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Cruising America’s Heartland As COVID Concerns Recede

By | Cruising, Kentucky | No Comments

American Queen Steamboat Company resumes sailings on Mississippi & Ohio rivers

The Arizona Republic — June 11, 2021

PADUCAH, Ky. – After being tethered for the better part of a year due to COVID-19, the cruise industry is slowly starting to dip its toes back into the water – particularly smaller boats operating on American rivers.

American Duchess

The American Duchess moored on the Ohio River in Paducah, Kentucky

Along with 109 other passengers and 80 crew members, I recently cruised the lower Mississippi and Ohio rivers from Memphis to Louisville on American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Duchess to get a sense of what cruising is like now – and what it might morph into – as the country attempts to sail out of the pandemic.

American Queen, one of the largest cruise lines operating on U.S. waterways, quietly began offering cruises – at reduced capacity and with enhanced COVID-19 safety protocols – on two of its boats sailing the Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland rivers in mid-March.

So far, according to Shawn Bierdz, president of the Indiana-based company, it’s been relatively smooth sailing.  There haven’t been any of the outbreaks that plagued some cruise ships at the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020.

“We’ve operated confidently and without any issues since March 15,” Bierdz said.  “When you get on one of our vessels, you’re in a self-contained bubble.”

Our week-long 687-mile journey in early June passed six states in America’s heartland.  There weren’t some of the usual staples of cruising like self-service buffets, dance classes or meet-and-greets with the captain.  But a few inconveniences and reduced services necessitated by federal guidelines haven’t seemed to dampen bookings.

Mississippi River sunset

Cruising at sunset near where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers converge

Bierdz said American Queen Steamboat Company’s June-October sailings are 90 percent booked.  After a year of being stuck in a COVID-cocoon, cruise lovers want to get out of the house and back on the water.

“We’re seeing very high demand,” Bierdz said.  “Our call center has been overwhelmed at times.”

COVID Protocols

Before embarking on the American Duchess in Memphis, all passengers were required to pass a COVID-19 test administered at the hotel the night before departure.  It took just one hour for the test results to be emailed to me, indicating I was good to go the next morning for a pre-cruise tour of Graceland – Elvis Presley’s former home – before being taken directly to the boat in the late afternoon.

While being fully vaccinated wasn’t required on American Queen Steamboat Company’s March-June sailings, passengers on the American Duchess and American Countess will need to show proof of vaccination beginning in July.  The American Empress, which cruises the Pacific Northwest, began requiring passengers to be vaccinated when it resumed sailing in mid-June.

temperature checks

Passengers were required to have a temperature check every time they got on and off the American Duchess

Every time we got on or off the boat, our temperature was checked.  A full-time nurse was on board and some cabins were set aside as quarantine spaces. Fortunately, they weren’t needed.

When out of our cabins, we were asked to wear masks throughout the ship, unless eating or drinking.  Bierdz said the mask requirement will likely be phased out in the coming weeks as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxes its guidelines.

To ensure social distancing, the open seating for dinner was scrapped.  Instead, there were two seatings so there was plenty of space between guests.  We were assigned to the same table each night – better for contact tracing.

There also were two shows in the evenings to keep the size of the crowds down.  At the end of each performance in the show lounge, we were asked to quickly depart so that the theater could be fogged with an antiviral mist before the next performance.

There was no self-service, whether it be at breakfast or lunch buffets or the Duchess’ popular Perks room, where there is coffee, juice, ice cream, popcorn and fresh-baked cookies.  There were plenty of ways to indulge one’s sweet tooth – you just had to wait for someone to serve you.

American Duchess show

A performance onboard the American Duchess during its cruise in early June 2021 on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers

As far as shore excursions, American Queen Steamboat Company has temporarily halted its hop-on, hop-off buses that allowed passengers to explore port towns on their own.  As a replacement, we were taken on more conventional bus tours with a guide so that our groups could be more insulated.

Bierdz said COVID-19 protocols are constantly changing on the company’s boats, so it’s best to check with the cruise line before departure to see what rules are currently in place when you sail.

Making it through the buffet took longer than normal and the temperature checks slowed things down when a large group returned from a sightseeing tour.  But I heard little grousing.

People seemed more than happy to put up with some minor inconveniences to return to cruising and everything it entails – tasty and plentiful food, first-rate entertainment, enriching lectures and waking up in a different port of call every morning without having to pack and unpack.

And the open bar on the American Duchess didn’t hurt, either.

One of my fellow cruisers, Eric Palace, 50, of Celebration, Florida, has already sailed on three American Queen Steamboat Company cruises since the line resumed operations in March.  He told me he would be “scared to get on a ship with 3,000 people right now,” but feels comfortable cruising on a much smaller riverboat.

Bluegrass Hall of Fame

The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in Owensboro, Kentucky

“With everyone getting pre-tested (for COVID-19), I feel safe being out on the water,” he said.

Exploring river towns

Aptly named “The Art of Discovery,” our itinerary focused on the museums and music in a slice of America not exactly flooded with tourists.  Stops included largely unheralded – but wonderfully authentic – ports in such Kentucky towns as Paducah, Henderson, Owensboro and Brandenburg.

The first 200 miles of the journey were spent cruising upstream on the lower Mississippi River.  Near Cairo, Illinois, the Mississippi converged with the Ohio River; we veered to the northeast on the Ohio River toward Louisville and quickly noticed the water in the Ohio is much bluer and less muddy than the Mississippi.

Lincoln impersonator

The Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville, Kentucky

The American Duchess was built as a casino riverboat in 1995, then elegantly refurbished in 2017 to accommodate 166 passengers.  Its red paddlewheels in the rear are more than decorative; they provide about 20 percent of the boat’s propulsion.  The captain wasn’t aiming to set any speed records, though.  The Duchess averaged a leisurely 7 mph during the trip.

In Paducah, named by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as one of nine “Creative Cities” in the country for its “important role in the connectivity of cultures through creativity,” we visited the National Quilt Museum and the River Discovery Center, a small museum created to showcase the area’s rich maritime history.

One of the hallmarks of Kentucky is bluegrass music and we were treated to two performances.  A local band was brought onboard in Paducah to perform in the Duchess’ theater.  Two days later, we visited the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, where we saw another live performance and learned about a genre of music known for its acoustic stringed instruments.

At our final stop in Brandenburg, we were taken to the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in nearby Hodgenville.  Lincoln was born in a log cabin at the site and lived in Kentucky until he was 7 when his family moved to Indiana.  I especially enjoyed a visit to the Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville, where an impersonator recited portions of the Gettysburg Address.

The Ohio River doesn’t offer some of the glitziest ports of call, but Bierdz said American Queen Steamboat Company is planning to expand sailings on the river in 2022, reflecting increased demand from cruisers wanting to stay closer to home.

“We have seen huge demand from guests seeking new itineraries that are still accessible and close to home, often after they experience a river cruise for the first time on the lower and upper Mississippi River,” Bierdz said.

Website for more info:
American Queen Steamboat Company

                                                                                © 2021 Dan Fellner

Biking Greater Zion: 4 Trails to Check Out

By | Utah | No Comments

Red-rock canyons, ghost towns and artsy, new-age villages fun to explore on two-wheelers in southwestern Utah

The Arizona Republic — May 9, 2021

IVINS, Utah – Don’t be fooled by the name.  The only white stuff you’re likely to see in Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah is the creamy white cliffs made of Navajo sandstone that form a stunning natural amphitheater at the northern end of the canyon.

Snow Canyon

An e-bike tour heads into Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah

True, Snow Canyon isn’t suitable for skiing or sledding.  It is, however, ideal for cyclists who want to pedal through a strikingly colorful canyon full of black-lava flows, burnt orange sand dunes and a diversity of plants and wildlife, including the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise.

Our bike ride through the canyon – named after prominent 19th century Utah pioneers Lorenzo and Erastus Snow — was the highlight of a late April three-day biking adventure in Greater Zion, a 2,400-square mile area of southwestern Utah that encompasses Zion National Park and the city of St. George.

We rented battery-powered e-bikes for all of our treks, which gave us a little extra juice when needed to help propel us up steep hills on gravelly paths and through headwinds that regularly exceeded 20 mph.  Bike rental shops are plentiful in Greater Zion, including one outside the national park, but it’s a good idea to reserve a cycle in advance.

Snow Canyon State Park

While Zion and Bryce national parks draw bigger crowds, Snow Canyon is more compact (only 3.5 miles long), user-friendly and far less expensive.  It’s where you’re likely to see the locals spend a morning absorbing the “positive energy” of the canyon’s rock formations before shopping at the Red Cliffs Mall in the city of St. George, a 15-minute drive away.

Indeed, there is a new-age, Sedona-like vibe to Greater Zion.  While dining at the Red Mountain Resort – just a mile outside the southern entrance to Snow Canyon – I had my first-ever “antioxidant” salad followed by a bowl of quinoa soup.  From our hotel room we could see a spiritual labyrinth – a circular maze of red rocks – where fellow guests would go for early-morning meditative walks.  It’s the only hotel at which I’ve stayed that has a “shaman spirit guide” on its staff.

Biking Snow Canyon

The Whiptail Trail at Snow Canyon State Park in Ivins, Utah

At Snow Canyon, we biked the Whiptail Trail, a 6-mile roundtrip with gentle slopes on a paved surface, which we shared with joggers, hikers and other cyclists.  (see video shot by the author: Biking the Whiptail Trail in Snow Canyon).

There isn’t a lot of vehicular traffic in Snow Canyon and we felt safe biking on the main roads.  Plan on at least two hours to bike through the park.  There also are 38 miles of hiking paths, 15 miles of equestrian trails and a 33-unit campground.  I especially enjoyed hiking through some of the park’s numerous black lava fields, vivid remnants of long-ago volcanic eruptions.

Here are three other biking trips we enjoyed in the Greater Zion area, all of which are suitable for both casual and serious cyclists:

Kayenta Art Village

Five miles west of Snow Canyon in Ivins, Kayenta is a 2,200-acre residential community surrounded by an extraordinary landscape of red mountains.  Pedal too quickly and you’ll miss seeing some of Kayenta’s unique homes, which have been built to blend-in seamlessly with the surrounding high-desert topography.

We joined a three-hour, 18-mile e-bike tour that started at the Red Mountain Resort and took us through the quiet streets of Ivins into the Kayenta Art Village, a cluster of galleries, a theater and bike-rental shop.

Kayenta Labyrinth

The Desert Rose Labyrinth and Sculpture Garden is a place for meditative walks in Kayenta, Utah

Just a block away from the village, we stopped at the Desert Rose Labyrinth and Sculpture Garden.  The labyrinth was built by local residents using 1,800 indigenous red stones and is patterned after a famous 12th-century labyrinth in France.

Navigate the maze to a large boulder in the center of the labyrinth and – according to an inscription at the site — you will be rewarded with “a sense of peace, new insight and enlightenment.”

Having conquered the labyrinth, I was ready for sustenance of a different sort.  It was lunchtime and I walked back to the Xetava Gardens Café in Kayenta – voted by Trip Advisor as the best restaurant in the Ivins area — for a tasty platter of salmon tacos.

Grafton Ghost Town

Fans of the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” will enjoy visiting Grafton, a ghost town west of Zion National Park off Utah Route 9 near the town of Rockville.

The iconic scene in which Butch – played by Paul Newman – performed bicycle stunts before crashing through a fence, was filmed in Grafton.  Movie buffs will remember that the scene featured the hit “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which won an Oscar for Best Original Song.

Grafton Ghost Town

The Grafton ghost town in southwestern Utah, where an iconic scene in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” was filmed

Grafton was founded in 1859 by Mormon pioneers, who planted cotton and other crops.  At one point, the population swelled to more than 150.  But flooding caused the nearby Virgin River to be diverted, which ultimately led to Grafton’s demise.  The last residents left in 1944.

Today, only a couple of structures remain, including a building that served as the town’s school and church.  It’s closed but there is a well-preserved house open to visitors.  About a half-mile away is the town cemetery, with dusty graves dating back to 1862.

Grafton is tricky to find – there are few signs pointing the way – and a portion of the ride is on unpaved roads.  We opted to hire a guide from Zion Adventures, a tour company based in Springdale on the outskirts of Zion National Park.

Zion National Park

There is a reason Zion is the fourth-most visited national park in the country.  The reddish and tan sandstone cliffs soaring over a narrow canyon carved by the Virgin River, its unique geologic formations and diversity of wildlife make it a nature-lover’s paradise.

But Zion is much more suited for hiking than biking.  There is only one bike trail in the park, the 1.7-mile Pa’rus Trail, which begins near the Visitors Center and ends at Canyon Junction.  Along the way, it crosses the Virgin River in several places over wooden bridges.

The trail also is open to hikers and pets, which can make it congested.  Bikers are allowed on Zion’s narrow main roads but are asked to pull over to make room for the frequent shuttle buses.

A park ranger told me that there has been a spike in biking in Zion since the pandemic started, as many visitors haven’t been comfortable riding the shuttle buses.  As a result, he said, the park is looking at ways of adding more bike paths.

Website for more info:
Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office

                                                                                © 2021 Dan Fellner

Costa Rica: A Jewish-Friendly Pandemic Getaway

By | Costa Rica, Jewish Travel | No Comments

“Izu’s Place” meets the needs of Jewish travelers looking for surf, sand and Kosher food

January 22, 2021

JACO, Costa Rica – It’s hard to find a safer and more tranquil setting to ride out a pandemic than this alluring beach town on the Pacific Coast in Central America.

Costa Rica beach

One of the many uncrowded beaches on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica

Jaco (pronounced Hah-koh by the locals) offers uncrowded beaches, world-class surfing, access to rainforests teaming with wildlife, and numerous outdoor dining options with socially distanced tables.

Add to that list of attractions a per-capita COVID death rate that is only about one-fourth of my home state of Arizona, and Costa Rica makes an attractive and sensible pandemic-getaway.

It’s also a place where Jewish travelers won’t have difficulty keeping Kosher or otherwise observing their faith.   During a recent visit to Jaco, I visited the hub of Jewish life on the country’s Pacific Coast – the “Jewish Center Jaco Beach.”

Just a five-minute walk from the beach, the complex includes a 16-room hotel with swimming pool, Kosher restaurant, library and small Orthodox synagogue called Hahari Hakadosh.

There, I met Israeli ex-pats Yizhak Eskenazi – who goes by “Izu” – and his wife Toni.  The Eskenazis own and run the Center and live there with their two young children.

The Eskenazis told me that Costa Rica has become a popular vacation destination for Israelis during the pandemic.  Unlike a lot of other countries, it does not require visitors to self-quarantine or to present a negative COVID test.

Jaco Jewish Center

The Jaco Jewish Center features a synagogue, hotel and Kosher restaurant

“Israelis are looking for a place to escape,” says Toni.  “And Costa Rica is open.”

Costa Rica, with a population of about 5 million, is a peaceful democracy that has coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.  It has carved out a niche in recent years as an eco-friendly destination for sun-seekers, surfers and adventure travelers.

The country is home to an estimated 4,000 Jews, most of whom live in the capital city of San Jose, 90 minutes away from Jaco.  Many are descendants of Polish Jews who fled Europe in the 1930s.

Ever since Costa Rica recognized Israel in 1948, the two countries have had mostly friendly relations.  From 1982-2006, Costa Rica was one of only two countries in the world to have maintained its embassy in Jerusalem.

Izu grew up surfing in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel.  He first visited Costa Rica in 1999 and planned to stay one year to indulge his passion for riding the waves.  He’s been in Jaco ever since, having fallen in love with a lifestyle that he says is far more laidback than what he left behind in Israel.

“The locals received him very well, says Toni.  “They had never met an Israeli before.”

Costa Rica kosher

Toni and Yizhak Eskenazi inside the Kosher Restaurant in Jaco, Costa Rica

In 2001 he founded “Izu’s Place” to assist Jewish travelers and provide them with an opportunity to pray with a minyan and keep Kosher.

Toni, who grew up in Tel Aviv, met Izu nine years ago during a vacation to Costa Rica.  The two felt an immediate connection and Izu knew they would become a couple when Toni cooked her way into his heart with a Shabbat dinner featuring a Moroccan seafood dish and homemade challah.

“I’m happy when I eat her food,” he says of Toni, whose parents have both worked in the restaurant industry in Israel.

While the pandemic forced Sabress, the on-site Kosher restaurant to close for seven months, it reopened in October and Toni says business is slowly starting to return to normal.

Indeed, during my visit to the Jewish Center on a Thursday afternoon, the restaurant was doing a brisk business and the hotel was booked to capacity.  Some of the guests have been staying there several months or longer.  The last Passover Seder before the pandemic attracted 150 people.

Hahari Hakadosh holds Shabbat meals and services Friday nights and Saturday mornings.  The synagogue doesn’t have a rabbi – there are only two resident rabbis in the entire country — but Chabad sends one to Jaco from New York for the high holidays.  Hahari Hakadosh’s arc houses two Torah scrolls – one Sephardic, the other Ashkenazic.

Jaco synagogue

Yizhak Eskenazi opened the Hahari Hakadosh synagogue in 2010

“We’re an open place for everyone to pray,” says Toni, noting that the Center is not affiliated with Chabad but does “cooperate” with the organization.

Toni says she has encountered no anti-Semitism during her time in Costa Rica.

“They love Jews,” she says of the locals. “They love the culture. They are always asking questions. They want to learn more about Judaism.”

She adds that most of the restaurant’s customers are not Jewish — “just people who love this food.”

Sabress serves Kosher Israeli and Moroccan dishes under strict Orthodox supervision. Once a week, the Eskenazis make the 90-minute drive to San Jose to pick up supplies of Kosher food at the Chabad Center there.

Asked about the restaurant’s specialty, Toni didn’t hesitate.

“Our falafel is the best,” she says, adding that the restaurant makes its pita bread fresh every day by hand.  The restaurant also has a catering division that delivers Kosher food – with no delivery charge — in the Jaco area.  Sabress has become so popular on the Jaco restaurant scene that TripAdvisor awarded it its 2019 Certificate of Excellence.

In addition to the restaurant, hotel and synagogue, the Eskenazis also runs a tour agency and “Izu’s Surf School,” which arranges lessons and surfboard rentals. Jaco is known for having some of the best surfing spots in Costa Rica.

For more information about the Jewish Center Jaco Beach and to make hotel reservations, visit the website: izusplace.com.

The Eskenazis own land in Playa Hermosa near Jaco and eventually hope to build a high-end housing complex and stand-alone synagogue to entice more Jews to move to Costa Rica and enjoy the laidback lifestyle and spiritual sustenance they’ve found in Central America.

“I came here to relax,” says Izu.  “I didn’t plan to do all this.  It just happened.  G-d guides us where to go.”

                                                    © 2021 Dan Fellner

Durango Road Trip: 4 Don’t-Miss Things to See and Do

By | Colorado | No Comments

Southwestern Colorado town offers plenty of wide-open spaces to enjoy area’s attractions

USA Today.com/The Arizona Republic — October 18, 2020

DURANGO, Colorado – If ever there was a tourist destination built for social distancing during a global pandemic, it’s this scenic and spacious town of about 20,000 residents at the base of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado.

Durango

Durango is located at an elevation of 6,512 feet in the Animas River Valley in southwestern Colorado

Durango offers plenty of wide-open spaces for nature lovers, adventure seekers and history buffs, with numerous outdoor dining choices — some in spectacular settings.

And you’re not likely to have to contend with large crowds of fellow tourists while enjoying the area’s many attractions, whether it be mountain hiking, soaking in natural hot springs, biking, outdoor wine tasting or exploring ancient ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans.

That’s not to say, though, that Durango has escaped the pandemic unscathed. Operations at two of the area’s most popular attractions — the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and Mesa Verde National Park — have been cut back due to the virus. The train is running a shorter route at reduced capacity while Mesa Verde has halted its popular ranger-led tours, which enable visitors to hike up close to some of the park’s 600 cliff dwellings.

Not a problem. During a recent four-day visit, we had plenty of other options for enriching and exhilarating ways to enjoy the crisp mountain air — highs were in the upper 70s — and get the blood pumping at Durango’s lofty 6,512-foot elevation.

As a bonus, our early October visit happened to coincide with the peak of fall colors, particularly in the mountains north of Durango where the aspen trees were transforming from green to gold and auburn.

Durango leaves

An early October view of the peak fall colors from the San Juan Scenic & Historic Byway north of Durango

In lieu of Mesa Verde and riding the narrow-gauge train, here are my four favorite Durango experiences, all of which allow for plenty of social distancing:

Bike the Animas River Trail

Being environmentally friendly has never been so much fun. We rented solar-powered e-bikes to cruise Durango’s 7-mile Animas River Greenway, stopping along the way to enjoy some of the city’s “organically managed” parks and view displays chronicling the area’s rich mining history.

Our bikes were capable of going 40 miles on a single charge and could reach a maximum speed of 20 mph. But we usually cruised at a much slower pace as there were a lot of dog walkers using the trail. Claire Attkisson, owner of the company we rented from — Roll eBike — personally delivers the two-wheelers to hotels within 10 miles of the city.

Given Durango’s high altitude, riding an e-bike — which requires little or no pedaling — is a great way to get acclimated while conserving energy for more rigorous activities.

Explore the San Juan Scenic and Historic Byway

Molas Pass

The view from Molas Pass — elevation 10,899 feet — in the San Juan Mountains north of Durango

Head north on U.S. 550 past the Purgatory Ski Resort as the road ascends the San Juan Mountains to morph into one of the most picturesque drives in the West. Known as the San Juan Scenic & Historic Byway, the route travels over two mountain passes — Coal Bank and Molas — before reaching the historic mining town of Silverton, 50 miles north of Durango.

While we only had time to make it as far as Molas Pass, the San Juan Byway is a 236-mile loop that runs from Durango to Telluride to Mesa Verde National Park and back to Durango. It takes about seven hours to drive the entire loop. The canyon-clinging stretch of the loop from Silverton to Ouray has earned the moniker “Million Dollar Highway.”

There are numerous pullouts along the highway to take photos of the 14,000-foot peaks and find hiking trails. We took an exhilarating 2-mile hike at Coal Bank Pass — elevation 10,660 feet — through an alpine forest.

Soak in natural hot springs

It’s hard to find a more pleasurable way to relax after a rigorous hike than a soak at the Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa. The resort, just a five-minute drive north of downtown, claims to offer bathers “the most amazing water under Mother Earth.”

That may be hyperbole, but the oxygen-infused water did seem to work wonders in soothing aching muscles. And perhaps best of all, there is no sulfur smell, a common annoyance at other hot springs.

The resort — formerly known as Trimble Hot Springs — was bought by new owners last year and is undergoing a $10 million renovation. Bryan Yearout, one of the owners, told me the goal is to expand from four to 27 socially distanced hot tubs by the start of ski season in late November.

Archaeology and wine tasting

Canyons of the Ancients

A 13th century sandstone cliff dwelling at the Canyons of the Ancients Monument in southwestern Colorado

The two activities may seem like an unusual pairing. But exploring Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and nearby Sutcliffe Vineyards on the same day went together as well as a fine steak with a full-bodied Cabernet.

In the morning, we toured the rugged landscape of the Canyons of the Ancients, about 60 miles northwest of Durango near the city of Cortez. With more than 8,000 archaeological sites spread over 275 square miles, the monument is home to the highest concentration of excavated sites in the country.

Fittingly, our tour was led by archaeologist Denise Galley who works for a Durango company called Rivertrippers. Galley led us on a series of hikes to see ruins providing insight into the lives of the Ancestral Puebloans, who inhabited these lands from 600-1300 A.D.

After a 4-mile hike past numerous excavated structures to see the monument’s Sand Canyon, we stopped at Sutcliffe Vineyards, just a five-minute drive from Canyons of the Ancients. Located in a stunning setting in McElmo Canyon, it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque place for a wine tasting.

Owner John Sutcliffe, an engaging Welshman, first planted grapes here in 1995. Today he sells his 20 varieties of reds and whites to restaurants and resorts in 43 states and several European countries.

Sutcliffe Vineyards

Visitors enjoy a wine tasting at the scenic Sutcliffe Vineyards

Over a glass of Merlot, Sutcliffe said despite the relatively harsh growing conditions of southwestern Colorado, his vineyards produce wines that have “done famously” against French wines in European blind-tasting competitions.

Dining and lodging

Durango offers numerous outdoor dining experiences — we never once ate a meal indoors. One of the city’s most popular eateries, the 11th Street Station Food Truck Collective, features seven food trucks at the site of a former Texaco gas station.

James Ranch Grill, about 10 miles north of the city, is set on a 400-acre working ranch at the foot of the mountains. The burger was tasty but not nearly as delectable as the views.

We stayed in the heart of downtown at the historic Strater Hotel. The hotel, which bills itself as a “living museum,” was built in 1887 and features the largest collection of American Victorian walnut antiques in the world.

Website for more info:
Visit Durango

                                                                                © 2020 Dan Fellner

Highway 1: A Cool COVID Summer Getaway

By | California | No Comments

California road trip offers welcome respite from quarantine monotony and Arizona heat

The Arizona Republic — August 30, 2020

CAMBRIA, California – Otter and Boone had the right idea.

Highway 1

A hilly stretch of Highway 1 near Ragged Point in San Luis Obispo County, California

Feeling lost and frustrated with the perceived injustices of the outside world closing in on their trouble-making fraternity, the “Animal House” characters had but one solution to cope with their hardships:

“Road trip.”

Going stir crazy at home during the pandemic, not feeling comfortable hopping on an airplane, and desperate to escape the brutal Arizona summer heat, we came up with the same diversion.

The choice of where to go was easier than finding a beer at a Delta House toga party.  We packed up the car and headed to one of the most scenic and iconic stretches of road in the country — California’s Highway 1 – for a five-day getaway.

The highway, officially designated as State Route 1, runs north-south about 650 miles along the Pacific coast.  We focused on the “Highway 1 Discovery Route,” an especially picturesque 57-mile stretch of the road in San Luis Obispo County, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The route offers access to 13 state parks, numerous hiking and biking trails, wildlife sanctuaries, historic lighthouses, wineries and relatively uncrowded beaches.

Recognizing the concerns travelers now have related to COVID, the area’s tourism board recently launched a new “Coastal Discovery Trail,” which guides visitors to sites that offer the best experiences for “social distancing, solo and/or family time, and dog-friendly experiences.”

Ragged Point

Hikers head down the steep Black Swift Falls Trail toward the Pacific Ocean at Ragged Point

We wore masks and face shields, constantly used disinfectant wipes and sprays, and ate meals on our hotel-room balconies or at outdoor restaurant patios.  Whether strolling through one of the small towns on the route such as Cambria or Cayucos, hiking on trails overlooking the Pacific, or riding horses through a pine forest, we had had plenty of space to keep our distance from other travelers.

The August weather in the coastal parts of San Luis Obispo County was typically 30-40 degrees cooler than Phoenix.  At night, temperatures dropped into the 50s and we needed sweaters when eating dinner outside.

Here are my top-five experiences – all of which can be enjoyed while social distancing — along the Highway 1 Coastal Discovery Trail in San Luis Obispo County:

Ragged Point

Located at the southern end of Big Sur in northern San Luis Obispo County, Ragged Point not only offers spectacular views of the rocky coastline and surrounding Santa Lucia Mountains, but one of the most challenging hikes in the region.

The Black Swift Falls Trail isn’t long – less than a mile roundtrip – but it’s incredibly steep, declining 400 feet in elevation to the Pacific Ocean.  A narrow path of switchbacks leads to a small black-sand beach fed by a seasonal waterfall.  We only made it about halfway down the trail, using a rope part of the way to keep our footing before we decided it was best to head back.  Those who want to venture to the bottom of the trail should plan on bringing grippy hiking shoes.

Driving to Ragged Point is more than half the fun.  The hilly 15-mile section of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Ragged Point is one of the most picturesque stretches of road in the country.

Ride the Clydesdales

Clydesdales

Some of the magnificent Clydesdales at the Covell Ranch in Cambria

Perhaps best known for their starring role in a Budweiser advertising campaign, Clydesdales are one of the largest and most-powerful horse breeds.  Many have beautiful white markings, particularly on their legs.

The Covell Ranch on the outskirts of Cambria offers visitors a chance to ride one of these majestic creatures.  I was aboard an 11-year-old mare named Lindsey for a leisurely 4-mile trek through the ranch’s pastures and pine forests.  At one point, we reached a bluff with stunning views of the Pacific.

Rides, which take about 90 minutes, are offered twice daily except on Sundays.  Reservations are required as each trek can accommodate a maximum of eight riders.  You don’t need to be an experienced horseback rider to enjoy the experience.

No, the Covell Ranch doesn’t offer a cold Budweiser at the completion of the ride.

Taste Olallieberry Pie

If you haven’t heard of the olallieberry (pronounced oh-la-leh-berry), you’re not alone.  The fruit — which tastes like a cross between a blackberry and raspberry — has only been around since the 1940s, when it was developed in Oregon by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Olallieberry pie

A slice of olallieberry pie à la mode at Linn’s Restaurant in downtown Cambria

The tangy fruit was later popularized by the Linn family, who started growing olallieberries and other fruit on their farm east of Cambria.  Today, the family ships olallieberry products to supermarkets all over the country.

It’s olallieberry pie that has become the Linns’ trademark.  I sat down and had a slice with Aaron Linn, who grew up picking olallieberries and now runs the family business, which includes a farm store, giftshops and a popular restaurant — Linn’s Restaurant in downtown Cambria.

“The fact that it’s somewhat rare is something that makes it more special,” he said of the fruit.  “It’s a unique flavor.”

Do a Seaside Wine Tasting

There are more than 200 wineries in San Luis Obispo County, the state’s third-largest wine-producing region (behind Napa and Sonoma).  Perhaps none offers a more spectacular setting for sampling the region’s high-quality red varietals than the Hearst Ranch Winery’s seaside tasting facility in San Simeon.

Estero Bluffs

The seaside hiking trail at the Estero Bluffs State Park in Cayucos

Located across Highway 1 from the famed Hearst Castle (now closed for tours due to the virus), the facility serves 18 different wines on socially distanced picnic tables right on the beach.  The grapes are grown at vineyards in Paso Robles, about 30 miles inland.

If you want to combine your wine tasting with a meal, there is a mobile restaurant called The Truck at the site that serves fish tacos and burgers.

Hike Estero Bluffs

For hikers who want a trek much less strenuous trek than Black Swift Falls at Ragged Point, there is a relatively secluded coastal trail at the Estero Bluffs State Park just north of Cayucos.

The 4-mile trail runs parallel to the rocky coast.  Like most of the hiking trails located on the Highway 1 Discovery Route, Estero Bluffs features viewing platforms with descriptions of the many types of marine life found in the area.

We encountered only a few other hikers on the trek while enjoying 75-degree temperatures and a cool ocean breeze.

Website for more info:
Highway 1 Discovery Route

                                                                                © 2020 Dan Fellner

“McSpaghetti”? Unique Items Served at the Golden Arches Around the World

By | Philippines | No Comments

Overseas McDonald’s can offer interesting cultural insights

The Arizona Republic — February 23, 2020

LAPU-LAPU CITY, Philippines – “Would you like fries with your spaghetti?”

McSpaghetti

An order of McSpaghetti served in the Philippines

The young lady behind the counter was responding to my inquiry about a curious item called “McSpaghetti” featured prominently on the menu board at a McDonald’s in this congested, touristy town on an island in the central Philippines.

For 94 Philippine pesos (less than $2) – which included fries and a drink — I gave it a try. I later learned that the Philippines is one of the few countries in which McDonald’s operates that serves pasta.

It may sound odd, but I’ve found that a visit to a McDonald’s restaurant when I travel overseas can often offer a unique insight into the local culture and customs. Don’t get me wrong; a visit to the Golden Arches is not as enriching as stepping inside a historic cathedral, hiking by a volcano, or gazing at a Da Vinci painting.

But McDonald’s around the world vary considerably in terms of menu, architecture and overall experience. The result can not only be a filling, inexpensive meal with unusual menu items that will surprise you, but a memorable travel experience as well. Perhaps the American-based fast-food chain’s cultural adaptability is one reason why it now operates successfully in more than 100 countries.

Thai Ronald McDonald

Ronald McDonald with the traditional Thai greeting called a “wai”

In Thailand, a statue of Ronald McDonald greets visitors with the traditional Thai greeting called a wai, in which the palms are pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. It’s the way Thais show respect and friendship.

At another McDonald’s in downtown Bangkok, I saw a Thai spirit house, or a small religious shrine. Commonly found next to homes and businesses in several countries in southeast Asia, spirit houses normally resemble a miniature house or temple and are mounted on a pillar. It’s common to see Thais bow in front of the spirit houses and leave offerings of food and drinks to appease the spirits before going inside to grab a burger and fries.

In India, where a majority of the population is Hindu and cows are sacred, it’s considered sacrilegious to eat beef. At a crowded McDonald’s in Mumbai, there were no Big Macs or hamburgers on the menu. But I did have a “Maharaja Mac,” made with two chicken patties. It was actually quite flavorful. The restaurant also offered numerous vegetarian options.

McDonald’s recently introduced a burger-bun made with rice at its restaurants in Japan. The buns are glazed with soy sauce.

In France, order fries and they’ll throw in a packet of “pommes-frites-sauce.” It tastes just like mayonnaise, something many Europeans seem to enjoy as much as soccer. Non, merci. I asked for ketchup (there is often a small charge for ketchup packets at overseas McDonald’s).

Mumbai McDonald's

Our of respect for Hindu beliefs, the McDonald’s in Mumbai, India, doesn’t serve beef products

To wash it down, you can order a beer at McDonald’s in France and several other European countries, which tend to have more lenient views toward alcohol than Americans.

In terms of soft drinks and coffee, if you want a refill in most countries, you pay full price. In America you can guzzle down a gallon of Coke for $1.

In Buenos Aires where there is a Jewish community numbering close to 200,000, I ate lunch at the Abasto Shopping Mall at the only kosher McDonald’s in the world outside of Israel. Kosher rules prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products. So this is one McDonald’s where you can’t order a cheeseburger or a milkshake. And Big Macs come without its iconic secret-sauce – it’s not kosher.

The hamburger patties at the Buenos Aires McDonald’s are made from Argentine cows under strict rabbinical supervision. And there is a “kosher supervisor” on duty at the restaurant at all times to make sure all the rules related to kosher food preparation are followed. Interestingly, there was a standard McDonald’s only about 30 yards away in the same food court. The kosher McDonald’s was doing a far brisker business.

I tried a “Beef Prosperity Burger” at a McDonald’s in Bali, Indonesia, perhaps reflecting the deep spirituality of its people. It was a large rectangular burger covered with onions. Not sure if it made my life more prosperous, but it did make for a tasty burger.

Norway McDonald's

One of the most architecturally unique McDonald’s in the world in Bergen, Norway

In Bergen, Norway, I saw one of the most architecturally unique McDonald’s in the world. Located in Bergen’s bustling waterfront in a wooden building dating back to 1710, the restaurant looks more like a than a medieval fish warehouse than a fast-food restaurant.

Mind you, I don’t make a regular habit of scarfing down Big Macs and fries when I travel. I much prefer trying the local cuisine. But there are times – particularly in places where I’m experiencing a bit of culture shock – that a visit to McDonald’s gives me a sense of comfort and familiarity.

As for the McSpaghetti I tried in the Philippines, let’s just say Tuscan chefs have nothing to worry about. The sauce was way too sweet and the rubbery pasta was topped with some sort of mystery meat. A young man at the counter told me it was “beef sausage.” What appeared to be grated cheese was sprinkled on top.

I ate less than half of my McSpaghetti and chalked it up to a fast-food cultural experiment gone awry.

My apologies to Ronald McDonald, but Chef Boyardee would have been rolling in his grave.

© 2020 Dan Fellner

Skopje: Tempe’s Intriguing Sister City

By | North Macedonia | No Comments

New ASU course explores groundbreaking relationship between two cities

The Arizona Republic — January 22, 2020

SKOPJE, North Macedonia – Ever since the city of Tempe made groundbreaking history nearly a half-century ago when it became Sister Cities with Skopje, Yugoslavia, there has been a steady pipeline of students and academics going back and forth between the two communities, enriching both cities in the process.

Mother Teresa House

The Memorial House of Mother Teresa, a Skopje native and Catholic nun who was baptized at this site in 1910

Recently I had the privilege of being a small part of that pipeline when I was selected for a Fulbright Specialist grant to teach for six weeks at Saints Cyril and Methodius University (UKIM) in Skopje.

Tempe and Skopje became Sister Cities in 1971; it was the first time an American city twinned with a city in Eastern Europe’s socialist bloc.  At that time, Skopje was a city in the former Yugoslavia.  Now, it is the capital of the newly named Republic of North Macedonia.  The country recently changed its name from the Republic of Macedonia to resolve a three-decade-long dispute with its neighbor, Greece.

I had a busy and enjoyable six weeks in Skopje.  My main assignment was to teach a course in intercultural communications at UKIM, North Macedonia’s oldest, largest and most prestigious university.

In addition, I also conducted guest lectures at two other universities – the University of Tetovo and the South East European University, where I discussed the importance of a free press in the development of democracy.

I was in Skopje during an exciting time.  The streets were full of political banners as I arrived during a hotly contested presidential campaign.  And for the first time in the country’s history, there was a papal visit. I managed to get a ticket to attend a mass conducted by Pope Francis in Skopje’s main square.

Tempe Sister City

A plaque at Skopje’s City Hall

Catholics comprise a small minority of North Macedonia’s population (the majority of the population is Eastern Orthodox).  But one of the most famous Catholics of the 20th century — Mother Teresa – was actually born in Skopje in 1910.  The nun, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for the humanitarian work she did in India, was born right around the corner from my downtown apartment.

Skopje’s relationship with Tempe – along with its eclectic architecture and beautiful setting in the foothills of the Balkans – has inspired me to create a new course for ASU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

Called “Skopje, North Macedonia: Tempe’s Intriguing Sister City,” the class will be offered to members of the public (50 and older) this spring and fall at OLLI locations around the Valley. The first lecture will take place at Tempe’s Friendship Village on March 5.

Two of my faculty colleagues at UKIM studied and conducted research at ASU, demonstrating the strong bonds between the two cities.  I also met with Macedonians who had spent time in Tempe through the Sister Cities program and the Skopje city official who oversees North Macedonia’s participation in the program.

Aside from North Macedonia, I’ve also had the opportunity to teach through the Fulbright program at universities in Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Bulgaria and Indonesia.

But Skopje – with its deep-rooted and historic Arizona connection – felt the most like home.

© 2020 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University

Ushuaia: Journey to the End of the World

By | argentina, Chile, Cruising, Falkland Islands | No Comments

Remote Argentine city offers spectacular scenery at tip of South America

The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — January 12, 2020

USHUAIA, Argentina – If the Flat Earth Society was looking for a place to host its next international convention, they couldn’t pick a more fitting location than this city near the southernmost tip of South America.

Ushuaia

Ushuaia, Argentina, arguably the southernmost city in the world

Ushuaia (typically pronounced oosh-why-yah), a windy outpost of about 85,000 residents in the Andes mountain range, proudly bills itself as “fin del mundo,” the end of the world.

Visitors to this city on the Tierra del Fuego (land of fire) archipelago will find signage and souvenirs for sale throughout Ushuaia boasting of the city’s location on the edge of the planet’s precipice.  The region’s most popular attractions include the “end of the world train,” the “end of the world museum,” and the “end of the world lighthouse.”

Sorry, flat-earthers.  As hard as I looked, there was no giant cliff or abyss anywhere near Ushuaia that would plunge me off terra firma into outer space.

But I did find one of the most scenic cities found anywhere on the planet – north or south.  Ushuaia, which has become a popular launching point for cruises to Antarctica, has a charming and easily walkable downtown, a fascinating history as a penal colony, and the spectacular Tierra del Fuego National Park, just a 30-minute drive from the city center.

At 54.8 degrees latitude south, Ushuaia is about the same distance – 2,400 miles — to the South Pole is it is to the northern border of Argentina.

end of world sign

Ushuaia bills itself as the “fin del mundo” — end of the world

Getting to Ushuaia is more than half the fun.  While there are a few expensive and time-consuming flights into the city’s small international airport, the most enjoyable way to reach Ushuaia is by cruise ship. I sailed on the Holland America Zaandam, which was packed to capacity with 1,360 passengers from 41 different countries.  Only about a third of my fellow passengers were Americans.

We started the cruise on the Pacific Ocean port of San Antonio, Chile – about a 90-minute drive from the country’s capital city of Santiago – and sailed south.  We cruised through the Chilean fjords and explored Patagonia, one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world.

In Patagonia, which encompasses parts of both southern Chile and Argentina, sheep outnumber people by a ratio of seven-to-one.  Along the narrow straits and fjords, we passed active volcanos, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, fields full of colorful wildflowers and several shipwrecks dating back decades.

After stops in little-known Chilean ports such as Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacabuco, we sailed into the Strait of Magellan, discovered by the Portuguese explorer in 1520.  Farther south, we reached the Beagle Channel, famous for its “Glacier Alley,” a series of six glaciers.  Five of the six glaciers are named after the European countries whose explorers first mapped the region in the 19th century.

The Zaandam was able to sail up-close to the glaciers, giving us stunning views of the blueish ice and waterfalls cascading into the sea from the Andes above.

Beagle Channel

One of six glaciers in the Beagle Channel near Ushuaia

Later that morning, we reached Ushuaia on the island of Tierra del Fuego, which is divided almost evenly between Chile and Argentina.  Most of the Zaandam’s passengers took a tour to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, on the Argentine side of the island.  Some went by train – the famous “train at the end of the world.”  Yes, it’s the southernmost functioning train in the world.

The narrow-gauge steam railway originally was built in the late 19th century to serve Ushuaia’s prison, where some of Argentina’s most hardened criminals were sent due to the city’s remote location.  The prison was closed in 1947 and converted into a naval base.  The train was rebuilt in the 1990s and now transports tourists to the national park.

I took the bus – it was cheaper.  On the drive, we passed the world’s southernmost golf course before reaching the park, where I explored its many streams, lakes, hiking trails, wildlife and mountain views.

In addition to billing itself as the end of the world, Ushuaia also claims to be the southernmost city in the world.  That’s debatable.  Puerto Williams, a nearby town in Chile with about 3,000 residents, is indisputably farther south, by about 10 miles.  The question is whether Puerto Williams is truly a “city,” a designation it recently received from the Chilean government.

Holland America Zaandam

The Holland America Zaandam anchored in the fjords near Puerto Chacabuco, Chile

I asked Adrian Ayala, our Argentine guide in Ushuaia, about which place can rightfully make the claim.  He scoffed at Puerto Williams’ assertion that it – not Ushuaia – is the world’s southernmost city.

“It’s not fair,” said Ayala.  “To be an official city, you need to have at least 5,000 inhabitants, according to international law.”

None of the Zaandam’s passengers seemed overly concerned about the controversy.  Many of us stood in line at the Ushuaia Tourist Information Office to receive a certificate recognizing our visit to “the southernmost city in the world to live an unforgettable experience.”

Afterward, with a stiff southerly wind making temperatures in the upper 40s feel much colder, I walked back to the ship.  The next morning, we awoke at 5:30 a.m. as the Zaandam sailed past Cape Horn at the southern tip of the continent, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans collide.

Discovered by a Dutch explorer in 1616, Cape Horn used to be a major shipping route until the Panama Canal was built in 1914.  It was known for its treacherous waters – and many shipwrecks.  A small monument was visible on the cape dedicated to the estimated 10,000 seamen who lost their lives in the area.  During our cruise, we had unusually calm seas and the Zaandam had no difficulty rounding the cape.

Falklands penguins

A colony of Gentoo penguins on the remote Falkland Islands

Once in the Atlantic, we stopped in the Falklands Islands, a British overseas territory where we had a chance to observe several species of penguins in their natural habitats.  I chose to visit a colony of orange-beaked Gentoo penguins.  After leaving the Falklands, we cruised back north to warmer weather and ended the trip with stops in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Parkas and gloves were replaced with tee-shirts and shorts and the retractable roof over the Zaandam’s swimming pool was reopened.  The change in climate from warm to frigid and back to warm again made it a tricky trip for which to pack.  The cruising season for Patagonia spans from October-March, the South-American spring and summer.

In two weeks, we had circumnavigated the southern portion of the continent.  We never quite reached the end of the world, but sure had a fun adventure trying to find it.

                                      © 2020 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Ushuaia Tourism Office
Holland America Cruises

Buenos Aires’ Kosher McDonald’s

By | argentina, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Hold the cheese, hold the sauce, at unique McDonald’s in Argentine shopping mall

December 26, 2019

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – There are nearly 40,000 McDonald’s restaurants around the world that serve 68 million customers each day.

Kosher McDonald's

The lunch rush at the kosher McDonald’s in Buenos Aires’ Abasto Mall

That’s a lot of cheeseburgers, milkshakes and special sauce.

But in the central part of Buenos Aires, in the Oncé section of town known as “the Jerusalem of Argentina,” you’ll find a unique McDonald’s at which none of those items is served.

Welcome to the only kosher McDonald’s in the world outside of Israel, a restaurant that does a booming business to meet kashrut dietary regulations – while satisfying the fast-food appetite – of the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world.

I recently had lunch at the kosher McDonald’s at the food court on the third floor in the Abasto Mall, where I met with several restaurant employees and an official from McDonald’s corporate offices in Buenos Aires.  I was in Argentina’s capital city for one day, the final stop on a 14-day cruise on the Holland America Zaandam that circumnavigated the southern portion of South America.

Given the noteworthy nature of this particular Golden Arches, I hopped on an Uber from the cruise ship terminal and took a 30-minute drive through the busy streets of Buenos Aires to see the kosher McDonald’s for myself and sample some of its cuisine.

kosher certification

The restaurant’s official kosher certification

The metropolitan area of South America’s second-most populous city is home to about 15 million people.  While estimates vary, there are approximately 200,000 Jews living in the city.  Most of the country’s Jews are Ashkenazi whose families fled to South America to escape persecution in Eastern and Central Europe.

Abasto used to be the city’s central wholesale fruit and vegetable market.  The area is also well-known for being the home of Carlos Gardel, the world-famous tango singer.  Abasto was converted into a multi-story shopping mall in the late 1990s.

At that time, the mall had two McDonald’s.  But the mall’s owners, two Jewish brothers, decided they wanted to offer a product that would attract families from the surrounding area’s large Jewish community.  Indeed, I was told there are 30-40 synagogues within walking distance of the Abasto Mall.

So in 1998, the mall opened its third McDonald’s.  This one, though, was labeled with signage next to the Golden Arches as being “kosher.”  And the use of that word is not just a marketing ploy.

The McDonald’s is under the strict supervision of Rabbi Daniel Oppenheimer, one of Buenos Aires’ leading rabbis.  The restaurant has a “kosher supervisor” on duty at all times to ensure every rule pertaining to kashrut is closely followed.

kosher supervisor

Tamara Herscovich, the on-site kosher supervisor, proudly displays a box of kosher beef patties outside the restaurant’s freezer

For starters, all the beef served in the restaurant is from cows raised in Argentina – known for its world-class beef — is certified kosher.  There are no dairy products on the menu, including cheese, milkshakes or ice cream-cones or sundaes.  For dessert, there is a non-dairy sundae on the menu, which I was told tastes more like mousse than ice cream.  It comes in strawberry and caramel.

And what about the iconic Big Mac, which recently celebrated its half-century anniversary?  Yes, it comes with two all-beef (kosher) patties, lettuce, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.  But you can’t get cheese or special sauce (a mixture of mayonnaise, relish, mustard and other ingredients).  The restaurant experimented with importing a non-dairy kosher sauce, but it was discontinued due to the prohibitive costs involved.  Now, the sandwich is served with no sauce, which greatly reduces its production costs, not to mention its caloric count.

The restaurant closes at 3 p.m. every Friday for Shabbat and doesn’t reopen until Sunday at 10 a.m.  I asked about Passover.  Are hamburgers served on matzah instead of bread?  No, the McDonald’s shuts down completely for an entire week during the holiday.

Florencia Santucho, who works in communications for McDonald’s in Argentina, said that while most of the restaurant’s patrons are local Jews, there is a large contingent of Israeli tourists who visit.  Some Argentines, who aren’t Jewish, also frequent the restaurant to consume fast-food that’s a bit lighter and heart-healthier than non-kosher fare.

kosher big mac

A kosher Big Mac — no cheese and no sauce — served at the McDonald’s at Abasto Mall

I was there for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon and the place was packed.  Many of the customers were wearing kippot.  The clientele looked like a mix of families and local business people on their lunch breaks from work.

Santucho took me back into the kitchen as part of a program McDonald’s has in Argentina called “open doors,” designed to give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how the food is prepared and demonstrate to the public the fast-food chain’s growing commitment to transparency.

“It’s a good way to erase a lot of myths and fears,” she says.

While I was touring the kitchen, a young woman named Tamara Herscovich, the on-site kosher supervisor, showed me the steps taken to ensure the ingredients are correct and served according to kashrut law.  All the takeout orders are sealed with special tape, guaranteeing the kosher certification of the food.

Herscovich, who also works as a Hebrew teacher at some of the nearby Jewish schools, said she regularly brings her students to the McDonald’s as part of the “open doors” program.

Templo Libertad

The beautiful Templo Libertad in Buenos Aires, declared a National Historic Monument in 2000

I also met Melanie Bialoskurnik, a Jewish hostess at the restaurant.  She told me the kosher McDonald’s has helped instill a sense of pride in the Jewish community, which was decimated by two terrorist attacks in the early 1990s that killed more than 100 people.  The restaurant has become much more than a place to eat hamburgers and french fries.  It’s a meeting point and social hangout.

“It’s so important,” she says.  “It’s a way the Jewish people feel connected to the community of Buenos Aires.”

And what happens when an unknowing customer orders a cheeseburger?

“It happens all the time,” says Bialoskurnik.  She politely sends them across the mall’s food court to a conventional McDonald’s where they can get cheeseburgers and ice-cream sundaes to their hearts’ content.

After leaving the Abasto Mall, I had a couple of hours before needing to return to the Zaandam.  I took an Uber to see the oldest congregation in the city, the Israeli Congregation of the Argentinian Republic, founded in 1862.  The congregation now prays in the beautiful Templo Libertad, inaugurated in 1932 and declared a National Historic Monument in 2000.  The Conservative synagogue can seat up to 700 worshippers.  It is connected to the Museo Judio, a small museum that chronicles the history of Jews in Argentina.

I had experienced a full and enriching day in Buenos Aires.  I had successfully navigated myself across one of South America’s busiest and most congested cities, learned more about the ups and downs of the world’s seventh-largest Jewish community, and seen its most famous synagogue.

And yes, I had eaten my first 100 percent certified kosher Big Mac.

                                                    © 2019 Dan Fellner

Oregon’s Dazzling Neon Sign Museum

By | Oregon | No Comments

Electrifying exhibits illuminate history of neon advertising

The Arizona Republic — November 24, 2019

THE DALLES, Oregon – David Benko is to neon signs what Jeff Bezos is to online shopping.

David Benko

David Benko, the National Neon Sign Museum’s founder and executive director, gives visitors a tour of the facility

Benko, 53, one of the preeminent American experts on the history and craftsmanship of neon advertising signs, has amassed an electrifying collection of the glowing and eye-catching relics from the country’s past and assembled them in a recently opened museum that makes a fun and family-friendly stop for visitors to the Pacific Northwest.

The National Neon Sign Museum is located in a historic building in downtown The Dalles, Oregon (rhymes with “the gals”), a town of about 16,000 residents on the Columbia River about a 90-minute drive east of Portland, Oregon.

The three-story, colonial-style brick building, formerly an Elks Temple, was built in 1910.  Benko bought the vacant building from the city for $1, with the promise that he would restore it, bring it to life with his dazzling collection, and ultimately, attract tourists to The Dalles.  It opened for visitors in late 2018.

Inside, there is more than 20,000 square feet of space that houses neon signs from Benko’s personal collection.  He owns more than 300 signs; dozens of his favorites are currently on display.

The museum also features interactive displays explaining the history and technology behind the advertising signs that were such an iconic staple of the American urban landscape from the Great Depression through the 1970s.  That’s when the popularity of neon started to fade due to rising energy costs.  Benko says the lights have recently seen a resurgence of popularity, partly due to television programs that spotlight old-style diners and other buildings with neon signage.

Neon museum

The National Neon Sign Museum is located in a historic building in downtown The Dalles, Oregon

Benko, who admits a lifelong fascination with “decrepit relics,” acquired his first neon sign at the age of 15 when he was living in the Seattle area.  It was a simple marker reading “café” that was about to be hauled away to the dump.  He took it home and has been hooked on neon ever since.

“There’s something magical about neon that just draws you,” he says.  “It’s very magnetic.”

Benko built his expertise working at sign museums in Ohio and Washington.  He also owns a thriving neon sign business based in Vancouver, Washington.

The museum in The Dalles has displays from old gas stations, ice-cream shops, burger joints, car dealerships and a Coca-Cola sign from the 1930s.

The second-floor is set-up to resemble a city street in the 1950s.  In fact, one of the signs – from a frozen custard shop – was used as inspiration for the set designers of the sit-com “Happy Days,” which was set in 1950s Milwaukee.

Earlier this year, Benko went to France to acquire one of the most historically significant inventions in the field – the first neon-gas light tube.  Invented by Georges Claude, an engineer and chemist known as the “French Thomas Edison,” the neon tube was first displayed to the public in Paris in 1910 and then patented in the United States in 1915.

Neon signs

Some of the many neon signs on display at the National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles, Oregon

Benko proudly displays Claude’s landmark invention in the museum’s bottom floor along with other educational displays explaining the evolution of electric light, from the earliest light-bulb signs to the introduction of neon signs in the U.S. in 1923 by Claude’s company.

Unlike the larger Neon Museum in Las Vegas, the signs in Benko’s museum haven’t been restored or touched up, which he believes adds to their authenticity.

“I live with the condition they’re in or I don’t buy them,” he says.

About 80 percent of the nonprofit museum’s visitors arrive in The Dalles on riverboats cruising the Columbia.  We visited the ship while traveling on the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress, which was docked just a five-minute walk from the museum. The Empress has an arrangement with the museum; passengers are given free entrance (normally $10 for adults).

Benko is always on the lookout for new items to add to the museum’s extensive collection, even if it means going overseas.  He personally conducts some of the guided tours in the museum, and glows with enthusiasm as he shares with patrons his love of brightly colored advertising signs and nostalgia from a much simpler time.

“People miss things after they disappear,” he says.  “And then, of course, everyone wants them to come back.”

                                                                                 © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
National Neon Sign Museum
American Queen Steamboat Company