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Rewind Langley style

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Inn_at_Langley_Whidbey_Island_001It’s only a 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle, but Whidbey Island feels worlds away. This place of towering trees and sparkling coves, set between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympics to the west, is an ideal all-season getaway. Treasures abound in each nook and cranny of this special haven and discovering them is part of the fun.

I’ve enjoyed exploring this island over the years and have made numerous visits to its charming, picturesque waterfront towns.

Of these, Langley shines the brightest. This gem on the southern end of Whidbey is a quaint, visitor-oriented community with a thriving arts scene, great restaurants and an eclectic array of shops. Many artists make their home here and their creativity adds a colorful, dynamic flair to the town. You can see it in the galleries and in the distinctive handmade items that are featured in the distinctive stores and boutiques. And you can even experience it live at one of the many dance, music or theatre performances held at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. This rich culture dominates and it is what continues to inspire folks with unique talents and backgrounds to make their homes here.

Langley’s vibrant arts scene, however, is not the only reason to visit this pint-size village. Come for the peace and serenity, the languid pace of life and the opportunities the area offers to appreciate the great outdoors.

You can walk the shoreline, look for resident populations of bald eagles, herons and sea lions, spot migrating gray whales or a pod of orcas feeding in the waters off the island, ride your bike down quiet country roads or simply sit and do nothing except gaze out over the sea from your deck chair or waterfront- view room.

The island boasts the highest density of bed & breakfast inns in Washington, which means you have a wide range of accommodations from which to choose.

Inn_at_Langley_Whidbey_Island_003I recommend taking refuge at the intimate Inn at Langley. Built into a bluff overlooking the Saratoga Passage, the inn offers guests a ringside seat to the ebb and flow of the tides, the parade of boats that pass by and the endless sights and sounds of the wildlife that frolic in and around their marine playground.

Each one of the 26 guest rooms and cottages has a panoramic 180-degree waterfront view, as well as a whirl-bath jetted tub that faces the sea. From your own private deck, you can watch the sun rise above the mountains on the mainland and set over the Passage. And if it’s a tad bit chilly for an outdoor seat, cozy up to the fireplace and watch Mother Nature in all her glory through the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. When you get hungry, there are plenty of options.

For a real treat, try the Inn’s special six-course dinner (served weekends only). Chef Matt Costello orchestrates this unique gourmand dining experience in The Chef’s Kitchen. Each menu presents the freshest selections that the region has to offer, with special attention paid to local foods of the island and the Northwest. Dishes change continually to reflect the seasons.

Diners have a front and center view of Costello in action, as he whips up his magic in the open kitchen setting.

Take a walk around town and check out Langley’s historic buildings and pocket parks by the beach. Make sure to stop in at Chocolate Flower Farm’s The Garden Shed. It’s one of my favorite places for distinctive gifts with a "chocolate twist."

And if you’re a bibliophile, you’re in luck. Langley boasts four bookstores, including two that specialize in rare books (Gregor Rare Books and Lowry-James). Other interesting shops to peek into include Music for the Eyes, a "museum" of textiles collected from around the world by former diplomats for the State Department;

Museo, a contemporary fine art gallery that showcases island and regional artwork; Virginia’s Antiques and Gifts; and The Star Store, an eclectic country mercantile.

To prevent you from shopping ‘til you drop, grab nourishment at one of the many cafes in town. I’m partial to The Café Langley for Mediterranean cuisine, The Fish Bowl for fresh seafood, Langley Village Bakery for everything from warm blueberry muffins to vegetarian pizza and Useless Bay Coffee Company for great coffee, scones and breakfast paninis.

Wander back to The Inn at Langley, and remember, you’re on island time.

If you go:

The Inn at Langley: www.innatlangley.com

Langley tourist information: www.visitlangley.com

Whidbey Island information: www.whidbeycamanoislands.com

 

Rough it — but in a refined way at Paws Up

  • Written by Deborah Stone
 

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After an active day exploring the wilderness playground, head to Spa Town to soothe your tired muscles. Courtesy photo.
In my household, preparing for a camping trip usually involves a flurry of intense activity, from finding the necessary equipment somewhere in the depths of our overflowing garage to methodically checking off all the to-do items on an extensive 10-page list. Then there’s the meticulous packing and re-packing regimen to fit everything in our car.

As we head out, looking like the Joad family with all our earthly belongings strapped to the top of our vehicle, our neighbors line the streets waving goodbye, believing we are off on a grand year-long adventure. Little do they know, we’ll be back in two days. But, yes, it will be an adventure.

We’ll arrive and begin to set up the tent, which typically spurs a heated discussion and the eventual discovery that we’re missing a pole. After my husband concocts something to use from one of our hiking sticks, we proceed to unload everything and then it’s time to start a fire and prepare dinner.

Between swatting at hungry mosquitoes and staving off smoke inhalation, we manage to eat our charred, overcooked meal sometime before midnight. We crawl into our sleeping bags, blurry eyed and exhausted.

But, a blissful night’s sleep is not on the agenda. Rowdy campers nearby begin a karaoke contest. And then we hear that all-too familiar hissing sound, which is coming from the hole in our air mattress – the same hole that we forgot to patch from the last time we went camping.

To top it off, it starts to rain and our tent begins to leak right above our heads. As I lie there like a prisoner undergoing Chinese water torture, I fantasize about a different type of camping.

In my fantasy, I’m lying upon a feather bed draped in 300-thread-count Egyptian silk sheets, while being lulled gently to sleep by the soothing sounds of a nearby river. I’m cozy and dry, yet the great outdoors is right outside my door.

And when I’m hungry, I head for a nearby dining pavilion to enjoy a delicious gourmet meal. A khaki-clad camping butler is at my beck and call and tends to all the details, from providing wine service to arranging a day of exciting adventures. And every evening ends with a ready-made bonfire and a nightly S’mores fest.

It’s a fantasy that can become reality when you visit The Resort at Paws Up, a luxury ranch set along the Blackfoot River in Montana’s pristine wilderness. This grand enclave is a mecca for adrenaline junkies who love the outdoors, but appreciate a high level of comfort and personal service. The resort’s digs range from tastefully appointed, lodge-style private homes to a renovated, historic 1908 farmhouse.

There’s also the Bunkhouse, a former hayloft which is now a six-bed retreat. But, the most unique abodes are found at Tent City and River Camp, where "glamping" has been perfected. Here you can camp in five-star style in your own 270-square-foot, canvas-walled platform tent, complete with king-sized bed, fine linens, electricity, spacious deck, private master bathroom, housekeeping and butler service, gourmet fare and more.

At River Camp, the newer of the two sites, six such structures sit on the banks of the majestic Blackfoot River.

Roughing it in these accommodations means plush pile rugs, fluffy, terry-cloth robes, elk-antler bedside lamps, western artwork adorning the walls and electric blankets and space heaters to take the chill off the night air. Private bathrooms located nearby come equipped with steam showers and heated slate floors.

It’s easy to while away your day in this spectacular setting, doing nothing but simply sitting by the river watching a resident bald eagle family in action.

Or lazing on your deck, reading a book and sipping a cold one. But, most folks come to Paws Up because they have a healthy appetite for wilderness adventures.

Outdoor enthusiasts rejoice upon learning they have nearly 40,000 acres, over 120 trails and 10 miles of the Blackfoot River to explore. They salivate at the menu of activities offered, including horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, river rafting, ATV touring, rock climbing, special kids’ discovery programs and my personal favorite, sporting clays.

Having never held a gun before, I approached this activity with great apprehension.

I didn’t want to embarrass myself, but knowing that I have a built-in klutz gene, I was prepared for the worst. It was a welcome surprise to discover that not only was I able to hit a number of the clays (once I could actually follow their trajectory patterns), but that I felt empowered by the sport. It was both fun and satisfying in ways I never imagined.

"Just call me Annie Oakley," I said to everyone who would listen to me as I waxed poetic about my experience.

After a full day of playing in the Rockies, many folks opt to head for Spa Town, a cluster of 11 oversized canvas structures nestled at the edge of a sage meadow with expansive, Big Sky Country vistas – the same legendary landscape that once inspired awe in Lewis and Clark. A winding boardwalk takes you to the privacy of your own treatment tent, where a talented massage therapist performs one of the many healing treatments available to soothe sore muscles. And when your stomach grumbles from all the activity and fresh air, take heart in knowing that food is always close at hand.

Meal time is a treat for the senses at Paws Up. The resort prides itself on creating sumptuous five-star cuisine that utilizes fresh, local ingredients from Montana’s agricultural bounty. You might start out the morning with huckleberry French toast and hand-made sausage.

As the sun sets, you’ll feast on specialties such as Rocky Mountain trout sautéed with fresh herbs or grilled elk loin in a mustard demi glace. There are also weekly wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, themed dinners, lavish barbeques and chuck wagon cookouts.

The Resort at Paws Up is the ultimate remedy for urban stress. It’s a wilderness sanctuary with the power to regenerate and revitalize the body, mind and spirit. And it sure beats the heck out of camping the old fashioned way!

If you go:

The Resort at Paws Up is located in Greenough, Montana, about 35 minutes from Missoula. Accommodation and full board packages start at $725 per couple; two night minimum. For more information: www.pawsup.com or 800/473-0601.

Rancho La Puerta: a balance of body/mind/spirit

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Artwork abounds at the Ranch with bronze sculptures dotting the lush landscape. Photo by Deborah Stone
There’s a reason why people return again and again to Rancho La Puerta. It’s because they get what they need from this place, whether it’s the chance to reward themselves with some long-awaited R&R, find the space for personal introspection or seize the opportunity to recharge their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

The Ranch has stood the test of time and veteran alumni, many with dozens of stays under their belts, are testament of its enduring appeal and ability to provide something for everyone.

Located on the Baja Peninsula, in Tecate, Mexico, just 40 miles southeast of San Diego, the Ranch is recognized as the first and oldest fitness destination spa in North America.

Founded in 1940 by owner Deborah Szekely and her now-deceased husband, Edmond Szekely, the Ranch was created “to make healthy people healthier,” and it was based upon the principle that both the body and the mind must be exercised in order for this goal to be accomplished.

What has long attracted guests to the Ranch is its ease and warmth, along with a low-key, casual atmosphere, which makes everyone feel immediately comfortable. Perhaps the tone was set many years ago when the founders had the idea to help people get out of their daily ruts and invited guests to bring $17.50 and their own tent for a stay at a new type of health camp.

From these humble beginnings, the Ranch grew and gradually evolved into a top-rated modern spa, which has continued to garner worldwide recognition and awards for its innovative design, extensive menu of fitness classes, delicious organic cuisine and environmental-friendly practices.

What strikes most guests when they arrive at the Ranch is its setting. The place sits in the midst of the high desert on 150 lushly landscaped acres, with lovely mountain vistas. Meandering brick walkways take you through a flower-filled, Eden-like oasis with intoxicating scents and dazzling colors. There are olive groves, ponds and fountains and placed discreetly around the grounds are beautiful bronze sculptures and other outdoor art installations.

Pockets of serenity, in the form of small meditative gardens and contemplative bowers, are tucked among the rooms, gyms, pools and villas that spread out over the expansive property. And towering above it all is Mt. Kuchumaa, emitting a spiritual force and mystical energy that native tribes viewed as essential to well-being.

A south-of-the-border charm prevails throughout the Ranch and dominates its décor, from stucco walls and wood-beamed ceilings, to Tecate tile floors and colorful displays of Mexican folk art. This theme can also be found within elements of the cuisine, which is primarily vegetarian and features an abundance of organic fruits and vegetables. Meals at the Ranch are served buffet style for breakfast and lunch; whereas, dinners are a sit-down affair with wait staff in attendance. The food is tasty and inventive, with plenty of choices to appeal to even the pickiest of eaters. I ate like a horse while I was at the Ranch because I was hungry from all the exercise I was getting each day. And I never worried about what I was eating because I knew it was healthy and packed a nutritious punch. I took note of all the ways veggies could be used and prepared and realized that there is more edible plant life than I knew existed.

During my stay at the Ranch, I would begin each day at dawn by lacing up my hiking boots and joining a guided group hike around the surrounding wilderness reserve area.

The Ranch is well-known for its hiking program and offers options for all skill levels, ranging from rigorous five-mile mountain climbs to moderate two-mile walks over rolling hills.

Desiring a challenge, I often chose the kick-butt hikes, which not only gave me an excellent early morning work-out, but also a real sense of accomplishment. And the breathtaking views from the various vistas served as daily inspiration.

Guests at the Ranch are fortunate to have over 70 different indoor and outdoor, multi-leveled, instructor-led classes from which to choose. Some are active and others lean towards being contemplative and spiritually-focused. I aimed at achieving a balance of both.

And as I had felt stuck in a fitness rut before coming, I also sought to try some new and different activities, such as African and hip-hop dance, to spice up my regimen.

One afternoon, I headed to the pool for an Aqua Plus class, while another time, I checked out the Ranch’s labyrinth, a replica of the famous floor labyrinth laid in Chartres Cathedral in the early 13th century. Unlike mazes, which confuse participants with various deceptive elements, labyrinths are made of paths which you walk continuously and meditatively toward the center, then back out again.

They are a powerful metaphor for life’s journey and they are often used to help lead individuals towards inner serenity and self-knowledge.

As I walked the classic11-circuit design, I tried to concentrate on letting go of all the details of my life and to open myself to the experience. It was a wonderful opportunity to quiet my often too-busy mind.

There’s a non-competitive atmosphere at the Ranch, which promotes camaraderie and support among guests. No one acts like a diva and there are no fitness warriors who are out to show they are the fastest, the strongest or the most flexible athletes.

Well-trained and certified instructors provide encouragement and positive feedback, while helping participants improve their skills. They are upbeat, knowledgeable and truly interested in sharing their expertise with others. But they will caution you not to overdo it during your stay. The temptation is to try to do everything, which is impossible, and those who attempt this feat usually end up painfully sore and unable to enjoy their experience.

I found that it was important to intersperse bouts of activity with periods of rest. And when it was time to relax, I often headed to a lounge chair by the pool or to one of the many hammocks strewn around the property. Of course, I was also a frequent visitor to the several heath sanctuaries on the property, where I received an array of rejuvenating treatments.

The Ranch’s menu of spa services is extensive and many of the products used in the treatments contain herbal ingredients that come from the Ranch’s organic farm, Tres Estrellas.

Located just a few miles north of the Ranch, Tres Estrellas comprises five acres and produces most of the fresh vegetables for the Ranch’s kitchen.

Guests can sign up for a breakfast hike to the farm, which includes a tour of the gardens. It’s definitely one of the most popular activities and a must-do experience, in my opinion.

The combination of an early morning invigorating walk, followed by a sumptuous breakfast served al fresco, is truly a sensory delight.

Tres Estrellas is also the site of the Ranch’s new cooking school and culinary center, La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen That Sings). Opportunities for life-changing learning abound at this spa. In addition to all the daytime activities, there are nightly lectures by renowned guest speakers, musical performances and workshops in aromatherapy, prayer arrow affirmations, star gazing, jewelry-making, watercolor painting and more. Rancho La Puerta is a special haven that provides individuals with the luxury of time and space to find a balance between body, mind and spirit. I, too, can now proudly add my name to the vast number of devotees of this unique destination spa

Escape from reality and head to Las Vegas

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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Opulent hotels and casinos line the famed Las Vegas Strip; a dazzling main street that can be seen from outer space. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Las Vegas is the world’s most famous monument to excess and wild abandon.

It’s a place where anything goes — where a midget size Elvis croons tunes on one corner of the Strip, while down the way, a woman in scanty attire with head-to-toe tattoos breakdances for a crowd; where men work the street flicking cards in your face, advertising a menu of risqué and raunchy adult entertainment options. It’s also where persistent hawkers try and entice passersby into their bars, nightclubs and dens of iniquity with that one simple, but heavily loaded word — "free."

It’s an obvious trap, but there’s always some poor sucker who falls for the ploy and ends up learning his lesson the hard way.

The cornucopia of vices on display 24 hours a day along with the glitz, bright lights and all you can eat buffets serve as magnets to the millions of tourists who flock to Vegas.

They come to escape from reality and to get themselves a big slice of fantasy pie with a hefty dollop of decadence on top.

I recently spent a few days in this razzle dazzle town after a lapse of almost seven years. Other than more mega, ostentatious hotels and casinos and newly created show venues, the place hadn’t changed much.

The most noticeable addition was the City Center (still under construction), a collection of new hotels, residences, spas, restaurants and upscale shopping set right off the Strip.

Vegas was its typical raucous and crazy self with a host of colorful characters and for a few days, it was highly entertaining — especially the people.

Watching people is a great Vegas pastime. I’m especially fascinated with the older women playing the penny slots. Most are hard core veterans of the game and they will sit until the wee hours of the morning, cigarette in hand, smoke billowing around them, as they work the machines in earnest.

And then there are the intense card players at the high stakes poker and blackjack tables where the pressure is palpable and the mood is dead serious. Or the group of gregarious, excited folks having a winning streak over at the craps table. Once strangers, they’re now best buds, hoping that Lady Luck continues to keep them in good company.

Casinos make the perfect showcase for human nature to unveil itself in all its blemished glory. It’s a psychologist’s dream come true.

I also like to spend time sitting at an outdoor café and watching the masses stroll along the Strip.

Here’s where you’ll see people from all over the world, many wide eyed and mouths agape, taking in the sights. And let’s not forget about the packs of young guys on the hunt for the opposite sex and the throngs of young gals in pursuit of the same.

As darkness falls, the mating calls get louder, the mood becomes rowdier and inhibitions go by the wayside.

The scene is akin to a colossal Mad Hatter party where booze, not tea, is the drink of choice.

Although the people provide much of the entertainment, shows take center stage in Vegas.

You’ll find world class entertainers, from famous singers to well known comedians and magicians. And then there are the multi-act productions, which are in a class of their own.

Cirque du Soleil has a bit of a monopoly in this market. Currently, the Montreal-based company has seven shows operating at different casinos on the Strip.

The productions are a fusion of acrobatics, dance, comic antics, music and awe inducing visual effects. And audiences love them.

In past visits, I have seen Cirque’s "O" and "Mystere," both of which were wonderfully entertaining. This time around, I caught "LOVE," a theatrical spectacle set to music by the Beatles.

The show began as a collaboration between George Harrison and Cirque’s Guy LaLiberte.

After Harrison’s death, the remaining Beatles and the families of the late group members helped make Harrison’s vision a reality, using the master tapes at Abbey Road Studios.

The music director is none other than Sir George Martin, who is best known for his work producing the Beatles’ music.

Often referred to as a "rock ‘n roll poem," the show can be described as a psychedelic journey through the trends and social/political climate of the ’60s, with a liberal dose of Beatles’ history.

It’s a celebration of the musical legacy of this iconic group. The content of the selected songs is artfully interpreted through a series of innovative performances done by a cast of international artists.

They include acrobats, tumblers, extreme sports athletes, urban freestyle dancers and aerialists, all who bring a youthful, raw energy to the production, while showcasing their impressive talents. Each of the acts astounds and overloads the senses.

In "Help," for example, four inline skaters take the stage to leap 11-foot ramps in high octane fashion.

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" features some incredible high flying aerial moves, while "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" culminates in a jaw dropping swing trapeze routine. Bungees figure prominently.

They are climbed and repelled, used to propel birds around the stage during "Blackbird" and provide flying devices for airborne performers in "Come Together."

Dynamic and larger-than-life characters take the stage in a carnival like atmosphere, which is enhanced by a montage of images and photos of the group.

The action takes place in a custom-built theater-in-the-round at the Mirage. Audiences are enveloped in a state-of-the-art panoramic visual and surround sound environment, which helps to create an intimate and powerful entertainment experience.

"LOVE" is an unforgettable trip down memory lane, which will leave you with feelings of nostalgia for a bygone era.

Down the street at the Wynn is "Le Rêve" (The Dream), another show I caught while in town.

Though not a Cirque production, it is reminiscent of one.

It’s an evocative aqua spectacle, also in-the-round, which features a blend of aerial acrobatics, provocative choreography and outrageous antics. The production conjures up an imaginary world with its elaborate effects, mystifying characters, and awe-inspiring feats.

Performers dazzle the audience on stage, in the air and from the water. They appear from every angle of the theater, at times ascending from the pool, descending from the ceiling or running through the aisles alongside the audience.

One of the highlights of the show is a tango number performed with both synchronized swimmers in the water and tango dancers on a platform. It’s a multi-level extravaganza of red high heels and legs moving to the intoxicating beat of the music.

A pair of strong men and their daring feats of strength is another crowd favorite. "Le Rêve" immersed me into a world of fantasy, adventure and intrigue and I was enchanted and captivated by its magic.

Choosing shows at Vegas is like being a kid at a candy shop, albeit a very expensive one.

The selection is extensive and can be overwhelming, especially for the first time visitor.

Half price tickets do exist if you’re willing to stand in line and not be picky about availability.

And there are also hotel packages that include admission to some of the hottest productions.

For me, being in Vegas without seeing a show is not an option.

It’s part of the total experience of this city – a place that stands alone in its opulence, its magnetism and its garishness.

For information on all things Vegas: www.visitlasvegas.com

'Chamois Butt'r is for your buns, not your bread!'

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Belgium_035"Try some Chamois Butt’r," said Barbara, with a knowing chuckle. "It’s for your buns, though, not your bread!"

I was instantly all ears about this special cream that cyclists claim has magical powers when it comes to easing sore butts.

Barbara had taken pity on me after watching me ever so gingerly get on and off my bike.

It was day three of a week-long cycling tour through Flanders, a region encompassing parts of Holland and Belgium, and my derriere had begun to protest in earnest. I gratefully applied the supposed wonder balm and hopped back on my bike, hoping for the best.

I don’t know if it was a psychosomatic response or whether it was the fact that my rear end became sufficiently calloused, but the stuff actually worked. And I no longer needed to engage in what I called, "one cheek on the seat" style of riding.

A sore butt was the only complaint I had during my European cycling trip – a trip awash with many memorable sights and experiences.

As I had never been on a cycling adventure, I chose my destination based on a few factors: flat terrain (no Pyrenees for me!), plenty of historic sites and picturesque scenery, a country with a reputation for good food and a notably cycling-friendly populace.

My decision to go with Austin Lehman Adventures was a no-brainer, as the company is top rated (World’s Best Tour Operator for 2009 by readers of Travel & Leisure Magazine) and offers an extensive selection of bike tours throughout Europe.

I began my journey in Brussels, a cosmopolitan city that oozes charm from its pores with a mix of modern and traditional elements and French, Flemish and German influences.

Among its many districts is the famed Grand-Place, once described as the "most beautiful theatre in the world."

This iconic square with its imposing Gothic and Neo-Gothic style buildings, cobblestone streets, bustling market stalls and colorful splashes of flowers at every corner is a treat for the senses.

People here appreciate fine food, fashion and art, and they covet their leisure time.

Belgium_108Sitting at one of the ubiquitous outdoor cafes in summer is a frequent pastime; one which I quickly became enamored with because of the opportunity it presented to people watch.

The food, though, is reason enough. In this gastronomic city, as well as throughout the region, you’ll find most every type of cuisine.

I felt free to indulge, as cycling 30 to 50 miles a day and doing a fair amount of walking gave me the license to eat heartily.

It’s the country’s famous Belgian waffles, "frites" (fries), chocolate and beer that get the most notoriety when it comes to culinary specialties.

Chocolate shops abound with eye popping confections lined up like trophies in the windows.

Their wafting aromas seduce you as you stroll the streets.

These compete with the smell of crisp fries from the chip stands and the sweet, warm scent of baked dough from the waffle carts.

And then there’s the beer. Nothing comes between Belgians and their beer. There are hundreds of different types and each has its own unique glass embossed with the beer’s logo.

Do as the locals do and savor them slowly, appreciating each brew’s individual characteristics and flavors.

From Brussels, I went to medieval Middleburg, Holland, which is where Austin Lehman’s "Flavors of Flanders" cycling tour officially began. Some days our ride took us through the bucolic countryside, past traditional Dutch windmills, artisan cheese factories, pastoral farms and tiny hamlets.

Other days, we biked along the canals, through forests, atop the dunes and next to the sea.

Our guide Tom drove the support van and would magically appear at various stopping points on the route, with snacks, water and a perpetually warm smile.

It’s important to note that Austin Lehman cycling tour guides typically don’t ride with their groups unless the group is large and warrants two leaders (a practice that is followed by a majority of companies that offer such tours).

Cyclists are given route directions, distances and maps at daily briefings, along with information about notable sights along the way, pre-determined lunch stops and any other pertinent data.

Guides drive along or in the vicinity of the route and periodically check on their group to ensure that no one gets lost.

They’re also available to lend assistance with bike repairs if needed.

Additionally, they transport the luggage from hotel to hotel, make dinner arrangements, join the group for most meals and attend to all other details of the trip.

I admit, I was a bit taken aback when I learned I would have to read maps and follow directions, as opposed to mindlessly following a guide.

But, no one rides alone. Participants band together in small pairs and trios and help each other find their way.

Within my trio, we each took turns being in the lead, though we all paid attention to signs, landmarks and mileage to keep one another on track.

Belgium_177By the time the week was up, I felt a sense of pride at mastering the ability to follow the route while remaining upright on my bike – no small feat for a directionally dyslexic klutz!

One of my favorite places along our route was Bruges, Belgium’s Cinderella city. This romantic, canal-laced town is a jewel box, overflowing with historical treasures.

Horses and buggies clip clop down the cobblestone streets, bells ring from the multitude of churches, boats and preening swans glide through the waterways and outdoor cafes beckon you to rest your weary feet, after taking in all the fascinating sights.

And believe me, there are many, from museums with extensive collections of medieval art to ancient churches containing tombs of past nobility.

This is a city that begs to be walked, though you should first hop on a boat tour to gain a feel for the layout of the place before exploring it on foot.

Bruges’s well-preserved medieval architecture is among the most impressive in Europe.

Imposing red brick buildings, gabled facades, towering spires and ornate guildhouses (once occupied by the various trades that helped establish Bruges’s prominence during medieval times) will wow you as you explore this miniature Venice.

Before leaving, make sure to climb the 366 steps of the 260 feet tall Belfry in the Market.

You’ll be rewarded with awesome views of the city and beyond.

Though Bruges was a definite highlight of my cycling tour, some of the smaller villages were equally enchanting, such as Damme and Veere, with their sweet cottages, immaculate gardens and old Gothic style town halls.

These peaceful havens were far from the hubbub of city life and as I cycled through them, I felt closer to the people. Riding a bike allowed me to make a more personal connection with the culture. And I was able to do it at my own pace, with the ability to stop and smell the tulips.

It was interesting to note that cycling is a way of life in this area of the world, with everyone from children to senior citizens sporting a bike. They use it as a significant means of transportation to get to school and to work.

And they cycle to the stores to shop and do their daily errands.

I saw women in high heels, men with briefcases and children with their schoolbags all riding bikes. Bike paths abound and drivers are respectful of cyclists.

People I encountered along the way were friendly and always willing to lend assistance when needed.

The final stop on the tour was Ghent, another city that earns top marks in the charm department.

With its famed churches, museums and Gothic and Renaissance style buildings and monuments, it, like Bruges, is an historical wonderland.

Take a carriage trip through the ancient heart of the town at night when the inner city is illuminated and you’ll feel like a character out of a fairytale.

If you go:

• Austin Lehman Adventures offers a variety of biking, multisport and family vacations in a number of countries throughout the world: 800-575-1540 or www.austinlehman.com

• Flanders tourism information: www.visitflanders.com