Monday, February 29, 2016

Discover history, nature, and culture through hotels in the Highlands of Peru

View of the mountains from Casa Andina in Arequipa, Peru
We stayed at a variety of hotels during our trip to Peru, an increasingly popular country for travel. If the Andean Highlands region of Peru is on your travel list, check out these exceptional hotels. Whether located in the city center or secluded in remote regions, accommodations like these in Peru’s High Plateau offer a banquet of history, nature, and culture.

Casa Andina Private Collection
Arequipa, in southern Peru, is the historic center of the Highlands Region. Its Inca legacy is overshadowed by remnants of the Spanish colonial period, and that includes the renovated house that became the foundation for Casa Andina.  This Spanish mansion, named a National Historic Monument, has been expanded into a centrally located luxury hotel that’s as much museum as accommodation.
Courtyard of Casa Andina in Arequipa, Peru.
A restoration project rescued the mansion from a century of neglect and transformed original two-foot thick stone walls into five large suites.  High vaulted ceilings, frescoes, and original flooring—a herringbone pattern of rocks embedded in stone—maintain the colonial character.
Exterior of Casa Andina in Arequipa retains characteristics of a
Spanish Colonial building.
A modern two-story section with 36 additional rooms overlooks an open air sitting area made comfortable with wicker sofas and chairs. Casa Andina is quiet, even though it’s just around the corner from the tourist attraction, 16th century Santa Catalina Convent, and a few blocks from the main square.

Dine: A full buffet breakfast is served either indoors or outdoors by the main courtyard of the hotel.  For lunch or dinner, enjoy the beautiful gardens of Sol Del Mar in Arequipa.
Colca Lodge

Dining room of Colca Lodge, favorite accomodation for people
who wantto hike in Colca Canyon.
Built completely of stone, mud bricks, and thatched roofs, ColcaLodge is an oasis in the middle of the sparsely populated Colca Valley.  Its architecture was inspired by ancient Inca buildings, perfectly appropriate since it’s located in farmland heavily terraced by Inca and pre-Inca cultures--and still cultivated using ancient methods. 
Located next to the Colca River, the lodge features beautiful views from the lovely spa and naturally soothing hot springs. Sunny orange stucco buildings and plenty of colorful flowers brighten the scenery, and numerous paths allow for gentle exploration around the property.
Natural hot springs invite guests to soak and relax.
Feather comforters and luxury showers also make the 45 rooms a prime choice for serious hikers in the Colca Canyon (the world’s deepest canyon) and visitors heading out to observe the famous condors of this Andean valley.
Dine: Colca Lodge’s fine restaurant offers a varied menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—including tasty soups and barbeque (alpaca, anyone?). Staff will pack a generous lunch to-go if requested.

Hotel Titilaka
Situated in a rural area overlooking Lake Titicaca (at 12,500 feet altitude it’s the world’s highest navigable lake), art-filled Hotel Titilaka considers sharing historic and cultural experiences as important as pampering guests. 
Back side of Hotel Titilaka with walkway to the lake (beware the
altitude of 12,500 feet!)

A few years ago Peruvian developer Ignacio Masias purchased an existing hotel on a private peninsula jutting into Lake Titicaca. After renovations, eighteen large, contemporary rooms now gleam with walls of windows that take advantage of spectacular scenery and connect guests with the natural environment.

The hotel’s signature program is The Andean Experience, which includes transportation to and from the Juliaca airport, numerous excellent tours led by local residents, and all meals and drinks. Excursions that revolve around local culture allow this stunning retreat to promote economic development of nearby communities. 
Breakfast is a sumptuous affair with impeccable and personalized service.
Once guests arrive at this tranquil oasis they are catered to by gracious staff, about half of whom are indigenous people from local communities. The hotel provides indulgences indicative of a first class property: heated floors, spa bathrooms with oversized tubs and massage showers, indoor chaises with gorgeous lake views, spacious double vanities, and complimentary stocked mini-bar.
Superb views of Lake Titicaca from our room.
What the hotel doesn’t have—and doesn’t need--is easy access to the bright lights of city nightlife. Instead, the spirit of ancient civilizations soothes the soul.

Dine: You couldn’t beat the on-premises restaurant for fresh seafood and vegetables—even if there were other options nearby which there aren’t--and everything is included.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Guide to Glamping in Europe

Today’s guest post is from Jess Signet, an avid traveler who enjoys writing about her adventures. Knowing there’s more to the world than the bubble she lives in makes her want to travel even more.

This new form of camping adds glamor to your typical camping trip and is one of my favorite types of holiday. Rather than heading off into the woods with a sleeping bag and backpack, glamping puts the fun and convenience into camping. Even though glamping is a new fad, there are plenty of places around Europe already catering to this style of travel.
Yurt's come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and amenities
Why Glamp

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of camping, but camping often takes a lot out of a person. Sometimes you just need that relaxing holiday instead. With glamping you still get that outdoors experience and peaceful setting, but maybe you're within a WiFi zone still or can use a real shower or don't have to fend off thousands of bugs.

What to Pack

First, you can ditch those ugly waders and clumpy hiking boots. Instead, bring a good pair of runners and yoga pants if you plan to hike or do other outdoor activities. Depending on where you're going, you may want to pack things that layer, such as a nice cardigan or a few long-sleeve tops. Even if you're going to a tropical beach, it can get chilly at night. Don't forget to bring a swimsuit since many glampsites have their own pools.

You’ll also want to pack your electronic devices. I love to snap pics with my smartphone on trips, and glampsites often have WiFi networks so you can curl up to watch Netflix in the evenings. Just remember to install a VPN on your device prior to your departure. Otherwise, you'll find an obnoxious error message on Netflix and other sites that use geo-restrictions to protect copyrighted material from being viewed out of the country.

Where to Go


Spain is breathtaking no matter where you go, but glamping will take you to some of the best places. Check out Chaparra Eco Lodge in Andalusia. It's in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and it's got everything you could want to do—horseback riding, hiking and swimming or skiing, depending on the season. Step out of your yurt to sweeping views of the orchard and the Mediterranean Sea.


You can't beat the Loire River Valley if you're looking for a peaceful retreat, and Cosy Camp is a great choice for a glampsite. You'll have your choice of a few types of accommodation: canvas tent, treehouse, safari lodge, gypsy-style caravan or cottage. It's near medieval Chalencon, rock climbing, paragliding and a dozen other activities, and on those days when you want to chill around the glampsite, there’s an indoor pool with massaging water jets.

The UK

Glamping in the UK offers the best selection for types of lodgings—from canvas tents to cabins and everything in between. If you're looking for a room with a view, it doesn't get better than Ffrith Galed Yurts in Wales. Step out of your comfortable yurt to stunning views of the emerald Welsh countryside and nearby Snowdonia National Park. Or get the rural England experience staying at The Old Apple Shed in Kent, where you'll be able to walk into nearby Bethersden, a quaint village with a couple of pubs and shops.
Yurts can be located in "camps" or in secluded areas.

If you want the perfect, serene retreat, get off the beaten track. Lake Bled in Slovenia is one of the prettiest places I've ever been, and I recommend it. Stay at the beautiful Garden Village in either their tents or treehouses. Take a boat ride on the lake in the evening, hike through nearby Vintgar Gorge during the day and have a fantastic, romantic time of it.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Marvel at the undersea world of Georgia Aquarium

The penguin exhibit is a favorite
for all ages.
On a visit to see family living near Atlanta, we took an excursion to the Georgia Aquarium, one of the most remarkable facilities of its kind in the world. Opened in 2005, it’s the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere, surpassed in the world only by Singapore’s Marine Life, which opened in 2012.

This public aquarium provides an entertaining and educational experience for both children and adults utilizing tanks that collectively hold 10 million gallons of water and display more than 500 species of fish and other sea creatures.
The moving sidewalk takes visitors
under an ocean of fish.
Our first stop was at the moving sidewalk, which gently transports visitors through a huge tunnel with fish swimming beside and above them. The plexiglass walls of the Ocean Voyager exhibit are so unobtrusive that it wasn’t unusual to see people step back—even flinch a bit--when a large fish swam really close. The kids especially enjoyed walking though the low-ceilinged 100-foot- long underwater tunnel where they could view stingrays, groupers, and whale sharks through large windows (Note to adults: You’ll have to stoop and scoot the entire way if you chose to accompany your child).

We took our time strolling through the aquarium’s five galleries: Tropical Diver, filled with thousands of brilliantly colored fish; Ocean Voyager, which features the first manta ray on display in the U.S.; Cold Water Quest, with graceful beluga whales, brightly colored garibaldi damselfish (Deepo is the aquarium’s mascot); River Scout, displaying otters and other river species; and Dolphin Tales, where we watched agile dolphins perform enthralling tricks in the AT&T Dolphin Tales show.
Swimming in the ocean--at least pretending to do so.
Special programs that visitors can participate in for an extra fee include Dolphin Encounter, Sea Otter Encounter Experience, and Penguin Encounter. Each takes people behind the scenes, teaches about care of the animals, and provides a close-up and personal interactive experience.

Colorful fish are fascinating to watch.
Visitors can even swim or SCUBA dive with zebra sharks, bowmouth guitarfish, pompano, rays, and many more species in a special Ocean Voyager program called Journey with Gentle Giants. It’s the only opportunity in the world where you’ll be in the water with the whale shark, largest fish in the world.
The aquarium was a vision of businessman Bernard Marcus, who donated initial funds to build and stock the facility. Marcus claims that his 60th birthday dinner at the Monterey Bay Aquarium inspired him and his wife to visit 56 aquariums in 13 countries before donating $250 million for the Georgia Aquarium.

A hands-on drumming
exhibit created sound waves.
In addition to providing a quality attraction for Atlanta, Marcus wanted a facility that would pursue aquatic conservation and research. The aquarium, distinguished by its blue metal and glass exterior that reminds people of a giant ark breaking through a wave, is located in downtown Atlanta on land donated by The Coco-Cola Company. It is open 365 days a year, usually from 10-5 on Sunday-Friday and 9-6 on Saturday. Hours of operation vary, however, so check for exact times at
A singular jellyfish in the
clear blue water.
We left the Georgia Aquarium after three hours of watching active marine life, learning about their habits and habitats through fun exhibits, and participating in numerous hands-on activities. 

Photos by Beverly Burmeier



Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Spring Break at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Whether you’re a fan of former President Lyndon Johnson’s politics or not, a visit to his Texas ranch is an easy and painless way to learn a little history of an era you might not be familiar with. LyndonB. Johnson National Historical Park hopes to attract families—yes, your children will enjoy the mostly-outdoors space, too—during Spring Break week.
Texas White House at LBJ National Historical Park
Additional programming will be offered to visitors from March 5-20 at the LBJ Ranch unit, about an hour’s drive from Austin.  During Spring Break at the LBJ Ranch 2016, visitors will have multiple opportunities to explore and discover the park’s historic resources and learn more about the 36th  President and his beloved ranch.

Park rangers will hold programs detailing the important role aviation and the U.S. Secret Service played at the ranch. Spring break is a great time to bring the family for a visit. Children and parents alike can become familiar with Johnson’s environmental and education legacy, explore natural features of the park, and celebrate the centennial year of the National Park Service.

View of Pedernales River from the LBJ ranch.
Free programs will be offered at locations throughout the LBJ Ranch including at the Junction School, Reconstructed Birthplace, Show Barn, historic Hangar building, and around the Texas White House complex. Programs will run 15-25 minutes long and will be scheduled at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. each day during the special March event. Find a complete schedule of available programs at
Park Spokesperson David Graveline noted that more than 600 visitors attended similar programs during spring break in 2015. “We are very excited to bring this unique opportunity back and have it be a bigger success than last year,” Graveline said.

While there, take a regular tour of the Texas White House. These are offered each day between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. for a $3 fee per adult. Children 17 and under are free.
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This facility is near but separate from the LBJ Museum in Johnson City.

Information courtesy of Mike Ryan, LBJ National Historical Park
Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Monday, February 8, 2016

Tips for booking hotel rooms

Viceroy Riviera Maya Mexico
Once you’ve decided where to travel, you’ll probably need a hotel room. The Internet has made searching for good deals easier than ever, but it still requires a bit of research. Even if you find a great price at a discounter site like or, you still need to be sure the hotel is convenient to places you want to visit in the area. On-site maps can help you determine the best accommodations for your needs--so you don’t shell out big bucks on expensive taxi rides or have to nurse sore muscles from walking miles to events or attractions.

Whether you should book far ahead or last-minute depends mostly on the popularity of the location and/or time of your visit and your need for certainty. If you’re easily accommodated, you can bid on a hotel in the general location on sites like Hotwire, but you won’t know exactly where the room is until your bid is accepted.
Free breakfast is a welcome amenity
Often you can get the best deal by calling the specific hotel you're interested in directly. Ask if they will match rates found online or add extras like free Wi-Fi or late checkout. It’s usually an advantage to deal directly with a specific hotel staff rather than a third party, especially if something isn’t up to snuff during your stay. While checking with the hotel, be sure to ask if there is a resort or parking fee or any other charges you need to know about as those can add up quickly.

Many hotels offer this amenity.
Not all hotels participate on major search sites. Use Google to find accommodations in a specific city or check TripAdvisor for recommendations from users.  If you plan to stay awhile in one spot, consider renting an apartment or house. HomeAway, VRBO, or other sites offer a variety of long-term rentals.
Be wary of sites that require advance payments, and be sure to read the fine print. Often it’s worth a few extra dollars to book a refundable rate, especially if your stay is several weeks or months away. If you forego making advance reservations, calling a hotel the day of your stay may net you a lower rate, but expect to have your credit card charged on the spot.

Local tourist offices, especially in Europe, often have discount coupons or services for finding same-day rooms. This works best if you’re traveling at a less popular time for the destination.
Beacon Hotel in Washington D.C.
If your travel is primarily to one destination, booking a package that includes airfare, car rental, and hotel may be cheaper than buying each part separately. Ask your travel agent, or check with airline companies  and consolidators that offer such packages.

Many credit cards allow you to use accumulated points for hotel stays (score bonus points at sign-up). If you especially like one brand, apply for a loyalty card. If you use the card for additional purchases, you may get numerous free nights a years—and some even offer free nights annually to card holders.
The best advice for booking hotel rooms at the best rates is to do research and planning before arrival. Then you’ll know that you’ve secured a reasonable rate, and you'll avoid scrambling for a room at the last-minute.

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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Free First Sunday Weatherfest at Bob Bullock Museum in Austin

Lone Star guarding Austin's Bob
BullockMuseum, which hosts
Weatherfestin the free
First Sunday program
Keep weather on your radar at Austin's annual WeatherFest, Sunday, February 7, 2016, 12 noon till 5 p.m. Enjoy free exhibit admission at Bob Bullock Museum where families can experience hands-on science experiments, weather-related films and panel discussions, hands-on activities, and more.

Join Girlstart to learn more about weather science:
  • Explore aerodynamics and make a glider.
  • Make a LEGO building that could withstand an earthquake
  • Learn about spectroscopes
  • Be a weather reporter
  • Create an extreme weather shelter
  • Tell time with the sun and make a pocket sundial
Free Scheduled Presentations
12:10 p.m. - 12:50 p.m.: El Nino Q&A, Classrooms
1:30 p.m. - 2:20 p.m.: Ask-A-Meteorologist Panel Discussion, Classrooms

Films include Wild Texas Weather, 1-2 p.m. and Shipwrecked, 2:30-4 p.m.

Drop by and visit these exhibitors from 12-3 p.m.:

Burton Fitzsimmons - Time Warner Cable News, Girlstart, Lower Colorado River Authority, Advanced Radar Research Center from University of Oklahoma, KEYE and meteorologist Chikage Windler, Austin Fire Department Swift Water Rescue, KXAN and meteorologist Jim Spencer, Austin Fire Department Wildfire Division, National Weather Service, Austin Astronomical Society, National Weather Center, City of Austin Watershed Protection, and U.S. Geological Survey.
While there, families can explore the Story of Texas through three floors of exhibits that showcase artifacts from around the state. Support for the Bullock Museum's exhibitions and education programs is provided by the Texas State History Museum Foundation, 1800 Congress Ave., Austin, Texas.




Wednesday, February 3, 2016

What is life like for regualr Cubans?

1950s vintage cars are still a big attraction for tourists to Cuba.
We rode to dinner at a paladar in this blue Ford.
More people are clamoring to visit Cuba since certain regulations have been lifted regarding travel from the U.S. However, most tourist and trade regulations are still in place, so I think little has changed for the average Cuban citizen since my visit there in March 2013.
Horseback or horse-drawn cart are primary means of travel in rural areas.
The idea of going to Cuba “before it changes” is understandable, but it will likely be many years before big box stores and chain hotels line the streets. Cuba is still a poor country, and the government is very much in charge, limiting economic growth of the people who live there.
Our travels covered more than 1100 miles during which we realized that Cuba is a country with contrasting landscapes: rugged mountains, lovely beaches, and green valleys in addition to bustling cities and remote rural areas where not much has changed since the 1950s.

Keep in mind, however, that if you visit by cruise ship, you'll get a very limited view of Cuba. As for other cruise ports, one or two days in Havana will hopefully whet your appetite to return and see more of this distinctive island country.
Beautiful sunset over the beach at Cienfuegos, a city
of culture and history in Cuba.
I’m glad we went and met people from all walks of life—artists, farmers, scientists, school children, and ordinary folks. I plan to write a series of articles based on my experiences—the good, not so good, and surprising-- so please check in frequently.

If Cuba is on your travel list it might be good to have a realistic idea of what you’ll discover there. Jessie, our Cuban guide summed it up this way: “Cuba is not a typical tourist place. I hope you brought a spirit of adventure and enjoy the people.”

Typical Cuban lifestyle

With that in mind, here are some facts of life that Jessie shared with our group:

The color of uniform worn by
children indicates their grade level.
Education is provided for 12 years through secondary school where test scores and grades determine what you can study at university or trade schools.  That’s also determined by the province where you live and its needs. There’s no charge for college if your scores are high enough, but you pay for career education with social service—working for three years wherever the government dictates.

People in public service careers like teachers, doctors, or engineers don’t get paid much. “One of worst things in Cuba is salary—what you need to live on versus what you earn is not balanced,” Jessie said. A doctor earns 25 CUC a month—roughly equivalent to 25 dollars (Jessie’s husband is a doctor). A carpenter or mechanic earns much more. Jessie estimated Cubans need about 300 CUC a month for living at a standard much lower than is typical in the U.S.

Cubans who work in tourism, as she does, work for the State but depend on tips for a living. For multi-lingual guides like Jessie, increased tourism means more American dollars (We tip well). Tips also support waitresses and bathroom attendants (keep those coins handy), who must have a license to do their jobs. “You have to have a license for everything,” Jessie told us.

The Vinales Valley is green, agricultural, and scenic.

Hotels and restaurants are run by the government, which owns at least 51 percent of foreign properties (U.S. owned companies, for example). While private business is allowed in some cases, the State limits potential growth. “The State can close (take away a license) if it thinks a private business is getting too big. It may claim a lack of quality, even though private is usually better,” Jessie said.

This house, painted pink to grab attention, has a room for rent
Cubans can rent one or two rooms of the house where they live (If you want to stay in a home, know that quality varies considerably and furnishings are sparse). Or they can start a restaurant at their residence within limits (These family-run paladars are very popular with tourists).

Each Cuban has a ration book
noting provided monthly items.
Private businesses pay taxes, but there are no taxes on homes or property. Credit is not common, so if you want to buy a house (hard to come by), you pay directly to the seller, who pays a hefty tax to the bank. Internet and cell phone service are sketchy or non-existent (Cuba is working to improve this).

Cubans are issued ration notebooks at birth that stipulate the amount of staple food products they are allowed from the government each month.  Per person examples: five pounds of rice, five pounds of brown sugar, three pounds of white sugar, half pound black beans, 10 eggs, one pound ground beef, and half a chicken. Most people shop at the first of the month because stores often run out. 

Outdated farm equipment is
still in use.

Because items like matches, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste were removed from ration books a few years ago, they are very expensive. You'll see people on the streets hoping for a hand-out of such items. We brought personal care items to donate, along with school supplies, that were given to our guide to distribute where needed.

To hedge the high cost of many items like televisions and electronics Jessie told us, “Cubans use a lot of black markets. It’s a normal part of life. Everybody knows; nobody talks; everybody buys.”  

As you can see, normal Cuban life is very different from that in the U.S., despite the fact it's barely 90 miles from the Florida coast. Changes at that level will come slowly. The government is still a Communist dictatorship, a fact worth remembering.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier