Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Virginia's Wintergreen is a cool summer destination

Overlook at Devils Knob loop.
Wintergreen Resort is known by most as Virginia's largest ski area. Snuggled into the peaks, slopes and valley of Devils Knob and Black Rock Mountains, it is within three hours' drive of the D.C. area, two of Richmond and one of Charlottesville. Skiers know it for the 24 ski runs, snowboard and tubing facilities, children's programs and ever-present snow.

Looking at ski runs is more comfortable in summer.
In summer its charms include 30 miles of marked hiking trails, challenging golf courses, an excellent tennis and aquatic facility and a well-staffed spa to ease over-stressed muscles.  Several good restaurants, too.

Blue Ridge Retreat
All Wintergreen accommodations are private and range from efficiency suites condos to where I and a group of travel and golf writers stayed, Blue Ridge Retreat, a nine-bedroom, nine and one-half-bathroom house with more than the comforts of home. Two dishwashers and a commercial gas range for example.

While the golf writers tackled Stoney Creek, the 27-holes of  Reese Jones' valley courses, and Devils Knob, the soaring track designed by Ellis and Dan Maples, several of us chose to explore other attractions to be found in Nelson County.

King George II granted this land to James Dickie.

Apples older than America

The Dickie orchard ranged across the valley slopes below Little de Priest Mountain before there was an America. The original James Dickie, a sea captain, received land grants from King George in 1752, 1756 and 1780; the sheepskin and parchment deeds and the land have been in the same family every since.

John Bruguiere (his mother was a Dickie) brought us up to date and into the complexities of apple growing. As apple varieties have increased - there are more than 7,000 - trees have shrunk while the apples they produce have grown in size and quantity.

Dickie Brothers Orchard grows 20 different apple varieties along with peaches, pears, nectarines, plums, blackberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squash on 100 acres. One-third of the apple crop, including Gala, HoneyCrisp and McIntosh, all ripen in August. In a county of 15,000 residents one-half million bushels of apples are grown each year; 70,000 bushels from the Dickie Orchard.

Turn here and you will find it.
You won't find Dickie Brothers on a main road, but any Newton County resident can give you directions.

Handsome sitting area in Nellysford Cider Barn.
Appropriately, we headed next to where some of John's apples go, the Nellysford Barn of Bold Rock Cidery in Rockfish Valley.  Started in 2012 by founding partners Virginian John Washburn and New Zealander Brian Shanks, the company's success is in large part due to Shanks' internationally acknowledged skills at producing cider.

Using locally produced apples he has developed a surprising variety of drinkable flavors.

Looking down at Rockfish Creek.
We thoroughly enjoyed learning the history of cider in the small upstairs museum and lunch of sandwiches on the deck overlooking Rockfish Creek, but best of all was sipping our way through a tasting flight of ciders.

Overlooking the vines at Veritas.
Veritas Vineyard and Winery was our next stop and the handsome building in a  bucolic area of rolling hills covered with rows of grape vines did not disappoint. Of course Virginia had a head start in the wine biz with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers trying their hands with producing wine just as they did with cider.

Happy wine samplers.
This family operation has gone for quality over quantity and it tastes it. Judging from the groups there when we arrived and those who came in before we left, it is one of the more popular stops on the wine trail.

Wintergreen Spa
We might have lingered but spa treatments awaited us at Wintergreen.  I selected the Signature massage, a bit of everything - Swedish, reflexology, hot stones (from local creek beds!) and a few techniques Amanda used I couldn't identify. Suffice to say it was the fastest 80 minutes ever enjoyed, although is any good spa treatment ever long enough?

Not long enough was how I felt leaving Wintergreen. I wanted to return to the Copper Mine Bistro to try the boneless short ribs, a specialty they were out of the night we dined, and to sample a few more of their excellent wines. There had been no time for trying out a hiking path, diving into the aquatic center, stopping at more of the overviews or finding out where Muhammed Ali's property had been.

Not to mention the air, clear, cool with tones of hay and fruit and evergreens. Need more deep breaths of it.

B and B Special

Speaking of cool, consider this Wintergreen Fall deal.

Rates begin at $69 per person, per night for

• Accommodations
• Breakfast per night of stay at The Copper Mine Bistro

• Unlimited access to the Aquatics & Fitness Center.

The offer is valid through Nov. 23, 2016 (restrictions apply; rates vary depending on dates of stay).

Wintergreen Resort accommodations options include 230 villa-style condominiums and rental homes, from studio suites to nine-bedroom homes, each offering a fully equipped kitchen, and comfortable living area, and most come with fireplaces and a balcony, or deck.

With Wintergreen as B&B hub, fall excursions to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland estates are within an hour’s drive and promise plenty of picturesque Virginia landscapes.
Now available to reserve, the Wintergreen Bed & Breakfast package includes:
For more information call (888) 329-5828 or visit 

Apples ripening for picking during that time:

September - Jonagold, Empire, Golden and Red Delicious.
October - Black Twig, Fuji, Granny Smith and Winesap
November - Pink Lady.

Have your First Round on the House

Of golf, that is, at Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee in Greeensboro, GA.

Available October 1 through December 31, 2016 the golf and cottage package includes

• Complimentary round of golf on day of arrival (after noon EDT)
• Complimentary round of drinks (one per person) following each day’s round of golf
• Choice of cottage for one to three nights
• Breakfast daily
• Same course, same day unlimited golf on Oconee, Great Waters, National and Landing ($50 signature course charge for play on the Great Waters and Oconee course is applied to the first round of the day)
• Pricing from $249 per person, per night (minimum two people per cottage).

With 19,000 acres and 374 miles of shoreline, Lake Oconee is Georgia's second largest lake, providing some of the state's best fishing, along with swimming, boating, water skiing, camping, picnicking, and water skiing. Other amenities include four full-service marinas and an award-winning tennis center.

Affordable India 

World Spree’s 12-day Incredible India tour starts as low as $1,399 in December and April, and that includes round-trip fare on Air China from San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York (Houston is $100 more), all transportation in India, 5-star hotels, daily international buffet breakfasts, six other meals, sightseeing tours, entrance fees, baggage handling and English-speaking tour guides. Non-stop flights on Air India are available from New York, Chicago and San Francisco for an additional fee.

Those who fly Air China via Beijing can take advantage of China’s new 72-hour visa-free transit program and stopover in Beijing on the way home for 3 days/2 nights for only $200.  There are also extensions to Amritsar (the Sikh Golden Temple)  and Nepal.

All prices are per person, double occupancy, and are subject to availability. There is no additional charge for credit cards. For additional information, visit or call toll-free 1-866-652-5656. 

Casa de Suenos

St. Augustine Midweek Special  

Stay for two nights, Sunday through Thursday, at or now until September 29, 2016, and enjoy dinner and a cruise a no additional cost.

Schooner Freedom
The special includes 
• a 2-hour sail in Matanzas Bay aboard the tall ship Schooner Freedom
• a $30 gift certificate to Meehan's Irish Pub and Seafood House
• value $120 per couple

 Fine print: Offer must be mentioned at time of booking, based on double occupancy. Not available during holiday periods and may not be combined with  other offers or discounts.

Qamea Resort and Spa Fiji

 Stuff of Dreams

"Dive in Paradise" at 17-room Qamea Resort and Spa Fiji, named by CNN as one of the world's top luxury dive resorts.

The "Paradise" package includes
• seven nights of accommodations in an oceanfront bure
• 10 tanks of diving
• Unlimited shore diving
• a 30-minute massage at the Jungle Spa per guest
• round trip van and boat transfers from Taveuni Airport  to Qamea
• all meals including full American breakfast, two-course lunch and three-course dinner and afternoon tea and coffee
• daily housekeeping, turn-down service, a hosted wine tasting and nightly entertainment
• water sports including sea canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, swimming and scheduled snorkeling trips with gear
• Fijian cooking demonstration, village visit, Sunday church service, Lair (crab hunt), a Kava ceremony and meke (Fijian dancing and storytelling).

Package price is $2,450 per person, space available, exclusive of taxes and based on twin share/double occupancy and is non-transferable, non-refundable. Must be booked by October 2016 for travel through March 31, 2017.

Fiji can be reached by nightly 10-hour non-stop flights out of Los Angeles (LAX) to Nadi airport. Qamea Island is reached by an hour-log flight from Nadi to Taveuni followed by a short scenic private transfer for a 10-minute boat ride to the island and van to the resort.

Hot Stuff

Spice up your life at the 9th annual Pepper Festival in Chapel Hill, NC, 2-7 p.m. October 2, 2016. Celebrating fresh produce, Southern cuisine, bluegrass, craft beer and local peppers, the fest attracts 50 or so of the state's best chefs who create and dish up everything from pepper donuts to pepper beer.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Cruising the lower Danube and Experiencing Banner Elk

Parliament, Budapest, Hungary by night. Photo by Judy Wells.
Hungary to Croatia to Serbia to Bulgaria to Romania may be the only river cruise about which you will say, "If it's Tuesday it must be Bulgaria."

Fields of wheat, corn, sunflowers and paprika.

Houses topped by red-tiled roofs and a Mediterranean climate to go with them.
Sleeve detail, museum, Vukovar, Croatia.
Beautifully embroidered fabrics, Veliko Tarnova, Bulgaria.

Work in progress, woodcarver and icon painter, Street of artisans,
whimsically carved wooden figures,

Icon, Ruse, Bulgaria. Photo by Judy Wells.
gleaming icons.
Orthodox church, Donji Milanovac, Serbia. Photo by Judy Wells.
Spires of Orthodox churches.

Roman Necropolis, Pecs, Hungary.
Traces of repressive Roman,

Turkish style home built by a Bulgarian merchant. Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.
Turkish, Austro-Hungarian,

German armaments from World War I, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia
German, Yugoslavian and Russian rulers.

Art Nouveau-style hotel, Budapest, Hungary.
Graceful Baroque, art nouveau and art deco architecture among dispiriting, crumbling, monolithic flats from the Communist era.

Water tower and former pharmacy, Vukovar, Croatia.

Stubborn independence, centuries of wars and pride in having achieved freedom at last.

All of this, like the Danube that flows through them, you find in all five countries.

Some mornings you have to consult the ship's itinerary to make sure where you are. Then try to remember what the cruise director said about the currency at last night's port talk.

Each country has its own and, despite European Union membership, some don't accept euros, some will accept low denomination dollars if they are pristine but never any coins other than their own. Change will be in their currency. Souvenirs often cost more when you whip out a credit card.

Fascinating, frustrating and unforgettable. You will return to America feeling incredibly fortunate that you call it home.

Celebrating the Fourth of July here was more meaningful than any amount of red, white and blue bunting or bombs of fireworks bursting in air.
Vantage River Splendor
The Ship  
I was on the Vantage River Splendor along with about 168 others. Almost all were Americans, some of whom were on their 12th trip with the line. Why? They liked the atmosphere aboard, the amenities, the food, the itineraries and the price.  

Taking the mountain air

What can you do in a one-stoplight town?  If it is Banner Elk, NC, quite a bit.

Breakfast croissant.

Catch breakfast at Dunn's Deli. Owner, chef and jolly good company Mike Dunn's signature breakfast croissants and breakfast bowls start the day nicely. As he says, "It's not fast food, it's good food done as fast as I can." He also owns Perry House B and B up the hill next to the Deli.

 Stop on the Deli's deck and try your hand on one of the six "Go Ahead and Play Me" painted pianos scattered around town. This Chamber of Commerce project has been very successful.

Work off breakfast with a stroll along the Greenway with its streams and parcour.

Kids in tow?
Mr. Pickles is a local star.
Angora goats personify cute.

Take a tour of the Apple Hill Alpaca Farm where owner Lee Rankin and her staff will introduce you to the resident llamas, Mr. Pickles the pig, chickens, donkeys, angora goats, horses and dogs as well as the alpacas.

Don't miss the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, part of Lees-McRae College. During the summer and on weekends they have animal presentations. We met a barred owl,  a red-tailed hawk, a crow and a baby bobcat and observed a Canada Goose receive acupuncture treatment. 

Feel like a swim? Wildcat Lake is just the ticket. Fishing piers, canoes and kayaks are available too. No charge.

Disc golfers often lose discs,
On a clear day or even a cloudy one, drive up Beech Mountain Resort. Hike 30 miles of trails, mountain bike, play disc golf or take the chairlift to 5506' Skybar to enjoy the view and the Beech Mountain Brewery craft beer.
Master brewer Billy Smith selects a flight for tasting.
Both it and Grandfather Mountain are a 20-minute drive away.

Speaking of tasting adult beverages, Flat Top Brewing Co.

Banner Elk winery
and Banner Elk Winery are good spots to take your thirst. The winery's "front yard" with its chairs and fire pits is a popular spot for watching sunsets.

All ages get up and dance at Concerts in the Park.
Come Thursday, don't miss the weekly Concert in the Park. Residents and visitors alike make a party of it, picnicking  and dancing.

I've saved the best for last: Banner Elk has become the gourmet center of the high country.

I had two favorites.
Chef Bill and Anita Greene.
Chef Bill Greene at  Artisanal will knock your socks off and his wife, Anita, will make sure you leave happy. Reared in Banner Elk, he sped up the culinary ladder from CIA to the Ocean Reef Club, The Phoenician Resort, Le Cirque 2000  the Waldorf Astoria's Peacock Alley and the Bellagio.

Family brought the Greene's back to Banner Elk and the first, small version of Artisanal. When Wayne Huizinga was seeking a chef to develop a special restaurant to enhance his exclusive Diamond Creek Golf Club, he turned to Bill and Anita.

The result is a new "old" barn with a tasteful equestrian decor. Dining is on the first floor and deck overlooking a stream. Downstairs is the wine cellar for the restaurant's 8,000-bottle collection and a handsome tasting room.

The food? Organic fruit and vegetables are picked in the morning and served that night. Meat and seafood are the best to be had and what Chef Bill does with them all is extraordinary. He had me at the first course, a bright assortment of summer flavors including heirloom tomatoes, gently roasted South Carolina peaches and an arugula puree so good I wanted a whole soup bowl of it.
Chef Patrick Bagbey.
Laurie Bagbey
Louisiana Purchase the restaurant is as good a deal as Thomas Jefferson's original Louisiana Purchase. Another husband and wife team, Chef Patrick and Laurie Bagbey, keep tables filled and diners happy. It's the third chef-owner team in the spot's 28-year history.

First timers' expectations are usually low approaching the nondescript strip of stores where the restaurant is located. Once inside the picture brightens considerably with attractive painted vignettes on the walls and white linen service. Framed Wine Spectator certificates of excellence help, too.

Eggplant with crawfish.
The wine list is excelled only by the food and service. My crab cake was on the overly breaded side but the tempura eggplant filled with crawfish tail meat and the holy trinity of minced vegetables more than made up for that. So did the fresh blackberry pie. It's easy to see why this gem is open year round.

Two other spots are worth mentioning.
Spinach melt
Since 1983 Sorrento's has offered southern Italian cuisine and huge portions. Chefs Nicole and Anthony Palazzo are the third generation to prepare the family's treasured recipes.

Andy and Les Broussard.
It is easy to see why Andy and Les Broussard's Banner Elk Cafe has prospered, going from 600 square feet to the current 5,500 square feet with two separate kitchens and multiple menus. It's packed summer and winter. Dog friendly, too.

See, you never know about those one stoplight towns.#Visitbannerelk