unexpected orlando

Mention Orlando and one thing comes to mind – theme parks. And rightly so: Walt Disney World put this city on the map, and today the Magic Kingdom battles it out with EPCOT, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and three other major parks for the attentions of 64.5 million travelers who come in search of rides, games, and Mickey Mouse ears each year.

But there’s a whole other side to Orlando.  Just steps from the fireworks, the roller coasters, the crowds, an entirely different group of attractions awaits.  From eco-safaris and astronaut training to canal cruises and historic gardens, America’s number one family destination has a whole unexpected side just waiting to be explored.

A short drive from the major attractions, Winter Park will charm you with tree-shaded avenues and a window into the world of Florida’s past. Once a major citrus-growing region, it became a popular retreat for well-to-do Northerners in the early 20th century. One of the best ways to get a peek at the Winter Park lifestyle is on the hour-long Scenic Boat Tour, a local attraction for more than half a century that takes you past lakefront mansions and through the city’s historic canals. Harry P. Leu Gardens is a 50-acre botanical park with the largest camellia collection outside California. Highlights include a butterfly garden, tropical stream garden, bamboo and palm gardens and a formal rose garden. It also includes the Leu House Museum, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With nearly 50 museums, theatres, and galleries, the heartbeat of the arts district is the seven-mile “Cultural Corridor,” that stretches from downtown Orlando to Winter Park.  The strip includes the Orlando Museum of Art, the new CityArts Factory, which houses art studios and galleries like Keila Glassworks, where you can get hand-on instruction in the art of glassblowing and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum, which features the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including an elaborate chapel interior.

Discover a habitat virtually unaltered by man in the wilderness of the Central Florida Everglades. Led by certified US Coast Guard Captains, Boggy Creek Airboat and Wildlife Safari Rides take you through the Florida wetlands in search of native wildlife.  Whisking across the water at speeds up to 45 mph, each ride offers a unique glimpse of eagles, osprey, snakes, turtles and alligators.  Florida Eco-Safaris at Forever Florida caters to all ages on its eco-safaris, guided horseback tours, and nature trails. They also offer the only zipline experience in the state:  a two and a half hour treetop adventure, reaching heights of 55 feet and speeds up to 25 mph through the Pine Flatwoods and wetlands.

With more than 2,000 lakes, springs and rivers, Orlando is an endless summer of outdoor fun for water lovers. For more adrenaline-pumping activities, you can get behind the wheel of a 600-horse-power Nextel Cup race car at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, skydive indoors in a high-energy vertical wind tunnel at SkyVenture Orlando, or lean to hang glide at Wallaby Ranch Hang Gliding Flight Park, the first full-time aerotow hang gliding flight park in the world. No experience is necessary. And for the ultimate rush, the Astronaut Training Experience at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex prepares intergalactic explorers for the rigors of space flight with a range of interactive, anti-gravity activities – plus the chance to take the helm at Mission Control under the supervision of an actual NASA astronaut.

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wishlist: treehotel

Home to the indigenous Sami people, the region of Lapland criss-crosses the Arctic Circle, straddling the Northern extremes of  Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia.  It’s an austerely beautiful place that I’ve been lucky enough to visit in the depth of winter once before.  Now, with news of the remarkable new Treehotel, I am eager to make a return visit.

There’s not much exact news available except for the fact that two entrepreneurs got inspired by the philosophical Swedish documentary Treelover, in which three men build a tree house together and discover what “the tree” means to them as humans, both historically and culturally.

These entrepreneurs thought it would be an interesting concept to expand on the ideas in the film by creating the ultimate treehouse – with the added dimension of innovative modern design.

Surrounded by natural forests in the village of Harads in northern Sweden (pop. 600), Treehotel looks like boutique eco-design heaven – as well as the ultimate experience in undisturbed nature.  And because this is Sweden, there’s even a tree sauna.  (How they pull that one off, I would love to see for myself.)

Currently there are six individual “rooms” nestled up in the pine trees:  The Bird’s Nest, The UFO, The Blue Cone, The Cabin and The Mirror Cube, with more fanciful rooms with a view scheduled to open in 2011.  An adventure awaits!

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crabs! (the musical?)

Over the hill that dominates the peninsula of Punta Mita, the road leads up the Pacific coast towards the expat surf town of Sayulita.  A few miles to the south of there I visited Imanta, a new eco-concious resort of seven casas that blend seamlessly into the rugged coastal landscape.  As eye-catching as the accommodations were, however, it’s the critters underfoot that had me fascinated:  land crabs – all about the size of my palm.  At first there seemed to be a handful scattered about near the palapa that serves as a reception area, including a few bright red “queens”. However, as we made our way down the hill towards the beach, the pathway was littered with crabs scurrying to escape the crunching wheels of the golf cart.  The crabs were no longer a curiosity, they were a horror film.  Or a musical, depending on your mindset.  I half-expected them to start caterwauling down from the trees.  Arriving at the beach I now saw a plague of crabs – literally hundreds, if not thousands  -  digging holes in the sand with their dominant claws.  The enterprise looked like a giant anthill or termite colony spreading out laterally across the sand.  Every human step suddenly became an invitation to accidentally break through and be devoured inside the intricate network of subterranean crab lairs.  “Crab,” I heard Roy Scheider shouting in the back of my head.  “Crab!!!”

I soon discovered that there is a great crab migration which takes place annually along this coast.  Descending from the hills with their sacs of eggs, the crabs bury the kids in the sand before retreating back to the hills.  The whole process takes place in waves over a few weeks time and once the little guys hatch, they, too, go running back from whence they came.

Needless to say I became somewhat obsessed and horrified by the photo-shy crabs, to the point of accidentally chasing one unfortunate guy up a tree.  Despite the claws they are far more afraid of us than we are of them.  A stretch of freshly swept beach became a tapestry of crab retreat in the blink of an eye as one small group of crabs scurried away. I still keep thinking about what a great textile the pattern would make:  crab tracks.

As interesting as it was to observe all of this crustacean activity for an afternoon – and I won’t even get into lunch – I don’t think I’d warm to staying at Imanta during the great crab migration.  I kept flashing back to all of those over-the-top, Nixon-fueled  eco-disaster films of the late 70’s and early 80’s:  The Swarm, Food of the Gods, etc.  My fear of becoming some other creature’s dinner would ensure I never slept a wink – no matter how high the thread-count of those Egyptian cotton sheets.

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travelling green

Anyone interested in greening their travel – and aren’t we all? – should check out RezHub, a new website that offers an easy way to find green hotels (with ratings), carbon offset programs, hybrid rental cars, as well as a host of resources to help you minimize your footprint without sacrificing style, comfort, or adversely impacting your wallet.  As a bonus, all proceeds made from online bookings today will be donated back to a local food bank – giving you the perfect excuse to book your next trip while patting yourself on the back for it.  Twice.

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green is good

Since the first celebration of Earth Day in 1970, the travel industry has made enormous strides in greening their practices, from recycling efforts and carbon offsets to rainwater collection systems and green roofs.  With the 40th anniversary of Earth Day coming up this week – April 22nd – green travelers can get rewarded for their efforts with special perks and programs at eco-conscious hotels and resorts around the country.  Here are just a handful.

Kimpton’s new Hotel Palomar Chicago features a green roof, joining a city-wide eco-friendly initiation.  A first for the Kimpton brand, the roof is covered with grass and vegetation to improve air quality, clean and retain rainwater, and add beauty to the urban landscape.  The Hotel Palomar Chicago was built with sustainability in mind, and operates with more than 70 eco-friendly practices as part of Kimpton’s brand-wide EarthCare program.

Located in Santa Fe, a city committed to a greener way of life, Eldorado Hotel & Spa is rewarding green-minded travelers who book “Go Green, Save Your Green” with a 15 percent room discount, complimentary overnight parking for hybrid vehicles and 20 percent savings on organic products at Nidah Spa.  For anyone staying multiple nights, sheets and towels are only changed upon request – another green touch.  Within walking distance to Santa Fe Plaza, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Canyon Road, guests of Eldorado Hotel & Spa can easily explore the city without use of a car.  Plus, the nearby Santa Fe Farmers Market is the largest in the state, with locally grown products from vendors across New Mexico.

The New Orleans Marriott is in the process of implementing a hotel-wide recycling program, the first large hotel in the city to do so.  Partnering with the stars of TLC’s “Trashmen,” the hotel will be able to recycle all paper, plastic and cans using their new recycling center.  At the hotel’s 5 Fifty 5 restaurant, the majority of menu items feature local ingredients such as dairy products from Smith’s Creamery, a family-owned and operated dairy in Louisiana.  For those looking to give back to the environment while in the Big Easy, the property’s Big Easy Spirit to Serve package helps volun-tourists connect with organizations such as Bayou Rebirth which works to restore coastal Louisiana’s wetlands.

St. Petersburg was the first city in Florida to receive the “Green City” distinction by the Florida Green Building Coalition for its renowned environmental initiatives.  During the month of April, guests staying at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, a historic hotel celebrating its 85th anniversary, will receive free parking for hybrid vehicles and complimentary bike rentals to explore the city’s 50 miles of bicycle trails.  The Resort’s Vinoy Day Spa also offers organic treatments such as the Rejuvenating Eye Treatment using HollyBeth’s all-natural products.

Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort will be offering complimentary eco-education for kids and families April 10-24.  The Tiki Tribe kids’ club attendants will host a daily free 30-60 minute activity focused on unique aspects of Marco Island’s native eco-system, like Dolphin Mondays and Sea Turtle Tuesdays.  For instance: When sea turtles lay eggs – up to 100 at a time – the air temperature determines whether the turtles are male or female.  Within the nest, all eggs will hatch either male or female.  The majority of the Earth Day program will take place on the beach so that participants will be surrounded by the local environment as they learn.

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