The best scoop on travel destinations comes from people who have recently visited them. When they are your friends and neighbors, that is best of all.
Snorkeling with stingrays, sharks, and Hero
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Bellaire residents Anita and Jim Bettis took their children—Paul, 14, and Lizzie, 10—in June 2005 to Ambergris Caye, a small island off the coast of Belize. On a daylong boat trip, the family spotted the elusive manatee in a coastal reserve and also snorkeled the reefs in Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley (www.holchanbelize.org). With their guide, they snorkeled through the spectacular coral reef among nurse sharks, stingrays, and a beautiful array of colorful fish. The first to jump in the water, Anita was alarmed when she was immediately face-to-face with a 150-pound grouper fish—“a big, fat-lipped guy.” Only then did the guide tell her, “Oh, that’s Hero.” A permanent fixture in the reserve, Hero parks himself under the tour boat when it arrives and checks out the newest visitors.
Jim and Paul became captivated by deep sea fishing after each reeled in a 25-pound barracuda on two half-day excursions. Meanwhile, Anita and Lizzie delighted in building sandcastles, and snorkeling at the end of the pier seeking a particular angelfish. (Snorkeling note: Prescription swim masks can be ordered online.) The family stayed in their own cabana at Ramon’s Village (www.ramons.com), a casual resort that is a lovely five-minute walk along the beach to San Pedro. Their “hands-down favorite restaurant” was the Reef with its wonderfully prepared fresh fish. They also liked Elvie’s, and enjoyed having banana pancakes at Estel’s Dine by the Sea near their hotel.
Gracious Southern living, history, and grits
Charleston and Kiawah Island, SC
Tanglewood residents Anne and Robin French visited Kiawah Island and Charleston in April on a two-night business trip, but they are ready to return for a longer stay with their college-age children. Anne particularly adored staying at the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island (www.thesanctuary.com) with its “beautiful furnishings and Southern traditional decor.” About a 40-minute drive south of Charleston, the Sanctuary is a luxurious beach/spa/golf/tennis resort with outstanding service.
But since they had never been to Charleston, the Frenches tore themselves away to visit this historical city and surrounding area. After an hour-and-a-half detour among little winding roads (Anne says to get a good map!), they appreciated touring the historical Magnolia Plantation and Its Gardens (www.magnoliaplantation.com) located west of Charleston. Later that evening, they enjoyed “gourmet grits” at the Charleston Grill in the Charleston Place Hotel.
While Robin had meetings on their second day there, Anne and Houston friend Laurie Liedtke explored old Charleston on foot. They were dropped off at 11 a.m. by the hotel van and picked up at 5 p.m. Anne says that the three Charleston must-dos are: 1. Walk around the historical Battery area, and in particular, visit the Edmundson-Alston home 2. Take a carriage ride. 3. Enjoy the wonderful food, especially the local specialty of “shrimp and grits” which she had at the Magnolia Grill on King Street.
Glacier hiking on snow and ice
The Swiss and Austrian Alps
A desk-sized map of the Alps and the Mediterranean coast peppered with red and yellow sticker dots indicates the 72 places where Memorial resident Ray Hankamer has either hiked or skied. The latest red dot is on the 10,000-foot tall Piz Buin near Klosters, Switzerland where Ray hiked the glacier around it for five days in July 2005. This was Ray’s second trip with a licensed guide from Mountain Reality of Andermatt, Switzerland (www.bergschule-uri.ch). He recommends Swiss and French outfitters over American ones because they are markedly less expensive and have local people. Ray assures those of us who don’t know French that everyone speaks a little English.
The highlight and attraction of this trip was the “unique and challenging experience of hiking on the snow and ice of glaciers” using an ice axe, crampons, and being roped up. This small group of four people and a guide hiked five to nine hours during the day and stayed in high-country refuges at night. Often managed by a husband-and-wife team, these dormitory-type accommodations provide a comfortable place to sleep, simple hearty meals, and even beer and wine. Some refuges are so remote that supplies must be flown in by helicopter. Ray’s next trip is hiking the Dolomites in northern Italy for a week in July.
Art, spies, and leopard robes
West U resident Olivia Fisher and I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Washington, D.C. for two nights in February to see the touring Cezanne in Provence exhibition at the National Gallery. My niece Laura Page, a former West U and current D.C. resident, found the perfect hotel for us. Opened in 2002, the Hotel Monaco (www.monaco-dc.com) is a four-star boutique hotel that’s just a bit funky and has a fabulous location. An interesting mix of old architecture and modern furnishings, the hotel provides leopard terrycloth robes for its guests as well as a daily complimentary wine reception. There are several restaurants nearby including the Poste restaurant and bar located in the same building. Not only is the National Mall a short walk away, but the hotel is steps from the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro stop, which has three popular lines. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, which will reopen this July after six years of renovation, are across the street as well as the International Spy Museum (www.spymuseum.org), which we loved. It contains the “world’s largest collection of international espionage artifacts” and explains the history of spying. Another must-see is the Phillips Collection of modern art near Dupont Circle.
Editor’s Note: Lifelong Houstonian Laura Bellows—wife/mom/volunteer, tennis enthusiast, and travel aficionado—is a Buzz contributing writer. Combining her passion for writing and travel, Laura will feature travel highlights and advice from Buzz neighborhood residents in her column. If you have travel scoop from a recent or upcoming trip to share, e-mail Laura at (email@example.com) info (at) thebuzzmagazines (dot) com.