Archive for July, 2010

Breckenridge

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The sound of frozen snow being chipped from 20 ton blocks fills the cold, crisp air from all corners of the Riverwalk Center, in the middle of Breckenridge, Colorado. More than a dozen teams of ice sculpting artisans, working in teams of four, are busy using hand driven implements of mass creation to form majestic 12 foot high sculptures.

The snow sculpture competition is opening the next morning and some of these dedicated masters of snow artisanry will be working all night, to finish their projects.

Competitors from New York State, Germany, France, Canada, Mexico and other countries head to Breckenridge to carve blocks of snow into pieces of art using only hand tools and great imaginations.

The actual sculpting is open to the public and its fascinating to watch as the competitors use ice cream scoops, potato scrapers, small saws and other hand tools. No power tools are permitted and the snow has to remain in its natural state without dyes, paints or colorings.

The next morning, we get up early to view the completed snow sculptures and then head for the slopes for a day of schussing downhill or looking for big air at the terrain park.  But first we stop at a local favorite for a hearty breakfast.

We’ve just been seated at Daylight Donuts when the front door opens and two people wearing ski masks enter.  As a New Yorker, I’m looking over my shoulder to see if the guy with the shotgun is coming in the back door, but Breckenridge is laid back and easy going and no one looks up from their giant chocolate chip pancakes or yummy sausage rolls in blankets.   .

“Dressed up” in Breckenridge means jeans and a fleece, whether you’re headed to a bar for drinks or the finest dining in town.  Millionaires and snow boarders share cocktails and great food at Modis, a hot new restaurant on Main Street.

Early morning or late at night, there is always a line at Crepes ala Cart, where super thin, hot, fresh crepes meet great conversation among new friends.  We stopped by there several times, fascinated by the range of crepes from vegetarian- fresh spinach to sweet-milk chocolate raspberry to dinner in a portable pocket-their Monte Cristo is a crowd pleaser.

Put Breckenridge on your list of places to visit, whether it’s the City of Breckenridge, to dine, shop or stay in or Breckenridge, the ski area, for some of the best snow, trails, lifts and runs I’ve ever experienced

Located at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet, make the O2 Lounge and Oxygen Bar your first stop as soon as you arrive.  Altitude sickness affects some visitors to Breckenridge so a visit here might minimize your chances of suffering shortness of breath, a pounding headache or an emergency room visit.

Surf the net, have a snack and sit for 45 minutes, hooked up to 90 percent pure oxygen, mixed with various aromatherapies, on their comfy sofas or at the bar.

There’s always a festival or event in town that will give you another reason to head to Breckenridge.  Whether it’s Ullr Fest, which celebrates the Norse god of snow, a wintry version of Mardi Gras or the International Snow Sculpture Championships, Breckenridge does fun right.

This year, the International Snow Sculpture Championships take place from January 26-February 7, 2010.   Artists sculpt from Tuesday, January 26 at 11:00 a.m. until Saturday, January 30 at 10:00 a.m.  Judging  starts at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, January 30 and sculptures will remain standing until the night of Sunday, February 7, 2010

Off the slopes and away from the sculpture contest,  you can try dog sledding  with Good Times Adventures or take a carriage ride on a hand crafted horse drawn carriage  through the woods at sunset over at Breckenridge Sleigh Rides.

Owners Paul and Cindy Hintgen encourage guests to pet and “talk” with their 2000 pound, eight foot tall Percheron and Belgian draft horses.   Originally bred to take knights into battle, these gentle giants have no trouble towing the sleigh for your 40 minute ride.

Snuggle up under a heavy blanket and watch the scenery as kids skate and play hockey on frozen lakes and the setting sun turns the snow covered peaks a bright orange.   The sleigh bells will tempt you to sing carols and the clear view of constellations offer a good time to plan for tomorrow’s fresh powder on the slopes.

If you go:

Breckenridge is an easy 90 mile drive from Denver and the environmentally friendly town and resort offer alternatives to renting a car and driving from the airport to the slopes.  You can take a shuttle from Denver airport to Breckenridge and ride the free bus in town that runs from early morning to just after midnight.

You can book your lodging, lifts and airport transport through Breckenridge website, www.gobreck.com or by phone at 877.593.5260

Dog sledding can be booked at GoodTimesAdventures.com and Breckenridge Sleigh Rides is at BreckSleighRides.com

Quebec Winter Carnival

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

It’s really cold and snowing hard, but who cares?  I dash into a corner bar where the windows are steamed up and a friendly game of pool is in progress and muster up my best fourth grade French. Je voudrais un verre de caribou.  I would like a glass of caribou.

Panic sets in.  Did I just order a large, antlered animal companion?  No silly, we just requested the provincial drink of Quebec, a beautiful, French speaking province of Canada just a short one hour plane ride from New York.

An often homemade fiery blend of red wine, vodka, cinnamon sticks and maple syrup, our small shot glass of Caribou gave us the bravado required to brave the howling winds and falling snow as we strolled the streets of the walled city, open to outsiders by three gates which date back four hundred years.

Quebec is a great walking city, even in the cold of winter and has the feel of a village, where streets are narrow but joie de vivre, an enjoyment of life, resonates through both the upper and lower sections of this historic city.

Bonhomme, the Winter Carnival mascot, brings serious delight to those chilly visitors.   Where else in the world can an overweight, middle aged man be greeted with hugs and kisses on both cheeks and achieve rock star status among young and old alike? After learning the Bonhomme song and dance, which could pass for graceful aerobics, we set off to explore.

Our two feet provide the best manner of transport, while strolling on St. Jean street as we window shop for shoes, clothing, leather goods and check out dining opportunities in the many fine restaurants that line the snow covered roads.

Do dress properly, as actual temperatures often hover just above zero.  Proper boots, with waterproof outsides and warm liners are a must, if you want to avoid a chill.  We found that wind pants added an important layer and coat checks will look after your wind pants when you get to well warmed restaurant and meetings often take place in stocking feet as boots are left to dry in office corners.

Looking for serious outdoor fun?  Try Quebec’s Winter Carnival from January 29th through February 14th this year. Held throughout the old city, outdoor festivities include a zip line that will have you flying over the Carnival grounds on the Plains of Abraham, snow rafting in giant tubes, and an International snow sculpting contest.

There’s a dogsled race that starts in front of Le Château Frontenac, the historic old hotel that is the heart of the old city.  There’s a nice package for Winter Carnival that includes one night hotel, admission to the Carnival and buffet breakfast for two for approximately $282/night.

If you go:

http://www.carnaval.qc.ca/en

http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/accueil0.html

http://www.fairmont.com/frontenac/

St. Kitts

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The plane banks at an unusual angle hard to the left and the passengers, more out of surprise then fear, emit a collective “ooh  aah”.  It wasn’t the barnstorming maneuver of the pilot though, that caused the sound, it was the gray, ominous clouds low over the lush green mountains.  Vacation dreams were momentarily put on hiatus.  “Is it raining?” asks one passenger. “ We thought the forecast was good,” says another.

Looking over our shoulders, out the window of the small propeller plane carrying us to St. Kitts, passengers strained to take in the unique view. Yes, it clearly was raining but as the beachfront of this tropical eastern Caribbean paradise came into view, the red, then red and orange, then red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and finally violet layers of a growing, spreading rainbow appeared.

And there, at 14,000 feet over St Kitts and Nevis, the tone for our visit was set.  That rainbow came to define and identify a small (69 square miles) friendly, unique, sparsely populated (31,000 residents) island where monkeys dance roadside and scatter as the occasional car comes through their living space and different oceans deliver surf on one side and serenity on the other.

The trip to St. Kitts is a must,  on the depressurization tour for those of us who bounce between work, kids, little league, more work.  You get the picture.  Its an unhurried island, atypical of Caribbean vacations by the prompt delivery of creature comforts and amenities that we look for, accompanied by warm, genuine smiles from the residents of the island.

That warmth is delivered by housekeepers and hotel managers, wait staff and beach towel people  who have recently entered the Nation’s small but growing tourism industry. Until 2000, St. Kitts was an agricultural island and sugar cane was the leading crop.

One day the unprofitable sugar cane refining industry was closed and the government became the island nation’s largest employer.  Unemployment was high until the Marriott St. Kitts and Golf Resort came in and built a 600-room oceanfront hotel behemoth.

While the hotel’s size could be overwhelming, the individual attention from staff is truly awe-inspiring.  Guests are remembered by name and there is always a genuine smile.  The food is amazing, and the hotel’s six restaurants offer enough choice to keep from repeating a meal during your stay.

We owe the fine cuisine to Chef Andreas Mahl and sous chef Matt Tabla, who took us shopping  for the fruits, vegetables and spices they need for an eight-course VIP dinner for 25 guests tonight at Brimstone Castle.

We rise before sunrise and meet Chef and Matt at the entrance to the hotel, where a taxi is waiting to take us to the market in Basseterre.  Andreas has a cigarette in one hand, a can of Red Bull in the other and is just completely exhausted.  His days are running into each other as he rises early to shop for produce and spices for his kitchen at the St. Kitts Marriott.

We’re starting tabula rasa, with a blank slate, and no real menu set in stone.   If the produce is fresh, plentiful and available now,  then Andreas will use it on tonight’s menu.

We hop out of the taxi at 7am and the market is already crowded.  Kitians make their Saturday morning market trip an adventure, socializing, catching up on politics, gossip, family and life.

Several market goers immediately greet Mahl and Matts.  It’s a small island, and Marriott is the largest private employer on the island.  Many of the hotel staff is marketing today too, bringing family with them as they peruse the painted green wooden stalls or bright blankets overflowing with produce that was on the vine or in the ground just the day before.

We walk through open stalls and a myriad of vendors displaying their wares to the accompaniment of praises to god,  broadcast by large speakers pointed skyward, that come  from an open air church meeting behind the market.  The words seem appropriate as the naturally raised, un-waxed produce is displayed for our viewing.

We head across the street and enter the covered part of the market just in time.  The skies open up and the heavy rain drums a strong pitter-patter beat on the corrugated tin roof .

We take in the smells during the rain break in our  shopping.  Unusual fragrances fill the air as Mahl and Matts sort through limes and papaya, root vegetables and fresh mint.  We’re sniffing many  unfamiliar items that are unavailable outside the Caribbean.

We walk through the fresh meat market as energetic women with cleavers hack apart whole goats, lambs and sides of beef.  That visit is more for curiosity’s sake then shopping, as Marriott chef’s can only work with meat from purveyors who have gone through the strictest of quality and sanitary checks.  While mesmerizing and unique, the meat here just doesn’t reach those standards.

Shopping done,  we’re heading back to the hotel, talking menu on the ride.  What sauce goes with what dish? What order will the creations be served in?  Are there any special dietary requirements for either individuals or the entire group?

Chef and  Tabla are laden down with plastic bags  as they head through the hotel’s ornate lobby to their oceanview kitchen. They change into their chef’s  whites, and get to work, chopping, slicing, blending and  prepping.  There is no kitchen outside at Brimstone Castle and the entire restaurant and kitchen must be transported an hour across the island.

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The guests arriving for dinner are energized by spectacular views of the setting sun over St. Kitts and neighboring Nevis that are visible from 400 year old Brimstone Castle which guards the highest vista in St. Kitts.

Elegant waiters in formal ware are serving drinks but in the small white tent alongside the elaborate dining tent for guests, Chef Mahl is wrestling with the challenge of pan searing two dozen prime filet mignons over a trio of one-burner propane stoves that are being blown out by the strong winds.  Iron Chef competitors have never cooked against logistical challenges such as this.

Ever the pro, Mahl and staff are seasoning, cooking and tasting flavors, performing miracles as they cook by skill, dogged determination and a desire to “wow” tonight’s diners.

And wow they do, as giant prawns emerge from the chef’s tent, followed  filet mignon

Mahl is on center stage tonight, and he never lets the crowd see him sweat.  Ever the gentleman, the 37-year-old Austrian born chef  comes out from the kitchen and introduces each course.

Few of the diners know the back-story on their dinner.  While the tastes draw many “oohs and ahhs” most are unaware of the passion that went to create the little mushroom filled raviolis.

At the end of the night, back at the hotel, chef unwinds with sous chef Tabla and his sommelier.   Another cigarette is lit and the meal is dissected and critiqued.  Every meal is a learning experience and Andreas is determined to do it better next time.

The 1994 Sauterne goes down nicely and the early morning conversation is punctuated by smiles and laughs framed by exhaustion.  Tomorrow is Sunday and Chef can sleep.  At least til dinner prep comes around one more time tonight.

If you go:

http://www.stkittstourism.kn/

http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/skbrb-st-kitts-marriott-resort-and-the-royal-beach-casino/

Cedar Point Amusement Park

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

The seat belt is buckled and padded bar comes down across our laps.  With a metallic click, the coaster car slowly starts forward up to the starting line.

I’m staring at a yellow and red steel structure in front of me, a daunting 42 stories high.  At that very moment the realization takes hold.  I am not afraid of the rapid climb to the top of the 420-foot high metal structure.

It is the thought of the sharp, almost 90 degree left turn at the top and then the second quick left that sends us hurtling to earth at 120 miles an hour, corkscrewing 270 degrees as the ground approaches.

The lights at the starting line change from yellow to green and we’re flung forward, flip skyward and all we can see in front of us is the deep blue of the Ohio sky.  But just for a brief second.

We reach that 120-mile an hour speed in less than four seconds.  Its that rush to the top of the world’s second fastest, second tallest roller coaster that brings thrill aficionados to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio from all over the world.

Bob Coker, author of “Roller Coasters – A Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines” says “For anyone who loves roller coasters, Cedar Point is among a handful of parks worldwide that simply can’t be missed.   Their collection is massive, but it’s also filled with superlative rides. ”

Coker has ridden on hundreds of coasters around the world.  He calls Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster  “probably the scariest and most exhilarating roller coaster I’ve ever been on. I’ve never seen nor heard people scream harder than they do on this monster.” It’s a popular ride that many visitors hit more than once,  on their journey through Cedar Point.

The excitement level rises for Cedar Point visitors as you cross the causeway leading to the Sandusky, Ohio Park and tall towers of wood and steel create a New York City-like skyline of twists, turns, sharp drops and zero g rides.

This is Mecca for coaster enthusiasts, a pilgrimage that is considered “coaster heaven” due to the overwhelming collection of rides. Cedar Point added their 17th roller coaster this year, giving them the most coasters of any amusement park in the world.

There are coasters here for riders of every age and taste.  Old wooden coasters such as Blue Streak, built in 1964, which offers that bone shaking, rattle around fun for the whole family or Mean Streak, which is almost a mile long and features a stunning 161-foot-tall first hill and a top speed of 65 mph.

There are metal coasters, including Maverick, the newest addition to the Cedar Point Family, which gives riders eight “airtime-filled hills,” three inversions and a second launch through a dark tunnel that will leave you in awe as riders reach speeds of 70 mph!

There are thrill rides like Power Tower, which provides one heck of a ride as you drop straight down at 50 miles an hour for three seconds. Fans of twisting and screaming will love Wicked Twister, the tallest and fastest “double-twisting” impulse roller coaster ever created.  Wicked Twister takes you up and down the track five times at 72 mph and twists riders 450 degrees.

Millennium Force rises 310 feet in the air and takes its passengers over 6,595 feet of steel track that includes three hills, two dark tunnels and two 122-degree turns.

On Raptor, guests ride in cars that are suspended from the track above and go upside down six amazing times.  If that’s not enough, Raptor riders flip over, get spiraled upside down into a 180-degree roll and then repeat the twisting motion in reverse.

And for those younger coaster fans, Woodstock Express was built with families in mind. Designed so that parents can ride with their children, Woodstock Express is less than 40 feet tall and travels at a top speed of just 25 mph.

Described as “the roller coaster version of a bike with training wheels”, Junior Gemini offers children as small as 36 inches tall the opportunity to break into the big league of coasters.

And for those of you who look at coasters as “just ok”, Cedar Point offers guests an opportunity to leave the rest of the world behind you, according to coaster enthusiast  Chris Godsey.

“ Once you enter the midway, you experience the sights, smells, and sounds of a traditional style amusement park as well as the new advanced ride technologies.  The old blends with the new so well at Cedar Point”, says Godsey.

If you go:
Cedar Point Amusement park can be reached by air into Cleveland or Toledo, which are both around 65 miles away.  Cleveland is a Continental Airlines hub city and often can be found on their weekend special for $99/round trip.

There are several hotels on or near the property including the Breakers, Castaway Bay or Sandcastle.  There is a RV campground in the shadow of the park and many chain hotels a short distance away.

For food, you have to hit “Famous Dave’s” for ribs.  Located right on Cedar Point Marina, Famous Dave’s delivered one of the most mouth watering slab or ribs that I have ever eaten, complete with a half dozen bar-b-que sauces that must return home with you.

Los Cabos

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Its 5:32 AM and the ringing of the bedside phone has just extracted me from the sleep and dreams you only achieve while on vacation.  Seconds later the knock on the door reinforced the wakeup call that suggested that it was time to grasp for a vertical existence.

The waiter wheeled in the breakfast cart, uncovered the plates of smoked salmon, an egg white omelet and toasted bagel.  Still sleepwalking, I signed the bill, and the waiter bowed his way from the room, wishing me a good day of fishing.

Guess there’s no other reason to be awake in Los Cabos at 5:30 in the morning, unless you haven’t yet gone to sleep. And this morning I was going fishing with the pros, looking for the monster Marlin of Mexico.

Dawn is just breaking as anglers hit the snack shop for chips and beers, smokes and sodas.  Fishing licenses are purchased dockside, boats are assigned and captains head out for the open sea.  We pickup live bait from a barge and watch as giant seagulls, bobbing in the water, eye the buckets of bait as sushi stolen from their own mouths.

We slow down as we pass the Arches, the set of beautiful natural limestone monoliths that mark the spot where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean.  Hundreds of barking sea lions bask in the warm sun and call this signature of Los Cabos, their home.

We hit the open ocean, the crew baits our lines and out they go.  Chris Woodward is on one side of the boat, Brian Feeney; a New Yorker is on the back of the boat.  He’s not fishing but he’s enjoying the sun and he’s coaching the amateur on board.  That’s me.

Chris edits “Sport Fishing Magazine”, has been fishing thousands of times over the past 40 years and has landed “A gracious plenty” of trophy sized fish. Pleasant conversation ceases with the first tug on a line.

Fish on?  Yes.  The screaming of the line as it races from the reel confirms that something large has seized the bait and is trying to run away with it. My job here is to insure that it does not.

Reel in as you pull the rod up. Repeat.  Over and over.  As the line goes slack, reel in more.  Never let the line go slack for a long period of time, ‘cause the fish can shake the hook.

A glint of silver catches my eye as the marlin surfaces.  This is a FISH, not a fish.  Damn, he’s the size of a Honda and I realize that this will be a little more challenging than reeling in a seven inch sunny in a pond.

He’s a beauty and a fighter and might just be showing off except he’s playing tug of war for his life.  He surfaces several times during our 40 minute battle and I truly feel I’m going to lose him.

In the meantime, Chris has hooked up another monster Marlin and we’re working chairs on both sides of the boat.     My arms are burning, my fingers are blistering.  I’m covered with sweat and salt water, alternately smiling with the fun of the fight and ready to drop from exhaustion.  I’m not sure how much longer I can keep in the battle.

Chris lands her Marlin, almost seven feet long from tail to tip of his sharp beak. With the crew’s expertise, Brian’s encouragement and beginners luck, I land my fish too.  We pose for photos, and back he goes into the ocean.  There’s a strict catch and release program on billfish for sport fisherman here, a policy that’s designed to keep many species of fish plentiful here for generations to come.

All together that day we landed five marlin and a small tuna.  Just another amazing day of fishing in Los Cabos.

The municipality of Los Cabos , or Cabo to visitors,  include the towns of  Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo and the “Tourist Corridor” that runs between the two villages.  Cabo fuctions like few of Mexico’s other popular tourist destinations.  It’s grownup fun, not spring break for college kids.

Sure, you can find a bartender in a short skirt with a bandolier of jello shots willing to slam a drink on a table, hold your nose and shove the blue concoction down your throat while blowing a whistle, rubbing your head and pinching your chest.

But that is not the prevalent vacation theme here.  Cabo seems to draw folks who last saw that kind of behavior 20 or more years in their past.  Cabo’s visitors are here to fish for real big fish, hit a few golf balls on a few championship courses and eat great food and drink fine wines.

Cabo is not inexpensive (taxis from airport to hotel or along the tourist corridor are actually rather costly).  You’re paying for the mixture of ocean and desert, beach and mountain, isolation and excitement, and an average of 340 days a year of sunshine.  Oh yeah, you can’t ignore the hard to beat fact that more marlin and swordfish are caught here than anywhere else in the world.

You can fly in, transfer to your hotel, eat all your meals on premise and have a perfectly relaxing and enjoyable sun drenched holiday, or take advantage of tons of outdoor offerings.  Beside the fishing and golf, there’s whale watching, kayaking, parasailing, wave runner rental, snorkeling, scuba diving and some great surfing.

For a literally off the beaten path adventure, try the Wide Open Baja Racing Experience, where you get to race your own dune buggy on a two mile long sand course.   Plenty of speed, thrills and driving challenges, as these souped up cars roar through turns and straight aways, bouncing over rocks, gulleys, dips and turns.

If you like this, it could inspire you to sign up for the Baja 500.  For me though, it’s time to relax and hit the beach.  Someone will be knocking on my door again at 530 tomorrow morning.  There’s plenty more fish to grab and I want to be well rested for the hunt.