Photography by Emma Krasov

Arriving in Portugal, the westernmost European country, geographically closest to the U.S., I was thrilled to start touring the nature parks and quaint villages surrounded by granite mountains, crystal-clear waterfalls, mixed forests, and abundant wild flowers everywhere from foothill meadows to country roads. It was the very beginning of summer – the best time to explore Portugal’s glorious biodiversity. Daily weather patterns changed from cool breezes to occasional rains, to unexpectedly hot sunrays peeking through the dense clouds – a keen reminder of the country’s close proximity to Africa. The air was fresh, and filled with fragrances of blossoming linden, chestnut, and jacaranda trees. I felt immediately in love!

It started with my first acquaintance with Lisbon – a capital city where comfortable and well-served TAP Air Portugal flights bring American travelers directly from the East Coast.

Only a short stroll through the spacious Terreiro do Paco (“palace yard”) by the Tagus River was feasible before leaving the city and heading up north, and so I walked around the equestrian statue of King Jose I during whose reign the Great Lisbon Earthquake, tsunami, and fire of 1775 destroyed the royal palace, its yard, and almost the entire town in the unprecedented natural disaster.

Currently known as Praca do Comercio, the gorgeous city square is home to many shops and restaurants. Lunch at Can the Can was a wonderful introduction to Portuguese cuisine – bold, distinctive, and very healthy, too.

“Our way of cooking is a direct translation of our way of building cultural heritage – the enormous wealth passed down to us from generation to generation,” state the restaurant owners. “We are a kitchen full of ‘Portugality’, one that represents the best of Portugal and the Portuguese. Openness to outside influences is also key, and we welcome the world here, every day, in a grand, unique square intimately connected to the global story of our country.”

Can the Can emphasizes Mediterranean cuisine defined by the use of natural ingredients, and the art of food preservation, developed over the ages. (The canning industry in Portugal, a country with an extraordinary coast and ancestral tradition of fishing, dates back to 1865). Most dishes are based on a combination of high quality canned fish and fresh vegetables.

Immediately after lunch, our small group of three American journalists and a local guide and an excellent driver, Jorge Roque dos Santos, hit the road. Entering Obidos, an ancient walled city on the Atlantic coast, with a medieval castle and multiple historical churches, we were greeted by a bustling souvenir market along a cobblestone main street. The familiar blue-and-white design – a signature feature of Portuguese handcrafted tiles that decorate almost every building in the country was echoed by contemporary artisans’ creations.

After an invigorating walk through the town and around the castle, we settled for at The Literary Man Hotel, where all walls, nooks and crannies were lined with books, and a live band was playing at the restaurant during a candlelit dinner.

Following our route, the next morning we departed to Monsanto in Central Portugal, a fascinating hillside village where every little dwelling is built of stone or even of huge granite boulders that form foundations, walls, and roofs of the houses. A part of a massive 5000-square-kilometers nature park Geopark Naturtejo, Monsanto is filled with wondrous sites along its steep and narrow streets enlivened by blossoming rose bushes. Guided by Joana Rodrigues, a geologist employed by the geopark, we climbed up to the village castle to indulge in panoramic views of the entire region defined by white-walled houses under red-tiled roofs.

At lunch, at Petiscos & Granitas Geo-Restaurante we were seated next to a bulging boulder imbedded in the wall, and served the freshest house-made sausages, cured meats, and traditional salt cod made with spinach and bread crumbs into a delicious mush.

We then departed to Penha Garcia, also a part of the Geopark Naturtejo, the first Portuguese nature park dedicated by UNESCO in 2006. In this place, history goes way back, to a Neolithic settlement, later turned into a Lusitanian fort, and then into a Roman village. Just a few miles away from Spain, Penha Garcia offers spectacular views and a beautifully tiled drinking water fountain – one of many in this mountainous region where spring water is delivered to you uncompromised, straight from the source.

Tired, but happy and content with all the impressions of the day, we arrived at a posh Hotel Fonte Santa in Termas de Monfortinho. Built in the 1940s, during a period of intense interest in the thermal waters of Portugal, the renovated and upgraded hotel opened its doors in 2005. A spectacularly appointed property on a hilltop, with a blue swimming pool shimmering in the morning fog, it will stay in my memory as a dream that couldn’t materialize due to our short one-night stay, and the inclement weather that wouldn’t allow me to take a dip.

Our next day tour was dedicated to Serra da Estrela Natural Park – in the heart of the country – the highest mountain range in Continental Portugal. Our knowledgeable guide, Manuel Franco from a nature tourism company, Portugal A2Z, took us around on steep drives and easy hikes, and pointed out various curiosities from the characteristics of geological formations to the quirks of local flora, and from a history of a TB sanatorium turned upscale hotel to an absolutely a hidden gem of a lunch place, Varanda da Estrela.

Here, we indulged in freshly-cooked meats (lamb, goat, black pig) produced by local farmers with a traditional Portuguese garnish of olive oil-braised whole young potatoes.

A historical village of enchanted beauty, Castelo Rodrigo lay ahead, steeped in time and wrapped in a misty drizzle. By the time we’ve arrived, the sun, still invisible behind the clouds, was setting, and our home-made dinner was quickly delivered to an elegantly set table by Ana Berliner, the hostess of a boutique hotel, Casa da Cisterna where we were about to spend the night.

A biologist, born in Lisbon, and later enamored with the Coa Valley area, Ana settled in Castelo Rodrigo with her husband and daughters, and became a hotelier/restaurateur extraordinaire. On top of that, she entered a licensed guide program for Coa Archeological Park UNESCO World Heritage site of Paleolithic engravings found by the Coa River. The prehistoric rock engravings were discovered in Vila Nova de Foz Coa in the 1990s during a study for a proposed dam construction, and the archeological park was created in 1996 as an open air museum.

That night, Ana took us on a tour of the engravings, and with a strong flashlight in hand, showed us line by line and curve by curve the amazingly precise depictions of longhorn cows, horses, and deer, still pertinent to the area, and a mind-boggling image of an upstream-flowing salmon mirroring the nearby real river flow direction.

Once again, a shiny blue swimming pool by the hotel, made out of an old cistern that served as a water reservoir for the village and gave its name to Casa da Cisterna, remained but a dreamy vision. We had to depart early morning for Faia Brava Wildlife Reserve, also in the Coa Valley.

Now looking back at all the wonderful nature parks of Portugal I was so lucky to visit on this trip I can decidedly say that should there be only one park to visit and only one wildlife area to explore I would be heavily biased toward Faia Brava. The sheer vastness of this rocky hilly area studded with cork oaks and bright bursts of fennel and lavender shrubs and red poppies, a V-shape valley down below with a river running through it, its tall cliffs and boulders, its sunny meadows carpeted with white and yellow flowers, and especially its wildlife makes Faia Brava a dreamland for a nature lover.

The first privately owned protected wildlife habitat in the country, Faia Brava is a pilot area of the Rewilding Europe project since 2010.

Met at the park entrance by two experts on the area – Luis Pedro Ribeiro from Transumancia e Natureza Associasao (a non-profit environmental NGO) and Dr. Henk Smit – a board member of the park, our group was taken on an exciting adventure in the wilderness, devoid of human presence, and admittedly rarely traversed by hikers and bikers. On our journey we visited a high point from which we could observe through a telescope rare species of Griffon vultures and Egyptian vultures nesting in the cliffs. We met a family of wild Garrano horses with shiny, as if polished, chestnut-colored bodies and long raven-black manes. We couldn’t get enough of winding trails, partially conquered in a four-wheel drive, partially on foot, until it was time for lunch, and our gracious hostess from Casa da Cisterna, Ana Berliner arrived on the scene again with a home-made lunch of incredible delicacies and a bottle of champagne!

At our next stop, at Hotel & Spa Alfandega da Fe we were finally able to indulge in a serene warm spring-fed pool before a lavish dinner of Portuguese specialties at the hotel restaurant.

Early in the morning we continued our journey to Geres – a thermal spring area in the north, long known as a healing resort for countless ailments. Geres village is a charming and well-equipped visitor-oriented place with several nice hotels (we stayed at the grand Aguas do Geres Hotel, Termas e Spa), good restaurants (our lunch at Petiscos da Bo Gusta was freshly prepared and tasty), and a gorgeous park with old trees and a waterfall running through the city streets.

From Geres, we explored the surrounding parkland and more of the fairy-tale little villages. Peneda Geres National Park, located along the border with Spain, is formed by a 300-million-year-old granite mountains and the Homem River. It contains countless labyrinths of serpentine trails among the pines and oaks, with good paved roads often invaded by pasturing cows and wild horses.

In our exploits, we stopped for lunch at a Restaurante Espigueiro do Soajo, known for its young wines traditionally served in little bowls, and its extensive menu of house-made meat dishes made with local lamb, pork, and goat.

The village of Soajo is famous for its ages-old rustic corn storage houses on stilts, mysteriously-looking and adorned with crosses to ward off evil spirits.

I must say that in our entire journey through the nature parks of Portugal we’ve met only benevolent spirits – friendly locals, smiling, easily engaging, and ready to help even if we all had to rely on non-verbal communication to be understood by each other. In my book, Portugal is a great tourist destination – immensely beautiful, hospitable and safe to travel.

Find out more at: www.visitportugal.com, www.centerofportugal.com.

Photography by Emma Krasov

Close to midnight, I walked through etched glass French doors into a hallway lit by flower-shaped chandeliers. High ceiling with gilded moldings, framed oil paintings on the walls, and little bronze statuettes positioned throughout on small marble tables greeted me in silence. Open rooms on both sides of the hallway invited to peek in, and freely displayed their treasures. A blue salon furnished with armchairs and sofas of silk upholstery, an Asian-style room with potted palms, red accents and a Buddha statue, a formal dining room with parchment wallpaper and a fully set table amid carved mahogany china stands and family crests on painted window panes…

An invisible source produced quiet, barely perceptible music. Eerily, there were no other people there. All alone, I sat down on a silk ottoman in enchanted reverie, and stared at a half-draped window enlivened by a starry night sky.

The Lost Estate [by Alain-Fournier] came to mind. Only this estate, not far from the city center of Lisbon, where I was having a moment of pure bliss, was not lost.

It was founded by Marquis de Valle Flor, born in 1855, who in his teen years moved to the islands of Sao Tomé and Príncipe in Central Africa, and became one of the largest producers of cocoa, and one of the richest men in Portugal. With the construction of this palace, the prosperous marquis established his family’s place in the country’s history – and created one of the most luxurious and significant dwellings in the capital city.

And then it was found by Pestana Collection Hotels – Portugal’s largest international tourism and leisure hotel group, and one of the largest in Europe – whose motto is, “The Time of Your Life.”

I knew I was about to have the time of my life here (however briefly) when I’ve learned that the enchanted Pestana Palace Lisboa Hotel where I’ve settled for a couple of nights was classified as a National Monument due to its 1904 Nicola Bigaglia architecture, turn-of-the-century Carlos Reis ceiling paintings, and exquisite frescos, stuccos, stained glass designs and other decorative features, all lovingly restored at the magnificent Belle Époque building in a splendid location on a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River.

 

From here, I explored the eclectic beauty of Lisbon – the bustling metropolis with its medieval castle of St. George and carved stone monastery of St. Jerome, the Renaissance tower of St. Vincent and the Baroque Estrela Basilica. Every time, tired after enduring the winding narrow streets of Bairro Alto in the summer heat, I returned to my cool hotel room with a view of the lush gardens studded with bronze statues and gazebos, and hurried to one of the swimming pools – indoors or outdoors, depending on the weather whimsy of the moment.

When in Lisbon, I discovered the singing soul of Portugal – the music of Fado – an original style and genre, approximately 200 years old, named after “fate” or “destiny” that is the major theme of fado lyrics.

At Adega Machado in Bairro Alto I was treated to an amazing talent of Isabel Noronha. A singer of an incredible range and very distinct, passionate yet reserved style, Ms. Noronha captivated the audience with a heart-wrenching sincerity of her poignant expression of the tragic longing and unrequited love – obviously the themes of the songs she delivered.

Fado songs are usually performed by strong-voiced solo singers, both male and female, with highly emotional expressiveness, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar and other instruments. The musicians also perform no-singing pieces with great panache and mastery. Fado performances, even though most often happening in restaurants, constitute a high art form, and require subdued lighting (candlelight), revered silence and undivided attention of their listeners.

The overall ambiance at Adega Machado is very welcoming and accommodating for the international gusts. The original tavern has been founded 75 years ago by a fado singer Maria de Lurdes Machado and her husband, composer and guitarist Armando Machado. At the recently renovated and reopened upscale restaurant, the legendary fado singers Amalia Rodrigues and Alfredo Marceneiro are honored in multiple images decorating the walls of the establishment.

Besides nightly fado music (on the night of my visit there were four singers and three musicians performing) Adega Machado offers an extensive list of excellent Portuguese wines, and a comprehensive menu of local and international dishes, with a la cart and tasting menu options.

In Porto, I had a chance to experience yet another Pestana hotel – the newest, opened mere months ago A Brasileira – a gorgeous 5-star property in a posh historic downtown building with Art Nouveau décor. Minutes from the central Avenida dos Aliados and the 1916 Sao Bento train station (still lavishly decorated with murals and blue-and-white tiles of amazing craftsmanship) the hotel is a walking distance from the iconic Ribeira district with its boat rides, port cellars, and multiple little restaurants featuring Douro valley wines and live music.

Historically, this luxury hotel was built around the famous A Brasileira Café, opened in 1903 by a Porto man who made a fortune buying coffee beans in Brazil, and married a Brazilian woman. He was the first coffee entrepreneur to serve espresso in Portugal in the early 20th century. His motto, “The best coffee comes from A Brasileira” still rings true today, in the cozy café, popular with the hotel guests and the locals alike.

For many years after the proprietor’s death the building stayed abandoned, until it was acquired and renovated under the new ownership and Pestana management.

Now, with a highly desirable location in the city center, A Brasileira offers 89 rooms and suites, a restaurant serving Portuguese cuisine, two meeting rooms, a well-equipped gym, a French patio with a vertical garden and elegant outdoor furniture, and the namesake café of 115-year history.

Each hotel floor that has a comfortable seating area of its own with a large horseshoe leather sofa, is thematically tied to one of the products imported from faraway lands during the Portuguese maritime expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries: coffee, tea, chocolate, pink pepper, cinnamon, and anise.

I was genuinely pleased with my pristine room, with a double balcony offering views over the picturesque rooftops of Porto historical center, with the snow-white bed topped with a fluffy comforter and pillows of three different sizes, with a decorative photo display of colorful teas in bowls above the bedhead, and with a sparkling clean spacious bathroom – rain shower and all!

The room amenity that impressed me the most was perched on a desk, plugged in a charger, under a large-screen interactive TV that was greeting me by name and offering an array of services. That room amenity was a smart phone with a remarkable GuestU software featuring a comprehensive interface with free internet, a list of local attractions, Google maps, an individualized concierge service, constant connection to the hotel, and even free international phone calls daily! With GuestU phone in my hand a city I’ve never been to before all of sudden became familiar, recognizable, easily navigable, and pedestrian-friendly at any hour of day or night.

I couldn’t get enough of the Porto walks, leading up to the closely clustered Trinity Church, a magnificent City Hall building, and the Liberty Square with the stunning Carmelite Church and the Clerics Tower nearby, or down to the Douro River, with a lively waterfront, studded with historical monuments.

One of them, the Stock Exchange Palace (Palacio da Bolsa) is definitely worth a visit, and provides guided tours in several languages every half an hour. With its spectacular glass dome decorated with the painted coats-of-arms of Portugal and the countries with which Portugal had commercial relations in the 19th century, and wonderfully appointed Tribunal Room, Assembly Room, and Golden Room with allegoric paintings and sculptures the building offers quite a few discoveries. The Arab Room, built at the end of the 19th century by Gonçalves e Sousa is echoing Alhambra in Spain with its Moorish Revival style, with intricate detailing constructed by Portuguese craftsmen honoring “the Educator, the Good Mother” queen of Portugal, Maria II.

Close to the lower part of the city center, mere steps from Palacio da Bolsa, on a winding side street I settled for a very pleasant evening at the O Fado restaurant that served great wines and fresh seafood, and indulged its guests with the wonderful performances by the three singers – Antonio Laranjeira, Patricia Costa, and Sandra Cristina Amaral.

Looking back at my first ever visit to Portugal, and to the country’s two major cities I became enamored with so easily, I must admit that Pestana hotels and Fado music played a decisive role – each in its own way – in making my journey unforgettable and making me crave more encounters with the westernmost country of Europe.

Additional information at: www.visitportugal.com, www.pestanacollection.com, www.adegamachado.pt.

 

The city of Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand (now renamed the continent of Zealandia) is still recovering nearly seven years after the big 6.3 earthquake on 22 February 2011 which damaged or destroyed so many buildings. The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and the city center had already been damaged by an earthquake in 2010. The church is still undergoing reconstruction and the surrounding area is blocked off in many places, but the park in front of it is open and many gather for all kinds of events. We enjoyed the Canterbury History Museum nearby, but we did not have enough time to thoroughly see all the wonderful and well-displayed exhibits about the rich cultural and natural history of the area because we arrived only an hour before 5 PM closing time. The museum is free and you should allow several more hours to peruse all the exhibits and learn about the fascinating history of New Zealand.

Hagley Park, the main recreation area for Christchurch, is a huge 406 acres of beautiful grass and trees, walkways with lovely flower beds. In 1850 when the city was formed this huge land plot was set aside for the enjoyment of the citizens by the city founding fathers. It was named Hagley Park, the same name as the country estate of Lord Lyttelton, who became chairman of the Canterbury Association in March 1850.

Today the prime feature is the Botanical Gardens, a beautifully designed glass house of tropical plants, a Peace Bell, restaurant, and bathroom facilities. Several other older buildings are part of the tranquil place you can spend a day or many more. This is the center for outdoor fun, individual and organized, for locals and visitors. At all times there are people running on the pathway, fishing, watching ducks on the little stream, pushing baby strollers, playing games, and just enjoying being outdoors in a safe and beautiful environment free to all citizens and also to visitors. What a far-reaching gift of the founders of Christchurch, which will continue to be enjoyed and treasured for generations.

We had to alter our planned route back to Picton where we would board our ferry to North Island because the Highway 1 North of Christchurch had been severely damaged in an earthquake at Kirakera just North of Christchurch a week earlier than our arrival in this area.  Instead we took an alternate route, the highway through the center of the island and stopped for the night in Hanmer Springs.  Because this is a favorite holiday place for New Zealanders, we were lucky to find a very nice motel on short.   All vehicles have been re-routed this way due to the earthquake, so the sleeping accommodations were nearly at capacity.

This drive was a picturesque detour we would normally have missed. The yellow hay fields were backed by tall mountains, which were forested with dark green evergreen trees.  Rows of giant “Christmas trees” served as fence lines outlining the pastures.  They must grow very fast!  Thousands of sheep dot the fields like pebbles on the beach. We stopped for the gorgeous Overlook View of a river in the peaceful valley far below us as we entered Hanmer Springs. This pretty and welcoming little mountain town has one long street of shops, eateries, entertainment for tourists, many little motels, and one grand hotel. Hanmer Springs has long been a choice holiday place because of the beauty of the mountains and the healing qualities of the natural hot springs here. There are also many thermal pools, but they have been commercialized and kept sanitary with chlorine, so the entrance fee seemed a bit high. This little town is a popular destination year-round with snow skiing in winter and many other fun things to do 365 days a year.

Scarborough Luxury Lodge was a great find with a lovely, large, private apartment for about $100 US. We had a full kitchen, patio, and a large jetted spa bathtub, and a shower.  The manager, Philippa, is an excellent massage therapist and owns Luxury Massage and Spa Parlor, which is part of the motel.  She got us in good shape for our very longest auto drive the following day.  Be sure to book your treatments when you reserve the motel because she is frequently completely booked by locals as well as tourists. We highly recommend this motel and Hanmer Springs.

SIDEBAR

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christchurch

 

http://hanmersprings.co.nz/

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_the_Blessed_Sacrament,_Christchurch

 

https://www.ccc.govt.nz/parks-and-gardens/christchurch-botanic-gardens

 

http://www.booking.com/hotel/nz/scarborough-lodge.htm

 

www.canterburymuseum.com 

Air out your spirits with sunshine and sea breezes in Cambria a village in the heart of the Central Coast of California. The Olallieberry Inn resting on the sunny side of the Santa Rosa Creek is the perfect home base for explorations in the region. The Inn, in service for over 40 years, has received a facelift by new owners providing modern amenities without losing its charm. Cooks in the sparkling new kitchen deliver gourmet breakfasts at two settings each day. One at 8:00 for those eager to get out and explore this gorgeous region, and one at 9:15 for those who like to sit on the deck overlooking a sweet garden listening to the twitter of birdsong.

Nearby Fiscalini Ranch offers a hike through an enchanting old growth forest complete with lacy veils of Spanish moss dripping from the limbs of the windblown cypress. The trailhead off Highway One takes you to a vast meadow with a head-spinning view of the shining Pacific far below. I hiked down to the coastal bluff where a boardwalk loop that is wheelchair and stroller accessible winds through wildflower meadows.

Heading south on Highway One I discovered the Harmony Headlands hike that leads you through a meadow livened by birdsong to a wild walk along coastal bluffs. If you go when morning mists are rising you will spot hawks, finches, meadow larks and more. The scent of sage and meadow grasses float on the air. This is a mellow walk on a well-groomed trail with a couple of benches where you can sit a spell and enjoy canyon views. When you reach the shore, you may run into a few local joggers on the bluff walk, but you will mostly have it to yourself. Keep your eyes peeled for a small parking lot and sign that says coastal access. There is no fee to park here.

Fuel up at one of the many cozy restaurants in Cambria like the Harmony Café or Linn’s (boasting the best olallieberry pie in Cambria). Take some time to browse through art galleries displaying the work of local artisans inspired by foaming white surf crashing on black sea stacks and expanses of silver sand. Cambria is proud of the wine selections it offers with many wine tasting opportunities. I enjoyed the hospitality at the Moonstone Tasting Room where locals come to sample the delicious choices of wines from warmer inland valleys like Paso Robles and Edna Valley. I chose the Slabtown Chardonnay. In the 1800s, Cambria was known as “Slabtown” because many of the buildings were made of rough slabs of wood. Today, Main Street is lined with trendy shops, tasting rooms, boutiques and is a fun place to score antiques.

A stroll on the boardwalk that lines Moonstone Beach is mandatory. Lined with a profusion of sunny yellow wildflowers in spring, it rings a stunning cove for over a mile. This is just one of many gorgeous beaches to explore as you head north on Highway One to visit the famous elephant seal breeding grounds. These bulky beauties spend most of their time sunbathing in summer. February is when they give birth and are a raucous and rowdy site to behold.

The infamous Hearst Castle is a short ride up scenic Highway One as well as the San Simeon restaurant with humongous hamburgers made from the local grass-fed cattle on the Hearst Ranch. The trailhead on the north side of San Simeon State beach leads you through eucalyptus groves to views of the surf crashing below and the Rock in Morro Bay in the distance.

The Covell’s Clydesdale Ranch in Cambria is home to over 100 of these gentle giants. They offer rides on their 2,000 acres of privately owned land in the heart of the Central Coast. If you ever yearned to experience the vast green meadows framed in green fringes of forest and to know the intense beauty of early California, this is your chance.  If you are not a rider, tours of the ranch are offered by owner, Ralph Clovell, by request. Don’t miss this special opportunity for a totally unique experience.

Remember to get back to the Olallieberry Inn in time for happy hour with fine local wines and gourmet treats to share the day with other guests. Your most gracious hosts, Nelson and Maureen Hubbell, delight in giving pointers on how to spend quality time in Cambria. They made reservations for me at Robin’s, one of the finest dining options in town with a cozy fireplace to take the chill off when the sun goes down.

Download the Visit Cambria app. It gives detailed information on art tours, hiking trails, shops, live music, surrounding spots, events, and lodging. Everything you need to know for a wonderful week in Cambria—the toast of the Central Coast.

Olallieberry Inn https://www.olallieberry.com/

Moonstone Cellars http://www.moonstonecellars.com/

Fiscalini Ranch http://www.ffrpcambria.org/

Covell’s Clydesdale Ranch http://www.covellscaliforniaclydesdales.com/home.html

 

With a population of over 1.8 million residents, the Austrian capital contains approximately one-fifth of the countries’ inhabitants.  In June 2017, my wife Fern and I tremendously enjoyed our one day cruise stopover in Vienna.  Shortly after returning from the cruise, we decided to return to more fully explore.  Vibrant Vienna is once again one of Europe’s grandest cities.  In this article, I provide thematic highlights for a great four day itinerary.

World class art museums:  I highly recommend that a portion of each day be spent at an art museum, not only for the art, but also for the historical background and decor.

Albertina: 

The largest of the former Habsburg residences, the charming Albertina combines masterworks of art with imperial pomp.  The Batliner permanent art collection called Monet to Picasso contains one of Europe’s most outstanding collections of classical and modern paintings.  We particularly enjoyed impressionist works including Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne.  Although there were no English language tours, the audio guide was informative and provided extensive details on the artists and their times.

In 1776, Maria Theresa’s son-in-law, Duke Albert Casimir, assembled an art collection in the Albertina.  Twenty state apartment rooms are sumptuously decorated with valuable cloth wall coverings, gorgeous chandeliers, delicate inlaid works and exquisite furniture from the 100 year period when the Albertina was a place residence of the Habsburg arch dukes and arch duchesses.  These rooms show off imperial splendor in shades of red or yellow or green, and have been authentically restored to show period furnishings.

We took a mid-day lunch break in the DO&CO restaurant within the museum, enjoying vegetarian Paninis, Viennese coffee and tasty apple strudel.  Located at Albertina Platz 1, the cost of admission was 12.9 Euros.  www.Albertina.at

The Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches):

Located at Maria Theresien Platz in the museum quarter, experts consider this to be one of the world’s most important art museums.  Inaugurated in 1891 and built by Emperor Franz Joseph to house the imperial collections, the building is grand and imposing.  The architecture of the building really stands out!

Entering upon a magnificent staircase flanked by lions and statutes, we first ascended a raised platform (called the stairway to Klimt) to view the art works of Gustav Klimt up close.   These paintings, symbolizing a series of past artistic styles, were adhered to the walls upon the completion of the building.  The Klimt works are contained within a decorated stair case between columns and besides arches.

The art was collected by emperors and arch dukes of the Habsburg dynasty.  The palatial building consists of large main rooms with large canvases and side halls featuring smaller paintings.   The greatest collection of paintings in Vienna contains works from the middle ages and baroque art.  On the first floor, the museum features antiquities from Greece, Rome and Egypt.

We joined a superb English language tour with one of the museum’s curators.  This was an unforgettable experience, as he compared a series of masterworks from the permanent collection to art work on loan from important collections from all over the world.  As an example from within “The Shape of Time” comparison, a series of three Rembrandt self-portraits were placed side-by-side with a modern Mark Rothko work.  In addition, we purchased an audio guide.

At 15 Euros, the price of admission was a bargain.  We took a break while and enjoyed a nice lunch in the elegant café and restaurant in the Cupola Hall on the main floor.  www.kmh.at

Belvedere Palace:

The elegant summer country estate of Prince Eugene of Savoy consists of two grand buildings (upper and lower) with delightfully manicured gardens in between.  The palace provides sweeping views of the Vienna skyline.  We spent far less time in the lower Belvedere, where the primary attractions are state rooms, including a marble hall and a brightly colored golden room.

The upper Belvedere is a chronological journey of primarily Austrian art from the middle Ages to the present, with thematic rooms.  In particular, the palace includes a great collection of 19th and 20th century art, especially including French impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh, as well as Austrian Gustav Klimt, the Viennese master of modernism.  Perhaps the most famous painting of the several thousand works in the collection is Klimt’s “The Kiss,” showing two lovers kissing wrapped in a gold and jeweled cloak.

We really enjoyed a lunch interlude in the lovely Café Menagerie in the upper Belvedere tucked behind the gift shop.  Admission currently is 22 Euros for both buildings and the gardens are free.  We recommend touring the upper Belvedere and gardens.  The English language audio guide was worthwhile, focusing on the most important works of the collection.  www.belvedere.at

Impressive Sights and Sounds of Vienna:  After spending a portion of each day at an art museum, we picked out one or two attractions to fill the remainder of the day into the evening.

Austrian National Library:

Adjoining the Habsburg Palace, this is one of the world’s most important and beautiful historic libraries.   The collection was first assembled by Emperor Karl VI for his court library.  The library is 650 years old and it is the largest library in Austria.  The interior continues to look like a eighteenth century library, with wood book cases, approximately 200,000 books and four huge splendid antique Venetian globes within the long baroque style state hall.  Some of the books were published in the 16th century.  We were particularly impressed with the elaborately decorated dome and ceiling frescoes, which remain vivid and provide an imperial flair.  Josefsplatz 1.  www.onb.ac.at

United Nations, Vienna International Center:

Vienna is one of the four official seats of the United Nations.  The others are in New York, Geneva and Nairobi.  Costing 10 Euros, the ninety minute English language tour was fascinating, providing extensive highlights of the UN activities in Vienna.  The guide first explained which UN organizations are based in Vienna.  Constructed in 1979, we walked through several of the buildings which are collectively referred to as UNO-City.  Other highlights included viewing original works of art from some of the 193 member countries, a sample of a rock from the moon donated by NASA and a visit to the conference rooms where major decisions have been taken.  Located at Wagramer Strasse 5, the International Center sits right at a subway stop.  www.unis.unvienna.org/visit

The Kursalon:

Vienna is synonymous with music.  Opened in 1867 by the Strauss brothers, the Kursalon is the hall where Johann Strauss Jr. directed concerts with many waltzes more than 100 years ago.  Conveniently located by the city park (Stadtpark), the Italian Renaissance style building is splendid, with beautiful glass chandeliers and wonderful acoustics.

The very high quality concert was called the sound of Vienna.  We had a fun evening listening primarily to Mozart and Strauss music performed by a twelve piece orchestra with English language narration as the pieces flew by over 1 ¾ hours.  The evening included enchanting ballet dances and superb opera singers, as well as waltzes and arias.  We picked Category B seats which cost 59 Euros and were situated in the seventh row.  www.soundof Vienna.at

Prater Park:

Created in 1897, Prater is the city’s largest park.  Prater contains an iconic giant Ferris wheel, an amusement park and a three mile long tree-line boulevard perfect for biking or jogging or walking.  For us, Prater Park provided a relaxing interlude between seeing various sites.  There is no fee for admission into the park.  www.prater.wien.info

Jewish Vienna:   Once numbering over 200,000, the Jewish community was all but decimated during World War II.  To discover what happened to the small Jewish community since 1945, we visited several sites.   The Jewish population has been growing since the 1950s to about 8000 in Vienna, primarily due to immigration from Eastern Europe, Iran and the former Soviet Union.

Jewish Museum Vienna:

The first Jewish museum in Vienna was founded in 1895.   The current museum was established thirty years ago.  The permanent exhibition focuses on religion, cultural traditions and Jewish customs in Austria.  The displays were well labeled in English.  The exhibit called “Our city – Jewish Vienna then and now” tells the difficult history of Jewish Vienna from its beginnings to present day.

The museum is located in two buildings in separate locations.  We only toured through the building located at Dorothoeergasse 11.  The cost of admission for both buildings was 12 Euros.  www.jmw.at

Vienna Synagogue (Stadttemple):

Established in 1826, this orthodox synagogue is the only Jewish temple to survive from the Jewish worship buildings that existed in Vienna from World War II.  We especially enjoyed a one hour English language tour of what is now the main synagogue in Vienna.  The tour included an extensive discussion of the Jewish community in Vienna, as well as an explanation of what is contained within the building.  The synagogue is only open to the public for tours or services.  Seitenstettengasse 4.

Sigmund Freud House and Museum:

In the house where Freud lived and practiced from 1859 to 1938, the museum (founded in 1971) presents a small exhibition documenting the life and work of the founder of psychoanalysis.  Driven into exile by anti-Semitism, Freud was not popular during these years in Vienna.  Most interesting to us was the film footage of the Freud family from the 1930s.  Some of the displays were labelled in English and English language handouts were available to be viewed.  The cost is 12 Euros for an adult.

With original furnishings in the waiting room including antiques, we could glimpse into the atmosphere of Freud with his patients as he developed a new discipline.  There is an empty space where he had his famous couch.  As we wandered through the small apartment and office that he spent 47 years in, we were able to view some of his numerous written works and imagine his treatment of troubled patients in the treatment room.  Berggasse 19.  www.freud-museum.at

Holocaust Memorial (The Nameless Library):

At Judenplatz, there is a monument to the 65,000 Austrian victims of the Holocaust.  Built by the city of Vienna, the memorial was unveiled in 2000.  Also engraved are the names of concentration camps where the victims were killed by the Nazis.

The outside surfaces of the memorial are library shelves turned inside out.  The shelves of the memorial appear to hold endless copies of the same edition, which stand for the vast number of the victims, as well as the concept of Jews as “People of the Book.”   The memorial also speaks of a cultural loss created by the genocide.

My Tips for an Enjoyable Stay in Vienna:

Vienna Pass:

The Vienna Pass provides free admission to over 60 attractions, including the hop on hop off bus and a one hour walking tour of central Vienna.  The pass is available for one, two, three or six consecutive days.  Both the walking tour and the hop on hop off bus provided us with a great initial overview of the layout of Vienna and the location of key sites.   With six routes and fifty stops and an audio guide, the Vienna hop on hop off bus provided a more extensive route system than similar buses in other cities.  Although the pass normally costs 119 Euros for an adult pass for three days, the passes are frequently on sale through the pass web site.   www.viennapass.com

The Public Transportation System:

The system is extensive, inexpensive and easy to use.  The subway system (U bahn) contains six color coded lines.   In addition, with one of the largest tram systems in the world, it was easy for us to travel to sites not located at subway stops.  Both subway and tram stops were clearly announced and signage of the stops was easy to follow.  The public transportation pass can be purchased along with a Vienna pass for an additional fee.

Guidebook:

Rick Steves’ Pocket Vienna provided good guidance for prioritizing our time and determining which sites were more important to see.  Although the book is over 200 pages, it is published in a very compact easy to carry around form.  He provides maps and a good overview of hotels, restaurants and Vienna neighborhoods.

Lodging:

Right in the middle of Vienna (at Schottenring 11), the Hilton Vienna Plaza was exceptionally well located by both tram and subway stops.  Designed in an art deco style, this hotel has an excellent fitness center, very nice sized rooms and fine food and drinks within their executive room.  The hotel staff spoke English fluently, were extremely helpful when asked questions and were very attentive. www.hilton.de/wienplaza

Fern and I were extremely glad to have returned to this grand city.  On our first trip we were able to explore the two imperial palaces – Schonbrunn, the summer palace, and Hofburg, within city center, pastries at Café Demel, an evening musical concert, but not much more.  Vienna’s rich cultural heritage deserves multiple trips of discovery.

“Mile High” Idyllwild (altitude 1.6 km) and Tahquitz Rock, often called Lily Rock, have received world-wide recognition from rock climbers since the 1930s.  In 1947, a “difficulty of climb” scale, based on Tahquitz Rock, was established.  After the ascent of Half Dome in 1957, the Sierra Club tweaked the values and the ratings became known as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS).  Note: Tahquitz Rock is rated 5.9 and Half Dome is 5.12.

History

Idyllwild was once the summer home for migrating bands of the desert-dwelling Cahuilla Indians. The area was originally named Strawberry Valley by shepherds who regularly brought their flocks to graze. By the 1880s – early 1900s, there was an arts academy, as well as a sawmill, toll road, post office, and TB sanatorium.  Tourists from southern California started showing up.  From the 1930s – 1950s, Idyllwild was further settled by buyers of second homes and became famous for the production of hand crafted “knotty pine” furniture. In the 1960s and 1970s, hippies (including LSD guru Timothy Leary) discovered Idyllwild, much to the consternation of the locals.  The arts community continues to flourish, and in 1998, Idyllwild was named one of100 Best Small Art Towns in America. Today, there are approximately 4,000 year-round residents.  An additional 2,000 people live there part-time.

What To Do

Idyllwild is a mecca for outdoor sports, including rock climbing, hiking, trail running, and walking.  There are almost 500 routes around Tahquitz Rock and its neighbor, Suicide Rock.

Additionally, there is horseback riding, camping, fishing, bouldering, and mountain biking.  In the village, pick up an Explore Idyllwild Map and Explore Idyllwild Directory.  In town you will find restaurants, bars, boutiques, a bakery, gift shops, antique stores, and art galleries galore.  You will hear live music everywhere.  A worthwhile stop is the award winning Historical Society Museum.  Make certain to follow the trail of the “Idyllwild Deer Sightings,” a public art project sponsored by the Art Alliance of Idyllwild. There are 21 deer sculptures, made from recycled aluminum and painted by 12 local artists.

Dinner at IDYology was lots of fun.  It’s a classic honky-tonk complete with happy hour, daily specials, down-home cooking, generous portions, live music, and of course, a pool table.

Where to Stay

A recommendation from a friend brought me to The Grand Idyllwild Lodge, a luxury boutique inn.  Designed and built by the owners, its architecture is classic California Craftsman. It delivers a wonderful B & B experience, with hands-on service and an excellent full breakfast on weekends.

Coffee and tea are available all day in the lobby. The rooms feature Wi-Fi, flat screen Smart TVs, Keurig coffee, and plush bedding. There’s free parking and it’s a short stroll into town. There are trails on the property, a small sauna, a gym, and spa services can be arranged.

 

Only five years old, it’s already earned a 94% “Excellent” rating on TripAdvisor and received AAA’s coveted Four Diamond award. Kudos to Innkeepers Brad & Jacki Rechfertig.  For reservations and information call 951-659-2383 or logon to www.GrandIdyllwildLodge.com.

Websites

www.IdyllwildVisitorsCenter.com

www.IdyllwildHistory.org

www.ArtInIdyllwild.org

www.IDYologyIdyllwild.wordpress.com

www.GrandIdyllwildLodge.com

Thanks to various websites for information and photos.

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Photography by Yuri Krasov

Looking back at Riches of the Mekong cruise (Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City) with AmaWaterways I can’t help but marvel at the incredible amount of amazing places I’ve visited in a course of just one week. I vividly remember the lush jungle greenery, the grayish opaque body of water studded with boats in various degrees of picturesqueness, and countless encounters with people – working on their crafts, selling fruit, riding family motorcycles, praying in Buddhist temples, or lounging in hammocks in their front yards and backyards – often smiling, but mostly going about their daily lives, and rarely paying attention to a crowd of tourists equipped with cameras, water bottles, fans, hats, umbrellas, and assisted listening devices for guided tours. It was hot; it was humid and sweaty most of the time, and yet – it was wonderful!

AmaWaterways’ motto is, Leading the Way in River Cruising, and that’s exactly what the company does on all its routes known for enticing itineraries and outstanding service.

After my last year’s Danube adventure aboard AmaStella, I couldn’t wait to embark on a Saigon-built AmaDara (“Dara” means “star,” same as “Stella”). I knew that a few star-studded happenings were guaranteed on an AmaWaterways cruise – exemplary sightseeing excursions geared toward different types of travelers with various activity levels; quiet starry nights on Mekong River, mostly spent in a swanky lounge with friendly chats, cocktails, and live entertainment; and stellar international cuisine by the local chefs.

What I didn’t know was the extent of all the countless comforts and conveniences provided by the cruise company. Air-conditioned staterooms with double balconies, mini-fridges, snow-white bedding, and spacious shower cabins; icy water bottles in small shoulder bags for excursion groups, cold towels and drinks upon return; a swimming pool on Sun Deck, constantly cool despite the relentless heat outside; fresh tropical fruit displays at every meal, and the meals themselves, always with a choice of amazingly well-prepared Western and Asian dishes, iced coffees and ice cream – everything doubly precious in the tropical climate and trying sanitary circumstances of faraway lands.

Now I can assuredly say that I would’ve never ever been able to endure my chosen vacation destination I was so eager to explore if it weren’t for the cruise. Just a thought of leaving a hotel room in the morning and returning late at night as I usually do when traveling abroad, makes me shudder. I wouldn’t last a day in the heat and humidity of South-East Asia, fascinating as it was with all its floating villages, wet fish markets, palm and mango groves, pink lotus ponds, and entire families clinging to each other for dear life, zooming past me on nimble motor scooters.

With the wisely scheduled excursion times – early after breakfast, and later in the day before dinner – with lunch and some down time for a nap or a glass of cold beer in the pool in-between, the onshore trips became much more pleasant.

Walking through Koh Chen village where silversmiths create their delicately engraved wares by the roadside, watching silk weavers at work by the ancient looms in Oknha Tey, and visiting a local school, greeted by the children singing, “You are my sunshine,” became much easier to enjoy in small increments, with plenty of cool sheltering aboard AmaDara.

When I’m trying to name the most memorable moments of the enchanting cruise, many wonderful adventures come to mind. An ox cart ride in the countryside in Kampong Tralach, followed by a visit to a majestic Oudong Monastery in Cambodia’s ancient capital, currently a place of pilgrimage. A Buddhist blessing ceremony was performed for the guests by the ochre robes-clad monks who scattered jasmine flowers over the crowd attuned to their melodic chanting.

A bicycle-driven tuk-tuk taking us through the bustling streets of Phnom Penh to the wide tree-lined boulevards and giant lotus-shaped Independence Monument erected in 1958 to signify the end of the French rule. A tour of the opulent Royal Palace built in 1866 by the great-grandfather of the current Cambodian king on a site chosen by royal astrologists. Silver-floored Prasat Prak temple with a mind-bogglingly shiny solid gold standing Buddha statue with diamond eyes and more than 2000 diamonds in adornments.

And last, but not least of the Cambodian part of the cruise, a visit to the Phnom Penh Central Market, overflowing with shiny things, lavish tropical fruit and flowers, and lots and lots of… elephant pants.

I’ve seen these comfy flowing thin cotton pants, painted with elephants in different colors, worn by many of my fellow cruisers as well as by practically every single non-Asian person I’ve met on the streets approaching any tourist attraction; the ubiquitous fashionable item easily explained by the temple/palace rule: visitors’ knees must be covered, or there’s no access to a site.

Sold everywhere by countless vendors at a miniscule price, the long and wide elephant pants can be worn over short shorts, sundresses, and mini-skirts, and thanks to their airy lightness they don’t seem to increase the body’s heat index in the slightest.

At the Central Market, my one glance in the direction of those pants was enough. An energetic duo of fast-moving women created a makeshift dressing room around me in the middle of a busy market aisle, and quickly found a pair of pants wide enough for my waistline, ever so slightly expanded now, after quite a few delicious dishes prepared by the cruise chefs I wasn’t able to resist.

Finally, I rightfully joined the sisterhood of elephant pants, and signed up for a Chef’s Table dinner with my new friends that night.

Chef’s Table Restaurant on AmaDara is an upscale addition to the Mekong Restaurant where the guests are fed three times a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Saigon Lounge, where coffee, tea, snacks and fruit are available at any time, with fresh pastries as early as 6:30 a.m.; and Sun Deck bar that serves drinks and snacks.

Since Chef’s Table requires reservations and serves a set 5-course tasting menu with wine pairing every night of the cruise, all passengers are encouraged to pick one night for a dinner there. Dining at the Chef’s Table is like going out on your birthday or anniversary – it feels very special, and many people do indeed make reservations for their birthdays or anniversaries. After all, a cruise with AmaWaterways is a festive affair suitable for a special occasion, so there are always some folks on any cruise celebrating their big dates.

Not just food and wine, but first of all the service at the Chef’s Table is nothing short of amazing, even though it is hard to imagine when experiencing excellency day in and day out in every aspect of the cruise life. Treated like kings and queens, we rejoiced in consuming the wonderfully prepared dinner that consisted of a delicate seared scallop amuse bouche, salmon salad, sea bass with Asian turnips and quail eggs, sirloin steak with celery root puree, and a trio of desserts with chocolate ganache, caramel ice cream, and lemon tart.

Was I glad that I was wearing my new beautiful and very forgiving elephant pants!

That night, we had the most entertaining evening show of all. Every night, Saigon Lounge turned into a performance venue. We’ve seen Khmer and Vietnamese dancers and musicians, took part in karaoke nights, dancing rounds, and music sessions with the onboard pianist Vy. But the crew’s talent show contest, “AmaDara Has Got Talent” was an undisputable winner!

Chefs’ team, servers’ team, housekeeping team, and the entire crew demonstrated their singing, dancing, and comical talents to the utmost delight of the cruise guests, late into the night.

That night, we were entering the waters of Vietnam. In two unforgettable days we visited a village of Tan Chau surrounded by emerald rice paddies and shallow lotus ponds, a city of Sa Dec with an enormous and enormously busy wet market, teeming with fresh fish, shrimp, clams, and piles upon piles of fresh fruit; observed rattan, silk, rice paper, and coconut candy making at local open-air factories; rode local boats past floating markets, and walked to the tourist attraction that was my primary draw on this cruise – “The Lover’s” house.

How could I imagine years ago, while reading “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras, winner of Prix Goncourt for “the best and most imaginative prose,” so poignantly constructed upon her own wild teenage love affair, and then watching the namesake film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, that one day I’ll be entering the elaborately decorated Sino-French design house described in the novel!

An intricate woodwork and tiles inside, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, and portraits of the book author, her paramour, Huynh Thuy Le, and stills from the film round up the encounter with the real-life literary masterpiece.

A farewell cocktail reception with all the crew members introduced to the guests, and met with non-stop ovation, had a bitter-sweet feel. It seemed this one-week cruise on AmaDara left an indelible mark in everyone’s heart.

With disembarkation at Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived on Vietnam Independence Day, preceded by the May Day, well reflected in the city’s street décor.

Find more information at: www.AmaWaterways.com.

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We love going often to Gatlinburg, TN, where Appalachian Mountain heritage is preserved and demonstrated in such fun ways. We like to make various crafts and on the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts 8 Mile Loop we can see over 100 workshops, watch artists at work, and shop for gifts and special treasures to keep. We also find especially fun and helpful the Dollywood Craftsman’s Valley.  Sometimes you can even participate in workshops in the area to gain certain skills for practical creations, which the mountain people in past generations had to learn in order to make life’s necessities.  We are so happy to see these skills are preserved and have developed into useful modern artistry as well.  These are among your first Must-Sees at Gatlinburg.

Ripley’s is famous for the Believe It Or Not Museums in many tourist centers and here in Gatlinburg area you can choose among eight different Ripley’s attractions: Believe It Or Not, Haunted Adventure, Guinness World Records, The Moving Theatre, Mirror Maze, Old McDonald’s Farm Mini-Golf, Davy Crockett Mini-Golf, and Ripley’s Aquarium Of The Smokies. We highly recommend purchasing the all-inclusive combo ticket so you can spend a day or more visiting all of them. Thank goodness, this ticket is good for a year because we were so fascinated with the wonderful aquarium that we spent a half day there and ran out of time on this visit to do any others. So be sure to keep your tickets to reuse.  Although we have written about many larger aquaria in various places in the world with other kinds of displays, our family found this to be our favorite Aquarium because the species and tanks were so very well labeled that we could easily know what we were seeing in each tank and learn some of the life habits of each species.

One of the favorites of children and adults is the Penguin Habitat. The great, fun thing is little people can go through a small, clear tunnel and emerge up inside the Habitat next to the penguins, only separated by the clear tunnel encasement. The penguins come right up to the awe-struck faces while parents can stand at the big window and take pictures!

Next our route led us to the walkway everyone loves. It appeared that we were walking through the waters of the enormous ocean tank, when actually we were protected by clear sides and ceiling of our tubelike pathway, so that the fish, huge sharks, and even REAL MERMAIDS swam over and around us! How amazing it feels to think you are in a real undersea environment. And we found it incredible that you can even arrange to have a birthday overnight party in here. How cool is that!!

Speaking of nights at Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville, there are many nightly events to give you thrilling entertainment. Dolly Parton’s Stampede and her Smoky Mountain Adventure Dinner Theaters are a very good choice.

Instead of dinner theater if you prefer to attend a show after you dine at one of the numerous restaurants in Gatlinburg, choose the Country Tonite Theater, which in 2017 celebrated 20 years and has been voted the Best Show In the Smokies year after year. Whether you attend the afternoon or evening performances you will marvel at the enormous talent of singers and dancers. We simply couldn’t believe they could keep up the flawless, high energy dancing and never miss a step, a lift, or a swing! Their feet seemed to fly fast across the floor! We were so impressed, as we watched their faces, that all performers kept exuberant smiles and appeared to love what they were doing, and the entire audience simply loved it too!  Much acclaim goes to the wonderful talent of 16 year old Miss Willow Osborne on her banjo (which she has played since she was four!) and 12 year old Shelton Tyson who sings and dances and presents himself winningly on stage with the confidence of a professional.  These two are destined to be famous for their enormous talent for years to come.  Sometimes comedy acts on a stage seem lame, but the comedy acts by Memaw in Country Tonite are hilarious!  This fast-paced fun show with toe-tapping music is filled with your favorite country, gospel, and patriotic hits.  The many changes of beautiful costumes reflect the colors and words of the songs…fantastic!  Do not miss it!  And once a month April through November the Country Tonite Theater presents a Celebrity Concert with big-name performers you have always wanted to see in a live show.  Check the dates to see if you can book Celebrity tickets during your vacation time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

http://www.gatlinburgcrafts.com/map.html

https://www.pigeonforge.com/plan-your-visit/dollywood/craftsman-s-valley/

http://www.ripleys.com/gatlinburg/ultimate-fun-pass/

https://smokymountainadventures.com

https://www.dixiestampede.com/

http://www.countrytonitepf.com/

 

My wife Fern, my daughter Danielle and I were amazed how different life is approximately one hour away from Las Vegas – in any direction. Even when were still able to view the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip in the distance, we entered into a totally different world with beautiful natural scenery and marvelous man made wonders!  Nevada’s striking scenic recreational areas were the perfect relaxing antidote after our over stimulation from the sounds and sites of Las Vegas.

Day trip to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area:

About 15 miles west of Las Vegas, Red Rock provides spectacular desert-like landscapes far removed from the neon glitter.  At the information desk within an extensive visitor center, we were told about the best overlooks and recommended hikes (out of the 26 trails, covering nearly 60 miles).  We enjoyed one hike, although the trail was not extremely well marked.  A thirteen mile paved loop allowed us to drive and enjoy the beautiful scenery from various overlooks, as we went up and down canyons.  Managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Southern Nevada Conservancy, this site is well worth the $15 fee per car!  The area includes almost 200,000 acres within the Mohave Desert.  It is important to have water available, as the area gets very hot and dry.  https://www.redrockcanyonlv.org

Day trip to the Hoover Dam and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Boulder City, Nevada):

Hoover Dam: Less than one hour from the City of Lights, the Depression era Hoover Dam controls the flow of the Colorado River.  Completed in 1935, this world renowned structure is listed as one of American’s modern civil engineering wonders.  Walking across the O’Callaghan – Tillman Bridge (opened in 2010), Danielle, Fern and I were provided with dramatic views of the dam and river.  The bridge’s six foot wide pedestrian sideway allows visitors to walk from the Nevada side of the dam to just over the Arizona border, where the path ends.

Inside the visitor center, we watched a series of audio visual presentations and viewed interactive exhibits. We were surprised to learn that the 60 story high dam produces sufficient hydroelectric power in its plant to be self-supporting.  Outside the center is an art deco style plaza with a series of bronze sculptures and a plaque dedicated to the Hoover Dam mascot, a dog who was a companion to the construction crew.  Parking at the dam costs $10 per car and admission to the visitor center costs $10 per person.  https://www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/

Lake Mead: Just minutes from Hoover Dam we drove to America’s largest mad-made reservoir.  The lake was formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam and has a shoreline of approximately 550 miles.  The national recreation area was established in 1964 and requires an admission fee of $20 per car.   Danielle, Fern and I enjoyed the drive along the lake, especially the very nice views of jumbled red rock formations and the vast lake; the colors are spectacular.  We stopped for lunch at the Boathouse Restaurant, which sits on Lake Mead Marina with pleasant views of the lake and boats, a wide variety of food options and good prices.  https://www.nps.gov/lake/index.htm

Day trip to Valley of Fire State Park (near Overton, Nevada):

About 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas, this beautiful state park (established in 1935 as Nevada’s first state park) is hugely popular. The park’s rough floor and jagged walls bristle with formations of eroded red sandstone nestled in gray and tan limestone mountains.  The fiery red colors of bright Aztec red give the park its name.  This extremely colorful effect is particularly pronounced in the softer light of late afternoon.  The gently winding park road passes a wide variety of beautiful red rock desert landscapes.  The park has many hiking trails of varying length and terrain, as well as a small visitor center.  Recognized nationally for its outstanding scenic, geological and archeologically features, this park is well worth the cost of $10 per vehicle.  https://parks.nv.gov/parks/valley-of-fire

Viva, Las Vegas:

Fern and I found the Las Vegas strip and its casinos to be extremely crowded and smoky. Nevertheless, during our time within Las Vegas, we particular enjoyed the following activities.

Vegas, the Show: Told in a splashy style, Vegas is a musical showcasing the history of Las Vegas.  The show pays homage to big name Vegas entertainers (such as Elvis, Tina Turner and the Rat Pack) and features Las Vegas showgirls donned in rhinestones and feathers.  Most nights, the show is performed at 7 and 9 p.m. in the Planet Hollywood Casino’s Saxe Theatre.

Purple Reign, The Prince Tribute Show: Jason Tenner does an exceptional job taking on the look, sound and moves of Prince.  Starting at 9 p.m. in the Tropicana Hotel, the show lasts just under two hours.  The show features high energy dancing, focusing on the hits from the movie Purple Rain.

Marriage Can Be Murder: For the last 18 years, this interactive comic murder mystery dinner theater allows participants to try to solve the case.  Beginning at 6:30 p.m. and lasting for two hours in the D Las Vegas Hotel near downtown, the evening was just plain fun.  The three course dinner was pretty bland, but we did have vegetarian and chicken options.

Big Elvis: Performing three days per week inside a piano bar within Harrah’s Casino, Pete Vallee may be the world’s biggest Elvis impersonator.  Pete really does sound like Elvis, but he is much heavier than Elvis ever became.  Pete claims to be a love child of Elvis!

Spectacles of the Strip: Our favorites were watching the dancing fountains in front of the Bellagio, set to lights and different music throughout the evening (on the quarter hour), watching the 50 foot high volcano erupt in front of the Mirage (twice nightly) and observing the fall of Atlantis animated show inside Caesar’s Palace with fire, water and nine foot tall talking statutes (on the hour).

Eating at Carmine’s Restaurant: Within Caesar’s Palace, this southern Italian restaurant features hearty family style portions.  Set it a multi-level dining room, the servers were extremely responsive and the taste of the food – the bread, the pasta, the sauces and the eggplant – was incredibly delicious.  As a result, upon our return to Washington, D.C., we ate at Carmine’s sister restaurant in Penn Quarter.

 

Finally, we could have passed on these activities:

The Mob Museum: Located downtown, several friends had recommended this attraction to us.  We found the museum to be a pretty static and boring experience, where primarily we reading exhibit after exhibit about organized crime and its impact on American society.  Most of the interactive features required extra fees.

The Deuce Bus: The double decker bus may be the cheapest way to travel along the strip, but the ride was far from comfortable.  We crawled along in traffic, with frequent stops to pick up noisy and rowdy passengers.

The Freemont Street Experience: This five block stretch downtown becomes hyper active at night.  Underneath a canopy, the pedestrian style mall provides for a blitz of ear splitting sound, intense neon lights and a constant barrage of drunken pedestrians wandering from casino to casino.

The Lack of Amenities in Hotel Rooms: Many Las Vegas hotel rooms do not have refrigerators or coffee makers.  As a result, we could not store food in our room and had to go out to get coffee every morning.

So, as we were leaving the glitz of Las Vegas, with lights so bright every night, Danielle, Fern and I were most happy to recall the breathtaking parklands and natural areas just one hour away from the strip.