Valerie Conners

Valerie Conners is a freelance writer, editor and producer who has worked with the Travel Channel for more than 14 years, specializing in travel topics including the world's best beaches, outdoor travel and romantic getaways. Her work also appears in many online and print publications including, Aol Travel, Discovery Channel, World Hum, Frommer's Travel Guides, the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer. She's happiest when eating spicy Thai food, snorkeling with sea turtles in Indonesia and bargaining for bangles in Indian markets. She blogs about her travels at PassengerConners.com.

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Posts by Valerie Conners

Photo Courtesy of Casa Palopó

Calling all the ladies! Sept. 24 marks National Women’s Health and Fitness Day, an annual event that stresses the importance of regular physical activity and health awareness for women.

Celebrate the occasion — and yourself — with a jaunt to a destination devoted to better health and wellness.

Head to sexy South Beach in Miami and toast your health at the boutique hotel Sense Beach House, whose on-site restaurant, The Local House, will offer a “Healthy Hour” from 3 to 4 p.m. on Sept. 24. Specials include a limited-edition, handcrafted juice (a pineapple blend with ginger lime and a touch of cinnamon) to boost metabolism.
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Pop the Kennebunk Festival (Photo Courtesy of Maine and Maine Home+Design Magazines)

The Dish
For 6 remarkably tasty days in June, food and travel lovers from across the US unite at the Kennebunkport Food and Wine Festival, an annual event that has – hands down – become the hottest ticket in coastal Maine. Now in its 10th year, the festival draws Maine’s top chefs, as well as wine and beer makers to this charming waterfront town.

Rub elbows with an eclectic group of guests at nightly cocktail hours and after-parties, featuring live music and tasty artisan beverages made from local distilleries such as New England Distilling, but save your energy for the festival’s main events.

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Photo Courtesy of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

It’s never too early to start saving for next year’s vacation — particularly when you’re planning a $119,000 ultra-luxe splurge on board the brand-spanking-new Four Seasons Jet.

Indeed, the high-end hotel and resort company has decided the sky is quite literally the limit, unveiling the travel industry’s first fully-branded private jet experience on Wednesday.

Debuting in February 2015, the jet — a completely retrofitted Boeing 757 — will be emblazoned with “Four Seasons” on the fuselage, and have the company’s logo displayed on its tail. The redesigned plane will take 52 guests on bespoke tours around the globe and will include an in-flight staff, as well as a dedicated on-board concierge happy to book spa treatments or golf dates at pending destinations.
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Photography by Valerie Conners

It’s the heart of August in Big Sky, MT, home to some of North America’s most incredible ski slopes and majestic mountain scenery — but the resort town is hardly shut down for the summer season. Incredibly, Big Sky springs to life during the so-called “off” season. The resort town offers a seemingly endless array of outdoor activities — from hiking to fishing, and zip lining to horseback riding — to an ever-increasing number of warm weather visitors.

Photography by Valerie Conners

What to Do
Hiking: The region in summer is downright heaven for outdoors lovers who take advantage of seemingly endless miles of hiking trails, like the famed Beehive Basin, Ousel Falls and Storm Castle trails. While August might be late to view wildflowers in various other regions of the country, many fields here are still awash with the vivid reds, yellows and purples of the regional flora.

Experience the Gallatin: Not to be missed is a trip to the Gallatin River, which winds its way through along the Canyon and through the Meadow, as the lower regions of Big Sky are known. The river has become a mecca of sorts for fly fishermen as well as rafters and kayakers. Remember the iconic film, A River Runs Through It? Parts of the movie were shot here along the Gallatin. A number of outfitters around town can help visitors organize fly fishing trips or guided rafting tours.

Photography by Valerie Conners

Explore Moonlight Basin: Also known for its epic skiing in winter, this luxe mountain resort offers families and couples a veritable world of onsite summer activities. Popular favorites include horseback riding tours with Cedar Mountain Corrals along some of the resort’s stunning 8,000 acres of land, as well as the Tuesday evening Hike, Bike & BBQ. Sign up for this weekly event and choose to explore the property’s 16 miles of trails on foot or mountain bike, then cap it off with a celebratory barbecue overlooking the mountain vistas. Good thing you’ll have worked up an appetite for the slow-roasted ribs. Guests of the resort also have access to a swimming pool and hot tub — perfect for a relaxing post-hike dip.

Visit Big Sky Resort: Neighbor to Moonlight Basin, Big Sky Resort is a must-visit. Take a tram tour to the top of 11,166-foot-high Lone Peak — it’s a stunner. On a clear day it’s possible to see 2 national parks, 3 states (Montana, Wyoming and Idaho) and many mountain ranges. The resort’s Basecamp can also organize activities such as zip line courses, mountain biking and hiking with lift access, a bungee trampoline, disc golf, a climbing wall and even paintball.

Photography by Valerie Conners

Explore Yellowstone National Park: A trip to America’s first national park, Yellowstone, is a must for visitors to Big Sky. The nearest park entrance lies a mere hour outside of town, and it is possible to take the popular Grand Loop Road drive to see the park’s major sights, such as Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Lake Village.

 

Photography by Valerie Conners


Summer
temperatures have sizzled into triple digits across large swaths of America’s West this season. Travelers would be wise to cool down at one of the region’s more spectacular attractions, Lake Powell, a shimmering, 186-mile-long behemoth that straddles the Arizona and Utah border. Technically a reservoir of the Colorado River,

Lake Powell is located within easy driving distance from some of the nation’s grandest and most popular parks, including the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon, and is a perfect respite for families that have just sweltered their way through national park trails and tours.

This man-made lake was created when part of the Colorado River was dammed, and a sweeping expanse of canyonland filled with water. The result? An otherworldly landscape of turquoise waters bordered by looming canyons crisscrossed with nooks and crannies begging to be explored by boat or kayak. Rocky buttes jut toward the sky both in the distance and above canyon walls. Watching sunset turn the colors of the canyons and buttes ablaze into fiery reds and oranges is one of the region’s more unforgettable experiences.

Photography by Valerie Conners

To best enjoy the lake’s scenery and activities, travelers should hightail it to the spectacularly situated Antelope Point Marina, a family-friendly destination born out of a unique partnership with the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service. Head to the marina to explore Lake Powell by boat tour, rent watercraft such as jet skis and kayaks, or take advantage of the pinnacle of all lake experiences: a houseboat rental.

Antelope Point Marina is teeming with houseboats — literally hundreds line the floating docks — some of which are privately owned, others which are for rent. For the uninitiated, houseboats here are no ordinary watercraft. These vessels are, without exaggeration, nicer than a good number of actual houses. Houseboats range in size from 59 feet to 75 feet and can sleep up to 12 people in as many as 6 bedrooms — perfect for multiple families vacationing together. These mega-boats are tricked out with flat-screen TV’s, indoor-outdoor living areas, kitchens, staterooms, covered decks, waterslides (!), gas barbecues and wet bars. Think that’s awesome? Some models even feature outdoor hot tubs.

Families can rent houseboats for a few days up to a week or more, which keeps them busy exploring Lake Powell’s beauty. Folks who only have a few hours to spend on the lake, can cool off at the marina’s

Photography by Valerie Conners

kid-friendly swimming area, arrange a boat or fishing tour, rent kayaks and ski boats, or hike down to nearby beaches along the lake’s clear, crisp waters (families take note: No lifeguards are present).

For the ultimate Lake Powell experience, book a helicopter tour over the lake via the Lake Powell Jet Center. Aerial views of Lake Powell offer the most breathtaking perspective of its expanse and stunning vistas. You’ll swoop past iconic Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River, the dam that created the lake, and monstrous Tower Butte, where your chopper will actually land and you’ll be allowed to wander the butte’s top — absolutely the tour highlight.

 

Everglades

Photo By Valerie Conners

While the hordes of Spring Breakers flock — understandably — to South Florida’s golden shores, consider a trip down the not-so-beaten path, to Everglades National Park, the heart of which lies just an hour’s drive west of Miami, along the Tamiami Trail. A drive into the heart of the Everglades grants visitors glimpses of the diverse wildlife roaming the region, including loads of alligator sightings (stand back, and keep you hands to yourself!), great blue herons, colorful roseate spoonbills and ever-present white herons and ibises. If you weren’t a bird watcher, much less bird lover, before entering the Everglades, you will be when you depart.

“Everglades” literally translates to “river of grass,” and that’s exactly what you’ll find here: a subtropical wetland that begins in Central Florida at Lake Okeechobee as water leaves the lake and flows south, forming a slow moving river. The so-called river of grass is an astonishing 50 miles wide and 100 miles long, running all the way to the tip of South Florida and into the sea. Of that vast expanse, 1.5 million acres have been designated a National Park, protecting 20 percent of the Everglades and the extraordinary wildlife contained within.

Everglades National Park is split into 2 main entrances, Shark Valley in the north central section of the park and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in the West. Start your foray into the Everglades in Shark Valley. This entrance has the most amenities for visitors, including a museum, bike rentals and tram tours, as well as an observation tower in the thick of the glades that affords striking views of the grassland. A 15-mile loop road winds through Shark Valley, and is popular for bikers and a few apparently cold-blooded walkers undaunted by the region’s high temperatures. If you’re not prone to exert yourself for the duration of a 15-mile bike ride, hop aboard a tram tour, where knowledgeable guides point out and explain in detail the Everglades’ flora and fauna — with frequent stops for photos.

From Shark Valley, make your way toward the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. This entrance lies tucked into the far western reaches of the park, where you’ll see a much different topography, chiefly mangrove islands and winding waterways. As you make drive west, you’ll have the choice to continue along the well-trodden Tamiami Trail, or pop off onto a Scenic Loop Road, and as I highly recommend, and great poets will agree, always — always — take the road less traveled.

The loop road is partially unpaved, though easily driveable, and winds through what may well be the region’s most spectacular and wildest scenery: a cypress forest, part of the Big Cypress National Preserve. These monstrous trees drip with Spanish Moss, and you’ll pass by alligators lounging at their bases, as well as countless birds — herons, ibises, purple gallinules and pelicans galore. The best part? In what turned into an hour and a half foray along the road (I stopped for lots of pictures), I passed a mere 4 other cars. This is as remote a space as you’ll find anywhere in Florida.

Everglades

Photo By Valerie Conners

You’ll leave the Preserve and arrive in Everglades City late-afternoon or early evening. To get the most out of an Everglades National Park road trip from South Florida’s east coast, spend an overnight in Everglades City, just south of Naples, on the western edge of the park. The town is incredibly small, just a few hundred residents, and lies amidst winding waterways. Book a room at the Everglades City Motel, where the old-fashioned exterior belies the beautifully remodeled rooms inside. Grab a sunset cocktail and a platter of smoked fish dip at the iconic Rod and Gun Club, which sits along a scenic curve of the river. For dinner, meander a mile or so down the road to Camellia Street Grill, a true local’s hangout along the river. You’ll find kitschy decor, a welcoming outdoor deck, twinkling lights strung from trees, and if you’re lucky — live music and dancing.

The following day, head into the park’s western entrance, and book yourself on a boat tour of either the mangrove isles or Ten Thousand Islands. You can choose from a larger boat that winds through the islands or a smaller, 6-person tour that heads into the depths of the mangroves. After your boat tour, pay a visit to Chokoloskee Island, just a few minutes down the road. Here you’ll find the Smallwood Store and Ole Indian Trading Post, a former general store established in 1906 that’s now on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been turned into a museum featuring artifacts from the era, including newspaper clippings, medicine bottles, and furnishings.

Before you head back toward the 2-hour drive to Miami, refuel with lunch at the Havana Cafe, a Chokoloskee restaurant dishing up tasty Cuban food. Try the pork plate, traditional-style Cuban pork shoulder, serve with black beans, rice and a small salad. Ask to try the homemade hot sauce — you’ll thank me later.

By Valerie Conners

La Colombe

Editor’s Note: Todd Carmichael, the host of our new series Dangerous Grounds premiering tonight at 10|9c, is the cofounder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters. La Colombe is known for its premium coffee, sourced directly from the farmers by Todd, who goes to often-dangerous extremes to make sure his cafes are able to serve some of the world’s most sought-after and flavorful coffee. Dangerous Grounds documents Todd’s coffee-sourcing expeditions, and after tonight, the show will air Tuesdays at 9|8c. Travel Channel contributor Valerie Conners shares her experiences enjoying a cup of coffee at La Colombe, and proves that Todd’s passion for the flavorful bean is felt by anyone who drinks his prized coffee.

Tucked behind a simple storefront in Philadelphia’s tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood lies La Colombe cafe, which proffers what many devout coffee drinkers would argue is the city’s — if not the country’s — tastiest coffee. To call La Colombe a mere coffee shop would be like calling Tiffany’s a mere jewelry store; La Colombe has brought coffee roasting to a veritable art form, and anyone in the neighborhood looking for a stellar cuppa knows to head straight to the cafe. READ MORE

Charleston Weekend Guide

 As autumn descends on Charleston, SC, and milder temperatures cool the Holy City, the town erupts in a flurry of bridal veils and bouquets: peak wedding season has arrived. If you’re invited to celebrate nuptials in this genteel town, extend your trip to encompass a long weekend, embracing lowcountry culture, cuisine and history.

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