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Travel Savings Alerts Newsletter, October 2006 Issue



Travel Savings Alerts
P.O. Box 91033
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ISSN: 1542-801X, Copyright © 2006 
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In This Issue:

Stage Curtain, Meramac Caverns

  • National One-Two-Fr.ee Promotion
  • Qantas Aussie AirPass Extended
  • Atlanta CityPass
  • New Electronic Passports
  • Holidays in Spain to 70% Off
  • Choice Hotels 'Stay Twice, Earn Fr.ee Night
  • Bermuda Extends Summer thru October
  • Nautica Inaugural Cruises, Fr.ee Air, 2-for-1 Fare
  • Azores Packages From $579
  • Fr.ee Self-Guided MP3 Walking Tour
  • Alaska $50 Cruise Tax
  • SAA Low Fall Fares
  • One-Way Fares to Orlando
  • MSC Cruises 2-for-1 Sale
  • El Al Winter Savings
  • Kids Fly Fr.ee to Ski Country
  • Continental’s BusinessFirst Sale
  • Moseying Under Missouri by Nicki Chodnoff
  • Alamo Vacation Sweepstakes

  • National One-Two-Fr.ee Promotion

    National Car Rental launched its "One-Two-Fr.ee" promotion, which provides Emerald Club members with one fr.ee rental day for every two qualified rentals made through Dec. 15, 2006. There is no limit to the number of fr.ee days you can earn, and you can also receive one rental credit for referring a friend.

    For 2006, National enhanced the One-Two-F.ree promotion by adding serialized electronic coupon codes. When you qualify for a fr.ee day, you will receive the serialized coupon code via e-mail four to six weeks after the second qualifying rental. That means there will be no need for you to present anything at the time of rental to redeem your fr.ee day.

    Emerald Club customers must register on line to be eligible for the promotion. The One-Two-Fr.ee promotion also waives the enrollment fee for new members to join.

    National Car Rental Emerald Club or 800/OUTPOST.


    Qantas Aussie AirPass Extended

    The popular Qantas Airways Aussie AirPass is now extended.

    With the addition of four new Queensland cities, you have the flexibility and choice of experiencing a wider variety of Australian destinations for travel through Dec. 14, 2007.

    Fares are regional, seasonal and start from $1,099 plus taxes and fees for low season Zone 1 travel. The Qantas Aussie AirPass includes roundtrip economy class airfare plus travel to three qualifying cities within Australia for one low fare. With the Aussie AirPass, you can choose from 21 Australian cities. In addition to the newly added Queensland cities of Rockhampton, Mackay, Gladstone and Gove, city choices include: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Gold Coast, Hobart, Launceston, Cairns, Townsville, Alice Springs, Ayers Rock, Darwin, Hamilton Island, Perth, Broome, and Hayman Island.

    All Qantas Airways transpacific flights include fr.ee meals, bar service and personal seat-back entertainment screens in all classes, with endless entertainment and game options.

    Qantas Aussie AirPass or 800/227-4691.


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    Atlanta CityPass

    CityPass celebrates its 10th year by adding Atlanta to its line up.

    Like all urban CityPass programs, the price will be close to 50 percent of the combined admission prices, which puts the Atlanta CityPass at $59 for adults and $45 for children age three to 12. Booklets will be valid for nine days from the first day of use and may be purchased in advance online or at the first attraction visited. This is the largest CityPass offering and the first CityPass to be co-branded with the destination.

    The Atlanta CityPass line up includes the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium, housing more than 120,000 animals of 500 different species and eight million gallons of water; the High Museum of Art with more than 11,000 works of art in its permanent collection; Inside CNN Atlanta Studio Tours; and the World of Coca-Cola.

    The Atlanta CityPass booklet offers four more attractions with option tickets that complete Atlanta’s “eight great” attraction offering. One option ticket includes the Atlanta Botanical Garden, adjacent to the High Museum of Art in Midtown, or the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta’s home to dinosaurs.

    The other option ticket is either Zoo Atlanta or the Atlanta History Center in the heart of Atlanta’s historic Buckhead district.

    Atlanta CityPass includes directions for public transportation use with a map of the Atlanta Tourist Loop. Operated by MARTA, Atlanta Tourist Loop buses run in a continuous loop and arrive at specially designated bus stops every 30 minutes. The fare is $1.75 with fr.ee transfers to other MARTA buses and trains. Kids under six ride fr.ee. MARTA also connects into the terminal building at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

    The Atlanta CityPass booklet includes information on Atlanta’s distinctive neighborhoods, historic sites and two historic walking tours.

    CityPass, which fits in nearly all pockets, speeds visitors to the doors of America’s greatest museums and attractions by being able to breeze past ticket windows. Cultural and sightseeing attraction tickets are bundled with background information, transportation guides, insider tips, and offers.

    CityPass or 888/330-5008.


    New Electronic Passports

    In August 2006, the U.S. State Department began issuing the next generation of travel documents. Called “electronic passports,” or “e-passports,” e-passports are not paperless; they include a computer chip that incorporates identification data and a digitized version of the passport photo.

    The new passport resembles older versions but has harder-to-forge pages with images of national landmarks and patriotic quotations. Travelers with e-passports will use inspection lanes equipped with special data readers. To counter fears of electronic monitoring and information theft, the government says it has incorporated a wide range of security features into the new passport chips.

    Chip failure will not invalidate an e-passport, and all current passports will remain valid until expiration. The new passports are being issued out of the Colorado passport agency and will be available nationally by year’s end.


    Holidays in Spain to 70% Off

    The 245-room Rafaelhoteles Atocha in Madrid and the new 126-room Rafaelhoteles Casanova in Barcelona offer "Heavenly Holidays” packages with savings up to 70 percent off room rates Dec. 21, 2006 to Jan. 14, 2007.

    Packages include different features such as gourmet Christmas lunches in Madrid; gifts and wine on arrival; fr.ee visitor cards for city-wide museums, galleries, attractions; roundtrip fast train to Toledo; New Year’s Eve parties in Madrid and Barcelona's hottest restaurants.

    The special offer is for three or more nights and starts at 304 Euro (about $388) in Barcelona and 480 Euro (about $613) in Madrid (three nights based on two people). Second rooms for children are discounted 30 percent off package prices in Madrid and 25 percent off in Barcelona. Children’s rates are for children under 16 years old at Atocha and under 12 years old at Casanova. Rates do not include seven percent tax.

    In Madrid, the reduced room rate can be combined with any of five holiday options. A three night Christmas option for two costs 480 Euro (about $613) and includes accommodations, breakfast daily, Christmas lunch, gift, a one-day Madrid Card per person, and roundtrip airport transfers. This represents a room savings of 65 percent. For the best value and most features, the seven night stays over Christmas and New Year's includes accommodations, breakfast daily, Christmas lunch, New Year's Eve dinner and party, roundtrip fast train ticket to Toledo, one day Madrid Card for two, gift and roundtrip airport transfers. Priced at 1288 Euros (about $1644) for two, this represents a room savings of 70 percent.

    Themed Barcelona holiday packages start from 304 Euro (about $388) for two people. The “Discovery” package features three nights in a superior room; daily breakfast; bottle of wine; two, one-day tickets on the Tourist Bus with discounted entry to 50 attractions plus late check-out. The “Cosmopolitan New Year” package costs 500 Euro (about $638) for two and includes three nights in a superior room; daily breakfast; bottle of wine; New Year’s dinner and party; two, one-day tickets on the Tourist Bus with discounted entry to 50 attractions plus late check-out. A similar Christmas art and gastronomy package costs 400 Euro per night (about $511) for two people.

    Rafaelhoteles.

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    Choice Hotels Stay Twice, Earn Fr.ee Night

    Choice Hotels International reintroduces its "Stay 2 Times. Earn A Fr.ee Night At Over 1,000 Hotels" fall promotion. Through Dec. 15, 2006, you have an opportunity to earn a fr.ee night's stay at more than 1,000 hotels after two separate stays at any Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Clarion or MainStay Suites brand hotels in the U.S., Canada, Caribbean and Mexico. Consecutive nights at one hotel, regardless of check-ins or check-outs, count as one stay.

    To participate, you must be a member of the Choice Privileges guest rewards program. You can join Choice Privileges when you check in or check out, and your stay will immediately count toward the promotional fr.ee night. There are no blackout dates for when fr.ee nights can be used and no limit on the number of fr.ee nights you can earn.

    Choice Privileges Visa Platinum credit cardholders earn fr.ee nights even faster. Every time and everywhere you use a Choice Privileges Visa card, you earn additional Choice Privileges points. Points can be redeemed for room nights, airline miles, or gift certificates at more than 100 national and 400 regional retailers and restaurants. The Choice Privileges rewards program also offers other special member benefits, including express reservations, express check-in, fr.ee room upgrade when available, fr.ee local phone calls and incoming faxes, fr.ee newspaper and extended check-out.

    Choice Privileges or 888/770-6800.


    Bermuda Extends Summer thru October

    If you are looking to extend summer, you can receive a $300 Visa Gift Card when booking a Bermuda vacation before October 27, 2006. Part of the island’s Endless Summer Promotion, this $300 credit can be used at any Bermuda merchant who accepts Visa, including restaurants, shops, attractions, hotels, and is awarded with each booking of at least four nights.

    Bermuda’s Endless Summer promotion, available for travel through Oct. 31, 2006 (blackout dates Oct. 4 to 7, 2006 at some hotels), is designed for people needing an affordable, last-minute escape.

    The $300 Visa Gift Card is good for new bookings, and limited to one card per minimum four-night stay at a participating hotel, based on double occupancy. The Visa Gift Cards will be issued if you purchase a qualifying travel package when you check in and holds no cash value. The Visa card is only valid in Bermuda during the dates of the visit and at merchants that accept the Visa card.

    The 23-mile long island of Bermuda is under two hours from East Coast gateway cities and surrounded by a 200-square-mile coral reef plateau. Accommodations range from luxury resorts to intimate guest cottages and family-run inns.

    Please note all people traveling to and from Bermuda will need a passport or other accepted document establishing their identity and nationality to enter or re-enter the United States starting Jan. 8, 2007.

    Endless Summer promotion or 800/BERMUDA.


    Nautica Inaugural Cruises, Fr.ee Air, 2-for-1 Fare

    Oceania Cruises schedules the inaugural season of the Nautica to sail to Australia, New Zealand and Bali during winter 2007/2008. Sailing a series of 18- to 21-day voyages, these cruises celebrate the history, culture and natural wonders of the region

    Cruises include fr,ee airfare from 20 North American gateways and two-for-one cruise fares that start from $4,199 per person. Make reservations as early as possible to ensure the availability of fr.ee airfare and to receive the accommodations of your choice on your preferred voyage.

    To enhance the experience, a full range of pre- and post-cruise hotel packages and land tours will be offered in Australia and New Zealand.

    Inaugural cruises include:
    Southern Cross Christmas 18-days Singapore to Sydney, departs Dec. 22, 2007
    Splendors Down Under 15-days Sydney to Auckland, departs Jan. 9, and 24, 2008
    Passage to Paradise 21-days Sydney to Bangkok, departs Feb. 8, 2008

    Oceania Cruises or 800/531-5619.


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    Azores Packages From $579

    Tour operator Azores Express discounts packages from Boston to Portugal's Azores Islands. Flights from Boston take four hours, closer than many islands in the Caribbean. The Azores offer a mild climate year-round. Summer weather can last into late December.

    Packages cost from $589 to $809 per person, based on double occupancy, for Tuesday departures. Priced separately, airfare would cost about $674 and the hotel about $103 a night. Each package includes roundtrip airfare, six nights' accommodations at a choice of seven hotels on three islands in the Azores and breakfast daily. Flights depart Tuesdays and Fridays October 2006 through mid-June 2007. Friday departures are $90 more. Prices are higher on holidays and after April 1, 2007. The lowest prices are October through March and taxes are about $120 additional.

    For stays at the recently opened Hotel do Canal, on the island of Faial or a combination stay on Terceira or Faial and Sao Miguel, children under six years old pay only airfare; children under 10 years pay 10 percent of the $809 hotel rate, plus airfare.

    For $170 additional each way, you can upgrade from coach to SATA Plus Business-Class.

    Azores Express or 800/762-9995.



    Fr-ee Self-Guided MP3 Walking Tour

    Geogad, Inc. introduces the Geogad Mobile Tour of Vancouver's Chinatown and Granville Island to its collection of fr-ee MP3-based audio and image self-guided walking tours. These MP3 tours are virtual tour guides for busy, independent travelers.

    These fr-ee tours can optimize vacation budgets by giving fr-ee detailed local history and tour information. The Vancouver tour optimizes your limited vacation time by letting you explore Chinatown and Granville Island in a fun, non-stressful way on your schedule.

    Download the Geogad Mobile Tour fr-ee from the Geogad website to your mobile MP3 player, whether it is on a cell phone, a portable music player, or a portable computer. The tour of Chinatown and Granville Island lasts from two to four hours, depending on your pace and on the number and length of breaks you take.

    The Chinatown and Granville Island tour starts in the heart of Chinatown at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden next to the Chinese Cultural Center. The tour explains the history of the Chinese in Vancouver and of the formation of this Chinatown. You are guided to Victory Square, which was the heart of Vancouver's city government. The tour winds through the Yaletown district, exploring how Vancouver grew with the railroad, to a marina on False Creek and then to Granville Island, with options to getting there by boat or bus.

    As all Geogad Mobile Tours, the Vancouver tour consists of spoken word descriptions and photos of well-known and not so well-known places. Tour photos include maps to direct you from one tour location to the next. Each tour section begins with a photo of the location so you can double-check your position. Some tour photos focus on small, interesting, details that can make the tour memorable but might be missed by a busy traveler if not pointed out. The tour also includes old photos of the tour locations so you can see how the tour location changed over time.

    Fr-ee Geogad Mobile Tours for San Francisco's Union Square, New Orleans' French Quarter and downtown Vancouver and Gastown include sponsored advertisements. Tours without advertising are offered for $6.99. The tours can be downloaded and purchased from the company’s web site.

    Geodad or 800/231-0856.



    Alaska $50 Cruise Tax

    Get set to pay more for a cruise to Alaska next year. Alaskans passed a package of taxes and environmental regulations for large passenger ships, striking a blow to cruise ship operators already struggling with record fuel prices.

    In a state primary election ballot held in August, Alaskans passed a citizen initiative that will assess a $50 tax on each cruise passenger and tax the cruise lines' corporate earnings and gambling revenues obtained when the ships are in Alaska waters.

    The initiative also requires cruise ships to obtain waste water discharge permits while operating in Alaska and to pay increased fines for any waste water violations.

    Companies offering Alaskan cruises, such as Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., are already facing a slowdown in business in the Caribbean and high fuel costs. Activists on both sides of the issue saw the initiative as a judgment on an industry that brings about 1 million passengers a year to Alaska.

    According to the Alaska Department of Revenue, the $50-a-head tax is expected to bring in about $50 million a year, not including other levies imposed under the initiative.

    One cruise line official said the initiative would weigh on Alaska visitor numbers because of the new costs and regulatory burdens placed on the companies. But analysts said the impact of additional taxes would likely be minimal because Alaska cruises tend to be more expensive than those to the Caribbean.


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    SAA Low Fall Fares

    If you considered an African safari or visiting Cape Town, South African Airways’ autumn fares may make those dreams a reality. Autumn in North America heralds spring in South Africa featuring sunny days and cool breezes for exploring Cape Town, the Garden Route, and the game reserves of the Eastern Cape.

    From Oct. 7 through Nov. 30, 2006, you can save up to 30 percent on South African Airways. Fares start from $1,000 per person, not including taxes and fuel fees, on roundtrip travel to South Africa from New York and Washington Dulles International Airport. You can fly to either Cape Town or Johannesburg, or experience both cities with a fr-ee stopover included in your ticket.

    South African Airways or 800/722-9675.



    One-Way Fares to Orlando from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale

    TransFloridian, the Florida shuttle company based in Fort Lauderdale, offers $35 one-way fares to Orlando from Fort Lauderdale and Miami on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The Ft. Lauderdale station at the Seminole Hard Rock Bus Depot is in Hollywood, FL while the Miami station is at the Sheraton Miami Mart Hotel on 72nd Ave. The trip from Ft. Lauderdale takes about 3 ½ hours, while the trip from Miami is about 4 ½ hours.

    You can travel in style and comfort to the Orlando Station, located at the Oak Plantation Resort in Kissimmee, FL. The 26-foot long motorcoach, originally designed to accommodated 26 passengers, has been redesigned for 14 passengers with leather reclining seats and nearly two feet of leg room between rows. Fr.ee snacks and soft drinks, video and audio entertainment, pillows and blankets at every seat, and reading material are included in the fare. Advanced reservations are required.

    Individuals and groups who want to stay at Oak Plantation Resort receive a package for $149 per person which includes roundtrip transportation on TransFloridian and a two night stay at Oak Plantation Resort’s one and two bedroom villas with full kitchens and separate bedrooms. Oak Plantation offers fre.e shuttle transportation to area theme parks seven days a week.

    TransFloridian or 877/246-4786.



    MSC Cruises 2-for-1 Sale

    For a limited time, MSC Cruises offers two staterooms for the price of one promotion on select Caribbean and Panama sailings of MSC Lirica.

    Prices start from $50 per person, per day (after discount, not including government fees and taxes). The offer is valid for new reservations made through Oct. 15, 2006 in category 1to10 staterooms on MSC Lirica's 11-night Nov. 15 and Dec. 7, 2006 deep Caribbean itineraries and the Nov. 26, 2006 and Jan. 9, 2007, Panama itineraries.

    On the deep Caribbean sailings, the average rate for passengers starts at $550 per person, double occupancy, after the two-for-one offer. The starting average rate on MSC Lirica's Panama itineraries begins at $600 per person, double occupancy.

    MSC Lirica's deep Caribbean cruise from Fort Lauderdale includes three days at sea and port calls at San Juan, St. Maarten, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, Tortola and Samana.

    The Panama itinerary includes four days at sea and visits to Ocho Rios, Cartagena, San Blas, Cristobal (Panama), Puerto Limon and Roatan Island before returning to Fort Lauderdale.

    MSC Cruises



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    EL AL Winter Savings

    EL AL, Israel's national airline, offers value to passengers traveling to Israel for Thanksgiving and the holiday season.

    From Oct. 23, 2006 to Dec. 31, 2006 (except Dec. 17 to 24), you can fly from New York or Newark to Israel for $775 roundtrip; $875 roundtrip from Chicago; $975 from Miami; and $1,075 roundtrip from Los Angeles.

    EL AL also offers roundtrip winter fares from other U.S. cities to Israel between Oct. 23, 2006 and Dec. 31, 2006 (except Dec. 17 to 24). These winter fare flights include fares on a leading domestic carrier to connect to the nonstop EL AL flight to Israel. The roundtrip fare of $775 is available departing from Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; $875 from Atlanta, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Detroit; $975 from Denver, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Orlando, Phoenix, San Antonio, St. Louis and Tampa; and $1,075 from Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

    The above fares are in "L" or "G" coach class on select EL AL flights. Tickets must be purchased within 72 hours of a confirmed reservation. Fares do not include up to $96 security fees and taxes. Fares are subject to availability. Cancellation penalties, change penalties and other restrictions apply.

    EL AL or 800/223-6700.


    Kids Fly F-ree to Ski Country

    Ski.com and United Airlines offer fr-ee airfare for children 12 and under to Vail/Beaver Creek, Steamboat, Jackson Hole and Crested Butte. You can receive one fr-ee child’s ticket per paying adult. The offer is limited to reservations for travel Jan. 3, 2007 to Feb. 15, 2007.

    To make it easier and more affordable for families to hit the slopes, Ski.com also offers select packages giving kids fr-ee lift tickets and f-ree lodging. All packages are subject to availability.

    As a bonus with United, Ski.com offers additional savings to friends and families. Book a mountain vacation package that includes airfare on United to any of Ski.com's 75 resort destinations worldwide by Oct. 15, 2006, and you receive an extra $100 off your total package price. To be eligible for the $100 savings, your package must include at least five nights of lodging and one other tour element such as lift tickets or rental car. The offer is limited to travel Jan. 3, 2007 to Feb. 15, 2007 and the first 400 new reservations.

    The following sample packages are subject to availability and you must travel midweek.

    Crested Butte: Jan. 3, to Feb. 9, 2007 - - from $789 per person based on quad occupancy. Includes roundtrip airfare and kids fly fr-ee on United; five nights in a two bedroom at the Buttes Condominiums which must be booked by Nov. 30, 2006; four days of skiing and kids ski fr-ee; full-size rental car (airport taxes not included). The actual price for adults is $1,141 and $432 for children based on two adults and two children 12 and under. Book this package by Oct. 15, 2006 and save $100 off the package price.

    Steamboat: Jan. 3, to Feb. 14, 2007 - - from $929 per person based on quad occupancy. Includes roundtrip airfare and kids fly fr-ee on United; five nights in a two bedroom at Timber Run Condominiums; five days skiing and kids ski fre.ee; full-size rental car (airport taxes not included). The actual price for adults is $1,318 and $474 for children based on two adults and two children 12 and under. Book this package by Oct. 15, 2006 and save $100 off the package price.

    Ski.com or 800/525-2052.


    Continental’s BusinessFirst Sale

    During late November and again in mid-December, you can fly Continental’s BusinessFirst business class to Europe at a discount. To qualify for late November departures, you must buy roundtrip tickets by Oct. 25, 2006, 30 days in advance of your departure and travel must originate in the U.S. You can start your trip Nov. 18 through 24, and complete it by Nov. 30, 2006. Continental charges a $50 fee for paper tickets.

    Seats are limited and may not be available on all flights or in all markets. Tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable. You can make changes but they incur a $300 change fee, if meeting the restrictions plus applicable fare difference.

    Sample one-way fares for late November departures are based on a roundtrip purchase and do not include taxes nor security fees.

    Newark to Belfast $546; Newark to Brussels or Stockholm $575; Newark to London Gatwick or Cleveland to Bristol $615; Newark to Rome $675; Houston or San Antonio to London Gatwick $715; Houston to Amsterdam $725; Houston to Paris or Raleigh/Durham to Dublin $775.

    The second go-round for BusinessFirst discounted tickets is for mid-December travel. You must purchased your roundtrip ticket by Dec. 6, 2006 with a 30 day advance purchase requirement. You can start your trip Dec. 16, 2006 through Jan. 5, 2006 with all travel completed by Jan 11, 2007.

    Sample one-way fares for mid-December departures are based on a roundtrip purchase and do not include taxes nor security fees.

    Newark to Belfast $646; Newark to Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow $665; Newark to Shannon $696; Newark to Brussels, Stockholm, Hamburg, Berlin or Cologne $675; Newark to London or Edinburgh $715; Newark to Frankfurt, Lisbon, Oslo, Amsterdam or Copenhagen $725; Newark to Rome, Milan or Paris $775.

    Continental Airlines or 800/231-0856.



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    Moseying Under Missouri - - article and photos by Nicki Chodnoff

    Bacon strips, soda straws, popcorn, draperies, ice cream flows, coral and brain rock. This is not a shopping list for a trip to my local super-center. These are some of the descriptive names for cave formations, or speleothems, that I came across visiting public caves in Missouri.

    Missouri has a parallel universe literally under your feet. Though widely called the "Show Me State," Missouri is also known as the "Cave State," with more than 6,000 caves. Of those, there are nearly 20 commercially operated “show caves.”

    Since most people won’t belly-crawl through a muddy cave floor to view creamy-white calcite formations, “show caves” provide convenient access where passageways connect chambers and ceiling breakdown (what broke off from the ceiling and fell to the floor) is cleared from passageways to minimize obstacles. Some provide concrete walkways and lights strung for safety, and to create atmosphere.

    Apparently, Missouri is made of the right stuff according to naturalist Eric Otto from Fisher Cave. In a very slow process, water seeped through the limestone bedrock under much of Missouri and carved a vast system of underground springs and caves. Missouri's show caves run the gamut in approach, but they all nearly spring from the same forces. Over eons, water levels rose and fell and eroded caverns underground. Rainwater trickled through the soil above, turning into carbonic acid, and picked up molecules of carbon dioxide. As it dripped, dripped, dripped, the "hard water" left tiny deposits of the mineral calcite on cave ceilings and floors.

    Calcite formations can take on extraordinarily different forms and colors. Colored formations are created from chemicals in the soil. Water dissolves these chemicals and mixes them with white or clear calcite. For example, add iron to the equation and formations can range from orange to red.

    To walk the cave walk, you need to talk the cave talk. As nearly all the guides informed, stalactites are cave formations that hang from the ceiling or wall of limestone caves while stalagmites rise from the cave floor. After touring several “show caves” my vocabulary expanded to include flowstones, also known as draperies or curtains, sheet-like deposits of calcite that grow down cave walls or sometimes along the floors. Soda straws are structures that look like their namesake. When they plug-up, they can start columns. Columns also form when stalactites and stalagmites meet in the middle.

    It seems a cave tradition that at some point in the tour, your guide asks if you want to see how dark the cave really is. I’ve also experienced this demonstration in mine tours. This presentation is always a hit. Total darkness, the kind where you can’t see your hand even though it is one inch from your face, is startling even when you’ve experienced it seven or eight times.

    Nearly all of the “show caves” we visited are still "growing." As Christy Gilmore, our knowledgeable guide from Mark Twain cave explained, that steady drip you hear in many caves adds, on average, a cubic inch to a formation every 100 years or so. Gilmore, as did our other cave guides, requested that we NOT touch the formations as they are considered “alive,” still growing and forming. Skin oils can prevent the mineral water from clinging, thereby stunting speleothem growth.

    As I write this article it is 95-plus degrees with humidity to match. I fondly remember my time in caves as they are great to explore summer or winter because their temperatures are nearly constant. Temperatures in the Missouri caves ranged from 50 to 60 degrees year-round, warm in the winter and wonderfully cool in the summer.

    My initiation to Missouri caves started along the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Hannibal at Mark Twain Cave. The cave gained worldwide fame in 1876 when Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. About two miles long and a maze of crisscrossed passages, it was originally called McDowell's Cave. As Missouri’s first commercial cave, it’s been shown continuously since becoming a tourist attraction in 1886. Mark Twain Cave is dry and the floor nearly level, a contrast to the low, wet, and muddy nature of many Missouri caves. When you stand on Grand Avenue, the cave’s longest alley, you stand 250 feet below the surface.

    In the same park as Mark Twain Cave, Cameron Cave is completely different. No lighting or broad paths here. Cameron Cave looks much as it did when first discovered in 1925. Tour guide Christy Gilmore handed out several lanterns to light our way through the cave’s complex passageways. Covering nine acres of land, Cameron Cave encompasses 260 passages, which total six miles if put end to end. Although passages were made to connect some chambers, this tour gives you a more authentic cave experience. You must duck along certain paths to clear low ceilings and wedge your body through narrow passages. You certainly get the sense that you are one of the cave’s first explorers.

    Everyone can experience the mystery of a cave tour no matter their physical condition. Privately owned Fantastic Caverns offers a riding tour in a comfortable tram, the sole ride-through cave in the U.S. It was heart-warming to hear the gasps and aahs of a young child confined to a wheelchair, as she saw the cave’s enchanting formations. The cave’s long history started when the cave’s owner advertised for explorers in 1867. Twelve women showed up with torches, lanterns, ropes, and ladders. The women found untouched chambers with large, pristine formations, some which you see on the tour. This was the one tour where visitors are encouraged to touch one stretch of low ceiling. The "Touch Me" formations are essentially dead from our skin oils. This plain stretch is sacrificed so prettier formations aren’t groped to death.

    Bonne Terre Mine is billed as the world's largest inland scuba diving facility and the world's largest man-made underground cavern, a tribute to what human determination can accomplish. Located 150 feet beneath the town of Bonne Terre, MO, the five-level, 80-square-mile mine was the world's largest producer of lead until the supply diminished in 1961. The mine closed, so the pumps that removed the water were turned off and the cavernous underground rooms were forgotten. Twenty years later, the mine was rediscovered. Three levels were filled with pure spring water, making it the world's largest subterranean lake. Donna guided us into this vast void excavated from solid earth. We descended many steps that follow the Old Mule Trail. She explained about the mining tools and we passed the long-abandoned carts, scaffolding, grating, and staircases in the former mine. We all marveled at the giant earthen pillars that hold up the ceiling in the rooms where we walked. Week-end boat tours take you on the motionless and crystal-clear lake. There are no fish, but you may see divers, ore carts and other abandoned equipment.

    Fisher Cave at Meramec State Park, emphasizes natural history. There are more than 38 caves in Meramec State Park, but only Fisher Cave is shown on a guided tour. Entering the cave gets you by the first hurdle, stooping to get under the 50 inch clearance, a test to see if you make it through the long, low portion in the last half of the tour. Although you walk along a concrete walkway, this was the most natural of the caves and seeing it by lantern light intensifies the experience. If nothing, Fisher Cave is diverse, from low, narrow streamside passages to huge rooms with massive 30 feet tall columns. Along the route, Naturalist Eric Otto pointed out well-preserved bear claw marks, cave salamanders and other cave wildlife.

    Meramec Caverns - The largest cave in the"Cave State," Meramec Caverns earned notoriety as an alleged station on the Underground Railroad and post-heist hideout for Jesse James and gang. This family-friendly cave, located under the Ozarks, features an underground river and is all about entertainment. The seven story cave with 26 miles of underground passages is also known for it two-story wine table ragonite formation, so called because formations around it resemble grape clusters. Its other wow factor is onyx mountain, an onyx formation 500 feet in circumference, 200 feet thick and 33 feet high. Entertainment kicks in at the 70-foot high, 60-foot wide and 35 foot thick formation called the Stage Curtain. It’s the largest single cave formation in the world. Back in the 1940s, Kate Smith stood in front of the Stage Curtain and sang “God Bless America.” In a multi-colored sound-and-light homage, you hear a recording of Smith belting out her signature tune which ends with the red, white, and blue Stars and Stripes projected onto the limestone curtain. Rather than patriotic, it comes off as a cheesy climax for such a spectacular 70-million-year-old formation.

    Bridal Cave - Local legend of an Indian wedding held in the cave in the early 1800s give the cave its name. Since 1949 when the Coles of Sedalia, MO were married here, Bridal Cave holds the world record of nearly 1800 underground weddings performed in front of the Pipe Organ formation. Despite its kitschy name, Bridal Cave features some lovely formations with giant columns, some of which you need to squeeze between (one’s called the lemon squeeze), delicate soda straws and massive draperies. It has more onyx formations than any other known cave or cavern. It’s as entertaining to view pictures of former happy couples, immortalized in photo albums in the visitors' center.

    A tour of Marvel Cave is included with your ticket to Silver Dollar City, a popular theme park attraction in Branson. To get a real-feel of the cave, we took the Lantern Light Tour, which starts by descending 300 feet to the Cathedral Room, the largest cave entrance room in the United States. By the faint flick of candlelight, you tour one of the state’s deepest caves as your guide points out dramatic formations and tells stories about the cave’s history and exploration. The one-hour tour is more on the strenuous side as you climb nearly 600 stairs and many walkways while heading 500 feet below the surface. Once at the tour’s end, you climb aboard a unique cable car and ride out of the cavern.

    For more information on show caves in Missouri, click here, or 800/519-2100.


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