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Mind, body, spirit renewal on a budget

  • Written by Deborah Stone

It was with much anticipation that I headed to The Oaks in Ojai, Calif., a fitness and health spa, where I hoped to find rejuvenation, relaxation and renewed energy. Located 90 minutes from sprawling, urban L.A., the town of Ojai is one of the best kept secrets in California. The enchanting Ojai Valley is a mythical Shangri La, with its jagged mountain peaks, its tranquil creeks and streams and its groves of orange, lemon and avocado trees, which intoxicate the air with their heavenly scent.
   In this charming small town of 8,000, an eclectic mix of writers, artists, philosophers and film stars make their homes, along with several spas, a world-class resort hotel, five of the nation's top private, college prep schools, the 276-acre International Center for Earth Concerns and outdoor clothing superstar Patagonia's flagship store and corporate headquarters.
   The Oaks has been a part of Ojai for 25 years and during its longevity, it has earned a reputation for being an affordable retreat for a healthy mind, body and spirit. Owner Sheila Cluff, a fitness expert pioneer, started The Oaks in 1977 because she wanted to provide an affordable alternative to beauty spas, pampering havens catering only to the wealthy, and to fat farms, which she saw were mainly militaristic boot camps that used exercise as punishment.
   Over the years The Oaks has become known as a value-oriented destination spa, appealing to a wide age range of individuals from many walks of life. It attracts those seeking R&R and those who want a jump-start to their fitness. The emphasis is on a three-part philosophy that includes nutrition, exercise and alleviation of stress in one's life. The latter focus appealed to me the most when I made my decision to check into The Oaks for a long weekend. I was looking for a place to unwind, but not necessarily to veg out, as physical activity energizes me and helps me clear my mind. I wanted to concentrate on both my body and mind and a fitness spa seemed like the ideal solution to meeting my needs.
   The affordability factor of The Oaks enticed me, as I had always assumed that such places were only for those living life-styles of the rich and famous. Rates at The Oaks start at a reasonable $155 per person per night (plus tax) and include room, all meals and snacks, fitness activities, evening programs and complete use of the facilities (swimming pool, sauna, steam room, hot tub, weight training and cardio equipment). These modest rates do not give you glitz and glamour, but rather comfort in an informal and friendly environment lacking of any pretense.
   Staff, many of who have been at The Oaks since its inception, are warm, helpful and attentive. After I checked in, I was given a welcome orientation, explaining the spa's programs and activities, and then taken on a tour of the property.
   The Oaks was once a 1920's hotel and vintage touches still remain today, but over the years renovations have occurred to update the place and reflect a California mission style. There is still more work to be done, as evidenced by the worn and out-of-date look to many of the furnishings. Plans include opening a new dining room and remodeling the lobby, library and treatment areas. The property has 46 guestrooms which range from basic standard twin doubles to deluxe spa suites containing Jacuzzi bathtubs, fountains and artwork created by members of Ojai's artist community.
   Guests gather around the pool, the courtyard, in the dining area or lobby to mingle when they are not otherwise engaged in classes, treatments or other activities. Following my orientation, I was eager to try several of the dozen or more fitness classes offered on the daily activity schedule. I noticed that there was a full range of classes for all fitness levels and that they could be categorized into one of three areas: stretch and range of motion, cardio or muscle strengthening/body conditioning.
   The staff at The Oaks encourages guests to take at least one class from each category per day.
   Over the course of a weekend, I managed to sample 10 different classes and take one very brisk three and a half mile walk through scenic Ojai.
   The focus at The Oaks is on foods that are low in fat, salt and sugar and high in protein and complex carbs, essential for the energy needed while exercising.
   Menus emphasize fresh seafood, poultry, fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads, clear soups, with herbs, spices, lemon juice and nonfat sauces substituted for more caloric flavorings.
   Calorie counts are posted next to the menus each night for the next day. Guests can preorder additional items or make substitutions to the menu items, at no extra cost.

Experiencing the magic of Washington, D.C., with kids

  • Written by Deborah Stone
"Why do some presidents get their own monuments and not others?" "How does a draft work?" "Why did people let the Holocaust happen and not do anything to stop it?" "How come everyone thinks George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are such good men? They owned lots of slaves and never did anything to stop slavery." "What was the Korean War about?" "What is so bad about communism?"
   These difficult and often hard to answer questions bubbled forth from the mouths of my children at each stop along the way during our family's recent trip to the nation's capital. Everywhere we went, history confronted us, drew us in and caused us to think, question and puzzle over the events of the past.
   A trip to D.C. will have that effect on most people who take the time to explore the many fascinating facets of this city. It is an especially amazing journey for families to make together, and I was determined to make it with my family over spring break.
   Having been to D.C. several times before, I felt it my patriotic duty to show my husband and children the sights and let them experience the magic of this great city.
   It truly is an incredible place, with its splendid architecture, famous monuments, prestigious museums and impressive parks and waterways.
   D.C. has the ability to stimulate minds and stir up patriotic fervor within people. Children, in particular, are provided with many opportunities to have a total sensory connection with history. Those who have recently studied or are studying U.S. history and government in their schools will particularly find it to be a powerful experience because they are easily able to connect the words and images from their books to reality.
   Our trip made history come alive for my kids and awoke within them a deep interest, curiosity and appreciation for our country's past.
   Doing D.C. with kids, however, involves much planning and it is a trip that works best if the children are over 10, due to the complexities of the historical themes involved.
   In addition, there is much reading, concentrated listening, waiting in lines, walking from one place to another and patience involved in such an experience.
   My kids are 12 and 14, and in my opinion they were at good ages to take such a trip because they were able to process what they saw (through continued dialogue and discussion) and had the necessary stamina to last through each full day. The days were busy and we packed them to the max to get the most from our short time in this city.
   Pacing is the key for a successful experience with children because they can only handle so much at one time before their eyes glaze over and they become walking zombies. We made sure to take plenty of rest and refueling breaks along the way to keep us energized and fresh.
   Unfortunately, a freak heat wave hit the area during the time we visited and provided some discomfort, but we combated this with lots of liquids and periodic trips inside one of the many air-conditioned museums.
   It helps to secure tickets in advance to some of the more popular attractions, including the Washington Monument, the Holocaust Museum the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Capitol in order avoid long waits in lines or disappointment due to sold out situations (admission is free to most everything in D.C., but a finite number of tickets are issued per day and when they're gone, you're out of luck for that day).
   To obtain same day tickets, it is necessary to wake up at the crack of dawn and get to your destination by 8 a.m. to secure a place in an often lengthy line.
   Even with tickets in hand for a specific entry time, be prepared to wait, as there are post 9/11 strict security procedures in place that can cause delays.
   We were able to reserve timed tickets for certain places, such as the Washington Monument and the Holocaust Museum in advance of our trip via the phone. There is a small service charge to do this, but it was worth it to avoid exceedingly early starts to our mornings.
   One day we spent walking along the Potomac, seeing all of the monuments and visiting the Holocaust Museum (a particularly deeply moving experience).
   On another day, we toured the Capitol and the Supreme Court, visited the White House Visitor Center and viewed the White House from the outside (tours are only open to large school groups scheduled in advance).
   A third day was spent in several of the Smithsonian Museums, including the Air and Space and the American History. We were also able to visit Mt. Vernon (George Washington's home) and Arlington National Cemetery.
   To make our stay in the area more interesting, we booked a hotel outside of D.C. in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, about a 25 minute ride from the city via the Metro (the area's clean, efficient light rail transportation system).
   One doesn't need a car in D.C. because it's best and easiest to explore on foot, plus parking is a nightmare. The Metro conveniently connects you from one end of the city to another and it is a simple system to navigate.
   My kids loved figuring out the fares each day and checking to see which line to use and the number of stops involved in reaching our destinations. After just two days, they were savvy users.
   Staying outside of the city provided us with a needed break from the constant go-go feeling we had when we were touring the sights. Old Town Alexandria is a charming, historical area with many colorful shops and excellent restaurants. In the evenings, we enjoyed meandering down the streets and taking in the quaint ambiance.
   One evening, however, we chose to stay in D.C. to catch a performance at the Kennedy Center. "Sheer Madness," the longest running play in D.C., was on one of the several stages at the Center and provided a fun dose of comedic entertainment for the whole family.
   It also gave us an opportunity to get a look at the Center's unique architecture and expansive interiors.
   After being in D.C. for several days, we rented a car to travel south to visit Jefferson's home at Monticello and also experience Colonial Williamsburg.
   Monticello is impressive and the tour captivated my kids with its interesting details about Jefferson's life-style and his creative intellect.
   Spending a day in Colonial Williamsburg provided a true taste of colonial times and was a rewarding way for my children to experience America's past.
   There are 88 original and hundreds of reconstructed buildings on site filled with working tradespeople and noted figures of the past (actors dressed in period costume who portray such individuals as George Washington, Patrick Henry and Ben Franklin).
   We sat in on several trials at the old Courthouse, listened to "Patrick Henry" give his famous speech about liberty, sampled colonial specialties as peanut soup, yams, pickled relishes, ginger cakes and rice pudding at a historical tavern, heard colonial music played on a spinet and felt transported back to the time of our country's prelude to independence.
   In one week, we managed to see many wonderful sights, but there were still others that eluded us due to lack of time. Ideally, it would have been wonderful to have spent another week in the area, but I feel confident that we will return on another trip to continue our explorations.
   My kids are already asking when they can go back, which I will take as a sign that the experience made a significant impression on themÑ or perhaps it was getting to order room service that affected them so deeply?
   For up-to-date information on D.C. and all its attractions, visit www.dchomepage.net.

Camano Island: One of the Northwest’s best kept secrets

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Photo by Deborah Stone.
It’s close, yet so far from the madding crowd. With fifty-two miles of picturesque shoreline, breathtaking views of Mt. Baker, the Cascade ranges and the Olympics and a thriving arts community, Camano Island is a secret jewel of the Northwest.

This is a destination with distinctive appeal, offering a real-life island experience without the hype. There are no trendy tourist traps here or tacky gift shops selling souvenir key chains and mugs. Nor are there the proverbial taffy or fudge shops lining the streets or vendors hacking their wares along the beach.

It’s all about the pristine beauty of the environment and the pace of life and residents will tell you that they like it just fine this way. Visitors in the know, who come to this idyllic island, do so to retreat from big city existence for the opportunity to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures.

What’s ideal about Camano is its accessibility to the Seattle area. Within an hour and a half, you can be taking a hike in old growth forests, gathering driftwood on the beach, or espying eagles soaring across Saratoga Passage. And the best part is that there are no long ferry lines to contend with to get to Camano; in fact, there are no ferries involved at all.

Once you leave the freeway, you’ll go through Stanwood, a small town with historic buildings, antique shops and cafes in an agricultural setting.

Stop by at the Scandia Bakery and Lefse Factory on Main Street, a Stanwood landmark, for a quick bite or to drool over the pastries and specialty breads, all baked fresh daily on site. The restaurant has been around for over thirty years and is well-known by locals who frequent it often for its hearty fare. The specialty is lefse, Scandinavian flat bread, made with potatoes, that has the consistency of a tortilla.

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The perfect picnic spot at Camano Island State Park. Photo by Deborah Stone.
As you leave Stanwood and head over the bridge onto Camano, stop at the Camano Gateway Visitor Information Center to grab a map to get your bearings. The friendly volunteers who staff the place will be happy to steer you in the right direction to beaches, scenic drives and galleries, as well as provide you with a list of accommodations and available services on the island.

Take note of the local artwork around the center, particularly Paula Rey’s “Fish Boy,” a whimsical bronze of a boy hugging a fish, and Jack Gunter’s “Clam Diggers,” which depicts a favorite island pastime. If you’ve brought your picnic basket, but lack that perfect bottle of wine or smoked salmon for those crackers, pull into the newly opened Brindles Marketplace, just past the Gateway at Terry’s Corner.

Here you can taste regional wines at the Great Blue Heron Wine Cellar, get the day’s catch or some barbecue fixings at Quality Meats and Seafood and also take a peek upstairs in the Gallery in the Loft, one of three galleries on Camano, showcasing island artists.

As I drove further into the heart of the island, the road began to wind, passing through bucolic countryside dotted with alpaca and llama farms and framed by dramatic waterfront views.

It became apparent that the Native Americans who had first named the island, Kol-lut-chen, “land jutting out into a bay,” had described it to a tee.

Unfortunately, this name never appeared on a map and over the years, it was changed, first to Macdonough Island, to honor Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, captain of the 26-gun ship during the War of 1812, and then to Camano, for Lieutenant Don Jacinto Caamano of the Spanish Navy. In the 1855 treaty with local Indians, Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory referred to the island as Perry Island. Then came the loggers who had a jargon of their own and nicknamed it “Crow Island,” a name it retained locally through the early 1900’s.

After that time, it reverted back to Camano, a musical Spanish name for an island settled predominately by Andersons, Petersons, Olsons and Hansons! My plan to explore the island was simple: drive around it, stopping when the mood hit me to hike, beachcomb or pop into one of the galleries, and eventually end up at the B&B I had booked for the evening, Inn at Barnum Point.

There are numerous parks on Camano, but the largest one, which gets the most foot traffic, is Camano Island State Park. This is a gem of a playground for hiking, fishing, camping, picnicking and boating. Ben Sollie, one of the initial organizers of the petition to create the park once wrote of the place: “The fishing is good, the clams delicious and the waterfront is easy on a fellow’s feet.”

It’s also easy on one’s senses, as it is beautifully laid out piece of land that contains 134 acres with 6,700 feet of beach front on Saratoga Passage.

There are five miles of marked trails within some 600-year old growth forests full of Douglas fir, western red cedar, hemlock and red alder trees. The interesting story behind the park’s creation involves a group of determined individuals who started a grassroots movement for a public green space with access to the waterfront.

Back in the late 1940s, there was no public access to waterfront on Camano because all of the shoreline was owned by individuals, resorts or businesses.

The residents put their support behind the movement to create a park and the Parks Land Commission eventually purchased 93 acres of land on the waterfront, on the condition that area residents would help construct the facility.

People responded eagerly and on July 27, 1949, over 900 volunteers came out and cleared land, built the road, dug a well and created their park, all in one day. The place almost doubled in size nine years later with the acquisition of more land for a campsite, boat launch and ramp. It was one of those warm, sunny spring days when I explored the park and I relished having an entire beach almost all to myself.

Sitting on a log, I could see Whidbey Island across the way and the peaks of the Olympic range in the distance. Time certainly seemed to stand still, but when I checked my watch, an hour had gone by, yet I hadn’t moved off my perch. The impetus to finally leave this spot of paradise stemmed from my desire to check out some of the local galleries and perhaps chat with a few of the artists.

Camano is well known for its vibrant arts community with artists whose work represents all mediums of the spectrum, from paint and pottery to glass, wood, bronze and photography.

In addition to the gallery at Brindles, there’s the Gallery at Utsalady Bay at the north end of the island and the History of the World Fine Arts Gallery towards the southern tip. Both run shows featuring specific artists that change periodically. The Gallery at Utsalady Bay, in particular, has received a name for itself for its popular “Unclad” show that it holds each March.

Work depicting nudes in many forms is the theme and each year, the show has gained momentum and recognition. All of the island artists participate in the Studio Tour, held annually over Mother’s Day weekend. This is the one time of year that the artists open their studios to the public and thousands of visitors flock to Camano for this opportunity.

Although I was not on Camano for this event, I did get the chance to stop in at artist Susan Cohen Thompson’s waterfront studio and talk with her about her work. Thompson has only lived on the island for the past year and a half, but she already feels a sense of connection with the place and the people.

She says, “There’s such support here among the artist community and also among the residents who are not artists. There are many long-time artists who’ve created this community and it’s a very developed place for art. People care about the environment and about each other.”

Thompson paints in watercolor and oil and uses jewel tones that give her work its vivid colors. She is a nature advocate and her inspiration comes from the outdoors, particularly from the environment of the Amazon jungle, a place dear to her heart.

An important theme of her work is the generosity of nature and she views her paintings as “serene” and “organic.”

After getting my fill of art for the moment, I decided to grab an early dinner before retiring to my inn.

There are just a handful of restaurants on the island and all are casual establishments serving standard fare. The Islander at Terry’s Corner is the newest of the bunch and offers some variety, including panini sandwiches, salads, soups, pasta and a few seafood entrees.

The halibut with mango chutney sauce I ordered was tasty and it came with roasted red potatoes, grilled veggies and a side salad, all for under $20.

Just as there are few choices for eateries on Camano, there are equally as few lodging options; all of which fall into the category of small inns and B&Bs.

The Inn at Barnum Point is owned and operated by Carolin Barnum Dilorenzo, a71-year-old grandmother with family ties to the island dating back 100 years.

Dilorenzo’s grandfather came to Camano a century ago and homesteaded 125 acres of land at Barnum Point, overlooking Port Susan. Dilorenzo has fond memories as a little girl of playing on the beaches and swimming and boating in Port Susan Bay.

In 1992, she had the inn built at the Point in order to be nearer to her family, many who had also settled in the area, and to be able to share these special surroundings with others who came to visit the island.

The house sits at the end of a long, winding road, on the tip of the Point, with spectacular, panoramic water and mountain views. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Rainier and the Cascades in all their glory.

“This view always seems to melt worries away and help put life back into perspective,” comments Dilorenzo. I can attest to that, for after having spent a very restful night at this unique property, I felt refreshed and at peace. The inn has three airy and comfortable rooms for guests, all which look right onto the water.

From the front door, you can walk down onto the beach or take one of the trails through the fields.

Or simply sit in your room watching the sunset turn the sky all shades of pink, while being mesmerized by the sound of the waves lapping at the shore.

In the morning, wake up to one of Dilorenzo’s famous breakfasts (i.e. oatmeal scones, fresh fruit and eggs Florentine) and spend a cozy few hours chatting about the island.

Dilorenzo knows pretty much everyone on Camano and she will gladly provide assistance with planning an outing or helping you make contact with a particular artist.

When you leave the Inn at Barnum Point, you will feel as if you’ve known Dilorenzo a lifetime and you will be eager to return for another dose of her warm hospitality.

Camano Island is a pleasant getaway destination for a day or an overnight and what makes it special is that you won’t have to share it with the masses.

Iceland: a journey that touches the soul

  • Written by Deborah Stone

iceland“You’re going where?” my friends incredulously asked, when I told them I was headed to Iceland for a week.

“Why, Iceland, of all places?” they countered. I explained to them that opportunity had knocked at my door in the form of an invitation to join a trip for writers to this unique destination and curiosity had propelled me to accept. I admit I first quickly ran to check my atlas to see where Iceland was, as I had only a vague notion of its location - somewhere northeast of Canada?

Actually, to be specific, Iceland is located in the North Atlantic, between Greenland and Scandinavia, resting at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Roughly the size of Virginia with less than 300,000 people, it is Europe’s least populated country, yet it is quickly becoming one of the continent’s hottest destinations.

Prior to my trip, I had imagined Iceland as a desolate, cold and forbidding place, only fit for hearty Norsemen and their fish. How quickly my perceptions changed after a week of experiencing first-hand this exotic country of extreme contrasts.

To begin with, its name is really a misnomer because it is nowhere as cold as it implies. The average temperature in Iceland in January is the same as that of New York City in winter due to the Gulf Stream, which helps to moderate the country’s climate. In summer, the temps range in the comfortable 60 degree to 70 degree range.

Why the old Norsemen who first came to Iceland gave such a harsh name to this green country is a mystery. Legend has it that the first Viking to discover the island wanted to preserve it for himself, so he named the green country “Iceland” and the icy country “Greenland” in hopes that future settlers would continue to head further north and leave his island alone.

What surprised me about this magical place was its dramatic landscapes and natural phenomena, all forged by the forces of fire and ice. The country sits atop one of the world’s most volcanically active hot spots and about eleven percent of it is covered by glaciers.

The scenery is wild, pristine and colorful with geological formations that make one forget that he/she is still on planet Earth.

I knew I was somewhere very different when I arrived, via Icelandair (only a five and a half hour nonstop flight from Minneapolis), at Keflavik International Airport outside of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Rugged and moss-grown lava fields greeted me as we drove toward the city and for miles all I could view were large black chunks of volcanic rock.

The city of Reykjavik (known as “smoky bay” for the steam that comes from the hot springs that surround the area) is the cultural and entertainment mecca of the country; a hip, happening place with a pulsating nightlife, a dynamic fashion scene and renowned restaurants. It is also a charming and lively seaport with ships dotting its coastline, houses of candy colored roofs hugging the shores and expansive views of Mount Esja in the distance.

Our group stayed at the 4-star Nordica Hotel, the largest hotel in the country with 282 rooms, a spa to die for and numerous conference facilities. Its design was minimalist and emphasized clean and sleek lines, ala Scandinavian style.

We lunched further away from Reykjavik in the small town of Stokkseyri at a little lobster shack called Fjorubordid, which was set on a black volcanic beach. The place had the most amazing melt-in-your-mouth steamed and seasoned Icelandic lobster, which looked like langoustines, but were much sweeter and more delicate. It was my initiation into the proliferation of exquisitely prepared fresh seafood I would encounter throughout the duration of my stay.

That evening, we headed for the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s most famous sights, about an hour outside Reykjavik. Set amid black lava fields and next to the geothermal power station that supplies the country’s central heating (a pollution free energy source, I might add), the Blue Lagoon is a mystical spot that provides visitors with an out-of-this-world experience.

Picture swirling steam rising over a lake of gently simmering sky blue colored water against a craters-of-the-moon backdrop. Now picture soaking in this natural geothermal spa that remains a constant 100 to 110 degrees year round and the concept of ultimate relaxation is complete. Of interest to note is that experts claim the spring’s combination of mineral salts, blue-green algae and silica mud are not only therapeutic for the body, but have healing powers for various conditions of the skin, particularly psoriasis.

As we headed back to our hotel, I had no concept of time until I glanced at my watch and saw that it was nearing 11 p.m. In the land of the midnight sun, the sky was still fairly light and I realized I had untapped energy reserves despite the fact I had not been to bed for 24 hours and was suffering a bout of jet lag.

The next day our group took a short flight to the northeast part of the country to the town of Akureyri (the second largest city in Iceland). Located at the head of an eyjafjordur, a fjord, and opening out towards the Arctic Ocean, Akureyri made a spectacular first impression from the air with its snow-capped mountains and sparkling, azure colored water. Icelandic nature is at its boldest in this region, from its glaciers and spectacular waterfalls to spouting springs of geysers, seething hot springs, boiling mud pots, bizarre lava formations and deep fissures in the earth’s surface.

Our home for the next few days was Husavik, a peaceful fishing village that is also known as the whale watching capital of Europe. Our host for the area was gregarious Haraldur (Halli) Lindal Petursson, General Manager of the Marketing Council of Husavik, who personally guided our group around the town and showed us all there was to do in this fascinating place.

The amount of activities available in Husavik, and for that matter, throughout Iceland during the late spring and summer months are numerous and include horseback riding on Icelandic horses (known for their sure-footedness, strength and impish appearance), kayaking, hiking, bird watching (colonies of puffins and seabirds make their home here), jeep tours in the mountains, deep sea fishing and of course, whale watching. Our group was fortunate to join North Sailing Company on one of its excursions into Skjalfandi Bay, where we were able to spot minke whales and playful white beaked dolphins in their natural habitat.

As I sat on the boat, in the middle of a glorious sunny day, with majestic mountains in the distance and a dazzling expanse of water as far as the eye could see, I imagined that this is what heaven would be like - pristine, unspoiled and utterly calm.

In the days that followed, we toured the Husavik Museum, a compilation of several small museums that included folk and maritime collections, photos and paintings, natural history artifacts and the district’s archives, as well as the Husavik Whale Center, the only museum of its kind in Iceland, dedicated to the education and preservation of the country’s marine wildlife. Director and founder Asjborn Byogvinsson has received international recognition and awards for his work in helping to change the attitude towards whales and conservation as a whole in Iceland.

The duration of our visit to this region was spent in and around Lake Myvatn and the Krafla Mountains, hiking around spaceship-like pseudo-craters, visiting the bizarre towering lava formations at Dimmuborgir (“dark castles” supposedly formed by trolls who held a party one night and forgot about the time, only to have the sun shine on them and turn them into rocks the next morning!), gazing at sizzling, sulphurous mud pots at Hoverer, walking across terrain used by U.S. astronauts to train for their missions on the moon, taking in the wonders of Godafoss, the waterfall of the ancient Viking gods, and marveling at a land painted in all colors of the rainbow.

I stood in awe of nature’s power and its primeval forces which have clearly been locked in a battle for centuries.

Woven into my journey through Iceland were Icelandic sagas - stories and myths that told the history of this fascinating country and its people, dating back to the ninth century when settlers from Norway first set foot on the land. Icelanders still speak Islensku (Icelandic), the ancient language of the Vikings, yet are also fluent in English, Danish and at least one other European language.

I found the people to be independent, resilient and very practical, as well as incredibly hospitable and welcoming to visitors. There is a simplicity to their lifestyles that I found enviable.

Another interesting point to note is that Iceland is the cleanest country in the world with virtually no pollution or crime, a fact almost unheard of in today’s society. The downside to this Eden is the high cost of living, which is similar to that found in Scandinavian countries.

Tourists may experience sticker shock initially unless they are prepared for the prices, particularly for food, clothing, gas and other necessities.

Lodging, however, is comparable to the rates found in major cities in the U.S. (Recently, the krona, the Icelandic monetary unit had an exchange rate of 74k = $1).

My week’s stay in this captivating country opened my eyes to a destination I would have never considered visiting due to my erroneous preconceptions. I am thankful that I had the chance to explore this last great wilderness, filled with its raw, unique blend of natural beauty, and allow it to leave its indelible mark on my soul.

I am itching to return to this wondrous place, and perhaps this time, I’ll make a point of visiting in winter to espy the land dressed in white, and maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll catch sight of the dancing aurora borealis! For now, takk and bless bless (“thanks” and “goodbye”).

Escape to The Edgewater, rediscover Seattle

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Fine food and unforgettable views makes for a memorable experience. The Edgewater’s famed Six Seven gets high marks for serving up world class Pacific Rim-inspired Northwest cuisine. Photo courtesy of Edgewater.
Air travel can be a hassle these days, with long lines, strict security measures, endless delays and overcrowded planes. And if you opt for a road trip, there’s the cost of gas, which can put a serious dent in your wallet. Then there’s all the passport confusion with regards to crossing borders. Sometimes, it’s just easier to stay home.

But, in my experience, the vacation mentality doesn’t usually kick in unless you get away from your day-to-day surroundings. If you’re home, it’s too easy to get caught up in projects around the house or sucked into answering e-mails for work.

The solution: Pack your bags for a stay in downtown Seattle and become a tourist in your own city. Though there are many hotels in this fine town, there’s only one perched right on the bay, The Edgewater.

A Seattle landmark since 1962, The Edgewater, at Pier 67, has the interior trappings of a luxury mountain lodge, yet sits in the middle of the city. The place takes full advantage of its location and offers stunning panoramas of the Olympics and Elliott Bay, with a colorful parade of ferries and sailboats that can captivate even the most hardcore natives.

As you walk into the lobby, the view from out of the floor-to-ceiling windows immediately commands your attention. You’ll be drawn to it like a magnet and as you gaze out at the picture perfect scene, you’ll feel as if you’re standing right atop the water, which, in fact, you are!

Unlike some hotels where the lobby is simply the place to register and check out, at The Edgewater it’s a true gathering place for guests. They sit in comfy chairs in front of the windows or curl up by the cozy fireplace, where they chat, sip a glass of wine, read, play cards or doze off contentedly. It’s a surprisingly relaxing and unpretentious atmosphere for an urban hotel and you, too, will find yourself seamlessly easing into that vacation mode once inside this hotel’s “living room.”

Recently renovated guestrooms offer stunning views of Elliot Bay or sparkling city skyline vistas. They feature river rock fireplaces, hand-crafted knotty pine furniture, overstuffed chairs and the hotel’s signature bear footrest, bathrooms with flagstone floors and European spa showers (some even have claw-foot tubs), plush Ralph Lauren bedding and a host of extra amenities.

If you want to splurge and get a dose of history at the same time, ask for the Beatles’ Suite, room 272.

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Visitors at The Edgewater can curl up by the cozy fireplace, where they chat, sip a glass of wine, read, play cards or doze off contentedly. Photo courtesy of The Edgewater.
The Fab Four once stayed at The Edgewater, back in 1964, on their first world tour. The hotel had to install cyclone fencing around its perimeter to keep screaming fans at bay. Some avid groupies even tried swimming across the bay to reach the band members.

Ironically, the Beatles were not accepted as guests at any other hotel in Seattle, but The Edgewater happily hosted them. Their visit put the hotel on the map and also led to its fame for being the hot place to stay in Seattle for such legendary rock groups as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, KISS and Black Sabbath.

In the Beatles’ spacious 700 square-foot suite, three panoramic windows offer full views of Elliot Bay. You’ll be surrounded by a photo gallery of the Fab Four, including the famous picture of the group fishing out of the hotel’s window.

There’s also a library of books on the guys, as well as a collection of their CDs, to set the proper mood. And if you’ve forgotten where the lads once hailed from, there are British flags adorning the pillows to remind you of their roots.

Although there are numerous great restaurants in the area from which to choose, the hotel’s famed Six Seven gets high marks for serving up world class Pacific Rim-inspired Northwest cuisine.

Award-winning chef William Koval integrates local ingredients, native herbs and regional seafood to create flavorful dishes, such as Miso Halibut with sweet potato, shitake mushrooms and spinach or Seared Turbot with braised artichokes, asparagus and smoked bacon.

Starters include such delights as Trio of Tuna in a sashimi rice paper roll or Walla Walla Asparagus Soup with jumbo crab.

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As you walk into the lobby, the view from out of the floor-to-ceiling windows immediately commands your attention. Photo courtesy of The Edgewater.
If you have room for dessert, try the sinful Chocolate Pot du Crème with espresso gelee and vanilla bean ice cream.

The restaurant also prides itself on its extensive wine-by-the-glass list of Washington wines.

When the weather’s fair, opt to dine alfresco on the patio where you can watch Washington State ferries cruise by as the sun paints a vivid orange backdrop in the sky. Fine food and unforgettable views makes for a memorable experience.

The Edgewater’s ideal central location puts visitors in the heart of Seattle’s premiere attractions within minutes.

Hit the pavement for a short walk south along the waterfront to Pike Place Market and watch the fish-slinging with the rest of the tourists or venture north to the new Olympic Sculpture Park.

If being on the water is more your style, then hop on a ferry for a ride to a nearby island or take an Argosy cruise around Elliot Bay and the Seattle harbor.

You can also shop till you drop, browse eclectic galleries and visit a variety of different museums, all within blocks of the hotel.

For the proverbial tourist treat, Ride the Ducks, take the elevator to the top of the Space Needle or get a glimpse into the city’s heritage on the Seattle Underground Tour in historic Pioneer Square.

And if you’re a theatre-goer, take in a show at one of the many venues that dot the downtown corridor. Nearby Myrtle Edwards Park, with its 1.25-mile winding bike and pedestrian path along the bay, offers a beautifully landscaped space that makes a peaceful sanctuary when you’re looking for a change of pace (The Edgewater will even provide you with a courtesy bicycle if you want to pedal your way around town).

We live in an exciting city that attracts millions of visitors each year. It’s easy to take it for granted when you’ve lived here a long time.

For your next vacation destination, take the hassle out of travel and escape to the Edgewater for an opportunity to rediscover Seattle.

The Edgewater Hotel: (206) 728-7000 or www.edgewaterhotel.com.