Archive for the ‘Lodging’ Category

Fans of family entertainment flock to Branson

May 20, 2013

I was surprised by how many of my East Coast friends had never heard of Branson, Missouri, one of the country’s top tourism draws. I described it to them as “G-rated Vegas without the gambling,” but now that I’ve been, I need to amend that add “with a generous scoop of Christianity and patriotism.”

Photo ExploreBranson.com

A walkway runs along Lake Taneycomo in Branson [Photo ExploreBranson.com]

If you like family-friendly variety shows and if you don’t need a drink during said show, and if you are Christian and patriotic, you’ll love Branson. I was there for a travel writers’ conference last weekend and toured around a bit. Truthfully, I felt a bit like a donkey out of water, so to speak. But that’s OK. I appreciated Branson for what it offered its fans, of which there are many. (The fairly remote Ozark Mountains town of just 10,500 hosts more than 7.5 million tourists a year and generates nearly $3 billion in annual tourism revenue. Wow.) And I admired its resilience after a tornado destroyed many buildings just last year, including the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, where I stayed. There was nary a sign of distress at the Hilton, one of the nicest I’ve stayed in.

Branson Airport

Branson Airport

The two-room Branson Airport, serviced by Southwest, is totally cute, with hillbilly décor befitting its locale. Tourists visit two areas – “the strip,” Highway 76, where the show theaters are, and downtown. In town, Main and Commercial streets are home to several “flea market” type shops and the famous Dick’s 5 and 10 (loved the linoleum and the merchandise). A block away on the waterfront is the newish Branson Landing development, an outdoor mall anchored by Bass Pro Shops White River Outpost. A walkway runs along Lake Taneycomo (which connects to Table Rock Lake), and the view is lovely. The main fountain area is a favorite gathering place for visitors. I also recommend Waxy O’Shea’s, where I had a most delicious Mother’s IPA, brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

Mother’s IPA is brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

Mother’s IPA is brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

The tourism folks took my group on a few side trips, including to Silver Dollar City, a longtime amusement park now boasting a giant wooden roller coaster called Outlaw Run. Also wild is the Powder Keg coaster, which launches passengers from zero to 53 miles-per-hour in 2.8 seconds. I had no idea that was its “thing,” and when I watched it from standing still to screaming speed, my jaw dropped.

We writers broke up into groups and toured different spots. I checked out Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, developed by the Bass Pro folks. This is nature lite, and quite manufactured at that, but it’s well done and I’m guessing introduces people to the great outdoors who might not otherwise venture out. Visitors can explore the 6-mile paved loop by foot, bike or guided tram, and only the tram will take you to the Elk and Bison pasture. I cycled, and it was quite pleasant. The chapel was particularly nice – I’m sure many people get married there.

Cycling at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

Cycling at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

Some of my writer friends on that trip went on to the Branson Zipline, which they described as soft adventure, but any zipline is too much for me, so I passed. Others went fishing with the Bass Pro folks. That sounded cool, but, again, not my thing. I wish I’d had time to kayak. Folks at Kayak Branson told me they were considering a kayak station right from Branson Landing, which would be wonderfully convenient. Another writer friend loved her tour of Christian-focused College of the Ozarks, aka “Hard Work U.,” where students work instead of pay tuition. They make their own everything, including clothing, furniture, and butter, and even run a hotel. Interesting! I wish I’d had the chance to see it. All the writers toured the Titanic Museum Attraction, fascinating in that inside the half-scale replica you feel you’re on the Titanic.

After my visit, I’m now very curious to see “We Always Lie to Strangers,” a new documentary billed as “a story of family, community, music and tradition set against the backdrop of Branson.” The film also explores how conservative Branson will change (or not) as the country becomes more socially liberal. Interesting points to ponder about this  intriguing place to visit.

Charleston, SC: Living time capsule, thriving city

March 3, 2013

I wrote a “36 Hours in Charleston” feature for the Boston Globe than ran on Feb. 24, timed to the first nonstop flights from Boston to Charleston, SC (Jet Blue). But any time is a good time to visit this vibrant city. Well, maybe not August. Start packing, and feel free to follow my lead.

By Diane Daniel

People stroll on the Battery, a landmark promenade along the Charleston peninsula

People stroll on the Battery, a landmark promenade along the Charleston peninsula

CHARLESTON — A visit to the Holy City, so named for its historic houses of worship, pulls you back in time. Horse-drawn carriages transport tourists along cobblestone streets flanked by centuries-old, beautifully preserved, and impeccably manicured gardens and homes, many open to the public. From land, you can gaze across the harbor to Fort Sumter, where Union soldiers suffered the first hit in the Civil War. But Charleston comes with a fast-forward button, too. Lowcountry cuisine keeps raising the bar, and a new wave of boutiques and bars buoy several neighborhoods. Mix it all together for heavenly results.

DAY ONE

Martha Lou's Kitchen has been dishing up soul food since 1983

Martha Lou’s Kitchen has been dishing up soul food since 1983

1:30 p.m. Meet Martha: Before you hit the highfalutin eateries, start simply and soulfully at Martha Lou’s Kitchen (1068 Morrison Drive, 843-577-9583), operating since 1983. Inside the pink cinder block building, savor a hearty, homemade Southern meal. Daily dishes ($8.50) might include fried chicken, lima beans, mac and cheese, and collards.

2:30 p.m. Uncivil acts: On April 12, 1861, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, turning decades of conflict into what became the Civil War. You can trace the war’s path there and at Fort Moultrie, both part of Fort Sumter National Monument. Sumter can be reached only by boat — a scenic 30-minute ferry ride from Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center (340 Concord St., 843-883-3123, ferry $11-$18), while you can drive to Moultrie (1214 Middle St., Sullivan’s Island, 843-883-3123, $1-$3). While there, visit “A Bench by the Road,” a memorial placed by the Toni Morrison Society in memory of the estimated 300,000 Africans brought to the barrier island on their way to being sold into slavery.

Jlinsnider owner Jamie Lin Snider carries quality vintage clothing and her own fashion line

Jlinsnider owner Jamie Lin Snider carries quality vintage clothing and her own fashion line

5 p.m. King’s crown: Recently arrived independent shops, bars, and restaurants are transforming Upper King Street, above Marion Square. At Jlinsnider (539 King St., 843-751-6075) Jamie Lin Snider carries quality vintage clothing and her own fashion line. A block away, ethereal bridal wear creator Rachel Gordon hosts a range of designers at her One Boutique collective (478 King St., 843-259-8066). When it’s time for a refreshment, try tricked-out diner The Rarebit (474 King St., 843-974-5483) or Closed for Business (453 King St., 843-853-8466), sporting the city’s largest selection of craft beer on tap.

7 p.m. Anything but ordinary: Late last year, celebrity chef Mike Lata of FIG fame opened The Ordinary (544 King St., 843-414-7060), a locally sourced oyster bar and seafood restaurant housed in a former historic bank building. The massive vault door divides the raw bar from the kitchen. Start with New England Style Fish Chowder ($12), where meaty pieces of the daily catch take center stage in a perfectly seasoned broth.

9 p.m. Avondale after dark: Grab a pint at Oak Barrel Tavern (825 Savannah Highway, 843-789-3686), a cozy, laid-back bar with specialty drafts in hopping Avondale Point, 4 miles west of downtown. The reinvigorated shopping and eating destination includes a wildly designed Mellow Mushroom (19 Magnolia Road, 843-747-4992) housed in an old theater, and the boisterous Triangle Char & Bar (828 Savannah Highway, 843-377-1300), specializing in grass-fed burgers ($9-$15).

DAY TWO

Katie Wilson fills an order at Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts

Katie Wilson fills an order at Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts

8 a.m. Sugar fix: Energize your day with a sweet treat from Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts (481 King St., 843-577-5557), where you’ll find such delicacies as chai coconut, maple bacon, or plain glazed doughnuts ($1.50-$3).

8:30 a.m. To market: The historic Charleston City Market (188 Meeting St., 843-937-0920) reopened in 2011 after a $5.5 million makeover added wider walkways, skylights, and fans. Among the more than 100 vendors, you’ll find regional items including barbecue sauce, sweetgrass baskets, Gullah paintings, and framed ceiling tins. (more…)

Accessible travel in Great Smoky Mountains

July 22, 2012

I’m turning over this post to my fellow travel writer Candy B. Harrington, the guru of accessible travel. Her latest guide is “22 Accessible Road Trips: Driving Vacations for Wheelers and Slow Walkers.” Candy also blogs about accessible travel issues at www.barrierfreetravels.com. For me, here in the South, Candy wanted to write something about a Great Smoky Mountains destination. Take it away, Candy!

Multigenerational travel is alive and well in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It’s a place everyone, regardless of age and ability, can enjoy. From toddlers in strollers to folks who use canes and walkers, to wheelchair-users, there’s no shortage of scenic drives, accessible attractions and even barrier-free trails that dot the area.

One great lodging choice is Constance Hartke’s Wears Valley cabins, which feature access modifications that make them an excellent choice for groups that have members with mobility issues. Located off US 321, just a short drive from the back entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Constance’s two ridge-top cabins are managed by Awesome Mountain Vacations (866-907-1747, http://www.awesomemountainvacations.com).

Bedroom in Eagles Nest has plenty of space to maneuver a wheelchair [Photo by Charles Pannell]

The smaller of the two cabins — Eagles View — has one bedroom and can accommodate up to five guests. There is ramp access to the wrap-around porch from the adjacent parking area, with barrier-free access to the front and back doors. Both entrances feature level thresholds and wide doorways; and inside there is barrier-free access to all first-floor areas.

The living area is furnished with a sofa bed, an easy chair, a dining table and a washer and dryer; while the fully equipped kitchen features a refrigerator, stove and microwave. Truly there’s everything you need to make yourself at home.

Eagles Nest bathroom has a roll-in shower [Photo by Charles Pannell]

The spacious bedroom boasts a 23-inch high open-framed king-sized bed, with adequate pathway access on both sides. Access features in the adjacent bathroom include a roll-in shower with grab bars and a hand-held shower head, a fold-down shower bench and a roll-under sink. The toilet is located in a 42-inch wide alcove, with grab bars on both walls, and ample room for most transfers.

The second floor, which has a pool table, a standard bathroom, a twin sofa bed and a small deck, is only accessible by stairs. Still there’s plenty of room on the first-floor deck to wheel around and enjoy the views.

A wheelchair-accessible boardwalk leads from Eagles Nest to Above the Clouds [Photo by Charles Pannell]

The bigger cabin — Above the Clouds – is ideal for large family gatherings, as it can accommodate up to 11 guests. A ramp leads from the nearby parking area to the back deck (located on the first floor) and up and around to the front deck (located on the second floor); so either floor can be accessed from outside.

The second floor features a kitchen, dining room and living area, plus a bedroom with a king-sized bed. The adjacent bathroom has a roll-in shower with a fold-down shower bench, a hand-held showerhead, shower grab bars and a roll-under sink. The third floor loft, which can only be accessed by stairs, contains a pool table, a twin sofa bed and a standard bathroom.

Downstairs there’s a massive game room, two bunk beds and a bedroom with a king-sized bed and a standard Jacuzzi tub. There is also a bathroom with a roll-in shower with a fold-down shower seat, a hand-held showerhead and shower grab bars.

Above the Clouds features the same great views as Eagles View, and it’s certainly roomy enough for a small family reunion. And you can always rent both cabins if you have a larger group, as there’s a barrier-free walkway between the cabins, and all of the public areas are wheelchair-accessible. Best of all, both cabins include a bevy of homey touches, so you never feel like you’re in a rental. That’s a real plus in my book!

Does every drop really count in Boone?

August 9, 2011

I sent this to the mayor of Boone, NC, today, a lovely town and home to Appalachian State University.

Dear Ms. Clawson,

This is relatively small potatoes, but as a journalist who writes about travel quite a bit, these things jump out at me. I appreciate the letter I found written by you in the guest book at the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza  in Boone about Boone’s water conservation efforts, aka the “Every Drop Counts” campaign.

The hotel was wonderful and the staff was great. But I have to say that your letter about water conservation didn’t match the hotel operations. For one, there was NO option/signage in the hotel room about not having sheets and towels laundered. Also, the shower there had to have the most water pressure of any shower I’ve used in years. Let’s just say it was the opposite of low-flow.

Also, I’ll add that at dinner the one night I was there, at Hob Nob Farm Cafe, my partner and I were given two large glasses of ice water without being asked. Not the worst thing in the world, but if water conservation is a goal in Boone, not the best either.

So, I figured you’d appreciate this feedback, which I added to my blog, at www.placeswegopeoplewesee.com. I’ll be sure to post your reply there as well, and thanks for all you do in Boone. It’s a GREAT city. I was visiting from Durham to do a book signing for www.farmfreshnorthcarolina.com, at the wonderful Watauga County Farmers’ Market, one of the best in the state, in my opinion!

Sincerely,

Diane Daniel

A gift idea for the armchair eco-traveler

December 18, 2010

Unlike most “best of” lodging books, the writer of “Authentic Ecolodges” actually visited every place in the book, quite an undertaking considering they’re scattered around the globe.

This beautiful art/gift/coffee-table book was written by Hitesh Mehta, a Florida-based landscape architect, environmental planner, and architect. To research the book, Hitesh, who is from Kenya, visited 44 lodges in 46 countries on 6 continents. Without me repeating what Hitesh says in his introduction, trust me when I tell you that his criteria for “ecolodge” is commendable. At their most basic, they embody the three main principles of ecotourism: 1) nature must be protected and conserved 2) the local community must benefit through community outreach and education programs and 3) interpretive programs must be offered to educate tourists and employees around the surround natural and cultural environnments.

That’s a good checklist for you to use on any place that calls itself an ecolodge.

Hitesh also looked at sustainable design and building practices, solid-waste disposal, energy needs and the like.

Cree Village Ecolodge in Canada

The only thing missing from each write-up, which contains pertinent information and luscious photos, is the price range, which I think is real disservice to the reader. Of course prices become outdated, but the reader wants to know a baseline and can take it from there.

Concordia Eco-Tents at St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

I’ll let you in on the North American spots in the book and you can check out the rest yourself. Both have been on my list to visit for years: Cree Village Ecolodge in Canada and Concordia Eco-Tents, U.S. Virgin Islands, and happen to be among the less-expensive spots in the book.

Happy eco-traveling, armchair and beyond!

Tides Hotel Waterfront? We think not

January 10, 2010

Ground view from hotel to the water

What do you think? Is the Tides Hotel Waterfront justified in calling itself waterfront even though the hotel has a busy six-lane road (US Highway 1) between it and the Indian River?

I and several of my professional travel-writing colleagues say it’s not, because “waterfront” means that a place is on the water — not near the water, across the street from it, or within view of it. That would be “water view.” When Wessel and I pulled up to the “waterfront” hotel, in Melbourne, Fla., where we had reservations for two nights, we felt we’d been tricked.

View from the waterside looking at the hotel. Be careful crossing the road!

Not surprisingly, the misleading moniker was only one of our problems with the Tides.

Overall, their claim of being a boutique hotel is ludicrous. Fauxtique is more like it. Playing club music in the lobby and decorating with fake plastic grass doesn’t fool anyone.

The worst of the offenses? The shower was lukewarm. (When we complained, we were told we should first run it for 20 minutes! Can you imagine?) The wireless service worked in the lobby but not in our fifth-floor room. (We were told it must be a problem with our computers.) The meager cold breakfast was on par with a low-end Days Inn. Every employee had a different excuse for everything. I had to argue for a partial refund.

To be a boutique hotel, one needs more than fake-grass decorations

Adding fuel to my fire, the owners, Landcom Hospitality Management in Jacksonville, won’t return my calls. In my years of consumer advocacy, whether private or public, I’ve never had a company not return my call. And this is a hotel management outfit. Wow.

Why were we there in the first place? I’m writing a travel piece on Melbourne and the “Space Coast” for the Washington Post. Part of the theme is how downtown Melbourne has come of age. After Googling around, I stumbled upon the website for Tides Hotel Waterfront and read it was Melbourne‘s “only boutique hotel,” and “luxurious” at that. I thought it would be a great example for the story. The opposite  turned out to be true.

We've seen much better at a Days Inn

In all my years of travel, I’ve never seen such a blatant case of hotel deception in the US. This will teach me to study Google Satellite and read Trip Advisor first. I would have read these earlier comments:

“It’s waterfront if you don’t mind looking across and listening to US Route 1, a six-lane road. What a bogus claim.”

View from the fifth floor. Water view? Yes. Waterfront? What do you think?

“The advertising overstated the deliverables — waterfront really meant a four-lane highway between the hotel and the water; boutique really meant remodeled with new paint, fixtures, and furniture, but the hotel still feels like a 1970s concrete block motor inn. As an example, breakfast was prepackaged muffins and pastries along with styrofoam cups for your coffee and juice. This is not what I had in mind when I saw the word ‘boutique.’ ”

I would invite Landcom to remove “Waterfront” from the hotel’s name, along with the “boutique” claims — or start living up to them. Shame on Landcom if they keep up the charade.

Paint this hotel bright green

February 11, 2009
The Proximity hotel has 100 solar panels on the roof

The Proximity hotel has 100 solar rooftop panels and oversized windows

Below is a little ditty I wrote for “The Boston Globe” (it ran Feb. 8, 2009) about what could these days be called North Carolina’s most famous lodging: Proximity Hotel, about a hour west of Durham, where I live. Its image even graces the cover of the state’s 2009 travel guide. Proximity’s claim to fame: the country’s most energy efficient hotel, with a LEED Platinum rating. What I have to admit surprised me when I visited in December was its hipster factor. In Greensboro? I had no idea. 

 Office-park setting belies this hotel’s No. 1 green ranking

The US Green Building Council awarded its only platinum award to the Proximity hotel

US Green Building Council awarded its only lodging platinum to Proximity

GREENSBORO, N.C. – It’s a happy coincidence that the greenest hotel in the country is on Green Valley Road in Greensboro.

Last fall, Proximity Hotel was rated the hospitality industry’s most energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable building, earning the US Green Building Council’s only platinum award given to a hotel.

The hotel lobby

Sweeping view of hotel lobby

While the hotel’s setting in an urban office park doesn’t scream green, its construction and operation do, allowing it to use 40 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than a comparable hotel, according to owner Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels, a local company. Proximity’s dozens of sustainable features include oversized windows for natural light, 100 solar rooftop panels, and an elevator that generates electricity on its way down.

The City Suite

The "City Suite," one of the largest rooms

Even its popular restaurant, Print Works Bistro, has risen to the challenge with such innovations as the use of geothermal energy for the refrigeration equipment and oven hoods that use sensors to set the power according to the kitchen’s needs.

The unsuspecting guest or diner will see only a high-design ultrachic hotel and restaurant, but the hotel staff is happy to give a behind-the-scenes tour. It’s almost enough to forgive Proximity’s use of disposable toiletry bottles instead of dispensers.

Proximity Hotel and Print Works Bistro, 704 Green Valley Road, Greensboro, N.C., 800-379-8200, 336-379-8200, http://www.proximityhotel.com/. Doubles start at $249.

Is Element hotel green, or a wash?

July 2, 2008

Here’s a benefit of writing a blog. Even if my letter to the editor at the Boston Globe isn’t published, I still get to share it with globe (i.e. the world) readers. I got a little worked up after a reading this story in the business section yesterday (I zip through the Globe daily online, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post) about a new hotel venture by the same company that brought us Westin/W Hotel. This is what I sent the Globe:

Dear editor:

I was disappointed that the July 1 article on Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc’s new test hotels in Lexington (Mass.) read more like a public-relations fact sheet than a news article. Here are some questions I’d like to see vice president Brian McGuinness answer about his “ecoconscious” Element hotel.

1) Why did you tear down the old Sheraton to build a new structure? Inherently, that is anti-environmental.

2) Sure, it’s nice that you have such things as in-room recycling, low-flow showerheads, and energy-saving bulbs, but many hotels have that already. What makes your contribution to this field so special?

3) You give priority parking to hybrids, but you probably know that many compact cars get better mileage than larger hybrids. Will I get VIP parking for my 1994 Honda Civic hatchback? It still gets 35-plus mpg on the highway, and I haven’t used up valuable resources buying a new car for 14 years now!

4) Since these weren’t mentioned, here are a few things I wonder if you do have. If not, why not? Solar energy, geothermal energy, windows that open, recycling building materials, recycled particleboard in the rooms, a green rooftop, native plantings, a bike-sharing program, kitchen composting, in the rooms and with any food services you provide.

5) Is your building certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System? If not, why not?

The answers to these questions would help consumers decide if your hotel is truly eco-conscious or just another green-wash marketing scheme.

Diane Daniel/Durham, NC, USA

 

Bedding down with the presidential candidates

February 8, 2008

As advertising gimmicks go, this one gets my vote. “Stay Smart, America” is a campaign by Holiday Inn Express and the Boston office of its ad agency, Digitas. What this new addition in the ad series does is show how much the presidential candidates would have saved had they stayed at a Holiday Inn Express instead of whatever swankier digs they’re using. Interestingly, Mitt Romney led the GOP in “wasted” hotel dollars. Hmmm… could that have contributed to his withdrawal?

The site design is genius. To the background of “Hail to the Chief,” you see drawings of all original candidates in their jammies. Romney is holding a teddy bear. Put your cursor over each candidate and their pj’s turn red or blue, depending on the party. Click on each to get a report of money spent on lodging, based on published campaign expense reports. There also are tallies for each party.

Days Inn in Hardeeville, SC welcomes petsPersonally, I find Holiday Inn Express a little too rich for my bargain-happy blood. The Days Inn I stay at in Partyville, SC (OK, it’s really Hardeeville), on my bimonthly drive from North Carolina to Florida is $39.99 on weeknights, and $10 extra for my wiener dog Roxy, who even gets her own bed.

In fact, I just did a quick test. The lowest rate for Feb. 22 at the Tampa International Airport Holiday Inn Express is $133. For the same night at the Tampa Airport Days Inn, it’s $90. Feel free to pass that along to your candidate of choice.