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Articles Featured on Chicago's Sr. Connection Newspaper —Travel Blog

Balboa: Where an Island Is Not Really an Island
Forget Paris . . . Try Quebec City and Montreal Instead!
Palm Springs - Then and Now
Reborn Pittsburgh for your bucket list
Forget Naw'lins

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Articles Featured on RealTravelAdventures.com

THE "CORNIEST" PALACE IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD
by Nancy and Dean Hoch

In today’s world of innovation, we hear of buildings being made out of hay bales, foam, pumice and more, but we’ll bet you never heard of a building made out of corn cobs – and not just a building but a palace! Well, okay, the building itself isn’t really made of corn cobs, but since way back in 1892 as many as 275,000 ears of corn are used each and every year, beginning in September, to decorate two sides of the World’s Only Corn Palace. Old murals of corn, sorghum and milo are replaced annually, giving way to creative new murals of original design – and all to celebrate the harvest. Read More...


“SMITHSONIAN” ON THE PRAIRIE AND MORE
by Nancy and Dean Hoch, Photos courtesy of Dave Geisler

What better way to spend at least a day than at a veritable Western version of the “Smithsonian” museum located on the wind-swept prairie of South Dakota? If you take us up on this idea, you’ll be among 100,000 or so other visitors that show up here each season – and the season in South Dakota is mainly June through October. Read More...


Snohomish County : Changing the World
IRVINE’S DIVINE! (and so are nearby Disneyland & Knott’s Berry Farm)
Loving Las Cruces
Desert Playground – Then and Now
Hot Air Balloning and More in Amish Country
The Colors of Pittsburgh

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SNOHOMISH COUNTY : CHANGING THE WORLD

So, just where in the world is Snohomish County? And how is the word pronounced? Most importantly, in what way is this remarkable place changing the world?

Location: First-off, this huge Washington State county has its southeastern border located just minutes northeast of Seattle, and it extends east from Puget Sound to the Cascade Mountains – making it a terrific jumping off point for exploring a huge part of the Pacific Northwest.

Pronunciation isn’t all that hard: Snow-HOE-mish.

And regarding changing the world?: Well, Snohomish, among other claims to fame, is the home of the city of Everett which, in turn, is a key player in the transformation of the changing airline flight industry that’s affecting the entire world. Everett is home to the colossus that is Boeing – a company that has already changed -- and will continue to radically change our world.

In this city’s immense plant, the two newest airliners…the huge Boeing 747-8 passenger and cargo planes and the new light-weight, fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliners are being produced – the latter to the tune of rolling out seven of these majestic behemoths every four weeks – and they’re selling like Ivar’s clam chowder.

With orders in place for 900 more on the ramp, world-wide air travel will never again be the same. Imagine windows on these babies twice the size of those on conventional airplanes -- and the ability to travel virtually jet-lag free all over the globe. For example, there is the adjustment of the interior lighting that simulates conditions at your destination, i.e., dawn, day, dusk and night.

If you go for a visit, be sure to take an informative tour to see how these new airliners are being mass produced inside the largest building volume-wise in the world. It’s an amazing place to tour, simply because of its sheer size and what is produced within its gigantic walls -- the only tour available of a commercial jet assembly plant in North America.

We suggest you take the combined Boeing Tour and Future of Flight Aviation Center which are made possible through the joint efforts of the Snohomish County Public Facilities District and the Snohomish County Airport/Paine Field where the Boeing plant is located, as well as the Boeing Company, and the Future of Flight Foundation.

Snohomish County is also home to several other fabulous – but smaller -- flight centers for those who love to pursue the history and ongoing fantasy of flight. For the past 100 years, the ongoing passion and innovation can be seen in various venues located just minutes from the Boeing plant.

We especially enjoyed the fabulous FLYING HERITAGE COLLECTION, the rare and private collection of Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. Located just around the corner from the Boeing plant, this collection is extremely well-designed and features combat aircraft and tanks from 1935-1945, used by the U.S., Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan. The collection is “Home of the Flying Warbirds,” as well as informative videos and huge prints of photos taken during this historic era.

We also toured two other fascinating venues near the Snohomish County Airport. One is the pristinely maintained HISTORIC FLIGHT collection -- vintage planes from 1927 to 1957 all beautifully restored to their original condition and flight-worthy.

Yet another is the MUSEUM OF FLIGHT RESTORATION CENTER. Here you walk through the huge work center where volunteers often labor for years to breathe life back into historically significant aircraft so they can go on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. One plane has been in the restoration process for 19 years!

Airplanes aside, Snohomish County joins other Native American centers across the country in changing the way all Americans view the culture that existed in our nation before Europeans came on the scene –people searching for their own life-changing destinies.

One of the finest of these centers is located in North Snohomish County’s largest city, Marysville. It’s the Hibulb Cultural center of the Tulalip Tribes. For those not familiar, Hibulb (pronounced HEE- bulb) is the Tulalip name for “place of white doves.” And that’s another tongue twister pronounced Two-LAY-lip.

This thought-provoking cultural center is less than two years old and is a not-to-be-missed venue. It features 23,000 square feet of exhibition galleries with interactive displays and a 2,500 square-foot longhouse exhibit. Especially impressive are the military photos of tribal members who served our country, and there’s also a well-appointed gift shop.

Our well-informed and enthusiastic guide pointed point out the carvings and displays of totems, canoes, woven baskets and more. From her, we learned much of the history, cultural values, and spiritual beliefs of these gentle people. For more information, check out hibulbulbculturalcenter.org

Snohomish, this unique and easily accessible county can change lives in so many more ways. From seaside diversions to the stunning mountains, Snohomish is rich in countless mind-bending delights for those seeking adventure, as well as rest and relaxation.

There’s superb year-round camping, kayaking, hiking, scaling of mountainous walls, bald eagle river float trips, whale watching, class IV river rafting, winter snow shoeing, and nature-based tours a specialty. Most of the activities are to be found short distances from first-class conference hotels, oodles of shopping, downtown city life, and more.

The city of Snohomish, meanwhile, located in the colorful Snohomish River Valley has more than three hundred antique dealers and is known as the Antique Capital of the Northwest. Added delights in this community are the Victorian boutiques and houses, and some great restaurants.

Can you see how this amazing Northwest County can -- and is -- changing the lives of so many in so many ways? So, why not make a trip to see what all it has to offer?

By the way, the base for our visit was the beautiful and welcoming Hilton Garden Inn – a wonderfully accessible property for all the flight venues we’ve described. It’s located just a few hundred yards from the Boeing runway where the big fellows are tested daily. We were fortunate to be on the fourth floor with a superb view of the west end of the huge Boeing complex replete with dozens of aircraft on the tarmac – especially colorful at night with the brilliant blue and white lights.

We agree that normally staying at a hotel so near an airport runway may not be at all that appealing; however, in this venue, we didn’t find the occasional muffled noise to be a problem at all. In fact, it was exciting.


Be sure to check out: Snohomish.org

 

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IRVINE’S DIVINE! (and so are nearby Disneyland & Knott’s Berry Farm)

Are you ready for a “heavenly” trip to the sunny climes of Southern California? If yes, we can heartily recommend making your base at Irvine, a city quite unlike any other we’ve visited.

Why do we call Irvine divine? Because of all that this remarkable place has to offer. “You’ll be amazed at how much there is to see and do,” as the city’s visitors guide says -- and “all within 25 miles and 25 minutes” – often much less. Here’s a listing of just a few of the possibilities:

• Beloved by millions, Disneyland Park and Knott’s Berry Farm-- both are minutes away from each
  other. Check out disneyland.com – and knott.com
• Discovery Science Center – discoverycube.org
• Bowers Museum & Kidseum celebrating world art and culture – bowers.org
• Baseball’s Angel Stadium of Anaheim – angels.com
• Orange County Museum of Art – ocma.net
• Newport Sports Museum – newportsportsmuseum.org
• Crystal Cove State Park – crystalcovestatepark.com
• Laguna Beach – lagunabeachinfo.com
• Balboa Island -- balboa-island.net

Does this list make Irvine an intriguing place to visit? It did us, and we’d like to share a detailed rundown of the fabulous time we enjoyed there -- along with a nine-year-old granddaughter, Alison, who was thrilled (and extremely well behaved) our entire trip.

First of all, most of us might ask: Just where is Irvine -- a city named for James Irvine, grandson of a prominent cattle ranching family? Obviously, when most of us think of Southern Cal, it’s the fabled suburbs of Los Angeles: Hollywood, Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Glendale, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, and San Juan Capistrano, but if you haven’t discovered Irvine, you’re missing a delightful “hip hub” that opens doors to all the adventures mentioned above, and more -- Irvine itself being a great destination. Just check out a map of the area, and you will see all those wonderful open spaces for hiking, biking, horseback riding – as well as the city’s close proximity to the ocean.

Our week-long adventure there started with a flight from Salt Lake City, nearest major airport from our home in Southeastern Idaho. With a change of planes in Oakland, our transit time took most of our first day. We landed at the newer John Wayne Airport in Orange County and were greeted with SUNSHINE – so great after a long, cold winter.

With our granddaughter in tow, you can bet we first had to see the two renowned and marvelous theme parks, and she loved them both. Day One was spent at Knott’s Berry Farm, a pioneer in the amusement park industry. We hadn’t been there in years, but the Old West flavor remains, combined with a lot of up-to-date changes and first-class thrill rides. Just one of these extra exciting rides that Alison and Grandma decided to experience was the Supreme Scream – and scream everyone did – except Alison. Likely it just took her breath away.

This amazing new, non-roller coaster ride is one of the tallest thrill rides of its kind in the world. It takes four people at a time, seated in a row, straight up 30 stories into the air where the view is spectacular. Within seconds the riders are propelled to the ground in just three, negative-gravity seconds at speeds topping 60 mph. Chilling? Thrilling? You bet!

Meanwhile, there’s oodles of gentler rides and other things to do at Knott’s, with highlights including the Peanuts characters roaming the park, and seen in Lucy’s Really Big Show situated in Camp Snoopy, as well as rides such as Lucy’s Tugboat, the Butterfield Stagecoach, Calico Railroad, bumper cars, and much more.

Knott’s is fun indeed – just look at the faces of the kids!

Day Two of our trip was full-steam ahead to DISNEYLAND, opened in 1955 by Walt Disney, and unarguably the most famous park of its kind in the world – now along with its newer companion park, Disney California Adventure. Here the three of us spent the “fullest” 16-hours imaginable. With a Park Hopper Pass, we started lining up at 7 a.m. to enter Disney California Adventure, going first on the new and immensely popular Radiator Springs Cars Land ride. Here Grandpa especially loved re-living his old drag racing days on this innovative attraction, among the other thrills of the ride.

“Soarin’ Over California,” is not-to-be missed. Here you travel over much of the great Golden State in an amazing IMAX-style, simulated flight.

Our Park Hopper Pass allowed us to hop from that park over to Disneyland in just a few hundred yards away. Our favorites in this original park were the ever popular Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, “ít’s a small world,” the train ride, the monorail, and thrilling Splash Mountain, all culminating with the evening finale, Fantasmic! This incredible, stunning show on the lake features Mickey Mouse in a battle of good vs. evil and is followed by an amazing fireworks display. What a way to end our delightful day!

In one day, of course, we barely scratched the surface of all these sister parks have to offer. A special treat for Alison, however, was having breakfast with Minnie Mouse and some of the other Disney characters. She had her photo taken with several of them.

Before you go, be sure to check out Disney’s relatively new FASTPASS to many attractions. With it, you insert your park ticket into the proper kiosk; get a FASTPASS ticket to that particular ride with a return time shown. Then go play in the park instead of waiting in line. Come back at the return time and walk right past the often very long lines of people waiting to ride that particular attraction. It’s a great concept – and it works.

The Disneyland Hotel, by the way, is a great property with its three lovely outdoor pools and its welcoming rooms. In our room, with its two queen beds, the touch of a switch provided a relaxing tune from one of the Disney musicals and, at the same time, lighted up a beautifully carved wooden mural on the wall behind the beds complete with tiny pinpoints of light. These are cut into the mural’s background and depict the fireworks exploding above Fantasyland’s castle. It’s a lovely way to fall asleep after a full day.

A plus for staying at the Disneyland property is the “Extra Magic Hour” pass which currently allows guests to enjoy an early entry -- depending on the day of the week and prior to the times for the general public.

A book could be written about Disneyland. Suffice it to say that it’s no wonder millions of people from around the world come to this magical jewel -- many folks opting to spend two, three and even five days where something new is always being added.

Day Three was a major change of pace -- devoted to environmental and wildlife concerns. Our host was Cheri Ikerd, owner and operator of OC Wildlife & Beach Tours (the OC stands for Orange County). She picked us up at our hotel for one of her wonderful afternoon tours and took us first to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a place devoted primarily to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing hundreds of threatened baby seals and sea lions. Over 70 volunteers help the staff with this remarkable and much-needed effort, saving so many of these orphaned creatures.

Then, in the Laguna Beach area, Cheri took us to see just a small fraction of the Pacific Ocean’s endless tide pools that are now highly protected by the State. We reveled in the wonders of the beach’s ever-changing panorama – meanwhile getting a good dose of Vitamin D, as well. We learned much about the colorful sea life that can only be seen in the tiny pools left on the beach when the tide is out, including sea stars (not starfish, since they are not really fish at all), sea anemones, sea urchins, tiny crabs, and so much more, all in a colorful array. This is an unforgettable and highly educational experience that kids and adults as well, enjoy.

Our week was speeding by much too fast as DAY FOUR presented itself. However, the pace slowed as we thoroughly enjoyed stepping back in time at the lovely, relaxing Irvine Regional Park with its signature California oak trees and its many massive Coast Live Oak trees, some 400 years old. This 450-acre -- and very inexpensive and uncrowded park -- opened in 1897 and was California’s first regional park, located about 20 minutes from our hotel in Irvine.

If you happen to go at Easter time, as we did, this park’s Eggstravangza is loads of fun, and it’s amazingly well-organized for the hundreds of excited children that attend – and very inexpensive.

The ten-minute, train ride around the park’s peaceful lake is especially relaxing, and a paddle boat ride among the ducks was a great treat for all three of us. The park also features hiking, biking, equestrian trails, and pony rides, as well as the Orange County zoo showcasing animals and plants native to the Southwestern United States.

In addition to the reasonably priced paddleboat rentals, which we thoroughly enjoyed, there are several kinds of bike rentals and old-fashioned “horseless carriage” rentals. Really, what more could anyone ask for in a casual, uncrowded and old-fashioned day at the park? Check it out at www.IrvineParkRailroad.com

The rest of Day Five was spent at Irvine’s amazing Spectrum Center, a shopping, dining, and fun center like no other – with free, multi-level parking. The center’s striking Moorish and Spanish architecture was inspired by the ancient Alhambra Palace-Citadel built in the 13th Century in Spain. Spectrum’s 108-foot Ferris wheel was shipped from Spain, and its vintage carousel and a 21-screen theater (including IMAX) are all part of the offerings.

Meanwhile, for those adults and kids who like endless choices of video games set in a huge arcade, then Dave and Buster’s 55,000 square-foot entertainment complex is the place to go. It features six party rooms, as well as an executive board room. Meanwhile, we were surprised with the quality of the delicious lunch we ate there in the larger of two dining areas -- our meal highlighted with edamame as our appetizer and ending with three of us sharing one of the gastronomical desserts – all a perfect respite from all the other activities provided.

Popeye Vasquez is the public relations manager at Dave and Buster’s, and his name seems to fit the fun aspect of this particular venue.

Serious shoppers, meanwhile, need look no further than the more 100 shops and venues ready to serve them. This same kind of mall/resort atmosphere is evident at Irvine’s Fashion Island – a part shopping, part coastal resort. Fashion Island draws more than 13 million visitors a year to its inviting courtyards, its many open-air shops and its stunning ocean views.

Our final day of adventure was purposely planned to help us wind and prepare us for re-entry into our busy lives. We chose spring break and Easter vacation for our trip, so we attended church services on our final day, then drove to the coast once again to take a three-car ferry ride from Newport Beach to Balboa Island, famous for its Balboa ice cream bars and a the quaint little community that begs more exploration than our time allowed. Newport Beach, too, is a lovely seaside community to enjoy.

For an additional and memorable treat, we enjoyed an exceptionally tasty buffet/holiday brunch at Irvine’s upscale 6ix Park Grill located at the Hyatt. The restaurant features great ambience and the fun of patrons serving themselves in the working kitchen – something quite different. The choices of California Coastal cuisine, including local seafood, prime cuts of beef and ham, and a plethora of salads, soups, and more made for a highlight of our final day.

Because of its wonderfully convenient location, Irvine, as noted, is a fabulous jumping off point for the above sights and sounds and more. All-in-all we would encourage you to consider this upbeat city as your own hub of Southern California adventure seeking. All’s that’s written about this larger than life part of the world is real, and Irvine provides all you’ll need for a delightful vacation spot.

We must be sure to add that we spent several nights of our stay at the inviting Embassy Suites Hotel located just a mile from the John Wayne Airport. How convenient is that?

Shuttles, of course, are provided, the beds are luxurious, the pool and whirlpool inviting, and a full, cooked-to-order breakfast each morning can’t be beat. Offerings include tasty omelets, French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and more. Mmm! There’s also a manager’s reception each evening featuring veggie trays, nachos, and drinks.

One of the guests we spoke with said that he visits Southern California often and has stayed at some less-than-great hotels – many of which are not kept up to date. Not so with this premier Irvine property, located smack in the central business district with its many corporate offices. The hotel, meanwhile, recently underwent a 3.5 million dollar renovation completed in 2012.

“None of Irvine’s Embassy Suites has ever disappointed me,” he said, “so that’s why I decided on this one on Main Street to bring my family this time.” An impressive endorsement with which we can definitely concur.

Our experience was extra special because we had the need to check in early, and our room was not quite ready, so the management insisted we stay in the Presidential Suite. You can bet that was an adventure in itself. The 180-degree view from the three huge windows was a delight in itself, and with two bedrooms, two baths, three flat screen TVs, and more, we felt pampered indeed.

We also checked out several of the regular rooms while we were there, and they, too, certainly leave nothing to be desired. We would stay in one of them anytime. It’s a lovely property.

One thing we missed during our visit -- cancelled due to a slight change in wind and weather -- was a ride on Orange County Great Park’s tethered, helium-filled orange (what else?) balloon that soars up to 400 feet above the surrounding landscape. It holds 25-30 passengers, and serves as a public observation deck for the $70 million development plan to expand the park’s current 60 acres to more than 200 currently underway.

The metropolitan park itself is located in the heart of the Irvine area, and it also features a visitor’s center, tournament-quality soccer fields, the Palm Courts Arts Complex, a kiddie cave at Kids Rock playground, a carousel and more. You can be sure this park is on our bucket list for our next trip to Irvine.

IMPORTANT: It goes without saying that it’s best to plan, if possible, the least busy time you can arrange, if you plan to visit Disneyland, and don’t forget a GPS for ease in getting around “Divine Irvine” and environs.

 

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LOVING LAS CRUCES

As the two of us travel around this great, old USA, we’re always on the lookout for unique destinations. We certainly found one recently -- a city that boasts the following impressive rankings --among numerous others:
   • 2010 Sunset Magazine’s “20 Best Towns of the Future”
   • 2010 US News & World Report: “10 Cities for Real Estate Steals”
   • One of AARP’s “Dream Towns” to retire -- second time in t   •As early as 2002, Money Magazine listed it in their “Best Places to Retire”

Couple these awards with a fabulous climate, and we found that this might just be a city where we’d really like to relocate ourselves someday -- none other than Las Cruces, New Mexico. Weather in this great location is mild and dry year round with 350 days of sunshine. In the summer, temps climb into the upper 90s, with cool nights. Wintertime lows in January go just below freezing at night and into the lower 60s during the day – so inviting when folks in other parts of the country are dealing with snow and cold, cold temperatures. Some locals, if you can imagine, wear T-shirts year-round. What a climate!

Here in this outstanding destination, you can step back into the romance of the early Spanish-American days of New Mexico. Step even farther back into the Mogollon Native American culture of this part of the great Southwest. Then, step into a modern city of nearly 100,000 people, and what you will find is this lovely and unique city. We experienced all of this and more in a mid-January trip there, escaping our frigid home in Idaho and immersing ourselves in all that Las Cruces has to offer -- especially the wintertime SUNSHINE and WARMTH.

Number One on the list of highlights we recommend is Old Mesilla, a charming old village bordering Las Cruces that provides a retreat into what the area was like in the early to mid-1800s. We had been told that a meal at La Posta, housed in a very old adobe building (once a stop on the old Butterfield stagecoach line for over 70 years) would be a memorable experience, and we were told correctly. We had our first deliciouslunch in town there, and the ambience was superb. www.laposta-de-mesilla.com

In decades past, other luminaries/celebrities who were sheltered and/or served meals within the old adobe walls of La Posta (besides our humble selves) were the infamous Billy the Kid, Kit Carson, General Douglas MacArthur and even the notorious Pancho Villa himself. Be sure to stroll Old Masilla town square and see the impressive Basilica of San Albino as well as peeking into the intriguing shops and imagining what life was like in this historically important Spanish-American town -- once the major stop between San Diego and Santa Fe.

For a Number Two step into the past, be sure to visit the impressive and beautifully designed War Memorial Park with its humbling display of the names of thousands of servicemen and women who offered up their lives in American-fought wars including: the Revolutionary through the Civil War, the two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. One wonders if it will ever end? A highly thought-provoking statue on site commemorates three soldiers who survived the Bataan Death March – two Americans and a Filipino. Actual footprints of some of the survivors of the march are imbedded in cement. They lead toward the statue and then away from it.

Dean especially enjoyed our Number Three venture into history, and we suggest at least a couple of hours at one of the finest interactive museums of its kind -- and we’ve visited a bunch. This is the 47-acre, State-run Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum just north of the city. Be aware that this is not as plain a place as the name might sound. Rather, this center is a real winner with its outstanding displays that so painstakingly chronicle the 3,000-year history of New Mexico’s farming, ranching and rural life – linking the “family farm” for those who remember what those days were like -- and also for those who’ve never experienced those days.

Here at this spacious center you will see the way the ancients lived. You can see an actual mud dwelling and even grind your own corn, as they once did. Depending on the day, you can enjoy well-planned demonstrations of wool carding and learn how the wool was dyed with the use of local plants and bugs – all a real education as to the way even modern-day Apaches, Hopis and Navajos still produce yarn for their marvelous rugs. You can also see blacksmithing , milking and other demonstrations, as well as exhibitions of farming as it is done currently -- and in times gone by -- with live animals that include corrals of cattle, horses, mules, sheep, goats, and burros – a real “Home on the Range” experience. www.nmfarmandranchmuseum.org

Stepping forward to modern-day Las Cruces (the crossroads of the Southwest), the city is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States. Fed by the mighty Rio Grande, crops of many varieties are plentiful throughout the Mesilla Valley. The city itself, meanwhile, offers other numerous museums and impressive state monuments, endless outdoor recreation choices, including golfing, hiking, horseback riding, camping, and bird watching. The city also boasts several universities, including the New Mexico State campus, as well as excellent shopping, outstanding medical facilities, and fantastic scenery. Just seeing the brilliant sunsets reflecting off the breathtaking Organ Mountains is enough of a reason to visit Las Cruces. Hikers and campers love the Organ Mountains Recreation area with its many trails to sites such as Dripping Springs -- once a retreat and health resort, now in ruins. The many and varied hiking trails are outstanding.

The impressive White Sands Missile Range Museum (established during World War II and still operating) and Missile Park are located just 25 miles northeast of Las Cruces, while El Paso, Texas, with three-quarters of a million people is 42 miles south. Birds and wildlife abound in the area, including such unusual species as roadrunners, horned toads and even African oryx, the latter introduced as game animals on the White Sands Missile Range during World War II. Nancy was especially impressed with our stay at the impressive Encanto Hotel which overlooks the city and the Mesilla Valley. The elegant Encanto is a property that features one-of-a-kind Spanish Colonial furnishings and intricate ironwork once used to accessorize hacienda gardens. www.HotelEncanto.com

Extensive lodging and dining choices are available throughout the area. All-in-all, as travel writers, we feel certain, if you go there, you will quickly come to love Las Cruces, New Mexico, as much as we did. However, if we all move there -- as so many have been doing in recent years -- the city won’t be able to contain us all. Nevertheless, we suspect the friendly folks there will be able to manage the “problem.” One caveat: When driving in L.C., watch out for the “eye in the sky.” As we left the city at 5:30 a.m., slightly exceeding the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit, we saw a light flash. Then, on arriving home, we found a $100 speeding ticket in the mail. Not our best memory of an otherwise great visit.For more details, contact the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau at: www.MustSeeLC.org

 

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DESERT PLAYGROUND – THEN & NOW

Why did Hollywood’s greatest movie stars choose to make Palm Springs their mecca decade after decade? Are they still coming to this magnificent desert playground? And how about the tourists in days gone by -- and today? The two of us found some of the answers in a cold, mid-January escape from our home in the frozen land of Idaho to the glorious, spring-like weather of Southern California. Here we quickly learned that Palm Springs was, and still is, a premier destination – and not just for the Hollywood crowd. It’s a fun place for people of all ages, and much of the draw is a special something that continues to attract visitors from all over the world.

This special something includes the huge, gently swaying palm trees lining the downtown streets, the glorious bougainvillea, the stunning scenery, 350 incredible days of sunshine each year, and on and on.
For those early Hollywood stars -- way back in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, Palm Springs was an escape from the film-making grind. In those days, contracts required them to be within easy reach of the studios, and the geographical restriction extended to 95 miles. Therefore, Palm Springs, with its superb natural beauty, seductively beckoned.

Many of the stars and dignitaries stayed at places such as the nearly 90-year-old Ingleside Inn, a superb treasure, which boasts perhaps the longest list of luminaries ever garnered by a single hotel -- drawing such impressive celebrities as John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Clark Gable, Dinah Shore, Jack Lemon, Jerry Lewis, Cher and Frank Sinatra, along with over 200 more.

Over the years, the property went into decline and was purchased by a colorful former New Yorker, Mel Haber, who took it over in the mid-1970s and caused it to rise like a phoenix from the ashes – not literally, of course, but he managed to engineer a superb renovation of the 30-room inn, and he still watches over his historic property like a daddy rooster.

After the renovation, Haber hangs his head and smiles as he admits to nearly chasing two major film stars away from an invitational evening party at the inn. The two had arrived on a motorcycle in anything but the required formal dress. Fortunately, at some point in time, he recognized the two were none other than Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. Ouch!

With its early draw of stars, Palm Springs quickly became their unofficial gathering place. Big names, such as Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor bought or built lovely homes and vacationed in them throughout their lives. Others stars, such as Debbie Reynolds, Kurt Russell, and Jamie Lee Curtis still maintain fabulous homes – most priced into the millions.

Currently, the Ingleside draws a new crowd of celebrities that Haber says are looking for “truly authentic Hollywood glamour.” Most recently, among this “younger” set of luminaries, are former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Selleck, Trini Lopez, and Barry Manilow, to name just a few. Many of the younger set, however, now choose to rent homes – often for upwards of $2,000 a night, and many of this crowd go for the casino scene versus the activities of the crowd of years gone by who opted for tennis, swimming, and simply relaxing in the desert sun.

Elderhostel groups are also discovering Palm Springs and enjoying the amenities of the Ingleside Inn, as well as Melvyn’s on-site, upscale restaurant, now popular for glamorous weddings. During our visit, we had the delightful experience of an exquisite room, complete with our own private fireplace and patio. Dean refers to our stay as our second honeymoon. Sigh! We found our stay to be charming, romantic, and captivating, as so many movie stars must have done since the 1920’s. June Allyson, by the way, is quoted as saying: “Everyone should marry at least once at Ingleside Inn,” and she did just that.

Later in our visit, we spent a couple of nights at the unique Orbit In, a contrast in many ways to the more formal Ingleside Inn -- and loads of fun. It’s where TRAVEL & LEISURE magazine says “the 1950’s never went out of style.” HIP HOTELS USA says this inn has been “lovingly returned to its rat pack glamour days” and, to our way of thinking, it’s just as much fun as it was in those razzle-dazzle days. This colorful property features intimate and impeccably kept rooms surrounding a large, sparkling pool – all beautifully preserved in the original 1950s motif. The inn offers a complimentary happy hour, a breakfast bar and private patios.

Rarely do we report on our accommodations, except as an aside, but these two contrasting properties deserve a spotlight in and of themselves. Both have been popular for well over half a century.
Dean particularly liked Orbit In, and Nancy, meanwhile, the romance and charm of the Ingleside. However, we’d both jump at a return to either place.

Between these contrasting accommodations (among many other places from which to choose), we suggest the following things to do, do, do and places to go, go, go in Palm Springs: Large numbers of visitors start their visit with a ride on the exciting Aerial Tramway, world’s largest rotating tram. The ride leaves the desert floor and climbs to the Mountain Station at 8,516 feet in ten minutes, traveling through seven climate zones such as would occur from Mexico to Alaska. Breathtaking, panoramic views of the immense Coachella Valley and a top-notch café at the summit make this an experience to long remember.

For a great adventure, don’t miss a Desert Adventures bright red jeep ride leading to short hikes into mountainsides that have been tortured and twisted by wind and erosion, as well as tremendous earth changes over millennia created by the awe-inspiring San Andreas Fault. Our driver and guide, Naturalist Eric Harmon, was a “hoot,” albeit a highly knowledgeable and informative “hoot,” who delighted us with facts on geology, history, desert plants and trees, huge, desert solar collectors, desert wildlife, and so much more – a truly grand experience.

We also enjoyed an architecture tour with Robert Imber of Palm Springs Modern Tours. Robert is an authority on the phenomenal “living museum of architecture” that is Palm Springs -- often referred to throughout the world as the “Mecca of Modernism.” The iconic Kaufmann house, as an example, recently sold for 15 million dollars.

Another great tour is the fun and informative Best of the Best Rich and Famous City Tour that focuses on the stunning homes of the Hollywood stars – both in days gone by and now. These hideaway homes include those of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Jack Benny, Nat King Cole, the Marx Brothers, Tony Curtis, Dinah Shore, Sonny Bono, Kirk Douglas and others.

For nighttime entertainment, the legendary Palm Springs Follies are a not-to-be missed treat. Held in the delightful, historic Plaza Theater, the Follies, for the past 20 years, have entertained over three million patrons. Comparable to any great Broadway show-stopper, the amazing and fun part of this fabulous show is that the dazzling dancers have to be 55 years of age and older -- some into their eighties. However, you’d never know their ages because these hoofers are a troupe of vivacious, vibrant and highly talented entertainers. Playing five nights a week from late October through May, this show is filled with music and dance numbers popular in decades past and still creating a toe-tapping experience today. The troupe ends every show with a star-spangled -- and unabashedly patriotic -- finale.

Every Thursday night, meanwhile, the main street of the city is cordoned off for a free VillageFest, and you can spend hours strolling among over 200 booths offering crafts, artwork, unique food items, and theenjoyment of itinerant musicians performing. Stores along the route are also open for business, as well.

The Village Green Heritage Center on Palm Canyon Drive offers informative, historic walking tours, as well as a 25-minute video highlighting the early days of the area, and much more.

Hike through the huge stands of palm trees bordering pristine streams of the spectacular Indian Canyons, home to the native Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians. The canyons beckon with their beautiful ancient palm groves and over 100 miles of hiking trails.

Visit the remarkable Palm Springs Air Museum, housing one of the nation’s largest collections of World War II aircraft complete with its sobering historical background and displays of this world-wide conflict that took the lives of an estimated 50-70 million people, including over 20 million military dead.

Be sure to experience Palm Springs as it was – and still is – very much a “happening” place where the quality of life is still as exciting as ever. In addition to all we’ve described, the fun in the sun also includes (but is not limited to): world-class dining, every kind of accommodation you might desire, a fabulous art museum, golfing, camping, and seemingly endless shops and boutiques.

 

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HOT AIR BALLOONING AND MORE IN AMISH COUNTRY

It’s “ up, up and away,” sailing in a hot air balloon over the verdant countryside of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This exciting experience was ours, starting out at 6 a.m. on a warm Monday morning in July. What a thrill this unusually delightful ride was for the two of us, and if it’s not list on your list of fifty things to do before you die, think about placing it there.

Some congenial members of the United States Hot Air Balloon Team helped the two of us, along with the six other passengers that morning, into the sturdy woven and comfortably lined basket of the craft. Lucas, our licensed pilot, jokingly emphasized to the passengers that he doesn’t “blow up” the balloon; he inflates it. Also, he reminded us that the balloon doesn’t “go down”; it descends. For the reassurance of some folks, these can be important semantics. Also, we learned that the balloon is controlled by the direction of the wind and that the direction can be manipulated only slightly by the pilot.

Lucas and his crew deftly inflated the immense and colorful balloon and, within seconds we were off, ascending to a height of over a mile. We thrilled to the sights of a 10-mile, 365-degree view below us of hundreds of picturesque Amish and Mennonite farms spreading out in neat, quilted patch-work patterns. Flights in the fall can have a visibility of up to 50 miles plus seeing the beautiful autumn foliage.

In between the noisy, intermittent blasts of the balloon’s propane burner, there is a supreme quietness, along with the feeling of wonderful weightlessness – a peaceful, easy feeling that make us think of the Eagles’ classic song, “There’s a peaceful, easy feeling, and you know I won’t let you down – ‘cause I’m already standing on the ground” – which we, of course, eventually did after our hour-long ride.

Descending, as we did through the calm skies, we could see Amish and Mennonite families waving at us and also hear the farm dogs barking, their ears affected by loud bursts of sounds from the burner. Along the country roads, we could also see the truck, with its attached trailer, belonging to the chase team that was to meet us and return us to our base.

Once on the ground, the team helped each of the passengers out of the basket; then quickly went through the routine process of deflating the huge balloon, shoving it into its storage container, and then loading the container into the trailer, along with the basket itself.

After the loading, it was a ten-mile van ride for the passengers back to our take-off point where the team served champagne, no less, to celebrate the ride, along with orange juice and Danish rolls. Interestingly enough, tho’ both of us were born and raised in the Pittsburgh area, we had never explored the colorful Amish country less than a day’s drive away, and awesome it is.

As well as our exciting balloon riding experience, we took the well-known Aaron and Jessica’s horse drawn Buggy Ride at Plain and Fancy Farm and also saw the film on site,“Jacob’s Choice,” both of which we highly recommend. The center is the only one owned and operated by a family of the Plain People who run their business in the tiny town of Bird-in-Hand. How’s that for a quaint town name, common in Pennsylvania, along with those of Intercourse and Paradise (located close to each other and thus appropriately named -- for most happily married couples, we trust).

Fans of the movie, “Witness,” meanwhile, will remember the infamous telephone booth where Harrison Ford called to learn of the murder of his friend and partner. The phone booth is on the main street of Intercourse, and, we of course -- like all the tourists had to take a photo – minus John Book.

For detailed information on the Amish, be sure to stop in at the delightful Mennonite Information Center located in Lancaster. The helpful staff, books, and video presentations are all designed to interpret and explain both the Amish and Mennonite faith and lifestyle.

A splendid afternoon activity we thoroughly enjoyed was the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster with its acclaimed productions. The buffet dinner and musical, The King and I, which we saw was a highlight of our trip. We also enjoyed the musical, Joseph, at the huge Sight and Sound Theater where well over 800,000 people annually attend many lavish productions of Biblical stories.

Another gastronomical delight we “suffered through – not” during our stay was the popular and award-winning Miller’s Smorgasbord located in the town of Ronks and a Lancaster County landmark since 1929.

We spent a wonderful night at Joyce and Mel Eby’s B&B in Gordonville. The Ebys are Mennonites, and Mel took us on a tour of their neat, clean, seventh generation dairy farm, and, yes, we even got to milk a cow, as well as bottle-feed some calves. Talk about fun! Joyce, meanwhile, serves up a tasty breakfast, and both she and Mel are great conversationalists, making for an extra pleasant stay at their beautiful home.

Another overnighter where we stayed and highly recommend is the Country Living Inn, located near Bird in Hand, PA. The slogan of this delightful motel is that it’s almost like being at home, and that’s ever so true. There are lovely, handmade quilts on the beds and bouquets of flowers in each impeccably clean room. Adjacent to the hotel and with the same owners is D.J.’s Taste of the Fifties, a popular place for burgers, fries and luscious shakes, as well as delicious breakfast fare.

We also suggest a ride on the Strasburg Rail Road, America’s oldest short-line railroad, located in the village of Strasburg and built circa 1832 -- as well as an informative visit to the impressive Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, located just across the road. Here you’ll walk in and around more than 100 historically significant locomotives and railcars -- from mammoth steam engines to quaint Victorian coaches, as well as numerous videos chronicling the history of rail travel.

Plan on a few hours, if possible, at Central Market in downtown Lancaster -- America’s oldest public farmer’s market, continuously operating since the early 1730s. The crowded aisles are filled with an international selection of food and other items. We found it especially fun to see the prim and colorful Amish families selling everything from delicious apple butter to handmade Amish dolls.

Nearby the market is a great place for lunch or dinner, the Pressroom, where delicious and elegantly presented delights make headlines. For our lunch, we especially enjoyed the delicious crab salad. Mmm, mmm!

If you’re heading East about 40 miles toward Philadelphia, as we did, be sure to include a stop at the magnificent Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, which incorporates over 1000 acres of gorgeous flowers and trees. Four hundred fifty acres are walkable and include a well-manicured topiary, as well as a magnificent conservatory that features everything from orchids to exotic palms to giant, floating lily pads.

For another stop, just twenty minutes from Longwood is the worldwide broadcast center for QVC, well worth the hour-long tour to see how the 24/7 program is produced. On site is a store where all the products advertised on TV may be purchased.

 

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THE COLORS OF PITTSBURGH

It Ain't What It Used to Be! Former Pittsburghers -- gone from the area for many years -- we were amazed at the transformation that has taken place in the once-smoky city. Pittsburgh has turned from the color black to a proud and beautiful green.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the dying iron and steel industry, this city’s renaissance from a dark, dirty, depressing, and smoke-filled, industrial town to a shining example of what a modern metropolis can and should be is truly amazing. Pittsburgh has, in fact, more than once found itself in recent years on lists of the most “livable” cities in the nation, and we can easily understand why.

Two well-known sports-related colors of Pittsburgh, of course, are the gold and black (the color black is allowed here) of the city’s sports teams: the Pirates, the Penguins and the ever-popular Steelers. The Pirates’ PNC Park, by the way, is considered by Major League Baseball to be one of the best ballparks in the nation.

The color gold in Pittsburgh , meanwhile, is also represented in the three gold-painted bridges that span the Allegheny River, the only three identical sister bridges of their kind anywhere in America. They are named for some of Pittsburgh’s luminaries: the Clemente Bridge for Pirates baseball hero, Roberto Clemente, the Rachel Carson Bridge for the famed environmentalist, and the Warhol Bridge for contemporary artist, Andy Warhol.

The two of us were like kids again as we spent the better part of three days in this historic and strategically located region of our birth. We were excited about everything we were able to fit into our schedule there.

Here are a few of the highlights that we highly recommend to fellow travelers:

First, out of many choices, we’d suggest riding up and down the steep Duquesne Incline cable railway just for the excitement of the ride and to see the mechanical workings -- more importantly to get a view of the dazzling expanse of the city from the heights of Mount Washington. Operating since 1877, this is one of the few such inclines left in America. www.duquesneincline.org

Highly visible from Mount Washington is the area called “the Point,” the triangle of land where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the mighty Ohio. Old Fort Pitt is also located on this critical spot, and General George Washington wrote in his diary on October 31, 1753: “I spent some time in viewing the rivers and the land in the fork; which I think extremely well situated for a fort, as it has the absolute command of both rivers.” This strategic location, of course, influenced much of the history of America.

In modern times, as Pittsburgh aged, the city fathers were puzzled as to what to do with the many old structures on “the Point” itself, so they called in the well-known architect, Frank Lloyd Wright and paid him a large sum of money for his assessment. His answer was curt and literally “to the point.” He said simply, “Tear everything down, and start over.”

Start over: Pittsburgh did, and a whole new and beautiful city emerged. ForbesTraveler.com, by the way, voted Pittsburgh as having one of the world’s most stunning skylines.

Our suggestions for a fun visit there also include spending a day on the University of Pittsburgh campus seeing the renowned Carnegie Museum of Natural History with its fabulous dinosaur collection, as well as the impressive, adjoining Carnegie Museum of Art, the lovely Heinz Chapel, and also the striking Cathedral of Learning with its famed Nationality Rooms.

If you’re in search of souvenirs and memorabilia, check out the historic Market District known as “The Strip” -- an area of many city blocks located just inland from the Allegheny River. Wow! Talk about an exhilarating place alive with vendors of all kinds and restaurants galore. This is it. Here is also a must-visit, world-class museum – the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh History Center – an affiliate of the Smithsonian (www.pghhistory.org). The History Center also houses the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, both in a beautifully restored brick building located just across the street from the friendly, comfortable and well-appointed Hampton Inn and Suites where we stayed. The property, by the way, is within walking distance of many excellent restaurants and shops and also the downtown area.

Two great places to eat, among many others in the Strip, are Primanti Brothers, popular for its “almost famous” sandwiches and also Pamela’s Diner, a bustling, little eatery that touts a visit from President Obama. Both establishments offer tasty selections sure to please.

With taste buds satisfied, plan to spend a day at the huge Carnegie Science Center, located on the North Side of the city. Fun for kids of all ages, the CSS features Roboworld , a 6,000 square-foot exhibition of robotics that is so exciting it’s said to “fry your motherboard,” as well as a four-story OmniMax theater, a huge miniature train display of the Pittsburgh area, and a separate building housing the interactive SportsWorks for sports enthusiasts.

If birds are your fancy, then be sure to fly on over to the premier bird zoo, Pittsburgh’s National Aviary. Here, the interactive encounters include daily feedings of many of the more than 600 feathery friends, as well as a raptor experience, trainer for a day program, “bird day” parties, breakfast with the birds, and viewings of penguins, flamingoes, eagles, and more. www.aviary.org

In the same general area on the North Side is the award-winning and inspiring Children’s Museum which offers a host of cultural offerings for families. Exhibits and activities include lots of “real stuff” that kids love—among many other delights, the Garage/Workshop, the Attic, the Studio, Waterplay and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood – Pittsburgh being the birthplace of Fred Rogers. www.pittsburghkids.org

Also within a short distance is the Mattress Factory, an art gallery unlike any other you’re ever likely to see. Begun in 1977, this unique gallery is housed in two creatively reused buildings. And, through a world-renowned student residency program, much of the work is created onsite and is designed to engage all the senses. If you like ever-changing, room-sized contemporary art, this is the museum to experience. www.mattress.org

Art lovers will enjoy exploring the Andy Warhol Museum, one of the four Carnegie Museums in the city. Several stories of another of Pittsburgh’s refurbished, old buildings are filled with displays of this controversial Pop artist who was native to the once-smoky city. www.warhol.org

Wishing we could have stayed longer to experience more of all that Pittsburgh has to offer, we ended our visit there with a few hours at Station Square, a 52-acre playground famous for its shops, dining and night life. From there we took a one-hour ride on one of the city’s Just Ducky narrated tours, first traveling through many of the important and historic streets of city, then splashing into the river for yet another fun and informative way to learn about the area. The entire ride took place in a World War II era duck boat, now colorfully painted in bright hues, and bearing the name North Side Nelly. www.stationsquare.org and www.justduckytours.com

If time permits, be sure to take a side trip to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s stunning Fallingwater, the resort home that he designed for the wealthy Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh. Referred to as the epitome of serene, organic architecture, this icon is located about an hour’s drive southeast of the city and is visited by 150,000 people each year, a total of over 4.5 million since its construction in the late 1930’s. Set over an actual waterfall in the woods, the dramatic use of cantilever (diving board) design makes this stunning home one-of-a-kind. While there, be prepared to walk back through pathways in the dense trees to see this remarkably beautiful home which is appropriately placed on a list of “Places to See Before You Die.” www.fallingwater.org

With Falling Water and so many other things to see and do, the Pittsburgh area, with its many vibrant colors definitely captivates, delights, entertains, excites, edifies, and is a must for any adventuring traveler’s “bucket list.” It certainly ain't what it used to be!

See also : www.visitPittsburgh.com


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