Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dog Days

So unless you live in Austin, the dog days of summer have probably given way to some cooler, if not soggier, weather. But if your idea of a "dog day" is one spent with your pooch, you probably already know that vacations and canines don't always mix. More and more hotels are getting on board with pet-friendly policies, but most are not really set up to accommodate you and your hound. Have you ever tried to share a Motel 6 with a bernese mountain dog? Let's just say two's a crowd, and leave it at that. Pet-friendly timeshares, on the other hand, typically come with multiple bedrooms, extra bathroom, and designated living and dining areas. Not only does this give you more room to move, but it more closely resembles your setup at home, making it easier for the two (or more) of you to get into a routine.

Of course you wouldn't leave your dog alone at home unattended for an entire day (would you?), and so you shouldn't do it on vacation either. Some resorts have excellent kennels nearby, and a few even offer a "doggy day care" for a fee. Which is fine in a pinch, but you really need to work your dog into your vacation plans. I am sorry to report that unless your furry friend is a service dog, Las Vegas Casinos and all Disney parks are off limits. Ditto for the Smithsonian and other museums, as well as water and themed parks. You'd think this all would go without saying. But you would also think that pregnant women would know that they shouldn't go zip-lining, or that tequila and skydiving are a bad combo. Alas, the things I have seen in my ambassadorial duties.

So obviously some destinations are better than others when Fido is tagging along. Beaches are popular with people and pooches. While some beaches prohibit dogs, and most others restrict their access in some way, you can almost always find a way to get some sun and fun, as well as time with your pet. Florida, Oregon, California, and Florida's coasts are all considered to be pet-friendly, and also home to many timeshare resorts. Or how about a lake or the mountains? Better yet, how about a lake and the mountains? Lake Tahoe, Big Bear Lake, and Lake Havasu City - to name a few - are all great family destinations, with or without dogs. These areas also have some of the highest concentrations of public land in the form of national, state, and local parks, which are typically open to pets with well behaved owners, if you know what I mean.

Maybe you are more of a city slicker, and think that you will have to board your dog for your vacation week. While that is an option, you might want to take a closer look at San Diego, San Francisco, or Boston. In addition to having great parks, dog runs, and timeshare resorts, these are notoriously impossible cities to drive in. But, they are famously walkable. And as anyone who owns a dog knows, a tired dog is a good dog. Further, more and more restaurants are offering outdoor seating, even in urban areas. This may have started as a way to accommodate smokers, but it is turning out to be a boon for restaurants with dog-owning patrons. Just about every board of health in the country prohibits dogs from being inside an eatery (other than service dogs), but a deck or patio is fair game. Unless of course your dog smokes.

A final word about pet travel, coming from someone who travels for living: not everyone is as crazy about your dog as you are. I know, I know, it's shocking and unbelievable. After all, he's so cute. Perhaps he is, but I still don't want him jumping up on my clothes and licking me in the face. I also know that his mouth is cleaner than mine, but that's not really saying much, is it?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Acadian Driftwood

Acadia is a Francocized (Acadie), and then Anglicized version of the word Arcadia, a district of ancient Greece. Arcadia means "idyllic place" in Greek, and the Italian explorer Verrazzano gave this name to all of the North American Atlantic coast, north of Virginia. Eventually, Acadia came to refer to the French holdings in the New World, including Quebec, the maritime provinces of Canada, and the modern U.S. state of Maine. So for those of you keeping score at home, an Italian guy gave a Greek name to Native American land, which was then colonized by the French, lost to the British, and eventually became one of the United States of America. Whew! Some day I'll tell you how the Acadians - refugees from the war lost to the British - made it all the way to New Orleans to become the Cajuns.

Nowadays when you say Acadia, most people think of Acadia National Park in Maine, from where I am writing to you today. But even this place has been through several name changes of its own. It is the ancestral home of the Wabanaki tribe, and was simply known as the "dawn lands" since this is the easternmost part of the North American continent, and the first to see daylight. After the aforementioned colonial misadventures, the name Mount Desert Island was given to the land that comprises the bulk of the modern park. It - and the surrounding islands - was officially granted federal protection by President Wilson in 1916 as Sieur de Monts National Monument. In 1919 it became the first national park east of the Mississippi River, with the new name of Lafayette National Park. This was in honor of Marquis de Lafayette and his efforts on behalf of the American Revolution. Finally, in 1929 the park's name was changed to Acadia National Park, and to my knowledge, there are no plans to change it any time soon.

Whatever you call it, it really is an idyllic place. In total, the park encompasses 47,000 acres (small by national park standards) and is comprised of mountains, ocean shoreline, and woodlands. It is home to over 40 species of mammals (including beaver) and boasts a variety of deciduous trees like aspen, birch, maple, and more. To many visitors - over 2.5 million a year - the beaver and the changing of the leaves represent what Acadia is all about. But these are fairly modern occurrences. The beaver was basically hunted to extinction in these parts, until two breeding pairs were released in 1920 by a fellow named George Dorr. Starting from there, their population crept back over the next two decades. Then in 1947 a devastating fire consumed nearly half of the coniferous forest in the park. In its place grew the leaf bearing trees we know and love today - which the beavers prefer. Both populations boomed, and "leafers" and beaver lovers alike are all the better for it.

But the park is so much more than just fall foliage and wildlife. In addition to hiking trails, campsites, lake and ocean fishing, and horseback riding, the park is home to over 50 miles of gravel carriage trails. For approximately fifteen years, billionaire philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., financed the construction of the paths, along with 17 granite bridges, 2 lodges, and acres and acres of plantings along the paths. The latter were lost in the fire and have since been replanted, but the rest remain as a testament to his commitment to this majestic place. Visitors can walk, bicycle, or take a guided tour of the park via these paths, which are edged by cut granite stones - known locally as "Rockefeller's Teeth".

I am staying at a timeshare resort called Harbor Ridge in the village of Southwest Harbor. It's a lovely little collection of townhouses with mountain and island views, just minutes from the park. I actually own this week here, and use it as a yearly pilgrimage to the park. The summer crowds have gone and the leafers are still a few weeks away. It's quiet, cool, and peaceful. And since I am still recovering from last week's poison ivy incident, the perfect retreat. There are no timeshare rentals here at this time, but you can sign up for a posting alert and be notified when one does come up.

Well I am off to The Wendell Gilley Museum, located right here in Southwest Harbor. If you are not aware, Wendell Gilley was a pioneer in the field of decorative bird carving, and author of the seminal work, Art of Bird Carving: A Guide to a Fascinating Hobby. Unlike decoys, decorative carvings are not functional, and Gilley's pieces in particular resemble their real life counterparts in spookily realistic detail. I fancy myself an amateur carver and want to have a look at his woodcock for inspiration. It's a bird, people.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You're Gonna Need an Ocean...

If you are as old as I am, which is to say not at all, then you might remember the Coasters hit "Poison Ivy". You know, the one that went "you're gonna need an ocean (dum-de-dum-de-dum) of calamine lotion." Well that song is actually about a girl named Poison Ivy (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), while my recent encounter was with the actual plant, and is why my dispatch is late this week. My fingers are now only the size of hot dogs (down from sausages), and I feel like I can type well enough to get this off to you.

Firstly, let me say that the staff at Samoset Resort in Rockport, ME, are absolutely fantastic, and have really helped me to convalesce. I booked a timeshare rental at their 230 oceanfront acre resort, in the hopes of discovering the beauty of Maine's mid-coast. But I wasn't twenty minutes into my first hike in the woods when I tangled with Toxicodendron radicans, a.k.a. poison ivy. Now in my defense, I am from the Pacific Northwest, and poison ivy is generally found east of the Rockies. I do remember hearing something about "leaves of three" (or was it four?), but I certainly didn't know what it looked like. I know exactly what it looks like now.

So for those of you not in the know, let me pass along some wisdom that may prevent you from discovering the misery of an encounter with Toxicodendron radicans. First, it's not ivy at all. The "poison" part is spot on, but it actually belongs to a completely different family of plant, found only in North America. It can take the form of a thick climbing vine, a wispy trailing vine, or a shrub as big as 4 feet tall. Additionally, it can grow in the understory of a forest, at the edges of wooded areas (where I found it), or in exposed rocky outcrops. It's pretty well drought tolerant and can thrive in a range of different soil types and acidity. In other words, it's everywhere, and how it took me this long to come face-to-face with it is beyond me.

There are a few things you can do to learn to identify it, however. It does indeed have three leaves which range in color from light green to dark green, and tend to be shiny. In the fall however, they turn red and fall off, as poison ivy is deciduous. Another rhyme you may have heard is "longer middle stem; stay away from them," which is also a useful identification tip. The "leaves of three" are arranged in such a way that the middle leaf has a noticeably longer stem than the other two. And, each cluster of three has its own stalk connecting it back to the main vine. In the spring and early summer you may even see its flowers, which are a pale yellow or green. The flowers give way to a grayish berry in the late summer months. But if you really want to be able to identify it, I suggest taking the photo attached to this posting, print it out, and keep it in your pack whenever you are heading out into the woods. Likewise, take it out in your yard and look around the perimeter and on tree trunks to see if you have any on your property. You may be in for a surprise.

But once the horse is out of the barn, getting rid of poison ivy's rash is all one cares about. The plant's sap contains something called urushiol: a clear liquid to which most people are allergic in varying degrees. Let's just say I am very allergic to it, but not as bad as this guy. Urushiol typically causes a red, itchy rash, which then can give way to blisters. If left untreated (and unscratched) it will usually go away on its own in about 10-14 days. But if you have ever had poison ivy, you know it cannot go unscratched. The scratching often opens up the rash and causes a secondary infection. Urushiol is very sticky and stays in place no matter how hard you scratch it. In fact, unless you can successfully wash it away, you are are going to prolong your rash. But keep in mind that urushiol is not water soluble. So simply using soap and water is not going to cut it. You must get the oil off of your body, and there are many soaps designed specifically for this task. The one I was treated with is called Tecnu, and it contains small granules to help scrub the oils off. If I ever see the person who invented it on the street, I am going to kiss him or her, directly on the mouth. This stuff saved my life, or at least it felt that way. It certainly saved the rest of my trip from being spent in absolute misery.

Lastly, I would like to dispel a few myths about poison ivy and the treatments for exposure to it. Despite what that song says, calamine lotion does not stop the rash nor remove the oils causing it. Ditto for cold showers and compresses, Burow's solution, and jewelweed. They certainly help with the itching and are good secondary treatments after the oil has been removed. But I implore you to use a product like Tecnu that was designed specifically for this purpose. Also, you cannot give your poison ivy to someone else from the blisters on your rash. Remember, urushiol is not water soluble and will stick to you no matter what. You should not get your bodily fluids on other people for other reasons that should be obvious, but you won't spread your poison ivy in this manner.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

88 Degrees and Sunny

That's what the weatherman predicted here for today. And the day before that, and the day before that. Can you guess where I am? If you said Aruba, you'd be absolutely correct. In fact, being the weatherman in Aruba has got to be the easiest job in the world: "It's going to be in the mid-80s with steady breezes and almost no chance of rain. Back to you, Bob." When it does rain here, it generally occurs from mid-October to mid-January and amounts to about 16 inches for the entire year. In the Pacific Northwest, from where I hail, we call that much rain Tuesday. And while Aruba is in the Atlantic Hurricane Belt, it lies at its southernmost edge and chances of a direct hit from one are minimal.

Aruba's history is not quite as sunny as the weather, however. Its original inhabitants were the Caquetio Indians of the Arawak tribe from South American. They lived first as fishers-hunters-gatherers and then as agriculturalists for thousands of years, until the arrival of the Spanish in 1499. Alonso de Ojeda claimed the island for the Spanish crown, and called it "la isla de los gigantes" or "island of the giants". This was a reference to Caquetio, who were known to be large in stature. But after finding no gold or riches, the name was changed to "isla inutíl", or "useless island". It was then systematically, and completely, depopulated of its original inhabitants. The Spanish got their comeuppance at the hands of the Dutch in the 1630s, however, and it has remained a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands ever since. Gold was eventually found on the island and along with aloe, petroleum, phosphate and tourism, have helped give Aruba one of the highest standards of living to be found in the Caribbean. But it is the weather that has helped make it the destination spot with the highest rate of return visits of any island in the Caribbean. Did I mention it's 88 degrees and sunny today?

Oranjestad is the capital of Aruba and offers many historic sites, museums, restaurants, galleries and night spots. Make sure to hit the Aruba Aloe Museum & Factory, where you will get the fascinating history of this healing plant, as well as a tour of the factory and free samples of aloe products. Even though aloe vera is a huge part of the island's economy - it is even featured on its flag - it is not native to Aruba. It was introduced about 160 years ago, and at one point had taken over about two thirds of its land mass. They've since gotten that under control, and if you've ever used aloe on a burn or other skin issue, there's a good chance it came from here.

The Numismatic Museum is another one to put on your itinerary. I know it sounds like a museum dedicated to washing machines or some such, but numismatic refers to the collecting of coins. Yeah, this one started about fifty years ago when a fellow named Mario Odor was mowing his lawn. He happened upon a coin dating from the late 18th century, and then caught the numismatic bug. In all, his collection houses over 33,000 pieces from countless countries, and dates back as far as 400 BC. Why is it that whenever I mow my lawn, all I ever find is my neighbor's dog poop? Of course this guy has to walk around with the name Mario Odor, so I guess life just isn't fair all the way around. Oooh, and there is even a model train museum here. Know what it's called? Model Trains Museum. Alright, so the name is not terribly creative, but it is home to trains dating back to 1895 from Germany, The U.S.A., The UK, and The Netherlands. If you read my blog regularly - you do, don't you? - then you know how I feel about trains, and we'll just leave it at that.

But Aruba has many attractions outside Oranjestad. Among them are Arikok National Park, Bubali Bird Sanctuary, Aruba's Butterfly Farm, Indian Caves, the Historic Gold Mills, and much more. There really is a lot to see and do on this island of just 75 square miles (slightly larger than DC). You might want to arrange for a bus or jeep tour so that you can get a taste for everything to see and do here.

Of course the beaches are what keep people coming back, and my timeshare rental is located in Palm Beach, the best of them all. This two-mile-long strip is home to glamorous accommodations, beach bars, restaurants, and shops. Its calm waters are ideal for swimming and snorkeling, and its sunsets are just out of this world. I have a 1-bedroom/1-bathroom, oceanfront unit at Marriott's Aruba Surf Club, which is rated 4.5 stars by members. It features a 10,700 square foot casino, an outdoor swimming pool, a lazy river, and health club - all onsite. All units feature spacious living and dining areas, full kitchens, multiple TV sets, VCR, and a private balcony.

Well, I am off to catch another perfect sunset at the California Lighthouse. No, I haven't gotten myself lost again. This beautiful beacon is located at the northwestern tip of Aruba and offers the most spectacular views of the island from its elevated perch. It is named after the U.S.S. California which sunk in 1908, and lies in about 20 feet of water just offshore from the lighthouse. That was the fourth U.S. ship to bear that name, and its replacement didn't fare much better. It was bombed and torpedoed in the Pearl Harbor attack, causing it to sink and take 100 members of her crew down with her. Wisely, a sixth U.S.S. California was never commissioned. On a cheerier note, it's 88 degrees and sunny here. Did I mention that already?