Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Return to Travel Writing

One of the ironies of being a travel writer is that travel often cuts into my ability to stay on top of my writing! Throughout the months of October and November, I was, among other things, driving around the state of Texas doing signings for my newest book, Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Lone Star State. Despite the many interesting things I saw and experienced in those travels, however, I did not have the time or energy to write much about them here or anywhere else.

Another drain on my resources was "National Novel Writing Month," an annual creative writing project that challenges participants to write a 50,000 word story between November 1 and November 30 that I decided to participate in this year. So, right in the middle of the book tour for Texas Confidential, I spent a month striving to complete a readable fantasy novel -- and am pleased to report that I succeeded in doing so.

Although I am the author or co-author of 10 non-fiction books, I have never really been keen on events like NaNoWriMo for a variety of reasons, but a number of things prompted me to accept the challenge this year. A major incentive for me was that one of the eleven New Year's resolutions I made for 2011 was to finish a novel by the end of the year and, not being on track to do that, I figured that if I was not going to get one done by the end of November that I sure as hell was not going to get one done in December.

Another incentive was the encouragement of my friend Robert Gruver, who also participated in the NaNoWriMo program this year, and I am proud to say that he also met the challenge and completed a 50,000 word novel during the 30-day writing period.

Swords of Kos: Necropolis is a swords-and-sorcery novel and, in that it does not really tie in with the subjects covered on this site I will not say any more about it other than it is on track for publication and that the first 10,000-or-so words of it appear on my NaNoWriMo page, for anyone who might be interested in reading it. Its imagery, however, does draw heavily on my own travels, particularly throughout the Mediterranean and Texas.

But, now that these latest demanding projects are largely done and out of the way, I am back, and will strive to provide useful and entertaining travel information and observations throughout 2012!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Equipped for the Hills

A good number of my articles tie in with my various adventures in Texas Hill Country and periodically I will either refer to some sort of equipment I use or someone will ask me about it. So, I figured I should talk a little about the best and worst of my outdoor gear.

The item that people most often comment on is my impressive-looking “Irish Blackthorn Walking Stick” from Cold Steel, a three-foot long shillelagh with a knurled haft and a polished head that was a gift from my brother Christopher (shown at right). The most impressive thing about this accessory is that it is not made from wood at all, but rather a durable, non-metallic composite. Sensing its connection at least in name with St. Patrick, my wife Diane calls it a “snake-whacking stick” and likes to carry it when we are out together.

My most useful item day-to-day, and something else numerous people have commented on, is my “Large Hip Pack” from Pantac USA, a nice black nylon satchel that perfectly holds everything I need when I am in the field, including my camera, notepads, pens, recorder, phone, flashlight, extra batteries, and even a bottle of water (shown at the right side of the picture above). This piece of equipment has served me so well since I acquired it up last summer that I actually just picked up a second one, this one tan rather than black, so that I will have one that I can use just for hiking and help keep the black one that I use for street work clean. I obtained both of these from an outfitter called Dark Threads that a number of my military and law enforcement friends use and which has served me well when I needed advice on what I should be carrying.

When I need bigger cargo capacity, I carry a “Mission Pack” from Paladin Designs, also acquired through the good advice of Dark Threads (shown at the left side of the picture above). This has two large external pouches that generally carry everything I need, although I sometimes just lazily jam the afore-mentioned Large Hip Pack in the main compartment if I am in a hurry to get out the door.

Good hiking pants are something that I have just rediscovered the importance of, and for some years have worn nothing but my most hole-ridden jeans for this purpose. (Ticks, snakes, and underbrush ensure, by the way, that I always wear long pants and never go into the woods in shorts!) My current favorite the “Elite Lightweight Operator Pant” by Woolrich, a piece of apparel so advanced it came with a little training manual! Plenty of reinforced pockets means I don’t need to carry a pack with me for most brief expeditions if I am wearing them. (And yes, thanks again to Dark Threads, which was correct in telling me that these are much more comfortable on a hot Texas day than jeans.)

Footwear is probably where I fall short the most and, as a former infantryman and lifelong hiker, I certainly know the importance of this and have no good excuse for it. In my closet is a beautiful pair of custom-made, low-quarter Limmer hiking boots, which cost me $300 and served me well on an ascent of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, several years back. I have, inexplicably, not worn them once in the year-and-a-half since I moved to Texas. I also have an old pair of high-quarter Wolverine work boots which are some of the most comfortable and reliable footwear I have ever owned and which I wore when I climbed Mount Whitney, California, back in 2002. I do wear them once in awhile but, while their upper parts are still in amazingly good shape, their bottom are pretty worn and I need to get them resoled. In practice, what I wear most often when I am outdoors is a pair of Reebok hiking sneakers, which have almost no tread left and have soles worn so thin that I can feel every rock I step on. Ridiculous.

Writers often say that they are their own primary audience and, while working journalists cannot realistically make that claim, writing this piece has forced me to look at my own outdoor equipment — and both be grateful to those who have helped me keep it up to par and to make some adjustments in the areas I have neglected. And, if it helps you to do the same, so much the better!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Hotel Commentary: La Quinta Inn & Suites (Clovis, N.M., and Denver, Colo.)

I have had occasion in the past few months to stay at two separate La Quinta Inns. Each, in its own way, was somewhat of a disappointment.

Back in March, I stayed at the one in Clovis, New Mexico (4521 North Prince St., Clovis, NM 88101). While the room was clean and quiet, the breakfast left a lot to be desired. I am not referring to the quality of the food, because there was very little offered even though we arrived only 30 minutes after the start time. The waffle machine was covered in burned and encrusted batter and there were no muffins, no bagels, and no fruit. I decided to have a bowl of cereal only to discover, once it was in my bowl, that there was no milk either! We finally gave up and went up to get our suitcases. Once we got out to the car, I grabbed my commuter mug and took it back inside to get some coffee for the road … and discovered that the coffee urn was also empty. Once we returned home, I completed their evaluation and received a message almost immediately apologizing and indicating that I would be given extra La Quinta Returns points. But, not only did I not receive the promised extra points, they didn’t give me any points for the stay!

Last week, I spent four nights at a La Quinta near Denver (La Quinta Inn & Suites Denver Tech Center, 7077 South Clinton St., Greenwood Village, CO 80112). This place was simply not very clean. On the first day, we returned after 6 p.m. to find that our room had not been touched. The maids had come in and left a stack of clean towels and some soap and shampoo but had not made up the beds or vacuumed. We called the front desk and they curtly informed us that the cleaning staff was gone for the day and that their check sheet indicated that the room had been cleaned. We actually sought out the maids each day and asked them to please clean our room. Two of the four nights of our stay, we only received three towels even thought there were four registered in the room. And clearly, the maids only did a superficial clean even between guests, as indicated by the dried urine pooled on the bottom of the toilet and floor when we checked in that never disappeared during our stay.

Needless to say, I won’t be giving La Quinta another chance.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Restaurant Commentary: Casa Bonita (Denver, Colorado)

I was actually stunned to see Casa Bonita’s webpage describe their food as “mouth-watering.” I was in Denver last week with my two daughters and grandson. My daughter had read about the restaurant in a Frommer’s guide and, even though I read online that the food was not particularly good, we gave it a shot.

I cannot imagine why anyone would ever go back there. From the onset, it was a most unpleasant experience, with long winding lines waiting to get in, a sign indicating everyone over the age of two must buy a meal, a limited, overpriced menu selection, and needing to pick up meals on plastic cafeteria trays and then having to tote them thru the entire restaurant to your seats.

Then there was the food. Ugh! Honestly, Taco Bell would be embarrassed to serve food that bad. Even the chips and salsa — which we had to ask for — were terrible. No one at our table was able to eat more than a few bites. The only things actually edible were the sopaipillas.

All of this might have been more bearable, had the “entertainment” not been just as bad as the food. The gorilla show, gun fight, and diving demonstration were at best cheesy, with bad costumes and even worse acting.

On top of everything else, the restaurant is located in a seedy and dangerous-looking part of town that we were uncomfortable being in after dark.

I fully understand that this place is intended to be fun and entertaining for children but, with just a little effort, they could vastly improve the food quality, taste, and presentation. I guess since the place was packed on a Thursday night they think they don’t have to but I believe they do. Save your money, or take it to Chucky Cheese. The kids won’t know the difference and you won’t feel completely screwed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cruise Tip: Good Internet Connections

In our technologically advanced age, cruise ship passengers frequently need Internet access for a variety of reasons ranging from keeping in touch with family back home to staying on top of work.

Cruise ships now tend to be pretty good about providing Internet cafes and “hot spot” areas on board where people with laptop computers equipped with wireless devices can go to get a connection via a vessel’s satellite system. This can be very expensive, however, sometimes as much $1 a minute, so most people will want to adjust their online habits accordingly. Things to consider include:

* When you are online, either read through your email messages quickly or download them so that you can read them offline at your leisure.

* If you have your own laptop, draft responses to your email messages in Word or another program and then copy-and-paste them when online.

* Forget out time-intensive pursuits like Facebook when you are paying for an expensive Internet connection and wait until you can get a free or cheap one.

It is possible to avoid spending too much for onboard if you are patient, clever, and energetic, as follows:

* When in port, it is sometimes possible to pick up an Internet connection from nearby businesses ashore! This usually depends on being on the side or end of the ship closest to shore, however, can take some prowling around for a good spot, and is by no means a sure thing.

* Most port areas now have Internet cafes or other business with connections. Sometimes these are free for customers, and it can be nice to get online and spend an hour catching up in some Caribbean watering hole for the cost of a few beers. Sometimes such connections are just much more reasonably priced than onboard (e.g., $5 to $10 an hour).

Also, consider the very real possibility that people working on computers in public areas onboard ship might be doing so because there is nowhere else they can get a good Internet connection — or, possibly, just because the like the ambience —and that they don’t want to interact with other people. It can be really aggravating to be paying an exorbitant rate to be online and be constantly approached by people who have casual questions about the cost or quality of Internet connectivity.

Be sure to also check out Cruise Tip: Eating and Drinking Ashore!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Varhola to Speak at Comicpalooza (May 27-29, Houston, Texas)

Texas Confidential author Michael O. Varhola will be giving a number of presentations at Comicpalooza!, a gaming, comic book, fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal convention being held Memorial Day weekend, May 27-29, at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas.

Varhola is also the founder of game company Skirmisher Publishing LLC and the author of 10 non-fiction books and will be giving a variety of presentations and sitting on several panels related to gaming, ghosthunting, the paranormal, and Texas Confidential.

Comicpalooza is one of the hottest new fan events in the southwest and anyone who doesn’t already have anything planned for Memorial Day weekend should consider heading over to Houston and checking it out.

“We have a sci-fi/horror/adventure film festival running all three days, a DJ stage all three days, panel discussions, Q&A sessions, demonstrations, a huge dealers room, and dozens of artists showing off their work,” said organizer John Simons. The convention also has a very impressive guest list, and some of the many celebrities attending this year include Edward James Olmos, Tony Todd, and Sam Trammell.

Comic creators and artists attending include Larry Elmore, Athur Suydm, Brian Denham, and many more.

Gaming guests include legend Steve Jackson, Chris Perkins, Hyrum Savage, and Chris Syms.

Comicpalooza was first held July 19, 2008, in the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Katy, Texas, as a simple signing event set to coincide with the release of “The Dark Knight.” Comicpalooza was conceived as a means of helping local comic creators reach the media and the public. It was fun for all dozen-or-so comic creators who showed up.

Comicpalooza 2009 was re-imagined as a two-day comic book festival set in a local mall, again with a strong emphasis on promoting creators, connecting with the media, and fostering new growth in the fanbase. It featured guests like David Mack, Terry Moore, Steve Scott, Tom Hodges, Mat Johnson, Andy Kuhn, Dirk Strangely and others, and added events like special screenings, Q&A sessions, and the charity live art benefit. It drew more fans than any other Houston comic convention in 15 years.

Comicpalooza was re-invented again in 2010 as a multi-format convention celebrating not just comics, but also sci-fi and fantasy, horror, steam punk, new media, movies, film, and gaming of all types.

“Comicpalooza's mission is to provide the best and biggest annual multi-format pop culture convention in the southwest region of the United States, serving not only the fans of comics, science fiction, fantasy, video and table top gaming, anime, music and film, but also as a trade show and showcase for the studios, publishers, and manufacturers in those industries,” its organizers say.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Colonial Beach Blues Festival (Colonial Beach, Virginia, June 25-26)

One of the hottest and hippest events being held this summer is for sure the Colonial Beach Blues Festival, and anyone who is going to be on the mid-Atlantic coast or passing through the Washington, D.C., area in late June would be remiss in not stopping by for it.

This two-day event will be held Saturday and Sunday, June 25-26, and will feature more than a dozen musical groups, including the legendary Fiddlin’ Big Al Chidester, Beach Project, Blue Voodoo, Stacy Brooks, Anthony “Swampdog” Clark, Duffy Kane, Little Bit a Blues, Big Daddy Stallings, Cathy Ponton King, Bill Kirchen, the Nighthawks, Andy Poxon, and the Ubangis. Beyond being a great time and the musical event of the season, it is also being held for a good cause and will benefit the Organization for Autism Research.

“It’s going to be a blast!” impresario Dominick Salemi, organizer of the event, told the San Antonio Travel Examiner.

Venue for the Colonial Beach Blues Festival will be High Tidez on the Potomac, a local steakhouse, seafood restaurant, and bar located on the shores of the Potomac River that hosts musical events. Passes to the event cost $25 for two days and $15 one day and can be purchased at Populuxe (10 Hawthorn, Colonial Beach), by calling (804) 214-0312 or (804) 214-0883, or by emailing Official hotel for the event, and where many of the bands will be staying, is the historic art-deco-style Riverview Inn, and there are many other places to stay, including several historic bed and breakfasts and the fully refurbished — and haunted! — Bell House.

Colonial Beach itself is a funky little waterside town of about 3,300 people that was founded some 361 years ago and is located just a few miles from the birthplace of George Washington. Features include a number of cool antique and consignment shops; several great watering holes, including the Dockside, Lighthouse on the Bay, and Tiki Bar; a retro coffee shop and hangout crafted from an old ESSO station; and a three-mile stretch of beach that is great for swimming, fishing, and other recreational activities.

“You have to picture a beat beach town out of Kerouac,” Salemi said. “A beachfront setting with abandoned and derelict buildings, a dilapidated brick VFW hall, a weathered clapboard house serving as a motorcycle accessory shop, and a prefab high-rise condo. And as you look around and see all these kids hanging out at the retro custard stand, adults across the street enjoying wine and Thai food at a refurbished beach house, you think: ‘This place can go either way, straight to the top as a vacation destination and wicked cool retirement town or down straight to the dogs.’”

In the meantime, it is a great place to kick back and listen to some music, have a few drinks, and enjoy the shore.

Monday, April 18, 2011

CLCC 13th Annual BBQ Cook-Off (Canyon Lake, Texas, April 30)

Delicious smells of grilled and smoked delicacies of all sorts will fill the air Saturday, April 30, at the 13th Annual Canyon Lake Area Chamber of Commerce BBQ Cook-Off, where more than four-dozen teams will compete to have their favorite food items judged best. The event will be Lazy L&L Campground on River Road, along the banks of the Guadalupe River and about three miles south of Sattler, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Highlights of the popular event will include award-winning BBQ and other delicacies prepared by world-famous cookers, homemade desserts, live and silent auctions, arts and crafts, and a jail where people could have their friends locked up, requiring them to post bail to be released. Live entertainment will also be going on all day and include presentations by the Solid Gold Dancers and “Original Texas Music” by the band 277 South. And just walking around and looking at all the neat outdoor kitchens, grills, smokers, displays, and award-winning food items in progress is a special treat unto itself.

“This is just a little cook-off, it’s not sanctioned, but we have some real competitors here, some real contenders,” then-President Mandy Stewart of the Canyon Lake Chamber of Commerce said of the 2010 event. Many of the competitors, she said, like the event enough that they keep coming back to it year-after-year.

“Texas Regulators has been with us all 12 years,” Stewart said. They’ve never missed a cookoff.” Other perennials include Final Justice, Beer Belly BBQ, Bottle Cap Cookers, Family Tradition, M&M Grillers, and Saddle Tramps, and there are always eager newcomers as well.

“We come out every year for the chamber’s barbecue event,” said Jennifer Tharp, Comal County Criminal District Attorney and a member of the Final Justice cooking team (whose motto is “Sentencing Never Tasted So Good”). “We just have a blast out here!”

Arnold Hinajosa of the Texas Regulators cooking team — many of whose members are from the Houston area — has been coming to the Canyon Lake event every year since it began.

“We got recruited for this cook-off back 12 years ago,” Hinajosa said while working on shrimp brochettes stuffed with cream cheese and crab meat and wrapped in bacon at the 2010 event. “There were 14 teams that first year. We came up and just fell in love with Hill Country and we’ve been coming back ever since.”

Other longstanding participants in the event include Hampton Pratka and Jim Gallagher of Bottle Cap Cookers, out of Bulverde.

“This will be the fourth year we’ve cooked at Canyon Lake,” Pratka said of the event. “It’s a good family event and we have a great time. We’ll keep coming back.”

Visitors to the cook-off can buy brisket and ribs at the food tent prepared by the various competitors, and many of the participants are amenable to giving tastes of the items they are cooking at their outdoor kitchens, to include in some cases samples of the items they were entering in the various cook-off categories. (One of my personal favorites last year was a whole jalapeno pepper stuffed with cream cheese and lobster, wrapped in bacon, and grilled, by the Saddle Tramps).

Evan Payne, one of the musicians who entertained visitors to the event in 2010, summed up the cook-off pretty well.

“Everybody’s laid back and having a good time,” he said.

For more information about this great event, contact the Canyon Lake Area Chamber of Commerce online or call it at (830) 964-2223.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Waimea Valley (Oahu, Hawaii)

One of the most beautiful places we visited while in Hawaii, albeit only briefly, was the Waimea Valley, which we stumbled across while returning from the North Shore of Oahu to the town of Kailua. It was just closing for the day by the time we got there and we were not able to do much more than walk around the gardens near the entrance and see some of the peacocks that live there. I actually contacted the person in charge of media relations about doing a story on the site but they never got back to me and there is always something else to do in Hawaii, so we will have to check this site out next time we are on the islands.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

KAILU-KONA, HAWAII -- I have discovered a number of very interesting places in the area in and around where we have been staying on the "Big Island," to include the wonderful Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park just a few miles away and off the main highway, 11. Was very glad to be able to spend some time exploring and photographing it!

This U.S. National Historical Park located in the Kona District on the Big Island of Hawaii was established on November 10, 1978, for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of traditional native Hawaiian activities and culture and includes the National Historic Landmarked archaeological site known as the Honokōhau Settlement. In 2000 the name was changed by the Hawaiian National Park Language Correction Act of 2000 observing the Hawaiian spelling. (Shown at top are some reconstructed agricultural structures, essentially large planters, being used by the site staff to grow taro and other traditional crops. Below that is a much larger area in the park that appears to have been used for the same thing.)

"Kaloko and Honokōhau are the names of two of the four different ahupuaʻa, or traditional mountain-to-sea land divisions encompassed by the park. Although in ancient times this arid area of lava rock was called kekaha ʻaʻole wai (lands without water), the abundant sea life attracted settlement for hundreds of years. (Many of the fruit-bearing trees shown here appear throughout the park. They are known as noni and have a pungent, bitter fruit that was used only when needed as a "starvation food.")

Kaloko (meaning "the pond" in the Hawaiian language) is a site of fishponds used in ancient Hawaii is on the North end of the park. The first reference to the pond comes from the story of Kamalalawalu, about 300 years ago. The kuapā (seawall) is over 30 feet wide and 6 feet high, stretching for 750 feet. Constructed by hand without mortar, the angle and gaps between the stones deflected the surf better than many modern concrete seawalls.

Several restored trails include about one mile of the Māmalohoa Trail. It was built in the mid-19th century, and evolved over the years into the Hawaii Belt Road which encircles the entire island. The coastal trail is part of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. The Honokōhau boat harbor provides a launching area for traditional canoes, fishing boats, Scuba diving and snorkeling tours of the area.

Honokōhau means "bay drawing dew" and refers to the ancient settlement on the south part of the park. This area can be reached via trails from the park visitor's center, or from the small boat harbor access road on Kealakehe Parkway. Features include loko iʻa (Ancient Hawaiian aquaculture fishponds), kahua (house site platforms), kiʻi pōhaku (petroglyphs), hōlua (stone slides) and heiau (religious sites). The ʻAiʻopio Fishtrap is a 1.7-acre pond, with a stone wall forming an artificial enclosure along the naturally curved shoreline of a bay. Small openings allowed young fish to enter from the sea, but as they grew larger (or at low tide) they were easily caught with nets inside the trap as needed. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 as site 66000287.

ʻAimakapā fishpond is an important wetland area protecting native birds including the koloa maoli (Hawaiian Duck, Anas wyvilliana), ʻalae keʻokeʻo (Hawaiian Coot, Fulica alai), āeʻo (Hawaiian Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus knudseni), auʻkuʻu (Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax), among others. The area is currently under reforestation, after the removal of non-native invasive plants. It was added to the Register of Historic Places in 1978 as site 78003148."

Text in quotes is courtesy of Wikipedia and will be replaced with my own words as I have the time! All the photos are my own and were taken as of this posting.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Honolulu International Has Free Wi-Fi

HONOLULU INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (HNL) -- Very pleased to see another airport that provides its passengers with access to a free wireless Internet connection!

Honolulu International Airport is a beautiful, recently renovated facility with nice amenities in the departure zone and convenient to the various gates; there is nothing worse than not being able to easily get a drink or something nice to eat once you have gone through security and this is one airport that is doing it right.

I am currently at the airport waiting for a Hawaiian Airlines inter-island flight from Oahu to the "Big Island" of Hawaii and the second leg of my current trip to the islands. Check recent and upcoming posts on this site for photos and information about the places I have been visiting and writing about!

Name: HNLFreeWiFi. Other airports with good free wi-fi access include Charlotte International Aiport in North Carolina and Fort Lauderdale International in Florida (although the latter had especially wretched food and beverage options).

Mysteries of Honolulu

OAHU, HAWAII -- Robert Lopaka Kapanui strides across a mythological and haunted landscape populated by gods, ghosts, and demons. When he tells the tale of a Hawaiian hunter who accidentally chased a giant hog into a sacred valley, encountered a god there, and was soon after claimed by him, he is not describing an archetypal character from some vague point in a legendary past, he is talking about a cousin who met his demise just a few years ago. (Above, Kapanui prays to the resident spirits at a ruined mansion in the hills above Honolulu that once belonged to King Kamehameha III.)

It should thus be no surprise that Kapanui is the founder of Mysteries of Honolulu, an increasingly popular tour company that explores some of the strangest and most spiritually charged -- and sometimes most frightening -- spots on the island of Oahu. (Male and female guardian stones at a temple site associated with childbearing and fertility, the former with an anomaly that some consider to be a manifestation of spiritual energy.)

Kapanui says that he prefers skeptics to experienced ghosthunters or paranormal investigators on his tours because they come with fewer preconceived notions (something, as someone with many preconceived notions, that I understood after visiting a number of sites with him). By the time even the most incredulous have taken one of his nighttime outings, however, few are not moved at least a little closer toward a belief in the unseen world, and even fewer fail to be impressed with Kapanui's abilities as a storyteller. (Here a participant on a recent Mysteries of Honolulu tour -- appropriately, an OB/GYN -- tries out some sacred birthing stones at a temple site).

One of the sites we visited our first day out with Kapanui was Ulupo Heiau, a thousand-year-old sacrificial temple said to have been built in one night by the menehunes, a mythical race of little people similar to the fairies and dwarves of European folklore. The remains of this once massive structure are atill an impressive 30 feet tall and 140 feet wide, pointing to impressive architectural abilities. (Here is a view along the north face of the ruined temple, with a sacred boulder in the foreground. At the corner to the right is a path said to have been built by the menehunes that leads to a well.)

This site had many stories associated with it and a number specific areas of note within or around it, including a sacred grove where a reptile woman who seduces young men is still believed to dwell (the same sort of creature is believed to inhabit a watefall in the nearly Waimea Valley). There were also signs of active usage of this site, to include a primitive altar with bananas, papayas, and other things Kapanui said were characteristic of offerings to the god of the ocean.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument

PEARL HARBOR, HAWAII -- One of the most significant and moving things I had the opportunity to do during my last trip to Hawaii, in March 2011, was to visit what is now collectively referred to as the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. I am all the more glad I was able to do as as I reflect upon this 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and hope my friends and readers will enjoy some of the photos I took during that trip.

Covering wartime events that took place in the war with Japan, the monument preserves and interprets the stories and key episodes events in the Pacific Theater leading up to the U.S. entering World War II, its effects on the mainland, and the signing of the Peace Treaty in Tokyo Bay, Japan, that marked the end of the conflict.

Here are some of the images I took of the monument, including, from the top, the following:

* The Arizona Memorial, erected over the site of USS Arizona, the great battleship sunk with more than 1,100 hands lost during the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor;

* A view from the Arizona Memorial of USS Missouri, where the ceremony recognizing the Japanese surrender took place in Tokyo Bay (note in the forground the slick of oil, still seeping up from the sunken vessel after nearly 70 years);

* The USS Bowfin, "the revenge of Pearl Harbor," an attack submarine that preyed on Japanese shipping;

* The anchor from the Arizona; and,

* One of the gun turrets of the Arizona, which protrudes above the water.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On the Ground in Hawaii

KAILUA, HAWAII -- Me, my wife, and two friends of ours have just made it into Hawaii and are kicking off an 11-day visit to the islands, which we will be splitting between Oahu and the "Big Island" of Hawaii itself. (The picture shown here was taken from the place we stayed at in Kailua back in 2004, which is not far from where we are right now.)

We have been putting together a great itinerary of activities, and some of the most fun and exciting are the ones I have been discussing with fellow author and ghosthunter Lopaka Kapanui, head of the Mysteries of Honolulu tour company. Among other things, he will be taking us to a number of haunted sites of historical significance including an ancient sacrificial temple and a clifftop battlefield where some 5,000 people were driven into the sea. Lopaka is very knowledgable and a lot of fun to talk to and I can tell we are going to have a great time with him.

Other things I am hoping to do while on Oahu are visit Pearl Harbor and the Arizona memorial, which I have not yet managed to do on previous trips, but will likely do early on; possibly take a helicopter tour, options for which I am exploring right now; and going back to the Diamondhead and Punchbowl volcanic craters. My wife and her friend would also very much like to do a luau and are exploring some of the options.

We are also excited to hear that one of the volcanoes on the "Big Island" of Hawaii itself has been erupting since Monday morning! The one time I visited this island, during a 13-day cruise my wife and I took on NCL's Norwegian Wind over the 2004-2005 holidays, we went out to Volcanoes National Park, and it was amazing to be able to stand right next to live flowing lava. So, among the other things we do on the big island this time round, a return to the volcanic lava fields is a must. (That is me surrounded by oozing lava back in 2005.)

Keep your eye on this site for more about our plans and then reports and pictures on what we do on the islands! And your own comments, suggestions, and feedback are certainly welcome.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Credit Card Promises vs. Reality

SANA ANTONIO -- Have discovered that there is a serious disconnect between credit cards that offer free airline baggage as a cardholder benefit and the ability to actually use this benefit at cbeck-in. We have just had a problem, in fact, with an AAdvantage/American Airlines card in this way. Will be researching this out and writing more about it. Be sure to comment here if you have had problems of your own of this sort!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Clovis, San Angelo, and the Llanno Estacado

CLOVIS, NEW MEXICO -- Drove up here from Canyon Lake, Texas, on personal business straight northwest through Fredericksburg, Abilene, Lubbock, and the Llanno Estacado and spent the night just a few miles west of the Texas line. My wife Diane and I are staying at the La Quinta on North Prince Street. Did not realize that we were going to pass into the Mountain time zone and suspect this happened when we crossed into New Mexico. Very cold here, much more so than back home in south Texas, and a freezing wind was whipping through the area and driving people indoors.

God bless Clovis, I now truly appreciate the meaning of the word "cow town," as the smell of manure is just slightly noticeable everywhere here. And, on our way out to a casual dinner at the local Wingstreet, a tumbleweed about the size of a dishwasher rolled right in front of the car and got hooked on the front bumper for about 100 feet.

After a relatively stressful 500 mile drive up here it was nice to unwind with a soak in the hotel hottub and enjoy a glass of local Plum Loco red table wine (a little on the sweet side, and definitely too much so as an accompaniment for food, but decent for an aperitif or desert wine). Hotel itself was fine and our stay would have definitely been on the pleasant side if they had not done such a poor job with breakfast; sending guests out without a cup of coffee for the road is a bad way to leave them with their final impression.

On the way back the next day we took a different route, down across the flat plain between Clovis and Big Spring, across Cannibal Draw, and into the "Pearl of the Concho," in San Angelo. There, we toured Miss Hattie's Bordello Museum and had a nice visit with its curator, Mark Priest. A chapter on this fun site will appear in my Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Lone Star State, which I am pushing to get finished this month.

Now, to get ready for our next trip, to Hawaii!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Getting Ready for Hawaii

Hawaii is, of all the places I have traveled, one that is truly not over-rated and is in fact every bit as great as it is made out to be. My wife and I, along with another couple, are currently getting ready for an 11-day visit to the islands, which we will be splitting between Oahu and the "Big Island" of Hawaii itself.

We have been putting together a great itinerary of activities, and some of the most fun and exciting are the ones I have been discussing with fellow author and ghosthunter Lopaka Kapanui, head of the Mysteries of Honolulu tour company. Among other things, he will be taking us to a number of haunted sites of historical significance including an ancient sacrificial temple and a clifftop battlefield where some 5,000 people were driven into the sea. Lopaka is very knowledgable and a lot of fun to talk to and I can tell we are going to have a great time with him.

Other things I am hoping to do while on Oahu are visit Pearl Harbor and the Arizona memorial, which I have not yet managed to do on previous trips, and go back to the Diamondhead and Punchbowl volcanic craters (the former being a park and the latter a military cemetery, and a view of the stairway leading to the top of the latter shown here). My wife and her friend would also very much like to do a luau and at this point I am looking at Germaine's Luau, which has a pretty good reputation.

I have only been to the island of Hawaii itself one time, during a 13-day cruise my wife and I took on NCL's Norwegian Wind over the 2004-2005 holidays, whic h started in Oahu and went on to Hawaii/Big Island; two ports in Maui; Kuai; Fanning Island, Kiribati; Hawaii again; and then back to Oahu. Our excursion out to Volcano National Park was an amazing experience and it was incredible to be able to stand right next to live flowing lava. So, among the other things we do on the big island this time round, a return to the volcanic lava fields is a must.

Keep your eye on this site for more about our plans and then reports and pictures on what we do on the islands! And your own comments, suggestions, and feedback are certainly welcome.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Natural Bridge Caverns: A Bridge to Another World

The caverns decribed in the following feature also appear on the Texas Bucket List that appears on this site.

If you have seen the billboards for Natural Bridge Caverns around San Antonio, Texas, and wondered whether you should go and visit the popular local attraction, the answer is definitely yes. And, if you are wondering when you should do it, the answer is now (for reasons that will become apparent).

“The caverns have been known about since the early 1900s but their extensive [nature] wasn’t really known,” Travis Wuest, vice president of Natural Bridge Caverns, told me when I visited the site. His family has owned the surrounding land for more than a century.

“This was all ranchland and the sinkhole was just a pretty place to picnic,” Wuest said of the area spanned by the natural bridge of rock that is the namesake of the place. “It was always thought to be a small, very insignificant cave.”

“But in 1960, four college students who were amateur cave explorers heard about the Natural Bridge and the sinkhole and got permission from my grandmother to explore it,” Wuest continued. “On their fourth expedition here, on March 27, 1960, they discovered about two miles of never-before-seen cave passage, probably the first men ever to have seen it.”

Based on that great revelation, the family decided to open the caverns as an attraction. It has grown ever since and this year is celebrating the 51st anniversary of the cavern’s discovery and 47 years in business. Today, it is the largest series of caves open to the public in Texas.

“I’ve grown up here doing it and so it’s very much my life,” said Wuest, who is his 30s. “It’s a fun industry to work in.”

“The caverns themselves are spectacular,” Wuest said. “And they are absolutely stunning right now because of all the rain we’ve had. So, the pools of water are full, water is dripping and flowing, you’re going to get water dripping on you in various places. This is a really beautiful time to see the cave under pretty much ideal conditions. Because the water just adds a dimension to it and makes it even prettier.”

There are currently five different guided tours of the caverns available:

* The Discovery Tour begins at the mouth of the original cave, beneath the natural bridge, and goes through the first half-mile of the area discovered by the St. Mary’s University students half a century ago. Chambers as much as 250 feet long, forests of towering stone pillars as tall as 50 feet, and bridges over darkened chasms are among the highlights of this 75-minute trip through the underworld.

* The Illuminations Tour descends 180 steps down into a strikingly beautiful half-mile section of caverns known as the Hidden Passages that were discovered seven years after the main section (part of which is pictured here and in the next picture, below). Highlights include the glistening Diamond River, delicate, hollow soda straws as much as 10 feet in length, and all sorts of strange and unique formations.

* The Lantern Tour, which runs each morning at 9 a.m., is a new feature that is offered just once a day. In it, guests are guided only by a lantern and can get a sense of what some of the earliest explorers of the caverns experienced.

* The two Adventure Tours are for the most hardcore of visitors and start where the other tours end, going off the beaten path into parts of the two subterranean complexes that are not generally open to the public.

“Those are reservation-only caving trips to undeveloped sections of the caverns,” Wuest said. “You’re down and dirty, rappelling, crawling, climbing, hiking. It’s a great, great trip. Very different, though. On those, it’s down and dirty, you’re going to be very sweaty and muddy, and you’re going to be crawling. They’re a riot, a lot of fun.”

Natural Bridge Caverns is located just north of San Antonio at 26495 Natural Bridge Caverns Road, off of FM 3009 and eight miles north of that road’s intersection with IH 35 at exit 17. For more information about this great site, call (210) 651-6101 or go to Amenities include a giftshop, snackbar, various informational exhibits, and the “Watchtower Challenge,” a climbing tower equipped with two 350-foot ziplines.