Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Woodlands near Houston gears up for summer visitors

Water features prominently at The
Woodlands Resort.
Driving into The Woodlands, 27 miles northwest of downtown Houston, you’re immediately struck by the scarcity of signage along main roads. The master-planned community was designed to take advantage of its heavily wooded landscape, so shopping centers are tucked behind mini-forests, and few signs tell what businesses are hidden there. It’s a feature both welcome for its attractiveness and potentially confusing to newcomers. But the balance sheet weighs heavily in favor of the design George Mitchell chose for this development more than 50 years ago.
The idyllic, wooded setting has been a primary draw for corporate events and leisure travelers for many years, so it’s not surprising that strong growth necessitated expansion of The Woodlands Resort. Larry and I visited recently to check out changes and improvements that were completed at the end of 2014.

Beautiful landscaping add to the attractiveness of the resort.
It’s easy to see why the $75 million renovation project has turned The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center into a popular destination for meetings and family vacations. During the 20-month project several major changes took place including adding a new wing of 184 guest rooms and suites, renovating 222 existing guest rooms, designing a 3,000 square foot living/gathering room that connects the three guest wings, creating a lazy river that winds 1,005 feet through the surrounding forest, and opening a high-end steak house with an outdoor patio adjacent to the 18th hole of Panther Trail, the resort’s signature golf course.
Soothing landscapes are found throughout the property.
During our visit, we enjoyed happy hour at Robard’s (4-6 p.m.), the new 136-seat steak restaurant and lounge.  Some patrons are regulars as the restaurant is open to the public, not just resort guests. Draft beers were $2 off and wines $3 off regular prices, or sip on a Texas Pear Margarita for $6. Even better was the Iron Skillet appetizer, a zesty bolognais sauce with meat, topped with Mozzarella cheese and served with homemade French bread. Yummy! entrees are in the $30-45 range.

Rooms have been added or renovated to follow the same standard.
We also savored the sumptous breakfast buffet and dinner in The Woodlands Dining Room (steak for Larry; salmon for Beverly). Other food outlets include The Royal Mile Grille for lunch and The Bistro for drinks and appetizers. Cool Water Café located poolside at Forest Oasis Waterscape is open seasonally.
Robard's is the new high-end steak restaurant at The Woodlands Resort.
Plentiful water features throughout the property had a cooling effect, which is probably needed more during the summer than our May visit. But listening to the soothing sounds of spraying water from our balcony and while walking around the property was a pleasant plus.

Golf at the Oaks course on a pleasant, sunny day.
While there we played the adjacent Oaks golf course, a new member of Club Corp. It features large, rolling greens, generous fairways, and numerous bunkers. Majestic oak trees line the fairways and hide most homes from view. However, if your ball disappears into the trees, chances of finding it are slim. Bordering Lake Harrison, the 18th hole is a good example of the course’s natural beauty.
An exquisite mural adorns one wall of the lazy river course.
This summer families will especially enjoy the five swimming pools with spas, waterfalls and slides. The new lazy river with spiral plunge slide is already getting rave reviews from guests of all ages. Energetic guests can work out at the Fitness Center or settle for supreme relaxation with a massage at the Health Spa (thanks, Roxanne!).

There’s really no reason to leave the resort, but if you need more entertainment venture out for world-class shopping at The Woodlands Mall, Market Street, or Old Town Spring. Perhaps you’ll want to attend a concert at the nearby Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. More than 194 miles of jogging and biking trails wind throughout The Woodlands, too. And if business brings you to The Woodlands Resort, you'll find full conference facilities.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Friday, May 15, 2015

Hike, bike, or soak in hot springs in Ouray, Colorado

Colorado is known for its many tourist destinations, but one place that might be overlooked is Ouray, a small town with big attractions for visitors of all ages.
Mountains and waterfalls at Yankee Boy Basin near Ouray, CO

Hot springs with amazing
views draw visitors
 to Ouray, Colorado.
If you'd like to know more about this family-friendly getaway and opportunities to explore mountains surrounding Ouray and scenery so spectacular that the town has been called the Switzerland of America, please check out my article in the May/June 2015 issue of Arizona Highroads.

Summer is a great time to enjoy myriad outdoor activities, but winter snowscapes provide the perfect backdrop for relaxation.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Frequent flyer programs keep changing

Years ago airlines encouraged loyalty from customers by offering miles or points for every flight you took and for purchases made on their branded credit cards. It was a good deal—you could fly almost anywhere in the U.S. for 25,000 or 30,000 miles. Earning a free trip wasn’t too hard to accomplish—and there were actually seats available for booking.
The original premise was simple, but now the airlines are making it hard. Not just hard to get that free flight but hard to understand exactly what the benefit is to you for being a loyal customer.

Business travelers who book the most expensive tickets and fly the most often have an advantage. Travelers who fly only occasionally lose more in the watered-down programs now being offered.
In the past, you earned miles according to the distance flown, no matter whether you booked a seat in first class or coach. Since March, United changed its program to award points based on the cost of the ticket. Elite-level frequent fliers earn trips and upgrades even faster.

Delta no longer has award charts on its website, so travelers can’t tell what a trip will cost in miles/points. You really have no way of knowing what the value is for your loyalty miles or what a “free” trip might cost. Instead of a flat rate to fly to Europe, for example, the value of those miles changes according to when and how you want to fly.
Southwest Airlines is in the game, too, changing the number of points needed for certain flights. So far, American and Alaska Airlines sill use miles as currency, although American awards increased miles to business/first class passengers.

Airlines are also offering more ways to redeem those miles or points, like purchasing luggage, cameras, jewelry, or cruises. Customers who do this help the airlines reduce their huge liability—nearly $100 billion worth of unused miles are currently held by passengers, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Imagine the hit airlines would take if even a small percentage of those were redeemed at the same time.
Of course, these days flights are full or nearly so, and redeeming miles is trickier than it used to be. Availability is scarce, and there is often a hefty charge to reinstate miles if your plans change. About seven percent of all trips taken use rewards, but that still leaves many unused miles on the debit sheet.

So, is it worthwhile to book your next flight on a specific airline in hopes of accumulating enough miles for a free flight? Probably not, the experts say. It makes more sense to purchase tickets based on price, convenience, and comfort. If you eventually earn a free flight in a reasonable exchange rate (50,000 miles for a three-hour flight is not a good value), you’ll feel like a winner.Otherwise, use those measly points to buy flowers for your spouse.
Photos from free sources


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Summer gettaways in northern Utah

View of Timpanogos Mountains from Sundance Resort in Utah
If you like vacations with stunning scenery and mountainous adventures, look no further than Utah, a destination we visited last September.

The northern region that includes Salt Lake City, Park City, and Sundance Mountain Resort has warm days and cool nights, plentiful shopping and dining options, and a variety of outdoor activities for all ages.
Reflections showcase buildings and landscaping at Temple
Square in Salt Lake City
Here's a link to my article in the May/June 2015 issue of Arizona Highroads Magazine that covers some of the highlights you can find there.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How to get the best cruise deals

Want to save money on your vacation? Book a cruise. Cruising is a safe and convenient way to travel; you can visit many destinations and only have to unpack once. Here are some strategies to help you snag the best deals so you get the most for your vacation dollar.
Modern cruise ships are large enough to provide multiple amenities.
Wait to book: If your travel times are flexible, you can find deep discounts about a month prior to sailing.  Check Internet sites of cruise consolidators (see list at the end) as well as the home site of your preferred cruise line. 

Be flexible: If you’ve booked months in advance, here’s a new wrinkle: Some ships are now being overbooked, and if you’re willing to change plans at the last minute, you might be offered multiple incentives (upgrades, free cruises, etc.) to reschedule your vacation.
Look for deals:  Look for special offers like lower deposits, kids sail free, shipboard credits, included airfare, and free shore excursions.  These budget boosters can increase the value of a cruise. A travel agent can keep you posted when good deals come along.

Book and sail together: Family and multi-generational travel is a growing component of the cruise industry, so more ships are catering to this market.  But check on average age of passengers and available activities in kid, preteen, or teen clubs of a specific cruise if you’ll have people of various ages along. 
Dining rooms are a convenient place to get everyone together.
Or go casual at the buffet.
Skip faraway destinations: North American travelers are filling the ships on Caribbean (both Eastern and Western) and Mexican Riviera cruises.  U.S. embarkation ports are generally easy to get to (no overseas flights), which allows for a variety of itineraries and cruise lengths.

Squeeze in a short getaway: Four and five night voyages are popular with families and people who have limited time off from work. Cruise lines have responded to the demand by increasing the number of sailings for trips lasting less than a week.
Watch the bottom line: A big selling point is the all-inclusive nature of cruises.  But newer, larger ships include more extra-fee services besides the usual shops and beauty salons. Exclusive restaurants, wine tastings, Pilates classes, golf swing analyses, and long bar tabs can hike up the total amount due at the end of your cruise.

Tropical or Caribbean islands make great
vacation destinations for couples or families.

Find out more at:                                        

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Monday, May 4, 2015

Celebrate Mother's Day at Mama Fu's Asian House

Looking for a casual restaurant with excellent food for Mother’s Day?  If you spend $25 at MamaFu’s Asian House from May 4-7 you’ll get a certificate for a complimentary meal for your Mama, good from May 10 through May 16.

Sweet N Sour dish is a traditional favorite.
Larry and I discovered Mama Fu's when we had dinner at the Sunset Valley location (5400 Brodie Lane) last week. It was our first time at the Austin-based eatery, and I felt good about supporting a local business. The brand currently has nine locations in the greater Austin area with the newest restaurant opening soon in Kyle, Texas. Among the sixteen restaurants currently open are locations in Arkansas, Florida, and two in United Arab Emirates.
Ginger sesame salad with chicken at Mama Fu's
We met Kyle Peters, manager at Sunset Valley, who explained how diners have several choices in setting up their entrees. First you choose a rice dish—white, brown, or fried—or a noodle bowl. Then choose your protein—chicken, pork, steak, or shrimp—or stick with vegetables or tofu. That determines cost of your meal, which ranges from $8.89 to $10.29.
Then you choose from a variety of preparations, some with plenty of sizzle (like Spicy Seoul Stir Fry or Sichuan Kung Pao) and others on the milder side (like Sweet-n-Sour or Thai Cashew Stir Fry). You can add a cup of soup or a choice of several appetizers for $1.99 extra. Portions are very generous, so you’ll probably have enough for another meal at home the next day.

The zesty flavor of orange peel sweetens
this Asian dish at Mama Fu's

At the recommendation of our server, we ordered the Crab Rangoon appetizer (four for $4.99 when not ordered with an entrée). Crispy wonton wrappers are filled with crab, cream cheese, scallions, and onions and served with sweet chili dipping sauce. Yummy!
Chicken lettuce wrap is a generous
appetizer or meal.
For my main course, I ordered shrimp with a rich honey glaze over fresh snap peas and carrots, served on brown rice. Since everything is made to order, I asked to have some broccoli tossed in, too. No problem.

Two desserts caught my eye, the Apple Dumplings (dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with caramel sauce) and my ultimate choice: Mama’s Dessert Roll, a decadent cheesecake rolled in a flaky cinnamon pastry, fried, and served with raspberry sauce--perfect for an occasional splurge.
Fresh vegetables and high quality proteins are the
basis for Asian dishes at Mama Fu's.
The menu also includes a variety of Asian street foods like Bulgogi Steak Wraps and Korean Street Tacos (yes, it starts with a tortilla). Additionally, there’s a good selection of gluten-free and vegan options—all made in-house--which are popular with customers needing specialty items.

During happy hour, 3-6 p.m., alcoholic beverages are $1 off and appetizers are half price. Sundays are popular with families since kids eat free.
The spicy Bahn mi Sandwich is one of the selections
from the Asian street food menu.
Known for high quality, fresh ingredients and the fusion of unique flavors from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Korea, Mama Fu’s offers dine-in, takeout, delivery, catering, online and mobile ordering.

Photos provided by Corinne Zuleger, Giant Noise PR