Andrew Der

Some of the most astounding examples of our nation’s warmer and natural resource-laden family vacation destinations can be found close to home away from big cities and still have palm trees and blue water. Within a day’s drive of a healthy chunk of the U. S., lies the quiet planned community of Rosemary Beach – an easy to miss gem if driving the Gulf Coast between busy Panama City and Pensacola. Named after the freely growing wild rosemary, this secluded environmentally sensitive neighborhood can be missed if in a hurry. The secret to any getaway for this writer is the absence of anything being difficult – and in Rosemary Beach, no decision is more difficult than deciding which swimsuit to wear.
A literal refuge with all the comforts, Rosemary Beach avoids crowds and sprawl by discouraging automobile use in lieu of walking and biking. Everything is close by, so think twice about expending the additional time and effort to continue to overly engineered and landscaped destinations farther south. Rosemary Beach’s creative growth controls do not in any way mean the absence of modern amenities such as meticulously planned historic and contemporary beach communities, so enjoy the nature around you and live
it up – save camping for another time.
Accommodations are numerous as the recreational opportunities and thoughtful planners have strategically intertwined modest and luxury sized condos, homes, and vacation rentals among a cozy yet efficient town center and “main street”. Sprinkled with various architecturally themed neighborhoods for variety, the community features cutting edge ecologically sensitive landscaping such as indigenous plantings and rain water infiltration techniques using porous pavement to prevent pollutant runoff by putting the rain literally back in the ground. The rental population is minimal with full-time residents and out-of-town owners comprising about one half of the community keeping it low key – so if a future vacation home is in the cards, this might be the last place you will look.
Rosemary Beach planners had a dream to create a town that captures the lifestyle long lost to suburbia by encouraging community interaction and interdependence while adhering to modern and sensible architectural principles. A thoughtful intertwining of public spaces and homes connected by paths and boardwalks makes everything within a five minute walk. Every home in Rosemary Beach is unique, conforming to the natural contours of the land resulting in an intricate patchwork of 12 home types establishing the town’s character and integrity. Using green construction materials and techniques, homes are finished in the style of cottage and carriage houses with wood siding, cedar shingle or stucco in a myriad of subtle natural colors not unlike a melding of St. Augustine, New Orleans and Charleston.
The beach access is uniquely illustrative of its commitment to protect the environment by observing coastal construction buffers and nine dune walk-overs providing easy beach access while protecting the fragile ecosystem. While not quite as tropical as south Florida, the easy automobile access from the north more than makes up for that with emerald-ish clear water and fine quartz crystal sand from millions of years of Appalachian Mountain erosion. If the cooler months chill the ocean water too much, try the four beach pools and fitness centers, or for something different, rent a kayak (Sea Oats Beach Service) or bike (Bamboo Beach and Cycle) the many trails. Deer Lake State Park nearby is my favorite and an ideal and popular bike destination famous for 1,700 acres of sand dune and native vegetation systems.
In addition to the beach, my favorite past-time was strolling around the various landscape areas to observe the natural planting areas including gardens. Check out the elaborate butterfly garden which, unlike many other areas elsewhere labeled as a butterfly garden, actually has tons of butterflies. The trails also function as very scenic and winding fitness trails with four fitness stations all leading to green areas for picnics, kids to frolic, and outdoor events. For the adults, check out the main street area for a day spa and shopping – you earned it. Finish up with cozy eating options at Amavida Coffee, Restaurant Paradis, Wild Olives, Onano Cafe, Summer Kitchen, Cowgirl Kitchen, Sugar Shack, and Courtyard Wine and Cheese.

Your one-stop-shop for arrangements and research is

The most common air carrier access is through Panama City airport by Delta
and Southwest, but Rosemary Beach is also conveniently a day’s drive from
many U. S. Midwest and East Coast metropolitan areas.

Usually when visiting large and famous cities, premium hotel choices abound for the right price but in Washington, D.C. recently, I discovered the best place to stay of all – and is not even in the city limits. Rather, its neighboring Maryland water-view destination on the renown Potomac River gives the feeling of staying at the shore in a small community while actually only 20 minutes from downtown Washington, D.C.

The Gaylord National Resort convention center and Spa in the boat-accessible planned mixed-use community of National Harbor simply blows the other guys away in value and luxury. With the entire waterside of the Gaylord Hotel in a glass enclosed atrium not unlike Oz’s Emerald City, this complex includes indoor and outdoor gardens, waterfront docking and pier pavilions, premium restaurants and shops, colored fountain shows accompanied by music, special seasonal events, a spa, and retro rooftop nightclub with a magnificent view.
Much like a self-enclosed small town, visitors can also enjoy the neotraditional commercial pedestrian community nearby, but may well not even want to leave the Gaylord and save D.C. sightseeing for another trip – perhaps combining it with a couples or holiday retreat, or even better a business convention which is a popular two-in-one trip for many.

Comfortable and contemporary is not incompatible with eco-urbanism. What may not be as evident to visitors is, besides the solar benefits of the atrium in winter and summer energy savings, the extensive thought given to sustainable design and architecture for those that value eco-friendly comfort. Prior to the construction of the Gaylord, the property was a deteriorating relic gravel mine with an eroding and polluting shoreline.
Today the Potomac River benefits from wise-use riverfront restoration and aesthetic enhancements. Inside the Gaylord are numerous subtle yet innovative approaches to energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, and air cleanliness utilizing low-flow faucets, low-flow toilets, water efficient landscaping indoors and out, a closed irrigation system, compacting of recyclables, green business center practices, and computer-automated utilities. Gaylord’s food services support local and sustainable farming enhancing the community while reducing air travel and transit distances – topped off with its very own Green Roof.

In my experience, hotel amenities and restaurants are usually of mediocre quality as they seem to bank on the convenience of their location over a quality experience but the Gaylord is a major exception. Even locals go here for a night or weekend out to enjoy special events or the region’s largest hotel spa – the Relache Spa – which has so many beauty and salon treatments, I have not heard of them, but I am a guy.
Nevertheless, we are also welcome and my favorites are the various types of massages available. Try the various spa packages for a real bargain or even the Couples Retreat. Do not forget the fully equipped fitness center and pool and, if bringing kids, include the kids’ pool and sign them up for the various activities.
As for dining, the possibilities are numerous and unique offering four world-class restaurants – Old Hickory Steak House, Pienza Italian Market, Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine, and National Pastime Sports Bar Grill with a 30 foot video wall. The attentive visitor will notice how each restaurant or shop area is architecturally modeled after local historical themes. With deliberately wavy antique-style window glass as in a Washington DC 18th century Georgian row house, my favorite is the Old Hickory with a river view, awarding winning wine cellar, lounge, rare Japanese beef and DC’s only “artisanal cheese cave”.

What is a cheese cave you ask? Think of it as a wine cellar for popular and rare cheeses served up by a cheese sommelier of sorts. This Maitre d’Fromage will entertain with a table-side presentation leaving you knowing more about cheeses than thought possible – with a sampling of the various kinds. With fresh breads, this can be a light meal of itself. My favorite entree is the grain fed beef with sides of fresh garlic mash potatoes and asparagus. Other entrees and sides feature regional ingredients from the local farming community. For those so inclined, the evening can be concluded at the cigar terrace – the humidor even has pre-revolutionary (legal) Cubans. If not your thing, instead enjoy the Pose nightclub’s tunes and rooftop view while sipping their unique alcohol infusion cocktails.
There really is no off-season at the Gaylord and this is most evident during the winter holidays when the nationally famous Gaylord National’s ICE! winter wonderland event featuring a 15,000 square foot of ice sculptures and displays – exclusively at only the Gaylord. Locals can enjoy this new experience as a regional alternative to the D.C. tree and holiday events around the National Mall or out-of-town visitors can sign up for a room package. Children of all ages will enjoy this must-see attraction of several interactive scenes made of 2,000,000 pounds of ice hand carved by artisans from China – where its own similar festival originates. Favorite features are internally illuminated wonders of structural engineering and ice slide rides two stories tall. If needed, guests can borrow cozy winter coats which are also necessary for the slide – but give them back.

The baby sea turtles tickle my hand as they squirm to paddle against real or imagined currents, and upon release onto the quiet beach, they all spread out en masse like a reptilian carpet disappearing into the sea, leaving nothing but a cool breeze and smiles behind. An easy outstanding must-see opportunity for anyone to be in their own NatGeo special, I realize this is not your parents’ Cancun – nor to be viewed as only a party destination. To do so is a disservice to its exemplary conservation and resource appreciation, regional Mayan history, community service, premium beaches, scuba diving, outstanding food, and an easy low maintenance pampered family stay at bargain prices.

Who would have thought Cancun’s Marriot Casa Magna Hotel would be a leader in the area’s innovative local voluntary rare sea turtle conservation program? Coordinating with government and non-governmental protecting organizations, the hotel facilitates the collaboration of other beach front properties with their nest relocations and conservation. When visiting in the late summer or fall, upon arrival go see their protected nest hatching area and ask the managing staff to call you when they plan a turtle release.
First, the nests that have been relocated to Marriott’s beach-side hatchery shelter for protection and are due to hatch will be excavated by hand by Marriott volunteer staff and the hatchling turtles put in coolers and buckets for later beach release that evening under the cover of darkness. Unlike in the USA, one is allowed to touch and play with these cute but endangered creatures to promote public awareness and appreciation. The highlight is the evening beach release where guests help the little tykes into the water while the kids get to choose a turtle to hold, name and let go.

Cancun, Mexico’s most popular resort city and keystone gateway city to the Yucatan, is the area visitors know as mostly an island connected by a road way through the “hotel zone” – and may well be best to see off season in the late summer or fall to cure naive perceptions. Be ready to do anything, refrain from planning too much, flop on the best beaches, pick one main activity for the day and add the rest as you go – you can’t lose.

As for the tortillas, forget everything about what you think is Mexican dining in the USA and try everything – this region does seafood and native dish styles especially well. Some of it is a bit milder than one might expect and uncertain if it reflects actual regional cooking tastes or is “milded down” for possible wimpier American tastes, but if you are like me and demand borderline painful spiciness, ask for the fresh made habanero hot sauce on the side – a little dab will do ya (that was a sixties commercial). While the Marriott has an outstanding restaurant (try their breakfast buffet), local samplings of eateries is where the rubber meets the road if one has any affinity to authentic Mexican foods.
The hotel zone has a proactive water filtering and hygiene initiative, and visitors need not worry about intestinal problems of the old days – Cancun wants you to come back as well as tell your friends. I drank plenty of water and ate produce without incident, but it is still a good idea to bring some antibiotics (Cipro) in advance just in case. Restaurant choices are bountiful, so check your favorite travel guide book and follow up with the hotel staff for recommendations as they are too numerous to do them justice here.

For an extremely unusual dining experience, peruse the waterfront restaurants across from the hotel on the bay side and checkout the pier areas behind the eateries near the end of the day. In addition to spectacular dinner sunsets, watch for actual saltwater crocodiles (yes, as in Crocodile Dundee) feeding on scraps. In fact, some staff might warn you against dangling your legs over a pier if enjoying a sunset view near the water edge.

Cancun is also a comfortable home base for exploring the Mayan Riviera to the south for a myriad of beach and community experiences; all-inclusive resorts; archeology; the “hip” and luxurious Playa del Carmen; and the world renown scuba and cruise-ship hotspot Cozumel with huge reefs made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960’s. Throw in astounding nature preserves and up and coming Tulum – an edgy offbeat yoga-centric green community with Mayan ruins and a biosphere reserve next door for the complete experience.

Take advantage of the competitively priced region with non-stop (a huge time saver) low cost U. S. carrier flights to Cancun from many gateway cities accompanied by bargain rate hotel packages for the pampering you deserve. The hotel zone is the way to go with family and the common and prevalent accommodation choices. All-inclusive and Spa resorts are also very popular in and around Cancun. The Marriott, or any hotel, makes a strategic one-stop-shop starting point to access any activity including ground transportation to other areas, ferry stops, and the best stores and restaurants.

Interaction with hotel staff and the community reveals the undiscovered Cancun we don’t see – an amazing one that permeates the air, promoting community and environmental stewardship where sustainable tourism is a win-win situation to the residents and visitors alike. As a leader among the hospitality industry, the Marriott for example, has spearheaded charitable training and career opportunities as well as environmental educational experiences for challenged local residents – the real backbone of why Cancun works so well.

Lest we forget, the main activity in Cancun is to just hit the beach – they are free in Mexico – and for a bit of variety, try the public beaches Playa Delfines and the calmer Playa Tortugas. If the kids come along, drop them off at Marriott’s famous Kids Club for supervised and stimulating activities and enjoy the decadent Spa services which include things I am not even familiar with (but I am a guy). I recommend the myriad of singles and couples massages indoors or on the beach in huts while listening to the surf. Mix it up with hotel beachfront and pool time in one of the largest and bluest pools, winding around walkways and open space in a river-like fashion. Finish off in the largest pool size hot-tub ever while drinks and snacks are served at poolside.

The exemplary hotel staff and concierge are effective guides on how best to experience Cancun including how to utilize taxis, buses, and “hawkers” services. Many vendors will approach you and mean well as they try to make their living through the opportunities visitors and tourism offers, but beware of some of the less well-meaning by making arrangements directly with the hotel. My first experience actually occurred as soon as I walked off the plane into the airport, where I was directed by uniformed staff to a formal airport information booth, only to be given an aggressive timeshare condo sales pitch before finally advising me on how to get the shuttle to the hotel zone – wow!? Fortunately, my post-airport mood softened quickly as I blended into the lesser known off-season Cancun experience.

A great place to start planning water activities is the hotel’s poolside water activity booth to arrange anything from sailing, kayaking, dolphin swims, snorkeling and diving. I took advantage of the easy low maintenance scuba diving they can arrange at Aquaworld in walking distance, a popular Caribbean vendor that also arranges dolphin swims and boat rides. The Marriott also offers resort scuba certification right at their pool for the easiest way to try it out. Resort courses are short classes allowing anyone without experience to dive for the first time with a certified guide and a great way to see if a full-fledged permanent certification is for you.

If a bigger and dedicated dive experience is not necessary, then save Cozumel Island – a top diving destination in the hemisphere – for another time as there are ample diving spots nearby with short boat rides and easier access to see corals, sea turtles, dolphins, rays and myriad of colorful fish. I not only saw that at a couple of popular dive locations close to Cancun, but for something really off the wall, a new and recently completed underwater sculpture garden with statues and VW Beetle replica for a touch of submerged art. Don’t feel like you are up to that yet? No problem. Just have the staff teach you to snorkel and see a lot without a tank.
The best way to see Cancun city is by the #2 bus or a taxi past the glut of malls to the commercial center starting with Mercado 28 – the popular open air shopping market for some real authentic goods. Clothes, bags, and leather boots are hot items. Be prepared to bargain and politely say no to the vendors, but, if done right, you can score some deals followed by an excellent meal.

Yes, there are shopping centers and Plaza Kukulcan, an American style mall, if necessary, but then guys can give in to their inner child if the shopping day gets long by visiting an actual genuine Harley Davidson dealership that not only sells Harley paraphernalia and bikes – but also rents them (stay calm). It is also a great place to get a Harley T shirt gift at a lot less than at the airport. OK – I am digressing and this may not be a big deal to some, but if you ride, then there is no better way to see the Mayan Riviera than a day drive along the coast. However, all the rest of you easy riders need not despair as motor scooter rentals are plentiful and anyone can drive them as an alternative.

Cancun is not apologetic, so acknowledge it as the party destination we grew up on and do an evening experience at the popular clubs – they are all in the hotel zone. Try Daddy O’s and The City followed by Azucar, Ultra Club and Terrace, Coco Bongo, and Daddy Rock. For something different, try Pac-Na Hostel on Isla Mujeres (see below) for a throwback beachfront hippie bar with bonfires. Actually, be even hipper than the Cancun crowd by opting for Playa Del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera after midnight. This is not only the most popular see-and-be-seen beach for the scantily clad but also considered the best nightlife zone where Cancun is so…well…yesterday. Try Blue Parrot Bar, Fah, and very edgy Playa 69 for liberal audiences only.
The best part of undiscovered Cancun is the severely under-publicized jewel of the region – the nearby smaller island of Isla Mujeres (Women’s Island) only a short ferry ride from Cancun, but in another entire world of remote serenity. Consider it perhaps “Cozumel light” and what the area was like years ago with a low-key rural flair. Secluded beaches with hammocks, oceanfront dining, and snorkeling are all available for a great price – free. Spectacular limestone cliffs, a sea turtle farm, lighthouse, and a small Mayan ruin at the remote end surrounded by a modern art sculpture garden provide an additional extraordinarily surreal mix for one place.

This island is amazing, so much so that I explored it twice. The ferry ride is fun and smooth with entertainment leaving from Cancun in two different locations from the hotel zone and one from downtown Cancun. When returning after sunset, that will be the only one running but spring for the cab at the arrival station back to the hotel. As a general rule, do not accept cab rides on the street in Cancun but only from the hotel and ferry hubs. The hotel staff can give you details on how and where and what rates to expect.
Popular Isla Mujeres attractions include the dolphin swim and Garrafon water park for family snorkeling, tankless scuba with a hose, zip lines, pool, and eateries, but can be a bit commercial and overpriced if all that is desired is beach and snorkel time. I prefer exploring on my own as an adventure with a rented golf cart. Scooters are fun also but a roof for the sun and occasional downpour is an advantage. Make sure to rent directly from one of the popular and visible shops as you get off the ferry. Don’t rent one in advance from the Cancun ferry ticket agent at the departure station. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but they steered me to a lesser known vendor with dilapidated carts and bad service.

Good mid-day stops are the local public beach access areas at no cost. My favorite is quiet and secluded Playa Indios with beach chairs, showers, hammocks, a snorkeling pier and docking area with a caged nurse shark, delicious beach side food, and drink service from a local eatery. This island is actually superior to Cancun on many levels and considered by many to have the best laid back beaches in the Yucatan offering serene surroundings and a midday siesta.

The southern-most tip of the Island at South Point is also the Eastern most point of Mexico and where the sunrise is seen first as noted on a sign along a spectacular limestone cliff hiking trail. Isla Mujeres “town” at the north end of the Island and the main community has ample local interests and many shops and walking areas including restaurants – and even very competitively priced clean and modern beachfront accommodations for those who reverse their stay to be on the island while ferrying to Cancun occasionally instead.

Don’t miss the less obvious local and historical cemetery of cultural interest with intricate and lavishly detailed headstones and monuments – folk artwork all on their own. I challenged myself to find the grave of a Mundaca the pirate from an obscure guide book and actually found his headstone crammed away between others – but this one is supposedly empty. Longing to discover my own off-the-beaten-path adventure not readily known to many visitors, my curiosity and research revealed a quirky history of the how this tomb came to be.

The Spanish named the Island upon learning it served as the sanctuary for the Mayan goddess of fertility with many female shaped idols of her daughters and daughters-in-law. After an uninhabited three century stretch of only pirates leaving their women on the island “for safekeeping” as well as alleged treasure, Mundaca arrived from Spain in 1858 acquiring his wealth from Mayan slavery in Cuba. His actual degree of pirating is unclear and may have been one of the more legitimate businessmen of his day, but Mundaca enjoyed his pirate reputation.

He also apparently turned out to be one of history’s few sensitive pirates, having fallen in love with an indigenous woman called “La Triguena” (the brunette) and dedicated to her his construction of the overlooked large hacienda now in ruins, named “Vista Alegre” (Happy View) near Playa Lancheros. With areas once used for livestock, birds, orchards and exotic gardens, this makes a pleasant stroll, but bring the bug repellant. When the Brunette married another, legend is Mundaca went insane and died in Mérida about 200 miles away never making it back to the now empty tomb he carved in memory of her. Find it in Isla Mujeres’ colorful, crowded cemetery, one street before Playa Norte at the north end with the headstone symbols of the skull and crossbones along with his carved goodbye note to the Mayan girl who never left saying “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be”.

Playa Norte is also the best place to for dinner and drinks for the most spectacular sunsets over Cancun itself at several outstanding beachfront restaurants. My favorite is Sunset Grill. The food is supreme (try their fresh fruit cocktails) and have a special deal for all day use of their beach, two chairs and shower along with food and drink. A favorite service is arranging for a romantic privately served table for two the staff puts right on the beach at the water’s edge for sunset dinner with evening lighting, breezes, and even serenades – a perfect way to end the last day of any stay.
Day trips from Cancun make great exploration opportunities for famous and not so famous regional sites including the Mayan Riviera, Cozumel, and Tulum, but the two staples are Chichen Itza and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Inland from the coast, Chichen Itza has the most famous Mayan ruins in the world best representing pre-Columbian archeology and culture. Start with the visitor’s center followed by the famous 1500 year old Kukulkan Pyramid from TV and movies, and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Check out the Ball Court where a game called pok ta pok blended a form of soccer and basketball with religious significance and sacrifices. The Court is surrounded by temples with amazing statues and sculptures and for those following the Mayan prediction of world’s end on Dec. 22, 2012, the great warrior serpent Kukulkán is supposed to rise from beneath the playing field to end the world. Sian Ka’an (Mayan for Birth of Sun) Reserve, in another direction along the coast next to Tulum, is an ecotourism must-see featuring 1.3 million acres of water and wildlife nestled in rain forests, mangroves, lagoons and Cenotes. Created in 1986 and the pride of the State’s environmental conservation efforts, the opportunities are limitless as the number of animal and plant species. Ask your hotel about daily bus tours directly from Cancun to either destination, as well as referral to ecotour operators for guided exploration that is easy and safe. Better yet, allot a one night stay to reduce the day travel burden at one of Chichen Itza’s or Sian Ka’an’s inns or hotels or for a more rustic retreat, spend a night at Sian Ka’an’s beachfront jungle lodge run by its environmental group where proceeds fund conservation.

A Getting-There Cheat Sheet:

Being one of the most popular destinations in the hemisphere, airline choices to Cancun are vast. Therefore, always go for the non-stop flight even if a few dollars more as a connection can eat up a whole travel day that can be spent on the beach. Depending on your departure city, I prefer the independents for competitive pricing like Airtran, Spirit, JetBlue, Sun Country, or Southwest. Delta, United, American, Continental, and USAir also work as they may have some competitive specials.

Remember to add on Mexico cell phone service to your plan temporarily for both calls and texting.

Pesos are easy to change everywhere.

For North Americans, passports are mandatory but visas are not.

Generally, this area of Mexico is not at risk but best to be up on inoculations and malaria tablets especially if planning a rain forest excursion.

Water is no longer the problem it used to be in resort areas like Cancun, but take along the antibiotic Cipro and over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicine just to be safe and not mess with your trip investment, especially if making day excursions to more remote and inland locations.

A USA driver or motorcycle license and credit card are sufficient for renting motor vehicles.

Tipping is highly expected in tourist areas but usually well earned.

Crime is generally limited to theft and recreational drug traffic (do not even think about it) away from the hotel zone, and some areas in the town of Cancun are best avoided, but there is no need to worry more than back at home. Just use common sense regarding remote locations alone at night – more so for women.

Most police will watch out for you and care about visitors enjoying Cancun, but the reality in outlying and rural areas is the occasional pressure for their “la mordida”, or “little bite”, especially if driving, of about $20 to $100. Subtle bribery is a part of customary life for a few away from tourist centers so add it to your trip budget and move on.

Avoid cab rides off the street, but they can be reliable and efficient when obtained through your hotel staff or at major transport centers.

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At the beach without a cloud in the sky and hot, I found myself forgoing the popular Atlantic beaches of Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany, and Fenwick Island of Delaware in lieu of sipping a 300 year-old sample of local shipwreck rum offered by the gracious owner of a modest second floor maritime and artifact museum displaying once molten gold fingers poured by local buccaneers of the 18th century. The gold bars were two fingers wide and could visualize the owner hurriedly melting the metal at the beach to prepare for shipping while looking over this shoulder.

The wet sand at the water edge provided the firm finger-drawn depressions needed to quickly cool the gleaming liquid before smuggling it shipboard. Also on display were colonial coins, jewelry – some of which the Spanish government offered to purchase back, tales of Blackbeard visits and artifacts of the sinking of the pre-Titanic cruise ship R.M.S Republic. If customary beach activities in the mid-Atlantic get a bit old, many are unaware that this modest state has incredible seaside natural and cultural historical attractions – and lessons – when knowing where to look.

Many readers of older National Geographics may have read with fascination about Mel Fischer and his family’s passion for marine archeology, and finding the largest sunken treasure in history – the Spanish galleon Atocha. What made it even more intriguing is these passionate historians were neither affluent, materially motivated, nor professionals and learned on the job. My host and proprietor, Dale Clifton, was one of them and contrary to some misperceptions, dedicated his life to finding the living history behind the artifacts even to the point of reuniting them with their ancestors’ descendants. This stimulated the imagination even further as there are few of us who have not entertained such day dream scenarios.

Keeping the fruits of their labor even at the expense of some lost lives proved as difficult as finding the wreck but the Atocha team eventually succeeded and prevailed after years of litigation in the US Supreme Court when government agencies conveniently started paying attention and laying claim to their finds only when the treasure was actually found. But Dale was a modest kid-next-door with a fascination in history and pirate gold who grew up in the Delaware Atlantic beaches – honing his skill by actually finding coins and jewelry washed up right on the area’s most popular beaches and you can too.
My favorite tale was of his first treasure find not unlike an abbreviated version of the movie American Treasure rivaling Nicholas Cage. After stumbling across an old book in a Williamsburg, Virginia, antique book store as a teenager, he noted an inserted map and, after numerous readings, a code of strategically placed pin holes over the letters on the book pages. These letters actually spelled out directions for finding a chest of valuables hidden for future family investment by the writer. After months of accounting for changes in beaches, lighthouses and landmarks, he found one of the locations of the original book owner’s chests along with some of the local family history. This is a favorite museum display and five more chests remain to be found some day.
Dale’s self taught expertise from hunting relics above and below the water, chemically restoring them, and researching the many histories (even in Spain) and cultural lifestyles for clues so exceeded the expertise of book-learned scholars, a college professor actually asked him to teach one of his courses based solely in these abilities. Contrary to stereotypes of exotic Caribbean locales, the Delaware seashore provides one of the highest concentrations of washed up artifacts in the entire Eastern seaboard due to the unique combination of international shipping access to Philadelphia via the Delaware Bay as well as the improved preservation qualities of colder silty water.

The popular Atlantic beaches of the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia (Delmarva) peninsula have beckoned those in the Mid-Atlantic every summer by offering a plethora of enriching beach pleasures for every taste from families to retirees and party goers. But with all the crowds and concrete, it is easy to forget there are hugely under appreciated historical and natural resources as well as leisure opportunities highly concentrated in coastal Delaware. While I could not resist highlighting my favorite – Dale’s museum – there are many other unique worthy diversions along the Delaware’s coast.

Most are in outstanding and creative state parks and my favorite is Cape Henlopen State Park just north of Rehoboth – try the numerous guided nature appreciation walks and kayaking and do not miss the massive horseshoe crab spawning in the spring. For history, Fort Miles in the same park offers the best trip back in time to experience a completely intact and preserved WWII military installation with a massive big bore cannon to protect potential Nazi invasions (a real possibility then). Sign up for an evening lantern tour or some interpretive games for the kids including firing trajectories, code breaking and concealment. Delaware Seashore State Park to the South has an enriching wetland and estuarine inland bay pontoon boat tour and is a great place to learn crabbing and surf fishing for first timers. On the historic side, the park is home to the Indian River Life Saving Station built in 1876 – one of the last U. S. Lifesaving Stations in the country and precursor to the US Coast Guard.
Colonial history buffs will most enjoy walking through the small town of Lewes (pronounced Loo-iss) for a comfortable self guided tour of maritime history – pick up a map of the history trail at the Lewes Visitor’s Center – and finish the day watching the Lewes/Cape May, New Jersey, ferry load and unload everything from pedestrians to tractor trailer trucks. In the waterfront neighborhood see the Zwaanendael Museum – I learned here that the Dutch settled this first European colony before the English – and the Historical Society Museum with the 1812 cannonball in the wall. If lighthouses are your thing, then sign up in advance (they fill up fast due to guide boat only access) for a tour of the Harbor of Refuge or Breakwater East End Lighthouse which are also great photo opportunities. Include a tour of one of the last remaining Lightboats in Lewes’s waterfront.

Premium relaxing adult time can be found at many places away from the beach. Start with Baywood Greens – one of the nicest public golf courses I have ever seen. The 18-hole championship course is creatively sprinkled with outstanding landscaped natural areas and water features. Finish up at the elegant Baywood Restaurant or for something different, zip on over to a wine tasting at Delaware’s only winery, Nassau County Vineyards, founded by a visionary jazz singer after being told it would never succeed and include a self guided tour of the winery and its history. For the equivalent beer experience, visit the local Dogfish Head Brewery and Restaurant and alternate with the current show at Rehoboth Theatre of the Arts featuring concerts and Las Vegas style shows.

If more me-time is on order then visit the area’s renowned and competitive full service spa, Bad Hair Day, at either of their two locations – one at Atlantic Sands Hotel on the boardwalk and the other on Lake Avenue. My masseuse, Rudi, gave me the best massage ever and found knots in my muscles I never knew I had – her expertise and skill were so phenomenal, I went back to her again. At that visit I also put my hair in the hands of JC who gave me the best haircut (OK – and took out some gray also). She actually matched up the color with sample strips similar to paint charts at Home Depot – which I appreciated as a Tim Tayloresque connoisseur of hardware stores, power tools and home improvement. My hair not only rocked but I appreciated the 20 minute preliminary shampoo and scalp massage. The over the top customer service even included wine, tea, beer, coffee bar, water, and soda. Melody and Sara at the front desk were very helpful and helped me be at ease as I do not do “spa” very often. I confess I passed on the cucumbers, lotions and eyebrow waxing but hey, I am a guy and little steps – sorry – maybe next time.

One of my favorite qualities of the area are the more locally appreciated places to eat and socialize. As with many seasonal resorts, some of the more popular can be tourist oriented and while not necessarily a disappointment, one can do better if knowing where to look – especially when off season. A popular theme is the Happy Hour and winter specials on Monday so go ahead and explore on foot and try whatever suits your whims. Some suggestions to get started are the grilled cheese and tomato soup at Irish Eyes; flat bread concoctions at Porchinis; and Louis’ pizza by the slice. Sting Ray has an outstanding Asian and Latino cuisine and Confucius’s fare is excellent. For a new Thai restaurant, try Lilly and authentic fish tacos and marguerittas with hand squeezed limes are best at Agave.

Go Fish is great for authentic fish and chips and stuffing your face with the Sticky Toffee Taffy dessert. 1776 is not only a steak house but has the best lobster ravioli covered in crab meat and sherry cream. Include a side order of fresh baked rolls with honey butter and a glass of wine. In October, their annual beer fest features 20 plus international beers. For more mainstream fare, Nicolas has the best family pizza dining experience and Grotto is considered the taste of Delaware. For discerning tastes, Casa di Leo has one foot New York thin slices and Bono has Greek style. The absolute best authentic Mexican food is El Dorado with a Baja California menu followed by Dos Locos. Other comfort fare includes the local Thrasher fries and 5 Guys Burgers which ironically has the best hot dogs and Gus’s fried chicken to round things out.

Finally, do not miss the best free evening activity – an outdoor concert at the downtown Rehoboth gazebo on the boardwalk. If summer beaching is getting maybe just a little bit routine (admit it), this will make it exciting all over again.

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Let us be honest – many of us who enjoy the sunshine state totally ignore north Florida on our way southward to its lavish and sometimes overwhelmed tropical destinations. If so, we are doing ourselves a great disservice especially if the goal is a low-maintenance family getaway in a natural setting. In fact, heading farther south is not necessary as some of the most astounding examples of our nation’s tropical natural resources can be found in the panhandle. Just south of the Alabama/Georgia State line confluence and in the vicinity of Tallahassee’s very user-friendly airport, lies environmentally serene and ecologically-rich Franklin County. Named after Benjamin Franklin, the County is accurately and appropriately billed as a Florida’s Natural Escape, very modestly waiting for the creative as well as the nature-appreciating traveler.

So what is so unique about a region many Florida travelers may not have even heard of? For starters, 87% of Franklin County is in either state or federally protected parkland or nature preserve. The rest comprised of thoughtfully preserved communities conspicuously lacking high rises and interspersed with friendly neighborhoods and historically significant attractions. Stop and think about this – a county, with a permanent resident population of 10,000, has voluntarily preserved 500 acres of premium and pristine forest, wetlands, 200 miles of coastline and beaches forever. This astounding complete absence of sprawl will make anyone think twice about expending the additional time and effort to continue to the vast overly engineered and landscaped destinations in South Florida they have been conditioned to seek out.
These creative growth controls do not in any way mean the absence of modern amenities such as meticulously planned historic and contemporary beach communities. This also goes for the cozy county seat of Apalachicola – or “Aplach” as the locals say – where Mayberry meets Old Florida. A few steps in any Aplach direction will reveal an effective sprinkling of quaint shops, historic buildings, docked boats, inns, unique restaurants and even an outdoor concert among work and pleasure boats – almost as it looked and felt 50 years ago. An excellent snapshot of this quality, as well as a fun rest stop, is the Old Time Soda Fountain Gift and Shells on Market Street, a modest cross between a soda fountain of old and gift shop specializing in shells and the best ice cream cones. Nothing captured the town’s spirit better than a sign on the entrance saying “Our restroom is for anyone who needs it – come on in”. Try to find that in the big city.

Pedestrian-friendly Aplach is mindful of both it’s natural resources heritage and responsibility to encourage commerce by preserving shopping districts and visitor attractions along with 200 historic buildings dating from the 1830s – all the while showcasing the maritime culture and fishing fleets as part of a “working waterfront” and downtown area. Franklin County considers its seafood industry, the backbone of its culture and heritage, a matter of pride with workboats literally sprinkled among the charters and sailboats rather than relegated to some “other” part of town.
As an asset, the working waterfront is incorporated into Aplach’s revitalization promoting this classic community as sort of an endangered species unto itself in contrast to other overly paved destinations. One can easily visualize Forrest Gump puttering back from a successful shrimping expedition to unload his bounty among historic antique shops and outdoor waterfront festivals. Seafood is not only the paramount industry but is also the must-eat staple of the local eating establishments and most restaurant menus are delightfully unpredictable for no other reason than a community-wide commitment to serve only what is caught locally at that time – which can vary based on the fickle yet productive critter soup of the Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Make no mistake – living at one with nature does not mean you have to rough it or go without the family-friendly and premium relaxation experience many search for in a vacation. Here, nature is to be enjoyed – not avoided. Accommodations are numerous as the recreational opportunities and thoughtful planners have strategically intertwined modest and luxury sized condos, homes, historic inns, hotels and vacation rentals in the communities and waterfront areas of Carrabelle, Alligator Point, Dog Island, Eastpoint, St. George Island, and St. Vincent Island – none of which is too big to enjoy on foot or by bike. These communities mix old and new Florida around intersection communities thoughtfully interspersed with contemporary housing and waterfront access.

Not surprisingly, some of the most modern yet competitively priced real estate in the entire region can be found here whether renting or buying. A few exemplary selections ideal for families include St. James Bay – an Audubon International Certified Silver Signature Sanctuary new golf course development, Picketts and Pirate’s Landings in Carrabelle and Harbor Point Realty in Alligator Point providing easy waterfront access. For something different, Aplach offers the historic Victorian era Gibson Inn, Coombs Inn B & B, as well as affordable yet modern waterfront hotels and properties including the new Water Street Hotel & Marina. For beachfront on the Gulf of Mexico, the sandy strip of St. George Island offers an astounding selection of styles and sizes of cottages, bungalows and condos. My favorite area is the east end of the island at St. George’s Island State Park which terminates the serene barrier island – combining all the comforts of a pristine beach and nature preserve without excessive crowds.
To truly revel in the County’s horn of plenty, is to enjoy the juxtaposition of these amenities against the backdrop of the most notable of its qualities – the incredible abundance of unique natural resources. The ecologically inclined will quickly realize that this region is not only at the southern most reach of the east coast’s temperate ecosystems but is also in the Florida subtropical zone. This unique blend of habitats in the Panhandle region along with the mixing of fresh and salt water fauna provides a very rare and astoundingly diverse ecosystem of its own with record numbers of plant and animal communities rarely seen elsewhere – including the old Florida look of live oaks and Spanish moss, Tupelo forests (where the honey comes from), as well as a plethora of rare species including loggerhead sea turtles and bald eagles, dwarf cypress swamps and numerous birds.

The crown jewel of the area is the nation’s second largest estuarine preserve – the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) – where fresh water fisheries mix with salt water making a resource so productive and pristine that numerous government agencies and scientists from all over the world manage and study this area concurrently. As one might imagine hiking, cycling, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, birding and camping rule here. The ANERR is a national renowned “biological hotspot” and one of the last ecosystems of its kind comprising 1300 species of plants, 131 species of fish and over 50 species of mammals including black bears and manatees. Try the ANERR boat tour for a rare glimpse of the tupelo honey wetlands, bald eagles and an excellent view of Aplach’s waterfront when departing and approaching.

Other premium natural preserves include Bald Point State Park, Tate’s Hell State Forest, St. George’s Island State Park, Apalachicola National Forest, and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. Try the High Bluff Hiking and Deep Creek Birding Trails at Tate’s Hell for pristine cypress wetlands and birding. St. Vincent’s provides the most remote habitat and photographic opportunities. St. George’s is the best for beaching it and biking – as is the whole island. Bald Point has even more similar opportunities plus the best Black Bear viewing. Guided ecotours provide access to hard-to-reach habitats and some environmental education on the sly. Go with the comfortable tour boats or do it yourself with canoes or kayaks. Try Book Me a Charter for their oyster culture tour including oystering lessons and the Wind Catcher and Peregrine for an authentic sailing experience on vintage restored sloops. My favorite is Journeys of St. George Island providing any manner of ecotour available including its Bounty of the Bay tour taking as many as five persons for a three-hour trip. The captain will show children and adults how to cast for mullet, pull in blue crab traps and hog for oysters in the bay.

Do not underestimate the purity of relaxing on the dock of a seafood restaurant at sunset after a dinner of Grouper or Red Snapper. As the day fades to moonlight, denizens of urban areas will not only appreciate the salt air, the sounds of rolling surf and the stirrings of nocturnal nature but also the absence of artificial light, noise and any need to plan. Don’t feel guilty – you earned it.

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A common misperception is that skiing is difficult to learn, only best done in one’s younger years, and expensive lessons are required. I am living proof that this is incorrect because I never touched a ski until I was 40 and am now a competent intermediate skier of 54 (gahh!).

Here are some insider and less publicized tips to get started very quickly:

If skiing like those on TV is not (and should not be) a requirement, the learning curve is very fast.
Accept falling ahead of time and do not care – advanced skiers continuously do but also know it is actually fun since the snow is a cushion against any discomfort.
The first skis should be rentals available at the ski lodge where you also pay for your lift ticket. The staff will adjust the equipment to your height and skill level. In case of a fall, the skis automatically disengage from the ski boots at the slighted force, so as not to injure your feet or legs. Keep the lift ticket visible and attached to your ski jacket to allow the staff to check for compliance.
To start, someone will need to demonstrate how to fasten ski boots and skis together and how to handle the equipment. If a friend cannot do this, have one professional lesson. The first thing they should teach is how to stand back up after a fall ,which is not difficult but may not be self evident for the first time. This is also the time for some guidance on how to utilize the conveyor belt and ski lift chairs effectively and safely. Beginner ones are slow and are not a big deal.
If an acquaintance can get you upright and moving forward, then many can instruct themselves to a rudimentary level of competence (no falling) on the beginner slopes.
Only a little core body strength is necessary to get started and more will develop – this is good exercise that is not over challenging at intervals.
Start on the very beginner shallow slope served by a conveyor belt to get up to the top. These are barely hills and you will not speed up out of control.
After that, move to chair lifts that serve slopes marked with green circles only – these are beginner and longer versions of the previous one. All trails are marked as green circles (beginner), blue squares (intermediate), diamonds or double diamonds (advanced).
This is the most important: overcome the desire to instinctively want to stand erect and even lean back a bit when moving forward on the skis for the first time. In fact, while counter intuitive, bending your knees a bit and leaning forward will actually be easier as this actually allows greater control over ski speed and direction and is the single most effective accomplishment in learning. For me, once I mastered that, everything else followed.
Do not at anytime feel your skies must be parallel and pointing straight forward. That is advanced skiing and many rarely do that. Feel free to point the front tips inward a bit in a V which is not only the recommended technique and makes turning easie. The more the V, the slower you go, which is the common beginner way of controlling your speed.
Turning on skis is easy when relaxed. Again, be counter intuitive and do not attempt to turn your skis by consciously trying to lead them with your foot position in the direction you want go. Rather – this is critical but easy – lean and put your weight over the ski outside of the turn. For example if turning left, put your weight over the right ski and visa versa. Skis are constructed with special flexible and curved edges that automatically turn when such pressures are applied.

At this point your are skiing – albeit rudimentarily. After trying that a bit, refine and improve the technique by adding a slight pressure on the inside edge of the outside ski during the turn. As you progress, the turns can further be refined at faster speeds by bobbing up a bit during the turn to make yourself lighter for an instant while furtherer pushing a bit on your skis down and out on the inside edge. This will almost come naturally from repetition and the associated higher comfort lever. Repeat and repeat again – have fun and do not worry about looking good or doing well – every single person on that slope was a beginner at one time. Finally, lessons are not mandatory (but suggested for improvement) to have fun and never think you have to go fast to do it well.

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Within driving distance of many East Coast and upper Midwest communities lies this under-discovered and relatively secluded resort area – a massive yet cozy vacation community nestled in the natural mountain heritage of the Appalachians. While seemingly out of place atop the gentle ridges and far below any regions with natural lakes, an enterprising plan to build a dam across a mountain stream in the ’60s while no one was looking resulted in what is now a premier natural resource destination and a prime family retreat for many non-Maryland metropolitan areas as well.
After all, at the close of my last summer oriented feature, I challenged the reader – and myself – to visit during a future ski season to fully appreciate what this winter oasis had to offer and the mountain ski resort of Wisp truly is a destination for all seasons. While the familiar lake of summer is frozen and overpowered by the lakeside mountain, Wisp admittedly does not have the biggest ski slopes around. But being right in the middle of the continental divide Wisp provides an altitude where the powdery and deep snow, familiar to New England, is found close to many southern cities. Other accessible resorts in the area frequently predominate in slush and ice.

Winter here revolves around the Wisp ski resort known not only for its premium winter activities but also for the convenient ski-side and value- conscious rooms. Many visitors also enjoy the numerous and cozy lodges, condos and townhouse rentals around the area – some units are even for sale, for the truly committed. In addition to regionally surreal skiing conditions consisting of over 100 inches of fluffy snowfall annually, Wisp has a surprising variety of trails for its size, a full service lodge, rental facilities and instructional staff. Rounding this out as a premium value for the family are such features as: the expanded and unprecedented choices of children’s programs, recently expanded 10 trail area, Pipes, Rail Parks, Terrain Trails, upgraded premium rental fleets, an extensive renovation of the Resort Hotel and Conference Center and soon-to-be mountaintop self contained village

Don’t forget to ask about special events such as March’s Annual Beachin’ Weekend and Total Tubular Tubing Party, as well as packages and specials such as group activities and the Wisp discount card. Real-time webcam views of the ski areas are very cool at For something different try Nordic skiing or my favorite – the mountain coaster. Picture a cross between a gravity powered go kart and roller coaster with no skills required.
For a fantastic lakefront view, seclusion and all the comforts, my favorite place to stay is the Suites at Silver Tree, known for both summer and winter quality accommodations. In a mountain lodge style with timber cathedral lobby ceilings, this elegant retreat is centrally located to all regional points of interest with a plethora of quality room choices varying in decor, size and amenity from studio to separate bedrooms and lofts. Enjoy the restaurant, sauna and fitness facilities and if you are staying during the summer, a marina and waterfront swimming is included. Do not forget to inquire about its ski packages and discounts.

But what if skiing is not your thing? No, you are not a scrooge, and it is not a problem because this is the perfect place to either learn or enjoy other winter opportunities. To start, a premium tubing area is available at Wisp with unexpectedly vast and fast undulating slides that will please the grownups as well as the kids. Another favorite – and a rush for newbies – is to have the skilled Wisp staff provide guided snowmobile excursions and demonstrate that this is no more difficult than riding a bike – and it is fun, fun, fun! Rev it up and be adventurous.

The grand prize for something different in the category of non-traditional winter activity goes to dog sledding. That’s right – relatively new to those in this part of the country, this should not be missed. Husky Power Dog Sledding provided an interesting and new educational experience hosted by an enterprising couple running the operation at their country residence who will teach everything about the husky dog breed – or sled dogs, their care, and the tradition of canine winter transportation.

A sleigh ride through the woods cannot be beat followed by an opportunity to mingle with and pet the very friendly tykes in their kennel area while being told about their varied, delightfully quirky and intricate personality traits. Some wry humor abounds as demonstrated by the lone doghouse, among the numerous others. labeled Husband. .I wondered if the female partner of the business keeps the male host on his toes, describing the ins and outs of dog sledding and preparing for the ride. Make sure to allot adequate time and winter clothes, including insulated boots, because the lecture part of the experience required an hour and half of standing motionless outdoors before any sleigh ride, causing a bit of foot numbness.
Eventually, warming up indoors at the end of the day is vital and welcome, but take a break from the fireplaces at Suites at Silver Tree or the Wisp lodge and try the lakeside Uno’s restaurant with a couple of after-dinner drinks at the adjacent Honi Honi bar. A more hi-tech, stimulating and down right fun experience can be found at Smiley’s FunZone, the ultimate arcade and game park of the western mid-Atlantic. My favorite game was the laser tag. This is a great opportunity for a tech fix for kids, but all the family should take a break at their excellent restaurant to rest.

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Planning summer vacation – the beach or the mountains? Hmmm – I can never decide, but what about both at the same time? Well, it is possible and I am not kidding. Within driving distance of many east coast and upper Midwest communities lies the under-discovered and relatively secluded Deep Creek Lake – a massive yet cozy vacation community nestled in the natural Appalachian Mountain heritage of Western Maryland. Such a lake might surprise the senses and seem out of place atop the Appalachian Ridge and far below any regions with natural lakes. But while no one was looking, an enterprising plan to build a dam across a mountain stream in the 1960’s resulted in what is now a premier natural resource destination.

A quick review of basic geography reveals that the Maryland, known as America in miniature, is so designated, despite its smaller size, by its unique shape that captures the Atlantic Ocean seashores of the east, Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore/Washington, DC regions in the middle, the semi-rural coastal plains of the south, and the Appalachian continental divide to the west. The manmade and amoeba-shaped Deep Creek Lake of Maryland’s panhandle is a prime family retreat for many non-Maryland metropolitan areas as well such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia.

So next time the crowds and familiarity of overpriced seaside resorts gets old, snatch up a lakeside cottage for a week from one of the many local realtors for the best of the beach and the best of the mountains in one experience. The vastness of this lake is only exceeded by its unique nestling of endless waterfront among scenic Blue Ridge vistas with easy access to cultural as well as recreational activities – best described as seashore with fresh water and trees instead of sand and brine. Throw in perfectly cool nights to relieve the hot days along with less crowds and costs, and you may not ever see the ocean again.
Play, not work, is the name of the game at Deep Creek Lake – and while boating, fishing and water-skiing are the prominent activities, many are surprised to learn of the many non-water oriented adventures available as well. The secluded and rolling terrain offers many opportunities to try all those outdoor things you may have been too busy to try back home – like horseback riding, trout fishing, mountain biking, paintball and good old fashioned nature appreciation and hiking.

A good starting point if undecided about what to try or where to go, is to head over to the pre-eminent all season focal point of the area – Wisp Deep Creek Mountain Resort. While a premium ski destination (great snow conditions due to altitude), this winter resort is just as fun in the summer as a one-stop-shop for any recreation opportunity which might cross your mind from Frisbee golf, a skate park, ATV tours and mountain biking to paintball, fly fishing and kayaking. My favorite was trying the adventurous mountain boarding – a summer version of snow boarding – which is a skateboard with larger air filled rubber wheels and a hand brake for negotiating the grassed mountain ski trails – lessons are included. Don’t pass up the Super Sunday Outdoor Expo every (of course) Sunday at Wisp which lets anyone try all the activities as much as they want for just $5. Complementary snacks, treats, kiddy games and souvenirs are included – definitely one of the best buys in the area.
In fact, consider staying at Wisp at their Resort Hotel and Conference Center. While many visitors rent cottages (usually by the week) and are the best for a waterfront access and view, Wisp puts you at the foot of their mountain and near everything you would want in one place including an excellent restaurant (DC Steakhouse). Get one of their family stay packages – especially if golfing at championship courses is a priority. The family fun package includes a myriad of passes and discounts for all the activities. These packages are even more rewarding when scheduled around the various golfing, mountain boarding, ATV and mountain biking tournaments the resort hosts.

Wisp also holds the honor for best pampering in the form of their Sewickley SPA providing types of salon services and massages so varied that I never even of heard of them – but I am a guy. The peak seasons are summer and winter – but the summer peak isn’t in full force until after the July 4th holiday period. If the warmer lake water temperatures of August are not a priority, take advantage of the mini-shoulder summer season between the end of school and the 4th of July – providing the best of summer with less crowds and more flexible accommodation opportunities.
Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what to do first – I go for the opportunities least possible back home and for me it was horseback riding. My last such experience was as a teen at summer camp in the 60s (quick, do the math) where my youthful anxieties of sitting on a big animal precluded a fully enjoyable experience. For beginners – as well as advanced – I heartily recommend the family run Circle R Ranch. Their experienced guides will not only show you how to ride in a flash but make it immediately fun, as well, by leading the patient beasts through leisurely winding trails over hill and dale. Do not be surprised if the quiet clip clop gives way to fantasies of what it might have been like to use and rely on this transportation long ago. Some of the scenarios my kids shared included my daughter pretending to be a princess riding through the woods in medieval times, my son participating in a battle scene and me – well – riding through a famous town of the old west as a gunfighter (I confess I succumbed to the imagery of Clint Eastwood while practicing his squint).
If budgets allow, Deep Creek Lake is one of the best places to explore and access by boat – if you own a boat and trailer, so much the better. For those in the know, it can substitute for a car since most lakeside attractions and restaurants provide boat dock parking and some areas of the lake are only accessible by the water. This is, of course, the only venue for water skiing and boats are a must. The popularity of this past time can require boat rental reservations to be made months in advance so plan early – try Bill’s Marine Service or Deep Creek Marina for rentals.

An economic alternative to boating is the myriad nature appreciation opportunities. Try the Wisp mountain trails or the ones at Deep Creek Lake State Park nearby. This is the main public access to the only bathing beach as well as picnic areas and a premium nature center. The center offers excellent interpretive learning programs for budding biologists (try the Junior Ranger and Scales and Tales Campfire programs) and allows for some alone time for the parents. For more immersion into such activities sign up with outfitters such as Camp Earth for naturalist guided hikes and kayak tours, farm tours, photography workshops and if burned out on hiking try Western Maryland ATV Tours for true – and fun – remote wilderness exploration.
Week long stays may warrant a change of pace and nearby opportunities for exploration and cultural appreciation are endless. Try hiking Muddy Creek Falls at Swallow Falls State Park or exploring the country communities, specifically historic Oakland – the county seat. Billed as “A Great Small Town”, it offers great walking tour opportunities. One of my favorite exploration activities in this cozy country community was a horse and buggy ride through vast Amish farmlands with Pleasant Valley Dream Rides. Also offering winter sleigh and Cinderella wedding carriage rides, the proprietor will regale you with local tales of the surrounding mountain vistas, Amish lore and farm life, as well as the Clydesdale horse so massive as if able to haul a Bradley assault vehicle. For something really different, early risers and fanciers of the husky dog breed should sign up for a real life dog sled ride on wheels. It is early in the AM so as to avoid overheating of the winter favoring tykes.

For a bit of civilization and comfort, try a lakeside night out at Uno’s restaurant with a couple of after dinner drinks at the adjacent Honi Honi bar. Both combined establishments are also family friendly with waterfront boat access as well as a unique kid playground with opportunities for memorable photographs. A more hi tech and stimulating experience can be found at Smiley’s FunZone – the ultimate arcade and game park of the western mid-Atlantic. Guaranteed to liberate the adult child as well as the obvious ones, this massive amusement playground offers literally hours and hours of go-kart racing, putt putt golf, laser tag, video games and pinball all tucked into the hilly lake shoreline. My favorite was the go-karts and laser tag. This is a great opportunity for a tech fix for kids but take a break at their excellent restaurant to rest. In fact, keep on resting…..until ski season.

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This is not Florida – yet if brought here blindfolded, I would defy anyone to convince me otherwise. White sand, blue water, heat, palm trees – all the ingredients necessary for a subtropical experience are present – but, this is Gulf Shores, Alabama and it looks more like Florida than much of Florida. This 30,000-acre Gulf of Mexico island community at the southern tip of Alabama mingles southern hospitality with a warm weather getaway – but with no crowds or the degree of pavement of better known tourist destinations.
The setting of Forest Gump’s shrimping industry and home of the largest fishing fleet in the northern Gulf, this retreat has retained its character unscathed from hurricanes and continues to attract those who appreciate a quiet beach experience, a splash of southern culture, history, wildlife (dolphins are everywhere), spectacular seafood, fishing and 12 courses of championship golf – but without driving as far from “up north”. Just remember not to feed any alligators in the storm water ponds. If arriving by air, both Mobile and Pensacola are within easy driving distance and efficiently serviced by US Airways.
The obvious activity
here is none at all – beach combing and nature observing are prime and if relaxing on the white beaches needs a disruption, a quick excursion to a nature preserve or secluded magnolia tree-lined historic main street community is just the ticket. At the beach, play pick-up volleyball, sail, windsurf or rent a jet boat. Avoid dining on “land fare” while you are here because nature’s seafood soup of the Gulf of Mexico has generated the best fin and shellfish you will find anywhere. Try the Red Royal shrimp, then bread pudding – a regional favorite. Eat outside at one of the fine restaurants to enjoy the soft southern breezes.
Accommodation choices are the perfect balance of beach side cottage and apartment rentals with a sprinkling of high rise condos – convenience and amenity without sprawl. There are There are many choices available in various pricing spectrums. Cottages can be quiet and secluded – try The Beach House B&B. For condominium fare, try the Gulf Shores Plantation or the Beach Club. These havens of comfort are fully furnished and have every possible recreational amenity. Pools you ask? The Plantation alone has six outdoor ones – and one indoor one as well as golf courses sprinkled everywhere. They are also corporate stewards of nearby beach and dune ecosystem conservation efforts including protection of three federally endangered species.
Families frequently find their favorite leisure activity to be the outdoors and nature. Given that, make your first break from lying on the beach a nature walk at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge nearby. This spectacular natural gem and example of excellence in conservation demonstrates to city slickers that nature can be enjoyed rather than avoided. Created in 1980 and consisting of 6,700 acres of pristine coastal ecosystems, Bon Secour (French for safe harbor) harbors habitat of dunes, marshes, freshwater swamps, and pine-oak woodlands, as well as rare plants and animals. Local favorites include sea turtle nesting, migratory birds and wild flowers highlighted by a rare mixing of temperate and subtropical plant species. Stop at the visitor’s center and pick up a trail guide, stroll to your hearts content and see how many of the plant and animal species described in the brochures you can identify. I saw a robust octopus resting and flexing its gill jets and tentacles in only one foot of clear water near the calm bay shoreline of a marsh trail of all places – a rare find indeed considering a predatory bird usually gobbles up these soft and succulent prey in such unprotected waters.

For the ultimate outdoor appreciation, sign up for a boating excursion. Numerous vendors are available for power boating and sailing tours – and if you like fishing it is almost illegal to leave here without sampling the sportfishing prey of the Gulf. Try black and striped bass, bream, and red drum, or board a deep see charter at Orange Beach and go after marlin, red snapper, or mackerel. If you feel lucky and skilled, try the World Championship Red Snapper Tournament in April. For just nature appreciation, a truly unique boating experience is Sailaway Charters – an informative interpretive naturalist-guided tour of the local marine biology and resources – just about the best 2-hour experience around – but then again, I am biased as one who had the same career in my professional youth.

Passengers are introduced to the watery fauna and given hands-on demonstrations of actual shrimping, oystering, and crabbing in between the exploration of bays, bayous, and marshes. The first mate cleverly sneaks in some biology and nature education on the sly while demonstrating fishing techniques. All the while, dolphins are surreally surfing around in waters you might think are too shallow. The highlight of the trip is when a trawling net is released into the water and hauled back up full of flopping Bay bounty. The critters are transferred to a holding tank and examined at close range to the delight of landlubber kids of all ages.

It is easy to forget you are in the heart of southern culture while soaking in the tropical-like beaches, but – if a break from the beach seems inevitable – a 15-mile inland jaunt to picturesque and cozy Magnolia Springs provides the best diversion and country relaxation around. Steeped in Spanish, Creole, and Civil War history with live oak-canopied streets, this river front country community reeks of relaxation and tranquility. Stroll around the neighborhoods, take a refreshing dip in the mineral springs, have a home cooked meal, go fishing, or even watch the motorboat mail carrier make deliveries in dockside boxes on the Magnolia River.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, check out the Moore Brothers Village Market and Jesse’s Restaurant, the community’s general store, eatery, filling station and social center. Browse the knickknacks and sample the authentically prepared Gulf Coast seafood and Louisiana specialties including Caesar salad with encrusted catfish; crab cakes; soft-shell crabs; gulf shrimp, étouffée and goat cheese grits. This may be a great opportunity to bring back some unique groceries to your Gulf Shores bungalow. For longer visits, the place to stay is the Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast – an 1890s Victorian home also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Featured in the This Old House TV series, the rooms are like a trip back in a time machine but without any loss of amenities – the guest rooms have private baths, telephone, cable TV, antiques, wood floors, walls and ceilings.

Experience history and cultural on the sly and explore the region’s Civil War heritage. Many visitors who may be literate about northern events, discover the region offers the opportunity to round out their knowledge of what some residents refer to as the War of Northern Aggression. Some popular sites to visit are Fort Morgan, Fairhope Historical Museum, Fort Mims, Baldwin County Heritage Museum, and Blakely State Park. Being a significant Confederate port, the Battle of Mobile Bay as well as the Overland Mobile Campaign are a primary theme for Civil War aficionados. These prominent events included some of the very first intense sea battles utilizing “ironclads” and torpedoes. If visiting only one site, choose Fort Morgan – it is close by and covers history from the war of 1812 to WWII.

Hurricanes over the last couple of years have rendered some of the establishments discussed temporarily closed for reconstruction, so call first – but not to worry – this resilient and valiant community has emerged victorious over nature’s somber reminders of who is in charge, and they are likely back in operation. It will take more than a hurricane to overcome the welcoming hospitality and natural resources of Gulf Shores – but that doesn’t mean you should wait any longer to immerse in this subtropic nirvana of the south.



Flora-Bama Lounge

This “world-famous” quirkey gem of Americana can best be described as a family-style (yes, I said family-style) boogie or honky-tonk rock/country music bar. With vast square footage for various bands, bars, outdoor decks, dance floors, and pool tables, the disorganized looking carpentry of this lone relic between the high-rise condos straddles both sides of the Florida-Alabama state line (hence its name and this article’s title) It’s the only night spot I know that can be appreciated by singles, couples, and groups of all ages who want to mingle, dance, or people watch. Go ahead and buy a T-shirt from the package liquor store – everyone else does when no one is looking. A popular regional event of April is Flora-Bama’s annual mullet tossing championship, when hundreds compete to see who can toss a dead fish farthest from Florida into Alabama (the record is about 190 feet).