www.wvgazette.com Travel http://www.wvgazette.com Gazette archive feed en-us Copyright 2015, Charleston Newspapers, Charleston, WV Newspapers 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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WV Travel Team: So many places and ways to go! http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141207/GZ05/141209610 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141207/GZ05/141209610 Sun, 7 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Amy Shuler Goodwin WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Nearly every parent I know has a fantastic collection of Dr. Seuss books. I have a set for my own children. In fact, the bookshelves in our home are lined with extremely "loved up" versions of these childhood favorites - passed down from my parents and my husband's parents.

These tongue-twister favorites were always the go-to books for my kids because they were typically an easy read and the stories always left them with a sweet message.

One night after work, I was sitting on the floor in front of our very tall, very cluttered bookshelves, flipping through Dr. Seuss books. My oldest son chuckled when I told him I was doing research for work.

My littlest guy quickly sat down beside me and listened to me tell stories about my favorite books, the books he loved as a baby, and which books dad liked the best (FYI, my husband loves and knows, word for word, "Robert the Horse" and "Morris Has a Cold").

"Go Dog Go" was the first book our son Joe could read by himself, and my husband and I made our youngest son, Sam, read "Are You My Mother?" over and over because he pronounced the word "mother" as "mudder."

Even though Sam is now 10 years old, I can still remember every single word of that book.

I'm convinced that children's books are the best books on any shelf. They always have great illustrations, an easy-to-follow plot, and, most of the time, they deliver an extremely important positive life message to the small people holding tight to the big pages. My mother was an elementary school teacher, so growing up there were always children's books in every room of our home.

My favorite Dr. Seuss book, "Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!," is one I read repeatedly with my grandparents in their old schoolhouse-turned-home in a chair big enough for two. This is where I met Marvin, a very cool-looking fluffy orange-yellow character with great expressions, and a very bold personality.

The story seems simple. Marvin stands in one place, arms crossed, refusing to go - anywhere - while he is directed by the large finger of another fluffy Seuss contemporary telling him to go.

Marvin K. Mooney will you please go now!

The time has come.

The time has come.

The time is now.

Just go.

Go.

Go!

I don't care how.

We never find out who is pointing to Marvin, and it really doesn't matter all that much. Throughout the story Marvin is told many, many times how he could get somewhere, anywhere. But Marvin doesn't budge.

You can go by foot.

You can go by cow.

Marvin K. Mooney will you please go now!

You can go on skates.

You can go on skis.

You can go in a hat.

But

Please go.

Please!

The book's message, which is less than 80 words, has an incredible message, and it's a message worthy of repeating. We need to go. Go now.

Research shows Americans are forfeiting 169 million days of paid time off (PTO) per year. These are days that can't be paid out or rolled over - they are simply lost.

Why? Many Americans feel as though the office would crumble if they didn't come in to work for a day or two - heaven forbid three or four days. In fact, approximately 40 percent worry about returning to a mountain of work, 35 percent feel no one else can do their job and 20 percent don't want to be perceived as being replaceable.

This "work martyr complex" thrives on just "being there" but, in fact, these practices are stifling actual advancement and promotion for American workers.

"There is no link between putting in more time at the office and getting a pay raise or bonus. In fact, employees who left 11-15 days of unused PTO last year are actually less likely (6.5 percent less likely) to have received a raise or bonus in the past three years than those who used all of their PTO," found a 2014 analysis of U.S. travel data conducted by Oxford Economics on behalf of the U.S. Travel Association.

We're working more, we're more stressed and we have nothing to show for it except the sad loss of time spent with family and friends.

We're acting like a bunch of Marvins.

And that's not all folks. The travel and tourism industry has taken a massive hit. If we would just "go now" and use our PTO like we did during the pre-2000 days - when we spent more time with family and friends - the U.S. economy would benefit.

The number of PTO days taken by U.S. workers would increase 27 percent, delivering a $284 billion impact across the entire U.S. economy - including $118 billion impact in direct travel spending alone.

You can go

By bike.

You can go

On a Zike bike

If you like.

If you like

You can go

In an old blue shoe.

Just go, go, GO!

Please do, do, do, DO!"

This fall, one of my very best friends, Christy Altmann Brown, unexpectedly lost her mother, Linda. It was devastating then and it's still hard to believe now.

Weeks before, Linda had sent me a note on Facebook telling me about the wonderful folks she met at our Interstate 77 welcome center while stopping by to pick up some materials for her elementary school class. She was on the move. She was going. When I called my own mother to let her know about Linda, she said something I think about almost every day now.

She said, "I'm sad I'll never call someone Mom again. I hear people call out, 'Hey, Mom, look at this,' when they are shopping or, 'Hey, Mom, we're over here,' and it makes me miss my mother so much." What she wouldn't give to have another day with her mother, or Christy with her mother. I can't imagine.

Just last month, when work was extremely busy, and the hockey, basketball, band and cross country schedule was in full swing, I took a vacation with my mother, my father and my sister - just the four of us - for three days.

We haven't had the "original four," as one of my friends calls us, together in more than 18 years. But the time had come, and we just went.

Marvin K. Mooney

I don't care how.

Marvin K. Mooney

Will you please

GO NOW!

I said

GO

And

GO

I meant ...

The time had come

So ...

Marvin WENT.

Amy Shuler Goodwin serves as commissioner of tourism and deputy secretary of commerce for the state of West Virginia. For more information about activities, events and lodging in West Virginia, visit www.GoToWV.com or call 800-225-5982 (800-CALL-WVA).

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Mind dances at famous painting in Tuscany http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141207/GZ05/141209614 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141207/GZ05/141209614 Sun, 7 Dec 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Dawn Miller FLORENCE, Italy - This fall, my husband and I had the great fortune to visit Tuscany, the region of Italy that was birthplace of the Renaissance. Here is where they keep some really famous art, reproductions of which high school and college kids are forced to look at and to recall something significant.

I used to be one of those kids, looking at some print of Botticelli's "Primavera," for example. It's the one with Venus (we think) in the middle, Flora turning into spring and strewing flowers on the right, and the Three Graces dancing on the left. It was painted between 1477 and 1482.

Even today, people cannot decide for sure what the painting is about, but you can see in it that Renaissance trend away from dour, serious obeisance to church authorities and toward something more human-centered.

Botticelli, like others of his time, found new inspiration in the forms and stories of ancient Greeks and Romans. Human beings are not gloomy with the weight of original sin in these works, but frolicsome, curious creatures, engaged in life.

In school, we used to discuss whether the very means of our consumption of art lessens its impact. Are Monet's water lilies still as special if they are silkscreened all over umbrellas and tote bags? If you can see Botticelli in a book (or now online), why go all the way to Italy?

I was never persuaded by that argument, but experience has taught me to keep expectations in check when visiting famous art. There is unintentional hype that comes with summarizing and reproducing art for common study. It is the price of fame.

No celebrity can live up to that much advance publicity. Sometimes you finally see the genuine article, and it is smaller than you thought. Or it is caked with centuries of grime. Or the colors have faded. Art in the flesh is a physical, perishable thing, as much relic as idea.

So, it was in this frame of mind that I entered the Botticelli room of the Uffizi museum, schooled to appreciate the opportunity, but also on guard against unrealistic expectations. It did not go as I expected.

I was transfixed.

The Graces in their gossamer gowns, visible from head to toe, hands joined, danced in a circle.

"I've seen this before," I thought.

"Of course, I've seen this before, any number of times and permutations."

"But this time it reminds me of something I've never thought of. Those nude dancers by Henri Matisse, maybe?"

"Maybe, but that's not it. I haven't just seen this before. I've danced like this before."

And there it was. The press and murmur of the museum crowd disappeared, replaced by the sounds of kindergarten recess on the playground of Inwood Primary School, circa 1974.

Imagine, or perhaps you can remember, being one of five or six little girls singing "Ring Around the Rosy." We did that, and after the unsatisfactory end of the song, we would sometimes improvise, tugging on each other and experimenting with movements of our own.

Step in and out of the circle. Put one hand up and one down, all the way around. Our joined hands would rise and fall in a wave, cresting around the circle until we grew bored with it and bolted in all directions, for the distant fence row, to the slide, or to pick dandelions.

Standing there in the Uffizi, looking at Botticelli's Graces, I could hear the squeals of both children and swings, smell the earth warming in the sun and feel the cool spring air rush into our open coats.

How could Botticelli have painted our impromptu kindergarten steps 500 years before we were born? And what of the artists before him? What just happened here?

I can promise you we were not imitating art. We were literally unschooled, too young, too freshly hatched. We moved with all the grace of a box of puppies, and about the same energy and manners.

Botticelli captured - and we participated in - something more universal, perhaps something instinctual in Homo sapiens.

Perhaps little kids, turned out of doors to play in the spring sunshine, will dance in a circle and will "invent" certain predictable patterns of movement. Our play may have started with the prescribed steps of "Ring Around the Rosy," certainly handed down through generations of schoolgirls. But our movements changed to something original and newly made up on the spot, so we thought, to the extent we thought of it at all.

On that rainy museum day, in a week crowded with beautiful views and friendly people and miles and miles of significant art, Botticelli drew me out of the crowded museum and into some liminal place between wildness and civilization. He somehow linked the decades of my life to his, not to mention the millennia stretching beyond us both.

There is definitely something about experiencing art in the flesh.

Miller, editorial page editor for The Charleston Gazette, may be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com, or on Twitter, @gazette_opinion.

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WV Travel Team: Tucker County tucks a lot in http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141130/GZ05/141139990 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141130/GZ05/141139990 Sun, 30 Nov 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Jeanne Mozier WV Travel Team TUCKER COUNTY, W.Va. - This weekend, thousands of people from hundreds of miles around will suddenly have thoughts of Tucker County pop into their heads.

Ski season starts at Canaan Valley Resort; 43 trails open in this 43rd season - a serendipitous if mysterious convergence of numbers.

On Dec. 12, skiing opens at nearby Timberline Resort and the 31 miles of cross-country trails of White Grass Touring Center are already being used. Winter is Tucker's most popular face - with good reason.

Tucked away near West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, Tucker's location conspired to keep it isolated in the nearly century and a half between original exploration in the 1740s and actual settlement and development in the 1880s. This same location on the Allegheny Front provides 4,000-foot summits and more than 13 feet of snow in winter.

Within the three miles of Cabin Mountain that are Tucker's winter playground are two resort ski mountains and the touring center, 80 slopes and trails, eight lifts, an expansive terrain and tubing park, and, at Timberline, the longest ski run in the Southeast. The rare treat of full-moon backcountry ski or snowshoe touring enhances the winter experience.

Canaan Valley Resort, a leased-out 6,000-acre state park, changed management companies and finished a $35 million major upgrade in the lodge and ski areas in the past year.

Rooms are comfortable; public areas are made for ski lounging; food options include a welcoming tavern as well as main dining room and snack café. We sampled some appetizers while we were there and can give a gold star to both the mushroom stuffed ravioli with cream sauce and the mini beef wellington with tasty chunks of steak in flaky pastry.

Not far north on the mountain plateau that is the highest valley in the East is another state park. Blackwater Falls State Park is one of the most popular in West Virginia's system, revered for its eminently photogenic nearly 60-foot falls on the Blackwater River.

An elaborate set of boardwalk stairs makes it easy for almost anyone to climb all the way down to the main falls, close enough to feel the spray. The lodge at Blackwater is not up to Canaan standards, and my personal complaint, echoed by several other guests, was that the jets in the whirlpool had not worked for two years.

But who cares about a whirlpool tub when there are millions of gallons of water churning over falls every day? There are trails throughout the park including easy access along the river.

In the middle of this high mountain wilderness is a pair of towns - Davis and Thomas. Their "cool" factor is essential to Tucker being the next big thing.

Davis is funky, a major lumber town back in the day - which was at the turn of the 20th century, when it was four times today's size. Once the timber was gone, the population dwindled. It's a town of the 1950s. Every visitor makes it to Davis to eat at Sirianni's, a brain explosion kind of place with impressive portions of affordable, no-frills but very tasty pizzas and pasta. It also has the indisputable charm of being open every day.

Thomas has higher aspirations symbolized by the restoration of Cottrill's Opera House and an appealing art scene, especially music.

The Purple Fiddle presents live music every weekend and many weekdays. It is a star location on the Mountain Music Trail, which spans the state. Open daily in the old DePollo General Store, the Purple Fiddle has affordable overnight pillows in both a hostel and a guest house.

Another downtown treasure that gives the edge to Thomas in cool is the Tip Top, an open daily combo coffee and alcohol bar with casual food and baked goods.

Thomas was always a bit different. It was a resident-built, not company-built, town, and the worker-residents of the early-20th-century heyday hailed from around the world. European influence can still be seen in all the balconies and overhanging porches of downtown buildings.

Music rings the mountains for special events as well as regularly at the Purple Fiddle. Memorial Day is ArtSpring, a weekend art festival with abundant street and staged music.

The Wheeling Symphony celebrates the Fourth of July weekend at Canaan Valley Resort. Pickin' in Parsons Bluegrass Festival, held annually during the first week of August, is second largest in the state with more than 40 performances over four days from more than 20 bands.

The "tipping point" for Tucker County in its ascendancy is not a building, or the art scene, or even the wilderness trails winter and summer. It's the road, the heavenly corridor that is the long-anticipated Corridor H.

A section opens this spring, bringing all that Eastern traffic to a point on the road between Thomas and Davis. The two towns can continue to develop different personalities within spitting distance. The adventure- and wilderness-craving Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia metro area is an hour closer. As a bonus, the road is so spectacular, travelers will be making up destinations just to ride it.

There are other seasons with other reasons for falling in love with Tucker. "I came for the skiing but stayed for the art," said one young resident.

Another claimed they too came for the skiing but discovered the Purple Fiddle and decided to stay. Golfers flock to play a meticulously groomed 18 holes surrounded by mountain peaks. Spring is fly fishing and wildflowers. Fall colors are a magnet.

Visitors and residents love the guaranteed access to wildness that comes with having more than half the county's rough terrain in public lands like the Monongahela National Forest and crisscrossed with a variety of trails.

Blackwater Canyon Rail Trail is a 10-mile wonder to ride from Thomas to Hendricks along Canaan Mountain Backcountry and the Blackwater River and Canyon.

The Upper Cheat River Water Trail begins in Hendricks and works its way north on the river 40 miles to Rowlesburg in Preston County.

The River Trail is on the west side of Backbone Mountain where the county seat is in Parsons.

There are two ways back to Canaan Valley and the eastern towns. W.Va. Route 72 is one of the most challenging roads in the state as it snakes along the river, barely one lane and with twists and turns that border on causing seasickness.

It's a squiggle on the map through a list of mountains, knobs and the edge of the Otter Creek Wilderness. It's a squiggle in real life - fortunately with little or no traffic but scattered with sufficient working farms so that getting lost is not a real concern.

The second way over the mountain is U.S. Route 219, the Mountain Music Trail. The trail starts in the southern part of the state with points in Union, Lewisburg, Marlinton, Elkins, Parsons then over the mountain to Thomas, as far east as it gets.

More than virtually anywhere else in West Virginia, Tucker County is a culture in formation. Today's fierce commitment to preserving the wilderness is a far cry from the century-past period when the culture was cut, slash and ship it out - mostly timber and coal and all on the base of the railroad.

There is no virgin timber left, no more spruce and hemlock forests. The mountains are covered in second and third growth. New and old residents are finding how recreation and the arts and music can define what Tucker becomes and who becomes Tucker Culture.

For more information about visiting Tucker County: www.canaanvalley.org/.

Jeanne Mozier 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. She lives in Berkeley Springs where she and her husband own and operate the Vintage Star Theatre.

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Branson: A home away from home for the holidays http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141123/GZ05/141129915 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141123/GZ05/141129915 Sun, 23 Nov 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Marta Tankersley Hays Staff writer BRANSON, Mo. - As the popular Christmas carol chimes, "There's no place like home for the holidays." But then, Al Stillman - who wrote those famous lyrics - must have never been to Branson, Missouri, where they light up the Christmas season on Nov. 1 and keep the home fires burning through January.

Ever since the Baldknobbers Country Music Theatre opened at Branson's City Hall almost 50 years ago, the once sleepy town has been attracting tourists.

Today, with an average of 9 million visitors annually - many of them from the Mountain State - Branson has grown into one of the most popular entertainment destinations in the heartland.

And it's one of the most popular vacation destinations for travelers from the Charleston area, according to both National Travel and AAA Travel agencies.

Music, music, music

Once known as a spin-off of Nashville and a country music haven, Branson is nestled in the Ozark Mountains and now boasts, at last count, 50 theaters, each with a musical and entertainment style uniquely its own.

At Christmas time, special attention to the sounds of the holidays aim to get even the Scrooges among us into the holiday spirit.

The Hughes Brothers Christmas Show is a don't-miss venue, not only because of the vocal harmonies, lively dancing and instrumentals, but also because the Hughes family just might be the world's largest performing family.

Brothers Marty, Jason, Ryan, Adam and Andy are the heart of the show. But they are accompanied on stage by their five wives and 36 children!

Highlights from their performance include seven teens playing violin, and the introduction of each member of the family, right down to the littlest toddler.

Looking for nostalgia? Stop in at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre, the first to bring popular music to Branson in 1992. Their vaudeville-style Christmas show will treat you to performances by the Osmonds - Jimmy, Meryl and Jay - and the Lennon Sisters - Kathy, Janet and Mimi, who practically grew up before the entire nation on the Lawrence Welk, Jimmy Durante and, of course, Andy Williams' television shows.

As at virtually all Branson theaters, the Osmonds and Lennon Sisters pay tribute to veterans in song, touching hearts with a slide show and wowing audiences with "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," made famous by the Andrews Sisters in 1941.

The Showboat Branson Belle offers a Christmas dinner cruise as the riverboat glides across Table Rock Lake.

Then there are less traditional venues. Comedy and vocal performances by the ShowMen and the world's only aerial violinist, Janice Martin, entertain to packed houses.

Martin, who graduated from the Juilliard School of Performing Arts and served in the U.S. Army, plays classical violin while dangling from the ceiling wrapped in colorful silks.

Going back to country roots, The Grand Jubilee Christmas Show features quartet New South and soloist Jackie Brown, who is married to West Virginia's own Matt Hanshaw, the band's lead guitarist.

Country hits from the Oak Ridge Boys to the Eagles, gospel, honky-tonk piano and Christmas carols are all part of the spectacle at the Grand Country Music Hall.

Comedy keeps the show lively as emcee Mike Patrick and comedian Jim "Dandy" Haage, a talented musician in his own right, banter back and forth.

Interested in a more cultural experience? Don't miss the Johnny Mathis Christmas Show with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

Mathis, who has been honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, performs a mix of his greatest hits as well as Christmas songs from his 1958 album in the 2,500-seat Oak Ridge Boys Theatre.

These are only a few of the Christmas shows in town. Find out more online at explorebranson.com.

Gas, food and lodging

If you take out all the visitors, Branson's population stands at just 10,000. It's located in southern Missouri near the Arkansas line and about 760 miles from Charleston.

To drive the more than 10-hour trip yourself, take Interstate 64 west to St. Louis and then Interstate 44 south to Springfield. From there, Branson is easily accessible via U.S. 65.

Tour buses are the most popular way for seniors to get to Branson, although these days many tour groups report increasingly younger passengers.

Diamond Tours, for instance, can arrange a Christmas trip for you and 30 to 52 of your closest friends for approximately $600 each. The excursion includes transportation, six nights' lodging, seven shows and some meals. For more information, call 800-336-5711 or visit diamondtours.com.

Flights to Springfield-Branson National Airport might be a better option for holiday travel. With layovers and a fee of roughly $450 per person, you can be there from Yeager Airport in Charleston in about six hours' time.

Like typical tourist destinations, national chain restaurants and lodging are readily available. But there are plenty of unique options. The Mabee Lodge at the College of the Ozarks offers only 15 suites, the smallest of which is nearly 800 square feet and priced at $199 a night. On the college grounds, the rustic log structure was built by students as part of the school's work-study program.

Dick Clark's American Bandstand is a burger joint with a 1950s design; the Hilton's Level 2 Steakhouse offers 28-day-aged, corn-fed Midwest beef, seafood, locally grown produce and signature house desserts; and the Keeter Center, also at the College of the Ozarks, offers a gourmet dining experience featuring meat and produce from the college's working farm and gardens.

One of the main attractions in any tourist town is the shopping. Branson does not disappoint. The historic downtown district offers antique shops, quaint mom-and-pop stores and restaurants as well as the nationally known Dick's 5 & 10, which opened in the 1960s and is home to a vast assortment of iconic merchandise.

Branson Landing features more than 100 shops within walking distance of each other, including nationally known chain stores White House Black Market, Build-A-Bear Workshop, Bass Pro Shops and Belk.

Tanger Outlets is located in the heart of the theater district and features 75 stores including Chico's Outlet, Direct Tools Factory Outlet, Disney Store and more.

Silver Dollar City

Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-themed amusement park that got its name from the silver dollars that were used for change when it first opened in the 1960s, lights up the 2014 holiday season with 5 million Christmas lights and the Rudolph's Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade.

Underneath all the lights is a rustic park whose development began with tours of Marvel Cave in the 1950s.

Get an up-close-and-personal look at 19th-century-style artisans and craftsmen including blacksmiths, potters, woodcarvers, glass blowers and candle makers.

Dare to ride the newest addition to their amusement park, the $10 million Outlaw Run, the world's first wooden coaster with a 720-degree double barrel roll.

During Christmas this year, Silver Dollar City offers a Broadway-worthy musical rendition of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

You can also sing along with the Homestead Pickers beside a blazing fire in McHaffie's Homestead, a double barrel-style cabin.

For more information on Silver Dollar City, visit silverdollarcity.com.

Branson is more than just Christmas vacation destination. The city has built a reputation for family-friendly fun and entertainment that keeps folks coming back for more. What sets it apart is that small-town feel and the essence of the American heartland.

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

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WV Travel Team: Family holiday fun is nearby http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141123/GZ05/141129980 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141123/GZ05/141129980 Sun, 23 Nov 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Mitzi Harrison WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - You may not have your chestnuts roasting over an open fire quite yet, but it's never too early to start planning your holiday activities. The state of West Virginia boasts some of the top holiday light displays and seasonal activities in the nation, and is part of a region with some impressive holiday destinations. Start planning how your family will get their fill of holiday cheer with some suggestions from AAA.

Whether it's a holiday light display, Christmas tours of historic homes or a holiday train ride, the state of West Virginia offers plenty of holiday festivities sure to get the family into the holiday spirit.

Coonskin Park

Coonskin Park, in Charleston, is gearing up for its annual Lights of Coonskin, which has become one of the premier holiday light displays in Kanawha County, with more than 250,000 twinkling lights.

Be sure to catch Santa in his flying rocket ship delivering presents, in addition to the Ferris wheel and roller coaster light displays.

The Lights of Coonskin is open nightly to the public Friday through Dec. 31 from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and is free to guests, though donations are welcome and encouraged.

Lotito City Park

Bluefield's Lotito City Park will be hosting its annual Holiday of Lights Festival, where the park will be transformed into a bright showcase of more than 600,000 holiday lights. Open Sundays through Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 10 p.m. beginning Thanksgiving Day, weekend visitors will be able to take a scenic walk through the park and light display, hear music and view a live nativity scene. There is no admission fee for this display, but donations and canned food are accepted at the end of the tour.

Oglebay Resort

One of the largest holiday displays in the state takes place at the Oglebay Resort and Conference Center, in Wheeling. An annual tradition since 1985, the Winter Festival of Lights at the Oglebay Resort is going on now, and takes place nightly through Jan. 4. It's been named one of the 10 Best Christmas Light Displays in the U.S. by AOL Travel and has been featured on the Travel Channel's Extreme Christmas Celebrations.

As one of the nation's largest displays, guests can view a light display that covers more than 300 acres and a six-mile drive on the resort property. There are plenty of unique light displays to check out, including a 300-foot-long tunnel with multicolored lights, the massive polyhedron star with more than 2,000 lights, the 60-foot-tall poinsettia wreath and candle, and classic displays such as the Ferris wheel and the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Another attraction to check out is the Gardens of Light, where the hilltop and gardens area at Oglebay is adorned with over 150 hanging baskets of light plus thousands of trees and flowers adorned with Christmas lights. Tours of this area are available and take guests through Carriage House Glass, the visitors center, the Christmas Tree Garden, the Greenhouse, the Palm Room, the Garden Center Gift Shop and the Mansion Museum.

Winterfest

The 11th annual Winterfest kicks off Monday at the Cedar Lakes Conference Center, near Ripley. This event has become known as one of the best lighted displays in the area, where guests can view over 1 million lights and computer-animated displays.

New displays are added every year through a contest held among West Virginia's career and technical centers to further enhance the existing display. Be sure to check out the train designed by Mingo County Technical Center, including a steam engine and a coal car.

There is no charge to drive through, but donations are accepted to help cover the expense of the display. The display is viewable nightly during the holidays from 6 to 9 p.m.

AAA Tip: Rooms at the Holt Lodge are half-price during Winterfest.

The Greenbrier

Another attraction definitely worth a visit over the holidays is The Greenbrier.

Located in White Sulphur Springs, there are plenty of activities underway now through the new year for the entire family. In addition to the superb dining, spa and casino offerings at The Greenbrier, guests can take in the giant Christmas tree and the lights throughout the property.

In addition, visitors can check out the variety of activities available, including ice skating, cozy carriage rides, holiday culinary demonstrations, numerous seminars including gift-wrapping tips and more. Be sure to check out the Christmas Shop at the Depot as well.

New this year, guests can also take a 20-minute trolley tour through the holiday lights display. Warm blankets are provided as guests view the lights throughout the resort property.

Celebration of Lights

This year, South Fairmont presents the sixth annual Celebration of Lights, sponsored by the local Rotary Club. Southwest of Morgantown, visitors can drive through 1.3 miles of Christmas displays on weekends beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving through the last Friday in December.

In addition, the display will also be open Dec. 22-24. Each carload has a $5 admission fee, but the experience is well worth the price. This year, walkers too will be able to experience the lights, on Dec. 1 and 11.

Snowflake Express

Take the kids on a holiday train ride they will remember for the rest of their lives. The Snowflake Express Train Ride with Santa departs from the South Side Depot in Petersburg, Grant County. Prior to departure, visitors will be entertained by the Petersburg High School chorus and band. Hear great Christmas carols and enjoy a reading of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" to get into the holiday spirit.

On the Dec. 12 and 13 excursions, riders will experience a beautiful 40-minute ride to Welton Park to see the Festival of Lights. Santa will be available for photos before and after each train ride inside the South Side Depot. Both evenings have three boarding times: 6, 7:30 and 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 for children ages 2-12 and $12 for adults over age 12.

Festival O' Flights

For the daredevils wanting to see Christmas from above, West Virginia offers the perfect experience. River Riders Inc. in Harpers Ferry offers guests the opportunity to experience a festival of lights celebration from above - the Festival O' Flights.

Available Dec. 14, 21, 28 and Jan. 4, guests can take an afternoon Aerial Adventure Park Climb followed by a nighttime trip on the Zip Line Canopy Tour to see the holiday lights from above.

Christmas Homes Tour

Finally, join the St. Albans Historical Society for their 22st annual Christmas Homes Tour this holiday season. On Dec. 6, guests can tour six historic homes decorated for the holidays from 6 to 9 p.m. Tours begin at the St. Albans Historical Society on Fourth Avenue and cost $8; $5 for students.

Regional holiday trips

More holiday enchantment for your entire family is available within just a few hours' drive.

n Just outside Dayton, Ohio, the Legendary Lights of Clifton Mill brings folks from all over the region to take in more than 3.5 million lights. For the last 27 years, Clifton Mill has celebrated Christmas with this amazing light display that has been featured in Midwest Living and Ohio Magazine. It takes six men three months to install the lights that illuminate the historic Clifton Mill, the riverbank of the Little Miami River, trees and bridges.

Guests will want to be sure to see the 100-foot waterfall of twinkling lights. In addition, be sure to check out the synchronized light and music show on the old covered bridge.

Also on the grounds, Clifton Mill has an outdoor miniature village on display that features many of Clifton's historic buildings, plus a 1950s diner. A light parade goes down the main street and two trains go around the village across a covered bridge. A historic drive-in movie theater show old film clips, and plenty of winter activities are shown as well.

Be sure to check out the Santa Claus Museum, featuring more than 3,000 depictions of Santa Claus dating back to 1850. Kids will love being able to see Santa working in his workshop and loading his sleigh every night until Christmas Eve.

The Legendary Lights of Clifton Mill display starts on Friday and runs through Jan. 1, with the lights switching on at 6 p.m. Admission to the Legendary Lights of Clifton Mill is $10 per person.

AAA Tip: Grab a bite at the restaurant inside the Clifton Mill. They serve breakfast and lunch daily, and dinner on Friday and Saturday. Be sure to check out their fresh-baked breads, cookies and pies.

n About an hour south of Clifton Mill, all is bright at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden during the PNC Festival of Lights. A Cincinnati holiday tradition for more than 30 years, the Festival of Lights is the largest holiday light display in the Cincinnati area, with over 2 million LED lights.

While guests may have to dress for cold weather and bring a blanket, the Festival of Lights offers several family attractions. From Fairy Land, where kids search for five hidden fairies, to Candy Cane Forest, visitors can experience a Madcap Black-Light Puppet Show, a Wild Lights Show on Swan Lake and warm up with hot cocoa and s'mores at the S'mores-N-More location. Plus, make sure the kids visit Santa at the North Pole by way of the North Polar Express Train Ride.

AAA Tip: This is an extremely busy attraction. Arrive early and aim to visit Sunday through Thursday to avoid peak crowds.

n More than 120,000 people converge on the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, each holiday season for the annual Southern Lights Holiday Festival. With more than four miles of lights, the displays along the driven route grow each year, as well as the Kentucky Horse Park's indoor offerings.

After driving through the light display, guests are invited to enjoy inside attractions at the Horse Park, including local crafts, model trains, mini train rides, visits with Santa and an exotic petting zoo.

The Southern Lights display is open for families to enjoy through Dec. 31 from 5:30 to 10 p.m. (indoor activities are closed on Thanksgiving and Dec. 24-31). Tickets range from $15 per car to $125, depending on vehicle size and day of the week.

Tips for holiday fun

Whether you're driving to Grandmother's house or embarking on a cross-country holiday adventure, AAA has some easy solutions for your winter road trip to make it safe and enjoyable.

Available at local AAA offices across West Virginia, the free Family Fun Holiday Road Trips guide provides some simple tricks that can make the difference between an awesome trip and one filled with cries of "Are we there yet?" Covering everything from winter driving tips, family fun tips, games for the car, and what to have in your vehicle's emergency road kit, this guide will make sure that you have everything covered for your family's holiday road trips.

Now is the time to make holiday memories with your family and see some spectacular holiday lights. Stop in the AAA Charleston office and talk to a AAA travel expert for assistance with lodging, learning about the many AAA member discounts at these destinations, plus planning a tailor-made trip. They can provide up-to-date information on what's new, plus provide information about any special events, such as festivals and shows, taking place during the time you plan to visit.

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

For more information on these and other destinations, stop by the AAA Charleston office or call one of the AAA travel professionals - Janice Adkins, Lia Ireland, Amy Sisson, Becky Wallace and Barbara Wing at 304-925-1136.

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Ad cuts hurting business, rafting outfitters say http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141117/GZ01/141119328 GZ01 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141117/GZ01/141119328 Mon, 17 Nov 2014 15:35:39 -0500 By Phil Kabler CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Whitewater rafting in Southern West Virginia has been in a free-fall in recent years, dropping from more than 225,000 rafters on the New and Gauley rivers in 2000 to fewer than 100,000 this year, industry representatives told legislators Monday.

"The biggest thing we can attribute it to is the lack of marketing by the state of West Virginia," said Rick Johnson, operator of River Expeditions. "We're getting our butts whipped by every state around us."

State Tourism Commissioner Amy Shuler Goodwin told legislators her agency has a marketing budget this year of under $3 million. By comparison, Virginia will spend $20 million on tourism advertising and promotion.

Also, funds for the Tourism Commission's advertising matching grants have plunged from $23 million in 2004 to $3.3 million this year, as state Lottery revenues have declined and been diverted to fund other programs.

Dave Arnold, with Class VI River Runners and Adventures on the Gorge, compared West Virginia's current plight with a decision by Colorado legislators in 1993 to eliminate the state's $12 million tourism advertising budget as a cost-saving measure.

That resulted in a 30 percent decline in tourism in the state, ultimately costing $2.4 billion a year in lost revenue, before funding for tourism advertising was restored in 2000.

"Each year, when we cut our marketing budget, we are slowly doing the same thing Colorado did. We are slowing killing ourselves," Arnold told the legislative Joint Commission on Economic Development.

Johnson noted that the three largest whitewater companies in the gorge combined have a larger advertising and marketing budget than the state of West Virginia, but said consumers respond more favorably to state tourism advertising than to advertising and marketing by private tourism destinations.

Goodwin agreed that state tourism marketing is crucial. "If I can get you here, you'll come back - I can almost guarantee it. But I've got to get you here the first time," she said.

Johnson told legislators he has a unique perspective as a former coal operator on the value of state tourism.

"It's the only resource that renews itself every day, and the revenues stay here - they don't go to New York or Texas," he said.

Also during Monday's interim meeting:

n Goodwin said the division has just received results of a state tourism image study, and said it shows the state is perceived as lacking in key travel motivators, including being a fun and exciting family destination, and offering once-in-a-lifetime, "bucket list" experiences.

"We are not making it in terms of [being] a place to go with your family, an exciting place to go with your children," she said, adding, "This is a snapshot of where we are, not necessarily where we want to be."

n Arnold said he supported the newly approved constitutional amendment allowing the Boy Scouts of America to rent out portions of the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in Fayette County to for-profit entities.

"There's a little bit of a gamble to it," he said, adding that he is relying on the Legislature to come up with enabling legislation that will impose restrictions on the Boy Scouts to prevent them from building hotels, restaurants and other facilities that would hurt local tourism-related businesses.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

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WV Travel Team: Bus tours feature value, ease http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141116/GZ05/141119637 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141116/GZ05/141119637 Sun, 16 Nov 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Ted Lawson WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Guided motor coach tours, though popular in the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, are often overlooked by travelers wishing to visit a new destination.

Fearful of being cattle-herded past sites of interest only to click pictures through steamy windows, or getting packed onto an uncomfortable bus and pushed through lines at fast-food restaurants, many modern travelers have shied away from the motor coach tour.

However, the motor coach industry is booming, and these tours are offered by even the most high-end vendors - such as Abercrombie & Kent - under their Connections Worldwide Brand.

Motor coach tours offer a surprising number of advantages over independent travel. Here are some top reasons to consider taking one in the next year:

n You are going to get the best value for your money.

Due to the fact that the tour companies are negotiating for group rates, you simply can't get the same tour with the same quality of hotels and restaurants for as low a price as they can offer. If you need additional financial incentive, many tour operators will offer a free trip if you or your organization can fill an entire motor coach with paying customers.

n Every step of the planning is done for you.

Motor coach tours are an amazing way to be able to just sit back and enjoy your vacation. Most of your planning will be done after choosing a destination, booking the trip and showing up to the airport or embarkation point at the designated time.

Motor coach tour operators will have planned when you need to leave, how far you need to go to see everything on the itinerary, when and where to make stops to maximize your time, the best places to shop, the best restaurants to serve you, and more.

They will provide you with the information you need on currency exchange, and bring you to a place where you can do it. They will let you know about power adapters, tipping conventions, taxes, local culture and anything else you could possibly need to enjoy your vacation.

n You don't have to touch your luggage.

Once you leave the airport and meet your tour, someone else will handle your luggage the entire time. It will be collected from your hotel room and delivered to your next hotel at each segment of the trip. For those who have wrestled their luggage on and off trains, buses and taxis, this perk is right at the top of the list.

n You are offered a comfort and safety unparalleled by independent travel.

Traveling in foreign countries, particularly when one doesn't speak the language, can be stressful and, in certain circumstances, unsafe. Your tour manager will make sure you know where (and when) to wander by yourself, and will provide a safety net in the case of any emergency.

Tour managers will also keep copies of your passport to assist if it is lost or stolen, copies of prescriptions to get them replaced immediately if needed, and will know exactly where hospitals, pharmacies and police stations are if the need arises.

Your motor coach will be a luxury coach, and - unlike public transit systems - plans regular stops to use facilities, take pictures and stretch your legs.

n Your tour will be led by experts.

Your tour manager will be a powerhouse of knowledge about the destination, and will employ local guides for even more detailed tours of cities, or particular attractions. These individuals, usually locals, train for years to provide interesting, relevant commentary about the destinations you will visit.

They are always happy to answer questions about any subject and often tailor their tours to the group's particular interest. For example, a women's gardening club may request more information about the local flora; a good tour manager will happily acquiesce.

n You will make new friends and share great memories.

Although motor coach tours provide a great degree of personal experience, the intimacy of dining together and riding together creates group camaraderie.

Group tours are an excellent option for those traveling alone who would like to socialize with others, or anyone looking to meet new people interested in similar things. You will always have the option of being alone, but in a group tour, you never have to be.

n You will go to the front of lines, get private tours and be treated like a VIP.

In most cases, your tour manager will have purchased your tickets for attractions in advance and notified the attraction of your arrival time. Your group will bypass the lines for tickets, and usually get a private tour of the site or museum by one of their best guides.

Tour managers have cultivated relationships with local attractions and vendors, and will often get you perks not offered to anyone else. It is not unheard of for shops and restaurants to open just for your motor coach group, even in off-season, because the tour manager drives business their way. Similarly, hotels will often offer free cocktail hours or special services to your group in appreciation for the tour company's continued allegiance to their brand.

n You have a lot more latitude to make your own itinerary than you think. Short of days when your coach is heading to a new city (most hotel stays will be two nights to give you time to explore on your own), you can always opt out of the group's activities.

If a tour of a certain museum does not appeal, and you would rather have a late brunch and shop, no one will stop you. Also, many group tour participants will add extensions or pre-trips to the group tour to see destinations not covered by the group itinerary. This is a great way to maximize the experience and to customize the trip to your dream vacation.

Guided motor coach tours are a wonderful, comparably inexpensive way to see the world. When choosing a guided tour, however, it is important to remember that these trips are geared to showcase the destination's marquee sites. For this reason, it is best to choose a destination with which you are not overly familiar. For example, a guided tour of Paris will certainly include the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre; if you've been to Paris a dozen times, you might want to do something more off the beaten path.

Guided motor coach tours are an excellent way to see a "sampler" of a country, and discover the destinations you may want to explore more in depth in the future.

If you are interested in trying a guided motor coach tour, a professional travel agent can assist in finding the tour that is right for you.

Happy travels!

Ted Lawson is the president and CEO of Charleston-based National Travel and a member of the WV Travel Team who 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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Take a spin through the Mountain State's wind farms http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141109/GZ05/141109502 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141109/GZ05/141109502 Sun, 9 Nov 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Douglas Imbrogno CHARLESTON, W.Va. - From their inception, wind farms in West Virginia have generated controversy, even while presenting the promise of an energy source that is greener than the coal-fired economy which has so long dominated the state.

Even the phrase "wind farm" sounds eco-friendly, whereas these massive mountaintop installations in West Virginia might better be described as "wind factories."

However you feel about them, wind farms have radically changed the viewscape of certain regions of the state. If you have never experienced a wind farm up close and personal, here is a suggested route that will take you past or through three of them in a row, in the heart of West Virginia.

The purpose in writing about such a trip is not to delve into the pros and cons of wind farms, which some see as one key part of a diversified transition to a post-coal energy economy and others oppose because of concerns over bird and bat kills, their noise, the radical way they change landscapes and other concerns.

But if you've never seen a wind farm except in pictures or from a far distance, a trip across the West Virginia heartland will underscore the big, wind-powered energy factories that are already spinning daily out there.

Wind power is still a small, albeit growing, part of the nation's energy grid, and a little Mountain State wind farm touring will give you a better sense of how much harvesting of the wind is going on here.

The trip will give a vivid impression of how wind farms grab the eyes and transform the view of the green rolling hills of West Virginia into hills spiked with mammoth, twirling-blade-topped white spires marching across miles of ridge line.

I often cross the middle of the state and usually get off U.S. Route 33 and head into Elkins on my way to Seneca Rocks. Instead, this time, I decided to head north for a little turbine touring.

For a few miles along U.S. 33 before you hit the Elkins turnoff, you get an up-close glimpse of the big blades and some of the towers of the AES Corp.'s Laurel Mountain wind farm. This farm opened in October 2011 and features 61 General Electric 1.5-megawatt turbines that weave along 12 miles of ridge line.

From the roadway, you get a good gander at the length of the turbine blades, which according to the National Wind Watch website are 116 feet long, atop a 212-foot tower for a total height of 328 feet. (By comparison, the Statue of Liberty, from pedestal to torch tip, is 305 feet tall.)

One thing you will notice about wind farms - depending on the wind, not all the blades are turning all the time. The day I passed, one turbine sat idle while the three others visible from the roadside spun like pinwheels.

Continuing north on U.S. Route 219, you pass through Parsons and in a little while encounter the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, which runs along Backbone Mountain in Tucker and Preston counties and began operation in 2002.

Owned and operated by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, this farm features 44 NEG Micon 1.5-megawatt wind turbines, 229 feet tall from ground to the hub of the turbine. There's a pull-off on U.S. 219 right on the ridge line where you can get about as close to a wind turbine as you're likely to get. It's a popular place for taking pictures as the towers recede down the ridge line.

When it came online in December 2002, it marked West Virginia's first wind farm and at the time was the largest one east of the Mississippi River.

Head further out U.S. 219 through Thomas, and take a right turn onto W.Va. Route 32 for a few miles before turning east onto W.Va. Route 93 toward Mount Storm.

You soon will espy the NedPower Mount Storm Wind Farm in Grant County, one of the largest wind farms in the Eastern United States. This wind farm features 132 Gamesa G80 2-megawatt wind turbines strung out along 12 miles of the Allegheny Front. Construction of the wind farm began in 2006 and was completed in 2008.

The turbines are mounted on 256-foot-high tubular steel towers, and the rotor diameter of the three-bladed turbines is 264 feet. The maximum height above ground to the top of a turbine blade's highest point is 387 feet. They are an impressive sight seen from the highway strung along the ridge line in front of you.

Wind power faces challenges, including lawsuits over bird and bat kills and area property owners concerned about their view and property values, among other concerns. But a drive across the heartland and highlands of West Virginia will give ample evidence of the work already underway to diversify the state and nation's energy profile in the face of rising concern about global warming - and the way it's changing the view.

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WV Travel Team: B&Bs offer free stays for vets http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141109/GZ05/141109507 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141109/GZ05/141109507 Sun, 9 Nov 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By Toni Mathias-Harvey WV Travel Team CHARLESTON, W.Va. - All across West Virginia, bed-and-breakfast owners are honoring the men and women that have served, are now serving and will continue to serve our country, with the West Virginia Bed and Breakfast Association B&B for Vets Program by providing free lodging on Monday in observance of Veterans Day.

One past year at a WVBBA bed-and-breakfast, five active-duty and retired military personnel and their respective spouses, who had never met one another, sat in a sun-filled gathering room enjoying an early-evening complimentary glass of wine and an array of hors d'oeuvres. Their ages ranged from the mid-20s to the mid-70s. Collectively, they had served their country in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Desert Storm, Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Each member and each spouse had his or her own story to tell and each listened to one another's stories. As they sat, talked, listened and shared, the camaraderie was instantaneous, the knowledge and understanding of one another's life experiences was immediate.

The WVBBA B&Bs for Vets Program started in the town of Shinnston. In 2008, with family members in both the armed services and law enforcement communities, Kathleen and John Panek, owners of Gillum House Bed and Breakfast, wanted to find a way to give back to the members of the military and law enforcement community.

A native of Brooke County, Kathleen was passionate about showing others the beauty of the Mountain State. That year, Gillum House offered a free night's lodging to service members and their spouses for Veterans Day.

The following year, a small undertaking was initiated within WVBBA, and nine other properties joined the Gillum House to offer one, two or three free nights' lodging to active-duty and retired military personnel for Veterans Day. As a number of WVBBA members are retired military, they gladly opened all of their rooms to the military community.

The following year, at a regional B&B conference, Kathleen heard the keynote speaker say, "One of the reasons people do not stay at B&Bs is because they really don't think about them." When she heard those words, she made a silent, passionate vow that that would never be the case nor would it happen to one segment of the population - the military.

With a widespread introduction to the public from Joe Stevens, www.themediacenter.tv, an AP reporter in West Virginia, the WVBBA B&Bs for Vets Program went viral. That night, Kathleen received a call from Jane Metzler of Fox News. The program expanded so quickly it was handed over to the Professional Association of Innkeepers International in 2011.

"A big idea, in a small town, in a small area, can make a positive change in other people's lives," Kathleen explained.

While the B&Bs for Vets Program honors the military member, an integral and equally important part of the program is to honor the spouse of that member. It is he or she who arrives at a new assignment and deals with new schools for their children; the arrival of baggage, household goods and storage; registering cars and pets; the spouse's possible deployment; figuring out where to volunteer; and last but not least, finding a new job. Military spouses' contributions are immense and they are often the unsung heroes and heroines. They too are honored with the WVBBA B&Bs for Vets Program.

Perched high on a ridge top in the rolling hills of Wheeling, military members may enjoy the comforts and hospitality of the historic Lawrencefield Bed & Breakfast. Both Betsy and David Phillips' fathers served in the Army. David lost one of his brothers to Agent Orange, a chemical used in the Vietnam War. "Participating in the WVBBA B&Bs for Vets Program enables us to honor their memory and to give back to the military community," Betsy explained.

A native West Virginian born in Wheeling but raised on the Ohio side of the river, Betsy vowed she would always come back home. When the federal-style Lawrencefield Bed & Breakfast became available last year, Betsy and David made it a home open to guests with warm West Virginia hospitality.

Lawrencefield Bed & Breakfast began with a military history in the 1700s during the Revolutionary War, when the property's first owner, Maj. Samuel McColloch, made his legendary "McColloch's Leap" while defending Fort Henry from an Indian attack in 1777.

WVBBA property owners see their patrons as guests and since all of WVBBA guests are special guests, the "what to serve a special guest for breakfast" question is constantly considered and refined. So what do you serve a military guest and their spouse for breakfast? MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) are not an option.

At the Gillum House B&B, Kathleen serves baked oatmeal topped with blackberries, red raspberries and blueberries with vanilla yogurt on the side. An unexpected morning treat, biting into baked oatmeal is like biting into a warm oatmeal cookie. On another morning, Kathleen will serve sour cream, three cheese and chive egg bake with English muffin bread.

Whiffs of morning coffee awaken and delight guests at Lawrencefield B&B. Since winter pears poach wonderfully, Betsy poaches them with cinnamon, cloves, a split vanilla bean and spices for her guests' first fruit course. The second course may be traditional eggs Benedict or an incredible Bananas Foster French toast.

To participate in the WVBBA B&Bs for Vets Program, reservations need to be made through each individual B&B. Participating properties include Ambrosia Inn, Asa Cline House, Bonnie Duane B&B, Bluefield Inn, Breath of Heaven, Café Cimino, Carriage Inn, Chestnut Ridge Country Inn, Church Street, Creekside Resort, Cunningham House, Edgarton Inn, Faith Lodge, Gillum House, Gobbler's Ridge Lodge, Guesthouse on Courthouse, The Inn at Lost River, James Wylie, Judy House, Laurel Lodge, Lawrencefield B&B, The Manor Inn, The Inn at Moler's Crossing, A Nature's Song, Thomas Shepherd Inn, Wildwood Inn and Willow Bend.

Phone numbers are available on the WVBBA website, www.wvbedandbreakfasts.com, under the specials tab. A valid military ID card is required for each reservation. Reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Toni Mathias-Harvey serves as the WVBBA president. She and her husband Ted own and operate The Inn at Lost River. An Army brat and an Army wife, she is very proud that the WVBBA B&Bs for Vets Program was initiated, launched and thrives in West Virginia.

Next week: Instead of working on your holiday shopping, why not start planning some quick holiday one-tank trips and getaways to view some spectacular light displays and holiday festivals? After all, making holiday memories on a quick road trip within West Virginia or around the region is better than battling the crowds at the mall.

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Visitors survive Universal's Halloween Horror Night http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141109/GZ05/141109549 GZ05 http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20141109/GZ05/141109549 Sun, 9 Nov 2014 00:01:00 -0500 By John Nelson For the Sunday Gazette-Mail CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Not everyone dreams of a vacation that involves a desperate fight for survival, heart-pounding escapes from the clutches of gruesome flesh-eaters or up-close-and-personal encounters with ruthless humans straight out of "The Walking Dead."

But for my partner, Donald Dunlap, and I, both avid fans of the hit AMC freak show, it's impossible to imagine a more exciting fantasy world to join ­­- temporarily. So a few days before Halloween, we found ourselves at Yeager Airport, overlooking spectacular fall foliage and eagerly anticipating the adventure we would find in Orlando.

This time around, we were not headed for the big kingdom with its magical mouse and dancing dwarfs. Instead, upon arrival, our limo whisked us to the Cabana Bay Resort, a 1950s-era complex with bold aqua, orange and turquoise colors reminiscent of a simpler time and place.

Our lunch diner was showing old Tide commercials, and black-and-white ads for Zest and VO5. Quaint and charming, but we were hungry for a different kind of adventure. Our real destination was Universal Orlando Resort, which hosted its 20th annual Halloween Horror Night again this year, Sept. 19 through Nov. 1.

Guests were lured to the entrance with promises of "face-to-face" encounters "with some of the most recognizable and terrifying names in pop culture." For horror fans like us, it was a nightmarish fantasy to include characters from the classic fright flick "Halloween," sci-fi scenes from "Alien vs. Predator" and "Face Off," as well as the poor souls of "Dracula: Untold" and "From Dusk Till Dawn."

Best of all, 2014 featured an unprecedented third consecutive year of interactive experiences from "The Walking Dead." Donald and I watched all four previous seasons in record time, and are now fully engrossed in season five.

For those not familiar with the show, it's a postapocalyptic drama whose star awakens from a coma to a world taken over by mass infection and filled with zombies, and sets out on a desperate quest to find his family. Based on the graphic novel written by Robert Kirkman and published by Image Comics, it follows a group of survivors who travel in search of a safe and secure home.

As you might imagine, it's not an easy journey. We were eager to join in the quest, but first, of course, we had to actually get there, which was more challenging than you might expect. Once on property, there were terrifying haunted houses and street experiences straight out of every nightmare you've ever had all rolled into one, and at the entrance to the Walking Dead attraction, a horrifying two-hour wait - that I have to admit was well worth every single minute.

The attraction itself is the largest maze ever created at Halloween Horror Nights. As the folks as Universal said:

"Guests will encounter iconic scenes from season four of the hit show - beginning at the prison, fans will enter the cell block where the infection began, escape into the massive Big Spot location with a crashed helicopter ripping through its ceiling and journey to the dilapidated country club overrun with walkers. These and other incredibly immersive environments culminate to the maze's finale taking you to the End of the Line - Terminus. This year's maze will be an entirely new experience, featuring never-before-seen walkers and brand new scares."

The prison scene was so real, so intense - there were dozens of zombies surrounding us, reaching for us, grotesque wounds covering their faces and hands - that at one point Donald was screaming, "I can't take it anymore!" I'm pretty sure he went through more than half of the exhibit with his eyes closed.

And he wasn't the only one.

Halloween Horror Nights has been named the Nation's Best Halloween Event for seven consecutive years by Amusement Today's Golden Ticket Awards. It sure beats a piña colada at the beach, at least in my book.

For non-horror fans, it's hard to explain what the attraction is, really, except that I think it has to do with freeing your inner child, and confronting your darkest fears in a safe way. At the height of panic, even in the midst of bloodcurdling screams, somewhere deep inside we all know we're going to make it out alive in the end.

Isn't that what Halloween is all about?

John Nelson is an adventurous traveler and a native of Charleston. When he's not off seeing the world, he works as a hairdresser.

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