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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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Time for a trip to the beach!

Wilmington Fishing Pier

Nothing quite melts the cold of winter like thoughts of a favorite beach. The Texas Gulf Coast is home to me and spending time on the beach never grows old.

Today, however, I'm looking out the window at a North Carolina beach - Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington. It is December and the weather ranges from warm one day to cold the next, and back to somewhere in between. While I read posts of "minus zero" degrees throughout the Midwest, I'm thankful for the opportunity to enjoy and explore North Carolina.

Carolina Beach
It's always a thrill to discover that each beach has its own personality, from the sand and the dunes to the surrounding community. Wrightsville Beach speaks of a wide-open space with small community shopping and eating establishments nestled along the way. The seemingly endless beach beckons one to walk and unwind, while the shopping areas invite the exploration of a variety of small businesses. I enjoy both aspects. Two short causeways take the visitor from the town to the beach. The beachfront road is filled with beautiful homes and apartments - each one with its own unique personality. Looking at home designs always brings out the fanciful thoughts - who lives there and why did the builder pick that style of home?

But back to the beach. It is easily accessible from a number of beach access points. The sand is clean and white, and so far I've not seen any trash. I noticed a park bench at several accesses - a great place to while away a few minutes or more.

Carolina Beach
I would love to visit in the summer when the beachgoers and water sports activities are at their peak. It's easy to imagine the laughter, good times and relaxation that accompanies a visit to a North Carolina beach.

Located on the southern North Carolina coast, the area is apparently a favorite spot for boating. Ranging from runabouts to sailboats, yachts and fishing boats, the Intracoastal Waterway is home to just about any kind of boat your heart desires.

Cape Fear River
We also visited Carolina Beach and the fishing pier in Wilmington. We spent a couple hours along the boardwalk on the Cape Fear River. On one side of the boardwalk, the river is wide and beautiful. Since my knowledge of Cape Fear was related to the movie of that name, I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty and size of the river. On the other side of the boardwalk, small shops will attract your attention. There are several boats that offer rides on the historic river. The river is also home to the Battleship North Carolina.

I find the Intracoastal Waterway of special interest because it runs down the Atlantic Coast and along the Gulf Coast to its end in south Texas at South Padre Island.

Prickly Pear Margarita
I've only had the opportunity to try a few of restaurants but they have been excellent. Famous Toastery is only open for lunch and breakfast and the food is yummy. I tried the Crab Cake Benedict and Joyce had the Chicken Salad Melt, which she is still raving about.

I always love checking out Mexican restaurants and found K38 delicious, starting with my prickly pear margarita. I tried a chicken fajita burrito and a side of queso. Good food!

We also tried Sweet and Savory, which offers a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For breakfast, I tried the Southern Chicken Biscuit, and loved it. Joyce tried the Eggs Benedict served on focaccia bread, and she cleaned her plate.

Tomorrow afternoon I head back to Raleigh-Durham International Airport but in the morning, I plan to enjoy sand and surf.