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Sonoma Sojourn

Posted By Peggy Sijswerda, Sunday, July 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

My horse’s name is Copper, and in the brilliant California sunshine, his coat shines as though it’s been freshly polished. Copper and I are riding along the beach at Bodega Bay with Constance, our trail guide; Ruth, a nurse from San Francisco; and her daughter, Kristen, a graduate student in San Diego. Ruth and Kristen, like me, are here on this lonely stretch of shoreline, flecked with driftwood and seashells, to experience a fantasy I think every woman must share—horseback riding on the beach—and we couldn’t have chosen a better day for it.

The cool Pacific breeze, the warm September sun, and the sound of the waves crashing on the sand sharpen my senses, making me feel incredibly alive and in the moment. Together with the rhythm of Copper’s stride, the creaking saddle, and the salty-sweet smell of leather mixed up with the musty scent of horse—it all adds up to a sensory experience I’ll always remember. Most of the time we amble along the beach and through the sandy trails, but every so often Constance prompts us to try a fast-paced trot. During one of these yee-hah interludes, Copper heads down a sloping sand dune, and I feel gravity grab hold of me, turning my yee-hah into yikes! It’s all I can do to stay in the saddle, but somehow I manage until Copper slows down.

Back at Chanslor Ranch, I dismount and begin to feel soreness in muscles I never knew existed. Constance tells me that riding horses is therapeutic. "People love the relaxation,” she says as she leads Copper to the water trough. "It’s like a mini get-away.” For me it’s more than that. I’m getting in touch with my inner cowgirl.

Traveling alone on the West Coast is all about getting in touch with my inner "me,” the one that’s buried beneath mom, wife, daughter, friend, editor, laundry lady, dog feeder, and chauffeur. The idea sprouts when my mom says she wants to visit her sisters in Santa Rosa, but she isn’t quite up to traveling by herself. I offer to accompany her, and she says if I find a good fare, she’ll pay my way. Before long, an amazing fare appears on my computer screen as if by magic: $150 round trip Norfolk to Oakland on American Airlines. I thank my fairy godmother for helping me find such a bargain.

When I tell Peter, my dear husband, that I want to go away for six days, he gives his blessing. "Are you sure?” I ask. "I feel a little guilty about leaving you and the kids.”

"Peggy,” he answers, "it’s very quiet when you’re not around.” Hmmm, I’m not quite sure I like the message between those lines, but I won’t let it worry me at the moment. I’m too excited about my trip.

Essential Ingredients of Life

Taking a solo vacation may not be everyone’s preference, but according to Oprah, the sage of modern culture, women should go on retreat at least once a year—if possible, completely alone. Of course, joining a bus tour bound for Branson or a bicycle trip in Provence is one way of traveling solo, but in any group activity, you end up not really being alone. My goal on this trip is to find a few tranquil moments when the swirl of life subsides for a few seconds, and I can try to remember what it is I want from life and take stock of whether I’m getting there.

Sonoma County is my chosen destination, an area rich with all the essential ingredients of life. Besides its superb wines, the region boasts a wealth of organic farms and chic restaurants whose innovative fare makes good use of the area’s bounty. Sonoma County is also rich in natural splendor. From the beaches along its western edge to the Russian River Valley that cuts across the northern boundary, nature lovers can find any number of outdoor activities to enjoy. Camping is popular in Sonoma County, especially near the coast, and you’ll find idyllic spots to pitch a tent, have a picnic, or fly a kite in one of the many regional and state parks in the region.

While I do enjoy camping, I decide to spoil myself and stay at the Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa. This lovely property is perfect for a retreat. With a charming rustic ambience and cozy rooms that overlook Bodega Bay, the lodge makes it easy to let go of the stress of modern life. Many rooms feature fireplaces complete with easyburning logs, and suites offer a couch and comfy armchair perfect for curling up with a good book in hand.

After my horseback riding adventure, Ruth and Kristen join me for lunch at the Sandpiper Restaurant in Bodega Bay. A cute mom-and-pop place, The Sandpiper is actually owned by Steve Weissmann and Ron MacDonald. I try their worldfamous clam chowder and delight in its rich, creamy texture and flavorful bits of potatoes and clams. For a main course, I choose the Wasabi Tuna, which our server, Brad, tells us is a popular menu item. A tanned blonde, Brad admits to surfing every day and makes me miss my son Jasper, who also loves to ride the waves.

In fact, the Pacific Ocean is omnipresent in this corner of California. Almost daily throughout the warmer months, fog steals in from the ocean and blankets the coastline. In fact after lunch when Ruth, Kristen, and I tour the University of California’s Marine Lab on Bodega Head, the bright blue sky disappears and the sun dims as a cold breeze blows the fog in over the land. Luckily, much of the tour is inside, where we learn about underwater habitats of the Pacific coastal waters. We do brave the weather to explore a tidal pool outside the facility, where we meet a young family whose daughters delight in touching the sea creatures. I hold a sea urchin, whose purpleplum spikes tickle my palm as he scoots across.

After saying goodbye to Ruth and Kristen, I head back to Bodega Bay Lodge to take a relaxing bath in the jetted tub and unwind before dining at the Duck Club, the on-site restaurant. Dinner is divine: succulent lamb chops—medium rare— accompanied by flavorful mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables, cooked al dente, just the way I like them. It’s a delightful ending to a dreamy day.

Sense of Peace

The next morning I discover the fog remains glued to the bay and the surrounding hills, but I like it. The fog’s cozy somehow and adds to the sense of isolation in this place. I decide to skip my planned morning kayak expedition and instead make coffee, throw a log on the fire, and curl up with a book. I spend a blissful morning reading, listening to the fire crackle, and enjoying its warmth. Then I hop in my rental car for a drive north along the coast.

It’s eerie with the fog everywhere, and I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the shocking black-and-white film from the 60’s, which was filmed in the area. Without the sunlight to make everything colorful, the landscape and buildings I pass by appear ghostly, in shades of gray ranging from dark to light.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a sign that says Children’s Memorial, and I turn the car around. There across a foggy field stands the bell tower erected in the memory of Nicholas Green, the boy who was killed in 1994 by highway thieves in Italy while vacationing with his family, who live here in Bodega Bay. Nicholas’ family donated his organs to seven Italians, who have been able to live healthier lives, thanks to the Greens’ generosity of spirit.

I turn off the car, get out, and walk down the path to the tower. It’s very quiet, but every minute or so the wind stirs and the bells tinkle mournfully. I stop at a shrine with a bronze sculpture of Nicholas and a plaque that invites all who come here to enjoy the park as Nicholas himself would have done. On top of the altar is an assortment of toys and letters from children who visit the site. I read one from a girl who’s staying at a nearby campground. She writes, "I’m sorry you had to die.”

As a bereaved parent myself, I find a sense of peace here although it’s also incredibly sad. I walk over to the bell tower and read another plaque that tells more about Nicholas’ tragic death and the good that has come from it. I learn the bells in the tower have all been donated by the people of Italy. I rest on a bench beside the tower and listen as the bells ring softly, sounding different notes, almost as if nature is composing a continuous song. I’m sure other bereaved parents have made pilgrimages to this place and, like me, find solace here.

Whispering Wisdom

Heading up the coast, I drive through the fog high on bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Surfers down below in their slick wetsuits look like sea lions, and I watch them catch a few waves. Slowly the sun filters through the fog, and by the time I turn east and drive along the Russian River toward Guerneville, I find myself peeling off my jacket as the fog dissipates and the sun takes command of the sky once more.

After a brief stop at Korbel Champagne Cellars, where I join a lively tour and tasting, I stop for a short hike in the Armstrong Redwood Forest. It’s late in the afternoon, and as I hike alone beneath the massive redwoods, I find myself relaxing, emptying my mind of all thoughts and worries. It’s almost as if these magnificent giant trees, so old and tenacious, are whispering wisdom. I only have to stop and listen. In the silence with the pine smell all around, I feel very small but glad to be alone.

An hour later I’m anything but alone. I’m sitting at a chic restaurant in Sebastopol, a cozy town with an old-fashioned main street and lots of charm. It’s Saturday night, and the place is packed. A Celtic Festival has drawn lots of folks into town for the weekend, and a big table near me is overflowing with musicians and Celtic aficionados.

It feels strange to be alone, yet surrounded by others who are eating, drinking, and conversing with friends. I’ve eaten by myself before, but never in a chic restaurant— where the idea is to take your time and savor your food, as opposed to gobbling it down before rushing off to a meeting or an appointment.

A margarita with a bite, touted as a house specialty, helps me to relax, and I begin my culinary journey into California cuisine. I choose appetizers in lieu of a main course, preferring to eat lightly. The special this evening—homemade ravioli filled with red and golden beets in a light, cream sauce—melts in my mouth. The heirloom tomato salad features purple tomatoes and clumps of fresh mozzarella bathed in a savory olive oil vinaigrette. Hearty fish cakes add tasty protein to the mix, and a local Pinot Noir provides a juicy accompaniment.

As the meal comes to an end, I realize I’ve forgotten about the people around me. The simple pleasure of tasty food makes you feel at home no matter where you are: eating a hot dog on a street in New York, picnicking in a meadow with crackers and brie, or sitting by yourself in a crowded restaurant. The key is to surrender yourself to the moment, savoring the tastes and smells, the sights and sounds that swirl around you.

Open to Experience

The next afternoon I’m surrounded again by good food and wine. My Sonoma sojourn has coincided with the Russian River Food and Wine Fest in Guerneville. I only wish I were hungry. Just an hour ago I finished a scrumptious brunch at my aunts’ retirement community in Santa Rosa. A fine spread of fresh, local delicacies, the brunch featured some of my all-time favorite foods: ripe avocados, buttery and flavorful; fresh figs, plump, purple, and sweet; crisp, bright green asparagus, barely cooked; a selection of cheeses; and chilled champagne to top it off. Two of my California cousins joined us, and it was great to be with family on my birthday.

Now as I look around the meadow, the food fest in full swing, I marvel at the perfect weather and the beautiful ambience here. I feel alone in this place, but it’s not unpleasant. As I look around at the smiling faces, the tall redwoods, the blue sky, everything seems to be in sharp focus. It’s as if being in a strange place helps you see things more clearly—for isn’t it true that when we go through the daily tasks of life—commuting to work, shopping at Walmart, taking kids to soccer practice—the landscape around us melts into a sort of blur? We stop seeing.

This trip has helped me see with new eyes. I’m finding, too, that I’m able to let the cares of day-to-day life seep through the cracks, leaving me renewed. It’s as if I’m open to experience again, instead of deadened by it. I think about the fantasy horseback ride, the bells in Nicolas’ Green’s tower, the walk through the silent redwood forest, even dinner at Lucy’s. Like a child, I’m learning to appreciate simple pleasures once more.

Tags:  Korbel  Sebastopol  Sonoma  Sonoma County 

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In Pursuit of Pleasure - Daydreaming in The Middle Keys

Posted By Peggy Sijswerda, Sunday, April 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Kick off your dress shoes and grab a pair of flip flops. Toss your work attire and jump into comfy shorts and a t-shirt. Leave your makeup behind—a natural glow from the sun is all you’ll need to look your best. Blow dryer? I don’t think so. Wash-and-wear hair is just fine down here in the Florida Keys.

Anything goes in these tropical islands—an enchanting place where seeking pleasure becomes the number-one priority. It’s why I escape to the Keys as often as I can: to spoil myself with the good life. Here I let the island breezes wash over me as I languish under a palm tree. Above rustling fronds whisper, and a soothing fountain splashes nearby. In the distance a fishing boat passes through the channel, its engine chugging as it glides through turquoise waters. Beyond the channel, the Atlantic spreads southward from horizon to horizon, a smooth, glassy mirror that reflects the soft hues of a velvety blue sky.

In fact, everywhere I turn a painting meets my gaze, like a canvas unveiled by a confident artist. Even inches from where I lie, brilliant tropical plants in fiery shades of red and gold against a lush green backdrop create yet another still life for me to savor. I sip my frosty beverage, close my eyes, and doze as the tinkling sounds of steel drums playing down by the lagoon carry my thoughts far away.

I dream of island hopping on a gleaming catamaran with my husband and sons. In my fantasy I home school the boys a few hours a week, but we learn more than books can teach about nature, culture, and history while sailing the seas. We fish for dinner and listen to mellow Jack Johnson tunes as the lapping waves and gently flapping sails provide back-up rhythm. In my fantasy my family and I sail into a colorful sunset every evening, thankful for the chance to explore the wondrous world together.


I snap back to the present, but keep my fantasy close at hand. In fact, I plan to devote lots of time to daydreaming during my four-day visit to the Keys. I’m staying at Hawk’s Cay, a sixty-acre resort about halfway between Key Largo and Key West. Just to the south is Marathon, the second largest city in the Keys and one I got to know pretty well when friends of mine resided there. Sad to say, they relocated to the mainland ("tired of hurricanes,” they said), so it’s been five years since I got a Keys’ fix. It’s good to be here.

The vibe in the Middle Keys is different from the frenetic pace of Key West. It’s slower, calmer: a waltz instead of hip-hop. While Key West has its own charms, folks around here are seeking an escape from the faster currents, slowing way down to a leisurely paddle. Everyone I meet is on island time. Don’t worry, be happy is the mantra for visitors to Hawk’s Cay, where you’ll find whatever you need to enjoy a vacation in paradise.

You can opt for a few days of laid-back attitude adjustment and lounge around the lagoon or hang out poolside. Or visit Indies Spa, where 7,000 square feet of pampering pleasure are at your disposal. If you prefer a more active vacation, choose from a variety of wet-and-wild water sports or resort activities. On my visit I decide to do a little of everything: some serious downtime complimented by snorkeling, sailing, and the highlight of my visit, a swim with the dolphins at the resort’s on-site dolphin facility.

First things first: where’s the pool? Actually there are five pools at Hawk’s Cay. I like the adult pool next to the Atlantic, where cool breezes offer an antidote to the ninety-degree temps. For families the resort’s main pool offers plenty of room for swimming and sunning. Beyond is the shallow saltwater lagoon that lets cool water from the ocean in but keeps larger fish out. Ringed by sandy beaches, it’s the perfect place for kids to build sandcastles and romp in the water.

Hawk’s Cay is an awesome destination for families. Besides water sports, the resort features special activities, such as glow-in-the-dark volleyball, dive-in movies, and kids-night out. Parents can also sign children up for the Little Pirates Club (ages 4-5) or the Island Adventures Club (ages 6-11). Supervised activities include games, arts and crafts, swimming, and sports. There’s also a playground and an interactive pool by the kids’ clubhouse with a pirate ship and cannons that spout water.

Accommodations at Hawk’s Cay are suited for families, couples, or groups of friends. Villas with one-, two-, and three-bedrooms feature a balcony or porch and a fully equipped kitchen. Most have stunning views. You can also stay at the Inn at Hawk’s Cay in a spacious room overlooking the pool or tropical gardens. Four full-service restaurants serve a variety of menu options. My favorite is Porto Cayo, where Caribbean flavors join forces with Mediterranean cuisine. After trying a cup of refreshing lobster bisque one evening, I order herb-grilled rack of lamb with a pomegranate demi-glace accompanied by risotto and savory vegetables. It’s a perfect marriage of textures and flavors, and I relish every bite.

Breakfast is served in the Palm Terrace buffet style, and each morning I indulge in my favorites: smoked salmon with capers and onions, luscious fresh tomatoes and cool cottage cheese, and Eggs Benedict with a lemony Hollandaise that’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Fresh-squeezed orange juice and steaming hot coffee provide additional fuel for the day’s activities. I’ll need it.


Now comes the hard part: figuring out what to do. I decide to join a snorkeling excursion aboard Island Time with Captain Dave and twenty or so passengers. We cruise out to a reef five miles south of Hawk’s Cay called Coffin Patch. Legend has it that a boat carrying coffins sank here, but Capt. Dave says all we’ll see are the remains of an old lighthouse.

Jason, the first mate, passes out snorkel gear, and after donning my fins and mask, I dive into the warm waters of the Atlantic and suddenly find myself surrounded by dozens of Little Nemo look-alikes. As my eyes focus underwater, I see they’re actually not clownfish, but a type of damselfish called sergeant majors, cute little fellows with black and yellow stripes. I’m mesmerized as they swim inches from my face. They seem to be as curious about me as I am about them.

That’s what I love about snorkeling: the experience of entering another dimension, one that’s inhabited by creatures we never see, yet they’re right under our noses. I could spend hours here, swimming through the crystal clear water, watching the fish, like sparkling jewels, dart in every direction. On the bottom a coral reef offers hiding places for these colorful creatures. It’s dotted with clumps of brain coral and purple sea fans that wave at me as I swim by.

Too soon two blasts of the ship’s horn signal it’s time to go. As we head back to the marina at Hawk’s Cay, a flying fish splashes across the ocean’s surface in a joyous dance, glittering in the afternoon sun. It’s as if he’s reminding us to celebrate life, especially down here in this magical setting, where the sea and the sky blend into an intoxicating cocktail, a recipe that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

The magic continues the next evening when I board Horizon, a 40-foot catamaran, for a sunset cruise with Captain Dale and his first mate, Jessica. The breeze beckons as we motor through the channel, and cumulus clouds to the west promise an extraordinary show. But first we sail southward, zipping along at about ten knots, the sun warm and the breeze refreshing. Jessica offers wine, beer, soda, and champagne to guests, and soon we’re all becoming acquainted, sharing a sense of adventure on the high seas. Someone’s hat blows overboard, and we’re all sorry for his loss, chuckling and remembering when the same thing happened to us. We take photos of each other and talk about music and life and family. By journey’s end as the sun sets in a pink and orange neon sky, we’re sad to pull up to the dock and bid goodbye to our sunset friends.

The following day I make new friends in the water—six of them, in fact: Allie, April, Balla, Nemo, Sebastian, and Wilson. My friends are bottle-nosed dolphins, residents of a beautiful lagoon at Hawk’s Cay and participants in the Dolphin Connection, a program that lets visitors interact with dolphins both from dockside and in the water. I’m signed up for Dolphin Discovery and can’t wait to enjoy an up-close encounter with these giant, gentle creatures.

First Stacy, one of the trainers, goes over a few safety rules designed to protect both the dolphins and the guests. She explains that even though these dolphins are used to humans, they are still wild animals and need to be treated with care and respect. She continues to discuss a few points about the Florida Keys ecosystem, and then we’re finally allowed to put on our life jackets and meet the dolphins.

I’m joined by Bobby and Emily Lyerly, a brother and sister from Destin. Big smiles fill their faces as we line up in the water to meet April, who’s actually the mother of some of the other dolphins. The trainer invites us to pet April, and I’m surprised at how much she feels like hard rubber—and by how immense she is. Stretching to a length of eight feet or so, April dwarfs us humans, but she acts like a big puppy, playful and happy to be the center of attention.

I’m hoping that swimming with the dolphins will be part of the program, but Stacy explains that it’s simply not healthy for dolphins to tow humans holding onto their dorsal fins. Luckily, lots of other activities are included in Dolphin Discovery. I get to pet, hug, kiss, tickle, feed, scratch, splash, and dance with the dolphins. The experience is exhilarating, although tightly scripted. No time for mystical interactions with these sweet beasts. The only unscripted event is when one of the cute little sergeant majors takes a liking to a freckle on my leg and decides to give it a nibble. Ouch!


On the morning of my last day at Hawk’s Cay, I find a mystical encounter of another kind: a hot stone massage in the peaceful environs of Indies Spa. Under the capable hands of Mary-Rachel, I drift off into another daydream and find myself wandering through a hot desert. In the distance an oasis with palm trees and cool shade calls my name. Once there I lie down on a cushioned bed and feel the magic of the stones smoothing my cares away.

Too soon the stones stop, the daydream ends, and I reluctantly say goodbye to Mary-Rachel. Fortunately, I don’t have far to go. I’m spending my final afternoon by the pool, where I melt into a comfortable lounge chair in a shady spot overlooking the ocean. As I look southward over the Atlantic, I see white sails way off in the distance. I recall my island-hopping fantasy and consider the possibility of making it come true.

This happens to me whenever I come to the Keys. Something gets into my soul, my wires cross—or maybe they become uncrossed, and all of a sudden, I’m ready to run away from the real world.

I don’t. I return to my responsible life, where I own a business, keep house, ferry kids to soccer practices—do all those things expected of me. But look out! One day the urge will become too strong to ignore. Then that will be me under the white sails slowly disappearing over the edge of the horizon.


For more information, visit or call 800-432-2242. Hawk’s Cay Resort (MM 61) also welcomes groups for meetings, family reunions, and weddings.

You can opt to fly into Miami and rent a car. It’s about a two-hour drive to Hawk’s Cay. Or you can fly into Key West (about a 75-minute drive) or directly to Marathon Airport, just eight miles south of the resort.

What to do in Marathon: I’m happy to find Marathon and environs haven’t changed much since my last visit five years ago. It’s true that Hurricane Wilma came through with a vengeance in October 2005, and clean up and renovation continue, but overall it’s business as usual. If you have time to explore the area, here are a few recommended outings:

Crane Point Museums and Nature Center (MM 50)

Learn about natural history, explore a historic home, walk on nature trails, and enjoy an interactive children’s museum. Visit or call 305-743-9100.

Pigeon Key (MM 47)

Enjoy a free hike along part of the old Seven-Mile Bridge or hop in a trolley to Pigeon Key, where history buffs will enjoy learning about Henry Flagler and his efforts to build a railway to Key West. Call 305-289-0225.

Curry Hammock State Park (MM 56)

Enjoy a secluded beach, nature trails, camping, and picnic facilities. Visit or call 305-289-2690.

The Island Fish Co.

(MM 54) This picturesque restaurant features the largest tiki bar I’ve ever seen and is one of the best spots for watching the sunset. Try the grilled shrimp tacos for a tasty treat. Visit or call 305-743-4191.

Peggy Sijswerda is editor and publisher of Tidewater Women and lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and three sons.

Tags:  Florida  Hawk's Kay  Key West 

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Wild Alaska

Posted By Nicole Barton, Sunday, April 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Aptly known as the Last Frontier, Alaska exerts a fascination that attracts visitors from all walks of life. With astonishing diversity, there is truly something for everyone.

Alaska is by far the largest US state at over 570,000 square miles and more shoreline than all other states combined. Home to three million lakes, it also boasts the largest collection of glaciers in North America, and with global warming, it will stay that way.

The breathtaking sights are brooding with a vast array of wildlife. There are more than 400 species of birds, including the majestic bald eagle. The most impressive mammals here include caribou, wolves, red foxes, moose and various bears. With so much shoreline, it’s no wonder Alaska is also extremely rich in sea life: bearded seals, walrus and killer, humpback and beluga whales.

Interestingly much of the territory and its accompanying wildlife are still yet to be explored. People often say that there are no more frontiers to explore, but Alaska proves to be the great exception.

Alaska’s Native Cultures

Making up approximately 16% of the state’s population, Alaska’s native people are divided into 11 individual cultures with 20 different languages. Visiting an Alaska Native village is an educational experience for those interested in understanding a way of life much different from their own. However there must be respect for the Native’s privacy; visitors should never treat this untouched way-of-life as a "tourist attraction". It is a great opportunity to learn how Natives really live, seeing how they preserve their way of life. Tours may include a Native language lesson, traditional dancing, singing and the chance to buy unique Native art.

Getting Around

Alaska actually has more transportation options than one might imagine. Many people opt for a cruise to make their travel effortless, while others prefer to explore on their own. Renting a car or motor home is a great option and you’ll find that the modern Alaska Highway has been greatly improved compared to past years. There are plenty of accommodations ranging from B&B’s to RV parks.

If driving isn’t your thing, you can always travel via rail. The Alaska Railroad provides service through 470 scenic miles. Regular or private seating is available. The private cars offer larger windows and dome cars with unrestricted landscape views. There’s a good chance of seeing Dall sheep, bear, moose and other wildlife. If you prefer to travel by air, there are many options including jets, floatplanes and helicopters. A fun choice is combining some of these options to maximize your experience.

Exploring Anchorage

As the largest city in Alaska, housing over 40% of the population, Anchorage is a great starting point for travelers. Weather-wise, Anchorage is considered mild by Alaskan standards, but it does still receive rain and snow.

Downtown Anchorage is bustling with unique shops and restaurants. Native crafts such as woven baskets, intricately carved masks and jewelry are abundant throughout the shops. To ensure you are purchasing authentic native art, look for the "Silver Hand" emblem. It’s a guarantee the item you purchased was made by an Alaskan native.

The Visitor Information Center Log Cabin offers maps, brochures and lots of useful information. Be sure to tour the numerous museums and historic sites too.

Being in a large city may lead you to believe you are far from wildlife, but do not let that fool you. An estimated 50 brown bears, 200 black bears and 2,000 moose live in the city area and local foothills. The more adventurous are sure to enjoy a guided moose tour. Walking amongst these massive animals is quite the adrenaline rush.

From Anchorage you can see the Aleutian, Kenai, Tordrillo, Chugach, Talkeetna and Alaska mountain ranges. Mount McKinly, the tallest mountain in North America, can also be seen on very clear days. A great way to view these mountains is by taking a flight-seeing tour, which is sightseeing from the air. Small helicopters and planes offer amazing views of these mountains, along with glaciers and lakes. Some will even land directly on the glaciers.

Stunning scenery lies along the Seward Highway, just south of Anchorage. A favorite stop is Beluga Point where you can watch beluga whales chasing the salmon that come in with the tide. Killer whales are sometimes seen here as well. The highway offers numerous stops with a great variety of things to see and do.

If you’re lucky, you may be able to view the Northern Lights, also know as Aurora Borealis. Bright lights ripple and pulse through the sky in a light show like no other. Alaska is the best place in the US to view the Northern Lights. The most common color is a yellow-green hue, but one may also see streaks of blue, purple and red. The most impressive displays tend to be accompanied by sub-zero temperatures and extremely dark, moonless skies. (This natural light show takes place in the earth’s upper atmosphere when charged particles from the sun collide with gas molecules.) Winter is typically the best time to view the lights, though they can also be seen in fall and spring. Many hotels offer a "Northern Lights wake-up call" for those who are willing to wake up at any hour to view this phenomenon.

Into the Wild

Brooks Camp is an incredible destination for those interested in viewing brown bears in their natural habitat. These coastal bears congregate here to feed on salmon, with July being the peak season. Located in Katmai National Park, Brooks is accessible by floatplane. Here you have the option of staying in a private cabin (Brooks Lodge) or camping in the well-maintained campground, which overlooks Naknek Lake and is surrounded by an electric fence for safety. Besides bears, this area offers beautiful scenery and sunsets. There are many simple walking trails and two safe-viewing platforms, which give you the advantage of relaxing and enjoying a full view of the bears going about their daily activities. It’s not uncommon to see a mother with cubs, males defending their territory or bears catching the jumping salmon at the falls. The bears are very comfortable in the water and may wait for hours at a time to dive on their prey. At Brooks, bears have the right of way and must be respected at all times.

Raingear and warm clothing are a must, with clear skies expected only 20% of the time. During the summer, the average daily temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There is also a basic buffet-style restaurant with a small bar complete with cozy fireplace, a real comfort after hours of bear viewing. Anyone interested in wildlife will enjoy this destination, but photographers and fishermen especially love it.

From Brooks, you can also take a tour via bus to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The tour leads you to a site of volcanic ruin that took place over 90 years ago. In 1918 it was dubbed a national monument in order to protect such an important area needed to further the study of volcanism. You can peer out at the valley from Overlook Cabin. Rangers lead simple hikes through the area, or the more adventurous, can explore on their own. The landscape looks akin to something from a science fiction movie with its rough pumice, rocks and ash. The harsh Alaskan weather has only helped mold this marvelously peculiar setting.

Breaking a Sweat

There are many sports to be enjoyed, with activity levels ranging from those who want to take it easy to more athletic types who want a workout.

With its dramatic and endless coastline, kayaking is the perfect way to explore the state’s numerous islands and scenic coves. Kayak tours are great for beginners and most find the activity easier than expected. While kayaking, you may encounter a wide range of wildlife including puffins, sea otters and orcas. You can also get a close-up view of glaciers.

Year round, you have the opportunity to experience a key part of traditional Alaskan culture: dog sledding AKA dog mushing, the official sport of Alaska. Alaskans began racing dogs in the early 1900’s. Today the most famous race is the Iditarod, which takes place every March. Some tours offer you the opportunity to drive the dog sled team yourself. Of course you are always welcome to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Skiing is very popular in and around the major towns. Both cross-country and downhill skiing are possible when the snowfall permits. Several communities offer ski resorts for those who plan on spending at least a few days skiing.

While in Alaska, remember to tread lightly. The real beauty of Alaska lies in the fact it has remained wild. Its vastness and mystery help people truly get in tune with nature. It’s important to help protect its beauty so it can be enjoyed by generations to come.

Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Barton

Nicole Barton is a freelance writer and photographer from Southern California. She enjoys traveling to remote locations throughout the world to photograph nature and wildlife.

Tags:  Alaska  Alaska Railroad  Downtown Anchorage  Katmai National Park 

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Grenada - The Spice Isle

Posted By Peggy Sijswerda, Sunday, April 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

As the sun dips down in a tangerine sky, I drop my sandals under a sea grape tree and head to the shore for a sunset stroll, a tropical rum punch my only companion. Before me Grand Anse Beach, a brilliant white crescent on Grenada’s southwest coast, stretches for three miles, bordered on one side by the Caribbean Sea, on the other by small businesses, empty lots, and the occasional resort. Gorgeous any time of day, Grand Anse Beach at sunset is a painting in motion, a changing panorama of scenes, the colors swirling and subsiding like a forgotten dream.

To the north, surrounding the lush green peaks of the Grand Etang Forest Preserve, clouds float like ornaments. To the south, the sun slides down the sky amid a cascade of colors, a waterfall in slow motion. On the edge of the horizon a catamaran gently motors toward Grenada’s capital, St. George’s, whose horseshoe-shaped harbor twinkles with lights from merry restaurants that promise the conviviality sailors need after a long day on the water.

Around me the sea and sky shimmer in the waning sunlight. Silver waves break on the beach, providing a rhythmic beat, like the ticking of a cosmic clock winding down, counting the minutes of my last day in Grenada, reminding me that tomorrow I will board a plane and make the long journey home. I’m determined to milk this day, savor every sensory experience I can.

The silky waters of the Caribbean Sea wash over my feet as I walk along the shore. The clear water beckons, but I’m not suited for a swim. Instead, I watch others bathe in the calm seawater. Surprisingly the beach is full of people—a few tourists, like me, but mostly native Grenadians, boys and girls playing soccer in the sand, old women neck deep in the water, couples intertwined as the sun displays its last burst of fireworks. A slow breeze rises up and ripples the water, ruffling my hair. I smile at the sensual pleasure of the moment.

I turn around and walk toward the place in the sky where the sun used to be. It’s gone now, having surrendered to the dusk, leaving in its wake a peachy-green glow, a fading memory of the day. The swimmers are shadows now, dark profiles edged against the glimmering sea. Its surface reflecting the glow of the sky, the sea, like me, seems to want to hold on to the final moments of the day as long as it can, a last hurrah before it too will dim, and night will take over this small corner of the Caribbean.

The scene around me is clear and beautiful, and all at once I feel a kinship with this place. It’s as if I finally understand what the magic is here, what the islanders mean when they say they will never leave. Why would you when a world with this much splendor waits outside your front door? Maybe I’ll go native, I think as I take another swallow of my rum punch. I’ll sneak up into the hills during the night, get lost in the rainforest, sleep under the nutmeg trees, and dream about a life of enchantment here on the Spice Isle.

Dark descends quickly, and I remember I still have to pack. I feel drained, as if I’ve been under a spell. What’s in this drink? I wonder. It tastes of local rum, strong and flavorful, complemented by tangy fruit juices and topped off by tiny bits of ground nutmeg that echo in my mouth. But something else is at work here. It’s almost as if this drink has sharpened my senses and somehow, given me clarity and wisdom—not the normal dulling effects you associate with a potent libation. It must be the nutmeg. All I know is every rum punch I drink for the rest of my life will contain this pungent spice—and remind me of my sunset stroll on Grenada’s Grand Anse Beach.

Unpretentious Luxury

Grenada, a lush Caribbean island just a hundred miles off the Venezuelan coast, is known worldwide for its spice production. In fact, Grenada is home to more spice trees per square mile than any other place in the world. From cinnamon to nutmeg, allspice to bay leaves, the local vegetation fairly exudes an exotic aroma. Some say the spice industry is the primary reason Grenada remains one of the most pristine Caribbean countries. Thanks to the income generated by its spice harvests, Grenada hasn’t sold its soul to the mega-resorts. Instead of wall-to-wall chain hotels towering above the sea, here you’ll find cozy small to mid-sized properties that emphasize a low-key, quality experience.

Located on Grand Anse Beach, Spice Island Beach Resort, where I’m staying, is an elite boutique property that’s arguably the nicest on the island. With 64 lavish suites, the resort defines unpretentious luxury in a warm, friendly environment. Add to that its Mediterranean ambience— gleaming white stucco structures surrounded by colorful landscaped gardens—and you have a setting that resembles paradise.

My suite features its own private plunge pool, patio, and garden— perfect for couples or people like me who relish privacy. Beachfront suites offer spacious patios and inviting hammocks and are just steps away from the shore. All the accommodations at Spice Island Beach Resort are custom furnished in classic Far East style—dark woods, sleek lines, and understated elegance. Flat screen TV’s, Italian porcelain tiles, and designer bathroom fixtures round out the stunning décor. I find it hard to choose between hanging out in my peaceful suite or lounging beside my plunge pool, so I take turns doing both. When I need a change of scenery, I head to the beach for a swim and to work on my tan.

Spice Island Beach Resort is an allinclusive property and features two restaurants, both of which overlook the Caribbean Sea. Olivier’s is a fine dining venue, where breakfast and dinner are served, and the Sea and Surf Bar serves lunch and tea in the afternoon. Breakfast offerings include fresh fruit, pastries, breads, and cooked-to-order eggs, waffles, and pancakes (with nutmeg syrup, of course). For lunch, try a fresh salad or a hearty sandwich. Dinner, an elegant affair with fine linen and silver table settings, highlights creative island cuisine with an emphasis on fresh-caught bounty from the sea. One unique local product you should try is callaloo, a spinach-like vegetable rich in iron. It’s served in omelets, soups, and steamed as a side dish. Some say callaloo is the secret to a long life. All I know is I feel healthy every time I eat it!

The Grenadians without a doubt are some of the world’s warmest, friendliest people. Having once been a British colony, Grenada is an English-speaking country, and the islanders display the exquisitely polite manners that the British are known for. Other British influences are also evident: driving on the left side of the road, for example, and a school system that mirrors the U.K.’s, including uniforms for schoolchildren. Grenadians have a special affinity for Americans and remember with great appreciation the U.S. "intervention” in 1983, when American troops helped restore order after a coup attempt by a radical communist faction.

In 2004 Hurricane Ivan roared across Grenada, damaging or destroying ninety percent of the structures on the island. The tourism industry began to rebuild quickly, and many resort properties, including Spice Island Beach Resort, were restored with numerous improvements. In fact, the island’s mantra since Hurricane Ivan has been "Build Back Better.” Today the beaches are beautiful once again, and in the mountains nature is recovering nicely. The spice industry, particularly the nutmeg trees, took a serious hit from Ivan, but experts are confident the harvests will soon be back up to par. In the meantime, the island is expanding some of its other crops, such as bananas and cocoa beans.

Swirling Currents and Stunning Views Grenada offers a variety of adventurous activities to keep visitors busy. From hiking to snorkeling to exploring the unique history and culture of the island, you won’t get bored during your visit. Tour operators will arrange excursions from one end of the island to the other and can customize a trip based on your interests. Here’s list of some must-do activities to enjoy when you visit Grenada:

  • Take a dip in a waterfall. Grenada’s most famous waterfalls are the Seven Sisters. We hiked to numbers five and six, and while the trail was steep and slippery in parts (remember, you’re in the rainforest), the stunning view at the end is worth the effort. While you’re there, be sure and take a cool dip in the mineral-rich waters and enjoy the sensual experience of being in what must surely be one of the sweetest places on earth. If you’re lucky, a fearless islander will display his bravado, scamper up the rocks, and dive from the top of the waterfall into the pool below.
  • Snorkle among the coral reefs. Another world awaits under the sea, and the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean offer the perfect setting for viewing tropical fish, colorful coral, and unique sea life. Don’t forget your sunscreen!
  • Visit a rum distillery. Grenada’s rum is renowned for its smooth taste and unique vanilla, honey, and spice flavors. One taste and you’ll understand!
  • Tour a spice plantation. In Grenada spices are dried in the sun the oldfashioned way—on wooden platforms, where fresh air and the sun’s rays produce spices that some say are the world’s finest.
  • Visit the Grenada Chocolate Factory – Nestled in a cozy neighborhood sits a cottage industry that produces a chocolate to rival the finest in Europe.
  • Ride an inner tube through the jungle. Grenada’s newest adventure activity promises an exhilarating ride under a tropical canopy amid the swirling currents of the river.

After your adventures end, head back to the beach, find a soft spot in the sand, and watch the sun slide down in a tangerine sky. Sip on a rum punch and savor the intoxicating tastes—the sweet juicy flavors of orange, pineapple, lime, and grenadine; smooth local rum with its unique earthy flavor; and finally the secret ingredient, freshly grated nutmeg. Floating on top, it’s the first taste to touch your tongue. Everything else filters through it.

A visit to Grenada reminds us to spice it up. Just as a vacation helps us reconnect with the loveliness of life, adding spice to our everyday existence gives us a reason to pause and savor the flavors. Cheers!

Grenadian Rum Punch

  • (serves 1)
  • 1/2 oz lime
  • 1 oz orange juice
  • 1 oz pineapple juice
  • 1/2 oz grenadine
  • 2 oz light rum
  • 3 or 4 ice cubes
  • grated nutmeg

Combine the juices, grenadine, rum, and ice cubes in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a small glass with ice. Sprinkle plenty of nutmeg to taste on top.

Recipe supplied by Grenada Board of Tourism

If You Go

For more information about visiting Grenada, go to

What To Do

photos by Pegy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is editor and publisher of Tidewater Women and lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and three sons.

Tags:  Grand Anse Beach  Grenada  The Spice Isle 

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St. Augustine - Birthplace of America

Posted By Sheila O'Connor, Monday, January 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Oldest Settlement

Like most of us, you probably thought that Jamestown was the oldest city in America. But like most of us, you’d be wrong. The honor of America’s oldest continuously occupied European settlement actually goes to St. Augustine in Florida. And the nation’s oldest city was founded in 1565, a lengthy 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown. The city belonged to the Spanish in those early days, and everywhere you turn here, you’ll be reminded of the significance of this city to the history of the United States.

The state of Florida itself was discovered by Ponce de Leon who claimed the territory for Spain and the Catholic Church in 1513. The name La Florida means "land of flowers”. But the English were not far behind and Sir Francis Drake was the first British visitor. He saw a lighthouse and came ashore then promptly burned the city to the ground.

The city of St. Augustine was discovered by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. These days the influence of all countries who have claimed the town can be felt. "The whole town has a European flavor” says gallery owner Jan Miller who owns Butterfield Garage gallery. And you can see this almost everywhere you walk. History is waiting around every corner, it seems. And walking is one of the best ways to discover this history. The city gained kudos in 2006 as one of the top 10 most walkable cities in the nation.

Castillo de San Marcos

One of the best places to start that walk is at the Castillo de San Marcos, a National Monument that has been standing as sentinel over the city since 1672, a fact that makes it the oldest masonry fort in the US, as well as America’s oldest man-made monument. It took 21 years to finish the walls that are made of coquina, a porous material made of tiny seashells quarried from Anastasia Island across the water. The fort was commissioned by Spain’s Queen Regent Mariana who realized that St. Augustine was critical to the defense of the Florida coast, which at the time was getting attacked by pirates and other enemies.

History tells us that whoever controls the fort holds the key to all of Florida. Although originally built by the Spanish, the fort has been taken over in turn by the British, Spanish and Americans until it was finally declared a National Monument in 1924.

If you’re lucky, you can catch soldiers in period costume fire the cannon. It’s quite a sight. The blue and red uniforms made from wool might make you think the poor volunteer soldiers are sweating buckets, but their undergarments are made to allow the condensation that forms to keep them cool.

Hotel Ponce de Leon

No doubt one of the places where guests were kept cool was at the beautiful and grand Hotel Ponce de Leon, built in the Spanish Renaissance style. The building is now the Flagler College. In the days when the building was a hotel, guests had to stay for the whole season and pay the princely sum of $30/day, all in cash. Al Capone was even said to be a frequent visitor here.

Thomas Edison was the reason the hotel/college had lights in its day. These days, in the dining room, you can find outstanding glasswork by Louis Comfort Tiffany, valued at $35 million. With all this history and artwork, the students should be inspired to greatness!

Henry Flagler himself was a farmer and at age 14 he joined his brother’s general store where he saved his money and invested in grain, then salt and then grain again. He later met Rockerfeller and they started Standard Oil. He came to St. Augustine on his honeymoon and fell in love with the area. He built a Methodist church and in those days churches came with land. Flagler asked for the land (the church wasn’t using it) and they gave it to him. He then did the same for the Baptist church but they asked him not to build a bell tower which he agreed not to do. Flagler wanted to turn St. Augustine into a winter home for the rich and in many ways this is what he did.

But tragedy was to hit the family. Flagler’s daughter died giving birth to his granddaughter, and Flagler built a church in her memory. This is the beautiful Presbyterian Church, plain and comfortable inside but with a Venetian Renaissance style outside. This splendid church was built in a few days less than a year (361 days) with the labor of 1000 workers, all working 12 hour shifts. The work never stopped. It’s the only church of its kind in America and is now Flagler’s burial place.

Lightner Museum

Across the street from the college, you’ll see the Lightner Museum, originally Flagler’s second hotel--the Alcazar Hotel. This acted as an entertainment area for Flagler’s Ponce de Leon hotel guests-- after all they stayed for months and had to have something to do! Lightner later bought it in 1946, during the Depression, and it now houses brilliant cut glass, antique furnishings, period costumes, mechanical musical instruments and many of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass works. The impressive collections document American life during the Victorian Age and early 20th century. These days, this is the equivalent of Florida’s Smithsonian Museum.

And when those visiting guests got unruly, Henry Flagler knew exactly where to put them. He built the town’s Old Jail in 1891 and this actually served as a real jail until 1953. It was finally placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1987.

But if you’d rather see homes instead of jails, check out the period houses at the Old St. Augustine Village, a city block that is the location of 9 houses, all different and all nestled among courtyards and gardens. The owner, Kenneth W. Dow, bought one house for his collection of artworks, furniture and antiques gathered from his travels around the world, but soon ran out of space and bought another house. This went on for some time until he had squired a substantial collection of houses—9 in all—to go along with his substantial collection of artifacts. History doesn’t record what his wife thought of all this "stuff!”

Historic Living

This particular city block wasn’t wanted by St. Augustine and it is actually now owned by the city of Daytona Beach. The historic homes span from 1790 to 1910 and one even belonged to the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince Achille Murat, who resided here before moving to Tallahassee.

Another house worth visiting is the Ximinez Fatio House, one of the original B&Bs in the town. Like most houses of its day, the kitchen is situated away from the house. This prevented the house being destroyed should the kitchen catch fire and helped keep extra heat out of the main building. Air conditioning did not exist and the heat would have been oppressive.

But oppressive heat or not, movie producers and directors always recognize a good thing when they see it And they saw it in the historic Aviles Street which has recently been used in the movie, The Celestine Prophecy. Dating back to 1572—35 years before the advent of Jamestown—this is one of the oldest streets in America and is typical of a Spanish street, just what the movie directors wanted.

Of course the oldest town is a fitting place for the Oldest House. "The Oldest House and complex gives a representation of how people lived from 1723 thought he Revolutionary War to the present day”, says Lynn Lesioka, a docent at the Oldest House, also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, after the families that lived there. This is the oldest surviving Spanish Colonial dwelling in Florida. Check out how small the house was with only 3 rooms. Originally two rooms and one story high, the structure was changed when the British occupied it and added a second floor. The present house dates back to the early 1700s and these days it also houses the Museum of Florida’s Military and the Florida history Museum.

From the oldest house, be sure to check out the Oldest Schoolhouse as well. Built before 1763, with wooden pegs and handmade nails, this school stands just as it did over two centuries ago. Check out the roll call for the last class ever to attend. There’s even a photograph of those pupils with their descendents. Compare your elementary school experience and you’ll see that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all!

Do you know, for instance, what the children had to use instead of money to pay the teacher? Not only did children have to learn their lessons, they had to bring coal and food for the teacher as well. Bartering in exchange for lessons was often the order of the day. If you got this right, go to the top of the class!

The city of St. Augustine is also famous for its spring, known as the Fountain of Youth. The water was originally used by Native Americans and later Ponce de Leon in 1513. Here you can stroll the gardens, explore the excavations, see the life-sized exhibits and planetarium and drink from the prehistoric India Spring that Ponce de Leon hoped was the elixir of life. Check out the Navigator’s Celestial Planetarium showing how sailors of yesteryear navigated with the stars. The sky is shown on the exact day Ponce de Leon made his landmark discovery of North America. It is still operated by hand. There’s also a native Indian burial site on the premises which came as a surprise to the Smithsonian Institute team who discovered it.

Olde World Shopping

But if all this history makes you just want to switch off and spend half a day shopping, then you can do that too. Fantastic shopping opportunities are everywhere, particularly in the charming shops along ancient St. George Street. There it’s pedestrian traffic only among the hundreds of shops and boutiques that meet just about every need and desire.

And you just might run into bookstores in this city where the most well-known and well-loved author was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Yearling. Among the guests in her modest but lovely home, now open to the public, were Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Cronin and Dylan Thomas.

Exotic Wildlife

And when it comes to discoveries, one you’ll be glad you found is the Alligator Farm. Opened in 1893, this houses all 23 known species of crocodilian, plus exotic birds, monkey and giant tortoise. The farm celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1993.

"Crocodile tears are tears that are not real”, says a docent leading a school group around. "The expression came from the ancient belief that crocodiles shed tears while eating their victims.” The school group suddenly stops in its tracks, in awe of an albino crocodile. "It’s also said that those who gaze upon these beautiful albino reptiles will receive good fortune,” smiles the docent. And several school kids nod in agreement, or is it in hope?

Near the Alligator Farm is Marineland - a great place to watch and even feed dolphins, a creature humans feel much more inclined to interact with. Watch them play and frolic with their trainers. The center is used for marine scientific and dolphin research and if you always fancied swimming with dolphins, then this is your chance. You get to swim and play with the dolphins in their 450,000 gallon rectangular oceanarium in a program that’s normally reserved only for the staff members who work with them. Check it out.

More Colonial Icons

Another "must-see” in town is Florida’s first and still-working Lighthouse, built in 1824. St. Augustine’s oldest surviving brick structure is also its only "high-rise” building. It’s well worth a walk up the 219 stairs (equivalent to a fourteen story building) for the view at the top. The St. Augustine Lighthouse is one of 30 lighthouses still standing in Florida, and one of only six open to the public.

Also open to the public is the living history museum at the Colonial Spanish Quarter. Here the life of Spanish soldiers and their families is depicted in 1740. You’ll see how craftspeople like the calligrapher, the blacksmith, carpenter and leather worker went about their business. When you stroll through this area, you’ll also see how families gardened and prepared food.

But St. Augustine isn’t just all about history. It has its share of romance too. Want to snuggle up in a cozy B&B? Then check out Casa de Solana which dates back to 1821 and which you’ll find on historic Aviles Street. Each room is different and the lodging is surrounded by a walled courtyard. This inn promises an "oasis of comfort” and without a doubt, this is what you’ll find here. You’ll enjoy a whirlpool tub and open fireplace just to set the scene.

St. Augustine is not only the oldest city in America, it’s one of the nation’s most romantic and charismatic as well. It’s a "must-see” on every traveler’s list.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Sheila O'Connor.

Sheila O’Connor is a freelance travel writer who lives in San Francisco. Although Sheila has traveled all over the world, she says there is nowhere quite like home—San Francisco.

Tags:  Castillo de San Marco  Florida  Hotel Ponce de Leon  St. Augustine 

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Ireland - Journey to the Emerald Isle

Posted By Nicole Barton, Monday, January 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

While most visitors to Europe feel the need to visit numerous countries, a single trip to Ireland is sure to fulfill all your wants and needs. There is something for everyone, whether you enjoy art and museums or fishing and golfing. The beauty of Ireland is that you can do as little or as much as you’d like. It is just as easy to have an action-packed trip as it is to completely relax and rejuvenate. Whatever your passion, Ireland is sure to provide lifelong memories.

Ireland is an island separated from England by the Irish Sea. Ireland is separated in two, with Northern Ireland occupying 15% of the island and the Republic of Ireland 85%. The Republic of Ireland’s population is approximately 4.2 million. Dublin is the capital and nearly one third of the population lives here. While the North has faced instability, the Republic is indeed very safe and accommodating.

The most popular months for visiting Ireland are typically July and August, but you are not likely to feel overcrowded at any point, especially if you stick to the more rural towns with smaller populations. Most people visit during this time because it can be drier than other months, but you are never guaranteed dry weather. Try to remember that the rain is what keeps Ireland so beautiful. The mean annual temperature is 50 degrees F, so be sure to pack accordingly. Rain gear and warm clothing are a necessity to help keep you comfortable.

Saving Some Euro

Visitors are often surprised at how affordable Ireland can be. If you are willing to keep an open mind and go with the flow, you will be able to travel on a budget. Visiting during winter is a great option for the budget conscious. Ireland uses the Euro and exchange rates can be easily found on the Internet. Conveniently, most places accept traveler’s checks, debit and credit cards. Most towns also have ATM machines.

One of the best ways to save money in Ireland is to stay at small, family-run Bed & Breakfasts. You will be surprised how plentiful B&B’s are and how caring the owners can be. At some B&B’s you will be staying in the same house as the owner’s—making you feel like part of the family! This is not for everyone but some love that cozy, family feel. It also gives visitors real insight into Irish families and customs. Other B&B’s feel a lot like hotels for those who like more privacy. The younger crowd prefers the least expensive option—hostels. Because of the overabundance of B&B’s, it is usually not necessary to book your accommodations ahead of time. This makes traveling much easier because you can stay where you like rather than trying to locate a specific place, in advance.

A Wee Bit of Irish Life

Although you’re not likely to run into any leprechauns, you’ll discover that Ireland’s people are far more interesting. They are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. Going out of their way for a stranger is a common occurrence and their selflessness is inspiring. Elders love to talk about the history of the country, while the young still embrace their culture wholeheartedly. Children participate in activities such as Irish dance, learning Gaelic, and practicing traditional musical instruments.

Music is an important part of everyday Irish life. So important that Ireland is the only country in the world to have a musical instrument, the harp, as its national emblem. Some unique instruments are the bodhran, melodeon, uillean pipes and tin whistle. The bodhran is a goatskin drum that is played with a stick. The melodeon is a version of the accordion and adds a great deal of flair. The uillean pipes are similar to the popular Scottish bagpipes. The tin whistle is very common and is often called the penny whistle. There is no set line-up and from one pub to another you will see a great variety of instruments. The music has a way of truly capturing the soul of the country.

Pubs also play a vital role in Irish culture, not solely for drinking but also for socializing. The pubs of Ireland are very different from the bars of America. The vibe is always welcoming and you are sure to enjoy the "craic” (pronounced "crack”), which is an Irish expression for fun. Adding to the overall charm is a generous sprinkling of cozy fireplaces, Guinness knick-knacks and of course, the drinks! Visitor’s favorites include whisky, Irish coffee, Baileys, and you guessed it—Guinness! Traditional music sessions are common and the music played is magnificent. Locals are very lively and you’re sure to see traditional Irish dancing. After a few pints you may be up and dancing yourself!

With so much countryside, lovers of outdoor sports will find many activities to keep them busy, whether participating or viewing. Some of the most popular sports to watch are horse racing, Gaelic football and soccer. Golfing, hiking, cycling, horseback riding, surfing and sailing are all easily accessible from most towns. Actually, entire vacations can be based around these sports if you desire. Ireland has many championship golf courses, convenient hiking and cycling trails and many exhilarating water sports.

Taking a Break in Bunratty

The village of Bunratty is very small but provides attractions and lively pubs. Bunratty Castle, which was built in the 15th century, is the main attraction. The castle has been superbly restored to its original state. Medieval banquets are held in the castle and tourists enjoy the singing, dancing and cuisine. There is an adjacent Folk Park that has recreated urban life from 19th century Ireland. It includes a watermill, farmhouses and a village street. Costumed characters demonstrate baking, weaving, pottery and butter making. Bunratty is also home to the landmark pub Durty Nellys, which was established in 1620. Bunratty’s proximity to Shannon Airport (about 5 minutes) is very convenient for travelers.

Keeping Busy in Killarney

The town of Killarney is a perfect base point for visiting many of the sites in County Kerry. One special tour is a trip on a jaunting car ride. The tours are led by wisecracking "Jarveys” (as they are known), and includes visiting many sites around Killarney. Killarney offers a happening downtown, a great visitor center and impressive hotels.

Muckross House is a favorite attraction. This mansion was built in 1843 and also includes a museum, landscaped gardens and a farm. The museum displays the history of Southwest Ireland. The farm is still working today using traditional farming techniques. Children will especially enjoy the baby chicks, pigs, horses and many more farm animals. Near Muckross House are the Lakes of Killarney, which consist of 3 lakes in Killarney National Park. The views are stunning with the colors constantly changing. The more adventurous can hike up the 60 foot high Torc Waterfall.

Into the Gaeltacht

With a population of around 1,500 people, Dingle is perfect for visitors that enjoy a smaller, more laidback town. Dingle is considered to be in the Gaeltacht, which means that it is a Gaelic(Irish)-speaking area. Here you will find that many signs will be written in Gaelic only, so it doesn’t hurt to brush up on town names and basic sayings. Not to worry though because everyone also speaks English. In Dingle there are several colorfully painted shops, charming pubs and delicious seafood restaurants. Dingle is a thriving fishing port, so seafood is plentiful. Many shops carry arts and crafts made by the locals. Some favorite souvenirs include hand-knitted sweaters, linen, crystal, traditional music instruments and handmade jewelry.

From the town of Dingle you can also tour the Dingle Peninsula, which offers some of Ireland’s most picturesque scenery. The tour is 25 miles and follows a circle that leads right back to the town of Dingle. Allow for at least half a day because there are many sites to see along the peninsula. A must see is the Gallarus Oratory, a miniature church that was built between the 6th and 9th centuries. Next is Kilmalkedar, which was previously a pagan center of worship. It includes a graveyard and ruined Irish Romanesque church. Next is the village of Ballyferriter, which is home to the Louis Mulcahy pottery shop. Mulcahy’s pottery is incredibly imaginative and very well known throughout the world. The rest of the tour includes dramatic views of the Blasket Islands, beautiful beaches and a few small villages that offer a light lunch.

Just a short drive from Dingle is Inch Beach, which was originally made popular by the movies Ryan’s Daughter and The Playboy of the Western World. It sits nestled between MacGillicuddy Reeks and the Slieve Mish mountains. The beach is very romantic and offers extraordinary sunsets.

Ireland is a traveler’s dream with a little sense of mystery that cannot be defined. Maybe it’s the lush green landscape, majestic castles, fresh air or empty beaches. Whatever the reason, the Emerald Isle is truly a journey not to be missed.

Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Barton.

Nicole Barton is a freelance writer and photographer from Southern California. She enjoys traveling to remote locations throughout the world to photograph nature and wildlife.

Tags:  Bunratty  Gaeltacht  gelenolgy  Ireland  irish music  Killarney 

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Chicago - Larger than Life

Posted By Andrea Curry, Monday, January 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chicago Skyline"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” When architect Daniel Burnham gave this advice in his 1909 city plan, Chicago listened. Making no little plans, the generations of architects and builders since Burnham have designed and created a city of superlatives, where "biggest,” "best,” and "first” are the right words to describe dozens of city attractions.

The best way to orient yourself to Chicago – and to take a heavy dose of that Chicago magic that stirs men’s blood – is to ascend one of the city’s tallest buildings for a panoramic view out over "Chicagoland.” The Sears Tower, elegant and amazing, is the world’s fourth-tallest building overall (including antennae); but has the world’s highest occupied floor. From the 103rd-floor Skydeck Observatory, views sometimes extend 40 miles in every direction.

Chicago’s third-tallest building, the John Hancock Building, has its own observatory with its own charms. It’s the perfect place for a non-neck-straining look at the Sears Tower, and the open-air viewing deck allows you to test the weather at over 1000 feet above street level. Some visitors head to the 96th-floor Signature Room bar or the 95th-floor restaurant instead of the 94th-floor observatory; that way, they can purchase a drink or a meal instead of a ticket.

The Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building are just two of many reasons Chicago deserves its reputation as "the world capital of modern architecture.” The Federal Complex Center, the IBM Building, and the Bank One Building are three notables, each reflecting the "less-is-more,” "integrity-to-materials” ethos of modern architecture in the International Style. A city tour with the Chicago Architectural Foundation is the best way to learn about Chicago’s rich architectural history. Tours travel on foot, or by bus, bicycle, or boat.

Amid so much glass and steel, Chicago’s Art Deco and Gothic Revival skyscrapers really stand out. Observers have compared the shining white Wrigley Building, an example of the former, to a wedding cake, a sand castle, and Sleeping Beauty’s Disney palace. The nearby Tribune Tower makes an opposite impression. Inspired by Rouen Cathedral, its flying buttresses and gargoyles leave you expecting a swarm of bats to descend suddenly from an upper story. Pick up a flyer from the lobby to guide you through the hundreds of "borrowed” stones embedded in the exterior walls, from buildings like the Alamo, the Parthenon, the Berlin Wall, the Kremlin, and Westminster Abbey.

During Chicago’s long and blustery winters, the indoor visual arts scene may seem much more enticing than either Chicago’s architecture or its many famous outdoor sculptures. The Art Institute is a world-class museum, most famous for housing the best collection of Impressionist and Postimpressionist works outside of France. Don’t limit your tour to the Impressionist highlights, however. The Art Institute is a complete art history education, with masterpieces from every culture and period.

The Art Nouveau decorative arts style flourished here in the early 20th century, and stunning examples appear both within the Art Institute and scattered across the city. At the old Marshall Field’s store on State Street (now a Macy’s), the largest Tiffany mosaic anywhere covers the 6000-square-foot north atrium ceiling in iridescent glass. The 38-foot Tiffany dome in the Chicago Cultural Center is also the largest of its kind. Visitors can wander through the entire Cultural Center, and take in its rich, marble- and mosaic-clad interiors. The Chicago Office of Tourism is also inside. This building and the old Marshall Field’s are both in the northeastern part of the Loop; the Art Institute is across South Michigan Avenue from the Loop, in Grant Park.

South of the Art Institute, Chicago’s other large museums also have a few superlatives to call their own. The world’s largest collection of aquatic creatures swims, wriggles and scuttles its way along in the Shedd Aquarium. These animals live in re-created habitats as distinct and surprising as a 90,000-gallon Caribbean coral reef and a four-million-gallon Pacific Northwest aquarium.

After exploring Earth’s waters, explore its skies at the nearby Adler Planetarium, the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. Also nearby, the Field Museum Of Natural History’s 20 million artifacts reflect Victorian America’s collecting fervor, with exhibits expertly updated for more recent generations. The belle of the Field Museum’s ball is Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever discovered.

While the museums above welcome their share of Chicago’s 32 million annual visitors, the Museum of Science and Industry is actually the city’s most popular attraction. The Coal Mine exhibit takes visitors on an underground ride through a replica coal mine. There is at least one smaller-than-life exhibit in this larger-than-life city: movie star Colleen Moore’s Fairy Tale Castle. The miniature castle took 19 years to complete, and contains over 1000 tiny treasures. Another popular exhibit allows visitors to tour a U-505 German submarine. In 1944, this U-boat sank eight Allied ships off the coast of West Africa, before becoming the first enemy vessel captured at sea since 1815.

On the Museum Campus (where Shedd, Adler, and Field are located) and at the Museum of Science And Industry, interactive exhibits and delighted children can together make quite a bit of noise. The Harold Washington Library is an oasis of calm and quiet in the midst of the city, and a book-lover’s paradise, with more than two million volumes. The noble, neoclassically designed library is also the largest public library building in the world. The top-floor Winter Garden offers a refuge of both quiet and warmth. Read a book at one of the cafe tables, and enjoy the foliage, and the sunlight through the glass ceiling.

The library’s eighth floor houses the Jazz, Blues, and Gospel Hall of Fame. Here you will find the nation’s largest blues archive, along with lots of intriguing background on the development of America’s distinctive musical styles. Chicago, like New Orleans, St. Louis, and Memphis, has played an important role in the history of the blues. Dozens of blues clubs still jam across the city, and many people consider the Chicago Blues Festival (late May/early June) to be the best in the world. Chicago also annually hosts a Gospel Music Festival (June), a Country Music Festival (June), a Jazz Festival (August), and a World Music Festival (September). The blues event, however, is the largest and most popular. For current live music listings in all genres, pick up a copy of the Chicago Reader, or check it out online.

Chicago also deserves its reputation as a world-class city for classical music. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays at the 2600-seat Orchestra Hall on South Michigan Avenue. "Rush” seating sometimes allows the money-wise to grab an unreserved seat, at a much-reduced price, right before the show. Other venues around town, like the Chicago Cultural Center, Fourth Presbyterian Church, and Holy Name Cathedral, host smaller, free concerts throughout the year. The Chicago Chamber Musicians give free performances in the Cultural Center, at lunchtime on the first Monday of each month.

Along with its reputation as a great city for architecture, art, and music, Chicago is known for at least one negative superlative, largely undeserved. Chicagoans report that people from other countries, when they hear Chicago mentioned, often mime machine-gun action and bring up Al Capone. After all these years, "Scarface” is still Chicago’s most famous resident! Movies (like The Untouchables), books, and even comics (like Dick Tracy) have immortalized Chicago’s history of organized crime. Writers from Raymond Chandler to Sara Paretsky and Scott Turow have also gone beyond Capone in their imaginations of Chicago’s criminal underbelly. While parts of the city (especially some portions of the South Side, and the West Side west of the Gold Coast) are dangerous, don’t let the fictional portrayals of crime and corruption unduly influence your itinerary. Chicago is only about the 52nd most dangerous city in the U.S. Just use caution, and stick to well-traveled and well-lit areas.

Although the reputation is worse than the reality, perhaps the city ‘s bad name for crime has helped to keep Chicagoans unpretentious, and down-to-earth even as their builders have propelled day-to-day life into the skies. Or maybe it’s their dogged, loyal love for the best baseball team that never wins. 2008 will mark the 100-year anniversary of the Cubs’ last World Series win. And who knows? Maybe 2008 will be the year. Either way, don’t miss the chance to take in a game at the ivy-covered, tradition-honored Wrigley Field. The cheapest tickets cost only $6. The White Sox are less popular but more successful, having won the World Series as recently as 2005 (and before that, in 1917!). The Bears and the Bulls also draw huge crowds in their respective seasons, and give visitors a chance to join in on local excitement.

Scott Turow used the Cubs as a prime example when he declared Chicago "The Capital of Real Life.” "People tell me that they like Chicago, extolling it as ‘a real place, a real city.’ And that it glamour, no jive...New York City is the city of winners; Chicago’s where there are losers too. L.A. is the home of stars. Just Plain Folks live in Chicago.” That’s how Chicago has earned another superlative: "Friendliest big city in America.” Big business and big politics haven’t overshadowed the presence of millions of ordinary, "just plain” people.

Many writers have instead described Chicago as a giant memorial to human striving and achievement: demonstrating what human culture can create given a vast flat landscape plus nothing. Chicago is a great humanist monument. However, the city started with much more than a swath of northern Illinois prairie land. Louis Jolliet said to Father Jacques Marquette in 1673, "Here someday will be found one of the world’s great cities.” But when he said it, the two were looking out not just over a field of wild onions, but also over Lake Michigan. The lake reflects Chicago’s skyscrapers for only the space of a few ripples, and then stretches vast and blue for miles to meet the far horizon. The lake constantly reminds Chicago of the beauty of the earth: the inheritance on which humankind builds its own achievements.

Of the many big plans Daniel Burnham recommended to Chicago in 1909, perhaps the most important was to preserve the lakefront as public ground and as the city’s "one great unobstructed view.” As Lois Wille wrote, "they made a promise that this city, hustler from its infancy, would do what no other city had would give its most priceless land to its people.” With their rose gardens, fountains, wildflowers and sandy beaches, the parks at the water’s edge make Chicago’s lakefront exquisite, and utterly unique. The Chicago skyline to the west, Lake Michigan to the east, and open and gardened acres for everyone in between: now that’s superlative.

Photos: Courtesy of Peter J. Schulz for "Skyliine at Dawn” and "Sears Tower”, Hedrick Blessing for "Chicago Cultural Center Interior”, Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau for "Thank Goodness It’s a Fossil!”, and "Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower”, Graphics and Reproduction for "Jazz Musicians”, Mark Montgomery for "Grant Park in Spring”, and Chris McGuire for "Oak Street Beach”.

Andrea Curry lives in St. Louis, the city that fought Chicago for the railroad in the 19th century and lost. She loves Chicago and visits as often as possible.

Tags:  Art Nouveau  Chicago  John Hancock Building  Sears Tower 

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St. Louis Gateway to Getaway

Posted By Andrea Curry, Sunday, October 1, 2006
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On a weekend evening, outside of one of the twenty Italian restaurants on The Hill in St. Louis, crowds of locals stand waiting in groups, savoring both their wine and lively discussions with friends or family. Here, descendants of 19th-century immigrants from Italy remember not only their grandparents’ native tongue, but also their ability to savor life at a leisurely and companionable pace.

St. Louisians from both on and off the Hill understand that to dine on the best Italian food in town, you may have to wait for a table for a very long time. But after all, why not? There is a sense of fellowship among those who are able to enjoy the wait as well as the meal, whether of Italian descent or not. It’s an element of the culture of the Hill, which is in turn an element of the culture of St. Louis.

The sliver of sunny Italy this neighborhood brings to the city complements the many very different cultures also found there. St. Louis comprises over 200 small neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive places, traditions and sense of identity. Throughout the city’s history, newcomers have tended to choose a particular corner of the city to make completely their own; and today there are still neighborhoods with a distinctly Irish, German, or French atmosphere. But St. Louisians have balanced their tendency to form small, close communities with a strong sense of civic pride in the city as a whole. They are deeply committed to the arts and to beautiful public spaces; and they delight in sharing their city’s treasures with each other and with visitors.

Parks and Gardens

St. Louis’ citizens demonstrated this commitment to civic life on a grand scale just a few years ago, through the $100 million project to beautify and enhance Forest Park, the site of the 1904 World’s Fair. For joggers, picnickers, and cyclists, and aficionados of the fine arts, Forest Park is the place to be. The St. Louis Art Museum, the World’s Fair’s one permanent building, houses an outstanding and diverse collection of art from all over the world. Works by Rembrandt, Monet, van Gogh, and Picasso may draw the most frequent gasps of recognition, but the pre-Colombian, Oceanic, and medieval European collections are also notable. The museum will soon begin a new phase of expansion, in order to place more of its 30,000 works of art on display.

The recent renovations of Forest Park transformed the former lagoon below the Art Museum into the Grand Basin, now the most picturesque place in St. Louis. Majestic fountains, graceful bridges and pavilions, and the steep green slope up to the museum all play their parts in the scene. Rent a paddleboat or rowboat to enjoy the Grand Basin from a different perspective, and to explore Forest Park’s other waterways.

In addition to the Art Museum, the Grand Basin, and dozens of miles of jogging and biking trails, Forest Park also encompasses the Science Center, the Missouri History Museum, and the St. Louis Zoo. This zoo is one of the best in the nation, and provides a constant panorama of surprises and fascinations for its visitors. Some subjective favorites include the Malayan Sun Bears, which are the smallest of all bear species at about 150 pounds, and the regal hippopotami, which swim and perform barrel rolls quite gracefully in their plexiglass-walled swimming hole. The other bears, grasslands animals and big cats also draw big crowds; as does the Penguin and Puffin Coast, where you can get up close and personal with birds from both the North and South poles (if you don’t mind their fish breath). Keep an eye out for baby elephants, since one was expected in July of 2006, and another is on the way in February of 2007. And there is even more good news: state legislation in 1913 declared that "the zoo shall be forever free.” In fact, admission is free to all of Forest Park’s main attractions.

Over 100 other parks also adorn the city. Lafayette Park is the oldest park west of the Mississippi, and the perfect place for an interesting historic walk. The Lafayette Square neighborhood, one of St. Louis’ most attractive and architecturally significant, surrounds the park with restored Victorian mansions. Like Lafayette Park, Tower Grove Park is an elegant and well-groomed Victorian walking ground; but Tower Grove is much larger. Its eccentricities include several re-created English castle ruins, along with gazebos, lily ponds, and an unusual diversity of trees and shrubs.

If you only have time to walk through one vast garden during your stay in St. Louis, however, make it the Missouri Botanical Garden. Here you will find extensive traditional Japanese, Chinese, English, and German gardens. The boxwood gardens, rose gardens, Victorian maze, and Linnean greenhouse all recall the Botanical Garden’s Victorian provenance. In the Linnean House, camellias bloom from mid-fall through mid-spring, preserving a fragrant, spring-like haven throughout the cold winter. The Climatron and the Temperate House likewise offer warm sanctuaries to wintertime visitors. The Climatron houses 1,200 species of tropical plants in a geodesic dome: just some of the fruits of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s global endeavors, since it operates the world’s largest tropical botany research program. In the Temperate House, you will find exhibits of biblical plants, carnivorous plants, and a Moorish walled garden that evokes the Alhambra in Spain.

Unique Architecture

The Missouri Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Park, and Lafayette Park are all in South St. Louis. If the Lafayette Square neighborhood awakens your interest in St. Louis architecture, you will find many restored historic homes open for tours elsewhere in the city. The Sappington House dates from 1808, and is basically unchanged in its original Federal-style structure and interior features. The 1849 Chatillon-DeMenil House also deserves a visit to see its authentically restored interior, and to hear the wealth of information about Victorian St. Louis shared on the tour. And the Samuel Cupples House, on the campus of St. Louis University, is a 42-room mansion, with 22 fireplaces, and stained-glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

To see St. Louis architecture on a very much grander scale, visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, which is also known locally as the "New Cathedral.” The Cathedral Basilica follows a Romanesque, Byzantine-influenced design, and has a muted-green central dome. Archbishop John Joseph Glennon vowed that the New Cathedral would not be complete until "it has set on its walls the luster of every jewel, the bright plumage of every bird, the glow and glory of every metal, the iridescent gleam of every glass.” This description matches well the finished Cathedral Basilica, inside of which 41.5 million pieces of mosaic glass cover 83,000 square feet, making this the largest collection of mosaic glass in the world.

The Cathedral Basilica is in the West End, which also includes Forest Park. Visitors to the city may have some difficulty in identifying a central "downtown” area in St. Louis, and for good reason. The downtown area is somewhat diffuse, and numerous "towns-within-a-town” have their own individual walking, shopping, and dining areas. Most locals refer to anything within a mile or two of the Arch and the waterfront as being definitely downtown, while other areas are debatable. Main attractions in the waterfront’s vicinity include Busch Stadium, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, Union Station, the City Museum, and of course, the Arch itself.

Sports Fans Take Notice

Just as St. Louis takes its culture and parks seriously, so it takes its sports seriously. The new Busch Stadium opened in April of 2006, after a period of fast and furious construction between seasons. The new stadium seats 46,861, and Cardinals fans have so far expressed enthusiasm over their team’s new home. Blues hockey and Rams football also draw devoted fans, and give them good reason to congregate at the local pub or sports bar. And St. Louis certainly is a beer city as well as a sports city, especially because Anheuser-Busch has its headquarters here. To connect with this side of the city, and its German heritage, take a tour of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. The 100-acre plant provides an interesting introduction to the technique of beer brewing; and along the way, you’ll sample some of the plant’s product, and meet the famous Budweiser Clydesdales.

Grand Attractions

Impressive Union Station opened in 1894, at a time when the railroad was the all-important band across the nation, tying East to West. A stained-glass window in the station’s gilded Grand Hall depicts three women who represent San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York: reflecting St. Louis’ high hopes in the battle for Midwestern ascendancy against Chicago. Yet St. Louisians felt that they were admirably less boastful than Chicago. One reporter wrote about Union Station, "If Chicago had such a structure, the world would long ago have been weary of the iteration of its merits.” At the height of railroad traffic through St. Louis, 250 trains passed through Union Station each day. The station now serves mainly as a hotel and shopping area.

Not far from Union Station, look for a large building like a warehouse, but with an actual yellow school bus teetering over the edge of the roof. Between the school bus and the quirky, four-story outdoor playground, the City Museum may be almost as recognizable as the Gateway Arch. Its massive slinkies in the sky (part of the MonstroCity outdoor playground), multi-story slides, network of imaginatively designed underground caves, and colorful, sparkling sculptures throughout the museum all contribute to the impression that this place might be just a vividly remembered dream. While it is one of the city’s more expensive attractions, the ever-changing array of exhibits and activities make it worth the price, for both children and adults (and there is half-price admission on Friday and Saturday nights).

Above all of the many attractions that distinguish this city as a cultural center, towers the Gateway Arch, the ultimate symbol of St. Louis. At 630 feet tall, this emblem of the city’s role in American history dominates the skyline along the Mississippi River. As the American Institute of Architects described it, the Arch "embodies the boundless optimism of a growing nation...(it) is a symbolic bridge between East and West, past and future, engineering and art.” Visitors will truly marvel at the simple elegance of the monument. The documentary on the construction of the Arch provides fascinating background, and the view from the top is unbeatable. Looking down at the Old Courthouse, Busch Stadium, and the downtown area to the west, and the Mighty Mississippi to the east, it is not hard to understand why people who live in St. Louis take such pride in their city; or why they commit themselves so wholeheartedly to its beautification and culture.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the St. Louis CVC except Victorians around Lafayette Square courtesy of Andrea Curry.

Andrea Curry lives in St. Louis, the city that fought Chicago for the railroad in the 19th century and lost. She loves Chicago and visits as often as possible.

Tags:  Lafayette Park  Missouri Botanical Garden  St Louis  The Hill in St. Louis 

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Holland in Bloom - A Glorious Sight

Posted By Allan Swenson, Sunday, October 1, 2006
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Holland in Bloom is a glorious sight indeed. As a long time garden writer, I was asked to lead a river cruise and tour that included some of Holland’s most famous cities including Delft, the Hague, Leiden and Amsterdam with its world-famed Keukenhof Gardens. They were in peak profusion with more than 7 million flowers blooming in 70 acres of delightful designs.

River cruises have become increasingly popular over the past few decades according to Helena Novak, VP of General Tours who had planned this special trip. The ships are slim and trim, designed for canals and rivers throughout Europe. The MV Casanova, an elegant 5-Star Peter Deilmann ship had an appropriate romantic name for such a colorful springtime cruise.

As a veteran garden writer my goal was to provide insights so passengers could enjoy their visits to leading botanical gardens as well as the colorful Keukenhof displays. From there participants could transplant bulb growing ideas to their home gardens.

Our carefully planned General Tours itinerary included famed historic sites, medieval towns and landmarks, dramatic cathedrals and churches tracing their history back 1000 years and of course, gardens to enjoy too.

Venice of the North

First on our 9 day agenda was a cruise of Amsterdam’s canals to view that appealing city from its waterways. From the canals we could see many of the charming homes while we dined leisurely on board.

With its numerous waterways, Amsterdam has become known as the "Venice of the North”.

Amsterdam is noted for its Dam Square, (its real name) which is the very heart of the city. The square is dominated by the impressive Royal Palace, originally used as the town hall. It has a classical façade and fine sculptures intended to glorify the city and its government.

The Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world. More than 6,000 plants from around the world grow in the gardens and greenhouses. Historically, the City Council founded Hortus Medicus, a medicinal herb garden in 1638 as a result of a plague epidemic. Only pure plant species as they are found in nature are grown in the Hortus as a resource for study and to conserve threatened species by growing them and exchanging seeds with other botanic gardens around the world.


Our second day began with an exploration of Delft and the imposing medieval houses, cobblestone streets, market squares and historic buildings. This city is renowned for its classic Delft Blue pottery, which was famous in the 17th and 18th centuries when there were 32 ceramic factories in Delft. Today, Royal Delft is the only factory remaining.

Delft citizens are especially proud of historic ties with the Dutch royal house, dating back to William of Orange. On the Queen’s birthday citizens enjoy donning bright orange hats and clothing to celebrate that part of their Dutch heritage.

The Old Church with its curious leaning tower dates to 1246. The New Church circa 1496, accommodates the mausoleum of William of Orange who is considered the founding father of the Netherlands. This impressive church is noted for its tall Gothic tower rising 109 meters and its set of chimes.

The Hague is the seat of government of the Netherlands and home to Clingendael Park with magnificent rhododendrons and a beautiful Japanese garden. This charming city combines ancient architecture with modern buildings housing foreign embassies. The Hague also is home to the International Court of Justice, a United Nation agency which began as the Peace Palace, endowed in 1903 by American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.


Leiden is another appealing city, the birthplace of several important Dutch painters including Rembrandt whose 400th birthday was celebrated during 2006. In the 17th century the English settlers who became known as the Pilgrims took refuge in Leiden before leaving for North America.

The Leiden Botanic Garden is another resource garden worth visiting. It is the oldest botanical garden in Holland, dating back to 1590. The founder, Carolus Clusius in 1594 became the first person to cultivate tulips in Holland. Since then, Holland has grown to become the world’s premier source for tulips. Millions are grown every year and shipped worldwide.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, one of the most famous painters in history, was born on July 15, 1606, in Leiden, an area that became Holland’s famous bulb growing region. At the time of Rembrandt’s birth, the tulip was still a recent introduction to Holland. At 31, the artist was a witness to Tulipmania, the great Dutch speculative stock market frenzy and crash, 1620 - 1637.

Tulip History and Heritage

The first tulips were brought to Holland from Turkey in the mid-1500s and by the early 1600 were still rare, mostly found in university botanical gardens. Some locals, lusting after rare flowers grown at the University of Leiden botanical garden, stole some tulip bulbs and began cultivating them for sale. The tulips that "drove men mad” were multi-colored flowers with distinctive mottled streaks. No two were alike. During Tulipmania, these bulbs were traded as futures, sold sometimes hundreds of times over a single winter, while the bulbs were still in the ground, earning traders as much as $60,000 a month in today’s money! Prices finally collapsed in 1637, sending Holland and much of Europe into an economic depression. Tulipmania is still studied today, alongside the stock crash of 1929, as a classic example of a speculative market gone out of control.

The treasured rare bulbs actually were diseased plants. The streaks that gave the flowers their exotic looks were caused by a mosaic virus. Curiously, these long stemmed diseased varieties with broken colors were grouped together and called Rembrandt tulips.

Today, thanks to Holland’s professional hybridizers, tulips with the same exotic streaked coloration patterns are widely available. Though often sold as "Rembrandt” tulips, they are actually disease-free, genetically-stable look-alikes and are available from garden mail order firms.

Keukenhof Gardens

The most colorful feast for the eyes on a trip to Holland is the 70 acres of glorious blooming beauty of Keukenhof Gardens. For 8 weeks each year more than 7 million tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and other bulb flowers burst forth into the most dramatic displays of floral beauty you can find anywhere in the world. Leading Dutch bulb firms have created eye-catching displays of their best and newest varieties, mostly tulips of every size, color and form. Other flowers include various types of daffodils and fragrant hyacinths. You can easily identify the most appealing varieties and order them for delivery to your home at the correct planting time in the fall.

Keukenhof is an inspiration to everyone, especially avid gardeners who wish to transplant stunning new varieties into their home grounds. Keukenhof began in 1949 when the major of Lisse in cooperation with several eminent bulb grower and exporters developed the idea for an outdoor display of flowers that would give gardeners an idea of the wide range of flower bulbs available. Eventually other perennials, shrubs and trees were added. Today more than 100 businesses supply bulbs for the displays.

The name Keukenhof dates back to the park that was once part of the property of Jacoba of Bavaria, Countess of Holland, who lived from 1401 to 1436. She spent much time gathering herbs for her castle kitchen and the name Keukenhof actually means "kitchen garden”. Today it is the world’s most colorful, extensive and beautiful display of bulb flowers, well worth a trip during the peak flowering period b between mid-April and mid-May.

Theme gardens include those devoted to color, fragrance, the Renaissance, abstract style and borders. All are produced on small and simple scale so home gardeners can copy ideas for their home grounds. Many more details and exceptional pictures of these appealing gardens are at the website: The mailing address for literature is Keukenhof, P. O. Box 66, NL 2160 AB Lisse, Holland.


Once you have absorbed a day or more of Keukenhof’s blooming beauty, one other marvelous Dutch town deserves exploration. Maastricht is the oldest town in the Netherlands, which started out as a Roman garrison with trade routes to London, Cologne and Rome. In the 4th century a bishopric under St. Servaas bought the town great prestige and some of the landmarks date far back in town history. Once a rich cloth-producing city it has had a turbulent history under Austrian, Spanish and French control and finally under Dutch rule b y 1815.

Maasricht landmarks include the city’s Roman remains and rings of medieval fortifications, Romanesque arches and murals, French Gothic churches, indigenous Maasland Renaissance architecture, onion towers imported from the East and classic 17th century buildings favored by Dutch Calvinists. There are Baroque residences from the Louis XIV era but later in the 18th century, symmetry gave way to frenzied Rococo lines.

Holland offers some of the most dramatic contrasts in architecture from all major eras of early vintage through medieval to modern times. Whether you try a leisurely River Cruise that has shore excursions to the key historic and photogenic sites or prefer a different style trip, the Netherlands cities, landmarks, monuments, churches and the glorious Keukenhof Gardens are well worth your focus as you plan future vacations. Easy contact to the General Tours organization for Holland and many other tours is 1-800-858-0908.

River cruising, including the ups and downs of locks from rivers to canals and back has a distinct advantage. Holland is indeed a low country and you get to see much of it from a River Cruise ship as the Dutch have seen and traveled their country for centuries. Climb aboard and enjoy this distinctive, delightful country.

Best recommended "Rembrandt” type tulips:

Tulipa ‘Beauty of Volendam’ (Triumph Tulip) - Exceptionally elegant, a cream colored tulip with deep burgundy-rose feathering that flows upward from the base of each petal

Tulipa ‘Carnaval de Nice’ (Double Late Tulip) - Plump and multi-petaled with white petals marked in deep red

Tulipa ‘Flaming Parrot’ (Parrot Tulip) – Primrose yellow flowers flamed with blood red that mature to creamy white flamed with red. The petals of Parrot Tulips are ruffled and fringed along the edges with an exotic look reminiscent of the feathers of tropical birds

Tulipa ‘Ice Follies’ (Triumph Tulip) – A striking white tulip marked in bright red

Tulipa ‘Marilyn’ (Lily-flowered Tulip) - A bright white tulip with fuchsia flames that fan up pointed, slightly ruffled, petals

Tulipa ‘Mickey Mouse’ (Single Early Tulip) – Brilliant yellow flamed with blood red makes for vivid coloration on a small compact perfectly-shaped flower

Tulipa ‘Mona Lisa’ (Lily-flowered Tulip) – Primrose yellow flamed with deep berry-red feathering

Tulipa ‘Prinses Irene’ (Single Early Tulip) – Rich orange flamed with purple, fragrant, long blooming and resilient in the garden

Tulipa ‘Sorbet’ (Single Late Tulip) - White with raspberry-red flames.

Photo credits: Keukenhof Garden photo courtesy of Keukenhof Gardens; Forest at Clingendael, Delft Blue Earthenware, Hague Coat of Arms courtesy of The Hague Visitors & Convention Bureau; Maastricht Skyline courtesy of Raymond Friederichs.

Allan Swenson has been a nationally-syndicated garden and nature columnist for 25+ years and is the author of more than 55 published books. He enjoys capturing scenes from his travels to share with Senior Groups and Congregate Housing residents as colorful slide shows and writing about his travels.

Tags:  Delft  Holland  Holland in Bloom  Keukenhof Gardens  Venice of the North 

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