Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Woodlands near Houston gears up for summer visitors


Water features prominently at The
Woodlands Resort.
Driving into The Woodlands, 27 miles northwest of downtown Houston, you’re immediately struck by the scarcity of signage along main roads. The master-planned community was designed to take advantage of its heavily wooded landscape, so shopping centers are tucked behind mini-forests, and few signs tell what businesses are hidden there. It’s a feature both welcome for its attractiveness and potentially confusing to newcomers. But the balance sheet weighs heavily in favor of the design George Mitchell chose for this development more than 50 years ago.
The idyllic, wooded setting has been a primary draw for corporate events and leisure travelers for many years, so it’s not surprising that strong growth necessitated expansion of The Woodlands Resort. Larry and I visited recently to check out changes and improvements that were completed at the end of 2014.


Beautiful landscaping add to the attractiveness of the resort.
It’s easy to see why the $75 million renovation project has turned The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center into a popular destination for meetings and family vacations. During the 20-month project several major changes took place including adding a new wing of 184 guest rooms and suites, renovating 222 existing guest rooms, designing a 3,000 square foot living/gathering room that connects the three guest wings, creating a lazy river that winds 1,005 feet through the surrounding forest, and opening a high-end steak house with an outdoor patio adjacent to the 18th hole of Panther Trail, the resort’s signature golf course.
Soothing landscapes are found throughout the property.
During our visit, we enjoyed happy hour at Robard’s (4-6 p.m.), the new 136-seat steak restaurant and lounge.  Some patrons are regulars as the restaurant is open to the public, not just resort guests. Draft beers were $2 off and wines $3 off regular prices, or sip on a Texas Pear Margarita for $6. Even better was the Iron Skillet appetizer, a zesty bolognais sauce with meat, topped with Mozzarella cheese and served with homemade French bread. Yummy! entrees are in the $30-45 range.

Rooms have been added or renovated to follow the same standard.
We also savored the sumptous breakfast buffet and dinner in The Woodlands Dining Room (steak for Larry; salmon for Beverly). Other food outlets include The Royal Mile Grille for lunch and The Bistro for drinks and appetizers. Cool Water Café located poolside at Forest Oasis Waterscape is open seasonally.
Robard's is the new high-end steak restaurant at The Woodlands Resort.
Plentiful water features throughout the property had a cooling effect, which is probably needed more during the summer than our May visit. But listening to the soothing sounds of spraying water from our balcony and while walking around the property was a pleasant plus.

Golf at the Oaks course on a pleasant, sunny day.
While there we played the adjacent Oaks golf course, a new member of Club Corp. It features large, rolling greens, generous fairways, and numerous bunkers. Majestic oak trees line the fairways and hide most homes from view. However, if your ball disappears into the trees, chances of finding it are slim. Bordering Lake Harrison, the 18th hole is a good example of the course’s natural beauty.
An exquisite mural adorns one wall of the lazy river course.
This summer families will especially enjoy the five swimming pools with spas, waterfalls and slides. The new lazy river with spiral plunge slide is already getting rave reviews from guests of all ages. Energetic guests can work out at the Fitness Center or settle for supreme relaxation with a massage at the Health Spa (thanks, Roxanne!).

There’s really no reason to leave the resort, but if you need more entertainment venture out for world-class shopping at The Woodlands Mall, Market Street, or Old Town Spring. Perhaps you’ll want to attend a concert at the nearby Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. More than 194 miles of jogging and biking trails wind throughout The Woodlands, too. And if business brings you to The Woodlands Resort, you'll find full conference facilities.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Hike, bike, or soak in hot springs in Ouray, Colorado

Colorado is known for its many tourist destinations, but one place that might be overlooked is Ouray, a small town with big attractions for visitors of all ages.
Mountains and waterfalls at Yankee Boy Basin near Ouray, CO


Hot springs with amazing
views draw visitors
 to Ouray, Colorado.
If you'd like to know more about this family-friendly getaway and opportunities to explore mountains surrounding Ouray and scenery so spectacular that the town has been called the Switzerland of America, please check out my article in the May/June 2015 issue of Arizona Highroads.

http://highroads.az.aaa.com/article/summer-getaway-ouray-Colorado

Summer is a great time to enjoy myriad outdoor activities, but winter snowscapes provide the perfect backdrop for relaxation.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Frequent flyer programs keep changing


Years ago airlines encouraged loyalty from customers by offering miles or points for every flight you took and for purchases made on their branded credit cards. It was a good deal—you could fly almost anywhere in the U.S. for 25,000 or 30,000 miles. Earning a free trip wasn’t too hard to accomplish—and there were actually seats available for booking.
The original premise was simple, but now the airlines are making it hard. Not just hard to get that free flight but hard to understand exactly what the benefit is to you for being a loyal customer.

Business travelers who book the most expensive tickets and fly the most often have an advantage. Travelers who fly only occasionally lose more in the watered-down programs now being offered.
In the past, you earned miles according to the distance flown, no matter whether you booked a seat in first class or coach. Since March, United changed its program to award points based on the cost of the ticket. Elite-level frequent fliers earn trips and upgrades even faster.

Delta no longer has award charts on its website, so travelers can’t tell what a trip will cost in miles/points. You really have no way of knowing what the value is for your loyalty miles or what a “free” trip might cost. Instead of a flat rate to fly to Europe, for example, the value of those miles changes according to when and how you want to fly.
Southwest Airlines is in the game, too, changing the number of points needed for certain flights. So far, American and Alaska Airlines sill use miles as currency, although American awards increased miles to business/first class passengers.

Airlines are also offering more ways to redeem those miles or points, like purchasing luggage, cameras, jewelry, or cruises. Customers who do this help the airlines reduce their huge liability—nearly $100 billion worth of unused miles are currently held by passengers, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Imagine the hit airlines would take if even a small percentage of those were redeemed at the same time.
Of course, these days flights are full or nearly so, and redeeming miles is trickier than it used to be. Availability is scarce, and there is often a hefty charge to reinstate miles if your plans change. About seven percent of all trips taken use rewards, but that still leaves many unused miles on the debit sheet.

So, is it worthwhile to book your next flight on a specific airline in hopes of accumulating enough miles for a free flight? Probably not, the experts say. It makes more sense to purchase tickets based on price, convenience, and comfort. If you eventually earn a free flight in a reasonable exchange rate (50,000 miles for a three-hour flight is not a good value), you’ll feel like a winner.Otherwise, use those measly points to buy flowers for your spouse.
Photos from free sources

 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Summer gettaways in northern Utah

View of Timpanogos Mountains from Sundance Resort in Utah
If you like vacations with stunning scenery and mountainous adventures, look no further than Utah, a destination we visited last September.

The northern region that includes Salt Lake City, Park City, and Sundance Mountain Resort has warm days and cool nights, plentiful shopping and dining options, and a variety of outdoor activities for all ages.
Reflections showcase buildings and landscaping at Temple
Square in Salt Lake City
Here's a link to my article in the May/June 2015 issue of Arizona Highroads Magazine that covers some of the highlights you can find there.

http://highroads.az.aaa.com/article/summer-getaway-northern-Utah

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How to get the best cruise deals


Want to save money on your vacation? Book a cruise. Cruising is a safe and convenient way to travel; you can visit many destinations and only have to unpack once. Here are some strategies to help you snag the best deals so you get the most for your vacation dollar.
Modern cruise ships are large enough to provide multiple amenities.
Wait to book: If your travel times are flexible, you can find deep discounts about a month prior to sailing.  Check Internet sites of cruise consolidators (see list at the end) as well as the home site of your preferred cruise line. 

Be flexible: If you’ve booked months in advance, here’s a new wrinkle: Some ships are now being overbooked, and if you’re willing to change plans at the last minute, you might be offered multiple incentives (upgrades, free cruises, etc.) to reschedule your vacation.
Look for deals:  Look for special offers like lower deposits, kids sail free, shipboard credits, included airfare, and free shore excursions.  These budget boosters can increase the value of a cruise. A travel agent can keep you posted when good deals come along.

Book and sail together: Family and multi-generational travel is a growing component of the cruise industry, so more ships are catering to this market.  But check on average age of passengers and available activities in kid, preteen, or teen clubs of a specific cruise if you’ll have people of various ages along. 
Dining rooms are a nice place to get everyone together.
Or go casual at the buffet.
Skip faraway destinations: North American travelers are filling the ships on Caribbean (both Eastern and Western) and Mexican Riviera cruises.  U.S. embarkation ports are generally easy to get to (no overseas flights), which allows for a variety of itineraries and cruise lengths.

Squeeze in a short getaway: Four and five night voyages are popular with families and people who have limited time off from work. Cruise lines have responded to the demand by increasing the number of sailings for trips lasting less than a week.
Watch the bottom line: A big selling point is the all-inclusive nature of cruises.  But newer, larger ships include more extra-fee services besides the usual shops and beauty salons. Exclusive restaurants, wine tastings, Pilates classes, golf swing analyses, and long bar tabs can hike up the total amount due at the end of your cruise.

Tropical islands make great vacation
destinations for couples or families.
Find out more at:

www.cruiseonly.com                                                 

www.hollandamerica.com

www.norwegian.com

www.carnival.com

www.celebritycruises.com

www.princess.com

www.cruiseforless.com

www.cruisecritic.com

www.cruisecompete.com

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Monday, May 4, 2015

Celebrate Mother's Day at Mama Fu's Asian House

Looking for a casual restaurant with excellent food for Mother’s Day?  If you spend $25 at MamaFu’s Asian House from May 4-7 you’ll get a certificate for a complimentary meal for your Mama, good from May 10 through May 16.

Sweet N Sour dish is a traditional favorite.
Larry and I discovered Mama Fu's when we had dinner at the Sunset Valley location (5400 Brodie Lane) last week. It was our first time at the Austin-based eatery, and I felt good about supporting a local business. The brand currently has nine locations in the greater Austin area with the newest restaurant opening soon in Kyle, Texas. Among the sixteen restaurants currently open are locations in Arkansas, Florida, and two in United Arab Emirates.
Ginger sesame salad with chicken at Mama Fu's
We met Kyle Peters, manager at Sunset Valley, who explained how diners have several choices in setting up their entrees. First you choose a rice dish—white, brown, or fried—or a noodle bowl. Then choose your protein—chicken, pork, steak, or shrimp—or stick with vegetables or tofu. That determines cost of your meal, which ranges from $8.89 to $10.29.
Then you choose from a variety of preparations, some with plenty of sizzle (like Spicy Seoul Stir Fry or Sichuan Kung Pao) and others on the milder side (like Sweet-n-Sour or Thai Cashew Stir Fry). You can add a cup of soup or a choice of several appetizers for $1.99 extra. Portions are very generous, so you’ll probably have enough for another meal at home the next day.

The zesty flavor of orange peel sweetens
this Asian dish at Mama Fu's

At the recommendation of our server, we ordered the Crab Rangoon appetizer (four for $4.99 when not ordered with an entrée). Crispy wonton wrappers are filled with crab, cream cheese, scallions, and onions and served with sweet chili dipping sauce. Yummy!
Chicken lettuce wrap is a generous
appetizer or meal.
For my main course, I ordered shrimp with a rich honey glaze over fresh snap peas and carrots, served on brown rice. Since everything is made to order, I asked to have some broccoli tossed in, too. No problem.

Two desserts caught my eye, the Apple Dumplings (dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with caramel sauce) and my ultimate choice: Mama’s Dessert Roll, a decadent cheesecake rolled in a flaky cinnamon pastry, fried, and served with raspberry sauce--perfect for an occasional splurge.
Fresh vegetables and high quality proteins are the
basis for Asian dishes at Mama Fu's.
The menu also includes a variety of Asian street foods like Bulgogi Steak Wraps and Korean Street Tacos (yes, it starts with a tortilla). Additionally, there’s a good selection of gluten-free and vegan options—all made in-house--which are popular with customers needing specialty items.

During happy hour, 3-6 p.m., alcoholic beverages are $1 off and appetizers are half price. Sundays are popular with families since kids eat free.
The spicy Bahn mi Sandwich is one of the selections
from the Asian street food menu.
Known for high quality, fresh ingredients and the fusion of unique flavors from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Korea, Mama Fu’s offers dine-in, takeout, delivery, catering, online and mobile ordering.

Photos provided by Corinne Zuleger, Giant Noise PR

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fine dining at Apis Restaurant near Austin, Texas


A new restaurant in the Austin area is garnering rave reviews, and after dining there recently, I can see why. Apis Restaurant and Aviary is hitting the five star mark with delicious food and superb service.
A large outdoor patio adjacent to the stone building of Apis
allows patrons to enjoy pleasant central Texas weather..
Located on a six-acre plot on the banks of the Pedernales River in Spicewood (less than an hour by car from downtown Austin, west on Hwy 71) Apis opened in early February 2015 and has wowed the foodie crowd since then. 

Owners Casie and Taylor Hall have lived in Spicewood since 2008 and kept bees at their home. So, when they found the perfect spot to build their restaurant, it was natural to place hives there and to infuse the honeycomb theme into the building’s interior design (for starters, check out the ceiling, wall décor, and light fixtures) as well as using honey in many of the dishes they serve.
Honey from their 20 hives has become an important ingredient in the restaurant, and they plan to bottle and sell the excess. In keeping with their natural theme, they hope to add a small chicken coop and a garden with edible flowers and vegetables. Local farms provide much of the produce used in the restaurant.
Beverage director Jose Sapien has created a variety of
craft cocktails for Apis.
A cocktail at the bar is a great way to start your meal. I ordered the Aviary ($12), a signature honey-infused whiskey cocktail. Beverage director Jose Sapien has created all the craft cocktails on the menu including Texas-inspired drinks like the Wildflower (with Waterloo gin and grapefruit) and Hill Country (featuring vodka in a martini-style drink). “Part of my job is to be a chemist while I play with alcohol,” Sapien said regarding his novel drink creations.  Wines by the glass range from $10-13. The bar menu offers appetizers like fried cauliflower ($6) and roasted chicken thighs ($18).
Apis.Restaurant in Spicewood, Texas features
an elegant seasonal menu.
We sampled a variety of dishes in the dining room, starting with one of my favorites: warm buttermilk biscuits served with whipped honey butter and bee pollen. They really do melt in your mouth. Appetizers included innovative dishes featuring oysters, salmon belly, wild pork, egg toast, and crispy chicken skin. Just listing the main ingredient doesn’t do it justice, however, as the preparation renders each item unique and delicious.  Flounder crudo, tuna, foie gras Terrine, and spring pea soup are other beautifully plated offerings from Taylor and the kitchen staff.

Owner/chef Taylor Hall supervises
a talented kitchen staff.
Small plates with seasonal Louisiana crawfish, salmon, chicken breast, Colorado lamb, turbot (a mild white fish) and 40-day aged beef further tempted our palates. Even though we were fully satisfied by this time, desserts were too tempting to pass up. Fresh fruits were the basis for roasted pineapple and poteet strawberry dishes, but the absolute piece d’ resistance was the house-made honey bun with horchata ice cream. It’s to-die-for!
Now, all that kitchen expertise and style doesn’t come cheap, but if you’re celebrating a special occasion, want to impress visitors, or just appreciate fine food, this is the place to go.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Docking at Roatan, Honduras


Azure water, white beaches, and green forests attract visitors to Roatan.
Roatan, Honduras is one of our favorite ports when cruising in the Western Caribbean. Docks built by major cruise lines are only about seven years old, which means the tourist shopping area is also relatively new. Best of all, it is clean, attractive, and spacious—with locally-made items reasonably priced.
Located about 36 miles off the northern coast of mainland Honduras, Roatan’s appeal comes from its turquoise waters, emerald green hills, and sparkling white beaches. It is 37 miles long and less than five miles wide at its broadest point. Houses are clustered along the shore; inland the landscape is hilly and forested. Transportation is easy--Roatan has a small airport, and a highway goes around the island.



Lush green countryside makes a beautiful landscape in Roatan.

A colorful history full of pirates, Indians, English settlers, descendants of African slaves, and Spanish conquerors makes for a very diverse population. Treasure hunters still come to modern seaside villages and look for bounty stashed on the island by more than 5,000 pirates during the 16th and 17th centuries.  English is the main language, perhaps one reason why 25 percent of the 75,000 population is retired Americans (only 45 percent are natives).


Many varieties of coral are easily seen when snorkeling.
Snorkeling with Jolly Roger: Roatan is surrounded by a barrier reef that lies approximately 300 feet from the shoreline. More than 130 accessible dive sites make the island a diver’s or snorkeler’s paradise. An underwater museum of sunken treasures, shipwrecks, and Mayan artifacts offers additional spots to scout for fish.


A fun ride on the Jolly Roger catamaran.

In many places the reef crest is very shallow, just a foot underwater, but boat excursions travel to deeper water allowing for extended exploration around a variety of coral species. The opportunity to see beautiful coral enticed us to the Jolly Roger Marina, a short distance from where the Emerald Princess ship docked on our recent cruise. From there we took an hour-long catamaran ride to the west side of the island for enhanced reef snorkeling. It was the perfect shore excursion—a sunny day and a pleasant boat ride with the wind behind us.
Because beaches are generally more attractive on the western end of the island (Tabyana Beach is considered one of the finest in the Caribbean), that’s where most hotels and resorts are located.  It’s also convenient for scuba divers or avid snorkelers.

Stunning coral species along the reef off the coast of Roatan.

When the boat docked, we swam in water that was often 15 to 20 feet deep and could see beyond the reef where drop-offs approached double that depth. In order not to touch potentially dangerous coral species, we followed the channels and had no trouble viewing dozens of stunning coral species and interesting formations in the crystal clear water.
Although we saw a few colorful fish and a sea turtle swimming, this experience was really about the coral. Indeed, it was one of our better reef snorkeling experiences. After an hour in the water, we climbed back on board and enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken, rice, slaw, pasta salad, and watermelon. Oh, there was plenty of rum punch, too. Following lunch, a bus ride back to the ship gave us an opportunity to see more of the lush countryside of Roatan.

Ride the Magic Flying Beach Chair to Mahogany Beach,
walking distance from the cruise ship dock.
On land: Not into snorkeling? Near the dock, the Magic Flying Beach Chair takes visitors on a cable car ride 1,200 feet above the canopy of trees to Mahogany Beach, a 10-acre private island featuring 825-foot long white-sand beach. If you chose to keep your feet on land, it’s an easy walk to the beach.
Cruise passengers walk from the dock
to the shopping area in Roatan.
If water activities are not your thing, you can see monkeys, exotic birds, pirate caves, and colorful gardens at Gumbalimba Preservation Park on the west end of Roatan. Tropical oak and evergreen palms grow in abundance, and you can observe many types of indigenous flora and fauna (iguanas are the unofficial mascot of Roatan) while walking jungle trails at Carambola Botanical Gardens. Or watch an ancestral dance performed by costumed natives who are descendents of the Back Carib Indians.  

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier. Copyright protected.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Texas wildflowers are in full bloom

 
Here are additional wildflower pictures taken earlier in April as we drove west from Austin on SH 71, hitting spots around Lakeway, Marble Falls, Park Road 4 towards Inks Lake, Llano, and back on SH 71. If you haven't been out to see the colorful displays, go soon. In some central Texas locations the flowers have already hit their peak, but there are still many gorgeous roadsides and fields to fill your heart and soul with the beauty of spring.

 
 
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier
 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Bluebonnets blooming at Muleshoe Bend near Austin


Beautiful setting bordering on Lake Travis.
One of the most spectacular displays of bluebonnets in the Austin area can be seen at Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area. Located on the banks of Lake Travis, fields of blue spread out over several acres of open, flat terrain, creating one of the most stunning wildflower displays we’ve ever seen.
Fields of bluebonnets at Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area.
If you haven’t been there, now is the time to go to see the state flower of Texas in all its glory. Of course, we went prior to the hail storm, so it’s possible there may have been some damage, but I think the blanket of blue will still be amazing. As the guy at the entrance station told us, “You won’t be disappointed.”

Color contrasts really set off the bluebonnets.
Owned and managed by LCRA (Lower Colorado River Authority), the park has year-round recreational options including primitive campsites (many were being used during our visit), trails for horseback riding (which cars can drive on, too), and a 6.5-mile bike trail (not open when we were there). Call LCRA for more information regarding these activities and fees: 512-473-3366.
A member of the lupine family, bluebonnets in central Texas
 typically bloom in April.
Larry in the field.
MuleshoeBend is located in Spicewood, Texas, northwest of Austin and south of Marble Falls. From Austin, take Hwy. 71 west, turn right on CR 413, then CR 404, then CR 414, which goes directly into Muleshoe Bend.


I hope you enjoy this small selection of photos from our visit.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier.
Trails made it easy to meander among the fields of flowers.


Friday, April 17, 2015

Choosing the best time to take a cruise


When should you cruise? That depends on where you want to go and what you plan to do.
Caribbean beaches are popular destinations for cruisers.
 Families generally plan vacations around school schedules—summer and holidays. Because there is little wiggle room with dates, they should book as early as possible. Summer is high season for almost all destinations because the weather is pleasant and there’s a large variety of destinations available. Because demand is strong, you should book months in advance to get the best price and itinerary options.
Couples with more flexibility may choose to skip those busy times and cruise in the fall or spring while school is still in session. You might even snag a bargain in the shoulder or low season, although the increasing popularity of cruising has minimized price differences.
Snorkeling at beautiful reefs and other water activities
are plentiful in the Caribbean. 
Caribbean
 If you like to swim, snorkel, or do other water activities, the Caribbean is ideal. The weather is almost always warm, Caribbean ports have activities year-round, and ships sail throughout the year. The only time you might choose to avoid is hurricane season from June 1 to November 1, but if no storms are on the horizon, summer is a great time to enjoy Caribbean islands.
Emerald Princess sails from Houston to Western
Caribbean ports.
Of course, cruise ships in the Caribbean can be packed with kids and teens on spring break and in early summer, so keep that in mind (It's a great  thing if you're traveling with kids or grandkids). If you’re flying into Florida around spring break time, flights and hotels may be hard to come by or expensive.

During late April to May and September to early January (except for holidays), prices are lower and crowds smaller on Caribbean sailings. Sailings longer than seven days generally attract mature cruisers because kids can’t be out of school and parents usually can’t take so much time off work.
Alaska
Glaciers in Alaska are simply spectacular.
Some destinations such as Alaska have limited sail dates. Sail to Alaska in May or September for the best rates and smaller crowds, although it’s not uncommon for helicopter or boat tours to be canceled due to weather conditions in those months, and Denali National Park may close if there’s snow. Early June or late August are other good options for an Alaska cruise, which should be on everyone's bucket list.
Special itineraries
If you want to see colorful foliage in New England or Canada, you’ll cruise in the fall, generally late September or early October. For some travelers, the Christmas markets in Europe are a big attraction even though the weather may be cold and the markets crowded. Even so, the festivities and beautiful sights, fragrant smells, and melodic sounds can really ramp up one's holiday spirit.
 
Don't miss the Sydney Opera House when cruising in Australia.
If you're looking for a tour during the winter holiday season, think south--as in Southern Hemisphere. When it's winter in the U.S. it's summer in Australia and New Zealand, so that's a delightful time to visit. Sure, Aussies are also on holiday and traveling, but that's generally not a problem on cruises.
Bargains
 If you’re looking for a real bargain and not too choosey about cabin type or location, last-minute bookings (within a few weeks of sailing) may be offered at significant savings. Just realize you may hear engine noises, feel vibrations, or be awakened by the anchor being lowered early in the morning. However, if you don’t spend much time in your cabin, waiting for prices to drop could provide an inexpensive cruise vacation. Repeat cruisers on most lines receive additional amenities such as private receptions, free internet, and onboard credits.
Overall, cruising--no matter when you go--is one of the least expensive and most convenient ways to travel--a good value for your vacation dollars.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier