Wednesday, September 29, 2010

At the end of the road trip: 2010 South Carolina Campground Cookoff

Every road trip needs a destination or three or four and my most recent one led to the 2010 South Carolina Campground Cookoff at the Calhoun Falls State Recreation Area.

It was a first for me and having never been a camper had no idea what to expect. I'm not as stringent as a high school classmate who declares she won't go anywhere she can't tip, but I like my bathrooms en suite. I wondered what the food would be like. Wine sauced beanie-weenies around the campfire?  S'mores with dark Belgian chocolate?

Hardly. Today's campground cooks are a sophisticated bunch and so are their RVs which do have en suite bathrooms.

The campground is in an idyllic setting, wooded points overlooking the large stretch that is Lake Russell and the Savannah River. There are campgrounds only, no cabins or rooms.

Tip: Levelers, we're in the toe hills, not the foothills, so any great change in elevation is man made and infrequent. Western South Carolina is hillier than the low country of the east, but not challenging.

There were 23 teams vying for $2,000 in prize money and they, plus several batches of onlookers, arrived Friday afternoon and were treated to a live band that night.

I spent the night at Hickory Knob State Resort Park about a 25 minutes drive away. On the same lake, Hickory Knob has cabins, motel-like rooms, camp sites, tennis courts, volleyball, a pool, golf course and several boat ramps as well as a lodge and restaurant.

Cooking for the Cookoff - over wood or charcoal only, no gas grills allowed - began in the morning.

To keep things lively there was a best decorated camp contest, a kids' and adults parade, a marketplace where vendors of boiled peanuts, special spits, sauces, etc. set up their wares and a silent auction.

Judge Beth D'Addono
We looked, photographed, tasted and scored.
Judging began at 12:45 p.m. under a big tent and every bite, expression and move we three judges made was noted by the 50 or so people sitting in the "audience". It must have been fun to watch because no one left.

Emcee Jayne Scarborough kept a running commentary going, explaining the recipes used.

The food was amazing. Grits were popular this year, with a fairly even mix of chicken, pork, beef and seafood dishes. There were two quail entries, two chicken wing entries but only one team cooked spareribs.

Bacon was perhaps the most popular added ingredient, but many who used it liberally forgot its saltiness and over-salted with the table stuff.

Having judged the South Carolina Peach-Off for several years, I was surprised to see only three cooks entered in the dessert category. Probably a good thing; after tasting 23 entrees, don't think we judges could have managed an equal number of desserts.

Awards were given out, silent auction items were picked up and paid for and the crowd ambled back to their campsites.

Sitting around the unlit campfire at the campsite of friends of the organizers, watching the action on the beach and lake, comparing notes and anecdotes and imbibing in an adult beverage  after it was all over was the perfect ending.
Judges and friends relax and digest the day.

A steady breeze blew off the lake, kids fished and swam and poked around the shore, boaters motored by, we laughed and relaxed and looked forward to next year. A lovely afterglow. I suspect the same scenario was being played out at every other campsite.

If this sounds like something you would enjoy, by all means sign up. It's scheduled for the third weekend of September 2011 and campground cooks from any state - or country for that matter - are eligible.

 You'll meet a group of fun-loving people, their families and friends. You can learn more about it at You'll find the recipes for all of the 2010 there too as well as the top ones at my other blog,

Thanks to Shafer Huguley for some of the photos.

Leia Mais…
Monday, September 27, 2010

Pack heavy to visit Amelia Island


I've frequently sung the praises of wonderfully flat, beautiful, historic and fun Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach, Florida, but the Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau has come up with yet another reason to visit.

The "Pack Your Bags for Amelia Island" program offers air travelers up to an $80 room credit for checked baggage fees when you stay three or more nights.

See why Conde Nast Traveler's readers vote it one of the Top 5 North American islands.

Go to  to select your participating accommodations.

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Joy of Road Trips

Driving the back roads of America can be as exotic as those of any country in the world. I recently hit the road from Jacksonville, FL, to Blue Ridge, GA, and the Old 96 District of South Carolina.

Speed was the priority going up but even on I-75 I found humor, as in the sign:

SELL YOUR HUSBAND                          
on new cabinets from... 

Then there was the working man's  lunch stop I hit in Cordele, GA. The food wasn't as good as I'd hoped but it was cheap and plentiful and the vegetables of the day included rutabagas (!). When was the last time you hit those on a buffet line, especially a very small one? They were the best things I had.

North Georgia is largely undiscovered by travelers outside of the South. Scenery is beautiful, folks are friendly and for Levelers, the towns are built mostly in the valleys, making them fairly flat and easy to negotiate.  

One stop definitely worth your while is the darnedest store you're likely to encounter, Alexander's, a 50-plus-year-old institution outside of Blairsville. If you can't find it there and at a discount, it isn't made. Jewelry, men's and women's clothes, hunting gear and equipment, hats, socks, furniture, scarves, refrigerators, boots, stoves, bathtubs, sunglasses - you name it, they have it.

A different kind of store but definitely worth a stop is the Old Sautee Store on the Unicoi Trail, now GA Hwy 17. Opened in 1872, it has been run by only four families. 

All of them contributed to the old half - the 1911 nickelodeon, an early movie peep show and all the other goods stocked over the years - but the Swedish and Norwegian couple who owned it in the 1960s set the tone for the new portion with its collection of amber jewelry, old country knits and Swedish farmer's cheese. They started making the cheese in the 1960s and have become the largest seller of it in the U. S. - 21,000 pounds in the last year alone.

Driving through the foot-, heel- and toe-hills to South Carolina you hit one charming town after another. Didn't see a railroad track going through Clarksville but the Beatles song about the Last Train to there stuck in my brain anyway. The Hartwell Lake radio station read the day's obituaries, including where and when the family would be receiving, during the noon hour. Next time I'll stop in Clarkson and poke around in its interesting looking boutiques. I'll also take the time to learn if  the teeny town I passed through is named Dewy Rose or Dewey Rose as its name was spelled both ways on various signs.

One find was the "stew" at Backwoods BBQ south of Lavonia, GA. It has the texture of a fork-thick soup and the flavor is out of this world. Next time I'll bring a cooler and buy a quart for $7.25.

Travel doesn't have to be an ordeal or expensive. Hop in the car, head off in a new direction and pay attention.

Leia Mais…
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Orlando for bloggers

When travel bloggers aren't traveling and blogging they travel to learn more about blogging.

ASTA, the organization for travel agents, has come to realize the influence bloggers have on the traveling public. So much so that they opened their annual convention in Orlando with a session for travel bloggers hosted by Tripitini which is kind of a Facebook for travelers and travel writers.

Three Sunday morning sessions on the art of blogging were followed by opening day of the ASTA Travel Market in the huge Orange County Convention Center.

Chris Elliott, the non-stop consumer advocate for MSNBC, National Geographic Traveler, Tribune Media Services and The Washington Post, opened the SRO sessions with the ABCD of blogging: Find a topic. Connect with an audience. Make money. Become an influencer.

The 133 million blogs in 2008, perhaps 500 are serious travel blogs so Elliott recommended finding a niche that matches your passion, your strengths and that isn't being covered. Wordpress seems top be the preferred formatter and remember, it isn't really a blog post without participation from readers.

Having found a niche, finding an audience means always writing on-topic (not like this) and really working social media - Stumble Upon, Digg, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, etc.

Making money is the biggest bugaboo. Of then 150 or so bloggers in the room, perhaps three or four actually made their living from it. Syndication gets you good exposure but not much money and slavishly including the most searched key words gets you lost in the competition.

Be interesting, get recognized, go viral, make lots of friends, help other bloggers and get traffic, traffic, traffic and you will become an influencer.

Edward Hasbrouck's (Practical Nomad) session on working with travel marketers and PR agencies was pretty much a snooze, which many of us needed.

However, the the "One Subject, One Blog: Do's and Don'ts for Niche Blogging" was a hit. Jeanine Barone,, finds the unexpected, eschewing theme parks for parks and trails in Orlando; Matt Kepnes, helps keep you traveling for longer lengths of time on less money; Janice Waugh,, learned to fly, bike, train and cruise solo after becoming a widow; Beth Whitman,, blogs for female travelers; and moderator Kim Mance, and founder of TBEX, kept comments and answers to questions pithy and relevant.

Meanwhile, always on target eventually, I picked up some tips for Levelers.

Tips: The Hard Rock Hotel in the Universal complex is a good fit for families but not for levelers. Inside it isn't bad but to get from self parking lot to lobby level involves a series of stairs - 37 to be precise. You can valet park but to reach the pickup spot for shuttle buses on that side of the hotel, you must negotiate another 37 stairs.

La Nouba, the popular Cirque du Soleil show at the DisneyWorld Boardwalk area, also involves stairs, although there is an elevator. If you get the rare opportunity to take a tour, there are a LOT of stairs; the complex is nine stories tall and you either take the elevator up and walk down or walk up and elevator down (the former is better).

You can put a lot of miles on the car trying to find your way around and out of the Disney complex. My recommendation: Pick a hotel or resort, whether within the complex or not, with good shuttle bus service and let someone else do the driving. You'll walk less, too.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal is the hot spot now thanks to J. K. Rowling's lovable wizard. I didn't have time to give it a try but those who did raved and reported that the area is relatively small so walking doesn't overwhelm you. To beat the crowds, stay at a hotel that qualifies you to enter an hour earlier than everyone else or lounge around the pool by day and head to Hogwarts late in the afternoon when everyone else is hot, sweaty and leaving.

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Thailand's Hill Tribes

A visit to one or more of the Hill Tribes is on the itinerary for most visitors to Thailand who venture into the Chiang Mai area. While each has its own  distinct culture and costume, the women of most tribes do beautiful handwork - weaving, embroidery and other embellishments.

The Hmong, many refugees from Laos, were the first I visited. Theirs was a slash and burn culture, clearing fields with fire, planting until all nutrients were gone then moving on to slash and burn again, not unlike what you find among groups in Central America. The opium poppy was their primary crop.

Guides will tell you in great detail how the Thai government has developed resettlement programs for the Hill people, encouraging them, often successfully, to stay in one place and replace poppies with flowers for the international market.

Alas, clearing fields with fire is still all too convenient and from the moment we deplaned at the Chiang Mai airport the sky was a haze and the air was thick with smoke from the many brush fires burning around the city.

While the men were off managing fires, the women supplement the family income by producing exquisite fabrics from hemp, adorning them with a dizzying patchwork of cloth and silver trim. The tribe we visited was the Blue sub-group because the women's costume began with stunning pencil pleated skirts of three tiers - one a solid color, one of batik with applique and the third embellished with cross stitch - that take seen to eight months to make.

Malai, 23, who spoke English, took us behind and below her on-ground hut to the cellar in back to show us how the hemp was grown then processed to flatten and soften. All of the women spoke or understood enough English to show off and market their work which was hard to resist.

Tip: The ground underfoot is uneven and rutted and you will encounter some uphill slopes but don't let that deter you. Just take your time and watch where you step.

The next tribe presented us with a moral dilemma. The Padaung or Long-Necked Karen are a sub-group of the Karen who arrived in Thailand as refugees from Burma (Myanmar). The village near Chiang Mai is the only one that charges admission.

You probably remember seeing their pictures because the women wear brass rings around their necks, arms and legs. It looks as if the rings, put on at around the age of 6 with 5 kilo added annually, make the women's necks longer. Actually, the weight compresses the collar bone and vertebrae.
Once on and added to, the rings can't be removed without threatening the life of the wearer.

There are many legends but no definitive answer as to why and how this practice began and over the years, many families have stopped subjecting their girls to it. However, with tourists now paying to see them, it is increasingly difficult for mothers to say no because the family's income will suffer.

We - seven travel writers - debated about it and finally came to the decision to see for ourselves.

As we toured the village we tried to talk to the women, all of whom were weaving, asking about their rings and whether they would put them on their daughters. A few said no, but the most honest said yes or maybe.

I suspect pressure to bring in more tourist dollars will be impossible to avoid even though the village also grows rice and flowers.

Too bad because visiting the bamboo huts on stilts, seeing their rice paddies and watching their fabulous fabrics created - and buying them - would have been draw enough to visit.

To pay for it? Probably not, which means 20 years from now you'll still be able to gawk at and photograph long-necked Karen women.

In the end we left quickly and guiltily, feeling as if we had perpetuated this human zoo.

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Phuket: sailing east to west

Having dipped our toes in the Eastern Andaman Sea it was time to go west to party central Patong and to sample the luxe life as only a Banyan Tree resort can deliver it.

As we were all travel writers, we couldn't just hop in the van and go, we needed a new experience.  Luckily, that meant sailing aboard the Sea Breeze for a Siam Junk Cruise.

What a treat. This beautiful, 112-foot long, 23 feet wide, two-masted teak vessel provided the ultimate in comfort, attractiveness and hospitality. Managing Director John Bethell (a real foodie!), his associates and crew entertained and coddled us throughout. 

Hearing how they cruise the waters of Burma and India as well as those of Thailand, can have a masseuse on board and have chefs for Thai, fusion and Western-style cuisine made me want to gather a group to fill the six tasteful staterooms, each with bath. Dibs on one of the VIP suites. They can accommodate as many as 50 for a day cruise with gourmet meal.

The very loud firecrackers set off over the bow by the crew did their job. Ours was an auspicious and totally pleasant journey.

The sea was as beautiful but the scenery was not as dramatic as what we had already seen. We anchored off Patong Beach for lunch and felt far luckier than the passengers on our much larger neighbor, Cunard's Queen Victoria. 
NOTE:  Go to my other blog, Food Afar - Recipes from a Travel Writer - and check the April archive to see what we ate and how you can cook it at home.

Tip: Transfers from land to boat are fairly easy, but find out how exactly they will be handled before booking. No problem at all from a marina; the walk out to the boat can be long but at least you know it is going to be flat. The transfer to the Six Senses boat was a cinch but getting from boat to the island resort's pier was a bit dicey. We padded through the sand to a zodiac then climbed up a very short ladder with lots of help to get to the Siam Junk. Getting from junk to zodiac was easy as was getting off at Patong Harbor.

Landing in Patong was going from the sublime to the ridiculous. The beach was filled with bikini-clad bodies, a few of which were designed for skimpy swimwear. 

The sidewalks were filled with sarong-wearing  recent beach goers who shared streets and sidewalks with motor bikers joy riding or hell-bent to get wherever faster.

Offerings were titillating.
Come sleep with us - racy apartments personally staffed. 
Touch Villas. 
Laundry and massages. 
FBI, Finest Bar in Thailand. 
From custom tailoring to a companion of the moment or x-rated apparel, it was yours for the asking and paying. 

Two spots here Westerners will find appealing. Joe's Downstairs overlooks a rocky promontory, serves excellent drinks and is a great place to watch the sun go down. 

Right next door, Baan Rim Pa, one of Thailand's most celebrated restaurants, features dishes only found in the country's Grand Palace. Staffers have raised vegetable and fruit carving to a fine art. 
Warning: With Joe's to the left and Baan Rim Pa, the two make for a lovely evening but you will have to negotiate flights of stairs.

 We returned to the sublime with an all too brief stay at Banyan Tree Phuket in their divine, luxuriously appointed pool villas.

Warning: Some of these villas feature beds that are on a raised platform but at floor level.  This can be a problem or a giggle depending on your attitude and physical dexterity. However, the resort is on flat terrain and you rarely encounter more than four steps up or down between buildings. Golf carts ferry you from one destination to another within the complex and villas come with bikes. 

Banyan Tree is at the northern, most private end of what is billed as Asia's first integrated resort, Laguna Phuket, with five hotels sharing an 18-hole golf course, corporate training facility and an idyllic stretch of white sand beach. All were appealing but the Tree was the most elegant. 

Do NOT miss the spa. You will have to dig deeper into your pockets for a massage here, but do it.  The massage rooms are the most beautiful I have ever seen. 

Not that you'll have your eyes open once you hit the table. 


And with that, I had to leave Thailand for the long, l-o-o-n-g haul home.

Leia Mais…