The Fittest Hotel in Florida

Beach Boot Camp WSFL-TV Harbor Beach MarriottUnless you travel with a personal trainer, it can be incredibly hard and inconvenient to stick with your fitness routine while you’re on vacation. But that’s not the case if you vacation at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa in sunny Fort Lauderdale. Not only will you find it exceedingly easy to stick to your routine, but there’s also an astronomically high chance that you’ll expand your exercise horizons. Here are ten ways to break a sweat at this beachfront resort that has a gift shop stocked with athletic apparel and a breakfast attendant who you may run into at boot camp.

Col Bob.jpg.jpg1. Make a Date with the “Health Colonel”
Although he could win a congeniality award, Colonel Bob doesn’t mess around. He’s spent 30 years in the Army, but these days he can be found —still sporting fatigues— on the resort’s beach where he leads boot camp classes for guests and Fort Lauderdale locals. The 16-acre resort is home to South Florida’s largest private beach, and Colonel Bob makes a point of covering as much ground as possible. He provides the props, the sand provides the resistance, and knowing that there’s plenty of delicious food nearby to indulge in is plenty of motivation to drop and give Bob forty.

2. Get Out Your Ace Game
Practice your serve or play a full set— but whatever you do, don’t forget about the resort’s Tennis Happy Hour on Fridays. Every Friday, a tennis pro is on site to provide pointers, and guests are invited to meet other players and arrange matches. In addition to match play, guests can also sign up for clinics and programs that are offered on the resort’s two hard courts and two clay courts. Table tennis is also available.

3. Try Not to Travel
Not many Marriott properties can brag about on-site basketball courts, but this property isn’t included in that group. Guests can go from laying by the pool to shooting hoops in less than two minutes. Play for bragging rights, or play for higher stakes— the loser can always buy dinner for the winner at Sea Level, which is also less than two minutes away and serves fresh cuisine in a casual, outdoor setting with ocean views.

4. Paddle Past the Break
Conveniently located on the hotel’s beach, the Aloha Watersports hut is managed by a fun ensemble that can put even the most wary beginners at ease. The warm water and challenging, but manageable waves make for an ideal place to transition from still-water SUP to SUP surfing. Although Aloha offers 30-minute rentals, the experience is so intoxicating that you’ll probably end up wanting to SUP all summer long.

5. Salute the Sun
Pack your own mat or borrow a purple one from the resort, but unless you want them to be jealous, don’t tell your friends that you’ll be doing down dog with views of the beach. The resort offers yoga classes inside their fitness studio and outside on a terrace, so guests can easily squeeze in their favorite poses without having to practice in their room or leave the property to locate a studio.

6. Don’t Cut Class
Forget about the channel guide and fast food menu because the fitness class schedule is probably the most important handout at this resort. The classes, most of which are held on the first floor in the resort’s fitness studio, include spinning, P90X, power walking, water aerobics and Zumba. After a strenuous workout, guests can walk down the hallway and melt their sore muscles in the spa’s steam room.

7. Work Out, Whenever
Hitting the weights or logging some cardio is less of a chore in the resort’s fitness center which is open 24/7 and features floor-to-ceiling windows and state-of-the-art equipment. The resort can also arrange for guests to meet with personal trainers for one-on-one workouts and personalized fitness assessments. For guests looking for a little guidance, there’s a large community board that is frequently updated with recommended reps and routines.

8. Suit Up
The hardest part about swimming at the resort is picking a pool. Guests can choose between the large outdoor lagoon and the private indoor pool located in the adjacent spa. If swimming laps isn’t your thing, the resort offers dive-in movies at dusk where you can tread water while watching a family-friendly flick. For those who prefer to practice their strokes in saltwater, the inviting ocean is just yards away.

9. Dig in the Sand
The resistance of sand makes a resistance band seem like child’s play, and for those looking to maximize their calorie burn, beach volleyball is the perfect sport. Every day, the resort sets up a net on their private beach where guests can sweat it out in a friendly (or fiercely competitive) pickup game.

10. Battle for Bragging Rights
Although the resort has three gift shops, the best souvenir comes from the resort’s recreation department. This talented team designs unique teambuilding challenges and fun competitions akin to what one might see on an episode of Survivor. Whether it’s won in Beach Olympics or the Build-a-Boat Race, the “I Won Bragging Rights at Harbor Beach.” t-shirt is sure to turn heads for years to come.


10 Reasons to Ride and Crash at George Hincapie’s Hotel


South of France or South Carolina?

Cyclists rejoice. There is a hotel on a hill that was designed with you in mind. Offering mind-blowing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hotel Domestique could easily appeal to any traveler. But, it’s the two-wheelers who have the most to gain from a stay at this French chateau found twenty miles north of Greenville, South Carolina.


Not my photo, and not George and his real life brother, Richard.


The 13-room inn opened last August and is the brainchild of the brothers Hincapie. Yes, as in the legend “Big George,” who along with his brother Rich, had the brilliant idea to turn a countryside hotel into a hub for hardcore cyclists, beginners, and all bikers in between.

Here are ten reasons why you’ll want to ride and crash at Hotel Domestique.

Bike-in, Bike-out: The first sign that this property is bike-in and bike-out is the bench and storage bin in the hotel’s front entryway. This thoughtful threshold allows cyclists to put on or remove their cycling shoes without having to lean against anything or click and clack across the lobby. Hundreds of miles of world class cycling meet the front door, so there’s no need to start the car or waste daylight getting from point A to point B in order to begin your ride. Depending on the weather and time of day, there are also mobile bike racks set up outside the front door or just inside where guests can store their bikes.


A $10,000 bike that sets the bar as high as George’s seat.

Bike Valet: Prior to arriving at Hotel Domestique, guests who book a room through the hotel’s website have the option of requesting a bike rental. Because there are a limited number of high-end carbon BMC road and mountain bikes in the hotel’s fleet, it’s best to reserve a bike in advance. Once at the hotel, the bikes and gear are waiting for the guests who can request them each morning by using the in-room iPad.


Don’t move – there’s a scorpion on your shoulder.

hincapie gear 2.jpg

Wondering if I’ll ever wear the arm warmers…

Competent Concierge: A friendly concierge who has an emergency stash of ibuprofen (in bulk) mans the front desk and is on hand to help with everything from printing out cue sheets to arranging for a helmet fitting. The concierge can also provide directions to the closest bike shop, which is in the nearby town of Traveler’s Rest, or the best place to get biking apparel, which would be at the Hincapie Sportswearheadquarters in Greenville.

Bike Mechanic & More: The only thing more useful than a bellhop is a bike mechanic, and Hotel Domestique has a very competent one named Jeremiah. Jeremiah manages the hotel’s bike shop, and he seems to always be on hand to help lower a seat or fix a flat tire. In addition to the bike shop, there is also bike storage that allows riders to rest assured.

Le Tour: For diehard Tour de France fans, Hotel Domestique is like heaven. Each of the 13 rooms are named for stages in the tour, and as a throwback, the room keys are actual keys—not cards. The name of the hotel itself comes from the position that George had on the U.S. team. As a domestique, George was responsible for riding ahead and blocking the wind so the team’s leader—Lance Armstrong—could be positioned to pull ahead in the final stretch.


Head shot? Yes please!

Big George: The elephant in the room is built more like a gazelle, and he goes by George. The record-holding 17-time Tour de France competitor retired from pro-cycling in 2012, but he has yet to hang up his helmet. In fact, he rides with hotel guests. For those that aren’t lucky enough to join George on his weekly group rides, there’s always the option of using the in-room iPads to check out “George’s Routes”—George’s personal recommendations on where to ride. Pleasant and approachable, George is just like the rest of the staff at Hotel Domestique, except none of them have their portraits hanging in the hotel.

Restaurant 17: The hotel’s on-site restaurant is a destination in itself. Aptly named for the number of times George competed in the Tour de France, Restaurant 17 features the finest foods prepared by a talented team led by Executive Chef Adam Cooke. Cooke rides between shifts but still manages to serve outstanding food that is locally sourced. The menu is carefully crafted, and changes with what is in season. True to the cycling-theme, the bar has a signature cocktail called the wheel sucker—the term used for a cyclist who trails the leader very closely before taking off at the home stretch.


Bonus points if you can identify everything on the plate.

The Little Things: Between meals, guests can refuel at the hotel’s snack stations which include a mini fridge stocked with drinks, alcohol, an espresso machine, and plenty of healthy snacks including fresh fruit, trail mix, biscotti, and Skratch Lab energy samples. Guests will also want to take advantage of the hotel’s yoga room where they can stretch or receive a massage. The yoga room even has a shower so day-trippers can freshen up before dining at Restaurant 17.

The Bigger Things: For guests that aren’t into cycling (yet), there’s always the option of getting a complimentary day pass to the country club just down the road. Hotel Domestique has a great relationship with The Cliffs—a private residential community—where guests can utilize a fitness center, spa, and tennis courts. The hotel also has a 25-meter pool and an inviting library where guests can relax while their companions ride.


Dan and I rode with L to R, George’s friend who was training for an Ironman, Chef Adam Cooke, and George.

Location, Location, Vacation: It was no random act of relocation that the Hincapies, New York natives, settled in upstate South Carolina. It was here, in the mild climate and foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, that George could train year round for the Tour de France. Rural roads stretch high and low across the scenic terrain, and the hotel’s strategic location provides guests with the same unparalleled routes favored by this former pro-cyclist.

First published by The Active Times


Earth, breath and fire


Before there were blowtorches, there was blowing. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were fire breathers; not the colorful fire breathers seen at the circus, but a hardy, hairy crew who relied on fire much like their descendants depend on Wi-Fi.


canyon ranch

Just ask Randy Kinkade, Outdoor Sports Manager at Canyon Ranch, a revolutionary health and spa resort in Tucson, Arizona. Kinkade can take three sticks, a piece of string, and a pile of tinder and turn it into a fire faster than most mortals can fathom. Kinkade, who manages the resort’s relatively new Primitive Technology program, says fire making is surprisingly strenuous, and it’s not unusual for first-timers to break a sweat.

Before the last step, which is the blowing, Kinkade must first get his students to create a coal. Using tinder, also known as Jute fibers, and a few pieces of carved wood including a bow, one creates a coal by mastering the force of friction. Upper body and core strength are crucial, and stability is also a factor. It’s optimal to get down on one knee and wrap an arm around a shin. The objective is to combine the force of the arm and the leg to create one greater downward force that is applied to a carved piece of wood known as the drill.


The other arm, your right arm if you’re right-handed, wields the bow that is used to drive the drill into another carved piece of wood called the fireboard. It is the physically demanding friction between the bottom of the drill and the fireboard that creates the coal. The trick is to apply as much downward pressure as possible while working the bow back and forth as quickly as you can. Both tasks are more trying than they seem.

Randy.jpgThe payoff though, is priceless. Once you’ve created an adequate coal, you wrap the tinder around it. But you’re not done yet; you still need to breathe the fire to life. The breathing is an art in itself. While the tendency is to huff and puff and blow with reckless abandon, Kinkade uses a relaxed breath in a rhythmic manner as he slowly turns the tinder in his hands until it begins to smoke. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and in this case, a sense of accomplishment.

randyfire.jpgIn less than ten minutes, a few cold sticks and a pocketful of tinder have birthed a ball of flames. When you make something—whether it’s a pizza, a knife, or a fire—what you create has more personality if it comes from your hands. Kinkade believes that there is a difference between fire that comes from a little match and fire that comes from a little muscle exertion. After more than 30 years of making fire, Kinkade still lights up when he sees someone succeed. Even if it means he has to step in and help apply pressure or hold the bow. He taught his sons how to make fire and recalls camping trips where he told them that if they didn’t make the fire themselves, there would be no fire. Fortunately, he’s not as strict with his Canyon Ranch students.

But why would one want to learn such an archaic method for making fire? “Why not?” asks Kinkade who says that his students cite many different reasons for wanting to spend their time at an award-winning resort learning how to make fire. He also notes that his students are incredibly diverse. “You can’t point out one person in a crowd and say, ‘that’s the kind of person who would be interested in primitive technology.’” And maybe that’s why the Primitive Technology program is growing in popularity.

Fire making is actually just day one of the Primitive Technology program. The other three components include knife making, native awareness, and animal tracking. On day two, students are taught how to make string from the yucca plant before being taught how to use the string and obsidian to make a knife.

Day three is spent learning how to hone your peripheral vision in order to be more observant and track animals. Senses can atrophy much like muscles can atrophy, and Kinkade is a big proponent of practicing the use of peripheral vision. The four-day program culminates in a surprise team challenge known as the final test. The entire program takes place within the confines of the 150-acre property so students never have to worry about being dumped empty-handed in the nearby Sonoran desert. But they will have to be prepared to be taken back in time.

Although Kinkade hesitates to use the word primitive, saying, “Our ancestors had the same brain capacity as we do, they just didn’t have the foundation. In that sense the technology is not all that primitive.” Whatever you call it, this unique program is both physical and fun, and it’s hard to envision a better outdoor classroom than Canyon Ranch.


 This post was first published by the The Active Times

5 Signs You Need to Slow Down

What’s your sign?


Pick a color, any color.

The world is moving at warp speed. But that doesn’t mean that you have to move with it. In fact, it can be quite fun and refreshing to slam on the brakes sometimes. Minivan-driving mom of three Tsh Oxenreider wouldn’t even have brakes if it were up to her. She’d ride her blue bicycle everywhere—not to burn calories and save on gas—but to go slowly enough so that she could fully soak in her surroundings.

notesfromTsh is the author of the recently released Notes From a Blue Bike, and even though she’s about to embark on a year-long trip around the world with her young family of five, she’s encouraging others to slow down and lead more intentional lives. In her book, Tsh talks about the popular Slow Food movement and mentions that slowing down in general has been beneficial to her health. After living overseas, she returned to the U.S. where she became extremely sick, something she partially attributes to the added preservatives in American food.



Instead of adopting the fast food lifestyle, Tsh opted to reinstate her healthy and more deliberate habits picked up abroad. Her symptoms soon went away. Lucky for us, we don’t have to wait until we’re physically ill to realize that we’re moving too fast. Here are five signs that life is leading you and it may be time to tighten the reigns.


Kids in Costa Rica battle boredom with a basket and a rope.

1. You’re Never Bored
Have you ever noticed how bored is a term used primarily by children? It’s true, and Tsh reminds us that boredom is not a centuries-old dilemma. “In the eighteenth century, no one was bored. If you were bored, you were probably on your way to certain death, because if you wanted to eat, you had to work,” she writes. The benefit of being bored is that in order to beat it, you have to tap into your inner reserves of inventiveness—a resource that is seldom used in this chaotic world. Boredom begets creation. Creating takes time, and if you’re not creating, you’re probably moving too fast.



Despacio means slow in Spanish. Smelling the flowers is implied.

Despacio means slow in Spanish. Smelling the flowers is implied.

2. You’re On Cruise Control
After moving back to the U.S. following a three-year stint in Turkey, it didn’t take long for Tsh to realize that she had reset her autopilot to hurry. In some cases, it’s perfectly fine to fly by in the fast lane, but if you’re always in that lane and on cruise control, you’re most likely missing out. Tsh writes that it’s important to “increase your sensitivity” and that means adjusting your acceleration in order to absorb what’s happening around you. No one uses cruise control when they’re going 15 mph. If you’re on cruise control, you’re probably going too fast. Fortunately, you don’t always have to come to a complete stop in order to smell the roses. Go slowly enough and you’ll still get a whiff.


Do you build your Monday evenings around The Bachelor?

3. You use “DVR” as a verb
It’s been fifteen years since TiVo debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Since then, DVRs have become household must-haves and while they’re not intrinsically harmful, if you own one and regularly use the term “DVR” as a verb, you’re probably moving too fast. If you’re not able to watch your favorite shows when they’re on (which is usually in the evening), chances are that it’s not because you’re resting in savasana or finishing a new novel. Tsh recommends slowing down and actually making time for TV if it’s that important to you. For her family, it’s their Friday night movies—any other TV is watched in moderation. After all, she writes,  “We adjust our schedules and budgets to allow ample time for our favorite shows, and then complain how busy and tired we are.”

to-do list.jpg4. Your To-do List is Done
If you think about it, your day is filled with checkmarks. Probably hundreds, and for most of us, they are recurring checkmarks. While being productive is not a bad thing, it can come at a price if at the end of the day, when all is checked and done, you can’t honestly say that you did something that you really, truly wanted to do—something that’s 100% you. Tsh seems happy and fulfilled, despite owning and running a blog business while homeschooling her three children—all under the age of ten. Granted, she has the help of her husband, but still, she writes, “I cannot remember one day in five years when my to-do list was completely finished. Not one.”


It’s entirely possible to put a chicken to sleep just by holding it. And singing a lullaby in birdspeak.

5. You Haven’t Even Considered Raising Chickens
Most people, especially athletes, eat eggs. Investing in chickens should be a no-brainer for anyone who eats a high-protein breakfast or enjoys baked goods. But of course, no one has time to find the space and order the birds and buy the food and collect the eggs and clean the coop. It’s perfectly acceptable to never own chickens, but if you haven’t even considered it, you’re most likely moving too fast. Tsh dreams of the day when her family can raise their own flock, and devotes a whole chapter to the idea in her book. However, she’s smart enough to realize that her family travels too much and writes, “Until we’re ready to raise our own chickens, I’m happy to support those who do.”

For more information about Tsh or Notes From a Blue Bike, visit Keep in mind—“Notes From a Blue Bike is written for anyone who feels like culture wears like an itchy sweater because it just moves too fast, that it worships productivity, that it defines “normal” as whatever anyone else is watching, doing, loving. And that in order to live well, with intention, you have to swim upstream with your daily choices.”


If you’re so slow that things are growing on you, I’m writing 5 Signs You Need to Pick up the Pace.

Gone Wolf Watching


Not 889F, but another of Yellowstone’s wolves. Photo credit: Becky Jackson

The rumor is she was shot. Fact or fiction, it’s clear that 889F is limping and dragging one leg. Yet, with only three good limbs, this lone wolf can still spook an entire herd of bison. Witnessing such interactions between wildlife is rare unless you find yourself in a place like Yellowstone National Park.

Visual representation of Yellowstone's wolves in 2004. Copyright © Jim Halfpenny, Ph.D.  Diann Thompson, B.S.N.

Visual representation of Yellowstone’s wolves in 2004. Copyright © Jim Halfpenny, Ph.D.
Diann Thompson, B.S.N.

If 889F was shot, it likely happened when she wandered outside of the park’s boundaries where she loses her federal protection. A highly efficient predator that doesn’t limit its food source to wildlife found within the park’s boundaries, the wolf is not always popular with local ranchers. In spite of, or perhaps because of this controversy, the wolf is one of the biggest attractions for Yellowstone. With only 80-100 wolves roaming within Yellowstone’s 3,500 square miles, even return visitors can go years without seeing so much as a track. For those determined to see the surprisingly mysterious ancestor of man’s best friend in its natural habitat, Nathan Varley, PhD is the man to meet.

Visual Representation of Yellowstone's Wolves--2004. Copyright © Jim Halfpenny, Ph.D.  Diann Thompson, B.S.N.

Nathan Varley is akin to the Wolf Whisperer.

Varley and his wife Linda Thurston own The Wild Side, LLC—a wolf watching excursion service that takes visitors into the wilds of Yellowstone in search of its most elusive, and often infamous, inhabitants. With parents who were park rangers and wildlife biologists, Varley is practically a product of the park and is one of few people who can brag about attending school inside Yellowstone. The small school Varley attended in Mammoth Hot Springs is now closed, but he recalls the time a bull elk got its antlers tangled in the swing set and mentions that there were plenty of days when recess took place indoors while the wildlife took over the playground. As a tour guide working in the area where he grew up, Varley shares stomping ground stories that are more entertaining and educational than much of what can be read in the material picked up at the visitor center. As a wildlife biologist who was involved with the initial reintroduction of wolves in 1995, Varley has firsthand and first-rate information about the eight wolf packs that live in Yellowstone.


Our private wolf watching bus; the closest we’ll come to renting a party bus.

Cold and dark are the conditions you want for beginning your Yellowstone wolf watch. Winter is the ideal time because the wolves stand out against the white snow. In addition, their prey is feeding at lower elevations—mostly along the river valleys near the roads. Seeing the sunrise also increases your chances of seeing these animals that are most active in the early morning hours. Although winter is prime time for wolf spotting, Varley and his team of local guides work year round to provide custom single or multi-day wolf excursions. Transportation is included, and a healthy array of high protein snacks and hot drinks are also provided. For humans and animals alike, food is not easy to find in Yellowstone, especially in winter when a blanket of snow can be just as bleak as beautiful. When asked how often wolves need to eat, Varley answers that while they need more food in the winter, it’s not uncommon for wolves to eat only once a week in the summer. With just one kill, an entire pack (Yellowstone’s packs range in size from two to sixteen wolves) can make do for days.

Photo from The Active Times.


It’s easier to spot the Park’s wolf enthusiasts than it is to spot the wolves.

In the 365 days of the year that America’s oldest national park is open, more than three million visitors pass through; yet, only a small fraction will be lucky enough to see a wolf. But luck is just one part of the equation. To exponentially increase the chances of seeing a wolf, insert a guide like Varley. Although there is very limited cell phone service in Yellowstone, Varley is well equipped with a precious piece of technology that most mere mortals don’t pack—a radio. This allows for constant communication with other elite wolf watchers including the select few that have the frequencies for the tracking collars that are on some of the wolves. Within this tight-knit community of wildlife biologists, photographers, and other wolf enthusiasts, information that most people aren’t privy to flows freely. On a recent excursion, this information resulted in five separate wolf sightings for a group who had hired Varley for the day. All were longtime residents of Montana and frequent visitors to Yellowstone; yet, many of them had never seen a wolf in the wild.

PicMonkey Collage

Snowshoeing in to see the last remaining exclosure pen. Humans were kept out and guards were stationed to make sure no one threw poisoned meat to the wolves.

Most of the legwork was done for them. In addition to doing the driving, Varley set up spotting scopes and packed seven pairs of snowshoes for a back-country trek to the last remaining acclimation pen which was used to hold the wolves when they were first brought to Yellowstone from Canada. Whereas wolves can cover upwards of thirty miles in one day, Varley lets his clients determine how much trail they want to blaze on their wolf excursion. Wolf watching can often be synonymous with wolf waiting, and in addition to perseverance for the excursion component, one needs patience for the exposure component. With temperatures dipping into the single digits, standing still at a spotting scope and waiting for a wolf to come into view can be surprisingly trying.  Still, a glimpse of one of the most revered residents of the wild and fabled characters of folklore is well worth the wait. For everyone from first timers to avid followers, there is something surreal about this species—Canis lupis—that sends a life-changing chill down the spine.

The Junction Butte Pack's 889F in April, 2013. Photo credit: Doug McLaughlin

The Junction Butte Pack’s 889F in April, 2013.

Whether or not she was shot, 889F still has a long, cold winter ahead. Humans rest on fate, but for wolves and the rest of the wildlife in Yellowstone, it’s all about survival of the fittest. Sure, the geysers like Old Faithful and the plentiful herds of elk and bison are neat, but it’s time spent attempting to track down the top of the food chain that is the most challenging and memorable part of a Yellowstone vacation. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, but when in Yellowstone, take a walk on the wild side. If you’re lucky, or smart enough to go with someone like Varley, there’s a very good chance you’ll see a wolf.

For more information about Nathan Varley and The Wild Side, LLC, visit For more information about Yellowstone National Park, visit

*This piece was first published in The Active Times


Memoirs of a Glacier

Glacier National Park (Montana side) 2013

Secrets from a Blue Zone

It’s not easy to believe that a third world country the size of West Virginia is home to more centenarians than anywhere on earth. But that’s what Dan Buettner discovered nearly seven years ago while on assignment for National Geographic. Based on additional research, Buettner took a pen and a map and circled the five areas in the world where people live the longest. Because of the color of the pen he used, they are known as the “blue zones.” Regions of California, Greece, Italy, and Japan made the list, but none of these areas can compete with the biggest blue zone of all—Nicoya, Costa Rica.


Approaching the Nicoya Peninsula on the last ferry of the day from Puntarenas.

dona mara

Dona Mara, in orange, leads the ladies in a series of Hail Marys as we walk one morning in February.

Rosary beads in hand, Doña Mara walks four miles every morning in the Costa Rican countryside. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of joining Doña Mara and her lady friends for their morning exercise. While I struggled to keep up with these older women, I did manage to be within hearing distance when they said good morning to the farmer who sells them corn. An ancient grain, corn is a primary source of energy for Ticos—the term that Costa Ricans use to refer to themselves—and Doña Mara serves corn tortillas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She even opens her home and modest outdoor kitchen to travelers from all over the world. Doña Mara’s daughter Irene is co-owner of GreenSpot Travel and says that the activity of visiting her mother’s home to learn how to make a local staple is one of the most memorable experiences for her clients. At 56 years old, Doña  Mara is certainly not a centenarian and where she lives is 100 miles east of the Nicoya region, but after just one encounter with her, it’s obvious she belongs in a blue zone.

Doña Mara’s secrets for longevity: Faith, four-miles every morning (rain or shine), and of course, corn tortillas.


Chepito dancing at his 112th birthday. Photo courtesy of

Over twice the age of Doña Mara, José “Chepito” is still alive and giving the nuns at his retirement home in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, a run for their money. The 113-year-old is the world’s oldest living man (although the folks at Guinness World Records need more documentation to prove it), but he’s also known for being the first one on the dance floor. Despite his loss of sight and the doctor’s orders to take it easy, he insists on taking his daily walks, even if it means scaling gates. In two years, if and when Chepito turns 115, he will break the record for the oldest man in recorded history. That’s a record previously held by a man from Japan, also on the list of blue zones.

Chepito’s secrets for longevity: You’ll have to ask him yourself. According to the Costa Rica Star, he’s a friendly guy and can be bribed with fresh fruit.

Rafael Angel Brenes

Rafael surrounded by friends and family at his 99th birthday.

Rafael Angel Brenes will turn 100 years old this February. His neighbor, Evelyn Gallardo, the author of Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica Travel Guides, says that Rafael has never suffered from memory loss or broken a bone.  He’s never had cancer, diabetes, or even high blood pressure. He eats very little added salt and sugar, loves gardening, and always gets at least ten hours of sleep a night. Time is something that Gallardo, originally from the U.S., has noticed Ticos don’t lose sleep over. “Ticos live in the now. If it didn’t get done today, there’s always tomorrow. Living in Costa Rica is never having to say you’re sorry for being late,” says Gallardo.

Rafael’s secrets to longevity: A healthy diet and a habit of making sure that the TV is always turned off by 6 p.m.


Lucas and Muki, one of the three resident Great Danes at Chalet Nicholas.

Lucas Mongrillo is 54 years old. He cooked me breakfast when I was staying at Chalet Nicholas, my favorite bed and breakfast in Costa Rica. The reason for my inaugural trip to Costa Rica was to help deliver 550 bicycles to poor communities where transportation is lacking. Lucas and I immediately bonded over bikes. A mountain biking champion, Lucas has made many cross-country trips, which is hard to believe given Costa Rica’s terrain and infamous roads. Even with his collection of trophies, Lucas lives very simply. Where he comes from, extended families live in the same modest structures and they don’t have much in terms of material things. Shared bathrooms, dirt floors, and limited appliances are the norm. Coffee makers are unnecessary; coffee is made by pouring hot water through a sock filled with coffee grounds. Cathy, the owner of Chalet Nicholas, moved to Costa Rica from the U.S. and noticed long ago that Ticos take great pride in their families and in helping their neighbors. When he’s not making breakfast for guests at Chalet Nicholas, Lucas serves on the town council and is very involved in the local community. Although Lucas has many years to go until he reaches 100, I won’t be surprised if he cycles his way straight to centenarianship.

Lucas’ secrets to longevity: My guess is leading a simple, yet active life that involves giving back to the community I planned to chat with Lucas and learn more about his secrets via Skype, but he doesn’t own a computer—which is telling and could very well be a secret in itself.


Jose and I helping sort and distribute 550 bicycles to poor communities in rural Costa Rica.

Jose Araya was born in Costa Rica, attended high school in Alaska, and played soccer for Montana State University in Billings, which is where I first met him.  At 27 years old, Jose has a long way to go before he qualifies for a senior discount, much less a membership in the centenarian club, but his experience living in both Costa Rica and the U.S. is why I decided to reach out to him.  It was Jose who first took me to Nicoya, and he told me that he isn’t surprised that Ticos live noticeably longer lives. The first thing he credits is the country’s status as a developing nation. Cars are luxuries, not necessities. “In rural areas, people walk or bike. Period,” says Araya. He also credits a diet heavy in fresh fruits and vegetables. Franchises have a hard time entering the country, and as a result, fast food is not nearly as cheap as it is in the U.S. It’s far more affordable for families to buy food from the local feria del agricultor or in Enlgish, a farmer’s market. Araya also notes that healthcare is free, and because Costa Rica has no army, the government is able to invest more money in health and education.

Jose has no secrets to longevity, yet. But he will be the first to tell you that his people don’t sweat the small stuff.  Instead, they sweat by taking advantage of the tropical climate and being active outside year-round.


“Alto” means stop in Spanish. As in stop and smell the roses for a sweeter life.

Much can be learned by traveling to a blue zone, and because Ticos are so warm and welcoming, Costa Rica is a great place to start. If it’s a healthier lifestyle that you’re looking for, you can’t go wrong in a country where pura vida—meaning pure or plenty of life—is the official greeting. No “hellos”, no “byes,” and certainly no not saying anything. Ticos believe that everyone deserves pura vida, and if you travel to Costa Rica, that’s probably what you’ll find and remember most.



Note: This piece first appeared on The Active Times

The Pharaoh Lake Fantasies

The Wikipedia definition of camping is misleading.


It’s a bad sign when even the dog is not enjoying himself.

Camping is an outdoor recreational activity. The participants (known as campers) leave urban areas, their home region, or civilization and enjoy nature while spending one or several nights outdoors, usually at a campsite.

“Enjoy” is not the right word.


There is a huge difference between camping at Tubmill Marsh and camping at Pharaoh Lake.



Last weekend Dan and I decided to go camping in the Adirondacks. We were counting on spending the night in a lean-to overlooking Pharaoh Lake–an isolated lake accessible only by foot. 35, 376 feet to be exact. Due to a late start and a lost wallet, we ended up spending the night in a lean-to in the middle of a marsh. This was where the
fantasies began.






Dessert dreaming: We broke the cardinal rule of camping. We packed not one bar of chocolate. While I had packed a Milky Way with every intention of eating it for dessert at camp, I ate it in the car. At the time I think I justified it by thinking that it was one less thing I’d have to pack on my back. There is nothing quite like needing dessert in the middle of a marsh in the middle of the night. With the nearest chocolate many miles away, I began to fantasize.

We had arrived at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and we were setting up camp next to the river. 

wilder wonka

“There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.”












Yankee and I. I’m in the yellow.


Dibs on the best bed: Sleeping bags scare me. I never know if something is hiding in the bottom of the sack. Something like a sock from a previous trip or something like an animal that is alive. We had packed no bedrolls or cots, so we had to spread out flat on the hard, cold, wood floor. In an effort to forget about the uncomfortable boards beneath me, I began to fantasize.

I was seven years old and in my parents’ warm waterbed. (I am now 24 years old and they still sleep in that waterbed.)


The note I left in the Tubmill Marsh guestbook.

Photo on 2012-09-27 at 08.17

Coffee tastes so much better when it comes from your favorite mug.

The I-want-it-my-way cafe: After a restless night in the lean-to, the first thing I wanted when I got (notice how I didn’t use the word “woke”) up was a cup of coffee. I don’t do black. Half milk, half coffee, two spoonfuls of creamer, and one sugar packet. Two of those. I drink two cups just like that every morning. Except this one. I found myself looking into a cup of instant coffee that Dan had made using most of the last of our drinking water. I was sitting on the edge of the lean-to wondering if that was a mosquito floating in my cup, and then suddenly, I wasn’t.

I was sitting in the most comfortable chair in the back of a cafe in Soho where I could look up from my copy of The New York Times to see a barista and a thousand dollar espresso machine. 


Horseshoe Pond you are such a tease!

Hello Horseshoe Pond Pharaoh Lake: After one cup of instant and some crushed cereal followed by a mushy banana, we began our five mile hike to Pharaoh Lake. It was brutal. The trail was a joke. Tacking up blue trail markers does not a trail make. Especially when the bushes are so thick and tall that you can’t even see the trail markers. After doing two miles in two hours, we saw a body of water. The map said Horseshoe Pond, but I saw something else.

Pharaoh Lake–sure it was smaller than expected, but it was also closer than expected. Meaning we could be out of these woods and back in the car by early afternoon before anyone had a chance to steal our things!



Who wants a s’more? Camping is all about the Albacore!

Did someone say fresh fish? After reapplying bug spray at Horseshoe Pond I heard a growl. It sounded like a black bear, but it came from my stomach. When we finally reached Pharaoh Lake hours later, we were both exhausted and ready for lunch. Dan had packed a fishing pole, and we had planned on catching fish to fry over the fire. But instead of reaching for the fishing pole, we reached for the pouches of tuna that we had packed as Plan B. I sat on a rock in the sun, shooed a snake away, and watched my tuna transform.



I even pretended that there were such things as sea plantains. Yum!



Our lunch was fresh lake trout and fried plantains. Dan and I had caught the most delicious school of fish. We even had enough to share with the dog!




Ice-cold and fresh-squeezed: Tuna begets thirst. Unfortunately, we had depleted our bottled water supply. We had foolishly packed only two bottles of water for two days. We used one to make that morning’s instant coffee, and the other one fell out of Dan’s backpack when he tripped mid-hike. (Perhaps he should have been wearing tactical boots instead of tennis shoes?) We didn’t notice that it was missing until we were at our thirstiest. Dan took out his camp stove and boiled some water from Pharaoh Lake. Sweating from the strenuous hike and the sun beating down on me, I gratefully took the cup of hot lake water that he handed to me, and I began to drink.



The ice cube to liquid ratio was ideal. My tongue tasted the most refreshing lemonade in the world, and I marveled that I was drinking it lakeside in the Adirondacks instead of in a booth at Applebee’s. 


How could I forget the Herbal Essences commercial? We left Pharaoh lake in the early afternoon so that we could make it back to the car before dark. We had to take the same lousy trail that we came in on. Dan had jumped into Pharaoh Lake but that lasted about two seconds because he was immediately bit by two fish. I decided that I was content with my many bug bites so I stayed out of the water and remained as sweaty and dirty as the dog. With hours of hiking ahead and indoor plumbing many miles away, I had to improvise.

“Yes, yes, YES!” herbal-essences-ad



It Takes a Village: Group Effort Goes Into Guidebook

As seen in The Costa Rica Star. Click here for more news on Costa Rica.   cover

Costa Rica Guidebook Unites Community:

 Author Asks Locals to Vote on Content

(Quepos, Costa Rica) Aug. 15, 2013— Using a private Facebook group open only to the residents of Manuel Antonio—one of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destinations—author Evelyn Gallardo determined what to include in her latest book: Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica Travel Guide: The Best of Manuel Antonio & Quepos 2013.

Manuel Antonio National Park is less than 8 square miles, but it receives more than 150,000 annual visitors. Of the 27 travel activities available in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio offers 24 of them. This unique community-driven approach to pinpointing the best of the best in the area is nothing new to Gallardo who says:

“My annual book is an intimate insider’s guide to local favorites and what makes our beach resort town and the people in it tick. I distribute a questionnaire, the locals vote for their favorite restaurant, tour, artist, massage therapist, etc. Next, I interview and write a chapter about each of the winners. The value to readers is they receive recommendations from a collective group of people who spend time and money here every day.”

Instead of a book launch party, Gallardo recently hosted an awards party at the “Best Local Hangout” where the “Best Live Band” provided music.  Awards were presented to the category winners in front of the entire community who gathered to honor and celebrate their favorites.Winners_Circle_FBCover2013

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica Travel Guide: The Best of Manuel Antonio & Quepos 2013 is available in paperback and for Kindle on Amazon and at

01fd415a7b950ad8956e05.L._V166335084_SX200_About the Author: Evelyn Gallardo first visited Costa Rica in 1988 as a wildlife photographer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Among the Orangutans – The Birute Galdikas Story and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica Travel Guide: The Best of Manuel Antonio & Quepos, 2012. She has produced more than 100 videos about Costa Rica, travel, conservation, and primates. Evelyn currently runs a vacation rental home business in Manuel Antonio.

For more information, images, and interviews, please contact Katie Jackson at 406-366-0526 or


Life is not fair, but this fare is.


A colorful funeral procession for a young father who died in an electrical accident in Nicaragua.

If you’ve ever had to book a flight within a week of your departure date, you’ve probably cried or broken something upon seeing the outrageously high prices. A flight that would cost $200 if booked two months in advance could very likely set you back $1,200 if booked two days in advance. But life isn’t fair, and sometimes you don’t have a chance to plan ahead. Death is one of those times. Sure, it would be much more convenient if the Grim Reaper could give at least two weeks notice, but he’s not that considerate.


Animals don’t count as relatives so you’ll have to pay full price to attend Fido’s funeral.

Fortunately, some airlines are. Most major airlines will cut you slack if you have to buy a ticket at the last minute to attend the final services of an immediate relative. Technically, your immediate relative doesn’t even have to be dead. As long as you can prove death is imminent, some airlines will still discount your fare.

This discounted fare is known as a bereavement or compassion fare, and it could save you a lot of money. When my grandma passed away last June, and I had to fly home with only a day’s warning, I saved $200 by taking advantage of Delta’s bereavement fare.  It would have cost $800+ to book my flight online, but by calling Delta and explaining my situation, I got my flight for $600. To be honest, I showed up a day after my scheduled flight, but they felt sorry for me and got me out on the next flight at no extra charge.

To be eligible for a bereavement fare, usually the airline will ask you for the name and relation of your relative as well as the name and contact number of his or her doctor, hospital, or funeral home.  But different airlines have different policies, and for a breakdown of bereavement fares by airline, see this article. As airline policies tend to change before the ink is dry, it’s best to check directly with the airline. Sure you may have to do some searching online or spend a little time on the telephone, but it pays off.

For example, my grandpa died yesterday. I’m in New York, but his funeral will be held in Montana early next week. A quick search shows that a roundtrip ticket from Albany to Billings, leaving two days from now, will cost $1448. However, last night I spent exactly 14 minutes on the phone with a Delta representative who was able to get me the same itinerary for $1090. That’s a savings of $358, or almost $26 per minute that I spent on the phone. Usually Delta charges $25 to book a domestic flight over the phone, but because bereavement fares are not offered online, they waive the fee. They also waive their $200 change fee should the traveler need to make changes to his or her return trip.

Depending on the size of your family, you could save thousands of dollars by taking advantage of bereavement fares. I hope you don’t have to, but should you find yourself in these circumstances, at least you now know how to lessen the blow. The question is, how long will airlines offer these discounted fares?


Encountered this legacy on my travels through Virginia.

  • For information about Delta’s bereavement fare policy, see here.
  • For information about United’s bereavement fare policy, see here.
  • For information about American Airlines’ bereavement fare policy, see here.
  • For information about Air Canada’s bereavement fare policy, see here.