Rhine River Cruise Day 2

by Mac Lacy 28. October 2009 17:24

In Strasbourg, we walked through the old town and entered the Notre Dame cathedral that dates to the 12th century.  Inside, a mechanical clock dating to the 1500s still operates daily, wound each day by a clock keeper.  This meticulously-designed timepiece includes angels and apostles, an old man facing death and a young boy just beginning his life.  Each hour, and even on quarter hours, this clock chimes and its pieces move to keep a watch over the seasons of life itself. 

The following day we visited the massive Heidelberg castle.  This medieval structure towers above a busy city characterized by red tile roofs and German architecture.  At one point in its history, the castle was attacked by the French with its own dynamite, pilfered from stores it kept outside the walls.  The castle is used today for many purposes including weddings and events, and each year the Student Prince opera is still perfomed outside here in one of its many courtyards.  Afterwards, we enjoyed a beer, and a serving of kraut, bacon and potato cakes at an outdoor cafe.

The following day, we walked through Mainz, a city almost entirely destroyed during WWII.  Today, it thrives and much of its rebuilt downtown is for pedestrians only, very little automobile traffic is allowed.  Its cobblestone plazas and streets are filled with strollers, dogs on leashes and passersby.





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Rhine River Cruise

Rhine River Cruise Day 1

by Mac Lacy 27. October 2009 12:19

We've landed in Zurich and are awaiting transfers to our Avalon vessel, the Creativity, in Basel.  We'll be cruising the Rhine River through parts of France and Germany.  We took the opportunity to walk a bit in Zurich, the Swiss capital, and although most of the commercial enteprises and shopping stops were closed on this Sunday, it was still busy downtown as lots of families were out enjoying a brisk fall day. From there it was on to Strasbourg and its 12th century Notre Dame cathedral.  This historic city was torn with conflicting allegiances during World War II.


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Rhine River Cruise

Photos from the coast

by Brian Jewell 5. October 2009 20:35

It's the recurring dilema of the travel writer: When you spend a few days touring a destination, you always see and experience much more than you will actually be able to write about, or even to blog about.  So before I pack my bags and prepare to head to the airport tomorrow morning, here are some of my favorite photos from other parts of the trip that haven't appeared in the blog yet.

The outdoor pool at The Beach Club.


A riverside scene in the peaceful small community of Magnolia Springs.

One of several great shots from a dolphin-watching cruise in the Gulf.


Fort Morgan -- a Civil War-era fortress across the bay from Mobile.


The Wharf in Orange Beach has a large Ferris wheel, in addition to dozens of shops and restaurants.


Sunset at Gulf State Park, which features the longest pier on the Gulf Coast.


A glass-blowing demonstration in the Hot Shop at Orange Beach Arts Center.

Underwater citizens of the Gulf Coast

by Brian Jewell 5. October 2009 18:59

Seafood lovers are used to seeing shrimp, crab, fish and oysters on their dinner plates, but to see them alive in their own habitat is something else altogether. Today I encountered many of these creatures up-close with an Alabama Gulf Coast company called Sailaway Charters.

I joined Sailaway's owner Capt. Skip, as well as a handful of other visitors, on a nature cruise of the bays and bayous near Orange Beach, Alabama. During our hour-and-a-half cruise, Capt. Skip demonstrated many of the techniques used by commercial fisherman to harvest shrimp, crab, oysters and other fish in the area. We began by trawling for shrimp with a net cast behind our pontoon boat. After a few minutes, Capt. Skip hoisted the net on board, and emptied out its contents to show us all of the different creatures that had come up.

By my count, we saw at least 16 types of fish, mollusks, shrimp and other creatures. For each one, the captain would hold up a specimen and point out its distinguishing characteristics, such as the markings on the underside of a blue crab that indicate its sex. Then, he would toss all of the "by-catch" back out into the gulf, where dozesn of gulls and a pair of dolphins followed behind our boat to catch an easy meal.

The excursion also included looks at crab traps and oyster harvesting. I left with a deeper appreciation of the beauty of these sea animals, as well as the hard work that commercial fishermen go through to bring them to our tables.


A tiny white shrimp


Capt. Skip and a blue crab

A pair of stingrays got caught up in the shirmp net.


Freshly pulled from the Gulf, oysters are unattractive creatures.

Leaping lemurs!

by Brian Jewell 4. October 2009 08:03

Lemurs love cameras. And I don't mean that they enjoy being photographed -- these energetic, curious animals love to nibble on, lick and play with cameras and other expensive electronic equipment.

Today I visited the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, a small zoo where the staff encourages interactive experiences with wildlife. One of their most popular programs is Lemur Encounter, in which particpents sit in an enclosed tent with a quartet of juvenille lemurs. These exotic animals are members of the primate family, although they don't particularly look like monkies, and are native only to the island nation of Madagascar.

So I went into the tent, along with a handful of other visitors. When zoo director Patti Hall brought the four lemurs into the tent with us, they lept into a frenzie, playing a fast-paced game of follow-the-leader in circles around the tent. After a few minutes, though, they became curious about us, and began to jump into our laps, paw at our faces, and grab our cameras, sunglasses and anything else they could find to play with. By the end of the session, they had made friends with their visitors, snuggleing into our arms and letting us rub their bellies.

The lemur encounter is one of several programs like it at the zoo.  For next year, Hall hopes to have four such programs, including a playtime with young tiger cubs and an interactive reptile exhibit where guests can hold a baby alligator and albino python. If what I experienced today was any indication, the program is on its way to being a smash hit.

Alligator Alley

by Brian Jewell 3. October 2009 03:17


Many thousands of tourists come to Alabama's Gulf Coast every year, most to take advantage of its fine weather and beautiful beaches. But there is so much to see and do beyond the beach, and today I visited one of the area's most fascinating attractions, Alligator Alley.

Wesley Moore founded Alligator Alley in 2004, restoring sveral acres of natural cypress swampland that he owned back to its original purpose. Alligators have always been at home in this kind of habitat, and Moore decided to augment the gator population on his land with rescued alligators from other parts of the Southeast. Today there are some 170 gators at the farm, many of whom were brought to the sanctuary after being declared nuissances in populated areas.

I lost track of the number of gators I saw during my visit, which included a walk around the elevated boardwalk that Moore and friends built through the swamp. many of the are hidden just below the surface of the water, but I saw dozens sitting lazily on the higher ground as well. One gator at the site is particularly notorious: Nicknamed "Captain Crunch," this 13.5-foot, 900-pound reptile has the most forceful bite on record of any animal on earth. When his jaws snap down on a bit of prey or other piece of food, they exgert 2,982 pounds of force. (It takes 400-500 pounds of force to break a human's leg.)

But the highlight of a visit to Alligator Alley is feeding time -- three times a day, employees come out to do demonstration feedings with the alligators. My guide Evan crossed the safety fence and approached a riverbead full of hungry gators, armed with a long stick and cooler full of pork bits. To watch him feed these massive predators was both terrifying and amazing, as they would lunge out of the water with open jaws when he raised his arm with a fistfull of food. My favorite part was the satisfying "plunk" sound that the gator jaws made as the snapped shut around the hunks of meat.


Feeding time


"Captain Crunch"


Your correspondant wrestles a baby gator.

A gator ruminating in the cypress swamp.

This is what I call "Perks"

by Brian Jewell 2. October 2009 03:00


If you work in the tourism business, chances are that from time to time, you enjoy some perks on the job.  If you work as a travel journalist, those times tend to come more frequently. This week on Alabama's Gulf Coast, I'm enjoying the perks in spades.

I arrived today at my accomodations for the weekend.  I'm being hosted by the Alabama Gulf Coast CVB and partners at Turquoise Place, a beautiful high-rise condo development right on the beach. This building was complteed just last year, and features modern decor and luxurious appointments.

I was shocked when, after checking in at the front desk, I walked into my "room" -- turns out I'm spending the next four days in a 2,300-square-foot, three-bedroom condominium, outfitted with a full kitchen, three and a half baths, and a beautiful balcony looking out over the sugary sands and emerald waters of the Gulf Coast. This is the smallest unit in the development, but it's bigger than my house, and around every turn, there's a surprise -- the gas range and massive side-by-side refrigerator in the kitchen, the multi-jet shower in the master bathroom, and the gas grill and full-sized hot tub on the balcony overlooking the ocean.

It's feels somehow shameful that I'll be enjoying such a big place all by myself this weekend -- a condo like this would be a perfect place for a big family or group of friends to enjoy some quality time together. But the feeling will pass. The appointments and decorations are luxurious, and I plan to take advantage of as many as I can.  All that stands in the way is the list of things I'm slated to do and see during my stay here.


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