Friday, August 29, 2014

320 GuestRanch in Montana offers all the right reasons to visit

Big Sky's majestic ski slopes  (Photo: Taylor)
BIG SKY, MONT,  August 29, 2014 – When it comes to outdoor activities, 320 Guest Ranch in Big Sky, Montana is a land for all seasons.

Deriving its name from the merger of two 160-acre homesteads, 320 Ranch offers a smorgasbord of things for travelers to do any time of the year but, if you must pick one season, choose winter.

Homey 320 atmosphere  (Photo: Taylor)
Just north of the west entrance to Yellowstone Park and a bit south of Big Sky Ski Resort, 320 Ranch is easily accessible from Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN). Take your time driving through Ted Turner country and the scenic Gallatin Canyon along U.S. Highway 191 to Big Sky. The ranch is just beyond. There’s only one main road and there is no rush. Time will wait.

The road, Route 191, roughly parallels the pristine Gallatin River meandering beneath towering pines and the majestic Bridger Mountains. Once you arrive at 320 Ranch, as the classic cowboy song Home on the Range says, “The skies are not cloudy all day.” Locals call them “bluebird sky days” and the only thing better is when snow is falling to add a new layer of “cold smoke” to the ski slopes.

The 320 Guest Ranch is an Old West experience with all the comforts of home. Accommodations range from the historic McGill Cabin to 60 other rustic log cabin-style facilities that preserve some of the original structures while retaining their “Montana ambience.”

Interior McGill cabin  (Photo: Taylor)
Today, the 320 Ranch offers deluxe one bedroom cabins, as well as two bedroom riverfront log cabins, a three bedroom luxury log home, and the TeePee Cabin along with the McGill Cabin. Rates vary according to type and season. There are also special events packages and discounts.

Dr. Caroline McGill bought the property in 1936 with the idea of using the ranch as a place for recuperation. Not only was it a personal retreat for McGill, the tranquil streams and surrounding mountains were an ideal location for her patients to regain their strength.

McGill was a dynamo of energy and personality. At just under five feet in height and weighing less than 120 pounds, the doctor quickly adapted to life along the Gallatin River in the area of Big Horn Creek. She was an avid outdoor-person with a love of horseback riding, hunting and fishing. All of which made the 320 Ranch a perfect location for her nature living lifestyle.

To say that Caroline McGill was “spunky” is an understatement. After graduating at the top of her class at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1914, she became the first female doctor and first female pathologist in Montana at a time when the region was rugged and wild and women were given little respect. McGill’s success as a doctor and entrepreneur are a tribute to her determination and grit.

More cabins were added in 1987 when David Brask expanded the ranch, turning it into a full-fledged resort while maintaining the original character. Brask even incorporated many items of Dr. McGill’s junk collection in the new facilities in honor of her vibrant spirit.

Snow Mobiling in Yellowstone  (Photo: Taylor)
Skiing, of course, is the dominant attraction at Big Sky Resort just 12 miles away. But the 320 also offers the full range of winter activities including snowmobiling, snowboarding, dog sledding, snow-coach tours of Yellowstone Park, shopping and spa trips in Big Sky and Bozeman, and even big game hunting.

Yellowstone's winter beauty  (Photo: Taylor)
Also popular on the ranch property itself are one-hour sleigh rides three times each night during the winter season. Rides are $35 for adults, $20 for kids 12 under and free for guests younger than  three years. There is a stop en route at a warming tent where appetizers or desserts are served depending upon the time in the evening.

Visitors enjoy a breakfast buffet 7-9 a.m. each day in the restaurant. Though the dishes change daily, breakfasts served there may be the best breakfasts in Montana.

Wildlife abounds  (Photo: Taylor)
Lunch and dinner menus feature a variety of wild game specialties, such as meatloaf made with elk, bison or beef. It is not uncommon for fishermen to bring in their catch for the chef to prepare it with a goat cheese appetizer, and bake it with garlic cloves and a side of oven-toasted Parmesan bread.

Summer months are equally festive with activities ranging from horseback riding to hiking, hayrides, outdoor BBQs and nightly bonfires as well as golf and whitewater rafting.

Summer or winter, don’t be surprised to find lively musical performances at the ranch along with plenty of rousing Western-style dancing.
Big Sky sunset  (Photo: Taylor)
Big Sky’s 320 Guest Ranch is a perfect place for travelers seeking Mother Nature’s personal nourishment for the soul. It’s a superb chef’s salad of meaty activities complete with ranch dressing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

San Pietro: The invisible hotel on the Amalfi Coast

Spectacular Amalfi Coast with Hotel San Caterina sitting within the rock  (Photo: San Pietro
POSITANO, ITALY, August 22, 2014 – Think of a deluxe, five-star hotel and you conjure breathtaking scenery, superb cuisine, elegant accommodations, first-rate service and romantic ambience all combined in a singular atmosphere of luxury.  But Hotel San Pietro, on the outskirts of Positano, Italy, takes the concept one step further, into a whole new dimension.  How?  Because, simply put, this magnificent family run hotel is…well…it’s invisible!
Balcony at San Pietro  (Photo: San Pietro)
Whether you approach San Pietro from the road or the sea, you have to look for the hotel to find it.  REALLY look.  But when you find it, that’s just the beginning.
Situated about two kilometers east of Positano, the tiny Chapel of San Pietro (St. Peter) perches at the edge of what is little more than a wide spot in the road that bends along the serpentine rock face of the coast. Use the chapel as a landmark.  Otherwise you’ll miss the hotel. 

Walk to the left of the church and go behind it.  Then take the steps through a stunning array of fragrances emanating from bougainvillea, hibiscus and grape arbors that line the stairway to an elevator.  Better yet, stroll leisurely among the terraces of flowers that lead to the lobby, known as the Hall.

The Hall at San Pietro  (Photo: San Pietro)
In moments you are surrounded by Italian marble, cool tile floors, cantilevered terraces, sloping gardens and sweeping views of the Bay of Positano that point a perpetual face to the sun.  You have entered a world where luxury and simplicity blend harmoniously to create an atmosphere of casual charm and elegant perfection.
It all began in 1962 when Carlo Cinque decided to build a private villa and bought some land at the peak of a rocky cliff face where only the tiny, ancient Chapel of San Pietro existed.  At the time, Positano was just a sleepy fishing village that had gradually started to attract the attention of tourists in the previous decade.          
John Steinbeck visited Positano in 1953 describing it as “a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” 

Soon after, the community became a haven for writers and artists.  The hidden treasure had been discovered.  It was no longer a secret. Positano would never be the same.
The Grand Terrace at San Pietro  (Photo: San Pietro)
Shortly after Carlo purchased the land, he went to work on his dream, literally carving his imaginative ideas into the rock.  Overcoming overwhelming obstacles created by the sheer logistical difficulties of elevation and excavation, Cinque eventually completed a small apartment and garden.
Gradually, he added more rooms and more gardens. 

Room at San Pietro  (Photo: San Pietro)
Little by little, the idea of transforming his craggy precipice into the most perfect hotel on the crest of a cliff was born.  With determination and imagination he burrowed his masterpiece into the rock without disturbing the natural beauty of the surroundings.

After 8 years of incredibly difficult work, 33 rooms facing the bay were opened along with a large lobby and a spectacular terrace.  Today, the hotel is a myriad of 62 rooms cleverly tucked into the cliffs in a series of nearly a dozen ledges.  Each room is completely private with its own balcony and stunning view. 

Dining under the stars (Photo: San Pietro)
Carlo wanted his “small Eden” to have minimal separation from the exquisite plants and flowers outside, so those same exotic garden plants and fragrant flowers appear inside as well, spilling in abundance from planters.  Vines trail along the interior ceiling, while bougainvillea cascades from balconies and other varieties of vegetation span shaded terraces.

Hotel San Pietro is an architectural wonder.  Rooms are seductively appointed with antiques, hand-painted furniture, ceramic tiles and terra-cotta floors.  Some rooms have no curtains in either the bedroom or the bathroom.  The concept allows guests to see out, while no one else can see in; creating an ambience of being totally alone within nature.

Simple elegance  (Photo: San Pietro)
"Special” rooms all have features that set them apart, be it the largest windows, the most sumptuous decor, or the most expansive bathroom.  Experience a bed so large that it had to be constructed inside the room.  Or enjoy the luxury of a sunken marble bathtub next to a giant picture window.  The tub is big enough to accommodate you and three of your most intimate friends.   There’s even a bedroom featuring a full-sized marble sculpture of a male figure with water streaming from a strategic and rather indiscreet location.
Perhaps the most amazing construction project was the delicate blasting that took place to install the elevator that travels from the main lobby to the private beach below.  From the Hall, the lift descends 290-feet through solid rock before opening into a huge grotto on the beach.  From the cave, a 25-yard stroll leads to a walkway that goes to a sunbathing platform and bar on the rocks which are surrounded by flower-filled terraces.  There is also a nearby tennis court and rose garden.

The story of the creation of the Hotel San Pietro is the tale of one man's realization of a dream -- a family saga with elements of adventure, fantasy and flair plus inexhaustible commitment and dedication.  Carlo Cinque was not an architect or a designer or a technical engineer.  He was a man with an idea and desire to demonstrate how tenacity and determination could unite a sense of beauty and intelligence into a living paradise.  That is the genius of Carlo Cinque and Hotel San Pietro.

One final element sets San Pietro apart, and that’s the undeniable hospitality that was a hallmark of Cinque’s personality; a characteristic that perpetuates his legacy today.  After Carlo's death in 1984, his nephew and niece, Salvatore and Virginia Attanasio, took over the property.  They have successfully carried on the tradition, maintaining the same affection, personable charm and ongoing friendships with their guests that was so distinctively typical of their beloved uncle.
Upstairs pools at Hotel San Pietro  (Photo: San Pietro)
San Pietro celebrates a symphony of life, where dawn doesn’t break. Rather, it eases gently up hillsides, caressing each little nook and kissing every tiny contour.  Here you can follow the celestial rhythms of the day as glittering paths of golden sunlight yield to sparkling moonbeams that dance like liquid stars on the surface of the sea.
Hotel San Pietro may indeed be invisible, but it is definitely a place where “seeing” is believing.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Traveling to Antarctica: Just go with the floe

M/V USHUAIA cruises Antarctica  (Photo: Facunda Santana/Antarpply  Expeditions)
USHUAIA, ARGENTINA, August 15, 2014 – Avid travelers love to say they would go the ends of the earth to discover some place new. Today Antarctica is one of trendiest destinations to visit, and that is about as near to the end of the earth you can go.

One tour operator specializing in tours to Antarctica is Antarpply which sails out of the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.

 (Monika Schillat/Antarpply Expeditions)
Among the benefits of operating from Ushaia is that the city is located south of the Straits of Magellan, which for centuries was one of the most hazardous places in the world for seafarers to navigate. Today, thanks to the Panama Canal, ships save time, money and potentially hazardous conditions by not having to navigate around the tip of South America.

The Antarpply ship, which is appropriately named the M/V USHUAIA, has been refurbished to accommodate a maximum of 88 passengers in 44 cabins and suites. Obviously that means the USHUAIA is not one of those impersonal floating cities that takes a week in which to become oriented.

(Facunda Santana/Antarpply Expedtions)
In fact, USHUAIA was originally built for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as an ice-strengthened polar vessel. With well appointed staterooms, ample deck space and an open bridge policy, there is an intimacy among passengers combined with the natural wonder of Antarctica that is rare in other forms of sea cruising.

Antarpply offers four different itineraries. Regardless of the tour, they all include the Drake Passage made famous by renowned explorer Sir Francis Drake who sailed the region in 1578.

Sailing aboard the M/V USHUAIA in Antarctica  (Photo: Vergara/Antarpply Expeditions)
Drake Passage marks the Antarctic Convergence, where cold polar water sinks beneath warmer northern waters to create a massive surge of nutrients that sustain the biodiversity of the area.
In addition, the Drake Passage is also the northern border for many Antarctic seabirds.

(Filip Kulisev/Antarpply Expeditions)
Icebergs and snow-capped mountains begin to appear as the vessel reaches the Shetland Islands which were first sighted in 1819 by Captain William Smith. The Shetlands are a cluster of 20 islands and islets which provide the first shore excursion (conditions permitting) where travelers enjoy one of many encounters with penguins and seals.

Drake Passage is also a popular spot for whale watching.

The South Shetland Islands are a famous haven for wildlife. King George Island is especially abundant with huge colonies of nesting Adélie and Chinstrap Penguins, Kelp Gulls, Blue-eyed Cormorants, Antarctic Terns and Southern Giant Petrels as well as being home to scientific bases from many different countries.

(Pablo Petracci/Antarpply Expeditions)
Not only does the USHUAIA offer passengers up-close-and-personal access to wildlife, it also journeys past unique ice formations which have been personally handcrafted by Mother Nature herself. Three waterways in particular, the Gerlache Strait, the Neumayer Channel and the Lemaire Channel feature towering rock faces and spectacular glaciers that loom so close you feel  you can literally reach out and touch them.

As one might expect on an adventure tour such as this, flexibility is a must depending upon weather conditions and accessibility.

Whale of a tale (Photo: Antarpply Expeditions)
USHUAIA carries its own fleet of Zodiacs which are driven by skilled boatmen. Zodiaks accommodate up to 12 guests and easy to board and disembark. Designed for polar explorations, Zodiaks make it possible to go ashore to experience first-hand the vegetation and wildlife of Antarctica.

As a rule USHUAIA’s bridge is open to passengers who want to experience the navigational operations of the ship and ask the crew questions. On occasion, if weather becomes a factor, the bridge may be closed to visitors.

Size matters (Photo: Weisheng Lin/Antarpply Expeditions)
Dining aboard a compact vessel such as the USHUAIA is single seating with no pre-assigned tables.
Dress aboard ship is informal. Travelers from the United States are always happy to know that they can use American dollars for payments and electrical current is 110 V/60 Hz which is the same as it is in the U.S.

Cabins are also fitted with sockets to accommodate a variety of international plugs but it is suggested that travelers bring any necessary converters and adaptors even though there are a limited number of convertors aboard which can be borrowed.

All cabins on Upper Deck G are equipped with hairdryers, but the hotel manager has a supply that can be borrowed if needed.
Sunset at the bottom of the world  (Photo: Weisheng Lin/Antarpply Expeditions)
Antarpply has an expert team of lecturers who accompany the tours and provide nightly briefings and information before, during and after shore excursions.

Believe it or not, Antarctica is an up-and-coming travel destination. For information, The Magellan TravelClub in Charlotte is offering a tour in November of 2015 through the services of Beltram Travel which specializes in South America.

In addition to the Antarctica cruise there is an optional trip to Buenos Aires to visit the famed Iguazu Falls.

And don’t forget, when you return home, you will have stories and memories that will serve as the ideal “ice breaker” at your next social gathering.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Traveling light: Tourism’s best kept secret

Monet's beloved lily pond at Giverny, France
CHARLOTTE, August 8, 2014 – Never underestimate the importance of light when you travel.
While traveling in Italy years ago, a local journalist asked me, “What do you like best about Florence?”

My answer was simple.  “The light,” I said without hesitation.

From the expression on her face, I could tell the reporter was stunned by the answer.  It was neither what she expected nor one she had ever heard before.  More often than not the response would be Michelangelo’s David or the Ponte Vecchio or the Ufizzi Gallery.

One of the most overlooked aspects of travel is how we perceive a destination and, in many places, the light can make all the difference in the world.  Quite often, the light can have a significant impact on the way you remember a place and the experiences you had there.
Florence, Italy at sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo 
In Florence, Italy make your way to the Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the Arno River and the city.  Go just before sunset.  There are places to relax and enjoy a drink at day’s end while you savor the misty earth-tones that envelope the city.  Egg-shell whites, toasted yellows and rust-colored ambers permeate the surroundings.  The noted author and adventurer, Paul Theroux, once described it as “a watercolor of itself.”

Much of what makes Italy a favorite destination is the uninhibited way light plays with your emotions.  There’s a reason why Frances Mayes titled her book Under the Tuscan Sun.  The soft scrim of Tuscan light is infectious as it is absorbed through the pores to penetrate your soul; a delightful contagious disease for which there is no cure.  
All light is not the same, however.  The dappled sunshine and shadows of Northern France are distinctly different than the soft pastels of Tuscany

Monet's Japanese Bridge at Giverny
It’s easy to see why the Impressionist art movement was born in Normandy.  Artists can barely apply paint to the canvas before the light changes.  It’s a place where puffy white clouds often yield to layers of deep billowing mushroom gray thunderheads that constantly play with silhouettes and shapes.

The tiny harbor village of Honfleur and the port of Le Havre were favorite locations for the Impressionists, as they are for artists today.  When an art critic termed Impression, Sunrise, a painting by Claude Monet in 1872, as “Impressionism,” it was intended to be derogatory.  The rebellious Impressionists liked the name however, and soon Impressionism was all the rage.

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet  (18720
Most Impressionist paintings were made en plein air, or outdoors, where reflections and shadows provided an airy freshness never before captured on canvas.  The fleeting nature of Normandy’s light with its swiftly alternating play of color from object to object was central to the Impressionist movement.  

Further north, Scandinavian light is completely different.  In Norway and Sweden colors are brilliant and bold featuring chiseled high definition palettes of reality revealed in their purest primary richness. 

Tuscan light seems almost out of focus when compared to the sharply delineated aspects of its Scandinavian counterpart.  Rapeseed, a summer crop grown as feed for livestock, has a yellow blossom that is so brilliant that you almost need sunglasses to look at it.

Midsummer in Sweden
Traditional red houses with white trim appear to be sculpted within the forest green settings of their Nordic woodlands.  Colors are almost primeval in their intensity.  Scandinavian light is illuminating in a way that is impossible to be ignored.

Swedish countryside
When summer sunsets slowly scrape the horizon with the glow of Scandinavia’s long days journeys into night, the rays of eternal sunshine can even make sleeping a challenge.

Even parts of the Middle East have a special aura about them.  When viewed from the top of the Mount of Olives, just above the Garden of Gethsemane, Old Jerusalem conjures a sense of traveling back to biblical times. 

Though the light resembles the earth-tones of Tuscany, Old Jerusalem retains a unique serenity that is magnified by its history.  Here sand-colored desert buildings sprawl behind ancient walls where the roof of the Dome of the Rock glistens in the sun.
The Dome of the Rock, Old Jerusalem

In nearby Jordan, the ridge of Mount Nebo is where Moses is said to have viewed the Promised Land for the first time.  From the summit, another phenomenon frequently alters the light that streams into the valley below.

When clouds overtake the vast expanse of the valley, pinholes open in the atmosphere allowing the sun to splay its rays onto the desert floor.  

The multiple beams of misty light spray from the dusky canopy like majestic spotlights showering the earth.  It is difficult not to be affected by the  omnipotent sensations of those heavenly rays, leaving little doubt as to how they might have had a dramatic impact on Moses.
The River Jordan in Israel
To paraphrase the title of Milan Kundera’s novel, travelers should immerse themselves in the “bearable being of lightness.”  If you do you will be richly rewarded with an aspect of travel that goes largely unnoticed.

All you need to do is emerge from the dark ages to savor the joys of traveling light.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Thailand's floating markets are a riot of color and confusion

Colors abound at Thailand's floating market  (Photo: Thailand Tourism)
DAMNOEN SADUAK, THAILANDAugust 1, 2014 – Simply put, Thailand is exotic.

Nowhere is that more evident than its floating markets where fruits, vegetables, flowers and anything in between are sold from a traffic jam of boats that makes the congestion of New York and Los Angeles look like the wide open spaces.

Such attractions are common in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, but no matter when or where you enjoy your first floating market experience, it will be impossible to prepare for the organized chaos an awesome array of sights, sounds, smells and colors.

Selling produce  (Photo: Thailand Tourism)
Arguably the most famous, and probably the best known, floating market is Damnoen Saduak in Ratchaburi, Thailand. Approximately two hours by car from Bangkok, Damnoen Saduak is slightly more than 70 miles south of Thailand’s capital, and there are a variety of tours available.

Though the floating markets were once the traditional way of selling produce, they have more recently become popular tourist attractions. Don’t let that keep you away, however. These are not run-of-the-mill tourism sites. Marketing fruits and vegetables from boats is serious business and has been for nearly 150-years.

Historically, Damnoen Saduak is the name of the canal built by King Rama IV’s army between 1866 and 1868 as a source of income for local farmers. After the main Damnoen Saduak canal opened, more than 200 feeders were dug by local peasants as links to get produce to neighboring provinces and Bangkok.

Bangkok is a city filled with a maze of canals, or klongs, as they are called in Thailand. When fuel is available, modern-day motorized longboats have become the preferred mode of transportation rather than slower more traditional canoes. Movie-goers may recall the high speed longboat chase through the klongs of Bangkok in the 1974 James Bond adventure The Man with Golden Gun.

Not only were the canals a source of access to the marketplace, they also provided irrigation for crops, thus making agriculture a year-round proposition.

Making the sale (Photo: Thailand Tourism)
The floating markets are a photographer’s paradise. As you might imagine, Damnoen Saduak has become a popular backdrop for fashion magazine layouts. If you can’t get a picture at Damnoen Saduak, put your camera away because you will never have a greater opportunity for success.

The setting is awash in a sea of straw hats and a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables. This is an equal opportunity society in its purest sense. Women compete against men. Young and old alike maneuver for an opening in the endless crunch of canoes to make a sale. Gnarled, weather-beaten faces reflect a lifetime of vending their wares along the canal.
Thai woman paddles through the congestion  (Photo: Thailand Tourism) 
The air is thick with humidity. Chaos prevails amidst a cacophony of clatter and chatter surrounded by ever-changing smells…some pleasant, others not so much.

To the untrained eye the watery marketplace is a blur of undefined, disorganized formlessness. But it is also unmistakably intoxicating. If nothing else the riotous gamut of colors will immediately beckon your involvement and, once you surrender, you will be instantly mesmerized by the hypnotic anachronism of aquatic commerce.

Life on a klong (Photo: Thailand Tourim)
For once you must yield your traveler’s sensibilities to tourism. This is no ordinary phenomenon. These are not the canals of Venice with vegetables or the Eiffel Tower from a tour bus window. The floating market of Damnoen Saduak is sensual. It must be absorbed through the pores. It gets under your skin. So rich is its ambience that you will actually create home videos that people will watch.

Become part of it and you will be profoundly rewarded. There is no escaping. The sensations are contagious, and there is no cure.

Making room  (Photo: Thailand Tourism)
The daily show begins around 8 a.m. and ends about 11. It’s a morning performance so arrive early, snap all of your pictures and then stand back and watch the pageant. Try to ignore the crowds. There is no way to avoid them anyway and besides they add to atmosphere.

The floating markets of Thailand are a kaleidoscope of colors in high definition.