Day 2: Belize: The Magic Continues

 

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Spaghetti Western on the widescreen in the ceiling of a palapa.

Dawn in Belize is like 4:30am. There is no daylight savings time making it two hours later than Eastern Time US during Daylight Savings. The day begins and ends early with a normal bedtime between 9 and 10 except for young adults. By 6am I am on the computer booking a day trip to Lamanai, a destination suggested by the night-before- Canadians. I book with Lamani EcoAdventures and am assured that I can take the bus that will stop for me on the highway and be dropped off right in front of LEA’s launch spot. This is a river tour to the “ruins” and eats up a good part of the day. 

The Canadians give me a ride to the main road in their filthy four wheel drive rental, barely a word spoken the few miles to the main road. A bus appears just as I alight from the car and I wave frantically as it speeds by. I think of the misery of baking on the shadeless highway for another bus as I cross the highway to the stop. The Canadians pull onto the highway then yell something inaudible out of the car window. They pull over and one jumps out to yell very loudly, “THE BUS STOPPED!” I turn and sure enough about 20 yards ahead the bus has pulled over for me.  I wave farewell to my quiet northern friends and turn south to run to the bus.

Traveling like the locals is fun! It is a slice of normal life in a foreign country that is priceless. The faces and conversations of regular folks getting on with their day. Real life. Plus it is cheap, 3 to 7 Belize dollars. A cab would cost 10 to 20 times that. Car rentals are fairly expensive as well and gas, I am told is outrageous. Not to mention the danger as Monroe Fisher pointed out the night before I left the States.

Busses in Belize are former school busses with no AC and are often packed to the gills with locals. It can get quite close in the tropical heat but makes up for any discomfort with close observation of he faces of the people riding. Belize is a salsa of ethnicities and the people of this part are mostly Creole, a mix of Brits and Africans.  They have gorgeous skin that ranges in color from caramel to a rich blue brown with dark brown almond shaped eyes and luscious black hair.

I get to my stop and go into the outfitters. It is OK but the guys are unorganized and I feel a sense of envy as I look down river to the outfitter next door, Lamanai EcoTours, with its charming palapas, neat pier and better kept boats. I am told I must wait for the next group so after a bit of debate I walk out and down the street to LET. The facilities are nicer and as I walk back to a large covered waiting area there area some guys relaxing and watching a spaghetti western on a flat screen mounted in the top right corner of the palm frond cover. “Fist Full of Dollars?” I say. They look up, beaming with delight at my film knowledge. I am in the right place.  I cancel with the first outfitter and take a tour with LET’s guide Colin and four cruise ship guests.

 

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Above:Waiting area at Lamanai EcoAdventures

Below: Waiting area at Lamanai EcoTours

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Colin is an outstanding guide.  He is knowledgable, funny and mixes a mean rum punch for the boat ride to Lamanai. Well timed information on local flora and fauna sprinkled with historical information between playful boat maneuvers make the ride to Lamanai most enjoyable. A luncheon of spiced chicken over beans and rice with slaw, water melon, corn chips and an onion jalapeño salsa is served under a palapa covered pavilion on real places with stainless steel cutlery. The food is excellent, homemade by the company manager’s wife. Colin guides us through the ruins which are amazing. He makes sure we are positioned to get good photos avoiding the hordes of cruise ship tourists and points out special plants and animals (including a family of howler monkeys!). This is an art I appreciate as I also give tours at a historical landmark in Charlottesville. I cut my kneed climbing up the side of a temple and think about other blood that was spilled at this very same site in the form of human sacrifice.

 

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Outstanding Guide, Colin, explains the purpose of this temple at Lamanai

We are deposited back at the tour company base at 2:45p. The tour group do not wish to share their ride up the highway with me so it the the bus again for me with no designated way back to the village from the highway.  It is hot as the sun beats down on the flat breezeless land. Mic has suggested I hitch a ride to the village which he assures me is totally safe. “The only people coming on that road live here,” he says. Monroe’s “Trust no one” warning pops into my head but as I become draggy from being miserably hot and sweaty on the shadeless road I gleefully accept a ride to the WS visitor center to return Derick’s field glasses. 

The barely chilled Air conditioned interior of the Samaritan’s SUV proves somewhat refreshing. My driver, his shotgun mate and I arrive at the visitor center 5 minutes later without incident.

Derick is not there so I leave the field glasses with Wilhelm, the “ranger” on duty who gives me walking directions to the Crooked Tree Lodge. “Turn at the Cemetery then turn again at the barbershop, landmarks I assume will be apparent to me. As I am being directed, two Britt’s are standing nearby. The man, who later identifies himself as Chris listens closely and starts up a conversation. “What are you doing in Belize?”, he poses. I explain about the SI field station and how I am having trouble securing a boat there. He says that he might be able to help as he lives near Dangriga and would I like to come to a gathering of friends on his organic farm at mile marker 21 on Saturday and then for a hike to an amazing waterfall on Sunday.  I am encouraged by having a new friend who might be able to assist me in my quest to get to Carrie Bow Cay. Chris scratches out his contact information on a piece of paper and I depart on my walk through the village to the lodge.

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Horses eat discarded cashew fruit in the village of Crooked Tree

The streets are a combination of white gravel and fine white dust that poofs a little with each step. The air is thick with the pungent odor of fallen cashew apples and sweet smelling tropical flowers. As we pass, villagers ask, “You OK?” or “Good evening”,which is the Creole way of saying hello regardless of the time of day. I make it to the lodge and get online to see if Derick or Scott from the Field Station have emailed.

Hi Mary,

I wanted to follow up with you to make sure that you received the necessary information from Ryan? Also, when do you plan to be in Belize and when are you planning to take a tour of CBC?


Thank you,
Zach

Hmmmm. How to respond.

“Ryan” has failed to respond to both of my messages, one a month ago and the other early last week, regarding “the necessary information” required to visit CBC. I am already in Belize with an itinerary that is built around getting out to CBC. It is my reason for even coming to the country in the first place so how will I get around this issue of what is essentially permission to go out there as a journalist? I rationalize that tourists are allowed out there with prior arrangement so as a tourist, I should be able to go – thus contact with Island Excursions. I am not going to lie to Zach who has been absolutely wonderful through this entire process and because lying is not in my wheelhouse since I passed the age of 12. I will however do what is easy to do via email, take a cue from my mischievous teenage years and respond to the half of the email to which I can truthfully respond. Childish, I know, but getting out there has now become a test of my luck and wits. It is a mission. If a fellow freelance writer from my town can pull off a similar coop in Panama, then I can do it in Belize.

Here is my Response to Zach who obviously does not have teenagers and was most likely one of those really lovely kids who never did anything bad:

Hey Zach,

I am in Belize already. Am planning to come out to CBC on Sunday. Not sure how yet but that is the plan. 🙂 Does that work for you?

Mary

So sly.

The next step is figuring out how I will get out there. Scott  sends me the name and phone number of a reliable boat captain. I have a few days so I focus on securing transportation to Dangriga from Placencia, my next destination. The bus is cheap but promises to be a 4 to 6 hour hot-sweaty ride. Flying is fast but rather dear. Since I ditched the rental car idea, I have some scratch for some airfare and am able to book a round trip flight for about $210 USD or 420 Belize (dollars – but no one adds the “dollars” word in Belize. You simply say, “That is 10 Belize or 5 US”, is something costs 10 Belize dollars which translates to 5 US dollars). This is expensive but it is still cheaper than a $300 US per week economy rental car. I optimistically book the return flight from Dangriga to Belize International Airport , keeping the faith that I will need to be in Dangriga at the end of my journey to reach Carrie Bow Cay.

Angie, the stunningly beautiful mistress of Crooked Tree Lodge, is a native of the village. She has smooth caramel colored skin that glows with the vibrancy of a person who is truly happy in their heart. Her features are softly African with dark brown perfectly almond shaped eyes. Though her brother, who now resides two houses down the street, was raised in the States, Angie loves this place and would not leave to be educated or otherwise. She tells me she has been picking cashew all day when I see her at the lodge in the late afternoon.  I explain how I would like to taste cashew fruit and cashew wine and she sets out to bring me some to try. 

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Cashew fruit growing along the village road 

Just before dinner time Angie presents a bottle of cashew wine and a bag of freshly acquired cashew apples, the formal name of the fruit of the cashew tree which more closely resembles a bell pepper than an apple. The slices the juice laden fruit and warns me and the other guests, a German couple, to avoid touching the brown “c”shaped blob at the end of the fruit which encapsulates the cashew seed. It contains a toxic resin which can cause a painful burning sensation when it connects with human body parts. The Germans are doing some birding and plan to visit Lamonai while biding their time until the May full moon which apparently signals whale sharks to swim over to Placencia for proverbial procreative flings.

We are all eager to taste cashew fruit.

It has the consistency of bread fruit while being juicer even than mango. The flavor is light like a cucumber but distinctive with notes of yellow bell pepper and pineapple. It is fantastically refreshing and I feel as though I could eat ten of them in that moment but Mic is ready to serve dinner. Mic is a master at presentation. The square white dinner plate features a deep fried whole snapper cleverly angled across the bottom right corner of the plate, a luscious looking artfully arranged, salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and mango with a cilantro vinaigrette.

Following desert of ice cream and bananas, Angie brings out three shot glasses with skull and crossbones dressed as a pirate with bandanna, eye patch and black three cornered hat on a tray with the chilled cashew wine. “It is for sipping, like port,” she explains. “It must be served very cold and sipped or you will have a terrific hangover the next day.”

I am a fan of Port. Not everyone is. So cashew wine suited me just fine. The Germans drank their glasses as well so they must have enjoyed it too.

I paid Angie for the bottle so I could take it home and share this taste sensation with my friends. She gave me some cashew fruit as well which due to its soft juiciness failed to travel even as far as the municipal airport in Belize City the following morning.

Angie offered to drive me to a meeting of the Cashew festival planning committee where I was to meet Ms. Salome Tillet and Mr. Dean Tillet who are not closely related. I remembered as being held in the storm shelter at 7:30pm. The boys piled into the SUV with us to go along for the ride. 

When we arrived at the center which is also, I think, the high school building, the lights were off and no cars in the parking lot. Hmm. While we waited to see if someone would show up, Angie drove around the high school playing field and described the layout of the vendors and events associated with the Cashew Festival. “Over here is where bands play and there is beer drinking,” she points out. Angie is a little skeptical of what the cashew festival has become. Loud music, drunk people, a Miss Cashew beauty contest that has trouble finding women who want to compete, she feels that the event has perhaps lost its heart- celebrating the gifts of the cashew tree.  She recalls the days when it was about tasting the various products, a gathering of residents who have scattered to other parts of the globe and demonstrations of the unique way the residents of Crooked Tree process cashews by hand.

No one comes to the high school. The meeting is obviously not tonight. I am sure it is my mistake. Angie takes me around to find some “cashew seed”, the local moniker for cashew nuts.

You don’t go to the store in Crooked Tree.  You go to people’s private homes to buy stuff. Being a native villager, Angie knows who is likely to have some cashew nut available.  The lights of Angie’s car, wake a mutt sleeping in the driveway. The village is home to many stray dogs which are indistinguishable from owned dogs as they are all allowed to roam collarless and freely. Horses have the same status. They are often free to roam the village and into the Wildlife Sanctuary, much to Dericks’ chagrin. “Some tourists don’t know about horses,” he says. He thinks they scare some tourists.

Angie honks the car horn and yells out of the car window in a sharp Creole. I understand only a couple of words like “cashew seed”.  We stopped at four houses but everyone had already sold their stash of cashew.

We returned to the lodge empty handed but better acquainted.

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Travel Karma: Belize: From Cashews to Carrie Bow Cay

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I have often said to myself and others that I am the luckiest girl on the planet. Now that I am over a certain age, that phrase must be changed to luckiest “woman” on the planet because I have grown-up enough to venture international travel on my own. While I have traveled semi-on my own to Mexico City, Barcelona and Baja California, Mexico, those travels always included meeting with someone I knew once arriving at the destination and having a mapped out agenda that included those contacts. This time, I am completely on my own in Belize without knowing a soul. 

Traveling alone as a middle-aged gringa in a third world country without a guide or travel company babysitting me is a little scary but also liberating. And honestly the worst part of this journey so far has been the night before I left when I made the mistake of answering the telephone call of one Julian Monroe Fisher, an explorer and anthropologist who was offered up as a Belize contact by John Boy of the “John Boy and Billy The Big Show” (which is apparently a nationally syndicated radio program that I had never heard of until meeting JB at a memorial event for my dear friend, Eric Moore, in Charlotte, NC two days before I left for Belize). Monroe splits his time between the relatively untouched jungles of Punta Gorda, Belize and Uganda. He is building some adventure lodge in the wilds in PG and knows his stuff according to JB. Monroe’s jumpy monolog about the dangers of being a white woman alone in Belize and how a woman of my age was just killed a few weeks ago while driving about in a rental car so scared the bejesus out of my less than 12 hours prior to departure that I cancelled my Avis reservation the second I got off the phone with him as Monroe’s last emphatic words to me echoed in my head, “Trust No One!!”. This act left me the interesting chore of solving transportation  problems once on the ground in a country which hadn’t the faintest notion how to navigate.

But I believe in travel magic. And like clapping your hands because you believe in fairies to save Tinkerbell from the jaws of death, having faith that everything will turn out just fine has invoked some of the best travel magic karma one could dream up.

To be fair, I must confess that Monroe’s warning coupled with the muffled brain resulting from about four hours of sleep and a Yellow Cab that showed up almost 30 minutes late in the wee hours of a Charlottesville morning had me nearly wishing that I would miss the plane and save myself the expense and hassle of getting around during this half-baked adventure. Then I started to laugh with the TSA crew of 4 at CHO when they insisted on a pat-down because the electronic scanning system altered at sensing dampness from my wet hair on my clothing. There was one other person in the entire TSA area. I was wearing yoga clothes so they could clearly see the outline of my body but they went through with the cursory pat-down anyway. The female TSA agent doing the dirty job and I both started laughing because it was all so ridiculous. Once the three TSA guys present started to chuckle, I knew everything would be alright.

Both flights were perfectly normal and I made it to Belize City International Airport without incident and without knowing how I would get to Crooked Tree, the tiny village about 33 miles northwest.

While standing in the line for customs, I began chatting with a man who had been on the same flight from Atlanta. Turns out he works for the Nature Conservancy and had rented a car so he could stay at the Black Orchid Inn, an idyllic hideaway about 15 minutes outside of Belize City. He was hoping to get out to see some of the nature of the area and since my first stop was to meet with Derick Hendy, the site manager of the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary to do a little birdwatching we could made a beneficial deal. I invited him to come along to my  visit with Derick if he would give me a ride. Pay Dirt!

Robby was great company! We swapped stories in rapid fire and ate the snacks that Loretta the lovely Belizian woman who sat next to me on the plane gave me as we barreled along the rough highway in his rented economy car to Crooked Tree after dropping off his bags at the Black Orchid.

Derick Hendy is a charming young man who has an enviable passion for his work. Dedicated to preserving the wildlife of his homeland while finding ways to best serve the economy of Crooked Tree is his primary goal in life. I adored him instantly as he began to demonstrate on a map at the Sanctuary’s visitor center how a causeway constructed in the 1980’s has adversely affected the area’s natural habitat.

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Derick Hendy & Robby as we set out to look for birds in Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

He apologized  for the low number of birds we might see during the middle of the day as we took a walk through the forest at 2:30 or so. Robby diligently typed the names of birds we spotted as we strolled along a designated pathway resulting in no less than 27 birds when we were done about 45 minutes later. Derrick is amazing at identifying birds. He would say things like, “Did you see the red ring around it’s neck?” as a blur of a bird whizzed past a few feet in front of us. Besides his obvious love of nature and his homeland, Derick really, really, really wants the people of Crooked Tree to understand the value of he nature around them and to change hold habits for the long term benefit of preserving this incredible habitat. “We must think in the long-term,”he says very seriously. “Instead of just what people want right now.”

On a brief stop at the Visitor’s Center to pick up Robby’s rental car to drive to another locale, I meet Chris, a Brit expat who has an organic farm near Dangriga.  He invites me to a party at his home Saturday night and offers help in getting out to Carrie Bow Cay, the reason I came to Belize in the first place and a trip that is looking more tenuous by the hour. Carrie Bow Cay is an island that is less than an acre in size yet boasts a Smithsonian Institute Field Station where scientists come from all over the world to research things associated with climate and marine life. I learned about it from a man who lives in Charlottesville whose volunteer job is to go out there 4 or 5 times a year to maintain equipment and give tours to visitors. Thinking that this is the coolest volunteer job IN THE WORLD, I checked the place out and decided I had to go there and write a piece about it, preferably for Smithsonian. A writer buddy sent me travel editor’s email and I started pitching because writers have to get permission from SI to interview scientists associated with them and there was only a few weeks of time. Airfare was super cheap on Delta – only $438 US to fly round trip to Belize from Charlottesville, Virginia but I had to act quickly to get that fare. I booked it without a “go” from the editor, SI or any means of getting there. I looked for other interesting story ideas like the cashew economy and festival in Crooked Tree, the bird watching there and other sundry ideas and started sending out pitches to any magazine I could think of. The departure date grew closer and…

Zip. Nada. Nothing.

I contacted the CBC station manager to work the angle that way. Permission still needed. I emailed and followed up the the guy who was to grant permission. No response. I found Island Expeditions, a tour company that takes groups out to the field station and tried that angle. There was a chance I could jump on a tour and stay at one of there camps for a night. Yes! I just needed to sort out details when I arrived in Belize. Good enough. So despite exhaustion, fear and inconvenience I came to Belize.

Derick guided Robby through a maze of white gravel and dust roads to the Crooked Tree Lodge, my home for the next two nights. We said our goodbyes as Derick insisted I hold on to his field glasses for better bird viewing the next morning. I thought about how kind everyone had been so far, so trusting and generous and decided that Monroe’s advice was,

bunk,

at least in Crooked Tree.*

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The Crooked Tree Lodge is located on the lagoon and features un-airconditioned cabana style living quarters for birders who come to CT from all over the world.  Apparently CTWS is one of the best places in all of the Americas to spot birds. Judging from the success of my mid-day excursion I would say this is feasible. There is a large hall there where there is a wide screen TV and dining area, where guests check-in and have access to wi-fi plus a bunch of guide and bird books. When I arrive, I am greeted by a couple of the resident canines including 5 of 7 frolicking black puppies. Corey, the eldest son of owners, Mic and Angie, is watching the big TV as I enter the hall. Things are laid back in Belize. There is little fuss over anything. Mic pops out and shakes hands with Derick and meets Robby who is in awe of my idyllically rustic choice of accommodations.

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I bid my new friends farewell and am escorted past a clever outdoor tiki bar to my cabana. Travel magic karma kicks in as Mic explains I have been upgraded to a larger cabana since it is available. It is a cute little space with a double bed, two Adirondack chairs draped with fluffy sheep skins with a coffee style table situated in between. There is a private bath area with open shower. I ask about scorpions and Mic says there aren’t any because he keeps he grass cut short. I don’t know how the two things relate but trust that that is a good answer. “There are tarantulas,” Mic explains. “But you won’t see any unless you really go looking for them under rocks and such.” Cool.

There are no screens in the windows at CTL so mosquitoes may be a concern though the relatively constant breeze from the lagoon keeps them away.  I think I heard two buzz by my ear over the two nights I was there and left with only one bite welt without wearing any bug spray but in all fairness, mosquitoes generally avoid me. There is a variety of sunscreen and bug spray available in the lodge hall for those who want it.

CTL is a birder’s paradise. I laid out in one of the hammocks and saw at least a dozen different types of birds with zero effort. An easy day trip is to the Lamanai Mayan village to see the remains of a once powerful presence in this area.

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I slept like a baby following a dinner of baked fish and massive salad with the three Canadian guests who had come to Belize to do some scuba diving. The chirp of a resident gecko for a lullaby, bird songs to wake me at dawn to witness the warmth of a rosie sunrise- I am more relaxed than I have been in weeks.

*Please know that Belize can be quite dangerous, particularly for white women traveling alone. Monroe’s warning was made from the heart and from knowledge of the area. A double murder had just been reported when I spoke with Monroe, white tourists in rental car. I also have a friend whose brother-in-law was murdered in Belize several years ago.  I only went places with people with whom I had some connection aka: Robby, another tourist, and I know some of the same people in Northern Virginia. Other people I connected with on this trip were recommended by people I trust.

7 Days in Tibet

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Aurua Tibetan Medicine Billboard in Caojiabao Airport in Xining

A hundred people or so mill drowsily about the baggage claim area at the Caojiabao Airport in Xining, China at 9:45 on a Sunday night waiting for the whirl of the conveyer belt to start again signaling the arrival of more baggage.  Mounted on the wall over the snake-like luggage delivery system hangs a dark red billboard touting  Arura Tibetan Medicines in large yellow characters and Latin letters. Arura with its medical college, traditional Tibetan medical hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturing company, chain of drug stores and Tibetan Cultural Museum is a big dollar industry in these parts and sponsor of my trip to the Tibetan Plateau. As I feebly stand with the group of seven other Americans that are with me on this junket, the effects of the 22 hour trip from Charlottesville and several bottles of water to keep hydrated on the plane take hold and I am called to visit the loo. Twenty feet from the Women’s Restroom door the sour smell of a Chinese bathroom assaults my nostrils and I recall the defining factor of travel in Asia – the toilets, or better put, the lack there of.

China and the United States are located on opposite sides of the planet and in many ways are as opposing in cultures.  What often is considered polite behavior in China is considered vulgar in the U.S. and vice verse. Value of space, time, material objects and food is dispersed differently making travel in each other’s country a mind-blowing experience. It is rather like turning one’s brain inside-out.

For all the differences between the United States and what is called mainland China, echoes of the traditional Tibetan nomadic way of life still heavily influence the social mores of the mixed Chinese/Tibetan populations on the Plateau. Xining is a bustling city that looks like Seattle with an Asian flair.  It is the capital and largest city of the the Qinghai province with a population just shy of 2,300,000 the vast majority of whom live inside the urban area. In fact one distinction of Xining is its lack of suburbs. Four minutes drive outside of the high-rises and one is amongst vast scrub covered fields with brownish mountains looming near by. Impressive in size by day, the city is best viewed at night when its heart is lit as brightly as Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World – a beacon in the vastness of the dark Plateau.

The view from my room at the top rated, Qinghai Hotel (thankfully, outfitted with Western style toilets in the posh marble bathroom) confirmed the density of the city. As a thread of cigarette smoke from a neighboring room sneaks in through my open window, I am reminded that the Chinese smoke like its 1965. Wafts of cigarette smoke are everywhere – restaurants, work spaces, even in elevators. But that doesn’t stop the residents of Xining from healthy activities like exercising which they do each morning and evening in public parks. The Qunghai Hotel is located next door to a major city park which stretches along the banks of the Huangshui River.  At seven in the morning music and news are broadcast all over the city via loudspeakers mounted on buildings marking the start of the day in a Communist Country.  People then flood the parks to power walk, jog, dance, practice tai chi and chi gong before heading to work. But the Chinese, unlike Americans, are much less serious about exercise and much more physically conservative. The gestures of the 100 or so participants  in the outdoor Zumba class I joined one evening, were so conservative the group more closely resembled small children learning ballet than grown women performing steamy Latin dance moves.

Due to its altitude (Xining is 7,464) the Tibetan Plateau is arid, low humidity and fairly cool temperatures so that even in July high temperatures hover between the mid-fifties and low-seventies dropping into the low-forties at night. So jackets and the consumption of several cups of Yak butter tea, a murky concoction that tastes like liquified buttered popcorn and is served everywhere in this part of China, are necessary for comfort.  Since very little vegetation grows in the climate the main native food sources are Yak (which tastes like a cross between beef and venison) and sheep. Even the Buddhist Monks eat loads of Yak and drink rivers of Yak butter tea dispelling a preconceived notion that Buddhists are automatically vegetarians. “What else would we eat, if we didn’t eat Yak?,” laughed our tour facilitator, Dr. Kunchok Gyaltsen, a Tibetan  Monk.

Most Westerners don’t visit Xining when traveling in this part of China usually heading directly to Lhasa but there are a few places that make it a worthwhile destination. One is the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum which gives the visitor an idea of how the current culture was shaped. The museum houses artifacts like a complete set of Tibetan medical instruments and diorama’s of traditional nomadic life. The most spectacular display however is The Great Thangka, an impossibly long  (618 meter or 2018 feet)  painted history of Tibetan stories, religion, culture, medicine and art. Brilliantly displayed in a winding glass case, this masterpiece took 400 artists 4 years to complete and if one really examined each frame’s intricate details it might take 4 years to view.

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Entrance Hall at the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum

Another important cultural site is Kumbum Monastery, one of the six most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries located twenty-six kilometers south of Xining. Once housing thousands of Buddhist Monks, Kumbum which means Image of a hundred-thousand Buddhas, is the birthplace of Lhama Tsong-kha-pa (1357 – 1419), the founder of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect.  Legend has it that a sandalwood tree grew on the spot he was born with an image of the Buddha on each leaf. There is a small temple and incense burning stupa marking the. spot  Squeezing between multiple gaggles of visitors, through the Great Hall of Meditation where silk fabric hangs like Spanish Moss from the cross beams, I think about the 600 monks in current residence and what is must be like to live in such a huge tourist destination. With hundreds of people visiting daily, Kumbum is hardly the isolated, quiet retreat one might envision. In fact most Monks in the crowds surrounding us were quite well connected to the outside world via the magic of iPhones and iPads, the technology of choice due to its Tibetan language option.

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Tibetan Monk, Dr. Kunchok with i Phone at Kumbum

Since most of my time in Xining was spent indoors in meetings with our excellent Arura hosts, it was a wonderful treat to get outside for a lunch in the grasslands and a visit to the Qinghai Lake. On 100 km trip from Xining to “The Blue Lake” we stopped for a traditional Tibetan meal in a yurt-like tent. Tibetans, like many nomadic peoples, are warm, welcoming people who tote little furniture but who love to entertain. We sat on the grass floor of the tent at low tables, the wind flapping the thick canvas walls and were served course after course of Tibetan fare – in this culture more is more when it comes to food. Among the many dishes served up with Yak butter tea were sweet rice, a  rice dish with sugar,  droma (something like bean sized sweet potato) and Yak butter; fruits, vegetables, corn, dumplings with yak meat, lamb dishes and ingredients to make our own tsampa.  Tsampa is a staple of traditional Tibetan diet made from barley flour, yak butter, water or yak butter tea and sugar expertly mixed with the hands into a malleable dough ball and eaten. It is easy to make, portable and durable making it the ideal food for people on the go. Entertainment is an important part of the culture so after lunch we sang (I think there is a version of me trying to teach everyone to sing a round on YouTube somewhere- not worth watching) and learned Tibetan dance moves then took some time just laying in the long soft grass absorbing sunlight as the constant wind blew over our bodies.

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                                On the Tibetan Plateau

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      Making Tsampa at lunch

A short drive to the Blue Lake revealed a huge azure body of water covering over 1700 square miles fed by 23 rivers and streams. Though it was mid July, the water and the air are still too cool for swimming but given the distance of the ocean it is a hot vacation spot.  Though it is not overwhelmingly touristy, there are some hotels and campsites along the water’s edge in places with vendors waiting to take tourists money like any other resort. My favorite were the photo ops with a Yak which sadly I had to forgo in order to get to our farewell dinner back in the city.

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Blue Lake

The next day we began our travel to Lhasa. Many people think that taking the train to Lhasa is a romantic prospect or that a perceived gradual incline of the train route from Xining will help with adjustment to the altitude. Both of these concepts are a myths. For many Westerners who are accustomed to space and privacy, overnight travel on Chinese trains is grueling. Sleeper compartments accommodate six travelers in stacked bunk beds and are open to the hallway (no doors) so that any passer by has access. Toilets, which are thankfully private, are basically steel basins set in the floor that flush onto the train tracks on more modern trains and simply openings in the floor on older ones.  Sinks are in the hallway so that in the morning there is a symphony of loud hocking and spitting, a Chinese ritual for clearing the throat. In terms of altitude adjustment the train moves along at an almost level altitude until about halfway through the journey then makes a rapid ascent to 17,158 feet above sea level at the highest point then lowers to Lhasa (11, 450 feet above sea level) debunking the gradual climb altitude adjustment theory. 

In my case, the 23 hour train ride was booked for our group in order to see the grandeur of the great Tibetan Plateau and the budding of the Himalayas on the planes but at the last minute I was culled and sent on a train solo. Since the journey began at 10:00 o’clock at night, I saw only a few hours of stunning terrain in the morning hours before succumbing to altitude sickness which had me flattened on my middle level bunk without a view for the remaining 9 hours of the trip.

Arriving in Lhasa, I met Dolma, my charming Tibetan guide and chauffeured via van to the stunning St. Regis Lhasa Resort where I was greeted by name by every staff member I saw and escorted by Anthony, my St. Regis Butler, to a beautiful suite with a garden view.  The contrast between this sumptuous hotel and the stark utilitarian feel of the train put me in a state of mild awestruck shock. The St. Regis is a stellar example of how modern luxury can intermingle with native architecture and decor to create a tasteful, respectful environment to house sophisticated travelers. The design of the hotel itself is reminiscent of the Potala Palace with white stucco walls and dark tiled pagoda roof lines and there are gorgeous views of the actual Potala from the large picture windows in the lobby. Tibetan artifacts, Buddha sculptures, a mural of Lhasa and contemporary Tibetan themed paintings grace the lobby area lending a museum-like feel to the experience. A bath in the deep freestanding ceramic bathtub followed by a deep sleep snuggled between high count cotton sheets were much needed perks following the train ride and critical elements in perking me up for the following day’s sight seeing.

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Devotee turning prayer wheels at the Potala

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               Suite in the St. Regis in Lhasa

In the morning I walked with Tibetan Buddhist devotees around the parameters of the Potala, which for centuries was the home of the Dalai Lhama but vacated by the 14th Dalai Lhama who was exhiled duing the Tibetan uprising of 1959. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Potala is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and several hundred circumambulate clockwise around the base of the palace each day often spinning the large brass prayer wheels that line almost half of the parameter as they go. I was too late to get tickets for an interior tour as they sell out fast so I headed to Jokhang Temple, a Buddhist monastery and sacred site that was once a palace built for the two wives of king Songsten Gampo in the 7th century. Jokhang stands out in the old part of Lhasa with its gleaming white walls and golden rooftop statues of deer flanking a Dharma wheel. Once the visitor enters through the courtyard, the temple becomes a dusky incense cured maze of chapels lined with tongkas and glass cased statues of deities illuminated with yak butter candles and lamps. People bring white or gold silk katas, flowers and money as offerings to the various gods to fulfill prayers. My last stop before a sumptuous traditional Tibetan feast in the Si Zi Kang restaurant at the St. Regis for the day is the Tsamkhung nunnery located on a skinny back street in historic Lhasa. Not a major tourist stop, it is a charming place with cheerful nuns working away at making jewelry and other small items to sell in the gift shop their major source of income yet holds the distinction of housing a precious statue of Gampo who died in 650AD. This is where I did the majority of souvenir shopping for folks back home, picking up some beautiful handmade pieces for considerably less than shops that line the streets or the open market place.

Needing a day of rest before the long journey back to the states, I spent the last day of my time in Tibet luxuriating at the St. Regis. And when it comes to luxury, the St. Regis knows how to do it right.  A tour of the property revealed that the property boasts 22 luxury guest rooms, 28 private villas and 2 very impressive apartment-like suites complete with stunning views, outdoor decks, full kitchens and dining areas and lavish master suites. A rare shallow pond graces the interior courtyard, the ions and humidity emitted from it supposedly offer healing properties in the dry climate. The gold-tiled indoor pool located in the full-service Iridium Spa also purportedly offers healing qualities. I enjoyed a private yoga session in the Spa’s yoga studio then an excellent hot-stone massage at the to get the travel kinks out of my system before embarking on the 32 hour journey back to Charlottesville, Virginia the next day. I ended my day in Decanter, the Haut-Brisson designed wine bar. Good wine is rare in China, thus the Decanter is place to begin my transition back to Western life. Sitting outside on the garden deck, I sip an excellent Bordeaux and contemplate the joys and challenges of the last seven days. A giggle emerges as I realize a newfound appreciation for Western plumbing that will carry me cheerfully through the experience of an airplane restroom on a long flight in the coming hours.

Would I be willing to return to the so-called rooftop of the world despite the sketchy restroom situation? Undoubtedly, yes.

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Tibetan artifacts in the lobby at the St. Regis in Lhasa

Shakti Yoga Adventure- Go to India!

HERIZEN INDIA SPIRITUAL YOGA ADVENTURE

 

My Guru, Valma Brenton, has put together a fantastic trip to India for 8 lucky women.  Valma is a fantastic teacher and has organized yoga adventures all over the world.  If you have ever wanted to go to India, now is the time.

 

Anticipating the new Canyon Ranch Spa at the Homestead

I have openly griped about The Homestead’s Spa for years finding it inferior to its hype and longing for something better at this gorgeous, gracious Virginia resort.  At last, what may prove to be the upgrade I have dreamed about is to happen.  Canyon Ranch has taken over the spa’s operation.  The new improved spa is expected to open mid-June and to add to the good news, several spa packages have been put together to entice spa junkees and normal people alike.

Read this sent from Laura Lopez this morning:

Anticipation is growing as Canyon Ranch SpaClub®at The Homestead prepares to open this June in Hot Springs, Virginia. Part of a $25 million resort renovation, the state-of-the-art facility will allow guests to experience a touch of Canyon Ranch at its first location in the mid-Atlantic region and the first SpaClub location to offer treatments and activities for children and teens. Now, a quartet of packages is available for guests to unwind at the historic resort in the Allegheny Mountains.

Four new packages offer guests a chance to escape, relax and unwind:

The SpaClub Spa Sampler includes two nights’ accommodations, a $200 Spa credit, meals daily, and access each day to Aquavana®, fitness classes, Mountain Bike Rental and Spa Garden. Rates from $1,268.

Spend three nights with the SpaClub Relax and Unwind package including a $400 Spa credit, meals daily, and access each day to Aquavana®, fitness classes, Mountain Bike Rental, Cascades Gorge Hike and Spa Garden. Rates from $2,130.

The All About You package includes five nights’ accommodations, a $600 Spa credit, 50-minute consultation with a nutritionist, meals daily, and access each day to Aquavana®, fitness classes, Mountain Bike Rental, Cascades Gorge Hike and Spa Garden. Rates from $3,625.

Truly indulge and pamper with seven nights’ accommodations with the Healthy Indulgence package. This package includes a $800 Spa credit, 50-minute consultation with each nutritionist and exercise physiologist, unlimited activities (including golf, fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and more), meals daily, and access each day to Aquavana®, fitness classes, Mountain Bike Rental, Cascades Gorge Hike and Spa Garden. Rates from $7,005.

Three day-packages including spa treatments, spa retail credit and complimentary lunch are also available. Minerals do Miracles, Head to Toe and Forever Young start at $300 per person.

The signature feature at the SpaClub is Aquavana®, an exclusive European-inspired thermal oasis. The Aquavana experience aligns harmoniously with The Homestead’s historic healing tradition of “taking the waters” which has drawn travelers since the mid 1700’s, including Thomas Jefferson. An adults-only spa garden is open year-round offering historic hot springs, therapeutic geothermal mineral bath, naturally-pressurized deluge shower, river reflexology walk, co-ed Finnish sauna, spring-fed whirlpool, and private poolside cabanas.

 

Sounds delicious, yes?  You will certainly find me zoning out in the spa in the next month or so.

 

Getting wet in Hot Springs

One of my favorite getaways, The Homestead, in Hot Springs, Va. will be opening its pool/water park on May 17th this year.  The pool complex is fairly new and on my last visit this past fall, I enjoyed a relaxing soak in the hot tub while other visitors toasted marshmallows around the outdoor fire pit a little ways down on the lawn.

Here is part of a press release sent about the pool opening:

 Family fun will be front and center this May asThe Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, launches the first full season of its newAllegheny Springs attraction. A gleaming highlight of the historic resort’s recent and ongoing $25 million renovation, Allegheny Springs offers family-friendly features with water drawn from the surrounding Allegheny Mountains.  Located next to Allegheny Springs, the Mini Cascades miniature golf course will also open on Friday, May 17.

 

Spanning two acres, Allegheny Springs offers a family pool and whirlpool with chaise lounges scattered across the deck for basking and relaxing in the Virginia sun. Soak in the action from the charming spring house, which sits like a landmark over a babbling brook. Meanwhile, kids will love playing in the water play zone and on the sandy beach and all ages will get a thrill at Mountain Rush with two 100-foot water slides, a 400-foot lazy river, and private cabanas.

 

Family fun will be front and center this May as The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, launches the first full season of its new Allegheny Springs attraction. A gleaming highlight of the historic resort’s recent and ongoing $25 million renovation, Allegheny Springs offers family-friendly features with water drawn from the surrounding Allegheny Mountains. Located next to Allegheny Springs, the Mini Cascades miniature golf course will also open on Friday, May 17.

Spanning two acres, Allegheny Springs offers a family pool and whirlpool with chaise lounges scattered across the deck for basking and relaxing in the Virginia sun. Soak in the action from the charming spring house, which sits like a landmark over a babbling brook. Meanwhile, kids will love playing in the water play zone and on the sandy beach and all ages will get a thrill at Mountain Rush with two 100-foot water slides, a 400-foot lazy river, and private cabanas.

Other exciting news: The new spa at the Homestead will be managed by Canyon Ranch which I hope will be a vast improvement.  Time will tell.

Asheville Road Trip Day 3: Zipping Through the Trees

 

Me ziplining at Navitat in Asheville

Me ziplining at Navitat in Asheville

 

A tad groggy from all the alcohol the previous night, I awoke, performed my usual  morning yoga puja and prepared for a zip line adventure at Navitat Canopy Tours of Asheville. My only mistake of the day was to opt for breakfast in the Blue Ridge Dining Room rather than enjoy another sumptuous Executive Club breakfast.  The Blue Ridge Dining room offers a buffet option for dining and I wondered what they offered for breakfast.  I wanted to eat light but felt I needed more than fruit so I overlooked the omelette station and heavier hot foods and went for one of the only gluten-free options, sausage and grits.  I am a Southerner and adore grits but these were the consistency of paste and the sausage smelled so wretched and looked so grey that I left the plate on the buffet table and went for some oatmeal instead thinking it less dangerous.  Perchance I was correct in the oatmeal’s minimal danger as a carrier of food bourn  illness but it turned out to be glue-like and tasteless despite my efforts to jazz it up with maple syrup , fruit and granola.  The tea selection lacked as well and my tea-cup leaked a pomegranate colored puddle all over the white table cloth.  A totally unsatisfying breakfast. At $30.00 per person I felt even more unhappy about it.  Fortunately, the lackluster meal was far from an indicator of the remainder of the day.

Truly, a trip to Asheville might as well be a trip to any artsy town if you neglect the incredible outdoor opportunities available in the area.  There is great hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, rock climbing etc in the area.  My hosts opted to take me (and the others in the group) ziplining, something I have done once or twice before on a seriously smaller scale.

At about 9:00am we piled into a car and headed to Navitat Canopy Tours a zip lining outfit about 30 minutes away.  Once checked in we were outfitted with harnesses, helmets and gloves and driven uphill to a short path and our training lines.  Our guides, Nate, Chris and Will were FABULOUS! I am terrified of heights but they made me feel quite safe and easeful.  They were patient, instructive, safety-conscious and encouraging.  Nate, who has a voice so warm and resonating that it could melt butter, taught us all about zipline safety and braking before with tried our first little run.  We had three trial runs to get us used to braking and zipping then on satisfy my inner Tarzan on 2 miles (I think) worth of ziplines, two rappelling experiences, a few rope bridges to cross and some short distance hiking.

At first I was so concerned about stopping correctly that I barely noticed the passing scenery but once I became more confident this treetop world gave me a whole new perspective on what a bird’s eye view is really all about.  It was mentally, physically and spiritually exhilarating in addition to being a surreptitious full body workout.  I was truly tired post zipping.  To make the experience even better, Will, proved to be an expert in the flora of the area and regaled us with information about wildflowers and plants during our short hikes.  Nate pointed out birds including a few neon red Scarlet Tanagers who migrate directly through Asheville from South America to environs further north for the summer.  At one point one of our party fell short of a landing platform and Nate calmly went out on the line and pulled her in by flipping around and using his feet to walk upside down the line back to the landing site.  It was remarkable to watch. I would recommend this activity and Navitat to anyone who would like to try ziplining or anyone who already enjoys it.

Back at the base station, we ate picnic lunches that had been prepared by the Grove Park Inn’s in-room dining service.  Making it as visual an experience as a culinary one, they had creatively packed our lunches in antique looking hanging lanterns very cute!  They won me over with a delectable ham and swiss sandwich on huge slices of gluten free bread with thinly sliced cucumbers, a spiced mayo and cilantro served with house made potato chips (yum!) an apple and bottled water. (My mouth is literally watering at the thought of that sandwich- that is how good it was.)

The sun was shining brightly as we returned to the Inn and I decided that a hike around the property would be a good way to spend the afternoon.  The concierge provided me with a map and marked out a 2.5 mile trek around the property and into the adorable neighborhood surrounding.  I checked out the sports facilities at the bottom of the parking lot just to say I saw it then walked on around some of the most charming houses imaginable.  The golf course was busy with weekend golfers and spring flowers were just beginning to pop pinks, whites and yellows amongst the emerald-green grass. I also decided to stop in The Fitzgerald condominiums, a visually pleasing building boasting stunning views next to the Grove Park Inn and part of its real estate holdings.

For between 1 and 1.6 million dollars one can purchase one of these three bedroom, three bath vacation pads and enjoy the convenience of visiting the Grove Park Inn and Asheville without making a reservation.  The condo model was nice, well-appointed but nothing to write home about.  The living area is all one big open space where kitchen runs into dining area which runs into the living area with gas/wood burning fireplace and big windows that show off the view overlooking the golf course and waves of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond.

I had just enough time for a quick visit to the silent relaxation area of the spa and a cat nap before venturing with trepidation back down to the Blue Ridge Dining Room for dinner with Tracy, Julia and the other guests in our party. We were seated at a table with a nice view of the sunset and were invited to start buffet service whenever we liked.  I was given a tour of the stations to identify the Gluten Free options. Gluten Free and Vegan dishes are marked for easy identification however, I found two mistakes that could be a real problem for someone who has just started a gluten-free lifestyle and is unfamiliar with what contains gluten and what doesn’t. A salad containing blue cheese was marked gf as well as an udon noodle salad.  I explained to my host that the mold that gives blue cheese its distinct flavor and texture is produced by inserting wheat grains into the cheese at some point during the cheese making process. He quickly removed the card and had it reprinted, removing the gf brand.  I failed to notice the udon noodle salad until a later trip around the buffet and simply prayed that someone else would tell them that though many types of Asian noodles are made with rice, udon noodles are made with wheat flour which is quite glutenous.  Aside from that, everything I tasted from the buffet was delicious, with several dishes being quite creative in their taste combinations and textures.  There were the standard prime rib carving station, cheese and fruit tray, a  seafood station piled with shrimp, oysters and clams and lots of cake like desserts but the real creativity happened around the vegetables which were often a combination of traditional southern treatments and international spices.  Green beans with bacon being a more southern choice then (something I never would have thought of) Beets, carrots; honey and thyme.  The pork loin with portabella mushrooms, leeks and figs also sounded really good. The service was fastidious and friendly. Overall the experience was quite pleasant, overriding the morning’s dining misery.

After dinner we ventured down to Elaine’s Dueling Piano Bar for a little fun.  The place was packed with locals and tourists alike making seating far away from the stage our party’s only possible option.  The entertainment at Elaine’s consists of three men playing requested tunes in rotation on two grand pianos.  Having three guys allows for breaks and continuous music.  Patrons request songs for a fee and the guys sometimes play them as duets and sometimes play solo.  Anything from the national anthem to show tunes to any era of rock music is in these guys repertoire. The lounge itself is dated and cave-like but the crowd was loving the entertainment and cocktails.

At about 11:30 and 10 more songs from the ‘70’s than need to hear again in this lifetime, I dragged myself up to my room and decided that to leave without having tried the jet tub would be a sin.  Using hotel provided shampoo to make bubbles I soaked up one last relaxing experience at the Grove Park Inn before my 8:00am departure.

To summarize: The spa and ziplining were my two favorite aspects of this trip.  I wish I had that zipline course available at home as it would become part of my regular work-out for muscle toning.

Post trip note:  During my visit, I was given a sample of some locally produced hair care products called Broo so named because they are made with the unofficial drink of Asheville, beer.  The claim is that beer has B vitamins, proteins and minerals that make it a “superdrink” for healthy hair.  I was skeptical but after using the shampoo and conditioner one time I noticed that my hair was softer and much more manageable despite the frizz inducing humidity of a rainy spring day in Central Virginia. People even commented on how great my hair looked – surprising as it was in great need of a color touch up so the compliment had to be about the texture and shine.  I am looking forward to using this shampoo again and am interested in knowing if other people feel like making a commercial for them after one use as I did.  For more information or to order some Broo products click here.

Road Trip to Asheville: Day 2: Brews and Food

Cocktail Coaster at Grove Park Inn

Cocktail Coaster at Grove Park Inn

A tepid rainy Friday in Asheville, I begin my day with my customary puja of mediation and yoga before popping in to the Grove Park’s Executive Club Lounge for a light breakfast of yogurt, house made granola, fruit and tea with a side of smoked salmon, pickled onion and capers.  I adore good granola and have often mused over the prospect of investigating home/in-house granolas for a comparison story – may still do that someday- and found the Grove Park’s granola to be quite good.  Crunchy nuggets of oats and sweetener (possibly agave) accented with dried apricots, cherries and cranberries (I am guessing here as I neglected to speak to the chef about it) but overall a medium amount of crunch with enough flavor to be distinctive without being overloaded.  I liked it.  In fact, everything I ate in the Exec Lounge was wonderful and often better than the hotel’s restaurants.  Other breakfast offerings that morning (they switch it out daily) included an egg sandwich on an english muffin, a selection of cereals, bagels, pastries, croissants, juices, coffee and a stunning array of fresh fruits and berries. Oh and the tea,  I became practically addicted to the herbal chai and was practically moved to tears the following morning when the Blue Ridge Dining Room failed to offer it.

I met Tracy Johnston-Crum, the Grove Park Inn’s Marketing Director and Julia Akers for a tour of the property.  The Grove Park Inn has quite a history.  Its creator, Edwin Wiley Grove made his fortune concocting and selling a tasteless quinine tonic for warding off maleria and other diseases and seeing the potential of Asheville as a place of respite and recovery.  He purchased the property where the Grove Park and surrounding neighborhood now exists and began adding to his millions by selling real estate.  He saved the plum piece of property for his vision of an Inn and in 1912 commissioned his son-in-law to design and build the distinctive flagship stone structure depicted in post cards as the main building.  Grove demanded that the building be operational in one year so 450 workers where hired to work 10 hour days six days a week to complete the Inn on time.  They did it and the doors opened for guests 362 days later.

Among presidents and other luminaries, F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed at the Inn while his wife, Zelda, convalessed at a sanitorium near by.  And of course there is a ghost (what cool old place would be complete without one?) known charmingly as “The Pink Lady”.  The legend goes that she was the unregistered “guest” of a politician who fell (or perhaps was pushed) to her death from a 5th floor balcony in the Atrium in the wee hours of a morning during the 1920’s.  Not wanting to draw attention to the situation, the management had her body rolled up in a blanket or something and disposed. The incident remained unmentioned until guests began to see a pink mist at times and some unexplained pranks happened around the hotel.  Makes a good story at any rate.

Following the brief tour of the Sammons and Vanderbult wings including glimpses into Horizons and the Blue Ridge Dining Room, we hopped on a Tour Trolley to see Asheville.  We stopped at the Mast General Store two levels of wood floored old fashioned hodge podge. A place where one can buy candy out of a barrel, find an unusual kitchen gadget or buy the hippy- inspired clothing that abounds in this relaxed, outdoorsy town.

For lunch we stopped at the Wicked Weed, Asheville’s latest micro-brew pub.  Asheville is known for beer, the perfect casual drink for such a laid back place.  It is also known for good food and a farm-to-table mindset. The restaurant was expecting us and designed a beer tasting with one of the brewmasters.  Sadly, for you beer enthusiasts out there I have little interest in micro-brewing and found the tastes of all their beers to be too pungent and raw. I failed to be enlightened as to the process or nuances of the Wicked Weeds signature beers because it grew so loud in the place that the brewmaster’s lecture became inaudible.  I do recall one very fruity beer that smacked of grapefruit. Anyway, everyone else seemed to be enjoying their tastes.  Appetizers were very good, particularly the onion dip with house made potato chips, the mussels and the calamari which is fried in cornmeal making us gluten free people very happy.  The bison burger I ordered was hard, dry and virtually flavorless.  It is easy to overcook bison because it is leaner than beef and the cook made this mistake. My lunch sat in my stomach like the rock it was and I was pretty miserable for the remainder of the afternoon.  The service could have been better as well.  I was never asked about side options and was automatically served fries where some of my dining mates were brought delicious grilled brussels sprouts.  It also took almost an hour for our food to come out of the kitchen once ordered.  We were there for almost three hours with beer tasting, lunch and a 15 minute tour of the brewery. Wicked Weed is only four months old and is possibly still working out the kinks.  My recommendation is to go for aps and a beer and stay away from the main courses which are mostly sandwiches and less than stellar by my experience.

On the flip side of my mood which was dampened by the arduous lunch and pouring rain, was a quick visit to my favorite place in Asheville and really, one of my favorite hang outs on the planet, Battery Park Book Exchange.  I love this place because it is a champagne/coffee bar packed floor almost to high ceiling with tidy shelves of books where one can lounge on tasteful leather furniture set on fine orientals  surrounded by Chinese red painted walls and nice art to (prepare for a shock) read a physical copy of a newspaper or an actual hard bound book.  It reminds of sitting in a sophisticated intellectual’s Park Ave apartment library at any time on a weekend day. A true literary conclave. Plus dogs are welcome – as they are almost everywhere in Asheville.

Asheville also has a designated Arts district, a place that evolved as most art districts do, industry went bust and warehouse rentals became cheap encouraging artists to move in and oh, you know the rest… the next thing you know there is a restaurant opening and tourists coming in droves.  The Asheville arts district is situated along the river and is on its way to becoming a true commercial destination as Sierra Nevada plans to open a brewery there with a restaurant.  One cool thing about it is that people will paddle in canoes and kayaks from above and below the district, pull their boats out at a designated boat landing and then walk around the area and grab a bite to eat.

I got back to the Grove Park just in time to get down to the spa and take the cold plunge, an experience much needed to wake me up for dinner.  In a designated women’s area of the spa, next to the eucalyptus room, sauna and steam room lies a “C” -shaped hot tub nestled by an in ground cylinder of a cold water about four feet in diameter and maybe six feet deep.  One soaks in the hot tub with or without jets running until they are quite warm then quickly plunge feet first into the cold pool. It was just the exhilerating stimulous I needed for the second long reasonably unsatisfying dining experience of the day at the Inn’s Horizons restaurant.

But Cocktails in the Great Hall with the General Manager first. The Grove Park Inn has created several specialty cocktails in honor of its 100th birthday that come in glasses you can take home.  Having a penchant for ghost stories, I tried the Pink Lady which was tasty yet sweet then switched to a Corset (a glorified Margarita).  Below is a list of all the Centennial Cocktails:

Sunset Terrace Caipirinha

11⁄2 OZ 10 CANE RUM

1 OZ GINGER LIME SIMPLE SYRUP 1⁄4 CUP BLUEBERRIES

CLUB SODA

SPLASH OF SPRITE

2 LIME WEDGES

Muddle lime, simple syrup & blueberries. Add rum, ice & add soda, top with Sprite. Garnish with blueberries & lime wedge.

Grove Park Inn is nestled on the western- facing slope of the Sunset Mountain within the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Bootlegger

1 OZ TROY & SONS’

PLATINUM MOONSHINE

6 OZ CRAFT KÖLSCH BEER

1 OZ STAR ANISE &

CLEMENTINE HONEY SYRUP

Build in glass over ice. Garnish with an orange wheel.

Bootleggers & Moonshiners worked hand in hand producing & distributing alcohol during Prohibition.

Grove’s Tasty Chill Tonic

11⁄2 OZ BULLEIT BOURBON 1 OZ SIMPLE SYRUP

1 ORANGE WHEEL

1 LEMON WHEEL

CLUB SODA

Muddle fruit & simple syrup. Add ice, bourbon & club soda.

Dr. E.W. Grove was made famous for his “Tasteless” Chill Tonic, sold as a preventative for malaria. Grove touted “It’ll cure what ails you!”

The Corset

11⁄2 OZ DON JULIO BLANCO 1⁄2 OZ GRAND MARNIER

1 OZ FRESH LIME JUICE

1⁄2 OZ AGAVE SYRUP

Shake vigorously with ice, strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with lime wedge. Sea salted rim optional.

The Corset gave women the hourglass figure they were looking for. Our version may not enhance your figure, but it won’t add to it either.

Love Potion No. 13

11⁄2 OZ CAPTAIN MORGAN BLACK SPICED RUM

1⁄2 OZ COINTREAU

2 DROPS GRAPEFRUIT BITTERS 2 OZ BEET SIMPLE SYRUP CLUB SODA

Combine, pour over ice & top with soda. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Dr. Grove’s tonics could have cured what ails you, our Love Potion No. 13 may just “beet” the ailments of love.

Perfect “Inn” Manhatten

2 OZ BULLEIT BOURBON 1⁄2 OZ BRANDIED

CHERRY RESERVE

5 DROPS BLOOD ORANGE- VANILLA BITTERS

EQUAL PARTS SWEET &

DRY VERMOUTH

Combine over ice, shake throughly, and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with brandied cherries.

The Grove Park Inn was built in 1913. Completed in less than a year, opening on July 12, 1913.

The Pink Lady

11⁄2 OZ KETEL ONE VODKA

1⁄2 OZ GRAND MARNIER

1⁄2 OZ PISTACHIO SIMPLE SYRUP 11⁄2 OZ AC,AI & POMEGRANATE JUICE

Combine, shake well & strain into glass. Top with Grand Marnier. Serve with a pistachio biscotti on the side.

It is belived that a ghost of a young woman surrounded by a mist of pink haunts the Palm Court, where she fell to her death in the 1920’s.

Donald Ross “Tee”

11⁄2 OZ HENDRICK’S GIN

1⁄2 OZ EARL GREY AND BAY

LEAF SIMPLE SYRUP

2 DROPS CELERY BITTERS

CLUB SODA

Combine and serve over ice. Garnish with an orange wheel.

The Grove Park Inn’s famed 18 hole golf course was designed by legendary course designer Donald Ross in 1926.

Seely’s Craftsman

1 OZ BULLEIT BOURBON 6 OZ CRAFT BROWN ALE 1⁄2 OZ MAPLE SYRUP

Build in a glass over ice. Garnish with brown sugar crusted black pepper bacon.

Fred Loring Seely was Edwin Wiley Grove’s son-in-law. He oversaw the construction of the Grove Park & managed it for 27 years.

Horizons is known for its view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and boasts spectacular sunset sightings.  The view is indeed splendid and we were graced with a decent sunset which added to the pleasant ambiance. Under the leadership of chef Duane Fernandes, obviously this is considered a pretty special place as one couple was having a romantic dinner marked by the three dozen long stem roses set on their table and several other patrons were rather well dressed.  I was thrilled by the three mini gluten free biscuits presented to me in place of regular bread and the prospect of eating something other than red meat for dinner.  To be fair, the menu looked good but almost every dish featured something with gluten in it. I opted for a potato, leek, celery soup to start and roasted chicken with vegetables which was offered with pasta but adapted to gluten free with mashed potatoes.

The soup was so salty it was almost inedible.  It tasted very much like Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup from a can to me but with a rougher texture (an improvement). I ate less than half the bowl, unable to tolerate it even for politeness sake.  The chicken dish was dull. Perhaps the substitution made it more bland than it would normally be but it was simply boring,  The chicken itself was perfectly cooked, however, juicy and tender.  Dessert was the highlight. A sharp lemon custard served with a blackberry sorbet balanced by a glass of ice wine.  I could have eaten a gallon of this mouth-puckering concoction it was so light yet sharply flavorful.

Service was slow though the staff were all very pleasant and accommodating.

Dinner which began at 7:00 finished at 9:50.

I was in bed by 10:30 in order to be well rested for zip lining at Navitat the next morning.

Road Trip: Asheville, North Carolina- Day 1: Aaahhhh, The Spa

 

The front entrance to The Grove Park Inn

The front entrance to The Grove Park Inn

 

I have been to Asheville a couple of times and frankly it is so similar to my home in beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia (both towns are associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains) that I am a little jaded in my personal feelings towards the place in terms of the fluid like mountain scenery which most people find quite stunning. Both towns are Mecca to outdoorsy types who enjoy hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing etc as well as mindfulness junkies, farm-to-table foodies and liberal thinking, craftsy/ artsy types.  The towns differ enough to make a visit to Asheville a must on any Mountain or Southern tour one might be inclined to indulge.  Charlottesville has the Jefferson legacy featured prominently in Monticello and The University of Virginia peppered with a hint of “Old Money” attitude, wine and horses.  Asheville is a destination for relaxation and rejuvenation washed down with a locally crafted beer particularly marked by the fabulous Vanderbilt vacation home Biltmore and the poshly rustic, Grove Park Inn.

 

On a previous visit, I had the pleasure of staying at the Biltmore Inn.  This time I have the good fortune to be a guest at the Grove Park Inn, invited to check out their Centennial music festival activities and the spectacular spa. Built in 1913, The Grove Park Inn is celebrating its centennial year while experiencing significant changes instigated by its new owner KLS corp.  Some of the updates have already been made like new Arts and Crafts casings for the massive columns in the grand hall and the restoration of one of the massive fireplaces that flank the grand hall to working order. Other changes are still to come  such as the extension of the sunset terrace by paving over the kitchen gardens and reworking the restaurants’ menus.

 

I arrived on a breezy, partly sunny, Thursday afternoon in mid-April at the great stone structure originally built to attract the masses to the mountains for a little turn of the last century R&R.  The Great Hall was vacuous and dark, the design intention was that the natural characteristics of the environment contain healing properties so the lighting is purposefully dim, the fireplaces generate warmth and the stone structure purportedly emits positive energy. Whatever the reason, it was dark but most relaxing.  I checked in to the Executive Club floor which is located on the 11th floor in the Vanderbilt wing, a nice perk as I probably would not have otherwise chosen it due to expense.  The room was large and decorated with tan and brown earth tones and a high ceiling painted light blue to possibly indicate the sky.   Semi-arts and crafts furniture, (I say “semi” because the king-sized bed rested on a ’70’s like polished gold base which was supposed to be disguised with an ill -fitting rust colored fabric) accented by an electric fireplace decorated the room.  The bathroom was a showstopper though, all stone with a jacuzzi tub, white porcelain sink bowls and a shower built for two with four different options for showering including two types of rain showers and a four head wall shower choice.  Sumptuously  scented Grove Park Spa featured bath products are featured.

 

The two main attractions at the Grove Park Inn are the underground spa and the golf course with very few options for families so leave the kids at home or venture up to The Grove Park’s sister property, The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia which is mostly family oriented.  Since I don’t know anything about golf, I would be a disservice for me to attempt to describe  the course or how wonderful it is.  All I know is that lots of golfers from Charlotte, Charleston and Atlanta like to golf there.  The Spa however is a different story.

 

A self-proclaimed spa junky, I will say that the Spa at the Grove Park Inn Resort (its proper name) is truly unique and quite spectacular.  It is 43,000 square feet of treatment rooms, rock caverns water features and fire places centered lounge areas. Oh and then there is the Spa Cafe  which has the best food on the property for the health conscious. AND the ubiquitous spa boutique where this writer fawned over the high quality very soft workout and lounge clothing, even purchasing (gasp) a reversible Speedo swimsuit.

 

There are two ways to get to the spa entrance.  One is by walking down the cascade of stone stairs from the main building.  The other is via rock lined tunnels that connect the Sammons and Vanderbilt wings to the spa foyer.  Guests are provided green or white robes in their rooms that may be worn to the spa. From Monday through Thursday non-hotel guests are welcome to make spa appointments or just come to hang out for a fee.  Friday through Sunday the Spa is only open to paying guests.  White robed club floor guests are allowed unlimited access to the spa and its many water features at no extra charge but the green robed regular guests must pay to visit this cave of calmness.

 

The entire space is designed to emphasize the healing properties of the elements and appeal the all five senses.  The first thing I noticed about the facility was the glorious smell.  Custom made essential oils are automatized throughout. Dim lighting and earthy tones accentuate the call to release tension and chill for a while as soothing music laced with bird songs is piped all over. Lockers are provided in a comfortable sized locker room with adjacent dressing rooms for the more modest. Green and Orange Ginger tea or infused water is available at a few different stations and little snacks of dried fruit, nuts and chocolate chips.

 

The spa boasts both indoor and outdoor water features.  All water is purified with saline which is gentler on the senses than chlorinated pools.  There is a heated, indoor lap pool with underwater speakers that pump music into submerged swimmer’s ears, a multitude of fiber optic lights set in the dome above to simulate stars.  Also indoors are two heated water fall pools that dump massaging running wanter on the shoulders and backs of people who venture underneath, a cold plunge pool set off in its own little grotto, a pool for lingering and a heated outdoor pool with a stone fireplace nearby.

 

The Spa's lap pool.

The Spa’s lap pool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wanted to try something indigenous to the place itself so I choose to experience the Fire, Rock, Water and LIght treatment.  Here is the spa brochure description of that service:

 

FIRE, ROCK, WATER AND LIGHT

The crème de la crème of The Spa! Our signature treatment blends the natural elements of The Spa — Fire, Rock, Water and Light — into one luxurious experience. Treatment includes indulgences such as a full body exfoliation, Vichy waterfall massage, softening soak, healing body masque and a relaxing massage. Feels like an entire day at The Spa!

 

Sounds wonderful, right?

 

After checking in, I was escorted to the Women’s Locker Room where a sumptuous spa robe was provided along with special spa flip flops and a locker assigned.  Once de-clothed and robed, a staffer led me to the waiting area in the silent retreat room, a space dedicated to quiet appointed with comfy leather chairs, a big stone fireplace and large windows that were open to allow the evening mountain breeze and natural light into the room. Shortly, my treatment provider, Jason, a nice looking, gentle young man, greeted me with a soft warm cupping my hand in both of his. Every member of the staff I encountered used a reassuring, mesmerizing sotto voce further emphasizing the designation of this place for respite.  Jason led me to a special treatment room for this, the spa’s signature service.  The room is round in shape to soften sound.  A Vichy shower table set in the middle, a soaking tub and a shower.

 

I settled face up on the table and prepared for 80 minutes of exposure to the elements.  I was jelly after the first 10 minutes and enjoyed a world class, professional treatment.  Grove Park, as it is set in the middle of conservative North Carolina, adhere’s to the modesty rules common in more rural parts of North America of the strategic placement of towels over the breasts (women), buttocks and frontal private parts unlike European spas – just so you conservative spa goers out there know you would be perfectly comfortable as I could care less about such things.  The entire treatment was expertly executed and at the end my skin was delightfully soft,  all my travel angst  had been washed and stone massaged away and I felt fabulous.  To top it off, Jason brought me a glass of champagne and a pair of large juicy chocolate covered strawberries.  Yep, I felt quite spoiled.

 

A light dinner followed in the Spa Cafe where Head Chef, David Mulder, served a refreshing tasting menu of spa favorites.  This was by far my favorite meal of the weekend because it was well thought out with a variety of flavors, the ingredients all looked and tasted super fresh and the presentation was artful.  The first course was a medley of two goat cheeses and a sheep’s cheese with some berries little toasts and a house made pear butter to balance the tartness of the cheeses.  Next Chilled Melon Soup (watermelon,feta cheese and mint oil), an Asheville Artisan salad of baby lettuce, cherry tomatoes, english cucumbers, herbed artichoke hearts, greek olives, house basil vinaigrette, and a Grilled Vegetable and Hummus Wrap (grilled portabello, zucchini, squash, and roasted red peppers with hummus- mine was wrapped in cucumber strips) and Pecan and Caramel Creme Brûlée were all served on the same plate in charming little servings. The flavors in all of these dishes were balanced and interesting without being overpowering. The Melon Soup was a particular favorite, the feta provided some texture and saltiness to balance the sweet melon and  the mint oil added a warmth and lusciousness to the texture of a usually watery type concoction. Light, healthy and tasty- what more could one want for spa food?

 

The next day I returned to the spa to sample the specially made  by La Belge Chocolatier house chocolates (which are given out following manicures and pedicures) and for an Aura Imaging, a service I have never seen in another spa.

 

Four chocolate discs, one white, one dark and two milk were carefully packaged in a light green round box tied with a gold bow. The presentation was lovely and is sure to make the receiver feel appreciated.  The chocolate was of excellent smooth melt-to the-touch consistency but a bit too sweet for my palate.

 

I did not get the actual Color light treatment described below (from the online spa brochure), but I did have a picture of my aura taken with a special camera.

 

Actual treatment description:

COLOR & LIGHT WRAP WITH AURA IMAGING

We begin with our special light-sensitive photography, identifying your particular aura. That’s followed by soothing exfoliation and a detoxifying clay body wrap, during which music, light, heat and aromatherapies work to achieve balance and harmony. Once complete, we take a second aura photo to show you the results. The before and after images are yours to keep.

 

I thought this was totally cool and now that I am beginning to deepen my study of Ayurveda and how your mood and health are affected by the stimulus encountered by all five senses I think this would be a worthy spa experience to try.  The colors that radiate from us in the form of an aura reflect what is going on with out seven Chakras or Energy Centers.  Each color and where it manifests in your aura has a meaning.  In order to photograph one’s aura, a special polaroid camera is used and somehow connected to two hand shaped pads on which the subjects hands rest.

 

Mine had lots or yellow, orange and red with a little violet and green.  Basically, I was told by the interpreter, that I am creative, wise, self sufficient, direct, passionate, ambitious, warm, confident, artistic, expressive and desire success and fullness of experience.

 

Who knew, right?

 

I adored my visit to The Spa at the Grove Park Inn Resort and have already recommended it to friends.  I loved the spaciousness of it, the integration of the elements and the options for use.  It is definitely worth a visit.

 

Stay tuned for Day 2 where it is raining and I seem to eat all day.  Plus a review of Broo Shampoo.

 

Destinations for Weddings and Other Romantic Adventures

Valentines is fast approaching, and though it is of late not my favorite holiday, I encourage the rest of you hopeless romantics to knock your socks off.  To me there is nothing more romantic than a wedding. In our culture, weddings are where two people who hopefully love each other profess their undying love, loyalty and devotion in front of friends, family and other sundry connected peoples.  Since, also in our culture, at least half of those who make those statements will end their unions in divorce and roughly half of marriages have at least one unfaithful partner the 50/50 chance of those vows being kept (is that the correct stat based on the numbers provided?) makes weddings exceedingly idealistic aka romantic.
The above paragraph may make me sound like a hardened cynic but au contra ire, I am a hopeless, dyed- in- the- wool, grade A romantic.  I adore weddings.  I cry my eyes out at romantic movies.  I am still distraught over the recent death of a nameless Downton Abbey character four days since the fateful episode aired in my country. Why I am such a romantic that even after two failed marriages (does the first one REALLY count?) I hope to find Mr. Right for me and walk down the isle once again – AND I will probably wear white!
So…
for all of you lucky dogs out there with sweethearts, I suggest you think about visiting one of these wonderful places for a special romantic visit.
A Destination in your Mind
You can be transported during your wedding without leaving Virginia
BY MARY BURRUSS
Issue: Richmond Bride Winter/Spring 2013
Posted: 12/11/12 10:10 AM
Photo by Jen Fariello

You want your wedding to be someplace out of town but wish to spare yourselves (and your guests) the airfare? Here are three full-service resorts within a day’s drive of Richmond that will give you the feel of a destination wedding. All three have spas and activities such as swimming, golf and croquet to please you and all your visiting guests while offering distinct details to make your wedding day as special as the two of you are.

Ralph Lauren Country
Keswick Hall at Monticello is about an hour away from Richmond, but the softly rolling landscape and its views of the Blue Ridge Mountains give it that upscale hunt-country look like nothing else around. In addition to gorgeous vistas, fantastic catering and classically beautiful facilities, this resort has a meticulous wedding coordinator, Adam Donovan-Groves, who says he has walked every foot of the property to determine the best backdrops for wedding photos. Other extras include a child-care room with kid-friendly entertainment during the reception, plus complimentary massages or a day of golf for brides and grooms. keswick.com/weddings

Photos courtesy Tides Inn

Upon the Water
What separates the Tides Inn from other close-to-home wedding destinations is its relaxed, casually elegant atmosphere and proximity to water. Nestled on the north side of the Rappahannock in Irvington about an hour-and-a-half drive from Richmond, the inn has been a favorite destination for area families for generations. Brides can choose from a variety of indoor or outdoor venues, including the Carter Room with views of Carter’s Creek, the croquet lawn or a private beach. For a special grand exit, the newlyweds can arrange to be whisked away from the dock on a boat and deposited near their suite on the other side of the inn. There awaits a matted watercolor painting of the terrace — inscribed with their names and wedding date — as a special token of the occasion.tidesinn.com/weddings-events  

Mountain Springs
A traditional destination for Richmond brides throughout the centuries is The Homestead, amid the mystical Allegheny Mountains in Hot Springs, roughly two-and-a-half hours from our city. This grand landmark of Southern hospitality offers a multitude of options for weddings, the most popular being the simple Pergola on the Casino lawn and the stunning Crystal Room with its graceful arched windows, white pillars and gleaming chandeliers. “The festivities begin from the moment the guests arrive,” says conference service manager Tricia Fry, who also acts as wedding coordinator. The resort can handle weddings with up to 800 guests. The Homestead also offers horseback riding, skeet shooting, mountain biking, guided hiking or Segway tours, falconry, fly fishing, archery, a back-country driving school, paintball and an on-site water park to entertain guests and create memorable bridal-party activities. Brides and grooms can book a carriage to make their grand exit from the reception and will find a bottle of bubbly waiting in their room on their wedding night as a special gift. thehomestead.com/weddings

 

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