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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Maine Shore

Which state has more islands than any other—5280 to be exact? Hawaii? No.
Alaska? No.
It’s Maine. Mark and I plan to tour the parks along the coast this week of Labor Day.

Our first stop the morning of our first, full day in Maine is Owl’s Head Lighthouse. We arrive before 7:30 a.m. yet see that the lighthouse is gated, and the gate is locked. Behind the lighthouse is the keeper’s house, and the keeper and his little schnauzer come out as Mark and I wander around taking pictures. The keeper invites us up to the top of the lighthouse even though it has been closed to the public since 9/11/01.

We have a clear view from up top this September morning and see a couple sail boats in the bay and a big clipper ship passing right in front of us heading in from sea. We thank the keeper and walk down the small stone steps, Mark almost tripping over the dog.

Our next stop is Fort Knox, built “during a period of tension between the United Kingdom and the United States over issues about the Canadian border. The intent was to defend the Penobscot River and Bangor, Maine” (Wikipedia.org). However, the place never saw any action, and in fact, its granite construction is—and will forever be—incomplete. Still, the fort is huge, so big we get lost wandering amongst its three levels of secret passageways, looking through the canon sights aimed out to the water.

After a picnic lunch and more than an hour at Fort Knox, it’s east to Acadia National Park, the first national park consisting entirely of donated land. As always, the first stop is the visitors’ center, where we see the day’s final showing of the park’s 15-minute introductory film. Then a ranger helps us with a park map, some trail guides and an Acadia National Park newspaper, all so we can plan our visit.

Acadia is in Bar Harbor, Maine, and the quaint, main street in Bar Harbor is packed with gift shops, surf shops, tourist offices and restaurants. We have reservations close for two nights. The first night Mark and I dine al fresco while listening to a jazz band. He has a steak; I enjoy a green salad with walnuts and raisins and a cup of lobster bisque.

We start the next morning on the Southwest Harborside. At Echo Lake Beach we park to hike the Beech Mountain trail. Though it’s up a mountain, it is only a 1.4-mile loop, so we decide not to encumber ourselves with water bottles.

The trail is marked moderate but it borders on strenuous and is littered with rocks the size of grapefruits and watermelon to refrigerator size. I don’t like climbing the metal rungs somehow sturdily fastened to the mountain, but I either go up them or go back. So I climb.

We are relieved to reach the top, and this eagle’s-eye view of Echo Lake Beach, where we stood less than an hour before looking up at where we’re standing now, is awesome.

Continuing the loop, we see the parking lot not too far away. Finally at Beech Mountain parking area, we are relieved the climb is over—before realizing our car is in the Echo Lake Beach lot. A bit thirsty, we continue on in what we think is the right direction and pass a couple with a map, who tell us we’re way off. Rather than backtrack, we aim in another direction and get lost.

We find the trail and get lost again and then refind the trail, admit defeat and head down the trail we headed up three and a quarter hours and about six miles earlier, meaning we have to climb down the ladders that I didn’t enjoy climbing up, clamber over rocks and brace ourselves for the steepness of the descent. We try not to think about how hungry and thirsty we are.

Finally at Echo Lake Beach lot, we collapse into the car and rest, doors wide, and each drain an Aquafina. It’s not even noon yet, and we’re nearly spent.

Finding enough strength to depress the gas pedal, Mark drives us to Pretty Marsh, our picnic lunch destination, however, there’s not a marsh in site. But the coastal location is pretty, and we sit at a wood table and eat our sausage, cheese and crackers undisturbed. After lunch we stop along a beach to see the natural sea wall, a bunch of rocks jutting into the ocean. The sea is going out, leaving many small pools in its retreat, undoubtedly filled with tiny sea creatures. But we are too exhausted from our earlier hiking fiasco to investigate them much.

In our room before 2 p.m., we shower and nap before heading to Main Street for some shopping, pizza and ice cream our final night.

Acadia National Park kicked our butts but the kitchy, cool Main Street of Bar Harbor heals all wounds.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Belterra Resort & Casino, Indiana

We entered the glass doors and walked into the grand rotunda with the colorful, intricate carpeting. Check-in was to the right, a gift shop and finer stores were to the left, and we encountered a café and nicer restaurants when we followed straight ahead.

We weren’t in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, we were in Belterra, Indiana at the Belterra Casino Resort and Spa, only 50 miles from the I-75/I-71 crossing of the Ohio River.

While normal room rates at Belterra are over $100 most nights, the resort offers a $60 discount on Monday and Tuesday nights if you show your Kroger Plus card. Mark flashed ours upon check-in.

We arrived at 2 p.m. and were hopeful that the room might be ready then, but we were disappointed. Jerri, the clerk, reminded us that normal check-in is from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. but that we were welcome to check back before 4 p.m. to see if the room were occupancy ready.
So we checked our two bags with the bellman and went exploring.

Our fist stop was the gift shop just to see the prices. Some gorgeous silver necklaces were only $15 a piece. I asked Mark to pick his favorite, and it was my favorite too, but it was so impractical.

“What could I wear that with?” I asked seriously.

He paused briefly, then replied, “With your wedding dress.” It was that fancy. I didn’t buy it.

The gift shop offered more practical items as T-shirts, sweatshirts, ball caps and short-sleeved baseball jerseys.

On our way to the casino, we passed The Aquarium, a nice restaurant with a hostess. I asked her if we needed to make reservations for dinner, and she shook her head no.

Then we noticed a line forming at a counter. The signs advertised the Champion’s Club. Joining the Club is free and allows people to get comped for time they play or money they invest in gambling at Belterra’s casino. Mark and I weren’t eager to begin losing our money in the slots or at the tables so we joined the cue. As we neared the front of the line, I saw another sign saying that joining the Club entitled new members to free buffet dinners. That’s a bonus.

After we got our comp cards, we boarded the boat, where the casino is located. The river boat, which never leaves the dock, has two levels of gaming, each with a free soda fountain at one end and a deli counter at the other. The lower level has mostly slot machines with only six gaming tables while the main level has more than twice as many tables plus plenty of slots.

At 3:15 our room still was not ready so we chose to explore the spa area.

On the second floor of the hotel is a workout room with free weights, weight machines and cardio equipment including a stepper, two stationary bikes and two treadmills. The separate men’s and women’s facilities have lockers, showers, hot tubs and saunas. The room supervisor asked us if we’d be interested in massage or specialty bath services they offered: Shiatsu and therapeutic massage, exfoliating and herbal baths, plus others.

The beauty salon, under separate management than the hotel or casino, offers haircuts, styles, dyes, facials, manicures, pedicures and even permanent makeup. I made an appointment to receive two services the next morning, to coincide with my massage, and then we went again to check our room’s readiness.

At 3:50 p.m. Jerri told us, “20 minutes.” We needed to sit after hours of exploring so we wandered across the hall to the chandeliered lounge and sat on a cushy couch.

Mark read a paper while I worked a crossword puzzle, and at 4:20 p.m. I checked the room’s availability. Still no go. I asked if someone could bring us the key cards when the room was ready, and at 4:30 p.m. Jerri politely handed them to us. We collected our bags from the bellman, and up to floor seven we rode.

After a bit of freshening up, we returned to the main floor for our free dinners—the best buffet ever, in my opinion—and an evening of gaming.

After losing almost $100 between us, we decided to retire to our nice room, where I bathed in the Jacuzzi and Mark watched baseball.

The next morning Mark slept in while I took advantage of the workout room before my treatments and massage.

I thought I’d have to wake him in a couple hours when I was finished, but he sat waiting for me as I floated from the best massage ever: told me he hit it big playing Let It Ride and had the where-with-all to quit while he was ahead, enough to cover my massage and manicure.

Belterra. Good gaming and great pampering: a vacation close to home.