Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial


Magnificent colors of the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019. So this is the perfect time to visit this widely visited national park.  Its jaw-dropping views draw in more than six million visitors annually, and these will be highlighted with diverse historical, cultural, and natural public events throughout the year.
The Colorado River cuts through the canyon.
Grand Canyon is a favorite destination for families, adventure enthusiasts, and travelers from all over the world. On the popular South Rim, there are many shuttle stops that allow visitors to see and marvel at the deep and rugged canyon and ribbon of Colorado River at the bottom. (I’ve taken an amazing 10-day journey braving the river’s rapids and camping along the river).

Hikers may try reaching the bottom at Phantom Ranch, a nine-mile trek down. However long that takes, be prepared for the trip back up to take triple the amount of time. Or ride a mule down, which is quite an unusual experience.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times for such striking views.
For an especially scenic splurge, consider taking a helicopter flight over the canyon. You’ll see an awe-inspiring perspective of this geological wonder. Take advantage of park ranger talks and guided walks that are available most days and in various locations. Experience the wonders of night skies during summertime star parties, or rise early to watch sunrise paint a golden portrait on the canyon walls. Sunrise and sunset are especially great times to observe how changing light illuminates the canyon’s walls, revealing changing contours, colors, and depths of this incredible wonder.

View of Grand Canyon from a helicopter.
The North Rim offers different views and is only open during summer months as its elevation results in colder temperatures and snow for many months of the year.
On the Western side is a Skywalk that allows visitors to stand above the canyon on a glass viewing platform, and they can take a zip line across the canyon for a bird’s eye view. Additionally, in 2019 the centennial celebration will bring special events, festivities, demonstrations, special exhibits, and travel deals including the Grand Canyon Centennial Star Party in June.  So be sure to check online or with your travel agent and book early if there are specific events you don’t want to miss.
The North Rim is extremely rugged and has higher elevation.
Shadows are long in the afternoon.
On February 26, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that officially created Grand Canyon National Park, the country’s 17th. With this act the famous landscape and archaeological artifacts left behind by Native American tribes will be protected and preserved for generations.

Called one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon is a mile deep, 277 miles long, and up to 18 miles wide. Few places on earth are as majestic and awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon. If you haven't been there, this is a great year to go. Or go again, if you have.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Getting outdoors in Austin, Texas



One of many features in
Zilker Botanical Garden
Zilker Park.  2100 Barton Springs Road. Spreading over 360 metropolitan acres, Zilker is truly a park for all seasons and all ages. A prime attraction is Barton Springs Pool, a spring-fed swimming hole where constant 68-degree water attracts locals for daily dips year-round.  Across the street is Zilker Botanical Garden, 22 acres of plant lover’s delight—a showplace for native foliage, roses, ponds, formal and Oriental gardens, and 100-year-old dinosaur tracks.

Stevie Ray Vaughan overlooks
Lady Bird Lake in Austin.
Adjacent to the park is Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail—ten miles of downtown trails around the lake.  It’s a verdant oasis and social hub for casual walkers and cyclists as well as a popular training ground for serious runners. 

On the south side, you’ll see the famous statue of deceased blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who still inspires countless wannabe musicians.  Thousands of professional and amateur kite-flyers enjoy competitions every spring; other attractions include summer outdoor theatrical performances and musical events, mile-long pedestrian holiday Trail of Lights and spectacular Christmas tree, and collegiate rowing competitions on Town Lake.

Outdoor sculptures at Umlauf
Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.  605 Robert E. Lee Rd. Adjacent to Zilker Park is an exquisite sanctuary for anyone who loves beautiful art and peaceful landscaping.  More than 130 pieces by Charles Umlauf, world-renowned sculptor and former UT professor, are displayed in natural outdoor settings and indoors.  Wander leisurely on paths in this almost-secret wooded urban area while admiring figures of children, animals, and religious figures cast in bronze, stone, terra cotta, and exotic woods.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  4801 La Crosse Ave. Springtime bursts with gorgeous wildflower displays along roadsides of Texas, thanks to persistent efforts of Lady Bird Johnson.

A variety of wildflowers bloom at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin 
The Wildflower Center (now under the auspices of University of Texas) honors her dedication to highway beautification by promoting research and growth of native plants and providing a scenic viewpoint for visitors.  Linger on serene limestone porches or stroll paths that meander around gardens, waterfalls, and open fields of flowers.

Spectacular bat flight in Austin
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats. 10 blocks south of the Capitol Building.  Only in Austin would flying bats become a bonafide tourist attraction. From late March through early October thousands of people gather nightly on and around the Congress Avenue Bridge to watch a black cloud of 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats stream out from under the bridge at dusk. 

When the bridge was constructed over Town Lake in 1980, no one imagined that bats would consider crevices under the bridge to be a perfect roosting place, but the bridge now shelters the largest urban bat colony in North America. Once thought to be a nuisance, the bats soon gained honorary status as people realized that they eat up to 30,000 pounds of insects on their nightly flights.

Mount Bonnell is a favorite scenic spot
for both locals and visitors.
Mount Bonnell.  Viewing the skyline of Austin from Mount Bonnell is like seeing the city with a wide-angle lens.  After climbing 99 steps to one of the highest spots in the city, you can look over the Pennybacker Bridge, commonly called Austin 360 Bridge, and see landmarks like the University of Texas tower and the Capitol, a panorama of luxury mansions on Lake Austin, and gorgeous vistas in one of the most romantic spots in town.  The summit, at 785 feet, is a picturesque setting popular for picnics and sunset watching. 

Laguna Gloria.  Visit renowned Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th Street, and enjoy art as well as beautifully landscaped grounds and an historic villa on Lake Austin.  Stroll this iconic lakeside destination, which is often the site of outdoor sculptures and displays.
The historic mansion at Laguna Gloria
Numerous hiking trails are scattered throughout Austin in parks and other venues. Since central Texas is known for its hills and rivers, you can find more outdoor fun within an hour's drive from the city.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Friday, March 8, 2019

Embracing the desert of Namibia


We leave Windhoek, Namibia and fly south toward Sosessuvlei to see the red sand dunes.  The landscape is desolate; metal roofs on scattered buildings glisten like diamonds in the sun. Cars below are few and far between as a dirt road snakes its way along the narrow paved two-lane road.
View out the window of our small transport plane.
The topography takes on a reddish tint, a hint of what is to come. After nearly an hour in the air, the terrain becomes more rugged and mountainous, although it is still dry and dreary. Then there is the desert—waves of unspoiled champagne-colored sand covering the ground and drifting over even the mountains below.

I marvel at jaw-dropping views of this spectacular landscape. Eventually I notice the long, gravel landing strip which fades into the vast emptiness as the plane's wheels touch down.
Getting to various camps requires transport via small plane.
The Namib Desert is a land of magnificent dunes to the west and rugged, mountains of the Namib escarpment to the north and east, with grassy plains filing the space between.

There is a simple beauty in the starkness of the desert.
We land and head in a safari vehicle for the private 90,000 acre Kulala Wilderness Reserve. Massive gold-orange dunes, shaped by wind into this unbelievably beautiful starkness, rise a thousand feet from the floor of the world’s oldest desert.
Stairs leading to our rooftop "hideaway."
We find our accommodations among 11 stylish thatched villas or kulalas (meaning “to sleep” in local Oshiwambo language). There is a large outdoor deck, indoor and outdoor showers, a private plunge pool and a rooftop “skybed” for romantic stargazing (We try this out later!)


We scan the landscape from our rooftop perch.
In the afternoon we set out to explore the Kulala Wilderness Reserve. Everything living here has adapted to the harsh, dry climate. Challenges include finding water, conserving energy (many are nocturnal), and finding food (hunt early morning or late evening). Trees have tiny leaves because of water scarcity or thorns as protection from grazing animals.
Spring bok can go a year without
water--desert adaptation.
On our first safari of this journey we see antelopes, Oryx, and spring bock (which can survive 365 days without water). Rocks are everywhere on the ground, leftover from wave action on a prehistoric ocean bed. Basalt and limestone are now prevalent in the dry river beds.

An ostrich egg left to nature.
Our guide points out “fairy circles” and explains that the origin of these rock formations on the ground is not really known. We find an ostrich egg that had been laid in the open on bushman’s grass. Most likely it will never hatch.
Our dining experiences were superb.
After driving for awhile, we stop for snacks and wine before heading back to camp and a sumptuous dinner.
Even better, we are treated to native singing, dancing, clapping, and foot tapping by the energetic staff. Their happy voices lift us all, till we forget what a long day it has been—and the early morning wake-up call we will have in order to see sunrise on the magnificent sand dunes of Sossusvlei.
Staff was very friendly, helpful, and accommodating--a real asset for remote camps.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

 

 


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Bucket-list destination: Namibia


Just like most people who love to travel, we have a bucket list of places in the world to visit. Last summer we added a destination that most folks I know would not include. In fact, when we told friends we were going to Namibia, they had to ask “Where is that?”
But I guarantee if you put it on your list and go, you won’t be disappointed.
Only in Namibia will you see such spectacular sand dunes.
What first attracted me to this western African country were pictures of stark red sand dunes. I must see those!” I said to myself, my husband, and a travel-savvy friend. And so, within days, we had booked a trip with Natural Habitat almost a year in advance of actually going. 
 
Namibia is a country of stunning contrasts. It is home to two great deserts. The Namib (the world’s oldest desert) runs along the country’s entire Atlantic coast and is where you’ll see the red dunes and sea of sand. Kalahari Desert in the eastern interior is an arid savannah that extends into neighboring countries.

Sand even covers mountains in the desert regions of Namibia.
In between these deserts lies the Central Plateau with wide-open plains and rugged, virtually impassable mountains. Getting from place to place generally involves flying in a small private airplane. But from the air you see open landscapes that are a panorama of endless blue skies, dark starry nights, and sunny weather. This astonishing array of natural wonders increasingly attracts visitors to this extraordinary country.
Aerial view of the desolate landscape in much of Namibia.
Most of the sparse population (just over two million people) lives in the northern region where water supplies are more reliable. This is also where the greatest diversity of wildlife can be found and includes popular Etosha National Park  Here you can see increasing numbers of rare large mammals that have learned to adapt and thrive in this semi-arid region. Among those to be seen on safari: the world’s largest concentrations of free-roaming cheetahs and desert-adapted elephants and black rhinos.
Wildlife safaris are increasingly important to the economy of Namibia.
The culture comes from previous rules: German, British, and South African, Namibia is a young country having gained its independence in 1990.  Various colonial influences and African cultures are evident in cities like Windhoek, the capital which is located in the Central Plateau. This is where our journey began, and I’ll describe highlights from our trip in future posts.
Sunsets in Namibia are glorious.
Fact: Namibia was the first country in the world to incorporate the protection of the environment into its constitution. Namibia’s many national parks and game reserves are owned by the government and managed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. As the country continues to realize the importance of tourism, this commitment is increasingly evident. Despite receiving low annual rainfall, having private conservation areas and governmentally-protected regions allows the lands of Namibia to support hundreds of species of wildlife including large mammals, big cats, plains game, and more than 600 species of birds.
Accommodations range from basic to luxurious in the many camps
of Namibia.
To accommodate increasing numbers of visitors, many high-quality, affordable lodges and campgrounds are sprouting up amidst Namibia’s spectacular scenery. It is here you’ll be able to have close encounters with wildlife, as well as enjoy the food, cultures, traditions, and stunning landscapes of Namibia.

I’ll write more about our journey southward to see (and climb) the dunes, northward up the wind-swept Atlantic coast, and then eastward across Namibia and onward to the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

First class for free? Here's how to get an airline upgrade


Today’s post is courtesy of Christopher Elliott, author of “How To Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic).

Be honest – you stopped playing the airline upgrade game a long time ago.

And for good reason. Airlines demanded way too much in exchange for a slightly more comfortable seat--unquestioning brand loyalty, an encyclopedic knowledge of their arcane and constantly changing loyalty program rules, or a briefcase full of cash.


But there are ways to get a better seat without having to sell your soul to the airline or take out a second mortgage. They include booking certain flights, becoming a savvy bidder for first-class seats, and waiting for the right time to ask.

Find a flight with empty seats

If you have your eye on a better seat, try selecting a less-popular flight. Generally, the more popular the flight, the more scarce and expensive the upgrade. Certain flights, like the first flight of the morning or the red-eye (overnight flight), tend to be emptier.

"I watch the seat maps and wait until the end to board," says Shawn Crowley, a college recruiter based in Washington, D.C. If there’s still an open exit row, he asks the flight attendant if he can sit in one of the premium seats without paying extra. "I've had it work every time the seat has shown open."

Of course, the definition of a "better" seat has changed in recent years. A decade ago, that would have meant a "premium" economy or business-class seat. Now, with all the seat assignment games airlines play, a better seat can mean anything that's not a middle seat.

Learn how to bid for an airline upgrade

The hours and minutes before your flight leaves are the best time to find an upgrade. That's because empty first-class seats are worthless to an airline, which means the company will do everything it can to monetize them. Many carriers allow you to bid for a first-class seat online, but you need to know a few things before you jump in and name your price.

How do you know if your seat is eligible for a bid? After you've made your economy-class reservation, log in to the airline site to see if you're eligible. Often, the airline also sends a notification. It's a blind auction, so you won't see what other passengers are bidding for the same seat. You'll get notified 24 to 72 hours before takeoff.


"The key to success is knowing how many seats are still available and, more importantly, how much to bid," says travel writer David Yeskel, who has successfully bid on dozens of upgrades.

You can check available seats on your airline website or a site like Expertflyer. Yeskel says you should bid somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the difference between the cost of your original seat and the cost of your desired seat. Rates vary based on the length of the flight.

Unconventional upgrade strategies

Experienced air travelers say that airlines, in their mad dash to monetize every seat, have created a lot of upgrade opportunities beyond bidding. A polite, direct appeal to a gate agent still can work, although they've probably heard every story already.

But airlines sometimes will upgrade you even if you haven't asked. Actually, sometimes they'll upgrade you – and charge you – without asking. That's what happened to Robert Ryan, a marketing consultant from Chicago, who was flying from Copenhagen to Chicago recently. SAS decided to upgrade Ryan and his wife, even though they hadn't bid on an upgrade.

“No airline should be able to force a customer to accept an unrequested upgrade,” says Ryan.

He's right. I contacted SAS on his behalf, and it refunded the $1,609 it charged for his business-class seat.  

More tips for getting an upgrade

Be selfless. That's what Meera Sundram did on a flight from New York to Phoenix. "I gave my exit row seat to a really tall man who was about to be squished into an economy seat," says Sundram, a retired health care executive who lives in Amman, Jordan. "The flight attendant saw that and offered me a first-class seat." Instead, Sundram gave it to the tall guy invading her space. There's a special place in airline passenger heaven for folks like Sundram.


Don’t be afraid to let the flight attendants know about any issues. Maybe your seatback TV or overhead light isn’t working properly, or a nearby passenger is rude or excessively loud. "Try politely telling a flight attendant and asking if there are any other seat options," says Molly Cowen, travel expert at the site TravelPirates. "If you’re lucky, you might be moved to a more premium seat."

Just move to a better seat. Nathan Segal, a professional speaker from Calgary, Canada, waits until the flight reaches cruising altitude and then moves. "I have been able to move within coach to a window seat this way," he says. It never hurts to ask (Segal does), but flight attendants can't police every seat in economy class, so if you see an empty seat within your class of service, go ahead and try to claim it.

This column originally appeared in USA Today and is used with permission from Christopher Elliott. Photos from free sites.

 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Top sights in Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas is one of the fastest growing cities in the country--and for good reason. There is much to see and do, the weather is generally mild (except August), and the scenery is spectacular.

In this post I'll cover some of the sites that provide historical background of the city. I'll cover more fun and beautiful outdoor venues in a later post.
Texas state Capitol
State Capitol.  The Capitol building of Texas buzzes with politicians, tourists, and students on any given day, and the gallery is a popular visitor spot when the Legislature is in session.  Located at the north end of Congress Avenue, it’s an imposing pink granite structure, 14 feet higher than the Capitol in Washington D. C.  Its grand rotunda, symbolic terrazzo tile floors, and life-size statues of Stephen F. Austin (“Father of Texas”) and famous general and statesman Sam Houston catch your attention immediately.

The nearby Capitol Visitors Center details Texas history through exhibits and videos in the historic General Land Office Building.  Free tours of the Governor’sMansion, 1010 Colorado St., occupied by Texas governors since 1856, are offered most weekday mornings.

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum
Bob Bullock TexasState History Museum.  1800 N. Congress Ave. Named for a long-time Texas politician, the museum is a dynamic tribute to the multi-faceted history of the state.  The “Story of Texas” comes alive through interactive exhibits, rare artifacts, multi-media displays, and a special effects theater--not to mention the huge bronze star on the grounds.

The facility also houses Austin’s only IMAX theater.  From the 35-foot tall bronze star in front to the exquisitely designed interiors and exhibits, the museum is picturesque enough to be a popular wedding location. 
 
The University of Texas Tower
The University of Texas.   Everything is bigger in Texas, including The University.” Curl your fingers into the “Hook ‘em horns” sign and don something in burnt orange to join legions of avid Longhorn fans.  Become immersed in college-town atmosphere by walking along The Drag, respectfully known as Guadalupe Street, for some of the best people watching anywhere.

Harry Ransom Center
At the educational end of the UT spectrum is the Harry Ransom Center, one of the world’s finest cultural archives at 21st and Guadalupe Streets.  Browse through 30 million literary manuscripts, five million photographs (including the world’s first), a rare Gutenberg Bible, and the infamous Watergate papers.  One of the country’s top university fine arts collections is showcased at the BlantonMuseum of Art.

LBJ's Library and Museum
Lyndon Baines JohnsonLibrary and Museum.  2313 Red River St. (on the UT campus).  Texas Hill Country spawned a political legend in LBJ, so it’s only fitting that Austin would host the nation’s most visited presidential library.  In addition to chronicling the life and times of our 36th President, exhibits are also devoted to the influential Lady Bird. 


Learn more about LBJ at Johnson City, Texas.
For a different perspective about the man beyond politics, tour the LBJ National Historical Park atJohnson City, less than an hour away, west on Hwy. 290, where you’ll learn how Johnson’s beloved central Texas land and family influenced his formative years. 
 
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and free sources.

 

 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Namibia stirs the soul


Nothing quite compares to sunrise on the sand dunes of Sossusvlei.
Namibia is truly a land of contrasts, as we discovered on our visit last summer. If you’ve ever wanted to go on a safari, a good place to start is in this almost unknown country on the southwest edge of Africa. Namibia’s ecological diversity is attracting more and more visitors to the country whose tourism industry is just in its infancy.
Private camps are plentiful and accommodations are very comfortable.
Yet, there are plenty of private camps willing to host visitors, and some are as luxurious as the desert will allow. Camps on private nature reserves in the bush are generally small (although individual cabins are roomy and comfortable) and can only accommodate perhaps 8-20 guests.

Airplanes take visitors where there are no roads.
That is actually fine because it’s often necessary to fly on small plane over the vast and rugged desert. A short 30-minute flight (watch out for the ostrich on the runway) might cover an area that would take eight hours to drive—if there is even a road. And nowhere will you find staff more convivial and anxious to make your stay the best ever.

Sand covering the mountains reminds you that this is desert.
This may not be a trip for everyone. But if you have a keen sense of adventure and willingness to be surprised, Namibia will fill you with wonder. Here are some of the reasons I believe this country should be on your bucket list.
We removed shoes and walked
down the steep sand dune.
--Namibia stirs the soul with the isolation and solitude in its stark desert landscape. While the ocean washes over the coastal desert, the inland plains are baked by the sun into a dull brownish landscape of dried mud and rocks.

--But then the spirit soars when viewing the towering orange-red sand dunes of Sossusvlei in the south. Climb the dunes for a spectacular view of salt pans below—and walk barefoot in the soft sand that swallows your legs midway up the shin.
--Marvel at the variety of ecology and wildlife. In the million-acre Palmwag Concession, you can follow trackers as they search for the endangered desert rhinos that live there. You’ll also learn how different wildlife species have adapted to the harsh desert environment.

Rhinos are one of the "big 5" of African wildlife.
--Guided safari drives in open 4 x 4 vehicles through private reserves allow for superb wildlife encounters. You may see unusual wildlife found nowhere else in Africa, with plenty of time to observe and follow the animals without feeling rushed or crowded.
Elephants are another one of the "big 5" that safari goers want to see.
These lionesses were thirsty after dining
on the giraffe that had recently bee killed.
-- Around the Etosha Salt Pan in northern Namibia, there is enough water (along with some manmade water holes) to sustain a variety of game including feline predators, Springbok, oryx, kudu. There’s a large elephant population and plenty of opportunities to watch these magnificent behemoths interacting gently in their family groups.

Flying over spectacular and rugged mountains in Namibia
--Get a bird’s eye view of the varied topography on flights between wilderness camps. Scour landscape  to admire imposing mountains, deep canyons, and vast plateaus below.
We enjoyed a "sundowner" with refreshments as the sun descended.
Getting from place to place be a challenge, but the diversity of this complex country will surprise and thrill you. Namibia is truly awesome!

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier