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Time Traveling in Sandwich, Cape Cod’s First Village

Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa is Perfect Time Capsule to Cocoon Visit

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

Dexter Grist Mill, a working grist mill in Sandwich on Cape Cod since 1654 where you can still buy ground cornmeal © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Dexter Grist Mill, a working grist mill in Sandwich on Cape Cod since 1654 where you can still buy ground cornmeal © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It’s remarkably easy to feel you have stepped back in time and forget what century you are actually in, in Sandwich, the first village settled on Cape Cod, in 1637. Sandwich is an enchanting jewel where history, exquisite architecture, fascinating attractions abound in a compact, walkable town, a short distance from the delightful Sandy Neck beach as well as the Cape Cod biking trail. It is quintessential New England, an idyllic place to visit, to stay, to make your hub for exploring Cape Cod. What is more, it is a real place where people live year-round, not just in summer, giving it much more substance than a place built around tourists.

And so, when I sought to choose a place that would express quintessential New England – encapsulating its architecture, heritage and culture  – to a California girl who had never been to this part of the country before, I honed in on Sandwich.

It is also the first village you come to when you drive over the Sagamore Bridge – which means that you avoid hours of traffic that holiday-goers face getting to and from other popular places, like Hyannis, Chatham, and at the furthest point, Provincetown. Instead, you can make Sandwich your base and, if you have exhausted all the fascinating places to explore in Sandwich (not likely), you can have day trips to explore the Cape Cod National Seashore, bike the Cape Cod Rail Trail (Cape Cod is one of the best biking destinations anywhere) and, just 30 minutes drive away, Falmouth and Woods Hole which offer a score of other fascinating attractions as well as beaches.

Many of these quaint historic houses and buildings (including a church) have been turned into the most charming bed-and-breakfast inns, but if you want to extend your time travel back to when the Patriots were debating revolution, the best place is the Dan’l Webster Inn and Spa, very much at the heart of the village. It is also is the most substantial in size, amenities and services, offering the best of past and present.

The Dan'l Webster Inn & Spa in the heart of Sandwich, the first village settled on Cape Cod, combines the best of past and present © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa in the heart of Sandwich, the first village settled on Cape Cod, combines the best of past and present © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Dan’l Webster is a 48-room country inn which remarkably maintains its historic feel and character even though it is totally rebuilt (the original was destroyed by fire in 1971) and has undergone a $2 million renovation. Each of the 48 guest rooms and suites are appointed with exquisite period furnishings, canopy and four-poster beds, fireplaces and oversized whirlpool tubs.

The present inn sits on property that was once a parsonage, built in 1692 by Rev. Roland Cotton; in the 1750s, it was converted in the Fessenden Tavern, one of the first and most famous of New England’s taverns and a Patriot headquarters during the American Revolution (the Newcomb Tavern, just across the pond, served as Tory headquarters).

In the late 1800s, the inn, then known as the Central House, hosted famous visitors including President Grover Cleveland and poet Henry David Thoreau. In 1980, the Dan’l Webster was acquired by the Catania family, which operates the popular Hearth n’ Kettle Restaurants, as well as the John Carver Inn in Plymouth and, most recently, the Cape Codder Resort, in Hyannis.

The Catania family acquired the Dan’l Webster and have restored it with exquisite taste and respect for its importance – there are antique furnishings and Sandwich glass. The Catania family also acquired the historic house next door.

A marker outside the house tells the story: Nancy Fessenden married Capt. Ezra Nye in 1826 and moved into the house following their wedding. She was the daughter of the innkeeper (now the Dan’l Webster Inn). Nye was a famous captain who broke the speed record by sailing his clipper ship from Liverpool in 20 days, in 1829. The house was restored by the Dan’l Webster Inn in 1982 and accommodates four luxury suites, each named after prominent people associated with the inn, dating back to 1692.

The Dan’l Webster has become an award-winning hotel, spa and dining destination. Recognized as a Distinguished Restaurant of North America (placing it in the top 1% of restaurants in the country) it offers a choice of the casual Tavern at the Inn. the cozy Music Room or the more formal (and romantic) ambiance in a lovely glass enclosed Conservatory. The four lovely dining rooms offer a choice of settings; candle-lit, fireside dining in the Music or Webster Rooms garden-side dining in the sun or moonlit Conservatory, cozy dining in the tavern or au natural dining outside on the patio. Several times during the summer, it also offers dinner and live entertainment.

The Tavern at the Dan’l Webster Inn is an authentic replica of the two-centuries-old tap room where Daniel Webster made regular visits. It also served as the meeting place for local Patriots during the Revolution © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Tavern at the Dan’l Webster Inn is an authentic replica of the two-centuries-old tap room where Daniel Webster made regular visits. It also served as the meeting place for local Patriots during the Revolution © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Tavern at the Inn is an authentic replica of the two-centuries-old tap room where Daniel Webster made regular visits. It also served as the meeting place for local Patriots during the Revolution.

The menu includes traditional favorites such as prime rib and filet mignon, alongside creative, contemporary entrees and seasonal dishes. Its wine cellar received The Wine Spectator’s prestigious Award of Excellence.

Its full service Beach Plum Spa, which Cape Cod Life has named Best Day Spa since 2006!, features body massages (romantic and holistic healing), manicures, pedicures. The spa figures prominently in the inn’s getaway packages, such as a Girls Overnight Getaway (includes Cranberry Pedicures with Cosmo Martinis, 50-minute Massages, Beach Bliss Customized Facials, spa gratuities and $50 toward meals); Suite Deal Package (includes 1 night plus 50-minute Beach Plum Wellness Massages, spa gratuities, chocolate and $50 toward meals); and Countdown to Baby Package (select 1 or 2 nights plus receive Beach Bliss Customized Facials, 50-minute Massages like a Mama Massage for the Mother-To-Be, Cranberry Spa Pedicure, bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling wine, chocolates, spa gratuities, $60 toward meals and a special gift for the baby).

The Dan’l Webster received TripAdvisor’s 2016 Certificate of Excellence award for the 6th year in a row for dining and lodging., as well as the Cape Cod Life Reader’s Choice Awards as Best Bed & Breakfast/Inn and Best Resort/Hotel.

In addition to the Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa, the Catania family also owns and operates:

Cape Codder Resort & Spa in Hyannis (capecodderresort.com) which is opening a new indoor waterpark, and offers 260 stately guest rooms and luxury, fireplace suites, on-premise dining in the Hearth ’n Kettle Restaurant or Grand Cru Wine Bar & Grill, plus the Cape’s largest Full-Service Spa, the Beach Plum Spa & Med-Spa, catering to men, women and children

Cape Codder Residence Club (capecodderresidenceclub.com), a premier fractional ownership property, located on the site of the Cape Codder Resort & Spa so that owners enjoy the benefits of a luxurious one, two or three bedroom residence plus world-class resort amenities, concierge service and options to exchange accommodations around the world.

John Carver Inn & Spa (johncarverinn.com) a full-service resort with indoor Pilgrim Cove theme pool and spa located on the site of the original Pilgrim settlement, only steps away from Plymouth’s many historic attraction

The Hearth ‘n Kettle Restaurants (hearthnkettle.com), in Hyannis, South Yarmouth, Orleans, Plymouth, and Weymouth, serving “Cape Cod Fresh” cooking for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa 149 Main Street, Sandwich, MA 02563, 800-444-3566, info@DanlWebsterInn.com, www.DanlWebsterInn.com.

So Much to Do in Sandwich 

It’s remarkable how much there is to explore within steps of the Dan’l Webster Inn’s front door (where you will find a carriage, as well as stocks the Puritans used) – especially on a quiet, cool summer’s night with the glow of street lights.

Here you see the major ingredients to settlement: homes that bear the names of the ship captains who commanded the packet ships and clippers that made this area a mercantile center; the Sandwich Glass Museum, where a revolutionary process made glass available to the masses; the Dexter Gristmill, so important to farmers, it made the village a hub; a perpetually flowing fountain where residents come even today with their jugs to fill the pure water; scores of churches, several which have been converted to private uses, like the Belfry Inn and Bistro in a former Catholic church (built 1901), and the First Parish Meetinghouse, dating back to 1638, which, improbably, has become a private home (and during our visit, we take advantage of an estate sale).

The First Parish Meetinghouse, which dates back to 1638, is a private residence today © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The First Parish Meetinghouse, which dates back to 1638, is a private residence today © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Many of the homes have historic name-plates and dates – a program by the Sandwich Historic Commission to highlight the depth of history in Sandwich and to recognize the original owners who built Sandwich and are an interwoven part of its history. It really connects the buildings to the people, so they are not simply structures but embodiments of a personal story.

What built Sandwich, though (and likely the reason that so many of its magnificent buildings reflect the prosperity of the early-1800s) was that in 1825, Deming Jarves built a glass factory (down by the site of the current Boardwalk). The factory grew rapidly to be one of the largest producers in the country with over 500 workers producing over five million pieces of glass annually by the 1850s. The technique made Sandwich glass objects affordable to the masses. By the 1880s, labor strikes, an economic depression, and new factories being built further closer to natural gas fuel sources forced the factory to close.

The Sandwich Glass Museum houses original pieces created during the 1800’s and provides demonstrations of glass blowing techniques. The museum’s theater shows a great documentary of the history of Sandwich. Throughout the village there are several glass blowers and artists with open studios to visit, creating a dynamic center for contemporary glass art (120 Main St., 508-833-1540, www.sandwichglassmuseum.org).

A short walk from the Dan’l Webster Inn is the Dexter Grist Mill, a working grist mill since 1654 where you can still buy ground cornmeal, or draw fresh water from the well (as many locals do for their personal supply).

The Hoxie House, built in 1675, was lived in until the 1970s but was never modernized with electricity or plumbing. This saltbox is named after a whaling captain who owned the house in the mid-1800s. it is now a wonderful little museum house showing what family life was like in the 1600s.

Sandwich, Cape Cod, Massachusetts © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sandwich, Cape Cod, Massachusetts © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Most fascinating is how many major religious buildings there are in Sandwich, and how many have been converted for secular use, very likely in keeping with Sandwich’s own tradition: the Puritan authorities of Plymouth branded Sandwich a “lax” town because church attendance and support were low, Native Americans were allowed to worship and Quakers were not shunned as in other Puritan communities. Indeed, at a time when the Pilgrims promoted anything but religious freedom and persecuted non-Puritans, Sandwich allowed Quakers to worship freely. The Sandwich Quaker Meetings are the oldest continuously kept Friends Meetings in the United States.

Most interesting is the building that was originally the First Parish Meetinghouse, dating back to 1638. It boasts a most magnificent clock tower, a gift to the people of Sandwich in 1808 from Titus Winchester, a former slave who had been freed by his master, Reverend Abraham Williams in 1784, and went on to great success. The four-faced clock we see today was installed in 1878 by Jonathan Bourne, a New Bedford whaling tycoon. It has since become a most extraordinary private residence, and we happen by as an estate sale is going on.

Benjamin Nye Homestead & Museum, is the 18th-century home of one of the first 50 men who settle in Sandwich (I take note that it is the same name as the Captain Nancy Fessenden married).

Also, the Wing Fort House, built in 1641, the oldest house in New England continuously owned and occupied by one family (63 Spring Hill Rd., 508-833-1540).

A short distance away, you can visit the Green Briar Nature Center & Jam Kitchen (6 Discovery Hill Road off Route 6A), which celebrates author and naturalist Thornton W. Burgess, who wrote the Peter Cottontail stories. There are nature programs, nature trails, a working 1903 Jam Kitchen, jam-making classes (508-888-6870, www.thortonburgess.org).

We also get to sample a regional specialty of Cape Cod: quahog –a clam exclusively here. A local restaurant, Marshland, has own recipe, showcased on the Food Network which has brought foodies from far and wide. It is a homey place that is a cross between a diner and a café and offers really marvelous home-cooked food.

I relish the proximity of the Dan’l Webster Inn to the Cape Cod Canal and the 6.2 mile-long paved path for biking, roller blading or just walking (the banks of the canal are also popular for fishing). It is close enough to bike from the inn to the start of the trail. Along the trail, you can visit the Aptucxet Trading Post, built by the Pilgrims in 1627 to facilitate trade with the Dutch at New Amsterdam and the Narrangansett Indians.

Cape Cod Canal © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Cape Cod Canal © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Cape Cod Canal is a marvel (there is a visitor center on the mainland side that tells the history). The canal was constructed in 1914 – up until then, there were a tragic number of ships that were wrecked trying to sail around the peninsula. But it is astonishing to learn that interest in building the canal dated back to the earliest settlers: in 1623, Pilgrims scouted the area as the place best suited for a canal. In 1697 the General Court of Massachusetts considered a formal proposal to build a canal, but no action was taken. In 1776, George Washington, concerned about its military implications, had the location examined. But it wasn’t until 1909 that construction started (60 Ed Moffitt Dr., 508-833-9676, www.capecodcanal.us). 

Not to be Missed: Heritage Museum & Gardens

In a village of many substantial attractions and places of interest, what truly stands out is the Heritage Museum & Gardens – a destination attraction that can stand on its own to draw people to Sandwich, just as the beaches draw people to Cape Cod. It hits on a spectrum of cylinders – the vast, stunning and notable gardens, the JK Lilly III collection of cars and art, as well as art inside and out, the way it engages people of all ages – such as at the Hidden Hollow, a giant treehouse in a hollow where you are invited to participate in planting and other activities (you feel like an elf or those tiny creatures in the EPIC animated movie).

The gorgeous lily pond at Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The gorgeous lily pond at Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This year, the special exhibit on view is “CUT! Costume and the Cinema,” featuring 43 costumes representing five centuries of fashion and style as interpreted by award-winning costume designers and worn by favorite stars, which are presented along with props, movie clips and photos and movie memorabilia which you can see in very close proximity. There is also – imagine this – an adventure center where you can get a “squirrel’s perspective” of the forest. You should allocate the better part of a day to visit. (Heritage Museums & Gardens, 67 Grove Street, Sandwich, MA 02563, 508.888.3300, www.heritagemuseumsandgardens.org, open daily (See story).

Sandwich offers easy access to other marvelous places to visit on Cape Cod, but you should spend at least a day on the other side of the Sagamore Bridge, in Plymouth, to visit a score of historic attractions associated with the Pilgrims, including the Mayflower II (only recently reopened) and Plimoth Plantation (one of the best living history museums anywhere).

For more information, contact Sandwich Chamber of Commerce, 508-833-9755, www.sandwichchamber.com, info@sandwichchamber.com. 

See next: Heritage Museum & Gardens is Not-to-Be-Missed Attraction on Cape Cod

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin  and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Engages Visitors in Vermont’s Living History

Come aboard the Philadelphia II, a replica of a Revolutionary War gunboat at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Len Ruth portrays the first officer of the Philadelphia © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Come aboard the Philadelphia II, a replica of a Revolutionary War gunboat at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Len Ruth portrays the first officer of the Philadelphia © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

There is so much history around the Basin Harbor Club, a grand resort that celebrates its 130th season this year (see story 7/1), and much of it is encapsulated at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. It’s a great place to go, especially if it should rain or as a mid-day break. Children will be especially engaged, there is even an Adirondack-style cabin and a maritime playground, among the buildings arranged over a four-acre area that look like their own village.

Hands-on exhibits pay homage to the native peoples – the Contact of Cultures 1609: Abenaki Culture through the Centuries, housed in an 1818 stone schoolhouse from Panton, Vt.; the Hazelett Watercraft Center (featuring a 1902 ice yacht); the Key to Liberty Exhibit which describes the Revolutionary War in the Champlain Valley and the fate of shipwrecks from the 1776 fleet; Steam to Gasoline; a Nautical Archeology Center where you can peer into the Conservation Lab; a working 18th century-style blacksmith shop and more.

The crowning jewel here is the working replica of the 1776 gunboat Philadelphia II, which was built here on site (they have an active boat-building program that youngsters can engage in).

I am lucky enough to arrive just after a school group and find a costumed interpreter on board. Len Ruth portrays the first officer of the Philadelphia. He carries a sword as a symbol of his rank.

The Americans invaded Canada in 1775 taking everything but Quebec City. Then the British forced the Americans to retreat.

A replica of the Revolutionary War era gunboat, Philadelphia, is on view at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. The boat was built here at the museum; the original is in the Smithsonian © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A replica of the Revolutionary War era gunboat, Philadelphia, is on view at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. The boat was built here at the museum; the original is in the Smithsonian © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The gunboat Philadelphia was built in 1776 to prevent the British from continuing down from Canada at Champlain & Albany. Boats like these helped to slow the British down, but by the end of 1776, the British controlled Lake Champlain.

The hull was put together in a week, then it was rowed up to Ticonderoga for rigging and guns, then the mast. Only 8 of these gunboats were built.

The Philadelphia would have had a crew of 45 (it’s so small, it is almost impossible to conceive of that many onboard), and this would have been theor home for 6-8 weeks. We have put 45 reenactors onboard for a weekend. We had questions when we built it – how did it sail, how it ran. It was the least comfortable reenactment.”

Why so many crew? Half would have to be awake at any time. It took a dozen men to row – the oars were 20 ½ feet long and they had to stand to row, so they switched off after an hour.

One gun, 2,500 pounds, required nine men to operate; the bow gun, 4,000 lbs., required 12-13 man crew. The boat had at least four small guns, though they don’t know how many it had exactly because when it sunk, the crew were rescued by the Row Galley Washington and they stripped the boat. When the sunken ship was recovered, it had only one gun on it.

He points to where a center plank at the bow is split and says that the original Philadelphia, at the Smithsonian, ironically has the exact same split in the same plank.

He also tells us a fascinating story about Ethan Allen of the famous Green Mountain Boys, who apparently became a hero of the Patriot cause because he was upset that the British Parliament would not honor his purchase of land from New Hampshire. (Who knew?)

The museum also has long-boats, built by high school age kids, and a boat-building program.

They also built the whaleboat for the Charles W Morgan (at Mystic Seaport). “The kids built it, fit it and delivered it.”

Lake Champlain Museum offers engaging exhibits, an archeological laboratory, and various buildings to explore over a four-acre lakeside campus © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Lake Champlain Museum offers engaging exhibits, an archeological laboratory, and various buildings to explore over a four-acre lakeside campus © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Founded in 1986 to preserve and share the maritime heritage of the Champlain Valley, The Lake Champlain Museum offers engaging exhibits, hands-on learning opportunities, an archeological laboratory, and various buildings to explore over a four-acre lakeside campus. It is open daily from the end of May 21 through early October.

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 4472 Basin Harbor Road, Vergennes, Vermont 05401, 802-475-2022, www.lcmm.org.

See: Basin Harbor Club Marks 130 years as Luxury Summer Retreat on Lake Champlain, Vermont

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin  and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Basin Harbor Club Marks 130 years as Luxury Summer Retreat on Lake Champlain, Vermont

 

Basin Harbor Club, a luxury resort on Lake Champlain, Vt. that has been welcoming vacationers for 130 years, offers a mixture of activity and tranquility © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Basin Harbor Club, a luxury resort on Lake Champlain, Vt. that has been welcoming vacationers for 130 years, offers a mixture of activity and tranquility © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

We come to the Basin Harbor Club by driving down a four-mile Vermont country road lined with classically picturesque farms. As we enter the grounds, we are overcome by the breath-taking beauty of the landscape and the surprising realization of just how enormous this place is – spanning 700 acres along Lake Champlain, with its own harbor and marina and beaches. Basin Harbor Club is more of a vacation village, a compound, than a mere resort.

Then there is the absolute sense of peace and serenity that rushes over us when we enter our very own cottage, Sunny Pines, which bears the date 1938 etched in stone, set in the woods on a cliff, from which we can gaze out over Lake Champlain from the balcony and through the French windows from the living room. A master bedroom and second room on the first floor, and a spiral staircase down to another sprawling room with two queen beds. Perfect for our multi-generational family.

Basin Harbor Club has been greeting guests for 130 years. A seasonal resort open from May through October, Basin Harbor Club offers 77 individual cottages and another 47 guest rooms in a gracious manor house – accommodations for about 350 people at one time.

Sunny Pines, one of 77 unique cottages at Basin Harbor Club, a luxury resort on Lake Champlain, Vt. that has been welcoming vacationers for 130 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sunny Pines, one of 77 unique cottages at Basin Harbor Club, a luxury resort on Lake Champlain, Vt. that has been welcoming vacationers for 130 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Each of the 77 cottages are different – built in the 1920s and 1930s according to the specifications provided by the original families who were invited to Basin Harbor Club by the Beach family and came back each summer to escape city heat.  In those early days, the first cottages were rustic – the equivalent of today’s glamping – wood with canvas roofs on a concrete slab. But today, the cottages are luxurious, each with its own history and sense of style, exuding grace and charm, most have fireplaces and decks or screened porches and are equipped with complimentary WiFi; refrigerators and coffeemakers (just don’t look for a TV).

I must confess that I had always imagined Basin Harbor Club, which is a member of the prestigious Historic Hotels of America (historichotels.org, 800-678-8946), as more rustic – more like a camp than a resort village. Instead, Basin Harbor Club manifests gentility, refinement, class, yet it is relaxed, casual, comfortable and completely unstuffy. You instantly feel you belong here. For the precious time you are at Basin Harbor, you feel less like a guest and more like you are at your summer home. All the activities they offer may make you feel you are in an adult camp, but the service, facilities, dining experiences make you feel like a country squire.

Guests, many who come year after year, generation after generation, are treated to a first class experience from top to bottom – from the exquisite, immaculately maintained grounds, to the impeccable service, to the top quality equipment and facilities.

I can’t list all the instances where we were greeted so warmly – like Ryan Baker who helps us get sunfish and kayaks into the water and sets us up with bikes, and Jamie McCatherin who leads us on a 2-mile hike on the opposite shore in the Adirondack State Park, Glenn Spence of Vermont who greets us warmly as we are deciding what to take from the buffet for breakfast; and the fellow working to ready the pool who runs to the front desk when I  ask what time the Escape cruise departs.

The cheery attitude starts with Bob Beach who I chance to meet not long after we arrive, as I explore the property. He is walking along to the marina with his two golden retrievers and engages in pleasant conversation. I find him again chatting with my kids playing shuffleboard. Later he tells me this is one of the ways he constantly gauges what might need adjustment, improvement or what services to add.

It is hard to imagine anything that should be added – everything you could want for a vacation retreat is already here.

In addition to the big things – a wonderful, walkable 18-hole, par-72 golf course that is sufficiently challenging but not frustrating, where you actually feel good about your game after your round (“It’s one of the most enjoyable courses in the state,” Herb Kessel, a regular, tells me. “You don’t get beaten up. It’s one of my favorite courses in Vermont.”); driving range (PGA instructor as well as electric carts available); outdoor lap pool heated to a perfect temperature; tennis courts; a marina with kayaks, canoes, sunfishes, paddleboards, waterskiing and tubing; diving board and two trampolines in the lake; plus bikes (top quality mountain and hybrid), and the Escape which takes people out on hour-long narrated cruises as well as special sunset cruises for groups) – there are also the pleasant diversions you happen upon, such as disc golf, badminton, croquet, ping pong. And while there isn’t an elaborate full-service spa, there are massage services available.

And that’s not even half of it. Basin Harbor spans 700 acres along the shores of Lake Champlain – one of the largest lakes in the country, which, because of where Basin Harbor is positioned, only a ½ miles across at this point, utterly stunning views of the Adirondack State Park on the New York Side. Just as you come to the entrance, you see the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, founded by Bob Beach and is a substantial and important museum, with among other things, a perfect working replica of the 1776 gunboat Philadelphia (the original, razed from where it was sunk in Lake Champlain, is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC).

Basin Harbor even has its own air strip – people come in their private planes just for lunch or a round of golf, and one family used to fly in their DC-10. (New England Aero Club has a fly-in with 200 planes and do aerial acrobatics.)

Hiking along the shore of Lake Champlain at Basin Harbor Club, Vergennes, Vt., © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hiking along the shore of Lake Champlain at Basin Harbor Club, Vergennes, Vt., © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The resort abuts Button Bay State Park, adding a whole other dimension to the stay. You can connect with hiking trails or bike into the park (though you are supposed to go in through the entrance off the Basin Harbor Road and pay the entrance fee). Bob Beach suggests going there (about 2 miles from the resort) for the sunset.

The hiking along the lake is utterly gorgeous – especially when the weather turns stormy and we watch the rain descend from clouds at first far away, over the Adirondacks to the east and Green Mountains to the north, and then closer and closer until we are caught in quite a deluge. No matter. It is tremendous fun. We find the gravel road from the Nature Center, and soon are on a scenic country road made all the more dramatic because of the breaks in the rolling clouds, the brilliant colors of the wet grass and soil, the blue mountains in the distance. Once out on the Basin Harbor Road, there are classic looking farms making the scenes even more picturesque.

Basin Harbor Club offers a guided hike on the New York State side of Lake Champlain, in the Adirondack State Park © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Basin Harbor Club offers a guided hike on the New York State side of Lake Champlain, in the Adirondack State Park © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You can be even more ambitious: kayaking 1 1/2 miles across Lake Champlain to the New York State side where Basin Harbor owns a tiny portion of the Adirondack State Park, where you can beach the kayak while you hike to a wonderful rocky promontory (locals jump into the water from here, about 75 feet up, but it is really dangerous). Or, you can take advantage of the guided hike Basin Harbor offers, where they take you over by motorboat and you hike two miles through the woods to another cove (hiking a small spur to an overlook from which you can peer into an eagle’s nest).

As for biking, you can do a four-mile loop from Basin Harbor, or go out to the Champlain Bikeway – really a designated portion on the road (Basin Harbor has excellent hybrid and mountain bikes for rent).

Basin Harbor Club on Lake Champlain offers tranquil places just to be together © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Basin Harbor Club on Lake Champlain offers tranquil places just to be together © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Basin Harbor Club offers all of these wonderful activities and amusements, but what it is best at is simply offering the space, ambiance, not to mention time just to be together. There are quaint sitting areas positioned to take advantage of the best views –with colorful Adirondack chairs, including some giant ones that make you feel like a small child, and child-sized ones. There are gorgeous gardens and colorful, whimsical mobile art all around that makes you smile, makes you feel peaceful, and places where you can light a campfire.

Space, ambiance and time are a powerful formula for forging bonds of family and friendship. Many Basin Harbor guests are regulars who return year after year, same week, same cottage each year.

In fact, this September, a couple who met at Basin Harbor Club as 10 year olds – one family from Massachusetts and the other from New Jersey – and came back the same week each year, then came back as counselors and became engaged here last July 4, will be married here.

Weddings here are idyllic –the setting is absolute exquisite on a vast lawn with views of Lake Champlain, lovely gardens (there’s always an indoor site in case the weather doesn’t cooperate). A wedding coordinator is available who can arrange for florist, photographer and such, as well as organize special activities – like bringing the bride and groom into the wedding on vintage Chris Craft boats, the rehearsal dinner followed by a hayride and bonfire (a sample itinerary is on the website), and arrange such novel activities as hot air ballooning or even sky diving.. “Our wedding planner assists with all the wedding details, whether it’s a traditional ceremony, elopement or our shotgun wedding.”

The facilities, the space, the setting and activities make Basin Harbor ideal for multigenerational family getaways, reunions, executive retreats, team-building programs (they can arrange for a ropes course), for incentive programs and corporate meetings, and especially think tanks. Self-contained with lots of activities so never bored, but also not distracted. As much or as little, as busy or as lazy as you like. Indeed, Basin Harbor strikes you as an adult summer camp, but actually, children have their own camp.

Children’s Programs 

Lots of resorts say they have a “kids camp” but here at Basin Harbor, it quite literally is a camp – each of five age groups has its own bunkhouse or headquarters. The 3-5s have the larger playhouse and playground; the 9-12s (preteens) have a building away from the other siblings (near the Red Mill Restaurant). Teenagers have their own “den” but because they tend to be “unpredictable”, Basin Harbor hosts a mocktail reception on Sunday when counselors meet so the teens can plan their own activities for the week together – kayaking, hiking and such.

Kids Camp is available for five different age groups, from 9:30am-1:30pm and/or 5:00-9:00pm (so there is also time for families to be together). The program runs daily from mid-June through Labor Day and on select weekends in spring and fall. Activities include arts and crafts, fishing, sports, games and educational hikes. The program is included for guests on the FAP (Full American meal plan) and the MAP (breakfast and dinner plan).

Activities Galore 

Take a guided cruise on Basin Harbor Club’s Escape to really enjoy Lake Champlain © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Take a guided cruise on Basin Harbor Club’s Escape to really enjoy Lake Champlain © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

In classic resort style, there are all sorts of organized activities – bird-watching, geocaching, a ga-ga ball pit, night golf, barn dances, narrated lake cruises, art classes, wellness classes, property tours, history talks, dogs walks, and so much more.

Jamie McCatherin, whose title is Entertainment Ambassador, hosts guided hikes, special events, brewery tours, pool parties, arts and crafts programs and such.

“We tell the activities director not to take it personally if people don’t participate,” Beach says. That’s because there are so many things to do, to explore, to discover.”

Beach calls it “Active tranquility – do as much as you want to do. We offer a lot to do. It doesn’t matter if people don’t show up.”

Choices for Dining 

Basin Harbor is a classic resort where most guests still take advantage of a meal plan (MAP, which is breakfast and dinner, FAP, which is breakfast, lunch and dinner, or bed-and-breakfast). Led by Executive Chef Christian Kruse, the formal dining experience in the lakeside Main Dining Room has been enjoyed by generations.

During the summer months, the tradition of jacket and tie is maintained for gentleman over the age of 12. Outdoor dinners are enjoyed three times weekly and the Red Mill Restaurant offers casual, bistro style dining overlooking the grass airstrip.

Nearby Vergennes also offers several charming restaurants, cafes and eateries, including Antidote, Black Sheep Bistro and 3 Squares Café.

Five Generations of Beach Family History

Basin Harbor Club is celebrating its 130th anniversary this season – a mind-boggling reality. That puts Basin Harbor Club at the very beginning of tourism in America, coinciding with a rising middle class born of the Industrial Revolution and rise of American cities.

At a time when Gilded Age monied elites had their cottages in Newport and Bar Harbor, their “camps” in the Adirondacks and Cape Cod and private retreats on Jekyll Island, the first and second generation at Basin Harbor pioneered a new sort of tourism that catered to the rising middle class.

Bob Beach is the 4th generation host at Basin Harbor Club, a luxury resort on Lake Champlain, Vt. that has been welcoming vacationers for 130 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bob Beach is the 4th generation host at Basin Harbor Club, a luxury resort on Lake Champlain, Vt. that has been welcoming vacationers for 130 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The 4th and 5th generations run the Basin Harbor Club now –Bob Beach and sister Pennie Beech and her daughter, Sarah Morris, who is the director of sales. They can be seen about. During the course of our all-too brief stay, I meet Bob with his 2 golden retrievers, his wife and daughter. Indeed, some 120 of the 240 employees at Basin Harbor live on the grounds.

I sit down with Bob Beach who tells me the history of Basin Harbor Club, which is also his family history:

Basin Harbor was a working farm when Beach’s great great aunt Ardelia Beach purchased it in 1886. She began offering rooms to city folk looking to get away and experience farm work in exchange for food. Her nephew, Allen Penfield Beach, came to work in the 1920s and eventually took over. While attending the University of Vermont he implemented changes, including giving up farming altogether and transforming the property into a full service resort with stables, golf course, airstrip and cottages built from guest sketches.

The history of tourism is also manifested in Basin Harbor’s golf course: in 1916, Basin Harbor had 3 holes of golf on what was a sheep meadow; then in 1927, they built a nine-hole course; in 1955, they added the back nine. The course, 6,500 yards long, was redesigned by famed designer Jeffrey Cornish. Now, a new superintendent has been making changes to make Basin Harbor a “noteworthy” golf destination. Part of this involves making the course faster – making the greens putt at 11 mph (“people like fast greens”) and cutting the fairways to less than 3/8 inch for faster play. There are practice greens, PGA certified instructors and electric carts are available. The BHC Golf Program is ideal for all levels of play. Daily clinics are open to men, women and junior golfers.

Bob Beach speaks of the challenge of being 4th and 5th generation hosts, maintaining a 130-year old institution. “Travelers are different today. Each generation brings new things. We have never been opposed to making changes, but we don’t make changes just for the sake of change. We have a certain tradition we continue. It’s a sense of stewardship.”

There is history all around: one of the larger stone buildings was the oldest operating inn on Lake Champlain when Ardela bought her farm; and in a small garden just below the shuffleboard courts, there is a stone marker, ”Site of Naval Shipyard, 1804-1812. Erected 1938”

Beach tells me of a shipwreck right in the cove, and once a week (on Monday), the hour-long narrated cruise on the Escape, turns into an expedition, using a ROV camera to view the wreck.

Take a guided cruise on Basin Harbor Club’s Escape to really enjoy Lake Champlain © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Take a guided cruise on Basin Harbor Club’s Escape to really enjoy Lake Champlain © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

That afternoon, we get to take the 1 ¼ hour narrated cruise on the Escape (daily at 2:30 pm) is not only really interesting but also wonderfully scenic, as we come close to the dramatic stone cliffs on the New York State side where the captain points out an eagles nest and where an eagle is sitting in a tree, pass small private islands, see the vast Swift Gilded-Age mansion and 450-acre estate, and get a view of the gunboat Philadelphia II docked at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. The views are breathtaking.

Lake Champlain, we learn, is the largest lake in the US after the Finger Lakes and played an important role in colonial times, Revolutionary War period, and economic development of the region. Great steamships used to ply the waters, and even before the Erie Canal, a 60-mile long canal was built in 1823 to connect the Lake with the Hudson River, which created a waterway extending up to Canada.

Pet-Friendly: Basin Harbor Club is also the most pet-friendly place you can imagine. I meet a man walking his cat who comes every year – the cat is particular – it wants to stay in the room they had the year before.

For a daily fee of $15 per dog, BHC offers a resort vacation for your pets with activities and amenities including: biscuits made in Vermont, games of Pick Up Mitts, hundreds of acres available for playing and Fanny’s Beach — their own swimming area.  

Seasonal Events: Rocktoberfest (Bacon & Beer Festival), Festival of Fidos, Barbeque Bonanza, American Girl Teas, Harborween; and regular daily programming also offers guests a wide variety of entertainment.

Meeting Space: Over 9,000 square feet of meeting space provides an ideal setting for traditional board meetings, as well as multi-day retreats featuring activities like lake cruises and lobster bakes, team building, golf tournaments and banquets. You can arrange a small party or reserve the entire resort, with lakeside parties, beach bonfires and cocktail cruises. 

Come aboard the Philadelphia II, a replica of a Revolutionary War gunboat at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Len Ruth portrays the first officer of the Philadelphia © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Come aboard the Philadelphia II, a replica of a Revolutionary War gunboat at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Len Ruth portrays the first officer of the Philadelphia © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

So much to do! In addition to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum right at Basin Harbor Club, nearby attractions include: Dar John Strong Mansion Museum; Crown Point State Historic Site; Fort Ticonderoga; Mount Defiance; Carillion Cruises; Mount Independence State Historic Site; Chimney Point State Historic Site. Other sightseeing attractions: the Shelburne Museum, the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory. Basin Harbor also has created biking routes; wine & beer routes; local cheeses; and historic drives 

Access: Set on the shores of Lake Champlain, surrounding a private harbor, the resort is just 45-minutes from Burlington International (BTV), Vermont’s largest commercial airport. BTV serves major commuter airlines, with connections from most cities in the Northeast. The resort is also accessible by private aircraft — Basin Harbor’s own 3,200-foot grass airstrip is one of the best in New England — as well as by boat. Greyhound and Megabus lines serve the Vergennes/Burlington area; transportation to Basin Harbor is available at a nominal fee. Basin Harbor Club is five hours from New York City metro; and 2 ½ hours from the Albany area.

Basin Harbor is a place you don’t want to leave and can’t wait to return.

Basin Harbor Club, 4800 Basin Harbor Road, Vergennes, VT 06490, 800.622.4000 or 802.475.2311, www.basinharbor.com

See next: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin  and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Mountains of Art: Discover Vibrant Art in Villages along the Nation’s Oldest Hiking Trail

A country road just beyond the gates of Basin Harbor Club resort, Vergennes, Vt., provides exquisite views to inspire your own landscape © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A country road just beyond the gates of Basin Harbor Club resort, Vergennes, Vt., provides exquisite views to inspire your own landscape © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

MONTPELIER, Vt. –People are more inclined to associate Vermont with snow and the outdoors, but chasing along the spine of Vermont’s beloved Green Mountains, towns and villages that were established as farming and ski communities have grown into some of the state’s most thriving arts hubs. Understandably, in Vermont, the arts are as rich as the soil and steadfast as thru-hikers on the Long Trail. The state’s landscape – with its valleys and dynamic mountains – has both inspired and integrated the arts into its environment. In this light, the Vermont Arts Council and the Green Mountain Club, stewards of the nation’s oldest long distance hiking trail, the 273 mile Long Trail, have partnered to provide arts and outdoors enthusiasts a collection of recommended communities that offer excellent arts and hiking opportunities.

With its abundance of outdoor recreation, it’s fitting that Vermont is one of the “healthiest states,” in the nation according to the United Health Foundation. A lesser known fact is that in Vermont, you’re often in the company of artists. Vermont ranks third in the nation for artists as a percentage of its workforce, second for fine artists and writers, and eighth for both musicians and photographers.

For many weekend or day hikers, the abundance of towns that have both trailheads and dynamic arts provide a perfect pairing for an immersive vacation. A traveler can experience natural beauty by foot along the trail and explore art “hands-on” at workshops, festivals and concerts.

Vermont Arts & Hiking Hubs, North to South:

Near the Long Trail’s northern terminus, in the Jay and Montgomery region, you’ll find a variety of local artists: woodcutters, potters, jewelers, musicians and weavers. Venues exhibiting on a regular basis are The Artist in Residence Gallery in Enosburg Falls, Mountain Fiber Folk – offering locally made fiber arts as well as extensive supplies – in Montgomery Center, the Wooden Horse Arts Guild in North Troy, and the Memphremagog Arts Collaborative in Newport. Also, tune into the talent of local and visiting musicians at Now Playing Newport.

For many thru-hikers, this leg of the Long Trail is a serious accomplishment – reaching the Vermont-Canadian border signals the end of a 273 mile journey. But the Long Trail can also be enjoyed for day or overnight hikes. Follow the Long Trail north from Route 242 to the summit of Jay Peak to see the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. It’s a moderate climb to the summit and back (3.4 miles round-trip) but worth the effort. If you want to spend a night on the trail, Laura Woodward Shelter is another 1.5 miles north of the summit.

The villages of Jeffersonville and Cambridge have been havens for landscape painters for the last century. Visitors will see plein air artists along the roadsides, particularly in autumn. Travelers will be surprised to see the region’s latest public art, a large-scale mural reinventing an old silo in Cambridge. Visit the Cambridge Arts Council to learn about classes and upcoming festivals. Also, the Mary Bryan Gallery and Visions of Vermont Gallery offer exceptional opportunities to appreciate or purchase the works of local artists and special exhibits.Smugglers’ Notch Resort offers various multi-age and discipline craft and painting classes with local artists Nancy Schade and Cheryl Pecor.

Hiking through Smugglers’ Notch to Mount Mansfield, the state’s highest peak at 4,393’ is a highlights of the Long Trail. At the top of in Smugglers’ Notch, along Route 108, the popular 1.1 mile Sterling Pond Trail leads to beautiful, high mountain pond. For an extended hike from Sterling Pond, hikers can continue on a 3.5 mile loop along the Elephant’s Head trail with spectacular views. Cliffs and dynamic boulders make this region popular for bouldering, rock and ice climbing.

In Stowe, catch a performance at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center; take a class or tour the latest exhibit at Helen Day Arts Center in the village, visit Green Mountain Fine Art on Main St. or enjoy the West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park, a contemplative place to stretch your legs in all seasons. Some of the several additional galleries and studios to explore include Stowe Craft Gallery, Robert Paul Galleries and Little River Hot Glass Studio.

The summit of Mount Mansfield is readily accessed following the Long Trail south from Route 108 in Stowe. Hell Brook Trail, one of the state’s most challenging hikes, reaches the summit from Route 108 in 2.1 steep, scrambling miles. The Stowe Pinnacle is located nearby on the Worcester Range and is an excellent day hike offering sweeping views of the Green Mountains and the valley below. Before you set out on the trail, make sure that you stop by the Green Mountain Club Visitor Center on Route 100 in Waterbury Center for maps and expert advice!

The Mad River Valley is home to several arts spaces, including the Artisan’s Gallery, Mad River Glass Gallery, Walker Contemporary Gallery and Luminosity Studios in the Old Church. Waitsfield is also the headquarters of the month-long fete and year-round exhibit space, the Vermont Festival of the Arts Gallery. There’s also Mad River Antler, “natural shed antler artistry,” Waitsfield Pottery, as well as private ceramics lessons and raku at the Naked Potter.

Hikers in the Mad River Valley will enjoy steady ascents and miles of ridgeline payoffs on the 11.6 mile Monroe Skyline, a popular and strenuous “gap to gap” hike traversing the Long Trail north from Lincoln Gap and Appalachian Gap. Peaks include Mount Abraham, Lincoln Peak, Mount Ellen and General Stark Mountain. Also in the region, explore rock-top vistas atop Burnt Rock, accessed via the Hedgehog Brook Trail in Fayston (5.2 miles round-trip), For an easier hike, follow the Long Trail south from Lincoln Gap to Sunset Ledge with views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks, 2.2 miles round trip).

The Middlebury region is brimming with arts offerings a close distance to State and National Forests. Meet artist Jean Cherouny for a private printmaking or painting workshop or peruse group class offerings at Middlebury Studio School. Visit the Middlebury College Museum of Art and Mahaney Center for the Arts; explore and shop at Edgewater Gallery and get to know Vermont Artist Woody Jackson’s works beyond his cows of Ben & Jerry’s fame. At Rikert Nordic Center, the trails lead to the historic Robert Frost Summer Cabin. While walking in this Vermont Poet Laureate’s footsteps, it’s easy to understand the inspiration this area has offered to so many visiting writers, students and athletes.

The Long Trail crosses Rt. 125 at Middlebury Gap. Hike north along the Long Trail and a spur trail 0.8 miles to Silent Cliff for excellent views of the Green Mountains and Champlain Valley. This region is home to Breadloaf Wilderness, well known for its black bear and moose populations. Day hikers will enjoy Branbury State Park and U.S. State Forest Silver Lake Campground. Visit the Green Mountain National Forest Middlebury Ranger Station for additional recommendations and wayfinding.

Hikers descending from Killington cross Route 4 in central Vermont, where they can head to Rutland’s extensive Chaffee Art Center and visit Paramount Theatre for national acts appearing in an exquisitely restored 1912 opera house. Also along Route 4, the Crossroad of Vermont Byway, there’s the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center situated at an historic marble quarry and massive sculptures to explore in the outdoors at the West Rutland Art Park.

At 4,236’, Killington Peak is the Vermont’s second highest summit. On a clear day, the Adirondacks and the White Mountains of New Hampshire are visible. The Appalachian Trail and Long Trail share the same footpath in this part of the state and come within 0.2 miles of the summit. A spur trail will get you to the summit and is well worth the extra climb. Another excellent hike is the 2.2 mile Deer Leap Trail off of the Appalachian Trail with great views from Deer Leap Rock, also a popular destination for rock climbing. South of Killington, from Route 140 in Wallingford, the Long Trail passes through the White Rocks National Recreation Area and leads to a magical garden of rock cairns. Here, you can photograph the existing collection of cairns or…. enjoy creating your own!

Campers at Jamaica State Park can head into the village and venture into Elaine Beckwith’s Gallery and dine at the Garden Cafe, a culinary-art-space and market. Or, head into Manchester to visit some of the town’s abundant arts offerings, including Hills Alive, a rich and diverse calendar of cultural events and opportunities offered year-round, Southern Vermont Arts Center and the Museum of Creative Process. Additional villages near trailheads include Weston, with its Weston Playhouse and Village Green Gallery, as well as Martha’s Folk Art and Mountain Painters & Artisans Gallery in Londonderry.

The Long Trail is conveniently accessed just outside Manchester Village, from Routes 11 and 30. Hikers can take the 6 mile round trip to the summit of Bromley Mountain for beautiful views of the hills and villages below. Other nearby day hikes include Stratton firetower and the rock outcrop of Spruce Peak. Another fine option is the Old Rootville Road trail from Route 30 in Manchester Center leading to Prospect Rock. The hike is 3.5 miles round trip, and features a waterfall and excellent views of Mount Equinox and Manchester village.

There are dozens of arts opportunities in Bennington and eastward heading into the mountains along Route 9, the Molly Stark Byway. In Old Bennington, catch a show at Oldcastle Theater, visit Robert Frost’s memorial and catch a bird’s’-eye view from Bennington Monument, the tallest structure in Vermont. Tour the extensive Native American art collection and Art of the Animal Kingdom exhibit at Bennington Center for the Arts & Covered Bridge Museum, and see the world’s largest collection of Bennington pottery and Grandma Moses paintings at Bennington Museum. Shop at Fiddlehead at Four Corners, a contemporary craft and fine art gallery in the heart of historic downtown district.

Just outside of Bennington, the 3 mile round trip Pine Cobble Trail offers a picturesque vista of the tri-state area. For a more dynamic hike, access the Long Trail from Route 9 and follow it 1.8 miles southbound along a steep trail to an even steeper rock staircase up to popular Harmon Hill, with views of Bennington and the surrounding countryside. Continue on and in 12.5 miles, you’ll reach the Vermont-Massachusetts border, also known as the southbound terminus – or for most Long Trail thru-hikers, the beginning – of the Long Trail.

If Vermont’s arts and peaks have “piqued” your interest, visit VermontArtsCouncil.org, VermontArts2016.com and GreenMountainClub.org.
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Letter from Abroad: A Grand Concert at La Scala in Milan, Italy

Seeing a performance at the famed La Scala theater in Milan, Italy, is a grand experience that transports you back to the Belle Epoque. Designed by Giuseppe Piermarini, the theater opened in 1778 (photo by Leiberman-Nemett)
Seeing a performance at the famed La Scala theater in Milan, Italy, is a grand experience that transports you back to the Belle Epoque. Designed by Giuseppe Piermarini, the theater opened in 1778 (photo by Leiberman-Nemett)

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Nemett

Seeing a performance at the famed La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, transports you back to the Belle Epoque.

After collecting our tickets in the box office, we began the night with a perfect Negroni and aperitivo snack in the bar of Ristorante Teatro alla Scala. With about ten minutes until curtain, we walked through the ornate grand foyer adorned with marble columns and tall narrow mirrors lining the walls. We entered the theater itself just early enough to first glimpse the orchestra through the open doors of the palci, the balcony boxes lining the horseshoe auditorium.

The demographic of the crowd skewed older than some opera houses in the United States with most of the audience in their 50s to 80s. Everyone was dressed as you would expect at La Scala: men in jackets and women in dresses.

We walked to our seats in the front right side of the Orchestra. Though we were fairly close to the stage, the sound didn’t feel as full as we imagined it could have. During intermission we were able to move up to one of the balcony boxes, where the sound was significantly richer than in the orchestra section.

First glimpse the orchestra through the open doors of the palci, the balcony boxes lining the horseshoe auditorium (photo by Leiberman-Nemett)
First glimpse the orchestra through the open doors of the palci, the balcony boxes lining the horseshoe auditorium (photo by Leiberman-Nemett)

The amazing acoustics in the gallery is only one aspect of the experience sitting in the balcony boxes of La Scala. We were lucky that the show we saw did not have a sold out house so we were the only 2 in our box and actually got to sit at the front with a great side view of the orchestra. Hundreds of burgundy jacquard-wallpapered cubes line the horseshoe of the 6 rows of boxes. It felt like an elaborate film set with each box its own scene. Sitting in a closed room with only a few others (or in our case just one companion), you are simultaneously watching hundreds of little boxed narratives in the panorama of the audience, while realizing you are within the same composition of boxes and one of these stories yourself. Hundreds of moments all within their own world, theater-goers hang out of the boxes with arms draped around the cushioned ledges, all watching and listening to their shared soundtrack.

The Teatro alla Scala was founded under the auspices of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, to replace the Royal Ducal Theatre, which was destroyed by fire on February  26 1776, which until then was the home of opera in Milan. The cost of building the new theatre was borne by the owners of the boxes at the Ducal in exchange for possession of the land on which stood the church of Santa Maria alla Scala (hence the name) and for renewed ownership of their boxes. The theater was designed by the great neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini  (1734-1808) and opened in 1778.

What is not widely known is that you can visit La Scala’s museum. The current exhibition is “Riccardo Muti: The years at La Scala” (on through October 16). The museum is open daily except on: Christmas, New Year’s and Easter Sunday and certain holidays..  It is open from 9 am to 12.30 pm (last entrance at noon) and from 1.30 pm to 5.30 pm (last entrance at 5 pm). The auditorium can be seen from the boxes excepted when rehearsals or performances are in progress. (Information: Tel +39 02 88 79 74 73).

La Scala’s program includes not only opera, but also symphony concerts, academy concerts, ballet, programming for children, and other cultural events. The programming is also not only the famous Italian composers. Though Verdi and Puccini frequent the lineup (or the season), upcoming performances at La Scala include Benjamin Britton’s Turn of the Screw (Sept 14 – Oct 17, 2016), George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (Nov 13-23, 2016), Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Sept 2 – 25, 2016) and Marriage of Figaro (Oct 26-Nov 27, 2016).

You can see the schedule and purchase your tickets in advance online. Ufficio Stampa Teatro alla Scala, Via Filodrammatici 2 – 20121 Milano, tel. +39 02 8879 2412, fax +39 02 8879 2331, www.teatroallascala.org.

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin  and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Grand, Historic Loews Don CeSar, St. Pete Beach’s Famed ‘Pink Lady’, is Classic Beach Resort

Loews Don CeSar (the "Pink Lady") in the golden light of the setting sun on St. Pete Beach © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Loews Don CeSar (the “Pink Lady”) in the golden light of the setting sun on St. Pete Beach © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

In urgent need of some R&R? Cure it with a two-night/three day stay at Loews Don CeSar, not just a grand historic hotel, but a true beach resort with all the amenities and activities for a luxurious, pampered stay. Better yet, for a complete vacation, plan a seven-day stay and balance out days relaxing on white-powder sand beach and lounging around glorious pools, spa treatments and yoga, with visits to the myriad cultural and scenic attractions close by, in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa.

From the moment you cross the threshold, walk down the stairs into the lobby, a feeling of peace and tranquility sweeps over you.

The Don Cesar has been welcoming guests since 1927. But as in so many of these grand historic hotels, they are living links to the past, and are in essence timeless.

Sophistication and casual elegance evoking the Gatsby Era at the Loews Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sophistication and casual elegance evoking the Gatsby Era at the Loews Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It may seem cliché, but you step through the lobby and you are in the world of those who came before: F. Scott Fitzgerald (remembered with a nightly Fitzgerald Reception at the fine dining restaurant, when you can experience a cocktail and a nibble), Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig, even Al Capone.

You feel their presence. But the hotel has a unique personality, a character of its own – you can’t help but think of the stories these walls hold.

The Don CeSar exudes casual elegance and Southern Charm – ceiling fans, a beautiful courtyard garden that leads to the pool area and beyond, the white-sand beach and the Gulf of Mexico. Elegant, yet casual (not stuffy or stiff), comfortable, welcoming, and one of the most beautiful hotels anywhere.

Gracious, That’s the word to describe the experience.

Wendy Hessinger leads "Yoga on the Beach" © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Wendy Hessinger leads “Yoga on the Beach” © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

A classic beach resort with activities offered throughout the day. Checking in, I am given an “Activities” schedule with a long list, day by day, of activities, all included in the $25/day resort fee: Yoga on the beach (9am), kayaking and paddleboarding (8-10 am), aqua fitness, sunset yoga, daily history tour of the hotel, Sea Life tour, Kidding Around Yoga, Kidz Kraze, Restorative Yoga, Star Gazers (that’s just Monday’s Schedule). The activity schedule changes through the week: Body Toning Tuesday, Legs, Bums and Tums; Noodling Around (Kid and Parent Aqua Fitness), Zumba, Beach Yoga Sunset; Drive in Movie on the weekend.

There are activities for the children as well: included in the resort fee is a half-day at Camp CeSar activities program. There are also aqua fitness programs for kids and families, educational talks. Kids Night Out are also available Friday and Saturday nights (6-10 pm).

Some special activities are offered by reservation and for a fee, such as Culinary Kids, Pint Size Picasso, and Waterside Music Makers.

There is a free shuttle service (available 9-5) that takes you into downtown St. Petersburg (here’s where you can easily balance the beach with the extraordinary cultural attractions of St. Petersburg).

The concierge can arrange for golf or tennis at the nearby Isla del Sol country club.

Of course, there is the beach with the most beautiful white-powder sand, the texture of talc, and two pools, heated to a perfect temperature.

Tranquil setting at Loews Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Tranquil setting at Loews Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The pool area is gorgeous – with lush tropical gardens, tall palm trees sheltering, opening up to the beach and Gulf beyond.

It is frankly hard to pull yourself away from the pool – two actually, both heated, both large enough for lap swimming. My favorite of the two is set off a little, tends to be quieter, and situated with the most magnificent view (I just get this wonderful feng shui feeling here). It is one of the prettiest pools anywhere, with the Pink Palace as a backdrop on one side, and palm trees and the Gulf on the other side.

There is iced, fruited water available and even magazines at the pool – plush robes in your room to wear to the pool.

This is in every way pampered luxury –you are quite literally fawned over by a genuinely friendly and helpful staff.

There is a game area with billiards, ping pong tables, chess, and other games – under shelter in case of a rain shower, you can still be outside.

Loews Don CeSar pool © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Loews Don CeSar pool © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are a variety of shops to take care of immediate needs – a small general/convenience store, an Ice Cream shop (actually where the original entrance to the hotel was located, which still has the original flooring) where you can also get a bagel, muffin or cereal for breakfast, lovely clothes shops and sports stuff in case you forgot something.

In the evening, there is nightly live music in the lobby lounge/bar, laid out to be extremely comfortable and casual. (We are told that the Don CeSar has a signature drink, Old Smokey: take old cigar box and barrel-aged bourbon that spends two weeks behind the bar; then hose in cherry wood smoke, let it sit so the Bourbon is infused with cherry smoke, then the open box and chill with a snowball ice cube.)

After being awed watching the sunset from the beach, I stroll into the Maritana Grille for the Gatsby Reception. The bartender this evening is serving a Harvey Wallbanger and a nibble (seared pork belly with maple and sherry vinegrette).  The Harvey Walbanger is a classic cocktail consisting of Vodka Galliano, orange juice that goes back to the 1950s; concocted by Donato “Duke” Antone who owned Duke’s Backwatch Bar in Hollywood on the Sunset Strip. Duke, who also invented the Rusty Nail and the White Russian, named it after a surfer named Tom Harvey.

The fine-dining restaurant – a beautiful seaside motif with large fish aquarium – has a varied American menu. On this evening, it was featuring  Venison, Long Island Duckling, Snapper, and offered a wine tasting menu ($65, $95 with wine pairing).

A Grand Hotel With History

A couple enjoys the nightly Gatsby Reception at the Maritana Grille where the bartender this evening is serving a Harvey Wallbanger © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A couple enjoys the nightly Gatsby Reception at the Maritana Grille where the bartender this evening is serving a Harvey Wallbanger © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Don CeSar was a founding member of Historic Hotels of America in 1989, which began with just 32 members and now has 260 members in 44 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico (HistoricHotels.org).

HHA hotels are invariably my favorite places to stay anywhere I go. They tend to manifest the charm and high standard of hospitality (an old fashioned sensibility and refinement) of bygone days, as well as a deep connection and sense of place. Each of the HHA members has its unique personality and character.

The Don CeSar was awarded HHA’s “Historic Hotel of the Year” in 2015 in the 201-400 room category

This largely reflects the acquisition and management of the Don since 2003 by Loews Hotels, which owns the Don with Prudential Insurance. The new owners invested millions in renovations and new facilities – opening the stunning 11,000 square foot Spa Oceania in 2008, the only beachfront luxury spa on the Gold Coast of Florida. Multi-million dollar investments included the meeting spaces, the Maritana Grille, its fine-dining restaurant, the Lobby, Lobby Bar and Sea Porch restaurant, and guestroom redesign.

The sense of responsibility to care for these entities is powerful – you can’t rest on laurels or prior reputation and the fact of the matter is that age does take its toll, as does the need to cater to new generations of guests. There is the constant push-pull of progress and preservation. As is the protectiveness of patrons. When they renovated the lobby, changing out dark wood colors and carpets and bronze-and-crystal chandeliers for a white wood paneling reminiscent of Southern plantation-style cool elegance, light floors, brighter colors and modern blue-and-clear glass chandeliers people were up in arms that they were disposing of “history” – except that the bronze chandeliers only dated back to the 1986 renovation.

“People were upset because they felt they were discarding history,” said Jeffrey Abbaticchio, Director of Public Relations. “We have to give much more attention to preserving the charm and character of hotel.”

It exposes the special challenge of caretaking for a historic hotel, especially one that means that much and has been so much a part of a local community.

That is the balance that modern hoteliers have to strike but there is the clear recognition of their responsibility as caretakers and their respect for these unique entities.

“We have to give much more attention to preserving the charm and character of hotel.”

Historic hotels like The Don CeSar typically have their tales of survival – dramatic snatches from the wrecking ball (indeed, the Renaissance Vinoy in St. Petersburg, which opened in 1927, also became a VA hospital and has a similar tale of being saved just moments from being demolished, in 1972).

This is the case of the Don CeSar – long known locally as “The Don” and “The Pink Palace.” It surprised me to learn how in its 80 year history, it only spent about half of that as a hotel, and from the beginning, struggled to survive – the Great Depression, World War II, economic recessions.

You speak of these kinds of properties as “The” – as in “The Don” – and as if they are people, with their own biography, rather than structures or institutions. They have personality and character. Unique. Authentic. They are closely connected to their community, which in fact, rallied to “Save the Don” from the wrecking ball in the 1970s, after being shuttered and closed for four years, a blight on the neighborhood.

The Don’s struggles began not long after coming into being, the fruition of a dream of its founder, Thomas Rowe, I learn from Susan Quinn, a long-time concierge at The Don CeSar who conducts history tours of the hotel.

Born in Boston in 1872 and orphaned at age 4, Rowe was sent to live with grandparents in Ireland, returning to the United States to become a real estate speculator in Florida, during the early boom of the 1920-6 years. Partnering with a local attorney, Walter Fuller, e turned a $21,000 investment into $1,050,000, and then sought to fulfill a longtime dream in building a lavish hotel.

Tthe Loews Don CeSar, a historic resort © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Loews Don CeSar, a historic resort © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

He patterned his “Pink Lady” (as “The Don” continues to be known) after the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach, styled as a kind of Mediterranean palace. An opera lover, he named the Don CeSar after a character in one of his favorite operas, “Maritana,” written by a Scottsman (today, its fine-dining restaurant is named the Maritana Grill). He planned for construction costs to be $450,000, but instead, the hotel cost $1.2 million to build – wiping out his resources, so that he had to mortgage to raise the $250,000 needed to furnish the property so it could open.

He devised an ingenious system though, because he had spent $100,000 to buy 80 acres surrounding the hotel, and turned to developing small Mediterranean-style homes on property just south – you could buy the lot for $5000 and build the house on it for $5000 more.

A view of the Loews Don CeSar pool and grounds © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A view of the Loews Don CeSar pool and grounds © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

He opened The Don CeSar in 1928, immediately drawing an “A” List of celebrities and important people: F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda (today, the Maritana offers a 5:30 pm Fitzgerald Reception, featuring a cocktail and nibble), famed attorney Clarence Darrow, baseball great Lou Gehrig and Al Capone.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Rowe devised an ingenious method of staying afloat: he offered for the home owners who had taken mortgages from him to cash out at a fraction of the amount owed in order to accumulate the cash he needed to make it through the Depression. And another thing: when the hotel would otherwise be low-occupancy in spring, he leased it out to the New York Yankees for spring training, at $8/day including breakfast.

Rowe, who came to St. Petersburg for his health and to speculate when he was in his 40s, lived in the hotel (his wife, a university-educated woman, stayed in Virginia, because she didn’t want to live in a backwater). In May 1940, he suffered a heart attack and insisted on staying in the hotel. Legend has it he intended to will the hotel to his employees, and he wrote a new will, but it was not witnessed, so his wife inherited the property. She appointed her lawyer to take charge of the corporation, who brought in his own management team. Then Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, and World War II hit.

Instead of the hotel’s 300 rooms being totally occupied for the season, all but 100 room reservations canceled, and the government went after her for taxes stemming from her husband’s refinancing scheme. Her attorney sought to negotiate a deal with the Navy to take the Don CeSar for officer’s housing, but the Army wanted it for a hospital, and used eminent domain to take it over, purchasing the building for the assessed value of $450,000. The army disposed of everything, even the hotel register with its famous signatures. The property later became an Air Force Convalescent Center (actually becoming a model for dealing with the condition now known as PTSD), and then a Veterans Administration regional office, from 1945 to 1969.

By 1969, the VA abandoned the hotel – set up a chain-link fence around and a guard – and it deteriorated terribly, a blight on the community.

In 1971, local residents and former employees formed a “Save the Don” committee to prevent the hotel from being demolished. June Hurley Young, realizing that locals had never known the Don as a fine hotel, wrote an article that was finally published in a paper under the headline, “Pink Elephant or Sleeping Beauty”. It  came to the attention of  William Bowman, a Flying Tiger during war, who was building new hotels in the area. He purchased the decrepit property in 1972, just two weeks before the hotel had a date with the wrecking ball.

“It cost $3.5 million to fix up –he  replaced every window, waterproofed, added air conditioning so the hotel could stay open year round,” Owen said.

The Don CeSar reopened on November 24, 1973. The following year, the Pink Palace was admitted to the National Register of Historic American Places.

1973 was the year of the Oil Embargo and a recession. It wasn’t long before the Don CeSar was foreclosed but continued to operate. It changed hands several times until in 2000, it was taken over by Prudential Insurance.

Finally, in 2003, the Don CeSar became a Loews Hotel, which owns 15% and manages the luxury property, and brought it up to the standards of today’s luxury travelers.

(Both Rowe and Bowman are honored in a display case that has their picture and their history with the hotel. A new eatery, the Rowe Bar, is an indoor/outdoor bar which will serve different Juleps, different nonalcoholic “-ades” (lemonade, etc), communal bowls of cocktails, have fire pits and overlook the sand dune.

Don CeSar has 277 rooms. They may be a tad smaller than we have become accustomed to (because people didn’t come to a resort to spend time in their hotel room), but have every amenity imaginable – plus robes, mini-bar, Keurig coffee maker, safe, ironing board, a flashlight, lush mattress and bed linens, flat screen TV and free WiFi, even the shampoo has the perfect scent.

The Don CeSar is pet-friendly and offers pet menus (Bow Wow beef; Chow chow mein),  pet room service and pet massage, in room.

The Don CeSar now has a second property, the Loews Beachhouse Suites, located just about a quarter mile up from the Don CeSar (finishing up a renovation by mid-February), which is also a pink building on the beach. A free shuttle van is offered between the two Loews properties, so Beachhouse guests have the use of the Don CeSar’s facilities.

An Idyllic Place for Destination Weddings 

The sun seems to melt into a space beyond the water © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The sun seems to melt into a space beyond the water © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The ambiance, services and facilities at the Don CeSar are so magical, it is no wonder how popular the luxury resort has been for destination weddings. The hotel hosts some 425 wedding-related events a year, and accommodates weddings as large as 300. There are four people on staff just to help coordinate destination weddings, and an event company, Cheers, on call to handle elaborate events.

The planners can organize everything from releasing doves to special transportation.

“What’s popular lately are Indian weddings – people arrive by horse, do henna. We just hired an executive chef from India (most recently he was at The Breakers) so we can provide authentic Indian food,” Jeff said.

The fifth floor, with its enormous picture windows that look out to St. Petersburg and down the St. Pete Beach coast, and which once was a massive open dining room that could sit 1400 at a time for dinner, has been turned into a series of meeting and function rooms ideal for weddings, conferences and events (38,000 square feet of function space). Indeed, during our stay there were wedding and conferences underway.

A Complete Vacation 

Each morning of my stay, I go down to the beach for 9 am beach yoga with Wendy Hessinger, and then aqua fitness which Wendy also conducts (an interesting routine using noodles). She also conducts sunset yoga on some days.

But there is so much going on in the area to round out your stay: take advantage of the free ride into St. Petersburg (about 20 minutes)  which goes to the Sundial, a centrally located entertainment center with movies, excellent restaurants, and walkable to just about anything you want to get to (or you can hop on the Downtown Looper trolley, to take around the downtown)  and enjoy an enormous selection of cultural attractions  (Dali Museum, Chihuly Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg Museum of History, Florida Holocaust Museum, emerging arts districts, among the highlights. They are currently rebuilding the famous Pier, which is due to reopen in 2018.)

Or just hop a delightful trolley-style bus to Passa-Grill, a tiny charming village with a block-long “downtown” at Historic 8th Street ” (truly “Old Florida”) where the locals go to the beach, fish, look out to see dolphins and manatees, watch the sunset and hang out at waterside watering holes like the Paradise Grill. At Passa-Grill you can go out for deep sea fishing or take a tour boat to Shell Island. Or continue on to Fort de Soto where you can visit a Civil War-era fort.

Another popular activity is taking a sailing cruise to see dolphins or the sunset cruise. The Don CeSar has an arrangement with Dolphin Landings which offers two-hour cruises.

Winter, the plucky dolphin and star of "Dolphin Tale" with her prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, one of the major attractions near the Don Cesar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Winter, the plucky dolphin and star of “Dolphin Tale” with her prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, one of the major attractions near the Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is just about 30 minutes away to the north, in Clearwater Beach (you can take the trolley bus to get there, switching at 75th Avenue). For shopping, go to John’s Pass (150 shops and restaurants in a small area), reached by the trolley bus, midway between St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach.

Or plan a day trip to the Ringling Museum and historic mansion in Sarasota nearby.

Busch Gardens Tampa theme park (one of the best zoos with great roller coasters and entertainment) is less than an hour away (The Don CeSar has a partnership with Busch Gardens and offers a package that includes tickets, but you need a car or the hotel can arrange transportation).

Another idea is to split your stay between a beach holiday here at the Don CeSar and a theme park holiday in Orlando, staying at the Loews Portofino at Universal Orlando, another favorite hotel (which manages to create a resort atmosphere in Universal Studios theme park with sensational pool that creates a beach effect).

(For more vacation planning information, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater: 8200 Bryan Dairy Road, Suite 200, Largo, FL 33777, 727-464-7200, 877-352-3224 www.visitstpeteclearwater.com.) 

But frankly, it is hard to pull yourself away from the Don CeSar

The St. Pete beach is absolutely magnificent – and one thing I notice is that the buildings are set well back from the beach and are low level for the most part, not blocking – peaceful. One day as I walk, I come upon a beach-volleyball regional tournament.

A Great Blue Heron appreciating the sunset on Don Cesar’s beach © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A Great Blue Heron appreciating the sunset on Don CeSar’s beach © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The beach is also the place to go for the sunset – get out there 20 minutes before because you would be amazed at how fast the most brilliant colors come and go as the sun seems to dash to the horizon, seeming to melt into a slot just beyond the water’s edge.

The Loews Don CeSar is ideal for couples, gal getaways, destination weddings, honeymoons, family getaways, family reunions, any special occasion, pre-baby getaway, or just about any excuse to have a holiday.

Loews Don CeSar Hotel, 3400 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete Beach, Florida, 33706, 727-360-1881, reservations, 800-282-1116, www.loewshotels.com/don-CeSar.

__________________

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Just Ahead National Parks App Voted Among Top 5 Best New Travel Apps

Just aheadJust Ahead (http://www.justahead.com/), an award-winning smartphone app for road tripping through national parks, was recently voted a top five Best New Travel App by USA Today 10 Best readers. USA Today’s 10Best.com provides users with original, unbiased and experiential travel coverage of top attractions, things to see and do, and restaurants for top destinations in the US and around the world.

This distinction wraps up Just Ahead’s first full year of producing distinctive GPS-guided smartphone audio tours of this country’s most dramatic landscapes. To date, Just Ahead has concentrated on narrations on the lore and not-to-miss features of national parks in the West. It has produced 13 audio tours covering 15 national parks and monuments, and is gearing up to extend its coverage nationwide. Scheduled for early 2016 release are Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, Petrified Forest National Park and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, and South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, and Badlands National Park.

In addition to the USA Today honor, Just Ahead has been named Best Travel App by the North American Travel Journalists Association and Best App by the editors of Sunset magazine.

The Just Ahead mobile app turns an Apple or Android smartphone into a hands-free audio guide to the most beautiful places on earth by delivering professionally written and narrated audio tours to vacationers who want an informed travel experience as they drive.

Just Ahead utilizes GPS technology to know exactly where drivers are on the road, and delivers stories and maps relevant to their exact location. The groundbreaking app points out not-to-miss features while also helping drivers avoid getting lost. It suggests directions and tells drivers why they should turn or not, what they should do after a turn, and the best direction to take if there are multiple route options.

A satisfied user had this to say about the app and tour guide, “LOVE this idea! It’s like you went into my brain and pulled out something I never even knew that I wanted but now can’t think to live without.”

Just Ahead guides are currently available for the following National Parks: Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Zion & Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands & Arches, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain. Many additional park and road-trip guides are in production.

The Just Ahead app is a free download available through the Apple App Store (iPhone) or Google Play (Android), and each destination guide is available as an in-app purchase. Guides range from $7.99 to $9.99 and include a free trial and free guide updates.

Just Ahead’s award-winning audio guides work without an Internet connection or phone service and use a smartphone’s GPS to deliver hands-free, customized audio tours based on a vehicle’s location. The guides and built-in maps also provide helpful suggested directions, and offer more points of interest and stories than any other GPS audio travel app. Ideal for families, Just Ahead’s audio guides help create shared experiences, conversations, and memories that will last a lifetime. The Just Ahead app is a free download, and each destination guide is available as an in-app purchase that includes free guide updates.

For more information, visit www.justahead.com.

 

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Bubble Chairs, Great Snowmaking Give Okemo Mountain Resort an Edge

It's 3 degrees but we're happy as clams inside the Quantum Four bubble chair on Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
It’s 3 degrees but we’re happy as clams inside the Quantum Four bubble chair on Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

I always bump up my skiing at Okemo Mountain Resort, in southern Vermont. This time was the first time I really felt “the flow” – the fluid motion of putting the various elements of skiing together – the bicycle pedal motion of weighting and unweighting, the pushing knees together, shoulders square, standing up.

Okemo Mountain Resort's bubble chairs are a fabulous feature © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Okemo Mountain Resort’s bubble chairs are a fabulous feature © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It has a lot to do with the quality of snowmaking and grooming – an art as much as a science, with a dollop of luck because of weather conditions. But it also has to do with the design of the trails, scenic to be sure with gorgeous views, but also wide enough to be forgiving, long enough to get some really good practice in before you have to get back on the lift, and relatively few crosses so you’re not overwhelmed by advanced skiers and snowboarders barreling past. Also, the excellent signage and superb trail maintenance eliminate as much as possible the anxieties that accompany you as you are trying to progress in your technique. And everything is done to make skiers and snowboarders as comfortable as possible – excellent lift system, detachables (best invention in skiing, followed by shaped skis), and now, two of the major chair lifts to the top (Quantum Four, new this year, and Sunburst Six) have bubbles – an innovation that turns your chair into a capsule against the cold and precipitation (including snowmaking).

This was particularly appreciated (a godsend, really), on the day it was 3 degrees (before the wind chill factored in, making it feel like sub-zero). When we left, the temperature rose to a balmy 15 degrees (really, it felt wonderful), under Blue Bird cloudless skies. The feeling of good cheer and utter euphoria made it feel downright balmy.

Remarkably, the Okemo snowmakers opened 20 trails in just 8 days time and by the time we left, 42 trails of its 121 (18 miles worth) were open, offering amazingly great conditions.

Great trails and snowmaking enable you to bump up your skiing at Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Great trails and snowmaking enable you to bump up your skiing at Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We love the trails here – especially Sapphire, a wide, scenic, well-groomed blue trail that starts from the top of Sunburst Six (a six-pack bubble chair!), linking to Upper and Lower Arrow so the trail is long enough to really practice your skiing by the time you get back to the Sunburst Six.

We also love Blue Moon, an intermediate trail which connects to Lower Limelight and into the Jackson Gore area to the Quantum Four detachable quad bubble chair.

The design of the trails affords excellent movement around the three summits. Getting back to our comfy condo at the Adams House at Jackson Gore, we took the breathtakingly beautiful (but still a green and aptly named) Sweet Solitude into Roundhouse Run to Blue Moon.

Everything at Okemo, on the mountain and off, is really guest-oriented. This is not something to be taken for granted. The experience of really being cared for starts in the rental shop – the fellows (like elves) actually measured our feet before they gave us our boots (Diabello brand is absolutely my favorite, and I have never skied so well as when the boot fits properly), and were so helpful. and if you found your boot or skis or boards not the best fit, they happily exchanged them.

This warm and welcoming atmosphere continues with the lift operators who are invariably cheery and helpful. Bubbly, even (appropriate for the bubble chairs).

Stopping off for some sustenance at the Waffle Cabin on the trail at Okemo © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Stopping off for some sustenance at the Waffle Cabin on the trail at Okemo © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The on-mountain amenities – the lodges and eateries – are also absolutely marvelous. We love the Waffle Cabin that you come upon as you ski down Lower Arrow (there’s another near the base of the Coleman Brook Express Quad chair) – Dave couldn’t resist even in frigid weather. The Sugar House Lodge has an amazing Thai noodle station as well as Smokey Jo’s Grille (BBQ) and more traditional fare at a cafe. Up at the top of the Sunburst Six bubble chair, we sought comfort from the frigid temperature at the Summit Lodge.

The Epic restaurant at the Solitude base is an attraction itself: on Saturday nights, they arrange to bring diners up by snowcat for a five-course gourmet dinner (there is very limited seating, at 7 and 7:30 pm, and you need to make advanced reservations, 800-228-1600

For guests at Jackson Gore Inn – a luxury ski in/out resort within the resort – the pampering goes even further – you can check your skis right at the base, or in lockers (verboten to bring them into the guest rooms).

There is every amenity imaginable at Jackson Gore, including indoor pools, fitness center and classes, hot tubs, racquetball court, children’s splash features, and spa services  in the Spring House;  ice skating rink pavilion at the Ice House, fine-dining restaurant at Coleman Tavern and Siena, casual dining, indoor/outdoor pool and indoor and outdoor hot tubs and fitness center.

It's 3 degrees but enjoying the hot tub at Adams House condo at Jackson Gore, Okemo Mountain © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
It’s 3 degrees but enjoying the hot tub at Adams House condo at Jackson Gore, Okemo Mountain © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There we were on our first night (when it was single digits temp), in the indoor/outdoor pool (that means you enter the pool from inside, but swim outside in a really gigantic pool kept to 80 degrees; and enjoyed the steaming hot tubs. The next day, we took advantage of the hot tubs right outside our condo at Adams House at Jackson Gore, where we had a superb two-bedroom condo with completely outfitted kitchen, dining area and living room (fireplace too), massive bathrooms (3 altogether), laundry machines, three flatscreen TVs, WiFi. Simply heavenly.

And the newest attraction at Okemo, the four-season Timber Ripper Mountain Coaster – a scenic and exhilarating ride through forest and along the contours of the mountain at Jackson Gore. You ride over 4,800 feet of rollers, banking loops and a twister section at speeds up to 25 mph. It looks like a combination of theme-park roller coaster and bobsled run. Really formidable!

There is also snow tubing in a four-lane park located just off the Stargazer carpet in the courtyard of Jackson Gore, and snowcat excursions (Tuesday,Saturday and Holidays at 5 and 7 pm, $40 or $50 to ride “shotgun”). and kids’ 20-minute snowmobile tours ($39).

Each year, the experience at Okemo, known for being one of the friendliest, most welcoming ski destinations anywhere, gets better and better. This year, they have introduced RFID card, replacing a lift ticket, so you just keep the card in your pocket and stand in front of the reader which opens the gate. It really moves the lift line faster. You can pre-purchase the card and keep adding to it.

This year, Okemo has also expanded SouthFace Village, its newest on-mountain community. The Sunshine Quad, a new fixed-grip Leitner-Poma chairlift, connects the Village Center at SouthFace Village to the South Face Express Quad and provides access to the new Suncatcher trail.

Jackson Gore Inn is a luxury resort-within-the-resort with ski in/out convenience © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Jackson Gore Inn is a luxury resort-within-the-resort with ski in/out convenience © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Snowmaking also gets better and better (and has been crucial this season). This year, Okemo expanded snowmaking on White Lightning and Rolling Thunder at Jackson Gore, increasing  coverage to 98 percent of its trails. Okemo also added a new Prinoth 500 horsepower grooming machine to its fleet (you can really feel the difference!). And, in partnership with Snow Park Technologies, enhanced the Tomahawk trail “for more flow and originality” with jumps and hits.

Okemo also has a variety of terrain parks. The Homeward Bound terrain park was renamed Robbins’ Nest, with jumps, hips and features to recognize the contributions of Okemo’s first Snowboarding Program Director Gordon Robbins.

Okemo’s Penguin Playground Day Care accommodates kids from six months to four years old, and also offers Kids Night Out and Kids Night out with evening child care. Okemo, which was one of the early pioneers of cleverly themed children’s learning and activity programs (Snow Stars!), accommodates children as young as 3.

Sweet Solitude, Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sweet Solitude, Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Okemo is as big as you would want a mountain to be – 667 skiable acres (46 miles worth) across five mountain areas, a vertical drop of 2,200 feet (the highest in Southern Vermont), plenty terrain parks scattered around the mountains, accommodating all levels of ability, a learning area served by magic carpet and superb ski and ride schools – and yet feels so homey. Okemo skiers are passionate about the place.

It also offers the Okemo Valley Nordic Center on its golf course, with 22 km of Nordic track and skating lanes, plus 13 km of dedicated snowshoe trails, plus tree skiing and terrain that winds through meadows and hillsides, rental equipment and lessons (802-228-1396 for info).

Okemo Mountain Resort, Vermont
Okemo Mountain Resort, Vermont

The town of Ludlow, while remaining sweetly unpretentious, now has several wonderful restaurants: Harry’s Cafe, an Okemo tradition for 27 years (but recently relocated just across Rte 103 from the Jackson Gore access road), boasts “everything from scratch – handcut and homemade” and a “fusion” menu of various ethnic culinary traditions, and one of the few restaurants serving until 10 pm (reservations recommended, 802-228-2996, 68 Rte 100 North, www.harryscafe.com); The Downtown Grocery, for “casual fine dining” housed in a repurposed Victorian house and serving eclectic (even eccentric) creations (the Bangs Island Mussels and Baby Arugula salad were outstanding) by Chef Rogan Lechthaler “as creative in the kitchen as he is adept on skis”, who prides himself on homemade pastas (even ketchup), fresh sourced and sustainable seafood and cures (41 South Depot, 802-228-7566, www.thedowntowngrocery.com); and MoJo Cafe, a combination Tex-Mex-New Orleans hip cafe with a distinct “Austin weird” vibe (106 Main Street, 802-228-6656, www.mojocafevt.com).

Okemo Mountain Resort, 77 Okemo Ridge Road, Ludlow, VT 05149, 800-78-OKEMO, 24-Hour SnowPhone, 802-228-5222, www.okemo.com (see deals, like 4th Night Free).

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CardHub Lists Best Credit Cards, Tips for Travel

CardHub is offering tips to get more bang for your buck when you travel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
CardHub is offering tips to get more bang for your buck when you travel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

American households are reaping a boon from lower energy costs in recent months, with dramatically reduced prices at the pump expected to save the typical family roughly $750 over the course of 2015 and airfare finally starting to reflect reduced jet fuel costs, according to CardHub. That’s freeing up cash to spend on travel.

But there are more ways to save money while traveling. Another important financial tailwind – historically valuable credit card rewards – have actually grown even more lucrative in the past year, according to CardHub’s latest Credit Card Landscape Report, with sign-up bonuses worth up to $625 and various other perks available to people who have above-average credit standing.

In the interest of helping folks take full advantage of plastic this winter travel season, CardHub compared more than 1,000 credit card offers (some of which originate from CardHub advertising partners) in order to identify the most rewarding travel deals. You can find our best in class selections below, followed by CardHub’s money-saving travel tips.

Best Initial Bonus 

Citi ThankYou® Premier CardApply Now 269 reviews

Spending $3,000 during the first 3 months you have this card will score you 50,000 bonus points, which can be redeemed for a $625 statement credit applicable to travel-related charges that post to your account. On an ongoing basis, this card provides 3 points per $1 spent on travel and gas, 2 points per $1 on dining and entertainment, and 1 point per $1 on everything else. Its $95 annual fee doesn’t kick in until the second year either.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® CardApply Now 2,319 reviews

Spending at least $4,000 during the first three months your account is open will trigger a 40,000-point rewards bonus, which can be redeemed for $500 in travel accommodations booked through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Program or a $400 statement credit.

This card does not charge an annual fee during the first year ($95 thereafter) and does not assess foreign transaction fees for purchases processed abroad. For more information, check out ourfull review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

All-Around 

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ Credit Card 2,365 reviews

Perhaps the best rewards credit card on the market, Arrival Plus offers a 40,000-mile rewards bonus – redeemable for $400 in travel expenses – in return for spending $3,000 during the first three months your account is open. You’ll also earn the miles-equivalent of 2% cash back on all other purchases and receive a 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel.

This card does not charge a foreign transaction fee and its $89 annual fee is waived for the first year. Check out our Barclaycard Arrival Plus Review to learn more.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit CardApply Now 1,451 reviews

Spending $3,000 in the first 3 months will get you 40,000 bonus points, which can be redeemed for a $400 statement credit attributable to any travel-related expenses. The ongoing reward rate is 2 miles per $1 spent, with no limits or expiration dates. This card charges a $59 annual fee, beginning in the second year and does not assess foreign transaction fees for purchases processed abroad.

For a more in-depth look at this offer, check out CardHub editor’s review of the Capital One Venture Card.

Airline Rewards 

Frontier Airlines Credit Card 137 reviews

Spending $500 or more with this card during the first 90 days that you have it will get you 40,000 bonus miles, which can be redeemed for 2 round-trip domestic flights.

You’ll also earn 2 miles per $1 spent on FlyFrontier.com and 1 mile/$1 on all other purchases. There is a $69 annual fee.

PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express® Credit Card 212 reviews

In addition to a $200 initial bonus for spending at least $2,500 during the first three months, this card provides you with 5 points per $1 spent on all airfare and 1 point per $1 on everything else.

It does not have an annual fee, but you might have to pay a one-time $15 to join an eligible association, if you don’t initially meet PenFed’s eligibility requirements.

Hotel Rewards

Club Carlson℠ Premier Rewards Visa Signature® CardApply Now 56 reviews

You may not have heard of Club Carlson, but it represents a number well-known hotel brands such as Radisson, Park Plaza, and Country Inn & Suites. This eponymous card Club offers 50,000 bonus points with your first purchase and an additional 35,000 points for spending at least $2,500 within 90 days.

You can redeem your 85,000 total bonus points for up to 9 free hotel nights and your 40,000 annual bonus points for up to 4 more nights, depending on the category of hotel you select. There is a $75 annual fee and a 3% foreign transaction fee.

IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit CardApply Now 149 reviews

You’ll get 60,000 bonus points in return for spending at least $1,000 during the first three months you have the IHG Credit Card. That bounty is redeemable for up to 12 free nights, as IHG offers rewards nights for as low as 5,000 points through its PointBreaks program.

IHG card users also receive one additional free night each year on their account anniversary and an annual 10% point rebate (up to 100,000), in addition to 5 points per $1 spent at IHG hotel chains, 2 points per $1 spent at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, and 1 point/$1 on everything else.

This card does not have a first-year annual fee ($49 thereafter) and does not charge a foreign transaction fee. Hotels operating under the IHG umbrella include the Holiday Inn family of hotels and Crowne Plaza.

More details about this offer can be found in our IHG Credit Card Review. You can also learn more IHG Rewards Club in general by checking out our IHG Rewards Program Review.

Hilton HHonors® Surpass℠ Credit Card 145 reviews

Charging $3,000 to this card over the first three months you have it will trigger a 60,000-point initial bonus – redeemable for up to 12 free hotel nights, depending on how your hotel of choice is classified. Unfortunately, this offer comes with a $75 annual fee as well as a 2.7% foreign transaction fee, making it best suited to domestic travel.

You can learn more about Surpass and how it compares to Hilton’s other rewards cards in our in-depth HHonors card comparison. Additional details about Hilton’s rewards program more generally can be found in our full HHonors Program review.

Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American ExpressApply Now 279 reviews

You’ll earn a 25,000 points bonus after if you can manage to charge $3,000 to this card in the first 3 months your account is open. This bounty will score you 8 free hotel nights, depending on your hotel choice. The card has no annual fee in the first year, but will charge $95 after.

Road Trip Rewards 

PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Credit Card 933 reviews

This Pentagon Federal Credit Union offering provides 5 points per $1 spent on gas (at any station, as long as you fill up at the pump), 3 points per $1 spent on supermarket purchases, and 1 point per $1 on everything else. Signing up for the card will get you a $100 bonus for spending $1,500 in the first 90 days the account is opened. The Platinum Rewards Card doesn’t have an annual fee and no fee for foreign transactions, but you might have to pay a one-time $15 fee to join an eligible association, if you don’t initially meet PenFed’s eligibility requirements.

Blue Cash Preferred® from American ExpressApply Now 1,017 reviews

This Amex offers 6% cash back on groceries (up to $6,000 per year), 3% on gas and department store purchases and 1% on everything else – making it a great card for everyday spending as well as road trips.

While this card does charge a $75 annual fee and a 2.7% foreign transaction fee, you also get a $150 initial rewards bonus for spending at least $1,000 during the first three months.

Finance Travel By Reducing The Cost Of Existing Debt 

Chase Slate®Apply Now 1,571 reviews

If you have existing credit card debt (or you will after your impending winter vacation), transferring what you owe to the Slate Card could save you more than $1,000 in finance charges and help you reach debt freedom way earlier than you would otherwise. Just make sure to use our Balance Transfer Calculator to determine how much you’ll need to pay each month in order to be debt free by the time Slate’s 15-month 0% intro term gives way to high regular rates.

What really sets Slate apart from the balance transfer pack, however, is its lack of fees. More specifically, Slate charges neither an annual fee nor a balance transfer fee – which itself will save you hundreds. New applicants will also benefit from Slate’s new credit score tracking feature.

Get the full scoop on Slate from CardHub’s comprehensive review.

Finance Travel With 0% On New Purchases 

Citi® Diamond Preferred® CardApply Now 646 reviews

This card offers the longest 0% purchase APR on the market, at 21 months. So, if you won’t be able to pay off the cost of your coming trip in a single month, this is a great option to consider. All you have to do is use our calculator to see what monthly payments you’ll have to make in order to be balance-free by the time regular rates take effect.

It’s also important to note that this card probably isn’t your best bet when it comes to balance transfers, despite its near two-year interest-free term. That’s because it charges a 3% balance transfer fee. For the average consumer, who owes roughly $7,350, that fee alone would amount to $220.

Money-Saving Winter Travel Tips

Picking the right credit card can go a long way to saving you a bundle of money on a winter getaway. But there’s even more to vacation credit card use than applying for one of the offers listed above. There are certainly more ways to save as well. Here are some tips:

General Advice

  1. Use Plastic Whenever Possible:Credit cards provide a lot of value through initial rewards bonuses and 0% financing deals, but they also offer $0 fraud liability guarantees, the lowest possible currency conversion rates, and complementary rental car insurance coverage. It’s therefore a good idea to use plastic for the majority of your travel expenses.
  2. Choose Your Credit Card Wisely:Consumers who are interested in a new credit card mainly for quick rewards score should obviously concentrate on initial bonus offers, while people who prize the simplicity of having the same card in their wallet for a long time will want to check out those with ongoing rewards. Folks worried about incurring finance charges will find that a 0% offer has the potential to save them far more than even a great rewards card.
  3. Think Outside the Box:The most obvious vacation destinations and types of accommodations are naturally going to be the most popular and therefore the hardest to book on a budget. As a result, you may want to consider taking a mid-week flight, going to a small town, renting a house rather than booking rooms in an expensive hotel (especially if you’re traveling with a big group), and leveraging free resources like public transportation and destinations known for natural beauty.
  4. Mix Business with Pleasure:If you can find a way to squeeze in a few meetings around your trip, certain aspects of it may be tax deductible. While your travel must technically be “for business” and only your own business-related expenses are deductible, you’re allowed to tack a few recreational days onto either end of a business trip and you can certainly brainstorm ways to include your family under the business umbrella even if they aren’t employees (e.g. piling everyone into a rental car that would ordinarily be just for you).
  5. Comparison Shop:Comparing the prices of different air carriers, hotel chains, and vacation packages will enable you to identify best possible deals. You might even be able to score a more attractive price than what’s listed online by telling the sales representative that you’ll book immediately if they can beat a specific competitor’s offer.
  6. Maximize Your Credit Score:All of the Best Travel Credit Cards for 2015 require above-average credit for approval and therefore clearly illustrate the value of the best possible credit score. So, if your credit standing needs some work, make sure to have an open credit card that’s in good standing (look into opening a secured credit card if not), pay your monthly bill on time without fail, and you’ll see positive information flow into your credit reports on a monthly basis. This will either devalue negative information already in there or fill out a currently thin file.
  7. Tell Card Issuers You’re Leaving:Credit and debit card companies may suspend your account if a bunch of transactions suddenly originate from outside your normal spending area. You can prevent the resulting hassle by simply telling your issuer where and when you’ll be traveling. This is especially important if you’re headed out of the country, but it could come into play for long domestic trips as well.

International Travelers

  1. Take Advantage of the Dollar’s Strength:While weaker than both the Euro and the British Pound, the U.S. Dollar currently has a considerable advantage over the Swiss Franc, the Australian Dollar and the Japanese Yen. Selectively choosing your vacation destination is thus a distinct money-saving proposition.
  2. Use Your Credit Card for Currency Conversion:Visa and MasterCard offer exchange rates that are 3.66% lower than those offered by the average major bank and 6.90% lower than what Travelex charges, according to CardHub’s Currency Exchange Study.
  3. Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees:Around 90% of credit cards charge a premium to process transactions outside of the United States. You don’t have to be physically abroad to incur such a surcharge – which is known as a foreign transaction fee and can range from 2-4%, depending on the card. Rather, they apply whenever you make a purchase through a foreign-based merchant. As long as you have a no foreign transaction fee credit card, you won’t have to worry about these pesky fees.
  4. Take a Low-Fee Debit Card:You won’t be able to use a credit card for everything when abroad, so the best approach is to take a Visa or MasterCard debit card that has low fees for international ATM withdrawals so you can take out cash as needed and benefit from low card network exchange rates.
  5. No Need To Favor Chip Cards Yet:The international community is moving increasingly toward a chip-based credit card infrastructure complete with automated machines at places like train kiosks and parking garages that may not accept U.S. magnetic stripe cards. You might take that as a reason to get one of the chip-based cards now being marketed to U.S. consumers, but most of them are chip-and-signature cards while automated machines only accept chip-and-PIN (you can read more about the differencehere). Most international merchants still accept magnetic stripe cards anyway.
  6. Pay in the Native Currency:This doesn’t apply to domestic travelers, but those of you traveling abroad should make sure to only sign receipts expressed in the local currency. Foreign merchants sometimes offer to convert prices into U.S. dollars in order to charge a high conversion rate and line their pockets.

 

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How to Spend a Perfect Day in Athens, Greece

View of Acropolis Hill at night, from Acropolis Hill Hotel's roof garden © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
View of Acropolis Hill at night, from Acropolis Hill Hotel’s roof garden © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

If you only have a single day to spend in Athens, resist the temptation to rush to the Acropolis Hill and the New Acropolis Museum first – these most popular sites in the city which birthed democracy and Western Civilization, are overrun by 9 am with tour groups (though you can visit as early as 8 am), creating a line of people like ants and a cacophony of sound like a noisy schoolyard. Instead, here is an itinerary that gives you the full span of history and culture and gives you time to really appreciate the marvels on display.

The stunning life-size bronze of an African boy jockey on a racehorse, one of only five bronzes to survive the ages, on view at the National Archeology Museum in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The stunning life-size bronze of an African boy jockey on a racehorse, one of only five bronzes to survive the ages, on view at the National Archeology Museum in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

9:15 am: Start the day at the National Archaeology Museum, a 10-15 minute walk from the Omonia Metro Station (1.2E, about $1.50 a ride, or 4E for a full day of travel).Take a guided tour (50E for up to five people – we were lucky enough to have Andromache as our guide, Andromache.vl@gmail.com) – otherwise, you will be awed by what you see, but not understand their importance or context, even with the good labels and explanations in English. This is a spectacular museum that is not to be missed – only place where you will see archaeology representative of all regions of Greece over all its eons and periods (even surpassing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, and what a marvel to see the items in context): beginning with the Neolithic period, 6500-3300 BC (and what extraordinary pieces! including gold objects and stunning clay figures that showed a devotion to Mother Earth, Gaia, and hinted at the matriarchy that preceded a patriarchal religion and society).

The famous Mask of Agamemnon is thrilling to see "in the flesh" at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The famous Mask of Agamemnon is thrilling to see “in the flesh” at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You will be able to see the Golden Mask of King Agamemnon, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae in 1876, (which we learn is actually centuries older than Agamemnon’s reign, but they keep the name for “marketing” purposes), spectacular gold ornaments and funeral objects that suggest a belief in an afterlife, There are two of only five full-scale bronzes left in the world – one, a national symbol of a standing god (Zeus or Poseidon, it isn’t clear because the tool that he would have held, a lightening bolt or a trident, perhaps, has been lost to time) was saved because as it was being taken to Rome by boat to be melted down for weapons, the boat sank and was found in 1926 by fisherman, plus a bronze statue of an African boy on a racing horse that was saved by being shipwrecked, made during the time of Alexander the Great, when the expansion of Greek’s empire brought exotic themes into the art (Alexander was also the first person to have a portrait in a statue). You also see a vase with the first sentence (or rather, the oldest known sentence) written in Greek language: “Now I belong to the man who is the best dancer.” (I think to myself, what pressure on a person to write the first sentence to go down in history! Or, for that matter, the inventor of the “space” between words, which had not existed in Greek.).

Also, there is an astonishing special exhibit,” The Antikythera Mechanism,” about an astrological clock invented in 150-100 BC – centuries before Columbus used an astrolobe to explore the globe – that could predict planetary events 19 years ahead. The Mechanism, made with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker (how did they get the parts so thin and flat?), was found in 1900-1, in the wreck of a ship sunk off Antikythera.  Seven large fragments and 75 minor pieces have survived. “Their exact position and the original structure of the Mechanism are still a matter of intense investigation,” though an extraordinary video suggests how the machine, containing at least 30 gearwheels as well as dials, scales, axles and pointers, was put together. The notes say that the Greek astronomical inscriptions on the surface of the Mechanism refer to astronomical and calendar calculations, while the inscriptions on its metal protective plates contain instructions for its use. The Mechanism was protected by a wooden case, which had a bronze plaque on the front and the back side.

“The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator. It displayed the positions of the Sun, the Moon and most probably the five planets known in antiquity, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It was used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, it kept an accurate calendar of many years, and displayed the date of Pan-Hellenic games that took place at Nemea, at Isthmia, at Delphi, at Dodona and at Olympia.

“Its construction dates to the second half of the 2nd century BC. Its technology, which recalls the successors of Archimedes and the school of Poseidonius on the island of Rhodes, was the result of the development of philosophy and of exact sciences that took place in Greece until this era, and also draws on knowledge of the Hellenistic Age (celestial parameters, mechanical design and use of epicyclic gearing). The Mechanism bears witness to the astronomical, mathematical andmechanical ingenuity of ancient Greeks in Late Hellenistic period.”

It was the computer, the cell phone and the calculator of its day, and makes you realize that in every age, it only takes one genius to transform the world.

(National Archaeology Museum, 44 Palision St., www.namuseum.gr)

View of Acropolis through Hadrian's Gate, once the entrance to Athens. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
View of Acropolis through Hadrian’s Gate, once the entrance to Athens. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

11:30 am: From the National Archaeology Museum, hop back on the metro (the stations are beautiful, and each one features an exhibit of archaeological discoveries excavated when they dug the metro, but you are repeatedly warned to watch out for pickpockets, and we personally know several people who were in fact pick-pocketed) to the Acropolis stop, and walk  through Hadrian’s Gate (the original entrance to Athens), to the Temple of Olympic Zeus, one of the largest temples in Greece.

12:15 pm Walking through the Plaka, we stop for lunch under an umbrella, beside an arbor – relaxing and checking WiFi (just about all the tavernas have free WiFi. Greece offers exceptional value now – not only is the dollar strong against the Euro, but prices in Greece have been cut with the economic downturn, to make them more affordable. Our lunch cost less than 30E for 3 people, or about $10.

1:15 pm We walk past The Library of Hadrian (a gift of the Roman Emperor supporting education and exercise in Athens) and the Roman Agora (a commercial marketplace) in order to have enough time in the Ancient Agora – an exceptionally important site, where you will stand over the first House of Parliament, literally the birthplace of democracy.

You need to allocate at least one hour at the Ancient Agora in order to have time to visit a superb museum, housed in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a 2nd C BC building that was restored in 1952-56 by the American School of Classical Studies to exhibit the artifacts collected at the site (it was renovated in 2003-4). Here you will see how citizens (a minimum of 6000 were necessary) could vote to “ostracize” a politician accused of corruption. (Pericles, who we regard today as marshalling the Golden Age of Greece, received 43 of these “votes” recorded by scratching the name into a broken piece of pottery; to avoid prosecution, which could have resulted in being exiled for 10 years, Plutarch suggests that Pericles started the Peloponnesian War).

A lottery "machine" for selecting jurors, on display at the museum at the Ancient Agora. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A lottery “machine” for selecting jurors, on display at the museum at the Ancient Agora. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You also see the lottery system used to pick jurors (they paid 1/3 drachma to buy a strip in which to write their names, and if selected, would receive a drachma’s pay), and the devices used to record their verdict. Also, there are a collection of small cups used by prisoners to take hemlock – one of the cups could well have been used by Socrates, who was sentenced to death for teaching the heresy of denying 12 gods at a time when paganism was the official religion (he supported the idea of a single spirit, which gets me thinking that he might have been influenced by the Jewish community that was already established in Athens at the time – in fact, we visit the site where signs, etched in marble, announced the Jewish synagogue, near where the House of Parliament stood. The original artifacts are at the museum, but not on display).

Then walk down the street lined with statues of Giants (in Greek tradition, Titans were first, then the Giants, then the Olympian gods), to a headless torso of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who respected and admired Athenian culture and enhanced it with his Library and other institutions, but threw Christians to the lions (and wasn’t so great for Jews, either). The homage paid to him by Athenians was shown in the decoration on his breastplate, depicting the goddess Athena standing on a wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. But the headless statue was contemptuously thrown into the sewage ditch by early Christians (who also defiled the Parthenon and most of the statues denoting devotion to paganism), and only discovered in the sewer when they excavated.

The Hadrian Statue stands near the Bouleuterion, or Council House, where the 500 representatives of the 10 tribes met, would have been – in essence, the first House of Parliament.

Above, on a hillside, is the beautiful Temple of Hephaistos (5th C BC) but just to the side is believed to have been a synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since 3 rd C BC and possibly as early as 6th C BC. This is based on finding etched marble – in essence, a sign for the synagogue, which comes from the Greek words “synagein,” which means “to bring together” and the same root word as “agora” which means “a place of assembly.”

The Agora was the political center for Athens, and because it was a gathering place, also became a commercial center. It was there that courts were held (but capital crimes were tried outside its boundary, so the blood on a murderers’ hands not pollute the public space).

2:30 pm: Walk around the Acropolis Hill up Apostolou Pavlou, a beautiful wide cobblestone boulevard, lined with crafts people, street musicians (and virtually no cars), where you also see ruins of early neighborhoods, as well as peer into contemporary neighborhoods.

For the moment, we bypass the entrance to Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon (though you can buy your ticket, 12E, which gives free entry to the New Acropolis Museum and four other important archaeological sites, which can be used for one visit each over the course of four days), and head straight to the New Acropolis Museum. The entrance to the Museum is on another marvelous cobblestone pedestrian boulevard, Dionysiou Areopagitou.

3 pm: The New Acropolis Museum: Here at the museum, you will get the best orientation to what you will see at the Acropolis – it is a modern museum that opened in 2009, displaying in the most magnificent fashion the most incredible statues and art gathered (saved, preserved and conserved) from the Acropolis. On the top floor, from which you see the Acropolis just in front of you through a wall of windows, the statues and art are arranged exactly in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon itself – indeed, the room is the same size and proportion as the Parthenon, with columns spaced just as they would have been in marble. The presentation is exquisite.

Here, there is a superb video (presented in Greek and in English) that explains the history of the Acropolis, the artwork, and really prepares you for what you will see with a context. I watched the film in both Greek (English subtitles) and English (Greek subtitles), to absorb it all.

The second floor has statues and figures that are breathtaking – imagine, such features and dynamism in marble 2000 years before Europe’s Renaissance. Here we also see a “portrait” in marble of Alexander the Great – significant because he is the first person to have a likeness of himself in a statue.

We stop at the Museum’s gorgeous café, sitting outside on a rooftop restaurant just beneath the Acropolis, getting a pick-me-up with freddo cappuccino, freddo espresso and a double espresso (coffee and cocktails can be as expensive as a meal). The cafe is fabulous for lunch, as well.

Spend 2 1/2-3 hours going through the museum.

Parthenon, on Acropolis Hill, at the closing hour © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Parthenon, on Acropolis Hill, at the closing hour © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

6 pm: Now walk back up Dionysiou Areopagitou to enter the Acropolis. This late in the afternoon is a magical time, when the city has cooled down and there are a fraction of the number of people who visit in droves during the morning hours. Now, it is so peaceful, you can linger, stroll around, read the markers, even get photos without hordes of people standing in front. We sit on a promontory that offers an amazing view of the city laid out in front of you, waiting for the sun to get lower and the colors to get more golden, and then go around shooting photos again, the colors of the stone columns becoming gold and orange. We even momentarily catch the Parthenon with no one else in front of it. For that instance, you feel as if the Parthenon is yours alone, as if you hold Western Civilization in your hands. I am struck by a bit of sadness, too, when I realize that the Parthenon is but a scabby skeleton of what it was (now that you have seen the video and the art in the museum), and what has been stripped away and lost forever. But the Greek Government is working to restore the Parthenon – a process that has been going on since Greece became an independent country, in 1821. After various false tries because of inadequate technology and knowledge in restoration, the government is working to replace the fabulous statuaries with replicas in just the exact places, leaving the originals in the museum where they are properly cared for.

(There is also a vigorous campaign to recover the artwork looted from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago, and is pointedly made the villain in the museum’s video history of the Parthenon. Since 1816, the marble statues and reliefs taken by Elgin have been prize exhibits of the British Museum.  Meanwhile, the Greeks had to make do with the leftovers, housed in a ramshackle museum built in 1874, that is still on the Hill.  The Greeks built the New Acropolis Museum expressly as an argument that the Elgin marbles should be returned to Athens from the British Museum because there is finally a proper place to house and display them.)

What gets my eye is the Erechtheion, built about 420 BC, an Ionic temple that on one side, is supported with the six Caryatids- stunning statues of women– five of the originals are at the New Acropolis Museum (the sixth was one of the many artworks taken from the Acropolis by the British Lord Elgin).

The city of Athens sprawls out in front of you from the Acropolis Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The city of Athens sprawls out in front of you from the Acropolis Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

People wait here until the light is best – you only have a 10-minute window or so when the light is great and before the guards shoo you out

We leave finally when we are pushed out at around 7:30 pm by the guards – and get to watch the nightly formality as a contingent of soldiers come to secure the Acropolis). We come down to where people are on a rocky hill, with an incredible view of the sunset. We climb up, too, to take in the view.

Our perfect day is far from over, though.

Cocktails at the Hedrion Hotel's Rooftop Garden Bar, with a splendid view of the Acropolis © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Cocktails at the Hedrion Hotel’s Rooftop Garden Bar, with a splendid view of the Acropolis © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

8 pm: We walk down the Dionysiou Areopagitou (I use this wonderful boulevard as much as possible), cutting over to Rovertou Gali to the go to the Roof Garden Bar at the Hotel Herodion, with a stunning view of the Acropolis, lighted at night, a short walk after our late-afternoon visit, and a stone’s throw from the New Acropolis Museum (we can look through its windows at late-museum goers; the museum is open until 8 pm normally and until 10 pm on Friday nights). The Herodion’s bar offers a selection of imaginative cocktails. We enjoyed “Wisecrack Fizz,” with Pisco Barsol, st. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, and soda; a Hellas Fashioned, made with Metaxa 5, sugar, angostura bitters and rose water (one of the clever inventions of ‘Lefty’ the bartender), and 3 Cardinalsa, made with Midori, Frangelico, elderflower syrup, frsh lime juice and fresh orange juice, another of “Lefty’s” creations. the hotel also has a very fine restaurant (Hotel Herodion, 4 Rovertou Galli, Acropolis, Herodian.gr).

Nightlife in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Nightlife in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

9:15 pm We get a couple of suggestions for our dinner, which gives us another wonderful excuse to walk through the Plaka to the Monastiraki district.

Thanassou restaurant is packed with people – we notice they are not tourists, but local people, enjoying the souvlaki and gyros. This part of the Monastiraki district is a little outside the most popular tourist area – in fact, restaurants and bistros and clever bars and coffee houses are opening throughout the district taking over where shops – like fabric stores – have been shuttered. The chicken souvlaki, served on pita, with yogurt, onions and tomatoes and french fries, is well done (about $12).

Acropolis Hill Hotel

By now, it is nearly midnight and I walk back to the Dionysiou Areopagitou toward my hotel, the Acropolis Hill Hotel, enjoying the street musicians virtually all along the way,

The new Acropolis Hill Hotel, which opened in the fall of 2010, is an “urban chic” luxury boutique hotel (at three-star hotel prices), nestled in the serene green, upscale residential area of Filopappou, virtually under the sacred rock of the Acropolis and a 15-minute walk from the Plaka. From the roof garden, it offers a lovely view of the Acropolis. It also has an outdoor swimming pool (in season), a lovely breakfast room where an ample buffet is served daily (including freshly prepared eggs, bacon and sausage; a selection of cereals, breads, cheeses, yogurt and fresh fruits), and a lobby lounge, plus free WiFi. My room also has a balcony, refrigerator, and flat screen TV with a selection of programming (7 Mousson Street, Gr 11 742, Filoppapou, info@acropolishill.gr, www.acropolishill.gr.)

The Acropolis Hill Hotel is one of five hotels in the Tour Hotel Group group:

The Arion Athens Hotel offers a wonderful from the roof top garden, free Wifi  (18, Agio Dimitriou St., 105 54 Athens, www.arionhotel.gr, arion@tourhotel.gr).

Achilleas Hotel is a totally renovated hotel right in the heart of Athens commercial and business center, a two minute walk from Syntagma Square, a location next to the Acropolis Museums, Parliament, Emou shopping Street and the Syntagma metro station. It offers suite rooms ideal for families (Lekka 21 Str., 105 62 Athens, Greece, www.achilleashotel.gr, achilleas@tourhotel.gr).

For a different experience, the Kalamaki Beach Hotel is a resort-style property in the Peloponnese in a verdant area next to the emerald waters of the Saronic Gulf. It offers a swimming pool, tennis courts and children’s playground (www.kalomakibeach.gr).

(For more information, visit Tour Hotel Group, www.tourhotel.gr.)

If you have more time in Athens, here are some recommendations:

Take a walking tour such as Context Travel‘s “Acropolis Seminar” and Context Travel’s “Daily Life in Ancient Athens which together give a very comprehensive understanding of ancient Greece in a very intimate setting so that the guides can be very responsive to your interests and questions (info@contexttravel.com, www.contexttravel.com/city/athens (story to follow).

See Athens with a Native: “This is My Athens”  program offered through the official city of Athens visitors’ website  pairs visitors with a local Athenian volunteer who goes beyond the traditional guidebook sights to take you to local neighborhoods. You get matched with a volunteer by filling out a form at http://myathens.thisisathens.org/default.php?pname=homepage2&la=2 . For more info: http://myathens.thisisathens.org/ (story to follow)

The Jewish Museum of Greece offers fascinating exhibit where you can learn about Europe’s oldest Jewish settlement, 39 Nikis St., 105 57 Athens, Greece, info@jewishmuseum.gr, www.jewishmuseum.gr (hours are Monday-Friday, 9-2:30 pm, Sundays, 10-2 pm).

This is an exceptional time to visit Greece – the dollar is strong against the Euro and prices in Greece have been reduced. I had expected to see the kind of blight and deprivation that the US experienced as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, but apart from some graffiti (“We are artists, not vandals,” one proclaims), and some closed shops, the city is absolutely magnificent, vibrant and bustling, with many chic, new enterprises opening, and the people are welcoming and good natured.

Great planning tools are at www.thisisathens.org.

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