All posts by krubin723

A Day in San Francisco Revisiting the Past: Plucky Cable Car Epitomizes City’s Grit, Determination, Innovation

More than a sightseeing attraction for tourists, San Francisco's cable cars are intrinsic to what makes the city go © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
More than a sightseeing attraction for tourists, San Francisco’s cable cars are intrinsic to what makes the city go © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

A day devoted to exploring San Francisco’s past, and how this improbable city came to be began with Hudson Bell’s Fern Hill Walking Tours’ Classic San Francisco, which offered a brilliant orientation to the city. We end the tour with a ride on the California cable car line. Just a couple of blocks where Bell’s walking tour ends, back at Nob Hill, is the Cable Car Museum.

Even more than the Golden Gate Bridge, I believe, the cable car defines San Francisco – it is fact, the only city where cable cars still operate as more than just a tourist ride and an essential part of mass transit system. But as I soon learn, the cable cars survive in spite of repeated attempts to replace them altogether. It is quite literally the Little Train that Could – a technology that was invented here in the 19th century which still proves the best to tackle San Francisco’s hills. The cable car is what made San Francisco livable.

Watch as the wheels and gears pull San Francisco's cable cars throughout the city at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Watch as the wheels and gears pull San Francisco’s cable cars throughout the city at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Located in the historic Washington/ Mason cable car barn and powerhouse, the Cable Car Museum, which opened in 1974, is so much more than a museum. It lets you look at the actual workings of all four cable-car lines – gigantic wheels, gears and pulleys and cables, moving underground constantly at 9 mph from this central powerhouse. You even get to look under the street to see the “sheavers” doing their painstaking work.

The deck overlooks the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the cables. Downstairs is a viewing area of the large sheaves and cable line entering the building through the channel under the street.

You can see the marvelous mechanical devices – grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools – detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs.

You sit in an open car to watch a fantastic video (apparently, produced by GE in the 1980s, when the cable cars were saved from being completely removed), that explains how the cable cars work and the history.

You get a healthy respect watching how the engineer drives San Francisco's cable cars. San Francisco's cable cars are intrinsic to the city's persona. Invented in San Francisco, it is the only city that still uses the cable cars, which are still the best way to climb its hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
You get a healthy respect watching how the engineer drives San Francisco’s cable cars.
San Francisco’s cable cars are intrinsic to the city’s persona. Invented in San Francisco, it is the only city that still uses the cable cars, which are still the best way to climb its hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You come away with extraordinary respect and admiration for the cable car engineers – how physical, all the things they have to watch, since they are in essence driving in traffic and have to be careful of cars and pedestrians in the way. Most interesting of all is how the engineer literally let’s go and the car is in free fall as it goes around turns or crosses over the cable for another line.

These aren’t simple, archaic machines at all – It is an ingenious, completely mechanical system: four cable lines, each a closed loop, occasionally crossing each other; sheaving machines that change the cable direction; hundreds of smaller sheaves are under the streets (like pulleys). The huge winding wheels we see here at the powerhouse pull a steel cable at a constant 9 mph through a trench beneath the tracks. The car latches onto the cable with a grip that works like a giant pair of pliers.

The video shows how the engineer drives the cable car, gripping and releasing the cable, how the cable car is actually in free fall when it turns the corner or crosses another cable.

Considering all that stress on the cables of lifting those cars, full of passengers, up those steep hills, don’t the cables fray and break? The cables are actually totally replaced every few months.

My admiration for the invention – and the engineering and how the people who operate them – skyrockets.

More than a sightseeing attraction for tourists, San Francisco's cable cars are intrinsic to what makes the city go © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
More than a sightseeing attraction for tourists, San Francisco’s cable cars are intrinsic to what makes the city go © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The cable car was invented in San Francisco by Andrew Smith Hallidie. Hallidie’s father was an inventor who had a patent in Great Britain for “wire rope” cable. Hallidie immigrated to the U.S. in 1852 during the Gold Rush. He began using cable in a system he had developed to haul ore from mines and in building suspension bridges.

The story goes that he got the idea for a steam engine powered, cable-driven – rail system in 1869, after witnessing horses being whipped while they struggled on the wet cobblestones to pull a horse car up Jackson Street; the horses slipped and were dragged to their death.

Hallidie entered into a partnership to form the Clay Street Hill Railroad, which began construction of a cable line on Clay Street in May of 1873. tested the first cable car at 4 o’clock in the morning, August 2nd, 1873, on Clay Street, in San Francisco.

There was a move to replace the cable cars, but after the 1906 earthquake and fire, there was too much to be replaced, so the system was restored.

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, there was a move to replace cable cars with the electric streetcar, perfected in1888 by Frank Sprague. Street cars had become the vehicle of choice for city transit – requiring only required half the investment to build and maintain, and could reach more areas and was quicker. But the cable cars were still able to traverse the steep hills better, so some of the lines were rebuilt. However, as the streetcars improved, even those lines were in jeopardy.

By 1947, the lower operational costs of buses prompted Mayor Lapham to declare, “the city should get rid of all cable car lines as soon as possible.”

Hold on! Riding the San Francisco cable car is a real ride © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hold on! Riding the San Francisco cable car is a trip! © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But that idea met with huge community opposition. Friedel Klussmann founded the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars. There was an international outcry to save the cable cars, which just about everyone appreciated defined the city.

“It would be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower, New York without the Statue of Liberty, London without Big Ben,” an international newspaper screamed.

But by the 1970s, the system was deteriorated. The system was shut down from 1982-4 to be completely rehabilitated. reopening in 1984 in time for the Democratic National Convention that was held in the city. San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (now US Senator) cut the ribbon.

San Francisco is now only place that operates cable car on streets.

The museum houses three antique cable cars from the 1870s. The Sutter Street Railway No. 46 grip car & No. 54 trailer and the only surviving car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car.

The museum also offers a vivid exhibit with historic photos and commentary of the Great Earthquake of 1906 – you really appreciate the devastation, which makes how San Francisco came back from that all the more remarkable:

At 5:12 am, the equivalent of 6 million tons of TNT – that’s 12,000 times the impact of the 1945 atomic bomb of Hiroshima – struck. The city shook for 40 seconds, then a 10-second pause and 25 seconds more. It left a 200 mile long, 20-40 mile-wide path of destruction along the San Andreas Fault, from Salinas Valley to Fort Bragg.

But that wasn’t the worst – fire broke out April 18, burning for three days. All the water mains, from Crystal Spring reservoir into the city, were broken, so the firefighters had nothing to fight with. The three days of fire caused six times the devastation of London’s 1666 fire.

City Hall was in ruins. The Palace Hotel burned late on April 18 (from which the opera singer Enrico Caruso fled, to the St. Francis where he had breakfast).Russian, Nob and Telegraph Hills burned down to bare earth. The Wharf, North Beach, financial district were desolated. The district known as “South of the Slot” (because of the Market Street cable car slots down the street) burned block after block of tenement and industrial buildings.

The Mission District burned to 20 th & Church streets, where, miraculously, water was available.

But many of the cable car lines that survived the earthquake and fire fell victim to modern rebuilding, with the construction of electric trolley lines – the electric streetcar.

When you consider the strain on hoisting these cable cars up and down the hills, I can only imagine the wear and tear and what would happen if any snapped at any point. I learn that the cables that pull the cable cars around day in and day out are completely replaced every few months.

There is a fun gift shop and a small cafe inside (across the street from the cable car museum is a great cafe to get refreshment).

Free admission! Open daily (except 4 holidays), 10-6 April 1-Sept. 30, 10-5, Oct 1-Mar 31.

Cable Car Museum, 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, 415-474-1887, www.cablecarmuseum.org.

Riding the Cable Car

The visit to the Cable Car Museum only enhances my appreciation for the cable car, and during my visit, I take about four different rides.

The Powell & Hyde route is supposed to offer the steepest hills, and I take that from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf. (It has a stop right above the famous Crooked Street /Lombard.)

Riding on the outside, standing on the running board and holding on with one hand as you try to take photos with the other! Disney doesn’t have a ride to compare.

It is quite thrilling, especially when the cable car comes within inches of the returning cable car (wave to the people!), or traffic that buzzes along side. The views are fantastic.

I’m impressed with all the gears the engineer operates, the physical effort it takes, and how he has to watch out for pedestrians, cars that drive into the lane, the riders hanging off (like me), the riders who want to get on, watch the traffic lights and the signs painted into the streets.

Riding the San Francisco cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Riding the San Francisco cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Returning, I gauge the long line to get back on, so go over to the Powell & Mason line, at Bay Street.

I’ve calculated just right and for my last ride, I am in the exactly right position: riding outside, in the front, so I can rest my camera and hold on with one hand.

Half the seats are outside, and you face out, not front.

People hail the cable car along the route – if they can get on – and it’s not just tourists who use the cars but locals. The California line tends to get fewer tourists and more commuters.

Historic John’s Grill

A perfect way to cap off our sojourn into San Francisco’s history is dining at Historic John’s Grill, located toward the Market Street end of the Powell Street  Cable Car ride, just up from the ferry building in Union Square (it’s also walking distance of the theater district, museums, shops and the city’s historic hotels, the Westin St. Francis and The Drake).

John’s Grill has been a San Francisco institution since 1908 – just after the earthquake – a favorite of politicians, detectives, journalists and generations of San Franciscans.  The interior is a masterpiece of original period furnishings, with wood-paneled walls and its historic photographs reflect a colorful century of San Francisco’s history. The restaurant also is the home of the Maltese Falcon,  the precious statue made famous by detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, who worked next door and would frequent the restaurant. Hammett used the restaurant as a setting in his famous Sam Spade stories: “Sam Spade went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, sliced tomatoes … and  was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when…”

There is a whole atmosphere to John’s Grill – there’s live jazz nightly from 6:30 to 9:30 pm on the second floor, but the music fills the main floor restaurant also. (The third floor of the townhouse is a banquet room accommodating 100).

John's Grill has a permanent exhibit to writer Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon. Hammett, a frequent guest, incorporated John's Grill into the Sam Spade story © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
John’s Grill has a permanent exhibit to writer Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. Hammett, a frequent guest, incorporated John’s Grill into the Sam Spade story © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You must go up to the second floor where there is a sort of “museum” to the Maltese Falcon – actually more of an exhibit case, with the statue, copies of Hammett’s books. (John’s Grill is the headquarters of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco, founded in 1977 by William F. Nolan, a biographer of Hammett, and Jack Kaplan, a director of Pinkerton’s. they created the “Maltese Falcon Room” and guide “Hammett Walks” around the city).

A steakhouse that evokes the machismo of Sam Spade, everything we ordered was fantastic (the rib eye steak was perfection with a peppery accent, as was the Jumbo Prawns Dijonnaise, sauteed with mushrooms, wine, garlic and dijon cream; broiled seabass in a roasted garlic beurre blanc; and a seafood cannelloni- crepes filled with crab, shrimp, baby spinach, cheese, mushrooms with a sherry cream sauce.

The restaurant is known for its Chicken Jerusalem (sauteed with artichokes, mushrooms and creamy white wine sauce) and Oysters Wellington (prepared with creamed spinach, smoked bacon, baked in a puff pastry and served on a bed of sherry cream) .

We start the meal with a selection of appetizers – fresh oysters, Maine lobster ravioli, Moules a la mariniere (mussles with garlic in an herbed light cream broth).

Historic John´s Grill, 63 Ellis Street, San Francisco 94102, Tel: (415) 986-0069, email john@johnsgrill.com, www.johnsgrill.com

Historic Hotel Whitcomb

Hotel Whitcomb is the perfect accommodation for this sojourn through San Francisco’s history – it is, indeed, one of the Historic Hotels of America members in San Francisco (historichotels.org).

For several years following the earthquake of 1906, it served as the City Hall (1912-1915) – (“City Hall” used to be etched in stone above the entrance) – and has been a  hotel since 1916.

Tiffany leaded glass decorates the bar at the historic Hotel Whitcomb, which opened in 1916 after serving as the City Hall © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Tiffany leaded glass decorates the bar at the historic Hotel Whitcomb, which opened in 1916 after serving as the City Hall © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

When you walk through the front doors of the landmark Hotel Whitcomb from bustling Market Street, you find yourself in an elegant boutique hotel with high cathedral ceilings and lovely interiors of early 19th century and Edwardian architecture.

The opulent lobby features Austrian crystal chandeliers, Tiffany stained glass domes above the front desk and also in the piano bar, polished Italian marble columns and floors, Janesero wood paneling, polished brass fixtures, and fresh flowers accentuates the hotel’s Victorian style that is remarkably calming. 1940s music is playing.

The landmark Hotel Whitcomb is an elegant boutique hotel with high cathedral ceilings and  lovely interiors of early 19th century © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The landmark Hotel Whitcomb is an elegant boutique hotel with high cathedral ceilings and lovely interiors of early 19th century © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Located on Market Street, across from the Orpheum Theater, the hotel is surrounded by trendy Soma and Hayes Valley restaurants, shops and attractions, walking distance to many of San Francisco’s historic sites, steps away from Civic Center, the theater district, or ride the cable car to Union Square, the financial district, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and The Moscone Center.

The hotel’s 460 beautifully-appointed guestrooms and 12 parlor suites deliver a luxurious hospitality experience with modern amenities and good value. The Penthouse Governor’s Suite offers marvelous views of San Francisco.

Other conveniences: there is a Starbuck’s Coffee right in the lobby, a fitness center, an internet cafe, a business center, high speed wireless internet (free), a gorgeous ballroom to accommodate meetings and weddings, and a lovely dining room.

There is also a very interesting Asian art museum and gallery, plus “Hall of History” with display cases of artifacts and memorabilia from the hotel’s and the city’s past.

Hotel Whitcomb 1231 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, 415-626-8000, Email: sales@hotelwhitcomb.com, hotelwhitcomb.com.

See also:

Walking tour tells story of San Francisco’s improbable rise as a great city and slideshow

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Walking Tour Tells Story of San Francisco’s Improbable Rise as a Great City

We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car - even when the city wanted to replace them with street cars, the cable cars remained the best to tackle San Francisco's hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car – even when the city wanted to replace them with street cars, the cable cars remained the best to tackle San Francisco’s hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

San Francisco is an improbable  city. Its high, rolling hills rising straight up from the water should have discouraged settlement. Walking up, up , up and around these hills you see just how outrageous it was for anyone to contemplate building homes in such concentration here. Just driving is like a theme park roller coaster ride. And the cable car is better than any theme park ride.

Any practical real estate developer would have shunned such an uninhabitable place, more desert wasteland than anything else. But the city burst into being – a demonstration of what money, ingenuity, grit and determination can achieve.

It has proved an incubator of innovation and creativity – the cable car, the fortune cookie, denim jeans, television (attributed to Philo T. Farnsworth in 1927), the city even birthed Rube Goldberg – the same ingredients that foreshadowed Silicon Valley.

San Francisco is fascinating and perplexing, but where to start? For the visitor, this isn’t an easy place to uncover once you get passed the most obvious attractions of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and have a ride on the cable car.

I appreciate all of this after a most pleasant walking tour with Hudson Bell, the proprietor of Fern Hill Walking Tours.

I walk up to Huntington Park on Nob Hill from the Hotel Whitcomb (appropriately, a historic hotel that in fact served as City Hall after the earthquake, and a member of Historic Hotels of America), for my journey back through San Francisco’s history with Hudson Bell who has a new company, Fern Hill Walking Tours.

“Up” is the operative word because most of the mile is straight up San Francisco’s legendary hills.

San Francisco's hills make it an improbable place to build a city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s hills make it an improbable place to build a city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

When we meet by the fountain in the park, which is surrounded by elderly people doing Tai Chi, Hudson lays out the itinerary for his “Classic San Francisco” tour. It ambitiously traverses Nob Hill, Chinatown, Russian Hill, Jackson Square, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, The Embarcadero, and the Financial District  – in other words, we will get to experience a large portion of this vibrant city. His route highlights San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods while telling the story of the city’s transformation from a tiny Mexican trading post to “the Emporium of the Pacific”.

During the four hours (with a lunch break), we cover five miles, and lest San Francisco’s hills seem a barrier to a walking tour, Bell strategically hops on San Francisco’s distinctive public transportation (he provides a transit pass), which is a treat in itself. I appreciated the tour as a newbie, rather intimidated by how to tackle San Francisco, but it also is most satisfying to seasoned San Francisco travelers and even locals. Indeed, by the end, I feel completely comfortable continuing my exploration of the city, even unraveling the mystery of its public transportation. In fact, I had no sense of time at all – the time really flew by.

Hudson Bell of Fern Hill Walking Tours, in front of the Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hudson Bell of Fern Hill Walking Tours, in front of the Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Great Depression-era murals inside San Francisco's Coit Tower on Telegragh Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Great Depression-era murals inside San Francisco’s Coit Tower on Telegragh Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell is a seasoned guide – working for others for three years – and brings a distinctive approach to his own company than most of the other scripted and pre-packaged tour companies. I love the way his storytelling unfolds as we come to a particular building or site, summoning the spirits of the people associated with places and events (Mark Twain, William Tecumsah Sherman) and the various movers and shakers of the city whose names now emblazon streets and towering structures, and especially, how he will distinguish between historic facts – Bell is the historian for the Nob Hill Association as well as working on a book about Fern Hill (the neighborhood’s original name) – popular legends, and myths that are more dubious.

Bell brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bell brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco was largely a manufactured city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco was largely a manufactured city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell brings you to places you might not have thought to go – points out structures that you wouldn’t have appreciated, brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets. The structures hold the stories of the people who built them, lived or worked in them, where events took place.

His commentary inspires more questions from me, and he is like a patient parent trying to quench my curiosity.

His itinerary is brilliantly laid out logistically, weaving together the different neighborhoods. He brings me to places I never would have thought to visit because of my limited time – like Coit Tower  (atop Telegraph Hill, it seemed too much trouble, but Bell cleverly hops a bus to the top, and then I saw what was inside! and the walk down brings you to small “streets” that are really walking paths).

Hudson pulls out a map from 1854 that shows Nob Hill (Fern Hill in those days where we are standing and points out that it was not only one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco but was the westernmost part of the city after the Gold Rush of 1849 (the first house was built that year by Benjamin Brooks, from New York). That flat part we see today (Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina District) – simply did not exist. The flat part is man-made from landfill, atop a virtual armada of sunken ships, abandoned when passengers and crew raced to the gold fields to seek their own fortunes, combined with rock and grit blasted from the hills, to such an extent, houses collapsed.

Originally, the Bay area was home to the Ohlone Indians, the first Europeans were Spaniards who settled the Presidio and Mission in the 1700s (my biggest regret of my all-too-short visit to San Francisco was not seeing the Old Mission). It was a base for military and for Catholic missionaries intent on converting the Indians. French and British traders came in the 1830s. Yerba Buena (as San Francisco was first known), was a trading post with 300 people.

It hastily became a US territory in 1847 after Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American War. Coincidentally (or was more like insider trading, I wonder), gold was discovered in 1848.

In 1849, after the find had been validated, the population exploded, from 700 to 20,000 in just months.

By the 1870s, Nob Hill (nob means “dirt”) became the popular neighborhood for the wealthy.

All around the park are the buildings – monuments, really – to the early founders who built their mansions and the city with their own fortunes from mining, railroads, shipping and finance – quite literally the stuff of America’s emergence as a global industrial power.

Just across the street from Huntington Park where we are standing is the gargantuan mansion of James Flood, who made his fortune in the Nevada silver mines (it reminds you of  Vanderbilt’s Newport “cottage,” The Breakers) – in fact, this was his “cottage” rather than his main home. it was one of the last built before the earthquake (one of the few built of stone, rather than wood), and one of the few that survived the three days of fire that consumed the city after the earthquake. These days it is the Pacific Union Club.

San Francisco's opulent Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s opulent Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Across the street from James Flood’s mansion, is the Fairmont Hotel, built by Fair’s daughters, it was nearing completing when the earthquake hit. The structure survived, but the interior had to be completely redone and for this, they turned to the first woman architect and engineer, Julia Morgan, who was innovative in using reinforced concrete to withstand earthquake (she also designed Hearst Castle). The hotel opened in 1907.

Fairmont Hotels are luxurious but this makes New York’s Plaza, The Pierre and Waldorf=Astoria look like poor cousins in comparison. What is more, it is actually tasteful. The artwork and artistry, architectural features and interior design are simply breathtaking. But one of the reasons Hudson brings me here is to point out a wall of historical photos and plaques that tell the story of the city’s movers and shakers. (And in 1945, the hotel was the site for negotiations establishing the United Nations; President Harry Truman signed the United Nations Charter in the Garden room in 1945).

Among the hotel’s attractions was the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a historic tiki bar opened in 1945. It features a bandstand on a barge that floats in a former swimming pool, a dining area built from parts of an old sailing ship, and artificial thunderstorms (it is no longer open to the public but there is a photo of it).

We walk passed the “Cirque” room, a cocktail room reserved for special occasions, with stunning murals of circus performers on gold, and passed the hotel’s garden where they grow herbs for their restaurants.

He brings me to a hidden garden to look at the view and imagine the city 100 years ago. He points out the Presidential Suite where so many presidents, including Obama had stayed.

The Fairmont is just across the street from another San Francisco landmark: the Mark Hopkins Hotel, built on the site of the “crazy” opulent mansion (because his wife wanted to outdo the rest). The hotel was built on the site in 1923 and is famous for the Top of the Mark, opened in 1930, the highest place in San Francisco to get a drink (but not the first rooftop bar).

Across from the Mark Hopkins, Hudson points out four townhomes because they were built by Willis Polk, a key architect after the earthquake (he also redesigned the Flood Building).

Grace Church, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Grace Church, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Before we leave Nob Hill, he brings me into the Grace Church, on the other side of the park – a monumental building, but now on closer examination, they look familiar and  I see the golden doors match the Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” on the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence, Italy. It’s not a coincidence – Hudson tells me that two copies were made in 1942 when it was feared the Nazis would destroy them.

Inside, the church -the third largest cathedral in the US – is decorated with magnificent murals and stained glass.

Walking around, he points out the stones outside the church which predate the earthquake and fire.

Chinatown: Home of the Fortune Cookie 

Our next stop is Chinatown – one of the few times we see literal gaggles of tourists. It is to Bell’s credit that he does not pass up Chinatown, probably one of the most touristic attractions in the city, because you would miss so much of the story, but he offers what I think is a more interesting take on this part of the city.

Chinatown is the original part of the city, is the oldest Chinatown in the US and second in population to New York City’s.

He points out the Tin How Temple, the oldest traditional Chinese temple in US, dating from 1850.

The last traditional fortune cookie factory, in San Francisco's Chinatown where the fortune cookie originated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The last traditional fortune cookie factory, in San Francisco’s Chinatown where the fortune cookie originated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This is an exceptionally popular area for tours – the tiny street is jammed with groups, all headed to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory, “the last place to see old-style preparation of fortune cookies,” he says, “they even have ‘adult’ fortune cookies.” The sweet smell fills the alley. All of us line up for our turn to enter the tiny, narrow shop for a quick peek to see how a woman takes the freshly baked thin cookies and fills with a fortune and folds it. You can only take a picture if you pay 50c or buy something (a bag of cookies is $1, a bottle of water is a $1 – well worth it)  only get a few minutes because of the line of people wanting to come in – pass around a sample of the cookie from the “rejects.”

Hudson tells me there are many fortune cookie “creation” myths – but the one he feels most credible is that they were created for the World’s Fair held in Golden Gate Park, by the Chinese who adapted a traditional Japanese cookie by putting a fortune inside.

We go through Jackson Square where the oldest building building in the city stands– “a freak survivor of earthquake/fire,” and to the section of the city that was so popular with writers. We go by the building which housed the “Golden Eva” newspaper where Mark Twain worked, undergoing renovation.

Nearby is the Bank Lucas Turner & Co., the city’s oldest commercial building, built in 1853 by William Tecumseh Sherman (who became the famous Civil War General).  It’s now the 472 Gallery. Hudson points out how brick buildings used to have iron windows which proved fatal in a fire, and how they have been retrofitted to survive an earthquake.

Old and new stand side by side in San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Old and new stand side by side in San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We walk across Balance Street – a tiny little stump street that I would not have noticed at all, except that Bell points out that it was probably named for a ship that was sunk – very possibly under the street today – one of hundreds of sunken ships that provided landfill to expand the city.

We walk down Pacific Street – infamous for being the place where so many sailors were shanghaied to be crew for ships.

He takes me through Russian Hill – named for the Russian traders and the Russian American Company. At one time, the only thing here was a graveyard with headstones etched with Cyrillic letters. He points out some marvelous homes.

Here you appreciate how impossible this city would be to build homes – it must have taken a fortune to cut streets through rolling hills.

He explains that in 1847, when the area became a US territory, the “mayor” hired Jaspar O’Farrell to survey and create a street plan of what he expected to happen over time. The grid did not take into account San Francisco’s hills.  But after the 1849 Gold Rush, there was a literal rush to build, and it was funded by the newly minted millionaires.

He takes me on “streets” that are really cobblestone walking paths lined with gardens – to get a feel of what “old San Francisco” was like.

We come down to the edge of North Beach, where Hudson stops at a delightful Mediterranean restaurant, North Beach Gyros (415-655-9665, 701 Union Street, www.northbeachgyrosf.com) for lunch.

Telegraph Hill

Checking his app for the bus schedule (this is the trick of offering such a marvelous walking tour of San Francisco), we have but a few minutes wait before we hop the bus up to Telegraph Hill (others are huffing and puffing to get up there), to visit Coit Tower. This affords probably the most spectacular, 360-degree view of the city, but what is inside is what captures my attention: Depression-era WPA-sponsored artists created spectacular murals depicting the full spectrum of San Francisco’s everyday life in the 1930s.

Coit Tower, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Coit Tower, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Walking down Filbert Street from Coit Tower, San Francisco© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Walking down Filbert Street from Coit Tower, San Francisco© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This is Telegraph Hill. It was from here that a signal man would see a ship with flag of country and had a pole with flags and signals so someone down in Merchant’s Exchange would know what ship was coming. Later, there was a telegraph to send the message.

When a mail ship came in, the entire town would turn out as if it were a holiday. But when container shipping became the norm, the shipping business moved to Oakland.

Today, San Francisco has revitalized its dock to accommodate massive cruise ships, and there are two in port today.

We walk down from Telegraph Hill on Filbert Street (steep, twisting staircase, no cars) – one of the most magical walks, with a public garden on the sides. He takes me down one “street” that is still a boardwalk.

He points out where the hill was literally blasted apart for the material for landfill.

“San Francisco is the worst place in Bay to found a city but was a great launching place to the gold fields,” Bell says. “None of vegetation we see today [like palm trees and lush flowering gardens] is native. As beautiful as it is, William Tecumseh Sherman said of Yberra Buena in 1847, the year after California became a US territory, that it was a hell hole. Parts of Nob Hill would fluctuate by 15 feet a day because of wind and sand.” (I ask where he got that from and he said by reading newspapers from the 1850s. I’m impressed.)

At the bottom of Filbert is Levi’s Plaza, named for Levi-Strauss company (which has its headquarters right there on the waterfront) – it was here that the company made famous for denim jeans began.

Here, we wait for a street car. San Francisco may be famous for its cable cars, but it is also the last city to run street cars. And, like everything else, it does it with flare – using colorful cars from the 1930s and 40s, painted to look like the city they came from (they even have the city’s name on them, like Milan, Italy and St. Louis).

San FranaciscoWe get off at the Ferry Building – the original gateway to the city (like Ellis Island and Grand Central rolled into one). Passengers came into Oakland and ferried to San Francisco before the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were built. “They were the first commuters. This was most passed through gateway in the world.” It was designed by Arthur Brown Jr. and is the largest structure built over water.

We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell has another surprise for me: at Powell & Market Street, we get on the famous cable car, a perfect cap to this marvelous tour through San Francisco’s history (this, Bell says, is an added treat, subject to time considerations and how long the wait).

“Classic San Francisco” is offered Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday (10 a.m.-2 p.m.), geared for people 13 and up ($48/adult, $38/teen – well worth it).

Another program that Bell offers is “Parks to Pacific,” a five-hour tour  that celebrates San Francisco’s transformation from sand-duned wasteland to city of world-renowned parks and recreation. On this journey, you’ll be park hopping from downtown to the Pacific Ocean, plus experiencing many singular neighborhoods in-between. While the tour can be variable, the route generally includes Pacific Heights, The Golden Gate, The Presidio, Lincoln Park, Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park, Lands End and the Sutro Bath Ruins.

Hudson Bell, Fern Hill Walking Tours, San Francisco, www.fernhilltours.com, hudson@fernhilltours.com, 415-305-7248.

Next: San Francisco History Day itinerary continues:

Fern Hill Walking Tour

Cable Car Museum

Cable Car Ride

Historic John’s Grill

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, goingplacesfarandnear.com 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

 

 

Green Tortoise Hostel – Living the San Francisco Vibe

The Green Tortoise Hostel in hip North Beach district captures the San Francisco vibe © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Green Tortoise Hostel in hip North Beach district captures the San Francisco vibe © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is rare to stay in an accommodation that makes you smile constantly or that imbues you so completely with the spirit of a place. That’s the Green Tortoise Hostel, in the North Beach section of San Francisco.

There is no better way to immerse yourself in San Francisco ‘vibe’ – it literally embodies the spirit of San Francisco.

From the outside, the Green Tortoise Hostel is a modest wood-framed Victorian building that somehow escaped destruction of the earthquake and fire.

The North Beach District where the Green Tortoise Hostel is a lively neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The North Beach District where the Green Tortoise Hostel is a lively neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Don’t be discouraged by the glass door that looks pretty institutional, or the sign that tells you the door is locked after 7:30 pm and you have to be buzzed in or the steep staircase to the lobby floor or the warning “no visitors!”. Once you present you enter the lobby area, the trepidation fades away and you feel like you are part of something special.

I am immediately pleased by the beautiful architectural features that hint at the glorious past of this building.

The North Beach District where the Green Tortoise Hostel is a lively neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The North Beach District where the Green Tortoise Hostel is a lively neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Hostels always have a special personality and this one is particularly special. A sign on the “ballroom” (apparently, once a restaurant) invites you to partake in free vegetarian dinner on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights (Pasta Primavera, Mexican taco night, and Curry, rice and salad; come at 5 pm if you want to help cook, dinner is 7-ish), and a day-by-day list of activities: free sangria, pool tournaments, pub crawls, $5 dinner nights, dinner crawls (Sunday: 4 North Beach restaurants, $9.95), and outings to popular San Francisco events like the San Francisco Beer Olympics), and even tours (Saturday: Redwoods & Pt. Reyes bus trip, $40).

I get my key (handing over a $20 cash deposit; I can rent a towel for $1), walk through the lobby, through the computer/lounge area where there is a pleasant sitting area (they even have drink holders in the chair), and climb another set of steps to a narrow, labyrinthian set of hallways.

I’ve booked a “standard private room” (you can also book a shared room). It is small but not claustrophobic – clean, a queen-sized bed (very comfortable), a sink, a flat-screen tv (but only accesses a video library). It is most pleasant. (The rate, $131 was comparable or less than Air BnB.)

The main difference with an actual hotel is that you don’t have a private bathroom – this is European style. But that isn’t really a problem, either. There are five bathrooms on the floor – each clean and comfortable, one person at a time.

Hanging out in the ballroom at the Green Tortoise Hostel, in San Francisco's North Beach district © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hanging out in the ballroom at the Green Tortoise Hostel, in San Francisco’s North Beach district © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Enjoying breakfast in the ballroom of the Green Tortoise Hostel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Enjoying breakfast in the ballroom of the Green Tortoise Hostel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The biggest surprise is on the main floor: The Ballroom. You can see how this was once a very grand place –the stained glass, the intricate moldings in the ceiling which may have been gilded at one point but now is coated in peeling brown paint. It used to be a restaurant and hotel, I am told and has been a hostel since the 1970s. Now, it is charmingly faded from that glory (though not decrepit, with colorful new carpeting and such), as you would imagine if the proletariat overtook the bourgeoisie.

The ballroom is where you can help yourself to free breakfast every morning 7:30- 10:00 am—bagels, cream cheese, jams, fresh fruit, make your own eggs, organic oatmeal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and OJ (you wash your own plastic dish when you are finished). There is also a refrigerator where guests can keep their food, or take from “shared” items.

During the day, people can hang out in the ballroom, like a giant lounge – there is a small stage and some musical instruments. The ballroom is open until 2 am.

Green Tortoise Hostel has beautiful architectural features that evoke its historyin San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Green Tortoise Hostel has beautiful architectural features that evoke its historyin San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are more surprises here: the hostel offers a sauna (dry) on the second floor accommodating up to six people at a time –you can check it out for 1 hour (free).

They have an arrangement with Dylan’s Bike Rental to rent for $21 for 24-hours (a discount from the $30 rate), and the hostel provides a bike storage room, as well as lockers where you can stow your stuff.

Before I arrived, I received a confirmation letter describing the place quite honestly saying:

  • We are a comfortable backpackers hostel in North Beach with European style accommodations made up of shared and private rooms.
  • Our median age of guest is between 20-30 years of age, but we welcome all ages.
  • Our hostel is about community and creating a social experience. Our guests are made up of travelers from around the globe.
  • We promote ourselves as a PARTY hostel, so we welcome all guests to participate in our nightly events.
  • All our bathrooms are shared along the corridors, but private use (no en-suite bathrooms in the rooms in any of our buildings).
  • Our reception is on the 2nd floor and there is no elevator, only stairs to all the rooms (rooms are on 3rd and 4th floors).
  • Unlike traditional hotels, we do not provide sheet changes daily.
  • We are in a vibrant neighborhood full of beat generation history, cafes, bars and restaurants.
  • There are several Adult Entertainment clubs on the next block and the area can be noisy on the weekends and in peak season.

All of this proves absolutely true, and just adds to the experience.

San Francisco's colorful North Beach neighborhood, just outside the door of the Green Tortoise Hostel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s colorful North Beach neighborhood, just outside the door of the Green Tortoise Hostel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The owners of the hostel (who also own a hostel in Seattle) also operate Green Tortoise Adventure Travel, offering trips as short as a day trip to Muir Woods & Wine Country, to as long as a month, via a specially outfitted 36–passenger coach that converts from seats in the daytime to sleepers at night (a rolling hostel). The trips are designed around “appreciation of nature, tolerance, cooperation and self direction.” There are itineraries to Baja, Pyramids and Playas, the Yucatan, Yosemite, a National Parks loop, Alaska (415-956-7500, 800-867-8647, www.greentortoise.com).

They also book Alcatraz tours (which actually get booked up weeks in advance) and other sightseeing trips.

Green Tortoise Hostel San Francisco, 494 Broadway St, San Francisco 94133, 415-834-1000, 800 867 8647, www.greentortoise.com, email hostel@greentortoise.com, www.facebook.com/sanfranciscohostel.

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, goingplacesfarandnear.com 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

Crane’s Beachhouse Hotel is Tranquil Oasis in Delray Beach on Florida’s East Coast

Crane's Beachhoue has a quirky, colorful, Key West feel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Crane’s BeachHouse has a quirky, colorful, Key West feel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

Delray Beach, amid Florida’s Palm Beach coast, is its own world. You feel it as you drive in on Atlantic Avenue, coming off I-95. You drive through the drab and ordinary and all of a sudden, you seem to pass through some invisible border and immediately recognize you are in a very different place – the demarcation is the streetscape where palm trees lining the avenue are wrapped in red or white lights. Come further in – the restaurants and shops emit bright, colorful lights. The streets are crowded with people; outdoor tables are filled. There is the sound of conversation and music. There is an excitement, an energy, a vibe.

The energy and excitement picks up as you get to the central part of Atlantic Avenue, and then you go over the bridge over the Intercoastal, and there is quiet as you near the beach. This is still Delray Beach, but it is the quiet neighborhood end of the Avenue.

Just before you get to the end of the avenue, at the beach, you turn onto Gleason Avenue and soon you come to a garden oasis, another world within this world, a true hideaway.

This is Crane’s BeachHouse Hotel & Tiki Bar, as perfect and special as a hotel can be within one of the most special places you can visit.

It is quite remarkable to be so near to all the activity Delray Beach offers, and yet feel so far away, in some tranquil, tropical retreat.

Meandering paths take you through lush gardens at Crane's Beachhouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Meandering paths take you through lush gardens at Crane’s BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You can’t really see the hotel from the street, which is hidden by a gate and tall palm trees. You can’t even see the whole property when you are inside, it is so lushly landscaped, with meandering stone paths that, like a Japanese garden, make you feel the place is at once larger than it is, and yet so intimate. There are all these pleasant sitting areas nestled amid tall palms and thick bushes, colorful flowers, waterfalls and fountains with their trickling sound. It is so Zen.

But the overall atmosphere is of old Key West – laid back, cheeky, colorful, whimsical and fun. there are colorfully painted markers that tell you how many miles from here to Key West, and such; and as you walk the paths, you come upon murals and artwork wherever you look. At night, lighting creates its own atmosphere.

Crane's Beachhouse has a quirky, colorful, Key West feel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Crane’s BeachHouse has a quirky, colorful, Key West feel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Crane’s is family owned and operated by Michael and Karen Crane (the place is named for the family and not the bird, but the bird is the hotel’s mascot), who took over a 1960s hotel and turned it into a garden oasis (I am quite sure it would be unrecognizable today from what it was then). Crane’s is a true boutique hotel, in both size and the personable service (a concierge is available from 9 am to 9 pm). There are just 27 rooms, including a selection of suites and the newest innovation, four villas that are really complete apartments where, for the brief time you are there, you can fantasize about this being home.

The newly opened four ultra-luxurious villas – converting four one-bedroom suites – add a new dimension of luxury, elegance and sophistication to the playful, laid-back atmosphere.

My villa, Room 26, on the second floor, still has that smell of being freshly decorated, and is breathtaking when I walk in.

The Luxury Villas feature a private patio (first floor unit) or balcony (second floor unit), handcrafted furnishings and artisan materials. There is a 60 inch flat-screen Smart TV and DVD player with complimentary access to Netflix, and a second large flat-screen TV in the bedroom. There is free WiFi, private voice mail and docking and charging station for mobile devices.

The bed is exceptionally comfortable, bedecked with fine linens; plush waffle-weave cotton robes and slippers are at the ready.

The spa-inspired bathroom has a shower with river-rock floor and Cali Tarocco Sicilian Red Orange amenities.

There is a well-appointed, modern stainless-steel kitchen, completely outfitted with microwave, coffee-maker, dishwasher and all the cutlery and utensils. There is also an “honor” gourmet basket with snacks and the refrigerator is stocked with beer (extra charge).

The spacious living room has a sofa bed, so each unit sleeps four.  

Another special amenity provided to Villa guests is the complimentary use of two bikes (Crane’s also has an arrangement with nearby bicycle rental place for other guests, and there are bike racks on site.) Villa guests also have access to complimentary yoga mats, and beach chairs, and designated parking spot.

Crane's Beachhouse, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Crane’s BeachHouse, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“Crane’s BeachHouse Hotel is proud to partner with Carrie Leigh Designs, a full service licensed interior design firm based in Delray Beach. This dramatic conversion of four suites into four dazzling luxury villas will be the first phase of a major multi-year remodeling project that will strengthen and solidify our brand as the coolest place to stay in Delray Beach,” said Cathy Balestriere, general manager.

The $500,000 renovation also included the renovation of three additional units.

Other accommodations include a luxury studio, with a queen-sized bed; and one and two-bedroom suites (children under 18 stay free in the room with parents).

Crane’s serves a pleasant  continental breakfast under a Tiki hut beside one of the fountains – a selection of breads, muffins, bagels, cereals, fresh fruit and yogurt, quiches and sausage, juice, plus freshly brewed coffee – where it is delightful to meet and chat with other guests. Breakfast is served from 9 am to 11 am, but if you are an early riser, they will deliver breakfast to you the night before.

Also, the hotel serves afternoon refreshments that change seasonally. This time of year  a DIY trail mix snack bar is provided guests in the afternoon.

There are two tropical, heated saline swimming pools – one a free form with a waterfall, lounge chairs placed on sand, and a Tiki hut; the other, more suitable for lap swimming, and more lounge chairs on sand, another fountain, and Tiki bar, where there is live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Crane's BeachHouse is filled with original art, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Crane’s BeachHouse is filled with original art © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The original artwork which decorates the rooms and the property is stunning and so connected to the Delray Beach art scene.

The poolside Tiki Bar offers an array of tropical drinks, wines and domestic and imported beer, with a music-filled happy hour from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in season, and on Friday and Saturday the rest of the year.

Other features include an “outdoor living room” for private functions.

One of the pools at Crane's BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
One of the pools at Crane’s BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There is in-suite and poolside spa and massage services. There isn’t a fitness room, but Crane’s has an arrangement with nearby  gym for $15/day.

A tiny office that doubles as a gift shop is where you can also access DVD’s, CD’s, game units, board games, a literary library. Also, Crane’s offers a repertoire of on-site entertainment, special events and activities.

Both sophisticated and playful, Crane’s Beachhouse is ideal for a couples getaway, friends traveling together, a family gathering, a destination wedding.

Bustling Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach's main street, is a short walk from Crane's BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bustling Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach’s main street, is a short walk from Crane’s BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

What I loved best is that it is off the bustling main street (which is what is so appealing about Delray Beach), around the corner from the hullaballoo of Atlantic Avenue, in the quieter part of Atlantic Avenue and just a block from the beach, yet still a pleasant walk over the drawbridge to the vibrant downtown where there are gorgeous galleries and shops, marvelous restaurants and live-music venues (a major advantage not having to drive; the hotel provides free parking).

A block to the east of Crane’s is Delray Beach – dare I say the prettiest beach on Florida’s East Coast. There aren’t buildings on the beach side of the street, so it is a broad expanse.

The Bucket List Experience

In keeping with its boutique orientation and personalized service, Crane’s Beachhouse offers “The Bucket List Experience” – essentially customized packages that enable guests to fulfill their wish list of experiences.

Tranquil setting at Crane's BeachHouse, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Tranquil setting at Crane’s BeachHouse, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“We are providing a service that is basically a concierge, travel agent and personal assistant all rolled into one. We have researched the coolest, most thrilling, exciting, life-affirming, local attractions in South Florida and have come up with a pretty awesome list of 50+ items that should be on everyone’s Bucket List,” said Balestriere.

Crane’s always has some interesting special or package that change throughout the year. Presently, the hotel is offering  a “Non-Refundable Hot Deal” that runs through April on select dates.

Other packages and deals are listed at the website, particularly summer offerings that include special rates for educators; a romance package; a Family Fun Package.

Pets are welcome (a fee applies and you must inform front office of any pets prior to arrival to guarantee availability of pet-friendly accommodations).

Crane’s BeachHouse has received the coveted TripAdvisor® Certificate of Excellence Award 2013, and has been named to the prestigious Expedia Insiders Select List listing “the world’s best hotels.” Crane’s BeachHouse Hotel is a repeated recipient of the Florida Superior Small Lodging Association’s Donal A. Dermody White Glove Award for housekeeping excellence and exceptional service.

Crane’s BeachHouse, 82 Gleason Street, Delray Beach, Florida 33483, 561-278-1700, 866-372-7263, cranesbeachhouse.com

 

 

Erie Canal Cruises, Gems Along Mohawk Round Out Stay at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA

Excitement entering Lock 18 on the Erie Canal, on the cruise from Gems Along the Mohawk © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Excitement entering Lock 18 on the Erie Canal, on the cruise from Gems Along the Mohawk © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I’ve already had some extraordinary experiences during my all-too-brief stay at the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, a camping resort that prides itself on “edutainment”. I’ve tried my hand at mining for Herkimer Diamonds in the quarry – these magnificent quartz crystals that almost pop out of their rocky prison as if cut and polished by Mother Nature. I’ve done sluicing and had the delight in finding gemstones, diamonds and fossils, and explored the massive retail store and museum with its fine display of rocks, gemstones and fossils – including the large Herkimer diamond cluster in the shape of a cross that was discovered the morning of September 11, 2001, and the skull of a triceratops. And I’ve enjoyed the special atmosphere of a campground – or rather, a camping resort – the peaceful sounds of the flowing West Canada Creek, the smells of campfires, and the giggles of kids riding bikes passed my creekside cabin, themed for dinosaurs.

But there is more to do: the Herkimer KOA is but seven miles away from the Erie Canal, that marvel of human ingenuity and engineering which helped unify the fledgling nation and propel it into the Industrial Revolution. There, Dr. Renee Shevat, who owns the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, has turned a building that used to warehouse buoys into a gigantic indoor “mall” showcasing artists, artisans, writers, and companies, in a most pleasant environment (come on Saturdays, when there are free tastings), a marina where you can take a delightful 90-minute narrated cruise on the Erie Canal, climaxed with going through a lock that lifts (or drops) the boat 20 feet, and an excellent restaurant, the Waterfront Grille, with a lovely setting on the canal.

Cruising the Erie Canal

Captain Jerry Gertz welcomes passengers aboard the Lil Diamond II for the 90-minute narrated Erie Canal cruise © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Captain Jerry Gertz welcomes passengers aboard the Lil Diamond II for the 90-minute narrated Erie Canal cruise © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Captain Jerry Gertz delivers a delightful narration (part on tape, but he interjects and takes questions) which is interesting, engaging, and very entertaining, delivered with wonderful humor. The climax of the 90-minute cruise comes when you go through Lock 18.

Along the way, he points out interesting sights and fascinating (and I mean fascinating) details about the history and the remarkable engineering of the Erie Canal, and why the Erie Canal was so crucial to opening the West, unifying the fledgling nation, making New York the Empire State and New York City the financial capital of the world. Captain Jerry came to the Erie Canal in his “retirement” – after operating one of the largest tour boat companies in Florida.

I am surprised to learn that the peak use of the Erie Canal (this is actually the third “incarnation” of the canal – the first was Governor DeWitt Clinton’s Ditch, built 1817-1825 despite enormous skepticism and opposition and was so successful, it had to be enlarged just 10 years later and this, the third, is the Barge Canal) was not in the 1920s but in the 1950s, when over 5 million tons of cargo came through. And the canal’s undoing wasn’t even the Transcontinental Railroad (though that helped), but Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway (and volume on the canal tracks with fuel prices), which did not close down, as the Erie Canal did, from November to April, and even more devastating, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which could carry much larger ships.

Since the 1980s, the Erie Canal has been “re-purposed” from commercial use to almost entirely recreational. And while people like Dr. Shevat and her husband who grew up in the 1950s near the canal would have never thought to boat on it – it was regarded as little better than a sewer with the pollution and smell – now it is this bucolic place, with the canal towns finding new life and new quaint housing cropping up along the canal, and the original towpath used by boys leading mules to pull the boats, is now a multi-use path extending almost the entire 363-mile length, from Buffalo to Albany (30% of the trail still needs to be completed; when it is completed, it will be longest multi-use trailway in US, and then can be combined with the Hudson Greenway down to New York City.).

Approaching Lock 18 on the Erie Canal, on the cruise from Gems Along the Mohawk © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Approaching Lock 18 on the Erie Canal, on the cruise from Gems Along the Mohawk © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Today’s Barge Canal extends 524 miles with 57 locks, each lock chamber made 328 feet long, 45 ft wide (and using the same century-old motors, manufactured by General Electric). This canal was completed in 1918 at a cost of $151 million (would cost $2.5-$3 billion in today’s dollars), but it could not be built today because of environmental restrictions (while the earlier canals probably could not be built either because of environmental and labor protections).

“The Erie Canal was the most important economic, transportation structure; only the Intercontinental railway had the same impact,” he tells us. “It was more than trade – it was about religion (7th Day Adventist), women’s suffrage, abolition. The underground railroad used the canal.

“It was the Internet of its day – the first attempt at networking and globalization,” he declares.

For the original 13 states to prosper, he tells us, they needed to open the West in order to tap those natural resources, such as lumber, as well as access to the inland waterways like the Mississippi River. “But the Appalachians were hard to get over. The route was impossible to cross –they couldn’t blast mountains then – they only had black powder.”

President Madison, a Jeffersonian, didn’t see the benefit to the nation of such a canal, so it was left o New York State to finance the project on its own.

“DeWitt Clinton worked tirelessly.” There was tremendous skepticism – no one actually had the technical expertise to build such a canal. But a “New York Memorial” speech Clinton delivered as a State Senator ignited the Legislature which authorized $7 million in bonding.

Of the three men overseeing construction, only one had any engineering background. They had to invent new methods and tools – the breakthrough was inventing hydraulic cement that hardens under water.

Now where to build? DeWitt Clinton realizes that $7 million may not be enough money to finish the project, so he has the construction start where it is easiest – in soft, flat farmland – and in the middle of the state, in Rome, and tells them to dig east and west from there. “It starts in the middle of nowhere, goes nowhere, so the state would have to give them more money.” Captain Jerry relates.

The original canal was built by 350 workers who were being paid 80c/day – they carved the ditch 40 feet wide and just four feet deep, 363 miles, from Albany-Buffalo, 83 locks, which take a boat the 565 feet difference in elevation. In the first year, was a huge success, as the cost of commerce dropped from $125/ton; one year after canal opened, to $5/ton to transport.

By now, we have cruised to Lock 18, which Captain Jerry says is still powered by the original GE motors from 1912 (the earlier canals were not motorized, but were opened and closed manually). The lock will lower us 20 feet, emptying 2.5 million gallons of water in just 7 1/2 minutes (and reversing the process when we return).

As we pass Fort Herkimer Church, the second oldest surviving church, dating from 1767, Captain Jerry tells the story of General Herkimer - probably the most important Revolutionary War hero few have heard of © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
As we pass Fort Herkimer Church, the second oldest surviving church, dating from 1767, Captain Jerry tells the story of General Herkimer – probably the most important Revolutionary War hero few have heard of © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

As we pass Fort Herkimer Church, which he says is the second oldest surviving church, dating from 1767, Captain Jerry also tells the story of General Herkimer – probably the most important Revolutionary War hero few have heard of:

General George Washington commissioned Herkimer as a general but he had no army. But when Herkimer learned that the British had taken Fort Stanwix in July 1777, he gathered up a militia formed mainly of German immigrants to gather at Fort Dayton (now Herkimer, New York), to begin the 40-mile westward march to the besieged Stanwix.

Herkimer was betrayed by Molly Brant, who sent word of their march to her brother, Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader.

On August 6, Herkimer and his men were ambushed by a group of Loyalists and Mohawk Indians at a bloody battle that came to be known as the Battle of Oriskany, during which Herkimer was mortally wounded – he died 10 days later.

it is one of bloodiest encounters of War – 400 were killed in just 6 hours.

But the British blockading Fort Stanwix believed reinforcements were on their way and retreat – giving the Patriots their first victory of sorts. And the British General John Burgoyne went on to a major defeat at Saratoga (at the hands of General Benedict Arnold), turning the tide of the war for the Patriots.

“Herkimer was one of saviors of American Revolution,” Captain Jerry says, no doubt introducing most of us to a historic figure we had never heard of before.

Near here, is the Herkimer Homestead, which during the Revolutionary War consisted of 7 building on 3000 acres. The Historic Herkimer House, a 1762 mansion, can be visited in Little Falls. And you can easily reach the Fort Herkimer Church, on Rte. 5S.

Captain Jerry Gertz gives over the wheel to a young passenger  © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Captain Jerry Gertz gives over the wheel to a young passenger © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This day we are on a small, 36-passenger boat, the Lil Diamond II (he even lets a couple of the kids drive it for awhile), but he also has a large boat, the Lil Diamond III, that is utilized by groups (including weddings).

($19/adults, $12/3-10; reservations recommended, departs 1 & 3 pm daily, mid-May through mid-October, rain or shine. Erie Canal Cruises, 315-717-0077, www.eriecanalcruises.com.)

Gems Along the Mohawk

Gems Along the Mohawk is one of the most interesting shops you will ever encounter.

It serves as a Visitor Center for travelers coming off of I-90 (it is directly across from the ramp at Exit 30), and staff cheerfully greet guests and provide travel information (and rest rooms) for weary travelers. It offers a wonderful restaurant with stunning views of the canal, and a marina from which you can take the 90-minute Erie Canal Cruise.

But it is so much more. The shop is a showcase for New York and the Mohawk Valley producers – actually 70 different merchants whose items are displayed, like Mele jewelry boxes (based in Utica since 1912, which you have probably seen in major department stores), and Salida Tea (check out the collection of Red Rose figurines and the giant porcelain tea set); Also, Jim Parker Folk Art. And it also heralds the region’s legacy companies, like Revere Copper Products, started by Paul Revere, 1801), and Remington Arms (200 years old, the same company as produced the iconic typewriter and other items like sewing machines and even a bridge – you can even visit the Remington Museum nearby); HM Quakenbush, founded in 1871 in Ilion, which is America’s largest and oldest manufacturer of nutcrackers; Beech Nut, founded in 1931 in Amsterdam, the baby-food company

“This is what created Mohawk Valley,” Melody Milewski, General Manager, tells me as she gives me a tour.

“We don’t just take anybody,” she says. “All the associates want to show their story, their connection to the Mohawk Valley.”

Come on Saturdays and Sundays, and you can enjoy tastings (and free coffee and tea) at about 17 of the 70 shops.

But when you peruse the shop, it is astonishing how much you learn.

Gems Along the Mohawk, an unusual shop showcasing local artisans and producers, features a children's play area themed for the Wizard of Oz © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Gems Along the Mohawk, an unusual shop showcasing local artisans and producers, features a children’s play area themed for the Wizard of Oz © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

NYS-HerkimerKOA_071015_225(c) Karen RubinThe kids can play in an area devoted to the Wizard of Oz. Why the Wizard of Oz, I ask? The famous author, L. Frank Baum, lived not far from here (you can visit the All Things Oz Museum, in Chittenango), but his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, had an even greater connection and for the first time, I learn that she was instrumental in the Women’s Rights movement. She had connections to the Oneida women and incorporated their ideas of a woman’s right to property and child custody and selecting the chief at a time when women had rights to none of these. (I take this basic knowledge with me to Seneca Falls, to the Women’s Rights National Park, and to Fort Stanwix which picks up on the themes of the “clash of cultures” between Europeans and Indians).

Indeed, the Mohawk Valley was The West, a vast wilderness. James Fennimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans: was set in part in Glens Falls). This was the land of the Mohawk, the Oneida and the 6 Nations.

The shop features a bookstore stocked by Ganesvoort House Books (who also operates a bed-and-breakfast in Little Falls), which offers books about Gage, and the native American influence on Women’s Rights movement, “Sisters in Spirit,” by Sally Roesch Wagner as well as scores of other local writers.

This is all news to me. Just walking around introduces me to people and places I had never heard of before – like Fort Stanwix which I will later visit in Rome, when I take the 400-mile Cycle the Erie Canal tour (I will get to camp out at the Fort, where Melody says she participated in excavations before the National Park Service rebuilt it.)

Gems Along the Mohawk (800 Mohawk Street, Herkimer NY 11350, 315-717-0077, 866-716-GEMS, info@gemsalongthemohawk.com, www.gemsalongthemohawk.com).

Waterfront Grille

Today, cruising the Erie Canal and dining at the Waterfront Grille, we see a bucolic scene, but when Dr. Renee Shevat and her husband, Sam, were growing up, during the peak of commercial traffic on the Erie Canal, it was a noxious sewer.

The canal has gone through a major re-purposing – it carries very little commercial traffic but is almost exclusively used for recreation – and so have the canal towns the grew up because of the canal, then went into a tailspin with its decline.

The complex that is now a retail store, visitors center, restaurant and marina was originally a terminal building for tending buoys for the Barge Canal, before Dr. Shevat convinced the state to let her build a private enterprise on the canal, which is part of the Heritage Corridor.

Dr. Renee Shevat has put her PhD in finance and strategic planning to good use in developing four business units for the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, mining attraction, Gems Over the Mohawk and retailing Herkimer Diamonds worldwide © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Dr. Renee Shevat has put her PhD in finance and strategic planning to good use in developing four business units for the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, mining attraction, Gems Over the Mohawk and retailing Herkimer Diamonds worldwide © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Dr. Shevat, who has her PhD in finance and strategic planning, and was the vice president of a college (with ambition of becoming a president someday) utilized all of her skills and experience when she took over running the campground and mining attraction from her father – developing four distinct business units.

She also clearly has not left her academic credentials behind, but manages to incorporate “edutainment” into every aspect of the experience – and not just for the young campers, but for the adult campers and the young people who work as counselors, as well.

“I like making science fun,” she says. The activities that are offered daily incorporate gemology, paleontology, robotics, geology. Many of the lodges are themed around science – solar powered lodges, dinosaurs, a fossil pit, an astronomy lodge (with a real computer-operated telescope for the exclusive use of that cabin), and a robotics lodge.

“I don’t want them just to have a summer job but a resume,” she says of her counselors. “I encourage them to do projects.” So Blair and Josh, both student teachers, created the catalog of gems and fossils and a curriculum to teach their colleagues, and counselors will be helping campers build a robot and a crystal radio.

That philosophy was genesis of Professor Gadget’s Lodge.

The Robotics Lodge was designed by the 2013-2014 graduating senior class of engineers from Binghamton University’s Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science. At the Herkimer Diamond Mines, there are K-12 projects and programs offered throughout the year, but this was the first project at the collegiate level, giving students a the opportunity to design a commercial project from the ground up.

This process involved five interdisciplinary projects which were completed by two teams of 12 students. Each project allowed not only for the education of the students who created it, but also for the continued education of KOA guests. Campers of all ages learn about motors, motion sensors, battery power, chain machines, vectors and inertia.

A Rube Goldberg-like sculpture, designed by Binghamton University grad students, decorates the Professor Gadget's Robotics Lodge at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A Rube Goldberg-like sculpture, designed by Binghamton University grad students, decorates the Professor Gadget’s Robotics Lodge at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

When you walk by the lodge, the first thing you notice is the 6’ tall weatherproof case engineered by Danielle Brogna, which contains a prototype of a Rube Goldberg rolling ball sculpture. Inside, the lodge utilizes an innovative and interactive lighting system designed and programmed by computer engineering major Elan Ashendorf; a mechanical lift system and hammock which lets guests practice their own engineering skills, and has robotic display boxes lining the wall.

“What is special about this project,” says Shevat, “is that each student was allowed the freedom to design to their strengths, which they believed would be enjoyed by many campers.

“The partnership with Binghamton University and campers, as consumer consultants, was very rewarding. And, yes, we would do it again with another scientific theme!.”

Also, during the season, the KOA offers a Rock and Gem Camp for about 100 kids (26 had to be turned away for the first camp) as well as Geology weekends for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts (conferring a Geology badge).

“Diamonds and the Erie Canal – two unique attractions – I want to be the centerpiece for dinner conversation: ‘Do you remember when we….?’” Dr. Shevat says.

The Herkimer Diamond KOA is open April through October (peak season rates apply July and August.) Weekends have special themes.

Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA was recognized as KOA’s “Kampground of the Year” on the North American continent in 2010. I would rate the Herkimer Diamond KOA 5 diamonds – and then some.

Herkimer Diamond KOA, 4626 State Route 28, Herkimer, NY 13350, 315-891-7355, E-mail: hdmkoa@ntcnet.com, www.herkimerdiamond.com; mining info at 315-717-0175, diamonds@ntcnet.com. Erie Canal Cruises, 315-717-0077, www.eriecanalcruises.com; Gems Along the Mohawk, 315-717-0077, www.gemsalongthemohawk.com; Waterfront Grille, 315-717-0700, www.waterfrontgrille.net

More to Explore

There is much to do in the area:

Cooperstown (half hour away)

Howe Caverns (1 hour away)

Remington Gun Museum (on Catherine Street off Route 5S, Ilion, NY 13357, 315-895-3200, 800-243-9700, www.remington.com).

Fort Herkimer Church, on 5S

Historic Herkimer Mansion

Fort Stanwix, Rome

Erie Canal Museum (318 Erie Boulevard East Syracuse, NY 13202, eriecanalmuseum.org

All Things Oz Museum, which opened in 2011 and is run by volunteers, is the house where L. Frank Baum, who wrote “The Wizard of Oz,” was born in 1856. The museum claims to have over 1000 Baum- and Oz-related items in its collection (219 Genesee St., Chittenango, NY, Wed-Sun., 315-333-2286, $5.)

I get to experience many of these sites when I continue my travels, biking 400-miles on the Erie Canal Trail, along with 600 others in the 17th annual Cycle the Erie Buffalo-Albany bike tour (ptny.org).

See also:

Diamond Mining, Robotics, Erie Canal Cruises Top List of Special Experiences at Herkimer KOA Camping Resort

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, goingplacesfarandnear.com 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

 

Diamond Mining, Robotics, Erie Canal Cruises Top List of Special Experiences at Herkimer KOA Camping Resort

The Herkimer Diamond, actually a special kind of quartz crystal, is found crystal clear and faceted in the dolomite rock, as if cut and polished by Mother Nature © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Herkimer Diamond, actually a special kind of quartz crystal, is found crystal clear and faceted in the dolomite rock, as if cut and polished by Mother Nature © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There I am, swinging a small sledgehammer, quarrying for diamonds – Herkimer Diamonds, that is, extraordinary quartz crystal nuggets that emerge (even pop right out) of their rocky prison with 18 facets, as if they had been cut by a jeweler.

You never know what you will find, what the next smashing, crushing blow will reveal and it is thrilling when you crack the rock to expose the diamond. A treasure hunt, to be sure. But it is also remarkably satisfying to be smashing rock.

This is just one of the – dare I say – unique attractions when you come to Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, a true camping resort, in upstate New York. An altogether different experience – certainly, not your father’s camping experience.

Bucolic setting - the newest themed Herkimer Diamond KOA cabins hug the West Canada Creek © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bucolic setting – the newest themed Herkimer Diamond KOA cabins hug the West Canada Creek © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

To begin with, I am in one of the Herkimer Diamond KOA’s new themed cabins, set right on a rushing creek, which campers use for tubing (a whole mile from beginning to end, for a 20-minute ride!), and others use for some of the best trout and bass fishing in New York.

Mine is called Randy’s, named for the triceratops skull that is on view in Herkimer Diamond Mines’ gems and fossil museum (yes, it has its own museum), and is themed for dinosaurs.

The first emotion I feel when I enter is sheer delight that manifests as an ear-to-ear smile when I see all the dinosaur accoutrements – including a two-foot high (plastic) raptor that whenever I see it in the corner of my eye, makes me jump. The bedding, shower curtain, wall hangings are all themed for dinosaurs, and it is complete fun (informative, also).

The cabin is outfitted with every creature comfort you could possibly want – a well equipped kitchenette, bath items, flat-screen TV, sofa in the living room, table with four chairs, air conditioning and heater, linens and towels – all cleverly laid out to maximize space. The porch has a rocking chair and there is even a patio, right beside the creek, with patio furniture, BBQ and firepit.  And WiFi, which has become such an essential feature.

Ideal for pet lovers: Caesar's Cabin at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA has its own doggie run, just for that cabin © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Ideal for pet lovers: Caesar’s Cabin at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA has its own doggie run, just for that cabin © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Other cabins and lodges are also themed: there is Caesar’s Place (Woof), which has its very own doggie-park; Another is themed for fossils and even has its own pit where you can dig to find your own fossils.

There are even more elaborate lodges (I really would have trouble choosing): one is themed for astronomy and actually has its own “planetarium” with a sophisticated, computer-operated telescope as well as photos taken from the Hubble telescope; another is Professor Gadget’s Robotics Lodge that features working robotic components (“to educate and entertain”) devised by Binghamton University grad students.

Then there are three lodges that operate on solar energy – just part of the initiative to demonstrate renewable energy and model eco-friendly living.

In another delightful socially-conscious and community-building initiative, there are 40 bins where they grow fresh vegetables, and campers are welcome to help themselves. There is also a Japanese garden which is a tribute to the victims of Japan’s tsunami.

There is so much about the Herkimer Diamond KOA that is special – and I haven’t even begun to describe the diamond mining, jewelry making. and Erie Canal cruising.

There is an atmosphere here – it’s true of camping in general, but there is something very special about this place.

To begin with, its Edutainment – that is, a healthy mixture of education (or actually, enrichment) with entertainment, that is woven into the architecture, the landscape and programming.

The playground and basketball court at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The playground and basketball court at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are daily activities – jewelry making, science experiment (static electricity, make a volcano, make a balloon rocket), badminton, flag football, cray fishing, basketball, chess and checkers tournament, volleyball, dodgeball, water balloon toss, table tennis, scavenger hunt, relay races, hula hoop contest – as well as nightly movies (outside on nice evenings, under the pavilion when it rains), and gatherings around the firepit (S’mores on Saturday nights).

There is a huge playground area –  separate playground equipment for youngest kids and older kids, and basketball court.

A volleyball court which is next to a gigantic firepit which is a gathering area (s’mores on Saturday nights); and a pavilion where there are games, a snack bar (ever try  a breakfast pizza? It’s made with bacon and egg; and a Herkimer Diamond pizza for evening).

There is a gorgeous swimming pool (next year, the plan is to have it solar heated).

If you forgot your tube or fishing rod, you can buy these in the Herkimer Diamond KOA general store; in fact, probably everything you need, forgot, wish you brought, can be had there, so if you wanted to travel light, no problem.

And if you don’t feel like cooking, there is the Rock n’ Roll Cafe, as well as Crystal Chandelier Restaurant, a very pleasant pub-style restaurant located a short walk across the road from the campground (KOA guests get a discount and $9.95 nightly specials, 4579 State Rt. 28N,, 315-891-3366, crystalchandelier.net).

You can easily fill out a two or three-day getaway with just the activities right at the resort: directly across the tiny road (Rte 28), from the camping resort  is the Herkimer Diamond Mine – an attraction that brings people from far and wide, including many who come back time and again (more on that to come). There is mile-long tubing along the West Canada Creek, which also affords some of the best trout and bass fishing in New York State.

Just about five miles away – bikeable on the bike lane on Rte 28 – is the uniquely appealing Erie Canal, where you can enjoy Gems Along the Mohawk (owned by the Herkimer Diamond KOA people) a combination visitor center, specialty shops showcasing regional artisans and artists, Waterfront Grille for dining, and a marvelous 90-minute narrated Erie Canal Cruise which climaxes with the experience of going through Lock 18, as well as biking along the Erie Canal.  Not to mention that Cooperstown is about 30-minutes drive away.

Mining for Diamonds!

Prospecting for treasure in the Herkimer Diamond Mines quarry © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Prospecting for treasure in the Herkimer Diamond Mines quarry © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Mining for the Herkimer diamonds isn’t a fantastical thing – it is more unlikely that you will leave without finding one than it is to find one. And there are many people who come and merely gather diamonds from the ground, without even swinging a hammer.

The kind of mining we get to do is “quarry” mining, rather than going into a cave. An outcrop of rock of this giant crystal-laden mountain has been exposed, and the idea is to basically look for rocks with black holes or a black vein – sometimes pulling down rock using crowbars and chisels, and 6 to 20 lb. sledge hammers. Then whacking at the pieces of rock with a 2 or 3 lb. crack hammer.

Jordan, Herkimer’s resident miner (your image would be of a grizzled, fossilized old man, but Jordan is a young strapping fellow who grew up nearby but learned his mining skills on the job), guides me in what to look for: a dark pocked hole in a rock that makes it a good candidate for housing a diamond. Then he shows me how to set it down on flat ground and whack across a line (being careful not to smash your hand, finger or foot). Sometimes, you don’t want to release the diamond, but let it show itself off in the rock.

Most Herkimer Diamonds, no matter how small, have 18 facets – all you do is wash off the mud and there you have it: a jewel.

Jordan tells me that each Herkimer diamond stone is unique. “To a collector, a certain stone ‘speaks to him’ because of its shape, inclusion, anthraxolite (ancient carbon) inside, presence of a water bubble, or another distinctive feature like a negative crystal (another stone) inside.”

Jordan displays how the Herkimer diamonds are found embedded in the rock, at the Herkimer Diamond Mines © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Jordan displays how the Herkimer diamonds are found embedded in the rock, at the Herkimer Diamond Mines © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Often you see the rock not with a single stone, but with “druzy” – thousands, even millions of sparkling Herkimers, that form a vein or fill one of those black holes. “We don’t know why – perhaps it is a phase of growth,” Jordan tells me. Rocks with druzy can be even more valuable because of how beautiful and unusual they are.

He says that often, the stone is even more valuable when it is kept in the rock, where the black-hole background enhances the visual display – makes it “pop”  (you have to put felt on the bottom or the rock will ruin wood or glass).

I find a fairly large Herkimer diamond, which Jordan estimates to be valued at $25.

The most perfect crystals are usually less than half-inch long, but occasionally much larger crystals are found. Crystals are also common that are intertwined or clustered, with perfect crystals attached to the backs of larger ones. And you can bring your day’s find into the shop for an appraisal. (The most valuable stone a tourist found was valued at $2000).

You can watch a video in the museum which explains the process.

(The admission pass, $11/adult, $1 less for KOA campers and veterans, $9/ages 5-12 – includes all day prospecting, use of rock hammer, all day museum entrance, zip lock bags, mining information. You should bring protective eye wear and closed-toed shoes, though they sell goggles. Some people bring their own chairs, umbrellas, chisels, screens. and when you get hungry, you can visit the Rocks n’ Roll Cafe, right by the quarry.)

Polished by Mother Nature

It doesn’t matter to me that the Herkimer diamonds are not actually diamonds – they are marvels in their own right in that they literally pop out of the dolomite rock that holds them, coming out polished and faceted by Mother Nature. (And many attach healing powers to them.)

They look like actual diamonds, but in actuality, they are “doubly terminated” quartz crystals. They have a hardness of 7.5, comparable to emeralds and aquamarines, whereas diamonds, which are formed from carbon, have a hardness of 10 (one of the hardest substance known to man). Most interestingly, by quirk of how the earth formed, they are found mainly in Herkimer County and the Mohawk Valley of New York.

The dolomite bedrock in which the crystals are found – a sedimentary carbonate rock, closely related to limestone – began forming 500 million years ago in a shallow Cambrian sea on the southern shores of what became the Adirondack Mountains. The limy sediments (calcium magnesium carbonate) which had slowly accumulated beneath the sea’s saltwater were gradually compacted under the weight of thousands of feet of sediment, forming the rock strata Dolostones (interestingly, it is also in this layer of Early Ordivician rock that the first evidence of marine life can be found).

It is believed that while still beneath the sea, water seeped through the pores of the rock, often creating “vugs” by dissolving part of the rock. Millions of years later, water rich with silica  filled these vugs and eventually evaporated or drained away, leaving the silica which had grown by precipitation to form the quartz crystals.

One theory that explains the source of the silica material is that hundreds of millions of years ago, there were micro-sized simple-cell sea organisms that lived in colonies and secreted silica in glass-like geometrical shapes, and that they were trapped under the sediments.

A series of evolutionary geographical events continued through the Ice Age – the Pleistocene Epoch. A giant continental ice sheet covered the region. Rushing waters caused by the melting glacier eroded away thousands of feet of sedimentary rock, eventually uncovering the dolomite rock layer.

Often you see the rock not with a single stone, but with “druzy” – thousands, even millions of sparkling Herkimers, that form a vein or fill one of those black holes © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Often you see the rock not with a single stone, but with “druzy” – thousands, even millions of sparkling Herkimers, that form a vein or fill one of those black holes © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

What is remarkable about the Herkimer diamonds is that most have 18 facets – six triangular faces form the termination points on each end of the crystal – regardless of how small they are. These are separated by a group of six square or rectangular faces that form a diamond shape, with such precision that it would be hard to reproduce by hand.

“Most limestone doesn’t throw quartz crystal like here,” Jordan tells me.

A “curiosity” of some Herkimer Diamonds is that many of the crystals have liquid trapped inside, which can be seen with the naked eye because of the clarity.

The liquid  inside the inclusion is mostly saltwater, confirming that seawater was present when they were forming. Many of the liquid inclusions have bubbles which float about in the liquid – some are carbon dioxide gas, but most are water vapor.

Some Herkimer Diamonds have solid inclusions – most commonly a coal-like substance called “anthraxolite,” which give the pockets a solid black appearance. The anthraxolite could be the result of decomposition of plant life that inhabited the sediments.

Another theory is offered to explain the source of the silica material – that hundreds of millions of years ago, there were micro-sized simple-cell sea organisms that lived in colonies and secreted silica in glass-like geometrical shapes, and that they were trapped under the sediments.

As for the discovery of the Herkimer diamonds: Local lore has it that two Revolutionary War soldiers happened on the diamonds and believed they were real. Their commanding officer, General Herkimer (who went on to become a genuine hero of the Revolutionary War), was said to want to use the diamonds to help finance the war, but that when the minerals were assayed, they were found not to be actual diamonds.

“General Herkimer is legend in the valley,” Dr. Renee Scialdo Shevat, who owns the property, tells me later.  “They named the county, the village for him. He led troops to Battle of Oriskany – a turning point for the Revolution.”  (He mustered 800 locals for a militia to save Fort Stanwix which was being blockaded by British, and when the British retreated, that gave the patriots their first victory.)

“But it is a myth that Herkimer financed artillery with Herkimer diamonds. The Native Americans were first to find the diamonds. The Mohawk Valley was called the land of crystal. Iroquois arrowheads have been found that used Herkimer diamonds.”

Awareness of the Herkimer diamonds goes back to at least 1819 but James Hadley is credited with being the first to bring the diamonds to public attention, in 1823. Prospectors were blasting the hard dolomite rock earlier than 1879. But what really exposed the diamonds was cutting the road for Route 28 which passes directly in front of the Herkimer Diamond Mines.

Miners come with their equipment for a day in the Herkimer Diamond Mines quarry © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Miners come with their equipment for a day in the Herkimer Diamond Mines quarry © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Herkimer Diamond Mines was first opened to the public in 1955 for prospecting by the farmer who owned the property. Eventually the property was sold to investors headed by Van Atty, who developed the mine, the rock shop and a public campground for the prospectors. In 1981, Rena and Rudy Scialdo purchased the property, today, it is owned and operated by their daughter, Dr. Renee Scialdo Shevat.

Dr. Shevat, who has a PhD in finance and strategic, took over the operation in 1997 and really boosted the Diamond Mines as an attraction and the Herkimer diamonds in jewelry, and has carefully guarded against over-saturating the market. The mountain that is rich in Herkimer diamonds spans 300 acres, but in all these years, they have only opened 6 acres for prospecting.

As many as 500 people a day from all around the world come here to prospect.

People who aren’t physically inclined to smash rocks with a hammer can do very well just hunting for the Herkimer diamonds on the ground – Dr. Shevat relates how a 98-year old woman found $400 worth of diamonds loose in the soil.

If quarrying isn’t your thing, you can do sluicing – you can purchase a bag and do like the California gold miners, and run water over a sieve to find your treasure – which has its own Zen quality to it. You can purchase a bag that has Herkimer diamonds, or a bag that has various gemstones, or a bag that contains fossils (these are $11), or a “megabag” (it is giant), that has all three ($29).

Ambitious interns Blair and Josh, who are student teachers  have produced a guide to what you find and are on hang to help people not just identify their finds, but to learn about what they are.

Edutainment: Blair and Josh, student teachers, created a guide for people to identify the rocks, gems and fossils they find when they sluice © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Edutainment: Blair and Josh, student teachers, created a guide for people to identify the rocks, gems and fossils they find when they sluice © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I did the mixed bag – and yes indeed, there were the Herkimer diamonds, nice chunks of amethyst, gemstones and fossils galore which Josh and Blair helped me identify: a blue stone (sodalite), rose quartz, a fossil with the imprint of a sea clam; petrified wood; agate; ammonite; ammulite (which they tell me could grow up to 3 feet long, and like an octopus, pull water in the shell, and squirt it out to propel motion); sand shark teeth; a crinoid (which I am told, was a free-floating animal that went extinct 65 million years ago), and a piece of coral.

Yet another activity at the Herkimer Diamond Mine: you can even get your picture taken via drone.

And if you get hungry from all your mining, you can stop into the Rock & Rolls Cafe.

Jewelry Shop and Museum

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the largest cluster ever found of Herkimer diamonds, in the shape of a cross, was unearthed. It is on view in the museum © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the largest cluster ever found of Herkimer diamonds, in the shape of a cross, was unearthed. It is on view in the museum © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Herkimer Jewelry Shop is an attraction in itself – not just items made from the Herkimer diamonds (which are actually sold on the Home Shopping Network, and similar shopping networks around the world, including Germany and Japan) – but gems collected and turned into jewelry by designers from around the world – Istanbul, Bali, Egypt, Rio, Hong Kong. It boasts being the largest jewelry, rock and gem store in the Northeast.

The second floor of the shop offers an extensive, really well-done museum with gemstones, rocks and minerals, as well as fossils, a Herkimer Diamond Hall of Fame, a Children’s reaching room, and an exhibit of the largest and finest cut Herkimer Diamonds.

One of the most remarkable exhibits is a massive cluster of Herkimer Diamonds, 17 x 12 inches (one of the largest ever found) in the shape of a cross, which Dr. Shevat tells me, was unearthed on September 11, 2001 at almost the exact time as the terror planes hit the Twin Towers in New York City. It seems to bolster the belief in such quartz crystals for their mystical properties.

The skull of a triceratops, Randy, excavated in Madagascar,  is on view in the Herkimer Diamond Mines museum © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The skull of a triceratops, Randy, excavated in Madagascar, is on view in the Herkimer Diamond Mines museum © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Another key attraction is Randy, a dinosaur skull from Madagascar (most likely a triceratops), found two years ago. Jordan points out that inside his mouth is another dinosaur bone, suggesting that the dinosaur died choking on its meal.

The building was originally an 1880 barn, and upstairs, you can see the original wood floor; and sit in chairs from the oldest movie theater in town to watch a video about prospecting the Herkimer Diamonds.

Herkimer Diamond KOA: An Edutaining Experience

A family poses for a photo at their campfire at the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A family poses for a photo at their campfire at the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

In the morning, I wander around as this camping community comes to life – kids on bikes, parents walking dogs or pulling their kids , kids on the basketball court,  people sitting by the creek with a cup of coffee, others sitting around a fire. A neighborhood that ebbs and flows daily, but a neighborhood, nonetheless.

There are all manner of RVs – some bigger than a bus – and I am always amazed at how people outfit them (one has its own bike rack, plastic bins all neatly organized, another has a TV and its own homecoming sign, “The Dennies”).

There are also many sites for tents.

“When I was 18, I might have tented, but not so much now,” Dr. Shevat tells me later when we go about the campground. “And people of all ages want to be able to charge their mobiles and computers and access WiFi. Kids like to tent but they want to charge cell phone,” so now they provide 30 amp connections at the tent sites.

There may be all these comforts added to the “camping” experience, but what is still true, is being outdoors. And together.

We see a steady stream of people returning from the creek with their tubes – you can float a mile, about 20 minutes worth, from one end of the resort to the other.

The Astronomy Lodge at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA features its own planetarium and electronic telescope, and is decorated with photos from the Hubble © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Astronomy Lodge at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA features its own planetarium and electronic telescope, and is decorated with photos from the Hubble © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We meet people from all over the country – a family from West Texas, sitting around their campfire – and many who have been coming back year after year; the fellow who has rented the Astronomy Cabin (who turns out to be an astronomy hobbyist), who delightedly shows me the telescope, is part of a big group that comes to the campground every year for the Boilermaker Race that takes place in Utica.

Shevat, who earned a PhD in finance and strategic planning, was a vice president of a college with hopes of eventually becoming a college president, when, in 1997, she took over running the Herkimer Diamond KOA for her father, expecting it to be a temporary arrangement.

Dr. Renee Shevat, who owns the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, expanded the retail operation. Herkimer diamond jewelry is now sold on Home Shopping Network © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Dr. Renee Shevat, who owns the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, expanded the retail operation. Herkimer diamond jewelry is now sold on Home Shopping Network © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

She went on to develop the four major business units – the campground, turning it into a camping resort with themed lodges; the Herkimer Diamond mine attraction; the retail shop; and now the Gems on the Mohawk complex with the Erie Canal Cruise. Her retail jewelry operation is global – selling on Home Shopping Networks around the world – and the Herkimer Diamonds have some novel uses, including being used in the making of vodka (Crystal Skull Vodka, with a bottle in shape of crystal skull from Indiana Jones, and 46 Peaks in Adirondacks, are filtered through Herkimer diamonds), and the Dalai Lama, she tells me, is purchasing Herkimer diamonds to decorate Buddhas.)

In the days of quartz watches, these diamonds were used for their precision with which they would release their pulse, and there is some research being done to see if there are new uses for the Herkimer crystals in telecommunications.

But she is an educator at heart, and interweaves “edutainment” in every aspect of the resort.

They offer two sessions of week-long science camps, accommodating 100 kids at a time (they had to turn away 26 for the first camp), where kids get to take part in activities like  exploding volcano, dissecting a frog, building a robot, flying drones, and learning about geology, paleontology, gemology. (Activities for parents are organized, as well, such as trips to nearby Cooperstown.)

And there are weekend sessions for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to earn a Gemology badge.

A Rube Goldberg-like sculpture, designed by Binghamton University grad students, decorates the Professor Gadget's Robotics Lodge at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A Rube Goldberg-like sculpture, designed by Binghamton University grad students, decorates the Professor Gadget’s Robotics Lodge at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

About inviting Binghamton University graduate students to help design the Robotics Lodge, she says, “What is unique about this project is that each student was allowed the freedom to design to their strengths, which they believed would be enjoyed by many campers. What better sense of accomplishment can one have when you build something unusual with high energy collegiate talent for campers to experience an all-inclusive scientific theme…The partnership with Binghamton University and campers, as consumer consultants, was very rewarding.  And, yes, we would do it again with another scientific theme!”

Herkimer Diamond KOA was recognized in 2010 as KOA’s Kampground of the Year on the North American continent for its innovative lodgings and programming . Kampgrounds of America, with 485 locations in North America, is celebrating its 53rd Anniversary in 2015. (For more information and trip-planning tools, go to www.KOA.com.)

A stay at Herkimer Diamond KOA offers so much more to do, such as a canal boat ride with Lil’ Diamond III at the Herkimer Marina that takes you through a lock that lifts you up and down 20 feet on the Erie Canal (see next).

“Diamonds and the Erie Canal – two unique attractions,” Dr. Shevat tells me. “I want to be the centerpiece for dinner conversation: ‘Do you remember when we….?’”

The Herkimer Diamond KOA is open April through October (peak season rates apply July and August.) Weekends have special themes.

Herkimer Diamond KOA, 4626 State Route 28, Herkimer, NY 13350, 315-891-7355, E-mail: hdmkoa@ntcnet.com, www.herkimerdiamond.com; mining info at 315-717-0175, diamonds@ntcnet.com

Next: More to Do at Herkimer Diamond KOA: Gems Along the Mohawk, Eric Canal Cruise

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, goingplacesfarandnear.com 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.

Northstar in Lake Tahoe California Scores Big Hits with New Programs – 4Her, Mountain Table Dinner, Tost

The stunning view of Lake Tahoe from East Ridge trail at Northstar California. The snow conditions were remarkable even at the end of the season, despite California's drought and warm temps. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The stunning view of Lake Tahoe from East Ridge trail at Northstar California. The snow conditions were remarkable even at the end of the season, despite California’s drought and warm temps. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Eric Leiberman

Northstar California, is winding down snow season and transitioning to summer. With its glorious setting in the Sierra Nevada Mountains overlooking Lake Tahoe, and what seems to be perennially moderate weather, Northstar, one of the Vail Resorts destinations, is very much a four-season resort, where you can luxuriate in its “laid-back California” vibe year-round.

Having had the chance to catch the end of ski season – and marvel at the genius that goes into nurturing, maintaining and preserving snow cover despite the historic, four-year drought in California – I am thrilled that three innovations introduced for the 2014-5 ski season were such hits, they will be returned for next season: Mountain Table Dinner, a series of special, five-course gourmet dinners organized around a particular vineyard’s wines, presented with glorious fanfare at the Zephyr Lodge with views from the mountain of the Pacific Crest; 4Her-Women’s Ultimate 4 Ski/Snowboard Lesson, a personalized women-only ski or snowboard clinic limited to 4 women at a time (combines the fun of a gal getaway with superb personalized skill development), and Tost – a 2 pm complimentary Champagne (or sparkling cider) toast from atop the mountain on the East Ridge trail.

And while they will recede until next season, they are indicative of the sort of the laid-back, casual elegance, combining California cool with high-end luxury, on-mountain exhilaration with a sophisticated alpine village atmosphere that is the foundational to Northstar, where the motto is, “The way it should be.”

We had a chance to sample each.

The 4Her clinic at Northstar California combined the fun of a gal getaway with superb personalized skill development; our coach, Susie Minton, knew just how to assess our abilities and introduce techniques © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The 4Her clinic at Northstar California combined the fun of a gal getaway with superb personalized skill development; our coach, Susie Minton, knew just how to assess our abilities and introduce techniques © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Northstar’s 4Her program is part of Vail Resorts major initiative unfurled this season directed at women skiers and snowboarders, which followed intense study by the ski company to figure out why women were not represented proportionately on the mountain. The result was the new program, Women’s Ultimate 4, a personalized lesson for no more than four women in a group (usually 2-3) with a female coach to learn or brush up on skiing, from foundation-building basics of a “first-timer” class (open to all), to navigating the easiest greens, to sharing tactics and camaraderie on green and blue runs. Offered at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado, Park City and Canyons in Utah, and Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood at Lake Tahoe.

The program is cleverly designed around the practical needs that women have. This year, it was offered principally on Mondays (though it is available on demand, as well). The session takes place from 10:30 am to 3 pm – beginning later and finishes earlier than Northstar’s children’s programs. 4her – Women’s Ultimate 4 also includes an après-ski gear and tech forum hosted by women experts, discussing women-specific equipment and how to choose the best-suited gear (ski boots, for example).

The 4Her clinic at Northstar which we sampled combined the fun of a gal getaway with superb personalized skill development; our coach, Susie Minton, knew just how to assess our strengths (and weaknesses) and break down the techniques and tactics to conform with a woman’s physical makeup (our balance is in our hips, not in our shoulders), and yes, our psychology, and as we were more successful, our confidence on the mountain was boosted. Lo and behold! our skiing improved significantly even after one clinic.

“It is essential to have a true comprehension of women’s needs in order to offer programs that provide better access to skiing and riding,” said Beth Howard, vice president and general manager of Northstar. “The insights we gained from women guests last winter were tremendously helpful and the 4her – Women’s Ultimate 4 program at Northstar is the result of that feedback.”

The program was such a hit this season, it is certain to be returned next season.

Luxurious, whimsical and an ode to fun in the mountains, Tost, a 2 pm toast with Champagne atop the mountain at East Ridge exemplifies the “California laid-back luxury” atmosphere found at Northstar © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Luxurious, whimsical and an ode to fun in the mountains, Tost, a 2 pm toast with Champagne atop the mountain at East Ridge exemplifies the “California laid-back luxury” atmosphere found at Northstar © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

A Tost! One of Northstar California’s new innovations for this season is a 2 pm Champagne toast on the East Ridge trail at the summit (sparkling cider also available so the kids are also included). There is actually a traditional toast! They put out beanbags and everybody just enjoys being together in such a delightful place. Luxurious, whimsical and an ode to fun in the mountains, Tost exemplifies the “California laid-back luxury” atmosphere found at Northstar. Tost is such a hit, it is guaranteed to be returned for next season.

We were so lucky to be at Northstar California for the last Mountain Table Dinner of the season. It is a special event atop the mountain at the Zephyr Lodge, outfitted to fit the elegance of the evening, with fresh flowers and crystal service. An epicurean’s delight, this evenings five-course dinner was organized by Frog’s Leap Winery of Rutherford (frogsleap.com) with each delectable course (Cedar Plank Salmon with sweet onion, blackberry Hoisin; roasted lamb rack with thyme pan jus, blue creme brulee; duck trio) designed by Northstar’s executive chef Steve Anderson to pair perfectly with the Frog’s Leap wines.

Mountain Table Dinner, one of the new programs Northstar California introduced this year, was absolutely delightful. Hosted at the Zephyr Lodge, the five-course epicurean delight was paired with Frog's Leap wines © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Mountain Table Dinner, one of the new programs Northstar California introduced this year, was absolutely delightful. Hosted at the Zephyr Lodge, the five-course epicurean delight was paired with Frog’s Leap wines © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The climax was experiencing the vineyard’s first-ever, newly released Cabernet Sauvignon (perfection), served with the finale of truffles, dark chocolate Marscarpone and raspberry Russian tea cakes. With the combination of the longer spring days and the clock change, our evening began in sunshine with a Sauvignon Blanc (aromas of white flowers touched by crisp, lemon zest flavors!) and we were treated to panoramic view of the sunset over the Pacific Crest from the porch and through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Northstar’s on-mountain delights spring from a lovely pedestrian village at the base, with gorgeous condominium accommodations, lovely eateries (like Rubicon for marvelous pizzas, and Tavern 3360, an upscale pub-style restaurant) and shops, ringing a skating rink (ice skating in winter, roller skating in summer, free to skate, rentals available) which is itself ringed by delightful sitting areas and fire pits, wonderfully handy for the 3:30 Northstar tradition of serving s’mores.

The lovely village at Northstar California, where there are delightful shops, eateries, and condominium accommodations just steps from the gondola © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The lovely village at Northstar California, where there are delightful shops, eateries, and condominium accommodations just steps from the gondola © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Ironhorse condominiums, part of Tahoe Mountain Resorts Lodging – a three-bedroom condo, lavishly furnished and outfitted with every imaginable amenity and convenience, plus fitness center and two hot tubs (there is a village pool and bungy trampoline in the village, also), underground parking garage, and the services of a concierge (530-550-3300).

The village accommodations are mere steps to the gondola that whisks you to mid-mountain.

There are accommodations on the mountain as well, including the stunning, five-star Ritz-Carlton (a great place to hang out, enjoy a patio restaurant and lobby lounge with all the casual comforts of a living room, centered by a massive chimney fireplace like a stone tree).

The Ritz Carlton’s Backyard Bar & BBQ is a popular place on the mountain, offering a year-round casual dining experience on the back patio with poolside service during the summer and ski-in/ski-out outdoor dining in the winter. Here you can enjoy a “blues, brews and BBQ” concept with a menu offering traditional barbeque favorites including St. Louis smoked ribs, brisket and pulled pork sandwiches cooked with an on-site smoker, a selection of house-made BBQ sauces, wood-fired oven-baked pizzas, traditional burgers and bratwurst along with home-style side dishes and desserts. There are also seasonal beverages with saloon-inspired cocktails and local craft beer selections.

Here we learn that all the barmeisters at Northstar have a competition to come up with the most interesting Bloody Mary, and each of the places has their distinctive recipe (the secret ingredient is withheld).

In the village, we thoroughly enjoyed the intriguing flatbread pizzas with creative toppings (they span international culinary traditions) at Rubicon.

Tavern 6330′ is perfectly located just steps away from the Big Springs Gondola, and Village Run leads right onto its patio. The mountain American grill utilizes California farm fresh ingredients and offers a stunning wine list, a wide variety of micro brews and signature cocktails inside or outside on the patio, equipped with two firepits, an outdoor grill, heat lamps and a signature après-ski scene.

Sunset over the Pacific Crest from the Zephyr Lodge during the Mountain Table Dinner at Northstar California © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sunset over the Pacific Crest from the Zephyr Lodge during the Mountain Table Dinner at Northstar California © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Summer at Northstar

Northstar is transitioning to summer – the ice skating rink is already open for roller skating (free skating, and rentals are available).

And golf! Designed by Robert Muir Graves, Northstar California’s 18-hole, par-72 golf course incorporates Tahoe’s mountainous landscapes with Martis Valley’s open meadow into two distinct 9-hole settings that both challenge a golfer’s skills and appeal to the senses. (The course opens May 15.)

Northstar is a major mountain biking destination – the home to Northern California’s largest mountain bike park – attracting riders from all over the world. It offers a mountain riding academy. a teen biking camp, and bike races. Northstar’s signature trail, LiveWire, is the first fully irrigated mountain bike trail and a must-ride trail for more advanced riders. (Proposed opening is May 22, beginning with Friday-Sunday schedule.)

The Northstar Bike Academy’s Bike 101 Package is an excellent introduction to downhill mountain biking (completely different techniques from road biking). There also are several great road bike rides near Northstar California that provide great views of Lake Tahoe and the local mountains.

Northstar also offers scenic lift rides for miles and miles of hiking (guided hikes available) and the resort is practically spitting distance from the famous Pacific Crest – the West’s equivalent of the Appalachian Trail – for hiking.

Other activities: Gem Panning, Geocaching, Miniature Golf, Kids’ Club, STRIDER Bike Rentals, Bungy Trampoline & Ropes Challenge, Tahoe Star Tours, Pottery Painting & Candle Making, Tennis, Wine Walks, Fly Fishing and Live Music.

There are also the activities on Lake Tahoe – probably one of the most beautiful glacial lakes anywhere – and South Tahoe, which is half in Nevada and affords all the high life and nightlife of casino gaming and shows.

JetBlue Launches Direct Service from JFK

Just in time for Northstar’s transition to summer, JetBlue is launching direct service between JFK and Reno/Tahoe, becoming the only airline providing a direct connection. Nonstop flights begin May 28.

“A nonstop link between Reno-Tahoe International Airport and New York City is long overdue. We’re eager to bring the JetBlue Experience to Reno-Tahoe so customers can enjoy our superior customer offering that includes the most legroom in coach, personal screens in every seat with live TV, unlimited snacks and soft drinks, and great service offered by JetBlue’s award-winning crewmembers,” said James Hnat, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Government Affairs, JetBlue.

“On the opposite end, New Yorkers will finally get direct service to an airport that is the gateway to so many great destinations: Reno, Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Eastern Sierra Mountains and Yosemite.”

Reno-Tahoe will be the airline’s 89th destination and is among a number of new JetBlue routes in the West.

Enjoy Summer in Northstar with 2015-16 Epic Pass

You can enjoy summer in Northstar with your 2015-16 Epic Pass.

Vail Resorts has just put the 2015-16 Epic Pass on sale, affording unlimited access to 11 U.S. resorts that collectively offer more than 32,000 acres of terrain.

Until April 12, the Pass can be purchased for $769 for adults and $399 for children, with $49 down payment to lock in the rate. What is more, you can use lift ticket purchased after March 10 toward the purchase price.

The Epic Pass allows skiers and snowboarders to experience iconic resorts including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Park City all season long. With Park City merging with Canyons Resort over the summer and becoming the largest U.S ski resort, plus the benefit of $85 million in resort improvements for guests last season, $492 million since 2010 and more improvements to come over the summer of 2015, the Epic Pass is unmatched for the services, skiing and snowboarding under one pass.

The Epic Pass pays for itself in less than five days of skiing and offers a 35 percent savings compared to lift ticket purchases at the lift ticket window. For guests planning on just one ski vacation, the Epic 4-Day offers four unrestricted days of skiing or snowboarding, valid all season long. At $389 for adults, the Epic 4-Day pays for itself in just over two days with a 35 percent savings from the lift ticket window.

The Epic Pass™ delivers unlimited skiing and snowboarding all season long at 11 U.S. resorts. With unlimited and unrestricted access, skiers and snowboarders can ski as much as they want at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado; Park City in Utah; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in Tahoe; Afton Alps in Minnesota and Mt. Brighton in Michigan. The Epic Pass is $769 for adults and $399 for children (ages 5-12). The Epic Pass pays for itself in less than five days of skiing or riding and offers a 35 percent discount compared to lift ticket window purchases. With more than 32,000 acres of skiing and snowboarding terrain, this pass affords the best value in the ski industry.

Epic 7-Day ™ pass is great for guests who don’t plan to ski more than seven days next winter. The pass features seven unrestricted days of skiing and riding at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado; Park City in Utah; and Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in Tahoe. The Epic 7-day is $579 for adults and $299 for children (ages 5-12). In addition, pass holders will receive seven free days of skiing at Mt. Brighton or Afton Alps. The Epic 7-Day pays for itself in under four days of skiing and riding and provides more than 45 percent savings compared to lift tickets purchased at the lift ticket window next season.

Epic 4-Day ™ pass is optimal for skiers and riders planning on one ski trip next year, but want to save on lift tickets. The Epic 4-Day provides four unrestricted tickets, valid at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado; Park City in Utah; and Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in Tahoe. The Epic 4-Day is $389 for adults and $219 for children (ages 5-12). Epic 4-Day pass holders also receive four free days of skiing at Mt. Brighton or Afton Alps. For just more than $1,200, a family of four can ski four days of their choosing. The Epic 4-Day pays for itself in over two days of skiing or riding with a 35 percent savings compared to lift tickets purchased at the lift ticket window next year.

Season Pass Benefits: Epic Pass and all Vail Resorts season pass holders will receive exclusive offers on lodging, dining, ski rentals, equipment, ski school and special events for the 2015-16 ski and snowboard season at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Park City, Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood, as well as Mt. Brighton, Afton Alps and Arapahoe Basin. Season pass holders also automatically receive six discounted Ski-With-a-Friend Tickets, on most passes. All season pass products are non-transferable and non-refundable. Additional season pass benefit information can be found at www.epicpass.com.

To purchase a season pass online or to find out more information, visit www.epicpass.com.

The Epic Pass got even more valuable with Vail Resorts’ announcement that the company is acquiring its first international mountain resort, Perisher Ski Resort in New South Wales, Australia.. Perisher is the largest and most visited ski resort in Australia, and is well-positioned with access to the country’s largest cities, including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane. Perisher is also the largest ski resort in the Southern Hemisphere. The acquisition is expected to close in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2015 following the satisfaction of certain conditions, including approval by the New South Wales Government under the long-term lease and license noted below.

Meanwhile, The Tahoe Local Pass offers unlimited skiing at the three Vail Resorts’ Lake Tahoe resorts: Heavenly Mountain Resort, Northstar California and Kirkwood Mountain Resort. For winter 2015-16, the pass will offer additional ski and ride days in Colorado and Utah. Starting at $429 with $49 down with the balance due in the fall, skiers and riders have until April 12 to secure the best available rates and value for winter 2015-16 season passes with six discounted buddy tickets.

For more information, Northstar California, www.northstarcalifornia.com or call 888-367-5257.

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, goingplacesfarandnear.com, 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. See our newest travel site at www.tidbitts.com/karen-rubin/where-in-the-world.

Taiwan’s Bikeways are Paths to Discovering Culture, Ancient and Modern

Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan's most spectacular bikeways, where parts bring you on bridges just above the water © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan’s most spectacular bikeways, where parts bring you on bridges just above the water © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

Before I arrived in Taiwan with an intention of biking, I hadn’t realized what a mountainous island this is – not just hilly, but craggy mountains that rise steeply. There are thousands of mountains  – 100 peaks are over 3000 meters high. Only 30% of the land area is habitable, the rest are mountains and forests. In fact, Taiwan now hosts an international cycling race that may well be among the most challenging in the world.

Nonetheless, Taiwan is very pro-cycling and has developed a fantastic network for biking – more than 3,000 kilometers of dedicated bike paths all around the island – so that even if you don’t do a point-to-point, inn-to-inn cycling itinerary, you can do a kind of hub-and-spoke or town-to-town, renting a bike in the best spots, and enjoying these marvelous bikeways.

What we experienced during our all-too-brief six day visit inspired me to return to travel more intensely. I discovered what a fantastic destination Taiwan is to really explore – it is such a distinct culture, with such rich heritage, beautiful landscapes, and extraordinarily friendly, good-natured people – and despite the fact that you are likely not able to understand the language or be able to read it, you feel incredibly comfortable and at ease.

I have been longing for a destination to explore as I did as a college student, backpacking through Europe, just discovering things serendipitously.

You can get around Taiwan so easily – by rapid transit train, by bus, rent a car (you need an international drivers’ license; excellent highways with signs in Chinese and English), hiring a car and driver, or signing on to an organized bike trip where you really do go point-to-point.

Another surprise is how remarkably affordable Taiwan is (again, reminding me of the good ol’ days) – prices by my rough estimate are as much as half what you would expect to spend traveling in the US or Europe for everything from bike rental (as little as $2/hour to $7/hour) to food (our average meal at a local restaurant was $10), to hotel arrangements to train travel (an hour’s trip on a high-speed rail was $55).

Taiwan is also surprisingly compact – you can ring the entire country on a nine-day guided biking trip (as long as you don’t stop to sightsee) and yet has such a variety of eco-systems and cultural niches. It is still possible to see an aboriginal village, and meet Taiwanese whose families go back hundreds of years to the Han Chinese including Hakka immigrants from areas Fujian and Guangdong on Mainland China.

Taiwan (named Formosa by Portuguese, “Beautiful Island,” who never actually settled here) was colonized by the Dutch beginning in 1623 (just like New Amsterdam/New York City!) The Dutch did not last long, though, driven out first by loyalist of the Ming dynasty and then by the Qing Dynasty. It was in the hands of the Japanese from 1895-1945.

These influences are still very strong, but the Taiwan we know today reflects the influx of the mainland Chinese in 1949, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who fled the Communist takeover and brought with him as much of China’s heritage as he could organize (apparently, the treasures of the Forbidden City had already been boxed up during the 1930s because of the Sino-Japanese War, so it was relatively easy to get them out).

Like the Taoist temples where Guardians protect the Gods and Goddesses, Taiwan has been the guardian of China’s millennia-old heritage, and even though Taiwan is quite modern, the traditions are very much the foundation.

Martyr's Shrine, Taipei © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Martyr’s Shrine, Taipei © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

During our first day in Taiwan, in Taipei City, after renting a bike and exploring a popular bikeway in a park along the river, we get an excellent foundation in understanding Chinese and Taiwanese heritage at the National Museum, which houses 650,000 artifacts, most of them the items taken from the Forbidden City in Beijing after the Communist takeover of China. We visit Chiang Kai-shek’s Memorial and the Martyrs Shrine (where a popular thing is to see the changing of the guard, which happens every half-hour) – which provides a foundation for what we will see when we leave Taipei City for other parts.

We could have – should have – done our sightseeing around Taipei with the U-bike, that wonderful urban bike-share program. However, unlike some other cities like New York City and Washington DC which have similar programs, there did not seem to be actual bike lanes – at least bike lanes that weren’t jam crammed with pedestrians or merged in with the hoards of mopeds (there are 10 million mopeds in Taiwan for 23 million people). Hardly anyone was biking in the city that we could see. (The city affords excellent mass transit, by the metro or bus or cab; you can purchase multi-day travel passes for U-bike and the metro and bus).

Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway

Biking through the Old Caoling Tunnel is an experience  © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking through the Old Caoling Tunnel is an experience © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our first real biking comes when we head to Fulong, on the Northeast Coast, a popular beach and recreation area. Here, you appreciate the dramatic landscape – the ocean on one side which falls off sharply to a deep depth, and mountains that rise straight up on the other side of the road. Tall rocks project out of the water.

The dramatic coastline reflects one of Taiwan’s geological quirks: Taiwan is rising up 0.8 cm every year because of the collision of two tectonic plates.

We come for two magnificent bikeways: the Yanliao-Longmen Bikeway and the Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway, together among the five most popular bike routes in eastern Taiwan.

The train tunnel was finished in 1924 during Japanese occupation, to accommodate the Yilan Line. At 2.16 km, it was the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia at the time. It was difficult to build – 11 people died and 366 injured during construction. When a new tunnel opened in 1985 for a new train, the “train cave” was abandoned for 22 years. Then in 2007, the government rebuilt the tunnel as part of the bikeway.

The tunnel is well paved, well lighted and as you go through, you hear the strains of a Yilan folk song about a train, which was popular at time the tunnel was opened. The song was banned during the Japanese occupation which banned Chinese traditions. In 1943, a popular Taiwanese singer revived it, reminding the people of their heritage (it strikes me that it is like what the song Edelweiss meant to the Austrians during the Nazi occupation).

The scenery is beautiful – there is a fishing village at the end of the Old Caoling Tunnel route, at which point you get onto the bikeway that goes alongside Highway #2, and can connect with the Yanliao-Longmen bikeway, which affords the special attraction of riding over a suspension bridge over a river, to complete the circle.

The high point of the Yaniliao-Longmen bikeway is going over a suspension bridge.

(This area is accessible by train from Taipei, and there are bike rental shops right at the start of the trail.)

Biking on the Dong Shan River Bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking on the Dong Shan River Bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We drive about an hour or so away to another area to experience the biking – Dong Shan River Water Park – and here, we catch a break. Just as we get our bike rentals, the sky clears up and we are blessed with a bit of golden light, a touch of blue sky that adds color to the landscape, and that delicious smell that comes from the bushes after a rain.

This is a bikeway that goes along the Dong Shan River, the fifth longest stream in Yilan province. The bikeway starts in a recreation area that boasts a delightful waterpark, and continues on a berm that has the river on one side, and farms and rice paddies on the other, and then passes by a marvelous heritage park. This entire area caters to tourists with a multitude of attractions, so you can easily spend a couple of days here.

The bikeway we take is only a tiny portion of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, which offers several bikeways: the Ruisui Bicycle Path (9.7 km); Depo Pond Bikeway (8 km); Yuli Bikeway (9.5 km); Liyutan Bikeway (this features the Tanbei Water Park and Taiwan fisheries Research Institute, 5.2 km); the Guanshan Town Encircling Bicycle Path (13 km); and the Longtian Bike Path (this features the Benun Tribal Leisure Farm, 5.2 km) – all of these hare connections to railway stations and rental shops.

Alas, we had all too brief time in this area.

We complete our visitor experience at the Yilan Evergreen Phoenix Hotel (www.evergreen-hotels.com/jiaosi) – a gorgeous spa hotel which has its own rooftop hot springs pools and outdoor swimming pool that is fabulous for laps, beautifully landscaped and absolutely heavenly at night (it is open until 11 pm).

King of the Mountain

Biking along Chihsingtan Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking along Chihsingtan Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our next day, we experience a pleasant bikeway along the Chihsingtan Beach in Hualien, that follows a half-moon shaped gulf and draws thousands of tourists (it also butts up against an Air Force base and there are military installations that are presented as a “hidden military treasure”). I follow the bikeway further, to a high pavilion with a view of the beach, and then continue on to where the bikeway comes out into the city but is not worth the effort.

Our purpose here, though, is to see the starting place for one of Taiwan’s most important international bike races, the KOM (King of the Mountain), which is held in November. This is the starting point, at zero-elevation, and the race, probably one of the most arduous in all cycling, proceeds for 100 km, virtually straight up, through the breathtakingly beautiful Taroko Gorge, through the valley to the 3275 meter high peak of Mt. Wuling where the race ends. During our trip, we will trace the route.

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Taroko Gorge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We originally thought we would get to sample biking at the Taroko Gorge – but that is before we actually saw it and what the road would be like. The scenery is beyond spectacular, and so is the road.

In order to bike here, you would have to do it very early in the morning (like 6 am), and if doing a point-to-point trip, you would do it from the north-to-south, which would be downhill (which is how the bike tours do it).

There are several hostels and lodges in the park which cater to hikers, climbers and bikers. We stay at Silks Place Hotel, a luxury resort hotel that is utterly fantastic, and is in close proximity to a fascinating Buddhist temple and fabulous hiking trails. They offer some rental bikes, as well as guided hikes (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw).

See: Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

Silks Place Hotel, which is at the other end of the Taroko Gorge from Chichsingtan Beach where we start, is only about one-third the distance of the KOM, and only at about one-fifth the elevation, at 600 meters, in the in the climb up to the peak, where the race would end, in Oiling, at 3,275 meters high.

Now comes the more challenging part. Even driving on these roads is treacherous – and also nauseating (Advice: take ginger candy to suck on, Tums, or Bonine or motion sickness medicine before you head out). We actually see bikers along the road, and I think about the advantage that the local riders must have in the race.

We go through a multitude of tunnels – the engineering is fascinating, along with the plethora of suspension bridges that criss-cross the Gorge. The mist is rising – so the  view is constantly changing -the scene opens and closes.

The biking through the Taroko Gorge (all part of the KOM race) is tough enough, but this part, in the valley, is much more extreme – rising steeply, narrow turns, single lane and no shoulder.

The view along Route 8, Taiwan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The view along Route 8, Taiwan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

At about 2000 meters elevation, needing a break and some fresh air, we stop at Pilou Sacred Tree (also known as Bilu Divine Tree) rest stop, where the fellow (who now lives in California but comes back for summer to work in his family’s cafe) gives us a hot, black, syrupy drink, Lon Gan Ginger sweetened with brown sugar,  that is supposed to help settle the stomach. When that doesn’t work, he offers us a straw mushroom with salt. (I take Tums).

It is a most pleasant spot – and what a view, even with the fog filling the valley. It’s the view and the crisp, cool air – such a contrast to the hot humid weather down below – that makes us feel better.

The delightful cafe sells peach honey which they make; and the menu features such items as pig’s knuckles with peanuts and a Lily flower and mushroom soup (50 NT, about $1.75)

The sacred tree that the rest stop is named for stands just beside the road – 3200 years old and still living.

Our guide tells us that this road has some of the shortest, steepest climbs probably anywhere, and reminds us just how mountainous Taiwan is (and now we can appreciate it) – with thousands of mountains and 100 mountain peaks above 3000 meters. They are known as the “Top 100” and a goal for Taiwanese is to do the Top 100 in their lifetime.

The KOM race is now striking me as an absolute phenomenon, one that should stir the same kind of awe and attention as the Tour de France and the Hawaii Ironman Competition. Though a traditional event locally, it has only recently become an international event with professional riders.

The road is unrelenting in how it rises in elevation, and the twists and turns come even more sharply. Out of the 400 racers invited to KOM in its first three years, only about 100 finish – incredibly in three hours.

The last mile is the hardest for the riders  – rising at a 17% grade. Now we are above the tree line. There are a couple of hostels in the area that serve mountain climbers and hikers and a research station. At He Wan Mountain, there is a hiking trail that takes about 40 minutes to “conquer” the summit.

The temperature has dropped significantly, as well – Taiwan is sub-tropical, but now we put on light jackets. It is also terribly foggy. In winter, there can be snow here.

We pass the 3158 Cafe (3158 meters elevation), but we are still not at the summit.

Bikers pose at the 3275-meter high peak of Mt. Wuling, the finish of the arduous KOM Race © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bikers pose at the 3275-meter high peak of Mt. Wuling, the finish of the arduous KOM Race © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It is absolute fog when we get to the peak – you can’t see far, but everyone, including a couple of bikers, is delighting in taking pictures at the sign that gives the 3275 meter high mark – a man offers to take my picture for me.

It has taken us 3 hours to drive here (with stops), from 8:30 to 11;30 am, and we started out one-third of the way from the start of the KOM – it takes the winning cyclist 3 hours to complete the race.

The race is so challenging – the road so narrow – that the road is closed and spectators are not allowed along the route. However, if you are staying in the Silks Place Hotel or Leader Village Hotel the night before the race, you can get to see the race on the road (though you are also confined to where you are for the duration). Another way to watch the race is to go from Cingjing, Nantou to Wuling and see the cyclists rush through the finish line.

Sun Moon Lake

It takes another three hours for us to drive to the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area, in the heart of Taiwan. We get a glimpse of this absolutely stunning lake, but just as we arrive at the Giant Bike Rental Shop, the sky literally opens up, sending down a deluge.

It’s late afternoon and we go to our hotel, Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel (www.yooushan-hotel.com.tw) – which is not in the Sun Moon Lake tourist area (it is the weekend and filled with people) – but in Puli, which is proud of being “the heart of Taiwan” in the center of the island. The Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel is a four-star hotel that is popular with local people – it has a marvelous outdoor pool, a fitness room, a rooftop revolving restaurant, and that evening, have dinner at Ya Zung Haka restaurant to experience Haka-style cuisine.

The stunning view of Sun Moon Lake from the bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The stunning view of Sun Moon Lake from the bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We return to Sun Moon Lake the next day, just after the Giant rental shop opens at 6 am, and enjoy a magnificent ride along one of the prettiest bikeways anywhere. At points, the bikeway doesn’t just ring the lake, but actually goes along bridges just above the lake’s surface – a magical experience. We only have time to do the 7 km-long bikeway, but it is also possible to ride around the lake on the road, a total of 33 km.

There is a lot for people to enjoy: just near the lake is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, an amusement park that has been opened since 1986, which has the tallest freefall ride in Taiwan.

Also, the Sun Moon Lake Assam Tea Farm, where visitors can learn how to pick up tealeaves and have tea-tastings.

The area is also popular for bird watching and hiking up to the peaks that seem to rise from the lake shore.

Cycling Taiwan

We’re here on a survey mission organized by the Taiwan Government Tourist Office, which has focused on promoting cycling for locals as well as visitors. And these are just a sampling of the fabulous bikeways – all of them in areas rich in cultural and natural attractions that warrant exploration – so that I am anxious to return and really spend time exploring. The bikeways are extremely well marked (in English as well as Chinese), with rest facilities and services (there is always a Western style toilet, even if it is the “disabled” toilet).

The bikeways are delightful for any level of rider and any age and we see scores of families with kids in carriers and bikeseats; road riding would be a different story.

The best bike rentals were to be had at the Giant bike store outlets – this is the major bicycle manufacturer that also has a network of bike rental shops (what better way to promote the product – I know I wanted to buy one) and have outlets in the best biking areas.

Giant also operates a whole catalog of multi-day, point-to-point guided biking tours of Taiwan – perfect for more intense cycling. The Giant tour planners know where it is safer and where it is dangerous to ride; the groups go out with two mini-vans – one in back and one in front. They put you into groups, not necessarily English speaking, and trips average $169 per person/per day More information on Giant Travel’s website: www.giantcyclingworld.com/web/travel_en.php

We also found a wonderful itinerary marketed by biketoursdirect.com, which is operated by SpiceRoads, and really covers Taiwan’s highlights, including spending two nights in Taroko Gorge, so you have a full day to hike and explore  (www.biketours.com/Taiwan/taiwan-traverse-by-road-bike#sthash.rE3jN2HZ.dpuf)

Bike tours are also offered by:

Grasshopper Adventures, www.grasshopperadventures.com, 818-921-7101, Email: journeys@grasshopperadventures.com (http://grasshopperadventures.com/tour-TSCB09.php

Bicycle Adventures, bicycleadventures.com, 800-443-6060 (bicycleadventures.com/destinations/taiwan-bike-tours/Taiwan-Bike-Tour—NEW!)

Green Island Adventures, www.greenislandadventures.com/cycletours.htm

A superb guide, “Cycling Taiwan: Great Rides in the Bicycle Kingdom”, details the routes, and access information – 26 bikeways in 12 national scenic areas including 25 family-friendly routes – several that we experienced, and many more that will have to be put off for another visit – like the Wushantou Hatta and Baihe bikeways in the Siraya National Scienc Area; the Aogu Wetlands and Beimen bikeways on the southwest Coast; the Anpo Tourist Cycle Path in Maolin and the Shimer-Changbin Bikeway, Sanxiantai Bike Route which are highlighted by indigenous culture.

You can find superb itineraries at “MyTaiwanTour”, www.mytaiwantour.com.

Expect to pay a per diem of $166 (about half of what bike trips in Europe cost).

Our visit has been too brief, but has piqued my interest to return and really explore. I found Taiwan to be a destination which you can really do that – the logistics and excellent transportation systems, the variety of landscapes, the depth of its cultural attractions, the superb accommodations and food, and the excellent value for money (a bargain destination, I would venture to say), and most importantly, how comfortable you feel everywhere you go. It may seem cliche, but the people really are friendly, hospitable and so anxious to help even if they do not speak English.

Prepare for the trip in advance:Tourism offices in the US include: Taiwan Visitors Association, 1 East 42nd St., New York, NY 10017, Tel. 212-867-1632/4, Email tbrocnyc@gmail.com

See also:

Travel to Taiwan: vibrant, modern society built on bedrock of tradition and slideshow

Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

2 Days in Taipei: Hitting the highlights and the highpoints in Taiwan’s Capital and slideshow

Dining on Xiaolongbao at DinTaiFung at Taipei 101 is savory experience  and slideshow

Two Days in Taipei: Day 2: Confucius Temple to Fine Art Museum to Night Market and slideshow

Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, goingplacesfarandnear.com 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.

Discovering Sapelo Island, Georgia and the Gullah-Geechees of Hog Hammock

The Reynolds Mansion is a key attraction on Sapelo Island, an island refuge that offers intrigue and extraordinary contrasts © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Reynolds Mansion is a key attraction on Sapelo Island, an island refuge that offers intrigue and extraordinary contrasts © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

From the moment I hear the story of Sapelo Island, I am intrigued. The 50 remaining permanent residents are all descendents of Gullah-Geechee slaves. Access to the island is limited, and once there, “outsiders” who come on their own will have difficulty getting around – you’re not even allowed to take your own bicycle onto the island.

The number of permanent residents, once as many as 800, has steadily dwindled since the end of the Civil War and Emancipation, and now the community faces a dilemma: how to instill a sustainable economy that will keep the young people from migrating away, that does not cause this idyllic island to be overrun. Already, real estate developers are chomping at the bit.

The Gullah-Geechee are descendents of slaves brought 200 years ago from Africa and the West Indies to work the plantations. Their modest community of just 300 acres – the only part of the 16,000 acre island that does not belong to the State of Georgia – is in marked contrast to the RJ Reynolds mansion that has hosted presidents from Coolidge to Carter and continues to be an inspired venue for everything from destination weddings to academic conferences. Georgia and NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) also have research facilities on the island, in fact, at the Reynolds estate.

Sapelo Island is isolated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island is isolated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Sapelo Island – the fourth largest of Georgia’s barrier islands at 11 miles long and a mile wide – is owned by the State of Georgia, which uses it for research center for the state university, and a NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) research facility.

Unlike other barrier islands off Georgia – notably St. Simons, Sea Island and Jekyll Island – which have been turned into tourist havens, Sapelo Island has been insulated and almost entirely undeveloped. In fact, the only “law” governing the island is the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – there are no police.

There is limited ferry service and limited transportation on the island all of which adds to its mystery and intrigue, and limited transportation around the island. You’re not even allowed to bring your own bicycle on the ferry from Meridien, but theoretically, you can rent on the island. Because of the difficulties of getting around the island, most people who visit join one of the (few) organized tours that are available.

And this is apparently the way the “locals” – the 50 actual residents of the island – like it.

We come to Sapelo Island with Andy Hill, who owns Private Islands of Georgia, a 2,000-acre territory of these back barrier islands encompassing eight private islands including Eagle Island where we stay. He owns a half-acre of property on Sapelo, giving him (and his guests) privileges to come and he keeps a truck at the dock. He takes his guests over with his pontoon, or you can rent a boat and Eagle Island guests sometimes come with their own boats.

The 20-minute ride to the island is very scenic and interesting. We get to see an alligator, roused from winter hibernation; ballast islands; Doboy Island.

We set out in Andy’s truck and quickly discover one of the island’s charms – no street signs and few paved roads and lots of live oak dripping with Spanish moss.

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are such incongruities to the island – shacks and dilapidated cars and trucks, only a couple of paved roads with the rest dirt or sand – contrasted with the splendor of the RJ Reynolds Mansion.

All of this makes the island that much more interesting: highlights of any visit include the Reynolds mansion home, the historic lighthouse (newly restored but you can’t climb it), and miles and miles of pristine beach. Nanny Goat Beach, a six-mile stretch, is among many beaches which are as private as private can get. There also are research stations operated by the state university.

And then there is Hog Hammock, which is the village established by the former slaves, where there is the beginning of a historic center.

In some ways, Sapelo Island calls to mind Cuba, the way cars and trucks are kept for an eternity and constantly repaired and the people and culture exist in isolation, and a book by Pat Conroy, “The Water is Wide,” about his experience as a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island in South Carolina teaching black kids.

Reynolds Mansion

The Reynolds Mansion through the Live Oak, Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Reynolds Mansion through the Live Oak, Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Start at the Reynolds Mansion, which gives context to Sapelo Island’s history, and only open for tours during specific hours.

The original Mansion was designed and built from tabby, a mixture of lime, shells and water, by Thomas Spalding, an architect, statesman and plantation owner who purchased the south end of the island in 1802. The Mansion served as the Spalding Plantation Manor from 1810 until the Civil War.

Spalding was a fairly remarkable man: he employed scientific farming techniques including crop rotation and diversification and was responsible not only for devising the formula for building tabby – a cement like construction material made from shells – but for cultivating Sea Island cotton and introducing the manufacture of sugar to Georgia. He also was elected to Congress and was an important local leader.

Spalding owned more than 350 slaves imported from Africa and the West Indies, but reportedly had misgivings about the institution of slavery, and had a reputation as “a liberal and humane master.” He utilized the task system of labor, which allowed his workers to have free time for personal pursuits. Slaves were supervised not by the typical white overseers but by black managers, the most prominent of whom was Bu Allah (or Bilali), a Muslim and Spalding’s second-in-command on Sapelo.

According to various biographies, Spalding was pro-Union (but anti abolition), and worked to win Georgia’s support of the 1850 Compromise.

Despite setbacks, Spalding’s prowess in agriculture and as a businessman (he was a founder of the Bank of Darien, advocated railroad and canal development in the region, and was active in state political affairs), enabled him to grow his plantation from 5,000-acres to eventually owning all of Sapelo Island’s 16,000-acres.

The mansion home was vandalized before and after the Civil War. After the Civil War, the former slaves, who began to earn cash for their labor, were able to buy land (that part of the story continues later when we meet Hog Hammock’s historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey).

The entire island except for those communities held by the former slave families, was purchased in 1912 for $150,000 by Howard Coffin (founder of the Hudson Motor Company as well as the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island). Coffin restored the mansion, which then hosted visits of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in 1928, President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover in 1932, and Charles Lindberg in 1929, who landed his plane on its small airstrip.

Tobacco heir Richard Reynolds, Jr. purchased the property during the Great Depression, in 1934.

Reynolds was an early environmentalist and founded the Sapelo Island Research Foundation in 1949. He later funded the research of Eugene Odum, whose 1958 paper The Ecology of a Salt Marsh showed the fragility of the cycle of nature in the wetlands; the research Odum did at Sapelo helped launch the modern ecology movement.

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Reynolds’ widow, Annemarie Reynolds, sold Sapelo to the state of Georgia for $1 million, a fraction of its worth. The sale established the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, a state-federal partnership between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The mansion is used today for groups – like destination weddings and conferences. The Reynolds Mansion can accommodate up to 29 guests in 13 bedrooms with 11 bathrooms. There is a minimum group size of 16 guests as well as a minimum 2-night stay.

The Mansion has marvelous architecture. The library has the original nameplates in many volumes from Reynolds’ private collection. Guests can use the Game Room’s billiards and table tennis. The ornately decorated Circus Room sports the wild animal murals of famed Atlanta artist, Athos Menaboni, whose work appears throughout the house.

The expansive grounds are particularly atmospheric with sculptures bathed in the sunlight filtering through massive live oaks.

Pathways link the Mansion’s grounds to the Atlantic Ocean where guests have use of a beachfront pavilion.

Mansion guests can explore the island on foot, bicycle, van or rented ocean kayaks. The lush forest envelopes you in a sea of green almost year round, and you are likely to sight whitetail deer, raccoon, opossum, wild turkey armadillo and other animals. The rare Guatemalan Chacalaca, imported to the island as a gamebird, runs wild in the forest, as do wild hogs and cattle, descendants of livestock that escaped from the farms of Sapelo’s early settlers. Sapelo is also a birders paradise. And of course, there are miles of unspoiled beach.

(Reynolds Mansion groups and conference participants are met at the ferry landing by air-conditioned vans; the vans are also available for the group’s use during their stay. Because of the unique ecological and archeological aspects of Sapelo, visitors have to obey very stringent and specific rules. For information and reservations, visit http://gastateparks.org/SapeloIslandReynoldsMansion or call 912-485-2299.)

Sapelo Lighthouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Lighthouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Another interesting attraction is the 80-foot tall Sapelo Lighthouse which watches over Doboy Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The five-acre lighthouse tract was sold to the federal government for $1 in 1808 by Thomas Spalding; the original lighthouse, 65 foot tall and topped by a 15-foot whale-oil lantern, was erected in 1820 for $14,500. Damaged several times by hurricanes over the years, it was eventually replaced and then deactivated in 1933. It was renovated in 1998 including a new spiral staircase, new lantern glass and light, and the spiral-striped exterior identical to the structure’s original paint scheme.

Today, its role is symbolic, since a steel tower outfitted with modern navigation aids was erected nearby as a replacement.

One of the enormous appeals of Sapelo Island for visitors are miles and miles of beaches. The main beach, Nanny Goat, has relatively easy access and bathroom facilities. We make our way with significant difficulty over some dirt roads, to one of the more secluded beaches at Cabretta Island where there are also campsites.

Hog Hammock

The highlight of our visit to Sapelo Island comes when we stop at Hog Hammock.

In its heyday, Hog Hammock would have had 800 residents; now the community of permanent residents has dwindled to just about 50, and only six children. Once there was a schoolhouse on the island; now the children go by ferry to the mainland.

All the descendents on the island trace back to 44 slave families – Bailey, Hogg, Walker, Spalding, and so forth. Many of the families were named for the owner (like Spalding); and many of the last names of enslaved populations on plantations originated from their job assignments. For example, the Bailey’s baled tobacco; Gardner’s tended the gardens; Grovner’s tended the groves; Hogg’s tended to hogs; Walker’s walked livestock.

Hog Hammock's historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hog Hammock’s historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We get to meet the village historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey, who has been accumulating artifacts in a small building which will serve as a museum but which does not seem open to the general public.

Cornelia Bailey’s ancestors first arrived on Sapelo in the 1790s, she tells us, and were here when the French came over. Beginning in 1802, a lot more came over, and after Thomas Spalding purchased the island, the number of Gullah-Geechee people grew to 800.

Just 50 of the community remain today.

“Everybody is still kin,” she says. She wants to revitalize the community so that it supports 150-200 people, but that will require jobs be created on the island.

The state of Georgia owns almost all of the island; Hog Hammock consists of just 300 of the 16,000 acres.

When the Civil War came, several slaves from Sapelo Island left and walked to Millersville, some walked to Thomasville (that’s a four-hour drive today).

The famous 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment – came through here and were responsible for burning Darien. “The blacks didn’t want to burn Darien,” Cornelia says. “the officers ordered them to give a lesson. The whites in the area still hold it against us.”

Did they know when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued? “We knew immediately because we had people here who served in Union forces.”

What happened here after slavery ended? I ask. “People in the north end were more independent. They didn’t want anyone telling them what to do. After being slaves for so many years. Rebellious people, took up arms against whites.

After the Civil War, she says, “for 35 years they didn’t work for any white man. They were jailed for refusing to be sharecroppers.”

“They planted for themselves They formed alliance and got their produce to market without a middleman, because until federal regulations, middlemen took all the profit.”

Many of the plantation owners lost their money because they supported the Confederacy. “Some buried it. Families were destitute Wives sold land. Some of my people who worked for federal government could pay 50 cents an acre.”

After 1870 and Reconstruction, she tells us, many of the former slaves ended up owning land; a lot worked for the federal government, earning cash money. They purchased land from their former owners – apparently being given handwritten slips of paper to show their ownership.

At one time, there were five different communities in five different parts of the island.

When Reynolds bought the island, he had the idea to develop it much as Jekyll Island and Sea Island had been developed, and wanted to consolidate all the Gullah-Geechee residents in one community from the five different communities.

“He said it was for wildlife preservation. But he wanted to develop north end,” she says.

“Everyone got a deed for land here but were cheated out of land in the north [of the island],” she tells us.They claimed that because the former slaves did not have the King’s grant, they could not prove their ownership.

Cornelia manifests the proud, independent streak of her ancestors, and is suspicious of outside developers who might come in and take over.

“Come and enjoy what we eat – seafood dishes. We’re cordial but don’t want outsiders to stay.”

Bailey wants to make the community economically viable but is not keen on promoting the obvious cash-cow, tourism, because that would mean opening the floodgates to outsiders.

Beaches are a major lure to Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Beaches are a major lure to Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Sapelo Island, Georgia (SIG) Community Improvement District (CID) is working to create a more walkable, bikeable and livable rural environment, and there is a Small Business Incubator which is hoping to spur the successful development of entrepreneurial companies.

I get the impression they don’t really want the outside world. Instead, her approach to economic revitalization is to revitalize agriculture.

Meanwhile, the community has been fighting back real estate development, and discourage locals from selling their property to outsiders.

Instead of opening floodgates to outsiders, Sapelo Island hosts a once-a-year festival, Sapelo Days Festival, on the third Saturday in October, when the island invites back all those who used to live here, whose families trace their roots here, and anyone else who is curious or who wants to be immersed in Gullah-Geechee culture.

Family of residents and those who have moved off the island start arriving Thursday; on Saturday, boat loads come, by 7:30-8 pm, they are gone.

“It’s a cultural day. People have their best manners, best foods,” she says, sounding like the grandmother who loves to have their grandchildren for a day and then send them back to the parents.

The festival is a fundraiser that helps support the Sapelo community.

Before we leave, we stop into Cornelia’s general store, where you can purchase a cookbook she wrote (there isn’t much else in the store). But you can see a display about Sapelo Island’s most famous resident, Cornelia’s nephew, Allen Bailey, who played for the Miami Hurricanes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Gullah-Geechee community extends from southern North Carolina down to northern Florida. The Gullahs achieved a victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act that provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The Heritage Corridor project is being administered by the US National Park Service with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.

Special Programs

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The State of Georgia offers guided bus tours of Sapelo Island on Wednesdays (8:30 – 12:30) and Saturdays (9 – 1) throughout the year, Fridays (8:30 – 12:30) June 1 through Labor Day; and an extended tour on the Last Tuesday (8:30 – 3) of each month March through October. Public tour reservations can be made by calling 912-437-3224 (adults/$15; Children (6-12)/ $10; ages 5 and under/free).

The Visitors Center is open Tuesday – Friday 7:30-5:30, Saturday 8-5:30, closed on Sunday and Monday. Group tours for 10-40 people are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays (8:30-3) throughout the year, and Fridays (8:30-12:30) from Labor Day to the end of May. Those tours can be arranged by calling the Education Office at 912-485-2300. Tickets for public and group tours of Sapelo Island can be purchased at the Visitor Center. T-shirts, books, and videos are also available for purchase.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (www.sapelonerr.org) work closely together managing the island’s resources. Guided interpretive tours of the mansion, slide shows of the island, interpretive beach walks and other ecological or scientific presentations can be arranged through the Reynolds Mansion conference coordinator with advance notice. Special outings, cookouts, picnics and other group activities are also possible with advance notice when booking your reservations. (The Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island, P.O. BOX 15, Sapelo Island, Georgia 31327, 912-485-2299).

Getting to Sapelo Island

One of the principal ways of accessing Sapelo Island is aboard the Georgia Department of Natural Resources ferry which serves visitors and residents alike. The $10 per person round-trip fee for the half-hour ride is paid at the Meridian ferry dock. (You are not allowed to bring bicycles, beach chairs or a host of other things.)

The mainland ferry dock, visitor center and parking areas are located in Meridian, Georgia, 8 miles east of Darien. From I-95, take exit 58 on GA HWY 57 to HWY 99.

Sapelo Island Visitors Center, 1766 Landing Rd SE, Darien, GA 31305, 912-437-3224, sapelovc@darientel.net, www.sapelonerr.org/visitor-center.

See also:

Eagle Island, One of ‘Private Islands of Georgia’ Offers Rarest Luxury: Time Together

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, goingplacesfarandnear.com 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.

Eagle Island, One of ‘Private Islands of Georgia’ Offers Rarest Luxury: Time Together

A firepit lights the night on Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A firepit lights the night on Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

Set among the back barrier islands of Georgia is Eagle Island, offering one of the rarest experiences on the planet: the giddy feeling of being on your own private island, separated from civilization.

An experience like this is usually reserved for the rich and famous, but rather than being out of this world in terms of price, the cost puts Eagle Island well in reach (about $2900 for six-night stay for a couple or $3300 for 3-12 people).

But what you get is priceless: time, or more precisely, Eagle Time. Time to be. Time to be together.

What happens when you put people into a place where time can be made to stand still? Where all the whirring and hustle and bustle and all the pressures of society can be held at bay and all there is, is the marsh and the flat water of a meandering river, the cacophony of calls of a dozen different types of birds, where because of the very simplicity, every small thing becomes that much more magnified, more wondrous, like the rings of a cut tree….

How exquisite. How wondrous. How precious.

“I watch people come out and three days later, their face is totally different, they are relaxed and comfortable,” says Andy Hill, who owns Eagle Island and seven more barrier islands in a 2,000-acre expanse. Here, you stay together, spend time with the people you’re with. That’s what they say they remember most.”

The marshes around Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The marshes around Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You feel it as soon as you pull away from the dock at Darien, on Captain Andy Hill’s pontoon boat, and it seems the world slips away as you cruise on the meandering river, among marshes lush with birds, fish, marshes, into a place that has been hailed by the Nature Conservancy has named this area ‘One of the Top 75 Last GREAT Places in the World’ and for this precious time, is yours.

Eagle Island Lodge, on its own 10 acres of Eden, offers the exquisite thrill of being completely on your own, left to your own devices. This distinguishes the experience from renting a ski house or villa.

Eagle Island may well be the first (and to date the only) “Five Moons” lodge – a riff on “Five Star” – and its slogan (or motto) is “No agenda. No clocks. No deadlines.”

There is every luxury and comfort, and yet it is its simplicity that is most precious of all.

The Eagle Island experience depends on who you are: romantic if you are a couple; a fantastic adventure if you are with young children; if you are with friends – with each scenario the social dynamic changes. The one constant is a unique experience.

You are immersed in the environment at Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
You are immersed in the environment at Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Environment, atmosphere, weather, time of year – everything changes the experience, the chance spotting of a dolphin, a manatee or an eagle.

It is a recipe for laughter, for love, for connection at a time when too many of us are too disconnected and distracted from people we are close to.

When you strip away all the distractions so you focus on each other, see clearly what is important, who is important.

It’s about a 20-minute ride on Hill’s pontoon boat from the dock at Darien, a quaint, historic town (Fort King George was built in 1721 and was the southernmost outpost of the British Empire in the Americas until 1727; the town was burned by the famous 54th Massachusetts during the Civil War) on the meandering Altamaha River, flanked on both sides by marsh.

During the boat ride Andy familiarizes us with the local ecology and history.

He points to ballast stone islands – islands that have formed from the ballast pitched by ships in the 1700s as they took on the timber harvested from Georgia to bring back to Europe. Over time, soil formed on the stones, then trees grew – a clear display of interplay between nature and human activity.

A successful businessman, he realized that he was running a big business, employing hundreds of people, but wasn’t around people, wasn’t outdoors, wasn’t boating, and wasn’t doing the things he is passionate about.

Ask him what he is passionate, and he doesn’t hesitate: “It’s the water.”

He takes a slight detour to where we see an Eagle’s nest – he tells us the nests can be as large as a ton. We see two eagles on a branch, protectively watching over the babies, still in the nest. He says 60% of eagles don’t make it past their first attempt at flight.

Andy bought Eagle Island in 1998 and two years later, May Hall (just around the “corner” of the marsh, which Andy is restoring as a Tuscan villa) along with six other islands in a 2,000-acre enclave that he has dubbed “Private Islands of Georgia.” To prove his title, he possesses the “King of England” deed to Gen Mackintosh, 1774, which covers the marsh and high ground.

He is interested in everything, as much an archeologist and anthropologist as artist who can see form and function in what others have discarded. His excitement and appreciation for all that he surveys is infectious. Indeed, he’s constructed Eagle Lodge and May Hall out of salvaged and recycled materials, refashioned into stunning art with form and function.

The boat follows the meandering curves in the river and we get our first glimpse of the lodge he has built which will be our home for the next several days.

Eagle Island Lodge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Eagle Island Lodge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Eagle Lodge, at the center of the 10-acre private island, is his creation, designed and built largely with his own hands.

We tie up to the Eagle Island dock, climb the ramp to the pier where there is a very pleasant wood table and chairs and a hanging swing, and as you walk on the boardwalk onto the 10-acre island, you immediately sense you have come to some place special.

Andy doesn’t just repurpose. He creates art. There are flowers, and not just flowers. Flowers in crab baskets converted to planters; flowers growing out of what Andy calls a “tree pot” – a dead tree planted upside down, trunk first, into the ground, so that its roots form the planter; and artful tiki torches which we will more fully appreciate at night.

At the end of a path of oyster shells is the lodge. We climb the stairs to the wrap-around porch. Inside, it is a great room, a masterpiece of wood – at once inviting and interesting.

This will do. Yes, this will do, I think to myself.

Creature comforts abound – a kitchen stocked with everything a chef would want because preparing meals and eating together is one of the most significant activities of this place.

The dining table is a focal point for conversation, for sharing.

Eagle Island Lodge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Eagle Island Lodge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The great open room has a comfortable living room area, a working fireplace (there is plenty of wood already chopped and ready).

We quickly explore: Eagle Lodge sleeps 14 – there are two bedrooms on the main floor with bathroom; a loft, and a separated suite on the ground floor which is ideal for a family with a queen bed, two sets of bunk beds, bathroom, laundry room, and playroom, with ping pong table, dining table and chairs and of course, TV with play station. There is WiFi (so you aren’t really cut off from civilization, or even totally unplugged, but you have incentive to leave it alone). There is a small library with interesting books about the area, and even binoculars.

Then, there are the nooks and crannies of pure whimsy:

A shower room (imagine this) – outside the lodge, built for two.

There are hammocks and hanging swings, a hot tub on the wrap-around verandah, with beautiful views everywhere you look, and a small pond (just for show), that at night, becomes a mirror to reflect the lights from the lodge, and the firepit. If that isn’t removed enough from civilization, there is a place on the trail in the woods where you can have a campfire.

Natural and discarded objects have been repurposed into beautiful things, like a magnificent sculpture over the fireplace of Medusa fashioned from driftwood; the brick pavers on the path that came from a Civil-War era chimney from Union Island. An Adirondack boat, cut in half, becomes a cabinet.

Welcome to Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Welcome to Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Andy Hill is like the unseen diviner who creates Kismet: I can easily imagine how different what is experienced by different people who for a time get to have their own island: a couple contemplating sharing a lifetime together; a family with young children; a multi-generational family, with grandparents who can impart their wisdom and experience of fishing, bird-watching, campfire-making, star-gazing; a family reunion; a gathering of couples or friends; each with its own particular social dynamic.

Even people who arrive as perfect strangers, in this magical environment under its spell, sitting around the table or beside a campfire and sharing their special stories, come away with a bond that would otherwise take years to form.

I think of how a writer, a painter or inventor looking seeking to remove all external distractions in order to create a masterpiece would thrive here.

Before you even arrive, there are multiple interactions as Andy Hill and his Guest Services team customize your stay, whether it is an “unplugged” family vacation, a romantic couples’ getaway, a fishing trip with the guys, or a gal getaway. Typically there are three or four conversations before you come – they can arrange for a fishing trip, a guided kayaking trip with a local naturalist.

You will be cooking your own meals so he provides online access to Harris Teeter, the local grocery store, so you can select what you want and Andy arranges to pick up all your supplies for you (does not charge a premium), so you have everything with you (Andy will even pick up flowers if you are celebrating something).

Andy even provides charcoal for the grill (and there is an outdoor kitchen as well as a completely equipped main kitchen), coffee (and decaf), toiletries, fine soaps and shampoos, lush robes, paper products and even ziplock bags, two cases of bottled water iced down in a chest when you arrive.

When you arrive, you will find bottled water in ice chests; charcoal and wood chips for the grill.

Andy spends a lot of time showing us around what will be our home – how things work.

You can check in as early as like on your day of arrival, and check out as late you like on the day of departure. That’s Eagle Island time.

The Luxury of Doing Nothing

When you arrive, I can almost guarantee that the first thing you will want to do is…..nothing.

You will be lured to a favorite spot on the porch – perhaps the swing, or a comfortable wicker chair, where the light and the view is most appealing for your mood, and just sit with a book. You feel yourself decompressing.

At some point, you will be lured back to the porch at the end of the boardwalk by the dock, as the sun goes lower in the sky and the light becomes more golden, then orange, then pink, and you will just gaze out to the flat water and the marshes and watch the birds sail on the wind.

Eventually, you will gather for the first activity: making a meal together.

Andy Hill shows how he prepares his famous Low Country Boil © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Andy Hill shows how he prepares his famous Low Country Boil © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You may well try Andy Hill’s own recipe for a Low Country Boil, a regional specialty (he has the recipe on his website): made with shrimp, sausage, onions, potatoes, corn and carrots, with the Private Islands of Georgia Cajun Seasoning Blend.

What makes it spectacular is the local shrimp, literally called Georgia Wild Caught Shrimp – freshly caught (you can see the shrimp boats with their expansive nets). I will have shrimp again in my life, but I will never experience shrimp like this again: succulent, sweet with a touch of salt – they get their sweetness from feasting on the Spartina grass in these marshes. Add to that the extraordinary atmosphere as we gather around in the outdoor kitchen over commercial-sized pots.

And Andy’s famous Five Moon Oysters, another specialty that makes you swoon.

“You won’t get this in a five-star restaurant, only a ‘Five Moon’” Andy jokes. After all, the moon rises above the stars and outshines the stars. In a five star, you are looking for the manager; in a five-moon, you are the manager.”

The Low Country Boil and the Five Moon Oysters are best prepared in this unique outdoor kitchen – with a commercial fryer from a Holiday Inn which closed down – on the ground level, under the porch so even in the rain (as it does this night), we are cozy and comfortable preparing the feast, eating standing up as the oysters, steamed in a skillet are finished with the melted cheese, bacon bits, scallions and jalapenos. To die for.

A firepit lights the night on Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A firepit lights the night on Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

After dinner, you might make a fire in the fire pit beside the small pond and tell more stories.

You might put a DVD into the player, or play a board game, or enjoy a round of ping-pong.

In the morning, before you take your first cup of coffee, you might well take a hike on a trail that Andy has cut that rings the 10-acre island – you are only a matter of feet away from the lodge, but it seems far away.

Early in the morning, take the trail through the woods on Eagle Island cut by Andy – follows the edge of the island, looking out over the marshes, walk through the live oak dripping with Spanish moss. Enchanting…. A couple of areas have been cleared for camping – one with a fire pit where clearly there have been campfires.

Everything takes on special interest – the oyster shells that seem to be everywhere- some old and likely from the Indians who used to come to these barrier islands seasonally.

And you become immersed in the stereophonic cacophony of birds – squeak, squawk, twirp, chirp, screech, whoop, woo woo – less “birdsong” than a discordant orchestra.

This is a place for exploring.

Kayaking at Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Kayaking at Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are two kayaks provided (one is a tandem for two people), which you can use to paddle just around the bend to May Hall, Andy Hill’s other island. May Hall island offers 20 acres to explore by walking trails that Andy has carved, but you walk over a 500-foot boardwalk Andy recently built to another, nine-acre island, Little May Hall; another boardwalk takes you to yet another of Andy’s islands, Grassie Field, with 17 acres more to explore. There is a rookery of Great Blue Heron. (Andy’s other islands are named Mick and Jagger – he is a Rolling Stones fan – and Amelia for his daughter).

You can prepare a picnic in nature (Andy hopes to build some huts on these outpost islands so people can camp out).

Andy can arrange for you to rent a boat, or better yet, bring your own boat, and the adventure just begins. The Atlantic Ocean is just beyond the trees – 15 minutes by motor boat – but there are other islands to explore.

Other activities readily at hand include fishing, birding (binoculars provided). There is also crabbing: “Blue crab: All you can catch. All you can eat,” says Captain Andy – the bait and blue crab baskets are ready for you so you can catch and enjoy the sweet taste of this Coastal Georgia favorite and the guidebook Andy provides even explains how to clean the crab.

Kayaking is particularly alluring here. If you don’t want to go out on your own, you can paddle the Altamaha River with a guide through Eagle’s Kayak Escape Package.

That’s what we did one afternoon – Danny Grissette, the guide, came with some extra kayaks, and we soon realized how easy it is to get lost if you leave the river and go into a channel.

Eagle Island is aptly named, we learn.

Eagle Island is aptly named. One seems to be bidding us goodbye as we depart the private island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Eagle Island is aptly named. One seems to be bidding us goodbye as we depart the private island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

McKintosh County has largest eagle population in Georgia – 11 nesting pairs (we see one pair when we arrive and on way back home, an eagle is resting on a channel marker just next to us).

We paddle to Escape Island – a tiny spit of a thing that Andy also owns as part of his 2000 acres. He has cleared an area where can make a campfire or camp out, and may build a platform for camping.

These vast expanses of marsh grasses that separate barrier islands from mainland from one of the richest estuaries producing a profusion and diversity of fish and wildlife in one of greatest ecosystems on the planet.

This is a stopover for migratory birds (the best time is January-March); you can also see dolphin and manatee (best is April through November). There are rare and endangered sturgeon, wood stork. We spot an alligator, though in winter they tend to hibernate.

There are Interconnected waterways, inland water routes – in fact, it is easy to get lost, so we appreciate having Dan to guide us when we go off from where the river is marked.

137 miles long, the Altamaha River flows from the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers to the Atlantic Ocean, the third largest contributor of fresh water to the Atlantic Ocean from North America. With its tributaries, the drainage basin is about 14,000 square miles, one of the largest on the Atlantic Coast. The fact that it is undammed is why it is so rich in marine life, with one of the largest populations of sturgeon. The river has extreme tides – rising and falling 8 feet.

Here, you revel in the spectacular flat horizons which give you these glorious vistas, taking on the colors of the time of day and season – at sunset in summer, we are told, the heat produces a mist. This night, as the sun sets, it shines back on the clouds in the east setting them afire and gradually to purple. You can see why they call this area the “Golden Isles of Georgia”

I am surprised to realize that this part of the East coast is the most western inland, actually on the same longitude as Chicago, which is why they don’t get hurricanes here.

Most special of all is an outing to Sapelo Island (the subject of another story).

Getting to Eagle Island:

You get to Eagle Island from Darien, a small town on the Georgia coast. We flew to Jacksonville, rented a car for the 1 1/2-hour drive; Charleston, South Carolina is a little over two hours; you can also fly to Atlanta (more than four hours drive), or connect into Brunswick, the local airport.

Private Islands of Georgia, 202 Marina Drive, St. Simons Island, GA 31522, 912-222-0801 email andy@privateislandsofgeorgia.com, www.privateislandsofgeorgia.com.

See also:

Discovering Sapelo Island, Georgia and the Gullah-Geechees of Hog Hammock

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, goingplacesfarandnear.com 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.