all articles

 

TENNESSEE TEMPTATIONS

Touring scenic east Tennessee rewards travelers with mountains, music, moonshine and more.

 

With plenty to see and do, east Tennessee makes it easy to volunteer for a leisurely drive. From music and history to spectacular scenery and tasty Southern treats, the eastern half of The Volunteer State has something to please most travelers' tastes. Several logical stops from the Bristol area in the northeast along Interstates 81 and 40 to Nashville--before heading south through Franklin and east to Chattanooga and the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains--make a loop around half the state an easy, enjoyable excursion. 

 

A Taste of the Tri-cities

 

Located in Tennessee's northeast corner; the tri-city area of Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City is a great starting point. Area attractions include: Bristol's new Birthplace of Country Music Museum; Bristol Motor Speedway, home of NASCAR races and more; Kingsport's Warriors' Path State Park, which features Darrell's Dream Boundless Playground, and Jonesborough's International Storytelling Center (host of the National Storytelling Festival Oct. 3-5). History buffs may want to explore Greenville's Andrew Johnson National Historic Site to learn more about the nation's 17th president.

 

Next stop: Knoxville. Nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the city offers an eclectic mix of natural beauty, family attractions and lively entertainment. Visitors can enjoy exhibitions at Knoxville Museum of Art and live music at Preservation Pub on Historic Market Square in the heart of downtown. They can also stop by the Knoxville Visitor Center for WDVX's Blue Plate Special radio show, performed Monday through Saturday from noon to 1 p.m.

 

Travelers can stretch their legs at the 300-acre Ijams Nature Center, which offers hiking, biking, canoeing, and other activities. For a taste of Knoxville's dining scene, foodies can head to Market Square's Tupelo Honey Cafe or Windows on the Park, which overlooks the iconic Knoxville Sunsphere tower.

 

Farther west, the charming small town of Rugby (with many historic buildings and great dining at Harrow Road Cafe) is well worth the diversion before continuing toward Nashville through the Upper Cumberland region. The area is dubbed the Golf Capital of Tennessee, but there are plenty of activities for non-golfers, too. Popular attractions include the historical Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville; the headquarters of the World's Longest Yard Sale in Jamestown; and the T.B. Sutton General Store in Granville, just off I-40, which hosts bluegrass performances each Saturday.

 

Welcome to Music City

 

Visitors should plan to spend several days in Tennessee's capital, where nightlife, shopping and fine dining are easy to find. Nashville's numerous highlights include its vibrant downtown entertainment district, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, neon-lit Honky Tonk Row, the new Johnny Cash Museum and the Grand Ole Opry. Elvis Presley fans will want to check out the famous RCA Studio B, where the music legend recorded some of his biggest hits. In 2012, the recording studio was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Of course, there's more to Nashville than music. Other options include Frist Center for the Visual Arts; the Greek-Revival Capitol perched on a downtown hilltop; the Parthenon in Centennial Park (an art museum housed in a full-scale replica of the original in Athens, Greece's original); Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art; and historical Belle Meade Plantation, which includes a winery.

 

Considered one of the nation's hotteest food towns, Nashville has plenty of good eats. Notable restaurants include Husk Nashville, The 404 Kitchen in The Gulch neighborhood, Rolf and Daughters in Germantown, and Hutton House's 1808 Grille near Vanderbilt University. When it's time to unwind over a good drink, travelers should grab a seat at The Patterson House, a speakeasy-style artisanal cocktail bar.

 

Eastbound and Down

 

It's a straight shot down Interstate 65 around historic Franklin (with a great Main Street, Carnton Plantation, and Civil War history) to U.S. Highway 64 and the road to Chattanooga. Just east of Fayetteville, travelers should head north on state Route 50 to the pretty town of Lynchburg for a brief Tennessee history lesson. Lynchburg is the fabled home of Jack Daniel Distillery, America's oldest registered distillery.

 

Visitors can explore the whiskey-making process on a tour; as well as purchase varied whiskey options and more. Hungry travelers can indulge in a sweet treat at MoonPie General Store or savor a hearty meal at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House.

 

Eastbound drivers will likely want to connect with Interstate 24 to head into Chattanooga (U.S. 64 becomes I-24 for this stretch). Chattanooga has become one of the region's top travel destinations. Surrounded by mountains, the aptly nicknamed Scenic City features the Tennessee River running right through downtown. Highlights include a revitalized riverfront, the Tennessee Aquarium, Hunter Museum of American Art and Tennessee River cruises onboard the Southern Belle riverboat. A stop in Chattanooga should also include a visit to Ruby Falls, the 145-foot-high underground waterfall at Lookout Mountain, located just a few miles from downtown.

 

Hello Dolly

 

The loop back to east Tennessee continues by taking U.S. highways 411 and 441 to explore the sights around Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. Cradled by the Great Smoky Mountains, these three towns have much to offer and deserve a stop of at least two days.

 

Sevierville is Dolly Parton's hometown. Fans of the country singer and actress may want to stop by the Sevier County Courthouse to see a bronze statue of the star. Other attractions include the family- friendly Wilderness at the Smokies, which features a resort, an adventure center and waterparks.

 

In nearby Pigeon Forge, Dollywood draws thousands of visitors. The fun includes roller coasters and other thrill rides, numerous concerts, shopping and dozens of craft demonstrations, including blacksmithing and glassblowing.

 

Gatlinburg features Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park, and other attractions. While in town, diners should sink their teeth into one of the fantastic sandwiches at Parton's Deli. South of town--and definitely worth the short trip--is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A stop by Sugarlands Visitor Center, two miles south of Gatlinburg on U.S. 441, provides information about hiking, camping and other activities in teh scenic Smokies.

 

The Tennessee trek continues via U.S. Highway 321 through Greeneville and leads travelers back to the tri-city area, closing the freewheeling loop around the eastern half of the Volunteer State.

 

Planning Your Trip

 

For information on the Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways program, an initiative of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, log on to www.TNtrailsandbyways.com. For maps, TripTik routings, TourBook guides and other trip-planning assistance, contact a local AAA Travel agent or visit AAA.com/travel.

MAKE WAVES IN THE EASTERN MED

Experience history, culture and other pusuits in each port of call.

 

While Western Mediterranean cruise travel out of Barcelona, Rome, and other major ports remains as popular as ever, Eastern Mediterranean cruises can be even more exotic and unique. With convenient and varied ports of call throughout the region, it's no wonder that seeing the Eastern Med by cruise ship continues to grow in popularity as well.

 

Cruise travel in the region appeals to almost everyone, including couples, singles, families, and multigenerational groups with varied interests. The Eastern Med boasts history, culture, large cities, small villages, beaches, and more.

 

The typical ports of embarkation and disembarkation for Eastern Med cruises are Venice, Athens, and Istanbul and some longer itineraries include Western Mediterranean ports of call as well. Ports of call for the Eastern Med can feature the Adriatic coastline of Italy and Croatia, the Greek islands and Greece's mainland, Turkey, the Black Sea, and even the 'Holy Land' (Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt) on longer itineraries. Smaller ships often call on less visited ports, while the larger ships tend to stick to similar ports of call and itineraries.

 

As mentioned, Venice is a common port of embarkation and debarkation in the region and it's also very popular for pre- and post-cruise stays for good reason. Walking and varied water travel make charming Venice easy to explore, with gondola rides, museum visits, tasty pizza and local wine, and outings to Murano in search of the perfect hand-blown glass souvenir all memorable Venice possibilities.

 

Similarly, Athens remains a Greece bucket list visit for anyone interested in history. From the Acropolis to Ancient Agora and so much more, Athens offers up more than tasty Greek salads loaded with feta cheese, olives, tomatoes, onions, and cucumber.

 

Bridging two continents and connecting the West and the East, alluring Istanbul also remains a popular port of embarkation and debarkation. Ships typically dock just across the Galata Bridge from Old Istanbul, making it easy to visit iconic Istanbul stops like the bustling Grand Bazaar, the aromatic Spice Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, the stunning Hagia Sophia church, Topkapi Palace, or even one of many relaxing Turkish baths.

 

Back on the Adriatic coast, the most popular port of call is currently Croatia's dramatic port of Dubrovnik. Smooth cobblestoned streets in the walled Old City lead to museums, churches, a historic synagogue, and lots of cafes and restaurants. A tour of Dubrovnik up on the old city walls is a highlight for many cruise ship visitors.

 

Croatia's second largest city of Split also continues to rise in popularity with cruise lines, thanks to Old City attractions like Diocletian's Palace. North of Split, Zadar is becoming more popular with various cruise lines. South of Dubrovnik, Croatia's island of Korcula provides another option for enjoying the country's coastline. In addition, the pretty port of Bari, on Italy's Adriatic coast, also is growing more popular with both small and larger ships--thanks to a pretty promenade and Old Town, beaches, and famed Puglian pasta. Finally, other lesser-known Adriatic ports of call include Slovenia's Koper and Montenegro's Kotor.

 

Next, back in Greece, mainland Katakolon and the fabled Greek islands await with several popular ports of call. Here, history, villages, and classic Greek beaches combine to provide something for everyone.

 

The smallish port of Katakolon welcomes lots of cruise passengers because it's less than an hour from Olympia. This is where the Olympic Games originated and guided tours reveal tons of tidbits about the ruins that remain. Though it's on the mainland, pretty Gythion feels like a Greek island to visiting cruise ship passengers. Commercial Volos is urban, but provides easy access to downtown's waterfront, nearby beaches, and classic Greek mountain villages.

 

Out in the idyllic Greek islands, the island of Zankynthos is known as the "Florence of Greece" and was once occupied by the Venetians. Medieval Corfu and it's village of Corfu Town offers up sprawling Spianada Square, lots of history, and-of course-great Greek beaches. The island of Mykonos means iconic white houses, windmills, more great beaches, and shopping. Volcanic Santorini features famed black beaches, dramatic cliffs, and bright white houses and churches. The port of Heraklion, on Crete, provides a perfect combination of Greece's past and present. Further east, the popular port of Rhodes has a classic Old Town, beaches, ruins, and more.

 

Along with Istanbul, Turkey's coastline is also popular with cruise ships plying the Eastern Med. Busy Kusadasi is the main gateway to Ephesus, which is one of the region's most preserved ancient cities. The busy port city of Izmir provides another option for accessing Ephesus. Both ancient Bodrum and cliff-top Antalya are lesser-known ports, but they're becoming more popular with smaller ships and some larger lines as well.

 

The Black Sea also holds several ports that remain popular with smaller ships and, lately, even some larger ones. Clockwise from Istanbul, ports of call can include: Nessebur, Bulgaria (wine tastings, museums, and excursions to Bucharest); Bulgaria's Varna (great beaches, churches, and museums); Odessa, Ukraine (Baroque architecture, huge mansions, and the Potemkin Steps, among many highlights); Sevastopol, Ukraine (the former Soviet submarine base turned museum in Balaclava, the Panorama Museum, Crimean War battlefields); Yalta, Ukraine (the picturesque Swallow's Nest castle, Livadia Palace, and Anton Chekhov's mansion and museum); and post-Olympic Games Sochi, Russia (with Olympics venues, classic old spas, and Vladimir Lenin's Dacha estate).

 

Even further east, the Holy Land provides even more exotic ports of call. The Israeli ports of Haifa and Ashdod both provide access to historic Jerusalem, with overnight port stays of two or three nights common. Other possibilities on a cruise this far into the Eastern Med can include Limassol and Paphos on the island of Cyprus and Alexandria on the coast of Egypt, when cruise lines deem it safe for their passengers.

 

Some cruises continue even further afield by transiting the Suez Canal. This provides the ability for lines to call on ports even further east, leading to even longer cruises that can easily extend Eastern Mediterranean cruises into other regions.

 

Along with long-time favorites, the addition of these smaller and more far-flung ports provides a perfect mixture. This means both first-time and veteran cruise ship travelers can find the perfect itinerary-and cruise line. For instance, Celebrity Cruise Lines features a variety of unique itineraries in the Eastern Med. Along with calling on all of the common ports, the line also visits less-visited ports on some itineraries. The innovative line is always adding new options, like their new river-and-ocean cruise vacation packages-including one that combines a seven-night Rhône River cruise with Amras Cruises and a seven-night Turkey and Greece ocean cruise. Their new "Celebrity City Stay" packages feature value-packed three-night pre-cruise stays in the world's must-see cities, including the Eastern Med's Venice, Athens, and Istanbul. Regent Seven Seas Cruises is also active in the region, providing access to the most popular ports-but also smaller and lesser-known options. Itineraries can include Venice, Istanbul, Athens, and the most popular Greek islands, but Regent's three smaller all-suite ships also call on less-crowded ports, including, from east to west: Koper, Slovenia; Zadar, Croatia; Kotor, Montenegro; Zankynthos, Greece; Turkey's Izmir and Bodrum; and Limmassol, Cypress. The elegant all-inclusive line's fourth ship, Seven Seas Explorer, will debut summer, 2016.

 

Did You Know?

*Venice is made up of more than 100 islands and has more than 150 canals and 400-plus bridges.

 

*It's said that the famed Grand Bazaar in Istanbul holds more than 5,000 stalls and shops selling everything from jewelry to Turkish coffee.

 

*Thanks to the makeover for the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens provides a perfect mixture of ancient history and modern amenities.

 

Regent Seven Seas Cruises in the Eastern Mediterranean & Beyond

 

In many ways, the all-suite and all-balcony vessels of Regent Seven Seas Cruises seem ideally suited for Eastern Mediterranean cruises, thanks to their size, their elegance, and so many included amenities.

 

With a fourth ship coming in summer, 2016, the line has lots to love in the Eastern Med and beyond. The small 700-guest Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner and 490-guest Seven Seas Navigator can easily visit the region's traditional ports of embarkation and debarkation (Venice, Athens, and Istanbul), plus other popular Eastern Med ports along the Adriatic Sea, Turkey, the Black Sea, Greece's mainland and islands, the Holy Land and more. However, the size of the ships also allows Regent Seven Seas Cruises to call on many smaller ports as well.

 

Regent Seven Seas Cruises fares include all-suite and -balcony accommodations, round-trip airfare, highly personalized service, acclaimed cuisine, fine wine and spirits, unlimited shore excursions in every port, gratuities, a pre-cruise luxury hotel package, and free internet for those in Concierge-level and higher suites.

 

The three all-suite vessels are among the most spacious at sea, with accommodations ranging from 300 to more than 2,000 square feet. The suites all have tastefully appointed living and sleeping areas, marble bathrooms with tubs, a walk-in closet, flat-screen TV and DVD player, Wi-Fi access, fully stocked bar, Egyptian cotton linens, and a private veranda. Top suites have illy espresso machines, iPod docking stations with Bose speakers, and iPads.

 

Public areas feature rich fabrics, textures, and furnishings, including several elegant bars, a show lounge, casino, library, internet center, outdoor pool, hot tubs, and Canyon Ranch SpaClub. Depending on the ship, guests can choose from up to four open-seating gourmet restaurants, including Prime 7, a contemporary American steakhouse, and Setti Mari at La Veranda, the line's Italian dining experience.

 

Recently, both Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner have undergone multi-million dry-dock refurbishments, with dramatic new interior decor and refreshed exterior decks. All Penthouse Suites received new custom-crafted furnishings, plush carpeting, curtains, and wall coverings.

 

Debuting summer, 2016, 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer was designed to be the most luxurious ship ever built. With some of the largest suites afloat, the spacious interiors will be complemented by the largest verandas in the cruise industry.

 

The maiden voyage for Seven Seas Explorer will be a 14-night sailing from Monte Carlo to Venice on July 20, 2016. The ship will remain in Europe for its inaugural season, sailing 11 voyages that crisscross the Mediterranean and visit renowned destinations like Barcelona, Ibiza, St. Tropez, Venice, Istanbul, Egypt, and Israel.

 

Celebrity Cruises Continues Innovations in the Eastern Mediterranean & Beyond

 

With a wide variety of offerings in the Eastern Mediterranean and around the globe, Celebrity Cruises' iconic "X" brand is the mark of modern luxury at sea, with the line's cool and contemporary design throughout their 11 ships, world-class dining experiences, and renowned service.

 

Known for constant innovation, Celebrity Cruises is always on the cutting edge with new and modern offerings on their itineraries and on their varied ships. For instance, 2014 brought five unique additions for the line and new or veteran passengers: river-and-ocean cruise vacation packages; Signature Event Sailings; Celebrity Explorations cruise and immersive land experiences; Celebrity City Stay packages; and the addition of the new suite class restaurant, Luminae.

 

The river-and-cruise packages range from 16 to 24 nights and combine a seven-night Amras Cruises river cruise with an ocean cruise (including Eastern Mediterranean sailings). The Signature Event Sailings feature iconic global events (like the Cannes Film Festival, the British Open, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, or Chinese New Year in Hong Kong), combined with a Celebrity cruise.

 

Celebrity Explorations combine cruises with extended land experiences, while Celebrity City Stay packages feature value-packed three-night pre-cruise stays in the world's must-see cities, including the Eastern Med's Venice, Athens, and Istanbul.

 

Finally, the addition of Luminae and the eclectic one-of-a-kind menus is the food-focused line's first-ever exclusive suite dining experience.

 

In 2015, the line has partnered with digital trailblazer Randi Zuckerberg as part of a year-long campaign to "Take Care of YourSelfie" by finding a tech-life balance on vacation. Launching in January, the first part of the program is a new lineup of specially designed spa treatments and services at Celebrity's soothing Canyon Ranch SpaClub. Zuckerberg will be adding other ways to log off, shut down, and help passengers embrace a balance that complements their lifestyle onboard and at home.

INTO ALASKA

Experience wild adventures and metropolitan appeals in Denali and Anchorage.

 

Denali National Park and Preserve is a must-see in any Alaska itinerary. But an Anchorage-Denali combination is the perfect way to see The Last Frontier, the largest states of the United States, and the state's largest city.

 

Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2015, Anchorage is at the heart of The Last Frontier geographically and spiritually. With lots of big city amenities and attractions surrounded by incredible wilderness, Anchorage can be a great base for an Alaska trip. Some cruise lines even have Anchorage on several of their longer Alaska cruise itineraries.

 

Sitting at the base of the Chugach Mountains and within sight of five other massive mountain ranges, this cosmopolitan city has much to offer. A great place to start exploring is at the unique Visit Anchorage Log Cabin at Fourth Avenue and F Street (just look for the log cabin with the grass roof).

 

The Anchorage Museum completed its 80,000-square-foot expansion in 2010, with additions including the Thomas Planetarium, interactive science exhibits at the Imaginarium Discovery Center, and the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. The expansion reached beyond the museum's new walls to a new two-acre outdoor common area filled with young birch trees opening into downtown Anchorage.

 

Along with old favorites like Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse and Oomingmak--The Qiviut Shop (Arctic gifts), the downtown area has a host of new restaurants, shops, and events. Located in the historic Fourth Avenue Marketplace, the renovated Alaska Experience Theatre features 3-D films, Alaska Native dancing, and the popular Alaska Salmon Bake Dinner Theatre. New downtown restaurants in Anchorage include two new pizza places: Fat Ptarmigan and Flattop Pizza and Pool, which is an extension of Humpy's that's located next door to the old favorite.

 

Anchorage Market, Alaska's largest open-air market, can be found in Anchorage from early-May through early-September and is a great option for everyone. There are more than 300 vendors across seven acres in the heart of downtown. The market offers exciting opportunities for all ages including local art, great food, and free entertainment ranging from musical acts to magic shows.

 

Other Anchorage highlights include: Alaska Native Heritage Center (focusing on the region's 11 major cultures); Alaska Museum of Natural History; famed and friendly 10th and M Seafoods (it ships fresh Alaskan seafood); the nearby scenic Tony Knowles Coastal Trail (for biking and hiking); hiking up nearby Flattop Mountain; and easy access to an array of Alaska outdoor adventures (including frequent Alaska Railroad trains).

 

Denali

 

Nothing "says" Alaska more than Denali. Beloved for its scenery and wildlife, Denali National Park & Preserve is just 225 miles or so due north of Anchorage.

 

Originally created as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917, Denali is the ultimate Alaska goal for many visitors. Of course, seeing Mount McKinley is naturally at the top of the list and the 23,320-foot peak (North America's tallest) will hopefully obligewith clear skies. But even on cloudy days, there's much more to see and do.

 

Every visitor will want to take at least one bus ride and sightseeing tour into the park proper along Denali Park Road. Denali is six million acres of wild land bisected by just one road. Travelers along Denali Park Road see low-elevation taiga forest transition into high alpine tundra and then snowy moutain peaks. Natural highlights in the park include braided rivers, glaciers, dinosaur footprints, Wonder Lake, the stunning starlit sky at night, the Alaska Range mountains, of course, Mount McKinley.

 

Wild animals large and small also roam unfenced lands, ready for viewing and photography, and include grizzly bear, wolf, Dall sheep, caribou, moose (known as the Big Five in Denali), lynx, hare, marmot, pika, golden eagle, raven and tiny Wilson's warbler and white-crowned sparrow.

 

Other Denali-area doings might include: stopping by one of the park visitor centers to check offerings and information; mild to wild hiking; a park ranger-led hike or talk; visiting the fascinating sled dog kennels; biking Denali Park Road; various flightseeing trips; fishing; river rafting,; ATV tours; and driving to or taking a bus to the Savage River area. The new four-mile Savage Alpine Trail gives explorers a view from down below the ridge of the famed outside range and picturesque views of Mount McKinley on a clear day.

 

A Seattle Stopover

 

Whether planning a pre- or post-sailing visit to Seattle with an Alaskan cruise or simply using the waterfront city as a convenient and fun stopover before flying up to Anchorage, Seattle and Alaska make for an ideal northwest North America combination.

Of course, Pike Place Market is right on the water is a great place to start. Pike Place Fish Co. near the main entrance is home of the famous fish-throwers. The main level features other seafood shops, colorful flower stalls, and lots of produce stands, while the lower level offers one-of-a-kind shopping stops.

 

A short walk along the waterfront reveals stunning views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains before arriving at the Olympic Waterfront Park. Here, 20-plus large-scale outdoor sculptures.

 

The Seattle Center is also nearby and hard to miss. Here, Seattle explorers can speed up an elevator in the Space Needle to the 520-foot-high observation deck. There's also contemporary popular culture at Frank Gehry-designed EMP Museum (formerly known as Experience Music Project), the Pacific Science Center, and Chihuly Garden and Glass.

 

Depending on visitor interests, other Seattle options include: the Seattle Art Museum; the Museum of History & Industry, the Museum of Flight; and Paul G. Allen's Flying Heritage Collection.

 

Varied boat, seaplane, and helicopter tours offer other unique ways to explore the city and the surrounding landscapes and seascapes including Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, Cascade and Olympic Mountains, Mount Ranier, Mount St. Helens, and even excursions to Canada's British Columbia.

 

Come evening, Seattle culture and cuisine beckon. The Seattle Opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet both perform in McGaw Hall at the Seattle Center, while the Seattle Symphony Orchestra plays at Benaroya Hall. For dinner, it's hard to top fresh Northwest cuisine.

 

Did You Know?

*The original Starbucks is located in Pike Place Market.

 

*With 57.5 million acres of designated wilderness (more than any other state), Alaska is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014. Anchorage will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2015.

 

WEB EXTRA
Alaska Seafood: Nothing Fresher

 

There's nothing like fresh Alaska seafood anywhere else in the world and it's easy to enjoy when visiting the Last Frontier or once back home (thanks to easy shipping options).

 

Wild
Wild-caught Alaska salmon, whitefish varieties, and shellfish mature at a natural pace and swim freely in the pristine waters off Alaska's rugged 34,000-mile coastline.

 

Superior Flavor
The superior flavor and texture of Alaska Seafood is prized around the world. The flavor and color characteristics come from the seafood species feeding on their natural diet of marine organisms and the texture comes from annual migrations in the cold North Pacific.

 

Versatile
It's easy to prepare Alaska Seafood using your favorite cooking method. Whether you like to grill, poach, bake, steam, or saute, you can have a delicious meal on the table in minutes.

 

Healthy
If you are looking for a meal that is nutritious, low in saturated fat, and high in the good fats-heart-healthy omega-3s, you can start with
Alaska seafood.

 

Environmentally Responsible
Careful management based on conservation techniques assure abundant stocks of salmon, halibut, sole, pollock, and shellfish, so Alaska seafood is an environmentally responsible choice.

 

Alaska Families and Communities
The harvesting and processing of Alaska seafood plays an important role in Alaska. The seafood industry is the state's largest private sector employer. Each small salmon fishing vessel, for example, is a floating family business, contributing to state and local economies. Alaska's commercial catch accounts for over half the nation's commercial seafood harvest.

 

Here are two recipes using Alaska seafood that are easy to prepare at home:

 

ALASKA SALMON WITH SHOYU TARRAGON SAUCE

Ingredients

Shoyu Tarragon Sauce:
2 garlic cloves
1/3 cup fresh tarragon leaves (loosely packed)
1 teaspoon bottled black bean garlic sauce
1/2 cup shoyu or soy sauce
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar or white vinegar
1 Tablespoon honey
4 Alaska Salmon fillets (5 to 6 oz. each), fresh, thawed, or frozen
1 Tablespoon olive, canola, peanut, or grapeseed oil
2 green onions, chopped
2 Tablespoons sesame seeds

 

Directions Add all sauce ingredients to blender and puree on high.

Rinse any ice glaze from frozen Alaska Salmon under cold water, pat dry with paper towel. Heat a heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Brush both sides of salmon with oil. Place salmon in heated skillet skin side up and cook, uncovered, about 3 to 4 minutes, until browned. Shake pan occasionally to keep fish from sticking.

Turn salmon over and baste with sauce. Cover pan tightly and reduce heat to medium. Cook an additional 6 to 8 minutes for frozen salmon or 3 to 4 minutes for fresh/thawed fish, basting occasionally. Cook just until fish is opaque throughout.

To serve, baste with additional sauce. Garnish with green onions and sesame seeds.

 

Recipe by Alaska Chef Erik Slater. "Shoyu is a Japanese soy sauce which is just a tad sweeter than the familiar soy sauce (use soy if you can't find shoyu). I use this sauce on grilled salmon, but it works great on any Alaskan fish. Excellent with roasted vegetables!"

 

CHARRED ALASKA HALIBUT TACOS WITH CILANTRO PESTO

Ingredients

Pesto: 1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch flat leaf parsley
1 jalapeño, minced
1/4 cup toasted Pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup cotija cheese
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

1 pound Alaska Halibut fillets
Olive oil
8 small (4-inch) corn tortillas
1/2 head red cabbage, finely shaved
1/4 cup cotija cheese
Garnish: Lime wedges

 

Directions Combine all pesto ingredients in a blender or food processor; blend. Drizzle in more olive oil or water, if needed, until you get a salsa-like consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper; set aside. Heat grill to medium-high heat (400F). Brush Alaska Halibut and grill surface with oil; grill 5 to 7 inches from heat about 8 minutes, turning once during cooking. Cook just until fish is opaque throughout. Season with salt and pepper.

 

To assemble tacos: Char tortillas on grill or grill pan. Top each taco with a big pinch of shaved red cabbage. Break halibut into chunks and distribute evenly between tortillas. Top with a generous spoonful of pesto, a sprinkle of extra cojita cheese, and a lime wedge.

 

Recipe by Natalie Kahn, Valencia, CA Cook's tip: "Alaska halibut can also be sauteed, roasted, or broiled, cooking just until opaque throughout."

DUTCH TREAT

With endless sun, crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches, 
Aruba is one happy place to be -- year round.

 

The typical Caribbean vacation used to mean a quick flight south and then hours of sunning on the sand. However, today’s vacationers are looking for more than just a day at the beach. Many Caribbean islands now offer an array of outdoors activities and Aruba--referred to as One Happy Island--definitely is one of the top spots for mild to wild activities on land and in the water.

 

The island's gentle breezes, endless sun and a year-long warm temperature make it a destination any time of the year. Situated just 15 miles north of Venezuela and a 2 1/2-hour flight from Miami, Aruba is a natural when it comes to outdoors fun in the sun. The island, 20 miles long by six miles wide, is ideal for convenient exploration off the beaten path, while the semi-arid topography and geological formations offer a wealth of activities distinct from other Caribbean isles.

 

Aruba has an interesting history that’s evident from the time visitors land at the bustling international airport. The island was once part of the Netherlands Antilles (it became a separate entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1986) and retains a definite Dutch flavor. The official language is still Dutch, though locals speak a patois called “Papiamento” and, of course, English.

 

Everyone enjoys exploring Aruba’s capital city of Oranjestad. The colorful Dutch colonial architecture, a few sightseeing options, shopping, and an array of dining with waterfront views are all allures for those exploring on their own.

 

Sightseeing options might include: Fort Zoutman (built in 1796, with the Willem III Tower added in 1867); the Archaeological Museum of Aruba; the Museo Arubano (island museum); and the small but very fascinating Numismatic Museum of Aruba (35,000 plus coins from more than 400 countries). For those who’d like to shop ‘til they drop, there are several blocks of typical Caribbean shopping--with a Dutch flair.

 

Arikok National Park is a desert-like ecological preserve on Aruba's northeastern coast and provides a perfect introduction to Aruba's outdoors. Hiking trails make it easy for visitors to explore the unusual terrain and diverse flora and fauna of the preserve. Iguanas and many species of migratory birds nest in the park, while goats and donkeys graze on the nearby brush trees. Visitors feeling particularly plunky can try dune sliding with the locals at the nearby Boca Prins dunes.

Most visitors to a tropical island don't expect to find underground caves, but amateur spelunkers will love the caves of Aruba. At the Guadirikiri cave, sunlight filters though two inner chambers, providing the perfect photo opportunity for intrepid cave explorers. The cave's 100-foot-long tunnel is home to hundreds of harmless bats.

 

Nearby, the Fontein cave is testimony to the island's native population. Still-visible drawings by the Arawak Indians decorate the caves ceilings and are a powerful reminder of the island's indigenous history. Couples aren't the only ones who will want to visit the Tunnel of Love, named for its heart-shaped entrance. The 300-foot tunnel winds through several fascinating rock formations and narrow passages.

 

Constant breezes make Aruba one of the best windsurfing sites in the world. Some of the more popular windsurfing areas lie along Arashi, Hadikurari, and Palm Beach. Rentals, lessons, and many windsurfing packages are available.

 

Some of the world's most fascinating wrecks lie just off Aruba's shores, offering some of the best wreck diving in the Caribbean. Measuring 400 feet, the Antilla Wreck is one of the largest wrecks for scuba divers in the Caribbean. This German freighter sunk in 1945 and now has lots of lobster and giant tube sponges, making it a particularly popular night dive. In addition, the Pedernales Wreck and many other wrecks and reefs make Aruba one of the new hotspots with scuba divers and snorkelers.

 

Take the Tour

 

Island tours on a bus or on your own provide a perfect initial overview of a Caribbean destination. Off-road Jeep tours are very popular. With most, participants either take their own vehicle convoy-style (communicating with the guide by radio fitted on each vehicle) or just enjoy the ride in a larger four-wheel-drive vehicle driven by a lead guide. Either way, it’s a great way to see all the island has to offer--and it most definitely feels like a safari in parts of Aruba’s desert-like natural areas.

 

After zipping past the hotels along Aruba‘s famed beaches (Palm Beach is a Caribbean classic), the first stop is often the landmark California Lighthouse, named for a passenger ship that sunk nearby in 1916. Located on the northwestern end of the island, there are great views out to sea, including crashing waves--as well as a sneak peak of the arid and cactus-packed Arikok National Park that lies further ahead.

 

After the lighthouse, the tour leaves the smooth hard-surface highway and heads off-road onto dirt-packed trails, with the lunar-like landscape and barren coastline a complete change from the resorts along Palm Beach. The drive from here on out can be dusty, so passengers typically are covered in red dust.

 

About five miles along the coast, most tours stop at Alto Vista Chapel, a quiet off-yellow chapel that was built around 1750 and was renovated in the mid-1900s. Like many places of worship, the small church was built to take advantage of the stunning views out to sea.

 

Next, the ruins of the Bushiribana Gold Mine make for a hulking reminder of Aruba’s gold rush in the 19th century. This smelter was built in 1872 and it’s easy to climb the huge stone walls for more coastal views.

 

Further along, what was once Aruba’s main non-beach attraction still draws lots of visitors. The Natural Bridge was a 100-foot limestone arch that stretched across the beach and rock-strewn waters. It collapsed in 2005, but it still draws hundreds of visitors daily.

 

From here, tours typically head inland a bit to check out the quite unique Ayo rock formations. These huge boulder served as dwellings and religious sites for early islanders--or at least what the guides and petroglyphs apparently tell visitors.

 

Sun & Sand

 

Quite simply, Aruba has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. Depending on your sun and sand desires, there's a beach in Aruba that will meet them. All of the beaches are public, making Aruba a beach-lovers paradise.

 

The best and most popular beaches are situated along the western and southern shores of Aruba. The area is known as the Turquoise Coast for good reason, as the color of the sea is definitely the bluest of blues.

 

Palm Beach is one of the most famous beaches in the Caribbean. Though it is packed with busy resorts (they picked the best beach), it is still great for sunning, strolls in the sand, and cooling swims in clear waters.

 

Closer to Oranjestad, the capital city, Eagle Beach is another popular choice. It's generally less-crowded than Palm Beach and ideal for a quick dip.

 

Other possibilities on this side of the island include Manchebo Beach and Druif Bay Beach. They're generally ideal for quiet sunning and swimming. These are also great spots for snorkeling.

FLOATING THROUGH WINE COUNTRY

The conclusion was suddenly as clear as a Riedel crystal goblet: We wouldn't have to worry about drinking and driving.

 

The cruise line would create private food and wine experiences otherwise unavailable to the general public. And their all-inclusive nature might offer a better deal compared to paying separately for luxury accommodations, gourmet meals and stellar wine tastings.

Having been to the California wine country many times, my wife and I are always looking for new ways to experience everything we love about the place. The concept of a four-night cruise was tempting enough to convince us to try the floating tour.

 

Five days, four nights and, oh, about 40 glasses of wine later, we highly recommend that wine aficionados hit the high seas instead of the highways. Boarding a small ship that carries passengers to Napa and Sonoma valleys is a perfect way to visit wineries, vineyards, and more. Why be driving on some busy stretch of asphalt when you could be floating on an endles supply of wine instead.

 

In 2007 Cruise West will run two tours to the region on board the 138-passenger Spirit of Yorktown. The Vintner's Choice 2007 tour is the closest representation of the tour we took last year onboard the Spirit of Endeavour. These floating wine-based tours take advantage of the many waterways threading through vineyard country. The ship generally cruises the Sacramento Delta area and the Napa River, rather than heading into the Pacific Ocean.

 

We boarded Cruise West's ship for the four-night itinerary (Monday evening to Friday morning) in San Francisco (the line features three-night cruises from Friday evening to Monday morning). To accommodate repeat passengers, the itineraries change somewhat each season, but exclusive tours, tastings and meals are the norm on land and onboard. Though you could probably arrange some (but not all) of the "private" opportunities at wineries on you own (from unique tastings to a candlelight lunch in a cave), the cruise line does all the legwork for you. There's even an onboard guest wine expert who offers educational tastings on the ship and often joins the group on shore to share more wine expertise with passengers.

 

Monday afternoon we enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the San Francisco Fisherman's Market before boarding the ship. Greeted with Champagne and a wonderful evening tasting and dinner, the mood was set for the libations ahead.

 

On Tuesday, get ready for a busy visit to visit to Napa Valley that includes a private "Cooking with Wine" class at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus (a mecca for foodies like us), lunch at Auberge du Soleil, a sparkling wine tasting and a private cave tour at Schramsberg, and a wine blending seminar back at Greystone to cap off the day (at least until dinner and more tastings back on the ship!).

 

On Wednesday, the ship docks in Sausalito, where an interesting wine tasting takes place at an elegant wine and art gallery called Bachus and Venus. We enjoyed it thoroughly. In the afternoon, the ship sails back to Napa for a tasting and tour of Duckhorn Winery.

Thursday, the ship docks in Sonoma Valley, where there's time in the morning for touring Sonoma or taking advantage of one of Cruise West's optional tours (including an excellent "Cabernet Lovers Limo Tour" that visits Quintessa, Silver Oak, and Joseph Phelps, where they're making great cabs).

 

The afternoon brings private group visits and tastings at St. Francis and Chateau St. Jean. After a final evening of tastings and a farewell dinner, the ship typically sails under the Golden Gate Bridge for a Friday morning finale that had us ready to book another wine country cruise.

 

The "Culture of the Vine" three-night cruise sets sail on Friday evenings with a champagne punch toast and stunning views of the San Francisco skyline. An onboard wine educator typically hosts the first of several complimentary wine tastings before a casual dinner (where many local wines are featured on the moderately priced wine list).

 

On Saturday mornings, the ship docks in Napa Valley for a day of tasting and touring that includes St. Supery and Clos du Val, as well as a gourmet three-course lunch in the caves of Clos Pegase. Back on the ship, another tasting and dinner await.

 

Sunday mornings are spent in the Sonoma Valley. Passengers are taken on a private tractor-pulled tram tour (and tasting) at Benziger Winery. It sounded hokey to us when it was part of our tour last year, but the tractor ride was actually pretty scenic--and educational. An upscale lunch at Ledson Winery's castle followed, a sparkling wine tasting at Domaine Carneros, as well as a stroll around quaint Sonoma. An onboard tasting and gourmet meal make for a pleasant final evening, and the morning sail into San Francisco typically includes sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Every year Cruise West amends its itineraries for the California Wine cruise series. In 2007 the Vintner's Choice will visit Auberge du Soleil, Mumm Napa, St. Francis Winery and Chateau St. Jean. Optional tours include Quintessa, Silver Oak, and Joseph Phelps. On the Culture of the Vine 2007 tour guests explore the rich Carneros growing region. Tasting tours include Merryvale Winery, Clos Du Val, Benziger Winery, Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace, and Domaine Carneros.

 

As with their other offerings in Alaska and Central America, Cruise West offers a nice middle-of-the-road samll ship cruise for the money. Rates for the three-night weekend wine cruise start at US$1299 per person, double occupancy, while rates for the four-night weekday itinerary start at US$1,949. Wineries are subject to change and it's a good idea to check the schedule when you are booking. Wine tasting are included in the price, but wines with meals are extra; many passengers, us included, puchased bottles during the winery visits and brought those back on board to enjoy.

AT THE CENTER OF IT ALL

With its white-sand beaches, reefs, rain forests and adventure, Central America is a hot bed for vacationers.

 

Central America is at the center of it all when it comes to a wide variety of options for visitors. Situated between North America and South America, the small region provides a large number of natural assets, mild to wild outdoors activities, history, unique culture and varied accommodations and dining options. Quite simply, there's something for everyone-and, it's easy to tackle more than one country in a single trip.

 

Lying north of the equator and featuring typically temperate and tropical weather, Central America generally has the Caribbean Sea to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, Mexico to the north, and Colombia to the southeast. More than 40 million people call Central America home in seven states: Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Tourism continues to grow throughout the region, but Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, and Honduras currently tend to be the most popular.

 

While there are still distinct seasons, the warm weather is certainly a draw to the area though the amount of rain can vary widely and there are lots of microclimates due to location, landscape, elevation, and other factors, the dry season generally runs from December to May. and the rainy season is typically from June to October.

 

Much of the history and culture of these countries is related to South America, Mexico, the United States, Spain, Britain and other parts of Europe. Though English is widely spoken in tourism hotspots and further afield, Spanish generally is the region's first language.

 

Thanks to its location, Central America's biodiversity alone makes the region worth a visit. Beaches, mountains, volcanoes, rainforests, cloud forests and more await curious visitors, as does an incredible concentration of unique and colorful flora and fauna.

 

At 16,000 or so miles, the famed Pan-American Highway is considered the world's longest motorable road. However, 50-plus miles of rain forest in the Darien Gap make it impossible to completely cross through Central America in a typical car.

 

Of course, whether visiting one of the historic locks (like Gatun and Miraflores) or passing through it on a cruise ship, the famed Panama Canal provides another possibility. In operation since 1914, the engineering wonder is well worth a visit by land or water. Set for completion by 2014, a huge expansion program includes two new sets of locks (one on each side of the Canal), as well as widening and deepening of existing channels in Gatun Lake and deepening of Culebra Cut. This will allow even larger cruise and container ships to pass through the Canal.

 

Costa Rica

 

Independent since the mid-1800s, Costa Rica, meaning rich coast in Spanish, Costa Rica is rich when it comes to all-natural places and pursuits, friendly locals and world-renowned coffee.

 

With Panama to the southeast, Nicaragua to the north, the Pacific generally to the west, and the Caribbean to the east, Costa Rica is geographically diverse. From the beaches to the mountains and rain forests, a wide range of resorts take advantage of this premier outdoors-oriented location, as well as in the bustling capital city of San Jose, where culture and history take center stage instead of nature.

 

About 25% of Costa Rica's landmass has some sort of protected status--the highest percentage in the world. Corcovado National Park is justly famous for its diversity and thus has many tourists. But many other varied parks also are well worth a visit including Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Tortuguero National Park, Arenal Volcano and varied beaches like Montezuma and Playa Tamarindo. Activities can include nature walks, bird-watching and other wildlife viewing, kayaking and rafting, beach time, famed canopy zipline tours and much more.

 

Busy San Jose is definitely worth a visit as well, thanks to its history and culture. Highlights have to include the National Theater, the Jade Museum, the Central Market; and a cup of Costa Rica coffee at one of the city's many popular cafes.

 

Panama

 

While the Panama Canal is reason enough, the country of Panama has much more to offer visitors. With Costa Rica to the west, the Caribbean to the north, the Pacific to the south and Colombia to the east, Panama is the last country in Central America before entering South America. Panama was greatly influenced by Spain and then Colombia, before gaining independence in 1903. Home to wildlife and plants found in both North America and South America, Panama's natural assets (especially in the jungle) are likely the most diverse in Central American--and that's really saying something.

 

Visitors to Panama will invariably hear about the native Kuna people of the remote San Blas Islands. Popular as a cruise ship stop and on excursions from mainland Panama, the colorfully dressed Kuna people enjoy showing (and selling) their artwork and handicrafts. Located in the Darien Province, the equally interesting Embera Indian population welcomes visitors interested in their culture.

 

Panama City is often visited overnight before or after more natural pursuits. Highlights include centuries-old Old Panama, the Cathedral, the president's Heron's Palace, and the interesting Museo del Canal (Canal Museum). Designed by Frank Gehry, the new BioMuseo (Museum of Biodiversity) is set to open in early 2013.

 

Colonial Portobelo is also well worth a visit, including the Royal Treasure House, the Real Aduana (Customs House), and lots of Spanish Colonial architecture. Panama's strategic Central America location has meant it's historically been a hotbed for military action and resulting forts, including historic Fort Jeronimo and Fort Santiago.

 

Belize

 

Thanks to an incredible array of possibilities on land and especially above and below the surface of the crystal-clear Caribbean Sea to the east, Belize continues to grow in popularity. With its British Colonial heritage, English is the official language and widely spoken--though Spanish is the local language.

 

Boasting the smallest population in Central America, Belize is packed with outdoors opportunities and more. A strong Mayan history means ruins like Caracol and Xuanantunich are popular with visitors, as are waterfalls, sandy beaches and the most extensive system of easily explored caves in Central America. Those exploring Belize's jungles will want to look for the country's colorful national bird--the Keel Billed Toucan.

 

However, many visitors come to Belize specifically for its underwater world. At about 200 miles in length, the Belize Barrier Reef is the longest reef in the Western Hemisphere and the second longest in the world (behind Australia's Great Barrier Reef). Resorts and dive operators cater to visiting divers and snorkelers in a big way, including trips to Belize's famed Great Blue Hole and much more.

 

Honduras

 

With the Caribbean to the north, Guatemala to the west, El Salvador to the south, and Nicaragua to the east, Nicaragua has strong Mayan and Spanish heritage. As with the rest of Central America, Honduras features lots of plants and animals found in the mountains, rain forests, jungles, along the coastlines in preserved areas and out on the Bay Islands.

 

The island of Roatan continues to grow in popularity (including cruise ship visits), as do visits to Jeanette Kawas National Park and the Yojoa Lake region (several national parks and classic waterfalls). The Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a rain forest in the lowlands, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sites back in 1982.

SAY “OUI” TO THE FRENCH RIVIERA

With so many allures, it’s easy to say “oui” to the French Riviera.

 

Stretching from about Toulon to Menton and the Italian border (as well as encompassing the separate Principality of Monaco), the French Riviera features more than 65 miles of varied coastline--including about 25 miles of sandy or pebbly beaches.

The region is made up of bustling big cities, tiny fishing towns, and many charming inland villages where centuries-old ways of life are still followed by friendly French locals happy to share their heritage.

 

Nice and Cannes

 

Of course, the cities of Nice and Cannes remain popular destinations for good reason. These two cosmopolitan cities feature many attributes and activities, as well as providing perfect bases for exploring the rest of the region.

 

With a population of about 350,000, Nice is the area’s largest city and is known as the capital of the Riviera. That means lots of shopping, museums, markets, and--of course--great food.

 

The downtown area features a wide array of varied accommodations options, along with lots of restaurants offering freshly-caught seafood, excellent Provencal-style cooking, and more. The colorful Cours Saleya market is not to be missed!

 

Cannes lies to the east of Nice and is known for more than just the famed Cannes Film Festival (the city actually hosts many art-oriented festivals throughout the year). Highlights here can include: grand old hotels overlooking the Mediterranean and La Croisette, the Riviera’s most prominent promenade; beaches with their own waterfront bars and restaurants; the Cannes castle overlooking the yacht-filled harbor and old port; shopping along Rue Meynadier and Rue d’Antibes; the Marche Forville flower market; and, again, some of that tasty southern French food (especially at restaurants along Rue du Suquet).

 

Smaller Towns

 

Elsewhere along the coastline, smaller towns like ancient Antibes (including the Musee Picasso), upscale Saint-Tropez (famed for its sandy beaches), Villafranche-sur-Mer (a classic French Riviera fishing village), Menton (known for the Musee Jean Cocteau), and many others beckon. There are also several “perched villages” dotting the coastline and offering incredible views, with Eze (including its cathedral) and Sainte-Agnes (the highest coastal perched village in Europe) among the most popular for exploration.

 

Inland, towns like Grasse and Mougins are well worth an excursion. Grasse is well-known as the “capital of perfume” (making for great tours and shopping), while Mougins features the popular restaurant, cooking school, and store of Roger Verges.

 

Though not technically part of the French Riviera, Monaco and Monte Carlo make for an interesting daytrip from anywhere along the coast.

 

Casino and Shopping

 

Tourists won’t want to miss the changing at the guard at the Palais du Prince de Monaco (every morning at 11:55 a.m.), Musee des Souvenirs Napoleoniens (lots of Napolean’s personal effects), the world renowned Musee Oceanographique aquarium, lots of upscale shopping, and--of course--Monte Carlo’s ornate casino.

 

It’s also quite easy to head further afield to the north and into Provence proper. Many French Riviera veterans head to this famous French region for a meal, winery visits (don’t forget a designated driver), or a daytrip that includes several towns. Visitors can’t go wrong with any Provencal town or village (especially at a little local restaurant serving regional delicacies and wine).

 

Back down on the coast, the Mediterranean beckons. It’s so easy to say “oui” to the sea--and the French Riviera.

WALT DISNEY WORLD FOR ADULTS

Planning a trip to Walt Disney World for adults can be overwhelming for even veteran visitors like me who grew up with Walt Disney World—but haven’t outgrown it.

 

“Grownups without kids in tow are indeed a big part of our business,” says long-time Disney World spokesman, Rick Sylvain.

 

Those who do their homework will find many insider ideas fit for adults, while still being flexible enough to stop for a cold drink at a hot new bar.

 

“Planning and organizing are essential to a successful Walt Disney World vacation,” says Bob Sehlinger, author and executive publisher of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. But, Sehlinger adds that too much planning can lead to a lack of spontaneity when it comes to hundreds of places to sleep, eat, drink, and be very Disney.

Here are eight A+ tips for doing Disney for adults:

 

1. Timing is Everything. Insider adults know to visit during the cooler months and to stay away during the peak periods of family vacationing—June, July, and August, around major holidays, and during spring break from late-February through April.

 

2. Sleep with Mickey and Minnie. “From an African game lodge to a seashore hotel to everything in between, our resort hotels with their rich themes can be truly transporting” says Sylvain. It’s not just Mickey Mouse propaganda—staying in a Walt Disney World resort has many advantages, including: complimentary baggage service and transportation from Orlando International; easy transportation access; and “Extra Magic Hours” in rotating parks. We’ve scored surprisingly cheap rooms at the convenient Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel during off-peak times.

 

3. Skip the Line and Get Extra Park Hours. Standing in line too long may make even the most patient adult whine. I’m a huge fan and habitual user of Disney’s free FASTPASS system that lets those in-the-know avoid long waits at popular attractions. If the posted wait time for an attraction is too long for me (yes, there are lines at Disney), I use my park admission ticket to get a FASTPASS with an assigned return time for little or no waiting. I also find crowds are smaller during “Extra Magic Hours,” which provides free access to certain parks before and after normal operating hours. It’s only available to those who stay in Walt Disney World-designated resorts.

 

4. Go Fish or Go Fast. Many visitors don’t know that Walt Disney World offers world-class fishing. Guides tell me guests routinely catch bass weighing two to eight pounds. For those with a need for speed, the Disney’s outpost of the nationwide Richard Petty Driving Experience lets participants get behind the wheel of a NASCAR race car.

 

5. Fore! Walt Disney World is consistently ranked one of the world’s great golf destinations. Disney’s famed Osprey Ridge Golf Course was crafted by Tom Fazio, while Joe Lee designed a trio of layouts. Golfers sleeping with Mickey and Minnie get preferred tee times and free transportation.

 

6. Spa. Park hopping can be stressful at times and that’s why Walt Disney World features world-class spas for a bit of Disney decadence. Senses—A Disney Spa at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort recently reopened after major enhancements. The Mandara Spa at the Dolphin radiates Balinese tranquility and eastern-leaning treatments. My wife and I love spa offerings we can enjoy together, including the blissful 75-minute “Couples Escape” ($375) that includes a back sugar scrub and our choice of massages.

 

7. Green Thumbs Galore. All of Walt Disney World’s flowers and gardens are colorful, but Epcot especially comes alive from March to mid-May every year. That’s when the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival takes place, including interactive gardening seminars, demonstrations, a butterfly garden, and Disney character topiaries.

 

8. Eat, Drink, and Be Very Disney. Having eaten dozens of Disney meals (see “Eat”), I know there’s so much more than “Happy Meals” on the menu. Those of a certain age can also enjoy adult beverages at hotspots like: The Wave at Contemporary Resort (where all wines are in screwtop bottles and organic beers are big); dance-crazy Rix Lounge; tiny La Cava del Tequila, with more than 100 tequilas and a tapas-style menu; and Irish-everything at Raglan Road Irish Pub & Restaurant. Plus, adults say cheers to more than a dozen very Disney tours that make them feel like friends of rock stars with backstage passes. Unofficial Guide’s Sehlinger says the behind-the-scenes “Backstage Magic” tour (only for ages 16 and up; $229 per person) doesn’t require park admission, lasts seven hours, includes lunch, and provides an insider’s look at creating Disney’s magic for kids—and kids at heart.

 

If you go

 

Sleep

 

Top choices for adults include: Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (from $460); Animal Kingdom Lodge (from $265); and the hip Michael Graves-designed Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel (from $179).

 

Eat

 

Adults staying at or visiting Animal Kingdom Lodge will want to enjoy Africa-inspired cuisine (and South African wines) at Jiko—The Cooking Place (entrées from $28). Other eating options where kids are few include: brand-new Monsieur Paul Restaurant (son Jerome’s homage to his legendary father, Paul; oh-so-French entrees from $38); Todd English’s seafood-driven bluezoo in the Dolphin (entrees from $29); Grand Floridian Resort & Spa’s Victoria & Albert’s ($135 for the renowned multi-course menu), and the six-course “Chef’s Tasting Wine Dinner” at Flying Fish Café at Disney’s BoardWalk ($149).

 

Shop

 

Tren-D carries chic sundresses, handbags, and more with oh-so-subtle Disney designs. Hoypoloi features fine art and jewelry pieces. There are also adults-only temptations at Sosa Family Cigars and the huge Orlando Harley-Davidson Store. Veteran Disney shoppers know to delay their spending sprees until later in the day to save schlepping hassles—and that certain merchandise even can be delivered directly to their Disney resort free of charge.

 

Visitor Info

 

Walt Disney World, P.O. Box 10400, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0400. 407-939-7675, www.disneyworld.com

ZION NATIONAL PARK

An A to Z Guide

 

Even adjectives starting with every letter of the alphabet can't do justice to describing Zion National Park. People simply have to personally explore it to begin their own long list of appropriately descriptive adjectives.

 

That list could easily begin with awesome, in that Zion National park is certainly awe-inspiring. With adjectives ranging from beautiful to mesmerizing to zingy, Zion National Park will definitely have visitors heading for their dictionaries. Our well-worn dictionary defined zingy as "enjoyably exciting" and that certainly applies to Zion.

 

A Little History

 

Zion's unique landscape evidently began forming more than 225 million years ago and it's still being created thanks to natural elements like water, wind, sun, rain, lightning, gravity, and much more. At different times, the stunning landscape was once a part of a vast sea, as well as lakes and rivers (with today's rushing Virgin River a modern example).

 

The Navajo Sandstone cliffs that reach up to 2,000 feet in height were formed around 180 million years ago thanks to windblown sand-and then a long and steady uplifting of the Colorado Plateau raised the area thousands of feet. Today, elevations in Zion National Park range from about 3,600 to 8,700 feet.

 

Research shows human existence in the area possibly dating back 12,000 years. They evidently tracked giant sloth, mammoth, and camel across the region, though these animals died out about 8,000 years ago and small- to mid-sized animals-as well as gathered foods-were then used for subsistence. Eventually inhabitants focused on farming-for which the land was well suited-as well as animals, including the mule deer and turkey still seen today. There are currently more than 65 species of mammals, 200+ bird species, and numerous species of amphibians and fish. Rare or endangered species possibly found in Zion include the Mexican spotted owl, peregrine falcon, desert tortoise, California condor, and the Zion snail-found only in the park!

 

The Virgin Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans) successfully existed in the area for centuries, as did other American Indian cultures in southern Utah. The first white settlers came from Salt Lake City in the mid-1800s. These Mormons came to grow cotton in the more hospitable southwest Utah environment. As did earlier American Indian residents, the Mormons would face harsh conditions, drought, flash flooding (still an issue) and more to survive in this harsh-but beautiful-environment.

 

The settlers named the area Zion, "place of refuge" (Zion is mentioned in the Bible more than 150 times). Many names still used in the park today were given by the Mormons and other early visitors-West Temple; Three Patriarchs; Angels Landing; and Great White Throne. Southern Paiute theological influences can be seen in other Zion National Park landmark names like Temple of Sinawava (located at the end of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive). Originally designated Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, it became Zion National Park in 1919.

 

A Lot of Land

 

At more than 230 square miles and with lots of neck-craning elevation changes, there's a lot of land to explore in Zion National Park. Famed Zion Canyon alone is more than 10 miles long and a half-mile deep in places. However, there's much more to explore throughout this national park, including the highly-recommended (and separately reached) Kolob Canyon section of the park-which was once stand-alone Zion National Monument before becoming part of Zion National Park in 1956. Here, there's also a scenic drive, hiking, and great views, as well as one of the world's longest natural arches (Kolob Arch).

 

When looking at the general and detailed maps of Zion National Park in the helpful Map and Guide, it's easy to become overwhelmed with the possibilities. However, park officials-who have years of experience with the trails, attractions, and numbers of visitors in Zion-have made it easy to explore whatever is of most interest.

 

Zion National Park is open year-round. Summer (generally June to August) is by far the most popular season. Spring and fall are cooler and less-crowded, while winter is typically quite quiet and not too cold.

 

Most visitors enter on scenic Utah State Route 9 through the South Entrance right after the outdoors-oriented town of Springdale (where there are excellent restaurants and shopping possibilities). Just inside, Zion Canyon Visitor Center is the first must-stop.

 

Located along the typically rushing Virgin River and in the shadow of the towering Watchman rock outcropping to the south, lots of outdoor and indoor exhibits and park rangers help visitors plan their visits here. A sprawling and well-stocked bookstore has maps, books, gifts, and more. The Zion Canyon Backcountry Desk is also here and it's the place to ask about permits for backpacking, canyoneering, and other outings into the backcountry (for those able and prepared to pursue these options).

 

This is also the place to learn about the wide variety of programs offered throughout the year (but especially in summer). Ranger-led programs include: talks (most held at the Zion Human History Museum); guided walks (easy to strenuous); "Ride with a Ranger" shuttle tours; evening programs; and "drop-in" programs where park rangers are available anytime during a 90-minute time slot. There are also programs specifically targeted at children during the summer, including walks, Zion Nature Center and Zion Lodge offerings, the self-guided Junior Ranger Program (for those six to 12), and more.

 

The Visitor Center features one of many Zion Canyon Shuttle System stops. The highly-praised shuttle system was created back in the summer of 2000 to reduce traffic congestion, pollution, parking conflicts, noise, and general park damage. Each full shuttle is said to replace 28 cars and shuttles reduce the number of vehicle miles driven per day by an incredible 50,000+ miles-as well as CO2 emissions reduction by 12+ tons per day!

 

There are shuttle stops all along the road up to the Temple of Sinawava and there are even parking and shuttle spots back in the town of Springdale. Shuttle use is mandatory from April 1 to October 30.

 

The Zion Human History Museum is another must-stop before proceeding to the great outdoors and Mother Nature's own museum. There's a 22-minute orientation film highlighting the canyon's history, as well as rotating art exhibits featuring regional artists, a bookstore, and picture-perfect views of Bridge Mountain and the Towers of the Virgin just outside.

 

About a half-mile up the road, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive continues 6.2 stunning miles to the north, while Zion-Mount Carmel Highway heads east. The Zion-Mount Carmel switchback road leads to a historic tunnel and eventually the pretty road to Bryce Canyon National Park (see the accompanying sidebar on Bryce).

 

At slightly more than a mile, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel connects Zion Canyon to the east side of the park (including the East Entrance). Featuring four large openings or cutouts (that drivers will see) through the sandstone cliff, the tunnel was built way back in the 1920s, when larger vehicles (including RVs) were a thing of the future. Thus, vehicles 11'4" tall or taller or 7'10" wide or wider (rangers measure) require one-lane traffic control through the tunnel. Nearly all RVs, buses, trailers, fifth-wheels, dual-wheel trucks, campers, and boats require traffic control-and a $15 fee per vehicle in addition to the park entrance fee.

 

Back at the start of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, many scenic pulloffs await. The first, Canyon Junction, features the first of many classic views of Zion Canyon and the Virgin River, as well as access to the northern end of the 1 ¾-mile Pa'rus Trail, which generally follows the river back to the Visitor Center.

 

Next, Court of the Patriarchs is another place to stop for jaw-dropping views. There's a steep, but short, trail to a viewpoint that offers stellar views of The Sentinel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob Peaks, Mount Moroni, and more.

 

The Zion Lodge stop is next and it's another Zion National Park don't-miss. Zion National Park Lodge is operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts®, a highly-respected hospitality company that also has operations with Crater Lake National Park, Death Valley National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Petrified Forest National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon Railway, Kingsmill Resort, and Ohio State Park Lodges. They also recently purchased Windstar Cruises. Xanterra's extensive "Ecologix" preservation and protections programs are obvious in Zion and elsewhere.

 

The original Zion Lodge was designed by well-known architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood in the 1920s (Underwood also designed many other national park lodges). The original Zion Lodge was destroyed by fire in the mid-1960s and quickly rebuilt (though not really using Underwood's original design). In the early-1990s, the exterior was restored to be more historically correct.

 

The Lodge complex features "in the park" accommodations options, including 75 mission-style motel rooms, six "Green Suites," and 40 cabins, all of which were recently renovated or added. Above the lobby, Red Rock Grill Dining Room offers creative breakfast, lunch, and dinner options (including al fresco dining with great views for all three meals). Adjacent to the lobby, Castle Dome Café features casual fare from April to October (there's an adjacent "beer garden" area). There's also another excellent park gift shop, which is a famed Fred Harvey Trading Company store.

 

From hiking to horseback riding, Zion Lodge also serves as a hub for many park activities. Several popular trails leave from the Zion Lodge area (see "Varied Hiking & Much More Await Zion-and Bryce--Visitors").

 

Further up Zion Canyon, The Grotto (a great hiking base) and Weeping Rock are the next shuttle stops. There's a short, but steep, trail up to Weeping Rock, which is a rock alcove with dripping springs. Other longer hikes also leave from Weeping Rock as well. Big Bend is next and it features a dramatic bend in the Virgin River with a classic Zion backdrop and 360-degree views.

 

Temple of Sinawava is the final shuttle stop, where there's the easy one-mile Riverside Walk. At the end of this paved trail is the start of The Narrows-a famous hike through a narrow gorge with towering peaks that's outlined in the related activities feature. The towering cliffs on each side of the rushing Virgin River provide a fitting finale to a Zion National Park visit.

 

Information, Please

 

Zion National Park Springdale, UT 84767-1099 435-772-3256 www.nps.gov/zion

COME SEE THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY

"Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you..."
--Shenandoah lyrics

 

If you're longing for the ideal mid-Atlantic destination, the Shenandoah Valley is the perfect place to see. The varied attractions and incredible convenience of the Shenandoah Valley are what attracts thousands of visitors annually. It is easily-reached by interstate, via I-81, I-64, and I-66 and, is within a one-day drive for half the population of the U.S. Once there, the area generally stretches north-to-south 200 miles from the Winchester area down to Roanoke.

 

Made famous by song and history, Shenandoah is a Native American word meaning "daughter of the stars." This picturesque area is flanked by wooded hills and mountains, ranging in elevation from around 3,000 to about 5,000 feet. The "Valley" proper is generally 10 to 20 miles wide and features many small towns and lots of rolling farmland.

 

I-81 runs the entire length of the beautiful Valley, making it convenient for quick stops at points of interest. However, for those with time, historic Route 11 offers a slow-paced drive, with even more to see and explore along the way. The entire length of the Shenandoah Valley also features smaller roads, leading to many friendly towns and tourist attractions.

 

This is certainly a region for leisurely driving and lingering. There's incredible scenery year-round, historical sites, world-famous caverns, renowned wineries, antique shopping, and a full array of tourism services.

 

Along with the people and places, Civil War sites in the Shenandoah Valley draw many visitors. The location and geography of the Valley gave it significant military importance during the Civil War. Stonewall Jackson even said, "I have only to say this-if this Valley is lost, Virginia is lost."

 

The outstanding Civil War Trails program (www.civilwartrails.org) is prevalent throughout the Valley as the "Avenue of Invasion." The program features maps, lots of background about various Civil War Trails sites, specific driving routes and more.

 

While the Civil War is a main focus for many visitors, the Shenandoah Valley's various attractions, activities, dining, and accommodations draw others. From spring wildflowers to summer activities and through to legendary fall foliage and winter sports, the Valley is popular from north to south year-round.

 

The large Virginia portion of the Shenandoah Valley begins in the Winchester and Frederick County region. Here, visitors can take in the scenic beauty of the area, step back in time, visit unique historic landmarks, discover the relocated Discovery Museum, shop, dine, enjoy professional theater, experience the largest fireman's parade on the East Coast (part of May's famed Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival), and even visit an apple orchard to pick their own apples.

 

Winchester changed hands more than 70 times during the Civil War and there were three major battles in 1864. Many special programs, re-enactments, living history demonstrations, tours, and more will commemorate the 150th anniversaries of the Second Battle of Kernstown, the Battle of Third Winchester, and the Battle of Cedar Creek.

 

Nowhere else but Winchester can one stroll the streets that George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, and Patsy Cline have all walked. Patsy Cline Historic House now welcomes visitors, as does George Washington's Office Museum and Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters. The Winchester-Frederick County Convention & Visitors Bureau (including their Civil War Orientation Center and more) can provide lots of information.

 

Berryville and Clarke County to the east provide more history, culture, and outdoor activities. A walking tour highlights a variety of residential and commercial buildings representing the town's 200-year-old history, while driving tours feature the historic districts in the county.

 

Next, Front Royal and Warren County provide the entrance to Shenandoah National Park, famed Skyline Drive, and more than 370 miles of trails in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Visitor Center in the old Southern Railroad Station on Main Street is the perfect starting place, with many brochures--including a walking tour of historic downtown.

 

As the "Canoe Capital of Virginia," popular outdoor activities include canoeing and tubing, as well as hiking, horseback riding, and excursions to George Washington National Forest or the Appalachian Trail. Near Front Royal is Skyline Caverns, one of the only places in the world to feature anthodites, the "orchids of the mineral kingdom."

 

Deep in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Route 11 passes through Shenandoah County, with incredible beauty as mountains rise to the skies on both sides. Along the way, friendly towns are perfect places to stop for a look at small-town Valley life. Antique lovers linger at the Strasburg Emporium or one of many other shops along the way, while history buffs love the Museum of American Presidents and Stonewall Jackson Museum at Hupp's Hill. Travelling south, Woodstock boasts the oldest county courthouse still in use west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The helpful Shenandoah County Travel Council office near I-81 has literature and travel information, including the new O Shenandoah County Artisan Trail and the Shenandoah County Wine Trail.

 

Next, it's time for a stroll through Edinburg's or Mount Jackson's quaint shops and eateries or a side trip up to Bryce Resort for four-season fun (including their new Bryce Resort Mountain Bike Trail, with mild to wild rides). While in Mount Jackson, Route 11 Potato Chips (see "Hip Chips in the Shenandoah Valley" on page 39) is a must-stop.

 

Visitors to New Market will want to head to the 300-acre New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, and 19th century Bushong Farm. This is where 257 VMI cadets bravely turned the tide of battle in 1864. Ten cadets perished. May 16-18, 2014, marks the 150th anniversary of the fierce battle with many events.

 

East of New Market, the Luray and Page County area draws many visitors to its historic streets and colorful caverns. The town is also a great base for exploring the surrounding mountains in the Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and along the Skyline Drive. Luray and surrounding Page County are perfect for backroads driving. The Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce in the renovated train station downtown provides information on self-guided tours of the area and lots more.

 

Luray also lures many people to historic Luray Caverns. This large facility features tours along paved walkways and more. Luray Caverns includes the world's only stalacpipe organ, which features stalactites being struck by electronically controlled rubber-tipped plungers and resulting in music of symphonic quality. Highlights include 140-foot-high ceilings, a crystal-clear wishing well, and formations resembling fried eggs, sunny-side up.

 

Other Luray and Page County attractions include the White House, which played a critical role in the Civil War in 1862, and Luray Zoo--A Rescue Zoo, which was established in 1957. Additional activities in this outdoors-oriented area include canoeing on the Shenandoah River, horseback riding, biking, hiking, camping, golf, and fishing.

 

The drive down to Harrisonburg and Rockingham County passes through Civil War battlefields preserved in farmland and an abundance of history. Harrisonburg is the home of James Madison University, Eastern Mennonite University, and nearby Bridgewater College, and the charming city is also surrounded by the giant playgrounds of George Washington-Jefferson National Forest and Shenandoah National Park. Highlights of the bustling area include the Virginia Quilt Museum, Court Square Theater, the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts, White Oak Lavender Farm, and the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum & Botanical Gardens. Biking and fishing (especially with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing) are particularly popular, as are sampling local microbrews and farm-to-table restaurants after communing with Mother Nature.

 

Harrisonburg Tourism & Visitor Services in the Hardesty-Higgins House Visitor Center on Main Street (which also includes the Valley Turnpike Museum and Civil War Orientation Center) can provide information about the entire area and many special events, including the immensely popular Rockingham County Fair in August.

 

Out around Dayton, several attractions draw tourists, including The Shops at Dayton Farmers Market, The Heritage Museum, and the Daniel Harrison House, an 18th century home depicting life in the Valley in 1749. Endless Caverns is another big Rockingham County draw, with stunning displays of calcite formations, winding passageways, large rooms, and an underground stream.

 

The drive down to Staunton is short and sweet. This hilly and pretty town, one of the Valley's most varied stops, deserves more than just a brief visit. Highlights here include: downtown (just one of Staunton's five National Historic Districts); "Jumbo" (a remarkable antique fire engine); the stained glass windows created by Tiffany Studios for historic Trinity Church; the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum; the American Shakespeare Center; restored Sears Hill Pedestrian Bridge; and the Frontier Culture Museum, featuring 17th, 18th, and 19th century working farms and also the Artisans Center of Virginia. Staunton also has a renowned music (and music festival) scene, as well as tasty farm-to-table dining.

 

West of Staunton, Waynesboro is another ideal Shenandoah Valley base or destination, with many attractions in town or nearby. The Shenandoah Valley Art Center has art exhibits, studios, classes, lectures, workshops, and performances, while the Waynesboro Heritage Museum nearby features area artifacts, Civil War relics, Indian arrowheads and tools, and many other items relating to the area's past. The P. Buckley Moss Museum houses the permanent collection of the famed artist's work and is also ideal for that perfect Shenandoah Valley souvenir or gift. Other highlights of the Augusta County area include: Grand Caverns, with towering stalactites and halls; Natural Chimneys, towering 120 feet above the Valley floor; Plumb House Museum, near the site of the Battle of Waynesboro; Viette's Beautiful Gardens; and Fishburne Military School, a leading private military educational institution.

 

Other points of interest in Bath County include nearby Jefferson Pools, Lake Moomaw, the Garth Newel Music Center, and the historic village of Warm Springs.

 

Lexington appeals to travelers with its abundance of history, outdoor adventure, and scenic beauty. A 19th century college town, Lexington is home to Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and Washington & Lee (W&L). Favorite stops include: the VMI Museum (with personal items from Stonewall Jackson and the celebrated Henry Steward Antique Firearms Collection); the George C. Marshall Museum (featuring VMI grad Marshall and World War II history); Lee Chapel & Museum (last resting place of Robert E. Lee); the Stonewall Jackson House; the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery; and narrated horse-drawn carriage tours through Lexington's restored downtown.

 

Other Rockbridge County possibilities include: great Appalachian Trail access from Buena Vista and Glasgow, plus many other outdoors opportunities; the Virginia Horse Center, with events many weekends; classic Hulls Drive-in (built in 1950); Virginia Safari Park; the Theater at Lime Kiln, featuring live music and more (Lexington has a thriving cultural scene); the Brownsburg Museum; Rockbridge Vineyard; and Wade's Mill, a working water-powered flour mill.

 

South of Lexington is Natural Bridge, one of seven natural wonders of the world and well worth a visit-including other nearby attractions like the Natural Bridge Zoo and fun Natural Bridge Speedway. Activities for outdoors enthusiasts range from hiking, canoeing, and cycling to fishing, horseback riding, and llama trekking.

 

Just a few miles further south, the Roanoke Valley beckons. Roanoke is the Valley's largest city and is the southern end of this famous region. It is known as the "Capital of the Blue Ridge" and "Star City." Roanoke is justifiably famous for its Historic Roanoke City Market, where farmers have been selling their fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers for more than 130 years. Roanoke features a burgeoning foodie scene, thanks to several renowned restaurants, microbreweries and wineries, and a taste of it all with Roanoke Food Tours.

Also in the heart of downtown is Center in the Square, a multi-cultural complex housing art, history, and science museums, a theater, and a planetarium. The stunning Taubman Museum of Art is a short walk away, with varied special exhibits and events and a permanent collection of more than 2,100 piece ranging from the 10-foot "Art World" sculpture to the 1 ½-inch square photograph, "Maggie on Beach with Dog," and from 3,500-year-old Egyptian ceramic figures to modern Roanoke artists. Other options in Roanoke's thriving downtown include the History Museum of Western Virginia and the O. Winston Link Museum, which is dedicated to the work of photographer Winston Link, who documented the last days of steam along the Northern and Western Railway in moving black-and-white and color photography, audio, and video.

 

Nearby, up by the famed Roanoke Star, the Mill Mountain Zoological Park is an accredited zoo exhibiting endangered species. West of Roanoke is Salem, highlighting antiques and sporting events, as well as Dixie Caverns. Bedford and the National D-Day Memorial (the 70th anniversary of D-Day is June 6, 2014) is about 30 miles east of Roanoke. Finally, sprawling Smith Mountain Lake to the southeast is a glistening Shenandoah Valley gem and a fitting end--or beginning of any exploration.

For more information visit www.virginia.org and www.visitshenandoah.org.

 

Hip Chips in the Shenandoah Valley 


Situated just off Route 11 near Mount Jackson, Route 11 Potato Chips is quite simply a must-stop. This Shenandoah Valley success story produces renowned potato chips found at Cracker Barrel and many Mid-Atlantic stores, as well as at this modern production facility (which includes a viewing window to see the chips being made). Route 11 Potato Chips owner Sarah Cohen says fans of her hip chips really love these options:

 

Sweet Potato: Available lightly salted or topped with cinnamon and sugar, the natural sugars of the sweet potatoes caramelize in the fryer for a complex taste treat. Moms love them because a single ounce of these chips supplies 120% of the RDA for Vitamin A.

 

Mama Zuma's Revenge: Let's just say these chips are hot in the mouth and on the market. It's the generous helpings of dried habanero and chipotle powder that make this Route 11 favorite the "hottest chip in the market."

 

Lightly Salted: The original hand-cooked Route 11 standard setter.

 

Chesapeake Crab: They use a spice blend found at many Mid-Atlantic crab houses for this popular line.

 

Dill Pickle: Still our kind of southern-style crunch and taste.

 

Shenandoah Valley native and frequent TrailBlazer contributor Lynn Seldon is a veteran travel writer and photographer. He was born in Winchester and is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. One of his many travel books, Country Roads of Virginia, features the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of Virginia and is available through his website (www.lynnseldon.com). His upcoming novel, Virginia's Ring, which is based in Lexington and Richmond, Virginia, is also available through his website.

BEACH CRUISER RIDE: MYRTLE BEACH

Cycling at South Carolina's Myrtle Beach is two-wheel travel at its beachy best.

 

Just south of Myrtle Beach proper, the Waccamaw Neck Bikeway punctuates the area's natural scenery with spots to savor fresh cooking and local art and architecture. Much of the paved path is closed to vehicular traffic, and it generally runs through wooded public land. Even in the heat of summer, we often make our way here from our home in Oak Island, N.C., to ride the shady trail.


The Waccamaw Neck Bikeway is a work in progress -- once completed it will lead to just north of Georgetown, a 20-mile ride -- but shorter segments are already open for riders. Our favorite ride is a 16-mile out-and-back trip along that features the longest and best stretch of trail. This route runs north about 8 miles from the town of Pawleys Island, near the planned community ofLitchfield by the Sea, to the fishing village of Murrells Inlet.

We picked up beach cruisers and pedaled out to explore the trail, stopping at our favorite places along the way. Including lunch, the ride took about 6 hours; you could cycle it in less time, but you might not be able to take in the beauty of the historic houses and gardens, marshes, dunes and beaches. Follow along with us in the slideshow below.

 

Bike Rental to Start the Trip

 

We rented two purple three-speed beach cruisers at Cyclopedia, about 30 minutes from the busy heart of Myrtle Beach. We’ve always found the staff there friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. They’re also trail insiders, so we stop there just to see what’s going on along the route even when we’re using our own bikes.

 

Provisions at the Piggly Wiggly

 

After gearing up, we grabbed a couple of just-picked South Carolina peaches at the Piggly Wiggly next door. There are restaurants along the route, but we always stop at this grocery to load up on snacks. The mostly tree-shaded trail has a number of great picnic spots, includingBrookgreen Gardens, Huntington Beach State Park and the waterfront at Murrells Inlet. 

 

Neighborhood Detour

 

From the Piggly Wiggly, we cycled about 3 miles through the beachy waterfront community ofLitchfield by the Sea. After half a mile on the bike trail proper, which runs parallel to busy US 17, we took a detour through the quiet neighborhood of North Litchfield. We turned right on Boyle Road for half a mile, passing Flagg Pond on the left (watch for alligators), turned left on Lakeshore Drive for another half-mile and took a left on Trace Drive for a third of a mile to rejoin the path. There are no bike route signs in North Litchfield -- we did stop to ask a friendly neighbor if we were on the right track, but it was less complicated than it sounds and a nice alternative to riding along the highway.

 

Garden Tour

 

We arrived at Brookgreen Gardens, directly across US 17 from the bikeway. It’s a must-see on the trail and is accessible to riders in both directions. We typically choose to explore either Brookgreen Gardens or Huntington Beach State Park on the way up and catch the other one on our way back, which breaks up the ride nicely.

 

Serene Sculptures

 

Brookgreen Gardens was founded as an outdoor museum in 1931 by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington -- who also built Atalaya, a historic mansion in Huntington Beach State Park. On our previous Brookgreen visits we’ve explored the outdoor sculptures, various nature trails, creek cruises and the Lowcountry Zoo. For this ride, thanks to an early start, we simply sat in the shade among the garden’s staggering collection of more than 1400 sculptures before continuing the ride. If you’re like us, you’ll want to return -- the $14 admission is good for seven consecutive days.

 

Beach Cruising

 

After resting our legs, we rode a quarter-mile up the bikeway to Huntington Beach State Park, one of our favorite parks in the South Carolina State Parks system. We enjoyed a peaceful and relatively shady ride into the park itself, which has an education center, a wide beach, changing facilities for swimmers, a nature trail and boardwalks, an excellent gift shop and our next stop: castle-like Atalaya. Exploring the park added about 2 more miles to our 16-mile round-trip ride.

 

Myrtle's Mediterranean Mansion

 

Built in a Moorish style like much of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, Atalaya in Huntington Beach State Park is well worth the additional $2 to the park’s $5 entry fee. “Atalaya” is Spanish for watchtower, which is a major element of the building’s architecture. While there, we learned that Archer Huntington was the son of transportation magnate Collis P. Huntington and that his wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington, was a renowned sculptor. They purchased Brookgreen and three adjacent plantations as a winter home and studio for Anna’s sculpture. The shady self-guided tour took us through many of the mansion’s now-abandoned rooms.

 

Seafood Stop

 

Back on our bikes after Atalaya, it was another 4 miles to Murrells Inlet, with 2 miles on theWaccamaw Neck Bikeway dedicated bike path and about 2 miles on the relatively wide shoulder of US 17 Business. About 10 miles south of Myrtle Beach, the small fishing village has a variety of waterfront restaurants and bars. At the suggestion of the folks at Cyclopedia, we stopped at Drunken Jack’s, a favorite among locals and veteran visitors. Along with what seemed like gallons of iced tea, we split an in-season soft shell crab sandwich and a salad topped with fresh local shrimp.

 

Fishing Village Fun

 

After refueling at Drunken Jack’s we spent some time wandering around the Murrells Inlet MarshWalk, one of our favorite places in the Myrtle Beach area. The waterfront boardwalk is a good place to watch boats come and go, plus it has shops, restaurants and several picture-worthy sculptures depicting local life. When Lynn came across this pensive man, he couldn’t resist.

 

A Well-Deserved Feast

 

As we took our time seeing the sights on the way up, our return ride was a straight shot back to Pawleys Island. We couldn’t wait to get to Louis’s at Sanford’s for a cold beverage and some of the best Lowcountry cooking in South Carolina. The menu features dishes from legendary South Carolina chef Louis Osteen, including smoked meats, creative local seafood and famed creamy shrimp and grits. After 16 miles of cycling, solid Southern food was just what we needed.​

CULINARY CRUISING

Sharpen Your Knives: Many Lines Now Feature More than Meals on Their Menus.

 

Dining is certainly a tasty topic for cruise traveling "foodies" who consider eating an important part of any voyage. However, some cruise lines have, as Emeril Lagasse might say, kicked it up a notch when it comes to hands-on cooking classes, culinary demonstrations with tastings, special food-focused shore excursions, culinary themed cruises, and more. There are now plenty of opportunities to literally sharpen your knives and skills onboard and even ashore.

 

"While many ships offer cooking demonstrations for guests to observe, what has set our culinary centers apart is the opportunity for guests to actually do their own cooking," says Kunal S. Kamlani, president of Oceania Cruises, the line that took cooking classes at sea to new heights with their groundbreaking Bon Appétit Culinary Center. "The classes promise an interactive and rewarding experience for epicureans."

 

Along with Oceania Cruises, several other lines offer interactive cooking classes in dedicated spaces that take kitchens--and knives--to the high seas. Holland America Line, Silversea Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, and P&O Cruises also make it easier than ever to get cooking in their state-of-the-art classroom kitchens, plus these five food-focused lines and others now feature food and wine tastings and shore excursions, foodie-friendly demonstrations, and lots of varied theme cruises focusing on food.

 

HANDS-ON COOKING CLASSES

 

Perhaps no line takes its culinary offerings more seriously than Oceania Cruises. Along with complimentary specialty restaurants and more, the line's groundbreaking Bon Appetit Culinary Center onboard Marina and Riviera offers a tasty example for foodies to literally sharpen their knives and get cooking. The sprawling multi-million-dollar centers feature fully-outfitted two-person work stations with induction cooktops--an industry first--that have been a favorite with loyal Oceania fans since their debut onboard Marina in 2011.

There are more than 20 different classes currently offered onboard, with the possibilities ranging from regional cuisines to the secrets of homemade pasta. The various classes generally run 90 minutes and cost $69, with all lessons pursuing the goal of enhancing each participant's knowledge, skills, and cooking enjoyment.

 

New hands-on classes are added each year, while the line continues to offer long-time favorites. For instance, mouthwatering titles for classes on a cruise can include: "French Classics," "Italian Family Table," "Modern Nordic," "Magical Morocco," "Mastering Fish," and "Most Requested from Canyon Ranch," which features the most requested recipes from the world-renowned health resort and creator of the Canyon Ranch SpaClub on each Oceania ship.

 

Holland America Line is another company with a long lineage of serving up more than food to foodies. Their similarly groundbreaking Culinary Arts Center by Food & Wine magazine was first introduced onboard the line's Ryndam in 2005 and is now available fleetwide. Set in a theater-style "show kitchen at sea" venue and featuring two large plasma screens and a large cooking display counter, the Culinary Arts Center focuses on fun demonstrations and classes run by culinary staff and an onboard party planner.

 

"The Culinary Arts Center continues to be a cornerstone of our onboard enrichment program and one of the most popular activities we offer," says Rick Meadows, executive vice president, marketing, sales, and guest programs. "It's a unique experience that we are able to give our guests."

 

Itinerary-themed classes include "Flavors of the Northwest" and "Fresh Ketch" in Alaska, jerk chicken in the Caribbean, classic capanata and mozzarella in the Mediterranean, Eastern fare in Asia, and more. There are also mixology classes, wine tastings, party planning programs, and more.

 

Depending on interest, the Culinary Arts Center also hosts very popular and limited-participation hands-on classes run by an onboard chef. Typically running 60 to 90 minutes and priced at $29--with at least two offered every cruise--class topics vary with the itinerary, including cooking with Alaskan seafood on Alaska cruises, Caribbean specialties when sailing those islands, and Baltic or Mediterranean fare when cruising in Europe.

 

A third helping of hands-on culinary classes offered by cruise lines is served up by Silversea Cruises, whose unique Relais & Chateaux L'Ecole des Chefs cooking school is offered on select voyages. Hosted by acclaimed culinary trainer David Bilsland, a former instructor at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in London, the popular cooking program is offered completely free of charge and provides lucky foodies with a special culinary curriculum that includes hands-on instruction, entertaining events, and more.

 

Chef Bilsland is hosting 12 L'Ecole Des Chefs voyages in 2015, with unique offerings carefully designed to showcase the cultural flavors of the ship's itinerary. Participating guests might learn how to prepare Cajun-spiced shrimp, vegetable fritto misto, spanakopita, or other international specialties. Along with hands-on cooking classes, other lessons include: basic knife skills and kitchen terminology; sauces; baking; cooking demonstrations with wine pairings and interactive Q&A sessions; lively cooking competitions between Chef Bilsland and the ship's culinary team; "Lunch & Learn;" and lots of "Take It Home" recipes.

 

Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is yet another line that's kicked hands-on cooking opportunities and other tasty options up a notch. Situated on the line's highly regarded Europa 2, the Miele Culinary School features the ship's chefs de cuisine teaching a maximum of eight participants how to prepare a multi-course meal corresponding to the cuisine of the region through which they're sailing.

 

For example, the four-hour "Foray into the Mediterranean" might teach "trainee chefs" the hands-on preparation of cold tomato and pepper gazpacho alongside freshly caught turbot with basil risotto plus a saffron sauce and various oils. Afterward, the cooks gather around the table to enjoy their handiwork accompanied by appropriate wines. At press time, Miele Culinary School classes ran about $110 and included the accompanying wines, recipes, and chef's aprons.

 

United Kingdom-based P&O Cruises will offer hands-on cooking experiences onboard its new Britannia when she debuts in March. Called The Cookery Club, this first hands-on cooking program on a British ship was developed by Yorkshire-born celebrity chef James Martin. Varied classes for up to 24 people will be offered. The cuisine of other British "food heroes"--such as Marco Pierre White, Atul Kochbar, Olly Smith, and Eric Lanlard--will also be featred onboard.

 

"These are exciting innovations, and the great thing is that some of these ideas have been created internally by our staff in Southampton," says Christopher Edgington, P&O's marketing director.

 

MORE CULINARY PROGRAMS

 

All of the aforementioned lines and others offer additional food-focused possibilities onboard and ashore. For instance, Oceania Cruises features "Culinary Discovery Tours" that are shore excursions for foodies. Some of the possibilities include: "The Exquisite Flavors of Provence" in Marseille, France; "Market Tour, Cooking & Chocolate Demos" in Venice, Italy; "Fish & Spice Markets with Turkish Luncheon" at Istanbul's famed Grand Bazaar; and "Biodynamic Farm & Island Foods Tasting" on Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

 

Oceania has also expanded their palate-pleasing offerings by adding a new "Wine by the Bottle Package" featuring a list of more than 50 bottles, including some exclusive wines otherwise not available in the restaurants onboard. They've also introduced the "Odyssey Menu" for the La Reserve by Wine Spectator tasting room onboard the Marina and Riviera where seven gourmet courses paired with the finest wines from around the world.

 

Along with its hands-on classes, the Culinary Arts Center onboard Holland America ships also offers a wide variety of complimentary classes and demonstrations on every cruise. These include regional dish preparation demos where you eat the results, discounted wine tastings with paired dishes, mixology classes, Culinary Arts Center programs for kids, and more.

 

Silversea Cruises also offers a number of tasty options beyond its exclusive Relais & Chateaux L'Ecole des Chefs cruises. These include cooking demonstrations; intimate "Lunch & Learn" mid-day repasts where a chef demonstrates dish preparation and then serves them; fun cooking competitions; "Market to Plate" escorted market tours followed by a cooking class; and varied foodie shore excursions, such as instructor-led "Culinary Outing" to a local venue where guests can enjoy a unique cooking exploration.

 

In addition to the Miele Culinary School onboard the Europa 2, Hapag-Lloyd's other offerings include cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, and gin samplings from the largest gin collection at sea. There are even children's pizza baking sessions.

 

Along with popular cooking demonstrations onboard, Seabourn Cruise Line also features "Shopping with the Chef" excursions in various ports. These chef-led complimentary trips are generally limited to 15 people and typically head to local markets at ports visited by the line on its worldwide itineraries. Seabourn's shore excursions program also includes many food and wine options, like "A Taste of Corsica," "Private Cooking School at Villa Ida (in Sorrento, Italy), and "Ola Village & Greek Cooking" in Santorini, Greece.

 

The new "Private Events" offerings from Windstar Cruises feature several options that focus on food. These complimentary events often have a culinary component, including: "Phuket: A Feast for the Senses," "Rhodes: The Tantalizing Tastes of Greece," and "Messina: Taste of Sicily." In addition, Windstar sailings typically include a complimentary tour to a local market with the executive chef, cooking classes, galley tours, wine tastings, and an onboard barbecue while at anchor.

 

In addition, Windstar Cruises and Saveur magazine recently created a one-of-a-kind platform to uncover the world's most delicious destinations for culinary travelers. Windstar Local Dining Tips Curated by SAVEUR offers SAVEUR-recommended culinary guides to many of Windstar's tastiest ports. The tips for more than 20 destinations around the globe include insider advice on where to find the top restaurants, most unique local markets, authentic culinary shops, and hidden watering holes.

 

"From eating fried sardines at Istanbul's Karakoy Fish Market to seeking out the go-to coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City, SAVEUR will help guide those looking for the best culinary experiences abroad," says Hans Birkholz, Windstar Cruises' chief executive officer.

 

Many river cruise lines also focus on food through cooking demonstrations, special regional menus, shore excursions, and more. For instance, on its sailings in Germany and Austria, Uniworld features very popular apple strudel, Black Forest cake, and French crepe demonstrations and themed Bavarian lunches; in Bologna, Italy, a pasta-making tour is offered; and in many ports there are buying trips with the chef to local markets. Through their Culture Curriculum program, Viking River Cruises has varied food-focused behind-the-scenes guided visits (including morning "Shop With the Chef" excursions), onboard lectures, and samplings featuring regional culinary specialties. Unique to the Viking Longships are organic herb gardens on the Sun Decks.

 

CULINARY THEME CRUISES

 

Theme cruises that focus on food and wine have also grown in popularity. In fact, Food & Wine Trails is offering more theme cruises than ever during their 25th anniversary in 2015. Their 2015 series of 17 cruises feature renowned winery personalities as onboard hosts from the vineyards of Joseph Phelps, Domaine Chandon, Duckhorn, Martinelli, and many more. Featured cruise lines include Oceania, Silversea, Celebrity, and Uniworld. Besides the cruise itself, the culinary-themed sailings include a series of private events, parties, wine tastings, and wine-paired lunches and dinners. Special culinary shore excursions (priced from $199 per person) feature all-day programs with wine-paired meals.

 

The popularity of the Top Chef program on Bravo television network has led to theme cruises for fans onboard Celebrity Cruises. Building on the popularity of 2013's "Top Chef: The Cruise" charter, the "Top Chef at Sea" partnership now features multiple sailings each year. With former Top Chef contestants onboard, the cruises include complimentary cooking demonstrations, the show's interactive Quickfire Challenges, and other activities. For a more exclusive experience (at an additional cost), guests can enjoy private cooking classes and events hosted by former 'cheftestants'.

 

New for Un-Cruise Adventures this year are four August and September sailings onboard 88-guest S.S. Legacy that are designated "Ameritage! Four Rivers of Wine & History." These theme cruises ply the Columbia, Snake, Willamette, and Palouse rivers, highlighting the burgeoning wine regions in Washington and Oregon. Tastings at nine wineries are included in the cruise fare, as are the services of an onboard wine expert, innovative regionally-focused cuisine, and premium wine, beer, and spirits.

 

Oceania's 2015-16 "Cruising with the Chefs" program on the Marina and Riviera features what concept co-founder Rodney George calls, "A cruise within a cruise, with rock star chefs." Itinerary highlights include cooking classes with the guest chef, chef-led shore excursions with special visits to local markets and restaurants, classes and hosted meals featuring ports of call, and welcome, farewell, and wine tastings providing personal time with chefs. Famed Jacques Pepin, the line's culinary director will be onboard for the July 7-17, 2015, sailing from Lisbon to Rome for his third annual "Cruising with the Chefs" appearance.

 

Seabourn's recent "Best of the Riviera Food & Wine Cruise" from Monte Carlo to Rome, provided a perfect example of a specific culinary theme cruise--it included daily culinary events, cooking demonstrations by celebrity guest chefs, expanded "Shopping with the Chef" excursions to markets, tastings of local specialties, and more. "It only made sense to create this special epicurean cruise to showcase our culinary strengths in one of the most popular and revered food and wine regions in the world," says John Delaney, Seabourn's senior vice president of marketing and sales, who added that the line plans more culinary-themed cruises.

 

Windstar features several tasty theme cruises; one of its most popular offerings has been "Culinary Delights of Spain." This cruise has included Spanish food and wine pairings during two special dinners, two complimentary vineyard and culinary shore excursions, complimentary local wines poured throughout the voyage, regional wine lectures, and complimentary pre-dinner wine tastings and tapas.

 

And Hapag Lloyd's Europa 2 offers special "Connoisseurs of Cuisine" cruises featuring internationally renowned gourmet experts--such as Sarha Henke, Michelin-starred chef de cuisine at A-ROSA resorts, or Wolfgang Otto from the Otto Gourmet mail-order company--whocome onboard for culinary workshops and more.

 

Given all of these tasty options onboard and onshore, many cruise lines have really kicked it up a notch when it comes to varied culinary programs. Bam!

DIVE RIGHT INTO BELIZE

Tourism officials in Belize use the slogan “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret,” but the secret’s out on Belize.

 

This Central America country is pleasing more and more visitors with a wide variety of natural attractions.

 

Nestled on Central America’s coastline, Belize was the cradle of the ancient Mayan civilization. Today, it is a land of verdant jungles, flowing rivers, majestic mountains, pure sandy beaches, and crystal-clear and thriving waters. With the lowest population density in the region, Belize is on the leading edge of the conservation and preservation movement on land and at sea.

 

Belize is a relaxed, English-speaking country of around 280,000 friendly inhabitants, just awaiting discovery above and below the surface. A wide variety of accommodations, dining, and activities make it ideal for all budgets and inclinations.

 

Officials are ensuring that Belize, Mother Nature, and tourists all remain on good terms. “Much of Belize is untouched by man, as it has been for the last thousand years,” Tracy Panton, director of tourism, said. “Myriad public programs, including the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT), are forming a national infrastructure that fosters preservation and management of Belize’s unique natural and cultural resources.”

 

The destination certainly isn’t a secret with airlines flying into Belize City (with connecting service to all main towns and three offshore islands). Bordered by Mexico in the north and west and Guatemala to the west and south, Belize is just two hours or so from the United States by daily flights departing from Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, and Miami (with many easy connections from northeast cities).

Once there, the range of possibilities is phenomenal. Visitors can enjoy crystal-clear Caribbean waters above and below the surface, including world-class snorkeling and diving on the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. On land, it’s easy to uncover the secrets of ancient Mayan civilizations, explore majestic mountains, or enter the lushness of rainforests alive with life.

 

Dive Right In

 

Belize pleases in so many ways, but the reef is the reason lots of scuba divers and snorkelers love this country. The scuba diving (and snorkeling) around Ambergris Caye and elsewhere make Belize one of the world’s top underwater destinations. It doesn’t hurt that this country features a huge reef, clear and calm water, an abundance of colorful fish accustomed to divers and snorkelers, and a wide variety of sites.

 

Generally running about 30 miles off the coast of Belize, the 185-mile barrier reef system is part of the second largest system in the world (second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). It features a stunning array of diving and snorkeling spots to suit any need or experience level. From beginner to veteran, Belize will please even the most discerning diver or snorkeler.

 

Tucked away on the Caribbean coast of Central America, Belize is home to 70 types of hard corals, more than 400 species of fish, three magnificent atolls, seven aquatic World Heritage sites, nearly 200 offshore cayes, and an endless array of diving and snorkeling sites.

 

Like a gigantic living wall, the extraordinary barrier reef is a complicated system of individual reefs that parallel the nation's coastline, stretching from the Yucatan to Central America. Between the reef and the mainland are shallow, sandy waters dotted with picture-perfect cayes.

 

The reef’s sheer walls are lined with large, colorful sponges that play host to teeming schools of fish, while large patches of colorful corals form garden-like settings. Home of significant marine life that include threatened species, a showcase of extraordinary natural phenomena, and a place of heart-stopping beauty, the barrier reef is one of Belize's most prized assets.

 

There are many possible Belize underwater destinations, with Ambergris Caye and the Turneffe Islands among the many great opportunities. Quite simply, it’s hard to go wrong in this underwater world.

 

Taking Atoll

 

Belize has three of the Caribbean's four major atolls--ancient underwater volcanoes, rimmed in coral. Each atoll forms a circular coral island with a central lagoon, and houses distinctive ecosystems both within the lagoon and surrounding the atoll. With dramatic underwater walls, channels, and canyons, the atolls offer some of Belize's most spectacular dives.
 

Lighthouse Reef is the most eastern atoll, 50 miles southeast of Belize City. Amidst the reef’s many and varied wonders is the awesome Blue Hole, with incredible stalactites hanging from the ceilings of underwater caves. Once an aboveground cave, it has been submerged since the Ice Age. A portion of its ceiling collapsed over time, forming a sinkhole more than 400 feet deep and nearly 1,000 feet in diameter, rich with mammoth stalactites. The Blue Hole has been a beacon for the divers since Jacques Cousteau pioneered its exploration in the early 1970s.

 

Land Ho!

 

From soft adventure to more hard core options, Belize doesn’t disappoint on land either. The options include: taking a hike; hopping on a bike or horse; heading down a river or into a cave; rock climbing; and exploring the Mundo Maya (World of the Maya).

 

Belize boasts an intricate network of trails--most with abundant wildlife--presenting a range of easy to rigorous options. Trails can be found in national parks, resorts, archaeological sites, and even underground. Many organized tours are available (and recommended for more remote outings). Some of the many options might include hiking to ancient ruins, through the rainforest, or to sparkling river pools and waterfalls. In addition to going on foot, mountain biking and horseback riding are easily arranged.

 

Belize’s waterways were once the primary means of transportation. Today, they’re still a stunning way of experiencing this lush country. The Belize River is the main waterway, entering the nation from Guatemala and winding 175 miles east through Belize City to the Caribbean. Smaller, but equally alluring and teeming with marine life, are the Manatee, Sibun, Monkey, Sittee, South Stann Creek, Macal, and Mopan. Canoeing, kayaking, and rafting trips (complete with overland transfers) provide a perfect opportunity to navigate Belize as it earliest inhabitants once did. From November to April, some rivers run at high levels--presenting whitewater rafting for willing adventurers.

 

Belize even welcomes visitors underground. Many of Belize’s caves boast huge caverns with splendid crystal formations, while others house Mayan artifacts. Some even have underground rivers flowing through them. Whether entering by foot, kayak, canoe, inner tube, or with scuba or snorkeling gear, Belize’s caves beckon.

 

Rock climbing is a more recent offering. Both novice and expert climbers can scale the outside of certain Mayan caves and then repel back to the ground. Instruction and gear make it easy to conquer some hard rocks.

 

Finally, Mundo Maya means lots of exploration options. Belize has the highest concentration of Mayan sites in Central America (there were more than one million Maya in Belize during the “classic” period (about 250 A.D. to 900 A.D.).

 

Maya ruins are a fascinating excursion to another time and most sites are easily accessible. Some top possibilities include: Altun Ha (the most extensively excavated site in Belize); Caracol (reached by a spectacular drive through the Chiquibul Rainforest); Cerros (once a coastal trading center); Lamanai (one of the largest Maya ceremonial sites); Lubaantun (completely built without mortar of any type); and Xunantunich (overlooking the Mopal River).

 

For more information about Belize, visit www.travelbelize.org or your local travel agent.

GOING WHOLE HOG AT PALMETTO BLUFF'S MUSIC TO YOUR MOUTH

Rodney Scott hardly slept a wink at Palmetto Bluff’s sixth helping of the Music to Your Mouth foodie festival this past November, at least not on Thursday night. That’s because he was cooking up an entire hog.

 

From Nov. 14-18, Scott and many other chefs and attendees went “whole hog,” immersing themselves in tasty Lowcountry food, beverages and music on the banks of the May River.

 

“It’s like a big family reunion in your own little world,” says Scott, who runs Scott’s Bar-B-Que in the South Carolina crossroads town of Hemingway for his day — and night — job.

 

Scott was preparing a Fatback Pork Project mixed-breed pig (Mangalista and Berkshire) to be served at that Friday night’s riverfront Potlikker Block Party. He was joined by a long list of other Southern chef luminaries that have made Music to Your Mouth a word-of-mouth favorite in chef circles.

 

Begin with the mouthwatering list of Charleston chefs in attendance this past November: The Macintosh’s Jeremiah Bacon; Sean Brock of McCrady’s and Husk; Craig Deihl of Cypress; Mike Lata of FIG and The Ordinary; Slightly North of Broad’s Frank Lee; Nathan Thurston of Stars; and Charleston Grill’s Michelle Weaver. All of them swear on a stack of cornbread that they’ll be back in 2013 if possible.

 

To that Charleston chef stew, Palmetto Bluff added Jim ‘N Nick’s executive chef Drew Robinson; Atlanta’s Hugh Acheson, Kevin Gillespie, Linton Hopkins, Anne Quatrano and Steven Satterfield; Birmingham’s Chris Hastings (who has attended all six festivals); Oxford’s John Currence; beloved Bill Smith from Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner; Old Edwards Inn’s Johannes Klepdohr; The Umstead’s Scott Crawford; and many others.

 

Of his perennial attendance, Hot and Hot Fish Club’s Hastings says, “There’s really no other event like it. If I could attend one festival every year, this would be it.”

 

Unlike some larger festivals, all of these chefs (and many more) actually cooked, served and chatted up a storm at Saturday’s four-hour Culinary Festival on the Village Green.

 

“This event is really popular with chefs like me for good reason,” says SNOB’s Lee, who has missed just one. The reasons he and other chefs cite for returning as often as possible include how well Palmetto Bluff takes care of the chefs and their families, the interaction between chefs, and the limited ticket sales and resulting intimacy between attendees and chefs.

 

Saturday’s tasting portions were accompanied by tastes of world-class wines (think Turley), spirits (think Firefly, Maker’s Mark and more), craft beers (Bluffton’s own River Dog Brewery was a favorite), Bloody Marys from Charleston Mix and Fat & Juicy, and coffee from Charleston’s King Bean Coffee Roasters. Late in the session, chefs could be found enjoying the plated and poured work of others along with attendees.

 

The rest of the weekend, relaxed chefs could be found at a variety of the other events, sharing recipes and stories with other cooks, beverage buddies, and attendees who quickly learn chefs love to talk about their craft.

 

“It’s still an event where we can interact with the guests and really get to know them on a personal level,” says Brock. “I have met so many people at Music to Your Mouth that are now regular guests at our restaurants.”

 

Though people started filtering into Palmetto Bluff on Thursday to catch up with foodie friends new and old, as well as attending special events and classes, the party really got going early Friday evening with a tailgate event at the bocce courts, followed by the block party that somehow gets better every year.

 

This past year, Friday night’s focus was on bacon (Allan Benton of Benton’s Country Hams) and bourbon (Julian Van Winkle III, of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery). The evening included two short Southern Foodways Alliance films showcasing the work of Benton and Van Winkle.

 

As with the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, the SFA was heavily involved.

 

“We are witnessing a proliferation of festivals in the South and across the nation, and what we will see are that festivals that focus tightly on place will rise to the top and the festivals that are less focused on their approach will become less relevant,” says SFA Director John T. Edge, who also hosted popular cooking classes led by Chris Hastings and John Currence.

 

Friday night’s party, in addition to Scott’s barbecue, included lots of steamed seafood, a “bacon forest” filled with hanging Benton’s bacon, and even a roadie version of Jim ‘N Nick’s popular “Taco Tuesday” bar that featured tasty tacos with pork, chicken, beef brisket, catfish and more. Though the evening ended late with S’Mores and more around blazing firepits, Saturday started early for many with the traditional 5K fun run, featuring dueling Bloody Mary bars at the finish line.

 

Following the Culinary Festival and quick naps for some, Saturday night featured what many view as the highlight of the weekend: a traditional oyster roast with annual twists. Held at a secluded riverfront spot, the Kiss the Pig Oyster Roast included heaping loads of steamed oysters, a creative Southern-leaning buffet, and a huge swine ice sculpture with shots spouting into the mouths of those who chose to kiss the pig.

 

Those who think Music to Your Mouth is simply a mini-Charleston Wine + Food Festival simply haven’t gone whole hog — yet.

“I am a big fan of Palmetto Bluff,” says Charleston Wine + Food Executive Director Angel Passailaigue Postell. “It was actually my third time at Music to Your Mouth. The first year, I just went for the day and then last year went as a ‘Whole Hog’ attendee.

 

“I have seen how the festival has evolved and love how this year they partnered with the Southern Foodways Alliance and made it really Southern and about the Lowcountry. I love the talent they showcase, and it is almost too many amazing chefs and winemakers in their tasting tent. I do love all of the Charleston contingency and it is great to see chefs like Michelle Weaver, Frank Lee and Jeremiah Bacon a part of it.”

 

You can bet Postell and many others will be headed to Music to Your Mouth’s website come June. That’s when limited Whole Hog tickets will go on sale — and sell out soon thereafter.

 

Visit www.musictoyour mouth.com or call 706-6400. Last year’s Whole Hog ticket packages were limited to 150 and sold out quickly at $875. That’s less than when compared to individual event pricing. The 2012 package included Friday’s tailgating and Potlikker Block Party; the Hair of the Dog 5K road “race”; Saturday’s Culinary Festival; the famed oyster roast; a Sunday brunch; two after parties at riverside fire pits; and a gift bag.

 

Second Helpings, a Lowcountry nonprofit dedicated to ensuring no one in the community will worry about having enough food to eat, received $50 from every Whole Hog package sale.

 

Staying on the property is an option, with a two-person Whole Hog package including two tickets, two nights in a spacious cottage and more running $2,750 for two last year.

 

WINE COUNTRY: CENTRAL COAST CALIFORNIA

California boasts the most award-winning wineries in the United States, with stunning wine country spread all across The Golden State.

 

Of course, destinations like fabled Napa and Sonoma remain on the tips of everyone's wine-stained tongues, but the Central Coast region remains at the center of it all when it comes to visiting wine country in California.

 

For about 300 miles between San Francisco and Santa Barbara (mostly accessed by US 101), the Central Coast presents a wide array of vineyards, wineries, wines, and other destinations and activities associated with wine country--like great dining. Thanks to varied locations, terrain, microclimates, and other conditions, the wines of the Central Coast can be widely varied--even between wines from vineyards just miles apart. 

 

This means lots of different grapes lead to varied wines in bottles. The Central Coast is rightfully well-known for pinot noir and chardonnay--along with classic and creative blends. Other grapes and wines gaining favor in the Central Coast and elsewhere in California include riesling, viognier, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, semillon, gewürztraminer, merlot, zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, sangiovese, grenache, tempranillo, and more, as well as rose and dessert wines.

 

Independent tasting tours of the Central Coast are quite easy to pursue, with varied vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms often just around the next bend. Organized tours of all sorts are also on offer throughout the Central Coast. Food-and-beverage-focused events and festivals also provide a great time to head to the region. In any case, designated drivers are highly recommended in wine country. Central Coast winery visits, tours, and tasting experiences can be widely diverse. However--very generally speaking--visitors should expect to pay a tasting fee for a certain number of wines. This fee is often waived with the purchase of a certain number of bottles (sometimes as little as one) or a specific amount spent. Starting from the south in and near Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara County wine country provides a perfect introduction to everything Central Coast. Immortalized in the 2004 novel and feature film, Sideways, Santa Barbara County is known for pinot noir--and, now, much more.

 

Santa Barbara County's wine tourism features six distinct AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) north of Santa Barbara proper, but the town of Santa Barbara is a great place to start, thanks to a unique area of town called the Funk Zone. This walkable area, which is part of Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail, consists of a wide range of tasting rooms on several bustling blocks.

 

Some specific Funk Zone tasting possibilities include: Santa Barbara Winery (established in 1962 and the county's oldest winery); Oreana Winery & Marketplace (located in a former tire shop); Carr Winery & Vineyard (each drip hand harvested with organic grapes); and The Valley Project, a great place to taste wines from all five growing regions (look for the county map in chalk behind the bar).

 

Figueroa Mountain Brewing has a quirky outpost here and the dining scene in the Funk Zone rivals the wine and beer vibe, with The Lark remaining very popular with locals and visitors alike--thanks to creative California-style cuisine paired perfectly with wines from near and far. Nearby, the Santa Barbara Public Market is a great place to purchase picnic ingredients to enjoy down on the beach in the Stearns Wharf area.

 

The rest of Santa Barbara County wine country presents many other tasting opportunities. The Santa Ynez Valley is next, with the towns of Solvang, Buellton, and Los Olivos all offering tasty possibilities.

 

Known as "Little Denmark," Solvang was founded in 1911 by Danish-American settlers. Possibilities in this often-busy town include wines and more at the Wandering Dog Wine Bar, beers at the Solvang Brewing Company, and tasty pastries at Olsen's Danish Village Bakery. Adjacent Buellton gained fame thanks to Sideways, with the Hitching Post II the place to head to re-live the meals and wines the characters enjoyed. For a completely different dining experience, head to sprawling Pea Soup Anderson's, where they've been serving up pea soup, and much more, since 1924--including two million bowls a year in modern times, plus many more Danish-leaning lunch and dinner menu items, filling breakfasts, and a fun gift shop.

 

For wine beyond the Hitching Post II, Terravant Winery is a great bet. For beer, aforementioned Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. features a fun spot in an industrial area of town.

 

Los Olivos is next and it's well worth any slight diversion. Grand Avenue is truly grand when it comes to tasting rooms, with the laundry list of possibilities including: Carhartt (run by relatives of the legendary maker of pants and more); Andrew Murray Vineyards; Refugio; Saarloos; The Sanger Family of Wines; Refugio; Evan's Ranch Wine; Coquelicot Estate Vineyard; and Epiphany, which is a sister winery of Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard--yes, that Fess Parker, of Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone fame. Dining options in the quaint town include: Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant (also featured in Sideways), Panino, Sides Hardware and Shoes Restaurant, and Petros Los Olivos in the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa, while there's fun shopping (including wine!) at the Los Olivos General Store.

 

To the east, the city of Lompoc provides another "urban" tasting experience in a neighborhood called the Wine Ghetto. Originally used as a wine production spot in the 1990s, tasting rooms arrived in the mid-2000s. The resulting small-producer tasting rooms are one-of-a-kind, including Zotovich Cellars, among many, as well as Longoria Wines nearby. They're all on the Lompoc Wine Trail.

 

Back to the north of Los Olivos, Foxen Canyon Road (part of the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail) leads to several unique winery experiences. The first is Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard, which was founded by the actor Fess Parker in 1969 and is now a three generation operation with great wines and scenery--look for the coonskin cap wine bottle toppers as a unique souvenir. Further up Foxen Canyon Road, many more wineries await--including Foxen 7200 ("The Shack"), which was also featured in Sideways, and its nearby sister tasting room, Foxen. Foxen 7200 is known for its Bordeaux and "Cal-Ital" blends, while Foxen features Burgundian- and Rhône-style wines. These wineries and others provide a fitting end to Santa Barbara County wine country, which has lured lots more visitors since the movie.

 

San Luis Obispo County is next. Heading north, the town of San Luis Obispo ("SLO") is well worth a visit, including the well-stocked Central Coast Wines tasting room and shop. Edna Valley Vineyard is nearby and provides a perfect example of Edna Valley wines in modern tasting rooms and picnic areas overlooking the expansive vineyards. It's certainly a highlight of the San Luis Obispo Coastal Wine Trail, which is one of many SLO wine trails in the area. Next, there's much to experience in and around the highly-recommended town of Paso Robles. This quintessential Central Coast wine country destination seemingly has everything for visitors interested in the wine and dine lifestyle.

 

For wine tastings, there are many options right in town, including Parrish Family Vineyard Tasting Room and Grizzly Republic Wines Tasting Room. Nearby, other wineries well worth a visit include Eberle Winery (including great cave tours) and J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines to the east of downtown and Halter Ranch Vineyard, Tablas Creek Vineyard, and Whalebone Vineyard & Winery to the west (all feature picturesque views for picnics). For food, the options include legendary favorite Papi's (a locals favorite for inexpensive prepared-to-order tacos), renowned Il Cortile, La Cosecha Bar + Restaurant (a small plates sister restaurant of Il Cortile), and The Hatch Rotisserie & Bar, a new restaurant focusing on rotisserie-prepared chicken and more. Varied Paso Robles General Store is also a great place for pantry provisions and more. Far-flung Monterey wine country to the north is next, with widely varied winery experiences--just like the rest of the Central Coast. Just off US 101, to the west, stunning Hahn Estate is situated on a mountain in an old cattle ranch, with world-class wines, fresh cheeses, and views awaiting visitors who make the trek.

 

Reached by heading further north from Hahn and Wrath or by taking the legendary coastal route on US 1 through Big Sur, the Monterey Peninsula proper also includes excellent wine tasting experiences to match the typical tourist experience in the city of Monterey and beyond. Along with many tasting rooms in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the charming town of Carmel Valley is well a short diversion. The tasting rooms at Cima Collina, Bernardus, and Holman Ranch Vineyards provide ideal Carmel Valley experiences on the Monterey Peninsula.

The rest of the Central Coast to the north and east includes several other generally less-visited possibilities. These AVAs include up-and-coming San Benito Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Clara Valley, the Livermore Valley, and San Francisco Bay. Located northeast of John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, San Benito wine country is mostly based just south of Hollister. Wineries to look for include Pietra Santa Winery, Calera Wine Company, and Pessagno Winery. For casual farm-to-table fare in Hollister, head to The Grove Restaurant.

 

One of California's first AVAs, the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains are also well worth a visit. Among 70-plus wineries, best bets include: Big Basin Vineyards, Foxglove, and Thomas Fogarty Winery. Situated in Saratoga, Plumed Horse cuisine pairs perfectly with local wines. Silicon Valley's Santa Clara Valley AVA is a hotbed for technology companies and more, but it's also a hot winemaking area. With more than two dozen wineries, Clos LaChance Winery and J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines are both worth seeking out if in the area. Known as "The Garlic Capital of the World" and home of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, Gilroy is the place to go for a garlic-infused meal--like the signature cream of garlic soup at Garlic City Café. Pioneering Livermore Valley winemakers C.H. Wente and James Concannon planted vineyards in the area in the 1800s and both of their wineries are still growing grapes and pouring wines today. Located near the town of Livermore and along with The Winemakers Studio at Wente Vineyards and Concannon Vineyard, other tasting and buying options might include Nottingham Cellars, Pat Paulsen Vineyards, The Steven Kent Winery, and McGrail Vineyards and Winery. The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards features ingredient-driven California wine country cuisine.

 

Last, but certainly not least, the San Francisco Bay area tops off Central Coast wine country. There are just a handful of wineries in this AVA proper (with lots of 'neighboring' wineries and AVAs included), as well as still more "urban" wineries in Oakland, San Francisco, and more. And, of course, Napa, Sonoma, and more are just to the north for those who have found that you just can't get enough of California wines in the Central Coast.

GRAB A PADDLE

Quite simply RVing and paddling provide the perfect mix to us and many other adventurers.

 

An RV can take happy campers to lots of natural places where water is prevalent and just waiting for a kayak or canoe--and a paddle or two.

 

“The beauty of canoeing is its simplicity and portability. A canoe can turn just about any body of water into a source of adventure and exploration,” says Buff Grub at Mad River Canoe. “A canoe, paddles, and life jackets are all that is necessary to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds, whether for a moment of solitude, sight-seeing, picnicking, or wetting a line in pursuit of a fish or two.” Of course, the same could be said of kayaking (and a sister company of Mad River, Perception, just happens to make great ones).

 

Canoes and kayaks are the most versatile watercraft afloat. Easily paddled solo or tandem, with room for a passenger or two and quickly and easily stowed and retrieved by RVers. “[They are] the perfect complement to your RV,” continues Buff.

 

It’s really easy to add paddling to RV adventures and there are a number of possibilities to explore, based on budget, planned usage, type and size of RV (for stowing the boat), and personal preferences (like inflatable or foldable options versus hard-sided boats and canoes versus kayaks).

 

Pick a Paddle--and a Boat (or two)

 

When we first decided to add paddling to our RV trips, it happened at the huge L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine. We looked at a variety of Old Town canoes, Perception kayaks, and more, but couldn’t quite make up our minds. In a funny example of being up a creek with a paddle (but no boat, yet), we did leave with two classic L.L. Bean canoe paddles that marked our start of mixing RVing with paddling.

 

We eventually settled on a mid-size Old Town canoe for our first boat, which could be paddled tandem (or even with a third person or a dog) as well as solo (with a bit of practice). Since then, we’ve added several hard-sided kayaks (we still love the options from Perception) and inflatables (Advanced Elements and Sea Eagle make great choices) to our RV armada--we choose what we take based on where we plan to paddle. Along with LL Bean, we’ve researched and shopped paddling hotspots (stores and online) like West Marine (a boating superstore and superb online “West Advisor” shopping service), Bass Pro Shops (check out their new Ascend kayak offerings), and REI (great gear, trip offerings through REI Adventures, and instruction through REI Outdoor School).

 

We’re also currently looking at the foldable kayak options from South Carolina-based Folbot and adding motorized exploration with foldable boats from Porta-Bote (motor manufacturers like Honda make some incredibly lightweight boat motors ideal for RVers). Our dream boat list also includes building a wooden kayak with Chesapeake Light Craft.

 

Inflatables are obviously an interesting option for RVers looking to pack as much as possible into limited space. “Nearly every inflatable craft that’s on the market can be deflated and rolled up ton one-fourth it’s inflated size,” says Dennis Hill, owner and operator of PortableKayaks.com. For us, that’s meant more space (and time) to for RVing memories on and off the water.

 

Memorable paddling destinations have included: Alaska (we loved a recent paddle just outside Seward); the Okefenokee Swamp; the Great Dismal Swamp; the Florida Keys; the coast of Maine; treehouse camping on South Carolina’s Edisto River; Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina’s U.S. National Whitewater Center (varied paddling and many other adventures); coastal North Carolina (our home base); and mountain lakes near Wintergreen, Virginia.

 

In addition, we’ve paddled classic mild to wild rivers like the Rio Grande (Texas), the Buffalo (Arkansas), the Chattooga (South Carolina); the Nantahala (North Carolina), the New and Gauley (West Virginia), the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (more than 740-miles of canoeing and kayaking between New York and Maine), the Penobscot and Kennebec (Maine), the Arkansas (Colorado), the Rogue (Oregon), and many more. That’s meant lots of waterlogged miles for our PFDs (personal flotation devices, which are commonly called life jackets). Bass Pro’s Larry Whiteley (who is also host of award-winning Outdoor World Radio) says, “The very first thing on your list should be life jackets and they should be worn, not stored.” Our brand of choice for PFDs and other paddling gear is Kokatat.

 

No matter what boat (and paddle) you choose, it’s sure to lead to your own adventures on the road--and on the water. From rivers and lakes right at the campground to some great state and national parks and wildlife refuges across North America, it’s as easy as picking a paddle--and a boat.

 

National Parks Provide Peaceful Paddling

 

RVers are naturally attracted to national parks and many of them offer peaceful paddling possibilities:

 

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska--Due to rapid glacial retreat, it is possible to paddle 65 miles up the fjord, complete with gorgeous scenery and likely sightings of whales, porpoise, bears, and seals.

 

Glacier National Park, Montana--Escape into the wilderness to discover the park is filled with emerald lakes that are perfect to paddle, along with the major bonus of few fellow paddlers.

 

Everglades, Florida--Paddle the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, where you will meander through a variety of bays, sandy beaches and geographic wonders.

 

Isle Royale, Minnesota/Michigan--Surrounded by the world’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Superior, there are more than 30 interior lakes open to paddle exploration.

 

Grand Teton, Wyoming--The headwaters for the Snake River flow from 12,000-foot peaks and offer paddlers an assortment of paddling challenges and rewards such as natural hot springs and extremely beautiful scenery.

 

Yukon-Charley River National Park, Alaska--For those seeking a pure wilderness paddling experience, the Yukon is 1,800 miles long and the park protects more than 100 miles of it. The river is the only way to access the spectacular views.

 

Big Bend National Park, Texas--Land of the Rio Grande, it carves through towering limestone canyon walls and meanders through the territory of more than 1,200 plant species, making the paddling experience a desert adventure.

 

Nahanni National Park, Canada--Distinct beauty with high cliffs and mellow waters on the Nahanni River make canoeing a pleasant mode of transportation through the park.

 

Acadia, National Park, Maine--Formed from tectonic fractures, glacial movement and unpredictable New England weather, the scenery makes for extreme jagged cliffs with crashing waves, yet ironically smooth and serene waters to paddle with the protecting harbors and sandy beaches.

 

Buffalo National River, Arkansas--The river is an easy float for nearly 135 miles. There are also more than 100 maintained hiking trails that are ideal in the cooler months from November to March.

 

A Gateway to Mild to Wild Paddling Adventures

 

RVers love meeting like-minded adventurers on the road and there may be no better place to do it than on the water. From floating a calm river to mild to wild whitewater adventures, a paddling consortium of companies called Adventure Gateway provides one-stop shopping for paddling adventures.

 

Made up of high-quality outfitters across the country, Adventure Gateway members offer paddling options on fabled rivers and other bodies of wonderful water in Maine, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, California, and Oregon.

 

National Wildlife Refuges: Paddling Havens

 

Exploring a national wildlife refuge by canoe or kayak combines adventure with physical activity and an intimacy with nature that’s hard to beat. Whether you navigate on your own or take a guided trip and bring your own boat or rent one, many refuges make wonderful paddling destinations. Besides providing a close-up glimpse of shorebirds, mammals, and other wildlife, refuges offer serenity, mapped water trails, and, sometimes, the option of multi-day camping excursions. The refuge system boasts some 1,000 miles of marked water trails.

 

“When you’re in a canoe, you’re not as intimidating to wildlife,” said Nancy Brown, a public outreach specialist at the South Texas Refuge Complex, at the state’s southernmost tip, where guided canoe and kayak outings on the Rio Grande and the Laguna Madre are frequent sellouts. A former Alaska kayak guide, Brown helped secure National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants for the half-day interpreted paddle trips at the complex’s three national wildlife refuges: Santa Ana, Lower Rio Grande Valley and, as of last summer, Laguna Atascosa. “We’ve paddled right beneath hawks and past white-tailed deer. When you’re in a canoe, animals don’t appear to see you as a predator,” said Brown.

 

A boat is a must for those who wish to explore the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon where a marked canoe trail is open all year-round, as well as at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which crosses southern Georgia and northern Florida. “The vast majority of the refuge you can see only by water,” said Blaine Eckberg, park ranger at Okefenokee Refuge. “Paddling lets you enter one of the largest wilderness areas east of the Mississippi River, full of egrets, cranes and of course alligators. Mild temperatures and the lack of biting insects make spring the most popular paddling season.”

 

Here are just a few of the national wildlife refuges that are popular for outdoor water activities:

 

Northeast
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Pennsylvania

The refuge’s 4.5 mile segment of Darby Creek winds through the largest freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania before flowing into the Delaware River. See migratory birds including warblers, herons, egrets and sandpipers, as well as bald eagles, kingfishers and waterfowl. Enjoy great fishing along the way.

 

Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, Vermont
Paddle past one of the most impressive great blue heron rookeries in the Northeast. Look for bald eagles, ospreys, waterfowl, and neotropical migratory birds of the silver maple floodplain forest.

 

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts
Part of the Great Marsh, the largest continuous salt marsh north of Long Island Sound, the Parker River Refuge attracts hundreds of songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl.

 

Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, New Hampshire/Maine
Paddlers can ogle moose, bald eagles, loons, and other wildlife from along more than 10 miles of the Magalloway and Androscoggin Rivers, their backwaters and much of Umbagog Lake.

 

Mid-Atlantic
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

Paddlers armed with a water trail map can explore tidal marshes and brackish ponds for a closer look at bald eagles, ospreys, herons, and muskrats.

 

Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia
Self-guided paddling along Mt. Landing Creek quickly leaves houses and other human structures behind. A map available at the launch site shows how to follow the creek to the Rappahannock River and onto the extensive Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, commemorating the voyages of the famed 17th-century explorer.

 

South
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

Paddling is perhaps the best way to see the refuge. You can explore 15 miles of color-coded water trails on your own or take a guided canoe trip on Pea Island.

 

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
At the northernmost part of the Everglades, Loxahatchee Refuge offers paddlers a close-up view of an endangered ecosystem and its resident alligators and other wetland species.

 

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Bring your binoculars and snorkel gear on this guided kayak trip of the lower Laguna Madre.

 

Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Guided half-day tours take paddlers over fossilized oyster reefs and under Altamira oriole nests.

 

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, southern Georgia and northern Florida
This vast swamp, one of the country’s best-preserved freshwater systems, is home to alligators, sandhill cranes, red-cockaded woodpeckers, carnivorous plants, and many other species.

 

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Paddling the birthplace of the National Wildlife Refuge System offers visitors a chance to see manatees, herons, egrets, and roseate spoonbills up close.

 

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Guided half-day tours on the last stretch of the Rio Grande before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico offer views of tropical birds found nowhere else in the continental United States.

 

Midwest
J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota

Paddlers can choose between a 5 ½-mile route and a 13-mile route along the Souris River, which winds 75 miles through the refuge.

 

Seney National Wildlife Refuge Michigan
The scenic Manistique River, which once carried thousands of logs to nearby sawmills, meanders through hardwoods, swamps, and mixed pine forests in the southern portion of the refuge.

 

West
Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

From June 15 to December 31, paddlers can explore a large freshwater emergent marsh and waterfowl nesting haven along a six-mile marked trail in Nevada's high desert.

 

Siletz Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon
The refuge, boasting some of the most scenic estuarine habitat along the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, offers guided summer interpretive trips for paddlers with their own canoes or kayaks.

 

Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, California
The Sacramento-area refuge offers free guided summer interpretive paddles along a secluded and normally closed slough lined with oaks and cottonwoods.

 

Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon
A boat is a must for exploring this refuge, whose freshwater marsh and open water harbor waterfowl, eagles, osprey, and colonial nesting birds such as white pelicans and herons.

 

Far North
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Two extensive paddling routes offer day trips to week-long or even longer trips.

 

More than 42 million people visit refuges each year. In addition to wildlife observation, refuges provide rich opportunities for wildlife photography, hunting, fishing, environmental education and nature interpretation. For more information about all 551 National Wildlife Refuges, visit www.fws.gov/refuges.

 

RV veterans Lynn and Cele Seldon are avid paddlers who love sharing their passion on and off the water.

 

 

RVing THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

America's favorite road celebrates its 75th anniversary.

 

Perhaps unlike any other road in the world, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers one of the ultimate road trips for RVers of all experience levels. It meets all of the prerequisites in resounding fashion: only two lanes of traffic; historical interest; friendly and interesting people; great scenery; and many places to stop for the night. With apologies to William Least Heat Moon, the 2010 75th anniversary of “America’s Favorite Road” makes for a great time to head down this “blue highway.”

 

“Much more than just a road, the Parkway is a relaxing drive-awhile, stop-awhile experience,” says National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. “This is an especially good time to visit the park and surrounding communities because of the variety of special 75th anniversary events.” The Parkway is part of the national parks system--and the NPS has an anniversary (100th) of its own in 2016.

 

A Little History

 

In August, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited several Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, with Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes and Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd accompanying him. Although there’s no firm record of who suggested it, someone evidently suggested extending Skyline Drive (a scenic byway begun in 1931) southward to North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, thus connecting the two national parks with a scenic roadway.

 

In late-September that same year, the Asheville Citizen carried an article titled, “Byrd Outlines Park Road Plan.” This was the first mention in print of the future Blue Ridge Parkway.

 

By November, Ickes had approved a “park-to-park highway” for federal funding under the Public Works Administration and hired Stanley L. Abbot, a landscape architect with New York’s Westchester County, to oversee planning. Abbott, who would become known as the “father of the Parkway,” had an innovative plan to create a chain of parks and recreation areas while preserving the stunning views and Appalachian culture.

 

After much debate about the routing, construction began in September 1935. Extensive building projects were carried out for two decades by a mix of private contractors, Works Progress Administration workers, CCC crews, and staff from the Emergency Relief Administration. By 1966, the Parkway was complete but for 7.7 rugged miles around Grandfather Mountain. With the addition of the revolutionary Linn Cove Viaduct, the entire route opened to the public in 1987. It’s still undergoing improvement, however, with $84 million in federally-funded projects either underway or approved (be sure to look for more than 3,300 linear feet of reconstructed historic stone walls along the way).

 

The Blue Ridge Parkway continuously records the highest number of visits in the national park system (typically more than 15 million visits each year). However, a lot of road and varied stops means it typically doesn’t feel crowded.

 

A Lot of Road for RVers

 

Almost since its inception, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been popular with RVers. It was the nation's first (and ultimately the longest) rural parkway. The total distance is 469 miles, making it an ideal three- or four-day trip in an RV (though campgrounds make it easy to linger much longer--and many do!).

 

The Blue Ridge Parkway drive officially starts at Virginia’s Rockfish Gap, where you find the 0 Milepost marker. These markers become the welcome signs of location on the drive and run progressively each mile southward along the Parkway.

 

The first major stop is indicative of what the drive has to offer. The Humpback Rocks Visitor Center is often the first taste of the Blue Ridge Parkway for southbound drivers and it's a great place for an RVer to stop for maps and information. In general, the varied visitor centers, camping facilities, and concession system on the Parkway are excellent, with services varying with the seasons. They offer great places to get maps, ask questions, and learn about campfire talks, nature walks, slide programs, and much more.

 

The Humpback Rocks area features an interesting self-guided tour through a reconstructed mountain farmstead. The short, but steep, hike up to Humpback Rocks (at Milepost 6.1) is well worth the heavy breathing for a breath-taking view of the area. It's only three-quarters of a mile to the top.

 

Back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the views begin. One of the beauties of RVing is that the driver and passengers generally sit higher than they do in a car, thus providing much better views of the surrounding landscape.

 

If one stopped at every awe-inspiring view, they’d never make it to the end. There are pull-offs at most of the best overlooks, but drivers are also allowed to just pull over on the shoulder as long as their vehicles is completely off the road (RVers should obviously show extra care). The speed limit is 45 mph or less and most visitors tend to take it slowly for good reason. Wooden guard rails subtly protect vehicles and people from the steep drop-offs.

 

Some possible stops along this stretch include: Ravens Roost, featuring vistas of the Shenandoah River and Torry Mountain; Sherando Lake, a recreational lake in the George Washington National Forest; Whetstone Ridge, which provided the mountain folks with a fine-grained sharpening stone; and Yankee Horse Parking Area, where a hard-riding Union soldier's horse supposedly fell and had to be shot (there's now a reconstructed spur of an old logging railroad).

 

Between Mileposts 58 and 64, Otter Creek runs down the Blue Ridge, following the road to the James River. Otters don't play along the creek anymore, but lots of people do. This section of the drive features a seasonal (spring to fall) campground, a visitor center, a self-guided nature trail, a restored lock and canal system, a restaurant, a gift shop, and the lowest elevation on the entire Parkway (649 feet).

 

Campground Heaven

 

Otter Creek has the first of nine developed campgrounds along the Parkway--if the one selected is closed or full, there are many more NPS or commercial campgrounds further down (or near) the Parkway. All of the Parkway campgrounds have tent and RV sites (but, no water or electrical hookups!).

 

The campgrounds are generally open from early-May to late-October, depending on the weather. They can be busy on summer holiday weekends and fall foliage season. In early-spring and late-fall, there are usually just a few RVers (and helpful campground hosts) in most campgrounds.
 

Peaks of Otter, Roanoke Mountain, and Rocky Knob are the rest of the Virginia camping options. In North Carolina, the first option is Doughton Park, followed by Julian Price Memorial Park, Linville Falls, Crabtree Meadows, and Mt. Pisgah (the southernmost and highest elevation campground).

 

Back on the Parkway

 

The next common stop along the Parkway is popular Peaks of Otter. Along with great camping, the Peaks of Otter area accommodates with some serious hiking to lose a few of the pounds gained cooking gourmet campground meals. The Peaks of Otter Visitor Center has a detailed area map and information from the very friendly staff (it must be the mountain air). Some good bets are Sharp Top Trail (1.6 steep miles for a 360-degree view); easy Elk Run Loop Trail; strenuous Harkening Hill Loop Trail; Johnson Farm Trail; and Flat Top Trail back to Fallingwater Cascades.

 

The Parkway continues south and the spectacular views roll by continuously. There’s a Appalachian Trail Overlook around Milepost 100. The famed Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile hiking "path" along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains, stretching from Maine to Georgia. It runs through 14 states and the Virginia section (534 miles) is the longest stretch. Along with several stretches of the AT, the Parkway features a wide array of varied hiking (be sure to read our feature on hikes near Asheville on page 36 of this issue).

The bustling mountain city of Roanoke, Virginia, is situated very close to the Blue Ridge Parkway and can serve as an ideal stopover for those in need of a civilization fix. Other quaint stopover towns near the Parkway in Virginia include Waynesboro, Lexington, Lynchburg, and Galax.

 

Mabry Mill is just down the road. This often-photographed water powered mill was operated by E.B. Mabry from 1910 to 1935. The self-guided walking tour includes his gristmill, sawmill, blacksmith shop, and other outdoor exhibits. In the summer and fall, visitors will often see the use of old-time skills.

 

Nearby, the Mabry Mill Coffee & Craft Shop offers refreshments and stone-ground cornmeal. Just down the Parkway, Meadows of Dan offers gas, food, lodging, and shopping, country-style.

 

The rest of the Virginia portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway is steeped in views, gaps, history, and music. For views, great pull offs include the Groundhog Mountain Parking Overlook, with an observation tower simulating an old tobacco barn. For gaps, there’s the quaint town of Fancy Gap. For history, Puckett Cabin is the home of Orelena Hawks Puckett--a storied local midwife. For music, stop at the Blue Ridge Music Center.

 

The views, gaps, and history don’t stop at the Virginia state line. North Carolina features some spectacular scenery and sightseeing of its own.

 

Some of the best views in North Carolina include Fox Hunters Paradise, Doughton Park, The Lump, Linn Cove Viaduct, Linville Falls, the Mt. Pisgah area, and Richland Balsam Overlook (which, at 6,053 feet, features views from the highest point on the Parkway). Along with these pull offs, North Carolina hiking options include the Tanawha Trail, the Craggy Gardens area, Graveyard Fields, Devil’s Courthouse, and Waterrock Knob.

History also abounds in this rugged area. The Cone Manor House and Moses H. Cone Memorial Park provide one of the most interesting stops on the Parkway. This huge and historic estate features old carriage trails that are now ideal for hiking, as well as a well-run Parkway Craft Center, where you can buy crafts and watch occasional demonstrations.

This is also the place to head just off the Parkway to the charming town of Blowing Rock. Made famous in Jan Karon’s Mitford series of books, Blowing Rock features simple village charm, varied shopping (look for the Bob Timberlake Gallery), and an array of tasty restaurants.

 

Other easy stops for RVers include the fascinating Museum of North Carolina Minerals and the Folk Art Center. As with most pull offs along the Parkway, there’s typically easy parking for RVs.

 

At milepost 384 just outside Asheville, the relatively new Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center features exhibits highlighting the natural and cultural diversity, economic traditions, and recreation along the 469-mile drive. The facility also features a 70-seat theater, information and orientation services, and a bookstore.

 

Outside and indoors, the building reflects cutting-edge energy-saving technology. Constructed to Gold LEED certification standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), it features active/passive heating and cooling, radiant floor heating, a green roof and other energy-efficient designs. Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Philip Francis says, “We are excited that in addition to orienting visitors to the region and parkway, the structure exemplifies natural resources stewardship for the long-term.”

 

The theater’s main attraction is a specially-produced movie called “The Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Journey.” Shown hourly in high-definition surround sound, the 24-minute film captures a father-daughter journey along the parkway. Other exhibits include a variety of listening stations and interactive exhibits--including an electronic, interactive wall map.

 

Nearby, Asheville is quite simply a must-stop. From RVer-friendly Biltmore Estate to a bustling downtown (pick up supplies at one of many tailgate markets), Asheville is a quintessential southeast mountain stop.

 

South of Asheville, there are a ton of tunnels (for big rigs, heights and widths are clearly marked, and there’s also info on the NPS website link in “Resources”). Some of the highest points and pull offs on the Parkway are also on this section. After Richland Balsam, the drive haltingly descends to 2,020 feet and the end of the Parkway. Just after the end, RVers can head to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on US 441 and lots more great RV driving.

 

However, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the perfect road for both new and veteran RVers. And, now’s the time to hit “America’s Favorite Road.”

 

Resources

 

For further information about the Blue Ridge Parkway, visit www.blueridgeparkway.org and www.nps.gov/blri. A special website for the 75th anniversary can be found at www.blueridgeparkway75.org. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area’s website, ww.blueridgeheritage.com, can also be quite helpful (their members staff the Visitor Center featured in this story).

 

BASEBALL'S SPRING TRAINING

I drove down to Florida with my father for my first spring training experience in 1983--and I’ve been to either Florida or Arizona practically every March since! What’s not to like about saying goodbye to winter with a little--or a lot--of baseball fun in the sun?

 

Some of the many things I’ve come to love about heading to spring training include: ballpark proximity; watching the action in intimate stadiums that vary widely in atmosphere and amenities; modest prices; easier access to today’s and tomorrow’s stars (autograph hounds take note); and lots of camping options in the warm Florida and Arizona sun.

 

“Whether they travel to Florida or Arizona, fans enjoy a ballpark experience more intimate, fan-friendly, and affordable than during the regular season,” says Josh Pahigian, author of Spring Training Handbook, 101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out, and several other baseball books (including being a co-author of a personal favorite--The Ultimate Baseball Road-Trip).

 

Planning a spring training trip for “Grapefruit League” and “Cactus League” games is as simple as connecting the dots. It doesn’t take too much time or organization to come up with at least a game a day within easy driving distance once you’re in Florida or Arizona. In fact, occasional night games sometimes lead to day-night spring training doubleheaders for diehard fans. Maybe you’ll even see Ernie Banks, who’s famed for saying, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two!”

 

A Little History

 

What we now call “spring training” took place as long ago as 1870 or maybe even earlier. That was the year the Cincinnati Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings held their spring camps in relatively balmy New Orleans (compared to Cincy and Chi-town).

Organized spring training first came south as far as Florida in 1888, when the Washington Senators trained and played in Jacksonville for a short period. By 1914, several teams had made Florida their spring training home and--after the Phillies won 14 of their first 15 games in 1915 after warm workouts and games in St. Petersburg--Florida’s fate as a spring training destination for players and fans alike was solidified.

 

Players and their loyal fans originally arrived by train in those early years, but cars--and RVs--would soon follow the road south. Several Florida cities--including St. Petersburg/Tampa, Bradenton, Clearwater, Lakeland, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and the Orlando area--have now hosted spring training for 50 years or more.

 

Arizona came to the plate decades later, but the state has quickly developed into a second spring training hub for both teams and fans. Minor League teams played preseason exhibition games in the state as early as the early-1900s, but it wasn’t until pioneering Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck brought his team to Arizona in 1946 that Major League teams (and their fans) started their love affair with the Arizona sun. Back in 1946, the Indians in Tucson were joined by the New York Giants in Phoenix--with the Cactus League opener at Tucson’s classic Hi CorbetÅcField seeing Veeck’scÅeam take the game 3-1 over the Giants (Hall of Famer Bob Lemon got the win).

 

The Cubs moved their spring training operations from California to Arizona in the early-1950s and many other teams would follow in the coming decades--resulting in a long-time core of eight western Major League clubs training in Arizona. More recent expansion eventually led to Arizona hosting the same number of teams as Florida--with 15 Major League teams currently holding spring training in each state at a total of 23 varied ballparks (seven stadiums currently host two teams).

 

A Lot of Baseball

 

Spring training proper lasts about 50 days or so, with actual Grapefruit League games (about 600 of them!) taking place from late February to early April.

 

“It’s exciting because it’s a fresh start to a new season,” Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “It’s a time when you know you have a chance to have a good year and compete for a championship.”

 

Most games start around 1pm or so in both states, but it’s always best to check in advance to confirm the start time and availability of tickets. Back in 1983, my dad and I didn’t even think about crowds or buying tickets in advance. We just looked at the schedule and showed up at the next stadium for batting practice. Though certain games are more popular than others, it’s still typically easy to get a ticket.

 

“I alwaysÅdell folks thadÅfor most weekday games, tickets can be purchased on the day of the game,” says Nick Gandy, director of communications for the Florida Sports Foundation. “For weekend games, fans might want to look into purchasing tickets ahead of time. Weekend games, along with any game featuring the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees, are always tough tickets.”

 

“Spring training is a favorite amongst visitors,” says Trish Hendrickson of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The camaraderie of baseball-goers evokes such excitement that it truly is a remarkable experience for all ages.”

 

Once there, kids and kids at heart will find that each stadium and experience is different. Old or new, they’ve all become more Major League-like when it comes to atmosphere and amenities. Those who can’t make it to spring training this season should keep in mind that a vast majority of the spring training stadiums in both states are also used by Minor League teams throughout the summer schedule of regular season games (I’m also a huge fan of the Minor League baseball experience).

 

Some ballpark highlights from my various spring training experiences over the years have to include: pre- and post-game picnic areas; open concourses that let you keep an eye on the game during food and drink runs; grassy seating berms; all-you-can-eat and -drink sections; fun bars with views of the action; family-friendly areas and games; between innings contests, character races, stunts, and more; live music; baseball simulators of all sorts (think pitch speed and more); and suites, which are mostly for groups, but sometimes for individuals as well.

 

Given all of this, spring training was great when I went in 1983--but it should be obvious that it’s better than ever now. So take yourself out to the ballgame--in sunny Florida and Arizona!

 

Take Me Out to the (Spring) Ballgame

 

The spring training stadium scene features new ballparks and multi-million-dollar renovations that make the spring training experience better than ever. Here’s an overview of the stadiums.

 

Florida’s Grapefruit League

 

ESPN Wide World of Sports, Kissimmee (Atlanta Braves)
Legendary manager Bobby Cox called this “the best training complex in all of baseball” and this long-time Braves fan concurs. Fan-friendly Champion Stadium feels like a mini-Major League ballpark and I can attest that their pre-game “On-Field Spectator Experience” during batting practice is a very special spring training offering.

 

Osceola County Stadium, Kissimmee (Houston Astros)
Conveniently located near the theme parks, this ballpark was renovated in 2002 and there are typically good seats available for most games.

 

Space Coast Stadium, Viera (Washington Nationals)
The “Nats” call the Space Coast home and this is also generally a good place to get a great seat the day of the game.

 

Digital Domain Park, Port St. Lucie (New York Mets)
Lots of Mets fans head here each year and the stadium, renovated in 2003, becomes a mini-Brooklyn for the spring.

 

Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter (St. Louis Cardinals & Florida Marlins)
Palm Beach County lost the Braves when they moved to Disney, but this modern venue generally hosts a game every day and is the only stadium that has two minor league teams playing all summer as well. Roger Dean remains one of my favorite spring training venues including several restaurants nearby for a pre-game lunch or post-game drink (look for Rooney’s Public House, which is owned by the Rooney family of Pittsburgh Steelers fame).

 

City of Palms Park, Fort Myers (Boston Red Sox)
Many from Red Sox Nation migrate from Massachusetts and beyond each March to catch their beloved teams--including Red Sox fan Stephen King, who I’ve seen catching several games over the years. Built in 1992, a new ballpark for the BoSox is in the works.

 

Hammond Stadium at Lee County Sports Complex (Minnesota Twins)
Built in 1991 for the Twins when they moved from Orlando after 50+ years, pale Minnesota residents flock south to this cozy ballpark every spring for some sun and baseball.

 

Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte (Tampa Bay Rays)
Renovated in 2009, the Rays play their spring training games under the sun’s rays here--rather than under the roof up in St. Petersburg once the regular season begins. Be sure to check-out the Tiki Bar.

 

Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota (Baltimore Orioles)
I grew up an Os fan and first saw Cal Ripken Jr. play in Florida in 1983, but always felt their Florida spring training facilities were second-rate. Thus, I can’t wait to check out the first-class stadium and spring training facility renovations--to the tune of $30 million-plus!

 

McKechnie Field, Bradenton (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Originally built in 1923 right in the middle of a Bradenton neighborhood, this classic ballpark was renovated in 1992--but it’s still a blast from my spring training past.

 

George M. Steinbrenner Field, Tampa (New York Yankees)
This unique stadium with a seating capacity of 11,000+ for all those Yankees fans features ballpark dimensions and angles that are generally the same as those up in Yankee Stadium up in the Bronx. Yankees legends can often be seen in the dugout, on the field, or in the stands.

 

Bright House Networks Field, Clearwater (Philadelphia Phillies)
Since its opening in 2004, this has been one of my favorite Florida ballparks for good reasons: an open concourse; berm seating; a great Tiki Bar; and Philly cheesesteaks and Pennsylvania’s Yuengling beer.

 

Dunedin Stadium, Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays)
Like Bradenton’s McKechnie Field, this classic 1930 ballpark is located in a neighborhood. Renovated several times, Canadian beers (and lots of Canadian snowbirds) are on tap and this wonderful little stadium.

 

Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland (Detroit Tigers)
Built in the mid-60s and long the spring home of the Tigers, this is yet another great ballpark to get a good seat. The Tigers are celebrating their 75th year in Lakeland in 2011.

 

Arizona’s Cactus League

 

Hohokam Stadium, Mesa (Chicago Cubs)
Cubbies fans from near and far pack Hohokam for one of the top spring training experiences anywhere (including spring training’s only live organ music). A new Mesa stadium for the "Loveable Losers" is in the works.

 

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale (Arizona Diamondbacks & Colorado Rockies)
For 2011 spring training, both teams will leave Tucson for a new Scottsdale-area ballpark in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. They will be the first Major League clubs to have a spring training site on Native American lands.

 

Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale (San Francisco Giants)
There’s always a great atmosphere here and I think the all-you-can-eat and -drink “Charro Lodge” offering behind the right field fence is one of the best experiences and deals in baseball (spring training or regular season). IÅeincludeseÅasty food, cold beverages, friendly tableside service, a lounge area, and live music at select games.

 

Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Phoenix (Oakland Athletics)
This family-friendly stadium has a nice grassy picnic area, shaded seating, and a good selection of microbrewed beers. Pre- or post-game, sprawling Papago Park has hiking trails, picnic areas, a firefighting museum, and the Phoenix Zoo.

 

Tempe Diablo Stadium, Tempe (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
Highlights here have to include the central location, some of spring training’s tastiest hot dogs, and great views of the Tempe buttes.

 

Maryvale Baseball Park, Phoenix (Milwaukee Brewers)
The Brewers (and beer stands) draw good crowds here, but there’s almost always a good ticket available for walk-ups.

 

Peoria Sports Complex, Peoria (Seattle Mariners & San Diego Padres)
As the first Arizona ballpark to host two teams and start the trend, this is a fan favorite thanks to a spacious family-friendly stadium and adjacent restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. Pro-active Peoria is spending more than $20 million in upgrades to make sure their city’s two teams stay put when their stadium leases expire in 2013.

 

Camelback Ranch, Glendale (Los Angeles Dodgers & Chicago White Sox)
The two clubs moved into this state-of-the-art ballpark last spring. It’s the largest spring training site in baseball, with 13,500 seats, 14 practice fields, and a pretty two-acre lake.

 

Goodyear Ballpark, Goodyear (Cleveland Indians & Cincinnati Reds)
In 2009, the Indians moved west from Florida to open this sparking $100 million-plus diamond gem. The Reds joined them in 2010 to make this a two-team ballpark. Look for the stadium’s public art collection.

 

Surprise Stadium, Surprise (Kansas City Royals & Texas Rangers)
This spacious western-most stadium loves welcoming kids and kits at heart with grassy lawn seating, a merry-go-round in the right field concourse, and plenty of free parking.

ALASKA HIGHWAY

The Drive of a Lifetime

 

There may be no better drive in the world than the fabled Alaska Highway. Officially stretching more than 1,350 miles from Canada to the heart of Alaska, the Alaska Highway--also referred to as the ALCAN Highway--is simply one of those experiences that people talk about for years after their trip...and immediately start talking about when they can drive it again!

 

The history of the Alaska Highway is as fascinating as the actual drive. In fact, 2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the official opening of the highway connecting the Lower 48, Canada, and Alaska by roadway.

 

Though the concept of the Alaska Highway had always been a possibility, it took the attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II to put possible plans into action. This was because the United States desperately needed a supply route to Alaska as part of the Pacific Theater war effort.

 

Once funding was approved by Congress, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the U.S. Army in February, 1942, construction of the Alaska Highway by the Army occurred incredibly quickly. Road work in wilderness conditions officially began in early-March near what is now Historical Milepost 0 in Canada's Dawson Creek, British Columbia, with construction at the other end in Alaska's Delta Junction proceeding at a swift pace as well.

 

The crews met in late-September at Historical Mile 588 (now Contact Creek) near Canada's British Columbia-Yukon border and the Alaska Highway was officially completed in late-October. It was dedicated on November 20, 1942 at Soldiers Summit (Historical Milepost 1061).

 

In its early years, the Alaska Highway was mainly used by the military and a few intrepid travelers. The initial publication of The MILEPOST (see "Must-Have" sidebar) in 1949--and still published annually today--exposed many more people to the possibility of driving the legendary highway. Because of road straightening and other changes over the years, Historical Milepost numbers don't relate to actual mileages--yet another reason to buy and use The MILEPOST!

 

Driving the Alaska Highway during those early years meant lots of gravel, frost heave, and long drives with no or limited services (extra gas cans and tires were the norm). Today, it's 100 percent paved (except for road work maintenance) and it's generally like driving any secondary road in North America--except for many more awe-inspiring views, wildlife, and experiences per mile.

 

Historical Milepost 0 in Dawson Creek is the start of about 610 miles through beautiful British Columbia (BC Highway 97 North). Then, it's about 575 miles on Yukon Highway 1 through the Yukon Territory to the Alaska border. It's another 200 miles to the official end of the drive at Delta Junction, but many consider the true end of the Alaska Highway to be in Fairbanks, another 100 stunning miles to the northwest.

 

All those miles may make RVers worry about their gas budget, but MILEPOST Editor Kris Valencia says travelling the Alaska Highway is worth the price and the memories are worth the mileage. "Although we cover some 14,000 miles of road for The MILEPOST each year, the bulk of my annual mileage can be attributed to commuting around Anchorage," she says. "There are economies in long road trips."

Valencia recommends planning itineraries ahead of time to save on wasted miles. RVers with tow vehicles or those pulling trailers will find extended parking available if they want to leave the big rig behind for a side trip or a memorable wilderness lodge stay. She also says RVers can consider other forms of travel in the North Country--like the ferry and rail routes found in both Alaska and Canada.

 

The economies of an Alaska Highway road trip also include lots of facilities along the way catering to RVers. There are many classic places to camp along the way (including the excellent park systems in both Canada and Alaska), but there are also some great lodges and more that welcome RVers looking for something different. The possibilities include: Dawson Creek's Aurora Park Inn; Northern Rockies Lodge (owned by a bush pilot who also offers flightseeing, remote cabins, an RV park, and more) in Muncho Lake; Muktuk Adventures & Guest Ranch, a working sled dog ranch near Whitehorse; Kluane Bed & Breakfast (with great cabins), adjacent to Kluane National Park and Reserve near Haines Junction; Tok's Burnt Paw & Cabins Outback (home of Alaska sled dogs); historic Log Cabin Wilderness Lodge south of Tok; and Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge and River's Edge Resort in Fairbanks.

 

Along with world-class wildlife viewing possibilities (from bird watching to bears to bison and much more), Alaska Highway highlights have to include Dawson Creek (Milepost 0 and the Alaska Highway House); Fort Nelson; Liard River Hotsprings; Watson Lake's Signpost Forest (a collection of 70,000-plus signs left by Alaska Highway travelers); Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory; Haines Junction, near Kluane National Park and Reserve and Mount Logan, Canada's highest peak; Alaska's fascinating Tok and Delta Junction (the official end of the Alaska Highway); and, though technically not part of the Alaska Highway, Fairbanks...a great base for many more Alaska adventures!

 

For further information about driving the Alaska Highway and more, visit: British Columbia's www.hellobc.com; the Yukon Territory's www.travelyukon.com; and Alaska's www.travelalaska.com.

 

The MILEPOST:
A North Country & Alaskan Highway 'Must-Have'

 

First published in 1949 and better than ever on an annual basis, The MILEPOST (www.themilepost.com; 800-726-4707) is simply a 'must-have' when it comes to driving the Alaska Highway--and practically anywhere else in the North Country. The 2012 64th edition contains 784 info-packed pages and features 100-plus maps, their famed "Plan-A-Trip" map, 60 side trips, ferry travel information, and detailed coverage of 30 major routes in all (including more than 100 pages on the Alaska Highway alone). Long-time and loyal Thousand Trails members Vern and Beth Pich of Brantford, Ontario, Canada recently drove the Alaska Highway (a gift from their children to celebrate their 50th anniversary) and Vern says, "We found The MILEPOST book to be invaluable because it provides a mile by mile detail of the Highway with wayside stops, communities, service centres, campgrounds, attractions, and even rough spots in the road."

 

The road warrior editors (like Milepost editor Kris Valencia) also maintain a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/TheMilepost) and blog about their travels and research on the website. In addition, a free digital edition of The Milepost is available to those who purchase the print edition!

 

Editor's Note: Frequent TrailBlazer contributors Lynn and Cele Seldon are driving the Alaska Highway in its entirety this summer and will file a full report of their experiences for a future issue.

PORT OF THE MONTH: SINT MAARTEN/SAINT MARTIN

Double Your Pleasure On This Unique Caribbean Island: A Dutch Treat On One Side, French Flair On The Other

 

When one port of call leads to two Caribbean countries on one island, it is truly a cruise-travel double bonus. That's exactly what's possible when calling on Sint Maarten and Saint Martin, where Dutch- and French-leaning tropical paradises await visitors on a sole isle.

 

Situated about 180 miles east of Puerto Rico and located in the northern end of the Lesser Antilles, St. Maarten and St. Martin are collectively called "The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean" for good reason. Known as the smallest island in the world to be shared by two nations (Kingdom of the Netherlands and France), St. Maarten and St. Martin have a European-influenced feel with a colorful Caribbean flair.

 

The island has 37 square miles and, coincidentally, exactly 37 stunning beaches. With those breathtaking white-sand beaches, a wide range of outdoor activities on land and on sea (above and below the surface), varied duty-free shopping opportunities, world-class spas, casinos, and the aforementioned delectable dining, these twin Caribbean countries combine to make for one of the region's most interesting ports-of-call.

 

Originally called Isla de San Martin by Christopher Columbus in 1493, the island was first colonized by the Dutch in 1631, followed by several French and British settlements, before Spain seized control in 1633. Spain's colonial government left the island 15 years later, leaving the Dutch and French to reestablish their territories, eventually leading to the Treaty of Concordia in 1648--and more than 350 years of general island harmony between two tropical nations.

 

St. Maarten's historic bustling capital city of Philipsburg is by far the main port of call (and beach) for the whole island (although Marigot to the north in St. Martin does welcome some smaller liners), and easy connections to the cruise-ship docks can be made by frequent water taxis, land taxi, or a walk of about a mile. Philipsburg is steeped in the history of the Caribbean and European colonial area. Founded in 1763 by Commander John Philips of the Royal Dutch Navy, the city is ideally set between Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond.

 

The famed salt pond (among many others) played a significant role in the island's history. For centuries, salt harvesting was a primary industry--along with tobacco, sugar, and cotton--and the main reason for the island's strategic importance to the imperialistic powers of European colonialism--including the Dutch, Spanish, French, and British--all of whom played roles in the heritage of Philipsburg and the entire island. History runs deep and includes everything from European colonialism to pirates and indigenous tribal life, but nowhere is this more evident than the streets of Philipsburg.

 

City highlights include the wide bustling Boardwalk and beach; St. Maarten Museum (showcasing artifacts from the various eras, including ancient pottery from Arawak Indians, the island's original inhabitants); Guavaberry Emporium (located in an old cedar house and offering tastings and sales of the beloved folk drink and more); the wooden white Courthouse (before assuming its current judicial function, the 1793-built structure had served as Commander John Philip's home, a fire station, a jail, and a post office); Pasanggrahan Royal Guesthouse (the former Governor's residence and summer home of Dutch Queen Wilhelmina turned colonial-style hotel and restaurant); and-for those interested in naval history--nearby Fort Amsterdam and Fort Willem that overlook Philipsburg and visiting cruise ships.

 

St. Maarten's capital typically serves as the base for island activities (independent or through a shore excursion), including water sports of all sorts and a variety of land-based tours and destinations. Pursuits in, on, and above the crystal-clear water can include snorkeling; scuba diving; various types of boating; parasailing; fishing; surfing; and simply sunning on the beach. Tours and excursions covering both halves of the island include St. Maarten Zoological and Botanical Garden; Plantation Mont Vernon; Lucky Stables (horseback riding and a 30-acre nature park); biking (lots of rentals); Loterie Farm (pools, cabanas, dining, and the popular Treetop Adventure Obstacle Course with zip-lining, bridges, ropes, and more--plus it's on the road to Pic du Paradis, the island's highest point); Butterfly Farm (40 species of butterflies and more); famed Orient Beach (bars, dining, and clothing-optional sandy sections); St. Martin's capital of Marigot and its bustling Marigot Market; and lots of beaches along the way.

 

Philipsburg is also the epicenter of shopping on the island. Stores line Front Street, which stretches for more than a mile, but shopping options can also be found on parallel Back Street and many side streets, including Old Street, where 19th century houses now contain specialty shops. Bargain-hunters will find that duty-free prices can be as much as 50 percent less than those found back home and that pricing is in U.S. dollars to avoid exchange-rate confusion.

 

Front Street stores range from Tiffany to Tommy Hilfiger, with international fashion items from Gucci and Ralph Lauren found at reasonable rates--along with fine leather goods, top-of-the-line cosmetics, state-of-the-art electronics, tropical art, books, and music, and, of course, jewelry ranging from loose stones to original one-of-a-kind designs. Maho Plaza (located near the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort) is another area offering name-brand stores.

 

Over in St. Martin the popular shopping spot is Marigot, where French and other European products are on display for visiting cruise passengers. The daily Marigot Market can be particularly productive for shopaholics looking for something unique and with an oh-so-French accent.

 

French, Dutch, and many other accents (and spices) can also be found on the food front. A penchant for culinary excellence and creative variety of international specialties and fusion styles help define the island as a destination and make us unique within the Caribbean. More than 300 island restaurants feature Dutch, French, Caribbean, Thai, Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Creole, and other mouth-watering cuisines. Dining hotspots include cozy cafes lining cobblestone streets, casual open-air beachside bars, upscale eateries, and a variety of resort-based restaurants.

 

In Philipsburg, the tasty options for a late breakfast or lingering lunch are quite varied. Taloula Mango's features great Boardwalk and beach views, finger-licking ribs, and live entertainment at lunch. Chesterfield's is a nautically-themed open-air restaurant overlooking Great Bay and featuring steak and seafood. French cuisine can be found here at both L'Escargot Restaurant and Antoine Restaurant. The Greenhouse serves fresh seafood with great bay views--and has a second beachfront location at Atrium Resort in Simpson Bay.

 

For something truly local and unique, head to Ras Bushman's I-Tal Shack on Bush Road--a small vegan place featuring local, organic, homegrown food and juices. Look for Ras Bushman and his reggae band, the Freedom Fighters, playing live at one of many island entertainment venues (sometimes during the day).

 

Along with its Greenhouse, nearby Simpson Bay has other tasty possibilities. Saratoga has a marina-side veranda and upscale fare rom a Culinary Institute of America chef originally from Saratoga Springs, New York. Zee Best is best-known for serving breakfast until mid-afternoon, including what many consider the island's (and the Caribbean's) best crepes and pastries.

 

St. Maarten's modern Princess Juliana Airport is located out past Simpson Bay and is actually a dining (and drinking) destination for veteran visitors in the know--even those travelling by cruise ship rather than plane. That's thanks to the approach planes commonly use when flying into St. Maarten--arriving just over the beach and famed Sunset Bar & Grill, where jumbo jet arrival times are posted for all to see--and toast.

 

Over in French St. Martin, Marigot and Grand Case are the places to head for a memorable lunch. The cafes near the Marigot Market are highly recommended (like La Vie en Rose and L'Oizeau Rare), as are refreshing juices at colorful One Love Juice Bar.

 

For true foodies, an outing to Grand Case is a given. Dozens of restaurants line both sides of Grand Case Boulevard in iconic beachside town. Many of them focus on fine French cuisine and are only open in the evening (Le Tastevin and Le Cottage are two tasty exceptions that serve lunch). However, Grand Case also has versions of the island's famed 'lolo' (local) concept. These very casual eateries serve fresh island fare at reasonable prices. Grand Case lolos like Talk of the Town are typically open for lunch and well worth the trip from Philipsburg.

 

Soothing spas are also a popular option for visiting cruise passengers. Most luxury spas are located on the Dutch side in popular and convenient hotels and resorts, but those looking for spa experiences don't have to be a guest of the property. Spa treatments are easy to book online in advance at spas like: L'Aqualigne (Pelican Resort Club); The Christian Dior Spa (The Cliffs); Good Life Spa (Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino); The Hibiscus Spa (The Westin St. Maarten Dawn Beach Resort & Spa); Indulgence by the Sea (Divi Little Bay Beach Resort and Oyster Bay Beach Resort); and La Samanna's Elysees Spa over in St. Martin.

 

Air-conditioned gaming during port calls can be found on the St. Maarten side. Diamond Casino, Jump Up Casino, Rouge et Noir Casino, and Coliseum Casino are the closest ones to the cruise-ship docks.

 

For those who have previously visited St. Maarten and St. Martin, daytrips to neighboring islands are increasingly popular. This is typically accomplished through a shore excursion, though it is possible to make independent arrangements. St. Maarten's location at the center of a small group of culturally significant islands in the northeastern Caribbean makes it an ideal base for island-hoppers to easily access Anguilla, St. Barths, Saba, and St. Eustatius via fast, affordably-priced ferry or air transportation.

 

With world-class beaches and classic beach bars, Anguilla--a mere seven miles north of St. Maarten--is by far the most popular daytrip for visiting cruise passengers. To the southeast, St. Barths also has a French flair. Tiny, volcanic Saba and saddle-shaped St. Eustatius are other options farther afield for passengers who have the time and inclination (just be sure to triple-check your ship's "all aboard" time).

 

Given all of this, there's no mystery why Philipsburg and this entire two-country island is one of the most popular ports-of-call in the Caribbean. Two-for-one can most definitely be fun.

 

Know Before You Go

Ships That Call: Major cruise lines with vessels calling in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, include Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, Oceania, P&O, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea, Windstar, and others. Some smaller lines callon on Marigot, St. Martin, include Paul Gauguin, Seabourn, SeaDream, and Silversea.

 

Weather: Days are normally sunny and warm, with an average daily temperature of 80 in the winter and 86 in the summer. The water temperature is typically around 80. Gentle trade winds keep humidity low, and the island is "dry," with no true rainy season. When showers do occur, they are generally brief.

 

Money Matters: The local currency of St. Maarten is the Netherlands Antilles guilder, but the U.S. dollar is widely accepted (prices are generally quoted in dollars and guilders). The local currency of St. Martin is the euro, but the U.S. dollar is widely accepted (prices are typically quoted in dollars and Euro). ATM machines are easy to find, and major credit cards are widely accepted.

 

For More Information: Contact your travel agent or log on to the web site of the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau at www.vacationstmaarten.com or the web site of the St. Martin Tourist Office at www.stmartinisland.org.

LAMBSTOCK

Chefs and industry insiders make an annual pilgrimage to a Virginia farm to kick back, cook, imbibe, and unwind

 

When Craig "The Shepherd" Rogers posted the dates for his fourth helping of Lambstock at Border Springs Farm, he added, "ALL industry insiders are invited. If you do not know what industry, then this is not meant for you."

 

Industry insiders don't necessarily have to be Facebook Friends with The Shepherd to head to the southwest Virginia mountains come August, but they most definitely need to know the man and his lamb.

 

Border Springs Farm and Rogers are beloved for providing chefs with some of the finest Katahdin lamb available anywhere. Think Bryan Voltaggio (Volt, Family Meal, Range, and more). Ask Sean Brock (McCrady's and Charleston's and Nashville's Husk). Order the Lamb Tamale from Chris Hastings at Birmingham's Hot and Hot Fish Club.

 

Border Springs fans also know to find Rogers roasting a lamb on a spit in the iconic Culinary Village at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival (just follow the smell and look for chefs licking their fingers). Shepherd groupies also get their fix at DC's Union Market or Philly's Reading Terminal Market, where Border Springs Farm has outposts selling various cuts of lamb--as well as creatively prepared entrees like the lamb sausage sandwich or the Sloppy Shepherd, a much-improved Sloppy Joe made with lamb.

 

However, along with his well-travelled and -served lamb, Rogers is now known for starting a chef-focused Woodstock-like event called Lambstock back in 2010. It's become a four-day party celebrating lamb and other foods, chefs and others in the industry, drink of all sorts, music, and more.

 

"Lambstock started when I was first introduced to Craig and his lamb during the first year of Volt's opening," recalls Voltaggio. "That was right after Top Chef and I was one of the first chefs to use his product in a big way."

 

Calling them educational "field trips," Voltaggio was well known for visiting farmers with his staff. When planning one such outing to his new lamb farmer, Voltaggio planned to bring all of his growing staff and asked if they could camp right in the Shepherd's pasture. Rogers offered to roast a lamb on a spit if Voltaggio provided the beer and hungry folks.

 

"From there, Craig thought to invite friends and soon Lambstock was born," says Voltaggio. That first year, those invited "friends" of Rogers quickly mushroomed and came from all points south, as well as San Francisco, Manhattan, and more. This all took place--and still does--in a sprawling sheep pasture down a hilly country road in the Old Dominion.

 

Though it's definitely expanded over the years, and there have been as many as 200 folks (mostly chefs) at the farm on some days, Lambstock still has an intimate feel. Rogers achieves that with a cadre of volunteers (and ATVs) managed by friends Connie and Brian Littell.

 

Typically, there are pockets of people clustered in and around the cooking and serving pavilion (new in 2012), manning other varied cooking stations, standing over two busy barbeque pits (think lamb and much more), pouring from kegs of fresh beer and many bottles of wine, enjoying creative cocktails at impromptu bars, listening to music, and spending time out in the hilly fields--where Craig and his crew host simulated sheep dog trials with with border collies (picture Babe, the movie, without the pig).

 

Because more restaurants are apt to be closed on Sundays and Mondays, they tend to be the busiest days for Lambstock, which officially starts on Saturday and ends Tuesday. For all four days, however, The Shepherd serves as the mayor of a town of law-abiding chefs and other industry insiders--except there really aren't any laws beyond sharing a love of friends, food, drink, and music and leaving egos up a the farm's fence line.

 

There's certainly no posted schedule for any of the four days, but Sunday and Monday have specifically developed a rhythm everyone seems to enjoy: lots of cooking, drinking, and eating from mid-morning until early-morning; latish breakfasts; lingering lunches; seemingly constant tasting and snacking until early evening; long and creative dinners, with chefs cooking for chefs; and music, singing, and dancing until well past midnight--with most heading back to their tents or hammocks and a few crashing in a smattering of small campers and larger RVs.

 

The farm awakens gradually each morning and it's likely the bleats of sheep and barks of dogs will arrive well before the groggy grunts of Lambstock libations lovers. However, on either Sunday or Monday morning--or maybe even both days--everyone will awaken to the smell of posole. That would be the tasty work of Anthony Lamas of Louisville's Seviche.

 

Dubbed the "hangover cure" and now officially the breakfast of Lambstock champions, Lamas's gussied-up posole highlights Border Springs lamb shoulder and lamb chorizo. "I have to do it every year," says Lamas, who has arisen early the last two years and counting to prepare his popular posole.

 

Like many chefs and other tastemakers, Lamas refers to Lambstock as "life-changing," while fans of his posole say the same about his hangover cure. "Anthony Lamas's posoloe was one of the greatest breakfasts I've ever had in my life," says Erin Breeding of The Breedings, a Nashville-based brother-and-sister band whose most recent album, Fayette, is out this summer. "Spicy broth should be a hangover necessity!" she adds in her oh-so-Southern accent.

 

Of course, the music is definitely a highlight as well. Last year, The Breedings returned to entertain the crowd during the day and late into the night several times.

 

"Lambstock is really a one-of-a-kind event" says Erin. "The Breedings learned quickly that chefs work hard and play harder. The sense of community and camaraderie is immediate when you arrive.

 

"The Shepherd had added a small stage for the music and there were also jam sessions where chefs might join in. One of those chefs was DC-area restaurant legend Robert Weidmaier, who rode into the Shenandoah Valley with David Guas (Arlington's Bayou Bakery) to on motorcycles to attend Guas's first Lambstock. "Last year, one of my best memories was definitely standing around the fire, playing the harmonica, and enjoying grilled lamb chops," recalls Weidmaier.

 

"This year, I'm coming back with my chefs from Brasserie Beck, Marcel's, and Mussel Bar & Grille," Weidmaier says with a smile. "I'll probably ride my 2003 classic yellow Heritage Softail Harley, but I'll have to caravan with my truck to bring everything down. I'm also bringing a few bands with me from the DC area, like Sean Chyun & The Deceivers and The Town Criers.

 

"Of course, along with food and music, there are also lots of adult beverages at Lambstock--which sometimes lead to child-like behavior that's best left at the farm. Wine, beer, and spirits are all paired with food--or not.

 

"We love Lambstock because it gives us an informal way to meet some of the hottest up-and-coming young chefs in the U.S.," says Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office. "It's also a lot of fun to participate and it's a very unique event." In 2012, the Virginia wine folks brought an RV and offered healthy tastings of award-winning wines. "We'll be back," says Boyd.

 

So will, Sean Lilly Wilson, founder and chief executive optimist at Durham's Fullsteam Brewery. "Fullsteam provided beer for the first-ever Lambstock in August of 2010, a week after we launched our brewery and tavern. I drove up [in] my 1967 Dodge A100--the farthest my "Mullet" truck has ever gone--and set up a table with our new beers, including Summer Basil farmhouse ale, Hogwash hickory-smoked porter, and our Carver sweet potato beer.

 

"I didn't know what we were getting into. All I know is that [Raleigh] chef Ashley Christensen recommended that I get involved. And when Ashley suggests something, you do it. I've never looked back.

 

"Various spirits also helped with the camaraderie. Derek Brown, owner of The Passenger, Columbia Room, and Mockingbird Hill, DC-area bars, says, "One of the cool things that happen are the collaborations that come out of it. You can't do that until you break bread and have some drinks. It's a great and eclectic group of chefs and spirits in general." Brown's double-meaning for "spirits" is certainly on exhibit at Lambstock 24/4.

 

Perhaps, Jay Pierce, executive chef at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Greensboro and Cary, North Carolina, says it best: "It's like the summer camp that all of us nerds never got to go to. Sure there are shenanigans, but it ends up being the food version of Dazed and Confused.

 

Quotables

"It's my favorite time to hang out with my farmer friends and chefs. Craig is incredibly generous to invite our whole community down to his amazing lamb farm to camp, listen to great music, and eat ourselves silly. We sit around the fire, share stories, and are mesmerized watching the nightly whole lamb roasting and rotating on the spit."

-Sean Brock, Charleston's McCrady's and Husk in Charleston and Nashville

 

"To me, Lambstock is an event we all look forward to because we can all come together and have an amazing time free of any chef egos and workplace stress. I've met some great people--not just chefs, but from all works of live. We get together, share some amazing stories and even better food."

-Bob Cook, Chef de Cuisine at Cypress in Charleston

 

"[This year] I'm planning on roasting a whole lamb with lots of sauces [and] I'm thinking about doing Moroccan-style spicy sausage with lentils and root vegetables to really harness the earthy flavors."

-Robert Weidmaier, Brasserie Beck, Marcel's, and Mussel Bar & Grille

 

 

ANGLING FOR THE FLORIDA KEYS

World Class Fishing Fun

 

When it comes to world-class-and world record-fishing, the Florida Keys have hooked many fisherman over the years. Old salts like Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey came to the Florida Keys and were immediately hooked with the possibilities. Even back then, world records were being established in the Florida Keys and, according to the International Game Fish Association, more saltwater world records have been established in the Florida Keys than any other angling destination on the planet.

 

"The Florida Keys is the fishing capital of the world," says well-traveled veteran fisherman Kunal Kamlani, Miami resident and president of the luxury cruise lines Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. "My preference is offshore game fishing in the Gulf Stream. During the summer months there is no greater thrill than hooking into a slammer dolphin or finding a large school of tuna. The cooler months bring sailfish in just off the reefs. We enjoy the thrill of the fight and then release these beautiful fish back into the azure blue waters. A good day of fishing in the Keys is being out on the water with family and good friends. A great day is when you land a fish. I'll take either one.

 

"The tropical weather, nearby Gulf Stream, and alluring 125-mile arc of islands that comprise the Florida Keys have all created a fishing environment that is truly unique in the world. From the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the fishing conditions are simply ideal.

 

Famed writers Hemingway and Grey loved Florida Keys fishing because of the incredible variety of fish species and habitats, ranging from shallow flats to pristine coral reefs and the nearby Gulf Stream. They both wrote evocatively of their experience on and off the water and would be pleased to know that the fishing is still world-class, thanks to protected areas like the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Everglades National Park, other refuges and parks, and a highly-successful and -practiced catch-and-release program.

 

"In my mind, the best thing about the Florida Keys, from a sportfishing perspective, is the incredible diversity of species and the completely different habitats that are easily accessed," says Andy Newman, an Islamorada resident who has represented Florida Keys tourism for decades and is obsessed with sportfishing. Though Newman is highly experienced, he still recommends going with a guide who will provide the best chance of hooking fish-and maybe even a new world record.

 

Guided boats dot the Keys from Key Largo to Key West. They range from 16-foot or so outboard-powered skiffs to large 65-foot offshore sportfishing boats.

 

One famed charter captain is celebrating his 50th year of fishing in the Florida Keys this fall. Captain Skip Bradeen and his Blue Chip Too Charters in Islamorada is among many experts who take Keys visitors fishing and he's been lucky enough to take Terry Bradshaw, former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, Mickey Mantle, Paul Newman, and many more out for a day or more of famed Keys fishing. "I've been hanging around the docks since I was eight," says Bradeen, who is still averaging 275 to 300 days of fishing a year.

 

Bountiful tarpon, permit, and bonefish are inshore species favorites, but barracuda, jacks, and Spanish mackerel are also often hooked-especially in winter months. Offshore, the possibilities include billfish, tuna, wahoo, and dolphin (mahi mahi). Fish that aren't released are likely destined for the dinner table. Though there are definitely 'seasons' for catching certain fish, there's always something biting somewhere in the Keys year-round.

 

A saltwater fishing license is required to fish in the Florida Keys from a pier or bridge, a boat, or when wading from shore in Florida waters. Those who fish with a certified charterboat captain, backcountry, or party boat won't need a license for the trip, in that the captain and boat take care of the appropriate documentation and carry it onboard.

 

But you don't even have to be on a boat to catch fish in the Florida Keys. Historic bridges border the famed Overseas Highway, acting as both fishing piers and artificial reefs for all types of fish. Popular spots include the bridges at Toms Harbor, the west end of Old Seven Mile Bridge, and Long Key Bridge.

 

Shoreline fishing is plentiful throughout the Keys. Both natural and manmade waterways can provide access to a host of fish.

 

Next, flats and backcountry fishing remains popular in the Florida Keys for good reason-especially with an experienced guide. The Keys feature miles of shallow sand and grass flats where bonefish feed on small fish, crabs, and shrimp in sparkling crystal-clear water that might be as shallow as six inches.

 

On the Atlantic Ocean side of the Keys, fabled flats await, while on the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico side, uninhabited mangrove islands provide shallow-water fishing habitat heaven. Ranging from eight to more than 14 pounds, the largest bonefish in the world are often caught by fishermen and tarpon in the 60- to 150-pound range are routinely landed throughout the Keys-especially during the spring and early-summer months.

 

Light tackle fishing is also outstanding and varied, with flexible charters showcasing the possibilities from a casual family trip to a fly rod outing in search of a record permit.

 

Ranging from fighting tarpon to leaping sailfish and including snapper, ceros, wahoo, cobia, tuna, or dorado, virtually all fish species can be caught on a light tackle fishing expedition in the Keys.

 

Reef fishing in the Atlantic features bottom feeders like yellowtail snapper, grouper, and kingfish. Wreck fishing is also popular, in that old wrecks tend to host and harbor schools of amberjack, permit, grouper, snapper, and more. Party boats provide a cost-effective way to check out the varied fishing scene in the Florida Keys.

 

Offshore in the deep blue sea, the water depth can exceed 1,500 feet. Charter captains are in search of blue and white marlin, swordfish, dolphin (mahi mahi), wahoo, blackfin tuna, and other famed deepwater fish that veteran visitors like Kamlani and Newman love to fish for and catch.

 

A wide variety of fishing tournaments throughout the year and throughout the Florida Keys provide yet another opportunity to perhaps catch the big one and maybe even set yet another world record. Incredibly, the schedule of fishing tournaments and events includes more than 50 possibilities in any given year!

 

Ranging from casual and fun to big prize money tourneys, the possibilities include: Islamorada Sailfish Championship and many other sailfish tourneys; the multi-location Florida Keys Dolphin Championship; Backcountry Fly Championship; Key West Fishing Tournament Kickoff (an eight-month-long tournament that awards thousands of citations); dolphin and tarpon tournaments; and many more.

 

"There are so many tournament options in the Florida Keys," says Captain Jim Sharpe, Sea Boots Charters owner and the president of the Florida Keys Fishing Tournaments, Inc. (commonly known as the very active "Monroe County Fishing Umbrella"). Who knows-maybe another world record will be set in the Florida Keys during one of the upcoming tournaments or simply on yet another great Keys fishing trip.

 

For more information, call 1-800-FLA-KEYS or visit www.fla-keys.com.

SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA

From Swansboro to Chocowinity and Beyond in Nicholas Sparks Country

 

It's easy to see why Nicholas Sparks loves living in--and writing about--southeastern North Carolina. It's hard to beat the settings in reality or in his best-selling novels, thanks to charming historic towns, quiet beaches, tidal rivers, and pretty marshes as far as the eye can see. That's certainly the case with the drive between historic Swansboro and the community of Chocowinity (and nearby Washington just across the Pamlico River). Time spent driving, stopping, and exploring can include history, small towns, beaches, rivers, marshes, and more.

 

Swansboro is a great place to start (or end) days of exploration. The "Friendly City by the Sea" sits at the confluence of the White Oak River and the Intracoastal Waterway (including a scenic walkway). Just a few blocks in size and featured in Sparks's The Guardian, Swansboro's historic district includes quaint shops, many historic houses and buildings (look for plaques with dates they were built), and popular restaurants.

 

With an Elvis statue at the entrance and a nostalgic 1950s interior, Yana's is the most popular place in town for breakfast and lunch-- including tasty hamburgers that the menu says will take 20 minutes to prepare correctly. There's often a wait, so locals also recommend nearby IceHouse Waterfront Restaurant for the seafood and the views.

 

Just southwest of Swansboro, Hammocks Beach State Park is a popular destination from spring to fall. Bear Island, the main attraction of the park, is only accessible by passenger ferry or private boat (there's also a popular launching dock for kayakers). Once there, quiet beachcombing, fishing, and even primitive camping (by reservation) await lucky visitors.

 

Heading back out of Swansboro in the other direction on US 24 toward the tiny communities of Cedar Point (pick up some fresh catch at Clyde Phillips Seafood), Cape Carteret, and Bogue, any map lures explorers across the bridge to Emerald Isle. The town of Emerald Isle is the first of several island beach communities right on the Atlantic Ocean, with the interesting drive along US 58 passing through Indian Beach, Salter Path, Pine Knoll Shores, and Atlantic Beach before heading back to the mainland.

 

Long a favorite family-oriented beach destination, Emerald Isle is popular for beach time, fishing (including famed Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier), and biking (there's a wide bike path). Seafood restaurants (like Jordan's House of Seafood) are also quite popular and prevalent.

 

Next, Pine Knoll Shores features more beachfront, more watersports opportunities, and the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. Popular exhibits take visitors on a waterborne journey from the mountains to the sea, including shark-feeding scuba divers, sunken ships, and lots of colorful fish. There are also North Carolina Aquariums down near Wilmington at Kure Beach's Fort Fisher and up in the Outer Banks in Manteo (with additional Aquarium programs and activities at Jeannette's Pier in Nags Head).

 

Atlantic Beach is the home of historic Fort Macon State Park, which features a Civil War fort, cannons, exhibits, and programs. Atlantic Beach is also the home of several waterfront seafood restaurants, including The Crabs Claw near the Oceanana Fishing Pier and Channel Marker Restaurant near the Atlantic Beach Bridge leading back to the mainland's waterfront communities of Morehead City and Beaufort.

 

Featured in the April, 2009 cover story of TrailBlazer, the Crystal Coast towns of Morehead City and Beaufort remain as alluring as ever. Morehead City highlights of any visit have to include The History Place (lots of fascinating regional history) and seafood-driven fare at either sprawling historic Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant (celebrating their 75th anniversary in 2013) or more intimate Bistro-by-the-Sea (look for menu items labeled "Carteret Catch" for the freshest local seafood creatively prepared).

 

Beaufort also has much to offer, including the North Carolina Maritime Museum (with the Watercraft Center across the street), Beaufort Historic Site (historic buildings and more), and outings to uninhabited Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserve just across Taylors Creek and Cape Lookout National Seashore--home to wild horses and the 1859 Cape Lookout Lighthouse. These outings (and more) are easily arranged by Outer Banks Ferry Service right on the Beaufort waterfront. The town's don't-miss Beaufort Grocery Co. restaurant now has a second location in Morehead City--Beaufort Grocery Too.

 

Pronounced "Bo-furt," Beaufort was the setting for Sparks's A Walk to Remember and also The Choice. A Walk to Remember is one of the novelist's most personal books in that it was inspired by his sister, who died of cancer in 2000.

 

Heading northwest on US 70 out of Morehead City toward New Bern, Newport is famed for the Newport Pig Picking Contest every April. Much of the rest of the drive all the way to New Bern is through 160,000-acre Croatan National Forest. This is a land of pine forests, lakes, bogs, raised swamps, saltwater estuaries, and rivers. Possible outdoor options include hiking, boat launches, fishing, swimming, and primitive camping.

 

On the way, the town of Havelock marches to the beat of Marines stationed at adjacent Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. With planes and a huge helicopter awaiting visitors, the Havelock Tourist & Event Center & Aviation Exhibit puts Newport's role in peace into perspective--as does the roar of jets often heard while in town. Five restored aircraft are on display, along with scaled models, historic photography, and other artifacts depicting the history of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point since its inception way back in 1942. Havelock is also home to June's Cherry Point Air Show and October's Havelock Chili Festival.

 

New Bern on the Neuse River is next and it's best to plan to stay awhile. Author Nicholas Sparks certainly did--having made North Carolina and New Bern his home for many years.

 

Staff at New Bern's friendly Convention & Visitors Center at is happy to share the self-guided "Walk to Remember" walking tour with fans of the writer's popular books and numerous resulting movies. The walk also provides a way to see many of the city's sights.

 

New Bern specifically plays a role in three Sparks novels: A Bend in the Road, The Wedding, and The Notebook. Highlights of the walking tour include Union Point Park and the docks behind the waterfront DoubleTree (both featured in A Bend in the Road), the Alfred Cunningham Bridge leading into town (in The Notebook), the Masonic Theater and Centenary Methodist Church (both in The Notebook), historic Cedar Grove Cemetery (mentioned as part of a funeral procession in A Bend in the Road). Sparks also featured two tasty New Bern restaurants in A Bend in the Road: Pollock Street Deli ("the best sandwiches in town") and Fred & Claire's (which now houses the creative cuisine of 247 Craven).

 

Other Heritage Walking Tours available from the Convention & Visitors Center include "Civil War Heritage," "Historic Homes," "Architectural," and "African-American History." They all provide a great way to see the town Sparks obviously loves.

 

Along with taking one of the walking tours, many visitors to New Bern start with Tryon Palace Historic Sites & Gardens. Tryon Palace served as the North Carolina government when New Bern was the state capital in the late-1700s and was mentioned in A Bend in the Road and The Wedding.

 

A visit to Tryon Palace proper and more starts at the adjacent North Carolina History Center, where the soaring Cannon Gateway provides orientation exhibits and the rest of the museum features rotating coverage and interactive historical activities--as well as Lawson's Landing, a tasty Riverwalk café right on the Neuse. The Tryon Palace Museum Store (no admission required) features many items representative of North Carolina history, including decorative pieces for the home and garden, collectibles, porcelain, and many books.

 

A 1798 fire destroyed the original Palace building, but it was carefully reconstructed more than 150 years later on the original site. The Palace's impressive collection of fine art, antiques, silver, and ceramics is worth the price of admission on its own, but those who love to travel will also enjoy the map collection from some of the most important European map makers of the 17th and 18th centuries.

 

The Palace's 16 acres of gardens were designed by noted landscape architect Morley Jeffers Williams in the 1950s and represent the formal garden style of 18th century Britain. The Kitchen Garden is especially tasteful--though no picking allowed!

 

There are several historic houses nearby that are included in admission, the 1780s John Wright Stanly House (home of several successful Stanly men and their families), the George W. Dixon House (the home of a prominent New Bern Merchant), and the 19th century Robert Hay House. Though not part of the Tryon Palace complex, the circa 1790 Attmore-Oliver House is also well worth a visit.

 

The Regional History Museum is another highlight of the overall Tryon Palace experience. Here, visitors follow the "River of Light" to explore five centuries of the region's history themed exhibits exploring "Environment," "Community," and "Work."

 

Another interesting part of New Bern's history can be found just up Middle Street at the Birthplace of Pepsi. Here, at his pharmacy, Caleb Bradham invented "Brad's Drink," which he later patented as Pepsi-Cola. Today, thirsty visitors can enjoy a sample and buy souvenirs at the recreated soda fountain.

 

Nearby, the New Bern Firemen's Museum features the state's first chartered fire department. There are horse drawn steam engines and other original firefighting equipment and relics.

 

Throughout town, creatively painted bear sculptures are easy to spot. New Bern was named for Bern, Switzerland, and a bear serves as the town symbol and mascot.

 

Just northeast of New Bern, the town of Chocowinity was once a thriving hub of the Norfolk Southern Railway. It was incorporated in 1959 and recent growth can be attributed to the development of Cypress Landing on Chocowinity Bay.

 

Nearby, across the Pamlico River, historic Washington awaits. Often referred to as the "Original Washington," the town was the first municipality named for George Washington. The town was founded in 1776, when Washington was a general and well before he became the first president of the United States.

 

Today's still-quaint waterfront town has many historic and modern highlights. These include: the North Carolina Estuarium (exhibits explore the vast areas in the state where fresh and salt water meet), waterfront Festival Park, lots of colorfully painted blue crab sculptures, eclectic shopping, and varied outings on the schooner Jeanie B, a 72-foot gaff-rigged tall ship.

 

Main Street and Water Street feature several locally-owned and -operated restaurants: Down on Main Street (creative sandwiches and seafood); The Bank bistro & bar (located in a historic bank building); and On the Waterfront (steaks, oysters, other seafood, and views).

 

Who knows--maybe Nicholas Sparks will provide a taste of the "Original Washington" in his next novel!

 

Nicholas Sparks Also Shines the Spotlight on Southeastern North Carolina's Southport & Wilmington

 

The riverfront towns of Southport and Wilmington recently provided yet another North Carolina setting for a Nicholas Sparks novel and resulting film (the eighth Sparks book to hit the silver screen). Safe Haven--the romantic thriller starring Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough--which debuted this past Valentine's Day, after being filmed exclusively in Southport and Wilmington.

 

In a popular pre-Safe Haven film called A Night With Nicholas Sparks. Safe Haven: Filmmakers, Author And Stars Bring The Book To Life, Sparks praised the southeastern North Carolina settings in fiction and film: "The sunsets, the coast--it's a good place. The closer you get to the coast, the smaller things get. The slow pace of life has an influence on me. I write stories where people have time to connect.

 

"It's easy to connect with both towns as seen in the film. The possibilities in and around Southport include: the ferry between Fort Fisher, across the Cape Fear River, and Southport; the old-timey city blocks where the dramatic Fourth of July scenes were filmed; Ports of Call restaurant, where a romantic dinner was shot and actor Josh Duhamel learned to shuck an oyster; and Old American Fish Co. restaurant, where the character Katie (Julianne Hough) worked as a waitress.

 

Across the Cape Fear at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, the fictional couple enjoyed a romantic kiss on the wide and deserted beach. Over in Wilmington--often referred to as "Wilmywood" and "Hollywood of the East" because of all the film work done there--the characters strolled by the Wilmington Convention Center and the Carolina Apartments on Market Street during a visit.

 

Along with their fictional roles, the cast and crew also took advantage of other area offerings during filming, including Julianne Hough's 23rd birthday celebration at Ports of Call; popular Fishy Fishy Cafe, near where much of the film work was done and a favorite with Sparks and the cast and crew; a guided paddling trip with Adventure Kayak Company; and tee times, dining, and libations at Oak Island Golf Club.

 

Duhamel, often accompanied by girlfriend Fergie of The Blacked Eyed Peas fame, stayed on Oak Island and continues to publicly rave about his time on the island and in Southport--yet another southeastern North Carolina town now in the Nicholas Sparks spotlight. With the addition of Southport, Sparks has now featured southeastern North Carolina's Beaufort, Edenton, New Bern, Swansboro, and Wilmington (which was already highlighted in Dear John, Message in a Bottle, and The Last Song prior to Safe Haven).

 

AUTHOR NICHOLAS SPARKS

Loves His Home State of North Carolina

 

Quite simply, famed author Nicholas Sparks loves North Carolina. All of his novels have been based in the Tar Heel State, including both real and fictional settings in a variety of well-known North Carolina destinations, including New Bern (where Sparks lives), Beaufort, Swansboro, Edenton, Oriental, Rodanthe, the North Carolina mountains, Wilmington, and--most recently--Southport (for the bestselling novel and feature film, Safe Haven).

 

Sparks was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1965. As a child, he lived in Nebraska, Minnesota, and California, attending high school in Fair Oaks. He ran track at Notre Dame and wrote his first (never published) novel after his freshman year. He and his wife, Catherine, were married in 1989--moving to Sacramento. He also wrote his second novel that year (also never published). In 1990, Sparks co-authored a book (Wokini) with 1965 Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, with sales topping 50,000 books the first year.

 

The couple moved to North Carolina in 1992 and, over a period of six months in 1994, Sparks wrote The Notebook (set in New Bern). Of that novel, Sparks recalls, "The Notebook was inspired by my wife's grandparents, two wonderful people who spent over 60 years together."

 

The Notebook was published in 1996, followed by Message in a Bottle (1998), A Walk to Remember (1999), The Rescue (2000), A Bend in the Road (2001), Nights in Rodanthe (2002), The Guardian (2003), The Wedding (also 2003), True Believer (2005), At First Sight (the 2005 sequel to True Believer), Dear John (2006), The Choice (2007), The Lucky One (2008), The Last Song (2009), Safe Haven (2010), and The Best of Me (2011). His books have been translated into more than 45 languages and have racked up more than $80 million in sales.

 

Sparks traveled well beyond North Carolina's borders for the 2004 non-fiction memoir, Three Weeks With My Brother, co-authored with his older brother, Micah. Though Sparks has hesitated pursing a traditional memoir at this point in his life, he says, "It turns out that my brother and I took a trip around the world, and the more we traveled and talked, the more we began to think we could write a story about brotherhood, all set around the trip we were taking." The result is a mixture of memoir and travelogue that makes for a great read on or off the road.

 

Back home in North Carolina, Sparks and Catherine launched the Nicholas Sparks foundation in 2011. It's a nonprofit foundation committed to improving cultural and international understanding through global education experiences for students of all ages. The foundation and personal gifts from the couple have meant more than $10 million to deserving charities, scholarship programs, and projects. Because they cover all operational costs, 100% of donations go to the programs.

 

In addition, in 2012, the couple and their five children hosted the inaugural Nicholas Sparks Celebrity Family Weekend and Golf Tournament in New Bern. With a range of celebrities from the worlds of sports, music, movies, and television, it's a weekend to raise awareness and funds for the Foundation-raising more than $500,000 in its first year.

 

The following questions and answers about North Carolina, writing, and more were culled from Sparks's website (www.nicholassparks.com), which provides great insight into his books and resulting movies.

 

Why are all of your novels set in North Carolina?

Because I live in North Carolina and am familiar with the area, because few other novelists write about the area, and because I want to create a sense of familiarity when readers buy each novel.

 

How many copies have your novels sold?

Worldwide, my books have sold an estimated 80 million copies to date.

 

Is it true that all of your novels are based on your own life?

My novels aren't so much based on my life as they are inspired by events in my own life. But even that degree of similarity doesn't apply to all of my books. For instance, Nights in Rodanthe, was entirely fictional.

 

How long does it take you to write a novel?

It can take as long as three months to conceive of a story, and during those periods, I simultaneously work on projects for television or film, outline possible ideas both mentally and on paper, go on book and film tours, work with foreign and domestic publishers, and handle the paperwork associated with being an author. Once I finalize a story concept and begin writing, my work schedule can vary depending on where I am in a particular novel, since some sections are easier to write than others. I generally work five or six days a week. My goal is to complete 2,000 words each day, and that can take anywhere from three to eight hours, usually averaging five hours. Generally, I start around 9:00 a.m. and try to finish by 2:00 p.m. I have, however, written at all hours of the day and night. I generally work at home, although I've also been known to write while touring. Sometimes I need quiet, other times it doesn't matter. Sometimes I listen to music, other times not. Sometimes I write with the television on (I like watching DVDs of old television shows), but other times I don't. In the end, it usually takes four or five months to complete a novel, not counting editing, which adds an additional month or so.

 

What do you want your readers to take away from your novels?

Generally speaking, I set out to write an easy-to-read, entertaining, original love story with a poignant ending, one that generates genuine emotion. That's what I'd like my readers to take away. In terms of style, I attempt to write with efficiency, conciseness, and originality in uncluttered, vigorous prose.

 

What is the first step you take in writing a new novel?

The first step is to come up with a general theme, one that influences the style in which it's written, the proper narrative voice, the appropriate characters and settings, and the length of the novel.

 

Do you write longhand or work on a computer?

I write on a computer.

 

Is it true you wrote two novels before The Notebook was published, and if so, will you ever publish them?

Yes, it's true, but no, they will never be seen. I regard the work on those novels as an apprenticeship of sorts, one that showed me that I not only enjoyed writing stories, but that I had the ability to finish a novel once I'd started. However, I don't feel they are well-written enough to be published.

 

Why do you write books?

 enjoy, and have always enjoyed, reading, and my ability to write and interest in a writing career grew out of that. While I generally avoid cliches, the following is apt: I don't live to write, I write to live.

 

What do you read?

I usually read about 125 books a year, and I have been a voracious reader since I was young. I read commercial fiction, selected modern literary fiction, assorted Penguin Classics, history and biography.

 

Who are your favorite authors?

Due to the volume of books I read, it's impossible to choose a favorite. I have said publicly, however, that the only modern contemporary writer of fiction that I feel certain will be read 100 years from now is Stephen King, and I am a great admirer of Mr. King's work.

 

Which of your novels have been adapted for film?

The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, Dear John , The Last Song, The Lucky One, and Safe Haven.

 

Do you get a chance to meet the stars of your movies?

Yes. I usually visit the set of each film a couple of times and meet everyone involved.

 

What are your hobbies?

In addition to writing, reading, and spending time with my five children, I run 30 miles a week, lift weights four times per week, and practice Tae Kwon Do. As a black belt, I have competed at both the regional and national levels

 

TOURS OF DUTY

Experience Tidewater's rich military heritage at these sites

 

I am proud Virginia Military Institute graduate and Army veteran who bleeds red, white, and blue. As a boy, I spent many summer weeks at Virginia Beach's Camp Pendleton while my father served in the Virginia Army National Guard. So it was natural for me to develop a deeply rooted interest in military history, and the Tidewater region holds a special place in my heart. Here, a plethora of military sites--and people--turn my free moments into a march down memory lane.

 

From the ocean to the beach and beyond, the U.S. military has had a major presence in Southeast Virginia for centuries--from the Revolutionary War to the frequent deployment of ships and soldiers today. It's easy to explore the military's past and present presence in the Tidewater area, thanks to varied museums, monuments, attractions, and bases where visitors are allowed.

 

"I'm really into military history and have been everywhere of interest in the area," Dick "Chipper" Chipchak told me during a tour of the battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk. Chipchak served in the Navy, including three tours in Vietnam, and is among many veteran volunteers who work at regional military history sites and love to share their stories and those of others who have served their country. Here are five top Tidewater military sites.

 

The U.S. Army Transportation Museum

300 Washington Boulevard, Newport News (Fort Eustis)

(757) 878-1109; www.transportation.army.mil

This museum's collection is so large, only 25 percent of it is on display at any one time. Indoor and outdoor exhibits showcase historic trucks, Jeeps, trains, planes, helicopters, and tugboats. Highlights include the only surviving gun truck from the Vietnam War, the only surviving hovercraft to see Vietnam conflict, and the first helicopter to fly at the South Pole. Besson Hall, the museum's main building is named for General Frank S. Besson,Jr., the first Army transporter to reach the rank of four-star general.

Free admission.

 

Nauticus

One Waterside Drive, Norfolk

(757) 664-1000; www.nauticus.org

Located on the Elizabeth River, Nauticus features hands-on exhibits devoted to the sea and Norfolk's ties to the water. The Hampton Roads Naval Museum occupies the building's second floor and features exhibits covering more than 230 years of U.S. Navy history in coastal Virginia.

 

Berthed alongside Nauticus is the USS Wisconsin. At 887 feet long, the Wisconsin is the largest battleship the U.S. Navy ever built. From the museum, visitors reach the ship, where they can walk the teak decks and access many of the ship's areas. Veteran volunteers at both the museum and the battleship are happy to share personal anecdotes. "I volunteer aboard the USS Wisconsin as my payback," says Chipchak, who says the Navy gave him his career. "I love giving the Main Street USN tour, which goes through areas of the ship where the enlisted personnel spent their time, including the mess. I have a lot of funny memories about being a night baker."

Gold Ticket Adult Admission $35.95; ages 4-12 $31.50 (includes Nauticus, Wisconsin guided interior tour, self-guided Wisconsin tour, 3D movies). White Ticket Adult Admission $15.95; ages 4-12 $11.50 (includes Nauticus, self-guided Wisconsin tour, 3D movies).

 

Military Aviation Museum

1341 Princess Anne Road, Virginia Beach

(757) 721-7767; www.militaryaviationmuseum.org

Situated in southeastern Virginia Beach, the sprawling Military Aviation Museum contains one of the largest private collections of historic military aircraft in the world. With a focus on the two world wars, there are planes from the U.S. Army Air Corps, the U.S. Navy, Great Britain, Germany, and France. Planes feature historically correct markings and have been restored to their original condition, using original parts whenever possible. Incredibly, many of the planes on display are frequently flown in local demonstration flights, museum air shows, and elsewhere around the country. Uniforms, ground equipment, and even a 1934 German aircraft hangar are on display. Veterans and other volunteers bring history alive. "I'm always fascinated by the variety of people that come to visit," says volunteer Norman Hecht. "I remember an 85-year-old German woman who met Adolf Hitler as a young girl. She remembered American bombers that bombed her city and came to the museum to see if they had the kinds of bombers that devastated her town. It's a very emotional experience for so many for a variety of reasons. I've often seen tears in people's eyes."

Adult admission $12; ages 6-18 $6.95; 65 and over $10; active-duty military $10.

 

The Virginia War Museum

9285 Warwick Boulevard, Newport News

(757) 247-8523; www.warmuseum.org

Providing an extensive introductory overview of military history in Virginia and around the world, this museum documents America's wars from 1775 to today. American Legion Post 25 established it in 1923 as the American Legion Memorial Museum of Virginia. Today, the museum houses more than 60,000 artifacts and archival documents, including a 1776 letter from General George Washington, a Renault FT17 tank, a helmet used by Harry S. Truman as an artillery officer in World War I, a portion of the outer wall from the concentration camp at Dachau, and a 10' x 10' section of the Berlin Wall. "Visitors constantly express their surprise at the depth and breadth of the museum's collection and displays," says museum curator Dick Hoffeditz. "Tidewater Virginia has a rich tradition and our museum has greatly benefited from the tens of thousands of active duty and retired service members in the area."

Adult admission $7; active military and ages 62 and older $6; ages 7-18 $5.

 

Naval Station Norfolk and Information Center

9079 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk

(757) 444-7955; www.cnic.navy.mil/norfolksta

Norfolk is also home to the world's largest naval base, and frequent 45-minute bus tours allow visitors to see whatever ships are in port, including aircraft carriers, destroyers, and other Atlantic Fleet naval vessels. Tours also take visitors past houses built here by several states for the Jamestown Exposition of 1907. At the exposition, each state showcased its distinctive architectural style. The Pennsylvania Building, for example, was a two-thirds reproduction of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, and the North Carolina Building was constructed and finished with native yellow pine. Visitors may not leave the bus during the tours, which are narrated by enlisted personnel assigned to the base. For a different view of the fleet, the two-hour narrated Naval Base Cruise aboard the 150-passenger Victory Rover (757) 627-7406; www.navalbasecruises.com) departs downtown Norfolk at Nauticus.

Adult admission $10, ages 3-11 $5; 60 and above $5; active-duty military free.

 

TEN-HUT

Other Tidewater sites focus on various military aspects.

 

The Mariners' Museum and Park

The USS Monitor Center highlights the famed Civil War ironclad and its battle with the USS Virginia. "The Nelson Touch" exhibit chronicles the naval career of Admiral Horatio Nelson. 100 Museum Drive, Newport News. (757) 596-2222; www.marinersmuseum.org.

 

The MacArthur Memorial

Housed in Norfolk's 19th century former City Hall, the memorial's two floors feature nine galleries of exhibits, artifacts, inscriptions, and banners honoring General Douglas MacArthur. General and Mrs. MacArthur are also buried in the monumental rotunda. 198 Bank Street, Norfolk. (757) 441-2965; www.macarthurmemorial.org.

 

Armed Forces Memorial

The waterfront plaza features 22 bronze sculptures etched with the text of actual letters sent by U.S. soldiers before they died in military conflicts. Town Point Park, Norfolk.

 

Fort Monroe National Monument

Known as "Freedom's Fortress," due to its strategic position defending Hampton Roads Harbor, Fort Monroe was the largest stone fort built in the U.S. Part of what is now the Casemate Museum served as General Robert E. Lee's quarters from 1831 to 1834. 41 Bernard Road, Hampton. (757) 722-3678; www.nps.gov/fomr.

 

Fort Norfolk

The last remaining of 19 harbor-front forts authorized by President George Washington in 1794 sits on a 4-acre site overlooking the Elizabeth River and includes ramparts, a dungeon, a powder magazine, officers' quarters and barracks. Most buildings date from 1810. 803 Front Street, Norfolk. (757) 201-7606.

 

Naval Aviation Monument Park

Along Virginia Beach's oceanfront boardwalk, six large bronze sculptures depict three eras of naval aviation. 25th Street & Atlantic Avenue, Virginia Beach.

 

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum

The city of Portsmouth and shipbuilding have been intertwined since the founding of Gosport Shipyard in 1767. The collection includes ship models, uniforms, and military artifacts. Tours of the nearby 1915 lightship Portsmouth includes quarters, uniforms, and photographs. 2 High Street, Portsmouth. (757) 393-8591; www.portsmouthnavalshipyardmuseum.com.

 

Old Coast Guard Station Museum

Housed in a former 1903 U.S. Life Saving Station, this little museum highlights coastal shipwrecks, lifesaving efforts, and coastal military history. 2401 Atlantic Avenue, Virginia Beach. (757) 422-1587; www.oldcoastguardstation.com.

 

Joint Expeditionary Base East/Cape Henry Lighthouse

Situated on a still-active base, the Cape Henry Lighthouse once guarded the entryway to Chesapeake Bay. It was the first lighthouse structure completed and lighted by the federal government. 583 Atlantic Avenue, Virginia Beach.

 

Lynn Seldon, a Virginia Military Institute graduate and former Army officer, is the author of the novel, Virginia's Ring, about VMI. 

OUTER BANKS HOUSEBOATS