My wife Fern and I left the bitter cold of the 2018 winter on a Friday January morning. We were on the beach wearing bathing suits in the afternoon.  Our non-stop flights from Baltimore – Washington airport to Cancun were under three hours and thirty minutes each way.  We booked our package (hotel, airfare, excursions and airport shuttle) together through Cheap Caribbean.com.  We divided our five day trip between relaxation at the resort and several excursions to the Mayan ruins and a natural well.

Lodging at Iberostar Paraiso Beach Resort

Midway between Cancun and Tulum, the eighty mile stretch of Mexico’s Yucatan coast is called Riviera Maya. Our resort was located twenty three miles south of the Cancun airport.

Iberostar is a Spanish chain of 4 and 5 star resorts. Located within the heart of Riviera Maya, this all- inclusive resort shares amenities with the Iberostar Del Mar, featuring a very large pool, several bars, a disco, an ice cream stand and a pristine beach.  A fully equipped fitness center also included free fitness classes throughout each day.   Many comfortable beach chairs were placed under palm thatched stands, where we were able to view the beautiful blues and greens of the tranquil Caribbean Sea on a wide stretch of beach.

We really enjoyed the dinners at the resort’s specialty restaurants, with each of the six restaurants featuring a different cuisine (including Mexican, Mediterranean, Italian, French, and Japanese). However, we were only allowed to make reservations for two dinners based on the length of our stay.  The food at the Italian and Mexican restaurants was truly exceptional, the service was excellent and the atmosphere was superior.  All breakfasts and lunches at Iberostar were at one of the two buffet restaurants, both of which offered many food options.  Throughout the grounds, we wandered by many colorful animals, including pink flamingos, large turtles, Mexican prairie dogs and the very odd coati, a member of the raccoon family!

Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins

About one and one-half hours northwest of Riviera Maya, this stunning Mayan city has been names one of the new seven wonders of the world. This site, one of the most visited in Mexico, was named as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988.

This awe-inspiring city was once the center of the Mayan empire. This was a holy site, constructed more than 1500 years ago.  We spent half of one day here, including a guided tour.

In the heart of the city is the iconic giant El Castillo pyramid that stands nearly 100 feet high and 181 feet across at the bottom. Unfortunately tourists can no longer climb the stairways.  Two of the sides have been reconstructed.  With large sculptures of serpent heads at the base of one of the grand staircases, it is believed that the pyramid was used for sacrifices to the golds.

Among the other ancient structures, I found most interesting to be the Ball Court which was used for a game where teams of seven players competed to direct a heavy ball through a ring mounted on a wall seven meters high (23 feet). The captain of the “winning” team was sacrificed to the gods.

Tulum Mayan Ruins

About 30 minutes south of our resort, we took a two hour tour with Cancun Adventures of these well preserved ruins. The excursion included a one hour guided tour and one hour on our own.

This Mayan ancient walled city is situated on tall cliffs that back up to the Caribbean Sea for incredible views.   A thick stone wall encloses about 60 structures.  Most are small and many are carved with gargoyle faces.  The most dramatic structure is the castle, a large pyramid that overlooks the Caribbean.  We briefly sat on the stunning white sand beach beneath the ruins.  The cost was seventy pesos for an adult.

Ik Kil Cenote, Yucatan

Yucatan has thousands of cenotes (natural wells) that exist nowhere else. These sink holes are of exquisite natural beauty as they expose groundwater underneath.  The sink holes once were caverns where the roofs collapsed.

Ik Kit is a round, steep vertical shaft, both dark and cool. There are vines which reach from the opening all the way down to the pool of spring water, along with small waterfalls.

Mayans used this site as a location for human sacrifices to the rain god, as well as for relaxation. To the Mayans, these natural wells were sacred passageways to the underworld.  Near Chichen Itza, this underwater sinkhole is open to the sky.  You can walk down a carved stairway to a swimming platform or to viewing stations.

The privately owned complex includes a small restaurant, store, picnic tables and changing rooms. The cost is 80 pesos for adults and this natural well was quite crowded.

Tips:

Transportation: The Amstar shuttle to and from the airport was timely and comfortable.  We used Amstar to arrange our two Mayan ruins guided tours.

Admittedly, I’ve never heard of Lo-Wei, a unique exercise class that combines yoga, strength training and flexibility that stretched my body in ways my mind never thought possible. But it is only one of almost three dozen fitness classes, all part of the dawn-to-dusk workout, weight loss and education focus of the one-of-a-kind, all-inclusive Deerfield Health Retreat and Spa in East Stroudsburg, PA where my friend Kathy and I spent three nights recently.

The education aspect offered almost as many options. Okay, I wasn’t all that interested in the discussion on Pilates as an aid for back pain or the importance of self-massage but just the fact that it was offered, along with lectures on sleep deprivation, portion control, Top 20 Exercise Mistakes and many other topics was impressive.

The first morning’s dilemma? So should I start with a sunrise hike, morning stretch, water aerobics, Pilates, yoga or a circuit class? Or just go back to sleep. Ah, unacceptable — especially with a mouth-watering breakfast awaiting at 8 a.m. I followed morning stretch with Butts and Guts — and all I kept thinking was, “Man, am I going to feel this tomorrow!” which, right there, is a high recommendation for the class. Kathy, a water maven, started her day with an aerobics Pilates class — I took notes.

You’re never far from food at Deerfield — 3 meals and 2 snacks included — and our first exposure at lunch upon arrival was a tomato Florentine soup filled with veggies. I thought if everything else is this good (and it was!), I’m never going home! But more on that later.

Time for some exercise. I’m a novice yoga-ite so admittedly I had some difficulty visualizing the cleansing of my lungs but I could still appreciate the relaxing — and oh yes, centering — nature of the exercise as I learned to follow the instructor admonishing me to “enjoy the stretch.” But I’m a veteran hiker and beginner, intermediate and advanced hikes are offered, depending upon the day, water bottles and walking sticks provided. We were forewarned that the Beginner Hike was a stroll in the park compared with the Intermediate and admittedly the guide took one look at Kathy and me (70 plus can be deceiving…) and tried to talk us out of it. But our experience on the Appalachian Trail over years stood us in good stead and the hike was not only eminently doable — but beautiful as well.

And then, of course, it’s time for the “Morning Boost” snack because after all, it’s been at least two hours since we last ate. But in truth, Kathy and I rarely had the time or inclination to fit snacks into our schedules. We opted instead for a little circuit training to add some cardio and weights to the mix.

And then there’s lunch. There are multiple choices for each meal plus daily specials, all calorie counted. All dinners — salad, entrée, veggie, dessert (and ohhh, those desserts!) are 600 calories; 1200 for the day. Did I mention there are also two snacks (fresh fruit, smoothies, grilled pineapple, veggie and dip, dried fruit, etc.)? Are they sure this is also a weight loss center?

And it is, as many guests attested. Despite the campfire at the fire pit with S’mores. WHA? Okay, all sugar-free but still… And if you can get your attention away from the s’mores, the stars above were mesmerizing. We just don’t have stars like that at home.

And, as if we hadn’t had enough food already, there’s the cooking class with Karen, the nutritionist, who kept up an ongoing informative patter about the pros and cons of multiple foods. I found out that all rice contains arsenic which is nutritional information I could have done without. She made jerk chicken with mango salsa, rice (go figure!) with pecans, and asparagus. It was like eating another whole dinner — a mere 200 calories extra. And the rice was so tasty it was easy to rationalize ingesting the life-threatening ingredient.

A different night included an hour’s introduction to meditation, the goal being, in addition to relieving stress and finding inner peace, to experience a relaxation response that was transformative. All of this is above my pay grade but still, it was something I knew nothing about and that fact alone made the experience worthwhile.

I felt obligated to actually count my day’s intake at least once — I choose a day that didn’t include either the cooking class, s’mores or the Saturday night Mocktails. So: Breakfast of bruschetta omelet with cheese plus cantaloupe balls; Lunch — Mexican corn soup, a huge plate of cottage cheese, tuna salad and fresh fruit; Dinner — Spinach salad with strawberries and walnuts; baked fish with string beans; ice cream with a sweet strawberry topping. Throw in some half and half with my morning coffee and voila — 1065 calories. Hard to believe. Plus I was stuffed.

But still, there are more work outs on the horizon with motivational signs sprinkled throughout the gyms. “Failures are but the pillars of success;” “Believe and act as though it were impossible to fail.” I had a little trouble reconciling the two but it didn’t keep me from appreciating the overarching message. “Age wrinkles the body; quitting wrinkles the soul.” Okay, that’s more like it! I relate to anything that has age in it.

As I headed to class one day, I overheard a guest excitedly exclaim: “Just being in the hammock is one of my favorite places.” I hardly even knew there was a hammock. And that’s one of the most appealing aspects of Deerfield. If you want just to relax and de-stress, that’s fine. If you want to work your butt off, that’s fine, too.

But I didn’t have time to think about it as a Cybex Circuit class was calling followed by Core on the Floor, which one older participant laughingly characterized as “elder abuse.” I discovered, that contrary to popular belief, the core extends well beyond the abs and includes, butt, back, lats, spine, obliques and every body part in between — all of which were unmercifully tested. Getting up off the floor was the biggest challenge. It was great! But rest assured, all classes can be adjusted to accommodate any work-out level.

Another option unknown to me was Tabatas, a high-intensity interval training class. Kathy instead found time for her pool aerobics, including a 90-minute Restorative water class which was equivalent to walking 4 miles. According to Kathy: “Constant motion without excessive effort combine for a total body workout.” She was water-logged but happy.

But what also makes the Deerfield experience so special is the ambiance, the camaraderie, the laid-back atmosphere where everything feels natural and comfortable. At times in the evening, after that night’s lecture or other activity, folks just hung out in the lounge and with 80% of guests being repeat customers, staying from three nights to two months, the talk often turned to war stories accumulated over the years. It felt very much like a family.

And that includes the staff, from whom a love for the spa readily radiates, which in large part is due to owner Joan Wolff, whose mother started Deerfield in 1979. I was surprised to discover there was no tipping allowed. As Joan explains: “The wait staff, trainers, masseuses and house keepers are never tipped as much as they deserve so it’s all processed into their salaries.” Which might explain why most of her staff have been there for more than 10 years.

So what do you need after a full day of hiking, weight lifting, water aerobics and yoga? A massage, of course. So naturally that’s also included. The next day, Kathy dragged me kicking and screaming to the car — but not until we had enjoyed another two meals and four classes before we left. For more information, visit http://deerfieldspa.com/, 1-800-852-4494. A three-night, all-inclusive, weekend stay, double occupancy, ranges from $770-$1145, per person. Deerfield is open from mid-April to late October.

 

It happens all the time with Overseas Adventure Travel. I start out expecting to write about the trip itself – in this case, Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions — and I end up writing about all the things that are not on the itinerary – what OAT refers to as Learning and Discovery. Sure, I wanted to focus on the extensive ruins of the Greeks and Romans from the 8th century BC; the city market initiated by the Arabs in 900 A.D. which still operates today almost as it did then. The Norman Church built in 1174 which was proclaimed by acclimation of the trip participants as “The most magnificent cathedral ever!” and a boat ride to a Phoenician island dating back 2700 years. And that barely brushes the surface of the extensive itinerary that brought new adventures to our group of 16 day after day. But that’s where the story veered into trouble…

I found myself being equally surprised and delighted by all the little extra things we were seeing and doing — and yes, often eating — that were NOT on the itinerary, the L&D moments that reflect the culture and deepen the immersive experience already embodied within the OAT itinerary.

While exploring the capital city of Palermo, we stopped at a tiny, nondescript storefront with antique-looking sewing machines and irons but okay, the owner is a tailor. How then to explain all the old instruments strewn everywhere? The tailor is also a musician. He sang along as he played a 50-year-old mandolin. Come for repairs; stay for the repertory…

As soon as we arrived in Castelbuono, a 14th century medieval village whose history dates back to the Arab influence of the 800’s, it was time for another discovery: a variety of Sicilian pastries washed down with samples of liqueurs ranging from Lemon and cinnamon to tangerine and prickly pear. By this time, it was hard for me to work up an interest in the surrounding history, usually a passion of mine. Stopping for a “taste” can translate into a marathon multi-course mini-meal. So yes, often L&D has to do with food – which is understandable: aside from the Mafia, food is what Sicily is known for.

Because another OAT philosophy is its emphasis on controversial topics, a discussion of the Mafia was not unexpected. Meeting with Angelo Provenzano, the son of one of the most notorious Mafia bosses in Sicilian history from 1993-2006, was. Kept in hiding for the first 16 years of his life, he recounted the difficulty of separating his feelings FOR his father from his feelings ABOUT his father – and the impossibility of leading a normal life despite his having no connection with the mafia himself. It should come as no surprise that the Cosa Nostra is still alive and well in Sicily but not to the level that a Godfather IV is anywhere in production. In response to a question as to the accuracy of those films, Angelo replied: “Except for certain Hollywood effects, the films are basically realistic.” Angelo’s birthplace? The city of Corleone, of course. A name everyone in the room knew well.

In a local museum in Mazara, we viewed the Dancing Satyr, a Greek bronze statue from the 3rd century BC that was pulled from the sea in 1998 in the nets of some fishermen. As fascinating as the story was — an archaeological event that captured the attention of the world — it didn’t compare with the unexpected meeting with the boat captain who made the discovery. His discovery story was even more enthralling.

Picnic lunches are not unusual on tours. But when they take place on an island settled by Phoenicians some 2700 years ago and your picnic table is a stone from one of their former structures, the picnic takes on slightly greater significance.

By the end of the trip, after visiting sites representing Roman, Greek, Norman, Arabic, Carthaginian, Phoenician, Byzantine and Spanish occupation – and I’m sure I’ve left some out – we arrived in Syracusa, an ancient city that boasted remnants of all of them. There were ruins from everyone everywhere. And during the boat ride around the island of Ortigia, we sampled some Sicilian almond liqueur to get us through the 40-minute excursion. And why not? Just another L&D surprise. Who said alcohol can’t be part of a cultural experience? Again.

Admittedly, exploring the old Medieval city of Modica was fascinating, but it couldn’t compare with the unexpected joy rides in vintage iconic Fiat 500 sports cars over hilly, twisty, curvy, windy, narrow, cobblestone streets. First made popular in 1957 as a readily affordable automobile, these refurbished convertibles – smaller than a Smart car – still barely fit on alleyways that were unfathomably two-way. Warning: “Do not put your hand outside the car or you’ll end up losing it.” Sort of like a Disney ride threatening to go off the tracks. The fact that we were driving through a former 12th century Norman city was just a bonus.

 

An itinerary highlight worth mentioning? The Landing Museum, a moving testament to the end of Italy’s involvement in World War II. We – I – tend to forget that Italy, a Fascist nation, actually fought on the side of Germany and we invaded in 1943, effectively ending Mussolini’s rule. Upon entering a replica of a Catania street in the 1940’s, we suddenly heard an air raid siren – and were quickly ushered into the bomb shelter before the door closed. That was all the time we had if we wanted to live. What then ensued for a minute and a half – planes shrieking, bombs dropping, dogs barking, hysterical cries of anxious people – actually went on for hours. The shelter shook and as much as I knew this was only a simulation, I could still feel the terror of those who had to endure such trauma day after day for years. We emerged to find ourselves surrounded by rubble. The rest of the museum accurately relates the people and events who suffered through this sad part of Italy and Sicily’s history. And indeed it was nice to hear how welcome the Allied forces were once they arrived!

Because OAT thrives on controversy, we met with members of an organization that aids young immigrant girls who illegally land in Sicily, where a sign on the port declares “Welcome Refugees.” Oh how much we could learn from this small island, I thought. And it was harrowing to listen to 19-year-old Joyce’s story of being lured from her home and family in Nigeria with promises of an education in Europe only to find herself part of an agonizing nine-month ordeal spent in many refugee camps in Libya and Syria along the way under abusive, horrendous conditions as a part of a sex-and-drug trafficking operation. She was fortunately saved by the Casa di Maria organization upon her arrival in Sicily; most are not. No one exited that room without feeling emotionally drained. Again!

And then there’s Mt. Etna – at over 10,000 feet, the largest active volcano in Europe. Although the last eruption was in May 2017, we were repeatedly assured we were in no danger of a repeat. I’m a hiker. I’m used to climbing over rocks and roots. But this was my first experience with lava stones and fields – a topography I had never seen before. As we climbed the almost two miles, we passed two centuries worth of vegetation from tiny tufts of green still recovering from earlier eruptions to huge, long-standing pine trees of old. I’m a travel writer and I’m supposed to be able to bring experiences to life but this was so surreal, other-worldly, so without comparison to anything I’ve seen before that I feel inadequate to capture it in mere words. A stop afterwards for a shot of Etna Fire – a 70-proof concoction — shook me out of my volcanic revelry.  Notice a beverage trend here? After our Farewell Dinner, it was hard to believe there would be another L&D moment. After all, it was late – and we all had early planes the next day. But indeed we headed into town to a small, stand-alone outdoor shack where the vendor more replicated a bartender – even more a mixologist, a creator of drinkable art. Tamarind syrup, fresh squeezed lemon, soda water and then the piece de resistance…Baking Soda. Alas, no alcohol. All shaken up with gusto. The whole point? To make you burp. A lot. A Sicilian tradition. A very successful Sicilian tradition. Who wouldn’t want to go on such a tour? For more information, visit 2018 Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions.

 

 

 

0 1846

New Zealand, which has recently been officially declared the eighth continent and named Zealandia, is a Wonderful place to visit. With a population of about four million, half of whom live in the capital city of Auckland, the countryside drives and villages and towns throughout North and South Islands are like none in other countries because the roads are well paved and maintained but most of the way are narrow two-lanes, with one “S” curve after another, and no shoulder. The most memorable highways are banked on one side by a cliff towering above you and on the other side by the ocean below you! Other highways are through beautiful pastoral scenes of grassy rolling hills dotted with thousands and thousands of sheep.  We saw beautiful small farms with people plowing, planting, and harvesting various crops. The air is so pure and crystalline clear that the colors in all your surroundings appear more beautifully brilliant and true.  Lakes and rivers abound in this bottom of the world continent and the water is as pure as the air, not yet contaminated by huge populations.

Yet the country is modern with all the Twenty-First Century conveniences you could want, but also it maintains its rich cultural history of the Maori tribes. A majority of the streets and towns are named in the native tribal language. School children are taught both languages and many tourist places demonstrate the original customs, ways of life, food and dance.  You will never lack for things to do and unduplicated vistas of nature to witness. The land is still in its creation infancy and volcanoes and earthquakes are not unexpected, but this adds to the adventure of the unusual landscape. We drove over 3,000 miles to see and do as much as we possibly could in three weeks of January, which is during their summer season below the equator.  It was all beautiful and wonderful, welcoming and fun, with super clean hotels and B&B’s, good cars to rent, excellent food and very friendly, welcoming people. However, with the necessity to import many of modern life’s necessities, food and gasoline are expensive.

Perhaps the greatest highlight of our trip was with the The Helicopter Line New Zealand when we flew by helicopter to land on a glacier! We were journeying through the South Island with the number one choice of things to do was a heli ride.  We first tried to fly from the village of Franz Joseph, but the weather did not cooperate. Helicopter Line New Zealand service takes NO CHANCES of danger. They can only confirm trips a half hour before boarding time because the winds and rain during this season are fickle.  These ‘copters do fly under dangerous conditions. The company’s helicopters go out in pairs, and each one has well-trained and highly experienced pilots, emergency equipment, and good phone/radio communications with each other and with the control tower below.

Our tickets would be good at the next location of this excellent Heli service which for us was Fox Glacier. Again this late spring/early summer weather in the Southern Hemisphere prevented our take-off. We enjoyed hiking to see the glacier from a distance and then journeyed on and stopped at Wanaka to enjoy many fun things to do by the lake.

On our third chance for the glacier trip we were treated with a sunny day and little wind. We were elated! At first Bonnie (whose motto is be prepared) packed food, first aid, a change of warm clothes (in case of emergency encampment in a frozen atmosphere thousands of feet above sea level,) binoculars, camera, and who knows what all in her heavy backpack. We didn’t dream we had to weigh-in about an hour before boarding while we were awaiting the final verdict about the weather, which changes almost instantly in the region around glaciers.  She was shocked to learn her 20 pound backpack had to be left behind, but also was assured that the pilot already had on board all the items she had thought to bring. Her worries were useless as the pilot even had extra heavy coats for anyone who had arrived in summer clothes. The only items we needed besides proper clothing and shoes were sunglasses and camera.

People from many countries were awaiting previously booked ‘copter rides and we piled in with five young people from Korea and our excellent pilot Peter, who makes this helicopter trip about 14 times each day when weather permits. Everyone was so excited and cameras and cell phones began clicking as we took off with the thrilling whir of the propeller above us. Each passenger was given a head-set of ear phones and microphone to communicate with the pilot. As we ascended quickly above the https://www.queenstownnz.co.nz/   The Remarkables, mountains which are the backdrop of the lovely city, we were so glad our trip actualized in the city of Queenstown because these knife-edged mountains from above appeared to have jabbed through the earth with a rugged rock surface at the back and beautiful lush vegetation on the side facing the city. To fly over these was our first treat. Soon we were over an enormous valley with a large river winding through it, so beautiful from above.  We flew over many mountains of the Southern Alps, each with a different landscape and of varying huge size.  The scenery changed from green spring/summer lushness to jagged rocky cliffs,  then snowy peaks, and then many glaciers appeared!

In many of the highest crags and valleys of these enormously high peaks there were vast accumulations of snow which had never melted in centuries and had become compacted into glaciers…so many in one vast area within our 360 degree view. Peter and the other pilot landed one after the other on the glacier, which was larger than a football field and just as flat. As soon as the propeller stood still we were allowed to emerge onto the glacier to walk around and take pictures for 10 minutes.  We had not known to expect soft new snow on the surface of the ancient frozen plateau of ice.  We each stared in wonder, directing our video cameras in the complete circle of wondrous, indescribably pure beauty of pristine white’.  We had sunny vividly blue sky all around us to the horizon at our feet, only interrupted by mountain peaks in various places. It was BEAUTIFUL!!!!  For a few minutes no one could utter a word…Speechless was our true description as we gasped in joy at the simplicity of unspoiled nature.  The time in this PEAK experience of our lives was over far too quickly and we piled reluctantly back into the helicopter and were lifted away between mountains with new scenery below. Because we were the second helicopter we could look at the other and see what ours looked like, a tiny speck by comparison to every enormous mountain top around and below us.

Our return landing at the little heliport was smooth. We thanked Peter and The Helicopter Line of New Zealand for the most incredible experience of our lives, which went by far too quickly but will be at the front of our joyful memories for the rest of our lives. Summer down below in this beautiful country is approaching, so we urge you to make your reservations now and head there for a wonderful holiday. There are many other helicopter locations for this company to fly you to Mount Cook or Milford Sound and more.

For More Information:

 http://www.helicopter.co.nz

 https://www.queenstownnz.co.nz/

 https://www.queenstownnz.co.nz/stories/queenstown-walks-and-hikes/

 https://www.queenstownnz.co.nz/plan/itineraries/free-or-very-cheap-activities-for-adventurers/

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

 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of all in the United States. It is unquestionably beautiful with thick forests of evergreens and many different species of deciduous trees, so it is beautiful year around, and especially with fall color. The understory is a myriad of different plants, which bloom at various times of year, even in deep shade.

One of our favorite places to enjoy the beautiful Smokies is in Gatlinburg, TN, where we always choose to take a hike with A Walk In The Woods Nature Guide Service, and it is always the highlight of our mountain exploration! You will always remember your wonderful experience with these companionable and friendly experts!

Jamie Matzko was our guide this summer. A native of this area of Tennessee, she has loved out-of-doors all her life and is skilled in so many things that made our hike filled with fun and very educational. We learned so much about the trees, vines and bushes, birds, and other wild life around us. She stopped at many plants and told how they could be used medicinally or for food, and she pointed out some which are harmful or poisonous.

She guided us along a fairly unknown path, which is not part of the National Park’s developed trails, but it was narrow and clear and a moderate to easy hike along a creek with many varied waterfalls, which were not spectacularly high or rushing, but gentle, beautiful, and melodic. Birdsongs enhanced our walk and Jaimie could identify the winged friends even though some were hidden from view.

In 2018 A Walk In The Woods will celebrate two decades of helping people enjoy the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The numbers they have safely served is approaching 100,000 people. The owners, Vesna and Erik Plakanis have shared their expert knowledge and love of all nature and most especially this wondrous National Park and the thriving undisturbed environment which abounds here in the Gatlinburg area of the Smoky Mountains. A Walk In The Woods helps individuals or groups enjoy expert interpretive nature walks, guided hikes, birding and salamander treks, hiker shuttle service in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Appalachian Trail support and climbing Mt. LeConte, trip planning, camping and backpacking equipment rental, guided backpacking trips, classes and seminars. The company was awarded the coveted REI TOP GUIDE Award and many Certificates of Excellence from Trip Advisor.

Each of the guides at A Walk in the Woods has various advanced special training as naturalists, scientists, history, Search and Rescue, environmental studies, and much more. They have each had years and hundreds of miles of experience as hikers and trail guides and mountaineering. You can read their impressive expertise and experience in links below. You can select from many focused opportunities to learn about your special interest in the mountains you explore with them, whether it is learning about birds, bears, mushrooms, history, edible plants, geology, plants, animals, waterfalls, insects, protecting the environment, hazards in nature, and so much more. Just ask and they will tailor your hikes to your preferences.  A Walk In The Woods deserves its Top and Best guide service reputation and you will always treasure the memory of your time in their care!

 

For More Information:

 

http://awalkinthewoods.com/

 

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiboOXUw8zVAhWG6yYKHZnSCNAQFggoMAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.tripadvisor.com%2FAttraction_Review-g60842-d273813-Reviews-A_Walk_in_the_Woods-Gatlinburg_Tennessee.html&usg=AFQjCNFj73NohUJfrCdUa-gS1tCMy5y7Wg

 

http://www.awalkinthewoods.com/pages/wd_aboutus.htm

 

A Walk in the Woods*

4413 Scenic Drive East

Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Phone :         (865) 436-8283

I was six feet away from an 800 lb. giant in brown fur with huge paws and I didn’t get eaten. If you want one of the greatest wildlife experiences in your life, put Katmai National Park in Southeast Alaska on your list of future destinations.

There are 2,200 Alaskan brown bears inhabiting Katmai National Park. They are called Grizzly Bears in the lower 48 states of the U.S. During the summer the salmon return to the rivers of Alaska by the millions.  The bears of Katmai have lost a lot of their body weight while hibernating are looking for food and a lot of it.  Sow bears may have cubs to feed and to teach how to fish. This brings them to the Brooks River and especially Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park to find their salmon feast of  Sockeye in June and July and Silver salmon in late August and September.  Flying in a small plane is mandatory if you want to get there.

The four seat Beaver float plane I was in, skimmed over the emerald green expanse of Southeast Alaska. I was nervous in anticipation of arriving at Katmai National Park or maybe from being in a small plane with only one engine.  I wanted to see the giant brown bears fishing, playing, fighting, and to watch mothers with their cubs.

I knew any adventure to Alaska even in summer is weather dependent. The weather in late July was warm and partly cloudy with patches of blue sky peeking through the cloud cover. I couldn’t wait to get my camera out of my backpack and get going.

The floatplane skimmed to a smooth landing on a calm and glassy Lake Naknek and coasted up to a sandy beach at Brooks Cam p. I had to attend “Bear School” by a Park Ranger before continuing my trek to the bears. This is a 20 to 30 minutes orientation to the bears and their habits and especially how to keep all of you parts intact.  The rules are simple but they work, I know.  I still have all my parts even after a close encounter on the trail. Luckily, the bears are used to humans and have so  much to eat at this park you can get closer than any place else to these large carnivores.  If you got as close say in Denali National Park you would probably be missing some pieces.

Once you receive your “bear” pin you are allowed to take the well worn trails to the three viewing platforms to catch your first views of the magnificent animals with golden to dark brown fur.  I got maybe 50 yards down the forested trail when I and other new arrivals were stopped by a Park Ranger and told we would have to wait on a bear that was passing by.  This common occurrence can  result in a “Bear Jam” of several tourists waiting to continue their hike to the best viewing platform at Brooks Falls about 1.2 miles from Brooks Camp.  I saw Rangers constantly patrolling the main trails to keep everyone safe.

The wooden bridge, over the gently flowing waters of the lower river, swayed as I and others walked across it to the Lower River platform. This area is quiet and peaceful with gently flowing waters where if you look you can see the bright red Sockeye resting in the clear water before their journey upstream to the falls to past the gauntlet of hungry predators to spawn.

Once you pass off the main road onto the narrow but well travelled trail to the falls, start singing or chanting to let any nearby furry friends know you are there, as bears frequent the same trails and roads as people in Katmai and they have the right of way.

I could hear the roar of rushing water and of bears growling before I saw the Falls. Your first view puts a huge grin on your face as you see the bears fishing for the first time. The viewing platform at Brooks Falls is well worth the hike for you get a wonderful view of Alaskan Brown Bears fishing for Salmon just 25 to 50 yards away.  Most of the pictures you have seen of bears catching Salmon in their mouths were probably shot here.  During my two evening visits to the Falls I saw 18 and 21 different bears visit this area on respective evenings. What a sight! Several family groups of a sow and her cubs stopped by to fish too.

This place is nothing short of amazing. I had bears pass by the viewing platform at distance s of 6 feet. A mother and her three cubs even decided to take a nap right below the platform.  A large adult male who had the best fishing spot was named Lefty.  He was good too.  I watched him catching salmon every few minutes. He would rapidly eat the bright red fish and go back for more.  He had to earn the best spot to fish and has the scars to prove it including only half a left ear and scars from claw marks on his hip and chest. He caught so many fish he had to take a break and just sit down in water to rest.

Another bear seemed to just enjoyed the Jacuzzi like waters at the bottom of the falls. I sometimes get so busy shootings images I forget to stop and just watch this amazing ritual of nature.

The Falls viewing platform can get crowded during the peak visitor times from late morning to mid afternoon when most of the tourists fly in on day trips from Anchorage, King Salmon, or Homer. The best opportunities to see a lot of bears is to stay at Brooks Camp either in the lodge or campground. I spent two nights here and it was worth it as my best experiences were early in the morning or late in the afternoon when there were less people around.  One morning, I had the Falls platform to myself. That was when I saw my first bear fight.  A mother with three cubs challenged a young male adult for his spot at the falls.  She and her opponent got up on their hind legs and with huge claws out, roared at the each other and bared their large teeth.  Three cute little cubs watched from nearby.  The female prevailed and the young male moved off.

I almost missed the sign for the Mid-river platform as it is accessed off the same board walk as the Falls. I was thrilled to see another Sow with dark brown yearling cubs working the riffles for bright red salmon as the morning sun broke thru the clouds to light up the river.

You can also experience the desolation and beauty of the Valley of 10,.000 smokes while at Katmai to see a wondrous area left by the largest volcanic eruption of the last century. I missed this experience as I was busy shooting bear pictures. Fishing here is also great.  Again I was after bears not fish. (Insert Fishing Katmai)

Getting to Katmai National Park is not difficult but it is a remote locations that can only be accessed by plane or boat. Most people fly commercially into King Salmon and then take a 30 minute float plane trip to the park. There are several day trips you can take as mentioned earlier from other cities. Be prepared though nothing in Alaska is cheap during the summer but this experience is well worth the bucks.

You should also make your reservation several months to a year in advance as they fill up fast. I cannot tell you to go here enough.  Go to Katmai, Go to Katmai, Go to Katmai.  If you can’t go but want to share the experience virtually go to Exlpore.org in early July thru September and watch their live ‘Bear Cam” of Brooks Falls.  You will see many of the same things I did but it is not the same.  Katmai is a place you must experience in person.

When most folks think of Cajun Country, if they think of it at all, it’s probably Lafayette, Louisiana. But most people visiting Louisiana make a stop in New Orleans, and Lafourche Parish, just 45 minutes west of the Big Easy, is a more accessible, more authentic Cajun experience than its more well-known and commercial cousin several hours away. Bur it’s a far cry from Bourbon Street, beignets and bar stools. This is real bayou country, where everything is defined by the 106-mile-long waterway affectionately called “the longest main street in the world.” In answer to any question involving directions, it’s either up the bayou, down the bayou or across the bayou. This is laid-back shrimpin’ country where when you say “See you later, alligator,” you mean an actual alligator!

Which we learned on our initial ride on an airboat, a combination of a large rusty old rowboat with multiple mismatched seats at varying elevations on an otherwise unidentifiable Rube Goldberg contraption. With Captain Jeremy presiding, we proceeded on a thrill ride in, around, along, through and often over the extensive native greenery and wetlands at 40 miles per hour, stopping along the way to see bald eagles, herons, egrets, ducks, nutria (a type of semi-aquatic rodent heretofore unknown to me) and, of course, alligators.

First, we communed with Big Al — a 13 1/2′ gator weighing in at 1000 pounds. To accentuate his largesse, Jeremy picked up his tail as well as his very large pointy-nail four-toed foot to further illustrate how close they’ve become over the years. Big Al barely flinched.

Then his buddy, Sneaky, upstaged him by practically joining us on the boat as Jeremy deposited bits of chicken into his very large and very menacing mouth. A bit further down the bayou, Brutus actually came when called. Okay, so he knew there was chicken waiting, but still…

Being Cajun means something different depending upon whom you ask. First, it’s the proud heritage imbued by the French Acadians who settled here in the 1750s when driven out of Nova Scotia. For others, it’s the food — the special gumbo (no okra — that’s New Orleans Creole style) but always served with potato salad. That and catfish chips. Often, it’s the music – – old-fashioned accordion, fiddle, guitar, and triangles, slightly different than New Orleans Zydeco. Or the bayou way of life — fishing, shrimping, oystering. Or the long-time reliance on the sugar cane industry which thrived for generations making rum and molasses. And for everyone, it’s southern hospitality taken to extremes; the sense of community, the emphasis on family and values. Cajun Country is one of the few local societies from which the young folk are not moving away; they’re just moving down the street. Always, there’s an emphasis on the giving nature of the Cajuns: they’ll take you in if have no shelter; feed you if hungry. And to the visitor, it just may be the ubiquitous nature of crayfish, the strange accent and the prevalence of white rubber shrimp boots, known locally as Cajun Reeboks.

As one local explains: “Our Cajun runs just a little bit deeper than the rest of the state, and it shows up at every bend in the bayou.”

The Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center explains all of this in a rich tapestry of exhibits which bring Cajun Country to life. The center relates the history, lifestyles, traditions, aided by films, interactive programs, walking tours, boating expeditions, and weekly gatherings of French descendants who share coffee and conversation in their native language.

Another throwback into sugar cane history comes compliments of the Laurel Valley Village and general store, the largest surviving sugar plantation complex in the United States — and where sugar cane is still farmed today. The general store alone, built in 1905, merits a trip to Lafourche Parish. An eye-widening assortment of a wide variety of old objects many of which are delightfully unidentifiable. From edibles such as pickled quail eggs, jams and jellies and homemade pralines and dilly beans to old walking sticks, corn husking machines, cane harvesters and tractors. The multiple shelves were a jumble of thousands of items from saws and knives to cavalry saddles and sewing machines, water pumps and deer antlers. Hard to know what most of them were — but don’t even think about wanting to buy any. These are living remnants of a storied past and the history is to be preserved. The earrings, photos, and dried flowers, however, are for sale.

And then we stepped outside. Antique engines and farm equipment everywhere. I felt like I was engulfed within a metal jungle and the other-worldly iron dinosaurs were on the attack. I could do nothing but shake my head at all the personifications of a 250-year-old industry.

A couple of miles down the road are about 55 original buildings dating back to the 1840’s, most of which functioned as slave quarters for the 135 slaves working the sugar mills. Unfortunately, nothing is identified and the invaluable history is lost among the decrepit remnants of the buildings themselves.

More recent history, still enmeshed in Lafourche sugar cane and other local products, can be found at Donner-Peltier Distillers. It opened in 2012 after two local doctors, whose families had been in the sugar industry for years, were sipping rum while vacationing together with their wives. Said one: “I have sugar cane in my backyard; why is no one in Thibodaux making any rum of its own?” Several years later — after thorough and thoroughly enjoyable research into the rum industry — they opened their own distillery. They use only Louisiana products in their rum, vodka, whiskey and gin, which are now distributed in 11 states and Canada.

Sugar cane from across the street of course for their rum, local long-grain rice for the vodka and Satsuma oranges in the gin — the only distillery in the U.S. to do so. Tours and tastings of these very unusual products are available, whose names are intertwined with the delightful legend of the Rougaroux, a Cajun-type werewolf. And like the alligators, the metal stills also have names — Betty produces vodka, Veronica gin and Stella whiskey. Fyllis – that would be me – was glad to meet – not to mention sample — them all.

More Cajun history can be found at the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding and Museum in Lockport which celebrates the Pirogue, a long, thin boat made from Cypress trees with which Acadians have traveled the Bayou for centuries — and which, like the sugar cane, is still being made today. The resident boat maker, Ernest Savoie, demonstrates the labor intensive artistry employed in constructing the boat by hand. He also talk about his French heritage harking back to Nova Scotia, his pride evident is his relating that he was born into a family that extended along three blocks. Again — it’s all about family! And building his pirogues is keeping that culture alive.

A de rigueur stop at the Mudbug Brewery encapsulates Cajun Country. Those previously mentioned white shrimpin’ boots are so much a part of the culture that the Brewery even has an ale named after them — White Boots Ale. My favorite, the coffee-tinged Cafe Au Lait beer recalls the famous beverage accompanying the even more-famous beignets at the Café du Monde. And during Mardi Gras – yes, Lafourche has its own — not surprisingly their King Cake Ale is an especially big seller. How can you not love Cajun Country when a brewery alone epitomizes its culture? For more information about Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou, visit www.lacajunbayou.com or call 877-537-5800.

After attending a wonderful wedding weekend in Denver, my wife Fern and I extended our trip with a one hour drive to Colorado Springs, Colorado. We were rewarded by our initial excursion to Colorado Springs with stunning panoramic scenery throughout our two day stay.

Our highlights:

Garden of the Gods Park: The rustic beauty of this free city park at the base of Pikes Peak rivals views of national parks.  We drove by towering red rock sandstone formations and walked on one of many easy paved trails.  From the terrace of the visitor center, we had a majestic view of Pikes Peak and the surrounding rugged mountains.  Thanks to erosion there are numerous rock formations that are easily identified by what they look like to the naked eye (such as the two kissing camels) and fun to photograph (like the huge balanced rock that sits on a much smaller rock).

Seven Falls: A majestic series of seven distinct falls cascade down a very steep canyon.  The experience begins as a free shuttle took us from the Broadmoor part way up the canyon.  Beyond the entrance gate, we then walked up a gradually ascending trail through the canyon.  Large red rock formations were on one side of the trail and the cascading streams from the falls meandered along the other side.  To achieve a spectacular view of the top of the falls, we climbed a 224 step stairway alongside the upper portion of the falls.  Seven falls is justifiably promoted as Colorado’s grandest mile.

The Broadmoor: This is an amazing grand historic hotel resort which reminded us of elegant European palaces like Versailles, with its picturesque manicured gardens, beautiful water features between the buildings and extensive artwork of the west.  With a spectacular mountain backdrop, the hotel property just exudes luxury.  We enjoyed an excellent and reasonably priced multi-course dinner in the Italian Restaurant (Ristorante del Lago), one of ten restaurants on the property.  As we strolled around the hotel, we viewed various displays from its past, including a picture gallery of famous hotel guests,  menus from years past and miscellaneous hotel-related items dating back almost 100 years.

Our lodging:

Cheyenne Mountain Resort: Although not as grand as the Broadmoor, we were extremely satisfied with our stay.  The resort property is expansive and includes a lovely golf course, a lake with a sandy beach, an outdoor pool with a hot tub, a spa, tennis courts, restaurants and a superb fitness center.  Guest rooms and the restaurants have wonderful mountain views.

A final note:

Homeless in the Springs: We were surprised by the number of homeless living just a few miles away from the luxurious resorts. At a quick stop at a fast food restaurant, the manager informed us that he intentionally kept the restaurant cold so that homeless would not stay inside for long.  Certainly this experience caused us to wonder at the stark contrast of the life styles of the Colorado Springs homeless population in contrast to the tourists enjoying the high end amenities nearby.

On a recent travel writing assignment along California’s Coastal Highway 1 Discovery Route, I was amazed to uncover a piece of little known history relating to California’s role in WW II and, perhaps, a partial answer to a stain on FDR’s presidential legacy.

In 1940, the Navy had already established a presence in Morro Bay, CA with its amphibious training base. On December 7, 1941, “A Day That Will Live In Infamy,” Pearl Harbor was attacked. On December 8, the USA declared war on Japan and, interestingly, the same day Japan declared war on America and the British Empire.  What is less well known is, by mid-December, nine Japanese submarines were active, plying the Pacific Ocean and sea lanes off the coast of California near Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Mendocino, Monterrey, and San Luis Obispo in search of tankers.  Eleven US vessels carrying oil and lumber were attacked, but only one was sunk. In the early morning of December 23, 1941, Union Oil’s 8,000 ton Montebello left Port San Luis, CA heading for Vancouver, Canada. It was intercepted by a Japanese submarine in the early morning about four miles offshore and, although defensive steps were taken, it was struck by a torpedo and sunk in 20 minutes. Four lifeboats heading for shore were shelled and shot at, but luckily there were no casualties among the 36 sailors. The tugboat, Alma, was one of the rescue vessels which picked up crew members in two of the lifeboats. The Alma is now part of the Morro Bay Maritime Association and displayed in town on the Embarcadero.  Post Pearl Harbor and the sub attacks, Morro Bay and Rock was used by military recruits for ship boarding practice, beach landings, and assaults.

Can it be a coincidence that, after this enemy activity in US waters off the coast of California, FDR issued an executive order on February 19,1942 leading to the unfortunate internment of Japanese-Americans?

Morro Bay lies in the middle of California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route’s “101 miles of adventure.” Stroll the Embarcadero and take in the museums, art galleries, curio shops, boutiques, charter/fishing boats, etc.  Stop by the MCV tasting room, www.MCVwines.com, to sample their excellent wines.   Follow the Embarcadero path out to Morro Rock, one of California’s most photographed spots, a designated State Historical Landmark. An easy walk is the .6 mile Marina Peninsula Trail which loops by the Morro Bay Estuary; keep your camera handy.

The area is an agricultural cornucopia; farm to table dining, the freshest seafood imaginable, plus local vineyards and wineries galore. My restaurant recommendations are all conveniently clustered along the Embarcadero overlooking Morro Bay and the Rock.

Blue Sky Cafe – locals flock here for breakfast (served all day), lunch, and dinner…don’t miss their daily desserts. www.BlueSkyCafe.com

Dorn’s Original Breaker’s Cafe – first opened in 1942, the third generation of the family now runs the place. www.DornsCafe.com

Tognazznini’s Dockside – three casual choices: restaurant, fish market/patio or Smokehouse & Pub. www.MorroBayDockside.com

Dutchman’s Seafood House – Norwegian roots, plus owning and operating their own dock provides the backdrop for this family run establishment, www.DutchmansSeafoodHouse.com

The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar – serving produce and vegetables direct from their chef’s family farm gives a clue to their food commitment, www.GalleyMorroBay.com

Windows on the Water – award winning dining and an extensive wine list…its tagline, “fine California cuisine on the water,” is apt. www.WindowsMB.com

Pappagallo II – for something special, check the event calendar for Morro Bay’s luxury cruise yacht and enjoy the hospitality of Chef and author (Chasing the Heat) Len Gentieu and his wife, Midge. www.OnboardNauticalEvents.com

Overlooking Morro Bay and Rock, the Blue Sail Inn is TripAdvisor four-star rated and perfectly located two blocks from the Embarcadero. They feature free parking, wi-fi, continental breakfast, and in-room microwave. www.BlueSailInn.com

www.MorroBay.org

www.Highway1DiscoveryRoute.com

www.MorroBayMaritime.org

Thanks to Jerry Praver for his interview time and for providing a copy of his well documented manuscript, The Sinking of the Montebello. Also to the Historical Society of Morro Bay for Images of Morro Bay written by Roger Castle and Gary Ream (Arcadia Publishing). Kudos to SGM Daniel Sebby, State Military Museums Curator, for his insights and personal tour of Camp San Luis. Finally, thanks to various websites, etc., for information and photos.