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Kennedy Space Center, Florida Rocket Launch

March 28, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Atlas V Launch Kennedy Space Center

Atlas V Launch Kennedy Space Center

Baby boomers grew up watching powerful rockets launch ‘right stuff’ astronauts into orbit. As the space program evolved, so did the size of the missiles from the Atlas to the Titan, and later the 360-foot Saturn V moon rocket. Sadly, the US manned space flight program is currently curtailed. Private companies are developing vehicles for future space exploration but none are available at this time.

Therefore, I was surprised to receive an invitation to watch a rocket launch on March 19, 2013, at Kennedy Space Center and even more pleased that it fit into my schedule. The drive from St. Augustine is a little under two hours and the launch window was scheduled from 5:21 pm to 6:01 pm. Perfect.

I parked in the Visitor Center lot ($10.00 fee per vehicle) then entered the complex through the suitably planted rocket garden. This area blossoms with numerous projectiles nurtured through NASA’s care and various flying machines like the tiny one-man Mercury capsule.

I meandered along, passing by the newly opened Angry Birds interactive encounter and found the bus queue for the Saturn V Center, a tour that’s included with visitor admission. The bus ride takes about 15 minutes and passes the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building), the largest one story building in the world. Huge is an understatement. The building, complete with a painted American flag, greets like an old friend; it’s familiar to anyone who watched past NASA events. The bus driver said, “Each of the stars on the flag is 6 feet across, the blue field is the size of a regulation basketball court, and each of the stripes is 9 feet wide.”

Vehicle Assembly Bldg Kennedy Space Center

Vehicle Assembly Bldg Kennedy Space Center

The Kennedy Space Center actually lies within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 1,500 species of plants and animals. Some 600 alligators thrive in the roadside ravines and lakes. The bus passengers caught site of a few gators, an Eagle’s nest and a number of egrets and herons.


Upon arrival at the Saturn V building, I learned it houses the original Apollo mission control center. Visitors file into an amphitheater attached to the control room and watch a three-screened video display. I became the observer of a countdown and launch of the world’s most powerful rocket on its take-off for the moon. The seats vibrate during the launch. Very cool!

As I exited the control room I practically ran into the massive side lying Saturn V. The rocket is 58 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty from the ground to the torch. The fully fueled giant weighed 6.5 million pounds and had a payload capacity of 260,000 pounds.

Saturn V Rocket Kennedy Space Center

Saturn V Rocket Kennedy Space Center

After perusing some astronaut spacesuits and other Apollo related displays, I went outside to set up my tripod. Although scheduled lift-off was still about an hour ahead, the grandstands were filling with spectators and kids were playing games on the grass. This was a slice of Americana, an apple pie moment.

A NASA spokesman appeared about 30 minutes before launch time and explained what would happen. We would see the launch of an Atlas V rocket carrying missile warning satellites for national security purposes. The Atlas V is a small rocket and its heaviest payload lifted into orbit was 15,000-pounds.

The spokesman said we would hear mission control requesting systems approval and the specialists responding with a “GO” signal — if all was right. Assuming it was, the mission controller would give permission for the countdown to proceed.

Ignition Atlas V Kennedy Space Center

Ignition Atlas V Kennedy Space Center

At about ‘T’ minus 3 minutes, a hush came over the crowd; people anxiously looked in the direction of the rocket. I could feel excitement mounting as the minutes ticked away. When the countdown got to 15 seconds, everyone was on alert. Then, the number 10 was spoken and the crowd spontaneously joined in the reverse count 3…2…1…zero. We heard the word “ignition” and saw lots of white smoke blast around the base of the rocket. Soon flames appeared and a gradual lift-off commenced. The adults began to clap and cheer.

As the rocket rose higher, the cheers grew wilder and the sight was honestly awe inspiring. Much more captivating and thrilling than seen on television.

After another ten seconds the rumble and roar grew louder; then a rocket separation occurred leaving a trail of billowing ghostly smoke high in the sky. I hate to say this, but the trail reminded me of the ill-fated Challenger’s. In a matter of ten more seconds, the rocket’s red glare was out of sight and headed into orbit.

I could scarcely contain my joy! Honestly, a launch is something to view and a moment you will not forget. I strongly encourage everyone to witness a live event, if possible. Had the rocket been larger and manned, I am sure it would have elicited goose bumps or tears. But, don’t let a smaller rocket stop you; the thrill is still magnificent.

I am so grateful I availed myself of this opportunity. Thank you Kennedy Space Center.

Atlas V Smoke Trail Kennedy Space Center

Atlas V Smoke Trail Kennedy Space Center

By the way, should your summer plans include a visit to the Orlando area, consider a stop to see the new $100 million Shuttle Atlantis facility being unveiled at KSC on June 29th. The addition is currently being constructed around Atlantis, the last shuttle to fly in 2011.

Also KSC behind the scenes tours continue- you can read about them in my earlier post.
The VAB tour has been extended through 2013 and the LCC and Launch Pad tours are confirmed through June 30. All Up-Close Tours are $25 per adult and $19 per child (ages 3-11) plus tax, in addition to admission.
For more information on Kennedy Space Center Complex, please visit

Here’s a video of the Atlantis Shuttle launch as seen on a Behind the Scenes Tour:

Visit Three Centuries of History in St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter

March 22, 2013 by · Comments Off on Visit Three Centuries of History in St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter 

Costumed Performers in St. Augustine's Colonial Quarter

Costumed Performers in St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter

The state of Florida owns the land, the University of Florida manages the property, but entrepreneur Pat Croce anted up to $3 million to fund the reconstruction of the two-acre Colonial Quarter in downtown St. Augustine.



Instead of focusing only on the Spanish period, (as did the formerly named Spanish Quarter), St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter now encompasses three centuries of Florida history. To do so, the area is broken into four quadrants. The Spanish area includes the 16th century First City, 17th century Fortified Town and 18th century Spanish Garrison Town. The 18th century British area is called The 14th Colony and features a print shop, candle maker and Public House, a pub like restaurant.



Climb the watchtower in St. Augustine's Colonial Quarter

Climb the watchtower in St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter

The watchtower, one of the Quarter’s highlights,  allows visitors to climb the 35-foot high structure earning themselves a fabulous view over the Castillo de San Marcos (fort) and waterfront. The tower is similar to one the earliest settlers would have built for defensive purposes.


View of Castillo de San Marcos

View of Castillo de San Marcos

During my tour, the blacksmith bantered with guests as he forged away on a “J” hook, forming it from red-hot iron. The gunsmith caught attention by firing a musket, but the boatwright proved to be the most interesting. Craftsman Gary Kennedy is actually building a 55-foot ship, called a caravel, just like the ship Don Pedro Menendez used to sail into St. Augustine. It’s a long process; in fact, one he feels could take several years.


Blacksmith in the Colonial Quarter


Pat Croce said the area was designed as “Epcot meets Williamsburg; the difference being instead of countries it’s centuries.” He also said the goal was to allow visitors an opportunity to make memories.


Also memorable are the influx of costumed employees I see walking to work and overall adding to the ambiance of the city.




However, I was dismayed at the plastic plates, forks and knives offered diners in the two restaurants. When I questioned Mr. Croce, he informed me there was no room or nor permission for dishwashers. Sad fact. I regret this situation (and I certainly hope the problem gets solved soon), but the use of plastic is just wrong.


Dishes and utensils aside, I equally questioned the menu selections. The British Bull & Crown Public House offers paninis and kettle chips layered with bleu cheese dressing topped with a balsamic glaze.  They taste fantastic, but I can’t imagine them as a dish in colonial days. Hats off for offering Gato’ d’ Ametlla or Minorcan almond cake.


Bull & Crown Public House

Bull & Crown Public House

Yes, I am being harsh but with the University of Florida involved, I expected more.


Now, just so you don’t think I am overly critical of Pat Croce, I adore his Pirate Museum which sits adjacent to the Colonial Quarter. The attraction offers Smithsonian quality artifacts in an entertaining atmosphere.


Okay, I’ll give Croce and St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter a little more time to get up to grade. And, I’ll return when they add a Colonial Revue this summer and hope to give it grand reviews.

Meal preparation in a soldier's home.

Meal preparation in a soldier’s home.

For information:


St. Augustine on Dwellable

11 Great Hotels and Resorts You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

March 18, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Business Jet Traveler » February 2013

Business Jet Traveler Magazine, February 2013

Business Jet Traveler Magazine
February 2013

To read the online version of this article as published by Business Jet Traveler please use this link:


The February 2013 print magazine article begins:

We asked three of our favorite travel writers to describe the finest little-known hotels and resorts they’ve discovered. Some are off the beaten path or new or do not advertise. Others are just plain obscure. All are certified great by our panel of globetrotters. Happy traveling.

I was lucky enough to be one of those three travel writers!

The five hotel reviews I wrote are as follows:

Château de la Barre

Loire Valley, France

Château de la Barre,  Loire Valley, France

Château de la Barre,
Loire Valley, France

A two-hour detour from Paris lands you in the Loire Valley, the site chosen by French kings and nobles for their châteaux. Most visitors tour the grand estates in day trips due to the scarcity of overnight lodging. However, you can sleep in a chateau instead of simply touring them.

Legendary Château de la Barre–which has been home to the Comte and Comtesse de Vanssay’s family since 1404–offers accommodations and fine dining. Each of five bedrooms in the manor house contains 18th century antiques, surrounded by bright and bold designer fabrics and wallpaper. En suite bathrooms are sleek and modern. Surprisingly, pets are allowed.

Hosts Guy and Marnie de Vanssay (Marnie is American) offer helpful, often intriguing suggestions for outings: a Renaissance lunch in Leonardo da Vinci’s home (June through September), driving a dream car around the famous nearby Le Mans racetrack, hot-air-balloon rides that depart directly from the château mornings and evenings. Other possibilities include bicycling, golfing at numerous courses, tennis and horseback riding.

Twice a week, the owners host a Grand Siècle Dinner in the 17th century dining room with family silver and crystal. On other nights, the evening meal is served in the billiard room. Daily afternoon tea is poured in the Salon Rose. Ask about gourmet picnics and wine tastings.
The château is near the tiny village of Conflans-sur-Anille in the Pays de la Loire region. The nearest airport is Tours, a one-hour drive. –Debi Lander

Little Palm Resort and Spa

Little Torch Key, Fla.

Little Palm Resort and Spa, Little Torch Key, FL

Little Palm Resort and Spa, Little Torch Key, FL

If you’re dreaming of Gauguin’s tropical paradise but lack time to visit Tahiti, Florida’s Little Palm Island Resort and Spa will fulfill your needs. Fly to Key West or Marathon Key and the resort staff will escort you via a 1930s-style wooden launch over to Little Torch Key. The five-acre private island is a rarely advertised secret and can be reached only by boat or seaplane.

Switch your shoes for flip-flops and relax in one of the 28 thatched-hut guest accommodations, each surrounded by lush greenery. They include secluded outdoor showers and full indoor baths, some with redwood tubs.
No children, no pets. Guests are asked to use their cell phones only in their bungalows, although the library maintains Internet and phone access.

The “Floribbean” three-meal plan offers the freshest of the fresh as the chef changes the menu selections daily. Sunsets are a big deal in the Keys, and Little Palm is home to an upscale Margaritaville-style cocktail hour. The resort caters to those celebrating special occasions and will artfully arrange candlelight dinners on a private beach.

Prior to 1988, the island thrived as a tiny fishing camp that President Harry Truman and other dignitaries visited. Today, Little Palm serves as a sanctuary where you can simply relax and do nothing. Snooze in one of the rope hammocks at the edge of the tranquil Gulf or on one of the chaise lounges scattered over the property. Feeling more active? Try kayaking, windsurfing or swimming in the freshwater pool.
Off-island options include diving Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, the only living coral reef in North America; deep-sea fishing; and pole fishing from the docks. –Debi Lander

Fearrington House Inn and Restaurant

Pittsboro, N.C.

Fearrington  House Inn and Restaurant, Pittsboro, NC

Fearrington House Inn and Restaurant, Pittsboro, NC

Chapel Hill, N.C., which has been called the “Southern part of heaven,” is well known for its mountaintop golf courses, tree-lined streets, acclaimed university and Tarheel’s basketball. Perhaps less well known but just as noteworthy is the nearby Fearrington House Inn and Restaurant.

Located in the village of Fearrington–10 minutes from Chapel Hill and 30 minutes from Raleigh-Durham International Airport–the English-inspired 32-room lodge boasts impressive credentials. Both the restaurant and inn have earned the coveted AAA Five-Diamond rating. Moreover, Forbes Travel Guide recently ranked Fearrington No. 1 on its list of the top 10 luxury hotels in the U.S. for weddings, while Conde Nast Traveler named it the No. 2 best small hotel in the South and Departures called it a “World’s Best Foodie Destination.”

One visit should be sufficient to explain all the accolades. The charming antiques-furnished property offers a splendid country atmosphere, exquisite gardens, a spa, world-class dining and proximity to 12 golf courses and one of the South’s best-known independent bookstores.
Consult the Fearrington House calendar for wine dinners and cooking lessons taught by executive chef Colin Bedford. Come hungry to fully appreciate his seasonal tasting menu, which is served in the restored mansion house. A noted wine sommelier will assist you with a choice from the 800-bottle list. Overnight guests are treated to handmade truffles at turndown and full gourmet breakfasts. Afternoons at Fearrington always feature a proper tea. –Debi Lander

Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo

Florence, Italy

Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo  Florence, Italy

Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo
Florence, Italy

Why not stay above Donatello’s workshop when visiting the art treasures of Florence? Discover lodging so close to the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s famous cathedral dome, that special permission is necessary to drive into the restricted historic district. Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo is a 16th century palace that has been renovated into an exquisite small hotel known mainly through word-of-mouth testimonials.

Leaving the courtyard, take a tiny lift to the second-floor reception area to enter what looks like an elegant patrician home. Then slip into the warm, luxurious drawing room, which bursts with brilliant fresco, carved wooden ceilings, tromp l’oeil paintings and comfortably arranged sofas. Book a private wine tasting of Tuscan reds in the lobby.

Palazzo Niccolini has just two large suites, one junior suite and five double bedrooms. The oversized, airy rooms feature king-size canopied beds among antique and reproduction furniture, oriental rugs and original art. The ceilings are so high, you’d have to erect scaffolding to repaint them.

Florence is a walking city and this hotel sits within easy distance of all the famous museums, churches, palazzos and shops. Spend your days strolling the Ponte Vecchio, gazing at Michelangelo’s David and Italian art, then return to rest your feet.
The Dome Suite on the top floor presents an extraordinary view of the Duomo, likely the best in the entire city. Overnight stays include a bountiful continental breakfast and aperitifs. –Debi Lander

Viceroy Riviera Maya

Near Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Viceroy Riviera Maya  Near Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Viceroy Riviera Maya,
Near Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Riviera Maya developed some of the world’s most lavish all-inclusive resorts–gorgeous facilities that cater to upscale conventioneers. But move beyond those huge properties and bustling streets of Playa del Carmen to the small village of Playa Xcalacoco. Here, 40 miles south of Cancun International Airport, the Viceroy Riviera Maya showcases 41 palapa-roofed villas with heated private plunge pools and outdoor rain showers. Guests are enveloped within an eco-sensitive jungle-like property and enjoy beachfront or ocean views.

Maya-inspired ceremonies welcome you to the residential compound. The staff is known for prompt service and extras such as presenting iced face towels at the pool. Dine at the first-rate La Marea or the Coral Grill by the beach. Request Mayordomo (butler) service for breakfast or whenever you desire it.

The Viceroy includes seven miles of white sand beach, cabanas and daybeds by the water. The site is perfect for honeymooners, who should request a jungle villa for ultimate privacy or private romantic dining.
On-site activities include ceviche and tequila tasting, mixology and cooking classes and yoga. Those wanting to detox can experience the Temazcal steam cave treatment or other Maya-inspired spa ritual. Nearby you’ll find cenote and reef diving and snorkeling, golf, sailing and windsurfing. Plan to visit the Yucatan’s archeological ruins at Tulum, Coba, where you can still climb the ancient 140-foot pyramid, and World Heritage Chichen Itza. –Debi Lander

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