A Valentine from Valentine? Yep, it’ll set your card apart from the rest.
For over 30 years the little post office in Valentine, Texas has postmarked Valentines coming through their station with a little extra love.
Every year, the post office chooses one design from dozens drawn by local schoolchildren to transform into an actual hand-cancel postmark for the holiday. Each year is unique, so even if you make this a tradition it will always seem new.
Requests for the postmark come in from around the world (yes, really!), and it’s obviously the busiest time of year for the remote location. You can walk your Valentines in to the post office, or mail them in, which…unless you happen to be in that area of Texas…is the only way to go.
I have heard about this tradition for years but never tried it myself. There isn’t much updated information available about it on the internet, so when I decided this was the year…I called the regional rep for the United States Post Office. She politely walked me through the process (and no, she had never tried it herself either) and assured me it would actually work.
I live in Houston, so I prepared my cards first, writing them, sealing them in their envelopes, addressing them and attaching a stamp. But here’s where the process is different.
I put all of my Valentines into one larger envelope (remember they were already stamped), and addressed the outside envelope to:
VALENTINE’S DAY POSTMARK
311 W CALIFORNIA AVE
VALENTINE, TX 79854-9998
Then I took that large envelope to my local post office and purchased the appropriate postage to get it to Valentine. The postmistress there also expressed an interest, having hear of the program but never having tried it. Are you starting to see a pattern?
The regional representative had told me that all cards must be received in Valentine by February 4 to be in time to get the special post mark. There is no charge to customers requesting this for fewer than 50 Valentines (gracious!). Customers who do have 50 or more will be charged five cents each.
I had 10 Valentines in one large outer envelope that would normally cost a couple of dollars to send, but I sprung for the tracking method (just under $5) since I wanted to “watch” the process.
And off they went!
I mailed my envelope on January 23rd and it arrived in Valentine on the 28th. Then the hardest part began…waiting. As time went by I religiously checked my mailbox. I had sent one to my daughter at our address, partially so I would be able to see it for myself. The week of Valentine’s Day came, and I got a bit anxious.
On Valentine’s Day I received a text from a relative in San Antonio thanking me for the card and remarking on the unusual postmark. The good news…it worked. The bad…my daughter’s still hadn’t arrived at our house. But it finally DID arrive, the day after Valentine’s. Soooo, we’re just dragging out the holiday a bit longer.
I’ll definitely try this again next year, but send them out even a bit earlier to see if that makes a difference.
It’s a great way to make your Valentines uniquely Texan!
If you’re only able to see one Christmas light show in the Houston area during the holiday season, push this one to the top of your list.
Filling 20 acres of space just outside Gulf Greyhound Park in LaMarque, where its been brightening holiday seasons since 2016, the remarkable spectacle is made up of intricate display pieces created using Chinese lantern-making techniques incorporating over six million lights. Some towering 60 feet high. It’s the largest festival of its kind in the United States.
The festival, the largest of its kind in the United States, runs for two months and requires ten months to plan the next one. Designs are sent to lantern technicians and artisans in Zigong, China, and the completed components are assembled on-site.
To truly appreciate the work and artistry that goes into a piece, take a look at it both from afar and up close!
There are nine themed areas in the exhibit, not counting the carnival: the Kingdom; the Village; the East; Houston; Space; Ice; the Dinosaur; the Square and the Sea.
My friend and I headed to The Village first, because . . . Santa! We wanted to get in a quick visit with Mr. and Mrs. Claus before the crowds came. Sitting inside a large lighted ornament with room enough for your entire family to pose together, the couple encourages friends of all ages to stop by with their wish lists and cameras.
The Village is fairly centrally located, with a variety of traditional displays like nutcrackers, reindeer and presents surrounding a towering Christmas tree.
Before you leave the area, look for a big lighted barrel and get a warm (or cold) drink to enjoy on your walk. On brisk nights like last night, it sure makes a yummy difference.
Travel to The East, and enter visions of the homeland of the talented artists who created these lantern lights.
A grove of cherry blossoms invites visitors to leave heart shaped notes among its branches, and a fascinating water garden seems to ripple thanks to clever lighting patterns.
After you find your birth animal on a wall of the Chinese Zodiac, turn to your right for a real “wow” factor: a wall of immense blooms in brilliant colors magically open and close almost seeming to breathe. This is one of the displays that really made us stop and think about all of the talented people behind Magical Lights.
There’s no mistaking The Houston section with it’s large lettered sign. A stage that lights up as participants step and dance on its surface, a cowboy riding a bronco surrounded by longhorn, and a wall of sights from countries around the world fill out this area of the park.
The special Space area this year pays tribute to the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 with lighted tunnels populated with aliens, and a giant, walk-through maze whose center is circled by an enormous revolving space shuttle.
It’s hard not to start humming “Under the Sea” to yourself as you approach the Sea display, which definitely ranked as one of my favorites of the entire experience – mainly because of the stunning walk-in area designed to make you feel that you were below the waves with the friendly sea creatures.
Of course, the lovely mermaid was a plus, too!
For a couple of hours every night, the “Ice Sisters” (yes, we all really know who they mean) reside in Ice, ready to greet visitors. And if you take a photo with them, please be sure to drop a tip into Olaf’s Summer Vacation Fund!
After a chat with the frosty friends, enjoy a stroll through the rest of this glittering display.
Snowy ice flows are populated with polar bears, penguins and animated flying fish, near the Russianesque blue domes of a large structure. You can even sit inside a Cinderella style coach pulled Pegasus!
Rides and games in the Carnival area require additional tickets, but are especially popular with the younger set. The smell of the food alone is enough to draw you to this side of the park.
The “Dinosaur” section of the park just beyond the carnival did, indeed have dinosaurs, but much more.
Entering into the area, visitors will walk through a lighted archway past storybook and fantasy characters including Alice in Wonderland and her friends, Humpty Dumpty, rainbow-striped zebras and a couple of friendly looking elephants.
Paths then wind through a display of animatronic dinosaurs with loud, roaring sound-effect. (Be warned that these moving, monstrous creatures may either thrill or startle small children, depending on their personality.) To the side was a tent filled with dinosaur-themed interactive activities for children, including digging for ‘fossils’ in a sand pit, riding small mechanical dinosaurs, watching baby dinos hatch from eggs, and photo opportunities of being in a dino’s mouth, hatching from oversized eggs, or in a jeep threatened by a T-rex (think Jurassic Park).
The Square is home to the performance stage at Magical Lights. When you enter the park, be sure to check the performance times for the Chinese Acrobats . . . you won’t want to miss them. There are two 40-minute shows each night. We went to the last show of the night, just before leaving.
This lovely bit of Chinese culture and some jaw-dropping acrobatic feats made for an exciting topper for the experience and a great topic of conversation for the drive home. (Be prepared for your kids to want to try juggling an end table with their feet when they get home.)
Magical Winter Lights is open through January 5, 2020, every day including all holidays! So when you have that house full of relatives that need to get out and stretch their legs . . . now you have a plan! Ask about group rates and party plans.
I must add though, that this activity is unique in that I would enjoy it just as much as a solo outing, family activity or reason for friends to get together.
Tickets are less expensive if you purchase them online ahead of time, or look for special deals from Groupon or Costco. At the time I am writing this, Costco is running a deal for 2 adult tickets for 27.99, and Groupon has a deal for adult tickets for $20 and seniors and children for $12.
Adult (Ages 13-64): $22.00
Senior (65+)/Child (4-12): $13.00
Family 4-Pack: $76.00
Children UNDER 4 years old: FREE
Adult (Ages 13-64): $25.00
Senior (65+)/Child (4-12): $15.00
Family 4-Pack: $80.00
Children UNDER 4 years old: FREE
Sunday – Thursday : 5:00 – 10:00 PM
Friday & Saturday, through Jan. 1 : 5:00 – 11:00 PM
The festival is at Gulf Greyhound Park, 1000 FM 2004, in La Marque. The entrance to the park is located just before the Pizza Hut / Taco Bell on FM 1764. For more information go to: www.magicalwinterlights.com
If you’ve heard one thing about the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it’s probably about the challenge: eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour and your meal is free.
While that may sound like a deal to a hungry cowboy, there’s actually a specific list of eleven rules that must be followed. There’s actually a “full meal” surrounding the 72 oz. steak that has to be eaten including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll with butter. It’s a twin meal to the champion of the very first competition at the restaurant consumed.
Holy Heartburn, Batman!
When Bob “R.J.” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch in 1960, on the iconic Route 66 touting “huge, Texas-size steaks,” many of his regular customers were cowboys who came for dinner after working in a nearby stockyard. Lee noticed that out-of-town visitors were fascinated while watching these Texans try to “out eat” each other.
As the story goes, one Friday night in 1962, Lee pushed several tables together in the center of the dining room, sat all the voracious cowboys together and told them he wanted to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. The cost would be $5 per participant, and whoever won got to keep everybody’s entry fee.
These cowboys obviously had no intention of turning down the dare.
One fellow with a hearty appetite downed two steaks in just ten minutes…but he didn’t stop there. He requested a salad and shrimp cocktail with his third steak, and a baked potato and bread roll with his fourth and fifth. By the time the hour was up, he had devoured all the sides and four and a half pounds of steak (72 ounces).
In response to the cheering crowd, the excited Lee stood on a chair and shouted that from that day forward, anyone who could eat the entire 72 oz dinner in one hour would get it for FREE…and the famous challenge was born.
It became the restaurant’s biggest claim to fame and was advertised on billboards from Arkansas to Arizona.
In the early 1970s when Highway 40 replaced Route 66 as the major thoroughfare, Lee and his family purchased land alongside the new highway to build a bigger, expanded version of his steak house dream.
The original cowboy sign that greeted visitors for years was moved to its new location by helicopter! That would have been a sight!
If you take the steak-eating challenge today, you are seated at a table on a stage platform in the restaurant, so everyone can watch your progress as the large digital clock above you counts down the hour allowed. Want to see if anyone is attempting it right now? Check out the live stream of the challenge table here.
Now, I had no intention of attempting such madness, but I did want to check out the restaurant. I wasn’t prepared for how fun and HUGE it is!
Pulling in to park between the steak house and it’s Old West theme hotel next door, visitors are greeted by the legendary cowboy sign as well as a towering statue of a boot wearing dinosaur propped in two-story tall sticks of fireworks.
Wait….what? A dinosaur? Well, you just know there’s a story there too! Bobby and Danny Lee, “R.J.”s sons who now run the business share memories of seeing dinosaur statues on a special vacation that took their family across the historic Route 66. “Dino” smiles down on their patrons to remind them that “it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.”
When you venture inside, be prepared to wait for your table at this popular restaurant. Once they hand you your pager, don’t just sit and wait for heaven’s sake…explore!
Out back is a large covered beer garden (they have their own craft brewery on site) with live music, old-fashioned games, photo opps that include a stagecoach, huge rocking chair, 18-foot-tall cowboy boot and more.
Inside try your luck at a carnival style shooting gallery where you can take aim at western targets like rattlesnakes, bad guys and bobcats as well as Frankentein, zombies and Dracula. Who needs Halloween?
Outside be sure to check out the Texas-shape swimming pool, the motel, a horse hotel (yes, actually for horses), and RV park. And be sure to look down, because this attraction’s attention to details goes right down to imprinting cattle brands in the sidewalks.
The gift shop has every version of a kitschy souvenir that you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. The night we were there, it was so crowded with tourists looking for that silly something to commemorate their visit that we needed to scoot sideways down the aisles to make any progress. (These are the times a good sense of humor comes in handy!)
Once our pager alerted us it was time to chow down, the hostess lead my family into an immense, two-story dining room where chandeliers of antlers and wagon wheels hang from the ceiling.
We felt like we were walking onto a saloon set soundstage of Bonanza or Gunsmoke, complete with swinging doors, taxidermy mounts, spindle railings, and the cowboy-hat-wearing waitstaff.
Just about everything – including the margaritas – are garnished with some of the biggest jalapenos I’ve ever seen.
While we waited for our food we enjoyed the two gentlemen who strolled the dining room playing western classics tableside for the diners. I kept my fingers crossed they would come our way, and lucky for us they did, asking for requests. (A personal note here: please be sure to tip entertainment like this as the tips usually make up the majority if not all of what they are paid for the pleasure they bring!)
Kids meals are served in a cowboy hat that the kids can keep as a souvenir. My teenage daughter wasn’t hungry enough to eat one of the over-sized meals and asked if she could order from a children’s menu. The waitress smiled and said she could as long as she agreed to put on the hat afterward. Good sport that she is, she agreed and did…and no, she would NOT give me permission to post that particular photo.
I couldn’t resist getting the southern classic chicken friend steak and have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was relieved that it wasn’t plate-sized as well, but still couldn’t finish it off.
The vintage look Route 66 / Texan Steak House pattern china was a great touch as well and didn’t go unappreciated.
If you have any room left for ice cream after all that…they have an ice cream bar in the main, too! Be sure to at least stop long enough to taste a sample…it’s worth it. Then you can wobble back to your car.
Generations of visitors have come The Big Texan and often share photos with the owners. It’s a tasty tradition. Bobby says he never tires of hearing their stories.
Just a note: one fun thing we didn’t find out about in time is a complimentary limo service to and from the restaurant! The Big Texan offers a complimentary limo pickup from most hotels, motels, and RV parks in Amarillo, as well as Cavender’s Boot City, and The Starbuck’s on I40 and Grand. Not just any limo, of course! A stereotypical limousine complete with longhorns mounted on the front. Pick-ups start at 4:00 and they drive customers home until everyone they brought is delivered safely back where they are staying. Check their website for the number to make a reservation for this unique shuttle.
For someone who, as a little girl, devoured anything having to do with the Old West the Big Texan was like stepping into a little slice of good-humored heaven…even before the food arrived. As a kid I would have eaten it up. But it was just as much fun as an adult.
I highly suggest putting the Big Texan Steak Ranch at the top of your to-do list when you visit Amarillo. Just be sure to bring your appetite!
When most people from other states of countries think of Texas, visions of cowboys riding their horses past oil wells usually come to mind. So it was no surprise to meet a young honeymooning couple from Germany when we showed up for our trail ride at a ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. They wanted to do something they thought would be a typical Texas experience – and riding horses was just the ticket.
And honestly, you’ll never see me turning down a chance to ride horses. I had been looking forward to this particular ride since booking it a few weeks before our trip down Route 66. When I was researching horseback riding options in Palo Duro, one in particular caught my eye because it wasn’t the usual nose to tail ride…you know, where the horses walk in a single file as close together as possible in single file?
Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West operates on the Los Cedros Ranch on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon – the second largest canyon in the United States. Horseback is an incredible way to see this breathtaking natural wonder.
The ranch offers one, two or three hour rides. I chose the earliest time slot (8:30 a.m.) for a two hour ride for three reasons: it gave us a nice length of time in the saddle; the morning light was better for photographs; and the canyon becomes very hot quickly once the sun is up. That meant we needed to leave our hotel early enough to arrive at the ranch by about 8:15.
When we arrived at the ranch, we were greeted by the young ladies that would be leading our ride: Sierra, Kensi and Halee. Young and friendly, it was also immediately apparent that they were also knowledgable horsewomen and experienced guides.
Our group of six (my family of three, the honeymooners and a local college professor) were welcomed into a small bunkhouse type building where we were offered cold water and a briefing about how the ride would proceed. A quick look around the room included cowhide covered furniture and a bulletin board with great tidbits of information including local restaurants the crew recommended. True Texas hospitality.
Safety measures were covered (my daughter is under 18, so was required to wear a helmet) as well as an overview of the types of terrains we would cover. We were encouraged to “stray” from the worn trail if we wanted as long as we basically stayed in the area of the group. Much to our delight we were also told that the ride would be stopping at two picture perfect locations along the rim.
When you make reservations for a ride online, you are asked for specific information such as riding experience and weight, so that an appropriate horse can be chosen for you to use. Our little “posse” had everything from experienced (me) to one of the honeymooners who was a first time rider. Everyone was made to feel extremely comfortable about the process regardless.
Once were were all assisted into the saddles of the beautiful Quarter Horses, we set out on our adventure. Along the way, the girls chatted about the canyon, the horses’ different personalities, and funny things that have happened on different rides. Sierra gave us some fascinating background history about the canyon along the way in a manner that felt much more like a friend talking with us than a tour guide.
The ride proceeded at an easy pace beginning with watering the horses at a large tank, and starting out into the prairie grass region. It wasn’t long before we saw our first glimpses of the canyon, that became more stunning the closer we rode. We paused in several places to take in the view and, as promised, the girls offered to take photos of the riders at two particularly beautiful vistas.
They pointed out a part of the canyon where coyotes live, the theatre in the base of the canyon where the park’s performance is held in summer months, and even dismounted to chase (unsuccessfully) a few horned toads to show us…which kept us laughing. They were so committed to making sure their guests had a great time!
Eventually it was time to head back, and we watered the horses again on the way. Everyone was visiting like old friends, having shared such a memorable experience. When we got back to the bunkhouse, the owner of the ranch, Phyllis Nickum, was there to greet us with cold water and a chat.
It was sad to call it a day when the ride was over, even though it was getting quite warm (I felt a bit sorry for the guest who were arriving for the later ride). As a quick aside, most of the horse tack and equipment for Los Cedros is custom made at Oliver’s Saddles of Amarillo, the oldest family owned saddlery in Texas. We were each given a Texas shaped keychain made by Oliver’s after our ride as a souvenir, which was such a nice touch to the visit.
We saw and did so many fun and interesting things along the section of Route 66 that we traveled on this trip, but the Cowgirls and Cowboys of the West experience is one that I can’t wait to go back and experience again.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the Amarillo area, do yourself a favor, and leave time in your schedule for a visit to Los Cedros. Their website has detailed information about the different rides offered, proper attire and the background of the ranch.
I have been looking forward to seeing this since I first heard about it several months ago, but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful and emotional it would be.
“The Saga” is a video art installation in San Antonio created by French artist Xavier de Richemont. Projected on the facade of the imposing San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest operating sanctuary in North America, in the heart of downtown it definitely makes my “must see” list for the city.
In the minutes before the show our trio slowly wandered into the plaza to join others who were deciding on their ideal viewing spot in anticipation of the show. A few brought folding chairs, children made their way to the front of the gathering to sit cross-legged on the pavers, but most just stood.
A rumble of rain followed by crashes of thunder surged through the speakers to start the show, and all eyes were on the cathedral.
Light, color and a collage of images burst onto the 7,000 square foot projection choreographed to music provided in surround sound speakers.
The progression of images- drawings, photos and maps – took us on a historical journey through the discovery, early settlement, and development from this 300-year-old city.
Pictures of landscapes, Native Americans, famous battles and finally skyscrapers filled the space, surrounded by wavy blue lines signifying the San Antonio River. A progression of timely music from Native American songs, German polkas, fiddle solos, and more kept our hearts pumping with excitement to see what would come next.
Richemont worked with local scholars in the creation of the monumental show. He has produced similar projections on famous architecture throughout the world, including Chartres Cathedral in France.
Totally mesmerized by the breathtaking display, I didn’t have any problem standing for its 24-minute length, even after walking all day…and I bet you won’t either.
And one of the best parts about this $1 million monumental attraction? It’s absolutely free to the public! I guarantee that if I my schedule had allowed, I would have attended more than once.
The multimedia work will be projected on the facade of the cathedral three times a night each Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 9:00 p.m., 9:30 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. through 2024.
Have you ever thought about volunteering during your holiday (or other) travel? It can be easier than you might think, and is a great way to take the focus off of busy schedules and squeezing in more shopping.
These ideas work if you are staying home for the holidays as well of course, but giving back in a place you are visiting can give you a special feeling of connection with the community.
Here are some ideas to start you off:
Ronald McDonald House
RMH supports children and families undergoing medical treatment, typically long-term treatment, and who have often traveled to a RMH from their homes. They have locations around U.S. and the world and volunteers are needed to prepare meals, greet visitors, interact with guests, and much more.
A group of friends and I put up and decorated the Houston RMH Christmas tree at the beginning of the holidays. It was especially fun when some of the young residents wanted to help!
A couple of weeks before that, another group of friends and I got together to make lunch for 50 residents at the Galveston house. Besides doing something that we knew was truly helping out, it was a fun excuse to get together in the kitchen with friends and enjoy each other’s company. It wasn’t a fancy or expensive meal, so with each of us bringing a few ingredients it came together quickly. I even approached a local restaurant about supplying a couple of side dishes, which they graciously did! And a lovely local nursery gave us a few potted flowers to decorate the buffet.
Organizations like this are always looking for people, families and groups to help out with activities, like crafts, playing bingo with residents, and other simple activities.
To find a RMH near your destination, visit:
Meals on Wheels
Meals on Wheels programs provide meals to homebound seniors. Different communities have different rules about how the public can volunteer. Some need people to deliver the meals, and possibly help setting up, checking in delivery drivers and assisting with clean-up.
If you have little ones, you can call ahead to a local chapter to ask how many meals they deliver daily. Then while your kids are trapped in the car in route, they can make small cards to decorate the recipient trays with crayons, colored pencils, stickers and construction paper. Once you can arrive at your destination you can simply drop off the tray decorations knowing you’re your family has brightened peoples’ day! I sued to do this with my Girl Scouts when they were little and they loved being artsy and helping out.
Each December on National Wreaths Across America Day, our mission to Remember, Honor and Teach is carried out by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as at more than 1,400 additional locations in all 50 U.S. states, at sea and abroad.
Wreaths Across America
A trip to the dollar star before your trip, and an evening of prep in from of the TV or at the table after dinner can make a big difference to local homeless shelters. Just stuff new, warm socks with water bottles and granola bars to be taken to a shelter in any city. Another big need is gently used books
Food Banks are always in search of help sorting canned items. This can be a one hour volunteer effort, or all day…but every little bit helps!
Local children’s hospitals will usually gladly accept gently used books and DVDs, coloring books and crayons. Another neat idea is to sort the materials for a small craft project (beaded bracelet, Christmas ornament, etc.) into individual baggies that the kids can get from the nurses station to keep their minds off of being stuck in a hospital.
But you get the idea, and it doesn’t have to be during the holidays. Whether you decide to pull together something to donate when you reach your destination or to dedicate a couple of hours once you arrive, there are so many ways to spread the love!
‘Tis the season to enjoy some outdoor fall fun!
When I’m traveling, I keep an eye out for local farmer’s markets. They’re a great resource to pick up fresh fruit and veggies for car snacks or, if wherever I’m staying has a kitchen, cook for an easy meal.
My favorite local spot to hit for this is Froberg’s Farm in Alvin.
Pie, oh my! Froberg’s has one of my family’s favorite (and most decadent) treats: fried pies! Of course they have full-sized pies too, but the smaller versions? Too tempting and good. Let’s see: peach cream, chocolate pecan, apple raisin, coconut…how’s a girl to choose? Our solution is usually to get a few different ones and cut them into “sampler plates” when we get home. But it’s fun to get one and take it outside under to the trees to enjoy while its still warm, too. Ah, decisions, decisions.
The Froberg family has created a kind of fall wonderland for all ages in back of the market, too! But it’s only open through November 4, so you’ll want to get it on your calendar.
It’s a great place to take families to run off some of that weekend energy, too. They have a cornfield maze, Berry Fun Land (with slides and climbing obstacles), bean bag toss, strawberry planting booth, basket toss, face painting, “Bee Coaster” ride, rubber duck races, a trailer ride farm tour, corn cannon, gemstone mining and more. Check out their website for details and prices: https://frobergsfarm.com
What fall fun have you found?