Blog Archives for the ‘The Great Outdoors’ Category
PARIS, Ark. — Two-lane roads snake up, down and around hills and mountains of Arkansas. They lead to more than 50 state parks and countless recreation areas and boat-launch ramps.
Along these roads, you traverse cattle pastures, forests and villages so small you wonder how they got incorporated. For example, there’s St. Joe, population 85.
The rolling hills are dotted by occasional trailer homes with an array of kids’ toys out front, by tidy farmhouses. Those with tumble-down wooden barns hint of both history and ultimately misfortune.
The gently leaning barn along a rural road in Arkansas implies there's a history to be heard
Every so often there will be a long driveway from the blacktop up to a magnificent, multistory estate. Some of these are owned by ranchers who have cashed in, while others are retirement manses for wealthy northerners. “Money from Chicago,” you hear the locals comment.
It’s only a two-hour drive through this scenery west from Little Rock to the state park system’s handsome lodge atop Mount Magazine, Arkansas’ highest point at 2,753 feet.
Opened in 2006, the 60-room, 13-cabin lodge is all rustic timbers and earth tones, with a patio behind the lodge lined with rockers to take in the view of the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake below.
While the lodge has a restaurant offering continental takes on local food and an indoor pool, this is a destination for people who enjoy the outdoors.
The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park has a variety of room sizes and pricing seasons.
The park has roughly 14 miles of trails and enough observation points that “You can see about a quarter of Arkansas and even a big hill over in Oklahoma, about 50 miles west,” notes Don Simons.
The slightly built Simons has been at Mount Magazine for about 11 of his nearly 30 years as a state parks interpreter. In that job, he leads visitors on trail hikes, but a walk with him actually is a combination botany-entomology-wildlife-history lesson.
“Most of the mountain’s slopes are covered by virgin timber,” he says, leading me up an easy slope, “because the sides were too steep to easily cut the trees. The tops were logged, and settlers were here after the Civil War, farming.
“Most stayed until the Depression, and finally the government bought out the rest” to create the park,explains Simons, who is a nationally Certified Heritage Interpreter.
Simons interrupts our walk every few yards to identify some living thing. A former president of the state Audubon Society, he cocks his head to listen, then names the birds he hears: “Squeaky wheel . . . Pee-wee . . . red-eyed vireo. (Later, at the visitors center’s indoor observation room, he points through the large windows at the American goldfinch, indigo bunting and various hummingbirds at the feeders.)
Along the path, Simons uses his decal-decorated walking stick to point out plants such as the fly poison, ginseng, wild yam, paw paw and sassafras. “Down in Louisiana, where I came from, they grind the sassafras leaves for file gumbo.”
Butterflies became the specialty he shares with his wife, Lori Spencer. She has a master’s degree in entomology and has published she a book on butterflies. She and Simons have identified more than 85 species of butterflies within Mount Magazine State Park.
But Simons says that most of what he knows of nature is from “years of self-teaching, getting on the trails, then learning what it is that I see.”
He admits he was never driven by education when he was young. “I had no ambition out of high school. I got a full-time job at McDonalds – I was one of those geeks,” he says, a smile breaking through his brown beard.
“I drove up to Arkansas (from his Louisiana home) and in a park I saw a ranger handling snakes, and I thought that was cool. So I went to college and got a degree in wildlife management. I learned to handle bison and bighorn sheep, because my teacher was from Utah and that’s what he knew.”
The smile grows larger.
The view from the tallest peak in Arkansas, Mount Magazine, overlooks Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake.
Having reached the summit of Mount Magazine, Simons stops to talk about the bill he and his wife had introduced in the legislature to have the Diana fritillary named the Arkansas state butterfly.
Almost on cue, a great spangled fritillary lands on me – “He wants to lap up the sodium in your sweat,” explains Simons – before it moves to the ranger’s hand.
Simons and his wife live a couple hundred yards from the multimillion-dollar lodge, which he sees as a mixed blessing, because it is expected to draw a half-million visitors annually to this park.
“It’ll bring the kind of people . . . who want to enjoy the beauty of nature,” he says. By their coming, “I know the peace and quiet I enjoy will be lessened.
“But I know where all the neat, secret places are, and I can go there.”
If you go
The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park offers four room types, plus 13 cabins that have fireplaces and kitchens. There are four pricing seasons.
For more, go to www.mountmagazinestatepark.com or call (877) 665-6343.
For more on all of Arkansas’ state parks, go to www.arkan sasstateparks.com.
The people who take the time to catalog such things report that there are about 900 species of wildflowers in Grand Teton National Park. That’s good to know, because most of us are never going to look down while we are here: We are going to be looking up.
The Grand Teton range is a relentlessly spectacular, 40-mile-long series of serrated peaks. Jutting dramatically from the broad Jackson Hole (pioneers’ term for a valley), the Tetons may be North America’s most impressive mountain panorama. To stand awhile gazing at them is to ponder mankind’s tentative position in the planet’s scheme.
As with Yellowstone, just a few miles to the north, this park is the result of massive geologic activity: About 9-million years ago, two huge slabs separated, one rising to fashion the mountains, one dropping to form the valley.
While the tallest peak, Grand Teton, soars to 13,770 feet, it has to vie for attention with 11 partners that top 12,000 feet. Their jagged, gray granite faces are laced with patches of snow and with glaciers. Trees seem to quit their climb early on these slopes; even the valley’s green carpet abruptly halts to let the mountains rise.
Awesome yet approachable
But the Tetons can be approached and even scaled: There are more than 200 miles of hiking trails that wend around the sparkling lakes and up into the mountains.
For instance, you can circle pretty Jenny Lake in just six miles or take a turn-off at the south end to find the aptly named Hidden Falls, whose sound reaches the hiker’s ears long before the waterfall appears through the trees.
Two paved roads run north and south through the park, roughly parallel to the mountains on the west, and there are enough scenic overlooks to fill even a big memory card.
But for a languid look at the Tetons, get aboard one of the popular raft-floats on the Snake River, flowing about 6-8 miles from the mountains. The trip is calm, the young people handling the steering oars are full of history, corny jokes and naturalist lore. They are also quick to point out the eagles, ospreys, waterfowl, wading birds and beavers’ lodges on the river and its shores.
When people lived here
While several Indian tribes had migrated regularly through the flat valley, the first white settlers brought cattle herds here in the late 19th century. Just a trace of this pioneering effort remains, so it’s worth a stop at the Cunningham Cabin Historic Site, on the eastern edge of the park.
Pierce Cunningham had led the effort to have the area proclaimed a national park, which came to pass in 1929; more land was added in 1950, making the park 485 square miles.
Another remnant is the Menor’s Ferry Trail, where a half-mile path takes visitors to look at homesteading ways, including a replica of a turn-of-the-century ferry across the Snake.
Close by is the 71-year-old Chapel of the Transfiguration, a tiny church that features a special backdrop to its altar: a picture window showcasing the Tetons.
Horseback rides, lasting from an hour or so to overnight camping trips, are a special way to enjoy the back country, or you can pedal your bicycle along the paved roads – no bikes allowed on the trails.
For a brief foray on the water, check at the Colter Bay Visitor Center for the breakfast and dinner trips to an island in big Jackson Lake. The grilled steaks taste special amid the natural splendor. The wildlife enhances the meals: Rare sandhill cranes shatter the stillness as they call from their nesting area, and white-tail deer prance by the picnic tables.
Back at the Colter Bay Visitor Center, make time to visit the well-done Native American art. Creativity and craftsmanship are the focus. The center also shows films on wildlife and on Native American history.
Best of all, when you step back outside and turn around, those marvelous mountains are there, defining the horizon and encouraging you to dream.
If you go
Grand Teton National Park is on the western edge of Wyoming, just north of the city of Jackson, which has commuter plane service.
The park is open year-round, but visitor centers and concession services in the park close in the late fall through the winter. Snowshoe and snowmobiling trips are available in the winter.
For information about Grand Teton National Park, call (307) 739-3300 or go to www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm.
The park has five campgrounds with 865 sites, and five hotels that offer rooms and rustic cabins. For information on accommodations, contact the Grand Teton Lodge Co., (800) 628-9988 or go to www.gtlc.com.
For lodging in Jackson, a few miles to the south, go to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce site, www.jacksonholechamber.com/lodging/hotels-motels-lodges.php.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — Time and the forces of nature will decide if Mount McKinley is immortal, but it’s so mighty that it seemingly decides when to display its 20,320-foot-tall majesty.
The mountain is also called by its American Indian name, Denali, meaning the Great One or the High One. Indeed, it is the highest point in North America and, because of its immense bulk, on a clear day it can be seen in Anchorage, about 150 air miles away.
But that isn’t often: McKinley creates its own mini-climate and usually is wreathed in clouds. Thus, at least two-thirds of the people who travel to the vast Denali National Park and Preserve — larger than Massachusetts — never get to see even the top half of the namesake mountain.
So when it does show itself — when the mountain is “out” as they say here — it inspires joy, and awe, in viewers.
Yet the same can be said for the much-easier sighting of wildlife that roams the park, including parking lots and roads. How many of us in the Lower 48 get within 20 feet of a female grizzly bear as it munches on berries? Or watch a moose cow with its youngster, grazing on a hillside, or see a caribou sitting in a patch of snow to get relief from insects?
I could have checked off all of these critters, and more, on my seen-that list during the free, narrated Tundra Wilderness Tour on my recent visit. But I also brought home pictures, and the memories.
Driver-guide Jeff Farragia took his busload of 47 on a graded but unpaved road 63 miles into the park, to Stony Hill Overlook. We were 33 miles from Denali, and clouds covered perhaps the top fifth, but it was still a spectacular sight.
I got the up-close-and-personal view, though, by plunking down $350 for a flightseeing tour. I made the one-hour flight in an eight-seat, twin-engine Piper Navajo. Pilot Dan McGregor took us within 2,000 feet of the Wickersham Wall, a 50-degree slab of snow-covered granite, at 12,000 feet up on Denali. It was dazzling.
I added to my mental scrapbook with a two-hour raft ride down the 11-mile Canyon Run of the Nenana (nee-NAH-nah) River. Class III rapids bounced us around as we sat bundled head to booties in rubber suits and life jackets.
You can also get a taste of the park by hiking or biking over dozens of miles of trails in the untouristed backcountry, by jouncing along on a Jeep safari, and by camping, visiting with the park’s sled dogs — used for ranger patrols in the winter — taking other narrated bus tours, strolling ranger-led nature walks, or just sitting in on films and live presentations at the Visitors Center. Many of the paths and the rides are wheelchair accessible.
Open year-round, Denali offers thrills and inspires awe, but most of all, it creates memories, mountains of them.
If you go
Denali National Park and Preserve main entrance is 237 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Entrance fee is $10 for individuals, or $20 per vehicle, for up to seven days’ visit. To learn more, call (907) 683-2294, or go to .
There are hotel rooms available just outside the park boundaries; call (907) 683-4636.
I flew to Mount McKinley on Denali Air, www.denaliair.com; (907) 683-2261.
I rafted with Explore Denali, which has several options, from challenging to less so; toll-free 1-800-276-7234.
DINGLE, Ireland — All five bar stools are occupied this spring afternoon in Dick Mack’s, a pub of some acclaim in this village at the western edge of Ireland. Yet untouched on the bar are pints of beer just served to new customers.
Two of them, women in their early 20s, ignore their beers and start to sing in fine voices Will You Go, Lassie, Go. The other three at the bar, all men, join in the song that mentions the heather that covers much ground with tiny purple blooms.
“Written by a Belfast man, that was,” one of the men informs me and the others when they finish singing.
Without any signal, the young women begin a sweet version of Down In The River to Pray, a gospel hymn heard in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The men quickly join this song, too.
After the gospel number, everyone finally reaches for a glass of beer. A couple more customers wander in, get their pints and go stand behind a low wooden counter that is parallel to the bar and a few feet away. Behind this counter are shelves and cubbyholes filled with cobbler’s gear, boots, metal taps for shoes and a pair of “Wellies,” the rubber boots every farmer owns.
The fields are a patchwork quilt, stitched together by walls of stones.
Though Dick Mack’s has been a pub a long while, it was also a leather worker’s shop. “They stopped that more than 10 years ago,” a man at the bar tells me. “No one has leather soles on their shoes anymore.”
Just then, a man in his 20s pulls a black flute from his jacket and starts playing a traditional Irish tune. As soon as he finishes, another man takes the flute, and he begins to play.
The flute’s owner goes to the wall and takes down a bodhran, the hand-held drum that resembles a large tambourine. The man cannot find the traditional knobbed stick to thump the bodhran, so he expertly uses his thumbs.
It is not quite 4 in the afternoon. The pints of beer largely are being ignored in favor of upholding this pub’s tradition of impromptu music.
Outside on the sidewalk, dark gray stars have been painted, a la the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The stars bear the names of celebrities who have stopped in at Dick Mack’s: actors John Mills, Julia Roberts, Timothy Dalton, Robert Mitchum.
Also painted there are the names of some who might have led the singing: Dolly Parton and Paul Simon.
Though the pub/cobbler shop dates to 1899, the earliest settlers on the Dingle Peninsula arrived about 6,000 years earlier.
They probably had been sailing along the western edge of the European continent when they came ashore, because this peninsula juts 40 miles into the Atlantic from the southwestern edge of Ireland, and it is the end of Europe.
“The next parish is Boston,” says Timothy Collins, repeating a common joke based in fact.
Collins was a policeman on the 8-mile-wide peninsula for 35 years, and he now leads archaeological tours. There were few tourists to guide until the last quarter of the 20th century.
It was in 1970 that master director David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter was released. It is about a romantic triangle complicated by World War I animosities, and it takes place on the peninsula.
Lean’s film crew spent a year on the Dingle, constructing an authentic village from tons of newly quarried granite. Cinematography filled with spectacular landscapes began to draw tourists way out to the Dingle. Even now, many can recall the overhead shot of Sarah Miles on a stretch of vacant beach, a beach that Collins points out to the tourists piled into his minivan.
Though Dingle Harbor still receives ships returning with catches of herring, sole, cod, lobster and salmon, tourism has become more important to the economy. The town’s year-round population of about 1,400 at least doubles during the summer.
“In 1970, we only had one hotel, no B&Bs, and the only visitors here were archaeologists,” Collins recalls.
“Now we can only hope that Ryan doesn’t have a granddaughter!”
What the stones have to say
Visitors don’t need a guide to take the breathtaking coastal road, often high above the Atlantic, to view the settings of Ryan’s Daughter and the 1992 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film Far and Away. But travelers probably will want someone like Collins to explain some of the estimated 2,000 ancient stones and structures left by the earliest settlers.
Pieces of granite are everywhere.
In the towns and villages of west Ireland, they often were used to make walls that have since been covered with stucco and painted in a rainbow of rich colors.
Outside the villages, the stones are stacked in countless miles of knee-high fences that divide farmers’ fields. Circles of granite remain as Bronze Age stone forts, dating 3,700 years.
The ruins of an ancient stone ring fort partially date to the Bronze Age.
Standing stones — upright pillars — were inscribed as far back as the fourth century A.D. with Ogham, a series of straight lines forming the letters of an alphabet now long-dead. In many places, huge slabs of stone were positioned upright to support a capstone, creating rudimentary tombs 5,000 years ago.
And just a few centuries ago, more pieces of granite were stacked to become farmhouses and barns, workers’ humbles cottages and nobles’ castles.
All the stones have stories to tell.
Guides and researchers such as Collins discuss the rise and fall of ancient peoples, their religions and writing forms. The narrative often winds to modern day.
Halting the minivan, Collins gathers his passengers by two upright stalks of reddish sandstone to discuss their Ogham carvings.
Various standing stones might have told stories of a chieftain or served as directional posts. Now, however, he wryly observes, “they are mainly cow-scratchers,” against which wandering cattle rub themselves.
A road past history
The coastal road, designated R559, is a scenic drive even without the stone artifacts. It winds through crossroad villages, past a few two-room schoolhouses built in the early 1900s. These schools usually have “20 or 25 children and two teachers,” Collins says.
The minivan passes familiar-looking highway signs, except that the wording is in Gaelic. Tag Bog E, which is pronounced “toe-g boe-g eh,” literally means “Take it easy,” Irish for “Please slow down.”
Western Ireland is the stronghold for Gaeltacht, pronounced “gwail tawkt,” which is spoken and written Irish. Some schools here are conducted entirely in Gaelic.
On the inland side of the road are the gentle slopes of 1,600-foot Mount Eagle, dotted with beehive huts –dome-shaped, stone, one-room places. There is also the occasional graveyard and, everywhere, grazing sheep.
There are 23 monastic settlements on the peninsula, but perhaps the prime attraction from the early Christian era is the Gallarus Oratory.
Dating between the seventh and ninth centuries, this is a perfect example of the corbel, or dry-stone, construction: Relatively flat rocks were placed atop each other in the shape of an inverted boat, so rainfall followed the slanted rocks down and away from the building. The interior of the tiny church is dry, despite an average rainfall on the Dingle of 80 inches.
The Oratory is usually the last stop on Collins’ tour. But the peninsula offers dozens of other sites easily located with a good map.
And so my trip to Ireland had begun with song, but at other times, I heard the stones talking.
If you go
PLANNING YOUR TRIP: If you prefer to drive yourself, check car-rentals before leaving the U.S. – this is usually cheaper than hiring at the airport.
But plenty of tour operators will be glad to coddle you as they move you about. These companies can group folks who share interests in walking tours, horseback riding, seeing pubs, visiting gardens, viewing castles, staying in cottages, playing golf or just eyeing the well-publicized sights.
For all sorts of information – tour operators, lodgings, attractions – go to the government’s fine web site, www.discoverireland.com/us.
FALKIRK, Scotland — There was a time, a couple of centuries ago, when the best way to move people and freight across the land was on canals.
Scotland, surrounded by water on three sides, became the first nation in the world to dig intersecting cross-country canals. They connected the North Sea, near Edinburgh on the east, with the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles to the west of Glasgow.
That was in 1790, and the trip took most of a day, including the 6-10 hours to move through 11 locks needed to raise or lower the boats 115 feet.
But in the next century, an enhanced steam engine greatly cut the transit time — and also opened other routes, on land and sea. The railroad further reduced the need for canals.
Finally, widespread use of the internal combustion engine meant trucks and cars could take people and cargo much faster than could boats.
What had been a busy canal system was largely abandoned in 1933. In the 1960s, it was closed when two major highways were constructed through the canals.
But everything old is new again, and then some.
The national government spent the equivalent of $124-million to eliminate the need for the original 11 locks by creating the world’s first “rotating boat lift.” Opened in May 2002, it is named the Falkirk Wheel, after the middle-of-the-nation town where it was constructed.
The structure is futuristic in appearance, yet it uses an ancient law of physics to operate. Basically, a huge wheel is fixed to an axis, and on either side of the wheel are two boxes that hold water. Each box, called a gondola, is 70 feet long by 21 feet wide.
This is when Archimedes’ Principle comes into use. This states that an item placed in water displaces its own weight; thus one or more boats push out of the gondola an amount of water equivalent in weight to the boat’s weight.
The opposing gondola has the same weight, whether it is water only or also boats. A number of electric motors turn a cleverly designed series of gears that rotate both the large wheel and lesser gears that keep the gondolas level while the big wheel turns.
The gondola on the bottom is filled with water from a basin, and boats glide in before a water-tight door is closed behind them. The gondola at top opens onto an aqueduct that connects through a tunnel to the original, higher canal.
When both gondolas are closed, the wheel rotates — eerily quiet, considering the size of the structure. What was below goes up and what was up comes down.
When the big wheel’s half-rotation is complete, the water doors are opened and the boats glide out, to continue their canal journey in either direction. The cross country canal is about 68 miles long.
Since it opened, thousands of pleasure craft and more than 1-million visitors have come through the gates to watch it happen, with many of them booking rides on the 40-passenger tour boats kept in the basin.
The half-rotation takes about 15 minutes; the tour boats going up send their boats into the 330-foot-long aqueduct, which leads to a 475-foot-long tunnel beneath an ancient Roman wall. From there the tour boats enter a small lake, turn around and come back.
If you go
GETTING THERE: Several trains a day from Edinburgh and Glasgow stop in Falkirk; the ride takes little more than a half-hour. Phone your departure train station for the schedule.
The Falkirk Wheel is on a bus route from Falkirk’s Grahamston and High train stations. The No. 3 Red Line Bus, operated by First Bus, runs about every 15 minutes from stops near both stations to the Wheel site. Or, cabs can be hired at the stations.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to
Even from the back seat of a tow truck, England’s Lake District is lovely.
Gentle slopes give way to steep hills, often faced with granite. Lush green meadows are stitched by stone walls, to corral the livestock. On a chill fall morning, horses wear blankets, sheep wear their sweaters-to-be, but cows don’t even wear bells.
What seems like a baker’s thousand of tiny villages blossoms along narrow lanes like so many spilled M&M’s. This bag was loaded with colors of slate gray, whitewash and ocher, but among them were occasional splashes of royal blue, crimson, emerald, lemon.
Village names are pastoral: Ambleside, Waterhead, Grasmere, Hawkshead, Windemere, Penny Bridge.
Window boxes, hanging baskets and trellises overflow with the richest palette of neon blooms. Stands of birch, oak and pine provide the curtains through which country mansions or an occasional castle turret peek.
Velvet hillsides lead to placid lakes that gave this region of northwest England its moniker.
Slanting sunbeams and gusts of wind make those waters glitter brighter than faceted diamonds in a display case. Gliding along, sailboats, kayaks, skiffs and sightseeing two-deckers offer panoramas of shoreside hotels, livestock and, always, the hills.
From the harsh, the smooth
The Lake District is England’s most mountainous area. It was carved by glaciers that retreated 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
The region is compact, measuring less than 35 miles by 35 miles. Yet it is rugged enough that most roads are merely paved country lanes. A motorist can’t glance at a map to casually calculate driving time based on distance.
But then, no one comes to the Lake District to be in a hurry.
This region so entranced William Wordsworth that the poet waxed lyrical about nature’s calming ways in many of his works, including the poem Daffodils.
This was during the Industrial Revolution, which was financing Great Britain’s 19th-century imperial reach. But Wordsworth and other writers convinced those who could escape the smoke and smell of London, Liverpool and Manchester to come north and take comfort from the landscape.
That led to the northward extension of railroads for passengers. Before, trains merely carted raw cotton, returning with about two-thirds of the world’s finished textiles, bound for the great ports.
Also nearly 150 years ago, the tourism infrastructure grew: Inns became hotels, taverns became restaurants. Earthen stagecoach routes were covered by pavement.
About that tow truck …
When mist scuds down the hills on an overcast morning, the landscape turns somber but still beckons. It holds out the promise of at least a history lesson — Vikings first worked this land — and a chance to find the perfect tea shop or warm fireplace in a pub, to escape the chill and meet the villagers.
Following a convention of travel writers in Manchester, to the south, I and two colleagues were touring the Lake District in a rented minivan. The rental agent had neglected to say that this Chrysler ran on diesel fuel.
Unfortunately, one member of our group did not see the diesel label on the inside of the flap cover of the gas tank. He pumped 13.5 gallons of unleaded gas – at $8 a gallon – into the tank.
We were barely a mile down the road when the engine sputtered, then stopped. By the time we hoofed back to the petrol station, we understood our mistake: Diesel engines can’t run on gasoline.
After several phone calls, the local Chrysler dealer told us that we had not killed the minivan, only its fuel filter. The dealer would make the repairs as soon as the flatbed wrecker he was displatching could reach his garage, 25 miles away.
Once the minivan had been winched up onto the wrecker, the three of us piled into its cab. Those hilly roads had never seemed so narrow, but the views, well, they were still charming.
If you go
GETTING THERE: There are direct flights to Manchester, about 80 miles south of the Lake District, from U.S. gateways.
STAYING THERE: The Lake District has a range of accommodations, though you’ll get a true flavor of the area if you book into a B&B, small hotel or pub. Most include breakfast in the rate.
We spent two nights in Hawkshead, near Lake Windemere. My companions stayed at the Red Lion Inn, dating to the 15th century, and I stayed in its sister lodging, the two-centuries newer Sun Inn.
My room was up 24 steps on seven turns of the staircase. My sloped-ceiling room could serve as the Keebler Elves Bridal Suite: The windows came only to my knees, and a beam crossed the bathroom just above the toilet. I’d stay there again.
Sun Inn Hawkshead, eight rooms; www.suninn.co.uk.
Red Lion Inn, 12 rooms; www. redlionhawkshead.co.uk.
I also stayed at the modern, upscale, 41-room Waterhead Hotel in Ambleside, on Lake Windemere; www.elh.co.uk.
For a full range of choices and event information, go to www.golakes.co.uk.
WHAT TO DO THERE: Plan at least three days to meander, enjoy the views, walk the trails and take in these attractions:
/ Poet William Wordsworth’s final years were spent at Dove Cottage. On the property is the two-room bakery/sales room of the acclaimed Grasmere Gingerbread Shop. It has used the same recipe to bake a spectacularly good treat since 1854. It ships around the world; www.grasmeregingerbread.co.uk.
/ Cruise on a lake. There are several options; for instance, you can get a 30-minutes-each-way trip between Ambleside and Bowness villages, then stroll.
/ If you love dogs — or sheep — head northwest to Cockermouth and the Lakeland Sheep & Wool Visitors Centre. Watch a border collie herd a small flock of geese (the dirt-floor arena is too small to move many sheep) and watch a New Zealand dog, a huntaway, race over the backs of some sheep, as it would do to reach the other side of a herd.
JUNEAU, Alaska — Larry Stauffer’s job assignment the past 15 months or so has been pretty straightforward:
Figure out how to make the standard shore excursions in the busy Alaskan market so special that passengers aboard the Disney Cruise Line’s first-ever trips there in the summer of 2011 will happily opt to buy its pricier versions.
For Stauffer, that meant getting the lumberjacks, dog mushers, gold-panners, helicopter pilots, totem-pole carver, glacier guides, train conductors and fishing boat operators to come up with something distinctively better.
To achieve that, the manager of Disney Cruise’s Port Adventures (the Mouse’s term for excursions) flew from Orlando to already wintry Fairbanks in October 2009 and met excursion operators at the state tourism conference.
“I absolutely challenged the operators to come back to us with ideas that were different for Disney. I told them we would be coming with 1,000 kids, told them what we already do on our existing itineraries,’’ Stauffer told me as he led a brief media tour to the ports in September.
“I wanted them to create something different, an added value to their tours.’’
While the operators huddled indoors during the Alaskan winter, Stauffer went last March to the cruise industry’s SeaTrade gathering in Miami Beach to “speak with my contacts.’’
During the spring he also studied web sites of the cruise lines that fill the main harbors with four and five ships a day, from May into September. He learned that many vessels routinely offer up to 60 excursions per port.
Next, the executive went back to the 49th state during the height of the summer 2010 tourist season, sampling about 20 excursions. He again invited operators to escalate the routine tour into Disney Cruise’s up-market ticket, termed the Signature Collection.
The test of his efforts comes when the ship begins the first of 18, one-week voyages next May 3 from Vancouver. It will call on Skagway (for about 12 hours), Juneau (nine) and Ketchikan (six or seven, depending on the direction of that sailing).
Judging by what Stauffer and other Disney employees displayed to that handful of travel writers, the 40 to 45 excursions per port offered to Wonder passengers include imagination, excitement and just plain fun. A sampling:
Ketchikan – Devotees of cable TV’s Deadliest Catch series can settle into the 150 theater-style seats aboard the 107-foot Aleutian Ballad during a three-hour trip. The passengers will watch crewmembers haul in the huge “pots’’ holding several species of crab, the occasional octopus and shark. These are put in aquariums in front of the seats.
During the mini-voyage, crew members answer questions “to fill in the blanks from the TV show,’’ said Capt. Terry Barkley. This vessel is featured in one of the series’ most-watched episodes, as cameras caught it being hit and rolled on to its side by a massive rogue wave.
The Signature Collection option, limited to 10-12 passengers, will come after the return to the dock: a “Crabfeast with the Crew.’’ Visitors and crew will settle in for a meal of just-caught crab and more story-telling.
If the Wonder passengers prefer a lesson in native culture, there’s a tour of Totem Bight State Historical Park and explanation of the symbolism and folktales represented by the 14 poles. Then comes the Signature Collection touch, at the adjacent Potlatch Totem Park:
Youngsters can help create a new totem pole, this one portraying a sea monster. Each child will be given paints and a piece of wood bearing a stenciled design – either feathers or gills for the monster. Guided by totem carver Brita Alexander, a member of Alaska’s Haida tribe, the children will paint their pieces. Afterward, each will be attached to the 20-foot-tall pole Alexander will finish by the end of the summer season.
As part of the onboard Alaskan experience, children will be encouraged to draw their own totem poles. Alexander will select the winning design, then carve a full-size version as well as a miniature, which will be presented to the child who drew that pole.
For something flashier, the long-running Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is adding special elements, and down-sized logs and equipment, for shows performed just for Wonder passengers.
The lumberjacks will select about 10 children from each of those audiences to help with kid-sized versions of several stunts. Each act will be age-specific, so that kids as young as 5 could take part.
Skagway — The famed White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, an engineering marvel when built by 35,000 laborers between 1898 and 1900, has been a must-do for tourists since 1988. In 2010, the White Pass carried about 365,000 passengers on the 27-mile, narrated trip.
For those Wonder passengers selecting to upgrade, White Pass will form special Disney trains of just three cars, carrying up to 120 passengers. They will get the standard trip as the train chugs up the mountain pass for about 100 minutes, with recorded narration and conductors available to answer questions.
But Signature Collection passengers will stay onboard for the return trip, rather than getting into buses. On the downhill ride, kids will be placed in the middle car, with adults in the other two. The children will be given special activity books, including a clever I-spy bingo style game to keep them checking the slowly passing scenery.
In addition to two members of the Wonder’s youth-activities crew in that car, there will be a costumed character – either a railroad figure or a prospector, who will tell tales of the gold rush era.
While the character on the train won’t be from the Disney stable, one of them will surprise youngsters at the attraction called Liarsville. Here, Wonder passengers will watch an exclusive performance of a puppet show and listen to costumed staff explain that the prospectors had to carry about a ton of goods to help them survive the harsh winter on their way to the gold strike area, hundreds of miles to the north.
Then the kids will be given a list of those supplies and sent off on a scavenger hunt in the mock tent village that is Liarsville. Next, the youngsters will try panning for gold flakes, with help from the Liarsville staff and that suitably costumed Disney character – I saw Donald Duck looking resplendent in a traditional black-and-red-checked mackinaw and matching ear-flaps hat.
Then it’s time to make s’mores and finally have a salmon-bake lunch. Liarsville stages seven to 10 shows a day, but it is only at the meal that the Signature Collection guests would mingle with other cruise passengers.
Juneau – Perhaps the most-spectacular of the Signature Collection trips takes place out of Juneau, atop the 3,000-foot-thick Upper Norris Glacier.
In a typical summer, helicopter operator Tim Cudney and 16-time Iditarod musher Linwood Fiedler will haul about 10,000 passengers up to the glacier and put them on two-mile loops around the glacier in sleds pulled by Fiedler’s dogs. This event is pretty passive but according to Cudney, “It is a life-changing experience … We have people (saying) this is on their bucket list.’’
And that’s without the tourists’ getting to put booties on the dogs to protect their paws – which is just one of the add-ons fashioned for the Signature passengers. Those folks will also be get to select which animal will be the lead dog, then help harness the dogs to the sled.
Finally, the Disney passengers can actually take the place of the professional musher – though youngsters will be just holding the sled’s handles while the pro stands behind them on the runners, doing the work. These trips will be doubled to about four miles; afterwards, these passengers will unhitch the dogs and take their booties off.
Also, Fiedler said, “We’ll show them how 150 dogs and 20 people can live on the glacier in a tent city, without flush toilets and light switches.’’
For more information
For rates, sailing dates and more information, consult a travel agent or go to http://disneycruise.disney.go.com.
Farm land forms the horizon at this hole on the Ryder Cuyp's Twenty Ten Course.
Newport, Wales – The hills that define the Usk Valley are not so tall, nor are they so steep. Instead, soothing to the eye, they are covered with a quilt in shades of green. The patches define farms producing maize, barley, rapeseed and the grazing grasses for dairy cattle and sheep.
This, then, is the lush background for two dozen of the world’s finest golfers as they compete during the first three days of October in the Ryder Cup. That every-other-year tournament pits a team of Americans against a team of Europeans.
And this year, for the first time in its 83-year history, the matches will be played on a course built just for this competition: the 3-year old Twenty Ten Course, at the Celtic Manor Resort.
There is no prize money at stake; rather the tourney is about national pride. A place on one of the 12-man teams is ranked just below winning one of golf’s four majors. The Americans won the Cup in 2008, in Kentucky, but the Europeans had won five of the six contests before that.
In a bit of irony, when the Europeans won in 2006, it was Wales’ greatest golfer, Ian Woosnam, who was team captain – the non-playing leader and strategist.
This year when the Cup is contested in Wales for the first time, the European captain is Scotsman Colin Montgomerie – undefeated in head-to-head play in his eight Ryder Cup appearances. And Montgomerie has tried to boost the home-course advantage:
“Monty came by some time ago,’’ confides Matt Barnaby, golf operations manager at Celtic Manor. “He walked the course and decided the fairways were too wide. He had them narrowed, to favor the European players’ style of play.’’
Was American captain Corey Pavin allowed similar input? “No,’’ Barnaby told me recently, “this is our course.’’
A visual treat
The 18th green slopes back toward the approach; an approach shot hit too short is likely to roll into a pond.
Watched by those holding 45,000 spectators’ tickets, plus millions on TV, the competitors will face a course that plays 7,493 yards from the back tees. Par is 71, with water on nine holes.
“The course sits on what was largely marshland,’’ explained Butler, as he steered us carefully in a cart – none are allowed on the course lest they damage the fairways.
“The land was built up to avoid flooding, and there are pipes under the fairways, and sand under the greens’’ to promote drainage after Wales’ frequent rains.
Even after the course was designed, it had to be re-shaped a reported dozen times when archaeological ruins dating to the Roman occupation were uncovered.
“It took a couple of years to actually build the course,’’ continued Barnaby as he snaked the cart this way and that. Since being finished in 2007, “The greens have firmed up, trees have continued to grow … though there are not so many trees in the field of play.’’
Several do line the right side of the dogleg, 377-yard, 15th hole, blocking the view of the green from the tee. The average golfer has to drive it far and straight on this par 4. “But we had the Welsh championship here in 2009,’’ said Barnaby, “and most of them just shot over the trees.’’
After that challenge, the par-4 16th is 508 yards fairly straight to the hole, but it has a narrow fairway that slopes to one side and has deep bunkers on either side of the fairway and guarding the green. The par-3 17th is a straight 211 yards, but it is followed by one of the Twenty Ten’s true challenges:
No easy holes
A monstrous 613 yards, the par-5 18th is a slight dogleg to the left, but it’s the approach to the green that will test the world’s best. The relatively small green is elevated above, and slopes toward, the fairway. Just off the fringe, that downward slope angles steeply into a pond. Hitting the ball short, or even to the wrong place on the green, could mean having to take a drop.
Yet Barnaby, who had never played a round of golf when he got to Celtic Manor after graduating college 6 years ago, said he believes hole No. 5 may be the most difficult.
Measuring 457 yards and a par 4, it is a right-to-left dogleg. Golfers must clear trees and bunkers with their tee shot but not hit into a further bunker at the far edge before that dogleg. Then the approach to the green is down a tree-lined fairway, with a stream on one side and deep sand traps fronting the green.
Whether the Europeans will be aided by the narrower fairways, they have a slight advantage off the course: In the 2 ½-year-old clubhouse behind the 18th green, they will relax and hold meetings in the clubby, purpose-built members’ lounge, which has a long bar and a large fireplace.
The Yanks, just a few yards away, will have to make do in what is now the clubhouse dining room: Lots of floor-to-ceiling window views of the course, but no wood-paneled walls, no fireplace, no bar.
One floor below, the carpeted locker room will be split down the middle by temporary partitions. The nameplates of the 170 current members (£3,000 pounds, or about $4,330 to join, plus £3,000 for yearly dues) will be removed from the doors of the polished wood lockers.
The adjacent shower room will also be partitioned. And lest the players forget why they are here, the frosted glass doors on the red-tiled shower stalls read, in script, the Twenty Ten.
If you go
The 2010 Ryder Cup will take place from Sept. 28-Oct. 3 in Newport, about 90 minutes by car or train from London, a little longer by train from Heathrow and Gatwick airports, about 40 minutes from the Welsh capital of Cardiff. There will be a park-and-ride plan from the nearby city of Newport and about 16,000 temporary seats will be erected throughout much of the course.
Sept. 28-30 are for practice rounds. On the first two days of the Cup, two-man teams from each side compete, under different rules. In fourball, each golfer plays his own shots, and the team whose player has the lowest score on that hole wins the hole. If a players from each team tie for the best score, the hole is halved.
Also during the first two days, the teams will compete in foursomes: two golfers for each team take turns hitting just one ball.
On the last day, there are 12 singles matches, pitting one player from each side against an opponent. A team’s scores over the three days are totaled to see which side of the Atlantic gets to host the Ryder Cup for the next two years.
To learn more, book tickets or accommodations, go to these sites:
Welsh golf packages including accommodations can be booked at sites such as www.rarebits.co.uk and www.golfasitshouldbe.com.
Built to attract wealthy visitors to Yosemite, The Ahwanee hotel lavishes guests with elegance and eye-popping panoramas.
This is what it’s like to be wealthy, the hotel architect wanted you to know. Wealthy, and with a 2,425-foot-tall waterfall in the back yard.