New Hampshire Maple Weekend

Mapletree Farm - East Concord, New Hampshire

If you happen to be in northern New England during late February or March, are you in for a treat!  Maple sugaring is a tradition that has been taking place in New England for centuries.  Although the process has evolved over the years to what it is today, generations and generations of New Englanders have been tapping maple trees every spring to create maple syrup.  Maple sugaring is so much a part of the northern New England culture that the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association now has a weekend set aside to celebrate this time honored tradition (Vermont and Maine have similar celebrations).

Traditional metal sap bucket

Tapping usually begins in mid-February and continues until the maple trees begin budding.  In order to produce sap, trees need cold nights (below freezing) and daytime temperatures in the mid-40s.  This allows the sap to flow up into the trunk and branches of the trees where the sap is taken.  Once the warmer weather sets in, trees begin to bud and the sap runs dry.  Each tap can produce anywhere from 10 to 20 gallons of sap per season.  Although it sounds like a lot, each tap only yields about 1/2 to 1/3 of a gallon of maple syrup.  Trees are finicky, just like people.  The best sap production occurs on sunny days with little to no wind.  From year to year, the taps are moved to different areas of the tree.  After a tap is removed, the tree quickly begins to heal; within 1-2 years, the hole will no longer be noticeable.  Metal buckets can still be seen on trees (usually those close to the road, where the sap can be easily collected), but the majority of sap collection is done through the use of a network of hoses.  Each tree that is tapped is connected to others along the same hose line, beginning with the ones highest in elevation.  The sap then runs downward to holding tanks located close to the street, where it is collected daily.

The actual process of turning sap into syrup is fairly intuitive.  The sap is boiled to a particular density, then collected and bottled.  Sounds easy, right?  In fact, many sugar houses boil sap for up to 12-14 hours per day during the days when sap production is highest.  Sugar shacks are often small rooms with holding tanks for the sap and a large evaporation tank.  Sap runs into the back of the evaporator tank and makes its way through a series of “Z” shaped channels until it reaches the proper density, and is then drained off.  Believe it or not, it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup!

Just Maple - Tilton, New Hampshire

During New Hampshire’s Maple Weekend (mid-late March each year), over 100 sugar houses open their doors to visitors.  Many offer samples of syrup and other maple treats, and of course, there is plenty of bottled syrup!  Maple sugaring is a fascinating process, and watching the syrup being boiled (or even helping to bottle a couple of containers!) gives one a new appreciation for this centuries-old New England tradition!  Visit http://www.nhmapleproducers.com/ for more information on New Hampshire’s maple syrup production and to make plans for next year’s Maple Weekend!

Of Sunshine and Seashells – Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Where can you find miles of white sand beaches, world-class golf courses, and a National Wildlife Refuge, all within a matter of minutes from one another?  If you answered Hilton Head Island, give yourself a pat on the back!  Hilton Head has long been known for its laid-back, relaxed atmosphere and seemingly endless sun-filled days.  But Hilton Head is more than just golf courses and beaches.  Read on to find out more about this island of sunshine and seashells…

Coming to Hilton Head from I-95 (approximately 18 miles), you’ll first cross the bridge to Pinckney Island (more about that later) and then to Hilton Head Island.  The bridge spans the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000 mile waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts allowing boats to make passage without the perils of the open ocean.  Arriving on Hilton Head is like stepping into another world.  For visitors who return time and again, crossing the bridge is like returning home.  Whether you choose to stay at an oceanfront resort, a small inn, or a vacation rental, it won’t be long until you come to regard Hilton Head as “home” too.

Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn

Aside from the more obvious attractions that Hilton Head has to offer, there are many hidden treasures to be found on a visit to the island.  First on your list of island stops should be the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.  Here you can learn more about the island’s unique history and ecology, and enjoy a tour of the 68-acre plantation which contains some of the oldest buildings on the island.  From the visitor’s center, an easy walk leads you around the property, from boardwalks overlooking Jarvis Creek to the camellia gardens and butterfly enclosure.  Staff frequently lead tours of the property, and several off-property tours of the island are offered here as well.

Harbour Town Lighthouse

A trip to Harbour Town is a must for any visitor to Hilton Head.  With its iconic lighthouse, Harbour Town is a charming village located in Sea Pines Plantation at the southern end of the island.  If you visit in the morning, stop by the Harbour Town Bakery, situated just across the street from the main parking area.  Grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables and enjoy a coffee and morning pastry while you read the newspaper or simply watch the world go by.  When you’ve finished, start your exploration by strolling along the Harbour Town basin.  You’ll enjoy up-close views of the many yachts which call this harbor home as you make your way along the sidewalk surrounding the basin.  Keep walking until you reach the end of the sidewalk.  You’ll be standing right on the 18th green of the Harbour Town Links, site of the annual Heritage Classic golf tournament.  As you head back to the parking area, continue around the basin until you reach the base of the lighthouse.  If you’re feeling ambitious, climb the tower’s 114 steps for a stunning view of Harbour Town and the surrounding area.  Afterwards, spend some time walking around the small shops of Harbour Town or sit in one of the many rocking chairs and enjoy the view.

Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

Another highlight of a visit to Hilton Head is a stop at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, just over the bridge on Rte. 278.  With over 4,000 acres to explore, one can easily spend several hours at the refuge.  Trails are well-marked, and many shorter loops will give you a good feel for the property (be sure to pick up a trail map as you begin your adventure).  Walking away from the parking area, you will immediately be greeted by marshlands on either side of the trail.  Keep walking and you will come to several small ponds where alligators can frequently be spotted along the banks.  Although many visitors frequent the refuge, it is easy to feel surrounded by only birds and nature given the expanse of area within the refuge.  Common sightings include shore birds, wading birds, bald eagles, and nine-banded armadillos.  It’s a nature and bird-lover’s paradise!

One of Hilton Head’s main attractions is its miles of white sand beaches.  At low tide, the sand is hard packed, and bicycles are a common sight.  Often, sand dollars and starfish can be found in the sand near the water’s edge.  If you visit in the off-season, you’ll feel like you have the beach (mostly) to yourself.  A sunset walk on the beach is a sure way to relax after a day spent enjoying island life.

Hilton Head has a wide range of attractions which appeal to most any visitor.  With miniature golf, kayak and bicycle rentals, dolphin cruises, horseback riding, quaint village shops, and of course the beautiful beaches and golf courses, a visit to Hilton Head is sure to be a vacation you’ll remember.

Southern Charm and More – Savannah, Georgia

Savannah.  The name alone evokes images of the iconic land of plantation homes and horse-drawn carriages.  But did you know there’s more to Savannah than meets the eye?  Savannah is the second largest container port in the United States (second only to the combined ports of New York and New Jersey).  Visit the waterfront on any given day, and you will see large container ships making their way up the Savannah River from ports around the world.  Savannah has also been the setting for numerous Hollywood films (who can forget “Forrest Gump” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”?).  Savannah derives lesser-known notoriety as the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girl Scouts) and the site of sailing competitions during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

So, what’s a visitor to do with a day in Savannah?  Your first stop should be the Savannah Convention and Visitor’s Center.  The helpful staff can point you in the right direction and help you customize your day.  There are several tour companies that offer tours departing from the Visitor’s Center (including Hop On Hop Off trolley tours) as well.  Parking at the Visitor’s Center is free for the first hour, and $1 per hour thereafter.  Metered street parking is free after 5PM, and the Visitor’s Center lot closes at 6PM.  Plan ahead to move your car from the lot if you’ve parked there for the day.  A narrated tour of the city is a great way to start your visit.  Or, if you’re like me, you may choose to strike off on your own and explore the city by foot.  Savannah’s convenient (and free!) DOT buses circle the city and make stops every 20 minutes at well-signed locations throughout the Historic District if your feet get tired.

Savannah's Forsyth Park

Pick up a map at the Visitor’s Center before you head out.  The maps show the locations of the DOT stops, and also highlight many of Savannah’s attractions.  You’ll notice that the city is centered around 22 beautiful, historic squares located in a grid pattern throughout the Historic District.  Wandering in and around these squares will give you a good overview of the city, and will no doubt charm you into feeling like a true southerner.  The city’s crown jewel is Forsyth Park, located on the south end of the historic district.  Photos of the fountain in Forsyth Park have graced many a Savannah postcard, and for good reason.  The fountain was built in the 1850s and is thought to be a replica of a Parisian fountain located in the Place de la Concorde.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

During your wanderings, be sure to stop at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (located adjacent to Lafayette Square) to admire the beautiful stained glass windows.  Also not to be missed is a visit to Savannah’s City Market, where you can sample authentic Georgia pralines at Savannah Candy Kitchen and stroll through the many shops and galleries.  If you’re a Food Network fan, you’ll want to stop by Paula Deen’s The Lady and Sons restaurant (on West Congress Street).  Even if you forgo a meal in the restaurant (the wait can be quite lengthy), you can stop into the store next door and take a taste of Paula home with you.

If all the walking hasn’t worn you out yet, stroll over to East Bay Street, where you can walk down one of several flights of stairs to the cobblestoned River Street.  River Street is an eclectic mix of souvenir shops, restaurants, art galleries, and historic landmarks.  Grab a drink at any bar, and ask for it in a to-go cup (Savannah is one of a handful of cities in the U.S. with no open container law).  Stop for a rest on one of the many benches lining the Savannah River and watch the steady stream of boat traffic and cargo ships going up and down the Savannah River.  As you make your way down River Street, keep your eye out for the Olympic Monument commemorating Savannah’s role in the 1996 Summer Olympics.  Nearby, you’ll find the historic Waving Girl statue.  The statue is a tribute to Florence Martus, who greeted each ship entering and leaving the port of Savannah by waving either a handkerchief by day, or a lantern by night.  It is said that not one ship was missed during her 44 years on watch.

River Street

Whether you spend your day strolling through the historic squares, taking a guided tour of the Historic District, or enjoying the vibrant action along River Street, you’re sure to enjoy the southern charm and hospitality of Savannah.