Saturday, August 31, 2013

Springs, river, and trails draw visitors to Pagosa Springs

If you're thinking of a Colorado hiatus this summer, check out Pagosa Springs.

Wildfires had scorched Colorado in the summer of 2013, burning even more than the 70,000 acres destroyed in 2001. Flames came dangerously close to Wolf Creek, a popular ski destination near Pagosa Springs in southern Colorado, but when we arrived in the city in July, winds were blowing the fire away, and the sunny town was welcoming summer tourists.

Hike to Opal Lake required crossing several streams.
 We were visiting friends in Pagosa Springs, a pretty little town located at an elevation of 7079 feet in the foothills of the beautiful San Juan Mountains. After walking around town and checking out the springs, we went on a 1.5 mile hike to Opal Lake. Although there was mild elevation gain at first, the hike was relatively easy. Our only challenge was crossing several streams by walking on rocks and logs and without slipping into the water.

Aspen groves were plentiful
The trail was decorated with small pastel wildflowers and plenty of loblolly pines, ferns, cedars, and aspen groves. On reaching our destination we walked around the lake, admiring reflections in the slightly opaque pool.

In addition to plentiful hiking trails, another main attraction of Pagosa Springs is the 1.5 mile stretch of the San Juan River  (a significant tributary of the Colorado River) that flows through downtown. That allows easy access to swimming, kayaking, tubing, fishing, and lounging in hot springs.  Although the river is filled with snow melt in April and May, by mid-summer temperatures are mild enough for water adventures from challenging whitewater rafting to gentle tubing.

Guinness World Records named the Pagosa Aquifer the deepest in the world, and the hot springs invite guests to relax year round. Take a dip in these “healing waters” for the perfect conclusion to a day of river activities or hiking. Three downtown establishments offer different hot springs experiences with more than 30 indoor and outdoor facilities providing tubs, mineral baths, pools and saunas.

Tubing in the San Juan River is a popular pastime in Pagosa Springs.
After our hike and al fresco lunch at The Brewery, we said good-bye to our friends and headed to Durango, happy to have had the opportunity for a brief stay in Pagosa Springs.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Climate, character, and culture make Akaroa on New Zealand's South Island a popular destination

Blue water and unusual rock formations along the coast
On a beautiful sunny day we board a boat at the harbor of Akaroa, the oldest colonial town on New Zealand’s South Island, for our nature cruise along the coast. Akaroa mean “long harbor,” which it certainly is. We ride for more than an hour without ever getting out in open water.

The catamaran for our coastal cruise
The catamaran zips along at a high speed, but the sun keeps weather pleasant despite the wind. We slow down to view Onuku Maoir marae, a sacred place officially opened in 1990 during the Centenary celebrations, where the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. This treaty established British law while guaranteeing Maori authority over their homeland and culture. The “meeting place” is an important facility for Maori society and significant in New Zealand history.
Hector dolphin lets her pup catch a ride
Black and gray hector dolphins, including some babies, surfaced from time to time.  Females mature in 8 years, are pregnant for a year, and only have 3-4 calves intheir  lifetime. They don’t have great eyesight but make up for that with a keen sense of eco-location. The dolphins are protected in a 40 mile radius, and part of our cruise fee goes to the Department of Conservation to preserve wildlife.

Murphy, the dolphin dog on this cruise, has an acute sense for finding dolphins. He scurries excitedly from one side of the boat and one end to the other as he determines where they are in the water—so cute and fun to watch—and he’s always right!
Murphy, the dolphin-spotting dog
At Cathedral Cave we see birds nesting high up the rock walls. Green rolling hills in and  turquoise water provide a real fest for the eyes, as we watch kayakers glide close to shore.

A colony of about 15 fur seals, including pups, sits on rocks soaking in the sunshine. We watch them waddle around and slide into the water. Because it's a clear day we see many sea birds in nests and flying overhead.

Fur seals love the rocky shore
We learn about French, British, and Maori history. In 1838 the French whaling captain Jean Francois L’Anglois wanted to establish a settlement, but British officials hurried to assert their sovereignty and staked a claim 4 days before L’Anglois returned with French colonists. Immigrants from France and Germany followed, and these first settlers give Akaroa much of its Gallic character and picturesque architecture. The captain of our boat is the sixth generation of his family in Akaroa, which became a township in 1840.
Akaroa has only 500 permanent residents, but warm summer days can bring in three to four thousand visitors.
Native dancers perform for visitors
Other interesting excursions at Akaroa include the Antarctic Explorer museum, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Paua Bay Farm; and The Giant’s House (created by artist Josie Martin). Like to shop? VisitFire and Ice on the pier for blue pearls and other jewelry.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Monday, August 12, 2013

Climb underground or soar in the sky: Natural Bridge Caverns offers more than caves

Delicate soda straws and unusually beautiful formations never exposed to outside air are highlights of the Hidden Passages Tour at Natural Bridge Caverns near New Braunfels and San Antonio, Texas. Accessed by 180 steps with several landings at scenic points, this second cave is dramatically lit to maximize presentation of several glistening formations. For sheer beauty, take the 70-minute Hidden Passages Tour and see some of the most spectacular underground scenery anywhere in the U.S.
Gorgeous formations on the Hidden Passages Tour
These additional passages were left undeveloped for nearly two decades during which time the Wuest family, owners of the ranch on which the caverns are located, developed and opened the main cave for others to enjoy.

In 1960 four college students requested permission to explore the area around a 60-foot natural limestone bridge and a large sinkhole. As suspected, they found huge underground passages that led to additional rooms and openings. In all, they explored two miles before returning to the surface to share their discovery with the landowners. Natural Bridge Caverns, billed as Texas’ Largest Underground Adventure, has been attracting visitors since it opened to the public in the mid-1960s. 
This natural bridge protects the opening to the original cavern discovery.
The guided Discovery Tour takes visitors along the path taken by the first explorers through Sherwood Forest, Castle of the White Giants, and Hall of the Mountain King, a room the size of a football field. For 75 minutes you can view gigantic stone monuments in beautiful chambers 170 feet underground. If you’re really adventurous, check out the three-hour “wild cave” tour where you negotiate obstacles through mud or on your tummy and climb up a 25-foot mid-covered slope.

Plan to hang around all day so your family can enjoy other attractions at the site. Travis Wuest, whose grandmother was the original entrepreneur, continues to create activities on the property, all geared toward helping families learn to appreciate the geology of the area and the natural beauty found there.
More spectacular formations at Natural Bridge Caverns

For example, Canopy Challenge Adventure Course and Zip Lines opened in July 2012. Big kids and adults navigate a winding maze of 47 bridges, obstacles and balance beams while tethered to a cable for safety as they climb up the 60-foot four-tier adventure course. Little kids get a similar experience at a scaled-down Canopy Kids course. Although it takes place high in the air, the experience is not unlike cavern discovery, which also required agility and a bit of daring.
A fun and challenging adventure
four zip lines give guests spectacular views of Texas Hill Country landscape while they soar along cables more than 1400 feet in the air. Guests of all ages also enjoy searching for treasures at the Mining Company, where bags containing sand and dirt as well as actual gems and minerals, are available for guests to pan. Bags containing arrowheads and fossils are also available—a fun way to teach kids history and a bit of anthropology. Picnic facilities, cafĂ©, and gift shop are also available on premises.

Wuest, who grew up on the family ranch and has been around the caves all his life, says he and his brother are finishing the legacy begun by his grandmother and father. Because of his personal ties to Natural Bridge Caverns, keeping it a family destination and learning experience is a priority.
A zebra approaches a car in the wildlife park
If you have time after exploring the caves, stop by Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, adjacent to the Caverns and owned by Wuest’s aunt, where twin reticulated giraffes, the only living set of twins born in the United States, were delivered in May 2013.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sun exposure through car windows can be harmful

If your family travels by car (more than 89 percent of travel during the summer is by car), you could inadvertently expose your children or yourself to harmful ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, a known cause of skin cancer. Because window glass protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays which cause sunburns, many people don’t realize they are still being exposed to UVA rays that penetrate deep into the skin—the same rays that cause interiors to fade and crack over time.
UVA rays penetrate glass every day of the year, even when it’s cloudy, and most standard and privacy glass side and rear windows of vehicles do not provide adequate protection. In fact, glass can reflect the sun’s rays, possibly intensifying harmful effects.

A 2010 study from St. Louis University Medical School revealed that nearly 53 percent of skin cancers in the U.S. occur on the left side of the body, the side of a driver most exposed to the sun’s rays. Researchers believe there is a correlation with exposure to UVA radiation while driving because in countries such as Australia where drivers sit on the right side of the car, the trend is reversed.
Not only is the likelihood of skin cancer increased by inadvertent sun exposure, but a driver’s face will show more wrinkling, leathering, sagging, and incidence of brown age spots on the left side. The more time spent behind the wheel (or seated behind the driver), the more severe is photodamage on the left side, reports Susan Butler, MD, a dermatologist and micrographic surgeon at the California Institute.

If you make sure your kids apply sunscreen when playing outside, keep in mind that sun exposure happens when they ride in the car, too—especially by the left window. A generous slather or spray of sunscreen can minimize harmful effects of sun exposure.
Another relatively inexpensive solution is applying a window film, which can be clear for greater visibility or darker for privacy. When looking for a window film, ask if it has earned the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation.

Long term, it pays to be safe inside your car as well as outside.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Legends and folklore in Granbury, the town "Where History Lives"

Is there a more appropriate place to start a ghost tour than the Nutt House Hotel? That’s where we gathered to learn about the history and legends of Granbury, Texas.
Historic Nutt House Hotel in Granbury, Texas
At dark we met Boots, a portly gentleman sporting cowboy boots and a big Western hat—looking every bit the part of a ghost tour host.  Of course, the hotel was just one of the historic buildings around the square, the first in Texas to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, that we would hear more about in the next hour.

Before starting our tour, Boots told those with smart phones to power up an app that would pick up vibes from ghostly beings—spirits still lurking from Granbury’s lawless days.  And there were many strikes to prove the assertions of Boots and other historians.

Many buildings around the Granbury square, such as
the First National Bank, are recognized for their historic importance.
The railroad brought people to town, including outlaws, during the period after the Civil War. Most downtown buildings had brothels on the second story, regardless of what type of business was on the ground level. There was much drinking and cavorting in town during the mid-1800s. Boots revealed that temperance activist Carrie Nation once blocked the entrance to a saloon. A severe fire in1905 killed many “ladies of the night.”

Bonnie and Clyde were known about these parts for buying sandwiches which they ate on the courthouse lawn before taking off to rob a bank in a nearby town. Even though the sheriff recognized them from Wanted posters, he decided not to tangle with them and left them alone.

The Hood County jail is now a museum.
Spirits roam the old Jailhouse and hanging tower, even though only one person died there. Indians living in the territory would bring in skins to exchange for whiskey, but an unscrupulous banker shot one in the back on his way out.  

Notorious six-shooter Jesse James had a bank account and safe deposit box in the First National Bank, the only U. S. bank where he had a working account. Spirits are plentiful on the steps of a fire escape where James shot his girlfriend and a sheriff, and visitors with the app on their phones reported dozens of strikes at that spot. Later in life James returned to Granbury and is buried there.

The assassin of President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, came to Granbury after the murder and took the name John St. Helens. Not recognized as the killer, he tended bar where the Nutshell Bakery is today. He also managed the local theater group for 18 months before falling ill and confessing to the murder. Legend says he revealed that the gun he used to shoot Lincoln could be found under the floor boards of Room 2 of the hotel. However, once his health improved he skipped town and fled to Oklahoma.

The courthouse played a part in many of Granbury's legends. 
We heard other stories of tragic deaths—which fuels the reports of ghosts. A gunslinger hired to guard the courthouse fell to his death when he tripped on a step and impaled himself on a railing.  The bank owner’s five-year-old granddaughter fell to her death out of a round window while watching animals from the Ringling Brothers Circus that had come to town.

Lively history and legends are what make this one of the seven best ghost tours in the country according to Frommers Travel Guide. Tours are held twice on Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for children.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Read more about Granbury in Beverly's article from the Austin American-Statesman: