Galveston welcomes largest Carnival cruise ship yet

Looking for a cruise this winter? Your options just got more interesting.

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The Carnival Vista now sails out of the Port of Galveston. credit: Carnival

The 133,500-ton Carnival Vista — the largest Carnival cruise ship ever homeported in Galveston — sailed its first voyage out of the Port of Galveston on Sunday. The ship will offer two different weeklong western Caribbean itineraries. One will call at Montego Bay, Grand Cayman and Cozumel, and the second will visit Mahogany Bay (Isla Roatan), Belize and Cozumel.

Carnival Vista, which debuted in 2016 and previously sailed out of Miami, has a guest capacity of nearly 4,000 and has 1,450 crew members. Onboard features include a twin-track suspended bike course, a burger joint by celebrity chef Guy Fieri and a brewery.

Learn more at carnival.com.

Today is Cheap Flight Day! Here’s what you need to know

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If you’re not a frequent traveler, the week of Aug. 23 may have no special significance, but for those of us who spend a lot of time in the sky, it can be even better than Black Friday. That’s because Aug. 23, aka Cheap Flight Day, traditionally marks the start of the fall travel season and is the day that airlines frequently drop fares on many if not most of their routes. Here are some answers to common questions about Cheap Flight Day and some tips on getting the best fares.

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A plane comes in for a landing at Miami International Airport. credit: Getty Images

Why Aug. 23? By Aug. 23, the majority of kids have gone back to school and the demand for leisure travel decreases a lot. Airlines know this, so they drop fares by 20 percent or more.

What happens if I don’t book on Aug. 23? No worries. Cheap Flight Day should really be called Cheap Flight Season, because the reduced fares will continue to be available (and could even drop more) through early November.

Does this apply to international flights? Yes! You’ll see a drop in fares for international as well as domestic flights.

What are the best days to fly to get a good fare? Traditionally, traveling on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays will get you the best deals, but that can vary widely depending on where and when you’re going.

How far in advance of my trip should I book? Usually experts say to book at least 30 days ahead.

Where can I go on the cheap in the next few months?  Great question. Here’s a sample of some deals I found for September and October:

  • Austin to Charleston, S.C., traveling Oct. 5-8: $96 roundtrip on Frontier Airlines. (Note: Frontier is a low-cost airline that charges extra for seats, luggage, etc.)
  • Austin to Philadelphia, traveling Sept. 14-17: $117 roundtrip on United Airlines.
  • Austin to Portland, Oregon, traveling Oct. 13-20: $131 roundtrip on Frontier.
  • Dallas to Reykjavik, Iceland, traveling Oct. 9-19: $260 roundtrip on WOW Air.
  • Austin to London, traveling Sept. 11-18: $475 roundtrip on Norwegian Air.

What sites can help me find good deals? If you want to get out of town but don’t care where you’re going, try using airfarewatchdog.com. You can enter your departure city and it will give you a list of places where you can travel for cheap. I also like kayak.comhipmunk.com and travelzoo.com. And be sure to sign up for weekly alerts and last-minute deal alerts on the major airline websites, including flyfrontier.com/ways-to-save/online-dealstravel.southwest.com/specialoffers and united.com/web/en-US/apps/booking/specials/default.aspx.

What are some other tips for finding deals this fall?

  • Don’t forget to include Houston and Dallas as possible departure cities in your searches, especially for international travel. It can be worth the drive if you can score a low fare.
  • Be flexible with your dates. You know how most airlines offer a calendar view that allows you to see all of the fares to a particular destination for the month? If you have some wiggle room in terms of when you travel, book according to the lowest fare.

5 cool-weather destinations you can visit in August for cheap

Do Austin’s 100-degree summer temperatures have you dreaming of mountains, snow and ice? Never fear!

Here are five cool places you can travel to in August — for cheap.

Colorado

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The Breckenridge area of Colorado is stunning in late summer and fall. credit: Keri Wiginton

Frontier Airlines offers numerous low-cost nonstop flights to and from Denver. If you travel Aug. 11-16 out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, for example, you can find a round-trip nonstop flight for $136.40 (additional baggage and seat fees may apply). Average high temperatures in Denver in August are in the 80s, but you can always rent a car and head to a resort town like Breckenridge, where the average August high is around 70.

Minnesota

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The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is home to David Nash’s “Standing Frame,” left, and “Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Los Angeles Times photo by Christopher Reynolds

Have you been to Minneapolis lately? Here’s your chance. Sun Country Airlines is offering select nonstop flights from Austin to Minneapolis in August for as low as $96.40 round-trip (additional baggage and seat fees may apply). Bonus: The average August high in Minneapolis is 80 degrees.

Oregon

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Portland Japanese Garden is one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan. credit: Mauri Elbel

People say there are a lot of similarities between Austin and Portland, but when it comes to August temperatures, Portland’s are decidedly lower, rarely topping a high of 80 degrees. Right now, you can book a late-August flight to Portland on Frontier Airlines for as low as $136.40 round-trip (additional baggage and seat fees may apply).

United Kingdom

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The grounds of the Tower of London. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

Make like a royal and hop across the pond for a change of scenery. Norwegian Air’s new direct flight from Austin to London Gatwick is affordable and comfortable. If you travel Aug. 11-21, for example, a round-trip flight is $574.80.

Iceland

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This Icelandic farm is in South Iceland near the Ring Road. credit: Adrienne Butcher

Want to be as cold as ice? Iceland, that is? WOW Air has one-way flights from Dallas to Reykjavik for as low as $99 each way. For an Aug. 16-22 trip, a flight would cost $248.99.

 

 

Want to visit the World’s Tallest Squirrel Statue? It’s located just outside of Austin

Central Texas may receive a lot of awards and designations, but here’s one I just learned about: Berdoll Pecan Candy and Gift Company, located just outside of Austin in Cedar Creek, is home to the World’s Tallest Squirrel Statue.

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The World’s Tallest Squirrel Statue is located at Berdoll Pecan Candy and Gift Company. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

Yes, it’s true. No city, from San Francisco to Sydney, can top our squirrel. Nuts, right?

Here are some fun facts about this miraculous creature, who is named Ms. Pearl: She’s 14 feet tall, has lived at Berdoll since 2011 and is the star of between 30 and 100 photos each day, according to on-site signage.

You might recognize Berdoll from the towering, scrolling sign out front announcing everything from “vine ripe tomatoes!” to “chocolate covered pecans!” as you make your way down Highway 71 toward Bastrop. Inside the shop, you’ll find items that range from Texas-centric to kitschy — plus lots of free samples.

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Berdoll Pecan Candy and Gift Company contains a variety of Texas-centric gifts. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

The shop is next to Berdoll Pecan Farm and turns out 11,170 pecan pies every year. Traveling when the shop is closed? Stop by the 24-7 pecan pie vending machine.

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Even if the Berdoll is closed, you can visit the pecan pie vending machine any time of day. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

You can visit Ms. Pearl at 2626 State Hwy 71 West in Cedar Creek. Learn more about her here.

Want to try a rope swing? Head to this free swimming hole just outside of Austin

We weren’t planning to try a rope swing that day.

But when my two daughters and I walked past one last week while visiting one of our favorite swimming holes — Camp Ben McCulloch — the temptation was immediate.

They looked at me expectantly: “You go first, Mom.”

It’s been years since I did a rope swing, if ever. But this one, flanked by crisp, blue-green water and conveniently located along the trail just to the right of the main parking area, was too inviting, and too easy to access, to pass up.

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Camp Ben McCulloch offers access to a rope swing. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

First, I got in to test the depth of the water. It was deep. Then I swung the rope back and forth and pulled on it to test its sturdiness. It was sturdy. Safety is paramount in rope swinging, of course — read Pam LeBlanc’s guide to Austin-area rope swings for more safety tips.

At long last, I plunged in, much to the delight of my daughters, 9 and 6, who instantly followed suit.

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Camp Ben McCulloch is a kid- and pet-friendly place to swim on the outskirts of Austin in Driftwood. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

RELATED: Did you know there’s a tropical island paradise an hour’s drive from Austin?

It was the most fun we’ve had in ages.

Want to try it for yourself? Learn more about Camp Ben McCulloch, which is located in Driftwood and also offers camping, at campbenmcculloch.com.

You won’t believe this Texas hotel and pool made of shipping containers

Move over, yurts, tree houses and Airstream trailers — there’s a new hotel trend on the rise. Now, visitors to the popular Texas town of Round Top, located just 70 miles down the road from Austin, can rest their heads inside a decked out recycled shipping container.

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The Flophouze Hotel in Round Top, Texas, is made from recycled shipping containers. Contributed by Flophouze Hotel

At the Flophouze Hotel, which opened in Round Top in 2017, visitors can choose from a half-dozen “houzes” outfitted with eco-friendly and recycled materials such as bowling alley floors. Hammocks, fire pits, cozy chairs and complimentary Topo Chico are among the amenities.

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The interior of one of the “Houzes” at Flophouze Hotel in Round Top. Contributed by Flophouze Hotel

MORE PHOTOS: The Flophouze Hotel in Round Top

Oh, and just to complete the theme, there’s a shipping container pool, too, manufactured by Modpool that recently opened.

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The Flophouze Hotel in Round Top has a shipping container pool. Contributed by Flophouze Hotel

Rates start at $175 a night. Learn more at flophouze.com.

New floating water park and obstacle course to open on Lake Travis June 29

If you’ve been seeking a new way to make a splash this summer, you’re in luck — a floating water park and obstacle course will open on Lake Travis at the end of this month.

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Waterloo Adventures, a floating water park on Lake Travis, is expected to open on June 29. Contributed by Waterloo Adventures

The new park, called Waterloo Adventures, comes from the same team that created Lake Travis Zipline Adventures. Participants will take a boat ride (included in the cost of admission) out to “adventure island,” where they will participate in a 45-minute session on the 600-foot Floating Challenge Course that includes more than 70 obstacles such as monkey bars, slides, balance beams, hurdles and climbing walls.

The $50 excursion cost also includes unlimited access to the Aqua Park, home to a 14-foot climbing tower, water slide, jumping tower and 25-foot trampoline.

Oh, and if you want a cocktail, never fear — wine, beer and frozen drinks, as well as other beverages and food, will be available. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday-Monday through October. Reservations are recommended.

This is the second water obstacle course to open in the area this summer — in May, QuestATX cable wakeboard park opened Quest Waterpark.

• MORE ONLINE: Nominate your favorite people and places in Austin for our inaugural Best of the Best Awards 

5 tips for planning a bat-centric Austin staycation

Recently I had a revelation. Despite growing up in Austin and spending most of my life here, I had never seen the famous Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge bats. With bat season now in full swing (it’s March-October), I decided the time had come to correct that.

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People line the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in anticipation of the bats. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

So my husband and I planned a bat-centric staycation for ourselves and our three children, ages 9, 6 and 5. It was a quick, one-night getaway, but it provided the perfect opportunity to relax, re-center and yes, finally spy some of Austin’s 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats.

RELATED: The story behind the new bat mural under Congress Avenue Bridge

Here are some tips for planning a bat-centric Austin staycation.

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The Hyatt Regency Austin affords beautiful views of the downtown skyline. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman
  1. Stay at a hotel along Lady Bird Lake. We booked a night at the Hyatt Regency Austin and started with dinner at the on-site Marker 10, which had a perfect balance of kid-friendly (think macaroni) and parent-friendly (think delicious sushi) options to please the whole family.
  2. Book a bat-watching cruise. The bats are spectacular no matter how you see them, but we loved our bat-watching tour through Capital Cruises, which departs next to the Hyatt Regency Austin. Our knowledgeable tour guide offered lots of fun facts as the bats peppered the sky above us.
  3. Snap a selfie by the Night Wing Bat Sculpture. It’s located at 300 S. Congress Ave., right in front of the new YETI flagship store. Afterwards, grab a drink at YETI’s on-site Barrr, which offers beer, wine and snacks. The Hyatt Regency Austin is even partnering with YETI to offer a YETI Experience Package that includes a visit to the YETI Flagship store and BARRR, as well as official YETI products.
  4. Sip a bat-themed beverage. If you prefer your beverage with a batty twist, head across the lake to the Four Seasons Austin, which serves up a Batini cocktail made with Ketel One vodka, house-made blackberry syrup, grapefruit, sparkling wine and mint. Extra points if you sip it while relaxing outside on the beautiful lawn.
  1. Time your Bat-cation with Bat Fest. Bat Fest 2018 will be held Aug. 18. Really, really love the bats? Plan your bat-themed staycation to coincide with it.

Berry picking, other spring fun worth a day trip from Austin

The breezes are cool, the sky is blue and fruit is fresh. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to appreciate Texas’ beloved springtime activities (berry picking, anyone?), now’s the time. Here are four places where you can get a true dose of spring fun just down the road from Austin.

Sweet Berry Farm, Marble Falls

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Adrianna Forister marks boxes of strawberries as paid at Sweet Berry Farm outside of Marble Falls in this file photo. Deborah Cannon/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

There’s no better way to welcome spring than by picking fresh berries, and there’s no better place to do that than at Sweet Berry Farm, where you can pluck your own fresh strawberries through the end of May for $2.89 per pound. The farm, which is open daily except Wednesdays and located near Marble Falls, also offers a variety of fun activities such as sand art, barrel train rides and a bounce pillow. You’ll also discover sweet treats including fresh strawberry lemonade and homemade strawberry smoothies. Blackberries may also be available starting in mid-May.

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You can pick a fresh flower bouquet at Barton Hill Farms’ new Backyard Bash. credit: Barton Hill Farms

Barton Hills Farm

Barton Hill Farms has already made a name for itself as a great place to go for fall family fun, but now they’re dabbling in spring, too, with the new Barton Hill Backyard Bash. Held Saturdays and Sundays May 5-27, expect 30 activities including face painting, backyard games, live music and fresh food and beverages including beer and wine. You can’t pick any fruit here, but you can pick a fresh flower bouquet. Barton Hill Farms is located on the banks of the Colorado River 30 minutes from downtown Austin.

 

 

Sweet Eats Fruit Farm

Located just east of Georgetown, Sweet Eats offers a variety of fruit ripe for the picking, including cherries, pears, nectarines and peaches (check website for picking dates). The farm also has lots of fun for the family, such as pony rides, a petting zoo, an obstacle course, a jump pad, live music and more.

Marburger Orchard

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The Marburger Orchard has been serving businesses, pickers, and product for decades. AMERICAN-STATESMAN file photo

A trip to Fredericksburg is always a good idea, especially when you can pick your own fresh fruit along the way. At Marburger Orchard, which is open daily, strawberries are currently on offer, with blackberries and famous Texas peaches on their way soon, too. For more information about pick-your-own season in Fredericksburg, visit visitfredericksburgtx.com/attractions-activities/pick-your-own-orchards-seasonal.

Start planning for summer! 5 water parks to consider across Texas

Are you ready for summer? Temperatures are already starting to creep up, which means it won’t be long before we’re hitting those triple digits. Never fear! There are plenty of water parks across the state that are well equipped to keep you cool and calm. Here are five you might want to put on your summer to-do list.

Epic Waters, Grand Prairie

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Epic Waters is one of the newest water parks in Texas. credit: Epic Waters

This Dallas-area water park opened in January, making it one of the newest, and most innovative, on the scene. There are no bad-weather days at this 80,000-square-foot facility thanks to a retractable roof that keeps the fun flowing all year round. Expect 11 slides on the water park’s slide tower, an outdoor wave pool, FlowRider boogie-boarding, the longest indoor lazy river in Texas and more. Want to make it a water park weekend? Stay at the nearby Great Wolf Lodge, which also houses an indoor water park as well as family friendly accommodations.

Big Rivers, New Caney

Located on the outskirts of Houston, this new water park is scheduled to open for its inaugural season on June 29. Expect a giant wave pool, a sprawling lazy river and the Gator Splash, which incorporates more than 300 water play elements. Also on property is Gator Bayou Adventure Park, where a nature center (with gators!), a petting zoo, pony rides, ropes courses and zip lines await.

Schlitterbahn, New Braunfels

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Grab a gator and float the Kristal River at Schlitterban in New Braunfels. credit: Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort

For water park fun, it’s hard to beat Schlitterbahn New Braunfels, which is already open on weekends and will be open daily starting May 11. Known as “the hottest coolest time in Texas,” this local institution opened in 1979 and quickly became a must-see destination for people across the country.  Go for the day or, for added fun, book a night or two at one of the on-site lodging options — you’ll get access to the park before it opens to the public and after it closes for the night. Special events this summer include American Heroes Week (May 28-June 1), National Women Learn to Surf Week (June 11-15) and the World’s Largest Swimming Lesson (June 21). Heading to South Padre Island, Corpus Christi or Galveston this summer? You can find Schlitterbahn locations there, too.

 

Typhoon Texas, Pflugerville

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The “Gully Washer” at Typhoon Texas in Katy is one of several family-friendly attractions expected at the renovated Pflugerville water park. Courtesy photo

Seeking the thrills of a big water park but only have a few hours to spare? Head to Typhoon Texas, which is located just 40 minutes from Austin in Pflugerville and opens for the 2018 season Memorial Day weekend in the spot that was previously Hawaiian Falls. Don’t miss the Gully Washer children’s playland, which includes seven slides, 100 spray areas and an 800-gallon water bucket that douses the entire space. There is another Typhoon Texas located in Katy near Houston.

SeaWorld Aquatica, San Antonio

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Cool off at SeaWorld Aquatica.

You want to go to SeaWorld, but in the summer it gets HOT. Never fear! Aquatica is here. This water park located on SeaWorld San Antonio property is filled with refreshing family fun, including 450-foot-long body slides, a 48-foot-tall tube ride and Stingray Falls, which takes visitors on a four-seated raft into an underwater grotto where stingrays and tropical fish are waiting to greet you. Go early to avoid the crowds.