North America

Family Travel

Gone are the days when family travel was considered a luxury. With the wide-range of travel promos being offered today, and (thanks to the internet) easy online booking process of airlines, hotels, tour operators and travel agencies, families are now going places to have unique experiences together.

Family Travel

And it looks like the upward trend will continue. A study commissioned by the Embassy Suites Hotels indicates that millennial parents take trips with their kids significantly more than older generations, and 38 percent of them do so three or more times a year.

The difficulty of traveling with kids may be slowing down the trend though. The same study mentioned earlier says that 11 percent of parents surveyed find family travel stressful, and that stress was a top reason why some did not take trips with their kids more often. Dealing with child tantrums while waiting for boarding at the airport, finding ways to entertain a bored child at a resort, trying to get hot meals for the kids while away from home are just a few of the demands of traveling with children that parents need to deal with while on vacation. Who would want to travel again soon with their children after a nerve-wracking trip?

Embassy Suites Bumper

To address these family travel concerns and enhance the family travel experience, the Embassy Suites launched the #PrettyGreat Family Travel Hacks program in March 2015.

The program includes an online community that engages parents and provides fun and useful tips from family travel experts and fellow parents to help make traveling with their kids easier and more fun. After all, a vacation is supposed to be time away from the stresses of daily living!

Embassy Suites Dance Party

Here are nifty samples of the ‘hacks’ on the #PrettyGreat Family Travel Hacks hub:

  1. Pack your kid’s outfits in separate bags.
  2. Do not pack clothes that require ironing.
  3. If you have an early flight, get the kids dressed the night before in comfy clothes so they are ready to roll out of bed and make that early morning flight.
  4. Wear your baby. It’s helpful to have your hands free in the airport when you’re lugging around two suitcases, three carry-ons, three personal items, two kids, and the overpriced lunch you grabbed in a rush on your way into the terminal. Bonus: the stroller is then free to be used as a luggage cart.
  5. A pool noodle can act as a bed-bumper on the fly.
  6. No speakers? No problem. Put your phone inside an empty glass to amplify the sound and let the dance party commence.
  7. Use the hotel garbage can as a stool. When they can’t reach the sink in the hotel to brush their teeth, flip the garbage can over and let them stand on that.

Tic Tac Toe Napkin

Aside from the online community, the Embassy Suites is adding new family-focused amenities as part of the #PrettyGreat Family Travel Hacks program. Families can expect coloring books and crayons upon check-in and cocktail napkins with family-friendly games during the evening reception, among other stuff on the house. Select hotels are even providing baby care amenities such as baby wash, wipes and other essentials this summer. These are on top of their usual family-friendly two-room suites, free made-to-order breakfast each morning and complimentary drinks and snacks for two hours every night.

Embassy Suites Buzz Lightyear
Photo: Lisa Niver, We Said Go Travel

 

And, further to the all-suite brand’s commitment to providing families with a great guest experience, the brand is incorporating family-specific training into its orientation program and on-going team member training sessions. This is to equip its team members with the necessary skills to ensure families staying with them can focus on enjoying their vacation time together, discovering awesome places and building beautiful memories.

*****

Photo credits:
Family Travel: Colleen Kelly via Flickr
All other photos: (c) 2015 Embassy Suites

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The Memories That Never Go Away

I will never forget the longest plane ride of my life. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean going faster than any human could ever run. Our first stop was an airport in France, one of the biggest airports in the world. I was personally ready to explore, but not remembering I was in a different country. As soon as I got off the plane I began to notice that everything in the airport was a different language. My mother grabbed me by the hand and made me follow her in a group with the other mutes that could not speak French. The leader of the group spoke English and directed us to our next flight, which flew us to our next destination. Venice, Italy. Our first mission was to find the hotel my mom and I were staying at. Things can get a little difficult when the streets are made of water. Our entire luggage was loaded onto a water taxi and the man that could speak very little English told us “Just give me da name of yor hotl and I will delivver yor luggage in an hor.” Barley able to understand the Italian man, my mother recited the name of our hotel slowly.

The next mission was finding where the hotel was located, by ourselves. My mom grabbed my hand and made me follow her to a water taxi. The strange man tried speaking to us in Italian. As my mother tried communicating through gestures that we did not speak Italian, she told him the name of our hotel. The Italian man nodded his head and told us to come on the boat with the wave of his hand. The boat ride was cold and my noes turned so red a little Italian girl would probably have mistaken me for Rudolf. As the man docked the boat, he said that would be 15 euros. We were not prepared to pay in Euros, so my mom tried to explain how there was an atm inside the hotel she could use. He did not understand and would not let us off the boat. “Call the hotel mommy and ask someone to translate for you.” I said in my childish voice at the time. “I had to turn my cell phone off otherwise I would get a huge phone bill.” My mom explained looking at me. Then a teenage boy walked by and heard the water taxi driver and my mom arguing. He walked over and translated for us. The taxi driver understood and allowed my mom to go inside and get Euros from the front desk. She paid the man and even gave him a big tip.

The ladies at the front desk spoke English and I asked them what there favorite part of Venice was? She said, “Why Saint Mark Square seems to be a fun place to visit, you should check it out.” She gave us a map and the directions to the square. Our journey had just begun and a water taxi wasn’t needed to get to our destination. We walked across bridges as boats made their way under us. The streets full of water were so pretty, better than the plain old cement streets back at home. Seeing Saint Mark Square was better than seeing fireworks at night or being hungry and fixing yourself a huge meal. Birds, birds, and more birds. Pigeons were everywhere landing on my shoulders and flying away again. There was a corn stand, where you could buy little bags of corn to feed the pigeons. I insisted on buying one, being the brat I was. My mom bought me a little bag of corn and as soon as the bag reached my hand pigeons swarmed me. Flying on my head, standing on my arms, stepping on my feet. This was the best experience I had ever known. The bag of corn disappeared from my hand in less then a minute. And once the bag of corn was gone I grabbed 3 Euros from the purse, that could get me all the toys and food in the world. And ran over to the corn man to buy some more. He handed me the bag and the process started all over again. I didn’t want to leave what I believed was heaven. I cried when my mom told me we had to go. And from being 9 years old to being 17 that is still a memory that will never go away.

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As I sit in my airplane seat, I look at the backpack full of workbooks in which I must address. “Alright, I should use these four hours wisely. I have enough time to finish at least one workbook. I can do this.” It seemed only a matter of seconds before realizing the plane was in full acceleration and taxiing down runway for takeoff. I had to put the book down momentarily and watch the ascension, as it was always my favorite part of flying. As we reach peak ground speed, I could see the other planes aligned for their turn to takeoff. They slowly recede into a multicolored blur. The exhilarating feeling of taking off is an act of physics and imagination that can’t be replicated anywhere. I was pressed against my seat as the nose of the airplane raised up. We were off the ground.

I had organized my space quite well. I had my backpack between my feet, and I was slightly leaning against the window, settling in for the long flight ahead. The slightly cramped feeling of an airplane seat was exactly what I needed. I had everything neatly organized and within arms reach. I had a table to work on, a window to look to the skies, and, of course, my in-flight beverage of choice, orange juice. Everything was in its right place and it was a comfortable, even secure, feeling. I turned my head and looked out the window. A highway full of cars came into view and then quickly faded until they looked like tiny ants crawling along the pavement. I couldn’t help but follow them until they were too small to notice. The orange and yellow hues of the sunrise flooded the cabin. Everyone in the cabin was in there peaceful state, including me. One is neither at point A, nor at point B, one is right in the middle of transition. One is afforded the rare opportunity to escape the chaos and take time to relax. Being contained in an airplane allows one’s imagination to be set free.

 Being in a plane allows for a sense of freedom. You can relax and let go of all my worries for that period of time. Although we can not completely escape the chaos of the world, being in an airplane gives you the opportunity to forget about all of your worries and relax.

 You become inspired also. The sky turns into a beautiful painting just waiting to be admired. You become accustomed to your constantly changing surroundings that pass by with every minute. The powerful yet calming hum of the engines slowly lulls you to sleep; and within a matter of hours, you arrive in a completely different world. The rush of rejuvenation comes over you as you imagine the endless possibilities you have at your disposal. That cramped yet secure airplane seat allowed your mind to set free and roam into the new depths of your mind.

Being thirty thousand feet in the air allows one to see the world from a different perspective. One peers down at the earth and everything seems different. Cars aren’t just cars anymore. They’re tiny ants. Lights aren’t just lights anymore. They are stars scattered upon the ground. You become lost in thought. You forget all your worries and become mesmerized by the world just beneath your feet.

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“It was quite an adventure, one of the best in my life. Getting lost in those crumbling catacombs beneath Rome”, “We were always just famished, that was until we discovered the amazing bread stores, that’s when our waistlines were compromised”, ” my mother’s stories of her travels around Europe had me spellbound. I grew up with my mother speaking to us in the Spanish she perfected while abroad in Spain. I always told myself that one day I would have an experience that would forever change my perspective of the world. It was my mother’s stories perhaps that got me interested in traveling however, my obsession with language and culture has always been a part of me. It was never uncommon to see me attempting to have a full on conversation with myself in Japanese or Chinese

When I got my first job at age 15 at Panda Express I worked hard to save up for my first car. By age 16 I was driving around looking for the next big thing to save for. I had my heart set on traveling to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., It had been a dream of mine since I was young. This is where I got my first taste of freedom and independence. I saved up my money and flew out, it was one of the most amazing experiences so far in my life. I had never encountered such a variety of cultures in one area. Washington D.C was bustling with life and I was swept up in the experience.

While I sat in a Zen state of mind in the National Botanical Gardens, a young man approached me and asked me to take a picture of him and his family, I gladly obliged. Afterword he and I began to speak and I learned that he was visiting from China so I began to speak to him in his native tongue of Mandarin. It was in that moment that I realized how truly free and independent I was. Here I was across the country, actually getting to use the language I learned in high school and soaking in the radiance of the botanical gardens. I will never forget that experience as it set ablaze within me the desire to travel even further and meet even more marvelous people.

I am leaving for Chiang Mai, Thailand on August 20 to study at Chiang Mai University. This will be my very first time out of the country! Although I am rather scared, I am determined to broaden my horizons and gain even more independence. I am an anthropology major and studying abroad will give me abundant insight into my major. Learning about different cultures while abroad, offers a wealth of knowledge that most textbooks do not convey. Using the language skills my mother acquired while abroad has always given her a competitive edge when out searching for a job. I too, hope to stand out amongst the rest when I am looking for my career, colored in the multicultural hues of the world. I know that having a world view will benefit me in any career as it will allow me to relate to and sympathize with peoples of many different backgrounds.

I truly believe that to become a citizen of the world, traveling is essential. Until one is capable of seeing the world through the lenses of varies cultures one is operating under a handicap. Blinded by their own ideologies, dreams, and prejudices. This is why traveling is so important for me. To travel is a great thing, to evolve as a human being is something even greater.

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An Overdose on Natural Freedom

The clearest way into the universe is through the forest wilderness. “ James Muir must have been the smartest human on earth”. He seems to have deeply understood what it means to be consumed by the natural forest. I was married in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Personally, I think the park should be renamed to Great Smoky Mountains National Forest, because the National Park is made up of more than 500,000 acres of forest. Not to mention the fact that Ninety-five percent of the forest is home to a diversified group of wildlife.

Tennessee has some of the most amazing parks in the country, but the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a site that will change your life, and all the opinions you have about the world around you. The National Park’s entrance almost over takes you as you leave the cheap scenery outlets and the vast amount of hotels for the mountainous array of trees like the sugar maple and yellow birch. You leave loud roar of everything unpleasant and you fall head first into nature.

TN Scenic Route escorts you directly into the National Park. So that if you are not careful you will allow the distraction of the radio and common conversation to keep you from observing a majestic entrance that could only be mimicked by Walt Disney himself. I know all too well about being caught off guard because upon entering into the National Forest, my radio was low playing in the back ground to the conversation my husband and I were having about where the first few picture shots should take place. It happened as suddenly as the average blink, (literal blink) of an eye.

The forest made itself known to me through the loudest silence I have ever experienced. It only took a few seconds for my ears to adjust to audio sensation of wildlife around me. It was as if I could hear the silence through my window. The action of rolling my window down was immediately followed by one of the most beautiful sounds in nature. The symphony of wildlife was being performed by every animal and plant in the forest. My senses were going wild.

Before I had time to understand what was happening, the greatest feeling ever was taking over my body. Unsure of what it was, I took a glance at my husband and sure enough he was doing it too. Breathing! It was amazing at that very moment in my life when I realized I was breathing, or maybe I was always breathing, but here at the National Park I learned how to breathe proficiently. That moment made me feel as if I had inhaled and overdosed an unadulterated large amount of fresh air for the first time in my entire life. At that point we had only driven 500 feet into the forest.

So no matter the reason for your vacation, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the place to be. Whether you choose to take the entire family on a wilderness hike, looking for a gorgeous place to take beautiful wedding pictures, or you just want to get away with your significant other to rekindle the romance, you will find Great Smoky Mountains National Park as the best place to be yourself; The best place to find yourself, and the best place to be free.

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Home is where the heart is. That’s what I’ve always been told. Get away from here there’s nothing for you. Go places see new things. But just remember one thing. Home is where the heart is. A place I would like to go. Is where the waters are pure blue. An the grass is green as green can be. Where the sun will always shine. Home is where the heart is. There are many beautiful sites in the world. That I would like to go to. But there is one place that I would like to see most. What’s waiting on the other side for me. Home is where the heart is. The world has to offer so many things. On this earth I’ve learned one thing. No matter how beautiful it seems. It isn’t as beautiful as heaven is. Home is where the heart is. Along the road I must travel on. I will meet many new people. Who dream just like me. And I will tell them the same thing. Home is where the heart is. I’ve always wanted to jump off a cliff into the waters below. Swimming in water that is never cold. Sitting under a waterfall that is filled with caves. Caves that will take me into the unknown. Home is where the heart is. When the day comes to an end. I want to be on top of a hill. As the horizon slowly starts to set. With the one I love in my arms. Home is where the heart is. I would really like to go to Tennessee. So I can build me a farm and have my own ranch. Where my children will learn to live off the land. Working hard for what they deserve with their little hands. Home is where the heart is. Will I ever come back to see my family. Probably not because they will be right there with me. Every step of the way. Even if it means leaving it all behind. Home is where the heart is. New Mexico is a magnificent place to be. Many ancient things there to see. Especially Hawaii with an amazing ocean view. In a lawn chair staring off into the light blue sky. Home is where the heart is.

Now I want to leave to get away from here. An be somebody in this old world. Well at least my grandma wants me to be. My mother would be very proud of me. Home is where the heart is. Under the Eiffel Tower I would like to stand. An ride it up all the way to the sky. Looking as far as I can look. With the wind blowing in my face. Home is where the heart is. Africa would be a nice to go too. To help out the children who are sick and ill. Who are human beings just like us. Who needs a helping hand. Home is where the heart is. All this violence in this world. Is more than I can understand. Where is the peace the love my friend. Brother’s and sister’s of this earth. Home is where the heart is. If I could I would go all across America. Trying to cure cancer, fight world hunger, and be a motivational speaker. This world is going down hill. It ain’t what it use to be. Home is where the heart is. Before all this there were plenty of trees to see. Now it’s very hard to breathe. All this pollution getting in the air. The creators trees are gone that he has given to us so we can breathe. Home is where the heart is. In my heart I am ready to go home. To be with my maker and my loved ones who have already gone. There to greet you in with open arms. Smiling a smile as bright as the sun. Home is where the heart is.

We are so filled with the world’s beauties. An with ourselves. That we don’t pay attention to the little details. Our hearts are covered by smog a blackened heart. Home is where the heart is. The wild mustangs will run on. The lions will continue to still be strong. I feel sorry that they feel they are alone. It hurts to know they have no homes to go too. Home is where the heart is. The sea being filled with oil. As the animals try to swim on. Getting all trapped one by one making a sound to each other. Abandoning all they know the home they was born at. Home is where the heart is. Dreams are big as hearts are small. Only if I could help all that is lost. Traveling far away searching for the light of day. Giving back to mother earth as we live on through her. Home is where the heart is.

 

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Only some can handle the whole thing
The Farmer's Breakfast (half portion shown)
Only some can handle eating this plate themselves.
The Farmer’s Breakfast Plate (half portion shown)

The day prior was long yet rewarding, still it’s hard to sleep when the fresh New Hampshire air beckons. Not to mention the internal wake-up call for a Farmers Breakfast plate at The Village Kitchen (734 Whittier Hwy, Route 25) in Moultonborough. Their sign states Real Country Cook’N, and that is exactly what you’ll get.

I recall my Uncle polishing off the big breakfast platter with one hand while reading a free local paper with the other. Said platter consists of two of a bunch of things; 2 eggs any style (over easy all the way), 2 bacon strips, 2 slices of country fresh toast, 2 Pancakes (or in our case French Toast), 1 piece of thick cut ham, crisped up hearty home fries, a small bowl of baked beans on the side, and bottomless coffee in a heavy ceramic mug adorned by local business ads. Compared to city prices it’s still a great value at $8.79. We added a side of Corned Beef Hash for good measure.

The meal was more than just brunch, it was human fuel for our planned circumnavigation of Lake Winnipesaukee (about 71 miles/114 kilometers). On our way clockwise around I saw the sign for Moulton Road which reminded of a guy I met in a Boston themed bar who’s last name was Moulton. According to him, his namesake ancestors founded the town of Moultonborough. A web search concurred that the town was given that name based on several founders from the Moulton family (circa 1763). Once heading down the Eastern side of the Lake, I started recalling times I would accompany my Dad and Uncle to various marinas on their eternal quest for boats.

Not the lakes biggest marina, but still nautical.
Not the lakes biggest marina, but still nautical.

Our next destination (about 18 miles/29 kilometers) around the lake was Wolfeboro. The welcome sign stating it being the oldest summer resort in America. I’ll admit Wolfeboro is a classic in the department of quaint lakeside towns, and comes with plenty of cafes, ice cream and fudge shops.

To combat the inevitable after brunch sugar low we tried a little place called Lydia’s Café (33 N. Main St.) with it’s fitting painted engraved wooden sign hanging on links of chain. The Blackberry Cream Soda blended with yogurt was really notable and worth all of the $3.21. There are a plethora of gift shops (the same goes for general stores) around the region, but if you are looking for a standout, you won’t be disappointed by Black’s Paper (as in Newspaper) & Gifts also on Main Street. They’ve got plenty of T-shirts and printed apparel plus all the souvenirs you would expect in a summer resort town.

We take an almost highway looking route into the town of Gilford, home to Gunstock Mountain Resort; a diverse recreational area with surrounding hiking trails, camping, zip-lining in summer and skiing in winter. For a little shopping spree the outlets at Tilton, a little ways south off the 93 are a good bet. Sawyer’s Drive-in is on the same route. For more about lakeside eats see my previous article on Lake Winnipesaukee. Despite holding out for a later Lobster fix, I stepped in briefly and noticed a blaring change – digital screens had replaced their old fashioned menu signage.

Heading further around the lake is the largest town on the lake called Laconia. It’s known for one of the countries big motorcycle rallies in June. Then for everyone’s inner child “The Weirs”, combines penny arcades, bumper cars, fried dough, pizza by-the-slice, gift shops, a touristy railroad station and a ticket office for Scenic Lake Cruises (including the well regarded Mt. Washington). There’s also a public beach so some refer to the area as Weirs Beach. At the junction back onto Route 3 you find the iconic Tamarack Drive-In with one of the regions more famous Lobster Rolls and other New England treats like fried clams & scallops.

On the right cambered downhill road towards the lakeside town of Meredith you get some scenic lake vistas (depending on foliage density). First you will pass by Funspot (the world’s largest arcade), Pirate’s Cove mini golf and the former J.B. Scoops ice cream parlor. I’ve noticed places around the lake changing owners with every passing summer, which can dull some of those sentimental feelings. One of those places, Lee’s Candy Kitchen, bought and expanded from it’s already sugary good self is located in the Mills Falls Marketplace (they also stock a bunch of wicked fudge).

A restaurant worth mentioning across the street is Lago which serves Old-world styled Italian cuisine. There are great views of the lake from the dining room to go along with attentive service and fair prices for upmarket dishes. My cousin mentioned they serve a tasting of Limoncello with your meal, a nice touch, but don’t quote me on it (and be sure you are of legal drinking age).

For a different kind of food stop we jump off at Moulton Farms, famous for pies, jams and fresh sweet corn. They also have a serious selection of ‘Whoopie’ Pies (a giant dessert sandwich of various dense cream fillings surrounded by two soft baked cookie cakes that get on your fingers unless you eat it with a knife and fork).

What's in season, you ask?
What’s in season, you ask?

We somehow managed to resist eating again, holding out for our next stop at the Red Hill Dari (literally a little red house) in Center Harbor the last town before our circle of the lake was completed. The place doesn’t look like much, but packs a good Lobster Roll punch. They use only with claw and knuckle meat and a little lettuce with a touch of mayo on a mildly toasted hot dog bun. Served with fries it is usually eaten with dreams of the next. Prices for seafood are usually handwritten over printed menus, due to market fluctuations (typically upward). It also has a boatload of ice cream and shake options.

Soon our half-day loop (during peak summer season it could take longer) would be complete. Jo-Jo’s Country store down Moultonborough Neck Road was soon in sight for provisions. This time more seasonal New England produced beer was purchased as well as makings to accompany Angus hotdogs. Seafood salad, tuna salad and coleslaw were also weighed out for a future picnic meal.

Getting back with about an hour or so of good sunlight we opted for some golf carting and a bit of beach side sunning. Only I was brave enough for a chilly dip. Once my pores had slammed shut the water was even more pleasant than the outside air. Wrapped in two towels, I was quickly dried off.

It was time to man the grill over looking another fabulous sunset. I cooked the 6 Angus hot dogs and toasted buns to match along with caramelized fresh red onions. We feasted on our BBQ dinner as the hues of dusk appeared. Having to miss my friend’s concert was further from my mind now that my belly was filled and the Boston Red Sox were on again. Despite already eating our way around the lake, sublime Lobster bisque from The Bob House (520 Whittier Mountain Hwy) would be in my dreams and so would the next food sampling visit to NH (New Hampshire).

Jeff Shoer: Having traveled the earth in search of a happy stomach, Jeff continues to follow a path to food loving destinations. He hopes to walk off the calories en-route to more great tastes. Read more about his passion for food in travel below.

 

A Golden Pond
A Golden Pond
Lake Winnipesaukee (a Golden Pond)

Lake Winnipesaukee the largest of the lakes in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire seemed like a perfect place for a short vacation and a nice follow up to my article on a similar subject – eating around Lake Winnipesaukee.

I really wanted this whirlwind trip to be special as I was introducing someone new to the area. The first thing that had to happen was getting there. With a pit stop or two it takes about 4 hours to drive from Montreal. The one stop I always like to make is in Derby, Vermont just south of the border.

There lies an exceptional Mobile Mini Mart off Rt. 5 that prepares hoagies (foot long sandwiches) daily that my family has been eating for over 20 years. The store manager nods his greetings – he’s been there for 16 years. The sandwiches haven’t changed a bit. My usual choice is sliced Turkey with Provolone cheese, thinly sliced onions, a little mayo and shredded lettuce.

This is my equivalent of lunch autopilot despite other options like Tuna and a mean Roast Beef. The accompaniments are crucial in making the experience. You need to pick out the right bag of salty snack (in this case two bags; “Smartfood” white cheddar popcorn and flavor contest winning Lay’s cheesy garlic bread chips). Next comes your cold beverage from the giant wall of fridges. I usually grab a single Snapple Peach iced tea, but at 2 for $2 I snap up both Raspberry and “Lemon” by mistake. My lovely co-pilot opts for Green Mountain coffee. Finally for dessert, a bag of peanut butter filled M & M’s and a Take 5 candy bar (excellent despite having a dry pretzel center).

For a driving snack we take along Vermont made Maple Beef Jerky for only $2.99. On the road again we cross into New Hampshire, with a highlight of the drive south on Highway 93 – the ride through Franconia Notch State Park. You knew you were getting closer when you saw the rocky outline of the Old Man’s face proudly watching over from the top of the ridge, referring to the former ‘Old Man of the Mountain’ (a rock formation on top of the Notch that resembled an old man’s face, which has since collapsed, now portrayed on many State signs). The problem is trying to imagine where he once stood and point it out to first timers while trying not to drive off the one lane parkway. It’s hard to believe The Old Man fell down in our lifetime after being there for countless years (I guess that’s what fridge magnets are for). Exit 25 off the 93 comes up relatively quickly and is the scenic way to get into Center Harbor on Lake Winnipesaukee. It takes you via route 175, then onto 3 and 25B. The bonus is you get to ride through the pleasant town of Holderness. There are neat places to stretch your legs including the newly renovated Squam Lakes Inn’s Market Place which apart from selling baked goods, gifts and sundries has cans of silver and blue energy drinks (a.k.a. Red Bull).

Great non fuel pit ptop on the way to Lake Winnipesaukee
A pit stop on the way to Lake Winnipesaukee

Squam Lake for those that don’t know is where they filmed “On Golden Pond” (the 1981 classic starring Henry Fonda). Film set or not, the area is pristine as lakeside towns go and meandering down the semi-rural roads is always picturesque. A glimpse of the big lake appears through the forest (no need to mention we’re getting close). Route 3 encompasses much of the lake and we get to the T-junction for Moutonbourough Neck road. It’s a gentle curving, tree and camp lined road passing several private condo developments that leads to a little piece of heaven. Deer and other forest dwelling creatures can be prevalent (thus abide by the speed limit for the benefit of both man and beast).

I’ve seen several “I brake for Moose” bumper stickers over the years (see one up close and you’ll know why). Before the bridge to the island at the end of the neck road, you come across a welcome sight (that is if you like to eat and drink). Jo-Jo’s Country Store has been a fixture and place of happy vacationers for as long as anyone can remember. I heard it was recently bought by a large supermarket chain, yet still has it’s local charm.

On this quick stop only Samuel Adams Limited Pumpkin Ale, and a bottle of Barefoot Merlot were purchased. Despite not being a big drinker myself there are some relaxation requisites. Upon arrival to my cousin’s condo we quickly unloaded the trunk, aired out the condo and started our decompression. Since we’d be driving out to dinner, I saved the drinking for BBQ night (see New Hampshire: Revisiting Lake Winnipesaukee Part 2), so I let the sunset serve as my serenity. Later that night we ventured out to Buckey’s Restaurant (240 Governor Wentworth Hwy).

It was 8pm so I wasn’t concerned when the dining room was sparsely filled (folks tend to eat early around the lake). Hearing the blackboard specials I noticed a Montreal Rib Steak on the menu – our server volunteered it was simply a Rib Steak with Montreal Steak Spice on top (how cliché). We decided to share the full rack of ribs, with 2 sides; onion rings and coleslaw for $21. The rib sauce was tangy and Texan in taste, although you needed the serrated blade to cut the meat off the hefty bones. There was plenty in that department, but I was not impressed with the “onion-less” onion rings (the onion centers had dried up). The coleslaw was shredded well and creamy yet not enough to balance the somewhat dry meat we ended up gnawing on. I probably should have splurged for the fried scallops or steak tips, but our server did say ribs were one of the top 3 specialties. After a long day on the road we were content to go back and stargaze the lake sky. Adding to the quintessential lakeside list was a Boston Red Sox game on the tube (versus the Yankees – bonus).

Sun beamed Southern facing view of Lake Winnipesaukee
Sun beamed Southern facing view

Watching a few innings, I grabbed some rich New England Vanilla ice cream topped with some blueberries and raspberries ‘et viola’ a nice ending to the first night in the Lakes Region. The baseball game was a nail biter, but was too tired to worry. It was time to turn in for a much needed sleep. Lobster Rolls and the best breakfast spot around would be in my dreams (see New Hampshire: Revisiting Lake Winnipesaukee Part 2). I was out like a light before I could add “On Golden Pond” to my must watch DVD (ie. VHS rental) list.

Jeff Shoer: Having traveled the earth in search of a happy stomach, Jeff continues to follow a path to food loving destinations. He hopes to walk off the calories en-route to more great tastes. Read more about his passion for food in travel below.

 

 

Okefenokee Swamp Chesser Prairie

Chesser Prairie at Okefenokee Swamp

The Okefenokee Swamp is one of Mother Nature’s mysterious places. Straddling the Georgia–Florida border in the United States, this 438,000-acre wetland offers intriguing landscapes, abundant wildlife and a glimpse into the past.

 

Land of the Trembling Earth

According to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, the swamp bottom “is sand, covered with peat. Methane gas deep in the peat propels large clumps of peat to “blow up” (rise or float) to the surface. Over time, these peat masses sprout plants and attract wildlife. They look like islands – but they’re not solid, and they’re not anchored to the swamp bottom. If a person or a large animal (like a bear) walks on peat blow-up, the ground trembles and the trees shake. Native Americans called these places ‘O-ki-fin-o-ke,’ Land of the Trembling Earth.”

 

Okefenokee Swamp tannin-rich water and cypress treesBoating on tannin-dark water

It is easy to explore the Okefenokee Swamp because it is crisscrossed by more than 120 miles of water trails. Bring your own canoe, kayak or motor boat, or sign up for one of Okefenokee Adventures’ guided boat tours.

Their 90-minute tours on 24-foot Carolina Skiffs travel along the historic Suwannee Canal, which is lined with cypress, pine and bay trees.

The tour includes a visit to the Chesser Prairie, an open wetland area covered with water lilies and other water plants.

One of the first things you might notice about the swamp water is that is dark, tea colored due to the tannic acid released from decaying plants. The water crisply reflects the sky and surrounding landscape.
 

American alligators in Okefenokee SwampWildlife galore

One of the great things about exploring the swamp with professional guides is that they are able to point out and identify wildlife. They can also identify plants and answer questions about the region’s cultural and natural history.

Odds are high that you will see American alligators, egrets and herons. Depending on factors such as the season, time of day and water levels, you also may see otters, wood storks, deer, raccoons, bobcats and bears, and birds such as ibis, sandhill cranes and red-shouldered hawks, American alligators.

 

Chesser Island Homestead in Okefenokee SwampChesser Island Homestead

While you are in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, make sure to visit the Chesser Island Homestead, built by Tom Chesser and his wife Iva in 1927. As their family grew to include seven children, they lived off the land — growing, catching and shooting what they needed. They also produced sugar cane, tobacco and turpentine to sell.

Just as the Chesser family kept it, the yard is still kept as a barren yard of sand to reduce fire hazards and to make it easier to see snakes.

 

About the author

Kristine K. Stevens is the author of “If Your Dream Doesn’t Scare You, It Isn’t Big Enough: A Solo Journey Around the World.” This nonfiction book tells the story of what happened when she sold her house, quit her job and traveled solo around the world.

 

 

 

 

I’m in Hacienda El Carmen, a delightful old Spanish estate that has been turned into the kind of hotel that is both wedding destination and respite from the everyday world — you can walk the restored rooms full of antiques, inside walls over a foot thick, and imagine the footsteps of the generations that called this place their home. I’m actually on a Mexico spiritual tour, leading a group of folks who are interested in a deeper experience, not just a vacation.

 The hacienda boasts a spa, a small golf course, a stable, a swimming pool and multiple Jacuzzis; however, near the spa is an unexpected building: a small round mud hut called a temezcal, the native ceremonial sweat lodge.  As our group somewhat fearfully crosses the lawn to the temezcal, we note the Sanskrit OM marking the doorway.  We are greeted by Rosario, an elderly long-haired shaman who wears only a loincloth, and his apprentice, Margarita, whose crinkly smile endears her to me instantly. My partner Greg has done some clearing work with those who are claustrophobic, and everyone has agreed to brave the close quarters, the heat, the internal terror of the unknown.

We line up and they look at us.  Greg and I had read online all about temezcals and advised everyone to dress modestly. The shaman has other ideas.  He points at one woman’s top, then touches his own bare chest.  “Medicine,” he says in his extremely broken English. We look at his scarred chest, the result of a trance ritual where the shamans take peyote and suspend themselves from their torsos, hooking deer antlers directly into the muscles. As Greg says, this guy is a badass.

The men take off their shirts, the women remove shorts, even underwear, until we are all in single pieces of clothing, stripped down as much as modesty will allow.  The shaman and his apprentice light a wooden smudge pot and Margarita passes it all over each of us, cleansing us with the smoke from the pot’s herb and wood mixture. Next to us, a roaring fire in a low brick ring belies the sunny, warm afternoon, heating the temezcal’s stones.

The shaman explains through a translator that he is going to greet each of us in turn, looking into our eyes and connecting with our souls through our hearts. When he steps up to me, he focuses on me, our hands at chest height, palms facing each other but not touching.  I keep my heart as open as possible, allowing him in to explore the truth of me.  When the last of us is complete, we are told to crawl into the temezcal, coming into the “womb of the mother,” according to Rosario. This ritual is a rebirthing of sorts, he explains. As the others have done before me, I touch my forehead to the sparse grass at the mouth of the temezcal. “All my relations,” I intone properly, while connecting to Mother Earth, Father Sky, my ancestors, my family, my friends — in keeping with the intention of the ceremony.

Inside, the temezcal is still cold, since all the hot stones are still in the fire pit outside.   I suspect this is an aspect of what our local guide calls “tourist temezcal,” where we are subjected to less stringent forces in deference to our delicate sensibilities. Still a little scared, we surround the center pit in the low-ceilinged hut, sitting on the thin straw mats.   Using a small pitchfork, Rosario brings in 5 large rocks and drops them, one at a time, into the pit.

Most temezcals in Mexico are large enough for four entrances, I am told, one in each of the four directions, and it is through these that the super-heated stones are brought in during the ceremony.  Ours has just one arched doorway, and now our shaman drops the heavy wool blanket across the entrance and we sit in semi-darkness. Margarita dabs a local tree resin onto the stones, raising the first cloud of smoke. From an enormous jug that takes up so much space it seems to be one of the ceremony participants, hovering in the doorway, Rosario ladles water.  It splashes first onto the rocks, adding giant clouds of steam to the smoke, then onto us. I gasp as the cold droplets hit my face and head, trickling down into the little sundress I’m wearing.

 Rosario opens the ceremony by saying his name out loud, and, in broken English because there was no room for the translator inside, what he is grateful for.  He reminds us to take everyone into our hearts, even our enemies, and that the temescal will cleanse all aspects of our lives. We go around in the circle, and when it’s my turn, I find myself overwhelmed by gratitude for this country, for opening its secret heart to me and showing me a side so different from the tequila-soaked tourist towns on the border. I try to look at the other participants, but the tiny room is so filled with steam and smoke that I can see nothing, so I close my eyes and listen as we express gratitude for all the gifts of our lives.

The blanket is raised, more hot rocks are brought in, and more water douses them and us.  “Stand up,” Rosario tells us, and we rise awkwardly, dripping and uncomfortable.  The heat is much worse up here, and my neck curves with the ceiling and I can feel the roof behind my head. I open my eyes despite myself, my hair hanging lank in front of my face. Suddenly, I feel the desperate urge to run, panic rising as I imagine myself leaping across the fire pit and knocking Rosario out of the way of the door. Instead, I calm myself with deep breaths and grab Greg’s hand and the hand of our guest on my right.  They both reassure me with the pressure of their palms and I feel myself stepping back from the abyss of panic. Later, I find out that at least half the group experienced a similar “fight or flight” jolt during this round.

The third round brings more rocks, more herb resin daubed onto the hot stones.  I watch the sticky tar bubble up on the surface and listen to the intentions of the women in our group who the shaman points to and hands the resin cloth. “I give thanks for sight,” says Jude, a New Zealand woman who is a frequent guest on our tours. “And I give thanks for insight.”

“Stand up,” the shaman commands again.  This time, he plays a small drum and sings, and I find myself drawn into the mournful, joyous music.  Once I can follow the simple melody I open my throat to the song and in its rhythms find both peace and something to focus my mind on that distracts me completely from my fears. Though this round is even hotter than the last two, I mind it less because of the singing. For the fourth part of the ceremony, Rosario uses the last of the water and asks us to do another round of gratitude. First, he carefully explains that this native culture respects the mother, that they believe in a dual universe of a Mother and a Father God. He says he hopes this is our future and that we can be open to respecting the mother. As we go around, many thank their mothers and all mothers for giving birth, and one woman thanks Mother Earth. It’s a beautiful blending of our modern intentions and the traditions of this ancient culture. As the wool blanket is raised for the last time and we crawl out of the womb, I dip my forehead to the grass once more. “All my relations,” I intone again. “Thank you for the changes that have been wrought in me this afternoon, for the unneeded old that I leave inside this sacred space.”  I rise up into the welcoming sun, the mother of us all.  We made it.