Heaven in Hawaii: Napili Kai Beach Resort, Maui

A double rainbow arcs over Napili Bay on the west coast of Maui. We witnessed this beauty from our ocean-view lanai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Let me start by saying this: I cried when my husband and I checked out of Napili Kai Beach Resort on Maui’s west coast.

I’ve stayed in many wonderful hotels on gorgeous beaches, but this low-key, low-rise, plantation-style resort on secluded-by-Maui-standards Napili Bay was so perfect for us that when I turned in our room keys, I felt like flinging myself over the reception desk and begging the staff to let me stay.

The Napili Kai building blend unobtrusively into the island landscape. Buildings higher than three stories are banned from Napili Bay, so development has never become an eyesore. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Napili Kai had everything we as a couple love: a quiet, sandy beach with good snorkeling; luxurious but unpretentious accommodations; cultural and environmental appreciation; a good restaurant with fresh, local ingredients; friendly people (both staff and other guests); and all-included resort amenities like beach chairs, towels, parking, and many activities (the hotel’s motto is “we don’t nickel-and-dime you.”

Blissing Out on Ocean Time

Ken and I stayed in casual luxury in a beachfront studio unit: king-sized bed; fully equipped kitchen; huge, two-chambered bathroom with walk-in shower; and a lanai—oh, the lanai with its unparalleled ocean view facing west for excellent sunsets. Two of the three nights we spent at Napili Kai, we got Thai takeout and enjoyed Panang curry and cold Aloha Beer (brewed in Honolulu) in the loungers on our lanai while watching the sun sink below the horizon.

At night, we turned off the air conditioning, opened the lanai doors, and slept to the sound of waves lapping against the black lava rock outside.

At sunset, a man lights the torches along the beach at Napili Kai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Because our internal clocks were three hours ahead of Pacific Time, it was easy to take advantage of early morning at the beach. Each day, Ken and I watched green turtles surfing near the shallow rocks close to shore. Their heads bobbed on the surface; fins flapped above the whitecaps. Occasionally one rolled in the surf. I assume it was for fun and not hunting, because green turtles are herbivores. As they munched on algae and seagrass, they seemed to savor the act of cavorting in the waves.

We got to view the turtles from an underwater vantage when we snorkeled along the two reefs in the fairly calm waters of Napili Bay. The first thing we saw was a trio of Moorish idols, the most impressive and elegant of tropical fish. We also spotted puffer fish, a dragon eel, butterflyfish of several varieties, red sea urchins, and purple or yellow coral. But the most unique experience was snorkeling with a pair of turtles. They glide through the water so gracefully that they seem more like angels than reptiles.

Riding the Wave of Hawaiian Culture

Local children learn Polynesian dances and perform weekly at the Napili Kai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

What sets Napili Kai apart from many other beach resorts is that it highlights traditional Hawaiian culture. Most mornings, the hotel serves coffee, tea, and fresh pineapple in the Beach Cabana and presents cultural demonstrations such as lei making, wood carving, tapa cloth making, and palm weaving.

Napili Kai also helps perpetuate Hawaiian culture through its support of the nonprofit Napili Kai Foundation, which shares Hawaii’s cultural legacy with Maui’s children. Every Tuesday, Napili Kai guests can attend a free, onsite hula show in which young kids and teens perform authentic songs and dances of Polynesia with live adult musicians. Though the performances aren’t as polished as a professional hula show (I must say that the teen performers are extremely good), the costumes are colorful and the representation of Tahitian, Samoan, Maori, and Hawaiian cultures is satisfying.

George Kahumoku plays 12-string slack-key guitar and sings weekly. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There’s more: Napili Kai presents the Masters of Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar concert series every Wednesday. Hosted by Grammy winner George Kahumoku, Jr. (who was featured on the soundtrack of the movie, The Descendants), this was an opportunity for Ken and me to hear live, island vocal and guitar music. (“Slack-key” is a style that originated in Hawaii, in which the player loosens the tuning of the guitar strings.)

We loved the sound. Hawaiian guitar music has a gentleness and warmth that can only come from hearing the waves and feeling tropical sea breezes on your shoulders. Now, when the temperatures are below zero, just hearing Hawaiian music takes me back to Napili Kai, my ideal place for relaxing Maui style.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

A crescent-shaped slice of Maui heaven: the laid-back beach and cabana of the Napili Kai. The water and snorkeling were wonderful right from the beach. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

15 Ways to Get Romantic at a Colorado Eco-Ranch

Nothing's more romantic than a private cabin in the woods at Devil's Thumb Ranch in the Colorado Rockies.

Just 65 miles west of Denver, Devil’s Thumb Ranch sits on 5,000 acres near the Continental Divide in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The eco-resort offers sustainable, luxury accommodations in its 52-room luxury lodge, 16 ridge-top log cabins and at the budget-friendly Bunk House.

With old-West flair, Devil’s Thumb Ranch employs both cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned conservation to exist lightly on the land. The ranch’s buildings, pool and hot tubs are heated with renewable geothermal energy. Waste water is purified through sand filtration. Some buildings are “recycled” historic structures that have been remodeled for modern use. For instance, the special events center is a reclaimed, 1850s-era barn.

Cozy rooms and cabins feature all-natural interiors.

Wood and stone interiors bring nature indoors at Devil’s Thumb Ranch. Pine from beetle-killed trees becomes gorgeous wall paneling and ceiling beams. The floors are recycled spruce.

The décor has a cowboy theme: The lodge, spa, guest rooms, restaurants and cabins feature antique furnishings (including old saddles and cowboy boots). Artwork and metal work are commissioned from local artisans.

Then there are details such as eco-friendly cleaning products, sustainable restaurants, recycling and water-conservation programs, low energy-use lighting, and recycled asphalt for paving.

High-Altitude Romance

When you’re visiting this outdoorsy resort, green programs may be the last things on your mind. Focus instead on saying “I love you” (during winter) in these ways:

  1. Lounge in your luxurious, mountain-style room or woodsy log cabin. Many have private fireplaces, decks and breath-taking views of the Continental Divide.
  2. Snuggle under all-natural down comforters on your ergonomically correct mattress.
  3. Explore more than 65 miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on groomed and tracked trails at the Devil’s Thumb Ranch Nordic Center.

    Unwind in the Ranch Creek Spa.

  4. Steal some time together in the 10,000-square-foot Ranch Creek Spa with the Bonnie and Clyde couple’s massage. (Spa products are all natural and nourishing to the skin at high altitudes.)
  5. Take a horse-drawn sleigh ride across the 5,000-acre property to dinner.
  6. Enjoy a gourmet dinner at the Ranch House Restaurant and Saloon, in an original log cabin. The food is organic and local; 85 percent of the restaurant’s meat and game comes from Colorado producers.
  7. Book an intimate private dinner in John L’s Wine Cellar (its entryway is a giant wine barrel constructed of recycled cherry wood). Pop a cork and pop the question!
  8. Stargaze from the outdoor hot tub.

    There are miles of cross-country ski tracks to explore at Devil's Thumb Ranch.

  9. Limber up together with yoga class. The studio has incredible mountain views.
  10. Challenge each other to a game of checkers in the Game Room.
  11. Snowshoe under the full moon along any of the groomed paths. Not there during full moon? About 2.5 miles of pathways are lit, including those between cabins and the dining areas and activity centers.
  12. Cuddle in front of the fireplace (built of stone from mountain rock slides) in your room or private cabin. The chimneys are EPA-certified to emit 60 percent less smoke pollution.
  13. Watch a film in the 37-seat movie theater in the Main Lodge.
  14. Race each other down the sledding hill or twirl on the outdoor ice-skating rink.
  15. Get married. Devil’s Thumb is an incredible winter or summer wedding venue. Your wedding party can enjoy a romantic getaway, complete with horseback riding or sleighing, skiing or hiking, and rejuvenating spa treatments.

    Wedding bells ring at Devil's Thumb Ranch—winter or summer.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Photos courtesy Devil’s Thumb Ranch

Bampton, England: Film Location for “Downton Abbey”

St. Mary's church in Bampton, Oxfordshire, is a film location for the Downton Abbey TV show. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The spires of Highclere Castle set the elegant tone of the PBS Masterpiece TV series Downton Abbey (see my post: “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) but fans of the show want to know more. Anytime one of the show’s characters has business in Downton village, the Oxfordshire town of Bampton gets its turn in the spotlight.

So far, a fair, two weddings, and a funeral are among the big events filmed in Bampton, just 20 miles west of the city of Oxford. When my husband and I discovered that the National Trust cottage we rented for three days was just 15 minutes away, we were ecstatic that we could see another piece of Downton Abbey lore.

A Photogenic Church

We arrived in town just about teatime, parked in the market square, and had tea and scones at the Bampton Coffee House. There we got directions, but as we left, the church bells began tolling exuberantly.

Bampton's church has been the setting of Grantham family weddings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We simply followed their sound as we wandered down pretty Church Street until we arrived at St. Mary the Virgin, a 12th-century parish church with Romanesque architecture. No doubt about it: this was the church where Lady Edith took Matthew sightseeing during Downton Abbey’s season 1—when she was hoping he would woo her instead of her sister Mary.

The church’s TV-land alter-ego is St. Michael’s and All Angels, and its interior and exterior have appeared on American tellies most famously as the scene of Lavinia’s burial (season 2), Mary and Matthew’s nuptials (season 3), and Edith’s jilting at the altar (also season 3).

On the August afternoon we visited, the church bells were pealing for a real wedding. We watched as the bride and groom had some last photos taken before braving the gauntlet of rice-throwing wedding guests and into a vintage Rolls Royce.

I’m standing at the gate where Lady Mary entered the churchyard for her wedding to Matthew Crawley. ©Ken Aikin

Then Ken and I wandered inside the church as the wedding candles were extinguished and the flower arrangements carried away. The sanctuary has a lovely pipe organ, elegant stone arches, vaulted ceiling, stained glass, and ornate pews. (We also picked up a free, photocopied guide of Downton Abbey locations in Bampton, which helped us with the rest of our impromptu tour.)

Outside, the little churchyard is dotted by lichen-covered tombstones and a few red-berried hawthorns. We speculated that Matthew and Mary would be wed in this church—but we had to wait until January 2013 to confirm that.

Strolling with the Granthams and Crawleys

Churchgate House, the exterior film site for the Downton village home of Isobel Crawley. ©Laurel Kallenbach

All the Downton Abbey scenes filmed in Bampton are confined to the picturesque Church View lane, a row of old buildings, houses, and stone walls. Right beside the church is Churchgate House, which serves as the exterior for the Crawley house where Isobel and Matthew lived in seasons 1 and 2. (The interiors are filmed elsewhere.)

This bench shows up in a number of Downton Abbey episodes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside the churchyard walls is the church green—with a huge tree and park bench that often shows up in the TV series. This area was the setting for the fair, which was featured in a season 1 episode in which Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, met an old beau.

Next comes the Bampton Library, which for TV’s purposes sheds its literary facade and poses as a medical building. The library is the exterior for Downton Hospital where Dr. Clarkson treats villagers and the wounded soldiers during WWI.

Bampton Library, just down the block from the church, serves as the exterior for Downton Hospital. ©Laurel Kallenbach

So, when Mrs. Hughes walks up to the hospital for her cancer checkup, that’s Bampton’s library you see. If it’s open, visitors can go in; the library sells souvenir postcards there.

Finally we ambled down Church View Road, noticing doorways that become the Downton Post Office and the Dog & Duck pub. It’s fun seeing locations that look vaguely familiar…but not quite. After we returned to the States, we watched reruns of the early episodes and paused the DVD player so we could see spots where modern fire hydrants were covered by bushes or fake postboxes to complete the early-20th-century look.

Bampton's Church View Lane gets used in numerous shots. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before the Downton Abbey craze hit, Bampton was a sleepy town known for its morris dancers (traditional folk dancers who wear bells on their shins), its May flower-garland festival, and the colony of swifts that nests in the village every summer. Bampton was quiet when we visited, but with the show’s popularity, occasional tour buses now stop there.

Bampton, in Oxfordshire, is a beautiful village. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bampton, one of England’s oldest towns, has a number of pubs, inns, and B&Bs, so it would be a nice place to spend a few days. (It’s within an easy drive or bus ride from other quaint Oxfordshire Cotswold villages such as Burford, Lechlade-on-Thames, and Minster Lovell, so there’s plenty to do in the area.)

Who knows, if you visit Bampton this spring, you might be there during the next season’s filming!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information, check out Visit Oxfordshire’s website.

King Tut Meets “Downton Abbey” at England’s Highclere Castle

What do King Tut and Downton Abbey have in common? England’s Highclere Castle, the film site for the costume-drama TV series that airs on PBS in the United States.

Highclere Castle is the ancestral home of the Carnarvon family, and during the early 20th century, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon became fascinated by ancient Egypt when he traveled to its warm, dry climate for health reasons. Soon the Earl began to fund archaeological digs in Egypt—including Howard Carter’s excavations, which eventually resulted in the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

In my last post about my visit to Highclere Castle, I didn’t say much about the Egyptian exhibit, so I thought I’d share some impressions.

First, this exhibit is modest compared to the one not far away at London’s British Museum, where you can see the Rosetta Stone. That said, at Highclere Castle, I felt a more emotional connection to the Egyptian artifacts than ever before—even when the King Tut exhibit came to Denver two years ago and I saw actual artifacts from the pharaoh’s tomb.

I believe there’s a certain intimacy—or maybe it’s history—you sense when you’re in a place with an actual physical connection to something or someone. Knowing I was standing in the same house where Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter pored over maps of the Valley of the Kings—the greatest Egyptology discovery in history—gave me goose-bumps.

The Carnarvons: Avid Amateur Egyptologists

Lady Almina and Lord Carnarvon in England, 1923. Archival photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Highclere’s Egyptian exhibition is very personal for the Carnarvon family. The Fifth Earl’s family—especially his wife, Lady Almina, and their daughter, Evelyn—often accompanied him to Egypt and sometimes helped with excavations.

After reading Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, written by the current Countess Carnarvon about her family’s ancestors, I felt a kinship with Almina. So it was delightful to see exhibited a beautiful calcite jar (dating to the reign of pharaoh Ramses II) that Almina helped dig from the ground.

(Or so the story goes. Wearing a corset and heavy, long skirts during the early 1900s, Almina’s contribution might have amounted to brushing off the last of the sand from the calcite jar after someone else did the painstaking hands-and-knees job of unearthing it. But I rather like the idea of Almina getting her hands dirty to excavate a jar that might have been held by an Egyptian pharaoh/god 3,200 years ago.)

The Ramses II calcite jar that Almina reportedly helped excavate. Photo courtesy Highclere Castl

Another exhibition highlight was a 3,500-year-old painted coffin of a 35-year-old noblewoman named Irtyru, that Carter and Carnarvon excavated from Deir el-Bahri in 1908. The paint on this wooden coffin was so brightly colored that it almost looked fresh. The feet on her coffin showed a lovely pedicure—rendered in gold paint.

The exhibition also displayed recreations of Tutankhamun artifacts, including a convincing reproduction of Tut’s mummy, wrapped in hieroglyphic-covered cloth with jewelry and amulets tucked into the folds. His mummy wears gold sandals, and each of his toes were encased in gold toe covers so that the boy-king could walk in the afterlife. (Tut died at about age 19; he was on the throne for nine years from roughly 1333 BC to 1323 BC.)

What stays with me about seeing these artifacts is their artistry, rendered with exquisite skill. Although we think of the ancient Egyptians as being obsessed with death, I started wondering if they weren’t really more interested with the afterlife. Pharaohs were buried with models of ships that would bear the departed king or queen on their journey across the sky to the afterlife.

These shabti figurines were discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter, who was funded by Lord Carnarvon. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Figurines of workers were included in tombs; they accompanied the pharaoh into the afterlife so they could perform the manual labor needed to live for eternity in the luxury to which the royalty had become accustomed. (Remember, the pharaoh was not just a ruler but a god.)

At Highclere Castle, I noticed that these figurines had been creative with sensitive, expressive faces. The artists didn’t fill the tombs with work they cranked out for the masses; they did their best work—even though Tutankhamun died suddenly and unexpectedly, probably of an infection from a fractured leg. Tut had a genetic bone disorder and probably other genetic defects, because Egyptian royalty were famous for marrying close relatives, often siblings. (Tut himself married his half-sister.)

Seeing history through the lens of the Carnarvon family was exciting. Lady Evelyn was the first woman to step into King Tut’s tomb, as she accompanied her father to Egypt in November of 1922 when Howard Carter wired about his find. (Due to illness, Lady Almina was unable to travel for the tomb’s opening.)

The Pharaoh’s Curse

After Carter and Carnarvon opened Tut’s tomb, the event became a media circus with enough drama that it would have rivaled the Lady Mary/Mr. Pamuk sex scandal on Downton Abbey.

At the entrance of King Tut's tomb in 1922 (from left to right): Lady Evelyn Carnarvon; her father, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon; archaeologist Howard Carter; Carter's assistant.

The discovery of the tomb was followed by many squabbles amongst the English archaeologists, accusations (unproven) that Carter and Carnarvon stole artifacts from the tomb, rumors that Lady Evelyn was enamored with Howard Carter, and bitter fighting between the Egyptian government and Carnarvon and Carter about who owned the tomb’s treasures.

And then there was death of Lord Carnarvon, less than five months after the Tut discovery, which fueled the legend of the Curse of the Pharaoh. In reality, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito on his cheek and nicked the bite while shaving. The wound got infected, and Carnarvon became seriously ill from blood poisoning. Weakened, he contracted pneumonia and died in Egypt in April of 1923 at age 57.

Supposedly, the lights went out in Cairo when Carnarvon died. And there’s a story that at the same moment in England, the Earl’s pet terrier howled and dropped dead. Thus the hysteria over Mummy’s curses mounted.

Wonderful Things to See

This all goes to prove that the true stories of people can be more compelling than fiction—and in the case of Highclere Castle, they added layers of color to my visit there.

Highclere Castle in 2012: 90 years after the discovery of King Tut's tomb. © Laurel Kallenbach

Would I have enjoyed a tour of the historic house if I didn’t care about Egyptology or had never seen an episode of Downtown Abbey? I’m sure the beauty of the Saloon, Library and Music Room would have impressed me, but aside from that and the magnificent exterior of the building, would Highclere Castle glow in my memory? Because I had read the Lady Almina book, am an Egyptology buff, and became passionate about the TV show, the halls of Highclere were alive and filled with wonder.

Our glimpse into the treasures of this English estate house brought to mind the famous quotes from Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon when they first opened King Tut’s tomb. As Carter chiseled a hole in the sealed entrance and peered in, Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied with the famous words: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

Next blog: Bampton, England: the town that plays Downton Village on TV