In 2004, I wrote a cover story for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine called, “So You Want to Own a B&B.” In the article, I spoke about the dream of leaving your current job and opening a country inn. The new innkeepers underestimated the amount of hours it took to run a B&B and many burned out quickly. During my research, I met a couple, Jennifer and Ed Dorta-Duque, who were taking a course on the ups and downs of running an inn. At the time, they had quit their jobs as software developers in Baltimore and had been searching for an inn for over 1 ½ years, looking at more than 50 properties in Annapolis, Pennsylvania, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and New York’s Finger Lakes region. Finally, they came upon the Three Mountain Inn in Jamaica, Vermont, and made the purchase. Six years later, the couple is still going strong and the inn, located in a quiet village on the backside of Stratton Mountain, is a wonderful weekend retreat any time of year.
Sand and sea are the images that appear when we think of Cape Cod. Undulating dunes and long stretches of fine white beach serve as a soft welcome mat for the surf that rolls ashore. Yet, you’re going to have to pay a hefty price to grab accommodations near one of those Cape Cod beaches this time of year. Thankfully, Hostelling International has just opened its third hostel on the Cape, the Angeline Crocker Hinckley Hostel. With 40 beds, a full kitchen, and free continental breakfast starting at $29 a night, going to those dunes on Cape Cod National Seashore has never been this affordable. The hostel is located on Ocean Street, across from the ferry docks in Hyannis.
Maine Huts & Trails, the nonprofit organization hoping to build 12 backcountry huts over 180 miles of trails in the remote western mountains of the state, has just announced the unveiling of their third lodging, the Grand Falls Hut. The hut is located on the banks of the Dead River, two miles below the cascading waters of Grand Falls. Each of the three huts, including the Poplar Stream Falls and the Flagstaff Lake hut, are spaced about 11 miles apart, so people can reach it within one day of hiking, snowshoeing, or x-c skiing. Now through November 7th, Maine Huts is offering a deal where you stay two nights and get the second night for half price. So for less than $150 per adult, you get to sleep on a bed for two nights, get hot showers, 2 dinners, and 2 breakfasts. The best part is that you have this vast tract of wilderness outside your window, with mountains, large lakes, sinuous rivers, and waterfalls all vying for your attention.
If you ask my kids, ages 14 and 12, what their favorite vacations were, they’d no doubt say Alaska, British Colombia, Israel, Paris, Bryce, Zion, and Acadia National Parks, and, of course, New York. Even though we’ve been to over a dozen all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico over the years, all except our last one at the Riu Ocho Rios in Jamaica are quickly forgettable. They all featured wonderful beaches and decent food until the 3rd day, when you become tired of seeing the same entrees. But the reason they quickly forget this type of vacation is that it never really gets to the depth necessary to touch them. There were no adventures, no immersion into the local culture, be it food, music or history, no mishaps to look back and laugh about. It was all very pleasant, a warm retreat from the cold winter temps in Boston. How can staying at one hotel all week possibly compare to being surrounded by whales, otters, bald eagles, and sea lions on a zodiac off Sitka? Or listening to music late at night at one of the jazz joints in Paris? Or grabbing plates of hummus and foul with locals in Jaffa? Or seeing where King Henry VIII married his sixth wife at Hampton Court Palace? Or hiking with those odd-shaped hoodoos or an exhilarating cliff walk in Bryce and Zion? Or grabbing a hot pastrami on rye at Katz’s Deli and then going outside to see Shepard Fairey paint his most recent mural on Houston Street? These things my kids remember. All those all-inclusive beaches blur into one big warm embrace, nothing more.
The rap on Vermont skiing was that the ski resorts were based in historic New England towns that lacked the modern amenities of the resorts out West. Not any longer. The Woodstock Inn, close to the skiing at Killington and Suicide Six, just unveiled their $10 million spa in September and it’s a beauty. Two well known Vermont artisans, glassmaker Simon Pearce and furniture maker Charles Shackleton create the hanging lamps and chaise lounge chairs in the Great Room waiting area, where floors are made of soft Vermont white oak. Just outside in the courtyard is a large outdoor hot tub and sauna, with heated stone floors to keep those tootsies warm in the winter months. That’s in addition to the eucalyptus steam rooms found in both the men and women’s changing area. Woodstock Inn’s state-of-the-facility comes on the heels of Stowe Mountain Lodge’s spa, the first offshoot of the highly regarded Cooper Wellness spa in Dallas. The new space features every treatment imaginable, including music, water, and aromatherapy, nutritional and fitness counseling, and seminars on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The Jane Hotel, not far from Chelsea Market and the high in the sky High Line Park, is offering $79 rates in January and February for their 50 square-foot rooms. Bring a friend and grab the bunk bed room for $99, further reducing the price for two. The rooms are built like luxury train cabins, featuring a single bed with built-in drawers, flat screen TV, free Wi-Fi, DVD player, iPod dock, and luggage rack. The only problem is the shared bathrooms. If it’s anything like the Pod Hotel on the East Side, the bathroom doors open and close all night, so bring ear plugs. If you really need a private bathroom, opt for Captain’s Cabins at $225 a night. But c’mon, it’s hard to top 79 bucks a night in Manhattan!
Mention the 100-Mile Wilderness Trail to a hiker and they’re certain to get a bit misty-eyed, dreaming about this last 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Slicing through the legendary North Woods, this is a land of seemingly endless forest filled with mile-high mountains, immense lakes and too many ponds to count. The large swath of wilderness feels like a chunk of Alaska remarkably placed in our congested Northeast. Lured by the opportunity to hunt, fish, and take large gulps of pine-scented air, “sports” have been making the long trek north from Boston and New York for close to 150 years, following in the footsteps of that highly opinionated naturalist Henry David Thoreau.
Over the past two decades, many of these historic sporting camps, with their communal dining lodge and rustic cabins, have fallen into private hands. When the opportunity arose in 2003 to purchase the Little Lyford Pond Camps, nestled in a grove near the 100-Mile Wilderness Trail, the Appalachian Mountain Club decided to buy the lodging. Then they made the bold move to acquire 37,000 acres of surrounding land and two additional sporting camps, Chairback and Medawisla. Last November, the AMC purchased an additional 29,500 acres from the Plum Creek Timber Company for $11.5 million and are now partnering with a fourth sporting camp, West Branch Pond Camps.
The sporting camp-to-sporting camp network in the North Woods is a new variation of the AMC’s hut-to-hut system in the Whites. With each sporting camp spaced some seven to ten miles apart, folks can cross-country ski, snowshoe, and dog sled from lodging to lodging, creating the perfect four-night stay. This is especially true now that Chairback, renamed Gorman Chairback, will reopen on January 27th. First opened as a private camp in 1867, it’s hard to top the setting of Gorman Chairback, located on the shores of Long Pond, in the shadows of the Barren-Chairback Range.
Thanks to La Niña, weather in the Pacific Northwest this winter is supposed to be more extreme than usual. Big whoop. They’re used to winter storms and lots of rain in these parts. So much so that two lodges in Olympic National Park are offering a Storm Watcher Package. Stay at Kalaloch Lodge, featuring breathtaking vistas of the raw Pacific Ocean shoreline from October 21, 2010 to March 13, 2011, and for $149 a night, you’ll receive one night’s accommodation, breakfast for two, two rain ponchos, and a souvenir fleece blanket designed with an Olympic National Park logo. Additional nights may be added at $99 a night. Lake Quinault Lodge, in the heart of the Olympic National Forest, is offering a Storm Watcher Package at $119 a night that includes one night’s lodging, a rainforest tour for two, and the option to add extra nights for a measly $50 rate. Visit Olympic National Parks and use the promotional code: STORM10 for Kalaloch and LQSTORM10 for Lake Quinault Lodge or call 866-297-7367.
On the way back from Nairobi, I had a 12-hour overnight in London, just enough time to check out The Savoy. The grande dame reopened on 10/10/10 after a 3-year renovation, with Prince Charles on hand to do the ribbon cutting. Now under the helm of the Fairmont, they enhanced the Edwardian and Art Deco design so all that polished silver and lacquered onyx shines again. We had a casual dinner of tuna sandwiches in the Thames Foyer next to a large winter garden gazebo under a glass cupola. Across the room, a woman was belting out “All That Jazz” from the stage of the Beaufort Bar, the same spot where Gershwin first played “Rhapsody in Blue.” That night in the American Bar, the classic cocktail lounge that came to fame in the 30s, Jerry Hall was supposedly in the house near a photograph of a younger Jerry Hall shot by photographer Terry O’Neil. Conveniently located on the Strand in the heart of the Theater District, the Savoy is hopping once again, so stop by for dinner, drinks, or afternoon tea and you’ll probably be staying the night like Richard Harris often did. In fact, there’s now a suite named after him.
Eyes widen and mouths gape as soon as you spot Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, and catch your first glimpse of The Balsams Hotel. The excitement builds on the long driveway up to this immense white edifice, created in an era when grand hotels were as common as one-room schoolhouses in the White Mountains. It’s a multi-tiered wedding cake topped with scarlet frosting and ringed by granite peaks. Turning 145 in 2011, the Balsams prides itself as one of the last beacons of civility in a world that spins far too fast on its axis. Come winter, the resort offers 95 km of cross-country trails and 15 downhill trails with a vertical of 1,000 feet. Expect a small ski area that’s ideal for young families or those who clamor for ego-boosting intermediate terrain.
To get new visitors to experience the Balsams, the hotel is offering to pick you up at your house if you’re within 200 miles of the resort. The offer is only available for first-time guests who stay at least five nights. For $149 per person, per night, guests receive free transportation, skiing each day, a ski lesson, equipment rental, lodging, breakfast and dinner.
I’ve had my fill of snow this winter in Boston. So now I’m dreaming about the warm weather and an upcoming trip to Jamaica. This week, I’ll delve into my favorite eco-resorts in the Caribbean and Costa Rica. The sustainable tourism movement has grown leaps and bounds in the past decade. No longer can you simply throw compost in the back of a Marriott and call it an eco-resort. To be green, destinations have to offer indigenous culture and food, encourage outdoor recreation that highlight the region, curb greenhouse gases that impact the environment, and involve the entire community in the tourism effort. Many resorts even go a step further by helping to support local school systems and food banks. These five lodgings are green in every sense of the word.
Increasingly, the small eco-retreat design that made such an imprint in Costa Rica has slipped farther south into Panama. On an archipelago in the northwestern part of the country, a short boat ride from the town of Bocas del Toro, is a three-cabana lodge socked in the middle of the verdant jungle and surrounded by a working cocoa plantation. All of the cabins at the Jungle Lodge were created from fallen trees and inspired by the architecture of the local Ngobe Indians. The employees are also local, including your guide through the rainforest and beach to see sloths, armadillos, small crocs called caimans, and the graceful blue morph butterfly. At dinner, lobster and conch will not be served, as the owners try to use only sustainably harvested fish like yellow jack. Rates are $110 per person a night, including three meals, the boat ride over from Bocas town, and some of the excursions.
Close to the Mayan ruins of Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected area on the Mexican Caribbean. Grab one of the raised cottages on site and you’ll be immersed in the 1.3 million-acre mix of beach and wetlands. CESiaK runs completely on sun and wind energy, using rainwater for water needs, and utilizing a wetland waste treatment system. Grab a sea kayak to go bird watching, fish, go with a naturalist on a hike, or simply relax with a thick book in the hammock. All proceeds fund education and conservation programs at Sian Ka’an, including dune restoration and native plant propogation. Cabins start at an affordable $70 a night.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2011, Chaa Creek led the eco-friendly movement in Central America, promoting conservation and low-impact sustainable development long before green was the magic word. They also employ local artists to create the furniture in each bungalow and buy produce from local farms to ensure fresh food on the table. The 365-acre nature preserve sits on a hillside of tall mahogany and cedar trees overlooking the Macal River. The property offers two dozen deluxe bungalows, including a treetop suite with whirlpool, new spa, and a restaurant that thrives on local fare. Yet, Chaa Creek’s real forte is guiding folks deep into the jungle. Set up trips to go horseback riding through the Mountain Pine Ridge, paddle the Macal River to see the resident colony of toucans, swim under waterfalls, and visit the Mayan ruins at Caracol. Bungalows start at $270 a night, including breakfast.
At the southernmost tip of Costa Rica, Lapa Rios is a 1000-acre private rain forest perched above the Pacific Ocean. 16 spacious bungalows feature hardwood floors, bamboo walls, and vaulted thatched roof ceilings created from local palm trees. Yes, those outdoor showers are solar-powered and more than 70 percent of the materials used are renewable, but take a look at the big picture. Nearly 1000 acres of valuable rainforest have been saved from deforestation and the wildlife within those borders are free from poaching, pollution, and real estate development. More than 45 local families are employed on the property and the resort has been instrumental in providing primary education for children in the area. Rise and shine on a three-hour morning hike with a naturalist through the rainforest to a waterfall and swimming hole, stopping to view spider and howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, toucans, parrots, and many other native birds. In the afternoon, sea kayak in the ocean around Matapalo Point, surf the Golfo Dulce, or saddle up on a horse. Rates start at $245 per person, including all meals and guides into the rainforest.
Similar to the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc in Miami Beach, Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Arizona was a favorite hideaway to Hollywood stars like Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood when it opened in the 50s. Then, like those Miami Beach icons, it fell on rough times until reopening in 2005 after an $80 million refurbishment. Now the seven-story stylish hotel, home to the legendary Trader Vic’s, is back to its former self and is ready to host baseball lovers for spring training. Hotel Valley Ho is less than a mile from Scottsdale Stadium, the venue for the World Champion San Francisco Giants. The property is also close to Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the spring training home to the Oakland A’s. For a great overview of spring training facilities, see my story in FamilyVacationCritic.com.
The death last week of 97-year-old blues great Pinetop Perkins reminded me of the night my brother and I spent at the Shack Up Inn, one of the most unique accommodations in the country. Set on the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the mechanical cotton picker made its debut in 1941, owner Bill Talbot converted six former sharecropper shacks into his own version of a B&B (bed and beer). Each rambling shack pays tribute to a blues legend (Clarksdale is the birthplace of the blues), like the one we stayed in dedicated to boogie-woogie pianist Perkins, who once worked at this same plantation. As you would expect, this is no luxurious retreat. Yet, what it lacks in comfort—thin mattresses in the two bedrooms and rusted sinks in the bathroom—it more than makes up with personality. There’s a large mural of Pinetop at the piano, blues playing on the TV, a fridge stocked with beer, and beaten sofas on the front porch that overlook the cotton gin. The place has a loyal following of blues aficionados from around the globe, as evidenced by this quote in the guest book, “Pinetop, thank you for keeping me company on our long drives together. I love and admire you.”
This week I’m going to delve into my most memorable night stays.
While there are more than 300 islands in Fiji, most visitors opt to stay on the main island of Viti Levu where the international airport and the country’s two largest cities, Nadi and Suva, are located. Knowing that intimate Fijian villages and remote islands are less than an hour boat ride away, it pains me to meet people who spend their entire trip on this one commercial isle. Stay a night or two on the Coral Coast, one hour south of Nadi, to relax after the 10-hour flight from Los Angeles. Then ferry over to the town of Levuka on the island of Ovalau. More than fifty stores and hotels built in the 1850s still stand in this former capital of Fiji. Walk past the ficus trees down Beach Street to the most prestigious establishment of all, The Royal Hotel. Continuously operating since Levuka’s heyday, this is the oldest hotel in the South Pacific. Walk around the lobby and you feel like you’re entering a novel by Somerset Maugham or Robert Louis Stevenson, who both spent at least a night here. Inside, you’ll find rattan chairs, ceiling fans, a large stained oak bar, and a 100-year-old snooker table. Thankfully, one doesn’t have to be an acclaimed man of letters to afford this lodging. Cost of a room starts at $32 a night, including toast and tea for breakfast.
If you’ve managed to book one of the six rooms at the Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast in Yachats, Oregon, you’re in for a visual and culinary treat. Just south of Cape Perpetua, where the 900-foot- high cliffs overlook the Pacific, this is arguably the most stunning locale on the entire Oregon coast. You’ll spend the night in a former assistant lightkeeper’s quarters, set on a grassy patch below the Heceta Head Lighthouse, a tall white edifice that stands atop a small spit of land. Below, breakers explode against the burgundy red cliffs that hem in a narrow beach filled with driftwood. In the darkness, grab a flashlight from the inn and hike up to the lighthouse to watch it flash beacon after beacon across the rugged shoreline and then out to sea. Come morning, dine on a seven-course breakfast with the other guests. Afterwards, a stretch on the wraparound verandah is in order, where you might spot crab boats coming into the harbor from their night catch.
Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile is a twisted mass of monoliths and hoodoos that rise sharply from the dry Patagonian steppe, a stunning glacial landscape where guanacos (orange and white-colored members of the llama family), rheas (ostriches), and flamingos congregate near watering holes. This is where Town & Country Magazine sent me to check out the luxurious, yet intimate Hotel Explora. Its superior location is apparent upon entering the lobby. The resort has vistas of the park’s most dramatic formation, The Horns, a block of sweeping granite that pierces the clouds. Almost all of the hotel’s thirty rooms, even the whirlpool-adorned bathrooms, afford the same mind-blowing view.
“Urgup? You stop in Urgup?” I asked the bus driver slowly in English as I pointed to our ticket.
“Yes, Urgup. Coming. Coming,” the man replied as he continued driving like a maniac. Something was seriously wrong. We had passed Goreme about an hour ago and, according to my trusty guidebook, Goreme is only five miles from Urgup in the heart of Turkey’s intriguing Cappadocia region.
“Urgup, we’re going to Urgup!” my wife repeated loudly, approaching the point of hysteria. The driver nodded in agreement and grinned.
We eventually arrived in Urgup seven hours later, in the middle of the night. A pack of wild dogs howled as they followed us to our inn. There was nothing wrong with my guidebook. In a rush, the driver had sped past Urgup to the next city. He didn’t speak our language, we didn’t speak his. Insanely frustrated, we arrived at the bus station, only to learn that the bus back to Urgup didn’t leave for another five hours.
When we awoke the following morning in our Urgup hotel room, the strange scenery surrounding us seemed more bizarre than the previous evening’s events. We were inside a 1,000-year-old Byzantine monastic retreat carved out of a cave, now an 18-room hotel called Gamirasu. When Mount Erciyes poured lava over this region thousands of years ago, the volcanic ash formed a surreal, lunar-like landscape consisting of cone-shaped monoliths and layers of soft volcanic rock called “tufa.” Early Christians found the pervious terrain ideal for escaping persecution by Romans and Arabs. When wet, the tufa could be easily carved like soap to make caves out of the pinnacles as well as underground cities descending hundreds of feet below the surface.
The first Christians came to the valleys of Cappadocia in the 4th century, led by St. Basil. They formed communities within the caves building living areas, bakeries, and workshops. The people of Cappadocia continue to live in these caves. The rooms are cooled by volcanic rock, which helps protect the 8th-century frescoes seen on the hotel walls.
I'm off to New York on Monday, back on April 11th. Have a great week!