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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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It’s all about transformations at Mountain Trek

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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The majestic and rugged Purcell and Selkirk Mountains make awe-inspiring backdrops for hikers. Courtesy photo.
Those who participate in a Mountain Trek fitness and health retreat will tell you the experience is life-changing. Some will even go as far as saying it’s life-saving.

“We like to think we crack that door open for people and help them create the all-important mind-body relationship that is so crucial to optimal health,” says Kirkland Shave, Mountain Trek’s program director and life coach. “We want them to fall in love with their body because they paid attention to it and now they want to care for it.”

Though the program guarantees weight loss, Shave emphasizes that this is not the overriding goal at Mountain Trek. He explains that it’s really about changing perceptions, instilling empowerment and giving people the necessary tools to make the transformation they seek.

“It’s a jump start to improved vitality and fitness, but it can be much more than that if you apply what you learn and integrate it into your daily life,” adds Shave. The program encompasses four components: healthy nutrition (meal composition, meal timing, nutritional support and awareness), healthy lifestyle (fitness and physical activity – hiking and evening strength and cardio classes), detoxification (sweat, massage, water and breathing clean air) and healthy self-care (sleep, stress management and goal setting through journaling).

Participants, typically 75 percent women and 25% men with an average age range of 42-52, come from all over the world, though the majority hails from the U.S. and Canada. The catalyst for their participation varies from doctor’s advice to a recent life-altering experience such as divorce or illness that prompts them to make a change.

“People come here who have been under a lot of stress,” comments Shave. “They arrive with the knowledge that something’s wrong and they’re not happy with the direction they’re heading in. They view the program not as a vacation, but rather as an investment to balance their lives physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally.”

During my weeklong stay at Mountain Trek this past summer, I was one of eight guests. We all had different motivations and objectives ranging from losing weight and body fat to improving fitness and detoxing. Although these aims were primarily physical, there was also an overriding intention to spend time communing with nature in order to reap its mental, emotional and spiritual benefits. Everyone was eager to learn and absorb what they could from the experts in residence, while challenging themselves in new and different ways. Though we came from varying backgrounds, we bonded quickly as a group. There’s something about putting people in a restricted situation that creates an almost instant camaraderie.

“People connect easily here because it’s a shared experience,” explains Shave. “It comes out of the sacrifice that participants are making – what they’re giving up and doing without – and the struggles that they go through in the process. The group becomes its own strong support system.”

A typical day at Mountain Trek in beautiful British Columbia begins with a knock on your door at 6 a.m. After downing a small protein smoothie and making the necessary written notes about one’s physical and mental state, it’s time to head to an hour-long gentle yoga class.

Held in a lovely studio with panoramic views of Canada’s famed glacier-fed Kootenay Lake and Purcell Mountain Range, these sessions are welcomed by all, as they provide an opportunity to stretch and work out the kinks in your body, as well as do some guided meditation. Breakfast follows in the cozy dining room with equally impressive vistas.

Mealtime is very social and highly anticipated, as food is served only at specific times of day. There’s no raiding the pantry here! You eat what and when you’re told, which makes it easy because there are no choices to contemplate. Women get 1,200 calories a day and men receive 1,400.

The organic spa cuisine exceeds expectation. It’s delicious and surprisingly satisfying. Initially, I thought I would be hungry, especially since this is a physically intense program, however my stomach never really growled because it was being fed healthy, nutrient and protein-rich food every few hours. Breakfast might consist of lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry sauce or a roasted red pepper frittata, for example. The morning snack could be fruit and a small piece of cheese or my favorite, a heavenly concoction called “Coconut Apricot Bliss Balls.”

Lunch is typically a thermos of hearty soup, such as mushroom barley lentil or Moroccan chicken stew, followed later by an afternoon snack of veggies with hummus or another tasty type of dip.

And dinner, always a big hit, features delectable delights like cedar planked salmon, crab cakes with curry sauce, lime coconut scallops, mushroom sherry stuffed chicken breasts and prawn vermicelli.

Following breakfast, the group readies itself for a day in the great outdoors. Mountain Trek’s fitness program is primarily focused on hiking and participants are placed in appropriate groups based on their level of fitness. There’s a guide for each group, no matter how small, and two, if necessary, for larger numbers.

The hikes are located within spectacularly scenic areas in and around the rugged Purcell and Selkirk Mountains, which are known for their picturesque lakes, rushing rivers, weathered canyons and verdant old growth forests.

The treks vary in distance and elevation, depending on group level, but everyone hikes for about five hours a day. You are equipped with a heavy-duty backpack and removable camel pouch for water, a heart rate monitor and pair of walking sticks.

Add lunch and two snacks, raingear, extra dry clothing and other miscellaneous items and you’re set to go. The poles will become your friends, as they are true aids in navigating the trails once you learn how to use them effectively.

I especially relied on them on the downhill, as they helped cushion the impact on my knees.

During the hikes, guides not only encourage participants to keep up their heart rates and persevere onward when the going gets tough, but they also provide interesting commentary about the environment.

Among hikers, the conversation topics were all over the place. It was interesting how willing most people were to share their deeply personal thoughts and experiences with each other after such a short amount of time.

I believe the setting and situation removes barriers, allowing individuals to open up more readily. The hikes, though sometimes arduous, were always rewarding because of the scenery, the companionship and the sense of accomplishment that participants felt upon completion.

As the days went by, fitness levels increased and some people were able to change group levels to challenge themselves further.

Each afternoon, after hiking, the group gathered for an informative session on a specific topic such as nutrition, stress, sleep or goal-setting. Mountain Trek’s staff is well-trained and educated in these areas and they have much knowledge and information to impart.

They are also highly motivational and compassionate individuals with a sincere desire to help others achieve their goals.

Though you might be familiar with some of the material dispensed at these lifestyle and wellness lectures, it never hurts to hear it again, especially from a new source and within an environment highly conducive to receptiveness.

The sessions are followed by dinner and then it’s time to hit the gym for more physical activity.

The evening program might be a strength and conditioning workout, circuit training, kickboxing or another type of activity.

It can be hard to summon the energy for these classes after hiking all day, but evening exercise is an integral component of the program and instructors are adept at knowing how to rally the troops.

Just know that you’ll soon be prone on a massage table getting your body kneaded by a skilled therapist who will work his/her magic on all your aches and pains. Or, you can look forward to time in the steam room, infrared sauna or hot tub. Those who want the natural healing hot springs experience are welcome to visit nearby Ainsworth Hot Springs. It’s no surprise to learn that sleep is not an issue for most folks at Mountain Trek. The amount of activity and time spent outdoors in the mountain air worked wonders on my typical erratic sleep habits and insomnia problems. I slept like a baby and woke up refreshed and clear-headed each morning. Mountain Trek has been offering its fitness and weigh loss program for ten years and it has a proven track record of success. Of those guests that keep in touch, Shave notes that about one-third make permanent changes to their lives. The other two-thirds eventually fall back to old habits after some time has passed. He adds, “We feel that our rate of success is very good. In comparison, the Mayo Clinic has only 2 percent of their clients that change permanently. That’s how difficult it is.” I left Mountain Trek with a renewed sense of vitality and commitment to maintaining my well-being, as well as an enhanced awareness of the power and impact that my choices have on my present and future health.

If you go:

Mountain Trek offers its hiking fitness retreat programs at its B.C. base lodge from May through October and its winter snowshoeing retreats from late December to early January.

The program is also offered at Rancho La Puerta Fitness Resort in Baja at various times during the year.

For more information: 800-661-5161 or www.mountaintrek.com

Vancouver satisfies appetites of all kinds

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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Staff Photo/Deborah Stone. On Sewell’s Marina’s high speed sea safari, you’ll explore picturesque Howe Sound, where wildlife abounds and scenic vistas are plentiful.
There’s a reason why Outside magazine awarded Vancouver, Canada, the world’s “Best Weekend Escape.”

It’s a destination with an incredible range of outdoor activities, cultural attractions, accommodations, restaurants and some of the most picturesque scenery imaginable.

Green spaces abound in the city, along with the natural beauty of mountain vistas and miles of coastal waterfront. As you stroll through the streets, you’ll feel a palpable sense of energy and buzz that lends an element of excitement to the town.

You’ll also note the cultural mosaic that comprises this diverse and exciting, cosmopolitan hub.

The varying ethnicities help to contribute to the city’s highly touted culinary scene, which teems with award-winning restaurants and chefs.

One of the best ways to explore this gastronomy landscape is via Edible Canada’s signature tour of colorful Granville Island Market.

It’s a two-hour sensory adventure, billed as “sightseeing for your taste buds,” with the best flavors of the region taking center stage.

As you walk through the bustling European style market, your guide will introduce you to a diverse array of vendors from green grocers and butchers to bakers, fishmongers, cheese specialists and chocolatiers.

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Staff Photo/Deborah Stone. Benton Brothers is a well-known cheese company specializing in small farm cheese.
There are more than 50 permanent vendors and a constantly rotating roster of farmers and culinary artisans, making Granville a true cook’s treasure and a foodie’s heaven.

 

First stop on our tour was the Granville Island Tea Company, boasting nearly 150 teas from all over the world.

Our guide, Jamie, explained about the differences between white, green and black tea, noting that it is the location of the leaves on the tea plant, as well as the harvesting time that is of prime importance.

We sampled a delightfully spiced Masala Chai that had me practically purring like a cat with a bowl of cream and then took turns smelling a variety of teas from a toasty rice flavored Genmaicha to a smoky Lapsang Souchong.

“This is a business based on love,” said Jamie, “and owners Mark and his wife Deborah are passionate about tea. They’ve created quite a tea culture here with a devoted following of regulars.”

She adds, “The hardest part of the experience is deciding which tea to taste!”

Next on our tour was The Stock Market, a company known for its hearty homemade soups, sauces, salad dressings and to my surprise, hot cereals.

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Staff Photo/Deborah Stone. The Granville Island Tea Company boasts nearly 150 teas from all over the world.
We tried their signature seven grain with apple rhubarb compote on top – definitely a winner in my book.

 

At the next vendor, La Baguette & L’Echalote, the aroma made me swoon, as did the array of pastries and artisan breads.

We were given a dark chocolate pain au chocolat croissant to sample, which was light, flaky and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

At Benton Brothers, a well-known cheese company specializing in small farm cheeses, owner Andrew Benton gave us a cube of Alpindon to try. I claimed this Alpine style summer cheese with its earthy tones and creamy texture my new favorite.

A stop at Zara’s Italian Deli provided a lesson in olives with samples of Barese Nero (black) and Barese Verde (green).

Their meaty texture belies their mild and buttery taste with just a subtle hint of sweetness.

“Zara’s olives are famous,” noted Jamie, “as are their pastas, especially the handmade tortellini, which always sells out so quickly.”

I was particularly enamored with the striped Raviolani, which looks exactly like ribbon candy.

One of my favorite stops was at Chocolatas, a chocolatier specializing in Belgian-style confections, where we nibbled at squares of dark pink grapefruit ganache and dark ganache flavored with wasabi, of all things!

On the savory side, there was Oyama Sausage, with its famed sausage cured with Granville Island sake and Okanagan red wine, and Seafood City, a thriving fish market featuring smoked salmon maple nuggets that were so sweet they could easily be mistaken for dessert.

Our last stop was at Lee’s Donuts, a longtime vendor that consistently attracts crowds clamoring for its famed glazed donuts, especially when they’re fresh out of the oven.

Head baker Alvin, who’s been there forever, will tell you he loves his job.

“Every morning I wake up and go to work where I make people happy,” he says with a big smile.

The tour ended at Edible Canada’s bistro and retail store, where a few more samples awaited us, including birch syrup from the Cariboo and chocolate balsamic vinegar, made by Vancouver’s own Dundarave Olive Company.

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Staff Photo/Deborah Stone. Vancouver’s colorful Granville Island Market as seen on an Edible Canada Market Tour, which is billed as “sightseeing for your tastebuds.”
The market tour gave us a great introduction to Vancouver’s food scene and helped set us up for forays to three unique restaurants: The Oakwood Canadian Bistro, Sanafir and Campagnolo, all recommendations from locals in the know.

 

The Oakwood is a casually hip little gem in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood, where talented Executive Chef Mike Robbins crafts tasty, seasonally driven dishes inspired by locally sourced organic ingredients.

Opt to start with the fried octopus with bacon aioli and Japanese mustard spinach, followed by the albacore tuna and fennel salad or beets with smoked vanilla goat cheese.

For a bit of French Canadian fare, there’s poutine (French fries with curds, gravy and smoked brisket) and in typical Canadian East Coast fashion, you’ll find a fried egg adorning such entrees as branzino or sea bass.

Desserts of various combinations like milk chocolate ganache, rum infused bananas and walnut brittle are served up in cute little Mason jars.

Sanafir offers an entirely different experience with its flickering candles and Moroccan-inspired, sensual surroundings.

There are even dining “beds” on the upper level where couples can have a truly romantic meal.

The cuisine is based on the Silk Road with infusions of exotic flavors from North Africa, China, India and the Mediterranean.

Mezze plates, tapas, tagines and curries explode with spice and color under the deft hands of Executive Chef Ray Bear. Seafood takes center billing with offerings that range from Moroccan Mussel & Clams to Wild Salmon in coconut yellow curry.

Meat lovers, take heart, as there are plenty of options including the Egyptian Spiced Striploin, Lamb Tagine and Balgarbi Ribs.

Use the grilled Naan bread to sop up the juices.

Travel to the Eastside of town to find Campagnolo, a casual Italian restaurant that consistently earns rave reviews.

It’s an unassuming place and not easy to find if you’ve never been in the area, especially if you’re looking for prominent signage.

Inside, the décor is simple — wood and brick with exposed beams.

Start with the Crispy Ceci, a unique salad of chick peas that have been fried with chilies, mint and citrus, or opt for the Salumi platter made of the restaurant’s own cured meat.

If it’s pasta you want, you’ll be more than satisfied with offerings such as potato gnocchi with spot prawns and Rigatoni Puttanesca with Humboldt squid.

But, if you’re a pizza connoisseur, you’re in excellent hands, as Campagnolo is known for its buttery, thin-crusted, simply adorned pies that will make you groan with pleasure, bite after heavenly bite.

Though food is a big deal in Vancouver, culture also gets high marks.

In summer, get your theater fix at Bard on the Beach, the city’s highly touted professional Shakespeare festival that takes place on the waterfront in Vanier Park.

In its 23rd season, the festival, which is the largest of its kind in Western Canada, is a beloved season tradition for many Vancouverites.

It’s famous for the high-caliber of its performances, as well as its eye-popping location.

The unique stage with its open-back tent allows the majestic northern mountains and Vancouver city views to function as the literal backdrop for its plays.

Each summer, four of the Bard’s plays are produced. This season’s lineup included “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Macbeth,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “King John.”

For adventure, head out of town a short way to Horseshoe Bay and hop on a sea safari at Sewell’s Marina.

Your two-hour guided ride will take you around Howe Sound and into the Strait of Georgia for an eco-nature tour.

You’ll find yourself racing beside steep cliffs, nosing into caves and viewing harbor seals at play, while catching glimpses of cormorants and majestic bald eagles soaring overhead.

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Staff Photo/Deborah Stone. Attractions, such as Yue Minjun’s famous bronze sculpture, “A-Maze-ing Laughter,” emerge as you stroll along Vancouver’s waterfront.
Spectacular waterfront homes line the banks and hillsides, along with stands of striking arbutus trees.

 

Your craft is a high-speed, 30-foot rigid hull inflatable boat and you’ll be well-equipped to handle the whipping wind and water spray while decked out in special Mustang Integrity suits.

And yes, they make you look and feel like the Pillsbury Doughboy!

Don’t be surprised if your captain decides to suddenly do a series of doughnuts during the tour to jar you from your state of seeming complacency.

Ladies, the results are just as good as a microdermabrasion treatment, so you’ll be able to save yourself a trip to the spa.

If your recreation tastes are tamer, take a stroll around 1,000-acre Stanley Park with its forested trails, sandy beaches and host of attractions including a collection of hand-carved totem poles and the renowned Vancouver Aquarium.

Allow some time for reflection at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden, a classical Chinese garden known for its traditional design.

It’s a serene oasis in the midst of busy Chinatown. Know that you can easily satisfy all your appetites in Vancouver, but you’ll still leave hungry for more of this dynamic city.

If you go:

Stay

St. Regis Hotel (intimate boutique hotel in an ideal central location): www.stregishotel.com

Dine

Oakwood Canadian Bistro – www.theoakwood.ca

Sanafir – www.sanafir.ca

Campagnolo – www.campagnolorestaurant.ca

Suggested Attractions

Edible Canada’s Granville Island Public Market tour: www.ediblecanada.com

Bard on the Beach: www.bardonthebeach.org

Sewell’s Marina Sea Safari: www.sewellsmarina.com

Stanley Park: www.stanleypark.org

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden: www.vancouverchinesegarden.com

For more information on all things Vancouver: www.tourismvancouver.com