Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

We recently attended a work conference in Las Vegas.  If you’ve done the same in the past, you know how that can be.  Between the meetings during the day and late nights followed by early mornings, we were happy to get to spend a couple of days in Scottsdale after the conference.  We were fortunate to stay at the Royal Palms Resort, right near the line between Phoenix and Scottsdale on Camelback Dr., where many of the other larger Scottsdale resorts are also located.  But we felt that the Royal Palms really stood out in how intimate, cozy and charming it felt in comparison to the other more expansive, luxurious but less personable golf resorts.  It was originally a private vacation home-built in a hacienda style and as a hotel, it has kept all the charm and homey feel of the original home.  There are many beautiful spaces and nooks and crannies throughout the property with beautiful antique doors, Mexican tile benches, cacti, fireplaces and bougainvillea in bloom, palms, fountains and more.  The rooms are not large but very comfortable, homey and nicely decorated with decor to match the rest of this beautiful oasis of a hotel and some, like mine, with large and beautiful deep soaking tubs.  The food at T. Cook’s was absolutely delicious. The pool was small but quiet and relaxing with great poolside service (try the guacamole!).  All in all, The Royal Palms exceeded our expectations and I would highly recommend it as a great R&R getaway.


After a full day of just relaxing at the hotel and catching up on some much-needed sleep, we woke up the next morning and headed out of Phoenix for a full day of sightseeing on the Apache Trail. After some research, we decided this was the perfect way to see some great local scenery in the summer, since most of it can be viewed from the comfort of your air-conditioned car.  I had read conflicting stories about how beautiful the drive was but also some complaints about the safety of its partially unpaved roads. These stories made me even more curious and appealed to my spirit of adventure. So we set out in our rented compact car, with plenty of water and snacks (it was summer after all!), a full tank of gas, and our charged cameras and cell phones.

After passing Apache Junction (the official start of the drive) we came to our first stop, the Superstition Mountain museum. It is an indoor as well as outdoor museum with a reproduction 19th Century Wells Fargo office, stage-coach stop, barber shop, assay office and chapel, all with the beautiful backdrop of the Superstition Mountains.  It was a great first stop to get a feel for the history and landscape of the area. Just down the road is Lost Dutchman State Park, where a number of great trails lead to the Superstition Mountains.

Our next stop was Goldfield Mining Town, an old west ghost town with picturesque “main street,” consisted of shops, a chapel, saloon, brothel, jail and more (some in operation and some great for pictures).  A mine tour and a short train ride are also offered.  We stopped at the cactus shop and picked up some great original souvenirs (Yes! You can bring cacti on planes and they did a great job packing them up).

We continued the drive and admired the desert landscape with intriguing rock formations, saguaro cacti and other interesting vegetation which was foreign to us, when we first came upon Canyon Lake. This is one of four lakes created by the damming of the Salt River and it’s well described by its name. After finding a mostly deserted road on the Apache Trail, we were surprised at the number of local families we found picnicking, swimming, fishing, boating, grilling and generally enjoying their Saturday at this popular spot. The lake shore is easily accessible by car, and with its close proximity to Phoenix, yet remote feel, it is easy to see why it is popular with the locals.


After some more driving, we arrived at the much-anticipated old-west stage stop of Tortilla Flat, the only place to grab food and drinks before continuing on the Apache trail.  Here we found good food, a friendly bartender, saddle bar stools, walls covered in dollar bills and some very interesting bathrooms!  And before getting on the road, we tried some of the well-known prickly pear ice cream and were pleasantly surprised. We also met a friendly Harley-driving wanderer named Mike Whitewolf who told us about the drive up ahead and contributed to the allure of our Southwestern drive.

The road becomes unpaved shortly after leaving Tortilla Flat.  It is windy, with the mountain on one side and significant drops on the other but fairly wide and flat so the driving did not feel dangerous or very uncomfortable though we did notice some cars whose drivers seemed very much out of their element driving on unpaved roads.  The scenery and vistas throughout this part of the drive were stunning. There were canyons, gorges, fantastic rock formations, one-lane bridges, distant views of Apache Lake, flats, Saguaros, prickly pear cacti, etc.  There are several places to pull over and even some paved overlooks where you can stop and admire the beautiful vistas as much as you’d like.

The final stretch of the drive took us up to Roosevelt dam, the sight of which surprised us after going around yet another bend in the road. Before we knew it, we were staring right at the massive structure, and stopped at the large parking lot to admire the dam and its surroundings more closely. Given none of us were familiar with this dam, we were all very impressed with its sheer size and feat of engineering. On the other side of the dam, Roosevelt Lake gleamed in the sunlight as did the attractive suspended bridge that we later drove over. Boaters, campers and day-trippers all took advantage of the good weather and calm lake surrounded by the beautiful mountains.

Back on major paved roads after our stop at the dam, and after admiring the lake, we made one last quick pit-stop  to check out the RVs setting up camp with their boats and jet-skis by the lake shore. Then we got on the highway headed back to Scottsdale, arriving back just in time for a local Mexican dinner and a stroll through quaint “downtown” Scottsdale with its many shops, restaurants and bars where tourists and locals mingle and enjoy outdoor seating under the cooling misting hoses . We decided to end our day by testing out this unfamiliar and clever invention by sipping on margaritas while talking about our day’s adventures.

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Linda and Warren H. traveled to Costa Rica this spring for the first time and had quite an adventure! They visited Monteverde and the Quepos and Manuel Antonio areas. This is what they had to say:

“We had a FABULOUS time! All the arrangement worked out great.  The drivers were on time, the hotels had our reservations, the flights  were perfect, and we LOVED COSTA RICA!

I’ll take a little time to tell you about it now because, to tell you the truth, I’m a little depressed about being back and I like talking about the trip!  Of course, the road to Monteverde was a surprise even though I knew what to expect.  But it was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the adventure and the scenery very much.  Even saw a rainbow as we got higher.  Hotel Belmar was on a beautiful site–spacious lush grounds and high enough to see the Pacific.  Selvatura was wonderful.  It wasn’t crowded so we took our time and spent about 3 hours on the hanging bridges, then visited the hummingbird garden.  We discovered that Warren is an excellent “spotter” and he even pointed out animals to our guides throughout the trip.  We also went on a night tour.  The hotel itself was nice enough.  It’s pretty old and smelled a little musty, but it was quaint.  The only real disadvantage was that it is far from town.  Breakfast was excellent.  We ate the rest of our meals in town.  One full day was just enough time there.
It was very exciting to go down the mountain the next day and get closer and closer glimpses of the ocean.  Arenas del Mar is gorgeous!!!!  You have to go there the next time!  It feels like it’s the only hotel for miles around because they’ve kept so much of the rain forest intact.  We felt like royalty from the beginning.  The check-in process was very smooth.  They greeted us at the welcome pavilion and took us and our bags (on golf carts) up the steep, winding path to the reception area (spotting a sloth on the way up) and gave us delicious drinks while they took our bags on to the room.  Our room wasn’t quite ready but we didn’t mind sitting by the pool overlooking Manuel Antonio.  Breathtaking!  Our room was in the lowest building, which meant we were right on the secluded beach where the outdoor lunch area and second pool were.  The beach was so perfect–lots of sun and waves for Warren and all the shade I could ever want.  It never felt crowded even though the hotel was full.  There were always plenty of chairs and room to spread out under the trees.  Lots of white-faced monkeys and 2 sloths entertained us every day on the beach.  And the iguanas were so interesting and comical.  We could hear howler monkeys a lot but they were harder to spot.
The food at the main restaurant was excellent.  There were plenty of vegetarian options for us and they even gave us an additional vegetarian menu to pre-order for a future nights if we wanted to.  We also splurged and took advantage of the spa–very nice.  (We were given a free demonstration on the beach.)
We took two excursions.  The first was a guided walk through Manuel Antonio park.  Our guide was wonderful and since we only had 6 people in our group he was able to answer all of our questions and help us take pictures.  The only disappointment we had was that all the trails except 1 were closed (due to landslides) and that made it a little crowded.  The next day we did a zip line tour and loved it!!!  The one we took was by Safari.  It included lunch (surprisingly large) and a butterfly garden tour.  The course had 11 zip lines, 2 ropes to rappel, and a tarzan swing.  I didn’t know if I would be afraid, but I had no problem at all.  I was very impressed with how it was run.
The hotel staff were superb.  They encouraged us to learn Spanish.  We got to know several  of the staff personally.  I could go on and on about how well we were treated.  We did a little exploring in Quepos and ate 2 dinners there.  The food was good.
Our overall impression of Costa Rica was that the people are very friendly and the country is very beautiful, with mountains and beaches very close.  We were glad that we didn’t rent a car.  We heard from several people who got lost or felt it wasn’t worth the expense.  We are telling everyone that they have to go.  If we had had more time we would have like Arenal, I’m sure.  Everyone we talked to said it is gorgeous.  But I felt like we spent the time we had wisely.
Thanks SO much for all your help.  All of your suggestions were right on target and very helpful.  I don’t see how any hotel in that area could be any better (than Arenas del Mar).  Being right on the beach and in such a lush forest made it very special.”  by Linda H.

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Clients and friends write from The Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe with news of their adventure in southern Africa.

“You really outdid yourself this time.  Everything has gone so perfectly it is unbelievable and all of the planning you did has made for such a wonderful trip.  I’m so impressed with Thompson’s Africa (tour operator) and how they have handled everything also.  Cape Town was unbelievable in its beauty, with wonderful places to eat and all of the events you planned were just perfect.  KLM flights were great, all on time and service unreal (business class).  Hotels have been great.  We are really in a gorgeous place here in Victoria Falls.  We have free wireless in the hotel so getting caught up a little this evening as we had a little time to rest before starting on a vigorous schedule again tomorrow.  Kruger Park was unreal.  We saw unbelievable sights to include two huge lions right beside the road, leopards mating, herds of elephants with babies, more giraffes than we could count, hyenas, hippos, kudus and so many kinds of different deer we couldn’t count–zebras, warthogs, birds, etc.  On night safari, a big white rhino was in the road and we had to wait for him to decide to move–awesome!!!!!!! At Cape Peninsula we saw elands, ostriches, and was so beautiful.  Robben Island was so inspiring with what Nelson Mandela went through there.  Winelands tour was super–visited a cheetah recovery farm there also as well as seeing zebra, etc. And they met us here and gave us our details for the time here and at Chobe Park –things have gone extremely well with every hotel and event–we can’t thank you enough.”
The next day:  “We had another wonderful day.  The Flight over the Falls (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe) was unbelievable.  The 15 minutes is quite adequate.  We flew over the falls with a wonderful view; over the bungee jumping bridge that separates Zambia and Zimbabwe and then over the bush just nearby and saw three herds of elephants.  Just got back from the Walk with the Lions.  3 young lions, 2 females age 14 months and a male 11 months old.  You pet them as much as you wish with the assistance of the guards and an armed park ranger as well.  On the way there and back we saw several elephants, zebras, kudus and more waterbucks.  Off to the Boma dinner this evening.  The Victoria Falls Hotel is just gorgeous and of course if very elegant with high tea.  We received one day high tea complementary with our stay (A Virtuoso exclusive amenity).  Did it yesterday and was great.  These pictures were taken at Kruger Park. Jack has taken about 1,000 photos since we have been gone, so I will just send 4 for now of the animals that we saw.  He’s also keeping a journal so he will be happy to write a summary when we return. More later and thanks again for arranging such a wonderful trip.” 
Last day at Victoria Falls:

 “Good Evening! Another wonderful day.  Again, I don’t know how you put this program together.  Everything continues to go the smoothest of any trip ever.  The Boma dinner was fantastic last evening with wonderful Zimbabwean food, music. Jack and I both ate the Mopani Worm and have a certificate to prove it!  We all got our own drums and beat them.  I danced when they wanted audience to come do an African dance. 

Today the walk to the falls was awesome with a great guide.  The total Falls is about 2 kilometers or 1.2 miles with most of it on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi River–the other being in Zambia.  We went to the statute of Livingstone and saw the Island from where the falls were first written about in England. This is the best time of the year for viewing as the water is lower and the mist is plenty but not enough to keep you from viewing close up. We came back to the hotel, rested a bit and then walked back down to the Bridge that goes over the river below the Falls and you can walk through immigration border to the Center of the Bridge where there is bungee jumping–huge drop of 110 meters.  You cross over into the Zambian side but do not have to buy a new visa for return if you just go briefly into the country.
The sunset cruise is a must–unreal.  Above the falls.  At one point saw 8 hippos swimming and raising their heads out of the water.  A huge elephant grazing on an Island and later walking through the water back to the Zambian shore.  Two more later on as well as several other hippos–WOW!!!!  What a day.  Attaching a picture of the lion cub -14 months old that we walked with and petted over and over, the mopani worm, two pictures of the Falls and one of the elephants we saw this evening.  Off to Camp Chobe in Botswana tomorrow.” 
News from Johannesburg after visiting Chobe National Park:  “The trip just continues to go unbelievably well.  Thompsons has been unbelievable.  Always on time and very organized.  We are on our last night in Johannesburg this evening.  Soweto was unreal with the shacks that people live in and no schools, electricity, etc with over 2 million living there. nearly 30% unemployment in the country. The southern part certainly is so much more prosperous in the Winelands area as well as the beauty of Capetown and environs. 
Chobe Park was unbelievable as well as the Chobe Game Lodge.  They could not have been better and unbelievable at the sights we saw.  There are 45,000 elephants in Botswana and I swear we saw 36,000 and learned so much about them as well as seeing kudus, impalas, Sable, baboons, giraffes, leopards, two female lions, buffalo, strange birds, and masses of baboons.  The Lodge was unbelievable with food, service, etc.  The trip to the village in Nimibia was also well worth the trip and so happy we did this. 
We also saw, petted, walked with and scratched lions for about an hour.  There were 3 and this one is a female alebout 14 months old.  A little scary but you have a ranger there with a weapon in case anything goes wrong. An elephant from the sunset cruise on a Zambian Island. Hippos–saw 8 in one group; elephants from some of the families we saw there. Saw as many as 32 in one family–baby ones and all sizes; a beautiful sable, and finally elephants and baboons together going for evening water in the Chobe River which separates the two countries.”
Last night in South Africa: “It’s quite unbelievable that we’re coming to the end of this fabulous trip.  The past two days have been windy and dusting in Jo’Burg.  Today the wind has stopped and the sky is brilliant blue.  The perfect day for our city tour.  We fly out at mid-night, ending what has been an absolutely perfect adventure.  To be honest, I expected that of all our adventures, this had the highest probability for mishap.  However, everything has been perfect.  Thompson and/or their subs have served us extremely well.  Everything has work perfectly and with absolute punctuality.  I delighted with the Melrose complex in Jo’burg.  The hotel, in particular (Melrose Arch), well, dramatic to say the least.” 
TIPS from the travelers: 
“Southern Africa Visas:  A US citizen may freely enter South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia without a visa (or they are issued upon arrival at the airport).  Zimbabwe requires a visa and if you plan to purchase on entry at the airport expect some confusion and minor delay.  No computers here. All entry work is done by hand and requires two to three agents.  CAUTION 1:  Our plans were to fly into Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, stay several days, then to cross into Botswana/Namibia, and return to Victoria Falls Airport solely to depart the area.   This requires a “dual entry” visa ($45) vs a regular visa ($30).  If you neglect to purchase “dual entry” at the airport you’ll have to purchase another visa to enter at the border post, which is even more complicated.  Having the exact amount is a big time saver. CAUTION 2:  If you opt to visit the bridge connecting Zimbabwe to Zambia make it very clear to the agent that you are not exiting Zimbabwe or entering Zambia — simply visiting the bridge.  You’ll be issued a special pass to clear the border without using one of your visa exits. 
Safari and Bad Backs:  We took two game drives in each of two locations in southern Africa.  In Kruger National Park, SA, our 3-hr twilight drive was 100% on paved roads.  Our 8-hr drive was ~95% on paved roads with the remainder on hard-packed dirt surfaces.  Kruger is definitely bad back friendly.  Hard surface roads don’t exist in Chobe National Park, Botswana.  While the Chobe Game Lodge is a marvelous place to stay, use caution about game drives.   If you opt to take part expect to be seriously jostled and pummeled.  However, Chobe drive do tend to be shorter, usually ~3 hrs.”
By Will Williams and Jack Buchanan.

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As we drove into Hot Springs and I looked up over the tree tops and saw the clock on the Homestead’s impressive and distinctive red brick clock tower, I realized that this was no ordinary deluxe resort. This first impression was over twenty years ago and yet I still get that excited feeling when I drive into the small village and look up and see the Tower.

After checking in, we were walking to our tower room when we ran into friends in the lobby. Surprisingly, my wife recalls that years ago this couple had said how much they loved the Homestead, but had also said “put me in the ‘old section’, not the new part”. Our room, located in the “old section” was beautifully and freshly decorated and the bathroom was newly renovated. The wallpaper appeared new as well as the rest of the room’s furniture but nothing could mask the distinct slope of the floor – something that’s charming and prevalent in buildings as old as this one.  Thirty five percent of all rooms have been renovated this year.

We had a very late dinner reservation so we ate a late lunch and then met our friends at the outdoor pool. Quite a few guests were trying to get cool at the pool as the temperature rose into the nineties; something that rarely happens in the mountains. There were plenty of lounges and umbrellas and the well attended bar was busy serving various adult beverages until it closed at 6 p.m.

The dining room was still busy as we arrived a few minutes early for our 9 p.m. reservation.  The trio of musicians was playing easy to listen and dance-to music, and husbands danced with wives next to young dads dancing with their pre-teen daughters. Greeting us as we walked in was Woody Pettus, the every present maitre d’ of the Main Dining Room for fifty years. Whether he really remembers you or not, he sure makes you feel special and lets you know how much he enjoys seeing you that evening.   Among our party, we ordered the Sautéed Mountain Trout “Homestead” with peeled grapes and almonds in lemon butter sauce, duck breast, and medallions of pork – all prepared as you would expect from the finest restaurant. The Homestead offers two other elegant dinner venues, the 1776 Grille and Sam Snead’s Tavern, but we all agreed the Main Dining Room was one of the Homestead’s truly unique experiences and we decided to eat here every night.

The next morning I arose early for an 8:20 a.m. starting time on the Homestead’s Cascade golf course, considered by many to be the finest mountain course in the US, host of several USGA championships, and ranked by Golf Digest #12 on its Best American Resort Courses. The Cascades course is one of three championship courses at the Homestead. I am glad to say that my driver kept me in the fairway most of the day and the greens are usually reachable if your irons are straight, which by some unusual circumstance mine were that day. But, as those of us who play a lot of golf have come to understand, it’s tough for everything to be working all in the same day; my atrocious putting prevented me from having a great score on this impeccably groomed course – but I will putt better the next time I play it.

While Bill and I were enjoying the Cascades, our wives decided to enjoy the services offered by the Homestead’s world class spa.  Built on the centuries-old tradition of “taking the waters,” the spa brings you the most innovative of luxury spa treatments available today in a unique historic setting. Whether you want a typical spa offering such as one of eight different massages, hydrotherapies, body therapies, skin care or hair and nail therapies, the spa offers you many choices to help you relax and to revitalize yourself. My wife and Barbara each reserved a different treatment and each complimented their individual therapist as being extremely professional.

The boys met the girls after golf and spa appointments for a quick lunch and we all lounged for the rest of the afternoon; I got a little more pool time and one more frozen margarita! High tea is served complimentary in the main lobby each afternoon, but we passed on this today. There are too many other activities to list here, but suffice to say, they have something for everybody; fishing, horseback riding, carriage rides, sporting clays, falconry, just to name a few.

Both couples met the next morning to enjoy the Homestead’s legendary buffet breakfast. Served every morning in the Main Dining Room, it offered a wide selection of fresh fruits, ham, bacon, eggs and omelets cooked to order, pancakes, waffles, pastries, and much more; the woman ahead of me at the cooking station ordered chocolate chip pancakes!

After a few purchases in the shops located in the hotel, it was time to pack and say goodbye to one of Virginia’s finest resorts, if not THE finest. If I went to the Homestead every month, perhaps it wouldn’t be so special, but since I don’t go often, it is truly a wonderful experience that everyone should enjoy periodically.


Since this is a Virtuoso property, our clients always receive the best price available either for a room or for one of numerous inclusive packages, plus the value-added Virtuoso amenities. These amenities include FREE breakfast daily (that’s a $50 per day bonus), a $100 activity credit per stay, early check-in and late check-out based on availability and a FREE upgrade at check-in if available. By Dan Smith.

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My husband and I recently returned from a ten day land and cruise tour of our beautiful state of Alaska.  With so much to see in Alaska, we had the opportunity to experience the best sites by ship, rail, and motorcoach, staying at pristine lodges and cruising on the beautiful Diamond Princess.

Princess Mt. McKinley Lodge - fireweed

Our land tour included a stay in Anchorage, one night each at Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge in Denali State Park and Princess Wilderness Lodge located just outside Denali National Park.  Each location offered something unique.

What a thrill to spot moose grazing outside the city limits of Anchorage and to hope for a  look at the majestic beauty of dazzling Mt. McKinley.  Having binoculars close by (more…)

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monkeysGallo Pinto? Pejibaye soup? No, I’m not really a “foodie”, but my recent trip to Costa Rica has me daydreaming about the superb native dishes made with the freshest ingredients.  In this gem of a country you can fish in the ocean and have your catch prepared to your liking that same evening at a dockside restaurant.  Yellowfin tuna sashimi alongside grilled mahi mahi.  Homemade tamales wrapped in banana leaves, tiny empanadas stuffed with local cheeses or meats; there’s always a new dish to savor. (more…)

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flowerOne thing I love about Maui is that you can choose to fill your time there with very diverse and exciting activities or you can choose to do nothing at all and still have a great time.  Having done quite a bit of sightseeing on the other islands, we had decided in advance that we would spend most of our time in Maui enjoying the beach and pools and we were looking forward to doing just that when we arrived midday at Kahului airport.  Arriving at this time of day is ideal because you usually won’t have to worry about traffic, which can be somewhat heavy around Lahaina in the morning and evening hours.  It only took us about 45 minutes in our rental car to get to the Ka’anapali resort area, where we were staying.  (more…)

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