The Gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains

100_5431Our first trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was as a couple. The kids were spending time with their grandparents and we decided to take a few days camping on our way home. We had the necessary items: a tent, sleeping bags and some basic cooking gear (we planSCAN0137ned to eat out for the most part). On the way, our van got a flat tire, so we had to stop to replace it. We stopped at a warehouse store and while we waited, we of course shopped. One of our purchases was a screened tent with a set of four chairs and a table that all conveniently folded into about a 4x2x1 case. This tent quickly proved its worth and has served us well over the years, both in our yard and in multiple campsites.

We arrived at Great Smoky Mountain National Park and checked in at the ranger station. We knew nothing about the campsites, but there was plenty of space at the first-come sites, so we could just go pick one out. We generally pick the more natural sites, and ended up at Balsam Mountain Campground, which at a mile high, is the tallest campground in the park.

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Balsam Mountain Campground has a looping road where you can enjoy the foliage. (It is not marked “one way.”)

This was a good choice, except for the fact that it was a 45 minute drive down the mountain on twisty roads, so eating out would prove to be difficult. (A side note: If you are prone to motion sickness, the ride up to Balsam may cause you some discomfort.) Luckily we had picked up snacks while waiting for the tire, so we managed to put together a dinner of cheese, gourmet jarred vegetables and fruit. The next morning we had coffee and headed out to explore and get more supplies.

The drive through Pigeon Forge, TN was interesting. The road out to Dollywood is colorful and busy. Though I am sure that it has its appeal, touristy kitsch was not what we were looking for. We later headed out to Cherokee, NC and got groceries and later stopped at a couple Native American shops to pick up gifts for the kids and the dogsitter.

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The observation tower at Clingman’s Dome

When we returned, we were very happy to have purchased the screened

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Clingman’s Dome, from the observation tower

tent as it had obviously rained while we were gone. (During the summer months, it rains somewhere in the park pretty much every day.) In the park, we did some hiking and visited Clingman’s Dome, the tallest point in the park, where you can get a 360 degree view of the Smokies. After our climb up the observation tower, we took a short walk on the Appalachian Trail.

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Elk are one of many species that call the park home

Several years later, we made a return trip, this time with the children and the dog. My husband was traveling for work and had arranged to fly into Knoxville, where we picked him up after setting up camp. We again stayed at Balsam Mountain, and on the second day (when the other residents moved out) we moved our tents to the same campsite we had used years before. (Our hiking was somewhat limited as the park has limitations on where dogs are

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This is what happens to potato chip bags at high altitude

welcome (only two trails are dog-friendly). This time we spent a little time at Cades Cove, where Europeans settled sometime around 1820 and walking along the Oconaluftee River Trail from the grounds of the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill. Our neighbors at the campground told us about a great spot to watch the sunset, just a short hike down the road, so we grabbed flashlights and were not disappointed.

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The park has several campgrounds as well as LeConte Lodge, which at 6,593 feet is the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. The lodge is at the top of the park’s third largest peak, Mount LeConte, and is accessible via a 5-8 mile hike (there are five trails). Advance reservations are necessary to stay at the lodge; those wanting to just spend a day need to watch the sun and conditions to ensure they have time for the return trip before dark. With an elevation from 875 feet to 6,643 feet, SCAN0143the weather varies throughout the park with temperatures varying up to 10-20 degrees. The rainfall is from 55 to 85 inches per year. For those wanting hotel accommodations, there are many options outside of the park. There is no fee to enter the park, as the state of Tennessee prohibited such fees when transferring ownership to the federal government.

There are 150 official trails in the park and a number of waterfalls. As conditions often change, it is a good idea to check the website for closures before you go.  Bicycles are permitted on all paved roads in the park and the 11-mile Cades Cove loop is closed two mornings a week until 10 for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrian traffic. Horseback riding and hayrides are available through concessions in the park. The Smokies Trip Planner (which can be downloaded from the NPS website) has more useful information.

Step Back in Time to Historic Fort Delaware

Fort Delaware, originally built to protect the cities of Wilmington and Philadelphia, is a Union fortress that once held Confederate prisoners of war. IMG_2399The fort, which dates to 1859, sits on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. The island is only accessible by ferry via Forts Ferry Crossing which runs from Delaware City, DE with tickets available on the day of visit at the park ticket office (first-come, first-served).

The park offers a number of activities, from birding (it is the summer home to nine species of herons) to hiking, (the Prison Camp Trail, is an easy 0.8 mile loop over grass and packed earth) to Living History events.IMG_2362 IMG_2331IMG_2335IMG_2364Visitors are free to walk throughout and around the fort and see numerous artifacts and reproductions of items that would have been in the fort over 150 years ago.

IMG_2368There is a daily schedule of events with costumed re-enactors explaining life in 1864 with enough to see and do to keep you busy for much of a day. Visitors are welcome to ask questions and sometimes even to help with tasks.IMG_2370

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Soldiers preparing the cannon to fire
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The order is given to fire (those with sensitive ears might want to cover them).

When we visited, we watched as soldiers fired a cannon, talked to a soldier about conditions in the barracks, learned how the women washed clothes, watched a blacksmith demonstration, helped in the kitchen and even practiced drill as enlisted soldiers.

There is also the option to travel to Fort Mott, which is on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. The fort was built up in the late 1800s in preparation for the Spanish American War, as part of a three-fort defense system, along with Fort Delaware and Fort DuPont in Delaware City. This 124 acre state park also offers picnicking, an easy walking trail and special educational events.

There are no food vendors on the island, but packaged snacks are available in the gift shops. Picnic tables and grills are available if you choose to bring food with you.

Hiking and Camping Elk Neck

100_8599My husband learned about Elk Neck State Park in central Maryland from a co-worker shortly after we starting taking camping trips with our family. We have since been back and it is one of my favorite camping spots.

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Turkey Point Light Station is on the National Register of Historic Places

The park is on a peninsula between the Elk River and the Chesapeake Bay. The park is on over 2188 acres and its landscape includes beaches, wooded areas, marshes and cliffs, and a big draw for me, a lighthouse. Our first visit, we made the easy hike to the Turkey Point Lighthouse where we could walk around the grounds.

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To get to the top, one must climb a ladder and through a narrow opening

On a return visit, the lighthouse had been restored and we were able to go inside and climb to the top.

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The lens is powered by a solar-charged battery and flashes a white light.
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A tight spiral staircase leads to the ladder that goes to the top

Given the location of the lighthouse, atop a 100 foot cliff, it is only 35 feet tall, so this doesn’t take very long. The 3rd tallest on the Chesapeake Bay (it is 129 feet above the water) Turkey Point is known for having had more female lighthouse keepers than any other lighthouse on the Bay.

The park has 7 trails, with distances from one to three miles, with ratings ranging from easy to difficult. 100_8602100_8601100_8598 Bikes are permitted on most of these and most are pet-friendly, as is most of the park. One of these

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This section of the Beaver Marsh Loop is sometimes under water

(and one of our favorites), the Beaver Marsh Loop, has to be timed just right to complete the loop. Part of the trail goes along the shore, which is underwater at high tide. The Elk Neck also has day use areas and a boat launch and offers youth programs, such as the Junior Ranger Program as well as others.

Campsite fees vary and reservations are recommended, especially for holiday weekends. There is a per vehicle day use fee for the park, as well as a boat launch fee, with discounted rates for Maryland residents.

Deutschland – A Land of Fairy Tales, Castles and Beer

Germans have fun with their harvest. We saw a lot of these.

Thanks to an old hobby, I have known about Deutschland for years. Known here in the States as Germany, it is a beautiful land to visit. It is a land of fairy tales, castles, beer and wine. There is no way to sum up all that the country has to offer in one blog post, but suffice it to say, this is a place I want to return to. We spend a week visiting with friends who lived near Stuttgart and managed to pack in a lot in that short week, but there is so much more I want to see.

We were fortunate to be there the week of their Oktoberfest. (There is the major one in Munich, but other towns have their own as well.) Since some of my children chose German as their foreign language, I had been exposed to some of the culture ahead of time (and picked up a few phrases). Our middle school German teacher at the time had celebrated Fastnacht each year, with donuts and singing, so I knew a couple of the German pub songs that are often sung in beer tents.

If you haven’t been, a German beer tent (at least from my experience) is a large permanent structure, one I would call more a hall than a tent. Each tent is sponsored by a different brewery (it was fairly common for even pubs to have exclusive relationships with breweries) and is filled with long, narrow wooden tables and benches. We went in to one and found a spot at a table. Others were eating what was obviously chicken and drinking liter mugs of beer (which are quite heavy, so the women carrying several REALLY impressed me). Not being able to find the chicken on the menu (apparently there are a couple words for chicken in German), we asked our neighbors what they were eating and soon made friends.

While eating our dinner, we listened to the live music, which included the German songs I was familiar with, (occasionally interrupted to announce the World Cup scores) as well as John Denver’s “Country Road,” which must have been a favorite as it was repeated every fifth song or so. (Yes, we sang along.) We bought a round of drinks, as is our custom; our new friends were dumbstruck by the gesture and very appreciative. The favor was more than repaid when heading to the next beer tent, as they knew the people at the door and we were granted admission ahead of many others. Although the focus of Oktoberfest is the beer, the festival is actually much larger, with a carnival atmosphere and activities for families to enjoy as well.

Although most travel itineraries have some sort of focus (the Rhine, The Romantic Road, beer, wine country, etc.) we jumped around, going to places we thought sounded interesting based on the guide books I had picked up back home.

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The “Marienbrücke,” built high above the Pöllat Gorge is nearby. (Yes, we did walk across it.)

We decided that Neuschwanstein Castle was on our “must see” list. This beautiful structure was commissioned by King Ludwig II.

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We chose to take a carriage ride up to the castle, rather than walking up the long hill. Our driver was very friendly and was kind enough to pose for this picture.

It is easily recognizable in photos as the castle upon which Disney based his famed Cinderella’s castle. (The day we went was foggy, so it was shrouded in mist.) The castle is now operated as a museum and is visited by 1.4 million people a year. Neighboring Hohenschwangau Castle also offers tours. The English speaking tour is at 8 am, so this meant an overnight trip for us.

Even before we left home, I had decided I wanted to see the largest water fall in Europe, the Rhein Falls at Schaffhausen. falls3l - option 2l falls2lfalls1l My husband was accommodating, and, since it was the same direction as Neuschwanstein, we made the journey south, through Austria and into Switzerland, with plans to spend the night close enough to minimize the drive time the next morning. Since we got to Schaffhausen late in the day (thanks to my spending too much time looking at Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks), we only spent enough time in Schaffhausen for dinner and a short walk by the falls. It was however, one of the more romantic places we visited.

On the way there, we stopped at Triberg and“hiked” (it is a paved footpath) to the top of Germany’s  tallest waterfalls (hmm, I guess maybe we did have a theme to our SCAN0218travels). Afterward, we found a  small restaurant where we had a wonderful meal and practiced our German (the waiter spoke no English). This was one of the highlights of the trip, as we got by just fine with a pocket dictionary and some creativity. It was also here that I had arguably the best wine I found on the trip.

Other day trips included Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a charming walled city. We got there too late in the day to explore the museums, but did go on the Night Watchman’s Tour  of the city (offered in English) and then walked the wall on our own afterward.  During the tour, we chatted with a young couple who were backpacking around Europe after college and before returning to the states and their new jobs, and they joined us for coffee and dessert afterwards. I was impressed by the fact that they were doing this on a budget of $25 a day, which they said, sometimes meant they slept on benches in public transportation lobbies after deciding to spend more on admission fees to a museum or a more elaborate meal perhaps. (For those used to U.S. public transport, this is much safer than it sounds.) Unfortunately, this was in the days before Facebook; it would have been nice to stay in touch.

A trip to Heidelberg  was well worth the time. We arrived in the afternoon and wandered the old town where much of the castle, which was damaged by bombs in WWII, is still in ruins.

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Heidelberg Castle

There is a castle tour, which I have heard is worth taking, but we were told we would not have enough time to thoroughly enjoy it before it closed that day. (We did, however get to visit the wine cellar and enjoyed a tasting.) The city is home to the oldest university in Germany and has an SCAN0221abundance of choices of cuisine in its restaurants. We chose an Italian one (the menu was in German, Italian and English, so we had to decide which language to order in. I think a future trip would involve a stay actually in the city to further explore all it has to offer.

We also became acquainted with a popular pastime in Germany, volksmarching. Our friends looked in the local paper to see who was sponsoring one nearby and what the prize was. They explained that is was a walk, with checkpoints along the way where you could get refreshments, such as sausage and beer.

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The trail went through a field, past these sheep and goats.

Somehow my husband missed the fact that it was a 10k walk, but we enjoyed it anyway (despite some drizzle) and came home with two genuine beer steins for a few dollars.

 

Another day took us to Kloster Andech’s.  This monastery brewery is owned by the Benedictine monks of St Boniface in Munich and Andechs.

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The hops used to brew Andech’s beer

In addition to the brewery, they also have a tavern where we enjoyed good food and beer SCAN0227(though I have to say, we didn’t encounter bad food or beer anywhere we went) and for the first time saw hops growing. This is well out in the countryside, which I noted was very like that of Pennsylvania (no small wonder that so many German immigrants found themselves staying in the Keystone state).

As you can see, we packed a lot into a week, but there is so much we didn’t see. Despite the fact that the country is small by US standards, Germany has much more to offer. There are several major metropolitan areas and many towns that witnessed major historical events. I also found the German people to be among the most hospitable I have ever met. I look forward to visiting again and seeing more of this beautiful country.

 

Relaxing in Corolla, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks

IMG_5227On the northern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Corolla is a popular vacation destination and the one-time home of North Carolina’s state horse, the Colonial Spanish Mustang, (for their safety have been moved north of Corolla in the area beyond the paved road which is only accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles).

The town has a long history. As is common with coastal land, the terrain has shifted over centuries. Up until early 1800s, it was only accessible by boat and its residents got by through hunting and fishing as well as salvaging items from shipwrecks. Other towns came and went, but the residents of Corolla stuck it out.

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The Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Government jobs in the 1800s increased the population. Between 1873-75, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Jones’ Hill Life Saving Station were created. In 1895, Jones’ Hill (as the area was then known) had grown enough to get own Post Office. The US Postal Service asked for suggested for a name. Corolla (which is the inner part of a flower) was suggested and ultimately chosen by the postal service. In 1905 a one-room school was established. Some of these 19th century structures remain in what is now known as Corolla Village, a collection of charming buildings surrounding the 162-foot tall lighthouse, including the Corolla Wild Horse Museum and charming shops.

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Currituck Heritage Park

In 1922 the Knights of Newport, RI began building their 21,000 square foot winter home, Corolla Island, which was completed in 1925. In 1940, under new ownership, Corolla Island was renamed the Whalehead Club, and was leased to the Coast Guard during WWII. The Club was used as a boy’s school in the summers in the 1950s. Today, the building has been restored to its appearance in 1925 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Owned by the county, it and the lighthouse are both part of the Currituck Heritage Park. Whalehead offers seasonal tours of the building and hosts special events throughout the year.

In the 1970s, only about 15 people lived in Corolla. The road to town was an unpaved trail along the sound, which the state later took over the road, and it became part of NC 12 in 1984. More than 1500 homes were built over the next ten years. Over 500 more were added over the next five years, most of which are vacation homes, more than half are 5000 square feet or more. This road continues through most of Corolla, but simply ends at an expanse of sand. There are homes (and the horses) beyond this point, but they are not accessible without the use of a 4×4 vehicle.

 

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Our path to the beach

Today the town of Corolla is relatively quiet and family centered. The houses are packed close together and are a variety of sizes and styles. Two summers ago, we spent a week there at a rental with extended family. The house we rented was a short walk from the beach and boasted a “bird’s nest” rooftop sitting area which was among the tallest in the area, where we could view both sunrises and sunsets.

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Wooden walkways protect the dunes and help reduce erosion.
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Dunes have been created to protect the town.

A reservoir in our neighborhood was home to a few turtles, and the kids were entertained simply watching them. We also saw a few deer, including a fawn napping in our backyard.

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On the path to the beach

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We happen to own ocean kayaks and had brought them along with us (rentals are also available). We spent a lazy afternoon exploring the sound and my husband and son tried them out in the ocean. We also spent time lounging on the beach, playing in the ocean and the sand and searching for seashells. My niece was fascinated by the exoskeleton of a horseshoe crab that she discovered.

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Currituck Lighthouse from the sound

 

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Exploring the waters off the sound

DSCF1042DSCF1046There are a number of restaurants in Corolla, but for the most part, we chose to eat in. We did pick up pizza from Tomato Patch Pizzeria our first night there, which was very good. Instead, we went to the Food Lion and Seaside Farm Market and prepared food back at the house.

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The area is dog friendly and our pups also enjoyed the vacation.

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Shopping included the traditional beachy souvenir shops, upscale gift boutiques and antique markets as well as outfitters for water sports. An 18-link golf course, mini golf, go carts and a movie theater are right in town, and tours via 4×4 vehicles are popular and are probably the best way to see Corolla’s horses. Fishing, surfing, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding rentals and lessons can be found for those who would rather be in the water.

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Sunset from “The Bird’s Nest”

The Outer Banks have much more to offer, outside of Corolla, but we spent most of our week locally. The ride in on a Saturday morning (which is when most of the rental periods start) had us almost at a standstill for a couple hours, causing some to not want to venture out until the week’s end. Having a fondness for lighthouses, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit another one nearby, so I did make a trip out, but will include that in a separate post. I enjoyed our week in Corolla, and hope to go back, hopefully with a 4-wheel drive to explore the area further.

Celebrating Bethlehem, PA – The Christmas City

The Moravian Star (here in the Central Moravian Church) can be found throughout town. Originally designed as a geometry project, the traditional Moravian star has 26 points and hangs in homes during the Christmas season.

Today marks the 275th anniversary of the signing of the deed to 500 acres that transferred ownership of the land that would become Bethlehem PA from William Penn to the Moravian community who settled there. The document that sealed this deal is on display for today only at the Moravian Archives. Today is also the opening of a new exhibit, “Building Bethlehem,” (on display through June 30) which includes building plans, artifacts, paintings and photographs of the city’s early structures. The city’s has plans for an Anniversary Gala in April and a community celebration in June, during which a number of people will be inducted into the newly-established Bethlehem Hall of Fame.

The city has seen a great deal of history, from its inception, through Revolutionary times and to the present day.  Brethren’s House, which now houses the music department of Moravian College, was used as a hospital for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and over 500 soldiers who died in Bethlehem are buried there. Also within the city are a number of items designated by the National Register: six Historic Districts, 165 buildings, nine structures and four objects.

The Historic Bethlehem Partnership manages 20 of these buildings and sites, including the Moravian Museum, which is housed in the Gemeinhaus, a National Historic Landmark, which was the second building built by the early settlers, and is the starting point for several walking tours of town.

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The Blacksmith shop

The 18th Century Industrial Quarter (likely the first in the country), just off of Main Street on the Monocacy Creek, is the location of some of the eaIMG_0028rliest building in Bethlehem. One of these, the 1762 Waterworks (a National Historic Landmark) is said to be America’s first pumped water system. Also surviving from the 18th century are a saw mill, blacksmith shop, tannery, miller’s house and springhouse as well as the ruins of other structures. One can wander among the buildings at any time, and tours of the interior are available by appointment. Through the warmer months, blacksmiths can be seen at work on weekends. Information on all their properties and events can be found on their website.

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The Central Moravian Church

IMG_0034Although they are now separate entities, the histories of Bethlehem, the Central Moravian Church (the oldest Moravian Church in North America) and Moravian College are intertwined. The Moravians came from all over Europe, and though they all had the German language in common, they spoke a total of 15 different languages. Moravians have a tradition of inclusion and tolerance, and believe that everyone, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, deserves the same opportunities. This was evident in the early years of the community, when Europeans, African-Americans, and American Indians all lived, worked, worshiped, and went to school together.

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Moravian College’s Comenius Hall

Education has always been important to Moravians and in 1742, they established both a school for girls and  another for boys. Both schools continued to grow and it is a point of pride for the college that the two merged in 1954, becoming the first co-educational institute of higher learning in the area.

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Alumni Memorial Building at Lehigh University

In 1845, the Moravian Church started selling off land and soon the farms on the south side of the Lehigh River became peppered with buildings as the railroad brought factories and mills to the area. In 1865, Asa Packer donated land and $500,000 to found a university with a focus on math and science. The first class had 39 men and today Lehigh University is consistently listed among the top colleges and universities in these disciplines.

A Tradition of Music

Like education, music has always been a part of Bethlehem.  One of the first orchestras in America was founded here in 1744 and in 1754 the oldest musical group in the country, the Moravian Trombone Choir was founded. There are several other musical groups that call the city home, such as the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.

Although music can be found in Bethlehem year round, in various bars, clubs, or on any of the college campuses, the big event is every August. Since 1984, the city has been home to Musikfest, a city-wide festival showcasing music of all types, many of which are free, as well as food, beer and arts. This year the festival runs from August 5-14. The city also hosts other major festivals (including the Blueberry and the Blast Furnace Blues Festival) as well as over 150 events or mini fests throughout each year.

This humble city in the Lehigh Valley was once known as an industrial powerhouse. Bethlehem Steel was once the largest shipbuilder in the world (building 1127 ships during WWII alone) and a major employer to the city’s residents. The rise of railroads brought factories and mills to town as well as many workers. The steady decline of manufacturing industry in the late 20th century led to the company downsizing and ultimately filing for bankruptcy in 2001.The people of Bethlehem however have shown resilience and are a good example of what can be done to revive old industrial towns.

The past twenty years have seen dramatic changes. Bethlehem now has a thriving restaurant and entertainment scene. As is common in many college towns today, the selection of cuisine is diverse, including your standard pizza, deli and pub fair, as well as tapas, Thai and vegan restaurants. Two of my personal favorites are Bethlehem Brew Works which opened in 1998 and Roosevelt’s 21st. Both have good food, good beer and celebrate the history of the area. There are also a number of charming boutique shops and galleries.

The old Beth Steel property now houses Arts Quest Steel Stacks, a four-story performing arts center that brings top acts to the area and Sands Casino, as well as The Outlets at Sands Bethlehem shopping center.

There are a number of hotel accommodations to choose from, IMG_0020most notable of which is the historic Hotel Bethlehem. Built in 1922 on the site of the first house in Bethlehem, and later the Golden Eagle Hotel, the hotel is said to have hosted such celebrities as Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart and Thomas Edison, and is purportedly home to a number of ghosts.

Across the street from Hotel B (as it is affectionately known) is the Moravian Book Shop, the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world (it opened in 1745)IMG_0021 and the starting place for a number of historical and ghost tours throughout the year. The book shop hosts events throughout the year and in addition to books, the store also has an extensive collection of gift items and a year-round display of Christmas tree ornaments.

The Christmas City

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The Main Street bridge

As early as 1937, Bethlehem was considered  the Christmas City, and in that year, a campaign to have people send their holiday cards bearing “Christmas City” cancellation flooded the post office with over 185,00 pieces of mail. Since then, committees have been formed to unify and fund the decorations and events that take place each December. The historic district is decked out in white lights and across the Lehigh River, on the south side of town, colored lights brighten the streets. More than 800 trees also adorn public spaces.

Each December, the city is home to Christkindlmarkt, an authentic German-style Christmas market which in recent years moved from heated tents in center city to the Arts Quest Center just across the river. With this move, a smaller, open-air version of a Christmas market has sprouted up in the historic district, with artisans selling their wares from individual huts. The

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A horse drawn carriage at Christmastime

Christmas City also has a “Live Advent Calendar” whereby each night in December at 5:00, a different merchant gives treats at the Goundie House. Throughout the month, there are horse drawn carriage, bus and walking tours of town, and even an annual visit from Charles Dickens’ great great grandson to perform the Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Story.

Bethlehem has become a destination and has much to offer, any time of year.  If you love music, history, or food, there is plenty to choose from. The abundance and variety of events is sure to keep you coming back for more.

 

Note: I have not been compensated in any way for the mention of businesses, organizations or schools listed in this post.

A Walk on The Appalachian Trail

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Bearfence Mountain Viewpoint, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Now the Appalachian Trail (AT) may seem like an unusual travel destination to some, but the trail has a mystique that calls to thousands each year. The 75-year-old trail, a 2189 mile footpath along the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern U.S. has been the subject of many books as well as conversations among hikers for generations. It takes careful planning and five to seven months to complete the hike. Since the shelters actually on the trail are limited, one needs to carry both shelter and supplies as well as enough food to get to the next resupply location, which can sometimes be several days. The trail does go near and even through some towns where hikers can resupply, shower and maybe even stay at a hotel or hostel for a night or two, but through-hikers need to expect to spend most nights on the trail.

The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton McKay, a regional planner in October 1921, and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) was organized in 1925 when work seriously started to create a contiguous walking path from Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The trail was completed in 1937. The ATC has grown and changed a bit over time (it is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) but it still plays a primary role in maintaining the trail and the corridor lands that border it. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s stated mission is “to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come.”  This responsibility is shared with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, a number of state agencies, and countless volunteer groups.

IMG_7431In 1968 the AT became the first National Scenic Trail; it was added to the National Park system in the 1970s, when the National Trails System Act called for state and federal government to purchase corridors surrounding the AT footpath; the last stretch of land was acquired in 2014.IMG_7434

 

There are a number of ways to hike the AT, which has seen several variations of trail markers over the years; older versions can still be found on the trail. Most people enjoy the beauty of the AT on day hikes and for many, this is enough, but serious hikers may want to tackle all 2189 miles. Few people have the luxury of being able to spend half of a year without obligations (not to mention the cost: approximately $3,000 plus gear, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club), so many hike the trail in sections. This can be a number of day hikes, or multi-day backpacking trips. Those who are really serious do decide to hike the entire trail, either from end to end or in a “flip-flop hike.” Most who start do not complete the full hike, it is estimated that only about a third of those who start a through-hike complete it.

Since much of the trail’s geography takes one through states that experience (sometimes harsh) winters, through-hikers have a window during which they need to start in order to complete the full hike. Most travel from Georgia, and today many have already begun their trek. (March 1 through April 15 are the most popular dates to start from Georgia.) There are some who start in Maine but, due to the snow, can’t start until May or June. This section of the trail is also said to be the most difficult, and most experts suggest building up to that level.

Flip-flop through-hiking is also an option. The ATC gives several plans to do this, which involves starting at a location somewhere on the trail, hiking one direction to the end, then returning to your starting point and completing the trail in the other direction. Although this is a bit non-traditional, there are good reasons to do this. Aside from the fact that certain mid points are easier hiking to start with (then progressing to more difficult terrain) there is also the fact that it reduces the crowds found at the traditional starting points.

Preparing for your hike

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This IS the trail (in Tennessee)
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A section in Shenandoah

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There are a number of websites and excellent books to help you determine what you need. Guide books and trail maps provide even more information. You might want to select a trail name, or wait and see what name feels right after a couple days out. Learn about or review Leave No Trace principles so that you minimize your impact on the outdoors and help keep it enjoyable for everyone.  Start hiking smaller distances to get in better shape, and get used to carrying a full pack. A hike this challenging is not something to just jump into unprepared. Make sure someone knows you are going and leave them a rough itinerary. (This is a good practice anytime you are traveling.) Know the regulations, for example on where you can camp and if cooking fires are permitted. Some sections of the trail go through state and national parks that require permits (you can get some of these in advance through the ATC website).

Planning the hike with a partner is a good idea. Besides having someone to share experiences with and encourage you, it is also safer. While the risks are minimal, the trail does go through wildlife habitat and run-ins with bears or snakes are possible. Much of the terrain is rocky, so there is a chance of injury. And, although the majority of people found on the trail are good people, as with anywhere else, there are some out there with evil intent.

Know that your personal mileage may vary. Trail sections are sometimes rerouted. Note: hiking the trail usually means hiking more than the trail. There are interesting side trails, sometimes leading to incredible overlooks which it would be a shame to miss. Leaving the trail for a trip into town also adds to your total distance.

The ATC now has a voluntary through-hike registration, which is free and includes a membership to the ATC and other perks. The idea behind the registration is to minimize the crowds at the early stretch of the trail. News about closures and other alerts can be found on the National Park Service website.

Enjoy the trail’s beauty

Although I would love to say that I think I could through-hike this trail, I am a realist and am fairly certain that I will never be in good enough shape to do this. So, instead, I have the almost as ambitious hope (not even a goal) to someday be able to say I have section-hiked all or at least most of it. Bill Bryson’s popular memoir A Walk in the Woods is an entertaining story of his journeys on the trail. It is largely his writings that made me realize that through-hiking is likely not for me.

The trail is beautiful and demanding. I have completed short sections of it in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (the latter two states essentially at the same time as a portion of the trail straddles the border).  I have not as of yet backpacked on the trail, instead doing day hikes from a campsite.

The Virginia section goes through Shenandoah National Park and this is the state where I personally have logged the greatest number of miles on the trail (about 6). The trail also goes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is where I hiked Tennessee and North Carolina. I had quite a bit of fun with this stretch, near Clingman’s Dome,hopping in NC, then TN and back again.

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We happened upon the trail in Tennessee, near Clingman’s Dome. Of course we couldn’t resist following it for a bit!
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Just off the trail in Tennessee
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The view looking into North Carolina

Most recently, I completed a stretch of about 3-4 miles of the trail (with side hikes, total of 10 miles) while camping at Lewis Mountain Campground in Shenandoah. We set up camp late in the day and the next morning I ventured out and happened to see the white blazes marking the trail that went right behind our tent! As luck would have it, the trail heading north went up to the Bearfence Rock Scramble and to a 360 degree overlook that I had read about just a few months before. The campground map indicated it was only about a mile, so it was an easy decision. It was mostly uphill and had several switchbacks to get to the overlook, but the view was well worth it. We ended up missing the scramble, as we followed a trail marker that led to the overlook instead. Total miles for this trip (there and back, plus the detour) was 3.6.

The next day we headed south on the trail, with our destination the ruins of the Episcopal Pocosin Mission, which dates back to 1902, about a mile off the trail, with total miles 5.7. The trail started downhill, and coming back I remember thinking that there was no end. I kept telling myself I would stop for a breather at the next plateau, but the trail seemed to just keep going up. This hike came in at 5.7 miles (again this is there and back, plus about 2 miles off the trail to the mission).

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The ruins of the Episcopal Mission

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While perusing the ATC website this week, I discovered the 14 State Challenge, where the goal is to hike a section of the AT in each of the 14 states the AT goes through. And, there is no time limit to complete this! This is something I feel I can set as a goal. I also discovered the AT Hike100 Centennial Event, which is being run by the Appalachian National Scenic Trail this year in honor of the National Parks Service celebrating 100 years.  The challenge is to hike 100 miles between Jan 1 and Dec 31 2016, with at least one hike on the AT. This too is something I may be able to complete, since April is just starting. I have only 97 miles left to go!

Oh the Places I Go!

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I recently heard about the A to Z Challenge, which started in 2010 with nearly 100 bloggers. As of today, there are 1283 bloggers signed up to participate this year. You can read more about the Challenge’s history here. Today is the Theme Reveal Day, when some of the participants have chosen to reveal a central theme for their April blog. I was intrigued by this idea and considered what I would like to write about.  I came up with a few thoughts, and decided on writing about travel.

I caught the travel bug at a young age. Most of my family vacations as a child were road trips (with a cooler of juice, bologna sandwiches and plums from the tree in our yard), sometimes inspired by an article my mom read in a travel magazine, and all were adventures. One summer I kept a scrapbook of our journeys, writing about where we went, what we did and including ticket stubs and brochures from places we went. It is fun to look back at this now to see what made an impression on a younger me.

I have considered travel writing before, but did not see any avenue to share it, other than the big, glossy travel magazines I have long loved to peruse and rip pages from to save for my “vacation file.” These magazines often have their own staff and writers who work on assignment. How wonderful would it be to get that sort of assignment! The more I thought about the possibility of sharing travel here, the more excited I got about it.

I have my list, but as my posts aren’t written yet, it is still a work in progress. My initial thought was to write about places I want to go. Since I have no appropriate photos or places I have not been, or even stories and observations about these places, I decided to focus on places that I have been and plan to return to. (Besides, that is not really how travel writing works anyway.)Given the constraints of the challenge, however, (remember, this is going from A to Z) I will have to write about some places I have not actually been to.  In these cases, I hope to share information from friends who have been there or my own research about locations on my personal bucket list.

I expect this challenge to be fun and am excited to share some of my photos. I hope you enjoy following along to see the Places I Go!