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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mining for Diamonds!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polished by Mother Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewelry Shop and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herkimer Diamond KOA: An Edutaining Experience

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

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

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

There are also many sites for tents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Eric Leiberman

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

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

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

We had a chance to sample each.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer at Northstar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JetBlue Launches Direct Service from JFK

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

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

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

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

Enjoy Summer in Northstar with 2015-16 Epic Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures. See our newest travel site at www.tidbitts.com/karen-rubin/where-in-the-world.

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

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

by Karen Rubin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King of the Mountain

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

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

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

Taroko Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun Moon Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling Taiwan

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

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

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

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

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

Bike tours are also offered by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

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

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

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

Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reynolds Mansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hog Hammock

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just 50 of the community remain today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Programs

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

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

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

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

Getting to Sapelo Island

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

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

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

See also:

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

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

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

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

by Karen Rubin

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

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

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

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

How exquisite. How wondrous. How precious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Luxury of Doing Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a place for exploring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eagle Island is aptly named, we learn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Eagle Island:

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

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

See also:

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

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

 

Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa’s Secret for ‘New Fashioned’ Luxury: Playfulness, Whimsy, Wit and Surprise

The lushly landscaped main pool at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The lushly landscaped main pool at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

The Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa has gone rogue. After more than 20 years as the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach, the owners of the Five-Star, Five-Diamond resort have decided to become independent and set their sights on creating a “new fashioned luxury” for the Palm Beach set accustomed to the highest standards of luxury.

It is about exceeding expectations even for an ultra-luxurious resort. About a new kind of elegant resort experience that revolves around playfulness, sheer delight, unabashed self-indulgence and pampering and good cheer. It’s refined, but relaxed. It’s about surprise.

Here are some examples: in the Eau Spa, there are Couture Cupcakes, puzzle games. A Self-Centered Garden makes you think of an Arab sheikdom, where you can swing in a basket over a reflecting pool or play life-size chess. When you arrive, you are offered a glass of champagne, a cooling towel and a beach bag. And if you have a hankering to bike along Ocean Avenue to get a gander at the opulent mansions, you only have to ask to borrow one of their specially designed beach bicycles and they will be happy to outfit you with a helmet, bike lock, basket, bottle of water and a map.

Just ask, and you are greeted with the most cheerful smile.

The entire experience at The Eau Palm Beach is an unending cascade of pleasant surprises.

You arrive at the lushly landscaped porte-cochère, designed to be an outdoor living space, and enter into a lobby that is more like a giant living room, with elegant furniture, crystal chandeliers, a fireplace, cozy sitting areas, seeing through to a breathtaking view of the sparkling aquamarine Atlantic Ocean.

What strikes me first is the refreshing fragrance of seabreezes waft up. It is the veritable olfactory picture of what you would imagine Palm Beach to be. It turns out this is a specially created fragrance that perfectly captures “Palm Beach” (the “recipe” includes ozone, fruity citrus, sea salt, amber, soft musk, and you can purchase it in a votive candle in the gift shop, so you can bring Palm Beach home).

The Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa lobby is more like a living room of a well traveled Palm Beach family and is a social hub for resort © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa lobby is more like a living room of a well traveled Palm Beach family and is a social hub for resort © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I take my champagne (fresh-squeezed lemonade is an option) over to what looks like the prettiest living room in the finest of Palm Beach homes, with furnishings in beige, peach, gold, coral and seaside themes of seabirds, shells, turtles. All around there are stunning antiques, fine paintings, just marvelous things to look at. It’s refined, elegant, yet you feel comfortable enough to sit in flip flops.

I pause and feel the stresses of travel just melt away.

That is the overall feeling here – easy-going elegance, playful refinement. It is an atmosphere that is reinforced with a cheery staff. It gives new definition of “classy.”

Set on seven oceanfront acres, the hotel was built as a Ritz Carlton about 25 years ago, and when it came under new ownership about 10 years ago, the hotel was closed for more than six months for a complete renovation that has produced the stunning design, new facilities like the free-form pool and the spa (which is operated by WTS International which also operates the spas at such grand resort hotels as The Woodstock Inn, Colonial Williamsburg and Loews Don Cesar).

The Eau continues under the same ownership – a British family trust which owns hotels in London and resorts outside United States, but this is their only US property. Breaking with Ritz Carlton allows them to give The Eau its own mark of distinction, style and personality.

It is establishing its own character, its own personality, its own unique style, and I predict will soon be known by that moniker that commands attention, “The” – “The Eau Palm” – as in The Breakers, and The Waldorf – that at once defines the hotel as its own destination. Unique. One of a kind.

The Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa exceeds the highest expectations that you would have for a Five Star/Five Diamond resort hotel (one of only three Five Star/five Diamond resort hotels in all of Florida – the other two are The Acqualina Resort & Spa and The Mandarin, both in Miami, so The Eau is the only 5 Star/5 Diamond in swank Palm Beach).

There is so much about the Eau that justifiably puts it into the Five Star/Five Diamond category – the beach, the lavishly landscaped pools, the stunning design and interior decoration, the level of service that sets a new category for “luxury,” the creative “inspiration” programs – but what sets The Eau Palm Beach apart is The Eau Spa.

OMG: The Eau Spa

Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa takes its name from the award-winning 42,000 sq. ft. Eau Spa, which was created for the resort, and has been named one of the 25 best spas in the entire world.

Now, all spas are about indulgence but they at least make a representation of being about health and wellness – stress reduction after all, is medicinal.

The Eau Spa is about indulgence, as these specially ordered cupcakes that greet you in the waiting area attest © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Eau Spa is about indulgence, as these specially ordered cupcakes that greet you in the waiting area attest © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But The Eau is unabashedly about self-indulgence. Here’s an example: most spas offer fresh fruit and nuts and ice water while you wait. At the Eau, they offer Couture Cupcakes, imported from Delray Beach.

When you arrive, and you walk through what looks like a Moroccan souk, you come to this exotic looking circular room, where the hostess invites you to make a wish as you float a lighted candle in a giant gleaming copper Wishing Well saying, “Your ‘me time’ begins now.” The candles float alongside rubber duckies.

Eau Spa is equal parts sublime pampering, tranquil rejuvenation and devilish indulgence, a dazzling retreat in a distinctive setting. Here you feel enveloped in a calming wonderland.

Eau Spa features several areas for gathering and socializing, including the Bath Lounge with an oversized Jacuzzi with a column of water that falls from the ceiling like rain; cozy sitting areas where you will find puzzles like Rubrics cube, spa attendants serve refreshments off antique handheld mirrors and light bounces off a glamorous crystal chandelier made of wine glasses.

“It symbolizes Eau Spa- it’s about laughs and bubbles,” Teal, the hostess tells me as she escorts me through. That and the yellow rubber duckies that are the spa mascot. The Snow Room (ice cold) is decorated with snowglobes and a penguin.

The Self-Centered Garden at The Eau Spa is an open-air sanctuary © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Self-Centered Garden at The Eau Spa is an open-air sanctuary © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The centerpiece of the spa is the Self-Centered Garden an open-air sanctuary “where nature twines with manmade imaginings” (I wish I had come up with that phrase).

Eau Spa features 19 Spa Villas (treatment rooms), which can be customized to your preferences, reflecting your taste, desire, mood and purposes for the day. This includes color therapy through LED lighting that defines wall colors with shades outlined by ancient cultures. Twelve of the Villas have their own outdoor garden, offering a private escape. Three Couples’ Spa Villas provide an intimate experience beyond treatments, with garden enclaves, over-sized tubs and outdoor rainfall showers.

I am escorted to the Scrub and Polish Bar – one of the signature elements of The Eau Spa – where I can purchase a custom blend scrub (for example, lemongrass, green tea and lavendar), which is then mixed for me personally by the mixologist, for $35 (it comes with butter and loofa scrub), that I can take to the steam shower (this is why you should come much before your treatment is scheduled; people come and spend the entire day at the spa and the Self-Centered Garden and the private lanai, and why it is so ideal for a gal getaway or bachelorette party). You can order lunch at the spa and stay until closing, 8 pm.

As I look more closely as I walk down the hall to my “villa,” I notice the fanciful names: Villa Greedy…. Villa Selfish, Villa Sassy, Villa Naughty. Mine is Villa Vain.

In the treatment room, the masseuse shows me to a small table on which is a spoonful of pure honey and some ice water. The room has its own private garden with a basket swing and shower, where you can lounge if you want. She asks what color and music I would like.

During the massage, I think to myself, “The Queen of England could not be treated more royally.”

Curators of Fun

Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa occupies an exquisite location on the beach at Palm Beach Island© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa occupies an exquisite location on the beach at Palm Beach Island© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The aim of The Eau is to surprise, to exceed expectations for a clientele that comes with the highest expectations, to go beyond the staid concept of “luxury” and “pampering” and offer elements of whimsy and wish-fulfillment.

That’s no mean feat for a Five-Star, Five-Diamond resort hotel – in fact, the only five star-five diamond in Palm Beach and only one of three in Florida.

The Eau gives a wink to refinement – elegant but casual. More than that, it is playful and fun.

It’s so much more than just being a stunning place. The Eau means to pay a role in creating experiences, in fulfilling wishes.

My wish was to ride a bike up Ocean Avenue, beside the mind-bogglingly opulent homes to the bike path along the Intercoastal. The Eau lends you a bike from its new fleet of custom designed picnic bicycles, created just for Eau Palm Beach by Republic Bicycles, outfitted with basket, lock, helmet, bottle of water, map of bike routes (and distances), and if I want, a gourmet lunch and beach blanket. I biked 22 miles roundtrip.

They are working on an Inspiration Kit so if you see a sunset and are inspired to paint it, they will have all the supplies you need; or if you want to create a scrapbook, you only need ask and they will provide the supplies. (Check out the Now Wow schedule of weekly activities.)

This philosophy extends to the innovative children’s programs.

Located just off the pool deck and steps from the ocean, Aquanuts and COAST go beyond the traditional with an exceptional array of offerings from a stuffed animal workshop, to GoPro camera rentals for the budding documentarian, “DJ Lab” for the aspiring DJ’s and a full wardrobe, mini-spa and photo studio for professional-style photo shoots. Aquanuts caters to children aged 5-12, while COAST seems to have figured out how to crack the code to appeal to teens. Tweens (ages 10-12) are welcome to float between the two connected spaces, giving them independence to select their experience.

It is hard to imagine teens turning down art classes, DJ lessons, model makeup sessions, photo-shoots, video editing, music mixing, water sports, beach activities and pool games (Coast, which is like a teen center, is open daily and holds camp sessions regularly throughout the year.)

Aquanuts is underwater themed and offers discovery in nature, creativity in art, fun in the sun and other options based on the day and age of the participants. Aquanuts activities include sandcastles, underwater adventures, swimming, treasure hunts, arts and crafts, themes for the day and an always entertaining theater stage. Aquanuts kids enjoy fully supervised fun during half, full-day or evening programs, tailored to the group and the weather. Each day has a different theme, like Piratenuts.

This playful spirit permeates the resort.

The Eau Palm Beach team takes their role as “curators of fun” to a new level by setting the tone each evening with a new Lobby Turndown. As the sun sets, the lobby is lit with a hundred candles, guests are offered Champagne and invited to toast the new Palm Beach lifestyle. Other new events include the “Living Room Sessions” musical performances; Asian street food evenings; hand-rolled sushi paired with expertly mixed Sake-tinis.

These are centered in Stir, a charming bar/salon, which offers a relaxing place to enjoy the resort’s atmosphere adjacent to the lobby and is where you can always get a light meal. By night, Stir becomes the focal point of evening activity and the social hub of The Eau. Stir activities include afternoon “Tea Affair” (Reservations are not required) along with evening light bites, appetizers, cocktails and coffees. And on Friday and Saturday nights, you can enjoy the Asian flavorings of local celebrity chef, Sushi Jo and his chopstick specialties, along with live music on Fridays and DJ mixes on Saturdays. (Stir lounge open until midnight every evening and 1 am on weekends).

The firepit at The Eau Spa © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The firepit at The Eau Spa © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Or take your favorite libation (or s’mores) outside to gather around the firepit.

Another pleasant dining venue is Temple Orange, featuring Mediterranean-inspired dishes in an oceanfront casual setting with magnificent views of the Atlantic. This is the only breakfast venue (coffee is provided in the lobby). Lunch features a light and airy atmosphere-both indoors and on the terrace, and at night, Temple Orange transforms into an inviting and family-friendly restaurant (templeorangerestaurant.com).

Breeze, the poolside dining venue, offers gourmet burgers, seaside salads, tempting light bites and cocktails (weather permitting).

The fine dining restaurant is Angle, a contemporary, modern-American restaurant featuring locally-grown ingredients and South Florida specialties – line-caught fish, all natural, dry-aged prime beef, classic appetizers, distinctive cocktails, and an award winning wine wall. The warm and inviting space has sleek and urbane décor including chocolate velvet walls, glowing candlelight and mirrors. An onyx and amber Chef’s table, dramatically lighted from below, features flights of wine, chef’s plates and taste makers dinners. (Angle is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 6 p.m. – 10 p.m.).

Other dining options abound: the Eau is across the street from a small shopping center where there are several restaurants, and is a short walk over the bridge to the delightful Old Key Lime House, which exudes Old Florida and dates from the 19th century (www.oldkeylimehouse.com, 561-582-1889).

Lavish Accommodations

The Eau Palm Beach offers 309 spacious guestrooms and suites in three towers, offering ocean, pool or garden views and private balconies.

Eau Club Level rooms on the fourth floor have the added amenity of the services of a private concierge, separate check-in and check-out with Champagne, and use of a private Club Lounge where there is complimentary food and beverage service four times a day, plus daily pressing service and VIP pool service. Club-level rooms offer a private balcony with views of the ocean or pool and gardens.

Eau Spa Cabana Suites are ground-level rooms with their own lanai overlooking the ocean and are just steps to the tranquility and resort pools. Cabana suites have separate bedroom and living room and two bathrooms.

My room, 573, with a glorious balcony, has the most beautiful view to the adult pool and the ocean.

I throw open the door to the balcony and enjoy listening to the pounding ocean waves.

It is beautifully furnished with a gorgeous Art Deco wood writing desk; coffee maker, free WiFi, lush linens and pillows, a stunning marble bathroom.

The bathroom offers another playful surprise: a tub-side waterproofed “Water Alive” book, soothing bath crystals, bath pillow, tray and signature candle featuring the Palm Beach breeze scent.

Resort Amenities

The gorgeous adult pool at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The gorgeous adult pool at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Eau has two spectacular, oceanfront pools. The main pool is free form, lushly landscaped with palm trees, lounges that are more like sofas (even the jacuzzi has a playful swing chair). The adults-only pool has a stunning setting, and is great for lap swims.

Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa also features a wide array of watersports including snorkeling equipment, paddle boards, wave runners.

The resort also offers three Har-tru clay tennis courts with on-site pro and guests have golf privileges at nearby courses and get special pricing as well as charge services to the hotel bill.

Its state of the art fitness center includes spinning studio and yoga studio, Pilates classes and personal trainers.

I found The Eau ideal for whatever purpose – whether it was a business or professional meeting or conference (superb meetings and business facilities), a destination wedding or honeymoon, a bachelor/bachelorette getaway, a family reunion – it lends itself superbly.

Weddings at Eau Palm can be intimate or lavish, quiet or festive, whatever you desire, but in any case, are elegant. Creative and intuitive wedding and event specialists create perfect events on any scale, from small garden weddings with flickering candlelight and an ocean view or fireworks to a gala style celebration for 1,000 guests.

At the Eau, the Business Center isn’t some stifling room, but a pleasant lobby with comfortable easy chairs as well as computers and printers, available throughout the day or night.

The Eau is an ideal setting for conferences, incentive trips or chic retreats for groups from 10 to 1,000 people. The resort offers more than 30,000 square feet of meeting and event space with a variety of indoor and outdoor venues to choose from, and events can be paired and customized in more than 20 locations, including: 9,680 square-foot ballroom divisible into three equal salons; two additional ballrooms including the stunning Ocean Ballroom featuring views of the Atlantic; breakout meeting rooms including two boardrooms; poolside cabanas that bring the boardroom to the beach; outdoor event space including an oceanfront courtyard, resort lawn and pool terrace; and, of course, the Eau Spa “Self Centered” Garden with water features and private courtyard.

Hub for Palm Beach Attractions

Located in the heart of Palm Beach Island, The Eau also serves as a fabulous hub for the many marvelous attractions in Palm Beach County.

While we were there, we took advantage of the fabulous “Titanic” exhibit at the South Florida Science Museum in Dreher Park (next door to the equally fabulous Palm Beach Zoo); the exhibit is on through April 20, 2014. (Be sure to also see the special Planetarium Show) The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, 4801 Dreher Trail North, West Palm Beach, 561-832-1988 or visit www.sfsciencecenter.org.)

Other attractions in the vicinity include:Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts; Norton Museum of Art; Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens; PGA National Golf Club; International Polo Club; Flagler Museum; Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park; CityPlace Shopping Center; and McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary..

Since breaking with Ritz Carlton, The Eau has affiliated with Chicago-based Preferred Hotels & Resorts’ group of more than 250 independent upscale hotels and resorts. That means that Eau Palm guests can tap into iPrefer, a loyalty program that awards points redeemable for services at other Preferred properties.

The Eau is pet friendly – and is working on creating special amenities and experiences for four-footed guests.

Check the website for specials and packaged deals.

Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, 100 South Ocean Boulevard , Manalapan, FL 33462, 800-EAU-0170, 561-533-6000, www.eaupalmbeach.com.

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

Canyon Ranch Miami Beach Reinvents Health/Wellness Luxury Resort

Occupying the former Carillon Hotel and two new residential towers, Canyon Ranch Miami Beach occupies 750-feet of prime beachfront © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
Occupying the former Carillon Hotel and two new residential towers, Canyon Ranch Miami Beach occupies 750-feet of prime beachfront © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

by Karen Rubin

As I pull away from the Canyon Ranch Miami Beach, I think to myself, “I really do feel rejuvenated, more flexible than I’ve been in some time, better energy and self-confidence. I’m proud of the way I handled the exercise classes and I really did learn things that I will be able to apply. This is so much more than a R&R vacation, a brief sojourn in paradise.”

It’s just been just two days and I feel a spring to my step, flexibility I haven’t had in a while, I am conscious of my breath and posture, I feel empowered, self-confident, strong, satisfied. I’ve reached a higher state of self-knowledge and knowing.

Really.

Canyon Ranch really invented the American health and wellness retreat, going back to 1979.

Before that, those in pursuit of health and wellness through the mind-body-spiritual connection traveled to exotic locales – to ashrams and yoga retreats in India and Thailand, where you lived the ascetic life in order to ascend to some higher spiritual consciousness.

Or, there were “fat farms” – such as the one that Canyon Ranch founder Mel Zuckerman visited when he was dangerously overweight, sedentary, afflicted with a host of ailments but where he was the only man among a sea of ladies in leotards. They tended to be torturous affairs that did little to encourage people to make the underlying lifestyle changes – diet, exercise, the mind-body-spiritual connection – necessary for long-term health and wellness benefit.

At the age of 50, Zuckerman, a home developer, says he had an “aha” moment and decided to build an actual health and wellness retreat. He opened Canyon Ranch Tucson and a decade later, another health-and-wellness destination in Lenox, Massachusetts.

“We built Canyon Ranch to be the perfect place to put things in perspective, reset priorities and contemplate new opportunities,” he writes in his inspirational story. “Everything you need is here, and the same philosophy that enabled me to change my life can help you change yours.”

He also incorporated health and wellness spas into vacations – opening SpaClubs onboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, as well as in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

Located on fashionable Collins Avenue, Canyon Ranch Miami Beach, which opened in 2008, is a first for the brand – an actual resort., or more accurately, a hybrid of a resort and a wellness retreat, bookended by Canyon Ranch Living – Miami Beach, “the first healthy living community of its kind”.

Canyon Ranch Miami Beach occupies the historic Carillon Hotel  © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
Canyon Ranch Miami Beach occupies the historic Carillon Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The once-glamorous Carillon Hotel property which in its heyday hosted the likes of the Rat Pack and Barbra Streisand, was owned by Eric Sheppard, who had a similar “aha” moment as Mel Zuckerman when he visited Canyon Ranch in Tucson at the suggestion of his business partner and Canyon Ranch devotee, Phillip Wolman. Zealous converts to the Canyon Ranch lifestyle, Sheppard and Wolman convinced Zuckerman to join with them in restoring, converting and expanding the Carillon – which had fallen on hard times and had been empty for more than 10 years – into an exciting new hybrid expression of Canyon Ranch: a six-acre healthy living condominium community and à la carte hotel wrapped around a state-of-the-art Wellness Spa. Canyon Ranch and WSG became development partners for the project.

(In an interesting turn of events, the property was owned by Lehman Brothers, which was ordered to divest in the 2008 bankruptcy; Canyon Ranch is the operator and expects whoever the new property owners are to continue the Canyon Ranch operation since that was the basis for the homeowners to come in).

There are delightful homages to the Carillon – the name in neon is still atop the original hotel building, along with its famous clock; the entrance has the same abalone shell terrazzo floor and a clock incorporated into the concierge section, and a wrought iron spiral staircase now is part of a sculpture that greets you as you pull up to the portico. But the most important legacy of the Carillon is that it sits on prime beachfront, with 750 feet of pristine beach.

The original hotel rooms have been gutted and turned into 110 spacious suites – apartments, really – with magnificent oceanfront views, beachfront dining (one of only three Miami Beach restaurants that actually has beachfront dining), easy access to the vibrant nightlife of Miami and South Beach, and drop-off and pick-up service for shopping at Bal Harbour.

The portico is a full level above the street – intended to lift you away from the city, and uplift you.

The centerpiece of Canyon Ranch is the 70,000 square foot Spa and Wellness facility, the largest of its kind in Florida. Indeed, there is a mind-boggling menu of offerings here, from exercise classes, treatments, and lectures to diagnostics utilizing sophisticated medical technology and a complement of experts who come up with “prescriptions” in the form of exercise and nutritional programs.

The interior design – the lobby, suites, 54 treatment rooms and Canyon Ranch Grill were designed by David Rockwell. Rich in greens, browns, stone and wood, natural imagery and materials (even wormwood becomes a lighted column), coral-stone walls, four-story mangrove sculpture, teakwood ceilings and abalone shell terrazzo floors – advances the connection with the natural world.

Canyon Ranch Miami Beach's all-suite hotel offers gorgeous ocean views © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
Canyon Ranch Miami Beach’s all-suite hotel offers gorgeous ocean views © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

I am escorted up to my hotel suite – an apartment really (all the units are apartments) – and it takes my breath away – picture windows open out to the beach and ocean, and look out over the outdoor lounge and one of the four pools. I have two balconies. Two flat-screen TVs which double as wireless computers (free WiFi). The bathroom – marble, with a stunning mosaic in the floor – is to die for – spacious, a deep tub with a wood tray, a shower, vanity, and separate WC.

I have a well-equipped kitchen (there is a fabulous Publix grocery store across the street where you can stock up on supplies, and even a class where you visit with a Nutritionist to learn how to shop healthfully).

Emphasis on Lifestyle, not Escape

Canyon Ranch Miami Beach is a hybrid of a full-service beach  resort and a wellness center © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
Canyon Ranch Miami Beach is a hybrid of a full-service beach resort and a wellness center © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

A hybrid of a luxury resort and wellness retreat, Canyon Ranch is still foremost a health and wellness destination that happens to be a luxury resort, rather than a resort that happens to have a topnotch, world-class spa.

Being here is about lifestyle, not escape, living not luxuriating.

So while Canyon Ranch Miami Beach gets many of the same resort goers that Miami Beach gets, including families, there is a different atmosphere from the more casual, transient resorts that are focused more on self-indulgence, rest-and-relaxation and a serendipitous casual flow to the day.

Here, a vast number of the people you will meet at classes, in the spa, at lectures are residents who own their own Canyon Ranch condos that grace two towers, and Canyon Ranch regulars who have been to Tucson, Lenox and Miami Beach multiple times some returning every 6 months or so, and health-and-wellness seekers (the regulars appreciate being able to go “off campus”). People tend to come for longer stays than typical resorts.

There is a different atmosphere from the more casual, transient resorts that are focused more on self-indulgence, rest-and-relaxation and a serendipitous casual flow to the day.

Most people come to Canyon Ranch with intention.

Some come to lose weight. Some to stop smoking. Some to develop an exercise regimen to prevent osteoporosis, to strengthen the heart, to lessen pain, to build muscle, to reduce stress, to come up with a better life management strategy to handle a major life transition, to live more healthfully, to stave off illness. Some come to revitalize their sex life.

Some come to try to reverse the course of grave illness like cancer, when it is often too late. “Health care should prevent illness, not merely treat disease.”

In fact, that is what my massage therapist, Heidi Kublich, asks when I arrive for my treatment: “What is your intention?” She brings me to a bowl of polished stones and crystals and asks me to pick one. I pull out a rose quartz that happens to be shaped like a heart. A good sign, apparently. Rose quartz is a symbol of love and it is a particularly good omen that it is shaped like a heart.

My massage treatment was prearranged – in fact, every guest gets a personal phone call from a concierge weeks before they arrive who patiently asks what is your intention for your stay, and explains what is available (a mind-boggling array of choices, so pay attention). She asks me what I want from my massage. I mention the stiffness in my neck and joint pain, and she recommends a particular massage therapist, skilled in neuro-skeletal treatment. (There are also spa coordinators on site in the spa and in the lobby who can help organize and make arrangements.)

When I arrive though, I change my mind, and Heidi accommodates me on the spot, suggesting an aromatherapy massage in which she also taps into her vast array of skills in other therapies, including reflexology.

Heidi points out that the Encyclopedia of Massage is three-inches thick – that’s how many different techniques there are. Canyon Ranch offers quite a selection: stone massage, aromatherapy treatment, deep tissue thermal therapy, deep tissue massage. Other specialized touch therapies include Ashiatsu (Japanese deep barefoot massage); craniosacral therapy, neuromuscular therapy, reflexology, and Shiatsu.

A popular treatment is “Muscle Melt for Road Warriors,” a technique that uses warm herbal pouches firmly pressed into muscles and traditional Thai massage with lemongrass oil.

Canyon Ranch also offers various body rituals, like the Euphoria Ritual (music and a candlelit environment); de-stress Chakra ritual, Japanese bathing ritual, Miami rejuvenating spice, Native American Dreamtime, Rasul Ceremony, Traditional Thai detoxifying ritual, Turkish Hammam bath ritual and Tatra which is a “sensory journey” that begins with a natural rice scrub, then a soak in rose-scented, salt-infused bath with color therapy, and a massage on a neuro-auditory sound table where specially selected music vibrates through your body.

Aquavana Experience

Definitely arrive early for your massage – even an hour or more – in order to properly experience Aquavana, a complete suite of European-inspired advanced therapeutic crya (cold) and therma (hot) cabins, tubs and pools, which draw upon the concept that water movement and temperature variation can relieve muscle and joint problems and create a higher sense of relaxation, with a twist that incorporates light and atmosphere.

Aquavana has such novelties as a Crystal Steam Room which has a large natural crystal and uses optical effects that promote a meditative focus as you soak up steam enhanced with essential oils; Igloo, which blows cool air and a choice of Arctic Mist experiences (menthol, mint or eucalyptus) enhanced by twinkling fiber optics; experiential rain showers (you can choose Polar Mist, Atlantic Storm or Caribbean Monsoon with thunder and lightning effects); and Atlantic Spa, a rooftop hydrospa enhanced by ocean views and beach pebbles. Also, Herbal Laconium (a warm, misty ceramic-tiled room with heated individual seating thrones and color-changing fiber-optic ceiling); Hydrospa; thermal heated Loungers; and the classic, wood-lined, dry-heat Finnish sauna.

You can spend an hour or a day here (they offer tips on how to best take advantage of Aquavana, and three different “circuits” depending upon what you want to achieve: Roman Experience (relieves sore muscles); Finnish Experience (increases circulation); Canyon Ranch Experience (relieves stress).

Aquavana Experience is part of the complimentary services that also include the fitness classes and walks and the strength and cardio training studio, pools, lectures that fill and enrich the day.

But that’s just the first 11 pages of a 58-page catalog of services.

Health & Wellness

Indeed. many people come for the more comprehensive services, which is where Canyon Ranch Miami Beach diverges from being merely a luxury resort or even a spa.

Canyon Ranch Miami Beach has a complete Health & Wellness Department which looks and functions like a medical office. There are physicians specializing in integrative medicine, life management professionals, healing energy practitioners, exercise physiologists, nutritionists, acupuncturists, physical therapists, in addition to massage therapists and fitness instructors.

You can undertake diagnostic testing (not cheap, it costs between $750 and $1500), like Biophysical Core, which assesses the blood to provide a comprehensive view of your biochemistry.

The DEXA scan machine will tell you the cold truth about body mass, fat and bone density, so that exercise physiologist Oliver Mendez can come up with an exercise and nutrition plan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
The DEXA scan machine will tell you the cold truth about body mass, fat and bone density, so that exercise physiologist Oliver Mendez can come up with an exercise and nutrition plan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Another diagnostic is the DEXA Body Composition, a machine that uses low-level radiation in an eight-minute scan that evaluates bone density, body mass and fat distribution. You take the scan and then an exercise physiologist designs an exercise program, whether it is to use weight training to improve bone density and stave off osteoporosis, or get rid of fat.

“If you really want to get healthy, you need honest truth. You have to be ready to face facts,” says Katie Riguzzi, Canyon Ranch marketing manager.

Other diagnostics include cardiac stress test; cardio-metabolic stress test; genomics testing and evaluation; heart-rate variability testing; and hormone testing.

There’s also healing energy programs – techniques that come from Asia – including Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture consultation.

One of the systems available is Acutonics – sound healing – that uses the power of vibration. Tuning forks are applied to acupuncture points, chakras and trigger points.

Other therapies including healing energy, Reiki, and Craniosacral therapy.

Another big area is Life Management. For example, you can get a 30-minute Healthy Lifestyle consultation and a personal action plan in such areas as anger management, body image, caregiving, coping with illness, grief and loss, parenting or self-esteem.

There is a whole area devoted to Sexuality, Intimacy & Passion, where you can work with a licensed therapist on such concerns as sexual satisfaction, decreased libido, coping with disabilities, menopause and inhibitions – clearly more substantive than the Poconos prescription for romance.

Other Life Management programs focus on stress management, navigating transitions, relationship building, meditation and relaxation.

Nutrition is a big topic area – addressing not just weight loss but prevention and healing. You can have a Chinese medicine nutrition consultation; explore “digestive wellness,” get tested to determine food sensitivity, learn about healing foods, detox your diet, learn how to prepare food and design healthy menus, or nutrition strategies for energy, exercise, feeling a family, travel, or vegetarianism.

Canyon Ranch Experience

As a resort, Canyon Ranch Miami Beach has a lot more families and there are even programs geared to families (rock climbing, yoga for families, treatments geared to teens 14-17), but there is no supervised children’s activity program, so parents would have to take turns watching their child in order to take classes or else take advantage of the Nanny Service.

People tend to stay longer here – many even live here – and you don’t see many people lying around on the beach.

The look on people’s faces is different. It is inward. Most are either coming from a class or a treatment or going to one, and there is some contemplation going on about that.

People are very friendly though – at all the classes there is a broad spectrum of regulars, people who are experienced in the techniques along with neophytes and the less adept.

When you arrive and get passed the breath-taking beauty of the room – with picture windows that overlook the ocean – this is one place where you should listen to the hotel orientation on the TV (which doubles as a wireless computer with Internet access).

What caught my attention was gyrokinesis – I had never heard of it before (though I understand it’s been around for 7 years or so) but it sounded interesting, so I saw when the class was being given the next day and showed up. Fabulous. This is a flowing form that draws on movements from ballet, yoga, pilates – no stress or pain.

I have time this afternoon before my spa treatment so I explore the property and the magnificent beach.

This turns out to be a mistake, since I should have spent the time in the Aquavana. Resolved not to make such a mistake again and get the most out of my time here, I study the weekly calendar to plan my day. Each hour of the day there are about 3 different classes, programs or lectures. Some of the more unusual classes include sand building (ideal for team building), and full moon yoga at 6:30 pm.

Canyon Ranch Medical Director Dr Karen Koffler leads a weekly conversation in Women's Well Being © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
Canyon Ranch Medical Director Dr Karen Koffler leads a weekly conversation in Women’s Well Being © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

On my first full day, I take classes in Gyrokinesis, Pilates Mat, Core Training (in the Ocean Studio, my favorite, where you can smell the seabreezes and see the ocean), walk on the beach and attend a lecture on Women’s Well Being turns out to be a weekly “conversation” with Canyon Ranch medical director Dr. Karen Koffler.

On my second full day, I take the 8 am Meditation & Breathing class, Pilates with Props, and Core Training.

There are all sorts of classes involving weight training, spinning, muscle conditioning, Zumba!, yoga, aqua strength and H2O Power (having to do with water), boxer’s workout, and on and on. I don’t think there is a more comprehensive offering anywhere – and that’s only the beginning.

Exercise classes, massage therapy are only two of the dimensions of this total health and wellness destination.

You can arrange for private lessons – even swimming – and if want to continue training in a certain exercise regimen when you return home, they can provide referrals to local practitioners.

The approach at Canyon Ranch is that “health care should prevent illness, not just cure disease.” They employ these diagnostic tools, and then specialists come together as a team to treat you as whole person – lifestyle, nutrition, fitness, medical history, stress levels and more – to devise a program. You leave with lifestyle prescription for optimal health, performance.

A Luxury Resort

Because Canyon Ranch is a resort, it has amenities and attributes that the other wellness retreats do not have (that is to say, less fanatical, more live-and-let-live). A bar, for example. this is the only Canyon Ranch with a bar (the Carillon Bar), where the liquor is organic (you can order food there, too).

I was also surprised to be able to get bacon or sausage at breakfast in the Canyon Ranch Grill (though you have to ask for salt).

The Canyon Ranch Grill is stunning, and the only real clue that it is associated with “health and wellness” is that the menu lists calories and nutrition of every item. But behind the scenes, Chef Giovanni Ariaz, who just won the Healthy Chef of Year 2013 award by Cooking light Magazine, shows amazing imagination and cooks in a way to be flavorful as well as healthful. You won’t find a deep fryer here. He uses seasonal ingredients, locally sourced so the menu changes regularly for what is best in season. For example, he only orders salmon when in its cycle, it will be highest Omega 3s.

It is a magnificent looking room, with gorgeous views overlooking the beach and ocean, as well as outdoor dining. In fact, owing to the Carillon’s legacy, it is one of only 3 restaurants in Miami Beach with oceanfront dining (Smith & Wolinsky and Ritz Carlton are the other two).

And the beachfront is spectacular. You can order food from the beach as well as the Cabana Pool.

One of the stunning pools at Canyon Ranch Miami Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
One of the stunning pools at Canyon Ranch Miami Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Canyon Ranch has four temperature-controlled pools, each with a hot tub. Each pool is positioned so there is always a pool with access to sun – after 3 pm, no sun on the beach because of the high towers, but the North Tower is the sunset pool The Atlantic Pool, with magnificent view of the ocean, is the adult-only lap pool where there are private and group H2O Power classes.

The gym (fitness center) is massive, two-stories high, never crowded, immaculately clean, fresh smelling with a wall of windows. (You can use your key card to track calories burned, distance.)

Even if you don’t have the ‘aha’ moment, the epiphany that changes your life, stay here makes available to you the knowledge and the fundamentals to make lifestyle changes that will impact the quality of your life.

The concierge can prearrange spa treatments, consultations, as well as Restaurant Recommendations and Reservations;   Tickets to concerts and special events;   Car rental service (to be delivered to you at the hotel) or private car transportation;   Nanny service; and Birthday, Anniversary and other special celebration requests.

Check in time is 3:00pm and check out time is noon, but you can arrive early or leave late and still have full access to the spa and classes (you need to get your card key activated).

The website, www.canyonranchmiamibeach.com also serves as an excellent resource on amenities, services and more information and you contact Program Advisers for information on Health & Wellness services as well as Spa at Miamiprogramadvisers@canyonranch.com, or 1-866-276-2226.

Canyon Ranch has been named the “Healthiest Spa in America” by Health magazine as well as the “Best Spa for Food” by Gourmet magazine. Additionally, Canyon Ranch is a 13-time winner of Travel + Leisure’s Best Spa Award and the only 11-time recipient of the Condé Nast Traveler Best Destination Spa Award.

For an insider look at Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa Miami Beach, follow CanyonRanchMiamiBeach on Facebook and CanyonRanchMiam on Twitter.

Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa Miami Beach, 6801 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Fla. 33141, 800-742-9000, 305-514-7000, canyonranch.com/miamibeach.

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

The Colony Hotel, Delray Beach: Delightful, delicious, de-lovely

Built in 1926, The Colony Hotel is still one of the most important historic landmarks in Delray Beach and served as the model for redevelopment for this most charming seaside city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Built in 1926, The Colony Hotel is still one of the most important historic landmarks in Delray Beach and served as the model for redevelopment for this most charming seaside city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin

The highest compliment that can be paid about a hotel is that you don’t want to leave, and if you have to, you want to return as soon as possible. That’s the way I feel about The Colony Hotel in Delray Beach, Florida.

Lots of places in Florida claim to manifest the true “Old Florida.” But Delray Beach is the real thing. And it turns out that the charm, the character, the feeling you get in this most pleasant of seaside cities is due largely to The Colony Hotel, which has graced the streetscape since 1926.

You drive along Atlantic Avenue from I-95 for just about a mile and all of a sudden, the road narrows to a single lane, and like the low buildings that line the lane in early 20th century South Florida-Mediterranean style, with palm trees shading the road, you feel yourself suddenly transported into “Old Florida.” You are in a small beachside village, a bustle on the charming streets, people strolling about pretty shops with awnings or perhaps walking toward the drawbridge over the Intercoastal to the prettiest white sand beach on Florida’s east coast.

But before you get to the drawbridge, you see it, the prettiest confection of all: The Colony Hotel.

Lucky us, this is where we will stay during our all-too-brief visit to Delray Beach, “The Most Fun Small Town in the USA!”

Cross the threshold and you feel as if you have been suddenly transformed into wearing white linen and a straw hat.

It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely.

You feel you can hear Cole Porter.

In fact, the background music is from the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Colony Hotel, Delray Beach, Florida is a luscious confection that has you singing Cole Porter songs © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Colony Hotel, Delray Beach, Florida is a luscious confection that has you singing Cole Porter songs © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The colors that wash over you are succulent Florida tropical fruits, sherbet colors – raspberry, mango, strawberry, lime, lemon. White lattice and white wicker furniture grace the lobby in lovely sitting areas with colorful pillows.

Ceiling fans are overhead, which would set a rhythm to the afternoon, though they are still today; instead, a fire is going in the fireplace. People are lounging on white wicker loveseats decorated with colorful cushions, and milling about the lobby.

The Colony Hotel dates from 1926 – it was the first hotel in Delray Beach and the family that owns the hotel have been meticulous about retaining its original architectural features and considerable charms. And somehow, creating an atmosphere that harkens back.

The lobby of Colony Hotel, Delray Beach, Florida is a luscious confection that has you singing Cole Porter songs © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The lobby of Colony Hotel, Delray Beach, Florida is a luscious confection that has you singing Cole Porter songs © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

One of the special appeals of a historic hotel (and every one of the Historic Hotels of America members) is their connection to place and the people who passed through, their special character and personality, the stories. At The Colony Hotel, I don’t as much picture who might have been strolling about the lobby way back when, but that time is erased, as if the past is present.

You are transported. Your pace slows, your heart races a bit, a feeling of pure joy sweeps over you. There is such a cheerful, comforting feeling here.

One of the most charming aspects it the original Otis elevator – it was the popular brand back then – and not even an elevator you operate yourself, but which has to be operated by the staff (we mostly use the stairs). There is also the original telephone switchboard.

The lobby has the original 1926 Ficks Reed wicker furniture and cushions, covered with Designers Guild Osborne & Little fabric.

Sunlight dances in from the original wood skylights.

There are the original terrazzo floors in the lobby and red oak flooring in the Music and Dining Rooms (utterly exquisite for special events, and is where there are daily yoga classes offered).

The front porch – really an outdoor bar and lounge – has the original Cuban-style 1926 tile floor; the steps decorated with lush potted plants. Elevated above the sidewalk, it is sheer delight to sit and linger and watch the street activity a few steps below, and where on Friday night, a musician, playing sax and singing to popular favorites, has the whole place rocking and dancing.

There are exotic orchids and bright fabrics throughout the hotel – really, the visual effect is breathtaking.

The hotel has free WiFi throughout so it is that much more interesting to see the original wood desks where you can easily imagine guests writing their postcards home (there is also a computer tucked in a corner there).

The Colony Hotel was originally designed and built in 1926 as the Alterep Hotel by Martin Luther Hampton, an associate of Addison Mizner. Mizner was the famous American resort architect whose Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival style became the signature style of South Florida (and who was the visionary behind the development of neighboring Boca Raton).

In the midst of the Great Depression, the hotel was acquired in 1935 by George Boughton and his father, Charles, and renamed The Colony Hotel.

The Colony Hotel was open for the traditional three-month Florida winter season, January 10 to April 5. George’s wife, Agnes, had a dress shop in one of the hotel storefronts and his aunt Florence had a gift shop in another (there are shops there, still). During the summer, they would work in northern seasonal resorts (today, the family owns The Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport, Maine, a half mile from Walker Point, George Bush’s home).

George fought in World War II as a lieutenant commander in the US Navy, and owned and operated The Colony Hotel until his death in 1986. In 1994, George and Agnes’ daughter, Jestena took over the operation of both the Delray Beach and Kennebunkport Colony hotels, and turned the Delray Beach Hotel into a year-round resort in 2000. In 2003, another family member Hilary Roche joined the operation as Director Sales, Marketing & Environmental Programs for the Colony Hotel & Cabana Club.

The Colony Hotel is still one of the most important historic landmarks in Delray Beach – indeed, its Mediterranean Revival architecture served as the model for the Delray Beach Downtown Master Plan for new development and sets a delightful, warm and welcoming tone for this most charming city.

The Colony Hotel offers 70 historically renovated guest rooms including Queen and King one-bedrooms plus eight two-bedroom units. Each is uniquely appointed. They feature original furniture, tropical fabrics and bright colors, hardwood floors, Florida works of art.

What is not original, though, are the “Simply Dreamy Beds” – wonderfully comfortable, with organic cotton sheets and white all cotton matelasse bedspreads.

Each bedroom features modern amenities – flat panel TV, air conditioner, remote control cable TV, clock radio, blow dryer, iron and board, dual speaker phones with voicemail, dataport and complimentary high-speed wireless internet access.

We are taken up to our room in the original Otis elevator – the concierge has to operate it.

Our room, 233, is a superior king – spacious, with a beautifully done bathroom (I am delighted to be handed an actual key with the room number etched in). We have an air conditioner but we so prefer the ceiling fan.

A complimentary breakfast (scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, cold and hot cereals, fresh fruits, selection of whole-grain breads, and coffee) is served buffet-style from 7 to 10 am in the Skylight lobby, where newspapers are provided for our reading pleasure.

There is an absolutely wonderful lobby bar, where you can easily imagine Hemingway or some other important literary figure holding court.

Colony’s Private Beach Club

Colony Hotel's private beach at Delray Beach. The historic hotel offers a true escape into the best of seaside "Old Florida" © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
Colony Hotel’s private beach at Delray Beach. The historic hotel offers a true escape into the best of seaside “Old Florida” © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

One of the truly unique and splendid features of The Colony Hotel is that it is so much more than a hotel: it offers its guests access to its private oceanfront Colony Cabana Club, located 2 miles from the hotel – lushly landscaped with Florida native plants, sea grapes, coconut palms and beach grass. A new million-dollar, saltwater, 25-meter pool was just added this season. There is also a freshwater plunge pool that is cool in summer and warmer in winter.

Here, too, the Colony colors that so cheer and delight at the hotel abound – decoratively colored beach cabanas with sitting areas, tables, chairs and umbrellas. Hand-painted tiles by a local artist decorate the pool, pavers made with recycled glass and Florida shells, couches, a clamshell fountain and delightful secluded sitting areas under trees, complete the stunning scene.

Then there is the 250 feet of private beach – the prettiest beach on Florida’s east coast, I would say. Not only is the sand white and fine, but there are no high rises or buildings of any kind that intrude, only grassy dunes.

Idle away your time here, The Colony Cabana Club serves outdoor grilled specialties and salads for lunch each day.

The Colony Cabana Club also has changing rooms, showers, towels and parking (complimentary for hotel guests and club members).

The Colony provides a free shuttle service from the hotel five times during the day, from 10:45 am-5 pm (roughly every 1 1/2 hours).

We are delighted to learn that The Colony is a green hotel – the owners donate a dollar for each room night sold to the local environmental organization, and also supports local historic and cultural heritage.

It reflects in the overall atmosphere of the place – a kind of feng shui that sets in.

(I can imagine that the Colony Kennebunkport is equally marvelous. This is a 1914 resort, a recognizable landmark overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Kennebunk River and its own private beach, that offers heated saltwater pool, 18 hole putting green, shuffleboard, bicycle rentals, Sunday afternoon tea, social entertainment and high speed wireless internet, two ocean view restaurants, pet-friendly and Maine’s first “environmentally responsible hotel.”

Both of The Colony Hotels are members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Historic Hotels of America (historichotels.org).

Both are also green hotels. The owners donate a dollar for each room night sold to the local environmental organization, and also supports local historic and cultural heritage – and culture, heritage and nature abound around the Colony.

You can play tennis at the Tennis Stadium, a short walk from the hotel and the concierge can arrange for golf.

My delight in being at The Colony Hotel increases exponentially as I realize all that this historic hotel offers so much more – in fact, it is more of a resort hotel than a hotel: free parking for one thing-not a little thing either in this popular magnet of a beach town, quite deserving of its label, “The Most Fun Small Town in the USA!”

I didn’t want to leave the Delray Colony and I can’t wait to return.

Daily rates from May 1-November 23 start at $99, two-bedrooms from $169; winter season rates (Nov. 23-April 30) start at $149, and two-bedroom units are from $225. The Colony Hotel s family and pet-friendly.

Colony Hotel & Cabana Club, 525 East Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, FL 33483, 800-552-2363 or 561-276-4123, booking@thecolonyhotel.com, www.thecolonyhotel.com.

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubinwww.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures. See our newest travel site at www.tidbitts.com/karen-rubin/where-in-the-world.

Gore Mountain is New York’s World-Class Ski Destination

Gore Mountain offers skiing amid the magnificent Adirondack wilderness © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Gore Mountain offers skiing amid the magnificent Adirondack wilderness © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman & Dave E Leiberman

I feel I have discovered a new ski destination, even though Gore Mountain, in New York’s Adirondacks  is one of the oldest in America, now in its 81st season. It doesn’t have the cachet of Whiteface Mountain, an hour further north in Lake Placid, which has been around since the 1930s and has hosted two Olympics. But for purists whose focus is the best skiing and riding, Gore Mountain is a spectacular discovery. I suspect that the regulars – some who are third generation Gore Mountaineers – want to keep Gore “their mountain.” That community now includes me, because Gore Mountain is a place I want to return to again and again. There is so much to explore here. And you feel such peace and clarity amid these Adirondack Mountains. In fact, skiing Gore was the closest I’ve had in the Northeast to feeling like I was skiing in the West – looking out from the peaks at a great expanse of pure wilderness; taking long cruisers down.

The surprises begin with how easy it is to reach Gore Mountain -up the New York Thruway, to the Northway, then about 20 miles off the highway, going through some quaint towns – about 4 1/2 hours from New York City, which is equivalent to coming into southern Vermont.

But this is the mighty Adirondacks, much more rugged than the Catskills Mountains, even more rugged than Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Gore Mountain offers tremendous variety of terrain, including long cruisers © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Gore Mountain offers tremendous variety of terrain, including long cruisers © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Gore, with 2537 vertical feet, offers the 6th greatest vertical in the East – a greater vertical drop than such famous mountains as Stowe (2360), Sunday River (2340), Okemo (2200), Jay Peak (2153), Mount Tremblant (2116), Loon, (2100), Mont-Sainte-Anne (2050), Mad River Glen (2037), Stratton Mountain (2003) and Mount Snow (1700).

Gore is also the biggest ski destination in New York State, with the most skiable acres (446 acres), 107 trails, 27 glades (Gore was one of the first eastern ski areas to develop gladed terrain)+, six freestyle areas. Six of its trails are longer than 1 1/2 miles, with the longest run 4.4 miles. In all, Gore offers 42 miles of skiing.

Gore is actually nine faces of four mountains, each with their own character: Gore Mountain is the highest, at 3600 ft., and biggest; Bear Mountain rises to 3200 ft., Burnt Ridge Mountain rises to 2735 ft. and Little Gore Mountain goes up to 1900.

Among them is an astonishing array of terrain, not to mention views and the fact that if conditions are not the best in one area, or are too crowded (not likely because of the way skiers are dispersed), you can simply move to another.

There is terrain to satisfy all abilities: 10% are classed as easier, or green; 50% are intermediate, or blue; and 40% are most difficult, or black trails.

It is more useful, though to divide Gore into its different areas (as the Gore people do): the Straight Brook Area on Gore Mountain is where you will find a variety of challenging terrain and glades; it is also where you will find The Rumor, rumored to be the steepest train in the East (unconfirmed). but there are also a couple of intermediate trails – like Cloud – which will connect to other blues and greens to come the whole way down. In all, this area has 10 trails, 4 glades and 54 acres accessed by a quad lift.

“The Dark Side” of Gore, known as the High Peaks Area so very popular with experts, is “Classic Adirondack” skiing. There are 12 trails, 2 glades on 30 acres, accessed by a double chair.

Bear Mountain offers the Northwoods Area, where I confess I spent most of my time most enjoyably, taking the long cruisers, accessed by the Northwoods Gondola and Gore’s newest lift, a high-speed detachable quad. You can take a green trail Sunway, 2.2 miles down to the base; my personal favorite was a blue trail, Twister, which was long, wide and forgiving, and beautiful, lined with trees and with lovely views of the Adirondacks. (The gondola is marvelous, and they cleverly post these interesting historical notes in each car.) This area offers 29 trails, 3 glades,, gondola, detachable quad, double and four surface lifts on 154 acres.

The North Side is off the beaten path, and offers an array of easy-going cruisers and gorgeous views of High Peaks. It’s considered the best bet for families (9 trails, 2 glades on 37 acres serviced by a quad).

Burnt Ridge area is one of Gore’s four peaks of development, which is noted for its geology and great views of North Creek and the Hudson River – six trails, four glades on 70 acres, serviced by “one of the most luxurious rides” on the mountain, a high-speed quad.

North Creek Ski Bowl is where they offer night skiing as well as tubing (8 trails, 5 glades, on 47 acres, serviced by two triples. This area has its own base lodge and parking lot, plus half pipe and terrain park. That means you can drive up in the day, arrive in the late afternoon, and purchase a night-skiing ticket; or if you purchase a multi-day ticket, you purchase an add-on for night skiing (3-9 pm). Night skiing is offered Friday, Saturday and Sundays, and daily during holidays, until 9 pm.

All of this is accessed by 15 lifts, including a wonderful, high-speed eight-passenger gondola, four quads (the newest is a high-speed detachable quad with comfortable cushions, which replaced the oldest detachable quad in North America), plus three triples, two doubles, four surface lifts and a tubing tow.

Gore started off as a destination ski area – after all, it wasn’t that easy to reach. But over time, especially as the New York Thruway and Northway made it so easy to reach from Albany, Saratoga Springs and Glen Falls and even Montreal, Gore became more of a day trip.

But that is changing again – and for good reason – as people are discovering what a special destination Gore is. There is so much skiing here. The Adirondack area is breathtaking, and significantly, relatively undeveloped. You also have some marvelous resorts and lodging – the grand, historic Sagamore Resort on Lake George is 45 minutes away (they offer a shuttle bus), and in North Creek, the Copperfield Inn is as intimate as an inn (only 31 rooms), but with all the services of a luxury hotel (the town offers a free shuttle bus to the mountain, less than 10 minutes away, every 20-30 minutes throughout the day, in season).

And even if Gore Mountain, itself, doesn’t offer all the bells-and-whistles of apres-ski and non-snow activities of a destination resort, the area, itself offers many delights – unique natural and heritage attractions –  which demand a longer stay to properly explore and experience.

Indeed, that is Gore’s major charm.

A Proud Tradition

The new high-speed quad, Adirondack Express II, brings you up through a particularly scenic area © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The new high-speed quad, Adirondack Express II, brings you up through a particularly scenic area © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Gore Mountain is now in its 81st year – in fact one of the oldest commercial ski areas in North America.

“North Creek was a mining village – trains came up from New York City,” Michael Platt, Gore’s general manager, relates.

“In the 30s, 40s and 50s, enthusiasts would come by train – Saks Fifth Avenue at one point sponsored the train. They would ride up [in taxis and buses] and ski down. They would be brought up from the back side of Gore – where there is an old garnet mine (still).”

In fact, the Adirondack Branch of the railway survived the Great Depression due in part to the ski trains that ran from Schenectady and New York City in the 1930′s. Skiers flocked to North Creek and to the first downhill ski center in New York State, which was constructed at the Ski Bowl on the slopes of Gore Mountain, the North Creek Depot Museum notes.

Gore has steadily grown and improved over the years (it is allowed to add one trail a year) and you can trace the remarkable development of Gore Mountain resort over its 81 year history in posters at the food court in the base lodge.

Most recently, “Little Gore” (actually one of the first areas ever opened to skiers), was connected to the other three mountains, and today has its own base lodge, where they offer night skiing (Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and daily over holidays, 3-9 pm), a terrain park, half pipe, as well as tubing.

This year, Gore replaced the oldest high speed quad in North America with a new high-speed detachable quad, the Adirondack Express II. “A fat man’s chair,” Pratt jokes, offering the smoothest, most comfortable cushioned seats.

Also, Gore replaced a 1940s T-bar (in honor of which they named a trail the 46-er). Other improvements for this year include more snowmaking and four more glades.

The improvements have been spearheaded by the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), which took over operation of Gore, one of three mountain destinations owned and operated by New York State, from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation in 1984. ORDA was formed around the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid took over management of Whiteface; it took over operations of Belleayre, Highmount, in the Catskill Mountains, just two years ago.

DEC is great at environmental conservation, but ORDA are “ski people” – they know how to operate a mountain and the improvements it brings to the mountains can be seen in the lift operations, snowmaking and lessons.

ORDA this year introduced a new learn-to-ski program, called Parallel from the Start  – an updated version of a method used at Whiteface for 20 years – that uses specially designed skis by Head which are much shorter, even for adults. The idea is that you feel more confident, are able to turn easily and keep skis parallel from the start, and then transition to longer skis.

Parallel from the Start (for skiers) and Learn to Snowboard (for snowboarders) are specifically geared toward those ages 13+ looking to get into the sport. The three-day all-inclusive programs include three days of beginner lift tickets, lessons and rentals for only $169 – a deal that can’t be beat considering that you can use these three days anytime consecutively or not consecutively throughout the season. In addition, skiers and riders in the program receive a free Frequent Skier Card at the end of their third day that gives them discounts on lift tickets for the rest of the season.

Gore offers a race program with trails that are “homologated” for FIS and USSA standards for slalom,  giant slalom and Super G.

Another key advantage of the three mountain destinations – each with their own special appeal and character – being owned and operated by ORDA and New York State, in practical terms, it means that season passes and even multi-day tickets can be used at any of the three mountain resorts – Whiteface is just an hour away.

“Heritage is powerful,” says Michael Pratt, Gore’s general manager.

“The attractiveness of Gore is that the people who come – sometimes three generations – consider it ‘their mountain’. Ownership is powerful. They find it their personal destination.”

And Gore is so big – there is no way to ski the entire area in a day – and with so many faces and variety, even if you’ve skied here your entire life, you couldn’t get bored. The serendipity of weather and snow conditions and all the other factors will change the experience each time you take a trail.

“We are returning to being a destination mountain,” he says. “Our bread and butter are the families.”

Gore has everything the most persnickety skier/rider would want and none of what they don’t need. There aren’t the bells and whistles – no posh restaurants on the mountain, no waffle shacks, or snowcat sightseeing.

The food court at the base lodge serves really excellent fresh and homemade food at very fair prices – Rosie’s egg salad (fabulous), freshly made soups (chicken vegetable, cream of vegetable, clam chowder, chili, $5.50 a bowl, $2.50 more for a bread bowl, excellent). Also, the Ski Bowl Lodge at the base of North Creek Ski Bowl, offers meals and snacks from sunup through twilight to accommodate the night skiing and tubing. And the Tannery Pub & Restaurant in the upper level of the Base Lodge offers drinks and live entertainment.

These are public lands – you are in the Adirondack State Park, after all, and the area is owned by New York State – which means there is no housing, no villas or townhomes on the side of the trails, and when you look out to the mountain peaks, all you see is an amazing expanse of magnificent wilderness. Gore offers 26 glades, all at elevations in the forest with hardwoods, spruce and birch (you think  you are skiing the Rockies for the expansive views from one mountain to the next). Indeed, the Adirondacks offer that sort of rugged peaks – larger than the Catskills.

“This is America’s last wilderness,” Pratt says.

Gore taps the mighty Hudson River for its snowmaking water, and returns the favor when the snowmelt makes for some of the most fearsome river rafting in the country, rivaling even the Grand Canyon for its vertical drop.

The beauty of Gore is quite literally its authentic wilderness experience. Skiing and riding bring you up to these magnificent peaks.

And North Creek, the nearest village, is part of that special charm.

Five resorts partner with Gore Mountain and the website (goremountain.com) offers 86 properties for lodging. Packages include “Gore Holiday Your Way” (two nights stay, two or more days, from $179 pp); “January Jamboree (from $190pp); MLK Fireworks & Fun (3-nights lodging, 3-day lift tickets, from $263pp); weekend packages from $175 pp.

The Copperfield Inn, in the tiny hamlet of North Creek in New York State's Adirondack preserve, offers the cozy charm of an inn and the luxury of a hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Copperfield Inn, in the tiny hamlet of North Creek in New York State’s Adirondack preserve, offers the cozy charm of an inn and the luxury of a hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We stayed at the Copperfield Inn, just about 10 minutes up the road from Gore Mountain, on North Creek’s Main Street, with all the charm of an inn and all the luxury of a fine hotel (pet friendly, too). It offers 31  spacious guest rooms & suites, Mediterranean-style selections in Lorenzo’s Restaurant and hearty pub fare & entertainment at Trappers Tavern, plus health and fitness center with spa services, indoor sauna, outdoor hot tub, free WiFi, and in season, outdoor swimming pool and tennis court; 877-235-1466, www.copperfieldinn.com (see story).

North Creek is a quiet country village with many delights, including the Hudson River Trading Company store, and delightful restaurant BarVino on Main Street, and a few miles away, on Rte 28, Basil & Wicks (see story).

If you want a high life, it’s easy to find it in Lake George, 30-45 minutes away. Indeed, the grand, historic Sagamore Resort at Bolton Landing on Lake George offers a shuttle bus to the mountain.

Gore Mountain is very much a four-season destination. Indeed, Gore offers mountain biking, hiking and gondola rides. There is also fly-fishing and the Hudson River offers some of the best river rafting in the country (see GoreMountain.com or GoreChamber.com for outfitters). There are also some spectacular geological formations, such as Ausable Chasm and Natural Stone Bridge & Caves, and all the delights of Lake George, even the Great Escape theme park.

More to do: Scenic train rides on the Saratoga & North Creek Railway to seven stops along the Hudson River in elevated dome cars (SNCRR.com, 877-726-7245); North Creek Depot Museum (NorthCreekDepotMuseum.org); Ski Bowl Gardens (which offers a new hike/bike trail system); Garnet Mine Tours (518-251-2706, GarnetMineTours.com); and Garnet Hill Lodge, a full-service hiking and mountain bike center offering guided history and nature hikes, 600 acres of trails (Garnet-Hill.com, 518-251-2444).

Getting here: NYS Thruway to Exit 24. Take I-87 (the Northway) to Exit 23 (Warrensburg). Follow Route 9 for 4 miles to Route 28 for 16 miles to 793 Peaceful Valley Road.

Gore Mountain, 793 Peaceful Valley Road, North Creek, NY 12853, Snow Phone 518-251-5026, 518-251-2411, www.goremountain.com.

Next: The Special Charm of Copperfield Inn and North Creek

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

Tour Companies, Cheering Obama’s Cuba Policy, Urge Travelers to ‘See Cuba Now’

President Obama's action to normalize relations between the US and Cuba, easing travel restrictions, is expected to spur a boom in travel to the island nation. Tour operators say "see Cuba now" before the inevitable change (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures)
President Obama’s action to normalize relations between the US and Cuba, easing travel restrictions, is expected to spur a boom in travel to the island nation. Tour operators say “see Cuba now” before the inevitable change (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures)

by Karen Rubin

Tour operators who currently offer legal travel programs for United States citizens to go to Cuba have had their phones ringing off the hook since President Obama’s announcement to normalize relations and ease restrictions. Since 2009, when Obama loosened some restrictions, especially making it easier for Cuban Americans who have relatives in Cuba to visit, travel has steadily increased – some 93,000 American travelers visited in 2013 on various people-to-people organized programs, and estimates say that the number could be as high as two million people a year in just a few years time, of which about 500,000 would come on cruise ship.

Don’t pack your bags yet. You still can’t just get on a plane on your own, or head to Cuba for the weekend on a whim. But there will be fewer hoops that tour operators have to go through to bring Americans to the island, still shrouded in mystique, including the ability of Americans to use credit cards.

Still, travel companies expect the numbers of American travelers to explode and bring with it inevitable changes to a place that has been locked in a time warp. They are urging travelers to see Cuba now.

Group IST CEO Michael Goren, in Cuba at the time of the historic announcement, commented “I’m in Havana right now and the excitement about the Obama/Castro announcement is palpable.  People are excited, but they’re also wondering what it will mean for them.  My own personal sense is that once Cuba opens up, the island will change very fast.  The Havana that I’m standing in right now feels like a time capsule.  If people want to see the country as it is right now, this is the time to come.”

“For anyone who is anxious to see the ‘real’ Cuba, do it now,” notes Peggy Goldman of Friendly Planet Travel, Jenkintown, PA “In time, the island in a time bubble will become something else. And while it will always be a fascinating and wonderful experience to visit Cuba, banking, high speed internet and all the other changes that will take place will make Cuba another country. We expect many people will want to see it before any of those changes occur, and we’re ready to help them do it.”

It is all very reminiscent of the way it was to travel to China in the first days when the Bamboo Curtain was first parted. I visited for the first time in 1978 – before the US had officially normalized relations. Like Cuba, today, you had to come on an authorized tour – Lindblad Travel organized the trip and obtained our visas through Sweden – and our visits were designed for people-to-people encounters (I stood at the elbow of a surgeon operating on a woman’s thyroid, anesthetized using acupuncture; we visited factories, schools, and homes as well as the phenomenal Xian terracotta soldiers which were just being unearthed).

I literally saw the sweep of the Four Modernizations carry out the Old Guard. When I returned two years later, China was a completely different place – gone were the Mao uniforms in blue, grey or green, and in were colored floral patterns; gone was the fear of anything that might smack of “bourgeoisie” – replaced by a violinist playing Western music in a garden. And while no one could speak English in 1978, English was surprisingly common a mere two years later. On my first trip, I was most affected by the change that occurred in one of my fellow travelers – a judge from the Midwest – whose attitude toward “Red” China was completely transformed through his face-to-face encounters with Chinese people.

This will happen in rapid order in Cuba, as well. And after all, I don’t think there is anyone who contends that our fight is with the 11.2 million Cuban people, who are the ones to pay the price for sanctions – the bad blood goes back more than 50 years, to Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul.

President Obama has appreciated more than any other before him the power of travel and tourism to recruit ordinary people as Ambassadors of understanding and good will. He has appreciated the critical role that Travel and Tourism plays, not just in fostering economic progress but in forging relationships, and the exchange of ideas that lead to progress. Yes, change as well.

In fact, the White House recently hosted its first ever Travel Blogger Summit, to engage travel writers in encouraging American students to take advantage of learning, traveling, working and volunteering abroad opportunities. The white House has gone as far as creating a US Study Abroad Offic3e within the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to manage the Department’s study abroad scholarships and capacity building programs and provide resources that can help interested U.S. students navigate a complex process to study or intern abroad by offering scholarships, recommendations, and guidelines.

“International education and exposure are increasingly essential for the competitiveness of American companies and the American workforce.”

The alternative is a Bamboo Curtain. An Iron Curtain, or now, the hatred, fear and distrust sowed in the North Korean people by virtue of enforced isolation.

“ASTA commends the Obama Administration for charting a new course in U.S. relations with Cuba,” said Zane Kerby, President and CEO of American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the trade group of the travel industry. “Today’s announcement represents a major step toward ASTA’s long-held goal that Americans ought to be allowed to travel across the globe without restriction.”

“Permitting Americans freedom to travel allows them to serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values abroad,” Kerby continued. “ASTA, along with our domestic agency owner and allied travel company members, looks forward to working with President Obama, Administration officials and the U.S. Congress in the coming year to ensure that Americans are free to travel to Cuba without constraint from their own government.”

ASTA, which has long advocated repealing the travel ban, cheered the agreement reached between the U.S. and Cuban governments to ease long-standing restrictions on trade and other interactions between the two countries, including those preventing American citizens from travelling to Cuba.

Included among the steps announced to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba are establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba; authorizing expanded commercial sales/exports from the U.S. of certain goods and services; and expanding travel under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law. (See: www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/17/fact-sheet-charting-new-course-cuba)

Specifically, general licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in existing categories, including family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; humanitarian projects, and several others. Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of those services. American travelers will also be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.

General tourism, however, remains prohibited under the Cuba embargo enshrined in U.S. law. However, President Obama today pledged today to “engag[e] Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

ASTA has long supported a full repeal of the travel ban to Cuba. In 2010, ASTA’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to support a lifting of the travel ban. Among the several rationales for the measure were the prospective economic opportunities awaiting both countries if current travel restrictions were to be lifted, and the possibility of follow-on benefits to Cuba’s neighbors and the travel industry that services them. The consensus among the Board was that – whether as part of multi-destination cruises or as a stop along the way to other countries in the region – the resulting influx of travelers to Cuba could not help but spark demand for new passenger routes, tour operations, and travel agent services.

ASTA estimates at least two million additional Americans would visit Cuba by 2017 if there were to be a full lifting of travel restrictions in 2015. Approximately 1,020,000 would be leisure travelers going by air, 521,400 would be leisure travelers arriving by cruise ship, and another 550,000 Americans would travel to Cuba to visit family members.

No one has crusaded harder or more ardently to open Cuba to American travelers than John McAuliff, Fund for Reconciliation & Development of Cuba/US People to People Partnership..

He writes: “It is clear from the White House statement that individual Americans and groups of Americans will have a general license for any of the listed activities, including what is currently characterized as people to people.  No applications; no reports; no second guessing by OFAC; no costly group tours required.

“My interpretation is that the underlined language means that as long as the traveler fits under these broad categories, he or she can use any travel agent to make arrangements, and presumably on line services, but I am seeking clarification.”

General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in these existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services.

“Also important: no more restrictions on Americans attending conferences in Cuba, organized by Cubans or organized by themselves, or on going independently to study Spanish or courses at Cuban universities.

“Group travel organized by current people to people licensees will still happen because many first time travelers prefer it, but no more license renewal requirements or detailed control by OFAC of programs or exclusion of free time.”

But he adds, “The devil is in the details: ‘The changes announced today will soon be implemented via amendments to regulations of the Departments of the Treasury and Commerce,’ but I believe the spirit of the new policy will be carried out in a timely fashion even if people in Congress and OFAC staff try to undermine it.

“OFAC quickly put out a notice that nothing has changed until it issues new regs which according to an official source, is ‘a matter of weeks or months’.

“In any case, travel through third countries will continue to be easily available for those using the new general license.”

Tour Companies Expand Offerings

Tour Operators who have been offering people-to-people tours to Cuba for the last four years (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).
Tour Operators who have been offering people-to-people tours to Cuba for the last four years (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).

Several operators have cultivated programs designed for these people-to-people encounters since 2009, when Obama eased the way for journalists, professionals, and others to visit, and now are looking forward to the possibility of even more generic tourism. (Canadian travel companies have already been operating without restrictions, and the influx of travelers from the United States is likely to put pressure on lodging capacity, while pushing up rates – which is why cruise ships are so anxious to get in.

Friendly Planet Travel already plans to expand its group tours to Cuba. At present, the company offers three programs with set departures. In addition, it operates various group programs during the year covering a wide spectrum of interests including tours organized for photographers, architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers and jurists, family groups.

“We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events. For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.”

What will likely change, and what will not: American travelers prepay all their Cuba services in the USA and have to take enough cash with them to cover any purchases in Cuba they want to make, which is uncomfortable for many people. However, it is expected that travelers will soon be able to use credit cards. Also – though it is not yet clear – it may be possible for Americans to finally bring back Cuban cigars and rum, which today’s travelers can only enjoy while on the island.

“If the changes are as sweeping as President Obama suggested in his speech, we at Friendly Planet will be very busy adding hotel rooms and plenty of new travel programs to our menu of offerings.

“Cuba has remained elusive to most Americans. But thanks to the U.S. Government’s People-to-People program, American travelers have been visiting Cuba for the past three years as part of these educational exchanges.

“Friendly Planet Travel was one of the first U.S. tour operators to obtain a permit to operate these tours, and has already sent thousands of Americans to Cuba. “And they tell us that these are some of the most rewarding travel experiences they’ve ever had.

“We guarantee you’ll have a travel experience unlike any other! Throughout Cuba, you’ll meet artists in their studios, visit schools, tour organic farms and explore an ingenious, creative society with much to share and an eagerness to learn.

Friendly Planet Travel’s fully escorted tours includes round-trip airfare from Miami, all ground transportation and transfers in Cuba, 4½ & 5 star hotels, many meals, a comprehensive touring and cultural exchange program, and professional English-speaking escort and guides.

Among the offerings: Discover Havana, 6 days from $2399 pp/dbl; Highlights of Havana & Varadero, 7 days from $2759 pp/dbl, and Colors of Cuba, 9 days from $3499 pp, dbl.

Visit friendlyplanet.com or call 800-555-5765.

Group IST’s ‘Havana to Cienfuegos’ an eight-day people-to-people program will continue to operate as scheduled, with sail dates through March 2015.  It is currently the only way Americans can see the country by boat, on board the mega-yacht S/C Panorama, with comfortable accommodations and great food. The Panorama has access to locations and ports that no other programs currently offer, making it a one-of-a-kind way to see Cuba.

From the S/C Panorama, travelers explore the western part of the island nation famous for its culture, music, warm people, art and cigars.  Onboard Cuba specialists and an interpreter facilitate people-to-people connections and meaningful exchanges between the American travelers and Cuban citizens. The program includes excursions to venues such as museums, private art galleries, community centers, concerts, religious centers, schools and ecological centers. Program participants will have a chance to meet and get to know Cuban historians, artists, preservationists, religious leaders, educators, musicians and many typical Cuban citizens throughout eight days. A partial description of some of the activities arranged in Cuba follows.

On the first full day excursion to the province of Artemisa, travelers visit the UNESCO -designated Biosphere Reserve region and the eco-community of “Las Terrazas” in the mountainous area, “Sierra del Rosario”. Here, they meet with locals and learn more about life establishments in the village, including the local family doctor, nurse, clinic, an elementary school, community museum, local artists homes and studios, as well as the site of an old/colonial 18th century coffee plantation. Travelers return to Old Havana to for a walking tour of its plazas. They later visit the Quisicuaba Community to learn about Afro-Cuban culture.

The following day, travelers visit Guanahacabibes National Park, one of the country’s largest nature reserves, where they meet with the naturalists, environmentalists and locals. The visit continues to Cayo Largo, an island comprised of limestone, formed over millions of years from the remains of marine organisms. Here, they stop by a Sea Turtle Breeding Center and Endangered Species Protection program and enjoy some snorkeling with coral reef & conservation experts In Trinidad, a meticulously well-preserved Spanish colonial city, travelers view rich architecture, cobblestone streets, palaces and plazas. The group will walk through the town, sometimes referred to as the “museum city of Cuba,” with a representative of the Office of the City Historian and visit local artists in their home studios, the Museum Romantico or the Architecture Museum.

The People to People program rounds out in Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded by French settlers and known as the Pearl of the South. Here, visitors enjoy a walking tour of the city center with a specialist and then visit the Maroya Gallery for Folk Art, where there will be discussions and interchanges with local artists. In the last afternoon of the tour, travelers will enjoy an exchange with some Cuban artists and musicians and take some salsa classes.

On alternate weeks, the Havana to Cienfuegos itinerary is reversed .

Havana to Cienfuegos is available from $4490-$5799, depending on sail date and cabin category. Price includes seven nights on the S/C Panorama, all meals from arrival in Cuba to breakfast on day of departure, Cuban visa, mandatory Cuban medical insurance and transportation as per itinerary. For more information, visit www.groupist.com/cuba .

International Expeditions wrote, “For the past four years, guests on our people-to-people journeys to Cuba have discovered how valuable meaningful interactions between Americans and ordinary Cubans can be in connecting our two countries and learning from one another.

“Explore a wide variety of locations, not just Havana…and not only day trips from Havana, but journeys that take you from town to town and from natural habitat to natural habitat.”

International Expeditions offers two journeys that offer free-ranging discussions with musicians, artists, naturalists, farmers and architects, designed to touch on all aspects of Cuban life and culture so that you return home with a genuine understanding of this enigmatic country.

“Our experience within the delicate infrastructure of Cuba is unrivaled, our itineraries superior and our guides incomparable. You’ll not find a better value overall than with International Expeditions. See Cuba now in this historic time of transformation! Speak now to one of our experienced Travel Planners, who have visited the island and know it well.”

International Expeditions still has several departures of our popular people-to-people programs available, and space is filling quickly, the company notes.

Itineraries include “Complete Cuba” and “Cuba Art & Culture”. Call 844-429-5373 or visit ietravel.com.

"This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here," says Natural Habitat Adventures (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).
“This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here,” says Natural Habitat Adventures (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).

cuba-naturalhabitat1 e2Natural Habitat Adventures, a premier ecotourism company, has unveiled a new “Undiscovered Cuba” 12-day itinerary that explores Cuba’s intriguing culture and stunning tropical ecosystems on an educational exchange designed to provide a human perspective on the natural side of this captivating Caribbean island nation that has long been inaccessible to American travelers.

Travelers will experience the vibrant cultural centers of Havana and Trinidad as well as virtually unknown national parks, rare botanical gardens, lush tropical ecosystems and fabulous birdlife, and have opportunities to interact with Cuban scientists, naturalists, park managers, academics, organic farmers, community activists, artists, business owners and others eager to share their stories.

“This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here. Cuba has been off-limits to American tourists for decades. We are among a select few companies to secure a special U.S. government permit through the newly established People-to-People program, allowing us to offer this exclusive travel opportunity to our privileged guests,” said Ben Bressler, Natural Habitat’s founder and president.

2015 departures, each for a maximum of 15 guests, are: Feb. 10, Feb. 27, and Apr. 18. The per-person double occupancy rate is $7,695, based on a group size of 10 or more. Both international and internal flight costs are in addition to the trip fee. Internal air is $550 (subject to change). Nat Hab books the international flight from Miami to Cienfuegos, Cuba, and the return from Havana to Miami. These flights are organized through a licensed charter company authorized to provide direct flights to Cuba. (See www.nathab.com/central-america/undiscovered-cuba)

In addition to Cuban culture and history, the trip also showcases Cuba’s natural resources and diversity. Highlights include World Heritage Sites and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and hosted visits to organic farms and community-run ecotourism projects, such as:

Zapata National Park, Viñales National Park & the Viñales Valley and Las Terrazas. Accommodations are always the best available and extend an understanding of culture and history through their locations. The Grand Hotel Trinidad transports guests to the elegance of 16th-century Cuba under Spanish influence, with gracious archways and wrought-iron balconies. The colonial-style Hotel La Ermita offers magnificent views of the Viñales Valley, and in the heart of Havana the luxurious Parque Central is a mix of colonial and modern elements. Sunswept Playa Larga Beach on the southern coast along the Bay of Pigs is home to the Hotel Playa Larga, which offers basic accommodations with easy access to Zapata National Park.
For the complete itinerary see: www.nathab.com/central-america/undiscovered-cuba/itinerary

For trip information, descriptive itineraries, date availability and reservations call 800-543-8917 or visit www.nathab.com.

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