Monthly Archives: May 2015

Snapshot of My Bucket List: Where and Why

Cross another one off the Bucket List

Cross another one off the Bucket List

Just today it dawned on me that every single blog post I’ve written has covered someplace that I’ve already been. For a change I thought I’d put down in writing some of the places I’d still like to get to. Of course, my list (and everyone else’s, I suppose) is always subject to change – you never know when you’ll see that photograph that will rocket that previously unknown destination to a top slot. You also never know when that proverbial bucket might be kicked. So with those caveats in mind, I present to you a snapshot of my bucket list at this particular moment in time and perhaps it might inspire you to form one of your own.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

In my head I like to think of myself as being in the mold of Indiana Jones – I love traveling to exotic places; history fascinates me; I even have a fedora. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to a landmark such as Angkor Wat – a sprawling temple complex of stone ruins rising out of the steamy jungles of southeast Asia. I had a taste of that in Ayutthaya, Thailand, but it would seem that Angkor Wat is the definitive ancient temple ruin and the photo opportunities alone urge me to return to the region after a 12 year hiatus. Probably not going to get there this year, but it still ranks high on my list.

Petra, Jordan

Speaking of Indiana Jones, how could anyone see The Last Crusade and not be inspired to visit Petra? While the chances of finding the holy grail are unlikely, the landscape – carved out of rock by the ancient Nabateans – is 100% real. Ever since I saw that on full moons it is possible for a nighttime tour, I have kept the flame burning for a visit to this ancient wonder. Now if only that whole ISIS thing would just settle down…

Archipelago Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Even for places off the beaten path, the islands of Fernando de Noronha off the northeastern tip of Brazil would be considered as way, way off the normal tourist circuit. For me the appeal is partly the remote and thereby rather untouched nature of this Atlantic archipelago, and partly the dream of scuba diving in its pristine waters – preferably among the many dolphins that frequent the area. It would require some dedication to get there, but like anything else of any value, I’m certain the extra effort would be worth it.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The first time I heard of Ngorongoro Crater was in a magazine (the Awake! I believe) and the overview combined with the pictures depicted a veritable paradise on Earth. Many years later it was a featured destination on my favorite reality show The Amazing Race, and seeing the lush greenery and wildlife encounters was enough to seal its place on my bucket list – even though I’ve been fortunate enough to have been on several safaris. Add in ‘nearby’ attractions such as Mt. Kilimanjaro and the exotic island of Zanzibar and all it would take is the slightest opportunity for me to convert this wish into reality. That and a bunch of time and money.

Iceland, like almost all of it

Years ago I was planning a trip to Europe and intended to fly on Icelandair, the national carrier of Iceland who would have very graciously allowed me a free stopover in their country. While circumstances eventually led me to take another carrier, by that time I had already done the research on Iceland, and in doing so, convinced myself that this land of fire and ice was worth more than just a ‘stopover‘. When several of my friends made the trip there and shared their photos with me, my wanderlust was sufficiently stoked to include Iceland on my bucket list for the foreseeable future.

In the Queue

As I mentioned before, this is a snapshot of my bucket list. This reflects the fact that I already have a trip to Norway/Sweden/Italy/the Netherlands planned and therefore the wonders I hope to experience on that trip have gone from ‘bucket list’ to ‘itinerary’ – much to my delight. After that I don’t know what will come next. I might even wind up somewhere else. But that’s the great thing about bucket lists – so long as the ‘bucket’ hasn’t tipped over, there’s always time to add and subtract.

Do you have a bucket list? Please share your top slot with the rest of us as well as your reasons why by commenting below.

I would also like to mention that my fellow blogger Bianca Mazziotti has posted a review of my book You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper on her inspirational blog Stumbling for Balance. Her blog is full of positive thoughts on a variety of subjects along with a number of original poems. I encourage you to take a peek – I’m sure she’d like to connect with you.

Categories: Anecdotes, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dude, Where’s My Ranch? – Review of Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas

Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas

Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas

Dude Ranch:

n. noun

  • 1. A resort patterned after a Western ranch, featuring camping, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities.

Not even two months after my move to Texas, I felt compelled to seek out a more authentic ‘Texan’ experience than just shopping and eating my way through Houston. So when my parents came to town for a visit, I knew the time was right to head out to where the stars at night, are big and bright (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas.

Nothing better encapsulates the image of Texas more than staying on a ranch (except, perhaps, clapping along to the aforementioned song). So as I planned our jitney into the famed hill country, I settled on a place called Rancho Cortez, located on the periphery of Bandera, Texas – the self-proclaimed “cowboy capital of the world”. As it turns out, I chose wisely, and the experience had was both fun and authentic. The follow is a breakdown as to why.

The Ranch

Check in at the General Store

Check in at the General Store

Bandera is set some 45 minutes northwest of San Antonio. It features a small main street brimming with Western facades and numerous souvenir shops to go along with a few eateries. Rancho Cortez is perhaps a ten minute drive out of town, nestled in the rolling hills that characterize the region. Coming from Houston, ANY hill was a welcome sight, as a little topographical variety is good for the soul.

Check in takes place in the main office/general store that looks like it was lifted right out of a ghost town. Here you can buy sundries and souvenirs – including an authentic cowboy hat, which I might add, will actually come in handy during your stay. Guest cabins of varying sizes dot the property, many of which are great for families as they contain kitchenettes and bunk beds for the kids. There’s a large barn structure housing a game room in the event that you’d like to stay indoors (?!) as well as an outdoor pool. A covered hot tub is available for a post-ride soak, and since the ranch also doubles as a fitness spa (with extensive programs and training) there is a well-equipped fitness center and an indoor pool as well.

Meals (generally included depending on your package) are served in a no-frills dining hall where you can interact with fellow guests, or even ranch owner Larry Cortez, whose Texas-size personality feels right out of the movie City Slickers. The food is basic but tasty, and I was glad I was not here on a fitness program, as those guests had a far more restrictive diet.

Of course, the real reason for visiting a dude ranch is the horses, and I am happy to say that all of the many horses I encountered were well-cared for and in good health. It was easy to see the handlers’ genuine respect and concern for the animals, and this of course assuaged my guilty conscience for having some poor horse have to walk around with someone the size of me on its back. Which brings me to the next point…

The Horseback Riding

Horseback riding, Rancho Cortez

Horseback riding, Rancho Cortez

Guests are divvied into riding parties so that there’s never an exceptionally large group out at one time (and so that the horses are not overworked either). The guides will lead the posse through groves of trees, expansive meadows, and lovely hilltop vistas. Rides will last about an hour unless prior arrangements have been made. As any non-rider can attest, an hour is enough time to enjoy the experience without feeling overly saddle-sore. For guests on the all-inclusive package, they are entitled to two rides a day – plus a hay ride through the property, which at times will include a visit to the impressive herd of cows on site.

Off the Horse Activities

Since horseback riding will only take up about two hours of your day, the ranch does offer other diversions to pass the time. There’s a scenic trail that winds across the hill overlooking the property, where at the top guests can play in the obstacle course put there for those on a fitness package. Or you can do what I did, which was to walk past and shake my head at doing that stuff under a hot Texas sun.

How to catch a woman - Texas style

How to catch a woman – Texas style

The ranch hands will also tutor interested guests in the art of roping. It took a little while but eventually I got the hang of it. In the event that I were tasked with lassoing an absolutely stationary colt from a few feet away, I’d feel pretty certain about my chances of success. As for moving targets, not so much so, though one of the cowboys very nonchalantly lassoed my wife mid-step and attempted to teach me how to do it. Call me a Neanderthal, but it dawned on me that such a skill would be quite useful, not to mention a very effective way to meet more women after she leaves me for lassoing her in public.

DSC_2836Perhaps the most enjoyable of all activities offered at Rancho Cortez takes place at dusk. This is when they get a fire started in the stone fire pit, allowing guests to pull up their chairs and enjoy the ambiance as the stars start blinking on one by one. On some evenings they have a singer drop by, who will regale guests with folk songs and other ditties accompanied by guitar. Between the twang of the voice, the crackling of the fire, and the mix of starlight and firelight, there’s no mistaking that you are truly (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas.

The Conclusion

I came to Rancho Cortez for a genuine, non-touristy ranch stay, and I didn’t leave disappointed. The price was quite reasonable, the staff friendly and personable, and the scenery was all I could hope for. I would heartily recommend it to anyone seeking a cowboy experience in the Lone Star State. In fact, I can’t wait to receive other visitors, as it will give me an excuse to come back. Dude, that’s something to look forward to.

For a witty tour of the planet, don’t forget to download a copy of my travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper, available at most major online retailers.

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Alamo Has No Basement & Other San Antonio Facts

The Alamo - no basement but plenty of history, San Antonio, Tx

The Alamo – no basement but plenty of history, San Antonio, Tx

Like most other non-Texas native kids who grew up in the 80’s, my introduction to the Alamo wasn’t in any textbook but rather in the ridiculous but somehow mesmerizing kids movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. In it, the wacky protagonist set off for the aforementioned famous landmark after being told by a gypsy fortune teller that he would find his stolen bike in the basement of the Alamo. Spoiler alert: there is no basement to the Alamo. But don’t let this deter you from visiting what is the most charming city in the Southwest. What it lacks in basements San Antonio more than makes up for in atmosphere. And now a rundown of the highlights faster than you can say A-Do-Be!

The Alamo

I can't shake the feeling I'm not remembering something. That's right: the basement!

I can’t shake the feeling I’m not remembering something. That’s right: the basement!

This monument is sacred to Texans, and is the unofficial icon – second only to the shape of Texas itself which can be found on everything from boots to cars to bric-a-brac without number. It was here that a small but tenacious group of volunteers dug in against a far superior force of Mexican troops. Despite the presence of (then) illustrious frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, the defenders were eventually slaughtered. This only served to fuel the flames of Texan independence, and soon “Remember the Alamo” became a rallying cry all the way to victory at San Jacinto.

The building itself has been refurbished to a degree – the iconic fascia was a later add-on – yet still gives visitors an authentic, if somewhat depressing sense of the history that transpired. There are displays enumerating various firearms of the time and a list of the ill-fated volunteers. The grounds themselves are now a series of lovely gardens with a water feature that I’m pretty sure doesn’t date back to the days of Santa Ana.

Unless you are a fiercely proud Texan, you can complete a thorough visit of the Alamo in under an hour. Maybe less if you don’t bother to stop and read any of the informative displays. Surrounding the Alamo is a large square bordered by the inevitable souvenir shops. As you can imagine, Texas-shaped gifts are available for all.

The Riverwalk

The Riverwalk, San Anotnio, Texas

The Riverwalk, San Anotnio, Texas

All great cities have their ‘signature’ feature. In New York it’s Times Square; San Francisco has Fisherman’s Wharf and in San Antonio that particular role is ably filled by what is called The Riverwalk. As the name suggests, this is a pedestrian area alongside the San Antonio riverfront which has been channelled and sculpted into the ultimate place to hang out. Set below street-level, the shady sidewalks lined with giant Cypress trees teem with foot traffic shopping in quirky boutiques, crossing the gracefully arching bridges and sitting idly munching chips and salsa in waterfront cafes.

Most first-time visitors opt to take a guided riverboat tour, which for the eight bucks or so it will cost you is well worth the price. Your guide will spout information about the hotels, restaurants and buildings lining the river and you will tune most of it out while trying to take in the overwhelming charm. Once done, get a table at a riverfront eatery for surprisingly reasonable prices and a great view no matter which turn in the river you’re perched on. In fact, I have to give San Antonio’s riverwalk the nod for ‘best city feature”, as they’ve essentially created their own tourist attraction that for tourists and locals alike is the place to be.

Along San Antonio's Riverwalk

Along San Antonio’s Riverwalk

Getting There & Around

You can easily fly into San Antonio’s International airport, or if driving, reach it by car in only three hours from Houston and even less than that from Austin. The historic district is accessible right off the highways, so find a parking garage and walk the rest.

Yes, the Alamo may not have a basement but the building – and city around it – is a great place to visit and even better place to hang out. So put on those Texas-shaped sunglasses, gas up your needlessly large pick-up and come see the pride of Texas in the heart of hill country.

Once again don’t forget to pick up a copy of my witty travel ebook You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper available at your favorite online bookstore. And if you’ve already read it, do me a solid and write a review already, will ya?

And if anyone asks, tell them Large Marge sent you. 🙂

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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