Roadside America: Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire

Over a hundred years ago, my great-great Uncle Bob built a small cabin to relax overlooking New Hampshire‘s Lake Winnipesaukee, about two hours from Boston. Little did he know that the Lakes Region would later become a point of pilgrimage for thousands of bikers and gamers each year, as it hosts the annual Laconia Motorcycle week in June and arcade enthusiasts year round to the American Classic Arcade Museum. Like many other generations before me, I spent many summers playing skee-ball, building sandcastles, and angling for more money to spend on penny candy. Now that I’m old enough to have honeymooned at Uncle Bob’s old cabin and taken my own daughter there, I still love the old-school feel of the place and hope nothing changes by the time my grandchildren run out of batteries on their iPhone 25s and want some old-fashioned fun. Here are some favorite destinations that have been around for generations past and hopefully, more to come.

Old Country Store
(Moultonborough) – This store was ancient even when Uncle Bob was a tyke (possibly the oldest in the country), and still offers a range of penny candy, pickles from a barrel, and loads of maple and pine treats. You’ll also find kitchen utensils you didn’t even know existed, a map room (mostly New Hampshire/New England) and more moose-themed items than is probably necessary. Be sure to sit on the porch with the cigar store Indian, check out the museum upstairs, and spend a dime or two on the old player piano.

Funspot (Laconia) – Open 60 years this year, Funspot is the largest arcade in the world. It gained real fame when it was featured in the documentary “The King of Kong” for the annual video game tournament at the aforementioned arcade museum. In addition to video games, there’s bowling, bingo, and mini-golf. If you are not a parent or a kid at heart, you can chill out at the tavern with free Wi-Fi too.

Weirs Beach – The Weirs Beach website says they’ve been a place for family fun since the 1950s, but the history goes back much earlier. Weirs is at its peak in summer, where you can ride the waterslides, drive bumper cars, or just hang out on the beach. There’s even a variety of nightlife in season, with fireworks, live bands, and a host of bars.

Corner House Inn (Sandwich) – One of the few independent restaurants open year round, the Corner House dates back over 150 years. You can’t rent a room anymore (they need all the room for hungry diners), but you can enjoy the fire and food for dinner daily. Check out the site for special events, such as storytelling dinners in fall and Friday night music in the pub.

Ames Farm Inn (Gilford) – Open since 1890, the Ames Farm Inn is currently operated by the fourth and fifth generation of family. Choose from cozy rooms or lakeside cabins to stay, or stop for a country breakfast or early lunch in summer.

Castle in the Clouds (Moultonborough) – As a kid, I was a wee bit disappointed that there was no princess at the Castle in the Clouds, but I still enjoyed the nature walks, the views of the lake, and exploring the old mansion dating back to 1914. You can also go horseback riding and meet Zeus, the largest horse in the world. It’s open May to October, with some additional special events in fall for the holidays.

Half Moon Motel and Cottages (Weirs Beach) – Though my ancestor was once an owner of the grand old New Weirs Hotel, I don’t get any discount to stay at the Half Moon Motel and Cottages, built up from the 1930s tea room built on the former hotel grounds and family-owned since the 1950s. With probably the best location in the Lakes Region, every cottage and motel room has views of Lake Winnipesaukee and the mountains, and free Wi-Fi too.

E.M. Health (Center Harbor)- While you may not usually see a supermarket in a travel story, it’s even more rare to see a family-owned store not only survive six decades but thrive. As a kid, my family’s first stop would be at E.M. Heath for groceries, and it’s since expanded to include a hardware store, photo desk and other services, and it’s still true to its slogan: “Dealer in most everything.”

[Photo credit: timsackton via Flickr]

Visiting The Devil’s Tooth In La Paz, Bolivia

When loud, traffic-heavy, protest-passionate La Paz gets to be too much, one way to escape while not even leaving the city is to visit the Devil’s Tooth, or Muela del Diablo. While this may sound scarier than ingesting smog and crazy drivers, seeing the site on horseback is actually quite serene.

Devil’s Tooth is an inactive volcano that is approximately 492 feet high. According to our guide, it got its name because indigenous people believed it looked like the tooth of Satan. The journey also allowed us to take in sweeping city views and Moon Valley, or Valle de la Luna. The valley gets its name from its unusual rock formations.

What I really loved about the area was how much culture there was. Along with stunning landscapes, there are indigenous women wearing traditional bowler hats working outside, children herding sheep and playing soccer, and small schools and homes residing on the hills. The trip really allowed for a glimpse into local life in Bolivia.

In the middle of the tour – once you get to the best lookout point of the trip – the group stops for an included lunch of fruit, a ham and cheese sandwich, and chocolate and flavored milk. The guides are Spanish speaking, but usually speak a little bit of English, too. Either way, talking isn’t necessary to enjoy this trip. You can book through most travel agencies in La Paz. Expect to pay about $50.

For a more visual idea of the experience, check out the gallery below.


Adventure vacation Guide 2012: Ecuador

Most Norteamericanos are hard-pressed to locate Ecuador on the map. Those familiar with this South American country the size of Colorado usually associate it with the (admittedly) spectacular Galapagos Islands. Yet Ecuador has so much more offer besides the Galapagos, and 2012 is the year to get your hardcore on. Why? Because the country’s adventure travel industry is blowing up–but it’s still affordable, especially if you opt for independent travel or book certain activities through domestic outfitters or U.S. travel companies that work directly with Ecuadorean guides.

Whatever your recreational interests, budget, or experience, odds are Ecuador has it: mountaineering, glacier climbing, and volcano bagging; trekking on foot or horseback; Class III to VI whitewater kayaking and rafting; sea kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling; surfing; remote jungle lodges and endemic wildlife, and agritourism. Need more convincing? Ecuador’s adventure tourism increasingly has an emphasis on sustainability. When it comes to protecting its fragile ecosystem and indigenous communities, Ecuador has become quite progressive for a developing nation, which hasn’t always been the case.

If you like a cultural or culinary component to your travels, there’s that, too. You can opt for an active, educational trip to indigenous-owned and -operated Amazonian eco-lodges, or play in the Pacific regions, which retain a strong Afro-Ecuadorean influence.

Agritourism is also hot in Ecuador, most notably at centuries-old haciendas, although there are also coffee and cacao plantation tours. Ecuadorean food is a diverse melding of indigenous and outside ethnic influences that’s regionally influenced: be sure to patronize markets, roadside restaurants, and street food stalls for some of the most memorable eats.

[flickr image via Rinaldo W]

How to choose a great dude or guest ranch

Hang on, I need to get something out of the way. “City Slickers.” Okay, now that the inevitable has been mentioned, we can move on. Guest ranches–also known as dude ranches–are an excellent choice for a family vacation, regardless of season. Even if it’s just two of you, many ranches cater to couples, ensuring you of an active and romantic holiday.

The guest ranch tradition was established in the Western states as early as the late 19th century. They grew in popularity after the first World War, when advances in technology and the era of the automobile sparked nostalgia for the “Old West” way of life and legendary hospitality. It was also around this time that “dude” ranches spread to the eastern U.S..

While some ranches were and are dedicated to serving tourists, many are working ranches that host guests as a means of supplemental income. My dad worked as a wrangler at one such spread in northern Colorado in the mid-1950’s, when he was putting himself through vet school. Then called UT Bar Ranch, it’s now the Laramie River Ranch, and Colorado’s “newest old dude ranch.” I spent a very enjoyable week there with my extended family for my parents’ 50th anniversary five years ago.

It was the first time I’d stayed long enough at a guest ranch to really get the full experience. Even though I grew up on a ranch, I still love being immersed in the Western lifestyle and participating in ranch activities such as cattle and horse gatherings, trail rides, feeding and care of livestock, and barbecues. When kayaking, canoeing, fishing, hiking, nordic skiing or snowshoeing, horsemanship clinics, mustang/wildlife viewing, pack trips, or even yoga are thrown into the mix, a ranch stay can become a diverse holiday adventure, and you don’t need previous riding experience.

After the jump, tips on how to ensure you choose the right property and get the most out of your guest ranch experience.

%Gallery-128529%Find an online resource provides a listing of various national and international dude and guest ranch organizations, as well as state associations for Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming. It also describes the strict criteria required for membership. The Dude Rancher’s Association site is helpful for both potential guests and those in the industry.

Another excellent site is Top 50 Ranches, which is “dedicated to showcasing some of the most breathtaking, authentic, and luxurious [international] ranch destinations.” It also allows you to input dates, destination, and other info, highlights special-interest packages, and offers helpful articles and tips, such as what clothes to pack. American Cowboy’s website has archived features on specific properties, as well as their picks for the best guest ranches, and Writing Horseback has similar content.

Authenticity factor
There’s are all kinds of guest ranches out there, from the hokey, git-along-lil’-doggies, tenderfoot tourist mills (this is just a personal quirk, but I tend to think of these places as “dude,” rather than guest ranches, although that’s not necessarily true).

Some ranches are luxury properties (and may in fact be members of boutique hotel or high-end property organizations such as Relais & Chateaux), while others are very family-oriented, with rustic cabins. Many are working ranches, raising cattle or breeding horses. I strongly recommend the latter, for the most authentic, rewarding experience.

Plan ahead
Guest ranches often book up to a year or more in advance. Plan accordingly.

How long do you plan to stay?
Most guest ranches offer a standard week-long program, says the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association (CDGRA). To get the most out of your visit, you’ll really need that amount of time. Some ranches do, however, offer weekend packages.

Ranch capacity
Depending upon where you stay, you might find yourself in the company of only a handful of other people or a hundred. If you’re looking for a quiet or kid-free holiday, be sure to take capacity into account during your research.

Are you looking for luxury or a rustic, refurbished historic cabin? Main house or separate building? Full-on Old West decor, or something a bit more modern or genteel? Mountains or desert? Tipi or luxury safari tent?

Whatever your preference, you’ll find it: Family-style, communal, formal, menu options or no, traditional Western cuisine, kid’s menus, cookouts. Some properties, such as Colorado’s Dunton Hot Springs and The Home Ranch, or Montana’s The Resort at Paws Up are justly famous for their food, made with locally-sourced ingredients. Policies differ on alcohol, as well: be sure to ask whether it’s included, or if you need to BYO.

When to go
The best thing about guest ranches is that most operate year-round. It’s hard to beat summer in the Rockies, but you may want to consider visiting in the early fall, when the aspens are changing color. Winter allows you to ride horseback in the snow and engage in traditional winter sports, or you can head to parts of the Southwest or California where the climate is mild. Depending upon where you want to go, spring is the only time I’d suggest you think twice about, because “mud season” can be a logistical pain, and blizzards well into April aren’t uncommon.

Activities and special packages
From traditional wrangling work–gathering cattle, roping, and caring for livestock–a ranch vacation revolves around horses and riding. If horses aren’t your thing, this is the wrong type of vacation for you. That said, you don’t have to ride, but you’d be missing out on a key part of the ranch experience. But there are all manner of outdoor activities offered by ranches. If paddling is your primary interest, look for a ranch on or near a river known for its whitewater. Ditto fly-fishing.

Many ranches offer specialty packages; Central California’s Alisal Ranch, for example, hosts a four-day “BBQ Bootcamp” where guests learn how to master the grill from local experts, and enjoy a traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Kid/teen programs
Most ranches are very family-oriented, and I can’t think of a better–or healthier–vacation for kids. Be aware that every ranch has a different age policy, and not all offer kid’s programs or babysitting. You’ll also want to check on minimum age requirements for independent riding.

Level of horsemanship ranch caters to/Can you bring your own horse?
It may sound counter-intuitive to bring your own horse, but if you’re an experienced rider, you may have a more fulfilling holiday and equestrian experience on your own mount (be sure to get referrals, first, to ensure your animal’s health and safety).

Some ranches hold horsemanship clinics, which are as much about educating the animal as the rider. If you’re just planning to pleasure ride but are an experienced equestrian, there are many ranches that breed and train their own animals and emphasize natural horsemanship and the cowboy way of life. Regardless of your skill level, you should always ask detailed questions about instruction, safety policies, how the ranch goes about pairing horses and riders, and their horsemanship philosophy. A poorly-trained mount or injury can really take the fun out of your holiday.

Handicap accessibility
Not all properties have it. Do note that some ranches offer riding programs for those with disabilities.

Phone, wifi, and internet access
Many ranches seek to provide guests with a complete escape from the stresses of modern life. If you can’t live without your cell or computer, rest assured there’s a property that can accommodate your needs.

Pack appropriately
A good ranch will always provide you with a packing list, but you can definitely leave your fancy duds at home. If you don’t own a pair of riding boots or other heavy-duty shoe with a heel, get some (you can find an inexpensive used pair at a consignment or vintage store). These are essential for safe horseback riding, so your foot doesn’t get hung up in a stirrup.

Proximity to a major medical faciilty
If this is a concern for you, definitely bring it up in your initial conversation. Many ranches are located in isolated rural areas.

Cancellation policies
Ask what they are.

The Atacama Desert: Chile’s Other Adventure Destination

When adventure travelers reveal a list of their top destinations, Chile is often amongst the favorites. The South American country is well known for its majestic landscapes, remote, wild places, and adrenaline inducing activities. In the south, Patagonia is widely considered one of the best backpacking and climbing destinations on the planet and Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world, is the jumping off point for travelers heading to Antarctica. But what many don’t realize is that the northern part of Chile may be the country’s best kept travel secret.

Far to the north, nestled along the borders of Bolivia and Argentina, lies the Atacama Desert, a destination that offers an amazing a mix of natural beauty and cultural emersion. The Atacama has the unique distinction of being the driest place on the planet, thanks to a rain shadow created by the Andes Mountains and Chile’s Domeyko range, which stretches along its Pacific coast. Those two mountain ranges conspire to block storm clouds from moving over the Atacama, and as a result, there are places in the desert that have not seen rain in recorded history.

But that doesn’t mean the Atacama is a desolate wasteland. Far from it in fact! Rainfall in the surrounding mountains does run off into the valleys below, creating an oasis and bringing a surprising amount of life to certain areas. Centuries ago, those oasis’s attracted human settlements, some of which still exist to this day, including San Pedro de Atacama, the unofficial capital of the region.

In many ways, San Pedro is a typical tourist town. Its streets are lined with small shops, packed with all manner of goods, including a dizzying array of handcrafted jewelry, scarves, pottery, and other local items. Industrious shopkeepers compete with one another to find ways to separate you from your pesos, while packs of stray dogs wander the narrow alleyways. A small museum offers insights into the evolution of the Atacama region and an unofficial North Face gear store provides overpriced adventure apparel for those who forgot to pack the proper gear. Still, there is a certain charm about the place, and you’ll soon find yourself settling into one of the sidewalk cantinas, enjoying a cold cerveza or pisco sour, and watching the world go by.The town of 4000 residents also serves as base camp for your adventures in the Atacama Desert. In addition to the small shops, you’ll also find plenty of tour operators, each promising to show you the local sights. For example, you’ll be able to book excursions to visit the nearby salt flats or geyser basin, as well as rent mountain bikes or go sandboarding on one of the towering dunes. The more adventurous may want to explore the desert on horseback or take a trek though one of the gorges that are so prolific throughout the area. If you’re really up for a challenge, try bagging the summit of one of the many volcanoes that ring the Atacama. Most tower over 18,000 feet in height, with routes that range from a simple walk-up to a full-fledged, technical mountaineering experience.

While the array of activities available in the Atacama is quite impressive, it is the landscapes themselves that will likely leave you with the most lasting impressions. There simply aren’t enough superlatives to express the degree of diversity and beauty that can be found there. You’ll continually be amazed at how the terrain can vary from dry and desolate to lush and fertile, and yet still remain so incredibly breathtaking, and just when you think you’ve seen everything it has to offer, the desert will surprise you with something new once again.

A spectacular natural light show, provided by the rising and setting sun, paints the desert in incandescent reds, yellows, and browns, that simply have to be seen to be believed. In that light, the natural landscaped glowed like no other place I’ve seen in my travels, adding yet another dimension to an already amazing place.

And when the sun goes down, and those lovely landscapes are blanketed in complete darkness, one only has to glance upwards towards the heavens for your next breathtaking view. The skies above the Atacama are clear and open, offering a view of the night sky that is quite possibly unrivaled by any other place on Earth. The stars are countless in number and appear in layers like some kind of epic 3D projection that can normally be seen only at your local planetarium. The Milky Way makes an appearance as well, painting a bright white streak overhead, while constellations only visible in the Southern Hemisphere twinkle back at viewers below. It is an awe inspiring and humbling sight to say the least.

If my description of the Atacama Desert has you intrigued, then there are a few things you should know before you go. For starters, even the desert floor is located at altitude, which can be an issue for some travelers. San Pedro, for instance, is situated at just above 8000 feet, which can have a significant impact on your visit if you’re unprepared. It is not uncommon for visitors to experience slight altitude sickness upon arrival, so spend the first few days acclimatizing before trying any overly active pursuits. A shortness of breath or mild headaches are typical symptoms, both of which tend to go away after a day or two. (On the plus side, alcohol tends to have more of an effect at altitude as well, making San Pedro a great place to tie one on!)

Getting to the Atacama is a fairly simple affair. You’ll want to book your flights through Chile’s capital, Santiago and then continue on to Calama, a small mining town on the edge of the desert. From there, it is an easy one-hour drive to San Pedro, where your adventure will truly begin. The drive in will give you an excellent glimpse of what the desert has in store for you as well.

In a testament to just how off the beaten path the Atacama is for most travelers, while checking in for my overnight flight from Miami to Santiago recently, the ticket agent noticed the second leg of my journey on to Calama, and actually asked me where it was I was going. He didn’t recognize the airport code and said that he had never booked a passenger through to that destination. I had to explain to him exactly where I was flying, which was a bit surprising considering I was about to board a Chilean based airline, with Chilean’s working the counter.

My experience wasn’t much different after my arrival in San Pedro either. Once there, I met plenty of visitors from within Chile itself, as well as Brazil. There were also travelers from as far away as Japan, the U.K. and Fiji, but very few Americans. In fact, the only other person from the States that I ran into was another travel writer working on a story of her own. It seems for now, the Atacama Desert is virtually unknown to American travelers.

But for anyone looking for a fantastic destination with a lot to offer, minus the large crowds, Chile’s northern region is an exceptional choice. Just be fair warned, with its spectacular landscapes and boundless opportunities for adventure, the Atacama may spoil you for similar destinations in the future.