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Cruising

Cruising to Nova Scotia’s “City of Sorrow”

By | Canada, Cruising | No Comments

Halifax prospers despite its connection with three horrific 20th-century transportation disasters

USA Today — June 14, 2022

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia – The natural beauty of this Canadian province in the north Atlantic belies the horrific tragedies inextricably linked to the island’s past.

halifax harbor

The harbor in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadian province has a connection with three horrific 20th-century transportation accidents

Nova Scotia has a connection with three of the world’s worst transportation accidents of the 20th century – the sinking of the Titanic, a Swissair plane crash and a harbor accident that killed more than 1,600 people in the deadliest human-caused explosion prior to the atomic age.

It’s easy to understand why some still call Halifax “the city of sorrow.”

During an early May trip to Nova Scotia, I visited several sites related to the three disasters and learned how the province has not only endured but prospered.

Nova Scotia isn’t defined by tragedy. With a rich maritime history, cosmopolitan seaport, tourist-friendly locals and one of the most picturesque lighthouses in North America, it was my favorite stop on a 10-day cruise through New England and eastern Canada.

I sailed on the American Queen Voyages’ Ocean Voyager, a 202-passenger ship that was less than a quarter full – just 49 passengers with a crew of 86.

“If you drop a napkin, there will be a crew member to catch it before it hits the ground,” our cruise director Johnny Melnick joked as I boarded the ship in Portland, Maine.

ocean voyager

The 202-passenger American Queen Voyages Ocean Voyager docked in Montreal, Canada, one of the stops on a recent 10-day cruise through New England and eastern Canada

Cruising through eastern Canada

We traveled more than 1,400 miles from Portland to Toronto, sailing on the Atlantic Ocean into the St. Lawrence Seaway before ending on Lake Ontario.

In addition to Nova Scotia, we stopped in Quebec City, Montreal, and the sparsely populated Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With the help of two onboard naturalists, we spent a day whale-watching in the Saguenay Fjord in Quebec, where we spotted several Beluga whales.

We followed the Voyager’s sister ship – the Ocean Navigator – which was three days ahead of us on the same itinerary. Once the two ships reached Toronto, they embarked on their summer-sailing season through the Great Lakes.

Located about 300 miles east of Maine, Nova Scotia is one of Canada’s three Maritime provinces – along with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The province has 1 million residents, about half of whom live in the capital and largest city of Halifax. Nova Scotia means “New Scotland” in Latin, reflecting its strong historic and cultural connection to Scotland.

Titanic grave

The grave at Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery of a 19-month-old boy who drowned in the Titanic disaster

Nova Scotia and the Titanic

While on its maiden voyage from England to New York in April 1912, the HMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk in the north Atlantic. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died. It remains the deadliest peacetime sinking of a superliner or cruise ship.

Nova Scotia became the epicenter of recovery efforts. The White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, chartered several ships from Halifax to aid in the search and rescue operations. So many bodies were recovered and brought back to Halifax that the city converted an ice rink into a morgue. Today, 150 victims are buried in three Halifax cemeteries.

I visited the Fairlawn View Cemetery on the city’s north side, where 121 Titanic victims are interred, more than any other cemetery in the world. The people buried in one-third of the graves have never been identified and are marked only with a number and date of death – April 15, 1912.

It was especially moving to visit the gravesite of a 19-month-old boy, originally known as “the unknown child.” In 2001 the boy’s body was exhumed in an attempt to learn his identity. He was initially misidentified as a Finnish child. In 2007, more advanced testing determined he was Sidney Leslie Goodwin, the youngest in an English family of eight on the ship. None of Sidney’s family members survived.

At the base of his grave, I observed a small blanket, children’s clothing and toys. Our guide told us that visitors place so many items at Sidney’s grave to honor his memory that cemetery caretakers have to clear them off at least twice a week.

The leather shoes the boy was wearing when his body was recovered are on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on Halifax’s waterfront, which has one of the largest collections of Titanic artifacts in the world.

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

An exhibit about the 1917 harbor explosion at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax

The 1917 Harbor Explosion

Just over five years after the Titanic sunk, Halifax was the site of another tragedy. On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, the Mont-Blanc, a French ship carrying a large cache of explosives, collided with a Norwegian vessel in the city’s harbor.

The collision resulted in a massive explosion that killed more than 1,600 people, injured 9,000 others and flattened more than one square mile of the city. It remains the biggest disaster in Canadian history.

There is a comprehensive exhibit devoted to the harbor explosion at the Maritime Museum, and several monuments and works of art around the city pay tribute to the victims. The clock at Halifax City Hall near the waterfront is permanently set at 4 minutes and 35 seconds after 9, the exact time of the explosion.

Crash of Swissair Flight 111 Near Peggy’s Cove

The tiny fishing village of Peggy’s Cove, 26 miles southwest of Halifax, is the site of one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the world – the iconic Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. Built in 1915, the 50-feet-high, red-and-white beacon is perched on an outcrop of granite rocks. It’s still a working lighthouse and is operated by the Canadian Coast Guard.

In 1998, Swissair Flight 111 – en route from New York to Geneva – crashed 5 miles off the coast of Peggy’s Cove. All 229 passengers and crew members were killed. An investigation determined the crash was caused by an in-flight fire.

Peggy's Cove Lighthouse

The Peggy’s Point Lighthouse, 26 miles southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia

Once again, Nova Scotia became the hub of search and recovery operations for a transportation disaster.

From the lighthouse, I hiked a mile along the coast to pay my respects to the victims at a memorial overlooking the sea. Part of the inscription etched into a large gray stone – written in both English and French – read: “They have been joined to the sea and the sky.”

While I thought about the victims who perished nearby, I could see the lighthouse in the distance. The contrast of two sites in such close proximity – one serene and alluring, the other a reminder of a calamitous accident – was difficult to grasp.

As I walked from the Swissair memorial to join my fellow passengers back on the tour bus, a cold front blew in from the Atlantic, bringing biting wind and freezing rain.

Reflecting on the tragedies I had learned about during my time in Nova Scotia, the gloomy weather seemed only fitting.

Websites for more info:
Tourism Nova Scotia
American Queen Voyages
                                                                                © 2022 Dan Fellner

Hawaii Cruises Finally Resume

By | Cruising, Hawaii, Mistake | 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.

koningsdam

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.

kilauea

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 https://travel.hawaii.gov 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

Cruising the Galapagos

By | Cruising, Ecuador | No Comments

South American archipelago a wildlife wonderland

The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — 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

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 Today.com — 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.

Porto

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

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 Today.com — 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

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

Cruising the Columbia River Gorge

By | Cruising, Oregon, Washington | No Comments

Scenery and history highlights of trip to Pacific Northwest

The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — November 10, 2019

STEVENSON, Washington – Meriwether Lewis and William Clark weren’t exactly sure where they were going on their historic, uncharted expedition in the Pacific Northwest more than 200 years ago.

Columbia River Gorge

A stretch of the 80-mile Columbia River Gorge near Goldendale, Washington

But what they found proved to be some of the most ruggedly beautiful, tranquil and alluring scenery in the country, stretches of which remain as pristine as when the trailblazing explorers first set eyes on this land in the early 19th century.

Perhaps the most spectacular portion of the journey taken by Lewis and Clark in 1804-06 to find a practical route from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean is the Columbia River Gorge.  It’s an 80-mile stretch of the river that – over millions of years – has created a canyon that slices through the Cascade mountain range and forms the border between the states of Washington and Oregon.

I recently cruised through the gorge as part of a week-long trip on the Snake and Columbia rivers on the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress, a 220-passenger vessel that is the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi River.

The trip started with a flight to Spokane, Washington, in the far eastern part of the state not far from the Idaho border.  After overnighting in Spokane, we were taken by coach about 100 miles to Clarkston, Washington.  There, the Empress – which is partially propelled with a large red paddlewheel on the rear of the boat — was waiting for us while docked on the Snake River across from Lewiston, Idaho.

American Empress

The 220-passenger American Empress docked on the Columbia River in Richland, Washington

Both Clarkston and Lewiston were named after the famous explorers who followed a similar path to the Pacific than we did, although Lewis and Clark’s journey was far more treacherous than we enjoyed on the American Empress.

Lewis and Clark had to survive brutal winters, scarce food supplies and skirmishes with Native Americans before they reached their destination – the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River – on Nov. 15, 1805.  The journey from St. Louis to the Pacific took them 18 months; they returned safely to St. Louis in September 1806.

We learned in-depth about the Lewis and Clark’s expedition through a series of lectures, films and hikes organized by Laurence Cotton, the boat’s “riverlorian,” a historian, writer and documentary producer who has been cruising the Snake and Columbia rivers since 2007.

Cotton says the Snake/Columbia itinerary is ideals for travelers who want to escape the crowds and busy ports found on other river cruises.  We docked in lightly populated towns such as The Dalles, Oregon, Richland, Washington and Astoria, Oregon, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies.

Multnomah Falls

The two-tiered 620-foot high Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon

“We’re never in a big city,” Cotton says.  “It’s mostly rural areas we go through in teeny-tiny ports of call.  We don’t have castles.  But we do have mountains.  We do have beautiful scenery and lots of local culture and color.  It’s real Americana.”

A day after leaving Clarkston, we arrived in Richland, Wash., near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers.  We visited the Sacajawea State Park, named for the young Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark and was instrumental in the expedition’s success.

We also learned about the traditions of the Nez Perce Native Americans, who have lived in this part of the country for centuries and welcomed Lewis and Clark on their trip to the Pacific.  The American Empress invited onboard a member of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in Idaho, J.R. Spencer, who taught us about the tribe’s history and beliefs, played the flute and drums while keeping us smiling with his witty and poignant storytelling (see video shot by the author: J.R. Spencer performs on the American Empress).

Once on the Columbia, we headed downriver toward the Pacific, passing apple orchards and vineyards.  In recent years, Washington and Oregon have become increasingly recognized for their high-quality and moderately priced wines, which we were served each night for dinner.

As we sailed west through the Columbia River Gorge, the terrain changed dramatically from golden, dry grasslands to lush rainforests.

With the Empress docked in Stevenson, Washington, we visited the two-tiered, 620-foot high Multnomah Falls on the Oregon side of the river, which attracts more than 2 million visitors a year (see video shot by the author: The spectacular Multnomah Falls in Oregon).

From the falls, we drove on the famed “Fruit Loop,” a scenic 35-mile route in the Hood River Valley known for its many orchards and fruit stands.  On the loop, we enjoyed dramatic views of the volcanic, snow-capped Mount Hood.  Reaching a height of 11,249 feet, it is Oregon’s tallest mountain.

Astoria Oregon

Astoria, Oregon, located on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Pacific Ocean

Our final stop was in Astoria, Oregon, where the river meets the Pacific Ocean.  In Astoria, we took a bike ride along the south shore of the Columbia and saw the sites in a town named after American business tycoon John Jacob Astor. That evening, we sailed to Vancouver, Washington, directly across the river from Portland, Oregon, from where we flew home the following day.

The cruising season on the Snake and Columbia rivers runs from March through December.  Our trip in late October featured cool but mostly sunny days, with highs in the 50s and 60s.  In some spots along the rivers, the falls colors were at their glorious peak.

There are only nine overnight riverboats – from four different companies — cruising the Snake and Columbia rivers.  Indeed, we saw very little boat traffic during our voyage and the only attractions where we encountered large numbers of tourists were Mount Hood and Multnomah Falls.  Most of the Empress’ sailings this year were at full capacity.

All told, we sailed more than 600 miles, passed through eight locks, under 30 bridges, and retraced the path of one of the most important expeditions in American history while enjoying magnificent scenery in the process.

“Everyone knows about the Mississippi,” says Cotton.  “But not everyone knows how important the Columbia was, not to just this corner of the country, but to the American West.”

                                                                                © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
American Queen Steamboat Company
Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association

Monaco: Playground of the Rich and Famous

By | Cruising, Monaco | No Comments

Visit to tiny country highlight of Mediterranean Sea cruise

The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — September 22, 2019

MONTE CARLO, Monaco – No wonder James Bond loved hanging out here so much.

Monaco

Monaco is the most densely populated country in the world, with a population of 35,000 in less than a square mile

This playground for the rich and famous on the French Riviera, the setting for two of Agent 007’s movies — “Never Say Never Again” and “GoldenEye,” – oozes Bond-like glamour, sophistication and money.

Lots of money.

Covering less than one square-mile of territory, the principality is the world’s second-smallest sovereign country (behind Vatican City).  Monaco is so tiny, it could easily fit inside of New York’s Central Park, with plenty of space left over.  Yet 35,000 people live here, making it the most densely populated country in the world.

While empty space may be in short supply, opulence is not.  Monaco is a destination that bills itself as “the international capital of luxury.”

The country offers visitors a look at what some consider to be the most elegant casino in the world, a shopping promenade that makes Beverly Hill’s Rodeo Drive look like a flea market in comparison, and a hilltop full of lavish villas perched high above hundreds of multi-million-dollar yachts anchored on the idyllic Cote d’Azur.

My visit to Monaco was the highlight of a 10-day, seven-country “Aegean Adventures” cruise on the luxurious 700-passenger Regent Seven Seas Voyager.  We started in Barcelona and ended in Athens, with stops along the way in France, Italy, Malta, Turkey and the stunning Greek island of Santorini.

Regent Seven Seas Voyager

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager anchored off the coast of Monaco

It was Monaco, the only country on the itinerary I had not yet visited, that I was looking forward to seeing the most.  The Voyager spent 14 hours anchored off the coast, tendering us back and forth while we strained our heads for celebrity-sightings on the many yachts and motorboats we passed.

Due to the allure of its natural beauty and man-made grandeur, Monaco has become one of the most popular – and intriguing — stops on Mediterranean Sea cruises.

“It’s got its own unique vibe,” said Ricardo Pinheiro, Regent’s destinations manager who has been cruising to Monaco since 2003.  “It’s French, it’s Italian.  It’s the cradle of the super-rich.”

Surrounded on three sides by France with a short coastline on the Mediterranean, Monaco is less than 10 miles from the Italian border.  It’s been officially recognized as an independent country since 1861 and became a full voting member of the United Nations in 1993.

Princess Grace grave

The grave of Monaco’s Princess Grace in Saint Nicholas Cathedral

Many Americans had never heard of the tiny country until 1956, when popular actress Grace Kelly married Monaco’s Prince Rainier III.  She served as Princess of Monaco until 1982, when she died in a car accident at the age of 52.  Today, Monaco’s reigning monarch is one of Grace and Rainier’s three children – Prince Albert II – believed to be one of the wealthiest royals in the world.

As soon as the Voyager’s tender dropped us off at Monaco’s pier, we were ushered onto a coach for one of the most exciting bus rides I’ve ever taken.  We were on the 2-mile Circuit de Monaco, a road that winds through the streets of Monaco and is home to the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, a Formula One race held every May.

Our driver kept to the speed limit and five minutes later, we exited the course and crossed the border into France.  We were on our way to the medieval hilltop village of Èze. Some of the buildings still standing here date back to the early 14th century.

We hiked up to the highest point in Èze to see stunning views of the French Riviera, including Cape Ferrat, nicknamed the “peninsula of billionaires.”  Some of the cape’s more notable residents over the years have included Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, the Rolling Stones and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Cape Ferrat

View of Cape Ferrat from Èze, France, just outside of Monaco

In 2012, Cape Ferrat was named the second-most expensive residential location in the world.  Number one?  Monaco.

After lunch in Nice, a pleasant coastal city of about a million people just 8 miles from Monaco, we drove back to the principality to learn more about its famed monarchy.  We stopped at the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, where Grace and Rainier are buried.  The beloved Princess’ tomb still sees a steady stream of devoted pilgrims.

A short walk away, we visited the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, where the royal family lives.  The palace, which features a daily changing of the guard at 11:55 a.m., originally was built in 1191 as a fortress.

We ended the day in the “ward” of Monte Carlo, home of the grandiose Casino de Monte-Carlo.  The casino opened for business in 1863 in a building with a beautiful neoclassical façade.  Parked out front were dozens of custom-made Ferraris, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis.

Visitors are allowed inside parts of the casino, but if you want to enter one of the gambling halls, there is a 17-euro cover charge (about $18.50).  A dress code is strictly enforced.  I didn’t want to pay the cover charge, but was able to get a quick glimpse into the gambling hall from the lobby.

Monte Carlo casino

The Casino de Monte Carlo, where two James Bond movies were filmed

Not surprisingly, I didn’t see any nickel-poker machines.

Monaco and the entire French Riviera is one of the most expensive places to visit in the world.  That’s why it’s a great place to stop on a cruise, where visitors are insulated from the exorbitant costs of restaurants and hotels.  A three-star hotel will set you back about $260 a night; five-star hotels average $640.

Regent, a high-end boutique line with just four ships (a fifth ship – the 750-passenger Seven Seas Splendor – begins sailing in 2020) includes most shore excursions in the cost of the cruise.  So we incurred virtually no extra out-of-pocket costs exploring Monaco and the Cote d’Azur.

I never did get to try my luck at the roulette wheel or baccarat table.  Way too rich for my blood.  But I did get a brief and entertaining look into the glitzy and mesmerizing place where James Bond starred in some of his most memorable movies.

Had I sprung for a $30 martini at the casino, I would have ordered it – just for the fun of saying the famous line — exactly like the couth 007 did.

“Shaken, not stirred.”

                                                                                             © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Monaco Tourism Board

Cruising Through Europe Back Into Jewish History

By | Cruising, Italy, Jewish Travel, Spain, Turkey | No Comments

Three must-see Jewish sites on a Mediterranean Sea voyage

Aish.com — September 15, 2019

MEDITERRANEAN SEA — A luxury cruise on the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea features all the magical and alluring experiences one would anticipate – a glimpse into how the rich and famous play on the French Riviera, picturesque fishing villages, a stunning array of historic architecture, and – of course — phenomenal cuisine.

Regent Seven Seas Voyager

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager anchored in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Monaco

But a voyage on the Mediterranean also offers Jewish travelers another treat.  It’s a chance to see some relatively little-known sites that shed light on the survival and resilience of Jewish life dating back thousands of years to Roman times.

I recently set sail on a 10-day, seven-country “Aegean Adventures” cruise on the luxurious Regent Seven Seas Voyager.  We started in Barcelona and ended in Athens, with stops along the way in France, Italy, Malta, Turkey and the Greek island of Santorini.

In three of the stops on the itinerary – Barcelona, Rome, and Ephesus, Turkey – I had the chance to visit Jewish-related sites and learn more about the ups and downs of Jewish existence in this part of the diaspora.

BARCELONA

Just a five-minute walk from the city’s famous Las Ramblas promenade, is the former Jewish quarter that once was home to Barcelona’s thriving Jewish community.  Amidst the small and winding streets and medieval architecture, sits what some believe to be the oldest synagogue in all of Europe – the Sinagoga Major de Barcelona.

According to historians, Jews began moving to Barcelona after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  They settled in an area of the city known as El Call, believed to have come from an old Catalan word derived from the Hebrew word kahal (community).

Sinagoga Major

Entrance to the ancient synagogue in Barcelona

The Sinagoga Major, located on a street called Carrer Marlet, is in a building dating back to the third or fourth century.  It’s unclear if it was initially used as a synagogue.  However, one of its excavated walls has a carving of 18 in Roman numerals, a spiritual number in Judaism.  Some suggest the carved number offers evidence of the building’s ancient Jewish roots.  The building also was built with an eastward orientation toward Jerusalem, in contrast with other buildings on the street.

The synagogue was significantly expanded during the 13th century.  At that time, Jews comprised up to 20 percent of Barcelona’s population.  Tragically, in 1391 the Black Plague decimated the city.  Jews were blamed and most were either murdered or forced to convert to Christianity.

An Argentine businessman with Catalan roots purchased the building in 1996 before it was to be demolished by the city.  Restorations began and Sinagoga Major reopened as a museum in 2002.

One room features ruins from the Roman era; the other has a small sanctuary with a menorah, a 500-year-old Torah scroll – donated by a New York attorney — and other Jewish artifacts.  Tours are given in English, Spanish and Hebrew.  There are no formal services held in the synagogue.  However, it is used for special events like weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Barcelona Jewish Quarter

The old Jewish Quarter in Barcelona

Sinagoga Major is not easy to find.  The Jewish quarter is a maze of streets not clearly marked and we needed to ask for directions several times before finding the building.  But it was well worth the effort to see a site with such religious significance and historical magnitude.

Over the years, the Jewish community in Barcelona has seen a mild resurgence.  In 1918, the Jewish population was estimated at just 100.  In subsequent years, Jews arrived from such places as Turkey, Greece, South America, northern Africa and Israel.

Today, the city’s Jewish population has grown to about 5,000, and there are four working synagogues.  We visited the largest — the Orthodox Cominidad Israelita de Barcelona Synagogue.  Located in a residential area in a building dating back to 1954, it was the first free-standing synagogue built on the Iberian Peninsula since the Jewish expulsion in 1492.  The synagogue houses both Sephardic and Ashkenazic sanctuaries. Security is tight, so if you’d like to attend services, it’s best to contact the synagogue in advance: info@cibonline.org.

ROME

Rome Synagogue

The Great Synagogue of Rome

A visit to the Eternal City rewards Jewish travelers with a must-see look at the oldest Jewish community in Europe and one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world.

It’s believed that a Jewish presence in Rome dates back to 161 B.C.E., when Jason ben Eleazar and Eupolemus ben Johanan were sent as envoys of Judah Maccabee.  While the treatment of Jews by the Romans in Palestine was often harsh, relations with the rulers in Rome were generally much better.  But once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jewish rights eroded.  During the Middle Ages, treatment of the Jews varied from pope to pope.

Like most ships on Mediterranean itineraries, the Seven Seas Voyager docked in the Italian port city of Civitavecchia, a 90-minute drive from the heart of Rome. We had the option of taking a tour of “Jewish Rome” organized by the ship, but opted instead to do it on our own, using one of several “hop-on-hop-off” bus lines that follow the same route past the city’s main sites.

Shanghai Jewish newspaper

The beautiful interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome

We exited the bus at the Piazza Venezia stop and walked about 10 minutes to the “Ghetto Ebraico,” which is clearly marked on city maps.   The Jewish Ghetto dates back to 1555, when Pope Paul IV restricted Jews to this small area of the city, which was then surrounded by a wall.  Following the unification of Italy in 1870, Jews were granted citizenship and the Ghetto was eventually abolished.

It was easy to figure out when we had reached the former Ghetto.  There were several kosher restaurants in the main square, catering to the large number of Jewish tourists coming to see the nearby Great Synagogue of Rome and the attached Jewish museum.

The Great Synagogue is a beautiful building that opened in 1904.  Containing elements of Assyrian-Babylonian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture, the building’s aluminum dome is the only square dome in Rome.  The Jewish community of Rome wanted an eye-catching building that would represent a visible symbol of the community’s freedom after centuries of hardship.  They succeeded.

For an 11-euro admission fee, we entered the two-story synagogue.  Security is extremely tight; there was a Palestinian terrorist attack here in 1982 which resulted in the slaying of a 2-year-old boy.

Our visit came on a Friday morning and while we sat in the sanctuary, a cleaning crew readied the synagogue for that evening’s Shabbat services.  We were surprised to learn that the Great Synagogue is just one of 18 working synagogues in Rome, although many of them are quite small.  There are an estimated 15,000 Jews now living in Italy’s capital city.

The admission fee to the synagogue also includes entrance to the attached Jewish Museum of Rome, which chronicles Jewish life in Rome throughout the centuries.  Established in 1960 as a room behind the Torah ark in the synagogue, the expanded museum moved to its present location adjacent to the synagogue in 2005.  We were especially impressed with the extensive collection of Jewish art on display.

The synagogue made headlines in 2016 when Pope Francis visited and gave a speech rejecting all forms of anti-Semitism and calling for “maximum vigilance” to prevent another Holocaust.

EPHESUS, TURKEY

Celsus Library

The ruins of the famous Celsus Library in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey

After a wave of terrorist attacks in 2016 that had a severe impact on tourism, some of the cruise lines – including Regent Seven Seas – are now slowly starting to return to Turkey.  One of the most popular port stops is the city of Kuşadasi, located on Turkey’s western coast on the Aegean Sea.  Kuşadasi is just a 30-minute drive from the famous Roman ruins of Ephesus.

One of the world’s most impressive and best-restored archaeological sites, Ephesus was the former capital of Asia Minor and was first built about 3,000 years ago.  In the Roman Empire, the city was considered second in importance only to Rome.

Ephesus reached its height in the second and third centuries, when it was home to nearly a quarter-million people.  Over the centuries, Ephesus was visited by such dignitaries as Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.

It is believed there was a substantial Jewish community living in Ephesus since at least the 5th century B.C.E.  Only about 20 percent of the city has been excavated; archaeologists think there is a synagogue that has yet to be discovered.

Unfortunately, there is currently little visible evidence of Jewish life in this ancient city.  However, there is a barely visible carving of a menorah on the marble steps in front of one of its most famous and popular structures – the Celsus Library.

Ephesus Jewish marker

A marker commemorating Jewish life in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey

Built in the second century, the two-story library with Corinthian style columns once contained more than 12,000 scrolls.  A marker on the steps in front of the library next to the menorah carving carries the following inscription in both Turkish and English:  “Menorah, seven-branched candlestick Judaic symbol, incised on the steps of the Celsus Library.  Roman Imperial period.”

Interestingly, our guide noted my interest when mentioning the Jewish marker.  She asked if I was Jewish.  When I responded affirmatively, she told me that she too was Jewish and lived in the nearby Turkish city of Izmir and is a member of one of the synagogues there.

Like a number of other cruise lines, Regent goes out of its way to accommodate Jewish passengers.  There were Shabbat services onboard and kosher food was available, if arranged in advance.  In fact, Regent offers 70 kosher meal options, prepared with certified Glatt kosher meats under strict rabbinical supervision.  Each meal is served on kosher china.

The Voyager was close to capacity, with 665 passengers onboard.  About two-thirds of our fellow travelers were either from America or the United Kingdom.

Had we had more time, we would have liked to have explored other Jewish sites on the itinerary, including the synagogues in Monaco and Livorno, Italy.  But seeing the survival – and even revival — of Jewish life in Barcelona and Rome and the vestige of an ancient Jewish community in Ephesus, certainly whet our appetite to come back and learn more about Jewish life and history in this wondrously beautiful part of the world.

© 2019 Dan Fellner

Sognefjord

Norway’s Spectacular Sognefjord

By | Cruising, Norway | No Comments

Cruising the longest navigable fjord in the world

The Arizona Republic — August 18, 2019

SKJOLDEN, Norway – There is a reason the Sognefjord – the longest navigable fjord in the world – has earned the nickname “The King of the Fjords.”

Cruising the Sognefjord

Cruising through the Sognefjord, the longest navigable fjord in the world, on the Holland America Nieuw Statendam

In addition to its length — 127 miles – the Sognefjord’s majestic offerings include waterfalls cascading down snow-capped cliffs that soar more than a mile-high from the sea, emerald-green lakes resulting from thousands of years of glacial melting, and brightly painted Norwegian houses and fertile farmland that dot the base of where the sea meets the massive peaks.

Cruising the Sognefjord was the highlight of a seven-day “Norse Legends” cruise on the 2,800-passenger Nieuw Statendam, Holland America’s newest and largest ship that just began sailing last December.  It officially was dedicated at a ceremony in February by the ship’s “godmother,” Oprah Winfrey.

Our 1,800-mile journey started and ended in Amsterdam, with four Norwegian port stops – Eidfjord, Skjolden, Alesund and Bergen.

About one-third of the ship’s passengers were Americans; there also was a large Dutch contingent.  The weather in Norway was surprisingly – and unusually — warm.  Some days the thermometer neared 90 degrees.  The light parka I brought never once came out of my cabin’s closet.

Skjolden

The harbor in picturesque Skjolden, Norway

I found Skjolden, which lies at the innermost point of the Sognefjord on a branch of the fjord called Lustrafjord, to be the most captivating stop during the cruise.  With a population of only 200 – “not including two dogs and a cat,” as our guide quipped – Skjolden is one of the smallest ports in the world visited by large cruise ships.

Norway has more than 1,000 fjords, the most of any country in the world.  In fact, fjord is a Norwegian word, which describes a long, narrow watery inlet flanked by steep cliffs that was created by a glacier.

The Sognefjord begins in the Atlantic Ocean in western Norway and winds its way inland past small, idyllic villages, fruit farms and popular hiking trails.  Its most famous arm is Naeroyfjord, only 820-feet wide at its narrowest point.  Since 2005, Naeroyfjord has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is believed to have been an inspiration for the 2013 Disney movie “Frozen.”

It never got tiring sitting on one of the Nieuw Statendam’s outdoor decks soaking in the scenery, listening to the ship’s port lecturer describe the geological wonders we were passing.

Nieuw Statendam

The Nieuw Statendam docked in Skjolden, Norway

Skjolden is a gateway to the ruggedly beautiful Jotenheimen National Park.  Jotenheimen, which means “home of the giants” in English, is home to a wonderous landscape of waterfalls, rivers, glaciers and some of the highest peaks in Europe north of the Alps.  The park is a one-hour bus ride – through hairpin bends and steep, winding roads – from Skjolden.

The cruise offered much more than natural beauty. Our northernmost stop of Alesund, a fishing port less than 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle, was virtually rebuilt from scratch following a fire in 1904. Today it boasts one of the most interesting collections of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe.

Our final port stop was Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city with a population of about 300,000.  An ancient Viking port steeped in medieval history, Bergen is known for a bustling waterfront with striking wood buildings, one block from a huge fish market.  I rode a funicular up Mount Floyen, where I took a three-hour hike that rewarded us with panoramic views of the city and surrounding fjords.

While Alaskan cruises also offer spectacular natural beauty, the port stops are much more touristy than those in Norway.  The western Scandinavian country is a compelling alternative for cruisers who enjoy scenery and hiking, but don’t want to rub elbows with a lot of other tourists in the process.

Alesund

The colorful architecture of Ålesund, Norway

You will see plenty of Norwegians enjoying the outdoors.  There’s even a Norwegian word – friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv) – coined by poet Henrik Ibsen that attempts to shed some insight into the Norwegian mindset.

Loosely translated as “free air life,” friluftsliv describes the deep connection to nature that is such a huge part of Norwegian culture.  Some argue the philosophy is one reason Norway consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries on Earth.

At every stop, we would see the locals camping in pup tents, boating, hiking and biking.  We learned a Norwegian proverb that helps understand the country’s deep love of the outdoors, even during the dark and frigid winter months:

“There is no such thing as bad weather.  Just bad clothes.”

                                                                                             © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Holland America Cruises
The official guide to Sognefjord

Video:
See video shot by the author of the Nieuw Statendam sailing underneath one of the world’s longest suspension bridges in the scenic Hardanger Fjord in Norway.