Sunday, August 29, 2010

Explore Big Bend National Park

Located where the Rio Grande River makes a U-turn along the Texas-Mexico border, Big Bend National Park inspires repeat visits for travelers who love its serene beauty. Because it is more than 100 miles from the nearest freeway or shopping mall, people tend to stay for several days. It’s one of those places you can go back to again and again, and it’s like you’re seeing it for the first time.

Each mode of travel gives visitors incomparable views of this lightly visited national park, and there’s something for everyone. Besides hiking, horseback riding, and jeep touring, here are other ways to appreciate the immensity and remoteness of the land.

Rafting. Truly a highlight of any visit to Big Bend, a raft or canoe trip on the Rio Grande can take you through gorgeous canyons where purple mountains and awesome lava formations almost make you forget there’s a desert nearby. Although you can paddle on your own, a guided overnight camping excursion is really fun. Swapping stories by the campfire is a perfect ending to floating leisurely downstream enjoying the silent scenery of this remote land.

Santa Elena Canyon is well known for amazing light shows on its rock walls, but other canyons including Mariscal and Boquillas offer additional perspectives on the power of water to carve the land--and may be better options if water level is low in Santa Elena. Check out these outfitters for an unforgettable excursion on the Rio Grande River or other waterways: (Far Flung Outdoor Center)

Biking. Well-conditioned mountain bikers tackle trails on wheels rather than on foot, but be aware that rocky and often hilly terrain can make covering the trails a good day’s work--whether you use pedal power or rev up a motorcycle. The park publishes two road guides, one to paved and improved dirt roads and one for backcountry dirt roads, challenging paths which lead bikers to views of Big Bend that most visitors never see.

No matter how you travel through the park, you’ll enjoy experiencing its unique character, varied topography, and three ecosystems (mountains, river, desert). Evening skies are filled with spectacular shades of purple, blue, and gold--and millions of stars after dark that are clearly visible with no city lights to dim the view.

During the summer weather can be hot during the day but quite cool at night; however, fall is an excellent time for outdoor activities in the park, so start planning your excursion now if that season works better for you. 

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, August 27, 2010

Visit Big Bend National Park for free

Mountains, desert, and water. When visiting Big Bend National Park, you might wonder how to tackle such a varied topography. Encompassing more than 800,000 acres, the park is the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the U.S. It’s a land of dramatic contrasts—extremes in temperature, elevation, and moisture are found in the three distinct regions—which makes it seem like three parks in one.

Fortunately, there are many ways to see and experience Big Bend’s rugged landscape. Each mode of travel gives visitors incomparable views of this lightly visited national treasure.

Hiking. At the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a comfortable walk leads you to The Window, a natural opening in the Chisos Mountain Range that affords a panorama of the valley and stunning landscape beyond. Many other well-defined trails range from easy to moderately difficult, making them suitable for family hiking. The Lost Mine Trail covers 4.8 miles round trip and offers one of the finest views in the park at Juniper Canyon Overlook. The vast wilderness areas provide an abundance of old roads and trails, primitive hikes guaranteed to challenge the toughest hiker or backpacker.

Horseback riding. A visit to the Old West wouldn’t be complete without saddling up and riding into canyons, across mesas, up mountains, or through ruins of an old quicksilver mine. With excursions ranging from one hour to all day or more, area stables give visitors a taste of cowboy legend. Views are spectacular, no matter how far or long you ride.

Jeep touring. Learn more uses for cacti than you ever thought possible. Interpretive tours offer insight into the abundant plant life and geology of the area. Colorful wildflowers cover vast open territories in spring, while old mining sites and 80-million-year-old fossils can be seen year-round as jeeps navigate mountain and desert roads you might not want to traverse in your own vehicle. Expert guides share historical lore and botanical knowledge that increases appreciation for the varied topography in the park.

No matter how you choose to explore Big Bend, chances are you’ll return—lured by the scenery and serenity of the location. With only 300,000 people visiting Big Bend annually, it is one of the least crowded national parks.

If you missed the fee-free weekends during the summer, you can tour the national park free of charge on September 25 (Public Lands Day) or November 11 (Veterans Day).

Photos by Beverly and Larry Burmeier

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Los Poblanos in Albuquerque opens new guest rooms in September

The original seven guest rooms and suites were built around the colorful courtyard in a classic New Mexican style with kiva fireplaces, carved ceiling beams, and hardwood floors. New guest suites are scheduled to open mid-September 2010, bringing the total number of rooms and suites to 20, which will allow Los Poblanos Innn to accommodate large family celebrations, retreats, business meetings, and guests attending special events at the Cultural Center.

The new suites have private patios (all the original rooms face the colorful courtyard with ample seating all around). Artisan foods made on-site, original artwork, and lovely views of the fields and gardens (not to mention the Sandia Mountains) are special features of these guest rooms. An outdoor salt water swimming pool will be heated by solar energy.

This expansion will allow more than 80 percent of the gardens and agricultural fields to be preserved in perpetuity. Full amenities and a tasty, healthful breakfast using products grown on the organic farms are provided for guests.

Los Poblanos encompasses sweeping formal gardens designed by renowned landscape architect Rose Greeley. A pond thick with lotus plants almost seems out of place in this desert climate, but delicate pink blossoms confirm its success.

Hundreds of lavender plants create an aromatic ambience and provide oils for soaps and other products used by the inn. These plants have inspired the annual June Lavender Festival, which attracts thousands of visitors from around the country. Even with a variety of activities scheduled year round, many visitors are satisfied with luxuriating in the calm, relaxing ambience of Los Poblanos. What could be more serene than sipping wine in the evening overlooking the lovely courtyard?

Executive director Matthew Rembe’s guided tour of the property is really the best way to learn about all the history tucked inside its buildings. It also helps visitors like Larry and me understand and appreciate the many facets of this jewel.

After our stay, we knew what Rembe meant when he said, “People are just awed by what is here. It’s a New Mexico legacy that we want to leave to the city.”

Photos by Beverly Burmeier
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Monday, August 23, 2010

Los Poblanos Inn in Albuquerque has many perfect reflections

Tranquility trails the long, tree-shaded driveway, reminiscent of an old Southern plantation even though it’s in the Southwest. By the time I reach the house, the city atmosphere has dropped out of my consciousness. Serenity settles around as softly as evening shadows.

Larry and I have arrived at Los Poblanos Inn, just a magical moment away from the sounds of Albuquerque, New Mexico, but a world away in attitude.

A courtyard bursting with red, pink, and white blooms, water cascading from the blue and yellow star-shaped fountain, peacocks strutting and cawing--all transport us to a different time and place. That’s precisely the point because the history of Los Poblanos is inextricably intertwined with the history of Albuquerque on many levels--politics, culture, architecture, and agriculture.

Built more than 70 years ago by Albert and Ruth Simms—both U. S. Congressional representatives and members of the Washington elite—the present-day inn was originally designed as their home and a place to accommodate guests. The couple hired John Gaw Meem, widely recognized as the “father of Santa Fe style” of architecture, to remodel the existing farmhouse and to create La Quinta Cultural Center, hub of the city’s political and cultural activities for many years--a work of art itself as well as a gallery for showcasing art forms.

Settled centuries ago, the river valley looking toward the Sandia Mountains became farmland during the 19th century. After the Simmses purchased the land in the 1930’s, they reassembled the ranch and began activities that assured its historical importance.

Ruth brought her herd of Holstein dairy cattle from Illinois and launched Creamland Diaries, still in operation today. Various crops were farmed, and today Los Poblanos operates two community-supported organic farms growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The Simmses established the Albuquerque Little Theater and other arts organizations and built Albuquerque’s first swimming pool. Academic institutions they started remain vibrant forces in the community.

“This place is good at helping people peel back the layers of Albuquerque,” says Matthew Rembe, executive director and son of Penny and Armin Rembe, who purchased the property in 1976. Rembe led us on a tour of the property, explaining that Los Poblanos was home to the Rembe family and a working farm before they decided in 1997 to return the land to its original intent. That meant keeping the property together with gardens and an environmentally responsible agricultural program plus providing an avenue for continued art and architecture study. A fellowship program at the University of New Mexico now allows graduate students to base their doctoral theses on different aspects of the property.

Check back for more about this incredible place.

Photos by Larry Burmeier
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Saturday, August 21, 2010

GrapeFest is the state's premier wine event--coming in September

Selections from Cross Timbers Winery
GrapeFest in historic Grapevine has been named one of the top 100 events in the U.S. and Canada. The wine stomping contest brings out the crowds, but there’s a whole weekend of fun and activities to whet your appetite. Sample award winning wines, watch live music, attend a black-tie Wine Tribute showcasing gourmet food and wine pairing, browse assorted food vendors, check out arts and crafts (woodworking, paintings, leather, goods, and more), watch cooking demonstrations, and keep kids entertained with games or a ride on the vintage railroad.

During GrapeFest, the People’s Choice Wine Tasting Classic is always a favorite; it features some of Texas’ finest wines in the largest consumer-judged wine competition in the nation. Texas is the fifth largest wine-producing state, and guests will have the chance to sample over 125 Texas wines submitted from more than 30Texas wineries. Participants will receive a Wine Reference Guide, tasting notes on each wine being served, an official voting ballot and a commemorative wine glass.

GrapeFest also features:

- Grapevine Winery Tasting Room Tours
- Texas Wine Tribute Dinner
- GrapeStomp
- Culinary Pavilion
- ItalianCarFest
- Live Music on six stages
- Great Festival Food
- Arts & Crafts Booths
- Carnival & Midway Games
- GrapeFest Mini-Excursions on Grapevine Vintage Railroad
- KidZone

Where to stay: Many hotels in Grapevine and around DFW airport are offering special GrapeFest packages that include tickets and commemorative items as well as accommodations. Suggested hotels: Gaylord Texas Hotel (fabulous couples retreat), Great Wolf Lodge (best family location), Embassy Suites DFW Airport (sportsman’s paradise--connected to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World), Hilton DFW and Austin Ranch (Go Texan fun), Hyatt Regency and Grand Hyatt (convenient to the airport). Check for more hotels and package details.

Garden Manor Bed and Breakfast
If you prefer the ambience of a Bed and Breakfast, check out Garden Manor, a lovely Gouthern Georgian style home located within walking distance of most shops and restaurants in Grapevine. Innkeepers Judy and Gunther Dusek, provide tastefully decorated suites and a full-course plantation breakfast.

Homestead Winery
GrapeFest opens on Thursday, Sept. 16 at 10 a.m. Admission is free Thursday and Friday until 5 p.m. Hours:Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: $8 adults, $5 seniors (62+) and children (6-12). Children 5 and under are free. Weekend passes are available for $18 with souvenir weekend passes $23.

For more information, call the Grapevine Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-457-6338 or 817-410-3185 or visit

Photos by Larry Burmeier

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Grapevine's 24th annual GrapeFest is coming up in September

Get your stomping feet ready for the largest wine festival in the Southwest. Come to Grapevine, Texas September 16 – 19, 2010 to celebrate the best of Texas wine at Grapevine's 24th annual Grapefest. Enjoy award-winning wine and culinary events while visiting historic downtown Grapevine, located north of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Activities for wine lovers and their families include: Grapevine Winery Tasting Room Tours, Culinary Pavilion, GrapeFest Tennis Classic, KidZone, GrapeStomp, People’s Choice Wine Tasting Classic – the largest consumer-judged wine competition in the nation, six stages of live entertainment, and much more.

Named for the wild Mustang grapes that blanketed the land when settlers first arrived to the area
in 1844, the City of Grapevine is an internationally recognized leader and trendsetter in the wine
industry. Offering four full days of family festival fun and a number of unique events leading up to the festival, GrapeFest has something for everyone.

Kick off the festival one week before at the GrapeFest Vintners’ Auction Classic. This premier event will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11 at the Grapevine Convention Center. Guests will have the opportunity to participate in both silent and live auctions which benefit the Grapevine Heritage Foundation and the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. The auction will feature rare and collectible wines, domestic travel packages, antiques and incredible works of art. The Vintners’ Auction is open to the public and is the perfect way to prepare for a weekend of wine at GrapeFest 2010.

Another event leading up to the festival itself is the GrapeFest Golf Classic, scheduled for Friday, Sept. 10 at the Grapevine Golf Course. If golf isn’t your cup of “tee,” come out to Hilton DFW Lakes as the City of Grapevine hosts the 19th Annual Tennis Classic on Sept. 10-12. Proceeds go to the Grapevine Heritage Foundation.

Local wineries to visit, either during GrapeFest or another time include Cross Timbers Winery, D’Vine Wine, Homestead Winery and tasting room, La Buena Vida Vineyards, Su Vino Winery, and Delaney Vineyards and Winery. Attractions near Grapevine: Nash Farm, Archie St. Clair Gallery, Grapevine Heritage Center, and the Grapevine Vintage Railroad.

More information about GrapeFest is coming in my next post, or go to
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alaska Flightseeing and Dogsledding Adventure Provides Plenty of Thrills

When our cruise ship arrived in Juneau, Alaska, we decided the best way to experience this frozen land was from the air in a helicopter and then skimming the top layer of snow on a dogsledding adventure. Views of glaciers and mountains were simply spectacular, but the greatest thrill was mushing a team of dogs through the immense whiteness.

Hitched up and ready to go!
When it was time for our dogsled run, we were cautioned not to jump anxiously into the sled, a long wooden contraption with a low-slung seat in front and standing spot for the driver in back. “There’s a proper technique so you won’t capsize,” John said. Passengers get in one leg at a time and then slide onto the seat. The driver puts his feet on the runners, holds onto the bar, and operates the brake with his foot—gently, for a smooth stop.

A team of nine dogs was harnessed to a sled that John drove, behind which our sled was tethered. The whole apparatus skimmed along the snow--Norris is a wide open glacier with plenty of space to roam--giving us a thrilling taste of an actual mushing adventure.

Riding in the sled behind a team of dogs
Larry and I took turns driving (shifting weight to keep the sled on track) and riding (snapping photos when we weren’t tipping sideways), our exchanges punctuated by the constant yapping of the dogs when they weren’t pulling the sled. As incredible as it sounds, we stopped several times to let the dogs pant out the heat. Sled dogs work best in zero to minus 40 degrees F, and the unseasonably warm temperature had made the snow soft with deep ruts, Still, we managed to stay upright for our 25-minute ride.

Compared to racing in the Iditarod, where teams of 12 to 16 dogs pull sleds at speeds up to 14 miles per hour over more than 1150 miles of mountains, rivers, forests, and glaciers, our run was a mere stroll. Afterwards, the dogs settled down and enjoyed our attentions. We petted them and marveled at the change in demeanor. “They are bred to work, to pull sleds,” said John. “That’s what they love to do.”

Flying over icy blue glaciers from Juneau
After an hour on the glacier, helicopters returned to pick us up. Once again we soared over glacier-carved mountain peaks and deep blue crevasses. This stunning adventure was a highlight of our Alaskan tour.

If You Go: Many visitors arrive in Juneau by cruise ship (as we did, since the city is only accessible by air or water). Book this three-hour glacier dog sled adventure from early May till the end of August. Dress warmly and in layers; wear sunglasses. Booties are provided to help you walk in the snow.

Photos by Larry Burmeier

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Alaska Tour Combines Glacier Flightseeing and Dog Sledding Adventure

There I was on top of a glacier, standing on a 15-foot blanket of soft snow covering a quarter mile of hard packed ice--and I took off my jacket. It was a beautiful June day which felt warmer than the actual 60 degrees because sunshine reflected off the unending whiteness.

My husband Larry and I had just landed on picturesque Norris glacier from a flightseeing jaunt out of Juneau, Alaska. During the 35-minute helicopter ride, our pilot dipped and hovered through jagged mountain peaks and over blue ice pools to give us incredible views of four kinds of glaciers--retreating, advancing, cascading, and declining. But the terrain wasn’t completely frozen, as we also passed over rainforest trees beside the glistening glaciers.

We had chosen this excursion not only for a chance to view Juneau Icefields from the air (which explains why there are no roads into Juneau) but to experience a once-in-a lifetime Alaskan adventure, the opportunity to mush our own dog sled team. As we approached the camp where many sled dogs train for the Iditarod race as well as provide rides to tourists, hundreds of brown and white dots bounced on the surface. More than 200 individual igloo-style dog houses and a lesser number of tents for humans came into view.
We disembarked from the helicopter and tramped through mid-calf-deep snow, glad for the bulky black snow boots issued at the start of our tour. Dogs were everywhere, jumping wildly and barking non-stop. They knew that a run was in the works, and they were raring to go.

“Don’t try to pet the dogs,” said John, a professional dog musher who lives on the glacier for months at a time. “They’re in work mode. After the run, they will be relaxed and friendly.” Seeing the dogs, overflowing with adrenalin, tug and strain at their harnesses, we didn’t need a reminder.

The dogs are mixed breeds—huskies, greyhounds, malamutes, and pointers--bred for strength and muscle, with endurance, speed, and temperament also desired characteristics. Typical Alaskan huskies are medium build with short hair, in all the usual canine colors. They may look skinny, but that’s because they’re athletic dogs that burn a lot of calories while mushing. Because they are so excitable before a run, we left canine handling to John and got ready for our thrilling adventure.

Photos by Larry Burmeier

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Beautiful Bellingrath Gardens (part 2)

While touring Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, Alabama, our path soon led to the Bellingrath Home, now a museum on the National Register of Historic Places. Walter and Bessie’s home was built on the property in 1935, three years after the Gardens were made public. An avid collector of antiques, porcelain figures, sculpture, cut glass, furniture, and anything else that attracted her fancy, Bessie needed a place to display her massive collections and to entertain friends and family.

Even though the English-style home contains 15 rooms in 10,500 square feet, Bessie managed to fill it with her many purchases, which historian and director of the museum Tom McGhee described during our tour. All of the Bellingrath’s original furnishings are on display, and guests get a look at the “ultra modern” bathrooms of 1935, the kitchen with its original appliances, German silver countertops and sinks and the Butler’s Pantry, overflowing with Mrs. Bellingrath’s collection of silver, crystal and china.

While the Bellingrath home is definitely interesting and worth touring, the main attraction is still the gardens. In addition to an explosion of azaleas in the spring, visitors love the Chrysanthemum Festival, an oriental-themed celebration featuring mums that generally peak the second week of November. In December, Magic Christmas in Lights transforms Bellingrath Gardens and Home into a winter wonderland glowing with three million twinkling lights. Nine hundred pieces created on site are set into 12 holiday-themed scenes throughout the Gardens.

Other notable stops include the Asian American Garden, Bayou Boardwalk, Mirror Lake, Conservatory, Butterfly Garden, Chapel, and Boehm Porcelain Gallery, where you can watch a video about the Gardens. The Southern Belle River Cruise, usually held on Fowl River from March to November, was temporarily out of service when we visited as the boat was being used to help clean the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A recent innovation is the addition of cell phone audio tours. Visitors can dial in, press numbers specified on signs, and listen to descriptions of plants and scenes. Using speakerphones the messages can be heard by an entire group free of charge.

Bellingrath Gardens is open from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. Guided tours are available starting at 9:00 a.m. Allow at least 1 1/2 to 2 hours to tour the Gardens, 30 minutes to tour the Bellingrath Museum Home and 45 minutes for the cruise when available.

The Gardens are located 20 miles southwest of Mobile, Alabama, and a two-hour drive east of New Orleans.

A combination ticket for the Gardens and Home is $19.00 for adults, $11.50 for children, with kids under age 5 free. Check out the gift shop and café for a quick snack while there. For more information call 800-247-8420 or click on

Photos by Beverly and Larry Burmeier

Friday, August 6, 2010

Beautiful Bellingrath Gardens (part 1)

Famous for its gorgeous azaleas that bloom in March, Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, Alabama, is worth a visit even in the middle of summer. We arrived on a sultry July morning, wondering what might be in bloom. No need to worry. Open year round every day except Christmas, the 65-acre garden is lovely no matter when you go. Summer color comes from hibiscus, penta, coleus, caladiums, lantana, impatiens, petunias, bacopa, bougainvillea, and many other plant varieties.

Our guide pointed out that the Rose Garden, which features 2000 bushes of 75 different varieties, is laid out in the shape of the Rotary symbol, a tribute to the chapter that garden founder Walter Bellingrath helped start in Mobile. Renovations are currently underway in the Rose Garden, with Phase One, featuring installation of a fountain and pool, to be completed by August.

As we meandered along the 400-foot long path around the Green Lawn, our imaginations conjured visions of azaleas bursting with multi-colored blooms. During March up to 20,000 visitors come from all over the country to enjoy the spectacular flowers. Stately moss-covered oaks beside the path belie the fact that the original oak trees were demolished by Hurricane Frederick in 1979.

We wandered along the wide, easy paths of Bellingrath Gardens enjoying baskets of colorful summer plants hanging from the bridge over the lake. Yellow, pink, and white blooms radiated cheerfulness and kept us admiring each new scene.

Bessie Bellingrath initially built the garden bordering on Fowl Lake. The property was an old fishing camp when the Bellingraths purchased it as a retreat for the hard-working Walter, but Bessie put her special touches on the landscape. Friends urged her to share the beautiful space, and the Garden was opened to the public in 1932. It proved very popular with 4700 people showing up the first day.
After Bessie’s death in 1943, Walter, who made his fortune bottling Coca-Cola, began to take an interest in the gardens as a way to honor his wife’s memory and passions. Under his guidance many water features, plants, and paths were added to showcase the natural beauty of the area.

Mr. Bellingrath once said “The Gardens are like a beautiful woman with a different gown for each week of the year.” With the camellia blooms in winter, the azaleas in spring, roses in the summer, chrysanthemums in autumn and Magic Christmas in Lights during the holiday season, Bellingrath Gardens and Home is a constant thing of beauty.

Photos by  Beverly and Larry Burmeier