An American Hajj

hajj – an honorary title given to an individual who is engaging in pilgrimage. The honorific title “Hajj” stays with him, even after his return from pilgrimage until his death, quite often as a permanent title and part of his name with friends and public.

main-buildings-golden-dome-university-of-notre-dame-library-of-congress-lc-dig-highsm-18705One weekend this coming September, I will embark on a pilgrimage to the one of the most important sites for American Roman Catholics.  No … not St. Patrick’s Cathedral, not the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, not the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa … not the Vatican …

I will be attending my first football game in South Bend, Indiana at the University of Notre Dame!

No doubt in some yet-to-be-discovered scroll tucked in a Galilean sea cave resides an ancient admonishment for all Roman Catholic citizens of the United States to make The Pilgrimage of The Fighting Irish at least once in one’s lifetime!  I’m sure of it.  It must exist … for how else to explain this overpowering physical attraction to The Program???

This is a phenomena with which I grew up in Irish Catholic Philadelphia during the 1960-70s.  It’s been a fascinating thing to witness, especially when few – if any – of those adults and children with whom I grew up actually attended Notre Dame!  The dedication is real and pervasive to the point where many families and friends set aside at least one weekend each football season to make the annual pilgrimage.

Frankly, an Irish Catholic’s love for Notre Dame football is not all that difficult to decipher as a natural development of growing up in undeniably wholesome and homogenous settings, where The Church was a central and integral part in the lives of our Parents and Grandparents … and thus onto us.  It’s a confluence of Sports and Religion unique in its roots, devotion and enduring strength.

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Rockne, The Four Horsemen, and friends

It’s origins likely the outgrowth of the rise of collegiate football in the decades preceding the existence of the National Football League (NFL); and the result of The Fighting Irish’s success and broad appeal in the collective conscience of those proud Catholics. While “the greatest generation” – the generation of my father and uncles, Irishmen all –  lived its formative years, Notre Dame football was a constant presence.

My father was born in 1919.  The years of 1918-1930 were the Knute Rockne years.  A twelve-year stretch consisting of FIVE undefeated seasons and SIX where no more than 2 losses were booked by The Fighting Irish!  So it’s not hard to see how a generation was immersed in the success and glory of Notre Dame football, even in a time long before football polls, National Championships, and the dreaded BCS.

Unfortunately, the lack  of clear-cut test for determining such pressing issues as football supremacy begot arguments that probably sent many an Irish-Americans into Saturday confessionals

For some reason I was not bitten as severely by the ND football bug as so many were in my extended fraternal family.  I like Notre Dame football; enjoy watching; and always pull for them when I catch their broadcasts.  But the fanaticism never took complete root.

In my family, I have had uncles and cousins make the pilgrimage as once-in-a-lifetime excursions or as regular visits.  I had at least one cousin buried in full Notre Dame regalia.  So many funerals and a few weddings had references to The Fighting Irish.

It’s a guy thing … a Catholic thing … a family thing …

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A family thing … Brother Pat and his two sons, Joseph and Andrew

Yet despite all that kelly green DNA, I never had the Irish-urge to see Notre Dame play locally or even think about taking the trip out to South Bend.

That changed a few weeks ago, when a close friend suggested we go out to God’s Country with mutual friends, who have made ND football an annual gig.  I demurred at first … again not smitten with the ND bug.  Then I found out my brother – a true ND football devotee – had decided to join the very same group from his home base on the West Coast.

Though I may not be a Notre Dame football disciple, I am certainly a huge fan of family, friends, fun, and good times.

What better reason could there be to embark on such an American hajj?!?

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Experience the Couples Massage!

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Not us pictured … Divorce might result if it was!

Hope you enjoy this very carefully, very tastefully written review of our first couples massage experience.  Hopefully I will not end up sleeping on the couch … again, when the incredibly lovely Carol stumbles across this post and discovers I shared an semi-intimate moment solely as a way to promote tourism to the Dominican Republic.

OK … and for the laughs.

As I see it … at my age … any day that starts off with me in a pool with a naked female is a Very, Very Good Day!

When it comes to the massage, one must acknowledge that the ability to render a proper massage is an Art!  The techniques are to be admired and enjoyed, but require training and experience.  Although many an intimate couple will play at the Art of Massage, without the proper knowledge and experience, the massage is just a means to an end.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that ….

I will be the first to admit my skills at massage never advanced beyond the clumsy basics.  After this experience while in Punta Cana, I can honestly state that I had no idea just how inexperienced I was.

The Couples Massage package was an extra to the all-inclusive concept at Barceló Bávaro Beach.  But it’s worth every penny!  The spa is located within the Palace Deluxe Hotel complex. and is accessible at any time by Premium Club members.  Besides the quiet, fragrant massage rooms, the spa includes a large outdoor pool and jacuzzi, indoor jacuzzi and small pool, but no drink service.  (You can bring in adult libations if you so desire.)

The experience begins in the gender-specific locker rooms where one can shed all the decorative physical trappings of modest society … at least on the female side.  The men however were encouraged to keep their swimsuits or shorts on …

Bummer … Completely understandable, I guess … Still a bummer …

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Draperies are closed to enhance the romantic mood, and were opened only after the massage was completed.

Once ensconced in a fluffy terry cloth robe, Carol and I met up in the couples suite.  Quiet, dimly lit by candles, with a romantic arrangement of towels in the shape of a heart and two obviously smitten terrycloth swans, richly appointed with fragrant flower petals.  The atmosphere exudes everything you need to slowly slip into a coma of complete relaxation.

What caught me off guard was finding Carol sans ALL Decorative Trappings of Modest Society, while I was still in a swimsuit.  WT … ?!?

But I guess the presence of two female masseuse explains the discrimination to which I was unexposed.  Not that I’m complaining …  At least one of us was completely stripped of all Decorative Trappings of Modest Society!

Even funnier was the experience of the gentleman in the couple who accompanied us to the DR.  He was instructed to shed his swimwear and sling his … uh … male-hood in a “banana hammock”!

When I heard of this AFTER our massage, I was relieved I wasn’t required to sling The Hammock!  Otherwise Carol would have been laughing throughout the entire massage experience!

The massage itself starts with an exfoliation, cleaning and massage of the lower legs and feet while reclining peacefully and blindfolded, which simply makes the experience a bit more mysteriously unsettling.

“What the heck is she doing?  What’s that stuff??  Oh, that’s nice …”

Next comes the main massage event, complete with security-inducing sheet and coverlet on the traditional massage table.  It was during this transition that I noticed Carol and I were differently dressed.

Have I mentioned that already???

To make a long post shorter, I will not go into a detailed playback of the massage itself.  Rest assured it was expertly applied and deeply relaxing.  This being my first professional massage experience, I can say without reservation that the good masseur at Barceló know what they are doing!

champagnesetup02Once the experts were done, the drapes to our private couples room were thrown open to reveal a small pool set off in an equally private walled-off courtyard.  And when we slipped out the door, we were surprised by the presence of two lounge chairs, a bottle of champagne and two glasses!

As one masseuse bid us farewell and drew closed the drapery, she made a very clear pronouncement, “I will be back in 20 minutes!”

That’s when the light went on!

Hmmmm … Carol still au naturel … champagne … massage oils … a pool and complete privacy … for 20 minutes!?!

Well, I appreciated the optimism, especially as to my personal stamina, but that presumption was a bridge too far.  We did however enjoy the personal intimacy of being secluded in an extremely relaxed state in a very cold pool, and enough bubbly to liberate one’s inhibitions.

But that water might have been a bit too cold …

As it turned out, it was one of the best days of the vacation.  The couples massage is definitely worth the price of admission, assuming of course you get a masseuse who knows what they’re doing!

For me … I hit the daily Double the next day with ANOTHER naked female in the pool.  But it was a dolphin …

Travel: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

dominican-republic-fact-fil-578x298I am not much the world traveler.  When the kids were young, all our vacations were Domestically oriented.  It was simpler, more affordable, easier to manage with kiddies.

That will hopefully change a bit now that Carol and I are entering (almost) Empty Nest Syndrome.  My better half has the leg up so far, enjoying several south-of-the-border vacations with a friend.  But if they are having this much fun, I may smarten up and start following her around more.

For our 30th anniversary (October 2015) we promised ourselves a nice tropical trip; and finally decided to book an Apple Vacation to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic with another couple with whom we have vacationed with the last few years.  For me, it’s been awhile that I hit the Jamaican beaches on our honeymoon.

A long time ago … in a land far, far away …

We left in late September, returning in the first week of October.  More on that experience and our closer-than-comfortable proximity to Matthew later.

Being a neophyte at international vacationing, I prefer Simple over Elaborate; so chosing an All-Inclusive route fits my emergent needs perfectly.  Our choice was Barceló Bavarro Beach, an adults only all-inclusive situated within a larger, free-range resort complete with family oriented and other less-inclusive … I assume … options.

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Barcelo Bavaro Beach, Punta Cana

 

To rate the experience as one of our Best Vacations Ever is no overstatement!

The Barceló Group is a family owned Spanish tourism company founded over 85 years ago.  Employing 23,000 people at 100 hotels in 19 countries and 685 travel agencies in 22 nations, they really have their act together!  Despite that I had never heard of them before last week.  Now they top the list as my favorite international resort.  (Yes, as mentioned, it’s a small sample size.)

The accommodations were very good, given the great idea to upgrade our package to the Premium Club, that – among other benefits – gave us an ocean-front view.  The upgrade allowed for dinner at all the resort’s restaurants; provided discounts on excursions; and access to other limited-access amenities.

The resort staff were nothing if not exceptionally friendly and obliging.  The resort was spotless and comfortably appointed.  The adult beverage stations were convenient; the service friendly, generous, and – most times – quick.

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View outside our room

The food was good, not great; although the resort’s best restaurants (Kyoto Japanese, La Comidie French) made for memorable meal experiences.  Skip México Lindo and the Sante Fe Steakhouse establishments.  The El Coral Restaurant (seafood) and La Dolcé Vita (Italian) were also very good.  We heard Le Fuente (Spanish menu) was excellent, but we missed that one.

The breakfast and lunch buffets were good, clean, and nourishing.  But you know buffets … Timing is everything!  Almost everywhere the meal wait staff was friendly and attentive.

Yet … It was a trip we almost did not make.

Attempt #1 … Scheduled for June originally, we had to push the trip back a few months due to one of our – ahem – less youthful companions ripping a vital tendon while playing power forward with “less experienced” individuals.

Attempt #2 … Scheduled for the very end of September through the first week in October (“That’s hurricane season, ya know.”, I helpfully added at the time.) drew near just as Category 1 (soon-to-be-a-4 ) Hurricane Matthew drew near to the southern Caribbean.  The night before the scheduled  participants (all with intact tendons) debated the Probabilities, Possible Outcomes, and Risks until eventually concluding we all really, really needed many fruity drinks in a clothing-minimizing locale and “To Hell with …” caution.  (And it was going to cost too much to change!)

That evening Matthew passed to the south of the D.R., then spent a few days nagging the northern coast of South America … and growing in strength before heading north. Much more fortunately for us than the good people of Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba, Matthew threw us nothing more than a day and a half of rain.  It was not even enough to keep us from doing what activities we had already scheduled.

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Carol & I … pre-drowning attempt on snorkeling/booze cruise

The excursions and packages we took advantage of were …

  • Snorkeling & Booze Cruise (A+ … Look for a separate blog post later.)
  • Dolphin Discovery (A)
  • Couples Massage (A+++ … Will touch on this also at great personal risk.)

Of course, one does not need the expensive (but honestly well worth the price) excursions to have an entertaining time!  Barceló Punta Cana has much to offer without leaving the friendly confines of the resort.  There’s golf, a casino, a discotheque, a bowling alley, miniature golf, water parks for both young children and adults, several live show venues and offerings (Most of these were a bit corny and amateurish.), Dolphin Island (We chose to go off-campus for our experience.), tons of shopping opportunities, a sports bar, and daily activities on the beach and in the pools.

The beach itself is a beautiful spot, yet we only spent parts of two days there.  Most of our resort “downtime” was spent in the pools, fountains, and walk-up/swim-up bars.  There is plenty of shaded areas for the sun-adverse, like me.  You really cannot beat the quiet relaxation of the pools on the adult-only side of the resort.  And if you want more noise while enjoying the refreshing waters, head over to Barceló Palace, the center of the resort, where most of the action takes place, including the swim-up pool bar!

In my humble, inexperienced opinion, you would really have to struggle to not have a grand time at Barceló Punta Cana!

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Pool at Barcelo Bavarro Beach

 

 

 

Golfing Myrtle Beach

Par 3  #5 at Grande Dunes Resort (Parred it too!)

Par 3 #5 at Grande Dunes Resort

Last month I took full advantage of an opportunity to enjoy four days on a golf holiday in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  For golfers, The Grand Strand is one of those must-do destinations for the number and quality of golf courses (over 100, not including 50 miniature golf locales for miniature golfers), agreeable weather, close proximity to ocean beaches, and a wide assortment of family distracting, non-golf related attractions.

This was not my first foray into the northeast corner of the Palmetto State.  Many moons ago in a land far away, Carol and I bundled the kids and six tons of provisions into and onto our Dodge Grand Caravan and drove the 11-hour trip to Golf Heaven.

Problem was my golf clubs wouldn’t fit.

Oh, they would have fit in the car just fine.  They just wouldn’t “fit” family vacation time with three kids and a spousal unit, who rode shotgun on the Shortall herd for most of the other 358 days of the year.

Bringing the Frustration Sticks?  Wouldn’t be prudent.  Not gonna do it … and I lived to golf another day.

But this time would be different.  This time would be Mike time!

So me and one of my regular golf buddies departed at Zero Dark Thirty (roughly 0330 hours EDT) for Atlantic City International Airport and a 0630 flight on Spirit Airlines.

We did this in an attempt to shave a few farthings from the trip bill.  To be honest, I’m not sure we saved all that much money; but I can say with certainty, we saved ourselves significant aggravation by departing and arriving through relatively small airports compared to Philadelphia International.  Quicker lines through check-in and security screening; shorter walks to on-site parking; and no dependency on courtesy shuttles to get where one needed to go.

A drawback to the long commute to AC was exhaustion for those (me) who are not finely tuned, frequent travelers.  The party we joined in Myrtle – our host for the weekend –  wanted to play a round as soon as we got off the plane!  Not a big fan of travel stress or of rushing right off the plane to do anything, that first round of golf was tough.  Then we added food shopping and adult beverage provisioning following the round, so I was dead by the time we reached our condo.  The beach and party time would have to wait.

Party time?

Let’s put it this way.  Take three guys well over 50; add golf, travel and a few beers, and it was a struggle to stay awake past 9 PM!  So we concerned ourselves with the Thursday Night NFL game (Giants vs. Washington … a blow out … Thanks a bunch, Redskins!), enjoying the night time ocean breezes from the downstairs bar’s dune-side courtyard, and one spectacular Italian dinner (Villa Romana … Try the Shrimps San Marzano!).

Of course after our fine Italian meal, we had to play miniature golf!  Not because we needed more golf, just that one of our party has an “adrenaline rush” dependency, insisting we play $1 skins with carry-overs.  I’m not usually a betting man with the state of my golf game, but I’m proud to say I walked out of mini-golf $17 dollars to the plus side of the ledger!

As for the golf?  Well, you can’t go wrong in Myrtle!

With over 100 courses, you can find tracks to accommodate all levels of golf competency (or lack thereof) and all price levels.  Obviously, to attract the widest range of golf talent and therefore their golf dollars, there are quite a few courses in Myrtle Beach that can result in wild golf tantrums.

We tended to play more difficult courses, which was a struggle for those of us who are challenged on our normal tracts.  If you really want to enjoy yourself, be true to your capabilities and pick courses that are appropriate for your “skill set” … or lack thereof.  Then tee it up from age and/or talent-appropriate tees.

The courses we played from 25-28 September:

Hole #5 on the Waterway Links at Arrowhead CC

Hole #5 on the Waterway Links at Arrowhead CC

Arrowhead Country Club – a 27-hole golf complex designed by PGA pro Raymond Floyd and Tom Jackson, a renown course designer.  This is the course we played right off the plane; and admittedly my LOFT (Lack Of Freaking Talent) quotient was very high.  Conditions were very wet with The Grand Strand getting a lot of rain the week before our trip.  I would love to get another crack at this beauty.  Beware though, I seem to have found an inordinately high number of sand traps; so take my warning about appropriate tee box selection seriously and enjoy.  As an added bonus the course features several holes along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Moorland @ Legends Golf & Resort – Very, very tough course that did not ease at all my high LOFT quotient.  More undulations than a herd of elephants in an earthquake … And when the elephants die, where do you bury them?  In the greens of course!  Geared more for the low handicapper, in my humble opinion.  Loved the course, the staff was excellent, the facilities top-notch!  The problem?  This place is a golf factory (with three full 18-hole courses) … and not the

Course designer P.B.Dye is a monster!

Moorland at Legends’ course designer P.B.Dye is a monster!

good kind!  Take a hint from what your $109 buys in addition to your round of golf:  Breakfast, lunch and two beers.  Not a bad deal, but it reflects an orientation towards High Volume Play.  When we arrived there at 8 AM, there must have been easily 100-150 golfers in various stages of play or prep, including enjoying that breakfast buffet in one of the largest golf clubhouses known to man.  If you like crowds, you will LOVE Legends!

Grande Dunes Resort Club – Easily my favorite and – of course – the most expensive course we played ($129).  That pays for your golf and nothing but your golf.  Good news?  It keeps the crowd down.  Other than that, this was the most easily played round of golf, with no doubt the best scenery of the three courses.  Like Arrowhead, Grande Dunes has several holes that parallel the Intracoastal Waterway; and like many of the courses in Myrtle, it is the centerpiece of an assortment of vacation homes.  The scenery, between the style and beauty of the neighboring properties and golf holes that are well-elevated above the Intracoastal, is spectacular and makes this course a Must Play.  Not as difficult as Moorland for sure; probably closer to Arrowhead in skill level needed.

So grip it and rip it!

Destination wedding: Nags Head, NC

Nags_Head_town_welcomeThis was to be our first Destination Wedding, that modern development in the marriage experience. The Destination:  Nags Head, North Carolina.

Now normally I’d be a bit annoyed at the prospect of a 7-hour drive (or so GPS Lady claimed); but for a favored family member taking the plunge into the Pool of Marital Bliss, the effort is the least one can do.

Throw in the prospects for a Beach Party (or two), and suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a long trip. We had never taken the opportunity to visit the fair State of North Carolina; and we had certainly heard a number of good things about the Outer Banks region.

Afterall, could all those OBX car stickers be wrong?

Unfortunately that 7-hour drive turned into an interminable 11-hour Passion Play, which by its conclusion had neither me nor the spousal unit in a particularly good mood.  GPS Lady had wanted me to take Route 13 South past Wilmington, DE.  But of course, I knew better, didn’t I?  Taking I-95 and running into a 2.5 hour parking lot south of D.C.

The one saving grace was that even those who had taken Route 13 on Friday, June 21 also stood in bumper-to-bumper traffic, courtesy of the Firefly Music Festival, a happening hosted at Dover Speedway. All of us suffered that day in our attempts to reach Nags Head!

By Saturday though, those horror stories began to fade from memory.  That’s what a really nice day on a really nice beach can do for you.  Well, that and a few adult beverages consumed quite legally by a gentle ocean on a magnificent afternoon.

Peaceful beach in Nags Head (Ramada Inn)

Peaceful beach in Nags Head (Ramada Inn)

The choice of venue was the Ramada Plaza Nags Head Oceanfront, mainly for its convenience and ample room for the roughly 60 people who traveled there for the nuptials.  The Ramada certainly fit the bill for solid amenities and a right-on-the-beach experience.  Our only complaint was the slow kitchen service during the one breakfast we ate there.  But there are plenty of other dining opportunities offered in town.

(The day after posting this, I mutter, “Oh (poo), I forgot the Wedding!!”  The following edit was added …)

The nuptials were among the best in the many weddings I gave witnessed.  The ocean backdrop, the sand between your toes, the intimacy, and Reverend Jay Bowman.  

Reverend Bowman presided over the exchange of vows.  He was of unparalleled passion; a bold, joyful voice; and a keen perspective on the depth of Love, the breadth of Commitment.  If you’re ever looking for an officiant for an Outer Banks wedding, you can do no better than Jay when it comes to expressing the emotions of your magnificent moment! 

The ocean was not only a star-filled backdrop with dolphins cruising just off the beach and large birds diving like darts into the ocean in search of fresh seafood.  The ocean also served as Jay’s righteous metaphor for the commitment and future relationship of K & B. 

More weddings should be done just this way, even if not on a beautiful beach in North Carolina! 

If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, we didn’t find an outstandingly good one at the places we chose to eat-in.

The one morning favorite we did find – tragically on the way out of Nags Head – was Duck Donuts, located on Rt 158 north of the Ramada.

I know … donuts?!?

Trust me, you have to try them! Warm still when we picked up our order, Duck’s make all their donuts as plain as a cruller can get.  Difference is, they will make your donuts to order, fresh out of the oven and iced, coated, sugar-fied, dipped, or lightly sweetened, however you want as you watch.  They are light for such doughy goodness and absolutely delicious.

Other than Ducks however, we did not find any true culinary Wow Factors among the places we chose.

The one exception being the venue chosen for the post-wedding reception. Port of Call, also located on Rt 158, was a hit with those of us in the wedding party.  The buffet arrangement consisted of a well-rounded menu of delicious appetizers and entrees.  The prime rib and garlic mashed potatoes were the biggest hits.  My favorites on the appetizer line were the shrimp and scallop options, both wrapped in bacon … of course!

Amusing that most of my travel blogs always get stuck at some point on food!

Anyway there is naturally much more to do in Nags Head than eating.  I’m not much of a water bug, but there was plenty of activity at and beyond the water line, although the beach and ocean seem much, much quieter than a typical day on the South Jersey beaches with which I am familiar.

That may well be Nags Head’s biggest attraction … The Quiet!  No boardwalk.  No overcrowded beaches for a weekend in late June.  Few airplane-towed advertisements … no fudgy-wudgy guys trolling the hot sand … few pleasure boats in sight from beachside …

On a stroll up the beach, we found long stretches of sand with a family here, a couple there with no one within 15-20 yards of their quiet, chosen blanket space.  The beach itself was extremely clean, consisting of a rougher, brown sand than one encounters in South Jersey. The beach at the Ramada location was narrow but plainly more than sufficient for the numbers we encountered.

The Ramada had a HUGE advantage though, with a well-stocked and well-manned bar just over the top of the dune, located on a gazebo set upon the hotel’s beach-access boardwalk.  And on that Saturday afternoon, four hours of entertainment in the form of a blues and rock trio.

Hence the secret to losing the bad memories from that 11-hour drive!

Key to diminishing your stress, like that of a ridiculously long car trip

Key to diminishing your stress, like that of a ridiculously long car trip

Now of course all that quiet and no boardwalk tests your imagination should you desire the nightlife.  There were plenty of places to enjoy the younger bar and dance party scene.

Kelly’s Restaurant had a very large live entertainment venue.  The food?  Not that good and served in a rather dated decor.  The club room on the other hand looked like a great place to have fun.

Port of Call, the reception venue, also had a very nice – and loud – two-story bar and club room.

Another worthy attraction located just down the road in Kill Devil Hills was the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a U.S. National Park dedicated to the site of Orville and Wilbur‘s first successful efforts to put Man where he did not naturally belong.  Well worth the price of admission ($4 per person), the visitors center is a museum to U.S. aviation history.

A 25-minute presentation of the Wrights’ lives and aeronautic accomplishments was enjoyable and informative; and it was preceded by a five-minute education on recognizing and surviving the dreaded rip tide.

As the Park Ranger emphasized, water safety is key to enjoying your time on the beaches of North Carolina!

Outside you can view the precise location of the very first Wright Brothers flights; view the primitive shacks that housed their living quarters and protected their aeroplanes; learn about the history of Kill Devil Hills; and enjoy a very thorough stretch-of-the-legs in a walk up to the Monument perched atop a very prominent hill.

Orville and Wilbur's fantastic contraption

Replica of Orville and Wilbur’s fantastic contraption

Finally, if you did not learn from my lesson for the trip down to Nags Head, take my advice and take Route 13 North home.

On a Monday afternoon, we covered the distance back to the Philly area in roughly 6.5 hours.  There are long stretches of open road, but also red lights and changes to speed limits with which to contend.  But the trip across the Bay Bridge and Tunnel is quite enjoyable.  The scenery, pace, and fruit & produce stands along the way make the ride so much more relaxing and interesting than parking on I-95!

We definitely plan to revisit Nags Head someday.  We’ll just plan the trip down a bit smarter next time.

California Trippin’, Part Deux: Southbound on the Pacific Coast Highway

Prologue:  Carol and I traveled out to sunny southern California this past September to help my brother, Pat and his wife celebrate Pat’s retirement.  In Part 1 we traveled north to Monterey to enjoy the sights and spend two glorious days hitting the links at Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill.  Part 2 deals with the trip south which we took along the Pacific Coast Highway (Rt. 1) heading back to the Los Angeles area.

As we left the Pebble Beach Resort property, Pat took us out along the beachfront drives of Carmel Way and San Antonio Avenue.  Here lies a tightly laid out neighborhood situated on the hills off the beach with spectacular views of both the Pebble Beach property and the Pacific Ocean.  There is ready access to the beaches here, where a stroll out the front door (or just down the street) brings you to a view worthy of the envy of any land-locked easterner.  I particularly enjoyed the “neighborhood feel” of this section of Carmel, even if the neighborhood has to be one of the priciest in which to live.

As we left Carmel and the Monterey Peninsula, we headed south along the Pacific Coast Highway, to our next stop in the town of Cambria.


Random impressions and second thoughts:

Hairpin turns hemmed with dizzying drop-offs … views of the Pacific from roadways ABOVE the ocean fog … not nearly enough guard rails for my peace-of-mind … sitting in the front passenger seat heading southbound not for the faint-of-heart … incredible landslide sites = huge reconstruction efforts = Shovel-Ready Projects …

Our first stop on our southbound journey was Ragged Point, appropriately named since it’s a ragged point of land jutting out into the Pacific.  We decided to stretch our legs a bit and took a walk all the way out to the tip of the point to see the view.  The views from there are majestic.  Unfortunately we left the cameras in the car and were too lazy to trek back and get them.

Coastal landscape from next to the Bixby Bridge at Big Sur

One thing our vacations with brother, Pat seem to revolve around is food.  But I do not blame him or L.  Let’s face it, vacation time is one of the allowable excuses – along with holidays and gym workouts – where loosening one’s caloric limitations and their belts is expected.  Good food at reasonable prices in pleasant settings is crucial to the best vacations.  And in this spirit I highly recommend the chocolate chip cookies at the Ragged Point espresso bar!  

Our next stop was Elephant Seal Beach, where the elephant seals come in large numbers and sizes …

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.

…  to watch the people.

It was here that I had my first encounter with a German motorcycle gang!  Really just a tour-by-motorcycle trip organized by a Las Vegas travel company.  Motorcycle touring must be HUGE in Europe, as I had never seen such a large group of foreign moto-tourists before.  It looked very well-organized with chase vehicles and a support van that provided drinks and food.  Looks like a lot of fun, assuming you can get past the saddle sores and the possibility of severe road rash.  Now back to food … For several days we were treated to numerous verbal treatise on the origins, preparation and cult-like popularity of tri-tip beef  and its super-human powers when reduced in form to a well-prepared sandwich.  All this was intended to set up what our gracious hosts treated like a pilgrimage … a trip to the Main Street Grill in Cambria, CA.  The restaurant is not particularly impressive at first sight, like a McDonalds-on-steroids, but with ample TV placements that render the atmosphere favorable to watching weekend football with the guys.  Bar service is available.  The food is very good at reasonable prices.  The tri-tip sandwich was admittedly quite delicious, tender and worthy of encore.  The salads are HUGE and also very good, as are the pork ribs I had several days later when we made our mandatory farewell homage.

Guy on left works the counter at Main St. Grill!

Two things they really need there are some good Amoroso rolls, which any Philadelphian will tell you improves any sandwich, and perhaps a refresher course on customer service.  (Would you like addy-tude with those fries?)  Still a great place for a well-portioned, delicious meal that’s not too rough on the wallet.

Our carefully developed travel plans had us enjoying several days in Cambria, a small touristy town located along Rt 1 (PCH).  We stayed at the The Fogcatcher Inn with comfortable rooms and – of course – an excellent complimentary breakfast arrangement, including make-it-yourself waffles and excellent coffee!  The Fogcather is located in an area known as Moonstone Beach, whose beach is located just across Moonstone Beach Drive.  The beach area is accessible here; and there is a well-maintained boardwalk that traverses the beachside hills with scenic views in both directions.

Just a few things you will experience … Cute, mooching little brown squirrels … Silly, short-sighted humans feeding the critters POTATO CHIPS! … Native American remnants in the form of rock drillings (cup-shaped depressions in the rock) where grains and corn were ground into meal (These take some searching to find, but they are in plain sight.) … Playful otters “honeymooning” in the surf … (Those with children should be prepared with their tactful explanations of blatant otter porn.) … No cell phone reception except for a spot about 25 feet long by 3 feet wide (and quite a bit harder to pinpoint than evidence of Native American culture) … Technology-dependent humans shuffling back and forth across Moonbeach Drive in search of a signal …

View from Moonstone Beach, Cambria towards San Simeon

Have I mentioned the food?
Our second day in Cambria – which was filled with artsy, tourist activities – was dinner at the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill.  The Moonstone is a family-owned establishment located across Moonstone Beach Drive from the ocean.  It offers both indoor and al fresco dining.  We chose to sit outdoors on a seasonable September evening; and it was the perfect choice.  The evening was a perfect combination of atmosphere, delightful food, great service and beautiful ocean scenery.  I enjoyed the sea scallops with citrus honey glaze, Carol the grilled salmon with salsa fresca.  The clam chowder was also a big hit.  Definitely the place for dinner in Cambria!

Sunset at Moonstone Bar & Grill

No foodie tour would be complete without recommendations for desert!  And although the Moonstone Beach B&G had some delightful offerings, I would be remiss if I did not plug Linn’s of Cambria.  Linn’s is also a family-owned enterprise that – from the number of locations in Cambria alone – is immensely popular with the local folk and visitors.  Our hosts insisted on taking us out to Linn’s Original Farmstore located in an isolated area of hills outside the town.  It was well worth the trip!

If you get the chance, check out the Linn’s story provided as a link on their website.  It’s an inspiring story of a couple’s relentless pursuit of their dream, living on a farm where financial challenges required an imaginative solution which eventually led to an extremely successful venture.  The Linn’s are credited with the development of the ollalieberry, a cross between blackberry and raspberry.

The store offers a wide variety of fruit products, jams, jellies, and their signature pies.  (An on-line catalogue is also available.)  I tried a personal-sized ollalieberry pie and enjoyed every bite!  Well worth the effort to seek out their back road locale.  Just watch out for that intrusive peacock!

That’s all for now.  I’m off to have the rest of these pants let out …

Some additional photos in no particular order:

Master of his domain

Note the paddle board surfers to either side of the middle rock outcropping (below).

Spyglass Hill: Pebble Beach’s better half?

When you get the chance to play golf at Pebble Beach, you play there for the incredible scenery, for the amazing golf holes, and for the historic golf moments that have occurred there.  But once you have played the headline course, another great golf opportunity awaits at Spyglass Hill!

Pebble Beach’s main attraction can be “golf overload” for many a golfer the first time they play there. (Trust me on that one.)  Spyglass Hill tends to be a more relaxing golf day.

Spyglass offers a limited amount of the spectacular ocean scenery found at Pebble.  The visual background is nowhere near as dramatic; and once you get past the first five holes, you lose all view of the ocean.  Playing Spyglass is simply a more traditional, picture-perfect, immaculately manicured day of golf.

So the day after I almost choked over Pebble Beach, my brother and I set off for Round 2 at Spyglass Hill.  The weather started out very similar to the previous day at Pebble … cool, foggy, damp.

As we hit balls at the practice tee, the ocean layer fog and mist condensed on the trees overhead and dripped like rain.  As the day progressed the fog eased.  Though there was little sun, the day was comfortable, dry … perfect!

We met our caddy, Doug on the first tee and were paired with two friendly golfers, Pete and Tom, who maintained my perfect record of NEVER being paired with a jerk on a golf course!  Pete’s wife, Joanne, was our fifth and the groups’ unofficial photographer.

Yet another first … someone who walked through 18 holes of golf simply for the scenery and photo ops!

Your first impression of Spyglass Hill is how lush and wooded it is in contrast to the wide open ocean landscapes of its more famous neighbor.  The lush surroundings makes for better overall golf conditions.

At times Pebble Beach suffers from the effects of too much sun and not enough rain.  When we played there, some Pebble Beach fairways had recently gone through hair-plug-type treatments to remedy “pattern baldness” caused by a hot, dry summer.  No such issues were found at Spyglass.

Fairway on par 5 #1 (Treasure Island)  (Photo: J.Jarocewicz)

The first five holes at Spyglass are the most dramatic – scenery wise – of the circuit, with panoramic views of lush forest green against sandy waste areas and the ocean beyond.  After #5 the course moves inland and upwards into the Del Monte Forest.  It’s easy to see how Spyglass differs from Pebble in these first 5 holes.

Looking down #2 (Billy Bones) from the green.

Number 2 is a 349-yard uphill par 4 that requires precision to avoid trouble surrounding the fairway.  Once you get the green at #2, you get your first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean – Spyglass style, which is less dramatic than Pebble but just as beautiful.  The tee shot for the par 3 – 3rd hole (The Black Spot) is one of two Par 3s (#3 & #5) at Spyglass that play directly towards the ocean, although the Pacific is not in play on either hole.

Spyglass Hill was designed by Robert Trent Jones in the 1960s; and the 345-yard (White tees) par-4 fourth hole (Blind Pew) is said to have been his favorite.  And it’s easy to see why.

The hole is neither long or treacherous; but the green is unique and requires precision to set up and execute the best approach.  The green is an estimated 20 feet wide on the back-end; but is as narrow as 8-10 feet on the front side.  The putting surface stretches about 60-75 feet, and quite literally snakes between several dunes and hillocks.

Not only is it an easy green to miss; if you hit it in the wrong spot, you could be looking at a meandering, incredibly long putt, assuming you even have line-of-sight to the hole.  This was easily my favorite hole as it played that day with the pin located at the green’s narrowest spot – the front.

Caddy Doug made his first “stroke saving” contribution here by coaching me through a delicate and tricky chip shot that had to land well off the green to stay on the green!

The back – or “wide” – end of 4th green at Spyglass. Note the thinner lower end trails off to left. (Photo: J.Jarocewicz)

I hit one of my more memorable shots to the green at the par-3 #5 (Bird Rock) after chunking my tee shot into the sandy waste area short and left.  Caddy Doug talked me into an almost effortless recovery shot that resulted in a much appreciated bogey 4.

Spyglass Hill #5 (Bird Rock)

Part of my enjoyment for our round at Spyglass Hill was the fact that I was playing very well from the tees with driver in hand.  Out of 14 holes requiring driver or 3-wood off the tee, I hit 12 fairways; and one of those was a technical near-miss.  With woods all around, you need to be straight off the tees or frustration will reign!

My brother, Pat struggled a bit with his golf demon – the snap hook; but for the most part he was able to keep up with me.  Caddy Doug kept our heads in the game – especially on the back nine – by constantly hustling to position himself as fore caddy.

Many approach shots (more my undoing than those off the tees) have one – if not more – challenging aspects, be they an overabundance of sand or sentry duty performed by perniciously placed ponds.  That being said, I lost but a single ball to “water envelopment”, which for me was a minor accomplishment!

The greens are not full of the crazy, sea-driven breaks and bends found at Pebble Beach; but they present enough of a challenge that investing in a caddy can make a difference.  With that in mind, I highly recommend the services of our caddy, Douglas Allen Miller (dmiller52@live.com) should you go to either Pebble or Spyglass.  Doug is a real hustler; a great source of course information; and works hard to keep your head in the game.

His only drawback is that he’s a stinkin’ Yankees fan!

The gallery on #13 grazes on Pat’s pitch-in birdie!

Other golf highlights of the day were my stiff approach to the flag on the number one handicap hole, the par-4 #8 (Signal Hill), though I missed the par putt.  And brother, Pat thrilled the gallery (left) with a pitch-in birdie on #13 (Tom Morgan).

The deer population is a cute diversion from the “pressures” of golf at Spyglass.  The wildlife is neither frightened or especially put off their feeding by the presence of humans with their long shiny golf weapons.  It is possible to get quite close to the deer; if you take it slow and easy.  They are wary, but obviously used to humans playing stupid games in their midst!  They’ll let you know when you get too close by simply moving away.

The last real drama of the day occurred at another par 3, the 15th (Jim Hawkins).  The shortest hole at Spyglass; it plays to just 98 yards and downhill at that.  (See Pat’s picture above for a look at the shot to #15.)  I was hitting fourth in recognition of my superb snowman on the previous hole.  One of our partners, Tom, preceded me and promptly stuck the ball two feet from the hole; spun it back directly over the hole; ending up about 8 feet below the flag.

I followed that near ace by chosing my trusty 9-iron and stuck my tee shot just two feet past Bill’s quite visible ball mark on the green; but my ball simply trickled down the slope towards the hole, ending up; 4 feet from the hole.

Of course, I missed the birdie putt!

From there on out, and aside from pars by both Pat and I at the 17th (Ben Gunn), our Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill experiences were coming to an end.

All kidding aside, Patrick played better than me both times; posting a 97 at Spy Glass that included two pars to go along with his stunning pitch-in birdie on #13.

Overall, I loved playing both courses.  Who wouldn’t?!?  But the experience at each course is quite different from the other.

Pebble is a must-do for any golfer who prizes the ultra golf experiences that come only at the sport’s premiere venues.  Spyglass Hill however, is simply golf at its purest, without the thrills and chills of crazy, sea-cliff golf.

Play Pebble Beach because you must.  Play Spyglass Hill simply because you LOVE golf!

More pics from Spyglass Hill:

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