Monday, January 30, 2017

What traveling to Antarctica meant to me

When friends asked several years ago if I wanted to go to Antarctica, the world's southernmost continent, I said, “No way. I don’t like to be cold.”  In Texas we have mild winters with few freezes and rare snowfalls.
Such variety in size, shape, and texture of icebergs.
But eventually we booked a trip to Antarctica that is certainly one of the most inspiring and fascinating journeys this traveler has ever experienced.

Keep in mind 2/3 of the enormous iceberg is under water.
Change of heart
Every time I saw pictures of pristine blue-tinged icebergs, the enormous expanse of glacial whiteness, and enchanting penguins and seals, I had a longing to be there: To take my own photos of the incredibly beautiful scenes. To experience an environment totally different from anything I had known before. To feel the sacred sensation of solitude surrounding the extraordinary landscapes.

Penguins were delightful entertainers.
Although we think of Antarctica as being isolated, almost 35,000 people travel there during the season that runs from November through March. Despite increased accessibility, polar travel still seems as surprising and awe-inspiring to new visitors as when the first explorers came to this frozen land.
The magic of Antarctica

The feelings I had on first viewing the dramatic landscapes of the white continent were unexpectedly intense. Pristine ice and undulating snow stretching as far as the eye could see were simply indescribable. Standing by myself on shore, I silently admired the spectacle of a beach teeming with playful penguins, heard the crack of a glacier calving, and admired the multiple brilliant blues found in immense icebergs.
Our first continental landing was totally impressive.
The connection with raw nature encompassed my imagination as I struggled to envision people living and working on this inhospitable continent with its unpredictable climate. I was truly out of my comfort zone but enjoyed every minute that stretched me from being just a visitor to becoming an explorer.

It was also warmer than expected, so my parka came off.
I loved hiking to high points overlooking bays filled with icebergs, elephant seals, and sea lions. I breathed deeply of the pure, clean, cold air surrounding us as we  surveyed steep , rocky cliffs jutting up from the ice-speckled ocean or rumbled into a frozen cave in our Zodiac.
Gorgeous reflections just before sunset.
Shore excursions are highly restricted regarding the number of people allowed to be on land at any given time, and that’s a good thing. You’ll never encounter hoards of people trying to claim the best photo spots. Additional restrictions are in place to protect the environment and to ensure safety around the ice--and that often precludes large cruise ships from making an actual continental landing. Being there myself reinforced how important it is to protect and preserve this incredible environment.
Icebergs are continually changing shape--and sometimes holes appear.
Surviving the cold

Quark, our expedition company, provided parkas (ours to keep) and muck boots (on loan), but the rest of our warm clothing was up to us. For this Texas gal that meant extra purchases of wool underwear, socks, gloves, hats, fleece, and pants. I came prepared and was never uncomfortably cold, even though we were out in the elements for several hours each day. (Expedition participants from northern states were not fazed by temps in the 20s).

Seals enjoy sunning on a relatively flat iceberg.
Adventure and discovery become the norm that we looked forward to during daily Zodiac excursions, not to mention the thrill of actually crossing the Antarctic Circle (most expeditions just touch the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula). What could be more exciting than that?
Whales are another form of wildlife often seen in Antarctica.
I came away from this life-changing journey overwhelmed by the immensity of this unspoiled, wild, rugged land—a land many countries including U.S. are researching to learn how environmental change might affect the continent and subsequently the rest of the world.
View from the window of our room on the Quark expedition ship.
Antarctica is filled with infinite opportunities and daring demands on those who seek to understand its allure. I'll forever be grateful for having traveled there, walking on Antarctic soil, and embracing the wild forces of nature found nowhere else in the world.
 Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fun adventure in the Everglades

Riding a bicycle in Shark Valley gets you up close and personal with the “river of grass.”

A visit to Everglades NationalPark in Florida, the largest subtropical wilderness in the country, can be overwhelming because of its sheer size and the remoteness of many trails (both water and land).  But Shark Valley offers an excellent way to experience the park, especially if you like to explore on your own. Rent a bike (or bring your own) and peddle your way along a loop road through this northern section of the park.
The bike trail in Shark Valley is not a difficult ride.
With only slight elevation changes and no rough terrain to navigate, the scenic 15-mile paved road is ideal for bike riders of all ages.  The journey typically takes about three hours, depending on how often you stop and whether a gusty head wind crops up.  At the half-way point, in the heart of this unique ecosystem, the Observation Tower provides a convenient place to pause and enjoy panoramic views. 

To get a feel for the significance of this region, plan to ride the entire loop (if your fitness level allows), but check to be sure it’s open all the way since the curvy east portion, with expansive sawgrass prairie, is flooded and impassable at times. 
Be respectful of alligators in their natural habitat, and don't venture
too close.

 Alligators sunning themselves, as they lie partly on the road and partly in the marsh, provide perfect photo opportunities if you keep your distance—10-15 feet away is recommended.  Raccoons, white-tailed deer, turtles, frogs, otters, and other wildlife may also appear near the road or on hiking trails. 
Stop to soak in beautiful views
and reflections.
Start on the western side of the loop road, which is fairly straight, butts up against the wetlands, and hosts the greatest variety of wildlife and plants.

Birds including egrets, ibises, ospreys, herons, cardinals, warblers, mockingbirds, and hawks catch your attention as they wade through marshes and then suddenly zip into the air.  If you spot a bird camouflaged among the grasses and tree branches and want to take a picture, don’t hesitate: quickly snap the shutter before it flies away.  Some larger species wander along the road, but they don’t linger when humans are around.
  Butterflies flit around the blooms, and don’t be surprised if one hovers just inches from your face.

Bird watching is a popular pastime on the trail.
Tiny flowers in pastel hues—white, pink, yellow, and purple--grow along the swamp’s edge.

Riding with a tail wind, the road uncoils beneath your wheels with amazing speed, and mile markers printed on the road pass quickly. However, it’s not uncommon for wind gusts or summer thunderstorms to appear, especially in the afternoon, so the trip could take longer after reaching the midway point.  If you decide not to ride the entire loop, retrace your path because there aren’t any shortcuts.
The Observation Tower offer expansive views of the surrounding area.
 Highlight of the ride is spectacular 360-degree views of wetlands, prairie, and trees seen from the 45-foot high Observation Tower. Views change as you walk along the elevated spiral ramp to the platform, so take time to enjoy scenes like blackbirds perched on railings cawing back and forth to each other and Monet-like reflections of clouds fluttering across the shallow, liquid meadow.  Besides allowing an overview of the ecosystem, the Tower offers tranquil vistas of the Everglades up to 20 miles in all directions.

Larry pedals along the Shark Valley bike trail in Everglades
National Park in Florida
Ride during cooler morning hours; take water and a light snack as there are no concessions once you leave the Visitors Center, located on Hwy 41, 46 miles from Fort Lauderdale.

Tram rides are also available in Shark Valley.
If riding a bicycle isn’t your style, the Shark Valley Tram offers a two-hour, open air tour on the same path.  Trained naturalists point out wildlife and narrate information about the park. 

One of three entrances to the national park, Shark Valley is a significant area for sustaining the park’s biological abundance and diversity.  Because of its worldwide significance, Everglades National Park has been designated a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, and Wetland of International Importance. 
For more information, visit 

Photos by Beverly Burmeier



Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Travel smart with Trusted Traveler programs

If your future travel plans include flying somewhere, this might be the perfect time to apply for one of the Trusted Traveler programs. Long lines at security can result in a rough start to your trip, with tempers tested long before you actually board an airplane. But you do have options.
The Department of Homeland Security sponsors several programs including TSA Pre-check, Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI. Each has its own eligibility requirements and application fees, so you need to determine which works best for your needs.

TSA Pre-check: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) manages and operates TSA Pre-check, an expedited security screening process. Upon approval, you can move through security more quickly and easily in a dedicated line, which is almost always shorter than the regular security line. The line generally moves faster because you don’t have to take off shoes or jacket or put your baggie of liquids or computer in the bin, which saves a lot of time.

This is valid for departures from more than 150 participating U.S. airports. Because TSA randomly selects non-enrolled travelers for this privilege, you could be lucky and get Pre-check occasionally without paying the $85 fee (good for five years), but with TSA Pre-check you’re almost always guaranteed a spot in the short line.

You can pre-enroll online, then visit an enrollment center to verify ID and provide fingerprints.

Global Entry: If you travel both within the U.S. and internationally, your best bet is Global Entry. A five-year membership is only $100. This program provides expedited processing through customs at airports and land borders upon arrival into the U.S.  Trust me, after you’ve endured a long flight to get back on American soil, you’ll be relieved to skip the long lines at customs.
For Global Entry, you will also have to schedule a personal interview (can take weeks or months in some locations) and must provide a passport or permanent resident card.

NEXUS: U.S. and Canadian citizens or permanent residents of either country can apply for NEXUS, an expedited process for airports and land borders between those two countries. Application is similar to Global Entry, and a five-year membership is $50.  It includes Global Entry and TSA Pre-check for travel between those two countries.
SENTRI: Travelers frequently arriving in the U.S. from Mexico, should consider enrolling in SENTRI. The process is similar to NEXUS, and the program requires proof of citizenship and admissibility documentation. Five-year membership fee is $122.25.

Be a smart traveler: Once you have received approval for any of these programs, be sure to enter your Known Traveler Number or PASS-ID into the passenger information section for the airlines you’ll be traveling on, or provide that number to any agent or company that books flights for you. I also double check before checking in for a flight to make sure that number is correctly and currently noted at the airline’s website. If for some reason, it isn’t, you won’t get the benefits due you—and the agent at the airport can’t change the notification (or lack of it) on your ticket.

Photos from free sources

Friday, January 6, 2017

Tips for safe winter travel

Whether you are flying or gearing up for a road trip to visit relatives, Better Business Bureau has advice to help ensure safe travels during the cold and unpredictable winter season.
If you plan on driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends getting your car serviced before you hit the road, especially if you anticipate traveling in inclement weather, like snow and ice. Visit your mechanic for a tune-up and have your entire vehicle thoroughly checked.

Before you hit the highway or tarmac this holiday season, BBB recommends that travelers:
Check out the business first. Whether you’re looking for a trustworthy travel agency, hotel, resort or auto mechanic, check out a company’s BBB Business Profile

Create a vehicle safety kit. Prepare for bad weather by creating your own safety kit. Basics for the kit include blankets, a flashlight with extra batteries, a radio, a first aid kit, jumper cables, non-perishable foods like granola bars and nuts, bottled water, an ice scraper and warm gloves.
Research last-minute travel deals. Bargains on airfare or a hotel may be tempting, but be cautious when booking on an unknown travel website or through an online advertisement. Common travel-related complaints to BBB reported trouble with reservations, online advertisements and incorrect charges. Be sure you understand all anticipated charges, so you can compare prices with confidence.

Consider travel insurance if flying. You may want to purchase travel insurance when booking a flight for peace of mind, protection from the unexpected and concern over losing the financial investment in a trip. Also, check with your credit card company, as some offer travel insurance as a perk if you use the card when booking a flight.
Understand extra fees.

  • Baggage fees: Some airlines charge to check bags. If a bag check-in is free, bags weighing over 50 pounds may cost you more.
  • Pet fees: Most airlines accept pets if they are kenneled, but the charge is usually around $100.
  • Ticket changes: Plans can change, but keep in mind that your travel cost was determined by your original departure and arrival times. Changing your plans may cost extra.
  • Hotel fees: Some  hotels charge extra fees for room service and Wi-Fi. Read the fine print when booking a hotel, and save your receipts.
Information courtesy of Esther Robards-Forbes, Public Relations Manager 

Photos from free sources.