Friday, January 29, 2016

'Journey to Churchill' sets standard for Arctic zoo exhibits

Having journeyed to Churchill, Canada, myself to observe polar bears in their native habitat, I was especially interested in this exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. This project provides a thrilling education for many people about these massive mammals and the harsh environment around Hudson Bay in which they live. If an actual encounter isn’t in your plans, the zoo’s beautiful exhibit is something to see.
Seeing polar bears in their natural habitat is the best wildlife sighting.

Opened in 2014, 'Journey to Churchill' is a permanent exhibit. The sprawling 10-acre exhibit showcases Northern Manitoba, allowing visitors to connect with arctic species and landscapes, including going "nose to nose" with a polar bear. It’s the closest you can get to swimming with a polar bear and still stay dry and safe.
Zoo exhibit is a fabulous opportunity to see and learn about polar bears.
“This is certainly the largest zoo project in Canada in the last 25 years,” said Don Peterkin, chief operations officer for the Assiniboine Park Zoo. “Journey to Churchill will be the number one polar bear Arctic exhibit anywhere in the zoo world.”
Tourism to see polar bears gives Churchill's 800 inhabitants an economic boost.

Visitors to 'Journey to Churchill' travel through three distinct zones. In the boreal forest-like Wapusk Lowlands, watch snowy owls swoop above, while caribou and musk ox graze and arctic fox play in grasslands.
Gateway to the Arctic's showcase piece is the Sea Ice Passage, an underwater viewing tunnel for watching polar bears and ringed seals frolic. In separate pools divided by an acrylic wall, the predator and prey are still able to see and smell each other. Visitors to this zone also experience the 360-degree Aurora Borealis Theater.
Polar bears congregate at frigid Hudson Bay near Churchill, Canada.
Churchill Coast offers a re-creation of the famous northern Manitoba town, and here visitors can watch polar bears congregate, just as they do along the Hudson Bay coast. The attached International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) is a world-class research facility caring for orphaned and at-risk polar bears.
"The whole intent of the project is to create a love of wildlife, while educating attendees about conservation issues and climate change,” Peterkin says "It's an important message. People like to feel they can do something to make a difference, and by coming to the zoo and supporting what we are doing they are helping to save these animals,” he adds.
Sunset glistens on the late fall ice--before Hudson Bay is frozen over.
While you're there, grab a bite to eat at Tundra Grill Restaurant and watch polar bears roam. Children can romp and play at the Polar Playground’s ice caves, super slides, and a wall-sized icicle xylophone.

Information courtesy of Cathy Senecal, Travel Manitoba 
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Picture-perfect village of Mijas, near Malaga, Spain

Flowers in blue pots provide exquisite decoration
for white houses of Mijas, Spain.
Perfectly coordinated blue flower pots line the walkways and walls of buildings in Mijas, Spain. Filled with colorful geraniums and oleanders, these pots make a dazzling display against the white houses with their red tile roofs. Decorative grills and balconies echo the colorful scenes in this charming town.

Could there be a more idyllic Mediterranean village than this? Perched high on a mountainside, Mijas is delightful. Walking on twisting, cobbled streets, we visited several of the village’s prominent attractions, including impeccably decorated Church de La Immaculada.
Every town, no matter how small, has an abundance of churches.
Our ship on the Mystic Mediterranean cruise with Oceania had docked at Malaga, the second most populous city in Andalusia and the sixth largest city in Spain.  Malaga, is the southernmost large city of Europe and capital of Costa del Col (Coast of the Sun). It is located about 62 miles east of the Strait of Gibraltar and 78 miles north of Africa. Because of its mountains, Malaga has a subtropical climate and among the warmest winters in Europe. In fact, summer lasts eight months!
Beautiful purple blossoms of the
jaranda tree lined the streets.
Malaga’s history spans 2,800 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Its history and cultural diversity are similar to other Mediterranean destinations: Founded by Phoenicians, ruled by the Roman Republic and Empire, under Islamic domination, then under Christian rule. Today it’s the main economic and financial center of southern Spain.

So we passed through Malaga and continued on to Mijas, a thoroughly Mediterranean mountainside town . Purple flowers of jaranda trees and large ficus trees (brought from America in the 1900s) lined the avenues. Donkeys decked out with colorfully woven blankets are everywhere, especially pulling carts for visitors to sightsee around the town, although it’s very walkable.
Overview of Mijas from lookout point above the town.
To get a better view of the town, we walked up to Mirador, a lookout point at 1400 feet elevation.  After visiting a church (yes, there are plenty of churches here), photographing the lighthouse, and scanning a landscape filled with white buildings (white is cooler in this tropical climate), we walked to the lower level to see what the shops had to offer.
Carts drawn by donkeys provided fun sight-seeing opportunities
for tourists.
Bountiful shops on the winding, stone streets of Mijas entice visitors, and I fell under the spell. High quality leather goods are a specialty, so I couldn’t resist purchasing a beautiful red leather jacket. After that, I decided thwart temptation and skip shops filled with fine porcelain and jewelry.
Brown sand beach of Malaga leads into turquoise ocean water.
After our return to Malaga, Larry and I walked about 20 minutes from the ship to the beach. The sand is dark brown and very hot (don’t walk barefoot), but refreshing waves splashing onto the shore provided a playground for many locals. There we learned a bit of interesting information: All beaches in Spain are public and topless.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, January 22, 2016

Festival to honor Irish culture in South Texas

Harp and Shamrock Society of Texas celebrates 50 years in 2016
Beautiful landscape in the Emerald Isle
The Harp &Shamrock Society of Texas (HSS) will continue its 20-year history of celebrating its annual Harp & Shamrock Irish Festival on Saturday, March 19, 2016 from noon to 8 p.m. on the campus of University of the Incarnate Word, 4301 Broadway, San Antonio.

The event celebrates Irish traditions in South Texas with a full day of activities including:
Harps are found in many Irish homes.
--Onsite Irish parade - Gayle & Tom Benson Stadium (12 noon)
--San Antonio Gaelic Athletic Club Gaelic football tournament and hurling competitions - Gayle & Tom Benson Stadium (12 p.m.)
--Food trucks offer authentic Irish cuisine (corned beef, Irish stew, shepherd’s pie, fish & chips, and Irish sausage) “traditional” festival food
Dancers step to lively Irish tunes.
--Irish music and dance by Inishfree Irish dancers, Ravenmoor, San Antonio Pipe & Drums, Kelly Singers, Sean Orr & Celtic Texas, and Black Irish Texas
--Arts and crafts
--"Passport to Ireland" – Culture area that offers genealogy research, history of early Irish Texans, introduction to Gaelic language and bag pipe, Kiss the Blarney Stone and much more

 Parking is free on University of Incarnate Word (UIW) campus and free admission for active military with ID, UIW students with valid ID and children 12 and under. Adult tickets are $5 at the gates with advance discount tickets available on the website.

Bagpipes are part of the Irish tradition.
“The main goal of the Harp & Shamrock Irish Festival is to celebrate our rich, spirited Irish heritage and traditions with everyone – Irish or not! It is a bonus that we raise money for HSS’s scholarship program, which has granted over $60,000 in academic and cultural scholarships,” says HSS Irish Festival chairman and Board Member Carolyn Dowd. "The 2016 festival will be expanded to include even more festivities because it will be the Society's 50th anniversary."

 “In addition we are hosting a St. Baldrick’s Foundation Fundraiser during the festival." Dowd adds, "Last year the event raised $40,000 for the foundation's research fund to find cures for childhood cancers. Individuals who are participating in the fundraiser also receive free admission to the festival.” 

Other events open to the public include:

--Saturday & Sunday, March 12 & 13, noon - 6 p.m. – Annual Murphy's St. Patrick's Music Festival –Arneson River Theatre

Sample yummy Irish stew, too.
--Sunday, March 13, 4 – 5 p.m. – Annual Murphy's St. Patrick’s River Parade – San Antonio Riverwalk
--Thursday, March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day), 12-12:30 p.m. – St. Patrick's Day Alamo Wreath Laying, honoring Irish heroes present at the Battle of the Alamo – Alamo grounds
--Saturday, March 19, 8 a.m. – Donovan’s Memorial Day Fun Run – Lady Bird Johnson Park, 10700 Nacogdoches Rd
--Saturday, March 19, noon to 8 p.m. – Harp & Shamrock Irish Festival – University of the Incarnate Word (UIW)

Another amazing landscape--no wonder the Irish love their country.
--Harp & Shamrock Society Fiesta medals commemorating the Society’s 50th anniversary in 2016 will be on sale at all these events and at the Fiesta Commission Store.
Drums are an important part of Irish
music, culture, and history.

Since 1966, the Harp & Shamrock Society of Texas has been dedicated to keeping Irish history and culture alive in South Texas. “Our legacy in Texas started with the birth of Texas,” says Melissa Schulz, president, Harp & Shamrock Society.  “Of the 188 defenders at the Alamo, 12 were Irish-born; 30 were of Irish heritage.   Four Irishmen signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, and 100 were listed in the rolls of the Battle of San Jacinto – comprising one-seventh of the total Texan force in that battle. To say our bloodlines and pride runs deep in Texas is an understatement!”

Glenveagh Castle is a reminder of Ireland's ancient past.
For more information, visit or call 210-896-1598.
Information courtesy of Jeanne Albrecht, Harp & Shamrock Media Coordinator

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Charms of western Sicily

View of Trapani, Sicily from our ship
Tall pink oleanders line the streets of Trapani, capital city in a corner of western Sicily. Palm trees and others that remind me of ficus trees also provide shade as we travel through this city on the largest and most luxurious Mediterranean island.  Thick stone walls dating from the 1500s surround the city--remnant of its turbulent past that remind us it wasn’t always glamorous.
Walls and fortresses provided protection in ancient times.
Trapani is a port on our Mediterranean cruise which is substituted after terrorist actions canceled our scheduled stop in Tunisia. While that was a disappointment, we discover a magical region that we might otherwise have missed.

We learn that Sicily’s mountainous terrain and temperate climate make it one of the most alluring Mediterranean islands. An eventful history is part of its intrigue because this triangular piece of land jutting out from the tip of Italy’s toe has been at the crossroads of events since ancient times
Cable cars take visitors up the mountain and provide
excellent views of Trapani and the island.
People have lived on the islands of Sicily since the 8th century B.C. The Romans arrived in 200 B.C. and planted wheat fields to use the island as a granary. Later, the Byzantines from Turkey and Greece, then Egyptians, Tunisians, Africans, and Normans occupied the island. Slavics ruled until 1215 when it became a vice-kingdom of Spain. In fact, Sicily’s history includes every great nearby civilization through the ages—each influencing the culture and artistic heritage in ways that enchant visitors today.  Now a republic, the island still has ties to Italy.

Exploring a small slice of the island
Narrow cobblestone streets add to the character of Erice.
We found Trapani to be a lovely, low key town with a beautiful historic center full of baroque churches (not a surprise!). We watch fog roll in and cover the mountain top with a luminous haze. It’s an eerie sight tempting us to go up the mountain via cable car (avoiding a bus ride on the steep mountain road with many hairpin turns). From our vantage point in the air we can easily see the notable “tail” of land that snakes into the sea at the end of the island.

Colorful ceramics depict picturesque scenes from the island.
Our destination at the top of the mountain is Erice, a lovely town with a decidedly European flavor. We wander through a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, stopping to explore richly decorated churches, spacious courtyards, and myriad shops. Intricate tapestries and brightly colored pottery in traditional and modern designs displayed outside the shops attract our attention, so we mosey in for a closer look. 
Ornate altar in one of the local
Part of the allure of this hill top town is the views you see looking out over the ocean. Don’t miss a spectacular overview of the coast from Pepoli Castle and Villa Balio Gardens. It’s easy to understand why Erice has become a favorite holiday  destination for for both locals and tourists.

As our visit winds down, we stop at a local bakery and purchase samples of the almond pastry for which the town is known. It’s a sweet finish to our visit before returning to Trapani and our ship.  
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Visit America's national parks for free

Glacier National Park
National Parks are truly America’s Best Idea. This year the deal is even better.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Many of my most memorable travel experiences have been in parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Rocky Mountain, Great Smokey Mountains, Big Bend, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Hot Springs, and others. Even parks that are lesser known have much to offer the public and are also fabulous.

This year is special because the National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016. To commemorate the centennial, on 16 days in '16, all National Park Service sites that charge an entrance fee will offer free admission to everyone. It’s an opportunity you shouldn’t miss.

Yellowstone National Park
Mark your calendar for these entrance fee–free dates in 2016:

January 18: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
April 16 through 24: National Park Week
August 25 through 28: National Park Service Birthday
September 24: National Public Lands Day
November 11: Veterans Day

There are 409 national parks, monuments, seashores, and more available to everyone, every day. The fee-free days provide a great opportunity to visit a new place or an old favorite, especially one of the 127 national parks that normally charge an entrance fee. The others are free all the time. Choose any of these to learn more about our country’s history or to enjoy nature and spectacular scenery.

Save on recreation
Yosemite National Park
The fee waiver includes entrance fees, commercial tour fees, and transportation entrance fees. Other fees such as reservation, camping, tours, concession and fees collected by third parties are not included unless stated otherwise.

Fee-free days make parks accessible to more people. However, national parks are always economical, with entrance fees that range from $3 to $30.
In addition, any fourth grade student can get a free annual pass through the Every Kid in a Park program, and active duty military and citizens with a permanent disability can also get free passes.

People 62 years or older can get the Senior Pass, a lifetime card that allows entry to all U.S. national parks and federal recreational lands. The pass costs $10 if it is purchased at a federal recreational site—truly a bargain. An additional processing fee of $10 is added if the pass is purchased by mail order

Volcanoes National Park, Big Island Hawaii
For more information about the variety of discounted passes available, please visit the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass page.
Information courtesy of National Park Service
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Austin airport now screens applicants for TSA PreCheck program

If you travel by air several times a year—and you get impatient waiting in long security lines—there’s good news for Austin travelers.  On January 14, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport joined 38 other U.S. airports in offering the U. S. Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program.

Pay $85, and you can skip potentially long security lines for five years. Even better you won’t have to take off your shoes, jackets, or belts. You can leave your laptop and baggie with allowable liquids in your carryon bag.

Of course, since the federal agency recently announced that it has enrolled more than two million passengers in the expedited security screening program, those lines may start getting longer, too. But with the major growth currently being experienced at the Austin airport, participating in the program should still save passengers time.
U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible to apply for the program, which requires an in-person visit at an application center. Fingerprints and required documentation is required for the process. Approved PreCheck travelers receive a “known traveler number” as soon as five business days after their interview that can be used when booking travel.

The program began in Oct. 2011, and now has 356 application centers around the country, including 39 on-site offices at airports. Austin has had a downtown PreCheck enrollment center since 2014, but the airport site will be more convenient for many travelers.
The $85 application fee for PreCheck applicants covers an extensive background check as certain criminal convictions — such as federal crimes or certain state felonies — within the past seven years can disqualify applicants.

If you travel internationally, check out the Global Entry program, which is offered through U.S. Customs and Border Protection. I have been a member since 2014 ($100 for five years), and it greatly expedites passing through customs in countries that participate in the program and especially saves time when re-entering the U.S. after foreign travel.
Once you have signed up and been approved, fill in information with your “known traveler number” on airline websites so the designation will be noted on your boarding pass. On rare occasions it might be omitted, in which case you’ll have to join the masses in the regular (longer) lines.

Photos from free sources


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Winter storms bring excellent conditions to Colorado ski slopes

As a Texan who has skied in Colorado,  I can attest that the saying "If Texans didn’t go to Colorado, the ski resorts might have to close" is only a mild exaggeration. However, avid skiers who head west know that winter 2015/2016 has already been exciting for those who love to plunge down the slopes in plentiful powder.

All levels of skiers enjoy the excellent conditions
in Colorado this winter.
A report from Colorado Ski CountryUSA (CSCUSA) confirms—noting that total skier visits at its 21 member resorts were up 10 percent during the first period of the 2015/16 ski season, which is defined as Opening Day (October 29, 2015) through December 31, 2015, compared to the same period last year.

The surge in visitation numbers can be attributed in part to excellent winter conditions in Colorado and pent up skier demand fueled by El Nino buzz. “Before ski season even started there was a lot of talk about this being a Godzilla El Nino year and what that would look like for Colorado,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of CSCUSA. “As resorts opened and ski season got underway, many skiers and snowboarders took advantage of some of the best early season conditions we’ve had in recent memory.”

Wolf Creek, 12-15-15
Photo by Jason Lombard
“Thanks to some well-timed storms, resorts were able to offer amazing conditions during the holidays and many resorts reached the 100-inch milestone before the end of the year,” Mills added. “Even a couple very cold days between Christmas and New Year didn’t keep folks from taking advantage of the powder conditions.”

The ski lifts are busy this season.
Snow was just part of what drew skiers to the slopes. “Travelers know that when they visit a Colorado Ski Country resort they’ll be met with friendly employees, personal interactions and a welcoming spirit, and that goes a long way with our guests,” Mills said.

January and February event calendars at CSCUSA resorts are packed with family activities, international competitions and Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month promotions. “CSCUSA is nicely positioned for mid-season business as resorts prepare to host events and welcome visitors for popular ski weekends over the Martin Luther King and President’s Day holidays,” Mills said.

January is also National Ski Safety Month in Colorado, and skiers and snowboarders are encouraged to know and follow Your Responsibility Code; widely regarded as the key to skier and snowboarder safety on the slopes. It is comprised of seven principles that collectively outline skier etiquette and safe skiing practices.

Information courtesy of Jennifer Rudolph, Communications Director, Colorado Ski Country USA


Saturday, January 9, 2016

First aid when traveling

Going on a trip? Make room in your luggage for a travel first aid kit. It doesn’t have to cost much or take up much space, but it can come in handy to relieve minor aches and pains that could sideline your vacation plans.

Feel free to improvise your first aid kit
and put in a container like a tote bag or
small backpack.

A good first aid kit should help you cope with situations like a headache, stomach ache, allergies, sunburn, blisters, scrapes, and cuts—maladies that can keep from enjoying your time away even if they’re not considered “serious” health issues.

Bandages come in many varieties,
so choose the ones that  work best
for each trip.

If a box of bandages and tube of antibiotic ointment--tossed in a plastic baggie--is what you’re counting on in an emergency, it’s time to update your supplies. Ready-made first aid kits are available, but you can assemble your own for less and with items geared to your family’s specific needs and activities.

The first thing to pack is any prescription medicine in its original bottle.  Then include over-the-counter remedies (generics are fine) that your family uses and trusts. Just remember to check the contents of the kit before every trip and dispose of any items that have expired or replace any that were used.

Pack prescription medications in original bottles.
“The most important thing to have is information,” says Kathleen Clem, M.D., Chief of Emergency Medicine, Duke University Medical Center and spokesperson for American College of Emergency Physicians. “In addition to a first aid manual, record allergies and medications used by family members in separate lists.”

Motion sickness bands can
provide relief.
Gather items into a sturdy container that you put in a carry-on or tote bag rather than in checked luggage or the trunk of a car. Here is a list of items to include when creating or updating your travel first aid kit:

Anti-nausea/ motion sickness medication
Tables for indigestion, heartburn, or upset stomach
Anti-diarrheal tablets
Tylenol or Advil to ease headache or fever
Hydrocortisone cream to soothe itches
Antibiotic ointment or wipes to prevent infection from minor cuts or scrapes

Bandages with Velcro fasteners
can serve many purposes.
Bandages to cover blisters or cuts
Antihistamines or other allergy medications
Hand sanitizer to kill germs when washing hands isn’t feasible
Tissues for sneezing or cleaning cuts
Instant cold or hot compresses
Insect repellent
Safety pins, cotton balls, tweezers, plastic zip-top bags

Photos from free sources.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

History and culture bring visitors to Prague

Scenic sights of Prague from our dinner cruise on the Vltava River.
One of the reasons for choosing our AmaWaterways Danube River Cruise was that we could include a three-day pre-cruise visit to Prague, Czech Republic.  This well-preserved medieval city is a destination that attracts crowds (six million people a year--tourism is the main industry), but we had heard raves about the city and wanted to put it on our itinerary.

Enjoying the sights from our evening river tour.
Our first evening there, we scheduled a dinner cruise on the Vltava River, the city's main waterway, which gave us a good overview of the city at a slower pace. Our hotel was located in Old Town, a section of the city in which no new buildings are allowed, the better to preserve the character and architecture that people come to see and appreciate.

Ancient clocks still function.
Although Czechoslovakia was a republic in 1938, the Nazi occupation brought a lot of suffering and neglect to the city. When the Communist regime ended peacefully in 1989, restoration of historical and cultural buildings began.

You can take a city tour by bus to get acquainted with Prague; most will offer stops along the way. Or take a free walking tour. Many of these meet in the morning near the 600-year-old Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square for a half-day tour. You’ll get an overview and some history of several main sites like Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and Jewish Quarter.

As you walk on your own, head towards the river to visit the John Lennon wall. As Communism was declining in the 1980s, students painted grievances on the wall and wrote John Lennon lyrics to promote love and peace. If you wish to join the sentiments, it’s okay--tourists are allowed to write or paint on the wall, too.
Street musicians hang out at the John Lennon wall in Prague.

While you’re near the waterfront, take time to relax and dine in one of the area restaurants or cafes. When you’re ready to head back towards the city center, you can walk across the famous Charles Bridge, which connects Old Town and New Town.

Tour as many cathedrals as you
have time for. They are all beautiful.
Charles Square features seven churches; and while you may not enjoy touring that many ancient cathedrals, it’s worth checking out one or two. Few still have services, since religion isn’t prominent in Prague, but most are beautifully decorated in a traditional Catholic manner.

People-watching is a cherished past time at Old Town Square, It’s full of tourists and locals, and you’ll be entertained by any number of musicians. From jazz to bagpipes, a wide variety of street musicians love performing in the Square.

Exquisite interiors are a hallmark
of Prague's cathedrals.
If you’re in the Square on the hour, listen for the Astronomical Clock chimes and watch puppets appear briefly in the open doors of the tower. For some reason, hundreds of people line up to see this attraction, even though there’s not much to it. Still, take time to observe the artistry of the clock, regarded as one of the most beautiful in Europe.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, the Jewish Quarter is worth taking time to see. Hitler intended to make it a museum commemorate what he expected to be an extinct Jewish race, so he saved it from destruction during World War II. Ironically, now the modernized synagogues and historic graveyard honor what was one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe.

The Jewish quarter keeps alive the history and culture
of this population.
For contrast, walk down fashionable Paris Street (Pariszska) and window shop the luxury boutiques with famous brand names. It’s a well-kept, contemporary area that contrasts with the historic old town section. Our last day in Prague, I found a beautiful locally made crystal bowl to remember our visit to this remarkable city.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier