San Juan, Puerto Rico-No Passport Required

Twenty years ago, my husband and I traveled to Puerto Rico on a business trip. I found it to be one of the most pleasant and beautiful locations I’ve ever visited. The other day, a friend had told me about her recent trip there, so I pulled out my photo album to reminisce. Once I saw the photos, I did some online investigating to see what was new. It’s now one of the few places Americans can visit without needing a passport, so that alone makes it worth considering, especially for a winter vacation. It’s comparable in price to other tropical areas, and is not as lengthy an airplane ride as to many luxury destinations-yet, one does have options other than 4 or 5 star resorts. It is also family-friendly, and not geared to primarily older travelers or single travelers. Plus, it’s not overwhelmingly touristy like theme parks, either. It offers a wide variety of water sports, golf, entertainment and sightseeing, and with unusual architecture, it’s also like a trip back in time. Although distinctly foreign-feeling, for United States citizens, it’s technically visiting a distant relative.

I was saddened to discover that the hotel where we stayed, the Hyatt at Dorado Beach, had closed two years ago. It had the most fantastic pool and landscaping I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy, and that includes Hawaii and Las Vegas. That was becaue it offered something fairly rare at the time: a river pool. Such a treat is a long, meandering stretch of warm, flowing water that allows folks to stretch out on rafts and be carried under hundreds of swaying palms at an unhurried pace. At the Dorado, the ocean was within sight, visible through the thousands of tropical flowers and landscaping, and, for the most part, no other humans were noticable due to the spacing of the guests. I therefore felt like queen of this little paradise, having it all to myself. Apparently I was not alone in loving a river pool; several other Puerto Rican hotels now offer similar attractions.

From the photos on the web, Old San Juan is pretty much how it was two decades ago. For the person who loves history, they can get a lot of it within 5 hours in this lovely town. Residences typical to what we call “townhouses” line the famous cobblestone streets, and they are a mix of New Orleans charm (wrought iron balconies) and Bermuda color (brightly painted facades). Many streets are closed to car traffic, but some of the nicer ones are lined with plants and outside cafes. I spent a good bit of time on side streets, many of which transacted business in Spanish. Shops were a far cry from those elsewhere; they were somewhat small, dark, cluttered-and hot. I wondered why some weren’t better organized, and was bemused by the emphasis on religious items. Catholicism’s saints were depicted almost everywhere in statues and pictures, along with votive candles, oils, medals, and related articles. It lent a somewhat spiritual, albeit commercial, air to browsing…like variations of Buddha in Chinatown stores and Hindu deities in Indian groceries. My purchase that day was a crystal bead necklace, which I still have. It was a prized possession for years until I saw the crystals one day at Michael’s. It’s still important to me, however, because it was a souvenir.

We visited the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (which houses the tomb of Juan Ponce de León), and saw plazas, museums and historic sites. Old San Juan areas are still somewhat enclosed by massive walls of forts, the most famous of which is La Fortaleza, which is also the executive mansion for the Governor of Puerto Rico. It, in addition to Old San Juan itself, was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983. Since the town is a major tourist destination, a free visitor trolley reportedly still carries guests around the area.

“Puerto Rico” means “rich port” or “good port”, and this particular town was given the formal name of “San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico” in honor of St. John the Baptist. Consider it if you’re searching for a relaxing-yet intriguing-get away.

The Summer Solstice in Alaska

Many years back, I had the opportunity to visit Alaska, as my husband’s former boss took a position in Anchorage. Suddenly, my husband and brother in law recognized a chance to live out one of their fishing fantasies, so off we went after an invitation to stay with them. I don’t remember my preconceived ideas about Alaska, but they probably centered a lot on wilderness. It turned out that there were areas that looked exactly like the suburb in which I reside. New housing plans resembled those anywhere; the only difference was that, being high up on a hill, everyone had to get their mail from a row of boxes down on the main highway. Yet, the elevation afforded our friends a wonderful view-of wilderness, just as I expected.

That “main drag” had similar establishments to those in the lower 48, as well as vistas of snow-capped mountains in June. The weather ended up being comparable to April here in the Northeast. I wore a sweatshirt every day, and long pants or jeans. On a few occasions when we went out to eat, our hosts wore sweaters of the type we wear throughout January and February. (As long as I forgot that it was June, it really didn’t bother me.) What was pretty annoying, however, is that it never really got dark at night, since the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, was approaching quickly. Adjusting to that phenomenom throughout the summer months would probably take me years. As it was, I don’t feel that I ever slept well or enough during the entire week. At some point, I bought those little eye covers, but they didn’t help. I’d toss and turn all night; no matter what time it was, it always looked like dusk to me-I guess the room must not have had room darkening window shades. One night, when I got up and went into the kitchen for a glass of water, I took a picture containing the clock over the kitchen window, which pointed at 2:00. I wanted to show it to people and tell them that the pretty view outside the window was what I saw at 2 AM instead of 2 PM…

Asking our friends about their first winter there, we found that they had problems adjusting to only a few hours of daylight, and that the woman of the house, who didn’t work outside the home, only went out for groceries. They spent a quiet Christmas inside with their two young sons, not having yet made neighborhood friends. It was probably a difficult time, and sadly, the future did not bode well for the lady, who passed away a few years later from breast cancer. They were long gone from Alaska by that time, as it proved to be too hard for them to be so far away from family.

I have memories-and photographs-of bear displays, native American totem poles, and recollections of a mixture of asssumingly old-west and Eskimo culture. I remember eating in log-cabin style restaurants, viewing huge outdoor murals, and spying moose around Denali National Park. This was a few years before the television show “Northern Exposure” was filmed, and if you watched it, you probably have an idea of what I mean. I panned for gold, took some tourist side trips, and even saw a live reindeer, too.

The flight to Alaska is quite lengthy, especially from the East Coast of the United States, and prices are higher for just about everything that’s not produced there. It probably is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone, and those who visit on cruises usually rave about the voyage. Therefore, although different than from most of us are used to, Alaska can be a wonderful place to visit. In downtown Anchorage, around and on the summer solstice, there are countless festivities and events which take place all night long. (Think midnight marathons, bike races, music concerts, baseball games, boat regattas, and air shows, with nary an electric light or starry sky to be seen.)

Check them out for yourself; even if you don’t get there for the summer solstice, you will probably still have a wonderful time!

http://www.alaska.com/events/summerfest/story/4704469p-4655446c.html
http://www.alaska.com/places/cities/anchorage/story/4485200p-4463935c.html
http://www.awaic.org/

Lancaster, PA – Amish and More

About 25 years ago, my company had a meeting once in Lancaster, Pa. It seemed to be a convenient meeting point, since we had departmental offices from Pittsburgh all the way to Philadelphia. I don’t have too many distinct memories of the tour I took through the Amish and Mennonite communities, but I hope to relive the adventure again this summer with my daughter. She has no clue about that way of life, and can’t even imagine survival without the latest technology, let alone electricity. As I’ve searched and read library books and tourist brochures, I’m starting to get mixed feeling about the growth of the area. In one way, it’s great that it’s becoming more known, but it commercialism has hit the PA Dutch homeland just as much as it has other unique destinations.

There are at least five different groups that offer buggy rides through the countryside, one of them touting themselves as the “authentic” providers. So how does a visitor choose? There is no detail available regarding times or routes, so I guess I’ll just have to get there to find out. Not that these are important aspects, but it’s a different kind of appearance than if there was just one, if you know what I mean. There are a couple of different Amish village/farms, all boasting a lot of opportunities to see handmade quilts and buy local delicacies such as shoo-fly pie. Two different people had told me, both within the last week, that I must make it to the Lancaster Farmer’s Market for the best sausage and ice cream in the state. There are also 3 or 4 buffets and several “family style” restaurants that can provide visitors with their fill of the authentic culinary dishes as well.

The towns and farm areas of Intercourse and Bird-In-Hand offer local attractions such as historical museums, roadside fruit and vegetable stands, train rides and art galleries, while Hershey Park and Dutch Wonderland provide a day’s worth of family theme park entertainment. It seems that there are a lot of antique stores and outlets in the nearby vicinity, along with a pretzel factory, hot air balloon rides, and Indian Echo Caverns.

A short search uncovered the typical assortment of chain hotels and motels, but the area is also known for bed and breakfasts, as well as lodgings at working farms. There are approximately two dozen listed in the Lancaster Country Official Getaway Guide, and one of them is classified as “Equestrian Estates”. However, they are not in the immediate vicinity of the main streets, so if your goal is to be in walking distance to everything, these won’t meet that need. (I also found out that most bed and breakfast establishments do not return deposits if cancellations are made within a week or so or the reserved time, and many do not offer beds larger than doubles. So, as quaint as they may appear, B&B’s may not be your cup of tea when it comes to practicality.)

Edging out of this immediate area, everyone should be able to find something to keep them busy. There are miniature golf courses, a sports emporium (with go karts, batting cages, roller-skating, rock climbing, and a lasertron), Ephrata Cloisters, Herr’s Snack Factory, an Ice Rink, a Science Factory, and numerous vineyards, not to mention several golf courses and entertainment venues.

Another great thing about considering a visit to Lancaster for your family’s summer vacation is that it’s close to other notable places. It is less than 90 minutes from Gettysburg, PA and Philadelphia, and about two hours from Atlantic City. That means that, coming from the west, visitors can get an overview of the Civil War, as well as experiencing the many ghost tours of the Gettysburg battlefields and cemetery, before heading to Lancaster the next morning. Once there, it would be easy to spend a day and a half exploring the Amish, Mennonite and PA Dutch communities-in addition to taking advantage of Lancaster attractions-before heading to the city of Brotherly Love. In Philadelphia, the history lesson could continue for a day, and a traveler can spend that night looking out from their casino hotel room onto the Atlantic Ocean.

For more information, you should check out PADutchCountry.com or visit PA.com to map your next educational, athletic, entertaining-and overall fun-trip-in the Keystone State.

What’s New in Atlantic City?

Many baby boomers probably remember visiting this Jersey shore resort years ago, before it was the casino capital of the northeastern United States. I know my parents took me there once, but my memories are vague, and I have wanted to see how it’s been reinvented. Recently, I requested a visitor guide, which I have found to be a lot more helpful than any of the websites. So, if you’ve been thinking of traveling to Atlantic City, my first suggestion to you is to first request a travel guide; you’ll have a lot more sites to check out than by randomly searching hotel names or tourist links.

Atlantic City appears to be larger than what I recollect, and the growth around the Marina area (north and slightly west of the boardwalk) is the recipient of a lot of attention. I read many excellent reviews about the Borgata and Harrah’s resorts, and they are both located in this area. These casinos are removed from the hustle and bustle of the Boardwalk, but they may be exactly what some folks prefer. (For you foodies, you may be happy to hear that Borgata hosts not only a restaurant of Bobby Flay’s, but one of Wolfgang Puck’s as well.)

Moving on toward the Boardwalk, the northernmost pier has both an art gallery and a historic museum of Atlantic City, with free admission and nearby parking. Both will be on my list of things to see, along with the southern pier, home to a variety of shops and cafes. In fact, it appears that there is more than enough to do along the stretch of boardwalk that connects the oceanfront casino resort, Showboat, to the array off the last pier-such as Trump’s Taj Mahal, Bally’s, and Caesars, to name a few. Oceanfront accommodations start at a little over a hundred dollars a night for weekdays, but go up considerably on weekends and as the summer progresses. (Check for the Harrah’s family of “hot deals” for savings.)

As I flipped through the travelogue and circled possibilities, I noticed that resort entrepreneurs have managed to squeeze as many visitor sites as possible into a one or two mile area. Although not quite a tourist attraction, the lighthouse north of the Showboat seems like a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours, although I doubt I’ll make the climb. (After doing it once in Virginia Beach, I think I can say I understand the experience.) The potpourri of kid entertainment appears to be the same as everywhere, in the form of amusement parks, miniature golf and a Ripley’s Believe It or No museum. Don’t get me wrong; they are all fun, but pretty predictable, and if your kids are a bit older and have already had their share, they won’t hold anyone’s interest for too long. But some of the live entertainment might be worth checking out: Elton John will be performing there on July 19th, and Celine Dion on September 20. Jay Leno and Crazy Al Yankovic are also on the show agenda, and if you can wait until October, you can even see Anthony Bourdaine. We have the American Idol Concert coming to my home town of Pittsburgh in July, but if you don’t, you can catch the top 10 contestants in Atlantic City on the 2nd of August 2, and Parrot Heads won’t want to miss Jimmy Buffett on August 24.

It’s not surprising that there is a wealth of culinary experiences within the famous resorts, but as always, so much food; so little time. Should I opt for the Cajun Buffet at the New Orleans-themed Showboat, or hold off and visit Patsy’s, the place supposedly made famous by Frank Sinatra? (Not really in my generation, ole’ blue eyes is still famous, and for that I must acknowledge his opinion of good Italian cuisine.) There seems to be a lot of Asian eateries, and I noted one Mexican, one Indian, and a few barbecue joints inside the elegant casinos, so you must say they try to meet as many tastes as possible. Of course, there are probably more casual diners along the boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue than a hungry guest can shake a stick at, but obviously no magazine can list all of them. I’ll just have to get there to find out.

It’s always hard trying to plan any trip without first hand familiarity of the location, but between the internet and good reference material, I’m making progress. I’m excited about this trip, as it seems to offer that which appeals to my family members; where else can we find the ocean, casinos and top entertainment, fancy surroundings for when we’re in the fancy mood, an interesting history, and within a 6 hour drive of home? As always, I’ll keep you posted!