Saturday, February 27, 2010

Switzerland for Levelers, Part 1: Neuchatel Region

Traveling on the level in Switzerland, home of the Alps?

You bet if you can handle the occasional up and down slant. The trick is to take the country's wonderful trains through the mountains to see what else is there.

My suggestion: Head east to the
Neuchatel region in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, home to Switzerland's famous watch, cheese and chocolate makers.

The old town of Neuchatel begins across from the lake of the same name and winds up through yellow sandstone buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Tip: If you go in July or August, the tourist train will do the climbing for you. The 45-minute tour, which stops at the 15th century castle, runs four times daily then; Sundays only in May and June, Saturday and Sunday in September.

One don't-miss, the Jaquet-Droz automatons in the Museum of Art and History down by the harbor. Like 18th century computers, they are three young figures.

The scribe can write up to 40 words in any language that uses the Roman alphabet. The female pianist breathes and compresses the keys of the pipe organ to play four different tunes. The draftsman draws a cupid, a dog or a portrait of a man. They will amaze you just as they have the crowned heads of Europe since 1774.

Tip: Hotel Beau-Rivage is situated on Lake Neuchatel adjacent to Esplanade du Mont-Blanc, a formal garden interspersed with sculpture - artists include Arp, Vasarely and Robert Indiana - all of which is nice and flat.

For more information on Switzerland, go to and click on "Travel: Europe".

Leia Mais…
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Eagle Island - Yours and yours alone

You don't need a passport and deep pockets to escape to a private island. You don't need more than a weekend and a reservation from Private Islands of Georgia. 

Its flagship, Eagle Island, is a 15-minute-long boat ride from the south Georgia coast and a world away from any vacation you've ever taken.

The back barrier island, one of several that has formed between land and Georgia's eight barrier islands, has 10 acres of high ground. A short, flat walk from the dock is the lodge and its nearest neighbor, the eagles and their nest responsible for the island's name.

Tip: 182 steps along a well-defined path to be exact, Levelers. There's a ramp from the floating dock to the pier - 21 steps - that can be steep at low tide, a gentle rise at high tide. Once you reach the low-country-style lodge, there are 18 steps up the front or back side to the main living area.

Captain Andy Hill, owner and developer of the island, will get you and your luggage settled in, show you where everything is, from the ice maker and frozen shrimp for bait in the downstairs freezer, to the crab traps, tandem kayak and controls for the hot tub. When you and your party are squared away, Andy departs, leaving you on the island until it's time to return and take you back to the hustle and bustle of the mainland.

... Unless you've asked him to prepare a signature Eagle Island oyster roast or low country boil during your stay. While he's cooking, ask where he found the building materials, decor, even the landscaping and you'll discover how eco-friendly green a retreat can be.

... Unless you've had him arrange for Danny Grissette to boat in and give you a nature tour by kayak.

... Unless you've booked a day on nearby Sapelo Island, where Andy has property and a car. He'll boat you in, show you around, introduce you to some of the residents and take you to a beach as private as your island.

The itinerary and activity is all up to you. Come alone, with a special someone or pack the lodge's two queen-bedded main floor rooms, the twin-bedded sleeping loft or the ground level rec room with its two bunk beds and one queen-size.

Do nothing but rock and read on the wide screened porch that encircles the lodge, soak in the hot tub while you spy on the eagles, try the outdoor shower for two or tell tales around the fire pit, fish, crab, walk around the island or, if you must, watch TV or take advantage of Internet access.

It's up to you, which is what a private island escape is all about.  

In addition to the physical beauty of the marshes, rivers and wildlife that surrounds you, the beauty of Eagle Island is that "What happens on the island, stays on the island" - unless you choose to blab about it.

Tip: Capt. Andy will meet you in Darien, a coastal shrimping town about an hour's drive from Jacksonville (FL) International Airport.

Enjoy listening to the breeze freshen while enjoying a perfect Levelers' retreat.

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day Trip from Shanghai - Suzhou and Zhouzhuang

One last China post until I can travel back for more first-hand experience and tips.

It's hard to tear yourself away from Shanghai but if you have the time, a great day trip is to Suzhou, the silk and garden city, and Zhouzhuang, the so-called Venice of China. Both are Leveler-lovin' flat although you'll encounter some stairs in Zhouzhuang.

Tip: There are many tours combining the two cities but make sure you know exactly what you are getting and how you are going. My friends made arrangements through The Ritz-Carlton concierge and because ours was a group of three, we were put with another, similarly sized group. No problem until two of them and the guide lit up cigarettes on what we had been promised was a no smoking excursion. We had paid the guide directly so we insisted on getting our money back -  Jerry is a well-traveled 6-plus-footer so the 5-foot-nothing guide finally complied - and being let out. The concierge apologized profusely and set us up with a car, driver and guide, but fully one-third of our touring time had been lost.

Our first stop was a Suzhou silk factory where we were given a quick silk culture 101 tour that ended with us helping two ladies pull, pat and stretch silk into a quilt, a specialty of the house. It's harder than it sounds.

Tip: I don't care what your home climate is, I highly recommend buying one of these plus a silk duvet cover in the company store. A silk comforter within a silk duvet is the essence of comfortable, luxury sleeping. It's hypoallergenic, weighs next to nothing - a godsend if you have arthritis - and will keep you warm in winter and cool in summer. Yes, it's bulky, but they package it up in easy-to-carry plastic cases and unlike so many souvenirs, it's worth the effort.  A perfect, special gift for a shut-in or older friend, too. And yes, you can wash it.

Suzhou's Gardens began as early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC) but they hit the zenith during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. These were private gardens rather than public or imperial ones.

We toured two. The Humble Administrator's Garden, the city's largest classical garden, is in the Ming style. Its 48 buildings, 21 precious old trees and more than 700 bonsai (potted landscapes, to the Chinese) are charming and warrant lingering. Alas, there wasn't time to experience how the names were derived for the charmingly termed Hall of Drifting Fragrance, Listening to the Sound of Rain pavilion, A Pure Mind Thinks Deep, the Stay-and-Listen pavilion, the Good-For-Both-Families pavilion, the With Whom Shall I Sit? pavilion or the Hall of 36 Pairs of Mandarin Ducks.

The Lion Grove or Forest of Lions Garden is small but its 22 buildings and 13 old trees seem much larger.  Famed architect I. M. Pei spent much of his youth here in the Zen Buddhism flavored garden designed by his uncle.

That's all you'll have time for on a one-day, two-city tour, but garden enthusiasts really should plan a longer stay to take in the highlights of The Lingering Garden, The Master of Nets Garden, Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, The Surging Wave Pavilion, The Couple's Garden Retreat, the Garden of Cultivation and the Retreat and Reflection Garden. It's on my to-do list.


Halfway between Suzhou and Shanghai, this traffic-free city is the number one attraction for Chinese tourists. Surrounded by lakes and connected by canals and 14 stone bridges, Zhouzhuang will delight you despite its throngs of tourists.

Many of the buildings are from the Yuan, Qing and Ming Dynasties and are open to the public.  One of the most interesting and definitely the largest at 100-plus rooms, is the Hall of Shen's Residence, built in 1742 by the son of province's first silk trade millionaire. Others include the 15th century Zhang House and the Ye Chucang Residence.

Your tour should include a ride through the canals on one of the traditional Chinese style gondolas. Most of the gondoliers we saw were women and yes, they serenaded us.

Yes, it's touristy but It's also the perfect dessert for the day, gliding through the four canals lit with orange lanterns, watching, nodding and waving to diners in restaurants and tea drinkers in cafes, some of whom have dropped a fishing line into the water.

Thanks to our tour snafu, we didn't have nearly enough time in this city of canals. Next time I'm allotting a full day here and saving my appetite for a taste of Zhouzhuang's specialty, Wansan Pig's Leg, an upper leg stewed in brown sauce over a low fire.

Tip: Tours will include admission tickets but if you go on your own, you need to buy an access ticket to the museums and houses of Zhouzhuang at one of the city gates.

Warning: Don't be surprised when you're sure another building has emerged in the skyline by the time you return to Shanghai!

Leia Mais…
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Fitzgerald, GA -The love-hate town

Imagine hundreds of Union Army veterans and their families traveling to Georgia pine country, the heart of Dixie, 25 years after the Civil War.

That's what happened in Fitzgerald, GA, a town designed for and built by Civil War veterans. Neighbors still were fighting the war but the soldiers themselves were ready for peace. They found it here alongside their former enemies in a town where streets were named for Union and Confederate leaders.

Industriousness kept Fitzgerald thriving through depressions, the railroads and the timber and pulp businesses brought prosperity and the newcomers brought understanding and amity to what had been hostile territory.

Today, Fitzgerald is a small town where neighbors keep up with one another and take the time to welcome visitors. However, the love-hate dynamic is still very much present as you'll find when you travel here.

The old railroad depot may have become the Blue and Gray Museum but a train rumbles through town every 28 minutes, stopping traffic and cutting the silence with its whistles. The inconvenience and noise annoy some, the prosperity it brings pleases others. Love-hate.

Then there are the chickens. In the 1960s the Georgia Department of Natural Resources brought in Burmese chickens as new game birds to augment the existing dove, quail and pheasant populations.

The chickens were small, feisty and more athletic and intelligent than their domesticated cousins. Flocks were released all over the state, including down by the Ocmulgee River several miles from Fitzgerald.

Other flocks disappeared, probably into the stomachs of predators, but the Ocmulgee contingent, preferring a more urban - and probably safer - environment, migrated into town and thrived.

Now they rule the roost. Some residents feed them, others shoo them away, again with the love-hate dynamic. But mostly the town folks tolerate them. Chickens have the right of way on the streets and roads and on the third weekend in March the Wild Chicken Festival attracts visitors.

Train whistles and cock-a-doodle do's are the sounds of Fitzgerald.

Tip: Nabila's Garden Restaurant is the place to eat and the Dorminy-Massee House Bed & Breakfast is the place to stay. The ever-changing buffet at Nabila's is a local favorite, especially the fried chicken and desserts although I was partial to the vegetables.

The white-columned B & B will remind you of antebellum mansions and it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places although it wasn't built until 1915. All eight bedrooms come with private bath, phone, TV and computer modem and two of them are on the first floor. However, the stairs leading to the second story aren't bad.

Also good, there are no hills in Fitzgerald and very few steps with which to contend, making it a good stop for levelers.

Leia Mais…
Friday, February 5, 2010

An Inclusive Heaven - Little St. Simons Island

Imagine a three-day, kick-back island getaway where all you need to bring is what you wear.

Where Nature with a capital "N" wanders by your window and where only 32 guests at a time get to see it.

Where everything from top shelf liquors, gourmet organic meals, snacks, naturalist guides, boats, bicycles, even bug spray is included in the price.

Where you have 7 miles of wide, white beach to explore.

Now imagine getting three days for the cost of two.

Between now and March, that's the deal at the Lodge at Little St. Simons Island. Pick a room in the lodge, a comfy cabin for you and your pals or a private, cozy cottage for two.

You don't need a passport because it's just off the coast of southern Georgia.

I've been there and believe me, it's perfect for Levelers.

This is an unheard of opportunity at a uniquely private, casual but luxe escape.

Dates are filling fast. Call 866-855-0718 or go to

Tell 'em Judy sent you.

Leia Mais…
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Going Dutch

The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions has launched a new marketing campaign - "Just be. In Holland." - and you might benefit.

I know, it doesn't send me either but, first, as we all know, Holland is flat so we Levelers enjoy going there.

Second, you might win some nifty Dutch things:

Fresh tulips every month for a year (Feb. 4).


A Gassan 121 diamond made in Amsterdam (Feb. 11).

A traditional Batavus Dutch bicycle (Feb. 18).

A Carbon chair designed by Marcel Wanders and Bertjan Pot (Feb. 25).

Every Thursday during February, a new question about Holland will be posed at Answer it correctly and yours might be the entry drawn to win the prize.

One grand prize winner will "just be in Holland" with two round-trip business class tickets on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to Amsterdam and a four-night stay at the Sofitel Amsterdam The Grand. To be considered upload a photograph showing how you would "Just be. In Holland" between Feb. 4 and March 4. The most creative entry wins.

Ready, set, go - and good luck.

Leia Mais…