Sunday, May 13, 2012

Chasing The Clouds With Morning Star Balloons

Daren Wilde always had his eye to the sky. But after piloting T-37s and T-1A Jayhawks for the USAF, he was up in the air about what aeronautical challenge to tackle next.

Wilde is sharing his saga with 11 passengers standing in a wicker gondola that’s attached to a 100ft tall bright red balloon filled with 245,000cft of air. It’s just another day at the office for the aeronaut owner of Morning Star Balloons in Park City, UT.

As a newbie, I had my qualms. But the aerial trek proves to be the polar opposite of what I envisioned. I’m not alone. We’re collectively in awe of how this experience is downright therapeutic.

Our journey is calm, quiet and smooth. It’s also warmer than on the ground thanks to a propane-fueled burner that Wilde frequently blasts for lift.

Gently floating at 1,420ft, we spot fields, wildlife and estate homes with the Wasatch Mountains and Park City as a backdrop. Since it’s summer, ski runs are bare. Yet, that makes it easier to differentiate Utah Olympic Park, Deer Valley, Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort.

Wilde explains that since balloons rely on air currents, he can’t precisely nail down our landing site pre-flight. We’re not concerned. A chase crew follows us below, tapping into maps, two-way radios and visual contact.

Since we land before they arrive, teamwork mode kicks in as two hulky passengers hop out and work as crew. Wilde encourages participation, whether it’s rolling out the balloon before lifting off or harnessing it in after landing.

“When you’re trying to bring a group of people together, there’s nothing like a little adventure or a situation that needs handling,” says Wilde. “Once they’ve conquered the balloon together, they’ve developed camaraderie. It’s a fun activity that can be shared across all levels of leadership or organizational structure.”

Back on terra firma, we toast to our lofty fete as Wilde presents each of us with a “Certificate of Ascension” and recites the Balloonist’s Prayer.

Kicking Back in Bucerias

Lola Perez is a pint-sized bundle of spunk that makes it her mission to greet guests arriving at Las Casitas del Mar. The friendly Chihuahua – along with her older sis Lucy, and her human parents Robin and Rick – are naturals at making travelers feel more like lifelong friends who’ve come to “catch up” and laze at their Bucerias hideaway.

On the heels of a busy three-night stay in Puerto Vallarta’s hotel zone, I was smitten right off the bat with this sweet slice of easy-going paradise. Twelve miles up the Banderas Bay coast from Puerto Vallarta International Airport (PVR) in Riviera Nayarit, the private, gated retreat exemplifies the slower paced attitude you’d expect of a small fishing village.

When the ex-pats purchased their one-acre lot in 1992, they recognized that Bucerias was short on casita-style accommodations. “It was more about private homes, apartments and a few smaller hotels,” says Rick. “Once we opened in 1995, we became a nice option for those wanting to stay longer and have homey comforts.”

Robin and Lola led me to Casa Ballena, one of three detached two-bedroom brick and tile cottages. All are individually decorated with traditional furnishings, artwork and pottery the couple collected from their travels throughout Mexico.

With generous size, ample sunlight filtering in and WIFI access, I instantly fantasized about nesting indefinitely. Apparently, others do as well. Robin and Rick see an enviable 60 % repeat business booking anywhere from one or two weeks to a month. And the majority of this loyal cadre comes from the Western U.S. and Canada.

Spacious bedrooms feature an air conditioner and ceiling fan, with living and dining areas cooled by ceiling fans. Separated from the living room by a dining bar, my kitchen was decked out with everything I needed – pots, pans, cooking utensils, silverware, dinnerware, full-size refrigerator, oven with range, microwave, blender and ample bottled water. And while there’s a dining table with chairs inside, each cottage has a second set for al fresco grazing on its private patio.

In a separate two-level structure, the Casa Pez Vela upper-floor suite is accessible via an exterior stairway. This is the grandest, with its expansive living area, full kitchen, two bedrooms each featuring a bath/shower, and lavish private terrace looking toward the ocean and across the courtyard. Tucked away on the first-floor are two one-bedroom suites with the same interior touches.

As a common gathering area within the cozy enclave, the well-manicured courtyard is filled with coconut palms, mango trees and colorful hibiscus shrubs. At its centerpiece is a cobalt-blue tiled mosaic swimming pool and gazebo with shaded seating, barbecue grill, wet bar and bathrooms. “What’s really nice is how guests who don’t know each other end up sharing pot luck dinners in the courtyard,” said Rick.

Looking directly across the cobblestone Calle Lazaro Cardenas, it’s nothing but palms, gently breaking waves and an occasional standup paddler off the uncluttered beach. The five-mile stretch earns a thumbs up for swimming, bodysurfing, boogie boarding and surfing.

Eco-tourism also rocks the area, with everything from bird watching and sunset turtle releases to ziplining in a subtropical jungle. Vallarta Adventures arranges major excursions throughout the region, or you sign up at Scott’s Tours across the calle. For golfers, El Tigre and Flamingos serve up championship courses in adjacent Nuevo Vallarta.

Rick notes that the full kitchens are key. “Depending on what time they arrive, a lot of our guests just go around the corner to Mary Paz Market to pick up the essentials,” he says. There’s also a Mega, Walmart and Merkabastos between the airport and Bucerias for more extensive shelf stocking.

And for those who prefer to avoid cooking, coffee shops and casual eateries are abundant along Lazaro Cardenas. That roster expands exponentially when you head a few blocks further toward the colorful market and main square.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

San Diego Getaways Examiner

For more new Journey Junkie blogs and stories, check out:

In The Know Traveler Blogs & Stories

The Journey Junkie has been really busy posting blogs and stories with In The Know Traveler. So to catch up with my most recent travels, check out:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Padres, Petco & New Pets

I love going to San Diego Padres games, especially early in the season when they bait all the doubters and skeptics with swag. I've collected more than my share of Padres blankets, ball caps, coolers and towels. But today, I hauled home bounty so off the wall I can only describe it as a grand slam.

I scored some awesome Toyota Terrace seats from a long-time high school/college buddy who happens to have a second home right here in "America's Finest City." And I owe Dan big time! The seats were in the shade, right off the third base line. The view was great, restrooms were close, a REAL bar with my favorite Coronado Blonde brew was nearby and a sushi bar was about as far away as second base to home plate. At Petco, it really doesn't get much better than this!

The Padres actually won the tight game against our big-time Los Angeles Dodgers rivals, which was reward enough for fans like me. And after witnessing the numerous "Man Ram" jeers each time the Dodgers favorite son, Manny Ramirez, came to the plate, I was more than satiated.

Heading back to my car, I had an experience more reserved for Petco than Petco Park. A gentleman perched on a curb outside of a condo asked my gang if any of us were interested in taking home a mini-feline cupped in his hand. I borderline collect cats, so my five-second processing of this insane proposition found me saying yes. And this was before looking at the little guy - a gray and white wee bit of a thing that reminded me of my 10-year-old Florence, who I found in Kailua on Oahu about a decade ago. Same coloring, and hopefully the same spunk and longevity.

Mind you, I'll feed little Padre (I think he's male - and if he's not, I'm not changing the name to Madre), get him healthy, get attached to him and pretend to be trying to adopt him out. After all, I don't diss my other Padre swag. So I definitely won't do it to little Padre either!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Curing With Coffee

My most recent Big Island visit perked up when I attended the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, Hawaii’s longest running ag event that’s been a major part of the island’s cultural complexion for some four decades. Picking up steam among connoisseurs, Kona Coffee consists exclusively of beans grown on the western slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa in a strip extending south from Holualoa to Honaunau. More than 670 farms create a tapestry amid the 22-mile-long, two-mile-wide coffee-rich corridor.

American missionary Samuel Ruggles introduced coffee to the island in 1828, transporting cuttings of Arabica trees from Oahu to Kona. The area was a natural choice, thanks to its rich volcanic soil, ample rainfall, natural cloud cover and hard-working family farmers who toiled away to establish the renowned region thriving today.

To explore this savory taste of the Big Island, you can pick up a Kona Coffee Country driving map from the concierge at most Kona Coast hotels and from businesses in Kailua-Kona Town. The comprehensive piece includes information on coffee history, current industry standards and an overview of cultivation practices. For direction ease, it opens to a map pinpointing farms and retail sites that welcome guests.

One of the industry’s most storied producers – and a long-time favorite of mine – is Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua. Most recently, Greenwell has brewed up additional recognition by donating 200 pounds of its finest for the inaugural Grounds For Health specialty coffee auction slated for June 2.

Launching in 1996 in Pochutla, Oaxaca, Mexico, Grounds For Health expanded services to the nearby town of Pluma Hidalgo two years later. It then established a site in Huatusco, Veracruz in 2000. Before the arrival of the Grounds For Health team, there was very little cervical cancer screening done in these areas. And there was no outreach at all to women in more remote communities. As a further setback, any screening done was hampered by questionable cytological accuracy and poor delivery of results.

Today, the Grounds For Health mission is to bring effective cervical cancer screening and treatment to women in coffee-growing communities throughout the world. By recruiting the world's largest coffee producers for the specialty auction, Grounds For Health hopes to spread goodwill to the global farming community and to foster a spirit of international collaboration.

Funds generated from the auction will be used for purchasing health care equipment, providing training and technical assistance to in-country partners, strengthening local treatment capacity, developing a network of community health promoters and educating women in coffee-growing communities. It's one of the first organizations to bring innovative, life-saving technology to coffee farmers and their families.

Based on research funded by the Gates Foundation and endorsed by the World Health Organization, this "Single Visit Screen & Treat" approach has proven affordable, effective and sustainable in low-resource settings.
It has also allowed rural women to receive care in one day. Even more important for long-term sustainability, the skills and equipment required for providing this care are simple enough for general health care practitioners in local communities.

Tom Greenwell, General Manager of Greenwell Farms, is pleased to show his farm's support. "Greenwell Farms has been in the coffee industry for 150 years and knows first hand the ups and downs of farming,” he said. “By participating in this unique auction, we are trying to help our fellow farmers around the world."

After establishing Greenwell Farms in 1850, Henry Nicholas Greenwell devoted the next 40 years farming, ranching and perfecting his Kona coffee. Today, the farm grows its own coffee on a portion of 100 acres amid the most productive land in the Kona District. It also purchases coffee cherry from over 200 selected farmers within the Kona region.

The farm lies adjacent to the ancestral home of Henry and his wife, Elizabeth, which is now occupied by the Kona Historical Society & Museum. Guided walking tours run continuously from 8am - 4pm Monday through Friday and 8am - 3pm on Saturday. Be sure to sample the white chocolate covered coffee beans in the tasting area!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Beach Bounty

I've hunted and collected beach glass ever since my days of beachcombing the Windward and North shores of Oahu. So when I came across a mother load in the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Angel, this heavenly slice of Mexico's Pacific Coast shot even higher up my list of great south of the border retreats.

Waiting for lunch at Cordelia's on Playa Panteon, I decided to check if the water was as pleasant as it had been in Huatulco's Tangolunda Bay the day prior. The temperature was much the same. But it came with a bonus that sparkled in the mid-day sunlight. Interspersed among small seashells, a bounty of sea glass was ripe for the plucking.

I filled my pockets with some three dozen shards that were mostly white - likely from old Coca Cola bottles that had been carelessly discarded on the beach rather than placed into one of those red crates for recycling. With rounded edges and heavily abraded surfaces, these rapidly vanishing jewels were in abundance that day.

If your travels take you to Huatulco or Puerto Escondido, be sure to check out this sweet little village. Cordelia's has tasty seafood that's served in an enormous dining room that sprawls out to tables standing in the sand and shaded by a thatched palapa. It's part of Hotel Cordelia's, one of the newer and most expensive hotels in the region. But at $50 a night, it's tough to use the word expensive.

Playa Panteon's small bay and scattered inlets are ideal for snorkeling and swimming. The pace is slow, with the biggest buzz found as fishermen haul in fresh catches served up at local eateries for lunch and dinner.

And relaxing on the sand is just as inviting as splashing in the water. But I can't promise how much sea glass will be left. I put a lot of effort into cleaning the beach, so to speak.