Go to Austin for outsized adventures

Finding awe in Austin

Austin, Texas, is the “place where people, music and food collide with great passion,” says Manfred Lassahn, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa. Lassahn – who loves to travel to see friends, explore new places, “and, of course, eat” – is an Austin booster. He enjoys its variety and friendliness. Like a lot of people, he admires its music. Known as the Live Music Capital of the World, it has earned international acclaim for its two music festivals – South by Southwest, known as SXSW, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. And, in spite of being the state capital and home to the University of Texas, Austin maintains its small-town feel and green spaces. As told to Rosemary McClure

  • Why austin? Austin is unique in many ways. It’s as if someone picked up a coastal art community and dropped it smack in the middle of Texas. It has a liberal vibe to it, yet Texas warmth and unconditional kindness remain. “Keep Austin Weird” is much more than a catchphrase; it’s their way of life. With an abundance of urban farms and eclectic cafes and shops, the “keep it weird” term has substance. It shows Austin’s commitment to supporting the small businesses that make it a great place to visit and live.

    Why austin? Austin is unique in many ways. It’s as if someone picked up a coastal art community and dropped it smack in the middle of Texas. It has a liberal vibe to it, yet Texas warmth and unconditional kindness remain. “Keep Austin Weird” is much more than a catchphrase; it’s their way of life. With an abundance of urban farms and eclectic cafes and shops, the “keep it weird” term has substance. It shows Austin’s commitment to supporting the small businesses that make it a great place to visit and live.

  • TIME IS RIGHT Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Though it gets hot, summer is nice too, because there are many watering holes to cool off in.

    TIME IS RIGHT Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Though it gets hot, summer is nice too, because there are many watering holes to cool off in.

  • TIME IS RIGHT Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Though it gets hot, summer is nice too, because there are many watering holes to cool off in.

    TIME IS RIGHT Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Though it gets hot, summer is nice too, because there are many watering holes to cool off in.

  • SECRET TIP Visit the Firehouse Lounge & Hostel, which is inside a converted firehouse built in 1885. Next to the front desk you’ll see a bookcase. Grab hold and pull to the right. You’ll discover a speakeasy-style lounge featuring craft cocktails and Prohibition-era drinks. Enjoy!

    SECRET TIP Visit the Firehouse Lounge & Hostel, which is inside a converted firehouse built in 1885. Next to the front desk you’ll see a bookcase. Grab hold and pull to the right. You’ll discover a speakeasy-style lounge featuring craft cocktails and Prohibition-era drinks. Enjoy!

  • BEST BITE Texans are passionate about barbecue. In Austin, you can enjoy it from food trucks or at brick-and-mortars. Or take a 30-minute drive to Lockhart, a small town that many consider the barbecue capital of Texas, and try Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market or Black’s BBQ. You’ll be in for the best barbecue of your life. Just don’t ask for a fork. Breakfast tacos are another winner here. My favorite are the migas at the Taco Joint on Riverside

    BEST BITE Texans are passionate about barbecue. In Austin, you can enjoy it from food trucks or at brick-and-mortars. Or take a 30-minute drive to Lockhart, a small town that many consider the barbecue capital of Texas, and try Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market or Black’s BBQ. You’ll be in for the best barbecue of your life. Just don’t ask for a fork. Breakfast tacos are another winner here. My favorite are the migas at the Taco Joint on Riverside

  • AFTER DARK Check out Austin’s famous music scene on Sixth Street. Just poke your head into each venue until you hear something you can’t pass up. Blues, rock, jazz – it’s what the city is known for. Be sure to stop in at the Driskill Bar for a timeless experience – the best classic cocktails in town. You’ll also get a look at one of the oldest luxury hotels west of the Mississippi.

    AFTER DARK Check out Austin’s famous music scene on Sixth Street. Just poke your head into each venue until you hear something you can’t pass up. Blues, rock, jazz – it’s what the city is known for. Be sure to stop in at the Driskill Bar for a timeless experience – the best classic cocktails in town. You’ll also get a look at one of the oldest luxury hotels west of the Mississippi.

  • MUST DO Barton Creek Greenbelt runs through the middle of Austin, but it literally feels as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. You can hike, rock climb and mountain bike. Another prime spot is Zilker Park in South Austin, where a spring-fed creek fills up a pool that stays at a consistent, breathtaking 68 degrees. Nearby Lady Bird Lake is the best place in Austin to kayak or paddleboard. If you stay until the sun sets, you can watch bats emerge and swarm the skies.

    MUST DO Barton Creek Greenbelt runs through the middle of Austin, but it literally feels as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. You can hike, rock climb and mountain bike. Another prime spot is Zilker Park in South Austin, where a spring-fed creek fills up a pool that stays at a consistent, breathtaking 68 degrees. Nearby Lady Bird Lake is the best place in Austin to kayak or paddleboard. If you stay until the sun sets, you can watch bats emerge and swarm the skies.

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The Great Escape: Golden Door soothes body and soul

If you’re an Orange County health and wellness aficionado, you’ve heard of the Golden Door, an uber-luxury resort located in North San Diego County. You may not know that the one-of-a-kind Escondido spa, which languished 14 years under corporate ownership, was bought in 2012 and, with a savvy, stylish COO on board, has undergone both a physical and philosophical makeover.

Long-time guest Joanne Conway, wife of billionaire philanthropist and Carlyle Group co-founder Bill Conway, paid $24.8 million for the legacy property. Then she hired Kathy Van Ness, a Manhattan Beach resident who previously ran mega-fashion firms such as Diane Von Furstenberg and Speedo, to apply her business and branding savvy to the 600-acre resort. Once Van Ness got the Golden Door name back – it had been licensed to spas from Las Vegas to Puerto Rico – she set out re-establishing the brand.

But the most revolutionary change was the decision to give away 100 percent of Golden Door profits to local NGOs benefitting women and children.

“Like Newman’s Own,” says Van Ness, chic in black and trendy spectacles, comparing the Golden Door business model to Paul Newman’s food company, one of the first corporations to give all its profits to charity.

We are lunching at the koi pond, a tranquil spot in the center of the property, which resembles a rambling Japanese country inn, with sand gardens, waterfalls, antique stone sculptures and spirit houses.  A fabulous shrimp and white bean chili is accompanied by a salad straight from the spa’s 220-acre biodynamic garden.

“We’re looking at community issues and where we can be most supportive locally,” explains Van Ness.

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To make even more profits to give away, Van Ness now sells Golden Door products on HSN. There’s a Golden Door line of skin and hair products, cookies and jams made from the resort’s famous recipes, honey from the Golden Door hives and soon, pasta sauce from its tomatoes. From the HSN studio in Florida, Van Ness spreads the Golden Door gospel to a new audience, inviting people who may never step foot through the spa’s actual golden front door to bask in its glow.

Van Ness and Conway are bringing the “spa-to-end-all-spas” back in line with its founder’s vision: the sybaritic spa stay as life-changing experience. That’s what Deborah Szekely had in mind when she started the Golden Door in 1958.

Two decades earlier, Szekely and her husband, a Hungarian-born health fanatic, had created Rancho La Puerta, a health farm a few miles south of the border in Tecate, Mexico. Szekely envisioned the Golden Door as Rancho La Puerta on steroids. It quickly became the place where Hollywood moguls sent their starlets to get “screen ready” and lose the 10 pounds the camera puts on.

Nowadays, guests sweat and soak, are pummeled and pampered, and take time out of their busy lives to contemplate their goals, intentions, eating and exercise habits, maybe even tune their chakras.

The spa hosts only 40 guests per week in individual, sumptuous villas where each receives a daily massage and can meditate at her (or “his” during men’s week) ikebana-adorned traditional meditation shrine.

Meals are the highlight of the week’s stay and are mostly sourced from the resort’s gardens. That great food and all exercise classes are included in the $8,850 price (there’s a less expensive four-day package perfect for OC residents), as are daily facials, a weekly body treatment, unlimited body wraps, a personal trainer, laundry service, manicures/pedicures, hair treatment and a complete line of Golden Door beauty products. Even your car gets a spa treatment: a hand wash.

Many guests start each day with a hike; there are more than 25 miles of trails on the sprawling property. I started my mornings strolling through the magnificent bamboo gardens. Conway, whose passion is development of the lands and property, recently planted an olive grove, envisaging Golden Door olive oil in the future.

Towards the week’s end, “spa brain” set in. Worries disappeared. My iPhone went uncharged for days. My skin was glowing. I had worked out like a champion all week, yet, thanks to the massages, my muscles felt pumped, not sore. I was making resolutions left and right. Go to the farmers market every Wednesday! Take a TRX class! I, too, had drunk the Kool-Aid, sugar-free, of course. I was under the spell of the Golden Door and, like so many guests, will do whatever it takes to keep
coming back.

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The Great Escape: Heaven at Two Harbors

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I love the outdoors, but I am a woman for whom “roughing it” means no Jacuzzi tub or room service. And of course, I had to marry a guy who thinks backpacking up mountains and sleeping in dirt is the epitome of fun.

Let’s just say that at some point on most of our getaways, one or the other of us is going to grit our teeth.

But then we discovered rustic Two Harbors, Catalina Island’s other town, located on the west end of the island, about as distant from the Mediterranean resort feel of Avalon as Mars is from Venus. It’s a sleepy little village straddling the isthmus, best known as the place where boaters like to dock and hikers like to camp. Limited Wi-Fi and sometimes spotty cell coverage make it easy to unplug and forget there’s a teeming metropolis an hour’s ride away on the Catalina Express …

Or just 15 minutes away, which is the length of time it took us to get there from Long Beach, hopping on the IEX Helicopters service. We landed in an open field and within five minutes a van had deposited us at Isthmus Cove, on Harbor Sands, the South Pacific-themed outdoor lounge that premiered in early May.

Where once a few rusting barbecues and a sagging volleyball net dotted a pebbly shore, now a half dozen palapas–each named after one of the old Hollywood movies once shot on location there, like “Mutany on the Bounty” and “Treasure Island”– sit on 1,900 tons of imported white sand. New lounge chairs on a raised deck under the shade of palms cry out for you to sit, sip a Mai Tai and gaze on the beauty of the cove. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy doing absolutely nothing, except maybe striking up a conversation with a friendly mix of locals, sunburnt hikers and other assorted vacationers.

The effect is all very “Gilligan’s Island,” in the best sense: Stranded – if only for a day – with interesting people in a remote paradise.

But the miles of trails were calling to my husband, so we set out on a hike with the goal of catching a glimpse of the island’s famed bison. An hour after scaling the hills we return, only to see one of the mammoth beasts ambling down a dirt road, not far from the village. Mission accomplished.

Another hour of kayaking in the beautiful cove and my outdoor activity quotient was up. Time for the wine mixer at the Banning House Lodge, the ultra-charming 12-room bed-and-breakfast built in the 1910s that sits on top of a hill and provides panoramic views of both harbors, comfy beds and fresh-scented linens. I can rough it like this, happily.

GS3Sturdy, surf-and-turf fare made for a decent dinner at the lone dining option in the village, Harbor Reef Restaurant. The highlight? Buffalo milk for dessert. Before you start to ponder how they get milk from those creatures, let me assure you it’s merely the name of a local conction that’s essentially just a White Russian spiced with some nutmeg.

Deeply relaxed, my husband and I luxuriated in the kind of thing we enjoyed in the early days of our marriage, but now often don’t have the time to do … play Scrabble and share a nice chardonnay as we watch the sunset, of course!

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Exploring the Canadian Galapagos

  • Amanda Fletcher takes a morning kayak trip.

    Amanda Fletcher takes a morning kayak trip.

  • Sea lions lounge portside of The Swell.

    Sea lions lounge portside of The Swell.

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  • Mortuary poles at UNESCO World Heritage Site at S'Gang Gwaay.

    Mortuary poles at UNESCO World Heritage Site at S’Gang Gwaay.

  • Bristol Foster naturalist with Maple Leaf Adventures

    Bristol Foster naturalist with Maple Leaf Adventures

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Sunlight shines through the trees, highlighting the riot of green growing from the top of a centuries-old mortuary pole, the carved images of a raven and a grizzly bear easier to see in the bleached wood once the watchman points them out.

This is S’Gang Gwaay, a village site of the Haida First Nations people, part of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These are the last remaining totem poles in a settlement that thrived for centuries before being decimated by smallpox in the 1800s. There will be no conservation effort. The Haida believe these burial poles are a representation of the life cycle; once they fall, they will be reclaimed by the forest.

It is impossible to stand on this hallowed ground and not feel something – there is a sense of awe but also of urgency – in the knowledge that this special human place will soon be gone but that it will also begin again as something new.

I rode on the bow of a wooden boat guided by Maple Leaf Adventures to get here. I sat in front of the wheelhouse under the watchful eye of Capt. Alex Ruurs. My fellow passengers stood around me, pointing out bald eagles, oystercatchers and cormorants sailing past our heads. “Humpback whale breach off the starboard side,” someone yelled, handing me binoculars. We coasted over crystal waters full of spiny sea urchins, stroking the backs of starfish. We watched a black bear feeding at low tide, heard the crunch of crab shells between his massive jaws. We touched the tentacles of a baby octopus and watched the arms of anemones wave in the current before finally arriving on this beach to hike through the woods and stand in front of the totems of S’Gang Gwaay.

Known as the Canadian Galápagos because of its wealth of endemic wildlife, Haida Gwaii is an archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia known as the Queen Charlotte Islands until 2010. Largely covered in temperate rain forest, more than 150 islands form the shape of a bird’s wing – the largest, Graham and Moresby Islands, in the north, and the smaller collection of Gwaii Haanas to the south. To the east there is Hecate Strait and the mainland; to the west, the straight drop of the continental shelf and the open waters of the Pacific.

This is a place of possibility – where, if you listen, you might just hear the earth breathe.

For an Orange County resident, it’s a land of what ifs: What if there were no drought? What if the redwoods weren’t so desperate for a drink? What if we were free from the fear of wildfire? What if instead of the crackle of dry grass underfoot there was an emerald carpet
of moss, just begging to be touched. For
a native Canadian like me, who has made her home in Southern California for most of her adult life, it’s some strange alchemy that lets me be in both places at the same time, like living inside my own deepest desires.

***

Selected for Canada’s Signature Experiences Collection by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Maple Leaf Adventures has provided conservation-focused big adventures aboard small ships since 1986.

“We had a modest sailboat growing up,” explains Kevin Smith, who is Maple Leaf’s president. “I worked as a salmon researcher and with the Coast Guard to pay my way through school. I found that I needed to be out in boats, and I’ve been able to turn my passion for the ocean into my business.”

Smith has created “eco-adventure cruising,” using the principles of preservation, education and hands-on experience to offer a unique experience for travelers who crave more than a superficial, just-passing-through kind of trip.

This is not your average cruise ship. It’s a 88-foot converted tugboat, known as the Swell. Built in 1912, it hauled other ships for close to a hundred years. After $4 million-plus in renovations, it’s a passenger vessel of incomparable beauty, its interiors paneled in polished wood, its silver portholes gleaming. Morning kayak trips mean searching the shore for bears but also taking photos of our boat, the snow-topped peaks and a forest of trees reflected in the water around it. It is impossible not to feel lucky. Swell accommodates up to 12 guests in six cabins with high-thread-count sheets and limited-edition prints. Every room has its own bathroom, every shower runs hot, and you can drink the water straight from the tap, thanks to a state-of-the-art desalination system.

A crew of five includes the captain, the first mate, a deck hand, the chef and a naturalist. Not only are they experts in their own fields, but each has a connection to the environment and an adventurous spirit that infuses each

day with expectation. On this trip, anything could happen.

***

Between expeditions ashore, from Tanu to Rose Inlet and back to Windy Bay, guests fish off the side of the boat and the crew drops baited traps in the hopes of further enhancing our three-course, locally sourced meals. Who wouldn’t want to add an appetizer of Dungeness crab to the pan-seared salmon with black beluga lentils and farro from Alberta?

“We forage as much as we can,” says first mate Kristina Long, “but it’s seasonal. We find salmonberries, strawberries and blueberries, mint, and morel mushrooms in the fall. We only take as much as we need, though. With the crab traps, if we get 20, we only really need six for everyone to try it.”

Our only catch was a single sea urchin. Naturalist Bristol Foster split the spiny sphere, produced a spoon and digging it into the creature’s wet depths asked, “Who wants to try some uni?”

***

On Haida Gwaii, really anything can happen.

Named one of the 50 Tours of a Lifetime by National Geographic Traveler, Haida Gwaii is “best experienced without expectations or itineraries” because Mother Nature makes her own plans. Excursions begin with a land tour of the inhabited islands, an overnight at Alaska View Lodge in Masset, and an afternoon at Skidegate’s Haida Heritage Centre. While the Swell has a loose idea of where it’s headed, once it’s boarded in Cumshewa Inlet, our crew meets in the wheelhouse every morning to make adjustments to the day’s plans, contingent on the weather, whale sightings or potential foraging expeditions. One thing is constant, however: Every evening the captain steers into a quiet inlet along the route where the water is like glass, so you can enjoy your cr¯me brûlée without having to stop your utensils from rolling off the table.

After dinner, while guests lounge on the aft deck under a yellow cedar carving by Tim Motchman, sipping their last glass of a B.C. wine, the engine is turned off. Any overnight power needs are supplied by a silent bank of batteries.

It makes sense that the Swell is available for full-ship charters, because of how easily strangers become fast friends here. The Haida people’s history is an oral one, passed from generation to generation. Honoring this tradition, we meet in the galley on our first night to talk about where we’ve come from and how it is that we’ve arrived on the Swell. One of the other passengers realizes that the sailboat her late sister once owned has since found a home with the first mate’s mother. “It makes me feel good to know that a piece of her lives on,” she says. “It’s like I was meant to meet you.”

This is a powerful place, where the ties between things feel especially strong. It’s a common theme in Haida mythology, where humans are found hiding in the eye of a killer whale, beneath the skin of a bear or their limbs protruding from a clam shell. And after talking to one of the watchmen on Tanu, it’s obvious they don’t put much stock in linear time either. Children are believed to be the reincarnation of their elders. They are given the same names, and the actions of their namesake are attributed to all – past, present, future and supernatural. Stories are relayed in the collective “we” and take place in the ever-present now.

I am comforted by this way of looking at the world, the importance of community. My mother died when I was very young, yet I can feel her presence here like she is hiding within my skin. Making my way into the forest on a path that stretches out in front of me like a spine, it is her feet I see, one in front of the other, her hands reaching for my camera. And when we finally spot a pod of orcas – even after being told it probably wouldn’t happen – the captain stops the engine and lowers the hydrophone into the water so we can listen in.

I hear these killer whales talking and I recognize their cries immediately: It is the sound of my heart I hear, calling out to my mother.

Haida Gwaii. These things happen here.

4-10 nights, $1,890 to $11,251

:: mapleleafadventures.com

 

 

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Great Escape: Surfing with the CEO at The Inn at Laguna Beach

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At sunset, lounge on the ocean-front deck and listen to the waves crashing onto the shores of Main Beach.

John Grossman pointed his paddle down toward the kelp forest as we glided along Laguna Beach’s rocky coastline. It was an unusually quiet morning off Laguna Beach, the only sound the sloshing of ocean water under our stand-up paddleboards. A fog bank had just burned off and the sun started to make the water glisten like glitter.

As the president and owner of The Inn at Laguna Beach and the Laguna Beach House, Grossman’s day job mostly deals with the logistics of running two boutique hotels in one of Orange County’s most in-demand vacation areas.

But a newly launched “Surf or Stand-up Paddle with the owner” program allows Grossman and visitors to get away from the daily grind of e-mails and phone calls during exclusive tours – where he serves as the guide – to experience the sea in two different ways: either paddling off Laguna’s exclusive Emerald Bay or surfing the smooth waves at San Onofre.

InnLagunaBeach112

When he took over the family business three years ago – which includes the two Laguna properties and Hotel Carmel and La Playa Carmel in Northern California – his idea was to add special details to make visitors’ stays memorable.

“It’s a total sham, I’m happy to admit that,” Grossman said with a chuckle before our paddle on a recent morning. “We were talking about it as a team, and they said ‘You know, you’re really busy. How are you going to make time to do this?’ I said ‘I’ll make time.’”

Just the location of The Inn at Laguna Beach, overlooking the

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Luxury Overboard

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Maybe it was the rendition of La Traviata during the ship’s opera highlights show. Maybe it was the dinner of lobster flown in that day from Maine. Maybe it was the Mozart Tea afternoon events featuring 18th-century attire. Or, just maybe it was when another passenger we met, Myrna (taking her 28th Crystal Cruise with a male friend she’d met on a previous Crystal Cruise), raved about how the kind staff fixed her broken stiletto.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when among the many stellar moments of our 23 days aboard the Crystal Serenity, but at some point we both knew without a doubt why travel industry publications have repeatedly rated this cruise line as “world’s best” in the small-to-medium luxury cruise sector.

We were on an extended cruise aboard Crystal Serenity from Valparaiso, Chile, down to Antarctica, and back up to Buenos Aires, part of a world cruise. Every world cruise guest was offered special gifts that included iPads and photographic binoculars, among other perks. Company CEO and President Edie Rodriguez herself came on board to personally get to know guests. To maximize the luxury experience, book one of the four penthouses (about $2,000 per day), which come with amenities that include butler service, complimentary laundry, pressing and internet, a bottle of champagne, and many more special extras. “They go fast, especially for people who book the World Cruise every year,” notes Crystal Serenity hotel director Hubert Buelacher.

But can we talk about the onboard opera production? We are veteran cruisers who have seen a lot of shows at sea, but this unforgettable evening of opera highlights featured not only the Serenity’s own acclaimed singers, but two professional opera singers Crystal flew in specifically for this performance. Backed by the ship’s orchestra, the show featured gorgeous renditions of classics, from Delibes to Pagliacci, La Traviata to Phantom. Dozens of passengers not only saw the first pre-dinner show, but went back after dining to see the second performance.

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Pictured above are a few bites from the Mozart Tea afternoons aboard the Crystal Serenity.

And the onboard cuisine? Extraordinary. Under the direction of executive chef Werner Brenner, the ship flies in fresh lobster from Maine, no matter where they are in the world. The Vintage Room features food-and-wine pairings for $250 per person. The ultimate Vintage Room experience, though, includes Crystal’s own signature brand of wine and Nobu cuisine from Silk Road. Price tag? $1,000 per person. A wide selection of wines includes special connoisseurs’ packages; prices range from about $45 (for a dessert wine) up to $20,000 for the one bottle of La Tache pinot noir 2005. A popular bottle of Chateau d’Yquem runs $560 a bottle. (Special orders are always accommodated. Being a diehard dieter, Debbi requested some specific lowfat meals including an anniversary dinner of fat-free ratatouille, grilled shrimp, Parmesan quinoa and carrot cake. Two words: Done, and delicious.) But you can’t spend all day eating and drinking (although it’s tempting). Engaging excursions are offered in port – we loved seeing the penguins in Port Stanley – but the daily listof on-ship activities is truly impressive. Take yoga, learn how to knit or finally figure out your iPhone with the help of a class.

Not only were there lectures by a former CIA director, an American ambassador, and a naturalist who taught us everything you need to know about icebergs, penguins and dolphins, a professional writer on board offered sensational classes in memoir writing. This daily class is a popular benefit for people wishing to write their life stories for future generations to read. It’s thoroughly enjoyable – you’re also sure to have lots of laughs. We sure did.

One more intriguing – and if you ask us, admirable – offering by Crystal is the “You Care, We Care” ‘volun-tourism’ program available on some ships. Guests and crew can help worthwhile causes in destinations visited. Crystal makes all arrangements. Depending on the voyage, cruisers can lend a hand at a home for the elderly in Dubrovnik, Croatia, plant trees in Reykjavik, Iceland, tend orphans in Caldera, Costa Rica or feed the hungry in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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  • Think of Crystal Cruises as a Four Seasons on the ocean. With that in mind, we did have a few minor quibbles with the otherwise sterling experience: The luncheon menu selections in Serenity’s casual dining venue, the Lido Café, tended to be rather heavy, such as pork and roast beef with heavy gravies, lasagna and roast turkey with stuffing, etc. An expanded offering of cold cuts and salad, fish tacos and sandwiches would be more appealing for lunches.
  • On one of the warmer days on our cruise, we found ourselves unexpectedly out of sunscreen and aloe vera gel. While these were available for purchase on ship, we only needed a small amount. If pool stewards offered guests the option of sunscreens and aloe vera, presented as they currently do with cold towels at the pool, this would be very convenient for guests.
  • Make satin pillowcases available on request. The ladies will appreciate it: Satin is soft on facial skin and doesn’t leave you with creases and new wrinkles on your face in the morning!

Other than that, will we be back? Just try to keep us away …

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A former Disney Imagineer’s guide to Walt Disney World’s Main Street U.S.A.

Just like Disneyland in California, visitors to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World get into the park via Main Street U.S.A.

It’s the fade in to the rest of the park, which holds the record for most-attended theme park in the world.

It opened October 1, 1971. Roy Disney dedicated the park that day, getting the first phase of Walt Disney World built and open after the death of his brother, Walt Disney, some five years before.

The first phase of the resort included some hotels, a campground, recreation and a theme park, and the Magic Kingdom was the first of now four theme parks, along with two water parks and more.

  • The clip-clop sound of horses in front of the Horse-Drawn Streetcars are one of the feature attractions on Main Street U.S.A. at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom theme park. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The clip-clop sound of horses in front of the Horse-Drawn Streetcars are one of the feature attractions on Main Street U.S.A. at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom theme park. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Have a comment or envision running for mayor? Then City Hall in Town Square is the place to be on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Have a comment or envision running for mayor? Then City Hall in Town Square is the place to be on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Shopping, snacks and dining are the key elements of Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom theme park in Walt Disney World. The street emulates early 20th century Americana. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Shopping, snacks and dining are the key elements of Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom theme park in Walt Disney World. The street emulates early 20th century Americana. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The Horse-Drawn Streetcars have their own “Car Barn” in Town Square of Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. The barn is adjacent to the Firehouse. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The Horse-Drawn Streetcars have their own “Car Barn” in Town Square of Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. The barn is adjacent to the Firehouse. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Halfway up Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World sits and entrance to the Emporium, a major shopping venue with just about every type of Disney theme park souvenir a tourist could want or desire. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Halfway up Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World sits and entrance to the Emporium, a major shopping venue with just about every type of Disney theme park souvenir a tourist could want or desire. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Of course with the Horse-Drawn Streetcars can come physical reminders that a horse has passed by, so this Custodian wanders Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World with what is known as the “honey” cart, ready to immediately scoop up any of those objects. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Of course with the Horse-Drawn Streetcars can come physical reminders that a horse has passed by, so this Custodian wanders Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World with what is known as the “honey” cart, ready to immediately scoop up any of those objects. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • It says “Main Street Cinema” but it is really the entrance a souvenir where visitors to Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World can see and purchase souvenirs based on the theme of “The Art of Disney.” (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    It says “Main Street Cinema” but it is really the entrance a souvenir where visitors to Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World can see and purchase souvenirs based on the theme of “The Art of Disney.” (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A double-decker Omnibus is one way that people can ride up and down on Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. While riding, their driver offers a detailed narration about the shops and more on the street. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    A double-decker Omnibus is one way that people can ride up and down on Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. While riding, their driver offers a detailed narration about the shops and more on the street. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Just like at Disneyland, the windows of the fictitious businesses on Main Street U.S.A. feature names of people legendary within the Disney Company for their involvement in building, designing or operating the Magic Kingdom or other locations at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Just like at Disneyland, the windows of the fictitious businesses on Main Street U.S.A. feature names of people legendary within the Disney Company for their involvement in building, designing or operating the Magic Kingdom or other locations at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A side alley on Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World offers a chance for visitors to get off the main street. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    A side alley on Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World offers a chance for visitors to get off the main street. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Town Square Theater offers a chance to see special shows, or even meet and greet some Disney characters inside an air conditioned building on Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom theme park in Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Town Square Theater offers a chance to see special shows, or even meet and greet some Disney characters inside an air conditioned building on Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom theme park in Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Just like at Disneyland, City Hall and the Fire Station sit side-by-side in Town Square on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Just like at Disneyland, City Hall and the Fire Station sit side-by-side in Town Square on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Need a haircut? Then visit the Harmony Barber Shop in Town Square on Main Street U.S.A. Sometimes the Dapper Dans barbershop quartet will stop in to serenade those getting a trim in this unique Main Street U.S.A. shop in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Need a haircut? Then visit the Harmony Barber Shop in Town Square on Main Street U.S.A. Sometimes the Dapper Dans barbershop quartet will stop in to serenade those getting a trim in this unique Main Street U.S.A. shop in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Just like at Disneyland, the windows of the fictitious businesses on Main Street U.S.A. feature names of people legendary within the Disney Company for their involvement in building, designing or operating the Magic Kingdom or other locations at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Just like at Disneyland, the windows of the fictitious businesses on Main Street U.S.A. feature names of people legendary within the Disney Company for their involvement in building, designing or operating the Magic Kingdom or other locations at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A view up Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom. This photo was taken from the entrance to the Main Street Station for the Walt Disney World Railroad. Cinderella Castle rises at the north end of the street. The beige muslim surrounds the upper levels of the Emporium shop, which was being painted when this photo was taken. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    A view up Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom. This photo was taken from the entrance to the Main Street Station for the Walt Disney World Railroad. Cinderella Castle rises at the north end of the street. The beige muslim surrounds the upper levels of the Emporium shop, which was being painted when this photo was taken. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The Walt Disney World band plays in the Central Plaza, also known as “The Hub” at the north end of Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The Walt Disney World band plays in the Central Plaza, also known as “The Hub” at the north end of Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Cinderella Castle rises more than 180 feet in the center of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Cinderella Castle rises more than 180 feet in the center of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Cinderella Castle and its tall spires, more than 180 feet tall, are a frequent subject of photographers in the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Cinderella Castle and its tall spires, more than 180 feet tall, are a frequent subject of photographers in the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Fireworks explode in a burst of color above Cinderella Castle, while images are projected onto its walls during a nighttime show at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Fireworks explode in a burst of color above Cinderella Castle, while images are projected onto its walls during a nighttime show at the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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Before the end of that year, Roy, too, would pass away. But the park he oversaw the construction of was a resounding success, with the line of cars to get into the parking lot backing up for miles.

Before getting into the Magic Kingdom and Main Street U.S.A., visitors have to get there.

Getting to the Magic Kingdom

Assuming a visitor is already in Orlando, getting to the Magic Kingdom is part of the adventure.

If coming by car, it’s a bit of a drive, more than a mile, up World Drive from the exit off Florida State Route 192, which was pretty much the only way to the Magic Kingdom for the general public until Epcot opened with its own parking lot and a monorail station in 1982.

After driving that distance, guests have to park in the massive parking lot that holds more than 12,000 cars.

Then it’s a ride aboard a parking lot tram to the Transportation and Ticket Center. Here, visitors can purchase their admission tickets, and decide on one of two ways to get to the Magic Kingdom: Monorail or ferryboat.

The ferryboats ply the waterways of the Seven Seas Lagoon from the dock at the center to the dock near the front entrance of the Magic Kingdom.

Boats plying the waterways of Walt Disney World are one of several ways that visitors to Walt Disney World can get to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Boats plying the waterways of Walt Disney World are one of several ways that visitors to Walt Disney World can get to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Monorail takes people on a trip around that lagoon to a station near the front entrance.

Both take some time. In the past, the line for the monorail could get long, as many wanted the chance to take what was then a futuristic form of transportation, now many forego it for the ferryboat.

The monorail can also transport visitors to three hotels around the lagoon: The Polynesian Resort, The Grand Floridian, and the Contemporary; all with views of the Magic Kingdom. In addition, there is spur track for the monorail that can take visitors to Epcot, more than two miles away.

If you’re staying at a Walt Disney World hotel, there is also a bus option, along with the monorail and boats.

Just like in California, visitors must pass through a security checkpoint before entering the Magic Kingdom. Those checkpoints are in the process of being moved to the Transportation and Ticket Center, or to the hotels on the monorail beam.

Main Street U.S.A.

Visitors to the Magic Kingdom will find its Main Street familiar, yet different. It is still early 20th century, but everything is taller as Disney finally had the benefit of plenty of land.

The buildings on the street are taller than Disneyland, due to the fact that Cinderella Castle at the northernmost point of the street is very tall, 183 feet.

Just like Disneyland, City Hall is on the left when visitors emerge from the tunnels that pass beneath the Walt Disney Railroad tracks and onto Town Square.

Next door to City Hall is the fire station; only there is no old-time fire wagon in the station. Instead, the location where children can pick up cards for a game that is played throughout the Magic Kingdom called “Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom.”

Of course, there are a variety of snack and dining options on Main Street U.S.A.

On the eastern side of Town Square, there is a table restaurant called Tony’s Town Square. It emulates the restaurant in the Disney animated film “Lady and the Tramp” outside which the two dogs dine on spaghetti, and it serves both American and Italian cuisine.

At the north end of the street are a bakery, ice cream parlor, Starbucks, another table service restaurant called The Plaza Restaurant and Casey’s Corner, which serves up hot dogs, fries, Cracker Jacks, sodas and has a piano player playing ragtime tunes.

Of course Main Street U.S.A. is also all about shopping, and the Florida version of The Emporium is in the same area as Disneyland. On the right (eastern) side of the street are more shops with a variety of themes. In the shops, people can get a variety of souvenirs, including T-shirts, hats, jewelry, plush toys, candy and crystal, among other things.

At the north end is the central plaza, nearly always referred to as “The Hub.” It is the prime viewing area for the nearly nightly fireworks display that features projections on Cinderella Castle during the show. The Hub is a great location to see other shows and entertainment throughout the day.

Around the Hub are several restaurants, including The Crystal Palace, a buffet-style restaurant that also has a character dining experience with Winnie the Pooh and his pals. (Reservations are suggested for this experience). Another is Tomorrowland Terrace Restaurant, a quick-service location featuring burgers, salads and more. Tomorrowland Terrace also has great views of Cinderella Castle and the fireworks shows, and has special fireworks meal plans, too. (Reservations are strongly suggested.)

Finally, the Hub is the gateway to other lands at the Magic Kingdom.

(Editor’s note: Short opinions from the writer, a former Disney Imagineer, appear in italics.)

Attractions

The Walt Disney Railroad Just like Disneyland, there is a railroad pulled by steam-powered locomotives on a complete trip around the Magic Kingdom.

The Main Street Station sits on a hill, and visitors must pass through tunnels on either side of the station to enter the park. The train trip includes stops at the Frontierland and Fantasyland stations. During the journey, there is a look into each land, including Tomorrowland – though there is no station in Tomorrowland.

This train trip is in dire need of something more to look at. Along the northern side of the park, the route travels along a canal, with nothing much to see. There is no Grand Canyon Diorama or Primeval World like in California.

Main Street Vehicles Called “jitneys,” they are based on early 20th century open-air automobiles, though a cloth roof was added for the Florida rain. Drivers will point out some of the sites on Main Street while taking riders up or down the street. Riders can board in Town Square, or in The Hub.

The experience while riding in the jitney is one-on-one with the driver, a friendly, talkative one can make this a fun ride.

Omnibus It’s a double-decker bus that slowly makes its way up and down Main Street while the driver talks about some of the shops and restaurants there. Riders can board in Town Square or The Hub.

The view from the upper level while riding is really neat.

Fire Engine This vehicle is a replica of early fire trucks that slowly wends its way up and down Main Street. The engine makes a very distinct sound, as does the horn. Riders are also allowed to ring the fire bell on the rear of the engine.

What young man or woman hasn’t fantasized about riding in a fire truck and ringing the bell? It would be nice if a dalmatian rode along in the fire engine, too.

Horse-Drawn Street Car Clip-clop along the street on rails up Main Street.

A nice, relaxing mode of travel that harkens back to a slower time.

Harmony Barber Shop It’s a real barber shop right there in Town Square on Main Street U.S.A. Sometimes the Dapper Dans, a barbershop quartet, are known to step in and sing a song or two while visitors are getting their hair cut.

A fun way to get a hair cut, especially if you’re in the chair when the quartet stops in. My recommendation: Get a reservation and do this, though walk-ins are welcome if they are not busy.

Read more about A former Disney Imagineer’s guide to Walt Disney World’s Main Street U.S.A. This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed

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