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Hawks Cay: Sensual Scrub, Delectable Dining and Playful Dolphins

February 25, 2010 by · Comments Off on Hawks Cay: Sensual Scrub, Delectable Dining and Playful Dolphins 

Hawks Cay Beach

Oh my gosh! I almost feel guilty talking about this experience. However, I recently encountered the ultimate indulgence, and the best part: zero fat grams and no calories. Just mix some tangy Key Lime juice with a mojito’s cool refreshing mint to create a killer concoction. No alcohol necessary; simply add essentials oils and slather over the body.

My skin drank in vast quantities of the soothing emollients during the signature spa body treatment – a Key Lime mojito scrub from Calm Waters Spa at Hawks Cay. You see, I purposely stopped by Duck Key on my way to Islamorada, when returning from Key West. The small 60-acre island is home to the famed Hawks Cay Resort. But, little did I know I was in for such a sensual and scentual treat.

After leaving Key West and driving sixty miles, hubby Jay and I arrived at Hawks Cay.  We stopped to enjoy a tasty, casual lunch served on the pool terrace. (Loved my grilled veggie sandwich.) We watched cars cross a bridge over the Key’s shimmery turquoise water, caught guests snoozing on the chaise lounges and visualized ourselves enjoying the resort’s beachy natural lagoon.

Rest and Relaxation on the Pool Deck

I meandered down to the Dolphin Connection, an ocean-fed saltwater arena, to watch the afternoon feeding. Hawks Cay Resort is the only hotel or resort in the continental United States that features an on-site dolphin research facility. And better yet, guests have the unique opportunity to encounter bottlenoses’ in their natural environment. The Dolphin Connection program is home to a pod of smiling (yes, that’s how I see them) and highly-intelligent creatures. You can choose to jump in the water for a hands-on encounter, spend three hours as if an assistant trainer or simply stand on the dock and admire their aerial tricks.

A Dolphin Flips

I got to thinking about my family and imaging an absolutely top notch vacation.  This seemed an ideal spot to bring the grandkids and their parents—and that was before I discovered the resort offered child and teen programs and a kid’s waterpark.

Camp Hawk,  for boys and girls ages 5 through 12, offers a full (or half) day of activities, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., including nature trail hikes, pool games, snorkeling in the lagoon, scavenger hunts, crafts, stories and a kid-friendly snack and lunch. On Friday and Saturday nights, young guests can join the Kids Night Out for more fun and parental relaxation.

Hawks Cay Waterpark

AquaJam is a three-day wet-and-wild adventure camp for teens ages 12 through 17.  Enrollees explore the Keys with like-minded peers, by kayaking, snorkeling, sailing and fishing.

Lodging choices include the resort hotel or the villas which offer the comforts of home in a two-story townhouse. The furnished deck and balcony of each villa make ideal locations for a late breakfast or cocktail hour to view a sunset.

But, I’d heard about the award-winning spa, the heavenly Calm Waters Spa, and I entered to escape. My treatment began in a candlelit room where I lay face down on a warm towel. Now, imagine a slow, tepid water drip on your back, not a Chinese water torture test, but a soft warm drizzle like a rainforest shower. That alone was pleasurable enough, but my therapist, Janet, began to scrub me with minty mojito sugar, a nourishing mixture to exfoliate and rejuvenate my dry skin. The amazing part–she did this while I continued to enjoy the warm waterfall on my body.

Janet methodically rubbed my legs, arms and back, while the Vichy shower (a bar with multiple shower heads) rinsed me and damp towels kept me comfortably warm.  Once I was scrubbed, lime scented oil was applied to hydrate my skin and allowed to soak in.  I was cocooned in hot blankets and my hair was washed and shampooed with Key Lime infused conditioners.  I chose to leave the conditioner on during my wrap for lasting results.  My eyes were then covered with a mask and I lay like a mummy, wrapped and confined in a face up position. Aaaah- how deliciously decadent.

I rested like this for 15-20 minutes with soothing birdsong music before the final unwrap.  My skin felt silky, almost like my baby grand-daughter’s. Well…maybe not that soft, but a lot smoother and fuller than usual.  My husband even noticed, saying I looked refreshed and kissably tender.

Hawks Cay Lobby

I would gladly return to Hawks Cay anytime and insist on staying longer than a few hours.  I’d truly love to treat my family.  I know each and every member would find something exhilarating to occupy their days: scuba, kiteboarding, chartering a boat, fishing, kayaking, beach combing, snorkeling, playing in the kid’s pirate pool, the spa, dining in various restaurants or just relaxing in the ocean breeze.  Hawks Cay is a first class resort, a place of barefoot elegance and one that promotes full-fledged memorable fun. Cheers- it certainly gave me something to talk about. Now, anyone for a real mojito?

The Dolphin Connection

Hawks Cay Resort

61 Hawks Cay Boulevard
Duck Key, FL  33050

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Cumberland Island: Grandeur and Green

February 8, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Just off Georgia’s coast, this historic isle offers elegant lodging and an escape from modern civilization

Plum Orchard on Cumberland Island, Currently Undergoing Restoration

Plum Orchard

Indians, soldiers and ghosts of Camelot docked upon her marshy shores. Turn-of-the-century multi-millionaires built castles, and commanding women protected their estates.

The history of Cumberland Island reads like steamy, romantic fiction. Its mansions now stand in ruin–wild horses as their guests. Former slaves haunt Stonehenge-like chimneys, aristocratic families’ feud (often with the government) and visitors spin their own tales.

The pristine preserve belongs to Georgia’s Golden Isles, a string of small barrier islands that dollop the Atlantic border. Cumberland, the group’s largest, rests between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, flaunting diversity among three different ecosystems: saltwater marsh, maritime forest and beach. The island, a National Seashore, limits visitors to 300 each day.

“Don’t tell anybody about this place,” whispered the visitor. “It’s total relaxation.”

The elegant Carnegie-built Greyfield Inn offers the only lodging (other than primitive camping) on an isle larger than Manhattan. Overnighters experience 19th century ambiance in a wilderness setting–just seven miles from the mainland, but remote from hustle and bustle. John Kennedy, Jr. chose Cumberland Island as the romantic spot to take his bride and the press never discovered or invaded their privacy.

Greyfield Inn

Visitors to the Southeast are attracted to former blue-blood enclaves–Colonial Coast vacation resorts including Jekyll, Amelia, Sea and St. Simons Islands–to golf, swim, boat and laze. But Cumberland stands apart–her natural splendor remains untouched by modern development. No convenience stores, beach homes, high rises or condominiums; in fact, nothing rests in between; first class or the floor, grandeur or green.

Her first chapter began with the Timucuan tribe, then the Spaniards, followed by Britain’s James Oglethorpe (Savannah’s founder) who built forts and a hunting lodge and re-named the area Cumberland.

Wild Horse on Cumberland Island

Wild Horse on Cumberland Island

After the American Revolution plantations prospered. Stafford Plantation, an 8,000-acre tract, reputed as the most productive–and exploitive with over 350 slaves. The owner William Stafford kindled a clandestine affair with a mulatto, who birthed four daughters and two sons. Today, the only remnants are the chimneys of their rustic cabins- and some say their ghosts.

In 1783, Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene and wife Caty moved near Oglethorpe’s lodge. Greene, however, died before they could build on the chosen site– an Indian burial mound. Caty remarried and constructed a four-story, 16-fireplace tabby (coquina) mansion. Her home, Dungeness, and twelve acres of formal gardens became renowned as a luxurious retreat among colonial patricians.

A Trail on Cumberland IslandThe Civil War brought plantation lifestyle to a halt. Freed slaves moved to nearby Amelia Island, but some returned to their birthplace and established The Settlement, on Cumberland’s northern tip. Dungeness deteriorated and was destroyed by fire.

The 1880’s brought a new infatuation. Thomas Carnegie, brother and business partner of millionaire steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, purchased the old Dungeness property and constructed a far grander mansion. Unfortunately he, like Oglethorpe and Greene, suffered a similar fate. Carnegie died soon after the house was finished, further connecting legends of the plagued site to the Indian burial ground.

Nevertheless, Thomas’ wife Lucy and their nine children stayed on in the 59-room Scottish castle with turrets, an indoor pool, squash court, beauty salon, golf course and 40 out buildings.

Guests–including the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers–stayed for a month at a time. Thomas Carnegie’s widow employed 200 servants to take care of any whim.

Guests, like the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, stayed at her retreat for a month at a time. They threw lavish soirees, picnicked on the lawn with crystal and fine china, and entertained with shooting, fishing, and beachcombing parties. Lucy employed two hundred servants to take care of any whims. Dungeness danced with merriment and carefree abandon through the Gilded Age.

When the matriarch died in 1916, her trust funds provided enough for upkeep- until inflation struck after WWII- pushing even the wealthy to cut back. Additional property taxes forced the family to close Dungeness. Thirty years later, a fire, apparently started by arson, burned the mansion. Now a highlight of a trip to Cumberland includes viewing the ruins.

The Great Depression and higher taxes further dwindled the Carnegie inheritance. The family held onto acreage and the Greyfield home, eventually opening it in 1962 as an inn. Today, Inn guests find casual elegance—dress for dinner and follow the rules of etiquette, but no phone, TV or WiFi.

In 1968, Hilton Head developer, Charles Fraser, wanted to purchase and develop Cumberland. Landowners–the Carnegies and Candlers (Coco-Cola heirs)–battled to halt commercialization. They met with the National Park Service (NPS) and, in 1972; the government declared Cumberland a National Seashore.

Front Porch Swing at Greyfield Inn

Front Porch Swing at Greyfield Inn

Heated debates over park usage followed. Ten years later, the central tract of forest and beach were designated as “official wilderness–a conservation class that outlaws mechanical devices like cars, bicycles and chains saws.”

The Park Service now controls ninety percent of Cumberland with just 2,000 acres remaining in private hands. Political struggles continue over management and development, historic preservation and driving privileges.

Lucy Carnegie built white-columned Greyfield in 1901 for daughter Retta. The three-story stucco mansion, with a raised basement and 11 bedrooms, sits on 200 acres. A graceful staircase descends from the first floor porch to the lawn.

Retta’s child, Lucy R. Ferguson, opened the house as an inn. Today, Mary Ferguson, wife of Mitty- who is the great-great-grandson of Thomas Carnegie, manages Greyfield, listed among the Historic Hotels in America.

Sitting Room of a Master Suite at Greyfield Inn

Sitting Room of a Master Suite at Greyfield Inn

A stay affords uncommon privacy ands tranquility. Upon arrival– via Greyfield’s own ferry–the staff escort guests through a cathedral high canopy of magnolias and immense southern oaks. A genteel, unhurried lifestyle immediately descends. Greyfield guests may also fly in and land prop planes on a grass strip runway with permission. However, no airport facilities exist.

House tours mention personal touches; staying in the gracious manor feels like a visit to a wealthy aunt, old family photographs line the walls. Look for Uncle Richard’s collection of shark teeth and Margaret’s favorite conch shell. All rooms are decorated with Carnegie originals or antique furnishings. The library contains hundreds of first editions; the old gun room became the bar. Guests pour for themselves on the honor system.

The one-hundred-foot front porch vies as favorite for its sweeping veranda and bookend bed-like swings. Rocking chairs line the front rail and creak on the wooden floorboards. Hummingbird feeders attract a bevy of those tiny, twittering creatures.

Hors d’oeuvres, graciously served in the living room, are typically enjoyed with cocktails on the porch. Jane Walsh, a guest from Palm Beach, calls Cumberland, “a slice of heaven.” She and her husband Michael celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a return visit and hope to come back every year.

Michael whispers, “Don’t tell anybody about this place. It’s total relaxation.”

A Parlor at Greyfield Inn

A Parlor at Greyfield Inn

Dinner at 7:30 PM is an elegant affair.  Men must wear jackets. The dining room features one long board, beautifully set with flowers and heirloom silver candlesticks, and two side tables. Honeymooners often sit by themselves, but most prefer chatting with others and discussing the day’s activities.

Blessedly cool, air-conditioned guest rooms on the second or third floor include private baths or shared amenities. Guests may also take advantage of the state-of-the-art bath house behind the Inn. The master suite includes a spacious 15 x 20-foot sitting room, a pineapple-post king bed and views out the front, side and back of the house. A claw foot tub dominates the bath, with shower accommodations.

Complimentary fat-tired bicycles, good on the sand, become a real bonus. A ten-minute pedal to the beach at sunrise makes an ideal start to the day. Cyclists often ride to the Dungeness ruins, via Grand Avenue, a dirt road beneath overhanging trees. Old photos show the gutted frame engulfed in vines. But, the NPS removed the foliage- and some of the mystique, to reinforce the crumbling bricks.

Don’t miss another highlight, an outing with a naturalist. By special permission, Greyfielders ride in open air seating for an exhilarating three-hour adventure. Stops include the salt marsh; the bluff- highest point on the island at 80 feet; the shallow, 83-acre Whitney Lake (home to gators); The Settlement and First African Baptist Church.

Interior of the First African Baptist Church

Interior of the First African Baptist Church

The teensy old slave church with red doors rose to Notre Dame fame following the 1996 Kennedy wedding. Venturing inside uncovers stark, whitewashed walls and windows and rough-hewn pews. Visitors must stretch their imagination to envision candlelight and flashlights used during the hush-hush Kennedy service arranged by Carnegie granddaughter, GoGo Ferguson.

The island tour stops for a peek at Plum Orchard, the Greek revival home of George Carnegie. The NPS recently spent $5.3 million on renovation to the decaying shell and interior. The extravagance of the era crystallizes with the realization that this grandiose home and indoor pool–built in 1898- sits in the enchanting wild, 45 minutes from Georgia’s mainland.

The exotic forest surrounding Plum Orchard feels like a gnome’s sanctuary. Cool, dark, shadowy branches are home to mosses, lichens and emerald green resurrection ferns. The outside world seems shut out except for sounds like yellow-throated warblers or pileated woodpeckers. An afternoon shower presents a squawking chorus, compliments of green tree frogs.

From the dim jungle, you emerge to the blinding flat, sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. There’s not a person, beach towel, umbrella or chair on a shoreline that’s almost 1,000-feet wide at low tide. What can compare?

Thousands of sandpipers, sanderlings and other shorebirds dodge waves. During raptor migration, enthusiasts may see hawks and peregrine falcons. Soaring above the dunes lurk vultures and bald eagles. The entire island is on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, with more than 277 identified species.

Nesting Loggerhead Turtle

Loggerhead turtles return from May to September creeping just over the dunes’ high-water mark to lay eggs. The NPS attempts to police feral pigs that forage the nests. Non-native wild horses and hogs disrupt and endanger the sea oats and sand dunes.

According to naturalist Fred Whitefield, “sea oats are the most important plant on the island because their deep roots slow dune erosion.” But…the tourists love the beauty of the ponies.

Dusk brings raccoons and armadillos, and a variety of critters whose beady eyes and acute sense of smell make them nocturnal scavengers. Night falls and the place has the magnificent feel of solitude on a remote private island.

A weekend at Greyfield lets you flip back the pages of history and return to the privileged days of Jay Gatsby, or camp like early settlers who slept under the stars. Just slow down like the turtles on her shore, roll with the tides or escape in the thick of her forests. Retreat like the former elite or use your own feet. No matter which adventure you choose, Cumberland is an open book waiting for you to write a chapter.

This article also appears in the February 1, 2010 issue of Business Jet Traveler. View it now on Business Jet Traveler Online.

The Drive Down US1 to Key West

February 3, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Map of Florida

Travel Journal- January 2010

January 2010 turned unseasonably cold, even in my corner of northeast Florida. The winter chill in Jacksonville felt like Buffalo, forcing Floridians to dream of warmth. Yes, the Keys were calling: sunsets and sand, flip-flops and shorts, Key Lime pie. “Come, drive down the Road to Paradise,” I heard.

The Florida Keys Overseas Highway, from north of Key Largo to Key West, was recently crowned with the title All-American Road., the only such road in Florida. And that’s the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the Congress. Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious designation and my husband, Jay, and I were about to find out why.

The Overseas Highway follows a trail originally blazed in 1912. Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler completed the immense logistical task–more nightmare, really–of extending his Florida East Coast Railroad the 150 miles from Miami to Key West. Just imagine Gibson Girl-esque young women in their swan-bill corsets and pompadours boarding the train in New York and–a mere 30 hours later–stepping out at the southernmost point in the United States. What a boom for Florida.

Then, in 1935, catastrophe struck this paradise. A hurricane collapsed the rail line, and the economic conditions of the Depression left the destruction lying in disarray. The Keys were accessible only by water.

The government decided a highway was needed and could incorporate the foundation of some of the original railway spans, as well as 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The road, completed in 1938, included the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, which stretched 6.79 miles across open water and referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

I remember my first road trip to Key West in 1960, a family vacation in our brand new Chevy Corvair. My Dad did all the driving and my two brothers and I sat seatbelt-less in the backseat. We Virginians were thrilled by southern tourist attractions and the changing landscape: Spanish moss, palm trees and alligators. But, when we got to the Keys highway, my Mother nearly succumb from white knuckled fear. Trucks passing in the opposite direction took more than their half of the road.

Fortunately, in 1982, most of the original bridges including the Seven Mile Bridge were replaced with wider spans. Many of the remaining structures can still be seen running alongside the newer ones and are frequently used as fishing piers.

Today, a road trip from Florida City, below Miami and known as the “Gateway to the Keys,” takes approximately four to five hours, depending on traffic. The speed limit is 55 mph most of the way, 45mph in more populous intersections.  The pavement is good and its width, or lack of it, is no longer scary.

The first Key you encounter along US 1 is Largo, the largest at 30 miles from end to end. Most people recognize the name from the 1948 movie Key Largo starring Boogie and Bacall or perhaps the song, Sailing Away to Key Largo.  You really wouldn’t know you’re driving on an island as you don’t see water– just shops, hotels and flat scrubby ground.  This area is now famous for diving including an  underwater park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

Early morning fisherman get ready for an outing.

Islamorada Key comes next, a fisherman’s dream. Boaters arise early for deep-sea fishing or back water excursions. The wide selection of catch includes Amberjack, Blackfin Tuna, Blue Marlin, Bonefish, Cobia, Dolphin, Grouper, King Mackerel, Redfish, Snook, Tarpon, Wahoo and Yellowtail Snapper.  Water sports of all types are available for non-fisher folk.  (More about this area on my return trip.)

Marathon Key follows, originally named Vaca (cow) by Spanish settlers for the many manatee or sea cows found offshore.  It was renamed Marathon by the men building the railroad which required the lengthy bridge.  Marathon boasts lots of development and a small airport, but no regular commercial flights. However, the surrounding water shimmers a beautiful blue-green and the many bridge crossing give the area a tropical feel.

Crossing Big Pine Key called for slowing to 45 mph or 35 mph at night.  Key Deer, small endangered white-tailed deer, live here and large fences (erected at a few million dollars of taxpayer’s expense) help protect the animals and cars.  I didn’t see any.

Mile Marker Zero

Mile Marker Zero

Finally, the end of the road arrives at Key West, also known as the Conch Republic.  “Conchs” are the natives, many of whom trace their ancestry to the Bahamas. “Freshwater Conchs” are those who migrated from somewhere else years ago. Additionally, many Cuban immigrants help make up the resident population of 25,000.

Jay and I dropped our luggage at our B& B, the historic Cypress House. Built by shipbuilders in in 1888, this Grand Conch mansion has been called one of the purest examples of Bahamian architecture in Key West. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic  Places and its exterior (weathered cypress) and interior oozes with island charm. I loved our room on the second floor with an outdoor patio.  I felt I was sleeping like a baby, among the  palm treetops.

We walked to Conch Republic Seafood for a late lunch and to meet Carol Shaughnessy, a local resident for the past 30 years. Carol tells us about the infamous Conch Republic rebellion, “The US Border Patrol decided to set up a roadblock at Florida City, which caused a seventeen mile back-up on the only road in and out of the Keys. Outraged by being treated as foreigners, we, the residents, formed the Conch Republic and declared war.”

She continued,”We intended to use stale Cuban bread as ammunition. But, a half an hour later we surrendered and demanded a billion dollars in foreign aid. We’re still waiting.”

Soon, the embarrassed Border Patrol dismantled their roadblock and thus the motto of the Conch Republic,”We seceded where others failed.”

Conch “officials” state, “We consider ourselves a fifth world nation with a sovereign state of mind that promotes the mitigation of world tension through the exercise of humor.”Gotta love that attitude and attitude is what Key West does best – laid back and easy going.

Sunset Celebration Performer

Later we strolled the streets finding the official end of the road, mile marker zero. We meandered down to Mallory Square for the nightly Sunset Celebration which included street performers and vendors selling their handmade wares and cocktails. Dogs jumped through hoops, cats performed tricks and one man juggled fire torches while riding a 12- foot high unicycle.

As the sun dropped, boats zigged and zagged across the horizon, giving photographers a lovely photo op. The day’s sunset was not terribly spectacular with color but romantic; how nice to be standing on the dock with your partner, gazing into the sea.

Jay and I dined at a Cuban restaurant on Ropa Vieja which means dirty clothes.The brisket was slowly cooked and then pulled, giving the meat a dingy look but tasting tender and succulent. We strolled back hand in hand to the lovely and conveniently located Cypress House B&B looking forward to exploring Old Town the next day.

Key West Sunset

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