Andersonville National Historic Site

by Bob Hoelscher 2. April 2013 22:58


National Prisoner of War Museum

One of the most moving of NPS sites commemorates the infamous Confederate Civil War prison camp at Andersonville, officially known as Camp Sumter, which is located 26 miles west of I-75 Exit 127. During the scant 14 months that the camp existed more than 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned here, 13,000 of which died from disease, malnutrition or exposure. 

Although camp was originally designed to house 10,000 prisoners, the pen was enlarged from 16.5 to 26.5 acres in June 1864.  During the following month, a sergeant of the 9th Ohio Cavalry wrote in his diary “to describe this hell on Earth where it takes seven of its occupants to make a Shadow.” 

In late 1890, the site was purchased by the Georgia Department of a Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic. The prison site was donated to the people of the U.S. in 1910, until it became a unit of the National Park Service in 1971. 

Today, the prison site includes walking and driving tours, a historic cemetery, many state monuments and the extensive National Prisoner of War Museum. Both an orientation film and the museum detail the ordeals facing American POWs throughout the history of the nation.


"Shebangs" (prisoner shelters) and stockade


State Memorials


Andersonville National Cemetery

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Traveling I-75 through Georgia

Jimmy Carter National Historic Site

by Bob Hoelscher 2. April 2013 22:55


Visitor Center exhibits in former Plains High School

Since so many motorcoaches will travel the I-75 route through Georgia, it is important to know a few stops along the way that will add to your group’s experience. The charming community of Plains, birthplace of our 39th President, is about 36 miles west off I-75 Exits 112 or 109.

This small town where Jimmy Carter grew up still preserves many of the landmarks of Carter’s childhood and early political career at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. The former Plains High School, attended by both Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, serves today as the park’s museum and visitor center. 

Only two blocks away is the Plains Business District where one can find the Golden Peanut Company (formerly the Carter Warehouse), the Plains 1888 Railroad Depot, which has been restored to its appearance as Carter’s 1976 campaign headquarters, and brother Billy’s Phillips 66 Service Station. Nearby in town are the Plains Baptist Church, which the Carters attended, as well as Public Housing Unit 9-A, where they lived for a year when Jimmy returned from the Navy in 1953.

Groups can also visit the Lebanon Cemetery, site of the Carter family burial plot and the Maranatha Baptist Church, where Jimmy Carter (now at the age of 89) still teaches Sunday School whenever he is in town. Schedules of when the former president will be teaching the class are posted prominently around town, and all are welcome to attend.  

No trip to Plains will be complete without touring the lovingly maintained Carter Boyhood Farm and Home as it provides a fascinating look into the president’s formative years.

Even though I am not a religion person myself, I find it impossible not to have the deepest respect for the Carters, who have truly lived their faith, represented the best our country can offer, and transcended politics through tireless commitments to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering.  I found a visit to their little town to be not only a trip back to an America that seemingly has all but disappeared, but also an uplifting and joyous experience. 

I’ll wager that you and your group members will have similar reactions.


Plains business district


Plains Depot, restored to the appearance of 1976 Carter campaign headquarters


Jimmy Carter Boyhood Home and Farm

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Traveling I-75 through Georgia

Let go of your travel stress

by Brian Jewell 27. March 2013 00:07



“I hate it when I ask for no pickles, and they give me pickles anyway.”

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of first-world problems; there are plenty of little annoyances and aggravations in life that get under our skin. But when you stop and think about them in the context of the wider human race, you realize that many “problems” — like unwanted pickles — happen only because of the enormous prosperity that we enjoy in the United States.

Perhaps pickles aren’t your pet peeve, but I’m sure you can think of a gripe or two of your own. Is the air conditioning in your office so cold that you have to wear a sweater? Do you hate it when your iPhone takes too long to download a video from the Internet? Have you ever grumbled when the morning line seemed too long at Starbucks?

I’m as guilty as the next guy. Many of the things I grouse about daily aren’t existential problems at all but mere inconveniences that blur the edges of my comfortable, connected and convenient life. When I travel outside the United States and see the harsh conditions many people face every day, I realize how much I take for granted and how many of my “issues” are just first-world problems.

I’ve also noticed that those of us who work in travel and tourism can develop our own brand of first-world problems. Whenever I’m around a group of tour operators, group leaders, travel agents or travel journalists, I see a creeping tendency to begin to complain to each other about the travails of our collective work.

“I had to fly 12 hours to get to China — in coach,” we say. “The hotel was out of king rooms, so I got stuck with two double beds.” “My lunch at the conference was cold.” “I had to sit in the back of the bus during our ride through Glacier National Park.”

Although everyone needs a chance to commiserate from time to time, I wonder sometimes if we’re missing the point. Sure, travel has its hassles, and the more you travel, the more vulnerable you become to them. But then I step back and think about the incredible industry we work in. We spend our lives in travel and tourism. We have jobs that our friends and neighbors dream about. We get to see some of the most amazing places on the planet, and very often, we do it at no personal expense.

The next time you feel swimming in travel stress, take a few moments and give thanks for all of the blessings that come with being able to travel.

Travelers get to see, do and experience more every year than most people do in their entire lifetimes. We are blessed indeed. Next time you get held up on the tarmac — or stuck with an unwanted pickle — thank heaven you should be so lucky.

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Travel Thoughts

Natchitoches, Louisiana

by Bob Hoelscher 1. March 2013 02:38



One of the most interesting cities I encountered during my December tour of the South was Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-a-tish), located in western Louisiana.  Guiding my two-day visit here was Markita Hamilton, communications director for the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose family has lived here for generations. 

This charming community, the first permanent European settlement in what we now know as the Louisiana Purchase, was founded in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis to facilitate trade with the Spanish in Mexico. Needless to say, big plans are currently being developed for the city’s Tricentennial Celebration in 2014. 

Furthermore, in addition to exploring the area’s wealth of historic sites and homes (including Cane River Creole National Historical Park) during the daytime, the 86th Annual Christmas Festival of Lights provided me with the opportunity for some additional evening photography.

Situated along the banks of the Cane River, Natchitoches’ National Historic Landmark District includes 33 blocks of magnificent historic homes. I was fortunate to dine here on local specialties at both Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen and the Merci Beaucoup Restaurant.  In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has included Natchitoches in its list of the “Top 10 Most Romantic Downtowns” in the country. Surprisingly enough, however, the strikingly modern new home of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, currently nearing completion at the north end of the downtown area and promising another “plus” for potential visitors, is architecturally somewhat incongruent with its surroundings.

Markita also took me out to splendid Melrose Plantation, which dates back to 1796. In addition to the plantation’s well-preserved historic structures, Melrose is the home of numerous fascinating paintings and murals created by renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter, who painted here while employed as a domestic servant. Coupling its history with the region’s vibrant Creole culture, Natchitoches’ is highly recommended as a true “off the beaten track” treasure. Groups planning to patronize the nearby Shreveport-Bossier City casinos are advised to add at least a day trip here in order to create a more fully satisfying, diversified travel experience for their members, while a more extended stay is virtually self-recommending for those more historically and culturally inclined.


Lunch time at Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen


Prudhomme-Roquier House


Christmas Festival of Lights on the Cane River

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Three charming Southern towns

Brownsville, Texas

by Bob Hoelscher 1. March 2013 02:33



Brownsville, situated at the southern tip of Texas, is right across the Rio Grande and U.S. border from the city of Matamoros, Mexico. It is a historic area with a pleasing mix of Anglo and Hispanic cultures. 

After Texas fought for its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the annexation of Texas by the U.S. in 1845, General Zachary Taylor established an army base (later Fort Brown) here in early 1846 to help establish claim to the disputed territory.  The Battle of Palo Alto marked the initial major conflict between opposing forces in the Mexican-American War, a U.S. victory which eventually led to Brownsville and the surrounding countryside being confirmed as American territory.   

Today the battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service as a national historic site, which I visited after my exploration of the city itself.  My tour guide was the genial and extremely knowledgeable Felix Espinosa, administrative manager of the Brownsville Convention & Visitors Bureau, who appeared to know just about everyone in this city of over 175,000! 

Felix led me on a whirlwind adventure including virtually every significant attraction that Brownsville has to offer, all in just a few short hours. We began on foot with the Heritage Trail Tour and downtown historic district, including the authentic Mexican Market, the Heritage Complex and Stillman House Museum, the Old City Hall and Market Square, Immaculate Conception Cathedral, plus numerous other historic buildings. Next we wandered through the historic brick buildings of Fort Brown, now occupied by the University of Texas at Brownsville.

Our tour continued with visits to the Historic Brownsville Museum Depot, the Old Brownsville City Cemetery, Dean Porter Park and finally, the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art.  Whew!  I though that I was an expert at seeing a lot within a short period of time, but I can’t hold a candle to Felix! I’d suggest that when you are planning your group’s visit here, you allow a couple of full days to include everything. And there is indeed much of interest to see and experience! That will also allow you an opportunity to include meals at a variety of fine Southwestern, Tex-Mex and Mexican eateries. The unspoiled beaches, visitor attractions and resort hotels of South Padre Island are a scant 25 miles away, so you may likely want to diversify your trip to this most visitor-friendly area with an extended stay.


Stillman House Museum, Brownsville Historical Society


Immaculate Conception Cathedral


Gladys Porter Zoo

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Three charming Southern towns

Biloxi, Mississippi

by Bob Hoelscher 1. March 2013 02:26



My recent tour of the South had three smaller towns stand out, including Biloxi, Mississippi.

Virtually everyone is aware of the massive destruction which Hurricanes Camille and, more recently, Katrina wreaked upon the Biloxi resort community when they tore through the community in 1969 and 2005, respectively. However, I am happy to report that both Biloxi and its residents have proven time and again to be strong-willed and highly resilient, and, after the expenditure of much money and effort, the city is yet again ready for memorable vacations.  Yes, many of the lovely antebellum mansions which previously lined Beach Boulevard are now gone, but other historic structures like Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant, nearby boutiques further north on Magnolia Street, and the 1847 Magnolia Hotel are still alive and well. 

Beauvoir, the 1852 estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, has undergone a major restoration, and the adjacent Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum is nearing completion. Biloxi also now boasts the finest municipal visitors’ center I have ever encountered.  And, needless to say, there are nine bustling casinos and thousands of quality rooms awaiting travelers.

The area’s premier natural attraction also continues to attract countless visitors with its beauty and cleanliness. Biloxi is the gateway to Gulf Islands National Seashore for boating excursions to Southern Mississippi’s five barrier islands, Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, and the splendid Davis Bayou Area just east of town.  Hopefully it will be many, many years before another hurricane bears down upon the area, but the time is definitely now to include Biloxi in your travel plans.


Biloxi Lighthouse and Visitors' Center


Beauvoir - Jefferson Davis Home


Magnificent beaches, Beau Rivage Casino Resort

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Three charming Southern towns

Why we all travel

by Mac Lacy 21. February 2013 20:50



Most of us who publish this magazine and most of you who read it will travel at the drop of a hat. We live for our next adventure. And if we’re going somewhere we’ve never been before, that’s even better.

All of us have friends or family members who couldn’t care less about traveling. Their idea of a great time is staying put. They don’t like flying, or they don’t like sleeping in a strange bed, or they don’t like eating unfamiliar food. And that’s OK for them but not for us.

Last month in Hawaii, I was reminded why travel is so important to us. At the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) annual conference, association president Terry Dale showed a YouTube video to the audience.

For almost five minutes, I was spellbound.

If you want to remind yourself why you have an unrelenting case of wanderlust, just google “Matt.” When you do, you’ll find YouTube star Matt Harding under his promotional name, “Where the Hell Is Matt?”

What follows is one of the most uplifting videos about traveling the world you’ll ever watch. Matt dances with people from cultures across the globe. People young and old are having the time of their lives just sharing their homelands and their worlds.

As Harding told us, people the world over want to feel connected. And every culture wants to share its unique characteristics with travelers from other cultures.

It’s universal. And only those of us who share that itch to enjoy other cultures can relate to it. Check it out. You’ll see what I mean. It reaffirms everything about why we jump at the chance to pack a suitcase.

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Travel Thoughts

Better safe than sorry

by Donia Simmons 16. January 2013 19:49



“Are you ready … for a disaster?”

A roadside billboard with this message greeted me each morning throughout the month of September. The first time I saw it, I actually got a little nervous. It made me think about things I had never thought about. After visiting the website posted on the sign, I discovered that September was National Preparedness Month.

I realized that our family wasn’t prepared for any type of disaster. I thought a lot about whether or not emergency preparation was something we should plan for.

In the end we decided that disaster preparedness was important for our family. Better safe than sorry, right? We now have an emergency kit in the car, one in the entryway closet and “go bags” for each member of the family. We’ve stored away a supply of food that could feed us for three days in case of an emergency, and we’ve gathered phone numbers for every critical service and family member under the sun.

Will we ever need to use these emergency supplies? I sure hope not. But if we do, I will feel better knowing that we have a plan in place, and that we are better equipped to face the elements or other unknowns than we were before.

As travel planners, you certainly know the importance of being prepared for the unknown, and you may have encountered your own kinds of disasters while traveling with your groups. Many of you buy travel insurance so that you and your travelers will be covered in the case of illness, inclement weather or other unforeseen issues. If you aren’t currently taking these steps, perhaps it’s time to think through the possibilities a little more. It will give you peace of mind and the confidence that you are ready to face the challenges that an emergency might present in your travels.

How are you preparing? Go to our Facebook page www.facebook.com/grouptravelleader , and let us know the clever ways in which you have prepared for travel emergencies.

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Travel Thoughts

Cane River Creole National Historical Park

by Bob Hoelscher 8. January 2013 22:50



Although one might associate many national parks with the arrival of icy roads and mountain snows in December, there are many Southern parks that are still suitable for a late-year group visit. Just south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, is Cane River Creole National Historical Park, which protects two great cotton plantations: Magnolia and Oakland.

In 1753, Jean Baptiste LeComte obtained the land grant that became Magnolia Plantation, while in 1789, Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme also received a land grant which became the core of Bermuda Plantation, later renamed Oakland. Even though well-managed plantations like Magnolia and Oakland survived the war, low prices, boll weevils, and the departure of former slaves from the region brought hard times. 

Although World War I initially increased cotton demand, it wasn’t long before depressed prices and lean times returned. And as modernization and mechanization increased, from the 1930s to the 1960s, many plantations like Magnolia and Oakland were gradually abandoned. Nevertheless, descendants of families and workers who have farmed the region for over two centuries have been able to successfully adapt to social, agricultural and economic change, carrying on many traditions and an enduring Creole culture into the 21st century.

Today, visitors to the two plantations can explore a varied collection of carriage houses, overseer’s houses, slave quarters, plantation stores, a doctor’s cottage, and other facilities, including the country’s last remaining mule-powered cotton press.  The main house at Oakland, fully furnished with period and some original pieces, is open for guided tours, while the main house at Magnolia, burned during the Civil War, was rebuilt in 1896 and is still in private ownership outside the park boundary.  There is no charge for admission to either park site.


Oakland Plantation - Counter and shelves in Plantation Store


Magnolia Plantation - Old steam-powered cotton press


Magnolia Plantation - Slave/tenant quarters

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National Parks to visit in December

Big Thicket National Preserve

by Bob Hoelscher 8. January 2013 22:47



Spread out through the countryside of East Texas north of Beaumont are the 15 separate units that make up Big Thicket National Preserve. Called the “biological crossroads of North America,” Big Thicket was established to protect an amazing diversity of plant and animal species that thrive in the confluence of forests and central plains. 

With the arrival of white settlers during the 1850s, harvesting of native timbers was soon followed by sawmills, railroads, farming and eventually oil strikes, so designation as a national preserve by the National Park Service created a new management concept to shelter remaining portions of the original ecology. To further environmental impact studies, the United Nations also named Big Thicket an International Biosphere Reserve in 1981.    

Here travelers can explore this extraordinary landscape on easy hiking trails, birding, canoeing, fishing and ranger-led activities. With the splendid weather that accompanied my December visit, hiking several Big Thicket trails became a truly inspiring experience. I was particularly fascinated by the variety of mushrooms that I encountered, including the oyster mushrooms which grow in rows on tree trunks, as shown in the accompanying photograph. 
 
Groups should begin their visits at the excellent Big Thicket Visitor Center.  From here it’s only a short distance to the outstanding Kirby Nature Trail, at the entrance to which fine picnic facilities can be found. Other interesting (and easy) hikes in the area include the Sundew and Pitcher Plant Trails, the latter offering a unique opportunity to explore a bog of the renowned insect-eating plant species.  There is no charge to visit Big Thicket.


Cypress knees in the swamp


Carnivorous pitcher plants


Reflections in Turkey Creek

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National Parks to visit in December

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