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
15. May 2013 20:05
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)
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
2. April 2013 23:01
Visitor Center Archaeological Museum
Surely countless coaches originating from points throughout the Midwest and Ohio Valley make the trip south annually on I-75, en route to Florida’s renowned theme parks and cruise ports. Although some may make stops along the way, I would guess that few groups are aware of three interesting and free National Park Service units that are just a few miles off of the highway in Georgia. Ocmulgee National Monument lies just three miles east of I-75 Exit 165.
Ocmulgee shelters some of America’s most impressive Indian mounds, which were home to people of the early Mississippian culture from roughly 900 to 1100. A film and significant archaeological museum in the visitor center describe the human habitation of the Southeast from 10,000 BCE to the early 1700s, with special emphasis on the Mississippian village site.
A walking tour leads guests to the Earthlodge, dating from around 1000. The interior reconstruction approximates the original appearance of this, the oldest native ceremonial chamber in the country. Nearby are the Cornfield Mound, prehistoric trenches, the Greater and Lesser Temple Mounds, which were apparently topped originally by wooden structures likely used for religious ceremonials, and the Funeral Mound, where more than 100 burials have been uncovered.
Staircases lead to the tops of both Temple Mounds, from which visitors experience panoramic views of the village site and the surrounding countryside. Near the Temple Mounds is also the location of an English trading post that was established about 1690 to trade with the numerous Creeks who had settled nearby.
Restored interior of Ocmulgee's Earth Lodge, America's oldest ceremonial chamber
Great Temple Mound
Walnut Creek Wetlands
2. April 2013 22:58
National Prisoner of War Museum
One of the most moving of NPS sites commemorates the infamous Confederate Civil War prison camp at Andersonville, officially known as Camp Sumter, which is located 26 miles west of I-75 Exit 127. During the scant 14 months that the camp existed more than 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned here, 13,000 of which died from disease, malnutrition or exposure.
Although camp was originally designed to house 10,000 prisoners, the pen was enlarged from 16.5 to 26.5 acres in June 1864. During the following month, a sergeant of the 9th Ohio Cavalry wrote in his diary “to describe this hell on Earth where it takes seven of its occupants to make a Shadow.”
In late 1890, the site was purchased by the Georgia Department of a Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic. The prison site was donated to the people of the U.S. in 1910, until it became a unit of the National Park Service in 1971.
Today, the prison site includes walking and driving tours, a historic cemetery, many state monuments and the extensive National Prisoner of War Museum. Both an orientation film and the museum detail the ordeals facing American POWs throughout the history of the nation.
"Shebangs" (prisoner shelters) and stockade
Andersonville National Cemetery
2. April 2013 22:55
Visitor Center exhibits in former Plains High School
Since so many motorcoaches will travel the I-75 route through Georgia, it is important to know a few stops along the way that will add to your group’s experience. The charming community of Plains, birthplace of our 39th President, is about 36 miles west off I-75 Exits 112 or 109.
This small town where Jimmy Carter grew up still preserves many of the landmarks of Carter’s childhood and early political career at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. The former Plains High School, attended by both Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, serves today as the park’s museum and visitor center.
Only two blocks away is the Plains Business District where one can find the Golden Peanut Company (formerly the Carter Warehouse), the Plains 1888 Railroad Depot, which has been restored to its appearance as Carter’s 1976 campaign headquarters, and brother Billy’s Phillips 66 Service Station. Nearby in town are the Plains Baptist Church, which the Carters attended, as well as Public Housing Unit 9-A, where they lived for a year when Jimmy returned from the Navy in 1953.
Groups can also visit the Lebanon Cemetery, site of the Carter family burial plot and the Maranatha Baptist Church, where Jimmy Carter (now at the age of 89) still teaches Sunday School whenever he is in town. Schedules of when the former president will be teaching the class are posted prominently around town, and all are welcome to attend.
No trip to Plains will be complete without touring the lovingly maintained Carter Boyhood Farm and Home as it provides a fascinating look into the president’s formative years.
Even though I am not a religion person myself, I find it impossible not to have the deepest respect for the Carters, who have truly lived their faith, represented the best our country can offer, and transcended politics through tireless commitments to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering. I found a visit to their little town to be not only a trip back to an America that seemingly has all but disappeared, but also an uplifting and joyous experience.
I’ll wager that you and your group members will have similar reactions.
Plains business district
Plains Depot, restored to the appearance of 1976 Carter campaign headquarters
Jimmy Carter Boyhood Home and Farm
1. March 2013 02:38
One of the most interesting cities I encountered during my December tour of the South was Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-a-tish), located in western Louisiana. Guiding my two-day visit here was Markita Hamilton, communications director for the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose family has lived here for generations.
This charming community, the first permanent European settlement in what we now know as the Louisiana Purchase, was founded in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis to facilitate trade with the Spanish in Mexico. Needless to say, big plans are currently being developed for the city’s Tricentennial Celebration in 2014.
Furthermore, in addition to exploring the area’s wealth of historic sites and homes (including Cane River Creole National Historical Park) during the daytime, the 86th Annual Christmas Festival of Lights provided me with the opportunity for some additional evening photography.
Situated along the banks of the Cane River, Natchitoches’ National Historic Landmark District includes 33 blocks of magnificent historic homes. I was fortunate to dine here on local specialties at both Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen and the Merci Beaucoup Restaurant. In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has included Natchitoches in its list of the “Top 10 Most Romantic Downtowns” in the country. Surprisingly enough, however, the strikingly modern new home of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, currently nearing completion at the north end of the downtown area and promising another “plus” for potential visitors, is architecturally somewhat incongruent with its surroundings.
Markita also took me out to splendid Melrose Plantation, which dates back to 1796. In addition to the plantation’s well-preserved historic structures, Melrose is the home of numerous fascinating paintings and murals created by renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter, who painted here while employed as a domestic servant. Coupling its history with the region’s vibrant Creole culture, Natchitoches’ is highly recommended as a true “off the beaten track” treasure. Groups planning to patronize the nearby Shreveport-Bossier City casinos are advised to add at least a day trip here in order to create a more fully satisfying, diversified travel experience for their members, while a more extended stay is virtually self-recommending for those more historically and culturally inclined.
Lunch time at Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen
Christmas Festival of Lights on the Cane River
1. March 2013 02:33
Brownsville, situated at the southern tip of Texas, is right across the Rio Grande and U.S. border from the city of Matamoros, Mexico. It is a historic area with a pleasing mix of Anglo and Hispanic cultures.
After Texas fought for its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the annexation of Texas by the U.S. in 1845, General Zachary Taylor established an army base (later Fort Brown) here in early 1846 to help establish claim to the disputed territory. The Battle of Palo Alto marked the initial major conflict between opposing forces in the Mexican-American War, a U.S. victory which eventually led to Brownsville and the surrounding countryside being confirmed as American territory.
Today the battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service as a national historic site, which I visited after my exploration of the city itself. My tour guide was the genial and extremely knowledgeable Felix Espinosa, administrative manager of the Brownsville Convention & Visitors Bureau, who appeared to know just about everyone in this city of over 175,000!
Felix led me on a whirlwind adventure including virtually every significant attraction that Brownsville has to offer, all in just a few short hours. We began on foot with the Heritage Trail Tour and downtown historic district, including the authentic Mexican Market, the Heritage Complex and Stillman House Museum, the Old City Hall and Market Square, Immaculate Conception Cathedral, plus numerous other historic buildings. Next we wandered through the historic brick buildings of Fort Brown, now occupied by the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Our tour continued with visits to the Historic Brownsville Museum Depot, the Old Brownsville City Cemetery, Dean Porter Park and finally, the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art. Whew! I though that I was an expert at seeing a lot within a short period of time, but I can’t hold a candle to Felix! I’d suggest that when you are planning your group’s visit here, you allow a couple of full days to include everything. And there is indeed much of interest to see and experience! That will also allow you an opportunity to include meals at a variety of fine Southwestern, Tex-Mex and Mexican eateries. The unspoiled beaches, visitor attractions and resort hotels of South Padre Island are a scant 25 miles away, so you may likely want to diversify your trip to this most visitor-friendly area with an extended stay.
Stillman House Museum, Brownsville Historical Society
Immaculate Conception Cathedral
Gladys Porter Zoo
1. March 2013 02:26
My recent tour of the South had three smaller towns stand out, including Biloxi, Mississippi.
Virtually everyone is aware of the massive destruction which Hurricanes Camille and, more recently, Katrina wreaked upon the Biloxi resort community when they tore through the community in 1969 and 2005, respectively. However, I am happy to report that both Biloxi and its residents have proven time and again to be strong-willed and highly resilient, and, after the expenditure of much money and effort, the city is yet again ready for memorable vacations. Yes, many of the lovely antebellum mansions which previously lined Beach Boulevard are now gone, but other historic structures like Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant, nearby boutiques further north on Magnolia Street, and the 1847 Magnolia Hotel are still alive and well.
Beauvoir, the 1852 estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, has undergone a major restoration, and the adjacent Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum is nearing completion. Biloxi also now boasts the finest municipal visitors’ center I have ever encountered. And, needless to say, there are nine bustling casinos and thousands of quality rooms awaiting travelers.
The area’s premier natural attraction also continues to attract countless visitors with its beauty and cleanliness. Biloxi is the gateway to Gulf Islands National Seashore for boating excursions to Southern Mississippi’s five barrier islands, Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, and the splendid Davis Bayou Area just east of town. Hopefully it will be many, many years before another hurricane bears down upon the area, but the time is definitely now to include Biloxi in your travel plans.
Biloxi Lighthouse and Visitors' Center
Beauvoir - Jefferson Davis Home
Magnificent beaches, Beau Rivage Casino Resort
8. January 2013 22:50
Although one might associate many national parks with the arrival of icy roads and mountain snows in December, there are many Southern parks that are still suitable for a late-year group visit. Just south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, is Cane River Creole National Historical Park, which protects two great cotton plantations: Magnolia and Oakland.
In 1753, Jean Baptiste LeComte obtained the land grant that became Magnolia Plantation, while in 1789, Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme also received a land grant which became the core of Bermuda Plantation, later renamed Oakland. Even though well-managed plantations like Magnolia and Oakland survived the war, low prices, boll weevils, and the departure of former slaves from the region brought hard times.
Although World War I initially increased cotton demand, it wasn’t long before depressed prices and lean times returned. And as modernization and mechanization increased, from the 1930s to the 1960s, many plantations like Magnolia and Oakland were gradually abandoned. Nevertheless, descendants of families and workers who have farmed the region for over two centuries have been able to successfully adapt to social, agricultural and economic change, carrying on many traditions and an enduring Creole culture into the 21st century.
Today, visitors to the two plantations can explore a varied collection of carriage houses, overseer’s houses, slave quarters, plantation stores, a doctor’s cottage, and other facilities, including the country’s last remaining mule-powered cotton press. The main house at Oakland, fully furnished with period and some original pieces, is open for guided tours, while the main house at Magnolia, burned during the Civil War, was rebuilt in 1896 and is still in private ownership outside the park boundary. There is no charge for admission to either park site.
Oakland Plantation - Counter and shelves in Plantation Store
Magnolia Plantation - Old steam-powered cotton press
Magnolia Plantation - Slave/tenant quarters