Ahwhanee Hotel in Yosemite

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One of the great United States Park Service hotels is undoubtedly the Ahwahanee located in Yosemite National Park. Opened in 1927 it is considered to be a masterpiece of U.S. Park Service Rustic architecture and hospitality but it has also served its troops well too. Back during WWII the Ahwahanee served as a rehabilitation hospital for Naval troops with a skiing program put into place to help the soldiers regain their strength. But its greatest honor occurred in 1987 when it became one of the premier destinations on the National Historic Registry.

It really doesn’t matter what season you visit you will always find the service impeccable and the views breathtaking. Yet, if I were planning a vacation here I would avoid the summer when the place is packed and the weather is often uncomfortably hot.  Personally, my favorite time to venture here is in the winter when the Ahwhanee is all decked out for Christmas. Using ornaments and decorations from a bygone era it is step back into history.  And perhaps the most coveted ticket in this neck of the woods is the one to the annual Bracebridge dinner held during the holiday season.  Here fortunate guests travel back to Christmas past, feasting all evening on delicacies and local wines while enjoying entertainment that might have been served up in a manor in the 1600’s. So alluring is the show that people sign up years in advance for a part in the production and famed photographer Ansel Adams was once one of the performers.

One thing I love to do while here is to sign up for the Ahwahnee Tour and History walk. Here hotel experts will fill you in on how the hotel was constructed and you’ll learn interesting Hotel tidbits like the fact that the chairs in the drawing room were made to purposely tip you up towards the windows so you always have an amazing view.

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As you can plainly see the  Ahwahnee Hotel is an amazing place of natural beauty and even if you cannot get reservations you can certainly stop in for a stroll and a cool glass of ice tea. But more importantly, take the time to wander outdoors. Cross over a bridge or two and watch the mist from the waterfalls soar into the sky. And if you are lucky, you might just see some of these beautiful creatures…but don’t get too close… because Momma bear is near and she would be happy to have you for breakfast.

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Finally, one of the biggest disappoints regarding the Ahwahnee is the despicable behavior of the Delaware North corporation which operated this park until it lost its lease bid to a rival company. Unfortunately, this greedy corporation is claiming rights of ownership to the names of all of the buildings in the park and today the Ahwahnee is being renamed after almost 100 years. It is a disgrace and I refuse to refer to this hotel by anything but its original name. In fact, I urge you to join me in a boycott of Delaware North properties and airport concessions. You can also let this malicious corporation know about your displeasure of their name grab of our historic buildings by contacting Victoria Hong Director of Corporate Communications at the corporate headquarters at this email address:vhong@delawarenorth.com

Best Neolithic Site-County Meath, Ireland

Sitting high on a hill in the Boyne Valley sits Newgrange; one of the ancient wonders of the world. It is an amazing place that sets your imagination on fire as it takes you back to a place so old that most people have never seen anything remotely like it before. Built before both the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge; this burial mound is over 5,000 years old, but like a shy maiden you would never guess her age, for she has aged well.

We drove to the site which overlooks this valley carved out of hills with running streams throughout. This place is truly out in the middle of nowhere. Traveling down a steep road we could get glimpses of the massive site through the trees as we neared the Bru na Boinne Visitor Center. Here we bought the tickets necessary to board the bus that takes you to Newgrange itself. But while waiting we viewed depicting life as it was lived so long ago by the Neolithic people. Most exhibits here focus on how the tombs were built, why they were built, and how they were used. The architecture here is superb with glass walls allowing visitors to take in the picture perfect views of the Valley. In addition, there is a small tea room to sit, take a snack, and just enjoy all that surrounds you.

After about 20 minutes of coffee sipping, we boarded the shuttle bus and were taken to Newgrange. I was amazed at the size of the mound which encompasses about an acre. Spying out of the bus windows you see enormous retaining wall that is surrounded by artfully carved kerbstones. There are many standing stones ringing the mound that add a sense of mystery to the place but it seems that they are a newer addition having been placed there sometime in the Bronze Age.

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From the bus we walked quite a way to the entrance where we were met by a guide who described all we could see and would be seeing inside the chamber, which incidentally, only takes up a small part of the over-all site. But by far the most interesting thing about Newgrange is the roof-box which sits directly over the entrance. The Neolithic people designed this narrow space to align with the sun so that on December 21st (Winter Solstice) the first of the sun’s rays pass through the box, extend down the passage and into the chamber. The chamber then lites up and glows for about 15 minutes before being consumed by the darkness once again.  Both burnt and unburnt bone have been discovered here leading researchers to believe that bodies some bodies had been cremated before being placed in the passage.

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This is a place where the spirit and the intensions of the ancient live on. It is a site where hilly ground keeps treasures and secrets buried but still “seen.” It is a place where those who enjoy the mysterious should venture. Newgrange…remember the name!

 

Montezuma Castle-Camp Verde, Arizona

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the get-go. Even though this is referred to as Montezuma Castle, the great Aztec chief himself never lived in this settlement nor contributed to its development; as this Pueblo was built over centuries and then abandoned at least 40 years prior to his birth.

It has been years since I have been to this sacred place that was once home to the Sinagua people but is now the home of  the National Monument that honors them. I still remember the raw feelings of the life force that still swirls throughout the canyon as well as a sense of awe that these native people, who lived so long ago, could design buildings and pottery that were so impressive and long lasting. Descendants of these ancient people live on in the Hopi and other native peoples of the Southwest.

The Castle sits about 90 ft up a sheer limestone cliff and was built over time and occupied from about 1100-1450 AD. though there is archaeological evidence that the Sinagua were in the area since 700 AD.  The main building contains about 20 rooms and is approximately five stories high. It was built within an alcove which allowed it to remain protected from the elements and was placed high enough to avoid the seasonal flooding that occurred on Beaver Creek which lay directly below this village. It is constructed from huge chunks of limestone and from clay obtained from the creek bed beneath the Pueblo. The ceilings were made of thatch that was procured from the Arizona sycamore.

One of the more interesting facts about Montezuma Castle was that it was abandoned for some time due to volcanic eruption of Sunset Crater but was later re-occupied and agricultural production was resumed after the effects of the eruption diminished.

The dwellings and the 860 acres that surround them were declared a United States National Monument in 1906 with the signing of the American Antiquities Act. Early visitors were allowed to climb ladders into the buildings but due to damage from these well meaning visitors the practiced was halted in 1951. Today you can only see Montezuma Castle from viewing platforms or along the 1/3 mile loop trail that winds below the pueblo. However,  it is easy to learn about Sinagua culture and see artifacts from the area at the Visitor Center.

This National Park is located near Camp Verde, Arizona off Interstate 17. It is open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. everyday except Christmas.

There is a $10 fee to enter Montezuma Castle and the Tuzigoot National Monument which is valid for 7 days. Children under 15 are free.

HINT: Buy a National Park Pass ($80) which allows access to all National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands for a year for the pass holder + 2 adults. And if you are 62 years of age or older A Senior Pass can be purchased for $10 which allows you and three adults into all the National Parks without incurring additional entrance fees.

 

 

Ross Errilly Friary-Headford, County Galway, Ireland

This is one of those stories that show the importance of being spontaneous when traveling. We had never even heard of Ross Errilly Friary when we first saw it in the distance as we were traveling to our next hotel in Ireland. It certainly was not on our agenda.

I said to Dave, “Quick. We have got to go there. Turn us around!” Now he wanted to keep going to our hotel but he indulged my whimsical nature and he turned us around: past a few homey looking come-on-in sort of bars, past a dozen or so Irish cows ripping shoots of new green grass from the earth, and eventually following a small narrow road through the outskirts of Headford. As we came closer the enormity of the place became exceedingly apparent. This place is HUGE.

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As we parked and left the car walking towards the Friary we became engaged in a conversation with a gentleman who was removing out-of-place looking fence posts from the place.  Seems a movie had just been shot using the location less than a week ago. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember the name.

Ross Errilly is a medieval Franciscan friary and is considered to be one of the best preserved monastic relics in the entire country of Ireland. It is believed that the friary was begun somewhere between the mid 1300’s to the mid 1400’s but when the first stone was laid is a mystery to this day.

The sheer size of the bell tower is the first thing that captures your attention as you walk through a small courtyard-like area.

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A small well preserved central cloister with recent burials contained within its walls. The sun reflecting and resulting shadows make this area magical and mysterious. There is also a second cloister located on the grounds.

At the north area of the complex you will find a huge kitchen complete with a water tank which once held live fish for the evening’s supper and enormous ovens. A massive dining room is nearby.

Huge altars dot the inside of the yard and many gravestones can be found littering the walkways, on walls and covering those altars. One can just imagine those movie actors brandishing swords and jumping from stone to stone as they dueled to the end.

Due to political and religious upheaval the Franciscans were forced to abandon the abbey many times during its history but by the end of the 18th century the friary was all but a neglected ruin. By 1866 it has become a well-known site where locals left the remains of the dead without proper burial and mounds of skulls and bones were could be found littered throughout the place.

Today it is operated by the Office of Public Works and is open to the public free of charge.

This one was of the best ruins in Ireland and for some reason it really spoke to my heart. When we arrived it was raining but as soon as we exited the car it stopped and didn’t begin again until we arrived back and hour later. Obviously,  history was kind to us that day and so were the Gods. I am thankful for the discovery it all.

 

Mushroom Houses-Charlevoix, Michigan

In the beautiful resort town of Charlevoix, Michigan lie an amazing array of “mushroom” homes designed by Earl Young (1889-1975). For a span of 52 years this insurance man/realtor spent time designing and/or building over 30 homes in the area. Following Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy that a home should fit into the landscape of the area; Young crafted his “hobbit” or “fairyland” houses of local stone many with “hidden” doorways. He refused to remove trees in order to build, instead, incorporating them into his designs. He also employed the use of multiple curved lines in his masterpieces foregoing the traditional use of straight lines and angles.

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Many of Young’s houses can be found in the Boulder Park area of the city. Each home is unique; some large and ornate while others are more mouse-house sized. During the summer there are occasional tours of these homes but brochures which offer a self-guided walking tour can be had at the Charlevoix Chamber of Commerce.

But if visiting the inside of a Young building is on your bucket list  you can always head over to the Weathervane Terrace Inn and Suites. Located on the Pine River overlooking Round Lake it is the perfect place to explore Young’s sense of play in his creations.

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Today, new houses are springing up in the area reminiscent of the ones designed by Young. Below is a beautiful example that I saw being built last summer (2015). Utilizing thatch like many of Young’s early homes, it gives this unique and stately beauty the sense of being an old English manor located somewhere on that great Island.

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While there are many other things to do in Charlevoix  besides house gazing there are few places you will ever visit that has such a wonderful legacy available to anyone on a drive-by. So slow it on down and head into town. It’s definitely worth a stop.

 

 

 

Best Time To See Mt. Rushmore-Keystone, South Dakota

With the day crowds being what they are at our nations National Parks it often makes the park experience less than desirable. Too many people in too small of a space =grumpy, shoving, tired and hot adults who are in desperate need of deodorant. Not exactly what one thinks of when they envision a trip of a life time. That is why the Evening Lighting Ceremony at Mt. Rushmore is the perfect time to visit one of our most beloved parks.

The first time I visited Mt. Rushmore was when I was about 8 years old. I didn’t remember much about it because the only thing an 7 year-old would take away from the experience is wondering how much kleenex it would take to blow Washington’s nose. So this year as we caravanned across the country we sought activities that would be enjoyable for our children. Now Mt. Rushmore is questionable at best for kids (they look for all of 1 minute and then want to spend the next 20 minutes in the gift shop) but what better way to see it than at night when the sizzling sun has disappeared and temperature has dropped a good 25 degrees. Yes, this is the perfect time to visit.

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From the end of May until Near the end of May until the end of September Mt. Rushmore comes alive at night. At 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the month, your first glimpse of the area is the Avenue of Flags and it is a sight to behold when its lit up. The 56 flags are arranged in alphabetical order which include the 50 states, one district, three territories and two commonwealths of the United States of America. Bold colors with interesting stories line the promenade which will enthrall even the youngest child.

From there you proceed to the outside theatre where visitors watch a 20 minute film about the presidents whose faces grace the granite…George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Their faces are a remarkable 60 ft high and a combined 185 ft long. Begun in 1927 by sculptor Gutzon Borglum his Shrine of Democracy Sculpture shines as a beacon for democracy throughout the world since its completion in 1941.

After the film, visitors join in the singing of a patriotic song and veterans are invited to the stage where they give their name and their branch of service. If you are into military patriotism this is a treat as you see the last of the WWII vets slowly make their way forward… frail but proud. Spend some time with them after the show and ask them about their experiences. You will be glad that you did.

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Then, finally, when things just couldn’t get anymore emotional the mountain is illuminated and a hush falls over the crowd. The beauty and the enormity of the sculpture fills the dark as the lights shine into every nook and cranny so you see items which escape you in the daylight and all of a sudden everyone lets out a collective sigh of delight and awe. It really is just that magical!

So if you are planning a trip to Mt. Rushmore remember the best part of the day to visit the monument is really at night!

For more information visit the park service website at:

http://www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm

Trainland USA-Colfax, Iowa

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If you are a train aficionado then this is the place for you. Set out in back hills of Iowa this is one man’s model train dreamland and after your visit it will be yours too.

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In 1964, Red Atwood began collecting Lionel O gauge trains and like most hobbies it took on a life of its own. Soon Atwood was building a new home to house his Lionels and then he decided to create one of the world’s largest model railroads museums in order to display them. And display them he does. Using various backdrops visitors can see the progression of the railroads across the USA using steam, diesel and frontier trains. And with over 60 interactive buttons to push and operate different displays the kids (and adults alike) load freight cars, turn ferris wheels, make broncos buck and take the trains down steep passes. Along the way you can “see” Mount Rushmore, The Statue of Liberty and The White House and over 4,000 ft. of track. This place is amazing!!!

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Along with the museum there are several old train cars set up as shops where you can purchase old Lionels and the necessary supplies until your heart is content.

Trainland gets a five star rating (out of 5) from this family. With so many things to see, touch and explore our original “lets stop for a 1/2 hour” turned out to last much longer than we originally anticipated. Sure it’s a short drive off the freeway but it is worth it!

FYI there is a small entrance fee to help with the upkeep of the 25,000 ft of wire, 600 lights and 120 automatic switches. It’s a small price to pay for such an educational and entertaining museum.

Trainland USA

Colfax, Iowa

Yamdrok Lake In Tibet

When we were in Tibet two months ago I was concerned by the lack of snow throughout the country. For a place that is SUPPOSE to be a land of snow capped mountains there was very little snow and the country looked as dry as Arizona. It makes me wonder how this will effect the many sacred lakes in the country. Yamdrok is one of these mystical/sacred places.

Yamdrok Lake is one of the three largest fresh water sacred lakes in Tibet. It is said that lake came about by the transformation of a goddess. Lakes and mountains in this nation are believed to be the dwelling places of deities that protect individuals and as such they are given spiritual powers too. People make pilgrimages to these holy lakes and mountains to pray and receive good karma from them and the gods that inhabit them. Tibetans believe that if this lake runs dry it Tibet will cease to exist because it will no longer be habitable. Given that the glacier above the lake has receded at such an alarming rate and that there is very little snow in the area it is likely that this may come about.

While we were there we walked down to the lake and on the way visited with this magnificent Tibetan Mastiff. He was regal and gentle as a lamb. Back in the day his job was to guard and protect the sheep from wolves, leopards and other large wold predators and in some places you can still find them roaming the Himalayans with their herds.

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Once we reached the lake Dave took his newly acquired necklace and immersed it in it’s sparkling cold sacred waters for good luck. I don’t know if it worked but I can tell you that no harm has befallen us since. You can make your own conclusions about that.DSC01621

A Sport Fit For Kings…School of Falconry

After a short walk past perfectly manicured grounds of Ashford Castle we arrive at the Ireland’s School of Falconry where an elderly gentleman, looking like a character out of Harry Potter, is working with an owl who thinks he is a human. All hawks think this way too, “but they believe they are the superior one in the “relationship,” explains theowner of the school Deborah Knight. While Knight would not part with one of her birds the hawks would unceremoniously dump her for a half a plump chicken leg. For chicken legs are to the hawk like diamonds are to the gold digger and both can never get enough of them. And so this is the most important thing we discover about hawks; they have no sense of loyalty. They do not wish to please nor do they perform out of any sense of affection for the falconer. They only fly and return because they associate the falconer with food. It truly is an one-sided “affair”.

Deborah has been a falconer for over 25 years and is an expert on hawks. Her passion and enthusiasm about “her birds” and the sport of falconry is contagious. Throughout our stay Knight peppers us with tidbits of information. From Knight we learn:

Hawks see in iridescent colors meaning that the world is much more colorful for them than for us

Hawks are the fastest creatures on earth reaching speeds of 234 miles per hour

Hawks pupils are independent of one another which means that they can scope in on one an object while still scanning in the distance with the other eye

 Hawks don’t fly unless they are looking for something to eat

After being introduced all the birds it is time to go on our Hawk Walk. I put on the thick leather glove while Deborah fetches, Uisce, a magnificent Harris hawk. He is a young,handsome and commanding with stout talons and dark feathers which dance in the sunlight. His eyes are dark and twitch constantly as he scans the landscape in a hyper-vigilant sort-of-way .

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As we walk to the hawking grounds I remove Uisce’s jesses which are the leather straps attached to his talons. The bells attached to his leg jingle in anticipation of the hunt. I predict that when Uisce leaves the glove it will feel like a gun recoil. Instead, he pushes away gently, disappearing from sight almost immediately. I place a scrawny chicken leg between my fingers in the glove and wait. The bells give away Uisce’s position as he suddenly appears out of nowhere soaring straight towards me. But its not the way-high-up-in-the-sky kind of soaring but a very low to the ground glide which makes this hawk fly with little effort. Keeping my arm outstretched and steady, Uisce swings upward and alights heavily on my arm. In a split second he grabs his treat and wraps his wings around it (called mantling) to protect it from any creature who thinks they may want it…me included.

We repeat this flight pattern numerous times as we fly through the vast castle grounds learning more with each takeoff and return about how a hawk hunts and maneuvers.  How he does it is fascinating and it makes us somewhat jealous wishing that we too could skim the clouds.

We also barnstorm through the dense forest with Uisce appearing like a ghost out of nowhere, hidden by the trees, until swooping down upon us. Suddenly the bird refuses to return. He has spotted some bicycles nearby and they make him wary of leaving his perch. Finally with the cyclists gone Uisce returns to us feathers ruffled. It is time for him to rest and time for us to take our leave.

If you ever get a chance to participate in some aspect of falconry it is worth your time. You’ll learn so much about the sport and you will never look at these magnificent creatures without a sense of awe.

The School Of Falconry, Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland

info@falconry.ie

Where For Art Thou… Cider Mills-Michigan

Since I live in California fall is but a blip on the seasonal weather screen. While most places have four seasons we have two: hot and hotter. Usually we can count the number of days on both hands that we have experienced the seasons of spring (5 this year) and fall (8 days) each year.For a Midwest born girl it truly is a sad state of affairs.

I confess that I miss the changing colors of the leaves. The chill in the air when fall arrives. The first frost on the grass and trying to ward off freezing temperatures under a blanket during the football games at the local high school. But what I really miss is cider. The fresh crisp and oh-so-sweet taste of those just pressed apples as the juice first tickles your tastebuds on the way down. And of course, you cannot have cider without the perfect chaser…a steaming cinnamon sugar donut right out of the bubbly hot oil. To me the smell of fall is warm cinnamon donuts and apples.

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(The Cider Mill As I Remember It)

When I was a kid my parents used to bundle my sister and I up and make the annual pilgrimage to the Franklin Cider Mill in Franklin, Michigan. I can still remember watching the water wheel going round and crushing loads of apples right before my eyes; the golden brown nectar spilling into the trough on the way to being bottled. There was something magical in seeing the process of those just picked apples turning into something so sweet and delicious. I loved everything about it and still do. Recently, I was fortunate to re-visit the Franklin Mill and it still has the same charm that I remember even though things are done quite differently now. And if under oath I would swear that the building seems to have shrunk since I was 8 years old but the special flavors of fall are still exactly as I remember.

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Two years ago on a trip to see my dad he took me to a cider mill in his area. With hayrides, fresh donuts, a zip line and all the cider you could possibly drink it was a fun way to kill a little time. VerHage Fruit Farms & Cider Mill sits just outside Kalamazoo and besides your typical fall fare they celebrate Christmas in a big way with elves, reindeer and pony rides. They even have a tractor driving school complete with certificate.th-1

Its a place I would love to create memories with my own kids if only we lived nearby.

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So this fall, search out your nearest Cider Mill and take the kids. You’ll never regret the time you spend together sippin’ on cider and munching on donuts.