Shenandoah National Park celebrates 75 years

I’m currently sitting in a rocking chair in Big Meadows Lodge at Shenandoah National Park listening to a young man talk about his day to what I presume to be his girlfriend back home. “We just spent two hours laying in the grass,” he says, adding “it felt good to just be really, ridiculously lazy.” I don’t know who this guy is or where he is from, but I think many of us can relate to his feeling of uninhibited bliss when visiting our nation’s great parks.

In a radio address in 1932, William Carson – the chairman of the Commission of Conservation and Development for Virginia – predicted that “scenery is going to be Virginia’s next cash crop.” He was right. Whether you want to just take in the views of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains or get out and be active, Shenandoah National Park has been a treasured getaway since its inception in 1935.

This year, the park is celebrating its 75th year with a rededication ceremony and a contest that will gift a lucky visitor with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a two-night stay in the park. On June 25th, the park will waive all entrance fees and has planned a full day of activities for its rededication, including plenty of projects and games for the kids. Park employees are expecting President Obama – who officially resides a little over two hours away in Washington, DC – to make an appearance at the ceremony. The park, which was established in 1935, has never made an official press announcement about the event, yet all 900 tickets to the big shebang were sold out back in May.

Park supervisor Karen Beck-Herzog says “75 years later, I think the park’s founders have delivered the dream.” Even if you can’t join in on events during the park’s official party, you can visit and pick up a brochure that doubles as a game of questions about the park and surrounding communities (or download it at online). Fill it out and send it in by November 1st to be entered in a contest with a grand prize for a vacation package at Skyland Resort, which is located in the park. The package includes a two-night stay, a biplane ride over the Shenandoah Valley, a guided horseback ride, and two limited edition prints of the park that are signed and numbered by artist Kevin H. Adams. There will also be 16 additional drawings for other prize packages that were generously donated by people and organizations that love the park.

I’ll be here for the next few days relaxing, hiking, and learning about this park’s legacy. Stay tuned.

[Photo by Libby Zay]

Fill your stomach, save your wallet

You’ve heard a lot about cheap flights and amazing hotel rates lately. Well, restaurants are getting into the game, too. Prix fixe meals for between $25 and $40 are being offered at upscale restaurants across the country. Hey, if you’re not likely to spend big cash on travel, maybe you can splurge a little on a great local meal.

The restaurants are suffering just as much as the hotels and airlines, so they need to get diners in the door.

This year, the National Restaurant Association (yes, there is another “NRA”) expects restaurant sales to drop 1 percent this year – as it did in 2008. That would be the first time drops happened in consecutive years since the association started to keep score back in 1970. This isn’t as bad as the U.S. Travel Association‘s forecast of a 6.7 percent slip in travel spending, but for restaurateurs from coast to coast, it’s certainly cause for concern.

So, if you’re willing to sacrifice dinner at home from time to time, you stand to win. National seafood chain McCormick & Schmick’s for example, is offering a steak and lobster dinner special (with dessert) for $29.95. Realistically, the company has no choice. Up to 40 percent of its customers are business travelers, and sales are down 13 percent from last year.

To find some real bargains, keep an eye out for prix fixe menus. These deals allow restaurants to offer a better value to guests without having to turn to coupons and discounts that would bring prices down relative to specific menu items. Also, every party of four is likely to have one or two people who pull from the regular menu … and they can always nail you on the liquor.

Brits on traveling to the US: more hassle than it’s worth

Despite the weak dollar, the number of Brits visiting America is down 11% since 9/11. As this blog by The Guardian suggests, traveling to the US is just too much hassle these days.

The author, Ed Vulliamy, who travels frequently between London and the US, sounds quite angry about the whole thing: “And now here comes a new bag of tricks from Washington’s Department of Homeland Security: demanding to be informed of everything about you – by yourself and your government – before you try and buy a ticket, even if you are merely flying over America,” he writes. “Who the hell wants to apply online for permission to visit the US before even buying a ticket? Why should information on a friend or relative pushing a passenger in a wheelchair to the gate at Prestwick be dispatched to the CIA?”

One of his points especially struck me. He says that “the paranoia and war on terror, of which the new travel measures are part – have robbed and abused the emotional power and dignity of New York’s response to al-Qaeda’s murderous visit that morning: the carpets of flowers, the tributes, the missing posters and peace signs. This kind of language, this paranoia and manipulation of what happened has nothing to do with the real best of America. And godammit, that’s why it is still worth braving.”

It is hard to argue with that.