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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Experience Old Mexico at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar – Los Cabos

You love getting away on foreign vacations, but once there, you hate going out for local color and sights. You want to stay put, relax and unwind, and yet want to experience the ambience of the destination. You want to have it all!

The Sheraton Hacienda del Mar in Los Cabos, at the very tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico is definitely where you can meet all those needs. Built in the very secluded locale of Cabo del Sol, set far back from the main highway, it is conveniently placed between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas – the main tourist drag.

An easy under-30 minute drive from the San José del Cabo International Airport through the town of San José del Cabo, along the Tourist Corridor brings you to this gem among Starwood resorts. The highway sweeps past hidden villages identified only by signs pointing the way down unpaved roads. On either side, grand big-name resorts line the route. Public beach areas provide indescribably stunning views of the multi-hued ocean around every jutting promontory. Making you gasp with wonder, awe and the ineffable sense of peace that comes from the sight of the timeless ocean.

Constructed along the lines of Old Colonial Mexico, the property is a huge conglomeration of smaller villas strung out around a low-rise main building. It is set beside a pristine half mile long beach, which is pounded into curving, yet angular dunes by the merciless waves. It shares the grounds with a high-end time-share complex. 

The main building houses the grand reception, lobby, bar and lounge. Pillars, arches, alcoves and stone corridors furnished with dark, heavy, ornately carved and hand-painted furniture are reflections and echoes of those bygone and yet gracious times.

Its prime position looks over an outdoor patio from which grand stone stairways lead down to the spectacular pools, hidden Jacuzzis, beach and ocean.

The surrounding collection of individual buildings of varied architecture is placed amidst verdant, immaculate landscaped gardens, with scenic views. The harmonious colors echo and reflect every shade from dawn to sunset and in between. They all contribute to the sense of being in a centuries-old habitat.

The large, lavishly furnished rooms feature typical old-world furniture and draperies. They lead onto beautiful, private, balustraded balconies, ideal for experiencing the sunrise, sunset, moon, stars, breezes and ocean. The bathrooms are huge, with individual toilets, shower cubicles and whirlpools, colorfully tiled and mirrored.

The old-world, cobblestoned pathways (lambently lit at night), link the buildings weaving through lush flowerbeds raked into beautiful lines with a Zen garden-like precision. Bougainvillea, frangipani, hibiscus and honeysuckle drip blossoms and fragrance from morning to night, sheltering cozy, hidden Placitas set around ornate fountains and vintage statuary. The towering, bizarre shapes of cacti frame the picturesque vignettes.

The living community atmosphere is completed with shops, gardens, and restaurants. The resort has its own chapel and a seaside gazebo for weddings and special events. While there is no nightlife on the premises, there are plenty of quiet family activities, including Bingo, Water and Beach Volleyball, Spanish cooking and language lessons and a Kids Club.

Situated at the very tip of the peninsula, on the edge of the Sea of Cortez, the boom of the tallest waves rushing in is omnipresent even at ebb tide. At night the crashing force of the ocean sets doors and windows to vibrating, and echoes in your deepest dreams. The intense waves often cause brief closures of swimming. Otherwise, intrepid, undeterred swimmers, surfers and delighted kids can be seen being bounced around by the elements. 

Migratory Grays & Humpback whales are active and visible close to shore and provide endless hours of jaw-dropping antics especially during spring season.

The wide choice of restaurants offers options for informal, theme-oriented dining and breakfast at Tomatoes, and the high-flung Girasoles (Sunflowers) with their stunning views of the Sea of Cortez. Beverages, lunch and light snacks are available at the poolside and sushi bars. While high-end, fine dining is available at the de Cortez Grill and Pitahayas seaside restaurants. The breezes get so cool at these open-air venues that complimentary serapes (blankets) are offered to the guests. The food is better than many places in Mexico.

The Cactus Spa is adorned with traditional Mexican hacienda decorative elements of iron light fixtures, candles, flowers, views of garden, pool, and adobe construction. With its philosophy of wellness of mind leading to wellness of body, it is a sanctuary where expert masseuses and therapists bring healing and balance.  Treatments range from massage, skin care, salon services, warm and cold water treatments, steam and sauna.

Enjoy an out-of-this-world vacation in a safe, clean haven with all the mod cons you can ever desire. Shut your eyes to the 21st century and you will be transported straight back in time to a typical Mexican vibe.

The Arches Rock Formations - Cabo San Lucas

A literal get-away from everyday life – the essence of a great vacation.

Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring!

Not all goodbyes are sad or bad. Like the relief felt at the departure of an unwelcome guest who has grossly overstayed his welcome, each year, towards the end, we can’t wait to get rid of winter.

But like noting else in life, nature is relentless in her rhythm regardless of what is happening with the human race. Spring does come around, and the enthusiasm with which it is welcomed and celebrated around the world is ample proof of the ecstasy most people feel at the departure of winter.

The variety of spring rituals around the world is fascinating and as diverse as the world we live in. it is interesting to note that at the root of all is a plethora of similarities arising from pagan, religious or mythical beliefs. Spring melts the ice on the ground. Spring festivals “break the ice” between new friends.

The northern hemispheres, observes the first day of spring on March 21, the spring equinox.

Eggs symbolize spring and fertility. In 17th century France, colorful eggs presented  to new brides were believed to promote fertility.. German farm-workers were gifted eggs by the landowners’ wives to ensure bumper crops.  Russians bury decorated eggs with the deceased to ensure rebirth.

Norwegians indulge in the game of “Egg Knocking.” Partners tap each other’s eggs the first one to crack decides the loser and winner, who then goes on to challenge the rest until the last egg remains. .

Bulgarians throw eggs at each other. The last “man” standing with an unbroken egg is the winner who is expected to achieve great successful for the year. 
Decorated Eggs

In many parts of the world the advent of spring is linked to rituals or signs involving animals. This is perhaps because in cold climates, animals hibernate, disappearing for the duration of winter. So the sight of them emerging indicates the advent of spring and the stirring of new life. Thus North Americans depend on the groundhog to tell them that spring is on its way. In other countries, people wait for badgers or bears to perform the same function.

In the Ardennes mountains between France and Spain, winter is personified as a bad-tempered, shaggy bear, which must be driven away to make way for spring.  A masked and fur-coated figure, is chased by villagers waving sticks until the bear falls down and “plays dead, with its pursuers cavorting around shouting, “Winter is dead. Spring is coming!”

It follows that as the harbinger of new growth and life, many spring rituals around the world are related to trees.

In India, trees are planted during the Kalpa Vruksha festival. . Young trees are decorated with fruits and flowers, believed to have magical wish-granting powers. Children gather under the trees to see if wishes made during the winter will come true. They are given candy, books, toys, and fresh fruit.

Ch’ing Ming, the celebration of trees, welcomes the spring in China. For three days before the festival, people eat only cold food so that they do not have to burn any wood. Families have quiet picnics on the grass. When the day of the festival arrives, people cook delicious feasts and plant new trees.

During the tree planting festival in Israel, Hamishah Osar Bish’vat, children plant
trees bought with donations of money. They sing songs to the new trees and eat local fresh fruit.

In eastern United States and Canada, maple trees are the harbingers of spring. The sap rises and is tapped to make maple syrup and sugar. People go to the “sugar bush” to celebrate spring and have “sugaring-off” parties. Literally, a sweet way to celebrate spring!

Indians have an especially exuberant and vibrant expression of “spring fever.”  A colorful kaleidoscope of red, yellow, green, purple, and blue colors arc and float through the air during the Holi festival.  This 2-day spring celebration begins with a bonfire the previous evening, in which demons and evil spirits are consigned to the flames. 

Rituals are performed; there is singing and the retelling of ancient myths to the accompaniment of horns and drums. Next day, people of all ages throw dry colored powders and spray dyed water at one another, friend or stranger alike. Soon, everyone is a walking, animated rainbow!

In a somewhat similar custom, Thailand, “breaks the ice” by throwing perfumed water during the spring festival of Songkran, which begins when the new moon appears in the April sky. The 3-day festival includes huge parades down the flower-filled streets resounding to the sound of music and the tapping of dancers’ feet, led by the Queen of the Water Festival. The onlookers are sprayed with water.

The Buddha statues are then washed with perfumed water, and Buddhas from important wats are paraded through the streets where the crowds throw more water on them. The water-fight begins in earnest after this, with people dousing each other with buckets and super-soakers on the street.

In Hungary and Czechoslovakia Easter Monday is the signal for boys to spray perfume and water at girls; in turn they are invited in for treats. The next day, it is the girls’ turn.

In Japan, people throw beans during the festival of Setsubun which occurs on February 3, the day before their spring. The belief is that the beans will drive out the bad spirits of winter that keep spring away. Some chant, “Out with the demons!” Others shout, “Come in good spirits!”

The 7-day celebration called Shumbun-no-hi (Vernal Equinox Day), which consists of Buddhist memorial services, family reunions, and visits to loved ones’ gravesites starts on March 21.

In Croatia, villagers celebrate the advent of Green George in April. Young people go singing from door to door. One of them dresses as Green George. He wears green leaves and branches. The singers announce the coming of Green George and spring. They ask for presents and wish every household a good year. In return for presents and money, each home is given some of George’s branches.

In a West German town called Mittenwald, people chase away winter on Crazy Thursday. Crazy Thursday is usually in February. Everyone looks forward to this day. People plan their costumes for weeks. They make “ugly masks.” They dress up as witches and scary creatures. They run in the streets. They shout, growl, prance, and dance. They run with brooms and ‘‘sweep’’ out the winter spirits.
Later in the day, groups of men wearing “handsome masks” dance through the town. Each man wears four heavy bells around his waist. These bells are worn to ring in the spring and good weather.

And so to the flipside of all that hedonism: the evocative Semana Santa en Sevilla. Throughout Holy Week in the run-up to Easter, more than 55 church brotherhoods lead processions through the streets of Seville, carrying floats featuring different depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

It’s intense, with a real sense of ancient ritual: nazarenos dress in long robes and face-obscuring, pointed hoods, while penitents have bare feet and carry crosses. Some processions go on all night by candlelight, and some are carried out in silence.

Springtime festivals incorporate al the elements of the natural world it seems. There are several based on the ritualistic significance of fire.

The night before May Day is called Walpurgis Night in Sweden and Germany.
It is a night of bonfires. In the old days, people welcomed the sun with bonfires, because the sun looks like a fire glowing in the sky.

There was another reason for making bonfires. People believed that the Walpurgis bonfires and plenty of noise would frighten away witches and bad spirits. People also believed that fires cleaned the earth and prepared it for spring planting. Everyone finishes spring-cleaning before Walpurgis Night.
All the old junk from the year before is thrown onto the bonfires. People welcome the sunshine into their sparkling clean houses. Walpurgis Night is six months before Halloween, and can be seen as a kind of summer equivalent to the spooky celebration. Originating in German folk myth (where it goes that witches gather on Brocken Mountain on April 29th to await spring’s arrival) it’s celebrated with huge bonfire and fireworks all over central and northern Europe.

Sweden holds the biggest events, with the affair turning in to a two-day party as Labor Day falls the day after. Besides the bonfires, you can see student parades in Gothenburg and Uppsala, and traditional choral singers at Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum and zoo.

In Mexico, a firecracker-filled effigy of Judas is burned. In other regions, some young couples carry on the “Tradition of Mary’s Tears” by knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking, “Is the Virgin of Grief weeping here?” If the reply is “yes,” the couple enters and shares a glass of water (representing tears), standing before an alter featuring a picture of Mary, candles, and pine branches.

A long time ago in Scotland, people celebrated a festival called Beltane. Beltane was much like Walpurgis. On the night of Beltane, people ran through the fields, carrying torches. They rolled wheels of blazing straw down hills. The countryside was polka-dotted with orange flames. People danced around the fires. They drove the cattle through the flames. They believed that the fire would
keep the cattle healthy. Then, people leaped over the flames for good luck.

Las Fallas translates as ‘the fires’ and is a crazy mixture of Guy Fawkes’ Night and a citywide carnival (with a dash of Mad Max).

Among the daily paella contests, bullfights and parades, the main attraction is the ninots – plaster and cardboard statues satirizing the year’s events – spread across some 350 sites. On the last day if the festival, the ninots are filled with fireworks and burned on the stroke of midnight for la Crema, giving the impression of the whole city set ablaze.

In Iran, the first day of spring is also the first day of the New Year. On the last Wednesday of the old year, each family lights a bonfire. Everyone jumps over the fire. People rejoice that the New Year and spring are finally here.

The festival of “No Ruz” is an Iranian celebration of the spring equinox.  The name “No Ruz” actually means “new day.”  According to the Iranian calendar, the New Year actually begins on the day of the equinox.  Iranians typically celebrate “No Ruz” with outdoor picnics, house cleaning and domestic tasks.  No Ruz has roots in Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia.

Modern Iranians celebrate New Year for 13 days. The first few days are spent visiting older members of the family other relatives and friends where gifts are exchanged and sweets and feasts are consumed. On the last day, the 13th day of the first month, people leave their homes to go to the parks or rural areas to spend a day in nature. A major part of the New Year ritual is setting a special table with seven specific items present, Haft Sin.

Spring celebrations date back thousands of years to ancient and pagan rituals that marked the Spring Equinox, the changing of seasons, the time when the sun began to tip the scales against darkness, a sign of renewal, rebirth and fertility, and for agricultural communities, a time for planting. Cultures around the world continue to celebrate spring, and these festivals and traditions are replete with ancient symbols and superstitions. 

In Egypt, the festival of Isis occurred during the spring equinox as the waters of the Nile began to rise.  The tale of Isis and her love Osiris is a story of darkness, resurrection, and rebirth.

In Europe, early pagans and Germanic tribes were known to celebrate spring with feats and festivities in the name of Ostara, a Germanic goddess of spring, renewal and fertility.  The name Ostara is believed to be the origin of the word Easter, the Christian holiday in celebration of spring. 

In Ireland, St. Patrick's is celebrated for his role in bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle.  Thus it is no coincidence that March 17th (just before the Spring Equinox) is noted as Saint Patrick's Day.  Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations are closely linked to the pagan celebrations of Ostara.

An ancient Buddhist holiday of Higan, or Higan-e, is observed for a week in Japan during the equinox.  Higan is a national holiday, also known as the Festival of Imperial Ancestors.  Translated, the word Higan means “other shore” and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana and enlightenment after crossing the river of human suffering.  The holiday is typically spent paying respects to the dead, cleaning and decorating graves, reciting Buddhist prayers, leaving offerings, and welcoming spring.

In Mexico, a firecracker-filled effigy of Judas is burned. In other regions, some young couples carry on the “Tradition of Mary’s Tears” by knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking, “Is the Virgin of Grief weeping here?” If the reply is “yes,” the couple enters and shares a glass of water (representing tears), standing before an alter featuring a picture of Mary, candles, and pine branches.

Purim - The Jewish festival commemorates the rescue of the Jewish people of the ancient Persian Empire from Haman's plot to exterminate them, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther. Celebrated on the Jewish Calendar date of 14th of Adar (this year March 10), the holiday is characterized by public recitation of the Book of Esther, giving mutual gifts of food and drink (mishloach manot), giving charity to the poor (mattanot la-evyonim), and a celebratory meal (se'udat Purim). Other customs include drinking wine, wearing of masks and costumes, and public celebration.

Hinduism devotees dance at Prambanan temple to celebrate the Silence Day locally called 'Nyepi' in Sleman on March 21, 2009. Hinduism devotees in Indonesia and around the world will celebrate the Hinduism Silence day on March 26 marking the new year of the Hindu calendar.

Holi - Also known as the Festival of Colors, Holi is a popular Hindu spring festival celebrated in India, Nepal, and countries with large Hindu populations. It is celebrated by people throwing colored powder and water at each other. Bonfires are lit the day before, also known as Holika Dahan (death of Holika) or Chhoti Holi (little Holi). The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that Prahlad had when Demoness Holika carried him into a fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu, escaped safely because of his strong devotion.

Easter - The most important date in the Christian year, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus three days after his crucifixion. For Catholics, Easter marks the end of Lent, a season of prayer and penitence beginning on Ash Wednesday. The Easter bunny has become a modern symbol for the holiday and many celebrate with an Easter egg hunt.

Passover - An eight-day long holiday commemorating the Jewish Exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery written about in the Torah (Pentateuch). When the Egyptian Pharaoh freed the Israelites, it is said that they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread to rise. In commemoration, for the duration of Passover, no leavened bread is eaten. Matza, the unleavened, flat crispy bread is the primary symbol of the holiday. The start of the holiday, on Jewish Calendar date 10th of Nisan, is celebrated with a large Passover meal and reading of the Hagadah, called the Passover Seder.

Regardless of whether you celebrate spring by participating in any of these ancient cultural rituals or holidays, the season offers time for reflection, basking in the warmth of the suns returning rays, enjoying the lengthening days, sowing seeds, planting gardens, and cleaning, in order to prepare for a new season.

Spring Break Gems in Connecticut

Summer is the season for the big annual vacation. Looked forward to, planned for and much anticipated, the aim is to get as far away from the daily humdrum environment as possible.
However, at the end of winter and start of spring, cabin fever is at its height. The ideal cure is a short getaway; a near-at-hand exploration of the many gems that stud the picturesque state of Connecticut, often ignored in the quest for adventures further afield.

Chester–an archetypal New England small town, settled in 1692, Chester has a sense of history, an upscale ambience, and an enviable location near the iconic Connecticut River. Its shipbuilding and mill town origins have evolved into the present century, and yet it retains quaintness and charm in its picturesque Main Street, lined with beautiful architecture in the churches, shops, art galleries, and gourmet restaurants.
Chester takes great pride in its local Norma Terris Theater, which belongs to the world-famous Goodspeed Opera House. Occupying the sloping terrain bordering the River, Chester has more than its share of natural water bodies like lakes, streams, waterfalls, the river and man-made marinas. It is surrounded by a spread of state forest, interspersed with inviting hiking trails. A Y.M.C.A. camp and small airport are important features of the town. A vibrant community of residents embraces the outdoors, art, history, music, theater, crafts, cuisine and conversation. The epitome of small-town life, yet open to embracing the 21st century.

Guilford- in New Haven County lies along I-95, beside Long Island Sound and bordered by Madison, Branford, North Branford and Durham. 
Its heart is the vast common that lends itself perfectly to strollers, people watchers, and those wishing to absorb the atmosphere of bygone times among the churches, memorials, monuments, old public buildings, storybook homes and smiling residents.
This little town has everything. The sea plays a big part in its attractions. The beautiful coastline, salt marshes perfect for bird watching, Chaffinch Island Park jutting out into the harbor with fabulous views of the sound, Falkner Island and Falkner Island Light.
The Anne Conover, WestWoods and Timberlands Trails systems provide both recreation and education. The area is dissected by two scenic routes, SR-146 and 77 along the shoreline and rural hinterlands.

Essex-This small harborside town is clubbed together with Essex Village, Centerbrook and Ivoryton. Essex’s attributes far outstrip its tiny size. It has won accolades as “The Perfect Small American Town” in the “1,000 Places To See Before You  Die” travel guide. Prior to this, it achieved top ranking in “The 100 Best Small Towns in America.”
One cannot ignore Essex when talking of the somewhat clichéd “quintessential New England charm.” The trio of small towns boasts superb representations of early colonial and federal architecture, housing a unique blend of private residences, shops, boutiques, inns, restaurants, marinas and attractions.  
The Griswold Inn, Connecticut River Museum, Essex Steam Train & Riverboat, and the Ivoryton Playhouse are prime examples. Shady streets and village lanes lead to the scenic banks of the Connecticut and Falls Rivers and Essex Harbor, all offering myriad opportunities for water sports. The good weather brings the community out to participate in parades and celebrations.

Litchfield – snugly located in the folds of the scenic Northwest Connecticut Hills, historic, upscale Litchfield ranks along with Greenwich as the home and playground of the rich and famous. On offer are abundant opportunities for cultural activities, shopping, sightseeing, dining and recreation. 
A true haven in all seasons, it is a laid-back little New England town. Fresh air, small community markets, beautiful village green and a handful of eclectic, independently owned shops and boutiques, enhance its appeal in all seasons.

Old Saybrook- At the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Connecticut River is the typical maritime New England town. The old homes display the wealth accrued by the sea-faring captains of yore. Manicured trees and shrubbery, winding tree-lined streets, and a downtown that features intriguing, locally owned non big-box stores. The air quality is pure, fragranced with sea salt- a perfect New England town, unspoilt by modern life that never fully emerged from the 19th century.

Stonington–in southeastern Connecticut is a classic New England seaside community. The harbor is straight out of a storybook or movie set. Interesting shops and great seafood restaurants beckon your indulgence. The peace and solitude take you miles away from all stress factors. Local inhabitants call it a day early, and later in the evening, the streets are empty and quiet. It's just you, the fresh ocean air and chirping birds.
While the sense of heritage is richly all around, today exists a modern day blend of history, technology, and recreation. The  economic engine of tourism puffs energetically juxtaposed against a scenic backdrop of bright coastal waters, and wildlife.

Woodstock – although  small from a population standpoint, it covers a large area of 62 square miles, and is the second largest town in Connecticut.
Woodstock's humming downtown features farmers’ stands of locally grown produce, a church, colonial homes and apple orchards. Local businesses include antiques, crafts, florists, orchards, furniture makers, and pottery. For history and archaeology buffs there are venerable old buildings and monuments to browse over. Chief among them is Roseland Cottage, a unique example of Gothic Revival.
Woodstock invites you to slow down, breathe deep and commune with nature. Woodstock reminds us that doing nothing special can also be a healing, refreshing vacation.
Ideal for a weekend, an extended few days or even overnight, these short breaks are just the ticket to refresh the mind, body and spirit after the long hibernation of winter.
Spring is the best time to explore Connecticut. Enjoy the  crowd-less towns, snappy deals and cooler temperatures with little humidity. Explore the paths less traveled into and out of small towns, villages and ocean-side communities