Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hotels that Help

From the summer issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine
by Melissa Gaskill
New York City resident Krista Krieger recently participated in rhino research while on safari at South Africa’s andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, a collection of lodges discreetly placed among 56,800 acres of abundant wildlife and magnificent scenery. Rangers at the reserve notch each rhino’s ears for easy identification and insert a microchip in their horns to help track their whereabouts. Krieger’s group patrolled the bush by jeep, searching for an unmarked rhino, which the preserve veterinarian shot with a sedative dart. “Darting the rhino was very exciting,” she says. “I got to touch the rhino and inject it with antibiotics.” Krieger, veteran of a number of safaris, cites Phinda’s program as a good example of how effective management can bring back a devastated population of animals.

It’s also a good example of an emerging travel trend: volunteering on vacation. In 2007, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 3.7 million Americans volunteered away from home. Even more telling, in an MSNBC poll, 95 percent of those who volunteered on vacation said they’ll do it again.

“The opportunities for volunteering on vacation have probably increased a hundredfold in the past five years,” says David Clemmons, founder of

“Participating in a volunteer experience can make a trip personally enriching and much more meaningful,” says Sue Stephenson, vice president of Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company’s Community Footprints program, which offers volunteering through Give Back Getaways at many of its properties. “It deepens the experience of visiting a unique place. Our guests describe it as inspirational and educational, and say they never felt so appreciated.”

Here are a few of the growing number of hotels offering the opportunity to combine good times with good works.

Mandarin Oriental, Miami
Everglades Restoration

The Mandarin Oriental, Miami on Brickell Key works closely with Everglades National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site – and so can you. Hotel guests can grab a box lunch and hop in a hybrid vehicle to drive to the park, about an hour away, where they spend the morning helping park staff restore Everglades habitat, perhaps planting native South Florida trees in areas affected by invasive plants or removing those invasive species. After lunch, a ranger leads a tour of the park, pointing out alligators, herons, and other wildlife, and showing participants how to “slog,” or wade through shallow waters like the locals. Doubles from $245, including breakfast and a $100 spa credit (Everglades transfers and box lunches extra).

King Pacific Lodge, British Columbia
A Whale of a Time

A luxury eco-lodge floating off Princess Royal Island in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, this hotel offers educational programs about the area’s orca and humpback whales through a partnership with the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS). Now guests can serve as research assistants on NCCS outings, helping scientists photograph individual whales for identification and gathering data on whale location and movement. After their departure, participants receive regular reports detailing sightings and progress of the whales they studied during their visit. “The lodge has long supported our work on the complex social and physical relationships of humpback whales,” says NCCS’s Janie Wray. “This new program forges an enduring association between these animals and guests.” Doubles from $3,841 for three nights, including all meals and beverages and a welcome sake set.

The Fairmont Acapulco Princess
Sea Turtle Sanctuary

From August to January, several species of endangered sea turtles nest on beaches near this iconic 15-story pyramid rising from the lush tropical landscape. The hotel collects and protects turtle eggs, and to date has released more than 150,000 hatchlings into the Pacific Ocean, often with the help of guests. Ecologist Vincente Batalla explains the sea turtle’s life cycle and threats to its survival, then lets guests select a turtle from among 50 or so hatchlings, release it on the sand, and shepherd it safely into the water. Without assistance, Batalla says, many hatchlings would not make it past hazards that include tourists and lights, which can disorient the turtles. Guests name their hatchling and receive a certificate and a turtle cookie created by the hotel chef. Doubles from $193, including breakfast and a $100 spa credit.

Four Seasons Resort
Saving the Sonoran

From this complex of Southwestern-style casitas and serene pools high in the dramatic Sonoran Desert landscape, take a hike – a desert preservation hike, that is. The guided walk in adjacent Pinnacle Peak Park concludes with guests planting a buckhorn cholla cactus, Fairy Duster, or other native plant. On the hike John Loleit, coordinator for the city park, shares his wealth of knowledge about the area’s signature plants, animals, archaeology, and geology, pointing out, for example, edible plants and those used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. “People see the desert in a different light after the hike,” he says. “And because most plants here are long-lived, people can come back in five or ten years and see the one they planted. It gives them a nice connection with this place, a feeling that they helped out.” Doubles from $195, including breakfast.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Trips To Bountiful

For the enlightened and adventurous traveler, serendipity transforms every trip: Hiking a new trail and rounding a bend to encounter an unexpected vista, journeying to a destination you’ve heard about—or visiting a familiar place with someone who’s never been—without an agenda. Or, in the case of pursuing Texas wildflowers, finding yourself surprised with the splashes and brushstrokes of red, blue, orange, and purple that appear in the landscape.
From year to year, nature’s wildflower displays vary dramatically. Rainfall (or lack there--of), the timing of the first freeze, the length of warm spells-—all these weather-related factors determine the palette in each spring’s bloom. And human actions, such as mowing, irrigation, and development, also play a role.
In any given year, wildflowers will bloom—some time, some place—in Texas. When, where, and in exactly what types and quantities—well, finding the answer to that question creates the thrill of the chase. We’ve selected four driving routes that, based on the predictions of experts at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, should offer some of this year’s best wildflower viewing (we selected for variety, too).

See the print edition for additional information on compelling roadside stops, places to stay, and other attractions, so you’ll have fun on your road trip no matter what.

Brenham/Chappell Hill
Set aside a few hours to enjoy this 90-mile drive that scrawls a rough figure-8 around the Brenham area in Washington County. Start from Brenham and
head northeast on Texas 105 through rolling hills, pastures, stands of oaks, and blooming flowers such as purple coneflower, verbena, beardtongue, coral bean, skullcaps, and prairie parsley. A few miles from the city limits, look off to the right for the Monastery Miniature Horse Farm, where the Franciscan Poor Clare nuns maintain a herd of cute, waist-high horses.
If you’re in no hurry, visit Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, home of the Star of the Republic Museum and Barrington Living History Farm. However, be forewarned. You’d need an entire day to do it justice. Because wildflowers rule this excursion, hustle back to scenic, flower-lined FM 1155.
Drive slowly down the single street that passes through Chappell Hill’s quaint business district. Turn right at US 290 and take the Austin exit in Brenham to remain on 290 roughly 14 miles to the turn-off for Burton, FM 1697. Pay attention, because this stretch of highway often provides some of the lushest bluebonnet spreads in the entire state. Also look for Indian paintbrush, yellow wild indigo, thistles, blue-eyed grass, rattlesnake flower, blanket flower, and rosinweed.
In Independence, stop in Old Baylor Park on the side of the road. Site of the original Baylor University, the park now boasts excellent bluebonnet photo ops. Other usual suspects rounded up here include primroses, lyre leaf sage, prairie Brazos mint, and mayhaw trees. Turn right on FM 50, which takes you back to Texas 105 and Brenham.

Big Bend
This rough and winding route puts many miles on your vehicle, but the visual treats will prove more than enough reward. In the morning, take RM 170 west to the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, a source of information on points of interest along the scenic River Road, including Big Bend Ranch State Park. The Center’s herbarium houses 1,100 plant specimens discovered by noted Texas botanist Barton Warnock, plus exhibits on area geology, natural history, and a
2 ½-acre desert garden.
Armed with know-ledge, continue west toward Presidio. Look for blooming cacti, Big Bend bluebonnets, blind cactus, rainbow cactus, cat claw, strawberry pitaya, nama or fiddleleaf, bicolor fan mustard, ocotillo, cenizo, desert marigolds, and rock nettles. Stop to hike Closed Canyon, a narrow slot canyon, where you may spy hechtia, and the Rancherias Canyon Trail to observe unique riparian denizens, including marsh centaury.

In addition to wildflowers, look for herds of pronghorn antelope. The drive on US 90 east to Alpine is dominated by grasslands where yucca and sotol bloom in the spring. In Alpine, have lunch or dinner at La Trattoria, celebrated for authentic Italian fare. Then turn on Texas 118 South back toward Terlingua. Along this scenic road, look for Mexican buckeyes and more wildflowers in the mid-elevations, and flowering desert scrub in lower areas.

Northeast Texas, Caddo Lake State Park, Cass County
You’ll begin and end this wildflower drive in Marshall, which offers numerous accommodations on US 59, including a handful of B&Bs. Head north along Texas 43 from Marshall to Karnack, and you may see bull thistle, coreopsis, and, at the edge of the woods, beardtongue. In low-lying areas, keep your eyes peeled for common rose mallow and giant coneflower, the latter with yellow blooms that can soar six feet high. Take FM 2198 to Uncertain, where crimson clover and coreopsis often bloom, along with partridge pea, downy phlox, bluebonnets, Mexican hats, and wild indigo.
Heavily wooded Caddo Lake State Park curves around Saw Mill Pond and connects to Lake Caddo. On park trails, look for blooming Spanish moss; rent a canoe or kayak and paddle past floating bladderwort, blooming cabomba, fragrant water lily, and American lotus among the moss-shrouded bald cypress trees.

Make your way back to Texas 43 and continue north to Atlanta, then take US 59 to Linden. Along the way, look for coreopsis, crimson clover, spiderwort, phlox, and bachelor buttons gracing the landscape. Continue on Texas 155 to the tiny town of Avinger, then Texas 49 to Jefferson. A bustling port in the 1840s, Jefferson faded when the railroad arrived in Marshall, but you’ll find plenty of mansions turned B&Bs, as well as the historic Excelsior House and Jefferson Hotels, both famously haunted. Consider a bayou boat tour or a ride on a paddlewheel steamer on Caddo Lake, then treat yourself to French cuisine at the Stillwater Inn Restaurant. Or, to keep the pie theme going, visit House of Pies, then take US 59 back to Marshall. Other flowers likely to show themselves along this route include Indian paintbrush, larkspur, red buckeye, butterfly weed, and black-eyed Susans.

Franklin Mountains
This route follows Loop 375, or the Trans-Mountain Road, through Franklin Mountains State Park, at 37 square miles, the nation’s largest urban park—all of it within El Paso’s city limits.
West of El Paso on Interstate 10, take the Canutillo/Trans-Mountain Road (Loop 375) exit and drive 3.8 miles to the park entrance. The Northern Chihuahuan Desert vegetation here includes lechuguilla, sotol, ocotillo, several types of yucca, and many cactus species. Some plant species found here, such as the Southwest barrel cactus, grow nowhere else in Texas. The Trans-Mountain Road reaches 5,120 feet elevation and passes the Ron Coleman Trail, a hike that affords up-close looks at blooming cacti. Fields of bright yellow mountain poppies, one of the park’s most spectacular sights, can best be seen on the eastern slope of the Franklins at the El Paso Museum of Archeology—providing, of course, the weather co-operates. Hike the short Sneed’s Cory trail in the Tom Mays Unit to see pineapple cactus, Chihuahuan fishhook cactus, and agave. This area offers additional trails, picnic sites, and primitive camping; the park also has RV sites. And, remember to visit the store located at park headquarters in McKelligon Canyon on the east side of the park.
For more dramatic and sweeping vistas, consider a ride on the Wyler Aerial Tramway. Take in the view of El Paso from here at 4,692 feet, and check out the cactus garden. An observation platform at the top affords 360-degree views of the park you just traversed, plus glimpses of three states and two countries.
This is just the highlights. See the full article and beautiful photos in the April issue of Texas Highways magazine!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday, April 3, 2009

Tourist Towns That Treat You Right

When budgets get tight, luxury vacations to exotic destinations become harder to swing. But in a state as big and varied as Texas, finding a weekend getaway is as easy as opening the map. Small and big towns offer reasonable prices, friendly folks and many one-of-a-kind attractions. Just in time for warmer weather, here are five places that would love to have you for a visit.

Fun in the saddle and off the trail

Any town that bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World darn well better have cowboys and horses around, and Bandera doesn’t disappoint. Pickups and folks in jeans and muddy boots populate Main Street, local restaurants serve steak and barbecue, and shops stock cowboy duds and décor. Best of all, dude ranches crowd the south side of town like hungry livestock around a hay bale, and would-be cowpokes can choose from a variety of price ranges and amenities.

My family once took a foreign exchange student to Flying L Guest Ranch for a real taste of the West, in style. The villas, designed by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, feature separate living and sleeping quarters, fireplaces and Western décor. Ranch meals highlight Hill Country cuisine, and creek-side barbecue dinners come complete with sunsets and entertainment such as singing and roping demonstrations. Our horseback ride along a pretty creek ended with rodeo games that included retrieving ribbons from the horns of mighty quick little goats. A swimming pool and water park, petting zoo and 18-hole golf course helped keep everyone busy. The only amenities that aren’t included in lodging are horseback riding, golf and lunch.

The smaller, quieter Running-R Ranch abuts the Hill Country State Natural Area, 5,000 acres of rocky hills, grassland, creeks and oak groves. A former working ranch donated to the state on the condition that it be left as natural as possible, the park offers some of the best hikes in the state, in my humble opinion—from a steep climb to the top of Twin Peaks, 1,760 feet high with a panoramic 360-degree view, to a six-mile loop through varied landscapes and past a tranquil pond, and a short jaunt along scenic West Verde Creek to a genuine swimming hole.

Equestrians from across the state come for the trails, bunking in group camping areas equipped with stalls or the old ranch house and barn. The rest of us can stay at the Running-R, where horses are provided, along with wranglers to lead rides to the natural area. These fellers also joke, sing and answer questions about the ranch, the horses and the countryside. A night’s stay at one of 14 oak-shaded cabins includes a two-hour ride as well as swimming, campfires, hayrides, table tennis, horseshoes and mountain biking. We watched the sun set from our porch before hitting the hay in handmade cedar-post beds. Breakfast and lunch are also included with lodging. For dinner, guests can fire up one of the ranch grills, but we opted to chow down in town at the OST Restaurant and Busbee’s BBQ, with a little pre-prandial shopping to boot.

Bandera’s other signature feature is the cool, green Medina River. Cottages at the River Front Motel face the river and are a short walk from Main Street. An afternoon spent tubing the cypress-shaded Medina is just the ticket for soothing a saddle-sore body. Several operators rent tubes and kayaks and provide shuttle service for floats of various lengths (and even provide pickup and dropoff at some dude ranches). When water levels drop too low for tubing, a dammed area in Bandera’s City Park remains deep enough for floating, and pedal boats can be rented there. The park has picnic tables and grills as well.

Running-R Ranch: (830) 796-3984,

Flying L Guest Ranch: 1-800-292-5134,

River Front Motel: 1-800-870-5671,

Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-364-3833,

Find more than sand at this beach city

For a beach destination, Corpus Christi provides excellent options as well as a convenient, mid-coast location.

Corpus Christi Beach, north of downtown and on the west side of the bay, feels like a small beach town and is great for a quick sandy fix loaded with extras. We opt for one of the beachside hotels; ground-floor rooms at the Quality Inn & Suites lead right onto the beach, and the pool at the Radisson overlooks the action on the sand and the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, just a short stroll away. Five self-guided tour routes of this World War II-era aircraft carrier cover roughly 20 percent of her 16 decks and include shows at the MEGA large-
format theater. The ship offers a flight simulator, café and store, too.

Also within easy walking distance, the Texas State Aquarium showcases more than 300 species, mostly from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Highlights include an offshore rig and Flower Gardens exhibits, jellyfish tanks, dolphin shows (with a viewing area for watching the action underwater), sea otters, rescued sea turtles and the Hawn Wild Flight Theater, where owls, hawks, falcons and other impressive birds strut their stuff. Between the aquarium and hotels lie several blocks of seafood restaurants and shops. After a hearty meal of Gulf shrimp followed by an ice cream cone, we fell asleep to the sound of waves and the glow of the Lexington’s neon lights.

For a bigger serving of sand and surf, head to Mustang Island State Park, south of Corpus Christi Bay across the Intracoastal Waterway. The park’s stretch of beach ends at a jetty popular for fishing. On a recent visit, we clambered over the giant granite blocks to the end, where small sea turtles and schools of fish swim in the green water, and watched a skilled angler land a string of nice trout. The sheltered area is nice for swimming, and showers at the park bathhouse meant we could clean up afterward and stop at our favorite seafood restaurant, Snoopy’s Pier. It sits right on the water under the causeway to the island, making for great boat, bird and dolphin watching.

Padre Island National Seashore is the Thanksgiving feast of beach fixes: It’s more than anyone could possibly consume, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun to try. Its 70 miles constitute the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. The Malaquite Visitors Center includes exhibits and touch displays, a bathhouse, park store, water fountains and covered picnic tables. Follow the boardwalk to Mala- quite Beach; campsites here include 24-hour access to showers and toilets. Primitive camping is allowed anywhere along the rest of the island (permits required, available at the visitor center). The beach between mile posts 0 and 5 is maintained for driving, but after that, it’s strictly four-wheel-drive. My oldest daughter and I once borrowed an FJ Cruiser and went as far as mile 40. Except for the occasional hard-core angler and mile markers every five miles, we saw nothing but deep sand, seashells, tall dunes, deer tracks and, on our way back, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

These sea turtles enjoy quite a bit of fame at the National Seashore, where researchers collect eggs from nests along 80 miles of beach, incubate them in a lab and release hatchlings. The public is invited to many of these summer releases, and one of my all-time favorite things remains the sight of dozens of palm-sized hatchlings scrambling over sand hills and seaweed mountains into the waiting surf. Call the hatchling hotline, (361) 949-7163, for release dates.

USS Lexington Museum on the Bay: (361) 888-4873,

Texas State Aquarium: (361) 881-1200,

Mustang Island State Park: (361) 749-5246,

Padre Island National Seashore: (361) 949-8068,

Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-766-2322,

Small town packs a big cultural punch

The tiny town of Round Top enjoys widespread renown for, of all things, performing arts. How did this happen? Distinguished pianist James Dick, dreaming of a summer place where young musicians could receive intensive training and put on performances, founded The International Festival Institute at Round Top in 1971. He acquired 6 acres occupied by an abandoned school building in 1973 and began to populate the land with historic buildings, one by one. Early orchestra performances were held on an outdoor stage. Construction of a spectacular, 1,100-seat concert hall proceeded on a pay-as-you-go basis, with concerts held inside the walls before the building had a roof, floor or seats. Now complete at last, the acoustically and aesthetically beautiful hall forms the centerpiece of the institute, grown to 210 acres with artists’ residences, practice rooms and dining facilities. Extensive landscaping, including herb and rose gardens, invites lingering, and beautiful stone walls, towers, walks and other surprises encourage wandering the grounds.

“It is all open to the public. You can come and take a tour or just walk around,” says Alain Declert, program director. Events happen year-round and include a Theatre Forum and Choral Festival in November, the Nutcracker Ballet in December, guitar festivals, poetry readings, symphony performances and forums, culminating in the Institute’s raison d’etre, a six-week-long summer music festival. The 39th season coming this summer promises works by Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Brahms, Beethoven and others, performed by an orchestra of 85 musicians chosen by auditions across the country back in January and February. Tickets can be purchased for the entire festival or individual performances, even by spur-of-the-moment visitors, says Declert: “We always have tickets at the door.”

Round Top’s population barely breaks 80, and its location on State Highway 237 miles from a major thoroughfare keeps traffic light. So most businesses in town open only on weekends and for the area’s spectacular twice-a-year antique events. Time it right, though, and enjoy shopping that runs the gamut from European linens to cigars, wine, art, soap and jewelry. Royer’s Round Top Café on the square is known for its pies, and Klump’s Restaurant, across from the tiny Chamber of Commerce office, bucks the weekend-only policy, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Popular with locals, thanks to a folksy charm and hearty food, Klump’s dishes up barbecue at noon on Saturday, catfish on Friday night and specials every Sunday.

Across the square, Henkel Square Museum Village re-creates 19th-century Texas German pioneer life and architecture. Thursday through Sunday, enter through the apothecary building for self-guided tours of the eight restored homes, barn, schoolhouse and church, encircling a large open space where reenactments and other events often take place. The town’s name, incidentally, comes from an early stagecoach stop, a house with a round top.

A few miles down the road, structures from the 1800s constitute Winedale village, a division of the Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin. A German community cultivated grapes here in the late 1800s. Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg purchased the land, part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony, and donated it to the university in 1965. Each July and August, the site hosts Shakespeare at Winedale, plays presented by university students in a 19th-century barn converted to an Elizabethan theater. Other programs go on year-round, and the visitor center is open weekdays, with docent-led tours available by prior arrangement. Otherwise, visitors may stroll the grounds without entering the half-dozen historical structures and enjoy the small lake and picnic area.

If the small-town charm and highfalutin activities make it hard to leave, no problem. The rolling hills around Round Top harbor dozens of bed-and-breakfast establishments. Examples include Anderson’s Round Top Inn, with rooms in five different settings just off the square, and historic Knittel Homestead Inn in nearby Burton, which includes a parlor to relax in and hot breakfast each morning.

The International Festival Institute at Round Top: (979) 249-3086,

Henkel Square Museum Village: (979) 249-3308,

Winedale: (979) 278-3530,

Anderson’s Round Top Inn: 1-877-738-6746,

Knittel Homestead Inn: (979) 289-5102,

Round Top Chamber of Commerce: (979) 249-4042,

On the plains, art and history collide

“It just crept into my hands, honest,” reads a diamond-shaped sign in a yard on 10th Street. “The world is full of shipping clerks who have read the Harvard classics,” reads another, next to a barbershop just north of downtown. These and dozens more enigmatic postings, scattered randomly across Amarillo, sprang from the mind of artist and philanthropist Stanley Marsh 3. During a five- or 10-year period—he didn’t really keep track—Marsh provided the signs to anyone willing to have one. That included, apparently, residents of high- and low-brow neighborhoods alike, as well as a variety of businesses.

Marsh says his inspiration came from bits of country-western songs, poems, pithy quotes and other phrases, rearranged as he saw necessary to fit within the diamond and be readable from the road. Looking for the signs while navigating the town is something of a treasure hunt; Marsh won’t say how many there are, and listing locations would spoil the fun.

Easier to spot is the most famous Marsh installment, Cadillac Ranch, 10 of said cars buried nose down in a pasture on the eastbound side of Interstate 40. Bring your own spray paint or grab one of the cans usually lying around and add to the layers of graffiti covering each chassis, incontrovertible evidence of the deep human desire to leave a mark.

For much older evidence of that desire, head to Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, part of the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area about a half hour north of Amarillo. On free tours of the quarries offered daily between Memorial and Labor days (by reservation only), explore the high-quality flint prized by ancient residents for toolmaking and trade and view some petroglyphs, a sophisticated sort of early graffiti. The Lake Meredith Aquatic and Wildlife Museum in Fritch includes displays on the flint and people who used it, along with two aquariums and dioramas of area wildlife, from bobcats to owls and eagles.

A new exhibit at the Don Harring- ton Discovery Center, Hunters of the Sky, focuses on some of the raptors seen wild in the area. The center also offers exhibits on bodies and space, a series of aquaria, a planetarium, temporary displays and a monument to helium, one of Amarillo’s significant natural resources. At the Botanical Gardens next door, visit a tropical conservatory and gardens.

More conventional than Marsh’s signs, but also fun to search for, more than 90 fiberglass, life-sized horses decorated by local artists grace locations around town. Called Hoofprints of the American Quarter Horse, the project was sponsored by Center City of Amarillo and the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum. That facility takes a comprehensive look at this most Texan of breeds through interactive exhibits and historic and educational displays.

Historic Route 66 staggers across Amarillo, most of it unrecognizable as a former major route across the continent’s western half. But a smattering of retro motels remains, and the city dubbed roughly 12 blocks on the west side of town as the Route 66 Historic District, something worth wandering. A handful of antique shops, quilt shops and art galleries alternate with cafés, lounges, bars and diners, some looking much as they did in the famous highway’s heyday. Nettez House of Dessertz serves breakfast along with quiche, sandwiches and the like, and, of course, homemade cakes and pies, with meringue that would make Grandma proud.

The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, a half hour south on the campus of West Texas A&M Uni-
versity in Canyon, claims to be the largest history museum in Texas. It houses more than 3 million artifacts, from fossils to working windmills, cars, blankets, guns and paintings. The People of the Plains exhibit shows how humans have survived in this area for 14,000 years, and Pioneer Town re-creates turn-of-the century life and includes what may be the oldest building in Texas. Bet it never had a Stanley Marsh sign, though.

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area/Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument: (806) 857-3151,;

Lake Meredith Aquatic and Wildlife Museum: (806) 857-2458

Don Harrington Discovery Center: (806) 355-9547,

American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum: (806) 376-5181,

Panhandle Plains Historical Museum: (806) 651-2244,

Amarillo Convention and Visitors Council: 1-800-692-1338,

Release your inner beau and belle

If only the tourists would play along and dress in period styles … shorts and T-shirts scream “wrong century,” but fortunately, town boosters welcome visitors in almost any attire.

Jefferson’s heyday was the 1840s when Big Cypress Creek was cleared for navigation and it became the state’s leading inland port, with paddleboats plying cotton and other goods downstream and returning with supplies to build grand mansions. The coming of the railroad to nearby Marshall in the 1870s signaled the end of Jefferson’s grand era. But the mansions are still there. So are two hotels dating from the 1850s, the Excelsior House and the Historic Jefferson Hotel. Both are said to be haunted, as are many other bed-and-breakfasts in the area. On a recent trip we encountered a couple who had stayed at a bed-and-breakfast where doors mysteriously opened and closed and lights came on by themselves. On Saturday nights, a human-guided ghost tour leaves at 8 from outside the Jefferson Historical Society and Museum at 223 W. Austin St. Other tours can be arranged via reservation.

The candlelight Tour of Homes held several weekends in December is a wonderful time to see a handful of specially decorated historic homes. But any time of year, one can take a walking tour, driving tour or horse-drawn carriage tour of Jefferson’s almost overwhelming historic district. Some of the homes that are not bed-and-breakfasts provide tours. One of the best is the House of the Seasons with its four-color glass cupola.

A walk down West Austin Street takes you past not only the two hotels but also the delightfully jumbled Jefferson Texas General Store. It has an old-fashioned soda fountain, vintage toys and posters, candies, jams, gimmie caps, books, cards—you name it. Fred’s Books on the Bayou, also on West Austin Street, is the antithesis of the chain bookstore. Ninety-year-old proprietor Fred McKenzie is the town’s pre-eminent historian and author of Hickory Hill: Family Stories of Race, Religion and Romance in an East Texas Town and Avinger Texas, USA. One can take an hour’s trip on the bayou with Turning Basin Riverboat Tours. Or get a ride on an actual paddlewheel steamer, the Graceful Ghost, on nearby Caddo Lake. Call before making a visit, because neither boat runs all year.

Jefferson’s variety of restaurants is surprising for a town of 2,000. Try Lamache’s Italian Restaurant in the Historic Jefferson Hotel. People brag about the lasagna, but we preferred the Roma del Mar. The restaurant has a warm atmosphere and an impressive list of seafood and other specials. Chef-owned Stillwater Inn Restaurant serves sophisticated French/American cuisine with fresh herbs and homemade stocks. The best breakfast in town, complete with dainty Orange Blossom Muf- fins, comes with the bed-and-breakfast package at the Excelsior House. You may not be as well dressed as the fine table setting of linen and silver, but the proprietors are happy to see you, nonetheless.

For your basic good grub, Jefferson’s House of Pies on East Austin Street serves pies, of course, as well as cornbread sandwiches with a selection of meats, including fried baloney, should anybody want it (maybe 1840s residents considered it a delicacy). And then there’s the Hamburger Store on the corner of North Market and West Lafayette. The store offers virtually every variety of hamburger ever conceived in a unique décor—the walls are covered with dollar bills posted by customers, many with messages penned on them.

There are simply too many wonderful bed-and-breakfasts to highlight just a couple in Jefferson. Go to the website of one or both reservation services and click to your heart’s content: Jefferson Reservation Service,, or Classic Inn Reservations,

Candlelight Tour of Homes:

The House of the Seasons: (903) 665-8000,

Turning Basin Riverboat Tours: (903) 665-2222,

The Graceful Ghost: 1-888-325-5459

Stillwater Inn Restaurant (reservations required): (903) 665-8415,

Marion County Chamber of Commerce: (903) 665-2672,

From the April 2009 Texas Co-op Power Magazine.

Noise in Nature

Human-produced sounds can interfere with animals’ normal mating, feeding and hunting behavior.

By Melissa Gaskill

Bio-acoustician Bernie Krause has been recording sound in natural places around the world for 40 years. In nearly half of those locations, he says, human-generated noise has infiltrated the pristine acoustics of nature.

According to the National Park Service, 72 percent of visitors consider the opportunity to experience natural peace and the sounds of nature as one of the most important reasons to preserve our parks. But while unnatural noise may mar our enjoyment of the outdoors, it poses even bigger problems for wildlife.

“Noise interferes with all of the syntax a mammal, reptile, amphibian, bird or insect would articulate. Human noise crosses all the communication lines and covers all the frequencies,” Krause says. In 2001, a study measured stress enzymes in the feces of elk and wolves in Yellowstone National Park. “Whenever there were snowmobiles around,” Krause says, “elk and wolves showed incredible amounts of stress.”

Noise can mean life or death for some animals. Frogs, for example, sing in chorus to prevent predators from singling out any one individual. Airplane noise disrupts this synchronicity, allowing predators to easily pick off a frog or two. “Frogs are diminishing everywhere,” including in Texas, Krause says, “and one reason is human noise.”

Much animal vocalization is done either to defend territory or attract mates, and human noise can interfere with both. Studies show that in urban areas where traffic noise occupies low frequencies in the sound spectrum, birds are singing in increasingly higher frequencies, says Elizabeth Derryberry, a post-doctoral researcher at Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science. Research also suggests that different birds use different acoustic space; singing in slightly different frequencies keeps them from drowning each other out. But city birds are essentially forced to compete for a smaller piece of the acoustic pie. In addition, birds in noisy environments are forced to sing louder, reports the National Park Service, which means that attracting a mate or warning of predators uses more of their precious energy. Urban birds also are likely to spend more time being disturbed by noises and, therefore, less time feeding, says Richard Heilbrun, Texas Parks and Wildlife urban wildlife biologist in San Antonio, making it more difficult for them to replace that energy.

In some settings, noise flushes nesting birds off incubating eggs. Military aircraft had affected nesting success of peregrines, says Raymond Skiles, acting chief of resource management at Big Bend National Park, until resource protection areas were designated on aeronautical charts. Boats can flush nesting shorebirds, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to predators. The National Parks Con-servation Association is working on a national boater education program in hopes of reducing this impact.

Because most cat species rely on hearing to hunt, Heilbrun adds, their hunting success decreases as noise increases. “Mountain lions and ocelots will specifically avoid roads, and noise is one of the factors,” he says. Certain wildlife simply won’t use noisy areas, says former park ranger Bryan Faehner, legislative representative for NPCA, so noise effectively limits the populations of these species.

It is worth noting that noise affects human health as well. Says Krause, “The physical effect of noise on us is incredible amounts of stress.” Fortunately, this is one problem easily solved. All we have to do is pipe down.

From Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, February, 2009.