Friday, January 21, 2011

ESTONIA: A Great Little Country

by Barbara Barton Sloane

There are no distant places in Estonia, a country bordered by Finland, the Baltic Sea, Latvia and Russia. You can travel from one end of the country to the other in just four or five hours. Its small size translates to short distances so you can squeeze in lots of sightseeing and activities in a short amount of time. But make no mistake – Estonia is larger on the inside than on the outside with a vast variety of landscapes, seasons, weather and character within a few dozen miles. Yet, touring the country, I never felt crowded or claustrophobic. With a size comparable to, say, Denmark or Holland, there are many less inhabitants – a mere 1.3 million in the entire country.

Estonians have endured occupiers for the past 800 years from Teutonic knights, Danish and Swedish conquerors, Russian Tsars, German Nazis as well as the Red Army. Now independent, the country was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1991. Tallinn, the country’s capital, is the best preserved medieval city in Europe with an original street system dating from the 13th century and houses, buildings and churches all still intact.

Everything Old is New AgainKnown as the “Pearl of the Baltics,” my introduction to Estonia was a tour of Tallinn’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a mysterious place with narrow cobblestone lanes, ancient city walls, iron street lamps, Gothic turrets and medieval markets. Built from the 13th to 16th centuries when Tallinn was a thriving member of the Hanseatic trade league, this enclosed neighborhood of colorful gabled houses, Guild buildings and hidden courtyards is the city’s biggest tourist draw. All neatly packaged within the city’s walls, its high towers give it an extra dose of fairytale charm and looming overall, the spire of the Gothic 15th century St. Olaf’s Church.

We had lunch in the renowned 13th century restaurant, Olde Hansa. Egon, our waiter, was dressed in authentic garb, and insisted that before we ate we should do a blessing, breaking a loaf of dark bread into small pieces and sprinkling it with salt. Our table was laden with aspic, olives, pickled cucumbers, berries, soft cheese, lentils, turnips, chicken and pork – truly a meal fit for – a Viking?

Finishing this bountiful repast, we were joined by a young man dressed as a medieval merchant who guided us through the town, stopping at a brewery where an elderly gentleman sat in the corner playing a haunting melody on a wheel fiddle, bringing to mind the Hurdy Gurdy man of Schubert’s Winterreise. Then off to a small museum where we listened to a group singing in Latin and playing ancient music on tambourines and drums. Finally in an old, wood-paneled coffeehouse, we warmed ourselves with espresso and steaming hot chocolate as we watched a charming vignette - a man and woman, dressed as a scintillating 1920s couple, he strumming a guitar while she, with marcelled hair and cigarette smoldering between her lips, gazed at him adoringly, evoking a flapper-era mood. This tour, traveling back in time, was an informative and entertaining timeline of Estonian history through people, music and song.

Island HoppingOne day we took a ferry to Muhu Island and from there a causeway to Saaremaa Island about 125 miles from the mainland and Estonia’s largest island. We toured Kuressaare, the capital, and that evening had dinner in the Episcopal Castle which dates back to the 13th century and is one of the best preserved castles in northern Europe. The entire meal was one huge medieval adventure, and I’m sure I’ll never experience another dinner quite like it again. Upon entering, we were greeted by the “bishop” who led us into a grand banquet hall, our only light being hundreds of flickering candles. There before us, a heavy wooden table groaning with food and so long it was hard to see the end. We were served food typical of the period: dark, thick beef soup, black bread, nuts, berries, a huge leg of lamb, bowls overflowing with barley and plates of ham, juniper cheese, jellied meat and of course ale, lots of ale! Making the meal feel authentic and great fun, we ate with wooden spoons and forks from dishes made of rough earthenware. Throughout the evening, we were serenaded with the greatest hits of the 1300s - soft music of harps and violins - putting the perfect finishing note to this culinary adventure.

Chiaroscuro VisionsWe strolled back to our hotel through a park – a winter wonderland with a silver moon lighting our way. It was very cold, the sky milky and cloudless, the air so crisp it stung our nostrils. The path was cobblestoned, glassy and smooth, so choosing to be safe I walked on snow crunching and squeaking beneath my feet. Across the park, near a frozen moat, I watched a lone man trudge along as his small dog scampered around his legs, his silhouette black against the white snow. I tried to imagine this park in summer when all would be leafy green and warm breezes. Yet, as I watched my breath form, I knew that, for me, this was the perfect time to be here.

A Nation of SongEstonia’s most famous event by far is the National Song and Dance Festival. Choral singers, 26,000 strong, perform for an audience numbering in the tens of thousands. UNESCO cites this a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and the festival takes place every five years. Since the last was in 2009, one now must wait until 2014 to experience it again. However, not to despair. Each summer in Estonia brings countless wonderful festivals including Tallinn Old Town Days, Medieval Tallinn Festival, Black Nights Film Festival, and Jazz Festival among many others. And this year Tallinn has been designated (along with Turku, Finland) the European Capital of Culture. So, winter, summer, anytime - Estonia is a destination for all seasons.

Estonian Tourist Board
Flights from JFK, NY (1 stop)
Finnair, Estonian Air, SAS, LOT

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Pure Adirondacks, Pure Bliss by Barbara Barton Sloane

The sweet, intoxicating fragrance of cedar and balsam pine is the first thing that enveloped me as I entered Lake Placid Lodge. A beloved 19th century mountain camp transformed into a lodge of unparallel rustic splendor, it is located in the Tri-Lakes region of the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York.

Lake Placid Lodge is the jewel of the Adirondacks – clear and cold in winter, strewn with leafy islands waiting to be explored in summer. This majestic hotel was built by hand in the Arts & Crafts tradition, perfectly at home in its lakeside setting. There are thirteen sumptuous rooms and seventeen luxurious cabins at the water’s edge. The woods and water enfold the Lodge as the sun warms its wide stone porches. Each room has a fireplace at its heart and the wilderness is visible through its diamond-paned windows. Above all I found comfort and welcome wherever I went.

Beneath a blanket of fresh snow at this Relais & Chateaux property, I experienced winter at its purest. This season is a most special time as the silent, snowy forest and the frozen lake make a magical landscape to explore or to leisurely gaze at from a chair next to a warm fireplace. It doesn’t hurt that the pub is well-stocked for inclement weather pursuits: billiards, backgammon, chess and cards, as well as tempting food and drink. Chef Nathan Rich, recently of the Mandarin Oriental, works his masterful culinary skills with locally-grown products and his farm-to-table philosophy. During my three crisp, silvery days, I did a bit of snowshoeing and hiking but I must confess I spent an inordinate amount of time curled in front of a crackling bonfire, my enchanted nights warmed by its glow and sipping hot cocoa, before sinking into a cocoon of fairytale bedding.

Love is the Only Gold -Alfred, Lord Tennyson
A remedy for banishing the winter doldrums and a way to share some golden Valentine moments with your significant other, you may want to consider Lake Placid Lodge’s Valentine’s Day Special which includes, on arrival, champagne chilling in your room, daily made-to-order gourmet breakfasts served in-room, a massage for two, private dinner in the wine cellar and a guided snowshoe, cross- country or downhill skiing tour with packed boxed lunch. The three-night accommodation begins at $2,570.

Family Need a Getaway?
The Lodge is inviting guests of all ages to join in the winter fun for a special 2-night stay package between March 11th and March 26th. Some of the activities you’ll enjoy are ice skating in the Olympic Rink, an interactive experience with birds of prey, snowshoeing, sledding, S’mores, and cross-country and downhill skiing. Ski packages start at $1,300 and include your stay in a mountain view cabin or lakeside suite, lift tickets for the whole family each day, gourmet goodies to eat on the mountain, and made-to-order breakfasts daily.

Maggie May?
A large, charming Golden Retriever, Maggie, is the mistress of this gilded manor and, in fact, the Pub bears her name. Each evening at dinner, Maggie visited our table, standing at a respectful distance and staring solemnly at our food with soulful eyes. Ever the lady, after a few minutes she would either lie quietly at our feet or wander off to visit another table and repeat the performance. Maggie was also a lively companion on our walks as she’d bound ahead and out of sight, only to reappear suddenly out of the brambles, wet, bedraggled and truly worse for wear but panting with unbridled joy.

Fire on the Mountain
Five years ago, Lake Placid Lodge belied its name when, on December 15, 2005, disaster struck. An electrical fire started in an unused downstairs kitchen in the Main Lodge and swept through the historic wooden structure dating from 1882. The staff acted quickly to evacuate the building and no one was hurt –not even Steamboat, the cat. With the Main Lodge all but destroyed and the adjacent Cedar Lodge heavily damaged, there was nothing left to do but carry on and rebuild. That’s just what they did, and, amazingly, the rebuilding and renovation took less than three years. In September, 2008, the Lodge reopened. Very similar to the original buildings in structure and style, the new lodge is blessed with a number of “corrections” including modern electrical and technological updates, so despite this devastating blow, the Lake Placid Lodge has been re-created – now even better than ever!

Lake Placid 411:; (877)523-2700
Transportation: Driving: 5 hours from NYC
Flights: Private jets can fly directly into the Lake Placid airport
Commercial flights: fly into Adirondack Regional Airport (ADK)


Friendly, Frenchy Quebec! by Barbara Barton Sloane
You’re surrounded by 17th and 18th-century architecture, cobblestone streets, and encompassed by towering ramparts of a walled city. Strolling down a narrow alley, you find inviting shops - patisseries, epiceries and boulangeries. Are you in Dijon, Alsace or maybe even Paris? Mais non. You’re in a city far more accessible but replete with all the charm of La Belle France. This, friends, is Quebec!

Quebec City is predominantly French-speaking which gives it a distinctive foreign feel. It seems at once old-world and yet very much today. One can understand why Conde Nast Traveler has named it third among the nine best cities in the Americas, and twelfth in the world.

Wonderful to visit any time of the year, Quebec is at its most seductive when the city is covered with snow, its warm lights beckoning from shops, restaurants and holiday decorations. The Quebecois will tell you that perhaps the jolliest time to visit is when the city becomes one vast outdoor playground and hosts its annual Winter Carnival. It’s when the city comes alive with sub-zero merry-making, including zip lines, night parades, concerts, snow sculptures, sleigh or dogsled rides and skating.

The Quebec Winter Carnival began when the inhabitants of New France, now Quebec, had a rowdy tradition of getting together just before Lent to eat, drink and make merry. Today, this event is the biggest winter carnival in the world and is celebrated annually at the end of January until mid-February. In 2011, the dates are January 28 to February 13. The two-week bash gets a million visitors each year from all over the world. Families are everywhere with wee kids pulled along on sleds. Many Carnival-goers wear a traditional sash and the kids will definitely want one of the long red plastic trumpets that sound out constantly through the snowy streets. So, rather than fighting the crowds at a sweltering Louisiana Mardi Gras, be cool! Embrace and celebrate this frosty event just as our neighbors up north do. Most every Carnival event is outdoors so be sure to dress appropriately. The kiosks and other outlets in the city sell the Bonhomme mascot tag for $10 that gets you into most of the Carnival events.

Activities for Chasing the Chill Away
Besides Carnival, there’s lots more to see and do in Quebec. Visit Vieux-Quebec (Old Town) high on the cliffs which overlook the St. Lawrence River and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Behind its stone walls there are world-class museums, historic sites and great shopping. Nearby, be sure to see the Notre Dame de Quebec cathedral with its bell tower dating back to 1647. You can ride a funicular down to lower town and Place Royale, the oldest part of Quebec City and the site where Champlain built the first permanent settlement in New France. For a special treat,take
Can I please hear back from you in regard to membership. horse-drawn buggy through quaint streets to the Plains of Abraham, a vast, flat, snow-covered area and watch cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

DiningWinter in Quebec is cold, to be sure, but its dining scene is downright sizzling. Since 1978, the owners of Restaurant Le Saint-Armour, Jacques Fortier and Chef Jean Luc Boulay, have devoted themselves to gathering a passionate and thoughtful team in the kitchen as well as in the dining room, to turn out memorable, sumptuous meals – 48, rue Saint Ursule, Warm and welcoming, the award-winning Panache restaurant resides in a restored 19th-century maritime warehouse, a sophisticated blend of old and new – 10, rue Saint Antoine, From the start, Au Vieux Duluth’s founders decided to offer unique dishes and generous portions of top quality food at affordable prices. The restaurant very quickly gained recognition not only for its dishes, but for its d├ęcor, ambiance and exceptional customer satisfaction – 5079, blvd. Wilfrid-Hamel,

HotelsNo visit to Quebec is complete without checking out – and hopefully checking into – the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, the grand castle-hotel in the heart of Old Quebec. There are 618 beautifully furnished rooms, a health club and an indoor pool. Also, the Frontenac just happens to be the most photographed hotel in the world – 1, rue des Carrieres, For a droll, once-in-a-lifetime experience, consider The Hotel de Glace located just outside Quebec City. This crystalline snow bastion with cathedral ceilings is made entirely of…what else? Tons and tons of snow and ice. Once ensconced under a warm fur blanket, you’ll spend the night in a magical atmosphere resembling the Narnia Ice Queen’s palace and praying you won’t need a middle-of-the-night bathroom visit - 9530, rue de la Faune, You say you prefer something a bit cozier? There’s the intimate Auberge Saint-Antoine which Travel and Leisure has ranked one of America’s top small city hotels. The property links four 18th-century buildings with 300-year-old massive wooden beams and stone walls. But, not to worry. Along with the ancient comes all the modern and chic accoutrements needed to satisfy our high-tech lifestyles – 8, rue Saint-Antoine,

If You Go:For more information: Quebec City Tourism,


The Boulders Resort, Carefree, Arizona
by Barbara Barton Sloane

Lizards warm themselves on gigantic granite boulders, Jack rabbits and deer make their homes amid the desert landscape, towering saguaro cacti reach for the sky, and the sun’s rays encourage wildflowers to bloom in vivid shades of magenta, gold and lavender. This is life at The Boulders today, in a place unchanged for centuries. From its environmentally sound development to world-class resort, The Boulders is a compelling destination.

Named for the 12-million-year-old granite boulder formations that dot the landscape, the resort is situated on 1,300 acres in the Sonoran Desert foothills and the terrain has been left virtually untouched to allow indigenous plant and wildlife such as saguaros, mesquite, Palo Verde trees, coyotes and deer to prosper.

I visited The Boulders recently and, as we approached, like a mirage, the resort seemed to emerge from the desert like an offspring of the ancient boulders. My accommodation was in one of the 160 guest casitas which featured hand-hewn wood-beamed ceilings, a large wood-burning fireplace, ample dressing and bathroom area, and, one of the most charming additions, my very own private patio which overlooked the sun-streaked desert. Each morning, I took my coffee and toast here and enjoyed the sight of Gambel’s quails, frisky and loquacious little birds, hopping around my table searching for crumbs while cottontail bunnies nibbled on plants among the cacti.

The Boulders carries the Southwestern motif throughout the property, with lobbies displaying Native American crafts and glass skylights and fireplaces providing warmth and light. The six restaurants on the property range from elegant to casual and feature innovative Southwestern cuisine. There are two championship golf courses renowned for their rugged beauty and breathtaking panoramas.

Not being a golfer, I quickly found my way to The Golden Door Spa. A comforting blend of Eastern and Western influences in its architectural design, healing methods, treatments and philosophies, the spa is a 33,000 sq. ft. space which still manages to feel intimate and cozy. Being surrounded by the desert, I felt my skin could use a blast of pure oxygen so I opted for the Echo Oxygen Facial which promised to nourish and revitalize every cell of the skin, pore by pore. I think it worked because I emerged with skin that was dewy, fresh and smooth as a baby’s – er- whatever.

I had a mere three days at the resort, and tried to fit in as many on-site, fun adventures as possible. I went up, up and away in a beautiful balloon and I rode a horse through desert teeming with life. I spotted two brilliant red cardinals on the bough of a spiny Ironwood tree, a pretty pale colored coyote peeked out from behind a Prickly Pear cactus, and I gazed with amazement at the spectacular architectural designs of Arizona’s state tree, the Palo Verde. The name is Spanish for green stick, and in autumn, its chlorophyll-filled branches punctuate the desert sky.

On The Boulders property, there’s a magical placed called Promise Rock, a one-of-a-kind romantic outdoor venue where fairytale weddings unfold. I was told it’s also a divine place to renew one’s vows. I had to see it! Created by nature but discovered only recently by the resort, Promise Rock opened this spring for those entering life’s most important union – marriage. The site draws upon the strength and rock-solid foundation of the surrounding boulders and the only sound I heard was that of a cascading waterfall nearby. I was particularly taken with the rock art that The Boulders commissioned of a couple holding hands, done in the style of an ancient petroglyph. The icing on the wedding cake: a “his & her” pair of saguaro cacti that presided over the venue – a lovely symbol of partnership.

The Boulders Resort is the recipient of countless awards, including Conde Nast Traveler’s “Gold List, Top Resorts of the World,” Arizona Bride Magazine’s “Best Wedding Night Hotel,” and Zagat’s “#1 Resort in the Southwest Region.”

If You Go:The Boulders Resort is located 33 miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and transportation can be arranged in advance through the resort concierge. For more information or reservations, contact The Boulders at (866)397-6520 or (480)488-9009 or visit

Photos courtesy of Sloane Photography


Have Yourself an Ozark Mountain Christmas
by Barbara Barton Sloane

With dozens of star-filled Christmas music shows and a glittering array of light displays, including the one-mile Branson Area Festival of Lights drive-through, “The Live Music Show Capital of the World” kicked off its annual Ozark Mountain Christmas celebration on November 1 and it continues through December 30.

Sights, Lights and…Ducks!I had a brilliant and glowing visit to Branson, Missouri recently and experienced the most outstanding Christmas spectacular ever. We were dazzled by Branson’s star entertainers and their elaborate holiday production numbers. From the voice of “Mr. Christmas” – Andy Williams, to the Oak Ridge Boys and the rousing carols of the Twelve Irish Tenors, there’s a multitude of entertainers that showcase Branson’s Christmas spirit. For the kids, there’s a special Holiday Lights Ride the Ducks to see the sights and lights on a sing-along holiday adventure through a lighted forest of twinkling snowflakes, candy canes and holiday ornaments.

Bah? Humbug? Not Here!A place that is truly magical for the holidays is Silver Dollar City. They present a most charming production: A Dickens’ Christmas Carol, with extremely accomplished actors, singers and dancers, a production we found truly Broadway-quality. This 1880s-style theme park transforms into an evening wonderland featuring the Christmas on Main Street light and sound show, 1,000 decorated Christmas trees, a 5-storey special effects Christmas Tree, a Holiday Light Parade, festive holiday foods and over four million (you heard it right) lights!

We can Make-Believe…on the ShowboatWe took a ride on the Showboat Branson Belle, bedecked in Christmas finery, and enjoyed a rousing, fun-filled holiday show topped off with a tasty lunch. And one of the most memorable events on my Branson visit was touring the absolutely fabulous Titanic, the world’s largest Titanic museum, state-of-the-art and world-class, which was decorated with lights and holiday trimmings that recalled an elegant Christmas past.

If you still haven’t had enough Christmas lighting displays, consider touring the Branson Area Festival of Lights and the Trail of Lights at Shepherd of the Hills Homestead. Also, on the first Sunday in December, thousands of people will gather in downtown Branson to watch a Christmas parade which respects this most reverent of seasons and without a hint of commercialism.

So, you say it’s not yet Thanksgiving and the Christmas spirit has yet to hit full force. Visit Branson soon and you’re gonna feel it – big time. In fact, you may just consider it your most enchanting vacation ever. After all, Andy Williams has made a career by informing us that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” In this town, Christmas celebrations are like nowhere else on earth, and when it’s time to return home, you will leave with a little more elf in yourself and a little more jingle in your bells!

Branson 411:
Branson Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

Kids Kountry

Ride the Ducks

Showboat Branson Belle

Titanic Museum Attraction

Silver Dollar City