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

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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Bush’s Visitor Center

by Bob Hoelscher 7. June 2013 01:10

Virtually everyone will recognize Jay Bush and his dog Duke from the numerous amusing television commercials which have featured the “secret recipe” for Bush’s Baked Beans. Built around the original 1897 A. J. Bush & Company general store in tiny Chestnut Hill, Tenn., you’ll also discover a most unusual visitor facility illustrating the company’s lengthy love affair with the humble bean. 

Jay and Duke will first “roll that beautiful bean footage” and entertain you in Bush’s Theatre. Then you can walk through a giant replica can of the company’s product, learn about Bush Brothers’ history and discover what your weight is in beans. Your group might also enjoy shopping in the old fashioned General Store or eating lunch in Bush’s Café.     

Also free, when you’re in the neighborhood: 
Don’t miss magnificent Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which receives more visitors each year than any other national park in the country.  Although there are plenty of attractions, lodging and dining facilities in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN, as well as Cherokee, NC, that will be happy to take your money, there is no charge to visit the park.

"Roll that Beautiful Bean Footage"

Bush's General Store

In the Neighborhood: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Three favorite and free commercial attractions

Walmart Visitor Center

by Bob Hoelscher 7. June 2013 01:08

Who doesn’t have a Walmart in or near their community?  Whatever one thinks of this retailing juggernaut, there is no denying that Walmart is a true American success story. Here in Bentonville, Ark., near the corporation’s sprawling headquarters facilities, you’ll find the original little 5&10¢ store that Sam Walton opened on the town square in 1950.

Now housing the Walmart Visitor Center, the building holds an extensive gallery of interactive exhibits showcasing the company’s business philosophy and incredible growth. Guests can also visit a gift shop featuring typical ‘50s merchandise, the Spark Café, the stock Ford F-150 pickup truck that Sam used for hunting, and his personal office, left as it was on the day he died. 

Also free, when you’re in the neighborhood: The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the world-class museum complex designed to “celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of landscape.” Opened during the fall of 2011, the museum was financed by, and filled with priceless American art objects collected by wealthy members of the Walton family.

Sam Walton's office

Sam Walton's Ford F-150 pickup truck

In the Neighborhood: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

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Three favorite and free commercial attractions

Korbel Champagne Cellars

by Bob Hoelscher 7. June 2013 01:05

To my knowledge, every state now offers wineries, some great, some good, others not so much, a few of them just plain awful. But champagne production facilities worth visiting are few and far between, which is all the more reason to plan a visit to the renowned Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, Calif. This commercial attraction produces some of America’s best bubbly, readily available at stores nationwide. 

Nestled on beautiful grounds in a picturesque, out of the way setting in Sonoma County, Korbel offers a film and tours to show guests firsthand they create quality champagne. You’ll also taste the finished product without having to pay the $20 a head that other Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries regularly charge groups for a tour and tastings. 

Also free, when you’re in the neighborhood: You’ll find Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, one of California’s great parks, right up the road. The park preserves pristine forests of towering coastal redwood trees. Just park the coach and walk the Pioneer Trail to such massive specimens as the 310-foot high, 1300-year old “Parson Jones,” and the 308-foot-high, 1400-year old “Colonel Armstrong” trees.

Beautiful grounds and facilities at Korbel

Korbel's Champagne Tasting Bar

In the Neighborhood: Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve

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Three favorite and free commercial attractions

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

Ocmulgee National Monument

by Bob Hoelscher 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

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Traveling I-75 through Georgia

Andersonville National Historic Site

by Bob Hoelscher 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

State Memorials

Andersonville National Cemetery

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Traveling I-75 through Georgia

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