Friday, November 29, 2013

Remember the past; enjoy the present in Gruene, Texas

The water tower is one of Gruene's
most recognizable features.
Did you ever have an old metal lunchbox with Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger painted on the outside?  If you were born a generation later, you might have carried a plastic Barbie or GI Joe lunchbox with matching Thermos bottle to school. Memories like these are easy to come by in Gruene, Texas, especially when browsing around the original 1870-era mercantile store--now a nostalgic trip back in time for many visitors.
Sure, Gruene is a wonderful place to reminisce about the “good old days,” but did you know that this mid-1800s German settlement on the Guadalupe River in central Texas almost became a ghost town before being rescued from oblivion? 

Today, Gruene has developed into a major year- round entertainment center with an emphasis on families sharing good times. Named for Ernest and Antoinette Gruene, who were among the German immigrants arriving in the 1840s, Gruene is just 45 minutes from Austin and 30 minutes by car from San Antonio.
In 1872, the Gruene family set up a tenant farming system for raising cotton, and one of the sons opened the first business in the new town, a small mercantile shop and cotton gin. Henrich D. Gruene also opened Gruene Hall, which became a gathering place for the tenants. About that time, the town became known as Gruene.

Gruene Hall hosts world-famous musicians and other programs,
many free and open to the public.
When H.D. Gruene died in 1920, the small town began to decline. The original grist mill was destroyed by a fire and replaced with an electric cotton gin. A boll weevil infestation destroyed cotton crops in 1925 and with it the livelihood of most of Gruene’s residents. Then came the stock market crash, which devastated the remaining residents of Gruene. The final blow occurred when the family foreman hanged himself from the (now iconic) water tower.
The Grapevine has many Texas wines. Special events are
often held in the garden.
Fast forward to 1975, when Pat Molak discovered Gruene and decided to purchase the abandoned dance hall. After a few necessary repairs were made, the 6,000 square foot open-air dance hall continued its tradition as Texas’s oldest continually operating dance hall.

The General Store is full of items you'll
recognize from your childhood--or share
with your own children, who haven't a
clue what those things are.
In 1977, Molak and Mary Jane Nalley joined forces to purchase the original cotton gin, a three-story brick boiler room, and they created the Gristmill River Restaurantand Bar in the old building. The pair expanded their acquisitions to include the old Mercantile building, one of the Gruene family’s original homes, portions of the Gruene lumberyard, and the Greuen brothers’ garage. These building have been transformed into tourist-pleasing businesses including Gruene Antique Company, Lone Star Texas Electric, Buck Pottery, Gruene General Store, Cotton Eyed Joes, Gruene Outfitters, and The Grapevine, a wine tasting venue.
The official Historic District of Gruene, which is actually part of the city of NewBraunfels, covers a little over 15 acres. It was placed on the NationalRegister of Historic Places in 1975, and since then most of the building have been awarded a Texas Medallion from the Texas Historical Commission. A wide variety of business line the walkable streets, and this quaint area now draws more than a million visitors annually.

Texas Clay Fest attracts potters from
far and wide--great opportunity to
purchase unique pieces.
A plethora of special events fill Gruene’s calendar, including Gruene Music and Wine Festival, the Americana Music Jam, Tour de Gruene bicycle race, Gospel Brunch with a Texas Twist (held most Sundays in Gruene Hall), Texas Clay Fest (attracting artisans from all over the state), various 5K and 10K walks and runs, Old Gruene Market Days (held the third weekend each month), and more.
Tour de Gruene is a favorite event.
With so much happening in Gruene, it’s no wonder this historic district has become a major tourist attraction in Texas.

Katie Molak, Marketing Coordinator, assisted with historical information.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier (except potter and bike race, which were provided by Katie Molak).


Monday, November 25, 2013

Visit Australia and New Zealand for the holidays

With extended family members living in faraway places, holidays are often hit-or-miss regarding who’s available to spend time with us. Last year, with the prospect of celebrating on our own, Larry and I decided to head south—as in the Southern Hemisphere—during December.
Sydney Harbor Bridge
While a visit to Australia was on our bucket list, we wanted to see more of that vast country than just a couple of coastal cities. So we booked an excursion that allowed us to spend almost a week crossing the Red Desert of central Australia before boarding a ship for a cruise along the eastern coast of New Zealand. Actually, December is a good time to visit Australia and New Zealand because it’s summer there (equivalent to June in the Northern Hemisphere—sunset around 8:30 p,.m.). We left on December 6 and arrived on December 8 after crossing the international dateline.

Both land and sea experiences were combined into the same 23-day excursion, which simplified planning on our part. Our flight landed in the international city of Sydney at 8:20 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and a few hours later we enjoyed our first Australian experience by climbing the famous Harbor Bridge. After a late lunch of pizza in an outdoor café, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the area and taking photos of the bridge, harbor, and iconic Opera House.
Brilliantly red Ayers Rock
After spending a couple of days in Sydney, we started our journey across the Australian outback by flying to Uluru to see Ayers Rock and the Olga Mountains. Late morning the plane landed in a desolate area where the dusty brown landscape transformed into dirt so red it almost glowed—our first look at the semi-arid region we would be touring. The flight took almost three hours, but some adventurers insist you haven’t seen the desert unless you drive through it (We got a good look from the plane window!)

We learned about the vital cultural and religious significance of Ayers Rock to the traditional aboriginal tribes and marveled at its ruddy beauty while walking around the enormous monolith.
The next day we drove six hours to the pioneering town of Alice Springs, an oasis at the base of the MacDonnell Mountain Ranges in central Australia. We learned more about endemic plants and animals that fill this seemingly hostile environment with life at the beautifully planned Alice Springs Desert Park. 
Coral in the Great Barrier Reef comes in many sizes and shapes.

A flight to Cairns to visit the Great Barrier Reef was the final leg of our overland tour. A full day excursion to the reef for snorkeling and other adventures was definitely a highlight of the trip. Although there are 2,904 individual reefs with 900 islands and many channels between, we were delighted to see even a portion of the spectacular coral shelf along with a variety of fish swimming there. 

Locals having Christmas fun in Marlborough Sound, New Zealand
A week after leaving Sydney, we returned and boarded our Princess ship for a 14-day cruise that included Australian destinations of Melbourne and Hobart, Tasmania as well as scenic cruising at Fjordland National Park and stops at the New Zealand ports of Dunedin, Akaroa, Wellington, Tauranga, and Auckland.

Passengers singing Christmas songs.
Following a heartwarming morning service, Christmas Day was spent sailing through Marlborough Sound. The weather was sunny, seas were calm, and our balcony was the perfect spot for viewing blue water, green hills, and coastal towns. With temperatures in the 60s, locals were out sailing and jet skiing on this glorious day.

Larry and Santa
We arrived home on December 29 from one of the most memorable holidays we’ve ever had.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier




Saturday, November 23, 2013

Granbury Opera House reopens in December

Located on the Granbury Square, the
Opera House will attract many visitors.
The 176--year-old Granbury Opera House, one of the most recognizable structures on the Granbury Square, will open with a red carpet gala on December 5, 2013. It's first production, "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens, runs from December 12-23. Read more about it here:
The modernized Opera House retains its classic exterior.
The interior of the theater looks very elegant.
The new lobby utilizes original walls and features a grand stairway.
Photos provided by Brooke Traister.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Restrictions eased for using electronic devices on airplanes

If you’re one of those folks who has to be reminded several times to turn off your phone or iPad when the doors are closed on an airplane, here’s good news.

Now you won’t have to feel guilty about sneaking in a few more minutes of listening to music, reading a book, or watching a movie. And you won’t have to test your patience  waiting for the plane to reach 10,000 feet (currently the altitude above which electronic devices are allowed).

Fewer restrictions now for electronic devices in the air
The FAA has announced that the old guidelines on electronic devices will soon be relaxed during takeoff and landing for airlines that receive approval regarding their safety procedures and have the ability not to be affected by these devices. That means tablets, e-readers, DVD players and video game consoles will be allowed during these phases of flight, although they still need to be in “airplane” mode or have their cellular connection disabled.

Phone calls and texting are still banned. Heavier devices, such as large laptops, that could become projectiles or block exit paths in the event of turbulence or an accident still won’t be allowed. If the flight has installed a Wi-Fi system and allows its use, that’s also permitted. During safety briefings, passengers will still be required (expected?) to put down their devices, along with books and newspapers, and pay attention.

Smart phones and tablets
can be used for extended
times on airplanes.
Rather than set a specific timetable for when passengers will see the device restrictions eased, the FAA is leaving that up to the airlines. Delta Air Lines is among the first to complete carrier-defined PED (personal electronic device) tolerance testing and submit its plan to the FAA for approval.

An important caveat: Regional carriers used by almost all major airlines may not be certified when the affiliate company is. So, even if you book a Delta flight, for instance, if the plane actually belongs to one of its partners, the new rules may not apply.

“It’s going to become more challenging to determine whose device is okay and whose isn’t,” said Kelly Skyles, a 26-year flight attendant and national safety and security coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents cabin crews at American Airlines. “My greatest concern is that it’s going to put flight attendants at risk for more confrontations.”

You can help make their job easier by listening to and following guidelines as announced by flight attendants, especially important during the transition period when different airlines will have different restrictions.
Free internet images


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Italian government limits cruise ships docking in Venice

I’ve recently returned from Venice, Italy where I heard an ongoing discussion from locals about whether large cruise ships should be allowed to dock as close to the city as they currently are.  Now we learn that the number of large cruise ships passing through Venice will be limited by the Italian government.

The winding canals of Venice draw visitors to this unique city.
“Some people think large ships are unsightly and detract from the beauty of Venice,” said Francesca, our guide on an excursion to the islands of Murano and Burano. “But cruise ships bring new dollars to Venice. It’s the only business that does so today. Everyone’s job is related in some way to the cruise industry,” Francesca added.

That’s an important point. Tourism drives the economy of Venice. There are seven terminals for cruise ships, which is the reason the Venice airport is the third largest in Europe. For these reasons a powerful lobby in Venice supports the cruise ship trade and welcomes the economic benefits it brings.
But in recent years, environmentalists have protested against large ships saying they damage the city's fragile lagoon. For them the new restrictions--the number of cruise ships allowed through Venice will be cut by 20% beginning in January-- constitute a first step for an ongoing campaign.

These are the only man-made islands of Venice--for docking ships
Ships of more than 96,000 tons will be banned from the center of the city beginning November 2014. The BBC also reported that Prime Minister Enrico Letta's office announced plans to open up a new canal route to the city to allow big vessels to enter the city by an alternative route.
The Grand Canal remains a magical attraction in Venice
The Cruise Lines InternationalAssociation (CLIA) said: "While we believe that the passage of cruises through the Giudecca Canal [which flows into Venice's San Marco basin] is safe, we agree that any sustainable solution requires an alternative passage for our ships.  "We absolutely respect the Italian government’s decision and CLIA remains committed to working and collaborating with the Italian authorities in the development of the alternative final passage."

Hopefully, these actions will eventually result in a win-win situation for the cruise industry as well as for the city of Venice and its citizens who depend on cruise ships coming there for their livelihood.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, November 1, 2013

Element Hotel features the deepest shade of "green"

Those of us who travel frequently become acutely aware of hotels that are environmentally sensitive. Instead of encouraging wastefulness by replacing a barely used bar of soap daily or running air conditioners at max speed (so we need blankets to sleep comfortably), we’ve come to appreciate brands that make an extra effort to conserve energy, materials, and supplies.

Exterior of Element Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Hotel
That’s why I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to stay at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport ElementHotel.

Starwood has developed a spin-off of its Westin brand--called Element Hotels--that is far above other eco-wise hotels in its commitment to being earth-friendly. From the moment we drove up and saw the sleek, no-frills design we knew this would be a different kind of accommodation.

Public lounge area of Element Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Hotel
uses recycled materials whenever possible.
For starters, all 11 of the Element branded  hotels are 100% powered by renewable energy. I was also amazed by how much of the construction utilized recycled and eco-friendly materials. For example, fabrics on sofas are soy-based, floors are made from recycled tires, backsplash tiles in kitchen areas are made from depression glass, and wall coverings are composed of recycled water bottles. Makes you realize how much is wasted when materials are discarded instead of reused.

A unique feature recently instituted at the hotel is pedal-powered charging stations in its fitness center. Guests can pedal their way to a fully charged tablet or smart phone during their workout on a stationary bike. There are also priority parking spaces with plug-ins for electric cars.

Shades replace heavy draperies, and soy-based fabrics cover sofas in our room.
Many of the rooms at Element are designed with its extended stay option in mind, which means there is more space, plenty of storage cabinets (far more than the standard chest of drawers), modern acrylic desks, daily cleaning service, dishes and utensils in the full kitchen, outdoor grill ready for guest use, and computer hook-ups for the TV (appreciated by business travelers).

Many rooms have fully stocked kitchens with depression glass
backsplashes and spray handles on faucets.
But comfort isn’t sacrificed as each room provides Westin-branded Heavenly beds. Extra seating is also a common feature in guest rooms.

A hearty breakfast satisfies guests, giving them a good start for the day. We especially enjoyed the complimentary evening reception, held Monday through Thursday, with unlimited drinks (wine and beer included), snacks, and even a light—but substantial--meal such spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread or hamburgers with potato salad and all the trimmings. These options are especially family-friendly.

Back side of the hotel features a saline pool and cook-out area
The Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport Hotel also contains upgrades from others in the Element brand, such as a larger conference/meeting room, back lighting above beds, and spray handles on kitchen faucets. While some of the décor seemed bland, artwork added an occasional splash of color. Even though individual rooms have ample work space, the common area is equipped with plenty of table space and wi-fi capability to encourage casual get-togethers.

 In addition to the established hotels, others are in various stages of execution around the country. Check to see if the city you’re visiting has the Element option, which provides travelers—both business and leisure--with a place to live comfortably, whether their stay is a few nights or a few weeks.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier
Read more travel stories at Striped Pot and Austin Adventure Travel