Take refuge among waterfalls, wildlife at Dogwood Canyon outside Branson, Mo.

Story and Photos by Marlene Greer, Correspondent

A short walk takes hikers behind a waterfall for a great view of Dogwood Creek.

A short walk takes hikers behind a waterfall for a great view of Dogwood Creek.

Seen enough of Branson’s famous shows? All tuckered out from a day at Silver Dollar City theme park?

Then leave the glitz and thrills of Branson, Missouri, behind and go for a bike ride, take a hike or hop on a tram and enjoy the beauty of the Ozarks at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park.

Dogwood Canyon is a private wilderness refuge located south of Branson at the Arkansas state line. Visitors to the 10,000-acre park can meander along streams, ride through hollows surrounded by limestone bluffs, and get up close and personal with herds of bison, longhorn cattle and elk. And if you bring your fishing pole (or rent one), you can angle for trout in Little Indian Creek.

The park features several waterfalls, pools, springs, a healthy rainbow trout population, Native American sites and a replica of an 1800’s church. Dogwood Creek runs the length of the park, and the 3.2 miles of paved biking and hiking trails follow its path. Spanning the creek are 16 rock bridges handcrafted by local stone masons, which add to the area’s natural beauty.

We opted for the tram ride because it’s the only way to see the restricted wildlife area. Who can pass up a close encounter with a bison? And if you’ve never seen a longhorn, here’s your chance.

Visitors on the tram ride cross Dogwood Creek near a waterfall.

Visitors on the tram ride cross Dogwood Creek near a waterfall.

The open-air tram crosses Little Indian and Dogwood creeks several times as it makes its way through the canyon and back. Some of the crossings are at the base of small waterfalls created by dams or “weirs” to provide oxygen flow for the trout. In May when we were there, the water was high, making the crossings fun. Once we had to pick up our feet as water coming over the falls rushed in.

The tram ride takes about two hours and makes several stops, including the Hope Wilderness Chapel, a replica of an 1800’s Missouri church built in 2002 using native cedar, pine and oak, and Glory Hole, home to giant rainbow trout. At Glory Hole, visitors can view the trout and climb a short trail behind a waterfall.

And after beauty comes the beast – plenty of them.

Dogwood Park's tram ride gets visitors up close to wildlife, including this longhorn.

Dogwood Park’s tram ride gets visitors up close to wildlife, including this longhorn.

The animals, it appears, know the routine. They head, some at a trot, toward the tram even before our driver and guide gets out and pours buckets of “lunch” first for the elk and a second time for the bison along both sides of the tram. The animals come so close you feel as if you could reach out and touch them.

A new restaurant, store and working grist mill will open in the park this fall.

So take some time away from the city and enjoy a quiet slice of Missouri’s natural scenic beauty. But beware – if you are an allergy sufferer like me, May, when the trees are in bloom, is not the time for you to visit.

Marlene Greer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer

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Silver Dollar City shines with great music, rides and food in Branson, Missouri

Fireman's Landing at Silver Dollar City, in Branson, Missouri. (Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City)

Fireman’s Landing at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. (Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City)

By Richard Irwin, Correspondent

As a fan of amusement parks, I try to spend time at local parks whenever I travel. My expectations are high, living just down the road from Disneyland, Universal Studios and Knott’s Berry Farm.

So I didn’t know what to expect from Silver Dollar City outside Branson, Missouri. I stopped by for a short visit last year, then promised myself I’d schedule a whole day there this year.

With more than 30 rides and attractions, 12 performance stages and nearly 100 resident craftsmen showing off their talents and wares, there’s much to choose from at Silver Dollar City.

If you’re looking for excitement, try the new $10 million Outlaw Run roller coaster. It was voted best new ride in 2013 by Amusement Today. It’s the only wood coaster to twist riders upside down three times, and it’s one of the steepest, dropping 16 stories in the first drop. Of course, you’ve built up a little speed by then, making it the second fastest wood coaster in the world, reaching 68 miles per hour.

Once on the Outlaw Run was enough for these old bones, so I recovered with some bluegrass music. Silver Dollar City has several festivals every year, and the bluegrass festival is one of the best.

More than 40 bluegrass bands performed on multiple stages throughout the park. Award-winning performers included Rhonda Vincent, who has been described as the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” by the Wall Street Journal.

We watched The Kruger Brothers perform in the beautiful Opera House. These musicians come from Switzerland, and their repertoire ranges from traditional bluegrass to Bach. I hadn’t even known I like bluegrass music. Their haunting melodies brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my heart.2014-01-23 12.53.19

Of course the park offers its own performers throughout the year. Check out the Horsecreek Band for some traditional country, bluegrass, western, and gospel music.

We stopped by the Silver Dollar Saloon for a show, expecting something like the saloon shows at Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. But the saloon girls were kicking up their heels when the show took on a strange twist.

It seems that after a 30-year absence, Carrie Nation had returned. This historic figure, who had lived in the area,  doled out her own brand of ax-wielding, vigilante justice to everyone who didn’t live by strict temperance codes. Talk about prohibition. Scary!

Kids will like the new $8 million Fireman’s Landing. This area offers 10 family adventures themed around a community fair from a century ago. Here, children “train” to become volunteer firefighters. As a former volunteer fireman, I got a kick out of the youngest recruits for the Silver Dollar City Fire Brigade. Did you know three out of every four firefighters in the country today are volunteers?

Throughout the park master craftsmen create wonderful works of art. We watched master potter Jeff Walker create bowls and pie plates using his signature red glaze. Other craftsmen include master glass cutter George Stiverson and master glass blower Shawn Watt.

Then there’s the food.

Be sure to stop at Sullivan’s Mill for some of Frank Capp’s sweet cinnamon bread and other freshly baked pastries. Yum! And watch June Ward make candy at Brown’s Candy Factory. Kids will be fascinated by how candy is actually handmade here.

Be sure to save room for breakfast, lunch or dinner in Silver Dollar City. Kids’ meals are only $4.99, including an entree, side, fruit and juice.

We started the day with a hearty breakfast at Molly’s Mill Restaurant. We liked it so  much, we went back for lunch.

Roller coaster at Silver Dollar City. (Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City)

Roller coaster at Silver Dollar City. (Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City)

The park’s first restaurant, Molly’s is one of the few original buildings on Main Street.  It has been serving hearty Ozarks meals for more than four decades.

The all you can eat buffet offers fried chicken, catfish, country smothered steak, apple baked beans, tomatoes and zucchini, fried okra and homemade sourdough bread.

This summer, the park is featuring the World-Famous Harlem Globetrotters as part of its Star-Spangled Summer festival through July 19. Visitors will also see some of the nation’s most talented clogging groups on the Gazebo Stage.

Spend the day at Silver Dollar City – you’ll be glad you did.








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Branson beckons visitors with shows and scenic beauty

By Richard Irwin, Travel Buddy

When I told my neighbor in Los Angeles I was going back to Branson for another week, his mouth dropped open as he exclaimed, “Why would anyone want to go to Branson?”

It’s a fair question because few Southern Californians have ever heard about this quaint town in Missouri, and those who had, thought Branson was only for senior citizens on bus tours.

While I may be a senior citizen, I’m not exactly retirement community material. I still like to ski, surf, sail, bike and zipline, to mention a few of my more athletic activities. And I did grow up back in the hollows of the Appalachian Mountains outside Pittsburgh. So the beautiful, wooded ‘hollers’ in the Ozarks remind me of my childhood.

But I like Branson because there’s so much to do there. This little town of 10,000 offers lots of fun activities for visitors of all ages, not just senior citizens. In fact, families pretty much take over the Ozark Hills in the summertime, enjoying the go-cart tracks, amusement parks and family shows.

Where else can you get gigantic cinnamon buns, a replica of the Titanic and Yakov Smirnoff in one place? Throw in some heartfelt Americana and you have a winning combination. Which is why this little city in southwestern Missouri is visited by millions of tourists every year, and it continues to welcome visitors to the heart of the Ozarks.

Like a Hollywood star, Branson got its big break when the television news program 60 Minutes did a feature on the town more than 25 years ago. That’s when many met “the live country music capital of the universe.”

While country music is still wildly popular, the shows have expanded to everything from Irish tenors and Beatles tributes to Shanghai acrobats and magic acts from Long Beach. There’s more than 100 shows to choose from, which explains why I visit Branson whenever I can. Join me in this new series, as we explore this big little town, which has so much to offer.



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Innovative Spaceseat offers lots of space on long London-LAX flight with Air New Zealand

Premium economy offers Spaceseats on Boeing 777-300 . (Photo courtesy of Air New Zealand)

Premium economy offers Spaceseats on Boeing 777-300 . (Photo courtesy of Air New Zealand)

By Richard Irwin, Staff Writer

Traveling long distance can be tiring, especially when it’s an overnight flight to Asia or Europe. So it’s well worth the time and effort to get the best seat you can afford, because you’re going to be in that seat for more than 10 hours.

Fortunately, most travelers can sleep on these red eye flights, cutting 7 or 8 hours out of the boredom. But it’s hard to sleep, when you’re jammed in a full flight and people keep crawling over you to get to the bathrooms.

So think about an upgrade, whether you have to use frequent flyer miles or pay more. The extra room and service will more than pay for itself.

Remember, you’d probably have to pay $400-$500 for a night at a nice hotel in a capital city. Why not invest that in the flight?

So when we booked our nonstop flight from London to Los Angeles, we wanted as much bang for our buck as we could get. Air New Zealand was offering roundtrips for as little as $800 over the winter.

First we looked at the Skycouch formed from three seats in your own row. The ergonomically designed seats feature a swiveling headrest plus individually equipped AC power. Fleece blankets and pillows are free.

The Skycouch is formed when you raise the two position leg rest on each seat. When they’re level with the seat, just raise the armrests and you have a large flat couch more than 5 feet long. Great for cuddling up with a loved one for the long flight.

But then, we saw the new Spaceseats in premium economy and had to try them. The innovative design solves many of the issues that pop up in today’s flights.

Sure the cost is double economy, but it feels like you’re getting three times the space. Nestled in a hard shell, the seats keep the person in front of you from intruding on you personal space.

That means a seat back won’t be reclined only inches from your face for 10 hours, and the tray table won’t be nudging you chest while you try to eat something.

And the center seats are designed for couples, who can actually turn to face each other over meals. The two seats in the outer rows cater to travelers who prefer privacy.

The seats are staggered, so you’re not looking at the flier beside you. And there are several innovative storage spaces in the armrests so you don’t have to jam all your electronic equipment in the seat back.

The complimentary headsets are very comfortable, accessing more than 580 hours of content, including the latest movies. There’s also television shows, video games and a special children’s section.

All on a 10 inch touch screen with a widescreen format. If you need more, there’s USB and iPod connections you can plug into.

While the Spaceseat doesn’t recline completely, it swings out enough to allow a restful sleep, blanketed in cozy fleece blankets and pillows.  So you can actually arrive at your destination well-rested and ready to start the day, not a zombie looking for your hotel.

The food in premium economy was also quite good, the chefs obviously put some thought into the special menu. It’s nice to eat with real silverware and drink from actual glasses. Of course, these meals come with premium New Zealand wines.

If you’re still hungry, fliers can order a snack directly from their personal screen.

My seatmate, a British retiree with a home in New Zealand swore by the new service. He said it’s the only way he’ll fly now.

In the end, the long flight became more of a treat than a chore, and we arrived in Los Angeles well-rested and fed. Ready to tackle the busy freeways in Los Angeles.








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Little Italy offers wonderful cuisine in San Diego

By Steve Scauzillo, Staff Writer

It’s on India Street but the letters on the gateway spell out: Little Italy.

The two-block strip — less than a mile or a 15-minute walk from most hotels on Harbor Drive — may have the most linguine per capita than any area in the United States. Diners sit on sidewalk tables drinking wine, sampling cheeses and putting fork to spoon to spin up tasty pasta.SANDIEGO 1

Don’t try to get a table at Bencotto, the fine new Northern Italian eatery, without a reservation. Expect a two-hour wait on weekends. But the newest Italian restaurant in the area has a fine twin, Monello, owned by the same Northern Italian family.

The super nice maitre d’ put us at a bar table and promptly left a dish of lupini beans dredged in garlic and olive oil. Later, I munched on spaghetti carbonara.

I have never had a dessert as good as its torta della nonna with pine nuts. Not even from my own nonna. I guess that makes me a devilish little boy, the rough translation of Monello.

Get a dish of osso buco or just a glass of Chianti. Try the oysters at Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar, or the exquisite American cuisine at Kettner Exchange, known by locals as KEX. Want something traditional? Filippi’s Pizza Grotto will satisfy.

World War II hero Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of Guadalcanal, would be very happy. The plaza named in his honor rims the happening dining district just a quick walk from the Embarcadero.

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San Diego’s Seaport Village gets new Headquarters


Even the 1980s-standby Seaport Village received a makeover, with the new Headquarters adding more shopping and some fancy eateries, including Puesto, where the tacos and bite-sized food gets raves.

Also at the Village is surf photographer Aaron Chang’s Ocean Art Gallery.

A new cruise ship pier will host Disney’s next adventure: a Mexican Riviera cruise ship that sails only from San Diego starting in October.

Might be a good idea to stay landside an extra couple of days to take in the city’s water sites and, you know, get back your land legs.

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Surrender to walking in the new San Diego waterfront

By Steve Scauzillo, Staff Writer

Walking in San Diego is a must along the new wooden boardwalks and paved pathways of the esplanade along Harbor Drive between the Navy and B Street piers.SANDIEGO13

Old pavement and cracked parking lots are now a 105-foot-wide promenade featuring jacaranda trees and a living bioswale covered in red, green and purple drought-resistant plants that filter impurities from storm water.

Decomposed granite paths and stainless steel and wood benches dot the former hardscape. They’ve even realigned the street to make more walkable space.

Farther south, a new fish market features tuna and octopus fresh from the bay to the highest bidders.
It’s next to a giant sculpture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square at the end of the European part of World War II called “Unconditional Surrender.”
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Stay at a harborside hotel in San Diego


Stay at a harborside or downtown hotel in San Diego. There are some newly updated inns, such as the Wyndham San Diego Bayside, where you can get a bay-view room in one of its towers; the Hilton San Diego Bayfront farther south; the DoubleTree; and in trendy downtown, the W.

In early 2016, SpringHill Suites and a Residence Inn will open bayside, adding to the stay choices.

It’s doable to stay within a 15-minute walk of shopping, museums, kayaking, boat cruises and some of the trendiest restaurants and nightclubs in the city.

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Port of San Diego undergoes amazing metamorphosis


By Steve Scauzillo, Staff Writer

What the Tourism Authority calls $31.1 million in Port of San Diego improvements felt like much more during a weekend trip in late February with a friend. I saw the beginnings of the transformation during a trip with my wife back in May 2013, but two years later, the metamorphosis is truly remarkable.

There’s more than just Anthony’s Fish Grotto and the Star of India. Although those two staples remain (who doesn’t remember clam chowder at Anthony’s with your kids or grandkids?

And that famous tall ship staring down at you?), there’s been an expansion of pathways, boardwalks and parks that connect the Grape Street Pier on the north with Seaport Village on the south.

All accessible by foot, bike, pedicab or, for the geek in all of us, Segway.

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Weekend in San Diego can be carless, stressfree


By Steve Scauzillo, Staff Writer

You’ve arrived at your weekend getaway. After inhaling that complimentary chocolate chip cookie, you’re in the middle of a slow-motion swan dive onto your hotel bed where you sense the pillowy duvet hugging your road-weary body.

The last thing you want to do is get back in the car and drive to dinner or the museum. But in San Diego, you don’t have to.

Believe it or not, in car-centric San Diego, you can leave the minivan in the hotel parking lot and still enjoy the sights. That’s because a weekend vacation near the city’s restored Embarcadero can be carless and stress-free.

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