A Day In Amish Country

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is world famous for being Pennsylvania Dutch Country and is the home of the largest Amish community in the world. The Amish’s story began like many of our ancestors. 300 years ago, the Amish left Europe for America to escape religious persecution. I have always been curious about the Amish lifestyle and customs so I was really excited to have a day to learn a bit and even more excited to try all of the the local foods.

It is amazing that just a few hours from New York and Philadelphia an entirely different world exists that rejects cars, electricity, and modernity. Even bicycles are prohibited in some communities.

Amish Farm Tour

The best thing we did during our visit, by far, was visit a working Amish Farm. We went to Old Windmill Farm in Ronks, Pennsylvania. The farm is run by Jesse and Anna and their family.

Our tour was led by Sadie, their 12-year-old daughter. If I could be guaranteed a kid like Sadie, I would have zero hesitation about having kids. She was bright and polite, and probably works harder than half the people I know. She gave us a captivating tour and a detailed explanation of how their farm works.

I got to meet Dancer, a carriage horse. Sadie told use that she had just been out for a run in the buggy with Dancer that morning. Children can start driving buggies at age 12.

My favorite part, hands down, was getting to feed the calves. They were adorable. The one on the left was only a month and a half old and it was already so big! I wanted to take one home with me but I’m not sure how to check a cow at the airport.

The calves were all about their bottle and were not very skilled at sharing. But I tried to make sure everyone got some. After feeding the babies, we got to meet their moms.

I even got to try my hand at milking, which was a lot different than my experience milking a goat. It was hard to make happen, but Bessie (the cows don’t have names, but she looked like a Bessie) was very patient with my inexperience.

We also got to feed their chickens fresh alfalfa. They love the leaves. However, I learned it is a task that is better accomplished with one hand at a time. Chickens do not care if they take your finger along with the alfalfa.

One brilliant feature of the farm is its namesake windmill. The windmill is connected to a well and every time the windmill turns it brings water up for the farm.

The farm was wonderful and made me wish I  had a small one of my own. But maybe just a garden and a few goats . . . milking cows is clearly not my forte.

Amish Buggy Ride

When we first started planning our trip I hoped that we would get to see some Amish buggies in person. But with over 30,000 Amish in Lancaster County, they were easy to spot. There are a few different types, but they are all in the same shade of grey, as dictated by their church.

We took a buggy tour with AAA (Amish All Around) Buggy Rides. Having a late summer ride through Lancaster County was a delightful way to spend a late summer afternoon. The weather was perfect, and at least 20 degrees cooler than what I am used to at home.

The ride went down a back country rode and went past  a few Amish farms and by an Amish schoolhouse. The entire ride was lined with gorgeous scenery.

We learned a lot on the ride about Amish homes and how they incorporate some technology into their lives. For example, the guide said you could tell Amish homes apart because the have green shades on the windows. Also, while the Amish avoid the modernity, they have incorporated some aspects into their farms. For example, they can use mechanical equipment to tend to and harvest their farm, but it has to be pulled by horses (which I knew). But I learned that they have also permitted the use of weed whackers and leaf blowers, which helps explain why their lawns are so perfect.

I definitely plan to take another buggy ride on my next visit. Regardless of the company you use, it is just a lovely way to see the area.

Pennsylvania Dutch Food

Because I don’t eat meat, I don’t often get to sample local fare. However, in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, many of the unique local foods are delicious desserts. I came armed with a hit list of foods I was dying to try.

Birch Beer and Homemade Root Beer

I’d never heard of birch beer before I planned my trip to Lancaster. Birch beer is similar to root beer or sarsaparilla and is a carbonated soda made from birch bark or the sap of a birch tree. Apparently it is very popular in the area. I didn’t find any homemade, but there are several commercial varieties that are from the area. The birch beer I tried was less sweet than most root beers, I which I really liked. I’ll have to track some down at home.

You can actually find homemade root beer at most roadside farm stands. We got a bottle of it from Bluegate Bakery and it was delicious.

Whoopie Pie

My first whoopie pie changed my life. Several states claim to be the home of whoopie pies (including my native Virginia), but regardless of the origin, they are a long lasting Pennsylvania Amish tradition. Whoopie pies consist of two cookie sized (traditionally chocolate) cakes with marshmallow creme in the center. And it is heaven. I only bought one and I am both thankful for and loathe that decision. I would have loved to have a few to devour, but it would have been a terrible dietary decision. And no, a fresh whoopie pie is nothing like a moon pie. That is like trying to compare Alec and Stephen Baldwin.

Shoofly Pie

Shoofly pie sounds like is it from the South, doesn’t it? I mean, it is full of rich molasses, and Southerners love that crap. Nope, it is another native of Lancaster County and was developed by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1880s. It is like if a molasses pie and a crumb cake had a delicious love child. They come in two varieties: dry bottom and wet-bottom. The dry-bottom has a cake-like consistency throughout and the wet-bottom has a stickier, gooier custard-like consistency for the bottom layer. We got to sample the wet bottom variety at Dutch Haven. It was sugary and delicious . . . and we brought back a few pies to give as gifts to our friends.

Wilbur Buds

Wilbur buds are chocolate kiss-shaped chocolates (that pre-date Hershey kisses) made by the Wilbur Chocolate Company in Litiz, Pennsylvania. They are a favorite of the area. Their factory is located in town and you can watch them make their sweets from inside the shop. We got a few bags of the Wilbur buds as well as various other assorted sweets. The chocolate isn’t as sweet as Hershey’s, which is why I am telling myself that makes them better for me.

Julius Sturgis Pretzels

Julius Sturgis Pretzels was established in 1861 and was the first pretzel bakery in the new world. We had a special request to pick up some snacks there from a friend and we gladly obliged. We got some bags of our own and also grabbed a hot and fresh soft pretzel for the road. Yum!

Chow-Chow

Chow-Chow is a Pennsylvania Dutch dish that consists of pickled vegetables served cold and usually as a condiment. We picked up a few jars from a roadside stand (from Bluegate Farm and Annie’s Kitchen in Ronks) and it ended up being quite delicious. We saved one jar for later and I am looking forward to finding interesting ways to serve it.

Additional foods

There were so many other foods we tried, I can’t even keep track of them all. On our buggy tour we stopped for the best fresh made lemonade I’ve ever had (somehow it was simultaneously sweet and not sugary). We also grabbed some fresh homemade cheddar cheese and potato ships from Li’l Country Store next to the Old Windmill Farm. I could not stop eating them.

Even with all of our stops and snacking, I did not get to try apple butter with cottage cheese, cup cheese, fasnachts, jewish apple cake, or teaberry ice cream . . . all local delicacies. But there is always next time (and I ate way too much as it is). 

Things to avoid in Lancaster County

Our day had a few low lights that I would urge every person to avoid. The so-called “Amish Village” in Ronks and the Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse. Both are horrific tourist traps that have absolutely nothing to do with the beauty of Lancaster County or the Amish lifestyle.

The Amish Village was giant waste of time and definitely sold a false bill of goods as far as claiming it was an “authentic 1840’s Amish farmhouse.” (It had electricity, lights, air conditioning, and was basically a house filled with anachronistic Amish props.) We also learned very little on the tour as it covered basics you could get watching any documentary or just by reading Wikipedia. Going there was seriously bad research on my part, which I later regretted.

Kitchen Kettle Village was not an intentional stop for us, as we try to avoid large gatherings of tourists and shopping centers. However, it turned out the buggy tour we selected departed from the village. While the tour itself was nice and relaxing (and I’d still recommend it), the masses of people and the trashy tourist kitsch was a mood killer. 

If you visit Lancaster, stick to the local farms and farm stands for a more authentic experience. The difference is immeasurable and I am sure the farmers will appreciate your business. 

Summation

I loved Lancaster County and I hope to make a return trip next summer and try to cover all the things we missed on this trip due to our short visit, wasted time at the Amish Village, and a lost wallet (ok, mine) that cost us an hour detour. It is a nice escape from the pace of my busy life and was a check on what is really important.

Exploring A Pennsylvania Coal Mine

What do you do when you have a day to kill in Scranton, Pennsylvania? After you visit all of The Office landmarks and try a piece of Old Forge pizza, the best thing to do is take a trip down into the old Lackawanna Coal Mine. It seems like a sleepy little attraction, but over 30,000 people visit the mine each year.

The Lackawanna Coal Mine even made an appearance on the third episode of The Office:

No, Michael, sadly there is no laser tag.

You begin your journey in a mine car (or mantrip car) that takes you 300 feet beneath the Earth through an anthracite coal mine. The ride down the slope takes 3-4 minutes.

As soon as you get out of the mine car you realize it is really freaking cold underground. It stays 53° down there all year long. It is a nice break from the summer heat, but I am definitely glad I brought a jacket. The walking tour covers one-half mile through the mine’s pathways and lasts about an hour.

The tour was very informative and gave us an idea of what it was like to work in a coal mine.

The Lackawanna Coal Mine originally opened in 1860 and operated until November 1966. The mine reopened in 1985 for visitors.

The mine was filled with mannequins that demonstrated the jobs that miners typically had. Of course, the first one I saw scared me to death because I thought it was real and some guy was just lurking in the mine.

Working in a coal mine is no joke. We learned about miners getting blown up, crushed, or suffocated. I feel pretty lucky that I have a cushy office job and the worst thing I have to worry about is a bad day in court.

You can walk through imagining what it was like dealing with poor air quality, ankle-deep water, blasting, dust, and practically zero light. The only light most miners had to work by was a small candle on top of their helmets.

The only requirement for working in the mine was being a man. There were no educational or vocational prerequisites. Boys as young as 7 worked for pennies guiding mules and opening doors for mine cars. Many died because they were more expendable to the coal company than the machinery they operated. It truly was a different time.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to work in a mine, this is your chance to find out. The tour is a fun way to spend a hot afternoon and gives you a little taste of the history of the area.

Snowmobiling to the Continental Divide

I have been a bit delinquent with my posting. The last few weeks have been filled with traveling and spending time back home in Virginia with my family, so I simply have not been able to find the time to write. I still have many adventures and stories to share about my time off from work!

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One of my favorite snowy excursions during my time in Breckenridge was snowmobiling through the Swan River Valley and up to the Georgia Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide. In Colorado, the divide separates the the watersheds that flow into the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

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I booked a tour with Good Times Adventures, the same company that took me dog sledding. The season had just begun so we had brand new, two-week-old 2017 Ski-Doo Grand Touring 600 snowmobiles. They were sleek and sporty and, most importantly, came with heated handlebars and throttle.

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I booked the first tour of the day so I could see the sun rise through the trees as we climbed 2,000 feet to the summit. At first, driving the snowmobile took a little getting used to. Every time I hit a bump or block of ice I was worried that I was going to go careening into the line of trees. However, after just a few minutes on the trail I was able to relax and enjoy the wintery landscape.

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Our guide, Susie, took us though the winding snow-white paths which were dotted with pine trees and hills. Occasionally, we got to see a dog sled out for a morning run or some horses on their way for a visit with a vet.

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As we neared the peak, the trail steepened and the trees cleared.

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I was greeted with an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the Swan River Valley, Summit County and the White River National Forest.

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I was also greeted with the coldest air I have ever felt in my life. While my long underwear and snow suit kept me nice and toasty in the valley and on the trail, the icy wind at the top cut through it like a knife through butter. I was only able to get a few pictures at the top before the battery in my phone froze and died.

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Other than the view, the most striking part of being at 11,585 feet is the absolute silence. All I could hear was the wind and my labored breathing from the thinned air.

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Even though my phone battery died, my video goggles managed to capture the entire journey to and from the Continental Divide. I tried to trim the hour-long trip as much as I could, but the ride was just too beautiful to only make a 3-minute montage. Here are some of the extended highlights:

If you have a chance to visit the Rockies in winter, be sure to add snowmobiling to your itinerary. It is certainly worth the detour.

Snow Skiing in the Rockies

As part of my New Years trip to Breckenridge I decided to try my hand at skiing. It is something that I have wanted to do for a long time, but living in the South does not afford a lot of opportunities to hit the powder.

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I had never taken part in any winter sports prior to this trip (if you don’t count sledding down my front yard after snowstorms). I knew that if I was going to hit the slopes I would have to take a lesson. Me, on skis, without any training, would be a menace to everyone on the mountain.

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My friend Jill and I took a lesson for first timers in order to learn the basics. The first half of the day was designed to get us acquainted with the fundamentals.  We started by skiing in a circle on one ski, sidestepping up and down a hill, and then wedging down a hill. All of this, fortunately, was in a designated ski lesson area. This was wise, because while I was doing well with skiing, I was not doing so hot with stopping.

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Somehow after lunch, and with a few extra tips from my instructor, I managed to get a better hold on slowing myself and eventually stopping. When we returned from our break, five of the eight members in our class decided not to return. Apparently, they determined skiing was not for them. That was sad for them, but awesome for the three of us who remained. We basically got a semi-private lesson for the rest of the day. In the afternoon our awesome instructor took us up the QuickSilver SuperChair life to Ten Mile Station.

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I felt like I had a better handle on the skis in the afternoon than in the morning. We practiced our turns going down the slope so I was able to build up a little speed and confidence. I really liked being able to break away from the group and have a little space to practice. I managed to finish my day with no major incidents or broken bones.

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The next day I met up with my friends Lilas and Chris, who just happened to be in Breckenridge at the same time. Luckily, I mentioned my visit in a previous post which Lilas read while sitting in the Denver airport.

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I was excited to ski with them, not only because they are amazing people, but because they are substantially more accomplished skiers than I.

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We started on the same runs I tried the day before, but took a few different routes down—a few of which were much more complicated than what I did the day before and included icy wooded paths and sharp hills. We also took the A-Chair higher up Peak 9 where I learned that all green trails were not created equal. I actually spent a good part of my day on my back with a lovely view of the sky.

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But overall I had an absolute blast, falls and all. At the end of the day I decided to take one more pass down the mountain. Mainly because the easiest way to get to the ski shop was to ride the lift back up and ski down. Somehow I managed to make it the entire way without incident and I actually had my GoPro recording.

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Here is my video of my first time skiing all the way down alone without falling. Yes, I am going slower than almost everybody, but I am pretty sure everyone else had been skiing a lot longer than one day.

I can’t wait to go skiing again. I will definitely take another lesson (or two) next time to give me a refresher and help me develop my skills. Unfortunately, unless the resorts get a lot closer to home, it may have to wait until next season.

Dog Sledding Through The Rocky Mountains

When I was first planning my winter vacation I wanted something to complement my escape to the Dominican rainforest. When I could not find another tropical retreat that fit my days off, I decided to go the complete opposite direction and head to a winter wonderland. As part of the trip, I wanted to cross off a few things from my winter To-Do List. Item #1 on that list was dog sledding!

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I went to Good Times Adventures in Breckenridge, Colorado. Good Times has 160 purebred Siberian huskies, and is the largest Siberian husky kennel in the United States. The dogs consume 2000 pounds of dog food a week and have a protein snack after every run. Sounds like me on vacation.

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The dogs are well cared for and do 2-3 runs (10-15 miles) a day. But the dogs love to run! This is actually a light workout for a Siberian husky, as they are capable of running for over 100 miles a day or 20 hours straight! In fact, while waiting for the next run, the teams have to be tied to a tree so they don’t take off. They want to run all day!

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Good Times Adventures uses all female and all males teams “to keep trouble in the same place,” but racers often mix males and females. Our guide said that the females are much faster and goof off less.

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The dogs start training at 6 months and are a part of a team until they are about 7-8 years old. After retirement, the pups become part of their adoption program.

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We had an all male team with Fez and Django (the lead dogs), Olaf and Drake (the swing dogs), Chief and Trix (the team dogs), and Cyprus and Ninja (the wheel dogs).

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The dogs in the front are the super smart lead dogs who guide the pack. However, if they make a mistake or get into a fight they will get “demoted” and moved further back in the lineup. Our guide said that the dogs can tell when they get demoted and promoted.

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The dogs in the back wheel position, according to our guide, are the “meatheads” and workers of the bunch. They are not the brightest lightbulbs. (But who needs to be smart when they are that handsome?)

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Each tour accommodated six people. The dog sled was led by our guide pulling a sleigh via snowmobile. Four people rode in the sleigh and the other two rode the dogsled, one as the rider and the other as the musher. We all got to take turns in each position.

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The actual ride was spectacular! It was a blast to zoom though the snowy woods behind a team of dogs.

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We took some of the hills pretty slowly, but once we got going we had to hold on tight!

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I really don’t know what I loved more, the scenery or the ride itself.

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While the dogs do almost all of the work, the sled does come with a safety brake. We also help control the sled by leaning into the turns.

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However, some of the turns were a little too rambunctious and we almost took a little spill (pictured above). But fortunately we were able to stay on the sled.

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Both before and after the run I got to pet the dogs. They were sweet and soft, but definitely just waiting to have a chance to do some more running!

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Below is a compilation point of view video of our runs. I did not have a helmet to attach my GoPro to, so I rented some awesome goggles that recorded it for me. As a disclaimer, my friend forgot I was recording so there is some language that is not suitable for children.

Here is a compilation video from the guide sled. You can’t hear her swearing in this one.

If you want to add a little adventure to your winter travels and cuddling on some adorable doggage is a priority, then go check out Good Times Adventures. However, book early. I called weeks in advance and they were already almost fully booked during my visit.

Sleeping in a Tree House in the Dominican Rainforest

My last post chronicled my time in the Dominican Republic and my visit to Dominican Tree House Villages. DTHV is, just as it sounds, a community of tree houses in the Samaná province of the Dominican Republic. Think Swiss Family Robinson, but with electricity. There are no walls, no wifi, and no TV. It is only you and nature. And it is magnificent.

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Because I arrived at night, I could not appreciate the beauty of DTHV until my first morning there. However, that did not mean my other senses could not enjoy my accommodations. The sounds and smells of the rainforest teased me for what morning had in store.

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Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

After a long day of travel, I wanted a shower before unwinding in bed. Because I reserved a VIP room for my first two nights (it was booked for the rest of my stay) I had my own private outdoor shower. It was pitch black outside, but I was determined to take advantage of it. It is a little odd to shower in the dark. It is even odder to shower in the dark, outside, in the jungle.

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Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

While I felt exposed, for lack of a better word, I was actually well hidden from view, especially in the dark of night. While I was shampooing my hair (which responds to humidity about as well as Monica Geller’s), I looked up and saw the familiar sight of Orion’s belt above me in the night’s sky. I don’t think the stars have ever looked more bright and clear than they did at that moment. Even if I did absolutely nothing else on this trip, that view made it all worth it. But, enough about that, back to the tree house.

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The absence of the sounds I was accustomed to was noticeable. There were no cars, no sirens, no trains, no busy city streets. Each night I drifted off to sleep listening to the sounds of crickets, tree frogs, and tropical birds in a symphonic cacophony of nature.

Dominican Tree House Village

Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

Instead of walls, there are giant vibrant red curtains on all of the tree houses. These are more for blocking out light and providing privacy than from shielding you from the elements. But the climate is so perfect that there really isn’t anything to be shielded from. To safeguard you from the insects, each bed comes with a mosquito net. However, I only saw a few bugs on one night of my stay and was never bitten by anything during my time there.

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Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

Both of my rooms were well above the tree line and far away from the other tree houses, so I never closed my curtains and instead opted to be awoken by the rising sun and have an uninterrupted view of the gorgeous sunsets. I should note that this view came with a price: 100 steps up to my VIP room and then 70 steps up to my second “treetop view” room. There were times I contemplated whether the walk to my tree house might actually kill me.

Dominican Tree House Village

Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

Throughout the day and night, heavy, but short, rainstorms pass through the area. You know, because it is the rainforest. The storms provided a soothing sonic backdrop that Sharper Image wishes it could capture for its white noise machines. The rain never lasted long and we usually dried off pretty quickly. I brought my umbrella and rain jacket but never bothered to use them, opting instead to enjoy the refreshing showers.

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One of the lovely things about DTHV is that it is nestled in Samaná, an area in the northeastern part of the country relatively untouched by tourism or commercialism. There are only a handful of hotels and few tourists. Therefore, you really get to experience the culture and people of the Dominican Republic, unlike in resort towns like Punta Cana.

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When it comes down to it, I am doing a rather poor job of capturing the uniqueness and beauty of both Samaná and the DTHV. To say my experience there was anything other than life changing would be a serious understatement. While I have gone glamping before, I can honestly say my time at DTHV was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I now hope to have at least one vacation a year where I can completely disconnect and immerse myself in nature. Perhaps Giraffe Manor in Kenya will be next.

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I actually feel that, in my short time there, it has already affected my personality and preferences. Upon my return from the rainforest, the hustle and bustle of the airport (especially after I returned to the United States) was sensory overload. I could not handle all of the sights and sounds around me. I have also found that I do not like having the TV on anymore (though that may fade once all of my favorite shows return later this month). Although, I really hope these changes are not temporary and I can maintain my new low-technology life.

When it comes down to it, if you are looking for an escape, and resort life isn’t for you, I truly suggest slipping away into some relaxation and tree house living at the Dominican Tree House Village.

 

Beating the Holiday Blues: What Happened When I Cancelled Christmas and Went to the Caribbean Alone

The holidays are hard for everyone. We all feel it, right? While it is the most wonderful time of the year it also comes with a great deal of stress. For me, it also comes with a great amount of sadness. I recently lost both my mother and father within 13 months of each other. And it sucks. It really sucks. Even after having some time to process it all, I still can’t put into words that, despite being 30-something, I still feel like an orphan. To add to that, my closest family is over 600 miles away. It can make the holidays exceedingly lonely.

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I am a firm believer that we are in charge of our own feelings. We can either let life’s circumstances get us down or we can fight back and make the best of our situation. I choose to do the latter. In mid-November it struck me that as a single woman “doing the Mary Tyler Moore thing,” as my financial advisor once described it, I had absolutely no plans for the holidays. I contemplated going home to Virginia to see my sister, but decided that being so close to home was a little more than I could handle this year. I then contemplated going to Los Angeles to see my brother, but thought that the lack of winter weather I was accustomed to wouldn’t make it feel very Christmasy. I considered staying in Tennessee, but that seemed like the worst option of all.

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It then occurred to me that I wasn’t limited to those 3 options. I could just skip Christmas entirely and remove myself from what was causing my blues. It was a moment of pure inspiration. I started thinking about where I wanted to go. I had a few considerations: safety (as a solo female); weather; maximizing daylight hours; and being able to make the most of my time off. I knew I had to go South.

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A few months ago a friend told me about the Dominican Tree House Villages in the Dominican Republic. Just as it sounds, it is a community of tree houses in the Dominican rainforest. There are no phones and no internet, there was only fun, relaxation, and adventure. My Christmas gift to myself was not having to experience Christmas.

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I arrived in the Dominican Republic on Christmas Eve. Between a busy week at work and preparing for the trip I had somehow avoided all things Christmas, and the holiday, which my family heavily celebrated in my youth, barely seemed to register with me. I was both thankful for this distraction and a little saddened by it.

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I should pause here to explain that I just resigned from my job, leaving my first law firm behind. A job offer at another firm just coincidentally came in two weeks before I was set to take this vacation. It seemed like kismet and I put in my notice before my trip so I could truly unplug. What was supposed to just be a Christmas vacation suddenly turned into five weeks of #funemployment.

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With leaving my job, a switch seemed to flip inside of me. My typically high-strung and high-stress personality went instantly into vacation mode in a way I had not experienced since before undergrad, a period that seems like a lifetime ago. A weight, much heavier than I realized I was carrying was lifted from my shoulders. I had a special kind of freedom. It was not just the joy of being on vacation, it was the type of freedom you can only appreciate after years of being tethered to your desk, email, and phone, and overnight all chains are released.

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How does this relate to the story? Well, this freedom awaked a part of me I truly didn’t know I had. I am generally quite the introvert and lost inside of my own head, self-consciously overthinking everything. However, the second I got to the DTHV I felt transformed into an extrovert. I found myself excitedly chatting with everybody I met and willfully (and joyfully) engaging with strangers. The fact that I felt so comfortable with this scenario was a head-trip to say the least.

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I flew into Santo Domingo and then had a 2.5-hour drive to Samana to the DTHV over windy and sometimes unpaved roads. When I arrived it was dark, so while I could hear the song of the jungle all around me, I would have to wait until morning to see it. When I walked in, everyone had already sat down to dinner. I joined a family at a large table and went through the general getting to know you type questions.

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But as dinner finished and the rum began to flow, the music switched from Christmas classics to Latin rhythmic dance tunes. The tables were pushed aside and the party began. There was laughing, there was mingling, and of course, there was dancing with handsome men. Their aim at DTHV is to have a community atmosphere, and they achieve it. I got relatively little sleep my first night. My brain was not used to shutting off. (I’ll write more on what it is like to live in a tree house in my next post).

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I came down early to breakfast the next morning and was the first one there. If you know me, you know that I am never early (or even on time) to anything before noon. It was very peaceful to sit alone and read before the day began. Due to my work schedule, this was the first full book I read in 3 ½ years. (In case you are wondering, I chose Eat, Pray, Love. Cliché, I know, but whatever, shut up, it’s good.). As we ate, White Christmas played overhead. Bing Crosby’s crooning was in utter discord with the warm tropical surroundings.

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When I awoke the next morning I was greeted with a breathtaking view of the Samana jungle. It was everything I hoped it would be, but I would later learn it was merely a preview and a minuscule slice of the beauty the region had to offer.

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My first excursion with the group was an ATV ride through Samana to sightsee and spend time at the area beaches. I’ll write more on it in a later post since ATVing was a first for me, but I will say that I loved being able to do something truly active for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. The last time I took all day to do something fun was July, and before that was too long to remember.

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That night, we retuned to the tree houses sore and muddy and ready for dinner. I decided to unwind with a massage (or two) because, dang it, I am here to treat myself.

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Over the next few days we had three more excursions that included ziplining through the rainforest, a visit to a bird sanctuary and National Park, and a boat trip Bicardi Island, horseback riding up (and down) a treacherous path to a gorgeous waterfall (even though I’ve previously done a post on horseback riding, this was so different to what I’ve done before that there may be separate post coming on that).

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As I spend time in the Dominican Republic, I became more and more relaxed. My first day I tried to straighten my hair to control its craziness. However, it is so humid here that it started recurling while I was straightening it. By day two I gave up on taming it completely and let it go wild with reckless abandon. This might not seem significant, but if you know me you know that this is a pretty huge deal. By the second night I was running around barefoot wearing my new Dominican dress and jewelry . . . and loving it. My structured life was slowly breaking down. Over this same period, my over-packed and very heavy backpack became lighter and lighter as I shed the things I no longer needed. How is that for a metaphor?

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One of the best parts was traveling to the different beaches and areas for our excursions. The countryside is awe inspiring and rich with culture, and the buildings are as colorful as the people. There is also no shortage of nature. The animals (horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, geese, peacocks, dogs, and cats) roam free with the autonomy of a newly licensed driver. The plant life does not fail to impress with its delicious offerings (we saw and sampled pineapple, coconuts, mango, papaya, oranges, passion fruit, bananas, plantains, sugar cane, coco/chocolate, and coffee). This, of course, meant that all of our food was incredibly fresh.

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Everyone is also very trusting there. You can buy everything around DTHV on credit with the promise that you would pay them later. It was not uncommon for vendors to leave their wares completely unattended. In fact, I really had no concerns about handing over my bags (full of cameras, electronics, and my wallet) to our guides or leaving my bags unattended on the beach—something I would never do in the United States. I even often left the door to my tree house open rather than take the five extra seconds it took to secure the lock.

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I read reviews about how DTHV was like a family, and it did not take long to see why. Most of the people there were traveling as couples or as families, but even though I was there alone, I felt as if we were all on vacation together. Spending time with my fellow adventurers Jane, Jordan, Manas, Nathan, Rosie, and Jon (just to name a small few) made the experience feel like a glorious pre-planned group party. They also inspired some future adventures for me. Nathan and his daughter Amelia have the next six years of their own vacations and adventures already listed out, which includes seeing all Seven Wonders by the time she turns 18. Seeing their list motivated me to make my own, something I have been avoiding doing these last few years. With my previous job, and my inability to take a vacation, I resisted making a “To See” list because it seemed so unattainable. But, the new job will (hopefully) bring new life opportunities and I plan to sit down soon and map out everywhere I want to visit in the next 10 years.

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One family made my visit particularly special. Cindi and Bruce, and their adult children Justin and Samsara were the family I didn’t have. They were warm and inviting and were some of the most special people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. They left a few days before me and I felt like I was saying goodbye to lifelong friends. I felt very lucky to spend my time with them. Interestingly, their son Justin and I shared a mutual friend. Not an acquaintance or a second cousin three times removed, but someone we had both spoken two within the last two weeks. In fact, our mutual friend had actually mentioned Justin to me on more than one occasion. I don’t believe in coincidences, and I know this unlikely connection is just evidence that I was supposed to cross paths with these wonderful, inspiring souls. (Below is Bruce, Cindi, Justin, me and Samsara posing for a “family” photo observing Bruce’s rule that all of our heads must touch).

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I almost forgot to mention the staff here, which would be a horrible disservice to DTHV. Despite being majestically beautiful, the reason the place is so magical is because the people who work here make it that way. Everyone from Pedro my driver (who greeted me with a bottle of Champaign when he picked me up and stopped for coconut bread on our return), to the manager Austin (who went out of his way to make every day perfect), to Alex (who made me a dozen or so mouthwatering rum and juices during my stay), Danielle, Patricia (masseuse and yoga instructor), Leo (our talented chef), Michael, Bebo, our tour guides, and everyone else (I wish I could list every single person because it really was a group effort).

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My week at the DTHV was a transformational experience. I do not think I will ever be the same and it will have an impact on me (and my trip planning) for years to come. I now want to have as many immersive experiences as possible and I plan to find places similar to DTHV once I return. I know, of course, that DTHV was a once in a lifetime experience that cannot be replicated.

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Next week I am going to Breckenridge for the second half of my vacation for dog sledding, skiing, and snowmobiling (all New Things with future posts), but after my time here, I am nowhere near as excited as I was when I first planned it. I want to stay in the Dominican jungle forever.

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