National Parks Fee-Free Days for 2020

     National Parks in Texas aren’t stereotypical by any means. From forest to beach, mountains to rivers, battlefields to presidents, and missions to mammoths…there truly is something to interest everyone!

     While many national parks are free 365 days a year, 112 of them charge entrance fees. The exception is on fee-free days. These select days throughout the year give everyone a chance to visit parks free of charge.

     So what are you waiting for? Mark your calendar and start planning that trip!

 

THE 2020 FEE-FREE DAYS ARE:

  • January 20, 2020 (Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

  • April 18, 2020 (the first day of National Park Week)

  • August 25, 2020 (the National Park Service’s birthday)

  • September 26, 2020 (National Public Lands Day)

  • November 11, 2020 (Veterans Day)

     Click on each name for further information on these National Parks and Recreation Areas in the Lone Star State:

 

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Amistad National Recreation Area

Big Bend National Park

Big Thicket National Preserve

Chamizal National Memorial

Fort Davis National Historic Site

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park

South Padre Island National Seashore

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park

Rio Grande National Wild & Scenic River

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Waco Mammoth National Monument

Ghosts of the Emily Morgan Hotel

     “Good evening, Mrs. Maca,” the desk clerk smiled as she handed me my room key card. “We’ve booked you in a suite on the haunted floor.”

     It definitely wasn’t the usual greeting I receive at a hotel check-in, but obviously someone on staff had Googled my name . . . and I have to say I was pretty delighted.

     I was in San Antonio speaking about cemetery symbolism at a paran
ormal conference, of all things. My books about Galveston cemeteries and ghosts have certainly opened up some unusual venues for me. And although I must admit that my choice to stay at the Emily Morgan was based on an admiration for its elegance and location (right next door to the Alamo, for heaven’s sake!), the stories of its hauntings may have played a part in the decision to choose it. It is known as one of the three most haunted hotels in the city.

UNUSUAL PAST

     Now a part of the luxurious Doubletree by Hilton chain (yep, that means their famous fresh cookies at check-in), the thirteen-story building wasn’t always a hotel.

     The striking Gothic Revival structure opened in 1924 as the Medical Arts Building, with the first four floors being doctors’ offices and a pharmacy. Other levels included a psychiatric ward (seventh floor), the top two floors served as surgical wards, and of course – a morgue in the basement.

     The towering building features unique ornamentation and a copper roof with wood ribs. The most unusual adornments are undoubtedly a variety of gargoyles (actually “grotesques” since they have no downspouts) that surround the building, each portraying a medical ailment that might have been treated within. They’re slightly reminiscent of some stone carving from the movie “Ghostbusters” about to come to life. There are even flying monkeys for those who look closely.

     One of the more “princely” – though certainly not handsome – examples wearing a crown was perched right outside a window of my room, and it was fascinating to see him so close-up.

     It remained a hospital for about 52 years before being converted into an office building in 1976.  Luckily for those who appreciate her beautiful architecture, the Emily Morgan (named after the Yellow Rose of Texas) was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Alamo Plaza Historic District the following year.

     In 1984 it opened as a luxury hotel, and in 2012 it underwent a multi-million dollar renovation before being reopened as part of the Doubletree group.

     I suppose that should be our first clue, since one of the common superstitions about spirits . . . or is it a fact . . . is that they tend to get “stirred up” during renovations of their surroundings.

     Considering the amount of suffering and death the walls witnessed for so many years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “energies” from the past are reported to remain.

SPIRITED ROOMIE, ANYONE?

     Throughout the weekend I heard hotel guests inquire of each other if they had had any ghostly experiences, anxiously hoping to hear the answer “yes.” When comparing room numbers, my answer was usually met with a lot of interest, and I invited people up to check out my room for themselves whenever my timetable allowed. There was even a YouTuber who took video. More often than not, the visitors ended up being just as intrigued by the beauty of the view and the room as any otherworldly roommates I might have.

     I found it amusing that even a few attendees of the paranormal convention, which was held at a reputedly haunted mansion, left before all of the festivities were over to return to the Emily Morgan to seek out their own “encounters” in impromptu ghost hunts.

     Would you stay on the 13th floor of a notoriously haunted hotel or do you think that would be bad luck?

     Poppycock, you say – hotels don’t have a 13th floor! Ah, but we all really know the truth, don’t we? A glance at any hotel elevator board and you’ll see they’ve conveniently skipped from the 12th to the 14th when numbering floors to avoid any superstitious guests being uncomfortable. So the 14th floor actually is the 13th.

     The Emily Morgan has taken these superstitions into account at an entirely new level by omitting the room number 1408. You see, when you add those numbers together you would realize they equal 13 on the actual 13th floor.

     Regardless, there have been reported ghostly occurrences on almost every floor, with the 7th, 13th and 14th being the most active.

12th & 14th FLOORS

     Guests on the 14th floor have often specifically requested to stay on this notoriously haunted level. As one of the former surgical wards where numerous deaths occurred, the expectation of ghosts is somewhat understandable.

     Room occupants in the past have reported opening doors to the hallway only to see hospital scenes playing out in front of them, complete with nurses pushing squeaky-wheeled gurneys.

    When they shut the door to gather their wits before reopening it, the scenes vanish.

    Much more unpleasant is the report of a lingering scent of antiseptic, which I was quite grateful not to have noticed.

     The perception something cool brushing up against guests has been noted on both floors. Would it be a relief on a hot summer night, or send unwelcome chills?

     Utilities seem to be of special interest to spirits on the 12th floor, including flashing lights and impish water faucets. Dripping noises can be heard in the middle of the night, with investigating occupants discovering the bath faucets to be completely cranked open.

     I must admit that I heard an incessant dripping of water as I was admiring the full moon outside my window, but after investigating I decided that someone on the floor above me must have a slow draining bath, as there was no water actually running in my room.

     Bathroom doors visibly opening and shutting have also been witnessed, which is odd since the extensive renovations should have taken away any explanation of “off kilter” doors.  

     Having heard these stories, I considered myself pretty darn brave to take a soaking bath both nights of my stay . . . but I just couldn’t resist the immense “champagne Jacuzzi” tub. Thankfully, the spirits left me to unwind in peace.

     I even heard one report that the Emily Morgan’s swimming pool, a triangular feature situated on an outcropping of an upper floor, was constructed out of the stainless steel from the medical center’s operating tables. Though I couldn’t find anything to confirm this, it sure makes a great story and would have been an ingenious (if eerie) example of repurposing materials.

IT HAS ITS UPS & DOWNS

     One ”phenomenon” at the Emily Morgan that I can confirm through personal experience is that the elevators seem to have a mind of their own.

     The elevators are said to often to ride up and down without a single rider or skip past a floor that a rider has requested by pushing the button, because . . . c’mon, ghosts just wanna have fun.

     When you step onto one of these conveyances, take a bit of patience and be ready to accept an adventure if it should present itself.

     Front desk attendants are said to receive phone calls –from these same elevators-even when no one is inside.

     One of the creepiest experiences reported by visitors is that the elevators (regardless of which floor was requested) have taken their passengers below ground to the basement level, where the morgue once was.

     Meeting rooms and housekeeping are the only things housed there today, but it is said that even employees keep their time there to a minimum. Among the things reported to have been experienced there are dancing orbs (there are no windows, so they couldn’t be reflections) and disembodied voices. I wonder what they have to say?

     The most dramatic – verging on unnerving – experience I had at the hotel involved the elevators. It was witnessed by numerous other guests and staff, but I’ll keep this one to myself (sorry).

OTHER “RESIDENTS”

     Other floors in the hotel come with reports of a woman’s shrieking cries in the middle of the night, transparent apparitions moving from room to room and passing through walls or even gazing into the mirror as guests check their appearance. Which of these would you be brave enough to see or hear?

     The staff confirms that occasionally guests request to switch rooms, citing that the activity in theirs is too much to endure.

     Did they actually experience something paranormal or did they take the hotel’s ghostly tales too close to heart? Only they will know for sure, but I suggest you check in and decide for yourself.

     Employees of the hotel are happy to share their own experiences or stories they’ve heard, and if they aren’t scared, why should we be?

     Ghosts or not, the Emily Morgan Hotel remains high on my recommendations for accommodations in the city of San Antonio. The beautiful architecture and interior spaces and gracious staff are unparalleled.

Group Experiences Mix It Up at Hotel Valencia

Do you chimichurri?

     I recently had the opportunity to visit with Executive Chef David Rapozo at Hotel Valencia Riverwalk in San Antonio about activities and unique group experiences for groups traveling together.

     

     In response, he treated our group to a chimichurri making competition. Chimichurri is an uncooked sauce (like a pesto in Italy or salsa in Mexico) that originated in Argentina, which was particularly appropriate as this beautiful hotel is designed with a stunning Argentinian theme and restaurant menus.

     Chef Rapozo demonstrated how he uses a variety of ingredients to make a chimichurri similar to ones that he personally found in Argentina, and then let us sample it. Once we saw that it wasn’t as intimidating as we might have thought, he presented us with a table filled with portioned seasonings and oils to try making our own. We were split into teams of two, and got busy mixing.

     Though some of the participants were a bit hesitant at the start of the event, we were all quickly caught up in the fun, while getting to know each other better. The light-hearted approach encouraged everyone to experiment and laugh at any mishaps along the way.

     Much to our surprise, even though we were all working with the same variety of ingredients, each team’s efforts had very different results . . . even different colors.

     To our delight, a variety of grilled meats arrived from the kitchen to try the sauces on. Chef Rapozo went first with tasting all the “entries” of course, to act as our judge. And although he did declare a winning team (which just might have been mine!) he gave nice feedback to everyone.

   Now, truth be told, I thought they were all really tasty and it was fun (and delicious) trying all of the varieties. We all went away anxious to try it again once we returned home.

VIDEO OF INGREDIENTS TABLE

     Activities like this would be a great addition for a group girlfriends getaway or used as a corporate team building event during business travel. Be sure to contact the hotel several weeks ahead of your arrival to allow the staff to present possible ideas (maybe a guacamole making competition?) and allow you time to choose and them to prepare for the experience.

     Try it the next time you travel in a group!

THE SAGA – LIGHTING UP THE NIGHT

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Absolutely stunning!

     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.

 

Click here to watch the first moments of “The Saga”

 

   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.





Haunted Texas Hotels

     This time of year, Texas travel can take on a spookier theme when tourists seek out the most haunted hotels in their area.

     Our state has no shortage of hotels with stories of resident spirits and unnatural occurrences. Some are based in fact. Some are more of a “reach.” If you want to test your nerves by staying at a property that might be home to unearthly beings, here are a few to try:

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The Hotel Galvez, Galveston

  2. The Driskill Hotel, Austin

  3. Sheraton Gunter Hotel, San Antonio

  4. Menger Hotel, San Antonio

  5. Nutt House, Granbury

  6. The Excelsior Hotel, Jefferson

  7. Jefferson Hotel, Jefferson

  8. Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells

  9. The Ott Hotel, Liberty

  10. Renaissance Casa de las Palmas, McAllen

  11. Gage Hotel, Marathon

  12. Le Meridien Stoneleigh, Dallas

  13. Queen Isabel Inn, Port Isabel

     Of course, this list is far from complete, but it’s a good place to start…or a lucky 13 places.

     If you’re planning to brave a potentially haunted hotel in hope of having your own other-worldly experience you may make your reservations pretty far ahead of your stay.

     Read the stories about the resident spirit(s) and experiences of others. If there is a particular room in the hotel that is purported to be the center of the activity and you want to stay in it (like room 501 at The Hotel Galvez),  plan to book your room MONTHS in advance. These rooms are incredibly popular! If you’re thinking about staying there in October, you may need to book even further out.

     Don’t trust your own senses, but don’t have expensive “ghost hunting” electronics? No problem. Just download one of the many apps available that claim to detect the presence of spirits…but if the information they give you creeps you out, don’t blame me!

     A few to check out:

  1. Ghost Radar: Classic by Spud Pickles

  2. Ghost Communicator by Andrew Gronek

  3. Ghost Detector Free by Purple Penguin.com

  4. Ghost Locator by Sebastien Mougey

  5. Ghost Observer by AKEV

  6. Ghost Recorder by MEDL Mobile, Inc.

  7. Ghost O Meter by Adrian 3

     But remember, if all of this ghostly talk isn’t your style, there’s no shame in checking into a brand new hotel, cuing up “Hocus Pocus” on pay-per-view and digging into some Halloween candy instead!

Legends, Mystery & Romance

   I love a good mystery, and a dash of romance just makes it better, right?

Rose Window

   The iconic Rose Window at Mission San Jose in San Antonio is one of the most famous windows in the world. Along with other features of five Spanish missions in the area, it is listed as one of the details that distinguish it as the first World UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas.

   Sculptor Pedro Huizar carved the quatrefoil shape entangled with the images of pomegranates, said to symbolize fertility, in 1775. Yet the ten foot tall, six-foot wide window sits only about four and a half feet above ground level. And its position in the sacristy wall (where windows were traditionally plain) and the purpose of steps leading up from the interior remain a mystery.

   But what intrigues most visitors who come especially to see this ornately carved window are the legends behind it.

   One version of its creation says that Huizar’s sweetheart Rosa either died or disappeared in a shipwreck on her way from Spain to be reunited with him in Texas.

   Another that he carved the window in the throws of despair after the woman who he came overseas to make a fortune to win, betrayed him.

   Yet another story relates that Huizar carved the masterpiece after falling in love with a wealthy woman whose family shunned him.

   Which version is true? Perhaps one…or none of them. The tales most likely took shape during a period of romanticism after the 1870s in order to attract tourists.

   But does it really matter? Sometimes the legends can be more intriguing than cold, hard facts.

   Whatever its origin, the Rose Window has become one of the most recognized architectural features in the Southwest. Miniature replications of the window can be seen in several buildings in downtown San Antonio, and there’s even a massive version at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Beaumont.

   Which version of the story would you prefer to be true?