A Classic West Virginia Resort Returns to its Roots

Once commonplace in society, the ultra-luxurious retreats of the South were in abundance and served as the ultimate vacation spot for the well-to-do. Often found in off-the-beaten-track locales, such as sprawling alongside a private beach or set atop a lonely mountaintop, these lavish resorts served as private escapes for a variety of distinguished guests, from Presidents to wealthy businessmen.

Today, many of these bastions of lavishness live on, and in spite of a hefty economic downturn, have not only managed to stay in operation, but continue to offer their trademark impeccable service to those who can afford their hefty price tags.

Recently, one of the more notable resorts, The Greenbrier, has returned to the hands of its home state, West Virginia, after being purchased by West Virginia businessman, Jim Justice in May of this year, essentially rescuing the landmark from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Originally owned by CSX Corporation and about to fall into the hands of hotel giant Marriott International, Justice, a Marshall University graduate and former CEO of Bluestone Coal Corporation, says he is committed to, “bringing back the treasure”.Justice firmly believes in taking a hands-on approach, and has started off his new role on the right foot, at least according to The Greenbrier’s employees, which number roughly around 1300. One of Justices’ first orders of business was to reach agreement with the unionized employees by sweetening their health care packages, 401(k) plans, and offering smaller perks such as daily free meals.

Next up has been Justices’ newest project, the Prime 44 West Steakhouse, which was created to honor West Virginia NBA Legend Jerry West. This October, Prime 44 has finally opened its doors to culinary critical acclaim. Under the direction of Chef de Cuisine, Michael Treanor who comes to The Greenbrier after several Ritz Carlton stints, and is himself a graduate of The Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship Program, the restaurant seeks to enhance the resort’s elegant yet cozy, mountain atmosphere by offering guests a classic steakhouse menu that boasts a bit of a diner’s club experience. In addition to eats, the decor of Prime 44 pays homage to West by displaying the largest public collection of his personal memorabilia, including the gold medal he won in the 1960 Summer Olympics.

When it comes to Treanor’s menu, local specialties are emphasized, such as a West Virginia Blue Ribbon Pork Duo, pinto beans with Virginia ham, and Cathy Justice’s own, “Best in Show Blue Ribbon Cornbread”. However, it’s the prime cuts that take center stage, ranging from an 8-ounce Wagyu tenderloin to the behemoth, Jerry West 44-ounce Porterhouse, which boasts an equally over-the-top price tag of $130 bucks.

In addition to The Greenbrier’s nine dining options, other culinary offerings are on tap for 2010, including The Greenbrier’s famous BBQ Mastery culinary series. Yet, it’s the 80,000 square foot Monte Carlo-styled casino Justice has planned for spring of next year that really have tongues wagging. Designed to bring a taste of James Bond (shaken not stirred) to the West Virginia mountains with 38 gaming tables and 320 slot machines along with plenty of live entertainment, the casino is sure to draw attention. In the meantime, until the gaming complex is built, guests can hit The Tavern Casino for an evening of money making (or losing) excitement.

Without a doubt, Justice has made his fondness for both his home state and his treasured resort abundantly clear, and many of us West Virginians are excited to follow along as one of our own takes our “crown jewel” into the next era.

—Kendra Bailey Morris

The Accidental Chef Travels: St. Martin on a budget

It was just a few months ago that I found myself, once again, with itchy feet. I needed to go somewhere warm and tropical, and I needed to get there as soon as possible. I ran the idea by the hubby, who is always up for a last-minute jaunt, especially when we’re talking the Caribbean, and started the proverbial search for where and when.

This is where things started to get tricky, and to complicate things, we were on a major budget. While flights to just about anywhere were at an all-time low, itineraries to the Caribbean islands were all over the map from my hub, Richmond, Virginia, with several boasting multiple stops with exceptionally long layovers, some in excess of 24 hours. One itinerary, Richmond to Nevis, offered a whopping thirty-one hours travel time, which essentially negated the fact that I actually live on the east coast of the United States.
Islands were quickly narrowed down because of this, and it wasn’t long before I discovered the beauty of Charlotte Douglas Airport which serves as major hub to many Caribbean islands. Connecting through CLT was showing uber-cheap flights ($350 round trip on US Airways including taxes and fees from Richmond to St. Maarten. Toss in flexible travel days (a Saturday to Thursday stay, which offered the lowest fare) and I was sold. Estimated money saved, thanks to CLT, travel flexibility and banging low rates on US Airways, roughly $200 per ticket.

Yet, the budget challenge continued as we needed a week’s worth of accommodations, and of course, plenty of cash money for eats and drinks. Luckily, we were traveling during the off-season, which I highly recommend for a couple of reasons– it’s way cheaper and the beaches are less crowded. Traveling from mid-April through early December is a great way to take advantage of some crazy reduced hotel rates. Whether it’s a 7th night free offer, complimentary spa treatments, meal vouchers or just super-low rates in general, if you can swing traveling during this time (and don’t mind the heat or fear hurricanes) you can manage to score some amazing deals.

For example, we discovered a total gem of a hotel in Grand Case, French St. Martin, the Grand Case Beach Club, an oasis of calm, azure swimming holes, impeccable service on all fronts, oceanfront rooms with views of Anguilla, and incredible food and drinks to be enjoyed at the hotel’s waterfront Sunset Café. Our one bedroom oceanfront room came with a fully equipped kitchen, separate living area and a king size bedroom, where sliding glass doors opened to take in the breezes from off the bay.

Like all guests, we arrived to a complimentary bottle of wine, soft music playing from a rotating CD player in our room, and hibiscus flowers scattered about the bed and bath. A complimentary continental breakfast in true French St. Martin style (croissants, yogurt, French butter and dark roast coffee) was offered oceanfront every morning, all non-motorized water sports were free, and on Wednesday, a hosted manager’s reception was held hillside complete with hors d’oeuvres, rum punch and great conversation with the staff . The price for all this luxury? $200 bucks a night including a 5th night free offer. By comparison, in-season rates for February 2010 for the same exact room are showing $435 per night.

The lesson? Visit the Caribbean in the off-season, look for package deals such as free night offers, and try to go for hotels/resorts that offer guests more than simply a room. As a result, our total estimated savings was roughly $1,375 in accommodations alone with the little extras serving as priceless additions.

Now, the food part was easy. We were in French St. Martin, after all, home to some of the finest cuisine in the Caribbean. Yet, many of the restaurants in Grand Case, while amazingly good, didn’t come cheap and would have totally thrown us off budget. We managed to find financial solace in the many lolos that dot the streets of town, but we still wanted to have at least one “nice” meal out. In order to do this, we needed to cut costs in other areas. This is where our in-room kitchen came into play.

I figured, along with the continental breakfast, which was quite generous, we could cook our own lunches in the room. Within walking distance of the hotel was a fantastic local grocery store, the U.S. Supermarche, brimming with delicious French specialties (think tins of imported foie gras, local vegetables, homemade pizzas, freshly baked baquettes, gobs of gooey French cheeses and $3 bottles of wine). With delights like this, who would want to eat out?

Nearly every day, we packed our picnic lunch of French delights and enjoyed them either on the beach or overlooking the bay from our patio. Estimating that the average breakfast for two would cost $20/day with tax and tip, and lunches would hover around $40/day with tax a tip, we saved approximately $300 more dollars sans the small amount we spent on groceries, and we ate a whole heck of a lot better.

I can’t talk about budgeting a Caribbean vacation without mentioning booze. This stuff will bite you in the butt when traveling (and I’m not talking hangovers). Partaking of wine, beer or cocktails can throw your entire budget off in a matter of days, so be careful when hitting restaurants and bars, or when it comes to the Caribbean beaches, calling over the cabana boy a few too many times while lying face up in the sand. Don’t worry, I’m not going to recommend abstinence while on vacation, but I will recommend watching where those hooch dollars go.

One way to save big is by stocking up in your room. It’s the Caribbean for god’s sake, so go get a bottle of top quality rum, a few mixers and have at it beach side instead of tossing out fivers at the tiki bar all day. Lastly, while it may be tempting, step away from the mini bar. Mini bars are the red button you never want to press. I don’t care how much fun you’re still having at one in the morning. Grab a big bottle of water and go to bed.

We were lucky during our trip to St. Martin since we were surrounded by fine French wines as well as fantastic locally made rum, so drinks on the beach consisted of a quick trip upstairs to the room to fire up the blender. We also saved by having a pre-game cocktail before heading out to dinner, which was one less drink we paid top dollar for. Estimated booze savings by drinking in, roughly $150 for our entire trip.

The bottom line, is that with careful planning, you can have a great Caribbean vacation just about anywhere without breaking the bank, but it will probably involve some minor sacrifices, such as carefully researched off-season flights/hotel, a good amount of flexibility, along with less eating out and more eating in. Yet, there’s one constant that I will bequeath you from firsthand experience, and that’s when you’re actually in the Caribbean sipping rum jumbies poolside, the last thing you’ll be contemplating is sacrifice.

Got a great Caribbean budget travel tip to share? We’d love to hear it.


From Dawn Til’ it’s Gone: Hilo Farmer’s Market is a must-visit

Whenever I travel, I make a point of hunting down the local farmers market. I’m obsessed with them. Whether I’m nibbling fresh-from-the-oven baguette in Southwest France, chomping down on a grilled sausage sandwich topped with Walla Walla onions in Washington State, or noshing a big plate of pork ribs in French St. Martin, I’ve found that the best way to get a true taste of what your destination has to offer is to start with the market.

And let’s face it. Local markets are cheap. For a quick lunch on the fly before site seeing, the local farmer’s market can be your money-saving friend. I’ve sampled platters of homemade paella piled high with fresh mussels and clams for a meager three dollars, crunched tacos de carne asada at a buck a piece, and dug into bowls of conch fritters washed down with icy Heinekens for under $5 total. Market food is tasty, often incredibly so. Boasting fresh, local ingredients carefully tended to by local food artisans, farmers, cheese makers and bakers, how can one go wrong?

If you’re a cooking fiend like I am (and especially if your accommodations include a kitchen) there’s no better way to spend a morning than piecing together the ultimate dinner by filling up paper bags with exciting foodstuffs like fresh figs, free-range duck eggs, bison tenderloin or artisan-made truffles. For traveling foodies, the farmer’s market is our candy store (a really big, super-fresh, uber-healthy candy store) just waiting to be plundered.

One of my all-time favorite markets is the Hilo Farmer’s Market on the Big Island of Hawaii. Located in Hilo’s historic district, the Hilo Farmer’s Market has grown considerably since its humble beginnings back in 1988, when there were only four farmers selling their goods. Today, the market boasts over 200 vendors who hock everything from gingerroot to bongo drums.
Taking place every Wednesday and Saturday from “dawn til’ it’s gone”, the Hilo market is a busy, bustling place. While local crafts, clothing and artwork are a big hit, the ultimate star is the food. Exotic fruits beckon hungry travelers, where local papaya can be snagged three for a dollar. Jack fruit, lychees, white pineapple and Chinese longan fruits are in abundance as well.

Locally grown vegetables are a cooks’ dream and include such delights as hydroponic lettuce, bok choy, Maui onions and bitter melon. Hawaiian specialty products round out the offerings and include Kona coffee, Portuguese bread and jars of homemade lilikoi butter.

If you happen to get hungry while shopping (and trust me, you will) there’s a variety of food available to enjoy on the spot or take away. Reflecting the many cultures which make Hawaiian cuisine so varied and utterly fascinating (Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino and Portuguese) you can sink your teeth into just about anything. Japanese bento boxes featuring traditional sushi as well as local specialties such as Spam musubi are offered alongside Vietnamese spring rolls, Filipino-styled empanadas, pad Thai, Peruvian tamales and Hawaiian lau lau (pork wrapped in taro leaves). If all of this shopping and eating makes you thirsty, buy a green coconut and have the vendor hatchet it open. Stick a straw in it and drink away the rest of your afternoon.

Hitting the Hilo Farmer’s Market is an absolute must when traveling to the Big Island, especially if you’re planning to visit the many nearby beaches that dot the island. A picnic basket filled with Hawaiian sweet bread along with a few Portuguese sausages will certainly make for an afternoon of tasty beach time.


Roadside Barbecue: St. Martin Style

I’m a Southern gal through and through, and one thing we country folks know is our barbecue. For us, a platter of grilled ribs or chicken is our sole reason to exist. We can’t live without it, and we take great pride in executing our seasoned meats with our own unique culinary perfection. Whether you’re talking pulled pork doused in a piquant cider vinegar sauce or baby back ribs slow-roasted and bathed in thickly sweet molasses, brown sugar and ketchup, one thing is for sure, if there’s smoke, you can probably find me waiting patiently nearby with a big ‘ole stack of napkins.

So, when I visited St. Martin’s famous Village of Grand Case, which is universally known as “the culinary capital of the Caribbean”, I was prepared for an onslaught of mouth-watering dining choices, and that’s exactly what I got. While Grand Case is most famous for the many gourmand-friendly restaurants that line the charming, narrow streets of town (think foie gras and lobster tasting menus paired with fine French wines), it was the locally run outdoor barbecues or “lolos”, with their sweet, smoky aromas billowing from makeshift metal grills that had me at hello.

And, I mean literally at hello. After a rather stressful and lengthy travel day complete with a four hour delay in Philly via US Airways my husband and I checked into the the Grand Case Beach Club. Within minutes, starving and thirsty, we were back out the door, making the short walk into town when we were overcome with the fragrance of smoked meat. “Oh God,” I said, “I smell barbecue,” as we rounded the corner. And, there they were under a canopy of smoke– a cluster of outdoor eateries merely steps from the beach serving grilled meats, seafood and plenty of cold beer. We had arrived.

Each of these individual establishments boasted its own whimsical name such as “Talk of the Town” and “Sky’s the Limit”, and they were all packed to the gills with a mixture of locals and tourists noshing on oversized plates of barbecue chicken, ribs, whole fried fish, and grilled Caribbean lobster accented with sides of rice of peas, plantains and fried Johnny Cakes (a type of deep fried dough with just a hint of sweetness). The atmosphere was convivial and conversational as diners ate casually at picnic tables complete with plastic cups and plates. Waves lapped the nearby beach while Bob Marley tunes echoed from somewhere in the distance.
We started our evening at “Sky’s the Limit” following the age-old travel rule of hitting the restaurant boasting the largest crowd. It was not to disappoint. After being seated at our picnic table, one of the owners, a very pregnant young lady, handed us two plastic-coated menus with the phrase, “€ 1 to $ 1” emblazoned at the top, meaning they do one dollar to one euro equally, something vacationers should look for when traveling to French St. Martin, since while both dollars and euros are accepted widely, their conversion rates can vary.

Menu choices were straight and to the point, and boasted a la carte items described simply as “grilled chicken leg” and “Creole conch”. Combo platters abounded, which at Sky’s the Limit, came with a ginormous serving of six different sides: potato salad, mac and cheese, peas and rice, cole slaw, plantains and spaghetti (which seemed an odd pairing at first, but miraculously managed to complement the meal perfectly). Not being able to decide from the extensive menu, I had to default to the experts and ask our server what her favorite dish was, “Oh, you must try the garlic shrimp” she offered with a bona fide smile.

A couple of ice-cold Presidente beers later (which go for a whopping $1 each), my immensely-sized shrimp platter, which was more suited for a competitive eater, arrived along with hubby’s grilled rib platter. The price point for all this food? Twelve dollars and nine dollars, respectively.

The shrimp were expertly cooked and redolent with garlic and spice. A couple extra dashes of hot sauce sealed their perfection. Hubby’s ribs were all they were cracked up to be– tender and fall-off-the-bone. Interestingly, the ribs came sans barbecue sauce (as most of the barbecue items do) in favor of a simple marinade and rub, which tasted scarcely of citrus and cumin. An array of sauces are offered on each table for diners to add at will.

As I wiped my face and hands, I glanced over at the grill, which was being manned by a woman, who was clearly at home overseeing her fire. It was then I noticed that all of the grills, many that were fashioned out of oil barrels cut in half, were being overseen by women. In fact, out of all six lolos (which refers to the grill itself and not the restaurant by the way) every single grill master was a woman– one who spends each day and night on her feet, sweating over hot coals to churn out some of the best barbecue this Southern girl has ever tasted. It was an odd yet beautiful sight to see these ladies flipping slabs of meat and fish as well as any male pitmaster south of the Mason Dixon line.

Next day at lunch, we were back at the lolos for an afternoon of $1 Caribs,and to this time, sample some local seafood. Lunch began with boudin blanc made with fresh conch, a definite nod to the French influences that abound in the area. Next up, was a whole grilled snapper topped with pickled onions and peppers served with a mound of dirty rice and peas (kidney beans). Hubby had the grilled chicken platter, which like the ribs was flawlessly tender and juicy.

As we sipped our beers while watching a handful of local children jumping off a nearby pier into the crystalline waters of Grand Case Bay, I couldn’t help but think how at home I felt. Perhaps it was the familiar smoke billowing from the grills that reminded me of down-home pig pickin’s and barbecue’s back in my native Virginia or maybe it was the way our host beamed with familial pride as she moved back and forth from our table to the grill, serving as both waitress and master chef. Whatever it was, it felt like home, and set the tone for the remainder of our experience in St. Martin, a small yet mighty island on the Caribbean culinary map.

Stay tuned for St. Martin deliciousness….


Wine, Dine and Raft Your Way Along Idaho’s Snake River

What better way to spend an adventure-filled whitewater rafting trip along Idaho’s Hell’s Canyon (the deepest gorge in North America) than to experience it while sampling an array of Oregon Pinot Noir’s and delicious cuisine whipped up on-site by a renown executive chef?

O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists) is offering a five day “wine on the river” adventure trip starting September 14th, along the dam-controlled Snake River, which is known for its powerful drops and “roller-coaster” waves along Class III rapids. After a fun-filled day bucking through the rolling waters, participants are treated to an evening of award-winning wines from the Pacific Northwest designed to be savored along the river’s sandy beaches. Hors’douvres along with dinner will then be expertly prepared under the direction of executive chef, Adam Bernstein, owner of Adam’s Place Restaurant in Eugene, Oregon.

Adam’s Place, which specializes in organic and sustainable Northwestern cuisine lightly dotted with European and Asian influences, boasts a menu which includes such regional delights as steamed Pacific mussels in white wine, all-natural Carlton Farm pork tenderloin (all of Chef Bernstein’s meats are hormone and antibiotic-free) as well as stick-to-your-ribs comfort foods like chicken crock pie with a biscuit crust and hand-cut paparadelle with braised lamb and wild mushrooms, which after a long day battling the mighty river, are sure to satisfy any hungry outdoor enthusiast.

Williamette Valley native and local wine expert, Robert Wolfe, who is also president of the Oregon Pinot Noir Club oversees tastings and pairings, and will lead participants on a guided tour of some of the region’s best vintages and varietals. And, this is no run-of-the-mill wine experience. Each wine will be carefully selected to complement Chef Bernstein’s culinary offerings, allowing diners to get a taste of a five-star restaurant right along the banks of the Snake River.

In addition to afternoons on the water, participants can take short hikes to local historic sites, view prehistoric Native American pictographs, fish for Rainbow Trout, or for more gallant travelers, participate in a spectacular vista hike from Suicide Point, which offers a dramatic view of the river and its canyon walls.

Included in your trip is five days of rafting with four nights camping, a scenic charter air flight to the put-in point, all meals with beer and wine at dinner, and expedition equipment (including a 2-person shared tent and sleeping bags) as well a personal flotation device, wetsuits and waterproof bags to hold your gear.

For over 30 years, O.A.R.S. has been running river trips throughout Idaho, Utah, California, Oregon, Wyoming, the Grand Canyon and internationally. Along with enrichment travel opportunities, O.A.R.S. strives to encourage and actively support a deeper appreciation and preservation of its rivers and natural ecosystems through responsible tourism. For more about O.A.R.S. or to book a trip, please visit www.oars.com