Travel With Marilyn

Celebrate the Holidays, Galveston-Style

Marilyn JonesIt was a balmy, 75 degrees F in Galveston, Texas, but once I donned the bright blue parka and entered ICE LAND: Ice Sculptures, A Caribbean Christmas! at Moody Gardens, the thermometer plunged to a brisk nine degrees. In addition to the sudden chill, I was also surrounded by an underwater fantasy of “The North Pole meets the Caribbean” created by master ice carvers from Harbin, China.

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Two million pounds of ice were used to create this imaginative display of fish, turtles, dolphins, eagle rays, and coral reefs.

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The labyrinth of ice sculptures towered above me in bright colors and creative designs. I passed a lighthouse, fishing vessel, and scuba diver, moving toward an ice submarine and schools of fish. Back “above water” was a beach with Adirondack chairs and a surfing Santa that I saw before nearing Shiver’s Ice Bar. Just outside the main display area, guests were also invited to the ice slide for more fun in this chillin’ version of the Caribbean.

But ICE LAND is only the beginning of the holiday fun at Moody Gardens. When the sun set on Galveston, a magical world of Christmas lights enveloped other attractions, including an outdoor ice rink. Moody Gardens Festival of Lights is one of the largest holiday celebrations in the region, with more than one million lights, a hundred animated light displays, and live entertainment.

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I strolled along the mile-long maze of colored lights taking on the personas of toy soldiers, skating teddy bears, and a train station. Giant Christmas trees lined the walkway.

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In addition to all the holiday happenings are Moody Gardens’ year-round attractions, including Aquarium Pyramid, Rainforest Pyramid, Discovery Museum and Colonel Paddlewheel Boat.

What a great time of year to visit this Galveston landmark and enjoy the additional offerings of the season!


Ice Land, Festival of Lights, and other holiday attractions are open through January 8. All other attractions are open year-round.

Holiday Gifts for Travelers

Marilyn JonesHo, ho, ho, it’s that time of year again! The big question is always what to give friends and family. Well, if someone is an active or armchair traveler, here are a few ideas.

Packing cubes, organizers, and luggage:

I think one of the most stressful parts of planning any trip is packing. Over the years, it has helped me to use packing cubes, cosmetic organizers bags, and, of course, the right piece of luggage.

eBags and Lewis N. Clark are two retailers offering packing cubes. I can’t say enough about how much easier they make it when you pack, as well as when you are on the road.

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Another organizer I found from Lewis N. Clark is a cosmetic case with plenty of space and one clear side, so you know exactly what’s inside. The two sides unzip from one another so that if you need a smaller cosmetic case, you have that too.

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This year I started using an eBags EXO 2.0 Hardside 24 Spinner as my luggage of choice. There are so many features, including recessed wheels and handles, as well as a built-in, TSA-approved lock.

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eBags also sells a variety of chargers including the Lifejacket Ouick Charge Battery. I use mine in airports when I can’t find an electrical outlet. Small, it is so easy to take on any trio.

Guidebooks:

Having a comprehensive reference is great while planning a trip and while on the road. National Geographic and JonGlez are two publishers offering excellent guidebooks.

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RFID Security:

Always carry an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) wallet or purse to make sure thieves don’t take your credit card or passport information. Lewis N. Clark has a large selection of RFID safe gear, including a backpack/purse that I hauled all over Vietnam and Cambodia. It was roomy enough to carry everything I needed, but lightweight and, with the cross-body strap, easy to carry while on the go.

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Travel Clothing:

An ongoing problem for everyone is wrinkled garments, so, working with Chico’s, I tried out a dress in their TRAVELERS collection. I couldn’t believe how great it looked after packing and hauling it halfway around the world!

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Christmas Ornaments:

What would Christmas be without ornaments?  My go-to, online, holiday store is Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. In addition to their huge variety of travel-related ornaments, they also feature personalized and dated ones exclusive to Bronner’s. Maybe a package with a name on it or the year would look nice on a friend’s tree.

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For the ladies:

Victoria Trading Co. is a fun place to find travel gifts — from tapestry car mats to a lavender-scented sleep mask.

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Stocking Stuffers:

It can be dangerous to fly long distances and not wear compression socks. I hesitated for years, thinking they only came in white. After a search online, I found several cute styles at BrightLife Go. I now wear one pair and pack a second pair for my return flight — no swelling!

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A situation I often face is protecting my camera when it’s raining. Well, I discovered a camera rain sleeve featured in Outdoor Photographer magazine. The Op/Tech USA sleeve allowed me to protect my camera and be able to continue shooting. It comes in several sizes and is easy to carry in your camera bag. It worked perfectly when I was in Vietnam and Cambodia during monsoon season.

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Luggage Scale:

Never travel without a luggage scale! Lewis N. Clark is one retailer offering this invaluable travel tool.

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Luggage Tag:

A cute and inexpensive gift is a luggage tag. Lewis N. Clark has a great selection of fun tags.

Electrical Adapters:

Anyone planning an international trip will need an electrical adapter. Lewis N. Clark offers an all-in-one plug that includes two USB chargers which can accommodate everything from your laptop to your phone.

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For the kids:

A great, educational, and fun way to teach children about the world is with Little Passports. Every month, the child gets an age-appropriate package in the mail with activities, stickers, and lots of information about a specific destination.

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Another idea for children is a travel book. National Geographic has a nice selection of books to wake the wanderlust in any child.

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Have fun shopping, and have a blessed Christmas and holiday season!!

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Charleston Harbor Cruise

Marilyn JonesThere are two things I like to do when I visit a city, if they are available. First is a tour. This may be a walking tour, carriage tour, or bus tour. It helps me get my bearings before I set off on my own. The second activity I think is important is a cruise: river, harbor, or ocean. The cruise often offers insights into why a location was chosen for settlement, as well as into city commerce.

It was a rainy day when I visited Charleston, South Carolina recently. I wasn’t dodging raindrops, but rather downpours. After a short time trying to balance an umbrella, camera, and purse as I walked along tree lined streets with their grand centuries-old mansions, I decided the timing was perfect for a bus tour and cruise. I’d be out of the weather and be able to sit back and relax for a couple of hours.

I chose Gray Line City Tour, which offers a combination minibus tour followed by SpiritLine Cruises’ harbor cruise. The rain poured and the driver/guide pointed out different historic sites, houses, and churches as he wove in anecdotes and fun facts.

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Just as we reached the Battery Seawall where we would disembark for the harbor cruise, the rain slowed to a drizzle and the sun started to peak out from between angry gray clouds.

I boarded the boat and settled in, hopeful the rain would hold off for a little while.

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Charleston Harbor is an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, formed by the junction of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The harbor was a major reason for the establishment and growth of Charleston. Part of the Intracoastal Waterway, our guide — a retired history teacher — told us that the magnificent Ravenel Bridge framing our view was America's longest cable-stayed bridge.

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Past the bridge, we circled the retired aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown, that is now dedicated for tours and educational purposes.

Our guide also spoke at length about the Civil War and about Fort Sumter — the site where the first shots of the war were fired. We learned that the harbor was the site of the first successful submarine attack in history, on February 17, 1864.

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It was a relaxing way to learn even more about the city and its fascinating history, and we had a fantastic view of the Battery and the grand mansions overlooking the harbor.

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All too soon our cruise ended, and we were back on the minibus headed to the Visitors' Center where our tour began.

Charleston is a 300-year-old city with many stories to tell. Start the narrative on a tour and a cruise, and then set off to make your own vacation history.

New Book Celebrates Yellowstone

Marilyn JonesBefore the internet, I almost always bought books when I traveled so I'd have them to refer back to. Whether on a guided tour or exploring on my own, I wanted facts about what I learned and to better understand what I experienced. From twenty-page pamphlets to massive hardback books, I was always loaded down with reference material when I returned home.

As the internet gained strength and eventually provided the information I wanted and needed, I stopped buying this reference material. Until recently. Just like reading a print magazine over its digital cousin, I once again started collecting a few well-chosen travel books.

One book I was especially interested in was National Geographic’s recently released Yellowstone: A Journey through America’s Wild Heart. It seems a lifetime ago that I watched the Old Faithful geyser erupt and observed black bears and their cubs meandering through the woodlands. With all the publicity surrounding the National Park Service's centennial, I decided to research some of America’s western parks in hopes of returning to relive the pleasure of this nation’s wilderness.

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Author David Quammen’s narrative and the fantastic photography captured by eight National Geographic photographers over a two-year period make the book a treasure for travelers who have experienced the park, as well as anyone planning a visit.

There are mountains, forests, and lakes to explore, wildlife — including 67 species of mammals and nearly 300 species of birds — and the volcano’s hidden power rising up in colorful hot springs, mudpots, and geysers. There’s history to discover here; the park’s establishment led the way for a century of conservation “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

In 2015, four million sightseers visited the park. When you read the book and marvel at the exceptional photography, you’ll certainly know why America’s oldest national park is so popular.

Santa Fe Museums Showcase Art and History

When it comes to museums, Santa Fe has a lot to brag about. From art museums, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, to the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, there are more than a dozen museums to tour in this city of just over 80,000.

On a recent visit, I chose to tour three; each with a different story to tell.

Museum of International Folk Art

Home to the world’s largest collection of folk art, the museum represents cultures from around the world. With a collection of more than 150,000 artifacts, the museum is a labyrinth of color, shape and beauty; carvings, paintings and creations on paper.

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Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

The only museum in the country dedicated to exhibiting and interpreting the art of the Spanish colonial period with a focus on Hispanic New Mexico, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art houses a collection of more than 3,700 pieces.

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Palace of the Governors

            Built by the Spanish as a government building in 1610, the Palace remains the country's oldest continuously occupied public building. Its exhibits chronicle the history of Santa Fe as well as New Mexico and the region. The National Historic Landmark was the original seat of New Mexico's territorial government since the time of Spanish colonization.

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Santa Fe is a destination of history, culture and art. A visit here, anytime of year, is a treasure for the senses and a journey for the soul.

Vicksburg House Offers History and Ghosts Sightings

Marilyn JonesHidden away in a wooded area at the end of Harrison Street is the McRaven Tour Home. Said to be the most haunted house in Mississippi, the Vicksburg historic landmark is open for tours and is a popular attraction in the city.

Vicksburg — one of the Mississippi’s most haunted cities — is the site of the famous Civil War battle where more than 1,600 soldiers died. McRaven and its grounds were used as a Confederate camp and field hospital.

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Two tours are offered here: a daytime house tour and an evening haunted tour. I opted for the daytime tour, which was spooky enough. My tour guide, a young woman in her 20s, told me that at least five people died in the house, not including former owner John Bobb, who was murdered just outside, or the soldiers being cared for in the field hospital.  

Touring the house

McRaven House takes you on a journey of three times, three styles, and the lives of three men who built sections of the home.

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My tour started in the newest section. The beautiful Greek Revival addition was added by Bobb, a prominent brick manufacturer and sawmill owner, in 1849. On the day I visited, the grand front door and second floor veranda were decorated for Halloween.  

Inside the front door, a beautiful flying wing staircase dominates the foyer. The parlor is elegant with its period furnishings and décor. The tour continued throughout the first and second floors before we entered the house’s next historic chapter.

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The middle section was built by Sheriff Stephen Howard in 1836. Using the original structure, Howard enclosed a patio — creating a stairway — and added a bedroom, a dining room, and two-story covered porch. His choice of design was the Empire period.

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Although my guide didn’t mention the ghosts (I am, after all, on the day tour), she did tell me Howard lost his young wife, Mary Elizabeth, after childbirth, and that her spirit is the most active ghost in the house. The bedside lamp turns on and off at will, and her apparition is seen on the newer section’s staircase and in its dining room.

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The original portion of the house was built in 1797, before Mississippi became a state. Highwayman Andrew Glass built a two-room brick structure that had the bedroom above the kitchen with a removable ladder to prevent an ambush while he slept.

Glass robbed people traveling the Natchez Trace and would hide out in McRaven. His death was the start of McRaven's haunting.

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What is remarkable about the house, too, is that each owner left the previous rooms untouched.

The tour is interesting and well worth making time for while visiting Vicksburg.

If you go:

Come for the Vicksburg National Military Park and stay for the beauty of the city, its antebellum houses and the history of its residents.

Duff Green Manor, Anchuca Historic Mansion and Inn and Baer House Inn are all excellent choices for accommodations.

For more information, visit: Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Vietnam War Horrors Revisited at Hanoi Hilton

Marilyn JonesIt was mid-afternoon when our Exodus Travels tour group entered Hỏa Lò Prison, also known as "Hanoi Hilton," where U.S. POWs were held during the Vietnam War.

What is left of Hỏa Lò Prison is the gatehouse, which now houses a museum focusing on both its use by the French and by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

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The first rooms are cavernous and show the deplorable conditions endured by Vietnamese political prisoners, who were held by the French during the 1950s. At the time, the Vietnamese were struggling for independence from France.

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The rooms dedicated to the prison’s American POW detainment take on a totally different tone: the illusion of humane treatment with photos of POWs celebrating the holidays by decorating a Christmas tree and sitting down to a festive meal. When the POWs were released after being held for years, they told of being tortured and interrogated by the North Vietnam.

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Toward the end of the tour is a courtyard with a wall of graphic art reflecting the horrible conditions prisoners here lived through while incarcerated.

For anyone wanting to better understand American history and the Vietnam War, this prison should be on their list of places to visit.