To our Winter Texan Friends

Like many snowbirds escaping the ravages of a northern winter, we often roost in the Rio Grande Valley (RVG).

PrintTo assist Winter Texans keep in touch with the latest happenings in the RVG, the Valley Morning Star has put together a free newsletter.

The following information appeared in the August 26 (2013) edition of the paper:

“Because e-mail is a great opportunity to stay in touch, the Valley Morning Star has put together this free newsletter for you with some of the latest information about the Rio Grande Valley.

“As you start your autumn journey back to the Valley and our welcoming sunshine, we know you’ll want to know what’s going on here.

“So once a month or so, we’ll send you these e-mails and hope you’ll enjoy reading about Harlingen, San Benito, South Padre Island, and our other surrounding cities. How are the crops doing? What new businesses have opened up? Are there any new restaurants? How about special deals or savings? And as always, we’ll tell you about the Valley’s interesting people and events.

Green jay takes a bath in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, headquarters for World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Green jay takes a bath in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, headquarters for World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Don’t worry. We won’t “spam” you. After this email, you should be getting one in late September, one in January, and another in February.

“Let us know what you want to read about, too. Just send us an e-mail at WT@ValleyStar.com.

“Also, if you have friends or family back home who might be interested in keeping up with the Valley while you’re down here, we’d love to include them on our e-mail list.

“You can send their e-mail address to us, again, at WT@ValleyStar.com.

“We also encourage you and your family and friends to enter the WT contest for a chance to win a new Kindle Fire. It’s easy to enter. Just click the contest promotion spot on this newsletter, and complete and submit the form. Make sure you include who referred you to enter the contest. One lucky winner will be randomly chosen.

Combining Birding and Photography with our life on the road is like enjoying pecan pie with Blue Bell ice cream for dessert following a turkey feast on Thanksgiving Day! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
In addition to nearly 30 bird species found nowhere else in the US, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is home to an astonishing concentration of more widespread birds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The Valley Morning Star is excited that you’re coming back to visit us, so get ready to enjoy our South Texas hospitality.

“Have a safe trip!

“Lilia Castillo Jones

“Publisher, Valley Morning Star.”

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Texas Bucket List for the RVer

No matter how you size it up, Texas is a BIG friendly state that offers a wealth of experiences for all RVers.

The classic Shiner Bock is a God given blessing. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The classic Shiner Bock is a God given blessing. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A trek across Texas’ 267,000 square miles brings you face to face with all kinds of natural wonders—from tumbleweeds, wildflowers, deserts and cedar forests to angular canyons, rivers and sandy beaches with sea-green surf.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

No Finer Day in Shiner

In Texas, the mere mention of the word “Shiner” immediately brings to mind thoughts of a cold longneck and the distinctive brew within. However, before the beer, there was the town.

Not surprisingly, the best way to learn the history of Shiner is to learn the history of Shiner Beer, as the two have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. So, I headed to Spoetzl Brewery and joined a tour.

Shiner beer started in 1909 when the town’s thirsty German and Czech immigrants decided to start a brewery to make the traditional Bavarian brews of their homeland. In 1914, legendary brewmaster Kosmos Spoetzl took over and the rest is history.

The Spoetzl Brewery is now the oldest independent brewery in Texas and still brews every drop of Shiner Beer from its “little brewery” in Shiner.

As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tour gave me a firsthand look into the brewing process and, of course, a firsthand sampling of the final product, from flagstaff Shiner Boch to the 102 Double Wheat. The tour is the best way to sample the spectrum of Shiner, and it whet my curiosity as to what else the town had to offer.

Thirsty no more, but definitely hungry, I went to Friday’s Fried Chicken, a local spot that’s part fried-chicken-joint and part Czech bakery. My two-piece golden-fried-chicken plate with cold slaw and French fries hit the spot. Then I finished my lunch with a slice of homemade pecan pie and a whole pie to go.

While Shiner Beer put Shiner on the map, it isn’t the only thing keeping it there. And a day trip to Shiner goes down as smooth as the namesake beverage. As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!”

Valley Nature Center

The Valley Nature Center is a 5-acre thicket of native vegetations, primarily upland scrub forest, with a courtyard of identified native plants, a butterfly garden, elevated lily pond, cactus gardens, and self-guiding, interpretive trails winding its way through nature vegetation.

The center features a courtyard dedicated to the preservation of endangered plants and teaches how these plants can be used in wildscaping land in the Valley.

A trail guide identifies native plants and animals of special interest.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo taken at the Valley Nature Center, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Valley Nature Center is the oldest nature center in the Rio Grande Valley, and the only non-profit center fully dedicated to environmental education south of San Antonio and east of Eagle Pass. It has been in operation as a non-profit organization dedicated to its mission since 1984.

The park is a wonderful natural oasis in the middle of the city.

Native Plant Nursery open to the public—140 species of plants native to the Rio Grande Valley

Viva, Las Vegas Café

Las Vegas Café is a dining staple on West Harrison Avenue in Harlingen that serves breakfasts, lunches, and dinners Monday through Saturdays. The popular café began its operation with only three tables and eight stools and now has a seating capacity for 140 people.

The name has spicy origins and so do the recipes. The building was a go-go club in the early 1960s that went by the name of Las Vegas Lounge.

Las Vegas owners Julio Charles and his wife, Eloina, started the café in 1964. Today, their two daughters, Lori and Julie, primarily run the café.

The key to the eatery’s continued success is its consistency with good food, good service, and reasonable prices.

The specialties of the house include beef and cheese enchiladas that are prepared from a special recipe that is really their trademark. Plus they have several other quality Mexican dishes such as steak rancheros, fajitas, chicken fried steak, and chicken tenders.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 3 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

First buy a cowboy hat and boots. Then you’re on your way to being a Texan.

—James Michener

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Survey to Determine Why Winter Texan Numbers Have Declined

The number of Winter Texans coming to the Rio Grande Valley has fallen, and folks at the University of Texas-Pan American want to know why.

RGVThey’re asking Winter Texans to fill out a survey on its website.

Penny Simpson, director of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center, said it will take about 15-20 minutes.

“We want to know what we can do, both in the Valley to improve the Valley to make it very winter Texan friendly and for the parks, so they know what kind of amenities to offer,” Simpson told The Valley Morning Star.

Winter Texans make a big impact on the Valley economy. The report estimated each household spends almost $11,000 during each stay and estimated the total impact to the local economy at $751 million.

The Tourism Research Center conducts a survey every two years.

In 2010, it showed 140,000 Winter Texans in 75,000 households. By 2012, that number dropped to 133,000 in 69,000 households.

It also showed the average age of the Winter Texan had increased from 70 in 2010 to 71 in 2012. A study in 2004 estimated the average age at 68.

Simpson said it’s unclear if the younger baby boomer generation is just not coming to the Valley or if previous Winter Texans are not returning.

“The big concern is the age was also increasing,” Simpson said.

“The bigger question is are the younger ones going to come and replace the older ones as they no longer come?”

“This is, I think, a Winter Texan’s voice,” Simpson said.

“This is the opportunity to share their opinions. The results will be shared with the parks and valley leaders.”

The survey is available online at http://utpa.edu/wintertexan

Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort Super Site
Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort Super Site

Those who respond to the survey by February 26 will be eligible to win a Kindle Fire.

The survey is an important tool for the university Tourism Research Center to measure the economic impact of Winter Texans in the Rio Grande Valley.

“All information provided will be kept confidential. The data will be tabulated and only statistical information will be made public,” said Dr. Penny Simpson, associate dean of the College of Business Administration at UTPA.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Alamo Palms & Victoria Palms Resort Sold to ELS

Equity LifeStyle Properties, Inc. (ELS) acquired two properties, Victoria Palms Resort and Alamo Palms, in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas.

Alamo Palms
Alamo Palms

The two properties contain approximately 1,765 sites on approximately 175 acres for a stated purchase price of $25 million. The company funded the purchase price with available cash.

Victoria Palms is an age-restricted, 1,122-site property with 270 manufactured home sites and 853 RV sites.

Alamo Palms is an age-restricted, 643-site property with 293 manufactured home sites and 350 RV sites. The acquisition will compliment ELS’ South Texas portfolio of eight properties and 5,100 sites and further strengthen its presence in the market.

Details

Equity LifeStyle Properties, Inc. (ELS)

Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS) is a leading operator of manufactured home communities, RV resorts and campgrounds in North America and currently owns or has an interest in 383 properties in 32 states and British Columbia consisting of 142,679 sites.

ELS offer beautiful communities and parks in the most desirable locations, while offering various homes and camping options to meet a wide variety of our customers’ needs.

The company is a self-administered, self-managed, real estate investment trust (REIT) with headquarters in Chicago.

Victoria Palms Resort
Victoria Palms Resort

Through Encore and Thousand Trails ELS has operations in Alabama (1), Arizona (31), British Columbia (1), California (22), Colorado (3), Florida (33), Illinois (3), Indiana (5), Kentucky (20), Maine (5), Massachusetts (3), Michigan (3), Nevada (4), New Hampshire (2), New Jersey (3), New York (5), North Carolina (8), Ohio (2), Oregon (6), Pennsylvania (11), South Carolina (2), Tennessee (2), Texas (17), Utah (1), Virginia (5), Washington (14), Wisconsin (5)

RVontheGO is your passport to campsites and cabins at over 170 Encore and Thousand Trails campgrounds and RV resorts across the United States.

Address: Two North Riverside Plaza, Chicago, Illinois 60606

Phone: (800) 274-731

ELS Website: equitylifestyle.com

RVontheGO Website: rvonthego.com

Thousand Trails Website: thousandtrails.com

Alamo Palms

Alamo Palms is a beautifully landscaped 58-acre age-qualified community offering 292 manufactured home sites and 352 RV and park model sites for both permanent and seasonal residents. Amenities include free cable TV and high-speed Internet at site, game room with pool tables, tennis and shuffleboard courts, swimming pool and heated spa, club house, and two large ballrooms.

Address: 1341 West Business Highway 83, Alamo, TX 78516

Phone: (800) 780-7571

Website: alamopalms.com

Victoria Palms Resort             

Victoria Palms Resort
Victoria Palms Resort

Victoria Palms Resort is a premier age-qualified RV resort and manufactured home community catering to those 55 years and older. Located in Donna, Texas, the gated resort offers guests a lush, beautifully landscaped environment and a wonderful community spirit.

Victoria Palms has over 850 concrete pull-through and back-in sites with full hookups, 25 fully furnished cottages, over 300 manufactured home sites, 20 hotel rooms, and 100 suites. Amenities include free satellite TV and high-speed Internet at site, 10,000 square foot activity building, 35,000 square foot central clubhouse, 12,000 square foot ballroom, fitness center, tennis courts, large swimming pool, restaurant, and a variety of activities.

Address: 602 N. Victoria Road, Donna, TX 78537

Phone: (956) 464-7801 or (800) 551-5303 (toll free)

Website: victoriapalms.com

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Variety of Activities Attract Winter Texans to Rio Grande Valley

During the summer months, Clyde and Kathy Janssen work as dance instructors at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, one of the most famous dance halls in America, which traces its roots to the Big Band Era of the 1930s and 40s.

The sighting of this Black-vented Oriole brought birders from around the world to Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But from November through April, the Janssens teach Jitterbug / Swing at Victoria Palms Resort in Donna. They also assist Grethe Sullivan in teaching salsa, cha cha, and other forms of ballroom dancing at the resort, according to a Texas Association of Campground Owners news release.

Victoria Palms Resort is one of many resorts across the Rio Grande Valley that offer dance classes as well as dancing to live and recorded music during the winter months.

“Dancing is one of the most popular activities at RV parks across the Rio Grande Valley,” Clyde Janssen said.

“It’s especially popular with empty nesters, whose kids have graduated from high school. It’s just mom and dad now. Now they have time for themselves and they can take time to do the things they’ve always wanted to do.”

A "Valley Specialty,: the Buff-bellied Hummingbird is a common sight at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Wold Birding Center and other Valley nature spots. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A “Valley Specialty,: the Buff-bellied Hummingbird is a common sight at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Wold Birding Center and other Valley nature spots. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The wonderful thing about dancing is it’s something couples can do together as opposed to doing something where they are competing against each other,” Janssen said, adding, “It helps build personal relationships.”

Roughly 90 percent of the RV parks and resorts in the Rio Grande Valley offers dance lessons as well as venues where Winter Texans can dance to their hearts’ content, said Kristi Collier, president and CEO of Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley, which markets 75 RV parks and resorts from Mission to South Padre Island.

Of course, dancing is just one of a growing array of activities being offered at Rio Grande RV parks.

Some parks have literally hundreds of activities, from sewing and quilting classes to exercise and meditation classes, such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong as well as water aerobics and pickleball.

“If you’re bored down here, it’s your own fault,” Collier said, adding that many of the larger RV parks and resorts have multiple halls with breakout rooms for class and other activities and special events.

Many parks also have various arts and crafts classes, from painting to woodworking and lapidary, the art of jewelry making using fresh cut and polished stones.

Tom and Ayumi Towles have been teaching Winter Texans how to cut, grind, and set stones at the Llano Grande lapidary for 16 years. They also teach silver smithing and wire wrapping.

The lapidary shop is a unique feature, being the largest of only two lapidaries in the Rio Grande Valley. With 45 different machines available, guests of Llano Grande have unparalleled access to multiple aspects of this special craft. Lapidary shop guests pay for their materials, but the Towles provide instruction free of charge.

“We’ll normally have a dozen to 20 people a day who come in here and work,” Tom said.

“Most of the guys make jewelry for their wives. But they’ll also make bolos and belt buckles for themselves.”

Most work with various colors of jade, agates, jasper, and putrefied wood that they bring in from their travels, as well as local rocks they pick up in southern Texas, and coprolite which comes from western Colorado or eastern Utah.

“It’s petrified dinosaur dung,” Towles said. “It’s very pretty. It has lots of colors in it. It’s usually 70 to 100 million years old.”

Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Llano Grande’s lapidary shop also has various rocks as well as jewelry settings which are ordered from jewelry suppliers for those who need them.

Towles said most people who try making their own jewelry enjoy it.

“It’s like a bug that bites them and then they’re in here every day,” he said.

Further to the east, many of the Winter Texans who stay at Bentsen Palm Village enjoy the park’s woodshop, which is equipped with a variety of wood cutting machines.

“We have two volunteers who teach people in the park how to make beautiful wood bowls and other items,” said Juanita Carvajal, the park’s general manager.

Bensten Palm Village also has a craft room that is frequented by quilters and sewing enthusiasts. The park offers a variety of art classes, including gourd painting, Swedish blanket making and water colors.

“We also have line dancing and couples dancing and zumba classes,” Carvajal said.

Read More

Could Winter Texans Become Extinct?

The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), which has tracked Winter Texansfor 25 years through a voluntary biennial survey, found that the average age of respondents in 2011 was 71.2, compared with 70 in 2010, 69.5 in 2008, and 68.7 in 2006.

The Roseate Spoonbill uses its long, flat, spoon-shaped bil to strain small food items out of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2006, nearly 10 percent of respondents were younger than 60, but last winter only 4 percent were. Similarly, respondents this year said they had been coming to the Valley an average 10.4 years, compared with 9.1 years in 2010 and 2008 and 8.8 years in 2006.

The responses suggest that the same Winter Texans may be returning to the Rio Grande Valley year after year without being replaced with new, younger ones, reports The Monitor.

“It is (a concern) to me and I would think it should be to the Valley businesses that are interested in targeting Winter Texans,” said Penny Simpson, who co-authored the study.

There is no way to tell for sure if the survey results from 1,443 of the estimated 133,400 Winter Texans represent an accurate sample. It is possible that older people responded more, but if so, that would be a shift from past years.

Overall numbers of Winter Texans are difficult to capture, but believed to be down slightly from an estimated 144,000 in 2010.

Janet Poor, manager of Shady Acres RV Park in Donna told The Monitor that every year at her 300-plus-site park the faces are the same. “We’re getting the same ones coming down,” she said.

The great kiskadee is a large member of the flycatcher family. It is about ten inches in length. It has black and white stripes on the crown and sides of its head. It has a white line above its eyes. Its chest and undersides are a bright yellow and its throat is white. Its back and wings are brown and its bill and legs are black. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I would love to get new people down here.”

Poor said that in her experience, national media attention on border problems made it difficult to recruit new visitors.

“When we get calls from new people asking about down here, the first thing they ask is: ‘How bad is it down there?’” she said.

But the vast majority of wintering retirees who do come to the Valley are still visiting Mexico — 84 percent, down from 95 percent in 2006. Several observers said the study is on par with their experiences.

Joe Nelson, 71, who has lived year-round at the McAllen Mobile Home Park for a decade, said that park has some 14 new units this year—but they’re all moving from other area parks.

“The young stuff isn’t coming,” he said.

Others in the Valley said they are still seeing young retirees come to town. Rod Graham, who operates a San Juan business creating photo directory books of Winter Texans for dozens of parks and operates the website, The Winter Texan Connection, said the survey findings did not align with his experience.

“I won’t dispute their average, but from my experience, I am seeing the baby boomers come,” said Graham, 57.

“I’ve been down here 13 years and when I came down here, everything was country western … Within the last three or four years we’ve had rock ’n’ roll bands go play in the parks and to me that’s indicative of my generation.”

Graham added that he has not noticed any demographic shifts in the hundreds of Winter Texans he photographs and has seen hugely increased traffic on his website, which he attributes to a potentially younger crowd viewing it.

Area cities are paying attention to the needs of the Winter Texans, who contributed some $800 million to the economy in 2010, according to the study.

Martha Noell, president of the Weslaco Chamber of Commerce, presented the findings to the City Commission last month and discussed things the city could do to attract visitors from colder climates, including keeping areas clean and marketing up north.

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luis Bazan, president of the Pharr Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses in the city had noticed a Winter Texan decline overall, but that there did seem to be some newcomers, which he called “a new breed” looking for different activities.

Simpson agreed and said she would consider further analysis on what types of activities the next generation of retirees prefers.

“That’s an important question I think we need to have answered: How do we target baby boomers?” she said.

UTPA Survey Average Winter Texan ages by year:

  • 2012: 71.2
  • 2010: 70
  • 2008: 69.5
  • 2006: 68.7

Texas Spoken Friendly Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Big Rio Grande Valley Welcome for Winter Texans

It’s no secret that RV parks and resorts in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) whose livelihoods depend on the annual influx of Winter Texansare facing several challenges.

The Roseate Spoonbill uses its long, flat, spoon-shaped bil to strain small food items out of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Roseate Spoonbill uses its long, flat, spoon-shaped bil to strain small food items out of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of today’s winter visitors are younger and more mobile than their counterparts of years past.

“They may go to Arizona this year, Texas next year, and Florida the next year,” said Kristi Collier, president and CEO of Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley, which markets 74 RV parks and resorts from Mission to South Padre Island.

Snowbirds unfamiliar with the RGV are also more likely to be concerned by publicity about violence in Mexico, even though cities in the Rio Grande Valley have less crime than other popular winter resort destinations in other states.

Despite these challenges, RV parks and resorts across the Valley are finding that they can continue to grow their business base for the winter season if they offer plenty of organized activities and continue to invest in new amenities for their parks, said Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of theTexas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).

Pet Amenities

These new amenities include walking areas and agility courses for people with dogs as well as special pet-related activities.

“Dog parks are a big deal,” said Jacqueline Gomez, who is the marketing director for Llano Grande Lake Park Resort & Country Club in Mercedes, Victoria Palms Resort in Donna, and Alamo Park Mobile Home & RV Park in Alamo. She said each of the resorts has two, off-leash dog areas.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The dog park at Bentsen Palm Village in Mission has become so popular that the owners recently added a second park so that guests could have separate running and play areas for big dogs and small dogs.

“About 70% to 75% of our guests have dogs, so these kinds of amenities are important,” said Juanita Carvajal, Bentsen Palm Village’s general manager.

Community Gardens

Of course, while pet friendly amenities are attractive to Winter Texans, that’s not the only attraction at Bentsen Palm Village. The 250-site resort recently set aside an open area of the park where its guests can grow their own organic fruits, vegetables and herbs.

“It’s like a community garden,” Carvajal said, “but we give each guest a 10 by 10-foot section where they can put a stake with their name on it. They often grow kale, peppers, tomatoes, onions and radishes. Sometimes, they grow so much they bring it into the office to share.”

Birding, Hiking and Wildlife

Bentsen Palms also markets its proximity to the World Birding Center while also highlighting the rare birds and other wildlife that make their way into the park.

“This past season, we had a family of elf owls that stayed in our park,” Carvajal said, adding that the owls are only 5 inches tall.

“The season before we had Black vented Orioles,” a rare bird native to Mexico and Central America that has a black hood, upper back and wings, and a bright yellow-orange underside.

The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many Valley visitors enjoy state parks, national wildlife preserves, and other nature reserves. Others like taking bike rides and walks and kayaking down the Rio Grande River.

Other Activities

RV park operators are finding that other types of organized activities are also critical for today’s Winter Texans.

El Valle del Sol in Mission offers more than 100 activities each week for its guests including classes in wood carving, ceramics, and painting and Tai Chi while its food related events range from pancake breakfasts to potluck dinners with Hawaiian, Cajan, Western, and other culinary themes. The park also has live entertainment with polka bands and other musicians.

Winter visitors like their surroundings to be nice, too, which is why many Rio Grande Valley parks are also investing in aesthetic improvements and other creature comforts.

“We just put in a high powered Wi-Fi system this summer and everybody is real happy about that,” said Ruth Dearinger, manager of VIP Park in La Feria.

Other improvements at the 256-site park include resurfaced streets, landscaping, and the installation of more campsites with 50 amp electrical hookups.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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50 Things We Love About Texas

1. Texas Hospitality

2. Paso Del Rio, or River Walk, the Jewel of the City (San Antonio)

3. Fresh from the Gulf shrimp and oysters

When in the Clear Lake/Galveston area we head for Rose’s in Seabrook for a supply of shrimp. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Exploring the pine and hardwood forests of the Piney Woods of East Texas

5. Saying howdy

6. The Alamo

7. Texas’ wide open spaces

8. Hiking Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, north of Fredericksburg

9. Tex-Mex, especially in far South Texas

10. The way small-town drivers wave to everyone they pass

11. The timeless beauty of Presidio La Bahía near Goliad, and its rural setting

12. Stopping for lunch at almost any small-town BBQ joint and sitting elbow-to-elbow with folks you have little in common with except that you all love good ‘cue

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is a huge, pink granite exfoliation dome, that rises 425 feet above ground. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Blue Bell Ice Cream. Wow!

14. The wind-swept, dynamic rippling sandscapes in Monahans Sandhills State Park is one-of-a-kind

15. Stopping for kolaches at a small-town bakery

16. Driving the winding road to Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park

17. Feeling at home everywhere we go in the state

18. Bird watching in the numerous state parks and national wildlife refuges of the Rio Grande Valley

19. Chunky salsa with plenty of heat!

20. San Jacinto Battleground Monument and Battleship Texas state historic sites

21. Texas music with Willie, Waylon, and the boys…

22. Millions of gallons of crystal-clear, cold water bubbling up from the San Solomon Springs at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas

23. Tex-Mex Enchiladas

24. Exploring the pretty towns, rolling hills, wineries, dude ranches, beautiful lakes, historic attractions, and cool caves of the Hill Country

25. The wildflowers

26. Friendly Texans—who smile and never hesitate to give out directions when you’re lost

27. Touring Galveston, the “Island of Endless History”

28. Margaritas—frozen, on-the-rocks, or martini-style (with salt!)

29. Summer weather in the middle of winter

Entrance to Galveston’s Strand Historic District, the city’s primary commercial area during the second half of the 19th century, when its star was bright and full of great promise. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Touring the Bluebell factory in Brenham. Especially in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming.

31. Nine-unit World Birding Center which stretches across 127 miles of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, South Padre Island northwest to Roma

32. Breakfast tacos

33. The sign in Hondo that says “This is God’s Country, Please Don’t Drive Through it Like Hell.”

34. Photogenic Guadalupe Mountains and namesake national park area earns a thumbs-up

35. Pecan pralines

36. Being amazed by the subtle colors—red, white, yellow, gray, and lavender—that arise from the claystone, sandstone, gypsum, and mudstone of the panhandle plains at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the “Grand Canyon of Texas”

37. Shopping H-E-B (Here Everything’s Better)

38. Sense of wit that shines through in town names like Paris, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, and Earth, as well as Uncertain, Utopia, Happy, Friendship, Veribest, and Needmore. Let’s not forget Cut and Shoot. Oh, there’s so many more!

39. Pecans and all the goodies made from them

40. Small towns decked out for Christmas

41. HEB salsa/picante sauce with the round HEB corn chips.

42. Saying Howdy and Ya’ll

43. Picturesque Rockport-Fulton and Corpus Christi on the Texas Riviera

Rockport-Fulton is an increasingly popular snowbird roost for Winter Texans. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

44. Bluebell Pecan Praline ice cream

45. Kemah Boardwalk and its Christmas Boat Parade

46. Texas ruby red grapefruit

47. A 26,800-acre cypress swamp with Spanish moss dripping from ancient cypress trees limbs, Caddo Lake may be Texas’ most magical and mysterious place

48. Touring and taste-sampling at the “Little Brewery in Shiner

49. Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World” and one of the prettiest areas in the Hill Country

50. Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
Wasn’t Born in Texas, But Got Here as Fast as I Could

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Welcome Home Winter Texans to the RGV

RV and mobile home park operators in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) say all indications point to a successful year for Winter Texan visitors.

The Roseate Spoonbill uses its long, flat, spoon-shaped bil to strain small food items out of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Roseate Spoonbill uses its long, flat, spoon-shaped bil to strain small food items out of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At South Padre Island, there’s been a 10 percent increase in the number of inquiries from prospective Winter Texans, said Lacey Ekberg, Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) Director. The CVB has received 5,000 to 6,000 calls per month since July, with most of those calls coming from the Midwest and northern states, including Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota, according to a report in the Valley Morning Star and The Monitor.

“Given the number of inquiries, we do not expect less Winter Texan visitors than the previous year,” Ekberg said.

Some parks are able to get a hint of the coming season’s success based on the previous year’s park residents who take advantage of “early bird” discounts, or make their reservations far in advance of their return.

Fun N Sun RV Resort in San Benito, for example, offers a rate of $75 for the month of October, park spokeswoman Janie Paz said.

Paradise Park RV Resort, in Harlingen last year offered a 5 percent “Early Bird Special” discount for some visitors who paid by June for the next winter. Paradise has 295 recreational vehicle and 255 mobile home sites, office manager Christine Henderson told the Valley Morning Star.

The Great Kiskadee is a South Texas favorite. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Great Kiskadee is a South Texas favorite. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other parks’ discount offers vary from year to year.

Winter Texans are big business in the Valley, injecting millions of dollars into the local economy every year. During the past winter season, Winter Texans had a $751 million direct economic impact on the Valley economy, according to statistics compiled by the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA).

Winter Texans usually begin showing up in the RGV around October 1, Penny Simpson, UTPA professor of marketing and associate dean of the College of Business Administration and director of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center, told the Valley Morning Star.

“It’s just a trickle in October,” she said of the annual migration of retirees.

“When they come is tied to the weather. The health of the retirees also determines whether they will return to the Valley each year.”

Visits by retirees from northern states and Canada dropped sharply after the 9/11 terror attacks, but eventually returned to nearly the levels of earlier years.

A biannual survey by UTPA this January showed some drop in numbers of Winter Texans in a January count of seasonal visitors from two years ago.

Simpson said 133,400 Winter Texans came to the Valley last winter compared with 144,000 two years earlier.

Worries about terrorism incidents along the border play into the decision to return to the Valley each year, she added.

Some Winter Texans who have visited the Valley for several winters will stay longer and some make the Valley their home base and visit their northern homes during warmer months, she said.

“We have quite a few people that are annual but stay year-round. But then we have those that are annuals but they are only here for X amount of months and then they go back home,” she said.

While some retirees claim they are no longer Winter Texans because they live in the Valley most of the year, they still go back home to visit family during the hottest months of summer, she said.

“They’re all Winter Texans to me,” she said, laughing.

In recent years, with soaring fuel prices, more retirees are choosing to leave their RVs in the Valley, Henderson said. Paradise Park has a designated storage area for RVs that are not in use.

Sunshine RV Park Manager Lon Huff said Winter Texans are attracted to the Valley by the many species of birds and proudly showed a small lake at his Harlingen park where black-bellied whistling ducks, swans, and roseate spoonbills congregated.

Lon Huff, park manager for Sunshine RV Park in Harlingen, says the park is gearing up to welcome this year’s flock of Winter Texans, including a caravan from Canada that will be staying for several weeks on their way to and from Mexico. (Source: Dina Arevalo/Valley Morning Star)

Huff told the Valley Morning Star that his park’s numbers don’t support UTPA’s statistics of declining numbers of Winter Texans.

“The years of 2010 and 2011 for us were extremely good years,” he said.

Violence in Mexico and high gas prices have not greatly affected the numbers of people wintering at Sunshine RV Park, Huff said.

Baby boomers are an increasing presence in the Winter Texan community, Huff said, adding that there’s a “pretty big” contingent of 55-year-old Canadians at his park.

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Frontera Audubon: An Urban Nature Preserve

Located four blocks from the Weslaco downtown business district, Frontera Audubon is a private non-profit nature preserve featuring mature native woodlands, thornscrub, trails, wetlands, and butterfly gardens.

A bird of South Texas and northeastern Mexico, the black-crested titmouse is common in oak woods and towns. It was once considered a subspecies of the tufted titmouse, and the two species are very similar in appearance, voice, and habits. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This 15-acre urban site provides habitat for a wide variety of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, and reptiles. Over 70 kinds of butterflies are documented on the nature preserve including many unique in the U.S. to South Texas.

Most of the Rio Grande specialty bird species are regularly seen here including the green jay (pictured below), buff-bellied hummingbird, great kiskadee, long-billed thrasher, green kingfisher, white-tipped dove, groove-billed ani, golden-fronted and ladder-backed woodpeckers, olive sparrow, black-crested titmouse (pictured to the right), and altamira oriole.

The Center is a model in land conservation, water management, and nature tourism. The staff is small in number but large in knowledge and hospitality.

The heart of the Sanctuary is the ‘Thicket’, “native Tamaulipan thornscrub, wetlands, and butterfly gardens” in the 15 acre property that is surprisingly in an urban section of town. It is a great place for novices to sit and watch birds come in to feeders, while rarities draw in experts and photographers to get close-up shots.

All of the trails in the Thicket are dirt trails but very well maintained and quite level with the exception of the elevated boardwalk over wetlands.  There are a number of benches throughout the Thicket as well as seating set up at feeding stations.

Since there is a ramp accessing the visitor’s center, all of the Frontera Audubon Sanctuary except possibly the boardwalk is wheelchair and handicap accessible. There are clean restrooms inside the visitor center where maps of the trails are available as well as information about what birds, and butterflies, are being seen.

The diamond-back water snake is a long, heavy-bodied, tan to gray-brown non-venomous reptile with a pattern of dark brown to black chain-like markings. The belly is yellow, but with dusky brown markings. As the name implies it lives in slow moving waters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ponds are fed by an artificial ‘stream’ that provides running water that is so attractive to birds as well as water drips to ensure the maximum species draw. There are benches across the sidewalk from the water feature where photographers are often seen getting close-up photos.

Thicket Trail

Frontera’s 15 acre site offers opportunities for bird and butterfly enthusiasts and all those interested in the wonders of nature and biodiversity.

Lesser goldfinches breed in the sunflowers behind the Visitors’ Center, and a wetland that has been developed on the property attracts large numbers of black-bellied whistling-ducks and shorebirds. Green parakeets have nested in cavities in the dead trees bordering the pond, and red-crowned parrots roost in old trees. Few places in the Valley are more populated with plain chachalacas. In migration the thicket is among the better spots to see neotropical migrants away from the coast.

Details

Frontera Audubon

Frontera Audubon is dedicated to preserving the native habitat of the Rio Grande Valley.

Admission: $5; senior, $4; children age 12 and under, free

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday; 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; Sunday, 12:00-4:00 p.m.; Closed Monday

Address: 1101 South Texas Blvd (FM 88), Weslaco, Texas 78596

Phone: (956) 968-3275

Website: fronteraaudubon.org

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Please Note: This is the twelfth in a series of stories on Rio Grande Valley nature hot spots

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Oh, what a beautiful morning’,

Oh, what a beautiful day.

I got a beautiful feelin’

Ev’rything’s goin’ my way.

Oh, what a beautiful day!

—“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from the musical Oklahoma!

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