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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in North America.

The Grand Canyon – Flagstaff, Arizona, U.S.A.

Nature’s Masterpiece

Few things in this world produce such awe as one’s first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. The mesmerized John Muir wrote, “It will seem as novel to you, as unearthly in color and grandeur and quantity of its architecture as if you had found it after death, on some other star.”

It took nature more than 2 billion years to create the vast chasm-in some places 17 miles wide-through a combination of shifting uplift, erosion, and the relentless force of the roaring Colorado River, which runs 277 miles along its length, a mile beneath its towering rims.

Each year more than 4 million visitors flock to experience the wonder of its constantly changing pastel hues and unpredictable play of light and shadow, but 90 percent of them never make it past the visitor center, exhibits, museums, and gift shops at the popular (and congested) South Rim, at an elevation of 7,000 feet

Book at least a year in advance (or pray for last-minute cancellations) at the uniquely sited El Tovar Hotel, built here by Hopi workers in 1905 of native stone and ponderosa pine logs. It is considered the crown jewel of all the national park hotels, and guests will find out why during a quiet moment in a wicker rocking chair on its wide porch, with edge-of-the-world views.

Mule trips leave from the South Rim for one-day trips down to Plateau Point, about halfway to the canyon floor; overnight mule riders and hikers can check into the Phantom Ranch, a rustic, bare-bones former working ranch from the early 1900s, and the only accommodation below the canyon’s rim.

From the South Rim it’s a scenic 235-mile drive through mighty impressive country to the more tranquil, remote North Rim. At an elevation of 8,000 feet, it is only open mid May through October.

One of the most poetic ways to experience the canyon is to see it from the bottom up, white-water rafting the Colorado River, whether in kayaks, rafts, or motor-driven pontoon boats. One of America’s greatest adventures, it’s a guaranteed keeper on anyone’s short list.

What: site, hotel.
Grand Canyon: the South Rim is 230 miles north of Phoenix, 80 miles north of Flagstaff. The North Rim is 352 miles north of Phoenix, 210 miles north of Flagstaff. Tel 928-638-7888; www.nps.gov/grca
Cost: park admission $20 per car. El Tovar Hotel, Phantom Ranch, Mule Trips, And River Rafting: for all, contact Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, tel 303-297-2757, fax 303-297-3175; www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
Cost: El Tovar Hotel, doubles from $129 year round (3 canyon-view suites $289) – reservations are accepted 23 months in advance.
Phantom Ranch, $28 per person when arriving on foot, with accommodation in 10-person dorms. Mule trips $345 per person year-round, includes all meals and an overnight stay in a cabin. Easy 4-hour rafting trips $107 per person, includes lunch. Multiple Day Whitewater Rafting Trips: Wilderness River Adventures. tel 800992-8022.
When: Park, hotels, and treks year-round.
Best Times: May-Aug draw the greatest crowds, so consider Mar, Apr, Sept, or Oct. Off months of Nov-Feb have a beauty of their own.

 

The Boulder Resort and Golden Door Spa – Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S.A.

A High-Desert Resort Where Golf Rules

Arizona is a paradise for golfers, and among its more than 250 courses The Boulders is a true standout, with two 18-hole Jay Morrish-designed courses standing green against the dramatic high-desert terrain. House-size, 12-million-year-old granite boulders surround the property, with Flintstones-like buildings nestled ingeniously among them.

But it’s not all about golf and spectacular location: The Boulders is also one of the Southwest’s most lavish hotel resorts, and since its opening in 1985 has regularly been voted one of North America’s best.

With the recent addition of the world renowned Golden Door Spa, guests can now be pampered and rejuvenated in its glorious 33,000 square-foot sanctuary. Awesome views fill the picture windows of the 160 onebedroom casitas that look over the cacti-studded Sonoran Desert.

Bridle trails that crisscross the hotel’s 1.300 acres of unspoiled terrain promise John Wayne outings. The hotel-located in the whimsically named town of Carefree (with street names like “Why Worry Lane”) – is tended to by a staff that is both warm and can-do efficient.

In the evening, after the last hole is played, the good times continue with sunset balloon rides, excellent dining in eight different restaurants, and a chance to jump aboard a jeep tour with a local astronomer to view the stars as you’ve never seen them before-all amid the aroma of juniper branches being burned in open-air hearths. The silence of the desert is broken only by the occasional howl of a lone coyote.

What: hotel.
Where: 34631 N. Tom Darlington Dr. (Carefree is 33 miles north of Phoenix and 13 miles north of Scottsdale). Tel 800-553-1717 or 480-488-9009, fax 480-488-4118; www.wyndham.com/boulders.
Cost: casitas from $139 (low season), $625 (high season).
Best Times: Jan-May, with a moonlight concert series Apr-Jun.

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Kenai Peninsula

Nature Rules in This Microcosm of AIaska

The Kenai Peninsula is a nature-packed area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire put together, where all of Alaska’s big-country wonders are available in microcosm: massive glaciers (Portage and Exit), a filigreed coastline of inlets perfect for kayaking, and prolific wildlife and marine life.

From Anchorage, it’s a scenic 125-mile drive on the Seward Highway to Resurrection Bay and the town of Seward, named for the secretary of state who in 1857 purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million (less than 2 cents an acre), a move derided as “Seward’s Folly” until gold was discovered thirty years later.

A fishing and timber town, it’s the jumping-off point for kayaking and sightseeing cruises of Kenai Fjords National Park, which abounds with whales, waterfalls, brown bears, and calving tidewater glaciers.

The highway ends 100 miles south at tiny Homer, a funky, artsy-craftsy town at the end of the peninsula. Sitting on a stunning 5-mile finger of land called “the Spit,” the little town fancies itself both a cultural hub and the “Halibut Capital of the World.”

(Another fish town, Halibut Cove, is one of the peninsula’s prettiest corners, reachable only by boat.) Drop into Homer’s landmark Salty Dawg Saloon, an old trapper’s hut where tourists hoist their beers with local cannery workers and fishermen.

From here, a leisurely boat trip across gorgeous Kachemak Bay provides glimpses of terns, puffins, cormorants, and mischievous sea otters. On the bay’s distant shore is enchanting Kachemak Bay Wildemess Lodge, the ultimate escape-cum-classroom, where six luxurious private cabins blend with the landscape.

Some guests come to fish, others to explore the wilderness in the company of the staff naturalists, others for the Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, oysters, salmon, and, of course, halibut, all prepared to perfection.

What: site, town, hotel.
Where: Kenai Peninsula Tourism, tel 907-283-3850; www kenaipeninsula.org.
Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge: tel: 907-235-8910, fax 907235-8910; www.alaskawildernesslodge.com. Cost: 3-night package from $1,800, all-inclusive (includes boat to/from Homer).
Best Times: May and Sept for smaller crowds.

Mount McKinley and Denali National Park

One of America’s Greatest Natural Wonders

The tallest peak in North America at 20,320 feet, Mount McKinley and its regal reflection in the aptly named Wonder Lake are the primary attractions of Alaska’s Denali National Park, but they’re not the only draws.

Visitors return from the 6-million-acre wildlife reserve (larger than the state of Massachusetts) with excited tales of sighting grizzlies, wolves, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and golden eagles cruising the skies.

And then there are the views, sweeping vistas of subarctic tundra and taiga, glaciers and deeply gouged valleys, and a good number of massive mountain peaks that almost-almost – compete with McKinley, which was named after the twenty-fifth U.S. president but is always referred to among Alaskans by its Athabascan Indian name: Denali, “the high one.”

Mount McKinley/Denali is often wreathed in clouds, but your best shot at a clear and close-up view is from a hillside in the very heart of the park, where you’ll find the rustic Camp Denali, founded by two female ferry pilots (and one of their husbands) in 1951 when they homesteaded land not yet designated national parkland.

If you stay at the camp’s cluster of seventeen log cabins you’ll be one of forty happy campers who not only enjoy the wonderful and knowledgeable staff and excellent cooking, but the chance to experience the park on naturalist-guided hikes, or during evening educational programs, and explore wildlife-sighting possibilities at a relaxed pace.

(Otherwise, touring and tent-camping are widely restricted to protect the park’s fragile ecology; there is only one 90-mile road, of which only the first 15 miles are paved, and it is closed to private vehicles.) Summer brings long northern days, with sixteen to twenty hours of light in which to take in the scenery

What: site, hotel.
Denali National Park: 237 miles north of Anchorage.
Tel: 907683-2294; www.nps.gov/dena.
Cost: $5.
When: park road closed Oct – late May due to snow; May-Sept access is by official bus, $17-$33 depending on destination within park.
Camp Denali: within the park, 89 miles from the entrance. Tel 907-683-2290, fax 907-683-1568; info@campdenali.com; www.campdenali.com.
Cost: $400 per person, double occupancy, all-inclusive, with round-trip transfer to/from gate.
When: open early Jun – early Sept.
Best Times: Jun for wild flowers and birding; Jun 21 for the summer solstice, when almost-24-hour sunlight provides a unique wildlife-viewing experience; Aug-Sept for autumn foliage.

Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar Bear Safari

Africa has the Serengeti Plain, South America has the Amazon Basin, North America has Cape Churchill on the Hudson Bay – the polar capital of the world.

One of the largest of all terrestrial predators, with some weighing fifteen hundred pounds, polar bears are generally elusive creatures, yet they gather at Cape Churchill yearly before Hudson Buy freezes, allowing them to venture off to hunt seals on its dramatic ice floes.

Spectators watch from tundra buggies as the bears frolic and play in family groups, the newborn cubs just black noses and eyes against the white of the snow. The flora and wildlife of the arctic tundra create a beautiful backdrop for nature lovers, while the spectacular display of the aurora borealis lights up the brittle-cold night skies.

What: experience.
Where: approximately 630 miles/1,014 km north of Winnipeg.
How: Natural Habitat Adventures.
Tel: 800-543-8917 or 303-449-3711; www.nathab.com.
Cost: 6 and 7-day trips from $2,895 per person, includes charter flights from Winnipeg to Cape Churchill. When: mid-Oct to mid-Nov.

San Ignacio Lagoon – Baja Peninsula

Whale Watching in Baja

At San Ignacio Lagoon, a magical place halfway down the Pacific Coast of the Baja Peninsula, whales regularly rise out of the sea to touch and be touched by humans.

In one of the most remarkable annual migrations nature offers, Pacific gray whales make the 5,000-mile trip from the chilly feeding grounds of the Arctic to the safety of the warm, shallow waters of the Baja Peninsula for their breeding and calving season (the calves are about 15 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds at birth).

Several thousand whales may visit San lgnacio every winter, and there are sometimes up to 400 in the lagoon at one time. Las amistosas (the friendly ones) is the local nickname of the whales, which regularly approach the small panga fishing boats to be stroked and touched by awed whale-watchers, in a genial gesture that has stumped scientists for more than twenty years, since it was first recorded.

Nearly driven into extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gray whales now return in greater numbers every year and were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.

Baja’s Pacific lagoons and fifty uninhabited islands, often referred to as Mexico’s Galapagos, are renowned for their exceptional marine and bird life. Hundreds of dolphins accompany the gray whales, while humpbacks, finbacks, and Brydes whales make regular appearances along with blue whales, the largest animals on the planet.

What: experience.
How: Baja Expeditions in San Diego sets up a temporary safari-style camp and runs 5-day trips.
Tel: 800-843-6967 or 858-581-3311, fax 858-581-6542; travel@bajaex.com; www.bajaex.com.
Cost: $1,895 per person, double occupancy, all-inclusive land/air from San Diego.
When: Iate Jan-Mar.

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