A Travellerspoint blog

November 2011

Where to Next?

It's been a while since we've done anything more than a quick weekend or day trip, but that's about to change. The cold is upon us and that drives me to seek warmer places. I endure winter's chill by seeking the sun every chance I get. November takes us back to our favorite haunt, Abaco. We'll spend a few days basking in the warm waters of Elbow Cay and soaking in enough sunshine to last until the next trip: Brazil. In December, we'll fly into Rio and visit the colonial fishing town of Paraty, the remote island of Ilha Grande, the resort town of Buzios, and the hustle and Bustle of Rio de Janeiro. January will take us to Key West again so that we can take a second shot at the Conch Republic.

Stay tuned!

Posted by vicki_h 08:04 Comments (4)

Day Trips Can Be the Best Trips of All

Wilburn Ridge Hike in Damascus, VA

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It was a beautiful fall day in East TN last weekend.....the forecast called for bright sunshine and 60 degree temps. It sounded like a perfect day to squeeze in a fall hike before all the leaves were lost.

We piled up in Whiskey Alpha (my name for our plane, whose tail number ends in WA), and headed up to Abingdon, VA…one of our favorite fall day trips. We love Abingdon because of it’s historic small town charm. Founded in 1778, Abingdon is nestled in the Virginia Highlands, historic Abingdon includes a tree lined Main Street dotted with 19th century homes, brick sidewalks, and a wonderful assortment of galleries and shops.

There are wonderful places to visit like the Arts Depot, where you can watch artists creating in their studios and purchase something to take home, or the Abingdon Olive Oil Company with 32 varieties of oil from all over the world, or my favorite, Vagabond Traders, a small women’s boutique filled with an eclectic and colorful selection of clothes and jewelry.

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Abingdon is also home to the Barter Theater and the Martha Washington Inn, countless B&Bs, and some great little restaurants like Wild Flour bakery or the Tavern. Housed in the oldest building in town, the Tavern has been standing since 1779 and serves up hearty steak and potato fare underneath a moss covered roof.

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If you venture off Main Street, you’ll find White’s Mill, where they still grind flour, the Abingdon Winery, and the 34 mile Creeper Trail – a really amazing bike ride from White Top Mountain all the way into downtown Abingdon.

The morning we arrived was cold and foggy. I double checked the forecast, realizing that I had checked the Knoxville forecast….but hadn’t really looked at the Abingdon forecast. It wasn’t that far away, I didn’t think there would be much of a difference. The chill in the air and the lightly falling snowflakes told me otherwise.

Weather.com told me that the sun would be shining by 1:00 p.m. so we took advantage of the foggy morning to grab some coffee and muffins at Zazzy’z and spent the morning taking in the shops.

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Around noon, we headed toward Damascus and the Grayson Highlands State Park, where we planned to do the Wilburn Ridge Trail. On the way, we stopped in at Wild Flour Bakery for thick homemade sandwiches made on their fresh bread. As we drove toward the park, the sky broke and the sun made it’s way into the sky. It looked like a beautiful day for a hike.

The drive to Grayson Highlands was slow because it was a 40 mile drive on a curving, winding, hilly 2 lane road through the mountains. The air was crisp and clear and the fall leaves waved in a beautiful showing of color.

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As we climbed higher and higher, however, we saw something wholly unexpected.

Snow. Lots of it. And ice.

It was like the world had been draped in lace and crystals and it took our breath away.

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When we arrived at the trailhead, we realized this hike would be very different than we expected. Rather than a sunny trail filled with waving autumn grasses and gently falling maple leaves, we had found ourselves embarking on a journey through a winter wonderland, with the warm sun on our faces.

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This sign marked the entry to the trail. Seriously? Exactly what more could I expect? Everything was already covered in ice and snow. What else could there be? A blizzard? Maybe an epic snowstorm complete with screaming Yetis and falling trees? Maybe the earth would just crack open and swallow us whole?

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As we started up the AT Spur Trail that led to the Wilburn Ridge Trail, a part of the Appalachian Trail, I was speechless. The forest had that softness that only happens when things are covered with snow. The world was silent and muffled, even our footsteps silenced by the soft blanket beneath our feet.

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The only sound to be heard was the tinkling of a million glass bells as the wind blew the ice covered leaves and branches…..the song of nature’s wind chimes singing up and down the hillside.

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Ice and snow covered branches created beautiful tunnels that we made our way through, with bright green patches of moss and fresh fall grasses peeking up from below. The sun dappled in through the treetops, creating prisms from the icy trees…dancing in rainbow colors before us.

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It was absolutely magical.

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Eventually the AT Spur Trail reached a junction and we found ourselves walking down a flat, long, wide path stretching through a high alpine meadow referred to as the Balds.

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That’s when we saw these guys.

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The wild ponies of Grayson Highlands.

Can there be better wildlife on a hike than little wild ponies?

Introduced to the area in the 1970’s these ponies are allowed to roam free and are wild, if you consider walking up to passing hikers and sticking their noses in their pockets wild.

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They followed us like big dogs part of the way up the trail, eventually giving up when things started to get steep again.

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The views had opened up as the trail began to climb again, over rocky outcroppings with views of distant mountains and valleys.

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We got as far as this sign…..

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Seriously…the state of that sign would convince anyone to just turn around.

The wind was picking up, the sun was going down, and the trail became a rock scramble that was covered with ice. We realized we had gone as far as was prudent. We took in the vast views one last time and vowed to come back when the trail was more passable and maybe even do some camping.

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I had to come back. I needed to see those ponies again.

The views on the return hike to the parking lot seemed even more magnificent as the sun began to set, illuminating the ice covered branches so that the fields before us looked like God’s jewelry box, laid out in all it’s finery. Treasure glittered in the sunlight and enchanted us all the way back to our car.

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I think we had only been able to do about 6 miles of the 10 mile hike, but every step was simply breathtaking. The fresh cold air, the sun on my face, the soft fur of the ponies beneath my fingertips, the crunch of the snow under my boots, and the tinkling of the ice covered branches filled me with that eternal longing for wide open spaces and fresh air.

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But, winter is coming. I can feel her cold damp fingers inching slowly up my spine. Her wicked breath is seeping beneath my closed door. She is relentless and she will soon arrive.

While I wait for her to bid farewell, I will dream of grassy highlands and wild ponies with streaks of sunlight dancing between the dappled leaves and I will return to this place when spring has spread her warm hands across the mountain and the fields are covered with wildflowers and I will dance with flowers in my hair and breathe in the fresh air once again.

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Posted by vicki_h 07:55 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Or "How I hid in the Venetian Spa for 2 days"

It's not that I don't LIKE Vegas....

Okay, it's that I don't like Vegas.

Yes, I am probably the only person in the world that does not like Las Vegas. I was introduced to it on a trip for work that I dragged my husband along on. He instantly fell in love. Where had Vegas been all his life? I spent 3 days bathing in hand sanitizer and wondering if it was time to go home yet.

So how was it that I found myself here again? Sin City. The only place in the U.S. with more sequins per cubic inch than oxygen. A towering bubble of neon and stilettos rising to the sound of a jackpot chime.

Sigh.

Matt had been hounding me for months to go to Vegas so that he could spend 72 sleepless hours in the poker room of a smoke filled casino, eating cheeseburgers at 3 a.m. and watching 20-somethings in sunglasses stroll in and out losing $300 in 10 minutes or less, thinking they were starring in their own version of The Hangover. I held out because Vegas held no appeal for me. That was...until I saw this:

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While the allure that simple poster holds is not apparent to everyone....to me....that was magic. OMD is one of my favorite bands of all time.

So, I sold myself to that glittery harlot, Vegas, for nothing more than a VIP pass to see an old 80s band that most people have never heard of.

As such, this will not be a report filled with overpriced meals at mediocre hotel restaurants sporting the names of famous chefs (do people really think Wolfgang Puck is back there preparing their food?), nor will it be a report about starry nights filled with wild clubs and glitzy shows. It won't be about winning $5,000 in blackjack or shopping at crazy expensive hotel stores.

It will be about how I spent 2 days hiding in the Canyon Ranch Spa at the Venetian so that I could spend an hour listening to Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries belt out "If You Leave" one more time.

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We had arrived very late on a Thursday night. Upon arrival, I immediately took a hot shower and crawled between the soft sheets, but Matt was already downstairs creating a butt groove in a vinyl seat at the poker table. He had crawled himself in at some point in the wee hours of Friday morning and when I woke up, he was ready to jump up and have at it again despite only having about 2 hours of sleep.

I sent him on his way and called the spa. The treatments were CRAZY expensive compared to what the same thing would cost in a nice spa at home, but what else did I have to do? I booked a facial for 9:00 a.m. and headed up. This was the best decision I made all weekend.

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The spa was an oasis of tranquility. I had found my home for the next 48 hours.

It was enormous with plenty of reading rooms and lounges. I was given my super soft giant plush robe and slippers and toured around. Sure, my facial was going to cost me 3 times what it would in Knoxville, but I quickly realized that with the price of that single facial, I got to stay here all day and sip orange tea, munch on fresh fruit, drift from one cozy reading nook to another, enjoy countless amenities like the steam room, the sauna, the aromatherapy lounge, the "igloo," the hot tubs, and on and on and on. There were wonderful showers that had jungle bird sounds and thunder or lightening while misting you with warm tropical mists or invigorating you with cold Caribbean rain showers.

With the exception of lunch, I stayed all day.

Lunch was worth breaking the spa spell for. Matt met me at I Love Burgers in the Palazzo. Two words: Grown-Up Milkshakes. Or is that three?

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I had a Very Spiked Twisted Caramel Corn shake. All ice creamy and butterscotchy...topped with caramel corn....it was worth flying all the way to Vegas for. That made the blue cheese burger and parmesan fries like a bonus.

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As Matt swollowed his burger whole so that he could get back to the Poker Room before he missed anything, I wasted the rest of my afternoon in the spa. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to to do it.

My one requirement of the trip was that Matt stop playing long enough to go out with me for a while in the evening. We made it easy on ourselves and headed to Tao.

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The people show that we got to witness in the bar area as we waited for our table was worth the price of the entire meal. I have never seen so much plastic surgery, sequins and spandex, youth and stupidity, and pretentiousness in one physical space. I could have watched it all night.

We followed about 6 bachelorette parties upstairs to the dining area where I have to admit, we had a delicious meal. Some spare ribs, some sushi, some cripsy chicken something or another......with dinner done, we realized we had a magical thing....a Tao LINE PASS.

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It had been so long since I had something tacky stamped on my wrist and the sight of about 200 19 year olds in hot pants and platform shoes waiting in line outside the door made me just have to go inside the club. Call me petty, but there is something about the "I can go in and you can't" that just can't be wasted.

We might have stayed 5 minutes. We didn't even get a drink. We entered. We saw. We turned. We headed back to the peace and quiet of the hotel.

Am I getting old??

Saturday morning was a lot like Friday morning, except that I was headed to the spa for a massage instead of a facial. As I headed down that long, colorful hallway, I felt myself relaxing with every step.

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I did a repeat of the previous day and made sure I got my $160 dollars worth. I think I even took 2 showers with their fancy toiletries, just to feel fairly compensated.

It was that afternoon that I made my mistake.

I tried to go to the pool.

My first mistake was thinking it was warm enough. It wasn't. It was my luck that Vegas had a freakish cold snap the weekend we were there and it was positively frigid. My second mistake was thinking that eventually the sun would reach my sad little lounge chair. I waited....I waited....I waited....after about an hour I realized the sun was moving behind the hotel, not above it. Doh! My third mistake was thinking I was either young enough or beautiful enough to be at a Las Vegas pool. Thank goodness it was too cold to strip down to my swimsuit because as every new group of 20 year old hot bodies strolled by with their perfectly enhanced breasts and their firm butts...their Vuitton beach bags and Jimmy Choo sandals....their $1000 sunglasses and perfect tans.........I sank lower and lower in my sad little shaded lounge chair....I felt like a troll that had interrupted a princess party.

Thankfully, the sun never emerged and I headed back inside before I bore the humiliation of revealing my 41 year old body in that sea of youthful perfection.

I did what any 41 year old woman who is suddenly faced with the loss of her youth and beauty would do....I got a pizza and took it to my room and ate it.

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The one bright and shining star of hope that I had on this trip was the OMD show. Yes, I realize not many people know who they are, but ever since my brother's best friend in the 9th grade was a guy that had just moved to Tennessee from London, bringing with him a delightful box of albums I had never heard the likes of...I have been a fan.

We grabbed a taxi and headed over to Mandalay Bay for the show. The fact that it was at a small venue like the House of Blues made it even better.

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I had super geeked out and bought us the VIP passes that got us into the sound check. Matt could have done without that, but he dutifully wore his sticker proudly like the rest of us.

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The soundcheck was early. We enjoyed getting to listen to the band to several songs with only about 15 of us in there. We got to say, "Hello," and then we headed out to grab dinner before the show. Matt and I had reservations at Mix.

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The restaurant was lovely. The food was good, if overpriced. The view, however, was beautiful. Don't go here for dinner. Skip dinner and have cocktails in the Mix Lounge and take in the views. Then go grab dinner somewhere else!

I won't bore you with the details of the concert, but let me say that, for me, it was worth every minute in Vegas. It was like I was 16 again, dancing to the music of my adolescence and screaming to my new favorites. I danced until my feet hurt and my hair hung in sweaty curls around my face.

Take that you 20-somethings. The old girl can still hang.

Before I knew it the sun was rising and it was time to shake the glitter out of my hair, kick the desert dust off my shoes, and head back to good old Tennessee.

Sometimes, there's no place like home.

Posted by vicki_h 18:44 Archived in USA Comments (7)

24 Hours in Charleston

It probably doesn't warrant being included as a "trip," but we took a quick hop over to Charleston for an overnight stay to visit with friends one steamy, hot Saturday night in August. It feels good writing about this now as the cold fingers of winter are tentatively trying to reach in under my door.

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We must have picked the HOTTEST month possible to visit Charleston. It was like being in the fifth circle of hell when we stepped out of the plane at the Charleston Executive airport. I tried to wave at our friends Jamie and Dan but in my overheated stupor it looked more like a limp attempt to swat away a fly.

Because Dan and Jamie have a place there and we had never even been before (I know...shame on us, right?), we let them guide our palate and steer us into the nearby Charleston Crab House. They had talked the BBQ shrimp and grits up so well that I just had to have it. The grits were creamy and cheesy, tangy with just the right amount of BBQ sauce, and topped with tender shrimp. Within minutes, I had forgotten how hot I was as I licked the sauce that kept wanting to drip down my chin.

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Of course, with only 24 hours, I had to eat as many courses as possible, so with the lingering scent of BBQ sauce still on my fingertips, I dove headfirst into a soft shell crab sandwich.

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Things were off to a pretty tasty start.

After a quick sweaty "see you later" hug, Matt and I were off to check into the Ansonborough Inn in the historic downtown district of Charleston. Having chosen it by price alone with only 3 days notice, I wasn't expecting much.

Was I ever surprised.

I can't imagine staying anywhere better. The Inn was the perfect combination of historic charm, luxurious comfort, and southern hospitality. Strewn with original art and filled with soaring exposed beam ceilings, my only regret was that I only had a few hours to wallow in it's breezy comfort.

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Despite the rapid rate at which I was melting, we did a little shopping along Broad Street hoping to find that one magnificent thing that we couldn't return home without.

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Because the one thing I couldn't return home without was that pretty red bicycle that Matt wouldn't let me steal, we gave up on shopping and wound our way down to the Battery, along Rainbow Row, and back through the historic City Market before throwing in the white flag and admitting defeat to the heat of the day and taking a cool nap in our lovely air conditioned suite.

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We were meeting Dan and Jamie at Amen Street for dinner. After rinsing 5 hours of sweat and street grime off my body, we found the restaurant just down the street, a short walk from our hotel.

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They said the restaurant wasn't their first choice, but having no reservation anywhere, it appeared to them to be the quickest one to get into. When the waitress brought me a plate of mini shrimp corndogs....all I could say was...."Why would you want to eat anywhere else?"

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Because I didn't feel I had met my fat and carbohydrate quota for the day, I followed the corn dogs with a giant platter of fried shrimp.

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Eventually, the combination of heat, excessive walking, and caloric overload did me in and we called it a night.

The next morning, before heading home, we had to make one last stop. Jamie had recommended Hominy Grill for breakfast.

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We were lucky enough to arrive just as the doors opened (okay, luck may have had less to do with it than my neurotic uber-planning and screaming for Matt to "HURRY! HURRY! We have to leave this minute so we don't have to wait in line!" but who's keeping tabs?) and we had a zero wait. Nestled quickly into our cozy little table, my eyes immediately fell on a menu item that actually cause me to begin salivating.

I had to have the Big Nasty Biscuit.

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After this mile high fluffy biscuit topped with a crispy fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese, and smothered in sausage gravy, I could literally hear my heart and arteries say, "We give up, dammit."

Why can't every day include a Big Nasty Biscuit?

Because Jamie had insisted...really...that was the only reason....I had to try the chocolate pudding before I left. Who doesn't love a place that serves dessert for breakfast?

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As I licked my spoon clean, I pondered what a delicious 24 hours it had been. I found an article in the Charleston paper in our hotel room that morning with the title, "101 Things to Savor, Slurp, and Suck Down in Chucktown." I better start planning the next trip now. I have a lot of eating left to do.

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Posted by vicki_h 16:17 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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