Elegance is outdated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 So I hope you’ll indulge me for a few minutes while I make my case for this idea: “Elegance” is outdated.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

Interesting sidelights

by Bob Hoelscher 15. May 2013 20:07

Plenty of ice to go around (the River Duchess)

I spent almost the entire month of March traveling internationally to experience the vessels and hospitality of four different cruise lines…SeaDream Yacht Club (SeaDream II) on the Upper Amazon River in Peru and Columbia, plus Vantage Deluxe World Travel (River Splendor), Viking River Cruises (Viking Aegir) and the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection (River Duchess) on the rivers and waterways of The Netherlands and Belgium. 

Although my detailed reports on these programs will appear in our publications during the coming months, I thought it might be of interest now to share a few unusual occurrences I encountered along the way.

1.     I went through TSA screening at Miami International Airport soon after the notorious Congressional “Sequester” that promised layoffs of numerous federal employees. Immediately after going through the multi-million dollar, full-body screening equipment, all male travelers were being frisked by a TSA employee. The only conclusions one can draw from this situation are (a) the expensive electronics we have all funded either don’t work, or (b) TSA personnel previously accustomed to standing around were now being given unnecessary duties to make them look busy in an apparent attempt to avoid staff reductions.     
2.     Speaking of fancy electronics, US Airways’ deluxe boarding pass “reader” (complete with conspicuous flashing lights) allowed a Copa Airlines passenger bound for Panama City, Panama, to board my flight to Charlotte. It also boarded another passenger assigned to a seat that didn’t exist.

3.     Kudos to South American airline LAN for exceptionally clean and well-maintained aircraft. They also served a very tasty and filling dinner in coach, quite unusual in a time when tasteless, 99¢-TV-dinner-sized meals are the norm. United Airlines earned my “chutzpah” award by following a video presentation boasting of their celebrity chefs, flight kitchens and exciting new menus with a coach meal featuring the same nondescript “chicken or pasta” entrees they served a generation ago aboard DC-8s.

4.     I witnessed the captain (who will remain nameless) of one of the ships I cruised upon this month badmouthing his competition in front of several media representatives, on more than one occasion. This is just about the most unprofessional behavior in which a travel company employee can be engaged, so I hope that his employer sets him straight. Furthermore, if something does appear to be lacking or wrong with an industry supplier’s product or service, it is the responsibility of an unbiased media (people like me) to disseminate that information.

5.     In between a morning excursion and an afternoon concert of Amsterdam’s world-renowned Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, I stopped off at a McDonald’s in a residential neighborhood for a burger to tide me over until dinner. Needless to say, it was startling to see the restaurant’s counter employees (apparently legally stoned) stumbling around aimlessly in a daze like zombies, and accomplishing very little in the process. I left hungry after standing in line for 15 minutes and getting no closer to placing my order.

6.     If you thought that winter had long since worn out its welcome here in the U.S., take a look at the accompanying photo which I took in Hoorn, The Netherlands, on the seventh day of spring, Tuesday, March 26.

7.     I am not a big fan of the fancy duvets (“comforters” to us Yankees) that are seemingly very popular these days atop beds in European hotels as well as on numerous cruise ships. Not being a small person, I have found that these padded “appliances” usually end up in a heap on the floor during the night, leaving my bulk uncovered.  Thus it was indeed a pleasure to find some of the most luxurious, high quality bedding I’ve ever snuggled underneath, tucked firmly under my mattress aboard Uniworld’s River Duchess. See the photo for a “happy camper” preparing for a night of restful sleep.

The author ready for a good night's sleep

Interesting People

by Bob Hoelscher 15. May 2013 20:05

John Harwood

Among the many nice folks I met in March, the following particularly stood out:

1.    John Harwood, a multi-talented Brit who resides in Manaus, Brazil…botanist, author, poet, troubadour and a member of SeaDream II’s Expedition Team

2.    Carl and Judy Eben from San Francisco: Very experienced world travelers and simply one of the nicest couples I have ever been fortunate to meet

3.    Myriam Hembrechts, lecturer aboard Vantage’s River Splendor, who appeared to know more about the subject of Belgian chocolate than would be thought humanly possible 

4.    Neil Oliver, archaeologist, BBC Television personality, and Viking River Cruises lecturer, who gave a fascinating presentation on the history of the Vikings

5.    Rik Sprengers, Cruise Manager aboard Uniworld’s River Duchess: The embodiment of cordiality, knowledge and customer service after 11 years on Europe’s rivers and waterways

Carl Eben (on Monkey Island, Colombia)

Myriam Hembrechts

Rik Sprengers

Interesting Places

by Bob Hoelscher 15. May 2013 19:56

The Leticia Fish Market

What would the travel industry be without unique places to visit? Sometimes it is the unexpected out-of-the-ordinary destinations that stand out in your mind after a trip.

Here are just a few of the gems I discovered during March while traveling internationally to experience the vessels and hospitality of four different cruise lines to the Amazon River in Peru and Columbia and to the rivers of The Netherlands and Belgium.

1.    The Leticia Fish Market in Columbia is where I learned that, contrary to popular belief, residents along the Amazon River actually eat a lot more piranhas than the other way around.

2.    The Enkhuizen Museum in The Netherlands’ is the picturesque answer to Mystic Seaport, Old Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg.
3.    Museum Het Schip (The Ship) on a Viking River Cruises excursion is a fascinating example of social housing and Amsterdam School architecture dates from the beginning of 20th century.

4.    The Grand Café Horta in Antwerp is the site of a outstanding dinner gala and entertainment included for participants in Vantage’s Naming Ceremony and pre-inaugural cruise of River Splendor.

5.    De Doelen, Rotterdam’s performing arts center looks like an ugly box on the outside, but oh what aural pleasures await inside! The center boasts incredibly fine acoustics for a thrilling Rotterdam Philharmonic concert.

Enkhuizen (Zuiderzee) Museum

Museum Het Schip

Grand Cafe Horta

Victoria via the Black Ball Ferry

by Bob Hoelscher 12. October 2012 20:51

Victoria is well known as a beautiful city with a distinctly English flavor, including red, double-decker buses and lovely gardens everywhere. Since (unlike Vancouver itself) it is located on Vancouver Island, some type of water transportation from the mainland is generally required for groups to get there. Ferries, the high-speed Victoria Clipper and Victoria/San Juan Cruises all can take groups to Victoria.

All Alaska cruises departing from Seattle also make a stop in Victoria in order to satisfy U.S. regulations for foreign-flagged passenger vessels. However, in my opinion, one of the best ways to reach Victoria is from Port Angeles, on the north shore of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, aboard the classic, 341-foot-long MV Coho of the Black Ball Ferry Line. 

Built in 1959, the well-maintained Coho offers passengers (and their vehicles) a leisurely 90-minute crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with views of the Olympic and Vancouver Island Ranges en route. Aboard are a cafeteria, gift shop, comfortable lounges, and plenty of deck space for strolling or sightseeing. During the summer season, the Coho operates four round-trips daily, so groups not wishing to take their coach along and stay in Victoria can easily make a day trip departing Port Angeles at 8:20 a.m., and return there following dinner in Victoria, by 9:00 p.m. 

Unlike some other alternatives, the Coho docks right in Victoria’s Inner Harbour is within easy walking distance of the B.C. Parliament Buildings, the Royal British Columbia Museum, the famed Empress Hotel, and downtown shopping. Other advantages of departing from Port Angeles include combining the Victoria trip with visits to spectacular Olympic National Park, the extensive lavender farms surrounding the nearby town of Sequim, as well as historic Port Townsend.

Departing Port Angeles with Olympic Mountains in background

Passing the U.S. Coast Guard Station

Arriving in Victoria's Inner Harbor

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Visit Victoria, British Columbia

Why travel and insurance go hand in hand

by Herb Sparrow 11. May 2012 22:50

The excitement of preparing for a trip, especially one that is out of the country, should also include careful planning. One of the most critical things any overseas traveler should have is travel insurance that covers trip interruptions and medical emergencies.

I had a firsthand experience about the benefits of insurance on a 10-day Panama Canal cruise on the Island Princess with cruise-operator specialists Susan and Russ Rosenberry of Islands in the Sun. I purchased a policy from Travel Guard, one of several capable and reliable companies, on my own, although you can purchase insurance through a tour operator or the cruise line.

The second night at sea, after a long and enjoyable dinner with Susan and Russ, I began getting a pain in my lower abdomen that became progressively more intense as the night wore on. Having had an attack of pancreatitis three years before, I suspected I was having another attack. Pancreatitis is not something to take lightly.

I finally dialed the emergency number around 5 a.m. and went to the ship’s medical center, where they put me on intravenous pain medicine and did blood tests and X-rays. By midafternoon, the ship’s chief medical office determined I needed to be put ashore at our first stop in Aruba for further tests.

I was taken by ambulance to the Dr. Horacio E. Oduber Hospital in Oranjestad, where I spent nearly four days.

Travel Guard, which is picking up all of my medical expenses on the ship and at the hospital, was in daily touch, monitoring my situation. The company arranged for a hotel room after I was discharged and arranged for my return flight home in business class along with a ticket for my daughter, who flew down to accompany me home.

I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t purchased the insurance. Since it was an emergency, my health insurance might have reimbursed me for the medical costs, which I would have had to pay upfront, but I doubt it would have helped me get home.

I would also like to thank Princess Cruises, whose U.S.-based passenger assistance officers Mary Kessler and Don O’Neal were also in daily contact to offer any assistance I needed and called to make sure I had gotten home OK.

The medical staff on board, headed by Dr. Deon Venter, were very professional and competent in stabilizing my condition and making me as comfortable as possible for a full day and night at sea.

In Aruba, Carol Angie, managing director of the port agency, and Henry van Loon, the agency’s boarding officer, also looked after me, getting my luggage off the ship and storing it. Carol brought my carry-on with my toiletries to the hospital and took me to the hotel after my discharge and to a pharmacy to have a prescription (they call it a recipe there) filled.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who helped me.

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Travel Thoughts

Exploring Barcelona

by Bob Hoelscher 16. November 2011 19:30

In my humble opinion, Barcelona is one of the most interesting and beautiful cities in Europe. Many Mediterranean sailings depart from or conclude at its excellent, state-of-the-art cruise ship complex, so visitors frequently have the opportunity to spend a few days visiting this incredible destination before or after their shipboard adventures. 

There is literally so much to see here that one day. As the capitol of Spain’s autonomous (since 1975) region of Catalonia (Catalunya), the city’s residents proudly consider themselves to be Catalonians rather than Spaniards. 

Barcelona has done an outstanding job of successfully combining its historic and modern elements. On one hand, the ancient cobbled streets and narrow alleyways of its Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic) lead to such incredible architectural riches as the massive Gothic-style Cathedral, the adjacent Royal Palace, and picturesque squares. On the other hand, there is the bizarre but fascinating and chronically unfinished La Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church), the renowned creation of the city’s great architect and native son, Antoni Gaudi, as well as his equally strange Casa Milà and Parc Güell. 

The city’s historic and fascinating downtown pedestrian and shopping street, Las Ramblas, leads from the Columbus Monument to the Plaza de Catalunya, where one can find the massive and traditionally European El Corte Inglés department store. And yet, not that far away is the ultra-modern, harbor front Maremagnum shopping and adjacent aquarium complex.                   

Also among the city’s top sights are its great Picasso Museum, the incredibly ornate Liceu Opera House, and Montjuïc, the mountain park west of the downtown area, which overlooks the city.  All together, the city boasts more than 50 significant museums.

Dining (especially late dining) is also a passion here, so finding your fill of authentic tapas will pose no problem. Getting around is easy, either by taxicabs or the excellent public transportation system.  Or, if you prefer, the on/off, double-decked and brightly colored Bus Turistic provides a convenient way to see all the important sights with a minimum of hassle. Regardless, Barcelona is a city that you’re sure to enjoy exploring!

Antoni Gaudi's Holy Family Church

Antoni Gaudi's Parc Guell

Las Ramblas

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Three Great Spanish Ports

Palma de Mallorca, Balearic Islands

by Bob Hoelscher 16. November 2011 19:27

Principal city of the largest of the Balearic Islands, Palma is surely also one of the most upscale, chic resort retreats of the Mediterranean. The waterfront is lined with luxury hotels and apartment buildings, and I doubt whether I’ve ever seen a port filled with so many (literally thousands) of high-end sailing and motor yachts.

Wealth is evident here wherever one looks. The island of Mallorca itself covers some 1,350 square miles, and has a population of 800,000, a number that swells to 1.5 million during the “high” summer season.

The heart of the city is its Gothic Quarter, home to Spain’s second-largest Gothic cathedral. The interior of the structure is particularly magnificent, and contains several features added later that were designed by Antoni Gaudi.

Next door is the suitably impressive Almudaina Palace, which has been a popular retreat for Spanish kings through the centuries due to the area’s superb climate.  And from this point, the elegant shops and boutiques that line the main streets of Es Born and Via Roma are but steps away. 

Other points of significant interest on the island include the elegant resort of Port Andratx, the manor houses of La Granja and Son Marroig, the lovely village of Valldemossa, and the unusual Caves of Drach, which reportedly contain the largest underground lake in the world.

Village of Valldemossa

Cathedral's main altar

Yachts and hotels lining harbor

The Andalusian Coast’s Malaga

by Bob Hoelscher 16. November 2011 19:17

On a relaxing cruise along the Mediterranean coast, I discovered Malaga. A popular tourist destination and the largest city on the Andalusian Coast, Malaga is home to roughly 670,000 residents. If one comes by ship, it is also the usual gateway to ancient Granada and the world-famous palace of Alhambra, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. 

Malaga, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, is conveniently near to beautiful beaches and charming villages like Mijas and Alfarnatejo. Nearby also are the prestigious resorts of Marbella and Puerto Banús, extensive vineyards and wine cellars, as well as the picturesque town of Nerja. Nerja is home to important subterranean caves that are among the largest in Europe. Excursions to all these and more should be available aboard your ship.      

Like Barcelona, Malaga boasts a significant Picasso Museum and a splendid Cathedral, built between 1528 and 1728, which combines element of the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. Overlooking the city and offering majestic panoramic is the imposing Castillo de Gibralfaro, constructed by the Arabs during the 14th century. 

Lovely parks and gardens can be found adjacent to the downtown area, where shopping is also a popular visitor pursuit. Although the bustling port area here is relatively close to the downtown area, there is some bad news of a temporary nature. Cruise ships dock close to very substantial freighter operations, and the entire complex is torn up in the midst of a major reconstruction project, so walking into the city is all but impossible, requiring the use of a port shuttle bus at €5 per person round-trip.

Roman ruins

Statue of Pablo Picasso in front of the building where he was born

View of city from Castillo de Gibralfaro

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Three Great Spanish Ports

A day on Geneva Lake

by Brian Jewell 19. October 2011 20:00

After spending a day on Wisconsin's Geneva Lake (in the town of Lake Genvea), it's easy to understand what made this area such a popular getaway for wealthy Chicagoans of the 19th century. With crystal clear water and beautiful foliage on 20 miles of shoreline, this lake is one of the natural treasures of the Midwest.

Throughout the late 19th and eary 20th centuries, wealthy residents of Chicago bought land along the lake and built "summer cottages" of varying sizes. The most modest are the size of typical American homes; the most oppulent are extraordinary mansions that showcase brilliant architecture and uncommon wealth. Unlike most houses, these homes don't face the road, which can be a quarter mile or more away. Instead, they face out onto the water.

Today, private owners still use most of these mansions as their summer homes. Many of them take advantage of the mail boat service that began in 1916. Each morning in the summer, a private boat contracted by the Postal Service carries mail to the houses along the lakefront. The large boats pull up to each pier along the way, slowing down just enough for young "mail jumpers" to leap onto the dock, deliver the mail, retrieve outgoing pieces, and jump back onto the boat, clinging to its exterior railing. Since the boat never stops moving (for fear of colliding with the pier), the mail run is an impressive display of bravery and athleticism on the part of its delivery crew.

The mail boat has become such a beloved tradition in the area that it is among the most popular Lake Geneva activities for visitors. Groups can come aboard the mail boat for morning runs, where they'll get an up-close view of the impressive dock jumping, as well as great narration about the history of some of the magnificent homes that they pass along the way.

In October, official mail boat delivery has ended for the season, but the sightseeing cruises continue. The jumpers did a few demonstration deliviers so that the group of journalists I was traveling with could see how it worked. The bursts of excitement perfectly punctuated a day spent reveling in clear skies, sunshine and the splashes of autumn color in the trees around Geneva Lake.


A modest lakefront mansion

Jumping onto pier to deliver the mail

Return jump onto the side of the mail boat

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Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

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