plaques mounted on hundreds of homes to see who lived here.  There is no place else quite like Charleston.

IF YOU GO:  The Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau is one of the best in the nation with a large, incredible visitor’s center packed with helpful advice.  www.charlestoncvb.com/    They Hyatt House and Hyatt Place  https://charlestonhistoricdistrict.house.hyatt.com/en/hotel/our-hotel.html share a common courtyard and are ideal place to stay, within walking distance of the historic district, and smack in the center of the exciting new restaurants and clubs along Upper King Street.  They Hyatt House has a kitchen and order your own omelet breakfast.  Bulldog Tours does excellent walking tours of the historic district. 

https://charlestonhistoricdistrict.place.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html

Mexico says ‘hola’ to a lot more visitors

By Bob Schulman

Photo credit: Cancun CVB.The next time you flake out on one of those sugary beaches in Mexico you might have a little more company. Chances are, though, you won’t notice it, given the 28,000 miles of shoreline down there. Still, the latest tourism figures show our neighbor south of the border jumped from the world’s 15th most visited country in 2013 to the globe’s 8th most popular destination last year. That’s the largest increase in position of any of the top 25 most visited countries.

The numbers, from annual rankings just announced by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), pegged Mexico’s growth in international visitors at an average of 10 percent a year since 2013 -- double the global industry average. What’s more, a whopping 35 million foreigners bunked down in Mexico’s resorts, hotels and inns last year, setting an all-time record.

Officials noted that a surge in demand for vacations in Mexico prompted the airlines to add more than 2 million seats to their transborder flights so far in 2017.

“For three years in a row, Mexico has continued an impressive climb in the UNWTO rankings,” said the country’s Minister of Tourism Enrique de la Madrid. Beyond sun and sand attractions, he attributed the growth to Mexico’s “mega-biodiversity, nature and adventure, gastronomy, luxury, high-profile events like F1, cultural traditions such as Day of the Dead, and the weddings, romance, meetings and events segments.”

Photo credit: Acapulco CVB.

“(The growth in international tourism) is a clear recognition of the numerous advancements in Mexico’s tourism industry, from the diversification of markets to expansion in offerings for travelers from around the world,” said Hector Flores, CEO of the Mexico Tourism Board. “Our strategic plan and close collaboration with our industry partners, as well as personalized engagement in our marketing and promotional campaigns, propelled us here. We are excited to continue the momentum through 2017 and beyond.”

The country’s goal is to host 50 million international arrivals by 2021.

Santa Fe, My Beloved

By Courtney Drake-McDonough

A stroll down Canyon Road reveals classic Santa Fe architecture and art galleries such as the Nedra Matteucci Galleries. Photo by Courtney Drake-McDonoughAs a young twenty something in 1988, I traveled for the first time to northern New Mexico for my honeymoon. I was struck by the vast azure skies, colorful mesas dotted with Piñon and juniper trees, and the brilliant light. Descending into the outskirts of Santa Fe, the adobe structures and uneven coyote fences informed me that this was a special place, a City Different. A recent return trip to La Ciudad Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis was a celebration of the past, present and future - Santa Fe today has so much new to offer while still remaining true to its rich historical roots, making it a completely unique experience.

As the oldest capital city in the U.S., hundreds of years of history involving different cultures have played out along the Caminos, Calles and Acequias of this city. The first nation peoples descended from the nearby mesas to populate the Rio Grande Valley. The Spanish asserted their rule over them with both sword and crucifix; unlike other native peoples, the Puebloan culture survived the European conquest and is a vital, integral part of 21st Century Santa Fe. American settlers took control from the Spanish and Mexican governments. Since then, the area has exerted a consistent attraction on artists, fortune-seekers and daydreamers seeking a new life.

For me, simply a visitor, a return to Santa Fe brought new things to love.

Walking: Central

Santa Fe may be best known for its historic Plaza, the true corazon of the city. Ringed by historic structures, in the shadow of the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the plaza hosts tourists and locals alike with an air of perpetual celebration. On my visit, a lively concert had attracted a large crowd to dance, chat and enjoy the blessings of a mid-summer’s evening cooled by an approaching rain. The Palace of the Governors Museum and the native American jewelry market makes the Plaza truly unique and a great place to start your exploration.  

Meandering the narrow, winding streets of central Santa Fe - all adobe, stucco, and wrought iron – could fill an entire visit and is best done on foot. With galleries, restaurants, gardens and unique shops, there’s plenty to see. Due to a rich and complex history, as well as locals with passionate devotion to this extraordinary place, Santa Fe offers a surprisingly deep array of cultural, culinary, and experiential treasures for such a small city. Allow yourself time to slow down and just take it all in!

Walking: Railyard District

The Railyard District comes alive with farmer’s markets and other events, amidst commuter trains. Photo by Courtney Drake-McDonoughOn this visit, I arranged a tour with local guide from Wander New Mexico (which combines food and culture) and ventured further out to discover an emerging new side of Santa Fe called The Railyard District. A short walk from the Plaza, this area is built around the original railroad station and yards. Now it hosts many events and attractions including a year-round farmer’s market full of beautiful, local produce and friendly vendors selling their crafted wares; hours are limited, so check for market dates and times.

Galleries, eateries and open spaces make this an inviting area to wander. Be sure to visit the community “waffle” garden irrigated by an original acequia to appreciate the ingenuity of the original farmers in this arid region.

A unique art space SITE Santa Fe, part of the Center for the Contemporary Arts (CCA), was under construction, and worth a look on a future visit as it promises to host an ever-changing array of artists and their installations. As the Plaza promises a solid link to Santa Fe’s past, this space will focus on what’s next.

Arts

See a rare sculpture by Georgia O’Keeffe near her museum. Photo by Courtney Drake-McDonough.Art is an integral part of Santa Fe. Public and private art is everywhere, embedded in the very fiber and soul of the place. To appreciate this and learn more, I toured the Canyon Road art galleries with tour leader, Elaine, owner of Santa Fe Art Tours. An excellent guide, she provided insight and access to gallery owners and artists that revealed more about the art than I ever would have known. She also included a visit to a local chocolatier and a sampling of drinking chocolate elixir that was divine.

Although born in the green meadows of Wisconsin, Georgia O’ Keefe found her true inner self in New Mexico and called it home for much of her life. Her namesake museum celebrates her life and is dedicated to sharing her visions with the world. This fairly small museum displays just a fraction of her work at a time, on a rotating basis; most are on various global tours. Don’t be disappointed if you are unable to see some of your well-known favorites. Instead, use the visit as a chance to learn more about this revolutionary American artist. I was surprised to learn she was a sculptress, and thrilled to learn that at the nearby O’Keefe Research Center, a 10-foot-tall sculpture was on display amidst gardens hosting her favored plants and celebrating her lifelong love of gardening.

Avant Garde

A short drive from the city center is Meow Wolf, a wholly unique art experience. This immersive, interactive, experiential art installation is part mystery and fantasy. Extremely popular among locals and visitors alike, it proves Santa Fe is a relevant arts player in today’s competitive cultural scene. Allow at least two hours, arrive early before opening time, and buy tickets in advance to avoid the long wait to get in! A host of food trucks provide quick food and beverage options. (Note: this is not appropriate for mobility impaired or people who are sensitive to dark and confined spaces.)

Opera

Take in the opera in a building that is art itself with the Santa Fe Opera. Photo courtesy the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau. A thrilling highlight of my return trip was the Santa Fe Opera. Perched along a wild mesa to the north, overlooking a valley rimmed with mountain ranges beyond, the open air theater is an architectural gem. Over the years, the theater has been fully covered overhead, but the open air sides allow plenty of fresh juniper scented breezes - and the occasional rain driven in by summer monsoons! Be sure to take a light jacket or poncho, even in the height of summer, as the evening cools off at 7,000 feet above sea level. As a treat, I attended the preview dinner at the nearby pavilion. This lovely plein air tented space, surrounded by lush gardens, houses the star guest performers of the opera. A delicious buffet dinner with wine is accompanied by a guest speaker who provides sneak peeks and insights into the production. It’s a worthwhile treat if you are lucky enough to snatch up these sought after tickets. You can also order dinner boxes for tailgating or dining on the patio. The 2017 season, which runs through August features a range from the classic Lucia Di Lammermoor to the world premiere, The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs.

Accommodations

Santa Fe offers a full array of accommodations, from cheap motels to luxurious resorts. For our visit, we stayed at the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza Hotel in a 300-year-old hacienda just blocks from the Plaza. We stayed in the Hotel’s casitas, built within walls of the 1625 former coach house with two-foot-thick adobe walls and perfectly decorated with rustic Spanish style and contemporary art. Like Santa Fe, the blend of past and present feels right. A large pool area and on-site dining at Ortiz Restaurant made this a convenient, relaxing oasis after hours touring the city on foot. 

For lunch one day we ventured out to the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado, just outside of Santa FCombine history and modern conveniences at the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza Hotel. Photo by Courtney Drake-McDonoughe, and enjoyed a delicious meal on their outdoor patio with a stunning view of distant blue mesas. Afterward, we strolled the peaceful and beautifully landscaped grounds; the clusters of casitas blended into the landscape like an idyllic village surrounded by vistas of mesas and mountains. For travelers seeking resort-style escape with peace and quiet, this is the place.

Dining

The dynamic Santa Fe dining scene offers many options to adventurous palates! For traditional regional culinary delights (blue corn tortillas, spicy red chile sauces, posole) head to The Shed (central location, watch out for long waits at peak periods!) or their sister café La Choza (Railyard District, less busy and bigger menu). An adventurous menu awaits at State Capitol Kitchen, where we enjoyed a delicious pasta and lamb dish; Chef Mark takes inspiration from local ingredients to explore new culinary territory. The very contemporary sleek décor of his rehabilitated pizza restaurant space is comfortably hip. Chef Joseph at his namesake restaurant, Joseph’s, strikes a delightful middle ground by using locally sourced and culturally-relevant ingredients (lamb, duck, local vegetables) and preparing them with a more sophisticated touch. His charming, cozy restaurant space reminded us of a friend’s country home.

Libations

Local craft brewers provide fresh tasting beers with a Santa Fe twist including: Chili Line Brewing (emphasis on smoked beers, with an enormous secluded patio and Italian food) and Second Street Brewery (large indoor and outdoor areas with pub fare in the Railyard District).

Santa Fe Spirits’ tasting room is a cozy adobe casita; sample their unique, locally-inspired spirits like  Atapiño (contains pinon nuts and sap!) and Apple Brandy (ask how they get the apple in the bottle!). Sip them straight, or enjoy a variety of unique cocktails. 

This is just a sampling of Santa Fe’s treasures for travelers. Outdoor experiences like hiking, biking, rafting abound nearby, as do so many other rich cultural experiences in the nearby pueblos, Museum Hill and the various marketplace events that draw artists from around the globe. My return visit to Santa Fe was unforgettable, packed with new experiences as well as treasured old favorites, like visiting a dear old friend. Time flew past and yet there was so much more to explore… another trip to my beloved Santa Fe is already in the works.

For more information on Santa Fe, visit http://www.santafenm.gov/convention_and_visitors_bureau

Courtney Drake-McDonough is a Colorado-based contributor to Watchboom.com as well as to other local and national magazines and newspapers. She is also the founder and editor of a news and reviews website covering food, arts, culture and travel in Colorado, www.ingoodtastedenver.com

Swimming with Gentle Giants

Story by Michelle da Silva Richmond

It's barely past dawn. Apparently, we have to leave at this ungodly hour because this is the best time to see these elusive denizens of the sea before the area gets very crowded.

The secret is to stay away from their tail when you swim with them.

We've been told that this is an experience of a lifetime, and something that shouldn't be missed. This is no ordinary snorkeling trip. We're about to frolic with the legendary whale shark measuring up to 40 ft. and weighing up to 15 tons. Their jaws can extend up to five feet when open.

Note to self: Steer clear of their toothy smiles.

These illusive animals can be seen between May and SeptemberWe arrive at the pier where our licensed guide, Jesus gives us the 101 on swimming with whale sharks. Equipping us with life jackets, fins and snorkels, he instructs us to use biodegradable sunscreen to protect the ocean.

"Just follow my instructions once we're out there," he tells us. "We'll be holding hands and once we're in the water I'll be holding two of you at a time, by your hands. You have nothing to be afraid of. Just stay with me and do exactly as I tell you and I'll take you close to them. They don't eat humans, they eat plankton," he adds. "Just stay away from their tails so they don't hit you when they turn around. That would definitely hurt. And don't make any sudden movements."

Seriously?

I make another mental note to myself: No sudden movements and beware of tails.

We're off in one of the many boats lined up along the dock and, after a bumpy 45-minute ride out into the middle of the ocean, we get to "the spot," where sure enough, we're surrounded by scores of huge grey beasts, speckled with white dots that gleam in the early sunlight. They take no notice of us as they gracefully glide around our boat, accompanied by hundreds of small shimmering fish.

We're told to jump two at a time and to wait for Jesus by the boat. As soon as I do, I find myself very close to one of these gentle beasts as she swims by me, seemingly unfazed by our unsettling appearance – yellow life jackets and snorkels protruding above the water.

As promised, Jesus grabs us by the hand and leads us in a watery waltz around these magnificent creatures. After about 10 minutes he signals us to return to the boat so that he can escort two more snorkelers onto the oceanic stage.

After we've done this three of four times for a total of about 45 minutes, we're told that it's time to head back to Cancun. I feel a sort of sadness at having to leave my new friends.

Once back on the boat we find that about 20 other boats have circled around us. It's gotten too crowded for comfort and I can't help but feel sorry for the whale sharks and the dent this audience makes in their carefree existence.

– They’re very gentle creatures and are more interested in eating than they are in you

I'm also aware that most of the people in our group have gotten very seasick while waiting onboard the rocking ship while we took turns snorkeling. In fact, out of eight snorkelers only two of us have escaped the wrath of the roiling ocean. I'm grateful for my sea-worthy constitution and for the amazing adventure that nature has just afforded me. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Whale sharks can be seen from May through September, they are most prevalent in July and August. Tours can be booked through your hotel, or directly at the dock at Punta Sam in Cancun or on Isla Holbox.

12 THINGS TO DO IN BRANSON WITH THE GRANDKIDS

By Carole Jacobs

Summer’s almost over, school starts in just a few short weeks – and you suddenly realized you haven’t spent a minute with your precious grandkids in months. But where to go on such short notice that won’t be mobbed, impossible to get to or exorbitantly priced? Where there’s no wrong-side-of-the-tracks lined with boozy taverns, topless discos and adult book shops? Where cellphone service and internet access can be so sketchy in the countryside you’re virtually guaranteed 24/7 access to grandkids who would otherwise be wired, plugged in or flying high on AI?

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As a bi-coastal gal who’s spent little time in the flyover states, Branson, Missouri struck me as the perfect place for world-weary six-year-olds and grandparents seeking The Land of No Four Letter Words. So clean it squeaked and so all-American that nearly every theater and restaurant flew the flag, this Bible-Belt town populated by fervent Christian performers was the antithesis of Vegas, offering a bucket-load of wholesome, old-fashioned fun tailor-made for extended-family vacays. You could even get saved by heading behind the stage after a show.

Here are a dozen ways to spend a long weekend with the grandkids/kids in Branson.

Day One:

  1. You had to see it to believe it: Branson is justly world-famous for its “G”-rated shows. There’s no sex, no skin and no cursing, whether you’re watching Chinese acrobats tumble across the stage in death-defying stunts, magicians/illusionists performing mysterious feats or attending concerts where seeming clones miraculously recapture the sound of rock and roll legends. After a long, hot day in the park, we all welcomed the chance to sink into a plush seat at Dick Clark’s (remember him?) air-conditioned American Bandstand Theater and chill for the 2-hour Legends in Concert show. The fast-paced show opened with Country Western singer George Strait -- I thought he was the real McCoy until someone told me all the performers were impersonators -- continued with The Temptations, dressed to the nines and with all the right moves if occasionally off-key, and concluded with a highly-sanitized Elvis -- not a whole lotta shakin’ going on, although the performer totally nailed his voice. It was an otherworldly experience that recalled the phrase, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

  2. Spend a day at Silver Dollar City amusement park. Move over, Disneyland and Magic Mountain. This old-fashioned 1880s amusement park dedicated to preserving all-things-Ozarks was no stick in the mud, delivering a fleet of high-speed coasters where we screamed our lungs out and were grateful we hadn’t yet eaten lunch. Thunderation, the world’s coolest wooden roller coaster (named Best New Ride of 2013 worldwide) traveled at 48 miles per hour while The Giant Barn Swing launched us through a barn door and up seven stories at 45 miles per hour and nearly upside down. WildFire, a high-flying, multi-looping, cobra-rolling coaster approached speeds of 66 miles per hour while PowderKeg took us from 0 to 53 mph in 2.8 seconds and Fire In The Hole, a terrifyingly-fun indoor roller coaster, had unexpected high-speed drops, twists and curves. We caught our breath at Marvel Cave, where 600 steps descended 300 feet below the earth to the dripping cavern Cathedral Room, where limestone formations are still growing.  Afterwards, we had lunch at a park eatery, many housed in charming, tumbledown shacks and shanties that peek from the trees, following the smoky aromas to the Wagon Works Grill for chicken wraps and chipotle burgers and to Crossroads Pizza for handcrafted, wood-fired pies. We wiled away the afternoon white-water rafting on the Lost River of the Ozarks, floating through The Flooded Mine and watching demos of age-old crafts like candy-making, checking out Silver Dollar’s 1800s one-room school house and pretty Wilderness Church and watching demos of age-old crafts like candy-making and candle- making.

  3. Sack out: Historic downtown Branson is flanked by two stunning Hilton hotels – we checked into the sleek, high-rise Hilton Branson Convention Center, where swank floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked views of the town, Lake Tayencomo and Branson Landing pedestrian mall, although the family-friendly Hilton Promenade across the street, located a few steps from restaurants, shops and boutiques, looked equally beautiful. Rooms at both hotels include a free hot breakfast at Branson Hilton’s Level 2 Steakhouse, by night an elegant, candlelit farm-to-table restaurant where 28-day aged corn-fed Missouri beef was served with a choice of five very sharp knives along with locally-sourced dishes like Wagyu Steaks, Southern-Fried Chicken and Apple Braised Circle B Ranch Pork Osso Bucco, tantalizing sides like roasted garlic whipped, Sweet Potato Dauphinoise and Herb-and-Bacon Roasted Brussel Sprouts and sinful homemade desserts such as Missouri Butter Cake, Tahitian Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee and Triple Chocolate Mousse Tort.

Day Two

  1. Zip around Branson: With more than eight local zip line companies, you could spend the entire day flying over Branson like Wendy and Peter Pan at speeds up to 50 miles per hour.  Adventure Zipline of Branson, located just a few blocks from downtown Branson, was a thrilling, guided 2-hour tour that began atop a 70-foot tower overlooking awesome views of the Ozarks, with rides on seven individual ziplines ranging in length from 200 feet to 2,000 feet. We soared across meadows, between trees and to the foot of three rope bridges and were disappointed to learn their “Zip at Night” tours, where you fly through the dark night sky from one lit tower to another, were completely booked.

  2. Ride the ducks: Modeled after the military’s World War II DUKWs, these amphibians were used to transport troops and supplies over water to land and back again. On our guided, narrated tour, our pilot navigated us to the top of Baird Mountain and back down, past Table Rock Dam, Branson’s entertainment district and the Branson Belle showboat and on to Table Rock Lake for Splashdown, where our duck just kept on swimming! Plus every kid on board got a chance to drive.

  3. Have lunch at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, a 1950s-era eatery in downtown Branson where all the servers turned out to be singers, songwriters and musicians, many currently in Branson production and two of whom appeared on American Idol. Then we checked out Dick’s Old-Time 5 & 10, open half a century and crammed from the floor to the rafters with 1,110 kinds of old-time “penny candy” as well as toys, games, housewares and more.

  4. Wooo-woo! All aboard the Branson Scenic Railway! Headquartered in a quaint 1905 railroad station located a few steps from both Hiltons, the Ozark Zephyr vintage passenger train lumbered through the foothills of the Ozark Mountains on a nearly 2-hour journey through the Ozark wilds. We plunged through tunnels, clickety-clacked across trestles past the ruins of long-ago communities that today exist only on railroad maps and enjoyed panoramic views in the three dome cars.

  5. BBQ and a show: That night, we followed the tantalizing smells to Getting Basted, the original little-restaurant-that-could located inside the Starlite Theater that’s won many national BBQ awards for its home-style chicken, ribs, pulled pork, brisket and potato salad. The kids were thrilled their meals came on a souvenir Frisbee they could take home. After dinner, we went into the theater to see Larry’s Country Diner, a live stage show that retained the country wackiness and 100-percent-unscripted nature of the popular TV hit series.

Day Three

  1. We rose early for a home-style breakfast at The Farmhouse Restaurant, a Branson landmarked located in the historic downtown, and split three ways The Farmhouse Special, a heaping platter anchored by a huge slab of ham, two eggs, country potatoes, dollar pancakes, grits and biscuits with gravy.

  2. Afterwards, we hiked through Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 10,000-acre preserve just south of Branson with crystal-clear trout streams; dozens of cascading waterfalls; ancient burial caves; natural and hand-built stone bridges; bottomless, blue-green pools; jagged ravines and grassy pastures where we watched the long-horned cattle, elk, American bison, whitetail deer and Texas longhorns play before hopping on Segways for -- whee! -- an exhilarating guided tour of the park.

  3. “Have lunch at Hard Work U:” Even if your grandkids aren’t the least bit spoiled, it’s never too early to remind them of the value of hard work. At The College of the Ozarks, located on the grounds of a century-old farm, students working their way through college staffed the mill, greenhouses, dairy farm, bakery/espresso bar, ice cream shop and served as the culinary staff at Dobyns Dining Room, where we sat down to a killer farm-to-table lunch of fried green tomatoes and Pulled Pork Barbeque Cornbread Sandwich, both made with ingredients grown on campus.

  4. Relive the Titanic’s final, fateful hours at the Titanic Museum: At this fascinating museum, the words and stories of the passengers and crew told the horrific tale, some of it as it was unfolding, while more than 400 personal and private artifacts filled in the heartbreaking gaps: We felt their spirit presence and made haunting emotional connections with them we never got from the Hollywood movie.

  • www.ExploreBranson.com; Twitter: @ExploreBranson; #ExploreBranson; Facebook: ExploreBranson; Pinterest: ExploreBranson; Instagram: ExploreBranson

NINE COLORFUL CHARACTERS WHO MADE HISTORY

By Rich Grant

Sitting at the edge of Colorado’s No. 1 attraction – Rocky Mountain National Park – the little resort village of Estes Park lies in one of the world’s most beautiful locations, and as such, it has been attracting visitors for more than 150 years. In addition to the millions of tourists who have passed through, here are some other colorful characters who made history in Estes Park.

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JULES VERNE

In 1865, nearly twenty years before his classic “Around the World in 80 Days,” Jules Verne wrote a science fiction novel “From the Earth to the Moon” about the first spacecraft to the moon, which was fired from a gigantic cannon. To follow the space ship’s progress, he imagined a fictional 80-foot-long telescope on top of Estes Park’s most famous mountain, the 14,259-foot-high Longs Peak. This was somewhat remarkable, since at this point in history, no known person had ever climbed Longs Peak. Verne mistakenly thought this was the highest mountain in the United States. He wrote: “All the necessary apparatus was consequently sent on to the summit of Long's Peak…  Neither pen nor language can describe the difficulties of all kinds which the American engineers had to surmount…. They had to raise enormous stones, massive pieces of wrought iron, heavy corner-clamps and huge portions of cylinder, with an object-glass weighing nearly 30,000 pounds, above the line of perpetual snow for more than 10,000 feet in height.” Quite an accomplishment in 1865 when in reality, there was only one family living at the base of Longs Peak – that of Joel Estes.

Experience: It’s not quite as big as Verne imagined it all those years ago, but the Estes Park Memorial Observatory’s Ritchey-Chretien telescope is your gateway into deep space.

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JOEL ESTES

Joel was a restless man. He and his wife Patsey raised 13 children. Joel crossed the Oregon Trail, went prospecting in California and ended up in Denver in 1859 as a cattle rancher.  The Gold Rush crowds in Denver forced him farther and farther up into the hills, where he finally discovered an incredibly beautiful secret valley at the base of Longs Peak. When William Byers, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News, tried to climb Longs Peak, he stayed with the Estes family. Though unsuccessful, he rewarded the Estes’ hospitality by naming the valley “Estes Park.” By 1866, Joel was restless again and sold all of Estes Park for a pair of oxen and moved back to Missouri. But the memory of the place that still bears their name lingered on. Patsey later said her time there “was like living on the front doorstep of heaven.” 

Experience: The Estes Park Museum provides a window into the town’s past, with artifacts and exhibits stretching back to Joel Estes’ time.

JOHN WESLEY POWELL

Even though he lost his right arm fighting for the Union at the Battle of Shiloh, John Wesley Powell became one of the most well known explorers in history. In 1869, he led the first expedition to ever sail down the Grand Canyon in boats. A year earlier, he and William Byers made several attempts to climb Longs Peak, but were turned back each time. Finally, they found a route to the top and became the first white men known to do reach the summit (though they found evidence that Native Americans had beaten them to the top). It is estimated that 200,000 people have climbed Longs Peak since then, about 7,500 a year – although 60 have died trying.

Experience: Get to the top of the iconic Longs Peak in a safe and responsible way with a guide from Estes Park Mountain Shop – 14,255 feet above sea level.

ISABELLA BIRD

The fourth woman in history to climb Longs Peak was destined to become one of the most famous travel writers of all time. Growing up in England, Isabella Bird was frail and suffered from nervous headaches and insomnia. Her doctors recommended an outdoor life, and in 1873 she moved to Colorado, where the air was said to be good for your health. Settling in Estes Park, she eventually traveled 800 miles around the Rocky Mountains with her guide (some people said he was more than a guide) a one-eyed desperado named “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent (see below). Writing about him in her book, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,” she said he was a "man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry." (In Victorian England, that line was censored.) Isabella went on to travel and write about all corners of the world and became the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Experience: Isabella’s book about Colorado is still a great read and available in the national park gift shops and around town. Drop in to MacDonald’s Bookshop, Estes Park’s original bookstore, family owned since 1928, and browse their extensive history section.

“ROCKY MOUNTAIN JIM” NUGENT

Jim told so many tall tales that it’s difficult to separate truth from fiction. He may have been a trapper for the Hudson Bay Company, a British army officer or a defrocked priest. But we know for sure that he arrived in what would become Rocky Mountain National Park in the late 1860s. There, a close encounter with a bear left him with a scarred face and one less eye. Undeterred, he became one of the first guides in Estes Park and helped Isabella Bird and many others climb Longs Peak. But he had a falling out with another rival guide, Griff Evans. A year after Isabella returned to England, Evans shot “Rocky Mountain Jim” in cold blood with a double barrel shotgun. Incredibly, Jim lived long enough to write a statement accusing Evans, but without witnesses, Evans never stood trial.

Experience: The Fall River Visitor Center offers a variety of ranger-led educational opportunities, as well as exhibits on wildlife survival – just so you don’t end up looking like “Rocky Mountain Jim.”

LORD DUNRAVEN

 A good friend and drinking buddy of the murderer Griff Evans was Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, the fourth Earl of Dunraven of Ireland. Lord Dunraven came to Estes Park on a hunting trip in 1872 and fell in love with it. In what has been called one of the greatest land thefts in Colorado history, Dunraven acquired (mostly through unscrupulous means) 15,000 acres of land around Estes Park to create his own private hunting reserve. But the locals disliked his heavy-handed ways, and he became disenchanted with the large number of tourists visiting his private property (as many as 200 a summer!). So eventually Dunraven packed up and moved back to England, never returning. 

Experience: Lord Dunraven came from Ireland – but the Dunraven Inn, the classic Estes Park restaurant that bares his name specializes in Italian food. But certainly he’d approve of the Lord Dunraven, a center-cut sirloin steak charbroiled to perfection.  

ALBERT BIERSTADT

Before leaving, Lord Dunraven hired Albert Bierstadt, one of the most famous artists of the day, to create masterpieces of Estes Park. Dunraven paid him $15,000 – a deal in today’s terms. These days, Bierstadt is considered one of the great artists of the American West and his paintings, which hang in a dozen museums including the Smithsonian, can sell for $7 million or more. His paintings of Estes Park and the Rocky Mountains (now in the Denver Art Museum) helped popularize the area around the world. When Lord Dunraven decided to build a hotel, legend has it that artist Albert Bierstadt selected the site that would offer the best views and artistic light. That hotel burned down, but the next landlord would replace it.

Experience: Estes Park’s gorgeous sights continue to inspire, and the Art Center of Estes Park’s gallery brings together an array of masterpieces from local artists.

FREELAN OSCAR (F.O.) STANLEY

In 1903, F.O. Stanley, the wealthy inventor and producer of one of the first automobiles, the Stanley Steamer, was stricken with tuberculosis. Seeking a cure, he did what many did at the time and sought out the fresh air of Estes Park. In one season, his health improved dramatically and he resolved to turn the area into a world-class summer resort. He purchased 160 acres from Lord Dunraven and in 1907 constructed a grand hotel in the Colonial Revival style of New England, complete with electric lights, telephones, and en suite bathrooms. It was the first resort in the world where guests arrived by car rather than by train. Stanley helped Estes Park grow into a real resort village, and with his friend, naturalist Enos Mills, worked tirelessly to create Rocky Mountain National Park, which opened in 1915. The Stanley Hotel offered every modern service, except heat — a factor that helped determine its future fame.

Experience: Take a step back in time and learn more about The Stanley Hotel's rich history during a daily guided tour that takes you all over the property.

STEPHEN KING

In late fall 1974, a fledgling writer named Stephen King wanted to cross Trail Ridge Road, but it was already closed due to snow. He sought refuge in the Stanley Hotel. At this time, lacking heat, the Stanley was in the process of closing for the winter and King was the only guest. He sat up late with Grady, the one remaining bartender, walked the empty corridors of the hotel, and finally checked into room 217 … where he had one of the worst nightmares of his life. But by morning, he also had the outline of The Shining, his first best-selling hardback book. Both Grady and room 217 make important appearances in the book. The Stanley Kubrick/Jack Nicholson film of The Shining was shot in Oregon, but King disliked it so much, he supported a 1997 television movie remake, filmed entirely on site at the Stanley Hotel. Today, the Stanley is regarded as one of the most haunted hotels in the world and is studied by paranormal experts. Ghost Tours of the hotel are a popular excursion in Estes Park, and the film The Shining plays on cable in every room in the Stanley, 24-7. But don’t watch it there alone. 

Experience: Want to discover the Stanley’s “spiritual” side? Night Ghost Tours at the hotel take you to a few darkened spaces, telling the tales behind the "active" phenomena and spirit folklore that have been causing bumps in the night for decades.

CANNON BEACH + NEARBY

By Yvette Cardozo

The original plan was to go to Cannon Beach in Oregon for its annual sandcastle festival. But that turned out to be a minor part of what my friends and I squeezed into three brief days. We hiked, we ate, we hiked some more, we ate lots more. And, along the way, we did get to see the sandcastles.

We had planned to hike the first day but the weather (hey, it’s the Pacific NW) didn’t exactly cooperate. So we stopped by The Astoria Column in, yes, Astoria.

The column is not a lighthouse. Rather, it was built in 1926 with money from the Great Northern Railway and Vincent Astor, great grandson of John Jacob Astor. The goal was to honor the city’s role in the Astor family’s (a-hem, it’s called Astoria, Oregon), business history. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is covered in murals depicting the area’s history, including the Lewis & Clark expedition. Today, it’s part of a 30 acre park. The tower is 125 feet tall and has (puff, pant) 164 stairs up a spiral staircase to an observation deck at the top.

The climb is worth it but perhaps not for those bothered by heights. We saw one gentleman who stood at the doorway up top and absolutely refused to go out on the deck, then white knuckled it back down. My friends and I loved it and one of them ran up those stairs TWICE.          

What’s especially neat is that the tower overlooks the mouth of the Columbia River with killer views of the Astoria-Magler Bridge to the west and the rest of the river to the east.                                  

Then it was off to Seaside, 20 minutes north of Cannon Beach. There were half a dozen of us, so we rented a house just half a block from the ocean. The nice thing about this is we were far, far away from the madness that this sandcastle weekend becomes. We had this beach practically to ourselves, and headed out to watch the sun set. As we walked out, I turned around to see sun lighting the row of beachfront houses in one of those glowing colors that comes with northern latitudes late in the day.

Up and over the last ridge of grassy dunes, we saw the Pacific and a hard sand beach with a partially cloudy sky that turned gold, then orange as the sun went down. People snapped photos, one of my friends walked her dog, kids ran and splashed. I’m still not sure if that one couple was in the middle of proposing                               

The next day, early, we set out for Ecola State Park at the northern end of Cannon Beach where we hiked the Clatsop Loop Trail. The whole trail is only three miles but it climbs 700 feet. At one point, we had to scramble over a precariously angled, downed tree where a slip would have taken us over a cliff. The trail is rated by the state as “easy” making me wonder what it would take in these parts to rate a hike hard.

But the views...wow. From the Indian Beach Trailhead at the beginning, we had stunning views of the beach below with surfers heading in and out of the water. We watched as one father introduced his small son to the finer points of staying upright on a board. And at the top, we got a look at the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse a mile off shore.                     

OK, we finally did make it to the heart of Cannon Beach. We went to walk downtown (cute shops, nice restaurants) and had dinner at Sweet Basil Cafe. Their signature dish is the pork belly burger...hamburger, pork belly, cheese and so much more. The flowers out front, by the way, turned out to be something in the hebe family of plants that originally came from New Zealand and the Falkland Islands. They seem to really like a seaside environment. Practically every shop had some along the sidewalk.

There’s also a coffee shop (Sea Star Gelato) which specializes in steaming espresso over vanilla ice cream. It’s even better than it sounds.                 

And, yes, we finally, eventually, got to see the sandcastles. Cannon Beach has held this festival for more than half a century. There are two divisions...the Large Group Division and the Masters. First you enter the Large Group competition and if you win this, you can become a Master.

We parked our car with hundreds of others on the beach (bad choice, it turns out), then walked. And walked. And walked. Probably a couple of miles.

The scene was truly a beach party. People had hauled in grills, stalls were selling food and drinks, kids flew kites. And, a hefty hike north, were the sandcastles. At first, I was seriously underwhelmed. The sandcastles looked like something a kid would build. But the farther we went, the better they got. And then, at the far northern end, were the really good ones, built for the Masters Division.

Of the lesser ones, the only serious contender was by Team Pug Love. Pug, as in pug puppies. It was called “Don’t let the Bed Pugs Bite,” and featured, of course, pugs and a bed.

The masters challengers were all good. There was an elaborate train and a castle and ogres, but my favorite (and apparently also the judges’ fav) was Reverse Safari. It featured an elaborate scene of animals riding safari trucks to watch people. To build this involved intricate sculpting by a horde of team members. We watched one guy use a scalpel and toothbrush on an alligator.

Alas, except for the pugs, we never got to see the sculptures after they were done and without workers all over them. It turns out someone made a tiny error in the timing of the incoming tide. The judging for the masters ended at 3:45pm but around 3:15 a sonorous voice blared over loud speakers telling anyone with a car on the beach who didn’t want to see their vehicle try to swim in salt water to get out...fast.

So we rushed back to our car and joined a seemingly endless line to get out...not exactly fast but fast enough. By the time we got back to the road, the tide had come in and was already demolishing the sandcastles.

Next year, we’ll park on the road.                    

Our original plan was to come back to Cannon Beach and barbecue on the beach (not all of it was covered by the incoming tide). But between the morning’s hike at Ecola and all day on the beach, we were done. We fired up a grill at our rental house and did our hot dogs there, retiring to play board games.

The next day, before heading home, we hiked the Fort to Sea Trail, which marks the end of Lewis & Clark’s long, long journey in 1804/6 to the Pacific. There’s a Lewis & Clark National Historic Park which isn’t large but is more than worth a visit.

Honestly, I knew nothing about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, about the expedition, about its aftermath. It was actually a military expedition, by order of then president Thomas Jefferson to basically forge a path to the Pacific Ocean.                     

A few fascinating tidbits...the original cost estimate was something like $2,500, a vast chunk of that set aside for “gifts to the natives.” It actually cost closer to $50,000 (remember, this was the start of the 19th Century). And by the end, everyone’s clothing was so full of lice, hardly anyone could sleep.

Sadly after Lewis was rewarded with the governorship of “Upper Louisiana” for his part in the expedition, he went into debt and deep depression and committed suicide at 35. For 30 years after the expedition, Clark ranked as the leading federal official in the west and the point man for six Presidents, from Jefferson to Van Buren. He died at age 68 and there’s a fascinating mapping of eight generations of his descendants on a wall in the national park.

As for Sacagawea, she served not only as interpreter but also proof that this group of ragged military men was friendly, since they were accompanied by a woman and her infant child. Sadly, Sacagawea lived only a few more years, dying at 25 of a “putrid fever” that present historians think maybe was ovarian cysts.

The five mile trail goes from near the national park, through a beautiful valley, then a forest and finally to the beach. Along the way, near the beach, many trees are stripped bare. It’s the aftermath of storms in December, 2007 that included hurricane force winds. I remember what south Florida looked like after hurricane Andrew and these stripped trees were eerily familiar.

Finally, past 5pm, we headed back for home in Seattle.

We’ve decided next year, we’ll take four days for this trip. And we won’t park on the beach. 

THE DETAILS

Cannon Beach holds its sandcastle festival/competition each year in mid-June. Events include the sandcastle contest, a 5 K run, a parade the night before the Saturday judging and lots more.

http://www.cannonbeach.org/explore/Cannon-Beach-Sandcastle-Contest

If you want to enjoy the festival but avoid the madness, stay at a beach rental in nearby Seaside, 20 minutes north. We used Oregon Beach Vacations.

http://www.oregonbeachvacations.com/

Shopping bonanzas, soaring pyramids await visitors to Chiapas

By Bob Schulman

Subcomandante Marcos inspired a cottage industry in Chiapas.TUXTLA GUTIERREZ – Whoever named this city in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas must have been a history buff. Tuxtla comes from an ancient Aztec word meaning a place full of rabbits. Gutierrez honors Joaquin Miguel Gutierrez, a Chiapanecan hero in the mid-1800s.

About a half-million people live in this balmy city – locally called just Tuxtla – and in the evening it looks like every one of them has shown up at a downtown square known as Marimba Park. There, surrounded by dancers, musicians beat out sexy salsas, merengues and socas on the wooden slats of their xylophone-like marimbas, backed by blaring trumpets and saxes.

Tourists are welcome to get out there and shake it up, too, even if you’re trying to make a Texas two-step work for a Latin three-step. But it's all in fun, and foreigners willing to take a shot at it are rewarded by applause from the crowd.

Other than what you'll shell out for snacks – try the local conchito (pig) tacos –

and drinks from sidewalk vendors, an evening in the park, whether you’re dancing or just cooling off on its colonial-style benches, won’t cost you a single peso.

Tuxtla, the state capital, is usually the first stop on tours of Chiapas. Visitors typically get here on jets or group tour buses from Mexico City.

Apres-marimbas in the park, most foreigners go back to the city's half-dozen tourist-class hotels, grab a quick Chiapanecan dinner (ranging from hot to blast furnace hot) and hit the sack for a busy sightseeing schedule the next day.                                   

Forever amber -- Chiapas is one of the world's few sources.It's just 45 minutes up the road from Tuxtla, but the 16th century colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas might as well be on another planet. For one thing, it's chilly up there. For another, many of the 130,000 “Coletos” as the locals are known dress like they did centuries ago when Spanish conquistadores ruled their lands. What's more, at times the whole town looks like a stage for a giant handicrafts show.

History fans might have been busy at San Cristobal de las Casas, too. The city’s name combines its patron saint, St. Christopher, with the latter part of the name of Chiapas' first bishop, the beloved Dominican Friar Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566).

One shopping area in San Cristobal is a sprawling maze of side-by-side tents surrounding the town’s main cathedral. Here, tourists ambling along the narrow lanes find themselves in a wonderland of stunningly gorgeous shawls, blouses, placemats, tablecloths, blankets, jewelry and the like, all handmade and at bargain prices (and even lower depending on your haggling skills).

Look close, and you'll see two unusual items for sale. One comes from the Zapatista rebellion begun in Chiapas in 1994, led by the masked, gun-toting Subcomandante Marcos. Besides putting the state on the map – for a while, news coverage of the uprising showed up almost nightly on TVs around the world – the event spawned a sort of cottage industry in these parts: Vendors sell everything from coffee cups, keychains, tee-shirts and baseball caps to cute little stuffed figures clutching AK-47s, all bearing a likeness of the charismatic Marcos.

Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.Moseying around San Cristobal you probably wouldn’t expect to find amber (a rare, fossilized tree resin from the age of the dinosaurs), but dozens of shops around here are loaded with it. Be aware, though, that unlike the city’s famed handicraft bargains, its second shopping bonus doesn’t come cheap. Price tags depend on a piece of amber’s size, coloring and what was trapped inside it millions of years ago. Pieces containing bugs sell for thousands of dollars.

Be careful, there's a lot of phony amber floating around. Experts at the city's Amber Museum say you can use simple tests to tell the real thing. Is it light and warm? That's amber. Is it heavy and cold? That's just doctored up glass. Another test: Rub it, and if it smells like incense, it's probably genuine.                                               

From San Cristobal, a smorgasbord of tours runs across the state. Some, to name just a few, go south to Chiapas' beach resorts along the Pacific. Some go east to other colonial cities such as Comitan de Dominguez and then on to the natural wonders of the 820,000-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

Loaded with bags full of treasures and trinkets, visitors can stay in 10 or so three-star hotels around San Cristobal. From there, some tourists head south to Chiapas' beach resorts along the Pacific while others go east to more colonial cities, then on to the natural wonders of the 820,000-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

Still others go on to archaeological sites, such as the Maya ruins at Yaxchilan, Chinkultic and Bonampak at the eastern edge of the state bordering Guatemala. On its northern edge, about a five-hour drive from San Cristobal, are the better known ruins of Palenque. The grounds are usually packed with tourists scampering around its towering pyramids, tombs of ancient kings and other spectacular monuments, more than 200 in all. The city was once home to 10,000 people.

After spending a night or two at hotels in the modern-day Palenque City, visitors can catch outbound flights from Palenque International Airport. For others, the tour buses await for more adventures in Mexico.

More info: Visit the Mexico Tourism Board at www.visitmexico.com/en.

Earth to move under the feet of 600 tango dancers

By Bob Schulman

Try to imagine 600 dancers -- that’s right, 600 – dragging their feet across the ballroom floor, then clutching each other while, er, romantically gyrating around (and separating long enough for shy looks over their partners’ shoulders) -- all to music described as “the world’s most sensual rhythm.”

Photo credit: Buenos Aires Tourism Board.

It’s going to happen next month down in Argentina (of course) at Buenos Aires’ Annual Tango Festival & World Cup. Set to kick off Aug. 10 is a jam-packed schedule of concerts, shows, dance classes and milongas (tango parties featuring more relaxed – if that’s possible – leg and body movements). After two weeks of all this, judges will award the coveted cup to the best of the best dancers.

Among highlights of events at 42 venues across the city are shows by previous winners from around the world, “electro tango” entertainment and the ever popular “intimate live tango performances” at some of the city’s historic bars.

What’s more, the festival and its events are all free to guests.

There’s a lot more fun and action set for visitors to Buenos Aires over the next few months. Major events on the calendar include:

  • The city will put out its rainbow carpet for a week of LGBT-themed events Aug. 14-18. On a full slate of a “celebration of diversity” in tandem with the tango festival are LGBT cultural gatherings, sports activities, business talks and a travel conference. (In November, more than 100,000 people are expected to turn out for Buenos Aires’ annual National Pride Parade.)
  • Scheduled for Sept. 14-17 is Latin America’s largest design fair, called Puro Diseno. More than 400 exhibitors will display the latest trends in fashion, accessories, jewelry,  decorations, graphic design, home furnishings, textiles, photography and illustration.
  • To be held Sept. 15-17 will be an annual wine festival at which connoisseurs can  sample over 1,000 different labels and specialist tastings. Also on the agenda are seminars and demonstrations of wine and food pairing by master chefs.
  • The city’s streets will come alive Sept. 20-24 during Buenos Aires’ festival of new and alternative music, dance, theatre and arts. Called Ciudad Emergente, the event showcases the best of the city's emerging young talent covering everything from alternative rock and electronic music to photography, film, stand-up comedy, poetry and dance.
  • Among popular events set for October is a bi-annual international theater festival (Oct. 5-21), this year with some 25 venues across the city. Also, the annual Buenos Aires Marathon (Oct. 15) is expected to draw as many as 12,000 runners from around the globe.

Belize Part 2: Punta is like hula dancing on steroids

By Bob Schulman

Tourists are welcome to get into the swing of things at the settlement celebration. If you’re lucky enough to be vacationing in Belize on Nov. 19, you’ve got a probably unexpected treat in store. That’s the country’s Garifuna Settlement Day, an annual holiday celebrated by thousands of local folks dancing in the streets to the Garifunas’ booty-shaking punta music https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygwW9X59i9A. You’re welcome to get into the swing of things at punta-livened parades, parties and sing-alongs in bars.

So, what’s a Garifuna? Arguably – there are several versions of the story – their origin goes back to the 1630s when a Spanish slave ship from Nigeria sunk off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. It’s said a good number of the slaves somehow got out of their chains and swam to the island, at the time mainly the home of Carib Indians.

A century of intermixing went by, and the offspring of the ex-slaves and the Caribs became known at first as Black Caribs and later Garifunas – the latter believed to be from Garinagu, a local name for the Black Caribs.

Punta dancers liven up parades. Meanwhile, French settlers and the English crown slugged it out for control of St. Vincent in seemingly endless battles. The Brits won, and in 1797 they deported the Garifunas (who’d been chummy with the French) to Roatan, one of Honduras’ offshore islands. There, politics raised its head, and the Garifunas wound up migrating to the Honduran mainland, where they got on the wrong side of a civil war. Many were forced to move again, this time to spots in neighboring Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

The first dugout canoe of the Garifunas arrived in Belize on Nov. 19, 1832. Thus, the settlement holiday.

One of the country’s largest settlement celebrations draws merry-makers from across Belize to the town of Dangriga, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsYBUQyQWu0&list=PLFDF39E385A202803  site of the Garifunas’ landing 135 years ago. Located about half-way down the country’s Caribbean coast, the usually quiet little city goes bonkers during a week-long festival leading up to Settlement Day. Among highlights of the week are round-the-clock carousing and parades to the booming drums and blasting brass of punta music, the crowning of Miss Garifuna and an annual bike race.

Shoppers at a Belizean roadside supermarket. Photo by Bob Schulman.The big day on Nov. 19 kicks off with a re-creation of the Garifuna landing in dugout canoes full of authentic cargoes of cooking pots, drums, cassava roots (from a woody shrub used to make a tapioca-like dish) and young banana trees. After that, the paddlers are joined by throngs of spectators for a lively procession down Dangriga’s streets followed by a special church service and then partying and dancing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkP9TAuK_p0  through the night.

Normally home to about 10,000 people, the city – known as the cultural capital of Belize – swells to as many as 35,000 during the celebration.

A tip to tourists planning a trip to Dangriga for the settlement fest: Book early, because the town only has a half-dozen hotels. Another 17 hotels (starting at $28 a night at the Funky Dodo Backpacker) are some 8 miles down the coast at the Garifuna village of Hopkins.

Belize Part 1: Remembering Mr. Peters’ boom and chime band

By Bob Schulman

Belize River Lodge. Photo by Barry and Cathy Beck.Not too long ago there were “boom and chime” bands all over Belize, a speck on the map just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. If you managed to get down there before 2010 you likely heard the country’s top boom band – led by the iconic accordionist/singer Wilfred Peters – batting out tunes at parades, festivals, parties and miscellaneous jump-ups.

You’ll still hear budding boom and chimers here and there, but seven years ago the last of the genre’s old-time heavy hitters bit the dust when Peters slipped away at 79 to that big dancehall in the sky.

Peters’ chief sideman was a drummer who beat one side of his drum with a mallet to make a booming sound. The other side had a metal rim, which he hit with a hollow metal stick to make a chiming sound. Hence, “boom and chime.”

A big one that didn’t get away in the Belize River. Photo by Barry and Cathy Beck.Among other instruments in the band – think Cajun zydeco with a tropical flavor – were guitars, a banjo, bongo and conga drums, maracas and a donkey’s jawbone scratched with a stick.

Their songs featured the country’s homegrown and still popular mish-mash of African, Latin and Caribbean music called brukdown (meaning broken down calypso). It goes back centuries to the days when Belize – formerly British Honduras – was home to escaped slaves, out-of-work pirates (during hard times on the Spanish Main), Black Caribe Indians kicked off the Grenadines, Maya refugees from the Caste War in Mexico, Garifuna farmers evicted from an offshore island, people whose faces were on “Wanted” posters in a half-dozen languages and others who came to camps in the country’s steaming hot jungles to chop down forests of precious mahogany trees.

Fast-forward to the late 1960s, and three musically talented Belizean youngsters – accordionist Peters, a drummer and a guy playing a beat-up guitar – got together to form a creole band at first called “The Mahogany Chips.” According to Peters’ biography, they raked in the equivalent of $5 a gig plus all the rum-and-cokes they could down.

Belize’s normally quiet beaches become alive with revelers during holidays. Photo by Bob Schulman.Their creole tunes eventually morphed into brukdown, and as more band members came on board they changed the group’s name to “Boom and Chime.” They became so popular over the years in Belize and on worldwide tours that Queen Elizabeth honored Peters with an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

A sort of Belizean Bob Marley, Peters – known as Mr. Peters, the King of Brukdown – may be best remembered for his cheery wake-up song “Good Mawnin’ Belize” www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0UwWgHRo6Q, once heardat the crack of dawn on radios in homes across the country.

Among his many other chart-toppers, “Run Fu Yu Life” www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYr3gkGXzA8, about Mr. Peters’ narrow escape from a lady’s husband, blew rooms away on the band’s world tours from Belfast to Barcelona.

ARCTIC SIGHTS & NORTHERN LIGHTS

By Lisa TE Sonne

In the sweaty thick of the summer humidity and heat, I am imagining terrific AC (as in Arctic Circle) and thinking about what jacket to pack for my September cruise! Poseidon Expeditions offers unique trips on a small, luxury, ice-breaking ship that includes gliding past glaciers in the fjords of Greenland and visiting Inuit villages and Icelandic fishing towns. The night sky promises to flirt with the swirling dances of the Northern Lights and to reflect that colorful romance in waters punctuated with iceberg exclamation marks.

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As the ice cubes melt in my tumbler of summer tea, I conjure phenomenal northern vistas that are “cool” in multiple ways! How cool is it to be a polar explorer with the modern amenities and cozy comforts!

The m/v Sea Spirit travels with retractable fin stabilizers, an ice class ship with stabilizer fins hull, crew of 72, and a navigational flexibility that separates current day passengers from the discomforts and danger that threatened historic polar explorers. Up to 115 other passengers and I will be onboard to weave between gargantuan icebergs pushed by winds and tides to witness remarkable changing scenery. In Greek mythology, Poseidon is protector of seafarers. In Homer’s works, Poseidon is Master of the Seas. This will be my first adventure with Poseidon Expeditions.

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My “Arctic Sights & Northern Lights” voyage will leave the greens of Iceland and head to the whites of Greenland, to explore the largest and longest fjord system in the world. We start in Reykjavik, Iceland’s dynamic capital, and cruise to the West Fjords of Iceland. We’ll visit traditional fishing villages, then head through the Danish Straits and north of the Arctic Circle.

While on land we expect to encounter musk, artic hare, and archeological sites of the Thule (the ancestors of the Eskimo, aka Inuit), and hike toward vistas with peeks 2,000 meters high. We will visit a modern Inuit village called Ittoqqortoormiit, to meet the people and to greet the Greenlandic sledge dogs. I look forward mailing cards from the high latitude post office.

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We are also slated to spend five days exploring Scoresby Sund, the largest and longest fjord system in the world. Poseidon Expeditions promotes the destination on its website: “This part of the voyage is a real expedition. Our route and exploration opportunities here are heavily dependent on the weather and sea ice conditions we encounter. Our experienced captain and expedition leader … continually adjust plans as conditions and opportunities warrant.”

Long before Christopher Columbus introduced North America to southern Europeans, the intrepid traders of northern Europe (aka Vikings) were populating Greenland. The seafaring conquerors left enough remains in North America to fuel mysteries and debate.

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In the King’s Mirror written circa 1260, a father tells his son, that there are three reasons people go to Greenland—“to win fame, to satisfy curiosity, and to gain wealth.” ** I don’t expect fame, but my curiosity is abundant, and the traveler’s true wealth of experience and tales-to-tell await!

For nearly 18 years, Poseidon Expeditions has focused on the Arctic and Antarctic circles. The company also has a modern nuclear powered icebreaker, the Victory that takes guests straight to the North Pole. The website offers maps, testimonials and packing lists. You can even take a 360 degree, 3D virtual tour of the North Pole: https://360.poseidonexpeditions.com.

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And now I realize- I don’t even need to pack a jacket! A thick red “expedition one” tailored for the climate and adventure is a part of the package that I can take home. Long past the summer heat here, when Winter chills set in, I can warmly be embraced by the red parka as I embrace the unforgettable memories!

The ice cubes in my glass have now melted in this summer heat, reminding me that, with the rate that polar ice is melting, now is a good time to go!

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It’s not too late to get cool---

This itinerary is offered this summer:
https://poseidonexpeditions.com/arctic/east-greenland-arctic-sights-and-northern-lights/96/

For more routes and adventures:

Poseidon Expeditions
U.S. & Canada Phone: +1 347 801-2610

Website: http://poseidonexpeditions.com/

Email: salesUSA@poseidonexpeditions.com


Mailing Address:
245 Waterman Street, Suite 502, Providence, RI 02906

** This quote is from “THE FROZEN ECHO, Greenland and the Exploration of North America, ca. A.D. 1000-1500,” by Kirsten A. Seaver

Author Lisa TE Sonne has explored all 7 continents, is a member of the Explorers Club, and co-founded www.CharityChecks.us which offers wonderful “Giving Certificates” as gifts that can let travelers give back to the causes they care about.   www.LisaSonne.com

VICTORY VICTORIA

By Yvette Cardozo

I’ve just found the world’s fittest athletes...Commercial prawn fishermen.

I don’t know what I expected on the commercial fishing boat Nordic Rand that morning, but a nonstop whirlwind of frenzied activity wasn’t it. Not many outsiders get to follow their food from the bottom of the ocean to their plate. When the invite came, I said, “Absolutely, yes.”          

So at (urg-g-g-h) 5am one May morning, I showed up at the dock on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and discovered, um, you need to be an athlete just to get aboard. It was several feet down to the top of the railing. One of the guys grabbed a handle, swung out and landed, deftly, in the squeeze of empty space between bins and assorted equipment. For me, the boat pushed off, came around and picked me up at the public dock where all I had to do was swing my leg over the side. Whew.

Breakfast was a huge pan of scrambled eggs strewn with lots of cheese and whatnot along with an entire cookie sheet of bacon. For four guys. I soon learned why they chowed down so heartily.

The Nordic Rand runs half a dozen “long lines” -- sturdy half-mile long ropes, each holding 50 four-foot, disk shaped traps. All these are let out, left for a day, then reeled in and emptied. They do this every day, nonstop, sun up ‘til sundown, for the duration of the season, which this year ran early May through early June.          

We started with a quick lesson on prawns vs. shrimp. They are NOT the same thing, though for the average person, it’s a bit of splitting hairs (or really, claws). Prawns have claws on three of their five pairs of legs, shrimp have claws on two of their five pairs of legs. Prawns are longer and their tails are noticeably larger. As far as eating them goes, they taste and cook the same.

We motored out for about an hour, found the end of the trap line, loaded it onto the spooler and started reeling in the traps. And the fun began: It’s a whirlwind of flying spray and prawns. While Capt. James Simpson on the back deck reloaded the traps with bait, a mash of fish parts and fish food that went into hanging sleeves. Bryar Lang stood at the rail, clipping the coffee table size traps onto the line.          

When that line was loaded and spooled out, it was time to pull another line up. Traps were hauled aboard, emptied into a tray, then passed on to Simpson on the back deck who stacked the traps. By the end, the traps were stacked eight to ten high, waiting to be reloaded and redropped into the ocean. Each trap, loaded with its catch, probably weighed 50 pounds, by the way.

As for the tray, it was covered mostly not in prawns but shells holding hundreds of hermit crabs and assorted sea life. So Lang and his buddies Simon Winterburn and Kyle Plensky were now shoveling shells back into the ocean, along with the occasional fish and, at one point, a basket star bigger than a Frisbee.

Okay, then the rest of the work started. While Simpson on the back deck was reloading bait, the guy at the tray tossed prawns into separate bins by size. Those went into baskets, then into a vat of fresh water with a glazing dip so they would keep their pink color. And then they went into boxes, which were weighed and dropped into a huge freezer below decks which, amazingly, can go down to 55 below zero and flash freezes the catch. Each trap can be emptied once a day and each day they can bring in anywhere from 500 to 1,000 lbs of prawns.

As for the season, Simpson explained that an inspector comes periodically on board to sample the prawns. “If you’re catching only young, small ones, it’s time to close the season. Nobody wants to catch the small ones. There’s no money in it and it’s not good for the stock.”

And the rest of the year? Tuna and halibut in summer, sablefish in winter, Simpson said.

Now it was time to eat.

At my friend Laurie’s house, we had cold prawns and homemade cocktail sauce (ketchup, Worcestershire, horseradish, a splash of lemon juice, a splash of tabasco).

And then to Little Jumbo, a cozy restaurant near Victoria’s waterfront. Chef Gabe Fayerman-Hansen whipped up prawn ceviche over an avocado mousse. The prawns were silky soft and you could actually taste the individual ingredients: the mild, grassy bite of cilantro, the tang of ginger, the garlic, even a hint of the basil, and, of course, the vinegar and lime. Yes, my tongue is almost dripping as I type this.

The entree was prawns tempura. The batter was light and crisp and seasoned just enough for character but not so much as to overpower the sweet ocean taste of prawns that had been swimming that very morning.

During prawn season, Chef Gabe runs prawns at Little Jumbo as a special feature. And this year, he was the chef at the FAS (Finest At Sea) headquarters/retail store cooking prawns and handing them out to the public.

The day I left to fly back to Seattle, I stopped in at the FAS fish counter and loaded up on smoked tuna and salmon “candy,” but not before taking a picture of the display, where you could see signs telling you not only what the fish was but how it was processed and what boat brought it in.

THE DETAILS

For Americans, it is okay to bring smoked fish (and meat) back into the US.

FAS (Finest At Sea) hosts free BBQs at their office/retail shop in Victoria celebrating the various fishing seasons including prawns, salmon, tuna, halibut, sablefish and more. Then once a month, they have a dinner where one of their fishing boat captains comes to talk about commercial fishing. To close the prawn season in June, Capt. James Simpson described what his boat does and brought one of his traps. The four course dinner that month featured prawns and was $90 Cdn. Reservations for future dinners can be made through the FAS website or calling (250)383-7760.    

PLENTY MORE TO DO IN VICTORIA

Government Street with its pubs, cafes and shops is always a top draw in Victoria. But there’s lots more:

* Abkhazi Teahouse - It was once the home of exiled Georgian Prince Nicholas Abkhazi and his wife Peggy. After their deaths, The Land Conservancy of British Columbia purchased the property to save it from becoming a townhouse development. Today, you can stroll the compact garden and enjoy high tea. Everything on the menu is made onsite except for the Devonshire cream. The teas are local from Silk Road Teas and all of the baking, including pastries and gluten free bread (available for sale), is made by pastry chef Gerry Galapon.

* A Taste of Victoria Food Tours - Owner Andy Olson takes folks on a two hour stroll of history and tasty nibbles through the heart of Victoria. It begins at the Victoria Public Market and includes stops throughout Chinatown including Fan Tan Alley, then on to Market Square, Government St., the Inner Harbour Causeway and Parliament Buildings.

Our day included French Oven Bakery for hot, out of the oven breads, Roast Meat for meatballs, The Very Good Butchers for tastes of vegan fare that included a “Roast Beast Sandwich” made with bean based “meats” that to a dedicated carnivore was stunningly good. Then on to Chinatown for a peek at the three-foot-wide Fan Tan Alley, La Roux French Patisserie for sweets, Just Matcha for Japanese green tea, Sult Pierogi Bar for, yes, pierogis and winding up with samples at Rogers Chocolates.

But best was some fascinating tidbits of information. Such as the fact that the famed Empress Hotel is sinking an inch each year. Low windows are now a foot below ground because the place was built on a landfill. But even better, when they ripped off all that ivy (yes, the Boston ivy is gone), they found stashes of jewelry that had been stolen from guest rooms by raccoons.

*The Fickle Fig Farm Market - This is about as “farm to table” as it gets. Chef/farmer/owner Mitchell Morse dreamed of opening a bistro right on a farm. So behind his little cafe in the Victoria suburb of North Saanich are raised beds with salad greens, a little pig pen with three fat pigs, pet bunnies (no, they are NOT on the menu) and around the neighborhood, several acres of leased mini farms.

Morse started out baking breads for sale but one thing led to another and now he is doing light lunches featuring whatever is fresh and seasonal. The day we visited, it was homemade chicken veggie soup, homemade pizza and, of course, homemade bread. He also holds classes which, last June, included pizza making, bread making and a pasta class.

*Victoria Butterfly Gardens - My fav thing here (after the meat eating tropical plant) was the huge ant farm near the entrance where you can watch a determined line of ants marching up and down tree limbs, each clutching a huge bit of leaf, destined for its nest. Then beyond the doors in the well heated (80 degree) tropical forest are the butterflies. Owl butterflies munching on banana slices, tailed jay butterflies perched on neon purple leaves and lots more, along with assorted turtles and two flamingos so startling pink, they make your eyes hurt.

CONTACT

Finest At Sea: http://www.finestatsea.com/ 

Little Jumbo: http://littlejumbo.ca/

Abkhazi Teahouse: http://www.abkhaziteahouse.com/ 

A Taste of Victoria Food Tours: http://www.atasteofvictoriafoodtours.com/

Fickle Fig Farm: http://www.theficklefig.ca

Victoria Butterfly Gardens:  http://www.butterflygardens.com

TUCSON + POINTS SOUTH

Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo

No, I had not heard of Bisbee, AZ.

Such a shame. It’s worth the two hour drive south from Tucson.

“You interested in an underground mine tour?” A friend asked.

Cool, dark, historical ... yes, of course.

Which is how we, and our Tucson friends, wound up at Queen Mine, donning battery operated hand lights and hard hats and welcoming a chance to savor 55 degree temps (summer had come early to southern Arizona).

This was one of the most productive copper mines of the 20th Century. Mining stopped in 1975 when the ore gave out and the tours started three years later.

We climbed aboard a “train,” basically long seats pulled by a guide on an “engine” with a motor. Then, some 1500 feet into the mine later, the tour started.

Guide Don showed us chutes where huge boulders filled with ore dropped into cars and told stories about the early mules (“She would only pull four cars. Tried to bribe her with fruit to add the fifth, but she wouldn’t budge.”)

Powered engines eventually let them haul 30 or 40 cars at once.

We stopped to see where dynamite was shoved into holes, saw fuses hanging from the wall, got to sit atop the metal porta potty that looked more like an old fashioned wood burning stove than a, well, you know.

There is a LOT more to Bisbee ... a downtown art district, restored Victorian homes and hotels, and, oh, yes, the stairs. The Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb is a 5k run that climbs the town’s 1,034 (yep, someone counted them) stairs.

Billed as "the most unique physical fitness challenge in the USA!" by the organizers, the climb includes runners being serenaded by musicians at various locations along the (puff, wheeze) way. Meanwhile, In 2016, Bisbee earned the title of Best Historic Small Town in both Sunset magazine and a USA Today online reader poll.

So we definitely plan to return and spend more time.

After the mine, we took a Jeep tour south to see the open pit mine, antique cars and a brief side trip to photograph the border fence that leads to Mexico. There’s one car that sits in front of the Lowell Police station that says it once belonged to Barney Fife ... the bumbling, wide eyed deputy on the Andy Griffith Show which ran on TV in the early 1960s.

Then it was back to Tucson by way of Tombstone.

Yes, THAT Tombstone ... famous for Sheriff Wyatt Earp, the Gunfight at the OK Corral and now offering a few downtown blocks that have tourist stage coaches, restaurants and souvenir shops. And should you want something cool and wet, there’s Big Nose Kate’s Saloon with stained glass windows and lots of old west character.

My friends knew I wanted to see flowers, so the next day we headed for Tohono Chul in Tucson, a botanical garden that is also a great park.

It’s 49 acres of winding paths, lots and lots of cactus and, in spring (April-ish), lots of cactus flowers. Plus there are tours that cover everything from butterflies to hawks to reptiles.

We caught the reptile talk, where we got to pet (yes, harmless) snakes and learned what NOT to do if a rattler bites you. Basically, forget everything you’ve ever heard ... the cutting, the sucking, the spitting, the tourniquets. Stop, sit down, have someone call for help. And wait (hopefully you are not too far in the bush).

And then, Docent Anita offered to take us around and tell us about the flowers ... yellow prickly pear blooms, purple sage, bright almost orange Mexican sunflowers and a foothills Palo Verde tree in and explosion of glorious yellow.

Our plan the next day was to visit Sabino Canyon but, well, it was Saturday before Easter and the parking lot looked like spring break at Disney World. Instead, we headed up Mt. Lemmon, at 9,159 feet, the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains. The last two times we had tried this, it was November and, amazingly, we got snowed out.

This time, it was clear blue skies and visibility that went forever.

The boulder formations on the way up are fantastic ... gnarled, twisted lumps and one that looks like a man’s face. Windy Point is where everyone stops to do a short hike, photograph this cool dead tree and just gawk at the landscape.

The road up winds for 27 miles, ending at the town of Summerhaven with some neat restaurants and a nearby ski hill (200 skiable acres, 22 trails, 950 foot vertical drop and a chairlift that operates year round so you can ride it up for views in summer).

We grabbed a bite at Sawmill Run Restaurant ... good food, decent prices, especially considering it’s a tourist spot.

And our last day, it was off to Saguaro National Park. The park is actually split into two ... one part east of Tucson, the other west of town. In the west district, there’s a really nice visitor’s center where, because it was a holiday, entrance to the park was free and we got 15 percent off our purchases (neat T-shirts, mesquite honey, lots more). Then we went to hike.

But temperatures were already hitting the low 90s, weeks ahead of schedule, so we kept to the half mile Desert Discovery Nature Trail. That turned out, actually, to be far more picturesque than the Valley View Overlook Trail we originally planned, and bailed from, after about half an hour because of the heat.

We were about a week early for the peak of cactus blooms but, still, we found plenty to photograph.

And that was it. We’re leaving downtown, the town’s neat restaurants and museums for another trip.

INFO:

Bisbee: http://www.discoverbisbee.com/

Tohono Chul Park: http://tohonochulpark.org/

Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley: http://www.skithelemmon.com/

Mt. Lemmon/ Summerhaven: http://mtlemmon.com/summerhaven/

Sawmill Run Restaurant: http://sawmillrun.com/

TUCSON PHOTO DIARY: https://goo.gl/photos/vtdPmS5u7HC6wBH77

Cruise lines turn ships into seagoing camps

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

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It’s like a summer camp – except all the fun is at sea. The cruise experts at CruiseComplete want you to know that more and more lines are offering special activities for youngsters this summer. Their marketing strategy is to draw whole families to their staterooms by promoting a “camp” experience during the cruise.

Here’s a sampling of activities for the younger set now found on a cross-section of cruise ships:

Camping lures on Princess Cruises include pajama parties, ice cream and pizza bashes, hip-hop dance classes and special teen-only dinners. Also, the line’s larger ships have sprawling Youth Centers with both indoor and outdoor activity areas for youngsters.

Royal Caribbean has lots of fun things to do for children in different age groups from nursery programs for toddlers as young as 6 months to dance parties, parades, ice shows and aqua shows with characters from the Dreamworks animation movies.

Carnival Cruise Lines offers a double-barreled blast (Camp Carnival on some ships and the marine-themed Camp Ocean on the others) of fun-for-everyone. One of Carnival’s biggies is Night Owls where kids 11 and younger can gather between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. to play video and board games, watch movies and nosh on snacks. Many other age-appropriate activities are offered to younger children.

Are your little ones wannabe chefs? If so, check out Holland America’s Culinary Arts Centers where kids can learn to whip up meals in special workshops. Another popular on-board attraction is Club HAL, which offers activities ranging from ice cream and storytelling parties to pirate treasure hunts.

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MSC Cruises touts four clubs for youngsters: a Mini Club for tots 3 to 6, a Junior’s Club for the 7 to 11 age group, a Young Club for kids 12 to 14 and a Teen’s Club for cruisers 15 to 17.  Among various age-focused activities are sports tournaments, talent and dance contests, arts and crafts classes and a high-tech “Virtual World Arcade.”

You’d expect that Disney Cruise Line would be loaded with things your little ones will talk about for years, and it is. Their ships are like immense bow-to-stern camps, starting with It’s a Small World Nursery on some ships for tots 6 months to 3 years old. Then there’s Disney’s Oceaneer Club featuring Andy’s Room (with larger-than-life characters from the animated film Toy Story) and Pixie Hollow (inspired by the series of Tinkerbell movies).

Additionally available on the Disney Fantasy are Monsters Academy (based on the animated film Monsters, Inc.) and Explorer Pod (a scaled down submarine look-alike from the film Finding Nemo). And on the Disney Dream youngsters can additionally frolic in a section called Star Wars: Millennium Falcon (an intergalactic play area) and in the Disney Infinity Game Room (a high-tech play area).

Featured on the Disney Magic are MARVEL’S Avengers Academy (a simulated top-secret command post) and the Mickey Mouse Club (where kids can play games on tables shaped like Mickey Mouse’s ears and on a wall featuring Goofy Ears).

You can get more info on seagoing camps and other family draws offered by these lines and dozens of others on CruiseComplete’s website (www.cruisecomplete.com).

Off-beat trips await adventurous tourists

By Bob Schulman

Take notes, adventurers. Here are four way-off-the-beaten-track places around the world just waiting for you to explore, take part in the local action and soak up sights straight out of the most exotic travel brochures.

A big one that didn’t get away. Photo credit: Frontiers International Travel.

Let’s start off with a trip to a plush fishing camp you wouldn’t expect to find in the remote Russian wilderness way up above the Arctic Circle. There, you can hook biggies from a jet boat on the salmon-packed Ponoi River before heading back to your private cabin in the Ryabaga Camp for some gourmet chow and fine wine. Getting there: Take a commercial flight to Helsinki, Finland, then a charter hop to Murmansk, Russia, then a two-hour helicoper flight to the camp.

The seven-night trip is priced at $7,490 to $15,490 per person (depending on your travel dates) plus $1,250 for the round-trip charter flights. For more info check out the website of Frontiers International Travels at www.frontierstravel.com/ryabaga-camp-the-ponoi-river

Wildlife in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. Photo credit: Adventure Life.

If fishing doesn’t turn you on, how about hiking and camping in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains? While you’re moseying around the range’s 12,000-foot-high peaks chances are you’ll run into animals like gelada baboons, walia ibex and now and then an Ethiopian wolf. Hikes start and end at the Simien Mountain Lodge, set on the edge of an escarpment 10,700 feet above sea level.

Getting there: First fly commercially to Ethiopia’s capital at Addis Ababa, then fly on to Gondar. The seven-day Ethiopian tours (including four days of hiking and camping) begin this Oct. 6, Nov. 3 and Dec. 1. Prices start at $2,760 per person plus $500 for the internal air hops to Gondar and back. More info: Adventure Life, www.adventure-life.com/africa/ethiopia/tours/11467/simien-mountains-trek.

City slickers on the range. Photo credit: Red Reflet Ranch.

Git along, little doggies... Another popular tour samples America’s old west – complete with horseback riding, taking part in cattle drives and other cowboyish activities. All this and a lot more is waiting for you at Wyoming’s Red Reflet Ranch, a combined working cattle ranch and luxury resort near the dot-on-the-map of Ten Sleep in the Big Horn Mountains. Spread over 27,000 acres, the resort features large, private chalets equipped with Wi-Fi, satellite television, a hot tub and steam showers.

Getting there: Pick-up and return to the airport at the small town of Worland, Wyo., are complimentary. Charges apply to ground transport services to and from the ranch by way of larger airports in Wyoming and Montana. Summer rates (through Sept. 10) range from $2,163 per person for a three-night stay to $4,900 per person for seven nights. More info (including specials and fall and winter rates): https://red-reflet-ranch.net.

Northern Lights in Alaska. Photo credit: Gondwana Ecotours.

Finally, you can zip up to Fairbanks, Alaska, for some dogsledding through snowy forests, hiking alongside a family of reindeer and topping off the day by soaking in geothermal hot springs. At night you can check out the jaw-dropping Northern Lights (aka the Aurora Borealis)  accompanied by a professional photographer (who’ll help you get the perfect shot of that amazing sight).

This year’s departures for the six-night Northern Lights tour are set for Sept. 23, Oct. 21, Nov. 10, Dec. 2 and Dec. 28. The price is $2,345 per person. More info: See the website of Gondwana Ecotours:

http://gondwanaecotours.com/tour/northern-lights-tours-alaska.

Pricing notes: The per-person tab for these four and other adventure tours is typically based on double occupancy and doesn’t include your flights to and from the destination’s local airport (such as your jet hops from the U.S. to Helsinki and back).

Edible, Incredible Kauai

By Carole Jacobs

Glass Beach-Photos courtesy of Visit Mendocino CountySun-kissed strands, azure seas, emerald cliffs crashing to thundering surf –there are more reasons to visit Kauai than there are shells on the beach.

But before I visited last month, I never knew one of them was its hip and happening food and agriculture.

Today, instead of spending all your time stand-up paddling or building a Baywatch tan, you can join a food tour and visit fascinating specialty farms where they grow everything from chocolate and vanilla to organic veggies, frits, spices, nuts, coconut, palm, taro and medicinal plants, spices and herbs.

In between tours, you’ll dive into the freshest food you’ve ever tasted at a slew of new restaurants, cafes and food stands showcasing the island’s edible bounty.

You could visit some of the farms on your own -- Kauai is only 33 miles long and 25 miles wide and encompasses just 552 square miles – just a little smaller than Houston. But many of the farms are tucked in the hills and mountains beyond a maze of unmarked dirt roads, cell phone service can be sketchy and hey, you could get stranded. 

Glass Beach - credit Trish MorattoA far more fun, safe and efficient way to see the best farms and restaurants in Kauai is to take a food tour with Tasting Kauai Food Tours (www.TastingKauai.com). Owners Marta Lane, a freelance food writer and author of Tasting Kauai Restaurants; An Insider’s Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island, and her husband, Daniel Lane, a leading freelance food photographer, know everyone associated with food, restaurants, farming and growing on the island and will introduce you to people and places you’d never find on your own.

The calorie onslaught begins

We were six hungry women on a mission: to eat anything and everything Kauai put in our path. Our first stop was the luxurious Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas, a clifftop resort overlooking the ocean and mountains on Kauai’s wet, lush North Shore, where we’d spend three nights. Each bungalow had a balcony, kitchen and laundry room – perfect for folks who didn’t want to blow their whole budget on eating out and planned on getting down-and-dirty. The resort also had a beautiful n indoor/outdoor restaurant, café, fitness center, spa, lawns with pavilions where you could gaze over the sea, and a large pool complex. I saw a snarky-looking, overgrown trail snaking down to a long, silky beach but was later advised it was dangerous and to take the free shuttle instead.

Over by one of the pools, savory-smelling smoke was spiraling from several BBQs and a table was set in linens for an elegant starlight dinner.

Marta and Daniel were there, as were a few of the local farmers, and as we dug into a feast of barbecued fish, chicken, pork and beef, scrumptious salads and homemade bread, they told us our basic schedule for the following week. We’d visit several of North Shore Kauai’s top farms, growers, restaurants, food stands, bakeries and nature preserves, with free time for outdoor recreation like kayaking, surfing and hiking – to ensure we didn’t go home looking like bowling balls.

An intro to what grows in Hawaii

The next morning we rose early, polished off the hotel’s elegant breakfast buffet (a mistake I wouldn’t make again given the sheer volume of food we were fed)  and vanned to Limahuli National Tropical Botanical & Preserve, tucked at the foot of mossy, Xanadu-like peaks.

Mendocino VillageOur trail spiraled up past archeological ruins and a hale (a traditional Hawaiian thatched-roof hut), and over kissing bridges past “canoe gardens” -- plants that floated in  on the long-distance voyaging  canoes of the ancient Polynesians and took root here.

We tiptoed carefully around a garden of endangered plants and passed many familiar (and some unfamiliar faces), including sweet potatoes, bananas, coconuts, turmeric, sugar cane, palm, mangos, ginseng, breadfruit and the almighty kava, an ancient medicinal plant that the ancients (and many moderns) chew or sip to reduce pain and stress.

The Zen of poi

Then it was off to a picnic table lunch at Hanalei Taro & Juice Company, located in the charmingly historic town of Hanalei, and run by a sixth-generation Kauai family who also ran a 30-acre taro farm down the road.

Noyo HarbourThe patio was packed with locals busy wolfing down pulled pork, chicken, salmon or lamb, and they all seemed to have a runny-looking clump of something mysterious on their plates. It was poi, a traditional part of native Hawaiian cuisine made by baking or steaming the corm of the taro plant until it became a highly viscous fluid. It looked revolting – like a cement-colored mixture of glutinous gravy and glue, and I wondered if I had the moral fiber to taste it.

When my Kalua Pig Plate arrived, there it was right alongside my pulled pork and rice. I poked it with my fork, took a tiny taste – bleh! -- and immediately spit it out. Poi was obviously an acquired taste.

As I was polishing off my pork and lump of plain, unadorned rice, the food truck owners, Brad and Lyndsey, sat down next to us to announce we’d be vanning to their taro farm tour immediately after lunch. (Damn! And I’d been planning to sneak down the street for a burrito!)

Noyo HarbourLyndsey chattered on, explaining that because of its high protein content, they tried to slip poi into every dish they sold --taro smoothies, hummus, burgers, taro mac salad and kululo, a traditional dessert made with taro and coconut. I took a nibble of the cake but the glutinous texture was still there. Before getting up, she said her entire family ate poi daily, that a batch could be kept for several days, and that poi became tarter with each passing day, a flavor many Hawaiians preferred over the fresh stuff.

Totas las tapas

Back at the resort, I did some Pilates to calm myself (was all the food going to be like this?) and then got ready for our “just the girls” dinner at Restaurant Bar Acuda. The minute we walked in, I had my answer. Nearly every seat was taken in the swank, candle-lit tapas bar. The eatery is run by Chef Jim Moffat, named by Food & Wine magazine in 1996 as one of America’s best new chefs.

We ogled the menu and every tapa sounded so tempting we decided to order them all to share. From the  Hawaiian Mahi-Mahi with roasted mushrooms and brown butter/ginger vinaigrette to the Grilled Lamb Riblettes with roasted cherry tomatoes, curry oil and French feta cheese, each one was a surprising and delightful burst of flavor and texture.

We peeked at the dessert menu reluctantly--could we afford to eat dessert on a tour that already threatened to turn us into beached whales? “What the hell, let’s go for it!” said one of my comrades, so we ordered all the desserts as well. I tried not to hog the Chocolate Pot de Crème and the Triple Chocolate Cheese Cake, but it was a challenge.

Paradise on earth

“I’m never going to eat again!” wailed one of the women in our group. But the next night, after a day of sea kayaking and snorkeling found the six of at Waipa Foundation facing an elegant al fresco “farm dinner” which bore no semblance to any farm dinner I’ve ever had.

Noyo HarbourThe fish was utterly fresh and fork-tender, the potatoes were buttery fragrant and the green beans and salad tasted like they had just been plucked from the garden. Which, in fact, they had.

Not a restaurant per se, the 1,600- acre Waipa Foundation is a drop-dead-gorgeous community center with its own organic farm, orchard and mountain preserve. Green fields rolled up to even greener mountains, there were lots of farm animals to visit, and every Thursday, locals and tourists come for its Tuesday (farmers) Market.

The secret garden

By Friday we were all ready for a palate cleanser, and to our luck, it came in the form of The Kauai Farmacy, a lush, 4-acre farm/medicinal garden set in the shadow of a sacred mountain.

It’s owned by Doug and Genna Wolkon, who ditched their corporate jobs in Connecticut (Genna remains an artist) and moved to the farm in 2007 after the birth of the first of their three children. Stressed out, burned out and overweight, they sensed there had to be a healthier and happier way to live and found the island in general and the farm in particular, which rolls up to a sacred mountain, has empowered them with the ability to self-heal.  

Since then, the couple and their staff of gardeners have  taught themselves how to hand-harvest their crops, cure plants with solar dehydrators, and chop and blend everything into tea, culinary spices, superfood elixir powders, salves, and hydrosol sprays.

As we chatted, it became clear that Doug and Genna didn’t view plants and herbs as mere food or a source of income, but as sentient beings worthy of respect. They and their staff not only talk to the plants daily but and ask them for permission before harvesting them.

And in fact, the gardens did seem special – as if they were lit from within. Everything from the lettuce and spinach to the cinnamon and catnip looked more colorful, vibrant and was much larger than any produce I’d encountered at my local Vons.

Today, the farm produces a line of medicinal herbs, loose-leaf teas, herbal tea powders, healing salves and seasonal hydrosol sprays sold at the farm, in local shops and at their stand at th3 Saturday Anaina Hou Farmers Market in Kilauea.

The dry side of Kauai

From the farm, we drove south clear across the island to Poipu Beach on the South Shore. Were we still on Kauai? The air was dry, the sky was cloudless, palm trees swayed in the breeze and the vistas were endless -- it was as if someone had flipped a switch and we had landed in SoCal.

Our home for the next two night was the Sheraton Kauai Resort, a luxury high-rise located a few yards steps from the sea and a long silky beach.

From my eighth floor balcony, I could see whitecaps toss and roll across a vast expanse of sea before thundering into the rocky coves below and explode in spray.

That night, we enjoyed another memorable meal at the hotel’s oceanfront RumFire Restaurant, feasting on seared Wasabi Pea-Crusted Ahi Tuna, Boneless Short Ribs on Yukon Mashed Potatoes and creative sides like Fried Brussel sprouts, Coconut Lemongrass Soup and Bacon and Beets Salad.

Per our custom, we ordered all of the desserts to share, and I waited eagerly for the Brûléed Cheesecake and the Flourless Dark Chocolate Torte to makes it way around the table to me again. 

Where the chocolate and vanilla grow

On our final day, we followed a maze of dirt roads into the hills to the 8-acre Steelgrass Chocolate Farm, owned by the Lydgate family since 1867. Our lively guide led us down a short, steep path, pointing out orchids, vanilla and peppercorn vines and dozens of plants I’d never heard of before stopping at a picnic table covered with samples. We started with the chocolate pod. Its lush seeds were covered in a sweet, but it was no match for a Hershey’s Kiss. Then she passed around some of the strangest-looking fruits I’d ever seen. Some of them actually looked like alien from outer space when in fact they only grow here.

Mendocino OverviewIt was another short walk to a shaded tasting tent where we sat down to sample 10 different types of chocolate and attempted to match them up with 10 countries listed on a sheet.

I was astonished that chocolate could taste so different – from mouth-puckering sweet to nutty, fruity, bitter, sawdust-y and even like they’d be rolled in the dirt.

The last supper

We donned our best duds for the plantation-style Merriman’s Fish House, located in a ritzy outdoor shopping mall near the hotel and overseen by Peter Merriman, a pioneer in the “farm-to-table” movement.

Elegant, modern, airy and sun-filled, it turned out to be my favorite restaurant of the trip, not just because of the incredible food and views but because the restaurant completely eliminated the agony factor of ordering.

Mendocino VillageAs my husband has often observed, I have a hard time deciding what to get and a special knack for ordering the wrong thing, spending the rest of the meal coveting my neighbors’ plates. Merriman lets customers order two half-portions of everything – from appetizers, salads and entrees to desserts, which doubled my chances of actually ending up with a meal I loved.

As usual, I told the waiter to take my order last, inspected the menu with x-ray vision and chose what I sensed would be some sure-fire winners. For appetizers, I order a Kona Lobster and Crab Cake, and the Sautéed Kauai Shrimp; for salads, Peter’s Original Caesar, and Warm Cheese, Arugula, Onion and Strawberries and for my entrees and sides, chose the Macadamia Nut Crusted Kampachi and Wok-Charred Ahi with Green Beans and Roasted Eggplant, and Sweet Corn–Jalapeño Whipped Potatoes. Per our custom, we’d order all the desserts and pass them around.

It was still a lot of food, and while I was hardly able to clean my plate, I finally winded up with a meal where I loved everything.

As the waiter served us coffee (“You can have an entire decaf cappuccino,” he teased me). I gazed out the large windows overlooking the breathtaking plantation and suddenly everything seemed all right with the world -- although it would probably take me a month to get back into my skinny jeans.

Professional honors

ONCE UPON THIS TIME

Story by Anne Z. Cooke, Photography by Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld

Auntie Lydia, with the Tourism Office, wears the traditional flower “ei,” first cousin to a Hawaiian lei.It was a quiet afternoon in 1982 in Avarua, Rarotonga, when Lydia Nga got the news.

With the stroke of a pen, her homeland, the Cook Islands, 15 scattered islets and atolls west of Tahiti, grew exponentially, remade as a 690,000 square-mile nation.

But it wasn’t the islands that grew.  Instead, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled that countries with coastlines had rights to 200 miles of adjacent ocean, defined as “an exclusive economic zone.” For an archipelago country like the Cooks, the new land-plus-water footprint was a Cinderella promise.   

Fast forward thirty-five years to 2016 and our first visit to Rarotonga, the main island, lured by the thought of blue lagoons, warm breezes and fewer annual tourists than Florida’s Disneyworld gets in two days.

“And how about that economic zone, the one the guidebook described?” asked my husband. Had success spoiled Rarotonga’s Polynesian charms?

Not really, according to my friend Kathy, who stays up on these things. “The last time we looked, the Cooks were like Hawaii in the 1960s, 50 years behind everybody else,” she said. (I knew what she was thinking: If it doesn’t have a spa, it isn’t luxury.) “Ask around, see what people say and let me know,” she added.  

As our overnight flight from Los Angeles descended over a clutch of green volcanic peaks, my first hasty view -- the lagoon, its sandy shoreline, scattered roofs and rows of palms -- was reassuring. I figured we’d start the day with a stroll on the beach, a swim in the lagoon and maybe even a snorkel trip into deeper water, where the coral clumps into mounds.   

But Nga, my email contact in the tourist office, now senior enough to be known as Auntie Lydia, had a request.

“Please stop in at the Marae Moana office to meet Ocean Specialist Kevin Iro,” she’d said. ”He’s the one who can explain what our Marine Park conservation project is all about.”  

Calm and as clear as glass, Aitutaki Lagoon is the stuff of dreams; On Aitutaki Island, Cook Islands.

“Marae Moana means ocean domaine,” said Iro, a trim figure in sport shorts, ushering us and a half-dozen high school kids into a cramped room outfitted with rows of desks, a large TV screen for presentations and a half-dozen glowing photos of tropical fish and coral. 

“It’s a mind-set, an idea, a shift in the way we see ourselves,” he said, clicking through a series of charts on the screen. “We aren’t just people from different islands,” but citizens of a single marine nation, he said. As conservators of vast, still untapped resources, it was time for a government-appointed task force to conduct a detailed survey of every fold and ripple under those 690,000 undersea miles.

Brunch, lunch or a swim, life is easy at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort; Aitutaki Island, Cook Islands.It was also time for lunch, so we headed to one of Rarotonga’s many ocean-side cafés, for a fresh-grilled fish sandwich served picnic-table style. And so began our education.

When our table mates were locals grabbing lunch, we learned about the Cooks’ historic connection with New Zealand, where almost everyone has relatives and yearly visits are the norm. College-bound students head to New Zealand or Australia. 

At the Moorings Café we learned that New Zealand’s Maoris originally came from Rarotonga.  Facing a dispute with a rival clan, they loaded up their ocean-going canoes – vakas – and pushed off for a new island – New Zealand. And sea slugs? Local folks eat them raw, a kind of quick snack.

At Charlie’s Café, I was thrilled to be sitting with people speaking Cook Island Maori, one of a few Polynesian languages still in common use. A required subject in school, it lives on despite colonial rule, a minor role in World War II, tourism and even cell phones.

Curious about the rest of Rarotonga, we rented bikes for a 20-mile jaunt on the “outer” circle-island road, “a good way to get your bearings,” according to my guidebook.  We could have rushed – the road is paved -- but it was more fun to stop at vista points, look for craft shops and wave at passing motorcyclists: everybody from teens to moms with kids and men with fishing rods.   

It was so interesting that we signed up for a guided mountain bike ride on the 1000-year-old inland road, the “ara metua,”with Dave and Tami Furnell, owners of Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours. A sometimes-paved, mostly grassy, gravelly track, the road circles the island at the base of the volcanoes.

A moment in time - repeated daily – awaits visitors to Aitutaki Lagoon Resort; Aitutaki Island, Cook Islands.Winding between forests and farm fields, it became obvious why restaurant food is so fresh: it’s grown locally. Patches of taro (the edible leaf variety) were interspersed with salad greens and tomatoes, pumpkins and red peppers, onions and bananas, pineapple and orchards, and orchards with limes, oranges, papaya, mangoes, star fruit, passion fruit and noni. 

Stopping beside the nonis, mostly grown for export as a health tonic, Tami pulled off a couple of mushy, smelly fruits and explained that they were a perfect mosquito repellent. Breaking them into pieces – and to a chorus of laughs and “yuck, icky, sticky” – she dared us to rub them over our necks, arms and legs.

Since no Cook Island is complete without a couple days on neighboring Aitutaki (eye-too-TOCK-kee), world-famous for its lagoon, we hopped over, checked into an over-water cabin at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and booked a lagoon cruise with Tere (pronounced “Terry”), owner of Te King Lagoon Cruises.

With 12 of us from three countries packed into Tere’s outboard motor boat, he sped south across the lagoon, rounded a couple of motus (islets), edged past coral gardens and stopped here and there to snorkel. After a morning in the heart of one of these natural aquariums -- vast, shimmering, blindingly turquoise lakes held together by an encircling coral reef – I couldn’t help but marvel.   

Protected from wind and waves but continuously refreshed by ocean spill-over, the lagoon’s unique ecosystem nurtures not just birds, fish, crabs, clams, mollusks, coral and every other marine organism, but the seafaring people who washed up on their shores. 

Taking a break on board as Te King Lagoon Cruises owner Tere steers for Honeymoon Island; Cruising Aitutaki Lagoon, Cook Islands.While we took it in, in awe, Tere peppered us with Maori legends, celebrity anecdotes and marine biology. After a stop at One Foot Island – where “been there, loved it” passport stamps are issued to all comers – and a grilled chicken picnic -- we headed back.  

On our last evening, we ate out at the famous Plantation House, the colonial home of former restaurant owner and botanical gardener Louis Enoka. Dinner here, prepared by Chef Minar Henderson for 20 to 26 guests, is served twice a month only, at a single long table. Offering a cornucopia of island-grown ingredients, it guarantees an evening with forward-looking islanders for whom ancient culture and 21rst century science go hand-in-hand. 

Finding an empty chair I was amazed to find I was sitting next to the Prime Minister, Henry Puna, who studied law in New Zealand and Australia before turning to politics. Delving into dishes guaranteed to encourage conversation – everything from prawns with lemongrass to coconut-flavored rice and couscous with kaffir lime – we talked about pearl farming on Manihiki, the search for rare-earth minerals and the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which Trump has abandoned).

He reminisced about hosting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he described as delightful, intelligent and informed.  But it was the pan-seared mahi mahi with ginger and garlic that turned the conversation to global warming and warmer ocean water.     

“Your president doesn’t believe in clean energy,” he said, noting that melting ice means rising sea levels, threatening Aitutaki and other atolls. “Yes, we’re worried,” said Puna, “but we’re doing our part. Right now 50 percent of the islands’ electric power comes from solar installations. By 2020 the Cook Islands will be 100 percent solar.”

If only the rest of us could say that.       

THE NITTY GRITTY  

A quiet moment at Charlie’s Café, with grilled fish sandwich on order; Rarotonga, Cook Islands.WEATHER: June through September, when it’s warm and dry., are the best months on the Cook Islands.  December through March is the rainy season, when the weather hotter and more humid. Shoulder months – April, May October and November – are variable.   

GETTING AROUND: You may not need to rent a car. Most activities, cafes and beaches are close enough to go by bicycle. For longer explorations, check out outfitters like Tik e-tours (www.tik-etours.com) and Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours www.storytellers.co.ck.  

FLIGHTS: Limited flights are the biggest obstacle to traveling to the South Pacific. Air New Zealand operates the only non-stop flight from the U.S. to Rarotonga, a nine-to-ten-hour flight on new Boeing 777s, with economy, business and premium business seats (including spiffy flat-bed seats). Roundtrip rates vary by season and availability but run from promotional rates starting at $854 to $1654.

COOK ISLANDS TOURISM: At www.cookislands.travel. In include a dinner reservation at the Plantation House go to iliving@oyster.net.ck .

LODGING:  Dozens of small hotels and family-run inns offer friendly, affordable lodging posted online and listed on Cook Islands tourism sites.  Hotels include two four-star Pacific Resorts properties, with rustic, thatched cottages and tropical landscaping on Rarotonga and on Aitutaki; amenities include beach, restaurant, bar and swimming pool. Some units have a kitchenette. Book early; Pacific Resorts are a favorite with return travelers. The Aitutaki property has additional rooms in a multi-story hotel building. At www.pacificresort.com.

Lodging at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, the only resort on a private motu, ranges from modest self-catering cabins to spacious and attractively furnished cottages. Ten semi-over-water bungalows have outside decks, steps into the lagoon, outdoor showers, large bathrooms with double sinks and a kitchenette counter. The main lodge has a restaurant and adjacent pool; seclusion and lagoon access are its outstanding features. Very popular for family vacations.

Rarotonga’s five-star properties offer seclusion, beachfront access, pools and spas. Look for Rumours Luxury Villas & Spa; Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa; and Nautilus Resort, all on Muri Beach, on Rarotonga’s southeast coast. 

Follow veteran traveler Anne Z. Cooke on Facebook at “Anne Z. Cooke” and on Twitter at @anneontheroad.

(@)The Syndicator 2017

SONOMA SAFARI

Ginger Dingus

When was the last time you saw a giraffe while you were sipping wine on your deck? We're not talking about flying off to Africa. We're talking about taking a drive to northern California's wine country.

Squawk, warble, honk, chirp, whistle, tweet. Who knew birds could make so many sounds?

Throughout the warm spring night, the avian chatter alternately rose and fell. Occasionally, I heard a piercing screech. I’m certain it wasn’t that super cute, week-old giraffe seen earlier romping close to its mom. Perhaps it was the lemur I spotted as it clambered around the tree branches. It might have been the cheetah, or a monkey, or any one of the wild critters in the surrounding hills.

Strange nocturnal noises are part of the allure of a northern California getaway to Safari West, a.k.a. Sonoma’s Serengeti. A major draw is sleeping under canvas in a genuine African safari tent, wondering which of the 900 resident African animals and birds are creating the ruckus. There’s also the thrill of riding around the 400-acre wildlife preserve in an open air jeep and looking Cape buffalo, wildebeests, rhinos, ostriches and multiple species of antelope in the eye. Imagine all this on a short car trip. No long flights to southern Africa needed.

Located in California’s prime winery region of Sonoma County, Safari West is an easy to reach—not to mention unique—overnight break from anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The ranch is the dream of Peter and Nancy Lang. Since opening in 1993, its wildlife population has grown, thanks in part to countless newly born arrivals. The tent cabins have increased as well and now number 31. Each accommodates a couple for a romantic celebration or a family on an adventure-packed vacation.

This is glamping, not roughing-it camping. Each spacious tent is set on a raised wooden platform. An outdoor deck comes in handy for savoring evening cocktails accompanied by views of giraffes and pink flamingos. Step through the tent’s solid wood front door onto the bedroom’s polished hardwood floor. Together with the cushy bed or beds, the furnishings consist of hand-hewn wooden tables and canvas chairs. Shelves showcase African pottery and carvings, such as a zebra or tribal mask.

All the little details make a big difference. In our tent, the leopard skin design on the throw rug matched the pattern on two umbrellas hanging from a tree limb rack. Creature comforts included a ceiling fan, space heater and electric blanket on the king-size bed. Screened windows could be easily opened or closed via a canvas flap attached to the tent with Velcro. A door at the rear led to a roomy, modern bathroom with ceramic tile flooring. Ample hot water flowed from the rainhead shower. Grass baskets held fluffy towels and toiletries. The only things missing were robes and slippers. Tip: bring yours from home.

Once you check out your tent, you’re free to wander. Pathways lead past fenced areas where such African species as ostrich, giraffe (everyone loves them), eland, impala and onyx roam. Bright pink flamingos gather around ponds near the Savannah Café.

At the Savannah Café, a barbeque buffet takes place each evening. Only overnight guests are invited to enjoy dinner, and reservations are essential. Our dinner began with a platter of appetizers—cheeses, crackers, nuts and olives. A delicious tomato bisque followed. The buffet featured a tossed green salad, beef brisket, chicken, mac and cheese (remember it’s a family place), mixed veggies and polenta. Being the heart of wine country, a selection of California wine and local craft beer is available from the bar. You can, if you desire, drive off the preserve to a nearby restaurant. But why interrupt the African safari ambiance? It’s not every evening strolling to dinner includes guinea fowl scuttling about your feet.

After savoring dinner and a bottle of Francis Ford Coppola Chardonnay, we returned to our tent to snuggle up in the cozy bed. An exciting safari drive, a highlight of our visit, was planned just after breakfast.

Back at the Savannah Café the next morning, breakfast was laid out buffet-style. We helped ourselves to scrambled eggs, cereals, oatmeal, yogurt, pastries, fresh fruit, fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee and tea.

At 10:00 a.m., guests gathered for the not-to-be-missed three-hour tour of the expansive wildlife preserve. We were divided into groups of about eight—adults-only and families with kids. Tours are available at scheduled times throughout the day for overnight guests as well as visitors who book in advance.

Richard Horgan, our guide, began with a brief history of Safari West, its owners and the all-important animals. Next on the agenda was a guided walk through the aviary where brilliantly hued scarlet ibis nested in the treetops and tended to hungry chicks. One curious bird, a female demoiselle crane raised by humans, seemed particularly partial to the men in our group. She tagged along and did a two-step dance when the mood struck her. Richard explained that human intervention only happens when necessary. Clearly, the human touch had altered this crane’s behavior.

As we were about to leave the aviary, our attention was directed to two foot-tall antelopes. The tiny dik-diks peered out from under a shrub, reminding me that, as in Africa, animals can be lurking anywhere. It pays to keep your eyes wide open.

We moved on to enclosures separately housing cheetahs, serval cats, monkeys and lemurs. There seemed to be no end to the variety of wildlife at Safari West.

The best was yet to come. After about an hour admiring critters, we climbed aboard a reconfigured army jeep from the 1940s. A couple celebrating their anniversary claimed the rooftop seat, braving the cold and fog in exchange for a giraffe’s eye view of the savannah.

The giraffes were the first of many stops over the two-hour safari drive. Though we were instructed not to touch, the giraffes had no problem leaning into the vehicle for close-up looks at us. We kept our distance from a pair of white rhinos as well as the Cape buffalo. Numbering around 40, this group of Cape buffalo is the largest in North America, according to Richard. He noted Safari West is about conservation and breeding of endangered species. Theirs is a success story confirmed by many young animals and recently hatched birds.

Rolling over hill and dale, our list of wildlife sightings kept growing. We added zebras, lechwes, gazelles and kudus, to name a few. What’s not here? Big cats and elephants.

By the end of the tour, I was ready to do it all over again. Luckily, with the Sonoma Serengeti practically in my backyard, going on an amazing safari is as easy as packing my duffle bag and jumping in the car.

The Nitty Gritty:

Safari West is located at 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95404, or roughly an hour’s drive north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Rates for safari tents are seasonal and range from $260-425 per night, double occupancy. Three-hour safari tours are extra.

For details and reservations, check www.safariwest.com. Call 800-616-2695 or 707-566-3667.

Deluxe train runs across Africa

By Bob Schulman

Train ride across Africa takes 15 days.

You don’t get too many chances to buy a “I (heart) Matjiesfontein” tee-shirt. Nor one proclaiming your affection for Madikwe. Or your ardor for Chisimba.

What’s billed as the world’s most luxurious train stops at these and other tongue-twisting spots on a 3,000-mile trip across southeast Africa this summer. It starts at Cape Town, South Africa, and 15 days later ends up on in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and the ninth fastest growing metropolis in the world.

Cars are decked out in Edwardian splendor.

Operated by Rovos Rail, the train – called “The Pride of Africa” – gives its passengers a taste of the romance of a bygone era as it clickety-clacks across South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania. The trip is marketed by Gibsonia, Pa.-based Frontiers International Travel.

Along the way, passengers riding in the train’s posh, wood-paneled coaches  enjoy fine cuisine in five-star luxury when not dickering for diamonds in Kimberley, moseying around the Madikwe Game Reserve, oohing and aahing at the breathtaking splendor of Victoria Falls, crossing the mighty Zambezi River, taking a bush walk at Chisimba Falls, zipping across the tunnels, switchbacks and viaducts of the spectacular escarpment on the descent into the Great Rift Valley and traversing the Selous Game Reserve (the largest reserve on the continent).

Passengers get spectacular views of waterfalls.

You wouldn’t expect an adventure like this would come cheap, and it doesn’t. The tab for a deluxe suite starts at $16,500 per person, based on double occupancy. Trip dates this year are July 1-15 (for Cape Town to Dar es Salaam) and July 18- Aug.1 for Dar es Salaam to Cape Town. You can get more information by visiting Frontiers International Travel’s website http://www.frontiersej.com or by calling the company at 800-245-1950 or 724-935-1577.

Founded in 1969, Frontiers caters to discerning travelers and specializes in worldwide fly fishing and shooting destinations, photographic safaris and posh, customized tours called Elegant Journeys. The company has a staff of over 50 travel experts in its Pennsylvania headquarters and at a branch office in the United Kingdom.

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Photos courtesy of Rovos Rail.

Huatulco: Tales of a feathered serpent, a giant cross and a peeved pirate

By Bob Schulman

Some of the nine bays of Huatulco. Photo courtesy of the Mexico Tourism Board.

Imagine a 20-mile-long strip of nine gorgeous bays dotted by 75 hotels – everything from luxury villas to small economy inns – along Mexico’s southwestern coast. It’s called Huatulco (wha-TOOL-koh), and it was built from scratch by the Mexican government 30 years ago. But chances are you never heard of it.

Unlike the feds’ other projects at booming spots like Cancun, Huatulco (about 250 miles down the coast from Acapulco) caters to a laid-back clientele. True, it has its share of nightclubs, restaurants and discos, but tourists mainly go there for rest and relaxation. It also has some nearby old-world villages worth exploring. And for history buffs, lots of legends.

One tale goes back thousands of years, when Mexico's top god was a feathered serpent called Quetzalcoatl. He was a good god, the story says, and was beloved by his people. But he was too good (for instance, he hardly ever required human sacrifices), so his less liberal priests conspired to get rid of him. One day, they tricked him into doing something that today would be described as, er, inappropriate.

.Tile rendering of Quetzalcoatl at a resort hotel. Photo by Bob Schulman.

After that, he left town and traveled far away across the eastern sea to repent. According to the legend, he told his people he'd eventually come back, and to look for a bearded stranger with fair skin.

Years later, around the time of Christ – and here's where another legen kicks in – Quetzalcoatl showed up on a beach near what’s now Huatulco. The story goes on to say he appeared in the form of “an elderly white man with long hair and a beard” and carried an immense wooden cross.

He planted the cross in the sand (another version of the legend says it was the Apostle Thomas who showed up and planted the cross), prayed for a few days and then left.

Could this be the spot where the great cross once stood? Photo by Dawna Robertson.

Since it was brought by a god, the local folks figured the cross must be a holy object and prayed to it for good fortune. Over time, the site became known as Quauhtolco, roughly meaning “the place where wood is worshipped.” When the conquistadores arrived there in the 1520s, the site's name became Huatulco in Spanish.

By the 1540s, Huatulco had been turned into a port for Spanish shipments of silver coming up the coast from the rich veins of Peru. And where there's loot, there's pirates – and still another legend.

As the story goes, when he wasn't off pillaging, the notorious buccaneer Thomas Cavendish had a very religious side. And he was irked by the still-standing cross on the beach because it was said to have been planted there by a pagan god.

Visitors to Huatulco enjoy uncrowded beaches. Photo by Dawna Robertson.

He tried to burn it, but it wouldn't burn. So his men tried to chop it up with knives and saws, but they barely made a dent. He tried to dig it up, but it was planted too deep. Then he lashed it to his ship with long ropes, raised the sails and tried to pull it loose. That didn't work either. Defeated, Cavendish settled for burning down a nearby town, then sailed away.

Concerned that others might try to destroy the cross, the regional bishop later moved it (perhaps with a little divine help, since the story doesn't explain how he managed to dig it up) 140 miles inland to his cathedral in Oaxaca, the state capital. The story goes on to say the bishop chipped off pieces of the wood to make some small crosses, one of which was sent to a cathedral in Mexico City, another to Rome, another to the Mexican city of Puebla and one to a village close to the spot where the large cross had stood.

Mexico historian Jaime Capulli notes that many of the cities edging the resort have cross-related names, such as La Crucecita (the small cross) and Santa Cruz (holy cross).

Insider tips on booking travel

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Whether you're booking your vacation online, directly with the airlines, hotels and cruise lines or through travel agents, knowing the jargon of the travel industry can help you save a bunch of money (and sometimes avoid some unpleasant surprises).

For example, you probably wouldn't expect there'd be much of a difference in booking what’s billed as an “ocean front” room versus one with an “ocean view.” Ah, but there is. In hotel talk, “front” means your room looks right out on the ocean. “View” means you might have to crane your neck (anywhere from a bit to a lot) to see those gorgeous blue-green ocean waters.

And never ask for a “direct” flight when you want a flight that doesn't make stops on the way to your destination. In airline lingo, that’s a “nonstop” flight. Chances are, your “direct” flight won’t stop en route – but it could. “Direct” simply means the whole flight is on the same plane.

Rating the airlines: Don't pay too much attention to government reports showing how often each carrier flew on time, how many times they bumped passengers, how many bags they lost and so on. Why? Because the monthly stats don't factor in the weather. Take away hurricanes, snowstorms, heavy rains, fog and the like, and an airline that scored low on the list might otherwise have been a top performer. Or vice versa.

Gone to bag heaven: Talking about bags, you should know that some published figures show “mishandled” bags while others show “lost” bags. There's a big difference. In airline lingo, a bag that went to Canton instead of Cancun but eventually made it to back to Cancun was just “mishandled.” Much fewer bags are actually “lost” (that is, they never show up again, or as airline employees say, they went to “bag heaven”).

Good seat, bad seat: Some airlines let you pick your seat online before the flight. Before making a selection, you can find out which seats are good and which are bummers (limited legroom, non-reclining backs, located next to a restroom, etc.) by entering your airline, flight number and travel date on easy-to-use sites like www.seatguru.com.

Points on getting points: If you rack up frequent flyer points, it’s helpful to know which airlines belong to which of the carriers’ three international marketing alliances (you can typically swap points from one member airline to another in the same alliance). You’ll find the latest line-ups on a number of sites such as Wikitravel’s www.wikitravel.org/en/Airline_alliances.

World airport codes: Sometimes it’s a lot easier to enter the three-letter code for an airport than to spell it out on the booking sites. Let’s say you’re zipping off to do a little business in Shanghai. What, you don’t know the code for the city’s main airport at Pudong? No problem. Worldwide airport codes (Pudong is PVG) are listed on a website of The International Air Transport Association.

(www.iata.org/publications/Pages/code-search.aspx), IATA for short.

Rules of the road: Another IATA site (www.iatatravelcentre.com) offers country-by-country info on customs rules, currency, airport taxes and lots of other helpful stuff.

Rules of the sea: Cruise industry info on everything from security and safety to links to 31 global lines plus 20 European and Australasian regional lines are listed by the Cruise Lines International Association (aka CLIA) at www.cruising.org.

Disclosure: The writer is a retired airline executive having handled public relations for six carriers during his 35-year airline career.

Mohawk Airlines: ‘Slow hawk’ better than ‘no hawk’

By Bob Schulman

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Reruns of the popular TV series Mad Men, set to start June 12, may ring a bell with veteran flyers, especially those living in the Northeast U.S. That’s because one of the top accounts of the series’ fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was Mohawk Airlines – and there really was an airline with that name at the time of the series’ plot in the mid-60s.

The real Mohawk was based in Utica in Upstate New York, and it ran a fleet of 69-passenger British-built jets. It served some three dozen cities on routes mostly linking small communities across New England to airports around New York City at JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, White Plains and Islip.

The airline was perhaps best known for rarely flying on time, mainly due to a shortage of air traffic controllers in New York’s airport towers. Flying into JFK, for example, passengers often found themselves circling nearby Lake Rokonkoma four or five times in the Deer Park Holding Pattern before controllers could clear their plane for landing.

The airline was dubbed “Slow Hawk” by its passengers – a tag Mohawk countered with, “That's better than No Hawk.”

It was, because if you wanted to fly from regional cities like Utica, Plattsburgh, Watertown, Massena, Ogdensburg, Ithaca, Elmira and Jamestown, you didn't have a choice of carriers. Mohawk was it!

Coincidentally, Mohawk really did hire a new ad agency before an ongoing flow of red ink led to its takeover by Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Airlines in 1972. The agency – a heavy hitter from Madison Avenue full of guys in grey flannel suits – came up with all kinds of what the airline’s CEO described as “meshugganah” (crazy) ad schemes.

One, called Mohawk’s “Board of Perfectors,” encouraged passengers to report  anything that went wrong on a Mohawk flight. Complainers who called in became “perfectors” of the airline and were rewarded with a chit worth a dollar in cash or a free drink on their next flight.

Mohawk’s switchboard operators were soon deluged by passengers calling in horror tales of late flights, lost luggage, bungled reservations and the like. But no one had told the operators about the program, much less what department to pass these calls to and what the process was to claim a reward.

So, besieged by calls and jammed up phone lines, mostly by passengers who didn’t get to their destination on time (or at all), the operators became unhappy campers. So did Mohawk’s dozens of other staffers, who couldn’t call out and at the same time couldn’t be reached by phone.

The men from Madison Avenue defended the promotion this way: “We know lots of flights are late,” said the ad agency, “but that’s not Mohawk’s fault... it’s the FAA’s fault because they haven’t hired enough air traffic controllers... the passengers shouldn’t be complaining to Mohawk.”

When he fired the agency, the CEO asked them,“Do you really think an irate passenger cares whose fault the delay was... especially when they’been offered a reward for telling us how awful it was to fly on Mohawk?”

Footnote: After the Allegheny takeover in 1972 the combined airline changed its name to USAir in 1979 and a few years later to US Airways. It took Piedmont Airlines under its wings in 1985, merged with America West in 2005 and went on to acquire American Airlines in 2015. It now flies under American’s name and colors.

The Great Locomotive Chase

By Rich Grant

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I started where it ended, in the rolling hills of the Chattanooga National Cemetery in Tennessee.   There, under a great bronze statue of the steam locomotive The General, is a monument to one of the Civil War's most daring raids, an adventure that came to be known as "The Great Locomotive Chase."

Around the memorial are the graves of some brave men:  James J. Andrews, the civilian spy who organized the raid, and seven of the Union soldiers he led.  Some of them were the first Americans to ever receive our nation's highest award for valor -- the Medal of Honor.

They also share one other piece of history.  All of them were hanged; seven of them were executed side-by-side from a single scaffold.

How the locomotive and these eight courageous men came together is a fascinating tale.   Since it is also the story of the world's first high-speed chase, it can only be appreciated by following the trail of Andrews' Raiders over a 120-mile journey, from Atlanta to Chattanooga.  Along the way there are visits to museums, several monuments, a chance to see two of history's most famous steam locomotives and even the opportunity to ride a golf cart through an historic Civil War era railroad tunnel – the same tunnel the chase went roaring through in 1862.              

Some background is necessary before the first stop.  In the early days of the Civil War, Chattanooga was an important rail junction that controlled food and supplies coming from the deep South headed to the Confederate armies in Virginia.  Cut the rail lines in Chattanooga, and it could end the war.

The raid, as conceived by Andrews, called for 22 Ohio soldiers to dress as civilians and sneak 200 miles behind Confederate lines to Marietta, Georgia, just a few miles north of Atlanta.  There, they would steal a train and race it north, burning the bridges behind them.  With the railroad destroyed, Chattanooga would be cut off from Confederate reinforcements by train and easily captured by a coordinated Union attack advancing from the west under General Ormsby M. Mitchel.

It was a daring, but possible, plan, and Andrews set it in motion.  The raiders, traveling in groups of two or three, made their way incognito in civilian clothes to Marietta and on April 11, 1862, they booked two rooms at the Kennesaw Hotel.   This is where you can join them.  The hotel room that Andrews occupied is now part of the Marietta Museum of History and is made up much like it would have looked the night Andrews’ Raiders slept there, complete with a mannequin of Andrews looking out the window on to the tracks below.  It’s hard to imagine, as school kids move around the room laughing, the tension these 22 men must have felt.  Several of them spoke up and said they thought the plan was hopeless and doomed to fail. But Andrews was firm, telling them any man could drop out, but “I will succeed or leave my bones in Dixie.”

So on the morning of April 12, in a light rain, each man stuck a pistol in his belt, and boarded the regularly scheduled north bound train.  To avoid suspicion, they all bought tickets to different destinations.  The train was pulled by a 25-ton, eight-wheel wood burning locomotive, The General.  At this time, there were no railroad dining cars, so 12 miles up the line at Big Shanty, the train came to halt of hissing steam and smoke and all the passengers got off for a 20 minute breakfast break.  You can follow the raiders to Big Shanty, now the town of Kennesaw, and home to the impressively named Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.

There’s a barn full of exhibits here on the war and railroading, but for our purposes, one thing stands above all.  The General.  The gleaming black and red locomotive was destined to survive the raid, the war and even the burning of Atlanta.  For years, it crossed the country touring at exhibitions, even appearing at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, before ending up back here in 1972, 100 yards from the spot where Andrews stole her.  It’s an impressive and gorgeous machine.  You can get climb above it, around it, and peer into the cab. From its red "cow catcher" to the great bell smoke stack and huge five-foot-high red wheels, clearly this engine was built for speed.  It's easy to imagine Andrews in the cab, clinging to the handrail as the locomotive screamed round the curves, yelling to the engineers at the height of the chase, "Push her, boys.  Push her!"

The museum has put together a thrilling film, using accurate bits from the 1956 Walt Disney Movie The Great Locomotive Chase, edited with modern actors and narration to tell a completely historical tale of what happened next.

Andrews plotted to steal the train at Big Shanty because it did not have a telegraph station.  When the other passengers and train crew got off for breakfast, the raiders stayed on board, uncoupled the passenger cars, climbed into the box cars, snuck into the engine, released the brake and opened the throttle.  With a grinding of steel on steel, they were on their way, in front of the startled passengers and an entire camp of Confederate soldiers.  A few miles up the line, they stopped to cut telegraph wires and rip up track.  They were now confident that nothing could catch them from behind and it was clear sailing up ahead.

But the plan soon went wrong.  Rain had delayed Andrews for a day, but the Union attack went ahead on schedule.  Afraid of the approaching Union army, the Confederates in Chattanooga tried to save supplies by sending additional trains south, clogging the rail line.  Andrews lost several hours in delays.  But carrying forged documents and claiming his train had badly needed ammunition for the “front,” he continually bullied it past skeptical station agents.  They were just above Adairsville again ripping up track when suddenly the raiders were startled by a shrill whistle from the south.  One of them wrote, "No sound more unwelcome ever fell on human ears."

Pursuit!  Unknown to the raiders, the General's conductor, William R. Fuller, had watched his train being stolen and started off after it on foot.  Since the average speed of a train at that time was 12 mph, this was not as crazy as it sounds, especially since the north bound train had to adhere to a schedule that Fuller well knew.  The uneven race soon improved as Fuller came upon a rail push cart and then an old iron works locomotive, the Yonah.

Highway 41, "the Blue and Gray Highway," follows the route of the 1862 railroad and offers a number of opportunities to visit sites associated with “the chase.”  Free “Great Locomotive Chase” brochures available at the museum have maps and detail 14 points along the route associated with the race.   Dalton is good stop with a rail depot that was there in 1862, and Adairsville looks much like it did during the Civil War.  The depot, which was also there in 1862, has some exhibits on the raid, including two toy train locomotives that chase each other around one side of the building.

It was here that Fuller got what he needed most for the chase – his third locomotive of the day, The Texas, a powerful new engine that matched the General in speed.  The Texas had been heading south, but Fuller commandeered it, and through sheer force of character and courage, raced the engine backwards at 70 miles an hour on tracks where the safe speed was 18.  With whistles blowing, steel wheels shrieking on rails and steam billowing, he was able to follow the General in the race across the Georgia countryside.

From Adairsville on, it was indeed a race for life or death.  Andrews' men tried everything -- pushing ties on to the tracks, building barricades, and even throwing the General in reverse to fling empty boxcars charging back toward the onrushing Confederates, but seemingly nothing could stop Fuller.

Or The Texas.  This engine also survived the war and for years was on display at The Cyclorama in Atlanta’s Grant Park, which featured the world's largest painting – a circular piece of art four stories high and longer than a football field depicting the Battle of Atlanta.  Both the painting and The Texas are now headed to a new and better home in the Atlanta History Center.  The Texas has undergone a complete restoration and was revealed to the public for the first time in two years at a recent ceremony in April 2017 at the North Carolina Transportation Museum, where it was restored. In 2017 it will be unveiled in its new home, under a huge glass canopy at the entrance of the Atlanta History Museum.  Similar to The General, it is a sleek and economical machine – the fastest thing on earth at the time of the Chase.  Though it only worked for a few hours on the day of the Chase, the Texas ran for decades as a working engine, and in its new home it will do a fine job of interpreting railroading in the period both before and after the Civil War.

One of the final and most dramatic moments of the Chase came at Tunnel Hill.  This 1,477-foot- long tunnel was opened in 1850 and was the longest tunnel in the South.  It was the raider’s last chance to win the race.  The Union soldiers wanted to make a stand and fight it out with pistols at the end of the tunnel, or send the General backwards at full speed through the tunnel to crash into the Texas.  But Andrews was by trade a spy.  He had always talked his way out of any dangerous situation, and he believed their best chance was by breaking up into small groups and fleeing.

Today, the Western & Atlantic Tunnel has been restored.  Closed in 1928, and saved from destruction in 1992, it is a wet, dripping, narrow dark and dank space.  But you can travel through it for $6 on a golf cart tour.  Along the roof, you can see where 20th Century rail cars were too high and scraped the rock, necessitating a new tunnel.  When the Texas arrived at the edge of the dark tunnel, it was filled with smoke from The General and the other Confederates with Fuller baulked at entering what they were sure was a Union death trap.  But Fuller, riding on the tender, forced them through.  When they emerged from the tunnel back in daylight and could see The General ahead, Fuller could tell by its pale smoke that she was low on fuel and water and nearly finished.    http://www.civilwarrailroadtunnel.com/home.html

And indeed they were.  Just a short way past Ringgold, with all 22 Union men riding on the locomotive and tender, out of fuel and the Confederates in sight, Andrews gave his last order: “jump off and scatter, every man for himself.”  There is a historic marker at the lonely spot on a straight track where the chase ended.

Within a week, Andrews and all 21 of his men were captured.  Caught out of uniform, they were considered spies and he and seven men selected at random were tried, convicted and hanged in Atlanta.  The rest, fearing a similar fate, staged a desperate escape.  Eight made it back to Union lines; the other six were captured again and eventually exchanged.

In the end, the failure of the raid led to two years of fighting before Chattanooga finally fell to Union hands.  In all, more than 47,000 young men were killed or horribly wounded in these battles -- men who might have been spared had Andrews succeeded.  Today, many thousands of them lay in the rolling grass slopes of the Chattanooga National Cemetery, surrounding Andrews and his men. 

When the United States created a new medal to honor outstanding bravery, it was decided to present the very first ones to Andrews' Raiders.  Secretary of War Stanton pinned them on the survivors himself.

Ironically, one of the raiders not honored was Andrews. As a civilian, he did not qualify.   His medal is the judgement of history.

Georgia's Bloody Ground

Few areas in North America have experienced as much violent conflict as the 120-mile stretch between Chattanooga and Atlanta.  The battles for Chattanooga and the Battle for Atlanta stretched back and forth over this land from 1862-1864 in some of the Civil War's most savage and confused fighting.   Several of the war's best preserved battlefields are just a few minutes drive from the route of the Great Locomotive Chase.  The Blue & Gray Trail www.georgiabluegraytrail.org lists 74 historic sites.  Among them:

Chickamauga National Military Park:  Located just south of Chattanooga, the fields and woods of this battlefield were filled with smoke on Sept. 19-20, 1863, when

66,000 Confederates defeated and almost destroyed a Union army of 58,000.  Casualties were among the highest in the war with 34,000 men falling.  This was the first battlefield preserved in United States and is the largest.  An excellent museum sets the stage, while an observation tower overlooks and explains the entire strategy of the conflict.  Highlights include Snodgrass Hill, where General Thomas, "The Rock of Chickamauga," fought a rear-guard action that saved the Union Army and perhaps the war.  The park also features one of the largest and best Civil War bookstores.

Point Park and Lookout Mountain:  Part of the Chattanooga National Military Park, this battlefield has a gorgeous view of the Tennessee River.  From a tower, it is possible to understand the geographic difficulties that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant faced in trying to dislodge the Southern army from the hills around the town.  The November 1863 campaign was one of Grant's most brilliant and set the stage for the Battle of Atlanta.

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park:  Located 10 minutes from the site where The General was stolen at Big Shanty, this beautiful park preserves just one of the dozens of areas that saw heavy fighting in the Battle for Atlanta.  Here in July 1864, General Sherman threw wave after wave of blue-coated troops in hopeless assaults against strong Confederate lines.  The panoramic sweeping views from the mountain stretch to Atlanta and beyond.  A museum attempts to explain the confusing campaign, but to truly understand it, head to the Atlanta History Museum.

If You Go:

The place to stay in Atlanta is the Georgian Terrace Hotel, Atlanta’s old grand dame.  Located across the street from the restored Fox Theatre, the elegant and beautiful hotel opened in 1911  and has hosted everyone from presidents to rock stars.  It is just down the street from the home were Margaret Mitchell wrote the ultimate Civil War novel, “Gone With the Wind,” and it is where Clark Gable and most of the cast stayed for the premiere of the film in 1939. http://www.thegeorgianterrace.com/explore-hotel/   Ironically, it is also within a pistol shot of Third and Juniper, the obscure corner in midtown Atlanta were James J. Andrews was hanged.  There’s a historic marker, slowly being overgrown by bushes, to mark the spot.

The Marietta Museum of History is housed in the old Kennesaw hotel, where www.mariettahistory.org/  Andrews' Raiders spent the night before stealing The General.  They have restored Andrews’ room as it might have appeared and have good exhibits on the raid.

The Southern Museum of the Civil War and Locomotive History originally opened  http://www.southernmuseum.org/ on April 12, 1972, exactly 110 years to the day that Andrews and his men stole The General, 100 yards from this site.  The museum is the permanent home of the locomotive The General, and contains hundreds of artifacts connected to Great Locomotive Chase, as well as an 18-minute video and a full documentation on the role that railroads played in the war.  Kennesaw is a historic town; a free walking tour brochure available at the museum points out 32 historic sites.  Don't miss Wildman's Civil War & Relic Shop, the "Best Little War Store in Kennesaw, as it bills itself, directly across the street.  Possibly the most politically incorrect museum you’ll ever see, it’s still a “don’t miss” one-of-a-kind attraction.

The Atlanta History Center is magnificent and worth a half day.  There are gardens, historic homes, an excellent strategic interpretation of the Civil War and the importance of Atlanta, and this will be the new home of The Texas, and the world’s largest painting.  www.atlantahistorycenter.com/

Tunnel Hill Heritage Center & Museum  www.civilwarrailroadtunnel.com is a hoot.  The museum has exhibits on the raid, the tunnel, and the later Civil War battle fought here.  But the highlight is riding a nine-passenger golf cart through the actual tunnel.  Once you see the landscape, you can understand why Andrews baulked at fighting a battle here.  There was little cover, and the raiders could see that the Confederates riding The Texas had long range rifles, whereas the raiders were armed only with pistols.

Chattanooga National Cemetery https://www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/chattanooga.asp Open every day.  There are 33,000 men buried here, including 12,000 from the Civil War.  A memorial with a bronze statue of the locomotive The General honors the Great Locomotive Chase.  James J. Andrews and the seven raiders who were executed are buried here in a small semi-circle around the monument.

ATLANTA:  Atlanta has been transformed in recent years into a world class tourist destination.  The best deal is CityPASS which saves you money and time and gets you into all the city's top attractions including the amazing Georgia Aquarium, the Civil Rights Museum, CNN and more.   www.citypass.com

BEFORE YOU GO: The 1956 Walt Disney movie, "The Great Locomotive Chase," is surprisingly accurate and gives a good look at Civil War locomotives in action. 

The Great Crane Migration

By Carole Jacobs

We’re at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center in Wood River, Nebraska, to witness the annual spring migration of the Sandhill cranes, hailed by ethologist Jane Goodall as one of the top ten animal migrations on earth.

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Each March, 80 percent of the world’s more than half-million cranes wing their way to this remote, 80-mile bottleneck of the Central Platte River, a winding thread of riparian habitat in what was tallgrass prairie but is now a sea of corn, following their 5,000-mile-roundtrip millennia-old route from Mexico, Texas and New Mexico to Canada and Siberia.

Approaching in the sky from a distance, the birds look like wisps of smoke as they swoop and swerve in an ever-changing aerial ballet. Whether stepping singly across a wet meadow or filling the sky by the hundreds and thousands, these 4-foot-tall birds with a six-foot wing span group together in large numbers, breeding in open wetlands and prairies and displaying to each other with exuberant dances that retain a gangly grace.

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As the sun rises over the Platte, they rise from the river as if on cue and take to the sky in great winged flocks, disperse to nearby corn fields for the day to scavenge.  The Crane Trust, as well as the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska, are two of the best places on earth to witness the birds and their migratory and mating practices up close, and I feel very fortunate to be visiting both of them during peak crane week.

If you build it they will come

One of the world’s most ancient birds, Sandhill crane have been winging the heavens for millions of years. Unfortunately, as North America’s prairie land was gobbled up by western expansion and farming, so was the crane’s natural habitat, and their numbers plummeted dramatically. . Since 1978, the Trust, which manages about 10,000 acres of wild grasslands and wet meadows in the Big Bend region of the river,  has been working tirelessly to protect and maintain the cranes’ critical habitat, and their numbers have shot back up to about a half million.

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To encourage bird and nature lovers of all persuasions to visit and support the cause, the Trust operates the swank Wild Rose Ranch, located on 4,500 continuous acres of native grassland prairie and wet meadows and housing the headquarters office, research laboratory, guest bunkhouse, Legacy Cabins, meeting/dining facilities, private crane-viewing blinds, and an outdoor deck and observation platform with breathtaking views of the tallgrass prairie and Platte River waterway. You can nab a room in a bunk or cabin or come for the day and watch the birds in blinds. The bar3-bone structures have no insulation, heating, lighting or indoor plumbing, and are equipped only with wooden benches and slit windows for viewing. The long, low, plywood structures blend in so seamlessly with the river landscape that we didn’t see them until we were practically upon them.

The previous night over dinner, the Trust had warned us that early morning temps in the blinds could be “brisk,” Nebraska speak for a brutal 20s and 30s. Our best chance of surviving our two hours in the blinds was to layer with a vengeance. I’m a California girl, so I not only layered two sets of down parkas and ski pants but I lined my bed with stick-on hand warmers and then fell backwards into them, hoping some of them would stick.

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As we set out in the pitch dark for the blind, the guide reiterated the importance of maintaining total and complete silence.  In the dead still, I could almost hear my hand warmers squeaking against each other hamsters, so I let the group pass and walked in alone. The clear night air had telescoped distances so that 20 miles looked like two. Lights twinkled on the distant horizon and a wilderness of grass met sky to remind me how small I really was.
 

Into the Frigidaire

By 6:30 am, we had arrived at the blind and claimed our prospective benches and windows. There wouldn’t be much to see until the sun rose, so I took a cat nap, waking with a jolt to the cacophony of thousands of cranes emitting a plaintive, prehistoric-sounding Garrooo.

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As the sun began to rise, I saw the river banks were paved with them for as far as the eye could see; hundreds slept upright in the frigid water, a bracelet of ice around their ankles. Smaller juveniles were batting their wings at and over each other in mock displays of prepubescent strength and baby cranes paddled around parents like they were in a ducky pond and emitted hollow, high-pitched coos...

 And more cranes were still coming, diving into the river like paratroopers, wings cupped and legs dangling. The Trust counts a section of birds by plane, then makes an educated guess as to how many cranes are crossing into their reserve. In general, the crane population is booming and some 500,000 cranes visited the reserve on one night in mid-March alone.

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By about 7 am most of the cranes had fled the river for the day. The watercolor sky streaked pink and purple as we hiked back across the fields to the dining room, where we feasted on cheesy omelets, hashed browns, bacon, bison sausage, yogurt and berries, oatmeal, pancakes, French toast juices, and strong, hot coffee.

By the next day, the damp had camped inside my lungs, my payback for a careless, breakneck month of nonstop work and travel. As I lie in bed motionless, I envisioned the cranes soaring over Alaska’s Kodiak Island, around Upper Cook Inlet and resting at the Stikine River Delta. With their unerring pacing and perfect eat-fly-love balance, they had the reserves to cover 200-300 miles a day whereas I could barely walk a foot.

I was out of breath and out of whack, but with the cranes as my totems, I was certain I could find my way back to moderation, strength and wisdom.

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Info Crane Trust & Nature Preserve, www.cranetrust.org; Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, www.rowe.audubon.org.  As well as prime viewing ops, the centers offer year-round recreation like guided photo and nature safaris, fat tire biking, kayaking, and two-person blinds where you can stay all night in your sleeping bag, Don’t miss the Crane Trust’s Total Solar Eclipse Event August 21.

Beyond the Birdies

To round out your visit, carve out some time to explore some of Nebraska’s hidden treasures.

  1. Blast from the past Drive a portion of Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first interstate, Miles of highway are frozen in the past with old ‘camps’ and gas stations, funky motels and cabin courts, and classic diners. Drop by the 1937 Kensinger Service & Supply in Grand Island, which is still pumping gas.
  2. Horses, horses, horses Drop by the Pony Express Station Museum in Gothenburg, where riders refueled/restocked before galloping westward. The short-lived venture lasted just a year and went belly-up with the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph in 1861.
  3. Get up close to a masterpiece Visit the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, where you can get close enough to Picassos and Monets to see the brush strokes. Don’t miss the stunning Photo Ark exhibit by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, a local who has dedicated his life to photographing endangered species.
  4. Try the beef: Nebraska is king when it comes to steak so sample some of the state’s dozens of steak houses. Don’t be put off by the funky/shabby exteriors of some of these joints. Even the homeliest hole-in-the-wall dishes up primo porterhouse, filet mignon and prime rib with all the fixings.
  5. The Coolest Town in Nebraska: McCook is classic laid-back Nebraska so spend a few hours soaking up the vibes. You’ll love the locals -- most admit to keeping “a couple cows” (translation: they have a 50,000-acre ranch with thousands of cattle). If you ever wanted to watch the mating dance of the prairie chicken (these critters have nothing on the cranes and resemble short, squat cartoon characters) Calamus Outfitters will transport you in their claptrap school bus to an undistinguished patch of prairie, where the chickens strut out at dawn and start bickering. Back in town, grab breakfast at Sehnert's Bakery, a combo bakery/deli and nightclub. The homemade cream horns are sinful and consider returning at night for live music, homemade pizza and cold brews.
  6. You’re in the army now Fort Robinson was an active military post from 1874 to 1948, and the location of the assassination of Crazy Horse. Today, the post has been converted into a beautiful state park where you can lodge in former officers’ quarters, enjoy hearty mess meals at Fort Robinson Restaurant, go on nightly steak cookouts, see plays at the Post Playhouse and take jeep rides into the mountains to hunt for bighorn sheep.

24 Hours in Key West

By Carole Jacobs

Indian Key Historic State Park, located off Islamorada, Fla., is accessible only by boat or kayak.. Visitors to this 11-acre island can view the remains of a wrecking, or shipwreck salvage, community from the 1830s. There are also several hundred yards of well-maintained trails that line the interior of the island. Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau.Uninhibited and an undisputed “wild child” yet still terminally quaint, Key West is also refreshingly, well, weird, with ghosts haunting its bevy of century-old plantation-style B&Bs, 6-toed cats prowling Hemingway House --even the dead have a sense of humor here, as you’ll discover at Key West Cemetery, where one tombstone from 1979 reads, “I Told You I was Sick.”

So pack your bikini and sunscreen – we’ve got 24 hours of fun, fun, fun to share with you.

7 am: I believe I can fly Book ParaWest’s  bargain-priced “Early Bird Special” and go parasailing straight from the foot of the boat, up-up and away 300 feet above the crystalline, emerald-green waters. You don’t have to know how to swim; in fact, you won’t even get wet unless you want to, in which case the pilot can arrange for you to dip your toes in the water upon descent or enjoy a spectacular full-body crash landing.

9 am: Chow down at Blue Heaven An historic and much-beloved local hang (Hemingway refereed boxing matches and customers cheered for cockfights), the shrimp and grits, lobster Benedict with key lime hollandaise and the homemade banana bread and cranberry-orange muffins are to die for while the free-roaming chickens and cats roaming the tree-shaded outdoor patio add that "what-a-hoot" factor.

Snorkeler Katherine Wieland examines the Christ of the Deep statue in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Fla. This nine-foot-tall, 4,000 pound replica of a similar statue, located in the waters off the coast of Italy, is submerged in 25 feet of water at Key Largo Dry Rocks. Photo by Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau     10:30: Spy on the fishies and catch some rays The snorkeling is stellar at Sand Key Lighthouse, Eastern Dry Rocks and Western Dry Rocks, all located about eight miles southwest of town. Or, for snorkeling nirvana, hop a boat for Key West Snorkeling’s all-day snorkeling adventure in Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles offshore.

High noon at Sloppy Joes: Even if you’re still digesting breakfast, take it from Hemingway and “The Mob” of other literary greats who haunted this historic speak-easy when they needed a break from their typewriters: It’s never too early to start drinking in Key West. Owned by Hemingway’s fishing buddy and BFF, Joe Russell, the speak-easy serves killer conch fritters and the original, if messy, Sloppy Joe sandwich that put them on the map, and can also provide the inspiration you need to scribe a Hemingway-esque short story for January’s upcoming “Flash Fiction Contest.” For the first time this year, the grand prize includes a chance to write, paint, read or do whatever the hell you want (within reason) for 10 days inside Hemingway’s writing studio at the Spanish-colonial estate he called home.

1-2 pm: Bed down with the greats Key West’s hot, sticky afternoons were made for napping under a twirling plantation fan in one of Old Town’s many historic and pedigreed hotels, many painted in crayon colors and sitting atop ingenious 3-foot piers that let the raging winds and waters of Key West’s infamous typhoons pass right through without causing structural damage. If you’re a bad girl, you’ll love the Angelina Guest House, a Hemingway fave that’s a former 1920s bordello and gambling den- turned charming Key West bed-and-breakfast. For you debutante wanna-bes, the gracious Chelsea House is a plantation-style class act where you can savor breakfast on the backyard verandah.

2:15 pm. All hail the Key Lime You simply can’t visit Key West without stopping by Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe. Kermit proper, a piece of work in his lime-green jacket and chef’s hat, blends in seamlessly with his Key Lime cookies, ice cream, pie-on-a-tick, jams, jellies, jell beans, tea, olive oil, taffy, chutney --you get the drill. Breathless reviews from the Food Network, Nat Geo and Chef Paula Dean have established him as the Key Lime King – and he’ll even give you his granny’s Key Lime Pie recipe.

3 pm The Annual Conch Republic Festival Back in the weed-infused 1980s the Border Patrol erected a roadblock to deter the locals from smuggling marijuana along Key West’s serene maze of secret backwater routes. The locals staged a protest, the Border Patrol relented and today the locals celebrate their victory with an annual fete the last 10 days of April that kicks off with a “drag” race between female impersonators and goes downhill from there with the world’s longest parade (it head won Duval Street and then proceeds from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico), a pirates’ ball and a bed race billed as “the most fun you can have in bed with your clothes on.” www.conchrepublic.com.

A Florida Keys flats guide idles away from the dock during the dawn of a new day in Islamorada, Fla. Featuring an angling diversity found in few saltwater sportfishing destinations, Islamorada is known as the Sportfishing Capital of the World. Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau 5:30-6 pm: Sunset at Mallory Square   As the town where the country runs out of land, Key West is the Sunset Capital of the U.S. which it celebrates with a nightly beach fest featuring a motley crew of street performers, serenading minstrels, and not to forget The Southernmost Bagpiper, Dominique and His Flying House Cats and the legendary “Cookie Lady,” who promotes her warm homemade delicacies while squawking slogans in perfect rhyme. It all happens against a breathtaking backdrop as the sun melts into the sea and blazes the sky pink, purple and orange before surrendering to a canopy of stars.

7 pm: Dinner Latitudes at Sunset Key Catch the tiny ferry to this plantation-style resort located on the private isle of Sunset Key and get ready to feast on the freshest gourmet seafood in town.   Try the Crab Stuffed Florida Lobster Tail or “Really Big” Gulf Shrimp and enjoy it with fresh salads and canopies like Portobello Carpaccio and Prosciutto and Sun-dried Tomato Wrapped Brie. As the sunset surrenders to a canopy of stars, order one of each dessert and pass them around the table to taste. The Crème Brulee, Carrot Cake and Dark Chocolate Torte are stunners.

Info: www.fla-keys.com

Weekend in Wisconsin

By Carole Jacobs

Photo credit can be given to the Door County Visitor BureauDoor County’s sea-scented air, soft wildflower meadows and hushed pine forests seem to muffle the clamor of a 21st-century world that’s been too much with us lately. The locals think nothing of smiling at strangers – try finding that in the Big Apple or Orange. And the setting is stellar, nestled amid Lake Michigan and Green Bay. The bountiful waters are leaping with fish, the lakes are fringed with spanking white beaches and the hill-and-dale landscape is paved with cobblestoned Currier & Ives villages – no wonder they call Door County “The Cape Code of the Midwest.”

In a world that seems increasingly hell-bent on belittling all-things-American, Door County locals seem to know they have it good. Gratitude seems to bubble out of the streams and everywhere you look, locals are mending fences, repainting historic lighthouses and weeding nature preserves so the spring beauties can shine. Even the goats get in on the act, climbing up on turf-and-flower rooftops to trim the lawn.

The best thing about Wisconsin is its location in dead-center America. Hop a flight from anywhere in the continental U.S. and you’ll be here in no time. Here’s our pick of the best stuff to see, do and eat.

Day 1

11 am: Places in the middle of nowhere are typically reached by Tinker toy planes that can be hard on fearful flyers. The good news about Green Bay Airport is that buck-you-up fortifications are waiting for you at the wee airport bar. God created green, fertile, well-watered Wisconsin for hops and there are so many microbreweries that it’s just a matter of time before you meet the suds of your dreams.  

Noon: En route to Door County from the airport, drop into the cozy Brussels Countryside Diner in Sturgeon Bay for an intro to Door County’s hopelessly fattening fare. (Abandon Hope All Ye Low-Carbers Who Enter Here.)

Order the diner’s original hash-brown sandwich – basically a heap of eggs smothered in butter, cheese and veggies on toast. The waitress will ask you if you want the sandwich with a side of rye or wheat toast because that’s how they roll here. As long as you’re learning how to eat like a local, order a side of sauerkraut and toss it on top --it’s a food group here.

Photo credit can be given to the Door County Visitor BureauEn route to Fish Creek: Cherry-picking season in Door County doesn't arrive until late July, but spring is the time to break out your camera and soak in the awe-inspiring panorama of blossoms sprouting on 2,500 acres of cherry orchards and 500 acres of apple orchards.

1:30 Fish Creek: Check into the historic (1896) White Gull Inn, set on a gurgling creek in what Forbes called one of the 15 prettiest towns in America. The luxury suites come with puffy white quilts, working fireplaces, whirlpools, evening wine-and-cheese receptions, plus an award-winning Door County breakfast. The inn also hosts a 5-course progressive dinner, transporting you from one fetching inn after another in a horse-drawn carriage. www.whitegullinn.com

2:30-4:30 pm: Stop and smell the flowers on a naturalist guided wildflower walk at Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor. Wisconsin’s oldest nonprofit nature preserve is home to native wildflowers along its five miles of rustic trails and bridges. Some early blooming flowers to watch for include Trailing Arbutus, Marsh Marigold, Arctic Primrose, Dwarf Lake Iris and Indian Paintbrush. www.ridgesanctuary.org

5:30: Cycle or drive to Leroy’s Water Street Café in the gingerbread town of Ephraim for an afternoon java jolt. The tiny 1800s log cabin is loaded with atmosphere and serves steamy salted caramel lattes and homemade coffee cake. www.leroyswaterstreetcoffee.com

Photo credit can be given to the Door County Visitor Bureau7-9 pm: Since you’ve already eaten your weight in taters today, how about a laid-back dinner with the locals at Sister Bowl, a family-owned 50s-style retro supper club famous for their BBQ, steaks and homemade chili? Special perk: after dinner, you can hit the lanes and bowl off some calories! www.sisterbaybowl.com

Day 2

8 am: You can’t visit Door County and not do breakfast at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, where waitresses in dirndls serve steaming stacks of lingonberry pancakes in an eatery that looks like it’s dropped out of The Sound of Music, complete with flowerboxes spilling a profusion of blooms. Hear that crunching-munching? It’s the goats – they’re already hard at work up on the roof. www.aljohnsons.coma

9:30 am: Head to the Washington Island Ferry for the scenic 5-mile cruise across Door County’s infamous Death’s Door Passage. The island is a chip off the old block with a wee historic village and a maze of hiking and cycling trails that ring around the 35-square-mile- isle past waist-high wildflower meadows and enchanted forests. (Keep an eye peeled for mushrooms!)  Have lunch at Nelson Hall’s Bitter Pub, a wild and wooly bar where you can hunker down to a 5-inch-thick pub sandwich and earn your Bitter’s Club Card by downing a shot of 90 proof bitters in one fell swoop. www.wisferry.com; www.washingtonisland.com, bitterspub@gmail.com

Prone to seasickness? Skip the bitters and, have lunch on the mainland at Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim—a Door County landmark since 1906 with an old-fashioned soda fountain and jukebox. Everything’s homemade so go ahead and splurge on a cheeseburger, fries, a milkshake or malted and a gooey banana split. www.wilsonsicecream.com

Photo credit can be given to the Door County Visitor Bureau2 pm: Celebrate spring with cherry blossoms galore at Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek—With Mother Nature’s cooperation, this is arguably one of the places in Door County to see the spectacular sight of rows upon rows of blossoming cherry trees. Breathe in the fragrance, walk upon a cloud of blooms and photograph this wonder of nature before tasting it in homemade pies, cakes, preserves, cherry juice – you name it. www.orchardcountry.com

3-5 pm Door County is a haven for artists, so spend a few hours roaming the shops and galleries. In Fish Creek, don’t miss Door County Confectionary, a storybook cottage where you can load up on hand-dipped bear paws. Or visit Popelka Trenchard Glass Fine Art Gallery in Sturgeon Bay for a free glass-blowing demo and the chance to buy one-of-a-kind hand-blown glass vases, plates, bowls and jewelry. Then savor a cheese pairing at Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese in Egg Harbor—featuring the largest selection of handmade Wisconsin artisan cheeses and more than 30 artisan cheesemakers. www.doorcountyconfectionary.com, www.handsonartstudio.com, www.popelkaglass.com, www.schoolhouseartisancheese.com

6 pm: Drop by Starboard Brewing Company in Sturgeon Bay, featuring a rotating menu of eight small-batch craft beers.

7 pm: Enjoy an authentic Fish Boil dinner at The Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim, featuring freshly-caught Lake Michigan whitefish cooked outside over an open fire, just as it was 100 years ago. The fish boil tradition began as an economical way to feed large, hungry groups of lumberjacks and fishermen.  Churches picked up the tradition to raise money, and now people from all over would come to sample it. The cooking starts outside in a huge pot, and when you see the fiery spectacle known as the "boil over," you know the meal is just about ready. www.oldpostoffice-doorcounty.com

Day 3

Photo credit can be given to the Door County Visitor Bureau9 am: Have breakfast at The White Gull Inn; its Door County Cherry Stuffed French Toast was honored as the winner of the Best Breakfast in America Challenge on Good Morning America. www.whitegullinn.com   

10 am: Take a shipwreck and wildlife kayak tour with Gravity Trails—you’ll travel in a clear bottom kayak to spy on shipwrecks on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula in North Bay where many ships were no match for the powerful storms and gales that the area produces.  www.gravitytrails.com

Noon: Say so long to Door County and drive an hour south to Appleton, home of the Mile of Music festival. Now in its fifth year, The Mile was created to give locals access to free music and has managed to retain its wholesome, non-corporate vibe. This event showcases Indie musicians from around the country, many of whom go on to become famous.  You can watch them perform as you eat, drink, schmooze and dance – Appleton turns its myriad venues (restaurants, cafes, wineries, beer halls, ballrooms, chapels) into impromptu stages and once the music starts, it doesn’t quit for 72 hours.

The ticket price? There’s no cover price, but you can buy a Music-Makers badge for $139 and enjoy special perks and performances.

1 pm: Check into the CopperLeaf Hotel, a luxury European-style boutique hotel with a restaurant and bar located in the middle of town. www.copperleafhotel.com

1:30 pm: Have lunch at the swank Appleton Beer Factory, showcasing Wisconsin’s beer culture and cornucopia of organic everything. The city is ringed by countless farms, orchards, U-picks, greenhouse operations and flower fields, and that pulled pork sandwich  you’re eating is so fresh it was still oinking an hour ago. www.appletonbeerfactory.com

2 pm: Roam the Downtown Appleton Farm Market, the area’s largest farmer’s market with more than 150 vendors selling all things fresh, dewy and delicious. Don’t pass on the deep-fried corn on the cob. You choose your cob from the back of the pick-up truck and they do the rest. www.appletondowntown.org

5 pm: The family-friendly music fest is a wonderful place to enjoy original music, amazing food from all over the globe and here’s the perfect place to dance on top of the tables with your grandkids! This may be the last family-friendly concert on earth and you won’t see gangs of toughs with full-body piercings, Beverly Hillbillies with $4,000 designer jeans or vegans demanding their mac ‘n cheese be made without lactose or gluten.

1 am: Technically, the Mile ends at 12 am, but when soaking in my Jacuzzi in my sky top aerie at the Copperfield,  faint strains of rock, jazz, country, New Age, hip hop, classical and New Age wafted in my window -- proof The Mile didn’t turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.

The 2017 festival, dubbed Mile 5, runs August 3-6, 2017 and will feature 230-plus artists with more than 900 sets of live music between Thursday and Sunday. For up to date festival info, download the Mile of Music smart phone app at www.mileofmusic.com.

TULIPS AND WINDMILLS WITH PANACHE

By Lisa TE Sonne

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On April 1, if all has gone well, I will be landing in Amsterdam to start a luxury barge trip through the canals of Holland during tulip season! And I will be sharing the wonders and windmills with a girlfriend I have known since I was 7 years old – a true Boomer friendship through the decades.

My friend Kathy will be joining me with Panache, which is what European Waterways calls “our” 129-foot wooden barge – with a dedicated chef, captain, wine and cheese expert, and expedition guide, as well as a spa, sundeck, salon, library, and open bar. So I guess we will be traveling with great panache, too!

We used to bike to each other’s homes for sleep-overs. Now, we will be biking along canals and vivid fields of flowers in the Netherlands (knees allowing; Kathy is recovering from surgery). As Southern California girls, we used to go on field trips to the California Missions and the Huntington Library and Gardens. Now, we will be going to villages that are eight centuries old and seeing the Rembrandt masters in the painter’s home town.

We have always loved to garden. Now, we’ll be strolling through “Europe’s Great Garden,” the Keukenhof, which in spring displays millions of blooms in every rainbow color and in hues forgotten elsewhere. As young girls, we watched “Laugh In” and giggled at the song “Tip Toe Through the Tulips.” Now, we’ll be laughing with tons of tulips and an exuberant extravagance of other blooms.

Who knows what we will remember best, when we look back on this trip? Will it be the Delft China tour or the deft (or daft) lunch conversations on the open deck? Which of our senses will be the most delighted—sight, smell, sound, touch, taste, or humor?

As I write, it is the anticipation that is tickling me with salivating joy. Thirty years ago, my inspiring mother returned from a spring trip to Holland with memories and photos that are still colorful today. Huge swaths of purple and red and yellow tulips fill landscape canvasses of beauty. In her images and mind, the Keukenhof Gardens are an explosion of fairytale-like magic. I have wanted to follow her footsteps on those garden paths, and now I will be enjoying it with someone who also knows and loves my mom.

The Bests of Barging

I will be traveling in one of my favorite ways—based in a room with a window that frames scenery that keeps changing dramatically. Because it is a boating cruise, I’ll be able to unpack my stuff only once, and being on a barge will allow me to pack in the experiences and memories in intimate and firsthand ways. The small, deluxe barges of European Waterways weave through waterways with portside itineraries that combine the iconic and the little-known-that’s-worth-knowing. The crews cater to both comforts and curiosities.

One of the reasons I like to keep going back to this bespoke barging way of traveling is that trips are inspiring, not intense; relaxing, not rushed. There is time for reflection, reading, resting, and conversation while a panorama of life glides by. Almost every day offers hours of seeing the world float by from a boat deck – or cycling along nearby paths – as well as optional shore trips to explore stimulating, memorable places with private guides.

All the meals are thought out by a great chef who incorporates fresh local ingredients and cuisine, as well as tailors to guests’ desires. With skilled professionals taking care of all the thinking about logistics and core needs, I have time to enjoy where I am and who I am with. Whether it’s romantic times with my husband, getting to know someone new onboard, or catching up with an old dear friend, the choices for a medley of settings is varied – European Waterways offers 21 vessels (from 8 to 30 passengers) that explore the rivers and canals of nine different European countries.

In the Beginning… France

My first barge trip was with a girlfriend from graduate school days at Stanford. Our lives since college had us living all over the United States, but never in the same city at the same time. A week on the waterways of France – sating our culinary appetites and curiosity – was an ideal way to catch up. I called the trip a “continuum of contentments,” in the France section of LuxuryTravelMagic.com http://www.luxurytravelmagic.com/?cat=18. We enjoyed chateaus and Chablis, art and awe, while regaling and rejuvenating.

I loved going from lock to lock to see who the lockkeeper was. They ranged from a strong woman with cute kids, to a motorcycle tough-guy, to an artist who had flanked the banks with delightful papier-maché characters, an al fresco exhibit. For my own artful try, I dipped a paintbrush into a canal and mixed it with water colors, while my friend (a talented painter) gave me a lesson. At the next town, a kind crew member bought more water colors and other passengers also enjoyed playing with colors on paper.

For Romance, Italy

My next great barge trip was with my husband on a joyful journey that started and ended romantically in Venice, the captivating capital of canals and the perfect place to start a “la dulce vita” boat trip.

Victor learned first hand and first taste that barging and luxury can be synonymous as he wrote for GLOBAL WRITES http://global-writes.com/2013/08/barging-through-italy.html

Barging can also be culturally rich and delicious. In the section on Literary Travel, in MY ADVENTURES: A Traveler’s Journal, I recommend, “Take La Bella Vita (the Beautiful Life) through Italian Waterways from Venice to Mantua for a shore dinner at Ca Zen, where Lord Byron wrote poetry and had secret trysts.”

For History, Great Britain

My husband and I still regale people with our trip through the incredible locks and lochs of Scotland. Queen Victoria first made them famous as a travel destination, and we felt like royalty while listening to private bagpipe concerts in the Highlands and getting to steer the boat in the waters where the Loch Ness monster supposedly resides.

We loved the blue poppies and Shakespearean associations of Cawdor Castle, where the crew surprised us with a picnic. Eilean and Urquhart Castles also conjured history. The pre-historic burial Clava cairns and the Glen Ord whiskey distillery conjured different kinds of spirits. And always the scenery was dramatic and beautiful.

Victor posted a video (http://www.oneminutetrip.com/Europe.html) of our barge going through the Caledonian Canal, once considered the greatest engineering feat on the planet, and I highlighted the trip for WatchBOOM: http://www.watchboom.com/articles/more-of-scotland. Scotland is where I learned the slang word “More-ish,” which means, “it’s so good you want more.” There’s no question it confirmed that I want more canal barging as a way to explore a country.

For Tulips and Windmills…

Holland, here we come---- with Panache and panache!

For a full itinerary and videos on the Holland trip, go to: http://www.gobarging.com/panache-classic-4-itinerary

Hurry to sign up if you want to jump aboard one of this year’s cruises that go from late March through April to mid-May.  The all-inclusive cruise (guides, shore expeditions, accommodations, food, drink) for 6 nights is $5,350 per person.

If you are a flower-lover and can’t book fast enough for the tulips of Holland, take a look at the Chelsea Flower show in May or other outstanding flower trips in England in July on the Magna Carta, www.GoBarging.com

European Waterways also offers theme trips for golfers, families, opera lovers tennis lovers, art lovers, wine lovers--- and the ultimate lovers- honeymooners.

Some special 20 percent offers (!) are being made now for certain suites or to charter whole barges ---1-877-879-8808 toll free or www.gobarging.com

Author Lisa TE Sonne’s  HAPPINESS HANDBOOK cites research of why traveling is goof ro you, and her recent books encourage you to be the co-author in the journaling pages: The Great Outdoors: Nature’s Bucket List and My Adventures: A Traveler’s Journal .  See LisaSonne.com

Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou

By Bob Schulman

Tourists take a Cajun dance lesson. Photo by Bob Schulman.“Cajun country” runs through 22 parishes (much like counties) stretching across the southern part of Louisiana from New Orleans to the Texas border. Over a million people live in the region including some 250,000 Cajuns, mostly descendants of early French settlers. Many came to Louisiana in the mid-1700s after they were evicted from their homes in eastern Canada when the British seized the area, then called Acadia (now known as the Maritimes).

Over time, the name Acadian morphed into the name Cajun.

The tragic story of the Acadians' explusion from Canada and their struggles to find new homes is told in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic 1842 poem, Evangeline. Today, visitors can can drive just about anywhere in the Cajun heartland and chances are within a few minutes they’ll spot something – everything from bars to barber shops – named after Longfellow’s heroine.

Chef whips up a batch of jambalaya. Photo courtesy of Gondwana Ecotours.You can enjoy all this during a new, four-day tour of the region offered by New Orleans-based Gondwana Ecotours. Called the “Ultimate Cajun Country Adventure,” (http://gondwanaecotours.com/tour/ultimate-cajun-country-adventures), the tour includes kayaking in a bayou, cajun cooking and dancing lessons and stops at the Tabasco factory on Avery Island, the Lake Martin Wildlife Refuge, the Whitney Plantation (America’s first slavery museum), an organic pecan farm and a zydeco music studio. And yes, you’ll sample a hefty array of Louisiana food and drinks.

The all-inclusive tour starts at $1,499 per person. Guests will stay at a hotel in Lafayette, considered the heart of the state's French-speaking Cajun community. Surrounding the city (about a two-hour drive from New Orleans) are eight parishes heavily soaked in Cajun culture including the historically rich (and restaurant-packed) Vermilion Parish.

Among popular dishes served in Cajun-area restaurants are crawfish pie, file gumbo  and jambalaya. The latter is made from just about everything in and around the bayous that blossoms, sprouts, slithers, swims, crawls, wiggles, grunts, quacks and cackles.

Tour guests kayak in a bayou. Photo courtesy of Gondwana Ecotours.In addition to the four-day tour, guests can take Gondwana day trips to New Orleans and the surrounding area. The shorter trips include paddling swamps with naturalist guides, touring a historic sugar plantation, exploring New Orleans’ famous Treme neighborhood and learning about the history of Creole culture and jazz music.

A Gondwana Ecotours (http://gondwanaecotours.com) spokesman said the company “is committed to providing sustainable travel, maintaining an environmental and cultural focus and providing the vacation of a lifetime.” Gondwana’s many worldwide tours range from adventures in the Amazon rainforest, visiting the Maasai people of Tanzania, exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru and hiking in Alaska.

Vacationing with Moses, John the Baptist, Chris Columbus, Captain Bligh and Nelson Eddy

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Spanish cities are like time warps back to the days of Columbus and Magellan.Exploring a Greek island, a Mexican colonial town or a biblical site can be a lot more exciting fun if you put yourself in the sandals, boots and shoes of the historical superstars of those places.

In Jordan, for instance, it's a short climb to the top of Mt. Nebo, where you can look down on a valley of the River Jordan in eastern Israel – and get the thrill of seeing what Moses saw when he got his first look at The Promised Land. Later on, drive by Jericho on the Palestinian side of the valley and put yourself in the sandals of the ancient Canaanites. It's not hard to conjure up terrifying thoughts of Joshua's army circling the city to the scary blaring of rams' horns.

While you're in the area you can wade in the River Jordan in the place where Jesus Christ is said to have been baptized by John the Baptist. What's more, you can opt to be baptized yourself by a local clergyman, right there.

In southwest Spain, visit the Andalusian city of Palos de la Frontera and imagine it's 1492, and you're among sailors boarding the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria as the little caravels get provisioned for a long trip through uncharted waters. Maybe you'll get a chance to chat with Captain Columbus before your ship falls off the end of the earth.

Tourists ham it up in the footsteps of Moses atop Mt. Nebo.Jump ahead to 1519, and now you're in a waterfront town known as “the most Spanish of all Spanish cities.” It's the Andalusian gem of Seville, and you're on the docks of the Guadalquivir River getting ready to sail around the world with Ferdinand Magellan. You've been lucky enough to be assigned to a broad-beamed carrack called the Victoria – lucky because it was the only one of Magellan's five ships to make it back to Spain.

Stick with 1519 for a while, and picture yourself in a little Mayan fishing village on the island of Cozumel off the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Try to imagine 500 bearded guys wearing funny metal hats coming ashore yelling “Por Santiago” (for St. James, the patron saint of Spain). You didn't know it then, of course, but you had a front-row seat to what turned out to be the opening round in Hernan Cortes' conquest of Mexico.

Out in the Sonoran desert of northern Mexico, a stroll along the cobbled lanes, porticoed walkways and Andalusian courtyards of a city called Alamos takes you back to the 1700s, when this Spanish mining town was one of the richest spots on Earth. You half expect to see silver barons in silk shirts, velvet breeches and knee-high leather boots strutting off to count the day’s take. You can imagine ladies in hooped skirts and white petticoats heading to afternoon teas. Silver-plated carriages, it's said, once lined Alamos’ narrow lanes like Rolls-Royces along Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.

A hand-carved door at the mansion of a silver baron in Alamos, Mexico.Jump through a time warp to the Pacific island of Tahiti in 1789, when the idyllic beauty of this spot prompted you and others in the crew of the HMS Bounty to tell Captain Bligh to bug off. True, you'd have been less inclined to do that in today's traffic jams and skyrocketing prices on the island, but centuries ago its pristine, palm-lined bays and moonlit beaches sure beat hardtack chow and getting thrashed now and then on the Bounty.

It's still the 1930s up in the Canadian Rockies at Lake Louise. Here, it's hard to resist belting out lines from Indian Love Call a la Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald as you mosey around this gorgeous mile-and-a-half-long lake. It's surrounded by snowcapped peaks, creating perfect acoustics for your version of that romantic song.

Finally, spend a few hours cruising around the Aegean Sea south of Greece,

and it's not hard to slip into the adventures of Odysseus on his 10-year-long trip back to Ithaca from the Trojan War. You can almost see yourself battling a three-headed monster on one island, steering clear of the Sirens on another and matching wits with the witch-goddess Circe (who turned you and the rest of the guys into pigs for a while) on still another.

And you thought there wouldn't be much to write home about from all these places.

Cinco de Mayo: Celebrating a Mexican victory in 1862

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Puebla's baroque-style cathedral is one of the largest in Mexico.PUEBLA, Mexico -- It was May 5, 1862, and it was going to be a glorious day for the French army and Emperor Napoleon III. Decked out in their finest uniforms, the troops could hardly wait to start slashing away at the city’s defenders as bugles blared l'attaque (attack) and battle flags proudly waved overhead. One general called it “the grande advance.”

But the French invaders, who had marched 135 miles to Puebla after landing at eastern Mexico’s port of Veracruz (and had to pass through Puebla on their way to Mexico City) would be defeated that day by rag-tag Mexican peasant brigades – much to the anger of Napoleon back in Paris.

Taking Puebla in France’s foray into Mexico – prompted by unpaid debts to Napoleon – at first looked like a piece of cake. So what if the French soldiers would have to get past two forts bristling with guns atop two opposite hills in front of the city. They'd also have to cross a quarter-mile-long trench between the forts packed with enemy troops and lined by sharp-spiked maguey cacti.

It would have been much easier to attack Puebla on the relatively undefended back side of the city, as urged by veteran Legionnaires among the 6,500 French troops gathered for the battle. But they were mostly commanded by civilians, typically noblemen with little combat experience, or none at all. Going around to the back, as one general put it, would have been “beneath the honor and dignity of France.”

So off went thousands of chasseurs, zouaves and other troops, charging up the hills short on artillery shot (someone miscalculated how much they'd need) and with ladders too short to scale the walls of the forts (another goof). What's more, it began raining, turning “the grande advance” into a muddy mess besides swelling the water in moats around the forts, making it even harder to get to the walls.

As bugles sounded the order to retreat, Mexico racked up its first (and according to the history books, its last) victory over a foreign army. A little over 460 French soldiers died in the battle vs. 83 Mexican losses.

The victory was short-lived, however, because the French came back to Puebla the next year –  this time with a bigger army – and after a pitched battle hoisted their red, white and blue tricoulour flag over the city.

Downtown Puebla is a jump back in time to colonial Mexico.Still, the date of the initial victory is celebrated each year at fiestas, parades, street dances and the like in Mexico as well as in Latino communities across the U.S.

Where is Puebla? Mexico’s fourth largest city – some 6 million people hang up their sombreros there – Puebla is about 80 miles east of Mexico City, a drive of 1 to 2 hours depending on the traffic.

Footnote: In Paris, Napoleon was said to be furious when he heard about the defeat of his army. The following year, he sent 27,000 reinforcements to Mexico for what turned out to be a two-month siege of Puebla. On May 17, 1863, the out-numbered, out-supplied and out-gunned Mexican troops – who by then had eaten their horses, dogs and cats and were mainly getting by on boiled leaves – finally threw in the towel. The French left three years later.

DANUBE RIVER RISING

Story by Anne Z. Cooke; photography by Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld

River ships like the Scenic Pearl feel small when you’re onboard. In fact, most of today’s river ships are as long as a football field.

VILSHOFEN, Germany—Delayed at the airport in Nuremberg and thoroughly frazzled, we checked and re-checked our watches as the miles ticked by, with the Danube River and our Scenic River Cruises ship, the Pearl, nowhere to be seen.  

Once a tiny village and palace on the Moldau River (Vltava, in Czech) Cesky Krumlov could well have been the model for Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Now a bustling destination for holiday makers from five continents, its narrow cobbled streets are lined with dozens of gift, craft, food and souvenir shops. A full-day excursion to Cesky Krumlov is included at no extra cost on Scenic River Cruises’ Danube sailings.Gunter, meanwhile, hired to drive us to the dock in Vilshofen, for a nine-day Danube cruise and long-planned family vacation, calmly fiddled with the radio, tuning in a soccer match and then a music station. Finally he switched it off and sighing thoughtfully, gazed into the rear view mirror.

“The ship is waiting,” he remarked. “No worrying. Like American movies say, only rolling with the punches.”

Words to live by, indeed. Arriving just as the welcome-aboard party ended, we managed a glass of champagne and a hurried handshake with Captain Gyula Toth. With the Danube at flood levels, there was no way the 167-passenger Pearl was going anywhere, not that night.   

Nor was the next day wasted. Though it rained on and off, the kids kept busy exploring the ship and biking for miles along the river path while I rescheduled excursions, piano concerts and museum visits. Joining a tour of Passau, we drew a law student for a guide, an amateur historian as entertaining as he was knowledgeable. By bedtime we’d met enough people to discover that we – another passenger and I -- had attended the same high school. 

As for the Danube River, molten silver by moonlight, it looked as harmless as a backyard fishpond. Until the next morning when it reared up with a roar, rising another foot, flooding towns and fields, lapping at the undersides of bridges and thwarting cruise passengers.

It was then – still docked in Vilshofen – that I noticed Captain Toth had gone to ground.      

“He gave a talk our first night, but after that nothing,” said New Zealander Janet Holmes, a veteran ocean cruiser, who was eager to get going. “I’ve always wanted to see the Danube,” she said. “If they had a regular Captain’s Table, like the big cruise ships do, we could ask him when we’re leaving.”

A classic cliff-side pile overlooking a slight bend in the Danube, this castle, not far from the 18th C. Benedictine Abbey and Library at Melk, was identified by the ship’s crew as Schonbuhel Schloss (Castle). Built atop a rock fronting the river, it’s invincible from below and enjoys clear views up and down the Danube. Unlike many ruined castles along the Danube, Schonbuhel has survived intact. Near Melk, Austria.Hope sprang anew when Hotel Manager Miguel Rodriquez called a meeting. But when he announced that two other ships had hit a bridge, blocking our route, a muttered protest swept the lounge.    

“Why can’t we just leave? I paid for this and I want to go, or I want my money back,” yelled a tough-looking character who said he’d been on 20 cruises and expected better. What he didn’t realize was that river cruising is nothing like ocean cruising. Water levels change. The current never stops. Whirlpools gouge the river bottom, shifting sandbars. Tributaries deposit debris. Some low bridges are impassable. And the water can rise in minutes. 

Or fall just as fast. A couple hours later the river levels dropped, the sun came out and the Pearl cast off, heading downstream between low mountains, beside rocky cliffs and past ancient castles and vineyards.     

“It’s like driving a car,” said Toth when I finally found him in the bridge house, hunkered down and peering at the current.  “You can’t take your eyes off the road – or the river – for a minute,” he said, gesturing to the first mate to take the helm while we talked. “You can’t stop to look at a map, or even get a cup of coffee. I’ve been on the Danube for more than 20 years, from one end to the other, and there’s always something new.”      

A slow start not withstanding we made it to every port on the itinerary. At Passau, Regensburg and Durnstein we had a choice: to walk into town, ride the bus, join a guided tour or admire the landscape from the seat of one of the ship’s electric bikes. Full and three-quarter-day bus tours went farther afield (thank you, Scenic, for the newest, plushest, sleekest buses ever); to Salzburg (this earned a thumbs down as too far and too many tourists) and to Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic.  

River banks and barges, castles and churches, meadows and marshes, all are photo opportunities for passengers on the Scenic Pearl’s eight-day romantic Danube River Cruise. Seen here, the countryside at mid-day, in Austria.Vienna offered a variety of choices, ranging from sightseeing and the Lipizzaner horses to museums and a piano recital at the Liszt Music School. Our dressiest evening added a touch of class, with wine and an opera recital at the Palais Liechtenstein. On-ship events included a Viennese waltz performance and beginners’ lesson, and a folk dance group and band.

The kids immediately invented a competitive “spot-the-ships” game that awarded points for each sighting, a list that included Tauck Tours’ “Joy,” A-Rosa’s “Silva” and “Bella,” Ama’s “Prima,” Scenic’s “Jasper,” the “Jane Austen,” Emerald’s “Sky,” Prinzessin’s “Sisi,” two Uniworld ships (we missed the names) and three Viking River Cruises’ ships.   

From a basket of memorable moments, I’d pick Durnstein for history and Cesky Krumlov for crafts. Built on steep terraces, tiny Durnstein is unique. But its stand-out feature is the hike uphill to the ruined castle on the rocks.  For me, seeing the place where in 1192, England’s King Richard I, returning home from the Third Crusade, was imprisoned for two years, put the Crusades on the map.   

In Cesky Krumlov, our sunny day wandering through this 13th century restored Czech hamlet, soon became a Tiffany-meets-Disneyland with dozens of sparkly stores on cobblestone streets. Built astride the Moldau River and bypassed by every major war, the town is now a designated UNESCO Heritage site, making it (for all you film location managers reading this) a set just waiting for a story.

Each summer evening in Budapest, as the sun sets, exterior lights illuminate the buildings along the Danube, a must-see spectacle celebrated by river cruises, late-night parties, riverside restaurants and visitors from around the world. Passengers on Scenic Cruises’ ship Pearl celebrate with cocktails and a lazy tour along the shore. Here, they look over the river at Chain Bridge, built in the 19th century to link the cities of Buda and Pest.Talking to Toth about working with Scenic Cruises produced another surprise. On the Danube, captains have just one task: steering.    

“Our union rules don’t permit us to do anything except navigate,” he said. “My duty is to deliver the ship and the passengers safely and on schedule.” He paused and thought it over. “See them, over there? That’s why steering is harder than it used to be,” he said, waving to three cruise vessels going the other way, each with a different outfit. “There are dozens of cruise ships now, and more on the way.”  

The result is a critical shortage of experienced employees, from cruise directors down to dining room waiters. Forced to hire beginners, service levels now vary from ship to ship.   

A few travelers couldn’t avoid comparisons. “We booked it because it’s advertised as a luxury cruise,” said Richard Holway, Chairman of TechMarketView, a UK firm. “But not by our standards. We’re very disappointed. The cabin and excursions are fine enough, certainly. But the service doesn’t compare with Silver Seas, where the staff greet you by name, ask after you every day and your waiter keeps an eye on you throughout the meal. These fellows don’t even notice when you try to get their attention.”

But most passengers gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. The fact that the waiters, new hires from Romania and Bulgaria, were inattentive, didn’t matter. They were thrilled to be vacationing on a famous river and fascinated by new places and cultures. They liked the meals and praised the all-inclusive pricing. Even disappointed travelers eventually softened up. 

For some perspective on the size of the Danube as it passes Budapest, and a view of the dozens of river cruise ships that visit this major European capital city, join one of the excursions offered by Scenic River Cruises’ that include city views from Gellert Hill, behind above the city. Budapest, Hungary.“We’ve had a very good time,” said Janice Holmes who had to move from one cabin to another when a mystery leak soaked her rug, not once but twice. “These things happen but you can’t let it bother you,” she said, waving goodbye. Words to live by, for sure.

THE NITTY GRITTY

Contact Scenic River Cruises, an Australian company, at 857-201-0878. Or go to www.scenic.au for more information and prices.

The Pearl and the Ruby, sister ships, sail in 2017 on the Rhine and Moselle. A newer ship, the Jade, sails on the Danube between Nuremberg and Budapest on June 5 and 12. Category D cabins start at $4180 per person for two in a cabin and include a fly-free option for one airline ticket. 

ONLINE SECURITY TIPS

By Yvette Cardozo

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You might worry about flight delays, bad weather and disappointing accommodations when thinking about what could ruin your vacation. But the lack of secure Internet access revealing social media posts and haphazard habits online can wreak havoc lasting long after beach tans fade and skis are put away.  

SNDR™ CEO and security expert Shaun Murphy (www.sndr.com) has created a series of tips you can use to help keep your personal information and private files safe while away from home.

Even if you don’t want to do all of these, just a few of the common sense ones (update your operating system and anti virus/malware programs and apps, be careful of free wifi, browse safely) will help a lot.

Prep Before You Go

Patch Up. Packing, printing airline tickets and organizing maps are not the only to-do list items that need to be tended to before a vacation begins. Check all devices staying at home or going on the trip for software updates. Not running system updates is like putting out the welcome mat for cybercriminals. Operating system security holes that could have easily been patched with a quick click can leave you vulnerable to hacks.                                                                

Remove Data. Backing up is always important, but before you travel it is essential. Removing unnecessary sensitive data from your devices going on the trip including photos, videos, financial documents and stored passwords can save you from heartache and headaches down the road if your devices are breached, stolen or misplaced.                                       

Wipe Your History. Clear your browser cache files and remove saved passwords. If you accidentally connect to an unsecure Wi-Fi network while traveling do not make it effortless for criminals to steal your private information such as bank access, work emails or photos.                          

Fake It. Create temporary passwords for sites you plan on accessing while traveling. It is estimated that 60% of people use the same password, or a variation of one, for every account. If you get hacked while traveling, having a temporary “throwaway” password for email or social media will prevent a headache of worry over if your home accounts were compromised.  

While Traveling

Pay Up. Avoid logging onto free Wi-Fi networks that are unsecure. If you do not have to ask a store or restaurant owner or employee for a password it isn’t worth saving a few dollars to check your email for free. It could end up costing you a lot more in the long run if a hacker has set up a benign looking “free” network that he or she is using to read everything on your computer.                                                                                                                                          

Browse Safely. Make sure you are using a secured connection to websites when available. A simple https:// instead of http:// in your web browser's URL bar will protect you from most threats local and remote. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has created a utility that will automatically use a secure connection for you. Learn more about it at https://www.eff.org/Https-everywhere                                                                     

Double Down. Enable two-factor authentication on your important web services (email, social media, etc.) so in the event that someone does gain access to your passwords they need a second code to get in. Guidelines for setting up two-factor authentication can be found at http://www.google.com/landing/2step.                                                                                 

Privatize Wi-Fi. For additional security when using a Wi-Fi network at a hotel or airport, consider using a VPN on your laptop. A VPN creates an encrypted connection to a third-party server, and all your Internet traffic is routed through that server. Snoopers on the network will only see encrypted data.                                                                                         

Share Wisely. While it is tempting to post about a vacation on social media or keep a blog about your adventures to stay in touch with family and friends, resist the urge. Every tidbit of information you publicly share online is a breadcrumb criminals can use to piece together a snapshot of your life that can lead to them to cracking your passwords and hacking your digital accounts.                                                                                                                                 

Shut Down. Switch off the wireless connection on your phone, tablet and laptop when they are not in use. By keeping the connection off you are taking another step in protecting your digital identity, by preventing an opportunity for criminals to automatically connect to your device on an open network without you ever knowing what happened.

After Returning Home

Sweep Clean. Running a security sweep when you get home is a wise precaution. Check your computer and other devices for spyware, malware and viruses. One indication that malware could be looking is an increase in memory use or data use that is otherwise inexplicable.

Culinary Capers on Land and Sea

By Ginger Dingus

I never tasted a limoncello I didn’t like. A glass of the silky Italian liqueur flavored with lemons is the perfect ending to an evening meal. Your limoncello moment might be in a trattoria in Italy, or it could be at an Italian restaurant aboard a cruise ship. In fact, it was on board a cruise ship that I was first introduced to limoncello.

But wait. It gets better.

Nurturing my inner chef at sea

Thanks to a cruise to Central America aboard Oceania’s lovely Marina, I’ve discovered a delicious new way to imbibe—drunken limoncello cake. I’ve even learned how to make it. Now that’s amore, and it all happened in a cooking class called “Love of Lemons” offered in the ship’s professional-style culinary center.

Mid-way through class, I felt a bit tipsy, though we hadn’t yet left port. The recipe for the aptly named cake did call for a generous portion of limoncello for soaking purposes. Then there was the welcoming flute of bubbly to get the dozen or so of us participants in the proper mood to create culinary delights. And what chef doesn’t like a sip of wine now and then while working? Our instructor, Executive Chef Kathryn Kelly, obliged, noting that “cooking wine is any wine you actually drink.”

When launched in 2011, Marina was the first cruise ship to offer hands-on cooking classes in a purpose-built culinary center. The ocean-view room has 12 well-equipped stations, each meant for two cooks to share. I partnered with my husband in making chicken scaloppini, lemon risotto and that marvelous limoncello cake which we later topped with lemon basil gelato. Be forewarned, skip your dinner reservations on class day. You’re expected to eat what you cook. Believe me, it’s so yummy you won’t be able to resist.

Culinary adventures ashore

The culinary experience is the cornerstone of Oceania Cruises, and that includes time spent ashore. It’s here that Kathryn Kelly is in her element, creating the line’s 50 culinary discovery tours in ports worldwide. “I ask where would I like to go if I had one day in the port? The magic of these tours is meeting the people who are behind the scenes,” she said.

Docking in Roatan, Honduras we sampled Kelly’s version of an ocean-to-table dining experience and met the chef behind the local shrimp scene. Roatan is an island, 36 miles long, four miles wide and housing a population of about 110,000. Our first stop, Blue Harbor Tropical Arboretum and Hydroponic Farm, is where much of the island’s fresh spices and lettuces are produced hydroponically. Using nutrient-rich water and no soil, the farm’s crops take just 52 days from seed to harvest. We gathered fresh salad greens for our lunch and moved beachside to Big French Key where we met Chef Sam.

Pink shrimp are a specialty of Roatan, and Chef Sam was the local man ready to show us how easy it is to cook them. He prepared shrimp cocktail with a tangy sauce freshly made with tomatoes and a small dose of a hot, bull nose pepper. Next came garlic shrimp cooked for three to four minutes in butter with garlic and parsley. Saving the best for last, Sam dipped the shrimp in a light batter and freshly grated coconut before quickly frying them in oil. He proudly displayed his hand-made grater, fashioned with “a hammer, a nail and a tin can.” Our lunch was a plate of shrimp three ways, rice, beans, cassava chips and hydroponic salad.

Dining choices galore

For a ship of 1,250 passengers, Marina offers a remarkable number of dinner venues, eight to be exact, plus room service. Of these, all but two are complimentary. Due to their outstanding cuisine and popularity, the four included specialty restaurants require reservations in advance.

During our week on board, we sampled six venues, discovering new treats each evening. At Jacques, the shipboard restaurant overseen by Master Chef Jacques Pepin, fresh bread is baked daily from flour specially purchased from France. That bread paired perfectly with the after-dinner trolley of French cheeses. At Red Ginger, the Asian restaurant, our waiter offered us a choice of chopsticks from a special presentation box. At Toscana, the place for Italian dishes, we carefully selected our olive oil from a menu of 10 varieties, all from Italy. We also had a choice of three different balsamic vinegars. Did I mention the head of roasted garlic accompanying our basket of breads?

Manatees to Mayan ruins

Enough of the foodie talk. There’s more to cruising than floating between breakfast, lunch and dinner tables.

Our Tropical Tempos itinerary, round-trip from Miami, called in four countries, including the U.S. In Harvest Caye, Belize, Oceania’s parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line, recently opened the cruise industry’s newest private island. There’s nothing like having seven acres of white sand beach reserved for the passengers of one smallish ship. We had our pick of hundreds of lounge chairs, hammocks and umbrellas. The large pool’s swim-up bar beaconed, but we opted for fish tacos and tropical drinks at a bar overlooking the zip line and our docked ship. Later, we hopped in a boat to tool around the lagoons in search of manatees, which we saw frequently breaking the surface to breathe.

While I was off learning to cook pink shrimp in Roatan, Honduras, my husband visited the only cameo factory in the Americas. Founded in 1851, Stone Castle Cameo Institute produces fascinating cameos from large seashells. You might even see your cruise ship or a Harley motorcycle carved as a cameo. No subject is off limits when it comes to art.

In Costa Maya, Mexico, we boarded a modern bus for the hour’s road trip to the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben, meaning the place of red corn. Dating back roughly 1,500 years, Chacchoben’s temples were overgrown with vegetation as recently as 1972. In fact, excavation only began in 1992. The site is now a national park with six exposed temples and plenty of work still to be done. You might say that’s food for thought.

Alamos: A treasure in the Sierra Madre

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Alamos looks much like it did centuries ago.Townsfolk claim the mysterious German writer who used the name B. Traven wrote his famous novel Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the village of Alamos out in western Mexico's Sonoran desert.

It's easy to see how this old Spanish mining town might have inspired a book about the lure of riches waiting to be ripped from the hills.

A stroll along Alamos' cobbled lanes, porticoed walkways and Andalusian courtyards takes you back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the silver mines of the nearby Sierras made this city one of the richest spots on Earth. You half expect to see mining barons in silk shirts, velvet breeches and knee-high leather boots strutting off to count the day’s take. You can imagine ladies in hooped skirts and white petticoats heading to afternoon teas. Silver-plated carriages, it’s said, once lined Alamos’ cobbled lanes like Rolls-Royces along Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.

The mines gave up so much silver that the town had its own mint. From there, the shiny stuff was loaded on mules, which went plodding off to Mexico City on a segment of the Royal Highway specially built to carry the loot from Alamos. The city also had its own silk factory – even silver barons had to dress for success – the worms having been cultivated in white mulberry trees imported from Japan along with gardeners and silk weavers.

The city sprung up in the 1680s as a bedroom community for the fabulously wealthy mining jefes (bosses). Many of their mansions, handed down from generation to generation, are now owned by U.S. and Canadian expats who bought them as retirement homes or to turn them into hotels, inns and guest houses.

Tourist at hand-carved doors to a colonial mansion.The dons and donas may be gone, but tourists can enjoy their legacies in 188 preserved buildings – everything from mansions and mills to the local jail – tagged as national historic monuments.

Wander around the city (you can walk from one side of it to the other in 20  minutes) and you might run across the home-turned-museum of Mexico’s old-time movie queen and Alamos’ most famous daughter, Maria Felix, known as “The Mexican Marilyn Monroe.” Elsewhere in the city are the former homes of American stars Mary Astor and Carroll O’Connor.

Sooner or later you’ll end up in the zocolo (the town square), the village’s most popular spot. Here, families drop by for picnics or to catch up on the latest gossip. At night, you might hear the sweet strumming of Mexican guitars from the square’s bandstand – mixed now and then with loud, thumping sounds.

Look close, and you'll likely see the thump-a-thumps are coming from boom-boxes in the vintage jalopies of teenagers cruising the zocalo. The kids probably don't know it, but they're re-enacting a centuries-old mating ritual once done with carriages circling the country's zocalos.

At Alamos, perhaps in silver-plated carriages.

Getting there: Check out a map of Mexico and you'll see the state of Sonora just below Arizona. Now, look for a tiny speck down at the lower end of Sonora – literally at the end of the road. That’s Alamos.

Many visitors opt to drive down from the U.S. and do some sightseeing along the way. The highway from Tucson takes you across the border at Nogales, then down Sonora to the state capital at Hermosillo and the beach resorts at Guaymas and San Carlos on the Sea of Cortes. When you get to Alamos you'll have driven about 475 miles.

About B. Traven: That was the pen name of a German writer who came to Mexico in the 1920s. Beyond that, not much is known about him for sure, not even his real name. Among his literary works were 12 novels, including some in which his main characters were German political activists who fled to Mexico in the 20s. He departed from that theme in his 1927 masterpiece, Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

By Carole Jacobs

It’s Indian summer down at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. The aspen shimmers orange and gold against the evergreens and the churning river is heavy with snowmelt.

But in just 20 minutes, we’ve risen through several eco-climates and into a scene straight from Frozen:  The glinting icefield is ringed by splintered crags, and at my feet, an aquamarine stream rushes from a snowbank and sparkles for a few seconds before vanishing into a fissure.

In the still, thin air, we can hear the wap-wap-wap of the helicopter long before we can see it. It lands without a skid and as the door swings open, we climb up into a welcoming cushion of warmth. Lifting out of the frozen chasm, we see the snow cone of Denali piercing the sky at 20, 320 feet.

The pilot steers the copter past razor peaks and stony spires where clusters of Dall sheep cling like Velcro. We dive into the tundra, a treeless expanse of meadows carpeted with mosses, lichen, miniscule wildflowers and berry bushes, and before we can catch our breath, cross the raging river and land in a small circle of grass near the lodge.  

Vast, empty and no cell phone service equals you’d better have a guide

I live off-the-grid in California’s High Sierra. We don’t have electricity, cell phone service or Starbucks up here -- just miles of wilderness and beautiful views of 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, my neighborhood peak and also the highest point in the contiguous 48 states. I used to think this was the wilds. Then I visited Alaska and discovered what “the last frontier” really means.

Denali pretty much makes Mt. Whitney look like an ant hill. But Denali isn’t just high: Encompassing 9,492 square miles, the peak (combined with the rest of the national park that bears its name), is also mind-boggling vast, and nearly all empty: You could put Yosemite National Park in one corner of Denali and there’d still be plenty of room left for Death Valley, Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Yellowstone, Glacier, Big Bend and Yellowstone national parks.  

Last fall, when I was invited to explore Alaska’s wild places by land and by sea with expert guides from Princess Cruises, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. We’d spend the first week touring Denali National Park, and the second week cruising through Glacier Bay National Park and the Inside Passage south to Vancouver, B.C., with stops in Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and Vancouver. We’d explore by foot, bicycle, dog sled, canoe, kayak, tram, catamaran, fishing boat, narrow gauge railway, jeep, horse and jet boat, and when that wasn’t enough, by sea plane and Cessna.

North to Alaska

We began our journey in Fairbanks, with the late August air already hinting at the Big Freeze that would encase the city all winter.  The Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge was the first of several rustic-chic hotels we’d enjoy on the tour, not to mention the first of many memorable feasts showcasing Alaska’s bounty: wild salmon, crab legs, shrimp, cheesecake topped with mounds of wild Alaskan blueberries, local wines and beers –- if you thought the Alaskan wilds would be a good place to lose a few, Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

From Fairbanks, we headed into Denali National Park and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, a stone and glass monument to the mountains overlooking the national park village. So much for campfire grub -- we could sip a cappuccino in a café overlooking the stream, have a slice of gourmet pizza or wallow in grilled salmon at the Mountain View Restaurant, a swank eatery that looked like it had been drop-lifted in from Rodeo Drive.

Close-ups of Denali

The next morning, we boarded a souped-up school bus with giant windows and video monitors linked to a telescopic video lens for The Tundra Wilderness Tour of the park. En route we got a rare glimpse of the peak (mountains make their own weather and Denali is usually clouded over) and close-ups of caribou, a moose who was a dead ringer for Bullwinkle and a large grizzly bathing in a stream. He looked just like Pooh Bear sitting there scrubbing himself clean and panting like a dog. Then he stood up on his hind legs and whoa! I was glad there was some steel between us.

That night, the Northern Lights swirled across the sky in pulsating waves of greens, reds and purples --a magical ending to a day of wonder.

A day later, we’re at Princess McKinley Lodge, a park lodge overlooking the south side of Denali.  It was another blue-sky day and the mountain looked huge -- like I was viewing it through a zoom lens. A tiny plane took us up-up-up to within 500 feet of the summit of Denali. At close range, Denali proved to be many peaks, spires and ridges, not the giant snow cone it appeared to be from a distance.

Back on terra firm, we toured the historic burb of Talkeena. Founded in 1919, the town looks like it’s on loan from Northern Exposure and is a popular base for climbers. Just beyond town, we said goodbye to Denali and boarded Princess’ Direct-to-the-Wilderness Rail Service,, a 500-mile scenic train ride through the heart of Alaska to the tiny port of Whittier,  located on the west side of Prince William Sound about 58 miles southeast of Anchorage.

The scenic sail to Vancouver

The Star Princess was docked in port and waiting to take us away in the 4-star fashion to which we’d become accustomed – nonstop salmon, shrimp and crab legs; movies under the stars; heated pools; a swank fitness center and spa; several cafes, bars, snack shops and restaurants; a library and computer room; pizza and ice cream stands and cushy cabins with balconies overlooking the ever-changing views..

The following morning, we sailed into Glacier Bay National Park, covering 3.3 million acres of rugged mountains, dynamic glaciers, temperate rainforest, wild coastlines and deep sheltered fjords. The ship anchored a few hundred feet from Hubbard Glacier, a massive hunk of ice that is 40 stories high and 76 miles long. We hung over the balcony as 10-story-high chunks of ice crashed into the sea with a cannon-like boom and sent up walls of seething foam and spray.

Boom-to-bust Skagway

We sailed all night, rising at dawn to find the ship had docked in Skagway, a boom-to-busting mining town that once lured thousands of fortune-hunters bound for the Yukon goldfields.  I boarded the historic White Pass & Yukon Railway for an eye-popping ride from the ocean to the mountains. An engineering marvel on par with the likes of the Eiffel Tower, the Panama Canal and the Statue of Liberty, the 110-mile railway was completed in 26 months in 1898 by blasting through the mountains with 450 tons of explosives.

Today, the fully restored cars, pulled by vintage diesel locomotives, climb nearly 3,000 feet over the first 20 miles of track. I gasped as the train rounded cliff-hanging turns, passed by thundering Bridal Veil Falls, plunged into mouse-hole tunnels and crossed trestle bridges that spanned yawning gorges.  Near White Pass Summit, we passed the original Klondike Trail of '98. Worn into the rocks, the trail stands witness to the thousands of souls who passed this way in search of gold.

Alaska’s capitol city

We sailed all night and woke the following morning in Juneau. I spent the morning riding the Mt. Roberts tram to the summit and then hiking through dense spruce forests to the Alpine Tea House, where I settled in for a cup of blueberry tea cup and scones smeared with Alaskan spruce tip jam.  

For lunch, I boarded a small floatplane for an unforgettable flight over lush rainforests and waterfalls, past snowcapped peaks and over five breathtaking glaciers. The plane landed with a splash at the 1923 Taku Glacier Lodge, located across the Taku River from Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier. Inside, we sat down to an all-you-can-eat home-style feast of wild Alaska salmon, homemade baked beans, coleslaw, sourdough bread and ginger cookies and lemonade chilled with ice from the glacier.

In Ketchikan, the salmon capitol of Alaska and a former Indian fishing camp located on an island, I spent the morning flight-touring Misty Fjords National Monument, the "Yosemite of the North," gawking at views of 1,000-foot waterfalls, glistening lakes,  low-hanging mists and sheer granite walls plunging 3,000 feet to remote fjords.

In the afternoon, I took another seaplane flight from the bustling downtown Ketchikan harbor past Revillagigedo Island and the spectacular mountains of the Tongass National Forest.  Everyone on board applauded the pilot as he did a water landing right in front of the George Inlet Lodge, a remote, rustic oasis that once served as an early 1900s cannery bunkhouse. We were escorted inside for another all-you-can-eat feast of Dungeness crab, and for dessert, cheesecake smothered in giant Alaska blueberries.

Bound for the Inside Passage

That night, we left Ketchikan and spent the next day at sea sailing through the Inside Passage to Vancouver. Stretching south from the Gulf of Alaska to the British Columbia coast and Puget Sound, Washington, the Passage has more than 1,000 islands, thousands of coves and bays and staggering scenic variety. One moment we were sailing through a wide bay of barrier islands and the next we were cruising through a narrow waterway flanked by towering forested walls.

When we arrived in Vancouver, B.C., it was an overcast morning and the sky was heavy with rain.  I thought about staying an extra day to explore this gorgeous and fascinating city. But my camera was full, my laptop battery was dead, my feet were sore and my senses were seriously sated. In the end, I decided to call it a day -- and save Vancouver for a sunnier one.

Information: Princess Cruises, www.princesscruises.com; @PrincessCruises#ComeBackNew

Costa Rica holiday celebrates a national hero

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Sign welcomes arrivals at Juan Santamaria International Airport.Vacationers lucky enough to be in Costa Rica on April 11 have a special treat in store. It’s what amounts to a country-wide party, celebrated at street dances, in bars and restaurants and at backyard barbecues – and tourists are welcome to join in the fun.

That day, a national holiday, honors a lad named Juan Santamaria who made his  mark on Costa Rican history 161 years ago. Look close, and you’ll see his name on the terminal of the country’s main airport at San Jose. You’ll also spot that name on avenues, statues, parks, plazas and shopping centers. Even on casinos.

Back in April of 1856 Americans were in a bitter election year. Few were aware (or even cared about) a drama playing out thousands of miles south of the border. Among the main players were an American billionaire and his vast steamship empire, a mercenary army hired by the billionaire, a Nicaraguan rebel army, the U.S. Congress, what later turned out to be the Panama Canal and Santamaria, a 25-year-old drummer boy in the Costa Rican army.

Enter the billionaire

Little girls wear flowers in their hair for the holiday.When gold was discovered in Northern California in the mid-1800s, railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt hit paydirt with a fleet of steamships carrying miners down the east coast to ports in Nicaragua, where they hopped on smaller steamers (also owned by Vanderbilt) to cross the country on river routes through the jungles. On the other side, Vanderbilt’s bigger steamships waited to take them up the Pacific shores to San Francisco and riches in the gold fields.

At the time, France had struck out in an attempt to dig a 50-mile-long canal out of the muck and jungles of Panama, and the U.S. congress was mulling heavy lobbying to take over the failed French venture in Panama. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, was said to be putting pressure on Congress to instead build a canal across Nicaragua by linking up the country’s lakes and rivers (over which he already operated a transport service). But Congress was reluctant to act, one reason being that rebels threatened to unseat the government of Nicaragua.

Enter the mercenaries

Congress could hardly back the Nicaragua project in the middle of a rebellion, so Vanderbilt stepped in to restore stability to the country – by footing the bill for an army of American mercenaries to boot out the rebels.

Led by a 30-year-old adventurer named William Walker (who’d once tried to invade Mexico), the mercs earned their keep and sent the rebels packing. But then Walker double-crossed Vanderbilt. He took over the government, declared himself president and renamed the country “Walkeragua” (with English as its official language). While he was at it, he also took over Vanderbilt's trans-Nicaragua water transit system.

Vanderbilt retaliated by getting his buddy, President Juan Rafael Mora of neighboring Costa Rica, to declare war on Walker.

Workers in a flower factory prepare plants for shipment.Enter the drummer boy

A few weeks after the Costa Ricans crossed the border a key battle took place in the city of Rivas in southwest Nicaragua. In the high point of the fight, the Costa Ricans found themselves pinned down by Walker's men, who'd holed up in a strategically located building. But drummer boy Santamaria saved the day when he volunteered to toss a torch on the thatched roof of the building, even if it meant exposing himself to heavy fire.

The boy's plan worked. The enemy abandoned the building, letting the Costa Ricans move on to occupy the town. But the victory turned out to be bittersweet because the boy was gunned down by an enemy sniper.

Santamaria has been remembered ever since on the day of the battle, April 11.

Belize lodge debuts world-class fishing package

By Bob Schulman

Attention discerning anglers: Fishing experts down in the Central American country of Belize want you to know about a special six-day package combining eco-tours and fishing the country’s rivers, channels and flats. Slated for this upcoming May 6-13, the package features fishing for tarpon, permit and bonefish from 23-foot fiberglass panga skiffs.

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Guests will stay at the Belize River Lodge on the green banks of the Belize Olde River a few miles from its entrance into the Caribbean Sea. Guided excursions from the lodge include snorkeling Belize’s barrier reef, birding, ziplining, cave tubing and visiting Mayan ruins, Belize City and the Belize Zoo.

Put together by Frontiers International Travel based in Gibsonia, Pa, the trip (http://www.frontierstravel.com/belize-river-lodge-may-2017) starts at $4,375 per person based on shared accommodations and shared guide.

Belize River Lodge.

Local waters are said to be brimming over with tropical fish. Lodge officials report it’s not unusual for some guests to score a “grand slam” every day (when an angler is able to catch a bonefish, tarpon and permit on the same day).

The Belize River Lodge was the first fishing lodge built in Belize. Sleeping as many as 16 guests, the property has eight double rooms, each with a private bathroom. Meals are prepared in the Belizean-Creole tradition.

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Bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala and with the Caribbean lapping its eastern beaches, Belize was once known as British Honduras. It changed its name to Belize in 1973 and won its independence from Britain in 1981.

Photos courtesy of Barry and Cathy Beck, trip hosts.

Mardi Gras: Fat Tuesday to Ash Wednesday

By Bob Schulman

Revelers in Mazatlan’s Plaza Machado.

Try to imagine 600,000 people prancing around in elaborate costumes, shaking their booties and otherwise whooping it up for Mardi Gras. No it’s not New Orleans. Or Rio. It’s Mazatlan (www.gomazatlan.com), a beach resort in western Mexico, where every last hotel room in town is filled for the holiday weekend. On top of that, thousands more revelers are ashore for the day from cruise ships packing the harbor.

Float in one of Mazatlan’s Mardi Gras parades.

As they say in New Orleans (the world’s No. 1 Mardi Gras celebration), bon ton roulet – let the good times roll. Mazatlan comes in as No. 3. So where’s No. 2? That would be Mobile, Ala.

World’s No. 1 Mardi Gras is in New Orleans.

Among highlights of Mazatlan’s celebration last month, revelers enjoyed three queen coronations and two seemingly never-ending parades along the city’s 12 miles of sparkling beaches.

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Said to have been brought to Mexico by Spanish invaders during the colonial period, Mardi Gras today is typically celebrated in port cities such as La Paz, Veracruz, Cozumel, and Ensenada besides Mazatlan. The revelry typically goes on for five days each February, during which debauchery gives way to the more serious business of Lenten fasting.

Traveling With Mark Twain in Hawaii

By Rich Grant

The Sacramento Union, the best newspaper on the West Coast, sent him to the Sandwich Islands (as Hawaii was then called) and agreed to pay $20 for every letter or story he sent back.  Though Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, would go on to become America’s most famous writer and the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and would travel extensively around the world, he never forget Hawaii.  He called it “the loveliest stream of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.”

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Though he was only in Hawaii for four months in 1866 and never returned, much later in his life he wrote, “No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done…. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack;…in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”

So when my brother and I decided to spend two weeks exploring the Hawaiian Islands, who better to be our guide than Mark Twain?  Armed with editions of Twain’s two travel books on the subject “Letters from Hawaii” and “Roughing It,” we decided to follow his route and see how much we could return to the Sandwich Islands of 1866, when it was still an independent kingdom and the most isolated population center on earth.

Honolulu

Twain arrived in Honolulu on March 18, 1866 after a ten day voyage and set out to explore the settlement of then 15,000.  “The further I traveled through the town the better I liked it.  Every step revealed a new contrast -- disclosed something I was unaccustomed to…I saw luxurious banks and thickets of flowers fresh as a meadow after a rain, and glowing with the richest dyes…I saw huge-bodied, wide-spreading forest trees, with strange names and stranger appearance – trees that cast a shadow like a thundercloud….I saw long-haired, saddle-colored Sandwich Island maidens…gazing indolently at whatever or whoever happened along.”

Much like Mark Twain, we arrived in Honolulu after what seemed like a ten-day trip, although it was really just a seven-hour flight and five-hour delay.   After negotiating the maze of Waikiki streets, we checked in, had a drink and walked out at midnight into a light mist of rain.   And into a Hawaii not too far different from Twain’s.  Oh, of course, Honolulu is a now sprawling city of 400,000, with 8 million more tourists thrown in.  But the shock of arriving from the mainland in winter was the same.  Here there were flowers – everywhere – in January, with palm trees swaying overhead and huge banyan trees covering a city block.  The temperature, even at midnight, was balmy and on every corner there were woman looking at us, perhaps not “indolently,” but at least sizing us up to see if we were potential customers.  Waikiki is known for boasting a large collection of streetwalkers.  They were all colors, races and sizes, and beautifully dressed.  And strangely, they were working the territory in front of the Moana Surfrider, perhaps the most gorgeous and expensive of Waikiki hotels, and one of the oldest, dating back to 1901.  On this street, Kalakaua Ave, which has the same look and feel of Rodeo Drive, with many of the same stores, it is an odd sight to see prostitutes on every corner.  Their target is rich Asian men, so two old, pale and poorly dressed Americans didn’t cause much excitement, but one did ask my brother if he wanted a massage.

The Waikiki of Twain’s day was a village of white cottages.  It was the royal coconut grove and one-time home of King Kamehameha I, the king that united all of Hawaii by winning a famous battle here in 1795.  It was also here on the thin sliver of Waikiki Beach that Mark Twain tried surfing, and first introduced the sport to the world.  “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf- bathing. Each …. would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express-train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”

Today, of course, they are still surfing at Waikiki and the beach is home to the ultimate surfing tribute, a statue of the king of the board, Duke Kahanamoku.  But the real excitement of surfing in winter is on the north shore of the island – a place that would have been inaccessible to Mark Twain except by boat because in 1866, no road penetrated Oahu’s central spine of mountains.

Today, it’s a drive of an hour or so by tunnels and highway to Sunset and Banzai-Pipeline Beaches.  Both are known for their flat reefs that cause waves to break when they hit shallow depths, creating a huge curling tube of water that surfers can actually ride down the center.   In winter, these can be the deadliest of beaches with waves averaging nine feet, and reaching even 14-20 feet high, with the constant danger of surfers being hurled into the coral below.

The incredible thing when visiting is that the main road is literally at the edge of the beach.  You just pull over for free parking, and in less than a minute you can walk right up to the gigantic breaking waves and be so close that you can actually photograph a surfer in curl … with a cell phone!   Of course, the beach is lined with professional photographers with two-foot long telephotos and some of the top surfing photos come from here, but you don’t need one to feel part of the action.  You can buy cold coconuts at the beach, or it’s a short drive to Hale’iwa, an old hippie surfing town that is also home to the most famous of all North Shore stops:  Matsumoto’s Shave Ice.

Diamond Head

This 700-foot-high extinct crater looms over Honolulu and has fascinated every visitor from Mark Twain to the TV show Hawaii Five-O.  Twain rented a broken-down horse named Oahu and struggled to the top, but now people think nothing of walking from Waikiki and climbing to the summit at dawn, taking a $10 cab ride back to their hotel.  It’s an interesting hike, with tunnels and curving staircases cut through rock.  The summit was converted to an army lookout point in World War II.  Of course the view today includes hundreds upon hundreds of modern hotels, apartments and office buildings, but nothing much has changed along the shoreline or in the steep mountain crags, so much of the view is the same as Mark Twain described it:  “Impressed by the profound silence and repose that rested over the beautiful landscape…I gave voice to my thought.  I said:  What a picture is here slumbering…How strong the rugged outlines of the dead volcano stand out against the clear sky! What a snowy fringe marks the bursting of the surf over the long, curved reef! How calmly the dim city sleeps yonder in the plain! How soft the shadows lie upon the stately mountains that border the dream-haunted Manoa Valley!  How….at this point the horse called Oahu deliberately sat down in the sand.  Sat down to listen, I suppose….I stopped apostrophizing and convinced him that I was not a man to allow contempt of court on the part of a horse.”

On his way back to town, Twain noticed a beautiful island woman and thinking to impress her, he galloped by like a cavalier.  She called to his friend Brown, who was bringing up the rear and spoke to him.    Twain waited and when Brown caught up, he asked what she had said.  Brown laughed. “She thought from the slouchy way you rode and the way you drawled out your words, that you was drunk!  She said, ‘Why don’t you take the poor creature home, Mr. Brown?  It makes me nervous to see him galloping that horse and hanging on that way, and he so drunk.’ “

Maui

Twain’s next stop was Maui.  He wrote famously, “I went to Maui to stay a week and remained five.  I had a jolly time. I would not have fooled away any of it writing letters under any consideration whatever… I never spent so pleasant a month before, or bade any place good-bye so regretfully.”

Most people feel the same way.  Twain based in Lahaina, so we did too.  In the 1800s, this large whaling town could have 400 ships in harbor at a time, and seemingly just as many bars, saloons and brothels.  One of the surviving buildings from the era is the sturdily built town jail.  Today, Front Street, Lahaina is a wacky mix of tourist shops, historic buildings with balconies, restaurants, galleries, stone churches and bars, with an old fort and picturesque harbor that offers bobbing boats and classic mountain and sea views.

Perhaps the two most familiar landmarks – the giant banyan tree that covers an entire city block and the historic balconied Pioneer Hotel where writer Jack London once stayed, both came after Twain’s visit,  But there are a dozen or so buildings from his time, and no matter how many Subway sandwich shops and pizza joints invade, Lahaina still has the look of an old whaling town.  Have a local Haleakala IPA from the Maui Brewing Company on the balcony of Captain Jack’s Island Grill, and you can drift with the swaying overhead palm trees back to a different time.

By 1866, the missionaries had arrived in Lahaina, and were in steady conflict with the sailors, the native Hawaiians and Mark Twain, who loved needling them.  He complained that the missionaries had come to make the native people “permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there.”   He wrote, “How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell.”

One of Mark Twain’s permanent gifts to Maui was popularizing the idea of watching sunrise from the 10,023-foot summit of the extinct volcano Haleakala, “the house of the sun.”   Twain camped on the top and at dawn had the not uncommon experience of being in bright sunshine, while all below him was blanketed with clouds.  “It was the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed, and I think the memory of it will remain with me always,” he wrote.  Today, the ritual, which involves driving twisting roads in the dark and freezing on the summit until the sun comes up, has become so popular that as of Feb. 1, 2017, the National Park Service requires permits and only cars with permits are allowed on the summit at dawn. No matter.  The summit view is fantastic at any time, and since the volcano is covered with hundreds of microclimates, there are always constantly swirling clouds and light formations.  Dress warm.

The Big Island of Hawaii

With its active volcano, waterfalls, and historic sites, Twain liked the island of Hawaii above all else.  He sailed from Honolulu and wrote, “We landed at Kailua (pronounced Ki-loo-ah), a little collection of native grass houses reposing under tall coconut trees – the sleepiest, quietest, Sundayest looking place you can imagine.  Ye weary ones that are sick of the labor and care… and sigh for a land where ye may fold your tired hands and slumber your lives peacefully away, pack up your carpet sacks and go to Kailua!  A week there ought to cure the saddest of you.”

I liked Kailua best of all myself.  The historic town consists of a half moon bay with the sea on one side, where towering waves crash against a rock wall breakwater every minute or so, sending a spray water splashing over the sidewalk.  On the other side, is a South Pacific paradise of historic buildings sprinkled with new ones made to look old with shutters, balconies, bars, live music, ABC liquor stores, towering palm trees and an assortment of Hawaiian tourists shops.

Of course, it’s touristy.  There’s a steady stream of cars, convertibles, motorcycles and people, with drifts of a live singer doing John Denver or a tourism shop playing Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song, by the way, that you’ll probably hear more than a hundred times.  The official Youtube page for the song has 261 million views.  I suppose there are people who hate it, but to me, never has a song captured a place better.  Even Mark Twain, a hundred years before the song was recorded, wrote, “Why did not Captain Cook have taste enough to call his great discovery the Rainbow Islands?  These charming spectacles are present to you at every turn; they are as common in all the islands as fogs and wind in San Francisco.”

Captain Cook was killed on Hawaii, a fact that fascinated Twain, and he spent a great deal of time visiting the site of the murder, and also the site where Cook was “cooked.”  Twain had no great respect for Captain Cook, who he thought had pretended to be a god and got what he deserved.  He delighted in the fact that when the British demanded the return of Captain Cook’s body, the natives could sheepishly only produce nine pounds of it… the rest having been eaten.  The monument to Cook that Twain visited is now underwater.  Not a good sign for global warming.

The big island is filled with sights visited by Twain that have changed little if at all.  You can walk by the massive black lava walls of Pu’uhonua o Honauuau, the City of Refuge, which is now a National Park.  The earth’s largest volcano, Mauna Loa, is still 13,677 feet high and consumes half the island, while the planet’s youngest and most active volcano, Kilauea, is still spewing gas, smoke and ash, as it did when Twain climbed down into it.  You can have the same view of Halema’uma’u Crater from the Volcano House, that he enjoyed.  The current restaurant is new, but the location of the park’s only hotel is the same.  He wrote, “The surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did.”  Not only is the drop off Kilauea caldera steep, but so are the restaurant prices.  But at least stop in Uncle George’s Lounge for a Kona Brewing Co. IPA and the splendid view.  You might even want to stand by the fireplace – at 4,000 feet, it can be chilly up here.

Mark Twain also rode through the Waipi’o Valley, which is just as inaccessible today as in 1866, and rode up and down all of the Kona Coast, writing, “Kona to me will always be a happy memory.”

But his happiest memory of Hawaii appears to be the women, which he mentions over and over, most often when he happens upon them swimming or dancing what he called, the “hula hula.”  But being Mark Twain, he was always a gentlemen.  “At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sad down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen.”
 

New adventure tours feature ‘transformative experiences’

By Bob Schulman

Visitors are welcome to drop by for tea in a Mongolian hut. Photo courtesy of MIR Corporation.Looking for something different for your vacation this year? The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) wants you – not surprisingly – to consider a holiday featuring an adventure-oriented “transformative experience.” Like zipping off to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia to get chummy with remote tribespeople while soaking up their rich culture in villages of the Hamer, Mursi, Karo, Arbore and Konso tribes.

Among other popular tours in the transformative genre you’ll get a chance to mosey around the forests of Rwanda looking for some of the world’s rare mountain gorillas. Elsewhere, perhaps you’d like to sip a little tea with Mongolian nomads. Or you can opt for a 4,700-mile cycling trip from London to Rome. On another tour you can jet over to Russia to train with cosmonauts and then get a first-hand look at the blast-off of a Soyuz spacecraft.

More info:

 Ethiopian tribesperson. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.ATTA member Adventure Life will offer six 10-day “Isolated Tribes of Ethiopia” tours this year at rates from $4,415 per person (double occupancy) not including flights and visa fees. (Phone toll-free 1-(800) 344-6118.)

Price note: Like the Adventure Life tab, all of the following tours are priced per person (pp) double occupancy, and exclude international airfares.

Hop on a bike and ride in the footsteps of Julius Caesar in Ride & Seek’s cycling trip (www.rideandseek.com) from London to Rome set for June 3-July 5, offered in in two stages. The tab for one stage (London to Italy’s Lake Como) is about $7,000 pp. Roughly double that for both stages.

You’ll find all kinds of transformative adventures in the lush forests of Rwanda, from tracking some of the last remaining mountain gorillas to hobnobbing with elephants and golden monkeys. ATTA member Gondwana Eco Tours (www.Gondwanaecotours.com/tour/gorilla-trekking-in-rwanda) is hosting three 8-night tours there this year starting on July 6, July 23 and Dec.1, plus one in 2018 starting Feb. 9. Tabs are $4,800 pp for the first two adventures and $4,940 for the second two.

Cyclists ready for 4,700 bicycle trip from London to Rome. Photo courtesy of Ride & Seek.Here’s your chance to be first on your block to sport a “I (love) Ulaanbaatar”

tee shirt. That’s the capital of Mongolia, and you’ll explore features of the city before flying off to the red sands of the Gobi Desert to celebrate the country’s famous Naadam Festival. MIR Corp (www.mircorp.com/trip/siberia-mongolia-spirits-nomads/) has scheduled the 16-day trip for June 13-28. The price is $8,295 pp.

Another MIR Corporation trip takes you to Russia where you’ll float around in zero gravity with cosmonauts training in a simulated space station. Among other highlights of the 9-day tour you’ll join international space officials way out on the Kazakh steppe for the launch of a manned Soyuz spacecraft. The tour (www.mircorp.com/trip/inside-the-russian-space-program) is planned for Sept. 6-14 at a tab of $14,495 pp.

A new study by the ATTA (www.adventuretravelnews.com/the-new-adventure-traveler) found that more than any other motivating factor, adventure travelers are seeking out transformative experiences while on holiday.  An expanded worldview, nature, mental health, and learning opportunities were other motivating factors revealed in the study. 

Springtime in Fairytale Bavaria

By Carole Jacobs

Looking for Grimm’s take on Germany, complete with a storybook castle with a spa, beer garden, 24-hour room service and (maybe even) a local Prince Charming to awaken you with a kiss? Forget about Disney World and head to Bavaria, a state in southeastern Germany where every enchanted village and cobblestone street looks like it popped from a cuckoo clock.

As well as being terminally quaint, Bavaria is the place to go if you love to eat -- and calories be damned! We’re talking 1,500 kinds of sausage — enough to link Earth to Venus and ring around Saturn; potatoes and dumplings prepared in various artery-clogging guises; a cheese shop around every corner (Bavaria produces 75 percent of the country’s cheeses) and enough sauerkraut to blast you to Mars. Wash it all down with bier, Bavaria’s national beverage (or wein, a close second) and no one will suspect you’re a tourist.

Go between March and June, Bavaria’s most fetching season, and you’ll also beat the summer crowds and heat. When spring gesprungen in Bavaria, Munich’s beer gardens are going full tilt under the flowering chestnut trees and every inch of the Alps is pure magic: Sound-of-Music meadows are carpeted with wildflowers, looking-glass lakes brim with glacier melt and Jacobs’ ladders stream through fir-scented forests, forming puddles of light where fairy rings bloom luminous.

They call this an airport?

From the minute I stepped off the plane and into Munich’s Franz Josef Strauss International Airport, I knew I wasn’t in LAX any longer. With its splashing fountains, flowering gardens, farmers markets and sidewalk cafes, Munich’s drop-dead-gorgeous airport looked more like The Left Bank than a gateway to the skies. At Sissi & Franz, an edgy re-imagining of a Vienna coffeehouse, bleary-eyed globe trotters were expresso-ing away their jet lag while over at Bubbles Bar, travelers were toasting the day with premium wines. At Airbräu, a combo open-air beer garden and Europe’s only airport brewery, waitresses in dirndl dresses scooted by carrying tankard-size pitchers of craft beer.

I walked past elegant hotels and swank pay-per-hour sleeping pods, chic bakeries where fresh cream oozed from every flat surface, pricey delis stocked with corned beef to sushi and duty-free shops where you could pick up a toothbrush or a diamond-studded ball gown,  a cinema and a miniature golf course, a visitors center where telescopes pointed at the night sky, a multi-cultural playground where the jungle gyms, swings and sand boxes built from materials flown in from five continents…it had almost been worth enduring the 21-hour-long red-eye from LAX just to land here.

I settled into Munich’s 4-star K+K Hotel am Harras just as breakfast was being served in the airy lounge. I passed on the Bavarian Breakfast of Champions (white sausages, soft pretzels, sweet mustard and beer) and before I could decide what to order, a chef in a tall white hat was handing me a plate of French toast dusted with confectioner’s sugar. “This is my favorite thing,” he said in uninflected English. “But if you don’t like it, there are many other choices.” There were heaping bowls of raspberries, blueberries and cherries; mounds of homemade pastries, muffins and scones; enormous platters of deli meats and cheeses; towers of butter cookies and gleaming stations where chefs were flipping Frisbee-sized pancakes or sautéing mushrooms and scallions for made-on-request omelets.

My first morning in Munich

Beyond the hotel, Bavaria’s bacchanalia continued at breakneck speed at Munich’s historic (1880s) Viktualienmarkt farmers market, where a maze of booths hawked fresh, homemade everything — from crafts, kites, toys and cheese to bread, cheese, cakes and toys to every edible part of a pig. Mazes of cobblestone streets lined with centuries-old homes cloaked in geranium suddenly dead-ended at pocket beer gardens where tough-looking motorcycle guys wearing leathers and full-body tattoos raised beer glasses with manicured frauleins in Manolos.

I walked all day in hopes of working up a Bavarian-style appetite worthy of Augustiner-Keller, one of Munich’s oldest (1812) and most beloved beer halls. As we entered, a live oompah band was blaring traditional music and diners who had apparently had one too many were dancing atop the long, wooden tables.

A waitress with multiple piercings who was literally popping out of her peasant blouse approached our table and without warning, slapped down in front of each of us a huge platter heaped with half a duck, a third of a roast suckling pig, several saucer-sized dumplings and a leaning tower of blue cabbage. “So where’s the rest?” I joked. “Nein!”  

Within a half hour, I was in a dumpling-induced stupor while my travel companions were growing more jovial with each refill of their steins. The steins were so huge (two pints!) that I was astonished when they announced they were heading out to spend the rest of the night beer hall-hopping. As they set off for Gärtnerplatz and Glockenbachviertel, two trendy ‘hoods housing Munich’s hippest watering holes, I headed back to the hotel for a hot date with my dunenkissen (down pillow).

 Someday my prince will come, but until then I’ll set the alarm

The next morning, we drove to the medieval town of Mittenwald, where every crayon-colored house was adorned with gingerbread gables and beautiful murals. At The Geigenbaumuseum, a famous violin-building museum, the violins were hanging out back on laundry lines to dry and work on their Baywatch “tans.” After the museum tour, we followed a hiking trail up into the hills and on to an Alpine meadow with a tiny gilded chapel painted in the same style as the houses in town. Across the sun-dappled lake, a row of jagged peaks crowded the horizon and cable cars strung up a steep mountain slope were lifting slowly to the Karwendelbahnn, a wilderness laced with hiking trails.

After lunch at a rustic lakeside pub, we hiked back to Mittenwald and then drove through rugged mountain countryside to Schloss Elmau Luxury Spa & Cultural Hideaway, a palatial spa resort tucked in the Bavarian Alps with several mansions’ worth of deluxe lodging and four spas --The Nature Spa nestled in a secluded stream valley while The Badehaus had a rooftop saltwater pool overlooking the mountains.

 President Obama and his entourage was arriving the next day, so rooms were scarce. Should I ever return, I’ll book a palatial suites (sorry, no Prince Charming included in the rate) and hike the three-mile trail from the hotel to Schloss Neuschwanstein, Bavaria’s famous storybook castle designed in 1869 by the country’s beloved King Ludwig II. Rumored to have his head in the clouds and his hands in the royal coffers, the king spent a fortune on a palace he never finished and in which he lived for just a few months. Yet even in its unfinished state, the castle jump-started Bavaria’s tourism industry and was the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Disneyland castle.

Isn’t it romantic?

 From the resort, we followed Bavaria’s Romantic Road through a succession of storybook towns, each one with a fairytale castle where I half expected to find Rapunzel letting down her hair. (Or was she serving suds in some rowdy beer garden tucked down one of the town’s adorable side streets?)

The most beautiful town of all was Rothenberg ob der Tauber, a walled medieval village of turrets, towers and gables — even the police station looked like it was on loan from Hansel and Gretel. We climbed steep, spiral staircases to the top of Town Hall Tower and admired the view as the sunset streaked the sky pink and purple and then surrendering to a canopy of stars. Back down, we dropped by a local bakery for a fortifying strudel before visiting the Medieval Crime Museum to see gruesome medieval instruments of torture.

Hearing a loud cry, we raced out of the museum and on to Market Square, where crowds of tourists had already assembled for the Night Watchman Tour. We followed close on his heels as he delivered a running commentary of long-ago Rothenberg, once so thick with thieves and drunks that a night watchman was required to safeguard slumbering residents. As we walked back to the hotel, Rothenberg’s many clock and church towers simultaneously chimed midnight.

Further along the Romantic Road was the town of Wurzburg, home of the Residence Palace, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Beautiful ceiling frescoes depicted the world view circa 1750: Wurzburg at center stage presiding over the savage Americas, mystical Asia and wild and wooly Africa.

A tale of Bavarian bier and wein

By the time we had toured 430 years of Bavarian wein history at Juliusspital, Germany’s largest wine estate, we were all ready to crash at Maritim Hotel Wurzburg.

It was our last night in Bavaria, and my travel buddies faced a tough decision: Should they hang in the hotel’s wine bar or head into Wurzburg’s old town for one last blitzkrieg in the beer hall? With an early morning flight to catch, I decided to hit the sack early for one last date with my dunenkissen. And my travel companions? They later claimed the night was a complete blank — which may be all you need to know about mixing German bier and wein.

For more info: www.bavaria.by

Shape editor joins Watchboom!

DOING OTHER THINGS IN IDAHO

By Yvette Cardozo

Back in 1983, Lyle Points’ pop, Vernon, started to worry about the elk on his land. These were wild animals. And in harsh winters, they were doing badly.

“No elk is going to starve on my place,” he declared.

Why not give them a bit of help?

So he started dragging bags of hay out, sometimes breaking trail through five feet of snow, to give the elk a bit more food when food was REALLY hard to find.

Thus began a family legacy which has now stretched to three generations.

These days, the public helps. For $20 (less for kids) you climb into a sleigh, sit on bales of hay and go out to the nearby woods where the herd of Rocky Mountain Elk are patiently waiting. They, meaning the elk, not Lyle, have worked out a system. They actually take turns, some coming to nibble the hay from right under your rump, others sitting a few yards away until the next sleigh comes along.

Sometimes, it’s three sleigh loads a day. Sometimes only one. Sometimes none. But they still don’t go hungry because, as Lyle explained, “This is just the appetizer. Later, I will go out with more bales, cut them into chunks and drop them in a line.”

Like crumbs on the floor.

This winter is the snowiest, the coldest, the harshest in 30 years. Food is even harder to find than normal. And there are the wolves.

“I figure giving the elk some extra food is an extra bit of help to survive,” Lyle explains. As it is, the herd is down to 180 elk from previous years when it could sometimes reach 300.

So, my friends and I climb into Lyle’s sleigh, pulled by his two handsome, coal black Percheron horses and head for the nearby woods. We sit on fresh bales of hay and it doesn’t take long for the elk to come over. It’s the cows (females) and young males with tiny antlers that nudge in. There ARE bulls, some with seven point antlers (yes, that’s a LARGE rack). But the bulls just sit back, keeping watch. Okay, it is truly a bit strange to have a large wild animal nibble eagerly at something your rump is resting on. You can actually feel them chew. And certainly hear them as they crunch.

There’s a temptation to reach out and pet their furry heads, maybe stroke the small antlers of “teenage” males. But don’t. Lyle has rules. You don’t touch. You don’t get up. You certainly don’t feed them snacks you brought for the kids.

Meanwhile, during the ride, Lyle talks about elk, about how they eat and digest in their four-part stomach, what they eat on their own (any plant they can find), how many bales he takes out a day (16 - 20) and how his family got into the elk feeding thing because, well, they couldn’t bear to see such beautiful animals suffer.          

SNOWMOBILE TO HOT SPRINGS

Turns out, Idaho has the most usable hot springs in the entire US…130 springs are, as they say here, “soakable,” out of the state’s 340 hot springs.

Yes, it’s warm down there underground. The state apparently sits above a massive hot spot that fuels not only this but the springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park. So, locals have their pick from rustic pools that are run like swimming holes of the 1950s to private (sneak in spots) to elaborate places that have been visited for well over a century.

In winter, many folk just rent a snowmobile and thrash their way around...something that could be risky if you don’t know where you are going or how to get there. A new option is the guided snowmobile trek out of Brundage Mountain ski resort through Brundage Snowmobile Adventures.

Upon learning about Brundage, my friends Mark and Lisa and I sign up. We met our guide, Brad, and are outfitted in warm snowmobile jackets and bibs, plus helmets, then climb aboard 800 cc Skidoos (twice as powerful as anything I’ve been on before) and take off. That machine could climb vertical walls. It took a bit to figure out just how much gas to give it, but soon enough, we are motoring along, cutting into a forest thick with pine, firs and Tamaracks.

The light snow gave the landscape an ethereal glow, as if we were traveling through a Christmas card during the snowiest winter in 30 years.

The trail takes us up the local foothills, where we stop a bit at an overlook, then down, finally, to an old pioneer trail, Warren Wagon Road.

I get my machine up to 50 mph on the open stretch, but wonder what will happen if I bounce off. Mark, a fearless soul, gets his up to 65. And, 35 miles after leaving Brundage, we turn into Burgdorf Hot Springs.

This place is a legend, owned by a local family and operating since 1865. It’s rustic, but has just about anything you want. You can rent a cabin overnight for $40 per person, there’s a simple cafe for food and, of course, the hot spring.

In winter, the place really does look like a Hallmark scene. Rustic cabins are picturesquely scattered around the rolling property and in the middle is the spring ... actually a large, rectangular pool with gravel bottom, two smaller VERY hot pools, a simple cafe with a building to change into bathing suits off to the side. Inside the main building, caretaker Caroline Huntley chats about the springs’ history...how Fred Burgdorf built a simple hotel in the l800s and people would come by horseback to stay and soak.

In summer, you get here by car, but in winter the only way in is by snowmobile. You can buy a snack and pet the two resident (very friendly) dogs, then slide out of your travel duds and hit the water. The main pool is a soothing 100 degrees. The two small pools at the end hit a scalding 108 degrees or so. Good for maybe five minutes while you peer between window icicles at the snowy landscape.          

As we make our way back to the resort, we experience one last adventure on the final stretch of road. Four skiers and a snowboarder freefall down the mountainside, cutting between trees through the thick powder and sliding onto the road directly ahead of us.          

We wave as we speed past them to the lodge. That’s how it goes in Idaho.

DETAILS

Elk - http://www.hfpsleighrides.com. Call the 208-325-8783 number. It’s $20 for adults, less for children. This is strictly winter. You ride out on a sleigh, sitting on hay bales.

Snowmobile - Brundage Snowmobile Adventures - snowmobile bibs, jackets and helmets are provided but not gloves or boots.  https://brundage.com/on-the-mountain/winter/snowmobile/

Burgdorf Hot Springs - http://www.burgdorfhotsprings.com. Open year round.

GOTTA LOVE IT

Post your Valentine from the genuine, one and only Loveland, Colorado.

Each February, volunteers re-mail your cards to all 50 states and 120 countries. Submit your valentine to The Valentine Station by the due dates below:

For international destinations, your cards should be in Loveland by Feb. 4th.
For within U.S. and outside of Colorado, cards should be in Loveland by Feb. 7th.
For within the state of Colorado (and now Wyoming), cards should be in Loveland by Feb. 9th.

Send your Valentine card in a pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelope with 49 cent postage, extra postage for heavier and larger cards, to:

Postmaster
Attn: Valentine Re-mailing
446 E. 29th St.
Loveland, CO 80538-9998

  1. Denver Beer Co pairs beer and chocolate Feb. 14 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the Taproom, 1695 Platte St., Denver, CO. Who knew chocolate and beer were a thing? Denver’s very own Chocolate Lab is creating artisanal sweets to match up with five of Denver Beer Co’s. fav beers. Limited tickets are available, so reserve now at http://denverbeerco.com/events/.
  2. Tune in. Clear Channel rebranded itself to iheartradio in 2014. If you haven’t had opportunity to listen, go to www.iheart.com and name your preferred type of music. You can stream for free.
  3. Sweet Cheeks, a Lakewood-based company, offers handmade soap making classes. Get on line and register at www.sweetecheeksco.com. You’ll smell sweet too!
  4. Meininger Art Supply, a staple in Denver since 1881 at 499 Broadway, has the perfect paper for your love notes. Kraft Graph Field Notes are serious and understated. If you draw, get Flexbook. Get red. It is Valentine’s Day after all.
  5. Temper Chocolates at The Denver Central Market features a chocolate case that opens just the way George Jetson would have planned. Use seeing how the case opens as the excuse to buy chocolates. One of the confections will not be enough. Buy in bulk.
  6. Are you a little bit country? Toby Keith’s eponymous watering hole at 8260 E. Northfield Blvd. is called Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar + Grill. Print the lyrics out so you have ‘em handy to hum along or just practice singing, “Mm, mm, mmm, mmm, mmm, I love this bar.”

Airlines to flood Mexico with more than a million new seats this year

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

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What in the world is going on down in Mexico? Is the sun getting sunnier? Are the sands getting sandier? Or maybe the country’s millions of visitors are getting more bang for their buck (or their ruble, rial or rupee)?

Whatever’s happening, it’s sure paying off. Mexico’s international tourism has been growing at an annual average of 10 percent over the last few years – double the global average. What’s more, in the same period Mexico jumped from the 15th most visited country in the world to the 9th most popular destination.

And the country’s success story is still unwinding. “While the 2016 Mexico tourism numbers are still being finalized,” says Lourdes Berho, CEO of the Mexico Tourism Board, “it’s clear that we will have another record-setting year of industry-leading growth in terms of international visitors to Mexico.”

Numbers like that aren’t lost on the airlines. Berho reports the world’s international carriers are set to add more than a whopping 1,000,000 new seats on cross-border flights to Mexico in 2017. For example, established and new airlines are planning to debut flights or schedule larger jets to Mexican points this year from cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Miami, Oakland, Vancouver, Tokyo, Rome, Warsaw, Zurich, Winnipeg and Medellin (Colombia) among other international routes.

Mexico’s airlines are getting into the act, too. New or improved service set to launch this year will link Mexican cities to foreign points including New York-JFK, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Austin, Detroit, Austin, Denver, Seoul, London, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam and Calgary.

Berho notes the Mexico Tourism Board’s recently announced tourism strategy “includes a focus on developing expanded products and personalized marketing campaigns (in) areas including luxury, weddings and romance, diving, mega bio diversity and nature, culture, gastronomy, high-profile events, sports and adventure, as well as programs for audience segments such as millennials, LGBT and retirees.”  

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CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET?

By Nancy Clark

I don’t want to release this story. I don’t want to put it out there. I want to own the odds that next year I can score tickets on the Winter Park Express for my near family without finding tickets sold out as in 2015, the 75th anniversary when all 450 tickets for one special day in March sold out in less than 10 hours. I booked tickets in September 2016 for January (4+ months ahead of the ski date) for my nearly 3-year-old grandson and myself.

The train got its start in 1940 chugging up the hill 56 miles to Winter Park through 31 tunnels ranging from 78 feet to the incredible 6.2-mile long Moffat Tunnel. Thirty-something years ago, I took my two youngsters on the ski train, departing the gloomy Union Station on an inordinately cold day. Tickets then like now were non-refundable. So we layered up and spent the bulk of our Winter Park adventure in the lodge drinking hot chocolate. Because of the train, it was still a blast.

Why the train ceased its run in 2009 after 69 consecutive years was a culmination of factors that hardly seem to matter today. Colorado survived that economic crash to become the second-fastest growing state in the U.S. welcoming 100,986 new residents between 2014 and 2015.  Employment in Metro Denver increased 3.2 percent between November 2015 and 2016 adding 50,400 jobs. The unemployment rate decreased in November to 2.6 percent, the lowest rate since December 2000. Residential building permits increased in November compared to the prior year with 22.2 percent more building permits issued. Even commercial real estate report 7.4 million square feet built out in 2016, an increase of 45.4 percent over 2015.

And then there’s the traffic on I-70 to consider.

The weather cooperated the last weekend in January, so avalanches and snowplows were off the table, ‘er highway. Still, speeds between 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday evening slowed to 2 hours and 18 minutes to travel from Frisco to C-470. Add in-city drive time to the mix and that’s more than 3 hours down the hill.  Friends with condos in Copper Mountain report that the return trip has taken up to 6 hours, the very reason they’ve switched to driving home at dawn on a Monday.

The train takes less than 2 hours.

Since 2002, Winter Park Ski Resort has been leased from the City of Denver to Intrawest, once the dominant player in the ski industry. Intrawest owns Blue Mountain and Mt. Tremblant in Canada, Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont, Snowshoe/Silver Creek in West Virginia and Steamboat, also in Colorado. Intrawest manages properties in Hawaii, Mexico, and owns and manages a timeshare operation too.

Intrawest is keenly aware of the decreasing numbers of skiers nationwide since the 1970s. Forbes magazine reports that 40 years ago approximately 5.5% of the U.S. population skied. That number has dropped to 4%, requiring ski areas to be hyper-sensitive to the preferences of the nearly 80 million Millennials’, 25% of the U.S. population. Micah Solomon in Forbes.com writes that Millennials demand self-service, algorithmically and crowdsourced customer service options. Paradoxically, they also crave a true, authentic, personalized experience as customers. To that end, the California Zephyr concierge team functions like Amazon’s Alexia. They’ve got answers and resort maps, distributing both on the way up the hill, plus they have experience skiing the resort. (And they won’t order you a dollhouse or cookies.)

In other ways too, the train is ideal for Millennials choosing not to own a car. The Downtown Denver Partnership reports that the 24 to 35-year olds that make up the new workforce prefer to live in a core city that offers walkability, bike lane systems and mass transit, amenities Denver has focused on developing in the last few years.

My plan for Q1 2018: book a weekend family getaway at Winter Park Resort. Our pool of shared and married DNA will pile on the train with skis, boots and babies. We tuck into a glam rental at the resort where we can cook in or eat out. We’ll stroll in the moonlight warming our hands at one of the several gas-fueled fire pits along the resort walkways. There’s a Starbucks for my coffee routine and top-of-line retailers, bars, and a spa. We will connect with each other and reconnect with what matters most.

Guilt makes me willing to give up the details. Tickets for this season went on sale August 30th.

  • Get online at Amtrak.com/WinterParkExpress.
  • One-way ticketing is allowed.
  • 26 roundtrips are scheduled from Jan. 7 top Mar. 26 with Monday service on holidays.
  • The 500-passenger Amtrak leaves Denver’s Union Station at 7 a.m. arriving at the ski resort at 9 a.m. and departs the resort at 4:30, returning to Denver at 6:30ish.

First one to the website wins in August 2017 when tickets for 2018 go on sale!

SKI TRAIN HIGHLIGHTS

Tips to make your train trip with children in tow most successful.

Pre-boarding reading for 2+ year olds: Thomas the Tank Engine in The Railway Series, books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his Christopher. When passing by the unmoving engines in the train yard on our way out of Union Station, my grandson referred to them as “sad.” I had to call on friends with younger children to get the low-down on The Sad Story of Henry.

While the view out the observatory deck windows is enchanting to any passenger it’s mesmerizing to a youngster. My view from the aisle seat was of my grandson’s head all the way up to the resort and all the way back to Denver was the back of his head as he scanned the view from the window. I didn’t know the pleated curtains on the train windows could be moved so many times on a single trip without breaking.

If you’re not traveling with a 3-year-old you can doze off in these generous-sized coach seats. Pull up the footrest and recline.

Bathroom breaks. Yes, there is a bathroom on board. It’s large. And clean. Enuf said.

Snacks and trash. Bring your own snacks and refreshments to enjoy on the journey. The Noosa brand yogurt reps were on the train platform passing out samples to passengers for the 7 a.m. departure. I’m a convert. The concierge team comes by at the end of the trip to gather any trash travelers might have accumulated up and down the hill.

How much can you carry? Preload your skis and poles by simply handing them to the crew in the car with ski racks. Climb a narrow set of stairs to the observatory deck where you have the option to put your ski boots or luggage in storage. There is also overhead storage above your seat. Personally, I couldn’t have carried as much luggage as was the space offered, nor would I want to.

Best of all, you can keep your personal belongings in the train during the day. That leaves you the option to leave your street boots and change of clothes for the return. Because the train is locked down during the day, pack to ski light so that you’re not weighted down with unnecessary stuff.

Taking one child or more skiing? The best tip we can offer is to buy a small plastic sled. It’s the most ingenious way to pull your skis, boots and even a toddler to the ski hill. Winter park allows skiers to make use of red wooden wagons at the base of the mountain to pull children and skis. But I would have paid a day’s wage to have a plastic sled with me.

Make your own rules. Go with the flow. Take a break from the rigors of skiing and put your feet up. Otto and I chose Starbucks for our morning pit stop. It was there that I made a new rule: You can only eat one cookie as big as your face each day. He’s in the Why Phase of life and so he asked. Why? Because I said so.

BUNNY NEWS

Winter Park offers free skiing to children on Sorenson Park, one in the same area where the ski instructors hold ski school training for kids 3 years and up. The area includes a Magic Carpet, a mechanical rubber mat that transports young skiers (and their charge) to the top of the gently sloped ski run. There’s also a tow rope as your little skier becomes more advanced.

Ski and snowboard lessons are discounted when purchased in advance. Lessons start at $179 for 6 hours of instruction. Lunch is included; helmet, ski and boot rental is not.

Wanted: Someone to make a hit movie at Mada’in Saleh

By Bob Schulman

Tombs line the sandstone hillsides of Petra and Mada’in Saleh.

Movie helped make Petra Jordan’s top tourist draw.You probably never heard of Mada’in Saleh. Chances are you won’t, either, unless some Hollywood studio films a blockbuster movie at this remote spot in Saudi Arabia -- much like George Lucas put Jordan’s “lost city” of Petra on the map in his 1989 hit, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Mada’in Saleh, by the way, is Petra’s sister city and a big dot (about 300 miles south of Petra) on the ancient Incense Road from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean.

The movie helped spark Petra’s modern-day prominence as Jordan’s No. 1 tourism attraction. Not so with Mada’in Saleh, also known as Hegra. Look close and you might spot Mada’in or Hegra on a map running alongside (more or less) but inland from the Red Sea.

It’s possible that Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, took the Incense Road from Arabia to Jerusalem by way of Petra – about a 1,400-mile trip – for her biblically reported visit to King Solomon a thousand years before Christ. The sight of her caravan of nearly 800 camels loaded with gifts for the king, mainly frankincense and myrrh, gold, spices and precious gems, must have been a real eye-popper.

What are frankincense and myrrh? They’re aromatic resins from scraggy trees, once used for everything from making rooms smell nice to religious ceremonies. They have medicinal powers, too. Frankincense, for instance, has been called “an ancient form of penicillin.” The lands ruled by the Queen of Sheba were said to have been covered by vast fields of these valuable trees – making her one of the most powerful women (if not THE most powerful) on the planet.

One of Petra’s gems is its iconic Treasury facade.Historians disagree on where Sheba was. Some say it was in Yemen (aka the kingdom of Saba) edging southwest Arabia. Still others point to the Kebra Negast, the Ethiopian holy book, which claims Sheba was in Ethiopia.

If you’ve been to Petra, you likely know this city is where the Incense Road and the Silk Road from China among major trade routes from Asia criss-cross before going on some 90 miles to Gaza and other ports on the Mediterranean. Guides probably told you Petra was the capital of the ancient Nabataean empire. But they may not have mentioned the empire’s No. 2 city down the coast at Mada’in, which anchored the southern tip of the empire. Nor the many similarities between the two cities.

Both, for example, are packed with temples, shrines, tombs and other buildings carved out of sandstone, and both boast ingenious water management systems  (an absolute must for trade caravans passing through). True, Mada’in has nothing to compare to two of Petra’s gems, the towering Treasury (the building featured in Lucas’ movie) and the hilltop Monastary (you need to climb 800 steps to get there). Petra is also considerably larger and has many more restorations among the carved structures. Both, however, are spread out over several miles and have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Mada’in is particularly known for its 111 monumental tombs, mostly elaborately decorated. The largest tomb is the four-story-high Al Farid Palace, carved from a single rock and standing alone in the desert.

Getting there: Mada’in is a featured stop on tours of western Saudi Arabia operated by a number of tour companies.

Richard Halliburton: The travel writer’s travel writer

By Bob Schulman

Richard Halliburton (1900-1939)Chances are you never heard of Richard Halliburton. Nor of his escapades around the world during which he’s said to have “out-Hemingwayed Hemingway.” Nor of his dozen or so books that not only enthralled readers from Memphis to Mumbai but also inspired many budding travel journalists (like myself, a youngster at the time) over the years.

Richard Halliburton died 78 years ago, having drowned the way he lived – while chronicling what it was like to sail from Hong Kong to San Francisco on a Chinese junk. It sunk in a storm somewhere in the Pacific.

Halliburton was just 39 years old at the time.

But what a life he led for 20 years before that. For instance, he rode an elephant Hannibal-style through the Alps, climbed the Matterhorn, swam the lengths of the Nile and the Panama Canal, served in the French Foreign Legion and hung out with pirates and headhunters. And – catch this – besides all kinds of other crazy stuff he somehow managed a stay in jail on Devil’s Island.

I didn’t know it when I read Halliburton’s books as a lad, but I must have been bitten by the travel bug those many years ago. After college I wound up as a public relations exec for a string of six airlines over 30 years, then switched over to travel writing. Today I’m a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, a newspaper in Mexico City and a bunch of other pubs.  

 Halliburton visited the harbor at Rhodes, where a colossus once stood. Photo by Bob Schulman.

Travel journalist Robert W. Bone was inspired by Halliburton.Running around the world, I often wonder if I’m moseying around in Halliburton’s footsteps. During my travels I’ve run into perhaps a half-dozen other writers whose itch for travel was sparked by Halliburton. One is Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Robert Bone, whose bio includes four decades of adventures in better than 75 countries. In his latest book, Fire Bone! – A Maverick Guide to a Life in Journalism (https://www.amazon.com/Fire-Bone-Robert-W/dp/0990509109), he shares a number of his exploits with gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, said to have “admired (Bone’s) ability to live the kind of life that office drones dream of.”

Like Halliburton, Bone has racked up a few adventures of his own. Like being shot at in Vietnam, climbing to the top of a mast at sea and planting a revolutionary flag at a world’s fair. Fire Bone! is a must-read for anyone who’d like a taste of the world delivered in their living room by a real pro in the travel business.

Getting to Know Juneau

By Ginger Dingus

“Didn’t I check you in at the hotel last night?” Just as I’m about to dip my spoon into a piping hot cup of crab bisque, the young man standing in front of me catches me off guard. Not only is he skillfully cracking the shell of a giant king crab leg, we’re outdoors at Tracy’s King Crab Shack on Juneau’s wharf, not up the street at the reception desk of the Baranof Hotel. I admit to being a bit groggy from a late flight and mostly sleepless night. But who knew Juneau, the capital of Alaska, was such a small town?

It’s no accident I’m sitting at the counter of this local dining hotspot. Kelly “call me Midgi” Moore has brought me and my husband here on her two and a half-hour Juneau Food Tour. Midgi’s foodie walks are currently celebrating their third year. When she’s not leading the group herself, she happily turns over the guiding to fellow residents who know the territory intimately. “I want people to know what Juneau is about from the dining scene perspective,” she says.

That dining scene has “exploded in the last four years,” according to Midgi. Sure, you can still grab a beer and a reindeer sausage sandwich at the Red Dog Saloon. Thanks to a new crop of creative chefs, you can also graze at an Italian deli, go upscale at SALT or sip imaginative craft cocktails at V’s Cellar Door. Midgi is determined to introduce us to her hometown—and several chefs—one delicious bite at a time. “I have three goals for your tour,” she announces. “Have fun. Learn something new. End the tour with a happy belly.”

After meeting Midgi at the Alaska Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial on the waterfront, we walked down the city’s newly enhanced and extended Seawalk, a.k.a. the wharf. Tracy’s King Crab Shack marked the first of our tour’s six diverse tasting locations. Started literally in a small shack near the cruise ship docks more than a decade ago, Tracy LaBarge expanded her café to a larger indoor/outdoor venue. She will be relocating again this year. Along with creamy king crab bisque, we sampled a mini crab cake, all the while watching our friendly hotel clerk deftly prepare steamed king crab legs. Those giant crab legs, by the way, are on the menu for $26 a pop. Doused in melted butter and a squeeze of lemon, they’re worth every penny.

Tales of Juneau’s Treadwell gold mine and favorite pooch, Patsy Ann (immortalized by a bronze statue looking out to sea), served as entertainment and education as we strolled to taste treat number two. At Alaska Knifeworks, owner David Summers showed off his unique selection of ulus, Alaskans u-shaped kitchen knife of choice. Then we nibbled crackers topped with smoked salmon spread and licked spoons heaped with kelp marmalade. I know you’re wondering. The kelp tastes remarkably like orange marmalade.

We moved on to Panhandle Provisions, a combination deli and meat shop featuring local Alaskan and Pacific Northwest meats, most prepared in-house. Our charcuterie bites included a tangy hard cheese, soy-cured salmon and beef bresaola (air-dried).

Having primed our appetites on appetizers, more filling tidbits were in order to round out our progressive lunchtime adventure. Downstairs at V’s Cellar Door, owner V Santana likes to heat it up with Korean and Mexican fusion. Her rendition of halibut fusion nachos was so incredibly yummy; we vowed to return and sample more, including her unique craft cocktails. Anyone for homemade spruce tip gin? It’s an only in Alaska concoction made from the tender needles of the Sitka spruce.

An even more delicious surprise was on hand at our next stop. The modern, upscale SALT restaurant and bar is owned by none other than Tracy of King Crab Shack fame. If you’re looking for a high-end dining experience in Juneau, this is the place. As we sat at the attractively set table admiring the décor, a trio of beer battered Alaskan cod tacos made with blue corn tortillas magically appeared. That would be one plate of three tacos for each of us. SALT pours 25 wines by the glass. Sauvignon Blanc was chosen to pair with our fish tacos. Our tour was getting better by the bite. We quickly added SALT to our must return list.

No taste of Juneau would be complete without a glass or two of the local brew. Built in 1913, the Victorian-style Alaskan Hotel and Bar offered just the right ambiance for checking out generous portions of Alaskan Brewing Co.’s finest. We sipped Amber, based on a Gold Rush era recipe; White, a wheat ale; and Free Ride APA. As for the hotel, it’s the oldest operating hotel in the state. Considering its history of gold miners, bordellos and prohibition, it’s little wonder many claim it to be haunted.

We could have sat chatting for hours, but all great tours must come to an end. Before saying good-bye, Midgi reminded us of her three goals. Did we have fun? Check. Had we learned something new? Yes, plenty. Were our bellies in happy mode? You bet!

READY TO NOSH?

Juneau Food Tours take place daily, April 30 to October 1. In addition to six tasting stops during the 2.5-hour tour, each guest is given a bright orange tote bag packed with bottled water, gingersnap cookies baked at Taku Lodge and a delightful morsel of Chef Stef’s toffee. For details and current prices, check www.juneaufoodtours.com; or call 800-656-0713. If you’re cruising to Juneau, check with your ship to see if the tour is available as a shore excursion.

No Kiddin’: Iceland really has a penis museum

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Some visitors try to keep a straight face, some giggle and some aren’t sure how to act as they browse around a museum in Iceland displaying hundreds of penises from tiny knob-like appendages to giant whale organs. Said to be the only one of its kind in the world, the museum in Iceland’s capital at Reykjavik is packed with some 280 penises including organs from 17 different kinds of whales.

A must-see for students specializing in phallological studies, the museum opened in its present location in Reykjavik’s main shopping area about four years ago, having earlier been located in a small fishing village. It debuted in 1997, originally in the capital city.

The largest whale part on display is a 67-inch-long tip of a blue white whale. The entire specimen had a length of 16 feet and weighed close to 1,000 pounds. Runners up to the whales in size are walrus and elephant organs. The smallest specimen – you need a magnifying glass to see it – is the baculum (penis bone) of a hamster.

 

At last count, the museum was hosting some 11,000 visitors a year, about 60 percent women. It rates among the country’s top tourist attractions along with eye-popping glaciers and waterfalls, soaring volcanoes, lava fields, gorgeous fjords and all kinds of steamy hydrothermal vents (don’t miss a swim in the iconic Blue Lagoon). Two other big draws are constant sunlight in the summer while winters bring the the Aurora Borealis (the jaw-dropping sight of Northern Lights dancing across the sky).

Phallological museum curator Hjotur Gisli Sigurosson (son of the museum’s founder) described the penis collection as the product of 37 years of saving such organs. “Somebody had to do it,” Sigurosson said.

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa  is a huge attraction.

48 hours in George’s NYC

By Rich Grant

It’s hard to blame him.  He fought six battles trying to defend New York, and lost them all, but one.  When he finally retreated from New York, he wanted to burn the city to the ground, but Congress stopped him.  Officially, at least.  No one really knows who started the fire on September 21, 1776, but George was not disappointed when hundreds of houses in New York did in fact go up in flames.

Despite all this, George Washington probably did have some very fond memories of the city.  It was in New York that he was sworn in as President and spent 17 months, before the capital was moved to Philadelphia.  And it was here that the Revolutionary War officially ended in 1783, with a triumphal march by the Continental army down the Broad-way, stopping from tavern to tavern to drink 13 toasts at each one in celebration of the new country. 

Because New York was so small at the time of the Revolution, most of the sites associated with George Washington are within a short walk of each other.  You can have a drink and a meal at his favorite tavern; see the pew he sat in at his church; view the gravesite of his trusted chief of staff (and current pop star) Alexander Hamilton; stand on the spot where he was sworn in as President, and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, passing almost directly over the spot where he retreated after the Battle of Brooklyn, saving the army in what has been called the most magnificent military retreat in history.

As George might have done himself, it’s best to begin the tour with a drink.   

Fraunces Tavern

www.frauncestvernmuseum.org/

When Samuel Fraunces opened his tavern here in 1762, there were already 217 taverns in New York to serve just 13,000 people.  Today, it is the only colonial tavern to survive and the oldest establishment serving food and drinks in New York. 

Taverns at the time were a combination of an inn where you could stay and a public house where you could get a drink and meal.  Both offerings were pretty dreadful.  People shared beds and sat at simple communal tables, often arranged around a fireplace, with a mishmash of different flatware and glasses.  Taverns were expensive because patrons had to pay not only for food and drink, but also for the candles used.

The average colonial of the day drank a staggering four gallons of hard liquor and 14 gallons of beer or cider a year, and since pipe smoking was common, the room would be filled with smoke, gambling, gossip and politics.  Taverns were hotbeds of radical ideas, and because Samuel Fraunces (or Black Sam, as he was called by friends) was a revolutionary, his tavern was home to the Sons of Liberty and other rebels.

When the British captured New York in 1776 and occupied it for seven years, they forced Samuel to seek safer ground and his son-in-law, a Tory, took over the tavern.  But on Nov. 25, 1783, the day the war officially ended, the British departed, General Washington marched in, and he and 185 friends gathered at Fraunces Tavern for a celebration dinner.  In New York, Nov. 25 was known as “Evacuation Day,” and was an official holiday for more than 100 years.

George had promised his wife Martha he would be home in Mount Vernon for Christmas, so after eight days of celebration in New York, it was time for one last farewell luncheon party – the last time, as far as any of them knew, that Washington and his army officers would ever see each other.  Washington fully intended to retire to his home and become a farmer, far from public life.

For the last meal, the tavern laid out an impressive spread of cold meats, but the atmosphere was so sad, no one touched their food.  The best known account, written by Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, and now on display in the restaurant’s museum, described the scene as General Washington entered the room.

“His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence, the General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, ‘With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you….I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.’

General Knox being nearest to him, turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance, but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner, every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.”

Good thing he wasn’t at any Hillary parties the night of the election.

You can see the actual room where this emotional farewell took place upstairs in the Fraunces Tavern Museum.  This is a gem of a museum.  In Boston or Philadelphia it would be a huge attraction, but somehow in the overwhelming opportunities of New York, it gets lost.  You might find, as I did on a recent Friday afternoon in December, that you have all two floors of it to yourself.

The Long Room, where the dinner took place, has been reconstructed as it might have looked on that afternoon.  It is a typical colonial dining room, with wood table and chairs, candles and framed prints, and actually not that different from the one you can dine in downstairs.  But the rest of the museum is a kick.  There’s one of Martha’s silk shoes, the last letter from spy Nathan Hale (who was hung in 1776 and has a statue nearby at City Hall), and a wild assortment of trinkets and mementos from the Revolution and those who have preserved its history.  Currently, for the first time, there are 47 paintings of the Revolution by master illustrator John Ward Dunsmore.  This is the only time the paintings have all been together and they chronicle the entire war. He worked for a calendar company, and these paintings will be familiar to anyone who has ever had any interest in the colonial period.

George was no stranger to taverns or liquor.  He liked wine, beer, and cider and was at one point the largest manufacturer of whiskey in the nation.  Three of his dogs were called Tipsy, Tippler and Drunkard.

After the museum, the restaurant is a bit eclectic, with offerings from jambalaya to lobster tortellini, but for those desiring authentic, there are beef and chicken pot pies, Scotch eggs and something called George Washington’s Horseback (bacon, dates and almonds).  The atmosphere?  It could not be better.  The main dining area (the Tallmadge Room, named after the Colonel) has a gorgeous room of wood tables lit by candles.  There is a maze of corridors that lead to private dining areas and a bar with stuffed chairs, a roaring fireplace, and enough wood and prints to make George feel at home. 

The biggest surprise, is the Porterhouse Brewing Company, which has taken over half the main floor and has 140 craft beers to try, including a range of craft beers all brewed in Ireland.  It’s all wood, mirrors and brass with brightly lit bottles and little nooks carved out for private gatherings around communal tables.  Other than the no smoking laws, it’s pretty certain that the Sons of Liberty could still gather here and talk about The Donald pretty much in the same way they once did about George III.

Neighborhood Walks with George in Lower Manhattan
The great thing about Fraunces Tavern is that it is in the heart of Lower Manhattan.  Just a short musket shot away is Stone Street, the first paved street in New York.  Now closed to traffic as a historic district, the petty cobblestone way is lined with taverns and restaurants and evokes a feel for, if not colonial New York, at least the old New York of Godfather II.  In summer, the two-block area is filled with outdoor umbrellas and is one of nicest places to dine in the city.

A block in the other direction takes you to Battery Park, which in George’s time was an island and fortress with 100 cannon.  Today it’s been connected to the mainland and has one of New York’s oldest standing forts  – (from a different war, Castle Clinton from the War of 1812) – and two emotional memorials. The Sphere designed by Fritz Koenig was a monument to world peace that stood in the plaza in front of the original World Trade Center. In the 9-11 attacks, it was buried under tons of rubble, torn apart, bent and scraped, but it was dug up, reassembled and now sits in Battery Park as a testament to New York’s resiliency.

Nearby, the Merchant Marine Memorial is truly eerie. Commemorating the 7,000 merchant marines who died in World War II, it depicts a sinking ship and drowning sailor with his arms stretched out of the sea. Depending on the tide, you see half of his body or just his arm and neck reaching out for help.

New York’s famous Broadway starts at the intersection of Battery Park and Bowling Green (a small green triangle where George could have enjoyed the passion of the day – outdoor lawn bowling).  Here you’ll find the 7,000-pound bronze Charging Bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica that has become the symbol of a bull market on Wall Street. Rub its nose for luck, and continue up Broadway to the beautiful Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is buried.

The first Trinity Church was destroyed in the fire that George didn’t set in 1776; the current church dates to 1846.  At first Hamilton was not allowed to be buried in the quiet churchyard, where gravestones date back to 1680.  The church strongly disapproved of dueling and did not want to be seen as sanctioning it.  Ironically, Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel three years before, and is thought to be buried in the same graveyard, but because of the stain of dueling, his grave was unmarked.  Hamilton lingered for several days after his famous duel with Vice President Arron Burr and was able to plead in person from his deathbed with Reverend Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity, and finally was allowed to be buried at the church.  Today, thanks to the hit musical, his grave is a popular site for selfies.

From the church, cross Broadway and head down Wall Street and you’ll soon see George Washington’s statue on the steps of the Federal Hall National Monument.  The statue is approximately where George was inaugurated as president (although at the time, he was inside another building that stood here.  The statue is the same height and street location as where he stood). 

Anywhere else in the nation – or the world – Federal Hall would be famous. In New York, the 1842 modified version of the Parthenon is overshadowed by, well, everything else.  But climb the steps and go in – the rotunda is amazing, it’s free, there’s a lot of history and (always important in New York) there are clean, free public restrooms.  There are exhibits on the inauguration and the Revolution in New York, and a there’s a fascinating “All George” gift shop offering everything from Christmas ornaments to bookmarks featuring his familiar face.

One of the most iconic photos in New York is to frame the statue of George at Federal Hall with the famous gigantic flag that hangs on the New York Stock Exchange across the street. If you look closely, you’ll see that the stock exchange is on Broad Street, not Wall Street. Less well known is that yet another of New York’s terrorist attacks took place here in 1920 when 31 people were killed by a bomb placed in a horse and carriage. The building across the street from Federal Hall still has pot marks from the explosion.

Back to the Broad-way, it’s three blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel, known as “the little chapel that stood.”  Built in 1766, the chapel survived not only the great fire of 1776, but also the attack on Sept. 11, that brought down the two twin towers of the World Trade Center, located directly across the street.  St. Paul’s was not damaged and became a place of refuge for the firefighters, police officers, and other first responders working through the devastation.

St. Paul’s was George Washington’s church in New York.  You can see a replica of George’s modest pew box, where he prayed after the inauguration.  The churchyard is particularly moving.  George certainly walked through the gravestones here, because this was the main entrance to the church in his day.  It is a truly a spectacular sight to see gravestones from the 1700s with Santiago Calatrava’s new World Trade Center Oculus Pavilion directly across the street.

Finally, from the front of the church on Broadway, head to the ramp that is the pedestrian walkway over the Brooklyn Bridge crossing the East River.  George had entered New York in the spring of 1776 as the hero who driven the British out of Boston.  But then the Empire struck back, sending the largest armada of ships and men the world had ever seen to that point. 

Washington tried to defend all the potential landing points, but the British outmaneuvered him and put 30,000 redcoats on Long Island.  Then they conducted a secret night march around Washington’s flank, and in what became the Battle of Brooklyn, the largest battle of the Revolution, they badly beat him and almost destroyed the American army.  Only a valiant last stand by Maryland troops at the Old Stone House saved the day.

Near the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, in Washington Park, the Old Stone House Building is now a museum.  It is a reconstruction of the 1699 Vechte-Cortelyou House in the exact location where the battle took place.  The museum has models and exhibits of the battle, but it takes a lot of imagination to picture this place in 1776. 

Easier is to look down at the East River from the Bridge.  With the victorious British to his front, and the river to his rear, Washington had only one option – somehow he had to retreat and ferry his men across the East River without the British knowing it.  The embarkation point was the little shore-side park, Fulton Ferry Landing, just to the north of the Bridge on the Brooklyn side.  Keeping fires on the front line burning as a disguise, and in a providentially thick fog, Washington managed to extract his entire army of 9,000 men back to Manhattan to give them a chance to fight another day.   

A retreat may not be the most glorious of military maneuvers, but if George Washington had not managed to retreat from New York, there almost certainly would be no United States of America.  And for that, New Yorkers…..and George Washington… were always grateful.  

IF YOU GO:   There is an interesting site that lets you walk all the important spots of the Battle of Brooklyn.

http://theoldstonehouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Battle-Brooklyn-walking-tour.pdf


 

A pigskin bomb, Prohibition and a wacky restaurant score historic ‘firsts’ for Mazatlan

By Bob Schulman

Photo shows sites of two of Mazatlan’s “firsts”: Neveria Hill (rear of picture)             and the Hotel Belmar, opened in 1920 on Olas Altas. Photo credit NA.Think of the pressure that must have been on Mexican rebel pilot Gustavo Salinas. It’s 1914, during the Mexican revolution, and he’s about to make history by bombing a federale fort from his rickety biplane. What’s more, the 21-year-old pilot is being closely watched by the guy who ordered the raid, General Venustiano Carranza, commander of the Northern Revolutionary Constitutionalist Army (Carranza is also Salinas’ uncle). When he had flown the plane to the right place (he thought) over the fort, Salinas told his co-pilot to drop a makeshift bomb – a pigskin packed with dynamite, coal and nails – he’d been nervously holding in his lap.

Ay, caramba! The bomb missed the fort, instead wiping out a shoe factory a few blocks away. But the day was saved when Carranza told his nephew to take another shot at the target. On the second run, Salinas might have improved his aim, or just gotten lucky (or perhaps a bit of both), but he somehow managed to hit the fort and blast it into smithereens.

Read more about pilot Salinas and General Carranza later in this story.

Neveria Hill, Hotel Belmar and Olas Altas today.The action took place over a spot named Neveria Hill in what’s now western Mexico’s booming beach resort at Mazatlan (www.gomazatlan.com). Overlooking the city, the hill is honeycombed with limestone caves at one time used to store ice imported from San Francisco on sailing ships (thus giving it the alternate name of “IceBox Hill”).

Another first

Neveria Hill, today bristling with microwave towers and luxury homes, frames one side of a six-block beachfront strip called Olas Altas (the other side edges a park named after General Carranza). The strip itself claims a number of firsts for the country, one sparked 2,000 miles away up in the States in 1920 when politicians raised their hands to enact a law outlawing booze in the U.S.

“Soon, speakeasies (illegal bars) had popped up all over the U.S., but Prohibition was a great excuse for merry-making Hollywood stars, studio execs, oil barons and other miscellaneous moguls to hop on their yachts and sail down here to get a drink,” reporters were told by Gilberto Limon, Mazatlan's legendary public relations man.

One of the city’s treasures is the Plaza MachadoAnd where did the celebs bunk down? Local historians believe the first beach resort in Mexico to cater to the foreign silky set was along Olas Altas. And their favorite watering hole was the still-standing Hotel Belmar. According to Limon, the hotel was once the playground of the likes of John Barrymore, Rudolph Valentino and Mae West and later on John Wayne, Betty Grable, Rock Hudson, Jimmy Stewart, Ava Gardner and filmdom’s bad boy Errol Flynn.

After checking in to their then-opulent rooms at the Belmar, and perhaps taking a stroll around the hotel's plush, gilt-lined hallways and exotic gardens, the gentlemen put on tuxedos while their ladies slipped into crushed velvet gowns for a gala night of dinner and dancing in the Belmar's elegant ballroom.

Restored opera house in the Historic District was first opened in 1874.Guests staying today in the partially renovated Belmar and other properties on Olas Altas can walk a few minutes inland to Mazatlan’s 180-block downtown Historic District. There, visitors mosey around hundreds of spruced up colonial mansions, art galleries, sidewalk cafes, museums, jazz clubs, boutique hotels and the city’s two crown jewels: a restored, neo-classical opera house and the block-long Plaza Machado oozing old-world charm and lined on three sides by restaurants and bars.

And still another first

Fast-forward again, this time to 1963 when Mexico City entrepreneur Carlos Anderson  wound up working in the restaurant of the La Siesta Hotel, another grand dame on Olas Altas. Limon, now deceased, loved to tell the story of how Anderson talked the hotel’s owner into revamping the restaurant, El Shrimp Bucket, into a fun experience – and the first of what turned out to be a global chain of such spots. “I guess you could describe Anderson’s place as something like the Rolling Stones meet Pancho Villa,” Limon said. “Guests sat at beat-up tables along walls decorated by photos from the Mexican revolution while rock music blared from tinny speakers. Sometimes the waiters sang along. It was fun for everyone.”

Dozens of luxury resort-hotels line Mazatlan’s main hotel strip about a 20-minute cab ride from Neveria Hill and Olas Altas.From El Shrimp Bucket came the worldwide Carlos’n Charlie’s restaurant group with names like Senor Frog's, Carlos O'Brien's and El Squid Roe.

For the record: Globally, the attack on Mazatlan from the air was preceded only by one in 1911 by an Italian plane over Tripoli, Libya, in the Turkish-Italian War. Pilot Salinas’ exploits at Neveria Hill and in later air raids were recognized by several promotions. He retired as a major general in charge of the Mexican Army Air Force. Carranza was named the first president of the new Mexican republic at the end of the war.\

Photos by Bob Schulman unless otherwise indicated.

2017 TRAVEL GEAR REVIEW

By Yvette Cordozo

A huge segment of the people on skis these days are boomers. Senior-friendly ski gear is meant to make a senior’s day on the slopes more enjoyable. Take a hint from experts’ recommendations.

SKIS

A lot of older skiers grew up skiing on skinny skis with their feet close together (picture Stein Erickson), says Kevin Dreher, ski shop manager at Gerk’s, a ski chain in western Washington State. For some, learning to break that habit has been hard. Still, modern tech in the form of shaped skis has made the sport so much easier.

Enter the compromise, the pin tail shape ski.

It still has a wide shovel and a narrower waist. But the tail tapers, so it’s not quite so wide, not so much an hourglass shape. This, says Dreher, does two things: allows a skier to keep his/her feet closer together and also, if they are tired, to slightly skid the turn. But it also has all the easy skiing benefits of shaped ski tech.

It’s not brand new technology but seems to be getting more popular lately, perhaps as a segment of the ski population has gotten older.

Two brands in Dreher’s shop have tapered tails, Salomon and Atomic. Salomon’s QST 85 and 92 run $400 and $500 respectively. The more expensive ski is aimed at a more aggressive skier.

Atomic’s Vantage also has two models, the 85 and 95, again $400 and $500 retail. But none of these are aimed at highest end skiers. For experts who still want a bit of taper, he suggested the K2 Pinnacle 88, $600 retail. 

BOOTS

Custom liners, that are heated to fit the foot, have been around a while. But now there are also custom shells that can be heated and shaped to your foot. Virtually all the higher end boots have this. The exact model in a specific brand depends on your basic foot shape, wide or narrow, high arch or low. And again, gone are the days when you had to go to a specific boot brand if your foot was, say, wide or narrow.

The Salomon boot, for instance, has the Xpro for wider feet, the Xmax for narrower feet.

Boots aren’t cheap but they may be the single most important piece of gear you buy. Dreher says the $400 boots are his most popular and called them “a lot of boot for the price.” But he adds these are boots that will take you through advanced intermediate. For experts, it really is necessary to move up to a $500 or $600 boot. So how long will that boot, which may cost more than your first car, last? Figure 150 days of skiing, Dreher said. So if you are like most folks and average only 20-30 days a year ... a long time. And you can prolong this, he added, by thoroughly drying your liners. No, not everyone has the hand strength to wrench their liners out. And for them, there’s a wide range of wand style boot heaters.

SKI BAGS

My favorite: the heated (yes, heated) boot bag.

Don’t you just love driving hours to the hill and then trying to wrench stone cold boots on? Now, there’s a boot bag with a cord that works on either AC (house) current or DC (your car). One version of this bag is made by “Hot Gear,” but appears to be sold as Zip Fit through Amazon.com for about $200. Another version, Transpack, is sold for about $180 through Amazon and REI.

BOOT WARMERS

Finally, among the senior friendly bits of gear are boot warmers. The bad old days when these things hooked onto the back of your boot where you couldn’t reach the controls but the chair lift sure could (good bye battery), are gone. They now attach on the side of the boot.

But honestly, you can also get those disposable foot warmer packs and do as the patrollers do, put them ON TOP of your toes instead of under them. Take it from one with chronically cold toes, that works.

NON-SKI STUFF

EC BC HERCULES LAPTOP BACKPACK

I am a pocket freak. The more the better. I once owned a ski-jacked with 21 pockets and, honestly, I did tend to lose things in it. I once found a 7-year-old trail map from Switzerland tucked far, far away.

But with a backpack, it’s safe to say, lots of pockets mean lots of seriously usable places to stash things.

The Hercules laptop backpack from ecbc has, yes, 21 assorted pockets and nooks for stashing. And even better, it’s TSA approved, which means (in the US, at any rate), you don’t have to take out the laptop (just zip open the pack and lay it flat on the scanner belt) And in another country, it’s easy enough to slip the laptop out. The downside is if you do open the bag to lay it flat, all those magazines and papers you stuffed inside will have to go somewhere else, though there IS a second pocket for some of it.

Starting with the laptop pocket. It’s designed for a beefy 17 inch computer but if you have a micro thin 13 incher like me, there’s a “modular insert” to take up the extra space. I pulled that out immediately because I prefer to have my laptop securely seated all the way down in the pocket. Even with the extra room, there’s enough padding to keep it safe. But, as with all spare spaces, I’m sure I will fill them soon. There are two easily accessed front outside pockets for stuff you need in a hurry (say, travel itinerary, boarding pass) and more inside with zips and velcro closures. The two side pockets expand to hold a water bottle and zip shut when you just want to stuff other things in it. The one thing I would have liked is a thin vertical pocket on the front for an instantly accessible pen.

A female friend said the 2.5 inch wide straps were a bit wide for her. Not for me. But I’m not exactly small. I started to criticize the chest strap for being placed too high ... until I discovered it’s adjustable. Yay designers. And at 2.7 pounds empty the pack is way lighter than my briefcase.

The one thing I would have added is a waist strap to take a bit of the weight off my shoulders. ecbc’s Lance Executive Daypack has a waist strap but it’s also a much larger bag (28 liter capacity vs 20) and for a women, even a larger one like me, that would be overkill.

The bag comes in five colors that include black, blue, beige, green and an understated red. I went with the red, figuring mine wouldn’t disappear in the welter of navy packs. The bag itself is made of waterproof fabric, a truly useful feature.

Am I FINALLY giving up my tattered, so-out-of-date briefcase? Well...yes.

.

4 Reasons to be a Sunbird in Arizona

By Courtney Drake-McDonough

Desert Botanical Gardens – Walk amongst cacti of every size and shape at the Desert Botanical Gardens. Arizona is hot! And I’m not stating the obvious about the summertime temperatures. Gone are the notions of the state being a retirement mecca. Arizona is vibrant, affordable, creative, cutting edge and beautiful. A recent visit proved that Arizona is an exciting, vibrant place for sunbirds to fly to, right now!

The Farm-to-Table Food Scene
With a long growing season, in recent years, Arizona has embraced and developed its local foodie scene. In downtown Phoenix there’s a year-round, open air market with fresh produce, meats, baked goods and more in a parking lot. Next door, the Phoenix Public Market Café benefits from all of those items to create delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner plus a café and full bar. Don’t miss their blue corn pancakes, a tasty homage to the southwest region. Also downtown is DeSoto Central Market in a renovated DeSoto car dealership. Not only does the large, open space host fun events like Speakeasy Night but a variety of restaurants get their start in the business incubator format.

Mesa takes agritourism to a new level with the Fresh Foodie Trail, a series of farms and food producers that offer tours, sell their products and have restaurants, connecting visitors to the source of their food. Queen Creek Olive Mill and Agritopia are two stops on the Trail. At Queen Creek, you not only get a tour and explanation of how olive oil is made (fascinating) but then, under their high-ceilinged, wide-open marketplace, you can buy the company’s oil and vinegar, olive-oil-based beauty products, freshly baked bread, fresh pasta, gelato, coffee and grab a hearty bite of farm-fresh food.

Queen Creek Olive Mill – See the olive oil making process from start to finish at Queen Creek Olive Mill, part of the Fresh Foodie Trail.Agritopia is far more than just a farm and restaurant. It’s a master-planned community that is centered on preserving urban agriculture. Next to the community gardens and farm fields is Joe’s Farm Grill serving comfort foods packed with healthy vegetables like the veggie pizza or burger with lots of lettuce and tomato or sweet potato pie. In the winter of 2016, a craftsman community of artisans will be setting up shop inside a WWII Quonset hut on the property.

See timeless architecture & design
Talieson, Cosanti and Arcosanti are all proof that Arizona has long been seen as a mecca for the creative soul. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright built Talieson West to be his winter home (summering in Wisconsin) and the site of his architecture school which is still in existence. With a thriving tour business, on any given day, you may be part of one of several tour groups, moving around the compound in a well-choreographed manner, getting the inside scoop on the architect, his life, quirks and philosophies not only about architecture but about the land and life. A natural extension of a visit to Talieson is a trip to Cosanti a working artist studio and creative oasis in the middle of suburban Phoenix. Enjoy the sounds of, and perhaps purchase, one of the Cosanti bells which help fund Arcosanti, artist Paolo Soleri’s massive desert colony.

Experience the arts
Arizona loves its museums and offers quite a variety. The Phoenix Art Museum has a fine permanent collection in a spacious set up that covers a lot of time periods and styles but still feels like something you can take in and enjoy within a few hours. Large exhibit halls house ever-changing travelling shows.

Talieson West – Walk through the very rooms famed architect, Frank Lloyd Write, lived and worked in at Talieson West. The Musical Instrument Museum is a music fan’s dream. But it’s also a giant geography lesson, set to music. An entire area is devoted to the music and musical instruments of different countries. It’s fascinating to see the various sizes, shapes and intricate designs of instruments we’ve never heard of. The museum also shows you the importance and impact of music in our lives – everybody makes music in one way or another. Allow a full day to make your way through this museum, not because it’s so large but because it is so interactive. Take a break at their café to refuel for hands-on engagement.

Technically not a museum, I’m throwing the Desert Botanical Gardens into the mix of museums because it is a well-organized, thought out display of cacti and succulents. Especially if you are new to Arizona, seeing that there are plants that crawl along the ground looking like snakes as well as cacti as tall as a building is pretty amazing. Although almost completely outside, Arizona’s landscape is on display. There are also stunning sculptures by Dale Chihuly to greet you.

Great Places to Rest Your Head
Located on the east side of the city, the Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park, doesn’t get as much attention as its flashier counterparts on the other side of town and that’s a real shame – but it’s also to the advantage of guests who can score great deals. The place is gorgeous, spanning 440 acres, with 331 casita-style guest rooms including 72 suites, all with adobe architecture. There are four swimming pools, nature trails, 54 holes of championship golf and a 26,000 square foot Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa. The historic, AAA Four-Diamond property recently underwent a $20 million, multi-phase renovation just in time to celebrate its 87th birthday in November, 2016. Check out fun, historic photos on your way to enjoying live music on the lawn or to have an elegant and delicious dinner at Litchfield’s restaurant. The place is as ideal for families as it is a quiet getaway.

Wigwam Resorts – Stay in luxury and have trouble deciding which of four swimming pools you’ll choose to swim in today. In Tempe, Arizona, you can spend the night with tongue firmly planted in cheek at The Graduate Hotel. Part of a new brand of hotels located in the heart of college towns across the country, the destination lets you relive the glory days of college. Lots of kitsch, color and creativity fill this hotel from the lobby to the rooms. The guestrooms are cozy but have all the basics you need from a big, comfy bed to a Composition Notebook giving details of the property, a Number 2 pencil, room keys that are old school ID’s (whose did you get?) and pennants that serve as “do not disturb” door hangers. There are two on-site eateries, an all-American diner and an urban tequila bar. Located across the street from the Arizona State University campus, it doesn’t take much to remember those college days.

Fly, fly away, sunbirds! Avoid the chill down deep into your bones this winter with some time soaking up the warmth, whimsy, flavors and creativity of Arizona.

Courtney Drake-McDonough is a Denver-based food and travel writer and editor. She has written for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers and is the editor of InGoodTasteDenver.com, a news and reviews website.

THE WRITER WITHIN

Excerpts from Travel Gift books by WatchBoom writer Lisa TE Sonne

The Great Outdoors calls – and howls and sings and wind-whispers! Can you hear it? It smells of ocean splashes and pungent pines, smoky campfires and blooming jasmine. It feels like sand between your toes, textured breezes, and infinity.

The great outdoors is about aliveness, grand and tiny – its fortitude and fragility, its engaging beauty and vital challenge. This book is about your aliveness – from sublime awe to adrenaline-rush wow.

What do you want to do, see, hear, taste, feel, and smell? What experiences do you want to deposit in the great bank account of life memories?

Have you felt a waterfall massage your back? Seen streaks of light shoot across the night sky? Caught snowflakes in your mouth? Summited a mountain for views that change you?
….What would you rather do outdoors? The questions we ask ourselves can get us closer to living the answers we love.

This is your book for your own inspiration, planning, recording, and remembering so you can enjoy some of the great outdoors more while you are there! And you can enjoy the great outdoors later when you are indoors. “

The Great Outdoors Journal is a book for you to plot with, write in, and check off things you want to do or have done. Lists include the National Parks in the US, Canada and Great Britain, “not to miss” hikes, outstanding birds to spot, types of activities you can enjoy outdoors, and wildlife worthy of your bucket list.   From “archipelagos” to “waterfalls, ” there’s also a section to note your favorite places to explore specific geographic features.

The Journal also includes literary excerpts about the “Great Outdoors” from Thoreau, John Muir and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book is charmingly illustrated by Dick Vincent who also shows how to draw a Sleeping Fox and a Black Bear.

MY ADVENTURES: A TRAVELER’s JOURNAL

To move, to breath, to fly to float-

To gain all while you give,

To roam the roads of lands remote,

To Travel is to Live.”
Hans Christian Andersen

“So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience.”  - Martin Buber

These are a couple of the  many quotes in this Journaling book to inspire and recall adventurous travel.

There’s are also practical and creative tips to relish the extraordinary- from how to exchange currency and check out medical needs to how to chronicle your days and nights

You may write the best pages of all in the sections that prompt with questions or leave blank pages for you to record your travel day--- perhaps via the five Senses of sight, smell, touch, sound and taste plus the sense of intuition or via the journalist Five Ws and  H—who, what, where, when, why and how.

Also included- a  map to mark where you have been and where you want to go and suggested adventures from synchronous fireflies and walking behind waterfalls to little known parks and gardens and wildlife sanctuaries.

BIKE LONDON

England’s capital is 656 square miles and “the world’s most visited city,” with palaces, towers, Royal parks and gardens, 43 universities, four World Heritage sites, stellar museums, top theater and sporting venues, as well as a city with one of the world’s most modern cycling networks.

“Whether you are a leisure cruiser, intense commuter, touring cyclist with a guide, or an active explorer going solo, seeing London by the seat of your pants with your hands on the handlebar is worth your writing about.

From high-end hotels offering private bike clubs, to campsites next to bike hires, and from cafes with repair shops and yoga for cyclers, to annual city cycling events (including a “naked ride”), London invites your wheeling and revealing (in this your diary).

This book offers some sections you may want to add to --- on bicycle tips and tools, favorite routes, safety guidelines, and hot spots for pit stops. Or you may just want to plunge into the blank pages to forge your own passages about the paths you take. The best parts of the book can be what you add. “

THE HAPPINESS HANDBOOK: Simple Ways to Change your life for the better

Each page is filled with different suggestions and research about happiness- including happiness  about travel – from anticipating a trip and  enjoying a trip to “post trip” happiness.   There are also happiness tips from research and experts about the value of being the “author of your own life” and the benefits of journaling and recording gratitude. 

To your happy wanderings and wondering and writing

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Frontier Airlines (1946-1986): Remembering a legend

By Bob Schulman

Jets of the original Frontier Airlines lined up at Denver International Airport.You've just boarded the flight and plopped into your seat. The first thing you notice is that there's lots of legroom... so much, it looks like they've accidently put you in first class.

No, there's no mistake. The jet – a Boeing 737-200 – carried as many as 124 passengers on other airlines. But this carrier has just 98 seats in the same kind of plane, and all in coach. They advertise: “First-class comfort at coach prices.”

Later in the flight, the passengers ooh and aah as the flight attendants set up their trays for the meal service. There's real silverware, fine crystal glasses and crisp linen napkins.

Next comes the big eye-popper: when the flight attendants lift the foil off the meals. There – on chinaware, no less – is a mouth-watering double entree of char-broiled steak and lobster. And topping it all off is a bottle of imported Mateus wine. (On this airline's other flights the entree might have been veal and lasagna... or eggs benedict... or Beef Wellington... or Monte Cristo sandwiches... or ice cream sundaes... or Apple Pie in the Sky.)

And it was all free. And in COACH!

Coach passengers enjoyed first-class legroom and a fold-down center seat (if not occupied) for added elbow room.The airline was the original Frontier Airlines (no relation to the modern-day Frontier). Based in Denver, it was born in 1946 along with the first wave of baby   boomers at the end of World War II.

Monarch of the western skies

Frontier, at first named Monarch Airlines, was one of two dozen “local service” airlines created by Uncle Sam to handle a huge upswing in regional air travel in the roaring post-war economy. Monarch changed its name to Frontier a few years later when it absorbed two of the other new kids on the block. Their combined routes – mostly puddle-jumper hops flown with war surplus DC-3 “gooneybirds” -- stretched out to 40 cities in seven states.

Like the early boomers, Frontier grew up over the next 25 years. It painted its colors on yet another airline, enlarged its route network to 94 cities in 26 states, and swapped its smaller propeller planes for jets.

In 1971, under a new management team, the airline debuted what turned out to be a winning marketing philosophy: “Run on time, tell passengers the truth and give them better service than they expect from an airline.” From this came Frontier’s “golden era” when its customers enjoyed the added legroom and all the other perks they never expected from an airline.

The good times came to an end in the shockwaves of airline deregulation in 1978 when in Congress' zest to free the skies for competition it also unleashed the multi-billion-clout of the big airlines against the little guys. Guess who won.

A look back: During its 40-year history, Frontier was recognized for having the best safety record in the industry, having carried 87 million passengers 49 billion miles with but one passenger fatality.

And its inflight service – from its extra legroom to its steak and lobster entrees --

has become a legend among veteran travelers.

Disclosure:  The writer served as Senior Director of Corporate Communications for the former Frontier and as a co-founder and Vice President of Corporate Communications for the “new” Frontier, debuted in 1994. Photographs are from his personal archives.

Campin’ With Turtles in Mazatlán

Story and Photos by Patricia Alisau

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Twelve minutes down a rutted dirt road, snaking through jungle, past trees with hanging bird nests, looking like balls in a Christmas stocking, I felt like I was light years away from civilization, but was, in fact, less than an hour from the busy port of  Mazatlán. The cunning yellow cacique bird had learned how to protect its nest from predators, I observed, but a species like the endangered sea turtle needed some help from humans and that's where I was headed. 

The road stopped at the rustic entrance to El Verde Camacho Sea Turtle Sanctuary, a stone's throw from a calm stretch of the Pacific ocean, where all this began. Declared a wildlife preserve by the Mexican government, this is where researchers have been quietly protecting nesting sea turtles for over two decades. More than 150,000 baby turtles were released last year alone, but, staggering as the numbers may seem, only an estimated 1 percent survive into adulthood, so it's easy to see why their work matters. 

Our small group was met by the smiling head of the sanctuary, marine biologist Daniel Rios, and a case of bottled water to slake the thirst of the hot day. Herding us into a schoolroom-sized space with exhibits, the 40-year veteran of El Verde prepped us for the rest of the stay with photos, charts and a variety of empty shell coverings from the deep sea swimmers, explaining that the Olive Ridley, among the many species in existence, nest on this beach.                                                     

Visiting in November, this was within the time frame of July-November when the female returns to lay her eggs. "She chooses a beach because the sand warms the eggs so they can hatch," Rios said. As she trundles off to the ocean again, exhausted after expelling over 100 eggs, predators like birds, wild animals and even humans are on the lookout for the nests, he added, and that's where El Verde intervenes, keeping a watch 24/7 for telltale turtle tracks in the sand.

Rios suddenly broke off and announced that it was time to see nests and we were hustled off in groups of six, suited up with life jackets and boarded motor boats with a guide. Heading about two miles into jungle swamp, we glided to mangrove forests so thick they formed a tunnel as we motored through. Eventually coming out into the Quelite River, the boat  brushed by sunning iguanas, timid baby crocs, herons looking for fish, and a few local shrimp fishermen casting nets from what looked like rickety canoes. Conversation in the boat stopped as we soaked up the stillness and breathtaking beauty of the landscape while waiting to see what nature would unfold next. The moment was interrupted when I caught sight of the river slowly fanning out to the ocean and the boat alighted on a sandbar.

I hopped on an ATV and bounced along the beach as Rios pointed to turtle tracks leading to freshly-dug nests where staff planted stakes in the hours before dawn as a signal to secure the eggs. Placed in tagged incubators, which Rios called "coolers," some will end up in a storeroom for 45 days. Others were enclosed within a huge fenced-in swath of beach in nests dug earlier in the season. Following the rest of the leisurely ride while watching some dolphins playing around in the ocean, it was time for lunch. It was also an opportunity to see how the neighboring community got involved.                                                        

Although the camp has only a few modest adobe buildings with dormitories to sleep a half-dozen or so staff, one of the biggest rooms is a full kitchen. Manned by village women who turned up to prepare our meal, they're members of SERVITUR (Tourist Services) put together by Rios seven years ago.  The women come from the tiny town of El Recreo down the highway and are in charge of food preparation while the men in the group hire on as river guides and caretakers. Grocery supplies are purchased in El Recreo and the labor to build the camp is recruited from there, giving its economy a much-needed boost. At the same time, it's a deterrent to poaching, Rios said, a practice once widely-spread throughout Mexico owing to the folk myth that the raw eggs acted as an aphrodisiac. Once upon a time, turtle meat was also a staple in coastal communities like this one. "We try to educate the people to show them that it's to their benefit to help us protect the eggs," he added.

Sated by a home-cooked plate of fish, rice, quesadillas and salad, it was time to walk the beach and bid adieu to some of the babies. Once caretakers hear crackling noises from a cooler, they know turtles have begun breaking through their egg shells. So it was that I was handed three energetic hatchlings in a plastic cup, gave them names, and released them, watching as they raced to the ocean as if drawn by some inner compass.

To even up the odds a bit more, local shrimp fishermen receive from the sanctuary specially-designed nets with holes large enough for the newborns to slip through while holding larger crustaceans in place once they are swept up from the ocean.

As I headed back to the city, again marveling at the exotic hanging nests, I made a wish that my hatchlings would be the 1 percent that survived the perils of life in the sea.

How to Get There

This half-day tour is geared for families and people of all ages. Visitors to the camp do so via an organized excursion with Pronatours, which has tour desks at all El Cid hotels in Mazatlán. Call 1-888-888-8330 from the US or 669-919-7720 in Mazatlán.

MORE MAZATLÁN

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Foodies take note: According to Julio Birritua, head of the Mazatlán Tourism Board, Mazatlán is poised to become Mexico's newest gastronomic destination with the recent launching of a Gastronomy Festival. It is little wonder since the shrimp port put it on the food map decades ago even before the term "foodie" found its way into reality cooking shows. Since then, Mazatlán chefs have conjured up everything from gourmet-worthy local dishes to fusion haute cuisine. The state of Sinaloa is also Mexico's largest producer of tomatoes among other veggies, which translates into farm-to-fork freshness in dining out.

And this just adds to the banner year the resort is enjoying in tourism numbers,

Carlos Berdeque, owner of the El Cid hotel chain, said. "Throughout this year, there's been a substantial upswing of 38 percent more in hotel bookings compared to last year," he added. Cruise ship arrivals also increased to 93 from 35 during the same period. Air flights from the U.S. and Canada for the winter high tourist season started earlier this year in the fall with the added demand, he said, and will continue into next spring. Another plus for the resort is that Mazatlán is part of Mexico's international marketing campaign with the tag line, the "Colonial City on the Beach," which draws more attention to us, he said.  Landing on Forbes list of one of the most powerful investors in Mexico, Berdegue is a relentless supporter of tourism in Mazatlán.

As Mazatlán tourism grows, so does its new resort project 50 miles south called Playa Espiritu being developed along nine square miles of coastal property. Plans call for the first phase to be completed in 2018. According to Jesus Eduardo Bazua, regional head of FONATUR, the tourism development arm of Mexico's Secretary of Tourism, this phase will include more than 1,000 hotel rooms, a master-planned town, jetty and other infrastructure using Costa Rica as a model for sustainable tourism.

 "We want to build hotels, a convention center, condos, residential area and attract brands such as Four Seasons and Iberostar," he said, referring to ideal foreign investors. So far, a 53-room business "express" hotel is the first to open. Bazua noted that in 30 to 40 years, the resort is expected to be comparable to Cancun.

 


 

Special adventure tours set for 2017, 2018

By Bob Schulman

Photo courtesy of Gondwana EcoTours.Attention explorers and wanna-be explorers: If adventure turns you on, here are five chances – put together by leading tour companies – to spend your next vacation tracking the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest explorers.

First is a 24-day Asian trip across the Silk Road followed by Marco Polo. Packaged by the MIR Corporation, you’ll visit Kashgar, rated as one of the most exotic cities in the world, skirt the infamous Taklamakan Desert on camelback and sample the breathtaking views of the 12,000-foot Torugart Pass in the Tian Shan Mountains near the border of Kyrgzstan and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. Trip dates are next May 3-26 and Aug. 16-Sept. 8. The tab will set you back $7,995 per person, double occupancy. Check out the trip details at http://www.mircorp.com/trip/chinese-turkestan-central-asia/.

Or perhaps you’d like go sightseeing in Greenland on paths where Dano-Norwegian Lutheran missionary Hans Poulsen Egede once trekked. You’ll come back talking about the thrills of calving glaciers, palatial icebergs, dogsledding, hut camping with the Inuits, checking out wildlife, a speed boat tour of the fjords surrounding Greenland’s capital at Nuuk and kayaking around icebergs, among other jaw-dropping adventures. Trip dates: June 16-25, 2017. Cost of the nine-day tour starts at $8,000 per person. You’ll find all the details at Big Chill Adventures’ site, http://bigchilladventure.com/trips/greenland-june-2017/.

Picture yourself on a bicycle, peddling from Barcelona to Rome on roads once trod by Hannibal and his Carthagenian army in the Second Punic War. Along the way you’ll sample the cultures of Spain, France and Italy along with their gastronomical delights and wines from the vineyards of Languedoc, Provence, Piedmont and Tuscany. Ride & Seek’s two-stage, 29-day Hannibal epic tour is slated for next Sept. 3-Oct. 1. An option is to sign on for either the first stage (Barcelona to the ancient Italian town of Alba, once known as “the city with 100 towers”), set for Sept. 3-18, or just the second (Alba to Rome), set for Sept. 18-Oct. 1. Check out the tour’s website (http://www.rideandseek.com/epic/hannibal) for details, prices and related activities.

Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. You’re invited to join an Adventure Life tour on a 30-day voyage tracking Shackleton”s explorations, starting at the Port of Bluff on the South Island of New Zealand. There, you’ll board the Spirit of Sonderby to cruise to places like The Snares Islands, North East Island, the Aukland Islands, Macquarie Island, Antarctica’s little-visited Ross Sea Region and Campbell Island. The yoyage ends where it starts, at the Port of Bluff. Sailings are slated to launch next Jan. 11 and on Jan. 10 and Feb. 8, 2018. Prices start at $20,000 per person. See Adventure Life’s website at http://www.adventure-life.com/new-zealand/cruises/2961/in-the-wake-of-scott-shackleton.

Despite the fact that indigenous people had been living in the Amazon for at least 10,000 years, the Amazon River was officially "discovered" in 1541 by Spanish explorer and conquistador Don Francisco de Orellana. Gondwana EcoTours puts you on some of Orellana’s pathways for a 10-day tour of Ecuador. Among highlights of the adventure is a visit to the Achuar, a tribe of 6,000 local folks still living traditionally in small Amazon communities along the Ecuadorian and Peruvian border. Trip dates in 2017: Jan. 8-15, Aug. 3-10, and Nov. 2-9. More details:  http://gondwanaecotours.com/tour/amazon-rainforest-ecotour/

Photo by Mindy Cambiar, Bill Chill Adventures.Photo by Mindy Cambiar, Bill Chill Adventures.

10 Ways to Get a Closer Look at St. Louis’ History

By Courtney Drake-McDonough

Regardless of your religious affiliations, the Cathedral Basilica is a sight to behold.The one and only time I had been to St. Louis was to be driving through it on a family roadtrip to the east coast. The famous and shimmering Gateway Arch was off in the distance. “Look kids, there’s the St. Louis Arch!” yelled my husband. “Cool!” the kids said from the back seats and went right back to sleep. “We should really stop here sometime and see the Arch, up close,” I said. Well, it was a good ten years later when I finally made it to St. Louis to check out the Arch, and a lot more, up close.  Here are 10 things you really have to see!

Campbell House Museum – Built in 1851, stepping into this museum is also stepping into the lives of the Campbell family who suffered tragedies and good times in this home. Experience the Gilded Age and see hundreds of original possessions of the family including Mrs. Campbell’s recipes and even wine corks from elegant dinners with the rich and famous.

Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis – The Roman Catholic Church, in the Central West End area was completed in 1914. There is no paint in this cathedral. Instead, it contains the largest collection of mosaics in the Western Hemisphere! One side sparkles in the morning and the other side does in the afternoon. There is a Tiffany window at the back and all of the marble is from Italy. They have concerts year-round but Christmas brings the biggest draw.

Pure whimsy and wonder flow through all 10 floors of the City Museum.City Museum – There’s probably nothing like this place, anywhere! Housed in a 600,000 square foot, 10-story former International Shoe Company, this museum for the whole family was created by Bob Cassilly, a sculptor, entrepreneur and kid at heart. Everything in the museum is made up of “found” items from within the municipal borders, making it a true reflection of the city. While the inside is really amazing, it’s the rooftop that is mind-blowing.  Climb around the inside of a former planetarium dome, sit in a school bus that hangs off the building and wriggle through a slinky-like tube to an airplane. It’s pure fantasy and fun.

Eat Saint Louis – How often do you get to combine historic tours with a meal? During a three-hour walking tour, get to know The Hill, the St. Louis neighborhood famous for its Italian history and cuisine. Feel in-the-know about favorite markets (and the famous sandwiches made there), the kind of cheese, crust and toppings that make St. Louis pizza unique and much more.  All the walking helps counter all that good food. 

Gateway Arch National ParkBuy tickets in the Old Courthouse and, while there, take a look around. This is where Dred & Harriet Scott sued for freedom from slavery and where Virginia Minor fought for women’s right to vote.  Then head over to the Gateway monument, get in the small compartment to ride up to the top (if you’re claustrophobic, think twice) and then be amazed by the views. Being inside the Arch is a strange but wonderful experience.

Gateway Arch – standing at the base is plenty impressive but going up inside offers amazing views of the city.

Gateway Arch Riverboat Cruises – Before or after your visit to the Arch, a Riverboat Cruise is a great way to get a view from the river plus learn a ton about St. Louis’ history from the comfort of your seat on the boat.

Missouri History Museum – The beautiful building contains a lot but in a manageable size. Be sure to catch the exhibit “Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis,” running through July, 16, 2017. It’s a blast from the past perfect for multi-generational visits.

Saint Charles Historic District – The home of Daniel Boone and a rendezvous spot for Lewis and Clark, you can take a charming trolley along the brick-paved streets of Missouri’s oldest and largest historic district. See beautiful architecture, shops, antiques and restaurants.

Saint Genevieve – Visit the French settlement community which contains the largest number of vertical-log construction (the opposite of a typical log cabin) French Creole buildings in the U.S. Stroll through the streets and see one charming building after another. Learn about the area’s rich history and meet residents, 80% of whom are still of French descent.

Saint Louis Art Museum – With a gasp-worthy view, the original building was constructed in the 1800’s for the World’s Fair. Of all of the buildings created for that famous fair, this is the only permanent one that still remains. The Beaux Arts architecture with classical designs and Roman arches, it’s something to see. The art collection inside the main and new, linear building is impressive and has something for everyone’s interests.

Denver to Vail – the Slow Way

Story and photos by Rich Grant. Highway photo by Stevie Crecelius

Every month, almost a million vehicles travel the 100 miles on Interstate 70 between Denver and Vail, Colorado.  They zoom past gorgeous Rocky Mountain scenery at speeds up to 75 mph, burrow through the highest auto tunnel in North America, and switch back their way over two-mile-high Vail Pass.

But those in the know, slow down and stop in four delightful and historic towns along the way.  The Interstate highway bypasses these villages with nothing but a sign, but if you take time to visit, you’ll discover an operating steam locomotive that still chugs over a 100-foot-high trestle, old gold mines and gold mills, hundreds of historic Victorian buildings, tranquil river walks, zip lines that hurl you off a cliff, breweries, fine dining, river rafting through sheer canyon walls, and some of best riverside shopping in Colorado.

But be careful.  With all the delights along the way, you may never make it to Vail.  Heading from Denver, here’s where to make a detour.

IDAHO SPRINGS  (Mile Marker 240) – ADRENALINE CAPITAL OF THE FRONT RANGE

This is the first real mountain town from Denver, and because of that, it’s become the Mile High City’s adrenaline capital.  You can jump off rock cliffs on terrifying zip lines or scream through rapids in Clear Creek Canyon.  Clear Creek offers more rapids per mile than any other commercially rafted river in Colorado.  There are a staggering 18 companies in town offering wet suits and rafting trips.  You can rent ATVs, horses, or mountain bikes and explore dozens of trails, one of which is affectionately called the “Oh My God Road!” You’ll find out why when you see the drop-offs without guard rails.

Colorado’s first major gold strike was discovered here and today the town’s historic main street is lined with Victorian buildings that have been converted to bars, breweries, restaurants and mountain gift shops.   Beau Jo’s Pizza is a town institution.  For more than 40 years, they’ve been dishing out a hearty pie of what they call “Colorado style” pizza, which means each one weighs 3-5 pounds.  Go mountain climbing before you eat the pizza.  Down the block, the Buffalo Bar is where to stop for Colorado buffalo or lamb burgers.  Buffalo is the leanest of red meats and has less calories than chicken.  That’s also the home for the new and stylish Westbound & Down Brewery.  Try a CPA (a Colorado Pale Ale).

At the other end of Main Street, Tommyknockers Brewery has been turning out award-winning brews for 20 years, including winning 17 medals at Denver’s prestigious Great American Beer Festival.

Tommyknockers were mythical two-foot-high creatures who lived in mines and caused mischief.  If you have the nerve, you can enter the real Phoenix Gold Mine, a place that looks straight out of a Lone Ranger movie.   Put on a hard hat and follow a vein of gold through a twisting, dark and damp tunnel, just hoping that the creaking 100-year-old wood beams hold up for at least one more hour.  Right in town, the Argo Gold Mill processed more than $100 million of gold in its day.  Today, it’s a steampunk’s dream of mining equipment, shafts, belts, wood ladders and stairs.  After the tour, they’ll teach you the fine art of gold panning.    www.clearcreekcounty.org

Georgetown (mile marker 228) -- the Silver Queen

When John Denver was looking for the most picturesque town in Colorado for his holiday film, “The Christmas Gift,” he picked Georgetown.  Ironically, millions of people zoom by this pretty village on I-70, or just stop at the gas stations at the exit, never knowing that just a mile away there are 200 Victorian buildings and one of America’s most beautiful main streets.

It was silver that made the Georgetown rich and led to elaborate mansions and beautiful homes painted a rainbow of colors.  But it was the still-standing steeples here and there that preserved the town.  Not the churches.  The steeples are the remnants of volunteer fire companies, of which Georgetown had the best in Colorado.  Most mountain mining towns were made of wood and burned to the ground at one point or another.  Georgetown never had a major fire, and so the gorgeous main street and dozens of homes were all preserved and today, along with neighboring Silver Plume, are part of a National Historic District.

There are Western book stores, rock shops, railroad stores, galleries, Native American artworks, cute little restaurants – and of course, the Western staple – saloons.  But the most fun is to walk or bike the backstreets, past one colorful Victorian home after another. You can tour the 1867 Hamill House, the home of a former Colorado governor, or stop in to see the Hotel de Paris, one of the West’s most opulent hotels that served French champagne and oysters in the 1870s.

Of all the railroad engineer feats in Colorado, one of the greatest – and scariest – is the Devil’s Gate Bridge, the 100-foot-high narrow trestle that allowed the railroad to corkscrew around and literally crossover itself, just like a Lionel toy train set, climbing 600 feet in elevation in just four miles.  The feat became known as the Georgetown Loop, and today it offers a short – but thrilling – steam locomotive ride to Silver Plume, once a booming mining metropolis, but now more of a ghost town with dirt streets and old and empty false front buildings.

The steam train sends huge plumes of smoke 100 feet in the air as it chugs up the steep climb though stands of aspen, sending people scurrying from side-to-side of the open gondola cars for photos of the ever-changing scenery.  The train lets go with a whistle every time it crosses the stream, and that’s the moment to have your video going.  The sound of that whistle echoing off the mountains will be one that haunts you for a long time.

Silverthorne (Mile Marker 205)  -- A River Runs Through It

Few places have changed more than Silverthorne.  www.silverthorne.org/  Before 1967, there was nothing here but a gas station and a makeshift construction camp for workers building Dillon Dam.  Today, Silverthorne will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017 as a town that has now grown to 4,000 souls and offers one of the most beautiful shopping experiences in the nation – the Outlets at Silverthorne.  There are more than 50 brands here, offering savings of up to 70 percent on Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Columbia, Calvin Kline, Eddie Bauer and Levis.  But it’s the setting that makes it special.  The shopping is split into three villages on both sides of the meandering Blue River, which flows right through the center of Silverthorne.  Bridges connect the shopping villages, which also have underpasses beneath the roads.

You can continue on the paved bike and walking trail beside the Blue River for miles, passing upscale restaurants near the river bank like Sauce on the Blue, which offers Old World Italian cuisine alongside New York-style pizza, all with 80 wines and big picture windows and an outdoor patio overlooking the river. Continuing along the Blue River will bring you to what will be the new Silverthorne Performing Arts Center, a cultural epicenter for all of Summit County.  The new space will have two theatres for music concerts, Broadway shows, lectures and other events, as well as outdoor space that can be used for summer concerts.  Not only is the river beautiful, it is designated as a Gold Medallion Fishing Stream, a honor reserved for only a few of the thousands of miles of waterways in Colorado.

Just down the road, past a field of grazing yaks, is Summit Sky Ranch, www.summitskyranch.com a new 21st century development of 240 single-family homes designed to fit into the landscape, rather than altering the landscape to accommodate the architecture.  Unique to the area, this will be a “dark sky community,” with lower light levels so as to make it easier to see the stars that blanket the Rocky Mountain sky above.   A state-of-the-art observatory will have a 20-inch refactor telescope that can be enjoyed by all through live stream to the Aspen House community center.  The Blue River Valley of Silverthorne has very little ambient light, which is one way of saying, there’s nothing out here but mountains.  It can be dark, which makes the night sky all that more amazing.

Ironically in Colorado, which was filled with gold and silver mines, Silverthorne’s name has nothing to do with the shiny metal.  It was named after a local, Judge Marshall Silverthorn.  Someone added the “e” along the way.

Frisco (Mile Marker 201) 

Frisco www.townoffrisco.com/ was founded in 1870, so it’s been around a lot longer than Silverthorne.  Sort of.  Though it was a mining town and in its heyday had two railroads, a slew of saloons, shops and hotels, the depression hit Frisco hard.  By 1930, there were only 18 people left in town.  Frisco didn’t even get indoor plumbing until 1950.  But then in the 1960’s, Colorado’s ski industry was born with Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Copper Mountain all just a short drive away.  The former Ghost Town of Frisco boomed again with white gold.

Today, there are 2,800 full-time residents and 34 bars and restaurants.  From I-70, Frisco looks like a uninviting roadside collection of box stores and fast food, but if get off the highway and drive a mile to the historic downtown, you’ll be rewarded with one of the prettiest and most historic main streets in Colorado.  The Frisco Historic Park has relocated a dozen buildings, including an old jail, schoolhouse, ranch house, trapper’s cabin, chapel and others, and built them into a beautiful park on Main Street surrounded by Aspen trees.  Don’t miss the model railroad of Frisco in the 1800s; you can run the tiny engine and cars around the miniature village for a quarter.

Across the street, Prosit is a Bavarian beer hall with 30 European beers and a slew of sausages, including pheasant, buffalo, elk, and wild boar, all with sauerkraut, shredded cheese, peppers and every type of mustard.  Backcountry Brewery has an outdoor beer garden, while Bread + Salt is the town’s casual breakfast place, surrounded by aspens and flower boxes.

Frisco’s main attraction these days is the Frisco Marina, which sits on the shores of 3,300-acre Lake Dillon.  There are 25 miles of shoreline surrounded by mountain views, as well kayak and paddleboat rentals, sailboat regattas, boat tours, paddleboards, canoes, fishing pole rentals, sailing lessons and waterside dining.  Or rent a bike and pedal around the lake on paved, off-road trails.  Of course, the lake sits at 9,000 feet above sea level, so the sailing season is short….early June to mid-September.  When the snow starts (which can be mid-September!) Frisco’s Adventure Park, and the Nordic Center have multi-lane tubing hills, with a lift to take you and your tube back up the mountain.  There’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and skating.

And, of course, if you’re really desperate to get to Vail, it’s just 30 minutes farther on down the highway.

SKI ASPEN: Magic of the mountains

Story by Anne Z. Cooke, Photography by Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld

If they talk you into trying it, think twice. As every Aspen skier knows, there’s nothing more addictive than swooping in lazy half-circle turns down Ajax Mountain on light, white powder, the wind in your hair and the sun on your back.

But for me, there’s another reason for skiing at Aspen -- or anywhere. I thrill to the joy of just being there, in the mountains, the most mystical features on earth.

Last run down, as the sun sets and the crowds go home, at Snowmass Resort, Snowmass, Colorado.

As every mountain is different, so is every ski area. Each has its own particular trees, rocks, valleys, intersections of altitude and latitude and patterns of sun and shade. The mix determines where the snow falls, how fast it melts, how the snowcats groom it and -- what matters to me -- how high the chairlifts go.

Pretty-in-pink and everyone else at the top of lift at Snowmass Resort, Snowmass, Colorado.The cathedral in the sky is where I want to be. Earthbound in the lift line, my feet bolted to stiff fiberglass slats, the chairlift carries me up, up and away to the top of the world. There on the highest peak I’m ruler of the universe --- just for a moment -- and a humble speck dwarfed by the immense grandeur beyond. 

But – and I’ll admit it – for years I avoided Aspen, ignoring invitations and staying away.   Ajax Mountain, a peak with a killer reputation, 11,212 feet of vertical mass, looms up behind the town, challenging all comers. Seeing it from below, I bought into the myth of Aspen-the-terrible, assuming that if those steep lower slopes were the easy runs, the really scary stuff must be on the top.

Staying in Aspen, with its clever stores, intriguing nightlife and historic streets, was easy, a kick. But I skied at the places I knew: Snowmass and Buttermilk, 20 minutes away. And year after year, Aspen’s best intermediate (the blue runs) skiing was right there in the clouds.  

“All the fun runs start up here, at the top of the gondola,” said Molly Simpson, a town resident whose winter workouts include hiking up Ajax in the snow.  “You can have breakfast here, at the Sundeck, or hang out and ride the gondola back down.”   

Full disclosure: there are no green (beginner) runs at Aspen. If you’re a novice, you’ll love Buttermilk. But Ajax has more blue runs than you’d expect. Some are steep, but they’re short, predictable and groomed. To find my favorites, make your way toward the Silver Queen Gondola through the hubbub at the village base, where everybody – tycoons, hotdoggers, parents, kids, singles and teenagers – line up for the ride up the front face.

High-speed six-pack chairlifts quadruple the miles you can ski in a day. At Keystone Resort, Colorado.Climb aboard one of the Silver Queen gondola’s 173 Swiss-made, passenger cabins for a comfortable ride up, with panoramic views of the Roaring Fork Valley as it stretches away between snow-capped ridges. Once on top, stop at the on-mountain concierge to check the daily grooming schedule, listing the runs that were groomed the night before.

The concierge, serving out of a wood shelter, offers hot apple cider or lemonade, a cookie and information, all with a smile. Then look for some of North America’s best-groomed ski trails, flaring high, wide and handsome away over humps and valleys feeding back to the Ajax Express, a high speed quad loading at mid-mountain.

Look for Silver Bell, Silver Dip, Dipsy Doodle and Deer Park going over the top, ride back up on the Ajax Express and try another one. Or ski down to the Gent’s Ridge double-chair. 

At the end of the day, ski back to the bottom on Spar Gulch, a study in angles. This long swooping run cruises for two miles between parallel ridges, from the Ajax Express down to Kleenex Corner where you hang a left, then a right on Little Nell.

It’s a natural for a race, which is why Spar Gulch is where Aspen’s famous relay race the “24 Hours Of Aspen” is held. Teams from around the world converge here to compete, skiing non-stop for 24 hours and raising nearly a million dollars annually for charity.

The competitors reach speeds in excess of 90 miles an hour going down Spar Gulch.  But don’t even think about it trying it yourself. To make sure you don’t, a ski patroller guards the slope, lifting ski tickets from rule-breakers. 

About half of Aspen’s named trails are rated for intermediates. The rest are either double-black diamond fright-mares, or “more difficult” slopes, appropriate for confident intermediates. . Fresh groomed powder is easiest to ski, of course.  Skiing melted and refrozen crud, the result of sunny days and freezing nights, is a lot more iffy.      

Terrain parks’ pipes – snow features -- challenge boarders to fly higher, spin faster. At Steamboat Resort, Colorado.

Once you’ve skied the top, try the blue runs near the base area, accessed from the Little Nell quad chairlift. Or use your lift ticket (and the free ski shuttle service) to ski at Aspen’s three sister resorts, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk.

When spring weather turns the snow to mush, vacationers play at Gorgoza Tubing Park, near Park City, Utah.If you can find a non-stop flight into the Aspen airport, give thanks. If not, book a flight into Denver’s International Airport with a leg on to Aspen or Eagle, then rent a car or hop on an airport shuttle.

We were lucky. We left Los Angeles at 7 a.m. on a Thursday, flew nonstop to Aspen, grabbed a cab for the 10-minute ride into town, dropped our bags at the hotel and by noon we were on top. 

IF YOU GO: 

Get your wallet out. Rates at the plainest 1960s-style motels aren’t cheap, starting around $200 a night during high season, from mid-February through March and on holidays. For Central Reservations and lift ticket information call (800)262-7736 or go to www.aspensnowmass.com.

©The Syndicator, Anne Z. Cooke

©SteveHaggerty/ColorWorld

KILLER SURF AND KILAUEA HOTSPOTS

Story by Anne Z. Cooke, Photography ©SteveHaggerty/ColorWorld

Hats, water and an early start are essential for the steep, four-mile hike into Kilauea Iki Crater, Volcano National Park, near Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii.Passion and betrayal. That’s what the movie director, the one I bumped into at a film festival party, said he wanted.

“How about a story set in a small town where everyone has a secret,” he said, handing me a glass of wine. “Set it in Hawaii, since you’re going there.  But no guidebook stuff. I want a red-hot drama, a battle of the emotions, a tale of anger, jealousy, even guilt. A story that’ll tear at your gut. Add a natural disaster and a has-been actor and I’ll read it.”     

Script writing was the last thing on my mind as I listened to him talk. But I was taking my kids to Volcanoes National Park, on Hawaii’s Big Island, where molten lava has been engulfing homes, torching forests and mesmerizing onlookers since 1983. Would that be red-hot enough for Mr. Director (who asked that I not use his name)?     

The weather in Hilo, the driest in a decade, according to the television, was sunny all day, every day. A good sign, indeed. But more important was ensuring that our long-planned family trip would be a sizzler, engaging and entertaining little minds.

To that end I booked a Volcano tour and a zip line day with Kapohokine Adventures, a Hilo-based outfitter recommended by a friend.

Nancy Wai, with Waokele Honey, sells four flavors at Hilo’s twice-weekly Farmers’ Market, in Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii.“You won’t be sorry,” he raved. “The guides are exceptional. They know everything that’s ever happened. They kept our teenagers enthralled all day.”

As it happens, Hilo is close to both the ocean and the volcanoes -- killer surfing and Kilauea hot spots -- so we stayed in town at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel overlooking Hilo Bay. It was here, in 1100 A.D., that the first wave of Polynesian voyagers reached the island, settling near the Wailuku River.

That was the village center then and it still is, comfortably old-fashioned with its rustic last-century store fronts, narrow streets, curious galleries, mom-and-pop shops, first-rate restaurants and the occasional newcomer, including Kapohokine Adventures.  

Like most zip lines, Kopohokine’s is built on open land past a macadamia nut orchard, on a long downward slope next to the Hilo Forest Reserve. As expected, aerial views of gorges and waterfalls are guaranteed. But this is no ordinary zip line.

Installed with not one but two cables on each of the eight segments, it’s a fly-away built for two. Lovers can soar in tandem; mothers and daughters buddy up; sportsmen play the links game, racing each other down each or all the lines.    

Typically, you ride the first four links before noon, the second four later, and take a lunch break midway for a barbecue or sandwiches. If you’re interested, an introduction to Hawaiian culture and a cooling swim in a waterfall pool is available, a bonus activity pioneered by co-owner Gary Marrow.   

“The tours began when we noticed that cruise passengers needed someone to pick them up at the dock and show them the real Hilo,” said Marrow. “We started with one van and when that wasn’t enough we bought another one. Now we have ten new vans and 90 full and part-time employees. Finally we bought the land and decided to build the zip line.”

Paho’eho’e lava, smooth and ropey, entombs the former black sand beach at Kalapana, near Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii.It was at this moment that I recognized the makings of a Hollywood-style drama. Not that Marrow, who resembles Leonardo DiCaprio, is a “has-been actor” exactly, but sort of. Before moving to Hawaii he dabbled in film, eventually nailing a job as a stand-in for DiCaprio in the film “Titanic.”

“It took a year to make the movie, enough time to get to know Leo and the cast pretty well and to see how movie-making works,” he said. “I spent a lot of time shivering in that giant water tank they used for the ocean scenes, but they paid pretty well. I looked for another gig after it ended, but then we decided to come out here.”

But there was more drama to come on our Volcano Discovery tour, scheduled for the next day with Kapohokine guide Rich Berner. An amateur geologist and National Park volunteer, Berner is also a lettuce farmer, intrepid historian, Hilo resident and a relentless encyclopedia. Ten minutes into the tour, I knew we’d struck gold.

Heading along the coast, we looked at lava-damaged houses, their owners now homeless, though nearby telephone poles, wrapped in metal sheets, survived. So did the quaint Star of the Sea “Painted” Church, a cultural icon built in 1928, saved when a band of heroes scrambled to move it away from the advancing lava. 

On the once-sandy beach at Kalapana, now a lava sheet to the ocean, Berner pointed out thousands of palm fronds pushing up through the cracks, a testament to indomitable life, re-greening the Big Island as happens as it always does.  

Stopping at the Hilo Bay waterfront, we watched the surf crashing on the breakwater as Berner talked about Hilo’s worst two natural disasters, tsunamis that roared across the bay in 1946 and in 1960. The first tsunami swept ashore with 45-foot-high waves that engulfed the town, killing 161 people and destroying whole blocks of buildings. The second tsunami, partially slowed by a newly-built breakwater, flooded parks, streets and shops and despite an advance warning system, killed another 60 residents.

Star of the Sea Painted Church, built in 1928, was moved in 1990 to Highway 30 ahead of advancing lava. Kalapana, Big Island, Hawaii.Returning to Volcanoes National Park we drove around the Kilauea Caldera on the Crater Rim Road, stopping at view points on the way to the Thurston Lava Tube, a classic example of lava geology. The tube, 12 feet in diameter and about 100 yards long, is dimly lit, enough to feel spooky when you’re in it.

You could walk through the thing in ten minutes. But Berner lingered, showing us colored minerals that had leached from the inside wall and how a tube was formed when the lava flow’s exterior edge cooled and hardened but the boiling hot center stayed liquid enough to flow out and away. 

After lunch, we hiked the four-mile loop trail into Kailauea Iki crater, hard rock now but a fiery fountain when it erupted in 1959. Walking along the crater floor was safe but strange, knowing that hot magma was deep underneath.

As darkness fell, we lagged, thinking of dinner. But Berner wouldn’t quit until we’d seen the science exhibits in the Jagger Museum and found the sweet spot on the rim where everyone gathers to watch the smoke and steam rise from the boiling lava in Halema’uma’u Crater.

Fiery red-hot lava in Halema’uma’u Crater, glows in the night like the fires of hell, Volcano National Park, Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii.But the story of Hilo’s least known drama, “Bloody Monday,” was still to come. After the first Christian missionaries converted the Hawaiians, they educated the few who didn’t die of measles, married them and raised families, amassed huge sugarcane plantations and imported Chinese and Japanese to work the fields. Then things went awry.

On August 1, 1938, a peaceful march led by dock and warehouse workers demanding fair wages turned violent. As tensions rose, 70 police wielding clubs, firehoses and guns attacked the demonstrators, wounding 50 people. 

Peace-loving Hawaiians everywhere were shocked. But with World War II looming, Bloody Monday was forgotten. Will a fiery drama save this piece of history? With the right writer (not me), it might. We’ll need Leonardo DiCaprio playing the handsome but greedy plantation owner, Gary Marrow as the stand-in, Gina Rodriquez (from “Jane the Virgin”) as the winsome Hawaiian girl and Rich Berner checking facts. And filmed in Hilo, of course.

THE NITTY GRITTY:

Installed in pairs, the ziplines at KapohoKine Adventures make this a couple’s sport, near Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii.For Kapohokine Adventures tours, prices and itineraries, see www.kapohokine.com. Or email info@kapohokine.com. Visit the office in Hilo at 224 Kamehameha Ave, #106 until August 2016, and when they move to the Hilton Hotel on Banyan Drive. Or call (808)964-1000. For more about Hilo and Hawaii, go to www.gohawaii.com/hilo.

For the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, see www.castleresorts.com/hilo.

©The Syndicator, Anne Z. Cooke

©SteveHaggerty/ColorWorld

The treasures of Campeche

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Eight-sided wall had a cannon-studded fort on each corner.In 1540, when Spanish conquistadores came charging into the little Maya port of Kin Pech on the Gulf of Mexico, they saw something that blew their minds. The local folks were making a gorgeous, red-orange dye from scrawny trees that grew all over the nearby forests.

That would be a big deal back in Spain, they knew – actually, all over Europe. Back then, only the rich could foot the hefty bills for purple capes, red waistcoats and other bright clothes dyed with the juices of rare bugs, exotic plants and the like. Commoners could only afford clothes dyed with cheap, drab materials. Like soot.

Soon, galleon loads of the Kin Pech trees began showing up in Spain, and news that a cheap source of colorful dye had been found blasted across the continent like a cannonball. The sooty set could now dress like the silky set.

All this from a little tree simply called logwood.

Back in Campeche, as the Spanish renamed the city, fortunes were made by everyone from the logwood forests' new owners to the slave brokers who imported laborers to harvest the trees. And the town showed it. Campeche's streets, it's said, “were lined with fabulous mansions and churches full of gold and silver and the finest Chinese porcelain.”

The only problem was, all this was a red flag to the pirate fleets prowling the Gulf waters from their hangout a few hundred miles down the coast at Ciudad del Carmen. Over the next century, they raided Campeche so often that it became one of the most frequently sacked spots in the New World.

The solution – although late in coming – was to build a huge, eight-sided wall around the city with a fortress on each corner bristling with cannons. When it was finished in 1704, the wall ran over a mile and a half long. It was six and a half feet thick and almost as high as a three-story building.

The pirates never came back.

Campeche thrived as the second richest city (after Veracruz) in eastern Mexico for another century and a half until the mid-1800s, when European inventors figured out a way to make artificial dyes.

Tourists explore the Mayan ruins at Edzna.

Colonial elegance

Edzna’s main temple was as high as a 13-story building.So what's the town like today? As you might expect, it's grown a lot – close to a quarter-million people live here – but the downtown area is much like it was hundreds of years ago. More than a thousand mansions, churches, government offices and other buildings have been restored to their colonial elegance along the city's cobbled lanes. What's more, a large section of the city -- ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- is still framed by the old wall and its gun-studded bastions.

Besides its historical attractions, Campeche offers some of the best bargains in the country. For example, rooms in the city's tourist-class hotels can often be found for less than $80 a night, some including breakfast. And you'll find stunningly low prices in the handicraft shops around town, especially for woven goods and ceramics.

Beyond that, Campeche is packed with great restaurants (featuring fresh seafood, also at low prices), it's safe to walk around in (even late at night) and it's close (roughly a half-hour drive) to the eye-popping Mayan ruins at Edzna out in the jungle.

Built around a main plaza, Edzna’s main temple soars 130 feet above the city, looking down on a ball court – where losing teams are said to have lost more than the game – along with the “Platform of the Knives” and other colorfully named temples and plazas.

When the wall was finished, the pirates never came back.Getting and staying there

Jet hops from Mexico City to the Campeche airport take a little over an hour and a half. From there, it's a short drive to the city. Campeche is about a two-hour drive from Merida, the Yucatan Peninsula’s largest city.

Visitors have a choice of about a dozen tourist-class hotels ranging from cozy inns to luxurious five-star properties. Also in Campeche’s lodging inventory are various old-time haciendas where modest colonial exteriors give way to posh interiors.

Hail Caesar, We Who Are About to Peddle Salute You

By Bob Schulman

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Here’s a novel chance to see what Julius Caesar and his legions saw on their march from England to Italy in the 1st century B.C. – except you’ll be taking in the sights on a bicycle. On the two-stage tour you’ll peddle for 33 days on bikeways stretching for a tad over 1,800 miles across Europe. If that’s not your cup of tea, or if just a half-ride of 17 days doesn’t get your adventure juices flowing, read no further.

Serious cyclists can opt for both parts of the tour June 3 to July 5, 2017, or for just Stage 1 (London to Lake Como, Italy, next June 3-19) or only Stage 2 (Lake Como-Rome, next June 19-July 5).

Julius Caesar (right) meets the Gaul leader Vercingetorix in France.

A product of Ride & Seek, an Australian-based adventure travel company, the trip – called “Caesar Expedition” (http://www.rideandseek.com/epic/caesar) – starts in London, goes on to the white cliffs of Dover, crosses the English Channel by boat and then winds through France’s Champagne region and into the gastronomic heartland of Burgundy. From there, guests ride alongside Lake Geneva in Switzerland and over to Italy.

“The culinary delights on this epic tour include delicious truite ardennaise, boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin to name just a few,” said Ride & Seek Co-Founder Sam Wood. “It’s fascinating that these regions now famous for fine wine and food were once the bloody battlefields of Caesar’s epic Gallic Wars.”

Cyclists will peddle around Italy’s Lake Como.

The first stage of the tour ends in Italy at Lake Como. From there, second-stagers peddle up towards the stunning limestone peaks of the Dolomites, and after that they bike downhill to Venice and along the Adriatic coast. After crossing the mythical Rubicon, which marked the boundary between Roman controlled Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, the cyclists head inland through Tuscany and then the more rugged regions of Abruzzo and Molise. From there, they head due east to Rome, the trip’s final destination.

Prices start at $14,276 for the full tour and at $7,405 USD for a 17-day stage.

One of the tour highlights will be a stop in Venice.

Ride & Seek Co-Founder Dylan Reynolds noted the journey starts at the farthest northern point Caesar reached as the first Roman invader of Britain and ends in the city he eventually ruled as dictator and was assassinated in 10 years later.

Photos courtesy of Ride & Seek.

Reggae chestnuts await travelers to Europe

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Most Americans never heard of them, but a band of young singers from the West Indies came up with one of the United Kingdom’s 10 best selling single records of all time. Named after an Australian detective series featuring a part-Aboriginal inspector named Napoleon Bonaparte, the group was living in Germany at the time, and they waxed two ageless reggae songs with all kinds of diverse influences that – oddly – fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

King Solomon snuggles up to the visiting Queen of Sheba in Jerusalem.

Try to imagine locking up these pieces of the puzzle: Sitting down by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, dancing to a traditional Jamaican children’s ditty, the destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchanezzar and the captivity of the Jewish intelligentsia in Babylon. Then top all this off with Bible-based lyrics that helped spark a global religion whose deity is a 20th century Ethiopian emperor believed to be the 225th descendant of King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba.

The band, a reggae/disco group improbably named Boney M., was tagged by its founder after an Australian TV series called Boney (from the sleuth’s nickname, but the origin of the M is kind of fuzzy). They hit the big time in the late 70s with a booty-swinging version of a song – By the Rivers of Babylon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3QxT-w3WMo)– with lyrics straight out of the biblical Book of Psalms. Besides topping the charts in the U.K., it scored No. 1 in Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands and other countries across Europe when it was released in 1978.

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What’s more, it’s still going strong along with several other Boney M. records.

Female members of the original Boney M. band were from the Caribbean islands of Montserrat and Jamaica, while the one male member of the group was an exotic dancer from Aruba.

The song, a reggae classic and an anthem of the Rastafarian religion, enjoyed a burst of popularity eight years earlier when it debuted by a Jamaican group called the Melodians. Adapted from psalms of the Jews’ exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C., the lyrics start this way: “By the Rivers of Babylon, where he sat down, and there he wept, when he remembered Zion.” In a popular version of the song, the words go on: “... the wicked carried us away (to) captivity, required from us a song. How can we sing King Alpha's (Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s) song in a strange land?”

After destroying Jerusalem in 586 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar exiled many Jewish leaders to Babylon.

Later versions of Rivers of Babylon were recorded by heavyweight American singers of the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Steve Earle and the Neville Brothers, among others. And the tune took on hipper vibes when it was cut by jazz flautist Herbie Mann.

The “B” or flip side of the record – Brown Girl in the Ring (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiX2PbrBXCQ) – took off when the popularity of the “A” or “Rivers” side started to slip. Adapted from a traditional West Indian (probably Jamaican) kids’ game, Boney M.’s reggae version starts off: “There’s a brown girl in the ring, tra la la la la... it looks like a sugar in a plum.” The lyrics continue: “Show me your motion, tra la la la la...”

Youngsters in Mexico get ready to play the Brown Girl game.

Global travelers will see children playing the game in different ways, often by first forming a circle and holding hands while they sing the song. One youngster goes to the center of the ring and skips around to the beat. When the lyrics get to the line “show me your motion” the tot shows off her “moves,” then chooses a partner or someone else to become the next girl in the ring, and the game starts all over again.

PAPA HEMINGWAY &  CUBA TODAY

By Lisa TE Sonne

Paying homage to Hemingway in Havana, Cuba is easier these days.  Since last April, U.S. citizens can enjoy a cruise from Miami to the once-forbidden island for the first time in decades.  Fathom Cruises’ Adonia takes up to 600 passengers through waters not far from the setting of The Old Man And The Sea, the novel that won Ernest Hemingway a Pulitzer and contributed to his getting the Nobel prize in Literature.

Toast Hemingway in the Cuban bar where he drank Mojitas © Lisa TE Sonne

With Caribbean breezes blowing, visitors can ride in one of the iconic 1950’s convertibles through the streets in Old Havana the routes traveled by Hemingway. They can quaff down “his” drinks in the bars he loved, and even visit where he wrote.

Cheers to Literary Champ

Room 511 can take you back to the creative times of when Hemingway wrote there. (c) Lisa TE SonneOnce in the capital of Cuba, you can toast Hemingway in the Bodeguita de Medico, where he reportedly imbibed mojitos often. Today, the glasses are lined up on the bar, with the bartender crushing mints and pouring rum for the packed room. People crowd around the live musicians, and photos of Hemingway and Castro together hang above the festivities.

Upstairs is a restaurant that serves savory Cuban food. Almost every wall surface of the three-story building is covered with scribbles of visitors, known and unknown.  You can add your nombre to the signatures of Papa Hemingway, Nat King Cole, and Errol Flynn, as well as the literary luminaries Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

You can then bar-hop to hang out with a life-size bronze statue of Hemingway leaning on the long, curved bar at La Floridita, “the cradle of the daiquiri.”  There, Papa is sometimes credited with creating his own double-version of the drink, and they are still being served by consummate cantineros (bartenders).

La Floridita was first opened in the early 19th century and served up other adventurous writers in the 20th century including Graham Greene, John Dos Passos, and Ezra Pound. These days, a giant glass and straw are placed next to live music to draw you into this tourist favorite, where men in red jackets and red ties keep the drinks flowing.

The Words

For the aficionado who craves more than just the spirits Hemingway drank, the Ambos Mundos Hotel offers a fuller sense of the “spirit of the writer.” This is where Hemingway slept and wrote for vivid periods in the 1930s.  According to hotel history, it was in there that Hemingway started For Whom The Bell Tolls, his work about the Spanish Civil War, which he experienced first-hand.

A great array of Hemingway photos hangs on two walls in the lobby of the still-active hotel, but heading up the spiral staircase to Room 511 is worth the climb if you want to see where the word-master created his masterpieces. The room is now a simple museum featuring Hemingway artifacts – from his fishing poles to his desk of adjustable height, which he used because he sometimes liked to stand as he wrote.

In 1940, Hemingway bought a home in the countryside about 10 miles from Havana and named it Finca Vigia (translation: Look-out Farm). He lived there on and off until mid-1960.

Now that the U.S.-Cuban travel embargo has been lifted, U.S. travelers can take a vintage car from Havana out to the writing farm, which some say Cubans treat as a shrine.  Tourists aren’t allowed inside, but can peek through the windows to see the thousands of books Hemingway left, as well as his hunting trophies, records and the furniture – all close to the way he left it.  His deep-sea fishing boat, The Pilar, is also still there.

See Havana from a vintage American car that was probably around there when he was.  © Lisa TE Sonne

The Time is Now

Fathom has been offering 7-night cruises  (https://www.fathom.org/cruise-to-cuba/) from U.S. shores to three historic ports in Cuba since last spring, and a free night in Havana provides opportunity to enjoy the bars Hemingway frequented. A trip to Finca Vigia requires the traveler to make his/her own arrangements vs. taking one of the ship’s shore excursions. For those planning further ahead, several U.S. airlines are taking bookings now to fly directly to Cuba from U.S. airports for those routes opening up.

The tropical weather and Caribbean scenery, combined with the Cuban music, food, history, and people, provides a lot to write home about.

In the words of Hemingway, "Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is."

Lisa TE Sonne was on the 5th cruise allowed to go from the U.S. to Cuba. For more on her books and travels, visit www.LisaSonne.com

KUDOS TO RICH GRANT

BASALT BLISS

Story by Anne Z. Cooke, photography by Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld

The mountain tour begins, dwarfed by a steep under-the-lift bumps run, at Taos Ski Resort, New Mexico.Winter was still in charge when we spotted them, raggedy brown patches staining the snow at Snowmass Ski Resort, in central Colorado’s Pitkin County. In any other year we might have been greeted by mounds of powder on the Cirque, with a generous swath under Sheer Bliss, our favorite chairlift. The basics, indeed, for a last-of-the-season caper. 

“All we need is a couple of days skiing the summit,” moaned Dillon, the teenager, who’d skipped a school day to make the trip. “Is that too much to ask?”

Spoiled by annual trips to Park City Mountain Resort, in Utah, where a decade of February snowfalls have been as predictable as a ham sandwich, he stumped away toward Fanny Hill to “inspect the snow melt.” 

But as the sun glared down, the growing puddles of water and dripping icicles confirmed the worst: Spring had invaded overnight. 

Then shortly before midnight I heard muffled whooping outside and opened the door to find the skiers from the adjacent condo celebrating the unexpected: an icy wind whirling a cloud of snowflakes over the mountain.

And what a difference a day makes. By 6 a.m. we were up and dressed and by 6:30 I was online, blogging the news on the Huffington Post, to wit:  

“The blizzard that began late Tuesday night, on March 23rd, was sheer bliss for skiers at Snowmass and Aspen ski resorts who awoke to the best of all possible worlds: feathery-soft powder snow blanketing mountain peaks, valley trails, forest glades and ski lifts.

The storm, which blew in just before midnight, was still swirling over Snowmass Village at dawn on the 24th, laying down four to five inches of new snow on the base area runs before noon, and more - as yet unmeasured by early afternoon - on the two resorts' upper slopes.

Sheer bliss is a day outdoors, with snowy peaks and valley views, here at Snowmass Village, Snowmass Resort, Colorado.“It's paradise," exulted Glenn, a resident from Denver, who said he'd spent the earlier part of the week skiing on hard-packed trails, groomed at night…but mushy by late afternoon. Joining another group of other early risers who'd seen the snow and jumped into their gear, he snapped on his skis and followed them down to the lifts, hoping to “ski first tracks off the top.”

The storm was the latest of several small snowfalls, adding a total of nine inches to a previous 66-inch base. The last big storm here in the Roaring Fork Valley fell a month ago, in late February, dumping a season-saving 43 inches.

Today’s snowfall promises to be a winner for once-a-year skiers—families with kids—who come during the annual spring break holiday and for whom good snow can make or break a vacation.”

So much for blogging. If you lived in Connecticut or Florida, you could read it and weep. I, however, was lucky enough to catch a brief reprieve in a succession of fickle years at some of my favorite ski mountains. 

Bad was when mild breezes turned the snow at Santa Fe Ski Resort to slush; weird was when a succession of storms at Breckinridge, near Dillon, dropped 100 or more inches; and frustration was the result when scarce snow in some of California’s Sierra Nevada resorts mountains, including Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe and Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows (now merged) on the north shore, spoiled the skiing altogether.  

By early March of this year (2016), the winter season seemed to be over. Until late March, when a series of blizzards dumped record-setting snowfalls up and down the west coast, at 12 resorts in California, seven in Washington and five in Oregon. And in Colorado? Only Winter Park and Steamboat got the love.   

For now, weather extremes are the new norm. But they don’t have to torpedo your ski vacations. Instead of booking lodging and lift tickets months in advance, and hoping you’ve guessed right, you can find everything you want, updated daily, weekly and monthly, on ski resort and snow report websites.

Fiery sunsets look better when seen from the Snowmass gondola, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.Once resort managers realized they could engage skiers in the moment and on the  internet, pricing and advertising changed overnight. No longer are lift ticket prices, multi-resort lift passes and pre-season promotions set in stone. Once posted, they’re easy to change or to modify as needed, or to include in discounts and ski-and-stay packages.

If skier numbers are down, resort managers can offer new promotions or discounts and add kids-ski-free programs. If skier numbers are trending up, the resorts can stay ahead of the rush by hiring additional staff, booking more ski-related events and planning a longer season.    

Skiers, too have benefitted. Resort websites post far more detail than we used to get. Skip around and you’ll find trail maps, daily snow levels, numbers of lifts and runs, peak elevations, incredible videos of high-risk skiers flying off the summit, and actual views of the slopes via web-cams. You can shop around, compare one resort with another or look for the best combination of prices, lodging options and airfares. 

Curiously, what few anticipated was that instant internet access would inspire some  bigger ski resorts to expand their mission to offer a bounty of non-ski entertainment: Valentine’s Day weekends and beer festivals led to rock concerts, hot-air ballooning, professional and amateur downhill races, first-class dining at better restaurants, and a virtual cornucopia of other winter sports. In a word, a theme park.      

Black dots – thrill-seekers – add perspective to the country’s steepest, longest tubing hill, Keystone Resort, near Dillon, Colorado.“Oh, no, I don’t ski,” said fellow journalist Barbara Beckley when I asked about her winter trip to Breckinridge, in Summit County, Colorado. “I went to see what it was all about, and I wound up having a wonderful trip. I snowshoed through the most beautiful snowy woods, and I had a lovely spa treatment, and I tried dog mushing and Nordic skiing. I went ice skates – they rent skates, of course, and tubing, and really, it was the best getaway.”   

Keystone, in particular, has embraced the theme park concept, offering or arranging most of the above, plus snow machine tours, trout fishing, horseback riding and parasailing. Many of these don’t depend on good snow, or even on any snow, an asset for a big family reunion.  

As for snow forecasts, some resort websites provide limited details, mostly offering past snowfalls as a guide to the future. For current, informed snow forecasts, it’s best to go elsewhere. 

“Take a look at www.opensnow.com,” suggested former Olympic snowboarder Erica Mueller, at Crested Butte ski resort, 26 miles north of Gunnison, in Colorado. “Joel Gratz, a meteorologist and a skier created it a couple of years ago. That’s where we go to look ahead. I think most resorts use it.”

Snowboarders get big air off monster jumps at Park City Resort, Park City, Utah.According to Gratz, a Boulder resident, his search for the best powder snow began as a hobby, then evolved into a website, and eventually took off. “After testing it for a year, we went online in November 2011; so far it’s a success,” he says.

Gratz’s team of four full-time and three part-time meteorologists crunch all kinds of publicly-available data, including some from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), in Boulder. But they create their own graphics, maps and reports.

“What separates us from other sites is that we know what powder skiers like,” he says. “We don’t report on regional storms, but instead focus on which resorts are likely to get the next powder storm.”

Opensnow is available for anyone to use (and I do) but it reserves some detailed reports for members who sign up and pay a modest fee. See it at www.opensnow.com. I also like On the  Snow, a general information website, one which provides not just data like historic snow reports but a range of ski topics. See it at www.onthesnow.com.

When a day makes a difference, it’s usually by chance. But give yourself a month, and you’ll be in charge.  

 

THE NITTY GRITTY: Find some of my favorite ski resorts at websites as follows:

Snowmass Ski Resort at www.snowmass.com, or at www.aspensnowmass.com.

Park City Mountain Resort at www.parkcitymountain.com.

Keystone Resort at www.keystoneresort.com.

Breckinridge Ski Resort at www.breckinridge.com.

Heavenly Resort at www.skiheavenly.com and at www.skilaketahoe.com.

Squaw Valley & Alpine Meadows at www.squawalpine.com.  

For quality snow forecasts and reports, go to www.opensnow.com and www.onthesnow.com.

© The Syndicator/Anne Z. Cooke

Bohemia makes a comeback in Prague

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Prague's main square is a jump back in time to medieval Europe.Have you ever wondered where Bohemia is? Was there really a whole country full of people living laid-back, anything-goes lifestyles? It was the model for spots like New York's Greenwich Village and Paris' Left Bank, wasn't it?

It's true... there really was a Bohemia. Up to the end of World War I, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in central Europe. In 1918, Bohemia morphed into the western part of the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia (which in 1993 was split into The Czech Republic and Slovakia).

But there's no record of lots of non-conformists living there. The term “Bohemian lifestyle” rubbed off on art colonies and hippie enclaves around Europe from the tag given to rootless bands of Gypsies who supposedly came from Bohemia.

This brings us to Prague, the capital of the old Bohemia and also of the modern-day Czech Republic (www.czechtourism.com).  Ironically, what was the epicenter of old-time Bohemia – known more for its straight-laced kings than for zonked-out hippies – today is one of the hippest places in Europe. Some even call its lifestyle, “Bohemian.” Or more accurately, “Bohemian chic.”

Lining centuries-old cobbled lanes in the shadow of a 265-foot-high Gothic church, shops with names like Prada, Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Cartier are packed with customers from around the world. Along other lanes, store windows sparkle with the glow of polished brown amber necklaces, bracelets and pendants from countries edging the Black Sea.

The city's big draw for well-heeled visitors and backpackers alike is its old-world charm, from its medieval palaces to its ancient churches, gates, courtyards and bridges. Some have soaring towers that light up at night like a scene out of a Harry Potter fantasy.

Mix that ambiance with relatively modest (but not cheap) hotel and dining prices, stir in squeaky clean, virtually beggar-free streets, and add a dash of top-name operas and rock concerts, and it's no wonder Prague rates as one of Europe's most-visited cities.

Harry Potter-esque towers turn the city into a fantasy land.Prague's historic attractions are clustered mainly in a part of the city called Old Town where buildings date back as far as the 13th century. How did they survive World War II? Because Prague – with little industrial or military value – was one of the few large European cities spared from bombing raids.

Next to Old Town in this city of over a million residents is New Town, which it was when Bohemian king Charles IV founded it in 1348 – shortly after he picked up the additional job of king of the Holy Roman Empire. Remnants of Charles' latter post can be seen in churches all over New Town, now mixed with newer buildings (circa 1818) such as the National Museum and the National Theater.

After stops at Old Town and New Town, tours of the area cross the Vltava River on the London Bridge-like Charles Bridge.

Entrance to Prague Castle.The showstopper on the other side of the bridge is the enormous Prague Castle, said to be the largest inhabited castle in the world. Its sprawling walls housed the thrones and courts of Bohemian kings, Holy Roman emperors and other miscellaneous monarchs, and more recently the governing seats of Czech presidents.

Displayed in the castle's cathedral are the bones of one hand of St. Vitus, who was martyred in 303 during the Roman persecution of Christians.

WOLF WALK

By Yvette Cardozo

Okay, in the pictures, it looks like I’m being licked by a dog. But trust me, that’s NO dog.

It’s a 100 percent grey wolf. In the woods. Walking with my friends and me.

It was part of our morning at Northern Lights Wolf Centre just outside Golden, BC, Canada, only the first of our great winter adventures in the area.

Shelley Black and her husband Casey have been raising wolves for 18 years. Their aim is not only rescuing abandoned wolf cubs but educating the public.

“There’s so many misconceptions about wolves,” Casey told us.

For one, they really don’t lurk around woods just waiting to eat people. They’d rather avoid people, for the most part. But thanks to a lot of fiction where hapless folk are forever being devoured or myths that are really morality tales warning women of attacks by men (Little Red Riding Hood, for one), there is an ingrained public fear of wolves.

There are many wolf rescue/education centers around North America but only a handful that let you actually walk with the wolves and interact with them.

And so, we gathered one late winter morning at Northern Lights Wildlife Wolf Centre to learn, prepare, and walk.

Scrappy Dave and Flora, our wolves that day, had come from a zoo that had too many wolves. They were brought to the center in Golden when only a few days old. So, like all the wolves here, they are totally used to people.

“They lived in the house with us for the first several months,” said Shelley. “We treated them like human babies, fed them.”

Let them sleep in their bed, actually.

But they also took the cubs out three or four times a day. This way, they bonded not only with people but the other half dozen wolves as well.

When not out in the woods on wolf walks, the wolves live in acre enclosures, two each to an enclosure.

But these ARE wild animals. For that reason, Shelley and Casey explained, the walk is totally on the wolf’s terms.

“We don’t approach them but if they come up to you, you can touch them.” (um, more about that later).

The rest:

            * If you don’t want the wolf to come to you (or jump up on you), hold your hands together and down in front of you, push him down and say “Stop!”

            * Don’t spin away because they see that as a game.

            * Don’t kneel down. Kneeling is a sign of aggressive behavior in the Canidae family.

            * Keep your hat on and if you take your gloves off don’t think you can just hold them. Scrappy Dave will grab them. And they’re gone, lost in the woods. Forever. Best to just keep them on.

More interesting info ... in the wild, wolves only live three to six years. Their main territories are about 40 sq. miles though they can range over more than 1,000 sq. miles. Their numbers in British Columbia woods have dropped by 30 percent, mostly because of hunting and loss of habitat.

Oh yes, and wolves don’t need to run; they aren’t sled dogs. They’re actually quite lazy, which in the wild is a survival tactic to conserve energy.

With all this in mind, we headed for the woods, Crown (federal) land, actually.

Scrappy Dave, Casey told us, is “the whimsical wolf.”

“He’ll chase butterflies before he’ll get aggressive.”

Flora is the leader, the alpha.

And, well, she seems to have a thing for blue coats.

We headed down a logging road and were hardly a few hundred yards along when suddenly, Flora, all 60 pounds of her, trotted up to me and raised up on her hind legs. She was almost as tall as me as she leaned in, put her huge, muddy paws on my shoulders and sniffed my face.

She was saying hello in wolf talk.

Then she went over to Leigh, another woman on the walk, also wearing a blue coat, and did the same ... only this time from the back. Leigh had three perfect paw prints across her jacket and we have the pictures to prove it.

We walked farther, maybe half a mile, while Scrappy and Flora darted in and out of the woods, stopping to occasionally roll in the snow, dig for this or that and just play.

Then we all headed into the trees to a picturesque stream where the wolves splashed, drank and otherwise had a great time.

At this point, it was time for our “wolf moment,” which involved standing next to a tree stump while Scrappy came up from behind and did his best to lick us into oblivion. All I can say is, who knew wolf tongues were soooo soft and warm.

One could point out that this whole adventure was staged and quite artificial. But the purpose, Casey and Shelley said, is to let people know about programs that actively kill wolves (there are programs in Canada to shoot wolves from aircraft), to explain their place in the environment (they keep other animals, such as elk, from overpopulating an area) and, especially, to let people know wolves don’t have to be universally feared.

Later in my trip, for something absolutely opposite to a wolf walk, there was our day on snowmobiles with Mountain Motor Sports.

Okay, this can be a testosterone-fueled sport with folks zooming up hills at adrenaline  producing angles, plowing through powder snow, riding on one ski, jumping off hilltops. You get the idea.

But you can also just go out and enjoy the views. Which is exactly what we wanted.

There are many, many places to ride “sleds.” But what makes this area beloved by the snowmobile community is that while Golden is ringed by six national parks, it isn’t in federal land. That means it’s open for snowmobiling. You can’t take motorized vehicles into any of the parks, even by accident (one hapless chap was fined $3000 when he got lost and wandered into a park). ,

Plus, this area gets dry powder snow, some of the best conditions in the world.

Nearly 15,000 people a year pay a fee (used to groom trails) to go through gates to the three snowmobile districts. And not everyone is out to thrash machines through powder. Many folks use the snowmobiles to reach far off areas so they can ski.

As for us, we set off for Quartz Creek, the most popular area, with the goal of reaching a cabin and views of alpine terrain.

We rode some 10 miles in, past soft, round hills covered with snow and sharper peaks cut with snow-filled finger ravines that left white streaks down the mountains. We could see into valleys and soon relaxed as the trees and peaks flowed by.

The cabin was a sturdy affair with a huge wood stove, tables and benches for lunch. Outside, the trees gave way to stark, snowy mountains where our guide, Travis Johnson, zoomed off to show us what jumping a sled off a hill looks like. Hint ... it involves a lot of flying snow.

DETAILS

Northern Lights Wildlife Wolf Centre is a 15 minute drive from Golden, BC. The programs are open year round. There’s a talk led by a guide where people walk around the edge of a fenced wolf enclosure. It is open to all ages.

The wolf walk age limit is 16 and above, lasts most of a morning or afternoon and costs $335 for two people. The interpretive talk at the center is $12 for adults, $35 for family of four - http://www.northernlightswildlife.com/

Guided snowmobile trips and rentals are through Mountain Motorsports and Golden Snowmobile Rentals, which is in the same shop - http://www.mountainmotorsports.ca/,  http://www.snowpeakrentals.com/

Nordic Skiing - 35 km of groomed trails and rental gear available - http://www.goldennordicclub.ca/, and http://www.goldennordicclub.ca/dawn-mountain-rentals

Downhill skiing is also available in winter at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort with 2,800 skiable acres and a 4,133 foot vertical drop, making it one of the longest verticals in Canada. Season typically runs mid December to mid April - http://kickinghorseresort.com/

You can also visit the Kicking Horse resort grizzly bear refuge research project. Boo the bear lives in a fenced enclosure on the ski hill. Tours run in summer where you can see Boo and learn about the research which is trying to determine how much bear behavior is instinct vs learned since Boo was rescued as a newborn cub. For instance, he learned about what is and isn’t good to eat by trial and error but has instinctively dug dens to hibernate in winter.

Yvette’s Grand Golden Adventure Photo Diary - https://goo.gl/photos/JKyx4tunYDXWMyvY9

KEY TO THE FLORIDA EXPERIENCE

Story and Photos By Yvette Cardozo

Water, water everywhere....

Which is to be expected along an island chain that stretches for 125 miles.

Welcome to the Florida Keys, or as one local put it, the only Caribbean islands you can drive to.

Scuba diving, SUP yoga, luscious seafood, fishing, jet packing. Yes, also lying around on the sand, and visiting museums. And did I mention the seafood? Yes, I did.

If you are going to visit the Keys, it makes sense to start at the bottom, a mere 90 miles from Cuba, and work your way north, eventually flying home from Miami.

Key West...it’s a circus of the good kind.

There’s the joyful sundown craziness with music, jugglers, tightrope walkers, a drummer I think is deaf (really, not a comment on his talent), fresh coconuts filled with nature’s answer to Gatorade, other tasties, sometimes a mermaid charmingly playing her guitar. And of course, the line of cell phone, tablet-sporting folk, arms raised, recording the orange ball of sun slowly, colorfully, slipping below the horizon.

Beyond that, there’s so very much to do in Key West, you truly need several days. The best way to cover as much as possible is to hop the Old Town Trolley. It makes 13 stops and you can get on and off at its regular pick up points.

What to see? There’s a map that lists 23 tours, museums, theaters. And it doesn’t begin to cover it all.

* Hemingway House - It’s not even on that map, yet it’s probably what visitors head for first. It’s a fascinating, thorough trip through Hemingway’s life in Key West, a chance to see his typewriter, the 53 descendants of his six toed cats, hear about a few of the scandals. The swimming pool cost $20,000 in 1938 dollars, a fortune. And, so the story goes, Hemingway flung down a penny on the half-built flagstone pool patio, bellowing at his wife, “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!” Whether the story is true or not, there is a penny embedded in cement at the north end of the pool to memorialize the alleged outburst.

* Mel Fisher Maritime Museum - actual Spanish galleon gold treasures found by treasure hunter Mel Fisher, details of the hunt, the discoveries, the slave trade and piracy. See REAL gold finds.

* Kayaking at night with Ibis Bay Paddle Sports. Leaving from behind The Stoned Crab cafe (affordable stone crab ... yum), you paddle out to a salt pond in these seriously neat kayaks whose entire bottoms are see-through plastic. Light sticks show the shallow underwater world. We saw stingrays, conch shells, sea stars, a couple of Florida lobsters and, yes, a baby shark! Our wonderfully enthusiastic guide, Riane, netted urchins, sea cucumbers and more for us to see up close.

* Listen to an explanation of coral reef restoration by Dr. Dave Vaughan of Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park beach. They have discovered that if you clip coral into little pieces and cement them to existing coral underwater, they start to grow back in two weeks rather than the two years it takes if they grow naturally.

“We have lost some 40 percent of the world’s corals so we can’t wait 300 years for them to grow back. We have to help it along by replanting,” Dr. Dave said.

You can snorkel out (gear is available for rent) and watch them drill and cement. And nearby is a natural reef in five feet of water TEEMING with tropical fish ... thousands of tiny silversides swam in undulating curtains that folded upon me as I finned into them. And there were larger fish ... snook, tarpon, chubs, snapper, parrotfish. All within a hundred yards of shore.

FOOD

Yes wonderful yummies. But perhaps my fav in Key West was the century old Blue Heaven in the historic Bahama Village neighborhood, with tables outdoors among huge banyan trees and old Key West bungalows. We had breakfast...Keys shrimp on grits, lobster BLT, lobster Benedict and, yes, at 8am, a slice of authentic Key lime pie. The place has a rocking night scene with bands and a full bar. Through the decades its hosted cock fighting, gambling and boxing matches refereed by Hemingway.

But enough of the end of the US island chain.

We motored up to Mile Marker 37 (that’s 37 miles up from Key West’s Mile Zero) to Bahia Honda State Park where we tried yoga on stand up paddle boards (SUP) with Sarah L. Sullivan of Serenity Eco Therapy. Yes, this was seriously cool. No, I don’t have the balance of a leaf in the wind. But everyone else managed to get to their feet.

Another point to remember...the Keys really don’t have many decent beaches because of the topography (hard coral rock). Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key is not only good, it’s ranked among the top ten beaches in the U.S.

Next up, the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. They even have an ambulance. They pick up injured turtles, nurse them back to health and release them back into the ocean if possible. The visit includes a slide show explaining the turtles ... among them, loggerheads that can chomp through a conch shell and leatherbacks that can be six feet long, weigh 2,000 pounds and eat 85 percent of their body weight in jellyfish a day.

You get to see the operating room and tanks with injured turtles, many of whom have weights glued to their shells because they developed air bubbles from injuries and can’t dive unaided for food. A tip: this was mid-summer and there were at least 40 people on our tour. Make reservations in advance!

One advantage of visiting the Keys in summer is the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, now in its third decade. While at least 100 boats floated above us, those of us who had scuba certification got to dive among the reefs of Looe Key and watch the underwater mermaids pretend to play underwater instruments. All while a water themed playlist pumped songs from The Little Mermaid, the Beatles (Yellow Submarine), the Gilligan’s Island theme and much more into the ocean. It was like swimming through a fog of sound and meanwhile, the show was being picked up via radio broadcast in China, among other unlikely places.

“Everybody knows the upper keys but we were somewhat forgotten. It was a way to publicize the Lower Keys,” explained festival organizer Bill Becker who started this whole thing in 1985.

Okay, now we get to Robbie’s on Islamorada, a fun fest of the typical Keys kind.

Robbie’s is a little tourist village with the expected trinket and T-shirt stands, an outdoor cafe by the water and a sideshow of local wildlife. There are pelicans sitting picturesquely on dock poles, foot-long tarpon swarming in nearby shallow water and ducks that are simply begging to be photographed.

Best of all is Catch Your Cook at the Hungry Tarpon Restaurant. You go out on a four hour fishing tour that is squarely aimed at visitors who are not necessarily diehard fishermen but want a show. You stand at the rail with a light test line and two hooks holding fresh bait. The idea is to troll across the bottom, waiting for the line to bob, then reel it up fast, hoping there’s a delicious snapper at the other end.

Back at the dock, a clever marking system on each fish keeps everyone’s catch identified. A couple of crewmen then toss snapper, grunts and whatnot into each person’s bucket.

Then it’s time to filet the fish (better them than you) and you take a bag of filets to the cafe where it’s cooked and served with fries and slaw. Our snapper was absolutely mouth watering ... tender, flaky, moist, flavorful. OMG. To be honest, no other fish, even in top end restaurants during our trip, approached the quality of what we ate sitting around a picnic table that day.

But one place came close ... Chef Michael’s in Islamorada. There, I had unquestionably the best lobster of the trip. It was prepared as tempura, with a crispy batter and meat inside so tender, it virtually melted on my tongue. There was also the fish ceviche served in a coconut that, itself, was the milky way fresh coconut should taste but so rarely does. The ceviche was crammed with shrimp, lobster, lime and orange juice, coconut milk, onion, cilantro plus jalapenos to give it a kick.

Then came the hogfish, an uuuugly creature if there ever was one, sitting on a plate with its dorsal fin erect and an upper jaw of toothpick teeth hanging in the air. I think there was actual fish flesh in there somewhere but I couldn’t get past the teeth, which made for a great photo opportunity. Those who ate it, loved it.

Also in Islamorada was Tiki Jet. This is a James Bond jetpack straight from Thunderball, but powered with water instead of a gas engine. It comes in two flavors, a vest-like contraption with a thick hose tail through which water streams or boots that look like a steroidal version of something you would ski in.          

The vest is easier for a beginner to master. Either way, you wind up flying as much as 30 feet off the water, depending on how agile (and brave) you are. The $199 price tag gets you 45 minutes in the air and a private lesson with Justin Parrish, who modernized the gear. It is a total, if somewhat water-up-the-nose, adrenaline rush.

Finally, there was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and a glass bottom boat ride. It is a good way for someone who doesn’t dive to see the reef. The guides are a treasure trove of information. And we wound up our trip at Sundowners, a cafe on Key Largo. Great views, great fishy appetizers. Do NOT miss the mango coconut mojito.                                  

The best time to visit the Florida Keys is late fall through late spring, when the air is cooler and drier. There is still plenty to do in summer, though, especially the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival in July with music piped in underwater. There no longer seems to be an off season.

A word about mosquitoes. Fresh tropical breezes and a vigorous anti mosquito program kept most mosquitoes at bay during my trip. The Florida Department of Health website updates daily and when I visited in mid-July, they had not ever had a case of Zika in Monroe County, which includes the southern edge of mainland Florida and the Keys.

Among the interesting places to stay are those of Historic Key West Inns. These are boutique hotels created from original local homes. They are cozy, with just a few dozen rooms, modernized and located in Key West’s Old Town near restaurants and Duval Street.

            The Florida Keys - http://www.fla-keys.com/

            Historic Key West Inns - http://www.historickeywestinns.com/

            The Stoned Crab - http://www.stonedcrabkeywest.com/#the-stoned-crab

            Ibis Bay Paddle Sports - http://www.keywestpaddle.com/

            Blue Heaven - http://www.blueheavenkw.com/   

            Hemingway House - http://www.hemingwayhome.com/ 

            Coral restoration with Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory -  https://mote.org/locations/details/tropical-research-laboratory      

            Serenity Eco Therapy - http://www.serenityecoguides.com/

            Turtle Hospital -  http://www.turtlehospital.org/

            Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival -  http://www.lowerkeyschamber.com/festival.php

            Robbie’s Marina (Hook & Cook) - http://www.robbies.com/

            Hungry Tarpon Restaurant - http://www.hungrytarpon.com/ 

 

PHOTO DIARY - https://goo.gl/photos/74ioTu1WWkVk5Pt27

Ten Ways to Explore New France in Old Quebec

Story and photos by Rich Grant

Old Quebec is the most European-looking town in America, a twisting maze of cobblestone streets lined with colorful umbrellas and outdoor cafes, century-old stone buildings with bright red roofs and overflowing flower boxes, cute little shops selling local cheeses and maple syrup, and everywhere, cannons.  There are 4.6 kilometers of preserved cannon-studded stone walls circling the old town, which can only be breached by entering through four medieval-looking gates.  Once inside, you are in an UNESCO World Heritage Site fairy tale, an 18th Century European village with the fantastic castle-like Chateau Frontenauc – the most photographed hotel in the world – hovering over the town center.

In Old Quebec, every conversation begins with “Bonjour!”  Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop up the street, waiters carrying huge platters of beer and food shuffle from table to table and everywhere there is color, from parks filled with flower beds to historic flags flapping in the breeze to gaily painted wood shutters and doors.  It is a far different place than the nearly abandoned and bombed out ruin of a smoldering town that the British marched into on September 13, 1759.   And yet, much of Quebec is still the same, because in Old Quebec, you are never more than a step or two from its 400-year-old history.

The battle lasted only 15 minutes, but you can spend days exploring the stories around it and discovering the crazy cultural mix that transformed New France into Old Quebec.  Here are 10 places to start.

The Plains of Abraham

Frenchman Jacques Cartier started it all by sailing up the Saint Lawrence River in 1534 and claiming all he saw (basically all of eastern Canada)  to be New France.  No one seemed impressed.  It was 74 years before anyone came again.  This time, in 1608, Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Saint Lawrence and for defensive purposes, at the river’s narrowest spot, protected by a sheer cliff, he founded Quebec City.  For 150 years, the town, surrounded by stone walls, prospered and did well with fur and lumber trade.

But then Quebec got caught up in the first real world war, a global conflict between France and England that extended to America, where it was called the French & Indian War.  In 1759 a British fleet arrived at Quebec and lobbed 36,000 heavy cannonballs and 6,000 bombs into the town, destroying much of it and setting the rest on fire.

But still the French held out.  In a last ditch desperate attempt, British General James Wolfe led 4,500 crack troops on a daring night raid, climbing the “unclimbable” cliffs protecting Quebec to gain the open fields outside the city walls.  French General Marquis de Montcalm felt he must push the British back into the river, and in a military move still debated, he led 4,500 poorly trained French militia and regulars outside the walls to attack.   The British redcoats were arrayed in two lines – the first “thin red line” of history.  They held their fire until the French were 40 yards away, then delivered two devastating blasts of musketry.  The first French line of troops disintegrated into dead and wounded.  The rest were routed, the British took the city and that’s why Queen Elizabeth is currently on the $20 Canadian bill.

Today, the battlefield is a far cry from blood and smoke and serves as the lungs of Quebec – a huge, beautiful park filled with bike trails, picnic spots, and, of course, cannons.  The Plains of Abraham Museum offers “Battles 1759-1760,” a multimedia exhibition where cannon balls appear to come flying at you off the screen and chilling first person accounts tell the story of the tragedy inflicted on soldiers and civilians. 

It’s somewhat ironical that the bloodiest battlefield of Quebec is now where the city relaxes with concerts and recreation, but the fighting is not quite over.   Plans to re-enact the famous conflict on its 250th anniversary in 2009 were cancelled when people still upset over the outcome threatened to disrupt it.

Fort Museum    http://www.museedufort.com/en/

The best of 1960s and 21st Century technologies combine to tell the story of Quebec’s battles at this museum, where a gigantic 60-year-old diorama filled with hundreds of toy soldiers has been updated with modern computer graphics and sound effects.  Little ships move, bombs explode and there’s enough battle noise to please anyone in this retelling of the 1759 battle, and the later attack on Quebec in 1775 by the Americans, led by (of all people) the famous American traitor, Benedict Arnold.  It’s old school tourism, but it holds your attention, and provides a graphic backstory of why there are so many cannons around town.

The City Walls & Artillery Park   

http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/qc/fortifications/index.aspx

No trip to Quebec is complete without walking the walls, and the best way is with a National Park walking tour.  For some reason, all the guides of military sites seem to be young millennial aged girls with limited interest in the fighting, but charming accents and attitudes.  No worries, there was never any fighting on the walls anyway.  Our guide began by asking, “How many of you are Americans?”  Half the group tentatively raised our hands.  “Well, these walls were built to keep you out.  And until today, they worked.”  The joke is not lost on contemporary Americans who realize that in the 19th century, we were the enemy and Canadians were forced to go to great lengths building walls to keep Americans out.

The 4 kilometers of walls are indeed an incredible feat, comparable to any of the walled cities in Europe. And the tour by the French Canadian guides is delightful and filled with fun.  You’ll forget the dates of construction, but will always remember a sweet French accent saying, “So as you can see, the walls were built on the side of the city of which the cliff was not.”

The Citadelle de Quebec  http://www.lacitadelle.qc.ca/en/

Fed up with threats from America, in the 19th Century the now British Canadians finally finished the Citadelle, an impregnable “fort within a fort” -- the “Gibraltar of America” -- a place that was so powerful, it was never attacked.  Today, the star-shaped Vauban fortifications offer a look at 300 years of military architecture.  The highlight of the visit here in summer is the daily changing of the guard.  This is an active fort and the Royal 22nd Regiment is still stationed here.  The colorful, if a tad long, changing of the guard ceremony involves dozens of troops marching while a regimental band plays and officers yell orders.  Look for troops who seem to be shorter than the others.  They are women.  Some 10 percent of the regiment are women, and women participate in the changing of the guard, even as officers.

This is the only French regiment in Canada and all orders to it must be given in French.  Even Queen Elizabeth must give orders in French.  The Queen gave the regiment a Persian goat in 1955 to act as mascot and now the third generation of the goat, always named Batisse, is at every changing of the guard ceremony, posing for photos.  Don’t tell anyone, but there are actually three goats named Batisse.  The guides seem quite jealous of the goats.  “Each goat has to work only once every three days and the rest of the time they get to hang out with their girlfriends,” our guide said.

The views from the Citadel over Quebec are the best in the city, but you’ll have to take them fast.  This is a working fort and they don’t allow lingering.

The streets of old town

There are two Quebecs, the upper and lower town (the one on top of the cliff and the one below it, which has been greatly increased in modern times with landfill).  Both are fantastic.  The upper town has a maze of streets, some closed to traffic, and a beautiful wood terrace lined with gardens and cannons overlooking the Saint Lawrence River.  With the towering Chateau Frontenac as a beacon, it’s impossible to get lost, so the town is best explored by wandering aimlessly, ducking down this alley or taking that street to poke into shops selling maple syrup, Canadian art, Native American handcrafts, fur hats, and wool fashions.  Every third building is a colorful café or bar.  Rue Saint-Jean is a fun place at night, offering folk singers who do a mixture of songs in French and English. Paillard bakery is a favorite lunch stop with locals for sandwiches and pizza.  

Craft beer has found Quebec with more than 70 breweries in the province creating 400+ different beers.  Maudite, Dieu du Ciel, and La Fin du Monde breweries are popular and widely available.  Rue Saint-Anne is a pedestrian street filled with local artists, portraitists and caricaturists showing off their works.  Rue Saint-Jean is closed to traffic on summer evenings and is lined with trendy cafes.

Place Royal & La Petit Champlain    http://http://www.quartierpetitchamplain.com/en/

The lower town is the oldest area of Quebec, especially at Place Royal, the oldest and most unchanged square of the city that looks much like it would have when Benedict Arnold and the American army attacked in 1775, just a few blocks away.  It was here in 1608 that Samuel de Champlain started the first permanent settlement in New France.  The Place Royal Museum has dioramas and a 3D movie to help you visualize the history that took place here.

A bit livelier, is the Quartier Petit Champlain, the incredibly picturesque portion of the lower town where centuries old stone buildings now house 45 shops and restaurants, much of it terraced on the steep pedestrian path leading to the upper town.  There’s an 1879 funicular connecting the upper and lower towns for those that don’t do well on hills, but the climb is not that bad and is lined with shops and restaurants, so you’ll be missing a lot if you don’t walk.  The lower town specializes in handicraft boutiques selling jewelry, leather, fur, wool clothing, and decorative arts.

Both towns are home to incredibly talented street buskers who perform on stages sanctioned by the city.  From acrobats jumping through fire rings to Broadway quality singers belting out tunes from Phantom of the Opera, Quebec is like a three ring circus, and you are never far from free top quality entertainment.  Visually, the city is stunning with modern murals, outdoor sculptures and art works blending with 18th century stone architecture and cobblestones (don’t even attempt to walk in Quebec in anything but flat, comfortable shoes!).

The Museums of Civilization   www.mcq.org/en

There are museums in Quebec covering everything from art to artillery, with historic houses, century old churches, monuments and an aquarium thrown in.  Of interest to seeing how New France became Vieux Quebec are the four partners of the Museum of Civilization, an organization dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the various people who have called Quebec home.  The modern Museum of Civilization is the city’s most popular museum, with a wide range of changing exhibitions.  There are artifacts from Cartier to Champlain, battle dioramas, and exhibits on the first peoples of America.

The Musee de l’Amerique francophone will be a bit unusual to most U.S. visitors, who are probably unfamiliar with the word “francophone,” which means “someone who speaks French, especially in a country where there are two or more languages.”

The museums traces the history of French culture throughout North America, from the Mississippi and New Orleans to the Arcadians in Louisiana to many other little known influences.

Le Monastère des Augustines, http://monastere.ca/en

For the right person, this could be a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The Hotel-Dieu de Quebec monastery was built in 1639 by the Augustinian Sisters, who made this the first hospital in America north of Mexico. Today, it is a 65-room boutique hotel, restaurant, museum and holistic wellness center that lets you experience what it was like to stay and live in a monastery.  Don’t even ask about Wi-Fi – you can’t even have an electric hairdryer or shaver.  The authentic rooms (or “cells” as they were called) are simple, clean and comfortable, with a sink and mirror, historic furniture, shutters and shared bath.  The 32 modern rooms have a contemporary look with private baths.

But your room is just the beginning of the experience. There are packages that include workshops, lectures, concerts, meals and daily activities all designed to increase spirituality and holistic health in an authentic setting.  This is not the place to stay if you’re going to be out closing the bars on Rue Saint Jean, but for those looking for health, introspection and non-domination spirituality, look no farther.

If you’re not up to that, guided tours tell the story of the Sisters and with 40,000 objects, trace the history of medicine and the first hospital in New France.  There’s a bullet extractor used in the famous 1759 battle, and all sorts of horrific implements from early medicine.  In keeping with the program, you must be quiet during the tour and walk softly in the historic parts of the building. 

The New France Festival, Fêtes de la NouvelleFrance, WWW.nouvellefrance.qc.ca

Scheduled next for August 9-13, 2017, this festival is a must for anyone interested in history.  It’s also a hoot.  Staged in at the Artillery Park under the walls of the city, this is a massive celebration of all things 17th and 18th Century in New France with more than 400 programs and events, including a parade and fireworks.  Hundreds of people dress like 18th century soldiers, traders, common people, nobles, bar wenches and craftsmen.  You can rent costumes and join the fun, or at the very least, get a tri-corner hat, a tankard of ale and a turkey leg and enjoy the show.  Soldiers guard the gates, colonial bands play, Native Americans offer chants and there are craftsmen working their 18th century magic in a long line of booths selling leather goods, jewelry, muskets and pottery.

Unlike so many historical re-enactments where the participants exhibit the three “O’s” (old, overweight and odd), here the costumed crowds are young and sexy, the beer is flowing, and there’s any number of delicious local delicacies to nibble on, from lobster rolls to local cheese fondue.  There are folk singers, buskers, corn-eating contests, colonial dance programs (even without a costume, you can learn the dances), military marching bands, gun firing demonstrations, and special tours of the fortifications.

There’s also a serious side with seminars and programs about the empire of New France.  Roving costumed educators will tell you how there were only 60,000 Europeans in New France in 1759 versus 2 million people in the British colonies to the south.  Though New France was overwhelmed in war, the joie de vivre of the French people have kept the culture alive, and continue to celebrate it at this colorful festival.

Chateau Frontenac, a Fairmont Hotel   http://www.fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec/

New France didn’t exist during the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, but to make up for that, New York architect Bruce Price incorporated architectural styles from both periods into his masterpiece hotel, Chateau Frontenac.  Opened in 1893 (and expanded with five wings and a tower), the 611-room hotel is allegedly the most photographed hostelry in the world.  Who could doubt it?  It’s almost impossible to take a photo of Quebec without capturing this mystical castle in the center with its many fantastic green copper towers and turrets.

The name comes from Louis de Baude, Count of Frontenac, who was the governor of New France from 1672-1698.  His coat-of-arms is on the entry arch to the hotel.  Under it have passed every celebrity to visit Quebec, from Princess Grace of Monaco and Celine Dion to Paul McCartney and Leonardo DiCaprio.  U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill held two of their few World War II meetings in the hotel in August 1943 and September 1944.

Staying at the hotel is the ultimate Quebec experience.  There are 2,000 windows, 1.2 kilometers of corridors and it’s not unusual for the hotel to dish out 2,000 gourmet meals a day.  While the rooms have modern amenities in keeping with being one of the finest hotels in the world, the public spaces, lobby, 1608 Bar, and the rows of hotel shops are dripping with atmosphere and history.

And then there are the views.  The hotel is built atop Dufferin Terrace, which is where Champlain built Quebec’s first fort in 1620.  Today, walking along the wide wood boardwalk terrace lined with cannons, there are sweeping views of the Saint Lawrence River in one direction and of the towering Chateau Frontenac in the other.  Had Montcalm won the famous battle in 1759, it’s hard to imagine how Quebec could have turned out any lovelier or more beautiful … or more French.

IF YOU GO:    The Quebec Region Tourism Office has all the information you need. http://www.quebecregion.com/en/

Legends of Angelopolis, Mexico’s fourth largest city

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

“It’s no wonder that Mexican peasant brigades were able to beat the pride of the French army in the battle of Puebla on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), 1862... the angels were on their side.”

Mexico historian Jaime Capulli

Puebla's baroque-style cathedral is one of the largest in Mexico.

It’s 1531, a decade after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and a Dominican bishop wants to build a cathedral in a gorgeous valley. In a dream, angels show him a great spot for it, and he sets out to build his cathedral there (and while he's at it, a whole new city).

Legend has it the angels not only brought holy inspiration to the project, but the latest surveying techniques as well. It's said they used string lines to lay out a grid of streets accented by parks and fountains, all surrounding blocks where the cathedral would be built. But as things turned out, it took 44 years to wade through the red tape to get the green light to build the cathedral.

Actual construction took quite a while, too. Finally, much of the cathedral's interior was completed and its two 200-foot-high towers were ready to welcome the masses. One problem remained: how to get an 18,000-pound bell up to the top of one of the towers (the other was bell-less).

Sure enough, the angels showed up again and raised the bell.

As a way of saying thanks to their cherubic helpers, the city was named Puebla de los Angeles (City of the Angels).

Fast forward to 1862, and an invading French army on its way to Mexico City from the eastern port of Veracruz halts just outside the angelic city, about 135 miles inland. It's a glorious day, and the French dress up in their most colorful uniforms. Bugles blast out l'attaque – the signal to attack the twin forts guarding the cityand thousands of chasseurs, zouaves and other troops charge up the hill under guidons and pennants dancing at the end of their officers' lances.

They end up getting clobbered by the greatly outnumbered rag-tag Mexican peasant brigades defending the city under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza.

Downtown Puebla is a jump back in time to colonial Mexico.

Mexican President Benito Juarez honored the victory by changing the name of the city to Puebla de Zaragoza. Years later the name was shortened to just Puebla (http://puebla.travel/en), but the city – today the fourth largest in Mexico – is popularly known among the 6 million people hanging up their sombreros there by its original nickname, Angelopolis.

Outside Mexico, Puebla may be best known for the battle in 1862. It was on the 5th of May that year – giving rise to today's annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Al fresco restaurants line the streets of Puebla’s historic district.

An historical footnote: In Paris, Emperor Napoleon III was furious when he heard about the defeat of his army. The following year, he sent 27,000 reinforcements to Mexico for what turned out to be a two-month siege of Puebla. On May 17, 1863, the out-numbered, out-supplied and out-gunned Mexican troops – who by then had eaten their horses, dogs and cats and were mainly getting by on boiled leaves – finally threw in the towel. The French left three years later.

GO WEST TO AUSTIN

Ed Dwight

Ed Dwight has created more than 100 public art commissions in his career that has spanned 40+ years.

He served as a military fighter pilot and in 1961 was selected by President John F. Kennedy to enter training as an Experimental Test Pilot in preparation to become the first African American Astronaut candidate. Three years after the assassination of President Kennedy, Dwight left the military and took a position with IBM and later as an aviation consultant for a Dallas firm. The entrepreneur developed a restaurant chain and real estate becoming one of the larger real estate developers in Denver. His first serious art commission was to create a sculpture of Colorado’s first Black Lt. Governor George Brown in 1974. His studio, gallery and foundry in Denver has a footprint of 25,000 sq. ft., some say quiet minor compared to the renowned sculptor’s impact on the worlds of art and history.

See more of Dwight’s work at www.eddwight.com.

 

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Shake your booty to brukdown and punta rock in Belize

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Ancient cannons stand guard over a Caribbean island.Chances are you’ve seen the oft-played TV commercial about gorgeous places to settle down in Belize on the Caribbean coast of Central America. In the ad, we learn about the laid-back style of living there on idyllic, palm-dotted islands and along the mainland’s sugary white beaches (but for some reason, all to a rather dreary mood set by elevator music).

Actually, visitors to Belize (formerly British Honduras) will hear several peppy brands of homegrown music.

One is called “brukdown,” said to mean something like “broken down calypso.” Whatever it means, you can't help shaking your body line to lively, accordion-backed tunes like “Good Mawnin’ Belize,” played there each morning on a number of radio stations to help get their listeners' juices flowing for the day. A particularly spunky brukdown ditty is “Run, Mr. Peters, Run” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYr3gkGXzA8) recorded by the father of the genre, Wilfred Peters.

Tagged “the King of Brukdown,” Peters and his Boom and Chime band entertained brukdown lovers all over the world before he died a few years ago at 79.

Another popular booty-shaker along the coastal villages of Belize (and also in nearby Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) is “punta” music. This one comes from a mish-mash of cultures, starting with the Carib Indians whose ancestors from South America started migrating up the chain of Caribbean islands thousands of years ago. Later on, African blacks from a wrecked slave ship ended up on the island of St. Vincent, bred with the Caribs and produced a race of “Black Caribs” (aka “Garifunas”).

Belizean supermarket sells farm-fresh fruits and veggies.The cultural stewpot next boiled over with French spices when the tricolor flag was raised over St. Vincent. Then, English mutton was stirred in for body when Great Britain’s Union Jack replaced the tricolors. The Brits – to punish the Black Caribs/Garifunas for siding with the French in several wars – moved them to the Honduras Bay island of Roatan, after which a good number of them drifted over to settlements on the Central American mainland.

Garifuna villages along the coast of what’s now Belize popped up in 1802, prompting a national holiday celebrated each year.

The holiday’s superstar, of course, is punta music (which over the years evolved to today’s “punta rock”). Its distinctive African-style call-and-response singing is backed by maracas and drums made from hollowed tree trunks covered on one end by animal hides.

A note to tourists: If you’re lucky enough to be in Belize on Nov. 19, don’t be surprised to see thousands of Garifunas parading, partying, dancing and otherwise celebrating (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsYBUQyQWu0&list=PLFDF39E385A202803) their Afro-Caribbean/French/British roots. That day is their annual “Garifuna Settlement Day,” marking the settlement of the villages long ago on the beaches of Belize.

Go Ahead—Give Up the Ship!  And See Greece Like a Local

By Rich Grant

It’s almost as simple, and quite often considerably cheaper, to island hop on public ferries like the locals. Sure, it takes some effort, but nearly everyone speaks English, the Greeks are friendly and like tourists, tickets are easy to buy from local travel agents, schedules are convenient and there’s an abundance of good hotels near ferry docks to which you can roll your bags. 

Best of all, when the hot afternoon sun starts to cool off and the cruise ship passengers have all sailed away, you’re still in town – ready to enjoy a sunset on a cliff or the magic as lights come at the cafes along the waterfront.  Greece can be brutally hot in the daytime, so many people take a siesta from 3 to 5 pm.  But at twilight, the temperatures cool, the skies glow from magenta to deep shades of purple and the streets fill with families. Windmills along the horizon turn orange with the setting sun, outdoor cafes and restaurants glow with strings of lights, and there are crowds -- even at midnight -- dining on fresh grilled calamari, octopus and shrimp, with colorful Greek salads of juicy red vine-ripened tomato, cucumber, olives and feta cheese, all washed down with surprisingly good local wines.  As the sound of a musician playing a lavouto drifts across the warm summer evening, pulled along by refreshing coastal breezes, you can almost feel sorry for the poor people out on the dark sea in cruise ships missing all this.

On a recent trip, we visited eight islands and coastal towns effortlessly and often inexpensively, all using public transportation.  In this first article, here’s some tips on how to see Athens and the less well known island of Hydra.  In part two, we’ll explore how to do the famous islands of Mykonos and Santorini, and also stop at two nearby and practically free islands, the medieval town of Naxos and the holy shrine of Tinos. 

ARRIVING IN ATHENS

Almost half the population of Greece, some 4 million people, live in Athens, which often gets mixed reviews as sprawling, traffic congested and noisy.  Well, it doesn’t have to be.  All the major tourist attractions are within walking distance on pedestrian streets packed with lively restaurants, bars, cafes and shops – many of which have outstanding views of the world’s number one antiquity – the Acropolis.  From the airport, simply take the $10 euro Metro Line 3 (blue line) to the Monastiraki Square station, and select a hotel within easy rolling distance.  This is the heart of the Old Town, and easy walking to distance to the somewhat touristy, but definitely Old World-looking Plaka neighborhood, or the trendy Psyrri neighborhood.  A great apartment rental near the Metro stop in Psyrri is www.athens-suites.gr, where for $90 euros you can have an entire beautiful apartment, filled with original art. 

Despite rumors, usually based on people who haven’t visited Athens in years, it is one of the most compact, exciting, traffic-free, safe and easy-to-navigate city centers in Europe.  Almost all of the streets near Monastiraki Square are pedestrian and fun, many offering live Greek music.  The streets in Psyrri can look a bit sketchy in daylight because of the Greek penchant for graffiti.  Every building is covered.  Some with art – some, not so much.   But come evening, cafes and clubs sprout up everywhere, especially in buildings that by day look abandoned.

There are plenty of tourist restaurants with a view of the Acropolis, but, like HBO, it’s pay for view.  Since you can see the 450 B.C. monument from virtually everywhere, forget the view while eating.  You’ll get more than enough views of it elsewhere since every inch of it is lit up until midnight.   The Parthenon sits several hundred feet higher than the town on top of a hill, so you can see it everywhere, from every angle.  So get away from the tourists and enjoy more local and inexpensive restaurants on the pedestrian back streets and in quiet tree-lined squares.

The Greek people live outdoors.  Every restaurant has an outdoor café, and once evening comes, the entire city is out on the streets, parading up and down the pedestrian alleys, drinking at bars, admiring the hundreds of cats who come out to stroll or listening to live music.  A word of warning:  don’t pet the loose dogs or cats that wander around by the dozens, and as in any city, be aware of pick pockets.

It’s easy to get somewhat lost in the maze of pedestrian alleyways, but you can almost always see the brightly lit Acropolis sitting up on its hill to get your bearings.   Tickets for the two major antiquities, the Acropolis, which is a collection of temples and the crowning glory of old Athens, and the Ancient Agora, which was the main business area of Athens from 600 B.C. until it was destroyed by Barbarians in 267 A.D., are both one-time entry tickets, so choose your entry time carefully.  Both sites are better early in the morning, or what we preferred, early evening when it’s cooler and less crowded.  Tour buses can swamp the sites in mid-day. 

Monastiraki Square station is also where you catch a simple $1.80 euro, 20 minute Metro ride on the Green Line (Line 1) to Piraeus, which is Athen’s port with ferries to all the islands.

HYDRA, THE QUIET ISLAND

Hydra is in the Peloponnese, the opposite direction from the more famous Greek islands, which means you’ll have to backtrack to Athens if you want to visit the others.  However, it’s only two hours away and worth the effort, because Hydra is unlike any of the other islands.

There are no cars or motorbikes allowed.

Although Hydra is hardly undiscovered, it’s too small for major cruise ships, and most of the tourists here are Greeks weekending from Athens, with relatively few Americans.  Wranglers with donkeys and horses meet every incoming ferry and will carry your bags to your hotel for $10 euros, but most hotels are close and it’s just as easy to roll them (though four-wheel bags don’t fare so well on the rough cobblestone streets).

Life is slow and quiet on Hydra, with no major attractions and not much to do but sit at a waterside café on the wonderful, busy stone harbor, or hop on a water taxi to one of the nearby beaches.  Ferries, water taxis, fishing boats, sailboats and even multi-million dollar yachts are constantly jockeying for position at the docks, sailing by the cannon-studded-fortresses that guard each side of the harbor.  Hydra played an important naval role in the 1821 Greek War of Independence, and there’s a museum filled with ship models and paintings.  But today, it’s hard to believe anyone fought over this quiet place.

There’s no beach in town, but many people swim off a stone quay with a ladder located on the rocky shoreline under the fort.  There is a delightful, two-mile hike along the top of the cliffs lining the coast, past a windmill built for a Sophia Loren movie, to the cliff-side cafes and beaches at Kaminia just 20 minutes away, or on a bit farther to the beach at Vlychos.  You can sit at a bar overlooking the idyllic scene, or hop a water taxi back to Hydra town for $4 euros. 

The harbor cafes in Hydra town have an unusual canopy system that appears to be huge horizontal sails that can be maneuvered throughout the day to constantly provide shade.  As the cooling and refreshing dusk envelops the sky, everyone heads to one of the forts to watch the sunset over the red-tiled roofs of the town, the cats come out to play (there are dozens and dozens of them) and the cafes come alive with bustling waiters and musicians playing lavoutos (funny-shaped Greek lutes).  The backstreets of Hydra are a maze of quiet narrow white-washed alleys, decorated with brightly lit shops and cafes bursting with the color of painted tables and chairs.    Until you visit the other islands, you won’t realize how peaceful life is without the noise of motorbikes and cars, in a place where the only sounds are the crowing of a rooster, the baying of donkey or the deep nautical horn of a ferry as it leaves port.

Greek law says that menus have to indicate when calamari or octopus is frozen rather than fresh, and there is a big difference, so always check for that when selecting a restaurant.  As a rule, tavernas (local taverns) are cheaper and serve only traditional Greek dishes; restaurants – even Greek restaurants – can be more expensive and international.   Hydra’s not cheap by any stretch, especially along the waterfront, but you can always get by with the national dish – a gyro of pork or chicken, stuffed with fries, tomatoes and onions that sells for under $3 euros.   Expect to pay $10-12 euros for a calamari or octopus dinner on the waterfront.

GETTING THERE:   It’s not easy to understand ferry websites beforehand.  On arriving in Athens, find a local travel agency (there’s one in Monastiraki Square across from the station, but there are many on the side streets as well.  Tell them when you want to leave and return from Hydra and they’ll give you options.  The fast ferries to Hydra require that all passengers stay inside the boat, which is unfortunate for sightseeing, but you do get there in just two hours.  Like a plane, ferries sell a specific seat on a specific departure.  The travel agencies can also book hotels, but hotels can be easily pre-booked on sites like Expedia and Booking.com.  When looking at hotel locations, be aware that Hydra rises sharply from the street along the dock, so the farther you are from the dock, the more you will have to roll your bag uphill.    www.visitgreece.gr

ZIKA IN THE 1st PERSON

By Yvette Cordozo

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With all this news about Zika, I went to the Florida Keys and South Florida mainland recently well protected. I had assorted bug repellents brimming with DEET, and also, a suitcase brimming with bug repellent clothing.

Clothing by the company, Insect Shield, isn’t new but its importance, now with Zika, is greater than ever.

So I arrived with two armaments ... my own clothing that had been impregnated with the company’s Permethrin (the same stuff used in lice shampoos for kids) and their own repellent clothing, including a T-shirt and a nice scarf.

The company says tests have shown their treatment repels mosquitoes, ticks, ants, biting flies, chiggers and no-see-ums.

When my own shirts were returned to me after being treated, I was surprised that they felt exactly as they had before ... not stiff, still soft and with no chemical smell. The company’s own clothing ... a T-shirt and scarf ...were the same. So I was ready.

Well ... in a week, I saw not a single mosquito. The wind blew and the Keys have a seriously active mosquito eradication program. Nary a skeeter in sight.

To back this up, the Monroe County (lower edge of Florida’s peninsula and the Keys) had not, to that point, reported a single Zika case.

We did manage to scare up a single mosquito on my friend’s south Florida farm, which is on the mainland, just north of where the Keys begin. I can report that no mosquitoes were harmed in this test because our little guy didn’t come near her.

Little did I know that seeing mosquitoes isn’t always necessary.

Weeks after coming home, the first reports of Zika in Miami started making news. What rattled me was realizing that during my wanderings to the haunts of my childhood, my friends and I not only visited the involved area in Miami ... the exact week people apparently were being bitten by infected mosquitoes ... but the pregnant wife of a friend owns a bakery squarely in the center of Ground Zero.

Equally rattling, a few weeks after coming home I was scheduled for shoulder surgery. Just before being cleared for it, I was asked the standard question about whether I had visited any countries outside the US, obviously fishing for possible Zika exposure. Who knew I hadn’t needed to fly south of Florida to qualify. I wonder if the surgery would have been postponed had they known.

Meanwhile, still needing to test the insect repellent clothing, I sent the scarf with another friend heading for Brazil. Her report:

“I draped the scarf over the top of my wide-brimmed hat, tying it around the front. The bugs would approach me, but would not get any closer than about five inches and would not land on me. Not only that, but it also helped keep the sun off my face when we were sitting in a boat for an hour or more waiting for a jaguar to move. I also tried just draping it around my shoulders like you would wear a shawl, and that also worked fairly well for keeping the bugs away.”

The company has an assortment of repellent clothing: men’s and women’s shirts, T-shirts, pants, bandanas, scarves, hoodies, buffs, mini blankets.

Should I head south again, I will bring all my insect protective clothing with me. And, by the way, I have not come down with any Zika symptoms.

Learn more: http://www.insectshield.com/

Up in the sky… It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… No, it’s Kukulkan

By Bob Schulman

The name “Kukulkan” pops up a lot around Mexico’s super-resort at Cancun, the nearby Riviera Maya and the rest of what was once the Maya empire, all the way down to Honduras. You see it on Cancun’s main boulevard signs, on a magnificent pyramid in the inland ruins of Chichen Itza, on restaurants, bars and even on beer bottles. Who (or what) was Kukulkan? The answer is simple (but probably not very helpful): Kukulkan is the Maya version of Quetzalcoatl.

Mural of Kukulkan in a hotel lobby on the Riviera Maya. Photo by Bob Schulman.

So who (or what) was Quetzalcoatl? One version of who he (or it) was comes from Hollywood. In the 1982 movie “Q: The Winged Serpent,” he’s an ancient Aztec flying snake god who somehow managed to build a nest in the art-deco spire of the Chrysler Building in New York. From there, he swooped down to the streets now and then to gobble up hapless New Yorkers -- until cops David Carradine, Richard Roundtree and a SWAT team gunned the beast down. The film grossed a whopping $255,000.)

In Mexico, a popular legend of Quetzalcoatl (pronounced ketz-ahl-qwa-til) goes this way: Thousands of years ago, he was a god who took human form to become king of the Toltec empire in the central region of the country. Under his wings, the Toltecs became masters of the arts, farming, medicine, metallurgy and science. Their capital at Tula (about two hours north of Mexico City) was described by author Gary Jennings as “an immense city of golden turquoise-laden palaces, where meat, maize and honeyed sweets were plentiful as earth and air.”

Among the largest and most elaborate pyramids in Tula was the five-tiered Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Unlike the scary beast portrayed in the “Q” movie, legends say he was a good god, beloved by his people. But he was too good (for instance, he hardly ever required human sacrifices), so his less liberal priests conspired to get rid of him. One day, they tricked him into doing something that today would be described as, er, inappropriate.

. Kukulkan Boulevard stretches rhe length of the Cancun resort area. Photo courtesy of the Mexico Tourism Board.

After that, he left town – perhaps around 1000 A.D. -- to ship out across the eastern sea to repent. Toltec legends say he told his people he'd eventually come back, and that he’d be on “a large raft manned by fair-skinned, bearded sailors.”

A layover in Chichen Itza

Fast-forward a century or so. The Toltec empire has collapsed, but its culture has survived elsewhere in Mexico. Some 800 miles east of Tula, for example, a flying snake god-king named Kukulkan has ascended the throne of the Maya empire at its sprawling city of Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Could Quetzalcoatl have taken a side-trip on his way to the eastern sea to turn into Kukulkan? Did he spark the Maya advances in the likes of art, science and astronomy over the years until the empire’s collapse in the 1400s?

Pyramid of Kukulkan towers over Chichen Itza.

Meanwhile, back in central Mexico, the legend of Quetzalcoatl carried over to the Aztecs, the Toltecs’ successors. For centuries, they awaited the fabled serpent’s return from his atonement voyage on the big raft. (There was a false alarm in 1519, when Hernan Cortes and his 11 galleons manned by “fair-skinned, bearded sailors” came ashore at Veracruz on a date close to Quetzalcoatl’s birthday – but that was to start the conquest of Mexico.)

So was Quetzalqoatl forgiven for his indiscretion? Or is he still at sea atoning for it? Other than having a bunch of things and places named after his Kukulkan (also spelled Kukulcan) personae, about the only thing anyone’s heard about the Toltec god-king in the last half-century was his appearance in a forgettable movie.

But some cults among descendants of the Aztecs still await his return.

PHAT—HIP OUTTERWEAR FOR X-XL SKIERS

By Yvette Cardozo

This is a story of success and failure. And progress. Sort of.

I am not svelte by anyone’s measure. But I ski. I cycle. I scuba. No, I don’t run. But I do step classes with folks 30 years my junior. My kicks are higher than half of them. And I once rode my bike across the state of Florida ... 174 miles in one day. The average temperature was 95, by the way.

Many, many years ago when I got into serious cycling and wanted shorts, I was laughed out of the shop and resorted to cutting off polyester pants. Those of you of a certain age will remember those pants. They had a hideous seam down the front and stretched horribly when wet.

Sadly, it rains a lot in South Florida, where I was living at the time.

My ski wear consisted of men’s very large sizes tailored to fit. Eventually someone came out with skiwear for “fat ladies.” The coat was neon pink and, well, looked like something the Michelin X Man would have worn. Be real guys. Nobody that size is gonna wear something that makes them look like Lake Superior. And it had hardly any pockets.

Women’s sportswear back then was notorious for not being technical. Fat women’s sportswear? You can imagine.

About 25 years ago I got into a shouting match with a designer about ski wear and was told, well, it was useless, because women “of my size” simply came in too many figures ... big hips, big stomachs. It was useless to keep up.

Then a strange thing happened. The world caught up with me. Suddenly, there were kids bigger than me doing cheer flips in high school and skiers my size doing credible jobs on race courses.

Enter Obermeyer. Go to the company website, click on women, then plus size and you actually get a choice. Mine late this season boiled down to a pant called the Birmingham with all sorts of nice techie add-ons ... fleece lining, storm flaps, high back, scuff guards, sturdy zippers, pockets. POCKETS!

By the time I decided to get them, the only color left in a size 20, yes, I am a size 20, was white. That is not a color someone my size EVER wants to be seen in in public. Sigh. But they arrived. And to my surprise, didn’t look nearly as ghastly as I expected. Um, but they were four inches too large. I put them on, held them at the waist, let go and they fell to the floor by themselves.

Back to the website, where my next choices were the Sugarbush, size 20 and the Andorra, size 18.

Which is when I discovered another thing about clothing. The more expensive the clothes, the smaller the claimed size at a particular measurement. In other words, two pants that measure the same might be a 20 in something less expensive, an 18 in a mid-range and maybe even a 16 if it’s REALLY spendy.

Being rich, I guess, means you never have to admit to one of those embarrassing fat sizes.

So in the pants I really loved, the Andorra, I am a 16.  Yay.

These things have style. They have pockets ... lots of pockets. They fit. I could actually bend and squat in them while still managing to breathe.

And embedded somewhere in the fabric are Recco reflector strips which are passive detectors that let a rescue team find you in case of emergency on the mountain. These strips are now embedded in all sorts of outerwear ... boots, helmets, jackets, you name it ... and can pick up a signal at 200 yards.

Then, off I went to Mammoth Mountain in California to put the pants through their paces.

And yes, they did the job. Our first day, despite the April date, it was still full on winter with enough wind to close the top of the mountain. I wondered if it was possible to get frostbite on your tongue (you pant a lot at 11,000 feet).  But the pants survived and kept me toasty.

Then spring arrived, with 50 degree temps. I expected to sweat my knees off. But, oddly, I did not. Somehow, I stayed cool while diving into Mammoth’s famous Cornice Bowl.

I finally have a smart, technical pair of ski pants.

Now all I need is a jacket.

With lots of pockets.

Contact:

Mammoth Mountain: www.mammothmountain.com

Obermeyer: www.obermeyer.com

La Cucaracha: No pot, no travel

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

La Cucaracha came from old-world Spain.

1492 was a red letter year for Spain. It started off with a bang on Jan. 2 when the Christian armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella trounced the Muslims at Granada – topping off the reconquest of the country and ending 800 years of Muslim rule. The royal duo made the headlines again on March 31 when they issued Spain’s “Edict of Expulsion” – booting the Jews out of Spain unless they converted to Catholicism by July 31. Then, backed by the monarchs, Christopher Columbus on Aug. 3 set sail from the Spanish riverside village of Palos de Frontera to cross the Atlantic and discover “the New World” on Oct. 12.

Oddly enough, there’s a song the Christian troopers might have sung as they charged the ramparts of Granada, and the Jews might have sung when they hit the road out of Spain. Columbus’ sailors might have sung it, too. The song – “La Cucaracha” -- was one of the big hits of 1492.

Don Quixote might have sung or hummed La Cucaracha when fighting windmills.

Four centuries later, a rag-tag army actually did sing that song when Pancho Villa’s bugles called them to battle. More about that later.

Like most folk ballads, La Cucaracha has an obscure origin and lots of different twists in its lyrics. Most supposedly tell the story of a cockroach that lost one of its six legs and is trying to hobble around on the remaining five – but this is actually a satirical metaphor for political or social issues of the times. The “hobbler” in one version is in reality a corrupt politician, in another version an adulterous priest and a drunken murderer in another of the times.

The Moors ruled Spain for nearly 800 years.In King Fernando’s day, an early version of the song took a jab at the Muslims (aka Moors) with these lyrics:

“From the sideburns of a Moor I must make a broom... to sweep the quarters of the Spanish infantry.”

Thanks to Pancho Villa, the song is generally associated with Mexico, but it was likely written in Spain – and long before the revolution south of the border. For instance, some lyrics from the song showed up in a book by Spanish author Francisco Rodriguez Marin about chart-topping tunes in that country over the ages, going back as far as the reconquest in 1492. And in a book published in 1819, Mexican political writer Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi talks about the song and how it was brought from Spain to Mexico by a naval captain. 

La Cucaracha also popped up in writings about Spain’s civil wars of the mid-1800s and France’s invasion of Mexico in 1861. Most remembered in the history books, of course, are versions of the song written during the Mexican revolution.

Back then the cockroach was Victoriano Huerta, a heavy boozer who orchestrated the overthrow and murder of Mexico’s beloved President Francisco Madero in 1913. Rebel armies led by Pancho Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south ousted Huerta the following year.

The rebels, particularly Villa’s troops, used La Cucaracha as their battle song – a sort of Mexican equivalent of America’s Yankee Doodle. History is fuzzy on this, but some chroniclers of the revolution say Huerta was tagged as the song’s wobbly cockroach because he drank so much. He was also said to be a stoner, which might have led to this addition to La Cucaracha’s lyrics during the revolution:

“The cockroach, the cockroach...now he can’t go traveling

Because he doesn’t have, because he lacks...marijuana to smoke.”

DISCOVERY CHANNELED INTO 96 HOURS

By Courtney Drake-McDonough

In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon came ashore while looking for the isle of Bimini where he’d heard he could find the Fountain of Youth. His wrong turn was the right move for America, naming the land he set foot upon “La Florida.”

A beautiful beach is an added bonus to all there is to see in St. Augustine. Photo by Courtney Drake-McDonough.

Originally occupied by the Timucuan Indians, there was much strife, with lots of fighting, pillaging, burning down of the city multiple times and rising from the ashes. Tour guides will tell you about this group battling that group and gruesome deaths. But tra, la, la, there are also plenty of tales of hopes and dreams of creating a vacation destination for visitors looking for easy access to warm weather and beautiful beaches. The end result of all that strife, turmoil and yet optimism, resulted in a city full of charm, amazing architecture with intricate details and plenty to discover around every corner.

Castille do San Marcos is massive and impressive. It was built to protect treasures carried by the Spanish ships from pirate attacks. Photo by Courtney Drake-McDonough.Although one would like to think they can just explore on their own and get a real feel for the city, doing the tourist thing by taking a guided tour is really the way to go. Start with at the Visitor Information Center, itself in an historic building, built in the Mediterranean revival style in 1938. In addition to interesting and very informative exhibits, friendly staff will answer all of your questions. There’s also a staffer on hand representing Old Town Trolley, one of the touring services in town. They can help you decide which places to visit given your interests and amount of time. They can also sell you tickets for the Old Town Trolley which also gives you discounts to quite a few other venues. With tickets in hand, the next step is to hop on the trolley.

Trolley tours are a great way to get an initial lay of the land and overview of the history. They also let you get off and on at various stops, using it as a means of transportation. Take the full tour first, which lasts over an hour, to make the rounds and hear the full story before then getting off at stops that had sparked your particular interest.

A stay of four or five days (or more) would allow a traveler to see nearly everything they want in St. Augustine – the options are plentiful including Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, Potter’s Wax Museum, the Fountain of Youth (where you can have a few sips), Alligator Farm and the Pirate & Treasure Museum. A tour of Flagler College is a must. It was originally the Hotel Ponce de Leon which had two firsts – running water and electricity installed by Thomas Edison in every room. Now, it’s a posh college with well-led tours by enthusiastic college students. It’s hard to imagine attending college in such an ornate building complete with Tiffany windows in the dining hall.

Imagine going to school in a building with details like this? Originally the Ponce de Leon Hotel, it is now Flagler College. Photo by Courtney Drake-McDonough.Directly across the street is the Lightner Museum and hotel. The museum was closed when we visited but we, and so many others, took advantage of the decorative bridge and lush gardens for photo opps. Also closed for the day was the Villa Zorayda Museum which is a big hit with visitors, especially for the Egyptian-themed room. Next time!

The St. George Street area offers block after block of pedestrian-only roads that are narrow and slightly curved. During the first Spanish period, the design allowed funneling the sea breezes off the water into the center of town to cool it, plus it made it more difficult to attack. Today, the streets are lined with stores and restaurants complete with people standing outside, luring you in with samples, menus or just their charm.

One of St. Augustine’s major tour stops is Castillo de San Marcos. The Spanish queen authorized the building of a stone fort in 1672. It was completed in 1695. It is the oldest masonry fort in the United States! You can take tours of the inside but when time won’t allow, strolling around the outside is still very impressive. Walking along the stony seawall, in the grassy area that was the moat, seeing where cannon balls got imbedded in the walls, trekking the boundaries of the fort was impressive in and of itself.

The Lightner Museum opened in 1888. Originally, it had a bowling alley, four tennis courts and grand ballroom. It’s a prime example of the Gilded Age. Photo by Courtney Drake-McDonoughFrom the Fort, it was easy to see the Bridge of Lions, which links St. Augustine and Anastasia Island. No matter how many times we saw it happen, it was exciting and a little unnerving to watch the draw bridge raise and lower ever so slowly as tall ships passed through. Drawn by the site of the water, we took a Scenic Cruise with discount tickets bought in conjunction with our trolley tickets.

Slow and steady, St. Augustine’s varied sights (the Castillo, pastel-colored homes, sand bars, nature areas, the lighthouse and entry to the massive Atlantic Ocean) made for a very interesting water tour. After having toured around pretty thoroughly on land, it was great to get the perspective from the water side.

Ever-visible is the St. Augustine Lighthouse which was built three times. The first two fell into the ocean! This one, built in 1874, has stuck and you can go up into it, all the way to the top as part of a tour of its museum. With black spindles topping a massive, red and white striped base, it looks exactly like you’d want a lighthouse to look.

Although a lot can be seen in a quick trip to St. Augustine (which is easily accessible via Jacksonville’s and Orlando’s airports), give yourself four days minimum to really take it all in. Thanks to a long and storied past, there’s still so much to see today – a modern history. For more information, visit http://www.floridashistoriccoast.com/

Author Bio: Courtney Drake-McDonough is a Colorado native, writer and editor for local and national publications. She is also the founder of www.InGoodTasteDenver.com, a news and reviews website. She never gets tired of (re)discovering her home state.

Cyclists slow down and feel groovy on Bermuda

By Bob Schulman

“Slow down, you move too fast...you got to make the morning last.”

(From Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge”)

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If you’ve not been to Bermuda before, or even if you have, exploring this tropical isle at the slow pace of a bicycle allows you to savor the views, colors and flavors most visitors never see. Such are some of the payoffs of a new four-day bike tour, set for Nov. 3-6 this year by the cycling pros at Arlington, Mass.-based Ciclismo Classico.

What’s more, guests on the tour (www.ciclismoclassico.com/trips/cycle-sea-Bermuda)

will stay at the elegant Newstead Belmont Hills Golf Resort & Spa, known for its luxury accommodations and fine dining. Decorated chef and cyclist Jean Claude Garzia will be among participants on the tour, which will wind through roughly 30 miles a day on flat and rolling terrain.

“This brand new weekend escape to Bermuda will liven up your senses and warm your body and soul,” said Ciclismo Classico Founder/CEO Lauren Hefferon. “Turquoise waters, pink sand beaches, green golf courses, and colorful homes with white roofs make for some of the most scenic cycling you will ever experience.”

Participants will bike the entire island with local guides, stopping for panoramic ocean views and visits to historic sites, forts, lighthouses and a nature reserve while experiencing Bermuda’s British, African and Portuguese influences. Among highlights of the tour will be exploring the towns of St. George and Hamilton and the Royal Naval Dockyard. Besides a free round of golf, guests will get a chance to kayak above the South Shore’s coral reefs in clear-bottomed boats.

Prices for the tour start at $2,395 per person, including your bike on Bermuda, your resort accommodations, lots of meals, a ground shuttle to the airport and other services (but you’re on your own for airfares to and from the island).

About a two-hour flight from the East Coast of the U.S., Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory named after Spanish explorer Juan de Bermudez, the first European explorer to reach this 21-square-mile island. Today, thousands of tourists are drawn to Bermuda’s pink sand beaches, cerulean blue waters and close-in scuba diving reefs.

Photos courtesy of Ciclismo Classico.

GO FIRST CLASS WITH THE BERLIN PASS

Story by Anne Z Cooke
Photos by Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld

Business traveler Steve St. John made the most of a four-day Berlin weekend with the Berlin Pass & its accompanying guidebook. Berlin, Germany.Why do I recommend purchasing a Berlin Pass for your next trip to Germany’s most exciting, forward-looking city?  Because it’s summer and the northern hemisphere is on vacation.  Sidewalks are jam-packed. Restaurants are overwhelmed. Tour buses block the streets and hotels turn away late-comers.

Nothing seems to stem the flow of humanity, not security worries, nor migrant riots nor temperatures so hot that the pavement sizzles. But the Berlin Pass fixes all that. It’s like walking the red carpet and winning an Oscar.

As for the tourists, I would have been one myself if an emergency hadn’t cancelled my trip. So I offered the Pass – pre-paid online – to my cousin from Norway if he promised to tell me what he thought. Steven St. John is an economist who squeezes sightseeing into long weekends. Not me. I’m a sidewalk pounder, a people-watcher, a dawdler, never loathe to stop and talk to strangers. Would he agree?

“Picking up our three-day Berlin passes wasn’t hard, but it would have been a lot easier if I’d printed out the reservation form at home and brought it with me,” he wrote me later. “I thought I'd go mobile and just show it to them on my smart phone, but their wifi connection was so weak I had trouble opening the screen.”

Fortunately, the Pass came with a detailed guidebook. It also contained a one-day train ticket (which we used to go to Potsdam) as well as a subway pass. This we used every day but it was unclear how it would be validated as people got on and off the train without ever showing their tickets. It also included a three-day museum pass and a long list of other activities: the aquarium, a riverboat tour and a bicycle tour for example.

Berlin’s “Checkpoint Charlie,” the once dreaded border between East Berlin’s repressive police state and the democratic West, lives on as a tourist site.Despite being jetlagged that first afternoon, we dropped off our luggage and headed to the Berliner Dom, Berlin's largest and grandest Protestant Cathedral and the Hohenzollern Kaisers’ (think kings) family church. But when we realized that showing the Pass would start the time clock, and we needed a walk more than a museum, we skipped the cathedral and walked to the Brandenburg Gate.

At this point, now long past our bedtime at home, we ran out of energy and had just stopped to ponder the map when we spotted a cluster of tour buses parked just north of the Brandenburg Gate. We found our bus, showed the Pass and climbed aboard for what felt like – at that moment -- a magic carpet ride.

Sightseeing tour buses really highlight the way you see a city. In addition to getting a decent view of sites and attractions that you might not have time to visit, the bus ride gives you a feeling for distances, a key to planning each day.

On Friday we walked to Checkpoint Charlie (the border gate between Berlin’s western sector and the Communist eastern sector during the cold war) to see the Mauer Museum, next door. Here we showed our Berlin Passes and were whisked straight past the ticket desk.

The Berliner Dom (also known as the Berlin Cathedral) serves as the head of Germany’s protestant churches.The museum, a collection of jumbled rooms, contains an equally jumbled but incredible assortment of clever devices and tricky ploys invented by desperate East Berliners determined to escape to the West. One exhibit was a tiny car into which one enterprising young man somehow squeezed his girlfriend.

Another exhibit showed the American officer’s uniform that an East Berliner’s girlfriend sewed for him, and which he wore to fool the border guards and walk safely across to freedom. But there were odd items there, too, like the American astronaut’s spacesuit, donated by a grateful patron.

Part of the Pass’s value depended on our hotel’s location in the southeast corner of the “Mitte” neighborhood, an ideal city center area. Redeveloped post-reunification it was ten minutes from Museum Island. We could walk everywhere we wanted to go and a subway and a bus stop were within a block.  

Instead of going to just one or two museums, we decided on a brief visit to all five Museum Island galleries, for an initial overview, and a possible revisit later. This meant a walk through the Berliner Dom, and the Neues Museum before lunch; after lunch we had a quick look at the Alte National Gallery’s collection of 19th century painting, and then went to the famous Pergamon Museum.

The I.M. Pei-designed extension to the Germany History Museum, occupying Berlin’s oldest baroque building, seems a metaphor for the transition from an often dark past to a sunlit, promising present.Totaling up our expenses, I estimated that even though we had only a couple of days to sightsee, without the Pass we’d have spent at least $100 per person riding trains, buses, and entering museums and castles. The total would have been more if we’d been in Berlin a fourth day, visited more attractions, rented bikes and taken the subway more often.

The only palaces that didn’t accept our Berlin Pass were in Potsdam, but that’s probably because they’re out of the city. All in all, having a single ticket made sightseeing a breeze.”

DETAILS: See Berlin Pass details at www.berlinpass.com. The Pass includes a guidebook, 60 attractions and the Travel Card (good for unlimited use on trains, buses and the subway). Two-day passes are (in Euros) E 109 for adults and E 59 for children. Three-day passes are E 138 and E 75. The Travel Card purchased separately is E 22. For Berlin sightseeing, go to www.visitberlin.de/en .    

CREDITS: Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld; follow Anne Z. Cooke on Facebook or at #anneontheroad.

Unexpected Pleasures of a European River Cruise

By Ginger Dingus

On a crisp spring morning while cruising up Europe’s Rhine River, I slide open the door to my cabin’s balcony and listen to the birds singing from the wooded shore. Early risers out bicycling or walking their dogs along the river bank pop in and out of view. A white swan glides past. A medieval town appears, its church spires capped with green onion domes. It’s my favorite time of day aboard Viking Cruises’ 190-passenger riverboat Viking Skadi.

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More surprises wait during my two-week Grand European tour traversing three rivers and 68 locks on a route taking me from Amsterdam to Budapest. Here are my top five unexpected pleasures on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers.

Shopping with the chef

“Our friends told us if Viking offers a shopping tour with the chef, do it! It was their favorite excursion,” exclaimed Gary, a river cruise passenger from Atlanta. Docked for two full days in Vienna, the offer of a complimentary afternoon outing with Viking Skadi’s head chef was too good to miss.

I joined a group of about 25 passengers, chef Thomas Pfeiler and the concierge. We headed via the metro to Vienna’s eclectic, expensive and open-air Naschmarkt. Chef Pfeiler first showed us the locally grown and produced goods. We sampled cheeses, stuffed olives, sausages and bread, all temptingly arranged on an outdoor table just for us. We wandered past a dozen stands selling imported goodies before moving on to a tasting of fresh dragon fruit and jackfruit from Asia. There was plenty of free time for a coffee, glass of wine or gourmet food shopping before finding the metro and riding it back to the dock and our riverboat.

Glassblower on board

The entertainment on a riverboat generally provides a glimpse into local culture or cuisine. While nearing Miltenberg, Germany, a glassblower ventured aboard to demonstrate his craft and show off his wares. “Those bowls remind me of Chihuly,” my husband exclaimed, looking over the numerous pieces of glass art spread out for sale in the ship’s lounge. Turns out, Karl Ittig, a sixth generation glassblower from Wertheim, is personally acquainted with renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. Ittig has even taught at Chihuly’s Pilchuck studios in Washington state. It’s a small world indeed.

An amusing fellow, Ittig captivated us with stories of his childhood behind the Berlin Wall, all the while demonstrating flame working (as opposed to using a studio furnace or kiln for glass fusion). One brave volunteer helped him create a colorful glass ornament by blowing on a super-heated glass tube. The lucky passenger received the finished piece as a souvenir to take home.

Life in a windmill

If you thought raising a family in a lighthouse back in the day was tough, wait until you join one of Viking’s daily included excursions and see what it’s like to live inside a windmill. At Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Netherlands, we stepped inside one of 19 windmills still working until 1950. In summer, we discovered, the miller’s family would spread out, filling sleeping quarters and play rooms on several floors of the tall structure. In winter, however, it was so chilly, everyone moved into the windmill’s cozy kitchen/living room. A nook beside the woodstove served as the sole bedroom, shared by all.

Winter or not, work continued for the miller. His windmill pumped rainwater into the nearby river in order to keep the land and any homes from flooding. Today, electricity and modern pumping stations do the job.

Living in the lap of luxury

On the flip side to the cramped windmill, the Bishop’s Residence in Wurzburg, Germany came as a total surprise. History classes never taught me that bishops, actually prince-bishops, lived in palaces. Not only is the Wurzburg residence a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the country’s largest and most ornate palaces. The building, begun in 1719, is a dazzling combination of German baroque, Vienna’s imperial baroque and French chateau styles.

From the moment you enter the building and gaze at the ceiling above the grand staircase, you’ll be in awe. The spectacular 2,000-square foot fresco ceiling painted by Venetian artist Giovanni Tiepolo alone is worth the visit. Yet, nothing prepares you for the Mirror Cabinet, an incredible room covered with gilded mirrors. Damaged in a World War II bombing, the mirror room has been remarkably restored. Note: The only downside to the palace visit is no photos are allowed in any of the 40 rooms open to the public.

Soaking in grand thermal baths

Arriving in Budapest, Hungary, our final port, we took a turn soaking up the good life along with a few hundred other tourists and locals. The thermal baths of choice on Viking’s extra charge tour were the Szechenyi Baths, a palatial complex of 15 indoor soaking pools and three large outdoor swimming pools. To our surprise, all pools and saunas are co-ed, and everyone wears a swimsuit. No topless bathing here.

First, we changed into our swim gear in a private dressing cabinet. Each well worn walk-in locker opened by way of a modern electronic wristband. Our room steward aboard the Viking Skadi had given us each a towel, robe and slippers, though most baths do rent these for day use if you go on your own. Next, we explored the indoor pools, checking each for temperature. They ranged from a cool 65 degrees to the hottest at 104 degrees, with various warm pools in the mix. All pools, except the cold plunge, were crowded with bathers, chatting and people-watching.

The building of Szechenyi Baths, one of the largest spa complexes in Europe, took place between 1909 and 1913. Renovations are on-going. The waters come from a 169 degree underground well. Hungary, according to our Viking tour guide, has more than 1,000 hot springs with about half currently in use. The springs are the reason the Romans originally settled in the area, he said.

With that tidbit, I added another “Who knew?” to my growing list of European river lore.

Viking Cruises offers European river trips on its fleet of nearly identical, 443-foot long riverboats, called longships, including the Viking Skadi. For itineraries and information, go to www.vikingcruises.com.

Ginger Dingus

A+ For The A Line

By Nancy Clark

Start at Point A: Union Station. http://unionstationindenver.com has everyplace to dine.

You can shop:

You can even stay at The Crawford Hotel if you want to turn your journey into a weekend stay-cation.

Most travelers will find a reason to take the A Train when traveling to DIA to take a flight out of town. Take a cab DIA to downtown Denver, it can run $51 plus gate drop fees of $4.57 plus a tip. To the Tech Center it’s $57 plus.

Take the A Train from Union Station to DIA and it is only $9, 8 stops, 23 miles and 37 minutes.

If you haven’t seen Union Station in its finished remodeled state yet, it’s worth the journey even if you don’t test drive the train.

If you do make this your day trip, you’ll delight in the fact that the platform where you land at DIA has half a dozen kiosks where you can print off your boarding pass. There’s a bag drop for suitcases, golf bags and skis. No need to schlep heavy luggage, the only heavy you’ll encounter is to take the four story escalator to the security line. No seatbelts. Like most trains.

Your day-cation on the A Train is fun for all ages. And your round-trip ticket is still only $9 (good for 24 hours.) Most round-trip airport travelers will spend $18 ($9 to and $9 from the airport.) Children under 5 ride free. Discount fares are $4.50 (also good for 24 hours) for seniors 65+, individuals with disabilities, Medicare recipients and students 6-19 years.

Still uncertain? Get the app: http://free.mytransitguide.com/index.jhtml?partner=^BNH^xdm048&gclid=CMjH8pPIl84CFZOCaQodnxcA6g

Take 5

By Courtney Drake-McDonough

Whether Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are in your backyard, or out of state, they are a wonder to behold. Mountain towns abound, each with their own set of events, businesses and activities that show off their best. In this issue of Watchboom.com, we feature 3 destinations and 5 ways to enjoy each one.

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Aspen:

  1. Jazz Aspen Snowmass runs throughout the summer with a big finish over Labor Day with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Duran Duran.  There are special deals for kids that weekend too.
  2. Aspen Historical Society Tours make history come alive on walking tours of Victorian homes and ghost towns. Learn more about Aspen’s fascinating history with costumed guides or on self-guided tours.
  3. Aspen Art Museum (free admission!) & Anderson Ranch Arts Center (in Snowmass) allow you to become immersed in art, seeing it, making it and buying it. Take a tour at Aspen Art Museum to fully appreciate the exhibits. And take classes at Anderson Ranch (at any age) to ignite (or re-ignite) your artistic side.
  4. Aspen Words and Aspen Ideas Festival gets your creative and intellectual juices flowing and fresh. Both coincide with the jazz festival making for even more reasons to visit Aspen.
  5. EAT – Aspen has many restaurants with a variety of cuisines and price ranges including Mi Chola, Limelight Hotel’s lounge, weekend Farmers Market and various food vendors at Jazz Aspen Snowmass.

Where to Stay: Limelight Hotel – Right in the heart of town, the hotel has beautiful rooms, free adventure activities through the concierge program (plus bikes to check out) and a free and ample breakfast buffet. The Lounge is also a great place to grab a bite for lunch, happy hour or dinner.

Keystone:

  1. Kidtopia activities for kids such as gold panning, kite flying, crafts and strider balance bike races mean happy, happy kids and lots of great photo ops.
  2. Keystone Lake makes for one giant ice skating rink in the winter. In the summer, it’s the spot for a plethora of water sports including paddleboating, canoeing and standup paddleboating plus biking around the lake. Fish and ducks follow you around, hoping you bought a small bag of food for them at the Adventure Center counter.
  3. Festivals abound at Keystone with something for every interest from bacon to beer to bluegrass. Plan to attend several since keystone is only a 90 minute drive from Denver International Airport.
  4. Dercum Mountain activities including a summer tubing run, mountaintop yoga, games and amazing views are just a stunning gondola ride away. Half the fun is getting there. The other half awaits at the top.
  5. EAT – Enjoy a delicious, elegant farm-fresh meal in the rustic charm of a 1930’s homestead, with dessert served in the livingroom with views of the golf course and mountains at Keystone Ranch.  

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Where to Stay: River Run – Comfortable condos give you enough space and coziness to make for home base during all of your activities. The condos are walking distance to everything.

Vail

  1. Epic Discovery, created in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and Nature Conservancy to encourage people to learn through play, offers the Game Creek Zip Line Tour, Forest Flyer ™ alpine coaster that winds its way down the mountain’s natural contours and Expanded Trail System offering directional signage to encourage more hiking.
  2. The Solaris area, at the base of some posh residences, offers a bunch of fun in one area. Play and dine in the sleekest bowling alley you’ve ever seen at  Bol, get a good cup of coffee and a snack at Yeti’s Grind coffee, or a craft beer (or root beer) at Vail Brewing. The giant yard in the center is perfect for a taking a yoga or flyfishing class or for letting kiddos run off some energy while you observe from the comfort of a patio.
  3. Vail Farmers Market – Said to be the largest farmer’s market in the state (or darned close), this is one well-laid out market that takes you meandering the flower-laden streets of Vail shopping for produce, goods and lunch! Friendly vendors make for great one-on-one connection to the products and the people behind them.
  4. Betty Ford Alpine Gardens – An oasis, off the beaten track, winding paths, shaded alcoves and abundant flowers and trees bring out feelings of wonderment. Educational programs, special events, a charming children’s garden make it a must-stop for any age.
  5. EAT – You know you’ve had a good meal when you find yourself planning a trip out of town just to be able to dine there again. Such was our experience with Mountain Standard. So much thought goes into every dish without piling on unnecessary ingredients. Our return visit confirmed that it was as great as we remembered it. Sister restaurant, Sweet Basil, upstairs has been an institution in Vail for decades. For a taste of Paris, Vintage bistro serves a champagne brunch at charming café tables just like you’d see in France.

Where to Stay. Antlers at Vail, makes for a great home away from home. The all-condo units offer up to 4 bedrooms, impressive kitchens, fireplaces, balconies with grills and easy access to the free shuttle that goes around the area.

Courtney Drake-McDonough is a Colorado native, writer and editor for local and national publications. She is also the founder of www.InGoodTasteDenver.com, a news and reviews website. She never gets tired of (re)discovering her home state.

COEXISTING AT LAKE CHARLES

By Yvette Cardozo

You don’t necessarily think of Louisiana and eco-tours as being synonymous. But it turns out Lake Charles, just 30 miles from the Gulf Coast, on the west side of the state near Texas, is a major route for migrating birds in spring and fall.

We’re talking thousands of birds. Hundreds of species. So close, you can actually photograph them without having to heft a back breaking, multi-thousand dollar telephoto lens.

And don’t forget the alligators, maybe the area’s number one draw. Four and five foot (and larger) gators, seriously up close and personal.

Plus, there’s this incredible fishing. But more about fish...and painting fish...later.          

Birding in the Lake Charles area is a bit of a secret outside Louisiana.

“It’s unknown, really. It’s not been heavily promoted,” said Dave Patton of the local Audubon Society. “But those people who do know about the birds in this area treasure it.”

There are many ways to see the birds ... hiking on a boardwalk, driving a three mile loop, taking various tours.

I tried them all but what I really loved was the tours. These folks know what they are doing. They know where to go. They’ve got the equipment (namely the boat). Yes, my best gator encounter was on a road but for birds, nothing quite beats nosing around a marshland or bayou in a boat, looking for nests and crowds of wings.

Okay, folks here don’t think it’s strange that an oil company runs eco-tours on reclaimed wetlands, but for outsiders, this is a fascinating look at coexistence. Sweet Lake Land and Oil built a dike around 484 acres of marsh to keep it flooded year around. And now, it’s home to nearly 500 species of birds who massively come through each spring and fall.

The company first created the permanent wetland so they could stock it for bass fishing. It’s strictly catch and release here, with folks sometimes snagging 50, even 100 fish on a trip. But a few years ago, the company decided to add eco tours for the birders, said manager Bobby Jordan.

We went out with the company’s Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours in a flat-bottomed, open boat that could easily skim through the water lilies and grass to nose up close to birds and nests.

In fall, you get tons of birds in the trees. In spring, there’s the added nests and the babies with tufts of feathers and open mouths. We eased our boat in to inspect a nest with eggs almost close enough to touch. For nests with hatched babies, you keep more distance, but not so far that you can’t get a shot with your cell phone.

The birds in the trees were amazing. We’d float by and see half a dozen cattle egrets sitting on branches, orange breeding tufts clearly visible on their heads. And the huge ibis were stunning. You don’t realize how large they are until you are near one and it stretches out its wings.

But for up close gators, nothing quite beats Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. Pintail Wildlife Drive has a half mile boardwalk where we could photograph blooming water lilies at our leisure along with one curious gator who swam right up to where we stood. Even better was the three mile gravel loop drive. You can’t hike or bicycle it, for safety reasons that soon became obvious, but in a car, you can still get close enough to alligators to photograph their eyeballs.

We stopped to watch one six footer as he stretched out in the sunlight. He slowly opened his mouth, which is a gator’s way of regulating heat. And we all got a LOT of pictures.

“Gators are our number one draw,” said Anne Klenke of the Lake Charles CVB. “There are few other places you can get so close and see them so often.”

I grew up in south Florida and used to bicycle in the Everglades and never saw an alligator out of the water so close.

There’s also swamp tours. On a previous trip, I went out with Jimmy Miller down a local bayou and into the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge where we saw anhingas, cormorants, bald eagles and yes, an alligator Jimmy has named Lollypop. Man, those critters go fast when they want to.

And then, there’s the fishing. But first, the fish painting.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place quite like Arts’ Desire in Lake Charles. The idea is to play with art, kind of like you might have done in elementary school. You can paint a scarf, make pottery, design your own jewelry.

And, best of all, the fish. Owner and resident artist Raejean Clark-German uses real fish, which she conveniently stores in a freezer. The thawed fish is wiped down, then painted (the brighter the colors, the better), pressed onto paper, a board or ceramic platter, then the fish is peeled off.

What remains is a form of Japanese art called gyotaku that looks somewhat like it’s been stenciled on.

As for the fishing ... sadly, a ferocious storm canceled our scheduled trip, but here’s what we learned:

Folks fish seven lakes in the Lake Charles area, all connected by channels, and dozens of fish guiding services. Many guide services have lodges as well as guided trips.

For light tackle salt water fishing, Big Lake Guide Service fishes Calcasieu Lake with 10# test line. The average trip is eight hours and on an average day, three people can come back with 40 fish. Or more.

“It’s brackish or salt water, depending on the time of year and you can fish year round all the way to Lake Charles, clear up to the casinos,” said Big Lake owner Jeff Poe.

“The redfish are sometimes so thick, you can’t get away from them. And there are days the baitfish cover the water like a blanket.”

They use lures rather than live bait because, “Heck otherwise we’d hit our limit in an hour,” he added.

So what do folks do with all that fish?

“They drive in with coolers, take it home, smoke it, freeze it or, I guess, feed the neighborhood,” Poe said.          

Poe’s service will clean the fish, bag it or if people fly in, freeze it for travel.

Locals swear what Poe claims is no exaggeration.

As we drove from Poe’s lodge, I was already calculating how much it would cost to bring my son and his family from Atlanta, a nine hour drive away.

CAJUN FOOD 

Cajun food isn’t something you do in a fancy sit-down restaurant. It’s by the side of the road during a parade, in a bar, under a tent, in a community center, in a tiny hole-in-the-wall cafe.

Just about anywhere along the Louisiana Gulf coast you’ll find it.

Sure, it’s not on anyone’s weight loss diet list. But, oh my, it IS irresistible.

At Guillory’s Famous Foods in Lake Charles, Louisiana, my friends and I learned about cracklins.

Darby Guillory took us to his back room where a mammoth vat of hog fat bubbled.

Cracklins are fried fat back. It comes from around the pig’s mid-section and includes the skin, some fat and if it’s quality cracklin, some meat. Darby had cut it into one-inch cubes, which floated in the vat until he fished them out with a slotted ladle, then had his wife sprinkle on seasonings.

The secret, Darby said, “You’ve gotta eat them fresh and hot.”

Think bacon. No, think super bacon. No, think of what a million or so years of evolutionary attraction to fat and salt have done to your willpower. Don't even try to fight it.

Cracklins, Darby admonished, are eaten on the spot, in the car, on the way home. But not, absolutely not, hours later when they’re fossilized, if you value your teeth. http://guillorysfamousfoods.com/

For full Creole immersion there’s the SW Louisiana Boudin Trail with more than two dozen stops that wander through two parishes (counties) and range from convenience stores to cafes.  Few of these places have websites but many do have Facebook pages.

LeBleu’s Landing is a family owned Cajun meat market and cafe.  Owners Kevin and Shelley Downs prefer their Boudin (rice, ground pork, onions, celery and a family secret blend of spices in sausage casing) without liver, which many others do include. Think dirty rice in a handy, chewable tube and you get the idea.  http://www.lebleuslanding.com/

Jeff Benoit is the third generation to run B&O Kitchen & Grocery where the offerings run the gamut from gator, jerky, cracklins, stuffed chickens, hog head cheese and, of course, Boudin (pronounce it boo-dan).

Local hunters come from all over to have their catch processed. He keeps a file with folks’ sausage preferences.

But the star of B&O is the Gaudidoun Burger. A mile high presentation of BBQ pulled pork or beef brisket, Boudin balls, and fixins’ (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle). https://www.facebook.com/BO-Kitchen-and-Grocery-171012087541/

And there are many more of these tiny roadside stops where you will find just about any Cajun finger food you desire.

But what IS Cajun food?  At one point in our wanderings, we talked to Al Kuhlman at the Forest Inn in Franklin, LA.

Canadian, Creole and French roots all combine in Cajun food, Al explained, adding that gumbo is the star.

At the heart of gumbo is a proper roux, which is basically hot oil and flour.

“You have to know how long to leave it cooking so it won’t taste burnt,” Al explained. Then, to this base (and everyone has their own version) you add the “trinity” of onions, bell peppers and celery, then the sausage or chicken or shrimp.

It’s less than a stew, more than a soup and the kind of spicy that makes your tongue shiver. http://forestrestaurantfranklin.com/

And much later, in Houma, LA, at Big Al’s Seafood, there were crawdads.

But first, the fried pickles. Everyone should try batter fried pickles at least once. It’s crunch and tang and of course, that instinctive gut craving for anything fried.

I passed on the grilled fish. Y’all don’t do grilled anything on a southern Louisiana vacation.

But after a week of fried catfish and fried gator and fried shrimp interspersed with sausage and Boudin, I was ready for boiled crawdads. These things look like tiny versions of the lobsters that are their relatives. At Big Al’s you order ’em by the two pound platter.

Yeah, the idea is to share with the table. But my travel buddies were exuberantly forking into their grilled fish, so I had the entire tray to myself.

There’s a method, the helpful waitress with a honey accent explained.

Pinch off the head, suck out the juices (but don’t eat that feathery stuff which she helpfully warned “Tastes like poop.”

Thus fortified with a mouthful of spicy heaven, it’s time to get to the real job. Pinch that tiny tail and hope the shell peels off. You will then be rewarded with a microscopic shard of the most wonderful tasting stuff.

Maybe I should have collected a bunch to get a real mouthful but I was too zombified by that week of fried eating, so I methodically did them one by one by ... you get the idea. http://bigalsseafood.com/  

The Lake Charles, LA, area in SW Louisiana is on the path of all five routes for migrating birds. Bird viewing is best March through May and August through October.

For fishermen, flounder runs usually also happen in spring and fall.

And brand new in the area, the Catch And Cook program. You can now take your catch to participating restaurants and have it cooked for you by a top chef.          

Your first stop should be the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point office just south of I-10 at exit 20. There are four wildlife refuges in the area managed by the US Fish and Wildlife  Service. They offer bird watching, boardwalks, loop drives, docks to launch boats, fishing, crabbing, duck hunting and more. Plan on a day to do the Creole Nature Trail main loop and another day for side trails that will take you to Rutherford Beach and other eco areas. And for fishing or crabbing, still another day.

CONTACTS:

* Lake Charles - http://www.visitlakecharles.org

* Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/adventurepoint

* Creole Nature Trail - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/creole-nature-trail/

* Cameron Parish nature - http://cameronparishtouristcommission.org/listing/pintail-wildlife-drive  * Grosse Savanne Eco Tours - http://www.grossesavanne-ecotours.com/

* Swamp tour - Annie Miller’s Son’s Swamp and Marsh Tour - http://www.annie-miller.com/

* Arts’ Desire - http://artsdesirelc.com

* SW Louisiana Boudin Trail - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/boudintrail

* Catch & Cook program two restaurants: Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp - http://tiajuanitasfishcamp.com/ and Jack Daniels Bar & Grill - http://www.llakecharles.com/dining/jack-daniel-s-bar-and-grill/ 

OTHER LAKE CHARLES AREA ACTIVITIES:  

* Tour Lake Charles historic district via horse carriage (One of the finest collections of Victorian architecture in the state, dating from the late 1800s).  J& R Carriage - http://www.facebook.com/JR-Carriage-144726940521/

* Brimstone Museum for fascinating history of sulphur in the area - http://www.brimstonemuseum.org/ 

* Mardi Gras Museum with hundreds of elaborate Krewe (crew) royalty costumes - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/swlamardigras/mardi-gras-museum/

* Contraband Days - Held during the first two weeks of May, is the city's official celebration of the legend of the pirate Jean Lafitte. http://www.visitlakecharles.org/events-festivals/contraband-days/

Lake Charles Photo Diary: https://goo.gl/photos/Mjw7repreqpLVUQo6

Paris Pass brightens France’s ‘city of lights’

By Bob Schulman

You’re in Paris, and sightseeing here is an absolute must – but  you don’t have much time to do it (nor a wallet full of cash to pay all those entry fees).Voilà! Enter the Paris Pass (www.parispass.com), offering free entry to more than 60 of the city’s top attractions plus free travel on the Metro network, buses and RER express trains within central Paris.

The Louvre Museum draws thousands of visitors a day.

Among the most popular stops on the Paris Pass routes are the Towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Musée du Louvre, the Arc de Triomph and the Palace of Versailles. Entry to these four attractions along with a river cruise would normally cost 67 euros – over half the tab of an adult Paris Pass. Besides entry to 55-plus other attractions and transport services, the pass is also good for “fast track” entry to many of the city’s major tourist draws and for special dining and shopping discounts.

Notre Dame Cathedral.A Paris Pass – good for two days -- costs 129 euros (1 euro equals about US$1.10) for adults, 79 euros for teens (between 12 and 17 years) and 44 euros for a child between four and 11 years.  

Newly included on the Paris Pass list of freebies this summer is the popular Paris Aquarium, one of France’s leading family attractions. The site combines an aquarium and a dual-screen cinema and boasts more than 500 underwater species from all over the world living in 3,500 square meters of water. 

If your kids prefer mixing with celebrities, head to the Grevin Wax Museum.  Here they can get up close and personal with more than 300 famous names -- from musical legends Madonna and Michael Jackson to actors George Clooney and Brad Pitt. They can even get chummy with Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama.  Normally 23.50 euros for adults and 16.50 for children, entry to the wax museum is included with the Paris Pass.

A real piece of lunar rock and a spectacular scale model of the solar system are among the attractions at the Palais de la Découverte (also comped with the Paris Pass) science museum. Kids will love the scale models of the Spirit Martian rover and the Saturn V rocket, used to send men to the moon in the early 1970s. Coming back down to Earth, there is also a chance to walk through the geological changes to our own planet during its history, covering five million years with every step. 

Paris’ tastiest attraction, the Gourmet Chocolate Museum, is sure to tempt adults and children alike. The museum (admittance is free with the pass) follows 4,000 years of the history of chocolate in words, images and flavors. On entry, children ages 6-12 are given a sheet of chocolate-themed stickers to complete in the correct order -- with a delectable reward.

Palace of Versailles.

Photos courtesy of Paris Pass.

Walking safari features 17 days in the African bush

By Bob Schulman

It might be quite a stretch, but try to imagine yourself beating the bushes around an African jungle with a hunting party of Maasai warriors. Also, try to see yourself exploring a park full of lions, leopards, cheetahs, black rhinos, elephants, hyenas, jackals, wild dogs, 200,000 zebras and a million or so wildebeest.

Elephants roam across the Serengeti plain.

If you can get that down, picture yourself tracking dinner with a group of Hadzas (one of Africa’s last hunter-gatherer tribes), teetering on the edge of a 2,000-foot- deep volcanic crater and spending four whole days moseying around the foliage (and critters) in the Serengeti Wilderness Area.

Packaged by International Nature and Culture Adventures (INCA), all these jaunts into the bush and many more are featured in a 17-day walking safari called “Secrets of the Serengeti (http://www.inca1.com/secrets-of-the-serengeti/overview/).” The safari, set mainly in the east African country of Tanzania, is slated for next Feb. 10 to 26.

Maasai women model their everyday dresses.

“While there are many high points of the tour,” an INCA spokeswoman notes, “walking in the Serengeti Wilderness could well be the most rewarding.” Much of the journey, she says, is in “untracked bush that has rarely been visited in the past 50 years.”

Safari guests rough it in the bush during the day, but they spend their nights in luxury lodges and tented camps.

Tour guests take a break with their Maasai guide.

INCA's journey starts with a visit to Tarangire National Park where herds of up to 300 elephants can be seen along with oryx, gerenuk, hartebeest, Kori Bustard (the world’s heaviest flying bird) and ostrich (the world's largest flying bird). Among other adventures before entering the Serengeti National Park is a stop at Lake Manyara National Park to view the famed tree-climbing lions and thousands of pink flamingos.

Wildebeest have the right of way across a stream.

You wouldn’t expect a trip like this to come cheap, and it doesn’t. Emeryville, Calif.-based INCA’s tab starts at $22,495 per person for two guests, $17,995 each for four to five guests and $14,995 per person for eight. Included are private charter flights from the Serengeti Wilderness Area and Kilimanjaro International Airport, but you’re on your own for flights to Africa and back.

Photos courtesy of African Environments

On the Trail of Kit Carson in Taos

By Rich Grant

“I don’t know if I did right or wrong but I always did my best.”  Quote by Kit Carson on a placard in his home in Taos, New Mexico

Few people in history have received as many mixed reviews as Kit Carson.  The larger-than-life mountain man, trapper, scout, soldier, and Indian fighter was in his lifetime one of the most famous characters of the American West -- the subject of books and movies.  There are mountains, parks, a state capital and a national forest named after him.  In Colorado, where he is still a hero, bronze Kit Carson statues grace parks from Denver to Trinidad.

But in New Mexico, not so much.  An exhibit on Carson in the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe states flatly that Carson was “admired by a few, despised by many.”  Ouch.  A 2014 article in the Albuquerque Tribune was headlined:  “Kit Carson: The Most Hated White Guy in American History?”  The article seemed to conclude yes – at least in New Mexico, a state that ironically treasures every association it has with the outlaw Billy the Kid.

Nowhere in New Mexico is this dichotomy over Kit Carson more intense than in Taos, the pretty mountain valley town where he spent 25 years of his life.  Carson’s third wife, Josefa Jaramillo, was from Taos. They married here in 1843 and had seven children.  She died giving birth to their eighth.  A heartbroken Carson died a month later.  They are buried side-by-side in a small park in the heart of Taos, called the Kit Carson Park and Historic Cemetery.

And that’s where the problems begin.  In 2014, there was a movement in Taos to remove Carson’s name from the park.  Interpretive signs by his quiet gravesite were defaced and at city council meetings he was called a “murderer” and blamed for the “Long Walk” of the Navajos, an infamous chapter of American history in which the Navajo tribe was forcibly removed from their homelands in Arizona and marched 400 miles in winter to a reservation, where thousands of them died.  It was a Navajo version of the Holocaust.  Carson wasn’t on the march, but along with George Armstrong Custer, in the changing times of the 21st century, he has become a symbol of the tragedies inflicted on Native Americans during the “winning” of the West.

Which is a fact that would have struck the humble Kit Carson as simply amazing.  A short and shy man, he was illiterate and couldn’t even sign his own name.  Despite that, he was fluent in both French and Spanish, as well as Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Ute and Dine (Navajo).   He had two Indian wives, lived and traded with the Indians for years and was considered one of the best and fairest of Indian agents.  He served as the principal guide to the John C. Fremont expeditions of the Oregon Trail, which was the 19th century equivalent of being an astronaut.  Fremont’s widely read journals made Kit Carson a household name across America.  During the War with Mexico, Carson helped capture California, sneaking through enemy lines in the dark and running 23 miles to get reinforcements.  Later, he commanded Union forces with honor in the Civil War.

In his lifetime, Kit Carson covered thousands of miles on foot and horseback across the American West, but you can get an intimate glimpse of both sides of the man in just a short walk around the Taos Plaza.  

“The cowards never start and the weak die along the way.”  Kit Carson

There has been a plaza in the center of Taos for more than 200 years.  Originally, it was a fortified square where livestock could be kept safe at night, but today, it’s a quiet park with large shade trees and benches, surrounded by adobe buildings in the Spanish Colonial and Territorial Revival style.  Since the buildings are all connected, when one caught fire, they all caught fire, and they’ve been burning down together for two centuries, leading, of course, to many changes.   The current buildings date back to the golden era of 1930s tourism, when artists and writers such as D.H. Lawrence lived here.  They drip with New Mexico charm with covered verandas, exposed wood beams, adobe walls and shops sparkling with turquoise jewelry, silver, and bright Indian blankets.

Just a block from the plaza is where Kit and Josefa lived in a four-room, 1820s adobe house that is now a National Historic Landmark operated as the Kit Carson Home & Museum.

You enter the museum through a pleasant courtyard.  This is where the Carsons did most of their living.  The courtyard was where people cooked, washed, and socialized.  It’s also where Carson conducted business as an Indian agent for the Utes, Apaches, and Taos Pueblo tribes.  Many tribesmen pitched their teepees in the courtyard, where their children played with Kit Carson’s.

In the house, are exhibits telling his life story.  Born in 1809, by the time he was 16, Christopher “Kit” Carson had run away from his home in Missouri and gone west on the Santa Fe Trail, working as a mountain man, trapper and hunter, and later as an explorer and guide.  By the time he settled down in the mountain community of Taos, Kit was the town’s most famous citizen.   The house is small, and the doorways even smaller.  Kit was only 5 feet 6 inches tall.  When Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman met the famous scout for the first time, he wrote, “I cannot express my surprise at beholding a small, stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage or daring.” 

The kitchen is reconstructed as it would have been, when food was prepared here for the nine Carsons.  Taos was still the frontier and life was very simple with few possessions.  Each of the rooms had a fireplace, which was the only heat. 

Much of the museum is devoted to Josefa Carson, and you learn that Kit wasn’t the only Carson with adventures.  Josefa’s sister, Ignacia, was married to the second most famous citizen in Taos, former mountain man and trader Charles Bent, who in 1846 was appointed governor of New Mexico.  They lived around the corner, and you can walk to their home, also a museum, in a few minutes.

The Governor Bent Museum is a crazy, hodgepodge collection of Old West memorabilia including bearskins, arrows, guns, eight-legged lambs, farm tools, and Indian baskets.  It was opened in 1959, which appears to be the last time any exhibit was dusted.  Tom Noeding’s parents opened it and today he runs it, so if it’s open, that means he’s there and can point out the room where the famous fireplace was.

While Kit was out of town in January 1847, Josefa Carson was staying with her sister at this house when the Taos Revolt began.  Taos and all of New Mexico had been ruled first by Native Americans, then Spanish, then Mexican, and then in 1846 by the United States, who captured it in the War with Mexico and appointed the first Anglo governor, Charles Bent.  It was too much change too fast for the locals.  Tensions built and an angry mob of Taos Pueblo natives and local Hispanic residents revolted and marched on the Governor’s house.  Bent tried to calm them down, but they grabbed him from the house, shot him full of arrows, scalped him alive and literally tore his body to pieces, all in front of what is now the quiet Op. Cit Bookstore.  Meanwhile, Josefa Carson and her sister Ignacia seized a poker and spoons and managed to dig a hole through the adobe wall at the back of the fireplace, and escape.

After the gruesome murder, the Carsons helped care for Ignacia and her children.  Ignacia lived to be 68 and she and her grandchildren are buried in the Kit Carson Cemetery Park, not far from her sister and Kit.

If there was a tragedy to Kit Carson’s life, it is that he was amazingly good at whatever he set out to do.  Unfortunately, this included fighting a war against the Navajos in 1865.  Twice, he refused the assignment, but as a soldier he was finally ordered by Brigadier General James Carleton to lead the campaign.  Carson reluctantly did, but he deliberately disobeyed his brutal orders to “capture the women and kill all the men.”  Instead he waged a mostly nonviolent, “scorched earth” war by destroying the Navajo’s food sources, which forced them to surrender with little loss of life.  Sadly, in the end, the results were equally horrifying.  The Navajos were ripped from their land by other soldiers and forced on the deadly long march to a reservation, which killed thousands.  Naturally, they blamed Carson for their defeat and never forgave him.   Ironically, Carson had nothing to do with the Long March, and he even went to Washington to lobby for the Navajos to be returned to their homeland, which they were in 1868.

Carson quit the army after the campaign and he and Josefa died shortly afterward.  Standing by their gravesite, 150 years later, it’s hard not to go back to Kit’s quote, hanging in his home.  “I don’t know if I did right or wrong, but I always did my best.”

IF YOU GO:

When Kit was near death, he allegedly said:  “I wish I had time for just one more bowl of chili.”  And by that he meant, Taos chili.  Delicious cuisine is just one reason that millions of visitors flow to this beautiful artist community and outdoor recreation center every year.  In addition to skiing, Taos is known for river running on the Rio Grande, hiking, fishing, and spectacular mountain scenery.  There are dozens of art galleries and a fantastic assortment of restaurants, many specializing in New Mexico cuisine based upon the most famous of all green chiles, those grown in NM.  The Eske’s Brew Pub & Eatery near the main square has an excellent green chile stew as well as half dozen of their own craft beers.  Wednesday night is “Bluegrass Night,” with many local musicians pickin’ away on guitars, banjos and fiddles.

Another must visit is the Taos Pueblo, four miles from town.  This is the oldest continuously inhabited spot in North America.  The two main structures are believed to be well over 1,000 years old and consist of individual adobe homes built side by side and in layers, with common walls and no connecting doorways.   They look today much like they would have when Kit Carson was their Indian agent; the only change to the adobe structures was the addition of blue entrance doors (the homes were originally entered via ladders from holes in the ceiling).  Between 50 and 100 people still live in the Taos Pueblo without running water or electricity.  Students give tours, and several of the buildings are open as shops selling jewelry, pottery and Indian fry bread.

In 1847, shortly after the uprising in which Charles Bent was killed and Josefa Carson had her narrow escape, the U.S. Army attacked Taos Pueblo in reprisal.  Many of the Taos Pueblo people went to the San Geronimo church for protection.  The army wheeled a cannon to the church, and fired into it point blank, killing dozens of women and children.  The ruins of the church became a cemetery and the leaders of the revolt were hung in Taos Plaza.  Visiting today, it’s hard to believe this tranquil and beautiful spot had such a bloody past.  Because of past oppressions against them, the language of the Taos People, Tiwa, is unwritten and unrecorded and is passed down orally from generation to generation.  It is quite remarkable to see people live here as they did centuries ago and walk literally back into the days of Kit Carson.

Where to Stay:

Just a short walk down Kit Carson Road from Kit’s old house is El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa www.elmontesagrado.com/ is one of those rarest of rare finds – a world-class luxurious resort and spa within easy walking distance of a historic district.  El Monte Sagrado (which means “The Holy Mountain”) is spread over a beautiful 11-acre oasis filled with ponds, streams, wildflowers, bridges, waterfalls and aspen trees.   The 84-room resort became a Heritage Hotel & Resort 10 months ago.  The largest independent hotel brand in New Mexico, Heritage takes great pride in their collection of culturally distinct properties, and it shows.  They are pumping big money into the $70 million, AAA Four Diamond resort, including major improvements to the rooms, landscaping and cultural amenities, as well as adding to the resort’s 300 piece art collection.

Among the new amenities are regularly scheduled concerts by Native American flutist Robert Mirabal.   A two time Grammy Award winner, Mirabal is also working with the hotel and Taos Pueblo to introduce a new garden at El Monte Sagrado that will use ancient seeds to grow Native American foods and spices on the hotel’s grounds for use in its kitchens.  The hotel’s gorgeous restaurant, De La Tierra, serves all three meals, inside or on the patio.  For dinner, go local and try the Caprice Cactus salad, the Crab Quesadilla and the Elk Chop seared and glazed with Chipotle agave nectar. The hip Anaconda Bar next door has a gigantic snake sculpture wrapped around the horseshoe-shaped bar and offers one of the best happy hours in Taos with $3.50 local drafts and $5 house margaritas.

The resort offers six types of rooms.  At the top end, the Global Suites are 1,100-sq. ft. casitas (small bungalows) each decorated with original art and architecture to reflect different regions of the world, from China, Japan and Spain to Morocco, Mexico and Argentina.  Each of the casitas has two bedrooms, two baths, log beam ceilings and all luxury amenities from wet bars to pueblo-style gas fireplaces.  Four of them have hot tubs.  If it seems strange to have a global theme in Taos, there’s no worries.  It works beautifully with the patios walking out into the gardens.

The premiere suites carry the global theme to Bali, Egypt and Tibet, while the 18 Native American suites each carry the name of a famous historic Native American and come with king beds, kiva-style fireplaces and balconies or courtyards overlooking the Sacred Circle, the green space surrounded by willow and cottonwood trees that is the center of the resort.

Finally, the Casita Suites are fun and funky, part of the original historic hotel with true 1930s New Mexico style and private patios, all upgraded with modern amenities, while the Taos Mountain Rooms are more tradition resort rooms but with private balconies, fireplaces, jet soaking tubs and access to all the amenities of the resort.

And then there’s the spa.  The Living Spa, as it’s called, has won awards from Conde Nast Traveler to Spa Finder, and no wonder.  The ten gorgeous and eco-conscious treatment rooms offer benefits such as a sunlit shower and natural waterfall cooling system.  Kit Carson probably took a natural shower in a waterfall, but not like this.  There are candlelit couple’s suites, Thai massage sessions, 90-minute facials…and when you’re done, don a robe and walk through the gardens to the saltwater pool for a long relaxing soak.  Kit Carson would have never left Taos if he had discovered this place.

For information on other attractions in Taos, www.taos.org

OKANAGAN BIKE + WINE

Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo

Wineries it seems are always perched on some ridge. Waaaay up along some ridge. At the end of a gravel road. And you’re on a bicycle.

.

How many wineries have I done by bike?

Lots.

How many hills?

Too many.

So when I learned of a way to do this on a bike ... WITH AN ELECTRIC ASSIST MOTOR ... I signed up.

The company is called, oddly enough, Heatstroke Cycle. The bikes are bright orange, solid, heavy, with gears for when you want to do the pedaling. As for the motor, you twist a ring on one handlebar, there’s a bit of a kick and off you go, gliding along without so much as rotating a leg.

We were in the South Okanagan, a British Columbia, Canada, farming valley just north of the US border. This stretch of semi desert is actually a continuation of a long series of dry, fertile valleys that run just east of North America’s western mountain ranges from Canada clear to California and south into Mexico.

It’s the Thompson/Okanagan in Canada, the Okanogan in Washington State, the Willamette Valley in Oregon and an assortment of valleys in California. Thanks to irrigation, they’re lush and filled with all sorts of tasty growing food. And wine.

            The land rolls with low green hills and sparkling lakes. Orchards filled with cherries, apples, pears, peaches and berries line the view with straight, neat rows of trees and bushes. Vegetables of all sorts grow everywhere, even though the area gets only 12 - 16 inches of rain a year.

Wineries, like the fruit, have blossomed.

Twenty five years ago there were 17 wineries in British Columbia. Now it’s 255, along with craft breweries, distilleries, cider shops and fruit stands.

Yup, you can sip (and chew) your way from one end of this 440 mile series of valleys to the other.

My friends and I headed for Oliver, billed as the “wine capital of Canada” and started with Hester Creek Winery, perched high on a hill, where we sampled assorted whites and reds, then met our bikes.

These are sturdy Pedego cruisers, 52 pounds with the motors, able to take even a 250 pound guy uphill if he’s willing to pedal a bit. The “high on a hill” part was important, since our introduction to the bikes merely involved coasting downhill, tapping the brakes, trying out the motor and watching the grape vines flow past our eyes.

Then it was onto a lightly traveled country road and a few minutes later, up a small hill to Cassini Cellars, with its colorful antique farm truck (they seem to be a requirement of wineries) and more sipping.

Road 13 Vineyards looks like a castle. More sipping, some nibbling and off again.

The entire route is hardly nine miles.  The hero of this trip is the wineries, not necessarily the exercise.

But the best was to come after our snack.

What perhaps sets the wine experience of this region apart is that there are some truly quirky and unique wineries.          

Enter Rustico Farm & Cellars.          

Bruce Fuller is an escapee from the corporate life. Once a corporate affairs VP, he decided he wanted something a little less straitlaced.  He found a circa 1895 bunkhouse and moved it, log by log, to the next valley and settled it on a stretch of farmland, where he created what may be one of Canada’s only cowboy wineries.

“If the wash is on the line, I’m open,” Bruce said, pointing to the fluttering dresses, nighties and assorted unmentionables pinned to a laundry line outside the bunkhouse.

Garbed in cowboy hat, blue work shirt, apron and lush mustache, Bruce pours tastings and sells incredibly affordable yet excellent wines from his saloon themed tasting room. He’s got 400 acres and supplies grapes to 27 wineries. The wines all have western names ... Isabella’s Poke, a pinot gris, Golden Garter, an oaked chardonnay, Bonanza, an old vine zinfandel, Mother Lode, a merlot and my fav, Last Chance, a blend of five reds with a hearty but not too astringent taste.

Each, by the way, comes with its own story, usually featuring One-Armed Reid, a grizzled miner from the old days.

For Mother Lode ... “As the story goes, miners dream of finding the mother lode, the big one, the strike-it-rich discovery that One-Armed Reid and his cronies at Fairview yearned for.  You’ve just discovered it!”

Oh yeah, and there’s also a Wine Posse Club you can join for special prices.

I planned to buy that Last Chance but was too busy inspecting the cowboy hats, the quirky signs, the saddle, the BBQ sauces including something called Hell Bitch consisting of Cabernet Franc and jalapenos ....

Next time.

I did get a chance, at one point to ask about why all those wineries are always perched atop some hill.

It’s not for the scenery, though that’s a wonderful bonus. It’s because it’s easier to run the irrigation water downhill than pump it up, even if you have to first get it from the lakes below. Yes, I also shook my head. But when you start thinking about it ....

That night, we ate at Miradoro Restaurant, part of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards. Of course, killer views. And yes, we sampled their 2014 chardonnay, which got a 95 ranking this year from Decanter magazine, possibly the first Canadian wine to score that high. It sells for about $15 US.                 

From the magazine’s review: “"Very well made and Chablis-esque with a crisp green-apple nose augmented by nutty, mineral, light oak notes. To taste, it's dry, crisp yet fruit-driven with nectarine and lemon-infused fruit framed by a soupçon of toasty oak, finishing with a graceful smidgen of minerality."

Okay, as someone who likes a good wine but is certainly no expert, I can say it was dry but not too dry, crisp and, interestingly, left a hint of almost sweet on my tongue. It went great with the pork scallopini and wild morel mushrooms.

What I really like about the area is the chance for unique experiences.

Bringing us to Covert Farms Family Estate.

The cool thing is the tour. You start out visiting the animals ... the pigs, the llamas, the cows. Then you climb into the back of a restored 1952 farm truck for a ride where, depending on when you come, you get to pick (and eat and eat and eat) strawberries, some of the 13 varieties of wine grapes, various veggies.

And you also learn about organic farming.

“We work WITH nature rather than against it,” said guide/chef/farmer Campbell Kearns.

“Our animals,” he explained, “are not for meat but for their fertilizer ... manure and compost. We’re all about building soil naturally and in the end, we believe this produces food with a better taste.”

Well, the strawberries we inhaled certainly attested to that. Ripe. Sweet. Yum.

And then, there was the matter of the birds. The farm planted 2.5 acres of sunflowers TO ATTRACT the small, very destructive birds.

The concentration of small birds attracted hawks ... “So now we have a resident group of hawks. They’re very uninterested in eating grapes but very interested in eating small pesky birds.”

Then it was back to the wine lounge ... converted from an old horse barn ... to taste wines and snack on local cheese and assorted cured meats.

For the full experience, you can also add on a “Farm to Vine Signature Experience” dinner at Watermark Beach Resort in Osoyoos which features a multi-course meal made with the food of Covert Farms.

We wrapped up our few days by visiting Backyard Farm.          

This isn’t a winery. It’s two acres of heritage fruits and the most amazing meal served by Chef Chris Van Hooydonk and his wife Mikkel.

Each course comes with an explanation of the farm, his produce and his farming methods.

Everything is made on site ... the sourdough bread we ate, for instance, is created with a starter from heritage Italian plums that Mikkel named Delilah.

“We were the first to use arctic char manure. People ask how did that go? I show them a picture of our two pound peach,” Chris continued.

Their tiny farm is crowded with fruit trees ... cherries, apricots, plums, nectarines, pears ... many of them heritage varieties that, Chris added, “People don’t grow anymore. Some of the cherries aren’t pretty, they aren’t huge. But the flavor is amazing.”

Yes it is.

We started lunch with baby romaine lettuce topped with seared sablefish and lentils, moved on to free range chicken breast atop, of all things, savory French toast with a quinoa salad and wrapped up with a fantastic chocolate mousse with red wine spiced cherries.

Yes, I want to go back. But next time, I plan to book the overnight farm experience where you stay in a guest cottage, follow Chris and Mikkel’s family around the acreage as they work, watch Chef Chris make his food and, of course, eat it.

So much to do in the Okanagan. So much to eat and drink.

I’m already making plans for next summer. 

DETAILS

Summer in the Okanagan can be toasty, with temperatures topping 100 degrees. Spring and fall, especially September when crops are being harvested, is an ideal time to visit.

Direct flights from the US land in Kelowna, about half way up the series of valleys and a two hour drive north of the South Okanagan.

Thanks to the cheap Canadian dollar, prices here are extremely attractive. Tours on Heatstroke Cycle’s electric-assist Pedego run from about $60 to $175, depending on length and whether food is included.

Covert Farms tour and multi-course gourmet Signature Experience dinner is (without tax/tip) about $70 or $82 if wine is included.

Contacts:

Heatstroke Cycle - http://www.heatstrokecycle.com

Watermark Beach Resort - http://www.watermarkbeachresort.com/  

Farm to Vine Signature Experience tour and dinner - http://www.watermarkbeachresort.com/osoyoos/signature-experience/

Hester Creek Winery - http://hestercreek.com

Cassini Cellars - http://www.cassini.ca

Rustico Winery - http://rusticowinery.com

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards - http://www.tinhorn.com/

Covert Farms - http://covertfarms.ca

Backyard Farms - http://backyard-farm.ca

Road 13 Vinyards - http://road13vineyards.com/     

BEER for the 1%

By Rich Grant

At One Mile High, the “other” recreational pastime has gotten a lot of press lately. The newest legal and recreational additive has, for the moment, outshined the fact that Colorado is regarded as the epicenter of craft beers on a nationwide scale. Some folks haven’t forgotten that fact, especially the leading authority on beer and travel, Rich Grant, author of the popular blog www.walkinganddrinkingbeer.com.

The blog features beers that Grant has imbibed on journeys around the globe—authentic and compelling reasons to exercise one’s passport and footwear. It’s the people’s beer in rare and memorable destinations.

Photo by Rita Mosina.

Grant explains the impetus for his blog this way: “For people who love beer and travel and (wisely) don't want to drive, these articles explore how to get around by using public transportation, bikes and your own two feet...with great suggested pubs to stop at along the way.”

Grant calls Denver home. For 30 years, he served as director of communications for VISIT DENVER, The Convention & Visitors Bureau. Over the years, he’s done his due diligence to identify his 10 Favorite Beers in Denver and the surrounding metro area. A part of the enjoyment, says Grant, is the venue that comes with the beer:

1.       Tropical Snowdance IPA at Platt Park Brewing

2.       Breckenridge IPA at Breckenridge Brewery in Littleton

3.       Breckenridge Lucky U Nitro (in cans!  Or you can get it at Breckenridge Brewery too)

4.       Incredible Pedal IPA at Denver Beer Company 

5.       Chin Wag cask conditioned ale at Hogshead Brewery

6.       Pils at Prost Brewing Company

7.       London Calling cask conditioned IPA at Wynkoop Brewing Company

8.       The Tower ESB at Bull & Bush

9.       5:00 Afternoon Ale at Renegade

10.   Denver Pale Ale at Great Divide

To subscribe to Grant’s blog, go to http://feeds2.feedburner.com/WalkingAndDrinkingBeer and register your email address.

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