Archive for the ‘ Featured Destinations ’ Category

 

Sampo Icebreaker cruise

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

While visiting Kemi, Finland in the northern part of the country, I had an opportunity to go on an extraordinary excursion…the Sampo Icebreaker cruise. The Sampo is the only icebreaker in the world dedicated as a tourist attraction. This mighty icebreaker takes passengers around the northern Gulf of Bothnia (part of the Baltic Sea) out of Finnish Lapland. After serving for thirty years in demanding Arctic waters,  the vessel has been given a new task—to provide an unforgettable experience for winter enthusiasts!

Once on board the Icebreaker, passengers are given a presentation of the ship and a guided tour takes you to the massive engine room, as well as the bridge. After getting acquainted with the ship, a three-course meal is served in the ship’s cozy galley. During my cruise, I had a creamy salmon soup for the first course. The entree was a fillet of beef with vegetables and blue cheese potatoes mixed with a red wine sauce. For dessert, we had a chocolate parfait served with choice of coffee or tea.

Before and after lunch are great opportunities to head toward the bow or sides of the ship to witness the Sampo work her way through the thick ice. The ice conditions are extraordinary to observe and vary greatly in texture (as the ice is broken and frozen back in place). While I was in Finland, the weather was unseasonably warm (right around freezing, about 20 degrees above normal) and thus the water took longer to freeze back together after the icebreaker had carved a path—the warm weather condition caused the ice to pile up in areas, creating large mounds on the surface of the frozen water.  It was such a unique experience to look ahead and see nothing but solid ocean surface, then look below and see the ship breaking the ice to create a path. The tour teaches you how the icebreaker functions, as well as its role at sea. The cruise is as educational, as it is fascinating. I found myself peering over the edge of the ship just observing the blocks of ice float by after the ship had cleared its path…I was mesmerized, like one becomes when looking into a camp fire.

As a member of the media, I am very fortunate to be offered special treatment on occasion. During my cruise on the Sampo, I noticed a boom with a bucket at the bow of the ship—I then recalled a colleague who’d been on the cruise a few days prior, tell me that he was able to go inside the bucket and be lowered over the side of the ship for some extraordinary photos. So, I asked the captain if it would be possible for me to get inside with my tripod and video camera, and to my delight, he happily obligated. If the entire cruise were not exciting enough, the chance to be hoisted over the side of the vessel to get close-up footage of the ship breaking ice right at the hull level, certainly elevated the excitement. It was simply amazing! After several minutes over the edge, I was raised high above the ship getting almost an aerial view. As the boom continued to rise, I was now level with the bridge deck where the captain waved at me…it was a surreal moment. If you watch my video in this post, you will see some of the great footage I was able to capture. [I have to extend a big thank you to Captain Petter Tähtinen and the Cruise Director, Oskar Van Ieperen for accommodating me as they did.]

Before we returned to port, the ship stopped for about an hour to allow passengers (who wanted to take part) a chance to don an arctic dry-suit and jump into the frozen waters.  This was just an amazing experience…here the ship is stopped in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by frozen sea and passengers are allowed to disembark and walk on the solid surface of water to take pictures. At the stern of the ship was an opening in the water for those in their dry-suits to jump in. I actually swam out a bit and played around with the huge chunks of ice. I was having so much fun I did not want to get out, but I also realized there were other people waiting. So, reluctantly I got out and got back aboard for the final journey back to port.

As the Sampo reached the dock and we all began to disembark, the ship’s Captain presented each passenger with a certificate. The four-hour Sampo Icebreaker cruise is something you have to put on your bucket list…it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. If you’ve ever been on the Sampo, please leave a comment below and share your favorite aspects of the cruise.

Arizona Renaissance Festival

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

The Arizona Renaissance Festival is is one of the largest such festivals in the nation. This year festival organizers are celebrating its 26th season, which runs from the beginning of February through the end of March. The 30-acre park is located just outside of Apache Junction, about 50 miles east of Phoenix.

If you’re not familiar, the Renaissance Festival is a medieval amusement park full of entertainment, reenactments and mischievous antics, which are performed throughout the park on 13 different stages, including a jousting venue.

I attended the festival a few weeks ago and just had a blast, it seems each year it gets bigger and better. All the participating actors take the festival very seriously…you can’t help but feel you’ve been transported back in time some five hundred years.

The village marketplace has over 200 shops offering an array of goods. You’ll find circus events, arts and crafts, a jousting tournament and a feast, all rolled into one non-stop, day-long adventure.

If you’ve ever been to the Arizona Renaissance Festival, please leave a comment below and share your favorite activities or events.

Arizona Renaissance Festival Information:

When to go: Open Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 6pm (rain or shine)
Dates: Early February to the end of March
Website: RoyalFaires.com
Directions: Google Map to Arizona Renaissance Festival
Address: 12601 East Highway 60, Gold Canyon  AZ  85118

Kemi SnowCastle is downright cool

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

For years I’ve been enamored by the idea of a seasonal and temporary hotel made of snow and ice. I recently had an opportunity to visit one of the most well-known snow and ice structures in the world…the Kemi SnowCastle. While the unusually warm weather and overcast skies did not help showcase the SnowCastle’s beauty in its best light, it was an experience I will not soon forget.

It’s not until you enter the SnowCastle than you really appreciate just how large the snow structure is. I was really struck by the amazing level of artistry that is around every corner—you’ll see relief art in the walls, as well as ice sculptures throughout the Castle. At one end there are two large halls with dozens of tables made of ice, each with several wooden stools and reindeer hides for restaurant patrons to sit. On the opposite end is the SnowHotel, where guests can stay the night…like I did. While there is no question the freezing temperatures make it a bit uncomfortable getting in and out of bed, it’s actually quite a cozy experience. The thick snow walls create massive insulation, and therefore the rooms are extremely quiet and peaceful.  Once you get situated inside your arctic sleeping bag, which lies atop a layer of lambskin, it’s very warm and comfy. Thankfully I opted for the wake-up knock at the door, otherwise I would have continued sleeping well past check-out. As it were, I slept a solid nine hours.

Next to the SnowCastle is a warm structure where visitors and hotel guests can hang out, grab a cup of hot coca or lunch and warm up before returning to further explore the Castle. This structure also plays host for the morning breakfast for SnowHotel guests. A few hundred hards away is another facility where guests can shower, sit in a sauna or take a dip in the very large pool.

Other activities outside the SnowCastle include snowmobile and Olokolo (translation: cozy nest) tours. I took one of the Olokolo tours and it was fantastic. Simply described, an Olokolo is like a small camper on sled rails in which a snowmobile tour guide tows you. The Olokolo is full of windows (including the roof) to ensure that no sight is missed. If you prefer warmer sleeping accommodations, you can even rent one of the Olokolo for the night verses staying in the SnowHotel. Each Olokolo nest is equipped with a heater, warm sleeping bags and soft lamb skins. With the Olokolo glass roof, you might even get to see the Northern Lights during the evening. If you are going to visit the SnowCastle, I’d recommend staying two nights…one inside the SnowHotel, the other in an Olokolo.

The SnowHotel is of course not a luxurious lodging experience, it’s more like staying at a camp site, but it is absolutely a unique and memorable experience. And, a story you’ll enjoy telling your friends and family about.

If you’ve ever stayed at the SnowCastle or a similar structure, please post a comment below and let my readers and me know what your experience was like.

SnowCastle Information:

Rates: 125 to 190 EUR based on day and occupancy
Phone: +358 16 258 878
Location: Kemi, Finland
Email: sales@visitkemi.fi
Website: VisitKemi.fi/en/snowcastle
Hours: Open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (during the season).
Season: Late January through mid April (depending on weather).
SnowRestaurant: Open 10 am – 7 pm – Lunch is served at 12 noon and at 2 pm (reservations must be made in advance)

Chihuly exhibit at Desert Botanical Garden

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Located in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona is one of the city’s most popular and illustrious attractions…the Desert Botanical Garden. No matter when you visit, you’ll be awed by the diversity of the Sonoran Desert. However, if you go now until May 18th, 2014, you’ll be dazzled by the outdoor Chihuly Exhibit. As you stroll the beautifully maintained garden trails, you’ll be wowed by the vibrant works of art on displayed, each thoughtfully created to enhance the desert garden setting.

Chihuly and his team are renowned for their ambitious architectural installations around the world. It was back in 2001 when Chihuly had the audacious idea to display delicate works of glass art in an outdoor setting. For more than a decade now, Chihuly’s ever-changing outdoor display tours the best gardens around the world. This is the second time the Chihuly Exhibit has been on display at the Desert Botanical Garden and I can tell you that is certainly worth a visit. My recommendation is to go in the late afternoon so that you can see the exhibit in both the daylight, as well as the evening. As soon as night falls, the exhibit is transformed as strategically placed lights accentuate details of the glass that can be minimized during the day.

If you’ve been to a Chihuly Garden Exhibit before, whether at the Desert Botanical Garden or elsewhere, please share your experience below by posting a comment.

Desert Botanical Garden Chihuly Exhibit Information:

Time Periods: There are three time periods per day to choose from: 8 a.m. – Noon / 12 – 4 p.m. / 4 – 8 p.m.
Ticket Prices: Adult: $22, Senior: $20, Student: $12, Child: $10
After Dark: Special day/times 8pm-midnight March 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29 | April 5, 12 and 19
Address: 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix, Arizona
Phone: 480-941-1225
Website: Desert Botanical Garden

The Watchtower; best Grand Canyon view

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

The Grand Canyon is a distant second to the Smoky Mountains as the most visited National Park in the country, with over three million visiting annually. The vast majority of visitors come through the South Rim entrance, each in search of the best place to see the awe-inspiring sight. Few are aware that there is actually an East Entrance to the Grand Canyon, also known as Desert View. The Desert View (or East Entrance) is home to probably the best and most expansive single view of the Grand Canyon, it’s located at the Watchtower observation platform.

Grand Canyon East is where you’ll find the authentic looking 70′ Hopi Watchtower. This replica was design by famed architect, Mary Colter, and was the last of the visitor concession structures to be completed at the park in 1932. The most architecturally impressive section of the tower has to be the interior of the building. The space is an open shaft surrounded by circular balconies edging the walls and small staircases that lead up to subsequent levels.  The walls are covered with beautiful murals, hieroglyphs, pictographs and petroglyphs painted by Hopi artists.  Experiencing the multiple levels and circular balconies will fill visitors with an overwhelming sense of the southwest.

Grand Canyon East begins below Glen Canyon Dam, which creates the magnificent Lake Powell recreation area. Access to the East Entrance is off highway 89, south of Lake Powell by nearly 80 miles. After turning west onto highway 64, you have another 50 miles until the Grand Canyon East Entrance. If you’re already at the South Rim, you can just drive east along the edges of the canyon for 26 miles of scenic views.

If you’ve ever been to the Watchtower at Grand Canyon East, leave a comment below and let me readers and me know what you enjoy most.

Santa Fe Farmers Market

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

Santa Fe, New Mexico is well known for its rich history, diverse culture, world-class art, chili-inspired culinary dishes, and, distinct Southwestern style. One stop worth making on your next trip to Santa Fe has to be the Farmer’s Market, located in the relatively new, Railyard Park.

The market began with just a handful of farmers in the late 60s and is now New Mexico’s largest farmers’ market with over 150 active vendors, featuring hundreds of different agricultural products. The Santa Fe Farmers Market is truly a local market…they take great effort to assure that all the products sold by vendors are always locally grown by the people selling them.

When I was at the market on a Saturday in late spring, the entire Railyard Park was bustling with people, street performers and vendors selling an array of colorful produce and handmade goods (see video). There are also many nearby galleries, shops and restaurants for visitors to enjoy. Located right across the street is the Santa Fe Sage Inn, the place I stayed. This modest hotel is very affordable, walking distance to just about all the Santa Fe attractions, and, offers a number of free amenities.

If you’ve ever been to the Santa Fe Farmers Market, please leave a comment below and share your experience.

Santa Fe Farmers Market Information:

Hours:

  • Saturdays open year-round 8am-1pm
  • Tuesday Market May through November
  • Railyard Artisan Market at the Market Pavilion; Sundays: 10am-4pm
  • Farmers’ Market Shops; Saturdays: 8am-3pm – Sundays: 10am-4pm

Website:
SantaFeFarmersMarket.com

Address:
Opens in Google Maps
740 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM 87505

Cherry Springs; a celestial state park

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

This past summer I road tripped through Pennsylvania, along historic Hwy 6. I spent about five our six days zig zagging north to south, hitting historic sites and state parks along the way. I had been listing to the radio when I heard about an extraordinary meteor shower that would be happening that evening. As I made my way atop a 2300-foot mountain (this is high for the east coast) I came across a sign for Cherry Springs State Park. I thought I would stop for a spell and soon discovered that it is one of the darkest places on the East Coast…perfect for stargazing and observing the Perseids meteor shower. Talk about being at the right place at the right time!

As I strolled around the park looking for a place to camp, I learned that across the street was a field for astronomers and celestial photographers. This field has wi-fi and electrical hookups for those needing power and communications for their telescopes and other astronomical equipment. After paying the camp fee I found the perfect spot to set up. To my surprise, there were few people there, however that would not last. As darkness descended, so too did the locals. The astronomy reports said to expect up to 60 shooting starts an hour, but I’m not sure I saw anywhere near that many. I did capture a few as you will see in the video.

Cherry Springs park is a wonderful place for stargazing and astronomy lovers.  If you’ve ever been, please leave a comment below and share your experience.

Cherry Springs State Park Information:

Address: 4639 Cherry Springs Road, Coudersport, PA 16915.
Phone: 814-435-5010
Website: www.dcnr.state.pa.us
Cost: The park’s public programs are free. Private stargazing with Nawrocki costs $20 for adults, $10 for kids 10 and over; call 814-848-5037 to arrange.
Bring: A jacket or blanket (nights get cool here) and a flashlight with a red lens (or a regular lens covered with red cellophane and a rubber band).
Don’t bring: Pets. They are not allowed.
Size: 82-acres, but the park is surrounded by 262,000-acres of Susquehannock State Forest land.
Staying over:

  • Cherry Springs has 30 primitive camp sites (no electricity). If you have equipment, you can camp on the astronomy field, where there is electricity and a nicer bathroom.
  • Lyman Run State Park, 9 miles from Cherry Springs, has showers and some electrical hookups and a lake.
  • Millstream Inn welcomes guests with free breakfast, complimentary WIFI, plus free popcorn and cookies in the lobby at night.

Quebec City Music Festival

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

In the summer of 2013, I road tripped from Arizona all the way to Québec. I had never been to the province or the city of Québec, so I really did not know what to expect. What I discovered was a part of Canada rich in its European roots…full of history, iconic architecture and a passion for food and entertainment. While I spent nearly two weeks in the province of Québec, my guiding objective was to visit Québec City for the 46th annual music festival.

Earlier in 2013, I attended a Jesse Cook concert in Wickenburg, Arizona, which was fantastic. I will digress for just a moment to say that if you get a chance to see Jesse Cook live…do it. Jesse is a guitarist, composer and producer who is widely considered to be one of the most influential figures in “Nuevo Flamenco” music. The band integrates many instruments that will likely be foreign to you. The sounds are upbeat, soulful and energizing.

Back to the story: I was invited backstage after the concert where I had an opportunity to strike up a conversation with Mr. Cook. During our conversation, Mr. Cook asked me what I did. I proceeded to tell him I was a travel blogger and that I had plans to spend a good part of the summer in the northeast. When he learned of my geographic destination, he suggested that if I could, I really should visit Québec City—that it was one of his favorite cities in the world. This, coming from a well-known musician who has traveled the world, told me it was something I should take to heart.

A few weeks later I was in New York City for a Canadian travel conference where I met tourism representatives from Quebec City. It was fate…I would be going to the French settlement of Québec!

After a few months of road tripping, I had finally made it to Québec City. I stayed at the Hilton Hotel which was located right in the heart of the action…I was able to walk to every venue/stage.  The Hilton was the communications and entertainment hub for all Festival d’été de Québec activities, which meant that I was staying at the same place as all the other media representatives and musicians. The buzz in the hotel was euphoric.

This was the 46th annual Quebec City Music Festival (or Festival d’été de Québec) and so they’re able to attract some pretty big names to the event. This year the headliners included; Bruno Mars, Rush, Weezer, Foreigner, Def Leppard, Emylou Harris, Stevie Wonder and the Black Keys just to name a few. There were many lesser known bands that were quite incredible too, some of my favorites included Lisa LeBlanc, Nomadic Massive and Rod Le Stod.

The festival had more than 300 performances, on 10 different stages, over an eleven-day period. All the stages are located in the downtown area and are within walking distance from one another. You’ll also find an array of street performers throughout the winding streets of Old Town Québec: from a drummer using trash cans and buckets, to traditional French artiste de rue. The city is so alive and bustling with excitement during the festival that the energy is contagious.  The kids will also find plenty of cool activities to keep them busy at Place de la Famille—games, activities, ziplines, live performances. The kids will have a blast.

Québec City is one of North America’s oldest and most splendid settlements. Its picturesque Old Town is a living museum of 17th and 18th century houses, narrow cobblestone streets, and soaring church spires. The architecture in both the new and old parts of Quebec City is quite remarkable.  Overlooking the St. Charles River is the enormous and elegant, Château Frontenac towering above Old Town. There’s more than a glimmer of Old Europe in the sidewalk cafes, classic French bistros and inviting squares. The city’s compact size makes it ideal for walking and exploring all the nooks and crannies hidden throughout.

I was really drawn to Old Town, which is split between the Haute Ville (Upper Town), perched above the St Lawrence River on the Cap Diamant cliffs, and the Basse Ville (Lower Town), where Samuel de Champlain (a heroic figure) established the first French foothold in 1608. Old Town is clustered with museums, mansard-roofed houses and cobblestone streets…all of which beckon visitors to explore.

Québec City goes to great lengths to entertain visitors during the summer music festival. I was so impressed by how well-organized the event was, not to mention the quality of the talent. I would highly recommend making your travel plans soon if the Festival d’été de Québec sounds of interest as hundreds of thousands of folks will descend on the city.

Québec City Music Festival information:

Dates: The 2014 festival is scheduled for July 3-13
Price: Ridiculously cheap…the entire 11-day festival pass is only: $76 CAD
Website: Visit: http://www.infofestival.com/The-Festival

Hoover Dam

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Hoover Dam is located about half an hour outside Las Vegas and situated in between Arizona and Nevada. Filled with history and a colossal view, the Hoover Dam is certainly a worthwhile stop. It’s easy to be awed by the Hoover Dam. If you have just a few minutes, stop along one of the many roadside viewpoints–perfect for snapping a photo and taking in the immensity of the dam.

If you have have more than a few minutes, be sure to check out the power plant tour and see how the dam operates, it plays an essential role in brining much needed water to the Southwest. When it was completed in 1936, the Hoover Dam was quite an engineering marvel and was the largest dam in the world at that time.

Hoover Dam straddles the mighty Colorado River, which acts as the border between Arizona and Nevada. The damn created Lake Mead, which is the largest reservoir in the US in water capacity.

In 2010 a four-lane highway bridge arching across the Colorado River opened, carrying traffic between Nevada and Arizona. The older two-lane highway across the dam could no longer handle the 15,000 vehicles that travel across each day. Construction on the 1,900-foot-long structure, named the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, began in 2005. An impressive feat of engineering, the supporting twin-rib arch span echoes the elegant curves of the dam itself.

Best of 2013

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

This is the fourth annual Mike’s Road Trip “Best Of” list. As usual, there were many worthy contenders. While I’m sorry some did not make it, I’m confident I’ve chosen the best-of-the-best. Click on any of the links below to be taken to posts, pictures and/or videos of my experience.

I spent more than eight months on the road in 2013, including an epic coast-to-coast trip that started in southern Arizona and went as far east as Quebec…finally ending up in San Diego for the holidays. I knocked five states off of my list of those I’d never visited before. They included: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee. I now have only four left, Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. I also visited two Canadian provinces I’d never been to before, Ontario and Quebec. As always, I had some amazing experiences that are fun to relive in a compilation “Best Of” road trip list.

To all the “winners,” congratulations! Your dedication and commitment to excellence have caught the eye of this discerning travel writer and video blogger. If you have not been contacted, please email me for your “Mike’s Road Trip “Best of’” icon to display on your website and social media profiles.

LODGING CATEGORY

  • Best Bed & Breakfast Winner: Ann’s Point Inn in Bass Harbor, Maine – Opulent, luxurious, romantic, amazing breakfast…every single detail of your visit has been thoroughly thought through.
  • Best Inn Winner: Gervasi Vineyard is located in Canton, Ohio, but you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the hills of Tuscany. There are 24 luxurious suites, a wine bar, bistro and piazza overlooking a small lake.
  • Best Resort Winner: Loews Ventana Canyon is a sanctuary for looking into the soul of the Southwest. Located in Tucson, this Arizona resort is known around the world for its majestic location and uncompromising accommodations, amenities and service.
  • Best Urban Hotel Winner: The Chattanoogan Hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee is an urban sojourn sanctuary.  You’ll notice the elegant and modern décor throughout the property. With 199 rooms and suites, the Chattanoogan hosts a number of amenities—from its conference center, meeting spaces, day spa, roof-top pool, to three on-site restaurants.
  • Best Business Hotel Winner: Cambria Suites by Choice Hotels – Sophisticated décor, MediaHub for all your technology, large flat screen TV’s, work space, in-room sitting area, free hi-speed internet, fitness center, indoor pool & spa and a barista bar make Cambria Suites a sweet place to do business.
  • Best Eco-Friendly Hotel Winner: Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort in Lake Placid, New York has elevated the meaning of “green” in the lodging industry. Every aspect of the hotel’s operation is analyzed on an annual basis to see how the guest experience can be improved, while reducing its environmental impact. The best part…the guest experience has not been compromised in the least—the accommodations are sensational and the lakeside views will beckon you each time you enter your room.
  • Best Value Hotel Winner: Santa Fe Sage Inn – Santa Fe, New Mexico is one of the best small towns in America. For those on a budget who want to be within walking distance to historic sites, great shopping, amazing restaurants and so much more, the Santa Fe Sage Inn is the place to stay. The accommodations are modest, but clean and comfortable. The staff is amazingly friendly with free amenities such as shuttle service to downtown, breakfast, workout facility and more.
  • Best Hotel Suite Winner: Château Cartier in Gatineau, Quebec offers superior comfort and luxury. Stunning hardwood floors in the living room, a gas fireplace, two large flat screen TVs, spacious European contemporary bathroom and ultra comfortable bed with sweeping views makes this suite the best of 2013.
  • Best B&B Breakfast Winner: Cliff Cottage Inn – In addition to the wonderful accommodations is one of the coolest small towns (Eureka Springs, Arkansas) I visited this year, Cliff Cottage Inn offers its guests a breakfast you’ll not soon forget. Breakfast is brought to your cottage each morning and served on your own private porch. The breakfast creations are a work of art, from lemon-orange soufflé, pork medallion with nature grazed chutney, French fennel potatoes and a Eureka Springs bug cake (pastry).  Oh, and it’s served on a formal silver platter with fresh OJ and sparkling wine…makes ya feel a bit like an aristocrat.
  • Best Hotel Gym Winner: Not a category I would normally include, but the gym at the Comfort Inn & Suites in Plattsburgh, NY is the most amazing hotel gym I’ve ever seen, and is worth a mention. At 16,000 s.f., Eclipse Fitness has every possible piece of equipment you could imagine, and, would rival any commercial gym in the country.

DINING CATEGORY

  • Best Restaurant Winner: Les Fougeres is located in the small village of Chelsea in L’Outaouais, Quebec (Canada). The setting is reminiscent of a small French countryside inn, with some of the most artistically creative dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming. Everything about this gastronomic experience emanated passion, creativity and excellence.
  • Best Fine-Dining Experience Winner: Natalie’s in Camden, Maine. The dining experience at Natalie’s is simply extraordinary. The décor is as bold and refreshing as the culinary concoctions that exit chef Jon Gaboric’s kitchen.  From the white tablecloths to the contrasting bright red accent and roses that adorn each table, the palate pleasures are as flavorful as they are creations of art.
  • Best Casual Dining Experience Winner: White Mountain Cider Co. in the mountains of Jackson, New Hampshire is located in a renovated 1890s farmhouse, which is full of character—from the rough cut wood planks, odd shaped granite tables to the old barn door…the rustic charm is undeniable.  While I tried a several dishes, my entrée left the greatest impression… Grilled Blue Fin Tuna on a bed of Asian jambalaya, which consisted of jasmine rice, Chinese sausage, sugar snap peas, cabbage with chunks of fresh lobster…this was stir-fried with a blue ginger-coconut sauce.
  • Best Hole-N’-The-Wall Winner: Eat ‘n Meet Grill and Larder is a quintessential “hole-n’-the-wall that I was so happy to have discovered…thanks to some passionate local patrons who did not steer me wrong. Located in Saranac Lake, New York, Eat-’n-Meet is as different as it is delicious. Due to its popularity, it’s recommended that you visit their website, look at the daily menu, then call in your order and let them know what time you’d like to pick it up. Each day is a new dining experience based on the seasonally available ingredients.
  • Best Dining Surprise Winner: Niagara Falls Culinary Institute is like a five-star restaurant, offering a fine dining experience in a contemporary, yet intimate setting…with the kitchen and its open hearth oven as the focal point. From the atmosphere, impeccable service to the culinary masterpieces, you will quickly forget you’re at a cooking school.
  • Best Fish & Chips Winner: Point Loma Seafood Company in San Diego, California – Lightly breaded in what I guess is a cornmeal mixture, with thick pieces of the freshest seafood, accompanied with fries and excellent cole slaw. Point Loma Seafood is without question the best fish & chips place this year.
  • Best Bakery Winner: Wildflower Bread Company in Sedona, Arizona. Situated in downtown, overlooking the majestic red rocks, Wildflower serves up some outstanding bakery delights. Two items you can’t miss…the vegetable frittata with rosemary potatoes and the walnut and banana pancakes. All the baked goods are simply amazing too. The setting, atmosphere, food and value make Wildflower worth the stop next time you’re in Sedona.
  • Best Breakfast Winner: Amuse Bouche – This bistro located in Surprise, Arizona offers French panache and gourmet petit déjeuner.  The intimate setting has the feeling of an authentic French bistro, with the aroma of cinnamon, freshly brewed coffee and other breakfast scents filling the air. When you go, don’t miss the Smoked salmon eggs Benedict, or the Belgian Waffle with fresh strawberries, bananas, vanilla whipped cream and brown sugar cinnamon syrup.
  • Best Up-And-Coming Restaurant Concept Winner: True Food Kitchen – Scottsdale, Arizona. If you enjoy eating healthfully, while giving your palate a pleasurable memory it won’t soon forget, you have to check out True Food Kitchen. Seasonally inspired dishes, unique culinary concoctions, great atmosphere and affordable prices makes True Food a winning formula.
  • Best Pub Winner Bistro L’autre Oeil in Gatineau, Quebec is a quintessential neighborhood pub. They stock more than 550 beers…the largest selection of any pub in Canada.  They also serve some pretty tasty pub grub…I tried the Thai pizza which is cooked on a grill.

SCENIC VIEWS CATEGORY

DESTINATIONS CATEGORY

  • Best/Most Eclectic Town Winner: Eureka Springs, Arkansas is a Victorian mountain village nestled in the Ozarks with copious things to see and do.  You can zip-line through the forest, watch big cats feed at a wildlife refuge, view breathtaking vistas and scenic overlooks, fish in clear trout streams, photograph waterfalls or stroll through the colorful gardens.
  • Best/Most Idyllic Town Winner: Hanover, New Hampshire is home to the Ivy League’s Dartmouth College. The campus dates back to 1769 and is the sixth oldest college in the country. Like many college towns, it’s full of energy and has a vibrant culinary scene. The historic charm is undeniable, as is the plethora of activities to enjoy.
  • Best Historic Town Winner: Galena, Illinois epitomizes what I look for on the road…a place off the beaten path, full of history and charm, intrigue and attractions. A place that was once lost to the past, but then rediscovered by those with a vision for what could be. Galena continues to attract visitors for its historical charm, as well as its nature-inspired beauty.
  • Best City Winner: Quebec City, Canada is a captivating place to explore.  Every hill, corner, nook and cranny provides a unique sight, experience or vantage point. The city dates to 1608, so history runs deep in this French province. Amazing architecture, fine food and endless activities make Quebec City a place to add to your bucket list.
  • Best Place to Explore Winner: El Morro National Monument is a wonderful example of why New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment. The area is surrounded by soaring sandstone bluffs that rise more than 200 feet from the valley floor. After reaching the summit of a mesa, you’ll discover a fascinating mixture of both human and natural history, which includes the remnants of a pueblo that housed Native Americans who once inhabited the area.
  • Best National Park (US) Winner: Canyonlands in Moab, Utah consists of spires, plateaus and canyons carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers.  The park offers some extremely challenging four-wheel drive roads as well as great opportunities for hiking, biking, whitewater rafting and many other recreational activities.
  • Best Canadian National Park Winner: La Mauricie in Quebec, Canada is a 536km natural conservation area. Whether you are seeking adventure or an opportunity to recharge, the park’s lakes, streams, waterfall and forests make it the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts.
  • Best State Park Winner: Valley of Fire, Overton, Nevada – Valley of Fire is a Nevada State park located about 80 minutes northeast of Las Vegas. The park encompasses 44,000 acres of awe-inspiring and diverse landscape that will capture your attention around every bend.
  • Best Aerial Ride Winner: Hot air balloon ride over San Diego. San Diego is one of the most beautiful cities in the country—with its lush foliage, rolling hills and ocean views. One of the best ways to experience this coastal community has to be in a hot air balloon.
  • Best Botanical Garden Winner: Rock City Gardens, Chattanooga, Tennessee – Rock City Gardens take visitors on an enchanting journey that reveals wonders that only nature can create. The gardens have been enhanced by man, but mother nature has certainly done most of the work. Situated on fourteen acres, with massive rock formations, and over four hundred native plant species along with an awe-inspiring view and a 100′ waterfall, Rock City is a must-see while in the area.
  • Best Small Museum Winner: Kent-Delord House Museum in Plattsburg, New York. This is an extraordinarily well preserved home/museum with many authentic artifacts…including artwork, furniture, china, medicinal items including an array of jars/containers containing period potions. The location over looking Lake Champlain is pretty special too.
  • Best Museum Winner: Canadian Museum of Civilization is located in Outaouais, Quebec and provides amazing views of the nation’s capital across the Ottawa River. In addition to the spectacular architecture, visitors will discover Canada’s culture spanning 1,000 years of history through life-sized reconstructions.
  • Best Historical Site Winner: Fort Niagara in Niagara Falls, New York – Fort Niagara is one of the oldest military installations in the nation, featuring historically significant architecture, live re-enactments and other living history events.

HIKING/CAMPING/OUTDOOR CATEGORY

  • Best Place to Explore Winner: Moab, Utah
  • Best State Park Winner: Valley of Fire, Overton, Nevada
  • Best Developed Camp Site Winner: Dew Drop, Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania
  • Best Un-Developed Camp Site Winner: Just outside Canyonlands National Park
  • Best Beach Winner: Carlsbad, California
  • Best Secret Beach Winner: Mitchel Cove near Bass Harbor, Maine
  • Best Outdoor Activity Winner: Eco Odyssey in La Pêche, Quebec is a marsh maze in which folks navigate the waterways in a canoe or paddle boat in search of clues that will return them to the starting point. The excursion is very educational, interactive and peaceful.

UN-CATEGORIZED

Note: The aforementioned are my personal “Best of” travels during 2013 and don’t necessarily represent, The best of all time.