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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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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© 2014 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. See our newest travel site at www.tidbitts.com/karen-rubin/where-in-the-world.

Lake Placid, NYS’s Winter Resort, Where You Can Ski and Bobsled like an Olympian

At Lake Placid, New York's  Bobsled Experience, ride with a driver and a pusher down the same track that is used in international competition © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
At Lake Placid, New York’s Bobsled Experience, ride with a driver and a pusher down the same track that is used in international competition © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The three of us stuff ourselves into the bobsled behind the driver and take hold of a strap along the inside; the “pusher” takes a running start, pushes us off and jumps in behind me, and we begin our descent.

Heart pounding, I feel the rush as our bobsled picks up speed, and we race around the sequence of curves. David calls out “Right,” then “Left” so we lean into the curve to pick up even more speed (he’s not the driver and can’t even see the track in front of him, but we get that extra thrill).

View slideshow: Skiing, bobsledding at Lake Placid Olympic venues

Even though our Bobsled Experience at the Lake Placid Olympic Sports Complex is only half of the length that is used for international competition (literally a half mile, versus one mile), we reach speeds of 55 mph, hitting the turns at 2Gs of force and come away with much greater appreciation for what the competitors do who reach speeds of 85 mph and register 5 Gs at the turns in the course of a mile.

We can’t see the track, we feel it. And we can’t hear it, but we know that there is a track announcer announcing our progress as we whip around one turn and another – the turns have names and reputations – all giving us that extra facet of our Olympic experience.

We reach bottom in 47 seconds according to the scoreboard.

This is just one of the many extraordinary experiences of winter in Lake Placid, which has had the distinction of hosting two winter Olympics – 1932 and 1980 (most famous for the “Miracle on Ice” USA hockey defeat of the Soviet Union).

Few places have such a storied tradition .

Later, at the Olympic Museum in the Olympic skating stadium on Main Street, I appreciate so much more seeing the equipment the early Olympians used, and learning the answer to the question that Eric raised as we arrived at Whiteface Mountain, why did the Olympics come here?

Lake Placid was one of America’s first resorts, and was America’s first winter resort, and as the host of only the third winter Olympics, it developed many facilities – like the bobsled track – that were firsts for North America.

There is no other place in the Northeast to do bobsled, no other place to see a World Cup or international style competition like bobsled, luge, or ski jumping; and because Lake Placid continues to be a major training facility for top athletes, you can watch training exercises.

Olympics are part of the spirit that imbues the community here – kids who grow up here are very likely to pursue some sort of sport.

In fact, Lake Placid is the only community in United States that has sent an athlete to every winter Olympics since the first one in 1924. The very first Olympic medal of the very first winter Olympics in Chamonix was won by a Lake Placid speed skater Charles Jewtraw, for the 500-meter speed skate (which we get to see later at the Olympics Museum on Main Street).

But the thrill is not just that you might see the athletes in training, but that you can ski, cross-country ski, skate, and do such things as bobsled, luge and skeleton, even biathalon on the same Olympic and international competition tracks. This experience gives you a context and an appreciation when you see competitions.

You also appreciate Lake Placid as a destination, with a special allure that brought the earliest visitors.

Today, it is particularly distinctive because it draws so many international visitors – Canadians, to be sure, considering its proximity to our northern neighbor, but also many Europeans who feel quite at home in a village with a Bavarian feel, and the spiking mountain peaks of Whiteface and the Adirondacks, and people from India and other locales around the globe. No doubt drawn by Lake Placid’s Olympic fame and its mystique, their very presence perpetuates the Olympic ideal of globalism.

This is all the more remarkable because of Lake Placid, itself – a tiny, dare I say modest, and unpretentious village. where development has been limited by virtue of being contained within the state’s Adirondack Preserve, so there is a quaint quality, a tradition and heritage that adds so much to the experience.

And since there are no slopeside lodgings at Whiteface, you come to Lake Placid, and ski Whiteface. This means that Lake Placid is a true destination, offering such variety and interest that skiing or snowboarding is just one of the many pleasures and experiences.

Many of the attractions in the area are oriented around the Olympics. Largely because of its heritage, the Olympic feats that were achieved here will never be matched again. The very proximity of the Olympic sports venues to each other is unusual today: within a 10-mile radius, you have Whiteface, the Olympic Center, the ski jumps, the skating venues – and all offer very special experiences for visitors today.

We all get to be Olympian, or at least have a taste of what it is to compete at that level.

It is especially exciting to know this isn’t a tourist track, but the real thing.

That’s what you realize at the Bobsled Experience, which is part of the Olympic Sports Complex.

The track we are on is used for international competition, such as the February 2000 Winter Goodwill Games as well as by the world’s best athletes for training.

“It is regarded as one of the best – not the fastest, but is demanding and technically challenging. You have to be on your game,” says Jon Lundin of the Olympic Regional Development Authority that manages the Olympic venues including Whiteface Mountain.

The upstairs lounge where we waited for our turn and where non-Bobsled guests can watch video of their loved one coming down the track or just watch the event unfold – has a fascinating exhibit about the track and the Olympic bobsled and luge, with some sleds and wonderful historic photos.

This was the first bobsled run constructed in the United States, in advance of the 1932 Olympics. It cost $135,000 to build the track (a small fortune for the tiny village of Lake Placid); and construction began 1930, when the country had already plunged into the Great Depression. The curves of the 1 1/2 mile earthen track, we learn, became world famous: “Whiteface, Shady, Little S, and Zig Zag were respected and feared curves throughout the world.” Hometown heroes Curtis and Herbert Stevens won gold in the two-man bobsled (they were the only team to heat their runners between runs), while the four-man gold-medal team included Billy Fiske and Eddie Eagan, a gold medalist in boxing, who was “along for ride,” who became one of only a few athletes to win gold in both summer and winter Olympics.

The upper half-mile of the track was incredibly dangerous; as a result, the Whiteface, hairpin curve, was only used for the 1932 Olympics.

We realize that like Eddie Eagan, we are “along for the ride” – essentially ballast for the sled, but thrilled nonetheless. You can pack your group as many as four into a sled with the professional driver and pusher. They do about 300-400 runs a day, if you can believe it.

You can also do Skeleton and Luge at select times.

The Skeleton Experience is where you individually ride what looks like your childhood sled, and lying on your stomach, rocket down the ice chute, reaching speeds of up to 40 mph.

There are two kinds of Luge that you can experience: The Regular Athlete, which is offered only four times a year for the public, and the Rocket Luge, only offered Christmas Day using a modified sled but you start higher on track, covering three-quarters of a mile ($65).

We are told that Luge is often called the fastest sport on ice – a test of nerves you travel feet first solo down the track on a sled. There are only five Luge classic events offered during the year at Lake Placid – most uniquely, the Dec 31 New Year’s Eve Party (Riders need to be 13 years old; reservations required at 518-523-4436 or oscreservations@orda.org).

Our Bobsled Experience is complete when we are handed a copy of the photo they took in front of the sled when we landed at the bottom, a Bobsled Experience pin, and a tee-shirt (all included!), and, after we fill out a survey for Chevy Suburban, the commercial sponsor (and when you get in the SUV for the ride up to the top, you do appreciate the car), we even get a backpack.

There is so much more for visitors to enjoy of the Olympic Experience.

Olympic Ski Jumps, Biathalon, Cross-Country

On the way to our Bobsled Experience from Whiteface Mountain, we emerge from the River Road (this backcountry “shortcut” from Whiteface to Mt. Van Hoevenberg, and get our first look at the imposing 90 and 120-meter Olympic Ski Jump Towers – intimidating even from where we are.

You can ride up a glass look-out elevator to the skydeck of the 120 meter tower (about 26 stories high) for the scenic view of the High Peaks. You approach the elevator via chairlift, which rides up the steep landing hill. Ski jumpers train at the facility year-round. There is access to the breathtaking outside start gate.

This is a year-round activity: Jumping on the 90 meter hill in summertime is possible thanks to a porcelain tile in-run that propels the skiers down the ramp. They land on a synthetic surface that looks like a thatched roof.

Also, there are weekend clinics for beginner ski jumpers of all ages through the New York Ski Educational Foundation (NYSEF). Call 518- 523-1900; (the elevator ride is included in The Olympic Passport,$32).

You can also visit the Freestyle Park where there are the aerial ski launching ramps (known as “kickers”) for freestyle skiing athletes to propel themselves as high as 60 feet in the air to complete rotation and twist maneuvers. In the winter, the snow-covered kickers sit atop a steep, snow-packed landing hill.

In the summer and fall, you can watch aerialists train and compete in the state-of- the-art park as they launch themselves off the ramps and land in a 750,000 gallon heated pool with an impact reducing aerating system. Adjacent to the pool, there is trampoline training. The combination of “tramps and ramps” finds athletes perfecting their tricks in the off-season. You can watch competition and training from surrounding bleachers. In July and August, they offer Wet ‘n Wild Wednesdays, where world-class aerial skiers perform for visitors. Events are scheduled throughout the year.

There is also snow tubing here at the Olympic Jumping Complex, day and some nights (open until 7 pm on Friday and Saturday; $9/hour) You get to catapult yourself down a 700 foot chute Olympic Jumping Complex

The Olympic Sports Complex also includes the Biathalon Center (the sport that combines cross-country skiing with riflery) – and sure enough, you can take part in that, as well. You get to take a freestyle skiing lesson and then test your marksmanship with a 22-caliber rifle and shoot at the same targets used during the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan (or just go onto the shooting range) (the Discovery Biathlon is $55 with lesson, trail pass, rental, biathlon; $36 for range and lesson; in summer, you can just shoot at the rifle range for $15; http://www.whiteface.com/activities/be-biathlete.)

You even can ski the 50 kilometer 1980 Olympic cross-country course, at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. But you shouldn’t be intimidated: there are cross-country ski trails for all levels and abilities, www.whiteface.com/activities/cross-country-skiing.

But if you would like to have an Olympic experience, each year, there is a cross-country ski race on the Olympic trails at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, called the Loppett and Kort Loppett, http://www.whiteface.com/events/lake-placid-loppet. You can chose to ski the full 50k in the Loppett event, utilizing all of the trails from the 1980 Olympic Games, or race in the Kort Loppett, a 25k race.

Whiteface Mountain

Feel like an Olympian as you ski down Whiteface Mountain, in New York's Adirondacks, where winter Olympics of 1932 and 1980 were held © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Feel like an Olympian as you ski down Whiteface Mountain, in New York’s Adirondacks, where winter Olympics of 1932 and 1980 were held © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our Olympic experience began this day on Whiteface Mountain about nine miles outside of Lake Placid village, where we are staying at The Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort, literally on Lake Placid (there is a free shuttle bus we could take that leaves from across the street, but we find it more convenient to take the car; parking is not difficult at all, but there is premium slopeside parking at $15/day).

There are many superlatives that attach to Whiteface Mountain: it has the greatest vertical drop, 3430 ft, East of the Rockies – but what distinguishes Whiteface more than anything is character and tradition.

You can ski and ride the trails of the 1980 Winter games: the Men’s Downhill, from Cloudspin to Broadway to Lower Valley; the Women’s, from Skyward to East Street to Lower Valley; the Men’s Giant Slalom course, Thruway onto Lower Valley and the Women’s, down Parkway onto Lower Valley, and the Slalom course on Mountain Run.

At Lower Valley, you see the race finish, the hut where the judges and announcers would have sat, and the race board.

One of the distinctive features that adds to the experience is the number of international visitors that come to Whiteface and Lake Placid- Lake Placid’s proximity to Canada is a natural draw but we also met any number of European visitors. No doubt drawn by Lake Placid’s Olympic fame and its mystique, their very presence perpetuates the Olympic ideal of globalism.

We breeze through the rental process – they have very fine Rossignol equipment – and are impressed by the services in the base lodge, and soon make our way to the Cloudsplitter Gondola that takes us up to Little Whiteface at 3676 feet. The trails from here are blacks and one blue, Excelsior, which gives a lovely view of the surrounding Adirondack peaks.

New this year is snowmaking on Hoyt’s High Trail. Hoyt’s High Trail has always relied on Mother Nature to cover its 1,400 feet of vertical. As a result, the 4,700 foot long expert trail, cut in 2008 and named in honor of Whiteface veteran ski patroller Jim Hoyt Sr., has only been open for a handful of days. That has changed now with the installation of snowmaking.

Intermediate and advanced skiers can start on the Gondola to Little Whiteface, at 3676 feet elevation, from which there is only one blue trail (Excelsior) which is not particularly difficult, and multiple black trails.

Ski down to the Summit Quad to get to the highest point that is served by lift, Top Station at 4386 (Whiteface summit is at 4867), from which there are blue and black trails down.

Because we visited so early in the season, the Lookout Mountain lift was not yet open, but I really wanted to do the Wilmington Trail, a blue that meanders 2.2 miles (the longest on the mountain).

The trails, like many of the older ski areas, tend to be narrow especially from the top, and Whiteface is known to get icy (best to ski as early as possible in the day). Whiteface offers a snow guarantee, whereby you can get a refund on your lift ticket within the first hour if conditions not great.

There aren’t any green trails from the summits (Excelsior is a relatively easy blue), but there is an entire learning area, Kids Kampus, that is separated from the main mountain area, and reached by a delightful sequence of greens from Facelift lift – a shuttle bus from the main base lodge brings kids to the Kids Kampus, where the learning programs are housed. Bear’s Den Nursery is for non-skiers 1-6; Play-n-Ski is for ages 4-6; there is a a new Burton Riglet Park for beginner riders 3-6; Junior Adventure skiing and riding for all ability levels for ages 7-12; and Teen Experience for 13-16 skiers and riders of all ability levels.

During our stay, I was happiest (I must confess) on a sequence of green trails accessed by FaceLift: Easy Street and Boreen, down to the base. On this day, it had the best snow and the best views (which help me zone into my skiing), and I could really just relax and enjoy my skiing.

In all, Whiteface offers 86 trails – over 22 miles of skiing and riding. It claims the greatest vertical drop in the east, at 3,430, from a base of 1220 to The Slides, at 4,650 (the highest lift goes to 4,386).

There are some beautiful eateries at midmountain: Boule’s, a bistro serving fine foods and crepes; and the Mid-Station Lodge, serving up traditional resort fare, which also has a magnificent view.

The base has a nice selection as well – Base Camp Market, Cloudspin Lounge, Black Bear Cafe and J Lohr Cafe and Wine Bar.

Other practical considerations: you can check your skis with unlimited access for $5 for 24 hours; and $4 for bin, or you can rent a locker (which can accommodate up to 3 sets) for $15 for a 24-hour period.

There is a premium slopeside parking lot for $15/day on weekends, holidays, $12 for midweek/nonholiday.

With all that the Lake Placid area offers, you need to build in extra time in your visit. The Whiteface lift tickets allow for such flexibility to take a day off to explore, 2 out of 3 days, 3 out of 4, 4 out of 5) – to have this extraordinary experience of getting a taste of what it is to be an Olympian.

Indeed, what makes Whiteface Mountain special is Lake Placid – the history, tradition. This is a real place, not a creation of a ski resort.

For information, www.whiteface.com, where you can prearrange trip, get tickets to special events, track snow conditions, see live webcam, book ski/stay packages.

Whiteface, 5021 Route 86, Wilmington, NY 12997, Phone: (518) 946-2223 / Coca-Cola Snow Phone: 877-SKIFACE, Email: ski@whiteface.com

Olympic Sports Complex, 220 Bob Run, Route 73, Lake Placid, NY 12946, Phone: (518) 523-4436,Email: oscreservations@orda.org

Olympic Center, 2634 Main Street, Lake Placid, NY 12946, Phone: (800) 462-6236 / (518) 523-1655,Email: info@orda.org

See next: Lake Placid, New York’s Quintessential Winter Resort Destination

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© 2013 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. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

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