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.

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

 

“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.

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.

Nevada’s nickname is “The Silver State,” and is home to a casino resort on my list of favorite places to stay and play…The Silver Legacy Resort Casino in Reno.

Ambling

Hotels have their own personality so, after my speedy check-in, I wandered around to catch the vibe. I discovered restaurants, shops, entertainment venues, bars/nightclubs, the casino, race/sports book, and the poker room.  I stopped by the Player’s Booth and signed up for ONE Club.  Think of it as a frequent flyer program for the resort, providing benefits for slot play, dining, accommodations, special offers, etc.  One of my discoveries was walking from the Silver Legacy’s lobby to its Mezzanine (can’t miss it, there is a three story high mining rig!); if you turn left you can amble over to Circus, Circus, and heading right leads you to the Eldorado.  They are connected indoors, tripling your opportunities for fun. Pick up a Resort Passport which contains $125 in discounts for entertainment, drinks, shows, massages, food, and gaming for all three properties (they are owned by the same company).

Gambling

There’s something for everyone: over 1,200 slots, 85 table games, including Pai Gow, a new race/sports book, and keno. The real reason for my visit was to check out Silver Legacy’s new $1.8 poker room, which is part of an overall $50 million dollar resort renovation plan.  Newly located in the main casino, it is open 24 hours, is non-smoking, and features daily Hold ‘em tournaments, as well as limit and no-limit cash games. Note: they serve great free donuts and coffee in the morning.

The legendary Margie Heinz runs the poker room. Margie started dealing when Montana first legalized gambling.  She is a link to the golden days in Las Vegas, where she was the first woman invited to deal at the World Series of Poker in 1977 by gaming icon Benny Binion.  Margie knew the early legends: Bill Boyd, Jack Strauss, Puggy Pearson, Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, and Texas Dolly – Doyle Brunson.  In 2011, she was deservedly elected to the Women’s Poker Hall of Fame.

 Where to Eat

Canter’s, an LA iconic classic deli, is located next to the poker room and is new to Reno. It showcases an extensive menu, but stick to the award-winning pastrami, house-made pickles, and freshly baked breads and pastries.

 

Eating at the Pearl Oyster Bar and Grill is a must. Their seafood specialties include crab cakes, cioppino, and pan roasts. You can’t go wrong with the daily lunch specials or soup/sandwich combinations. At dinner, its location on the Mezzanine makes it a perfect spot to sip a glass of wine and people watch.

The early dinner menu at the classy, award winning Sterling’s Seafood Steakhouse lived up to my expectations. My dining experience started with a house salad served with freshly baked bread, followed by a perfectly prepared beef tenderloin stroganoff, finishing with homemade praline pecan cheesecake.  It’s quite a bargain for $27. They also have special pricing for wine by the glass.

Other food outlets include Flavors Buffet, Cafe Central, Starbucks, and Sips Coffee and Tea.

Show Time

Between Silver Legacy, Circus Circus, and Eldorado, the entertainment choices are endless; midway acts, the Laugh Factory, music, and best of all, the Eldorado Theater.  The 580 seat, state-of-the-art showroom features top entertainers, as well as Broadway style extravaganzas.

For more information and reservations, including discounts and specials, logon to www.SilverLegacyReno.com or call 1-800-687-8733.

Thanks to various websites for information, photos, etc.

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Just an hour out of Greenville, SC, is the Dupont State Recreational Forest of North Carolina, a wonderful place to spend time relaxing in nature and getting some moderate exercise. If you are well prepared you could spend from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. enjoying the beautiful mountain atmosphere and re-creating your mind and body. The 82 miles of trails are mostly multi-use for hikers, cylers, and some are for equestrians. No motor vehicles are allowed on trails, but there is ample parking in several places.

We chose to do the waterfalls hikes and had several tempting choices. The easy walk to Hooker Falls is only a quarter mile and is a popular swimming hole below the cascades (but no life guard, so take care.) This mountain water is always delightfully chilly.

We took the High Falls trail through the forest with our lunch to the covered picnic shelter, where those of us who did not want to venture down the fairly steep trail could see this tallest of the Little River falls from the tables. The High Falls cascade down 120 feet over solid granite and are spectacular in many viewpoints. Several of us made the trek and found many lovely picture points with the waterfalls coming together and then separating into many varied flows. Triple Falls has three distinct components which also total about 120 feet of vertical drop.  Scenes from several movies were filmed here including Hunger Games and Last of the Mohicans.

The waterfalls are not the only thing that makes the day there wonderful. The forest vegetation is rich and varied, and when we wanted to identify something we let Google tell us, so it was a learning experience also. There are five lakes in Dupont State Recreational Forest: Lake Dense, Lake Imaging, Lake Alford, Fawn Lake, and the largest (99 acres) Lake Julia.  For equestrian pathways park your vehicle at Lake Imaging or Guion Farm, the latter of which has flatter trails.  Bike trailheads are at these two places and also at Corn Mill Shoals. If you have a NC fishing license you may catch panfish or largemouth bass in the lakes or trout in Little River. Hunting is allowed on the Gamelands with a 3-day permit issued by NC Wildlife Resource Commission Gamelands program, but take caution and scout the area to be sure no other tourists are in the area of danger.

Rest rooms are available at the Visitor Center, where you will receive a map. Everyone is responsible to bring his or her own trash out to keep this beautiful park clean. No camping is allowed. Dupont Forest is located between Hendersonville and Brevard, NC. Navigate to 1400 Staton Road, Cedar Mountain, NC 28718. You can enjoy your time there 365 days a year for free. For information call 828 877 6527.

Puerto Varas nestled sweetly on the south shore of Llanquihue (yan key way) the largest lake in Chile is the adventure hub of the Chilean Lake District. On the far shore the snow-tipped Orsorno Volcano offers head-spinning vistas for hikers in the summer (November-March) and thrilling downhill runs for skiers in the winter. In the glacier moraine valley below lies is the gateway to Vincent Perez National Park where you can explore the Petrohue falls. Puerto Varas is also the headquarters for the Pumalin Park, a pristine wilderness area with native forests laced with cascading waterfalls. A fun day trip is a short ferry ride to the Island of Chilo’e that garners penguin sightings. Outdoor activities like, horseback riding, fly fishing, birding, trekking and wind surfing are popular pastimes for locals and tourists alike.

The ride to Orsorno on a highway framed in brilliant yellow Scotch Broom spiked with magenta foxglove is breathtaking. The road loops around sparkling Llanquihue with puffy white clouds floating in crystalline heavens and the snow-frosted peaks of the Andes glistening in the distance. Up you go on switchbacks snaking the flank of the volcano through stunted pines and flaming red fire-bush to the chair lift and ski hut. The path through the barren lunar landscape to stunning vistas is composed of slippery crumbled lava that requires focus and sure-footedness. The head spinning panorama takes in the width of Chile, a string been country flanked by the Andes on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Dead ahead, the bad boy, Calbuco Volcano that blew its stack in 2015, looms on the horizon. This region is in the ring of fire with 2,000 volcanos, 43 of which are active. The threat of eruptions is real. Far below the silver strand of the Petrohue River spiraling through a verdant glacier moraine valley would be our next stop.

At the very “touristic” Petrohue Falls we shared viewing spots with other visitors. The water charging over black lava boulders reminded me of the power of the water that continues to sculpt our planet. The minerals in the water coming down from glaciers high in the clefts of the mountains churns from aquamarine, to a foamy mix of turquoise, opal and moonstone. There are trails fanning out from the falls that take hikers to tranquil lagoons. Rafting trips are popular Further down river below the rapids. Continuing up the narrow track tracing the river we met Alex, a fisherman who ferried us over to his home on the river where we were treated to a lunch of local trout.

There is a movement in Chile spearheaded by the late Douglas Tompkins and his wife Kristine, American philanthropists, who have battled for the last 25 years to preserve the wilds of Patagonia. They donated 2-million acres of land to the Chilean and Argentinian government that includes Park Pumalin in the Chile Lake District. Their hope is that creating parks will bring people into nature and inspire them to protect and preserve the natural heritage of the gorgeous region. This act spurred the Chilean government to designate an additional 11-million acres of wilderness to what is slated to become the “Route of Parks.” The plan is to have campgrounds with facilities, well-maintained trails and scenic drives modeled after the National Park system in the United States. The information center in Puerto Varas provides brochures and maps for those who have time to explore what is one of the hottest destinations for outdoor adventurers.

A 30-minute ferry ride landed us on Chilo’e, an island that evolved in isolation from the mainland. Our welcoming committee was a pair of black necked swans with a trio of cygnets trailing behind. In Castro, the largest city on the island, the San Francisco church is a UNESCO World Heritage site built entirely of wood and painted bright yellow to offset the gloom of rainy days. Carvings inside the church show how the mythology of the island’s people was integrated into the teachings of the Jesuits.  We sauntered down to the shore lined with colorfully painted pole houses. The tide was out so the table was set for many shore birds picking for morsels in the mud. The chilote’s are sea people. The most important character in their mythology is the Siren. If she faces the sea it will be a good fishing day and if she turns away the fishermen will return empty handed.

After a lunch of delicious seafood soup with all manner of shellfish laced with seaweed we were off to see the penguins. Our driver careened through lush emerald pasturelands to the Punihuil Wildlife Sanctuary on the Pacific side of the island where Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, sea otters, sea lions, and sea birds reside. We boarded a skiff and circled the sea stacks where hundreds of the flightless birds breed and find shelter from predators like sea lions who attack the chicks and gulls who steal their eggs. Chiloe’s catch-phrase is “No rain – No rainbow.” We were blessed with both on this spectacular day of bird watching.

Back in Puerto Varas, a stroll along the lake front is a nice way to end a full day. Sailboats ply the azure water as lovers stroll by hand and hand and the sun casts a pink glow that blooms into deep purple. It’s an easy walk from there over to my favorite café hidden inside a rose garden where I enjoyed King Carb in avocado salad with oyster and salmon ceviche for starters.

Thank you to Overseas Adventure Travel for including Puerto Varas in my Andes to Patagonia itinerary.

www.oattravel.com

http://www.parquepumalin.cl/visiting_ptovaras.htm

https://www.welcomechile.com/puertovaras/outings.html

To learn more about her foundation and the work Kristine Tompkins continues to create and re-wild parklands go to TompkinsConservation.org http://www.tompkinsconservation.org/who_we_are.htm

 

E-bike sales are soaring these days, not only in Europe but in the U.S. as well. Leveling the playing field, the electric pedal-assist bicycle allows even the out-of-shape oldsters to keep up with the athletes in the family.

Making cycling accessible to everyone and anyone, the surge in popularity of the e-bike is also attributed to the fact that the electric bicycle is a great alternative to public transportation and traffic congestion. With no money spent on fuel, the bicyclist is able to save money while getting fresh air and exercise.

Going green is a big concern for many these days, and the e-bike is the way to go.

One of the best e-bikes on the market is the Joulvert. Developed as a means to getting around the Playa desert of the Burning Man Festival, Joulvert’s Playa bikes are built for tough conditions in black-rock sandstorm environments. Not just for the rugged off-road terrain, though, the bikes are also a big hit with city, suburban, and rural commuters alike.

27-year-old Zach High uses Joulvert’s Stealth model for his Pennsylvania work commute. With a top speed of 20 mph, this matte black cool-looking machine rolls along on 20” heavy-duty tires, going the distance of 45 miles per charge.

“I just can’t stop raving about this bike,” Zach said. “It’s amazing.”

With built-in headlights and rear LED lights included, as well as a horn, the Joulvert Stealth boasts an 11 amp, 36 volt motor and a USB charging port on the battery. The batteries are Lithium ion high capacity cells and a Smart Charger is included. The entire bike, including battery, weighs only 52 pounds, and it folds for easy transport.

With a cost of just under $1500, the Joulvert Stealth is a smart and economical solution to commuting costs. Riders can choose to pedal with assistance, or transfer to full power with a push of the button, going from bike to scooter with ease.

Joulvert bikers are finding love at first ride. With wind in hair, sun in eyes, beneath the skies, riders are flying high with Joulvert.