Being There

Writing is hard, but writing about travel pays off every time I read it again!

Read about Canyon de Chelly, in Arizona

A luxury resort and spa in the Swiss Alps

Camping at Cheaha State Park

Camping in Yellowstone National Park

Lost Time At The Victoria-Jungfrau

(first published at Go World Travel, 2004)

At first, it seems like an unthinkable oversight. The room has no clock. The tall French doors frame a breathtaking view of the Alps, perfectly dusted with snow and dissolving off into a purplish haze on the horizon. The bathroom, chrome and marble and crisp linen hand towels, is spacious enough for a party of 10 (three in the bathtub alone).

The bed is ample, spread with a fluffy duvet. The minibar is stocked with everything from chocolate to champagne. But here in the country of countless cuckoo clocks and Swatch, there is no device to mark time’s passage.

Perhaps it is the very ferocity of the Alps that has made the people of Switzerland such warm and accommodating hosts. The Victoria-Jungfrau actually began as two stately hotels, built in the nineteenth century when the guest book of the Victoria was filled with royalty and notable people of the day. The Emperor of Brazil was a guest in 1877. Mark Twain made the Hotel Victoria a stop on his 1878 European walk-about, chronicled in A Tramp Abroad.

In 1991, the neighboring Jungfrau Hotel was joined to the Victoria with a gleaming glass atrium, and renovations to both structures began. Virtually every detail of the Belle Epoque style was preserved: stained glass skylights, intricate ironwork, rich murals, gilded statuary, ornate columns.

Even the elevator is intact, a dainty tidbit of glossy black iron now gliding more smoothly than its inventors ever dreamed. Restoring the Brasserie alone in the Jungfrau cost $4 million alone and was only recently completed.

The jewel in the crown is the full-service spa. The gentle sound of trickling water greets spa guests; the tiled pool beckons, its tributaries lapping softly in the spa lobby.

The pool lies beneath a vaulted glass ceiling, with marble pillars and gold-accented tiles calling to mind ancient Roman baths. Whirlpools, sunbathing, steam baths and saunas are all available in the 5500-square-meter facility.

Massage and reflexology are offered in a number of serene settings. Beauty treatments featuring Clarins products include facials for women and men, body treatments, make-up consultations and manicures and pedicures. Classes are held in glass-enclosed, sunny studios and include yoga, aerobics, step aerobics, tai chi and ski gymnastics.

The Swiss are so attuned to their roles as hosts that it seems improbable that Mother Nature would thwart their plans with bad weather. But if it should happen, stormy winter weather is no excuse for inactivity at the Victoria-Jungfrau. The facilities include four indoor tennis courts and indoor golf training. When the weather is clear, the best choice for healthy exercise has not changed in centuries.

The grandeur of the Alps calls everyone to their slopes. An invigorating walk in the fresh mountain air is guaranteed to rejuvenate body and soul. Returning to the Victoria-Jungfrau after a day’s hike, the half-acre bathtub exerts an irresistible pull. A long soak, then a quick change for dinner. The Brasserie, one of six restaurants tucked away in the grand old structure, is a gem all on its own.

For nearly 100 years, wall panels and a false ceiling masked its opulent origins. Ornate stuccowork, rich carvings and exquisite murals by leading artists Hans and Otto Haberer once again grace the walls and ceilings.

The setting gives the cuisine a high standard to match. But the Victoria-Jungfrau executive chef proves more than equal to the challenge. The menu in the Brasserie features Swiss dishes, light and appealing. An emphasis is placed on using the freshest, most natural ingredients, so the fish comes from nearby lakes and cheeses from a local dairy.

All the wines are exquisite, vintages produced in Switzerland in such small quantities that they are not exported. Emmanuel Berger, the general manager of the hotel, will tell you with a smile that they’re too good to share with the rest of the world.

Plates whisked off the table like magic, the omnipresent smiling staff, surrounded overhead by multitudes of plump and happy cherubs, toasted again and again with divine local wines and savoring the best flavors Switzerland has to offer.

The Victoria-Jungfrau fills every day with just such moments of rare beauty. A candlelit tour of the wine cellar is awe-inspiring; special evenings with the chef and other events are featured year-round. Afternoon tea is as much a visual presentation as a gustatory one. Every November, the magnificent ballroom is filled with swirling, elegant couples for the Winter Ball. Packages include dancing lessons the day before the ball and of course, a bottle of champagne. A charming little kindergarten is on the property, filled with toys and games for children and staffed by experienced — and fun — teachers. Of the 212 rooms in the hotel, no two are alike. Seventy outdoor terraces offer guests panoramic views of the ever-changing Alps.

The best of vacations remove you far, far away from the ordinary. Sitting in the spa’s exercise studio, brilliant sunlight streaming in through the windows, I experience a little epiphany. Oh, these Swiss. They knew all along. An alarm clock is the last thing we need, recovering from our daily routines, hidden away deep in the heart of Europe.


Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa

CH 3800 Interlaken

phone 041 33 828 28 28

fax 041 33 828 28 80

Bearly Surviving Yellowstone

Canvas walls. Black bears with five-inch claws. Before the connection between these two thoughts sank in, I was committed to a camping trip in Yellowstone with my children. My son, Eli, is almost nine and my daughter Katy is seventeen. In late July, we packed up the car and headed north and west, 1,958 miles from Birmingham, Alabama to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

We’ve been on a cross-country exodus before, mixing camping with occasional nights in hotels (the cost savings and natural environment having an equal and opposite reaction with doors that lock and hot showers). On this trip, we stopped to visit with some relatives on the way and shared our Yellowstone plans.

“How’re the bears out there?” My cousin asked in an offhand way. His wife piped up: “Our friends who live in Colorado, they were advised to have their children wear bells outside to frighten off the bears.”

It took no effort at all to dismiss these comments. My niece had already told me a story about a little girl being mauled to death by a bear in the Smoky Mountains. I am not one to scare easy. On one stop we saw a stuffed bear which loomed over us in a menacing way, teeth bared and claws extended. I hardly blinked.

But when the staff at a dude ranch near Pike’s Peak, Colorado, told me about the 500 pound black bear eating out of the dumpster the night before, I was greatly comforted at the thought of the nice, stout logs of our quaint little cabin that lay between me and a hungry creature of that size. I am brave, not foolish.

Still, we were five hundred miles away from Yellowstone. No worries. When we got to Wyoming, it was windy. And deliciously, wonderfully cool. The sky was blue and everywhere we turned there were jackalopes. We continued north and began to wind our way through the Wind River Indian Reservation, following the Togwotee trail. Soon we were climbing toward the Continental Divide, the Grand Tetons peeking up like a promise from the distant horizon.

Stopping for a cold drink, I was amused to see what looked like an oversized can of pepper spray with a huge bright red nozzle. “Bear Spray” proclaimed the bold label. I picked it up. Might be a fun little novelty item to take back home, I thought. When I saw the price tag I jumped back like I’d been bitten by a snake. It cost more than our entire day’s food budget.

“Worth it though, I’d say,” the clerk said laconically when my comments became audible. She nearly laughed out loud when I asked if there was a Walmart between there and Yellowstone. “You won’t find bear spray any cheaper anywhere else,” she advised me. “I wouldn’t go into the park without it.”

I decided she was either an overcautious hiker or an overzealous sales person, and just barely managed to dismiss her commentary. The scenery as we got back on the road helped. The Tetons grew closer with every twist and turn in the road, snow crowning the highest peaks. Close by, wildflowers in deepest purple and vibrant yellow dotted the fields, while snowmelt roared through the wide and shallow streambeds.

I was so thrilled to be in the middle of it all I could hardly drive. I kept sticking one hand out of the car window, clutching the camera and wildly stabbing at the button to try to capture the view from curve to curve. Katy thankfully confiscated the device before I dropped it on the road side or rear-ended the RV in front of me. We have lots of pictures from odd angles, mostly the road surface and the bug-spattered car body. I did keep one hand on the steering wheel at all times, however. Like I said, I’m not foolhardy. Just enthusiastic.

We drove through just a corner of the Grand Teton National Park, and I hope to live long enough to make it back there one day. But Yellowstone was our destination and I got pretty focused on getting there and busy second-guessing myself. Yellowstone hosts nearly three million tourists from around the world every summer, and I had decided to trust that somewhere in the 2.2 million acres would be a spot for us to stake up our little bitty tent.

We could see wisps of steam rising from famous sites as the two-lane road snaked its way north towards Indian Creek Campground. This is a small campground; in fact, most of the park employees we spoke with didn’t even know it was there. Run by the National Park Service and volunteers, space is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. No generators are allowed and the toilets are just commodes sitting over pits. Water comes from communal spigots.

They had plenty of spaces. We found a lovely site not too far from the water spigot and just far enough away from the toilet. A metal sign was screwed firmly onto the picnic table, one screw for each corner. The words were deeply engraved: THIS IS BEAR COUNTRY.

I looked at our tent, its walls gently ballooning in and out. Its thin, cloth walls. My mind’s eye flashed back to that stuffed bear we’d seen and its long, fearsome claws. Maybe, a little voice inside my head whispered, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Katy called my attention to the rest of the sign on the table. “Look, if a bear comes out of the woods we’re supposed to back off to the car slowly, and carry all our food and cooking gear with us!” I laughed, a little thinly. Our kitchen gear consists of two huge plastic boxes, a two-burner stove and a gigantic cooler. And even if I could make it to the car in one trip carrying all that, I doubt I’d have the presence of mind to do it slowly with a bear in sight.

Our campsite was overrun that night at dinner. Tiny little gray things, too small to be normal squirrels, too cute to be rats, I thought in my optimistic way. But no sign of bears, neither grizzly or black. On each of the four days we were there, we ran into a traffic jam of tourists gawking at the wildlife (wildlife gawking at the tourists, maybe) every fifth mile or so. At one of these, Katy reported seeing a little black dot near the summit of the mountain that everyone kept assuring themselves was a bear, but I withhold judgment on that point. I didn’t see it.

I must say, after four days and three nights in Yellowstone, I left a little disappointed that we never saw a single bear. We saw hundreds, maybe even a thousand bison. The massive, graceful bulk of elk was a frequent and welcome sight. Mule deer were rampant and we even saw a bald eagle soaring up into the cloudy sky.

The canvas of our dear old tent remained unviolated. Except for the rain. Our third night there, we splashed when we stepped into the dark interior, and once again it took a few clicks for all my synapses to make the connection. Water isn’t supposed to be inside the tent. I resourcefully used my pillow and the entire contents of my suitcase to soak up the little lake and spent a shivering and damp eight hours waiting for the sun to come up. The children, I hasten to add, barely dipped their toes into the wet before my noble sacrifice tidied everything up.

It broke my heart to leave Yellowstone. I would gladly take half a lifetime exploring all the sunny valleys, dramatic waterfalls, stunning geysers and eerie mudpots. But the rain accomplished what fear of bears could not: it drove me south and east, back to Birmingham.


(also unfinished)

If you ever want to get outside yourself and just observe human nature, there’s no better place than an RV park.  We take along our tent, a 35-year-old relic my dad bought on a whim when his marriage was bright and shiny and his understanding of my mother was surging toward its high water mark.  To my memory we never used it.

I didn’t even know we had it, in fact, until my parents divorced and honored me with a explorer’s pass to the physical detrius of their marriage.  It’s boxy and square and makes a lot of noise assembling the aluminum poles.  I’m quite fond of it.

Throw the campstove in the back — an artifact of my millenium paranoia  — some coathangers, sleeping bags, marshmallows and a coil of rope, and we’re ready to roll.  Two hours of travel later, and we’re pulling up alongside the camp store at Cheaha State Park.  We’ve followed close on the heels of a bicycle race (up Alabama’s highest mountain?  What kind of masochist…nevermind)  so there are lots of lean flanks in spandex to observe.

Curiously, there are also a lot of middle-aged couples on motorcycles, usually big, brawny bikes with capacious saddlebags ad cushy seats.  Me and my two kids swoop down on the store without mercy, eyeing choice bits of plastic to purchase as a reminder of our stay in the Great Outdoors.

My brain conjures up varied unpleasant reasons why they want the names and ages of all campers in our party (to know how many perished in that unfortunate rock slide, help in identifying our charred bodies after a forest fire, to run an FBI check, you pick one) but we are back in the van soon enough, clutching a piece of cardboard that identifies a little slice of state park that’s “ours” for the next few days.

The parking gate arm that’s supposed to keep out the great unwashed unauthorized crowds is busted off and lies abandoned in a thicket of weeds.  The road is crumbling asphalt and in every direction there are wide expanses of rutted deep orange Alabama clay.  Somebody has tried to shroud these scars with a sprinkling of hay, and some new grass is struggling through, optimistic green against the golden hay and red dirt.

Our goal is a nice view of the lake or the woods, not too close to any other campsite.  We forget about the importance of close proximity to the bathhouse until the tent is pitched, and by then it’s too late.  We’ve snagged the corner site; only three of the twenty or so sites are occupied, so we have no close neighbors.  The tent is sited away from the parking pad with its gray power box and white sewer stub sharing a concrete pad with the water connection.

Under some immensely tall pines, a few scrubby short needled evergreens and graced with twenty-foot beeches, the tent window frames a spectacular view of the lake, the mountain towering above it, its stony framework nudging through the soil like bones through flesh.

I realize my subconscious has been at work as I gaze at the peak in front of me.  I’m here for some distraction-free time to work on a book project that’s three years old and aging every day.  I want the leisure to recall why, exactly, this project grabbed ahold of me and still won’t let go.  So I have a mountain yet to scale; maybe when I’m polishing up the last chapter I can camp on top of the mountain and look down upon the rest of the world.

But actually, an RV camp, no matter how isolated or shabby, is no place to find solitude.  I know this.  Within minutes of our own arrival, a pickup pulling a popup camper slides into the space nearest ours.  Two guys hop out, and with a crank and a flourish they have accomplished what takes us another hour to achieve:  a comfy home-away-from-home, complete with astroturf at the front steps and plastic lawnchairs by the grill.  I covet a popup myself, but will have to settle for an antique tent until my first bestseller.

The couple is gay, and I am momentarily pleased that my daughter is too old and savvy to comment, while my son is still too young to care.  On our stroll to the bathhouse, we spy a 32-foot pull-behind trailer belonging to a retired couple.  We wave, exchange friendly greetings.  There seem to be four or five campsites occupied only by a trailer or popups folded closed, and I see more sites are full than I originally thought.  What’s more, a lot of these traveling homes are sporting Harley-Davidson stickers.  It takes me a few hours to register the significance of this.

As dusk begins to fall, unnaturally early because of the mountain’s shadow, another popup pulled by a mini SUV cruises slowly past our site.  They choose the site right next to ours and are also indecently quick putting up their campsite, complete with a strand of blinking christmas lights outlining their porch roof.  The low animal grumbling of a few motorcycles arriving are only a temporary distraction from the immediate needs to provide food and entertainment to my offspring.  We are treated to a stereo rendition of the Alabama-Georgia game, blasting from car radios on either side of us and up the hill.  Alabama loses.

Next morning, after an argument about naming lizards and the proper uses of a pine branch, I am ready for my hard-won solitude to begin. My husband picks up the kids and takes them home.  I flip open my laptop and await the muse.

…to be continued (this is an undated fragment I found on my hard drive, probably circa 2003. The muse still hasn’t found me and the book project is almost fifteen years old. But I have a publisher for it now!)