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January 31, 2011

Las Vegas

By Bob Starink

What do you do after you’ve gambled your house away, wandered the streets admiring the glitz, questioned why anyone would think you would want a girl to your room in twenty minutes when you’re with your wife and kids, and seen every song the Bellagio fountains can play? You might try leaving the Strip and seeing what lies beyond the city limits.

The deserts around Las Vegas offer a variety of activities including quad-biking, hiking and land sailing. A more sedate option worth considering is the bike tour to Hoover Dam. Riding a bike in the desert, you say? Well, maybe not in the middle of summer but quite OK the rest of the year. Sedate? How? Because this ride is mostly downhill.

The bike tour to Hoover Dam begins with a convenient pick-up at your Las Vegas hotel. You are chauffeured to a bike shop in neighboring Boulder City where you choose your bike, have a helmet fitted and begin the ride.

The only true uphill section of the tour is leaving the shop to reach the start of the special bike trail you will be riding on for the first half of the journey. The track begins in the red and orange desert hills. Soon you have descended to street level where the bike trail becomes the storm water drain -- no doubt more animating when it rains, which doesn’t happen often so it’s not likely to interfere with the ride. This is a fast section of the trail and the sloped sides of the drain allow for some stunt riding if you feel inclined (pardon the pun).

The first stop is at the end of the drain, a slight detour to a park oasis of tall trees and green grass overlooking Lake Mead in the distance. Here Bighorn sheep come to graze.

The tour continues back into the hills where you pass big mansions built against the rock walls, one with a giant waterfall feature that flows above and behind the house -- not what you would expect to see in the desert. But this is Las Vegas and anything is possible.

The last section of the bike track is a long downhill slope where you can really pick up some speed as you fly to the causeway at the bottom.

Soon after that the paved trail ends and the dirt track begins. Most of the way from here to the dam is along the old train track that was built to carry men and concrete during the dam’s construction. The rail line is gone but the gentle gradient trail remains. In this section you pass through five old tunnels, with Lake Mead and the marina on your left and small red-purple valleys on your right. The riding is slower here, so you have more time to appreciate the views and enjoy the tunnels.

Near the end you veer away from the old rail track and wind down a few more hills to the top of the dam parking area. As you move closer to the dam, the number of power lines everywhere increases. Hoover generates a massive amount of hydro-electricity, very necessary to keep the lights of Vegas shining brightly.

The bike ride is over. You are sent with a packed lunch to spend some time on the dam wall and take photos, including some shots of the newly-constructed multi-billion-dollar bypass bridge built downstream for through traffic above the dam.

When you’re ready, you return to the waiting guide for the drive back to your hotel.

This is a wonderful and different way to visit Hoover Dam and a very engaging excursion away from the hustle and bustle of the Strip.


The Hoover Dam Bike Tour can be booked online at www.alllasvegastours.com for $160 per person. The best hotel in Vegas has to be Wynn Encore. Magnificent spacious rooms are available from $200 per night. While at Wynn, a must-see is their show Le Reve -- what you’d expect from a Cirque all set in water, it’s truly breath-taking (tickets from $99). See www.wynnlasvegas.com for details. If you want the best massage on the Strip, without having to pay a year’s salary, check out the Destination Salon at the Sahara.

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Paia -- The Under-Valued Heart of Maui

By Kerry Watts

The air was hot as we stepped outside Kahuli Airport, Maui, but who wouldn’t love that if it means you’re standing in the sunshine of a Hawaiian island. We traveled about six miles on the local bus (just $1 per boarding, regardless of the distance) to the beachside town of Paia. The bus stop is made from half a wooden palette resting on plastic milk crates. The whole town is probably less than a quarter mile long on this beginning stretch of the Hana Highway, with small gift stores, restaurant cafés, surfing rentals and beachwear shops making up most of the businesses here.

We chose Paia from a random Google search for hostels near the airport and stumbled upon a place that became the highlight of our Hawaiian adventure.
Prepared travelers (which now you can be) will find Paia’s appeal in its ideal location for many of

Maui’s key attractions. It’s the meeting spot for many downhill volcano biking adventures from the top of the Haleakala volcano crater, the last town before you drive the treacherous, winding, yet must-be-done road to Hana, and home of Ho’okipa beach, one of the best wind-surfing locales…on an island that’s world famous for its perfect wind-surfing conditions. Yet it’s on the other side of the island and a world away from the high-end resorts that can mask the true 24/7 island experience.

We were unprepared, short on time and without a car, but in this case throwing ourselves to the winds of chance brought the best results. Our hostel was on the only other road in Paia, bordering the cane field that supplies the local sugar mill industry. The bright, multi-colored weatherboard house is fittingly titled Rainbow Surf Maui Hostel. Its basic but clean accommodation is all a traveling adventurer needs, with homey friendliness thrown in for free.

Another great thing about this hostel is the native-Hawaiian owner Riki, who is passionately fighting for the rights of his people after their long history of abuse by conquering Westerners. Riki took time to climb a coconut tree, crack me open a fresh shell to drink from, and tell me all about the secrets of the stars. “Do you want to look at them from a white man’s way or from a Hawaiian’s way?” Definitely Hawaiian.

We had time to get to know our fellow hostel residents from Ukraine, France, mainland USA, and Ireland. Most were just passing through, except for two Irish lads, Gregor and Danny, who’d been to Maui three years before when Gregor “fell in love with Maui. It was so grand that I just knew I’d have to come back, and so this is that trip, a wind-surfing summer like I dreamed about.”

As Australians we rounded out the multi-culturalism of the group and got the ‘as good as a local’ knowledge of where the sea turtles hang out from Gregor, who’d been on Maui for three months already. We spent the day at the Kamaoele beach park snorkeling and paddle-boarding with eight giant sea turtles just centimeters away. It beat any organized tour I’ve ever been on.

There are a few different ways to do Maui, but I’d suggest that if you want to get to know the heart and culture of a place then you’ve got to get right in the middle of it. Paia is the place to do that.
Rainbow Surf Maui Hostel: mauirainbowsurfhostel.com
Downhill volcano biking tours: www.bikemaui.com/
Maui bus timetable and routes: www.co.maui.hi.us/bus

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Remote Glampsite

By Janice Horton

Think small town. Average income half the state median. Still proud of the glory days that put towns like Bolivar in the southern tier of western New York State on the map -- in this case, the oil boom of 1885. Evidence of those prosperous days is in the fine homes in the village. Now, the up-to-date school, the farms, and the handful of businesses matter only to the 1154 people who live here.

County Route 40 leads to Messer Hill Road. At the very top, elevation 2217 feet, you’ll find a place where the oil turned into a diamond. Presently a diamond in the rough, Hilltop Lodge Glamping Resort was the retreat of industrialist William A. Dusenbury, who dealt not just in oil and gas, but lumber. He was also president of the bank his family helped organize.
Hilltop is where the locals go on Friday nights for a fish fry or pasta. Over time you might be less distracted by your surroundings and actually notice what’s in the salad. So far, I can’t stop looking at the redwood paneling, even when I’m not in the room with the vaulted ceiling and great fieldstone fireplace.

Mr. Dusenbury’s compound dates to 1928 when he had his own redwood logs trucked in from California and milled on site. Besides the lodge, a clam house, and garage and quarters for the caretaker, a four-bedroom “cabin” was home away from home. Another fireplace, showers with seven heads, porches and generous windows took the rust out of rustic. The buildings sigh for want of a caretaker. Hans, I’m told, stayed on at Hilltop until 1960 as arranged by his employer, who died in 1942.

The real charm of the lodge, though I’m a sucker for Craftsman style, owes much to the setting. Dusenbury’s landscapers came from Germany to create a black forest hideaway on top of the hill. They likely envisioned the present day covering of hemlock and hardwoods and the intermediate canopy of rhododendron -- evergreen and appealing whether in bloom or not, their slender trunks gnarly and interwoven. Underneath it all, bright pachysandra, dark myrtle, and big-as-a-pie-plate May apple fronds form a patchwork of shades of green. Lush ferns grow down low and waist high.

The grounds, left largely to their own devices, are not untamed. Rock gardens, stone steps, and a curvy fishpond now being restored, tug you into the past. You can almost see ladies in long, narrow skirts and men holding glasses of beer at a summer clambake.

Hilltop Lodge is billed as a glamping (glamorous + camping) resort. Several cabins with modest motel furnishings are only a few paces from the restaurant. It’s not a bad setup for those who like to have cake and eat it without doing the work. Enjoy the woods, the seclusion -- even a campfire if you like -- but sleep in a bed, have a private shower and in the morning get yourself over to the lodge for coffee and a real breakfast. You’ll feel like you’re at your mom’s. Show up for lunch and dinner, too. It’s part of the package.

Mr. Dusenbury was a man of means and good taste, known for investing both his time and money in charitable works. His lodge still serves as a retreat in every sense of the word.

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Cataloochee Valley: Get Off the Main Road and Experience the Spirit of the Smoky Mountains

By Suzanne LaBerge
Photos by David J. Gruskin

We slip back in time on a narrow gravel road that twists and turns into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. North Carolina’s Cataloochee Valley lies ahead. Thick forest opens to wide green meadows and a young brown bear runs across the road and into the trees beyond. Later in the day we will see elk here. Once one of the largest settlements in the Smokies, Cataloochee is no longer home to humans.  

A display at the Visitor’s Center tells the story. Families from nearby communities migrated here in the early 1800’s. The Caldwells, Palmers and Woodys raised apples, tobacco and other market crops. Tourists discovered the beautiful valley and its abundant game and fish, and the farmers seized the opportunity to provide the visitors with wilderness guides, food and lodging.

At the height of Cataloochee’s prosperity, the federal government created the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Rumors that the government intended to buy their property for the park turned out to be true, and by 1938 most families had moved out. According to a National Park Service publication, Cataloochee went “from wilderness, to civilization, to wilderness in little more than one long lifetime…”  

The Park Service has preserved several abandoned homes and barns and they are open daily.

The Palmers’ dogtrot house serves as the Visitor’s Center, and the hayloft in the weathered Palmer barn provides the perfect vantage point for a bird’s eye view of the lush valley below.

The Caldwell house and

barn lie a few more miles down the road, past the campground and Palmer Chapel. Broad shingled gables, a wraparound porch and an open door welcome visitors. Sunlight streams through large windows, highlighting the many varieties of interior paneling in the house. Built in 1906, this was a modern structure, very different from the family’s previous home in a log cabin. Up the steep stairway the eerily deserted bedrooms are plastered with newspaper and magazine pages, perhaps for decoration, but almost certainly as insulation against chill winter winds.

Rough Fork Trail begins just past the Caldwell property. An easy hike through the woods, the trail leads to the sprawling Woody farmhouse on the hill and its picturesque spring house. Built around the family’s original log cabin, the house features a bedroom called the “Old Soldier’s Room” where all of the Woodys’ eight children slept.

The National Park Service reintroduced elk to the Great Smoky Mountains in 2001, and a herd has established itself in Cataloochee. In the early evening we spot a bull guarding his harem of about 30 cows. Further on, a magnificent bull with a full rack of antlers enjoys a solitary supper in the tall grass. Excited shutterbugs record the scene, while volunteers from the Elk Bugle Corp entertain the children with a display of shed antlers.  

It’s dusk. The elk drift away into the trees, and it’s time to head back down that winding gravel road. We descend through the darkening forest as the Virginia Squires sing “The Late Night Call of the Whippoorwill” on the car radio. Legend has it that the settlers displaced by the park left with tears in their eyes. We understand. We don’t want to leave Cataloochee either.

Driving Directions from Asheville, North Carolina
Take I-40 to the Highway 276 exit toward Maggie Valley. Immediately off the off-ramp, Cove Creek Road will be on your right. Take Cove Creek Road 13 miles to Cataloochee Valley.
For more information
National Park Service, Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Telephone (865) 436-7318

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How to Avoid Altitude Sickness

By Heather Rath
ITWPA Member

I don’t feel well.

I’m in Cuenca, Ecuador, at an altitude of 8300 feet and I think I’ve got a touch of altitude sickness (soroche). My heart beats quickly and I have to catch my breath. Climbing stairs in our hotel or up the barranco (cliff) leaves me winded. When I lay down to sleep, I can’t; insomnia is my partner.

Luckily though, I do not suffer any headaches, a common altitude ailment.

This is a charming old colonial city in the southern Andes Mountains with genteel people, cobblestone streets, and year-round spring weather that results in blossoming flowers everywhere. There are art galleries and cultural cafés like the exquisite El Otorongo (galeriaotorongo@hotmail.com) where owner Magy Pena welcomes you with a personal tour of her first-class showroom. El Parque Calderón, the city’s main square, is a peaceful haven for people-watching, warbling birds and colorful flowers. 


So what’s an ailing body to do? Acclimatization usually happens within a few days, but if it doesn’t, don’t despair. Learn to listen to your body. Take your time as you explore the area; there is no harm in casually strolling. Take a lesson from the Cuencans around you. They aren’t rushing around. Little appetite? Eat lightly, taking small snacks instead of big meals.

The most important hint, though, is not to become dehydrated. Keep up your fluids. The best advice in this department is to sip Mate de Coca (Coca Tea). Its properties are restorative and energetic, an antidote to altitude sickness. Cost: about US$2.50 for 25 tea bags. I got mine at a local health store. And guess what? I’m beginning to breathe properly again without a jumping heartbeat.

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The Cake and The Snake

By Allen Dale Olson

Serving a birthday cake embossed with chocolate rattlesnakes and surrounded by dozens of real rattlesnakes may not agree with most people’s idea of a perfect birthday party, but the seven-year-old honoree was delighted. His family had set up the party in the center of one of the exhibit areas in the American Rattlesnake Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of live rattlesnakes, in the Old Town quarter of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“We don’t feed the snakes during the day because that would gross you out,” Museum Director

Bob Myers told the party, “and it would also gross out the snakes.” Myers explained that snakes don’t like to be seen while eating because they are “defenseless with food in their mouths.”
I clutched my “Certificate of Bravery” tightly and strained to hear what else Myers was telling the group. The Certificate doubles as an admission ticket and credits me for “entering the fascinating realm of the rattlesnake.”

“People are not automatically afraid of snakes,” Myers told the birthday boy. “We see young people like you all the time who are not afraid to handle snakes and who really want to learn more about them. People learn to fear snakes from other people.”

Behind me was a VCR playing a film of an Anaconda attacking a wild pig; in front of me was a case of crocodile skeletons. On all sides were glass cases containing many varieties of rattlesnakes, such as Mottled, Banded, and Canebreak. One case held a Gila Monster, another a Broad-banded Copperhead.

“Each case maintains an environment friendly to the snake,” Myers explained. He said the museum is a conservation center dedicated to showing how rattlesnakes and other “less desirable” animals influence our lives. “We explore and explode myths, even cure some phobias,” he told me. One large case traces the history of Zuni Pueblo fetishes relating snakes to the human cycle of life, death, and rebirth. “During the week we host a lot of school classes,” Myers said, “and on weekends we allow private parties to use one of our exhibit rooms.”

That’s how I happened on the birthday party. I was a visitor. The museum consists of only three small rooms, so giving up space is quite a sacrifice, “though it helps with our income,” Myers said.
Most snake cases have “sponsors.” For $52 a month, a person, organization, school class, or civic group can have its name engraved on a brass plaque and provide funds to feed the animals and maintain their environment.  “Admissions alone couldn’t keep us going,” Myers told me.

Recognition of Myers’ work with the museum is widespread, and since its opening in 1990, the museum has been written about or reported on in a great many journals, many of them wildlife and nature themed. “Our biggest need is space,” Myers said. “My home is so full of snakes hardly anyone ever visits me. I have several storage areas full of snakes. If only some wealthy snake-loving benefactor…” His voice trailed off.

The American Rattlesnake Museum is on the edge of a very touristy destination, but it is a serious educational center as well as a travel destination. It’s easy to walk past or to dismiss as just another curio stop. But a visit of 45 minutes to an hour can prove unforgettable to an entire family. The museum is open every day, except on major holidays, for special lecture programs, and during rescue missions. The gift shop includes books, videos, and brochures about snakes and nature conservancy.

For more information
(505) 242-6569

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About January 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Travel Post Monthly in January 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2010 is the previous archive.

March 2011 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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