Paws Up, Montana

Toes on the river outside a luxurious glamping tent at Paws Up in Montana.











Camping Butler Wesley Parks helps a young glamper prepare a perfect s’more along the banks of the Blackfoot River at Paws Up resort in Montana.














My daughter and I were strapped into harnesses and facing each other inside a giant beach ball atop a grassy, tree-lined hill in Montana. Our guide called out to hang on tight and then gave a shove. We bounced, rolled, screamed and laughed as we tumbled down the hill to a meadow below. It was 50 seconds of jolting chaos and then utter stillness as our ball finally came to a rest. We giggled with relief and dangled from our straps as we waited for someone to release us.

My daughter had picked this activity when we decided to go on a long “glamping” weekend together. The inflated ball, known as a Zorb, comes to the United States from Australia. I had imagined that we would get in the ball and wander around the prairies of Montana by walking within it. I hadn’t pictured a break-neck roller-coaster ride, and I was sure one try was enough to call myself a Zorbinaut, but my 10-year-old disagreed.

“You can’t say you really did it, Mom, if you don’t go twice!” she challenged.

So in we went again to plummet head over heels down the hill, laughing twice as hard the second time.

Our other activities were more in keeping with what I expected from a Montana dude ranch. We took a trail ride with two young wranglers whose sense of humor and knowledge made my daughter and me feel comfortable on our mounts and free to enjoy the woodsy smell, dappled sunlight and snow-capped mountain views. When the ride was over, we offered to help put the horses away, but this was where the glamping kicked in.

In glamour camping, the guest is queen (or king). If a trail ride is on offer, the horses are saddled and ready to go when the riders arrive and are then cared for after they leave. If a Zorb ball is to be tackled, the ball is ready at the top of the hill and returned there after each ride for guests who want to take multiple tumbles. If a canoe trip sounds fun, guides portage the canoes and paddle guests who prefer not to break a sweat.

I’m a do-it-myself kind of traveler, but the result of being pampered at every turn was an awareness of my surroundings that is often missed when I’m busy lugging gear, cleaning up messes, setting up tents or figuring out the next meal. With people assigned to handle those issues, I was able to play with my daughter, look for geocaching spots in the woods and really sink into the vacation. I especially enjoyed being handed a cold huckleberry lemonade every time I looked a bit parched.

On one afternoon my daughter went to a Kids Camp yurt, where she had lunch with guides who specialized in entertaining children. They helped her find arrowheads and make them into necklaces, and they all painted their faces before heading out on a hike where the saw an elk and two wolves. They returned to the yurt’s petting zoo and romped away the rest of the afternoon.

While she was being entertained, I slipped off to Spa Town to pamper my saddle-sore body with a massage. In a white canvas room I slipped out of grubby trail clothes and into a fluffy white robe. Eric Nygard ushered me into another small tent where I stretched out for my massage. Before he began, Nygard opened the tent’s flaps like a curtain, and I found myself with an unimpeded view across a vast meadow and up into a purple mountain. Strong rains had produced a babbling brook behind our tent that mingled with birdsongs, cricket chirps and the rush of wind through tall grass. As Nygard worked, the pitter-patter of rain began on the canvas and a distant roll of thunder sounded across the valley. The closeness to nature enhanced and relaxed me entirely.

Mealtimes, too, were handed over to guides and wranglers who entertained and cared for us. Christi and Steve Fraker are fifth-generation horse teamsters. They drove two wagons full of glampers down to the banks of the Blackfoot River, where a chuckwagon dinner of baked beans and corn on the cob from cast-iron kettles, meat roasted over an open fire and a steaming Dutch oven filled with cobbler was being prepared. While the adults enjoyed a full bar and a campfire, the kids went with the Frakers to dip their hands in paint and decorate a gentle white horse with a rainbow of handprints and hearts. Later, leathery cowboy Mike Doud taught the children to rope a mock steer head that had been attached to a hay bale.

More than anything else, the overnight accommodations elevated took the vacation to the luxurious level of glamorous camping. Our resort boasted some posh houses with huge kitchens, hot tubs and enough room for an extended family reunion, but it was the camp site where we stayed that finally drove home what it meant to go glamping.

When we arrived, our camping butler, Wesley Parks, greeted us with a smile, took our bags and led us on a leisurely stroll around Pinnacle Camp, one of three camp sites at our resort. Five large canvas tents were scattered around a wood and stone pavilion, where Parks showed us we could have a made-to-order breakfast each morning and a gourmet dinner any evening. We wandered on to our tent where we found wood floors, custom-made beds and a bathroom with a heated floor. A wall of twigs separated the tent into two rooms.

Once we were settled, Parks suggested a hike before dinner was served at the pavilion. He pointed us in the direction of a riverside trail and reminded us to make a lot of noise.

“Interpersonal communication is strongly encouraged here,” he laughed. “If a bear hears you coming, he’ll stay out of your way.”

As my daughter and I walked along the river we talked like magpies. We launched pinecones into the rushing brown flow and tried to imagine it as the clear fishing creek it usually is. We found a tall rock where we laid on our stomachs and tossed pebbles into the frothy water.

“This is a whole new kind of Top of the Rock,” she said to me. “In New York City, it’s surrounded by glitz and glamour, and here it’s just nature and beauty.”

When we got back to camp, the pavilion’s heavy brown and ivory striped curtains were pulled back to let a warm sunset shine on the heavy wood tables where our seared marlin appetizers awaited. My daughter charmed Parks into making another of his “perfect” cocoas, and I enjoyed an equally lovely margarita. We made new friends over dinner and then wandered to a nearby campfire. I snuggled into a chair to listen to a historian who had come to teach us about Louis and Clark and show us artifacts from the area’s history. Without a word, Parks delivered a coffee with just the right amount of cream and a sweet, golden roasted marshmallow he had made with the children. I folded it into a s’more and knew camping would never be the same again.

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Where to go: Glamping experiences are springing up all over the United States. We fell in love with Paws Up in Montana,, but there are other options to explore based on individual interests and desired location: Glayoquot Wilderness Resort in Vancouver,; Costanoa Resort in Northern California,; Storm Creek Outfitters in Idaho, Other glamping ideas can be found at and


How to plan: Paws Up recommends that guests contact a pre-arrival concierge two to three weeks before their visit ranch to discuss activities and create a schedule. Activities can last all day, but most are half-day events that can be separated by a lunch of smoked trout salad and sweet potato fries at the Trough restaurant.


Who will enjoy it:  There are glamping and kids’ camp activities for every age, but remember to ask about specifics for kids under 12.  Zorb, for example, is not meant for the smaller set.


When to go: Paws Up operates in every season. We enjoyed lush, green springtime, but activities continue throughout the summer and into winter. Paws Up celebrates Christmas with sleigh rides, ski trails, snowmobiles and snowy horseback adventures.


How to get there: Paws Up is a half-hour drive out of Missoula, Mont., which is served by several major airlines. A ride to the resort is provided by knowledgeable resort employees who explain the area’s mining and ranching history en route.


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Roanoke, VA

“Suicide Sally” sculpture perches on a railing of The Taubman Museum of Art, situated very near the O.Winston Link Museum and historic Hotel Roanoke in downtown Roanoke, Va.

Roanoke, Va., is situated in the breadbasket of the South and has sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround it.


Toes overlooking Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountain's











The sun sets over Virginia Mountain Vineyards in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

A tribute to the black workers on the Norfolk & Western Railway can be found in the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, Va., where a recreation of the original Big Lick train station and other interactive exhibits honor the history of transportation in Virginia.
















The Roanoke Star was built to herald Christmas in 1949, but it remains a much-loved city symbol.













“Where the he– is Roanoke?” read the sunglasses band I was handed at Go Outside, the second annual festival for outdoor activities in that city. The man who offered it to me laughingly said he gets that question a lot at conventions. He has embraced the common question and made it into his logo, but it did give me a question to answer: Where IS Roanoke?

It is in the breadbasket of the south, the heart of the Confederacy, the launching point for a nation and an increasingly interesting place for visitors to explore. In the few days I was there, I learned American history, astronomy, viniculture and art.

On my first night in town, I looked out my hotel window to see the Star City’s namesake glowing bright white on Mill Mountain, and in the morning I headed up to take a closer look. The giant star was built to celebrate the Christmas season in 1949 and stayed on to become the city’s symbol. From the star I could see across the city of Roanoke and up into the Appalachian Mountains that surround it. When I was there, the trees were aflame in color, but the vista would be spectacular any time of year. And a night view from the star is equally magical; the city below twinkles like its own universe.

Virginia Mountain Vineyards, just north of Roanoke, provided another opportunity for me to enjoy the stars, but this time they were the celestial kind. The vineyard occasionally invites musicians to entertain guests who come up the curvy mountain roads to enjoy a casual dinner and wine, and for six years they have had an annual October event that includes stargazing. John Goss, vice president of the Astronomical League, a national federation of more than 270 clubs and 15,000 members, was the vineyard’s guide to the stars. He set up several telescopes in the dark vineyard where guests could wander out with glasses of wine to see the stars more clearly than they could in a light-filled city.

From his telescopes, I saw closely the craters of the moon and the stars of Cassiopeia that pointed to the Andromeda galaxy. A 9-year-old astronomer and his dad took me under their wings to point out the galaxy first through binoculars and then, when I had the location figured out, with my naked eye. They directed me to a telescope for a closer look and were as thrilled as I was with my discovery.

In town the next day, I learned more about Roanoke’s history. Originally called Big Lick, the city was developed at a crossroads of trails used by animals that came to lick the naturally salty soil and hunters who tracked them. When trains began to weave a web of tracks through the nation, developers changed the city’s name to Roanoke, the Algonquian word for shells that were used as money.

I had traditional peanut soup and rich, succulent spoon bread for lunch at the grand Roanoke Hotel, one of the first structures built to welcome the new railroads to Roanoke in 1889 by the original Norfolk & Western Railway Co. It was expected to house an increasing stream of visitors as the railway grew its Roanoke headquarters. In its 123 years, the hotel has hosted presidents, endured fire, celebrated special occasions, withstood six years of closure that almost led to its demise and is now, again, a grand hotel that is both a destination and a neighborhood haunt. A pool table in the Pine Room Pub is the regular meeting place for a group of good-natured businessmen who pick up a game and unwind at the end of the week.

To learn more about the trains that helped to establish the town, I went to the nearby Virginia Museum of Transportation. Housed in an original freight station, the museum is home to the only surviving steam engine of its size in the world. The huge engine was built in Roanoke and now retires there. Another exhibit invites people to walk through a vintage passenger car under restoration, and in one corner of the museum a touching display addresses the role of skin color in railways. Photos of black railroad employees line the walls, and a video shows interviews the workers as they discuss the ways in which color affected their jobs. One man remembers a curtain that was hung in the dining car when the train crossed from the North into the South to separate the black and white diners.

From that museum I walked a half-mile along the Railwalk to the O. Winston Link Museum and was entertained by an interactive display. I pushed buttons that illuminated lights like those used on real railroads, flipped a switch that lowered a mock train guard, clanged a bell and blew a train whistle. I also read plaques that detailed the railroad’s history and showed vintage photos of the city as it grew around its railroad arteries.

The O. Winston Link museum is housed in the former Norfolk & Western Railway passenger station, an appropriate location for a photographer famous for photographing trains at night. Although not a photographer by trade, Link used his engineering skills to make light the key element of his photographs. He did this by winding trails of wire to flash bulbs so that only the points in a photograph that he wanted to emphasize were illuminated. It was his opinion that light was the only thing he could really control, and his photographs are an impressive nod to the bygone days of steam engines.

Across the tracks is the Taubman Museum of Art. The collections in this museum are small but interesting. I enjoyed an exhibit of Faberge artifacts and a room full of sparkling Judith Lieber handbags. A traveling collection of dramatic photographs by Edward Burtynsky made me appreciate how vast and far-reaching the life cycle of oil is. But my favorite sculpture was that of a woman with her hands in her lap and her head bowed. She had no official plaque or information, but I learned that her artist was Mark Jenkins. He offers no title for her, but locals call the sculpture “Suicide Sally” because she sits on an upstairs balcony ledge that overlooks a busy road. She used to be positioned with her legs hanging toward the road, but several passersby called 911 to report a potential suicide. Now she is positioned with her legs facing in toward the balcony, and she looks a bit more like a “Texting Theresa” to me.

Back at the Go Outside festival, conveniently across the street from my hotel, I spent an evening listening to bands and meeting locals by a fire pit. Hillary, it turns out, works at the Taubman Museum of Art, and her husband told me secrets about Virginia moonshine history. I thought of the pool players who talked to me about their town, the father and son who taught me to see the stars, and the winemaker who showed me the tools of her trade in a back room. There is a lot to do in Roanoke, but the real stars remain the people who stand side by side in welcoming newcomers to town without affectation.

A man at the wine and stars night had explained it when he slung his arm around the man next to him and said, “I’m a river guide, and this fella’s an astronomy professor, but we sit on the porch and talk. No one cares what you do. This is a place where life slows down, and you are who you are.”


When You Go

Getting There

The Roanoke airport is served by connecting flights operated by Allegiant Air, Delta, United Airlines and US Airways.


Where to Stay

Cambria Suites is very near the Roanoke Star and downtown area;

For a more intimate stay, The Inn on Campbell is an upscale bed and breakfast worth consideration;

The Historic Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center is located downtown and very near museums, restaurants and activities;


Dining in Roanoke

Breakfast at the Roanoker has been a tradition of southern hospitality in Roanoke since the restaurant opened in 1941;

Farm to table cuisine is emphasized in the colorful and creative dishes at Firefly Fare in Roanoke, Va.;

For a truly Southern meal, visit the Homeplace Restaurant where dinner is served family style and visitors wait for tables on front porch rockers or leaning on fence posts in the yard;


Toasting in the Blue Ridge

Virginia Mountain Vineyards;

Blue Ridge Vineyard; www. Blue


What to do in Roanoke

Roanoke Star, Mill Mountain Zoo and the Discovery Center;

Taubman Museum of Art;

Virginia Museum of Transportation;

O.Winston Link Museum;

Aitutaki, Cook Islands

A traditional warrior blows a conch shell to welcome guests to his motu, Akitua.


Turquoise water is the trademark of Aitutaki’s coral-filled lagoon where snorkelers and divers swim with giant clams and sea turtles.




Soaking up the sun on Aitutaki's cerulean lagoon.











Honeymoon Island is the perfect place to stroll champagne beaches and savor the quiet moments of life with a friend.

An enthusiastic snorkeler leaps into the Aitutaki’s turquoise lagoon to search for tropical fish and, perhaps, pirate treasure.



Auntie Nane serenades guests with her hand-carved ukulele at the highest point on Aitutaki.A traditional warrior blows a conch shell to welcome guests to his motu, Akitua.






















I’ve heard it said that you can pick your friends but not your family.  A trip to Aitutaki in the South Pacific, however, challenged that old adage. When strangers welcomed me on my milestone birthday trip with hugs, kisses and eis – flower necklaces, I felt like I had arrived at a family reunion with distant cousins who were happy to see me again – even though we’d never met. My freckled arms were immediately encircled by rich brown skin, and my frizzy auburn waves tangled in straight, dark hair as I was greeted by women who called out the local welcome, “Kia Orana,” and were soon clucking life advice to me.

After dropping my bags in a beachside bungalow, I joined a group of travelers to spend a day snorkeling with a native guide in the crystalline blue lagoon that spans much of the island.  Fifteen tiny islets, or “motus,” ring the lagoon where giant clams and coral abound.  TeKing George met us at the boat landing for a bit of instruction before we boarded his vessel, his deadpan style opposite to the ebullient nature of the women at the island’s small airport. A dozen travelers from around the world piled on TeKing’s boat.  We talked and reached eager hands into the cool salt spray that flew around the bow of the boat as we motored to our first snorkel site.

Once anchored, TeKing taught us tricks to attract curious butterfly fish, and one by one we leapt into the turquoise water, each of us armed with cameras and a healthy dose of enthusiasm.  At least 50 butterfly fish immediately surrounded me when I submerged.  They pecked at my mask and flitted between my arms and legs.  I was a mermaid among the fishes, and I had to actively remember to keep breathing.

The butterfly fish moved on to a new visitor, and I set off on my own to explore the coral that grew around me in ledges and bulbs.  TeKing had explained that the coral’s flat tops were a result of their need to be submerged to live. If coral grows too close to the surface of the water or is exposed for too long during a storm or low tide, it will die.  I followed brightly colored fish through passageways between the tables of coral and found star fish and octopi tucked into their crevices.

After a break on the boat, TeKing took us across the lagoon where we focused not on the exotically shaped and colored coral surrounding us but on the giant clams that are native to this area of the world.  Once in the water, he helped each of us wrap our arms around a heavy clam before guiding us on a snorkel tour to see them in their natural habitat.  We could catch only a glimpse of the neon blue and green flesh that quickly sucked into their shell when they felt their surrounding water move. These clams had been over-harvested and are now in a protected area of the lagoon.

Knowing we were a bit waterlogged, TeKing dropped his charges on the long, white beach of uninhabited Honeymoon Island where we walked and splashed in the gentle, lapping waves. It was impossible to think of anything from home; no worries were allowed on this small stretch of paradise.

Lunch was grilled for us on Maina motu.  TeKing and his assistant, Mai, grilled ahi and bananas and served them with fresh star fruit and mango salads whose chilled sweetness offset the warm and spicy entrees.  An icy beer and a chat with TeKing finished the meal.  He explained that he had lost everything and had been dying at the side of the road after a terrible accident only a year prior to our day together. After being  flown to the mainland, Rarotonga, for emergency surgery, he was rebuilding his life again on Aitutaki one day at a time. His courage was an impressive example of the quiet strength I found in everyone I met on this island.  His willingness to share his heartache moved us to a familial intimacy.  We were not strangers with this man.

“This is paradise,” he said peacefully. “It’s freedom.”

A giant white turtle kept pace with us after lunch as we headed over to One Foot Island, another motu on the edge of the lagoon. TeKing took us for a walk and showed us how his ancestors had used the plants around him to make clothes and shelter.  He pointed out where the Survivor series had spent a season, and he stamped our passports with the One Foot Island stamp – proof of our visit to paradise. Then he boated us through the quiet bay that had once been the Cook Islands International Airport before it had moved to a hard-surfaced field on the nation’s capital island, Rarotonga.

By nightfall we were sundrenched and exhausted, and everyone on the boat was hungry for seafood again.  After a quick shower, I slipped into dry clothes and headed out to dinner. It took a small launch to shuttle me across a bit of lagoon to Akita motu where an island warrior blew a conch shell in greeting. On the beach, I enjoyed fresh ika mata served in a coconut shell under a private gazebo while the sun set and tiki torches blazed.  By the time my succulent panna cotta had been served, the stars were brightly twinkling.  From here I saw the Southern Cross, the most prominent constellation in the Southern Hemisphere, and was captivated by constellations I could not name – or forget.

Back at my beachside bungalow I curled up on my balcony to enjoy a tropical rainstorm and a glass of champagne.  As the rain moved offshore, a full moon rose behind me and shone brightly at an ideal angle to create a moonbow across the South Pacific horizon.  It appeared as a perfect white arc across the sky that beckoned me into a midnight dip in the dark and silent Aitutaki lagoon.

After a sumptuous breakfast with freshly squeezed tropical juices blended from luscious fruits that exploded in my mouth, I headed out to explore Aitutaki’s terra firma.  I enlisted an island tour and was greeted with another ei and a giant hug from my guide who insisted that I think of her as my new auntie.

“You call me Auntie Nane!” she demanded.

In the next few hours my new auntie showed me around the island and explained local customs. She showed me the ring of rocks where eight tribal chiefs would gather when important decisions were required.  And near those rocks is the Visitors Rock upon which visitors who came to the island by boat long ago would first set foot. It was here that they would be welcomed to the island as family.  She explained that on Aitutaki, there are no strangers.  Any visitor is the responsibility of the tribe with whom they are staying. Even hotels and resorts follow the tradition which explained why I had been so openly embraced by everyone I’d met.

Driving on a winding road, we stopped to pick some flowers.  A local woman in the van named Misepa told us that she had to get up pretty early to pick enough wild flowers off of her bush to make a good ei before they were picked by her neighbors. In the Cook Islands the flowers and fruits belong to everyone.  Individuals do not own property which means that everyone is responsible for and can enjoy every plant on the island. There are no arguments over lot lines or scoldings to children who pick the best star fruit, and there is a lot less daily stress.

At the highest point of the island, Maunga Pu, Auntie Nane pulled over and grabbed a plate of passion fruit from a basket.  She laughed when I asked for a utensil and taught me how it is meant to be eaten.

“This is PASSION fruit, darling,” she teased me. “We use only our tongues to pull out the flesh!”

While the sweet juices dripped down my chin, Auntie Nane produced a hand-carved ukulele and began to sing.  She sang to me about the frangipani flowers that hung around my neck and then joined her voice with Misepa’s in a language I couldn’t understand.  The words were lost to me, but the sound of them captured the tropical sun, the luscious fruit and the endless deep blue ocean around us.

Having learned that I was a former airline pilot, Auntie Nane insisted that I come to her house before she returned me to my resort.  There I found the front half of an old DC3 that had been left by a movie crew several years before.  Auntie Nane’s son, also a pilot, had convinced the crew to let them have the wreckage which now stood in a tangle of lush plants and rust to hold up one end of Auntie’s clothes line.

Auntie Nane delivered me back to my resort but refused to say goodbye.  She said she would see me again at the airport before I left the island.  That is how family is treated on Aitutaki.

As promised, she met me at the airport with her broad smile.  She said that her nephew was going to be the pilot on my flight to Atiu, another of the beautiful Cook Islands, and insisted on introducing me to him when he arrived.  We chatted as we waited for the plane to load, and then she wrapped me again in her strong brown arms.  The hours we had spent touring her homeland had brought us close together, and she had given me important advice that eventually changed my life.  But for that moment, she held me close, pouring her energy into me.

“Next time you come to Aitutaki, you stay with your Auntie Nane,” she said with tears in her eyes.

How can I refuse?

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When You Go

Cook Islands History:

With inhabitants dating back over 1,000 years, the Cook Islands was protected by the British in the 1800s and spent the first 65 years of the 20th Century as a colony of New Zeland until it was granted self-governing status.  It is now a democracy with a parliament that includes a representative from the hereditary island chiefs and a representative for those Cook Islanders who live in New Zealand and Australia. The head of state remains Queen Elizabeth II, as the Queen of New Zealand where Cook Islanders are granted automatic citizenship.

Getting there:

Aitutaki is part of the Cook Islands nation that is located just south of the equator and east of the international dateline and is comprised of 15 islands that are spread over a maritime area of over a million square miles. There is only one direct flight from the United States to the Cook Islands each week on Sunday night for a return the following Saturday night. The Air New Zealand overnight flights provide a refreshed arrival in both countries and cost around $1000. After enjoying the capital island of Rarotonga, book a flight on Air Rarotonga to Aitutaki. This round-trip flight over the azure South Pacific will cost about $300.

Where to stay:

With no high-rise hotels anywhere in the Cook Islands, travelers find familial intimacy at smaller resorts.  The Pacific Resort on Aitutaki( offers beachside bungalows that boast privacy and an open view of the water.  Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and Spa ( exists on its own motu (islet) and offers over-water bungalows in addition to beach bungalows.

Getting around:

The island is only about 10 sq mi, so some exploring can be done on foot, but the best way to find your way around the island is to book a tour when you arrive with Nane & Chloe’s Tropical Tours (

Explore the lagoon:

There are several tour operators who offer dive and snorkel trips in Aitutaki’s lagoon.  To learn more about having your passport stamped at One Foot Island during a day with TeKing, go to

Where to eat:

Most resorts offer restaurants that have delicious local seafood and produce and will provide picnic hampers for days spent on the beach, and day trips on the lagoon include lunch.  To explore other local restaurants, ask hotel staff for recommendations.

More information:

For more detailed information about the Cook Islands and all that is available there, visit



Atiu, Cook Islands

Toes in the tropical jungle of Atiu.

Atiu’s only airport terminal welcomes guests to the tiny island where jungles reach down to the water and community is found in its very center. (Lesley Sauls)












Polynesian sun shines down into a centuries-old water cave on the island of Atiu in the South Pacific, allowing just enough dim light for a refreshing afternoon dip. (Lesley Sauls)












Polynesian sun shines down into a centuries-old water cave on the island of Atiu in the South Pacific, allowing just enough dim light for a refreshing afternoon dip. (Lesley Sauls)















I had just bushwhacked through a dense jungle on an ancient coral reef and crawled into a dimly lit cave behind a silent Polynesian guide named Paul Kura on the tiny island of Atiu in the southern Cook Islands. When he wordlessly gestured toward a shallow pool of water in the bottom of the cave, I was a bit confused as to what was on offer. But when he stripped off his clothes and dove down into that pool, I got the idea. The depth had been deceiving. This was no tiny cave-puddle, this was an underground oasis – a place to cool off after our sweaty trek. I admit to a moment’s hesitation after I had peeled down to my mud-smeared skivvies and was teetering on a cliff of damp limestone, but I’d come halfway around the planet to challenge my boundaries in honor of a significant birthday, and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by. I closed my eyes and jumped.

After splashing about for a while in the refreshing water, I found a little nook in the cave where I could rest on a submerged ledge with my upper body leaning against rough stone. The clear water stilled around me, and I could sense the explosive history that had created this volcanic island – how far it was from my busy city life. In the dark quiet, a long black shape slowly curled around my legs and then drifted away from me. No one else saw it, and I began to wonder if I had imagined some kind of mystic cave creature.

Four other brave explorers played with us in the water cave, which I learned was on Kura’s family’s land and rarely visited by outsiders. We were lucky to have been introduced to him by the owner of our resort, Roger Malcom. An atmospheric physicist and 31-year resident of the island, Malcom knew how to help his guests find the adventure of a lifetime. He even turned a minor emergency into an education when he whisked us down one of the island’s five roads to the local hospital, a small building next to a raised plot of land. While we waited for one of our group to be bandaged up after a fall on the jungle’s sharp coral floor, Roger pointed to what is now the doctor’s residence atop the elevated property.

“Medicine came with the missionaries,” he explained. “Before that time the locals put sick and dying people on that piece of land. When they died, the bodies were left there until only bones remained. Then their families would take the bones to a burial cave.”

Oddly enough, when the missionaries came, they built a hospital on that sacred spot. Locals were so conditioned to its purpose that they only brought dead and dying people to the hospital, not people who could be healed. Eventually, respect for local custom, the missionaries moved the hospital to a plot of land nearby and made the building on the raised area into doctors’ quarters.

Local custom is deeply rooted in Atiu. Once our injured member had been safely bandaged, Malcom invited his guests to participate in a centuries-old tradition called a tumunu. We ducked back into the edge of the jungle and approached a rustic shack on which was crudely painted “Rising Sun Boys.” From within wafted the smell of mosquito coils, sweat and fermented fruit. We respectfully slipped onto wooden benches within the small shed and waited quietly to be introduced to Daniel Tearaitoa, the boss of this tumunu. Malcom had already explained the expectation of tumunu guests to us, so we each knew to wait patiently for the barman in the middle of the room to dip a small coconut shell into a bucket between his knees. He slowly scooped out a local brew and handed it to each of us in turn so that we could take it with one hand, gulp it in one drink and then hand the shell back.

“Put your hand up if you want to pass on a round,” said Malcom. “I suggest you take 10 turns. That will give you a slight buzz and a feeling of joining in the ceremony, but your head and body will feel fine in the morning. Any more is up to you.”

While we ritually shared the communal coconut shell cup of jungle brew, Kura and Kau Henry sang, played guitar and talked to us. They told me that my mystic cave creature had been a vaiakaruru, a freshwater eel, come to honor me. After a few local songs, they struck up some tunes that their foreign guests might know. We loosened our inhibitions with every round of sweet fermented fruit juice – the recipe for which is not shared with outsiders. A South African visitor repeatedly raised his shell in toasts to peace, health, love, life, happiness and well-being. He said that he had learned this 8,000-year-old toastmastering, or tamada, tradition in Eurasian Georgia, and that at the end of the toast we should all join him in a Buddhist chant. So we did – all of us. And the cup kept passing. A few rounds later, we were people from seven countries with arms entwined singing “Que Sera, Sera” at the top of our lungs.

That was when the barmaster’s shell tapped his jug, and the group fell silent. Henry explained that this was the serious time in the evening when he would pray for us. Then we were each expected to introduce ourselves and share a few words. Some people simply said what country they had come from or what they did for work. Others shared what impact the Cook Islands were having on them. I found myself unable to speak for a moment when I tried to explain how welcomed I had been by everyone on this island of 400 people and that I had never so openly and intimately experienced a joining of so many cultures. When the Rising Sun Boys – including the boss’s wife, Vaine Tearaitoa – introduced themselves, they were equally solemn in their shared comments and gratitude for our congregation.

After the serious ritual, the singing and stories resumed. A young woman from Los Angeles grabbed a guitar and belted out the blues with her long brown hair swirling to the beat. Beside her, Polynesian men clapped, flower-adorned Tearaitoa pounded a drum, and our international summit continued long into the night.


# # #

When You Go


Getting there: From the Midwest, the trick is to get the direct Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to the main island of Rarotonga that runs every Sunday night for a return the following Saturday night. These overnight flights allow for a refreshed arrival in either country, but the connection to Los Angeles can be hard to find online. Be creative; it’s worth the effort. The total cost of these flights will be less than $2,000. After a day or two in Raro, hop a flight on Air Rarotonga to Atiu. This round-trip flight over the tropical blue South Pacific will cost about $300.

Staying on Atiu: Roger and Kura Malcom offer air-conditioned jungle cottages that sleep up to five people for about $200/night. Their property boasts a pool and grass tennis court that is perfect for late-night star-gazing. Book online to find discounts at Other accommodations are available with Marshall Humphreys ( and with Auntie Nga and Papa Paiere at Taparere Lodge ( for less than $100/night.

Where to eat: Kura Malcom is a fantastic cook and welcoming hostess who serves dinner and drinks nightly. Do NOT leave Atiu without trying her delicious Pota, a taro leaf/coconut cream concoction that captures the sweet flavor of the island. In addition to Kura’s Kitchen, you can grab a burger and a snack at Super Brown Burgers, and all accommodations provide self-cooking areas.

Tours and activities: Your hosts will likely welcome you as family and help plan your activities, but to see what’s available, go to You won’t find your tumunu there, though. For that, you’ll have to live like a local and ask around when you arrive.

San Diego Christmas

Toes at the Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado, Calif.

Toes at the Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado, Calif.






Deck the Del

with Boughs of Holly




The thought of San Diego evokes images of sand castles, sailboats, surfboards, – and Christmas?  Absolutely.

While Southern Californians might not have snowmen and frosty sleigh rides, the holiday spirit is alive and well.  Palm trees twinkle with lights, poinsettias bloom throughout the city and familiar carols are in the air.  Multicultural and deeply rooted historic traditions lend richness to the holidays as they meld with contemporary celebrations into the quintessential San Diego Christmas season.

Although the Kumeyaay people existed in the area we know as Southern California for 9000 years, the first people to celebrate Christmas in the San Diego area were Spanish explorers who founded the Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769.  This “Mother of Missions” changed the local customs and was the first of 21 missions that began the colonization of California.  The mission remains active and invites guests to join in long-established religious holiday celebrations.

By 1835, a village, El Pueblo de San Diego, had sprung up at the foot of the mission’s hill.  Its adobe walls and Mexican population were the seed from which the current shining metropolis sprang forth, and the area is now known as San Diego’s Old Town.  To enjoy the deeply traditional culture of San Diego, visit Christmas services at the original mission or have a lunch of tamales and margaritas on the patio of a Mexican restaurant where strolling mariachis sing in the season.

In 1904, the Hotel del Coronado boasted the first American electrically lighted outdoor Christmas tree that brought the city into a new era.  Now more than 60,000 lights sparkle on “The del’s” Winter Wonderland each night of the holidays, while “del elves” tuck in children after a day of cookie decorating, ice skating and holiday crafts.  In the lobby is a two-story tree whose annually changing decorations bring the hotel to life.

Light lunch on the terrace, a stroll on the beach and Victorian tea in the Palm Court mark a quintessential “SoCal” holiday experience and revive the glory days of the hotel.  Edward, Prince of Wales, abdicated his throne in 1936 after falling in love with Wallis Simpson, a Coronado housewife who frequented The Del.  Some say they met at a ball there in 1920, and their romance has brought glamour to the hotel.  Today you, too, can enjoy this holiday paradise where elegant surroundings, spa delights, and oceanfront dining make ice and snow melt into a distant memory.

Balboa Park comes brightly alive for the holidays with locally grown poinsettias.  The largest in the city, the park is the home of museums, theaters, lush gardens and the famed San Diego Zoo.  Many of the festively ornamented buildings owe their beauty and detail to the fact that they were built in the early 20th century for two expositions held in the park.  Balboa Park December Nights celebrates the season with free admission to participating museums and organizations along with music, live entertainment and food from around the world during the first weekend in December.

The Pacific Ocean has a cold-water upwelling off the California coast, so San Diego’s ocean temperature is chilly.  In December, water temperatures can be in the low 50s, making for cold toes.  Expert SCUBA divers can don dry suits and explore the kelp forests with the Diving Locker.  But to enjoy the largest ocean in the world from a dry seat, San Diego Harbor Excursions and Hornblower Cruises both offer tours to view the California gray whales as they begin their migration to Baja California just as the holidays unfold.

Mid-December will find San DiegoBay twinkling with lights as a merry flotilla of more than 100 boats sails by the city in the annual San Diego Bay Parade of Lights.  Sip cocoa and watch the procession on the bay with San Diego Harbor Excursions or Hornblower Cruises or join them another evening for a holiday dinner aboard one of their decorated bay cruisers.  But if you prefer day tripping on the bay, you can’t beat a San Diego SEALs harbor tour. You will learn more San Diego facts than most locals as you drive to the point where you splash into the 14-mile harbor, and the education will continue as you get close to marine life and wave to sailors heading out to sea.

Farther inland, away from the ocean breezes, The San Diego Wild Animal Park  provides vast enclosures that allow many species of animals to cohabitate with others as they would in the wild.  Between Dec. 8-23 and 26-30, visitors can see lions, elephants, zebras and hippos mingle and lounge in their natural settings – after dark.  The park celebrates shorter days with a Festival of Lights when more than 100,000 holiday lights illuminate the park, which stays open late for visits from Santa, holiday carolers, children’s craft activities and a snowy hill for sliding.

A hot-air balloon ride is the best way to enjoy the vastness of the Pacific, the desert beauty of wild canyons and the serenity of the air.  Like Santa’s reindeer, you can fly high over Del Mar to watch the sun sink into the Pacific Ocean and neighborhood decorations blink on from the basket of a colorful hot-air balloon.  Southern  California’s oldest and most experienced balloon company, Skysurfer offers rides that last about an hour and include in-flight champagne.  Budget plenty of time to also enjoy the preflight set-up and a post-flight celebration. It is the perfect holiday gift to yourself or someone special.

Join jolly crowds of people who head downtown for a more recent holiday tradition in San Diego.  The Port of San Diego Big Bay Balloon Parade boasts bands, floats and as many as 30 balloons that march down Harbor Drive to culminate in a family festival on Broadway Pier prior to the college Pacific Life Holiday Bowl game at Qualcomm Stadium.  This year the festivities begin at10 a.m. on Dec. 28.

San Diego is a multifaceted city with something to please everyone, and in the holiday season, one secret part of its loveliness is exposed for a month or so to anyone who cares to slip southwest for a while. All over San Diego, kids watch for Santa, shoppers smile and wish happy greetings to one another, carols fill the air, and warm ocean breezes promise another lovely Christmas Day.


San Diego is an inviting Southwestern city with a mild climate.  Because the temperature doesn’t fluctuate much, a light jacket is all you need to bring along.  For more information about the activities available during the holidays and all through the year, explore the following Web sites:

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

The Hotel Del Coronado

Balboa Park

The Diving Locker

San Diego Harbor Excursions

Hornblower Cruises

San Diego SEALs Harbor Tour

San Diego Wild Animal Park

Skysurfer Balloon Company

Pacific Life Holiday Bowl game and events

San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau



Sand Castle Christmas Tree:  Sand castles to Santa Clause, San Diego knows how to
celebrate the season with style!  -Bill Robinson/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau

Hotel del Coronado in lights:  Victorian-era Hotel del Coronado sparkles with 60,000 lights and Christmas cheer.  –Hotel del Coronado

Hotel del Coronado circa 1904:  The first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree in America was at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado in 1904 where Christmas decor and warm holiday wishes continue to be a priority. – Hotel del Coronado

Wild Animal Park Lights:  Twinkling lights, holiday crafts and exotic animals await the holiday traveler at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.  –Zoological Society/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau

Poinsettia Star:  Native to Central America and brought to the Western world by Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1828, the poinsettia has become a symbol of the holidays.  Carlsbad Ranch/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau

Lighted Boats:  Sip hot cocoa and watch San Diego’s parade of lights on the bay as fully festooned boats sail two nights in December.   –Bob Yarbrough/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau

Balboa Park December Nights: Crowds gather to experience art, music, food and the warmth of the season at Balboa Park December Nights in San Diego’s largest park.  Joanne Dibona/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau

Poinsettia Market:  The Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., provides 80 percent of
all poinsettias to the world.  Michael Leonard/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau

Nassau, Bahamas


Beach-bound toes in the Bahamas.

Beach-bound toes in the Bahamas.










Icaro’s smooth, warm tail felt like slick, wet rubber, and his smile was contagious. I was living out a lifelong dream of swimming with a dolphin, but my 6-year-old daughter wasn’t quite convinced. When she balked at stroking Icaro’s smooth skin, trainer Dominic Rahming knelt to her height and coaxed her gently toward the creature.

“Can you see the tiny hole where his ear is?” he asked my cautious daughter. “Look for the follicles around Icaro’s nose where his baby hair grew.”

It took Rahming only a few seconds to draw her into the moment and ease her trepidation. Then he invited us behind the scenes to learn more about the dolphins’ home.

Trainer Dominic Rahming invites Atlantis dolphins to say good bye to two visitors who have been swimming with them in their safe lagoon.

Trainer Dominic Rahming invites Atlantis dolphins to say good bye to two visitors who have been swimming with them in their safe lagoon.

Sunset glowed warmly on the coral-colored walls of Atlantis as we walked with Rahming around Dolphin Cay, but soon we were shivering when he led us out of the tropical evening and into a refrigerated room where 600 pounds of fish are thawed daily to feed the dolphins.  He also taught us that they require additional drinks of water and demonstrated how an instrument that looks like a modified grease gun is used to quench each animal’s thirst. Back outside, he showed us canvas slings in custom crates that are used to transport the dolphins safely and protect them in case of future hurricanes.

Guests at Paradise Island’s Atlantis can also swim with sea lions and become trainers of either mammal for a day. Near the sea lion pools, we peeked into a cage to meet the resident mascot macaw, Foots. Not to be outdone, the sea lions waddled toward us and reached their noses forward with a hoarse bark as if to say hello.

Dolphin Cay is not the only place where Atlantis visitors can take a dip with the more than 250 species of sea creatures in the world’s largest open-air marine habitat. Guests can don wet suits and swim with giant manta rays and thousands of other tropical fish among ruins that recall Plato’s mythical lost city in the Ruins Lagoon.


Water is central to the mythical theme of Atlantis, where the world's largest open-air aquarium is home to more than 50,000 sea creatures visible from underwater windows, reef-spanning bridges and lagoon-view restaurants.

Water is central to the mythical theme of Atlantis, where the world's largest open-air aquarium is home to more than 50,000 sea creatures visible from underwater windows, reef-spanning bridges and lagoon-view restaurants.














This part of the resort’s aquarium is visible from its grand lobby, the Great Hall of Waters, through 5-inch-thick windows. Because glass can cause distortion in aquarium views and make fish seem larger than they really are, Atlantis’ creators decided to use acrylic, which provides an accurate view of the piranha, giant grouper, parrot fish, jelly fish and other resident sea creatures.

The story of the lost city continues in The Dig, a subterranean labyrinth that is home to abandoned Antlean underwater equipment and hieroglyphs from the mythical 11,000-year-old civilization. Here we splayed our hands against giant windows just inches from cruising sharks and imagined ourselves submerged in the bright blue water that reflected off the walls around us.

Oversized acrylic windows provide a glimpse into the world's largest open-air aquarium at Atlantis, where more than 250 species of fish mingle with statues and ruins of Plato's mythical lost city.

Oversized acrylic windows provide a glimpse into the world's largest open-air aquarium at Atlantis, where more than 250 species of fish mingle with statues and ruins of Plato's mythical lost city.


Christiane Chertilus guided us through the darkened maze and pointed out the yellow mucus that covers moray eels and makes them appear an eerie shade of green. She also taught us how to tell the difference between male and female spiny lobsters by the position of their tails as we peered up at them through a tunnel of acrylic.

My daughters were eager to dive into the 20 million gallons of fresh and saltwater that flow through and around the carefully landscaped ruins of Atlantis. With lifeguards assigned to every 6 feet of the 140-acre Aquaventure water park, I was comfortable curling up in the sun with my book and a tropical punch while they delighted in every slide, river and pool. The dripping girls returned to boast of  whooshing down a speedy slide and through a shark reef in a clear tube. They had also endured waterfalls and rapids on The Current, a river they had braved on a double inner tube.

Our underwater experience took a different twist when my daughters learned from enthusiastic culinary staff at the kids-only Atlantis Kids Adventures club how to make their own tropical reef. They poured dark and white chocolate over buckets of ice and sheets of bubble wrap to produce textured, coral-like pieces. A few sprays of bright color and tasty sparkles sprinkled on top completed the edible treats reminiscent of real Bahamian reefs. In other rooms, they had danced, played house and built extensive LEGO reefs. The best surprise, though, was the kid-perfect bathroom that had individually themed stalls and talking mirrors.

The Atlantis Kids Adventures kitchen encourages individuality, teaches technique and inspires creativity as children build tropical reefs out of chocolate while their parents enjoy adult acitvities at Atlantis.

The Atlantis Kids Adventures kitchen encourages individuality, teaches technique and inspires creativity as children build tropical reefs out of chocolate while their parents enjoy adult acitvities at Atlantis.











The restaurants we visited recalled the beauty of the tropics with patterned décor, vibrant fruit garnishes, and fresh produce and seafood options. Our cleverly designed dessert sushi was made entirely of chocolate, sweet rice, glazed strawberries and marzipan. Even the chopsticks and tiny plates were edible treats.

After full days of swimming and exploring, our evenings were spent in creative endeavors. At Atlantis Pals, we stuffed cuddly animals to take home, and at the resort’s speedway we built and raced remote controlled cars. One evening we donned smocks to paint pottery souvenirs. I dipped my paintbrush in the greens and browns of the local palm trees, but the many shades of blue that my daughter chose for the shells on her candleholder most vividly captured the undersea feel of our Atlantean adventure.


When the sun sets on Atlantis, age-appropriate night life is available for everyone in the family.

When the sun sets on Atlantis, age-appropriate night life is available for everyone in the family.



To read before travel: “The Katrina Dolphins – One Way Ticket to Paradise” by Georgeanne Irvine, a book about the dolphins that survived hurricane Katrina in 2005 and found a new home at Atlantis

To book online: Look for specials available throughout the year.

Getting there: JetBlue offers easy connections through New York.

On the Island:  The trip from Nassau International Airport to Atlantis is 21 miles and easily navigated by taxi.

To plan for Atlantis: Water park, library and movies are complimentary at Atlantis, but other activities, programs and dining come with an additional charge. Half-day, whole-day and evening AKA programs are available to fit the needs of young travelers.

Night life at Atlantis:  Carefully screened sitters are available for young children, and older kids can enjoy their own night club or an evening at AKA while parents visit
the casino or adult night clubs.

To slip away for a day in Nassau: Find a taxi driver to give you a tour of the island. They are proud of their country and happy to share the rich history of the islands with  the tourists who make up most of their national income. Locals recommend dining at The Fish Fry, Souvenirs are available at the world-famous Straw Market ,




DSC00183 – Water is central to the mythical theme of
Atlantis, where the world’s largest open-air aquarium is home to more than
50,000 sea creatures visible from underwater windows, reef-spanning bridges and
lagoon-view restaurants. (Lesley Sauls)

DSC00236/DSC00238 – The Atlantis Kids Adventures kitchen
encourages individuality, teaches technique and inspires creativity as children
build tropical reefs out of chocolate while their parents enjoy adult
activities at Atlantis.  (Lesley Sauls)

DSC00320 – Oversized acrylic windows provide a glimpse
into the world’s largest open-air aquarium at Atlantis, where more than 250
species of fish mingle with statues and ruins of Plato’s mythical lost city.
(Lesley Sauls)

DSC000082 – When the sun sets on Atlantis,
age-appropriate night life is available for everyone in the family.
(Lesley Sauls)




Conserve Your Clutch


Toes on the Road

Toes on the Road









The driver of a standard transmission controls a car’s gears based on driving  conditions, and the car’s clutch mechanism is its key component. It is essential to keep it in good working order.

When an engine is running, it is driving a clutch disc hooked directly to the driveshaft. A friction plate connects onto that disc. When the standard transmission’s driver presses the clutch pedal, the friction plate is disengaged so that the motor spins freely and is no longer connecting the engine to the drivetrain. When the clutch pedal is released, the friction plate again engages in a desired gear and gets the car going down the road.

Friction causes heat, and heat is a clutch’s worst enemy. If the friction plate is not completely engaged or disengaged from the clutch disc, a lot of heat between the two spinning mechanisms will burn up the friction plate quickly. It is preferable to avoid this expensive repair if at all possible.

Jim Halvorson, a driving instructor at the prestigious Road America racetrack in Elkhart Lake, Wis., offers tips that prevent clutches from burning out before their time.

Keep RPMs low when you come off the line. Don’t exceed 2,000-2,500 RPMs when engaging a clutch. Any more engine revving will create unnecessary friction. Once the clutch pedal is fully released, engine speed becomes irrelevant to clutch preservation.

Find the “sweet spot.” With the right foot on the brake, push the clutch in, put the car in first gear and slowly release the clutch. When the car’s engine begins to slow down and the tachometer starts to drop, the clutch starts to engage. Once you find that sweet spot, release the brake, give the car just a little bit of gas, slowly release the rest of the clutch and away you go. This technique is especially useful on hill starts.

Don’t break the egg. Release the clutch too quickly, and the engine will die. Linger on the clutch pedal too long, and too much heat builds up in the system. Pretend here is an egg between your foot and pedals and try not to break it. By using a gentle, smooth motion, you won’t jump on the gas too hard or off the clutch too quickly, and the clutch will be preserved.

Downshift only if you want to. It isn’t necessary to slow an engine down through downshifting and won’t add noticeable life to brake pads. Nor will it reduce the life of a clutch. As long as a clutch is fully disengaged and then engaged between gear-shifting, friction won’t build and the clutch won’t experience anymore wear shifting down than up through the gears. As a driving technique, though, this emergency trick is helpful in case of unexpected brake failure.

Don’t hover. It is tempting to halfway engage the clutch and halfway press the gas pedal when waiting at an intersection to allow a faster start. This will heat up the clutch significantly. The better plan is to press the brake and disengage the clutch completely until it’s time to roll.

Don’t ride the clutch. This standard warning pertains to the custom of resting one’s foot on the clutch pedal. The better foot rest is on the “dead pedal.” It is usually flush to the floor on the far left of the pedal set and should be used as a fourth pedal and footrest between gear changes.

Cyril Meyer is an auto mechanic in Sauk Center, Minn., who has worked with cars for 53 years. He suggests awareness as a primary care technique.

When a clutch slips, the engine will race without the car going fast – if at all – or the car may be sluggish when the clutch is engaged. If that happens, or if there is a sound of metal grinding, Meyer says it’s time to visit a clutch doctor. He also recommends not flooring the gas pedal to come off the line.

“You want to have a nice, smooth engaging of the clutch,” he said. “Don’t spin the tires.”

The driving instructor and the professional mechanic agree: Friction and heat are the enemies of any clutch. Drive thoughtfully, and your standard transmission will last indefinitely.

Keystone and Vail Offer Winter Family Fun

Toes on Skis

Toes on Skis






The woman beside me had warned me that she did not “have much English,” so I was content to scale Keystone Mountain into the Rocky Mountain’s bluebird sky in silence. As we approached the top of the mountain, I turned around and saw white-frosted tree tops and glittering mountain peaks spread in every direction. My lift mate twisted in the chair, too, when she heard me whisper, “Wow,” and responded in a thick Russian accent, “Bee-yew-tee-fahl.”

I was in Colorado on a family vacation, but my children were in ski school and my husband was tackling deep powder in the back bowls, so I was on my own for a few runs. There was a kind of serenity to my day. Listening to my skis schuss down the mountain, I had time to appreciate the sounds around me and let my mind wander aimlessly.


Enthusiastic children board a bus to ski school at Keystone's River Run Village.

Enthusiastic children board a bus to ski school at Keystone's River Run Village.










The Arapaho basin provided a variety of ways to put our bodies to the test while distracting us with immeasurable beauty. From our condo in River Run Village, my family began our day with breakfast burritos, pan au chocolat and the occasional mimosa at a local coffee shop that was only steps away from Keystone’s ski school, chairlifts and River Run gondola. The small-town feel of the village instilled a confidence in all of us that might be lost in a more daunting mega-sized resort.

It was easy for my husband to find his advanced challenge on high-mountain Sno-Cat rides to windy basins while I found my bliss in long intermediate runs. At Bob’s Run I found myself faced with enormous moguls. My burning legs halfway down the run made me appreciate my Keystone ski pin that read, “Got Oxygen?” At more than a mile above sea level, I paused for air several times – the benefit of which was stillness in which to appreciate the jagged mountains that jutted out in every direction around me.

A lone skier enjoys the slopes under a bluebird sky at Keystone, Colorado.

A lone skier enjoys the slopes under a bluebird sky at Keystone, Colorado.

After an exciting day of ski school that left my daughters bubbling over with stories of their mountain successes, my family went up the mountain to explore Kidtopia while I slipped away for mental and physical rejuvenation at the Keystone Spa. While they scrambled around a legendary snow castle and reigned over the mountain from thrones of ice, I gratefully received a fluffy robe and was told to relax.

“We realized you must be running late, so we moved your appointment back a half-hour so you could unwind before your treatment,” the welcoming spa attendant told me.

I snuggled into a fluffy robe and settled in a quiet meditation room where a copper cauldron filled with steaming water and rose petals was placed at my feet.  By the time my massage therapist came for me, I was well on my way to total bliss. She rubbed and pulled my sore thighs and calves in a warm, softly lit room and then poured me back into a fireside chair in the meditation room where cold grapes and hot tea waited.

The following day found my husband back on the mountain, but my daughters and I were excited to try out a five-acre, Zamboni-smoothed lake. We had skated on lakes in northern Wisconsin, but the threat of pits and ridges there kept us cautious. On Keystone’s smooth lake we confidently plowed through 4 inches of powdery snow that had fallen in the night. My daughters skated a big heart into the snow for me, and we plopped down in it to make angels on the rink. Surrounded by mountains filled with skiers, we lay flat on our backs and held hands. By then, the Zambonis were plowing away the snow, and we got up to zoom around the cleared areas, too.

Later that day we moved from Keystone to Vail where we caught a bus to the Eagle  Bahn gondola for dinner atop Vail Mountain. Vail Village’s cobblestone streets, upscale window displays and Alpine architecture felt like a movie set. I kept expecting a tuxedoed James Bond to careen through on a Ducati as we walked to the gondola. No such luck, but our gondola ride maintained the Bond-esque quality. We rose above the twinkling village into a cloud of snow that mimicked a trip through outer space.

An evening stroll in Vail Village.

An evening stroll in Vail Village.












After securing a dinner reservation we boarded a Sno-Cat to a cozy yurt, where a young New Zealander taught us the snow-tubing ropes and directed us to our tubes. We slowly scaled the mountain on a moving belt that staff members call a magic carpet ride and came out at the top of a very long snow chute. Linked together hand-to-foot, the four of us rocketed our tubes down the hill. Falling flakes combined with the snow kicked up by our tubes to swirl around us. One second we were rushing noise and wind, and then everything was utterly still. We sat in stunned silence until my older daughter piped up, “That must be what time travel feels like!”

Instead of ski school the following morning, we kept our daughters with us to see what they’d learned at Keystone. We coasted down the longest green run in Colorado and then met up with a free mountain tour that is provided daily for Vail guests.  The volunteer guide shared inside information about how to navigate the vast mountain and find the shortest lift lines, so we stuck with him for several runs. After deftly visiting all corners of the mountain in just under three hours, we stopped for a mountaintop lunch and then spent the rest of the afternoon gliding through fire roads, zipping across advanced runs and offering words of encouragement to our budding ski-bunnies.

A volunteer guide gives tips to Vail Mountain visitors.

A volunteer guide gives tips to Vail Mountain visitors.










Our après-ski cocoa and cookies were well deserved by the time we left the mountain. Slightly rejuvenated, we headed out to soak our aching limbs in a snow-ringed hot tub where delicious hints of wood-smoke drifted in the air. My squealing daughters ripped steamy toes through snow banks, grabbed giant icicles and leaped into the heated pool, where they anxiously watched to see which one would melt first.  I stayed relaxing in the hot bath and listened to their gleeful splashing outside my envelope of quiet steam.

#     #    #


Where to Stay – Red Hawk condos are a short walk from River Run Village and the River Run gondola to Keystone’s Adventure Point, but there are many other condos and townhomes available with equally expedient access to the mountain (

The Lodge at Vail’s ( close proximity to the Vista Bahn chairlift and Vail Village shops makes it an easy home base at Vail.

Breakfast Treat – Inxpot Coffee Shop ( in Keystone’s River Run Village fuels skiers up for a high-energy day.

Book Your Education – and both have links to ski schools in addition to private lessons and other
mountain information.

EpicMix – Lift tickets take on a whole new job at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly mountains. The Epic Pass – what used to be just a lift ticket – automatically scans at each chairlift so that location, vertical information and special personal achievements can be followed and shared on the EpicMix web site via mobile phone or computer. Family and friends can locate each other easily on the
mountain, and evening brag sessions can be followed up with digital proof.

Mountain Meals – Keystone and Vail boast “Lunch for Less” meals that cost less than $10.  Bistro Fourteen at the top of Vail Mountain (970-754-4530) has regional fare and a full bar for adults and a children’s menu that includes appetizer, entrée and
dessert for less than $10.

Where to Play – Keystone’s Kidtopia ( offers Disco Tubing, a colossal snow fort, and family activities for weekend visitors. Adventure Ridge ( atop Vail Mountain’s Eagle Bahn gondola is the place to arrange snow biking, children’s snowmobiling and multi-chute snow tubing.

How to Unwind – The Keystone Lodge & Spa ( is a 10,000-foot spa that recognizes the importance of environmental awareness. All treatments are done with organic products, and an effort is made to use organic and recycled products elsewhere in the spa when available.

New York City

Packing up to take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Packing up to take a bite out of the Big Apple.



New York’s cosmopolitan and chic reputation make it an attractive destination for martini clinking businesspeople, but the Big Apple can be equally enticing for a family vacation. By laying a pre-trip groundwork with my daughters, I was able to kindle their enthusiasm for exploring Manhattan.

In “Journey Around New York From A to Z” by Martha and Heather Zschock, a cartoon pigeon alphabetically introduces Radio City Music Hall’s Rocketts and the Zodiac above Grand Central Station among other famous sights. “Miffy Loves New York,” “Action Jackson” and “Eloise” are also exciting to read and helpful in deciding what to see and do in the city. Art Memo, a matching game of famous paintings inspired my family to put the Met and MoMA on our list, and a few tunes by John Lennon got us in the mood to “Imagine” “Strawberry Fields” in Central Park.

Upon arrival at John F. Kennedy airport, my daughters were thrilled to hail a taxi like those about which they had read. As we motored to our hotel in Times Square, the city’s neon lights reflected in their bedazzled eyes.

“It didn’t look this huge in the book!” my older daughter exclaimed.

A view of Manhattan from the Top of the Rock was a good way to start our visit. We were able to get a feeling for the vastness of the city and a mental image of how it is situated. From the top of Rockefeller Center, we found the neighborhood of a new friend from our flight. His apartment life with public transportation to neighborhood parks was an exciting antithesis to my daughters’ rambling Midwestern neighborhood where quick hops in the family car lead to miles of wilderness hiking trails.


Central Park stretches out below Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center in New York City.










Across from Radio City Music Hall, we bought lunch from affable vendors whose carts were snuggled up against busy street curbs. Mustard dribbled from my daughter’s steamy hot dog onto the toe of my shoe – much to her delight. We finished off our lunch at one of many coffee shops where child-sized cocoa and hand-made cannoli lured us in from an icy winter wind.

Our books had lauded the cultural significance of Broadway shows but did not prepare us for the Lion King’s awe-inspiring sunset over Africa. From handy booster cushions, my daughters were captivated by elaborate animal costumes, flying silk birds, ethnic music and a particularly funny and flatulence-filled warthog.

The magic continued through that night, and in the morning, the cold city had been blanketed with snow. We walked through the winter wonderland to Battery Park where a ferry embarked to Liberty Island. The snow had turned to fog, and it was easy imagine being one of millions of immigrants who had approached Ellis Island after watching the Stature of Liberty emerge from the mist.

Children delight in poking their heads into the nostrils of a lif-sized Lady Liberty.










The sun came out while we explored Lady Liberty’s museum and poked our heads in the giant nostrils of her replicated face. We scaled the 354 steps to her crown for a memory we will not soon forget; in addition to the beautiful view of Manhattan and the harbor, my younger daughter lost a front tooth there.

The rest of that day we spent touring Ellis Island with an audio program geared for children. The voices, easy descriptions and background sounds made the visit more interesting for me, too. It was sobering to stand where so many immigrants had entered America. Fortunately, my children were able to grasp the gravity of the place more completely after having read “The Orphan of Ellis Island,” in which Dominic Cantori travels through time to experience the island first-hand.

A volunteer guide took us through the infrequently visited Ferry Building Exhibit. Chilly, dark passageways led us toward the hospitals where sick immigrants had been treated before being allowed to enter their new country. In the original ferry building, photos of happy-looking children playing with kind-hearted nursing staff were not among the images we had expected to see at this “Island of Tears.”

Other historically noteworthy areas of the Big Apple are intriguing for kids. George Washington took his oath of office at Federal Hall across the street from what is now the New York Stock Exchange. A giant statue of the first president marks the spot of his inaugural address. It’s only a few blocks from there to the site of the World Trade Center where reconstruction is underway.

For more creatively significant activities, we walked through Central Park, past John Lennon’s “Imagine” memorial in Strawberry Fields, and into the Metropolitan Museum of Art where we found familiar pieces on every floor. We quietly honored Egyptian mummies, wondered at the colorful modern paintings and sought out the Druer drawings that my daughter had read about in “Masterpiece” by Elise Broach. I explained the beauty of the human form in the sculpture room, and we envisioned ourselves hosting guests in the carefully replicated period rooms.


Children explore more than just paintings at the Metropolitain Museum of Art in New York City.











New York City's art collections intrigue all ages.

My daughters scampered around the Museum of Modern Art with an activity sheet that guided them through rooms of recognizable paintings by Van Gough, Matisse and Picasso. They excitedly pulled me past friendly docents to point out works of art from our books and games. A trip to the Plaza Hotel, too, was an opportunity to find familiar points of interest from “Eloise” books. The hotel’s concierge kindly guided us to their pastry shop where we delighted in cocoa piled high with real whipped cream and pastries smothered in chocolate, fruit and powdered sugar.

Throughout our visit, dining remained a family adventure. In SoHo, we wandered aimlessly until we found Il Corallo Trattoria, a tiny Italian restaurant with the warm welcome of a private villa. The owner introduced me to Cannonau wine, and the staff taught my daughters to twirl pasta efficiently. What a surprise to emerge on a cold, dark New York street after dinner instead of onto a golden Sardinian countryside.

During rush hour in Grand Central Station, a businessman and his partner offered us their table overlooking the main terminal so that we could enjoy our Shirley Temples and appetizers with a Grand view. In this metropolis reputed for being impersonal and brusque, we learned that the people are what make the city – and we found both to be welcoming, exciting and easy for a visiting family to enjoy.


NYC BOOKS TO PREREAD-   “Miffy Loves New York City” by Dick Bruna, “Journey Around New York from A to Z” by Martha and Heather Zschock, “Eloise” by  Kay Thompson, “Action Jackson” by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, “Masterpiece” by Elise Broach, “The Orphan of Ellis Island” by Elvira Woodruff

ART BOOKS/GAMES –  “Can You Find It? and Can You Find It, Too?” By Judith Cressy, Art Memo Game by Piatnik

YOU TUBE VISITS – Schoolhouse Rock’s “Great American Melting Pot” and “Walking on Wall St.”

WHERE TO STAY –  Times Square is centrally located and has several hotels, but to stay in the financial district of Manhattan, Andaz on Wall St. is the only option.  Its sleek appearance belies its capability to comfortably host children.

WHERE TO EAT-  Il Corallo Trattoria at  172-176 Prince Street offers cozy Italian. Try their Cannonau wine and ask about its history.  The lounge in The View at the top of the Marriott hotel in Times Square rotates once per hour and has an appetizer buffet that makes a nice après-theater meal.

WHERE TO SKATE-   Rockafeller center is the stuff of movies, but locals suggest skating at Wollman Rink where skates rent for $8-11 and lockers cost about $4. Battery Park has a new rink that costs $10 admission and rents skates for $3.

WHERE TO WARM-  In close proximity to everything in the Big Apple, you’ll find a Starbucks – where a familiar-tasting kid-sized cocoa can be counted on for a smile.

ART HUBS-  Adult admission is $20 at the Museum of Modern art ( and at the Metropolitan Museum of art (  Children are free.

VISIT THE CROWN-  Security is tight at the Statue of Liberty, and crowds are carefully regulated.  Make advance reservations at

GRAB A VIEW-  The unimpeded view from the top of Rockefeller Center, includes Central Park, the Empire State Building and all of the boroughs of New York City. Advance tickets and information about Top of The Rock can be found at


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