This post is the next in our series, Hidden Gems, where we visit places hidden in plain view, in and around Dallas, that we have explored this summer and in the past. You can access that series of posts here.

Chandor Gardens, named for its original owners, Douglas and Ina Chandor, is located in Weatherford, TX. A ninety-minute drive from our home in North Texas. The gardens are open over the weekends, from 9 am to 3 pm on Saturday and noon to 4 pm on Sundays. Last weekend, Mr. JJ offered to drive me to (re)visit these lovely gardens. Our first trip here was several years ago, while the children were still young. It was early spring, and after a visit to Chandor, we stopped along the roadside meadows to take photos in a sea of bluebonnets. I wrote a snippet about it here.

tree lined walkway
Walk path leading to the Cave Grotto
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Arbor Hills is one of Plano’s best-known sites for a day in the sun and has been for as long as I can remember. When our kids were younger, we have met friends there, celebrated birthday parties, and taken the kids on nature walks. I distinctly remember going up to the observation tower but have never made it past that area. To rectify that, Mr. JJ and I went to take our weekend walk two Sundays ago. By the time we got there, it was already close to 9 am and cars packed the parking lot. Not wishing to waste time looking for a spot, we went elsewhere for our hike. But last weekend, we woke up early and made it to the parking lot at Arbor Hills just as the sun was a beautiful orange ball on the horizon.

Entrance to Arbor Hills Nature Preserve
Arbor Hills Nature Preserve
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Six months into the pandemic and with no clear end in sight, the first stirrings of restlessness assail the mind. It’s surprising that I haven’t found myself in this state sooner. Perhaps a chance to enjoy life closer to home, spending time in my budding garden, swinging in the backyard, or uncovering local secrets has kept me grounded. Every day I come across fantastic photos on my social media feed. Beaches, mountains, rivers, sunsets, glaciers, canyons, lakes, deserts, night skies: they dance across my phone screen in a kaleidoscope of shapes, sizes, and colors. Always alluring, always beckoning. So near, one can almost hear the waves lapping at the sand or feel the heat reflecting off the sands or breathe in the refreshing crisp of the mountain air. And yet, for all that these photos and videos feed us our daily dose of travel, they are frequent reminders of our inability to travel and how tethered we are to our homes, which serves to worsen the sense of restlessness. It’s the first time in years that I have nothing big planned (well, except for a quick Thanksgiving getaway, but that took little planning).

rocky beach with teal colored water and vegetation rich headland
Western Knysna Head, South Africa
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As I mentioned in my last two posts, here and here, the JJ family spent the Labor Day weekend in Austin. One of the places we visited was Mount Bonnell. Situated at an elevation of 775 feet above mean sea level, this promontory is one of Austin’s most popular spots. Overlooking the Lake Austin portion of the Colorado River, this limestone promontory has some fantastic views. After a hot afternoon spent at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, we took a break at the Fairmont and then set out to catch the sunset from Mount Bonnell.

Views from Mount Bonnell of lake and surroundings
Views from Mount Bonnell
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For the Labor Day weekend, the JJ family had a chance to visit Austin. I wrote about our stay at the Fairmont Austin here. We had one full day to explore the city. Austin has a lot to offer. In the past, we have visited Zilker Park, explored Congress Avenue, and enjoyed food truck offerings. This time, we planned to visit Pedernales Falls State Park and Hamilton Pool Preserve before ending the day at Mount Bonnell. What I did not account for was the COVID situation. At Pedernales Falls, we were greeted with signs that said reserved day passes only; rest should turn back. I was furious with myself for not having checked ahead. There was no cell phone connection, so as Mr. JJ drove us back. En route, I tried to access the Texas parks reservation system. Once logged in, it became clear that the day passes were long gone, not only for that day but for many days ahead!

Themed garden at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Themed garden at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
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The JJ family had a chance to take its first trip out of Dallas this Labor Day weekend. It was our first in several months. And since COVID-19 is still a significant player in all communities, we wanted a hotel that we could rely on. Mr. JJ’s research found that Fairmont Austin had several precautionary measures in place and offered various rates within our price range. The stay could be cancelled before 48 hours prior to arrival. So we booked for the weekend. We had a wonderful stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs in Canada two years ago and looked forward to the one in Austin. You can read all about our Canadian Fairmont visit here.

Welcome message from Fairmont Austin
Fairmont Austin Welcome message

As with the Banff Springs hotel, our stay in Austin started with dropping off our car with the valet. All the valets wore masks, as did the few guests milling outside. An employee stood at a station just within the lobby, checked our temperature. There were a contactless sanitizer dispenser and disinfectant wipes placed next to him. Beyond, two other staffers welcomed and ushered us to the reception desk. A plexiglass shield separated us from the employee checking us in. It was sometimes hard to hear her through the shield, but we managed. Her desk held many complimentary face masks for those visitors without one. Touchless dispensers were stowed right next to the glass shield, subtly reminding visitors to use them often. We were given four small cartons of spring water. Our package included a breakfast price of $19 per person. At the time of booking, we could only add three people to this deal though four of us were in the group. The manager assured us they would look into fixing this for us. The staffer asked us to order breakfast via in-room dining.

As part of the hotel measures to control the coronavirus outbreak, all guests above the age of ten were expected to wear masks, except while eating, drinking, or swimming at the pool. Rigorous and frequent cleaning and disinfection by housekeeping staff of all common spaces and guest rooms throughout the hotel was implemented. Rooms were kept unoccupied for a minimum of 24 hours before use by a guest. As mentioned above, touchless hand sanitizer stations and disinfecting wipes were placed in many areas across the hotel. Guests could download the Sonifi app to access television channels instead of using the TV remote. Housekeeping services were not routine and would be offered only by request. Fairmont Gold and Spa services were not available at the time of our stay. While the pool was open, it would follow all local and state guidelines.

covid safety messages
Safety messages

We were given a room on the 8th floor with two queen beds, the quintessential desk, a chair, a cabinet with a few snacks and a fridge, a coffeemaker with the coffee pods, cups, and mugs. The cabinet also contained two deep drawers for our clothes. A separate hallway closet held bathrobes, an ironing board, and a wall safe. Prominently missing were the alarm clock, the pens, the stationery. The bathroom had a single vanity sink, a shower stall, and an enclosed toilet. Le Labo bath products and a make-up mirror adorned the vanity area. A hairdryer lay in its bag on a shelf below, and a trash can was discreetly built into the lower cabinet panel.

Room view from the entryway
View of our room from the entryway

The large windows overlooked the rooftop pool on the seventh floor of the building. We were given color-coded (by day of the week) wristbands for entry to the pool which looked tempting in the evening light. We decided to experience it the following day. Before turning in for the night, we called in-room dining service to order breakfast. It wasn’t clear to us if we were restricted to just $19 per person. Upon inquiry, we were told we could order whatever we liked, and the final bill would reflect the adjustment at check-out. It sounded too good to be true, and skeptically we ordered pancakes, fruit plates, coffee and juices. We also got a call from the main desk indicating that they could add the fourth person to the breakfast package! So far so good!

bathroom amenities
Bathroom and amenities

The bed was comfortable, but as is the problem with many hotels, I found the pillows left a lot to be desired. But we were all tired and enjoyed a good night’s rest. The following morning, breakfast was delivered right on time. The staffer and our family wore masks, and he left the food-laden trolley at our door. We wheeled it in ourselves and enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast. As expected, we were hit with a large bill, and the staffer did not know how it would be addressed. Before leaving the room for the day, we left the cart in the hallway and buzzed the call button device to indicate the trays were ready to be removed. That morning, the pool was occupied mostly by families with kids. A smattering of couples occupied the chaise lounges poolside. The cabanas were primarily empty at that time of the day.

At the front desk, Mr. JJ explained the situation to a desk agent. After conferring with someone in the back office, he told Mr. JJ that each breakfast’s actual value was $35; we were offered a discounted rate of $19. Which meant we had a credit of $140 per day for the four of us that could be used for either in-room dining or at the Fulton for sit-in dining. Since our bill was a little more than that, we would have to pay the difference.

The lobby at Fairmont Austin
The lobby

When we returned from our excursion that afternoon, we were shocked to find the pools (there were three portions to the pool) fully occupied. An occasional guest wore a mask (all employees did), and there was no social distancing. People were dancing, drinking, chatting away, swimming, munching on snacks, posing for photos, and generally having a great time. There was a terrace area beyond the immediate poolside where more chaise lounges were placed and had a snack bar at one end. This area was still socially distanced, as were people waiting in line for the snack bar.

The dichotomy between the two sides of our room was striking and so incongruent. On one side of the room, the pool felt like another world where nary a concern existed for an ongoing pandemic. On the other side of the room, leading to the hallway and beyond, every effort was being made to follow social distancing and public health guidelines. How so many people accessed the pools, all at the same time is beyond my comprehension. The pool scene seemed to be so at odds with what the hotel was trying so hard to do elsewhere, keeping its guests safe. Safety messages were posted everywhere, from the main entrance to the elevators, where people were encouraged to limit to four. I am not certain if pool admissions were staggered. In the end, we decided to stay away from the pool completely.

Pool view at night
Rooftop pool at night

The following morning we had in-person breakfast service at the Fulton restaurant. Since the tables were physically spread out to allow social distancing, and thus limited in number, we had to wait for about 20 to 25 minutes before it was our turn to be seated. There were no condiments or menus on the table, but we were encouraged to scan a QR code to access them online. It was our first in-person dining experience in over six months, and it felt safe if a bit novel.

At the Fulton
At the Fulton

While we had the option of checking out contactless by email, text, phone, or TV, we chose to stop by the front desk to settle the dining issue. The gentleman at the desk confirmed the $140 credit per day for four, to be served through in-room dining only. But he was kind enough to apply the credit towards our in-person dining that morning.

Overall, our first stay at the Fairmont Austin was a good one. There were two things that I found disappointing: the frustrating lack of clear guidelines to all staff regarding dining packages and the crowding at the pool. But both of these were outranked by all the other precautions that the hotel took to keep guests safe. While I may be skipping the pools for a while, I will certainly be staying here again in the future.

This post is the next in our series, Hidden Gems, where we visit places hidden in plain view, in and around Dallas, that we have explored this summer and in the past. You can access that series of posts here.

A couple of weeks ago, as I sat sipping coffee in my backyard, on a bright, sunny August morning, a colorful hot air balloon slowly sailed across the skies above. Its slow glide and grace caught my fancy, and I wondered what fun it would be to ride in one. We have attended the Plano Balloon Festival a couple of times, but never taken a ride, not even in a tethered balloon. The time seemed ripe to explore the opportunity. Later that day, I researched hot air balloon rides in the North Texas area and came across Air Adventures Aloft and Rohr Balloons. The latter seemed to be located in the North Texas area and had a lot of good reviews. The website was straightforward and user friendly. But, it did not have openings for a sunrise tour before the Labor Day weekend that I was looking for. So I called Brian Rohr, he answered immediately, and although he had space on a private flight, it was only for two people. After looking at several options, none of which suited my plans, Brian offered a sunset ride on a weekday evening. After ensuring that all four of us were available that evening, we tentatively scheduled the flight.

hot air balloon ready for take-off
Our hot air balloon, ready for lift-off
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