Monday, September 27, 2010

At the Zoo

I don't know about you, but I love a good zoo. When done right -- with lots of open space and healthy, contented-looking animals -- they can be a wonderful way to spend a day (or more), and to learn something you didn't know about the natural world. When done wrong, of course, they're soul-crushing nightmares that make you wish you'd never stepped foot in the place. The National Zoo in Washington, DC (part of the Smithsonian) is among the best I've ever been to. The first thing that struck me was its location, right in the heart of Northwest downtown. Directly off of Connecticut Avenue and a nearby Metro station, you can simply walk right in. No massive parking lot or turn-style maze.

It was designed in 1889 by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York's Central Park, among many other great American public spaces. At 163 acres, it may be small as zoos go but you'd never know it once you are in among the tree-lined pathways and beautiful buildings which adorn the park. The animal installations are sizable and thoughtfully planned, and the park volunteers are first rate and knowledgeable. And unlike most first-class zoos, it's completely free. That's right, there is no charge. It's your zoo, after all. Sure you'll still pay $4 for a lemonade, but you can walk in anytime you like, as many times as you like, and simply enjoy it. If I worked or lived here, I am pretty sure I'd take my lunch here at least once a week. If you don't live in the area, a timeshare rental at Wyndham Old Town Alexandria in nearby Virginia, or Wyndham Vacation Resorts at National Harbor in neighboring Maryland are both convenient to DC and major transportation.

Other great zoo/timeshare combos are San Diego, CA, Knoxville, TN, Boston, MA, and both Tuscon and Phoenix, AZ. Like most great zoo locations, these areas offer abundant family-friendly fun for young and old alike. And timeshare rentals give you the space and amenities you need to really enjoy them.

Well, I am off to see the Giant Pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian at the National Zoo's Asia Trail. These black and white beauties are on loan from the Chinese government, and two of only 160 pandas in captivity. Technically speaking, they are bears and not pandas. Pandas are a separate genus of animal with one living species, the Red Panda. Also from Asia, they are just a little bigger than a house cat, with a face so cute you just want to pick one up and hug it. Of course it would scratch and bite the heck out of you if you did, but we're talking cute as all get out here folks. They have two of them at the zoo as well, so make sure you stop by and give them some love. You'll be glad that you did.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge

That was the stated reason for the monetary gift that created the Smithsonian Institution in 1835. Today it is the largest museum complex in the world, consisting of over nineteen museums, a zoo, and nine research centers. It's based mostly in Washington, DC -- from where I am writing to you today -- and it almost never happened. A very wealthy British scientist named James Smithson decided that if his lone heir, a nephew, did not have any children, he would leave a sum of $10 million dollars (in today's money) to the government of the United States to create just such a museum. Talk about pressure! Well the kid didn't produce and the money went west, even though Smithson himself had never even been to the US and didn't know anyone here. After President Jackson announced the gift to Congress, the money was promptly invested and lost on state bonds that defaulted. But feeling badly about about such a blunder, the Congress authorized repaying the gift (with interest) a some years later, and construction began in 1844.

Now there are over 135 million objects in the museum's collection, of which only a small percentage are on display at one time. Among its most iconic items are Dorothy's ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz, Neil Armstrong's spacesuit, the Wright Brother's Flyer, the Hope Diamond, and the flag that flew over the bombardment at Fort McHenry, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen "The Star Spangled Banner". But there are plenty of lesser known gems to uncover. Ever heard of Soap Man? A fellow named Wilhelm von Ellenbogen, who died of yellow fever in the 1790's, had his corpse go through a rare, but natural, process whereupon all his body fat was converted to soap, mummifying him in great detail. His wife, Soap Lady, was buried in the same spot and her remains now reside in Philadelphia. Or how about Naked George Washington? It was the first statue ever commissioned by Congress, and created by Horatio Greenough in 1841. But when it was delivered, it drew snickers instead of praise. You see, he has Washington in a classic Greek pose of Zeus - naked to his waist, with a toga tastefully draped over his man parts. They tried moving it to less conspicuous places in the Capital, but it continued to draw laughs until it ended up here.

While visiting DC, I am staying at a timeshare rental at Wyndham Old Town Alexandria in nearby Alexandria, VA. It features an indoor pool, exercise area, guest dining area, and is walkable to the Metro system for easily moving around the area. Be sure to leave some time to explore Old Town Alexandria too, with its lively nightlife and quaint shops and restaurants. Looks like you can get a 2 bed/2 bath unit, with a full kitchen, for about $150/night on RedWeek. Our members give it 4.5 stars, and I'd have to agree with them.

Well, I am heading back to "America's attic" as the Smithsonian is sometimes called. I just love presidential memorabilia, and they have some of the best. I am not too interested in naked George, but I would like to see some of his hair. That's right, they have locks of hair from the first 14 presidents. I am not sure why they stopped with Buchanan, but if its anything like having kids, you run out of places to put the stuff if you hold onto every little thing.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Night of the Iguana

I hate to date myself like this, but do you remember that movie with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner? Well even if you don't, it was based on the 1961 Tennessee Williams play of the same name, and helped put Puerta Vallarta on the map as a world-class travel destination. You see, while shooting on location in the area, Mr. Burton was carrying on a very public affair with his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Taylor, and thought she might enjoy tagging along for some fun and sun. I doubt their respective spouses shared their enthusiasm, but the paparazzi absolutely ate it up and descended upon this somewhat sleepy Pacific paradise.

Sleepy no more, Puerta Vallarta is a thriving international tourist destination and the sixth largest city in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Named after former governor Ignatio Vallarta, it is located on the Bay of Banderas and in the shadow of the Sierra Madre. A more picturesque location I cannot think of offhand. So as you might imagine, many of the activities and sights of interest involve the outdoors. From parasailing to deep sea fishing, snorkeling to whale watching, and everything in between, PV (as us gringos call it) has got you covered. And if blood sports are your thing, you can catch a bullfight or watch two chickens peck each other to death at a local cockfight. Not for me, but I sure dig swimming with dolphins at Vallarta Adventures' Dolphin Adventure Center.

During my visit I am staying at Club Regina Puerto Vallarta at Westin. It's on the site of a former coconut palm plantation and about fifteen minutes from downtown. My timeshare rental is a one bed/two bath unit with an ocean view and every possible amenity you can imagine located on site: a grocery store, spa services, medical facilities, live entertainment, pools, and more. It's no wonder members rate this place 4.5 stars, and yet you can rent here for as little as $107/night. Muy loco.

I have to go so I won't miss my zip line canopy tour with Los Veranos Canopy Tours. Do you know about these? They strap you into a climbing harness and shoot you down a glorified clothesline suspended above the tree canopy at speeds up to 30 mph. Are you kidding me?! There are three separate lines in all, nicknamed Banana Split, Speedy Gonzalez, and The Big Enchilada. I have a pretty good idea about the last two, but that first one has me questioning the wisdom of this outing. I'm pretty sure it doesn't have anything to do with ice cream.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

South Padre Island

This little strip of land off the Gulf Coast of Texas was once known as Isla Blanca by its Spanish settlers, but you'll recognize it by its modern name of South Padre Island. Bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and Laguna Madre Bay, South Padre Island is linked to the mainland by the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge. And while it has developed a bit of a wild reputation for its Spring Break activities, the rest of the year it provides a nearly endless list of outdoor family fun in a sub-tropical climate. Get this, they have over 250 days of sunshine a year here. Are you kidding me!? Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, that is a lifetime's worth of sunshine. And talk about casual! Did you know that you can actually get a ticket for wearing a necktie in this town? Since visitors come here to leave the working world behind for a week (or more), they passed a proclamation in 1997 which created a "no tie" zone. The first offense comes with a warning, and a complimentary South Padre Island t-shirt. A second offense will set you back the cost of one silk tie. I love this place.

If nature watching and encounters are your thing, you may end up staying here forever. Some great (and inexpensive) places to hit are the Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center, Sea Turtle Inc., the Birding and Nature Center, and the Laguna Madre Nature Trail. The latter is a raised boardwalk, crossing over four acres of marshland, where many species of migrating birds can be observed up close. Or you may wish to take a guided tour of the area's wildlife attractions with Colley's Fins to Feathers. If you are looking for a little more action with your outdoors, how about deep-sea fishing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, horseback rides on the beach, or the Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark. That last one offers a "standing wave" pool and uphill water slides, if you can get your head around those. Or maybe you just want to read the last few items on your summer reading list in the quiet seclusion of the Gulf of Mexico? Well, Andy Bowie Park has got you covered, along with concessions and bathhouses.

While in South Padre Island, I am renting a timeshare at the Royale Beach & Tennis Club. It features such on-site amenities as three pools, four hot tubs, four tennis courts, a daily activities center, and a poolside bar and grill. Did I mention that it is beachfront, with balconies overlooking the Gulf of Mexico? Rentals are currently available between $166 - $171/night, and there is a timeshare resale available for $1299. members give the place 4 1/2 stars, so you may want to sign up to receive a posting alert for new rentals and resales.

Well I am off to attend a private sand castle construction lesson from master sand sculptor Sandy Feet. I swear that is her real name. If you think you can't be a sculptor of sand, you should check out her Flickr stream. I fancy myself a sand castle hobbyist, but I am hoping to step up my game a bit this year with a lesson from the master. Too bad I don't have one of those great pun name like hers.