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Oregon lures visitors with its wild, untamed coastline

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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A seagull appears to enjoy the view of Haystack Rock, one of the most photographed sights of the area. Photo by Deborah Stone.
A tour of some of Oregon’s universities for my college-bound son was the impetus for a recent trek to our neighboring state to the south. To make a vacation out of the trip, we decided to tack on a few days and head over to the coast for some beach fun a la Northwest style.

First stop was Florence, smack dab in the center of Oregon’s scenic coastal Highway 101. In addition to its wild and untamed beaches, full of caves and rocky inlets, Florence is also well-known for its sand dunes. The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area stretches 50 miles from Florence south to Coos Bay, Ore., and although it may not be as grand as the Sahara, this area is a sight of unique wonders that may make visitors actually feel as if they’re lost amid the African desert landscape.

The dunes are enormous in their proportions and can reach up to two and a half miles inland from the ocean. They rise to heights of more than 385 feet and their contours change continually with the force and action of the wind. One week a dune might be a towering giant and then the next time you see it, it might be a deep sand canyon.

Visitors to the dunes have a variety of recreation opportunities, including camping, hiking, horseback riding and sandboarding (“surfing” on the sand). The adrenaline pumping folks, however, want to ride this rollercoaster landscape in mechanized vehicles ranging from dune buggies to ATVs.

With two teenage sons and a husband who refuses to grow old gracefully, I knew that I would be outnumbered in our recreational choice for the day.

There was just too much testosterone to battle! We headed to Sand Dune Frontier, a locally owned company that rents vehicles to explore the dunes, and there we prepped for our wild ride through the soaring mountains of sand.

Padded in armor, with a host of instructions ringing in our ears, we set off to explore the area on our own. One son rode in a Polaris Quad, the other was in a one-seat Mini-Rail buggy. My husband and I shared a two-seat Rail. Through the massive sandy slopes, we carved our way, inventing our course as we went. We would climb to the peak of a large dune with an “I think I can” mentality, then slow down before we headed off the steep precipice, our screams and laughter catching in the wind as we dropped into a gaping abyss. The sand furiously whipped around us and attacked our faces and bodies with the vengeance of 1,000 needles. And yes, we got stuck a few times when we overestimated our abilities, or should I say when my eager husband overestimated his! But, the excitement and the thrills of this Disneyesque adventure made it all worthwhile, and more importantly, the looks on my sons’ faces as they careened over this amazing, out-of-Africa landscape were priceless.

Another popular outing in the Florence area is the Sea Lion Caves, located about 10 miles north of town on Highway 101.

About 200 Steller sea lions make their homes here in the world’s oldest and largest known sea cave. Visitors take an elevator 2,008 feet down to the ocean level to view these slippery-furred creatures in their natural environment.

It was amusing to hear them barking and honking and to watch them ride the waves into the cave or play king of the hill, as they tussled with one another and jockeyed for position on the rocks.

Many congregated in groups, lolling around in a semicomatose state; others were very active and jumped into the water splashing everywhere.

A video and an assortment of displays that describe the habits of this type of sea lions are located within the observation room. The winter months are an especially opportune time to visit, as it is likely that more sea lions will be inside.

One note of caution: the place has a definite strong odor that may make visitors shorten their time down in the cave area!

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Heceta Head Lighthouse is one of Oregon’s most beautiful and most famous lighthouses. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Just a few miles from the caves is a must-see sight for lighthouse fanatics and for those seeking a spectacular, drop-dead view of the Pacific. About a half mile from the main road is Heceta Head Lighthouse, one of Oregon’s most beautiful and most famous lighthouses.

As you walk up the hill from the parking lot, you will pass what used to be the keeper’s house, now a lovely B&B, and then you will come to the lighthouse itself. Tour guides take visitors up into the building and explain its history, as well as provide info about its operation, then and now. From the top level, you can look down through the windows at the crashing ocean and imagine the relief among sailors when they saw Heceta’s beacon of light flash in the middle of a dark, foggy night at sea.

Newport is the next big (by Oregon coast standards) town one comes to heading north on Highway 101. It’s a true working fishing village with miles of sandy beaches and tide pools, protected by lighthouses that once brought the great ships to safe harbor when Oregon was young and still undiscovered. Its historic bayfront is home to some of the state’s largest commercial fishing fleets, and where daily, fisherman haul in their catches of shrimp, oysters, crab, salmon and others wonders of the deep.

Fresh seafood abounds here, as it does up and down the towns that dot the coastline. After strolling the waterfront shops and eating our fill of fish and chips and clam chowder, we took a peek in the renowned Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center where we encountered habitats and animals that were here centuries before the first settlers arrived.

As one drives the coast highway, it’s the proverbial fresh crab signs, chowder houses, souvenir shops, antique stores and weather-beaten abodes that give this area its identity. There’s a fudge and salt water taffy shop on each corner and a store selling kites on the other. Charming romantic inns are tucked away, along with chain hotels and mom- and-pop motels. Bursts of sunshine mix with dark storm clouds and if you’re not happy with the weather, the old adage, “wait a minute and it will change” works well.

A trip to the Oregon Coast wouldn’t be complete without a quick stop at the Tillamook County Creamery Association Visitors Center in Tillamook. Home of the famed Tillamook cheese, it’s a popular tourist destination where you can take a self-guided tour of the cheesemaking process, sample a variety of cheeses and get a bite to eat at the Farmhouse Café, where the specialty is - you guessed it - grilled cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread!

Top that off with one of the creamery’s fabulous ice cream cones (try the marionberry) and you’ll roll back into the car.

Our final destination was Cannon Beach, a town that’s known for the scenic beauty of its seastacks offshore and its headlands onshore.

Famous Haystack Rock stands guard out in the water and it is one of the most photographed sights of the area. At 235-feet high, it is the third largest coastal monolith in the world and has been designated as a marine and bird sanctuary.

There are many intertidal creatures that make their home in the tide pools around the rock, such as barnacles, starfish, crabs, sea sculpins and anemones.

Several bird species nest on the rock in the summer, the most colorful being the tufted puffin. The nine miles of wide, walkable beach are perfect for flying kites, playing Frisbee, building sand castles or simply relaxing on a piece of driftwood and being lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves. I sat with a book (which I never quite got to read) and just watched the water and listened to the shorebirds, while my family played a rousing game of Nerf football. Later, we visited many of the quaint shops and art galleries that line the town’s streets. There are a number of good restaurants and cafes to grab a quick bite or have a leisurely meal. Clam chowder at Doogers, pizza at Fultano’s, haystack bread at Cannon Beach Bakery and peanut butter milkshakes at The Local Scoop are favorites with my family.

But the true winner is the mighty untamed ocean and the magnificent natural setting of the Oregon Coast. That’s what keeps us coming back.

Hotel Suggestions: In Florence, we stayed at Driftwood Shores, 1-800-422-5091 or www.driftwoodshores.com. In Newport, the Best Western Agate Beach Inn at 1-800-547-3310 or www.agatebeachinn.com. In Cannon Beach, the Hallmark Inn at 1-888-448-4449.

Sand Dunes Frontier: Open year round, weather permitting. 541-997-3544 or www.sanddunesfrontier.com.

Sea Lion Caves: Open year round. 541-547-3111 or www.sealioncaves.com.

Tillamook County Creamery Association Visitors Center: 1-800-542-7290 or www.tillamookcheese.com.

Oregon Coast Visitors Association: 1-888-628-2101 or www.visittheoregoncoast.com.

O’Sullivan, O’Donovan, O’Stone, Oh my!

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Park Hotel in Kenmare. Photo by Deborah Stone.
I may not have kissed the Blarney Stone, nor spied a leprechaun, but I did find my pot of gold and I didn’t even need to look for it at the end of a rainbow.

It was there, ever present, on the kind faces of the people I met, in the haunting, natural beauty of the scenery and in the vibrant Gaelic culture that withstands the test of time in mystical, magical Ireland.

On my recent travels to this land of peat and heather, I quickly became enamored with everything Irish and urged my fellow travelers to call me by my newly adopted name, O’ Stone! Perhaps with a few more freckles, a quick henna rinse and a crash course in the lilting Irish brogue, I might have passed as an Irish lass, but unfortunately, my strong Germanic genes and Yank accent made any such transformation impossible.

Instead, I had to be content to simply inhale, imbibe and take in Ireland with all five of my senses. This is a country to savor slowly. It’s a place that moves at its own pace, like the soft rolling landscape that dominates much of the southwestern parts.

Taking the time to stroll down quaint streets of small market towns and rural villages, sip a pint of Guinness in one of the many quintessential pubs or walk the bucolic countryside is the way to appreciate this treasured island.

Ireland has it all, from castles and medieval ruins to state-of-the-art spas and five star dining establishments.

New mixes with old seamlessly and the visitor can see it all because everywhere is within easy reach of everywhere else.

The country is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey and most of the roads wind their way around the countryside, allowing tourists to get a real feel for the lay of the land. Driving from destination to destination is the best means of transportation (note: driving is done on the left hand side of the road), as Ireland is best experienced when one has the ability to stop at each magnificent, windswept vista or get that perfect photo of baby lambs frolicking after their mother in a meadow of green.

And speaking of green, there is every shade of this color imaginable. I don’t even think Crayola invented enough names to describe the various verdant hues that make up this country’s scenic palette.

My trip focused mainly on the western side of the island and involved travel through the counties of Kerry, Limerick, Clare and Galway. One of the highlights included a stay in Kenmare, one of the several towns located on the popular road that circles the Ring of Kerry. This is one of Ireland’s most picturesque villages with shops painted in all colors of the rainbow, adorned with hand carved signs.

There are many stores selling typical Irish crafts and woolens; of particular note is the Kenmare Lace and Design Centre where visitors can view how the cherished local skill of lacemaking is done, as well as purchase some pieces of beautiful workmanship.

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Joan Crowley is the 82-year-old proprietor of Crowley’s Pub in Kenmare. Photo by Deborah Stone.
When you’ve shopped ’til you’ve dropped, make sure to stop in at Crowley’s Pub for a pint of Guinness and chat with proprietor Joan Crowley, who at 82 years old is still behind the counter pouring the ale. And if you’re lucky, you’ll time your visit to catch a local band playing some real authentic Irish toe-tapping music.

For top rated digs, the Park Hotel is the place to stay. With a history that dates back to 1907, the Park is a charming, elegant Irish country manor estate set on 12 idyllic acres overlooking Kenmare Bay. Its gilded antique furnishings, brocade cushions and original art give it an old world look that takes visitors back in time.

Combine this with a deluxe sybaritic spa, Sámas, and you have the true haven for those seeking the ultimate leisure getaway with traditional Irish hospitality. Sámas (a Gaelic word meaning indulgence of the senses), is a unique place that blends healing and therapeutic traditions from the East and West with the inspiring scenery of Kerry to revive the body, mind and soul.

Guests embark on a three hour therapeutic journey that includes time in the spa’s thermal, treatment and relaxation suites.

The thermal suite was my favorite with a vitality pool, half open to breathtaking views of the forests and mountains that surrounded the wooded property, and equipped with numerous jets to untangle knotty stress.

I decided that I would be content to remain there forever, if not for the body massage that awaited me shortly and the gourmet dinner to follow.

Any fears of bland Irish food loaded with starches were dispelled after my first foray into dining, a la Irish style. I found at each restaurant I ate, that the food was tasty, creatively prepared and of the highest quality, from the great variety of fresh fish, lamb and veal to the earthy, dense homemade breads that accompanies each meal.

And yes, there are potatoes, but they are wonderfully roasted or mashed with herbs, or simply served as chips, seasoned to perfection. Side dishes of veggies, such as turnips and thyme or parsnip chips, are served family style.

Traditional Irish breakfasts are hearty, containing eggs, rashers of bacon, grilled tomatoes, scones and for the more daring, black and white pudding (blood and suet); the latter which I preferred to look at, but not taste! And don’t forget the proverbial cup of tea, which you should add milk to, if you want to do as the Irish do.

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O’Brien Tower at the Clifs of Mohr. Photo by Deborah Stone.
As our trip headed north of Kenmare, we passed through one charming town after another, set against a backdrop of heather clad mountains with peek-a-boo views of the dramatic Atlantic coastline. The light seemed to change quickly with weather patterns that came and went, giving the area a magical quality that heightened the wild beauty of the scenery.

A stop in Listowel, the “literary capital of Ireland,” was a real treat for our group of writers. This lively market town is home to the Kerry Literary and Cultural Centre, a writer’s museum of words and spirit where the imaginative worlds of some of Ireland’s most notable writers are evoked.

The Centre honors over 80 Kerry-based writers, some of whom have become national and international figures in the world of literature, including John B. Keane, Brendan Kennelly and Bryan MacMahon.

Lunch at Glin Castle, one of Ireland’s most historic properties, and an overnight at Gregans Castle Hotel only served to whet my appetite for wanting to see more castles, of which there are hundreds in the country. Glin has been in the FitzGerald family, hereditary Knights of Glin, for over 700 years.

With its decorative plasterwork, collection of Irish furniture and paintings and formal gardens, it’s a gem of a property sitting atop a fabled storytelling landscape. Gregans is located on the Burren, a barren limestone expanse stretching 100 square miles and known as Europe’s largest rock garden.

Located in a remote corner of County Clare, the Burren is a unique lunar-like landscape that has been designated a National Park by the government. It contains over a thousand species of plants and botanists from all over the world come to study the rare plants and flowers that grow here.

Confronted with such an austere, almost surreal terrain, I felt as if I were seeing the first land created on earth. In fact, the Burren is probably the youngest landscape in Europe, settled by man at least 6,000 years ago. This scenery is made even more dramatic when in startling contrast to the soft green and rolling contours usually associated with the west of Ireland.

Gregans Castle is an eighteenth century country house with views of the bare limestone mountains and Galway Bay. It’s a quiet treasure of Ireland with a historic and mystic charm.

Blazing turf fires, home cooked meals using locally grown and organic foods, four poster beds and antique furniture make it an elegant place for those seeking serenity amid a striking landscape. Near the Burren, and not to be missed by visitors who travel through this part of the country, are the Cliffs of Mohr. These majestic cliffs are among the most magnificent stretches of cliff scenery in Ireland.

They front the Atlantic, rising to a height of 700 feet above sea level and stretching for five miles.

It’s a breathtaking experience to climb to the top of O’Brien’s Tower (built at the top of the cliffs in 1835) and experience the spectacular view of the ocean, as well as Ireland’s three Aran Islands, to the west.

Our trip continued as far north as Connemara, a land that exists in the shadow of the sea, where we made a stop at Kylemore Abbey and Garden, home of the Benedictine Order of Nuns and now also, an exclusive private boarding school for girls.

The romantic setting of the castle-like building and its Victorian walled garden make it one of the country’s most visited attractions. When I first saw the place, from across the water, I thought it was a dead-ringer for Hogwarts School, of the Harry Potter fame.

Its massive stone structure with turrets and towers is impressive and daunting, and I could easily imagine the characters from J.K. Rowling’s books practicing their wizardry and magic from within its walls.

Another highlight in the Connemara area is Delphi Valley, a place teeming with natural wonders, lofty summits and an abundance of wildlife.

Set in the heart of this valley, on 300 acres of forested and mountainous land, is a unique destination resort and spa. If you want to escape from it all, this is the place. The Delphi Mountain Resort and Spa is in a remote corner of the Delphi Valley, far away from civilization.

Taking its cue from the surrounding landscape, the resort was designed in local stone and wood and exists in harmony with nature. The spa takes a holistic route towards health and life-style improvement, combining fitness and outdoor activities with relaxation and treatments.

I had a reflexology treatment and an Indian Head Massage; two out-of-this-world experiences that did wonders for the balance between my mind and body. But the true winner was an early morning wilderness walk amid the mist shrouded Mweelrea Mountains.

That was when I experienced what I call a “pure Ireland moment.”

Actually, I had many of these moments during my stay in this country and all of them are memorable, however, it’s the spirit of the people, their hospitality and genuinely warm Irish welcome that will remain in mind forever.

How do I love thee Montreal? Let me count the ways

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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A horse and carriage in Old Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
It’s easy to fall in love with Montreal. It’s a city that knows how to romance you in style.

First it flirts with you to get your attention. Then it begins to woo you, gradually easing its way into your heart and soul. Montreal, though, wants more from you than just a platonic relationship. It’s looking for a deeper commitment. You will be dazzled by its charms, bask in its rosy glow, and it will put out the red carpet to make you feel special. And before you know it, there’s a new love in your life.

So, how do I love you Montreal? Let me count the ways.

1. Montreal is a city for lovers with romance seeping out of every one of its pores. From fireside dinners in cozy restaurants to horse-drawn carriage rides down the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, couples will find many places and activities to ignite or re-kindle their passions. Head to the top of Mount Royal to watch a glorious sunset. Catch the evening sound and light show at the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica, where state-of-the-art multi media techniques bring to life the church’s heritage. Drink your favorite libation in the rooftop wine bar of the charming Auberge du Vieux-Port on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Or for something more formal, try an afternoon of high tea served alfresco in the lush gardens of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. This classic “Grande Dame” of Montreal is an elegant historic landmark with an old world charm that has hosted numerous celebrities and famous personalities over the years.

As you sip teas with names like Imperial Gunpowder and Blue Sapphire and munch on scrumptious scones, gourmet finger sandwiches and delicious sweets, look out at the pair of amorous ducks in the nearby pond for inspiration.

If you happen to visit the city in fall, grab your sweetie on a moonlit evening and head to the Botanical Gardens for the Chinese lantern exhibit. Each year, hundreds of lanterns illuminate the gardens at night, along with colorful dragon boats and other decorative displays. It’s the ideal spot for a romantic stroll.

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Above is a typical scene in Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
In the morning, enjoy your café and croissant at the Atwater Market, another Montreal icon. Then pick up a baguette and some cheese at La Fromagerie (try the Sauvagine, an award-winning buttery triple-cream decadence) for a picnic lunch later after you’ve taken a bike ride along picturesque Lachine Canal on the St. Lawrence River.

2. This city is a treasure trove of art, history and design, with its share of famous museums and galleries. You could spend days touring the Museum Quarter, visiting world-class venues that showcase art for all tastes. Founded in 1860, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of Canada’s oldest art institutions with a permanent collection representing art from Antiquity to today.

At The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, you’ll find a wealth of Quebec creativity and work by leading contemporary international artists.

One of the finest historical collections in North America is housed in The McCord Museum of Canadian History and includes the most extensive First Nations collection in Quebec. Architecture buffs will enjoy the Canadian Center for Architecture, an international research center and museum recognized for the quality of its innovative exhibitions and the unique design of its building. Art and history are also found outside in the urban landscape. Bronze sculptures, statues and monuments dot the downtown corridor and you need only to look at the buildings and churches that surround you to see impressive examples of architecture from neo-Gothic and Gothic to Romanesque Revival and Victorian. With a history dating back to 1642, Montreal is one of the oldest cities in North America.

3. Montreal is a Mecca for shoppers. Whether you’re a browser or a serious buyer, this city will cater to your needs. It’s a shopper’s paradise with high-end, designer fashion and décor boutiques, jewelers, antique emporiums and stores specializing in international goods. A number of renowned designers make their home in Montreal and the city is regarded as the Canadian fashion capital. Brides-to-be will love Les Noces Couture Wedding Dress, a unique bridal gown boutique that has dressed many of Canada’s leading women for their special day. Birks Jewelry Store, Canada’s equivalent of our Tiffany’s, has a collection of diamonds that any girl would like as her best friend. Be careful though, you might be blinded by all the bling-bling and before you know it, you’ll want to take home a nice little souvenir in the store’s famous blue box. If you’re interested in work by local artists, don’t miss Marche Bonsecours. Fifteen boutiques, housed under one roof, showcase original creations by Quebec artisans and designers. For a different type of shopping experience, head down under to Montreal’s “Underground City.” Below the downtown core of the city lies a vast network of pedestrian walkways with access to hundreds of shops. Through a maze of connecting passageways lined with displays of art, you can walk for 20 miles underneath the city’s hub and find every type of store imaginable, in addition to restaurants, theaters and other entertainment attractions. This is also where the metro commuter trains and buses converge, making it a virtual rabbit’s warren for residents and tourists alike.

4. You’ll never run out of choices for accommodations in Montreal. There’s everything from large-scale brand name properties to small boutique hotels. Tourists in-the-know often make a beeline for the latter because of their charm and special character. Many of them are located in Old Montreal, a romantic, historic district with gracious 18th and 19th century stone houses and original cobblestone streets.

One of the jewels of Old Montreal’s hotel scene is Auberge Bonaparte, with its French-inspired furnishings and views of Notre-Dame Basilica.

Another, the Hostellerie Pierre du Calvet, built in the 18th century, is one of the most beautiful examples of New France architecture, characterized by massive crude rock walls and a steeply-sloped roof. Each of the inn’s nine rooms has its own personality, adorned by precious antiques that have been lovingly collected by the owner.

The Hotel XIX Siecle, with its spacious rooms and suites, is housed in a former bank built in 1870 and is right in the heart of this historic quarter, making it a convenient spot from which to access many of the city’s noted attractions.

If reminders of a by-gone era aren’t your thing, take a look at the Hotel Gault, an award-winning property that partners charm and chic in a vintage office building. Its minimalist and spare décor is very hip (check out the “orange slice” chairs in the lobby), which makes it a magnet for the arty set.

When you want to hobnob with an haute clientele, the Saint James is the place. This luxury boutique hotel makes its home in the historic Merchants Bank Building. As soon as you step inside, you sense that you’ve “arrived.” There’s a private club feel to this handsome property with discreet service the key to its attraction for high profile corporate clientele and rock star personalities (think Mick Jagger and Madonna). Opulent fine art and period furnishings line the corridors, public areas and rooms. And be sure to check out the underground, candlelit spa, which was formerly the bank’s vault.

5. It would be hard to find another city in Canada with more exceptional food. It’s next to impossible to get a bad meal here.

Because Montreal has become a melting pot of people from all over the world, it offers food for every kind of palate and budget. There are almost 5,000 restaurants in the city, serving 80 different types of national, regional and international (Greek, West Indian, Iranian, South American, Thai, etc) cuisines.

You can have a classic French meal at Au Bistro Gourmet or at Restaurant les Remparts in Old Montreal. For excellent Szechwan cuisine, try the acclaimed Piment Rouge. Steak lovers will enjoy Moishe’s, a Montreal landmark, and for a taste of Italy, head to Tre Marie in Montreal’s Little Italy.

In addition to its numerous other ethnic and traditional specialties, the city is also famous for its bagels, poutine and smoked meat.

Montreal bagels are made with eggs and are baked in wood ovens, as compared to the ones you find in New York, which are made with water. I found them to be hearty and flavorful and much less spongy in comparison (try the “real” thing at the Fairmount or St-Viateur Bakeries).

I had never heard of poutine until I was in Montreal. It’s a classic French-Canadian dish comprised of French fires smothered in brown gravy and cheese. I confess that I did not approach poutine with the same great gusto that locals have when they eat this concoction! I prefer my steak frites unadorned.

When you want to splurge on an evening out, go to Nuances, the prestigious 5-diamond award restaurant housed in the Casino of Montreal. The Casino, a tourist attraction in itself, is in the former French Pavilion built for the 1967 World’s Fair. Nuance’s sophisticated, innovative cuisine is a heavenly feast for the senses and the epitome of gourmet dining. The restaurant’s elegant décor and breathtaking views of the city and the St. Lawrence River make it a memorable setting for a romantic evening out on the town.

Another spot with unparalleled views of Montreal and excellent food is Altitude 737.

6. Though Montreal is a major urban center with a population base of 1.8 million, you’re never far from nature and open green space.

Parks abound and access to water is never an issue (Montreal is an island, surrounded on all sides by the St. Lawrence River).

You also don’t have to travel far from the city to reach the countryside. Within an hour, you’ll discover quaint towns, miles of hiking trails, lakes, rolling hills and bucolic scenery that will instantly put you at peace. It’s a great place to escape for a day, but to truly recharge your batteries, plan an overnight at one of the many country inns that dot the landscape.

I recommend the Auberge des Gallant. This oasis of tranquility is nestled in the seclusion of Rigaud Mountain, yet just 45 minutes from Montreal.

The Gallant family has created a special place that’s off the beaten path, in the heart of a bird sanctuary, surrounded by spectacular gardens. A gourmet restaurant, luxurious and spacious guest rooms with all the amenities and a pampering spa are just some of the treats guests will find at this charming inn. Madam Gallant believes in hedonistic getaways. Deprivation is a bad word in her vocabulary and she will spoil you until you, too, agree with her wholeheartedly. You will scale the culinary heights with the creative cuisine in the inn’s dining room, drink the best Canadian wines and relax and rejuvenate with state-of-the-art spa treatments.

Try a vino-therapy facial with Pinot Noir and Tuscan Chianti wines, grapeseed oil, honey, lavender and rosemary. It’s haute cuisine for the skin and you will emerge glowing and “drunk” from all the wonderful smells. If you can leave your Jacuzzi or that comfy chair by the fire, head outdoors to stroll the nature trails that meander through the inn’s 400-acre property (in the winter, these are groomed for cross-country skiing). If you’re fortunate to come in the early spring, you’ll get to take part in “sugaring.”

Each year, during March and April, the Gallant family opens their sugar shack to visitors and locals to celebrate maple syrup production time. Large-scale brunches using the product in every possible way are held on the weekends at the Gallant’s beautiful sugar shack. “Shack” is a very misleading term for the handsome log structure that looks like it could have come out of a Currier & Ives print.

For a bit of trivia: 80 percent of the world’s supply of maple syrup is produced in Quebec.

7. Finally, I love the people of Montreal. Before I visited, I pictured the residents as comprising two separate groups: the Francophones and the English. My provincial view was quickly turned on its head when I saw the cultural potpourri that spilled out onto the streets of this lively city.

Many people are bilingual now and over one in four Montrealers is an immigrant. Inhabitants embrace one another’s cultures, which has brought a richness of character to the city.

They also take pride in their roots, which is evident in the care they’ve taken to preserve their old buildings and traditions.

I found Montrealers to be hospitable and warm, with a wonderful sense of humor. They love life with a passion and their enthusiasm and vitality are contagious. Montreal has cast a spell on me. I’m hooked on this enchanting city with its carefree ambiance and wonderful “joie de vivre.” And I promise you, it won’t be long before I return.

Unique resort winery is an oasis in the desert

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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The main building at Cave B Inn and Winery with its unusual curved roof and rock exterior. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Sometimes I really wonder why I live on this side of the mountains when just over the Pass is a land where the sun is a constant presence and rain is an infrequent visitor. On a particularly dismal and wet day last spring, I headed east in hopes of finding clear skies and warmer temps.

The weather gods rewarded me with glimpses of blue as I went through Roslyn and by the time I hit Ellensburg, picture perfect conditions had emerged.

I was on my way to Cave B Inn at SageCliffe, the first and currently only destination resort winery in Washington State, located in Quincy, just steps away from the Gorge Amphitheater.

Word had gotten out that Cave B was a unique, one-of-a-kind upscale property and after only a year in operation, it was getting quite a favorable buzz, thus my curiosity was piqued.

As I got closer to the inn, I wondered whether the place would live up to its advance hype. I’ve been disappointed before when expectations have been too high, but I needn’t have worried this time.

I noticed the apple orchards and lush vineyards first as I drove down the inn’s long driveway and immediately felt transported to a slower place in time.

I could see the Cave B winery off to one side, but it was the main building with its unusual curved roof and rock exterior that caught my attention. Intrigued with the design, I spent some time outside snapping photos before entering.

Once through the doors, I was greeted with a view that literally stopped me in my tracks. Grand floor to ceiling windows look out upon a jaw-dropping vista of the Columbia River Gorge. It’s impossible not to head right through the lobby and out the back doors onto the deck to take in this awe-inspiring scene of geological splendor.

After appreciating Mother Nature’s work, your eye wanders to the buildings with rock walls (constructed from basalt found on the property) and similar curved roofs that appear tucked into the side of the cliffs in camouflage fashion.

The roofs actually seem to mirror the lines on the bluffs across the river and the buildings look like they have grown out of the ground.

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Inn sign at the entrance off the road. Photo by Deborah Stone.
In creating Cave B, owners Vince and Carol Bryan instructed architect Tom Kundig, “to make the land his client.” The result is a design that doesn’t compete with the environment, but rather blends in with the surroundings organically. Use of natural materials is not only evident in the exteriors of each of the buildings, but also within their interiors.

There are 30 well-appointed guest rooms: 15 Cliffehouses, 12 Cavern rooms and three additional rooms located in the main building. The Cliffehouses are each named after one of the many grape varieties grown on the property (the one I stayed in was called “Sangiovese”) and consist of 11 spacious one bedroom units and four two bedroom units.

Each Cliffehouse is its own separate, intimate hideaway built into the hillside with a commanding river view, featuring a cozy sitting area, curved high ceilings, handsome wooden flooring, expansive windows with French doors that open to a private, trellised terrace, luxurious king or queen-size bed, gas fireplace and spacious bathroom done in Italian slab granite.

Colors are themed to reflect white or red wine grape variety and provide rich accents in each unit.

The Cavern rooms, which sit at the edge of the cliff overlooking the river, are accessed through a cave-like basalt rock corridor and although smaller than the Cliffehouses, they share many of the same amenities.

The main building contains three additional luxurious guestrooms, several meeting spaces and the inn’s restaurant, Tendrils. Named for the part of the grape plant that provides support for the growing vine and wraps itself around the wires of the trellis, tendrils are in the words of Carol Bryan, “the thing that holds everything together.” She says, “We wanted the restaurant to be the gathering area for the inn, the place that really holds it all together, so Tendrils, with its association to grapes, was the perfect name.”

Here, James Beard Foundation award-winning chef, Fernando Divinia, whips his culinary magic to create innovative regional fare with flair.

Specialties such as Roasted Laughing Stock Farm Pork Loin with sweet potato puree, apples and beets and Wild King Salmon served with wild rice and fiddleheads are artfully paired with local wines. Desserts range from a sinful Warm Fallen Chocolate Soufflé to refreshing, intensely flavored, homemade fruit sorbets.

This world-class restaurant, with its dramatic backdrop, particularly at sunset when the sky is full of flaming colors, is the ideal romantic setting.

Guests who wish to dine alfresco can sit out on the ample wraparound terrace. With such an amazing view, however, don’t expect to have the undivided attention of your companion, as nature is a fierce competitor!

If eating sumptuous food and soaking in the breath-taking scenery are not enough, there are plenty of other activities to engage in during a stay at Cave B.

The working winery is a feature attraction on site and visitors are welcome to take a self-guided walking tour of the vineyards before making their way to the tasting room. As you stroll the grounds, you can see the various areas where the 15 different grape varieties are grown and take a peek in the Cave.

This arch-shaped building, which is actually half-buried in the ground and covered with dirt, straw and sod, is the perfect atmosphere in which to barrel age the wines.

Nearby is the gift shop and tasting room, where it’s not uncommon to see Cave B’s highly decorated winemaker, Rusty Figgins, behind the bar pouring one of the several featured wines of the day.

Figgins advocates using traditionalist techniques that emphasize a natural, low-intervention wine-making practice.

Cave B Estate premium wines can be found throughout the state in restaurants and retail establishments and they have won numerous awards from prestigious wine societies.

I had the pleasure of tasting a lovely, citrusy and crisp 2003 Semillon and a velvety rich 2003 Cuvee du Soleil; the latter which was a gold medal winner at the Seattle Wine Society.

If you’re so inclined, get a bottle of one of your favorites and head outside to picnic in the grape-trellised piazza, an expansive lawn area dotted with benches and loaded with atmosphere.

For a more vigorous activity option, take a hike from the inn down the hill to the Columbia River. The Columbia River Gorge was the result of several tumultuous Ice Age floods, which carved out deep canyons while at the same time depositing tons of sediment. The boulder-strewn valleys and giant ripple marks are testament to nature’s violent forces and give the region its distinct geology.

Just to be in this unique environment is a treat, but you’d be amazed at the calming, almost Zen-like affect it has on your persona and its ability to soothe the soul.

After hiking back up to the inn, you might feel the need for a massage. You’ll be in good hands if you head for the Spa at Sagecliffe where you can soothe tired and sore muscles or simply unwind while enjoying one of the numerous body treatments available.

I chose the Anti-Aging Wrap, a sublime experience that involved a variety of essential oils and natural ingredients with intoxicating scents applied to my body by a therapist with magic hands. I was exfoliated, massaged, covered in a melon and papaya mask, wrapped up cocoon style and given more massage.

Then I was sent to rinse off in the spa’s seven-head rainforest shower, an experience that I can only describe as heavenly.

The treatment was targeted at improving skin elasticity and tone, as well as at preventing skin sagging, that dreaded process which creeps up on you along with your age. I don’t know if I looked 10 years younger after emerging from the spa, but my skin seemed to glow and I felt totally rejuvenated.

With the completion of Cave B Inn, the owners have now turned their attention to the further development of SageCliffe, a culturally based resort, of which the inn is the first phase.

The Bryan’s vision includes a spectacular 18-hole links-type desert golf course, an equestrian center, additional lodging and housing, studios, galleries, an exhibition hall, performance halls and more conference spaces.

The couple established the SageCliffe Foundation, a non-profit component of the resort that will support art, science and educational programming on site.

“It’s our goal to bring people together from all disciplines and give them a place and the opportunity to interact with one another,” explains Vince Bryan. “Professionals will enrich each other and also enrich the public who will come here to view performances, attend workshops or take part in classes. We will have artists-in-residence and put people in contact with greatness. It will be a vibrant and stimulating center of creativity and expression.”

The couple’s vision stemmed from their land and the awareness of their responsibility as land stewards. The question they pondered for many years was how to best share this land with others without ruining it.

“The land is special,” adds Bryan. “It is the canvas upon which we can participate in painting out. SageCliffe presents the opportunity for mankind and the environment to interface, for there to be a celebration of the environment and a celebration of man’s achievement in the arts and sciences.”

The Bryans believe in the magic of this land and after a stay at Cave B Inn, I, too, am a believer.

Riviera Maya: a world-class destination

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Early morning on Punta Brava Beach
Chocolate, in any form, is my weakness. It tempts me like a Siren calling to Ulysses. Most of the time, I try to keep my chocoholic addiction in line and choose to indulge in this ambrosia in moderation because it wreaks havoc on my waistline.

But recently, I found a healthier way to satisfy my fix. It was on a trip to Riviera Maya that I first heard of chocolate utilized in a spa treatment. Always willing to try anything when it comes to body treatments, I headed to the spa at the El Dorado Royale Spa Resort, my luxurious lodgings for the week, to experience this sensory treat.

After a coconut exfoliation scrub, my body was smothered with chocolate cream (the aroma was enough to send me into chocolate rehab!) and then tightly wrapped up in towels.

During the next 20 minutes, I received a facial and scalp massage, while waiting for the natural cacao to supposedly draw the impurities from my body. I remarked to the therapist that I felt like a bonbon, but as she spoke very little English, I don’t think my idea resonated.

After a thorough rinsing and a finishing massage, I emerged rejuvenated and glowing with baby soft skin. I realize that this treatment is no substitute for eating the rich confection, but it sure takes a close second, plus it’s calorie-free!

A Mayan chocolate body wrap was just the first of several novel experiences for me in Riviera Maya. I had never been to this part of Mexico before and when offered the opportunity to explore it, I eagerly accepted. I saw it as the perfect escape from enduring a third straight week of Seattle’s liquid sunshine.

Located south of Cancun in the far east of the Yucatan Peninsula, Riviera Maya spans 60 miles along the coast of Quintana Roo. This locale has become a popular destination over the years, as it offers tropical weather, warm hospitality, secluded white sand beaches and a unique culture. The area is particularly known for its diving and snorkeling because off the coast of Quintana Roo lies the second largest coral reef in the world, the Great Mayan Reef, which is home to over 5,000 species.

There are several eco-archaeological parks in the region, which provide prime opportunities for visitors to have unparalleled environmental experiences, and each beach is a paradise for water sports. At Maroma, rated the number one beach in the world by the Travel Channel, the activities range from deep sea fishing and scuba diving to speed boat racing and jet skiing. On land, visitors can ride ATVs through the jungle, take a horseback ride down the beach or simply soak up the dazzling rays. I ate the best fresh seafood ceviche here while sitting under a palapas (thatched hut) and listening to local musicians play traditional favorites.

At Xcaret, one of the eco-parks in the region, I had another first-time experience. Xcaret is all about water, preservation of the environment and cultural restoration. Here, you can see colorful macaws and flamingos, observe mammoth sea turtles and manatees, catch lazy crocodiles pretending to sleep in mangrove swamps and watch spider monkeys get into mischief, as well as explore a bat cave or even try to count the hundreds of iguanas that roam the park.

Water, in lagoons, pools, the bay and underground rivers, is definitely a featured attraction, but it’s the dolphin program that caught my attention. I had always wanted to swim with these playful creatures because they have fascinated me ever since I was a young girl. To be able to have an up-close and personal encounter with them exceeded all my expectations.

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Travel writer Deborah Stone gets a kiss from Fanny the bottle-nosed dolphin.
Maya and Fanny, two friendly mother and daughter bottle-nosed dolphins with that famous perpetual “smile,” swam around me, nudging me with their bodies and encouraging me to stroke them on their undersides. I was amazed at their muscular definition and at the silky smoothness of their skin. They also truly seemed to relish the human contact and socialization opportunity.

After the trainers gave the pair a number of tasks to do to demonstrate their keen intelligence, everyone in my group got the chance to have the dolphins take them for a ride. As I lay face down in the water, remembering to keep my body rigid, Fanny and Maya swam around to my rear and pushed against my feet, propelling me through and up out of the water. It was an exhilarating ride that was over way too soon. A final kiss and hug opportunity with Fanny was the icing on the cake for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Xcaret also offers visitors the essence of Mexico through its cultural programs. There’s a model Mayan village where you can watch local artisans working at their crafts and throughout the park, at various times of the day, opportunities abound to see performances of traditional dances and rituals. One of the most spectacular shows is the Papantla Flyers, an all-male group who perform a Mayan ritual dedicated to fertility and the sun god. As the Big Chief plays his reed flute and pounds his drums, four men, in colorful red and white clothing, climb up a tall pole and take their positions at its four corners.

The flyers, who are each tethered, leap off the platform and swing around the pole thirteen times (13 times four is 52 – the number of years in the pre-Hispanic cycle), descending lower and lower until they reach the ground.

At night, Xcaret comes alive with the Mexican Folkloric Ballet, a festive pageantry of music, song and dance representing the different states of Mexico.

On another day, I visited Xel Ha, a well-known water theme park in the region. Once again, I opted to try something new and this time, it was the Sea Trek. I liken this experience to taking a moon walk in a blue planet. Wearing a 60-pound space-age helmet, I descended, with the help of divers, to the bottom of the sea. The helmet provided a continuous flow of oxygen, allowing me to breathe normally underwater, while keeping my face and hair completely dry.

My group of six proceeded to walk along the sea floor, holding onto a handrail to guide our way, while we gazed in wonder at the sea life swimming around us. The divers brought stingray over for us to touch and pointed out various treasures in our midst.

A sucker fish sucked on the palm of my hand, while other little fish nibbled at my fingers. I felt like an undersea astronaut exploring a whole new world. Another memorable first!

Riviera Maya is also the site of several ancient Mayan ruins. Tulum, one of the more famous of these sites, is the only Mayan fortress built by the sea. This walled city was used by the Mayans as their port of entry for Caribbean goods and as an important ceremonial center.

To visit Tulum is to travel through a time machine. Walking around the temples and examining the frescoes depicting Mayan gods and symbols of nature’s fertility gives one the opportunity to learn more about pre-Hispanic life.

The buildings date back to A.D. 564 and at the highest point on the site, the Castillo, or castle, sits, commanding imposing views in every direction. Although visitors can wander around on their own, I highly suggest taking a tour to get the full historical background of this unique place.

Upon return to my hotel, I decided to check out some of the property’s on-site activities. A salsa dance class got my attention, as I saw it as a chance to put my two left feet in motion. If I had any hopes, though, of coming home and taking the salsa world by storm, they were quickly erased as soon as the lesson began.

Remembering the steps was a challenge in itself, especially for someone who is directionally dyslexic, but then the instructors encouraged everyone to “feel the music in your body and just let go.” Pandemonium in the form of a Latin mosh pit ensued, as people took the instructors’ words literally. I emerged black and blue, dripping in sweat, with the realization that perhaps the subtle nuances of this step had evaded me.

After that, I was perfectly happy lounging in a hammock on the resort’s picturesque Punta Brava Beach. And when my stomach began to grumble, I knew I could take my taste buds for a whirl at one of the hotel’s seven gourmet restaurants or head off the property to dine at the many choice eateries in the area. Riviera Maya is a world-class destination with top-rated hotels, offering a winning combination of history, natural beauty and exciting adventures. So, the next time my limbs begin to rust and moss has become a second skin, I’ll simply say “adios Seattle” and head to this south-of-the-border paradise.

Note: Although Hurricanes Emily and Wilma caused large scale destruction to parts of this region (particularly Cancun), massive efforts have been made to rebuild and at the time this writer visited the area, substantial signs of recovery could be seen. The Cancun Tourism Board expects most, if not all its hotel properties to be fully functioning by early spring.