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Surf, Sand and Spam

By | Blog Posts, Hawaii | No Comments

Hawaii’s residents devour the much-maligned meat

March 17, 2022

HONOLULU – There’s an old proverb: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Hawaii Spam

Spam for sale at a Safeway in Honolulu

I certainly wouldn’t equate Spam with trash.  But consuming the canned mystery-meat has about as much appeal to me as a week-old Costco hot dog.

In Hawaii though, the state’s residents view Spam in a far more favorable light than most mainland Americans.

It all started during World War II when Spam was introduced to feed U.S. military personnel stationed on the islands.  The product — manufactured at Hormel plants in Minnesota and Iowa — worked well as a wartime staple because it didn’t require refrigeration and had a long shelf life.

Ever since, the cooked pork product has been an integral part of the local diet, even earning the moniker “Hawaiian steak.”

Hawaii’s residents eat 7 million cans of Spam each year, the highest per capita consumption rate in the country.  If you do the math, it averages out to about five cans per person.

That’s five more cans than I typically consume.

At no time was the state’s infatuation with Spam more apparent than in 2017, when stores on the islands were hit with a rash of Spam thefts. Authorities said the stolen Spam was used by drug dealers as a form of currency. The problem became so bad that some stores actually started keeping cans of Spam in locked display cases.

I spoke about Hawaii’s love of the much-maligned meat with Kainoa Delacruz, who has been lecturing about Hawaiian culture on cruise ships for 20 years.  I sat down with Kainoa following one of his presentations on the Holland America Koningsdam during a recent 17-day cruise to the islands.

McDonald's Spam Platter

A Spam Platter at a McDonald’s in Honolulu comes with rice and eggs

“I grew up with Spam,” he told me.  “I acquired a taste for it and a love for it. I love a good Spam sandwich – just bread, mayonnaise, cheese and Spam.”

During my visit to the islands, I noticed Spam for sale in every convenience and grocery store, some of which devoted entire sections to the product.

Even McDonald’s has Spam on its menu.  At the Golden Arches just a block away from Honolulu’s famed Waikiki Beach, I tried a “Spam Platter” – a plastic plate full of scrambled eggs, white rice and Spam.

It might be the only time in my life in which I’ve dined at McDonald’s and didn’t clean my plate.

Kainoa said a favorite Hawaiian way to eat Spam is in the form of musubi – a fried slice of Spam on rice pressed together to form a small block, then wrapped with a strip of dried seaweed known as nori.

“We took the Japanese heritage involving sushi and put Spam on top of it,” he explained.  About 14 percent of the state’s population has Japanese ancestry.

Jennesa Kinscher, Hormel’s Spam brand manager, said Spam musubi in Hawaii “is as famous as a slice in N.Y. and a hot dog in Chicago.”  Kinscher added that the dish seems to be gaining traction in the rest of the country.  “It continues to gain popularity on the mainland — from restaurant menus to food trucks to local kitchens,” she said.

musubi spam

Sushi-like musubi is a popular Spam dish in Hawaii (photo courtesy of Hormel Foods)

Spam has long been ridiculed around the world — it was the punchline to a famous Monty Python skit that ultimately spawned a Broadway musical comedy called “Spamalot.”  Paramount Pictures is adapting the show into a movie.

Jokes about the canned meat are rampant on the Internet.  For instance, there are numerous derivations of this joke:  “Do not open email from Hormel Foods.  It might be Spam.”

Wisecracks aside, it’s clear that Spam isn’t burdened with the same stigma in Hawaii as in other places.  Kainoa told me a story about living in New York City when Spam helped build a cultural bridge with his roommate.

“My mom was sending me cans of Spam,” he recalls.  And my roommate asked why.  ‘Are you guys poor?’

Kainoa responded to his roommate: “’It’s funny that you say that.  I think you are poor because you eat mac and cheese all the time.  I always thought that only poor people eat mac and cheese.’”

When his roommate wasn’t home, Kainoa mixed cubes of Spam into a pot of mac and cheese.

“When he came home, he tried it and he loved it.  I loved it, too.  It was interesting that my Spam and his mac and cheese brought us even closer as friends.  It’s kind of like our friendship meal.”

                                                    © 2022 Dan Fellner

Hawaii Cruises Finally Resume

By | Cruising, Hawaii, Hawaii -- Hilo | No Comments

After two-year pandemic-related absence, cruisers return to explore Kilauea volcano, waterfalls and historic temples

The USA Today — February 7, 2022

HILO, Hawaii – While cruising in the Hawaiian Islands is just now returning to life after a two-year pandemic-related hiatus, Tūtū Pele has been far from dormant.


The Holland America Koningsdam anchored off the coast of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Holland America is one of several cruise lines that resumed sailing to the Hawaiian Islands in January 2022

The legendary Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes has been busy flexing her muscles and cleansing the Earth in the place where many Hawaiians believe she resides — the famed Kilauea volcano in the south-central part of the Big Island of Hawaii.

My late January visit to the top of Kilauea and the surrounding Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — was one of the highlights of a recent 17-day cruise to the Hawaiian Islands on the Holland America Koningsdam.

Hawaii cruises resumed in January 2022

I was aboard the first Holland America ship to return to Hawaii since November 2019.  Other cruise lines, including Carnival and Princess, also resumed Hawaii sailings in January.

The cruise, heavy on sea days, started and ended in San Diego. After a stop in Catalina Island — 22 miles west of mainland California — we were at sea five days before reaching Honolulu on the island of Oahu.  We also visited Maui and spent three days exploring Hawaii’s Big Island — so named because it’s larger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined.

We were anchored for two days off the coast of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island’s relatively dry western side, home of most of the island’s resorts.

mauna kea

The snow-capped Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. Its peak is 13,803 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the state of Hawaii

In Kona, we toured coffee plantations and hiked through a “cloud forest” on the slopes of the Hualālai Volcano, 3,000 feet above sea level.  We also visited the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historical Park, where ruling chiefs would grant absolution to Hawaiian lawbreakers and vanquished warriors.

On our final day in Hawaii, the Koningsdam was docked on the more tropical eastern side of the island in Hilo, a gateway to picturesque waterfalls and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Hilo is the rainiest city in the United States, averaging 211 days of precipitation each year. Fortunately, we had sunny skies, ideal for viewing the snow-capped Mauna Kea volcano.  Its peak is 13,803 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the state.

Kilauea’s spiritual significance

Visitors to Kilauea’s 4,000-foot-high summit can see a constant eruption of volcanic gases that have been spewing from its caldera since 1983.  The result is an ever-changing landscape of black lava fields, steam vents, underground lava tubes and basaltic rock formations.

For Hawaiians, Kilauea is much more than a scenic mountain that glows at night during eruptions.  It’s a wahi kapu — sacred place — that has deep spiritual significance.

It’s believed that Pele, short for Pelehonuamea, inhabits Kilauea and its even larger but less active neighbor to the west, Mauna Loa.  Hawaiians often refer to the goddess as Tūtū — grandmother — as a sign of fondness and respect.


The Kilauea caldera spews a steady stream of volcanic gases

If ever there were an aptly named volcano, it would be Kilauea, which means “much spreading” in the Hawaiian language.  Tūtū Pele’s burning lava flows have caused significant property damage to farms and homes as recently as 2018.  Another eruption — thus far low-key — started last September within the Halema’uma’u crater, the volcano’s most active vent.

Kilauea’s eruptions: ‘We refer to it as creation’

Kainoa Delacruz, our onboard “Hawaiian Cultural Ambassador,” told me that despite Pele’s occasional outbursts, most Hawaiians don’t fear the deity.

“When she erupts, we don’t refer to what she does as devastation,” said Delacruz, who has been lecturing on cruise ships for 20 years.  “We refer to it as creation.  While she’s burning everything down, she’s really cleaning.  It’s not looked as a negative thing to have her roll her lava over everything.  We know that things will come back even better.”

I especially enjoyed hiking past extraterrestrial-like rock formations through one of Kilauea’s many black lava fields.  Along the way, we encountered several nene, also known as the Hawaiian goose.  The nene is Hawaii’s official state bird.

kilauea lava field

Hikers walk across a lava field with unusual rock formations at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

We also stopped to see the Wahinekapu steam vents, where hot-water vapor continuously billows from cracks in the earth.  Hawaiians come to the vents to place leis and other adornments as offerings to Pele.

On the drive from the ship in Hilo to Kilauea, we stopped at two waterfalls — Akaka and Rainbow.  With a height of 442 feet, Akaka is more than twice as tall as Niagara Falls. Seeing it up close involves an easy half-mile hike on a loop trail.

COVID-19 protocols on our Hawaii cruise

Passengers were required to register prior to the cruise with the state at and upload proof of vaccination.  We were then emailed a QR code to display to local authorities when we got off the ship in Hawaii.

Additionally, Holland America required us to produce a negative, medically observed viral COVID-19 test taken no more than two days before sailing.  We were tested again at the cruise terminal in San Diego prior to embarkation.  Two days later, following our first port stop in Catalina Island, we were tested again on the ship.

Douro River Valley

A paddleboarder glides past the Ahuena Heiau Temple, once the residence of Hawaiian King Kamahameha the Great, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Masks were required to be worn throughout the cruise, except when we were actively eating or drinking, in our own cabins or on outside decks where we could socially distance.  We were each given several KN95 masks.  From what I observed, a vast majority of my fellow passengers were compliant of the mask rule — even when dancing at one of several music venues on the Koningsdam.

The 2,650-passenger ship — the largest in Holland America’s fleet — was about half full.  More than 90 percent of the passengers on the sailing were Americans.

A downside of being on one of the first cruise ships back in Hawaii was that the local tour operators seemed rusty.  Some of the excursions I took were disorganized and the guides were clearly out of practice — understandable after more than two years of having few tourists to take sightseeing.

But that in no way marred the experience of seeing Kilauea and her sister volcanoes in all their grandeur.  It’s been a rough couple of years for Hawaii’s tourism industry.  Now, the cruise ships — and tourism dollars — are starting to come back.  And Pele, according to Hawaiian legend, continues to regenerate and breathe new life into her surroundings.

“This current eruption is just an indication that Pele is playing in the front yard,” said Delacruz.  “Everything is OK.”

Websites for more info:
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Holland America Line
                                                                                © 2022 Dan Fellner

Jewish Life in a Tropical Paradise

By | Hawaii, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Maui’s Beit Shalom meeting the needs of Jewish residents and tourists in Hawaii

February 1, 2022

KIHEI, Maui – It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a Jewish house of worship than the one located in a quiet residential neighborhood at the corner of Alulike and Kaonoulu Streets in Kihei, Hawaii.

maui synagogue

Maui’s Beit Shalom, one of only two stand-alone synagogues in the Hawaiian Islands

Beit Shalom, a blue one-story building adorned with a large star of David on its roof fronted by a lush garden of flowers, is just a five-minute walk from the picturesque white-sand Kamaole Beach on Maalaea Bay, the longest uninterrupted stretch of beach on the island of Maui.

The tiny shul is home to the Jewish Congregation of Maui and is one of only two stand-alone synagogues in the entire Hawaiian Islands.

It’s a place where Jews living in paradise – joined by a steady stream of tourists — can maintain their Jewish identity, observe the holidays, and even celebrate the end of Shabbat with a Havdalah service right on the beach with Humpback whales swimming in the distance.

I recently visited Beit Shalom during a cruise to Hawaii on the Holland America Koningsdam.  Deciding to forego an array of Maui sightseeing tours offered to the ship’s passengers, I caught a local bus for a half-hour trip south from the port of Kapalua – where the Koningsdam was docked – to see the synagogue in Kihei.

There, I met Ellyn Mortimer, Beit’s Shalom’s executive director and — until recently — its only employee.  There had been a rabbi, renowned whale-researcher David Glickman, but he left the position in 2019.  Three years with no rabbi — not to mention the pandemic — has made it a challenging time for the congregation.

Ellyn Mortimer

Ellyn Mortimer, executive director of the Jewish Congregation of Maui, inside Beit Shalom’s small sanctuary

Finally, in late January 2022 the congregation hired a new rabbi, Hawaii-born Raanan Mallek.  Most recently, he led a congregation in Shorashim, Israel.

Rabbi Mallek was one of more than 100 applicants for the job.  If you’re a rabbi, you can do a lot worse than a post on Maui.

“I’m thrilled,” said Mortimer of Rabbi Mallek’s arrival.  “It’s leadership that a synagogue needs.  If we were a community center, it would be different.  But we’re a synagogue.”

It’s estimated that about 7,000 Jews live in the Hawaiian Islands.  Most are in Honolulu – home of Emanu-El — the only other synagogue in Hawaii besides Beit Shalom.  Emanu-El is a reform congregation located just six miles from the famed Waikiki Beach.  Additionally, there are several Chabad chapters in Hawaii and some small congregations that meet in hotels or rent space in churches.

Mortimer, who has lived in Maui for 27 years, says she thinks about 2,000 Jews live on the island; Maui has a total population of about 170,000.  Beit Shalom was established in the late 1990s and currently has about 150 members.  It’s unaffiliated and Mortimer says the level of religious observance is completely up to each individual.

“We welcome everybody,” she says.  “Basically, we ask that you don’t judge somebody’s path to Judaism, and they won’t judge your path to Judaism.”

Beit Shalom menorahs

Unique menorahs — with a Hawaiian flair — on display in the Beit Shalom sanctuary

Mortimer says that pre-COVID, about 20-30 people would typically turn up for Friday night services and there would be enough for a minyan on Shabbat morning.  During the busy winter months, up to 70 percent of attendees are tourists.  High-holiday services can attract as many as 130 people, making Beit Shalom’s small sanctuary “very crowded,” Mortimer says.

Originally constructed as a sales office to market surrounding properties, the synagogue features a kosher kitchen.  Not surprisingly, the specialty of the house is locally caught fresh fish — typically mahi-mahi or ahi tuna.

“We are fortunate to have some renowned chefs in our Jewish community who help with delicious preparation with local ingredients and local flare,” says Mortimer.

I was impressed with the sanctuary’s beautifully designed ner tamid — eternal flame.  Several unique Chanukah menorahs on display — with a Hawaiian flair — were created by artist and congregation board member Marge Bonar.  The synagogue has a small religious school that currently meets outdoors due to COVID.

In Maui, being able to hold religious classes outdoors is a treat — not an inconvenience.

Mortimer says it’s not unusual for tourists to drive by Beit Shalom, see the star of David, and knock on the door to find out if it’s really a synagogue.

“I love when people come and they’re surprised that there are Jews on Maui,” she says.  “It’s exciting for me as a director because it takes me back to our roots and why we’re actually here and why I’m doing this job.”


Maui’s beach on Maalaea Bay, just a five-minute walk from Beit Shalom

During the pandemic, Beit Shalom became a popular site for destination bar and bat mitzvahs – hosting at least a dozen.  If you’re going to gather for a religious ceremony and want it to be outdoors in a beautiful setting right on the beach, what better place than Maui?

“It’s whatever people want,” says Mortimer when I asked about the ceremonies involved with destination bar mitzvahs.  “Sometimes we do them here at the synagogue.  Sometimes we’ll do them at a location right on the ocean.  Because we’re pluralistic, we can give people what they want.  It’s more important that their ceremony is meaningful to them.  What do they want their child and their family to get out of it?”

With such an ethnically diverse population, Hawaii is known as a place that’s accepting of minority groups. The state twice elected a Jewish governor – Linda Lingle – who served in the position from 2002-2010.  Mortimer says the local Hawaiian population is inquisitive – but non-judgmental about Judaism.

It’s the same philosophy that forms the core of the Jewish Congregation of Maui’s mission.

“We’re not here to tell anybody how to be Jewish,” says Mortimer.  “We’re here to give people what they need to live their best Jewish life.”

Website for more info:
Jewish Congregation of Maui

                                                    © 2022 Dan Fellner

Cruising the Galapagos

By | Cruising, Ecuador | No Comments

South American archipelago a wildlife wonderland

The Arizona Republic/USA — January 9, 2022

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, Ecuador – “Work it. Work it.”

Blue-footed boobies

A pair of blue-footed boobies perched on volcanic rocks on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos

On a black volcanic rock formation in a remote part of the Galapagos Islands, a pair of resplendent blue-footed boobies need little coaxing from a fellow traveler who wants the marine birds to remain perched while we photograph them.

The boobies are more than happy to oblige.  Like runway models, they’re not bashful about posing while our small group clicks away.

With few natural predators, there aren’t many places on Earth where the wildlife is as unafraid – and even welcoming – of human visitors than the Galapagos.  The result is an unparalleled chance for nature lovers to see up close everything from 5-foot-long iguanas to pink flamingoes to tortoises more than 100 years old.

If Charles Darwin were alive today, he would find this archipelago of tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean – 600 miles west of mainland South America – little changed from his historic journey here nearly 200 years ago.

It was the English naturalist’s exposure to the rich diversity of wildlife in the Galapagos that led to his revolutionary theory of natural selection.  Today, visitors can experience the same access to birds, animals and marine life that Darwin documented during his five-week visit in 1835 on the HMS Beagle.

I recently visited six islands in the Galapagos on a one-week cruise aboard the Ecoventura Origin, named after Darwin’s landmark 1859 book “On the Origin of Species.”  Our sailing was at full capacity with 20 passengers (all Americans) and 14 Ecuadoran crew members.

Ecoventura Origin

The 20-passenger Ecoventura Origin anchored in a cove near Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago

The Origin’s sister yacht, the Ecoventura Theory, was often visible in the distance as it traveled roughly the same itinerary.  We were on the “northern and western route”; on alternate weeks the two boats take the “southern and central route” through the islands.  Passengers can opt to book passage for two weeks to experience both itineraries.

Twice a day, we were ferried from one of the Origin’s two blue dinghies to an island for a nature walk.  Many of these visits involved “wet landings” in which we would step off the dinghy into shallow water and walk ashore.  There were plenty of opportunities for snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding and viewing marine life on the Origin’s glass-bottom boat.

“You don’t see in other places what you see here,” said Yvonne Mortola, one of the Origin’s two onboard naturalists, who has been guiding tours in the Galapagos for 37 years.  “Things happen just in front of you.  And it’s safe.  None of the animals wants to eat you up.”

If there was any aggression on display, it was between the animals themselves.  We watched as a barking male sea lion emerged from a lagoon on Fernandina Island to stake out his beachfront territory, nearly trampling a group of marine iguanas in the process. (see video shot by the author: Sea lion staking his turf on a beach in the Galapagos).

Kicker Rock

The Ecoventura Theory cruises past Kicker Rock just before sunset near San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos

We also saw sharks, whales, dolphins and the black-and-white Galapagos penguin.  It’s the only species of penguin found north of the equator.

But it was the blue-footed boobies that I found most captivating — not just their eye-catching feet but their friendly dispositions.

“Blue-footed boobies are just special,” said Mortola.  “They’re curious.  They have no shame in just walking right up to you and checking you out.”

Governed by Ecuador, the Galapagos consist of 13 major islands straddling the equator.  We crossed the equator six times during the trip, stopping each time so the captain could “lift up the line,” as Mortola joked.

Only four of the Galapagos are inhabited by humans; the entire population is less than 30,000.  Nearly half live in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the largest city in the Galapagos.  During a stroll down Charles Darwin Avenue — the city’s main drag — we needed to step aside for a pair of sea lions, indifferent to our presence as they waddled down the block to the fish market looking for scraps.

The Galapagos are volcanic islands — there have been eruptions as recent as 2020.  We hiked through black lava fields and red sand beaches created from volcanic ash, visited an underground lava tube in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island and sailed at sunset past the dramatic Kicker Rock, the remains of a volcanic cone.

Galapagos nature hike

Ecoventura Origin naturalist Yvonne Mortola leads a nature walk on the island of Genovesa

Even though the Galapagos are near the equator, the climate is surprisingly temperate.  The cool Humboldt Current and steady trade winds kept high temperatures from surpassing the mid-70s most days, and I needed to put on a sweater when going out on deck to watch the stars after dinner.  We were fitted with wetsuits for the week, which helped provide insulation from the chilly Pacific waters while on morning snorkeling trips.

The remoteness of the islands, which helps to protect the wildlife from predators, makes the Galapagos a challenging destination to reach.  There are no international flights into the islands; visitors need to fly into one of mainland Ecuador’s two largest cities, Quito or Guayaquil, then catch a flight into one of the small airports serving the islands.

We flew into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the provincial capital city of the Galapagos on San Cristobal Island.  There also is an airport on the island of Baltra, the site of a U.S. military base during World War II.  Once we left San Cristobal, we never once set foot on pavement the entire week until the final day of the cruise, when we anchored in Puerto Ayora.

In the towns near both airports, it’s possible to stay in a hotel and take day trips on small boats.  But a weeklong cruise is a far more ideal – albeit pricier – way to explore the remote islands in the Galapagos while enjoying fresh seafood (the ceviche was amazing), onboard lectures and the expansive expertise of the two naturalists accompanying us.

Galapagos tortoise

A Galapagos tortoise wades into a pond on Santa Cruz Island

To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species,” the Ecuadoran government designated 98% of the Galapagos as a national park.  There is a one-time $100 national park entrance fee, payable upon landing at the airport. (Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.)

The government has imposed strict regulations to avoid the pitfalls of over-tourism.  For instance, only cruise ships carrying fewer than 100 passengers are allowed to sail the Galapagos; most of the boats we encountered were far smaller.  Visitors need to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours prior of boarding the flight to Ecuador.

Darwin described the Galapagos as a “little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else.”

Indeed, Darwin found a living laboratory that continues to offer visitors an education about nature and the environment in the most wonderous classroom imaginable.

Website for more info:
Ecoventura Cruises
                                                                                © 2022 Dan Fellner

The Only Jew in the Galapagos

By | Ecuador, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Israeli Adi Aidinger welcomes Jewish travelers to her remote hotel in this wildlife wonderland

January 1, 2022

PUERTO AYORA, Ecuador – When Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands on his historic voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1835, he marveled at the diversity and abundance of wildlife he found in this archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of mainland South America.

Puerto Ayora

Two sea lions stroll through downtown Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. With a population of 12,000, it’s the largest city in the Galapagos

Darwin observed everything from giant tortoises and iguanas to numerous species of birds found nowhere else in the world.  His journey here led to the landmark book “Origin of the Species,” which put forth the theory of natural selection, revolutionizing the field of science.

Nearly 200 years after Darwin’s visit, I also had the opportunity to gaze at some of the Galapagos’ magnificent creatures – on land, in the sea and the skies above – while on a one-week cruise aboard the Ecoventura Origin, a 20-passenger yacht.

As I photographed playful sea lions, blue-footed boobies and pink flamingoes, I wondered about the diversity of a different type of species found in the Galapagos – human beings.

Might this remote cluster of islands with less than 30,000 inhabitants be home to any Jews?

Turns out, there is Jewish life on the Galapagos.  But it’s not exactly abundant.

Meet Adi Aidinger, believed to be the only Jew living in the Galapagos.

I found out about Adi on our final day of the cruise.  The Origin was anchored in the harbor of Puerto Ayora, the largest “city” in the Galapagos with a population of around 12,000, located only 50 miles south of the equator.

Adi Aidinger

Adi Aidinger, the only Jew believed to be living in the Galapagos Islands (photo courtesty of Adi Aidinger)

Our stop in Puerto Ayora marked the first time since the cruise began a week earlier that we actually set foot on pavement.  The rest of the week had been spent on mostly uninhabited islands hiking, snorkeling, kayaking and consuming way too much food prepared by the boat’s onboard chefs.

Ivan Lopez, one of the naturalists on the Origin, had recently visited Israel and told me he had Jewish relatives through marriage.  I asked him if there were any Jews living on the islands; he said that he heard there was a grand total of one — the owner of the Hotel Solymar on Santa Cruz Island.

After spending the morning visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora where Galapagos tortoises are bred and studied, my wife and I set off to find the Hotel Solymar.  Ivan told us the hotel was on the main drag – fittingly called Charles Darwin Avenue – two blocks past the fish market.

Sure enough, at a prime beachfront location in the heart of downtown Puerto Ayora, we found the Hotel Solymar (Spanish for “sun and sea”).  As we entered the lobby, I noticed a huge sea lion camped out on the floor.  Apparently, the animal is such a permanent fixture in the hotel that it’s been given a name – “Wendy” – by the hotel staff.

Adi was out-of-town during our visit, but the hotel receptionist was kind enough to call her.  So, during an illuminating phone call in the lobby of the Hotel Solymar, I learned how Adi came to live in the Galapagos and what life was like as the only known Jew on the islands.

Adi was born and raised in Haifa, Israel.  She and her family were on a cruise in 2004 when she met an Ecuadoran named Renato Perez.  The two fell in love and decided to build a life for themselves in Puerto Ayora, where Renato’s family owned the Hotel Solymar.

Hotel Solymar

Entrance to the Hotel Solymar in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos

“In the beginning, everything was magical,” Adi recalls.  “I saw the fact that I lived in the Galapagos as a unique adventure.  Very quickly I had my group of friends who were foreigners like me, and I fell in love with the quiet and nature-filled life of the islands.”

During the first six years of their marriage, the couple lived full-time in Puerto Ayora while focusing on a massive construction project.  The old Hotel Solymar was torn down and a new building – with 17 rooms – opened for business in late 2006.  Five years later, a second four-story “tower” with 14 additional rooms and a space for large events opened across the street.

Now with three children, Adi and Renato go back and forth between Puerto Ayora and Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, about a 90-minute flight from the Galapagos.

“It’s really hard, but really beautiful,” she told me about being a Jew in this remote archipelago governed by Ecuador.

Challenging, she said, because there are usually no other Jews with whom to pray and celebrate Jewish holidays.

“Of course, it was difficult on special dates like Rosh Hashana and Pesach,” she said.  “On those dates, I always went to Guayaquil to celebrate with the Jewish community or to Israel to celebrate with my family.”

Hotel Solymar lobby

A sea lion named “Wendy” relaxes in the lobby of the Hotel Solymar

But at the same time, Adi said she’s felt uplifted by the interest and warmth of other residents of the islands, who continually express curiosity—and respect – for Judaism.

“Everybody is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish,” she said when I asked if she experienced any anti-Semitism here.

Adi says she didn’t grow up particularly observant in Israel.  But once she found herself living in the Galapagos with no other Jews around – aside from occasional tourists — her Jewish background became much more important.

“Living outside of Israel, you always look for a connection to your roots,” she said.

Adi began to light Shabbat candles and put up Chanukah decorations in the Hotel Solymar.  Occasionally, she serves Shabbat dinner to Jewish guests.

The hotel has become the one place in the Galapagos where travelers can take a break from nature hikes, birdwatching, snorkeling and diving, and just hanging out in a jacuzzi next to a sea lion named Wendy — while experiencing at least a small flicker of Jewish life.

“When we have Israeli groups or Jewish groups, I’m the happiest person,” Adi said.  “It’s an honor for me to give them a place that they feel comfortable.”

Website for more info:
Hotel Solymar

                                                    © 2022 Dan Fellner

Sailing Through Wine Country on Portugal’s Douro River

By | Cruising, Portugal | No Comments

After a 20-month COVID hiatus, cruises resume in tranquil northern Portugal

The Arizona Republic/USA — September 19, 2021

ENTRE-OS-RIOS, Portugal – Beneath terraces of vineyards and olive trees in the undulating landscape of northern Portugal so alluring that the region has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a crowd of locals gathered to watch our boat squeeze through one of five narrow locks on the Douro River.

Douro vineyards

Terraced vineyards in the Douro River Valley in Portugal. The area, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known for its port wine

Parents lifted children over their shoulders while others waved and cheered from a bridge above the lock as the Scenic Azure headed east toward the Spanish border.  I took in the scene from the boat’s glass-enclosed wheelhouse and voiced my surprise at the size of the crowd to the captain.  Had all these people come just to watch us pass through a lock?

“It’s like a party for them,” said the Azure’s Capt. Paulo Jesus, who has been piloting vessels on the Douro since 2012.  “The Portuguese people love watching the boats.”

After a 20-month hiatus caused by COVID-19, river cruising has returned to the Douro River Valley.  And like the coming fall harvest of the grapes that produce Portugal’s famed port wine, it’s bringing an infusion of hope to the small villages along the river that depend so heavily on tourism.

Scenic Cruises and some of the other large river cruise companies resumed sailing on the Douro in July, although demand is still far from pre-pandemic levels.  The Azure, which began cruising the Douro in 2016, has a capacity of 96 passengers.  Our 10-day sailing in early August had just 40 passengers – a mix of Americans and English – outnumbered by the 41 Portuguese crew members.

Scenic Azure

The 96-passenger Scenic Azure docked on the Douro River in Porto, Portugal. Cruises resumed on the Douro in July 2021

Maria Andrada, general manager of Scenic’s Portugal operations who was onboard for part of our sailing, said bookings on the Azure for the rest of this year’s Douro cruising season – which runs through November – are at about 50 percent capacity.  Typically, she said, the boat is full.

“We are in the European Union, but each country has a different policy regarding COVID, which is very hard when you set up an operation,” she said.  “It’s been difficult to get passengers on the ships.”  But Andrada said Scenic expects full occupancy for its Douro sailings in the 2022 season, scheduled to begin next March.

Roundtrip from Porto

Our cruise started and ended in the picturesque city of Porto, on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Douro River.  Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city; it is 195 miles north of the capital city of Lisbon.

From Porto, we sailed 130 miles to the east through five locks – crossing the border with Spain halfway through the trip – before turning around and cruising downstream back to Porto.

The climate changed dramatically during the sailing. Porto’s proximity to the ocean makes it far more temperate during the hot summer months.  Temperatures rose about 25 degrees Fahrenheit – sometimes reaching triple digits – as we sailed inland.


Cruises on the Douro River typically start and end in the picturesque city of Porto in northern Portugal

Along the route, we stopped at several Portuguese towns in the Douro Valley where we walked through narrow cobblestone streets, visited hilltop castles, browsed the fish markets and paddled our way past the town of Pinhão on a two-hour kayaking trip.

One of the highlights was a day trip via bus from the Azure to the historic Spanish city of Salamanca.  We happened upon a Saturday wedding ceremony at the 14th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria, complete with Castilian folk music and plenty of confetti.

We were immersed in various facets of Portuguese culture through onboard lectures, language classes and cooking demonstrations – sausages and seafood are integral parts of Portuguese cuisine.  I especially enjoyed a euphonious performance of the country’s renowned fado music, characterized by its melancholic tunes and lyrics.

Portuguese wine tradition

The Portuguese love their wine.  They’ve been making it for about 2,000 years.  In 1756, the port vineyards of the Douro became the first winemaking area in the world to be legally demarcated, meaning that only authentic port can be made here.

And they enjoy the fruits of their labor.  According to the American Association of Wine Economists, the Portuguese lead the world in per-capita wine consumption, quaffing even more than the French.

port wine

The Douro River Valley in Portugal is famous for its production of brandy-infused port wine”

More than 110 varieties of grapes are grown in the Douro River Valley.  About half are used to make brandy-infused port – perhaps Portugal’s most famous export.

Port, which comes in red and white varieties, is typically sweet and served with dessert.  It’s best sipped slowly as the brandy gives it a far greater punch than the table wines produced in the area.

We visited several wineries, some of which have been family-owned for centuries.  I was surprised to learn that “foot-treading” – stomping grapes by foot to extract the juice – is a tradition that still endures in some of the wineries.

While Portugal is known for being a soccer-crazy country, our cruise director didn’t hesitate when I asked him what was more important to the Portuguese people – soccer or wine.

“The wine culture is absolutely dominant here since pre-Roman times,” Filipe Nunes said.  “The average Portuguese drinks two glasses of wine each day, while football (soccer) only happens once or twice a week.”

COVID protocols

We were required to take three COVID-19 tests during the trip – one before boarding the flights to Portugal, a rapid test immediately prior to boarding the boat in Porto and a test administered by nurses onboard two days before flying home.  Vaccinations were mandated for all passengers on the Scenic Azure.

Douro River Valley

A quiet morning in the Douro River Valley in Peso da Régua, Portugal

Our temperatures were checked every time we boarded the boat, and we were asked to wear masks throughout the sailing, except when eating and drinking.  While on sightseeing tours, we observed that most of the local people wore masks – even when outdoors.

Cruising the Douro offers a more laid-back – and less crowded – experience than on busier European rivers like the Danube, Rhine and Seine.  While the architecture tends to be more interesting in the towns on those rivers, the Douro River Valley’s natural beauty is what makes this an appealing choice for travelers looking for a relatively tranquil getaway.

Lounging on deck and sipping a glass of port while slowly sailing past the hilly terrain full of terraced vineyards and quintas – gleaming white farmhouses with signage proclaiming the brand of wine produced on the site – never grew monotonous.

“It feels like you are in the middle of nowhere,” Andrada said.  “You can sail on the Douro River and you don’t see another ship.  You don’t see buildings.  You don’t see cars.  You are there alone looking at the beautiful landscape.”

Websites for more info:
Visit Portugal
Scenic Cruises
                                                                                © 2021 Dan Fellner

Biking Bad: Pedaling Past Breaking Bad Filming Sites in Albuquerque

By | New Mexico | No Comments

Jesse’s home, Walt’s car wash and Tuco’s hideout among many locations for fans of iconic TV show to visit in New Mexico

The Arizona Republic/USA — July 11, 2021

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The temperature hovered near 100 degrees as we biked past seedy motels, drug dens, dive bars and abandoned warehouses.

biking bad

Guide Brad Frye explains some of the plot twists that took place in the house where Jesse Pinkman’s character lived during the filming of Breaking Bad

It’s the most fun I’ve had on a two-wheeler in years.

Our group of eight – including guide Brad Frye – was on the “Biking Bad” tour through downtown Albuquerque to see a dozen sites where the iconic television series “Breaking Bad” was filmed.

The show, which originally aired on AMC from 2008-13 and can now be seen on Netflix, won 16 Emmys and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most critically acclaimed TV show of all time.

“Breaking Bad” told the story of Albuquerque high-school chemistry teacher Walter White – played by Bryan Cranston – who was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  To secure his family’s financial future before he died, White partnered with a former student – Jesse Pinkman — to build a crystal-methamphetamine empire.

True, the three-hour, 10-mile tour took us past some of the less attractive parts of Albuquerque’s downtown.  Frye, who has been leading “Biking Bad” tours six years for Routes Bicycle Tours & Rentals and binge-watched the show three times, described the tour as an up-close look at the city’s “gritty Western charm.”

But we also pedaled past beautiful tree-lined residential neighborhoods with homes dating back more than a century and saw the progress of an ongoing downtown multimillion-dollar revitalization project.  It’s led to the opening of upscale bars, theaters and art galleries along Albuquerque’s Central Avenue corridor – the historic Route 66.

Albuquerque sunset

View of an Albuquerque sunset from the Sandia Mountains. The city has become a popular filming location for movies and television programs

Albuquerque’s sunny climate, wide-open desert spaces with expansive views of the Sandia Mountains just east of the city, cultural diversity and generous tax incentives, have made it a popular filming location for movies and TV shows.  No production has elevated the city’s visibility more than “Breaking Bad.”

“We definitely saw an uptick in tourism as a result of that show,” said Brenna Moore, communications manager for Visit Albuquerque, the city’s tourism board.  “It raised the awareness of the city, particularly in international markets.”

“Breaking Bad” finished its run eight years ago. A popular spinoff called “Better Call Saul” – telling the story of Walter’s ethically challenged attorney Saul Goodman – is still being filmed in Albuquerque.

Most of the prominent “Breaking Bad” filming locations can be seen on the bike tour, although there were a few others – including Walter White’s house in the eastern part of the city – that require a car ride.

Here are my favorite “Breaking Bad” sites:

Jesse Pinkman’s house

Pinkman house

The Biking Bad tour stops at the house where the character Jesse Pinkman’s parents lived. Built in 1909, the home is listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Bad things happened inside this stately, two-story Spanish Colonial home on a quiet residential street just a few blocks from downtown Albuquerque.  Built in 1920, the 3,600-square foot house went on the market in 2015 for $1.6 million.  “Meth lab not included,” noted the listing agent for Coldwell Banker in a tongue-in-cheek press release.

Jesse’s fictional parents lived in an even older home just a few blocks away.  Mr. and Mrs. Pinkman’s house dates to 1909 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Candy Lady store

This shop in Old Town is a must-see for “Breaking Bad” aficionados who want to experience the dark humor that helped make the show so enthralling.

Owner Debbie Ball — “the candy lady” — first became well-known in Albuquerque when she started making X-rated cakes and candies in the 1980s.  When “Breaking Bad” started production, she was approached by the show’s prop master to whip up a sugary concoction that looked like methamphetamine.

“The sex was good until the drugs started,” she joked about the evolution of her candy store.

Ball produced 150 pounds of blue-tinted rock candy that was used in the show’s first three seasons.  Today, she says 20-30 percent of her sales are from “Breaking Bad” memorabilia, including packets of blue rock candy.

Meth lady

Debbie Ball, owner of The Candy Lady store, made the simulated blue meth used during the production of “Breaking Bad”

I ingested some while I channeled my inner Skinny Pete and Badger, two of the show’s meth-dealing characters.

I didn’t get high, but I did get a tummy ache.

Walter White’s house and car wash

“Breaking Bad” diehards know the address by heart – 308 Negra Arroyo Lane.  Of course, that wasn’t the real address of the White residence, a modest three-bedroom ranch located in a section of town known as Northeast Heights.

Many of the show’s most dramatic – and amusing – scenes were filmed here.  One of the most memorable is the episode from season three in which Walt – upset that his wife Skyler wouldn’t let him dine with the family — tossed a pizza onto the roof.  The pizza stuck.

Numerous fans have since tried to replicate Walt’s feat in a twisted sort of pilgrimage.  It’s gotten so bad that the homeowner erected fencing around the entire property to keep pizza-slinging fans away.  There are also red cones on the street in front of the house to prevent gawkers from parking too close.

It is a private residence, so if you decide to visit, don’t linger.  I took a photo from a block away and quickly departed.  The homeowner was sitting in the front yard and it was clear she wasn’t keen on having company.  Hard to blame her.

Walter White house house

Breaking Bad’s Walter White character and his family lived in this house located in the Northeast Heights section of Albuquerque

Fans of the show know that in the first season Walt worked part-time at a local car wash to help make ends meet.  Later in the series, he and Skyler bought the car wash as a front to launder millions of dollars of meth money.

That business, known as A-1 Car Wash (“have an A-1 day!” was a frequent line in the show) is a five-minute drive from the White residence.  It’s now called Mister Car Wash, part of a Tucson-based chain that owns more than 300 car washes in 21 states.

Restaurants, hangouts and seedy motels

Our “Biking Bad” tour took us to several downtown eateries that were used as filming sites. Java Joe’s, which drug-dealer Tuco used as his hangout, is worth seeing for the colorful mural painted on the east side of the building.

The Dog House drive-in was a popular filming location during the series and the place where Jesse gave away his cash to a homeless man.  The restaurant’s retro neon sign with a tail-wagging dog is fun to see after dark.

Walt and Lydia frequently met at The Grove Café on Central Avenue, a popular breakfast spot.  It’s also the place where Walt poisoned Lydia with ricin-laced Stevia.

“People like to make the joke, ‘Be careful of the Stevia at the Grove,’” said General Manager Andrew LoBue, adding that the restaurant’s multiple appearances on the show “helped put us on the map.”

Java Joe's

Java Joe’s in downtown Albuquerque, which was used as the filming site for Tuco’s hangout

Just down the block from the Grove is the Crossroads Motel.  The low-end lodge was used as a drug den and a spot for other illicit activities during the filming of the show.  From the looks of it today, the Crossroads was perfectly cast.

Los Pollos Hermanos, which drug kingpin Gus Fring used as a base of operations, is really a fast-food restaurant called Twisters.  It’s about a 20-minute drive south of downtown Albuquerque.

Seemingly, every restaurant and hotel in the city has some sort of connection to “Breaking Bad.”  We stayed downtown at the Hotel Andaluz, named after a region in Spain called Andalusia.  When it opened in 1939, it was the first building in New Mexico with air conditioning.

The Andaluz hosted “Breaking Bad’s” wrap party for the cast and crew at the completion of the show’s fifth and final season.

Website for more info:
Visit Albuquerque

                                                                                © 2021 Dan Fellner

Elvis Presley was Jewish? A trip to Graceland erases lingering doubts

By | Jewish Travel | No Comments

A grave marker locked away for decades confirms the King’s Jewish roots

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) — June 24, 2021

MEMPHIS – The large crate sat unopened in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse here for more than four decades, concealing a little-known fact about one of America’s cultural icons.

Gladys Presley grave marker

Gladys Presley’s grave marker, now on display at Graceland. It was designed by her son Elvis to honor the family’s Jewish heritage

Inside was the headstone of Elvis Presley’s mother, Gladys, which had been stored in the Graceland archives along with 1.5 million other items since 1977.  And on the upper left side of the long-unseen marker — designed by Elvis himself — is a Star of David.

Yes, the King of Rock and Roll had Jewish roots.

The headstone, which was taken from storage only in 2018, is now on display at the sprawling complex in Memphis where Elvis lived from 1957 until his untimely death 20 years later at the age of 42.  It sits in Graceland’s Meditation Garden, just outside the mansion and a few feet from Elvis’ own grave.

Stories of Elvis’ Jewish heritage have long been in circulation, but when it comes to a legend like Presley — whose death is not even considered settled fact in some quarters — it’s not always easy to separate fact from fiction.  With the headstone now on public display and an accompanying sign proclaiming “Gladys’ Jewish heritage,” any lingering doubts can finally be erased.


The Graceland mansion in Memphis, where Elvis Presley lived from 1957 until his death in 1977

“There was a lot of mystery surrounding it,” said Angie Marchese, Graceland’s vice president of archives and exhibits, and the one who came up with the idea of unveiling Gladys’ headstone on the 60th anniversary of her death, partly to dispel doubts about Elvis’ Jewish lineage.  “The star is on it, so it answered a lot of questions that were out there.”

Marchese says Elvis’ maternal great-great-grandmother was a Jewish woman named Nancy Burdine.  Little is known about Burdine, but it’s believed her family immigrated to America from what is now Lithuania around the time of the American Revolution.  According to, Burdine was born in Mississippi in 1826 and died in 1887.

Burdine’s great-granddaughter was Gladys Love Smith, who married Vernon Presley in 1933.  Two years later, Gladys gave birth to Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi.  The family moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13.

The Presleys once lived in an apartment directly below the family of Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, the first principal of the Memphis Hebrew Academy.  The rabbi’s son, Harold, who now lives in Maryland, said that Elvis actually served as the Fruchters’ “Shabbos goy,” a non-Jew who performs household tasks for observant Jews that are normally forbidden on the Jewish Sabbath.  Fruchter said his parents “never had even an inkling” that Elvis had Jewish roots.

“If they had, they would never have considered asking him to be a Shabbos goy,” Fruchter said.

Gladys Presley

A portrait of Gladys Presley hangs on the wall inside the Graceland mansion in Memphis

Elvis was especially close to his mother, who died of heart failure in 1958 at the age of 46.  Initially Elvis had her buried in a public cemetery in Memphis.  Her headstone was marked with a cross.

But Marchese says that six years later, Elvis replaced the headstone with one designed to his specifications.  The new marker featured a Star of David on one side and a cross on the other along with the words “Sunshine Of Our Home” engraved between.

What prompted Elvis to include the Star of David on his mother’s headstone?  Marchese isn’t exactly sure, or even when Elvis learned of his mother’s Jewish heritage.  But she says “the Jewish faith gave him comfort when he was seeking answers” to help him deal with her passing.

Following an attempt to steal Elvis’ body from a Memphis cemetery, Vernon Presley had the remains of his son and wife moved to Graceland for security reasons.  Gladys’ grave marker with the Star of David went into storage.  And there it remained until Marchese suggested it be put on public display.

“We thought it would be a great way of honoring her Jewish heritage as well as honoring her,” said Marchese, who has worked at Graceland for 32 years and is one of the world’s preeminent experts on the Presley family.  “We think it’s what Elvis would have wanted.”

There is evidence that Elvis’ Jewish lineage meant more to him than just a symbol on a headstone.  He gave generously over the years to a variety of Jewish organizations, including the Memphis Jewish Community Center, a donation honored with a plaque that hangs in Graceland today.  Elvis’ personal library included several books on Judaism and Jewish history.  An entire book on the topic, “The Jewish World of Elvis Presley,” was published last year.

chai necklace

Elvis Presley’s chai necklace, which he wore during the final years of his life

During the final years of his life, Elvis was frequently photographed wearing necklaces with the Star of David and the Hebrew word “chai,” which means life.  The chai necklace is kept in a cabinet at Graceland next to the keys to the singer’s famed 1955 pink Cadillac.  Never one to be accused of subtlety, Elvis had the necklace designed with 17 diamonds.  He purchased the jewelry in 1976, one year before he died.

“He would often make a joke, ‘I don’t want to get left out of heaven on a technicality,’” Marchese said.  “So he would wear a Star of David, a chai and he would also wear a cross.  He wanted to keep all his bases covered.”

Gladys’ heritage notwithstanding, Presley was raised in the Assembly of God Church, but he explored other religions as he got older and began to struggle with physical and mental issues.

“He was always searching for answers as to why he was chosen to be who he was,” Marchese said.  “I think he found some of those answers through different religions.”

There have been suggestions that Elvis’ handlers didn’t want his Jewish heritage known to the public, fearing it might prompt some of his Southern fans to abandon him.  But Marchese says there is no evidence of that.

Elvis grave

Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland

“It was not something he was shying away from,” she said.  “He would be photographed in these [necklaces] and he would make donations to Jewish community centers throughout his entire life.”

And what about the persistent rumors that Elvis’ death was a hoax?  Hasn’t he been spotted at a Burger King in Kalamazoo or at the Memphis airport?

Might he even have been seen davening at a shul in Shreveport?

Marchese chuckled when I asked her the question that she has patiently fielded numerous times over the years.

“I normally say Elvis unfortunately passed away August 16, 1977,” she said.  “And even though people wish for him to be alive, he’s here with us in spirit and still influencing pop culture today.”

                                                                                © 2021 Dan Fellner

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/USA — 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