Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two must-see neighborhoods in Miami

Miami, Florida is known for white sand beaches and high-profile celebrities with fabulously elegant homes. But there’s much more to see and do in this waterfront city. On a recent trip we discovered two intriguing neighborhoods that provide glimpses into very different cultures.
WynwoodArts District is a unique, funky area in midtown Miami. More than 70 art galleries, antique shops, bars and restaurants attract both locals and visitors. But what makes it one of the most creative communities in the U.S. is dozens of graffiti murals spray-painted on the walls of buildings. The result is one of the largest open-air street art installations in the world.

Neglected, old warehouses in the former manufacturing district of Miami were taken over by developers when factories closed. These were transformed into numerous art complexes—a true museum of cutting-edge painted walls.
These creations are not the result of teen-age mischief; they are truly artistic paintings done by hand with ordinary spray paint cans. Most have positive messages or bold geometric designs. All are fun to look at and enjoy.

With the introduction of Second Saturday Art Walk and the arrival of the Art Basel fair in 2002, Wynwood has seen unexpected growth in a relatively short time. Locals and visitors looking for a hip place to go for nightlife have discovered this reinvented section of the city.
Miami’s Little Havana is a vibrant Spanish neighborhood that is home to Cuban immigrants (more than 300,000 people migrated to Miami in the 1980s) and others from Central and South America. It’s a community where everyone speaks Spanish, and most of the inhabitants never learn English.

Little Havana is considered the epicenter of Cuban culture and heritage in the U.S. That distinct character brings in tourists, especially during annual festivals like Calle Ocho Festival or Cultural Fridays, The Three Kings Parade, and Viernes Culturales.
Since the district is famous for old-world cigar shops, we visited the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company, one of the oldest cigar factories in the city, where we watched cigars being hand-rolled. Shops along the main street are filled with the aroma of strong Cuban coffee, which many offer free of charge to visitors. Other quaint shops include botanicas—folk medicine stores.

A famous landmark is Domino Park (Maximo Gomez Park), the heart of Cubans’ social gathering. People come daily to play dominoes and discuss anything on their minds.
Little Havana is a popular place to go for Cuban food, cultural activities, and live shows. Monuments and murals bring to life the history of Cuba, including the Bay of Pigs. Visitors can take guided walking tours or tours that focus on food for a delicious taste of Miami.

Don’t miss either of these neighborhoods when visiting Miami.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Preferred seating now in economy class

Airlines have a longstanding tradition of charging extra for better seats and more service.  Want to be pampered? Pay up, and sit in business or first class. Now that practice is common even in coach.

Preferred seating

These seats can improve your flying experience—if you’re willing to pay the extra cost.

Alaska Airlines has launched its preferred seating category, which gives you access to the bulkhead and exit row. That also comes with a free drink and priority boarding. It starts at $15, but higher-tier loyalty members get the first chance to reserve those seats.

Singapore Airlines, which tends to focus on long haul flights and high-paying premium passengers, has launched its premium economy class. The seat pitch—or the space in between seat backs—is a more comfortable 38 inches compared to a standard 32, and it comes with a leg-rest, champagne, and in-flight meals that you can pre-order.

Other airlines are expanding existing premium products. Lufthansa has installed premium economy on half of its long-haul fleet. Delta and United also sell upgraded economy seats, some of which aren’t really better than the others—they just might be closer to the front allowing for quicker exit on landing.

Is the seat worth the extra cost?

Airlines make billions of dollars each year in ancillary fees, and the preferred seat option is one of the most profitable programs. But preferred seating can mean different things on different airlines, and it’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s worth the extra dollars.

A preferred seat isn’t necessarily a window or an aisle seat. Middle seats can be preferred if they’re near the front of the plane. 

It’s all about supply and demand. On some flights, the better seats will be gobbled up by business travelers, but the airlines then block off seats that aren’t necessarily better, call them “preferred,” and charge an additional fee.

They know that most fliers will feel pressured into paying extra to choose their seats rather than being assigned to the last row in the airplane. Also, families who can’t find adjacent seats when they book their tickets end up paying more to guarantee seats together. Travelers who don’t want to pay to check their bags (another ancillary fee), might choose to pay the fee for early boarding, just to get space in the overhead bins.

Unfortunately, these fees aren’t going away. It’s too profitable for the airlines. So remember to account for any upgrades when comparing costs for a flight. It’s all about the bottom line—for the airline and for the traveler.

Photos from free sources

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Parasailing above the sea in Maui

Dangling 800 feet above the ocean in a sling chair didn’t appeal to my husband, but after learning we could go tandem, he agreed to try parasailing.  We arrived at Mala wharf at Lahaina Harbor on Maui wearing bathing suits (although you probably won’t get wet) and climbed aboard a high tech speed boat to motor into open water of the Pacific Ocean.

Once sufficiently out in the water, we donned life vests, positioned ourselves on the slight seats, and strapped in. Unlike the time I parasailed by lifting off directly from the beach in Mexico, we launched effortlessly from the boat by a hydraulic winch system on deck.   

Slowly, as the attached cable was released and the colorful parachute inflated, we rose higher and higher, conscious of wind and sun on our bodies.  Soon, views of white, fluffy clouds above and the blue sea below rippling from our boat’s foaming wake filled our senses. It was pure pleasure!

It’s eerily quiet and peaceful when you’re drifting in the air over the ocean, feeling far away from overcrowded resorts.  That’s the lure of parasailing: an opportunity to become part of the natural environment while viewing ocean scenes from a lofty perspective. 

Riders can go alone (must weigh at least 130 pounds), in pairs, or triple (combined weight cannot exceed 400 pounds). Rides soar either 800 feet (38 stories) or 1200 feet (50 stories) high, depending on choice and weather conditions.  Children 6 to 12 years of age must ride with a parent or guardian. Time in the air is about eight to ten minutes, and if you’re game the crew will thrill you with a “touch ‘n’ go,” where they slow the boat down and allow your toes to skim the water’s surface before rising again.

Even though we took our own pictures while floating above the sea, the crew was also busy recording our adventure. Their included photos perfectly captured the broad smiles that covered both our faces and the feeling of pure exhilaration during this fun and exciting adventure in paradise.

Parasail Ka-anapali
Mala Harbor
Lahaina, Hawaii (Maui)




Monday, February 27, 2017

Ocean simulator attracts cruisers to Royal Caribbean ships

When booking a cruise, many people never consider an inside cabin even though those are far less expensive than cabins with windows or balconies. Too confining, they say, and you never know what’s happening when you can’t see outside.
RoyalCaribbean has created a way to keep guests in the know even when they are bunking in an inside cabin. Navigator of the Seas was their first ship for which certain interior cabins have a simulator wall called a virtual balcony. This impressive innovation was rolled out in 2014 and has been added to other ships in the Royal Caribbean line since then.

The virtual balcony is really an 80-inch projection LED screen recessed into the wall that shows real-time images of the sky and ocean taken elsewhere on the ship. To make it more realistic, you’ll also hear sounds of the ocean or sounds from the dock when the ship is in port.
Passengers say it feels like you’re looking out a large window and allows you to enjoy the view just like passengers who actually have outside access. In fact, the wall has curtains, just as an actual window would. The best part is you can turn the picture and sound on or off, as you please, which is handy because the camera operates 24/7.

Navigator ofthe Seas features virtual balconies for 98 inside cabins. The view you see is determined by the position of the screen in each room. For example, if your cabin is on the port side of the ship, your view will be from the port side.

Even if you can’t book one of these innovative cabins, there are still times when an interior cabin may work out okay. If you’re sailing in the Caribbean—Western, Eastern, or Southern—and expect to spend balmy port days on shore engaging in different activities, you may not use a balcony so much.

When the weather is warm and sunny, you’ll probably spend more time enjoying amenities in public areas such as the FlowRider Surf Simulator, rock climbing wall, or ice skating rink. Your cabin then becomes just a place to sleep, and you may not miss a balcony at all.

I’d love to try out the virtual balcony and see how close it comes to the real thing.
Photos from free sources.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Discovering the mountains and forests of Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park in Washington is filled with myriad wonders. It’s a huge park at almost a million acres—really three parks in one with diverse geography encompassing mountains, seashore, and rain forest.  That was enough to entice us to visit last September, and our discoveries of nature in this splendid place remain as cherished memories.
My husband Larry and I and friend Deb flew from Texas to Seattle, rented a car, and started our road trip that would also include Mt. Rainier National Park. Our destination the first night was Port Angeles, which would be our kick-off point for the first part of the journey—in the massive Olympic Mountains.

Hurricane Ridge is the iconic feature that everyone wants to visit, so naturally Hurricane Ridge Road is the most popular scenic road in the park. That was our destination on arrival—and the must-see spot if you only have one day to spend there.
A visit to Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center at the edge of Port Angeles, the nearest city to the national park, gave us an overview of the topography. Then we drove for 20 miles where the road curved and climbed into a mountain zone and then into a sub-alpine region at 5,000 feet.

The first 10 miles or so featured tall Douglas fir trees before adding silver fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. As we gained elevation, the trees became sorter and clumped together more in a thick forest.  Although some wildflowers were still blooming, we were past prime time (mid-summer) to see paintbrush, lilies, and heather in open meadows.
That was a quick trip, but two days later, when the persistent fog had cleared, we returned to Hurricane Ridge to take a couple of hikes. Near the visitor center, we first tackled the short but uphill trek to Sunrise Point. At the top of the hill views of mountains and landscapes were enveloped in a residual haze from forest fire smoke.

After a snack at a picnic area (gotta fuel up for the next trek!), we rounded out the morning with the Hurricane Hill hike—3.2 miles round trip on an uphill path with elevation gain of 700 feet.  The path was well-maintained and paved at the beginning, but it became quite steep as it traveled to (and past) the tree line, ending at 5757 feet, the highest accessible point in Olympic National Park.
During the last mile switchbacks lead to the summit, slowing down our pace a bit. Of course, taking time to enjoy spectacular views of Port Angeles and the ocean beyond also gave us time to catch our breath. Although the day was sunny and pleasant with temperature in the 60s, the gauzy haze affected our ability to see more of the Olympic Mountains. Had we known exactly where to look on a clear day, we might have recognized Vancouver Island, the Cascade Mountain Range, Seattle, and Mt. Rainier.

Although we  watched for grazing deer, the only wildlife we saw was one marmot. Still, it was a fun hike that took a little over two hours to complete—not bad considering how often we stop to take pictures. During the following week we experienced more of Olympic's dynamic landscapes and understood completely why it was named a national park in 1938 and attracts so many repeat visitors.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, February 11, 2017

National park passes are a great bargain

Much attention was paid to America’s national parks during 2016, the centennial year of the National Park Service. These destinations are truly America’s greatest idea, and I encourage all my readers to visit at least one national park, forest, seashore, or monument each year.

Lifetime passes to America’s national parks for senior citizens and Americans with disabilities are available at any of the country’s more than 400 federal recreation sites that come under protection of the National Park Service. You can also get these passes through the mail, which may be more convenient for some people.

"National parks are places to share with children, grandchildren, and other family members” says National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “They facilitate recreation and healthy living. Many parks, including Yellowstone, Shenandoah, and Denali, have trails that are accessible to people with limited mobility and to wheelchair users. We also have many accessible camping and picnic areas," Jarvis adds.

Senior passes are available for $10.00 to citizens age 62 or older. Access passes are free for people who have permanent disabilities regardless of age. U. S. Military and their dependents also qualify for free annual passes that provide admission to, and use of, federal recreation sites that charge entrance or standard amenity fees. Pass users also receive a small discount in gift shops and a 50% discount on some fees for activities like camping and launching a boat.

You can print out an application for a senior or access pass at Once the application package is received and the documentation verified, the pass will be mailed to you. There is a $10 processing fee to receive a pass by mail but no additional fee if you purchase the pass at a park.

Anyone can purchase an annual pass for $80 that covers the owner and three accompanying adults over age 16 (there’s no charge for children 15 and younger) This pass is good for one year at all parks that charge an entrance fee—still a good bargain, especially if you live near one of the popular parks or plan a vacation to several at a time.

The next fee-free day for the 120 national parks that normally charge an entrance fee is February 20, 2017, Presidents Day. Fee-free days provide a great opportunity to discover a new park or visit an old favorite. Keep in mind that some sites are always free.

For more information, visit or Learn more at

Photos by Beverly Burmeier and free sites

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Be happy--plan an adventure

Go ahead—take that vacation! It’s the healthy thing to do.
The personal benefits of travel have been widely studied, but Americans get the least amount of vacation time among countries in the industrialized world, according to a study by the U.S. Travel Association.  Even when allowed unlimited vacation time, a trend more corporations are adopting, most people don’t take as much time off as they should.

There are several reasons why vacation time can help you live longer and happier.
Relaxing on a lovely beach makes a healthy vacation.
Health benefits: Research shows that an annual vacation can cut a person’s risk of heart attack by 50 percent. Even a short holiday can bring down blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones. Active leisure time directly contributes to higher levels of physical and mental health—with a bonus that travelers sleep better.

Anticipation: Other research has shown that the path to happiness is paved with planning and waiting for an event to happen.  For some people, planning a trip or adventure is almost as much fun as actually going. It puts your brain in overdrive with anticipation. Some people might even hold off on an experience so they can savor thinking about it longer.
So many places to drive or hike--plan your activities.
Enjoyment: A study from Cornell University shows that people who spend discretionary income on experiences such as travel are happier than when buying material goods. Think how happy society as a whole could be if people focused on getting away from routine more.

Relationships: Studies show that 40 percent of travelers feel more romantic on vacation, and more than half of working Americans say they come back from a vacation feeling reconnected with their family.
Improve work performance: Spending time away from the office, especially by traveling, also helps prevent burnout and improves performance after returning from a vacation. By relieving stress, time away reduces absences, increases efficiency, and helps you bring a fresh approach to work issues.

Discover new places like the Wynwood Arts district in Miami.
Memories: Think about the pleasure you get from talking about and sharing experiences with others afterwards (got a stack of photos or videos to show?). The Cornell University study supports the pleasurable memory factor since it found that people get more retrospective enjoyment and satisfaction from experiential purchases than from material purchases.
Reconnect with loved ones during
shared experiences.
Life satisfaction: Even planning vacation travel generates an increase in positive feelings about one’s life, family, economic situation, and health.  Looking forward to an event often opens up a person for conversation and can help lift depression of people dealing with emotional traumas. Spending time at pleasant vacation locations, exercising during vacation, and making new acquaintances helps people keep their lives in balance.

With all those benefits, what are you waiting for? It’s time to start planning your next trip!
Photos by Larry and  Beverly Burmeier

Monday, January 30, 2017

What traveling to Antarctica meant to me

When friends asked several years ago if I wanted to go to Antarctica, the world's southernmost continent, I said, “No way. I don’t like to be cold.”  In Texas we have mild winters with few freezes and rare snowfalls.
Such variety in size, shape, and texture of icebergs.
But eventually we booked a trip to Antarctica that is certainly one of the most inspiring and fascinating journeys this traveler has ever experienced.

Keep in mind 2/3 of the enormous iceberg is under water.
Change of heart
Every time I saw pictures of pristine blue-tinged icebergs, the enormous expanse of glacial whiteness, and enchanting penguins and seals, I had a longing to be there: To take my own photos of the incredibly beautiful scenes. To experience an environment totally different from anything I had known before. To feel the sacred sensation of solitude surrounding the extraordinary landscapes.

Penguins were delightful entertainers.
Although we think of Antarctica as being isolated, almost 35,000 people travel there during the season that runs from November through March. Despite increased accessibility, polar travel still seems as surprising and awe-inspiring to new visitors as when the first explorers came to this frozen land.
The magic of Antarctica

The feelings I had on first viewing the dramatic landscapes of the white continent were unexpectedly intense. Pristine ice and undulating snow stretching as far as the eye could see were simply indescribable. Standing by myself on shore, I silently admired the spectacle of a beach teeming with playful penguins, heard the crack of a glacier calving, and admired the multiple brilliant blues found in immense icebergs.
Our first continental landing was totally impressive.
The connection with raw nature encompassed my imagination as I struggled to envision people living and working on this inhospitable continent with its unpredictable climate. I was truly out of my comfort zone but enjoyed every minute that stretched me from being just a visitor to becoming an explorer.

It was also warmer than expected, so my parka came off.
I loved hiking to high points overlooking bays filled with icebergs, elephant seals, and sea lions. I breathed deeply of the pure, clean, cold air surrounding us as we  surveyed steep , rocky cliffs jutting up from the ice-speckled ocean or rumbled into a frozen cave in our Zodiac.
Gorgeous reflections just before sunset.
Shore excursions are highly restricted regarding the number of people allowed to be on land at any given time, and that’s a good thing. You’ll never encounter hoards of people trying to claim the best photo spots. Additional restrictions are in place to protect the environment and to ensure safety around the ice--and that often precludes large cruise ships from making an actual continental landing. Being there myself reinforced how important it is to protect and preserve this incredible environment.
Icebergs are continually changing shape--and sometimes holes appear.
Surviving the cold

Quark, our expedition company, provided parkas (ours to keep) and muck boots (on loan), but the rest of our warm clothing was up to us. For this Texas gal that meant extra purchases of wool underwear, socks, gloves, hats, fleece, and pants. I came prepared and was never uncomfortably cold, even though we were out in the elements for several hours each day. (Expedition participants from northern states were not fazed by temps in the 20s).

Seals enjoy sunning on a relatively flat iceberg.
Adventure and discovery become the norm that we looked forward to during daily Zodiac excursions, not to mention the thrill of actually crossing the Antarctic Circle (most expeditions just touch the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula). What could be more exciting than that?
Whales are another form of wildlife often seen in Antarctica.
I came away from this life-changing journey overwhelmed by the immensity of this unspoiled, wild, rugged land—a land many countries including U.S. are researching to learn how environmental change might affect the continent and subsequently the rest of the world.
View from the window of our room on the Quark expedition ship.
Antarctica is filled with infinite opportunities and daring demands on those who seek to understand its allure. I'll forever be grateful for having traveled there, walking on Antarctic soil, and embracing the wild forces of nature found nowhere else in the world.
 Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fun adventure in the Everglades

Riding a bicycle in Shark Valley gets you up close and personal with the “river of grass.”

A visit to Everglades NationalPark in Florida, the largest subtropical wilderness in the country, can be overwhelming because of its sheer size and the remoteness of many trails (both water and land).  But Shark Valley offers an excellent way to experience the park, especially if you like to explore on your own. Rent a bike (or bring your own) and peddle your way along a loop road through this northern section of the park.
The bike trail in Shark Valley is not a difficult ride.
With only slight elevation changes and no rough terrain to navigate, the scenic 15-mile paved road is ideal for bike riders of all ages.  The journey typically takes about three hours, depending on how often you stop and whether a gusty head wind crops up.  At the half-way point, in the heart of this unique ecosystem, the Observation Tower provides a convenient place to pause and enjoy panoramic views. 

To get a feel for the significance of this region, plan to ride the entire loop (if your fitness level allows), but check to be sure it’s open all the way since the curvy east portion, with expansive sawgrass prairie, is flooded and impassable at times. 
Be respectful of alligators in their natural habitat, and don't venture
too close.

 Alligators sunning themselves, as they lie partly on the road and partly in the marsh, provide perfect photo opportunities if you keep your distance—10-15 feet away is recommended.  Raccoons, white-tailed deer, turtles, frogs, otters, and other wildlife may also appear near the road or on hiking trails. 
Stop to soak in beautiful views
and reflections.
Start on the western side of the loop road, which is fairly straight, butts up against the wetlands, and hosts the greatest variety of wildlife and plants.

Birds including egrets, ibises, ospreys, herons, cardinals, warblers, mockingbirds, and hawks catch your attention as they wade through marshes and then suddenly zip into the air.  If you spot a bird camouflaged among the grasses and tree branches and want to take a picture, don’t hesitate: quickly snap the shutter before it flies away.  Some larger species wander along the road, but they don’t linger when humans are around.
  Butterflies flit around the blooms, and don’t be surprised if one hovers just inches from your face.

Bird watching is a popular pastime on the trail.
Tiny flowers in pastel hues—white, pink, yellow, and purple--grow along the swamp’s edge.

Riding with a tail wind, the road uncoils beneath your wheels with amazing speed, and mile markers printed on the road pass quickly. However, it’s not uncommon for wind gusts or summer thunderstorms to appear, especially in the afternoon, so the trip could take longer after reaching the midway point.  If you decide not to ride the entire loop, retrace your path because there aren’t any shortcuts.
The Observation Tower offer expansive views of the surrounding area.
 Highlight of the ride is spectacular 360-degree views of wetlands, prairie, and trees seen from the 45-foot high Observation Tower. Views change as you walk along the elevated spiral ramp to the platform, so take time to enjoy scenes like blackbirds perched on railings cawing back and forth to each other and Monet-like reflections of clouds fluttering across the shallow, liquid meadow.  Besides allowing an overview of the ecosystem, the Tower offers tranquil vistas of the Everglades up to 20 miles in all directions.

Larry pedals along the Shark Valley bike trail in Everglades
National Park in Florida
Ride during cooler morning hours; take water and a light snack as there are no concessions once you leave the Visitors Center, located on Hwy 41, 46 miles from Fort Lauderdale.

Tram rides are also available in Shark Valley.
If riding a bicycle isn’t your style, the Shark Valley Tram offers a two-hour, open air tour on the same path.  Trained naturalists point out wildlife and narrate information about the park. 

One of three entrances to the national park, Shark Valley is a significant area for sustaining the park’s biological abundance and diversity.  Because of its worldwide significance, Everglades National Park has been designated a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, and Wetland of International Importance. 
For more information, visit 

Photos by Beverly Burmeier



Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Travel smart with Trusted Traveler programs

If your future travel plans include flying somewhere, this might be the perfect time to apply for one of the Trusted Traveler programs. Long lines at security can result in a rough start to your trip, with tempers tested long before you actually board an airplane. But you do have options.
The Department of Homeland Security sponsors several programs including TSA Pre-check, Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI. Each has its own eligibility requirements and application fees, so you need to determine which works best for your needs.

TSA Pre-check: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) manages and operates TSA Pre-check, an expedited security screening process. Upon approval, you can move through security more quickly and easily in a dedicated line, which is almost always shorter than the regular security line. The line generally moves faster because you don’t have to take off shoes or jacket or put your baggie of liquids or computer in the bin, which saves a lot of time.

This is valid for departures from more than 150 participating U.S. airports. Because TSA randomly selects non-enrolled travelers for this privilege, you could be lucky and get Pre-check occasionally without paying the $85 fee (good for five years), but with TSA Pre-check you’re almost always guaranteed a spot in the short line.

You can pre-enroll online, then visit an enrollment center to verify ID and provide fingerprints.

Global Entry: If you travel both within the U.S. and internationally, your best bet is Global Entry. A five-year membership is only $100. This program provides expedited processing through customs at airports and land borders upon arrival into the U.S.  Trust me, after you’ve endured a long flight to get back on American soil, you’ll be relieved to skip the long lines at customs.
For Global Entry, you will also have to schedule a personal interview (can take weeks or months in some locations) and must provide a passport or permanent resident card.

NEXUS: U.S. and Canadian citizens or permanent residents of either country can apply for NEXUS, an expedited process for airports and land borders between those two countries. Application is similar to Global Entry, and a five-year membership is $50.  It includes Global Entry and TSA Pre-check for travel between those two countries.
SENTRI: Travelers frequently arriving in the U.S. from Mexico, should consider enrolling in SENTRI. The process is similar to NEXUS, and the program requires proof of citizenship and admissibility documentation. Five-year membership fee is $122.25.

Be a smart traveler: Once you have received approval for any of these programs, be sure to enter your Known Traveler Number or PASS-ID into the passenger information section for the airlines you’ll be traveling on, or provide that number to any agent or company that books flights for you. I also double check before checking in for a flight to make sure that number is correctly and currently noted at the airline’s website. If for some reason, it isn’t, you won’t get the benefits due you—and the agent at the airport can’t change the notification (or lack of it) on your ticket.

Photos from free sources