Tahlequah Daily Press

May 8, 2008

Head south for Texas, west for California


TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — Looking for a few good ideas for summer vacations? A recent survey shows you might be better staying off going home than traveling elsewhere: When it comes to fun on a budget, Oklahoma takes top honors.

But if you're like a lot of folks and you need a break from the Sooner State, I have a few suggestions. Last week, we talked about a couple of favorite points north and east. Now we'll go another direction, or two.

Heading South

A trip to Texas might be just the ticket if you're on a very limited budget. You can go as far as the Dallas-Fort Worth area and take in a Rangers baseball game after a day at Six Flags Over Texas (both in nearby Arlington), or you can continue on down to San Antonio and treat your family to a day at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, another day at Sea World, and an evening on the exciting Riverwalk.

If avoiding high fuel prices is one of your aims this summer, my suggestion is to drive your vehicle to Oklahoma City, park it at the train station, and then board the Heartland Flyer for Texas. A round-trip ticket is just $48 (or $43.20, if you're a member of the American Automobile Association), and for that, you just kick back, relax, and let the engineer take you to your destination. The seats are far more comfortable than on a plane, and you can take in some scenery. The train makes a daily run at 8:25 a.m., arriving at 12:39 p.m.

The worst part about Arlington is that, despite having several major attractions like Six Flags and Ranger baseball, there's no ample mass transit (as far as I know). To get from Fort Worth to Arlington, you'll either have to rent a car, or better yet, take a Greyhound bus from the train station (both terminals are at 1001 Jones St.) to Arlington. The bus station, Ranger ballpark and Six Flags are all within a mile of one another, so if you book one of the nearby economy hotels, like Fairfield Marriott, Hampton Inn or Baymont, you can practically walk back and forth between venues. In fact, there are also trolleys to take you around the immediate vicinity.

Six Flags tickets are practically a steal at the moment -- just $29.99 if you buy online (www.sixflags.com). If you plan on taking more than two trips south, in fact, it might be worth it to buy a season pass, which can be used at any Six Flags park in the country. There's a new ride in Arlington this season: Tony Hawk's Big Spin Coaster, which supposedly drops you into 360-degree spins, jumps and acrobatics, just like a skateboarder. (The "thrill rating" online, though, doesn't give it a "max"; those are reserved for things like Titan, Mr. Freeze, Batman the Ride and the Superman Tower of Power.)

While you're in Fort Worth, you might want to enjoy the downtown area, and I suggest you also visit the Kimbell Art Museum -- one of our favorites. Admission to the main exhibits is free, but there's a charge for special exhibitions. All day Tuesday and Friday evening, the special admission is half-price, so plan accordingly, because there's always a great exhibit. Beginning June 29, you can see some of the finest Impressionist pieces (including Monet's spectacular "Water Lilies"), so you won't want to miss this one.

If you'd like to venture farther south to San Antonio, you can simply change trains (after a bit of a wait) at the transit hub in Fort Worth, and take the Texas Eagle that afternoon. You'll leave at 2:40 p.m. and arrive at 10:25 p.m. -- a little late, but there are several hotels near the train station, and cabs are always waiting nearby. A round-trip ticket is $124 one way ($111.60 for AAA), and once again, the train is much less stressful than the drive. (Note: The return trip will start at 7 a.m. in San Antonio, arriving in Fort Worth at 1:58 p.m.; the Heartland Flyer takes off at 5:25 p.m. and arrives in OKC at 9:39 p.m.) Incidentally, although trains are notorious for being late, these particular routes are very reliable.

But back to San Antonio. That city has a very good mass transit system, with buses stopping practically every block. You'll want to visit the Riverwalk and take in one (or more) of the terrific restaurants there. It's hard to beat the ambiance. Anyone who's been to OKC's Bricktown has seen a scaled-down version. You can also visit the Alamo while you're downtown.

You can get to either Sea World or Six Flags Fiesta Texas via bus, and there will most likely a stop very near your hotel. I've not visited Fiesta Texas, but I have been to Sea World San Antonio (www.seaworld.com; the music's a little annoying, but you can turn it off), and I can promise a good time for your family -- especially the kids. Not only can you see several shows featuring Shamu and friends, you can enjoy a growing number of rides. Right now you can get four single-day tickets for $174 online; otherwise, you'll pay $43.50 for a ticket.

Heading West

If California is the place you think you ought to be, maybe you're right -- but be prepared! The Golden State is as good as its name when it comes to high prices. It gives Florida a run for the money in terms of -- well, money -- but there's always plenty to do.

Personally, we prefer northern California, but since my husband's parents live in southern California, we're far more familiar with that patch of rather smoggy real estate. Planning your trip, and looking for reasonably priced airline tickets in advance, is the only way to go. Either Southwest or American is usually the cheapest, as in practically every other case. Unless you care to take the train; in that case, the best way is to continue on the Texas Eagle past San Antonio. That'll run you $131 for a trip from Fort Worth to Los Angeles (or $117.90 for AAA). A sample itinerary starts June 20 at 2:40 p.m. and arrives in LA June 22 at 10:10 a.m., but long-distance trains are notoriously late. You'll need a private compartment for a trip of that duration, and planning a couple of months in advance is a must. A superliner roomette will cost between $345 and on up to as high as $500, depending on when you book and how full the train is at that time. A family bedroom or a room with a shower and other amenities costs considerably more.

Amusement park fans will find more than their fair share in the Los Angeles area -- Knott's Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and of course, Disneyland. The latter is a must, if for sentimental reasons alone.

We went to Disneyland last Christmas and spent a couple of days, and have now decided we like Disney World better. However, only Disneyland has the Matterhorn, the Indiana Jones adventure, and the perennial favorite, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. You can stay on site, and there are three choices: the Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier Hotel and the Grand Californian (I haven't stayed at any of the three, but would probably pick the latter). However, this probably isn't as crucial as it would be with Disney World, since the park complex is much smaller, and everything is within walking distance of everything else. So if you have a car (rental or otherwise), you might want to look at a cheaper nearby hotel.

Restaurants at Disneyland are more limited in scope than at Disney World. Last time out, we ate at the highly recommended Napa Rose, but considering what you get for your money, I would be very hesitant to recommend it unless you have plenty of cash to spare (it's good, but many people would feel it's too pricey). I do heartily recommend the Blue Bayou, however, for a wonderful ambiance and good Cajun-Creole cuisine. Make reservations in advance or you probably won't get in. You can also go next door to California Adventure, where you can enjoy rides like California Screamin', and the original version of Disney World's Soarin', here called Soarin' Over California.

Six Flags Magic Mountain is about an hour north of LA, and a good bet especially if you've purchased a season pass for Six Flags parks. While there, make sure you do the gigacoaster Goliath, and don't miss the X coaster. Not only does your "train" blast through on a track, individual cars tip and twirl, to give you an extreme ride like you'll get nowhere else.

The "original" Universal Studios is in the LA area, and though I haven't visited it myself, friends say it's a good option. Backlot tours here might actually have you running into stars (at least of the TV variety).

If it's your first trip to the LA area, you'll want to take your family down the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame. This area of town may be a little seedier than you expect, but it's still an interesting walk down memory lane (if you care to walk it). You'll see Mann's Chinese Theatre while taking in handprints and shoeprints of Hollywood's most famous celebrities since 1927. Guided tours are available, and some of these will take you by the homes of celebrities in Beverly Hills, but don't expect to see much; most of the mansions have mammoth walls around them.

The La Brea Tar Pits, with their accompanying museum, are another must, especially if you have kids who are interested in paleontology (like I do). The bones of prehistoric plants and animals -- including the famed saber-toothed cat -- can be seen. If you're lucky, you may be able to view, close up and personal, an actual dig in the gooey asphalt.

There are several decent beaches in the area; Santa Monica is probably the most popular. Venice Beach is also a good bet, especially if you like to people-watch. Quieter (and prettier) beaches can be accessed at Laguna, Zuma, Malibu and the Pacific Palisades. If you're a sports fan, you might take in an LA Angels game.

If you have time, I recommend you take the train ($34 one way) south to San Diego. This city is really much more attractive than LA, and there's plenty to do -- starting with the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. We've done both, and I recommend two days for maximum coverage. The zoo is one of the best in the world, with some of the rarest animals (including giant pandas). A basic adult ticket for either park is $34, but there are deals to be had if you're willing to look. If you can, take a San Diego harbor excursion, or better yet, go deep-sea fishing.

Would you rather go north to San Francisco? The train (about $52 one way, depending on your route) will also get you there. The advantage here is an excursion through the beautiful Napa Valley. (By car, you can stop and some of the wineries and sample the fare.) If you do take the train, you'll need to rent a car to at least cross the Golden Gate Bridge -- a phenomenal site!

There's probably more to do in the San Francisco than any other part of California, and I'll just briefly mention a few of the must-sees: Fisherman's Wharf; the crazy-curvey Lombard Street (and you can take a street car while you're in the area); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; San Francisco Zoo; Aquarium of the Bay; the Flower Power Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour; Transamerica Pyramid; Steinhart Aquarium; and Candlestick Park. If you have time, take in a Giants game or a side trip to Alcatraz Island.

A final suggestion: Whatever direction you're heading, go online and start looking before you finalize your plans. It's the best way to get deals -- and that's something everyone can use these days.