The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

by Sonja Stark on February 28, 2015

Oatmeal with Chia Seeds

The first day of my longevity quest in Florida begins not with stretching out on a pristine white beach as waves lap my feet and a cocktail is served every hour. Instead, my first wacky pseudo-cure for aging begins with a bowl of homemade oatmeal loaded with fresh strawberries and sprinkled with a spoonful of chia seeds.

“Chia seeds are rich in Omega-3, more than salmon!” announces Bev. “And, if Dr. Oz recommends them, they must be good.”

Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial

Breakfast is followed by a review of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s new website on award-winning state parks. We download an app called the Official Florida State Parks & Beaches Outdoor Guide or Pocket Ranger® and hit the road.

An hour later, we arrive at an antebellum mansion once home to Major Robert Gamble and headquarters of an extensive sugar plantation. The only surviving plantation house in South Florida has a line out the door waiting for the one o’clock tour.

Fredrick Tillery

Our volunteer guide, the bearded Fredrick Tillery, plays a whimsical game of ‘show and tell’ while touring the furnished mid-19th century home. Can anybody tell me what this historic kitchen utensil was used for? It’s a butter churn, of course! Cast iron cookware, washboards, glass jars and heavy metal flat irons suggest that the women of 1850’s must have had mighty big arms.

Tillery goes on to explain the origins of catchphrases and expressions like “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” and “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” His summary of Confederate hardships – before, during and after the civil war – leaves little to be desired. In 1925, the house and 16 acres were saved by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and donated to the state.

The tour is followed by watching the latest IMAX release at the Mosi museum and a seafood smorgasbord at a popular Oyster Bar. More on tips of the Floridian lifestyle in the next blog entry.

19th century coffee maker

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Videos: Island time and night hike in Belize

by Sonja Stark on February 20, 2015

VIVA BELIZE_FINAL

Here now are two videos, with three more pending, of our recent trip to Belize. The best is yet to come though when we dive the Great Blue Hole! In the meantime, I hope this gives you great ideas for an extended weekend sojourn, be it some island time on Ambergris Caye at the La Belize Resort or a night hike in the Mayan Mountains at Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge.

Since I cannot embed the videos into this blog (for some strange reason), click these two links: ISLAND TIME and NIGHT HIKE.

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Day hike at Santa Rosa Plateau

by Sonja Stark on February 17, 2015

lizard

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Before leaving California, my guests treated me to a day hike around the Santa Rosa Plateau. The hidden gem offers a fascinating glimpse into the history and ecosystems of the area. Of the 9000 acres, we only had time to explore a little over four miles however our loop included riparian wetlands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, bunchgrass prairie and vernal pools.

Vernal pools are temporary basins of water that are at their highest in the spring. It’s been a dangerously dry winter in California and most of hypersaline water has evaporated from habitats usually teaming with life – like the fairy shrimp, one of life’s oldest living creatures.

We looped around the Moreno and Machado Adobes, the two oldest standing structures in Riverside County, which date back to 1846 and once served as bunkhouses for cowboys. These interesting historical buildings, shaded by a 400-year-old tree and separated by a relaxing one-of-a-kind picnic area, provide a unique opportunity to experience Riverside County’s rich history.

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Lights, Camera, Sleep!

by Sonja Stark on February 13, 2015

Eternal peace and slumber among a field of poppies...err, actually these are daisies but they'll do the trick.

Eternal peace and slumber among a field of poppies…err, actually these are daisies but they’ll do the trick.

bedroom

I’m on assignment in sun-drenched Southern California this week with no need for Flonase, a winter parka or a treadmill. I ditch all three as soon as I arrive. The friends that I’m staying with tell me that it’s always this perfect, both the year-round forecast of 70 degrees Fahrenheit as well as people’s dispositions. It seems like the only possibility for hardship here is during freeway gridlock or the occasional tremble.

I’m staying in a loft above a turn-of-the-century one room schoolhouse. The schoolhouse was actually built three years ago by an owner wanting to satisfy a passion for remembering her youth. The loft is a living quarters for guests. It’s built high in the hills of Temecula Wine Country, a sprawling valley one hour north of San Diego.

Before my lids shut, I peer through several European-style sunroofs to enjoy a show of shooting stars. There’s no need for screens. There’s also no need for socks since my feet are already toasty warm under a single sheet.

My bed is neither memory foam, organic nor feather. It’s old-fashioned firm and dressed from pillow to bedpost in a simple purple flannel hemstitch.

There’s a cacophony of sounds coming from outside my window: howling coyotes, chirping crickets, even a bullfrog sings from an old bathtub basin filled with water lilies. A light breeze carries the scent of sweet orange blossoms from ripe groves planted on a steep escarpment.

And, then, suddenly, without the aid of herbs or supplements, milk or bananas, a boring book or counting sheep – I’m out. My chronic insomnia has gone to la-la land.

I haven’t slept like this in years! This isn’t just a restful sleep, it’s sleep nirvana. The kind that even a full bladder ignores the urge to go. The kind that requires an alarm clock and several 7-minute snoozes to achieve consciousness. The kind of sleep that scientists prep subjects for so they can study the stages of deep REM.

I’m convinced. Those desperately seeking peace and slumber need the mind-body state that only Southern California can provide.

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“Yardsale” at the Lincoln family home

by Sonja Stark on February 1, 2015

Marianne and my Mutti, a pair of carefree Germans enjoying  a winter sojourn cross-country skiing at the Hildene Nordic Ski Center in Manchester, Vermont.

Marianne and my Mutti, a pair of carefree Germans enjoying a winter sojourn cross-country skiing at the Hildene Nordic Ski Center in Manchester, Vermont.

With all the snow received last week and more pending tonight, it’s time to go gliding again! Mutti’s good friend Marianne joined us on Friday to debut her beginner status on the rolling terrain of Manchester, Vermont.

Being a gutsy German, like my mom, Marianne was courageous enough to try downhill skiing in her late forties. Now, at 69 years of age, she was ready to give cross-country skiing, the more prosaic of the two sports, a valiant effort.

Slapping on a pair of slippery sticks and wrapping your hands around skinny poles is NOT rocket science. However, the act of moving your legs and arms simultaneously on tracks no wider than a bicycle road tire and in a steady fashion, is no easy feat. Add a few groomed hills and quick corners to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for a “yardsale” – that’s urban slang for when a skier tumbles and his or her stuff goes flying.

Marianne’s sense of humor (and my Mom’s) proved invaluable as temperatures warmed and the soft snow began to stock to their skies. We stopped repeatedly to re-wax the rentals but it didn’t do much good. The annoyance was tolerated until the third “yardsale” and then we called it quits.

Still, Hildene is a lovely place for a fledging Laplander. An 8-mile network of varied terrain starts at the Welcome Center and Museum Store and loops around several historic features of the property, including an observatory, sheep farm, cemetery, restored Pullman train car and, saving the best for last, the summer home of President Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s son Robert.

Maps are handed out at the Pavilion adjacent to the Welcome center and signs clearly provide names of trails, like Meadow, Two Bridges and Birch Knoll. Prices for admission, gear rentals and hours can be found at: http://www.hildene.org/tours/nordic.html

The blog author takes a bite out of winter after waxing her XC skies.   Fortunately, all her gear and clothing stayed intact.

The blog author takes a bite out of winter after waxing her XC skies. Fortunately, all her gear and clothing stayed intact.

Hildene Nordic Ski Center

Pullman Car

Signs at Hildene

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Cave tubing inside a spooky underworld

by Sonja Stark on January 31, 2015

Cave Tubing

A night hike of spider-infested slopes in the Mayan Mountains will instantly diffuse any anxiety you might have for cave tubing in the dark with swooping bats. Then again, if your skittish about drifting down a river where human sacrifice and ceremonial bloodletting was common, well, this subterranean adventure might not be for you.

“This cave is indeed haunted,” warns our tour guide Omar Deras, also co-owner of Belize Inland Tours. “Ghost Hunters International filmed here last year and found evidence of lingering spirits.”

Exploring the Mayan underworld is a popular day trip for tourists visiting Belize. Ours includes a private trek to St. Herman’s Cave at a national park just off Hummingbird Highway and not far from Belmopan. Under the Belizean antiquities law, the caves are controlled by the Institute of Archaeology, a department of the Ministry of Tourism. Removal of earth, stone or Mayan relics is strictly prohibited.

Omar of Belize inland ToursThere are only six of us the day we visit: three Bostonians, two Capital Region residents and our well-informed local guide. The outfitter provides us with sturdy footwear, black inner tubes and headlamps for the speleological experience of a lifetime. The scant beam of light emanating from our foreheads proves useful for avoiding low calcified ceilings and watching bats.

Before settling into our tubes, our guide launches into a science lesson on how water erosion forms caves.

“That’s all very interesting but, what about the snakes?” asks Pam, the mom who wisely pulled her kids out of school so they could actually live lessons in history rather than read out of a book.

The guide replies, “We have bats, scorpion-spiders, centipedes and lizards but, you’re in luck – no snakes.”

Pam exhales a sigh of relief.

The roof of the shimmering cave is saturated with millions of small craters, like the moon. When you pass a light over parts of the cave, you see sparkling cave diamonds that are essentially just water droplets. Cracks in the walls and ceiling allow for hundreds of cave-dwelling creatures (mostly bats) to enter and exit.

The temperature of the Caves Branch River, a tributary of the Sibun River, is about 76-degrees. Random streams of water our down on you like a water spout from the ceiling. It’s warmer than I’m expecting, however, after an hour, I shiver with goosebumps and my lips have turned blue.

Our guides takes us further into the depths of the cave to the source of the river. Everyone locks legs over arms and forms a queue with our tubes while the guide pulls us up river. It’s deafening trying to talk above the roar of the mile-long river and the current is tough to fight. When we reach the end, we extinguish our lights and listen to the turbulence. It’s really thrilling.

It’s best to stay in a tight line, one tube after another, letting the guide shout instructions on when and where to avoid obstacles. If a sharp rock appears in our path, the expression “Butt Up!” echos through the tunnel.

Icicle-shaped formations called stalactites hang from the ceiling of the cave like soda straws. Fortunately, they are out of the reach of grabbing hands. Slow-growing stalagmites, another type of mineral deposit, emerge from the ground to stand up straight like a traffic cone. The two formations are collectively known as dripstone.

The current picks up around corners and some of us are spinning in our tubes like tops. Spooky shadows bounce off glistening walls and cool spots keep us questioning if spirits might be trying to scare us. Frankly, I was too concerned with bat guano landing on my shoulders (like it did Pam) or grazing the bottom of my tush on the riverbed to really care.

Cave Tubing

George and Tube

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