Fyllis Hockman

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I was halfway through my Dreamcatcher massage when the masseuse started dancing around the table. Now, I’m somewhat of an experienced spa-goer, but this was new for me. As were so many other things at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania, which just recently completed a $50 million renovation. I also drove an off-road Jeep Rubicon over rocks, through streams and up mini-mountains, scaled a climbing wall and shot a rare white buffalo — to which Native Americans from far and near come to pay homage — with my camera. The ultimate in upscale but with a sense of humor, Nemacolin is a combination of sassy sophistication, world-class whimsy and pricey pranksterism.

Doubling as a top-of-the-line museum, the resort’s art and sculpture worth a mere $45 million would be equally at home in a high-end gallery. Every corner you turn, each nook and cranny, lounge and library, cubby hole and crevice features another piece of art, flight of fancy or quirky creation to marvel at. You could walk the halls for days and see something different each time.

Picture these: booths in the old time ice cream parlor made from antique car seats; a replica of a bumper car stranded in the middle of a hallway, a six-foot high unicycle and rider, and a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe. And then there are the 14 Tiffany lamps in the library! Half the time, I couldn’t decide whether to ooh, ahh or giggle.

Oh, and by the way, there are real live animals cavorting around the grounds. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My -– yup, literally. Also a herd of zebras, some llamas, an hyena and a couple of wolves and cougars.

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Expect the unexpected is their motto so I wasn’t surprised to see a new carousel adorning the grounds or vintage airplanes peeking out from a small hangar. And did I mention they also have part of the Berlin Wall on display and a building dubbed the AutoToy Store full of grown-up-size vintage cars. Or the Fisherman, Gardener, Bathing Beauty and other sculptures by renowned artist J. Seward Johnson, so life-like I tried to engage several of them in conversation? Clearly, Dorothy, you’re not in the Holiday Inn anymore.

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Now about that off-road driving. Apparently, the Jeep’s gear ratio — whatever that is — is almost twice that of a regular car. In layman’s terms, that means it can do way scarier things. I watched with amazement as the Jeep approached a large expanse of gray rock looming ahead; then gazed in disbelief  as I realized that we were in fact driving over it –- casually mounting at a 60-degree-angle a sharp incline one would not normally think of as a driving option. Even more amazing? Five minutes later, I was the one in the driver’s seat. Tilted at times at a 45-degree angle, I felt like I was falling off the end of the world, and a moment later it seemed I was driving straight up into the clouds. My heart and stomach, however, were pretty much heading in the opposite direction. The instructor was not exaggerating when he said: “You may be going no more than five miles an hour but they’ll be the most exciting five miles you’ll ever drive.”

But the excitement didn’t end there. I surprisingly excelled at Paintball Target Practice in which you take aim at any of the components, large and small, of a movie-set sagebrush town. As I pointed out to my husband: “Well, I can drive a Jeep and shoot a gun. I may be sent to Afghanistan any day now…”

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Like everywhere else at Nemacolin, luxury shrouded in a relaxed setting pertains to the accommodations as well. There are definitely affordable options but we’re not going to concern ourselves with those. Nope — we’re going to take a tour of the hip, sleek Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired 42-room boutique Falling Rock Hotel. All angles and curves, the impressive structure with its sumptuous views reflects the triangular theme of Wright’s famous nearby Fallingwater home in everything from tissue boxes to patio furniture.

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Of course, many resorts boast of upscale lodging and amenities, but how many come with your own 24-hour butler? A laid-back, low-key, whimsical butler, of course, but still…

After he unpacks your suitcase, ironing those items which might have garnered a wrinkle enroute, and stows them amidst layers of tissue paper, perhaps you’ll be ready for your bath. Choose from a selection of scented oils, revel in the soft music and candlelight prepared to order, sip your champagne, nibble on your chocolate-covered strawberries, and relish in pampered luxury until dinner is served -– whether you choose to dine in or dine out. Did I forget to point out the rose petals?

My husband and I scoffed, of course, at the garishness of such pretention — until we went hiking later that afternoon in Ohiopyle State Park. Returning with muddied boots and soiled shirts, I only half-jokingly lamented: “Now where’s our butler when we need him?”

The butler’s goal, according to Tommy DeWitt, Head Butler, is to “anticipate the client’s needs even before he knows he has them.” Preferences and peccadilloes of repeat customers are recorded and remembered, whether it means they like freshly cut lilacs in their room each day or absolutely must have a massage at three in the morning.

Euphemistically-sounding “sticky widgets” refer to those requests it may not be all that prudent to fulfill. I could not help but think that Louisiana Senator David Vitter might not be all that happy here…

But most people don’t sit around being catered to; there’s just too much to do. This is what I did in the two days I was there: Jeep driving, skeet shooting, hiking, biking, archery, paintball, miniature golf, ping pong, climbing wall, zip line and an aborted attempt to tightrope walk on the ropes course. And if I included all the things I didn’t do, this article would be twice as long.

 

 

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You should probably know, though, that there’s also a riding academy, a wine tasting room, an art studio and in the winter, in addition to all the basic snow diversions, dog sledding. But, by now, that probably doesn’t surprise you.

As Hope Adams from Marietta, Ohio, enthused: “What an incredible combination of incomparable luxury within a laid-back funky atmosphere! And the most accommodating staff I’ve ever experienced.”

Oh, and that little dance I mentioned around the massage table? Apparently my masseuse, through a series of very specific steps, was attempting to facilitate “a life-affirming transference of energy.” What a perfect metaphor for the overall Nemacolin experience! And yet, we were told, the owners want it to be even better two years from now; to personalize the experience for every person who shows up. Hard to imagine how it could be!

Lodging prices range from $209-$379 for standard rooms per night, double occupancy; $319-$499 for the Chateau and Falling Rock, depending upon accommodations and time of year. But be sure to ask about special packages. Most activities, on the other hand, are a la carte. For more information, call 866/399-6957 or visit nemacolin.com.

At 450+ years, St. Augustine, Florida is America’s oldest city. There’s a lot to recommend a city that old — history, ancient (for the states) architecture, Spanish culture. And, of course, ghosts. A city that old has a lot of history to haunt — a lot of death and despair to permeate the landscape — and the spirits of St. Augustine are sufficient to keep a multitude of ghost tour operators very busy. I tagged along on a couple. Outing #1 was a Ghosts and Gravestones Trolley Tour.

It’s ironic that the tour begins right next to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not building. Just sayin’….  First ghost hunting tip: go for the stormy weather, alleged by dedicated ghost hunters to provide more energy for the “manifestations” to draw on. It was misty that night: check.

In the tour office hangs a Certificate of Haunting, issued by the Port Orange Paranormal Society, officially identifying the St. Augustine Old Jail, one of the tour stops, as “an authentically ‘haunted’ location…based on audio, video and photographic evidence.” You can’t argue with that!

As we hopped on a bus, all dressed up for Halloween, with about a dozen other eager seekers, we were instructed on the basics of ghost sightings: look for little orbs with tails, a white light, a shadow, an apparition in white (seems to be the preferred attire of apparitions). At a cemetery fence, not surprisingly always a portal for the undead, cameras were flashing and phones lighting up, one after the other. “Why are they all taking pictures of the fence?” inquired my always-skeptical husband. “There’s nothing there.”

The 130-year old Potter’s Wax Museum building we were told was built over a cemetery, thereby explaining all the “energy.” I was beginning to pick up on the idea that energy was just a euphemism for ghosts. Our guide talked of strange happening which by the end of the night had become a mantra — footsteps heard, bottles falling, objects flying. Combined with a lot of corny humor, it didn’t help convince me of the authenticity of the experience.

As we walked through the museum, I suddenly felt a vibration on my arm — a very intense vibration — and I quickly looked around to see who or what “energy” might be near me. How disappointed was I to discover it was only my Fitbit! Another 10,000 steps logged but no other-worldly workout buddy to share it with.

A re-enactment of an old pirate being felled by an executioner — with one of my tour compatriots assuming the role of the condemned — was great theater. But nothing compared to that of the Old Jail, known as the Hanging Jail from 1871-1953, for the eight criminals who hung from the gallows. A dramatic inmate told the stories of the sadly deceased with great gusto playing out all the gory details of the crimes. The impersonators were the best part of the tour but unfortunately they were all very much alive!

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Someone claimed to get a picture of an orb — allegedly a filmy white light with or without a tail — on her cellphone. I looked through the bars into the same very dark cell and all I saw was…well… a very dark cell. However the marketing person employed by the tour company sent me this photo taken on a tour of a nearby castle in 2008:

She claims, “NO ONE was standing there in period costume where the apparition appeared!”

How to account for some of these specter sightings? Shadows; specks of dust; reflections, overactive imaginations? But many claim they capture images on their cameras that are unexplainable — ghosts trying to present themselves in recognizable spirit forms. Who am I to argue?

Given my own penchant for spirits (of the drinking variety), it seemed a ghost-invaded pub crawl a good way to combine my spirits with…well…theirs as part of my next phantom-filled adventure

Not often does my line of work require me to attend an extended Happy Hour so when the opportunity to imbibe at four different venues all in the name of research presented itself, well…I felt obligated…. Ergo: Ghost Tours of St. Augustine Creepy Crawley Pub Crawl. Zombie martini, anyone?

Brian, our tour guide and historic haunted site veteran, passed out Electromagnetic Field Transmitters to aid in our search for otherwise unrecognizable companions. Supposedly their energy is recorded on the readers which tend to beep loudly in response. Or it could just mean that there’s a computer nearby. Hard to tell.

As we walked the neighborhood, Brian advised us to ignore the more modern establishments and focus on the historic ones — all the better to haunt you with, my dear — about which he regaled us with stories. Claiming that the theory of ghosts is as polarizing as politics (though probably not in 2016…), he said the spectrum tilts 60-40 in favor of believers. “Ignore the skeptics,” he admonished. “That’s not why you’re here.” As we walked over streets that were built over cemeteries and past ongoing archeological digs, he assured us that residual energies remain. Rarely, though, is a ghost going to come up and say, “Hello, my name is Ralph and I’m going to haunt you tonight.” Instead, he admonished, you have to acquaint yourself with a place and know what to look for — or more accurately, “share the presence of.”

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My creepy crawley comrades kept checking their EMF transmitters to see if they’d connected with any external energies and then snapping their cameras in the hopes of randomly catching them on film. Until we got to the next bar, of course, and started imbibing again. For a while I thought the liquid spirits were overtaking the more ethereal ones. But then we moved on.

The rash of squeals emitted from several transmitters at the corner of Charlotte and Hypolito streets caught everyone’s attention — equaled only by the story Brian then told of the murder there on November 20, 1785 of William Delaney by a jealous rival. Now, I didn’t see Delaney’s spirit anywhere but I also know this didn’t happen at any other intersection. Coincidence???

We were all more than happy to get to another bar for more uplifting spirits. At Meehan’s Irish Pub, the liquor is held in place by wires because, as rumor has it, the bottles have more than once inexplicably flown off the shelves. According to Kaiser, who has been bartending there for four years, he has heard voices, seen lights flicker, had the bathroom door stick for no apparent reason and claimed sightings of a man in overalls. “If you don’t believe in ghosts, come work here,” he invites.

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Similarly, Sara, a bartender at Scarlett O’Hara’s, also renowned as haunted, enthusiastically proclaims, “Oh yeah, I’ve experienced everything.” Those experiences, not surprisingly, range from erratic lights, moving dishes, unseen voices and apparitions of a woman in white (notice a pattern here?) and a man in a uniform. I ordered yet another drink!

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It’s hard not to be moved by all these stories. As skeptical as I was when I began the trip, how do you dismiss the experiences — often so similar — of so many others? Or ignore some very real tangible evidence ostensibly captured on film? I was left just shaking my head a lot — and feeling somewhat reassured that overall, ghosts seem to be a lot more playful than they are scary.

The next day, glad to be done with ghosts for awhile, I was doing more traditional sightseeing. When I mentioned to a curator at a small museum that we were staying at the St. Francis Inn, the oldest in St. Augustine, he asked in what room. I told him. “Ah then, you’re safe,” he said, “as long as you’re not in Lily’s room.” Oh? When I returned to the Inn, I found that stories abound around Lily, a most playful ghost who wanders the third floor searching for her lost love, wreaking havoc with the other guests. As I’ve learned is usual with ghosts, lights go on and off, bathroom locks get jammed, and objects fly across rooms. I was beginning to feel right at home. I nodded toward Lily, just in case SHE could see ME.

For more information, visit floridashistoriccoast.com; ghosttoursofstaug.com, www.trolleytours.com/st-augustine/ghost-tours-st-augustine.asp.

I’m not at all a connoisseur of beer. I know a Pilsner Lager is a good beer; Bud Light is not. I know beers from the Czech Republic are among the best in the world. But it wasn’t until I was marinating in a beer barrel in Ostrava, Czech Republic that I really got to experience a good beer that up close and personal.

A beer massage is one of the de rigueur options offered at the Chateau Zamek-Zábřeh Hotel and Brewery in Ostrava, about a three-hour train ride from Prague. And why not? After all, it washes harmful substances from the body, relieves stress, rejuvenates skin and hair, moisturizes the body and boosts immunity — and you thought it was just to cool off with on a hot summer day!

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Okay, so personally, I think the claims are a tad grandiose. Sounds too much like a break-through miracle cure. But then I found out I could also drink the beer while bathing in it and I reconsidered.

The setting is magical — down a candle-lit staircase into a brick-covered cellar as though entering a romantic pub — and you sort of are. But we’re talking real cellar here as opposed to a beer cellar. The massage room is part of the original 13th century chateau. Pavel the masseuse explains all the health benefits of the beer bath. The 20-minute lava stone massage itself is just a bonus — no actual connection to beer or its body-altering ramifications.

The recommended therapy? Pour a pitcher of light and dark beer replete with a concoction of Brewer’s yeast and selected varieties of hops, malt and peat extract into a bath barrel. Hardly seems enough for the body to get high on. As I submerged myself in the large wooden cask filled with foam bath and filled the beer tankard from a tap attached to the tub, I realized it was the first time the suds in my bath competed with that of the head on my beer mug. Usually the two are separated by hours. Given the choice, I would rather imbibe the beer — especially Czech beer — than bathe in it. But I stayed in the barrel long enough to revel in the taste of the beer if not its less tangible detox elements. But eventually I had to relent and leave the beer behind in pursuit of less heady adventures.

A visit to the Silesian Castle, another 13th century structure that was rebuilt in the 16th century and then again in 2011, only perpetuated my connection with intoxicating pursuits. A series of gnomes, devils, dybbuks and other fanciful creatures guard the different entrances, a more entertaining approach to a castle than the more usual imposing knights in armor. Even the Chapel contained 58 hand-carved figures with comical faces and cartoonish animals — they exuded positive energy if not exactly a spiritual connection. Not sure exactly how many Pixar-related elephants ever actually made it to Bethlehem.

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Although many parts of the castle have been rebuilt, some parts still hearken back to the 13th century. Still, I question the presence of so many wooden sculptured caricatures in those medieval times. Or the Museum of Mysteries and Witches, for that matter. Here we have a gloomy underground cave-like chamber filled with large dioramas of fearsome puppet-like figures resembling devils, demons, goblins and witches the size of children in various scary scenarios.

Lucifer was there surrounded by bats and skeletons, forming a sort of welcoming committee to hell. And it wasn’t even Halloween! A variety of mysteries were inscribed on the walls but since the stories were in Czech, the descriptions of the mysteries remained mysteries themselves. But here’s where my head really began to shake, more from incomprehension than fear. Sharing all these fiendish atmospherics was a fairly impressive aquarium. Just inexplicably taking up space on one wall. Nothing frightening about it. Once again, I’m reminded this is not your grandmother’s medieval castle experience!

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And similar incongruity followed us to the next attraction — the Mini-Uni Exposition. First thing I saw upon entering was a wall adorned with license plates from every state in the U.S. Why in a Czech exhibition of iconic European architectural structures? Apparently because every year there is a display of classic U.S. cars. Otherwise, no connection. Okay, I’m getting used to Czech anomalies.

But what is mesmerizing lies just a few feet beyond — over 30 miniatures of famous European buildings from the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Leaning Tower of Pisa to Dutch windmills, the Brandenburg Gate and the Acropolis, all built to a scale of 1:25. At 5’ tall, I usually feel dwarfed by such sightseeing wonders; now I reveled in towering over them! There’s a sense of intimacy not usually associated with viewing such grand architectural achievements!

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A word about Ostrava itself before we move on. The city of 300,000 is a real city, not a tourist town. People live here; few visit despite buildings ranging from the 13th to the 20th centuries interspersed with plentiful park areas and open spaces. Ostrava is an industrial city by nature — a former major coal producing town that still reeks of industrialization as opposed to historical or cultural attractions. Dominating the city center is a former iron plant that was established in 1828 and closed 170 years later. This humongous series of huge pipes and intersecting steel structures and geometric shapes, spanning 15 hectares over multiple city blocks, has been re-invented as a Museum of History and Cultural Center and is awaiting designation as a UNESCO site.

Now I recognize that this iron works complex is the centerpiece of this manufacturing town – and incredibly visually impressive — but my suggestion? Don’t go there unless you find two-hours of mind-numbing statistics belaboring a litany of iron ore minutia covering measurements, processes and production to be stimulating. My eyes, on the other hand, were glazing over. I was delighted to finally find myself in the Science and Technology Museum, a tad more recent development of 2014, where every interactive exhibit, and there are rooms and rooms of them, is an exciting visual and tactile experience celebrating civilizations, nature, electricity, people and animals. The adults were as delighted as the kids, exuding sheer joy as they meandered from one activity to the next. Rumor has it it takes five hours to do justice to the museum but I could have spent days there and never been bored.

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Okay, so Ostrava is not as historical or romantic as Prague, and it doesn’t boast luminous squares full of elaborate castles, ornate monasteries and sumptuous chateaux, with history streaming out over the streets to capture you in the 12th-19th centuries at every turn. But it’s a tourist’s delight in its appealing off-beat attractions and lack of crowds visiting them. It’s a real town where real people live. And its gnomes and beer bath alone are enough to justify a visit. For more information, visit www.ostrava.cz/en/turista.

 

Their bodies were sleek and graceful, the skin soft to the touch, their demeanor welcoming even if a bit skeptical. Still, they were more used to this than I was. But I spread my arms out as instructed and flapped them in the water. Romeo and Paski, two of my dolphin snorkeling companions, then swam under my outstretched limbs, and we laid back into the water as though sunbathing. Then we went back to free swim.
Such is one of the many highlights at the Dolphin Academy, one of several up-front-and-personal animal encounters available at the Sea Aquarium on the Caribbean island of Curacao.
Now I don’t usually like watching animals perform tricks that are alien to their DNA for the amusement of tourists, but at the Dolphin Academy, the residents are treated with such loving care, I swam alongside them with minimal guilt. According to trainer Yvette, the dolphins are the first priority. “They are on a very light work schedule and every day, it varies. Like humans, they react better when their life is not all that predictable. And if for any reason they don’t want to perform -– perhaps they’re preoccupied with a personal family situation (I didn’t pursue that) -– the program is called off.” As if on cue, a participant related a past experience in which Dolphins used to give rides to people holding on to their fins. Nope, not any more — it was determined that it was too damaging to their dorsal fins and the dolphins didn’t like it so it was stopped years ago. I nodded; point well taken…one point for the dolphins.
Prior to the snorkel, Yvette instructed us on how to proceed: be patient; let them come to you; stroke them along their flanks. She taught us how to encourage the dolphin to come alongside and then free dive in unison. Romeo and I shared a number of shallow dives together and in parting he gave me a kiss. Okay, so he did it because he got a fish but still I thought he was actually smiling at me at the time.

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Dafne Greeven, a dive instructor from The Hague, Netherlands, said she had seen dolphin in the ocean, but had never interacted with them. “Most animal encounters are much more commercial,” she observed. “Snorkeling with them was a very special, personal experience. It was wonderful to see how well they treat the dolphins here and encourage us to be relaxed so that the dolphins will be.”
And it was only the start of my very personal connection with sea life in Curacao. My next encounter took me even further underwater. I’ve been snorkeling before — but never in the past did the fish swarm to me rather than my having to swim out to them. But then again I don’t usually carry a supply of squiggly little sardines with me when I go, while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway.

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But at the Animal Encounters experience getting up close and personal with a variety of denizens of the deep is the whole purpose. So there I was co-mingling with tarpon, common snook, French grunts, permit fish, horse-eyed jack and so many sting rays that I felt covered most of the time by a soft lightweight blanket caressing my body — only this blanket wanted to be fed fish which it ate with its underbelly.

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I wasn’t really surprised to find the huge loggerhead turtles and sharks behind a Plexiglas shield and fed through small holes in the glass. Still, the shark didn’t look any less menacing for being behind protective covering. I carefully followed the instructions on when to feed them directly and when to take better care of my fingers. There’s not always a second chance to do that with a shark…
Herbie, the 400-pound goliath grouper who has been king of the hill here for over 30 years pretty much just observed the proceedings. No one messes with Herbie.
Ah so many fish, so little time — I fed as many as I could in the 35 minute feeding frenzy and came away with a new respect for the difference between just snorkeling — and actually swimming with the fishes…
Back on land, my next animal rendezvous was of a more playful nature. I got to meet and greet Snapper, the sea lion. I learned the difference between sea lions and seals and watched Snapper do a seal imitation as he flopped along on his belly. Sea lions are much more genteel when they move — they walk on all fours. Using flippers, of course, but still… Snapper had a bit to say during our tete-a-tete but his vocalization unfortunately resembled a very loud, deep belch that tended to continue long after it was socially acceptable to do so. But still he was very cute -– and, like Romeo, very affectionate. Yup, I got another kiss. Between the two, I got more action that weekend than I remember occurring at the height of my dating career.

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A visit to a nearby ostrich farm left me less enamored with animals in captivity. I found it a little sad — not to mention ironic — that they were pushing ostrich meat in the restaurant because it’s low in cholesterol; and even more disturbed to discover that most of the young end up on the menu. “Slaughtered” babes reincarnated as wraps, croquettes and burgers. We couldn’t convince our guide Alexander to maybe find some more euphemistic term to describe their sad demise….

Admittedly, this was one of those experiences that actually turn out to be more interesting than you expect. First, we learned a lot. Ostriches have no teeth so they can’t bite but they can kick like crazy and run at 50 miles an hour. The farm — you know — the one that feeds baby ostriches to its customers — apparently tricks the birds into laying more than they ordinarily would by stealing the eggs before they are hatched. Apparently you end up with a lot of extra omelets that way!
But they are fascinating bird to watch. They walk regally, head held high with a haughty look that conveys a “don’t mess with me” demeanor, but with a small pointy little face that can’t help but elicit a smile.
I liked them — I did — but I couldn’t get beyond the fact that people were actually riding the poor birds, which looked about the last thing the ostrich wanted to happen. Two guys on either side hold the ostrich’s wings to keep him from running away with his passenger, who despite the cascading giggles looked absolutely terrified. Alexander basically said that very few people ever really opt for another ride…
Feeding them, on the other hand, felt a lot more charitable. With my back to the outside of the fence and holding a feed bucket in front of me, two birds stretched their necks around me and pecked like crazy at the pellets. I felt like a large feathery cape had suddenly become alive and had gone into a feeding frenzy. I longed to be back among the fishes. More dainty eaters, they.
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Let’s just say ostriches are not nearly as endearing as dolphins and sea lions. And while I chose not to partake of their meat in the restaurant, I did feel a little guilty at lunch following the underwater swim eating a fried fish sandwich.
And now an animal story for the future based on a rare occurrence this past August 2015 at the Santa Barbara Resort. Turtle hatching!!! Turtles rarely nest on a busy hotel beach, especially one where their access to the ocean is impeded. But nest they did for the first time ever — and once tracks were spotted the Sea Turtle Conservation Agency set up precautions. The resort put a team together that made sure the nest was protected during the incubation of the eggs. They even put together a turtle watch, and under their eager eyes, at least 80 little hawksbill turtles, a critically endangered species, made it safely to their new home in the water. The good news for avid turtle watchers everywhere — as well as the resort — is that they are expected back again next August.
There are, of course, other more mundane opportunities to interact with animals on the island, in addition to the excellent diving and snorkeling for which the island is known. These include horseback riding, a butterfly farm, viewing bats hanging out in caves, lots of birds and lizards, and if so tempted, a visit to Jaanchie Restaurant. Here an iguana, a relative of whom I had just seen scurrying across my path on a hike, showed up instead in a stew. According to chef and owner, Jaanchie, it may “taste like chicken but it acts like Viagra.” Ha! At least the iguana had more to recommend it than the ostrich meat. For more information, visit www.royalseaquariumresort.com/curacao-sea-aquarium.asp; ostriches, curacaoostrichfarm.com/?lang=en; turtle hatching, www.santabarbararesortcuracao.com.

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Wildlife / migration around Kusini Camp, Serengeti, Tanzania, March 2006.

What do Bill Gates, Hillary and Chelsea, Martina Navratilova and Prince Charles have in common? They’ve all taken an Abercrombie and Kent safari in Tanzania. I figured that’s a pretty good recommendation.

As little as five years ago, some Americans still thought of Tanzania as an exotic destination; now more and more are choosing it as a vacation alternative to Kenya. And when most people think Tanzania, they think Serengeti. They picture millions of wildebeest and zebras stretching endlessly across the plains in their annual migration during the dry season.

Tanzania; Ngorongoro Crater Pond
Tanzania; Ngorongoro Crater Pond

Although A&K’s Tanzania Wildlife Safari includes the Serengeti, as well as Lake Manyara, I’d trade those “Endless Plains” for the relatively tiny expanse of the nearby Ngorongoro Crater. Spanning only 102 square miles, this 2 1/2 million-year-old volcanic crater is a virtual microcosm of all East Africa. Just about every conceivable species of wildlife is represented, which makes the Ngorongoro Crater the only place of its kind in the world! Unlike the other parks, the Crater is the only place to see and photograph the wealth of wildlife without high-powered binoculars or large telephoto camera lens.

Despite the many animals visible alongside the road in all the parks, for the most part it’s a constant quest for viewing privileges, necks craned, eyes strained, heads bobbing from side to side hoping to be the hero in the jeep to make the next sighting. The Crater, instead, is Mother Nature’s Zoo — a huge expanse of wild creatures surprisingly willing to share their open spaces, with each other as well as us. From the hatched-roof vehicles, designed for ultimate sightseeing, we leer, gawk, ooh, ah, jump up, sit down, jump up again, all the while snapping picture after picture, while the animals pretend to ignore us.

It’s hard to describe the wonder of a leviathan elephant whose tusks almost reach the ground, a black-maned lion baring his teeth or half-a-dozen adolescent zebras cavorting around a waterhole within feet of the jeep. Home to some 30,000 animals, I felt I had climbed into the Discovery Channel.

Tanzania; Serengeti; Elephant
Tanzania; Serengeti; Elephant

The highlight of the Crater is the endangered black rhino, of which only 26 are left. As in the days of Hemingway, when he and his hunting cronies were obsessed with tracking down The Big Five — rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and cape buffalo — poaching remains the biggest threat to the future of the rhino population. Not unlike Hemingway, the goal of many safari participants is also to pursue these most elusive, and dangerous, of prey. Their sport, however, is to shoot photos, not rifles. My safari mates and I — 11 of us total — saw all five beasts, an accomplishment in which we took great pride. Considering its menace, the rhino doesn’t seem to do much. I guess when you’re the second largest animal around, there’s not all that much incentive to move. In contrast, the graceful loping antelope is a much more spirited animal.

Tanzania; Ngorongoro Crater; Rhino
Tanzania; Ngorongoro Crater; Rhino

Little did I know prior to my trip that an antelope is not itself an animal but a generic term that covers a wide range of creatures, ranging from an 11-pound dik dik to a 2000-pound eland. Also springboks, riverbucks, hardebeest, wildebeest, impalas, topis and gazelles among others, with horns from curved to straight, twisted to rippled, rounded to wavy. The list goes on as far as the antelope can run. The imploded crater, the largest of its type in the world, provides both temporary and permanent residence for its vast hordes of wildlife dwellers. So many animals peacefully coexisting — at least on the surface. Hyenas, zebras, wildebeest, ostriches, elephants, lions, warthogs, hippos, baboons, cheetahs, leopards — and that’s just for starters! The latter two, especially, are rare safari finds — and among the most sought after by experienced safari-goers.

We novices got lucky. Not only did we see two leopards virtually indistinguishable from the tree branches they were wound around, but also a family of cheetahs frolicking nearby. I was mesmerized by the four cubs romping and rolling over each other, periodically returning to mom for a little grooming and reassurance. She, on the other hand, was eyeing several gazelles about a quarter-mile away. We watched, some more anxiously than others, while they played a little cat and gazelle game, as mama debated whether or not to go and bring back lunch. Prey and predator eyeing each other, each evaluating its position, flirting with danger one moment, retreating the next. You can feel the tension, irrevocably caught up in the life-and-death dance that forms the very essence of their existence. I was both relieved and disappointed when mama decided against take-out. And sometimes success — depending, of course, from whose perspective — is obvious. Case in point: the lion whose matted mane was so close, I could see his whiskers tremble, his stomach visibly distended, clearly indicating how well he had feasted the night before. Our guide, Joseph’s input: thirty to forty pounds of raw meat will satiate him for 4-5 days. What a way to live! I, on the other hand, was ready for lunch.

Tanzania; Serengeti; Lion
Tanzania; Serengeti; Lion

One of the most intriguing photo ops was of a vast flock of flamingoes, numbering in the thousands, occupying most of Lake Magadi, a shallow soda lake on the bottom of the crater. They resembled a feathery pink blanket stretched out along the shoreline. Through Joseph’s well-trained, eagle-eyed and extremely knowledgeable tutelage, we were soon all amateur zoologists, identifying a previously generic starling as a Ruppells long-tailed glossy or the ubiquitous antelope as a hardebeest or Grant’s gazelle. By the sixth day, it was “Don’t bother getting up, it’s just another herd of elephants!”

A travel story is often enhanced by the obstacles overcome, but on this particular trip, I was out of luck. The sun was brighter, the accommodations nicer, the food better, the flies less bothersome, the dust lighter than I had been led to expect. Although I understand this to be rare, I actually returned to my hotel with clothes still resembling the color they started out with. Be forewarned, this is not always the case.

The roads were another story, a definite obstacle that can’t be overcome unless you walk — which is definitely frowned upon in the wild! Anyone with back problems, or allergies for that matter, should probably not even consider the trip.

Seated on my hotel balcony at 7:30 a.m. the last morning, I listened to a concerto of birdcalls as I observed two Thompson’s gazelles romping about with a topi. A small flock of guinea hens grazed within 50 yards, assiduously avoiding a passing wart hog.

Tanzania; Serengeti
Tanzania; Serengeti

But what especially struck me was the presence of all the other animals, hidden in grass and shrubs, that I knew I was not seeing. Occupying those omnipresent endless plains were millions of hoofed animals continually on the move in search of pasture for survival, constantly watched and pursued by the many predators whose own survival depends on feeding off them. For a while, I watched for the slightest movement, as a hungry predator might do as it seeks its next meal. Then, I reluctantly left for home, knowing that this strange combination of imposing terrain, tenuous commingling of wildlife and inevitable brutal killings will continue long after I’m gone. Welcome to the harsh — and wonderful — realities of nature. For more information, visit abercrombiekent.com or contact Abercrombie & Kent at 800/554-7094.

 

 

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Sure, we are all now accustomed to hotel rooms admonishing us to leave the towels on the rack so they can be reused. And occasionally, we come across two waste baskets in the room, one for recycling paper. And we feel so good about ourselves when we do so.

We rarely encounter the European standard of motion-controlled hallway lighting. Or placing the room key into a slot that turns on the lights and AC when we enter, and turns them off when we leave. Too many Americans, it seems, prefer to have their rooms already chilled and lit when they return.

So the Green Suite at Digby Pines in Nova Scotia, Canada is an anomaly. Okay, so not really a U.S. phenomenon but close enough at least so that we can lay claim a little just by leaning over the border. And how often is a room on the itinerary of a property inspection simply because of its environmental attributes? I was virtually jumping up and down on the bamboo-infused bed linens with excitement at my newly discovered eco-friendly accommodations!

Bamboo, it seems, is a natural fabric that is very hyper-allergenic so the fibers are used in the towels and sheets; bamboo shutters adorn the windows. The headboard is made from a re-cycled door. The cooling and heating system is more energy efficient than normal AC/heating methods. And a recycling trash bin is divided into four units — one each for paper, plastic, compost and garbage.

Now admittedly, I didn’t know whether the saran-type wrap protecting the plastic cups in the bathroom should be put into garbage, paper or…maybe even plastic. But I loved having the choice and only regretted not ordering in pizza so I could at least have SOMETHING to compost. Much of the furniture was refinished or made with no carbon footprints and natural decorations of stone and driftwood and local artwork added pizazz to the room. The dual-flush toilet was just a bonus.

I cringed when I saw the 1200 watt hair dryer knowing how long it takes my 1875 watt version at home to dry my hair. I’m still at a loss to understand how the tiny implement managed to dry my hair in record time. There were a lot of other less-obvious and more scientific nods to environmental awareness and sustainability that cumulatively I knew made a huge difference. I was eco-humbled.

Naturalroomdecoration

And fortunately, the eco-friendly efforts extended beyond the Green Suite. Low-level electricity is used throughout the hotel with an emphasis on natural light; the kitchen recycles to such a degree that nothing, I was told, even goes to a landfill; the chef grows his own herbs, and there’s a green roof atop the spa that in addition to providing a home to a vast number of plants also impacts building sound and heat insulation, improves air quality, retains storm water as well as provides other environmental benefits. I wanted to jump up and down on the roof, as well!

The spa, warm and quiet under its green roof, uses Aveda all-natural products which supposedly are the greenest on the market (Aveda apparently uses wind power to manufacture their products). The spa also has cork flooring, which not only helps with noise reduction, but is kind to the feet of masseuses and hairstylists standing for long periods of time. Happy feet those!

In cabins with fireplaces, compressed sawdust replaces wood because it has a zero percent carbon footprint. Natural gas has, of course, replaced oil, and there is even a “Green Team” comprised of staff members assigned to come up with new ways to save energy. The composting bin in the Green Suite was one of their ideas.

Digby Pines may not yet have equalled European standards but they’re trying.

Of course, even the most eco-friendly of rooms is not enough reason to stay in one, so I ventured out to explore the immediate environs of Digby and Annapolis Royal.

Digby is known for two things not usually found on your standard travel itinerary. The Bay has the highest tides in the world, at times approximating a 52-foot drop between high and low tides, the latter resembling literal mud flats at your feet. In Digby, the difference measures a mere 20-20 feet of water, but that’s impressive enough! The Changing Tide Diner, Raising Tide Café, Tidal Boatyards and other similarly named businesses provide constant reminders of the cosmic peculiarities of the town. The other Digby phenomenon is that it is the scallop capital of the world. But more on that later.

The town is a combination of a working fishing village combined with quiet tourist getaway — even in the middle of the summer season, which resident businesses probably bemoan — where visitors and locals easily mingle. The Nothing Fancy Furniture Store sets an appropriate tone for the town.

The Evangeline Trail from Digby to Annapolis Royal, its nearby northern neighbor, is still reminiscent of the forest primeval immortalized in Longfellow’s poem by the same name. The “murmuring pines and the hemlocks” continue to line the road. Greenery so intense as to require a richer, deeper color to describe it. The blue waters peeking through from the Bay of Fundy provide a welcome diversion.

Annapolis Royal, so steeped in Mi’kmaw (one of the First Nation people who initially inhabited Canada), English and French history, that even their gardens are called historic, with floral arrangements dating back to the 16th century. The official name? Historic Gardens, of course, where horticultural practices of the Mi’kmaw are on display. So too are those of the early French settlers who found a way in the mid-17th century to harness those aforementioned tides through the use of dykes in order to make the land arable. The gardens dazzle visitors with diversity of design, variety of blooms and explosions of color that disperse splendor like multi-hued shrapnel.

Historic Gardens

Soft mauves spar with demanding purples, subtle yellows complement arrogant fuschias, perky pinks play against brilliant reds. Some flowers beg to be noticed while others preen and primp without guile, knowing they effortlessly capture your attention. I had to be dragged from display to display, unable to voluntarily extricate myself from all that beauty. But there it was again and again, at every turn, down every path.

Across the street lies Fort Anne, a resplendent attraction in its own right, which saw multiple battles between the English and the French as control of the city changed hands between the two 7 times over 400 years. As a travel writer I have been the unhappy recipient of many a fort tour over many a year. I don’t particularly like forts. But Fort Anne made me reassess the decades-long aversion. Covering 37 acres of land that was not only battled over by the French and English but also occupied at times by the Mi’kmaw, the Scots and Acadians over a period of hundreds of years, every exhibit, sign, plaque, display kept me engrossed in the history and enmeshed in the past.

A visit to the Tidal Power Station brought me back to the eco-friendly present. Created in 1984, it is the first and only tidal plant in North America to generate electricity by harnessing the powerful waters of the Bay of Fundy. Think they learned anything from the Acadians who long ago tamed the tides for agricultural purposes? It felt like nature coming full-circle.

The town places a heavy emphasis on preserving heritage houses, and community opposition prevents the development of any fast food restaurants. No McDonalds will reign over Annapolis Royal.

Remember those scallops? Well, they’re everywhere — on pasta and pizza, in chowders and salads, in rolls and in wraps. On one dinner menu at Digby Pines, they were served breaded, grilled, bacon wrapped, pan seared and as a salad add-on. I didn’t see any scallop ice cream but it’s probably because I didn’t look hard enough. Even the local Shell gas station got into the act by renaming itself “The Scallop Shell”… By this time, my eyes were definitely beginning to roll. And the last thing I wanted to eat was a scallop!

Scallopssign2

Though there are many other areas of interest around, I chose, like the tides and the scallops, to remain local — and happily returned to my bamboo-laden, hyper-allergenic, compost-making, energy saving room. It’s sure going to be hard to stay at a regular Holiday Inn the next time I travel: Where am I going to put my left-over pizza? For more information, visit www.digbypines.ca.

“You want me to get on THAT and go down to where?” I wailed from high atop the Alberta Falls waterslide, looking down to an alleged pool that was well out of visual range.  My 11-year-old grand-daughter nodded with a look of both consternation and resignation that I tried very hard to take in stride.

Such was my introduction to a vast array of unusual children’s activities that mesmerized the 70-year-old kid in me as much as they did Dalya, 14 and Mollie, 11 as we frolicked through Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, VA. (There are 12 such waterparks nationwide).

We could have spent all three days at the resort and still not exhausted the available options. Having to leave to also visit Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens for me was just a distraction. Mollie and Dalya might take issue with that.

There is so much going on at the waterpark that I didn’t know where to look. The pool basketball game, the lazy river, the wave pool, the kiddie pool,  the 4-story interactive treehouse with a section of ascending inter-connected rope tunnels leading to two winding slides, a surf stimulator and, of course, the three waterslides that dominate the park and stretch both inside and outside the building. And everywhere the smiles were as wide as the lazy river was long. And no matter what the activity, you’re never too far from a potential dousing from overhead buckets both large and small eliciting cries of surprise from bathers of every age.

Tipping Bucket splash

Options ranged from the toddler pool proudly boasting its depth at 0’ and containing miniature water buckets and slides to an array of adult slides from family raft rides of gentle descent to the terror-inducing Howlin’ Tornado with sheer drops and challenging turns. Okay, we didn’t go near that one but yes, we returned to the Alberta Falls waterslide multiple times.

And then there was the wave pool. Okay, not exactly ocean-worthy diving potential, but if you’re under three feet or willing, as I was, to kneel down, you can simulate riding the waves even if you can’t exactly dive into them.

Williamsburg Water Park

Once our skins unpruned, we were ready for more land-based adventures — and there were as many of those as there were waterpark options. But first we had to eat — and so we entered the dinner buffet, right off the lobby where continuous other activities unfold.  When I went for my salad, there was dancing in the lobby; back for my entrée, 50 little kids were engrossed in story hour; during dessert, a musical presentation enthralled with singing trees, animals and other fanciful creatures. Entertaining kids around the clock is what Great Lodge is all about. So it was a surprise to see so many adults sporting the turquoise wolf ears the kids get at check in. I resisted the temptation…

The piece de resistance (after the waterpark) is the MagiQuest, a hard-to-describe adventure that takes kids throughout all four floors of the hotel seeking magical powers, potions and portents — all enabled by their magic wand — to satisfy the demands of the Questmaster, a Merlin-like presence ensconced in a computer inside a tree. You don’t dare not follow his instructions!

There are multiple quests with multiple clues to each quest which require you to visit the Enchanted Forest, Tangled Woods, Piney Path and Whispery Woods, all located throughout the hotel. “The Ancient Book of Wisdom,” which you get when you sign up for MagiQuest, directs you to the clues. It’s a good thing I was with Dalya and Mollie: I never could have figured out what to do.

Boy playing MagiQuest

Surprising encounters occur throughout. Let’s say you wand a Quest site that’s not on your list, you might hear: “Silly Magi, you have to be on THIS quest before I waste my time with you.” At the Book of Freezing Spells, a voice admonishes: “Don’t be so literal. You’re reading way too much into this.”

And the huge larger-than-lifesize knight in a stairwell pleads: “You have found 200 pieces of gold hidden in my armor. Now get me out of here!”

Dalya and Mollie Meet the Knight

Word of warning: You have to stay out of the way of younger kids racing around as if their wands were swords and the quests just an excuse to duel each other through the hallways.

And if you tire of this unusual game of dungeons and dragons, you can opt to play miniature golf at the Howl in One course, hang out at the Arcade, or get a Henna tattoo and come back to the quest at a later time.

There was so much going on, so many bizarre places to wend a wand, with a variety of big screens showing animated adventures spaced throughout, that I just gave up trying to understand what was happening and happily trailed behind my grand-daughters in their quest for…well…other items in their quest. Overheard from one frustrated mom with three little ones in tow: “Man, this is crazy, I give up.”  I knew just how she felt. I was so glad when Dalya finally pronounced that she only needed Tree Slime to finish her latest quest. Sounded like a good way to end to me.

And yes, there were actually more quests to do — the Shadow Quest and the Compass Quest – that I didn’t even want to ask about. And the list of the things we didn’t do was almost as long as those we did. We did not go to the Scoops Kid’s Spa, where the nail polish for mini-manicures all come with ice cream flavor names, the pedicures are done while seated in giant banana split thrones, the facials, bath balms and scrubs are either vanilla, chocolate or strawberry and the glitter make-up application comes with a tiara.

Girls in Scooops Kid Spa

We didn’t try the life-size time challenge game where you race both against the clock and your opponents to push out balloon-size blinking light buttons. We didn’t bowl at Ten Paw Alley with five pound balls and bumpers along the pint-size lanes. We didn’t attend any of the several 4D-movies offered at the Howly Wood Theater. We could have spent a week there and never gotten bored, but hey, Williamsburg and Busch Gardens beckoned, and I reluctantly followed. For more information about Great Wolf Lodge, visit greatwolf.com/Williamsburg.

 

 

Rebecca, an indentured servant, has only been at the plantation for two months, and already she has mastered the skills of milking, cooking, gardening and tending to the animals.

The Captain of the Dove, the ship that brought her from England, explains the intricacies of determining longitude and latitude in 1634.

Plantation owner Godiah Spray worries about the back rent his tenant farmer, William, owes him. Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC), in southern Maryland, is a very busy colony.

Just as it was in 1634 when 142 settlers arrived under the leadership of Leonard Calvert. Based on the concept of religious tolerance — as well as profit — it was the first permanent settlement in Maryland. The emergence of St. Mary’s City — the first capital of MD until moved to Annapolis in 1695 — spawned a number of firsts. Here was built the first Catholic Chapel in the New World, with the Acts of Toleration created to promote harmony with the Protestants, in contrast to the persecution the Catholics received in England.

St. Mary’s legislature, a representative government — itself, a totally new concept — fostered the principle of Separation of Church and State. With the church at one end of the city, and the state house at the other, the geographically separate buildings were themselves a metaphor for the concept. The seeds of democracy were laid in St.

Mary’s soil: religious tolerance, separation of church and state and representative government.

 

2. State House - Copy

Just ask any colonist. Dressed in period attire and in character throughout, different settlers enthusiastically describe life in the colony — both good and bad — especially warming to their own particular circumstances. In easy conversations with visitors, they answer the wide variety of questions that come their way.

Male interpreters explain the way tools were made from stone and animal bones. Women are busy farming, weaving mats from river grass (real river grass), drying deer pelts (from real deer) for clothing. Nothing is Disneyfied. There are very few things that haven’t been authentically recreated — using the materials and the methods of the time.

 

Stop by Smith’s Ordinary — the town gathering place — for a drink, a game of draughts (English checkers) or Quoits, or perhaps to spend the night — on the floor, which defined “accommodations” in mid 17th century.

 

3. Smith Ordinary gaming - Copy

The Print House is the most recent addition to the ever-growing city. Locating the site of the structure involved a long, painstaking process of archaeological discoveries, intense research and lots of puzzle-piecing. The study of nearby glass fragments enabled exact duplication of windows. Counting and measuring the nails allowed for reconstruction of the original clapboard siding. Rare colonial skills, such as hand-hewing the beams, splitting the clapboard and forging the nails were employed to create the final inn. From excavation to the application of the final coat of whitewash, the new Print House virtually replicates the original.

Back to 1667. We encounter Sabella, a pretty young servant working off her indenture. She is crocheting a small herb-containing pouch that she will wear around her neck to promote good health. Good health is very important around these parts. Plantation owner Godiah Spray initially had doubts she’d survive the four seasons (many don’t), but now that she has been successfully “seasoned,” she eagerly looks forward to earning her freedom in five years.

 

 

4. Sabilla in garden from above - Copy

Taking authenticity to new heights, not only do the materials actually reflect those that were used at the time, but so do the animals. The pigs, chickens and cows bear the same markings as the original animals — and bear little resemblance to their counterparts today. The cows are from a special herd with its own characteristic patterns; the pigs are stouter and snoutier.

But it’s the chickens that surprise me the most. They’re larger, some with hairy black and orange feathers sport fluffy, bushy balls on top of their heads; others, even bigger, are black with reddish-tinted fur and furry feet. The chickens I know don’t have furry feet! These animals are anachronisms — certainly not a part of today’s world. I must be in the 17th century!

Master Spray, while introducing his ‘guests” to his property, explains the workings of a 1660’s tobacco farm as he demonstrates how to split wood, till the soil and dry the “weed.”

He designates 10-year-old Chris Paul, from Berwyn Heights, Maryland, as his newest indentured servant, and instructs him in the proper raking of a small patch of land. Left to complete his chores, the group hears more about plantation life. Chris casts nervous glances at his parents, wondering if he really might be left behind, hoe in hand.

 

In conversation, Spray relates the benefits of smoking tobacco. To the colonists, not only is tobacco a cash-cow, but “good for whatever ails ‘ya.” When you grow 6000-10,000 pounds of tall dry stuff, you can afford to import fine dishes, glasses and furniture from Europe. Mrs. Spray is more than happy to show off her finely stocked home.

No doubt, she gets some of her finery at Cordea’s Hope. Mark Cordea would probably be an Enron executive today. He buys heavily anytime a ship from Europe is in town, stores his goods, and then sells them at extravagant prices during the times there are no other sources for his products. Everything from pottery and everyday necessities to rare crystal glassware, which he uses to toast his favorite — and no doubt, richest — customers.

5. Inside House - Copy

Aboard the Dove, there is always something happening — either the crew is loading cargo, testing the cannon, swabbing the decks or learning tricks of navigation, rope-tying or sailing. A visiting “sailor” is drafted to be a part of the crew during these demonstrations — to the delight of the rest of the crowd.

 

6. HSMC man on boat

The Captain explains the intricacies of determining the ship’s latitude from the rudimentary instruments of 1634. What’s so impressive is how accurate they are. And they’re even older than the chickens… For more information about Historic St. Mary City, visit www.hsmcdigshistory.org.

 

I am sweating profusely. My pores are so over-run with liquid that I fear I will float away in a river of my own perspiration. Since I am molting inside a sweat lodge, I figure I can’t go very far. Temporarily reassured.

And the ritual itself started off innocently enough, despite warnings not to eat or drink to excess beforehand, with Shaman Jesus Eduardo introducing us to Temazcal, a Mayan tradition dating back thousands of years and devoted to purifying the mind, body and spirit. This Temazcal comes compliments of the Presidente Intercontinental Hotel in Cozumel, the only resort on the island to offer exposure to the Mayan ceremony.

Jesus’s initial introduction involves a lot of things related to the number four. The four directions of the compass, for example. Then the elements — Earth, Wind, Water and Fire; the four stages of life (childhood 5-11, youth 12-32, adulthood 33-70, and old age — which being 70 myself, I took personal offense to, but the Mayan gods didn’t seem to notice….); and four life goals (courage, love, wisdom and silence).The objective is to find a balance between these different aspects and call upon their mythological representatives daily to help guide us through life.

Although I may not totally grasp the multiple layers of “four,” their guiding principles of gratefulness, seizing the day and moving forward I am able to understand.

The Temazcal ritual is touted to do many things — the aforementioned purification of mind, body and spirit which includes detoxification of the skin, improvement of the nervous system, elimination of stress, relief of muscle tension, improved circulation, activation of immune system and overall rejuvenation of the mind and body. Okay — so it’s supposed to be a miracle cure. For me, though, its main value is a very personal reconnection with self — a fairly heady experience in and of itself.

We are seated in a pitch black sweat lodge around hot volcanic rocks that are periodically splashed with water, which represent the warmth of either Mother Earth or all grandmothers past — or both. Hard to say. Grandma is invoked with every added rock. Aromatic herbs and tree resins occasionally are added to help flush toxins from body and skin. The fire pit resounds like the ocean whenever water is thrown upon it but the sparks of hot water sizzling on my bare skin remind me otherwise.

2. Inside the Sweat Lodge

Jesus’s initial focus is on the first stage of life. “What do you most remember from your childhood,” he asks, and he doesn’t settle for easy answers. He pushes us to connect with the child within us, how did we feel growing up, what emotions most represented our childhoods. My father’s death as always looms large — the most significant negative event of my childhood — but I also internalized my mother’s love and even more than that the respect I always experienced from her as my most meaningful positive take-away. Sort of the Yin and Yang of my whole personality. No one’s ever asked me before to connect so meaningfully to the often scared little girl inside of me. Powerful stuff.

And then our youth, ages 12-32 — a period of exploration, perhaps. He gives us a cord and instructs us to tie it in multiple knots and with each knot to speak to our past relationships, while repeating, “I forgive you, please forgive me, I love you, and good-bye.” He urges us to let go of all the hurt, the pain, the regrets of the past — and to move on. To release the past so it doesn’t negatively infuse the present.

3. Shaman calling to spirit guides.

We all deal with sorrow, regret and hurt in our lives. For me, they take the form of divorce and death — not only my father’s but that of my brother’s far more recent passing. I am perfectly happy to be able to put aside all the pain, the abandonment, the anger associated with those parts of my life.

And although I recognize the exercise as a process of letting go of those who had caused me pain or loss, of negative past experiences, I instead find myself embracing them. It feels like a way of saying thank you to those relationships of the past — thank you for what you gave me then — even though I have moved on. Maybe it’s the same thing — but it feels different. I feel not so much free of the hurt and regret but rather reconnected to the richness of what those relationships had been to me. I know that isn’t the plan, but it is what I come away with. I feel grateful for what I had received from them, which in no way takes away from how very thankful I am for what my husband and I have in the here and now.

I can almost physically feel my skeptical husband beside me pass through the hokey stage to possibly being remotely affected himself by the process of connecting. Then again, maybe not…he’s pretty skeptical.

And still the fire pit sizzles; sounds, smells and smoke surround. Repetitive chanting, though in Spanish, is a calming sensation, providing almost a spiritual bond. Jesus instructs us to lie down as he goes through a cleansing exercise over each of us, expunging toxins and rejuvenating mind, body and spirit through implied touch.

4. Shamas Jesus Eduardo

Onto adulthood, a time of maturity, although our shaman admits that he himself has never reached it. Nothing like a little comic relief… He asks us to think about our lives, what we’re grateful for and how we express it to the ones we love. He speaks of being appreciative, and encourages us to be gentle with words; to not take from others. “Don’t assume negativity and keep the best of yourself for those you love. Appreciate every new day,” he advises. Again, he admonishes: “Let everything from yesterday die so that your todays may be happier.” And cautions: “There are no mistakes in life, only lessons. Learn from them and move on.” I’m somewhat overwhelmed by all the instructions. I know I already didn’t do so well with the letting go part.

5. Upon re-entry to the world 2

He then invites us to crawl out of the lodge backward, symbolizing a re-entry to the world, a rebirth. But that re-entry into modernity does not diminish our contact with Mayan culture. Throughout the hotel itself are reminders that the Mayans are still alive and well and relaxing at the Presidente Intercontinental. Employees, hand on heart, greet you with “M’alob K’iin,” meaning good day, good sun. Mayan signs announce the lobby bar as Bin K’iin which represents sunset and the adult pool is called Sayab, translated as Oasis of Tranquility. At night, in lieu of chocolates, we receive different Mayan legends on our pillow. A large wooden box in the room containing hotel info is decorated with Mayan art and traditional Mayan dishes are served in the restaurant. The sense of immersion with Mayan ancestry and connectedness with my own past remain with me as the highlights of my stay in Cozumel. For more information, visit www.intercontinentalcozumel.com/english. The 90-minute Temazcal experience costs $104 per person.