Friday, March 30, 2012

San Blas, Mexico

Some 30 hours are better than other 30 hourses. Morrissey said that. And I say San Blas, three hours north of Puerto Vallarta, is worth the drive.

The beach is fine -- a dark brown sand beach with no one on it (weekdays, or when it's not Semana Santa) -- and a scrappy little town that's a hoot to spend time in. Particularly when one hour at the boozy San Blas Social Club turns to three, and the tequila bottle comes out. The bartender, Bernardo, is a tiny guy with a thick Hemingway beard, perhaps unsurprisingly considering he once was a bullfighter in Mexico City.

Much more to say, crocodiles and English poets for example, but will just sum up some of what I did in 16 seconds.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Goose bumps and chills in Villisca

I left the murder scene haunted. The days following my visit, images of the bedrooms, the covered mirrors, the attic and the gravesites kept surfacing in my mind. My perception of the mass murder vaulted from an Iowa legend to the grotesque reality of eight innocent victims that were bashed and slaughtered by an axe during the night, and according to some, left behind paranormal activity.

The scene is the quiet little town of Villisca in the southwest corner of Iowa. The story has been featured on at least two television shows Ghost Adventures (Travel Channel) and Ghost Lab (Discovery Channel). It was because of these shows that my daughter, home on college spring break, wanted to experience The Villisca Ax Murder House first hand. I was game for a daytime visit – only daytime. That is how our adventure began.

But a bit of history first. Nearly one hundred years ago, June 10, 1912, the Josiah & Sarah Moore family, along with two neighbor girls were killed by an ax murderer during the night. The evening prior, while the family and neighbor children attended church activities, young Katherine Moore invited her friends Ina and Lena to spend the night. The next morning Mary Peckham a neighbor, noticed that the curtains were drawn and there was no activity at the house. She found the house locked so she contacted Josiah Moore’s brother. He was able to enter the home and discovered the massacre. Word spread quickly through the town and, before officials could secure the crime scene, dozens of town folks had walked through the house contaminating any clues to solve the crime. The mystery is still unsolved, though many speculations remain.

During the guided tour we drove past the victim’s church, where they had spent the evening prior to the murders, then to the cemetery and visited the grave sites. Our docent, Kristi Peamer, led us to the Stillinger’s first, where Ina (8) and Lena (11) were put to rest. Their mother Edith, pregnant at the time of their murders, was so overcome by grief she lost her pregnancy, a baby boy, a few weeks later; he is buried beside his sisters. Just a few steps away, the Moore family was buried. Laying there were Josiah (43) and Sarah Moore (39), and their four children, Katherine (10), Herman (11), Boyd (7) and Paul (5).

Back at the house, our tour guide, John Houser, was waiting and ready to share stories about the murder and subsequent paranormal activity. Emotionally, I was doing okay, still fairly skeptical when he starting sharing stories in the third person, stories about other people’s experiences in the house. But when he started sharing his own experiences in the house, the voices he has heard and seeing doors that had been slammed shut , John’s first hand stories gave me the goose bumps and triggered the chills down my spine.

Pausing on his stories, John encouraged us to explore the house on our own. Walking through the rooms was a time warp back to 1912. The mirrors were covered and the kerosene lamp chimneys were missing, just how they were found after the murders. While the bodies were long gone, the blood stains scoured clean and gouges from the axe handle hitting the ceiling were covered, I felt like I was back in time, like a family member could walk in at anytime, almost. Thankfully, the other tourists dressed in modern attire kept me tethered to 2012. I don’t think you’ll see me wandering through the house all by myself even in broad daylight.

The curators placed framed documentation about the victims in each room, which causes one to stop and reflect. This is real, very real. Eight people died here, may they rest in peace.

If you believe in the paranormal or not, a visit to The Villisca Axe Murder House is one you will remember and will probably haunt you for days to come. It did me.
LuAnn Reinders, Iowa Tourism Office

Monday, March 26, 2012

Alfresco RV Adventure: A Fresh Look at Des Moines

Though the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Tournament has Iowa hitting headlines as of late, you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate this Midwest state’s winning character. Many travelers elect to head to the capital city for its liberal outdoor offerings, from estate gardens and wineries to campgrounds and arboretums. So if you're looking for a fresh place to give your family a bit of alfresco adventure, consider Des Moines. Here are some of the hot spots that help this cool city -- which sits at the heart of the state where Interstates 80 and 35 intersect -- win the vote for one of the country's best RV vacation destinations.

Camping: RV parks and campgrounds are well represented throughout the Des Moines area, so choosing your favorite shouldn't be difficult. The wooded sites at Polk County Conservation's Yellow Banks Park, overlooking the Des Moines River from a high bluff, are top contenders if you want a rural feeling close to the city. For those in need of some family fun, Adventureland Amusement Park (just outside the capital in Altoona) also provides full-service hookups, recreational areas, and swimming seasonally.

Photo courtesy of the Greater Des Moines
Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Arts: Held on the State Capitol steps since 1947, Music Under the Stars has been instrumental in bringing classical, jazz, and chamber music to the masses. Or raise the tempo on Friday nights with hot local bands at Rendezvous on Riverview. Both series are free, family-friendly, and fabulous.

A couple miles west of the Capitol on Grand Avenue, you'll find the John & Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, filled with contemporary works by some of the world's most revered artists. This 4.4-acre urban green space is an ideal space to stretch your legs after a long drive.

Nature: You won't find elephants or donkeys at the Blank Park Zoo, but you will find nearly 104 other types of animals, including red pandas, snow leopards, Magellan penguins, and hissing cockroaches. In the warmer months, you'll also discover plenty of demonstrations and even have the chance to ride a camel and feed the giraffes.

Prefer flora to fauna? Head to the Des Moines Botanical & Environmental Center to dig into 15,000 exotic plants, an interactive display greenhouse, a tropical conservatory, and formal outdoor gardens.

Sports: The nearby city of Indianola hosts the annual National Balloon Classic at the end of each July. This colorful festival is filled with rides, competitions, and plenty of high-flying entertainment.

Looking to go a bit faster than the wind can carry you? Step on the gas and head east on I-80 to Newton, home to the Rusty Wallace-designed Iowa Speedway. (You can also witness live horse racing just outside the capital at Prairie Meadows Racetrack.)

Food: Eating well can be just the ticket to a fulfilling getaway, so be sure to stop into the Downtown Farmers Market, which has a generous platform of fresh fruit, veggies, herbs, flowers, meats, and cheeses from local purveyors. (Ostrich, anyone?)

Then drink in the lush hills and rich flavors of St. Charles, situated slightly south of Des Moines, on the patio at the Madison County Winery and Twisted Vine Brewery.

Joe Laing, El Monte RV Rentals

(Joe is the marketing director for El Monte RV Rentals. You can see more RV vacation ideas in their Monty's Musings RV Travel Blog and check out RV Camping Pictures.)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

NYC Fact: David Lee Roth Walking Tour!

It's a great walk. Beginning where David Lee Roth, way after leaving Van Halen, was busted trying to buy a $5 bag of pot in 1993, and ending at historic Cafe Wha?, two blocks south, where a reunited Van Halen played in January 2012. Cafe Wha? is owned by Manny Roth, David's uncle. Whole thing takes about four minutes. You'll love it.

See more 15-second videos on New York City here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Favorite Place: Mrauk U, Burma

I love ruins. I’ve climbed Mayan pyramids, sat in Greek amphitheaters and walked lost Roman roads. It’s not the literal history that draws me -- I don't care that much about kings I'd never heard of before -- but the atmosphere that feels the dream worlds Chip, Nancy and I would concoct in my backyard fort as a kid.

A lot of people have been calling Burma's main archaeological site Bagan's 4000 temples as something like 'the next Angkor Wat' (actually I make the case today for and post a video on Lonely Planet). To me, the ancient Rakhaing capital of Mrauk U -- lost in a remote corner of Burma by the Bangladesh border -- offers more. A site that's not as expansive or artistic as Bagan or Angkor Wat, but more "alive," as there's full overlap between village life and archeological site of 700-some 500-year-old stupas and temples.

Actually I learned the fun begins before you get there. No public roads reach Mrauk U. So after a short flight from Yangon to the faded port city of Sittwe, I boarded a huge double-deck local ferry for the lazy six-hour ride up the Kaladan River, east from the Bay of Bengal. We stopped every hour or so to let on locals, who sat around me in wooden lounge chairs and snacked on insects sold on the stick. One monk in a saffron robe sitting next to me pointed out the tallest of a distant range of Dr Seuss-like hills. “That is Mt 500 Ducks."

A few hours later, the sky then darkened and filled with a smear of thousands of stars, I wrapped up in a borrowed blanket to escape the chill. I could barely see a few feet before my face, then -- as Mrauk U grew neared -- I could just make out on the onshore chatter of a barely visible group of local men, wearing skirt-like longyis, circling a fire before a thatch hut. It felt like a trip back in time.

Early depictions of Mrauk U sometimes show it as a dreamy sci-fi cityscape of skyscrapers connected by air towers. The real thing is just as magical. More people should know about it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Favorite Museum: Woolaroc

Researching Lonely Planet guidebooks, you end up seeing dozens and dozens of museums no one would really bother with. Some of them I loved. The Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest, for example, has hand-written signs and an arrow leading to a makeshift "grandma" room. It's filled with various knick-knacks once belonging to various grandmas, with the gentle suggestion that "life is busy, but we should always keep one grandma keepsake after she dies." That's the sweetest thing I've ever seen.

But it's not my favorite museum. My favorite, decked in limestone and nostalgia, is the museum at Woolaroc, a collection of Western and Native American art at the one-time summer home of Frank Phillips of Phillips '66, in the rolling prairies of the Osage Nation outside Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I've been, probably 20 times (and counting) in my life, often meeting cousins to picnic to the soundtrack of locust buzz and lingering long below paintings of Custer's Last Stand.

There's plenty of wildlife to see and one fake one I love: a (fake) talking buffalo, who used to suck up trash and still tells you not to touch him if you pet him. Which I always do.

The video above is a look at Woolaroc (named for the area's Wood, Lakes, Rocks) in 15 seconds.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Feeling lucky? Enter Dinner and Drafts Contest Today

In the last year I have learned a lot about beer. If you think all beer tastes the same, think again. Iowa’s craft beer industry is growing quickly. There are currently 25 breweries serving up a wide variety of lagers and ales. The passionate brewmasters enjoy teaching consumers about the art of beer. They make you excited to try something new, and make you proud of your flavor of choice.

If you haven’t tapped (pun intended) into the craft beer industry yet, the Dinner and Drafts contest could help you try something new for free! In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, the Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board is giving away a $50 gift card to the Iowa Craft Brewery of your choice. To help you find the breweries, they are are also giving away an iPad2. You can use the Iowa Wine and Beer app for turn by turn directions to Iowa’s breweries (and wineries). And, because everyone needs a bite to eat, the prize package also includes a $50 gift card to the Dine Iowa restaurant of your choice.

Enter by visiting The winner will be announced on March 17 at 3:17 pm (CST) on Will the luck of the Irish be with you?

Colleen Murphy, Iowa Tourism Office

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Top 10 Leprechaun Questions You're Afraid to Ask

Getting ready for St Patrick's Day? This year do it armed with truth. Leprechaun truth.

1. Are leprechauns real?
Yes. And they have pots of gold to give if you catch them and don't let them go before the tricksters give it to you. It's all true.

2. Are leprechauns really Irish?
Likely not. They're more likely Scots. Leprechauns originally had different names in different places of Ireland (eg Luricawne in Kerry, Cluricawne in Monaghan, Logheryman in the north). In Ulster, the little men were once known as 'grogoch' or 'pecht,' the latter believed to be linked with the Scottish aboriginal people, the Pict, who were driven out of Scotland via Celts. (Some say they crossed on land bridge.)

Meanwhile, Germany have their hobgoblins, Wales the bwca or brownies, and England the Lob-lie-by-the-fire. Leprechauns may have been pushed to Ireland through attacking Celts or Vikings, and may have originated in Scotland or farther east.

3. Do leprechauns wear green?
They do now, but not originally. Many sources suggest they first wore red. For one, Samuel Lover, an Irish-Anglo writer in the early 19th century, described leprechauns as wearing 'a red square-cut coat.' In 'Irish Wonders' from 1888, David Russell McAnally describes the 'little red jacket' and 'red breeches' leprechauns wear.

4. Leprechauns are big St Patrick fans, right?
Wrong. Per Bob Curran's fun 'The Truth about Leprechauns' (2000), leprechauns do meet and party on March 17, but aren't fans of the patron saint (no fairies are), for they feel he cheated them out of land.

5. What's leprechaun mean? 'Green guy'?
No. It's believed to mean 'half shoe maker,' derived from leith bhrógan. The name comes from the fact that leprechauns are great shoe makers, but only repair one shoe -- half a pair -- picking whichever shoe is most worn from excessive dancing.

6. Are leprechauns nice?
No, not at all. To modern-day leprechaunologist Colin Chapman, who writes on them at, they are 'a difficult kith, belligerent and easily angered.' They're prone to 'a binge of whiskey,' they 'steal horses' (later cars), they're 'liars' and 'gang members.' Other show, per Curran, 'a fondness for abducting unbaptised human babies.'

There is one slight exception: the leprechauns of 'some parts' of Munster, per some sources, where leprechauns are more amiable and sometimes will give a sparán na scillinge (purse of the shilling), which never empties.

7. What's a leprechaun's favorite song?
You'll laugh, but probably 'Danny Boy.' The popular folk song is derived from the melody of 'Londonderry Air,' which is said to have been written by harpist Rory Dall O'Cahan in the 1600s. Though it's believed, as told by Curran, that O'Cahan lifted the melody from a leprechaun harpist he heard along the banks of the Roe River in North Derry. That's right, leprechauns wrote the music for 'Danny Boy.'

8. Is Paul McCartney a leprechaun pirate?
Yes. The first-known record of 'leprechaun' in English is from Thomas Dekker's comedy 'The Honest Whore' (1604). Dekker, a leprechaun lover apparently, was fresh off a hit poem the year before called, get this, 'Golden Slumbers.' Compare his verse with Paul's bit (changes IN CAPS) from the 'Abbey Road' record:
Golden slumbers
Kiss/FILL your eyes
Smiles awake/AWAIT you when you arise/RISE
Sleep pretty wanton/DARLING, do not cry
And I will sing you a lullaby.
9. Are there female leprechauns?
No one knows. According to Curran, 'The leprechaun is understandably reluctant to discuss the matter.' Some believe leprechauns come from the 'illicit' offspring between a human and a fairy.

10. Where can you find leprechauns?
Leprechauns meet regularly for holidays, particularly May Eve (April 30-May 1) at the Beltane Fair of Uisneach in County Westmeath -- which is a hill that marks the geographic center of Ireland. In WY Evans-Wentz's priceless 'The Fair-Faith in Celtic Countries' from 1911, he claims his mother 'once saw a leprechaun beside a bush hammering.' So look for bush hammerings.

If that seems too iffy, just go to Mobile, Alabama:

Just be sure to hide your unbaptised human babies.

The Irish Fireside blog lists more St Patrick's Day-related links.

Monday, March 12, 2012

NYC Fact: Melville was a Terrible Travel Writer

Herman Melville is New York City's greatest writer. He was born here, at 6 Pearl St (now indicated by a plain gray wall and a plaque tucked behind a towering skyscraper in Lower Manhattan) and died here after three decades of obscurity.

Before he wrote "Moby-Dick," he was desperate for "tobacco money," so he turned to travel writing, capped in his 1849 book "Redburn." It was universally condemned. The London Britannia wrote that it he "seems to have taken up with the notion that anything will do for the public." Melville later apologized.

Friday, March 9, 2012

NYC Fact: New York's smallest island

U Thant Island -- a 100-by-200-foot granite outcropping in the East River -- is named for the former UN Secretary General. You can't go. Only cormorants, briefly, live on it (seen in video). But the closest you can get, as I learned on a guided ferry ride last year, is on the East River Ferry.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

NYC Fact: Woody Allen's Bench

I likely moved to New York City because of Woody Allen films. The whole "Annie Hall" thing. But arguably his most famous New York scene is from 1979's "Manhattan," where Woody and Diane Keaton greet the dawn from a bench overlooking Queensboro Bridge.

For the first time in over a dozen years in New York, I went over to look at it today. The spot is on Sutton Square, at the very east end of E 58th St. There is no bench, but the wee park below has a few. And a guy texting in red.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

NYC Fact: Midtown Oil Wells

NY-based German artist Josephine Meckseper created a couple 25-foot, Texas-inspired pumpjack oil well art sculptures, and plopped them in an empty lot on 46th St and Eighth Avenue, a block from Times Square. (See NY Times article.)

I went by today to see them, and if I could record it all in 15 seconds, to fit in the Tout format. (YouTube calls it 16. But I'll take it.)

The cab driver who pulled up to see what I was videotaping guessed the oil wells were owned by either "Pavoratti or George Bush... I don't know."

Talking Oscar for Best Travel Setting

Last week, I appeared on MSNBC with Alex Witt to share how to relive the settings of three Oscar-nominated films in Paris ("Midnight in Paris"), Kauai ("The Descendants") and LA ("The Artist").