Normally, it would be extremely difficult to pull yourself away from Sea Crest Beach Hotel’s substantial private section of on Cape Cod’s Old Silver Beach on Buzzard Bay, wonderfully set with a west-ward facing view (perfect for watching the sunset). But on this day, unusually strong winds and chilly temps (but still clear, sunny skies) make it an ideal day to bike the Shining Sea Trail.
Cape Cod is one of the best destinations anywhere to bike – there is the Cape Cod Rail Trail that goes for miles throughout the interior; the Cape Cod Canal trail that stretches more than six miles on both sides, and the Shining Sea Trail which for its variety and scenery and points of interest is my favorite of all.
Sea Crest now has a bike rental program (as well as a biking package, new this year), and is just about a half-mile from an entrance to the Shining Sea trail at the 9.5 mile mark – almost to the very end of the 10.1 mile long bikeway. The trail is named for Katharine Lee Bates, most famous for writing the lyrics to “America the Beautiful…. From Sea to Shining Sea” (whose home you can visit in Falmouth, along the way).
This is one of my favorite dedicated biking trails anywhere. The Shining Sea Bike Trail hugs the shoreline from Falmouth to Woods Hole. It offers the best of Cape Cod: for a time you are in woods, but can see the charming Cape Cod homes; you ride past the historic Bourne Farm (stop to visit if you have time), passed cranberry bogs, through Falmouth Center (definitely visit Katharine Lee Bates’ house which is now a museum and learn more about this fascinating pioneering woman), and along the beach, into Woods Hole, where the trail ends at the ferry (if you have time, you can take your bike onto the ferry for a 45 minute trip (about $25 r/t) to Martha’s Vineyard, where there is a 25-mile bike loop. On our return ride from Wood’s Hole, we take a slight detour in order to ride past the picturesque and historic Nobska Lighthouse.
It’s lunch time when we ride into Woods Hole, which is a charming seaside village that has become a research center, with the Marine Research Laboratories, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where you can visit the Aquarium, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), where you can tour a superb exhibit featuring ALVIN, the submersible that helped find and salvage the Titanic (as Eric was at the controls, pretending to captain ALVIN,
a man looked on bemused, Barry Walden, turned out to be ALVIN’s actual expedition leader who spoke with us about how ALVIN was used in expeditions) and learn about ocean research.
(Starting at $174 per night (based on a two night minimum), the Shining Sea Bike Package includes an overnight stay for two at Sea Crest Beach Hotel, one day’s bike rental for two, bottled waters and a map of the Shining Sea Bike Trail. For reservations or for more information on Sea Crest Beach Hotel, visit www.seacrestbeachhotel.com or call 800-225-3110.)
Sea Crest Beach Resort has such a contemporary appearance and ambiance – owing to a recent $15 million renovation – I am surprised to learn that it has been a fixture on Cape Cod for generations.
The Sea Crest Beach Hotel has a colorful history, populated with fascinating people including Henry Fonda, Latin Quarter owner Lou Walters ((father of broadcast journalist Barbara Walters) and Boston Celtics’ coach Red Auerbach.
Its story begins in 1927, when The University Players Guild (among them a young Henry Fonda, Margaret Sullivan, James Stewart and Barbara O’Neill), created a summer playhouse and tea room on Old Silver Beach, where the hotel stands today. After the playhouse was damaged in a fire in1936, it was replaced and reopened as the Old Silver Beach Club, a Prohibition-era speakeasy. But this structure also was destroyed just two years later in the hurricane of 1938. The Latin Quarter, a club managed by Lou Walters, opened on the site in 1942. After a brief hiatus in World War II, the property reopened as a summer resort.
Red Auerbach, the famed Boston Celtics President, coach, and GM, along with partners Kenneth Battles and Steve Hill, purchased Sea Crest in 1963 and converted it from a summer destination to a multi-season hotel in 1971. After another change of ownership, Scout Hotels, which also owns or manages the Harborview and the Kelly House in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, the Harborview on Nantucket, and Plantation on Crystal River on Florida’s Nature Coast, as well as manages the Cape Wind (also in Falmouth on Cape Cod), acquired the Sea Crest in February 2010, launching a new era for the family resort.
Committed to preserving its heritage and appeal as a family-friendly destination resort while adding amenities and improvements ideal for contemporary guests, Scout Hotels invested $15 million in renovations. Completed in 2013, the renovations transformed the hotel into a full-fledged resort, including Red’s Restaurant and Lounge, the whimsical, nautical décor in the guestrooms and throughout the hotel, upgraded indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and the largest meeting and events space on the Cape, the Nauset Center.
A Full-Service Beach Resort
The Sea Crest Beach Hotel occupies an expansive, 700-foot long private section of Old Silver Beach along Buzzards Bay in what is otherwise a residential neighborhood distinguished by the shingle-styled architecture of traditional New England cottages
There are 264 guestrooms housed in eight low-rise buildings, each named for a winning boat from the Buzzard’s Bay Regatta. Woven sea-grass headboards and a color scheme of crisp whites and sea-glass blues and greens reflect the hotel’s beachfront setting, while thoughtfully placed sea shells and objects d’art add touches of whimsy.
The hotel’s 264 guest rooms and suites, some with fireplaces and many with water view private balconies, makes it appealing for families who seek a beachfront setting, couples drawn by the romance of the Cape, and meeting or wedding planners seeking expansive function space combined with superb dining and warm, personalized service. And the resort’s proximity to Cape Cod’s attractions makes it a great hub for longer stays.
There is also a three-bedroom/three bathroom cottage that sleeps up to eight and provides plenty of indoor and outdoor space for entertaining. it features a spacious living room, open kitchenette, washer and dryer, expansive deck, and a private backyard.
The hotel is loaded with amenities –the 700-foot private, white-sand beach; outdoor saline pool shielded from the wind, with pool deck and poolside bar (live entertainment, too); beautiful indoor, heated saline pool, kiddie pool and indoor/outdoor Jacuzzis; fitness center and a Pilates/Yoga room; Tween Room; outdoor movies on the hotel’s 16-foot screen during the summer months; Windsurfing lessons and water sports rentals; Beach volleyball; Bike rentals; Video arcade. In addition, tee times can be arranged at five 18-hole nearby golf courses.
Sea Crest Beach Hotel offers a variety of new and renovated dining environments: Red’s Restaurant & Lounge, a casual eatery named for former Sea Crest Beach Hotel owner Red Auerbach, the legendary Boston Celtics president and coach, showcases fresh takes on American Cape cuisine in seven distinct indoor and outdoor dining spaces, ranging from a family-friendly Main Dining Room to RED’S Room, filled with Red Auerbach memorabilia, for private events. It also includes a breezy Three Seasons Porch with wicker seating; outdoor seating for beachwear-friendly dining; a New England neighborhood-style indoor bar with television screens; and an outdoor poolside bar. Red’s Take Out provides guests the option of ordering selections to enjoy in their guestrooms; Ocean View Room, a more formal room, takes full advantage of the spectacular views through its wraparound windows; I-Café serves up fresh-brewed coffee and treats along with wireless Internet access and cable news.
Sea Crest offers a festive Shore Dinner Series where hotel guests and local residents alike can dig into traditional Cape favorites Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. through Sept. 6. Priced at $65 per person, the Shore Dinner includes: a 1 ½ pound Maine lobster; ½ pound of local steamer clams; ½ pound of East Coast mussels; Chorizo sausage; and native sweet corn on the cob with poached baby potatoes served with drawn butter, lemon and hot sauce. For $45 per person and $25 for children ages 12 and under, the meal includes a menu option without lobster and shellfish and features fresh-baked corn bread, Cape clam chowder, Angus burgers and jumbo beef hot dogs with all the fixings, garden salads and BBQ-roasted free-range chicken. Sliced summer fruit platters and warm just-baked cookies will follow the meal, and iced tea and lemonade will be served throughout the evening. Guests can end the experience by watching the most spectacular sunset on Cape Cod. A full bar is available at an additional cost. Prices include tax and gratuity. Reservations are required and include a full-day parking pass. Reservations are available at Shore Dinner Tickets online, by calling 508-356-2111 or via email at email@example.com.
This year, the Sea Crest debuted a new “toes-in-the-sand” dining experience, Jamaican BBQ Night, for guests looking for a Caribbean-inspired night out. Every Thursday from through Aug. 25, guests can dive into a Jamaican-inspired buffet accompanied by Caribbean-themed live music. Priced at $35 per person and $18 for children ages 12 and under, the buffet selections include Jamaica’s national dish of ackee and saltfish, as well as island slaw, jerk chicken, jerk pork and traditional red beans and rice. Ice-cold tropical fruit punch and ginger beer fried plantains, banana pudding and sweet potato pudding will be available for dessert. A full bar will be available at an additional cost. Prices include tax, gratuity and a full-day parking pass. (Reservations are required. Visit Jamaican Night Tickets online or call 508-540-9400.)
Both weekly events feature the Cape’s freshest finds prepared by Executive Chef Glenn MacNayr.
Cape Cod’s Largest Event Space
With more than 30,000 square feet of event space, Sea Crest Beach Hotel boasts the largest conference facilities under one roof on Cape Cod. All feature sophisticated audio-visual technology, high-speed Internet access, complimentary Wi-Fi, and a full range of business services. Function spaces include:
Nauset Conference Center, an 11,800-square-foot, newly renovated meeting space that accommodates up to 650 guests and divides into five flexible rooms. The space has been completely redesigned to incorporate its waterfront surroundings, including updated breakout rooms and bathrooms, earth-toned carpeting, wall coverings with driftwood accents and air walls, lighting including unique “wave” chandeliers, upgraded audio/visual capabilities, new banquet chairs and group check-in desk, and new catering and dining options for event participants.
Sea Crest Ballroom is a newly renovated, this 6,450-square-foot space that accommodates up to 800 guests. It can be divided into three separate rooms and connects to the adjacent Ocean View Room and its outdoor deck.
Courtyard accommodates al fresco meeting breaks and cocktail receptions, as well as banquets for up to 150.
Sea Crest Beach Hotel offers superb settings for weddings, from barefoot-on-the-beach affairs to more formal ceremonies in the Sea Crest Ballroom. There are indoor and outdoor venues ideal for receptions, rehearsal dinners and bridal luncheons. Menus range from gourmet fare to New England clambakes and barbeques.
Sea Crest Beach Hotel is within an easy drive of the region’s largest cities: New York, Boston, and Providence. Boston’s Logan International Airport and Providence’s T.F. Green International Airport are both just over an hour’s drive away.
Antique Cars, Adventure Park, Gardens, Hollywood Costumes and Hidden Hollow
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate
Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod’s first settled village, is a world-class destination attraction that on its own qualifies to bring people to Sandwich, even if the village did not offer as many unique attractions as it does or Cape Cod did not have its magnificent beaches and bike trails (see story).
Heritage Museum hits on a spectrum of cylinders -the vast, stunning and notable gardens, the historic collections of rare automobiles, the art inside and out, the way the entire place engages people of all ages – such as at the Hidden Hollow, a giant tree house in a hollow where you are invited to participate in planting and other activities (you feel like an elf or those tiny creatures in the EPIC animated movie). There is also – imagine this – an adventure center where you can see the forest “from a squirrel’s point of view.”
Set on 100 acres of magnificent grounds and trails on the banks of Shawme Pond in Historic Sandwich. Heritage Museums & Gardens is the largest public garden in Southern New England..Heritage is especially famous for its Dexter Rhododendrons as well as an encyclopedic collections of daylilies, hostas and hydrangeas. Heritage also holds a nationally-significant collection of specialty gardens, water features and sculpture.
It is a place where kids have space to really explore, where parents and children can engage in activities together, where parents can feel like kids again riding a carousel, and where children of all ages can feel that sense of wonder and delight, where the best of Mother Nature and man’s inventiveness achieve a harmony.
CUT! Costume and the Cinema
There are always special exhibits and this year’s is a blockbuster: “CUT! Costume and the Cinema,” which also provides a theme for many of the performances and special events throughout the season.
Forty-three costumes represent five centuries of fashion and style as interpreted by award-winning costume designers and worn by favorite stars are on display along with props, movie clips and photos and movie memorabilia. You actually get to see the scene where the actor is wearing the costume. But unlike seeing the costumes on film (where you might only get a view from the front), you get to see them in 360-degrees around, in very close proximity, and can appreciate the texture, the sumptuous fabrics, the lavish lace and embroidery and unparalleled craftsmanship and creativity the detail,
Costume is the essential ingredient in the authenticity of a period film..They set the scene and help create the ambience. They also reveal clues about a character’s status, age, class and wealth as well as his or her role in the story. And in this exhibit, you also get to appreciate changing cultural mores over time and place. More than 30 characters from some 25 films are displayed.
You can see Keira Knightley’s and Johnny Depp’s costumes from “Pirates of the Caribbean”; Kate Winslet’s from “Sense and Sensibiility”, Robert Downey Jr. from “Sherlock Holmes”, Minnie Driver and Emmy Rossum’s from “Phantom of the Opera”, Renee Zellweger from “Miss Potter.” Also, there are costumes that have been worn by Scarlett Johansson, Julie Christie, Maggie Smith, Heath Ledger, Ralph Fiennes Randy Quaid, Jude Law, Robert Downey, Jr.,
Anjelica Huston’s dress from “Ever After” provides an example of the technique of “slashing” – which was started by peasants who salvaged worn garments, and then was expropriated by the rich who embellished their sleeves with decoration.
Many of these costumes and their designers have won major awards including Oscars from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and BAFTAs from the British Association of Film and Television Arts (my only complaint is that the displays don’t credit the designers names or whether they won an Academy award for it).. The exhibition tour is organized by Exhibits Development Group, USA in cooperation with Cosprop, Ltd., London, England.
There are docents at the exhibit who field questions and respond to visitor requests – so, in response to visitors, they created a “cue sheet” of the movies, and a docent has swatches of comparable textiles so you can feel what they are like (do not touch the actual costumes). (I would have liked if they also would have provided the names of the costume designers and whether it won an award).
Many of these themes also animate weekly performances in an outdoor space where families like to bring picnics- especially the “Finding Neverland” and Beatrix Potter (“Miss Potter” who wrote the Peter Rabbit stories).,
Driven to Collect Antique Autos
One of the eternal delights at Heritage Museum is Driven to Collect, showcasing Heritage’s permanent collection of antique and classic automobiles, housed in a fantastic two-story building that is a reproduction of the Round Stone Barn at Hancock Shaker Village.
The JK Lilly III collection includes antique cars going back to the earliest models, most notably that are not just rare but also are in superb condition. You can see the model of the car that Amelia Earhart owned, the 1932 Auburn boattail speedster like Errol Flynn owned. Most interesting to me is a 1915 Milkin Light Electric Car, one of the first specifically designed for women: it did not require a crank, was elegant looking, with big windows.
New this year are a 1934 Derby Bentley reminiscent of the cars, time periods, and luxury represented in the 2016 special exhibition CUT! Costume and the Cinema, and a special display of maps made from recycled license plates, created by artist Stephen Blyth.
This collection includes some extraordinarily rare cars, like the Dusenberg that was specially built for Gary Cooper in 1931 (at a cost of $14,000-imagine that, in 1931). There is a 1919 Pierce Arrow, (original price, $7,750), built by the company, founded in 1901, by George N. Pierce of Buffalo, who built bicycles and bird cages, and turned his latent genius to automobiles. Also notable in the collection is the 1909 White Steam Car Model M, the first “Presidential” automobile, complete with Presidential seal, used by President Taft.
The descriptions are wonderfully “user friendly” that will delight true automobile collectors and aficionados, as well as neophytes. The commentary discusses the innovations made in the car, such as how the 1932 Auburn “boattail speedster” has a hidden convertible top (an awesomely exquisite car purchased, originally, for $975). Children are invited to hunt for clues and there are interesting kid-friendly descriptions. And there is a Model T that you can pack into and pose for pictures.
Each month from May to October, there is an opportunity to go behind the scenes with curator Jennifer Madden for a tour of the antique auto collection storage. Jennifer shares little-known facts and stories about the 20 cars in this area, while participants have the opportunity to closely examine the vehicles. Participants will also learn how the collection was formed, the original purchase price of each vehicle, the work that goes into maintaining this world-class collection, and the ins and outs of moving the cars and preparing them for exhibit. Advance registration is recommended as space is limited.
Lilly, of the Indianapolis pharmaceutical company (he came to sail in Cape Cod and stayed), was a phenomenal collector. Indeed, you see local and folk art and a range of items on display (the exhibit changes) that rivals the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
J.K. Lilly, III founded Heritage Museums & Gardens in honor of his father, J.K. Lilly, Jr., who spent a lifetime amassing great collections of rare books, coins and stamps, as well as American firearms and military miniatures. A private man, his father built a museum behind his home and shared his collections with few others.
But JK Lilly III took a different approach when establishing Heritage Museums & Gardens. He hoped that his museum would provide a range of educational and enjoyable experiences for many visitors “beyond Sandwich and beyond Cape Cod.” In order to augment the collection he acquired from his father’s estate, Lilly collected thousands of items in a short amount of time. This allowed him to present a broad overview of his ideas about the “excellence and ingenuity of American craftsmen.”
Heritage Collection Showcases Americana
The Heritage Collection, in a separate building (where there is also the historic carousel you can ride) highlights art and artifacts from Heritage’s collection of more than 12,000 items. Beautiful paintings, rare objects, and the famed military miniatures offer examples of American ingenuity and excellence, and collectively, provide a revealing portrait of American culture over time.
The Heritage Collection presents Heritage’s permanent collection in four themes that permeate American history – sense of place, home, work and conflict of ideas. Each object seen here, pivotal or humble, tells a story about our history, about ourselves, and like all good history, about our future. Exhibit highlights include: beautiful paintings, rare objects, carved birds by A. Elmer Crowell, and the famed military miniatures offer examples of American ingenuity and excellence. . Indeed, it is very much like the experience you have when you visit the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
Children of all ages will enjoy taking a whirl on the carousel in the building housing the Art collection (you can pretty ride as many times as you like).
Made by Charles Looff in 1908, the antique hand-carved carousel has been thrilling riders for a hundred years.
Gardens of Delights
The grounds are simply breathtaking – magical even. I watch as a new garden is being created: it is a test garden for North American Hydrangeas – varieties not seen before on the market –to see how the varieties grow. We come upon a Fringe Tree – massive and delicate, like nothing I’ve seen before.
Most fun is how you come upon visual delights, from the Old East Wndmill, to the Labyrinth, to the Garden Maze, to Hidden Hollow, to a series of outdoor art-installations which connect to the natural world.
There is the most magnificent lily pond with a flume that creates a sculpted waterfall, outdoor art installations (that are like a scavenger hunt).
As you walk about the grounds, you come upon the Old East Windmill, built in 1800 in Orleans, Massachusetts, served that community for 93 years grinding wheat, rye, barley and salt from the local salt works. During the Civil War, the windmill also ground corn meal to be used as field rations for Union soldiers. In 1968, the windmill was sold to Heritage’s founder and moved to its present location.
Opened in 2004, the Hart Family Maze Garden was designed to capture the mystery and intrigue of exploration that characterizes a classical maze while providing a format for display of Heritage’s vine collection. Inspired by the site’s views of the surrounding landscape, the New England climate and the vines themselves, the maze uses a range of materials. A combination of evergreen and deciduous vines and hedges alternately create opaque walls and transparent windows the outside depending on the season. Throughout the season, the maze will feature such flowering vines as wisteria, clematis, honeysuckle, silvervine fleeceflower, Japanese hydrangea vine and five-leaf akebia.
Throughout the grounds, you will come upon these marvelous art installations – 10 in all – that have connection to the natural world and the environment – like a scavenger hunt for kids to find them all. Each year there is a similar, juried outdoor art show. This year’s is titled, “Natural Threads”.
Relatively new is Hidden Hollow – a giant tree house in a hollow in the woods where kids and adults engage in outdoor discovery activities like planting and STEM activities.
Hidden Hollow is a place for families to play in and explore the natural world. Hidden Hollow features a wide range of activity areas in which families can enjoy the outdoors together. Nestled in a two-acre dry kettle hole, its unique topography offers a stimulating and beautiful outdoor setting for discovery and learning.
Children can climb stepping stumps, navigate log balance beams, construct forts, create nature-inspired art, build with blocks, dig in sand, experiment with water, make music, engage in sensory investigation with plants, and more.
Hidden Hollow is one of New England’s first certified Nature Explore Classrooms, a joint program of National Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.
This national initiative was developed to advance the understanding and appreciation of the natural world and to provide children with meaningful and positive experiences with nature.
Indeed, you may well come upon the children from Heritage Museum’s new Relatively new: 100 Acres School, a private pre-school focused on STEM education, where the 100 acres of the museum and gardens are the outdoor classroom where kids get to experiment, learn about plants, etc. The curriculum is being tested for use in other cities and the plan is to develop an online curriculum that can be adopted more broadly.
Adventure Park: See Forest from ‘Squirrel’s Perspective’
There is also a new adventure park where you can see the forest from “a squirrel’s perspective”.
Located on four wooded acres on Heritage-owned land that has not been previously open to visitors, The focus of the Adventure Park is to provide a forest experience – in the air and on the ground -, with many opportunities for learning about forest formation, history, workings of a forest ecosystem, interdependence and interactions within forest ecosystems, forest succession and human impact on ecosystems
There are five aerial trails through the treetops. Over 60 tree to tree bridges and 7 zip lines challenge your strength, strategy and balance. Like a ski mountain, each trail is color coded for difficulty, allowing beginners to experts to select their own challenges. Climbers as well as non-climbing observers will also enjoy the interpretive pathways on the ground, filled with educational information about the forest ecosystem.
The aerial trails afford views of some of the nicest Rhododendrons on the property. You get to see a typical New England forest ecosystem that includes several tree species, high bush and low bush blueberries, mountain laurel and other shrubs and may well see squirrels and chipmunks and a variety of local birds, including chickadees and finches, and if you are lucky, Heritage’s resident red-tailed hawk.
The Adventure Park is so popular, you need to buy a timed ticket (which you can do in advance).
Heritage’s history Goes Back to Early Settlement
The tract of land now known as Heritage Museums & Gardens played an important role in the history of the town of Sandwich. In 1677, Lydia Wing Hamilton Abbott was the first resident to live on the land. As the widow Hamilton, she resided with her two sons on a spot near what is now the Special Exhibitions Gallery just south of Upper Shawme Pond. She lived there in great poverty despite a second marriage and assistance from her family and the Quakers of the town. After her death, Lydia’s brother Daniel Wing, Jr., and his two sons, Samuel and Zeccheus, bought Lydia’s little house, now known as Orchard House. Samuel, his wife and six children lived in the house until the children married and moved away. Much of the Wing family farm remains part of the grounds of Heritage. Although members of the Wing family have not lived on the property for years, their heritage remains a vital part of our history.
The internationally-known Charles Owen Dexter, a successful textile manufacturer in New Bedford, was the next owner of the land. He bought the property, then known as Shawme Farm, in 1921. A true renaissance man, he was active in civic affairs as well as a photographer, violinist and yachtsman. At the age of 59, Dexter was told that he wouldn’t have long to live which led him to purchase Shawme Farm. However, despite the warning, he lived for another 22 years. Beginning in 1921, Mr. Dexter and his wife spent summers at the farm and for the next 15 years he worked in his garden hybridizing plants. He started with vegetables and expanded his interests to rhododendrons.
The Lilly family, originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, spent their summer vacations in Falmouth, so when Josiah Kirby Lilly wanted to found a museum dedicated to his father, he chose Cape Cod.
Lilly first thought that he would create an automobile museum, but after researching other institutions, he decided that it would not have a broad enough appeal. It was after his father’s death in 1966 that the idea of creating a public place to house several of the Lilly family collections began to take shape.
After J. K. Lilly, Jr. died, his son bought the antique firearms and military miniature collections from his father’s estate. With architect Merton Stuart Barrows and landscape architect Philip Ansell, he planned the buildings and grounds to be a suitable background to showcase the collections. They decided on a replica of the Round Barn from the Shakers of Hancock Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for the cars. A replica of the Temple of Virtue from New Windsor, New York, where George Washington awarded the first Purple Heart to a soldier, was selected to hold the antique firearms and the military miniatures. Plans were made to add the gatehouse (ticket office and museum store) and the Old East Mill, from Orleans. In 1971, to entice more women to the museum, Mr. Lilly bought the Charles I. D. Looff carousel. Housed in a building built especially for its display, the carousel would be joined by three galleries holding American art.
Today the Museum serves more than 100,000 visitors annually who come from around the world to visit.
An an outdoor stage, family friendly concerts are presented Fridays 9-5, offering an entire day of activity. The theme this year is movies, such as “Cinderella,” “Neverland,” and “Beatrix Potter Day.” (And check out the schedule for special evening activities and lectures).
Bring a picnic or purchase food from the bistro-style Magnolia Café.
It is easy to spend a full day (or more) at Heritage Museums & Gardens, enjoying both The Adventure Park and the main museum grounds including the Auto Gallery, the Carousel, the Windmill, and the various gardens and indoor exhibits. You’ll need at least 2.5 hours for The Adventure Park and at least 2 hours for the museum (and you need a timed ticket to visit the Adventure Park). Save time and pre-purchase tickets.
And if you are planning to visit more than one time during the season, it is really worthwhile to purchase a family membership. (Open daily, mid-April to mid-October, 9 am-5pm).
Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa is Perfect Time Capsule to Cocoon Visit
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate
It’s remarkably easy to feel you have stepped back in time and forget what century you are actually in, in Sandwich, the first village settled on Cape Cod, in 1637. Sandwich is an enchanting jewel where history, exquisite architecture, fascinating attractions abound in a compact, walkable town, a short distance from the delightful Sandy Neck beach as well as the Cape Cod biking trail. It is quintessential New England, an idyllic place to visit, to stay, to make your hub for exploring Cape Cod. What is more, it is a real place where people live year-round, not just in summer, giving it much more substance than a place built around tourists.
And so, when I sought to choose a place that would express quintessential New England – encapsulating its architecture, heritage and culture – to a California girl who had never been to this part of the country before, I honed in on Sandwich.
It is also the first village you come to when you drive over the Sagamore Bridge – which means that you avoid hours of traffic that holiday-goers face getting to and from other popular places, like Hyannis, Chatham, and at the furthest point, Provincetown. Instead, you can make Sandwich your base and, if you have exhausted all the fascinating places to explore in Sandwich (not likely), you can have day trips to explore the Cape Cod National Seashore, bike the Cape Cod Rail Trail (Cape Cod is one of the best biking destinations anywhere) and, just 30 minutes drive away, Falmouth and Woods Hole which offer a score of other fascinating attractions as well as beaches.
Many of these quaint historic houses and buildings (including a church) have been turned into the most charming bed-and-breakfast inns, but if you want to extend your time travel back to when the Patriots were debating revolution, the best place is the Dan’l Webster Inn and Spa, very much at the heart of the village. It is also is the most substantial in size, amenities and services, offering the best of past and present.
The Dan’l Webster is a 48-room country inn which remarkably maintains its historic feel and character even though it is totally rebuilt (the original was destroyed by fire in 1971) and has undergone a $2 million renovation. Each of the 48 guest rooms and suites are appointed with exquisite period furnishings, canopy and four-poster beds, fireplaces and oversized whirlpool tubs.
The present inn sits on property that was once a parsonage, built in 1692 by Rev. Roland Cotton; in the 1750s, it was converted in the Fessenden Tavern, one of the first and most famous of New England’s taverns and a Patriot headquarters during the American Revolution (the Newcomb Tavern, just across the pond, served as Tory headquarters).
In the late 1800s, the inn, then known as the Central House, hosted famous visitors including President Grover Cleveland and poet Henry David Thoreau. In 1980, the Dan’l Webster was acquired by the Catania family, which operates the popular Hearth n’ Kettle Restaurants, as well as the John Carver Inn in Plymouth and, most recently, the Cape Codder Resort, in Hyannis.
The Catania family acquired the Dan’l Webster and have restored it with exquisite taste and respect for its importance – there are antique furnishings and Sandwich glass. The Catania family also acquired the historic house next door.
A marker outside the house tells the story: Nancy Fessenden married Capt. Ezra Nye in 1826 and moved into the house following their wedding. She was the daughter of the innkeeper (now the Dan’l Webster Inn). Nye was a famous captain who broke the speed record by sailing his clipper ship from Liverpool in 20 days, in 1829. The house was restored by the Dan’l Webster Inn in 1982 and accommodates four luxury suites, each named after prominent people associated with the inn, dating back to 1692.
The Dan’l Webster has become an award-winning hotel, spa and dining destination. Recognized as a Distinguished Restaurant of North America (placing it in the top 1% of restaurants in the country) it offers a choice of the casual Tavern at the Inn. the cozy Music Room or the more formal (and romantic) ambiance in a lovely glass enclosed Conservatory. The four lovely dining rooms offer a choice of settings; candle-lit, fireside dining in the Music or Webster Rooms garden-side dining in the sun or moonlit Conservatory, cozy dining in the tavern or au natural dining outside on the patio. Several times during the summer, it also offers dinner and live entertainment.
The Tavern at the Inn is an authentic replica of the two-centuries-old tap room where Daniel Webster made regular visits. It also served as the meeting place for local Patriots during the Revolution.
The menu includes traditional favorites such as prime rib and filet mignon, alongside creative, contemporary entrees and seasonal dishes. Its wine cellar received The Wine Spectator’s prestigious Award of Excellence.
Its full service Beach Plum Spa, which Cape Cod Life has named Best Day Spa since 2006!, features body massages (romantic and holistic healing), manicures, pedicures. The spa figures prominently in the inn’s getaway packages, such as a Girls Overnight Getaway (includes Cranberry Pedicures with Cosmo Martinis, 50-minute Massages, Beach Bliss Customized Facials, spa gratuities and $50 toward meals); Suite Deal Package (includes 1 night plus 50-minute Beach Plum Wellness Massages, spa gratuities, chocolate and $50 toward meals); and Countdown to Baby Package (select 1 or 2 nights plus receive Beach Bliss Customized Facials, 50-minute Massages like a Mama Massage for the Mother-To-Be, Cranberry Spa Pedicure, bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling wine, chocolates, spa gratuities, $60 toward meals and a special gift for the baby).
The Dan’l Webster received TripAdvisor’s 2016 Certificate of Excellence award for the 6th year in a row for dining and lodging., as well as the Cape Cod Life Reader’s Choice Awards as Best Bed & Breakfast/Inn and Best Resort/Hotel.
In addition to the Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa, the Catania family also owns and operates:
Cape Codder Resort & Spa in Hyannis (capecodderresort.com) which is opening a new indoor waterpark, and offers 260 stately guest rooms and luxury, fireplace suites, on-premise dining in the Hearth ’n Kettle Restaurant or Grand Cru Wine Bar & Grill, plus the Cape’s largest Full-Service Spa, the Beach Plum Spa & Med-Spa, catering to men, women and children
Cape Codder Residence Club (capecodderresidenceclub.com), a premier fractional ownership property, located on the site of the Cape Codder Resort & Spa so that owners enjoy the benefits of a luxurious one, two or three bedroom residence plus world-class resort amenities, concierge service and options to exchange accommodations around the world.
John Carver Inn & Spa (johncarverinn.com) a full-service resort with indoor Pilgrim Cove theme pool and spa located on the site of the original Pilgrim settlement, only steps away from Plymouth’s many historic attraction
The Hearth ‘n Kettle Restaurants (hearthnkettle.com), in Hyannis, South Yarmouth, Orleans, Plymouth, and Weymouth, serving “Cape Cod Fresh” cooking for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
It’s remarkable how much there is to explore within steps of the Dan’l Webster Inn’s front door (where you will find a carriage, as well as stocks the Puritans used) – especially on a quiet, cool summer’s night with the glow of street lights.
Here you see the major ingredients to settlement: homes that bear the names of the ship captains who commanded the packet ships and clippers that made this area a mercantile center; the Sandwich Glass Museum, where a revolutionary process made glass available to the masses; the Dexter Gristmill, so important to farmers, it made the village a hub; a perpetually flowing fountain where residents come even today with their jugs to fill the pure water; scores of churches, several which have been converted to private uses, like the Belfry Inn and Bistro in a former Catholic church (built 1901), and the First Parish Meetinghouse, dating back to 1638, which, improbably, has become a private home (and during our visit, we take advantage of an estate sale).
Many of the homes have historic name-plates and dates – a program by the Sandwich Historic Commission to highlight the depth of history in Sandwich and to recognize the original owners who built Sandwich and are an interwoven part of its history. It really connects the buildings to the people, so they are not simply structures but embodiments of a personal story.
What built Sandwich, though (and likely the reason that so many of its magnificent buildings reflect the prosperity of the early-1800s) was that in 1825, Deming Jarves built a glass factory (down by the site of the current Boardwalk). The factory grew rapidly to be one of the largest producers in the country with over 500 workers producing over five million pieces of glass annually by the 1850s. The technique made Sandwich glass objects affordable to the masses. By the 1880s, labor strikes, an economic depression, and new factories being built further closer to natural gas fuel sources forced the factory to close.
The Sandwich Glass Museum houses original pieces created during the 1800’s and provides demonstrations of glass blowing techniques. The museum’s theater shows a great documentary of the history of Sandwich. Throughout the village there are several glass blowers and artists with open studios to visit, creating a dynamic center for contemporary glass art (120 Main St., 508-833-1540, www.sandwichglassmuseum.org).
A short walk from the Dan’l Webster Inn is the Dexter Grist Mill, a working grist mill since 1654 where you can still buy ground cornmeal, or draw fresh water from the well (as many locals do for their personal supply).
The Hoxie House, built in 1675, was lived in until the 1970s but was never modernized with electricity or plumbing. This saltbox is named after a whaling captain who owned the house in the mid-1800s. it is now a wonderful little museum house showing what family life was like in the 1600s.
Most fascinating is how many major religious buildings there are in Sandwich, and how many have been converted for secular use, very likely in keeping with Sandwich’s own tradition: the Puritan authorities of Plymouth branded Sandwich a “lax” town because church attendance and support were low, Native Americans were allowed to worship and Quakers were not shunned as in other Puritan communities. Indeed, at a time when the Pilgrims promoted anything but religious freedom and persecuted non-Puritans, Sandwich allowed Quakers to worship freely. The Sandwich Quaker Meetings are the oldest continuously kept Friends Meetings in the United States.
Most interesting is the building that was originally the First Parish Meetinghouse, dating back to 1638. It boasts a most magnificent clock tower, a gift to the people of Sandwich in 1808 from Titus Winchester, a former slave who had been freed by his master, Reverend Abraham Williams in 1784, and went on to great success. The four-faced clock we see today was installed in 1878 by Jonathan Bourne, a New Bedford whaling tycoon. It has since become a most extraordinary private residence, and we happen by as an estate sale is going on.
Benjamin Nye Homestead & Museum, is the 18th-century home of one of the first 50 men who settle in Sandwich (I take note that it is the same name as the Captain Nancy Fessenden married).
Also, the Wing Fort House, built in 1641, the oldest house in New England continuously owned and occupied by one family (63 Spring Hill Rd., 508-833-1540).
A short distance away, you can visit the Green Briar Nature Center & Jam Kitchen (6 Discovery Hill Road off Route 6A), which celebrates author and naturalist Thornton W. Burgess, who wrote the Peter Cottontail stories. There are nature programs, nature trails, a working 1903 Jam Kitchen, jam-making classes (508-888-6870, www.thortonburgess.org).
We also get to sample a regional specialty of Cape Cod: quahog –a clam exclusively here. A local restaurant, Marshland, has own recipe, showcased on the Food Network which has brought foodies from far and wide. It is a homey place that is a cross between a diner and a café and offers really marvelous home-cooked food.
I relish the proximity of the Dan’l Webster Inn to the Cape Cod Canal and the 6.2 mile-long paved path for biking, roller blading or just walking (the banks of the canal are also popular for fishing). It is close enough to bike from the inn to the start of the trail. Along the trail, you can visit the Aptucxet Trading Post, built by the Pilgrims in 1627 to facilitate trade with the Dutch at New Amsterdam and the Narrangansett Indians.
The Cape Cod Canal is a marvel (there is a visitor center on the mainland side that tells the history). The canal was constructed in 1914 – up until then, there were a tragic number of ships that were wrecked trying to sail around the peninsula. But it is astonishing to learn that interest in building the canal dated back to the earliest settlers: in 1623, Pilgrims scouted the area as the place best suited for a canal. In 1697 the General Court of Massachusetts considered a formal proposal to build a canal, but no action was taken. In 1776, George Washington, concerned about its military implications, had the location examined. But it wasn’t until 1909 that construction started (60 Ed Moffitt Dr., 508-833-9676, www.capecodcanal.us).
Not to be Missed: Heritage Museum & Gardens
In a village of many substantial attractions and places of interest, what truly stands out is the Heritage Museum & Gardens – a destination attraction that can stand on its own to draw people to Sandwich, just as the beaches draw people to Cape Cod. It hits on a spectrum of cylinders – the vast, stunning and notable gardens, the JK Lilly III collection of cars and art, as well as art inside and out, the way it engages people of all ages – such as at the Hidden Hollow, a giant treehouse in a hollow where you are invited to participate in planting and other activities (you feel like an elf or those tiny creatures in the EPIC animated movie).
This year, the special exhibit on view is “CUT! Costume and the Cinema,” featuring 43 costumes representing five centuries of fashion and style as interpreted by award-winning costume designers and worn by favorite stars, which are presented along with props, movie clips and photos and movie memorabilia which you can see in very close proximity. There is also – imagine this – an adventure center where you can get a “squirrel’s perspective” of the forest. You should allocate the better part of a day to visit. (Heritage Museums & Gardens, 67 Grove Street, Sandwich, MA 02563, 508.888.3300, www.heritagemuseumsandgardens.org, open daily (See story).
Sandwich offers easy access to other marvelous places to visit on Cape Cod, but you should spend at least a day on the other side of the Sagamore Bridge, in Plymouth, to visit a score of historic attractions associated with the Pilgrims, including the Mayflower II (only recently reopened) and Plimoth Plantation (one of the best living history museums anywhere).
In urgent need of some R&R? Cure it with a two-night/three day stay at Loews Don CeSar, not just a grand historic hotel, but a true beach resort with all the amenities and activities for a luxurious, pampered stay. Better yet, for a complete vacation, plan a seven-day stay and balance out days relaxing on white-powder sand beach and lounging around glorious pools, spa treatments and yoga, with visits to the myriad cultural and scenic attractions close by, in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa.
From the moment you cross the threshold, walk down the stairs into the lobby, a feeling of peace and tranquility sweeps over you.
The Don Cesar has been welcoming guests since 1927. But as in so many of these grand historic hotels, they are living links to the past, and are in essence timeless.
It may seem cliché, but you step through the lobby and you are in the world of those who came before: F. Scott Fitzgerald (remembered with a nightly Fitzgerald Reception at the fine dining restaurant, when you can experience a cocktail and a nibble), Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig, even Al Capone.
You feel their presence. But the hotel has a unique personality, a character of its own – you can’t help but think of the stories these walls hold.
The Don CeSar exudes casual elegance and Southern Charm – ceiling fans, a beautiful courtyard garden that leads to the pool area and beyond, the white-sand beach and the Gulf of Mexico. Elegant, yet casual (not stuffy or stiff), comfortable, welcoming, and one of the most beautiful hotels anywhere.
Gracious, That’s the word to describe the experience.
A classic beach resort with activities offered throughout the day. Checking in, I am given an “Activities” schedule with a long list, day by day, of activities, all included in the $25/day resort fee: Yoga on the beach (9am), kayaking and paddleboarding (8-10 am), aqua fitness, sunset yoga, daily history tour of the hotel, Sea Life tour, Kidding Around Yoga, Kidz Kraze, Restorative Yoga, Star Gazers (that’s just Monday’s Schedule). The activity schedule changes through the week: Body Toning Tuesday, Legs, Bums and Tums; Noodling Around (Kid and Parent Aqua Fitness), Zumba, Beach Yoga Sunset; Drive in Movie on the weekend.
There are activities for the children as well: included in the resort fee is a half-day at Camp CeSar activities program. There are also aqua fitness programs for kids and families, educational talks. Kids Night Out are also available Friday and Saturday nights (6-10 pm).
Some special activities are offered by reservation and for a fee, such as Culinary Kids, Pint Size Picasso, and Waterside Music Makers.
There is a free shuttle service (available 9-5) that takes you into downtown St. Petersburg (here’s where you can easily balance the beach with the extraordinary cultural attractions of St. Petersburg).
The concierge can arrange for golf or tennis at the nearby Isla del Sol country club.
Of course, there is the beach with the most beautiful white-powder sand, the texture of talc, and two pools, heated to a perfect temperature.
The pool area is gorgeous – with lush tropical gardens, tall palm trees sheltering, opening up to the beach and Gulf beyond.
It is frankly hard to pull yourself away from the pool – two actually, both heated, both large enough for lap swimming. My favorite of the two is set off a little, tends to be quieter, and situated with the most magnificent view (I just get this wonderful feng shui feeling here). It is one of the prettiest pools anywhere, with the Pink Palace as a backdrop on one side, and palm trees and the Gulf on the other side.
There is iced, fruited water available and even magazines at the pool – plush robes in your room to wear to the pool.
This is in every way pampered luxury –you are quite literally fawned over by a genuinely friendly and helpful staff.
There is a game area with billiards, ping pong tables, chess, and other games – under shelter in case of a rain shower, you can still be outside.
There are a variety of shops to take care of immediate needs – a small general/convenience store, an Ice Cream shop (actually where the original entrance to the hotel was located, which still has the original flooring) where you can also get a bagel, muffin or cereal for breakfast, lovely clothes shops and sports stuff in case you forgot something.
In the evening, there is nightly live music in the lobby lounge/bar, laid out to be extremely comfortable and casual. (We are told that the Don CeSar has a signature drink, Old Smokey: take old cigar box and barrel-aged bourbon that spends two weeks behind the bar; then hose in cherry wood smoke, let it sit so the Bourbon is infused with cherry smoke, then the open box and chill with a snowball ice cube.)
After being awed watching the sunset from the beach, I stroll into the Maritana Grille for the Gatsby Reception. The bartender this evening is serving a Harvey Wallbanger and a nibble (seared pork belly with maple and sherry vinegrette). The Harvey Walbanger is a classic cocktail consisting of Vodka Galliano, orange juice that goes back to the 1950s; concocted by Donato “Duke” Antone who owned Duke’s Backwatch Bar in Hollywood on the Sunset Strip. Duke, who also invented the Rusty Nail and the White Russian, named it after a surfer named Tom Harvey.
The fine-dining restaurant – a beautiful seaside motif with large fish aquarium – has a varied American menu. On this evening, it was featuring Venison, Long Island Duckling, Snapper, and offered a wine tasting menu ($65, $95 with wine pairing).
A Grand Hotel With History
The Don CeSar was a founding member of Historic Hotels of America in 1989, which began with just 32 members and now has 260 members in 44 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico (HistoricHotels.org).
HHA hotels are invariably my favorite places to stay anywhere I go. They tend to manifest the charm and high standard of hospitality (an old fashioned sensibility and refinement) of bygone days, as well as a deep connection and sense of place. Each of the HHA members has its unique personality and character.
The Don CeSar was awarded HHA’s “Historic Hotel of the Year” in 2015 in the 201-400 room category
This largely reflects the acquisition and management of the Don since 2003 by Loews Hotels, which owns the Don with Prudential Insurance. The new owners invested millions in renovations and new facilities – opening the stunning 11,000 square foot Spa Oceania in 2008, the only beachfront luxury spa on the Gold Coast of Florida. Multi-million dollar investments included the meeting spaces, the Maritana Grille, its fine-dining restaurant, the Lobby, Lobby Bar and Sea Porch restaurant, and guestroom redesign.
The sense of responsibility to care for these entities is powerful – you can’t rest on laurels or prior reputation and the fact of the matter is that age does take its toll, as does the need to cater to new generations of guests. There is the constant push-pull of progress and preservation. As is the protectiveness of patrons. When they renovated the lobby, changing out dark wood colors and carpets and bronze-and-crystal chandeliers for a white wood paneling reminiscent of Southern plantation-style cool elegance, light floors, brighter colors and modern blue-and-clear glass chandeliers people were up in arms that they were disposing of “history” – except that the bronze chandeliers only dated back to the 1986 renovation.
“People were upset because they felt they were discarding history,” said Jeffrey Abbaticchio, Director of Public Relations. “We have to give much more attention to preserving the charm and character of hotel.”
It exposes the special challenge of caretaking for a historic hotel, especially one that means that much and has been so much a part of a local community.
That is the balance that modern hoteliers have to strike but there is the clear recognition of their responsibility as caretakers and their respect for these unique entities.
“We have to give much more attention to preserving the charm and character of hotel.”
Historic hotels like The Don CeSar typically have their tales of survival – dramatic snatches from the wrecking ball (indeed, the Renaissance Vinoy in St. Petersburg, which opened in 1927, also became a VA hospital and has a similar tale of being saved just moments from being demolished, in 1972).
This is the case of the Don CeSar – long known locally as “The Don” and “The Pink Palace.” It surprised me to learn how in its 80 year history, it only spent about half of that as a hotel, and from the beginning, struggled to survive – the Great Depression, World War II, economic recessions.
You speak of these kinds of properties as “The” – as in “The Don” – and as if they are people, with their own biography, rather than structures or institutions. They have personality and character. Unique. Authentic. They are closely connected to their community, which in fact, rallied to “Save the Don” from the wrecking ball in the 1970s, after being shuttered and closed for four years, a blight on the neighborhood.
The Don’s struggles began not long after coming into being, the fruition of a dream of its founder, Thomas Rowe, I learn from Susan Quinn, a long-time concierge at The Don CeSar who conducts history tours of the hotel.
Born in Boston in 1872 and orphaned at age 4, Rowe was sent to live with grandparents in Ireland, returning to the United States to become a real estate speculator in Florida, during the early boom of the 1920-6 years. Partnering with a local attorney, Walter Fuller, e turned a $21,000 investment into $1,050,000, and then sought to fulfill a longtime dream in building a lavish hotel.
He patterned his “Pink Lady” (as “The Don” continues to be known) after the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach, styled as a kind of Mediterranean palace. An opera lover, he named the Don CeSar after a character in one of his favorite operas, “Maritana,” written by a Scottsman (today, its fine-dining restaurant is named the Maritana Grill). He planned for construction costs to be $450,000, but instead, the hotel cost $1.2 million to build – wiping out his resources, so that he had to mortgage to raise the $250,000 needed to furnish the property so it could open.
He devised an ingenious system though, because he had spent $100,000 to buy 80 acres surrounding the hotel, and turned to developing small Mediterranean-style homes on property just south – you could buy the lot for $5000 and build the house on it for $5000 more.
He opened The Don CeSar in 1928, immediately drawing an “A” List of celebrities and important people: F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda (today, the Maritana offers a 5:30 pm Fitzgerald Reception, featuring a cocktail and nibble), famed attorney Clarence Darrow, baseball great Lou Gehrig and Al Capone.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Rowe devised an ingenious method of staying afloat: he offered for the home owners who had taken mortgages from him to cash out at a fraction of the amount owed in order to accumulate the cash he needed to make it through the Depression. And another thing: when the hotel would otherwise be low-occupancy in spring, he leased it out to the New York Yankees for spring training, at $8/day including breakfast.
Rowe, who came to St. Petersburg for his health and to speculate when he was in his 40s, lived in the hotel (his wife, a university-educated woman, stayed in Virginia, because she didn’t want to live in a backwater). In May 1940, he suffered a heart attack and insisted on staying in the hotel. Legend has it he intended to will the hotel to his employees, and he wrote a new will, but it was not witnessed, so his wife inherited the property. She appointed her lawyer to take charge of the corporation, who brought in his own management team. Then Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, and World War II hit.
Instead of the hotel’s 300 rooms being totally occupied for the season, all but 100 room reservations canceled, and the government went after her for taxes stemming from her husband’s refinancing scheme. Her attorney sought to negotiate a deal with the Navy to take the Don CeSar for officer’s housing, but the Army wanted it for a hospital, and used eminent domain to take it over, purchasing the building for the assessed value of $450,000. The army disposed of everything, even the hotel register with its famous signatures. The property later became an Air Force Convalescent Center (actually becoming a model for dealing with the condition now known as PTSD), and then a Veterans Administration regional office, from 1945 to 1969.
By 1969, the VA abandoned the hotel – set up a chain-link fence around and a guard – and it deteriorated terribly, a blight on the community.
In 1971, local residents and former employees formed a “Save the Don” committee to prevent the hotel from being demolished. June Hurley Young, realizing that locals had never known the Don as a fine hotel, wrote an article that was finally published in a paper under the headline, “Pink Elephant or Sleeping Beauty”. It came to the attention of William Bowman, a Flying Tiger during war, who was building new hotels in the area. He purchased the decrepit property in 1972, just two weeks before the hotel had a date with the wrecking ball.
“It cost $3.5 million to fix up –he replaced every window, waterproofed, added air conditioning so the hotel could stay open year round,” Owen said.
The Don CeSar reopened on November 24, 1973. The following year, the Pink Palace was admitted to the National Register of Historic American Places.
1973 was the year of the Oil Embargo and a recession. It wasn’t long before the Don CeSar was foreclosed but continued to operate. It changed hands several times until in 2000, it was taken over by Prudential Insurance.
Finally, in 2003, the Don CeSar became a Loews Hotel, which owns 15% and manages the luxury property, and brought it up to the standards of today’s luxury travelers.
(Both Rowe and Bowman are honored in a display case that has their picture and their history with the hotel. A new eatery, the Rowe Bar, is an indoor/outdoor bar which will serve different Juleps, different nonalcoholic “-ades” (lemonade, etc), communal bowls of cocktails, have fire pits and overlook the sand dune.
Don CeSar has 277 rooms. They may be a tad smaller than we have become accustomed to (because people didn’t come to a resort to spend time in their hotel room), but have every amenity imaginable – plus robes, mini-bar, Keurig coffee maker, safe, ironing board, a flashlight, lush mattress and bed linens, flat screen TV and free WiFi, even the shampoo has the perfect scent.
The Don CeSar is pet-friendly and offers pet menus (Bow Wow beef; Chow chow mein), pet room service and pet massage, in room.
The Don CeSar now has a second property, the Loews Beachhouse Suites, located just about a quarter mile up from the Don CeSar (finishing up a renovation by mid-February), which is also a pink building on the beach. A free shuttle van is offered between the two Loews properties, so Beachhouse guests have the use of the Don CeSar’s facilities.
An Idyllic Place for Destination Weddings
The ambiance, services and facilities at the Don CeSar are so magical, it is no wonder how popular the luxury resort has been for destination weddings. The hotel hosts some 425 wedding-related events a year, and accommodates weddings as large as 300. There are four people on staff just to help coordinate destination weddings, and an event company, Cheers, on call to handle elaborate events.
The planners can organize everything from releasing doves to special transportation.
“What’s popular lately are Indian weddings – people arrive by horse, do henna. We just hired an executive chef from India (most recently he was at The Breakers) so we can provide authentic Indian food,” Jeff said.
The fifth floor, with its enormous picture windows that look out to St. Petersburg and down the St. Pete Beach coast, and which once was a massive open dining room that could sit 1400 at a time for dinner, has been turned into a series of meeting and function rooms ideal for weddings, conferences and events (38,000 square feet of function space). Indeed, during our stay there were wedding and conferences underway.
A Complete Vacation
Each morning of my stay, I go down to the beach for 9 am beach yoga with Wendy Hessinger, and then aqua fitness which Wendy also conducts (an interesting routine using noodles). She also conducts sunset yoga on some days.
But there is so much going on in the area to round out your stay: take advantage of the free ride into St. Petersburg (about 20 minutes) which goes to the Sundial, a centrally located entertainment center with movies, excellent restaurants, and walkable to just about anything you want to get to (or you can hop on the Downtown Looper trolley, to take around the downtown) and enjoy an enormous selection of cultural attractions (Dali Museum, Chihuly Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg Museum of History, Florida Holocaust Museum, emerging arts districts, among the highlights. They are currently rebuilding the famous Pier, which is due to reopen in 2018.)
Or just hop a delightful trolley-style bus to Passa-Grill, a tiny charming village with a block-long “downtown” at Historic 8th Street ” (truly “Old Florida”) where the locals go to the beach, fish, look out to see dolphins and manatees, watch the sunset and hang out at waterside watering holes like the Paradise Grill. At Passa-Grill you can go out for deep sea fishing or take a tour boat to Shell Island. Or continue on to Fort de Soto where you can visit a Civil War-era fort.
Another popular activity is taking a sailing cruise to see dolphins or the sunset cruise. The Don CeSar has an arrangement with Dolphin Landings which offers two-hour cruises.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium is just about 30 minutes away to the north, in Clearwater Beach (you can take the trolley bus to get there, switching at 75th Avenue). For shopping, go to John’s Pass (150 shops and restaurants in a small area), reached by the trolley bus, midway between St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach.
Or plan a day trip to the Ringling Museum and historic mansion in Sarasota nearby.
Busch Gardens Tampa theme park (one of the best zoos with great roller coasters and entertainment) is less than an hour away (The Don CeSar has a partnership with Busch Gardens and offers a package that includes tickets, but you need a car or the hotel can arrange transportation).
Another idea is to split your stay between a beach holiday here at the Don CeSar and a theme park holiday in Orlando, staying at the Loews Portofino at Universal Orlando, another favorite hotel (which manages to create a resort atmosphere in Universal Studios theme park with sensational pool that creates a beach effect).
(For more vacation planning information, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater: 8200 Bryan Dairy Road, Suite 200, Largo, FL 33777, 727-464-7200, 877-352-3224 www.visitstpeteclearwater.com.)
But frankly, it is hard to pull yourself away from the Don CeSar
The St. Pete beach is absolutely magnificent – and one thing I notice is that the buildings are set well back from the beach and are low level for the most part, not blocking – peaceful. One day as I walk, I come upon a beach-volleyball regional tournament.
The beach is also the place to go for the sunset – get out there 20 minutes before because you would be amazed at how fast the most brilliant colors come and go as the sun seems to dash to the horizon, seeming to melt into a slot just beyond the water’s edge.
The Loews Don CeSar is ideal for couples, gal getaways, destination weddings, honeymoons, family getaways, family reunions, any special occasion, pre-baby getaway, or just about any excuse to have a holiday.
Loews Don CeSar Hotel, 3400 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete Beach, Florida, 33706, 727-360-1881, reservations, 800-282-1116, www.loewshotels.com/don-CeSar.
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 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.).
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, 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.
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).
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.
The 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, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gemsalongthemohawk.com).
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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.