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August 27, 2014

Exploring Alaska Off A Cruise Ship (Even Glacier Bay!)

Is Alaska on your bucket list?  That’s one of my favorite destinations and I’ve travelled all over the state in the past 20 years.   After my latest trip, I posted a 5 part series on my blog.  I’ve put links to all the posts below to make it easy to find in one place, and hopefully you’ll be inspired to take a trip to Alaska as well! 

A cruise is a great way to see the Inside Passage, but if you've done that and want a new experience, or you'd like to spend more time exploring the interior, then you might want to consider a land-based vacation.
  
Hiking in Denali National Park
Part 1: Gustavus: The Yummiest Pancakes in the Whole World
On the first leg of our Alaskan journey, we explored Gustavus, the only town located in Glacier Bay.   We saw glaciers, wildlife and scenery up close from a small boat, explored the coastline in kayaks, and hiked through a rainforest.  Evenings were spent relaxing and enjoying fantastic food at Bear Track Inn, a luxurious fishing lodge that made some memorable meals.  
Glaciers up close
Relaxing before dinner at the lodge

Part 2:  Juneau:  The Time We Watched Bears Eat Dinner (and it wasn’t us!)
In Juneau we rented a car so we could explore outside town at our own pace.  We visited the hatchery, where we watched salmon perform acrobatics as they worked their way up the ladder.  And Mendenhall Glacier, where we watched bears expertly scoop up salmon swimming upstream, including a momma bear and two cubs!  Then we wrapped it up with some beer tasting at the Alaskan Brewery, and wrapped the day watching the cruise ships pull away, leaving quiet Juneau all to ourselves.

Bye bye, everyone!
Can't get fish fresher than this

Part 3:  Anchorage: More Than a Place to Wait for Your Cruise/Flight
Many travelers only spend the night in Anchorage, either on their way to or from a cruise.  But if you have a couple extra days to spare, and a rental car, there really is quite a bit to do and see.  We watched an interesting movie about the quake of ’64, visited the Iditarod headquarters, and cycled along the coastal trail.  And if you love animal babies, you have to head down to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center!
  
THE trophy
Lunchtime for 'McKinley'

Part 4:   Talkeetna:  Living Vicariously Through the Locals
Talkeetna was one of my favorite stops.   While it was too late in the season to personally watch climbers prep for a trek up Mt. McKinley, we listened to interesting stories from the locals who host them, and learned from the park rangers just exactly what kind of mettle it takes to ascend the tallest peak on North America.  Talkeetna also boasts some of the best views of the Alaska Range.

Old vs new hiking gear
The main drag in Talkeetna

Part 5:  Denali:  The Best 11 Hours We’ve Ever Spent on a School Bus
The 92 mile long road which heads into Denali Park is filled with spectacular scenery and up close encounters with grizzlies, wolves, caribou, and more.  But unless you have a camping reservation, you aren’t allowed to drive past mile 15.  The only way to go deep into the Alaskan wilderness is on a shuttle bus.  Yes, it’s bumpy, and no, it’s not luxurious by any means (however you don't have to ride the entire 11 hr route).  But trust me, you’ll remember this as the one of the highlights of your Alaska vacation.  Afterwards you can hop in your comfy car and visit the other cool stuff in and around the park.  
Yes, this is a 2 way road.
We lost track of the grizzly bear
count by this point
Alaska offers a lot of logistical challenges to travelers because of its size and limited services.   It’s best to plan early, a year or more is not uncommon, especially if you want to stay in a wilderness lodge.  But I have also been able to pull together great trips at relatively short notice as well.

If you’d like to have your own great Alaska adventure, just send me an email to find out how to get started!
My favorite park employees

August 13, 2014

A Family's Fairy Tale Vacation in Europe

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably saw pictures that I posted from a client traveling through Germany and Switzerland earlier this summer.  They had a great time, and gave me permission to share some of their Facebook posts and text messages. 
                             
“We took the advice and did the castle drive along the Rhine…We must have seen 20+ castles. Very cool for the first thing we did.”

Castle on the Rhine

 “We got to Heidelberg around 5 pm. The staff is really great. Every room is a different themed suite.  It's a short walk across the bridge to old town where the food and shops are. It's a beautiful little town. There were fireworks our first night on the bridge celebrating the end of the 30 year war.  Yesterday we spent about 6 hours touring the castle. We learned a lot about medieval times and castles. The history is amazing. Everything is so old!”

Beautiful buildings in Nuremburg

Heidelberg
Rothenberg ob Der Tauber is a beautiful small town out in lush green hills that is stuck in the medieval times. The village walls, towers, homes and shops were all intact.  It wasn't bombed during any wars so it survived as is. The history there is incredible. We took a walking tour of the town given by a funny town watchman. They had some great museums with fantastic medieval artifacts. It was amazing.”

Rothenburg ob Der Tauber

“It took a few hours to drive to Aying. It's a small village off the beaten trail. It's famous for its Ayinger brewery (I'm not a beer drinker and even I liked the beer).”

“We had a fantastic day at Salzburg. We walked around the entire city. Walked up to the castle and had lunch. [My daughter] wanted to see as many Sound of Music sites as she could. We got in four before we had to leave....The Abbey, the do-re-mi stairs, the Von Trapp house and the 16-going-on-17 gazebo.  It was fun searching through town for them. There were so many churches that it seemed like they chimed all day long. “
 
Sound of Music gazebo
"[My daughter's] in heaven...the view from her bed, yes that's right, not just the room, her BED!  Cinderella's castle!"

Neuschwanstein Castle
“The Glacier Express ride from St Moritz to Zermatt was beautiful.  It was raining when we arrived so we didn't get to see the Matterhorn til this am. What an amazing site. We have a room with a gorgeous view of the Matterhorn. We took a train up to Gornergrat, another peak across from the Matterhorn. It was about 30 degrees this am but it warmed up by the afternoon. It was a gorgeous day!” 

The Matterhorn
One of the highlights of their trip was the day spent with Ueli Summers, an 80 year old farmer from Grindelwald who spent his life working as a private mountain climber guide.  He escorted them from their hotel via rail to Jungfrau, aka “The Top of Europe.”  
  
At the "Top of Europe"

Walking through a glacier

I want to point out that Switzerland is a bit more logistically challenging than Germany, in that many towns can only be accessed by train, which is a problem if you are driving a rental car!  I did not want my clients to backtrack to pick up their car, so my Switzerland partner came up with the perfect solution:  she sent over a driver to pick up their car and move it to the parking garage at my clients’ final destination, where they picked it up a few days later.

Train to Jungfrau
On any vacation, but especially an extensive trip through Europe, one expects a few snafus, but happily everything went quite smoothly.  My clients did need to scramble for backup transportation to Paris when it appeared the French rail strike would disrupt the final leg of their journey.  But my wonderful partners in Switzerland worked with my clients to make sure they were covered.  Fortunately their train was not cancelled and they arrived in Paris as scheduled.
Lucerne
It’s important to consider not just the price, but the quality of the suppliers, and the value of having a reliable contact at your destination just in case something goes awry.  Go ahead and travel independently, but don’t be on your own!  

August 5, 2014

The Best Barn You'll Ever Stay In

Yes, this review is about a barn.  But a very special barn, at a very special resort.  ("Retreat" is actually a better word, as there is definitely nothing "resorty" about it.)

Old Stone Farm is a very unique place, a 200 yr old working horse farm just 2 hours from New York city via a scenic drive or train ride along the Hudson River.  

On arrival you can tell there's nothing else like it.  A gravel driveway meanders through the gorgeous sprawling grounds (236 acres!), and you find yourself surrounded by horse corrals and trees.  A sign points you to the “office,” a house that looks like it is centuries old but is in fact quite new, an accurate replica of an old farmstead.
The welcoming committee
Dining area
View from the "office"
The staff picks up guests at the Rhinecliff Amtrak station.  But if you drove, your car will be valeted to a parking area until you need it again. All the buildings are close enough to walk to, but if it’s raining or you just don’t feel like walking, staff can shuttle you in a golf cart. 

Next you’ll be taken to your room, a short walk across the lawn to a big beautiful red barn.  Yes, a barn.  A really old barn.  And yes, your room will look old, but very charming.  However don’t let looks deceive you.  The barn was completely gutted down to the frame and rebuilt with all modern, luxurious amenities.  So the only really old things are the timbers visible in the walls, and the antiques and accent pieces, which are authentic.

The barn
The upstairs lounge
Rest assured you’ll be comfortable, enjoying a queen size bed with organic mattress and Frette sheets, a private bathroom, robe, safe, and beautiful artwork.   And a pretty awesome view.  
Old look, modern comfort
Love the medicine cabinet & shutters!
Aaaaah!
For a special treat, book a loft room on the second floor, or the sole two room suite with extra seating and a desk.

Two room suite
Writing desk in the suite
Ready for a spa treatment?  You simply walk down to the first floor, where you’ll find 3 massage rooms, 1 wet room, 2 locker rooms and 2 cedar steam cabinets.
 
Have a seat!
A separate four bedroom/3 bath guest house, with its own yard enclosed by a white picket fence, is perfect for a family or couples traveling together.   It has a kitchen with stainless steel appliances, dining area, and spacious living room with fireplace. A fun feature:  a bedroom upstairs has a “secret door” that leads to a play room with toys.
 
The Guesthouse
Living room
Private yard
Guests have access to the horses and can hang out with the trainers, and also book riding lessons or an Eponaquest workshop.  There are some hiking trails around the property, and many outdoor spaces ideal for weddings or other events.  Another beautiful barn with a large open space on the ground floor hosts complimentary daily yoga in the morning, but can also be set up for weddings, cocktail parties, or corporate events.
 
Allison, the resident horse-whisperer
Horses, horses, horses!
This is truly a unique place, perfect for anyone seeking a serene, relaxing getaway.  A typical day consists of yoga, spa treatments, short hikes, a riding lesson or just hanging out with the horses, and relaxing.

The yoga barn and event space
A walk in the woods
Or picnic by a pond
But if you want a little more to do, there are plenty of activities nearby, though you would need to have your own car.  You can go wine tasting, tour the Roosevelt or Vanderbilt mansions,  or go kayaking, tubing, or hiking.  For a special treat visit the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome to see an old-fashioned air show and take a bi-plane ride! Then come “home” to enjoy a wonderful gourmet dinner, and relax with a glass of wine and a book.

Playing on the water

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
Up, up, and away!
The property just opened in 2013, so it’s not on everyone’s radar yet. As there are less than a dozen rooms, I recommend going sooner rather than later before the word gets out.  To make a reservation, contact me for more information, and I will also reach out to the general manager to make sure he personally oversees your arrangements. 

June 30, 2014

New Destinations for Adventurous Families

One of the most common requests I get is to suggest a vacation destination that has lots of outdoor activity and adventure.  Getting outside, being active, and seeing lots of wildlife seems to make everyone happy.  I know that formula works for my family!
 

So here are some vacation destinations you might not think of right of right away, which are great for the active family.   There is something for every age on this list, and several which are perfect for a multi-generational group.

PUERTO RICO – This gorgeous Caribbean island offers a wealth of activities, from cultural sites to impressive national parks.  Some of my favorites:  kayaking in a bioluminescent bay, hiking in El Yunque rainforest, and snorkeling in Culebra’s Luis Peña Channel Natural Reserve.   You can also visit Rio Camuy Cave Park or check out Rincon, one of the Caribbean’s top surfing destinations.  The bonus: no passport needed!
 
Culebra kayak and snorkel excursion
Hiking in El Yunque
SWITZERLAND – While known as a great destination for hiking and spectacular alpine scenery, there are quite a few other activities for adventure seekers.  The Bernese Oberland offers bungee jumping off a canyon wall into glacial gorge, or even out of a gondola suspended over a lake.  And there’s whitewater rafting and canyoning for all ability levels, some routes including high rappels, water slides, and zip lines.


Canyon water slides
Matterhorn hiking
EXPEDITION CRUISE – Don’t skip this paragraph because you saw the word “cruise.”  I’m not talking about a 2000-3000 passenger vessel that offers midnight buffets and Vegas-style shows.  These are small ships, often with fewer than 100 passengers, that focus on the destination and the activities, not onboard entertainment.  Their small size allows you to get up close and personal with wildlife and scenery in destinations like the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, Antarctica, South America, and Asia.   And they have a fleet of kayaks and zodiacs for even closer exploration (plus snorkeling gear where suitable).

Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions

ARCTIC CANADA –   Been there, done that?  Now this is a list of activities that you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else: kayaking with narwhals, hiking in Inuit territory, hot air ballooning between icebergs, polar bear safaris.  You’ll have cocktail party bragging rights for many years to come!
 
Polar Bear Viewing with
Natural Habitat Adventures 
Note that even places that are not normally considered “active” destinations have fun adventures, you just have to know where to look.  For example, companies like Butterfield & Robinson and Backroads offer cycling, hiking, and multisport tours in many European countries.  If you don't want to cycle or hike for a whole week, I can arrange just a day or tour of outdoor activity, such as cycling in The Hague or rock climbing and a high ropes course in the Dolomites.


Backroads in France
San Juan Islands
For some inspiration on where to go for you next outdoor adventure, check out the 2014 Virtuoso VAST catalog. That should spark your imagination!