Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday spirit shines from decorated roadside trees

Greetings spread good cheer
for drivers on Loop 360 in Austin.
In Austin, we relish our quirky status and splash the motto “Keep Austin Weird” across t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers.  While that’s a year-round attitude, there’s probably no better example of this outlook than the annual holiday decoration of roadside trees.

Yellow tape and black paint transformed
plastic bottles into bees

What started as a clandestine nighttime activity many years ago has now morphed into a bona fide tradition practiced in broad daylight. If you’ve driven along Loop 360 between RM 2222 and U.S. Hwy. 183 in recent weeks, you’ve see the trees covered in tinsel and a variety of unusual, sometimes recycled, ornaments. Trees that normally dot the roadside in all their naked, natural glory are covered with items such as paper candy canes, plastic bottles painted like bees, Christmas stockings, empty Coke cans, red paper plates, and American flags. One year a tree sported Victoria’s Secret bags with boxes from the lingerie store placed underneath—wishful thinking or leftovers from a shopping binge?

Long lines of trees decorate the roadside in Austin.
Although we’ve seen the display in previous years, a quick drive-by before Christmas left us curious, so we went back to check out some of the more interesting trees. While some look to be simply the result of a happy-go-lucky decorating streak, others have been thoughtfully adorned to commemorate an event or a loved one. Either way, each tree adds an element of joy and surprise to an otherwise uneventful drive on these busy highways. You can’t help but smile when the line of glimmering trees catches your eye, especially those that are lit at night.

Someome shared their passion for Victoria's Secret
The first couple of years, secret decorators were lax in coming back after the holidays to remove the decorations, so the city of Austin had to send workers out for clean-up. Now, it’s not uncommon for people to take some of the most clever ornaments and save them for the next year or to recycle materials in creative new ways.  For some families this has become a caring project that children and parents can be involved in together.
Now trees along additional roads including RM 620 S sprout holiday finery, so the ritual must be spreading.  Whether whimsical or inspirational, the trees send a cheerful message about the holiday spirit in Austin. Sure, it’s a bit eccentric, but it’s a great way for Austin to spread joy—one that visitors to the area are sure to remember with a smile.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Monday, December 26, 2011

Walkway of Lights in Marble Falls attracts thousands of visitors

Entrance to Walkway of Lights in Marble Falls, Texas
More than two million twinkling lights glimmer along paths beside the waters of Lake Marble Falls in a holiday spectacle called Walkway of Lights. It's a prime example of how a small community can provide big entertainment when hundreds of volunteers give time and talents. Admission is free to this annual holiday event, which seems go grow bigger and better every year.

On our previous excursion to this winter wonderland we watched little children running around in amazement. Scenes like that are guaranteed to put a smile on any Scrooge’s face, lift your spirit, and put you in a merry holiday mood.

A full squad of reindeer pull Santa's sleigh.
Rain cancelled the event for several nights in early December, but now it is an opportunity for a fun family outing to Marble Falls. Drive just 45 miles west of Austin on SH 281 or 85 miles north of San Antonio to see this community's gift to the public. 

Come early and shop historic Main Street. Then dine at the Blue Bonnet Café, River City Grille, or Russo's before heading to the Walkway of Lights after dark.

Living on a lake means fishing is
important, even during the holidays.
As you stroll leisurely along the Walkway enjoy hundreds of wire-frame sculptures twinkling in the night sky.  Take time to notice the variety of attractions included here: a smorgasboard of whimsical, patriotic, religious, traditional, and contemporary forms.  Ice skaters, Santa’s sleigh, Christmas trees, trains, stars, presents, a cross, and a menorah offer enchanting symbols of the season for everyone to savor.  There’s even a water skiing Santa and fishing reindeer, a tribute to the lake location, and several American flags. Walk under the entrance arch and follow the path to Santa’s station or mosey through the blue-lighted tunnel, a favorite photo spot.

Colored lights make the display
at Marble Falls more spectacular.
When other holiday light scenes in the Texas Hill Country closed several years ago, Marble Falls has ramped up its presentation. Each year many dedicated volunteers work hard to create, prepare, and set up the forms and then man the displays each evening. Santa himself shows up on certain nights to hear wishes whispered to the jolly man.
Blue lights form a tunnel for visitors to walk thru.
The illuminated display continues from 6-10 p.m. nightly through New Year’s Day.  Donations are welcome because the presentation is completely funded by contributions. Santa photos help raise funds for local organizations.

Workers at the entrance like to ask where you’re from as a way to keep track of visitors’ home regions. Past visitors have hailed from Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia.
Photos by Beverly and Larry Burmeier
Read more travel stories at Striped Pot, a boutique travel e-zine written by a group of professional travel writers.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hill Country Christmas Lights provides enchanting drive-thru display

Colorful lights shine at Hill Country Christmas Lights in central Texas.
Beautiful displays of twinkling Christmas lights put me in a holiday mood faster than uninterrupted songs of the season on the radio or ever-smiling mall Santas (I love those, too). This year we discovered a new spectacle of lights, music, hayrides, and more that’s attracting hundreds of visitors. Located one mile north of Johnson City on SH 281, Hill Country Christmas Lights makes sure “Christ” stays in the celebration.

Multi-colored light displays lead towards a house covered in white lights.
More than 500,000 lights, more than half of those LEDs, fill the large drive-through display that’s been featured on “Dazzling Holiday Lights” show on the Travel Channel. The amazing thing is that the entire pageant was built independently by 21-year-old Dexter Haynes.
Twinkling lights appear to be dancing to the music.
Lights adorn 72 post oak trees, 73 wire-frame attractions, a drive-thru tunnel, a 25-foot tall tree, the Holidazzle Dancing Light show, and other delightful decorations. While riding in the comfort of your car, set your radio to their own station, 101.7 FM the STAR and listen to accompanying Christmas music. Earlier in December "The One Silent Night," a live nativity, was held on premises.

Drive through the lighted tunnel while following the path at Hill Country Christmas Lights display.
If you bring a group of family or friends, going on a hayride adds to the excitement. You can book a jaunt through the light display (15 minutes) or ride into nearby Johnson City for stops and pictures at several renowned presentations (one hour), both with a cup of hot cocoa per person. Book at least 24 hours in advance by calling 830-992-7646.

Hill Country Christmas Lights continues through New Year’s Day and is free to the public, although you can help keep the lights on by slipping a few dollars into the donation box. Hours: Sun-Thur, 6-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 6-12 midnight. www.hillcountrychristmaslights.com

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Public welcome for Holiday Lights & Ice at Barton Creek Resort in Austin

Always one to try new adventures, I find myself lacing up ice skates and stepping gingerly onto the 3,800 square foot ice rink at Austin’s Barton Creek Resort & Spa. I’m not exactly gliding on ice, but I do manage to work my way around the rink in semi-relaxed form. Yes, ice skating is fun, even for Texans who consider it strictly a spectator sport.

Barton Creek Resort’s ice rink in the Resort Pavilion is open to the public through January 2. This is the second year local residents, club members and resort guests have an opportunity to lace up their skates and enjoy festive holiday cheer with friends and family. In addition to the ice rink, a display of 200,000 twinkling lights--part of the Holiday Lights & Ice exhibition—glows in a variety of deer, tree, and gift configurations.

Ice skaing at Barton Creek is great family fun.
“We are excited to offer the Holiday Lights & Ice program again this year,” says Barton Creek Resort & Spa General Manager James Walsh. “It is a great way to enjoy the holiday season while also giving back to the Austin community through the Make-A-Wish Foundation®.” A portion of proceeds, about $20,000 according to Kelly Clarke, director of marketing communications, will be donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation® (www.cstx.wish.org) of Central and South Texas.

Holiday lights make the ice seem more magical.
Guests can enjoy the skating rink with all-day skating passes, which start at $25 for children and $35 for adults. Individual skate sessions are also available starting at $16 for children and $21 for adults. Seasonal treats including hot chocolate and s’mores will be available. Skating-inclusive overnight packages are available at the resort, and the rink is available for private events and field trips.

The traditional gingerbread
house contest
was held again this year.
While visiting Barton Creek Resort for your skating adventure, be sure to check out the gingerbread houses on display in the hotel lobby. Fabulously detailed gingerbread creations were judged in professional and amateur categories, with winners receiving charitable donations.  

Don't miss the glorious
Holiday Shop
Another favorite spot is the Holiday Shop, beautifully decorated in colors and themes of the holiday season (I love the teddy bear tree!). Even if you’re not in buying mode, it’s a lovely place to browse (check out the personalized ornaments and Texas-themed gifts—in orange, no less).

Dinner at 8212 Wine Bar
and Grill is delicious.
When it’s time for lunch or dinner, you can order food to be served beside a toasty fire at the ice rink. Satisfied that I stayed upright during my ice rink experience, I decide to shed the skates and dine at 8212 Wine Bar and Grill. Following Kelly’s recommendation, my husband and I start with the pork nachos (yummy) before choosing short ribs and tuna as our main courses and finishing with a pecan tart.

Thousands of lights
decorate the grounds of
Barton Creek Resort.
Located in the heart of Texas Hill Country, award-winning Barton Creek Resort & Spa provides superb service and casual elegance in a luxurious setting (but don’t let those accolades deter you from going there). Designated the #1 golf resort in Texas, Barton Creek boasts four nationally acclaimed championship courses as well as the state's only Callaway Performance Center. For overnight visitors, the resort features 312 spacious guest rooms, a newly renovated full-service spa, superior dining experiences, and exceptional meeting and wedding facilities. For more information, call 1-800-336-6158 or visit bartoncreek.com.

Photos by Larry Burmeier

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Crag Cave in County Kerry, Ireland

“Yippee,” said Margaret Geaney, wife of the farmer on whose land Crag Cave was found, when she was told about the underground discovery. After taking a scary tour into the undeveloped cave herself  (“My heart was jumping so much I thought I’d never get out,” she said), Geaney realized this was a natural creation of immense beauty that should be opened for public viewing. Even though she was excited about the prospect, extensive research and construction had to be done before that could happen.

Margaret Geaney, owner of
Crag Cave, is second from right.
There are five limestone cave systems in Ireland that are open to the public, and they are continually subject to erosion from water. Crag Cave in the Sliabh Luachra area, was formed from millions of years of shell and bone deposits, earth movements and upheavals, and volumes of water that carved out a dark maze of passages and unusual formations.

How the cave was discovered is another of nature’s amazing stories. As far back as the mid-1800s, geological surveys recognized the existence of a network of caves in the Castleland district in southwest Ireland at the entrance to Dingle peninsula. But there was never any exploration until water pollution in the area forced an investigation. In 1983 cave divers were trying to determine the source of a particular stream when they discovered a pool and dived 20 feet down to explore. That was the beginning of Crag Cave. More expeditions led to additional discoveries of the cave’s many decorated passages and chambers.

When Geaney’s husband, the local doctor, bought the farm he put it in her name. She was happy to become involved in the project, and accepted the offer of one of the original cave divers who helped with the development. Work began in 1987, and 350 meters was opened to the public in 1989.

Stalagtite inside Crag Cave
Special lighting was designed to create a visual and aural landscape without distracting from the cave’s natural attributes.  Far underground, stalagtites and stalagmites join to form columns. Creations like Corn on the Cob, The Kitchen, Theodens Road, and The Cathedral enthrall visitors. The Crystal Gallery is an especially enchanting area, and most people are amazed at the likeness of one specific formation in the distance called Madonna. A gift shop, café, and children’s playground add to the amenities.

As with other limestone caves, Crag Cave is a work in progress; it will continue to change with the elements. For now, it’s a lovely spot to put on your itinerary if you’re visiting Dingle peninsula and Ring of Kerry, well-known destinations on Ireland tours.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier
Read more stories from my trip to Ireland at Striped Pot.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Celebrate New Year's Eve and support the USO

Sample wines at Grape Creek
Head out to the Hangar Hotel in Fredericksburg, Texas and help support the United Service Organization (USO) while ringing in (or swinging in) 2012 in style--1940s style that is. Fly your plane into the adjacent Gillespie County Airport, or drive to the iconic hotel for a night of old-fashioned fun.

Actually, I don't need a good cause to entice me to Fredericksburg. It's one of my all-time favorite cities in central Texas. In addition to wonderful German food and brew, there's so much to do: shop for antiques or funky contemporary items, learn history of World War II, go fly fishing or kayaking, climb Enchanted Rock, browse art galleries, visit nearby wineries (and sample the vino while you're there), or just mosey around the downtown square.

Insight Gallery showcases
 fine works of art.
But if you haven't already made plans for ushering in the new year, here's a good place to click your heels. The Hangar Hotel and Conference Center will host a New Year's Eve Hangar Dance on Saturday, December 31, 2011. A percentage of the event's proceeds will be donated to USO Ft. Hood, which delivers programs and services to more than 40,000 service members and their families.

The dance will feature big band music by Fredericksburg local Bill Smallwood and The Lonestar Swing Orchestra. Attendees can participate in swing dance lessons from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., and then the band will play from 9:00 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. Attendees are encouraged to wear their best 1940s inspired outfits and participate in the costume contest. Those donning a military uniform will receive a coupon for a free drink.

The Hangar Hotel was designed to mimic the look of a WWII airplane hangar, providing the perfect setting for a USO style dance. The event will be held in the Pacific Showroom, located next to the hotel, which is decorated in South Pacific/WWII style complete with palm trees and tiki bar.
Tickets for the New Year’s Eve celebration include a complimentary champagne toast, party favors, black-eyed peas and cornbread at midnight. $40 a person ($10 per person discount for anyone who books two nights at the Hangar Hotel.) For more information or to purchase tickets to the dance contact the Hangar Hotel at (830) 997-9990.

Information provided by Kelly Ayers, Marketing & Events Manager, Hangar Hotel Kelly@hangarhotel.com 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cedar Park, Texas offers great food and parks

Today's guest post is by Tara Marlow, an Australian travel writer, blogger and photographer living in the U.S. After an ‘ah-ha’ moment, Tara decided she was done with corporate life, so now her photography and travels consume her. She believes a photo can tell the story, but sometimes there is more to the story.

Tara has travelled through Australia, the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. She’s also been on some great mother/daughter adventures. A world adventure is planned once her daughter graduates high school. Until then she travels where she can, while she can.
Cedar Park, Texas offers much to visitors and residents
Just northwest of Austin Texas, there is a city called Cedar Park that approximately 49,000 people call home. I am one of them.

Cedar Park tends to be a thoroughfare to somewhere else. It’s a strip mall city to many, but as it expands, so have funds to beautify it.  Scratch under the surface and go beyond the main highways, and you’ll see that Cedar Park has a lot of offer.

Over the last decade, I have found some true gems within my own ten-mile radius. Here are my recommendations for the Cedar Park area:

Best Coffee: 
Caffe Yolly

On the corner of Parmer and Avery Ranch. Australians tend to be a bit snobby about their coffee.  We expect a great cappuccino when we go to any café. After trying many other places, I finally discovered Caffe Yolly. Not only does it deliver a great cappuccino, latte or basic cup of joe, but they do it with enthusiastic service. It’s a great café to relax and enjoy the moment—or try frozen yoghurt if you’re not into coffee. 

Best Mexican:  
Los Chilaquiles

On Hwy. 183 (North Bell) near Ace Hardware. We had tried every Mexican restaurant in a 20-mile radius, but when Los Chilaquiles opened, we thought ‘hey, why not’.  We’ve returned at least every other week and always receive quality, flavorful food with prompt service.  The salsa is fantastic, the chips crispy, and every dish we’ve ordered delivers above our expectations.  Their margaritas aren’t too shabby either.

Best Asian:
Hunan Ranch

On the corner of Parmer and Avery Ranch. Dine-in, Take Out or Delivery--all great options.  Fresh, hot, and delicious.  The service is always pleasant, and water glass always full when you dine in.  A hot-meal delivery exceeds expectations. 

Best Burger:
Moonies Burger House

On Hwy. 183 (North Bell) near Ace Hardware. Home grown business.  I agree with the Austin Chronicle that they have the best burgers and fries around.  The onion rings are also a treat! Although service is slow, it’s worth the wait. Come hungry because the burgers are HUGE.

Best Park and Trails:
Brushy Creek Regional Trail

This park stretches from Twin Lakes YMCA on Hwy. 183 and trails through to Brushy Creek for almost 7 miles.  This huge park is rarely busy although it offers trails for hiking or biking, soccer and baseball fields, skate park, bocce course, volleyball nets, playscapes, waterscapes, fishing…the list is long.  Wildlife includes a number of water birds and deer at dusk.  Restrooms and water fountains are plentiful. 
Photos by Tara Marlow