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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Seven Travel Highlights in 2016

Memories are the fabric of life. Like many travel bloggers, I am bringing 2016 to a close with some special travel memories.

I discovered Iowa.
I visited Echo Bluff State Park, Missouri's newly opened park.
I gathered pieces of Pulaski County (MO) history.
I explored Fort Smith, Arkansas.
I stood in awe at the beauty of Petit Jean Mountain State Park in Arkansas.
I stood on the sand of a beautiful North Carolina beach - Wrightsville Beach.
I gathered pieces of Pulaski County (MO) history.

Iowa may be known to some as a flyover/drive-through state, but those who never stop miss some enchanting places, good food and friendly people. The list is long, but my special memories include the Grant Wood Statue Trail in Cedar Rapids, the lifestyle and architecture that characterize the Amana Colonies, the tulips in Pella and the revitalizing of main streets in Webster City and Northwood.

The Amana Colonies
Cedar Rapids successfully merges the old and the new with ethnic neighborhoods and shopping districts. The downtown, rebuilt after a devastating flood in 2008, holds a special charm with its combination of old theaters, restaurants, microbreweries and modern architecture. The city emits a feeling of community - aided, I must add, by the great oatmeal-cookie smell that emanates from the Quaker Oats factory. This year the city celebrated the 125th birthday of its famous citizen, artist Grant Wood, with American-Gothic statues throughout the city. I'm proud to say I found 23 of the 25!

The Amana Colonies had long been on my to-visit list. I fell in love with the simplicity, the pace of life and the friendliness of the residents. A first step to any visit is a stop at the History Museum and the viewing of a film about the religion and culture, as well as the settlement in Iowa.

Plan to visit Pella in the spring. Famous for its Tulip Festival, the city showcases more colors and varieties of tulips than I ever imagined. Just know that you will take lots of photos.

Northwood and Webster City are both small towns in northern Iowa, alike in some ways and oh-so-different in others. Northwood is slowly regenerating its downtown area. The schools and the county have benefited from the Diamond Jo Casino, which is on I-35 just a few miles from town.

Webster City is farther along on its revitalization efforts and takes pride in its agricultural heritage. One of the highlights for me was a ride in a new John Deere tractor, courtesy of Woodstock Equipment in nearby Blairsburg. I experienced the pride that Iowa farmers take in supplying much of the corn and pork consumed throughout the world.

Old Settlers Day, Pulaski County
Missouri holds some special memories. I fell in love with Echo Bluff State Park and the surrounding area. The state park resort offers it all - comfort, great food, beautiful surroundings and plenty of outdoor activities. Whether it's fishing or canoeing the Current River, visiting the old mills and historic sites, hanging out at the resort, or taking a tour of the nearby Peck Ranch in search of the elk herd, visitors will find much to enjoy.

I visited Pulaski County twice this year and still have so much to learn about its history. I am fascinated by its early history, the Trail of Tears, its role in the Civil War, and much later, its part of Route 66. And, oh, the stories I heard! Believe me, this area never had a dull moment.
Belle Point, Fort Smith

The Unexpected - Street
Art Fort Smith
I spent a week in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and realized I had no idea of the history that began in that area. From the Cathedral to the bordellos, from the Trail of Tears to the Civil War, from the Wild West to Judge Parker's famous courtroom, I could have taken a month to explore.

US Marshal hat from Civil Rights era

The US Marshals Museum will soon have a home in Fort Smith and the art scene is exploding with the 2nd year of The Unexpected Street Art Festival.

I've heard of Petit Jean State Park for years, but had never visited. Heavily forested, the park overlooks the Arkansas River and much of central Arkansas. It is one of those places for the whole family - plenty of hiking trails, caves, scenic overlooks, a romantic legend and two lakes for fishing.

Carolina Beach
Last but not least, I visited Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina. I'm new to the Carolina shore and I enjoyed the boardwalks and frequent accesses to the beach. I loved the picturesque view of all the boats in their docks. I visited in December but imagined what the coast would look like in the summer. I intend to find out.

As you can tell, each destination fascinated me with its history and beauty. Although I love the solitude of photo sessions and the opportunity to ponder the earth's wonders, I have to admit that the best part of travel is the people I meet along the way.

I made new friends and spent time with some fascinating travel bloggers and tourism folks. The locals who shared their stories greatly enhanced each visit. I may be wrapping up 2016, but I'm already looking forward to my travel experiences in 2017.

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