Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Arriving at Lake Atitlan

 By Ronnie Lovler

Photos by Tiffen Tapia

I’ll kick off with this picture of Lake Atitlan and the Atitlan volcano to begin this post. The first glimpse of the lake and the volcanoes is one of the times when the phrase "breathtaking" really does apply. Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America and its waters don’t flow anywhere else. What makes it such a spectacular sight are the three volcanoes that ring it – Atitlan, San Pedro and Toliman. Atitlan, which you glimpse here in our picture, is still active, although it’s been almost 150 years since it last erupted.

The traveler can catch a first glimpse of the lake on the approach into Panajachel from the Interamerican Highway. Don’t be deceived by the highway nomenclature. Consider it a paved path. You can drive, but I wouldn’t. I’d rather take my chances on the “chicken bus” so named for the obvious reason … the bus can hold passengers and chickens. On our journey, there were only people onboard – at least as far as I know – but we were crammed in like chickens! Sorry that it didn’t occur to us to grab a picture, but we did grab some shots for you outside the market in Antigua.

Panajachel is the main point of entry into the highlands. The town is a center of commerce for the indigenous Mayan communities who call the region home.We were able to find a nice little hotel – Mario’s – two beds, hot water, cable TV and breakfast for about $20. Nope, it wasn’t the least costly way to go, but we thought the price was right for comfort and cleanliness. And there was a computer room, with a couple of ancient Mac computers in the second-floor lounge where we could do a quick check of email. And we were right on the main drag – where we could catch a glimpse of the goats going by in the morning.

It was a good starting point from which to plan our Atitlan adventures. Details coming up.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sea Turtles and More in Monterrico

By Ronnie Lovler
I said I would tell you about seeing the sea turtles on the beach of Monterrico in my last post, and now I will. It happened at night, of course, which is when the sea turtles lay their eggs.  I was opting out of the trek along the beach because I was a bit worn out from the day.  My son, who is many, many years younger than me, (duh, of course, or he wouldn’t be my son!)  was up for adventure, so he went out to walk along the beach.  Sure enough, he found what he was looking for – sea turtles.  Then he came racing back to get me.  So I just had to go.  And lucky for me, there was one sea turtle had not yet made its way back into the water. It was amazing. Words fail me. That was my first sea turtle and this may sound like an exaggeration, but if I had gotten nothing else out of this trip, seeing that sea turtle might also have been enough.
One of the things I did that week in Monterrico was teach English classes to many of the kids from town. My host always organizes these types of givebacks. So in the morning, I was sitting down with the older kids (aged 12 – 15); and in the afternoon, when they got out of school, dozens of the younger kids would race over for their introduction to English. It is rewarding, but for this old gal, also exhausting.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guatemala: Everything I remember and more

By Ronnie Lovler

It has been more than ten years since my last trip to Guatemala, so going there again was really a treat. This time around I was traveling with my 22-year-old son, Tiffen. Our first stop was Monterrico – a small village on Guatemala’s black sand Pacific Coast.  

From the airport, we went straight to La Avellana where we caught the “lancha” or ferry to Monterrico.  It was a four-hour ride, even though it is less than 125 miles away.  Why, you might ask? Traffic coming out of Guatemala City, which is more than words can describe. Rain. And roads that are filled with potholes and the aftermaths of frequent mudslides.
           When we got to La Avellana we were able to get one of the last “lanchas” into Monterrico. These are more like motorized wooden rowboats. Yes, there’s a motor, but oars are there, just in case.
            And we arrived, bodies, souls and luggage intact.  It took twice as long to get from the airport in Guatemala City to Monterrico than it did to fly from Miami to Guatemala (and that’s including airport security, pre full body scanning of course!).
            But this shouldn’t put you off – it’s part of the adventure – and when you get to Monterrico it’s well worth it, as long as you are not looking for high-end hotels, with fancy restaurants and a neon-studded nightlife.
It’s a village on the beach. And it’s a village on the beach in a developing country. It’s laidback and low-key.  The sunsets are fantastic. Every night, it seems. And so are the walks on the beach – even at night. The sand is black and the sky is black. You can see the stars, because the there aren’t lots of streetlights to dim the view.  The only real light comes from  the flashlights of people looking for the sea turtles that have come to shore. We got to see one. Amazing. I’ll tell you more about that in my next post.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Chihuly Collection Is a Glass Act

If you like glass art, you have probably heard of Dale Chihuly, the Seattle glass artist whose colorful organic works have been exhibited around the world. Chihuly decided to open his first permanent gallery in downtown St. Petersburg in July, and it's a great place to visit if you are a glass art lover like me. Located along an upscale section of Beach Drive, the 7,600-square-foot gallery offers a look at the diversity and complexity of Chihuly glass.
Chihuly's love of nature is inspiration for most of his signature glass sculptures that take organic forms such as shells, flowers and sea creatures. Here you can also see one of his breathtaking chandeliers and his famous rowboat filled with hundreds of brilliant orbs.  Each of 16 installations is displayed in a space of its own, with lighting so perfectly tuned that it becomes part of the exhibit.

The Chihuly Collection is part of the Morean Arts Center, an educational facility and gallery about a mile away. If you have time, purchase the ticket that includes admission to the Hot Shop and Morean Galleries. Over at the Hot Shop, you'll see live demonstrations of glass blowing and you can even sign up for a mini-lesson to create your own work of glass art.

Check out my VisitSouth.com blog post on the Hot Shop here. For more information on the Chihuly Collection, go to http://www.chihulycollectionstpete.com/

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Great Tampa Bay Scallop Search 2010

This short video will take you on a fun excursion as we search for scallops around Fort De Soto Park in South Pinellas County.  Every year Tampa Bay Watch organizes this event and the community loves to participate! The number of scallops found helps determine the health of Tampa Bay and its eco-system. This year I joined executive director Peter Clark (driving the boat) and the nearly 150 volunteer boaters and snorkelers who spent the morning in the shallow seagrass beds  in search of the elusive scallop. The final tally this year was extremely low... only 32 scallops were found compared to 674 last year. Speculation pointed not so much to the quality of water, but rather to the extremely cold winter and recent hard rains.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Walk in the Park

Visited Moss Park on the southeastern edge of Orlando last weekend and despite the blazing heat took a hike through the neighboring preserve called Split Oak Forest. This is Orange County's largest park and I must say it is so clean and uninhabited that I thought it just opened! This 1,500-acre park is a jewel, with camping, picnicing, swimming and lots of wildlife.

We saw a number of sandhill cranes before we headed to the trails at the adjacent property. This 1,700-acre forest is on two lakes and the habitat  includes cypress swamps, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and marshland. The ranger told us it is prime habitat for gopher tortoises and a great place to see wildflowers in the fall.

Here's a few photos from our hike. Meg was on the lookout for alligators in the pond, while I swore I saw signs of wild boars. Alas, the sandhill cranes and a black racer snake were our only sightings this day. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Anna Maria Sunsets Rock

Whenever I go to Anna Maria Island (off Bradenton  north of Sarasota), the sunsets just blow me away. The beaches are pretty sensational, too, with beautiful white sand, clear blue water and lots of laid-back dives to hangout in. This is the weekend beach getaway for the middle class, although you can find a couple of luxury condos here and there. By and large, it's a beer and margarita kinda island with Three Dog Night cover bands and pizza by the slice. So what's not to like? Go to annamariaislandchamber.org to scope it out.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Life's a (Clean) Beach

On June 26, thousands of local residents (including the Getaway Girl) and business owners flocked to beach locations around Florida  to form a human hand-holding line on the shore in "Hands Across the Sand." Beachgoers united in a stand against opening off-shore drilling along the coast of Florida. Right now  the beaches of Florida's panhandle are suffering from tar balls and oiled birds washing ashore from the Deepwater Horizon  oil well 200 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Why take the risk even closer to our state?

In case you're wondering, I have first-hand knowledge that the beaches of Clearwater/St. Pete Beach are still clean and as spectacular as ever. Check out these recent photos and come on down and play in my sandbox!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Florida Weekend Getaway Deals

If you want a nice Florida getaway this summer at a super discount, I discovered a great site at visitflorida.com where you can bid on hotel packages and get over 50% off the regular rate.  I just spotted a winning bid for 3 days/2 nights in a one-bedroom condo at the Grand Panama Beach Resort for only $185! The retail value is listed at $668. Go to http://www.visitflorida.com/ and click on Florida Vacation Auction. You can also bid on tickets to many attractions such as zoos, botanical gardens, kayaking and museums.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Iceland is Open for Business!

The volcano has turned off. Tourism has turned on. If this doesn't make you want to visit, nothing will...check out the super fun video!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Protecting Nesting Shorebirds

At the moment, the beaches in Florida are still picture-purfect (no oil in sight). Here's a photo of me shot over Memorial Weekend at Honeymoon Island State Park ...  I volunteer to protect nesting shorebirds from predators like drunk boaters and their dogs. Not a bad gig, really. Most people see the signs and the taped off areas and understand they need to keep out. A lot of islands around Tampa Bay are rookeries and nesting is in full swing right now, so if you're at the beach and see the posted areas for nesting birds, please be nice and do not enter. This is an American oystercatcher, one of the threatened nesting birds.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Roadtrip 2010: Hope You Enjoyed the Ride

The Getaway Girl RV Roadtrip 2010 has come to the end of the road. A special thanks to my Roadtrippers John and Sandy, left, and Val and Brian, right (that's me in the center). Happy trails!

Friday, May 14, 2010

This Place Rocks

Here in Sequoia National Park, things really rock! Boulders the size of a house are everywhere amidst the forest and rivers and waterfalls.

Today we hiked 2 miles to Moro Rock, a massive granite boulder that can be seen for miles. Once you climb the 400 or so chiseled steps to the top, you get one mind-blowing 360-degree view. This photo shows Val and me at the top of Moro Rock. From the top, we could see the Continental Divide and all the way to Kings Canyon National Park, just north of this park.
With the weather finally in the 80's in the valley, we are happy campers. But alas, we leave at 5 tomorrow morning for the trip back to Phoenix. With Brian at the wheel, we hope to make it back home by dark tomorrow. It's been a great trip and I have come to appreciate the RV style of travel. Thanks go to my hosts, Val and Brian, for letting me experience this awesome trip!

There'Snow Bears Here

Everywhere you go around the Sierra Mountains, there are warnings about the bears. Don't feed the bears. Watch out for the bears. Well, today, we finally saw those sneaky bears! Freaked us out as we were driving along the main road in Sequoia National Park, rounding a curve and there they were ... a mother and 2 cubs. Took this photo from the car window.

Today, we drove south from Yosemite to a really beautiful area where both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are located. It's a region of lush green forested mountains and rushing mountain rivers filled with boulders and white water rapids.

Although warm at lower elevations, as we drove up the winding park road the temps dropped 25 degrees as we got to around 4,500 feet and there was snow everywhere! Many trails and roads in the park are closed due to snow. This area is known for the famous towering Sequoia trees, so we had to make a stop to see the General Sherman Tree, the oldest living tree in the world. Here's Val in front of the tree at ground level.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hikes and Waterfalls

We decided to hang around homebase in Oakhurst area today since we saw a good amount of Yosemite in the last two days. We found a beautiful 3-mile hiking trail just up the highway from our campground called Lewis Creek Trail and followed it through a deep pine forest and along the creek nearly the entire 3 miles. It was rushing with the runoff from the mountain snows and offered up some beautiful waterfalls over large boulders.

It seems everywhere you turn here, if there's a river or creek, there's a waterfall. The weather turned sunny finally so we enjoyed a bit of warmer temps in the 50s and 60s. Woo hoo! In the photo, we are crossing one of the hand-built log bridges along Lewis Creek Trail.
We finished up the day with our first cook-out .... finally... and a real campfire. Life is good! (If you can't see the video, go to my blog at www.getawaygirltravels.com)

I'm Falling for Yosemite Waterfalls

Things are looking up here at Yosemite....way up to the top of the dozen or so gushing waterfalls one can find throughout this magnificent national park. It's hard to watch where you are walking when the majestic scenery keeps your eyes to the skies most of the time!

Here is one of the most famous of them all ... Upper Yosemite Falls. As you can see, the rain has stopped (although it's still pretty chilly, in the 40s-50s), so we are happy to see the blue skies topping our waterfalls.

We are amazed with not only the number of tourists here for mid-May (hate to be here in summer), but the deer which are everywhere and seem relatively tame. This shot was taken not far from where we were eating a picnic lunch. Four deer calmly grazing in a small patch of grass right next to the road!

While there is only a smattering of wildflowers here and there in the lower elevations, Val and I have grown fond of the elegant white dogwood trees that are blooming everywhere. We don't have any in Arizona or Florida. Here's Val showing a dogwood blossom. Pretty, huh?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rain, Rain Go Away

We started the day with chilly and overcast skies as we arrived at Yosemite National Park. This picture shows Val and myself at the edge of beautiful Yosemite Valley. We were surprised at the crowds -- busloads of Japanese tourists and lots of traffic in the park. By noon the rain was upon us, first a gentle drizzle but evolving into a steady downpour.

Our plans for hiking today dissolved in the gray mist that soon enveloped the valley. So we decided to take a 2-hour guided bus tour through Yosemite Valley. It was our only option ... and not a bad one, really.

We learned a lot about the history, ecology and geology of the national park, but the rain and cold (in the 40s) was not condusive to photography. By mid-afternoon, the rain had turned to snow in the upper elevations and we had to take an alternate route back to our RV park since we did not have chains for our tires! Yes, it's snowing here .... life is an adventure.

Note: If you can't see the video, just go to my blog page at www.getawaygirltravels.com

Monday, May 10, 2010

RV Roadtrip 2010: Phoenix to Yosemite

The GetawayGirls, Marcia and sister Val, head out from Phoenix on Saturday with Val's boyfriend Brian at the wheel of the 32-foot Winnebago. This will be a one-week road trip, accompanied by friends John and Sandy in their own home on wheels. We'll be visiting both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in Central California, and I hope to be posting nearly every day with a few photos and a video.

Saturday we travel 423 miles, stopping at a forelorn intersection off Highway 40 in the middle of the Mojave Desert to overnight in what appears to be an abandoned gas station parking lot. Next door is an antique shop with a bunch of old junk like vintage gas pumps, a rusty windmill and an old Texaco sign (see photo). On the other side of us is the Astro Burger. We hunker down inside our cozy RV and play cards, then continue on early the next morning.

On Sunday, we continue through the desert and into the Central Valley of California, where agriculture is king. All morning we drive past nothing but vineyards and orchards of walnut, almond and peach trees and vast expanses of cattle ranches. Finally we reach Fresno, where we head north into Yosemite country. Presto chango! The rolling landscape turns lush with pine forests and shimmering lakes and we feel a change in the air.

Yes, it's raining and chilly as we pull into our campground in Oakhurst and set up camp. But soon the sun comes out and we take a drive to Bass Lake, just 9 miles away (see photo). I am enjoying the cool brisk mountain air and looking forward to our first day at Yosemite tomorrow. Don't miss hot, humid Tampa one bit!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Road Trip! Getaway Girl Heads to Yosemite

Yep, it's time to hit the road and this time I'll be taking an RV trip from Phoenix to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in California. Wildflowers and waterfalls should be at their peak! That's me at Yosemite in the photo below. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Visit a National Park this week

In case you didn't know, it's National Park Week April 17-25. Visit any national park and get in free! Many parks are holding special events and volunteer projects on Thurday, April 22, which is Earth Day. Check out a national park near you or go to www.nps.gov/npweek for more information.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Take a hike!

Now that spring is in the air, what better time to get out, explore and enjoy the scenic beauty that surrounds us? If you're looking for someplace new, I suggest checking with your local county or water management district for ideas. Here in the Tampa Bay region, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFMD) has recently released an outstanding  guide to more than 50 recreation sites on conservation land in 16 West Central Florida counties.

Many of the sites listed are not well known,  since they were purchased for conservation purposes. This means they offer great opportunites for seeing  native wildlife and habitat. A few of my favorite hiking spots in the guide include the beautiful Alafia Corridor where the meandering Alafia River offers a refreshing trek during hot weather (see photo), and the Upper Hillsborough wilderness tract where you can see the endangered scrub jay, gopher tortoise and lots of native flowers.
For a free copy of Get Outside, the SWFMD recreation guide, go to http://www.watermatters.org/

Monday, April 5, 2010

Biking and Barging Through Holland

One trip I had in my Bucket List was bicycling through Holland, so I was thrilled when I was able to fill a vacancy on a Bike and Barge trip there last April with the Clearwater Snowsharks. Like most ski clubs, the Snowsharks plan trips throughout the year and their annual bike and barge trip is always booked a year in advance. I got lucky!

Our group took over two 12-cabin barges which were once working the waterways of Europe but are now converted into  comfortable passenger barges. Here I am in front of my barge, the Merlijn.
Our itinerary went from Brugges, Belgium, north  to Amsterdam and I must say it was an excellent trip all around. Our bicycle tour guide was very experienced and we were thankful, because the many biking routes are spread like a spider-web across the land. Finding our routes, which were often narrow gravel  paths, dirt roads, dykes and some city streets, would have been difficult had we biked on our own.

We visited beautiful historic cities such as Brugges, left, and Ghent in Belgium and rode through picturesque countryside filled with cows and windmills in the Netherlands. Each day we would depart after breakfast, cycle a couple hours, stop for a long  lunch, then bike some more and end up at a small town where the barge was waiting for us.

Meals and lodging on the barge were nothing fancy, but then if you want fancy go take a cruise. We toured cathedrals and museums and most nights we could wander around the town where we were docked.

Since the countries are flat, it was an easy ride of 25 to 35 miles each day. I loved my Trek hybrid bike, which was like new and is provided when you book the trip. If you are thinking of doing a bike and barge trip, I highly recommend the Merlijn excursion from Brugges to Amsterdam.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Big Fun at Big "O" Bird Festival

It was a wild time at the Big "O" Birding Festival last weekend near Lake Okeechobee in South Central Florida. A real adventure for us newbie birders was the field trip out to the J-Seven Ranch where third-generation owner John Ward gave my group an up-close-and-personal safari around his cattle ranch.

Cattle may have been king, but we were as happy as pigs in mud enjoying sitings of the many  burrowing owls, swallow-tail kites, snail kites, red-shoulder hawks, glossy ibis, woodstorks, and other feathered friends who habitate the 5,800-acre ranch.

Lots of excellent field trips, including photo shoots, boating on the Big O, and biking on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail combined with wonderful camaraderie to make this a very enjoyable weekend. If you plan a visit to the area, be sure to stay at the historic Clewiston Inn in Clewiston, a charming 57-room inn built in 1938 and registered as a National Historic Site (http://www.clewistoninn.com/).  To check out the festival schedule, go to http://www.bigobirdingfestival.com/

Below, two of the more exotic species spotted during the weekend included the Crested Carcara and the Happy Getaway Girl!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Up a River With a Paddle

I love a leisurely paddle trip on one of West Central Florida's many beautiful rivers. A few of my favorites include the Myakka River, above, and the Weeki Wachee, both on the west coast.

The photo above was taken at Myakka River State Park, the state's largest state park and a great place to see Old Florida. This river is more like an estuary or wetlands, with little current and lots of winding waterways through tall grass. It's easy to get lost and there are also hundreds of alligators in this river, so it might be a bit intimidating for some. Take the guided airboat tour if the gators are looking hungry!
For crystal clear water and the chance to see wild manatees in a natural setting, Weeki Wachee River has to be my favorite. You can rent kayaks at the livery behind the mermaid attraction at SR50 and US 19. The river is narrow and winding and offers plenty of birdlife along the way. Some manatees are so used to paddlers they will actually let you scratch them!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Spring Skiing and a Taste of Vail

It's nearing early April, my favorite time to hit the slopes for some spring skiing.

April, you say? Yes, in my book it's the best time to find great deals, no lift lines and awesome mild, sunny days. Look for lots of festivities, concerts, competitions and weirdness in the final weeks of ski season.

One of my favorite spring skiing destinations is Vail, Colorado, for the annual Taste of Vail (see photo).

Here's an excerpt from my article which ran in the Tampa Tribune Travel section last Sunday:
This year marks the 20th annual Taste of Vail, three days of epicurean indulgence including food and wine tastings, cook-offs, dinners and seminars with notable chefs. Set for April 8 -10, Taste of Vail is a great opportunity to explore the culinary talents of the many outstanding chefs and restaurants throughout Vail Valley, as well as to rub elbows with the locals.

My favorite feature of this event is the popular mountain picnic held atop a peak with sweeping views of the valley below. Guests take the Eagle Bahn gondola to a snow-covered picnic area where nearly 50 restaurants offer samples of gourmet fare, along with some 50 wineries offering tastings.

Here's a link to my story where you can get more information:

Monday, March 1, 2010

My friend and fellow skier Dino Vournas, aka Photographer Extraordinaire, recently returned from a winter adventure in Alaska. He went skiing, snowmobiling, visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and dined at fine restaurants. Here's an excerpt from his travel story and a few of his remarkable photos:

Alaska has some of the most spectacular scenery on our side of the solar system. ... A short drive south of Anchorage is the town of Girdwood and the home of Alaska’s premier ski area and resort, Alyeska. ... skiing is accessed by a 60-passenger aerial tram, climbing 2000 feet in elevation and depositing you in the middle of a mountain that receives frequent and sometimes record powder dumps.

Glacier City Snowmobile Tours will set you down on a snow machine, (“snowmobile” to us Lower 48’ers), and guide you on an adventure in the Alaska backcountry. Through Chugach mountain valleys and around gold mines and creeks you’ll ride, and if the conditions are good, they’ll take you to the face of a great glacier, where you can explore ice caves and view countless icebergs.

Would you like to fulfill your bush pilot fantasy? Try a flight-seeing tour with the pilots of Girdwood’s Alpine Air Alaska zooming close (but not too close!) above clear-blue glacial ice and rich blue waters. For a dependable wildlife fix for the trip, motor south out of Girdwood to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The center cares for and rehabilitates injured animals. Among the denizens of the natural enclosures are bear, reindeer, moose, elk, coyotes, caribou, bison and even a porcupine, bald eagle and an owl.

Continue on to the picturesque town of Seward for beautiful Kenai Mountains views and a memorable Resurrection Bay boat tour, starting in early March, replete with orcas, sea lions and bald eagles.