Elegance is outdated

by Brian Jewell 23. September 2013 21:48

I rarely use this column as a soapbox, but one particular element of traditional travel has been getting under my skin lately. So I hope you’ll indulge me for a few minutes while I make my case for this idea: “Elegance” is outdated.

You may not realize how prevalent the idea of elegance is in tourism. But when you begin to notice it, you’ll discover that it’s everywhere. Many resorts, cruise lines, restaurants and other tourism companies use their atmosphere of “casual elegance” as a selling point. Many of the best international airlines — those that fly to destinations in the Pacific or the Middle East — use television commercials to brag about the elegant experience their passengers will have if they fly in first class.

Elegance isn’t a bad thing. But I question whether it is still relevant in the world of travel and tourism. When I read that I’m going to be participating in a swanky event or visiting an establishment that has a dress code of casual elegance, I feel frustrated, not excited. When you say “elegant,” I hear “stuffy.” What is so fun about that?

I realize that elegance was once part and parcel of the travel experience. I’ve heard plenty of people talk about the “good ole days” of air travel, when everyone wore their Sunday best to board a plane. Films like “Titanic” can paint enticing portraits of sea travel in the Gilded Age, when passengers dressed in black tie to attend elaborate dinner galas onboard. These romantic images seem to appeal to people. But they’re not realistic.

When we think about the good ole days of elegance in travel, we often forget that the only people who could afford to fly across the country or sail around the world were people of extraordinary financial means. Travel had to be elegant because it was also very expensive, the domain of rich people. And in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the wealthy lived a life of rigid opulence that would make most of us uncomfortable today. If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Downton Abbey” and squirmed at the thought of wearing those period clothes to dinner, you know what I’m talking about.

Today, we’re a world away from the elegant age of travel. Flying, cruising and vacationing at resorts are popular among the American middle class and working class. We use hard-earned money and scarce vacation time to take these trips. The last thing we want to do is dress up like we’re going to work.

If you think about it, the trends in travel today are moving in the opposite direction of elegance. Many travelers don’t get excited about going to fancy restaurants — instead, they’re turned on by great local gastropubs and barbecue joints. We hear over and over that people are looking for experiences that are more authentic. And authentic life is rarely elegant.

In my opinion, the tradition of elegance in travel is a holdover from a generation that is quickly aging out of the market. Baby boomers are notoriously independent, and their children are known to wear jeans to even the most formal events. Requiring travelers from either of these generations to dress up for nightly dinners is no way to attract them to travel.

After all, it’s their vacation, and they’ve paid for it. Why should they let someone else tell them what to wear?

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Travel Thoughts

My "Thumbs Up" Nominees

by Bob Hoelscher 19. September 2013 20:36

Bear Stew, McCleary, WA Bear Festival

Last month I complained about there being so many cruise and travel industry awards being given these days that it is virtually impossible to determine who or what is really the “best.”  However, I also commented that there are certainly companies and places out there that are indeed worthy of accolades, so following are several of these which have come to my attention during my travels over the past couple of years.  Please be aware that this in no way intended to be anything resembling a “Top 10” list!   


GREENVILLE, SC – Extraordinarily attractive, intelligently-planned downtown area

LAS VEGAS McCARRAN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – Exceptionally efficient and friendly TSA staff

SUBWAY – Amazingly consistent (and tasty) products at stores worldwide 

NORTH DAKOTA – Excellent interstate highway rest areas

CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK, SC – Fascinating natural environment in a national park few travelers have ever even heard of

GRAND PORTAGE NATIONAL MONUMENT, MN – Incredible living history presentations in an equally obscure national monument

VIKING CRUISES – Innovative new ocean-going cruise line

MICHIGAN - Countless well-maintained roadside parks throughout the state

WALGREENS – Outstanding, very effective customer service program

CLAUDE MOORE COLONIAL FARM, VA – Wonderful colonial fairs…spring, summer and fall

FLIGHT 93 NATIONAL MEMORIAL, PA – Beautiful landscaping design

McCLEARY, WA BEAR FESTIVAL – Unusual (and delicious) featured food item…bear stew!

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Travel Thoughts

Scenic Lighthouses Part Two

by Bob Hoelscher 19. September 2013 20:28

As promised last month, here is the second installment of particularly attractive lighthouses that I have encountered during the past few years.

Photos #1 and #2:  Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, MN – 1910 – 54 feet in height  

Cape Meares Light, Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, OR – 1890 – 38 feet in height

South Manitou Island Lighthouse, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI – 1871-72 – 65 feet in height  

Nauset Light, Cape Cod National Seashore, Eastham, MA – 1877 – 48 feet in height

Raspberry Island Lighthouse, Apostle Islands National Seashore, WI – 1863 – 43 feet in height

Admiralty Head Lighthouse, Whidbey Island, WA – 1903 – 30 feet in height

Grand Island East Channel Light, Grand Island National Recreation Area, MI – 1868 - 45 feet in height


Grand Traverse Light, Leelanau State Park, MI – 1858 – 41 feet in height

Brant Point Light, Nantucket Harbor, MA – 1901 – 26 feet in height

 Rock of Ages Light, Isle Royale National Park, MI – 1908-10 – 117 feet in height

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What great international experiences have you had 
that aren’t available at home?

by Eliza Myers 16. August 2013 23:06

We asked our staff, "What great international experiences have you had 
that aren’t available at home?" Here is what they had to say!

"One thing you just don’t find in America very often is a group of monkeys hanging out in the shade near a 400-year-old mausoleum. This incredible encounter happened to me in India, a country with many alien experiences for Americans, including its distinctive cuisine, traffic and occasional snake charmer. At the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah in Agra, I not only got to marvel at an elaborate tomb that became the precursor to the Taj Mahal, but also got an up-close encounter with about 15 monkeys who regarded me with little concern as I snapped photos."

— Eliza Myers,
Online Editor

"Long dinners! I know it sounds simple, but at home I always feel rushed. Even on a domestic vacation, I don’t want to linger over dinner because I feel like its rude to take up a table when another party could be seated. Our international friends embrace and encourage spending the time to relax, socialize and fully enjoy the food as an experience."

— Stacey Bowman,
Director, Advertising Sales

"My family lived in Germany for four years when I was a young child, and I was in awe of the beautiful castles and Old World architecture throughout the country, sights that you definitely don’t see in America. I returned to Germany a few years ago and took a river cruise with Avalon Waterways down the Rhine River. It was just as impressive to me as an adult as I remembered it from my childhood."

— Kelly Tyner,
Director, Sales and Marketing

"I know it’s not for everyone, but my favorite international travel memory will remain walking the streets of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, by myself while on liberty from the USS Elmer Montgomery in 1973."

— David Brown,
Art Director

"A dozen or so years ago, a few of us went clubbing at a very haute disco on the Champs d’Elysee in Paris. A local VIP walked us past dozens of people in line and got us in. Last and only time I ever partied like a rock star in Paris."

— Mac Lacy,

"Walking on the Great Wall of China fulfilled a lifelong dream for me. I remember looking at pictures of the Great Wall in atlases when I was a child and wondering what it would be like to see it one day. In 2011, I found myself overwhelmed by the feeling of standing on the wall outside of Beijing, experiencing one of the world’s most amazing human feats firsthand."

— Brian Jewell,
Executive Editor

"Obviously, a Kenyan safari will generate amazing experiences not available in the United States, such as seeing the “big five” — lion, African elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros  — in their natural habitat, viewing Mount Kilimanjaro in fading daylight, taking a hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti and going inside a mud hut in a Maasi village.

"Among my many other distinctive international experiences are England’s Stonehenge, Amsterdam’s canals, market day in a small Italian village, Roman ruins in the south of France and dining on salmon cooked on the deck of a small cruise ship in British Columbia’s Princess Louisa Inlet. My most poignant international experience was looking out over D-Day’s Omaha Beach from the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, France, with its row after row of white crosses and Stars of David."

— Herb Sparrow,
Senior Writer


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Staff Soundoff

Scenic Lighthouses

by Bob Hoelscher 13. August 2013 02:02

Yaquina Head Light

Visiting the nation’s many historic and picturesque lighthouses has become very popular among travelers these days, so I thought I might provide some photographic examples of a number of particularly attractive examples of such structures that I have encountered during the past few years.  Although a second installment will follow next month, by no means should my personal offerings be interpreted as anything approaching a “top 20” list of the finest lighthouses that the country has to offer.

Yaquina Head Light, Newport, OR – 1873 – 93 feet in height

Cape Lookout Light, Cape Lookout National Seashore, NC – 1859 – 163 feet in height

Whitefish Point Light, Whitefish Point (north of Paradise), MI – 1861 – 76 feet in height

Highland Lighthouse, Cape Cod National Seashore, MA – 1857 – 66 feet in height

Devils Island Lighthouse, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, WI – 1901 – 80 feet in height

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, Mendocino Coast, CA – 1909 – 47 feet in height

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, Mackinaw City, MI – 1892 - 50 feet in height

South Breakwater Outer Light, Duluth Harbor, MN – 1901 – 44 feet in height

Sandy Hook Light, Gateway National Recreation Area, NJ – 1764 – 103 feet in height

Pierhead Lighthouse, Petoskey, MI – 1924 – 44 feet in height

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A personal take on cruise and travel industry awards

by Bob Hoelscher 13. August 2013 02:01

I've come to the conclusion that most of the cruise and travel industry’s “best” rewards touted by various organizations have become pretty worthless. There are so many of these erstwhile plaudits floating around, frequently praising different operators for the same “bests,” that it is virtually impossible for the average traveler to figure out which companies really excel in one category or another.  

Why? First, all such awards are highly subjective, simply depending upon who is doing the voting, so those with different standards or objectives are sure to arrive at different conclusions than we would have. There are also distinct possibilities that ever-present but “under the radar” considerations of a political nature or of advertising revenues have paid a role in selecting ‘winners,’ or the ballot box has simply been "stuffed" by those standing to gain in one way or another from anointing their favorites as the ‘best.’ 

I still remember when TWA received a nationally-promoted award for "best service," when virtually everyone in my home city of St. Louis, where TWA was the primary air carrier, knew that their service was just this side of awful. My guess was that "stuffing" the ballot box was the last ditch effort of TWA's employees to keep their jobs.

This summer I am volunteering at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, a unit of our National Park Service that ABC’s “Good Morning America” apparently lauded as the most beautiful place in the country a couple of years ago. Yes, this is indeed a very beautiful park, and well worth a visit, but to call it the most beautiful is absolutely ludicrous.  

A couple of months back I received a press release from a river cruise operation that touted itself as “award-winning,” a company with which my personal experiences have been substantially less than satisfactory. When some organization actually insures that the voting for its awards have been conducted in a manner that is statistically significant, I might actually take some stock in the results, but I’m not holding my breath. 

Please be assured, however, that I not only believe that there are a lot of good, well-run companies to chose from in the marketplace, but also that some of them like Crystal Cruises and Tauck, to name just two worthy examples, surely do deserve the highest accolades. Nevertheless, there are just too many industry awards out there that are apparently based more on fluff than substance. So be sure and find un-biased reviews of a cruise company before believing everything you read.


Guest Bob Hoelscher

National Parks in Peril

by Bob Hoelscher 13. August 2013 01:42

Our Congressional "Sequester" at Work in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI

According to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, if additional NPS budget cuts follow those resulting from the current Congressional “Sequester,” it will be necessary to actually close a number of National Park sites, which would be particular lamentable on the eve of the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the NPS coming up in 2016.  Please, please contact your Senators and Representatives who have foisted the existing situation upon us to demand that such an ill-considered measure not be adopted.


Guest Bob Hoelscher

Why does international travel matter?

by Brian Jewell 24. July 2013 00:23

Why does international travel matter?

We have such a wealth of great places to see here in the United States. Our country enjoys a diversity of cultures, histories and natural landscapes that is rivaled by few other places on earth. The old domestic tourism mantra “See America First” encourages us to spend our free time and travel dollars exploring our home country, and there are enough great experiences in America to keep even avid travelers occupied for years. So why is it important to travel abroad?

Pose those questions to 100 people who have traveled overseas, and you’re likely to get 100 different answers. Travel is inherently personal after all, and every traveler’s reaction to new places, people and experiences will be personal as well. This means that everyone will see the value of his or her own international travel experiences through a slightly different lens. One thing is certain, though: Nobody who has ever gone abroad will tell you that international travel isn’t worth doing.

Of course, I can’t speak for all of those people, but I can tell you about some of my personal motivations for traveling outside of the United States. Going abroad introduces me to the people of the world and reminds me that I am a citizen not just of my country, but of the entire globe. Meeting African tribesmen, Chinese housewives, Polish students, Mexican dancers and Jordanian nomads demonstrates how wide and diverse the human race and its cultures are. And yet, every one of those encounters underscores something deeper: Although many things differ between nations and races, many more things unite us in our common humanity.

Those kinds of personal encounters often help bridge gaps between nations and cultures that sometimes appear to be at odds. The more I travel, the more I come to understand the subtleties of our world and the more I value people who live in places far from my own home. Mark Twain observed this transforming power of international travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” he wrote in “The Innocents Abroad.” “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

At The Group Travel Leader, we’re big believers in the power of international travel. Everyone on our staff has spent time abroad, either on work, study or vacation. Several of us have been fortunate to spend extended periods in foreign countries, giving us a love of travel that we carry into our daily work in the tourism publishing business.

With that in mind, we created an International Travel issue of the magazine with features on some of our favorite foreign destinations, as well as tips on taking your travelers to some of the world’s most famous festivals and events.

We hope you will consider planning an international trip for your travel group. There’s a big world out there full of adventures and unforgettable experiences waiting for you. Take a trip abroad, and you’ll find your own reason to treasure international travel.

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Travel Thoughts

Michigan's Upper Peninsula

by Bob Hoelscher 17. July 2013 23:54

For some reason…likely just unfamiliarity with the scenic riches that lie beyond…most tour groups visiting Michigan seem to make it as far north as Mackinac Island before turning around and heading back south. Although some tours continue for an extra hour to Sault Ste. Marie to see the Soo Locks and perhaps venture into Canada for a trip on the Agawa Canyon Railroad, that’s about the extent of many current trips made to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’d like to suggest that group coordinators seriously consider planning an extended U.P. holiday for a wealth of splendid sightseeing opportunities. 

Throughout the summer and glorious fall foliage season, groups will discover an exceptionally varied range of attractions, plus affordable lodging and dining without having to deal with many crowds. So drive or fly to Detroit, see the sights of the resurgent “Motor City” and Bavarian Frankenmuth, then continue north for a truly enjoyable scenic excursion. If you’d like to make it a “circle” tour, the following itinerary has been laid out so you’ll return to the “Straits” after exploring all of the places I’ve included.   

1.) Michigan’s graceful Mackinac Bridge offers unmatched views of the Straits of Mackinac (always pronounced Mackinaw). Still resplendent 56 years after it opened to traffic in 1957, this five-mile-long engineering landmark remains one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.

2.) The delights of charming, Victorian Mackinac Island are well-known to group coordinators nationwide. Where else can one tour by horse and carriage, bicycle or on foot without the presence of motorized vehicles, enjoy the lunch buffet at the magnificent Grand Hotel and take home souvenirs of delicious fudge for friends and relatives? Groups with a healthier budget can elect to stay at one of Mackinac Island’s historic hotels, while all groups will be pleased with a day trip to the island, coupled with fine motor inn accommodations overlooking the “Straits” from St. Ignace.

3.) Sault Ste. Marie is home to the renowned Soo Locks, the largest and busiest locking system in the world. Take a Soo Locks Boat Tour and you’ll travel through one of the four American locks, be raised 21 feet to the level of Lake Superior and return via the sole Canadian lock. With luck you’ll lock through with one of the giant Great Lakes bulk carriers or an international freighter, but if not you can return to view the entire locking procedure from observation platforms adjacent to the MacArthur Lock in lovely Soo Locks Park.

4.) Beginning with the schooner Invincible in 1816, and continuing on in more recent times to the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, the waters of Lake Superior off Whitefish Point have proven to be dangerous territory for mariners whenever violent storms arise. North of Paradise, a visit to the excellent Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and historic U.S. Lifesaving Service/Coast Guard Station, site of the lake’s first lighthouse, erected in 1849, will reveal the complete story in detail.

5.) Two rushing waterfalls are the star attractions of splendid Tahquamenon Falls State Park, between Paradise and Newberry. The larger, more dramatic Upper Falls, 50 feet high and over 200 feet wide, are the country’s second highest east of the Mississippi River. The 50,000 gallons-per-second cascades of the two distinct Lower Falls are separated by a wooded island.

6.) One of the highlights of your visit will surely be the three-hour cruise on Lake Superior from Munising to nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The area is a veritable wonderland of towering bluffs, brilliantly colored cliffs, sea caves and cascading waterfalls. When you return to your local Munising “home” for a night or two, you’ll also want to take a forest walk to see at least one of the area’s other spectacular waterfalls. Munising Falls will prove the best chose if looking for an easy hike, while Miner’s Falls appeals to the more adventurous.

7.) Jutting into Lake Superior, the beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula is Michigan’s Copper Country and the home of Keweenaw National Historical Park.  The park’s headquarters and visitor center are located to the north in historic Calumet, center of the area’s once teeming mining industry. Here, you can also enjoy a visit to the still-active Calumet Theatre, where Sarah Bernhardt and John Philip Sousa once performed. A second major park site includes the old Quincy Mine and Hoist, just north of Hancock.

8.) Most likely, a full-day, round-trip excursion from Houghton or Hancock will feature sites 7 through 10, and most certainly will include a stop at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, on sky-blue Lake Fanny Hooe. Here you’ll find a complete, meticulously restored U.S. Army frontier outpost, built in 1844 to keep the peace in the Copper Country, as well as the 1866, Victorian-era Copper Harbor Lighthouse.

9.) Just west of Fort Wilkins is the highly photogenic village of Copper Harbor, largely a collection of homes, smaller motels and tourist facilities, as well as the well-sheltered port for Isle Royale Queen IV, offering summer ferry service to Isle Royale National Park out in Lake Superior, as well as a smaller boat which provides narrated cruises to the historic lighthouse noted above.

10.) The splendid Lake Superior Shore Drive from Copper Harbor to Eagle River takes the visitor past picture-perfect views of the rocky Lake Superior shoreline, lighthouses, waterfalls, roadside parks and the quaint villages of Eagle Harbor and Eagle River. Paralleling the shore from above for 9.5 miles is the equally, if not even more scenic Brockway Mountain Drive, although the road itself was in poor repair during my most recent visit in early June.

11.) It’s an easy stroll through the woods to observation overlooks high above Lake of the Clouds in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. In addition to the blue expanse of the lake 300 feet below, visitors here appreciate panoramic views of the sheer rocky cliffs, the Carp River Valley and Porcupine Range, all particularly glorious with the annual arrival of autumn colors.

12.) The three splendid Waterfalls of the Presque Isle River (Nawadaha, Manido and Manabezho), as well as the picturesque Lake Superior shoreline nearby, are not to be missed. Motor inns south of the park can be found in both Wakefield and Ironwood, but if you are continuing on to Fayette, accommodations in the Iron River/Crystal Falls area may be more convenient.

13.) On the remote Garden Peninsula, along Lake Michigan’s Big Bay de Noc, can be found fascinating Fayette Historic State Park. Once a bustling “company” town which produced charcoal pig iron between 1867 and 1891, this serene, well-preserved museum village shelters 20 historic buildings. These include the impressive furnace complex itself, the town hall, homes, a hotel, offices, machine shop and more, in a lovely natural setting surrounded by forests, water and dolomite bluffs.

14.) Finally, Kitch-iti-kipi Big Spring in Palms Book State Park northwest of Manistique, offers travelers the delightful opportunity to peer into the depths of this beautiful turquoise spring from a covered, self-operated observation raft. More than 10,000 gallons a minute issue at a constant temperature of 45º F through the spring’s underlying limestone aquifer.

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Great local restaurants and watering holes

by Eliza Myers 21. June 2013 19:00

We asked the staff of The Group Travel Leader, "What's a great local restaurant or watering hole that you've discovered on the road?" Here are some wonderful places to keep in mind when you're on the road.

"Best dive bar hands down goes to Veets Bar in downtown Mobile, Alabama. It’s cold beer, live music and bartenders with so much personality that they should have their own reality show. Veets is the real deal."

— Stacey Bowman,
Director, Advertising Sales

"Meers is the only thing that remains of a once bustling mining town called Meers, Oklahoma. The restaurant serves the best burgers I’ve ever had, and the atmosphere is great. Check it out at www.meersstore.com. Now, I am starving."

— Donia Simmons,
Creative Director

"I’ve tried, and I agree: You can’t go home again. Likewise, I’m beginning to think you can’t find good barbecue anywhere but home. I’m from Paducah in extreme western Kentucky, where I grew up eating barbecue unlike any I’ve had anywhere else. When I go home and especially when I’m visiting with old friends, barbecue is essential. If you’re ever in or even near Paducah, I recommend Harned’s Drive-In, home of old-fashioned barbecue and the friendliest, most energetic carhops around. I’ll have a large/hot, please."

— David Brown,
Art Director

"Throughout my years of travel, I have had the opportunity to eat at some terrific locally owned restaurants. Here are three that stand out in my mind: Felix’s Fish Camp in Mobile, Alabama, has the most amazing shrimp and grits. Steel Restaurant and Lounge in Atlanta is known for its signature Chilean sea bass — and it’s to die for. Local Gastropub in Memphis, Tennessee, has an avocado stuffed with crabmeat on the appetizer menu. It’s so fantastic I made a meal out of it."

— Kelly Tyner,
Director, Sales and Marketing

"Sometimes, the best trips are trips home. My favorite local joint is Ferrell’s Hamburgers in Hopkinsville, Kentucky: hand-patted hamburgers on a 50-year-old grill, 10 seats at the counter. The only thing green about this place is the waitresses’ aprons."

— Mac Lacy,

"I had a fantastic lunch last fall at Nellie’s, a small local joint in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that serves authentic New Mexican food. My heaping plate of chicken enchiladas came smothered with some of the most amazing green chile sauce I’ve ever tasted, and topped with a fried egg. I had never eaten enchiladas with an egg before, but the experience was so blissful that I now order a fried egg on top every time I go out for Mexican food."

— Brian Jewell,
Executive Editor

"George Street in Newfoundland, Canada, has not just one great local bar but several fun hangouts all in a row. The two-block district is said to have the most bars and pubs per square foot of any street in North America. I loved meeting all of the friendly Newfoundland locals at spots like Trapper John’s and Lottie’s Place, and hearing their recommendations for which pub I should try next."

— Eliza Myers,
Online Editor

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Staff Soundoff

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