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Branson’s Ozark Mountain Christmas

December 7, 2011 by · Comments Off on Branson’s Ozark Mountain Christmas 

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but once I got there, I was amazed: more theatre seats than Broadway and all of them reasonably priced, free parking, clean mountain air, and a bit of corny humor.

Branson is a small city in Missouri (resident population about 10,000) with a big heart; they aim to please and often do—but it’s not for everyone.  Cosmopolitan, sophisticated or diversified it is not.  But handicapped accessible, family friendly and affordable it reigns.

Recently returned from Branson’s Ozark Mountain Christmas where the city wide festival (which began November first) runs through mid-December. Look carefully at show schedules from December 15-31st.  Many of the performers take time off for their personal holidays.

Branson is not afraid to flaunt its Christian philosophy, patriotism or hillbilly roots. Tourism began to develop in the 1940’s when the book The Shepherd of the Hills was made into a movie starring John Wayne. Visitors flocked to the area wanting to see the Ozarks for themselves. Over the years, more and more families were attracted and the city boomed by adding country music performances. The shows expanded and Branson now hosts eight million visitors each year.

Main Street bustles with a variety of retailers like Dick’s Oldtime 5 & 10, craft shops, boutique fashions and restaurants. Route 76  passes most of the 50 plus theatres- ranging from small one-man shows to the over-powering Sight and Sound stage.  To accommodate customer needs, some shows start as early as 10 am and give multiple performances throughout the day.

Beyond live entertainment, the activity options change with the season, as does the crowd.  College students arrive on Spring break, families descend in the summer, and mature visitors come by the busload favoring the fall and holiday season.

Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

In summer, the lakes provide excellent fishing grounds, water sports, boating (including a double wheeled paddleboat) and relaxation. Golfers choose among half a dozen courses while hikers and bikers find paved walking paths in Dogwood Canyon to woodsy nature trails. Horseback and ATV trails are also popular.

Thrill seekers venture up the 200 foot Shepherd of the Hills Tower for the Vigilante Ziprider. The riders zoom half a mile down at speeds reaching 50 miles per hour. (I tried this attraction and found it to be a blast!)

Vigalante Ziprider

Fall foliage rightfully brings out shutterbugs and those who enjoy the beautiful mountains in full color. The town slows down only in January and February when most of the venues work behind the scenes to  produce new shows.

For entertainment value and Christmas spirit, head to Branson. It’s not too late to revel in some holiday magic.

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Explore Branson: www.explorebranson.com.

Canada – A Delightful Day in Halifax

November 18, 2010 by · Comments Off on Canada – A Delightful Day in Halifax 

Canon Firing at the Citadel in Halifax

Following a delayed and circuitous route to Nova Scotia (don’t get me started with airline delays) I arrived in Halifax, Canada by evening. So did my friend, Barb, from Colorado and that left us with a day to explore the city before our photography workshop with Bryan Peterson. But, I was also left without my luggage.

We began walking in the direction of the Old Burying Ground across from Government House (circa 1799) which reminded me of civic buildings in Belfast or Edinburgh. I’d passed a statue of Queen Victoria on my taxi ride into town, giving another UK feel to the city.

The Old Burying Ground, Halifax

The haunting old cemetery dates back to 1749 and holds over 12,000 graves but only 1,200 headstones. A number of the markers are carved with detailed motifs common to the 1700-1800’s and contain poignant epitaphs honoring the deceased. Stopping here brought a  personal connection to the early maritime history of the province.

We strolled along Barrington Street to St Paul’s, the first church built in Nova Scotia and the oldest building in Halifax. The church survived the tremendous explosion of 1917 when two warships carrying TNT collided in the harbor. The resulting fire, said to be the largest blast before the atomic bomb, caused a death toll of 1,900 with an additional 9,000 injured.

Reaching City Hall, we headed uphill toward the Citadel, one of the most visited National Historic Sites in Canada. Rightly so;  this stronghold presents living history, costume and color, plus a grand view of the seaport below. The star-shaped enclosure was built in the19th century as a British fortification with multiple lookouts. I reckon it would be nearly impossible for a surprise attack.

Every noon the 78th Highlanders perform a gun ceremony and blast the canon atop the Citadel. Unfortunately, we just missed the event but encountered a friendly bagpiper dressed in a green plaid kilt.  Another member of the regiment, festooned with an ostrich-feathered hat, took us on a  tour of the musket galleries, garrison cells and parade grounds. Barb and I snapped away at the photo worthy changing of the guard and smaller canon firing by the royal artillery.

Changing of the Guard, The Halifax Citadel

We then stopped at corner of Argyle and Sackville Street for lunch at Durty Nelly’s, an authentic Irish Pub which was designed and built in Ireland and shipped to Canada. The restaurant sports an elongated wooden bar and apparently is ‘ the  place’ for listening to the Craic, what the Irish call storytelling and partying. FYI- My seafood chowder was mighty fine, too.

Halifax boasts a deep, natural harbor, actually the second-largest in the world which called for investigation.  A ferry crosses the harbor to and fro Dartmouth so we grabbed a seat and began photographing the skyline and waterfront. Apparently you can ride all day on your $2.50 ticket. Sadly, we did not leave time for  The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the city’s signature museum. To be honest, my feet were killing me as I’d worn heeled boots on the plane and they were my only shoe choice.  If I ever return I’d like to see the Titanic displays in the museum. Halifax was closest to the tragic sinking of the oceanliner.

The Great Halifax Harbour

We strolled along the restored buildings on the wharf, a popular tourist haven, and stopped into Nova Scotia Crystal. To my surprise, we found crystal being mouth blown, hand-cut and etched right there in the factory. Irish artisans hoping to keep their craft alive opened the facility in 1996 and  it remains the singular crystal manufacturer in Canada. Each master craftsmen, from glass blower to cutter, have apprenticed their skills for a minimum of ten years. The  showroom pieces glisten in the light and tempt purchase, but watching the operation remains the best part.

Etching a goblet at Nova Scotia Crystal

After just one day in the walking- friendly city, I felt I had it under control. The layout is straight forward and pretty directionally unchallenging.  The thing I will remember was the aura of welcome emanating  from the citizens: the baristas in Starbucks,the regimental members in the Citadel, the waiters and waitresses and workers on the ferry. They couldn’t have made a tourist feel more appreciated, something I don’t usually perceive in American cities.   At the time, I did not know the awe inspiring sense of wonder  I would garner from the Oceanstone Inn near Peggy’s Cove, but, I left Halifax grateful to have taken the extra day to tour and connect.

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If you go:

Beautiful Nova Scotia Crystal

The Halliburton, a boutique hotel, became an excellent choice for downtown lodging within easy walking distance of all the sites. The inn, now connected with three townhouse-style buildings, was built in 1809 for the Nova Scotia Supreme Court’s first chief justice. Their small restaurant offered service and food far above expected and really quite sensational.

Read also about lodging at the Oceanstone Inn in my previous article here: A Mystical Escape in Nova Scotia.

Wonders at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

September 13, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Hogwart's Castle in Orlando

Sometimes you look forward to visiting a place to the point that you’re disappointed when you finally arrive. Not so with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando.  I entered Universal’s Islands of Adventure around 4:30 pm on a Saturday afternoon which turned out to be advantageous timing. Hoards of hot, dreary guests were leaving as I walked in. I headed straight back through the theme park, past colorful Seuss Landing, to the 20-acre complex of Hogsmeade.

The snow capped Victorian village feels exactly like stepping into the pages of J.K. Rowling’s famous books.  The place is enchanting, even with throngs of tourists; you feel the author’s dreams and imagination come to life.  HoneyDukes candy shoppe is a luscious allure of sweets, the florists shop window contains screaming mandrake plants and the owl post office sends mail with Hogsmeade stamps.

I didn’t tarry in town, rather high-tailed it to Hogswarts Castle for “the ride.” Signage noted a waiting time of 75 minutes, but I entered the singles line which cut the queue to about 35 minutes. (Hint- families can save time using this approach as long as they don’t mind splitting up for the ride.) While waiting within the castle, visitors are entertained by talking portraits, holograms and the profound sorting hat.

I spoke with Amy from Pennsylvania and her two daughters Elizabeth and Karen. They were repeating their third ride of the day. They’d also visited the park the day before and plan to return for spring break. Needless of say this family of experts cherish all things Harry Potter.

Finally, I was ready to sit down and ride my broomstick on the Forbidden Journey. Off  I flew, up and down swooping to great heights and through narrow alley ways and castle towers. I followed Harry on his adventures, playing Quidditch, escaping from the Whomping Willow tree and immense spiders dangling down to my knees. A fire-spewing dragon roared hot breath at my face, I was squirted by plants, and saw eerie apparitions.  The fast moving thrill was the best amusement park ride I’ve ever ridden: a mix of Disney’s Space Mountain, Haunted House and 3-D Star Wars effects. Just lovely.

I exited and stopped for a Butterbeer– a frozen drink to cool down from the overwhelming heat. Yum- tastes like a cream soda, sweet butterscotch, with a frothy head of a Guinness.

Raising a mug of Butterbeer

I spent about 25 minutes standing outside Ollivander’s wand shop. Upon entering, the costumed shop owner selects one lucky lad to find a wand from the vast collection. The first two offerings were failures, certainly not meant for him, but the third attempt united the wizard and spell caster. Very well done.

I ate dinner at The Three Boomsticks Restaurant, choosing the combo plate of chicken, ribs, roasted potatoes and corn on the cob instead of the more English fish and chips. Far better than anticipated for theme park food.  I completed the meal with a Hogs Head brew, a Sam Adam’s like beer. Total cost of the meal and drink –$19.95. The quantity proved way more than I could eat.

I had a delightful ride on the Hippogriff, a roller coaster which passes by Hagrid’s cottage.  Perfect for youngsters or those who wish a tamer experience. When I was nearing The Dragon Challenge, lightening crackled and the outdoor attractions closed.  I meandered  through the village, stopping to shop on my way out of the park.  The young couple in front of me said they were visiting for the tenth time. The endearing place, built at the cost of $265 million, seems to put a spell on some folk.

In three and a half hours I had pretty well covered the Wizarding World but must confess I saw nothing else in Universal’s huge arena. That’s okay with me, this muggle wanted  to step into Hermione’s shoes and couldn’t have danced through a happier eve.

Evening descends on Hogsmeade

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I Disclose:

While I received a free ticket to Universal as a paid attendee at The Travel Bloggers Show in Orlando, the pass in no way encouraged this blog.  As was previously mentioned in an earlier post, I had planned to visit the park this fall. I do want to thank Universal for the special opportunity and will definitely return.

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