Running a seasonal operation may sound like a walk in the park to those unfamiliar with the nature of such businesses.
Individuals in the know, however, can tell you that the term "seasonal" is often misleading.
Such operations, though they may be up and running for only five months, mandate a full time commitment year round.
"It’s definitely deceiving," says Meg Swimelar. "You don’t just stop working the rest of the time. If you did, you’d lose all your business."
The Bothell woman speaks from experience. She and her husband Wes and two of his friends own and operate Sikumi Custom Alaska Cruises.
Their boat, the M.V. Sikumi ("Sikumi" is an Inuit word meaning "among the ice.") is a 67-foot commercial trawler equipped with all the creature comforts one needs to enjoy a weeklong cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage.
This is the sixth season in the business for the couple and their partners.
"My husband is a commercial fisherman, specializing in king crab," says Swimelar. "He and his friends, who are also fishermen, thought it would be fun to get into the hospitality business. I got hooked along with them in the process."
She adds, "We bought the boat and business from a couple in Alaska and have built it up over the years. I do all the bookings, promotions, hiring and day-to-day office detail work. Wes maintains the boat, making the repairs during the off-season and getting it all ready for the summer."
Swimelar’s son and daughter have also been involved in what has turned out to be a family business.
Her son has helped paint the boat and her daughter worked on it last summer, cleaning cabins.
"Everyone pitches in to help, but we do have other crew members, including an adventure and natural history guide, and of course, a skipper."
The M.V. Sikumi can accommodate up to 12 passengers, who are accompanied by a crew of five.
Cruises depart from Petersburg, Alaska, from May through September and explore the picturesque waters and pristine wilderness of the famed Inside Passage.
A typical journey will include up close views of some of Alaska’s most impressive glaciers, along with opportunities to kayak, fish, hike, spot whales and view wildlife, go beachcombing and take in the natural wonders of this scenic area from both land and sea perspectives.
"We cater to our passengers’ needs and interests," explains Swimelar. "Because we’re small, we can offer lots of flexibility and go places the bigger ships can’t. Our itineraries revolve around our clients. Aside from safety, our number one goal is to provide each of our passengers with a unique and incredible Alaskan cruise adventure."
Swimelar emphasizes that although the boat isn’t on the scale of the large cruise ships that ply the Alaskan waters each summer, it’s very comfortable and sea worthy. Each of the four staterooms has its own toilet, sink, shower, oversize full bed and fold-down twin bunk.
There are several lounges and a spacious deck where passengers can congregate, as well as a dining area, where sumptuous meals are served.
"Our chef prepares only the best and freshest of the Northwest, often using what’s caught each day right off the boat, like shrimp, crab and halibut," explains Swimelar.
"The passengers love when they catch something in the morning and get to eat it later that evening." With an almost two-to-one ratio between passengers and crew, personal attention is guaranteed.
And the casual, intimate atmosphere of the boat ensures that everyone on board becomes one big happy family.
"Our passengers tell us that they feel more like members of a family and not like clients," notes Swimelar. "They feel involved in everything." She adds, "And they leave with so many special memories. It’s all about creating that once-in-a-lifetime experience."
The local woman, who had previous been a stay-at-home mom, has developed a passion for the business.
She enjoys getting to know the clients ahead of time and to putting together a trip tailored to their interests. And when they return from their cruise, she is eager to get their feedback.
"I love hearing their stories and knowing that they had a great time," acknowledges Swimelar. "Their complete satisfaction is my reward."
The work, however, is not glamorous and to be successful in the industry mandates commitment, long hours and patience.
"It’s a labor of love," she adds. "And you have to be a people person. That’s probably most important. If you don’t have a sincere interest in people and a desire to understand their needs, then this type of job is probably not for you."
The Swimelars and their partners plan to continue growing the business and are looking into possibly using their boat to do off-season custom trips in the Puget Sound area.
Heights are just not my thing. But, there I was dangling in a safety harness 40-feet off the ground. The group below, who had just moments ago hoisted me up to this point by pulling on a rope in tug-of-war style, yelled encouraging comments to me. The leader told me to breathe deeply, enjoy the beautiful scenery and set a personal intention before letting go of the rope clenched in my right hand. To be honest, my intention was to get down from this scary place as soon as possible because I knew if I spent any amount of time appreciating the desert landscape or tried to engage in some intense soul searching, I’d lose my nerve. I had signed up for this activity, aptly named "A Swing and a Prayer," because I wanted to put myself in a situation that would get me outside of my comfort zone. And as heights present a continuous challenge to me, the experience seemed tailor-made to my needs. When I finally let go, I screamed as my stomach dropped in rollercoaster fashion. It felt like the whole world was falling beneath me. I decided it was time for the prayer part of this activity. And then I began to swing in pendulum style from one pole to another. My legs were shaking and I had a white knuckle grasp on the rope. Then the movement changed and sent me soaring in a wide circular formation. I forgot to mention that spinning is not my thing either! Although I wanted to stop, I was urged to take a moment and relax into the movement, while letting go of first one hand on the rope, then the other. And I reluctantly did, surprising myself by awkwardly leaning into something that resembled a backbend.
At Miraval and activities like “Swing and a Prayer” help participants learn not to let their fears define them. Photo by Deborah Stone.
As I contemplated the world from this pose, I was suddenly reminded of my childhood and the sense of pure joy and freedom that came from such simple pleasures like playing on the swings. Back on terra firma, with the group congratulating me on my accomplishment, I felt elated and proud. Yes, it was frightening and no, I’m not ready to audition for Cirque du Soleil, but it was also liberating to completely let go and exhilarate in the moment. Celebrating life and one’s limitless potential is what it’s all about at Miraval, a well-known destination spa near Tucson, Arizona. This special retreat, nestled on 400 acres of idyllic land within the picturesque Santa Catalina Mountains, prides itself on its pioneering self-discovery and growth activities, not to mention its luxurious accommodations, deliciously healthy cuisine and state-of-the-art fitness and spa facilities. It’s a place to be inspired, rejuvenated, appreciated and motivated to focus on your emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.
There are many reasons why people come to Miraval. For some, it’s the need to get out of the rat race for some good old R&R, along with a hefty dose of pampering. Others view it as a chance to kick start a program of healthy habits.
And then there are those who are eager to try new activities and challenge themselves in different ways. There are also individuals who come in search of help to deal with relationship or grief and loss issues. Though each has his/her own purpose, they all share a commonality among them – the desire to do something good for themselves. A stay at Miraval is the ultimate gift to yourself. And you can spend it anyway you wish. One of the most popular spots is the spa, where an extensive menu of services is delivered by practitioners with magic hands in serene indoor and outdoor sanctuaries. There’s everything from hot stone massage and anti-aging facials to mud wraps, prickly pear sugar scrubs and even acupuncture. One of my favorite treatments is Aqua Zen, a form of massage within a warm water pool. The water invites complete relaxation and allows the body to be manipulated and stretched with greater freedom than traditional massage. The results are wonderful. Stress and strain melt away and you are left feeling a loosened and lighter being. Some unique bodywork experiences involve healing ceremonies and the use of such practices as sound therapy to renew energy and balance. The newest of these is Sensorium, which brings together vibrational medicine, music, aromatherapy and human touch to stimulate and engage the full spectrum of your senses.
Two practitioners work in harmony to create this sensory rich environment, which allows you to sink into a deep state of complete relaxation. It’s bliss to the zillionth degree. When you’re ready to leave spa heaven, you can opt to continue the bliss with a nap poolside or on the deck of your private casita. Or maybe you’d like to get your heart pumping a bit. If so, check out the Body Mind Center, where you’ll find classes in spinning, yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, dance, water aerobics and other body conditioning activities. It’s fun to try something new. I dropped in on a cardio drumming class and was surprised at the high-energy workout it gave me, not to mention the pure joy I got from beating on the drums within a supportive and uplifting group setting. For the adventurous adrenaline junkies, there’s rock climbing, mountain biking, a challenge course and even a zipline experience. When you wish to quiet your mind, there are guided meditation sessions offered at various times of the day. One morning I started out with I Chi Flow, a class that incorporated Tai Chi movements in the water.
The gentle flow of the movements combined with the warmth of the early morning sunlight and the sound of the birds chirping brought serenity to my soul and gave me positive energy to begin my day. Another morning I opted to do a group hike in the surrounding desert landscape. Wild flowers and jackrabbits poked their heads up among the interesting shaped cacti. And even a colorful Gila monster showed up in this natural splendor only to slither quickly into the brush. Other self-discovery and growth activities come in the form of workshops taught by hand-picked professionals and distinguished experts on such topics as stress reduction, life balance, guided imagery, mindful eating, communication, grief and loss and intuitive living. And then there’s the Equine Experience, a Miraval Signature activity aimed at gaining greater self-awareness through sessions that involve working with specially selected horses.
Wyatt Webb, founder and director of the program, is a wise old cowboy with much to say about the behavioral insight that can be gained from interacting with a horse. He believes that a person can begin to notice personal patterns of learned behavior that may be holding them back from the life they want to live.
"If it’s not working, then you need to make changes," he says. "First you have to acknowledge that it’s not working. And then you have to decide to do something about it. Determination of intent is important, but it means nothing unless you follow through." I had chosen to take part in the Equine Experience because of the discomfort I feel around horses.
Once again, I wanted to push those boundaries and deal with my fears. The first challenge was to scrape mud and manure from a horse’s hoof with a tool resembling a large crochet hook. My horse and I reached an immediate standoff on the first try. Though I pinched his lower right back leg repeatedly, as instructed, he ignored me. Back off, Webb said, then stride toward him confidently with determination to follow through on the action. On the third try, I was successful. Self-doubt, combined with my fears of horses and of failure, had gotten in the way. Webb reminded the group that the exercise is less about cleaning the horse’s hoof than "about cleaning or clearing out your head."
A session in the ring followed. Using body, breath and movement, each participant had to get a horse to walk, trot, change directions and then come to a complete stop. You weren’t allowed to talk or touch the horse in the process. To be successful in this endeavor, you can’t be a tightly wound vessel or allow your energy to overpower you because you will convey this to the horse and it will most likely react adversely. "Horses only pick up two things," says Webb. "Is it safe or unsafe? Clear or unclear?" Remembering to breathe deeply, the Miraval "mantra," I calmed my nerves and miraculously was able to get the horse to follow my directions. It was definitely a "horse whisperer" moment and one for the memory books. All this activity, fresh air and introspection do wonders to stimulate the appetite. But, if you think you’ll be restricted to a Spartan diet simply because you’re at a spa, think again. Miraval’s award-winning cuisine is created with the belief that healthy ingredients can also mean exquisite flavor. Guests are encouraged to explore mindful eating and discover tasty, satisfying dishes that are moderately low in calories and fat.
Deprivation is not practiced here. There’s a full bar and a wine list is offered with the dinner menu. It notes that wine can be good for lowering bad cholesterol. Mealtime is a wonderful opportunity to connect and share experiences with others. Don’t worry if you come solo. You’ll be in good company, as there are others who have chosen to make this journey on their own.
If you go:
Miraval offers a variety of packages that can be personalized to individual needs. Its rates are all-inclusive (accommodations, airport transfers, all meals, participation in an array of group scheduled programs and activities and a $130 resort credit per person per night to apply to spa services, private consultations, dinner with the chef or playing golf). The resort also features in-depth explorations and special events for those interested in more intentioned stays with defined pathways and outcomes.
For more information: 800-232-3969 or www.miravalresorts.com
People come from all over to see the world famous goats that make their home on top of the Coombs Old Country Market.
When most people think of an island paradise, they imagine a tropical destination such as Hawaii or somewhere in the Caribbean, or maybe an even more exotic port of call like Fiji, with white sand beaches, spectacular sunsets and colorful frou-frou drinks.
I probably would have envisioned the same - that is until I spent some quality time with our neighbor to the north, Vancouver Island. It’s hard to believe that such an idyllic locale is so close and yet so unfamiliar to many Seattle area residents, who usually venture only as far as Victoria for a dose of British charm.
I was delighted to discover that there’s so much more to Vancouver Island than its provincial capital. On a recent trip, a friend and I set off to explore the area known as the Central Island, as well as the Pacific Rim region or the island’s West Coast.
The former includes Nanaimo and the communities of Parksville and Qualicum Beach, often regarded as "Canada’s Riviera" for their mild climate, sandy beaches and oceanside resorts.Home base for us was the comfortable and elegantly rustic Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Resort & Spa in Parksville.
Each summer, Parksville hosts the Canadian Open Sand Sculpting Competition during its annual beach festival. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Despite having a stellar reputation within Western Canada, this gem of a property is relatively unknown outside of the region.
Its amenities are extensive and activity-inspired individuals will find everything from on-site tennis and basketball courts, fitness room, beach volleyball, bicycle rentals, indoor pool, yoga classes on the beach, wine tasting and a comprehensive kids’ recreation program.
And then, of course, there’s the Grotto Spa, recently voted the #1 Spa in Western Canada. It’s 20,000 square feet of bliss, featuring a mineral pool, fed by a two-story cascading waterfall.
Designed to emulate a natural stone grotto, this warm water pool is infused with natural minerals and trace elements which are said to help detoxify the body and rejuvenate the spirit.
I discovered that relaxation takes on a whole new meaning after spending an afternoon soaking in the pool, followed by a coconut sugar scrub, mango enzyme body wrap and watermelon papaya body butter massage. To complete your spa experience, head upstairs to the Treetop Tapas & Grill and indulge in a unique dining experience – in your robe! Make sure to choose the "Endless Tapas," where you’ll be treated to an incredible array of dishes, offering a variety of tastes and textures to excite the senses (thank goodness you can loosen that belt on your robe!).
Discover the treasures of the sea on a kayak tour in Ucluelet Harbor. Photo by Deborah Stone.
The spa is a definite highlight of the property, but the beach is its focal point. When the tide goes out, you can walk for what seems like miles until you reach the ocean.
Along the way, there are dozens of tide pools full of tiny treasures from the sea, like small crabs and almost perfectly formed sand dollars. It’s a delightful place to stroll, make a sand castle, dig for clams, fly a kite, take a dip in the water and even witness a wedding ceremony.
You’ll find everyone from families with young kids to couples looking for a romantic escape at Tigh Na Mara, as it’s a property that’s sophisticated enough for adults, but fully embraces children as well.
From there, you can set off to explore the surrounding area in more depth. Head for Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park for some hiking, rock-climbing, canoeing, or my favorite – spelunking (cave exploration).
The caverns are a magical underground world where you’ll find beautiful crystal formations and ancient fossils. And the park offers everything from family-oriented tours to deep, dark adventurous forays that include rappelling down a seven-story waterfall. Guides will share their knowledge of the caves’ fascinating geology and history, as well as add in a few interesting bits of trivia.
Did you know that if you lick a banana slug, your tongue will become temporarily paralyzed and you will have trouble speaking?
No one in our group was game to test this assertion, though my friend gave it momentary consideration.
A good stop for lunch is at Coombs, a village dotted with several heritage buildings where you can find funky buys in clothing and souvenirs and get a look at the world-famous goats on the roof of the Coombs Old Country Market.
Cathedral Grove should also be on your list of special places to visit in this region. It’s a well-known stand of ancient Douglas fir; some are over 800 years old and measure 29 feet in circumference.
These towering behemoths are jaw-dropping in both size and beauty and have an almost mystical-like presence. Another Edenesque spot is Milner Gardens and Woodland, an ancient coastal forest and garden oasis perched on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Georgia.
After wandering through the peaceful woods, make a beeline for the historic Milner House where you can enjoy a traditional afternoon English tea in the Camellia Tea Room, while taking in the picturesque ocean views.
The home features memorabilia from the famed Milner family and their many celebrated guests, among them Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.
Rivaling the Central Island in natural beauty is the Pacific Rim region, a rugged outdoor playground, home to some of the best surfing, whale watching, fishing and kayaking in Western Canada. Just getting to this area is an adventure that involves an enchanted journey on the Pacific Rim Highway, through twisty, often misty, roads, with some of the most striking scenery you’ll ever see, from craggy bluffs and roaring rivers to majestic lakes and verdant forests. One of the main communities in this region is Ucluelet, which is where my traveling companion and I elected to stay. The town’s name stems from a local First Nations expression for "safe harbor" and up until 1959, it was only accessible by sea. Our digs were at Black Rock Resort, a property that truly redefines West Coast luxury. Designed with respect for the land and sea, the resort’s innovative architecture – of rock, water, glass, steel and wood –enhances, as well as contrasts with the wild Pacific landscape.
Expansive spaces, natural light and awe-inspiring vistas create a connection to the serenity and power of Vancouver Island’s striking coast.
You may never want to leave the place and simply decide to stay put watching the ocean from your private balcony and keeping an eye open for whales, soaking in one of the water’s edge hot tubs, getting pampered at the Drift Spa and dining on sumptuous West Coast cuisine in the resort’s famed Fetch Restaurant.
But, if that’s not enough for you, then I suggest stretching your legs with a hike on the Wild Pacific Trail, which conveniently passes right by the property. This famous trail skirts the jagged coast, meandering through ancient spruce and cedar rain forest and along rock promontories with panoramic views of Barkley Sound and the Broken Islands of Pacific Rim National Park. The scenery is breathtaking and as the waves pound against the shore, you’ll know this is not just another Kodak moment. It’s a magical experience that connects you with Mother Nature in her rawest and untamed state.
For another up close and personal encounter with this spectacular environment, opt for a kayak tour. You don’t need to go far. The Ucluelet Harbor teems with wildlife and you’re guaranteed to spot bald eagles circling overhead, herons feasting on fish and seals and otters playfully popping their heads up near your boat as you paddle by.
To complement this excursion, make sure to visit the Ucluelet Aquarium, which may in fact be the world’s smallest public aquarium. Despite its tiny size, however, there’s an amazing variety of marine life, all found in local waters within a 3-mile radius. Operating on a catch and release program, the facility employs divers to bring up specimens during the spring and summer months. Come October, there’s a release party and all the creatures are returned to their original locales.
Continuing on the Pacific Rim Highway, you’ll pass a stretch of spectacular beaches called the Long Beach area. At its terminus is Tofino, another eco-adventure playground that is known for its sub culture of hippies, environmentalists and surfers.
The area is also home to many artisans, whose eclectic work can be seen in the numerous galleries and shops that line the main streets. Although summer is prime tourist time in both Ucluelet and Tofino, the winter also draws visitors with promises of incredible storm watching opportunities. And then there’s spring, when one of the grandest processions on the planet, the Grey Whale migration, takes place. Vancouver Island is the ideal setting to escape the crowds and experience nature in its pure, untouched state. It’s my idea of paradise.
If you go:
To get to Vancouver Island, take the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes to Sydney (12.5 miles north of Victoria) or the Black Ball Ferry Line from Port Angeles to Victoria. Parksville is approximately 91 miles northwest of Victoria by car. From there, it’s another 90 miles west to Ucluelet. And from Ucluelet to Tofino is 26 miles. To make the trip easier, an overnight stay in Victoria on the return is recommended.
Tigh Na Mara Seaside Spa Resort: www.tigh-na-mara.com
The famed, historic horseshoe pier and marina is a must-see attraction in Redondo Beach. Photo by Deborah Stone
Redondo Beach is one of those special destinations that caters to everyone. It’s an "all things for all people" type of place.
This casual, yet lively Southern California seaside town is the perfect spot to kick back and relax or go at high speed in pursuit of adrenaline boosting adventures.
An additional perk is the warm welcome you’ll get from the locals that’ll make you feel right at home.
For Seattleites, Redondo Beach makes a convenient getaway of its own merit or it can easily be used as an extension to an L.A./Disneyland trip. June’s gray weather gave me every reason to escape the Puget Sound for some fun in the sun.
And having never been to Redondo, I jumped at the chance to explore it. The contemporary, nautical-themed Portofino Hotel and Yacht Club served as home base during my stay.
As the only hotel located directly on the Pacific Ocean, this property provides impressive views that have an almost hypnotic effect on guests.
The waves, the steady parade of boats big and small and of course the stars of the scene, the sea lions, all conspire to keep you mesmerized (and entertained) for hours.
It’s easy to while away your time sitting on your private deck overlooking the water or in the hotel’s cozy lobby with its floor-to-ceiling windows and be soothed into a state of utter bliss. And for some, that’s plenty.
Being the activity junkie I am though, I headed outside to take in my surroundings by foot, bike and boat. What’s great about Redondo Beach is that most of the town’s sights are concentrated in its pedestrian friendly central core.
One of the most notable attractions is the Redondo Beach Pier and King Harbor. The 70,000-square-foot structure, which was originally constructed in 1889 and subsequently rebuilt several times due to storms and fire, is one of the handsomest piers in the country because of its horseshoe shape and expansive walkway.
The marina area with its International Boardwalk offers a mix of ocean view cafes and restaurants, local watering holes, eclectic shops that sell everything from custom toe rings and kites to pick-your-own oyster pearls, an amusement arcade and a variety of water sports. You can rent kayaks and paddleboats, take a nature cruise or even a romantic gondola ride.
And then there’s the looking glass boat – a semi-submarine that offers tours of the sea life with its underwater picture windows. Cruising the harbor with Captain Lloyd, you’ll see sting rays, local fish such as calico bass and opal eyes, as well as pelicans and cormorants diving for their dinner.
The highlight is the sea lion sanctuary with its up close and personal views of these playful creatures as they frolic, lounge on the rocks and emit their distinct barking noises.
Along the way, you’ll also see scores of fishermen lining the docks or in their boats, plying the waters for the catch of the day.
It’s a colorful scene full of sensory delights, from the pungent smells of fresh fish right off the boat to the sweet aromas of homemade fudge and cotton candy.
South of the pier you’ll find a broad walkway through a beautiful stretch of beach, with an unobstructed view of the ocean and an area known as the Hollywood Riviera. Called "The Esplanade," it is frequented by all types of fitness fans and those who come to check out the surfers and their flashy moves or try and spot whales that migrate through the area in the winter months.
Just a few blocks away is Riviera Village, a charming shopping area that is the site of the Riviera Village Summer Festival each summer.
As luck would have it, the festival was going on during my stay and I was able to spend a few hours perusing a fine selection of locally made arts and crafts.
Bikes are everywhere in Redondo Beach and I couldn’t wait to hop on one and ride the Strand, a fabulous pathway that begins just south of Redondo Beach and runs along the coast for miles. You can actually take it all the way up to Santa Monica (approximately 20 miles north) if you’re so inclined.
Be aware that you’ll be sharing this popular scenic trail with walkers, joggers, in-line skaters and fellow cyclists, and that it can get quite crowded particularly on weekends.
It’s a great place to people watch, get your dose of eye candy and drool over the array of decidedly distinct homes that line the path, while dreaming of owning one of your own.
When you get hungry, just stop off at one of the many outdoor cafes in any of the several neighboring beach towns along the way.
For a special treat, try the gelato at Paciugo in Hermosa Beach.
With unique flavors like sea salt caramel, raspberry lavender chocolate chip and green tea cookies ‘n milk, you’ll want to return to this popular gelaterie more than once.
Finding good food is not a problem in Redondo Beach and its environs.
There’s everything from casual eateries, such as Kincaid’s Restaurant and the iconic Old Tony’s, to fine dining experiences.
One of the most memorable meals I had was at BALEEN, the Portofino’s renowned New American restaurant specializing in gourmet comfort food with a seafood focus.
Breakfast at Polly’s on the Pier is a must for hearty down home grub or opt for the all-you-can-eat buffet at Splash, Crowne Plaza Redondo Beach’s signature restaurant .
There’s also Joe’s Crab Shack, a fun eatery where the servers periodically break out in song and dance, while you chow down on buckets of fresh crab and shrimp.
And for tasty south-of-the border fare, make sure you try Ortega 120.
Aim to get there on a Tuesday evening when the restaurant holds its famous Tequila University to introduce patrons to the art of tequila tasting.
At night, the live music scene draws both locals and tourists to the pier, where you’ll hear everything from reggae to vintage rock ‘n roll.
For something a bit different, there’s the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, which offers light opera, musical theater and a distinguished speaker series. But, the best entertainment of all, in my opinion, is watching a picture-perfect California sunset over the beautiful, blue, glistening ocean.
If you go:
• Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau: www.redondochamber.org
• Best bet for accommodations: Portofino Hotel and Yacht Club: www.hotelportofino.com or Crowne Plaza Redondo Beach: www.cpredondobeachhotel.com
A hot air balloon flight is one of the best ways to appreciate Cappadocia’s unique lunar landscape. Photo by Deborah Stone.
As I gaze at the lunar landscape below me, I wonder if I’ve landed on Mars or perhaps dropped into one of Dali’s surrealist paintings.
Picture a spectacular topography of vast plains and valleys, rolling hills, rugged mountains and extinct volcanoes.
Then visualize bizarre rock formations, or "fairy chimneys," in mushroom, pinnacled, capped and conic shapes, scattering the area and giving it an otherworldly appearance.
It’s easy to believe I’m on another planet. But, no, I’m in Cappadocia, a region that stretches across 1,500 square miles in central Turkey, about 200 miles south of Ankara, the capital.
And I’m seeing it from a bird’s eye perspective, as I float over the area in a hot air balloon.
It’s a magical experience that provides an unforgettable overview of this unique terrain.
At times, the balloon seems to hover so close to the fairy chimneys, you can almost reach out and touch them.
Up close, you can appreciate their formation – the result of volcanic eruption, earthquakes and the ongoing effects of erosion.
Then the balloon skims the tops of apricot orchards and scrub trees before appearing to head straight for a sheer rock wall.
At the last moment, with just inches to spare between our basket and the craggy edge, we gracefully rise over the lip of the canyon, just in time to watch a breathtaking, fiery sunrise.
Villages look like giant anthills and the formations remind me of drip sand castles at the beach.
It’s a clear day and the view stretches hundreds of miles to Mt. Erciyes and beyond. I don’t want the flight to end, but all too soon, we descend to our landing place and I make my less-than-graceful exit out of the balloon.
And now it’s time to move on and explore the area on terra firma.
Castle-like rock formations, such as this one, served as natural fortresses for the Byzantine army. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Cappadocia has a lengthy history and cultural treasures abound, reminding visitors of the land’s colorful past. The region is littered with hundreds of caves, tunnels and complex underground cities, which were first created by pagan Hittites over 3,000 years ago.
Locals carved out their homes and churches in the soft volcanic rock or "tufa," and then created cities underground to protect and defend themselves against the various populations who came to claim this coveted, strategically located area.
When under siege, the community would roll a huge rock across the entrance to its subterranean fortress to seal it from the outside.
At the Goreme Open Air Museum, an extraordinary monastic complex dating back to A.D. 900-1200, you can see numerous rock hewn churches containing some very well preserved frescos, along with refectories, kitchens, storage rooms and more, all built into the rocks.
On the walls, there are wonderful examples of iconoclastic period art, when the depiction of living forms was forbidden, as well as representations of Byzantine-era painting.
You’ll note that the eyes of the saints are missing. Years ago, the locals, wary of the evil eye, scratched them out.
One of the most impressive underground cities you’ll find is Kaymakli.
This cavernous rabbit warren once sheltered 3,000 beleaguered Christians.
As you make your way through the maze of tunnels, be prepared to duck and crouch.
A low passage leads from the stables to eight subterranean levels, four of which are open to the public.
On display are churches with carved-out altars, wineries (rooms with basins cut into the ground), storage areas and kitchens.
Over 200 intact cities have been found beneath Cappadocia. Experts believe there are many more of these ancient time capsules waiting to be discovered.
If you haven’t gotten your fill of Cappadocia’s remarkable formations, head to the Valley of Devrent or the Pink Valley.
It’s famed for its animal shaped rocks and is akin to a sculpture zoo made by nature.
Let your imagination run wild as you pick out camels, seals, snakes and dolphins among this remarkable rosy-tinged moonscape.
And don’t forget to visit Valley of Pasabag, where you’ll find some of Cappadocia’s most striking fairy chimneys, with twin and triple mushroom-style rock caps.
A chapel and hermit’s shelter are built into one of the three-headed chimneys. Two natural castles, Ortahisar and Uchisar, also deserve mention. They are rock fortresses, honeycombed with caves and tunnels, which were once used by the Byzantine army.
These larger-than-life sculptures represent the region’s most prominent land formations and offer unparalleled views of Cappadocia’s magnificent panorama.
To complete your experience, opt to stay in one of the many cozy, comfortable cave hotels either in the upscale town of Urgup or in the backpacker haven of Goreme. You’ll feel a bit like the Flintstones of Bedrock!
If you go:
For information about sights, activities and accommodations in Cappadocia: www.cappadociaturkey.net
For general information on travel in Turkey: www.tourismturkey.org