The Family

The Family
Airstream Weekend Warriors

Friday, November 28, 2014

Troutstream International Jamaican Edition

Negril, Jamaica





     And now for something completely different...

    The purpose of this blog is to record my adventures of travelling in the Airstream with my family. I often leave out travel unrelated to the Airstream. Like most Airstreamers, I love to travel and experience new places. Over the last few years, I have discovered the magnificence of my home country from a different perspective. Every once in a while I may decide to throw in a more  traditional vacation destination on this blog. This is one of those moments.
 
     The cost of airfare has gotten ridiculous in the past ten years. Gone are the days of a last minute weekend airfare to Madrid for a few hundred dollars. With a family of five, I am forced to shop hard to find a good deal. I have learned that it is better to find good airfare and then figure out why to go than choosing to destination and then price it. Jamaica is the perfect example of how this strategy worked for my family. Melizza and I wanted to go to Nevis until we saw the airfare. As soon as we gave up on a Caribbean family escape, we found a deal on flights to Montego Bay.

     Jamaica has never been on my wish list. Like Cancun and the Dominican Republic, I pictured paradise poisoned by mass tourism and cheesy all inclusive resorts. When we boarded the plane in Atlanta, I was more than a little concerned with the crowd. It looked like a plane full of Homer Simpsons that had just won a free trip to Sandals. The idea of being stuck in a resort full of loud, obnoxious tourists who drink twenty one Red Stripes, eat at a continental buffet and then proceed to pee in the pool is not my idea of a vacation. I do not want manufactured fun either. I want to explore and find what is unique about my destination.
    
      I had always thought of Jamaica as good for the cruise ship traveler. I also knew that it was good on the high end traveler. If you want to rent a home or stay in a stylish hotel like Strawberry Hill, Goldeneye or the Caves, parts of Jamaica provide privacy and exclusivity. I did not know what the offerings would be like in the middle. Our needs were simple. We sought a quiet enclave near a nice beach and access to good food.

     We found that balance in Negril. The Seven Mile Beach is white and the water is blue. There are no high rises. Most important, the food was fresh, unique and delicious. There are many beautiful beaches in the Caribbean but very few with such a unique culture. You do get accosted by locals on the beach selling goods but, for the most part, we wanted what they were selling. There was a lady selling mangoes and papaya. There were people selling spiny lobsters and jerk pork. In other words, we received beach side service without paying Four Seasons prices. There were hustlers trying to sell everything from glass bottom boat tours to pot but a polite no thank you usually sufficed.

     We stayed at the Idle Awhile Resort in Negril. I cannot say enough positive things about this hotel. The rooms were spacious and stylish. We had plenty of room for the five of us. The room included a working kitchen and a balcony overlooking the beach with a hammock. The property sits on a thin sliver of land on Seven Mile Beach. The landscaping is lush and jungle like. They have a restaurant with decent food and great drinks. I always opted for the Jamaican breakfast of Ackee and Saltfish and some local Blue Mountain Coffee. The service was excellent from top to bottom.



The beach at Idle Awhile
Jerk Chicken just across the street from Idle Awhile




     I highly recommend exploring the island with a private driver. We went with Kenneth Watson who I had read about prior to arriving. Ken made sure that we had a great experience in Jamaica. He was friendly, knowledgeable and listened to what we wanted. More importantly, he delivered. We wanted to see Jamaica outside of the tourist belt with an emphasis on local food. Ken picked us up in Negril and took us on a journey through the mountains the the south shore. We visited local markets where we purchased spices, fruits and sugarcane sticks. We stopped for lunch and bought bammy bread and the escovitch. The warm and doughy bammy bread is made from cassava. It was a perfect complement to the Jamaican escovitch. Escovitch is a Spanish inspired dish of whole fried fish with a vinegary sauce spiced with scotch bonnet peppers, onions and tomatoes. We also sampled pepper shrimp. No tropical trip is complete with out drinking some coconut water. Ken brought us to two tourist attractions on the south shore. The first was a short cruise on the Black River. The tour is similar to an Everglades tour but with crocodiles instead of gators. You travel up the river through thick mangroves but unlike the Everglades you are surrounded by mountains. We also visited YS Falls which is a popular attraction for good reason. YS Falls is located on a large estate on the south shore. You can swim in the natural pools below several tiers of waterfalls. They also have man made pools that were very refreshing after spending a bit of time in the van. If you ever find yourself in Jamaica in need of a driver, check out Ken's Jamaican Dream Vacations. Here is a link: http://www.kensjamaica.com/en.

Here are a few pictures of our day with Ken.



Cinammon and nutmeg at the market


Escovitch and bammy bread
Black River
The friendly local crocodile

YS Falls

The pools at YS Falls

     There were a number of surprising things about Jamaica. First, the people were so warm, friendly and welcoming. That is not always the case in areas overrun by American tourists. We had a good time watching the Jamaican men flirt. Local women are greeted with a comeons like "Hi sweetie, you have been waiting for me." The female response is usually indifference until the male persistence pays off with a smile. That is just part of the culture. This would not fly at home but the local ritual is fun to watch. Second, the Jamaicans do not cater to American dietary trends. If you drink, they offer Red Stripe beer or a rum based cocktail. I saw very little wine and no bourbon, mojitos or martinis. The same was true about the food. There were very few fast food outlets in Negril and no crepe or fish taco stands. They have such a bounty of local fresh fruits and vegetables. The ubiquitous dish in Jamaica is jerk. You can get jerk chicken, ribs and pork. We had more than our fair share of this national dish and I savored the heat of the scotch bonnet peppers on my lips. My mouth is watering as I write this. I tried many of the local dishes including curried goat. This is definitely a place to sample the local fare.

     In the final analysis, you can travel to many islands for great beaches and hotels but Jamaica offers a little more local flavor. Plus the reggae music is not bad either. The truth is that Jamaica has something for everyone and I should not judge others so harshly. For many travelers, they want to relax and escape the real world. For some, that means never leaving the resort gates. For us, Jamaica provided an inexpensive and exotic escape that was just a couple of hours by air from Atlanta. I have never been so glad to be wrong about a place.

Negril Sunset

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In The Clouds At Shenandoah

Columbus Day Weekend
Big Meadows Campground
Shenandoah National Park




     Melizza and I have been proud owners of the Troutstream for over five years. This past weekend we left the kids at home to enjoy our first romantic weekend in the Airstream. It is rare for us to travel without our children but I must admit it was paradise to relax in peace and quiet and focus on each other. There were no skirmishes to break up and the Airstream was always spotless. No one complained about our relentless pace. The weather at Shenandoah National Park forced Melizza and I to take it slow. The fall colors are a couple weeks from their peak and the park was shrouded in mist for much of the trip. The end result was a wonderful opportunity to relax and sleep in. There are no hookups at Big Meadows Campground so we were dry camping all weekend. We had no television or cell service. What a relief it was to be cut off from the world. When we wanted to do something, we could descend from the clouds and travel to Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley or the Virginia Piedmont region.


  The entire escape was planned around a dinner at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. The plan was to stay in Shenandoah National Park to hike and unwind before dressing up and enjoying a truly gourmet dinner at one of the best restaurants in Virginia. The weather prevented us from hiking in the park. Shenandoah National Park is located on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most of the park sits on top of peaks that are a little over 3000 feet in elevation. The main artery through the park is a mountaintop road called Skyline Drive that winds 105 miles through the park north to south. We stayed in the centrally located Big Meadows Campground at around mile marker 50. There are only a few exits from the park. In order to exit the park we had to drive 19 miles north to Thornton Gap or 14 miles south to Swift Run Gap. The roads are windy and the speed limit is 35 miles per hour. To add to the challenge, the visibility during our weekend stay averaged around 15 feet in the fog.


    The drive to Virginia from Ohio brought us back through West Virginia where we had visited a couple weekends before. The Greenbriar River Valley was near the peak of fall colors and the scenery rivaled anything in Virginia. Now more than ever I realize that I need to explore West Virginia more. I have done a lot of research and plan on dedicating more time next year to the eastern portion of West Virginia. Since I am finally heading to the west coast with the Airstream next year, that may be limited to a couple of weekend trips. I highly recommend visiting in the fall.

    After we were situated at Shenandoah, we headed down to Charlottesville, Virginia. This city is the home of Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia and Dave Matthews. The former are probably more important than the latter. We decided to check out a winery while we were in town and picked Blenheim Vineyards primarily because Dave Matthews is the owner. We went in for a tasting and it was surprisingly decent wine. The setting was very idyllic close to Monticello. We did encounter some drunk sorority girls who suffered from excessive personalities but that does tend to happen when alcohol is involved. I found it more amusing than annoying but I can't say the servers felt the same way. We strolled around the downtown area and had a nice dinner at an Asian tapas concept restaurant called Bang.


     On Sunday morning, that persistent fog was still lingering so we headed east to the Virginia Piedmont area. Sperryville is a small town just east of the Thornton Gap exit. Melizza and I visited an orchard and picked up the most sweet and crisp apples I have tasted in years. That is what an apple should taste like compared to the bland products that pass for apples at the local supermarket back home. They tasted like autumn.

     We also hit the antiques stores and art galleries in town. This is a quaint and sophisticated region. There is a lot of D.C. money around here because of the proximity to our nation's capital. Melizza and I were able to find a great table for the kitchen in our new house. We had time for a quick hike to Dark Hollow Falls before cleaning up for our dinner at the Inn. One of the great luxuries dry camping with the Airstream without kids was the ability to take a relatively long hot shower.






    After cleaning up and dressing up a bit, we headed back east to the Inn at Little Washington in the tiny town of Washington, Virginia. This town was surveyed by none other than George Washington himself. This restaurant and inn have been around since 1978. It is a deservedly famous restaurant and inn frequented by foodies and sophisticated East Coast tourists. Melizza and I were just happy to be there and enjoy some great food together.

     The decor is very flamboyant and whimsical. If Liberace had a cousin who had slightly better taste, then that is what it looked like. All kidding aside, it was really beautiful inside and out. The town is also a charmer.

     We went for the food and it did not disappoint. I had the Enduring Classics Tasting Menu while Melizza ordered the Seasonal Menu. Some of the highlights were the so called "Tin of Sin" containing American Osteria Caviar over jelly and peekytoe crab, Rappahannock Oysters Four Ways and Truffle Dusted Popcorn. The attentive staff brought out course after course of delectable tastes. One highlight for Melizza was the Tea Master who made her tea from items in the garden. He was also the "Cheese Whiz" and brought out one of the best selections of cheese we have ever seen in the United States. He patiently explained all the different characteristics of teas and cheeses. My meal ended with a dessert called the "Seven Deadly Sins". We toured the kitchen and it was absolutely spotless and beautiful. The French Laundry in the Napa Valley has an edge on the food, but the Inn at Little Washington has the most beautiful kitchen. Chef Patrick O' Connell has served Queen Elizabeth, Several Presidents and cooked for Julia Child on her 90th birthday. That is good enough for me. Melizza and I loved every minute of our time at the inn.













     We enjoyed our time alone with each other and endeavor to go on these quick escapes together more often.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wild and Wonderful Indeed

Blackwater Falls State Park
Davis, West Virginia







     Boy have I put off this trip for far too long. Melizza and I have planned quick getaways to West Virginia for the last few years but, for one reason or another, have always ended up cancelling. This time, however, we finally made the six hour trek to visit our wild and wonderful neighbor to the east. The experience was well worth the effort.

     The kids had a day off from school on Friday and I had a birthday to celebrate. Our three day weekend was shaping up nicely. Our destination was Blackwater Falls State Park in northeastern West Virginia. The only problem is that the state parks do not take reservations after Labor Day and the Leaf Peepers Festival was taking place in the nearby towns of Davis and Thomas. We hustled out of town on Thursday night for a quick overnight at Wal-Mart in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

    I woke up at the crack of down and rallied the troops for a quick and early departure. The last 70 miles took about two hours because of the mountain road but it was well worth the effort. We snagged the last electric site and a just few minutes after we arrived several more people were driving up. Our camp site was wooded and private while most sites were a bit out in the open. Site number 1 was abandoned for about five minutes before we arrived. Happy birthday to me! The weather was perfect and sunny and reached almost 70 degrees before the cool night arrived almost demanding a cozy campfire with the family. The campground crowd was a nice mix of younger outdoor enthusiasts and older couples.




    The Blackwater Falls campground is decent but the park and the surrounding area is excellent. They have about sixty sites. The electric loop (no water hookups) is circular with a large clearing in the middle and trees lining the exterior sites. The dry camping loop is hilly with a little more privacy. There is a small lake less than half a mile away and the namesake Blackwater Falls are close as well. The really remarkable feature of the park beyond the obvious waterfall is the eight mile gorge carved by the Blackwater River. There are several trails along the rim of the canyon. The fall colors really start to shine in late September.

  



    In the valley below Blackwater Falls State Park are two sleepy West Virginia towns. Davis is the larger of the two. By larger, it has a few more shops and a couple more restaurants. I visited the Blackwater Bikes Mountain Bike Outfitters for some mountain bike trail advice. I learned about the many and varied places you could hit the trails. This is a choice area for mountain biking and the scene here is in its infancy. I would recommend this shop for good mountain biking intel.

    Thomas is the hipper of the two towns primarily due to a little restaurant/bar/music venue called the Purple Fiddle. This is where you can find an interesting mix of West Virginians, hipsters, and campers converging for beer and great live music. Rumor has it that Norah Jones may be stopping by next weekend. Her traveling band is booked and she may stop by. The place holds about 100 people at most. It is smoke free and kid friendly. We watched a band called Big Leg Emma while enjoying a local IPA served in a jar. The Avett Brothers used to frequent this eclectic gem. There are also the requisite coffee shops and antique stores. This place looks like it is on the verge of evolving into a cool little town. It is not quite there but on its way.





     Ten miles south down the road from Blackwater Falls State Park is Canaan Valley State Park (rhymes with insane). This is a more developed resort park and is a winter ski destination. We checked out the campground. It was equally small but does have full hookups. We are trying to decide if we can brave the West Virginia roads with the Airstream in tow for a winter dry camping ski trip. They had almost 200 inches of snow last year in the valley. On this autumn Saturday, the trees light up the mountainside. Canaan Valley opens up the ski lifts for summer and fall explorers. They also have a clay pigeon shooting range. I would have loved to try it out but my boys are not ready for that. Ethan might shoot my toe off.

 

The view from the campground
    We ventured a bit south of Canaan Valley to head up the gravel National Forest Roads leading to the Dolly Sods Wilderness. What started out as a drive in the country quickly turned into an adventure. We drove for miles up the dusty roads to the top of this remote wilderness and were rewarded with beautiful mountaintop vistas and an otherworldly environment. The blueberry bushes that grow on these balds turn a fiery red in the fall and have been dubbed Fields of Fire. The plant life and upland bogs found up here are very rare in this part of the country and are more commonly found in northern Canada. These mountain tops used to be covered with large Spruce and Hemlock trees and a large swath of humus (no relation to the Whole Foods variety). This environment is a result of clear cutting in the 1800's and what is left is unique and beautiful. Many great photographers come up for the sunrises and sunsets. I am clearly not one of them. This is a popular place for tent campers who want to camp on top of the world. They have a developed campground and dispersed camping. If you find yourself in this area, do not miss Dolly Sods.




 




     There is so much more to explore moving south but that will have to wait for another trip. From atop the Dolly Sods wilderness, you can peer into the Shenandoah Valley to the east. Just south of this area is the more famous Seneca Rocks area. There is also the historic town of Cass and many great rivers for fly fishing. Also, the New River Gorge Bridge and the world famous whitewater rafting on the New and Gauley Rivers are what puts West Virginia on the map for outdoor enthusiast.

    We headed back to Blackwater Falls for dinner, a quick jaunt at the Purple Fiddle and the 25th Anniversary Dark Skies star party within the state park. The party was held in a clearing on the shores of Lake Pendleton with 360 degree views of the night sky. You could see the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Meteorites were flashing across the night sky among the twinkling stars. We are able to view globular clusters of stars, comets and the Andromeda Galaxy through the various telescopes set up in the grass. It was a fitting end to a memorable Saturday.

    On Sunday, I was able to hit the mountain biking trails adjacent to Blackwater Falls State Park. The mountain biking scene is evolving here and the Dobbins House Trails were full of rocks and roots. These trails are not for amateurs without dual suspension bikes but I loved every minute of my ride. Maggie ran alongside me and we didn't see a soul. The trail follows the rim of the canyon overlooking the Blackwater River. There are easier trails that the kids rode with me but this was all about Maggie and I. When I return to this area, I will be drinking an IPA at the Purple Fiddle and explaining to a newbie that Dobbins House is a highly technical trail. He will surely be impressed with my knowledge.



My trusty canine companion


This is 41
    Sadly, we made our way back home on Sunday to prepare for the reality of a big move to our new home, school activities and work. Now I am armed with great memories and a new destination to dream about. I will see you soon West Virginia. You really are wild and wonderful.