Posts Tagged With: Travel Tips

Brazos Bend: Stars Above, Gators Below

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Meet the locals at Brazos Bend State Park

As a lover of natural things, from time to time I have to get out of my semi-urban surroundings and get out into the wild. From my home base in Houston, I discovered one such place that left me feeling like I was way out in the wilderness, though in reality I was only about an hour away from my home. That place is Brazos Bend State Park, situated to the southwest of the ever-expanding Houston metropolitan area.

Passing the open expanses of ranchland, and the greenery specific to humid East Texas (a far cry from the arid landscapes of West Texas) the park is an oasis of swamplands, grassy fields, tranquil (though gator-infested) ponds, huge trees and its namesake river. It is also home to a large observatory, but more on that later.

From the visitor center, where they display maps, information and a collection of snakes that can be found in the park, the Elm Lake trail isn’t far away. This level loop of packed gravel sports scenic views of both the lake and swamps, and offers visitors the high probability of encountering alligators in the wild. Upon my visit, toward the late afternoon, they were most definitely out in force; we saw at least a dozen, some from just a few thrilling/frightening feet away, as the concept of a trail seems lost on the gators who will just sprawl out wherever the mood takes them. That means great photo ops and an adrenaline rush for the rest of us. It also means you should keep your kids and dogs on a short leash!

Along the trail are wooden overlooks jutting out in the water where at times the gators will be floating or swimming by. Or as was the case during my visit, fighting each other in a thrash of roiled water like something right out of National Geographic.

There are miles of other trails, each with their own appeal. Large oaks with dripping Spanish Moss are everywhere, and around sunset they catch the light in a mesmerizing way. There are picnic tables, campgrounds and other such facilities at various places, allowing for a full day’s outing. But in my opinion, the real fun happens after dark.

The George Observatory – a satellite complex of the Houston Museum of Natural Science (pun not intended) is open to the public on Saturday evenings. There are three large telescopes pointed at various attractions in the night sky, and it is necessary to pay a fee to look through them. On a clear night, it is also necessary to wait on a really long line as there’s no shortage of prospective stargazers. A free option for the frugal and less patient is to line up near one of the numerous volunteers that come out in force bringing their own massive telescopes, who will allow you to take a peek at the wonders of the cosmos. Granted, to a man they seemed a bit weird, but dealing with a little quirkiness was a small price to pay to gaze out at Jupiter and its moons or the Orion Nebula. If you’re there looking for a date, then that’s another story.

A few things to keep in mind if you’re planning a visit. First, there is a $7 per person entrance fee irregardless of how many cars you come in. The chance of you seeing an alligator and/or being up close to one is rather high, so be careful of your surroundings, especially near water, and if you have small children or pets with you be doubly so. In and around the observatory there are numerous signs forbidding the use of camera flashes or phone lights (everything is lit by eerie red lamps that are less stressful on the eyes) and if you dare use one you will invariably draw the very vocal ire of those around you. Be respectful and keep your lights off. For more information and tips, check out the informative park website.

No doubt about it, for a slice of the bayou, some wildlife viewing or amateur astronomy, Brazos Bend State Park has something for everyone. Bring your bug repellent, zoom lens and telescopes if you have them. Whether up, down or in the middle, this park has no shortage of things to see.

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Come for the gators; stay for the moss

 

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

Echoes of Pink Floyd in the Falkland Islands

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The “sights” on the Falkland Islands

Of all the locales immortalized in song, one place in particular comes to mind as being just as obscure as the song that contains it. In Pink Floyd’s 1983 album The Final Cut, there’s a tiny track entitled Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert. It starts with the sound of wind echoing across a plain and a distant voice shouting the title to a pair of men whose questioning whispers are interrupted by a deafening mortar blast. This is followed by what sounds like a string quartet launching into a catchy little tune. After one refrain, bassist Roger Waters comes in with a single stanza of lyrics:

Brezhnev took Afghanistan (a reference to the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979).
Begin (pronounced BAY-gin, a reference to the Israeli Prime Minister) took Beirut.
Galtieri took the Union Jack (a reference to General Leopoldo Galtieri’s invasion of the British-held Falkland Islands).
Maggie (British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) over lunch one day, took a cruiser with all hands (the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano).
Apparently, to make him give it back.

This ditty is ended with some humming before seguing into the next song.

As a teenager I was obsessed with Pink Floyd and always felt a certain fascination about this short but poignant song that inspired me to look it up just to find out what it was about. Not surprisingly, it was this song that I was humming when the cruise ship I was traveling on pulled up alongside the windswept coastline of the Falkland Islands and I prepared to disembark.

The Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas depending on the side of the conflict you’re inclined to support) are a pair of dry, hilly, butterfly-shaped islands not far off the extreme southern coast of Argentina. A British possession since the 1840’s, it’s hard to imagine that this barren landscape at the bottom of the world would be worth fighting over. But fight they did, and those few months of conflict in the early ’80’s still reverberate in the minds and fields of the islands today. More on that later.

Stanley

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North Sea or Southern Ocean? It’s hard to tell how far from England you are

Stanley, or Port Stanley is a tiny town that looks as if it has been wholly transplanted from rural England. From the architecture, the gardens and the fish and chips offered daily in the town pub, from the inside you’d never know you were on the doorstep of Antarctica and not in the North Sea.

In town there’s a cathedral with an interesting whalebone sculpture alluding to the settlers’ reason for coming to the islands so many years ago. There are also some quaint houses, souvenir shops, a memorial to the fallen during the conflict and the aforementioned pub. Beyond that, this is not exactly what would be considered a metropolis.

On the outskirts of Stanley there are some lovely coves such as Grace Bay, where penguins congregate along a shimmering green crescent of water. Gun emplacements and shipwrecks dot the coastline, and that’s probably when you realize you’re not in England anymore.

Mines Ahead

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Watch your step – there be mines ahead

Remember when I mentioned that the Falkland Conflict still plays a role in modern times (like, four paragraphs ago)? This is because there are still active minefields dotting the open landscape, clearly marked as danger zones. For such an undeveloped and tranquil place, the threat of death from below is a constant reminder of the ‘sins of the fathers’. My advice: Don’t go in there.

The Stone Runs

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A stone river runs through it

An interesting geological anomaly are the so-called Stone Runs, located a ways down the coast of East Falkland. Essentially rivers of rock ‘flowing’ down from the grassy hills, they attest to geological activity that’s even older than the ’80’s.

The People
The people I interacted with during my one-day stay were very polite, resilient and more than just a little patriotic. It won’t take long to sense that annexation by Argentina is NOT a preferred alternative to the island’s inhabitants. I’m inclined to think that anyone daft enough to live year round in this lovely yet forlorn outpost of human habitation should have some say in which far-off government they get to pay taxes to, but that’s just me.

 

Getting There & Around

Getting to the Falkland Islands is not all that easy. Last I heard there are no direct flights from Argentina (the nearest landmass) which means that Chile would be the closest departure point. Far easier is to arrive as I did – by cruise ship – either on an Antarctic or Round the Horn sailing. With not a whole lot to see, one day should sate most visitors’ curiosity, though I would recommend hiring a guide to get the inside scoop on the island and its history – as well as pump a few dollars into the local economy.

The Scoop
The Falkland Islands are a place you see when you’re headed toward somewhere else, but this doesn’t mean they’re not worth seeing. Anyone who is a fan of (mostly) untouched landscapes, penguins in the wild and the occasional active minefield will find that a day or two here is a pleasant diversion. As for the rest, take a listen to Pink Floyd’s Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert and see if the concise lyrics are enough to spur you on a journey to the last stop before Antarctica.

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

2015 Trip Accomplice Year in Review

Well, another year has passed. Another chance to look back and see what we’ve done with the time available to us. Here at the Trip Accomplice blog, I’ve used that time to produce 32 posts dedicated to locations in 8 countries on four continents, along with quite a bit of information about various travel tips and philosophies. In case you’ve missed anything, here’s a recap of the year’s journeys….

The Book is Here!

ebook You can Keep Your AdventureFor me, the highlight of the year was the release of my witty travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper. If you haven’t yet bought a copy, c’mon already…where else can you tour the world for under five bucks – and have some laughs along the way? It’s available on all major online book retailers. Click here for links.

The U.S. of A

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

More than any other period in this blog’s history, I focused on quite a number of U.S. destinations. Having moved from Long Island to Texas early in the year, I paid tribute to my former hometown in the post Reflections on Shirley (And Don’t Call Us Shirley) before a series of posts about my adopted state. In Houston as the Center of the Spacefaring Universe I talked about the main attraction (NASA’s Johnson Space Center) of my new home base. I also shared insights on nearby locales in The Alamo Has No Basement & Other San Antonio Facts and my most viewed post thus far Dude, Where’s My Ranch? Review of Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas.

I paid tribute to the Windy City & 1980’s in the post (Insert Your Name Here)’s Day Off in Chicago. I also reviewed the somewhat out-of-the-way destinations of Southwestern Arkansas in Crater of Diamonds State Park – a.k.a. the Arkansas State Lottery and Hot Springs Will Melt Your Heart (& Your Fingers).

South America

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A cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is a rite of passage and great place for city views

Though I had already covered some of my favorite places in Brazil in earlier posts, I finally got around to covering my favorite foreign city in the post In Rio de Janeiro Save the Drama for the Scenery. I also covered the intangibly cool Argentinian capital  in the post If You Suffer from Low Self-Esteem, Don’t Go to Buenos Aires.

Asia

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Seeing Red at Agra Fort

I didn’t focus a lot of direct attention on Asian countries this past year, though I did mention them in other context. My sole post was about the other attraction in the Indian city of Agra in Second Fiddle in Agra is Still A Show Worth Seeing.

Europe

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Walking the trails above Flåm

2015 saw my return to Europe, with a whirlwind tour of Scandinavia and Italy. I shared my brief impressions of Sweden in the post The Swedish Chef Was Asian & Other Surprises from Gothenburg. I next proceeded to gush over the magnificent sites of Norway in the post Norway Beyond “the Nutshell” before zeroing-in on specific sites such as incredible Flåm in Take A Ride on the Flåmsbana. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200, and the surprisingly charming city of Bergen in Bryggen of Bergen – Character & Charm That is Way Off the Level.

I documented the mixed feelings I had about my return to the magical Italian Island of Ponza in the posts Ponza Revisited Parts I & II. From there I went on to wax poetic about the stunning Amalfi Coast in Have Your Cannoli & Eat it Too in Positano, raving about this heavily-touristed but still worthy Italian destination. Lastly, I recounted my impressions and insights about Holland’s premier city in Amsterdam: Advice Without the Vice.

The Miscellany

This year saw a lot of posts touching on my own travel goals and philosophies. I continued my streak of made-up terminology in Tranticipation: Defining the Joys of Trip Anticipation, revealed my personal travel goals in Snapshot of My Bucket List: Where and Why, and reminisced about my favorite travel experiences in Been There, Done That (But Would Do It Again). I also took aim at reluctant cruisers with my posts Cruising Advice For People Who Don’t Like Cruising – Tip #1 and Tip #2. To round things out I outlined my ideal traveling digs in A Wanderlust Wardrobe for the XL Seasoned Traveler.

2016 Preview

So what can you expect to see on the Trip Accomplice blog in 2016? Beats me! I have no firm plans for the year to come, and that’s all part of the excitement. But you can be sure that I will continue sharing the wonders of world travel with you, my faithful followers (I mean that in the least cult-leader-like way) in a way to make you marvel and smile. See you next year!


Is there anything you want to see more of in the year ahead? Leave a comment and I’ll be glad to take it under consideration.

 

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

Cruising Advice For People Who Don’t Like Cruising – Tip#2

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Pick your ports wisely

In my first installment of cruising advice for people who don’t like cruising, I thoroughly – and with more than just a little scorn in my literary voice – debunked the common excuse given by reluctant cruise-goers of “There’s no privacy” or some other such nonsense. In this installment I shall refute another common excuse that comes in a variety of forms. I shall also do so with my trademark cunning and sarcasm (humility sold separately).

The excuses I deal with here all have to do with the ports of call: There’s not enough time in port/I hate the crowds in port/I really dislike some ports of call. While those might seem to be legitimate gripes on the surface, the truth is, they’re not. Don’t believe me? Read on for the explanation. That is, if you haven’t already closed your mind to logic and reason (yeah, there’s some of that scathing sarcasm now).

There’s not enough time in port

This complaint just begs to be answered with the retort: not enough time to do what??!! Is it really necessary to snorkel until your skin shrinks up like a prune? Must you lay out at the beach until melanoma sets in? Is it so important that you visit every single jewelry, souvenir and craft shop before weighing anchor?

The fact is,  the cruise lines have done a pretty good job ensuring that you have enough time in port to see what’s important. Stopping in Progreso, Mexico? Don’t worry, you’ll have time for Chitchen Itza. Calling on San Juan or Ocho Rios? You’ll have plenty of time for El Morro or Dunns River Falls. And while some major metropolises also double as cruise ports with all their attraction-rich diversions, even in world-class cities like Sydney, New York and Rome you should still be able to fit in a few of the main attractions before having to get back on board. At the very least you’ll get to see if you think it’s worth a return trip.

I hate the crowds in port

If this is you then know that I’m right with you. I can’t stand being trapped among the gluttonous hordes. But this doesn’t stop me from enjoying my time in port. The key lies in being willing to venture out on your own. Sure the cruise-run shore excursions are convenient and offer the safety net of knowing the ship won’t leave without you; but by arranging your own excursions in advance you have more control over your time, itinerary and the amount of elbow room. When safe to do so, I heartily recommend renting a car and exploring beyond the rows of souvenir shops that seem to follow you around (I’m talking to you, Alaska!). That’s where the best (and least crowded) travel experiences lie.

I really dislike certain ports of call

This may be true. It might even be fair. But it still isn’t an excuse not to cruise. The solution to this conundrum is twofold – either change your activity or change your itinerary.

It may be that you have no desire to visit a certain port or have already had a bad experience there. My advice is: Get over it! Find something else to do if what you did before was unappealing. Didn’t enjoy snorkeling in Belize? (FYI you’re a weirdo if you say yes) Next time go for the jungle tour. Not a fan of the pushy vendors in the Bahamas? Why not try parasailing next time? It’s unlikely they’ll follow you up there. And if you’re really just so very snobbish that you refuse to set foot in a certain port of call, my advice is: Don’t!!! Nobody says you have to get off the ship. Get your nails done, play Bingo or just lay by the pool. If that’s the worst case scenario, is it really something to complain about? And yes, I meant that sarcastically.

As for your itinerary, unless you’re stuck doing a family reunion at sea, there’s no excuse for choosing one you dislike. Even mainstream cruise lines offer “exotic” itineraries that veer off the beaten path. Personally I’ve found Princess Cruise Lines to be a good blend of value, comfort and interesting routes. But whoever you go with, it’s not hard to avoid the places you don’t like – just take a different ship!

I hope this rundown has cleared up a few common misconceptions (a.k.a. excuses) about cruise ports of call. I also hope that if you’ve used one of these, you feel a certain measure of shame. With a little foresight, preparation and a dose of daring, every port can be a good thing. So when you’re done whining, call me and we’ll book that cruise.


Do you have any port-related advice to share with your fellow travelers? Leave a comment below!

 

Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , ,

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