Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Sweetest Place on Earth

So have you ever heard of Derry Church, PA? How about the Lancaster Caramel Company? Unless you are very, very, old (which I am not), there is almost no way you could have. The Lancaster Caramel Company was sold in 1898 for the tidy sum of $1 million dollars (more like $24 million today). The seller took his new found fortune and started a brand new candy enterprise in the town of his birth, Derry Church. But he changed the name of that town, along with the candy business, forever. If you haven't guessed it already, his name was Milton S. Hershey, and the town and chocolate empire bearing his name is still going strong today.

Hershey was born into hardscrabble life in rural Pennsylvania and never received more than a fourth grade education. But as he got older, his father took him on business trips around the country, and it seemed that young Milton had a nose for business. Just the same, his first two attempts to start a candy business (Philadelphia, then New York) failed miserably. But the third time was a charm and his caramel business took off in the late 1890s. Now most folks would have been happy to pocket the $1 million and then set about spending it. But Milton got the chocolate bug, and thank goodness for the rest of us that he did.

You see, it was not always the case that you could just grab a giant bar of chocolate at any supermarket, gas station, vending machine, etc. In Hershey's era, chocolate was for the wealthy - which he now was - and the milk chocolate process was a closely guarded secret of the Swiss. But he set out to change all of that. Through much trial and error, he came up with a new milk chocolate process and set up shop in the town of his birth. He bought 1,200 acres in the middle of prime dairy land, and began simultaneously building a company and a town, both bearing his name. In addition to building what would become the world's largest chocolate company, he also built roads, commercial buildings, housing, theaters, a hotel, a sports arena, libraries, parks, schools (lots of them), and an amusement park.

The amusement park started out as a place for the relaxation of his workers. It opened in 1908 and was more or less like any other town park of its day: pastoral open space, picnic grounds, playground, pool, and a band shell for concerts. But like the man and the chocolate company, it was destined for bigger and better. Today Hershey Park is home to over 60 rides and attractions, eleven world-class roller coasters, a zoo, a water park, live performance venues, and much more. The newest attraction for 2102 is the Skyrush roller-coaster. This thing is 200 feet high folks, has five zero-G hills, and features winged seating. For those of you that don't know what that means (I didn't), the car itself is on the tracks, but the seating extends beyond the edges of the car. So the two outermost seats have no floor below them at all, and you are basically just hanging out in mid air. Thus the name, I suppose. Well the first hill on this thing takes you straight up, and I mean 90 degrees up at the sky. Then it drops you more than straight down. That's right, it goes beyond 90 degrees, and hurls you back towards the ground at 85 degrees, at a speed of about 75 mph. And it's just getting started. I really don't remember much else after that, and I get vertigo just thinking about it. I am pretty sure this is not what Mr. Hershey had in mind for his employees' relaxation, but the genie is out of the bottle now.

Of course there are many other less aggressive rides at Hershey Park and lots of fun to be had by the whole family. If amusement parks just aren't your thing, there is also Hershey Botanical Gardens (with seasonal butterfly house), Zoo America, Hershey Bears minor league ice hockey, a gilded-era theatre, concert venue, outlet shopping, and much more. Plus Lancaster County (aka Amish Country), Gettysburg, and Harrisburg are all short drives away. My timeshare rental at The Suites at Hershey (pun intended I am sure) puts me minutes from the park and downtown Hershey, and a short drive from everything else. It's a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom spacious unit with a full-sized kitchen and living room, and a washer and dryer in the unit. Plus there are two pools (one indoors and one out) and a clubhouse. RedWeek members give it 4.5 stars, and I have to agree. If you read some of the reviews, you'll see mention of a freight train that comes through at all hours of the day and night. This is a functioning company town, and they really make chocolate here. So box cars of cocoa beans and corn sugar roll through here pretty much non-stop. It didn't bother me in the least, and I doubt it will bother you. But if you are a light sleeper, bring your earplugs.

Well I am off to sample some chocolate at the Wilbur Chocolate Company and Candy Americana Museum in nearby Lititz, PA. Unbelievably, another chocolate maker, Mr. H.O. Wilbur, started up shop in the area back in the 1800s and is still in business today. It's no longer family owned, and there is no Wilbur town, library, amusement park, or any of that. But they are still here making great chocolate, and there is zero chance I will end up vomiting on my own shoes after a visit, which is more than I can say about my Skyrush experience.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


So honestly, have you ever heard of the island of Bonaire, or know where it is located? I travel for a living, and I readily admit that I had never heard of it. Until now, that is. Bonaire, which sounds like some type of air freshener, is "special municipality" of the kingdom of the Netherlands. Along with Aruba and CuraƧao, it makes up the "ABC" islands of the Leeward Antilles, which are themselves the southern portion of the Lesser Antilles. Confused yet? No wonder nobody knows about this place. Let's put it this way, it is an island a little bit bigger than Martha's Vineyard, sitting off the northern coast of Venzuela in the Caribbean sea, just above the equator.

If you know any French at all, you might recognize that "Bonaire" means "good air". And while the air is just fine here (albeit muggy), that doesn't seem to have anything to do with why it is called that. The original inhabitants of the island were the Caiquetios (a branch of the Arawak found throughout the Caribbean), and they called the place Bonay, meaning "low land". But waves of European explorers (Spanish, Dutch, and even French) eliminated the aforementioned inhabitants and mangled the name until it became Bonaire. There are only two recognized towns on the island, Kralendijk and Rincon, and nearly all of the available lodging is in the form of timeshares. So it was only a matter of time before you-know-who paid a visit.

Now I should point out that there are very few sandy beaches on Bonaire, and it is therefore not ideal for swimming. It is, however, rated by numerous publications as one of the best diving and snorkeling destinations in the world. In fact, their license plate motto is "Divers Paradise". Unlike a lot of diving/snorkeling destinations, the barrier reef is just off shore, and you can easily swim/float to it. And all of the waters off of the island have been declared a "marine park" and are protected under law, just like an onshore park. As a result, the number of corals, fish, and other aquatic species is simply staggering. I am a snorkeling man myself, and after paying a $10 annual park fee ($25 for divers), I can put in anywhere I like and check out the action. And get this, you can even go night snorkeling. That's right, you rent yourself a special underwater flashlight (or you can bring your own), and get a completely different take on this underwater world. It's advisable to choose an area that you have already explored during the daylight, so that you can orient yourself. Otherwise it's a bit like trying to find the fuse box in a blackout... in your neighbor's house.

Now if you prefer to stay on top of the water, you are also in luck. Bonaire offers some fantastic kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing, and windsurfing locations. The protected Lac Bay, combined with winds that blow nearly 95% of time, are quickly making it a "Windsurfers Paradise". The island is set up to handle professionals and beginners alike at Bonaire Windsurf Place and Jibe City. The latter features shallow water and a trade-wind that always blows onshore. Meaning, you cannot get blown out to sea. I highly recommend the ABK Windsurf Clinic at Jibe City, if you have five days to immerse yourself in windsurfing. Otherwise, take one of the various 2-hour sessions designed for beginners. Either way, you can end your day at The Hang Out Beach Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like.

There's lots to see and do out of the water as well. You can horseback, hike or cycle through the "kunuku" or outback; view the entire island from its highest point in Washington/Slagbaai National Park; enjoy numerous museums and historic sites; and view nearly 200 species of birds. And even if you don't normally go in for bird-watching, you are going to want to check out the flamingos. There are several spots on the island where you are almost guaranteed to see at least a flock or two of these beautiful pink birds taking flight at sunset.

My timeshare rental, appropriately enough, is at the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort. It's right on the ocean and features its own beach, a freshwater pool, their own dive operation, and a restaurant with the coolest name ever: The Chibi Chibi Restaurant and Bar. RedWeek members rate it 4-stars and rave about the dive operation - one of the oldest on the island.

Well I am off to the Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire. Donkeys were first brought to the island by the Spanish to perform manual labor. But when the work dried up, the donkeys were left to roam free, creating a large population of "wild" or feral donkeys. The sanctuary works to protect and nurture injured or sick donkeys, and to educate the public about these curious members of the horse family. And if you go, you can tell your friends you went all the way to Bonaire to get your picture taken with an ass.