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‘Silent brothers’ make ideal hiking companions

  • Written by Deborah Stone

llama1Photo by Bob StoneAmong those I have taken to lunch over the years, I can now add a llama to my list. My dining companion, K-2, was one of six llamas that accompanied our small group on a recent day trek with Wild Earth Llama Adventures in Northern New Mexico. A handsome blonde and statuesque creature with plenty of personality, K-2 was ever-alert and curious as we hiked the trails in the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I led my trusted wooly friend through the dense woods, over bridges and into the gentle creeks within this picturesque and unspoiled wilderness. With his leather padded, two-toed feet and natural agility, he walked with a self-possessed air, exuding confidence as he navigated the terrain without faltering, while carrying a load of gear.

“Llamas are the perfect low-impact, high altitude pack animal,” says Stuart Wilde, owner and head wilderness guide of Wild Earth Llama Adventures. ‘They are sure-footed because they have the perfect ‘mountain moccasins’ - like mountain goats - and they have little impact on fragile wilderness trails. They exemplify the ‘leave no trace’ ethic we practice and teach out here.”

Wilde, who started leading wilderness trips in this area 22 years ago, notes that llamas make great hiking companions, adding, “The word ‘llama’ in Spanish is pronounced ‘yama’ and means ‘silent brother.’ Who else would carry your stuff for miles without saying a word?” He explains that llamas are very intelligent and gentle creatures and adds that like humans, they are equally excited about being out and about in the mountains. They walk at a comfortable pace for hikers at all levels and their keen sense of smell, hearing and sight will often spot a distant herd of deer or elk. They are also extremely lovable animals and bond with people well.

llama2Photo by Bob StoneWilde continues to explain that the llama is a member of the camel family and is one of the oldest domesticated animals with a history of helping people carry their wares for thousands of years. Those that are well-trained will eagerly follow adults and kids alike, which enables outfitters to facilitate wilderness experiences with a wide range of individuals. Wilde currently has nearly forty llamas at his ranch that he has rescued from unwanted, neglected and often abandoned situations. He receives calls and emails on a regular basis from people and municipalities throughout the Southwest asking him to pick up the creatures and give them a new home.

He says, “Many folks get these animals as an exotic pet or breeding investment and sadly, the novelty wears off in a few years or the llama market didn’t meet their expectations. Most of the llamas are already adults by the time we get the call and they have usually never been haltered, handled or groomed. Often they are feral and the majority is just plain scared.”

Wilde’s aim is not to breed or sell the llamas, but simply to provide them with a good home where they can live out the rest of their lives. He adds, “We actually stopped needing more llamas for our trekking operation when we reached sixteen. We do this out of our love for the animals and as a way to give back to them for what they have given our family and to the thousands of people who have trekked with us.”

On my adventure, there were eight of us, including two children, plus Wilde, along with the llamas – all males or “machos.” K-2 was joined by his buddies Picchu, Rio, Raja, Diego and Zephyr. As we hiked, Wilde kept us entertained and educated with information about the environment. He pointed out the native flora and fauna, as well as a number of edible and medicinal plants, while providing some details about the natural and regional history of the area.

llama3Photo by Bob StoneThe pace was relaxed and non-competitive and the emphasis was on simply enjoying the backcountry. Lunch was in a lush meadow on the bank of the Columbine Creek, where we tethered the llamas so they could munch to their hearts’ content on the grass and nearby bushes.

Meanwhile, we humans watched in amazement as Wilde unloaded a foldout table, stadium style seats, coolers and an assortment of supplies from the packs on the llamas. He proceeded to assemble a tasty, gourmet lunch with all the trimmings, which we heartily devoured. Perhaps my wooly companions would disagree, but I felt that our sumptuous spread far outranked their “green” buffet.

Afterwards, we headed back down the trail with K-2 and I assuming the lead. It quickly became very obvious that my hiking pal was eager to get home. He inched increasingly closer to me and soon I could smell his alfalfa-scented breath on my neck. As I picked up my pace to get a bit more distance between us, he followed suit, practically stepping on my heels in the process and almost breaking out into a trot. We made quite an amusing spectacle and just as I was ready to call, “uncle!” Wilde stepped in and facilitated a llama swap for the remainder of the journey.

My new companion, Rio, proved to be less interested in reaching the trailhead and more keen on eating whatever and whenever he could along the way. “These guys are total goofballs,” comments Wilde. “They are very playful and can be real characters, which is why they’re so much fun!” He adds, “I love being around them and I get great satisfaction from seeing people interact with them for the first time.” For Wilde, being a wilderness guide has both professional and personal rewards. He takes pleasure in giving people the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world and do things they might not otherwise get to do, while being able to spend most of his days in the wilderness doing what he enjoys most.

“You can’t get better than this for an office!” he says. Wilde has taken thousands of people from around the world on llama treks. Many come for a day hike the first time and then return for a multi-day experience the following year. He adds, “My hope is that leading unique and memorable wilderness experiences will help to foster a greater sense of stewardship and promote conservation of our public wild lands.”

If you go:

Wild Earth Llama Adventures offers single-day escapes and multi-day wilderness adventures in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Rio Grande Gorge near Taos and Santa Fe, NM. Small group and custom-designed private tours are available. For more information: www.llamaadventrues.com or 800-758-5262.

To complete your experience, spend the night in Taos before and/or after your trek at the fabled Historic Taos Inn (www.historictaosinn.com) and make sure to have dinner at the legendary and award-winning Doc Martin’s Restaurant on site. It’s a happening spot with live music in the lounge, killer margaritas and inventive Southwestern cuisine.

Sleeping Lady is a heavenly retreat

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Sleeping LadyCourtesy photo. Guest room cluster at Sleeping Lady.Sleeping Lady works its magic on you almost instantaneously. The 67-acre resort, which is nestled in a forest on the banks of Icicle Creek near the town of Leavenworth, is a bucolic retreat and ideal escape from the whirling dervish existence of daily life. As soon as you set foot on the property, your heart rate slows and your stress level takes a nose dive.

It has to do with the exquisite natural setting of the place and the sense of peace it provides for those looking to unwind and recharge.

Named for the adjacent mountain’s stunning profile, Sleeping Lady is the work of noted philanthropist and ardent environmentalist Harriet Bullitt, whose family headed up Seattle’s KING broadcasting empire.

In 1991, Bullitt, owner of neighboring property across Icicle Creek, bought the land, which used to be the home of a Catholic summer camp. She wanted to preserve the space and save it from developers. Her plan involved creating an environmentally friendly conference facility and mountain retreat, which subsequently opened in 1995 with the first Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Guest rooms, 58 in total, are arranged in clusters and take their names from nearby natural features that give them their unique character. Each is well-appointed and features décor that reflects the rustic mountain elegance of the property’s architecture.

Those looking for an aquatic scene will want to head over to the Woodland Rock Pools which are picturesquely perched above the resort in the shadow of the mountain.

The swimming pool is open seasonally, but the adjoining hot pool is heated year-round. Soaking in the latter is guaranteed to soothe sore muscles and tired bodies. If you aren’t fully relaxed after that, then make your way to the Solstice Spa for a heavenly massage or body treatment.

Though most visitors opt to engage in one of the many outdoor activities available (hiking, biking, fishing, rafting, snow-shoeing, skiing, etc.) the resort also has a fitness room for gym rats who prefer to use cardio machines and weights for their workouts.

Venturing further off property, there’s always the charming Bavarian town of Leavenworth, where you’ll discover eclectic shops and an assortment of cafes and bakeries lining the picturesque old world streets.

Kids will delight in the PlayBarn with its small stage to act out puppet shows and plays or view movies.

There’s also an area for arts and crafts, as well as billiards and table tennis, so the whole family can get in on the fun.

One of my favorite activities at Sleeping Lady is the self-guided art walk.

The resort is a veritable museum of creative expression, from bronze and stone sculptures to prints and paintings of all kinds.

This extensive collection is comprised of works by professional artists, as well as local craftspeople.

Of particular note is Dale Chihuly’s "Chihuly Icicles," which sparkles amid its wooded setting. The sculpture contains 1,060 parts in the shape of icicles and is almost nine feet tall.

Another beloved work is Richard Beyer’s "Shaman Salmon." Known for his quirky creations, including the well-known "Waiting for the Interurban" near the Fremont Bridge in Seattle, Beyer admits that "Shaman Salmon" is his personal favorite, as it "depicts humanity captured by the magic of nature."

Down in Kingfisher Meadow by Icicle Creek you’ll find the colorful "Soul Salmon."

The fiberglass sculptures were created as part of a larger Puget Sound project to raise awareness of the importance of wild salmon to our ecosystem. On your walk, you’ll most likely come upon the resort’s two-acre organic garden, which provides produce, herbs and fresh flowers to the dining facilities on site, including the Kingfisher Restaurant and Wine Bar, the Grotto and O’Grady’s Pantry and Mercantile.

The main establishment, Kingfisher, serves breakfast and dinner daily and features a broad spectrum of Northwest cuisine. The focus is on fresh, organic and locally sourced ingredients, which are highlighted in noted Executive Chef Ken MacDonald’s creative menus. If a big dinner is not your style, the Grotto, an intimate pub with petroglyph-laced rock walls, serves tapas, along with local wine, microbrews and specialty drinks.

And over at O’Grady’s Pantry and Mercantile, you can enjoy soups, salads, sandwiches, desserts, espresso drinks and a good selection of beer, wine and spirits in a casual, laid back atmosphere.

All bases are covered at Sleeping Lady, whether it’s recreation, relaxation or food.

Just don’t expect to watch your favorite reality shows, as there are no televisions in the rooms.

Not to worry —you won’t miss them one bit!

If you go: Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort is a year-round destination property located in Leavenworth, Wash. For more information, call (800) 574-2123 or visit www.sleepinglady.com.

Savannah charms, enchants and stirs the soul

  • Written by Deborah Stone

It’s easy to fall in love with Savannah. She woos you with her beguiling charms while seducing you with promises of rich and varied experiences. She’s the consummate Southern belle, the hostess with the mostest, whose popularity has consistently put her on the list of the “Top 10 Places to Visit” by world-renowned travel publications and websites.

Everyone adores Savannah and they flock to this vibrant coastal haven at all times of the year. It’s amour at first sight for most newcomers, who are drawn like a magnet to the city’s beauty and its historic, but hip, classic, yet cool vibes.

Savannah is known for its squares – 22 in total – that dot the Historic District of town. These verdant and lush park-like areas date from 1733 to the mid-1800s. They were designed by the city’s founder, General James Edward Oglethorpe, who is attributed to creating America’s first pre-planned city. The squares were established to serve the populace as communal gathering places and working centers. Most are named in honor or in memory of a person or historical event and many have monuments, markers, memorials, statues, plaques and other tributes located within them. Some sit like oases amid busy commercial sectors and others are situated in quiet, residential neighborhoods.

Savannah 013Columbia Square is centered by an impressive cast iron fountain imported from the historical Wormsloe Plantation. Photo by Deborah Stone.Columbia Square is particularly lovely, as it is shaded by four giant live oaks and centered by an impressive cast iron fountain imported from the historic Wormsloe Plantation. Another, Chippewa Square, with its imposing statue of General Oglethorpe, was made famous in modern days by the bench upon which Forest Gump sat on in the movie of the same name. One of the most photographed statues, that of Reverend John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist denomination, is located in oft-visited Reynolds Square. Named for John Reynolds, the first colonial governor of Georgia, this square was once the center of colonial government and held the House of Assembly, where the first reading of the Declaration of Independence took place in Georgia.

In addition to Savannah’s squares, the city is recognized for its gardens and array of flora that are known to elicit audible oohs and ahhs from ardent admirers. It’s a floral wonderland with colorful azaleas and an assortment of rainbow-hued Cape Myrtles, gardenias and camellias. Then there are the stately magnolias whose white blossoms infuse the air with an intoxicating lemon-sugar scent. And let’s not forget the Spanish moss that hangs like tinsel from the tall live oak trees, lending a moody, Gothic ambiance to the city’s urban cover.

Savannah 020Many of Savannah’s historical homes are adorned with handsome ironwork. Photo by Deborah Stone.Savannah’s beauty also extends to its architectural treasures. Wonderful examples of most of America’s 18th and 19th century prevailing architectural styles can be found in the Historic District. They range from simple Colonial structures to Medieval-influenced cathedrals and gingerbread-accented Victorians. Many are adorned with handsome ironwork that appears on cast-iron balconies, gates, stair railings and window guards, as well as on monuments and fountains within the squares. Some of the homes display various unique designs such as iron storks that serve as newels, iron dolphins as waterspouts and iron griffins as foot scrapers.

The architecture helps to reveal the city’s fascinating history, which is another significant aspect of Savannah that people are keen to learn more about when they visit. Touring the numerous historical homes, houses of worship, cemeteries, forts, museums and other such sites that are open to the public is an excellent way to form a picture of the events and people that shaped Savannah over the years.

One of my favorite historical homes is Juliette Gordon Low’s Birthplace, the home of the founder of the Girl Scouts and the city’s first designated National Historic Landmark. Another, the Owens-Thomas House, boasts an impressive collection of American and European objects dating from 1750-1830, as well as an original carriage house containing one of the earliest intact urban slave quarters in the South. The pre-Civil War designed Mercer-Williams House Museum is also of special note, as it was the home of General Hugh Weedon Mercer, great-grandfather of the songwriter Johnny Mercer (“Moon River,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” “Jeepers Creepers!”). It was also the scene of the shooting death of Danny Hansford, assistant to local restorationist Jim Williams; a story that is retold in John Berendt’s popular 1994 novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

For a glimpse of African American roots in Savannah, take a tour of the First African Baptist Church, the “Oldest Black Church in North America.” Constituted in 1777, the building contains original pews made by slaves that are nailed into the floors and inscribed with markings written in the African dialect known as “Cursive Hebrew.” The ceiling is in the design of a “Nine Patch Quilt,” which signaled that the church was a safe house for slaves. Such quilts also served as maps and helped to guide people on where to go next or what to look out for during their journey. Beneath the lower auditorium is another finished subfloor that was actually used in the Underground Railroad as a tunnel for slaves who were on their way north.

Savannah 032Hauntingly beautiful Bonaventure Cemetery with its spectacular moss-draped oaks is part natural cathedral, part sculpture garden. Photo by Deborah StoneA visit to Bonaventure Cemetery is a must for history buffs. Though it is not Savannah’s oldest graveyard, it is certainly the city’s most famous. Quintessentially Southern Gothic, it is part natural cathedral, part sculptural garden, with a hauntingly beautiful setting that reflects the Victorian era’s romanticized view of death. The place has captured the imaginations of authors, poets, photographers and filmmakers for over 150 years. Among those buried at Bonaventure include several military generals, poet Conrad Aiken, Academy Award-winning lyricist Johnny Mercer and Georgia’s first governor, Edward Telfair.

Fans of historic lighthouses will particularly enjoy nearby Tybee Island Light Station and Museum. The lighthouse has been a guiding force for mariners to gain safe entrance into the Savannah River for over 270 years and it is one of the most intact light stations in the country, having all of its historic support buildings on site. The 178-stair climb is definitely worth the effort, as at the top, you are treated to a picturesque panoramic view of the area.

Another reason to love this winsome city is the food. Savannah is a mecca of classic southern heritage delights such as shrimp and stone ground grits, fried chicken, collards with ham, hush puppies, creamed corn, fried green tomatoes and biscuits and gravy. There’s plenty of pit barbecue and fresh seafood, too; the latter which is predominantly featured in low country dishes like She Crab Soup. This oh, so rich, cream-based concoction is made with fresh Atlantic blue crab and often served with a dose of sherry on the side.

Desserts reign supreme in Savannah, which is a problem because by the time you’ve finished with your ample-portioned meal, you won’t have much room for the sweets. But, you will be tempted, then compelled to try just a bite or two of one of the amazing pies, like pecan, lemon chess or sweet potato. Or perhaps you’ll go for the coconut layer cake or maybe the peach cobbler. Before you know, you’re scraping the dish to get every last crumb. And of course, you’re going to wash everything down with sweet tea, the ever-popular elixir that was once referred to as “hummingbird water” by the field hands. They dubbed it so as the drink helped energize and revive them as they worked. Don’t worry if you’re seeking something besides classic southern fare, as the city offers a variety of cuisines to satisfy all tastes from Mediterranean and Moroccan to Italian and pan-Asian.

Walk off your dinner with an evening stroll or a ghost tour…if you dare! According to The American Institute of Parapsychology, Savannah has been coined as “American’s Most Haunted City.” Many residents take pride in this recognition and as a result, there are a number of ghost tours to introduce visitors to the spirits that have earned the town this reputation. On a Ghost Talk/Ghost Walk tour, for example, you’ll hear of the many apparitions, ghosts and paranormal experiences that have been reported at various locales around Savannah. You’ll learn that two wars, four major fires, an earthquake and outbreaks of disease caused much death and destruction in the city and left thousands of bodies behind. These catastrophes, both natural and not, gave the place its creepy, unsettling underpinnings.

Your guide will tell you about B. Matthews, the country’s oldest bar, where the spirits of slaves still roam at night, causing playful and malicious happenings to occur. You’ll visit 17Hundred 90 Inn & Restaurant, where the apparition of an African American woman who once worked in the kitchen haunts the place. Employees tell of hearing the jingles from the bracelets she wore on her feet and of being pushed and shoved when they are working in the kitchen. At Kehoe House, now an upscale B&B, Mr. Kehoe’s benevolent spirit is said to manifests itself via a glowing globe in the office, while Mrs. Kehoe’s lavender and rosewater perfumes permeate the air. The couple had ten children and guests occasionally report hearing children’s voices in the house when there aren’t any kids in the vicinity. These and other tales have intrigued visitors and the media for years, and they’ve been featured on The History Channel, The Learning Channel, The Travel Channel and the popular SciFi Channel show, “Ghost Hunters.”

If the arts are your thing, you won’t be disappointed in Savannah’s cultural offerings. There’s plenty to experience in this eclectic, cultural town. From live concerts to art exhibits, theatrical productions and festivals galore, the place brims with activities to stimulate the mind, body and the senses. It’s a culturally rich mecca with more art galleries per capita than New York City, as well as the home to the flagship campus of the illustrious Savannah College of Art and Design.

There are many reasons to love Savannah, but perhaps it’s the city’s hospitality that visitors find most endearing. You’ll find Savannahians to be some of the most polite, gracious and genteel folks. They aim to please and they strive to ensure you have a good time during your stay so that y’all come back soon.

If you go:

Accommodations: There is an array of accommodations in Savannah, from quaint B&Bs and cozy inns to elegant boutique hotels and nationally known hotel chains. I stayed at East Bay Inn (www.eastbayinn.com), a charming, historic inn near the Savannah River. It was well-situated and walking distance to most attractions and sights.

Tours: There are numerous walking, carriage and trolley tours of the area, which showcase architecture, history, local food, hauntings and film locations. For a more customized approach, I recommend Personalized Tours of Savannah (www.savannahsites.com). Savannah native and professional guide Harriet Meyerhoff will tailor tours to her audience’s special interests.

Restaurants: Choices abound, but two must-try establishments are the venerable and historic Olde Pink House (www.plantersinnsavannah.com) and Mrs. Wilke’s Boarding House (www.mrswilkes.com), a true Southern eatery in the family-style tradition.

For detailed information about Savannah, including lodging, dining, activities, events, transportation, tours, sights and attractions and more: www.VisitSavannah.com

Eclectic Austin never misses a beat

  • Written by Deborah Stone

The bats might be the first clue that Austin is not your typical, run-of-the-mill Texas town. The city is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America with more than a million Mexican free tailed bats in residence. Every spring, they migrate North from Mexico to Austin, where they give birth and then stay through the summer and into early fall.

Their favorite hangout is under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in the city’s downtown sector. Its narrow, but deep openings make an ideal roost for these creatures. Around sunset, the bats emerge like a black cloud from the bridge’s crevices and head off in search of food. They blanket the sky, creating one of the most spectacular and unusual tourist attractions in Texas.

Folks congregate at various points on the bridge or along the banks of the river in order to get the best views of this phenomenon. Some join boat tours that provide narration and an up-close and personal experience from under the bridge. It’s a truly unique event that even lifelong residents continue to regard as special no matter how many times they’ve witnessed it.

Austin is known as the liberal bastion in the heart of Texas and the city prides itself on being a vibrant and eclectic creative mecca, with a reputation for embracing all that’s unique and different. Nothing is as it seems here. Many of the streets, for example, have two names with one referencing a noted local icon or celebrity. The lakes that meander through and around the area are really rivers, and the highway loops don’t actually go in circles. Visitors are also amazed to find hills around Austin - something that is an oddity in the mostly flat Lone Star State. They’re commonly referred to as “Silicon Hills,” because the high tech industry has become a big economic driver in this region – another surprise discovery for many first-time tourists.

Austin 008Austin is known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Photo by Deborah StoneAnd then there’s the music scene. As the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin is well known for its music venues, musicians and numerous music festivals. Until you actually visit the city, however, you can’t grasp the magnitude of the role music plays in this town. It’s everywhere and encompasses all genres, from Austin-style blues and rock to hip hop, gospel, country and folk.  Sixth Street is the town’s mecca for music and at night, the clubs and watering holes are packed with enthusiastic revelers. The sounds of live music spill out on the street, creating a very festive and party-like atmosphere that’s akin to the French Quarter in New Orleans.

If you’re looking for some serious boot-stomping tunes, however, you’ll need to head just outside of town to the Broken Spoke, “the last true Texas dance hall.” Two-steppers young and old take to the floor to strut their stuff while venerable bands and big name country musicians grace the stage of this well-known honky tonk. Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Tex Ritter, George Strait and others have all performed here, along with some of the very best local talent such as Alvin Crow, The Derailers, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jerry Jeff Walker. It’s a legendary spot – a Texas treasure and Austin tradition that has been featured numerous times on “Austin City Limits,” the famed T.V. show on PBS.

Austin 019Austin has a vibrant mobile food vendor scene. Photo by Deborah Stone.Food is another surprise to visitors, who come expecting the typical Tex-Mex and barbecue to dominate the culinary scene. They soon discover that the palette of the average Austinite has developed over the years and today practically every type of food can be found, from Asian fusion to traditional Italian, classic German, nouveau French cuisine and more.

For restaurant recommendations, ask the locals. There’s a good chance they’ll suggest one of their favorites, the ever-popular Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill. With its innovative take on classic American comfort food and southern/soul style cooking, this eatery satisfies even big city tastes. Specialties include Buffalo Meatloaf, Pecan Crusted Catfish, Texas Flat Iron Steak, Green Chile Macaroni, Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles and Broiled Rainbow Trout with Cornbread Stuffing. Make sure to order the Signature Skillet Apple Pie with Maple Ice Cream for dessert, but know that you’ll need some friends to help you polish off this finger-licking treat. True to Texas form, everything, even the size of the food, is bigger!

Locals will also steer you in the direction of Austin’s food trailers. The city has a well-established mobile food vendor scene that offers options galore at prices that are easy on the wallet. Austin’s variety of cultural attractions is as diverse as its culinary offerings. History buffs and art lovers will enjoy the many museums around town such as the Bullock Texas State History Museum, Blanton Museum of Art, AMOA-Arthouse, Harry Ransom Center and Umlauf Sculpture Garden.

Austin 020The Texas State Capitol is the largest of America’s 50 state capitol buildings and stands 14 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Deborah Stone.There are also a number of pieces of public art scattered throughout the city, including Dale Whistler’s famed abstract swooping bat sculpture near the Congress Avenue Bridge. Make sure not to miss a visit to the Texas State Capitol. This sunset red edifice is the largest of America’s 50 capitol buildings and stands fourteen feet taller than the U.S. Capitol. Upon entrance, you’ll be greeted by life-sized marble statues of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. Further in, you’ll come to the rotunda with the Great Seal surrounded by the six seals of the countries whose flags have flown over Texas (Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the U.S.). Portraits of the Presidents of the Republic and Governors of the State circle the four public levels of the magnificent rotunda. The star in the dome, approximately 218 feet above, measures eight feet from point to point. It’s an impressive sight, as are the Senate and House of Representatives Chambers, and the Governor’s public reception room with its antique furnishings and artwork.

Another noteworthy attraction is the University of Texas campus, home to over 50,000 rabid Longhorn fans. And if you’re seeking outdoor recreation, head to Lady Bird Lake, where you can hike or bike on the trail that winds around the lake for ten miles in the heart of downtown. The lake is also ideal for kayaking and canoeing, with the added bonus of a great view of the skyline. You’ll learn quickly that Austin as a destination has it all. And as for its quirks, well, they only make this fiercely soulful and homegrown town more endearing and interesting.

 

If you go:

 

For all things Austin, contact the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau at: 512-478-0098, or visit www.austintexas.org

 

Austin Overtures Sightseeing Tours: 512-659-9478 or www.austinovertures.com

 

Ideal overview tours of Austin and its surroundings for first time visitors, with background information, some history and current facts/details, significant sights and more.

 

 

 

 

Memorable ‘pinch me’ moments abound in Southeast Asia

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Sunrise at Cambodia’s famed Temple of Angkor Wat is a surreal “pinch me” moment.
As the stars fade and the colors of the sky begin to slowly change, the dark shadows of Angkor Wat’s temple walls gradually emerge. The anticipation builds among the hushed crowd as the towers and their reflection in the moat surrounding the vast complex become clearer. And then, this visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking scene reveals itself in full glory, rendering viewers speechless. It’s a “pinch me” moment and I revel in the experience, trying to savor each special element.

 

Seeing Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat was just one of the many “pinch me” moments I encountered during my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Journeys Within, an award-winning boutique Southeast Asia tour company. I confess I stopped counting these memorable occurrences after just a few days into this fascinating cultural odyssey. The moments came fast and furious, one after another, and all I could do was continue to pinch myself to ensure I wasn’t dreaming.

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The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a narrow maze of crowded streets, with vendors selling everything from fresh veggies and noodles to fish, fine silk and lacquerware.
My adventure began in Hanoi, the bustling capital of Vietnam, where modern meets ancient in regards to architecture, traditions and culture. This charming, yet chaotic city overwhelms the senses. The Old Quarter is a congested maze of narrow streets offering a wealth of cheap shopping and delicious, exotic eats from street stalls and sidewalk cafes. Persistent vendors implore you to check out their goods, from Chinese knockoffs to lacquerware and fine silk shirts, in what is akin to one giant open air marketplace. The area is jammed pack with pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, cars and tuk tuks, the proverbial motorized rickshaw or pedicab that is a popular form of transportation in many Southeast Asian countries. The pace of traffic is frenetic and vehicles come from all directions with total disregard for civilized rules, making the act of crossing the streets an extreme adventure sport. The stakes are high, the risks are great and he who hesitates (or veers suddenly) is toast!

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Water puppetry is a Vietnamese tradition dating back to the 11th century.
There are numerous sights to explore in this lively city, from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the famed One Pillar Pagoda (a Hanoi landmark) to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, the penitentiary built by the French in the 1880s and later used to house American POWs, who sarcastically named it the “Hanoi Hilton.” One of the “must see” attractions is a water-puppet show at the acclaimed Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. The art form of water puppetry is a Vietnamese tradition dating back to the 11th century. Wooden puppets are mounted on long bamboo poles, which remain totally hidden under a shallow pool of water. Experienced puppeteers manipulate the puppets, making them appear to be dancing over the water. They perform numerous vignettes of everyday village life, as well as act out age-old legends and myths. Shows are accompanied by singers and a live orchestra, which sits to the left of the stage and plays a variety of traditional instruments. It’s a highly entertaining experience and definitely one for the memory books.

From Hanoi, I headed to Halong Bay for a three-day trip on a classic junk boat. A visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site is an incredible treat. The bay features nearly 2,000 limestone islands of various sizes and shapes that rise up from the crystalline emerald water, creating one of Vietnam’s most spectacular natural wonders. The isles appear as monoliths or pillars and together with a variety of coastal erosional features such as arches, caves and grottos, combine to create a haunting seascape. Kayaking in and around these formations, especially on a misty late afternoon, is deliciously eerie, qualifying for yet another one of those “pinch me” moments. The follow-up, a spectacular cave dinner, provided the icing on the cake. Surrounded by candles and tea lights, my fellow passengers and I ate at a long table within a massive cavern that we reached after trekking up steps carved into the side of a large rock formation. We were all bewitched by this enchanting setting, not to mention fully sated by the grand feast of beautifully presented fresh seafood.

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The lake villages of Tonle Sap in Cambodia are built on sticks in order to rise above the water level during the rainy season when it floods.
In addition to kayaking and lazing on the deck while watching the bay’s mystical scenery pass by, we also visited a local fishing village. The residents of the village, about 200 total, live in houses that float on the water with the help of plastic barrels. There’s even a floating school for the children. It’s a way of life for nearly 3,000 people who call Halong Bay their home.

Vietnam is full of World Heritage Sites from north to south and all places in between. In the central zone of the country lies the old capital city of Hue, which contains a number of historic treasures. Located on the banks of the picturesque Perfume River, the city is notable for its temples, royal tombs, palaces and pagodas. One of the prime attractions is the Imperial Citadel, an extensive complex that once contained a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines and those close enough to them were granted access. South of the city are the Tombs of the Emperors, each with a different style, providing excellent examples of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture. Khai Dinh, the best preserved of the lot, is completely over the top with opulent, detailed mosaics.

Dinner at Tha Om Ancient House provided another “pinch me” opportunity. Located in a small village near Hue, the 100-year-old home is owned by an architect who is a descendent of a mandarin royal family. At night, the compound’s stone lanterns are lit up, displaying its numerous ponds and gardens, which exemplify the use of Feng Shui in ancient architecture. The menu for the evening’s meal was cleverly written on a fan and included such sumptuous delights as spring rolls, pumpkin soup, green papaya salad, fish, grilled beef on tiles and a host of tropical fruits, among other delectable dishes. The experience included a tour of the property, provided by the owner who enjoys regaling guests with intriguing historical information and details about the house, as well as its original occupant, the owner’s eccentric grandfather.

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Colorful lanterns hang from the trees in the Ancient Town of Hoi An.
Getting off the beaten path occasionally is important to me when I travel, as I feel that some of the best sights and experiences can be found in out-of-the-way locales, far from the madding crowds. Journeys Within has a reputation for crafting itineraries that build in such unique opportunities. Take Truoi Lake and Truc Lam Bach Ma Zen Monastery for example. The monastery, with its traditional pagoda gates, bell towers and halls for Buddhist practice, is reached via a short boat ride across lovely Truoi Lake. Surrounded by the Bach Ma (White Horse) Mountain Range, with its amazing white clouds that look like horses on the mountain peaks, the lake is a well-kept secret. Those who know of it, often use it as a tool for Buddhist practice, as the water is regarded as a place to wash the guilt from one’s body before seeing Buddha. Once on the other side of the lake, the climb uphill to the monastery begins. In Buddhist theory, one of the ways to see Buddha or to achieve Zen is to clear the mind. It is said that keeping count of the number of steps and breaths as you mount the 173 stairs allows you to completely “blank” your mind. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with an unparalleled scenic view and an impressive pagoda complete with a kindly old Buddhist monk who warmly greets visitors.

The south of Vietnam, which is considered the tail of the country’s dragon shape, holds its own when it comes to memorable sights and experiences. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon, is the largest and most populated metropolitan and economic center in the country. Located near the Mekong River Delta, this city, like Hanoi, is a melding of Old World charm and modern influences and bustles with life rhythm 24-7. Examples of colonial French architecture, such as the stately Opera House and the grand Central Post Office, remind visitors of the French Indochina period in the country’s history.

For Vietnam War buffs, the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum provide insight into the conflict primarily from the perspective of the Vietnamese. The Palace, formerly the presidential quarters for South Vietnam’s president, has been left largely untouched from the day before Saigon fell to the North. A replica of the tank that crashed through the gate, officially ending the war on April 30, 1975, is parked on the lawn outside the building. Inside, there’s a kitschy rec room and an eerie basement full of vintage 1960s phones, radios and office equipment, supposedly left exactly as it was found when the North assumed power. A photo gallery and propaganda film recounting the domination of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary forces against the South and its American allies completes the picture. The War Remnants Museum is a much heavier and disturbing walk down memory lane, with halls of gruesome photographs and jars of deformed fetuses attributed to Agent Orange contamination.

Outside Ho Chi Minh in the Cu Chi district are the famed Cu Chi tunnels, which are worth a visit if only to get a full understanding of the ingenious underground network that aided guerilla fighters in their resistance to first the French and later, American forces. At its height, this intricate multi-layered system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border and consisted of innumerable trap doors, living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, kitchens and command centers.

Via Journeys Within, I was able to meet and have dinner with a Vietnam War veteran. Mr. Binh Tron was only twenty years old when he joined the Viet Cong to fight against the South Vietnamese and eventually, the Americans, in an effort to help unify his country. He viewed Communism as a means to a better life and fully supported the views of his hero, Ho Chi Minh. Over the years, he rose within the ranks of the military to become a Colonel General. Today, at 83, Tron speaks of Vietnam’s future and hopes for his people. Through a translator, he explained that he encourages visitors to come to his country in friendship and in peace.

Though war sites, museums and memorials are in abundance in the south, there are other non-military-related points of interest, including the Cao Dai Great Temple. Definitely off the usual tourist route, this center of worship for the religion of Cao Daism is remarkable. The building closely resembles a Christian cathedral in its architecture, but is extravagantly decorated with a host of symbols, abstract designs and images of saints. Cao Daism is a unique religion that worships Jesus, Confucius and Buddha. Its most important symbol is the Divine Eye, which represents God. There are four ceremonies with chanting each day and an orchestra and choir leads the service in prayer and hymns. Timing your visit to the temple is essential in order to catch sight of the sea of faithful who dress in flowing white, yellow and blue robes and assemble in orderly rows during the ceremony with men on the right and women on the left.

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Deep in the heart of the Cambodian jungle lies the Temple of Ta Prohm, where a battle wages between nature and architecture.
Cambodia, like Vietnam, contains countless cultural jewels. In Siem Reap alone, there are scores of magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th Centuries, including the aforementioned eminent Temple of Angkor Wat. Though Angkor Wat is a “must see,” make sure you venture further out to some of the other temple sites including Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and the lesser-visited Preah Khan. The latter two were most fascinating to me, as they depict a battle between nature and architecture, where it’s obvious that nature is getting the upper hand. The jungle is basically devouring the remains of these ancient structures, as the trees have taken root in loosened stones and wound their way through the buildings. Determining which root belongs to which tree becomes a mesmeric puzzle for the viewer, as does the question of why an entire population abandoned these sites umpteen years ago. Preah Khan, which was built in 1191 A.D., originally served as a monastery and school, and at one time, 15,000 people lived there. Some archaeologists postulate that possibly severe climate conditions forced inhabitants to leave, but the actual reason for their departure will always be a mystery. As I walked among these masterpieces, I could almost hear the voices of the past within the crumbling walls of the ruins. It was truly a mystical, spiritual “pinch me” moment.

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Taking a cooking class is an opportunity to learn about the many exotic spices and ingredients used in Cambodian food.
In addition to its temples, Siem Reap has much to offer, with a myriad of cultural and culinary forays. Food plays a front and center role in Cambodia (as in all of Southeast Asia for that matter) and a cooking class is a wonderful way to learn about the different spices and ingredients that comprise the many flavorful dishes. Siem Reap is also a great place to get heavenly foot massages after a long day of temple trekking. You’ll see foreigners with ecstatic looks on their faces, splayed out on recliner chairs that line the streets, getting their tootsies worked on by an army of efficient and entrepreneurial Cambodian massage practitioners.

For an up-close and personal view of rural life, take a tour of a nearby village with a local guide, who will show you his community of houses built on sticks and explain how residents eke out a living with their small rice farms and various cottage industries (i.e. rice distilleries and bamboo basket making). There’s no electricity so people use car batteries, candles and lamp oil. An average family has six kids, who attend school until sixth grade at the small village school. If they want to continue their education, the children must go into Siem Reap.

The tour motivated my desire to further interact with the local people. Journeys Within gladly facilitated this opportunity via its nonprofit organization, Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC).  Founded by Brandon and Andrea Ross, owners of Journeys Within Tour Company, the organization works at the local level to be an active force for change. While living in Cambodia, the couple saw firsthand the needs of a population struggling with poverty and also saw the desire of their guests, friends and family to provide support. They realized they could work as intermediaries between those who needed help and those who wanted to give it, and thus, JWOC was born.

The organization invests in future generations by offering scholarships to students who have the ability to succeed, but are unable to afford the tuition fees and course materials. In return for their financial assistance, the students give back to their community by volunteering weekly in various activities under JWOC’s umbrella. The nonprofit also offers a micro-finance program aimed at addressing the major problem of credit and debt in Cambodia. By enabling people to begin or expand small businesses at fair and sustainable rates, they have the chance to break free from the cycle of poverty. Additional programs include the Clean Water Project and the Free Schools Program; the latter which offers a variety of English language classes, training opportunities and skills development for children and adults.

I chose to volunteer one afternoon in an English conversation class for adults. The group met at JWOC’s center in a building adjacent to the Journeys Within Boutique Hotel, where I was staying during my time in Siem Reap. Three other volunteers from the hotel joined me in assisting the teacher with different speaking activities. The students were delightful and equally as curious about us as we were about them, which spurred an enthusiastic and stimulating exchange. Their hearty appreciation for our time was genuine, but I know that I got much more in return than I gave. Yet another “pinch me” moment to treasure from this incredible trip.


Photos by Deborah Stone

If you go:

Journeys Within Tour Company is an award-winning boutique Southeast Asia tour company dedicated to delivering its guests unforgettable, customized trips through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The company’s team of experts craft personalized journeys that allow travelers to leave tourist hubs and get out into the countryside for an authentic cultural experience. It also provides clients the opportunity to be involved in active philanthropy through JWOC’s community support efforts.

For more information: 877-454-3672 or www.journeys-within.com

Vietnam tourism information: www.vietnamtourism.com

Cambodia tourism information: www.tourismcambodia.com

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