Historical castle offers free wine on tap for guests

belhurst castle When thinking of castles, many people imagine kings and queens, old-world architecture, and decades of history. In New York, however, there is a castle that is not only a historical structure, but also a wine-lovers retreat.

The Belhurst Castle is located in the town of Geneva in the Finger Lakes region, overlooking Seneca Lake. Built in the 1800’s, it still contains beamed cathedral ceilings, mosaic tiled fireplaces, and period decor. And for the oenophiles, it is also home to the Belhurst Winery.

The winery itself has won numerous awards, such as Best New World Riesling, two Best in Class, two Gold, and one Platinum from the 2011 Jerry D. Mead’s New World International Wine Competition. Visitors to the winery can sample these elite wines as well as take part in an array of wine and dinner pairings.

Okay, so while having a castle on a winery isn’t too new of a concept, what is really cool about Belhurst is their wine spigot. For those staying at Our Chambers in the Castle, an on-site hotel, there is a complimentary wine tap built into the wall of the lobby that allows guests to enjoy a glass of wine whenever they please. Yes, you read that right. Free wine. On tap. For guests. Now, you can take in history while taking in a glass (or three!) of quality vino.

How to choose a great dude or guest ranch

dude and guest ranchesHang 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%dude and guest ranchesFind an online resource
Ranchseeker.com 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 capacitydude and guest ranches
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.

Accommodations
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?

Dining
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 godude and guest ranches
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.

How Tourists See Life on a Cowboy Ranch

Five steps to a romantic New Hampshire getaway

New Hampshire romantic getaway
Put the stress and pressure of the workday behind you. This is exactly what was on my mind a few weeks ago. I needed to get away from the daily grind for a bit, and the back roads of New England were calling. I wanted something quiet, remote and relaxing. New Hampshire came to mind immediately.

It had been a while since my last trip to New Hampshire – close to 20 years since my last visit to the White Mountains. So, I had to reacquaint myself with the local options. In the process of doing so, I found five crucial steps to planning a great romantic getaway to the Granite State.

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When you’re planning your long weekend (or longer) in New Hampshire (or western Massachusetts, Vermont or Maine), keep the following in mind:

1. Invest some time in picking the right room: for me, this was probably the most important part of planning my getaway. I wanted to find an inn (not a bed and breakfast or a hotel) that had a fireplace and an in-room Jacuzzi. I wouldn’t compromise on these criteria … and I wanted them at less than $200 a night (all in). Since the New England Inns and Resorts Association website allows you to search member properties based on these elements, that’s where I went to do my homework and book, finding the Christmas Farm Inn, in Jackson, NH. It wound up being exactly what I was looking form.

2. Remember the New Hampshire state liquor stores: wine is not expensive! The state liquor stores have a wide selection of wines, and they’re a bit cheaper (in most cases) than they are in nearby Boston and not-so-nearby New York. Pick up a few bottles, depending on the length of your stay, for in-room enjoyment. Think about it: (a) wine by the fireplace, (b) wine in the Jacuzzi, (c) wine on the deck and (d) wine in bed. This really is a no-brainer.

3. Get a sense of the cuisine ahead of time: if you’re visiting northern New Hampshire from a city, be ready for some differences. The restaurants close a lot earlier, especially off season. So, hitting the local restaurant at 10:30 PM just isn’t an option – you’ll starve! Plan to eat earlier dinners, leaving more time for chilled wine in the Jacuzzi back at your room (there’s an upside to everything). While there are some interesting options in the area (such as Wine Thyme in North Conway, NH), upscale alternatives aren’t as common as they are in New York or Boston. Be ready to de-prioritize culinary and focus on the “romantic” part of “romantic getaway.”

4. Fight the urge to stay in your room: the whole point of a romantic getaway is to enjoy the person you’re with … which sometimes leads to longer mornings in bed and the temptation not to wander too far from the room (hint, hint). Keep the spirit without becoming a hermit by packing a lunch and a bottle of wine before heading over to Rocky Gorge in White Mountain National Forest. Sit on the rocks as the river rushes by, and sip on a glass of Pinot Noir if the air is crisp (Gruener if it isn’t). Circle the nearby lake for a bit of privacy; the trail is easy to walk and won’t draw as much traffic as Rocky Gorge.

5. Take in a sunset: for a fantastic sunset, head over to Cathedral Ledge. It isn’t far from the Conway, NH area, so you won’t lose much time to the drive. In summer, the later sunset might leave you scrambling to find dinner afterward, so choose a restaurant that’s nearby to make sure you aren’t scrounging after enjoying a bit of natural beauty.

The Abbey Resort and Spa: Luxury on Lake Geneva

Billing itself as “the only full-service resort” on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, The Abbey Resort and Spa is one of those places where you can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering around you. The resort was completely renovated in 2005, but its timber A-frame and low-slung bungalow style buildings look much as they did when it was built nearly 50 years ago, when the Midwestern elite made it their summer playground.

There’s plenty of nostalgia for the “good old days” here – the nearby Geneva Grand Resort proudly boasts that it was a Playboy Club in the 1960’s and 70’s. And money. Lots and lots of money. The houses that front Lake Geneva, the 9-mile long lake that is the centerpiece of the area, are multi-million dollar affairs that bear the names of families like Borden, Vicks, and Wrigley. Yet despite the vast wealth of the “haves”, those who aren’t descendants of the Midwest’s titans of industry can still share in the benefits of area. There are several public beaches and marinas, and every lakefront property is required to have a public walkway so that all area residents can enjoy a stroll around the lake. And in the towns of Lake Geneva and Fontana, more modest homes and affordable restaurants lines the streets where wealthy summer residents mingle with the local families who live here all year round.

For Chicago residents, getting to The Abbey couldn’t be easier. It’s about 80 miles from the city (50 miles from Milwaukee), but the Metra Rail will get you there in less than two hours from downtown. You’ll get off at the end of the line, at the Harvard Station, where a shuttle will pick you up and drive you the remaining 15 minutes to The Abbey. You can also request service from the resort to anywhere in Lake Geneva, making a car completely unnecessary.

The Abbey is family-friendly – there are childcare services, organized kids’ activities, free games like bags and croquet, two outdoor and one indoor pool, and a 2,000-square foot arcade complete with Wii system – but it’s also perfect for a romantic or relaxing retreat. The rooms have all been updated and feature pillow-top mattresses, LCD wall-mounted TVs, mini-fridges, and patios or balconies.

I saw a few families, but mostly couples in their 30’s to 50’s, during my stay. My room was comfortable and spacious and the bed soft and inviting. My only complaint was with the wi-fi service. It was free, but I had a very hard time getting a signal. When I did, I was bumped offline every 15 minutes or so, and web pages loaded very slowly. I can’t say if that would be the case all over the resort, or just in my location, but it was inconvenient when I needed to get some work done.

If you don’t plan on working while at The Abbey, you’ll find plenty of things to do to keep you busy. The resort rents bikes and fishing poles and there is a golf course nearby. The 35,000-square foot AVANI Spa offers treatments like facials, massages, body wraps, waxing and manicures. It features a pool, whirlpools, inhalation spa, steam room, sauna, sundeck, and spa menu for dining. Guests can also take advantage of the Spa’s fitness center or full line-up of exercises classes liking spinning, yoga, zumba, and pilates, which are geared towards any fitness level. I found there was always equipment available for use, the yoga class was just difficult enough to challenge me (but not hard enough to make me feel like an uncoordinated idiot), and the spa staff was always friendly but unobtrusive.

The resort borders a marina, but the small beach isn’t suitable for swimming. There is a nicer, sandy beach less than a five-minute walk off the property, or you can take the shuttle into Lake Geneva proper to visit the beach there. In town you can rent a boat or wave runner, water-ski, or take a cruise past the historic mansions around the lake. Nearby parks offer hiking trails and horseback riding, two wineries offer wine tasting (a wine festival is held in September), and there are farms where you can pick your own fruit just a few miles away. You can also soar above the lake in a hot air balloon or small airplane. In winter, locals hit the frozen lake for ice fishing and skating.

The Abbey offers an impressive variety of delicious food, all made from scratch in the resort’s kitchen. Meals are served at one of two restaurants, and there is a coffee shop, gazebo grill, cocktail lounge, and cigar bar. The resort also offers catering and meeting spaces, and hosts many weddings throughout the year. The weekend that I visited, a wedding was being set up on the lawn in front of the marina. For a resort-style destination wedding close to Chicago, I can’t think of a more beautiful place in the Midwest at which to get married.

To be honest, when I hear the word “relaxing”, I think “boring”. I prefer my vacations to be packed with sightseeing, learning, experiencing, and of course, eating and drinking. This makes me generally shun resorts where I think I’ll feel as though I’m held captive and at a loss for things to keep me entertained. I’m also very budget-conscious. Since I spend so little time in my hotel room, I don’t like to spend too much on it. And I can’t stand when resorts jack up their prices for food, drinks and activities just because they know guests will pay rather than head off-site. So I was a bit worried that The Abbey wouldn’t be my style. But I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the things that I liked about The Abbey was that leaving isn’t a hassle for guests without their own wheels. The shuttle will take you anywhere you want to go, and there a few restaurants and shops within walking distance of the hotel. And The Abbey doesn’t gouge its guests on food and drink just because it can. Management knows that it isn’t just the hotel guests who keep the resort in business, especially in the off-season. They aim to attract local customers too, and keep the prices reasonable so that everyone can enjoy The Abbey.

Despite any initial reservations, I found myself enjoying The Abbey immensely, and trying to convince my husband that returning for a “relaxing weekend” (in my case, meaning one chock-full of wine-tasting, boat tours, horseback riding, and cooking classes) at The Abbey would be the perfect fall trip. And as it turns out, fall is one of the best times to visit. Weekend rates start at $216 per night, and include free breakfast buffet and a 25% discount on spa services.

Disclosure: The Abbey Resort did cover the cost of my stay, but don’t think they had an easy time wooing me with spa treatments and Pelligrino. Freebies are nice, but they won’t make me forgive a hotel’s shortcomings. My review of the resort represents my own views and experiences as a guest and were not influenced in any way by fancy cheeses or free champagne.

Love stinks (this year), V-Day spending down

Don’t expect an expensive gesture this year. Valentine’s Day spending is expected to drop 4.8 percent this year, after suffering to the tune of 6.8 percent a year ago. The good news is that we’re becoming less romantic at a slower rate this year. Nonetheless, don’t plan on a surprise weekend getaway this year.

According research firm IBISWorld, the passionate are only going to commit $28.6 billion to their fellow lovebirds this year. The reason is simple: Valentine’s Day just isn’t Christmas.

According to George Van Horn, a senior analyst at IBISWorld, events like birthdays and Christmas don’t involve a whole lot of choice. You have to commit some cash. “Valentine’s Day is more of a discretionary occasion,” he says, “which means it will be hit particularly hard by the current economic climate.” As we tighten our belts, this non-day off is among the casualties.

IBISWorld believes that couples are going to swap out trips, dinners out and the like for romantic meals at home, walks on the beach or writing a love letter or poem. Yes, this was actually in the press release! I have to admit, a walk on the beach right now, here in New York, would probably be better than a poem.

So, how does 2009 look? Travel is pretty grim. IBISWorld forecasts that close to $3.45 billion will be spent on romantic getaways this year, compared to $3.58 billion last year. It’s a drop of 3.5 percent.