www.wvgazette.com Travel http://www.wvgazette.com Gazette archive feed en-us Copyright 2015, Charleston Newspapers, Charleston, WV Newspapers Weekend Adventure Getaway in Greater Morgantown, WV http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209965 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209965 Sun, 1 Feb 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Cynthia D. Coffindaffer WV Travel Team Your action-packed weekend is closer than you think!

Located just 70 miles south of Pittsburgh (at the intersection of Interstates 79 and 68) and 155 miles north of Charleston, Greater Morgantown is rich with natural beauty, challenging terrain and a cool university culture.

Your adventure starts with whitewater rafting on the roller coaster rapids of Cheat River. If the weather is questionable go underground for some "wild caving" - no experience is necessary to see the natural wonders down below.

In late afternoon, hit the rail trail that winds along the mighty Mon River. Rent a bike or take a hike ... from the trail you can choose a cozy riverside restaurant for dinner. Then head downtown to experience the cool university culture: neighborhood bistros, family-owned eateries, and sports pubs feature live entertainment nearly every weekend.

On day two you can drive to Little Sandy Restaurant, just 20 minutes from city center, for the local buckwheat cakes, sausage gravy and biscuits. Continue on to Coopers Rock; 50 miles of trails wind through old growth forests, but it's just a short hike to view the mile-wide Cheat River Gorge from a 1,200-foot overlook.

Make your way to the famous Rock City with 30-foot boulders and an abundance of top rope routes.

"Sunset Wall," "Big Blocks," "Greenback Wall," and "Haystack Block" feature a proliferation of hemlock, which forms shady groves for a cool break after climbing.

Head back down the mountain to Forks-of-Cheat Winery for a tour and tasting.

Don't leave town without your West Virginia University souvenir; best selections are at the Book Exchange, Mountaineer Zone and Mountaineer Nation.

Planning a full weekend is easy, just check out the Greater Morgantown Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site calendar of events at www.tour morgantown.com/calendar/.

Food lovers, try to coordinate your visit with Chocolate Lovers Day (April), The Chicken Wing Cook-off (September), The Preston County Buckwheat Festival (September) or the Wine and Jazz Festival (September).

A number of outdoor events make great spectator sports.

The Cheat River Festival in May is 10 miles of thrilling whitewater that rushes through infamous rapids.

In June, 24 Hours of Big Bear will take place with 200 mountain biking teams and 50 solo riders and over 1,000 spectators.

Also in June is the West Virginia Bass Championship, which will have 50 of West Virginia's best bass fishing teams compete on the rich waters of the Monongahela River.

The Wild and Wonderful MountainFest Motorcycle Rally takes place each July, with more than 50,000 bikers and attendees.

The Morgantown Marathon in September a new premier event taking racers through the city and hoping to attract more than 5,000 athletes.

For film buffs, the Banff Mountain Film Festival, a video journey through mountain landscapes and the world's top adventurers tell their stories, which will take place in April.

And don't forget West Virginia University Sports, which holds hundreds of events each year featuring West Virginia University's 16 Division I men's and women's athletes.

The Greater Morgantown Area Convention & Visitors Bureau concierge provides Visitors' Guides, maps, lodging assistance and itinerary planning, all at no cost. For directions to the Visitors Center and additional trip planning tools visit: www.tourmorgantown.com or call us at 800-458-7373.

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Greenbrier Valley offers history, culture and charm http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209966 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209966 Sun, 1 Feb 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Kara D. Dense WV Travel Team Are you looking for that perfect weekend escape? A place where you can take a deep breath, relax and let time slow down? A destination where you can get outside, taste new cuisine, browse unique shops and enjoy a live performance?

It's only a short drive away, and it's all right here in West Virginia, in the scenic mountains of the Greenbrier Valley.

Visitors began to seek out the Greenbrier Valley as early as 1778 to "take the waters," to relax, heal and rejuvenate in the sulphur springs of The Greenbrier.

Two centuries later, you too can stay at "America's Resort," escaping the long winter with a variety of "discovery" weekends from art and culture to culinary retreats. Featuring demonstrations, tastings and workshops, each weekend offers a unique opportunity to immerse into The Greenbrier experience. Available through March, visit greenbrier.com/discovery to see which one you're ready to call your winter escape.

The Greenbrier Valley is also home to the quaint and charming city of Lewisburg.

Named "America's Coolest Small Town" by Budget Travel Magazine in 2011, this historic locale continues to live up to the accolades that earned it this designation. As one of only two Certified Arts Communities in West Virginia, Lewisburg is home to an eclectic mix of galleries and a variety of performing arts venues.

Book a stay at the only historically preserved inn/hotel in Lewisburg, the Historic General Lewis Inn. Decorated with one-of-a-kind antiques in every room, it blends modern conveniences while maintaining the classic design of its early roots. Be sure to take time to enjoy a brunch or dinner of locally sourced fare in the original 1834 wing of the inn.

Simply step out of the inn's front door to explore the many shops, galleries and historic treasures of downtown Lewisburg. The city richly intertwines its past and present with easy-to-walk streets, historic sites and inviting outdoor spaces.

And of course, no weekend is complete without a taste of the region. With so many unique restaurants, bakeries and cafes in the area, the only stress you'll feel all weekend is what to try first!

In the hub of downtown, you'll find Greenbrier Valley Theatre, the State Professional Theatre of West Virginia. In its 48th season, actors from New York, Chicago and other theatrical centers will star in programs such as "The Skin of Our Teeth" showing April 10-25, the ever popular musical "Chicago" in June, Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" in July and Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in October. Tickets are available now at gvtheatre.org.

Lewisburg is also home to one of only four Carnegie Halls in the world. They are in the midst of an outstanding season featuring performances by Chris Brubeck's Triple Play in February, The Celtic Tenors in March and American singer and songwriter Suzanne Vega in May.

Carnegie also features art galleries and educational opportunities for those who want to learn clay, sewing and other artistic pursuits. Find out more at carnegiehallwv.org.

If getting out in nature is your way of relaxing, there are forests and rivers for that, too. Explore the hiking trails of the Greenbrier State Forest, fly fish Second Creek or hike/bike the 78-mile Greenbrier River Trail.

One of the most popular reasons for a visit to the Greenbrier Valley is the array of events. This March, jump in the refreshing waters at Blue Bend in the Annual Polar Bear Plunge or partake in the chocolate tasting festivities at the upcoming Lewisburg Chocolate Festival.

In the Greenbrier Valley, there seems to be an almost perfect marriage of old and new, the treasured and the vanguard. And with so many ways to take in its history, culture and charm, the experience will leave you wanting more. If you haven't been, it's worth a visit. And if it's been a while, welcome back.

Visit greenbrierwv.com for trip ideas and a free visitors guide.

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Culture and nature meet in the Eastern Panhandle: Modern amenities in W.Va's oldest town http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209967 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209967 Sun, 1 Feb 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Deborah Tucker WV Travel Team Nestled between four national parks, and placed comfortably on the bluffs of the Potomac River, Shepherdstown sits just 90 minutes from the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan areas.

Boasting a seamless blend of history, recreation, and culture, this Eastern Panhandle treasure serves both visitors and locals in a style befitting of one of West Virginia's most inviting destinations.

Voted one of "America's Coolest Small Towns" by Budget Travel, Shepherdstown certainly offers something for everyone - whether it's a love of the outdoors, a desire to shop Main Street, an appreciation for amazing food, or a penchant for remarkable accommodations. Combined with a vibrant music, art and theater scene, it's easy to understand why West Virginia's oldest town is also one of its most exciting.

Settled in 1734, and officially chartered in 1762, "Mecklenburg" was the original name given to the town by its founder, Thomas Shepherd.

The town's current name was officially adopted shortly after the Civil War. (A fun fact: in 2010, The Mecklenburg, Shepherdstown's most popular downtown watering hole, was named to Esquire magazine's Top 100 Best Bars in America list - a testament to a thriving night scene.)

Truly a history lover's dream, Shepherdstown's role in the Civil War is well documented.

During the Battle of Antietam in 1862, almost every structure and street was dedicated to the wounded or dying - with monuments and graveyards honoring these brave soldiers throughout the area.

Just minutes from Antietam Battlefield, as well as a short drive from Harpers Ferry, visitors utilize Shepherdstown as a perfect break for food, lodging, and additional sightseeing.

(Additional fun fact: Betty's Restaurant, Home of the World's Best Sausage Gravy, was recently named No. 1 on Condé Nast Traveler's 2014 end-of-year list of America's ten best New Year's "day-after" diners.)

Bordered on the north by the Potomac River, and on the south by the beloved Town Run, which meanders charmingly through backyards, beneath streets, and through alleys, Shepherdstown today is a near-perfect union of nature's wonder, history's imprint and the indomitable spirit of iconic small-town America.

As a result, the downtown area is lined with over 30 one-of-a-kind shops, and more than a dozen fine dining and casual restaurants - representing a variety of cuisine, including: Italian, French, German, Mexican, Thai, American, Middle Eastern, and Chinese. Most establishments offer both indoor and outdoor seating, and many prepare their food with local ingredients.

Quickly emerging as a "canal town," as well, due to its proximity to the C&O Canal (National Historic Park - less than a mile from town), Shepherdstown has become a go-to destination for Appalachian Trail hikers, Canal bikers, and even rafters and kayakers looking for a lovely spot to stop and explore for the day.

Adding to the appeal is Shepherd University (SU), a liberal arts school established in 1871. SU and its host town have enjoyed a cooperative relationship for over a century - perhaps best represented in modern times by the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF).

Every summer, CATF brings in thousands of people from around the world to witness some of the country's hottest new American theater.

Home to the renowned Bavarian Inn, two breathtaking public parks, a world-class marathon, an independent theater, and an unforgettable calendar of events, Shepherdstown is overflowing with universal appeal and undeniable beauty.

Conveniently tucked into the rolling hills just outside the nation's capital, yet far enough away to feel like an escape, Shepherdstown stands proudly as a coveted experience for travelers and a reliable inspiration for those who call it home.

For more information on Shepherdstown, including the wildly popular and upcoming GardenFest Weekend and Back Alley Garden Tour & Tea, visit www.Shepherdstown.info.

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What makes Charleston West Virginia great? http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209968 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209968 Sun, 1 Feb 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Alisa Bailey WV Travel Team While others may prefer the adventure of gusty snow found at nearby ski destinations, there is plenty of sensory adventure to warm your heart in the capital city of Charleston.

With live music every night, a major entertainment and event schedule, and new and improved restaurant and hotel accommodations, Charleston is the perfect weekend destination to slough off the winter blues.

In its 32nd year, Mountain Stage calls Charleston home, offering live performances at the Culture Center on the state Capitol grounds.

Perhaps the greatest performances are by those on the roster not as familiar to the general public - you, too, can help discover the up-and-comers in the music world at Mountain Stage.

Mountain Stage's eclectic offerings this winter include Buckwheat Zydeco, Hot Club Cowtown, and Dale Watson among many others.

Visit www.charlestonwv.com as more artists sign on closer to performance dates.

Charleston's restaurant and bar scene is part of what makes Charleston hip. In early February, visit Charleston for Restaurant Week - 16 restaurants offering three-course meals for only $30!

After dinner and throughout the year, you'll find live music every night at local pubs and eateries such as the Empty Glass, Sound Factory, Five Corners, Black Sheep Burrito, Bluegrass Kitchen and the Boulevard Tavern.

Stay in one of the area's 28 hotels and make it a full weekend of fun.

The Kanawha Valley boasts hotels for every budget and many are new or newly renovated, making Charleston a great place to pamper yourself, spend a romantic weekend or enjoy family time.

Relax in an indoor pool with the kids, take a free tour of the award-winning Culture Museum, Capitol and the Governor's Mansion or stroll through the historic Capitol Market, which offers several restaurants, a wine shop, a Chocolate Shop, the West Virginia Shop and the city's visitor desk.

More than 1,500 of the city's hotel rooms are located downtown and within walking distance of the Charleston Town Center Mall, the Charleston Civic Center and downtown Capitol Street with its boutique shopping and eateries.

Just across the river are the upscale Shops at Bridge Road with unique dining, clothiers and even a toy shop.

With one of the top three acoustic theaters in the world, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences boasts a world-class entertainment schedule, as well as science and art installations.

A feast for the senses in early February is Shen Yun, enjoy a dramatic and colorful interpretation of Chinese culture through music and dance.

The Clay Center's winter offerings also include: Cirque De La Symphonie; Sister Act; Patti LaBelle and Harry Connick, Jr., among other scheduled performances.

All West Virginia Symphony performances are preceded by an elegant buffet dinner.

Charleston's Civic Center is abuzz this winter with Disney on Ice, Rodney Carrington and not only the state boys and girls basketball tournaments, but also the Mountain East Conference college basketball tournament.

And don't miss the Charleston Ballet's Swan Lake at the nearby Municipal Auditorium.

Nearby destinations of South Charleston, St. Albans and Nitro make for afternoon fun at antique shops, ethnic eateries, quaint downtowns and the region's only gaming destination - Mardi Gras Casino and Resort.

Of course once things thaw out, there are exciting weekends ahead: FestivALL - 10 days, 150 events and 360 performances; West Virginia Power baseball games; Live on the Levee; Art Walk; Kanawha State Forest hikes; Coonskin picnics; kayaking on the Elk and outdoor dining in downtown.

So, for all things Hip, Historic ... Almost Heaven, visit www.charlestonwv.com and make your getaway a reality.

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WV Travel Team: Quirky, cool Berkeley Springs http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209998 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150201/GZ05/150209998 Sun, 1 Feb 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - Full disclosure right up front: I live here. Have lived here for nearly 40 years.

I've written so many words about Berkeley Springs that it's hard to imagine there is any West Virginian not familiar with the country's first spa, tucked away in that protruding thumb of the state known as the Eastern Panhandle.

How many other places are there where people have been coming to "take the waters" for their health for nearly 300 years - not counting the native tribes?

Berkeley Springs loves being branded with slogans - true statements, but slogans nonetheless. Mostly the branding is in the superlative form. Center of the universe. Quirky business capital. Spa capital. West Virginia's girliest town - that one got a couple guys with too much chest hair really riled up.

In the 18th century, Berkeley Springs was branded "that seat of sin." Not so much anymore.

In the 21st century, it's a best small art town and currently competing for Coolest Small Town in America. (Not to be excessively self-serving, but Berkeley Springs is the only West Virginia town competing in 2015, so you can help by going to BudgetTravel.com and voting - over and over again.)

The allure always circles back to the water, 50 million-year-old warm mineral water that the young George Washington called "ye fam'd warm springs" when he came surveying in 1748. In the early 19th century, historian Samuel Kerchival called it "the most ancient watering place in the Valley."

It was the first of the Blue Ridge spa resorts and remains one of the most popular. As the slogan says: "Ancient Healing for the New Millennium."

The springs emerge from the base of a sandstone ridge that today is Berkeley Springs State Park and has been public ground since that early George Washington visit.

When the newly independent Virginia General Assembly liberated the springs and their surrounding squatter town from a willing Thomas Lord Fairfax in 1776, they created a real town where folks could buy land. They called it Bath.

The Assembly specifically said the town existed to encourage housing those who came to take the waters, making it the country's first tourism development project. They also allowed that the waters would always be freely available.

Today, the park boasts the largest open display of mineral waters in the Blue Ridge with pools, channels and a public pump all available 24/7. The park also has baths. And massages. And steams and saunas. There's an outdoor public pool open in the summer fed from Lord Fairfax's personal spring.

The one place you won't bathe is George Washington's Bathtub, although everyone makes it a selfie destination.

The town surrounding the springs may be "officially" Bath, but the world knows it as Berkeley Springs, the Post Office name. Promoters (meaning me) like to say Berkeley Springs is a postal address and a state of mind.

Berkeley Springs has no government, no boundaries and no rules. It may be America's first "virtual" location.

Having three centuries of practice at being a spa resort, Berkeley Springs is very good at it. There have been four "Golden Ages," by my count, and we are still at the peak of the fourth.

The long history may bring gravitas to the place, but you want to know what everyone wants to know: What's there today? Three times as many massage therapists as lawyers and more than 60 different bodywork treatments from which to choose - in both the state park bathhouses and several private spas, open daily year-round - is a favorite activity.

Everyone has their own favorite massage therapist and will happily point you to the best facials. A Malaysian temple-trained massage therapist has been rubbing folks in Berkeley Springs for nearly 30 years and now has his own elegant spa, Atasia, where the flavor of the scrubs, steam and facials changes monthly.

There are two acupuncturists, one a Chinese physician. My massage therapist may be the best non-drug-related pain reliever anywhere, ever.

In spite of mid-19th-century bath keeper John Davis' proclamation that the chief end of man is to bathe, bathing is simply not enough. There needs to be entertainment. And shopping. And dining. And outdoor fun. Have no fear, all these attractions are firmly in place and at the top of their game.

Dining is always an amazement for city folk arriving for the weekend. They are astounded that there is a James Beard-rated chef in Berkeley Springs - and he, Damien Heath, loves to eat so much that portions are as hearty as the food is delicious. Heath's Lot 12 also has an exquisite small bar with an extensive and selective wine list.

Lot 12 is not at the top of the heap alone. Tari's Café is a downtown favorite not only for its consistently good food over the past quarter of a century but also because it is open daily for lunch and dinner.

Then there is the down-home splendor of Betty Lou's Cafe at Roy's Garage, where locals and clued-in visitors eat and Betty Lou herself makes a dozen or so pies every day.

A full list of eateries adds more locations ranging from coffee shop to Mexican.

An art town has, by definition, art and artists - other than "retiree" and "teacher," "artist" is probably the largest job title category.

Berkeley Springs has musicians and dancers, painters and fabric artists, published authors and photographers. There are so many accomplished visual artists that a recent exhibit at the Ice House Gallery was called "Plan B," which filled the room with professional-quality work from artists working in some medium outside their primary one. Studio tours in spring and fall draw hundreds of visitors each year. Berkeley Springs' becoming the first of West Virginia's nine certified arts communities was no surprise.

Along with several galleries, shops and individual art studios, the Ice House is an art magnet. The 40,000-square-foot former apple cold storage building in the center of town was rescued from dereliction by the Morgan Arts Council. It is being transformed - hopefully in my lifetime - into a thriving art center where digital media classes and concerts stand cheek by jowl with an artists' co-op gallery, revolving special art exhibits, community theater productions and art classes for adults and children.

The community also uses the space for the biggest single indoor event of the year: the annual Festival of Light Psychic Fair and Alternative Healing Expo, highlighting still another quirky aspect of Berkeley Springs.

Live local music can be found weekends at several locations in town, mostly in the summer and fall seasons.

The psychic fair is not the only quirky festival. In October, the annual Apple Butter Festival, now in its 42nd year, is delightfully participatory. You can stir apple butter in big copper kettles, or compete in the hog calling competition - no experience necessary.

If you have facial hair, the beard and mustache contest is for you. Or maybe you'd rather be a contest judge.

The Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting is serious business. Celebrating its 25th anniversary at the end of February, the event now has more than 100 entries from around the world and across the country.

Although there are experts on seminar panels and media judges for the water, the public can taste along and cast the only votes for best packaging. The big draw for the random water groupie is the highly competitive "water rush" at the end, where the public gets to take home the waters on display. Experienced attendees travel from as far away as Manhattan and come armed with large tote bags to stash away as much rare European bottled water as possible.

This is the place for pampering your body, but folks who like to play outdoors come visit too. Most of the outdoor fun is centered at Cacapon State Park - yes, tiny Morgan County has two state parks.

Cacapon is a standard-issue resort park with an exceptional golf course, a lake with a sand beach and a spectacular hiking trail made for people who like to walk on top of a mountain but level. The 12-mile fire road leads to incredible rock formations that drove the decision to make the 6,000 acres a state park.

Hunters head to Sleepy Creek and are especially impressed by dove hunting in September. As for fishing, if you buddy up to a local, you get to discover when the fish hatchery down the road dumps the trout it raises into the lake at Cacapon. Not very sporting in my mind, but it doesn't seem to bother the fishing folks.

The list of outdoor adventure is even longer, including boating on both rivers - the Potomac and the Cacapon - as well as biking.

I can honestly say I've never slept a night here except in my own bed, but I've toured most of the lodging places and can affirm there is a pillow with your name on it. Lacy pillows at B&Bs. Dozens of pillows in fully equipped vacation homes buried in the woods or along the rivers. BYO pillows at a couple campgrounds. Comfy pillows and even pet pillows in certain places.

Whether it's warm water or fortune tellers or local playwrights or gorgeous scenery or friendly folks, it's all closer than you think in Berkeley Springs.

Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is the author of "Way Out in West Virginia," considered a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State. She and noted photographer Steve Shaluta recently released the second printing of the coffee table photo book "West Virginia Beauty: Familiar & Rare." Both are available in bookstores throughout the state and from wvbookco.com.

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In Short: Jan. 29-Feb. 4 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150128/GZ0601/150129221 GZ0601 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150128/GZ0601/150129221 Wed, 28 Jan 2015 15:30:31 -0500 Louisville's Forecastle Music Festival has announced a list of some of the headlining acts for the huge event that takes place July 17-19.

Acts include Sam Smith, My Morning Jacket, Widespread Panic, Modest Weekend, Tweedy, The Tallest Man on Earth and Cold War Kids.

Weekend passes start at $144.50, plus fees, on up to VIP passes for $400, and are on sale now through forecastle fest.com, Ticketmaster.com or at 800-745-3000.

Day passes will be sold closer to the event date.

Shen Yun Performing Arts, comprised of the world's premier classical Chinese dance and music companies, returns with a lavishly colorful new show at the Clay Center at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.

Shen Yun uses the performing arts to present stories that bring to life the inner essence of Chinee culture - much of it banned under the country's Communist regime - including ancient legends, characters, and tales from history, and representative events from the modern world.

Themes like spiritual devotion, the benevolence of gods, good and evil, retribution and the search for the meaning of life are manifested in dance stories and lyrics, with choreography ranging from grand processions to legions of thunderous drums and costumed dancers moving in synchronized patterns.

Tickets are $50 to $150 by calling the box office, at 304-561-3570, or Shen Yun ticketing, at 888-974-3698.

For more on the show, visit www.shenyun.com/charleston.

The West Virginia Humanities Council's new traveling exhibit on the Hatfield-McCoy Feud is ready to hit the road.

The new exhibit is titled "The Hatfields & McCoys: American Blood Feud."

After previewing in Morgantown this month, the exhibit will begin its regular run, in Mingo County, in February.

"We create our traveling exhibits in collaboration with graphic design students at West Virginia University, and they get first dibs as to showing them off," Humanities Council program officer Mark Payne said. "After a January 21-28 display at the WVU Creative Arts Center, this one will officially premiere in the heart of Hatfield country."

The exhibit will open Feb. 25 at the Mingo County Public Library, in Williamson.

Payne emphasized that Humanities Council exhibits travel statewide.

"We already have more than a dozen requests for Hatfields & McCoys, from Parkersburg to Martinsburg," he said. "It is definitely going to be getting around."

Organizations interested in hosting the exhibit should contact Payne, at payne@wvhumanities.org or 304-346-8500.

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Cast Iron Cook-Off returns to capital city http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150125/GZ05/150129757 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150125/GZ05/150129757 Sun, 25 Jan 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Dawn Nolan Staff writer CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Seven teams of culinary challengers will present their innovative renditions of Appalachian cuisine when the Cast Iron Cook-Off returns to the Charleston Marriott Town Center Friday and Saturday.

The annual event is back in Charleston after a three-year stint at The Greenbrier.

"Access is extremely important to us, and we're excited to be back in the capital city and have had the opportunity to work closely with the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau in planning the celebration of our 10th anniversary," said Lois Adams-Rodgers, chairwoman of the board of directors for the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia.

The Cast Iron Cook-Off is a signature event for the organization, and was designed to promote culinary and cultural tourism in West Virginia.

"When we think of Appalachian cooking, we think about the usage of cast iron," Adams-Rodgers said.

"It's a sturdy, durable product that has endured generations, and it is still a rich tradition in many areas. We want to honor that part of our heritage."

The weekend festivities will begin Friday at 11 a.m. with a Junior Cast Iron Cook-Off at the West Virginia Culture Center.

"This event gives students the chance to be really involved," Adams-Rodgers said.

Six teams made up of ProStart and agricultural education students, instructors and school food service staff will participate in the inaugural event. Competitors must prepare an entrée, side dish and grain-based dessert based on the Office of Child Nutrition's meal pattern requirements in hopes of having their recipes used for school lunch programs.

Another new addition to this year's schedule is the Battle of the Virginias.

Amy Shuler Goodwin, commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Tourism, and Dale Hawkins, owner-operator of Fish Hawk Acres, will emcee, as chefs Richard Arbaugh and Tim Arden, of South Hills Market & Cafe, along with Tom Grant, culinary director at Carver Career Center, face off against Abigail Hutchinson, executive chef at The Olde Farm in Bristol, Virginia; chef Jassen Campbell, of Heartwood Artisan Gateway in Abingdon, Virginia; and Nathan Breeding, chef at Southern Culture Farm to Table Food Service, also in Abingdon.

For this competition, teams will cook and submit three courses to three judges and eight pre-selected individuals that will make up the Chef's Table.

The main event will take place on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Marriott ballroom. Teams composed of executive and sous chefs, ProStart students and seven passionate amateurs will spend 90 minutes planning and preparing a four-course menu before taking 75 minutes for execution.

Scott Spiker, executive chef of the WeErickson Alumni Center at West Virginia University, is on the cook-off's roster for the third year in a row.

"I like the challenge of competition-style cooking and also having to utilize cast iron and follow Appalachian style," he said.

Spiker's team took home the award for best table presentation last year and was honored for their spirit and cooperation with the "Whistle While You Work" honor in 2013.

He plans to continue his streak by utilizing a plethora of local and indigenous ingredients in all of his courses.

"We'll be doing a stuffed quail breast with local goat cheese wrapped in bacon with a cranberry barbecue sauce, slices of fried green tomato with portobello mushrooms with house barbecue, a cherry and Golden Delicious [apple] boar loin and buckwheat fritters with bacon with Greenbrier peach glaze," he described.

Scott Maroney, executive chef at Mardi Gras Casino & Resort and a competition newcomer, hopes his twist on Appalachian cuisine and utilization of cast iron will win the judge's favor.

"Our menu includes a fried green tomato with Johnnycake, a different take on the traditional pepperoni roll, venison meatballs and a Granny apple crisp," Maroney said.

Atomic Grill's Emily Smith-Zimmerman, Mia Margherita's Tim Groots, Thyme Bistro's Geoff Krauss, Charleston Marriott Town Center's John Eckstadt and Bridge Road Bistro's John Wright (representing Steelite International) will also contend for the weekend's awards.

Rod Stoner (Rod Stoner LLC), Anne Hart (Provence Market Cafe), Tim Urbanic (Cafe Cimino Country Inn), William Dissen (The Marketplace Restaurant & Lounge), Brian Wallace (Natural Epicurean at The Broadmoor) and John Miles (Steelite International America) will serve as judges.

An awards ceremony will be held Saturday evening following the competition.

Teams will be presented with honors including grand champion, best single course, best use of cast iron and best menu for 21st-century interpretation of a traditional Appalachian cuisine.

"Mountain Stage" stage and radio show founder and host Larry Groce will receive this year's Pioneer Award.

"Part of the mission for the collaborative is to celebrate the culinary heritage of the state as a tourism development tool," explained Jack Cipoletti, Cast Iron Cook-Off committee member and a board member of the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia. "This award is to recognize people and organizations that made significant contributions to tourism industry - in Larry's case his work with 'Mountain Stage' and FestivALL - in West Virginia."

The weekend will wrap up with a public dine-around following the awards ceremony. "The theme for the dine-around is 'Taste of the Mountains,'" Cipoletti said.

"The menu, like those created for the competition, is new Appalachian cuisine. There will be several different stations with dinner options for people to enjoy."

Tickets for the dine-around are $40 and are available at castironcookoff.org.

Reach Dawn Nolan at dawn.nolan@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.

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WV Travel Team: Cruises offer endless options http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150125/GZ05/150129762 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150125/GZ05/150129762 Sun, 25 Jan 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Mitzi Harrison WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - With a variety of ships, with a vast selection of itineraries, and a host of innovative amenities, the cruise industry is booming.

Cruising is one of the fastest-growing vacation types in North America, offering a variety of choices to meet everyone's budget. Many cruise lines have developed ports of call with private islands - popular additions that give passengers exclusive access to their own private oasis with special activities, dining and more.

Cruises often are popular because they are branded as a carefree experience that is thought to be the best luxurious vacation for the price, with meals, entertainment, accommodations and exciting ports to explore assembled in the cost.

Cruise vacations are perfect for honeymooners, family vacations, singles or groups. They are a great way to see it all with cruise destinations that appeal to first-time cruisers and repeat cruisers seeking to fulfill their wanderlust.

With so many options, it can be difficult to match yourself with the proper cruise line and itinerary. Before making reservations, it's best to answer a few basic questions about what your dream cruise vacation looks like so you can get the most out of your trip.

When planning a cruise, it's important to be able to understand what you're looking to get out of your vacation. Being able to answer some basic questions about your ideal cruise vacation will help you pair yourself with the right itinerary and cruise line. Things to consider include:

n What is your budget?

n Is this a family vacation, couples vacation or group vacation?

n Where do you want to travel?

n Do you have a passport?

n What types of shore excursions interest you?

n What type of entertainment and dining do you want to experience?

n What port is the best option for your travel party?

While there are several more questions that could be added to this checklist, being able to provide answers to these questions will help you partner with your travel adviser to create an ideal cruise vacation.

With so many great deals advertised, it can be difficult to determine if these specials will meet your needs. Inexpensive cruises often have extremely short itineraries or may not provide the amenities you are looking for.

Many travelers prefer cruising to other types of travel simply for the fact that they can visit several destinations without having to change lodging.

Most Americans are accustomed to traditional Caribbean cruises, but the itinerary possibilities are endless.

Who doesn't want some sun and fun? Eastern Caribbean cruises can vary greatly in length and are a good option for both long and short itineraries.

They typically depart from Florida and may visit islands such as St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

These cruises are typically available year-round and can be paired with fun excursions, ranging from snorkeling and diving to zip-lining.

Western Caribbean cruises also vary in length and steer toward the western Gulf of Mexico, often visiting warm-weather hot spots such as Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Jamaica. Like their eastern Caribbean counterparts, these cruises are typically available year-round. Plenty of excursions are available for these cruises as well, including zip-lining, historic tours and more.

While not the warmest choice, Alaska cruises have surged in popularity in recent years. From the blue ice of massive glacial fields to the stunning grandeur of the scenery and wildlife, everything in Alaska is big, bold and breathtaking.

Departing from cities such as Seattle, Vancouver and Seward, Alaska cruises show passengers the scenic views of the Inside Passage and are often paired with cruise tours of Denali National Park. These voyages are typically available from mid-May through mid-September.

AAA Tip: Alaska cruises can sell out a year in advance - be sure to book early if you want your choice of cabin selections and excursions.

Mediterranean cruises allow passengers to enjoy stunning coastal views and to experience world history and scenic European architecture. Typically sailing from April to October, these voyages tend to be a bit longer, generally ranging from seven to 12 nights.

Also increasing in popularity over recent years, river cruising offers unique views of Europe's interior, allowing passengers to experience the local culture of cities throughout Europe. Travel by river allows you to dock right in the heart of historic cities and quaint villages. You'll gain a unique perspective of a land and its people.

One of the most popular itineraries is a cruise along the Rhine River, which can include stops in cities such as Amsterdam and Budapest. River cruises are typically seven to 12 days and are available year-round, though departures may be limited during some parts of the year, depending on the season.

Close to home, New England cruises let passengers experience the breathtaking fall foliage of the Northeast and Canada while providing a cruise port that can be within driving distance.

The distinctive history and natural beauty gives the region an alluring appeal. There's no better time to visit than the fall. The foliage is brilliant in every imaginable color, lighthouses dot the coastline and there's always authentic seafood to enjoy. These cruises typically last a minimum of seven nights and allow you to visit historic New England cities and towns in addition to Acadia National Park.

Special-interest cruises also are available on many of these itineraries. For example, guests can take a European river cruise with a wine expert, departing from Italy. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, the number and variety of special-interest cruises continues to grow each year. Themed sailings can include visits from special guests, concerts and demonstrations, and often feature opportunities both on and off shore to promote the themed experience.

Special-interest cruises are a great way to travel with other individuals who may share the same passion as you.

Cruise passengers are not just limited to the ship once onboard. Cruise lines have developed a heavy arsenal of excursions sure to excite any type of guest.

Excursion packages can be action-packed, featuring activities such as zip-lining, mountain biking, rain forest hiking and off-roading. For those who are just looking to relax, excursions can be calm and relaxing and can include activities such as deep-sea fishing, boat tours, golf, sunset cruises and kayaking.

For those wanting to experience local activities, there are plenty of options for excursions to help immerse guests into the local culture.

Cuisine tours are extremely popular - whether it's tasting tapas in Spain or a salmon bake in Alaska, cruising can offer guests the opportunity to sample a variety of local culinary delights.

Local shows and entertainment are a great option as well - some excursions take passengers to world-famous museums, while others take guests right into the action of local traditions and celebrations.

Sightseeing tours are one of the most popular cruise excursions. They allow guests to explore their ports of call and are one of the best ways to see the highlights of a destination. They are generally escorted by a local guide, which allows for a unique perspective on the surrounding area.

AAA Tip: Book your excursions as early as possible - this ensures your travel party will have the most selection to choose from and won't risk their favorite activities being booked solid.

Regardless of which cruise line you may travel, the staterooms, dining options and activities onboard the ship are always top-notch.

Most cruise lines offer four classes of staterooms. Interior cabins can be on any level of the ship, but do not have windows. As a result, they can be the most cost efficient.

Outside cabins will provide you a glimpse of the water - but at a higher price point.

One of the best options is a balcony, or veranda, cabin. These offer guests their own private oasis to watch the surroundings of the voyage. When requesting a balcony or veranda cabin, higher-level floors tend to offer better views. Suites are also usually available on the balcony or veranda level. Each type of stateroom is available in a variety of configurations - it's important to partner with a travel agent or the cruise line to make sure the proper cabin for your travel party is selected.

AAA Tip: Your local AAA Travel Store has all the gear you need to make the most of your stateroom. Be sure to check out luggage, travel wallets and adapter plugs at member-discounted prices.

Equally important as selecting the location of your stateroom is the price. A balcony or veranda stateroom will cost more than an inside stateroom. Some cruisers would prefer to go twice as often and stay in an inside stateroom while others with more limited time prefer to splurge on a balcony.

One reason many look forward to cruising is due in part to the variety of dining options aboard the ship. While many cruisers are used to the standard dining with specific meal times with seat assignments, cruise lines have expanded their offerings so that passengers can fit meals into their schedules.

Most cruise lines now offer dining at any time, meaning the dining options guests may select for standard seatings are often made available throughout the day rather than at a specific time. In addition, cruise ships have also created specialty dining options. While reservations are required and the expense of these restaurants is an additional cost, this option can provide a rich variety of cuisines and an additional fine-dining experience.

While onboard, there are plenty of entertainment options sure to keep passengers busy while at sea. All of the major cruise lines, from Royal Caribbean to Disney Cruise Line, have made enhancements to make sure you enjoy your time while aboard the ship.

Traditional entertainment such as live music, shows and movies can still be found on most cruises, but casinos, lavish swimming pools and hot tubs, lively lounges and top-notch spas all make cruise vacations a true getaway.

Some lines have even gone so far as to add rock climbing walls and zip-lining aboard ship. While at sea, there will be plenty of options to ensure you stay busy and engaged.

While some cruise ports are within driving distance of West Virginia, the reality is that many of them will require passengers to fly to their port of call. Whether leaving from a domestic or international location, adding nights at either end of your vacation near the port has its advantages.

For domestic cruisers, adding a night prior to the cruise can allow a buffer for any potential travel delays that may be encountered, so guests can board the ship on time. It also can allow passengers to experience the local nightlife, food and culture of the port of call - whether it be Miami, Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans or others.

AAA Tip: Many hotels near ports of call offer pre-night cruise packages that include transportation to the port from the hotel. Some of these packages may also include extended parking offers as well.

For international cruisers, it's important to add extra day for potential travel delays - weather, backed-up airports and more often can lead to delays in getting to a port of call. In addition, adding a pre-night before a cruise can also allow for time to adjust to new time zones, decreasing the effects of jet lag once aboard the ship.

AAA Tip: For those going on an international cruise, be sure to order foreign currency or purchase a Visa TravelMoney card from your local AAA - for international travel, these options are flexible and safer than traveler's cheques.

Regardless of the size of your travel party, it's important to partner with a travel agent to make the most of your cruise vacation. Not only will they use their expertise to pair you with the proper cruise line, itinerary and shore excursion options, but they can assist you with your travel arrangements. AAA trip advisers also have experience working with large groups, which can help ease the pain and pressure of getting people from across the country together for a family or group vacation.

If you're ready to start planning a cruise vacation, contact one of the AAA trip advisers at the Charleston location - Janice Adkins, Lia Ireland, Amy Sisson, Becky Wallace and Barbara Wing - at 304-925-1136.

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Community notes: Jan. 21-27, 2015 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150121/GZ05/150129943 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150121/GZ05/150129943 Wed, 21 Jan 2015 00:01:00 -0500 New singers are invited to join the Charleston Civic Chorus for rehearsals each Tuesday evening at 7:15 p.m. at the Charleston Baptist Temple, located at 209 Morris Street.

The central focus of the upcoming May 10 spring concert will be "Requiem for the Living," by Dan Forrest, who has quickly risen to the top tier of composers of choral music today.

For more information, contact Dr. Truman Dalton, director, at 304-744-5078 or Billie Catlett, chorus president, at 304-553-4818.

DUNBAR, W.Va. -- The city of Dunbar will sponsor a disc golf tournament at Shawnee Park on Feb. 7, with proceeds going to Manna Meal.

The cost will be $20, plus food items for Manna Meal.

Registration will be at 9 a.m., with tee time at 10 a.m. The first 35 players registered will receive a free ice bowl disc. All other players will receive a free dx disc.

Hot lunch will be served.

This is a fundraing tournament, so players are asked to bring some food for the less fortunate. Manna Meal will be collecting all food items.

For more information, contact Steve Koepsel, tournament director, at 304-546-8398.

LEWISBURG, W.Va. - A portion of Janice Cooley's exhibit, "Invisible Roots and Legends: A Photographic View of African American History in the Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia," will be on display at the North House Museum, 301 W. Washington St., Lewisburg, Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through August.

The exhibit consists of a collection of photographs and artifacts from post-Civil War to today of blacks who contributed to the growth and development of the Greenbrier Valley in business, religion, education, sports, politics and entertainment, as well as general family life.

For more information on the exhibit, visit greenbrierhistorical.org, email director@greenbrierhistorical.org or call 304-645-3398.

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Members of the Charleston Camera Club are featured in a new photography exhibit at the Marshall University South Charleston Campus Library, 100 Angus E. Peyton Drive, South Charleston, through March.

The exhibit, "Varied Visions," is an eclectic assortment of images.

The public is welcome to visit the library and view the images.

To learn more about the exhibit or the Charleston Camera Club, visit www.charlestoncameraclub.com or call Ron Gaskins, chairman, at 304-532-0070, or Amanda Haddox, president, at 304-993-9240.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The First United Methodist Church's First Church Dinner Theater will present "Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys," based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry, Feb. 13 and 14 at the church, 1124 Fifth Ave., Huntington.

Dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m. and the show will begin at 8 p.m.

Tickets for dinner and the show are $25 for adults and $8 for children under 12. Tickets for the show only, space permitting, are $5.

For reservations, which are required for all dinners, or more information, call 304-522-0357 or 740-867-8576, or email firstchurchdinnertheater@gmail.com.

All profits benefit the missions of First United Methodist Church.

MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. - Glen Dale native Betsy Cox will host a free, hands-on Pottery Day where the public is invited to try its hand at the craft on Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, Delf Norona Museum, 801 Jefferson Ave., Moundsville.

Cox is the first featured artist of a new exhibition program at the Grave Creek Mound.

Featured local artist exhibits change monthly.

Artists in the Northern Panhandle and Mountaineer regions of West Virginia are invited to contact Jeremy Kohus, at 304-843-4128 or Jeremy.A .Kohus@wv.gov, for more information about participating.

The Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex has the largest conical burial mound in the New World and is one of the largest mortuary mounds in the world.

The Delf Norona Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

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WV Travel Team: No longer forbidden, Cuba beckons http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150111/GZ05/150119991 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150111/GZ05/150119991 Sun, 11 Jan 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Ariadne Moore WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In mid-December, President Obama exercised an executive action to lift travel, business and financial sanctions against Cuba and have the country removed from the list of State Sponsors of Terror.

Effectively, the 55-year-old embargo is over. The embargo, which began two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban revolution, was often criticized as failed policy, allowing the Castro family to claim that the impoverished conditions and human-rights violations in Cuba were due to American anti-Cuban sanctions.

Obama's effective lift of the embargo, coupled with his executive action on immigration, opens a door to diplomacy that has been firmly closed for over half of a century.

Global politics aside, the opportunity to open up leisure travel to Cuba was received with excitement around the world. Cruise ship operator stocks soared following Obama's announcement, predicting the surge of American travelers who would flood the country.

International travelers have long enjoyed the country's favorable climate, beautiful beaches, gorgeous colonial architecture and rich cultural history. Indeed, tourism is already one of the country's primary sources of revenue, with more than 3 million tourists arriving each year.

Business Insider, in fact, rated Cuba fourth on their "100 Trips You Must Take in Your Lifetime" list.

Havana

There are countless things about Cuba to capture the imagination, and Havana has long been a haven for the rich and famous, a place that has captivated such individuals as Hemingway, Churchill and even Al Capone.

It's hard not to be mesmerized by the stunning Spanish colonial architecture dating from as early as the 16th century, the vintage American cars cruising its palm-lined streets, the music and dance that seem to flow from every corner and the sense of a culture that celebrates life, even through the post-revolution hardships that fell upon the country.

Beautiful decay is part of the Havana ambiance, a place that stands in defiance of the economic pressures that have fallen upon the country and still shines with the afterglow of its former glory. The influx of American tourist money could bring the funding necessary to restore the city to the world-class destination it once was.

However, steeped in history and culture, Havana lures restless souls from around the globe; Americans will enjoy its beauty, friendly people, rich culture and inexpensive shopping.

Trinidad

Trinidad is another must-see city. Located on the Caribbean coast near the Escambray Mountains, Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In this region of stunning vistas and incredible beaches, the city boasts unique and colorful architecture from the 16th century, a bright nightlife and local cuisine.

Trinidad also gives the opportunity to witness tobacco pressing, one of the steps to making the famed Cuban cigar. Nearby, the Topes de Collantes nature reserve teems with hummingbirds and rare orchids in a maze of caves, grottoes, canyons and natural pools.

Santiago

In the southeast of the island, the city of Santiago is most well-known for Carnival, the open street festival marking the beginning of Lent - oddly, however, Santiago celebrates it in July.

Santiago is a cultural mecca, with some of Cuba's most famous musicians hailing from its neighborhoods, including beloved members of the Buena Vista Social Club, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa. Cultural dances such as the son, from which salsa is derived, also originate in Santiago.

Haitian immigrants came to the city in the 19th century, bringing with them a unique Afro-Caribbean culture, including Santería, which is still practiced widely in the city. The city's architecture ranges from baroque to neoclassical, and promises an experience unlike any other.

***

Throughout Cuba, the beautiful landscape is dotted with historical monuments to the country's turbulent past. At Comandancia de la Plata, tourists can hike through virgin rain forests to the site of Fidel Castro's revolutionary headquarters.

Visitors to the rebel camp can see Castro's own quarters, consisting of a camp bed, kitchen, study and secret trap door. In Santa Clara, the remains of revolutionary Che Guevara and 29 of his fellow fallen combatants are housed at the Che Guevara Mausoleum, where an eternal flame was lit in his honor by Fidel Castro.

Of course, no visit to Cuba would be complete without a stop at its magnificent beaches, which boast white sand along an iridescent Caribbean shoreline.

Divers will enjoy the spectacular marine life, and with the lifting of the American embargo, surfing will likely grow along the coastline - where items like leashes, boards and wax have been nearly unavailable over the decades because of trade restrictions.

Indeed, there is a lot to anticipate about this exciting turn in politics that opens up Cuba to American tourism.

However, it is important to note that the infrastructure might not yet be what is needed to support the increased trade. Luxury hotels as we know them simply do not exist in Cuba at this time, and Third World conditions are commonplace throughout the country. Items we consider necessary are not available, with reports such as public toilets without toilet seats and toilet paper, frequent power outages and water contamination.

As we enter into this new age, it will be most likely through the cruise lines that Cuba becomes widely accessible. Nevertheless, the travel industry is gearing up for the change across the nation.

Do you want to visit Cuba right now? Americans can legally travel to Cuba directly if part of a group in a People-to-People Cultural Exchange. These tours are offered by a variety of operators and sponsors. Contact your travel agent for more information on People-to-People programs, or to ask further questions about visiting Cuba in 2015.

Happy travels!

Ariadne Moore works with Charleston-based National Travel and contributes regularly to the Life & Style travel page.

Follow National Travel on Twitter at @NatlTravel and on Facebook. For questions or comments on this article, direct email inquiries to vacationplanner@nationaltravel.com or 304-357-0800.

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WV Travel Team: Pensacola - the other Florida http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150104/GZ05/150109998 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150104/GZ05/150109998 Sun, 4 Jan 2015 00:01:00 -0500 By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team PENSACOLA, Fla. - Abandon your traditional Florida destinations and follow a million years of eroded sandstone from West Virginia's Appalachian Mountains to Pensacola, where it becomes pristine white quartz sand on 52 miles of nearly empty beaches.

Throw in one of the world's largest aviation museums and some of the best eating in America and you'll find a rewarding winter - and summertime - getaway in the Sunshine State.

We started with the seemingly endless beach just outside our room at the Hilton Hotel on Pensacola Beach.

All local pride aside, the sand looks much better there, stretched out and washed by the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. An early-morning walk not only provided a sky of soft, glowing pastels melting into the surf, but also easy pickings of perfect shells.

The first stop of the day was the free treasure house of the National Naval Aviation Museum. Pensacola is a natural choice for the museum given its leading role in training all Navy, Marine and Coast Guard pilots.

It was a dream come true for my pilot husband, Jack. Our excellent guide appeared to know personally every one of the 170 planes inside the 300,000-square-foot structure and "out on the line."

Many of the planes are one-of-a-kind and all are meticulously restored. They are arranged on the floor so you can walk up and touch them. A bonus for early-morning visitors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from March through November is the opportunity to watch the famous Blue Angels practice.

As if the planes are not enough of an attraction, the museum cafe is an exact reconstruction of the legendary Cubi Point Officers Club in the Philippines, with every inch of decor and artifacts salvaged from the original. The combat simulation center offers 40 minutes of pre-flight and cockpit time using the Top Gun F-14 Tomcat or a choice of nearly 30 other aircraft.

More than $2 million has gone into the education exhibit section of the museum, so bring the kids and expect to have to drag them off at the end of the day.

Pensacola Beach is on Santa Rosa, a 40-mile-long barrier island that is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore along the Florida Panhandle. It is an easy jaunt across the long, scenic bridge from the city, marked on one end by a garish historic fish sign with flashing lights so bright they are visible from space, and on the other by the Beach Ball Water Tower.

Just over a decade ago, Hurricane Ivan laid waste to the island. Today, it is a thriving two-fisted, one-street beach town with a Gulf beach on one side and an equally fine beach on the sound.

Our eating adventures began with dinner at the much-awarded McGuire's Irish Pub for what Jack rated as one of the greatest steaks ever. My choice was flaking-from-the-bone ribs with a discretely rich barbecue sauce and smoked - not sweet - baked beans served in a tiny crock.

The Irish honey-glazed black bread was so good we took it back to our room along with the rest of the manly portion of steak.

The decor was as memorable as the food. More than half a million in customer-signed dollar bills are tacked to the walls and wave from the ceilings in the breeze of giant fans.

With both an onsite microbrewery and a literally world-class display wine cellar racked along granite walls, McGuire's seems aware that man does not live on food alone.

Our second food experience proved how fresh a meal can be.

We sat on the outside deck of the Fish House and watched fresh-caught gulf shrimp being carried directly from the boat into the kitchen to become part of several notable menu items including their signature Grits à Ya Ya, a Southern comfort food not quite like your grandma made.

The imaginative Ya Ya was created as an easy but filling treat for folks working on multiple Mardi Gras parades. Key ingredients are grilled jumbo gulf shrimp and a bed of smoked gouda cheese grits. The sauce poured over the concoction includes everything from bacon and spinach to portobello mushrooms, shallots and cream.

Topping it all off is a shredded orange substance that I took to be carrots but discovered was lightly fried sweet potato. We could have been happy eating nothing more but then would have missed the cashew-encrusted soft-shell crab.

Not only do the restaurants offer great eating, so do many food-based festivals including the Beulah Sausage Festival, in March, two crawfish festivals in April and May, and a seafood festival in September.

Parades are a key festival activity with three major ones during Mardi Gras, multiple costume parades during the annual Fiesta of Five Flags, in June, and one each for St. Patrick's Day and Christmas.

For guaranteed front-row seats, stay at the Pensacola B&B, a ship's captain's Victorian home. It is the only inn with a full breakfast, baked treats all day and lunch, at the Cottage Cafe, on the grounds.

Most intriguing of the festivals is the Interstate Mullet Toss and Gulf Coast's Greatest Beach Party, in April, where the star competitive activity is throwing a mullet across the state line from Alabama to Florida.

We could have chosen an active sea sport, like diving, to work off all that eating. Historic shipwrecks, the world's largest artificial reef created by the USS Oriskany, and one of the country's greatest collections of sunken aircraft in the clear, sparkling Gulf make underwater Pensacola a site-rich environment.

Instead we settled for an easy boardwalk climb down and up Florida's only bluffs leading to spectacular views of Escambia Bay.

Then we shopped. For me, one highlight of the historic downtown was Quayside Art Gallery, with three floors, more than 120 artists and the intricate and unusual beaded jewelry of Diana Yum-Bucher.

A block or two away from the commercial area is Historic Pensacola Village, more than 20 structures, museums, plazas and parks including the Colonial Archaeological Trail.

Pensacola has the oldest European colonial history in America. Its settlement date predates St. Augustine, but a hurricane washed the tiny village away, leaving the East Coast city with the title of America's oldest permanently occupied European settlement. Like most of the Gulf Coast, the area belonged to several masters, from the Spanish to the French to the United States both North and South.

Nearby, and not to be missed, is Joe Patti's Seafood, a market with its own fishing dock and fleet of shrimp boats. Inside the vast daily market, orders are shouted back and forth and the fish are cleaned, sliced and filleted as you watch.

Fish can even be packaged for flying home with you. On the other side is a gourmet grocery and sushi bar.

Before flying out, we toured another aviation wonder - the world's first boutique center for the high-net-worth individual in the brave new world of small private jets. The seamless red carpet treatment at the Innisfree Jet Center starts on the tarmac.

There is a deck for watching the planes, an on-site chef who will prepare in-flight meals, and a state-of-the-art meeting room. Crew are treated to comfortable beds and muscle cars.

The best surprise for West Virginians wanting to escape Northern winters early is that Pensacola considers December through February as a "secret season" with lower lodging rates. For information, call 800-874-1234 or visit www.visitpensacola.com.

Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is the author of "Way Out in West Virginia," considered a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State. She and noted photographer Steve Shaluta recently released the second printing of the coffee table photo book "West Virginia Beauty, Familiar and Rare." Both are available in bookstores throughout the state and from wvbookco.com.

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Wedding Expo promises to bring it for the big day http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141231/GZ05/141239956 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141231/GZ05/141239956 Wed, 31 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Marta Tankersley Hays Staff writer Many a blushing bride will saunter down the aisle in the coming year, but before that big day, a little planning is in order.

In fact, as soon as the ring goes on the finger - if not before - women start making their wish list for the day many have dreamed of since they were little girls.

According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 12,382 couples were married in West Virginia in 2013, the most up-to-date statistic. Of those, 5,654 - about 45 percent - were first marriages for both the bride and groom.

For each of them, the 2015 Wedding Expo, hosted by the Charleston Civic Center, is here to help. On site you can discover more than 75 local vendors that have teamed up for the 11th annual event to be held on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

"The Charleston Wedding Expo is truly a one stop shop for brides of all types, no matter how soon or far away their wedding date," Civic Center Events Coordinator Bobbie Nichols said.

Here's why.

Representatives from caterers, florists, ceremony and reception venues, honeymoon destinations, bridal gown and tuxedo shops, event planners, photographers, DJs, cosmetologists, limousine companies and more will be on hand to help couples plan every aspect of their special day. You can sample wine and cheese, wedding cakes and punches, watch a bridal runway show, compare amenities at different venues, see distinctive styles of photography and more.

Brides and grooms who register at the door are eligible for more than 80 door prizes valued at $100 or more including the grand prize, a three night honeymoon cruise for two provided by Royal Prestige.

But before you book that honeymoon, there are a few decisions to make along the way to becoming Mr. and Mrs.

Whether the bride dreams of wearing a princess-style ball gown, a sophisticated silhouette or doesn't have a clue what kind of dress strikes her wedding-day fancy, the Expo's fashion show is sure to help. Vendors and local models bring the pages of bridal magazines and television shows to life on the runway and at display tables for an up-close and personal look at fashion and color trends for the entire wedding party.

Jean Skaggs, of Jean Ann's Bridal shop in Beckley, will have nine models ranging from 12 to 35 years old featured in her runway show at the Expo.

"We choose our models from girls who work for us and family and friends," Skaggs said. "Most people think models are a [size] 2 but, when dresses are sent to us for shows they can range from [size] 6 to 16. That determines our models."

Jean Ann's carries 10 dressmakers including Allure and House of Wu, three bridesmaid dress companies and 15 prom dress companies. Prices vary from $99 to $1,700.

Like other shops, she offers a large variety in stock, but special orders can take "from 2 weeks to 6 months," so getting that perfect dress early is key.

Skaggs said ivory and lace are trending for 2015.

For more information about Jean Ann's, visit jeanannsbridal.com or call 304-255-0002.

Other bridal shops scheduled at the Expo this year include The Boutique by B. Belle Events, Nandel's, Rose Tree and David's Bridal.

While many brides opt for the traditional church wedding, some are drawn to the idea of a country club wedding, a destination wedding or something more unique. Vendors at the Expo bring endless options to the table.

"If you are looking for that fairy-tale venue - a really special place, look no further than Berry Hills," said Eric Stacy, general manager of the country club located south of the capitol city.

There you will find the outdoor "Celebration Garden," which seats up to 325 and the indoor ballroom with seating for 250.

"People are surprised at the rental cost for the garden which runs at about $500 for 4-5 hours," he said.

For more information about Berry Hills Country Club, visit berryhillscc.com/Weddings.

For a West Virginia destination wedding complete with cabin accommodations for guests or the honeymoon couple, see representatives from Adventures on the Gorge. A ceremony with a view of the New River Gorge in Fayette County sets the stage with the natural beauty of the Mountain State.

"Wedding packages, on the low end can start at $4,000 and go up to $35,000, depending on the up-grades you choose," said Jessica Campbell, director of events.

For more information on this option, email weddings@onthegorge.com.

The Blennerhassett Hotel, The University of Charleston and many other venues will also be featured at the Expo to answer questions about amenities, availability and cost.

From a simple cake to elegant fine dining, area brides can sample the wares of bakers and caterers during the Wedding Expo.

Booking nearly half their wedding business as a result of the expo, Laura Withrow of Cheerful Heart Catering in Charleston has attracted attention from brides there for four years.

Cheerful Heart always displays an ice sculpture, fruit carving and a smörgåsbord of candies, Withrow said.

A tip from the pro - Be sure to sample menu items before making a selection, and book your caterer six months in advance of the big day.

"We want everyone involved in making the decisions about food to come in and taste-test," she said.

For more information about Cheerful Heart Catering, call Withrow at 304-419-5838 or email info@cheerfulheartcatering.net.

Other vendors offering samples at the expo include Distinctive Gourmet, Liquid Catering, Zando's Catering Unlimited, Inc. and more.

Preserving memories of your special day in photos and video is a must for the modern bride. Several professional photographers will display their work and offer a variety of photo packages at the expo again this year.

Amanda Parsons of Shooters Photography said she has been a part of the event for at least 10 years, and she loves connecting with clients at the expo.

When the big day arrives, she said her job is to make sure the bride knows Parsons "has her handled."

"You have one chance to capture those memories," Parsons said. "It takes a real professional to make the bride feel comfortable, to blend in with the family and really capture the spirit of the day."

Newly remarried herself, Parsons, who normally shoots 40 weddings annually, is making time for her own family and has become very "selective with her clientele." She expects to choose only 15 clients in 2015.

For more information on Shooters Photography, call Parsons at 304-521-3069 or visit shootersphoto.com.

Other photographers expected to bring in framed photos and portfolios to display their artistic style include Elegant Productions Videography, Jessica Ellis Photography, Musick Photography, Sarah Garland Photography, and Shay Dolce Photography. For an entertaining twist to traditional photos, Shifoto Studios will display a photo booth.

Nichols expects "around 1,200 attendees with between 500-700 brides" at the 2015 event. Admission is $5. For more information visit charlestonwvciviccenter.com.

The average wedding costs an estimated $22,500, according to costofwedding.com, a website resource "created to help couples understand real wedding costs." But don't panic. Most people spend less than $10,000 celebrating their nuptials - but those who have unlimited resources and go "over the top" drive the average sky high.

Either way you go, the wedding industry is big business. You can find helpful tips and spending guidelines by visiting projectwedding.com.

Planning your wedding day can be thrilling if you begin early and stick to your budget. The 2015 Wedding Expo is one place to start.

Reach Marta Tankersley Hays at marta.tankersley@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1249 or follow @MartaRee on Twitter.

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A tasteful, cozy way to ski West Virginia http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141228/GZ05/141229312 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141228/GZ05/141229312 Sun, 28 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Toni Mathias-Harvey WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Ski West Virginia and stay at a West Virginia Bed and Breakfast Association country inn or B&B for a wonderfully unique winter experience. WVBBA innkeepers unanimously agree the best part of being an innkeeper is having the opportunity to provide the fun and warmth of true West Virginia hospitality during all of the seasons including winter.

Access the slopes at Snowshoe Mountain in Pocahontas County with Chestnut Ridge Country Inn as your "base camp" with innkeepers Paula and Larry Garretson. Snowshoe Mountain is the second highest peak in West Virginia with an expansive backcountry that covers 10,950 acres.

As Larry happily explains to guests, "Snowshoe Mountain, with the Snowshoe Basin, Western Territory and Silver Creek areas provide some of the best skiing in West Virginia with 60 trails spread over a 1,500-foot vertical. All of the trails are usually open by early January. Currently there are six open lifts, 24 trails and 82 acres of open terrain with forecasts of more snow coming."

In addition to skiing, Chestnut Ridge County Inn guests enjoy Snowshoe Mountain's outdoor winter sports, activities and escapades. Off-road adventures, snowmobile tours, and snow cat tours are for the adventurous and daring. Other choose to hoot, laugh and holler sliding down the six-story, five-lane tubing hill at the Coca-Cola Tube Park or find the perfect pair of snowshoes to hike through the majestic pines, hemlocks and red spruce for a rare sighting of a snowshoe hare.

Previously frequent bed and breakfast guests at other properties for many years, Paula and Larry fell in love with the 1890's Dunmore farmhouse in 2006 and restoration began - the old kitchen became the dining room and a new kitchen was added. Original wood floors and wormy chestnut paneling can be found in various rooms in the house, complemented with new construction and design.

Chestnut Ridge Country Inn has five guestrooms in the main house; Chestnut Ridge, Griffin Ridge, Snow Ridge, Peter's Ridge and Allegheny Ridge. All rooms have private baths and all are aptly named for the view of the ridge from each window. An original Smokehouse on the property was recently converted to an intimate guestroom, of course, minus the smoke!

At Chestnut Ridge Country Inn, guests wake up to snow-covered fields and greet the morning with aromas of freshly brewed "bottomless" coffee and homemade muffins fresh out of the oven. Guests head off on the 30-minute trip to the slopes fortified with a wonderful country breakfast, energy, smiles and good wishes from Paula and Larry. Guests go through the historic and charming little town of Cass, home to the scenic Cass Railroad (and featured on the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods" with Andrew Zimmern), over the Greenbrier River and up the mountain to Snowshoe. Larry's Blog keeps guests up to date on snow conditions and helpful hints.

Paula and Larry encourage guests to purchase lift and event tickets online prior to arriving at Chestnut Ridge Country Inn to ensure availability and the greatest savings. They are also able to help with discounts on ski rental and purchase of equipment. When you call to make your reservation, Paula or Larry will send directions to Chestnut Ridge Country Inn from "your neck of the woods," a map of Snowshoe and can offer sage advice on the least crowded and best times to ski. Both also suggest checking with the National Weather Service for information on up to date weather conditions.

Chestnut Ridge Country Inn, 304-456-4280, www.chestnutridgecountryinn.com

For a uniquely Southern West Virginia B&B and ski experience, stay at the Bluefield Inn (formerly the DianLee House), in Bluefield. Southeastern West Virginia is a favorite winter traveler destination for West Virginians and visitors from Virginia, the Carolinas and the eastern seaboard. Winter sports enthusiasts or those that enjoy sitting by the fire, experience the best of all worlds with the gracious and warm West Virginian hospitality provided by innkeepers, Kitt and Gary McCarthy.

Bluefield Inn, a stately 110-year-old mansion, offers six thoughtfully and tastefully decorated rooms, all with private en-suite bathrooms with spa quality amenities. Each room reflects the personality of its "namesake" to include the whimsical Murphy Brown room. In the foyer sits a Steinway baby grand piano that guests are welcome and encouraged to play. Two of the rooms have private entrances and are certified pet friendly.

World travelers Kitt and Gary purchased the Bluefield Inn in 2014 and hit the ground running. Gary is an orthopedic and spine surgeon in Bluefield and Kitt left the field of law to become an innkeeper. "It is a fantastic experience. We are having a lot of fun and the best part is we have met the most interesting people and make new friends every week. It is wonderful to be in a business that brings joy to people," explains Kitt.

"We both love to travel and have tried to incorporate the features of our favorite hotels, inns and B&B's from around the world into the Bluefield Inn. We remember the ones that made us feel special and want all of our guests to feel that way."

Skilled and experienced in the culinary arts, appropriately, Kitt's favorite meal is breakfast. On any given morning, guests may dine on Italian breakfast bread pudding, eggs Benedict, crepes, smoked salmon, goat cheese scrambled eggs or buckwheat blueberry pancakes before heading out for the day's activities.

Bluefield Inn is 22 miles from Winterplace, the southernmost ski resort in West Virginia. Winterplace offers 90 skiable acres (inside the park), 27 trails and nine lifts that can transport 13,000 skiers per hour, snowboarding and the largest snow tubing park in the state. Pipestem State Park, on the border between Mercer and Summers counties, offers 4,050 acres of cross-country skiing. For a "trail less traveled," Bluestone State Park's 2,100 acres of rugged wilderness and mountainous landscape offer 15 miles of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sledding through remote and pristine forests and highland fields.

After a day of winter fun, return to the Bluefield Inn to relax and unwind with a glass of wine, a cocktail or a cigar (on the front porch), sit by the fire, watch the snow gently fall and relive the day's activities. The staff at the Bluefield Inn may even prepare an evening meal with previous arrangements.

Bluefield Inn, 304-323-2200, www.bluefieldinn.com

Toni Mathias-Harvey is president of the West Virginia Bed and Breakfast Association. She and her husband, Ted, welcome guests at The Inn at Lost River, General Store & Café, in Lost River.

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New Year's options in W. Va. http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141228/GZ05/141229679 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141228/GZ05/141229679 Sun, 28 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 Here are some ideas for finishing out the old year and bringing in the new one, without ever leaving the Mountain State:

n Holidays at the Mansion Tour,

Now to Jan. 4:

Oglebay Resort, Wheeling

Tour the Mansion Museum lavishly decorated through the holidays. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Jan. 4. Closed Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

304-242-7272; oionline.com

n New Year's Eve Celebration, American Heritage Music Hall, Ronceverte

Dec. 31:

This year's dance-'til-midnight marathon will feature Bill Evans and the Night Riders. Bring a snack, coffee or soft drink to share. Performance time is 8 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.

304-645-3982; www.americanheritagemusichall.org

n New Year's Eve at Cacapon Resort State Park, Berkeley Springs

Dec. 31:

A new year filled with promise and resolutions is always a cause for celebration. Ring in the New Year at Cacapon with music, dancing, and a formal toast to start off a new year! Entertainment for the night will be provided by DJ Frank Demory. Overnight or entertainment only packages are available.

304-258-1022; www.cacaponresort.com

n New Year's Eve Dance and Celebration, Twin Falls Resort State Park, Mullens

Dec. 31:

Start the New Year with our dinner/dance package. The package includes one or two nights' lodging and dinner/dance. There will also be a New Year's toast and refreshments. Reservations required.

304-294-4000; www.twinfallsresort.com/calendar/html

n New Year's Eve Celebration, North Bend State Park, Cairo

Dec. 31:

Countdown the old and ring in the New Year at North Bend State Park with great food, live music and dancing, refreshments, and a midnight champagne toast.

304-643-2931; www.northbendsp.com

n Dance the Night Away at Chief Logan Lodge, Logan

Dec. 31:

The Jaguars will be playing from 9 p.m. until midnight, bringing in 2015 in style. Live music features oldies, big band; jazz, classic rock and R&B. Overnight package includes dinner, dance and accommodations on Wednesday, Dec. 31. Extended stay rates are also available. Call for reservations.

304-855-6100; www.chiefloganlodge.com/events.htm

n New Year's Eve at Pipestem Resort State Park, Pipestem

Dec. 31:

Pipestem is breaking out the noisemakers and ringing in the New Year with dinner, dancing, hors d'oeuvres and champagne toast at midnight, and overnight stay. Overnight packages are available.

304-466-1800; www.pipestemresort.com/special.html

n New Year's Eve Celebration, Jackson Square, Clarksburg

Dec. 31 to Jan. 1:

If you can't be in Times Square, come on down to Jackson Square for this year's New Year's Eve Celebration! Entertainment for the evening will begin at 6:30 p.m. with teen band The 5th Gear, followed by local favorites Ryan Cain & The Ables at 8 p.m. and Pittsburgh pop sensation No Bad JuJu at 10 p.m. The evening will wind down with fireworks and the ball drop at midnight.

304-622-2157; 304-641-9782; t.morrison@cityofclarksburgwv.com

n New Year's Eve Party, Blackwater Falls State Park, Davis

Dec. 31 to Jan. 1:

Celebrate the coming of a new year at beautiful and relaxing Blackwater Falls State Park with dinner and evening entertainment. Music and dance from 9 p.m. - 1 a.m./hors d'oeuvres and champagne toast/Cash bar. Reservations recommended.

304-259-5216; www.blackwaterfalls.com/special.htm

n First Day Hike - Bust 'n' Boom, Blackwater Falls State Park, Davis

Jan. 1:

"Bust n' Boom" along the Elakala Trail starts at 10 a.m. This is a free walk along the canyon's rim, past some huge sandstone formations and over a section of Shy Run with interpretive stops along the way. This hike will be about 70 minutes long and covers a mile with some steps involved. Conditions can be icy so be sure to wear appropriate clothing, sturdy boots/shoes, and bring along some bottled water.

304-259-5216; http://www.blackwaterfalls.com/special.htm

n First Day Hike, Pipestem Resort State Park, Pipestem

Jan. 1:

Meet Kim Hawkins at Pipestem McKeever Lodge lobby at 1 p.m. for a 1 ½ to 2 hour afternoon hike to Long Branch Lake and back. Dress appropriately/layer for the weather.

304-466-1800; www.pipestemresort.com/special.html

n Shanghai Parade, Lewisburg

Jan. 1:

This 150+ year tradition features a wacky costume and float-filled parade that was named a Top 20 Event by the Southeast Tourism Society.

304-645-1000; www.greenbrierwv.com

n Little Princess Ball, North Bend State Park, Cairo

Jan. 3:

Bring your little princess (ages 5-12) to this father-daughter weekend and be prepared to make some special memories! Celebrate with dancing, music, arts and crafts, games and more. Photos will be taken of fathers and daughters, so dress your daughter in her favorite party dress.

304-643-2931; www.northbendsp.com

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News Year's Eve parties for the big spender in us all http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141228/GZ05/141229680 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141228/GZ05/141229680 Sun, 28 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Marta Tankersley Hays Staff writer If ever there's a time for over-the-top extravagance, it's New Year's Eve, with its champagne and sparkles, gold and glitter all full of the promise of great things to come. At its grandest, New Year's is just about as far from the simple, heartfelt traditions of Christmas as one can get.

As fantasies go, the possibilities are endless. Ringing in 2015 can be as easy and inexpensive as turning on the television to watch the ball drop in New York City, or as glamorous as a trip to the Opera House in Sydney, Australia.

Somewhere in between is that most iconic New Year's Eve destination, Times Square.

For about $1,300 you and the person of your choice can get a flight out of Charleston's Yeager Airport to New York City at noon Wednesday, spend the night at the Hilton Garden Inn, and then depart for home at 7:45 p.m. Thursday.

Once you get to the city, there are virtually endless options for ringing in the New Year.

You'll have to have tickets to join the crowd at Times Square. But not to fear! The AMC Times Square Mega-Plex offers tickets for as low as $49 each. That brings the total to roughly $1,400 - plus food and drink, including airfare, hotel and Times Square Mega-Plex.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Monarch Rooftop Lounge's New Year's Eve party. It runs $399 for an individual ticket. Only a block from the Empire State Building, the lounge overlooks city streets from 18 stories above.

That pushes the cost for your trip to roughly $3,400.

What may be the ultimate New Year's Eve celebration in the Big Apple, is a private VIP sky box table for 25 of your best friends (or most important clients) overlooking the masses of party-goers on the dance floor below at the Avenue. This party will set you back $10,000 all by itself.

But wait. If you're really determined to make a dent on your bank account, you will have to go the distance and welcome 2015 in not just one but several hot spots, as midnight strikes from east to west around the globe.

2015 hits first in Time Zone 1, at Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean at 5 a.m. Wednesday, December 31, EST. One of the last places on earth to celebrate the New Year will be Honolulu at 5 a.m. EST Thursday.

To be among the first to get in on the festivities, you might want to party in Australia, where the New Year will hit at midnight, Aussie time - that's 8 a.m. here.

But first, you have to get there, and mind you, that'll take you two days and a journey across the International Date Line. That means if you leave on Sunday, Dec. 28, you'll arrive the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 31.

You'll pay about $4,000 for each ticket with three nights' luxury accommodations included.

Once you're in Sydney, an opera performance at the famed Sydney Opera House would set you back another 1,150 Australian dollars ($936 USD) if they weren't already all sold out.

And no wonder. The magnificently designed multi-million dollar venue completed in 1972 sits on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbor and gives New Years Eve audiences a spectacular view of, not one, but two fireworks displays over the harbor and treats them to a midnight party.

Unless you decide to make it an extended stay, you can be back to the Mountain State by midnight Friday for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

Total package with air, lodging and opera tickets will run about $10,000 for two. Plus, of course, the right attire.

If that sounds like too much of a trek, you might consider a jump over the pond to London where they will be ringing in the New Year at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 31 Charleston time.

Airfare to jolly ol' England will run you about $2,100 each, with two nights in the luxurious London Heathrow Marriott Hotel.

If the flight leaves Charleston on Tuesday, Dec. 30, it will arrive in England Wednesday morning. The return trip commences Friday, Jan. 2 for a whirlwind celebration.

If you are going to London, you may as well go big or go home.

One of the biggest parties of the season is the £750 ($1,170) dinner dance with a roaring '20s theme, marching band, and midnight champaign toast at The Ritz London, built in 1906.

Total travel package for two, including air, hotel and dinner dance, will be about $6,540.

For one of the last big celebrations to ring in the New Year, head west, across the Pacific to Honolulu where they'll be celebrating at 5 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 1 EST.

A three-night stay at the Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club in Honolulu - along with airfare - will run about $2,220 per person.

The most exclusive party in town is at the Trump Casino Royale, a black-tie event with individual tickets priced at $350.

For a mere $5,140, two can experience New Years Eve in paradise.

Here, in West Virginia, which is of course its own special kind of paradise, The Blennerhassett Hotel, 320 Market St., Parkersburg, and The Greenbrier, 300 W. Main St., White Sulphur Springs, are offering luxurious events sure to make your New Years Eve celebration memorable.

The historic Blennerhassett Hotel is changing it up from years past by adding a live band, Hip Pocket, to the evening's festivities.

For $239 - $369 a couple, you can enjoy a buffet, dance to a mix of Motown and modern rhythms, share a champagne toast, stay the night and enjoy a late-morning brunch.

For more information on The Blennerhasset, call 800-262-2536 or visit their website at theblennerhassett.com

The Greenbrier is hosting a black-tie gala Wednesday, Dec. 31 beginning at 8 p.m. featuring music from the hotel's house orchestra and an exquisite culinary experience from their chef. The cost is $350 per person.

As part of the "60 Spectacular Days of Holiday Cheer," the famed resort is also offering separate parties for children 12 and under as well as teens aged 13 to 18 years old.

Accommodations for the night are $529, double occupancy.

A trip for two at the famous resort will run about $1,230.

For more information on availability and pricing, call The Greenbrier at 855-453-4858 or visit their website greenbrier.com.

Whatever your celebrations involve, have a safe and Happy New Year.

Reach Marta Tankersley Hays at marta.tankersley@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1249 or follow @MartaRee on Twitter.

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Memphis bowl game offers opportunities for WVU fans http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141226/GZ01/141229552 GZ01 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141226/GZ01/141229552 Fri, 26 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Phil Kabler A drivable location, a big-name opponent, a host city with a reputation for partying - along with a year's absence from the bowl scene - adds up to a winning combination for the Liberty Bowl game, according to West Virginia University Alumni Association associate director Kevin Berry.

"Memphis is a great town and a great location for our fans," Berry said of WVU's Monday match-up with Texas A&M in Memphis. "Any time you're in an environment where people can drive to a location, you can expect a good turnout."

He said the Alumni Association's bowl packages have been selling well, and the association has fielded a large number of calls from alumni and fans making their own travel arrangements.

Berry said organizers of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, now in its 56th year, provide a wide variety of pregame fan events that the Alumni Association has incorporated into its bowl planning.

"This bowl does a great job of putting on events that we believe are going to be very appealing to Mountaineer fans," he said. "What they're interested in is participating in the whole bowl experience."

On Sunday, that includes a Liberty Bowl parade starting at 3 p.m., followed by pep rallies for both teams at Handy Park on world-famous Beale Street at 5 p.m.

At 6 p.m., the Alumni Association, WVU Foundation and Mountaineer Athletic Club will host a fan meet-and-greet at Alfred's, a renowned Beale Street restaurant and club featuring a double-deck rooftop patio. The event features live music, food and drink, and WVU giveaways.

"This will give people an opportunity to take in Beale Street and Memphis, and spend time with other Mountaineers," Berry said.

Game day begins at 10 a.m., with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Pre-Game Buffet, Indoor Tailgate and Pep Rally, featuring performances by the Pride of West Virginia and the Texas A&M marching band, in the Pipkin and Creative Arts Building, which is located adjacent to the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Admission to the bowl-sponsored event, which features an all you can eat and drink menu, is $40. Game time is at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

For those who stay on an extra day or two, Memphis is home to nationally renowned restaurants and music venues, and of course, is home to Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion.

Some WVU fans might hold off on that decision, though, and see how they're feeling. As Berry noted, "Every bowl trip is a little more enjoyable if you can walk out with another "W."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @Phil Kabler on Twitter.

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WV Travel Team: Top 5 family destinations http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141221/GZ05/141229995 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141221/GZ05/141229995 Sun, 21 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Mitzi Harrison WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - While the family is together for the holidays, it may be a good time to start planning your big family adventure.

Advance planning has its advantages - with greater availability when booking early, families have more choices for their destination or lodging options, as well as more choices when it comes to airline schedules.

Booking in advance also can lead to cost savings due to the greater availability.

As you sit down with your family to celebrate the season, take a look at AAA's top five family-friendly vacation destinations to start planning your 2015 family vacation.

1. Orlando, Florida

Orlando offers opportunities to have a fun-filled itinerary of wild roller coasters, slippery water slides, themed resorts and more. While most travelers head to Orlando to enjoy the Disney experience, families have plenty of other area theme parks to choose from during their stay - all of which provide the opportunity for family bonding.

Known for its timeless appeal, meticulously themed areas, rides and performances, Walt Disney World Resort was created specifically for families and offers plenty of activities the entire family is sure to enjoy. Millions of visitors each year take in the four major theme parks comprised by the Walt Disney World Resort.

AAA Tip: Your local AAA office offers advance-purchase tickets to Walt Disney World Resort, including discounts on admissions for three or more days. Park Hopper passes are also available.

The most recognized Walt Disney World theme park is Magic Kingdom, home to such iconic attractions as Cinderella Castle, Space Mountain and the themed lands Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Liberty Square. Magic Kingdom offers the traditional Disney experience.

The second-most-attended theme park at Walt Disney World Resort is Epcot, which is composed of two main areas: Future World combines learning and entertainment, while the World Showcase brings the cultures of 11 countries to central Florida. Thrill rides are also offered at Epcot, including Test Track and Mission: Space.

For families with a passion for movies, television and the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood, Disney's Hollywood Studios is sure to provide the thrills they are looking for. The park features several rides and shows centered on popular movies and TV shows, such as the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster.

Finally, Walt Disney World's newest theme park blends live animals with traditional rides and shows. Disney's Animal Kingdom Park is home to popular rides and shows such as It's Tough to be a Bug and Kilimanjaro Safaris, where several unique species of animals can be viewed.

AAA Tip: Walt Disney World Resort offers a FastPass with every admission, which allows guests to save time in line by reserving a future ride time on their favorite attractions when they arrive to the park. Be sure to plan FastPass use in advance of park visits to make the most of your time so you can lock in specific ride times. Also, be sure to check park hours, as they vary at each park day to day.

Walt Disney World Resort also features several themed hotel options for every budget, two water parks, golf and other recreation options and plenty of shopping. The resort has many dining options for great meals at different price points, including quick service options and deluxe full-service meals.

AAA Tip: Make dining reservations well in advance of your trip to ensure you get to dine in the restaurant of your choice. Reservations can be made on the Walt Disney World Resort website.

Also in Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort has grown from a single theme park to an action-packed destination featuring two theme parks, nightlife, a boardwalk, shopping and fine dining.

Universal Studios Orlando, the original theme park at the resort, allows guests to jump into the action of their favorite shows and movies. Popular rides include Transformers: The Ride, The Simpsons Ride and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. Universal Studios Orlando still operates as a working film and television production facility and has working sets. Plenty of shows and attractions are sure to keep the entire family busy.

Universal's Islands of Adventure is the resort's newer theme park and boasts a lineup of exciting rides and shows. Guests can choose their adventure as they make their way through different islands within the park, including Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, Seuss Landing and the Lost Continent.

One of the most popular attractions at Universal Orlando Resort is divided between both theme parks. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade takes guests right into the Harry Potter novels.

Explore Hogwarts Castle, ride on one of several thrilling rides, shop in Hogsmeade and taste a pint of Butterbeer or Pumpkin Juice. Guests with a Park-to-Park admission can catch the Hogwarts Express to travel to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, located at Universal Studios Orlando.

The newest portion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter takes guests to the streets of London, where they can dine at the Leaky Cauldron and ride on the thrilling Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.

AAA Tip: To visit both portions of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the same day, guests will need a Park-to-Park admission ticket since the attraction is divided between both theme parks at the resort.

The Orlando area not only is home to fine dining and shopping, but several other major attractions as well - including SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica, Legoland, Discovery Cove, Wet 'n' Wild, Gatorland and regular performances by Blue Man Group.

AAA Tip: AAA members can receive discounts to many Central Florida attractions and theme parks - be sure to check AAA.com or visit your local office as you plan your trip to Orlando to see what discounts you may be eligible for.

Orlando's central location also provides visitors easy access to both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida. Sandy beaches, Busch Gardens and the Kennedy Space Center are all relatively short drives away from Orlando.

2. Washington, D.C.

Washington is the center of government in the United States and allows guests to explore our country's history and to see our political process in action.

According to AAA Charleston's Crissy Gray, "D.C. is packed full of cool museums, the White House, the Pentagon, Arlington, shopping and great food. If you love sports, of course you can catch a Washington Nationals game."

Many attractions in Washington are free, making it a popular destination for families on a budget. The museums of the Smithsonian Institution offer 16 different options to learn about American culture, history and innovation at facilities such as the National Museum of American History, the National Zoo and the National Air and Space Museum.

The moving monuments and memorials throughout the National Mall are also free and pay tribute to American heroes who have protected our nation's freedom.

Washington offers a great opportunity to view the American political process. Congress is in session from October to April, and visitors can sit in on sessions of both the Senate and House of Representatives. Visitors also can tour the White House and the Supreme Court.

AAA Tip: Planning will be required to tour the White House - tickets must be requested through your local congressman well in advance of your trip; tours during your trip cannot be guaranteed.

One of the most moving experiences to view is the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery is the final resting place of over 250,000 soldiers who have faithfully served our country over the years. This is a wonderful place to pay respect to those who have served in the U.S. armed forces.

For those wanting to experience fine dining and boutique shopping, be sure to visit the historic suburb of Georgetown. The area features high-end dining, spas and shopping.

AAA Tip: Be sure to get a Georgetown Cupcake while visiting Georgetown.

3. Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville isn't just for fans of country music. It offers plenty of attractions sure to entertain the entire family at a drive time from Charleston of approximately six hours.

"My husband and I took our kids when they were 10 and 7 and thoroughly enjoyed it, and we are not really country music people," says AAA Charleston travel agent Lia Ireland.

Ireland recommends staying at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. "It is a beautiful resort and spa with the largest indoor arboretum, an indoor pool, shops and restaurants," Ireland says. All of these attractions are enclosed within the resort's atria.

Within walking distance of the resort is Opry Mills, a large shopping and entertainment complex featuring attractions such as Rainforest Cafe, Bass Pro Shops, Dave & Buster's, a movie theater and more.

AAA Tip: While more expensive, atrium-facing rooms offer stunning views of the indoor arboretums, shops and restaurants.

For those who enjoy country music, there are plenty of must-sees in the city of Nashville. The newly expanded Country Music Hall of Fame has exhibits featuring the legends of country past as well as a look at the hottest country stars of today.

Not far, Music Row is the hub of country music recording. Visitors can tour RCA Studio B, where artists such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton recorded their hits.

Nashville also offers plenty of opportunities to hear live music - the Bluebird Cafe and the Listening Room Cafe showcase up-and-coming artists and songwriters. In downtown Nashville, check out the Honky Tonk Highway - home to several bars and lounges such as Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, where many famous country artists got their start.

The Ryman Auditorium, known as the Mother Church of Country Music, still hosts live music including Grand Ole Opry performances, which take place most Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights.

AAA Tip: Be sure to check the Grand Ole Opry's schedule, as the musical acts change with each performance.

For those who enjoy history, there are plenty of historic sites to explore. Tennessee's state capital is Nashville, and the capitol is open to tour. Andrew Jackson's Hermitage mansion, Belmont Mansion and Belle Meade Plantation all offer tours of their historic, well-manicured grounds. There are also several Civil War sites scattered across middle Tennessee.

AAA Tip: Consider purchasing a Nashville Total Access Pass from your local AAA office. It provides access to four major attractions in the Nashville area from a list of 20.

4. Williamsburg, Virginia

Approximately 5½ hours' drive from Charleston, Williamsburg is a popular destination for those wanting to explore early American history. The Historic Triangle features the settlements of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.

Colonial Williamsburg offers guests the opportunity to engage with early citizens of the Revolutionary War era. Visitors can experience the daily wartime struggles while touring the homes of Colonial Williamsburg's 18th-centruy residents. Kids will enjoy making handmade crafts or taking a horse-drawn carriage ride with the entire family.

Jamestown, America's first permanent settlement, has plenty of activities to keep the entire family engaged. Board replica ships, including the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery - all of which would have been used to cross the Atlantic Ocean from England in 1607 on the voyage to Jamestown. At a re-created colonial fort, try on armor and tour the grounds. The nearby re-created Powhatan Indian village features interactive exhibits where guests can try their hand at daily chores as demonstrated by costumed interpreters.

Yorktown helps visitors understand the events that led to the American Revolution and showcases the impact of the Revolutionary War on average citizens during the time. The Yorktown Victory Center features several exhibits on the American Revolution and helps visitors understand how different cultures worked together to form a new government and nation.

Outdoor living areas show what life was life for soldiers and farmers during the time period, including a Revolution-period farm and live artillery demonstrations.

Another popular destination in the Historic Triangle is Busch Gardens, a theme park featuring exciting and thrilling rides, Broadway-style shows, European-style dining and shopping. The park also features a variety of animal exhibits and has beautiful Christmas displays and shows during the holiday season.

AAA Tip: Discounted tickets to several of Williamsburg's attractions are available at your local AAA office prior to your trip.

Williamsburg's proximity to other attractions also helps make it a great family destination. Several Civil War battle sites are a short drive away, while catching some sun at Virginia Beach is an easy day trip.

5. Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Tennessee

About five hours' drive from Charleston, the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg area combine the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains with the family-friendly atmosphere visitors have come to love. According to AAA Travel agent Amy Sisson, the area has "so much for families and great entertainment."

Within miles of each other, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge offer a variety of shopping and dining options, as well as thrilling attractions. Visitors to Pigeon Forge will want to visit Dollywood, often recognized as one of the world's best theme parks, featuring thrilling rides, award-winning shows and seasonal festivals. The park's roller coaster lineup receives rave reviews - be sure to get in line for the Wild Eagle, Barnstormer, Thunderhead and Mystery Mine.

Also part of Dolly Parton's entertainment collection in Pigeon Forge is the Dixie Stampede. A show consisting of 32 horses and a cast of top-notch riders showcase their trick riding skills through friendly competition while guests dine on traditional Southern fare.

In Gatlinburg, just south of Pigeon Forge, Ripley's Believe or Not has been delighting families with its unusual exhibits for years. Featuring unique attractions such as the Odditorium, the Aquarium of the Smokies, a 5D Moving Theater and more, guests will find plenty of oddities that will pique their interest.

AAA Tip: Your local AAA offers discounted tickets to AAA members for both Dollywood and Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. Be sure to purchase them in advance of your trip.

Of course, the highlight of the region is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With plenty of hiking trails, attractions such as historic Cades Cove, river rafting and scenic overlooks, the park provides families with plenty of outdoor activities all year long.

The area offers plenty of lodging options. While hotels and condos are available, many prefer to stay in the luxury chalets that dot the mountainsides of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, offering privacy and amenities such as hot tubs and game rooms.

AAA Tip: Be sure to book your lodging well in advance of your travel dates if you're traveling during peak seasons, which include early summer, fall and the holidays.

January is for planning

AAA Travel has designated the entire month of January as Family Vacation Month. AAA Travel in Charleston can plan a vacation - with every budget - that will make each family member happy. From a Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando resort vacation to escorted tours, cruises and all-inclusive resorts, AAA's vacation consultants are ready to plan your vacation of a lifetime with special booking incentives the entire month. For more information, call or visit one of the AAA Travel professionals in the Charleston location - Janice Adkins, Lia Ireland, Amy Sisson, Becky Wallace and Barbara Wing at 304-925-1136.

Mitzi Harrison manages AAA Travel for the Charleston area and divides her time between Cincinnati and West Virginia.

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Tourism survey highlights W.Va. strengths, weaknesses http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141218/GZ01/141219220 GZ01 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141218/GZ01/141219220 Thu, 18 Dec 2014 17:26:41 -0500 By Phil Kabler West Virginia's image as a tourism destination gets high marks for outdoor recreation opportunities, scenery and affordability, but rates low as being exciting, unique, for having must-see destinations or luxurious accommodations and for entertainment and nightlife options, a survey commissioned by the state Division of Tourism found.

In fact, in most key categories for would-be visitors, West Virginia ranks fifth among neighboring states - ahead of only Ohio, the Longwoods International survey found.

Unfortunately, the categories where West Virginia is strong are low on the list of priorities for people selecting vacation destinations, tourism research director Joe Black told the state Tourism Commission Thursday.

"The problem is, these are so far down [on the list], that they've already decided, 'I'm going here,' " Black said.

West Virginia's image scores much higher in all categories among those surveyed who had actually recently visited the state.

However, there was not a similar uptick for those shown state tourism ads prior to the survey - ads that focus on already perceived strengths of outdoor activities and scenic beauty.

Black said that's a strong indicator that the current ad campaign has reached a point of diminishing returns.

Commissioner Joseph Manchin IV agreed that the state can't attract tourists on scenic views alone.

"It's beautiful...but what are we going to do tonight?" Manchin said. "It's that nightlife perception: What are we going to do after the sun goes down?"

Manchin noted, for instance, that he's never seen the Clay Center, which he called a great gem for culture and entertainment, promoted in any state tourism ads.

Tourism Commissioner Amy Shuler Goodwin said the division will be incorporating the findings of the Longwoods survey when it goes in a new direction with its spring advertising campaign, "West Virginia: A Real Adventure."

"I feel very comfortable with the direction we will go in," she said of the campaign.

The survey determined that the $1.87 million the division spent on advertising in the 2013-14 budget year resulted in 1.5 million visits to the state, producing $180.9 million in visitor spending and $13 million in state and local taxes.

Every $1 spent on advertising produced $7 of tax revenue, which Black called a "pretty good" return on investment.

Which prompted Commissioner Dave Arnold to comment, "It almost cracks me up to hear you say 7-to-1 ROI (return on investment) is pretty good. Tell that to my stockbroker."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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WV Travel Team: Go van Gogh in 2015 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141214/GZ05/141219807 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141214/GZ05/141219807 Sun, 14 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Ariadne Moore WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - "What am I in the eyes of most people - a nonentity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person - somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low," wrote Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother and patron, Theo, in July 1882.

The quote summarizes the tragic and troubled life of the man, who would remain destitute, isolated and virtually unknown during his lifetime, which was punctuated by romantic turmoil and hospitalization for mental illness.

Almost equally famous for his lack of success as for his artistic genius, van Gogh would sell only one painting, "The Red Vineyards," before his death by self-inflicted gunshot wound in July 1890.

July 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of van Gogh's death, which will be commemorated by an international program themed "125 Years of Inspiration."

Indeed, despite meeting with wide disdain and disinterest in his lifetime, van Gogh's legacy is one of stunning scope and depth. He is considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt, and his body of work is considered one of the single largest influences on 20th-century art worldwide.

His once unknown works are among the most commonly recognized in the world, with millions of people able to readily identify such paintings as "The Starry Night," "Irises" and "Sunflowers" - images now available on tote bags, coffee cups and umbrellas.

His paintings have been auctioned at some of the highest prices ever paid on the market, with "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" selling for a record-breaking $82.5 million in 1990 to the Kobayashi Gallery of Tokyo.

Much of van Gogh's modern popularity, however, lies in some intangible area outside of the artist and inside of the man.

Wildly talented, mercurial and disturbed, darkly contemplative but ever hopeful, van Gogh epitomizes our fantasy of the struggling artist, but also reflects a common human emotion. We all daydream of the unexplored possibilities of our lives, the what-ifs, the spontaneities we have denied ourselves in order to take the path of conformity and the least resistance.

Therefore, 2015 is also the celebration of a man who cautioned us, "What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?" - exhibits, tours and special events throughout the Netherlands, Belgium and France will commemorate and meditate upon the life and works of Vincent van Gogh, who has truly provided 125 years of inspiration.

There are countless events planned that are worthy of note, throughout all three countries. Here are some of the more spectacular highlights:

Netherlands

In Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum, curated to demonstrate the artist's development, boasts the world's largest collection of van Gogh works. The museum includes comparative collections of other 19th-century artists.

In 2015, the most ambitious exhibit of its genre ever will compare the works of van Gogh and his contemporary, Edvard Munch, most famed for his painting "The Scream."

Just outside of Amsterdam, in the town of Eindhoven, the breathtaking "Starry Night Bike Path" connects to the town of Nuenen, where van Gogh resided from 1883-1885. This functional installation piece by Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde is described as "techno-poetry" and evokes the familiar swirls of "Starry Night." The pointillist effect is created by thousands of luminescent blue-green stones embedded in concrete; it is a work of art worthy of viewing in its own right.

In Otterlo, the Kröller-Müller Museum will open the exhibit "Van Gogh & Co" from April 25 to Sept. 27.

The exhibition will concentrate on the traditional genres at the end of the 19th century, including still life, vista and perspective, nature, cityscape and portrait.

Works by van Gogh - more than 50 in total from various periods - will be combined with those of his contemporaries from the museum's own collection.

The region of Brabant, van Gogh's homeland, will offer tours of the intimate sites of the artist's life.

The Vincent van Gogh House, in Zundert, provides tours of his birthplace and childhood home, while his childhood school is now a history museum known as Vincent's Art Room.

After his failed attempts at ministry, van Gogh returned to his parents' home, now the Vincent van Gogh Information Centre, in Etten-Leur, to become an artist.

It was at this site that he sketched his first models and landscapes. Also in Brabant, the Van Gogh Village is an outdoor museum with over 21 locations relevant to the artist's work and life. Brabant cycling tours will be high on the tourist charts this coming year, with tours such as "Van Gogh's Brabant Story" offering a 335-kilometer tour of beautiful landscapes and history that shaped the artist's eye.

Belgium

For history and van Gogh enthusiasts, Mons offers a unique look into a relatively unknown part of van Gogh's life. In 1878, he arrived in Mons with aspirations of becoming an evangelist.

Van Gogh's career in the ministry was truncated to only two years due to quarrels with local clergy and questions regarding his eccentric lifestyle. A unique exhibit of his early works, including drawings he drafted of coal miners during his tenure as a minister, will be on display at the Musee des Beaux Arts de Mons (Museum of Fine Arts of Mons), also known as the BAM.

This exhibit, titled "Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist," will be available to the public from Jan. 24 to May 17.

France

Ever hopeful for a career as an artist, van Gogh moved to Paris to join his brother Theo in 1886. Although Theo had not invited him, he welcome Vincent into his home, thus beginning one of the most transformative periods in the artist's life.

It was in Paris that van Gogh first saw impressionist art, which inspired him in the use of color and light. He began studying with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pissaro.

He became infatuated with Japanese art, and dreamed of traveling to Japan. Famously he was cautioned by Toulouse-Lautrec that travel to Japan was not necessary; the light in the village of Arles was exactly that of Japan.

The spontaneous van Gogh boarded a train and moved to Arles on that whim, which is where the people of the village would have him committed and he would live the remainder of his days as a mental patient.

In Arles, the physical world that van Gogh depicted in his most famed paintings still stands, including the gardens at the Hospital at Arles, where van Gogh was admitted after severing his ear to impress a prostitute. Here he painted "Garden of the Hospital in Arles," now considered one of the most recognizable paintings in the world.

The locations of the van Gogh "125 Years of Inspiration" celebrations are beautiful, unique tourist destinations in their own right and offer endless opportunity to travelers.

Sharon Silva, director of group and specialty travel at National Travel, recently visited Amsterdam for a weekend. "This is a city which has recently finished renovating and has reopened all three of its major cultural institutions - Rijksmuseum, the van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk.

"The architecture, art and history of the city of Amsterdam are amazing. This city of canals is a true walking city and each turn brings another fabulous sight or view into focus," she said.

"The Van Gogh museum was delightful and just the right size to get a real taste of the art of Vincent van Gogh. There is a new exhibit of letters, sketches and drawings between van Gogh and his brother that tells a lot about this troubled artist."

As for getting there, "There are several nonstop flights from Atlanta each day [with good connections from Charleston] and off-season airline tickets are quite reasonable," Silva said.

"Do take a walking tour of Amsterdam with a local guide - the Pulitzer Hotel offers a three-hour Saturday-morning walking tour with seasoned head concierge: history, visits to a cheese store for tasting, chocolate purveyor and hidden gardens, churches and courtyards. Do indulge in an evening private [limit 10 people] canal tour in a vintage boat - Winston Churchill did! Enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes of this vibrant city."

There are many great hotels in Amsterdam, but these hotels can be personally recommended: the Grand Hotel Amrath, the Toren and the Pulitzer.

"I have not stayed at the recently opened Waldorf Astoria, but did visit it and was able to get a tour of facilities and see some of the lovely rooms," Silva added.

Those interested in learning more about "125 Years of Inspiration" travel opportunities may visit vangogheurope.eu/ or contact their local travel agent.

A history of van Gogh's life may be found in greater detail at www.biography.com/.

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream." - Vincent van Gogh

Ariadne Moore works with Charleston-based National Travel and contributes regularly to the Life & Style travel page. Follow National Travel on Twitter at @NatlTravel and on Facebook. For questions or comments on this article, direct email inquiries to vacationplanner@nationaltravel.com or 304-357-0800.

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Community Notes http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141209/GZ05/141209176 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141209/GZ05/141209176 Tue, 9 Dec 2014 17:29:08 -0500 Local authors Eliot Parker and Robin L. Ramey will sign copies of their recent novels at Books-A-Million at the Charleston Town Center location, on Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m.

Parker is the author of "Making Arrangements" and "Breakdown at Clear River," a sports mystery set on a West Virginia college campus. "Making Arrangements" was named a Best Book of 2014 by USA Book News. He teaches writing at Mountwest Community College in Huntington.

Ramey developed her two juvenile works of fiction, "Butternut Moon" and "Cotton Fields & Canvas" from her mother's stories of family adventures in West Virginia, Virginia and Alabama. Ramey is a language-arts coach for elementary and middle school grades for Cabell County Schools.

For more information, contact Patrick Grace at 304-617-1292.

A new book, "In His Own Words," chronicles the life of former West Virginia University head football coach Bill Stewart, who died unexpectedly in May 2012.

Author Susan Jones and Karen Stewart, Bill's wife, will sign copies and discuss the book on Sunday at Charleston Department Store, 1661 W. Washington St. from 1:30 to 3 p.m.

Jones weaves a tale of Stewart's life growing up in New Martinsville, where faith, family and football were at the forefront of life for him. The book details Stewart's early coaching years, his return to West Virginia, the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, and three years as head coach for the Mountaineers.

For more information, call the store at 304-346-6793.

BUCKHANNON - The Buckhannon Community Theatre will hold a Christmas Caroling Fundraiser on Dec. 19 and 20 from 6 to 9 p.m.

For $20 per address, carolers will show up on your friends' and neighbors' doorsteps to sing and serve them hot chocolate. The group will travel throughout Buckhannon and a 2-mile radius past city limits, and might go farther, for a higher fee.

To book the carolers, fill out the online form at www.zoom village.com or email Jeremiah Smallridge at jeremiahsmallridge@gmail.com for more information.

ALDERSON - Christmas events in Alderson this weekend begin with a bazaar and luncheon at the Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church, 104 Monroe St. in Alderson.

The bazaar is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, with a homemade, full lunch served for $6 per person from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The luncheon on Sunday is from noon to 2 p.m.

The Alderson Christmas Homes Tour will be held Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased in advance at the Alderson Visitor Center, 1447 Riverview Avenue East, in Alderson, or on the day of the event at the Historic 1896 C&O Depot, located on Railroad Avenue, in downtown Alderson.

Four homes and three churches will welcome visitors.

There also will be a model train show, in the basement of the Alderson Presbyterian Church, and Alderson's Store and the Wolf Creek Gallery will be open for shopping.

For more information, call 304-445-2005.

The Wine Shop at Charleston's Capitol Market, located at 800 Smith Street, will host its annual Blind Claret tasting on Sunday beginning at 2 p.m.

Participants will taste seven cabernet sauvignon-based wines from bottles that have been carefully wrapped to hide their identity, and pick a favorite.

The price is $15 per person, and space is limited to the first 60 guests. Reservations are strongly recommended, and may be made beginning at noon Sunday by coming by or calling the shop, at 304-343-9463.

Unity of Kanawha Valley will host two events this weekend. The first is its monthly Open Stage and Coffee House, with host Ron Sowell, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

All local musicians are welcome to come and share their talents in a friendly and enthusiastic atmosphere. The performers sign up at 7 p.m. and the music begins at 7:30. General admission is $5. Admission for performers, seniors, and children is $2.

Various coffees, teas, soft drinks, and homemade treats are available at a small cost.

The second event is laughter yoga with Janet Prince, on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m.

This class is provided on a love-offering basis, and includes stretching, rhythmic clapping and, of course, plenty of laughter.

Unity of Kanawha Valley is located at 804 Myrtle Road, on the corner of Bridge and Myrtle roads, in Charleston.

For more information, call 304-345-0021 or email pamhippler@gmail.com or sowellmann@gmail.com.

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