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Experience your own private playground at Olympic National Park

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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Photo by Deborah Stone Olympic National Park is a haven of natural beauty and grandeur.
I like visiting our country’s national parks when the masses aren’t present. I go to these treasured playgrounds to reconnect with nature and find inspiration. And crowds are a distraction I’d rather do without. Sometimes this means exploring these places when the weather isn’t optimal or when services are minimal.

I’ve always found, however, that the advantages of having such special havens of beauty and grandeur mostly to myself far outweigh any of the off-season disadvantages.

Take my recent trip to Olympic National Park as an example. My husband and I headed over there for a long weekend in late February when daytime temps average in the 40s and rainfall is at its most plentiful.

Many of the facilities are closed during this time, so there are fewer options for accommodations. But, there are two choice properties open year-round, Lake Quinault Lodge and Kalaloch Lodge, which offer two distinct landscapes for visitors. Historic Lake Quinault Lodge, which dates back to 1926, is located at the southwest end of the Olympic National Park.

This handsome timber structure sits on the banks of a majestic glacier-carved body of water, surrounded by the mossy old growth trees of the Quinault Rain Forest, one of only three temperate coniferous rain forests in the Western Hemisphere.

Based here, you’ll be able to roam the Quinault Valley, known as the "Valley of the Giants," where you’ll see the largest Sitka Spruce tree in the world, along with other recognized giants of Hemlock, Douglas Fir and the mighty Western Red Cedar.

Hike one of the fifteen well established trails in the area and keep a keen eye out for wildlife, like the stately Roosevelt elk and the black tail deer, while taking in awesome views of the surrounding Olympic Mountains.

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Photo by Deborah Stone Serenity abounds at picture pretty Kalaloch Lodge.
The Quinault Valley receives an average of 12 feet of rain per year, which is responsible for nourishing this complex temperate rain forest ecosystem.

So make sure to take your waterproof gear no matter when you visit. The lodge itself is a handsome property with comfy rooms (some which are pet-friendly), a cozy lobby, spacious outdoor veranda and the all-service Roosevelt Dining Room with its spectacular view of the lake.

This restaurant shines, particularly at dinner, when guests are treated to a variety of tasty regional specialties, ranging from salmon and other fresh seafood dishes to steak, chicken and pasta selections.

There’s also an indoor swimming pool, game room and sauna on site and a general store conveniently located across the street that sells everything you need for a picnic lunch.

People tend to congregate in the lodge’s lobby during the late afternoon and evening hours.

They read, play board games, plan their next day’s hikes or doze off in front of the crackling fireplace.

It’s a scene right out of a Currier & Ives picture. To experience a totally different environment, head twenty odd miles north of Lake Quinault to Kalaloch on the scenic coast off U.S. 101.

The lodge and its cabins are perched on a bluff above the ocean, where you’ll go to bed at night lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves outside your door.

In the morning, grab your cup of coffee and stroll right down the path to the beach. You can walk for what seems like miles along this wild coastline with its endless natural wonders.

And if you’re here off season, you’ll most likely have your own private beach.

Over the years, large logs and driftwood have piled up against the bluff, creating numerous ideal spots to sit and breathe the salty air while contemplating this exquisite landscape.

Sunrises and sunsets are especially poetic moments with scenes that rival Impressionist paintings. And the tide pools that form provide a fascinating glimpse of the diversity of marine life that lies beneath the surface of the sea.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see a whale or two breaching and maybe a sea lion sunning itself on the rocks.

I guarantee you’ll spot a few bald eagles soaring above.

At Kalaloch, the focus is the beach. And people choose to stay at the lodge because of its lack of pretense.

The charm of this property lies in its simplicity and naturalness. You’ll find rustic comfort in the cozy cabins, several of which come with kitchenettes and fireplaces.

And in each you’ll find a beach guide, tide tables and a pair of walking sticks. What you won’t see are any in-room TVs or telephones. In an effort to provide a serene escape, these "distractions" are purposefully absent.

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Photo by Deborah Stone Dramatic sea stacks appear as sentinels of the coastline.
Some folks bring food with them and prepare their meals in their cabins. Others take advantage of the lodge’s restaurant or on-site general store, which is stocked with groceries and assorted sundries, and also sells espressos and smoothies.

The restaurant is a bit on the pricey side, most notably at dinner, and the quality of the food isn’t anything exceptional, but the views of the ocean can’t be beat.

From Kalaloch, it’s only 20 miles to the Hoh Rainforest, a mecca for hikers. On your way, stop at picturesque Ruby Beach to see the dramatic sea stacks. Known as "ghosts of former islands," these mammoth rocks are actually remnants of eroded cliffs that loom out of the water and appear as sentinels of the coastline.

The beach got its name for its often garnet-colored sand. Once you’re in the Hoh, stop at the visitor center to learn a bit about the area and get trail advice from the helpful rangers.

For a quick and easy introduction to this unique ecosystem, take the Hall of Mosses path. It’s a short three-fourth mile loop that will lead you into the older part of the forest.

The primeval spirit is strong among these massive trees that seem as old as the earth. Moss hangs like beards off their shaggy branches and the light plays peek-a-boo in the leafy canopy overhead. Then head out on the Hoh River Trail to explore more of this verdant paradise.

You’ll meander past waterfalls and creeks as you follow the sometimes teal, sometimes gray river. And in the distance, you’ll see the snowcapped peaks of the Olympics.

We hiked for several hours and came across just a handful of people on the trail, giving us once again the impression that this natural playground was ours alone.

Although the Hoh Valley is known as one of the wettest places in the country with an average 140 inches of annual rainfall, we didn’t get any liquid sunshine during our visit. However, there’s always a condensed mist that can be felt when you’re in the rainforest. Somehow it only adds to the mysterious and eerie quality of this distinctive setting.

It’s no wonder that author Stephanie Meyer used this locale as part of the backdrop for her popular "Twilight" series. There are many other gems within the Olympic National Park. It’s a vast place with three distinct areas, the mountains, forest and coast, giving visitors a range of options to explore. Just don’t try seeing it all at one time. Like fine chocolate, it’s best appreciated and savored in small pieces.

Shed your cares and parka and head to Maui this winter

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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Photo by Deborah Stone The Iao Valley, a lush, stream cut valley in West Maui
There’s a reason Maui continuously gets rated as one of the world’s best islands by readers of various travel publications. Actually, there are multiple reasons for this distinction. Many of them hit home for me on a recent visit to this tropical locale, a place I like to refer to as "Paradise."

Our family vacation timed perfectly with the onset of one of the worst winter snowstorms to ever hit the Seattle area. We gladly exchanged our frigid white landscape for palm trees and sunshine. And we reveled in hearing the same, monotonous forecast repeated day after day during our stay.

Yes, the weather is one of the main reasons people head for this 727-square-mile island that lies just below the Tropic of Cancer. Particularly in the winter months, folks need to escape their inhospitable climates and find solace in the sun. Maui’s temperatures remain fairly consistent year round, with usually no more than a 10-degree fluctuation between seasons. You can count on warm, sunny days most of the time and even when it rains, it doesn’t last long. And unlike Seattle, Maui’s liquid sunshine doesn’t chill you to the bone.

Another top draw for this island is its beaches. With 120 miles of coastline, there are more than 80 of these sun-burnished playgrounds. The question is how to pick the one that matches your needs.

If you want to see and be seen, head for Dig Me Beach in Kaanapali.

For good swimming, head for Kapalua Beach at the Kapalua Resort or D.T. Fleming Beach, a few miles north of Lahaina. Both are protected from strong winds and currents and their calm waters are ideal for swimmers of all ages and abilities.

A personal favorite of mine is Big Beach on the southwest part of the island. It’s one of the last major undeveloped beaches in this area and it gets high marks because it’s long and wide and never crowded. Most days it can feel like your own private retreat.

Then there’s Wailea Beach, a gorgeous, golden crescent of sand that’s spacious and protected on both sides by black-lava points.

Maui_Cinder_ConesBoth locals and visitors enjoy Kamaole III Beach Park, in the funky seaside town of Kihei, because it’s a series of three very accessible beaches.

If you want to surf or windsurf, or watch others strut their stuff, Ho’okipa Beach is the place to be. Let your mood and energy level dictate your choice and when in doubt, ask a local.

Maui’s beaches and warm weather set the stage for a gentle pace of life. I love that everything moves slowly here. It reminds me to take time to stop and smell the plumeria. This can be a bit of a challenge for some harried urbanites from the mainland, but after a few days, everyone gets accustomed to island time and the Maui mindset. There’s sheer bliss in knowing that you don’t have to hurry for anything or anybody and that your cares have been reduced to simple matters, like making sure you’ve applied enough sunscreen.

But, when you’re ready to move from that lounge chair on your lanai, there are plenty of activities to engage in, on land, in the water and even above ground. The possibilities are endless.

In addition to the typical options you might find on any tropical island, there are a number of unique pursuits.

For an adrenaline rush, I suggest rappelling down a canyon in Makamakaole Valley and ziplining through the treetops on an "Indiana Jones" style adventure.

Or take a heart pumping bike ride down the slopes of Haleakala. You can don hiking shoes and meander the many trails that dot the island, crawl through lava tubes, strap on wings and go paragliding, explore hidden sea caves and try your hand at kitesurfing or stand up paddle surfing, a vintage water sport that’s experiencing a comeback.

Tour a working pineapple plantation, snorkel the sunken crater of Molokini, visit Maui’s famed horse whisperer, Frank Levinson, for a seminar on equine language, make a pilgrimage to Charles Lindbergh’s grave (the legendary aviator is buried on the slopes of Haleakala), check out the Maui Ocean Center with its eye-popping Living Reef exhibit or learn something about island history at the Bailey House Museum, a treasure-trove of Hawaiiana.

To get a memorable bird’s eye view of the island, take a helicopter tour. You’ll be in awe of the landscape, which ranges from the lunar-like surface of Haleakala Crater to the waterfall-laced coastline of the North Shore rainforest. You’ll fly over deep, uninhabitable canyons and past sheer sea cliffs during this mystical, multi-sensory experience.

If you’ve never been to Maui, you’ll want to add two musts to your list: a visit to Haleakala National Park, the site of the world’s largest dormant volcano and a road trip to Hana.

More than 1.3 million people a year go up the 10,023 foot high mountain to peer down into Haleakala Crater, the size of which would hold Manhattan. But, there’s more to do here than stare into a big black abyss. Just going up the mountain is an experience in itself, offering breathtaking views of the isthmus of Maui, the West Maui Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Many folks make the drive up to the summit in predawn darkness to watch the sunrise over Haleakala, a divine treat that defies description.

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Photo by Deborah Stone The best Hawaiian shave ice on Maui is at Ululani’s
The road to Hana is also a memorable experience, which, in my opinion, is best savored when you’re not the one in the driver’s seat! You’ll want to take in the spectacular natural beauty outside your windows as you zigzag over 56 one-lane bridges and snake around more than 617 hairpin curves on this narrow coastal road.

Don’t be in a hurry or you’ll miss the sights from both sides of the road. And make sure you stop along the way to stretch your legs and check out the various parks, hidden villages, botanical gardens and dramatic waterfalls. It’s a trip that overwhelms the senses with continuous Kodak moments of lush, verdant rainforests, bucolic rolling hills and magnificent seascapes.

At the end of your journey, you’ll reach Hana, one of the last unspoiled Hawaiian towns on Maui. It’s a small, ingenuous village that contrary to its celebrity status prefers to remain unpretentious and natural.

In the winter months, climb aboard a boat and head for the open ocean to see the humpback whales. These playful, forty-ton creatures swim more than 2,500 miles from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to mate and give birth in the waters around Hawaii. And up to 7,000 of them can pass through Maui.

When I visit the island during this season, I always make a point of cruising whale territory to espy these magnificent, endangered mammals.

This time around, my family opted for a Teralani sunset supper cruise, a three-in-one experience combining whale watching, dinner and the opportunity to take in one of the island’s famous sunsets at sea. We were rewarded with multiple sightings of whales blowing, breaching and slapping their tails. Their amazing feats of marine gymnastics held us spellbound and rendered us speechless.

Maui’s diversity of sea life, flora and fauna allow visitors multiple opportunities to have memorable encounters with nature.

The island is also a cultural mecca. You can learn about Polynesian arts and traditions, which embrace a mix of cultures from Hawaii, Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji and Samoa. The luau is popular with many first timers, but for a less commercial and more authentic experience, check out the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. It’s the main venue on the island for top notch Hawaiian performance and visual artists.

There’s also the Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Concert Series, held weekly at the Napili Kai Beach Resort. I happened to catch one of these shows for the first time and I was impressed with the sweet and soulful quality of the music, the intimacy of the experience and the amount of passion the performers had for this traditional art form.

In slack key, some of the strings of the guitar are slacked from the standard tuning, with the thumb playing the bass while the other fingers play the melody and improvise in a finger-picked style. Music is created by the artist’s own characteristic tuning and fingering, inspired by the beauty and spirit of the islands and enriched by personal stories, memories and family traditions.

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Courtesy photo For an authentic cultural experience, attend a Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Concert.
Then there’s "Picnic with Poki," monthly informal musical performances by local artists in front of the Kaahumanu Church in Wailuku. It doesn’t get any more Maui-style than this!

And to enhance your down home island experience, make sure you sample some local foods. Try a plate lunch, Hawaii’s version of fast food. It’s an inexpensive, yet filling dish that includes rice, macaroni or potato salad, a choice of several types of barbecued pork and beef, chicken (braised, breaded and fried or teriyaki style) or lomi-lomi salmon (served salted and chilled).

Plate lunches can be found at lunch wagons, drive-ins, diners and small markets. Manju, a type of pie-snack cake, is a true Maui treasure that also begs indulgence. These addictive buns are filled with everything from pineapple to sweet potato.

And while you’re at it, head for one of the ubiquitous shaved ice stands for another Hawaiian specialty. Ululani’s in Lahaina gets top marks in my family. The ice is so finely shaved it melts in your mouth and they have over 35 delicious flavors to tempt all palates.

You’ll find an ample variety of restaurants from small mom and pop eateries to fancy establishments with drop dead views. Once again, when in doubt, get suggestions from the locals. They’re the best guides when it comes to good food.

As for finding your special home away from home, rest assured, the accommodation selection is on par with the dining options on the island. You have your choice of full service resorts, hotels, condos, inns, cottages, B&Bs and campgrounds. Many families often enjoy staying in a condo, as it allows for the option of cooking and eating in, as well as provides easy access to a washer and drier.

We chose to make Kaanapali our base on the island and stayed at the Outrigger Maui Eldorado in a spacious and comfy two-bedroom condo perched on the golf course with a lovely ocean view.

It was chockfull of amenities and nicely furnished, as well as conveniently located to the beach, shops, restaurants and other activities.Maui is an all-around, ideal vacation destination that appeals to young and old, families and couples, adventure seekers and sedentary, lounge chair potatoes. It’s no wonder that travelers from around the globe return time and time again to this special slice of paradise, unable to resist its lure and promises of rest and rejuvenation.

 

 

 

Salmon and eagles and bears, oh my!

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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Photo by Deborah Stone Petunia and her 2-year-old cub in search of a salmon snack.
As we rounded the bend, we saw them. A mother grizzly bear and her cub were combing the banks of the river looking for their next snack. Mama saw us and flicked her ears to let us know she was on to our game, but then she pointedly ignored us and continued her search with her young’un dutifully following behind.

I gazed at these majestic creatures in an awe-filled silence, drinking in every detail of this memorable, stirring moment.

"That’s Petunia and her 2-year-old son," Gary said later after the bears had left the area. "They’ve both got those same exact halos around their necks."

Meet Gary Zorn, the Cariboo Mountains "Bear Whisperer," a man who has devoted his life to studying the social hierarchy, habits and body language of these creatures, while communing with them in their natural habitat.

Gary and his wife Peggy own and operate Ecotours-BC, a Canadian adventure tour company specializing in offering unique and intimate experiences for guests interested in viewing wildlife and learning about the natural history of an unspoiled wilderness.

The Zorns were in the ecotourism business long before "green" became a buzz word in the industry.

"We’ve been preserving the environment and showing it to folks for over 30 years now," explains Peggy. "And that’s what ecotourism is really all about. It’s about providing opportunities for people to interact with nature, while educating them about their environment."

The Zorns operate their business out of Likely, British Columbia, a tiny hamlet deep in the heart of the Cariboo Mountains region, approximately three hours from the province’s northern capitol, Prince George.

The area is located within a rare, temperate interior rain forest. It’s a region of dramatic scenic beauty, dominated by high mountain peaks and glaciers, densely forested valleys, thundering waterfalls, and picturesque lakes, including Quesnel Lake, the deepest fjord lake in the world. This diverse landscape provides habitat for hundreds of species of birds and animals, including one of the largest concentrations of mountain grizzlies in North America.

Most of the Zorn’s guests come to this remote piece of paradise to see the wildlife, but according to Peggy, they leave with so much more.

She says, "They usually go away with a greater appreciation and respect for this special environment and all that it offers, as well as an understanding of how important it is to preserve it for the future."

The bears, of course, are the star attraction. And Gary, your guide extraordinaire, will do his utmost to ensure that you have an unforgettable encounter with these impressive creatures. He’ll introduce you to the Cariboo Mountain grizzlies in their wild, natural habitat, out on the Mitchell River.

The grizzly bear is one of the largest predatory and most solitary animals on the planet. Characterized by its razor sharp claws, tell-tale hump over the shoulder and dished nose, this creature is regarded as the signature species of the Canadian wilderness.

On an Ecotours-BC bear viewing adventure, you’ll rise before dawn, eat one of Peggy’s hearty breakfasts and then take a prop boat down to the north arm of Quesnel Lake.

There you’ll transfer to a jet boat and head toward Mitchell River, where the bears congregate to feast on salmon.

Each year, the salmon return to the area to spawn and the bears are there ready and waiting. They gorge themselves on the fish in preparation for their winter hibernation. This event provides exceptional bear watching and photography opportunities for visitors, who come from all over the globe to catch sight of this natural phenomenon.

They also get an added bonus, as along with the grizzlies, the river is lined with bald and golden eagles, feeding on the salmon carcasses. It’s quite a show and truly an adventure of a lifetime. There’s nothing that can prepare you for seeing bears up close in the wild.

Grizzlies, in particular, have a larger-than-life presence that renders viewers speechless. This is a good thing, as one of the cardinal rules of wildlife viewing is silence. It’s imperative when you see the bears that you remain quiet in order not to startle or agitate them. This rule also applies to when you’re moving along the river.

Gary, in full wader regalia, basically walks the boat through the water, as it is the only way to come upon the bears without them being aware of your presence ahead of time.

Voices and motor noises would scare them off long before you had the chance to see them.

Early on in my trip, we spied several bears from a distance, but by the time we got to them, they had already left the area.

Hours went by without another spotting and I began to despair that I would ever see a grizzly up close. Gary needed to remind me that patience is another rule of wildlife viewing.

He said, "You need to remember that these are wild animals, roaming freely in their natural habitat. They don’t show themselves simply for your entertainment. They don’t just appear on command. You have to be patient and persistent and then maybe you’ll be rewarded. But, there are no guarantees."

I heeded his words and decided to just lie back in the boat and bask in the peace and tranquility of my surroundings. I told myself to slow down and enjoy the experience of being in the present, without thinking about goals and must dos.

While we waited, I watched proud eagles soar overhead and took the time to listen to Mother Nature’s conversation. I also observed my guide and took cues from his calm, yet constantly aware behavior.

As someone who has lived in the great outdoors for most of his life, Gary has developed acute senses. He sees and hears things that others don’t because they’re not attuned to the rhythms of the wilderness.

"Listen and watch closely," he says. "There’s always a story that’s being told. Hear the birds screeching, look at the way the fish move in the water and take note of your surroundings. Look for things that might be out of place."

Gary emphasizes the need to understand an animal’s habits and its behavior patterns in order to become a proficient wildlife observer, but he stresses that this type of knowledge only comes with experience. He adds, "You can read all the books in the world, but experience is truly the best teacher."

After spending years in this environment, Gary knows most of the bears in the area intimately from their unique habits, temperaments, family units and colorings. He has given names to many of them: Albert, the elder statesman, twins Homer and Jethro, Sad Little Bear, Happy Little Bear, Elmo, Grouchy One, and of course, Petunia, the featured star of my experience. While amongst the bears, he tries to think like them. And when he talks to them, which he often does, he speaks softly in a monotone voice, often inserting his own special brand of humor into his comments: "Hey, bear, how’s the fishin’?" he might ask. Yet, he can convey a stern command when necessary, saying "Enough bear, back off now," if the animal is getting too close for comfort.

In all his years, Gary has never been attacked by a bear. He maintains a constant and vigilant respect for these massive and powerful creatures and his most often repeated advice when encountering a bear is: "Grizzly bears are wild animals. Remain calm. Never run from a bear."

When you’re not out viewing the bears, you might be engaged in other activities with the Zorns, such as hiking amid the alpine, trekking through ancient old growth forests, birding in the wetlands or taking an interpretive history tour of the Gold Rush Trail.

Guests stay at Pyna-tee-ah, the couple’s comfortable lodge in Likely. It’s an inviting, homey place, complete with a friendly resident dog, Trouble, and two charming cats, Whiskers and Callie. You’ll find Peggy presiding over the kitchen, where she prepares delicious, healthy meals to satisfy appetites of any size and type. It’s here that the guests usually congregate before dinner to sip some wine, compare their experiences and hear Gary tell his engaging and often humorous bear stories. The man has a wealth of knowledge about flora and fauna, and the natural history of the area. And he takes great joy in sharing it with others.

After dinner, folks move into the spacious front room to continue their conversations in front of the cozy fireplace or to peruse the Zorn’s collection of quality photos, books and articles about wildlife and local points of interest.

Peggy and Gary are gracious and hospitable innkeepers, who sincerely enjoy being hosts.

"What I like most about doing this are the people," comments Peggy. "We get folks, of all ages and backgrounds, from all over the world. They have such interesting stories to tell. And it’s fascinating to hear their reasons for wanting to get back to nature."

The Zorns have created more than just opportunities to discover and connect with nature. They have set the stage for renewal and rejuvenation.

"We believe that this environment can refresh your soul and cleanse your inner spirit," says Peggy. "It has the power to enlighten and redefine one’s inner self. And it can have a profound and lasting impact, as it can change the way people view the world around them."

 

 

Borscht, bone china and memories to last a lifetime

  • Written by Deborah Stone

   Imagine hearing the following comments made from a pair of adolescents while on a family vacation abroad: "The Hermitage has one of the most incredible collections of old master painters I've ever seen!" "It's understandable why a revolution occurred in Russia after seeing these ornate palaces and wasteful displays of wealth." "This borscht is not to my liking, but it was interesting to try it." "There is a real attempt to preserve the old architecture in Europe and it's fascinating to see buildings that date back to the 1100s." "In quite a few European countries, the monarchy still exists. It's amazing to see this tradition in practice today."
   Now, hear reality: "The catsup's really watery here and it tastes funny." "Things take forever to get done here!" "Those guys must be dying in those hot uniforms and shaggy hats and stuff!" "Chips are crisps and fries are chips Ñ weird!" "These old buildings really smell inside! Haven't they heard of air freshener?" "Open-faced sandwiches are a pain to eat." "Their money weighs a ton!" "This ice cream really rocks!" "Look at all the McDonald's everywhere. They're even selling hotdogs at that one!" "Beet soup, yuck!"
   Yes, out of the mouths of my babes came those precious gems on a recent family trip, combining a cruise of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland), Russia (St. Petersburg) and Estonia with a stay in London. Traveling abroad with children (in this case, 12- and 14-year-old boys) is a unique experience that guarantees much laughter and a host of new insights that will constantly amaze you. It is a wonderful opportunity to open eyes, elicit an appreciation of cultural differences and provide multiple chances for kids to be put in situations outside of their normal comfort zones.
   A cruise is a delightful way to travel through parts of Europe, particularly for families with children. The ease of transportation from port to port, the ability to eliminate the hassles of changing accommodations from one city to the next and the opportunities for relaxation on board a ship make travel abroad in this manner relatively easy and extremely enjoyable for all ages.
   For Scandinavia, the cruise experience is especially wonderful due to the many islands, fjords and breathtaking scenery available only to those traveling by sea. Our ship, Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas, the newest of this cruise line's fleet, was stunning in its design and interiors and came equipped with a host of cushy amenities and recreational opportunities for all ages. There were over 250 kids on board (from all over the world) for our sailing in early August, and several cruise directors were available to plan a multitude of activities for tots to teens. On sea days, my kids were off on their own, either participating in programmed activities with other kids, or doing their own thing, independent of a group. My husband and I read on deck, took a dip in one of the many pools, luxuriated in a spa treatment (I highly recommend the hot stone massage!), spent time planning our itinerary for the next port, took in the excitement of an art auction, worked out in the state-of-the art exercise facility or simply enjoyed each other's company, free of interruptions.
   When the ship docked in port, we went off to explore the area on our own as a family (with the exception of St. Petersburg, where we purchased organized tours with English-speaking guides to help facilitate our way around the sights). Guidebook in hand, we set out to hit various highlights, keeping in mind our kids' interests, along with our own. We toured our share of historic castles, palaces, cathedrals and museums, but also took picturesque canal boat rides, perused shops and sat in outdoor cafes sampling local specialties, while doing what we enjoyed most Ñ people watching.
   Balancing the tour element with the more simple pleasures of imbibing the senses is important when traveling with children. Trying to see every museum and historical structure is an unrealistic goal and will often lead to a general melt down, which, trust me, can get very ugly! I think this holds true with adults, too, because after a while, sights begin to blur and the whole experience tends to be overwhelming and increasingly difficult to digest. Our kids loved pointing out interesting and often humorous differences in cultures, as well as noting similarities while strolling through the streets and narrow passageways of the towns we explored.
   And eating was a definite highlight for them! They were open to trying new foods and discovered what they liked (chicken Kiev, wiener schnitzel, citrus flavored licorice, every kind of gelato and "real" Danish pastries) and what they disliked (borscht, salted licorice, water with gas, herring and heavily piled open-faced sandwiches with, as my youngest said, "all sorts of nasty stuff!"). They took pride in mastering the challenges of learning to use different currencies, reading maps and negotiating a variety of transportation systems, from trolleys and trains to buses and the Tube (London's underground system). Realizing that it was OK to make mistakes, get lost or misunderstand people, made them relax in their new surroundings and gave them confidence to take certain risks. They tried to learn some expressions in each language they encountered, even if it was just a simple greeting, and were delighted when they could use these new words successfully.
   As we went from port to port, they became more astute at noticing ways of life and customs of each place. They were able to articulate how healthy, wealthy and clean many of the Scandinavian countries appeared in comparison to the depressed states of Russia and Estonia. One of my sons noted how "gray" it seemed in the latter two countries and how hard life must be for the people. He said, "You can see it in their faces, Mom."
   They heard firsthand stories from people about the poverty and economic struggles in these places, but more importantly, they saw with their own eyes evidence of these problems. Not once, but many times, did my kids mention how lucky they were to be living in the U.S. They acquired a newfound appreciation for the opportunities afforded to them, simply by being Americans.
   At the end of each day in port we returned to the haven of the ship where each of us could digest our experiences in whatever way we desired. We knew the children were safely on board and free to roam about the ship with their newly made friends and the only decision we had to make was what to order for dinner that night! At the end of the cruise, we were fortunate to be able to spend several days exploring London, which is a particularly wonderful city to experience with children. So many of the city's landmarks are famous and well known by most kids, so it's especially fun when they become reality to them. London is also a very accessible city to get around in and everything is well marked.
   Highlights for our family included visiting Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower of London, Wimbledon (just outside of London) and the Eye (London's gigantic ferris wheel built for the millennium), as well as taking in a performance of "The Lion King," riding a double-decker bus, cruising down the Thames, eating lots of fish and chips and partaking in the customary high tea event (picture two active boys at a table with bone china, pots of hot tea and a host of finger sandwiches in an elegant tea room. I say no more!).
   Our three week trip went by quickly, leaving us with a wealth of great memories to last us a lifetime. As a parent who believes in travel as an educational as well as recreational pursuit, I hope that each time my children leave home for a new destination, they become more flexible, adaptable and knowledgeable about the world in which they live.
   The learning outcomes may not be readily apparent after such travel, but over time, hopefully my kids can process what they experienced and see its lifelong value. I can only wish that years down the road my children will not only remember the watery catsup and beet soup, but the emotions they felt seeing Russian dancers performing traditional Cossack dances in one of St. Petersburg's oldest palaces or the eerie sight of ravens resting on the Towers of London, testimony to a tradition that has lasted hundreds and hundreds of years.
   More importantly, I hope they treasure the little moments, the laughter and the family camaraderie that made such an experience so special.

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.