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.

Cidade Alta – Salvador da Bahia

Proud Heart and Soul of an Afro-Brazilian City

The Pelourinho district, the architectural enclave and highlight of Salvador’s hilltop Cidade Alta (Upper City), has been reclaimed, restored, and transformed into the cultural heart of a city long famous for the richness of its Afro-Brazilian heritage and colonial history.

A wealth based on the unseemly but lucrative importation of African slaves peaked in the early 18th century when most of Pelourinho’s remarkable gold-drenched Baroque churches were completed.

They are some of South America’s most outstanding, clustered around what is now Pelourinho Square, whose name means “the pillory” or “whipping post” (one of the myriad reminders of the city’s historical and emotional ties to Africa and slavery).

The home of Salvador’s affluent European descendants until the beginning of the 20th century Pelourinho then descended into squalor and physical collapse.

But a massive restoration begun in 1992 secured its return as a haunt of poets and artists and a showplace for Bahian craftsmanship. Easter egg-colored landmark buildings now house a number of minor but interesting museums, art galleries, and caffes and restaurants.

When Casa da Gamboa, Salvador’s most famous restaurant, opened a branch in Pelourinho, it further established the neighborhood’s role as a cultural and culinary outpost.

There are some large international beachside hotels, but they don’t come close to the character and architectural flavor of the Hotel Catharina Paraguacu, a pink colonial mansion with rooftop beach that’s just Pelhourino.

What: site, restaurant, hotel.
Casa da Gamboa: Rua Joao de Deus 32. Tel 55/71′-336-1549, fax 55/71-321-3393.
Cost: dinner $18.
When: lunch and dinner Mon-Sat; Sun, lunch only.
Hotel Catharina Paraguacu: Rua Joao Gomes 128. Tel/fax 55/71-247-1488.
Cost: doubles $81 (low season), $99 (high season).
Best Times: Nov-Jan.

Santorini – Cyclades

An Archetype of the Idyllic Greek Island

As everyone’s favorite Greek island, Santorini comes through with one of the Aegean’s most unusual landscapes. The island’s official name is Thira, although the medieval name – a corruption of St. Irene, left by the Italians – is far more commonly used.

By any name, anyplace this gorgeous is bound to figure, on every cruise ship’s and island hopper’s itinerary; large number of passengers, who fortunately never stay more than a few hours, take over the small island in the summer months.

There is intense volcanic activity (there are two smoldering cones within the sunken 6-mile-wide caldera), and speculation is rife that Santorini is the remains of the mythical lost kingdom of Atlantis. Thirty-six varieties of grape grow in rich volcanic soil, and Santorini produces delightful white wine, keeping everyone happy.

The whitewashed cubical houses of tiny Oia – known as one of the most beautiful settlements in the Mediterranean – sit atop the 1000 foot striated cliffs over the indigo waters of its partially sunken caldera (a “drinkable blue volcano”, wrote Greece’s Nobel Prize-winning poet Odysseus Elytis).

In Oia, maximize your visit with a stay at Perivolas, where the terraces provide the views that postcards are made of. Step out of your cool, cavelike apartment, and drink in a view similar to the scale of the Grand Canyon, only more beautiful.

There may be more luxurious hotels on Santorini, but none provides sunset-viewing rights like the elegantly simple cave houses of the family-run Perivolas. The seventeen dazzlingly white-washed guesthouses have curved ceilings and walls; each terrace is the roof of the apartment below. One terrace is the site of a lipless pool, its Aegean blue identical to the real thing beyond.

Perivolas is a labor of love. The owner’s handwoven, hand-dyed fabrics and rugs can be found throughout the elegantly spare rooms, where handmade Greek lace decorates windows and doors. It’s a two minute stroll down to the heart of the quiet town of Oia, and from there a twenty-minute ride to the tourist razzmatazz below in the island’s main town, Thira.

But for the daily ritual of sunset viewing, happiness is sitting on your own terrace with a glass of local white wine in hand and the promise of fresh-grilled mussels for dinner in a nearby rooftop taverna.

What: island, hotel.
Santorini: 12 hours by ferry from Athens; a small airport services daily flights to Athens in high season.
Perivolas: in Oia, on the northwest tip of the island. Tel 30/286-071308, fax 30/286-071309; perivolas@san.forthnet.gr
Cost: Doubles from $280 (low season), from $336 (high season)
When: open Apr-Oct.
Best times: Apr-Jul and Sept-Oct.

Easter Island

Island of a Thousand Mysteries

A tiny windswept piece of land called Rapa Nui continues to captivate and mystify a curious world long after its “discovery” by the Dutch West India Company in 1722, on Easter Sunday.

Surrounded by a million square miles of Pacific Ocean, it’s the world’s most remote inhabited island–over 1,200 miles from its nearest populated neighbor, Pitcairn lsland.

Called the “Navelof the World” by early settlers, Easter Island is an ancient open-air 50-square-mile museum of natural history home to some of archaeology’s most valuable treasures.

It is most often identified today with its famous moai, more than 600 huge, eerie, elongated stone figures that stare eyeless at the distant horizon. Many are 30 to 50 feet tall and weigh up to 250 tons.

They were carved from the island’s volcanic tufa, transported for miles, then raised onto great stone altars called ahu.

Believed to date from somewhere between the 9th and 17th centuries A.D., these silent figures are best viewed outdoors in all their primitive splendor at Ahu Tongariki, the largest excavated and restored religious monument in Polynesia.

Were they conceived and carved by Polynesian people who first landed on the island around A.D. 500, or by pre-Incan stone carvers from Peru? The answer remains elusive.

What: island.

Where: 2,350 miles/3,781 km west of Santiago, Chile, 4 1/2 hours by air on flights that typically continue on to Tahiti. It can also be reached by some cruise lines.

How: TCS Expeditions in the U.S. organizes all-day trip that includes Santiago, with guest lecturers who are experts on the prehistory of the island; tel 800-727-7477 or 206-727-7300, fax 206-727-7309; tcsexp@wolfenet.com.

Cost: $4,990 per person, double occupancy, all-inclusive, land only.

When: Jan departures only. A shorter 4-day stay leaving weekly from Santiago year-round can be arranged in the U.S. through Maxim Tours, tel 800-655-0222 or 973-984-9068, fax 973-984-5383; maximtours@earthlink.net; www.maximtours.com.

Cost: from $284 per person, all-inclusive, land only.

Best times: Nov-Mar.

Cliveden – Taplow, Berkshire, England

Weekend Guests of the Astors

As surprisingly comfortable as it is overwhelmingly grand, this National Trust property is England’s most majestic country-house hotel.

Even adjectives like “spectacular” and “magnificent” seem inadequate amid the aristocratic proportions of the Italianate villa, much of whose present-day character reflects three generations of Astors (preceded by one Prince of Wales, among others), who lived here until 1966. (In the 1960s Cliveden was also the setting of the infamous Profumo scandal that led to the collapse of the Conservative government in 1964.)

A dinner in the excellent restaurant Waldo’s is reason enough to drive from London, though as an overnight guest you’ll have the luxury of working it off on the hotel’s 376 acres of riding paths or jogging trails.

Overlooking the River Thames, 15-foot-high windows afford views of the hotel’s antique boats, including Nancy Astor’s silent electric canoe. Piloted by uniformed boatmen, these are available for predinner Champagne cruises or picnics with large hampers of food furnished by the hotel.

Take pleasure in the formal gardens, drawing room fires, tailcoated footmen, chandeliered dining rooms, and palpable air of exclusivity, but what you may enjoy most is the royal treatment extended even to titleless guests.

Cliveden was built in 1666 by the Second Duke of Buckingham.

What: hotel, restaurant.
Where: 10 miles/ 16 km northwest of Windsor.
Tel: 4411628-668-561, fax 44/1628-661-837 ; reservations@clivedenhouse.co.uk; www.clivedenhouse.co.uk
Cost: doubles from $320. Prix fixe dinner at Waldo’s $75.
When: dinner only daily.

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