by Marcia Simon, APR, CTA
Some places you visit only once in a lifetime. Others keep calling you back. For outdoor enthusiasts in the Northeast, Acadia National Park, with its gateway town of Bar Harbor, can easily become a family go-to or an outdoor escape in Northeastern United States.
Last time I visited Acadia was pre-COVID 2018. This part of Maine had already become known as a big tourist area rather than a hidden gem. Advisories warned that parking is limited so getting into the park early was, and remains, a key factor to beat the crowds.
This time (August 2022) had a few new twists, one being the required $6 car reservation to drive up to the top of Cadillac Mountain. The view is spectacular – unless you arrive on a foggy morning when you may only be able to see for 10 feet in front of your nose. Cadillac Mountain marks the most eastern point in the US - so this is the first place in the country to experience sunrise.
Another beautiful aspect of visiting Acadia is the change between seasons, so the experience is different depending on when you visit. Autumn colors are gorgeous with cooling temperatures during the day and nights that invite you to buy a warm fluffy hoodie from one of the shops in town.
The best new addition to Acadia National Park is getting around by e-bike. While the area still attracts plenty of avid cyclists pedaling the paved roads and the ascent to the top of Cadillac Mountain, e-bikes make it easier for the rest of us. Especially nice is being able to take the e-bikes on the park's 45-miles of car-free walking and cycling trails, originally built for horse-drawn carriages. Today, horse-drawn carriage tours are offered by reservation.
E-bikes are available from Acadia Bike in town or reserve one on Viator and pick it up at Acadia's Hulls Cove Visitor Center.
People who prefer water over wheels or walking have multiple choices for exploring Acadia by kayak or sightseeing boat, increasing the chance of seeing bald eagles, puffins and seals among other wildlife.
The only national park on the Northeast coast, Acadia's "carry-in carry-out" policy requires you to bring your own beverages and snacks. The Jordan Pond House Restaurant is the only location in the park for purchasing food and beverages. It's a lovely spot, especially sitting outside overlooking the pond. Walking around Jordan Pond is a popular activity. This gentle trail is well suited for families. The restaurant gets quite crowded, especially because bus tours often stop there, so it's best to go during an off-peak time, or wait and enjoy one of the many restaurants outside the park.
First-time visitors to the area quickly learn that the park is Acadia; the town just outside the park is Bar Harbor. During visiting season, free shuttles run constantly throughout the day and evening between Bar Harbor's Village Green and several popular hotels closer to the park, making it very easy to drop into town for dinner. There are lots of choices and, for the most part, dinner reservations have become essential if you want to be seated before 8 pm. There are also free shuttles that stop at campsites and top tourist sites inside the park.
Bar Harbor has a variety of accommodations. Many comfy B&Bs are within walking distance of the Village Green. These are ideal for couples because most have one large bed without the ability to accommodate more than two guests per room. For families and small groups of friends, the hotels along Eden Street have more options for room types, and several lower-priced motels are available in the nearby town of Ellsworth.
The Bar Harbor Regency (also known as the Holiday Inn Resort Bar Harbor) is one of the few hotels in the area boasting waterfront accommodations with balconies, a heated outdoor pool, a large hot tub (especially inviting on chilly nights), along with two restaurants (one waterfront, one water-view) and a pool bar. It's also a shuttle stop, making getting into town super-easy. The CAT high-speed ferry to Nova Scotia docks next door.
Gone are the days of heading to Maine for a great bargain on lobster rolls. With tourists in the mix, and restaurants making the most of their short tourist season before winter creeps in, 2022 lobster prices in Bar Harbor are higher than ever. ($36 for a lobster roll and fries!)
Getting into the park requires a parking fee of $20 per carload. The pass gets you in for a week-long visit so you can come and go on your schedule. A National Park Pass is a good value for families that visit multiple parks each year. For people age 62 and older, the lifetime Senior Pass is a fantastic value for a one-time $80 fee, and provides access to every National Park throughout the US.
Marcia Simon is a writer, a traveler, and a travel advisor ready to help you plan your next trip. Connect on Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel, or drop a note to email@example.com.
by Marcia Simon , CTA, APR
The ferry from Cedar Island on North Carolina's mainland to Ocracoke takes two and a half hours – just enough time to transition from "hurry up" mode to "island time."
Ocracoke is the bottom of North Carolina's barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, or OBX. The ferry pulls into Ocracoke's island-vibe village where you'll soon see enticing small shops, intriguing seafood and BBQ restaurants - and a few motels that make it pretty tempting to stay and soak up the atmosphere.
Being on a discovery mission, a lunch stop of fresh tuna and mahi-mahi sandwiches at touristy Howard's Pub and Raw Bar was enough of a break before heading north along Ocracoke's 16-mile stretch to the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry. This crossing took an hour from point to point. Unlike the Cedar Island trip that allowed reservations and cost $15 for a car and two passengers, this ferry is free and operates on a first-come basis. Mid-afternoon in June was early enough to beat both the summer crowds and the day-trippers from Hatteras to Ocracoke who wait in long lines to return before dinnertime.
Continuing the journey up the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and hoping to stumble upon the kind of quaint B&Bs and inns that mark the New England coastline, the area was instead dotted with family-style motels and row after row of big beach houses on stilts. It was evident that house rentals are the big draw for families who come for a week or more to Hatteras and neighboring Frisco, with kids, beach toys, and sometimes grandparents in tow. The Outer Banks are all about the beach. These barrier islands stretch for 200 miles along the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Mini-golf and ice cream are always within reasonable distance.
For adults traveling without kids, it may be about the shrimp and oysters, both of which are local, fresh and delicious. Want a really fresh catch? Head to one of the outer Banks' five fishing piers or head out on a charter boat. Parasailing, jet skis and kayaks are all easy to find. But chilling at the beach is the #1 pastime here.
Without a care or a reservation, the Surf Side motel in Nags Head, about halfway from bottom to top of the barrier island, came into view and had an available oceanfront room with a balcony. Sipping wine and watching sunlight fade away, that magical sound of ocean-meets-shore made for a relaxed evening, voluntarily disconnected from emails and nightly news.
It's funny how you can overpack and then realize you brought long pants you'd never wear, but not enough shorts, and how suddenly you yearn for a new pair of flip flops. What a great excuse to pop into stores along the way. You'll see a chain called Wings (sometimes Super Wings), which is not a restaurant as Northerners may initially think, but a T-shirt, sunscreen, beach towel and souvenir stop.
A little farther north is Kill Devil Hill, home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. If you happen to have a National Park Pass, you'll get in for free; otherwise, it's $10 per person. If you have time, make it a point to stop.
Orville and Wilbur Wright chose this spot to test their dreams of flight because its windy for lift off – and sandy for (hopefully soft) landings and inevitable falls during trials and development. Kitty Hawk, as the area was known when the Wright Brothers came here in 1902, is today known as Kill Devil Hills. In 1903 the brothers achieved success with the first-ever powered aircraft. Orville flew and controlled the plane. And this marked the very beginning of airline travel as we know it today.
The Sanderling in Duck
Duck is a town toward the northern end of the Outer Banks, and The Sanderling is a lovely hotel about four miles north of Duck's town center, wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Bay. The Sanderling is truly the only resort of its kind in OBX, with 120 guest rooms and suites, plus house rentals (accommodating from 8 to 16 guests) and views of the ocean or the bay. Two outdoor pools (one for families and kids; the other adults-only), one indoor pool, a spa, outdoor hot tub, fire pits, plenty of beach chairs and umbrellas, and bike rentals make this a comfortable place to spend a few days.
Restaurant choices include the Lifesaving Station, which serves three meals daily in a casual, family-style atmosphere. The cuisine is southern coastal and regional using locally sourced ingredients when possible. It has a friendly bar, too.
Fine dining at the Sanderling's Kimball's Kitchen features floor-to-ceiling windows facing west to watch the sunset.
The third restaurant is the outdoor Sandbar where bare feet are acceptable and frozen drinks are specialties. From top-quality salads to burgers, it's a convenient spot to grab a bite near the pool, the beach, or your room.
Although not part of The Sanderling, The Paper Canoe is a highly recommended restaurant directly across the street. It's a favorite with locals, so make a reservation far in advance if you want to watch the sunset and enjoy a creative menu.
By the way, a sanderling is a bird – a type of sandpiper that runs up and down the beach chasing waves. Sweet.
Duck – The Town – and Beyond
To get to the Sanderling, you'll pass through the town of Duck, known for its boutique shops and low-key restaurants. Duck is cute.
The town park offers one of the access parking lots to the boardwalk, which is about a mile long, and weaves its way along the coastline, dipping in and out of retail clusters, pubs and ice cream stands.
Venturing north of Duck you'll find Corolla, a lively yet laid back tourist area. Take a 4WD beach Hummer tour to see the wild mustang horses on the northernmost beaches of the Outer Banks. Another option to see the horses is by kayak tour.
The mustangs are descendants of domesticated horses brought to the area in the 1500s by Spanish explorers and left behind — either by choice or accident. They are technically now wild. By the way, wild horses can also be seen on Ocracoke Island just south of the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry docks.
Leaving the Outer Banks to return north on the mainland from Corolla or Duck, requires a short drive south to Route 158 just north of Kitty Hawk. This goes over the Wright Memorial Bridge, the most-travelled route to and from OBX. You'll pass H2OBX Waterpark, which screams fun and makes you wish you had made time to go there for a great family fun day.
The closest commercial airport to the Outer Banks is 60-miles away in Norfolk, Virginia. Most people pack the car and make this a road trip. If you plan to go in summer, reservations in advance are highly recommended.
Marcia Simon is a travel advisor, travel writer and founder of FriendlyGroupTravel.com, specializing in customized trips for families, small groups and solos. Connect at facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel, Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel or call 860-399-0191.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Standing under a stream of warm water in an outdoor rain shower is nothing short of luscious, especially when you look up toward the dense green foliage surrounding your private casita near Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano.
The stunning greenery challenges anyone who questions the importance of protecting these nature-filled rainforests, aptly named because it does rain here, sometimes daily, if only for a short period. But the rain is warm and passes quickly in dry season and, after all, that's why it's so intensely verdant and filled with flowers, ferns, frogs, birds, monkeys and rich soil that feeds a healthy ecosystem. A cloudy sky or gentle rain makes the greens even richer – like fully saturated film colors.
That said, those in search of a tropical beach may long for an ocean view with nonstop sun. Costa Rica certainly has plenty of sunny coastline, which makes a combination rainforest/beach vacation a perfect trip, especially if you want to taste more of this Central American paradise.
What's the difference between a jungle and a rainforest?
A jungle has year-round tropical weather. A rainforest climate, on the other hand, can be either temperate or tropical, with tall trees that block sunlight, preventing heavy undergrowth typically found in a jungle. Both have heavy rainy seasons but while a jungle is warm, humid and has sunlight, a rainforest is humid, damp, and darker.
Staying at a hotel or resort that is both authentic and eco-friendly makes perfect sense when staying in Costa Rica's rainforest, and there are plenty of choices at various levels.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Couples Resorts are exactly what the name implies - a place for couples – to unwind, chill and choose from a long list of complimentary options, such as water sports, yoga, snorkeling, how-to classes and of course - unlimited food and beverages. Solo travelers are welcome and will feel comfortable. Couples is adult-only; the rooms have king beds (no doubles).
Exclusive to Jamaica, Couples owns four properties – two in Ocho Rios and two in Negril. Couples Tower Isle in Ocho Rios, which opened in 1978, was a trendsetter back in the day as the first all-inclusive property in Jamaica. Today, Couples is often perceived as an affordable alternative to Sandals. The vibe between the two is very different. Couples is laid back, smaller, more authentic to Jamaican style, although some may feel that the intentionally-preserved retro feel of Tower Isle may be a bit old fashioned. There's no doubt, though, that Couples provides great value for all its amenities and perks. Free airport transfers are always included, and so are green fees for golf. The nonmotorized water sports equipment is clean and in good condition. If you want to take out one of the catamarans (holding up to four people) or try your hand at windsurfing or paddleboarding, they'll get you set up. If you want a lesson, that's included, too, which is nice because some other all-inclusive brands charge for instruction.
Whether you stay at Couples San Souci or Tower Isle in Ocho Rios, or Couples Negril or Swept Away on Negril's beautiful fine-sand seven-mile beach, you'll receive a complimentary excursion or day trip. In Ocho Rios it's a visit to the famous Dunn's River Falls. Bring (or buy) watershoes for a good grip on the rocks as you join a hearty group walking up the falls. It's not steep, but it can have challenging moments. You will get wet, and it's a must-do when given the opportunity. In Negril, all guests are invited for a sunset catamaran cruise and swim. The ocean water is warm, the sunset view is fantastic and gets you prepared for dinner upon your return to the island.
Surprisingly, a large number of guests are repeat visitors to Couples who come back year after year for the laid back attitude and the comfort of a resort that's not too big.
Some of the coconut trees on the properties are very old, and Couples has a policy of not disturbing nature's intention of letting them be. So, even from the waterview rooms, trees may obstruct your view as you gaze from your balcony to the sea. After a day, and realizing that you don't really spend much time in the room, it's all fine.
Tower Isle, San Souci and Couples Negril all have allocated space for an au natural (aka nude) beach during daytime hours. It's private, has a separate bar area and attracts a decent-sized crowd.
Swept Away is known for its 10-acre sports and fitness complex. If you're not into sports, you won't even know it's there, but if you cross the street from the beach to the complex, you'll find an Olympic-size lap pool, tennis and pickleball courts and a fitness center equipped with top-notch workout equipment that has attracted pro teams to come and train.
In a nutshell, San Souci has neat nooks and crannies, a mineral pool and jacuzzi, and also a lot of steps around the property, which some people love and others would rather avoid. Tower Isle is very walkable for people who prefer a flat landscape. It preserves its vintage Jamaican style. Couples Negril has escaped the modernization of many resorts on the island. It's unpretentious, with four restaurants. Swept Away is on the gorgeous seven-mile beach.
All four resorts offer interesting day trips, from waterfalls, rafting and ziplines, to ATV riding, to the Appleton Rum and Blue Mountain Coffee tours, allowing you to stay as busy as you want to be. There's morning yoga and plenty to do onsite.
Throughout the Couples brand, the food is quite good. The bartenders are super friendly. You'll find authenticity in atmosphere. It's not too rowdy, not too quiet. There's nightly entertainment that adds to the Jamaican spell of hospitality. With affordable nonstop flights from New York, Couples is one of the best values you can find for a tropical getaway.
Marcia Simon, a Connecticut-based travel writer, is owner of Friendly Group Travel, specializing in trip planning throughout North America, Europe and the Caribbean. Connect on Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel, or drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Marcia Simon
An experience or a thing? This girl bets her money on an experience, especially when it involves a "child" who just finished school abroad after two years of COVID-induced travel restrictions.
It was time for one proud mama and her academically-fatigued son to reunite and embark on a month-long cross-country adventure. The packed car included two suitcases, two guitars, hiking shoes, flip flops, big beach towels and a cooler filled with seltzers, beer, yogurt, cheese, crackers and whatever fruit and miscellaneous snacks fit atop the ice chips. It's a joy and a blessing to fall back into step with someone you haven't seen in ages. Sometimes it's months, sometimes years, decades even. One thing's for sure though – compatibility for travel can make or break any trip, not to mention the relationship.
Being in total sync about heading west from Connecticut with absolutely no itinerary or plan, the road trip to explore America's Native roots began. When it was all done, this duo logged 27 days, 8,686 miles, passed through 25 states and visited 14 national parks, not to mention national monuments such as Mount Rushmore, Bandelier Native American cave dwellings, the striated Painted Desert, and oddities including the Spam Museum that houses the world's first motorcycle fueled by bacon, The Corn Palace with gigantic murals made exclusively from ears of corn, and the Jolly Green Giant statue that salutes the company that made canned and frozen vegetables a staple of the American diet.
Once out west, it became evident that, contrary to the politically correct language of a middle class upbringing, the term "American Indian" was preferred over "Native American," which supposedly is now falling out of favor with some Native people who use "indigenous" as their personal preference.
by Marcia Simon, CTA
Fully vaccinated and ready to travel. The world is opening up and people are dusting off their traveling shoes... or flip flops as the case may be.
If you want a quick, inexpensive nonstop flight from NY - or Connecticut's Bradley International Airport - you can easily get to Cancun, the gateway to the Yucatan Peninsula. Riviera Maya is south of Cancun on the Caribbean Sea. This popular destination is lined with beachfront resorts, many all-inclusive, at various levels.
Taking the plunge back into travel mode, it's important to stay at a place you trust for COVID-safety standards, where you can get your mandated COVID-test onsite before returning to the United States, and where you can obviously enjoy great food, a huge pool with ample availability of loungers, an endless view of the sea and horizon, and a long list of optional daily activities that you can pursue or blow off depending on your state of mind.
Cancun has a reputation as Party Central, but it's not necessary to be part of that culture. Locations outside of the popular hotel zone are quieter, with options for everyone from understated luxury to multigenerational family fun.
I visited two properties, both part of the AM Resorts collection, on a recent trip to Puerto Morelos about a half hour south of Cancun. This is considered the northern tip of the Riviera Maya region.
A two-night stay at the luxury Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita (the pretty paradise) was the perfect transition from COVID-homebody to comfortable traveler.
The name Zoëtry is loosely translated to capture a philosophy centered around "the art of life." The Zoëtry brand, found in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and St. Martin, is about serenity and wellness. This 5-Diamond AAA-rated resort does a very good job at remaining unpretentious while delivering a high standard of client care and service. As an example, on the second day of the trip I misplaced my sunglasses. It happens. Asking if there was lost and found, Omar, who was at the lobby's front desk, made a call and happily reported that the glasses were secure and would be dropped off at the office in about 15 minutes. What a pleasant surprise to have butler service deliver the missing specs to my table while lazily sipping morning coffee and pondering the breakfast menu, which included fresh fruit, yogurt, "green juice" and traditional bacon and eggs, along with authentic Mexican dishes with local flavors.
A local artist uses natural pigments to paint colorful birds and scenes for interior spaces, while exterior surfaces are painted in reddish and gold hues, true to Mayan culture. Another way the resort shares the history of the area is through a one-hour spiritual Temazcal ceremony led by a healer. You'll also find daily yoga, alternating days of Tai Chi and sound meditation, with aqua exercise and stretching in the saltwater pool. The larger freshwater pool overlooks the ocean and guests get very attentive drink (and food) service. Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita has an onsite "marina" at the end of the dock that includes a catamaran and a dive boat for snorkeling, sightseeing and trips to the nearby reef.
Zoëtry is ideal for couples; children are welcome with families, but we didn't see many; solo travelers would also feel comfortable here.
Also in the AM Resorts collection is Now Sapphire, where I spent three nights and plenty of time in the pools. The main pool is close to the open air lounge and offers a swim-up bar and plenty of loungers both in and out of the water. There's also a quieter, and quite lovely, adult-only pool, with bar, for guests in the Preferred category of rooms.
The Now brand is well suited for multigenerational families, and there were plenty of grandparents with their adult kids and favorite little ones. There's a children's Explorers Club with a small water park and supervised outdoor, shaded activity center. It's also affordable for groups of friends, and certainly for couples. Now Sapphire and Now Jade, both in Riviera Maya, are in the process of transitioning to be Dreams resorts, which are also part of the AM Resorts collection. HOT TIP: Book a future trip at one of these Now resorts, and the price will be honored at the higher-priced Dreams. The transition should be complete this summer for Now/Dreams Jade, and October for Now/Dreams Sapphire.
Now is for people who want a livelier atmosphere, and has more than 400 rooms and suites; Zoëtry, with fewer than 100 suites, is for those who want serene reflection and a calming experience. These were two very different experiences.
One common thread is that both Zoëtry and Now are operating at limited capacity. Vaccines are not yet as readily available in Mexico since the vaccines are not produced inside the country. Although adults over 40 and all teachers and front line workers have been offered the vaccine, many of the younger hotel staff are not yet eligible as of this writing in June 2021. For this reason, it's a great sign of respect for visiting travelers to wear masks in accordance with signage prominently displayed for indoor spaces. The resorts both showed that they are very serious about safety, sanitizing, and keeping everyone healthy.
As is the trend, both Zoëtry and Now Sapphire used their down time, when rooms were closed to tourists, to add plunge pools and first-floor swim-out suites to several accommodations. These, plus the beautiful, clean pools, made it very easy to forgive the fact that sargassum (a type of seaweed) still plagues much of Mexico's east coast during parts of the year. Believed to be caused by warming oceans and changing currents as a result of climate change, and fueled by landscape fertilizers that find their way into the ocean, this sargassum is now washing onto beaches at several Caribbean islands that never experienced it before. It's also making itself known in Florida. Hotels are doing all they can during sargassum months, but Mother Nature rules the sea.
Get out. Experience life. Travel more, stay safe, and see the world in a new light.
Marcia Simon, a Connecticut-based travel writer, is owner of Friendly Group Travel, specializing in trip planning throughout North America, Europe and the Caribbean. Connect on Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel, or drop a note to email@example.com.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
It's been a weird school year for students and their families. Understatement.
With graduations just around the bend, finding the right kind of celebration to honor your favorite student, is particularly challenging amid the lingering pandemic. The upside is that people are getting vaccinated, and travel is becoming safer. With this in mind, here are a few ways to celebrate this year's graduation, which may mean making up for lost time or finding a reason to get the whole multigenerational family together.
For lasting impact and memories that will last a lifetime - hands down, the answer is travel – whether you're celebrating a graduation or just need to get the family together.
5 Family Travel Ideas to Celebrate a Graduation
1. Rent a house or villa
Not quite ready to step into a full return to post-COVID activities? Villas and house rentals are very popular this year. Some have minimum-length stays; others allow you to stay for a quick weekend, an extended weekend or longer immersion. Suites at hotels that provide deep sanitized cleaning between guests add a layer of safety. Get an exclusive package at Tranquility Bay in the Florida Keys: like a 3-bedroom waterfront beach house with full kitchen, living room, oceanfront patio, laundry facilities, three swimming pools, mini-golf, snorkeling and family activities on premises, close to restaurants, fishing boats, bicycling and more.
2. All-Inclusive resort
There's something for everyone of any age. The kids can enjoy a sailing lesson while parents try the stand-up paddle boards, and grandparents relax poolside after a morning yoga class. Gather for meals and excursions at an all-inclusive that matches your family's personality. ClubMed has new locations with larger family accommodations and optional activities all day long. Hotel Xcaret, in Mexico near Tulum, includes zip lining, water parks and the famed Xcaret eco-park.
3. Walking tours
Create your own private guided group or choose a self-guided option, complete with maps and local assistance if you need it. Whichever you choose, your breakfast and dinner will be included (with recommended lunch options for self-guided trips.) Luggage is transported every morning to your next destination at an authentic boutique hotel or B&B. What a fantastic way to spend family time together outdoors. Itineraries are available within the US and abroad with Easy, Moderate and Challenging levels.
Spend a week with your family on a private catamaran, which sails flatter than a monohull. Choose to have a captain and cook, so you are completely free to do as much or as little as you want. Pull up on beaches to explore villages, cultural sites or local culinary adventures.. Bahamas and Virgin Islands are popular destinations for ideal weather and crystal clear turquoise waters.
5. Road trip Pack the car, fill the cooler and head out. There's no telling if Americans will be able to cross the Canadian border this summer, pending COVID-restrictions. Explore Maine with its coastal communities, islands, or inland lakes and rivers (family rafting!). Or head down the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Smokey Mountains, filled with opportunities for outdoor exploration. If you have more time, Add Nashville for a diverse music and food scene - and a must-do experience at the Grand Ole Opry. This summer is expected to be very busy at the National Parks, so book as early as you can. Maybe this is the summer to get a bike rack and head to the Finger Lakes. Not in shape for the hills? No worries - ebikes are readily available at rental shops. You might also consider a fly-drive experience, or renting a camper. Campers and RVs have gone upscale since COVID scared people away from hotels.
As with all travel plans mid- and post-pandemic, it's very important to understand the cancellation policies of any hotels, airlines and travel vendors you choose. An informed travel advisor can help navigate these changing conditions and provide peace of mind should your travel plans need to change. Need help planning your family getaway? Call 860-399-0191 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Initial consultations are always free.
by Marcia Simon
By industry standards, the North Fork of Long Island is still in its winemaking infancy. The region's viticulture reputation has been steadily on the rise since 1973 when its first commercial grape vines were planted. The region now boasts about 55 wineries and vineyards.
Unlike Connecticut, where driving takes all day to follow the wine trail from Stonington to Litchfield, a 25-mile span along eastern Long island's north coast allows for easy stops for tastings, picnicking and musical entertainment in season. During a COVID-winter, the scene is surely different and very quiet mid-week, which is attractive to people more interested in the wines themselves. It's a quick getaway that is as COVID-safe as you make it.
The North Fork is as laid back as Long Island gets. Its popularity as a destination is growing as the quality of its wines and oysters are added to restaurant menus across the country. This unpretentious east end of Long Island is less than 100 miles from New York City, and less than 90 minutes with a car on the Cross Sound Ferry from New London to Orient Point.
The water, air and soil trifecta
Surrounded by Long Island Sound, the Peconic Bay and salt water from the Atlantic Ocean, the North Fork is buffered from both warm and cold fronts. This unique climate protects grapes through a long growing season and gives winemakers more control over their harvests; they can pick their fruits at peak times for ripeness.
The region's most popular varietals include Bordeaux-style reds – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec from which winemakers create their signature blends.
Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are popular whites, but even more inviting than a soft white is a glass of North Fork Rosé or Gewürztraminer, which many think of as sweet wines, but after tasting a few, it's safe to say that many are refreshingly light and dry.
My two travel companions and I enjoyed tasting flights at multiple vineyards during a January road trip along Routes 25 and 48 between the towns of Peconic and Jamesport. We visited the grounds of several others, too to get a feel for their upcoming in-season outdoor scene and COVID-safety.
Starting at Pellegrini Vineyards in Cutchogue, we were the only tasters at 12 noon. We tried four varietals and surprisingly preferred the easy-drinking, dry 2019 Rosé. Pellegrini's tasting room mixes old world charm with modern open space and technology. Guests are welcome to walk over to the adjacent building to view the stainless steel fermentation tanks, behind glass walls, used in the winemaking process. Pellegrini's winemaker is Zander Hargrave, son of Alex and Louisa Hargrave who were pioneers of the North Fork wine industry with their vines back in 1973.
The largest of all the Long Island vineyards is Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, This family owned-and-operated vineyard is run by siblings Pindar, Alexander and Alethea Damianos. A fourth sibling, Jason, was an integral part of the family operation, too, and later opened Jason's Vineyard in Jamesport. An unfortunate car accident took Jason's life in 2015, and the Damianos family now operates Jason's as well as Duck Walk in Southold, which their father acquired in 1994. Remembering a blueberry port wine I tasted years ago at Duck Walk Vineyards, my travel companions and I stopped in to try it again. We also tried their Boysenberry Fruit Wine, which is not a port, but a very tasty after-meal sipper.
The family patriarch, Dr. Herodotus Damianos, known as Dr. Dan, was an internal medicine physician by profession when his winemaking vision led him to purchase 36 acres of potato farmland in 1979 on which he planted his first Chardonnay grapes from California vines. Today, Pindar's 500 acres yield 17 varieties of grapes and more than 70,000 cases of wine every year. As large as it is, Pindar Vineyards' comfortable atmosphere provides a warm environment for tasting their popular reds such as Cabernet Franc, Pythagoras. We particularly enjoyed their Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and Cabernet port.
Pindar is among the pioneering vineyards of the North Fork sustainable wine movement away from chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Their massive composting operation combines lawn clippings from dozens of local landscapers, fish parts from a local seafood wholesaler, and their own grape skins. Tons of this rich organic compost is spread over the vineyard's sandy soil to enrich the grapes.
Although some Vineyards are closed for winter, or operate on limited hours during the pandemic, the wineries we visited all took their safety precautions very seriously. Some offer tastings by reservation only; others accept drop ins, with occupancy limits.
Mid-week in January, the tasting rooms were practically, and sometimes literally, empty; we felt very COVID-safe the entire time. Visitor traffic picks up on weekends, we were told, so mid-week is advantageous. Masks are required everywhere to keep staff and visitors safe.
Travelers who want to venture out with their bubble (up to six people) before the crowds return for spring season can rent one of the Bergen Road Bungalows at Macari Vineyards. These private, cozy heated tents provide your group with four hours of relaxed tastings from the selection of flagship Macari wines paired with a locally prepared gourmet lunch overlooking the grape vines on this 180-acre vineyard.
An Overnight Delight
After tasting wines at four vineyards, we were ready to check in to the Sound View Hotel in Greenport, three miles west of the village, and a short ride from most vineyards. Arriving before sunset, we watched the sky's changing colors from the deck of our room.
If you didn't know its story, you'd drive by Sound View, thinking this is still a 50s-era roadside motel. Now owned by Eagle Point Hotel Partners, renovations began a few years ago and are ongoing. Simple, rustic and modern all at the same time, this hotel feels beachy and upscale at the same time. All rooms provide waterfront views of Long Island Sound. It's so close to the water that you might get sea spray on your windows during a storm.
The hotel's Halyard Restaurant had limited winter pandemic hours. However, the to-go menu includes plenty of tempting items available for room delivery. From chowder to chili, turkey-bacon wraps to fish and chips, local sea scallops, salads and a kids' menu.
That night we were able to decipher the beacon patterns from Old Saybrook breakwater and the red blinking light that marks the channel by Duck Island in Westbrook. It's 14 miles across the Sound from this location and the winter wind on the water kept the sky clear across to Connecticut.
From Potatoes to Grapes
Long before the first grape vines were planted on the North Fork, its rich fertile soil attracted potato farmers who moved east when suburban sprawl started to take over the land closer to the New York City. In the 1940s, about 80 percent of all farming on Long Island was dedicated to potatoes, according to potatonewstoday.com.
Potato farming still exists on the North Fork. In fact, North Fork Potato Chips is a thriving business. Farm stands serve many of the local restaurants with fresh vegetables and fruits and season, and the oyster farms ship nationwide. But it's the grapes that are the North Fork's current attraction from a growing number of visitors.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, is a Connecticut-based travel writer and advisor. Contact her at email@example.com, on Instagram at friendlygrouptravel, facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel and Twitter @friendsgotravel.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
A trip to the supermarket triggers anxiety, but looking at photos of Caribbean beaches and crystal clear blue waters makes me want to hop a plane and wiggle my toes under a pile of warm golden sand.
How safe is travel at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues to soar? We're all tired of COVID; this is not the time to let down your guard. The question is whether or not it is possible to travel safely.
A lot depends on your personal situation, when you want to travel, and how important the trip is. Do you have a compromised immune system due to a medical condition or age? Are you the primary caregiver for a family member? Would you lose needed income if you were unable to work for a month due to illness or quarantine before you could get back to your job?
On the other hand, airlines, airports and hotels appear to be taking every precaution to maintain a clean, sterile, safe environment. And not just for travelers; they are equally concerned about the health of their employees.
Not all destinations provide the same level of protection. Many hotels have reduced occupancy limits, so expect fewer guests. Along with that, anticipate fewer dining choices at resorts known for numerous culinary experiences. Buffets are gone. Masks are required in all public spaces; guidelines vary at pools and on beaches. And assume that nighttime entertainment will be minimized, too. Don’t expect an early check in. It takes longer to sanitize rooms and deep-clean the areas. Most hotels are not cleaning rooms on a daily basis either, so you'll need to make your own bed and clean up after yourself from check-in to check-out, depending on the length of stay. Ask the hotel before you book what their policy is about room occupancy and cleaning.
Destinations outside the US approach entry requirements in different ways. Some mandate proof of a negative COVID test result within 72 hours of arrival. Some require proof of health insurance that covers you while in their country. Rules may change from the time you book your trip and the time you actually travel.
Insuring Your Safety
Aside from protection against lost luggage, accidents and trip interruptions, "Cancel For Any Reason" insurance is a no-brainer today, whether you're booking a trip for next month or two years from now. But not all policies are the same. Some allow you to cancel up to 24 hours before your trip with 100 percent cash refund. Many resorts now include cancellation insurance at no additional cost, giving you a credit for future travel rather than a clean refund. Some policies exclude medical care due to COVID, so make sure you understand the policy to assure you are actually purchasing what you think you are. Insuring your trip is probably more important now than ever before.
So, is it okay to travel?
The answer lies in diligence. If you expect to get away so you can escape the coronavirus, forget that thought. It's not possible now.
Are you willing to mask up and revise your expectations so you can feel a warm breeze on your back, and close your eyes on a lounger submerged in an infinity pool overlooking the most amazingly blue ocean you've ever seen in your life? Run on the beach? Enjoy a fine wine or ice cold beer with the sound of island music as the sun goes down? Would you be happy eating some meals, delivered by room service, on your oceanfront balcony instead of in a dining room?
Hunkering down at home to minimize the risk of leisure travel during a pandemic that can literally kill you makes perfect sense, at least until you've received the two-step vaccine in its entirety. And yet, many people are determined to go and are willing to take the risk if they have already experienced and recovered from COVID-19 and have been shown through testing to carry antibodies, which may offer protection to some degree to themselves if not to others. The waters of COVID are uncharted. Nobody knows anything with certainty.
For those who choose to travel by plane during the pandemic, follow these recommendations from Friendly Group Travel in Westbrook, Connecticut to maximize safety:
1. Choose nonstop flights to reduce exposure to people and surfaces at multiple locations.
2. Pay for an assigned seat and choose a window on the left side of the plane, away from the restroom area. Window seats generally expose you to less contact with other passengers. The left side of the plane usually disembarks more quickly than the right.
3. If at all possible, avoid a checked bag and go with carry-on only. Some airlines have tightened requirements for carry-on sizes to reduce the time passengers juggle carry-on luggage in and out of overhead bins. Confirm this beforehand so you can pack accordingly.
4. Use private ground transportation from the airport to your hotel (some hotels include this now at no additional cost) rather than a shared shuttle.
5. Get "Cancel for Any Reason" (CFAR) insurance at the time you book your trip. Your circumstances may change, or you may become less comfortable about travel as the date gets closer.
6. Check your hotel's policies on occupancy limits, how and how often they clean guest rooms, how long they wait to fill a room between guests and whether room service charges are waived if you decide to eat in your room.
7. This is not a time to look for bargain hotels. Prioritize comfort and safety. Many of the larger hotel chains have trusted safety protocols and sanitation standards you can find on their websites.
NOTE - It is perfectly safe to start planning your next trip now. Get ideas, start dreaming, and enjoy your time at home being an armchair traveler preparing your next adventure.
Marcia Simon is a Connecticut-based travel writer and a travel advisor. Connect by email firstname.lastname@example.org or connect via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Everyone needs a summer break, even during COVID-19. Having seen gorgeous photos of Watkins Glen State Park, it’s been on my hiking bucket list, so we loaded up the car on a Sunday morning and headed to the Finger Lakes.
Traveling midweek instead of weekends means fewer crowds, better hotel prices and less traffic on the roads. Our first destination was Mount Morris, NY, where we checked into the Allegiance Bed & Breakfast, a 46-room Greek Revival mansion. Each of eight guest rooms is named for a local historian from the 1800s. The Allegiance B&B itself is named in honor of Francis Bellamy, a neighbor, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. Owners Steve and Glenda Luick are transplants from Los Angeles who dreamed of living their retirement years running a B&B where they could enjoy four distinct seasons and lots of country comfort. When they saw the building, they knew instantly that this was their place. What they didn’t know until after they moved in was that their home would ultimately develop a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in the world. The spirits are friendly and make themselves known only occasionally, but never to intentionally frighten anyone.
Steve greeted us, wearing his COVID-safe mask, making sure we were wearing ours, and showed us around before taking us up to our room on the second floor.
This is a great location for hikers who want to spend a day at Letchworth State Park. The B&B is located one mile from the park’s north entrance. There’s not a whole lot to do in the area, especially during COVID times when so much is closed. That’s okay, though. The B&B oozes laidback elegance, and after a short walk into town for a casual dinner, we found that sipping a glass of wine on the front porch was the perfect way to unwind before heading up for a comfy snooze.
Letchworth State Park received the 2015 USA Today Readers’ Choice Award for Best State Park in the United States. It runs about 17 miles from top to bottom on either side of the Genesee River. Aside from the north entrance in Mt. Morris, you can enter the park from the south (Portageville) and west (Castile – the most popular gateway). With 14,000 acres and 66 miles of hiking trails, the Upper and Middle Falls are most popular, and most crowded, so arrive early to enjoy walking while remaining socially distant.
The water level in the Genesee River, due to a hot, dry August, was relatively low. I imagine that in spring after the snowmelt, the park’s 30 waterfalls would be magnificent; autumn’s foliage would be simply breathtaking.
Letchworth State Park is called the mini Grand Canyon of the East. The Genesee River has created a deep gorge bound on either side by cliffs higher than 500 feet in spots. White water rafting through Adventure Calls Outfitters was closed, possibly due to COVID-19 or possibly the fact that the water level was pretty low. Class 1 and 2 rapids make this a perfect activity for families with children or first-time rafters.
You can find overnight accommodations inside the park at the Glen Iris Inn and its affiliated properties, with everything from motel-type cabins to balcony suites overlooking the Middle Falls. Make reservations early because the convenient location attracts tourists. Campsites can be reserved through the park.
Letchworth State Park and Watkins Glen State Park both offer free admission this summer, with a modest parking fee for a full day. Both parks prohibit swimming in the gorges, partly due to safety concerns. Hiking is on well-defined trails high above the waterline. However, both parks have big, clean, family-friendly swimming pools.
Aside from hiking, farming and incredibly bucolic scenery, the Finger Lakes are known for their vineyards, so off we went to explore the wine trail. Canadaigua Lake may have the most well-known wineries. There’s also a wine trail around Cayuga Lake. We headed for Seneca Lake, which has more wineries, almost 70, than any other lake in NY State. We started at the top in Geneva, with plenty of time to hit up three vineyards along the lake on our way down to the village of Watkins Glen at the bottom.
First Stop on the wine trail… Belhurst Castle Winery, Inn and Restaurant (They also produce craft beers) overlooking the lake in Geneva. I was wondering how COVID-safe the tasting would be, but when I walked over to the tasting bar and picked up the menu, I was quickly scolded for not checking in with the host, and reminded that they’d now need to re-sanitize those two seating areas for someone waiting their turn. Oops. OK, no worries. I was happy to see the standard of cleanliness.
Second Stop… Keuka Spring Vineyards in Penn Yan, proud to share their unoaked Seyval Chardonnay, Riesling and ice wines. The Finger Lakes are known for sweet whites, although the dry Riesling was quite nice. Jim at the bar was happy to tell us about the ice wine process. He collected our names and phone numbers for contact tracing, “just in case we need to notify you,” he said. That was reassuring. It was clear that extra space had been added to keep tasting parties (of two) distanced from each other.
Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee was next, with a restaurant and modernish accommodations overlooking the lake. We were just about 10 meandering minutes away from our destination – Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel at the bottom of Seneca Lake. If you want to stay on the water, this seems like the only choice for Watkins Glen. Because of the state park, there’s a demand for modest motels and camping. The park has 54 electric and 241 non-electric campsites. A few B&Bs seem interesting. This is the only large hotel with a dock for transient boats and indoor/outdoor waterfront dining.
Arriving at Watkins Glen State Park before 8 am the next morning gave us sample time for hiking and photos before the crowds started rolling in around 9:30. For coronavirus safety, the famous Gorge Trail, with 19 waterfalls, is one-way up and then one-way down on the Indian Trail. It’s a good idea. All together it only takes about an hour and a half so we drove the two-minute ride to the other side of the river and hiked the South Rim as well… still getting back to the hotel in time for lunch. (Normally there’s a shuttle that runs between the park’s three entrances, but it’s not operating during COVID-time.) We discovered a small casual restaurant down on the waterfront, the Village Marina, that seems to be a favorite spot for locals. They have sandwiches and salads, plus a full page of local wines by the glass.
Two miles from the hotel is Castel Grisch Winery. Their COVID-safe tasting flight is pre-poured, and you take the five samples outside where there’s plenty of space. Filling out contact tracing forms was required.
All in all, we packed a lot into a four-night getaway, but it never seemed too busy. Driving around on quiet back roads was a real flashback to less complicated times, and just the break I needed to ease the anxieties of the never-ending coronavirus era.
Other places to visit in Watkins Glen:
Schooner True Love –for sailing experiences such as Sails & Ales and Wine & Winds on the Water. Unfortunately, they are not operating this summer due to COVID-19, but you can still buy a T-shirt online to show your support.
Seneca Cheese Company – for artisan cheese, charcuterie, locally crafted wines and beers
Watkins Glen International speedway – “The Glen” is closed for racing this summer due to COVID, but hoping to open to host the October 30 Finger Lakes Beer Festival featuring over 40 New York State breweries, distilleries and cideries.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, is a travel advisor, travel writer and publicist. She plans small group and independent journeys as owner of Friendly Group Travel. During COVID-19, she shares safety information and updates. Visit friendlygrouptravel.com or connect at facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.