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It’s all about ‘The Mountain’

Even in the spring, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is a cool adventure
By K.D. Norris Special to the Times Union
Published 12:01 a.m., Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Mount Washington area of New Hampshire is famous for its winter skiing, its summer escapes and its fall color; and justifiably so. But springtime, on and around the still snow-covered mountain, has its own cool adventures to be found.

Spring hiking — especially the stunning views of The Mountain from Pinkham Notch and the Tuckerman Ravine trail area — is an adventurous experience few avail themselves of. The towns surrounding the mountain, especially North Conway, are free of the usual crush of tourist season crowds. And the jewel of the mountain, the historic Mount Washington Hotel — now properly called the Omni Mount Washington Resort — has some great deals to be had.

The drive to Mount Washington from Albany, about five hours give or take, makes it more than a day trip, but a long weekend can give you two great nights and a full day of exploring.

Jewel of The Mountain

There are multiple lodgings to stay the weekend along the loop around Mt. Washington and the Presidential Mountain Range — state routes 2 on the north, 16 on the east and 302 on the west and south — but if you are only going to the area once, stay at the Mount Washington Resort’s grand hotel.

The focal point of the resort, the thoroughly revitalized hotel, dates from 1902, and has classic old world hotel history, elegant charm and superior service — and the accompanying price. But, as they say, when it comes to real estate and resorts, the key is location, location … and view.

Not only does the resort offer the perfect view of The Mountain, it is a great entry point into the Mount Washington loop — and it offers all the resort amenities needed to keep your non-hiker companion happily occupied during your outdoor adventure. The resort has a full-service spa attached to the hotel, an afternoon high tea, plenty of open or enclosed seating areas perfect for a glass of wine and a good book, and a wide selection of in-house dining options during the day. But save the grand dining room for a superb dinner experience for you both in the evening.

The resort also has family friendly activities. There is a family friendly nine-hole Mount Pleasant Course golf course — and the challenging 18-hole Mount Washington Course, restored to its original 1915 design.

The resort’s superior red clay tennis courts are available, as is the equestrian stables, offering group and private trail rides for beginner and advanced riders, and carriage rides for the family or the romantic. Everything should be open by mid-May, but check ahead for weather and availability.

Available year-round, and sure to please the teens, is the canopy tour course, comprised of 10 zip lines, two suspension bridges, hiking and rappelling in the forests of Bretton Woods ski center. With snow or without, the ski area is the place for youth or young at heart to hang out. Depending on the weather, spring also offers mountain biking and ski lift rides.

Get out and explore

If giving that someone a shopping experience is the key to getting you some hours on a hiking trail, a scenic 30-minute drive will get you to North Conway, a quaint, funky-hip area with more than enough shopping and amusements to keep anyone busy while you are happily hiking.

Lunch options include The Met Coffee House and Art Gallery, and Horse Feathers, a local “pub and grub” hangout that gets loud at night but is family friendly during the day. On a warm afternoon, sit outside at Wine Thyme and enjoy upscale tapas and wine.

If you want to get a taste for the Mount Washington Observatory — which will likely still be closed in May — you can also check out the Weather Discovery Center in North Conway. Another family place around the mountain is the Tin Mountain Conservation center, in nearby Albany, N.H.

But if you are in for a real spring adventure, find a hike in nearly 800,000 acres of White Mountain National Forest — what has thawed out and been opened, anyway — either as a self-guided hike or using a resort-approved guide — both the International Mountain Climbing School and the Appalachian Mountain Club are available for hire.

If you are looking for the ultimate spring adventure — a spring hike in the Pinkham Notch area and, specifically, into Tuckerman Ravine — you will need to get in touch with, if not hire, a local adventure professional.

A friend of friend, long experienced with the hiking adventures of the area, Casey Taylor, who used to work at the Mount Washington Observatory, says hiking is “open” in Pinkham Notch year-round, although the Forest Service does usually close one trail (the top portion climbing out of Tuckerman Ravine) for a period every spring, because of avalanche danger. “There are other trails to take, Lion’s Head, when that is the case,” she advises.

Although it varies by year, early to mid-spring, roughly until mid-May, is regarded as “mud season,” and some trails can be a little difficult, mostly due to changing conditions with changing elevation. Sheltered ravines may still have fairly deep snow, and the exposed summits can be very icy.

“Depending on your hike, you may need snowshoes as well as crampons, and an ice axe if conditions warrant it,” said Taylor. “Folks at the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) and the Pinkham Notch visitor center can provide you with the best and most up-to-date information on specific trails.”

Hiking the area gets more simple as May turns to June, as spring turns to summer, but it will be more crowded — and if you make it up in May, you may well still catch view of the gonzo spring skiers flying down slopes of the notch, or you hit the spring alpine flower time with nobody else around; How cool would that be?

K.D. Norris is a freelance travel writer based in Southern Vermont.

If you go

How to get there/getting around

Albany to Mount Washington, N.H., is about five hours by MapQuest; take your choice on how to get to Interstate 91, on the Vermont-New Hampshire border. From there, you fly at freeway speeds into view of Mount Washington.

Where to stay

The Mount Washington Hotel at the Omni Mount Washington Resort has some spring deals at omnimountwashingtonresort.com. Dogs seem to be allowed at the resort’s Bretton Arms Inn B&B. There are a ton of other places around The Mountain; check out northconwayvillage.net for some. If you are the real outdoors type, try to stay at Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club — Google it; the link is huge.

Where to eat

If you’re staying at the resort, the food bill adds up quickly — but a dinner at the grand dining room is a must, for the great menu and experience. Nearby the hotel, and part of the resort, more reasonable dining is available at a family friendly old train station, Fabyan’s. Or just take a drive and 20 minutes either way will give you several non-resort options.

The one thing you have to do at The Mountain

Get to North Conway, have a light breakfast and strong caffeine at The Met Coffee House, stock up for next winter by shopping for outdoor clothes one of the many non-chain stores, then find somewhere, anywhere, to get your boots dirty. Then brag that you hiked Mt. Washington.

 

(Photo caption)
The modern harbor area of Ponta Delgada hosts not only cruise ships and commercial vessels, but is also the home port of the Portuguese navy?s tall ship. The three flags flying are, from left, those of the European Union, Portugal and the Azores. (K.D. NORRIS)

By K.D. Norris Special to the Times Union
Published 01:00 a.m., Sunday, June 20, 2010
To say San Miguel is the garden island of the Azores would be to undervalue the scenic beauty of the other eight islands, but the largest and most populated island of the archipelago, located nearly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is undoubtedly a gardener’s delight.
Everywhere you travel, everywhere you look, in the Azores you find gardens: Some are lush, large and well-known to locals and tourists alike. Others are barely 10 meters by 10 meters, little more than small front yards, but beautifully designed, immaculately kept and often accessible via secretive glances over the low walls that surround many of the island’s houses.
Taming the barren landscape of San Miguel, of all the Azores, and turning it into gardens, has been a historic struggle for the inhabitants. But visiting the islands is as easy as any European destination — it is, in fact, the westernmost point of land of the European Union, and only a four-hour flight from the United States.
Ponta Delgada is the largest city on the island and, because of its international airport, is the jumping-off point for any vacation to San Miguel and the Azores. The city offers a great sampling of gardens — or jardins, in Portuguese — with a walk down the tree-lined Avenida Gaspar Frutuoso. Start from the large, famous Jardin Jose do Canto at the Palacio Jose do Canto (Presidential Palace) and end at the neighborhood jardin, located beside the labyrinth-like public library building and the not-to-be-missed Museum Carlos Machado Center for Sacred Art.
As you stroll, nearly every yard shows the pride of an avid gardener. The island and its gardens are in full bloom in the spring but, given the year-around temperate climate, something is always blooming in the Azores. A multitude of unique plants abound, including manicured juniper trees, huge ferns, vibrant cactuses and unusual succulents. But the highlights are azalea and hydrangea variants often grown as massive blooming hedges.
Avenida Gaspar Frutuoso was, historically, the neighborhood of the rich, but gardening is not the exclusive affinity of the affluent, nor is Ponta Delgada the only town boasting fine gardens. On a narrow street of Vila Franca do Campo, a wrought iron gate in a high wall allows a view of a simple volcanic stone walkway surrounding massive cactuses, some as tall as the sun-bleached two story house. In Ribeira Grande, at the Maracuja liqueur distillery, succulents similar to “hen and chicks” have grown to the size of small European cars.
Out of Ponta Delgada
Even if you are looking for manicured gardens, an admirer of horticulture must get out of the city and journey into nature at the rugged rim, if not to the accessible center, of Caldeira das Sete Cidades in the northwest corner of the island. Sete Cidades (Seven Cities) is named for the seven dormant volcanic craters visible within the 1,000-foot-high, 7-mile-around main volcanic caldera. Any time of the year, but especially in the tourist off-season of October to March, the ever-changing weather may discourage casual sightseeing. But the gods of the mountain usually reward adventurous hikers along the dirt-road rim trail with beautiful natural beauty and often-clear moments of stunning views from the cliffs.
Also worth a visit is Logoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire), a long-slumbering volcano that is the island’s highest point, as well as the Cha Porta Formosa tea plantation on the rugged north shore, and, of course, the famous Terra Nostra Garden at Logoa Das Furnas (Lake of Caves).
Terra Nostra may be the most famous garden in the Azores, best described as an experimental garden on a grand scale. The garden dates to 1780, when affluent Boston businessman Thomas Hicking, later U.S. Consul to the Azores, placed his summer residence at the site. Attached to and maintained by the grand old Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, there is a small entrance fee if you are not staying at the hotel.
Other than gardens
Back in Ponta Delgada, in the port area, a stroll along Avenida Infante Dom Henrique shopping and dining area, from the old castle Fort da Sao Bras to the Pesqreiro salt-water swimming area, is always a good walk. For those into balmy water and sunny beachfronts, the Azores is a summer hot spot, but all year round, the weather and the water are temperate.
There is varied shopping with a distinctive Euro flair available in small port-area malls and along the narrow downtown side streets. High-end boutiques mix with local markets — check out the small grocery stores for a look at the local tastes.
An appetizing choice of lunch and dinner options abounds, of course; my favorite place for fresh local seafood was the Mercado do Peixe. A stop at an outdoor cafe for an afternoon coffee and sweets is both a tradition for locals and a must for visitors. English is on almost every menu and is spoken almost everywhere.
Evening meals at the restaurants on or near the waterfront are usually between 15 and 30 euros per person, before drinks. So a good habit is to occasionally have a meal in the afternoon at one of the luncheon cafeterias frequented by locals. A favorite was A Commercial Restaurante, on Rua Dr. Bruno Tavares Carreiro, where 5 euros will buy a complete meal, but you may need to politely point at what you want served.
Later in the evening, eat light; many of the appetizers or soups will make a complete meal. Also in the evening, many of the outdoor cafes also offer more adult drinks; try the excellent porto blanco (white port).
There is nothing quite like the experience of sipping a smooth porto, smelling the blooming azaleas waft through with the sea breeze, and planning your next Azorean adventure.