About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Sarasota Beach, Marine Attractions Hold Surprises on Florida’s Gulf Coast

by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman

Sharks are Mote Aquarium's forte © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, was a sleepy fishing village when circus impresario John Ringling recognized its potential as a beach resort and made Sarasota the winter headquarters for the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus. Decades later, visitors delight in a destination that is so much more than a typical beach resort.

Our first day in Sarasota was spent amidst pristine nature, at Myakka River State Fair; the second immersed in culture and heritage, at the Ringling Museum. Our third day is devoted to the beach and the marine world. Here, too, we are in for surprises.

Mote Aquarium offers Narrated Training Sessions © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We don’t have to go far – just a few steps from the door at our “cottage” at Sandpiper Inn www.sandpiperinn.com) – but Sarasota offers many other ways to engage in the marine world. And so we head to the Mote Aquarium.

Mote Aquarium

The Mote offers a distinctly different experience from most aquariums. Sure it has displays of fish, coral, anemones, jelly fish. But what makes it special is that it turns out to be one of the foremost marine research laboratories in the country, particularly in the work being done on sharks, it has a dolphin research program (where you can peek in), offers a truly extraordinary interactive Immersion films where you participate via computer, and is the base for a program of eco-tours by boat that you can join. And just across the parking lot is a seabird rehabilitation center.

Visit the "patients" at the seabird rehabilitation center, Save Our Seabirds (SOS) © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Indeed, what started as a one-woman operation in 1955 by the now-famous shark researcher, Dr. Eugenie Clark, has evolved into seven research centers home to more than 230 staff members, including about 40 Ph.D. scientists. Mote, it turns out, is a bigger marine research laboratory than even the famous Woods Hole Laboratory on Cape Cod, and the Monterrey, California facility.

Dr. Eugenie Clark, known as “shark lady” who at the age of 89 still comes to the lab every week, was the first scientist to ever document that sharks were capable of learning such tasks. She began training sharks back in the 1950s and was able to demonstrate how adaptable sharks really are. Until Clark told the world about her efforts, sharks were thought of as mindless eating machines.

The work with sharks that scientists are doing here might actually make a breakthrough in the treatment of cancer in humans, a docent explains while we are waiting for one of the Immersion films to begin.

At Mote Aquarium, visit the Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center, and watch scientists working with dolphins © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Cancer in humans? A study conducted at Mote, accepted by Medical Society in last couple of months as accurate, he explains, is based on the fact that sharks are born with eight particular cancers in their systems. Humans also are born with cancers. But somehow, the shark is immune from cancers growing. Studying why that is can lead to a cure for cancer, “very possibly from marine biologist here at Mote.”

We are sitting in this auditorium waiting for the Mote’s unique attraction to begin: an interactive film experience where you have your own computer console and engage with what is happening in the film.

The technology was developed specifically for Mote and as far as anyone knows, the Mote is the only place to offer it.

Siesta Beach owes its powdery white sand to quartz which originated a million years ago in the Appalachians © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are two different Immersion experiences, and if you only have time for one be sure to see the Dolphin Rescue.

This interactive experience is based on real science, with much of the filming done right in the bay, but creates a fictional story (using renowned actors who play their parts as scientists and a local reporter,) in order to educate about the hazards facing marine mammals today. All of us become volunteers who engage in the search for a dolphin mother and her calf. It was actually as thrilling as it was interesting.

The second Immersion experience is Shark Predator which is structured as an 18-minute competition designed to give you a better appreciation for what it means to be part of the food chain, where plankton is at the bottom, and sharks are at the top (kids will like it better than adults).

A winter day on Siesta Beach, which otherwise would be crammed with people, enjoying the powdery white sand © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Within the aquarium, there is a large pool where you can see sharks and if you time it right, take advantage of a new program of Narrated Training Sessions with Sharks (at 11 am. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, free with admission).

Much of the Mote takes place in separate laboratory buildings, most of which are closed to the general public, but you can visit the Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center, and watch scientists working with dolphins.

Take time to stroll across the parking lot to the seabird rehabilitation center, Save Our Seabirds (SOS). Most interesting is the Sandhilll crane project, where they fit injured birds with prosthetic legs.

An uncrowded winter day enables a bike ride on Siesta Beach © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

From the Mote Aquarium, you can join an Eco Boat Tour, interactive marine experiences on the water, offered by Sarasota Bay Explorers). In one of the programs, you go out on a 40-foot pontoon covered on top, with a marine biologist, to look for dolphin and manatee, visit rookery islands, and get a hands-on experience, touching various (safe) marine life that is drawn out with a net, like seahorse, batfish, chocolate chip sea cucumbers, and get off the boat to walk on an island with the naturalist. There is also a Nature Safari Cruise, a guided three-hour kayak tour into mangrove tunnels on Lido Key, and private charters. (www.sarasotabayexplorers.com).

At Mote Aquarium’s newest attraction, Fossil Creek, visitors get to play marine paleontologist – and take home natural buried treasures of the sea. You can buy a bucket of sand and sift out hidden fossils using a sieve in a mini waterway. You might find shark’s teeth and stingray tails smoothed with time, ancient gar scales or bony plates from pufferfish mouths. The fossils are real and are yours to keep, along with the bucket. Fossil Creek is located in the Mote Aquarium courtyard behind the Ray Tray ($5.99).

You will likely be here long enough to work up an appetite, and the Aquarium is fairly isolated – but there is a charming retro ’50s-style diner, Deep Sea Diner (www.mote.org/DeepSeaDiner).

Siesta Beach owes its powdery white sand to quartz which originated a million years ago in the Appalachians © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Plan to stay at least 3-4 hours. General admission includes access to Mote Aquarium, the Ann and Alfred E. Goldstein Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center and Immersion Cinema. (Adults/$17, Seniors/$16, Youth 4-12/$12.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, FL 34236, 941-388-4441, www.mote.org.

Siesta Beach

From Mote Aquarium, we head to Siesta Beach, on Beach Road on Siesta Key, and we soon see for ourselves how it has earned the reputation of being one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world – at the “Great International White Sand Beach Challenge” held in 1987, it was recognized as having the “whitest and finest sand in the world.”

Sarasota, on Florida's Gulf Coast, offers spectacular beaches like Siesta Beach, voted one the best in the world.

True enough, we find a broad expanse of powdery, fine white sand, with one of the most magnificent settings anywhere.

We learn from a lifeguard that the reason why the sand is so special is that, unlike most beaches that are formed mostly of coral, the sand at Siesta Beach and Crescent Beach on Siesta Key is 99% quartz. Formed over millions of years, it originated in the Appalachians and flowed down the rivers and was eventually deposited on the shores of Siesta Key.

Even on the hottest days, the sand is so reflective that it feels cool underfoot.

The Legacy Trail extends from Sarasota near Siesta Key, to Venice, where there is a historic railroad station © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Shallow water depth in the near shore area together with year round lifeguard protection, makes this one of the safest beaches in the County and great for small children, and has earned Siesta Beach accreditation as a Blue Wave beach.

The facilities are wonderful, and there is even entertainment scheduled at a pavilion area.

The beach’s amenities also include tennis courts, ball fields, beach volleyball, soccer field, 20-station fitness trail and playground equipment.

Sunset at Venice Beach © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

On this winter day, when there is still a cold snap and the water temperature is 56 degrees, there are just a few people out and about taking in rays and enjoying the crisp clear air. But Spring Break, people are everywhere; and the beach can get 15,000-20,000 people a weekend.

Although there are 800 parking spaces, you better get there early if you want one. If you’re staying on Siesta Key, there are plenty of public access points to the beach so it’s a short walk from most of the north end of the key. Unfortunately, beyond the fire station near the intersection of Midnight Pass and Beach Road, the next public beach access south is near Stickney Point Rd. When looking for accommodations, be sure to ask about beach access as many of the properties on the east side, (odd number addresses), of Midnight Pass Rd. do not have beach access (www.4sarasota.com/siestakey/beach.html).

Sunset at Venice Beach © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Biking Legacy Trail

From Siesta Beach, we head out to the Legacy Trail, a paved dedicated biking trail that stretches a dozen miles from just south of Sarasota (off Clark Road, at Rte 72), down to Venice, following the former CSX railroad corridor, where it ends at the historic Venice railroad station. (There are rest stops along the route, www.scgov.net/legacytrail/default.asp).

Because it is already late afternoon, though, we drive to Venice, intending to ride the trail north. Our plan is frustrated because it turns out they are still building the trail’s bridge over the busy Route 41, but we nonetheless have the most magnificent ride, just as the sun set, by the historic railway station, now a golden color, and along a canal, and then down to Venice beach in time to see the sky aflame with the sunset.

Then serendipity takes over, as often happens when you travel. We walk in to a chocolate shop to get a cup of coffee, and because it isn’t ready, wander down the street, come upon TJ Carney’s (231 W. Venice Avenue, 941-480-9244), where the Dixie Spirit Jazz Band plays Thursdays, from 6:30 pm.

At TJ Carney's in Venice Beach the Dixie Spirit Jazz Band plays © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

For visitor information, visit Sarasota Convention & Visitor Bureau, 701 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34236, 800-800-3906, 941- 957-1877,www.sarasotafl.orginfo@sarasotafl.org.

See also:

Sandpiper Inn on Longboat Key is Home-Away-From-Home for Exploring Sarasota

Ringling Museum in Sarasota Does Circus Tradition Proud

Experience ‘Real Florida’ at Myakka River State Park on Gulf Coast

Monday, 28 February, 2011

 

___________________
© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitwww.examiner.com(In National)www.examiner.com(Long Island). Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com

Experience ‘Real Florida’ at Myakka River State Park on Gulf Coast

Popular state park is highlight of visit to Sarasota

by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman

The world's largest airboat takes you onto the Upper Myakka Lake for close-up look at wildlife including alligators and water birds © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You don’t have to travel far on Route 72 from the busy north-south roads near Florida’s Gulf Coast before you are in a comparative wilderness. Just north is Sarasota, best known for its connection to John Ringling and for being the “capital” of the American circus. To the south is Ft. Myers, best known as the summer residence of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But here, on both sides of the two-lane road are mainly fields and forest – terrain popularly referred to as “Old Florida” or “Real Florida.” What that means is that you get to the true character of this place.

There is no better place to experience “Real Florida” than the Myakka River State Park, which turns out to not only be the state’s most popular in terms of number of visits, but also one of its largest in sheer expanse (36,000 acres), and one of the most diverse in wildlife.

The ecosystem here is set up by the “Florida Wild and Scenic” Myakka River, which flows through 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands, feeding two shallow lakes that attract a myriad of wetland creatures, making birding, canoeing, fishing, hiking and wildlife observation popular activities.

A 7-mile scenic drive winds through shady oak-palm hammocks and along the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. There are over 39 miles of hiking trails and many miles of dirt roads provide access to the remote interior. You can bike the road, or bike off road on 20 miles of paths; there are 12 miles of horseback riding. And there are camping areas, as well.

One of Florida’s oldest state parks, Myakka River was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 and many of the original, historic buildings are still in use today, including five log cabins that are available for rent.

On this particular morning, when we arrive, there is a heavy fog that adds to the atmosphere of the Spanish moss dripping from the trees that form a canopy over the road.

We immediately get a sense of how vast the park is: we drive about four miles before we get to our first stop, the Birdwalk, a 300-foot long boardwalk that puts you out above the marsh, where a volunteer bird interpreter is available (9 am-1 pm) to literally open your eyes to the skill and “sport” of birdwatching.

Owen Comora, a volunteer bird interpreter at Myakka River State Park, is on hand most mornings to share his expertise and inspire others to pursue the 'sport' and skill of birdwatching © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We are so fortunate that Owen Comora is here today. He started the program 12 years ago, as well as its series of Nature Adventures. In his professional life, Comora worked for the television division of the massive advertising company, Y&R. He was there at the start of NASA’s first televised space launch and handled publicity for Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary series.

This area is rich for birdwatching. Even though the morning is overcast, in just the hour he was there before we arrive, he had already recorded sightings of 42 species – including wild turkeys, wood stork, a great egret.

He teaches us how to properly focus binoculars and had already set up a spotting scope.

It is amazing how fast he can hone in on a bird – either snatching a glimpse, or hearing its call, like that of the sandhill crane, which he says roost here at night by the dozens.

He spots a cattle egret which he says is not native American species; tells us how to distinguish between a bald eagle and vulture (the vulture’s wings form a “v”, while the eagle in flight has its wings “e”ven).

He adds something about the birds which make you appreciate all the more the diversity of life, but also what is involved for a serious birdwatcher. It doesn’t take long before you are impressed with the knowledge that bird watchers possess.

Biking in Myakka River State Park © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Owen makes a “pishing” noise to draw in the Savannah sparrow which winter here, and sure enough, one soon appears and comes closer.

“Pish-pish-pish.” The bird comes closer. I am surprised to learn, that’s not the sound of its own bird call, at all. “They come because they are curious,” he explains. It has dull brown colors, but when it breeds, has a crown and bright yellow stripes.

He identifies a greater yellowlegs by it sound, “toot, toot, toot.”

He can create or recognize bird call sounds, but shows us an I-phone application that actually makes the sound of a particular bird song – a practice which we learn is controversial among some diehard birders, especially in breeding season.

We spot white tailed deer along the shore on one side, and across from us, a black feral pig (which we learn is a real problem here). Soon after, we see an alligator near the same spot. One day, he says, he saw an alligator leap and snatch a pelican. “It’s a battle for life and death every day.”

A pair of sandhill cranes seen from the airboat on Upper Myakka Lake © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Owen became interested in birdwatching when he was 13 years old. He was fishing in North New Jersey, and a birdwatcher was there. He was hooked.

When I ask whether he has a “life list” – that tally of birds that birdwatchers keep, he says, “Only North America birds.” I sense that is because bird-watching can be obsessive since birdwatchers often travel the far reaches of the world to complete their list. He says he has reached 645 out of a possible 800 on his life list.

By now, a gaggle of people have gathered – apparently a group has come by bike from the nearby camping area.

This is Old Florida at its best.

 

Airboat on the Lake

We are off for an airboat ride, one of the most popular activities in the park, and I soon discover why.

We drive to the Outpost, where you can rent canoes, kayaks or bikes, go to a small convenience store, or the cafe and gift shop.

Now normally, you think of airboats nimbly speeding over the surface of the Everglades, giving a thrilling ride. That’s not this.

In fact, the “Myakka Maiden” and the “GatorGal” are the largest airboats in North America – 70-passenger boats with an enclosed cabin powered by an airboat engine. They are made to glide quietly – and slowly – in order to bring us across this vast lake that can be very shallow, without disturbing the wildlife.

A great blue heron © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Most of the seating is on benches inside the cabin, but there are three seats outside, in front of the cabin and the captain, that you should grab if you want to get the best photos (use an SLR if you want to capture birds in flight).

As we are about to pull out from the small channel, we see Big Fred, a 13-foot alligator, who chases off another alligator that has tried to invade his territory. We are soon behind him as he makes his getaway (I am practically on top of the alligator, where I sit).

This is a narrated tour and it is really well done – with humor, but also interesting anecdotes, especially about the alligators which everyone seems most curious about. Overall, you get a better appreciation for the interconnections that make for an “ecosystem.”

So as we head out, we learn that the Upper Myakka Lake is one mile by 2 1/2 miles – all natural, filled from rainwater which feeds underground streams.

After one particularly dry summer, the depth went down to just 18 inches, it nearly dried up and the airboat operation had to shut down for two weeks; the year before, it was shut down 2 months.

But 8 years ago, a10-foot flood filled the Lake to a depth of 15 feet. “You could see alligators on top of picnic tables.”

An egret seems perilously close to an alligator, but the airboat guide says there is little to fear because alligators only eat at night © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We pull out of lily pads, which he said are new, but getting smaller – an indication of how changeable and fragile the ecosystem is.

This year and last, the area has had to contend with uncharacteristic cold snap, which killed many of the fish, particularly the tilapia, drawing some 3000 vultures, twice the normal number. At one point, he says, “The vultures stopped moving. You could pick them up. They were so stuffed from 10 days straight of eating, they couldn’t fly, couldn’t even walk. But they sure cleaned up the shore line!”

We pass the weir – a small dam. “It was a mistake to build because it changed the ecosystem by changing the water table.” Once the impact was recognized, they cut holes into the dam and allowed it to deteriorate.

We glide by a pair of sandhill cranes, which he says are not typically so far into the lake.

Where we are headed, across the lake, is where alligators are out in fantastic numbers. As we glide over, we see some of them in the water – we are on their tail, and because the water is so shallow, we can see them very clearly.

An alligator can hold its breath underwater for 2-3 hours; it has a third eyelid that acts like goggles so it can see underwater; it takes its tongue to the back of its throat to stop water from going into its lungs. This is how it has adapted so well to its environment.

There are about 700 alligators in Myakka River State Park - so many you are virtually guaranteed seeing some, even close by © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We see a 15-foot, 500-pound alligator lounging on the bank. Alligators are cold blooded, he tells us. They need to get their body heat to 80-85 degrees in order to eat, so they come out of the water and lay in sun. Even on a cold day, an alligator can draw in the sun’s heat through the scales on its back.

We see birds – egret, heron – practically on top of the alligators, unconcerned. He tells us, “That’s because alligators only eat at night, and have to get their temp up to 85 to eat.” That’s also why locals are completely unconcerned about kayaking or canoeing or even flipping over in the water. (You can’t convince me, though, because I’ve seen alligators eating during the day, chomping on a turtle).

The alligators move quietly – they can go as fast as 10-15 mph in water and 18 mph for 30-40 feet on land.

He describes an “alligator nursery” – the alligator builds a nest 4 feet high, and between May and June may lay 40-50 eggs. Temperature determines if the egg turns out male or female. At some point, the mother knocks down the nest – if the egg doesn’t hatch, she will eat it, after all, it is an excellent source of protein. But other creatures – birds, turtles and large pigs – appreciate that as well. Typically, 18 alligators make it, but by the second or third year, only 3% survive.

The first three years are difficult, because the alligators are small enough to be prey; they grow one foot a year for the first six years, but by the age of three, are already 3 1/2 feet, big enough to ward off most of the predators.

“If they can make it past the third year, they can live 35-40 years.”

He points out other animals that inhabit the area: White tail deer, fox, armadillo, and feral pigs. The pigs have caused a tremendous problem, digging up areas; their population has grown to thousands, and are such a nuisance that the state hired a trapper to keep the population down. He doesn’t get paid, just gets to sell the pigs, which average 400 pounds apiece, for meat.

The airboat ride on Upper Myakka Lake provides a close-up view of an anhinga flying by © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Florida is the capital of alligators, with about 1-2 million. The Upper Myakka has 600-700 alligators and it isn’t unusual for alligators born here to spend their entire life here in this lake, he says. Some may go to Lower Myakka Lake, five miles down from the weir, but there is less food there.

As we pull in, he reminds us the airboat has no brakes, so to stop, he smacks into a post. He wasn’t kidding – we gently bump into the post.

The airboat ticket gets you a discount ticket for half off the company’s safari ride (a tram through the woods), or a discount on return trip within a year.

The Airboat trip is really wonderful, way more than I expected it to be, and the trip just long enough ($12/A, $6/child, 6-12).

The Outpost also has a café where you can get alligator bites and gator stew as well as burgers and ice cream, and an excellent gift shop where I eye beautifully done leaded glass lamps like a heron, komodo dragon.

Canopy Tower

One of the best ways to experience the park is to bike. You can peddle seven miles of paved drive or over 20 miles of dirt roads.

There is no better place to experience "Real Florida" than the Myakka River State Park. Enjoy birdwatching, biking, hiking, and explore Upper Myakka Lake by airboat © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We get just a taste of that, biking on the road about 1 1/2 miles from the outpost to a nature trail that leads to the Canopy Tower. This proves a real novelty: you climb the first tower, 25 feet high, then cross a 100-foot suspension bridge that sways, to another tower, to 70 feet high. From there, you are above the canopy and can gaze out over the tree tops.

Built by volunteers and completed in 2000, this structure is reportedly the first public treetop trail in North America. The walkway is suspended 25 feet above the ground and extends 100 feet through the hammock canopy. A second tower lets you climb 74 feet where you have expansive view of tops of live oaks and palm trees, wetlands, and the prairie/hammock interface. If you are lucky, you may well find yourself with the unusual perspective of looking down on eagles, hawks, vultures.

The Myakka walkway was the inspiration of canopy scientist Dr. Margaret D. Lowman, Executive Director of the TREE Foundation. More than just a sightseeing, they are part of science research, coordinated by the Tree Foundation; people are invited to submit their observations.

In fact, the walkway proved its practical value with an alarming discovery several months after it opened of an exotic weevil from Central America, accidentally released in Ft. Lauderdale about 1990, that had arrived in southwest Florida.

“Until recently, we did not know much about life in the treetops of the world’s forests because their canopies were difficult to reach. Now scientists can climb safely into the “high frontier” to discover some of its wonders,” the foundation notes (www.TreeFoundation.org).

The suspension bridge between two towers that take you above the tree canopy at Myakka River State Park © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There is also a Visitor Center which features exhibits and “Myakka Movies” near the SR 72 park entrance. After an enchanting visit, it is easy to see why this is one of the most visited of Florida’s state parks, with more than one million a year.

Myakka River State Park is located 9 miles E of I-75 at 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, FL USA 34241, (941) 361-6511, www.MyakkaRiver.org orwww.FloridaStateParks.org/MyakkaRiver (open 8 a.m.-sunset daily, $6/car fee); for camping reservations, Reserve America, 800-326 3521 or visit,www.reserveamerica.com.

From Myakka State Park, we change our pace, going into downtown Sarasota to Marina Jack (www.marinajacks.com), a marina and city recreation area, where boats are available for daily sightseeing, fishing and sunset cruises. The best parts of this city are actually walkable – the historic district which has been revitalized and is absolutely charming – down to the marina, which is really an encompassing recreation center.

With our first day devoted to nature, our next day is devoted to culture – and it is all contained in one amazing campus: The Ringling Museum.

For visitor information, visit Sarasota Convention & Visitor Bureau, 701 N Tamiami Trail Sarasota, FL 34236, 800-800-3906, 941- 957-1877,www.sarasotafl.orginfo@sarasotafl.org.

 

 

See also:

Sandpiper Inn on Longboat Key is Home-Away-From-Home for Exploring Sarasota

Sarasota Beach, Marine Attractions Hold Surprises on Florida’s Gulf coast

Ringling Museum in Sarasota Does Circus Tradition Proud

Monday, 28 February, 2011

 

___________________
© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitwww.examiner.com(In National)www.examiner.com(Long Island). Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com

SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark is Spectacle to See on Broadway

by Eric Leiberman

Spider-Man makes his New York debut. © Jacob Cohl

The reason that Broadway theater has such appeal is that it is live, immediate, and anything can happen. In contrast, movies are all illusion.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off the Dark which opened June 14 at the Foxwoods Theater (finally and for real after months of previews and a “re-imagining”) brings the best of both experiences together: it is like sitting inside a 3-D movie – and with all the thrill and excitement of the immediacy of a live performance. The fact of the matter is that this show is not traditional Broadway. It feels more like Cirque du Soleil.

Beyond theater, it is spectacle such as Broadway has never seen before, and probably never will again for its complexity and cost, which at something like $65 million is twice the previously most expensive musical to produce (“Shrek-The Musical”), and more on par with a blockbuster movie than a musical that has to be seen live, 8 times a week, to recoup its investment and $1 million/week operating cost. It is, in fact, a new category of “mega-musical.”

The uniqueness in the annals of Broadway musicals is significant enough to bring people to see it, but what people are really coming for is the risk: the risk as a Broadway business venture in this economy, and also because of the daring stunts on stage.

Because of accidents that took place in the first incarnation of SPIDER-MAN (prompting jokes that people were coming to the musical like watching a car wreck to happen), the stunts have been curtailed, but we still found this aspect of the show absolutely thrilling.

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano in a scene from "SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark" © Jacob Cohl.

The flying sequences are what make SPIDER-MAN so original (and expensive). Men in bright-colored costumes fly what feels like a mere five-feet above my head. My girlfriend tossed and turned in her seat, throwing her hands over her head because she was actually afraid that one of these guys could fall on her. Sweat from the villain of the story drips down on the audience as he swings overhead chasing SPIDER-MAN. This is exciting because it is real. It doesn’t matter that you see the wires. It doesn’t at all take away from the amazement of it all. And the props and sets are an obvious mesh of reality and comic book.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark finds a fresh way to tell a story inspired by over 40 years of Marvel comic books. The musical follows the story of teenager Peter Parker, whose unremarkable life is turned upside-down, literally, when he’s bitten by a genetically altered spider and wakes up the next morning clinging to his bedroom ceiling. This bullied science-geek suddenly endowed with astonishing powers soon learns, however, that with great power comes great responsibility as villains test not only his physical strength but also his strength of character. That’s the story, but the challenge is bringing this to the Broadway stage.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark hurtles the audience through a thrilling experience in ways never-before-dreamed-possible in live theater.

A scene from "SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark" © Jacob Cohl

But after a record-breaking 180 preview performances, when reviewers derided the show, SPIDER-MAN was reimagined by a new team, Philip William McKinley – a director whose credits include several versions of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” as well as The Boy From Oz and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a writer of both plays and comic books (Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics, “Big Love”).

Besides the daring-do of the aerial spectacles, and sets that seem to have popped out of a comic book, SPIDER-MAN is also notable for featuring music and lyrics by 22-time Grammy Award-winners Bono and The Edge of U-2, who had never written for musical theater before, and that in itself adds to the intrigue of seeing the show. Much of the music sounds like some of the classic rifts and Bono voice that made U2 an international sensation. In fact, in a lot of the songs, you can almost hear Bono singing and not Reeve Carney. I don’t think that Bono and the Edge were meant to write Broadway music. But some of the tunes are catchy and some of the duets are very beautiful. And the messages of the music and show are accessible and even valuable for younger viewers.

The original direction was by Tony® Award-winner Julie Taymor, who was Broadway’s darling in the way she brought “The Lion King” to life (as well as Across The Universe, Frida). She also co-wrote the book with Glen Berger.

But the real stars of SPIDER-MAN are the creative team who manage to bring a two-dimensional cartoon to life: Daniel Ezralow (Choreography and Aerial Choreography), Chase Brock (Additional Choreography), George Tsypin (Scenic Design), Academy Award®-winner Eiko Ishioka (Costume Design), Tony® Award-winner Donald Holder (Lighting Design), Jonathan Deans (Sound Design), Kyle Cooper (Projection Design), Julie Taymor (Mask Design), Campbell Young Associates/Luc Verschueren (Hair Design), Judy Chin (Makeup Design), Scott Rogers (Aerial Design), Jaque Paquin (Aerial Rigging Design), Howard Werner (Media Design), Louie Zakarian (Prosthetics Design), David Campbell (Arrangements and Orchestrations), Teese Gohl (Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements), Paul Bogaev (Music Producer), and Kimberly Grigsby (Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements.

Patrick Page steals the show as the villain, Norman Osborn/Green Goblin in "SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark" © Jacob Cohl

The complete cast includes Reeve Carney asPeter Parker/Spider-Man, Tony® Award nominee Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson T.V. Carpio as Arachne, Patrick Page as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, Michael Mulheren, Ken Marks, Isabel Keating, Jeb Brown, Matthew James Thomas, Laura Beth Wells, Matt Caplan, Dwayne Clark, Luther Creek, Kevin Aubin, Gerald Avery, Collin Baja, Marcus Bellamy, Emmanuel Brown, Jessica Leigh Brown, Daniel Curry, Erin Elliott, Craig Henningsen, Dana Marie Ingraham, Ayo Jackson, Joshua Kobak, Megan Lewis, Ari Loeb, Natalie Lomonte, Kevin Loomis, Kristin Martin, Jodi McFadden, Bethany Moore, Kristen Faith Oei, Jennifer Christine Perry, Kyle Post, Brandon Rubendall, Sean Samuels, Dollar Tan, Joey Taranto, and Christopher W. Tierney.

SPIDER-MAN will appeal to the most avid theater-goers who will appreciate it for its historic nature, but especially the not-your-average theatergoer. And I can guarantee that kids everywhere will be begging their parents to take them. The show is surely a bit gimmicky. But there are flashes of emotion in the powerful performances of the leads (particularly Jennifer Damiano, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance as Mary-Jane and Patrick Page as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin .

The show will likely neither make or break your heart, but it may be the most fun you’ll have on Broadway this year.

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano in a scene from "SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark" © Jacob Cohl

Music from SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark has just been released by Interscope Records. With 14 original songs co-written by Bono and The Edge for the Broadway production, SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark, the album is produced by Steve Lillywhite. Songs are performed by members of the cast including Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, T.V. Carpio and Patrick Page, with contributions from Bono and The Edge and music performed by the production’s orchestra. The lead single, “Rise Above 1″ performed by Reeve Carney featuring Bono and The Edge, and produced by Alex Da Kid, is available for purchase now on iTunes and Amazon.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark is playing at the Foxwoods Theatre (213 West 42nd Street), Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tickets are now on sale through October 2, 2011, with group tickets on sale through January 8, 2012. Tickets are priced from $67.50 – $135 for weekday performances and $67.50 – $140 for weekend performances and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com or by calling (877) 250-2929. Tickets are also available at the Foxwoods Theatre box office, which is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. and Sunday, noon – 6 p.m. See the website, spidermanonbroadway.marvel.com.

Wednesday, 6 July, 2011

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© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitwww.examiner.com(In National)www.examiner.com(Long Island). Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com

MOHEGAN SUN: LUXURY HOTEL ADDS NEW DIMENSION TO PREMIER ENTERTAINMENT DESTINATION

By Karen Rubin

The kids are away. Work is at a summer pace. Have I got a great getaway place for you: Mohegan Sun, the stunning and stirring gaming destination in Connecticut that features a fabulous luxury hotel and spa and an incredible atmosphere. And if you want to bring the kids along, that is fine, too, since there are wonderful diversions including arcade, supervised care for infants as young as six weeks and supervised activity program for children up to 12 years old, incredible shops, indoor pool, and the superb attractions of Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium about 20 minutes away.

Mohegan Sun is the very opposite of Las Vegas glitz and Atlantic City schmaltz. This is a gaming resort with soul and spirit. The resort is owned by the Mohegan Tribe and operated by Sun International (which also owns and operates the Atlantis on Paradise Island, Bahamas). It is set on 240 acres on the Mohegan Indian reservation in Uncasville, along the banks of Thames River, surrounded by forest.

You will be awed by the architecture and design elements: these are actually faithful and respectful of native traditions. Everywhere you look, there are fascinating features that seem to tell ancient stories.

Those who have visited Mohegan Sun’s first casino, the Casino of the Earth, which opened in 1996, will be amazed at its evolution into a major entertainment, meeting, shopping, gaming and resort destination with the completion of a $1.1 billion expansion (the largest private development project on the East Coast these past two years). It now offers a 1,200-room luxury hotel, a 20,000-square foot world-class spa by Elemis, a shopping area with 40 distinctive shops and restaurants, a 10,000-square foot indoor pool, three entertainment venues including a 10,000-seat arena, 300-seat Cabaret and a 350-seat Wolf Den (where there is free nightly entertainment, right in the middle of the Casino of the Earth).

Mohegan Sun has already been discovered by meeting planners who take advantage of more than 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space, including the largest ballroom (40,000 sq. ft.) in the Northeast and two professionally managed business centers (there is even golf nearby).

Gaming Par Excellence

 

I have to say that I am not a huge fan of casinos but I adore the ambiance of Mohegan Sun and didn’t mind dropping a few bucks worth of quarters in the slots (who knew there were so many different varieties?). I am intrigued to watch others and there were so many different styles of gaming: pai gow poker (a Chinese form of poker with tiles instead of cards), with $100 minimum and $3,000 maximum stakes. Casino of the Earth has 180,000 sq. ft. of gaming space featuring 3,600 slot machines, 192 gaming tables (blackjack, with some tables at a $5 minimum), craps, roulette, poker, Caribbean stud poker, Keno and baccarat. There is a non-smoking area, Hall of the Lost Tribes, with about 600 slot machines. Casino of the Sky offers 115,000 square feet more of gaming space.

Indeed, Mohegan Sun is now the second largest casino in the world-but you would not even realize it, because instead of being football-field sized casinos, the two casinos are separated by a stunning interior mall of intriguing shops and restaurants, and the casinos themselves are broken up with gorgeous architectural and design features.

 

One of the drop-dead gorgeous features is the centerpiece of the Casino of the Sky, Wombi Rock. This is a three-story high crystal “mountain” crafted of alabaster and more than 12,000 individual plates of hand-selected of onyx from quarries in Iran, Pakistan and Mexico, which were transported to Carrera, Italy and fused into glass. The “mountain” peaks appear to glow from within, and reach to the “sky” created by the world’s largest, fully functional planetarium dome, providing ever-changing cosmic displays.

When I ascended to the top (where there is a stunning martini bar and separate private seating areas with just a couple of plush high-backed red velvet chairs, looking down on the sea of slot machines and gaming tables), you feel this rush as if you actually have climbed a mountain, look into the stars, and feel what seems to be cool mountain breezes. The lighting (which everywhere in Mohegan Sun is dramatic), here is like moonlight. The planetarium dome incorporates cutting-edge fiber optic technology to project displays of constellations, sun cycles and stirring clouds as they would appear on a late summer night.

The design elements are chosen specifically to honor the Mohegan heritage. For example, in Mohegan tradition, rocks are not merely inanimate objects, but have the life force of beings. Tribal lore, the cosmos and nature’s elements-earth, wind, fire and rain-are transformed into awe-inspiring designs and environments throughout the complex. Even the passage, the Trail of Life, that connects the two casinos is designed as a Tree of Life, with roots symbolizing tribal elders, branches that reach to the sky and support exquisite, back-lit canopies of hand-strung beads. The Trail of Life incorporates suntrails, or curved life paths walked in traditional Mohegan life. In the center isTaughannick Falls, a 55-foot high indoor waterfall flowing down to Chahnameed’s Island (named for a historic Mohegan figure); the falls represent a treacherous crossing point during the tribe’s migration.

 

Just across from the falls, there is River Blue, a towering, 10,000-pound glass sculpture by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly. The 2,500 richly colored glass components were hand-blown by a team of artisans in Seattle, then assembled onsite to create a stunning masterpiece, soaring 25 feet high.

You will no doubt notice the gray wolf (animated) atop a rock at the entrance of the Casino of the Earth. In the Mohegan language, Mohegan means “wolf people” and sun means “rock.”

Mohegan Sun Hotel

The opening of the Mohegan Sun Hotel, only this past spring, gives the gaming center a whole new dimension. You enter the 35-story three-winged tower, one of the tallest buildings in Connecticut to a dramatic lobby in a simulated cedar forest, with water gurgling in reflecting pools, light dancing through canopies of beaded crystalline leaves on trees that reach toward luminous sky lights. The ceiling is ringed by birch bark, evoking the feeling of a longhouse.

Designed by Hirsch Bedner Associates, the 1,200 spacious guest rooms (including 180 suites) are a minimum of 450 sq. ft. and provide luxurious bathrooms, deluxe bedding and linens, three two-line telephones with dataports, a full-size working desk area with ergonomic chair, and Playstation. The level of guest services (and security) is exceptional (including the free valet parking).

The hotel offers a full-service Elemis Spa, with 15 private spa-therapy rooms, a relaxation area, hair and beauty salon. There is also a fitness center ($15 a day for guests). There is also a 10,000 square foot indoor swimming pool and juice bar (music is piped in adding to the pleasant atmosphere).

There is every kind of dining, from casual to gourmet, from sports bar to romantic. Indeed, Mohegan Sun does an exceptional job of appealing to just about every age and cultural taste as well as palate. Gourmet dining is available in Bamboo Forest, a sophisticated Asian restaurant; the Longhouse, a fine-dining steak house; Pompeii and Caesar, a gourmet Italian restaurant; The Cove, a full-service restaurant where you can select from menus of the three restaurants; Rain, a 100-seat fine-dining restaurant featuring live piano music; Michael Jordan’s Steak House; and Todd English’s Tuscany, serving old-world Italian cuisine.

Casual dining selections include Big Bubba’s BBQ; Jasper White’s Summer Shack featuring New England-style seafood; Michael Jordan’s 23 Sportcafe (hugely fun and the hangout for the 20-somethings); Mohegan Territory, open 24 hours and Fidelia’s, also open 24 hours and providing room service (with a huge selection at moderate prices).

Specialty dining is available form Ben & Jerry’s; Brew Pub; Chief’s Deli, a fabulous New York-style deli (best corned beef sandwich I’ve ever had), Poker Bar and Bow & Arrow Sports Bar.

In addition, there are two buffets (Seasons and Sunburst), two food courts and four coffee places including Starbucks.

Shopping

 

Shopping here is actually an event. This is not your typical stuff but retail shops that are as entertaining.

We found the first Farmer’s Almanac Store, loaded with country-style stuff collected from a variety of vendors; the Nostalgia Store, which sells collectibles such as autographed photo montages (Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Lucille Ball, Three Stooges, the Beatles); Discovery Channel Store; OdySea (the entrance is a massive aquarium); Jaboola, featuring handcrafted furniture and accessories from Israel; Jewelry Nirvana, offering one-of-a-kind jewelry and accessories from the Orient; and Trading Cove, a Native American shop, among others.

Entertainment

Mohegan Sun offers a variety of entertainment venues. The 300-seat Cabaret showcases cabaret and comedy performances in an intimate atmosphere, and has hosted Tony Bennett, Nell Carter, Hal Linden and Mary Wilsen.

The 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena has hosted Gloria Estefan, Janet Jackson, Aerosmith, Julio Iglesias and features sports events, as well.

Wombi Rock has a lounge and dance floor on three levels.

The 350-seat Wolf Den offers free nightly entertainment for guests 21 and over. There have been entertainers from almost every musical genre including pop, country, rock, alternative, big band, jazz, R&B and folk, all at no cover charge and no minimum (and if you can’t get a seat, you can stand at the outside and see and hear just as well). It has hosted such acts as Blondie, the Go-Gos, Jon Secada, Glen Campbell and Joan Jett.

Kid’s Quest

Kids enter a tunnel of neon lights to Kid’s Quest, a family entertainment complex just steps from the retail promenade. It is staffed by licensed professionals who are trained in first aid and CPR. There is a separate area for babies as young as six weeks old (Lil’ Dippers), and supervised activity area where we were able to see youngsters up to 12 years old actively engaged and many counselors participating.

There is an indoor playground with slides, ladders and tunnels, a gym with basketball, volleyball, hula-hoops, parachute play, jump rope.

There is also a video arcade with nonviolent games (children who are not part of the supervised activity program can use these, but those in the program can play for free).

The area also includes a high-tech café, Karaoke star stage, Kids Quest recording studio, Barbieland (a master planned community of Barbie and her friends), and Construction Quarry with Legos.

Each child is checked in by an associate with pertinent information entered into a computer. A photo ID must be presented upon pick-up in order for the child to be released.

Kids Quest is open from Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, Staurday and holidays from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. (reservations strongly recommended, 888-226-7711, or 860-862-8150). The cost is $7 per hour for children over three years old; $7.50 per hour for children six weeks to three years.

Area Attractions

Mohegan Sun is superbly situated in the heart of some of Connecticut’s most compelling tourist attractions.

Mystic Seaport, displaying America’s maritime history, and Mystic Aquarium, combined, would take a full day to visit.

There is also the Carousel Museum of New England in Mystic (displaying 70 antique carousel horses);Children’s Museum (Niantic); Old Lighthouse Museum (Stonington, where you can climb to the tower of the 1823 lighthouse for a panoramic view of Long Island Sound; Historic Ship Nautilus & Submarine Force Museum, the first nuclear-powered submarine can be visited at Groton; Tantasquidgeon Indian Museum, Rte 32 in Uncasville, has a collection of artifacts of the Mohegan Indians.

Also, Gillette Castle State Park (East Haddam); Monte Cristo Cottage, the boyhood home of playwright Eugene O’Neill (New London); Nathan Lester House, an 18th century farmhouse and museum on 100-acre site crossed with hiking trails; Thomas Lee House & Little Boston School (Old Lyme); Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center (Mystic), offers seven miles of hiking trails in a 125-acre sanctuary; Millstone Nature Trail at Millstone Nuclear Power Station (Waterford).

There is also the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat Ride, a 2 1/2-hour trip on a 100-year old steam train and riverboat (Essex); Capt. Bob II cruise boat, out of Groton, and Capt. John Nature Cruises out of Waterford.

Golf is available at the Pequot Golf Club, Stonington; Shennecosset Golf Course, Groton; Cedar Ridge Golf Course, East Lime; Chanticlair Golf Course, Colchester; Elmridge Golf Course, Pawcatuck; River Ridge Golf Course, Griswold, and Norwich Municipal Golf Course.

For further information about attractions, contact Connecticut Tourism at http://www.ctbound.org/.

Getaway Packages

There are various packages available that feature deluxe guestroom upgrade, special welcome gift, discounts on meals, entertainment and attractions.

Legendary Escape package includes a $15 coupon per person for food and beverage plus $10 gaming coupon; rates start at $154.38 per night, double occupancy.

Couples Spa Package is $306.80/couple, includes a well-being massage in the spa, and full access to spa activities and fitness center (a single’s package is $231.80).

Getaway Package includes $70 per person in food and beverage credits plus $15 in gaming credits per person, starts at $272.40 ($362 in summer).

Romance package includes $100 in food and beverage credits, $20 per person in gaming credits and a bottle of champagne and keepsake candy basket, starts at $372.40 (as high as $542.65 in summer).

Mystic Places Package includes two tickets admission to Mystic Aquarium or Mystic Seaport, and $10 per person in food and beverage credit, priced at $208.80 per couple, year-round.

The Mohegan Sun is less than a 2-� hour drive (take I-95 north to Exit 76/I-395 North to exit 79A, Route 2A East).

For further information, contact Mohegan Sun, 1 Mohegan Sun Boulevard, Uncasville, CT 06382, 888-226-7711, www.mohegansun.com.

Pix1 The casino floor at Mohegan Sun, a major gambling resort destination in Connecticut (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Pix2 World-renowned artist Dale Chihuly’s “River Blue,” a towering, 10,000-pound glass sculpture is one of the gorgeous design features in the Mohegan Sun mall (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Pix3 Wombi Rock, a glowing, three-story high crystal “mountain” crafted of alabaster and onyx, provides unique lounge spaces (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Pix4 Trail of Life: Mohegan Sun incorporates stunning art and design features which pay tribute to Mohegan Indian traditions, even in the walkway that serves as a shopping and dining mall (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
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© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

TASTE OF SEBASCO: CLASSIC RESORT IS TOAST OF MID-COAST MAINE

Ideal for Families, Weddings, Reunions, Corporate Groups

By Karen Rubin with
David Leiberman & Eric Leiberman

Can’t get enough. Must come back for more.

Like the most addictive treat, you simply can’t get enough of Sebasco Harbor Resort, classic in its tradition, making it novel today.

Sebasco Harbor Resort, on the craggy shore of mid-coast Maine, has that rarest of qualities: the ability to appeal to anyone, from the poshest sophisticate to the purist nature-lover, from the youngest to the oldest, from those seeking nothing more than a tranquil place to read beside the water, to those can’t sit still.

I am thinking this as we set out in kayaks on a velvety surface, the last rays of sun fading into orange and purple, and the moon just beginning to rise.

Setting out for the moonlight kayak expedition (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

I am thinking that no billionaire could have a better moment than this.

Our moonlight paddle was the perfect cap to a perfect day of golfing, massage, sailing, and a dinner to delight an epicurean.

I was hooked, as so many families before us have been, who have come year after year, generation after generation since Nate Cushman first opened the Sebasco Lodge in 1930. One family has held its annual family reunion here for 50 years, taking over the 10-room Early Bird cottage.

It was after midnight when we arrived at Sebasco Harbor Resort the night before – disappointed we had missed the Friday night lobsterbake. But minutes after registering and arriving at our room in the Lighthouse, a boxed dinner of delicious wraps arrived at our room.

And what a room! The Lighthouse was built in the 1940s to serve the Midcoast harbor, and now it beckons vacationers with comfortable accommodations in a spectacular setting. It is reportedly the only Lighthouse in America that offers hotel-style accommodations and resort amenities. Our room has a picture window and sitting area facing the marina. Though it was late and we had been traveling for hours, we couldn’t resist going down to the dock.

It takes about two minutes – the smokey smell from a fireplace mixing with the salty smell of the water, seeing the bright light of the moon reflected on the water, the quiet, rhythmic lapping of the water against the rocks, seeming to sparkle in the light, the silhouette of pine trees, the boats bobbing, the creaking sound of the dock, stars so bright you feel you can pluck them from the sky, the cool, fresh air – to know the feeling of perfect peace and feel all the hassle of everyday simply melt away.

We were back on the dock at daybreak – the pure light bringing out colors as it intensifies – with the boats in the harbor, fishing villages up and down the shore, islands, and you soon appreciated what has brought artists like Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer to these shores.

In the daylight, I could see what has been bringing back generations of families – 575 acres tucked at the western side of a peninsula facing Casco Bay (making for incredible sunsets), an enclave of cottages and lodges that make for an unusual variety of accommodations, set in a kind of campus compound, magnificently landscaped with gardens.

There is room to roam around – the self-contained compound is ideal for kids – and plenty of places to be together – in lovely lounges in the main (historic) 1929 hotel, a gazebo (equipped with Wi-Fi) on the croquet lawn, by the Olympic-sized saltwater pool (biggest in the state of Maine), a conference center, and in the Observatory of the Lighthouse – like a secret place with lounge chairs and window seats and 360-degree views.

There were three weddings and a family reunion going on the weekend we were there – the place was packed – and yet it did not feel crowded at all.

In the fall and spring, the focus turns to corporate groups – retreats, incentives, meetings. The resort is ideal – because of the activities (golf, a new full-service spa, sailboat, and excursion boat, even an indoor bowling alley), meeting venues, and abundant opportunities for themed events as well as team-building activities, geared to groups of 10 to 250 people. Imagine playing “costume golf” or night golf (the balls and tees are lighted).

And then we discovered the activities: a wonderful (and challenging) nine-hole golf course suitable for tournament play ($27/round); a three-hole lake golf course perfect for families ($10 for unlimited play), tennis courts, canoes on a lake; a fitness center; mountain bikes available for rent, and kayaking center. There are also hiking trails on Mt. Merritt and around the property. (Sebasco is within the town of Phippsburg that has some of the finest walking trails in Midcoast Maine.)

From the marina, there are delightful two-hour sailing excursions on the Magic, a magnificent Tartan 41 Sloop, and trips on the Ruth, a 38-foot vessel that was launched for Sebasco in 1935, making it one of the oldest continuously operating passenger vessels on the coast of Maine.

The Ruth offers nature cruises, a Maine lobstering experience (you follow a lobsterman along his trap hauling route and get to handle lobsters), and a pirate adventure (offered at least twice weekly, involving a hunt for lost treasure, and pirate Kevin and his parrot. The 24-passenger vessel is also available for private charters, for family trips, wedding parties and corporate groups.

Paddling in the moonlight (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

And then I discovered the Quarterdeck. Step across the portal and you feel you have stepped back to the 1940s. The piece de resistance is the vintage candlepin bowling a game that is distinctive to Maine – with four lanes (75 cents a string to play). There is also plus ping-pong tables, billiards, table shuffleboard, video games and (what could be better?) a juke box. The Quarterdeck is generally opened in the evening, 7:30 to 10 p.m. (or when it rains).

Similarly, The Clipper House – an old fashioned, woodsy looking theater with stage, which was famous for its theater productions, is used for staff shows and special functions (for much of this summer, there is an Elvis Impersonator – and not just any Elvis Impersonator, but a Mainer who was the 2002 “Best Elvis Impersonator in the World”. After that, there is a stand-up comic.

While parents are at the show, kids get to enjoy “Rock n’ Bowl” in the Quarterdeck.

New Fairwinds Spa

This summer, the resort “is harnessing the power of the sea and surf” to reinvigorate guests with an all new waterfront luxury spa.

The Fairwinds Spa offers traditional and leading edge spa services in a spectacular waterfront setting that enhance personal treatments with sea views, fresh salt air breezes and the relaxing rhythms of tide, plus a meditation deck and a Jacuzzi deck that overlook the harbor.

The Fairwinds Spa offers treatment rooms for massage, aromatic hydrotherapy, wraps, salon services, and personal training in Yoga, Pilates, lifestyle education. There is a luxurious Sea Breeze spa suite, for couples and private spa suite with a fireplace, large enough for an entire bridal party or gals getaway.

The spa consulting firm, WTS International, developed treatments in keeping with the resort’s natural setting, such as seastone massage, and Wild Beach Rose Hydrating Cocoon that takes advantage of the locally abundant Rugosa Roses, and a seasonal body buff that changes with the seasons.

In addition to the Spa, there are five all-season luxury suites in the Fairwinds “Cottage” created especially for guests who are seeking a spa-focused vacation experience, including complimentary upgrades to in-suite spa treatments.

“From brides and bridesmaids to wind-weary sailors, the Fairwinds Spa will be a haven of comfort and rejuvenation,” Smith says. “Today’s vacationer expects to have the opportunity to experience top quality spa services, and we will now offer the only full-service waterfront resort spa in Midcoast Maine.”

Kayaking in the Moonlight

Oh, to be at Sebasco Harbor when the moon is full.

We had been initially enticed to the resort by the idea of kayaking, and there are several excursions available each day including a sunset paddle, but we were fortunate enough to be at Sebasco Harbor for this very special moonlight kayaking trip.

We had gathered at 8 p.m. – I was pleased with the safety precautions and the preparations that Scott, who runs Seaspray Kayaking, provides. There are wetsuits available (it can get chilly on the water). We are each given an orange glow stick to attach to the port side of our paddles, and he has us counting off numbers and instructs us on what we should do in the unlikely event that somebody falls out of the kayak.

It is about 9 p.m. – the sun just about down, when we set out together, the darkness descending as the moon was rising. Our excitement builds as we make our way through the moored boats and into the open water, and then through a channel between two islands.

We come to a secluded island where Scott and his guides help us out of the water (we don’t even get feet wet). Within minutes, he has a bonfire going, and we settle around, sitting on lobster traps and rocks, cooking s’mores and telling stories. And I am thinking about all the people for whom this scene, with Scott, sitting around the campfire and paddling in the moonlight, becomes one of their favorite stories.

Seaspray Kayaking, which operates from the resort, offers numerous kayaking expeditions during the day – including new kayak fly-fishing (that trip departed at 4 a.m.). There is also a kayak school, including lessons in the saltwater pool, a smooth freshwater pond for practice and a protected harbor with access to Casco Bay (888-349-SPRAY, 207-443-3646, www.seaspraykayaking.cominfo@seaspraykayaking.com).

Golfing at Sebasco

David takes a shot on Sebasco Harbor Resort's signature #2 hole (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

The Sebasco nine-hole golf course is a delight with substantial challenge. The signature #2 hole uses the sheer beauty of the scene – looking out to the bay – to compensate for the extreme frustration. Not just short (only 145 yards from the black tee), narrow, not just hitting over water and calculating for wind, but the green is on a tiered elevation (more like a miniature golf hole), backed by woods.

The #3 hole, a par 5, 471 yards from the black tee, is a dogleg left but first you have to make it over the wetlands; then you have to aim your second shot toward the right of the fairway because everything slopes left towards the tree line. The par-4 #7 hole, 400 yards, also requires accuracy rather than power. You can certainly enjoy this course over and over ($27/nine holes, $10/cart but most people seem to use a hand cart; a Golf Plan allows for unlimited play, and includes breakfast and dinner, at $78 per person, per day).

The resort also has a beautiful three-hole Lake Course that is ideal for families. These holes are wide and therefore relatively forgiving (if you account for the fact you are playing around the water hazard). Unlimited play for $10/day.

The resort also makes available canoes on its lovely Wah-tah Lake.

In the afternoon, we embarked on a two-hour sailing excursion on “The Magic,” captained by Phil, who practically grew up on the dock because his father had worked at Sebasco, as well. This sleek ocean racer has been in the Bermuda race at least twice. Phil picks up on our questions to tell pleasant anecdotes and give interesting information.

Our two-hour sail takes us in and around the small islands, and into the nearby fishing village, where we spot a Bald Eagle in a tree and a seal. Neil takes the helm for a time and Phil helpfully gives him tips on sailing.

Phil isn’t the only one who has this passionate connection to Sebasco. Owen and John Totman, have been working at the resort for 49 & 50 years, and run the Repairatorium – the resort’s maintenance hub. When Smith wanted to replace The Clipper with The Pilot House on the waterfront and was faced with having to knock the vintage wooden building down, they said, “The Totman Brothers can move anything.”

They acquired Air Force surplus hydraulic lifters used to lift the Saturn Rocket, for two cents on the dollar, and them mounted on trailer rigs, and sure enough, moved the entire building to the center of the village, where today it provides this wonderfully atmospheric venue for stage productions and events (square dancing would be perfect).

Revered Tradition

Campfire on a deserted island, in the moonlight (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Sebasco Harbor Resort has been welcoming the public since Nathan Cushman purchased the property from Freeman and Jenny Merritt who owned the Rock Gardens Inn (actually still functioning) in 1928. When he opened the resort in 1930, Cushman’s vision was to create a “village style resort” that encouraged recreation as opposed to the more sedentary resorts that were typical of that era. His model also included both modern and rustic accommodations; and it is a tribute to his vision that the resort continues to thrive as a recreation centered vacation destination with a diversity of architecture in a harbor village setting.

Two generations of Cushman ownership were followed by two generations of ownership by the Dana family; and in 1997 the resort was purchased by Bob Smith.

Smith, who began his career in hospitality in 1974 working as a porter for the Holiday Inn in Portland, clearly has a keen appreciation for Sebasco’s tradition. In the years since, he has spent $12 million in modernizing, upgrading, updating amenities, adding programming and extending the season of the resort into the spring and fall, but he has preserved the essence. He laughs that he would get flack from some of the regulars just for replacing a “ratty” couch, because it was part of what was familiar. But you can still find the grandfather clock in the Great Room of the Main Lodge, which dates from the 1930s.

And heaven forbid he end the Monday Night Bingo in the Clipper House or the Sunday afternoon cocktail reception or Wednesday tea.

The connection to history adds to the atmosphere – there is a wall of all the brochures that Sebasco has used over all these years, a veritable timeline of tourism promotion; the pro shop at the golf course has old photos and a plaque listing all those who have hit a hole in one, and there is a wonderful photo in the original hotel, from when people would harvest ice from Cornelius Pond (now called Wah-Tah Lake).

In 2006 the new Harbor Village Suites added 18 luxury units in the heart of the village, they blend in perfectly with the cottages and lodges, and are winterized. In all, about 33 units are now geared to year-round use. Smith notes that being 12 miles out to sea, Sebasco is cooler in summer and milder in winter than even Bath or Portland.

 

Activity Program

What makes Sebasco so special, though, are the program of activities that are reminiscent of the days when people would come to such resorts for the entire season.

Families are invited to join other families in “camp-style” activities such as nature programs, pirate cruises and crafts, evening campfire; there are also kids-only activities that allow parents to get in a round of golf or a spa treatment.

During July and August, Camp Merritt offers full-day programs for children ($4/child, and each day offers different activities that families can enjoy together, or separately.

Friday’s schedule starts with morning stretch and fitness, a kayak excursion, a round-robin tennis tournament, a “Birds of Prey – New England’s Majestic Raptors” program, presented by the Chewonki Foundation; a croquet clinic; a scenic van tour of Phippsburg; a scenic lunch cruise on the Ruth; a kayak excursion; ice cream making; an “exploring sealife” program with naturalist Ronnie Kamphausen; a lobsterbake and contra dancing.

Saturday’s activities include morning stretch and fitness, guided beach kayak excursion, make your own tie-dye t-shirt, cruising on the Ruth, sunset kayaking excursion, family campfire and sing along.

Sunday begins with morning stretch and fitness, a traditional Blueberry pancake breakfast on the pool lawn, a kayak rolling class in the pool, a scenic harbor and nature cruise on The Ruth, horseshoes, a golf clinic, a kayak excursion, a croquet clinic, a welcome reception (complimentary hors d’oeuves and cocktails); a grand buffet in the Cornelius Room. In the evening, the Quarterdeck recreation center is open from 7:30 to 10 p.m.

There is so much going on, in fact, that families find it hard to leave the property. A family we met from New York, for example, said they had spent 10 days here last year, and came back for seven more this year. “Did you get to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland?” I ask, thinking this is a great excursion, about 1 1/2 hour away. No. “Did you visit Boothbay, such a charming village?” No. It turns out they never left the property last year – there was so much to do, but this year, they were resolved to go into Bath. And it is true, there is easily enough to keep you occupied.

Early morning light: Sebasco Harbor Resort's new waterfront spa in the trees (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

The best excursion is only a few miles from the resort, to Popham Beach State Park -a sprawling, scenic, three-mile long expansive sandy beach at the mouth of the Kennebec River, from which you can see small islands (two lighthouses), just off shore (when the tide is out, you can walk across to the island); seals gather here.

You can walk for miles, taking a turn and walking along the beach to the Civil War era Fort Popham (or, as we did, park at the fort, and walk up the beach, past the old Coast Guard station and around to the state beach because the parking lot did not open until 9 a.m.). The Fort was built to protect the shipbuilding industry upriver in Bath, and the state capital at Augusta. The fort, which gets about 100,000 visitors a year, is presently closed for renovation.

Indeed, there is rich history here: the Popham Colony was founded in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. They built the 30-ton Virginia as the continent’s first ocean going ship, launching Maine’s shipbuilding tradition. However, the colony did not survive. Artifacts from archeological digs being conducted by Jeffrey Brain of the Essex Peabody Museum in Salem, sponsored by the Maine State Museum, are on display through October at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, where they are reconstructing the Virginia in public view (www.popham400.org).

There is a lot to do – with Rockland, picturesque Boothbay, and Bath so accessible from the resort. In Rockland, a must-see is the Farnsworth Museum, famous for its collection of Wyeth family artists, and the Maine Lighthouse Museum, and is a port for many of the historic Maine Windjammers (making Sebasco Harbor a great combination vacation with the three or six-day cruises, 800-807-WIND, www.sailmainecoast.com).

In Bath, just 20 minutes away, there is the Maine Maritime Museum (which is displaying an exhibition of artifacts from archeological digs at Popham Colony), and a historic district with captains’ homes. Wiscasset, named the “Prettiest Village in Maine,” and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The resort is only 35 minutes from Freeport, a shopping mecca with L.L. Bean (open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year) and numerous outlets. Sebasco Harbor Resort is one hour from Portland, with the Portland Museum of Art and the Portland Observatory.

There is also a Coastal Maine scenic train ride, traveling between Bath & Wiscasset to Brunswick & Rockland, with a luxury dining car (also available for private charters). Sebasco has created a package, “Maine Coast Rail & Art Excursion” that combines the rail trip and four-hour visit to Rockland, with a two-night stay at the resort, breakfast, train fare, transportation to/from the Bath Depot and admission to the Farnsworth Art Museum (from $215).

The resort is also a superb combination with Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, about 2 1/2 hours away.

Eleanor Roosevelt, in fact, would stay over at Sebasco Harbor Resort with her mother-in-law, en route to Campobello.

A Taste of Sebasco

Dining at Sebasco is designed with the multi-day vacationer in mind, and there is a surprising variety of dining venues and even themed dining events.

The Pilot House offers waterfront bistro dining with a “resort casual” atmosphere that belies the high level of service and the excellence of the menu. At night, the sunset views as you dine are unbelievable.

The Lighthouse (right), the Pilot House (left) and The Ruth, as seen from the deck of the Magic (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

The dining experience takes you completely by surprise – it is New England fare reinterpreted with more worldly and eclectic seasonings that only enhances the freshness of the seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables. Steamed mussel appetizer (an enormous portion), were succulent, served delectably simmered in white wine with onions and black pepper; the Pilot House Roasted Corn and Lobster Chowder and the Organic Carrot and Ginger Soup were pure perfection. Fire Roasted Sirloin Steak was served with a salsa of thyme-pimento-chutney. Lobster America’s Cup is an open shell lobster simmered with leeks, tomatoes and fresh tarragon. The Penobscot Bay Seafood Potpourri consists of shrimp, haddock and sea scallops, seasoned with tarragon, mushrooms, lobster cream sauce with dry sherry. There is also an extensive wine list

The Ledges, next door, offers seaside pub fare indoors or on the harborside patio, and is open until the wee hours.

The Pool Lawn is where there are the weekly lobsterbakes and traditional Blueberry Pancake Breakfasts; it also provides a lovely harborview setting for weddings and special functions.

The Cornelius Room is a grand dining room from the golden resort era that works well for weddings and special events.

The Clipper affords rustic charm for casual special events or themed parties (1940s, square dancing).

There is also a small Patio Caf for ice cream and snacks, right on the Village Green.

Sebasco Harbor Resort offers an MAP option, an inclusive breakfast and dinner program, at $48 per person, per day (no charge for children under 10 ordering from the children’s menu). This makes a lot of sense, since the resort is fairly isolated, and the food is absolutely superb (you can also pay as you go at the restaurants).

Moonlight, Magic & Romance

It is easy to see why Sebasco Harbor is so popular with weddings – it is absolutely idyllic, with endless possibilities for gatherings – from a lobsterbake rehearsal dinner, cocktail party, white linen formal dinner for up to 240 guests in the Cornelius room, a cruise on the Ruth, a round of golf, or a bridal party spa get-together. A wedding planner is available to assist in organizing the event, at no extra charge. (The pricing for a destination wedding is advantageous as well – the formal dinner might be $100 per person, compared to $250 to $300 in New York.)

A “Lighthouse Romance Package” brings together the elements of a romantic getaway starting with fresh flowers and a welcome gift, overnight accommodations in the Lighthouse, dinner for two at the Pilot House, and breakfast for two the following morning. Guests are encouraged to arrive early and make the most of the resort’s extensive grounds and amenities including the all-new Fairwinds Spa. The Lighthouse Romance Package starts at $275 per couple per day.

The Lighthouse offers 10 rooms. In addition, there are 23 cottages with one to 10 bedrooms (the largest cottage, Early Bird, is like a railroad car with 10 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms and a great room, which is ideal for family reunions); a traditional main lodge with 37 rooms; and 18 luxury suites in two Harborview View lodges, and five luxury waterfront suites in the Fairwind Spa.

Early morning light from Sebasco Harbor Resort's dock (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Nightly summertime rates for accommodations range from $209 per guest room in the Main Lodge to $2,090 for the 10-bedroom room Early Bird cottage that sleeps 20.

A senior rate is available (age 60 and above) at 10% off the room portion for Main Lodge accommodations; there is also a 10 percent discount on lodging for stays of seven days or longer.

Sebasco Harbor Resort, in Sebasco Harbor Estates, is three hours by car from Boston (about 7 hours from New York’s metro), and less than an hour’s drive from Portland’s International Jetport which is served by major airlines including Jet Blue (the hotel provides shuttle transportation). For reservations or information, call 800-225-3819 or visitwww.sebasco.com.

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© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com

FINDING LOVE IN ALL THE RIGHT PLACES

Use the World Wide Web to Gift-Wrap a Romantic Rendezvous, for a Valentine that Lasts Forever

By Karen Rubin

Romance is in the air… and on the web. You may not be able to fulfill a wish to lasso the moon, but you can lay the world at your love’s feet. And while flowers die, chocolates get consumed, the memories that come from sharing some enchanting experience together, are treasured for a lifetime.

Of course, romance-like beauty-is in the eye of the beholder. An eight-foot high champagne glass whirlpool bath might be romantic to some, a cozy mountaintop inn might be romantic to others, while still others might swoon at the life-altering adventure of a safari or the indulgence of an extravagant spa where you can enjoy a couples massage.

Whether you are planning a spur-of-the-moment romantic getaway–perhaps to some perfect place to pop the question (10 percent of all proposals take place on Valentine’s Day)–or giving the gift of a future rendezvous, here are some suggestions for fulfilling that Valentine’s Day wish:

Lovetripper.com

Arguably the world’s foremost experts on romantic travel are Paris Permenter and John Bigley, a husband-wife team of travel writers who travel the globe in search of the world’s most romantic places (we actually traveled with them on the Acadian Railway, a North American attempt at an Orient-Express-style luxury train). Since 2000, the couple has produced Lovetripper.com, a website which offers over 5,000 online pages covering romantic getaways around the world, updated daily, on all types and styles of travel. Recently, we asked them what they see as trends in “romantic travel”.

Paris: “More couples are realizing the need for romantic travel as part of their everyday life, not just for a special occasion such as a honeymoon or a major anniversary. One-night getaways and weekend trips are a growing trend as couples take a break from the stress of their lives with a trip that’s easy both on the time and the financial budgets.”

John: “Couples are also realizing that they can combine a romantic getaway with a family trip. The growing number of family-friendly resorts allows couples to share a vacation with their children but, thanks to supervised children’s programs, also have private time to reconnect in a romantic setting.

For the penultimate in romance: a sea cruise where you can dance, enjoy spa treatments, fine dining, interesting sightseeing. Here, dancers swirl to a Latin band in the Boleros nightclub on RCL's Enchantment of the Seas (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

“There’s also a growing trend for a romantic getaway to be whatever it is the couple wants, whether that’s a traditional sun and sand vacation or something else. Couples are seeking more remote destinations for adventure travel as well as sightseeing and spa vacations. It’s all about doing what makes the two of you happy, whether that means lying on the beach, learning a new sport together, or taking a cultural excursion.”

Paris: Vow renewals on vacation are becoming increasingly popular with the continuing interest in reconnecting. Couples can make the vow renewals as elaborate or as simple as they choose. Some invite family and turn the event into a destination wedding; others opt for a very simple beach ceremony. Since you’re free of the legalities that are involved with a wedding, the planning is very simple and the event can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision. We just returned from Couples Ocho Rios in Jamaica and had a vow renewal on the beach. It was simple and very special.”

Their site is probably the best single source for getaways of special interest to lovers in search of a honeymoon, a destination wedding, or a weekend away any place in the world. This site also features travel news of special interest to romantic travelers. You’ll find information on new resorts, renovations, and special packages. One channel of Lovetripper features the Romantic Travel Directory, a fully-searchable, custom-programmed directory. Listings include romantic accommodations, destination wedding planners, wedding professionals, travel agents specializing in romantic travel, cruises, and more. Visit www.lovetripper.com.

Here are some other ideas and sources-a virtual “Yellow Pages” for romantic travel, if you will:

Historic Hotels Set the Mood

I am an absolute sucker for elegance and charm, heritage and architecture, gentility and grace as manifested by the members of Historic Hotels of America, a collection of 210 distinctive properties (many known by the moniker “The”). And these days, they often come with spas, fine dining, and all the accoutrements of luxurious pampering. Here is just a taste of the winter packages offered by Historic Hotels that will definitely set the mood:

What could be more perfect on the holiday that is synonymous with the aphrodisiac properties of chocolate than staying in the historic hotel that is synonymous with chocolate: The Hotel Hershey, Hershey, PA is offering “Heavenly Hershey” that stresses the de-stressers of its world-class spa. This delicious experience includes deluxe accommodations, a Spa Rain Shower, 20-minute traditional massage and $225 credit per person to be used toward other spa services or products. (Through Apr. 13; $418 per night double occupancy; three night minimum, 800-HERSHEY, www.hersheypa.com. ).

A charming hotel any time of the year, those for whom food is the way to the heartstrings, can take advantage of Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, Boston’s special “Celebrity Chefs” program and learn the fundamentals of cooking from some of America’s greatest chefs. Each two-hour class features specialty preparation, wine tasting and discussion. Package includes overnight accommodations and two tickets to the Celebrity Chefs culinary program. (through Feb. 25, $259 per couple, per night, 617-267-5300).

For many, you only have to utter “Cape Cod” to be transported to a state of ecstasy. The glorious Chatham Bars Inn lets you escape to the beauty of Cape Cod, without the crowds and tourists. Stroll the windswept beaches, relax in front of a roaring fire, enjoy a majestic sunset and breakfast for two in the ocean view dining room. Winter Escape for Two is offered through Mar. 31, from $230 – $580 per night, double occupancy (800-678-8946).

Cranwell Resort Spa & Golf Club, Lenox, Mass., offers a majestic setting on a former estate with a view of the Berkshires, a phenomenal spa, cross-country skiing (the only place that actually makes snow, and just a short drive to Jiminy Peak downhill ski area). The Romance Package, available through Apr. 30, includes overnight lodging, candlelight dinner, champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries, full country breakfast and use of the spa.(from $329 per couple midweek. $369 per couple weekends (800-678-8946).

Escape with your sweetheart with this special two-night package at a grand, Gilded Age resort hotel on a private island on Lake George in upstate New York. The Sagamore, at Bolton Landing, lets you stay in the historic hotel or the Lodges, enjoy a three-course dinner, chocolate amenity upon arrival and welcome wine reception for the Sweetheart Getaway (available Feb. 10-12, $202 per person, double occupancy but a romantic getaway any time, 800-678-8946).

Enjoy a comfortable stay at a classic New England inn, located just a stone’s throw from Newport’s “First Beach.” The Inn at Newport Beach’s Newport Getaway, available Feb. 15-April 1, includes overnight lodging, continental breakfast, two tickets to your choice of a scenic tour of Newport or the famous mansions tour. $85 pp/dbl for one night and $130 for two night stay Sun. – Thurs., $99 for one night and $158 for two night stay Fri. and Sat. (401-846-0310).

Relax in a warm and cozy room at the Providence Biltmore after a fun-filled day of ice skating at the Bank of America’s outdoor skating rink. Stay warm with a complimentary coffee at the hotel’s own Starbuck’s coffee house. The “Skate & Stay” Package, available through Mar. 31, includes accommodations, ice skating admission, skate rental and Starbucks coupon. Deluxe accommodations are $179 per package, $199 for a junior suite and $219 for a premium suite (maximum four persons, 800-678-8946).

Realize a skier’s dream come true – crowd free slopes, a hearty meal in cozy surroundings, a relaxing soak in a Jacuzzi and a peaceful slumber. You’ll find all that and more at the Equinox Resort & Spa, Manchester Village, Vt., this winter. The Stratton Ski Package, available through Apr. 15, includes three nights’ lodging, breakfast daily, complimentary use of the Avanyu Spa fitness facilities and a three-day lift ticket to nearby Stratton Mountain (From $109 per person, per day, Sun. – Thurs., $149 per person, per day weekends and $249 per person, per day on holiday weekdays and weekends, 802-362-4700).

The ambiance of the Hotel Monaco, Washington DC, is enough to make you swoon (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Experience the stunning monuments of the nation’s capital like you’ve never seen them before in a hotel with a stunning ambiance. The Hotel Monaco has a “Monuments by Moonlight” Package that includes deluxe accommodations for two, private evening limousine tour of the monuments, his and hers keepsake cashmere scarves and a bottle of champagne. (Ongoing; from $244 per room, per night for deluxe accommodations, 202-628-7177).

Stay in the historic Hotel El Convento, walk in the steps of the Conquistadors and discover Old San Juan, a 16th century Spanish colonial city, during an entertaining, historical and cultural walking tour. Your guide will narrate pirate stories, legends and historical facts as you explore twelve famous and infamous sites in the old city. Package features deluxe accommodations, use of fitness center, hotel signature bag, complimentary afternoon wine and hors d’oeuvres as well as the walking tour. “A Walk Through History” is offered through Apr. 30 ($320 per couple, per night; minimum three-night stay, double occupancy, 800-678-8946).

National Trust Historic Hotels of America (HHA) is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. HHA has identified 210 quality hotels that have faithfully maintained their historic architecture and ambience. Packages are listed on the National Trust Web site at www.historichotels.org and some can be booked through HHA at 800-678-8946 (look for the icon).

Luxuriate Together at a Spa

Are you looking for a romantic spa? A little corner of paradise for a sexy weekend getaway? Here are the top ten romantic spas in the United States, ranging from big city-spas to island getaways, according to about.com’s spa specialist, Anitra Brown:

Calistoga Ranch, Calistoga, California, “a sleek, sexy hideaway for lovers”; The Royal Palms Resort & Spa, Phoenix, is a Spanish Mediterranean estate with an original 1929 mansion and 117 casitas and guestrooms and the Alvadora Spa with fountains, fireplaces, a Watsu massage pool, and a seductive, spacious indoor/outdoor Acqua Dolce couples’ compound; Spa at The Mandarin Oriental, New York City, on the 35th floor of the luxurious Time Warner center, has a seductive couples suite with an antique Chinese bed, private steam shower and fireplace, tucked away in the Asian-inspired spa; One & Only Palmilla, Los Cabos, Mexico, a 172-room resort in Los Cabos that can arrange a Latin guitar trio to serenade you on the beach, or, in the Casa Gardenia suite, a personal butler to serve dinner on the moon-lit patio, its 22,000-sq. ft. spa features 13 spa villas that are the ultimate in privacy and intimacy; The Inn at Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton, South Carolina, with Spa treatment rooms that have verandas and outdoor baths; Mauna Lani Spa at Mana Lani Resort, Big Island, Hawaii, has 335 rooms, most overlooking the ocean, and five butler-serviced bungalows, and a spa that looks like a small village of thatched roof huts, with exotic treatments like the Ginger Honey Body Therapy and an open-air lava sauna; Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, Arizona, has a spa that features The Sanctum, a stone-wall hideaway couples can rent for the hour or half-day and enjoy the vitality pool, deluge shower and fire pit.

Also, she recommends, Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, Little Torch Key, a hidden treasure in the Florida Keys accessible only by boat or seaplane, offers just 28 private bungalows (guests have to be at least 16 years old), canoeing, diving, sailing and fishing and Spa Terre, specializing in luxurious Indonesian treatments; MacArthur Place Inn & Spa, Sonoma, California, a Victorian inn on 300 acres with gardens and orchards and suites and cottages that offer two-person hydrotherapy tubs, fireplaces, sitting areas, and patios or balconies overlooking the gardens, its Garden Spa features treatments inspired by wine country, like grapeseed scrubs; Mirabeau Inn & Spa, Skaneateles, New York, an intimate retreat with 34 chateau-style rooms overlooking gardens, each with a fireplace and a bath big enough for two, offering treatments like the Orange parfait – a milk bath scented with orange blossoms. For further information, visit Anitra Brown’s Guide to Spas on about.com: http://spas.about.com/od/spareviews/tp/romanticspas.htm ).

Just about anything and everything you wanted to know about spas and spa destinations is available from SpaFinders, and their superb site, www.spafinders.com. You can find suggestions, details and descriptions, learn about trends (such as pre-nuptial bachelorette parties, couples massage), make bookings and purchase travel packages.

SpaFinders also makes it easy to purchase gift certificates that can be used at hundreds and hundreds of spas. For Valentine’s Day, Spa Finder is offering free ground shipping on orders of $100 or more, and you can send a Valentine’s Day or spa-themed e-card for free. The certificates, accepted at thousands of spas worldwide as well as locally, come in an elegant envelope, accompanied by a Directory of Participating Spas (www.spafinder.com ).

Romantic Resorts

Sandals, a collection of 11 all-inclusive resorts, has built a reputation on being for couples only resort. Here, it is important to note that “all-inclusive” means that just about everything is included-all meals, snacks, unlimited premium brand drinks, unlimited scuba diving, sailing, water-skiing, snorkeling, golf (not caddies, which are mandatory and extra), land sports, airport taxes and tips; spa treatments are at an extra charge. The resorts are in Jamaica (Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Negril and Whitehouse); St. Lucia (Castries, Grande St. Lucian, Sandals Regency); Royal Bahamian, in Nassau, Bahamas (voted best Caribbean resort by Conde Nast Traveler); and Antigua.

The Sandals Antigua Caribbean Village & Spa, has earned titles such as “Most Romantic Resort,” “World’s Leading Honeymoon Resort,” and the Five-Star Diamond Award. Set on Dickenson Bay, the island’s best and most famous beach, it offers the charm of a quaint Caribbean village accompanied by the refined luxuries of a world-class all-inclusive. For the ultimate in personalized indulgence, you can select suites that include the services of a personal butler.

For further information and pricing, visit www.sandals.com.

Another on the list of “top ten most romantic resorts in all the Caribbean,” historic Nisbet Plantation Beach Club is a spacious resort on 30 acres of lush palms and tropical flowers, with its own private beach. It is situated on the incredibly beautiful and easily accessible Caribbean island of Nevis, part of the two-island federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. A honeymoon/romance package (gift certificates available) lets you wake up to breakfast in bed, served with champagne your first morning on Nevis; for the rest of your stay, enjoy breakfasts al fresco at its beachside restaurant, Coconuts; a romantic gourmet dinner right on the beach, five gourmet multi-course dinners in Nisbet’s old plantation Great House as well as daily Afternoon Tea, plus a 2-day car rental to explore the island. The package also includes sailing cruise, lunch at Sunshine’s (taxi service included), and two deep massages (starts at $2395 per couple depending on accommodations and season, 800-742-6008, www.nisbetplantation.com.

Caesars Pocono Resorts has built a reputation as a couples all-inclusive, famous for the heart-shaped bath for two (invented in 1963) not to be outdone by the seven-foot tall Champagne Glass Whirlpool Bath-for-Two (invented in 1984). Located in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, the resorts contributed to establishing the Poconos as “honeymoon capital of the world.” The group consists of three couples-only resorts — Cove Haven (Lakeville, PA), Paradise Stream (Mount Pocono, PA) and Pocono Palace (Marshalls Creek, PA) — and one family resort — Brookdale (Scotrun, PA) – all featuring distinctive accommodations and popular all-inclusive packages (don’t even ask about the gift shop!). Special winter weekday and weekend rates are available at www.CPResorts-Specials.com. Caesars Pocono Resorts also offers the Key Around Club that lets you stay at one resort, and play at all four. When you check in, you automatically become a member of Caesars Pocono Resorts Key Around Club for your stay (800-233-4141. www.CaesarsPoconoResorts.com).

Romantic Retreats

There are literally thousands and thousands of inns and bed-and-breakfasts. How do you decide which provide the right ambience and amenities for your perfect getaway? Fortunately, there are several sources eager to share:

The elegant boutique Hotel Monaco offers a special Romance weekend with a moonlight limousine tour of the capital's monuments (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

American Historic Inns, Inc., publisher of more than 2.5 million bed and breakfast guidebooks and the companion website iLoveInns.com, has announced its picks for the 2006 Top 10 Most Romantic Inns, based on numerous attributes, including a sense of place, luxurious decor, hospitality and overall romantic mystique. Picks for 2006: Inn at Bowman’s Hill, New Hope, PA; Sea Crest By the Sea, Spring Lake, NJ; Santa Ynez Inn, Santa Ynez, CA; Savory Inn & Cooking School, Vail, CO; Adobe Grand Villas, Sedona, AZ; Bissell House Bed & Breakfast, South Pasadena, CA; Brampton Inn, Chestertown, MD; Washington Plantation, Washington, GA; Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast Inn, Belliare, MI; Butler House on Grand, Des Moines, IA.

The 2005 Top 10 Most Romantic Bed and Breakfasts list included: Mansion at Judges Hill, Austin, TX, that was built as a wedding present in 1900; the Inn at Vaucluse Spring, Stephen City, VA, country inn surrounded by one hundred acres of rolling pastureland; Cliff Park Inn, Milford, PA, a hideaway tucked away on 500 wooded acres; Mill House Inn, East Hampton, beach retreat where visitors can enjoy world-class restaurants, shops, spas and breathtaking sunsets; Adair Country Inn, Bethlehem, NH; Wine & Roses, Lodi, CA, a California wine country gem that has attracted the likes of such visitors as Margaret Thatcher and Martha Stewart; Murchison House, Wilmington, NC; Alma del Monte, Taos, NM; The Brumder Mansion, Milwaukee, WI; and Swann House, Washington, DC.

Iloveinns.com is a fabulous site where you can find inns based on attributes, purchase gift certificates, join a travel club, find special packages and discounted rates-and if you really, really fall in love with an inn, this Valentine’s Day, you can find an inn to purchase.

Romantic America.com lists only those Inns that are deemed to qualify as “Truly Romantic”, “The Perfect Choice for Romantic Weekend Getaways” as determined by author Ken Christensen in his travels, or by trusted visitors to these fine Bed and Breakfast Inns. The web site offers personal reviews by the Author and extensive information about experiences that singles or couples can share while traveling (http://www.romanticamerica.com/news/index.html ).

Another site, Best Romantic Inns Bed lists romantic getaways worldwide to Bed and Breakfast Inns, Country Inns, Small Hotels and Resorts. This bed and breakfast directory offers a wide range of accommodation styles, both in the country and in the city. http://www.bestromanticinns.com/

Select Registry represents 400 country inns, B&Bs, and unique small hotels, from California to Nova Scotia. It was founded in the late 1960s by Norman Simpson, known as the “father of Country Inn travel in America” for his pioneering book, “Country Inns and Back Roads.” The site offers a trip planner, suggested itineraries, a way to build your own, as well as the opportunity to purchase gift certificates..http://www.selectregistry.com/

On a Plane, on a Train….

Enter a world of romantic getaways with Orient-Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises.

For many, romance means a quaint bed-n-breakfast inn, such as in the historic district in Cape May, NJ,. Several websites can direct you to those rated as "most romantic" (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Orient-Express, best known for its famous European train, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, offers a one-stop shopping place for anything romantic-whether it is a romantic weekend getaway, a vacation of a lifetime, a special gift or a destination wedding or honeymoon.

You can plan your romantic getaway in North America, Great Britain, Europe, Africa, Australia, South America, Southeast Asia, Caribbean and Mexico, at the click of the mouse. Romantic Breaks, Romantic Getaways, Romantic Journeys, Romantic Beaches. From the top of Table Mountain, the bar car aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to Australia’s Blue Mountains, these are truly some of the world’s ultimate and romantic destinations.

The Orient-Express site, www.romanticgetaways.orient-express.com , will enable you to buy gift certificates, plan a wedding, even help you plan your proposal (check out “Romantic Ways to Propose”).

CruiseMates

For the best low-down on cruises (including cruise reviews by passengers, ship description and cruise itineraries, news about ships and cruising), visit www.cruisemates.com.

Cruisemates’ Editor-in-Chief Anne Campbell has compiled her list of “Most Romantic Ships Afloat”. In the mid-price range, she recommends the 1,950-passenger Millennium (Celebrity Cruises); 1,970-passenger Coral Princess and its sister ship, Island Princess (Princess Cruises); in the mid-price to luxury, her picks are the Star Clipper and Star Flyer (Star Clippers), authentic design clipper ships but, she warns, only recommended for those who have their sea legs; Wind Spirit and Wind Star (Windstar Cruises), 148-passenger motorized sailing ships; and in the luxury category, Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony (Crystal Cruises), full size ships with around 1,000 passengers who like to “dress to the nines”, Seabourn Legend, Pride, and Spirit (Seabourn Cruise Line), 208-passenger luxury ships that are “the next best thing to a yacht” and which also boast the best itineraries (Central America, Asia, Europe, South America).

Pure Luxury

For many, romance is synonymous with indulgence, extravagance and luxury. For all things luxurious, check out Luxury Link.

Founded in 1997, Luxury Link is the world’s premier online luxury travel resource. Showcasing more than 1000 extraordinary hotels and resorts, cruises, tours and villas in more than 60 countries, Luxury Link provides unparalleled access to exclusive offers and insider tips for the sophisticated traveler.

Known as the Key West of the Northeast, Cape May, NJ, is famous for its unobstructed sunsets (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

You can bid for travel packages through an auction system; purchase price-fixed products and “best buy” deals (so it only seems extravagant); customize a program; and purchase gift certificates.

For example, “buy-now” deals for romance include: four-nights in one-bedroom suite, private chef, private boat and captain at Coral Gardens, in the Turks & Caicos; three nights in a chalet, breakfast, gourmet dining, and Energy Clinic access at Takaro Peace Resort in the wilds of New Zealand; three-nights stay, romantic dining and Swedish massage at Domaine de Valmouriane in St. Remy de Provence (888-297-3299, www.luxurylink.com ).

For tours that look extravagant but are price conscious, consider the Valentine’s Escapes from Gate 1 Travel which is offering specially priced value-priced flings for two to Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna or any of 15 romantic international destinations. For example, a six-day getaway to Amsterdam including airfare from New York is priced from $399.

Prices are per person, based on double occupancy, and include roundtrip airfare, accommodations, and daily breakfast. Escorted tours also include a tour manager and sightseeing. Low-cost add-on air fares are available from cities nationwide. Packages can be customized with a wide selection of moderately priced sightseeing excursions. Airport departure taxes, fuel surcharges and security fees are additional and range from $70-300 per person, depending on the destination.

Gate 1 Travel offers other Valentine’s specials to London, Paris, Prague, Budapest, Barcelona, Vienna, Paris, Florence, Athens, Rio and Dublin as well as many other destinations.

If it is too late to take advantage of the Valentine’s departures, this well-respected tour operator offers excellent value and well-run programs year round. As a member of the United States Tour Operators Association, Gate 1 Travel protects consumers’ payments through the USTOA Travelers Assistance Program. For details and reservations visit www.gate1travel.com , call 800-682-3333; or contact your travel agent.

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© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

BELFRY INNE PROVIDES SPECIAL ENTRÉE TO HISTORIC SANDWICH

Reincarnation of a former church is in perfect spirit of Cape Cod’s first settled town/

By Karen Rubin

We had already come to appreciate Sandwich, Cape Cod, Massachusett’s first town, for the richness of its history, literally displaying the span of America from Colonial times through the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Age, the Gilded Age, and even the Depression. This time, though, we came to appreciate Sandwich as a community once again on the rise, but one that is also a living link to those forebears.

What made the difference, this time, is staying in a piece of that history: the Belfry Inne and Bistro. The owner, Christopher Wilson, is in the best tradition of the “Ten Men of Saugus” who founded Sandwich in 1637 and the stream of entrepreneurs who followed, like Thomas Dexter who started the Grist Mill in 1654 and Deming Jarves who revolutionized glass-making with his factory, in 1825.

The inn is on Jarves Street where Wilson is literally resurrecting the landmarks to pivotal times in Sandwich, and in the nation.

After spending 10 years in the world of banking, estates and trusts, Wilson came to Sandwich with a dream of opening a bed-and-breakfast. He found a ramshackle, tumbledown former 1879 rectory and its neighboring 1902 de-consecrated Roman Catholic church. After spending some $790,000, turned them into the Belfry Inne and Bistro-at once a dramatic and yet whimsical place to stay and one of the classiest places to dine on the Cape.

Re-christened The Abbey, it offers six rooms, each named for a day of the week, each exquisitely and dramatically hand-painted and decorated with Victorian period furnishings. The “Friday” room has dramatic stained glass window depicting Gabriel the Archangel, deep rose burgundy and gold-starred walls, and Queen pew bed, Aubusson tapestry coverlet, two-person whirlpool, fireplace, balcony, AC and TV; “Saturday” has magnificent stained glass window of Michael the Archangel, a balcony with southern views, two-person whirlpool, deep purple striped walls, a King pew bed with blue tapestry bedding, TV and AC. “Tuesday” has blue walls with marbleized medallions and a magnificent circular stained glass compass window, Queen pew bed with woven Belgian blue and gold tapestry facing a gas fireplace, Victorian armoire, two-person whirlpool and shower, stained glass windows surrounding the tub, and a southwest-facing balcony, AC and TV.

 

The one-time parsonage, a lovely Victorian with multiple gables, windowed turret and wrought iron decorations, was christened the Drew House, with nine guestrooms, all named for family members, including two family suites (the Kristina Drew room on the third floor has an 1840 ball queen mahogany bed, sitting area, and hand-painted bureau, large skylight, cable TV and air-conditioning; a bath with shower and separate two-person whirlpool). Each of the rooms is individually furnished, with had-painted furniture, antiques, Oriental carpets. Leneel Drew Room

Our room, The Lee Room, was spacious and comfortable with a porch, stained glass window above the bed, a Chinese rug and sitting area, ceiling fan as well as air-conditioning. The John Drew room has a queen four-poster mahogany bed facing a gas fireplace and a bath suite with double Jacuzzi; the Sara Drew on the third floor, has an iron headboard king bed facing a gas fireplace, skylights, a bath with five-foot soaking tub and glass-enclosed shower.

Wilson also acquired the Village Inn, a bed-and-breakfast next door to The Abbey. The charming 1830s Queen Anne-style building offers eight, country-style rooms, with gleaming chandeliers and mirrors, wood floors and country-style furniture. The Village Inn is ideal for families or for groups who want to take over the entire house.

 

Guests of all three inns are served breakfast each morning in the Bistro-a marvelous buffet of eggs, pastries and breads, fresh fruits, cereals.

Also, Tuesday through Saturday evenings, the Belfry Bistro serves sumptuous dinner creations of Brazilian-born Chef Argos Pilo, who offers “fusion” cuisine while showcasing the Cape’s seafood tradition: creamy clam chowder with fresh herbs; lobster bisque topped with cr�me fraiche and chives; lobster and scallops wrapped in phyllo bundle bag with a lobster cream sauce; Breast of Duck saut�ed served with wild mushroom risotto, baked spiced apple and a roasted shallot port reduction; Atlantic Salmon encrusted with pistachios, pan seared served with buttermilk chive mashed potatoes and a pistachio cream sauce; Filet Mignon with jumbo shrimp, saut�ed spinach, mascarpone mashed potatoes served with a red wine sauce; New Zealand Rack of Lamb roasted in a deep brown garlic sauce made with white wine and shallots, creamy garlic mashed potatoes; Swordfish center cut pan seared encrusted with black and white sesame served with sticky purple rice and a blood orange sauce; Bouillabaisse, a m�lange of seafood, including gulf shrimp, mussels, clams, lobster and scallops in a light tomato garlic saffron shellfish broth; and Veal Chop stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese, sun dried tomatoes and spinach served with Dauphinoise potatoes and a Madeira mushroom sauce. Lighter fare menu is available.

The Belfry Bistro specializes in intimate dinners for two or elegant affairs for up to 120 people, and, particularly given the ambiance, has proved immensely popular for destination weddings. Tented lawn and garden parties for 150 can be accommodated, dependent upon season and weather. The Inne hosts elegant weddings and corporate events. Weekends, there is soft piano music.

The acquisition of the Village Inn will make it possible for Wilson to build a heated, 20 x 40 ft. pool, which he hopes to have in by next summer.

Belfry Meetinghouse.

Now Wilson is again working his magic on one of the most storied landmarks in the village: the First Church Meetinghouse..

The scaffolding rises way up high, near to where the elevated belltower of the First Church Meetinghouse begins. A workman is painstakingly repainting the clapboard siding. Inside, new two-by-fours frame the new configuration of what will be rooms..

 

This was the site of the original First Parish Meeting House, built in 1638 and the first public building on Cape Cod, and served as a literal meetinghouse, simultaneously, of the town hall of Cape Cod’s first settlement and the place of worship for three different denominations..

Three different structures have occupied the site-the present one has stood since 1830..

Over the years, the town hall moved out, reflecting separation of church and state, then, gradually, the denominations moved to other quarters. Since 1965, the majestic, yet graceful structure was a doll house museum, Yesteryears, and finally, even that function ended. When we last visited Sandwich, it was cracked and peeling, boarded up and decaying. Wilson bought it at auction and saw it through its reincarnation as The Belfry Meetinghouse..

The Belfry Meetinghouse is geared for longer stays-such as weekly business retreats or monthly family vacations. Measuring more than 7,000 square feet, comprises five one-bedroom suites, dining area, and kitchen and meeting space..

Guests enter through a marble entryway and climb 15 stairs to enter the grandiose main space, where the eye is pulled upward to the newly painted tin ceiling with its handsome center chandelier. The original altar is enlarged and raised two feet above the main floor. A semicircular sitting area with wood-burning fireplace invites repose, reflection and contemplation. Light diffuses throughout the magnificent polychrome stained glass fenestration.

The main floor features a library with Internet access, fax capability and additional home office fittings, entertainment and dining areas. A ‘personal chef’ is available to serve occupants and their guests from the open kitchen dining area…

 

The former choir loft has been reincarnated as a gallery sitting area. Horse hair plaster was removed from interior walls, revealing the original etched glass windows beneath, letting sunlight stream in. A winding, three-story staircase gives access to the bell tower which has a new exterior viewing aerie..

Guestrooms are named for historically significant dolls (hearkening to its former use as a doll museum) and feature whirlpool tubs, TV/DVD, HVAC, CD players and sitting areas with refrigerator and bar. Beds are dressed in only the finest textiles. The master suite-950 square feet in all-is accoutered with a king size bed, dressing area and palatial bath and offers a panorama of the first floor from its veranda doors. Four additional bedrooms and a movie or presentation area are located on the main floor..

In restoring The Meetinghouse, Wilson is painstakingly preserving one of the most sentimental symbols of Sandwich: the black-faced clock..

In 1765, Reverend Abraham Williams became pastor, bringing with him a 19-year old black slave named Titus Winchester. Reverend Williams died in 1784, freeing Winchester in his Last Will & Testament in recognition of Winchester’s many years of faithful service as church caretaker..

Winchester went to sea as a steward and, when he died in 1808, left his entire estate- approximately $3,300-for the purpose of purchasing a clock for the Meeting House “so that it would ring for many years to come in memory of his former master.” The clock became to be known as “Old Titus” to the people of Sandwich..

Winchester was so respected by the Sandwich townspeople, that he was interred in the historic cemetery in a tomb very near Rev. Williams that has the longest inscription of any of the gravestones (it refers to him as a “servant” rather than a slave). (The Old Town Cemetery, which dates from the 1660s is fascinating to visit; the tombstone art and inscriptions speak volumes about the people and the times in which they lived.)

During the Portland Gale, a severe winter storm in 1878, the church steeple was toppled and the Winchester clock and tower were destroyed. A new steeple was built in 1881 with funds donated by Jonathan Bourne, a whaling tycoon who was born in Sandwich. The original clock was replaced with the present four-faced clock ‘for the entire town to see’ and a bell, cast in 1854, was also placed in the steeple. Now Wilson is restoring the clock and the bell

The story of the First Church Meetinghouse is consistent with the character of the Sandwich, which has gone through many transformations since the Ten Men of Saugus settled here in 1637. For, at a time of Puritan repression, Sandwich was an ecumenical place, welcoming Quakers (since 1658) when they were shunned from other communities, and where Indians were allowed to worship

The Town of Sandwich does not present itself all at once, but rather, reveals itself in fragments-quietly, it speaks volumes, and is most deserving of a lingering, studied look..

There is so much to do: the Town Beach, Heritage Plantation, the Dexter Grist Mill, Hoxie House, Thornton W. Burgess Museum, Sandwich Glass Museum, Green Briar Nature Center and Jam Kitchen, Aptucxet Trading Post, and Cape Cod Canal, even before venturing further about on Cape Cod, such as to Wood’s Hole. For further information about Sandwich, 508-833-1632, http://www.sandwichma.org/.

The Belfry Inne & Bistro lets you, for a time, become part of this community, staying in a place that was very much part of its history. Just walking or biking about, you come upon the most intriguing aspects (just walking up School Street you see wonderful architecture). Wilson is encouraging longer stays, with packages that give a 10 percent discount on stays of three nights; and a fifth night free when you stay four nights. Concierge services are available to arrange golf at Golf at Sandwich Hollows (guests get preferred tee-times), whale-watching excursions from Hyannis, admissions to Heritage Plantation..

The Belfry Inne & Bistro is open year-round; September and October are actually ideal times of the year to visit; rates are lowest from November-April. There are seasonal celebrations at Thanksgiving, Christmas (though the dining room is closed on Christmas Day), Easter and such. Contact the Belfry Inne & Bistro, 6-8 Jarves Street, Sandwich, MA 02563, 508-888-8550 (main number), reservations 800-844-4542,www.belfryinn.com , e-mail: info@belfryinn.com Check the website for special deals..

Photo captions

Belfryinne-dining 
The Bistro of The Belfry Inne (© 2006 Karen Rubin)

Sandwich-steeple
The historic clock and bell on top of the historic Meetinghouse, enduring symbols for the people of Sandwich, is atop The Belfry Meetinghouse, a lodging and meeting place (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

Belfryinne-abbey
The Belfry Inne, a former Roman Catholic church and rectory, offers a distinctive atmosphere and great dining (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

Sandwich-gristmill2
The Dexter Grist Mill, originally built in 1654, is just one of the historic attractions all within the walking village of Sandwich, Cape Cod’s first settled town (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

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© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

HOTEL MONACO IS PERFECT FOR WEEKEND GETAWAY TO DC

Grand, historic, stylish ambiance is ideal for weekend of intrigue & discovery.

By Karen Rubin

The Hotel Monaco proved ideal in every way for our weekend of intrigue and discovery in Washington D.C. Our central purpose for this visit was to investigate the new International Spy Museum and this stellar attraction is just steps away from the Hotel Monaco’s front door. But what was entirely unexpected was how perfectly the atmosphere of the Hotel Monaco (which opened at about the same time as the museum) blended with our purpose, and how perfectly its location, putting us within walking distance of everything on our agenda, facilitated our trip.

On top of that, the gracious service, pampering amenities, and distinctive elements (like goldfish which became our pets for the weekend), made our stay at the Hotel Monaco so much more than mere accommodations. Our stay at the Hotel Monaco, which earned the prestigious AAA Four Diamond Award this year, was truly an experience in its own right.

 

The Hotel Monaco occupies an impressive National Historic Landmark structure, the former General Post Office. Dating from 1842, it was the first marble building in Washington DC. What was remarkable was how the parent company, Kimpton Boutique Hotels, has turned cold marble (albeit breathtakingly beautiful) and cavernous corridors and ceilings into this warm, colorful, retro ambiance, evocative of 1930s Art Deco (but on closer inspection, the colors, patterns and furniture style are modern). The hotel’s logo helps contribute to the 1930s feel, and the gracious service makes you feel you absolutely have been transported back to some other place and time. I fully expected to see Agatha Christie’s 1930s detective Hercule Poirot bob around a corner.

This is not just any landmark building. Constructed from 1839 and 1842, it was designed in part by the 19th century architect Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument. It was considered one of the most stylistically advanced structures in Washington DC. Regarded as avant-garde for the time, Mills patterned the building after the first marble building in Rome, the Temple of Jupiter. The architects who created this building also designed the U.S. Treasury Department, and U.S. Patent Office (recalling that much of Washington D.C. had been burned by the British in 1812). The style was to fill entire blocks with colonnaded government office buildings, like stone temples. More than a decade later, Thomas Walter, one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol, created the design for an extension on the north side of the building, which was completed in 1869.

It was in this structure that the U.S. Postal Department began a number of innovative programs such as home mail, delivery across the country, registered mail, the Pony Express, and money orders. Over the years, other government services that occupied the building included the Tariff Commission, a variety of federal departments, agencies, bureaus and services.

The Hotel Monaco has many distinctive features that contribute to a most unusual and delightful stay. To begin with, it has a Guppy Love program: you can actually request a companion goldfish be delivered to your room for the duration of your stay… at no charge. We had two: Nebert came swimming around a model of the Capitol Building; the other fish, lapped the White House in his bowl. Put into the context of how frenetic and stressful the nation’s capital is for the legions of lobbyists, lawmakers, perhaps a spy or two who I suspect are among the Hotel’s clientele, you cannot imagine how restful and homey having these goldfish around were.

Indeed, considering how sophisticated and refined the Hotel Monaco is, it is remarkably pet-friendly (not to mention child-friendly), which also helps to make the hotel inviting and warm. Pet-friendly reaches new heights here: your pet receives a registration card upon arrival; once checked in, the hotel delivers food and water bowls, a bottle of Evian water, an information card with local veterinarians and pet sitting services, a map of great dog walks in the neighborhood and a special treat. The front desk even keeps a stock of complimentary disposable dog walking bags and room service menu offers food for pets.

People guests are also pampered. I love that the hotel serves complimentary coffee from 6:30-8:30 a.m., complimentary wine is served in a gracious lobby lounge from 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Other amenities that make for an exceptionally pleasant stay include the in-room coffee maker with Starbucks coffee; a newspaper is delivered to the room daily; there is maid service twice daily; linens, pillows and comforter are incredibly luxurious; there are plush terrycloth robes and Aveda bath products; a minibar and in-room safe; 24-hour room service; overnight shoeshine and laundry service available. A concierge is on staff to assist in making visitor arrangements.

Guests can also take advantage of a high-tech fitness center with individual plasma screens on the equipment, in a decent-sized room. For those who want an indoor pool, one is available at the nearby YMCA.

Here’s another unusual feature: among its 184 guest rooms and 16 suites are 20 “Monte Carlo Tall Rooms,” customized to best accommodate taller travelers. These spacious guestrooms include an extra-long (90 inches) king-sized bed, high ceilings and a raised showerhead (other amenities include complimentary high-speed Internet access, in-room refrigerators stocked with gourmet treats and bars that include a martini kit, CD stereo, and television with Nintendo and on-demand movies).

We stayed in one of the six Robert Mills Suites that honor the original architect of the Washington Monument, the US Department of Treasury Building, and the Hotel Monaco’s own historic Tarrif building. With corner locations, these graciously appointed suites feature vaulted 20-foot ceilings with stunningly ornate moldings and over 600 square feet of space. Suites include a private bedroom with king-sized bed, spa tub, and separate shower. The living area accommodates up to seven guests, a couch that converts to a queen-sized bed, a second television, and a DVD/CD player with surround sound.

Beautifully appointed Majestic Suites, located on the fourth floor, can be converted into one- or two-bedroom suites. Majestic Suites each feature a dining table for six guests and sitting area for six. Other features include a full bathroom, couch that converts to a queen-sized bed, CD stereo, Nintendo and on-demand movies, and complimentary high-speed Internet access. With the connecting bedrooms – which offer king-sized beds in each and a spa tub in at least one (bath salts provided) – these spacious Majestic Suites accommodate up to 20 guests for a reception.

The guestrooms feature the original vaulted ceilings at extreme heights of 12 feet and more. What could be an institutional look has been softened and warmed with an eclectic mix of neoclassic and modern furnishings. In a playful nod to the nation’s capital, a bust of Thomas Jefferson can be found overlooking each guestroom (he is the patriarch of American architecture and was a good friend of Robert Mills).

The décor is an absolute triumph. Beverly Hills designer Cheryl Rowley has created an exceptional interior design that complements the building’s original architectural flourishes while infusing it with modern comfort, and a somewhat whimsical, yet high style that can only be called “beguiling.” The décor succeeds in its aim to evoke the romance of travel and worldly sophistication in a plush, yet comforting environment-like the visually stunning, beautifully furnished grand living rooms with fireplace and multiple conversation areas. Registration desks are playfully modeled after a classic steamer trunk. Classic lines and designs mingle with a whimsical, urbane style. The colors are vibrant and rich–like giant red lanterns that hang like chandeliers. Furnishings are soft and velvety, plump, tucked and tasseled (even the room numbers have tassels hanging). Original art incorporates themes of travel, time, music and literature. Everywhere you look, there is something to catch, and play, with your eye.

The hotel offers a bustling, 174-seat restaurant and bar, aptly named Poste-Moderne Brasserie, located adjacent to the hotel in the historic courtyard (you reach it through a historic carriageway portal on 8th street). It features a striking exhibition kitchen, and in warm weather, outdoor seating in the courtyard.

The hotel’s Paris Ballroom was originally a library created by the Post Office General. Among other distinguished rooms, the Athens Room’s expansive windows provide vistas of the courtyard and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, directly across the street (though presently closed for renovations).

Ideally Located

Indeed, the Hotel Monaco proved superbly located. What I loved, particularly, was that the hotel was walking distance to everything we wanted to visit on this whirlwind weekend.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we were still able to visit the National Archives, a mere few blocks walk (past the Navy Memorial). It is a short walk to the Mall and the Smithsonian Museums: including the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, National Air and Space Museum, the ice skating rink and carousel, Washington Monument, the FBI Building (now closed for renovation, it used to offer a marvelous exhibit and tour) even the White House and Capitol Hill was within walking distance (enroute, you will be able to visit the Newsmuseum, under construction).

Walk in another direction and you are cattycorner from the MCI Center (like Madison Square Garden); a couple of blocks from Chinatown, and a short walk to the Convention Center (where we happened upon a health and fitness expo), and a score of pleasant restaurants (we loved the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant just across the street from the International Spy Museum).

Hotel Monaco is six metro stops from Ronald Reagan National Airport, just seven walking blocks from Union Station.

And of course, the Hotel Monaco is just steps away from the International Spy Museum, which figures into its International Spy Museum package, which includes deluxe accommodations for two, two adult tickets to the museum, and a spy amenity (from $189). A Family Affair Package includes deluxe accommodations for two; pay-for-view movie; $10 mini bar credit (from $169); a Monuments By Moonlight Package (capitalizing on the romantic allure), provides deluxe accommodations for two, private evening tour of Washington DC monuments, complimentary bottle of champagne, his and hers cashmere scarves (from $419). Special Delivery Package features accommodations, room service continental breakfast for two, complimentary parking (from $179). All guests also receive complimentary morning coffee service and complimentary evening wine hour.

Hotel Monaco is a member of Kimpton Boutique Hotels, almost all of which are housed in historic structures. In Washington DC, these include the Hotel George, Hotel Helix, Hotel Madera, Hotel Route and Topaz Hotel, and boutique hotels in Aspen, Boston, Cambridge, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, Silicon Valley and Vancouver B.C. Other four-star Hotel Monacos that are part of the Kimpton Group are located in New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake City Kimpton offers a Loyalty Rate-that is, substantial discounts-when you have visited one of the hotels. For information on how to join, visit www.kimptongroup.com, or call 800-KIMPTON.

For more information, contact the Hotel Monaco, 700 F Street, NW, Washington DC 20004, 877-202-5411, 202-628-7177; www.monaco-dc.com.
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© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

MORRISON-CLARK INN: CHARM, ELEGANCE OF VICTORIAN MANSION IN NATION’S CAPITAL

By Karen Rubin

A wonderful way to enhance the experience of being immersed in history in the nation’s capital is to stay in a historic property of incomparable charm.

The Morrison-Clark Inn is very different from Washington D.C.’s many hotels, even those with historic roots. In the first place, the inn, a member of Historic Hotels of America, is more like staying in an elegant Victorian mansion home, than a hotel.

It is warm and welcoming (especially during the holidays), after dashing about the city and visiting such majestic buildings and heralded halls of power and heritage. For families introducing their children to such imposing and important places, the inn offers an opportunity to return to a cozy environment and scale down the pace. The inn may be historic, but rather than being austere, and forbidding, it is a portal to the past.

The Morrison-Clark Inn, a Historic Hotels of America member, is like staying in a mansion home. Step across the portal into its story (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Like so many of the Historic Hotels of America, a membership of some 200 hotels that have faithfully maintained their historic integrity, architecture and ambiance, the Morrison-Clark Inn has a wonderful story that you simply step into once you enter its door.

In 1864, businessmen David Morrison, a developer who made his fortune selling flour and feed to the U. S. Government during the Civil War, and Reuben Clark, who became wealthy through land investments, owning a grocery store, and serving as Washington, DC’s jail commissioner, each owned a new, elegant townhouse in a posh neighborhood.

A later owner of Clark’s house added a Chinese Chippendale porch and a Shanghai roof after visiting the Orient.

In 1923, the Morrison home was acquired by The Women’s Army and Navy League and converted it into an inexpensive place for America’s enlisted men to stay while in Washington, D.C. First Ladies traditionally presided over the military club, hosting teas and fund-raisers to maintain its operations.

First Lady Grace Coolidge headed the receiving line when the facility first opened in 1923, and Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy were also active in the organization.

In 1943, at the peak of World War II, the efforts of these women provided beds for more than 45,000 visitors and served nearly 85,000 meals. It became known as the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, and Airmen’s Club after 1954.

During its 57-year history, the facility grew to include the Clark home, underwent name changes to accommodate airmen, and in 1972, expanded its mission to serve female members of the armed forces.

When it was converted to the Morrison-Clark Hotel, the 19th century mansion was lovingly restored in 1987 by William Adair, who supervised renovations of the White House under Mrs. Kennedy. He preserved the distinctive historic exterior with its exquisite red-tiled Shanghai roof and the Chinese Chippendale porch, and many of the interior details of the building, including lofty, medallioned ceilings, four pier mirrors, and Italian Carrara marble fireplaces.

Oh to be in Washington for Cherry Blossom time! How delightful to stroll around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Monument (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Staying here is to experience a peace and graciousness in counterpoint to a city where power veritably pulsates. It is no wonder that corporate titans and VIPs choose to stay here rather than the big convention hotels that cater to the Convention Center just a couple of blocks away.

The Inn offers all the modern amenities and services – from wireless Internet access and a full range of business services in a 24-hour business center, to in-room spa services by Relax & Rejuvenate including massage therapy, event planning and catering, a sophisticated restaurant; complimentary access to Vida One Spa & Fitness Center, located in the Verizon Center building within walking distance from the hotel, complimentary coffee. It also offers parking (valet at $26/day or self-park at $23/day) and sedan service. The Morrison-Clark also can arrange for child care services.

We loved that it was walking distance from just about everywhere we wanted to visit – the White House, the Smithsonian museums on the Mall, including the National Museum of the American Indian (see Discovery, October 12). It is also walking distance to the International Spy Museum, the National Portrait Gallery (only recently reopened) and National Archives. The Metro station and Convention center are only a few blocks away.

The National Mall, with the Capitol Building in the backdrop, is walking distance from the Morrison-Clark Inn (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

The Morrison-Clark Inn features 54 guestrooms, which are individually decorated in neo-classical or French country styles. The rooms are equipped with balconies or bay windows and feature Victorian antique and reproduction furniture, premium bedding, one-line speaker phone with voicemail and data port, mini-bar, hair dryer, and a complimentary copy of the Washington Post. Deluxe Rooms have either one queen size bed or two twin beds.

Standard Rooms are decorated with traditional armoires and desks as well as custom-designed, hand-crafted pieces; complemented with muted taupe furnishings; Victorian Rooms are exquisitely appointed with turn-of-the-century antiques, chandeliers, and richly hued draperies, these rooms also feature decorative fireplaces and balconies; Parlor Suites are two-room suites featuring traditional French-country warmth, including pine armories, wicker furnishings, handsome quilts, and a pullout sofa in the living room.

Our room, one of the Victorians, had high ceilings, a refrigerator, and though it overlooked New York Avenue, was quiet.

The 75-seat restaurant is renowned and has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, Gourmet, and the Zagat guide. Chef Janis McLean delivers tantalizing, Southern-influenced cuisine (Chesapeake Oyster Stew with melted leeks and Virginia country ham; Crab Cakes with a local recipe were on a recent dinner menu) — in an elegant atmosphere featuring ten-foot gilded mirrors, Italian Carrera marble fireplaces, and a tranquil veranda and courtyard. Its a wine list has been recognized with The Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” for five years running.

On Sundays, brunch is served in the outdoor courtyard, featuring selections such as Chesapeake Eggs Benedict and Whole Wheat Waffles served with Fresh Berries, Strawberry Syrup, two eggs and Applewood Smoked Bacon ($35 with champagne, $30 without).

The Morrison-Clark Inn is due to be expanded – it is acquiring a historic church located next door, which will be converted to rooms and event space.

Packages available include a Weekend Getaway, featuring early check in and late check-out, complimentary full American breakfast ($159); and a Centuries Package, featuring accommodations in a Victorian room, complimentary welcome drink in the drawing room, complimentary dinner in the Morrison Clark Restaurant, available Monday through Thursday ($229). The Holiday Homecoming package, available through much of winter, includes breakfast with accommodations. Check the website for more packages and special.

The company that owns the Morrison-Clark also owns the Henley Park, an English Tudor-style building built as an apartment house in the 1900s, which was restored and now operates as a European-style hotel; the Hotel Lombardy (21st & Pine), and the Washington Plaza, a modern hotel with 350 rooms and a pool (guests at the Morrison-Clark can use it).

Morrison-Clark Historic Hotel and Restaurant, 1015 L St NW, Washington D.C. 20001, 202-898-1200, 800-332-7898, www.morrisonclark.com.

Historic Hotels of America is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Historic Hotels has identified more than 200 hotels that have faithfully maintained their historic integrity, architecture and ambiance. To be selected for this prestigious program, a hotel must be at least 50 years old, listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or recognized as having historic significance. A directory of member hotels can be purchased for $4 by sending a check to National Trust Historic Hotels of America, P.O. Box 320, Washington, D.C. 20055-0320. Rooms at any of the member hotels can be reserved by calling 800-678-8946 or at www.historichotels.org.

Thursday, 3 January, 2008

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© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com

SANDPEARL RESORT, CLEARWATER BEACH, PROVES BEING GREEN CAN FEEL G-O-O-O-D

Clearwater Beach’s first new hotel to open in 25 years aims for LEED certification

By Karen Rubin

The Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach on Florida’s Gulf coast is proof that a resort that is ultra luxurious, elegantly designed, can still be green, and that green feels very, very gooood.

The lush setting - and eco-friendly - pool and beach at The Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

You realize you have never felt what it is like to swim in a pool without chlorine, the water purified instead through an ozone process. The water feels lighter, softer, you don’t get that stinging chemical in your eyes, or get that sour metallic taste.

Or what it is like to sleep on sheets that don’t have that musky smell of chemical additives like softener and bleach because they are washed with another ozone process that cleans with cold water.

Sandpearl Resort – Clearwater Beach’s first new beachfront hotel to open in 25 years when it opened its doors in August 2007 – is also the first in the Southeast to be built to LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standards. It has just been admitted to the Florida Green Hotel Association.

And the greater beauty is that guests experience how you can be green without giving up “quality lifestyle” – a message that they can take back to their homes and hometowns.

Elegant but comfortable, the interior decoration at The Sandpearl manifests nature imagery and themes (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Education is a big part of the mission of LEED-certification, and we take advantage of the regularly scheduled LEED “back of the house” tour with Brian Grant, director of engineering (free, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m.)

What goes through my mind is how accessible such “sustainable” systems are – things that can be installed in homes (certainly new-builts), in businesses and in government buildings – and I imagine how people will leave this tour and become an engine for change.

But for most, the first impression is how awesomely beautiful, how gracious the service, how comfortable it is to be at the Sandpearl.

The interior design is exquisite – sophisticated, classy, with colors, textures and patterns that remind me of the naturalistic influence of Japan and Egypt – yet comfortably casual, capturing the feeling of a beach locale.

Ah, the beach. Sandpearl has a 700-foot expanse of the soft-powder white sand Gulf Coast beach, and a lagoon-style beachfront pool, lushly landscaped, with private cabanas, which you see immediately through the wall of windows in the lobby.

Sandpearl Resort's naturalist Marianne Klingel leads a morning beach walk (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

There is an open, airy, and light feeling throughout the hotel, and in the 201 standard guest rooms – most with balconies.

We are in one of the 52 one and two-bedroom suites, located on the top two floors of the resort. Our one-bedroom works out great for our family – spacious, with kitchen and laundry facilities, and a fold-out sofa bed in the living room.

There is 11,000-square feet of spa, fitness center and beach club space, and here, there is a novel approach: the Spa at Sandpearl has no boundaries. Instead, the “spa” program is integrated into day-to-day resort life – influencing the restaurant menu, guest-room amenities, and programming. You can get an ocean-side massage, a facial that incorporates extracts of powdered pearls, and a massage that utilizes crushed pearl paste and a variety of water therapies and touch therapies, spa programs like sunrise and sunset rituals (yoga, meditation, tai chi, $15/session), Expression through Dance (a movement ‘art’ class for fun and fitness), Moonlight and Nature Walks, and a variety of fitness programs, including an early morning beach walk.

The dining choices at Sandpearl are wonderful. Caretta on the Gulf, its signature restaurant, offers seasonally inspired cuisine reflecting South American, Caribbean and other international influences. Perched two levels above the beach, with indoor and outdoor seating, it offers views of brilliant sunsets, and also serves as a casual place to enjoy breakfast and lunch.

The Ceviche and Raw Bar offers a daily selection of fresh local seafood, and a wood-burning oven for rustic dining selections. A wine room provides an intimate space for special events and tastings and offers an extensive collection of wines from around the world.

Holding a moon snail collar in her hand: Sandpearl's naturalist Marianne Klingel leads a morning beach walk (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The Marketplace is a pastry and coffee bar that offers a casual menu.

The poolside Tate Island Grill provides a laid-back setting for casual cuisine. At dusk, the pool deck transforms into a beachside lounge, with tropical music, and at night, you can linger around a beachside fire pit.

Dominating the lobby – and the second thing you see after gazing to the pool and beach – are two large murals by local artist Christopher M. Still, commissioned by Sandpearl. “Return to Picnic Island” and “Beneath the Waves” evoke the nostalgia of two families that return year after year to Picnic Island (as Clearwater Beach was called by early visitors), a feeling that is infused throughout the Sandpearl. All the symbols of the murals are authentic – gleaned from research into the Scharrer family and the shells, marine and bird life to be found on the beach – and are even life-sized (for the underwater scenes, the artist took waterproof paper and sat under water). There is a theme of return, and continuity from past to future generations. The Sandpearl is very much a place that you would enjoy coming back to, year after year, and is forging the traditions that accompanied resorts of bygone times.

The Sandpearl is successfully continuing traditions and starting new ones. For example, it has nightly sunset celebration, with a chosen guest ringing the dinner bell saved from the former Clearwater Beach Resort (which occupied the site before the Sandpearl). The first guest to ring the bell was the actual boy depicted in the painting. There are also campfire storytelling and sing-alongs and treasure hunts. Each day, there is a schedule of programs and recreational activities.

Enjoy the festive beach environment at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Indeed, rich programming reinforces the sense that Sandpearl is a true resort.

Some of the special eco-tours that families will enjoy include a Behind-the-Scenes Tour at Clearwater Marine Aquarium ($75 for a family of four); a combination Clearwater Marine Aquarium Tour and Kayak trip ($65/adult, $150 for a family of four); a visit to the Suncoast Sunbird Sanctuary ($10, with half donated to help the birds); and a trip to Honeymoon Island Birding Trail, Beach Shell-n-Swim ($50/adults, $125 for family of 4). Other enrichment programs that are offered include “Marine Discovery,” a private boat tour of Mandalay Channel to observe wildlife; Astronomy Night enables guests to use a telescope with an expert astronomer; and Moonlight Nature Walk in the company of a naturalist gives you insight into nesting sea turtles.

The Sandpearl also offers a supervised children’s activity program, Camp Ridley, for children 5 to 10. Each day has a different theme, like “Nature Day,” and “Around the World Day.”

The Sandpearl Resort is a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts (www.preferredhotels.com).

Tasty tropical drinks and succulent seafood with a water view are joys of dining at Jimmy's (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

For more information, rates and packages, contact The Sandpearl Resort & Spa, 500 Mandalay Avenue, Clearwater Beach, FL 33767, 727-661-2425, 877-726-3111.www.sandpearl.com.

Wining & Dining

Island Way Grill presents a stunning, contemporary and sophisticated ambiance – clean lines, lush plantings, gorgeous glass objects, the raging wood fire. The menu is Asian fusion, with an influence of Caribbean and Floridian food. So you have Thai high Mussels and Lollipop Conch fritters, Vietnamese King Crab rolls, and scallops seared in a wok with galangal, black vinegar and sweet citrus sauce; entrees like Macademia Nut crusted Mahi Mahi, wok-fried whole yellowtail snapper, Szechwan Pepper crusted tuna. The steaks, though, are amazing – prime beef, aged in a temperature-controlled aging room, grilled over an open pit fire. A 20-ounce Korean BBQ T-bone marinated in a concoction which includes (and this is the secret ingredient) Cola Cola and kiwi provides a memorable feast ($22.95). A 32-ounce porterhouse, at $30.95, is an absolute bargain.

The desserts are to die for (those who can’t decide can take the chef’s dessert sampler of crème brulee, molten lava chocolate cake and key lime pie, $7.95). But for me, the marvel was a red raspberry sorbet that tasted as if the sweetest, purest fruit had been infused with ice (20 Island Way, 727-461-6617, www.islandwaygrill.com).

Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber Restaurant has been a Clearwater Beach landmark and family owned since 1948. The atmosphere is casual and the menu is a combination of new and traditional dishes, with the emphasis on “homemade.” We go with the Fresh Florida Black Grouper, which is cooked to perfection. Another traditional favorite is Back-To-the-Farm Chicken, prepared from a “secret” family recipe.

Tasty tropical drinks and succulent seafood with a water view are joys of dining at Jimmy's (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The real surprise here is the Beachcomber’s award-winning wine list – 600 different selections from a 20,000-bottle inventory! We learn that Bob Heilman has his own vineyard, FoxyRock, in Oregon. We sample Bob & Sheri’s 2005 Estate Pino Noir. (His other establishment, Bobbie’s Bistro, on the marina, is even more wine-oriented and does tastings). (447 Mandalay Avenue, 727.442.4144,www.heilmansbeachcomber.com).

Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, a beachside restaurant and bar overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, has the perfect atmosphere for families (and is around the corner from the Sandpearl Resort). It is colorful and fun, and serves many styles of seafood, steaks, burgers, with a few Mexican, Jamaican and Floribbean items for good measure. Popular items include Cajun Grouper Sandwich (grilled with Cajun spices), Rockaway deviled crab cakes, Oysters Rockaway, she-crab soup, and coconut shrimp. The music starts up at 7:30 p.m., adding to the beach-party feeling. Frenchy’s actually has four locations (7 Rockaway Street, 727-446-4844,www.frenchysonline.com).

We had seen the distinctive yellow umbrellas of Jimmy’s Fish House and Iguana Bar from Little Toot on our Dolphin Encounter, and now, we are dining al fresca with a prime view of the Bay, Little Toot and other boats and the occasional dolphin. One of the few places where you can dine on the water, this is another festive, “happening” place, and one of the best places for families to enjoy sunset dining. There is live entertainment nightly from 7 p.m., and weekends from 2-6 p.m., as well. It offers steaks, pasta, sandwiches, and seafood and is known for the crispy fried shrimp, served in a Thai peanut sauce over a crispy noodles ($9.95) and clam chowder – as thick as stew with clams, potatoes, vegetables, dill flavor (Jimmy’s Fish House and Iguana Bar, 521 S. Gulfview Blvd, 727-446-9720).

Clearwater Beach is just only 30 minutes due west from Tampa International Airport.

The best time to visit Clearwater Beach is October through December (except for the holidays) when there is that optimum combination of low rates and low humidity, but there are also great rates and wonderful weather February through May.

For further information about attractions, packages and events contact the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, 1130 Cleveland Street, Clearwater, FL 33755, 888-425-3279 or 727-461-0011,www.visitclearwaterflorida.com, or email info@clearwaterflorida.org.

See: Clearwater Beach and Soooo Much More

Monday, 11 August, 2008

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© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.