Redondo Beach: jewel of the Pacific coastline

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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:

• Best bet for accommodations: Portofino Hotel and Yacht Club: or Crowne Plaza Redondo Beach:


Magical Cappadocia is a trove of natural and cultural treasures

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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:

For general information on travel in Turkey:

Experience your own private playground at Olympic National Park

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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.

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.

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
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.

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.

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
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."