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.

 

For all those in the know, Santa Barbara is one of Southern California’s most beloved beach cities. This city lives up to its reputation for great wine and food, beach bliss and the love of films. Now in its 33 year the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) shines on with great spirit rising above recent fire tragedy, as crowds turned out to welcome film lovers from around the world. I moved here for the destination and my passion for films adding this year as my 13th SBIFF.

SBIFF’s Executive Director, Roger Durling has a vision, which continues to emerge year after year as he encourages film buffs to mix and mingle and make new friends.

With red carpet in place and cameras flashing at the historic Arlington Theatre, the 33rd SBIFF got under way with a new film opener by Emilio Estevez as writer, director and actor called “The Public,” centering on a group of homeless people in the dead of winter, who take refuge from the cold in the Cincinnati public library. Cast members Alec Baldwin and Jenna Malone and others took center stage with Emilio Estevez, even his dad Martin Sheen stopped in.

The annual tributes included a spectacular evening honoring Gary Oldman, the Maltin Modern Master Award, for his accomplishments in cinema reflecting on his outstanding performance in “The Darkest Hour” as Winston Churchill.

Oldman has had an extraordinary career; however, this performance with his incredible make up stands on its own. Another tribute went to Willem Dafoe, an actor with his career playing distinctive characters, he garnered the Cinema Vanguard Award.

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan was well deserving of the Santa Barbara Award, while making another milestone film this year with a realistic performance in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”, she is not a stranger to the SBIFF arriving at cinematic achievement in past years with awards as Outstanding Performance of the year (“Brooklyn”) and a recognized Virtuoso. SBIFF welcomed actor Sam Rockwell with the American Rivera Award; he was a strong force in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which has received strong accolades this Oscar season. Rockwell, a versatile actor, has 99 films to his credit.

Even if it’s just ten days out of the year, it’s worth the visit during the SBIFF for an opportunity to view over 200 films in endless genres including: crime, food and wine, documentaries, features from many countries, nature reels, shorts, student films and talks with filmmakers. Going to the movies just got better at the SBIFF, because everyone talks about the films and meeting new people. The locals are foodies, so Screen Cuisine is popular, I was moved by the French wine film “Back to Burgundy,” focusing on a wine growing family by Director Cedric Klapisch. I couldn’t help thinking about wonderful wines in Beaune while looking down on vineyards from an air balloon and scouting Dijon for wine and mustard.

Outstanding Performers of the Year honorees were the duo Margot Robbie and Allison Janney in a show stopping performance as daughter and mother in “I Tonya.” This high-strung relationship in the story of figure skater Tonya Harding and her involvement in an attack on her competitor, based on the true story. Janney has achieved numerous awards for this role. Margo Robbie’s company produced the film. Janney, who is best known for her award-winning role on West Wing, shared that while growing up she longed to be a figure skater. As always SBIFF tributed guests go on to win Oscars for their work.

Taking a break from a full day of films, more than once, I head to the waterfront for lunch in The Funk Zone by the pier. Here is a wine lover’s paradise with some of the best wineries along the Central Coast and friendly tasting rooms open with multifaceted wines to savor. It’s a welcoming spot for friends, locals and tourists to hang out. I especially favor the Santa Barbara Winery and their award winning Chardonnay. It’s walkable here to the wineries, restaurants, art galleries located in converted warehouses and buildings decorated with graffiti.

If you are longing for the taste of fresh fish, you are in the right place near Santa Barbara’s waterfront. Stop by The Fishouse for an unforgettable lunch or dinner. Must try the macadamia nut sea bass and freshly cooked clam chowder.

More fish cross over to Stearns Wharf and head to Moby Dick overlooking the water or a short jaunt to the Harbor for one of my all-time favorites Brophy Bros.

Brophy Brothers Seafood & Clam Restaurant dine in or outside and try the crab cakes, seafood pasta and the mahi mahi.

Much revered is the historic landmark and pillar of the community Mission Santa Barbara. It’s what brought me here to Santa Barbara, founded the same day as my birthday with my name in the title, it was fortuitous that my home is located on the street leading to the mission. Known as the Queen of the Missions, there are 21 California Missions, I had visited here time and time again before moving here. The Mission remains an active Franciscan parish with its beautiful rose gardens and year round activities locals and visitors are drawn here for art, music and fiesta dances. A yearly favorite is the Madonnari paintings in pastel of masterpieces below the church steps.

As the SBIFF ended, it reflected city pride with Santa Barbara filmmakers showcasing local documentaries: behind the scenes of events meaningful to Santa Barbara. It tapped into the summer Solstice Parade, the unforgettable Cascarones creators for Fiesta (confetti filled decorated eggshells); the trials and tribulations of a local businessman and restaurant owner of the East Beach Grill and a young Oxnard Channel swimmer. Two things are certain: Santa Barbara is a perfect destination with lots of things to do, fun at the waterfront, shopping at Paseo Nuevo, great museums and theatre and outdoor activities galore and the SBIFF is a great film festival with new films, top celebrities, gala opening party and plenty of movie talk. The California sun shines on Santa Barbara everyday during SBIFF.

Find out more information: http://sbiff.org  – check here for the festival films and winners, Visit Santa Barbara http://santabarbaraca.com.

 

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Mid-winter my husband and I try to use at least one weekend to travel down south. Since in California both winter and south are relative terms, our trip to Monterey Peninsula takes less than two hours in a car, and mostly coincides with the annual Big Sur Foragers Festival benefiting the Big Sur Health Center.

We are usually staying at our favorite place – Hofsas House Hotel in the fairy-tale town of Carmel-by-the-Sea (this year in a beautifully renovated room with lots of sunlight, luxuriously comfy bed, and pristine spacious bathroom). Every time arriving here, we first of all rush to the ocean, visible from the hotel balconies and terraces, to catch one of those legendary Pacific sunsets and a few distant fountains exhaled by the migrating gray whales, and every time we discover yet another park, beach, or trail, new to us and never seen before. Or maybe those amazing vistas just look different every time, so the sensation of discovery is always present in our adventures in the area.

This time it was Garrapata State Park that greeted us with grassy rolling hills, and sweeping views of the roaring waves under strong whistling wind, scented with seaweed.

When, wrapped in two jackets – my own and my husband’s – and in a scarf around my cap that was trying to fly away I finally got enough ocean air and sunset photos, we returned to town, where a pleasant surprise was awaiting right on Ocean Avenue, the main drag of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

At the new Mediterranean cuisine restaurant, Artemis, with a comprehensive list of rare Turkish wines and a menu filled with exotic delicacies, we were greeted by Oğuzhan Demir (or simply Ozzy) the owner’s son who looked like a movie star manning the bar under the multicolored glass lanterns amid Turkish rugs.

Our server, well versed in the viticulture of Turkey, and with the knowledge of the language, recommended delightful Sevilen wines and traditional dishes – Eggplant Meze, Walnut Ezme, and The King’s Plate, Hünkâr Beğendi made of sautéed lamb in a special sauce over pureed eggplant.

Full to the gills, we also had a dessert, recommended by Ozzy and called Künefe, made of two layers of shredded filo dough stuffed with sweet cheese, baked to golden, and sautéed in syrup, then topped with crushed pistachios and served with ice cream.

My husband’s perfect cup of Turkish coffee filled the dining room with subtle aroma while I was trying to abstain and not to disrupt my night sleep in anticipation of a big day ahead.

This year, the Big Sur Foragers Festival’s main culinary event – the sixth annual Fungus Face Off competition – returned to its feature venue, Ventana Big Sur Ocean Meadow Lawn up on a hill, with spectacular views of the ocean shimmering under the bright sun. What a difference a day makes in California weather!

Clad in sun dresses, tank tops and shorts, festival guests were sampling an array of exciting dishes prepared by the best area chefs and paired with locally produced wines and beer, with the proceeds from all of the events going to support the Big Sur Health Center whose continued presence assures local healthcare services in the Big Sur.

To be fair, and to acknowledge every participant of the Fungus Face Off, simply because everything put up to the public judgement was extraordinarily good, let me list all the chefs/restaurants that showed their mastery with the most exquisite mushroom dishes.

Those were: Roy’s, Carmel Valley Ranch, The Sur House at Ventana Big Sur, Alvarado Street Brewery, A Taste of Elegance, aligned with the local wineries and breweries: Mesa del Sol, Morgan Winery, Bernardus Winery, Comanche Cellars, Mad Otter Ale, Boony Doon Vineyards, Blair Wines, Baker and Brain, Paul Lato Wines, Fillipponi Winery, Alvarado Street Brewery (who also did a chef’s presentation), Fly Wheel Wine, and Chappellet Vineyards.

Other participants included the Marketplace vendors and tastings from Carmel Honey Company, Quail and Olive amazing original oils and vinegars, and Percy Pies.

Later that night, we had a plateful of flash-fried Monterey calamari and some panko-crusted sand dabs at the picturesque, over-the-water time-honored dining establishment – the Beach House restaurant and bar at Lovers Point.

Happy to make it back to the Hofsas House in time for sunset, we were clicking away with our cameras, joined by a few groups of international guests of the beloved hotel.

For those who plan to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea this year, Hofsas House offers several lucrative special packages:

Get Artsy Package includes a stay in the Room 47 — painted by Diego Rivera’s student, Maxine Albro, who also created the famous hotel’s Bavarian-themed mural. Mention the Hofsas House “Get Artsy” package with the code “HHArt” and receive a gourmet cheese tray and bottle of wine upon arrival. Hofsas House can help arrange a tour of Carmel’s art galleries and artists’ studios with Carmel Art Tours. Discover secret passageways and visit hand-picked galleries with an opportunity for a chance encounter with an artist at work in a Carmel studio. Cost is $25 per person, reservations are required, and participants meet for the tour at Carmel Visitors Center. Info at www.carmelarttours.com, or 800-979-3370.

Wine and Chocolate Package allows to upgrade your stay with a four pack of handcrafted artisanal sea salt caramels from Monterey’s Lula’s Chocolates and a bottle of award-winning Monterey County wine. Monterey County produces 42 different varietals of high-quality award-winning wines, especially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. For this special package choose either a Monterey County Chardonnay or Pinot Noir from a personally selected list of wines.

Lula’s Chocolates, founded by Scott Lund, are made the old-fashioned way, using recipes passed down from Scott’s grandmother, Lula herself. Each small batch is hand-dipped and deliciously fresh. Cost for this wine-and-chocolate package is $25. Use the code HHChoc when booking.

Tail-Wagging Package includes a complimentary “Doggie Welcome Package” upon arrival with Hofsas House dog Frisbee, Hofsas House collapsible dog bowl, special dog bed, a letter from Tank, the onsite Pet Concierge, special dog amenities package, tips and recommendations for your four-legged friend’s stay, walking trail and hiking guide, a package of treats, and Coastal Canine Magazine offering the best four-legged options for visiting Carmel. This package requires a minimum two-night stay, $30 fee per night for one dog and $50 per night for two dogs.

Relax at Cinq Mondes Spa Carmel is the French cosmetic company’s first and only Cinq Mondes spa in the United States and serves as the company’s flagship location in the U.S. at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Carmel. Hofsas House is partnering with Cinq Mondes to offer guests a spa package that includes a 60-minute massage or facial. Cinq Mondes’ signature facial is the anti-aging “Ko-Bi-Do” with unique use of Dermapuncture, or “acupuncture without needles.” Its signature massage is the Moroccan massage. $120 per massage or facials. All Hofsas House guests will get a special gift from Cinq Monde. This special package must be booked at least 72 hours in advance and is subject to availability.

More information at: www.hofsashouse.com, www.carmelcalifornia.com, www.artemiscarmel.com, www.bigsurhealthcenter.org.

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.

 

 

 

After WOW inaugurated its service from Baltimore-Washington, my wife Fern and I quickly booked our flights at great rates. After staying five nights in Brussels and two nights in Bruges, we had experienced great activities and viewed the top sights.

Brussels is the undisputed crossroads of Belgium, if not all of Europe. Our side trip to Bruges, in northwest Belgium, allowed us time to fully explore the medieval center, now a UNESCO world heritage site.  The canals surround the protected historic city in the shape of an egg.

Ten Wow sights not to miss in Brussels:

  • The landmark Atomium (www.atomium.be): This unmistakable symbol of Brussels, an enlarged model of an iron molecule 102 meters high, can be seen all over the city. A thirty minute metro ride from central Brussels to Heysel took us to this shining silver reminder from the 1958 World’s Fair Expo. Walking through tubes and spheres, we saw the permanent exhibition about the building of the Atomium and the history of the expo, a temporary art exhibit on surrealism and spectacular panoramic views of the city skyline from the top level. Ironically this structure was not intended to survive beyond the Expo, but did due to its popularity and success.
  • The European Parliament: We spent most of one day touring the three buildings open to the public without charge. At the Parlimentarium (www.europarl.europa.eu/parlimentarium), we learned a wealth of information about the formation of the European Union from World War 2 to date, as well as its governmental structures. We sat in the Hemicycle where the EU parliament meets and listed to a short audio guide which explained how sessions are translated into 24 languages for the representatives. We also enjoyed the newly opened House of Europe, essentially a historical museum of the European continent.
  • A trip to the world of Chocolate: We indulged in a little self-education at some of the many local chocolate shops. Near the Grand Place, the outstanding chocolate shop Planete Chocolat (www.planetechocolat.com) provides an exceptional one hour demonstration which included samples of hot chocolate and tastings of different Belgian chocolates. Inside the workshop, the chocolate master told us the detailed history behind chocolate in Belgium. He showed us the various stages in making pralines and other tasty delicacies.
  • The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium: Three separate art museums are interconnected by an impressive inner courtyard. The old masters museum narrates art history from the 15th to the 18th century, featuring its Pieter Bruegel collection. The modern art museum burrows underground for eight floors, displaying a strong collection of Belgian art of the past 100 years. Our favorite was the Magritte museum which presents the largest collection of works by the renowned Belgian surrealist along with quirky works of other surrealists, including paintings, sculptures, posters, photographs and films.
  • Comic culture: Brussels, the home of the comic strip, contains more than twenty wall murals featuring well-known comic characters. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center, we particularly enjoyed learning about comics that were birthed in Belgium, such as the Smurfs. The Center is contained within a beautiful building preserving Victor Horta’s art nouveau architecture.
  • The Museum of Musical Instruments: Contained within three adjacent buildings, this museum hosts a rich and diverse collection of over 1500 instruments, such as giraffe pianos. On the top level, the café presents one of the most breathtaking panoramic views over central Brussels.
  • The Cathedral St. Michel et St. Gudule: The church’s twin gothic towers look down over central Brussels. Inside we viewed outstanding stained glass windows. This large church is the site of royal weddings and christenings. St. Michel is the patron saint of Brussels.
  • The BELvue Museum: Housed in an historic hotel built in 1776, this museum provides a thematic approach to discover Belgium, as its salons feature themes – democracy, prosperity, solidarity, pluralism, migration, language and Europe. Containing over 200 objects, photos, documents and short films, BELvue charts Belgian history from its independence in 1831 to modern day.
  • Coundenberg Palace: Walking beneath the paving stones of the Royal Palace, we went underground through the remains of what was one of the main residences of Charles V. This massive palace was first constructed in the 11th century, then destroyed by a great fire in 1731 and never reconstructed. The site shows archaeological discoveries made during excavations of the past 25 years and allows visitors to view the ruins of former palace rooms.
  • The iconic Mannekin Pis: Twice we walked by the small statute of the peeing boy that has become an emblem of Brussels. Once he was naked and once he was dressed in one of the over 500 costumes used for ceremonial occasions. On this day, he was dressed in a postal carrier uniform. Nearby the equal opportunity female version statute – Jeanneke Pis – sits behind a cage outside of a restaurant where she collects coins for charity.Five Wow sights not to miss in Bruges:
    • The free harp concert: The daily concerts by Luc Vanlaerne (www.harpmuziek.be) have become a top cultural attraction. In the performance, he features instruments of the harp family and plays his own compositions. The forty minute sessions (pay by donation) take place in his studio close to Holy Mary Church.
    • The Legends of Bruges free (pay by tips) walking tour: For almost three hours, we were thoroughly entertained by a local guide, starting out in Market (Markt) Square and ending in Burg Square. As we walked by the romantic Minnewater (the picturesque lake of love which was created as a reservoir in the 13th century), our guide told us the legend of why swans must be kept in Bruges’ canals forever. As he led us through the 13th century Beguinage, a pretty and serene cluster of small white washed houses, he revealed how these nuns had devoted themselves to charitable work and health care.  Our guide even pointed out the house where Jewish orphans were hidden during World War 2.
    • The Lace Center (Kantcentrum): A short walk from the city’s two main squares, down winding cobbled winding streets, we made our way to this working museum. On the first floor, the exhibits explain the intricate art of this ancient Belgian craft through a series of displays and short films. On the second level, local women demonstrate lace making and interact with visitors, discussing their creations.
    • The Basilica of the Holy Blood: In Burg Square, the 12th century basilica is flanked by striking historic civil buildings. The basilica contains one of Europe’s most precious relics, a vial though to contain a few drops of the blood of Jesus Christ. The vial was brought to Bruges in 1149 when Derick of Alscae returned from Jerusalem.
    • The Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk): This church contains one of the few Michelangelo sculptures outside of Italy, the world famous Madonna and Child. This small sculpture ended up in Belgium when the original client refused to pay and a merchant from Bruges bought it instead. Later stolen by Napoleon and Nazi leaders, the sculpture was recovered and returned to Belgium by American GIs after World War 2. 
    • Ten Wow tips for Belgium:
      1. Frequent inexpensively priced trains: Belgian trains are prompt and clean. They make for easy travel within Belgium. From Brussels airport to Brussels central station, trains run three times per hour and take less than ½ hour. From Brussels central station to Bruges, trains run three times per hour and the trip takes one hour.
      2. Best guide books: Foder’s Belgium and Lonely Planet’s Belgium/Luxembourg.
      3. The Brussels card: This pass includes free access to 39 museums and discounts to many tourist attractions. We purchased the three day version, but one and two day cards are available. By upgrading to the pass with unlimited public transportation, we easily mastered the seven line metro subway system. The card with transit includes buses, trams and the metro.
      4. The Bruges museum pass: This card (www.museabrugge.be) includes admission to 14 museums and attractions over a three day period. We toured six. We climbed 366 winding steps to the top of the 13th century Belfry (Belfort) Tower where we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of Bruges, the gorgeous surrounding countryside and the North Sea.  We also toured Sint Janshospital, one of the oldest preserved hospital buildings in Europe, which contains the masterpieces of the most famous Flemish primitive artist, Bruges native Hans Memling; the still active 14th century city hall (Stadhuis) a jewel of gothic architecture that features murals presenting a romantic history of Bruges; the Groeninge museum which contains a world famous collection of Flemish primitive paintings and the former law courts (Brugse Vrije) which feature a monumental wood, marble and alabaster fireplace within a court room.
      5. Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour: Starting our trip with this “free” (pay by tips) three hour tour was a great orientation to Belgium. Starting in the ornate Grand Place, one of Europe’s most strikingly beautiful squares, we walked through the Park de Brussels, by the former stock exchange and ended at the Royal Palace and Gardens. The tour was very informative.
      6. Hilton Grand Place: In Brussels, this hotel is superbly located directly across from Central Station and is walkable from most attractions. Additionally, we really enjoyed the lavish breakfast buffet, the gracious service and helpful directions for walking or taking the metro. By European standards, the rooms were quite large and comfortable. The fitness center was more than expected.
      7. The Jewish Museum of Belgium: Recently reopened, this Brussels museum features an exhibition with little link to Jewish history. Indeed the museum no longer contains its collection of Jewish life in Belgium. Similarly, the Grand Synagogue of Europe nearby is no longer open to the public, although we did walk by the massive Romanesque building which features a Jewish star and the Ten Commandments on its front side.
      8. The Palace de Justice in Brussels: One of the world’s largest legal buildings, the law courts are under reconstruction and only several floors can be visited. We did get a peek at a trail in session, the old fashioned black robes worn by the judge’s assistants, the enormous entry hall and a gallery of the heads of famous Belgian lawyers – all men.
      9. Green spaces: In central Brussels, directly across from the Royal Palace, the Park de Brussels provides a small bit of park land. We walked by the Botanic Gardens in Brussels which showcased carefully manicured plants, trees and symmetrical gardens. Way out by the Atomium, the Park de Laeken provided enough park land for Brussels joggers, walkers and bicyclists to get in their workouts. In central Bruges, Minnewater is the most scenic green space.
      10. Tourists everywhere: Both in Brussels and Bruges, we were surprised by the vast number of tourists walking by. Although this did not diminish our enjoyment of Belgium, we did keep a close eye on the crowds and our belongings.
    • For Fern and I, our WOW trip to Belgium was one of our most informative, diverse and enjoyable trips abroad. The local residents were friendly.  We ran out of time before we ran out of activities to do in Brussels and in Bruges.

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When one thinks of Denver Colorado, often the first thing that comes to mind is The Mile-High City because its elevation is exactly one mile (5,280 feet) above sea level, making it the highest major city in the United States. Because it is only about 12 miles east of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Denver is an outdoor city with 85 miles of paved bicycle trails and 800 red bikes at 87 stations (bike share program). One can ski and snowboard in the winter and hike, climb and camp out in the summer. That proximity and the many days of sunny weather, with an average year-round temperature of 64 degrees, led to the city being named in 2016 as the best place to live in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. The metro area population has approximately 2.9 million people. Since the 2010 census there has been an almost 16% increase in population with very little unemployment. I saw construction cranes everywhere and was told that one large builder offers scholarships at a local college for students completing a course dealing with building construction. They could not find enough qualified workers for their open jobs. Businesses headquartered there include: Molson Coors Brewing Company, Newmont Mining Corporation (second-largest gold producer in North America) and MapQuest. Other large employers include: Lockheed Martin Corp., United Airlines and Kroger Company. I was told that Smashburger, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Quiznos were founded in Denver. Did I mention the 35 breweries on the Denver Beer Trail with over 100 different brewpubs and breweries in the metro area? www.visitdenver.com.

I was the guest of Visit Denver for my four-day visit that included airfare from NYC and the availability of Hermes Worldwide limo service while in town. Airport to hotel; hotel to downtown for my walking tour and then back to the hotel. Downtown for a free day of touring and to my new hotel The Brown Palace. Finally, back to the airport and home. Founded in 2007 by Jorge Sanchez and his wife Rocio, Hermes Worldwide has 30 vehicles and the best and most professional staff I have ever encountered. A big shout out to them for making my trip so enjoyable. www.hermesworldwide.com.

I was in town for the Denver International Wine Festival run by Chris & Darcy Davies and their company Wine Country Network (I write for their magazine). Named “One of the Best Wine and Food Festivals in America” by Food & Wine Magazine. www.denverwinefest.com, www.winecountrynetwork.com.

I was a guest of the Denver Marriott Westminster Hotel that was the site for the 13th annual wine festival. Located a half hour from the airport and equidistant from downtown Denver, Boulder and Golden, it has 215 rooms with a fitness center and indoor pool. I found it very convenient to ride down the elevator and into the wine festival. www.denvermarriottwestminster.com.

Thursday night was the Pairsine Chefs Fine Food & Wine Competition with 10 chefs/restaurants in addition to vendors for non-wine products. The silent auction items benefited There With Care. There was a VIP early admission area that included wine seminars and a private room with a raw seafood bar and premium cocktails and additional wines available. VIP admission- $195; regular admission- $120.

Friday night was the Grand Tasting of International Wines that had 80 wineries and distillers with food and food products as well as wine accessories and another silent auction- VIP- $175; regular- $95.

The following is an overview from both of my walking tours (the second one occurred when I moved to the Brown Palace Hotel located downtown). In addition, the nice drivers from Hermes pointed out many of the sites before dropping me off. I did not visit any museums or any of the sports venues.

Visit Denver arranged a walking tour of downtown Denver that started at Union Station. My guide was Austin and he knew his stuff. Union Station is a working transit station that was built in 1917 and was renovated starting in 2002. There is an Amtrak hub and bus concourse. The neighborhood is called LoDo (Lower Downtown and it is within walking distance of the financial center). Behind the station there is a light rail system that one can ride to the airport for a cost of $9. The station reminds me of NYC’s Grand Central Station with its dining options and boutiques. I only wished New Yorkers had a train to the plane. In addition, there is a hotel- The Crawford within the station (I hope the rooms are soundproof- they are). I relaxed on the benches and people watched. Everything was so clean for a working terminal. www.unionstationindenver.com.

Larimer Square is home to many restaurants, shops and nightlife venues. Located between 14th and 15th streets on Larimer I did not stop at any of its stores but did notice several street performers. www.larimersquare.com

The 16th Street Mall is to Denver what Rodeo Drive is to Los Angeles. This mile-long pedestrian thoroughfare, which stretches across the southern end of the LoDo district and bypasses Larimer Square, is lined with a variety of stores, restaurants and entertainment venues, making it a popular place to visit. My only problem was the homeless population who often sit along the mall and/or in the parks. I never felt threatened especially with the large police presence. I am told outdoor smoking is now banned along the mall. www.16thstreetmalldenver.com.

Denver Pavilions- On the 16th St Mall- 40 stores and restaurants- retail/entertainment center. http://www.denverpavilions.com/

If you’re not up for walking, hop aboard the free 16th Street Mall Ride shuttle bus, which passes by every few minutes and stops at every street corner. After sundown, skip the bus and opt for a horse-and-carriage ride instead. http://www.rtd-denver.com/FREEMallRide.shtml

Rockmount Ranch Wear is a three-generation business started by Jack A. Weil (1901-2008) who worked until age 107 and was the oldest working CEO in the US. He introduced the first western shirts with snaps and also made the first commercially produced bolo ties. www.rockmount.com

Tattered Cover Book Store is a large indie bookstore and cafe furnished with comfortable sofas and overstuffed chairs. I rested on one of those chairs while sipping tea. They sell new and used books. www.tatteredcover.com

Named for Denver’s famed beer, Coors Field in Denver’s LoDo district is home to Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies. The stadium occupies over 75 acres and has a capacity of more than 50,000. I was told that attendees could sample some of Denver’s local brews on the Rooftop, a 38,000-square-foot platform with fantastic views of the field and downtown Denver. http://www.rockies.com/

Sports Authority Field (company is bankrupt so I guess they will need a new name) at Mile High (known to Denverites as just “Mile High Stadium”) is home to the NFL Denver Broncos’. It can seat more than 76,000 fans and it boasts something you don’t normally associate with football games- public art displays. http://www.sportsauthorityfieldatmilehigh.com/

Pepsi Center is home to the Denver Nuggets (Basketball), Colorado Avalanche (hockey), Colorado Mammoth (lacrosse) & over 200 events. Seating capacity is almost 20,000. http://www.pepsicenter.com/

The Colorado State Capitol Building is the home of the Colorado General Assembly and the offices of the Governor of Colorado. It was constructed in the 1890s from Colorado white granite. The distinctive gold dome consists of real gold leaf added in 1908. The building sits slightly higher than the rest of downtown Denver. The official elevation of Denver is measured outside the west entrance to the building, where the thirteenth step is engraved with the words “One Mile Above Sea Level.” https://www.colorado.gov/

The River North Art District “where art is made” goes by the nickname of “RiNo” and has even adopted a rhino design for its official logo. https://rinoartdistrict.org/

Lunch was at the Central market- www.denvercentralmarket.com

Denver’s gourmet food hall and grocery, located in RiNo. Showcasing 11 of Denver’s top chefs and food purveyors. I choose Vero- with hand-made pasta and wood-fired pizza.

After lunch I walked down Larimer Street to Our Mutual Friend Brewery. They were not open but a knock at the door and voila I was able to spend ½ hour talking to the brew master. It opened in 2012 with the goal of creating a place for community through their small neighborhood taproom. http://www.omfbeer.com/

A few blocks away were The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery. Here I only had to wait a few minutes for them to open for the day. I tried portable, single-serve canned wine that was available in white, red, rose, Moscato, Dry Hopped Pear Cider and Dry Hopped Sauvignon Blanc. http://www.theinfinitemonkeytheorem.com/

Briefly stopped into The Source, which is a European-style artisan food market in RiNo. Housed in a 1880s ironworks building, it has a bakery, coffee roaster, taqueria, brewery, butcher, produce vendor, bottle shop, bank, wood-fired restaurant, florist, cocktail bar, cheese shop, and design store. www.thesourcedenver.com

Shipping Container Project at 25th and Larimer in RiNo is a mixed-use complex comprised of 8,200 sq. ft. of mixed retail and office space, built using 29 reclaimed shipping containers. www.streetshope.org/container-project

Five Points is on the northeast side of Downtown Denver’s central business district. It has been called the Harlem of the West. I loved the small mainly single family, well kept homes but wondered if development was down the road. I noted many homeowners walking to work. https://www.denver.org/about-denver/neighborhood-guides/five-points//

The Big Blue Bear looking into the Convention Center- The 40-foot-high bear is the creation of local artist Lawrence Argent. It was installed in 2005 and has quickly become a bona fide Mile High City icon. www.denverconvention.com

Denver Performing Arts Complex- 10 performance spaces (4 block area)- second largest performing arts complex under one roof. https://www.denvercenter.org/

Street Art- Many of the works were business or community commissioned, while others were unsanctioned paintings or graffiti — all are in the open air for anyone to view and enjoy. They are often found in alleyways, under bridges or in abandoned lots.

Chris Davies drove me from the Marriott to my overnight stay at the legendary Brown Palace Hotel. On the way we had breakfast at Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen. There was a 15-minute wait just to place your order but it was worth the wait. And that is from a New Yorker who loves the Second Ave. Deli, Katz’s and Zabar’s. Owner Joshua Pollack had great bagels, smoked fish, salads and pastries. www.rosenbergsbagels.com

The 241-room Brown Palace Hotel (AAA Four Diamond) and Spa was built in 1892 in the Italian Renaissance style using sandstone and red granite. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the second-longest operating hotel in Denver and one of the first atrium-style hotels ever built. It joined Marriott’s Autograph Collection Hotels in 2012. It was named for its original owner, Henry C. Brown, who donated 10 acres for the new capitol building. The hotel was built on a triangular piece of land with an iron and steel frame covered with cement and sandstone and was one of America’s first fireproof structures. There are six tiers of cast iron balconies to the stained glass skylight. The spa opened in 2005. The silver drinking fountain in the lobby is from the hotels artesian well located 750 feet beneath the hotel. An escalator to the second floor was added in 1959 to cross over Tremont Street to the now named Holiday Inn Express (22 story- 231 rooms). The spa is located on the fifth floor of this property. There are free-guided tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 3PM for overnight guests. The honey from rooftop bee colony is used in the spa products sold in the hotel. Afternoon tea is a highlight as is Ellyngton’s Sunday Champagne brunch (which I attended). Costs start at $53.95. Children 6-12 cost $20.95 and those under 5 are free. Add $10 if you want Domaine Chandon California sparkling wine; $73.95 for Moet & Chandon. Dom Perignon is $315 a bottle.

I met with Udit Dang the Director of Food & Beverage; Christopher Rogers the manager of Ellynton’s and Christopher J. Messler the Palace Arms manager & sommelier for a tour of the beverage facilities. There are 800 plus wines on the list with over 6,000 bottles in storage. The best selling high-end wines include: 1985 Petrus and 1982 Cos d’Estournel. For the wine by the glass program Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Rombauer Chardonnay and Prisoner Zinfandel do exceptionally well. The Palace Arms is open for dinner and Churchill’s Bar serves as a cigar Lounge (grandfathered in before the no smoking rules took effect). Ship Tavern opened in 1934 and serves lunch & dinner. Ellyngton’s was a 1940’s jazz club purported named after Duke Ellington. I assume there are legal reasons why the name of the restaurant is spelled differently. It is open for breakfast & lunch. The hotel also holds six wine dinners a year for 20-30 people with winemaker/owners speaking. www.brownpalace.com

Chris & Darcy Davies took me out for dinner on my last night driving about ½ hour from my downtown hotel to the area around Red Rocks Park. It is a mountain park in Jefferson County, Colorado owned and maintained by the city of Denver as part of the Denver Mountain Parks system. The park is known for its very large red sandstone outcrops. Within the park boundaries is the Red Rocks Amphitheater, a world-famous venue that added seats in 1941 and hosts many concerts and other events. www.theredrocksamphitheater.com

We ate dinner at The Fort Restaurant- The Fort is a western restaurant located just southwest of Denver. It sells sells more buffalo steaks than any other independently owned restaurant in the country. Featuring fine beef, buffalo, game and seafood, The Fort’s menu offers a tantalizing selection of old and new foods from the Early West. The place was packed but management kept a table for us. http://thefort.com

My four days in Denver were eye opening. I love NYC and where I live on the Upper West Side. If I ever did decide to move Denver would be my first choice.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Traveling to Ashland, Oregon, is enticing and rewarding all year round. For a relatively small urban area (population below 22,000) it has an enormous amount of festive public events to enjoy, excellent wineries, breweries, and restaurants, and – tax free shopping to cherry-top your cake! In winter, there’s Festival of Light, Victorian Christmas Celebration, Rogue Winter Fest, and Festival of Trees. In spring, Ashland Independent Film Festival, Pear Blossom Festival, Oregon Cheese Festival, and Oregon Chocolate Festival. In summer, 4th of July Celebrations, Medford Beer Week, Britt Music and Art Festival, and Oregon Wine Experience. Finally, in the fall, there’s Ashland Culinary Festival, Southern Oregon Music Festival, and Harvest Festival. Not to mention the most famous of them all, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1935, that goes on every year from early spring to late fall, and produces eleven plays on three stages every season.

The culinary festival became a reason forme and my husband to drive up north from our California home at the very beginning of November, when San Francisco’s East Bay inland temperatures refused to go down, and the sweltering summery heat infused with post-fires’ residual smoke was becoming a nuisance.

We were hoping for the healing powers of Ashland that manifest themselves not only in the mineral springs that bubble to the surface from the Earth’s crust, but also in the serenity of the surrounding nature and in the unhurried balanced lifestyle of its residents.

Passing the snow-capped Mount Shasta on our way, we were pulling out our winter coats faced with the freshness of Oregon air; reminded once again of the Russian origins of the word Shasta (which means “happiness”).

A short drive and walk around the city yielded plenty of poetic views of leafy trees changing color, Ashland Creek running among the old grows of Lithia Park, and even a couple of deer grazing peacefully in someone’s front yard one block off the main drag.

We were taken by the quiet beauty of red, orange, and yellow leaves shining line precious jewels against the cloudy sky. I was thinking of how important it was to see this tempest of colors, to feel the autumnal air, to walk in silence, and – to sip from a public drinking fountain some Lithia water, so called because of natural lithium oxide deposits that presumably produce a healing tonic effect…

 

Upon checking in at the Lithia Springs Resort, we were greeted by the friendly staff, and immediately invited to the afternoon tea that is taking place daily in the beautifully decorated Tea Room, Library and lobby with a fireplace, designed by the owner/creative director, Becky Neuman.

High-quality tea, home-made scones with lemon curd and jam, and fresh berries were surely rejuvenating after a long drive, and made us feel welcome, however, the best was yet to come.

What a wonderful surprise was awaiting in our Hillside King Suite, overlooking a wooded hill in fall colors, and with a large tub to enjoy a hot mineral bath right in our bedroom!

A two-sided fireplace, open to the bedroom and to the spacious living room, a cozy kitchenette with a breakfast nook, and a plush sofa with a coffee table and armchairs – the suite was luxurious, and oh so welcoming!

It seemed there was no necessity to go outside, if it weren’t for the 11th Annual Ashland Culinary Festival Kickoff Event that was happening at the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites and included Celebrity Quick-Fire Cooking Challenge, the 2nd annual Mixology competition where local bartenders competed for the title of Top Mixologist, wine tastings by the Bear Creek Wine Trail, and small bites from the best Ashland restaurants.

The Cooking Challenge Teams were studded with celebrities: Judge and Emcee Cory Schreiber & Rolar Yondorf, a former Festival Judge, from Porters Restaurant; Judge Fabiola Donnelly & Chef Kate Cyr, the Festival Committee Member, from the Neuman Hotel Group; Judge John Ash & Dennis Slattery, a former Festival Emcee, Ashland City Councilor and SOU Professor; Top Chef 2007 & 2008, Neil Clooney of Smithfields & Trish Glose from KTVL Channel 10.

Bartenders from eight distinctive restaurants took part in the 2017 Mixology Competition: Arturo Almazan – Smithfields Pub & Pies; Freddie Herrera – Hearsay Restaurant, Lounge and Garden; .Jess Jeffery – Alchemy Restaurant & Bar; Ross Jones – Larks Restaurant; Sondra Mayer – Brickroom; Blake Satre – Ostras Tapas and Bottle Shop; Saphire Stevens – Oberon’s Restaurant and Bar, and Greg Waites – Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant.

The next day, hands-on culinary workshops were held at different locations, spreading throughout the city, and the 2017 Junior Chef Competition showcased Junior Chef Teams of Ashland High School – China Larsen & Quinn Vogel; North Medford High School – Coy Wimberly & Dezmond Barros; South Medford High School – Chase Tonini & Kyle Smith; Grants Pass High School – Kassidy Kipert & Cecil Dowdy.

Junior Chef Competition was followed by a daily festival program, Sip, Sample, and Taste with a long list of vendors, and Chefs Competition of 12 local chefs competing while using ingredients from local farms and artisans. This competition went on for two days, and involved the following chefs and restaurants: Josh Dorcak – MÄS; Brent Herud – Larks Restaurant; Melissa McMillan – Sammich; William Shine – Hearsay Restaurant; Shawn Alamo – The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant; Javier Cruz – Simple Café; Skye Elder – Brickroom; Alfredo Nava – Omar’s Fresh Seafood and Steaks; Stefano Cipollone – Standing Stone Brewing Co.; James “Cyrus” Gray – Southern Oregon University (The Hawk Dining); Tony Efstratiadis – Plancha; and Jackson Kelsay – Amuse Restaurant.

We were pleased to check out Luna Café & Mercantile, located right there, where the Festival headquarters were, in the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites – very modern, with astronomy-themed decor. By using products grown and raised in Oregon, namely in the Rogue and Applegate valleys, the restaurant supports local farmers and artisans, and serves the freshest, healthiest food as well as local wines and cheeses, specialty coffee and handmade chocolate treats.

Free range rotisserie chicken with herb relish, and burgers with Tillamook cheddar and Luna sauce on a house bun are some of the delicious hits of the menu!

For a formal dinner with great cocktails and wine, we headed to Larks restaurant in the iconic Ashland Springs Hotel – the most prominent and famous landmark of the city.

White wine and garlic steamed mussels, pork osso bucco with celeriac potato puree and wilted spinach, and local rabbit cacciatore with house-made pappardelle, bacon, and manchego black pepper sour cream were surely memorable creations of the “home kitchen cuisine” by the Executive Chef Franco Console, followed by the flourless chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert.

Our short “long weekend” in Ashland proved to be relaxing, healing, and energizing. To learn more, visit: www.travelashland.com, www.ashlandchamber.com, and www.neumanhotelgroup.com.

 

For many of us New Year’s Day begins with the tradition of watching the beautiful Tournament of Roses Parade preceding the Rose Bowl Football Game in Pasadena, California. Each year we have marveled at the enormous figures on the floats with intricate designs and wondered how on earth they were covered entirely with real flowers and other plant material in time for the parade. In late December 2016 we got to watch the creating of the floats for the 100th anniversary of this famous parade, begun in 1917.  What a thrill! Admission is charged for viewing the floats at the various sites outside or near the Pasadena Rose Bowl Stadium. The four float decorating places are Rose Palace, Rosemont Pavilion, Brookside Pavilion, and the Rose Float Plaza South, in the City of Irwindale, California.

In huge warehouses we watched the hundreds of workers who volunteer to make these impressive and colorful floats. Professional designers and committees are ready with the basic forms of the huge floats set up and waiting for the volunteers who show up from all over the USA and from some other countries to have the enjoyment of saying with pride, “I helped create that one!” to their friends and family as the floats go by on Colorado Avenue, Pasadena, or on TV sets all over the world on New Year’s Day.

There were many different work stations set up in each of the barns: glue stations, brush cleaning places, tables of dried flowers, bark, seeds, herbs, spices, grasses, and any other part of nature which could be applied during the two weeks before the big day. Fresh flowers, which complete each of the floats are applied in the last 48 hours before the parade. To decorate one float about 60 volunteers work 10 hours a day for 10 days. The group cooperation looks like fun, but the positions they must stay in for some of the decorating looked painful and very tiring! But volunteers ranged from 13 years old to senior citizens and all were happily industrious in applying all their artistic energies to their particular assigned part of the huge floats.

In the final decorating hours when the thousands of fresh flowers are applied in small vials as quickly and securely as possible, it takes an amazing 20 daisies, 30 roses or 36 marigolds to cover one square foot of a float area! And approximately a half million roses are used in the parade. Growers from all over the world are necessary to fill and deliver the orders on time. What a fete!

It is produced by the nonprofit Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association. I asked how the floats were made in the early days a century ago when planes did not fly flowers in from all over the world. In the early days the Tournament of Roses Parade flowers were locally grown in the Fanny Morrison Horticultural Center to decorate horse-drawn carriages.  Today professionally designed floats are required to be covered with plant material. Three civic and floral industry leaders judge the floats and award prizes in 24 categories. Awards are announced at 6 A.M. on parade day. Length of parade is 5.5 miles (8.9 km), about 2.25 hours long at 2.5 miles (4.0 km) per hour pace.

You can volunteer too! Plans for next year’s floats will begin a few weeks after this year’s glory has been dismantled! And designers and architects start their work and by February the theme for the following year is announced. So begin to plan now to join the volunteer fun which extends from the day after Christmas until the last of December.

 

The Showcase of Floats begins at Sierra Madre and Washington Boulevard in Pasadena. Parking is free, but limited. Last year there is a free shuttle location at Pasadena City College, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; and the Rose Bowl Stadium Lot B. Well before the parade as each float is completed it is moved from the warehouse facility to line up on Orange Grove Boulevard, Pasadena.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

https://www.tournamentofroses.com/events/float-decorating

http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/2015/12/16/how-to-volunteer-to-decorate-a-rose-parade-float/

http://www.sharpseating.com/Rose-Parade-Festivities.php

http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/2016/12/27/where-to-view-2017-rose-parade-floats-before-and-after-the-pasadena-parade/