Branson is Great for Families

Branson is great for families. When my boys were young, they loved going to Branson. What kid wouldn’t? Silver Dollar City, of course, is the big name in town, but they also couldn’t wait to drive their own go-carts back in the days before they had licenses, thrilled to the rush of water slides at White Water, enjoyed splashing into Table Rock Lake on a Ride the Ducks tour and even laughed themselves silly at the corny jokes that are often integral to Branson’s many shows.

Having recently visited Branson–this time with my parents and 99-year-old aunt in tow–I also saw that it’s a also great vacation spot for multi-generational families.

I’ve written five itineraries on Branson for Bindutrips, including this one for families.

Branson for Families

Visit my other itineraries for more information on what to do and see.

 

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Mexico’s Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende

It seems like many Americans go to Mexico to party on its beaches, which is reason enough to head somewhere else. I’m drawn to Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, two colonial towns in central Mexico that are quite possibly the most beautiful in the country. They owe their wealth in architecture and art to silver, mined in surrounding hills beginning in the 16th century by the Spanish. Churches, pastel-colored mansions, grand plazas, cobbled streets and even universities are proof of their affluent past, but it’s the vibe on the streets that captures my attention.

San Miguel de Allende

Both Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, only an hour or so apart, have striking similarities. They are about the same size, with urban populations of about 80,000 and students making up as much as a fourth of the total. And both are beguilingly attractive, which, coupled with their history, earns them status as UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are walking towns, making it easy to become intimately acquainted.

Guanajuato

San Miguel de Allende

Of the two, San Miguel de Allende is probably the better known, famous since the 1940s as an artists colony and with an expatriate community of about 10,000, mostly from the United States, Canada and Europe. With its art galleries, cafes, bookstores, museums, charming inns, quaint streets and plazas and craft shops–and plenty of real estate at practically every turn–it’s easy to imagine just plunking down a hunk of change and digging in for a while.

La Parroquia is a flight of fantasy dreamed up by an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect

La Parroquia, a neo-Gothic church as pretty as you’d find anywhere, is the focal point of the old town, surrounded by buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. Gaily painted homes rise straight from the sidewalk, many with large front doors large enough once to have permitted horses and carriages leading to private courtyards.

Facing the church is Plaza Allende, mostly referred to simply as El Jardin. Its laurel trees are meticulously trimmed and bands serenade in the evenings. Facing the square is the Ignacio Allende House, which belonged to one of the main protagonists in the 1810 War of Independence and for whom the town is named. But mostly I just like kicking around, popping into shops to admire the crafts, walking through markets, stopping to photograph doorknockers (seriously!) and taking breaks at the many sidewalk cafes.

Guanajuato

Guanajuato is the capital of Guanajuato state,  and therefore has more of an

Guanajuato is a hilly town, with lots of nooks and crannies

administrative air. While not as compact as San Miguel de Allende, it, too, is a great walking town and garners fewer tourists, which adds greatly to its appeal. And though mariachi bands can be found pretty much anywhere there are Mexicans, in Guanajuato music ascends to a whole different level, buoyed by weekend strolling troubadours that bring music to winding cobbled streets and serenade anyone who will listen. You’ve got to love a town that is so joyous about music.

Artists, too, call the city home. Diego Rivera was born here, his home now a museum. The other must-see is Alhondiga de Granaditas, an 18th-century granary now housing a museum and artwork but famous as the site of Mexico’s first major victory in the struggle for independence. Strangely, however, it’s the Museo de las Momias (the mummy museum) that draws the biggest crowds, who come to gawk at remains of bodies dug up in 1865 to make room in the cemetery.

No thanks. While I’m still here, I’d rather be among the living, at the El Jardin of either Guanajuato or San Miguel de Allende, listening to mariachi, drinking tequila and watching the world go by.

San Miguel de Allende

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In Kentucky, It’s all About Horses and Bourbon

I didn’t know much about Kentucky other than a vague school-days’ recollection that it was Daniel Boone country. But then my son graduated from college and took his first job at Eastern Kentucky University, south of Lexington. I’ve visited him several times and am struck by the state’s natural beauty. But what mostly caught my attention is that in Kentucky, it’s all about horses and bourbon.

The Horses

The first thing you notice are the horse farms that surround Lexington, with their big barns, bucolic rolling hills, lines of fences and trees and horses that look like they might have the most privileged life in the world. Turns out, the water that percolates through underground limestone adds mineral content to Kentucky’s fabled bluegrass pastures, which in turn helps produce horses strong in bone and durability. There are more than 400 horse farms in the Bluegrass region, so it’s little wonder that many of the world’s most famous racing horses come from here, too, including Man o’ War. Lexington is proud to call itself the Horse Capital of the World. So while Louisville, about 80 miles away, is home to the Kentucky Derby, Lexington lays claim as the best place to breed, raise and train race horses. Many champions also spend their retirement years here.

Visitors can experience Kentucky’s horse traditions at many places in and around Lexington, including Keeneland Race Course and the Thoroughbred Center. But one of the comprehensive destinations concerning all things horse is the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park, boasting 21 barns that can house more than 2,000 horses. Because it’s a working farm dedicated to all breeds of horses, it’s one of the best places on earth to see and learn about the world’s various breeds, each with its own history and characteristics. Both the Parade of Breeds Show and the Breeds Barn showcase magnificent horses, including the Tennessee Walking Horse, Black Arabian, Appaloosa, Lipizzaner, American Saddlebred, Norwegian Fjord and American Quarter Horse. I learned all kinds of astounding facts, including that the American Miniature Horse, a crossbreed of Dartmoor and Shetland ponies, was imported from Europe to work in Appalachia’s coal mines and that the rare Marwari, of which only 1,000 remain, is an ancient breed from India bred specifically for battle.

Parade of Breeds Show

You can also visit the Horse Park’s Hall of Champions with its retired champion race horses, board a trolley pulled by draft horses for a tour of the expansive grounds, and visit the Big Barn, home to mighty draft horses. I now have a newfound admiration for draft horses, which played a huge role in the development of our country, from the laying of our railroads to the powering of stagecoaches and streetcars to the plowing of our fields. In 1900, there were 27,000 draft horses in the United States, including the Percheron, Clydesdale and Belgian. I’ve got two hitching posts in front of my 1890 Folk Victorian house; I can just picture draft horses tied up there.

Trolley tours pulled by draft horses

There are also museums, including the American Saddlebred Museum, the Wheeler Museum with its collection of equestrian memorabilia focusing mostly on show jumping horses, and, most importantly, the International Museum of the Horse. A Smithsonian Affiliate, it is the largest museum in the world dedicated to the history of horses and their impact on human development. Exhibits present the history of the horse, from its evolution and uses in ancient times to horses used in modern sports. I learned that although horses originated in North America, none survived prehistoric times except those that traveled to Asia via overland bridges. The Spanish reintroduced the horse to the Americas, where Native Americans were at first forbidden to ride them and so usually ate them if they could. Eventually, of course, many tribes became adept at riding and training Paint Horses, Appaloosas and other breeds. The American Quarter Horse is our country’s most recognizable breed, used by pioneers as they traveled west and later used also for sport racing. But it was the Thoroughbred that made horse racing what it is today. Horse racing began in Kentucky in the 1700s, and after the Civil War, Kentucky emerged as a breeding center for Thoroughbreds. The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875.

International Museum of the Horse

The Bourbon

Turns out, limestone-infused water is also great for producing bourbon. In fact, bourbon was born in Kentucky, when farmers discovered that converting corn and other grains into whiskey made transportation much easier, not to mention more fun. Today, more than 95% of the world’s bourbon is produced here. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a group of 10 distilleries operating in and around Lexington offering tours and tastings. Pick up a free Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport at any of the participating distilleries, which include Town Branch, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Evan Williams, and if you visit all of them you’ll be rewarded with a free T-shirt. My son, a new convert, is working his way slowly (I hope) along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Although it’s not part of the Bourbon Trail, one of my favorites is the Buffalo Trace Distillery for its attractive historic grounds and instructive tours. Although its name has changed over the centuries, it can trace its beginnings to the late 1700s and is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States. Its 700-plus acres of grounds, including more than 300 acres for growing corn, boasts more than 120 buildings, including a one-story stone house built in 1792 and warehouses from the 1880s. It operated even during Prohibition, as one of only a few distilleries permitted to produce “medicinal” whiskey. The most popular tour is a free one-tour tour that culminates in free tastings of its products. But there are also four other one-hour complimentary tours including samplings (reservations required) that focus on the distillery’s history, everything you always wanted to know about oak barrels or an in-depth look at its facilities. There’s even a ghost tour.

But the highlight of my afternoon with my son was our return to his home in Richmond, when we saw on our map the designation of a ferry. Remembering many such ferry crossings as a kid on family trips, I suggested we head that way, not sure it was even still functioning. But the Valley View Ferry, in operation since 1780, was seemingly waiting just for us. It was easy to picture its olden days, when passengers with horses were probably its biggest customers. Even Daniel Boone is said to have used this ferry. A renowned frontiersman and trapper turned politician and businessman, Boone was also a horse trader and once owned a Kentucky tavern. It should come as no surprise that he introduced a bill for “improving the breed of horses.” It’s my guess he swilled a lot of bourbon as well.

Valley View Ferry

 

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Buenos Aires Loves its Dogs

I consider myself a rather lazy dog owner, because all I have to do when business calls is let Greta out my back door to my fenced-in yard. The park is a short block away. No elevators, no long walks through city streets to a spot of green. But that doesn’t stop the porteños of Buenos Aires. Oh, no. Buenos Aires loves its dogs. In fact, it may have more dogs per capita than any other city in Latin America.

Palermo, perhaps because of its many parks and the fact that the neighborhood is quickly becoming super trendy, has more than its fair share of dogs. It’s quite a sight to see professional dog walkers, with six or more canines under their charge walking in complete synchronicity. But what would you expect in the country of tango? There are dogs on balconies, there are dogs barking at night. Shops and restaurants place water bowls outside for their furry friends. I’ve seen hooks beside doors so owners can park their pooches while they shop inside. Even market vendors have gotten into the game, offering dog vests, leashes and all the accoutrements a dog might need.

But not my little Greta. She won’t be wearing a fur-lined jacket or a jewel-encrusted collar any time soon. And unlike those many dog owners in Buenos Aires, I actually clean up after my dog on our daily walk.

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Japanese Tea Ceremony Soothes the Soul

The Japanese tea ceremony might seem like a simple thing, but as with most things Japanese, it is anything but. In fact, developed to free the mind and soul of worry and thought, it’s a highly choreographed ritual that takes years to learn. Samurai used it to clear their minds during long war campaigns. Aristocracy used it as a form of relaxation. Housewives learn it to round out their education. Businessmen take it up as a way to escape the rigors of business. Simply put, the Japanese tea ceremony soothes the soul, but it also demands patience, discipline and dedication. One of my first experiences with the seemingly simple procedure occurred years ago, when a woman I met at a budget Japanese inn asked whether she could serve me tea as a way to practice what she’d learned. As she went through the many steps, apologizing for being such an amateur, I asked how long she’d been studying. Only seven years, she replied. As far as she was concerned, she had much to learn.

Nothing is left to chance in a Japanese tea ceremony. The way the charcoal is lit, the placement of the tea utensils, the selection of the tea bowl based on the seasons, even the vocabulary–all is strictly proscribed. With time, the movements and the ceremony become fluid, allowing thoughts to flow freely from one step to the next.

Read more about how the Japanese Tea Ceremony soothes the soul in my article, Bucket List: Japanese Tea Ceremony, published July 2017 in Global Traveler.

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Legs Inn a Must for its quirky architecture, Polish food and Lake Michigan Views

You don’t just happen to be driving by Legs Inn and decide spontaneously to pop in for Polish sausage. That’s not to say the restaurant doesn’t catch your eye. The unusual stone  structure is renowned for its rows of upended cast-iron stove legs that serve as a kind of rooftop railing (hence it’s name). But the inside, too, is a curious mishmash of handmade wooden furniture, driftwood re-purposed as art, totem poles, a giant bar fashioned from the trunk of a hemlock tree and taxidermic bears, deer, raccoons and other native species.

But Legs Inn is so off Michigan’s beaten path, that unless you’re also visiting Mackinac Island, are driving the nearby scenic  “Tunnel of Trees” or heading to Headlands International Dark Sky Park to gaze at the stars, you probably won’t be passing through the tiny community of Cross Village. Unless, of course, Legs Inn is your destination, which applies to almost everyone who comes here to dine.

Opened in the 1920s by a Polish immigrant and owned by the same family for almost 90 years, Legs Inn is now in its third generation of restaurauteurs. It still specializes in Polish cuisine, including pierogi (dumpings), Polish sausage and a very delicious bigos (a hunter’s stew of various meats, sausage, sauerkraut and vegetables), all made from scratch. It also offers the local Great Lakes whitefish, sandwiches, goulash, potato pancakes and other fare, not to mention more than 100 varieties of beer from around the world, including Polish beer. The staff includes students from other countries who come here to work and study.

But the best part? Legs Inn is located on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, with both indoor and outdoor dining offering great views. Open from about mid-May to mid-October, this restaurant is worth the detour no matter where you’re heading, or even if you’re heading nowhere at all.

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Why I Live in Lawrence KS

I was asked to write about my hometown for the Explore Lawrence website. We moved here from Florida when I was 10 because my father accepted a job at the University of Kansas. He promised we’d stay only two years. You can see how that went. I was bitten by the travel bug when I was very young, probably when I learned my grandmother was born in Austria and I started learning German. I also spent countless hours pouring over issues of National Geographic, always thinking “I want to go there!” In any case, I saw early on that there was a big world out there. My first international trip was when I was 16, courtesy of the Girl Scouts, when I spent a month in Sweden and learned to my delight that scouting was co-ed. I then spent my middle university year abroad in Germany, followed by another year while in graduate school. After a year working as a newspaper reporter in a small Kansas town, I quit and moved back to Germany to begin my career as a travel writer. I’ve been travel writing ever since. As a freelancer, I can live pretty much anywhere, but I moved back to Lawrence many years ago. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t live in another country again someday, but Lawrence will always be my hometown. The link below is what I wrote for why I live in Lawrence KS.

 

I grew up in Lawrence, but typical of restless teenagers, I couldn’t wait to get away. After living most of my twenties and early thirties in Germany and Japan as a freelance travel writer, however, I decided that Lawrence was where I wanted to be. We have wetlands, easy access to lakes and hiking trails, diverse neighborhoods, unique museums, an ever-growing roster of ethnic restaurants and a wide range of festivals and entertainment, making Lawrence pretty much the perfect college town. I’ve been a volunteer at the Lawrence Visitor Center for more than 20 years, which I enjoy because I get to meet people from all over the world and answer questions. You never know what they’re going to ask, which keeps me on my toes. I always recommend the free movie we show at the visitor center about the founding of Lawrence and Quantrill’s raid. I also take my out-of-town guests to the Oread Hotel’s rooftop for the view (our dense canopy of trees makes it look like we’re a people of the woods). I love living only a five-minute walk from downtown, in a 127-year-old house where I can also satisfy my inner urban farmer with a garden and chickens. And when the travel writing life calls, Kansas City International Airport is only a 50-minute drive away. Why would I live anywhere else? Lawrence, after all, really is the center of Google Earth. – Beth #nttw17

A post shared by eXplore Lawrence (@explorelawrence) on

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Pisac’s Market is More than I Bargained for

One of my favorite things to do in any city or village is to visit the local market, whether it’s a wet market in Hong Kong or the Feria de Mataderos in Buenos Aires. In Peru, I was most taken with Pisac’s market in the Sacred Valley. We got rooms in a hostal right on the main square (named, as always, Plaza des Armas), with windows providing colorful views. But although Sunday is Pisac’s most famous market day, attracting busloads of tourists, my two sons and I missed it. On the other hand, if we hadn’t gotten sick, we wouldn’t have stayed five nights. I’ve never observed the workings of a market this close for this many days.  I didn’t buy much, but Pisac Market offered more than I bargained for.

Pisac’s Sunday market is so large it fills up the square, radiating down side streets and on the slope leading to terraced Inca ruins. Locals sell fruit, vegetables and souvenirs, including alpaca sweaters, jewelry, flutes and handwoven tapestries. Unfortunately, the night before the boys and I ate chicken at a local restaurant while watching the video Motorcycle Diaries (incredibly, life in Peru seems almost as poor as it did when Ernesto Guevara rode through) and on Sunday we were all sick. So we spend Pisac’s most famous day in bed, being able to cast only cursory glances over the street scenes before heading back to the bathroom.

On Monday we awoke to find the square cleared of all its market stalls. It was Independence Day! The morning began with marches and speeches and in late afternoon came the music. The square was packed with villagers–nary a tourist in sight–who all seemed to belong to their own group and who drank copious amounts of beer and chicha, a pink alcoholic brew made from fermented maize. Feeling somewhat recovered, I ventured into the melee with my sister, and everyone was very friendly to two foreign women in their midst, smiling at us and toasting (I have to say, chicha must be an acquired taste). Some Peruvians danced, though with their conservative, modest steps, they will never threaten the Argentinians. We went to bed around 10pm, but the partying went on past midnight.

The next day, Tuesday, was market day again, though on a less grand style. What fascinated me the most is that every single night, all the wares are packed up for transport and all the wooden stalls are broken down and carted away. In addition, every day I went to the market there were different vendors there, thereby assuring that everyone had a chance to sell their goods, either as middlemen selling crafts others had made or those they had made themselves. Tour buses came by regularly, disgorging tourists who must have been weaned on inflated prices. I saw an American guy buy two woolen caps for about three times what he could have bargained for, and a Japanese man paid about 10 times more for a necklace than what I paid after scoping out prices for several days. Striking a bargain is the name of the game, meant to assure that both buyer and seller feel satisfied. With a budget of $3,000 for the three of us for a month, I didn’t have much money to spend. That necklace reminds me of Pisac every time I wear it.

The end of our stay in Pisac was almost the end of our one month in Peru. By then, what had seemed so unfathomable just one month before–what was Peru like! How would we get around! How would we manage!–now seemed commonplace. The fact is, Peru is easy, well geared to meet the needs of travelers on the “Gringo Trail,” making it much easier to get around there than, say, in Japan. And while guide books warned of thieves, pickpockets and taxi-driving robbers, we encountered only kindness and, at worst, indifference. Perhaps it helps to travel with children. Maybe even crooks have too much integrity to take advantage of a child.

 

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Machu Picchu–Better than Imagined

DSCN0103-1Machu Picchu is probably on every traveler’s bucket list, and with good reason. Built by the Incas around 1450, abandoned about 100 years later, and brought to the world’s attention in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu is quite simply an architectural masterpiece. Although there are many traces of the Incas remaining in Peru, none offer such breathtakingly irrefutable proof of their brilliancy. For that and many reasons, I found Machu Picchu better than imagined.

In fact, many of my impressions turned out to be false, gleaned mostly from photographs and from articles in glossy magazines. In pictures, the Inca ruins look virtually inaccessible, so high up as to be halfway to heaven. The Inca Trail, I thought, must be grueling, sending tourists straight up that mountain for four straight days. But because of it’s popularity, I also expected Machu Picchu to be overrun with tourists, detracting from its mysticism and beauty.

It turns out, Machu Picchu is very accessible. The Inca Trail is mostly overland, though not without challenging mountain passes. Furthermore, the Inca Trail–the popular route that severely limits the number of trekkers allowed to sign up on guided tours–is just one way to hike to Machu Picchu. The tour my sons, my sister’s family and I signed up for after we arrived in Cusco was a four-day adventure that included a ride down a mountain on bikes followed by three days of hiking and included just us and three women from Germany. Our tour ended in Aguas Caliente, a nondescript and charmless tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu, but you can also reach Aguas Caliente by train. From there, we awoke before sunrise for the  90-minute climb to the top, but there are also buses. And although I expected swarming crowds, Machu Picchu is so expansive it simply swallows them up.

DSCN0118-1In other words, Machu Picchu is both overwhelming and mystical, truly one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It would be DSCN0087-1hard not feel viscerally moved and impressed; the architectural genius of the Incas is impossible to overstate. They built walls and buildings of stone blocks crafted to fit so precisely without mortar that they’re able to withstand earthquakes. Their terraces, cut into hillsides to maximize irrigation and layered with stone, sand and other materials to prevent landslides and erosion, are testimony to their farming prowess.

I kept trying to imagine the city as it was back then, crawling with Incas instead of tourists from around the world, but my imagination was too dim. If only I could time travel. And though I and my family spent eight hours at Machu Picchu, much longer than I’d imagine, it now seems like a dream in the clouds. Albeit, a very powerful dream.

Machu Picchu in the day

Machu Picchu in the day

DSCN0115-1Note that because Machu Picchu’s popularity grows every year, authorities announced that beginning July 1, visitors will be restricted to visiting either in the morning from 6am to noon or in the afternoon from noon to 5:30pm. I suggest the afternoon, because it seems everyone wants to see the sun rise and crowds tend to thin out as the day progresses. In my opinion, the sunrise wasn’t that great anyway. That’s not why you’ve come.

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Ise-Shima Famous for Shrines, Pearls and Female Divers

Ise Shima National Park2Ise-Shima National Park is home to Japan’s most famous Shinto shrine, making it a must-see destination for the Japanese for centuries. Its ragged coastline and many islands also make it a natural for the cultivation of pearls and as a habitat for many sea creatures. Women living in fishing villages have been free-diving for edibles for centuries; some have opened rustic restaurants for visitors wishing to learn more about their lives. Easily reached from Osaka or Nagoya, Ise-Shima is worth getting off the beaten track for its beauty, history and attractions geared toward families.

Ise Shima Grand Shrine

The Kaguraden, one of many buildings at the Ise Jingu Grand Shrines

The Ise Jingu Grand Shrines date back some 2,000 years, founded to honor the sun goddess, considered the legendary ancestress of the Imperial family. Remarkably, it’s torn down and reconstructed every twenty years. Also remarkable is the fact that its inner sanctuary is off limits. Yet that hasn’t stopped this being one of Japan’s most important pilgrimages through the ages. Nearby is Oharai-machi, once the main footpath leading to the shrine for worshippers during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and now lined with restaurants and souvenir shops catering to today’s visitors.

Ise Shima famous for pearls

This Liberty Bell replica, made for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City and now on display on Mikimoto Pearl Island, contains 12,250 pearls

Ise-Shima’s other claim to fame is its pearls. It was here, in 1893, that Kokichi Mikimoto finally succeeded after five years of failure to induce an oyster to create a pearl by artificially inducing an irritant. Female divers (called ama in Japanese) were employed to maintain the oyster rafts floating in Ise-Shima’s many bays, not surprising that they were already experts in diving for Ise lobster, seaweed and other edibles from the sea.

One of the most unique things to do in Ise-Shima is to have lunch at one of the rustic ama huts, where women grill and serve seafood they fetched themselves and talk about their lifestyle, fast disappearing because of more options now open to younger Japanese women.

For more about Ise-Shima, see my report and photos published by frommers.com called The Undiscovered Delights of Japan’s Ise-Shima National Park.

Ise-Shima's Ama prepare lunch in their hut

Ise-Shima’s Ama prepare lunch in their hut

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