www.wvgazettemail.com Travel http://www.wvgazettemail.com Gazette archive feed en-us Copyright 2017, Charleston Newspapers, Charleston, WV Newspapers WV Travel Team: Unusual qualities mark historic Lexington, VA http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170813/GZ0506/170819975 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170813/GZ0506/170819975 Sun, 13 Aug 2017 08:41:00 -0400 By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team By By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team LEXINGTON, Va. - On the face of it, Lexington is a quintessential Virginia town in the Shenandoah Valley, filled with gracious antebellum mansions and a welcoming brick downtown with distinctive shops, no parking meters and free parking garages.

It boasts a number of best-of listings, from coolest small town to coolest college town. Scratch the surface and the unusual qualities begin to peek through.

One of the seven natural wonders of the world and a global attraction since 19th-century European visitors made it a must-see, along with Niagara Falls, Natural Bridge is worthy of its fame.

Now a Virginia state park, Natural Bridge was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, who paid the king a bargain 20 shillings, or about $160, for the place. Jefferson called it "the most sublime of nature's works" and visited often, along with other notables. You can sign his guestbook alongside names like Sam Houston, Daniel Boone and Andrew Jackson.

The limestone arch is 215 feet high, 40 feet thick and spans 90 feet. The well-maintained walkway is reached by more than 70 steps into the gorge. Fortunately for us out-of-shape folks, there is a shuttle bus to take you back to the parking lot.

The walk is along Cedar Creek, which spent millions of years carving the gorge. Beyond the arch is a living history Monacan Indian village. The Monacan tradition claims the bridge atop the arch was a miracle to save their tribe from attack.

Today, in a true wonder, U.S. Route 11 still carries traffic across the top of the arch. Natural Bridge is thought to be part of an underground cave system 200 million years ago, with the bridge being the thickest part of a collapsed ceiling.

There are other historic notes about Natural Bridge. A teenage George Washington reportedly surveyed it and carved his initials in the rock as he climbed 23 feet up the arch.

During both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Jefferson allowed his treasure to be used for making musket balls, where hot lead was dropped through a sieve from the top of the bridge into the water below. Saltpeter was also mined for gunpowder, and the cave is part of the walk today.

Nearby is the 34-floor-deep Caverns at Natural Bridge, the deepest public caverns in the east.

One of Lexington's proudest attributes is that the Civil War's most notable generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, are buried here. It is not their wartime accomplishments that are presented, however, but their academic achievements.

Lee accepted the presidency of Washington and Lee University after the war was over, while Jackson is highlighted as an antebellum professor of natural philosophy at Virginia Military Institute.

Jackson House is open to the public and filled with the authentic artifacts and furnishings he selected. We meet Jackson as professor, church leader, businessman, husband and gardener. We learn he worked out with athletic equipment and hydrotherapy, taking daily cold baths. He also founded and taught Sunday school classes for slaves and free black people at the still-active Presbyterian Church nearby.

Lee Chapel, which the general built, is his shrine on campus. He attended weekday services with students. Upon his death, an addition was built for his crypt.

Lee's burial box is surmounted with an exquisite marble statue of the general. Just outside the door is the grave site of Lee's famous horse, Traveller, who was with him throughout the war, during his time at the college and died the year after Lee. The gallery in the chapel highlights science, education and the connection between the Washington and Lee families.

Washington's pistols are on display, as well as the original of Charles Willson Peale's famous Washington portrait. The Victorian brick structure is a National Historic Landmark.

The two colleges in town are the only two built abutting each other, creating a wide swath of campus through the town.

VMI is the country's first state-supported military college. It was once an arsenal and was turned into an educational institution as a way of taming the rather rowdy arsenal soldiers. The college was burned by Gen. David Hunter in 1864.

Its museum houses Jackson's horse, Little Sorrel, as well as an extensive collection of school rings, VMI being one of the first colleges to have them. Most impressive is the rare prototype-filled Henry Stewart Collection of guns, one of the world's most unique. My husband, Jack, was astonished by the numerous revolver rifles among its 450 pieces.

Washington donated shares of James River stock to the school, keeping it financially solvent in the late 18th century. In a stroke of good investing, that stock eventually became CSX railroad stock, and its dividends still pay student tuition.

Being a college town, Lexington has a wide array of places to eat, from first rate bar food to sushi. We found our pleasure in homemade treats. The pasta at Rocca's, in our hotel - the historic Robert E. Lee - had the chewy texture that comes only from homemade.

At Brew Ridge, all the sandwiches come in fresh-made waffles. The popular brew pub does not craft beer, but it does serve a wide selection: 200 bottles of craft beer on the wall and 17 craft beers on tap. For purists, there are three craft breweries in the area.

Sweet Things has exceptional homemade ice cream, including a rare banana flavor. Layne's Country Store boasts a room full of locally made jams, plus a mountain of country hams and side meat - not something you see every day.

My favorite was Pure Eats, where the donuts are made fresh daily. I was pleased to know my preference was shared by the horses that pull the carriage rides through town. The folks at Eats regularly provide them with bags of donuts.

Even the streets have their own unusual story. In 1851, officials decided the town had too many hills. They proceeded to lower the streets by hand. Evidence remains today in the odd configurations of some structures.

A more contemporary oddity, special sidewalk bricks celebrate Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge. With some, it's obvious which category they fall into: Washington, Meriwether Lewis, Lee - all are righteous. There are others who are hard to place.

All these quirky stories fade in comparison to Dinosaur Kingdom II, where the storyline is as highly imaginative as the realistic fiberglass creations of Mark Cline that populate the park. The story: Canon fire from Hunter's troops awakened prehistoric creatures at Natural Bridge, and the Yankees plan to use them as weapons of mass destruction against Confederates. It doesn't turn out as expected. Even Abraham Lincoln appears as a character in one of the 25 stops.

Cline is a professional who also creates mini-golf courses and theme parks. He reportedly uses an original process for fiberglass construction that is quite fast.

I couldn't wait to ask if Lexington suffered from demands to remove Confederate statues. Tourism officials assured me they faced no confrontations and were, in fact, contacted by numerous folks asking to give their removed statues to Lexington.

For more information, explore LexingtonVirginia.com.

Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is the author of "Way Out in West Virginia," a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State. She and noted photographer Steve Shaluta have released the second printing of the coffee-table photo book "West Virginia Beauty, Familiar and Rare." Both books are available around West Virginia and from WVBookCo.com.

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WV Travel Team: Privacy, cost-efficiency perks of choosing a villa http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170803/GZ0506/170809897 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170803/GZ0506/170809897 Thu, 3 Aug 2017 11:19:00 -0400 By Andrea Tracewell WV Travel Team By By Andrea Tracewell WV Travel Team The term "villa" traditionally refers to a country residence or estate. It conjures images of Old World European luxury. But villa vacations are closer and more affordable than you may think.

Today, villas pop up in every setting, in every country, from lakeside homes in Texas or 10 minutes from a Disney theme park, to the luxurious countryside of Italy. With every price point and the option of any amenity, villas are great for corporate functions, family vacations, or girls getaway trips.

Themes can vary from one villa to the next and range from sports, such as tennis or golf villas, to family friendly or girlfriend getaways with spa activities.

Here are just a few reasons to consider booking a villa instead of a hotel or resort:

Say goodbye to the crowded resort pool, and relax at a private pool footsteps from your door. The spaciousness of a villa allows you have a private bedroom area but still provides plenty of common space to socialize with your friends, family and co-workers.

You see the cost of the villa upfront, so you can budget accordingly. There are none of the hidden resort fees or high-end meal expenses that come with an all-inclusive beach destination or a hotel in the middle of a big downtown city.

Most villas include fully equipped kitchens and all bedding items. Also, they often have options for daily chefs, maid services, concierge perks and transportation services.

With the ability to choose from these add-on services, you truly can make a villa a personalized experience. The villa can be as basic or as inclusive as you choose.

The common assumption about a villa is it is an extravagant, high-priced vacation option. The reality is a villa could actually save you money when you break down the costs per person.

The Casa Big Spur located in Dominical, Costa Rica, is a five-bedroom gem hidden within the rainforest. The house sleeps 10, and rates for the Casa Big Spur start at $643 per night. Broken down, it would be $64.30 per person per night, $192.90 per person for a 3-night stay or $450.10 per person for a 7-night stay.

National Travel tip: The best flying schedule with pricing is currently through United Airlines. From Charleston to San Jose, Costa Rica, you would have one connection through Houston.

A villa rental is a great way to reward your employees for a corporate retreat or annual outing. Some villa companies even offer a concierge to help plan your corporate retreat. This representative will meet you and your employees at the airport, assist at baggage claim and customs, and then make sure everyone has the appropriate transportation to the villa retreat.

Because of the variety of villas out there and the rise of direct-from-owner websites, knowing where to start can be difficult. Choosing the right company to rent from is just as important as finding the right kind of villa.

That's why we recommend using a travel agent who has the resources to find the best villa for your trip. Your agent will ask you all of the necessary questions to find the best fitting villa so you can sit back, relax and feel at home.

National Travel tip: Book your villa at least six months ahead of time.

Villas allow you to gather with your group to enjoy the vacation or corporate event without the crowds of a hotel or resort. Perhaps the best reason to book a villa is to control your costs while you settle in your home away from home.

Andrea Tracewell has been a corporate/government travel agent with National Travel for three years and has been involved with the travel industry for five years. National Travel's Villa Specialist Team consists of Beverly Jones, Sharon Silva and Renee Braley.

For questions on this article, email sales@nationaltravel.com or call Tracewell at 304-357-0801. If you would like more information to book a villa for your next getaway, contact National Travel at 800-642-3603 or email vacationplanner@nationaltravel.com.

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WV Travel Team: History, culture, wildlife mark New Orleans vacation http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170730/GZ0506/170739998 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170730/GZ0506/170739998 Sun, 30 Jul 2017 07:17:00 -0400 By Seth Skiles WV Travel Team By By Seth Skiles WV Travel Team

NEW ORLEANS - Hanging moss. Iron balconies. Jazz. Mouth-watering cooking. Southern charm. All significant parts of American cultural lore.

Ever wonder where these and more facets of American heritage derived? Take one step into New Orleans, and your traveling life will never be the same.

The Crescent City, nicknamed for its strategic location on a large bend of the mighty Mississippi River, is a dream come true for those seeking experiences outside of the norm. New Orleans is a fascinating melting pot of food, history and music, a city unlike any other in the world.

Remarkably resilient after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans is alive and vibrant as ever.

The French Quarter is the heart of the Crescent City and defines its eclectic blend of cultures through architecture, eateries, shops and historic structures. Established in 1718 by French explorers, the Quarter has been an essential part of New Orleans since its beginnings.

The characteristic iron railings, over-hanging plants and small, intimate streets add to the Quarter's charm. Jackson Square is a communal gathering place. It is easily recognizable by gardens and a large sculpture of Andrew Jackson on horseback in the center with the river a stone's throw away.

The St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Presbytere nearby are filled with historic items and are open to the public.

Live music seems to be on every corner - amateur jazz musicians blowing horns, playing drums and singing their hearts out is a thrill to experience.

Hang around the Quarter for an afternoon and a spontaneous parade will inevitably march by. Lively processions for Mardi Gras, St. Patrick's Day, funerals and other occasions often sweep passersby into the fun.

Walk down infamous Bourbon Street to take in the tawdry bars and houses of ill repute. Bourbon Street is energetic any time of day, but beads thrown from balconies and loud music pouring into the street are more frequent after the sun sets. The window advertisements and lighted signs are a sight to behold themselves.

No visit would be complete without a stop at Cafe Du Monde, located on Decatur Street, next to the river. This quaint spot is constantly teeming with patrons anxious to try the cafe's famous beignets (French doughnuts covered in powdered sugar) and coffee laced with chicory.

Guests wearing darker clothes will be light-heartedly pointed out by the wait staff as wearing the wrong color. It is quite a feat to not make a mess from the ever-present powdered sugar on the tables and floors.

The jazz brunch at the Court of the Two Sisters on Royal Street is not to be missed. The French townhouse-style building dates from the early 1800s and was originally intended as an upscale residence. White tablecloths, large mirrors and shiny tiled floors flank an enormous buffet filled with Creole and Cajun delicacies.

A huge array of salads, breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, a carving station, and desserts are available to taste. The turtle soup with sherry, sweet potato salad and buttermilk biscuits is highly recommended. Guests are seated either inside or outside in the courtyard, where jazz music from live musicians wafts through the air.

My grandmother dined at the Court of the Two Sisters in January 1954. She was visiting New Orleans to support the West Virginia University football team playing in the Sugar Bowl against the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her picture was taken while sitting in the restaurant's courtyard by a newspaper photographer.

The Place d' Armes Hotel on St. Ann Street is highly recommended for an overnight stay in the Quarter. Once a school building in the 1700s, this significant structure has been beautifully restored with exposed-brick guest rooms and a breakfast area. The pool and brick courtyard offers a quiet respite from the busyness in Jackson Square. (Check it out at www.placedarmes.com.)

Besides the French Quarter, other city districts are just as unique. The Garden District's beautiful mansions are best seen riding the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue. A past era of Southern hospitality surrounds this area of town, with stunning porches beckoning for mint juleps to be sipped.

The majestic live oak trees and hanging moss throughout Audubon Park are worth seeing at the end of the streetcar route. Browsing Magazine Street's shops makes for a delightful afternoon walk.

And don't miss the St. James Cheese Company on Prytania Street. You will marvel at the impressive collection of cheeses and scrumptious lunch items, and it's not a bad place to escape the Louisiana heat.

The National World War II Museum is also a fabulous stop. The gigantic multi-building complex transports guests into various war settings with a huge collection of memorabilia, recollections and audio/video exhibits. The 4-D film "Beyond All Boundaries" superbly conveys the terrifying global atmosphere in the early 1940s.

Another pavilion displays several aircrafts used during the war - guests can brave four-story catwalks for a glimpse in various cockpits. An exhibit highlighting Nazi propaganda tactics is on seasonal display, loaned from the United States Holocaust Museum.

A plethora of excursions outside of New Orleans are at travelers' fingertips. Numerous sprawling plantations located on the Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are open for outings. Guided bus trips throughout districts affected by Hurricane Katrina point out the city's ongoing recovery efforts.

Also, trips into the bayous in search of wildlife encounters are popular. Alligators, snakes, turtles, birds and other creatures are often spotted amid the thick swamp foliage. Two recommended tour companies offering a variety of sightseeing options are Jean LaFitte Swamp Tours (www.jeanlafitteswamptour.com) and Cajun Encounters (www.cajunencounters.com).

The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is the gateway to the Crescent City for most Americans. Flights leaving from Charleston's Yeager Airport typically have one layover. A short car ride is ideal for transportation into town. Come prepared for heat; Louisiana summers are infamously stifling.

Step out of your comfort zone this summer and visit a place steeped in culture like no other. New Orleans earns a spot on every traveler's bucket list and fills up the senses without disappointment.

Seth Skiles is a West Virginia native who enjoys writing, traveling and writing about his travels. You can visit his travel blog at sethskiles.wordpress.com.

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WV Travel Team: Pools of history at Berkeley Springs http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170721/GZ0506/170729944 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170721/GZ0506/170729944 Fri, 21 Jul 2017 11:00:00 -0400 By Dave Zuchowski WV Travel Team By By Dave Zuchowski WV Travel Team BERKELEY SPRINGS - It's a four-hour, 15-minute, 270-mile drive from Charleston on Interstate 79 to Morgantown, across Interstate 86 and east to Route 522. That will take you to the town of Berkeley Springs in the state's Eastern Panhandle, a popular tourist destination. People revel in its history, architecture, outdoor recreational opportunities, great restaurants and lodging.

For a small town of less than 1,000 people, Berkley Springs has quite a history, beginning with Native Americans who recognized the advantages of the springs' mineral waters.

When the first Caucasians arrived, the Native Americans told them of the springs - five principal water courses and numerous lesser ones that still pour out of the ground at a rate of 2,000 gallons per minute at a constant temperature of 74 degrees.

President George Washington came by at age 16, part of a survey crew for Lord Fairfax, a large land owner and the only English lord to live in Virginia.

After learning about the area, Fairfax permitted 7 acres of land to be used as a public park until 1776, when he allowed the Virginia legislature to liberate it for the town of Bath.

Both Washington and Fairfax built cottages there, and early part-time residents included John Hanson, first president of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, and Charles Carroll, one of Maryland's signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Land purchases by many of America's founders and Revolutionary War generals helped insure the growth of the country's first spa. Noteworthy visitors who came later included James Madison and Washington Irving.

Today, West Virginia administers the contemporary 4-acre site that resembles an old village, green with a gazebo and bubbling streams along with a reproduction of an antique bathtub that served the springs in Washington's era.

The park's current swimming pool was built in 1949 on the site of previous covered baths built in Victorian times. In a much earlier era, Martha Washington may have taken the waters in Fairfax's personal bath shack built in 1768.

Near Warm Springs Run, two of the park's original buildings still stand. One of these, the Roman Baths, was renovated 26 years ago. There, sunken pools lined with ceramic-tile floors and walls occupy the second-oldest building in Morgan County. The park headquarters on the grounds, originally a bathhouse built in 1784, is the oldest.

Each of the indoor relaxation pools in the Roman Baths holds 750 gallons of untreated, natural water, heated to 102 degrees, and can be rented by the half-hour for $25 for the first occupant, $15 for each additional person. The Roman Baths is the only place in town that offers untreated water.

On the second floor of the Old Roman Bathhouse, the Museum of Berkeley Springs deals with the people and history of the region. The museum is open seasonally from March through December and on certain holiday weekends. Private tours are available by appointment (call 304-258-3738). If you see a banner hanging outside, the museum is open.

Adjacent to the Roman Baths, the Gentleman's Spring House offers pure, deliciously tasteless water for immediate drinking. Locals come from miles to bottle some for free-of-charge home consumption.

At the far end of the park, the yellow brick building that serves as the main bathhouse was built in 1929 and remodeled in 2010. There, visitors can enjoy a dry sauna, a Whirlpool jacuzzi, a Roman bath and a massage. A bath with follow-up massage on weekends costs $55 for a half-hour, even less on weekdays. Advance reservations are recommended.

The Ice House, a four-story yellow brick building on Independence and Mercer streets, once served as a cold storage facility for the area's extensive apple crop. The building is now home to the Morgan Arts Council which sponsors community theater productions and exhibitions by a number of artists.

Nearby, the historic art deco Star Theater screened its first film in 1928, and the Manley hot-oil popcorn machine and striped silk wall coverings date back to 1949. Modern amenities include a stereo sound system, air conditioning and a digital projector installed in 2013. Films change weekly and are screened at 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Best of all, prices are kept low at $4.50 a ticket, and the popcorn is topped with real butter.

Further up the mountain along Route 9, the Panorama Overlook, hundreds of feet above the junction of the Cacapon and Potomac rivers, gives visitors a panoramic vista of three states - Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland.

For further information on any of the above sites, call the Berkeley Springs Chamber of Commerce at 304-258-3738.

Dave Zuchowski has been writing about travel for 26 years, and his articles have made the pages of many newspapers and magazines across the country, including AAA, Pathfinders, West Virginia Magazine, Southsider, and Westsylvania. He writes for the Herald-Standard Newspaper, based in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

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Glen Ferris Inn under new ownership http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170713/GZ03/170719799 GZ03 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170713/GZ03/170719799 Thu, 13 Jul 2017 15:09:26 -0400 Staff reports By Staff reports The Glen Ferris Inn hotel and restaurant is under new ownership, which has plans to update the historic Fayette County hotel that overlooks Kanawha Falls.

Two West Virginia National Guard officers, Brig. Gen. Harrison Gilliam and Maj. Thomas Willis, purchased the inn last month from Glen Ferris residents Dan Hill and Becky Hill, according to a news release. The new owners contracted Wilmington, North Carolina-based Crown Hotel and Travel Management as the management company for the inn. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The new owners aim to update the inn, starting with its rooms, the release said. They also have plans to expand seating overlooking the waterfalls.

"We view the Glen Ferris Inn as one of the great jewels in the history of West Virginia," Willis said in the release. "We certainly aim to polish it and take it to the next level for all of West Virginia to enjoy and be proud of. It's an asset for our entire state."

Originally built by retired U.S. Army Col. Aaron Stockton, the Glen Ferris Inn opened as an inn on the Charleston-Lewisburg road in 1839. A Union Carbide subsidiary bought the inn in 1920, and then sold it in 1981 to Norwegian firm Elkem Metals as part of a sale of other Carbide assets. The Hills bought the inn in 1996 before selling it this year.

The inn has hosted Presidents John Tyler, Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, the release said. Stockton, the original owner, was a descendant of Richard Stockton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Gilliam said in the release that the history of the inn influenced the purchase.

Crown Hotel and Travel Management currently operates 10 hotels, including eight in North Carolina and one in South Carolina, according to its website.

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WV Travel Team: Wonders above and below at Luray Caverns in Virginia http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170713/GZ0506/170719820 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170713/GZ0506/170719820 Thu, 13 Jul 2017 11:30:00 -0400 By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team By By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team For more than a century, thousands of visitors have made the pilgrimage each year to be awed by the subterranean splendor of Luray Caverns. Today the number is more than half a million, and other exceptional attractions have developed around the caverns.

The largest and most popular in the east, the caverns are a National Natural Landmark in Luray, Virginia. Their limestone formations are about 400 million years old, more or less, and they are still growing. At a cubic inch every 120 years, you don't have to be concerned about visiting often and finding your favorite formations altered.

Tourists enter the cave down a long flight of stairs in the area where it was first discovered by local seekers in 1878. Washington's Column was the first they saw.

I was astonished to discover the caverns with their stalactites, flowstones, draperies, natural bridges and other breathtaking and colorful wonders are virtually identical to what the discoverers initially found.

About 20 percent of the caverns have been excavated primarily for the brick pathways on the mile-and-half tour that covers 47 acres and drops 164 feet, with almost every inch covered by gasp-inducing formations. It's almost too much for the senses to absorb.

The largest body of water in the caverns is Dream Lake, a shallow pool that covers more than 2,500 square feet and casts such a perfect reflection of the ceiling formations you can scarcely believe they are not duplicated on the cavern floor.

The other stand-out wonder is the world's only stalactite organ, created in 1954 and cited as the largest musical instrument in world. More than 3 acres of rock formations and 37 natural stalactites form the organ. Solenoid-fired strikers - rubber mallets striking stalactites - produce the music.

Even before the creation of the organ, performances on the formations were a regular part of tours. Don't succumb to the temptation of creating your own sound. Touching the formations is expressly and repeatedly forbidden.

Temperature in the cavern is a constant 54 degrees, and visitors are warned to bring a light jacket. My husband, Jack, and I found it unnecessary. There are no resting spots along the tour, so evaluate your capacity accurately. Once the tour returns to the starting point, there are 70 stairs to climb to exit.

A ticket to the caverns includes other attractions in the park-like area as well.

The extraordinary Car and Caravan Museum is the extensive collection of the caverns' owner. The vehicles are meticulously restored by a team of mechanics, seldom introducing anything but original parts.

The 66 vehicles on display include carriages, antique bicycles and others of all sorts, with even more in storage.

The rarest of the collection is an 1892 Benz, one of first vehicles ever produced for sale. Another highlight, the 1927 Mercedes, is the heaviest and most powerful car of its type ever made. A 1909 Middleby is the only one still in existence. The museum is open daily.

Next door is the year-round Garden Maze - the largest in the mid-Atlantic, covering almost an acre with 1,500 8-feet-tall hedges of arbor vita, cypress and hicks yews, as well as fountains and tunnels.

At 40 points along the maze, a visitor must choose a direction to meet the goals and win a prize. Misters keep everything green and also help cool visitors during their half-hour wander through the display. Guides cruise the maze to rescue any direction-challenged visitors who may get lost. Maze vegetation is trimmed a couple of times a year.

The Luray Valley Museum is also on the property with a central exhibit hall and eight additional structures, including the gem sluicing operation and a traditional blacksmith shop made of chestnut logs.

At the entrance to the cavern complex, the Singing Tower, a 177-foot, 47-bell memorial carillon, is one of most important in the country. There are regular free recitals.

I know it's hard to imagine a small rescue zoo could provide as memorable an experience as the caverns, but it did. Owner Mark Kilby bills himself as an "animal interactionist" and provides special tours of the zoo that could easily be turned into a wildly entertaining - and educational - TV show.

There are 230 creatures in the zoo with about 100 snakes. Kilby has an eye-popping discussion about why people are prejudiced against smooth versus furry pets, and how much easier a snake is as a pet because you only have to feed it once a week. The zoo houses one of the largest venomous snake collections on the East Coast, staging a venomous snake show every afternoon.

The petting zoo is mostly made up of goats and is hosted by a tiny black goat that really wanted to be in my lap. Best of all was the Bengal tiger that emerged from its cave at the sound of Kilby's voice and proceeded to purr with pleasure as long as we stood there.

Just down the road from the caverns, the Luray Zoo is open daily from March to the end of November and should not be bypassed.

Sandwiched between Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest, Luray provides lots of outdoor adventure. Hikers and kayakers are attracted to the more than 200 cabins and vacation homes tucked away in the outdoors, earning Luray the title of Cabin Capital of Virginia.

We opted for the comfortable elegance and downtown location of the historic Mimslyn Inn and were rewarded with a well-laid-out suite and a view of the mountains, plus use of an outdoor hot tub and salt-water pool. Mattresses are so comfortable they are advertised for sale in the elevator.

The inn opened in 1931 on a high knoll that was the site of a Civil War hospital. It had notable architectural features, including oversized tapestry brick made in Glasgow, Scotland; locally quarried slate for the roof; and a masterpiece winding staircase in the lobby, designed by J.R. Mims Sr.

After years of neglect, the Asams, owners of Shepherdstown's Bavarian Inn, undertook a decade-long, multimillion-dollar restoration in 2005. An unfinished basement was transformed into a restaurant, spa and fitness area.

Outside there are sloping lawns, formal gardens, historic and luxury cottages. Best of all, staff serve with the trademark excellence of the Asams.

Downtown Luray has several appealing features including 33 large murals of scenes painted by local artists on various buildings. Other art attractions include the multiscreen Page Theatre, the BB&T Center for Performing Arts and the Warehouse Art Gallery.

The award-winning restored train station houses a train museum featuring the Norfolk and Western railroads, prominent in Luray history.

The most impressive downtown feature is a 2-mile hike on Hawksbill Greenway along Hawksbill Creek. The notable linear park, a corridor for a century used by a local tannery, has a 10-foot-wide paved walking and biking trail with abundant birding and wildlife-watching opportunities.

There are several bakeries and eateries downtown. We chose the West Main Market for lunch, where the gourmet deli half-sandwich and soup was both delicious and filling.

Dinner and breakfast were enjoyed at the Mimslyn, where I was quite pleased with the shrimp and very creamy grits. Jack and I indulged in an excellent chocolate torte.

Our Southern-style breakfast was served in the Georgian Revival architecture of the grand dining room.

Great reviews of the Triple Crown BBQ had it as a must-try place on our list. We were disappointed to find it closed both days we were in Luray - our only disappointment of the whole visit.

We found an unexpected treat in our drive to and back from Luray, taking the spectacular Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park. Both days we drove 60 miles virtually without traffic, just miles and miles of relentless green on an easy-curved road with abundant pull-offs for scenic views of valley vistas thousands of feet below.

For more information, check luraypage.com

Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is the author of "Way Out in West Virginia," a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State. She and noted photographer Steve Shaluta have released the second printing of the coffee-table photo book "West Virginia Beauty, Familiar and Rare." Both books are available around West Virginia and from WVBookCo.com.

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WV Travel Team: Small towns, outdoor adventures in Northwest Arkansas http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170708/GZ0506/170709787 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170708/GZ0506/170709787 Sat, 8 Jul 2017 08:30:00 -0400 By Ben Young WV Travel Team By By Ben Young WV Travel Team Described by the U.S. Census Bureau as one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation, Northwest Arkansas blends urban sophistication, small-town charm and the great outdoors to provide a getaway experience you won't soon forget.

It's no wonder so many people want to be a part of this area. Major cities Fayetteville, Bentonville and Eureka Springs are flanked by stunning mountainous outdoor areas including the Buffalo National River and the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, providing the perfect balance of urban adventures and the great outdoors.

Roughly a 12.5-hour drive from Charleston, visitors can also access the area by air. The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport provides quick access to Fayetteville and Bentonville and is easily manageable for even first-time fliers. Renting a car to explore all the charm and wonder the area has to offer is a must.

The third-largest city in Arkansas and home to the University of Arkansas since the institution's founding in 1871, Fayetteville offers the amenities of a large city with classic small-town charm.

Parade Magazine named Fayetteville one of "America's Most Beautiful Towns," and the architecture, scenery and local hospitality will encourage you to spend plenty of time there.

The area's downtown core features an historic square and farmers market. Timeless, well-maintained buildings including the Old Post Office, the Old Bank of Fayetteville Building and the Lewis Brothers Building create an inviting environment to stroll the streets of the downtown area, where visitors can shop and dine at local establishments and mainstays.

AAA tip: The Chancellor Hotel is the only major hotel in downtown Fayetteville and is rated three diamonds by AAA. The recently updated boutique hotel is within walking distance of many of the area's top attractions, and features extremely large rooms with a modern, chic design.

Located a short walk from downtown Fayetteville and on the way to the University of Arkansas campus, Dickson Street is quite the hub of activity in Fayetteville. Many of the area's top restaurants and breweries are nestled along this tree-lined street, offering top-notch cuisine ranging from Italian to Japanese, Mediterranean to American.

Check out the Truffle Bacon Fries at Farrell's Lounge, the extensive wine selection at Bordinos and a great happy hour at Theo's featuring plates ranging from Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder and Tempura Avocado Tacos to Duck Confit Quesadillas.

Also located along Dickson Street is the Walton Arts Center. Catch the latest touring Broadway musical acts, plays or live music in this great venue.

If you're looking to experience fresh air, the Fayetteville area features more than 200 miles of regional bike trails, including routes to nearby Bentonville. Surrounded by five lakes and four rivers, fishing is also popular, with plenty of small- and large-mouth bass, trout, bream and catfish in nearby fishing holes.

Just up the road from Fayetteville, most know Bentonville as the home of Walmart's Corporate Headquarters. But the city is more than just a business mecca. It features an incredible arts scene begging to be discovered.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art takes its name from a nearby natural spring and the bridge construction incorporated into the design of the building by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie.

The collections within the museum span five centuries of American masterworks, ranging from the colonial era to present day. Famous works include Asher B. Durand's "Kindred Spirits," Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter" and Andy Warhol's "Coca-Cola [3]". The museum is linked to downtown Bentonville by stunning sculptures and walking trails.

The 21C Museum Hotel is located on the edge of downtown Bentonville. Rated as a three-diamond hotel by AAA, 21C uses contemporary art to anchor and energize the community while enriching guests' travel experiences. Featuring a contemporary art museum, unique boutique hotel and chef-driven restaurant, experience Southern hospitality at its finest.

Upon arrival, look for the Orange Tree sculpture. In addition to a regular rotating exhibit inside the hotel, guests will want to check out "A Sudden Gust of Wind" by Serkan Özkaya, comprised of 400 sheets of metal that emulate a scattered stack of papers, frozen in motion across the ceiling and walls.

Dine alongside art installations at the 21C's restaurant, The Hive, with a menu that pays homage to the High South, featuring ingredients such as black walnuts, milled cornmeal, hickory-smoked hams, peaches and melons.

Just east of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, The Amazeum, a children's museum, features more than 50,000 square feet of interactive exhibits engaging visitors with the land, industries and people who built the Arkansas culture.

The 3M Tinkering Hub is a place where children and their families can explore and create with objects, images and projects that allow guests to create something new with each visit.

The Neighborhood Market encourages kids to collect ingredients to create their favorite meal and understand agriculture. Not to be missed, check out General Mills Lift, Load & Haul. In this mock distribution center, guests carry, ferry, move, pull and transport objects through conveyers, chutes and tubes throughout the space.

While arts and culture are a strong part of Bentonville's culture, the area boasts a large biking community. From paved trails to single-track trails, Bentonville offers miles for every level of experience and plenty of events to bring cyclists together.

Just over 60 miles east of Fayetteville and Bentonville is Buffalo National River - the first river in the country to receive a National River delegation.

The river is popular during spring and summer for canoeing, kayaking and floating, and features several camping sites that fill quickly. Depending on which area of the river you visit, the water can be calm or full of intense rapids.

Throughout much of the river's journey through the hills and mountains of Northwest Arkansas, it is surrounded by tall sandstone and limestone bluffs - some more than 500 feet tall.

Ponca, Arkansas, offers prime access to the river and attractions. While the town features little more than a few houses and an outdoor supply store with a diner, its central location makes it a great meeting point and an opportunity to stock up on supplies and Wi-Fi, especially considering the limited cellphone signal in the area.

As you drive near Ponca, be sure to watch for the majestic herd of elk that strolls about the fields lining the road.

AAA tip: Visit the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca for supplies and to engage the guides in great local advice. They can provide directions to hidden attractions or inform you about private cabin rentals in the area.

While water is a major highlight of the Buffalo National River, there are two hikes that should not be missed.

The 3-mile, round-trip hike to Whitaker Point rewards hikers with stunning views. Disney filmed the opening to "Tuck Everlasting" at the craggy rock overlook, and world-class photographers have sought to capture the view throughout the year.

While the scenic vista at the end is top-notch, the hike along the way offers plenty of wildflowers, streams and waterfalls. The hike is moderate and long enough you should probably carry a bottle of water or two.

Hemmed-In Hollow is roughly 5 miles round trip and can take up to five hours to complete. A beautiful waterfall is your reward for this hike - water drops more than 209 feet from a small valley closed in on three sides by tall bluffs.

Be warned, the hike out of the Hemmed-In Hollow is steep, but the view of the tallest waterfall between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains makes it worth the effort.

Quirky. Unusual. Fun. Haunted. These are just a few words used to describe Eureka Springs.

Hidden away just over an hour drive from Fayetteville, Bentonville and the Buffalo National River in the Ozark Mountains, Eureka Springs offers quirky, small-town charm with a variety of local stores and restaurants nestled in the hills of Northwest Arkansas.

Founded around the legends of the Great Healing Spring, the streets and sidewalks of downtown Eureka Springs wind up the steep hillsides and are lined with unique and well-preserved Victorian architecture.

The town features no stoplights, and the streets are so windy and steep that none intersect at a 90-degree angle. Spend time checking out each of the shops and galleries that add to the tourist vibe the town gives off as they are tucked into the hillside alongside large boulders and street-side parks.

One of the highlights of Eureka Springs is the Crescent Hotel located at the top of a hill above the downtown area. The hotel has a reputation as one of the most haunted hotels in the country.

Originally serving as a resort for the rich and famous, and later as a college and conservatory for young women, the hotel served for many years as a hospital and health resort owned by Norman Baker.

The property has been completely restored and has reopened as a hotel featuring incredible attention to detail, especially apparent in the woodwork.

Views from the decks and balconies showcase the beautiful hillsides throughout the area, displaying vibrant colors covering the landscape in the autumn months. The ghost tours offer a mysterious look into the past of this property and are highly recommended.

Also in Eureka Springs is Christ of the Ozarks, an iconic statue of Jesus Christ that stands 1,500 feet above the town, viewable from just about anywhere in the area. The statue was carved by hand, the artist pouring 24 layers of white mortar over a steel frame to complete the 67-foot-tall piece.

Nearby, "Passion Play" - an annual performance that tells the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, Christ's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his crucifixion and his resurrection - draws thousands of visitors each year.

Just outside of Eureka Springs, Beaver Lake offers 487 miles of scenic shoreline. It's one of the clearest lakes in the country, making it a highly desired attraction for scuba divers.

Nearby is Onyx Cave park - a well-preserved grotto that features stalactites and stalagmites as well as other rock formations. For highlights, be sure to check out the 30-minute tour.

You can experience the small-town charm, Southern hospitality and outdoor adventures that Northwest Arkansas offers. Visit the AAA Charleston office or call one of the AAA travel professionals - Janice Adkins, Lia Ireland, Amy Sisson, Becky Wallace and Barbara Wing at 304-925-1136.

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Seneca Rocks climbing routes, trails close as forest fire burns http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170703/GZ07/170709900 GZ07 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170703/GZ07/170709900 Mon, 3 Jul 2017 17:35:54 -0400 Rick Steelhammer By Rick Steelhammer A forest fire sparked late Saturday on the west face of Seneca Rocks, one of West Virginia's best known and most rugged natural features, continued to blaze across 50 acres of nearly sheer terrain on Monday, keeping about 25 firefighters busy trying to contain it, according to a spokeswoman for the Monongahela National Forest.

The fire broke out at a point downslope from an observation platform near the top of the 3.4-mile-long Seneca Rocks Trail after fireworks had reportedly been seen being ignited in the vicinity of the rock formation on Saturday night. Monongahela National Forest spokeswoman Julie Fosbender said U.S. Forest Service law enforcement personnel are investigating the cause of the fire, but have so far not established its source.

On Sunday night, firefighters burned vegetation in the vicinity of the Seneca Rocks Trail viewing platform to protect it from the wildfire should it move upslope, and began building fire lines behind the platform to keep the fire from reaching nearby private property.

"Our biggest challenge is that we can't get to the fire to extinguish it because the slope is too steep," Fosbender said. Since firefighter safety is a top priority, fire crews are concentrating on containing the fire, she said. Fire lines have been established and were holding to the east and north of the blaze on the ridge atop the rock formation, which rises 900 feet above the North Fork of the Potomac River's South Branch, and firefighters on Monday were scouting out prospective fire line sites near the western and southern bases of the cliff.

Firefighters battling the Seneca Fire include personnel from the Monongahela and George Washington-Jefferson national forests, the Harpers Ferry Job Corps Center and the National Park Service's New River Gorge National River.

While most Appalachian forest fires occur during spring and fall, when there is an abundance of leaf litter to serve as fuel and humidity is generally lower than in summer months, the humidity dropped markedly on Sunday at Seneca Rocks, Fosbender said.

The sheer, fin-like cliffs at Seneca Rocks make the site popular with climbers, who have mapped more than 375 climbing routes on the crag. Forest Service officials closed the formation to climbers and hikers due to safety considerations until the fire is extinguished. The Seneca Rocks Discovery Center near the base of the cliffs remains open, as does the Monongahela National Forest's nearby Seneca Shadows Campground.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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Hotels prepare for swarm of Greenbrier Classic patrons http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170702/GZ0211/170709937 GZ0211 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170702/GZ0211/170709937 Sun, 2 Jul 2017 15:55:16 -0400 Caity Coyne By Caity Coyne In the two years since the last Greenbrier Classic, two of White Sulphur Springs' inns have closed, but those planning the Classic said they aren't worried about the reduction in lodging.

"There weren't a huge amount of rooms there, so I haven't noticed it affecting much for the tournament," said Kristi Godby, media relations manager for Greenbrier County.

Combined, the Old White Motel and the Village Inn operated fewer than 100 rooms - a small number in comparison to the hundreds who come to the area for the Greenbrier Classic, Godby said.

Still open in the area - including Lewisburg 10 miles down the road from The Greenbrier - are several chain hotels and motels like Holiday Inn, the Historic General Lewis Inn and, of course, The Greenbrier, Godby said.

The Greenbrier, which is steps away from the golf course, offers 800 rooms and is where most players - especially those who bring their families - opt to stay.

"One of the things we hear every year is that people love to bring their families," Godby said.

A portion of the lodging available at The Greenbrier is suite-style, meaning there are kitchens, living rooms and multiple bedrooms that make bringing children more convenient than just a regular stay in a hotel room, Godby said.

Up the road in Lewisburg, the Historic General Lewis Inn is a "boutique hotel," according to its owner, Aaron Huffman.

While the Greenbrier Classic is an annual treasure for the state, Huffman said he treats the week and the hundreds of visitors it brings "no different than a summer weekend."

"We're always busier in the summer," said Huffman, who has operated the Historic General Lewis Inn with his wife since 2014. "Lewisburg is an up-and-coming town, and we're the only downtown lodging, so for anyone who wants to walk downtown and experience what we have to offer, we're a great option."

Regularly in the summer, Huffman's inn is filled to capacity, so he and his staff are well prepared and trained for the influx of customers.

Godby compared the weeklong tournament to the West Virginia State Fair, which also brings visitors from across the state and beyond. Like Huffman, she said she believes the county is well equipped to accommodate the guests and has fallen into a natural rhythm to do so.

"For many people who attend [the state fair or the Greenbrier Classic], it's a tradition," she said. "They finish up one year, and before they leave, they're already making plans to come back. We're rarely caught off guard."

For those visiting the area for the first time, both Godby and Huffman recommended going around White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg to explore the food scene.

"Get out and try everything," Godby said "Everyone loves to eat."

Reach Caity Coyne at caitlin.coyne@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-5119 or follow @caitycoyne on Twitter.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said there is a La Quinta hotel in Lewisburg.

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WV Travel Team: Making a Mountaineer mark on social media http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170702/GZ0506/170709997 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170702/GZ0506/170709997 Sun, 2 Jul 2017 07:45:00 -0400 Compiled by the GoToWV Team By Compiled by the GoToWV Team

On June 6, West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby challenged everyone who loves West Virginia to go online to their favorite social media platform - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram - and share with the world what makes West Virginia #AlmostHeaven. The premise behind the campaign was twofold.

First and foremost, it was to tell the West Virginia story from the eyes and voices of those who love the Mountain State. West Virginia has four beautiful seasons, unmatched outdoor recreation and the friendliest people on earth.

However, no one would argue our state suffers from a negative image and unfortunate stereotypes that have perpetuated for many years. #AlmostHeaven was designed to challenge these misconceptions and get our story out there by having the people who love West Virginia be our brand ambassadors.

Second, the campaign was designed around West Virginia Day. West Virginians have such genuine pride for the state they call home that they honor it year after year with a grand celebration of its birthday on June 20.

We wanted to capture this passion with #AlmostHeaven as a way to motivate both in-state and out-of-state audiences to visit and explore West Virginia. Research shows 52 percent of travelers surveyed last year planned a vacation based on inspiration they saw on social media.

We wanted #AlmostHeaven to showcase West Virginia as a four-season travel destination and to serve as a call to action for folks to come see for themselves the scenic beauty that surrounds you in every corner of our state.

In just two weeks - 14 days, 336 hours - we left our Mountaineer mark on the social world thanks to #AlmostHeaven.

#AlmostHeaven achieved a total reach of more than 15 million across all three platforms.

On the first day alone, campaign reach hit 1 million. By the end of the first week, it topped 5 million. More than 415,000 people directly engaged with the campaign.

The division's "Happy Birthday, West Virginia" video had more than 375,000 views in just two days and was shared nearly 15,000 times.

Check out our top posts. Better than that, get out and about in West Virginia and have your own awesome adventure in #AlmostHeaven.

For more information, call 800-CALL-WVA or visit GoToWV.com. Share

your Real. West Virginia stories

on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

with #GoToWV and #RealWV.

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Vines & Vittles: Taste, balance and finesse in the other Washington http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170630/GZ0502/170639999 GZ0502 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170630/GZ0502/170639999 Fri, 30 Jun 2017 08:00:00 -0400 By John Brown For the Sunday Gazette-Mail By By John Brown For the Sunday Gazette-Mail What words come to mind when I say, "Washington"?

I bet dysfunction, quagmire, loggerhead and unyielding are among the most defining words you might use to describe that place. But when I think of Washington, words such as balance, nuance, depth and finesse immediately come to mind.

Obviously, we're describing two different places. In fact, I often use the products produced in the kinder, gentler Washington to soothe and anesthetize me from the vitriol and vinegar of that other place with the same name.

Of course, I'm referring to Washington State. That bastion of good taste in the Pacific Northwest is often overlooked by wine lovers who seem to gravitate more to California and Oregon when looking for some of the best wines produced in the U.S.

If you're one of those folks, you should really give Washington State another look. In a region of the country perhaps better known for producing cherries, hops, apples, apricots and rain, thousands of acres of grapes have been planted. And the wines produced from these grapes are truly exceptional.

In the past 40 years, the wine industry in Washington has exploded. In 1981, there were only 19 wineries in the state, and today there are more than 900 scattered over 14 American Viticultural Areas.

Most of us who live east of the Rocky Mountains think of Seattle when we think of Washington. But Seattle sits between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympic range to the west, and has rain forest-like weather. And while there are a few vineyards in the Seattle/Puget Sound area, the overwhelming majority of wine is being produced from vines grown across the mountains in eastern Washington.

So what makes this northwest corner of the U.S. so special? It's the superb terroir. Terroir is defined as the combination of soil, climate and geographic location that determine the quality of a wine appellation. Washington's terroir is superior and suited for growing some of the world's greatest wine grapes including, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay, riesling, gewürztraminer and semillon.

Washington white wines are equal to anything produced in California or Oregon, particularly the riesling, chardonnay and gewürztraminer. And the cabernets, merlots and syrahs are truly exceptional and can compete with wines produced from similar vines anywhere else.

In fact, Washington produces one of my all-time favorite Cabernet Sauvignons, Quilceda Creek. It's a very small production winery and has gained cult status from several 100-point scores regularly awarded to it by critics such as Robert Parker. I was fortunate enough to get on its mailing list 20 years ago. But there other equally good red wines produced in Washington that are readily available and don't take a back seat to any other region in the world.

That's a pretty bold statement, but in addition to intensity, richness, elegance and power, Washington red wines have the potential to achieve a qualitative attribute uncommon in many wine regions: balance.

Here are a few of my favorite labels from Washington you should find in wine shops around the state: Mercer Canyons; Kiona; Saviah Cellars; L'Ecole No. 41; Columbia Crest; Canoe Ridge; Hedges; Leonetti; Waterbrook; Quilceda Creek; Woodward Canyon; Covey Run; Milbrandt; Walla Walla; Chateau Ste. Michelle; Columbia Winery; DeLille Cellars; and Barnard Griffin Winery.

For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog.

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WV Travel Team: Myrtle Beach is a surprising feast for the senses http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170629/GZ0506/170629592 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170629/GZ0506/170629592 Thu, 29 Jun 2017 10:35:00 -0400 By Karen Johnson WV Travel Team By By Karen Johnson WV Travel Team When I moved to Charleston last year and told West Virginians I had spent 20 years in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, they all said I was crazy for leaving.

That may be debatable. But luckily my parents, relatives and friends (all transplants to South Carolina) welcome me home whenever I get hungry for the beach. Mother's Day weekend, my husband and I traveled south with our 19-year-old daughter to dip our toes in the sand and feast on some culture. You read that correctly - culture.

Despite its reputation as the Redneck Riviera, Myrtle Beach has an art and foodie scene locals are well aware of.

In between walks in the surf, we visited museums and blue-ribbon-worthy restaurants. The following are some of my favorite haunts to refresh your creativity and satisfy your taste buds.

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Brookgreen Gardens, a National Historic Landmark made up of 9,000 acres off of Bypass 17 below Murrells Inlet, is my favorite spot in South Carolina, bar none. It touches the heart, teaches the mind and has an important West Virginia connection.

It was founded in 1931 by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington on land from four rice plantations between the Waccamaw River and the ocean. Archer was the son of industrial magnate Collis P. Huntington, who helped build the first transcontinental railroad and after whom the city of Huntington is named.

Collis Huntington's second wife and Archer Huntington's mother, Arabella Duval Yarrington, was an art connoisseur. She exposed her son to history, art and other cultures.

Archer married Anna Hyatt, a scientist who specialized in paleontology and a pioneer marine biologist connected to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Anna grew up in a family devoted to science and cultural pursuits and as a teenager became interested in sculpture. Together they created what Archer wrote "is a quiet joining of hand between science and art."

In addition to the largest collection of American sculpture (more than 2,000 works by 425 artists), Brookreen is known as premiere public garden and natural habitat zoo.

Travel back in time to hear stories of the plantation owners, including Gov. Joseph Alston and his wife Theodosia Burr, the daughter of vice president Aaron Burr, who famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804.

Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission is good for seven days. Tickets may also be purchased for The Trekker, an open-air vehicle to ride down sandy roads that were Native American trails before slaves walked them barefooted.

Or choose a creek excursion aboard Brookgreen's 48-foot pontoon boat through long-abandoned rice fields now home to alligators, osprey and other wildlife.

For savory treats, stop for refreshments at The Courtyard Café. Save time for Keepsakes Gift Shop, where I find many gifts, be it toys, books, jewelry or garden decorations.

A movie at the entrance is worth the time to be introduced to the marvels of Brookgreen Gardens. Photographers, gardeners, nature lovers and children will especially delight, as will teenagerss taking selfies with statues of Greek gods, in front of cascading fountains or in the majestic shaded arch of Live Oak Allee.

There are seasonal events all year, but the piece de resistance is The Nights of 1,000 Candles, held this year over three weekends in November and December. See Brookgreen Gardens come to life amid the soft glow of more than 5,500 hand-lit candles and countless sparkling lights from 3 to 10 p.m. Stop in the Old Kitchen ruins for a hot chocolate or a warm cup of cider while listening to carolers singing, the hum of string quartets or bells ringing, and celebrate the holiday season.

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Collectors Café & Gallery truly has something for every visitor. It is an upscale contemporary Mediterranean restaurant, European-style coffee house, and late-night cocktail and dessert bar. Collectors earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence 16 years in a row.

Lunch is served 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and dinner offered 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The restaurant has four private dining areas, including the Lion's Den with a wraparound booth seating up to 12 people.

Every room - even the restrooms - features more than a hundred works of art from around the world, all available for sale. My party, which included family and friends ranging in age from a tween to octogenarians wandered the gallery for over an hour.

A decade ago, I sold my only piece, a whitewash-finished wood and stainless steel box bar holding 64 mini-bottles, on which I painted "Drink Like A Fish..." You will be tempted.

Stop in for a cappuccino, a martini or at least drink in the artwork with your eyes in the soft-lit, air-conditioned space. You will leave richer, fuller and more creative. Bakery items, T-shirts and posters are available for purchase to bring home to West Virginia.

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Franklin G. Burroughs and Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum is the Grand Strand's home for the visual arts and creative programs for all ages, opened in 1997 and named in honor of the founders of the Burroughs and Chapin Company, a land development group that began as a timber company. The 10,000-square-foot museum is housed in Springmaid Villa, a historic beach home that was refurbished and moved 8 miles from its original location.

Permanent collections include The Mapmakers' Art, 30 works from 1606 to 1863. My family was fortunate to view (and vote on) the "20th Annual Juried Show" of the Waccamaw Arts and Crafts Guild. Admission is free every day, but donations or membership is encouraged. Coloring pages were set out for youth.

This summer the museum will host an exhibition, "Feast Your Eyes: Celebrating the Food of the South" through Sept. 17 that promises to show Southern edibles from oysters to okra, collards to mayo-and-mater sandwiches and RC Cola to Moon Pies on canvas. Peruse the excellent treasures in the gift shop.

Karen Johnson is a Charleston resident who studied three foreign languages in high school and was voted most likely to flee the USA. With 27 countries under her belt, she now yearns for time travel adventures. She can be reached by email at kablemac@me.com.

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Man who shares birthday with WV celebrates by traveling to state parks http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170619/GZ0506/170619551 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170619/GZ0506/170619551 Mon, 19 Jun 2017 17:52:16 -0400 Rick Steelhammer By Rick Steelhammer How does a lifelong West Virginian celebrate his home state's birthday when it falls on the same date as his own?

Longtime Budget Tapes & Records manager John Nelson, of Charleston, makes it a practice to visit a West Virginia state park with his family when June 20 rolls around.

This year, to celebrate his 60th birthday and West Virginia's 154th, Nelson and members of his family are camping at Audra State Park, along the Middle Fork River about 10 miles west of Belington and astride the Barbour-Upshur county line.

"It's a beautiful but kind of out-of-the-way park that none of the rest of my family has visited," Nelson said shortly before departing. "We plan to do some swimming and hiking at the park, exploring the Buckhannon area, and maybe try out a fairly new section of rail-trail near Lost Creek."

The tradition of celebrating his birthday and West Virginia's with visits to state parks began about 20 years ago, Nelson said. While he was unable to maintain the tradition every year since then, he frequents state parks and forests at other times of the year, as well.

"I've visited probably 90 percent of the state parks, by now," he said, many of them on multiple occasions. "I just love West Virginia's great outdoors, and our state parks offer a great way to spend time there, while reconnecting with family and friends."

Nelson's connection with state parks began at age 9, "when Mom and Dad and their five kids made our first trip to Watoga," he said. He and his family have made a number of return trips to that Pocahontas County state park since then, including one memorable visit several years ago when, on a hike to a viewpoint, they encountered a man filming a black bear at the edge of a clearing.

"We watched the bear roam around for about 10 minutes, stopping occasionally to enjoy the view at sunset, like we were," Nelson said.

Nelson said he considers Babcock State Park to be his favorite and most frequently visited unit of the state parks system, having made countless day trips to the park with the oft-photographed gristmill. One of Nelson's favorite activities at Babcock is hiking the trail that follows the rim of Manns Creek's canyon for views of the park's rugged interior.

Nelson said his most vivid childhood memory involving his shared birthday with his native state took place in 1963, at age 6, when, accompanied by his mother, he attended a speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy on the Statehouse steps to commemorate West Virginia's 100th year of statehood, and to express gratitude to the state's voters for their pivotal role in winning him the Democratic presidential primary. Later that day, Nelson took part in a downtown centennial luncheon hosted by Gov. Wally Barron, to which West Virginians born on June 20 were invited.

Nelson said he expects to eventually visit all West Virginia state parks during his birthday celebrations and nonbirthday ramblings.

Lost River State Park, in Hardy County, with its numerous hiking and equestrian trails, mountaintop vistas and cabins with fieldstone fireplaces built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the late 1930s, is the so-far unvisited park Nelson most wants to see.

"It's great to have so much natural beauty available to relax in without having to travel very far," he said. "You combine that with all the friendly people I've met visiting the parks and it helps keep balance in your life."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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WV Travel Team: Life at Capon Springs defined by family tradition http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170612/GZ0506/170619907 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170612/GZ0506/170619907 Mon, 12 Jun 2017 09:25:00 -0400 By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team By By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team CAPON SPRINGS - When I first wrote about Capon Springs in the late 1990s, it was a secret, tucked away in the far Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia at the edge of Hampshire County. It's not a secret any more. An avalanche of state and national attention is bringing lots of interest.

Now the concern is how to stay a hidden gem but find the right people to enjoy the unique experience of the family camp style that is the Capon way. Accurately but affectionately describing our overnight stay at the Hampshire County resort should help.

We arrived from the west, entering what seemed like a small village with green-trimmed, white, Victorian-style resort buildings lining the road. Later, we found out people coming from the east were sent over a twisting dirt mountain road with no signs - and they loved it.

Arriving through monumental cliffs and eccentric rock outcroppings to find the resort village pop up before them is apparently a thrill too great to pass up, even for picturesque but paved West Virginia roads.

Soon after we checked into our comfortable room in the Pavilion, complete with a rushing stream of spring water at the edge of our deck, we heard the old iron bell ring to call everyone to lunch. We walked over to the main building, outdoor music playing as another meal signal, and followed the crowd inside.

Dining may be the most honored of the many traditions at Capon Springs. Everyone eats together in a homey, sun-filled room. Meals are served family style at the same time every day. Tables are assigned, and the menus for each day have not changed in 34 years.

Actually, there was a change recently when fried chicken was moved from Tuesday to Friday, and there was nearly a revolt. When folks come the same week every year for a couple of generations, they build expectations. Changing fried chicken night can be a crisis.

Food is abundant, bread is fresh-baked and seconds are encouraged. The desserts are a real prize. We enjoyed excellent fresh-baked cherry pie at one meal and chocolate cake at another.

One recent change in the dining program has not inspired any resistance. For decades the food has been cooked exclusively by local ladies from traditional comfort-food recipes. Now there's a chef as well as the ladies. But as owner Jonathan Bellingham proudly said, "He fits into the Capon way."

Though Capon Springs maintained extensive gardens to provide food for the table before it became trendy, it has recently expanded farm-to-table with its livestock operation. It has a herd of beef, about 40 piglets and pigs, and a large flock of about 800 egg-laying chickens. A pair of longtime guests with whom we shared breakfast one day were impressed to learn their eggs came from Capon Springs chickens. Feeding the pigs on Saturday is a major guest event.

There are other new things happening. Capon Springs has an appealing nine-hole golf course guests can play anytime, as much as they want, no tee times necessary. Now that there is a golf pro, day players are allowed, and the pro can arrange tee times for them and is available for lessons and clinics. But the sloping lawns of the golf course are still used as a playground for outdoor events in the pavilion on top of the hill.

About a decade ago, the resort hearkened to its past and added Hygeia, a spa using brick for the walls to reflect the 19th-century baths and highly polished wood floors for today's spa look.

My husband, Jack, and I indulged ourselves in the exquisite large private blue-tiled baths with jets. Water is heated to 102 degrees, and my improved damaged knee can attest to its healing power; maybe it's the lithia emerald. Family nights are popular, and a larger swim spa with cooler water is ideal for frolicking children and water aerobics.

During its 19th-century heyday as one of the prominent Blue Ridge spa resorts, Capon Springs' four-story Mountain House was one of the largest structures in the South, and its oval pool of pure spring water was the largest in Virginia.

The Mountain House burned in 1911, but the pool remains and was recently voted Retreat Central's Best Retreat Center Pool - no added chemicals, just fresh spring water that bubbles out of the ground at a constant, if chilly, 65 degrees. The pool is emptied and cleaned regularly, initiating walking the bottom, another tradition.

"Unplug" is a common description in visitors' comments. For now, conference and meeting rooms in the Meeting Hall are the places to go for television and Wi-Fi, and cell service is spotty but improving. Fortunately, other activities fill the time and space. There are six hiking trails on the 4,700-acre resort, a shale pit ideal for digging fossils, a well-stocked library, the ever-popular sport of porching and a campfire circle every Saturday night, where hot dogs are part of the program even though everyone had a turkey dinner earlier.

Being unplugged thrives on the family reunion ambiance of the resort, where everyone acts like the cousin you haven't seen in a year who wants to catch you up on what they've been doing.

The basic appeal of Capon Springs remains its family tradition from the owners - now in the third generation with the fourth moving up - to the guests. Multiple generations coming for multiple years to the same lodging place at the same time each year is a standard practice, but space is always available for folks to come and enjoy Capon Springs for the first time. The big news this year is that four weekdays in early October have opened with no previous dibs on rooms, providing a prime opportunity to grab a space and start your own tradition.

The 120 rooms at the resort come in various configurations from cabins, cottages and private rooms to dorm rooms in the main building with a central bathroom.

The dorm rooms are surprisingly popular, with guests feeling very possessive and putting up hooks and other personal touches. The corner and adjoining rooms are often the informal happy hour location for the bring-your-own resort. The most recent addition is four fully handicap-accessible rooms with private baths and air-conditioning.

Personalized service comes with every room. Many staff members are third and fourth generation, and relationships blend: staff, owners, guests. Folks stay in touch with their server at dinner. People hunt with the maintenance workers. One surprising feature is that no pets are allowed.

"Maybe the fourths will find a way to make that work," Bellingham said.

Tradition is not exorbitantly priced at Capon Springs, and best of all, there are no nickel-and-dime annoyances. One personal check (or credit card) at the end of a guest's stay covers everything.

The Capon way is home and family down to the molecular level. Life is casual, with dressing up, even for dinner, discouraged. Newcomers are quickly absorbed. Not that we want to turn anyone away, but be aware, fancy amenities are not part of the program, and hot nightlife means sitting too close to the fire circle.

Occasionally guests choose to venture outside the historic district and explore the neighborhood. Capon Crossing is a working farm and music venue up the road. Buddy and Aliza Dunlap have a farm market with local products and their own grass-fed beef, lamb and chickens.

Mid-month bluegrass concerts in the barn draw hundreds for the music, the brisket sandwiches and the exceptional music, then buy some local beef to take home.

The closest real town is Wardensville, where there is a miracle of 21st-century development taking place. It was started by the folks at the Lost River Trading Post, which is a must-stop for just about everything from West Virginia wines to antique oddities.

It expanded to a mile of road front-bounded by the Cacapon River across the highway, where its Farm Works Wonders Foundation has a remarkable work-study program for local teens. There's an indoor market, a farm outdoor market and a bakery with coffee.

It grows heirloom produce using organic methods, maintains a greenhouse and has the only high-tunnel growing space with a disco ball. Workshops are staged every weekend.

Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is the author of "Way Out in West Virginia," a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State. She and noted photographer Steve Shaluta have released the second printing of the coffee-table photo book "West Virginia Beauty, Familiar and Rare." Both books are available around West Virginia and from WVBookCo.com.

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WV Book Team: Beach reads beyond the best-seller lists http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170612/GZ0605/170619908 GZ0605 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170612/GZ0605/170619908 Mon, 12 Jun 2017 15:10:00 -0400 By Elizabeth Fraser and Dana Smook WV Book Team By By Elizabeth Fraser and Dana Smook WV Book Team If you're looking for a breezy beach book to take with you on summer vacation, there are plenty of popular choices from the best-seller lists. But we wanted to offer something a little different this year. So here is a list of quirky, fun, and absorbing books just right for summer reading.

Merriam-Webster boasts one of the hottest and sassiest Twitter feeds right now, and anyone who appreciates that kind of word-nerd humor will also love, "Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries," by Kory Stamper. This entertaining book, part memoir and part history, explores what it is like to work at America's oldest dictionary publisher.

As grammar-obsessed lexicographers get worked up about the correctness of words like "irregardless," or the newness of phrases such as "on fleek," readers are reminded that language is evolving in fascinating ways. With a down-to-earth writing style, Stamper will surprise readers with never-ending insights about language in a way that isn't overly academic or dry. Charming and very funny, "Word by Word" will help you discover a new appreciation for dictionaries.

A glass of wine on a summer night can be a pleasure, but do you know why a wine is good or bad? "Cork Dork" author Bianca Bosker wondered the same thing.

After watching a competition for elite sommeliers - trained wine professionals - she wanted to do more than just write about wine as a tech reporter for the Huffington Post. She wanted to become a sommelier and earn the certificate of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

"Cork Dork" is a backstage pass to the wine world, and after reading this entertaining and eye-opening memoir you'll definitely be ready for your next summer wine tasting.

In "Dead Letters," debut novelist Caite Dolan-Leach plunges readers into the swirling uncertainties facing Ava Antipova after her twin sister Zelda dies. Ava has spent two years building a life of her own in Paris as an attempt at running away from her highly dysfunctional family, only to return home to upstate New York to help plan Zelda's funeral. But is Zelda really dead or just on the run?

Bewildering emails from Zelda begin to arrive, and Ava is left wondering: What did Zelda get herself into? Working out the messages from A to Z, Ava can't quite understand what Zelda is trying to tell her.

Part baffling crime mystery, part gothic family saga, Dolan-Leach's crafty and atmospheric thriller will delight fans of domestic psychological page-turners like "Gone Girl" or "Girl on the Train." Perfect for beach-goers who enjoy a good, dark mystery.

If you're looking for a sweet summer romance, we recommend "The Undateable," by Sarah Title. This quirky, witty novel follows a feisty feminist librarian named Bernie who unexpectedly becomes a meme when a photo of her scowling face goes viral online.

Colin works at an online fashion magazine as the lone straight man offering his perspective on dating and fashion. But when his role at the magazine is questioned by an ambitious co-worker, he knows he needs a big story to help him attract new readers. He jumps on the chance to write a story about finding true love for Bernie, the internet's favorite "Disapproving Librarian."

Full of witty banter and featuring characters that are relatable and well-formed, "The Undateable" might be this year's top beach read for anyone who loves modern romantic comedy. And who can resist a lovable librarian character?

Vibrantly set against Florida palm trees and Gulf Coast views, "The Shark Club," by Ann Kidd Taylor, is a great summer read whether you're on the beach or just wish you were.

Mixing romance, marine science and a bit of mystery, "The Shark Club" follows logical marine biologist Maeve, who returns home to Palermo, Florida, after traveling the world for her work studying sharks. Maeve's existence revolves around sharks. She's been striving to understand them for her entire life after being bitten by one as a child.

While Maeve has thrown herself into her professional passion, her personal life is a bit more complicated. When her childhood sweetheart returns to work as a chef in her grandmother's hotel, Maeve must reckon with past loves and the ways in which her endless obsession with sharks impacts her personal relationships.

"The Shark Club" may be full of sharks, but it also features delightful characters, a happy ending and a seaside setting. It is a wonderful novel that is ultimately about navigating human connections.

Whether you're at the beach, at the pool, or in your backyard, summer reading is a state of mind! Pick up an easy-going book, kick back somewhere warm and enjoy. Looking for more beach-worthy reads? Just ask your friendly local librarian! We are always happy to help.

For more information on these books or others, contact the main branch of the Kanawha County Public Library at 304-343-4646 or visit www.kanawhalibrary.org.

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WV's Palace of Gold is an escape from modern life for Hindu community http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170610/GZ0506/170619994 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170610/GZ0506/170619994 Sat, 10 Jun 2017 08:30:00 -0400 Bill Lynch By Bill Lynch Moundsville - The drive to the Palace of Gold at the New Vrindaban Community in Marshall County can be tricky if you're not a local.

A comment on the Facebook page for the Hare Krishna community near Moundsville warns potential visitors not to trust their GPS, which the commenter promised would lead them along dangerous dirt roads.

The Hare Krishna community's website also tells people not to plug the address into a GPS, but instead to head toward Bethlehem, then drive to Limestone and take a left on McCreary's Ridge Road.

Still, it's easy enough to get turned around, even if you're on the right road. Signs from the highway point in the general direction of the palace, but one wrong turn and (with a bit of stubborn denial) you can end up in the charming little town of Claysville, Pennsylvania.

The true road leading to the Palace of Gold is a winding two-lane that, until a couple of years ago, wasn't even paved.

Over a hill, the golden roof of the palace pokes up, which tells you you've come to the right place.

Early in the week, there's plenty of parking near the palace and nothing like a crowd to explore the expansive grounds. It's quiet, except for the muffled sound of Indian music coming from inside the palace or the shriek of one of the several, iridescent peacocks wandering near the upper lake.

Peacocks hold a special place in Indian culture, featured prominently in religious stories, and the bird is a protected animal in India. Krishna is often pictured wearing a peacock feather on a headdress.

The birds at New Vrindaban are practically tame and don't immediately flee when approached by visitors. Mostly they just stare back, likely hoping for a snack.

The peacocks can be surprisingly noisy, however.

On the weekends, around holidays and Hindu holy days, it gets busier at the temple, said Vrindivan Das, the communications director for the community.

"We see more than 30,000 people a year," he said. "People come because they are curious. They come to see the beautiful palace, and, also, because they are pilgrims."

Visitors, he said, come from all over the country and Canada, Europe and India.

"We get a lot more corporate people," he said. "They come for the meditation and to relax."

Along with the palace, there's a community temple that could easily hold several hundred, a gift shop, a yoga studio, an inn and a vegetarian restaurant, which serves Indian food and pizza.

Adherents to the Hindu faith do not eat meat because they believe it attracts negative karma. However, dairy products are permitted. The New Vrindaban Community has a small dairy.

Cows peacefully chew grass in a huge field.

"We do not take milk from the baby cows," Das explained. "They get the milk first. We take what's left over."

Cows are revered among the faithful, and the community keeps about 50 of them, some of which are rescue animals.

The group cares for the cows, whether they give milk or not.

"They are very tame," Das said. "You can go up and hug them."

Maybe not the bulls, though.

"They can be a little grumpy," he said.

New Vrindaban was founded in 1968 by Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the spiritual leader and founder for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Hindu sect.

Born and raised in India, the guru came to the United States in 1965 on a kind of mission of mercy.

Das explained the West had plundered India's wealth. Specifically, the British empire had stolen the country's riches, taken its resources and exploited its people for labor.

"They had taken so much," Das said. "But they had missed out on the spiritual wealth, the love of God. He came to bring that to the West."

By the 1960s, the old British Empire was mostly just a memory. America had taken its place.

The mission to the U.S. was difficult. The guru was 70 years old, in poor health and Das said he couldn't have picked a worse time to come to America.

"He arrived in New York in the winter," Das said, laughing. "He was dressed in traditional robes and it was very cold."

He knew no one, only had a couple of dollars in his pockets, but he still managed to gather followers and ignite a new faith in the West.

In 1968, he established New Vrindaban and continued to spread Krishna consciousness around the world.

"He traveled the world 14 times," Das said.

Meanwhile, the day-to-day operations and local leadership fell to Kirtanananda Swami, an American-born disciple.

Seclusion fit the aesthetics of the faith, which focuses on devotion to the many-faced Hindu god Krishna, meditation and a renunciation of attachment to worldly possessions.

The palace was originally intended as a home for Prabhupada, but it was scarcely begun by the time the guru died in 1977. Instead, the residents of the community built the palace as a shrine to venerate the man.

"They did this all themselves," Das said.

However, most of the devotees were untrained laborers. They learned as they went, with mixed results.

Outside, the palace is worn and frayed around the edges, the results of shoddy workmanship. Repairs are underway, but they will take years to complete.

Still, it is an unusual sight to behold, an Eastern palace hidden among the hills of West Virginia.

"You should come in late June through mid-July," Das said. "The flowers are most beautiful then - the lotuses, in particular."

Inside, the palace has weathered time and the elements better. Guides point out the stained glass, much of it made in the Mountain State, and the many kinds of ornately cut marble, which was imported from around the globe.

High points include a 200-year-old chandelier that contains French crystal from the court of Marie Antoinette.

The palace is small, and the rooms were built as if Prabhupada might live there still. There's a bedroom, a bath, a study and a receiving room where the guru would have spoken to followers. Statues of the man can be found in several rooms.

The Palace of Gold became a popular tourist attraction in the 1980s, just as the community of the faithful grew to a peak of more than 500 people.

Kirtanananda envisioned New Vrindaban as a "spiritual Disneyland." It even had a young elephant on the premises that entertained visitors, but the high aspirations never became a reality.

"We had some bad leadership," Das said, wearily. "We had some challenges."

The subject continues to be a sore spot, he said, though the community would like to get past it.

"All religions have had their bad times," he said.

In the mid-1980s, Kirtanananda veered from the mainstream teachings of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). He embraced an interfaith ideal and sought to remove many of the Indian elements from Hare Krishna practices in favor of an approach he believed was more appealing to Westerners.

ISKCON objected to the changes and excommunicated Kirtanananda and the New Vrindaban Community.

In 1990, the Kirtanananda Swami was indicted on five counts of racketeering, six counts of mail fraud and conspiracy to murder two rivals within the Hare Krishna movement.

There were also accusations of child molestation, though no official charges.

Kirtanananda was convicted of nine of the charges and put under house arrest (the jury failed to reach a verdict on the conspiracy charges), but the convictions were soon thrown out on appeal.

Kirtanananda returned to the New Vrindaban Community, but he was ousted not long after returning.

In 1996, he was retried and pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering. He served eight years of a 20-year sentence. After his release, he moved to a temple in New York and then finally India, where he died in 2011.

Through the scandals and legal troubles in the 1990s, the community shrank from about 300 to a little more than 100, where it currently remains.

Under new leadership, the New Vrindaban Community was brought back into the fold and reinstated into ISKCON in 1998, but during the next decade it faced lawsuits and mounting debt.

The property suffered. The inexpertly constructed buildings crumbled. The community was falling apart.

The natural gas boom helped rescue New Vrindaban and the Palace of Gold. A few years ago, community leaders entered into lease agreements with natural gas companies, which helped inject much-needed money into the religious community's coffers, allowing for a steady rehabilitation of the property.

One of the gas companies even paved the road leading to the palace and the temple, which makes the trip to the Palace of Gold more accessible.

"We're looking forward now," Das said.

Restoring the palace, he said, is good for the faithful, but it is also good for the local area. The palace gives people another reason to visit the area, shop and spend money.

While the intentions aren't to turn the land into a religious theme park, Das said the community is still a great destination for people looking to escape some of the stresses of modern life.

The religion is there, if anyone is interested. At the temple and in the entryway to the palace, there's literature for sale about Krishna consciousness and the teachings of Prabhupada.

Das and the tour guide at the palace also speak glowingly about their religion.

Visitors are even welcome to take off their shoes and attend services, held several times a day at the temple, but there's no pressure to join in.

Nobody minds if people come just to watch.

Das said the religious community has tried to learn from its mistakes.

In the old days, he said, outsiders came to visit the Palace of Gold, but the people living around it remained insulated from the rest of the world and kept secrets.

Das said they're more open now.

"We're part of the community," he said. "We do a lot of things here. Everyone is welcome. Families come just to enjoy the grounds and have picnics."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5195 or follow @LostHwys on Twitter.

Follow Bill's One Month At A Time progress on his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/onemonth/.

He's also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap.

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WV Travel Team: Exploring the split personalities of West Palm Beach http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170605/GZ0506/170609813 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170605/GZ0506/170609813 Mon, 5 Jun 2017 09:38:00 -0400 By Martin W.G. King WV Travel Team By By Martin W.G. King WV Travel Team Rippling turquoise waters lapped at the palm-lined causeway taking me across Clear Lake from the South Florida mainland to downtown West Palm Beach.

Ahead, tall office and condo towers with faux cupolas atop pitched-tile roofs provided a respite from the low-rise sprawl and tangle of highways I was leaving behind.

Farther ahead, on the far side of the city's downtown, a bridge took me across the Intracoastal Waterway to the storied island enclave of Palm Beach, home not just to President Donald Trump, but to legions of celebrities, modern-day robber barons, and heirs to old and new money.

The city of West Palm Beach, however, is quickly becoming a destination in its own right.

West Palm Beach has a split personality. Vibrant urban neighborhoods sit cheek-by-jowl with vast stretches of empty lots, the detritus of urban development schemes that crashed during the Great Recession.

The striking Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, which draws stellar productions, sits near a gargantuan empty block once earmarked for the much-ballyhooed Opera Place apartment tower, which was never built.

Nearby, however, is City Place, a retail and residential center filled with 80 tony shops and upscale restaurants. Across the street, the Palm Beach County Convention Center is anchored by the gleaming new Hilton West Palm Beach.

While West Palm Beach lacks Palm Beach's panache, it offers a lively, pint-sized downtown centered on Clematis Street that's chock full of restaurants and bars.

Among them is the lauded, if noisy, Avocado Grill, a small-plates restaurant whose menu finds inspiration in - but is not limited to - its namesake fruit. Another, Pistache, has earned kudos from diners as one of the best French bistros in the area.

Food tours are popular, as are pedal buses that take revelers on bar tours. More upscale imbibing can be had at the Hilton's cocktail lounge. The hotel is a favorite of baseball teams playing at the nearby Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. On one recent Saturday night, two sleek buses disgorged the New York Yankees, some of whom patiently posed for selfies with fans gathered at the hotel entrance.

West Palm Beach also offers a burgeoning art scene. The Norton Museum of Art offers exhibits worthy of a much larger city. It's undergoing a $60 million expansion. Admission is free until the end of construction, expected in December 2018.

South of the Norton, new art galleries, antique stores and edgy restaurants are rejuvenating Old Dixie Highway, breathing new life into the ragtag thoroughfare. Among the restaurants, Table 26˚ (named for the city's latitude) was a game-changer.

Grato, Italian and especially popular with a hip crowd at night, beckons from a soaring space in an old warehouse, serving new takes on traditional dishes.

Old-time residential neighborhoods abut the new businesses. One, Flamingo Park, is especially enticing because of its modest homes - often set in beautiful gardens - built in the area's Spanish hacienda-style heyday of the 1920s and 1930s.

Less appealing, and a striking point in contrast, are the two twin Trump Plaza condominium towers that puncture the West Palm Beach skyline and typify the upended shoebox style of architecture popular in the mid-1980s, when the buildings were built.

The skyline of Palm Beach, reached by three drawbridges across the Intracoastal Waterway from West Palm Beach, is topped mainly by palm trees and flagpoles. With a predominantly pastel palette, the town is a chic counterpoint to brash and plebeian (but livelier) West Palm Beach. Here, in gargantuan seaside mansions, live the country's moneyed elite, the target audience for local television commercials that extol the virtues of Bentleys and Maseratis.

The mansions, which mimic everything from Tuscan villas to Greek temples, are worth a good look. The most stunning march south of downtown along coastal South Ocean Boulevard.

But don't even think of heading there when Trump is making one of his frequent visits to his 126-room, 39-bathroom mansion, once the home of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. (Trump's many improvements included installing four gold-plated bathroom sinks at a cost of $100,000).

When the president is in town, South Ocean Boulevard is closed to all but local drivers with identification, causing consternation for residents and disappointment for tourists.

Worth Avenue, the town's counterpart to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, stretches from a clock tower at the city's magnificent public beach west to the Intracoastal. Shops include Tiffany, Emilio Pucci, Kate Spade, Armani and Worth Avenue Yachts, which offers to put you at the helm of your own snazzy vessel.

Mere mortals just gawk at the window displays, but a sister-in-law from California spied a dress she liked and, for the fun of it, tried it on. It was a perfect fit but, at $5,000, didn't go home with her.

Other shops line bougainvillea-draped arcades. Addison Mizner, the architect who pioneered South Florida's ubiquitous Mediterranean-style architecture, once lived atop one of them.

Like Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, Worth Avenue and its environs have a good number of watering holes. Ta-boo, has been host to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, President John F. Kennedy and any number of present-day socialites, often of indeterminate age.

On a recent visit, hair, eyelids, teeth, cheeks and other body parts seemed weirdly perfect, the consequence, I guessed, of expensive surgery. The bar, which sports a monkeys-in-the-jungle motif with zebra-striped upholstery, is one of the few places in town open for afternoon snacks and drinks.

Meanwhile, the Leopard Lounge at the exclusive Chesterfield Palm Beach Hotel attracts well-heeled patrons intent on discretion (to protect the privacy of guests, no photography is allowed), while the legendary Colony Hotel offers New York-caliber entertainment in its Royal Room. At the northern end of town, the fabled Italian Renaissance-style Breakers hotel's HMF Lounge packs in hotel guests and a younger set.

"HMF" refers to Henry Morrison Flagler, the tycoon whose railway opened South Florida to development in the late 19th century. (Flagler also built The Breakers.) His 75-room, 100,000-square-foot beaux-arts mansion, Whitehall, built in 1902, is open to the public.

Nearby, Trump wed spouse Melania in 2005 at the Gothic revival Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, when the presidency was just a gleam in his eye. It's also where, in 2013, Michael Jordan married model Yvette Prieto. The church's Cluett Memorial Garden, a two-tiered, 1/3 acre plot, was designed for restful contemplation.

That garden, however, is just one of a number of parks and gardens that some consider the area's crown jewels. Among them, Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach, near Palm Beach International Airport, delights visitors with 2,000 species planted along winding trails. There are also butterfly and fragrance gardens.

Another, the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden and Museum, exhibits sculpture in a jungle setting. On a recent dank Sunday, Curatorial Manager Cynthia Inklebarger led a tour through the tropical forest. Her easy-going personality and expert narrative commanded her guests' rapt attention as she discussed the pieces on display, primarily Norton's towering sculptures and the work of the internationally acclaimed Sophie Ryder, who likes to depict human emotions in the form of giant centaurs, hares and greyhounds.

Inklebarger was also nuanced in the flora, especially a huge collection of cycads, giant leathery plants with sharply spiked leaves that date to the Jurassic Era and that, Inklebarger suggested, were probably once used as swords.

If Mounts and the Norton Sculpture Garden are the crown jewels of the cities, the Four Arts Garden, near the foot of the Royal Park Bridge in Palm Beach, is the crown itself. (The Four Arts Society, proud owner of the garden, is a charity focused on providing art, music, drama and literature to area residents.)

The gardens were designed and planted in the 1930s by seven society matrons (with the help of one gentleman) to display the diversity of plants suitable for gardening in South Florida's warm climate. They provide a pristine welcome to Palm Beach visitors. Destroyed by hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, the park was redesigned and replanted.

As at the Norton garden, sculpture is interspersed among the flower beds and architectural features. One piece is especially popular - a life-size bronze of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill seated on a bench with space for a visitor to sit between them. They were the statesmen of their time, when the world was a very different place.

Martin W.G. King is a freelance writer based in Delray Beach, Florida, who enjoys writing about travel destinations of interest to West Virginians.

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West Virginia pilot helps group rescue cats from Guantanamo Bay http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170602/GZ0506/170609932 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170602/GZ0506/170609932 Fri, 2 Jun 2017 09:00:00 -0400 Douglas Imbrogno By Douglas Imbrogno The caterwauling from the back of the twin-engine Cessna came from a crowd of unwilling passengers.

Cats. There were 25 of them stashed in cat carriers bearing their names on strips of tape, among them Gomez, Groucho, Diablo, Droopy and Morticia.

They were howling their objections to being flown against their wishes from their home along Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to America.

"They made some ungodly kind of sounds on takeoff and landing," said Mike Plante.

Plante took part in what must be one of the fuzziest international rescue airlifts ever when he flew his Cessna 310 out of Charleston's Yeager Airport on May 12.

With a stopover to pick up a friend, he flew to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base at the southeastern end of Cuba to pick up his cargo of cats.

The American Naval base - known as Gitmo - is best known for its controversial wartime prison, housing detainees in a complex skirted by a Cuban minefield. But the 45-square-mile base is also home to a thriving population of abandoned and feral cats.

An American contractor who'd lived on the base for 26 years had been touched by the plight of the base's free-range cats, Plante said. The policy on the base is to euthanize them if owners cannot be found for the friendlier ones, he said.

But the contractor, a woman named Ruby Meade, had opened her home, yard and business to 23 of the cats to go with the two house cats she already owned. People who knew she offered safe harbor for felines without families would drop them by her home or the machine shop she and her husband, Glynn ran on the base.

"You'd come in one day, and there'd be a new little kitten, all scrawny, trying to get something to eat. You'd coax 'em out and take them to the vet," Meade said in a phone interview.

Here was the rub - actually, there were lots of rubs, given all the cats accumulated by the couple through the years.

Meade, who first came to Guantanamo as a Naval enlistee and ended up as a government contractor, had decided to retire and move back to the states.

What would happen to all her cats?

Who ya gonna call?

Operation Git-Meow.

By day, Plante runs a public relations firm, whose clients include Yeager Airport. On the side, he has for years helped a friend, Steve Merritt, the president of Bahamas Habitat, which lines up private pilots for disaster relief in the Bahamas, Haiti and Mexico. Merritt also works with the Virginia-based nonprofit Helping Paws Across Borders, an international veterinary and animal-rescue program.

When Operation Git-Meow offered Meade help with her cat quandary, the group reached out to Merritt, who reached out to Plante.

The result: a multi-cat airlift from Cuba originating in West Virginia.

But it took a crew of volunteers, a cross-Guantanamo cat caravan, and many months and mountains of military paperwork to pull off.

The wrangling with officialdom included a special exception granted by the Guantanamo commander to allow Plante to drop his Cessna onto the tarmac of the restricted-access Naval base.

"There's no commercial service, per se, to Guantanamo," Plante said. "If the Navy and the military arranged for charter flights in and out in order to get the cats back to America, it was going to cost something like $1,000 a cat."

To be sure, Ruby Meade loves her some cats. You get a glimpse of her value system in the black T-shirt she wore the day of what might be called the "cat-lift" on May 14. In big letters, the shirt read: "CATS (because people suck)."

On the other hand, a $25,000 cat-lift to rescue Pepe, T-3, Boo, Baby and the other cats was a little beyond Ruby and Glynn's government contract income.

So, the Operation Git-Meow effort, which involved a pro bono private pilot from West Virginia, matched with a successful $5,000 GoFundMe campaign and a clutch of cat-rescue volunteers, was just the ticket.

Erika Kelly is president of Operation Git-Meow, a group pushing for changes in how Gitmo deals with its homeless cats, with help from the global animal rescue group SPCA International.

Kelly hopes the recent cat-lift will bring publicity to Git-Meow's proposal for a different way of dealing with the base's feral and abandoned cats.

It is beyond the scope of this article to get too deep in the weeds in the jockeying between Gitmo and Operation Git-Meow over how the base might better handle its homeless and feral cats.

But as for Ruby Meade's 25 cats, the worry was that should they be left behind, they'd go feral and be euthanized, Kelly said.

"Doing the airlift of Ruby's cats was to help get them off the island" and to avoid that fate, she said.

Git-Meow has offered to bring to the base a three-year TNVR program - to trap, neuter, vaccinate and release abandoned and feral cats for whom homes cannot be found. The idea was nixed by the base commander, but Git-Meow has appealed to upper-level Navy brass, Kelly said.

"We think we can reduce the cat population there by 50 percent because of it being a closed-off small base," she said.

The issue has gotten press in the Miami Herald by one of the paper's Guantanamo beat reporters, Carol Rosenberg. She has interspersed her coverage of the base's prison for alleged terrorists with a couple articles on Gitmo's cat euthanasia policy. Earlier this year, the Herald even filed a Freedom of Information Act request to force the base to reveal how many cats had been euthanized in 2016 - a total of 186, according to base records.

The base's feral cat problem has grown perhaps because of house cats abandoned by soldiers after their nine-month tours of duty, Kelly said. Or perhaps by semi-social wild cats befriended by the base's Filipino and Jamaican workers, or perhaps they wandered through the Cuban mine field that rings part of the base without being blown up, she said.

The base officially estimates it is home to about 500 feral cats, but Kelly and others peg the number higher, at perhaps 2,000.

"You can see at Guantanamo how quickly a couple of abandoned cats adds up to a big feral cat problem," Kelly said.

As for the Guantanamo 25 ­- Ruby Meade's cats - they got a bunch of help moving up to high-class new digs in the U.S.

A base veterinarian had to come to Meade's trailer the week before and then the day of the airlift to make sure their shots were up to date and to check them for a verboten screwworm they might carry into America.

Volunteers showed up at her home at 5:30 a.m. that Sunday to load the cats into carriers and stock them inside a small yellow bus. Off the bus went and then onto a ferry for a 30-minute cruise across Guantanamo Bay to the airfield on the other side. The bus drove onto the tarmac, right up to Plante's Cessna where volunteers handed the carriers up into the plane.

And the cats took this trip well?

"No, they were not happy at all," Meade said.

She tried to comfort them, sticking her fingers into the carriers for a nose scratch, trying to soothe them. Meade objects to the label of "feral" for her felines.

"I wouldn't call them feral because I can pick up every one of them. They would have been feral cats of we hadn't taken them in," she said.

Then, after wheels up, Plante and Merritt flew the cats off into the wild blue yonder. If they could have looked out their carriers, the cats would have seen below only the shoreline of their former home because the Cessna was prohibited from flying across Cuban airspace and had to skirt the island.

While they were quite vocal about the flight as it began and ended, they were fairly mellow cats in the air, said Plante. "At altitude, they were all pretty quiet and not making much noise."

Two local TV crews greeted them at touchdown in South Carolina to celebrate the successful cat-lift.

More volunteers helped ferry the cats back to their new home in Lancaster, South Carolina, where the Meades have retrofitted an old barn. It's equipped with heated beds and things for the cats to climb on. A cat door leads into an outdoor fenced pen with 8-foot walls and rabbit wire across the top to keep out predator birds who might turn a happy ending into one not so much.

All the cats are fixed and vaccinated with microchips under their skin in case they ever get lost ­and found ­again, said Git-Meow's Kelly. "They've got this big huge area to live out the rest of their lives."

Speaking from her now cat-filled property, Meade said the Guantanamo 25 are getting acclimated to being U.S. residents. Six cats live in the house and the other 19 in the upgraded barn.

"They're all different," Meade said. "Everybody thinks, 'How do you tell them apart?' Well, they all have different personalities. They know their names."

She said she is still amazed and appreciative of how the cat-lift was pulled off with so much persistence and international cooperation.

"If somebody had told me this was going to happen six months ago..." she said.

One thing hasn't changed from when they were Cuban cats, she said.

"They walk around with me."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.

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Laws for Paws: Know beach rules before taking your pup on vacation http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170531/GZ0507/170539941 GZ0507 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170531/GZ0507/170539941 Wed, 31 May 2017 09:56:00 -0400 By Patti Lawson Laws for Paws By By Patti Lawson Laws for Paws Summer is soon upon us, and the exodus from West Virginia to Myrtle Beach and beaches beyond will begin.

If you plan to take your four-legged companion with you, it's important you know the beach laws where you are going. Every state, county, town, city or municipality has ordinances that govern the behavior of dogs, and that includes beaches.

Most beaches on the Atlantic Coast prohibit dogs from being on the beach from Memorial Day until Labor Day, except for certain hours. Certain areas have leash laws on a restricted basis.

For example, most United States beaches now have an area they call Dog Beach. On these designated stretches, dogs are allowed to run leash-free. Owners, of course, are responsible for their dogs, and the entity that governs the beach usually assumes no liability for injury to your dog.

You could still be held liable if your dog causes injury to another dog or property on the beach.

BringFido.com lists pet-friendly beaches. On the website, local beach laws are provided for some of the beaches, but check the beach restrictions for dogs. These can be found on the website for any pet-friendly vacation rental company at your destination beach, the particular town's website where the beach is located or on signs on the beach.

Many beaches impose strict and often expensive fines for breaking their rules. Since ignorance of the law is no excuse for people, it's not for your dog either (even though it can't read).

For example, at Caswell Beach on Oak Island, in North Carolina, you'll be fined $100 if you or your dog walk over the dunes, $25 if you don't carry a waste bag and pick up after your dog, and $25 if your dog isn't on a leash. Common restrictions for dogs on beaches often include the following:

n Many beaches do not allow dogs on the beach during warm months from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is to protect the dog from heatstroke and other heat-related health problems.

n Usually waste disposal bags are located at beach entrance areas.

n Some beaches only allow dogs off leash during certain time periods, other beaches never allow it and some allow it all the time.

n The number of dogs one person may have on the beach, usually one dog per adult.

n Breeds with aggressive tendencies are often banned, even in places without breed specific legislation.

n Leaving dogs unattended.

n Requiring a collar with current tags including ID and rabies tags.

n Age restrictions usually ban dogs under six months old.

n Female dogs in heat are not permitted on most beaches.

n Having an adequate supply of water with you for your dog.

n No spiked collars on dogs.

Rules change depending on the time of year and are usually more lenient from September to the end of May and stricter from June through August in many states.

Some beaches require permits, which include paying a fee. Dewey Beach, in Delaware, is such a beach and charges $10 for an eight-day pass and $5 for a weekend pass. Residents can buy a lifetime pass for their dogs for $35. Check ahead so you'll be in compliance with any local fees.

n Myrtle Beach: Dogs in public must be on a leash at all times.

n Myrtle Beach: Any animal on the beach must be on a hand-held leash no longer then 7 feet and under the control of the person in custody of the animal.

n Myrtle Beach: Animals are not permitted on the beach or on Ocean Boulevard from 13th Avenue S. to 21st Avenue N. in Myrtle Beach during any time of the year.

Dogs only are permitted on the beach anytime from Labor Day through April 30. They are not allowed on the beach from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 1 through Labor Day.

n North Myrtle Beach: Dogs must be on a leash at all times. Dogs are not allowed on the beach from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 15 to Sept. 15.

n Surfside Beach:  Dogs are not allowed on the beach at any time May 15 through Sept. 15.

n Georgetown County: Dogs are allowed on public beaches if accompanied by the owner or keeper and under the physical control by means of a leash or similar restraining device, or under the control of a responsible person to whom the dog is obedient on command.

n Pawleys Island Beach: Dogs must be on a leash from May through October.

n Huntington Beach State Park: Dogs must be on a leash at all times. In areas designated for the protection of endangered species, dogs and cats must be on a leash at all times.

It is extremely important that you know these rules before you go. Dogs get overheated very easily, so the laws keeping them off the beach during the hottest time of the day is essential.

If you take your dog and discover the rules after you arrive, it can have a serious negative impact on your vacation. Most hotels and rental properties forbid leaving animals unattended in their facilities.

Finding a boarding kennel in a strange place is both difficult and risky. Leaving Fido at home with a trusted dog sitter or a reputable kennel is sometimes the best vacation for everyone.

Or consider a fall beach vacation. Rates are cheaper, rules are relaxed and it's still warm, but not too hot for your dog.

Patti Lawson is an award-winning author and attorney. She has written for the Huffington Post, AOL Paw Nation, the Charleston Gazette, and other publications. She lives in West Virginia with her two beloved dogs, Sadie and Rusty, and one amazing husband. Visit her website: www.pattilawson.com. Her recent book, "What Happens to Rover When the Marriage is Over? And Other Doggone Legal Dilemmas!" is available locally at book stores or on line at Amazon.comand other locations.

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WV Travel Team: A beginner's guide to Las Vegas http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170528/GZ0506/170529654 GZ0506 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170528/GZ0506/170529654 Sun, 28 May 2017 08:00:00 -0400 By Crissy Gray WV Travel Team By By Crissy Gray WV Travel Team There's only one place in the United States where you can experience New York, Paris, Italy, Egypt, China or countless deep sea adventures, visit animal exhibits, and see nationally recognized entertainment. Las Vegas is the perfect spot for a long weekend.

While the trip to Las Vegas from Charleston is scenic, the 30-plus hour drive time doesn't make it a convenient getaway. However, flight schedules out of Yeager, with a connection, can have you to Sin City in just over six hours for a fun weekend you won't soon forget.

There is no standard on or off-season in Las Vegas, but plan your trip around the weather. Highs in the summer often exceed 100 degrees, but the low humidity can make the conditions slightly more tolerable. Winter can be a bit chilly, with nighttime temperatures in the low 40s. Strong winds off the mountains can happen year-round, so be sure to bring a sweater.

Hotels are typically more full in July through October, and other events, such as New Year's Eve, the Super Bowl, March Madness and spring break, can also lead to larger than average crowds.

Las Vegas features two main tourist areas. The Las Vegas Strip, located along South Las Vegas Boulevard generally south of Sahara Avenue, is home to flashy resorts and attractions. However, recent investments in downtown Las Vegas, along Freemont Street, have brought a lot of life back to what many consider an old-school Las Vegas experience.

McCarran International Airport is conveniently located near the strip and has plenty of transportation options to get you to and from your destination. The airport also offers a diverse selection of dining and shopping and features slot machines to help you pass the time while you wait for your flight.

Before you plan your Las Vegas getaway, be sure to take a look at the acts you want to see. Whether you're drawn to Cirque du Soleil, comedy shows or a concert by your favorite artist, check venue schedules before booking. Many shows operate only a couple days a week or for specific weeks out of the year.

One of the most frequent challenges travelers want assistance with is picking a resort that's appropriate for them. We picked our lucky 10 resorts to share.

n Aria ($$$): Centrally located on the strip, this property is a modern resort with a rare find in Las Vegas - natural light. Guests are greeted by a three-story atrium full of natural light, and every guest room features floor-to-ceiling windows. A central control pad operates everything in the room, from curtains to lighting.

Check out the art collection, including Maya Lin's Colorado River, an 84-foot sculpture of reclaimed silver that replicates the route of the waterway. Aria is also home to high-end shopping, including Prada, Tom Ford and Harry Winston, and a plethora of great restaurants. Also enjoy "Zarkana," Cirque du Soleil's take on a modern-day variety show.

n Bellagio Las Vegas ($$$): Most Las Vegas visitors know Bellagio for its dancing fountains choreographed to music, but the resort offers a simplistic elegance that is hard to match. Rooms in the main tower are top of the line, with Italian marble and luxury fabrics.

The resort also has some of the best service on the strip, with a higher staff-to-guest ratio than most properties. Be sure to check out the gardens of the indoor botanical conservatory, which are best viewed around Christmas and Chinese New Year.

Bellagio is home to one of the best pools on the strip, as well as one of the top spas, offering high-end treatments for both men and women. This is one of the most popular resorts on the strip but the crowds can make it difficult to get into activities or restaurants quickly.

n Caesars Palace ($$$): This resort offers an over-the-top, iconic Roman experience. Guests are greeted with statues of Caesar, Cleopatra and Michelangelo's David in addition to plenty of classic Roman architecture. Rooms at Caesars are lavish and available at multiple price points. Guests can stay in the Octavius or Augustus towers for $70 to $100 in a deluxe room, while Villas can go for up to five figures per night. Check out the spa, which includes Arctic ice rooms (a cold sauna that's always 55 degrees) and the Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis. Caesars has one of the smaller casinos of the strip resorts.

n Excalibur Hotel and Casino ($): Excalibur is easily recognizable with its medieval-themed castle exterior. Popular with families because of its basement arcade and Tournament of Kings dinner show, Excalibur has an expansive casino floor with low table minimums for gamblers. While dining options are somewhat limited compared to other resorts, Luxor and Mandalay Bay are easily accessible by monorail providing guests with more options.

n Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino ($): The Golden Nugget can be found in downtown Las Vegas as a part of the up-and-coming Freemont Street Experience. While this iconic property is the best in downtown Las Vegas, it doesn't have all the amenities and luxuries of its strip counterparts. Be sure to enjoy The Tank, a pool with a shark tank and three-story water slide. Gamblers will enjoy the popular poker room, frequently seen on poker television shows.

n Luxor Las Vegas ($$): You've seen the pyramid known for its rooftop xenon light beam that burns brighter than any other in the world, and guests who stay at the Luxor can experience an Egyptian-themed resort with unique-shaped rooms. Opt for a room in one of the 22-story towers next door - they feature brighter rooms with great views of the pyramid without the awkwardly shaped walls of pyramid rooms.

Check out "BODIES... The Exhibition" to get an up-close view of the human body. Also, enjoy one of the largest pools on the strip, featuring cabanas and VIP poolside treatment, such as iced aromatherapy towels.

n Mandalay Bay ($$$): The Mandalay Bay boasts three properties: the Mandalay Bay, Delano Las Vegas and the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas. Each is incredibly different. Mandalay itself is reminiscent of a South Seas beach resort, with soft beach scents and pagodas throughout the casino floor. Rooms are spacious with large bathrooms complete with soaking tubs and separate showers. Enjoy access to the property's wave pool, lazy river, three pools and real sand. Mandalay offers plenty of live music between its concert venue and the House of Blues Music Hall. Don't miss the Shark Reef Aquarium, featuring 1.6 million gallons of saltwater with more than 2,000 different animals.

n MGM Grand Hotel & Casino ($$$): The MGM Grand is one of the largest hotels in the world and can be a maze. But guests will enjoy being greeted by the iconic MGM lions while relaxing in rooms at a variety of price points in five different towers. High rollers will enjoy the suites and Skylofts. From upscale and well-known restaurants to nightclubs, there is no shortage of things to do. The Grand Garden Arena hosts big-name concerts and boxing matches, and the comedy club at MGM brings in top acts on a regular basis. MGM has one of the largest pools in the world. The MGM's Stay Well program includes air purification systems, vitamin C showers and dawn simulator alarm clocks.

n New York-New York Resort & Casino ($$): It's as close as you can get to the East Coast on the West Coast - complete with a mini-Manhattan skyline including scaled-down replicas of the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Chrysler Building and more. With generally standard rooms available in several classes, New York-New York has one of the best locations on the strip central to many attractions. Check out the roller coaster that darts through the New York skyline, called the Manhattan Express - it's easily one of the best rides on the strip.

n Paris Las Vegas ($$): The iconic Eiffel Tower rising above the resort isn't the only homage to the City of Lights you'll see at the Paris Las Vegas. The interior of the rooms have custom French-inspired furniture and fabrics. Standout restaurants are the buffet featuring dishes from five French Regions, Gordon Ramsay's steakhouse and Mon Ami Gabi Bistro. The octagonal Soleil Pool and French gardens are a great place to relax on a hot afternoon. Check out the collection of authentic French boutiques and the other nods to France, including the replicas of the Arc de Triomphe, the Paris Opera House and the Louvre.

n The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas ($$$): Known for being a different kind of trendy experience in Las Vegas, the Cosmopolitan combines technology and sophistication to bring guests a welcoming and rare experience. Many of the rooms and suites have private terraces, a rarity on the strip. Another rarity, many other rooms also have a kitchenette with a mini-fridge and microwave for guest use. Check out The Chandelier - a three story central bar featuring a giant chandelier, a restaurant and live entertainment. To really treat yourself, book a room that faces the fountains at the Bellagio - it's money well spent.

n The M Resort ($): One of the best kept secrets off the strip, the M Resort is located about six miles south, in Henderson, with regular shuttle service to the Tropicana Resort. The property offers modern rooms with dark wood and carpet featuring sweeping views of the entire strip or the mountains. Rooms are extremely spacious with modern designs. The large bathrooms feature a tiled shower and additional soaking tub with direct views out of the room through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The restaurants and Studio B Buffet offer a wide selection of quality dining at very reasonable prices.

n The Venetian Las Vegas ($$$): A marvelous recreation of Venice, the Venetian features some of the best shopping, dining and atmosphere in Las Vegas. The over-the-top shopping and dining area, complete with authentic canal featuring gondolas, is a great place to cool off on hot summer days, and no detail is missed - all the way to the life-like frescos and clouds painted on the ceiling. Rooms are massive and plush.

A short drive can lead you to some of the best kept secrets in the Las Vegas area. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area. For a small fee, visitors can drive a scenic one-way, 13-mile loop with stunning views and hiking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.

Approximately half an hour away, be sure to visit the Hoover Dam. Taking years and countless lives to build, the dam hosts nearly two million visitors a year. Check out the art deco architecture, or take a tour of the entire facility by a seasoned guide.

Near the Las Vegas Strip, take the opportunity to visit the Lion Habitat Ranch, home to more than 45 lions that roam the 7-acre ranch located roughly 10 minutes from the strip. You can even feed the lions, or experience the Trainer-for-a-Day program.

Stop by the AAA Store in Charleston or call one of the AAA travel professionals - Janice Adkins, Lia Ireland, Amy Sisson, Becky Wallace and Barbara Wing at 304-925-1136 - for assistance planning your Las Vegas getaway.

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