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Swaziland children

Swaziland or bust!

By | Cruising, Swaziland | No Comments

It’s not easy to get to this small African kingdom

 The Arizona Republic – March 4, 2009

LOMAHASHA, Swaziland — I had just returned to the Silversea Silver Wind after a day of sightseeing in Maputo, Mozambique, when the voice of Capt. Gennaro Arma came over the ship’s public address system.

Mozambique women

Mozambican women carrying produce on their heads

Along with about 200 other passengers, I was midway through a 16-day cruise on the luxurious Silver Wind, which started in Cape Town, South Africa, and ended in Mombasa, Kenya. Thus far, it had been an amazing cruise.  I had seen lions, rhinos and zebras on mini-safaris during prior port stops in South Africa and learned more about the native Zulu culture.

In a thick Italian accent, Capt. Arma announced that there was a bad storm in the Mozambique Channel to the north, in the direction where we were scheduled to sail that evening. Therefore, the Silver Wind would be forced to stay docked in Maputo for another 24 hours.

One thought immediately popped into my head: Swaziland or bust.

I had wanted to visit the small Kingdom of Swaziland that day, only about 50 miles from Maputo, but was unable to find a reliable and reasonably priced car and driver to make the trip.  Now with an unexpected extra day, I hoped I could make the necessary arrangements.

Why the fascination with Swaziland?  Well, for one thing, there was something exotic about the name that had always intrigued me. And I knew it was one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, meaning the King has complete power.  Also, one day was more than enough to spend in Maputo, a congested city with few tourist attractions and pesky hawkers constantly in my face trying to sell tacky souvenirs.

Finally, it would be a chance to check another country off the list. I have long wanted to join a fairly exclusive group called the Travelers’ Century Club.  To be eligible, you have to visit at least 100 countries.  I’ve now been to more than 90 and a visit to Swaziland would get me one step closer to membership.

Flat tire in Mozambique

Dudley changes a tire, attracting a small crowd in the Mozambican countryside

I approached Mr. Rudy, the local port agent on board.  Did he know someone who could take me to Swaziland the following day? I told him it was essential that the car be reliable and comfortable and that the driver speaks good English.  He nodded and said he would have the details for me the following morning.

I spent the evening trying to recruit fellow passengers to join me. There’s always safety in numbers and sharing the cost would be nice, too.  After a bit of cajoling, I was able to get commitments from Linda, a retired accountant from Georgia (and a fellow country-counter), and Bob, an attorney from Illinois.

The next morning Mr. Rudy said he had lined up a reliable car and driver. “Of course,” he said, when I asked him if the driver spoke English.  We agreed on the fare — $400 — which Linda, Bob and I would split.

As we left the ship at 10 a.m., we were reminded by a Silver Wind staff member that the ship would be sailing that afternoon for Madagascar at 5 p.m., with or without us.  We only planned on a four or five-hour trip, so that gave us plenty of time to spare.

Mr. Rudy drove the three of us to the port entrance about a mile from the ship where Dudley, our driver, was waiting in a white Toyota four-door Land Cruiser.  We were off on our adventure to Swaziland.

Or so we thought.

Dudley drove a few blocks through Maputo’s chaotic traffic and abruptly pulled into some sort of service station.  The next thing I knew someone was adding oil to the engine and replacing a bald front left tire.

Mozambique traffic jam

Traffic jam in Mozambique: Waiting for cows to cross the road

I looked around the vehicle.  There were no seatbelts in the backseat (more a problem for Linda and Bob as I had grabbed the front seat next to Dudley), no air conditioning (temperatures that day were in the high 80s with humidity to match), and a cracked windshield with a wiper dangling from its holder like a broken twig.  I think my window was the only one in the car that actually moved up or down.

This definitely did not appear to be a reliable and comfortable vehicle as Mr. Rudy had promised.  From the backseat, Bob suggested that perhaps Mr. Rudy hadn’t deliberately misled us.  By Mozambican standards, maybe this was a reliable and comfortable vehicle.  Bob also suggested that we consider aborting the trip and scrap our sojourn to Swaziland.

But it was too soon to give up.  I did voice my discontent to Dudley, who simply smiled and said, “It’s okay.” By now, the tire had been replaced and Dudley tried to start the engine but nothing happened.  He yelled something out the window, two guys came over to give us a push, the Land Cruiser sprung to life, and once again, we were on our way.

Not an auspicious beginning to our trip.

After another stop for gas, we were finally headed out of Maputo into the Mozambican countryside.  But I checked my watch and it was already 11 a.m.  Our unexpected stops had cost us an hour’s worth of precious time and we were only just underway.

As for Dudley’s English, that also left something to be desired — a lot, in fact.  The longest sentence he was able to string together during the course of the day was, “I like Obama,” which he said with a huge smile when I asked him about the new American president.

But Dudley did understand the word “stop,” which we would utter from time to time so we could stop and take pictures along the way.  I was especially fascinated by the site of Mozambican women carrying huge loads of produce in baskets on their heads as they walked along the side of the road.  No wonder they all seemed to have such excellent posture.

One time, though, Dudley pulled the Toyota over without our prompting.  He got out of the car and I heard him utter something that must have been a curse word in his indigenous language (Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique, reflecting the country’s history as a colony of Portugal, but a number of indigenous languages are also spoken, including Swahili).

Swazi children

     Swazi children

I got out and took a look for myself.  That same front left tire that had been replaced back in Maputo had gone flat.

Dudley got to work changing the tire. We were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but within minutes, several children appeared to watch Dudley put on the spare.  When you can’t afford an Xbox and video games, I guess this sort of thing makes interesting entertainment.

By now, the three of us were quite concerned.  What if another tire would go flat? Dudley had already put on the spare.

I had visions of being stranded in the middle of nowhere at 5 p.m. while the Silver Wind sailed away.  I had planned to eat in La Terrazza, the ship’s specialty Italian restaurant that night.  Would the grilled veal I craved end up on someone else’s plate?

Also, it would most likely cost a fortune to fly to Nosy Be, a small island off the coast of Madagascar that was the Silver Wind’s next stop on our itinerary.  In fact, did planes even fly there?

Undeterred, Dudley put the spare tire on and we were ready to resume our journey.  Soon, the countryside changed from flat to mountainous, with lush green hills as we headed southwest to Swaziland.  At one point we had to stop for a herd of cows to cross the road.

Sensing our apprehension about the time, Dudley picked up speed and as it was starting to drizzle, I got a bit nervous as the Land Cruiser negotiated the road’s twists and turns.

It was now past noon and Swaziland was still nowhere in sight.  Finally, we drove into the Mozambican border town of Nemaacha, where vendors selling fruits and vegetable lined the roadside.

Mozambique-Swaziland border

   The sign I thought I would never see

We pulled into the immigration office for what we hoped would be a perfunctory process.  I had done some research and knew that Swaziland did not require a visa.  But the problem was with the Mozambican side of the border.  With our passports laid out in front of him, a border official was lecturing Dudley about something.  Sternly shaking his head, he kept saying the same thing over and over again in a language we couldn’t understand.

“This couldn’t be good,” I said to Bob and Linda, wondering if it was time to consider deploying the universally used tool known to work at border crossings all over the world — the bribe.

Turned out that anything under the table was unnecessary, Dudley told us.  We just needed to pay $25 each for the privilege of leaving Mozambique.  We would also have to pay $25 to reenter the country.

This trip was starting to get expensive.

But we had cleared our last obstacle, and when the bar was raised at the border crossing to let the Land Cruiser drive onto Swaziland soil, I felt like Sir Edmund Hillary at the summit of Mount Everest, with Dudley as my Sherpa.

Portrait of Swaziland's King Mswati

Portrait of Swaziland’s King Mswati on the wall of a Lomahasha shop

Swaziland, at last!

By now, though, with delays due to car problems, picture stops, cow herds and bureaucracy at the border, it was already time to head back to Maputo to catch our ship.  We had time only to take a quick peek at Lomahasha, the Swazi border town.

We popped into a shop and saw a portrait of the ruler of Swaziland, His Majesty King Mswati III.  He was born in 1968, four months before Swaziland became independent from Great Britain, and succeeded his father as absolute monarch in 1986.

From what I heard, the King, who has 14 wives and 23 children, has some pretty tough challenges to deal with in the country, including an HIV infection rate near 40 percent, highest in the world.

All told, we spent about 45 minutes in Swaziland.  The only souvenirs we could find were some coins in the Swazi currency, known as the lilangeni.  But Swazi t-shirts or fridge magnets were nowhere to be found.

On Swazi soil

          Our intrepid group standing firmly on Swazi soil

All we needed was a quick bathroom break (and to pay another $25 at the border crossing) and we were ready to head back to Maputo.  Bob and I had to pay $1 to use a bathroom that was two-inches deep in water — at least we hoped it was water. Unfortunately for Linda, the women’s bathroom was out of order.

The Land Cruiser needed another push to leave the border area and when Dudley asked Linda if she wanted to stop at a hotel on the way back to use the facilities, she politely declined.  We knew that each time we stopped, we might not be able to start.

With about one hour to spare, we arrived back at the ship.  It had been a true African adventure and after a bit more turmoil and stress than we would have cared for, we had reached our destination and safely returned.

My Swaziland dream had come true. And I had set foot on the soil of another country, if only for a few minutes.

Now back on the ship, it was time for some grilled veal and a stiff drink.

© 2009 Dan Fellner
Holland America Digital Workshop

Teaching High-Tech on the High Seas

By | Bermuda, Cruising | No Comments

Digital Workshop a huge hit with Holland America’s older clientele

The Arizona Republic — June 13, 2010

NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN — It’s my first day at sea aboard the Holland America Veendam on a week-long cruise sailing from Manhattan to Bermuda.

Holland America Digital Workshop

“Techspert” Lauren Murphy conducts a class in the Digital Workshop aboard the Veendam

While many of the other 1,300 passengers are lounging by the pool, playing slot machines in the casino, enjoying a spa treatment or jostling for position at the Lido buffet, I have more enlightening pursuits in mind.

I’m attending computer boot camp for the digitally challenged.

It’s a series of courses — several offered onboard each day — that the Holland America Line calls the Digital Workshop Powered by Windows. The cruise line now offers the program on 13 of its 14 vessels.

Indeed, computer courses at sea are now becoming almost as ubiquitous as the towel animals cruisers find on their cabin beds at night.  Several cruise lines, including Celebrity and Princess, two of Holland America’s leading competitors in the high-end mass-market segment, also offer computer classes.

On the Veendam, I arrive a few minutes early in a classroom right next to the Rotterdam Dining room equipped with 16 laptops and claim one in the back row. By the time the class starts, it’s standing-room-only and some participants need to double-up on computers.

“Techspert” Lauren Murphy, 26, teaches our eager group of mostly beginners, some of whom are close to three times her age, how to download pictures onto the computer. Other hour-long sessions that day cover how to edit photos and then turn them into a movie.

“Click fix on the top menu,” Murphy said, explaining how to auto-adjust color and light in a photo using Windows Live Photo Gallery.

“Click what on what now?” a gray-haired gentleman asked from the second row.

At first, I think the courses are a bit too basic for me, and I’m not particularly computer-savvy. But before long we’re learning how to “stitch” images together to make a panoramic photo, remove that annoying red-eye that often mars indoor portraits, and other techniques I had no idea how to do. I find myself eschewing movies, bingo and other shipboard activities to repeatedly return to the Digital Workshop.

Cruise lines, especially those like Holland America that attract an older clientele, have found these courses to be hugely popular with their passengers, some of whom come onboard without even rudimentary computer skills but want to learn basic tasks like how to email their vacations photos to their relatives.

Holland America Veendam

  The Veendam anchored off the coast of Bermuda

“I’ve had lots of people come in who never used a mouse before and didn’t even know how to turn on a computer,” said Murphy, who quit her job as an accountant in Texas two years ago and is now teaching classes on her eighth Holland America ship. “They have kids and grandkids that know how to do this stuff, but they don’t know how to do it themselves and nobody has time to teach them.”

Carol Clippard, a 76-year-old passenger from Tucson, attended a session on the Veendam with her husband Buck called “Put Your Best Face Forward,” a primer on digital editing tools.

“I didn’t even know I could do photo editing on my computer,” she said. “I have 7,000 pictures on my computer and I have to learn how to do something with them.”

Holland America offers its Digital Workshop in partnership with another Seattle-based company — Microsoft. The computer-software company provides the laptops, course materials and trains the instructors.

In return, Holland America agreed to showcase Microsoft products to an important market — affluent seniors. The cruise line also offers all the classes for free, making it the only entirely complimentary technology program of its kind at sea.

Erik Elvejord, a Holland America spokesman, said the partnership has worked out well for both companies. “It’s a plus for Microsoft, which is engaging an audience that might not otherwise engage in computer technology,” he said. “These are folks that will probably use more and more computers and applications as time goes on.

“For us, it gives us an activity that we know people are interested in. The average age of our guests is around 55 and these are people who are looking to learn this technology. It keeps them involved and active. It’s complimentary, which is fantastic, and it has been a huge hit.”

While Microsoft promotes its Windows products to Holland America cruisers, its rival, Apple, isn’t sitting by idly ashore. The producer of Macintosh computers has a partnership with Celebrity Cruises in which passengers can take classes at sea using Macs and other Apple products. Some of the Celebrity courses are free; most have a $20 fee.

Murphy, the Holland America “techspert,” said that on some sailings, as many as 50 people have crowded into the classroom at one time. “It sometimes gets really packed in here,” she said.

Hamilton, Bermuda

View of downtown Hamilton, Bermuda

Not surprisingly, the Digital Workshop on the Veendam had much larger turnouts on sea days than when we were docked in Bermuda, when most of the ship’s passengers were off exploring the island.

In addition to teaching three or four classes a day, Murphy offers an hour each day of “techspert time,” in which passengers can come in and look at their photos and ask questions about anything related to computers. On some cruises, more advanced courses are offered, including how to blog and even set up your own personal Webpage.

Murphy said that on the Veendam’s sailing the week before, one of her students was a 90-year-old woman. “She didn’t know anything about a computer,” she said. “She came to about every class and by the end of the week was able to stitch together her photos. She just loved it.”

Not everyone, though, who attends the Digital Workshop is a novice. On my sailing, Mike Meffert, 72, of Bridgewater, Va., came to a session called “A New Window Into Your World,” an overview of Windows 7. He was trying to decide whether it was worth upgrading to the new operating system.

Meffert, who considers himself more computer literate than most people his age, bought his first computer — an IBM — way back in 1982.

“I paid $4,200,” he recalled. “I had a friend who was working at IBM at the time. He told me, ‘Buy this computer and you’ll never need another one.'”

That was 15 computers ago.

© 2010 Dan Fellner
silversea silver wind

Cruise industry well-equipped to deal with potential pirate attacks

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New task force making Indian Ocean waters even safer

The Arizona Republic – February 22, 2009

INDIAN OCEAN OFF THE COAST OF EAST AFRICA — “If they come, we will deal with it.”

It is 6:30 a.m., just after sunrise, and a security guard is on Deck 9 peering out over the railing on the Silversea Silver Wind, a luxury cruise ship carrying 400 passengers and crew.  Two of his colleagues are patrolling other decks.  Armed only with two-way radios, they have been walking in circles around the ship’s decks the entire night.

We’re sailing the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, only 200 miles from Somalia, and the Silver Wind is on the lookout for pirates.

A Silver Wind security guard watches for pirates in the Indian Ocean

The security guard stops for a minute to answer my questions. He tells me nothing unusual happened during the course of the night, but if an unidentified vessel were to come too close to the Silver Wind, the ship had procedures in place to fend off would-be intruders. He wouldn’t specify what they were, but cruise ships have been known to use everything from high-pressure hoses to sonar weapons to repel attacks.

No such measures are needed on this particular voyage and the Silver Wind docked uneventfully later that morning in Mombasa, Kenya, completing a 16-day journey that began in Cape Town, South Africa, with stops in Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania.

Somali pirates have attacked hundreds of cargo ships off the coast of Africa, raking in an estimated $30 million in ransom last year alone. Earlier this month, pirates made off with $3.2 million in ransom after releasing an arms-laden Ukrainian freighter, one of their biggest hauls ever.

As for cruise ships, pirates have tried, but have yet to successfully land a floating five-star hotel, which could potentially reap an even bigger payday.

    The Silver Wind anchored off the coast of Madagascar

Our ship of 200 affluent mostly European and North American passengers was carrying enough bling and cash to make any band of pirates drool, not to mention the enormous ransom a luxury cruise ship could fetch.

In late November, the Oceania Nautica was attacked in the Gulf of Aden by two small boats carrying armed Somali pirates.  Shots were fired but the Nautica was able to outrun the bandits and no one was hurt.

And three years ago, two boatloads of pirates on inflatable speedboats armed with grenade-launchers and machine guns were thwarted in an attack on the Seaborn Spirit on its way to Mombasa 100 miles off the coast of Somalia. According to passenger accounts of the attack, one grenade actually landed in a stateroom without inflicting injuries.

The cruise industry is taking the threat seriously but continues to sail in the region. “We haven’t altered any of our itineraries,” said Silversea spokesman Brad Ball, who was aboard the Silver Wind’s Cape Town-Mombasa sailing. “These waters are pretty well protected.  In addition, we have our own well-trained crews and security personnel on board our vessels, and we’re continuously developing, increasing and enhancing our response capabilities to potential piracy attacks.”

Some German cruise lines have gone so far as to fly passengers in the region from one port to the next so they won’t be onboard when the ship transits the Gulf of Aden, a pirate haven that links the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung in December accused cruise lines that sail in that area of risking the lives of their passengers.

But the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the Florida-based trade group representing the cruise industry, defended the continued sailing through the Gulf of Aden, saying that cruise ships that traverse the area do so within a prescribed “Maritime Safety Protection Area,” which is patrolled by military forces from several countries.

“All CLIA members have thorough security protocols in place including anti-piracy measures that help to ensure the safety of their passengers and crew while they enjoy a cruise vacation,” CLIA said in a statement. ”

Additionally, CLIA members maintain an extensive network of intelligence gathering among government and private sources.  Based upon this monitoring, our industry is constantly assessing this information and any potential risks for member lines.”

All factors considered, cruise ships make much more difficult targets for pirates than cargo ships. Taking over a slow-moving container ship with a handful of crew members is one thing, but capturing a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers would be a logistical nightmare.

Pirates normally like a one-to-one ratio of captives to captors so that they can maintain control of the vessel while ransom talks take place. Cruise ships are also faster and carry a wider range of non-lethal weaponry than most cargo ships. Plus, their tall hulls make it harder for pirates to throw hooks over the side and board.

Ball said that the piracy threat hasn’t hurt bookings. “Guests who book Silversea are pretty seasoned,” he said. “They know that, unfortunately, something can happen five minutes from your house or five thousand miles from your house.”

Indeed, the passengers I spoke with seemed more worried about what time to make dinner reservations in La Terrazza, the elegant Italian restaurant onboard, or whether to forego a lecture on African politics for a dip in the pool. Even crew members who will be aboard in April when the Silver Wind is scheduled to transit the Gulf of Aden said they weren’t overly concerned.

And the only pirates I encountered during the trip were vendors at London’s Heathrow Airport on the flight home who were asking $10 for a stale sandwich or $4 for a bottle of water.

Making the region even safer is a new task force, led by the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which just started counter-piracy operations in January. U.S. warships are now working with naval vessels from 14 different countries, including Great Britain, Russia and China.

“We want to see our industry continue to grow, so if it gives people peace of mind knowing that there’s a task force out there that is watching the seas in a known trouble spot, we support it 100 percent,” said Ball.

                                                                                                   © 2009 Dan Fellner

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Moorea atoll French Polynesia

Moorea: Oui, Oui

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French Polynesian island offers spectacular scenery

East Valley Tribune — February 25, 2001

Chances are, you’ve experienced the natural beauty of Moorea without even knowing it.

Moorea's famed Mount Mouaroa

Moorea’s famed Mount Mouaroa is the French Polynesian island’s trademark

The French Polynesian island’s dramatic scenery of jagged peaks towering over lush valleys, turquoise lagoons, coral reefs and white-sand beaches has appeared in numerous movies.  Hollywood producers know a good thing when they see it.

So do the thousands of tourists who visit Moorea (pronounced Moe-oh-ray-ah) each year, making it French Polynesia’s second-most popular destination, behind nearby Tahiti.

Many of them arrive by cruise ship, which is the easiest and financially savviest way of seeing French Polynesia, one of the most expensive places on earth.

Hotels here can easily cost more than $500 a night.  And food — aside from locally grown fresh fruist — is no bargain either.  But the cost of lodging and food is included in the price of a cruise, so your only out-of-pocket expenses are for shore excursions and shopping.

We were aboard Renaissance Cruises’ R3, a 1999-built midsize ship that sails out of Papeete, Tahiti, and visits four other French Polynesian islands — Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Huahine — over the course of 10 days. (Note: Renaissance Cruises filed for bankruptcy in 2001; The R3 was purchased by Princess Cruises in 2002 and now sails under the name “Pacific Princess.” Several of the other R-class ships are now operated by Oceania Cruises).

Tahiti is the commercial center and the largest and best-known island in French Polynesia, while glamorous Bora Bora is the destination of choice by the rich and famous.

But we found our two-day visit to Moorea to be the highlight of the cruise.  It is much cleaner and quieter than Tahiti, and less touristy and jaded than Bora Bora.  And its scenery is spectacular.

Moorea, which means “yellow lizard” in Polynesian, covers an area of 51 square miles and is home to about 12,000 permanent residents.  About 300 of them commute each day to Tahiti, which is 12 miles to the east.  It’s a 30-minute ferry ride, although Polynesians not in a hurry have been known to swim between the two islands, which can take about eight hours.

French Polynesia consists of about 130 islands in the South Pacific.  It is officially called an “overseas territory” of France, meaning the people can vote in French presidential elections and elect representatives to the French parliament.  There has been some talk of seeking independence from France, but our guides said most of the locals prefer the status quo.

French and Tahitian are the two predominant languages here, although English also is widely spoken.
While tourism is key to Moorea’s economy, it has not engulfed the island and jaded its residents.  I’ve never seen so many local stop where they’re doing to smile and wave as our bus traversed the island.

There are just a few luxury hotels on Moorea, and only three relatively small cruise ships — Renaissance’s R3 and R4 and Radisson’s Paul Gauguin — sail these waters year-round.  It’s a far cry from the Caribbean, where you can sometimes find a half dozen mega-ships docked in the same port at the same time.

Polynesian legend has it that Moorea was created when a magical fish swam from the lagoon of a neighboring island and turned into Tahiti.  It apparently was a large fish, as its second dorsal fin became Moorea.  Geologists have a somewhat different view.  They believe the island is what remains of a massive volcano.

Polynesian family bathes in a Moorean river

  A Polynesian family bathes in a Moorean river

If Moorea has a trademark, it would be the cathedral-like Mount Mouaroa or “Bali Hai Mountain,” also known as “Shark’s Tooth.”  It is best known for its appearance in the movie “South Pacific.”  The stunning peak also can be seen on numerous postcards as well as on the coins of the currency of French Polynesia (CFP).

Indeed, the mountain scenery is as striking as you’ll see on any tropical island, prompting the famed author James Michener to once call Moorea “a monument to the prodigal beauty of nature.”

The island owes its beauty to the long-extinct volcano, whose crater has eroded into the majestic peaks that resemble the profile of a daredevil’s favorite roller coaster.  They rise above two scenic bays — Cook’s and Opunohu.

It was Opunohu Bay that was the setting for 1983’s “The Bounty,” starring Mel Gibson.  It tells the story of Capt. William Bligh, who sailed these waters in the late 1700s before running into a bit of trouble with his subordinates.  Appropriately, the close-circuit television system on the R3 continually showed both “The Bounty” and “South Pacific,” not to mention episodes of “Gilligan’s Island.”

There are numerous ways to see Moorea’s sites, and we experienced as many as time permitted during our two days on the island.  A good way to get your bearings is with a bus tour.

You’ll take a winding road up to perhaps the most breathtaking lookout point in all the South Pacific — Belvedere.  There, you’ll see gorgeous views of Bali Hai Mountain and the valleys and bays below.

On the way up to Belvedere, you’ll pass shrimp farms and a 400-year-old marae, or stone Polynesian temple.  While Moorea has several maraes, they aren’t as well restored or extensive as those on some of the other islands, particularly Raiatea.  Still, they provide an interesting glimpse into Polynesia’s past, and you’ll hear stories of human sacrifices that once took place at these sites.

There’s also a visit to the Jus Fruits de Moorea, a factory where you can watch locally grown pineapples, grapefruit, papayas, mangos, coconuts and bananas be converted into juice and liquors, which are sold throughout French Polynesia and exported to France.  They give free samples.

If you want to learn more about Polynesian culture, spend some time at the Tiki Theater Village, built like an ancient village.  You can watch locals create traditional arts and crafts and observe tattooing demonstrations.  In fact, French Polynesia is the birthplace of the tattoo, and you’ll see more tattoos on these islands than at a Motley Crue concert.

Deserted atoll near Moorea

     A deserted atoll near Moorea

For those who don’t mind a few bumps in the road, a four-wheel drive “safari” tour is an idealway to see Moorea’s bamboo forests and fruit plantations and learn about the island’s flora and fauna.  We sampled fresh-picked pineapple — the sweetest we’ve ever tasted — and grapefruit, bananas and passion fruit.

A visit to Moorea wouldn’t be complete without spending some time on a deserted atoll, or motu,that you’ll find near all of the French Polynesian Islands.

You can visit a motu on your own or book a tour, in which a catamaran will drop you off for a few hours of snorkeling, sunbathing and a buffet barbecue lunch, complete with native music.  After dessert, there’s a coconut tree-climbing demonstration, and you can mingle with the friendly stingrays that swim in the lagoon.  Gilligan never had it so good.

Of course, Moorea is a playground for lovers of water sports.  There’s deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, jet skiing, water skiing, windsurfing, speedboat rentals, glass-bottom boat cruises and dolphin and whale-watching excursions.

Moorea parasailing

Parasailing is one of the many water sports offered in Moorea

I tried parasailing for the first time in Moorea, which looked a bit too dicey for me when I watched braver tourists do it in Mexico.  There, you take off from land as a speedboat pulls you into the air.  If all goes according to plan, you land in the same place, into the arms of the operators who help brace your fall on the beach.

In Moorea, parasailing is so much easier.  You take off from a boat, sail 200-feet into the air to enjoy the awesome views of Cook’s Bay, then are safely reeled back into the boat like a tuna or marlin found in the sea here.  Nothing is left to chance.  It’s pricey, though — a 12-minute ride costs $60.

It’s not difficult to figure out why “Conde Nast Traveler” magazine voted Moorea the sixth-most romantic island in the world.  Nor is it hard to see why the island’s scenery is used in so many movies.

But don’t wait for Moorea to once again appear in a theater near you.  The silver screen can’t come close to doing the place justice.

© 2012 Dan Fellner
Cruising small ships Tahiti

Small cruise ship offers pluses a big one doesn’t

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Oceania and other lines give passengers wide choice of itineraries

East Valley Tribune — February 25, 2001

FRENCH POLYNESIA — Whoever said that size doesn’t matter hasn’t been on a cruise ship.

While the newer, highly touted mega-ships — massive floating hotels that can accommodate 3,000-plus passengers with every amenity imaginable — attract more attention and bookings, many experienced cruisers say it’s the less glamorous smaller vessels that offer the best overall cruising experience.

The R3 in French Polynesia

  The R3 in French Polynesia

They may not have all the bells and whistles of their larger counterparts, but smaller ships give passengers greater flexibility, a wider choice of itineraries, less time spent waiting in lines, and ultimately, a more intimate and relaxing vacation experience.

Still, the industry trend has been to build bigger and bigger ships.  Of the 50 new cruise ships on order for delivery in the next four years, 27 will accommodate more than 2,000 passengers.  Conversely, only nine will carry fewer than 1,000

After sampling a half-dozen ships over the years that carried anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 passengers, my wife and I recently sailed through French Polynesia aboard Renaissance Cruises’ R3, a cozy, elegantly appointed 18-month-old French-built ship that holds just 684 passengers, not including the crew and staff. (Note: Renaissance Cruises filed for bankruptcy in 2001; The R3 was purchased by Princess Cruises in 2002 and now sails under the name “Pacific Princess.” Several of the other R-class ships are now operated by Oceania Cruises).

Renaissance is carving out a niche in the midsize cruise ship market.  It has 10 ships in service around the world — none accommodate more than 700 passengers.  And two of its vessels are relatively tiny all-suite ships that carry only 114 passengers.  The company believes that smaller ships translate into more return customers, meaning it can spend less on marketing.

“Today’s cruise passengers are more demanding,” said Brad Ball, a spokesman for Renaissance (Brad is now the spokesman for Silversea Cruises, a high-end cruise line).  “They want choices.  They’re looking for a complete range of onboard amenities, as well as shore excursions that provide unique experiences while in port.  However, they don’t want to vacation with 3,000 – 4,000 other travelers.  With our ships, we provide all the amenities that consumers want, but without the crowds of the mega-ships.”

We noticed the difference as soon as we arrived in Papeete, Tahiti, after an eight-hour, nonstop Renaissance-chartered Hawaiian Airlines flight from Los Angeles.  Getting from the plane to our ship’s cabin took a scant 30 minutes, the shortest embarkation process we’ve ever experienced.  There were no lines — just the ship’s cruise director to personally greet each passenger.

It was a prelude to what awaited us during the next 10 days.  Waiting in lines is as much a part of the mega-cruise experience as the midnight buffet.  But on the R3, there were virtually no lines at all, except an occasional queue to board the tenders to take passengers into the ports where the ship couldn’t dock.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the large and smaller cruise ships involves the activity that is farm more important to some passengers than visiting exotic ports of call or soaking up sun by the pool — eating.

On many large ships, you must specify before the trip which one of two dinner seatings you prefer.  The first seating is typically at 6:30 p.m. and the second follows two hours later.  You are assigned to a table for the duration of the trip, and you have the same dinner companions night after night.  If you tire of their company, there’s usually an option to eat at a buffet, but the food is a step down in quality.

Smaller ships, on the other hand, are able to provide much more flexibility.  On the R3, you can eat dinner anytime between 6:30 and 9 p.m., depending on your mood.  Want an intimate dinner one evening with your spouse?  No problem, ask for a table for two.  Or, if you meet some people during the course of the cruise that you want to dine with, that, too, can easily be arranged.

There’s also more flexibility on where you eat.  In addition to a main dining room and the obligatory buffet, the R3 offers two specialty restaurants — the Grill and Italian Restaurant.  Both serve up excellent cuisine in elegant surroundings.  The only drawback is that you need to make a reservation a day or two in advance.

We also found the quality of food to be a notch above most of the larger ships we’ve been on.  Quite simply, it’s easier to demonstrate culinary excellence when cooking for a few hundred people versus a few thousand.

The R3 cruise ship captain

  The captain on the navigation bridge of the R3

And the best part of all is that you never have to get dressed up.  Smaller ships tend to be more informal.  The R3 had no “formal” nights, which would have required a jacket and tie.  Instead, “country club casual” attire was acceptable every night, meaning no jeans, shorts or tennis shoes.

Packing for a cruise was never so easy.  The informal dress code, plus the fact the ship has a self-service launderette that enable us to replenish our wardrobe halfway through the trip, meant that my wife and I were able to get by with just carry-on luggage.  Not bad for a 10-day cruise.

The informality of smaller ships carries over into other aspects of the cruising experience.  For instance, there are fewer disruptive announcements over the public address system than on a typical mega-ship.  After awhile, you tired of hearing about the jackpot bingo being offered in the Mermaid Lounge or the shuffleboard tournament on Deck nine.

Some smaller ships even have an “open bridge” policy, allowing passengers to visit the navigation bridge at almost any time.  We enjoyed watching the captain, perched behind the ship’s steering wheel, directing his crew as we sailed away from one of the French Polynesian Islands.

More diversity in ports-of-call is another advantage.  Smaller ships can go to smaller and more exotic destinations simply because they can sail through narrower passageways and dock in more confined ports with shallower water.

On a recent cruise through the Baltic Sea, our 2,000-passenger ship had to dock an hour’s bus ride from Stockholm, Sweden, and 20 minutes outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  In both ports, we noticed smaller cruise ships docked right in the heart of town, within walking distance of the main attractions.

That’s not to say, though, that large ships don’t have their pluses. They perform better in bad weather, as they have the bulk to withstand rough seas. That can be vitally important if you’re prone to seasickness.

And they generally offer the widest range of activities and facilities. There’s always something to do, whether it be a ballroom dancing class, table tennis tournament, art auction or ice-carving demonstration. And the entertainment is typically better, with larger performing casts and all the glitz you’ll find in a Las Vegas floor show.

For those, though, who want a vacation that is a bit quieter and more laid back, try sailing aboard a ship that holds just a few hundred passengers. You’ll still have plenty of company and more than enough things to do – just not as many people to rub elbows with as you do it.

© 2009 Dan Fellner

Barbados synagogue

A secret in the Caribbean

By | Barbados, Cruising, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Barbados home to historically significant Jewish sites

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 6, 2012

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados – It may be one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean.

Barbados, known best for its spectacular white-sand beaches, posh resorts and a rich British colonial heritage, also happens to be home to one of the most historically significant Jewish sites in the Americas.

Barbados synagogue

The historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados

I recently visited Bridgetown, the picturesque capital city of Barbados, during an 11-day southern Caribbean cruise on the Holland America Maasdam.  Barbados is the easternmost island in the Caribbean, with a population of about 286,000.  It achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1966.

After a leisurely 30-minute walk from the Maasdam to downtown Bridgetown, I reached a street called Synagogue Lane, turned right and soon found myself in a small courtyard, marveling at several centuries of Jewish history.

In this quiet complex five blocks north of the Barbados Parliament building, visitors can see a reconstructed Sephardic synagogue called Nidhe Israel (“the scattered of Israel”).  The original building dates back to 1654, making it the earliest constructed synagogue in the Western Hemisphere still in use today.  There is also a Jewish cemetery with more than 300 graves, an interactive museum chronicling the important role Jews played in the island’s history, and a recently discovered 17th-century mikvah, or ritual bath.

Barbados Jewish museum

Museum Manager Celso Brewster discusses the history of the Barbados Jewish community

I had previously visited historic synagogues on the Caribbean islands of Curacao and St. Thomas, both of which are famous for their sand-covered floors.  Those two shuls may be better-known and attract more visitors than their Barbados counterpart, yet Nidhe Israel is the only one of the three dating back to the 17th century.  (The Curacao synagogue, consecrated in 1732, has the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.)

Celso Brewster, who has been the manager of the Nidhe Israel Museum since it first opened in 2008, showed us around the facility. Our port-stop in Barbados happened to fall on a Sunday, and with the museum normally closed on weekends, I was afraid I would not be able to see its exhibits.

But I had contacted Brewster in advance of our visit, and he was kind enough to open up the museum and synagogue for me and several other passengers on the Maasdam, including a rabbi whom Holland America brought onboard to lead Shabbat and Hanukkah services during the cruise.  (Contact Brewster by email at nidhe@caribsurf.com and he will gladly arrange weekend viewings.)

Inside Barbados synagogue

The sanctuary inside the Nidhe Israel Synagogue

Inside the museum, we learned that Jews first arrived on Barbados in 1628, driven from Brazil by the Inquisition.  They brought with them expertise in growing sugar cane and in windmill technology.  As noted on the exhibit greeting visitors at the museum’s entrance:  “For these Jews and their descendants, coconut milk and sugar cane were the milk and honey of the land promised to the people of Abraham.”

With Nidhe Israel as its anchor, the Jewish community in Barbados prospered under British rule.  The synagogue was destroyed by a hurricane in 1831 and later rebuilt.  But the number of Jews living on the island slowly dwindled over the years due to emigration and assimilation. It is believed that the last of the Sephardic descendants of the Brazilian Jews left the island in 1929.  The synagogue fell into disrepair and was sold.

The community was slowly re-established in the 1930s by Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe who built another synagogue, Shaare Tzedek, in a residential neighborhood. However, Nidhe Israel remained neglected and unused as a house of worship.  The Barbadian government announced plans to demolish it in 1980 to make way for a new Supreme Court building.

But Paul Altman, a prominent Jewish businessman whose grandfather was buried in the cemetery adjacent to Nidhe Israel, pleaded with the prime minister of Barbados to save the historic building.

Barbados Jewish cemetery

The restored Jewish cemetery has a gravestone dating back to 1658

“He went to the prime minister armed with photographs taken in the 1800s of the inside of the synagogue,” said Brewster.  “And the prime minister then relented and told him that if you can raise the funds to save the synagogue, the government will return the synagogue to Jewish hands.”

Altman launched an international fundraising campaign and was able to raise more than $1 million to restore the synagogue.  After being dormant for nearly 60 years, Nidhe Israel was rededicated in 1987.  The two-story pink building, with beautiful Gothic arches, features stunning chandeliers, and an ark and bimah crafted with Barbadian mahogany.  The building is now owned by the Barbados National Trust.

From December through March, the synagogue hosts Friday night services for the island’s nearly 100 year-round Jewish residents, not to mention the scores of Jewish tourists who flock to Barbados during the winter months.  Members of the congregation conduct the services, as there is no rabbi.  Shaare Tzedek, which is air-conditioned and has a kitchen, is used for services during the rest of the year.

Barbados mikvah

The recently discovered 17th century full-immersion mikvah

The Jewish cemetery, which has a gravestone dating all the way back to 1658, was also restored.  And in 2008, a 260-year-old building in the same complex – originally a Jewish school – reopened as the Nidhe Israel Museum.  Its main hall includes several interactive exhibits as well as a floor with glass panels covering sand embedded with artifacts from the cemetery.

The final attraction was discovered in 2008 when archaeologists were digging in the site’s parking lot looking for what had been the rabbi’s house.  Instead, they unearthed an ancient full-immersion mikvah, believed to have been built even before the synagogue.  But at first, they weren’t sure what it was.

“We thought maybe it was a flooded storeroom filled with ancient rainwater,” said Brewster.  “Then one day, two Israeli tourists came, looked over the top, and said, ‘Oh, you have a mikvah.’  That is how we knew for sure.”

Bridgetown Barbados

Bridgetown, the colorful capital city of Barbados

Brewster said the museum averages only about seven visitors per day, a number he believes will steadily grow as word spreads of the historical treasures awaiting Jewish tourists to Barbados.  He especially hopes to attract a larger share of the nearly 500,000 passengers who arrive each year at Bridgetown’s cruise terminal.

“This has been called the greatest secret in Bridgetown,” he said. “Even Barbadians don’t know we exist.

“It is a very, very historical site, not only for Barbados, but for the Jews who fled the Inquisition, both in Europe and South America. It represents a new beginning, and so therefore, everyone should know about it.  Everyone should see it.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner

 

Cape Town South Africa

Cruising Jewish Cape Town

By | Cruising, Jewish Travel, South Africa | No Comments

Cultural sites underline contribution of influential community

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – February 20, 2009

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –With the dramatic flat-topped Table Mountain and Twelve Apostles mountain range looming over white-sand beaches and a stunning harbor, Cape Town, South Africa, has rightly earned a reputation as one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world.

It’s also been a hospitable home to Jews, who arrived in waves from Europe in the late 19th century, later played a leading role in the fight against apartheid, and today give more money per capita to Israel than any other Jewish community.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Cape Town and see its Jewish sites during a 16-day cruise aboard the Silversea Silver Wind that sailed from South Africa to Kenya.

Cape Town's Table Mountain

Cape Town’s dramatic Table Mountain overlooks the city’s harbor

Most of the important Jewish sites, including the South African Jewish Museum, the Gardens Shul, Cape Town Holocaust Center, and Gitlin Library, are located in the same complex on an outdoor square in the heart of downtown Cape Town, just four blocks from the South African Parliament.

My first stop was the Jewish Museum, which attracts about 15,000 people a year.  Visitors get a sense of the history of the Jewish community even before entering the building.

The entrance to the museum is through the exterior of the first synagogue built in South Africa, which was consecrated in 1863. Inside are the original wooden ark and mosaic floor and other artifacts from the synagogue.

I had arranged in advance to meet Shea (pronounced She-uh) Albert, the museum’s executive director. She was kind enough to show me around and pointed out that every window in the museum has a view of Table Mountain, which is what the Jewish immigrants first saw when arriving in Cape Town by ship.

cape town Jewish museum

The original wooden and mosaic floor from South Africa’s first synagogue

The museum depicts what life was like for those immigrants and does so with high-tech and interactive exhibits, including a bank of touch-screen computers where visitors can research their family roots.

“Other museums usually say, ‘Don’t touch,'” said Albert. “We say, ‘Please touch, please engage, please experience what the history really means.'”

I especially enjoyed a reconstructed shtetl from Riteve, Lithuania in the 1880s. Interestingly, more than 80 percent of the Jews now living in Cape Town have ancestors who emigrated from Lithuania. The shtetl exhibit features a scale model of a school, shop and modest house. Inside the home, the table is set for Shabbat dinner.

“People come to the shtetl and they actually cry sometimes because they can realize how it must have been and thereby feel closer to their grandparents,” said Albert.

Cape Town Gardens Shul

The Gardens Shul in Cape Town is South Africa’s oldest active synagogue

The museum also showcases the role played by Jews in the struggle against apartheid, including Isie Maisels, who was Nelson Mandela’s defense lawyer during the 1963 trial that led to Mandela’s incarceration for treason, and Helen Suzman, who for many years was the sole anti-apartheid voice in the South African Parliament.

Mandela was at the museum’s opening in 2000, and there is a quote from his autobiography displayed on one of the museum’s walls: “In my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Next door to the museum is the Gardens Shul, also known as the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. It opened in 1905, making it the oldest active congregation in South Africa. It can seat more than 1,400 people.

Cape Town Holocaust Museum

Cape Town’s Holocaust Center, the only Holocaust museum in Africa

About 15,000 Jews now live in Cape Town, which has a dozen synagogues. Many of them live in an area of town called Sea Point, a suburb about 15 minutes from downtown that has numerous apartment buildings overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I rode a tour bus through the area, which has a kosher butcher and deli.

Albert calls it “a cohesive community” that is deeply committed to the state of Israel and looking after its own sick and needy. “In that, it mirrors Jewish communities everywhere,” she said.

I also visited the Cape Town Holocaust Center, the only Holocaust museum in all of Africa. The Nazis’ rise to power is chronicled and there are vivid displays depicting concentration camps.

The facility also looks at the Holocaust from a South African perspective, comparing early Nazi Germany to the racial injustice of apartheid. To its credit, the government of South Africa now requires Holocaust education in all public schools.

The last stop on my tour of Jewish sites in Cape Town was the Jacob Gitlin Library, also housed on the campus adjacent to the Jewish Museum. Gitlin, who immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania in 1902, was a leader in the South African Zionist movement.

Silversea Silver Wind

The Silversea Silver Wind docked in Cape Town

The library contains about 20,000 Jewish-themed books, periodicals and audio-visual material in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The library also gives non-Jews a chance to learn about Jewish history, culture and traditions.

Once the Silver Wind departed Cape Town and sailed on to other ports in South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya, I focused on seeing animals in their natural habitats and learning more about the indigenous cultures in the region. But it wasn’t an end to my Jewish-related activities on this trip.

I was pleased that Silversea arranged Friday night Shabbat services for its passengers, providing prayer books, kippot, Shabbat candles, wine and challah. There were only about 200 passengers aboard this particular sailing, but we still had minyans on both Friday nights at sea. One of the Silver Wind’s senior officers, a Jew from Florida, prayed with our group of Americans and Brits.

Silver Wind Shabbat services

 Shabbat services onboard the Silver Wind

Indeed, I have found many cruise lines to be more than accommodating to Jewish passengers. Silversea, for instance, in addition to arranging Shabbat services, has a rabbi on board to host a Passover seder and to conduct services during the High Holidays.

“A good percentage of Silversea’s guests are Jewish,” noted Brad Ball, the company’s director of corporate communications, who was onboard our sailing.

For me, it meant a lot being able to recite familiar prayers with fellow Jews sailing the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa.  It made the distance from home seem not quite so far.

© 2010 Dan Fellner
Puerto Vallarta Mismaloya Beach

A minyan in Puerto Vallarta

By | Cruising, Jewish Travel, Mexico | No Comments

Couple creates Jewish community in Mexican resort town

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 2, 2009

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico –When Mel and Barbara Bornstein started looking more than a quarter-century ago for a place to retire so they could escape Chicago winters, they had two requirements – a home on the beach and Jewish fellowship.

Mel and Barbara Bornstein

The Bornsteins on the back patio of their home in Puerto Vallarta

“It is difficult, as a Jew, not to have Jewish friends,” Mel said, explaining the latter requirement.

The Bornsteins, who celebrated their 60th anniversary last July, chose Puerto Vallarta, a popular tourist destination on Mexico’s west coast. They live in a beautiful condo with a back patio overlooking Banderas Bay (Bay of Flags) in the shadow of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The scenery is magnificent, the weather sunny and warm year-round, and with more than 2 million visitors each year, Puerto Vallarta offers great shopping, restaurants and cultural attractions.

But Jewish fellowship? That may have been a problem when the Bornsteins started coming here 29 years ago. Now, thanks largely to their own efforts, Puerto Vallarta has a cohesive and growing Jewish community with well-attended events to observe the major holidays.

I spent a day with the Bornsteins last month in Puerto Vallarta during a stop on a Mexican cruise.

I had visited the area for a full week several years ago and enjoyed its main attractions – a charming Old Town with colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, the 11-block seaside malecon, or boardwalk, known for its unique sculptures including the iconic bronze figure of a boy riding a sea horse, and Mismaloya Beach, where the 1963 movie “Night of the Iguana” was filmed.

It was that movie, starring Richard Burton (Liz Taylor came along, which attracted hordes of paparazzi), that helped put Puerto Vallarta on the tourism map, transforming a quiet fishing village into what is now a teeming resort destination with a population of more than a quarter-million people.

Puerto Vallarta Passover seder

Passover seder in Puerto Vallarta (photo courtesy of Mel Bornstein)

On this visit, I hoped to revisit some of those same sites, but also wanted to learn what it’s like to be Jewish south of the border. Are kosher foods available? What about anti-Semitism? Can Jews from different places and varying levels of observance come together to form a community?

It was easy to get in touch with Mel. Before I left, I did a quick Google search of “Jews in Puerto Vallarta” and came across several references to Mel and the events he organizes.  I made arrangements to meet when we disembarked the cruise ship.  He and Barbara were kind enough to show me the city, including their lovely home, take me to one of their favorite restaurants for fish tacos, and tell me why they spend so much of their time organizing Jewish events.

“It started because no one wanted the responsibility and that made it a challenge for us,” said Mel.

Added Barbara, “We’re keeping our Jewish ties, which are very important to us.”

Mismaloya Beach

Puerto Vallarta’s scenic Mismaloya Beach, where “Night of the Iguana” was filmed

Mel estimates that 200 Jews live in Puerto Vallarta during the busy winter season, most of them Americans or Canadians.  A Hanukkah dinner he orga nized last month at a local restaurant attracted 148 people. They lit Hanukkah candles, sang songs and feasted on beef brisket, roasted chicken, more than 500 latkes and rugelach for dessert.

For Passover last year, Mel brought in two Chabad rabbis from Brooklyn, N.Y., rented out a local restaurant and had kosher food shipped in from Mexico City.  The seder was attended by 88 people.  A Chabad rabbi from Guadalajara officiated at High Holiday services last fall, which were held at the Puerto Vallarta Holiday Inn.

Mel keeps Jews in the area informed about upcoming events via a 400-name e-mail distribution list.  “You know Schindler’s list?  He has the Bornstein list,” joked Barbara.

Seahorse statue in Puerto Vallarta

 The iconic bronze seahorse statue on the malecon

He regularly gets e-mails from observant visitors wanting to know if kosher food is available.  While there are a few items for sale at the local Costco and Sam’s Club, most kosher food is shipped in from Mexico City, where there are 23 synagogues and about 37,000 Jews.

“You order it today, and tomorrow you have it in Puerto Vallarta,” said Mel.

Indeed, Mel is the go-to guy for all Jewish needs in Puerto Vallarta.  Need a minyan to say the mourner’s Kaddish?  No problem, Mel can organize it in a hurry.  Looking for a mohel? Mel knows where to find one.  He was even asked to locate a klezmer band.  If Mel can’t find it, he’ll find someone who can.

As to the reaction of the local Mexican population, Mel said they have accepted the Jews with open arms.  “There is no anti-Semitism here,” he said.  “There are no fears of terrorism.  It’s a good safe place to be.”

There are a few Mexican Jews living in Puerto Vallarta, some of whom have taken part in Mel’s events and learned more about their Jewish identity.  “There are Mexicans who are Jewish who are coming out of their shell now,” he said.  “They didn’t know why they were supposed to light candles on Friday night.  Now they know why.”

Mel refers to the group as the PVJC – Puerto Vallarta Jewish Community.  But he wants to add another “C” to the end of the acronym – Center.  He’s trying to raise money to buy a building so that Jews will have a place of their own for religious services, weddings and b’nai mitzvah, social events, classes in Judaism and kosher meals.

But he needs a benefactor to step forward if a Jewish community center is to become a reality.  “We are open to offers from anybody who wants to name it after themselves, their father or some other family member,” he said.

If you’re looking for a warm and sunny place to retire with a backyard overlooking the sea, Mel makes a strong case for Puerto Vallarta.

“People who are thinking of retiring to Mexico should know that there is a fellowship of Jews down here and that as time goes on, there will be more and more Jews,” he said.  “With the ocean and the scenery and the people, there is no place in the world that we have ever found that compares.”

Editor’s note:  I’m sad to report that Mel passed away in 2013.  Donna Feldman (helth1@sbcglobal.net) is now organizing Jewish events in Puerto Vallarta.

© 2009 Dan Fellner
Silversea Silver Wind

Silversea Cruises: You get what you pay for

By | Cruising, South Africa | No Comments

Passengers keep coming back for five-star luxury

CruseCrazies.com — Sept. 28, 2012

THE INDIAN OCEAN OFF THE COAST OF AFRICA — Decisions, decisions …

I started feeling pampered weeks before I even boarded the Silversea Silver Wind for a 16-day luxury cruise from Cape Town, South Africa to Mombasa, Kenya, with stops in-between in Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania.

The Silversea Silver Wind

The Silver Wind anchored off the coast of Madagascar

The cruise line sent me a guest information form asking me to choose one of four different types of pillows for my suite.  It was a tough decision, but I opted to eschew the firm goose down, synthetic hypoallergenic and therapeutic foam for the standard soft goose down pillow.

It was the first of many taxing decisions I was confronted with during the cruise, from whether to choose the caviar and condiments or rouleaux de feuilles de brick (that’s French for spring roll) as my appetizer during the first formal dinner at sea (I chose both), to which type of beer to have my cabin fridge stocked with (I chose Corona), to whether to stay up late for the 10 p.m. shows in the Parisian Theater or watch a movie in my suite and call it an early night (depended on the following day’s itinerary).

But on Silversea, which has carved out a niche at the high-end of the small-ship luxury cruise market, it’s virtually impossible to make a wrong choice.  That’s why the cruise line has been voted “World’s Best” nine times by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler and seven times by Travel + Leisure magazine in the “small ship” category.

It’s also why Silversea gets so many repeat customers. There were 210 passengers on the Cape Town-Mombasa sailing — mostly North Americans and Europeans — and it was hard to find someone who hadn’t sailed on Silversea in the past. Indeed, most people I spoke with had been on the line several times before and some even had sea days numbering in the hundreds.

Silver Wind Captain Gennaro Arma

 Capt. Gennaro Arma and his staff welcome passengers aboard the Silver Wind

They keep coming back for the food, service and one of the highest space-to-guest ratios in the industry. Silversea’s largest ships — the Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper — hold only 382 guests. (In December 2009, Silversea debuted the Silver Spirit, which has a capacity of 540 guests, still a fraction of what the mass-market ships carry).

As for the Silver Wind, it has room for 296 passengers. But this particular sailing was only about 70 percent full, which meant there were actually more crew members (224) on board than guests.

No long lines at the lunch buffet, no endless waits to get off the ship in tender ports, and no fighting over deckchairs.

But the luxury and intimate surroundings on Silversea don’t come cheap. Some of the nicer suites can cost well more than $1,000 per person per day.

Silver Wind pool

A day at sea. No fighting over deckchairs on a ship with only 210 passengers

It’s true what they say, though — you get what you pay for. The cabins are huge and all have an ocean view; most have balconies. The French cuisine is five-star and the ship’s restaurants offer open seating, meaning you can dine when and with whom you want.

Silversea bills itself as the most all-inclusive cruise line in the industry. A lot of things that cost extra on other lines, like beverages — alcoholic and otherwise — are included in the fare.

“Even though you may not be a big alcohol drinker, those Diet Cokes and cappuccinos and bottled waters add up on other cruise lines, and at the end of the cruise, you’re hit with sticker shock,” said Silversea spokesman Brad Ball, who was aboard the Silver Wind on the Cape Town-Mombasa sailing and answered my questions in the ship’s quiet card room.

Silver Wind lunch buffet

Executive Chef Laurent Austrui prepares the lunch buffet in the ship’s galley

“With Silversea, you know right up front what you’re going to pay, and what your budget is for that trip.”

Gratuities are also included and the cruise line provides complimentary shuttle buses from the ship into town in most ports. While we were docked next to an MSC cruise ship in Maputo, Mozambique, I looked out the window of our shuttle bus taking us into town to see MSC passengers walking in the same direction in the heat and humidity.

I wondered if the economic downturn has hurt the high-end cruise market. Surprisingly, Ball said it hasn’t and that Silversea’s bookings are “at plan.”

“You’re dealing with the very affluent,” he said of the line’s passengers. “Whether they’re business owners, or professionals, or lawyers or doctors, they know the investments are going to be up, and they’re going to be down. And once they become accustomed to this standard of travel, they don’t sacrifice.”

Ball also noted that since Silversea is more international than most cruise lines, it can better withstand a slump in one part of the world. “If the economy is soft in the U.S., there is always another economy in the world that is doing a little better,” he said.

Having said that, Ball acknowledges that Silversea has now had to begin offering a number of booking incentives, including free air for select sailings and early booking discounts.

“When Silversea was launched, we were proud to be the most expensive, and if you had to ask how much it cost, you couldn’t afford it,” said Ball. “That has changed. Value is very important to our clients these days.”

Silver Wind veranda suite

 A spacious veranda suite

No matter how wealthy, everyone likes a deal. I found it interesting that couples who didn’t mind shelling out $25,000 or more for the cruise were so pleased to be saving a few bucks with free laundry service, a perk Silversea gives to repeat passengers.

And there was a good-sized group — me among them — who regularly participated in trivia, golf-putting and other contests to win “Silversea points,” which we lined up to redeem for t-shirts, key-chains, bookmarks and other trinkets at the end of the cruise.

Silversea is not for cruisers accustomed to non-stop activities you’ll find on the bigger ships. There wasn’t a whole lot going on during days at sea, other than fascinating 45-minute “enrichment” lectures on African politics and wildlife by a professional safari guide.

A dermatologist onboard, noting the dearth of activities, volunteered to give a lecture on preventing skin cancer, certainly a relevant topic on a cruise off the coast of Africa not far from the equator. His talk was very well-attended.

The nightly entertainment featured competent performers but lacked the glitz and variety I’ve seen on other ships. And the casino, if it could be called that, consisted of a few slot machines and a couple of tables, which rarely saw much action.

But most passengers didn’t seem to mind foregoing high-stakes bingo, art auctions, parades of sparkler-carrying waiters bearing trays of baked Alaska, or the old cruise-ship standby — “The Not-So-Newlywed Game.”

They were more than content reading by the pool, soaking up the sun and contemplating whether to have a pina colada or strawberry daiquiri, and what time to head back to the cabin to get ready for dinner.

Decisions, decisions …

© 2012 Dan Fellner
View of Dubrovnik Croatia

Cruising the unusual

By | Bulgaria, Croatia, Cruising, Italy, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine | No Comments

Offbeat Black Sea itinerary offers fascinating stops

East Valley Tribune – July 15, 2001

“Excuse me,” a shopkeeper said as my wife and I passed his stall in the bazaar in Kusadasi, Turkey. We were browsing our way through the endless rows of knockoff designer goods, including bogus Rolex watches, Lacoste shirts and Louis Vuitton purses.“Best-quality merchandise,” he told us. “Authentic fakes.”

Venice's Grand Canal

 Venice’s bustling Grand Canal

Kusadasi was the fourth stop on our recent 12-day Renaissance cruise that visited mostly off-the-beaten-path ports on the Adriatic, Aegean and Black seas.

Some of the goods for sale we saw along the way may have been inauthentic, but the trip was filled with the type of genuine experiences increasingly difficult to find on many itineraries that visit all-too-familiar ports overrun with other cruise ships.

Indeed, to a growing number of cruise connoisseurs, the Caribbean and Alaska just don’t cut it anymore. Instead of sailing to St. Thomas or Skagway, they are more interested in visiting places such as Morocco and Malta. And they want to get there with all of the creature comforts and convenience that cruising offers.

While the trip started and ended in fairly well-known and popular destinations – Venice and Istanbul – it was the ports in between that attracted us to this particular itinerary. The ship stopped in non-tourist-oriented countries such as Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia – places in which we would be just as likely to see horse-drawn carts as souvenir shops.

First, though, we met our ship in Venice, where there are plenty of souvenir shops and tourists. But the city is so charming and unique, the crowds are worth enduring.

Venice was built on water more than 1,000 years ago and consists of 118 islands, all linked by bridges and canals. Everyone gets around by gondolas or motorized water taxis and buses, as cars and trucks are not allowed in the city.

We took an evening gondola ride, which glided us through the city’s narrow canals and gave us an up-close glimpse of its 12th-through 18th-century Gothic and Renaissance buildings. While sipping champagne, we were serenaded by a tenor who belted out Italian standards. It was tranquil and romantic, but pricey. The 45-minute trip cost $80 per person.

A ride on a water bus through the city’s bustling Grand Canal, its two-mile main drag, is far less taxing on the budget and offers an interesting look at how the city manages to function just fine with no cars. You’ll share the waterway with the locals commuting to work, police and fire boats, and maybe a wedding or funeral procession. We even saw a garbage boat pick up trash from Venetian homes.

The next stop on our cruise itinerary was across the Adriatic Sea in picturesque Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik, Croatia's Old Town

  Dubrovnik, Croatia’s Old Town

Dubrovnik was heavily damaged 10 years ago when it was shelled by Serbs and Montenegrins from the surrounding mountains during Croatia’s successful struggle for independence from Yugoslavia.

But the city has been beautifully restored. It’s difficult to spot signs of the war. The heart of Dubrovnik is its Old Town, which is surrounded by a 1 ½-mile-long wall. For $2, you can climb the stairs to the top of the wall and take one of the most scenic walks in the world. Red-roofed homes, palaces, church steeples and the blue waters of the Adriatic can be seen below.

The Old Town features a marbled pedestrian promenade known as the Placa. Aside from shops and cafes, there’s a Franciscan monastery housing a pharmacy that’s been in operation since 1317.

From Dubrovnik, we sailed through the Ionian Sea to Piraeus, Greece, about seven miles southwest of Athens. Most passengers opted to take an excursion into Athens to see the Acropolis. However, we had already been to Athens and instead chose a tour that took us down the Saronic coast to scenic Cape Sounion, on the southeastern tip of mainland Greece.

The cape is home to the famous Temple of Poeidon, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. Several columns of the temple remain, which dates back 2,500 years. The poet Lord Byron was so inspired by the place that he carved his name on one of the columns.

For those interested in archaeology, it’s hard to top the ruins of Ephesus, just a few miles outside the port of Kusadasi, on Turkey’s west coast. Ephesus, dating back to 1000 B.C., is one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the world.

A stroll down the city’s main marble street leads to a number of interesting structures, including temples, baths, a 25,000-seat stadium still used for concerts today, and the two-story Library of Celsus that housed 12,000 scrolls.

Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey

 Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey

But the Ephesians liked to do more than read. Right across the street from the library sits the remnants of a brothel.

Near Ephesus are the ruins of St. John’s Basilica, which is believed to be the original burial site of John the Apostle, and the single remaining column of the temple of Artemis, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Don’t be put off by the admission charge to Ephesus – seven million Turkish liras. Turkey’s inflation rate is now running at a whopping 70 percent, and its currency has been devalued. As soon as you pull a dollar bill out of your wallet, you instantly become a Turkish millionaire. Seven million liras translate into less than $6.

This makes the Kusadasi bazaar a shopper’s paradise. It’s hard to resist buying a Turkish carpet, and you can watch them being made by hand in front of many shops. Leather goods, jewelry and brass also are pervasive.

As a gesture of hospitality, it’s common for Turkish shopkeepers to offer their clientele hot tea as they browse. It will help soothe your nerves for the obligatory bargaining, which is as intense as you’ll encounter anywhere.

The ship left Kusadasi for the four Black Sea ports on our itinerary, Odessa and Yalta in Ukraine; Constantza, Romania; and Varna, Bulgaria. On the way, we sailed through the Bosporus, a narrow 20-mile strait that begins in Istanbul and separates Europe from Asia.

Not many cruise lines visit the Black Sea, and it’s a chance to observe how former Communist countries are making the transition to a free-market economy. As soon as we arrived in Odessa and were besieged by beggars, we could see how difficult the transition has been for some.

The tourism trade is still in its infancy in these countries. This means you won’t find many five-star hotels, people who speak English and stores that accept dollars. But you will see some fascinating historical sites and a population truly welcoming of visitors (and in dire need of their foreign currency).

Odessa is the largest city on the Black Sea, with a population of more than 1 million. Many of them live in drab, look-alike apartment buildings built long before the Ukraine independence from Russia 10 years ago. Our guide told us that the city’s unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent.

The city is perhaps best known to Americans for its massive Potemkin Staircase,

Potemkin Staircase

 Potemkin Staircase; Odessa, Ukraine

immortalized in the landmark 1925 Eisenstein film “Battleship Potemkin.” The staircase, which has 192 steps leading up from the harbor to the main part of town, was built in 1837. Odessa also boasts some fine museums and an opera house built to resemble the one in Vienna.

Scenic Yalta, located on the southern coast of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, is a popular summer resort area for eastern Europeans. The town is nestled beautifully in the Crimean Mountains and with good beaches, gardens and a subtropical climate, it’s no wonder that Russian czars and 19th-century writer Anton Chekhov chose to live there. Chekhov’s home is now a museum, and it features a piano Rachmaninov played when he visited.

Yalta made history in 1945 when it hosted Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin for a conference at the Livadia Palace, at which the fate of postwar Europe was decided. Inside Livadia, which was built in 1911 as the summer residence of Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, you can see the table and chairs where the three men actually signed the agreement as well as other memorabilia from the historic event.

Our next port, Constantza, Romania, is a poor and dilapidated city of about 300,000 people, and seemingly, just as many stray dogs. Romania still is trying to recover from the brutal reign of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who plunged the country into economic ruin before he was executed in 1989.

We found it interesting that in Constantza’s National History Museum, there was not one mention of Ceausescu, who ruled Romania for 22 years.

“People want to forget him,” our guide told us.

There isn’t much in the way of sightseeing in Constantza, but we enjoyed a trip to the Murfatlar Vineyard in the Romanian countryside, about eight miles outside the city. Romania produces some good wines, and a bottle of Murfatlar’s best vintage will set you back only $4. While we sampled cabernets and pinot noirs, we were treated to a Romanian folk-dancing show.

Varna, Bulgaria, is a major naval and commercial shipping port rich in Greek and Roman history. The Varna Archaeological Museum has some remarkable displays, including objects recovered from a 1972 excavation in the area dating back 6,000 years. Most interesting is a display of the oldest specimens of gold jewelry ever discovered.

The city also has some well-preserved Roman baths dating from the 4th century and the impressive 19th-century Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption, built to resemble the Cathedral of St. Petersburg.

Our journey ended in Istanbul, Turkey, a congested city of 13 million people that spans two continents – Europe and Asia. Every day, 3 million of the city’s residents commute from one continent to the other, either by ferryboat or bridge across the Bosporus.

We spent only a day in Istanbul – not nearly enough time to explore its many palaces, mosques and bazaars.

Istanbul's Blue Mosque

 Istanbul’s 400-year-old Blue Mosque

But we did get to see the 400-year-old Blue Mosque, named for its 21,000 blue tiles, and the 6th-century Hagia Sophia, once the largest church in the Christian world, and now a museum that houses the remains of the famous wall mosaics of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a stop in the famous Grand Bazaar, where you can find more than 4,000 shops on 60 streets. It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of corridors and passages, so unless you have a good sense of direction, don’t stray too far from the central shopping street.

And it’s worthwhile to learn one word of Turkish before you go – “hayir.” It means “no,” a word you’ll need to use repeatedly to fend off the persistent vendors.

All told, the ship visited nine ports on seven countries and two continents over 12 days. A couple of “at sea” days along the way enabled us to catch our breath from the hectic pace of sightseeing.We saw some exotic places that we probably would have been reluctant to visit on our own.

Cruising offers a nice blend of comfort and adventure. Trekking through ancient ruins, shopping in a Turkish bazaar and witnessing new democracies emerge in the former Soviet bloc can be exhilarating.

But it’s always nice to return to the ship at the end of the day, to a five-course dinner and a clean bathroom.

© 2009 Dan Fellner

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