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



Sunday, February 3, 2019

South Padre Island attracts families for Spring Break

Sea Life Safari
Explore the shores of Texas’ best beach, South Padre Island, for the ultimate family-friendly Spring Break getaway. From action-packed water sports, to bay and deep sea fishing, to engaging nature tourism attractions, and relaxing on the white, sandy beaches, it’s no wonder South Padre Island was recently named one of the 10 best destinations in Texas for families at Spring Break.

Here’s a preview of family-friendly experiences this Spring Break season:

Waterpark fun  
Schlitterbahn Waterpark and Beach Resort  One of South Padre Island’s biggest attractions, Schlitterbahn Waterparks are considered the best water parks in the country.  The outdoor water park is nestled right next to the beach with its own inland surfing attraction, uphill water coasters, and more fun than should be allowed.
Learn more about sea life.

Water sports galore Older children and parents can get active and take up kayaking, surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, stand-up paddle boarding or flyboarding. Rent your equipment and take a lesson from a variety of expert, local vendors.

Sea turtle adventures and bird watching. The Island is a nesting ground for the endangered Kemp’s Ridley species. Visitors can get an up-close look at these and other species of sea turtles  at Sea Turtle, Inc., an educational, rehabilitation and rescue facility on the Island. Also, the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, situated along the wetlands of the Laguna Madre Bay, features exhibits on the Island’s birds and other natural features. The Center includes a five-story viewing tower, viewing blinds, and boardwalk nature trails.

Fascinating sea turtles
Catch a cruise with the Black Dragon - All cruises include a crew of pirates entertaining with stories, face painting, treasure hunts, water pistol battles, sword fighting, booty, music and loads of family fun. Sunset cruises are also popular in the springtime.

Enough wind to fly a kite
Go horseback riding on the beach with Island Adventure ParkThe riding center has a large selection of horses specifically trained to accommodate children and first-time riders. In addition to horseback riding, the park offers a petting barn for the kiddos and a zip-line course for the thrill seeker.

Hook a fish! Then, cook your catch. Fishing enthusiasts can enjoy bay and deep sea fishing; Inshore or offshore, charter boats or kayaks, surf fishing, you can get bowed up no matter what species you’re fishing for. Even better, many restaurants will prepare your catch for lunch or dinner, any way you like it (think grilled, blackened, fried and more).

Information courtesy of The South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Amazing tiled steps of San Francisco

Even if you’ve been to San Francisco before, you might not know about the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. I had not heard of this project until Larry and I were planning a spring trip to San Francisco. A little Internet research turned up this destination that we decided to check out on our last visit to the  California coast.
We learned that when neighbors decide to work together, beautiful things can happen. That’s how the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps came into being.

Two residents of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood envisioned the artistic project in 2003 as a means of connecting neighbors. The result is a colorful mosaic of sea-and star-themed designs flowing up 163 steps.
To fund the project, neighbors sponsored and then commissioned decorative handmade tiles created by artists in the shapes of animals, fish, and shells. These were incorporated into the mosaic, which is visible as you ascend the steps but not when you come down.  In 2005 the beautiul tile steps were opened in a city-wide celebration.

Our interest was piqued, so we set the GPS and drove there. As you park near Morango Street between 15th and 16th Avenues, be sure to heed warnings about possible car burglers (we didn’t have any problems). Also, if you plan to climb the steps and perhaps linger awhile, bring your own water as this is a residential neighbord without tourist services.

The amazing display is really unique with the overarching theme broken into sections that feature different colors and designs. Additionally, gardens on the south side of the mosaic stairway were privately donated, while a grant from the city funded gardens on the north side to further beautify the area.

At the top of the steps there is an uphill path across the street that will take you to a lookout spot. It’s worth the short walk to see excellent views of the city below.  We enjoyed discovering this unusual treat before heading to a picnic in Golden Gate Park.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Choosing your next piece of luggage

Suitcases come in a variety
of sizes and materials.
Luggage used to be almost a lifetime purchase where you looked for the best quality bags you could afford. But that’s not necessarily the best approach these days. Sure, quality matters, but styles and features change so quickly that it might make better sense to replace luggage every five or so years.
Besides choosing a distinctive and good-looking piece of luggage (not black!) think about function, packing space, airline requirements, and value in addition to quality. Whether you are looking for something rugged, luxurious, or high-tech, many choices are out there no matter what your style of travel may be.

The largest bag may not be the most
practical.Only buy what you need.
First, you have a couple of basic options, mainly whether to buy soft-sided or hard-sided luggage (which has made a comeback after being out of fashion for many years). Assuming any luggage you buy should be made of durable material with good handles and wheels, here are some points to consider when making the choice between soft or hard:
Soft-side luggage:

It is lightweight, flexible, and can adapt to tight spaces such as overhead bins and under seats of airplanes. It may actually hold more because the sides are not rigid, although soft sides may not be as sturdy and protective of the contents.  Be sure the fabric is made of a strong and durable material such as ballistic nylon.  
Hard-side luggage:

Carryon sizes are strict, especially
for hard-side suitcases
It offers more protection for your precious cargo, but it may scratch and scuff more easily. It probably weighs more, and it can’t be squeezed into fixed storage spaces (forget about under the plane seat). There’s a greater chance you’ll have to check your bag if storage space is short on a flight. Be sure the bag’s frame, which should be made of aluminum or polycarbonate, is strong and sturdy.
Shopping for luggage:

Take along a tape measure to be sure the size you purchase meets airline guidelines, especially if you plan to carry it on rather than checking. Even if you plan to check a large bag, remember that the larger it is, the more it will weigh when packed full. You might not want a 32 or 35- inch piece that could be dinged a steep fee for exceeding allowable weight limits.
Check that the handle has a solid and comfortable grip. Open and close zippers to be sure they flow smoothly. Interior compartments should work for the way you pack items. (While you’re at it, pick up several of those zippered, mesh packing cubes. They make packing and finding things later much easier).
Gotta have wheels, preferably four!  You’ll be considered a dinosaur and given dirty looks if wrangling your duffle bag creates inconveniences for other travelers—not to mention the back and shoulder pain you might get from lifting and hauling un-wheeled bags around an airport or train station. (I speak from experience on a recent journey to Africa that required bags without wheels--ugh). Practice wheeling luggage around to be sure it will travel smoothly over different surfaces, including mild bumps (a gravel road or cobblestones will come your way at some time in your travels).
Suitcases continue to get “smarter.” Newer features that may be important to you include built-in weight indicators, location trackers, fingerprint locks, and battery chargers (but be careful of certain items that may be banned on flights). Warranties—if you plan to keep the luggage for many years--should offer extensive coverage without exclusions for airline damage.

Cost will depend on the quality and size bag, but you don’t have to spend a fortune for a serviceable and dependable bag. Read reviews for major, well-known brands like American Tourister, Samsonite, Travelpro, Delsey, Eagle Creek, Victorinox, and others. And check major retailers for frequent sales.
One of the newer luggage styles that I like is Biaggi, a series of frame-less soft-side bags that each fold into a small, neat package for storage. These can be stuffed to accommodate all those “extras” you inevitably bring home, and they are incredibly lightweight, which is important when traveling to remote destinations that have weight limits below those imposed by large airlines.

Photos from free sites.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

The beauty of Point Lobos State Reserve

Spring flowers add a gentle touch to the rugged coastline
along Highway One near Carmel, California.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve was a mere five-minute drive from our Carmel, California Hyatt resort. Dedicated to preserving native relationships of the unique animal and plant life, geologic features, and scenic qualities found in their natural state along Highway One, the Reserve is a wonderland of ocean, trails, coves, and meadows.
The coastline along South Shore Trail at Point Lobos State Reserve
in California
Although we anticipated a quick stop, the Reserve was so fascinating that we spent three and a half hours exploring this bountiful landscape. That’s because the beautiful scenery--a mosaic of ecologies was shaped when rocks formed below the earth’s surface, later uplifted, exposed, and then eroded into a variety of forms by waves and weather—was far more enticing than we had expected to find in a reserve.
Coastal scene along the Cypress Cove Trail at Point Lobos State
Reserve near Carmel, California

To see all that Point Lobos offered, Larry and I walked several trails, starting with the South Shore Trail near the parking lot between Sea Lion Point and Bird Island. The accessible one-mile trail took us along cliffs with a magnificent ocean view and through one of nature’s lovely seaside gardens filled with dunes, rocks, splashing surf, caves, and driftwood. Sea Lion Point and Sand Hill Trail include cove overlooks and easy views of sea lions resting on rocks offshore or basking on the beach--moms tending their young as our visit was during ‘pup” season.
Monterey cypress trees frame the ocean on Cypress Grove Trail.
The Cypress Grove Trail, a loop from Sea Lion Point parking area through coastal scrub and woods and cliffs, serves up dramatic and spectacular ocean views. It winds through one of only two naturally growing stands of Monterey cypress trees remaining on Earth (The other grove is across Carmel Bay at Cypress Point). In fact, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve was originally acquired by the government to protect these trees.

Old Veteran cypress tree is estimated to be at least 300 years old.
These cypresses formerly extended over a much wider range but withdrew to the fog-shrouded headlands as the climate changed 15,000 years ago. The outermost trees reflect the forces of nature and time—they survived salt spray and wind with their roots seeking nourishment in whatever cracks and crevices could be found. A short side trail led to “Old Veteran,” a cypress tree about 300-350 years old. Even though it has split (possibly from lightning) it is still growing and sports a leafy canopy.
Deer can be seen in the meadows of Point Lobos State Reserve.
Our last trail was to Bird Island. To get to the trailhead we drove to the southernmost parking area, passing by two white, sandy beaches—China Beach and Gibson Beach. We then hiked the path highlighting pine forest, coastal scrub, rocky shores, and beautiful wildflower displays.
Trail marker

Notable were the huge boulders where thousands of sea birds roost during spring and summer. Cormorants nest close together on the flat part of the island, while sea otters rest in kelp offshore.

Mother seal tending to her pup at the beach below Bird Island Trail.
From the upper-level trail, we also had a great view of harbor seal moms tending their pups in the cold water and on the beach. Their actions resembled mothers everywhere!
Birds come by the thousands to roost on the rocks, which have a
distinctive white covering--and smell!
To get to Gibson Beach later, we walked down a sandy incline and a 56-step staircase. Wading is allowed there, but the water is very cold year-round, and with a cool breeze blowing, we decided a short look around was all we needed.
Beachcombers enjoy relatively secluded Gibson Beach at the
southernmost end of Point Lobos State Reserve
Bottom line, we were very glad we had time to wander around the trails and learn more about the multiple terrains and beautiful environments of Point Lobos State Reserve. So plan enough time for discovery when visiting this interesting place.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Sunday, January 6, 2019

Why travel?

People sometimes ask my husband Larry and me why we like to travel so much. Well, we love a good adventure and the opportunity to create lasting memories with each other and friends.
Parasailing in Kauai, Hawaii
But the most important reason is that learning and travel go hand in hand.  Travel provides interactive opportunities to try new things, see new places, meet new people, and have new experiences. Learning becomes an integral part of travel—and it stays with you for the rest of your life.

Looking into the crater at Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii

It follows that travel helps keep us young in mind and spirit. It gives us increased satisfaction and appreciation for our lives, enrichment from understanding more about other cultures (especially when talking with locals in other countries), and the chance to delve into the history of countries far older than our own. We agree with the playwright Henry Miller who said,” One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.”
Magnificent red sand dunes at Sossusviel, Namibia
Make planning easier

We use the “bucket list” approach to deciding where to go next. Our bucket list includes destinations in our home state of Texas as well as destinations in remote locations across the globe. From years of writing travel articles for magazines, newspapers, and online venues, I have learned that there is something interesting in every place we visit. We’ve never been to any place that we  were in a hurry to leave. In fact, we almost always wish we could stay longer.
Sunset on Lake Travis near Austin, Texas
You don’t have to take long trips to have amazing experiences. Day trips can be just as unforgettable as a month-long journey. Road trips allow for flexibility. You can stop whenever you want (another photo moment coming up!), adjust the itinerary along the way, and not have to worry about how much stuff you tossed in the back of the car.
Zip lines can be found in many
outstanding locations.

Cruises are an excellent way to see the world. One of the best perks is that you only have to unpack one time. And it’s easy to stay within your budget because you know ahead of time what most expenses will be. True, cruises dock at seaside ports, so exploring inland may take extra planning or extra days. However, many cruise lines now spend one or two nights in selected ports, allowing for additional exploration that further enriches your experience.

What if travel makes you anxious?
Travel—under any circumstances—is best done with an open mind. Here’s another learning opportunity: Develop a positive mindset to appreciate all that is good about travel and minimize perceived effects of bumps along the way.

Crater Lake National Park

The best way to overcome travel fears, such as flying in an airplane, is to do it anyway. Accept that things can go wrong, but don’t wallow in it. Plus, there’s a certain pride to moving outside one’s comfort zone and finding that you can be okay. Not just okay, but excited about discovering unexpected pleasures of travel. 
One of many tiger sightings in India
We have survived illness and hospitalization in a foreign country, hurricane-force winds that broke our ship from its moorings, and numerous delayed or canceled flights. But the benefits of travel still far outweigh the possible negatives—most of which are more perception and fear of the unknown than reality.
Incredible beauty of icebergs in Antarctica
Think about this: Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Monday, December 31, 2018

A look at 2018 in pictures

Elephants leaving water hole in Etosha National Park, Namibia
As a new year arrives and we start planning travel adventures for 2019, it’s a good time to look back over the past year at the places and activities we experienced. There was a good mixture of domestic and international travel and even a little time off between trips. This is what 2018 looked like for Larry and me.  

View of Fishtail Mountain from our resort in Pokhara, Nepal
January:  We arrived in Nepal after spending two weeks, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve in India. As many of you know Larry became ill and spent eight days in a hospital in Kathmandu, but before that happened, we traveled to the beautiful resort town of Pokhara.
Walk trails beside water and through these lovely gardens in
San Antonio, Texas.
February: This was a month for recovery, but later we took a few days to visit San Antonio, a favorite city of ours that (fortunately) is just a little more than an hour away. Early spring blooms added color to the Chinese Garden near the San Antonio Zoo.
Climbing Enchanted Rock
March: During Spring Break we took a grandson to several notable sights in Central Texas including Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg and scenic Pedernales State Park where rocks and water combine for a perfectly scenic romp.
Limestone formations along the Pedernales River
April: We spent a glorious week in Carmel, California exploring beaches, parks, and forests of Big Sur along Highway One. This is one of America’s most spectacular road trips, with plenty of trails to hike and new sights to see around every bend of the coastline.
Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur can be hard to find, but it's totally worth a visit

May: We finished that driving trip in San Francisco with adventures including a round of golf, wine tasting at a vineyard, climbing the tiled steps on 16th Avenue, and wandering around Golden Gate Park.

Spring blooms at Golden Gate State Park in California

June: Disneyworld may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly fun when treating a granddaughter to the experience. If you go early enough in the summer before it gets too hot and crowded, you’ll come to understand the Disney magic that makes this place so well liked.
Night time in Epcot just prior to the fireworks show.

July: It was time for a trip to a less-traveled destination. We headed to the exotic country of Namibia, where we would not only see many species of African wildlife but would also have the opportunity to witness—and climb--the world's highest sand dunes, the red dunes of Sossusviel.
Climbing the magnificent red sand dunes in Namibia
August: Our African journey continued into Botswana, a growing destination for incredible wildlife safaris. We stayed in multiple remote camps and were able to observe activities aimed to conserve Africa’s resources and preserve wildlife species like lions, elephants, and leopards.
We watched this leopard stalking prey in Botswana.
September: Although we had been to Ireland and London, England several times, we wanted to see more of the United Kingdom, so we booked a cruise that sailed around the UK and Ireland. Despite the hurricane that interrupted our trip in Scotland, it was a pleasant journey that ended with a day in Bath and the Cotswolds.

Incredible Giant's Causeway in Ireland
October: We had booked a cruise on the magnificent Rhine River that started in Basel, Switzerland. Since we had five days between cruises, we spent that interlude in Geneva and went paragliding off a mountain in the Alps of France. Then we enjoyed the towns, castles, and vineyards as the ship sailed to Amsterdam.
All along the Rhine River are picturesque vineyards and castles
November: Most of the month was spent visiting children and grandchildren in various stateside locations, but one excellent Texas day trip we recommend is to Lost Maples State Natural Area. Fall colors made hiking on trails in the park an event to remember.

Autumn leaves are especially beautiful in this rare Texas stand of maples.

December: Back in Central Texas, we celebrated the holiday season with an evening drive to Johnson City for its Festival of Lights. We also walked down Austin’s iconic 37th Street and reminisced about visiting to the famous Trail of Lights at Zilker Park. This annual event never ceases to amaze as it grows better every year.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier