Meadowood Memories

By Penny McTaggart

Napa Valley isn’t just about wine. It’s for families, too, especially if they want to create lifelong memories. A great place to do just that is at Meadowood Resort where family gatherings are a fond tradition. Two, three and four-bedroom family lodges are located throughout the resort, allowing a luxurious, beautiful, private setting for reuniting two or three generations under one roof.

Large central living rooms with fireplaces, spacious kitchens and French doors leading to private balconies all contribute to the “one big happy family” feeling. Gather around the roaring fire to play games, share stories under twinkling stars, watch movies and get to know each other a little better. The Hillside 4-bedroom suite has 3,025 square feet so everyone can have privacy amidst the splendor.

One evening should be dedicated to a magnificent dinner at the three-star Michelin-rated Restaurant at Meadowood under the direction of Chef Christopher Kostow. If parents are interested in teaching their children the fine art of dining, this is the place.

Playing with Pachyderms

Saddle up for the remarkable experience of an elephant-led trek through the rain forest of Thailand

By Penelope McTaggart

Elephant Walk - Thailand

Trying to decide where to take my 13 year-old goddaughter, Ally, was a major challenge. She’s easy going, athletic and extraordinarily curious but she’s also a seasoned traveler who pooh-poohs anything ordinaire. When I met Jonathan Chell at a party recently, I knew I had found the perfect place…Elephant Hills Nature Lodge, Thailand’s first luxury jungle camp combining the camp idea of African national parks with the Thai tropical forest environment.

The Journey begins

After spending a few relaxing days on the beaches of Phuket, we begin our trek to Khao Sok where the sumptuous tailor-made safari tents are located. Transportation is a part of the all-inclusive price, so we jumped in the van ready for what we thought would be a two-hour drive. Boy, we were in for a surprise. On the highway leaving Phuket we turned down a long dirt road through deep woods to a tiny pier next to a hut, where we boarded a speedboat that took us to another Burmese-style boat. Then we transferred to kayaks, and watched puffer fish and huge schools of other fish and visited a waterfall, then a private beach where we caught and released giant hermit crabs. After a gourmet lunch on the boat, we breezed along a river, past 100 year-old mangrove trees, where we saw a monitor lizard and snakes coiled in the branches. Before ending up at Elephant Hills, we stopped at a local market and bought bananas to feed monkeys that hung around a Buddhist temple built inside a cave just ten minutes away from the camp.

Staff members are there to greet us on arrival where the open-air reception and dining area are the size of a football field. Sturdy beams hold up a soaring, two-story roof of bamboo and broadleaf palms and a tinkling fountain empties into a koi pond. A stone-ringed campfire burns in the center. Asian artwork hangs from some of the beams and orchids dangle from a tree trunk. The view from the room is of the lush, craggy mountains.

We both look at each other and say, “Wow!”

Elephant Walk

Our tents are luxurious and bug-free with reading lamps and, behind a tent flap, a full, modern, private bath with hot and cold running water. Our dinner that night is family-style at a table covered with linen and adorned with bird-of-paradise flowers. Our waitress offers a variety of mildly spicy Thai dishes and fresh fruit.

The next morning, we wake to the sound of the call of gibbons and birds in the rain forest. We’re anxious to head for the elephant camp which is about a 10-minute drive from the tents, where we’ll finally get to see the elephants living among the huts on stilts that are the homes of the Karen trainers and their families. The Karen tribesmen have been in the elephant-trekking business for generations. Ally expresses concern when she sees the short iron hooks held by the mahouts (elephant trainers) who balance atop the elephants just behind their massive heads. But during the two-hour ride, the mahouts never even touch the elephants with the emergency tool. Instead, they guide their charges with quiet grunts and gentle prods with their bare feet.

We’re also happy to find that while we sit in seats atop the elephants’ backs, the animals are not so much taking us for a ride as they are going on a snack run. The mahouts don’t object when the elephants often stop to enjoy green plants or even wander into thick underbrush to pluck out pineapples invisible from the trails but apparently fragrant enough for an elephant to smell. Back at Elephant Hills after a perfect morning, lunch is as good and plentiful as dinner the night before, and we’re soon off on a canoe trip through the clear waters of a river fed by mountain streams. We pull the canoes ashore in the middle of the ride and leap into a cool swimming hole while the guides make a fire to brew tea served in bamboo cups.

Lasting Impressions

By now we have seen the jungle from the back of an elephant, from our canoe on the river and even all around us from our boat but nothing compares to Ally and I actually walking side by side inside the jungle. It is not an army survival exercise, there are no prizes for the fastest, snakes and spiders do not jump out at us. It is just a fabulous opportunity to explore the ecology of the rainforest, to see a great variety of plants, trees with huge roots, hornbills living high above, gibbons heard calling to their mates and perhaps a macaque or leaf monkey seen swinging through the branches. We take it slowly, look, learn and listen to the great variety of life forms that co-exist together. We’ll always have this experience of knowing how it feels to be close to nature in the jungle and our shared experience will last a lifetime.