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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.

The Irrawaddy: Cruising Back in Time in Myanmar

By | Cruising, Myanmar | No Comments

Trip on Scenic Aura offers glimpse into Kipling’s 19th-century Burma

The Arizona Republic — April 7, 2019

MANDALAY, Myanmar – Rudyard Kipling brought worldwide attention to Myanmar – then part of colonial British India — in a famed 1890 poem called “Mandalay.”  Kipling extolled the beauty of this mysterious, off-the-beaten path land and its people.

Scenic Aura

Burmese women living along the Irrawaddy wash their clothes in the river near the 44-passenger Scenic Aura

The poem was further engrained in Western pop culture when it was adapted into a song – “The Road to Mandalay” — recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1958.

Much of this country of 53 million people in Southeast Asia has changed little since Kipling first laid eyes on the place he immortalized 130 years ago.  Once you leave the major cities, rural Myanmar – also known as Burma – is like taking a step back into Kipling’s 19th-century poem.

Farmers still work the rice paddies by hand, many villages don’t have electricity, horses and oxen transport people on unpaved roads past banana trees, women wash their clothes in the river, and the Burmese people cover their faces with a distinctive makeup called thanaka – made from ground bark – a tradition that dates back more than 2,000 years.

I recently had a chance to explore rural Myanmar, with all the creature-comforts of home, on a 10-day cruise down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay – the country’s second-largest city — to Pyay on the Scenic Aura, a luxurious 44-passenger boat that’s been sailing the Irrawaddy since 2016.

At that time, democratic reforms initiated by a military government opened the door to a flood of tourists to a country that had essentially been closed to the rest of the world for six decades.

Hsinbyume Pagoda

The stunning, all-white Hsinbyume Pagoda in Mingun, Myanmar, built in 1816

Visitors started pouring into Myanmar for a chance to see a region of Southeast Asia that offered thousands of spectacular and unspoiled Buddhist pagodas and temples, and an authentic look into monastic life, which so permeates this deeply spiritual country.

And when the tourists came, so did the cruise lines.  In 2016, there were some 10 international lines offering sailings on the Irrawaddy, which flows north to south through the heart of Myanmar from its source high in the Himalayas down to the Indian Ocean.  The cruises were running at close to full capacity.

But Myanmar’s tourist boom didn’t last long.  Civil unrest involving a Muslim-minority group, the Rohingya, erupted in an isolated region of the country called Rakhine.  More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.  Words like “ethnic cleansing” and even “genocide” have been used to describe alleged atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military.

In short, Myanmar has become a political pariah and many tourists are spooked.

Most of the leading cruise lines, including Viking and Avalon, have recently pulled out of the country.  Now, Scenic is one of just three major cruise lines that still remains on the Irrawaddy and capacity on its 19 sailings this year is hovering at only around 60 percent.  (Due to water levels on the river and the climate, the sailing season in Myanmar only lasts from August-April).

Bagan

Horse carts take visitors past some of the ancient temples in Bagan, Myanmar

Still, the Australian-based cruise line with a growing presence in the U.S. market remains committed to Myanmar.

“It’s a very tricky situation to address,” says Phil Jordan, general manager of Scenic Asia.  “You can’t turn a blind eye to anything that’s happening in any country.  But by not traveling here, we’re not helping anyone.  We have a commitment to our staff here and we want to continue.”

Tourists are not allowed anywhere near the conflict zone – located in the far western part of the country — and I found Myanmar to be extremely safe.  The U.S. State Department recently issued a level 2 travel advisory for Myanmar – “exercise increased caution.”  But there are numerous other countries that fall into the same category, including Denmark, France and the United Kingdom.

Regarding the ethical issues about visiting a country whose government has been accused of committing atrocities against civilians, that’s a decision every traveler must make on their own.  As for the Burmese people, I found them to be some of the most welcoming you’ll encounter in Asia – always quick to greet visitors with a wave and a smile.  Street crime is virtually non-existent.

Thanaka

Burmese children living in a village on the Irrawaddy River cover their faces with a distinctive makeup called thanaka, made from ground tree bark

All told, we sailed 334 miles south on the Irrawaddy between Mandalay and Pyay, with a brief 6-mile trek north of Mandalay to Mingun, where we visited the stunning all-white, early 19th-century Hsinbyume Pagoda.

In Sagaing, we spent the morning at a monastic-supported school and donated funds provided by Scenic to the principal.  Afterward, we walked to a nunnery where we had the honor to donate lunch to 72 nuns, placing tea, cookies and fruit in their bags while they marched in a procession and chanted prayers.  Some of the Aura’s passengers arose at 4:30 a.m. to give alms to the local monks.

With so many impoverished villages on the route, Scenic is making a concerted effort to improve conditions in the places it visits.  Aside from donating money and supplies to numerous schools and monasteries, the cruise line built a sanitation block in a village we visited called Yandabo, famous for its handmade pottery.

“When we visit these areas, we would like to give back to the community,” says Yi Mon, one of two Burmese guides on the Aura.  “What do they need?  So we donate.”

Myanmar sunset

Sunset on Lake Taungthaman near Amarapura, Myanmar

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a two-day stop in Bagan, one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in the world that few people have heard of.  Bagan features more than 2,200 Buddhist shrines in a 26-square-mile area, some dating back 1,000 years.

While Angkor Wat in nearby Cambodia gets far more visitors, Bagan is just as spectacular.  It offers the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas and ruins in the world.  The sprawling site is best seen by hot-air balloon or while riding in a horse cart.

Cruising the Irrawaddy is an ideal way to experience the hidden treasures of Myanmar, as the tourism infrastructure is substandard in most parts of the country. Electricity outages are common and hygiene at many restaurants is not up to Western standards.

“I think it’s still got that Asia of yesteryear feel,” says Jordan.  “And that’s something that’s going to be harder and harder to find as time goes forward.  You go down the river and easily feel like you’ve stepped back in time.  It truly is a shame that so many other operators are leaving Myanmar, but I also believe it will recover, and quite swiftly.”

                                                                                             © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Scenic Cruises
U.S. State Department page on Myanmar

Video:
See video shot by the author of a traditional Burmese dance performed by a dance troupe from Mandalay, Myanmar on the top deck of the Scenic Aura on the Irrawaddy River.

Rollin’ on the River

By | Cruising, Louisiana, Mississippi | No Comments

Cruising the Mississippi on the paddlewheel-propelled American Duchess

The Arizona Republic — January 13, 2019

THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER – Big wheel keep on turning.

American Duchess

The American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Duchess in Vicksburg, Miss.

John Fogerty’s 1969 iconic song about hitching a ride on the “Proud Mary” evokes images of paddlewheel-propelled steamboats hauling people and cargo on the Mississippi River through the American South.

Today, most of the paddlewheels are gone, replaced by more efficient propulsion systems.  But for those wanting an illuminating trip to learn about the era of antebellum plantations, Mark Twain, the Civil War and the horrors of slavery, there are still a few remaining paddle-wheelers traversing the waters still known locally as “Ol’ Man River.”

I recently spent a week on one of the paddle-wheelers — the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Duchess, originally built as a casino riverboat in 1995, then elegantly refurbished in 2017 to accommodate 166 passengers.  The boat, which reaches a top speed of 15 mph, resembles a floating two-tiered white wedding cake with red frosting.

According to Joe McKey, the Duchess’ Captain, the red paddlewheels on the back of the boat aren’t just for nostalgia.  They provide 20-30 percent of the Duchess’ propulsion; the rest coming from diesel engines (see video shot by the author: paddlewheels propel the American Duchess).

Cruising the Lower Mississippi is an eye-opening way to learn about the region’s history – good and bad – and the rich mixture of Creole, Cajun, French, Spanish and African-American cultures, which has created one of the most diverse and intriguing melting pots in the country.

Duchess paddlewheels

Paddlewheels help propel the American Duchess up the Mississippi River

The cruise started and ended in New Orleans, which has rebounded nicely since it was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Like most of the ship’s passengers, I arrived a day before the cruise departed so I could explore “The Big Easy.”  I walked through the city’s historic heart, the French Quarter, and dined in one of New Orleans’ most famous restaurants – the century-old Arnaud’s – known for its Creole cuisine and live jazz music.  It was the first time I ever tried alligator sausage, an Arnaud’s specialty.

After leaving New Orleans, the Duchess stopped in four ports in Louisiana and Mississippi.  In each port, American Queen provided free hop-on, hop-off buses with tour guides so that we could explore at our own pace.

“Premium excursions” were also an option.  Priced at around $70, they focused on specific themes or sites like the Civil War, Southern cooking or cotton plantations.

On a foggy morning near White Castle, La., we visited the Nottoway Plantation, built in 1859.  With 64 rooms, it’s the largest antebellum plantation house in the South and is reminiscent of the fictional Tara plantation from “Gone with the Wind.”

Slaves quarters

Slaves’ quarters built in 1840 at the Laura Creole Plantation in Louisiana

It was sobering to learn about the lives of slaves working the sugarcane and cotton plantations we visited.  Our guides didn’t try to romanticize the South’s antebellum history, instead painting a realistic picture of the slave trade and the awful conditions that millions of Africans brought to the Americas against their will had to endure from early colonial days to the end of the Civil War.

“We don’t shy away from that kind of stuff,” said guide and historian Kyle Crosby, when I asked if I could see the 180-year-old former slaves’ quarters at the Laura Plantation, a woman-run-and-owned Creole sugarcane plantation near Vacherie, La.  We were taken to the cabins where slaves lived – typically two families per cabin – which have been restored to show what conditions were like for the more than 300 slaves who once worked the plantation’s sugar fields.

In Natchez, Miss., we stopped for a visit at the notorious “Forks in the Road,” which at one time was the second-largest slave market in the South.  Located about a mile outside of the city limits, there’s little to see other than some signs and small markers. But the historical magnitude of the site – where human beings were bought and sold like cattle – was difficult to absorb.

It somehow seemed fitting that it was pouring rain during our visit to the Forks in the Road.  Not so fittingly, the site is located on Liberty Road.

Vicksburg battlefield

The battlefield at Vicksburg, where one of the most pivotal Civil War battles was fought in 1863

At our final stop in Vicksburg, Miss., we visited the site of one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War.  The surrender of Vicksburg by the Confederacy on July 4, 1863, gave the North control of the Mississippi River.  Along with the Confederacy’s defeat the day before at Gettysburg, Pa., the South’s chance of winning the war had all but vanished.  On a hillside across town, we visited the Vicksburg National Cemetery, where 17,000 Union servicemen are buried.

All told, we traveled 682 miles roundtrip from New Orleans to Vicksburg, with a slight detour on the Yazoo River.  The weather was surprisingly chilly; there were days when temperatures never climbed out of the 40s and a heavy fog often blanketed the river in the mornings.  But cruise fares on the Mississippi in the winter are cheaper and the crowds are smaller than in the spring or summer; our boat was only about 70 percent full.

Cruising the Lower Mississippi offers a distinctly different experience than river cruising in Europe.  True, the scenery on the Mississippi isn’t as resplendent as what you’ll see on the Danube, Rhine or Seine.  Instead of cruising past historic castles, churches and quaint villages, you’ll mostly sail by industrial barges and oil refineries.

Duchess Captain

Capt. Joe McKey steers the American Duchess down the Mississippi toward New Orleans

But the onboard experience on the Duchess was better than what I’ve experienced in Europe.  The boat – including the cabins — was far more spacious, offered nicer amenities, and there was first-rate entertainment every night.  In addition to an onboard house band and entertainers, local singers would be brought on the boat to give concerts featuring music that originated in the region, including blues and country.

The boat’s “Riverlorian” would give lively daily lectures about the river and its history.  And the crispy Mississippi catfish, Louisiana gumbo and vegan jambalaya served in the Duchess’ two restaurants were delectable.  It was never hard to find a bottle of Louisiana-made Tabasco sauce to add some heat.

While the towns on the river can’t compete with the ambiance and architecture of a Vienna, Budapest or Strasbourg, a trip on the Mississippi offers its own unique charms and an authentic slice of Americana – especially music and food — that is difficult to replicate anywhere else.

As Mark Twain once wrote:  “The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit.”

Rollin,’ rollin,’ rollin’ on the river.

                                                                                             © 2019 Dan Fellner

Cruising to Cuba

By | Cruising, Cuba | No Comments

Antique cars a highlight of trip to formerly off-limits Caribbean island

The Arizona Republic — September 16, 2018

HAVANA, Cuba – The first thing you notice is the cars.

Havana

View of Havana, Cuba

Say what you will about the Cuban government, you can’t help but marvel at the classic American automobiles that make this city of more than two-million people look like an enormous open-air car museum.

The streets of Havana are full of brightly painted American cars in a wide array of colors – many of which are sleek, two-toned convertibles — built in the 1950s.

Most are Chevrolets, although you’ll also see vintage Fords and Plymouths. Known by the locals as “almendrones” because they’re shaped like giant almonds, some of the vehicles look like they’re right off the assembly line.  Others resemble clunkers that have been salvaged from a scrapyard.

But the fact that the cars are still running is a testament to the Cuban people, who’ve had to make due with restrictive laws on foreign car imports and an American trade embargo since dictator Fidel Castro gained power in 1959.

My visit to Havana was easily the highlight of a 14-day cruise on the Holland America Veendam that started and ended in Boston, with stops in two Cuban ports, as well as visits to Florida’s Key West, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and a private island owned by Holland America called Half Moon Cay.

Cuba vintage cars

Vintage American convertibles from the 1950s parked in downtown Havana

Like most of my fellow 1,400 passengers from 27 countries, I chose the cruise primarily because it offered a rare chance to visit Cuba (pronounced Koo-bah by the locals), which had been mostly off-limits to American tourists until President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with the island in 2015 after a 55-year hiatus.

However, the Trump Administration last year tightened sanctions on Cuba and the State Department later issued a level 3 – “reconsider travel” — advisory after it accused the Cuban government of attacks on U.S. Embassy employees in Havana that caused hearing problems, headaches and other health issues.

For travelers, it’s important to note that Cuba is actually safer than many other Caribbean islands.  Street crime in Havana is rare and I encountered no anti-American sentiment.

In short, Americans can still visit Cuba, but need to sign a U.S. government affidavit stating they are participating in at least one of a number of approved activities, the most common of which is a “people-to-people exchange arranged by a sponsoring organization.”

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, has a population of 11.5 million.  Shaped like a crocodile, it’s located only about 100 miles south of Key West.

The island offers much more than just eye candy for antique car buffs.  Havana is a vibrant city with eclectic architecture reflecting its Spanish colonial history, numerous cathedral-anchored plazas, and a culture rich in art and music.

Havana Malecon

Havana’s famous Malecón, a 5-mile seaside promenade

There are street musicians on seemingly every block.  I attended two formal concerts, both of which featured Latin rhythms and a percussion-heavy sound that had many members of the audience out of their seats and dancing (see video shot by the author: Havana musical performance).

In 2016, the Veendam’s port lecturer, Francisco Gonzalez Larumbe, was on the first cruise ship to visit Cuba in 50 years.  During several lectures, he painted a realistic picture of what life is like for Cubans who have lived in difficult economic conditions and relative isolation since Castro rose to power.

Gonzalez Larumbe also taught us several “Cubanismos,” phrases used by the locals.  For instance, asi es Cuba, which literally means “so is Cuba,” is a mantra that guides Cuban life.

“It means things go slower,” he says.  “It’s a spirit of resourcefulness and creativity, given their challenges.  They will figure it out and make due.”

Che Guevara monument

A steel monument to Che Guevara in Havana’s Revolution Square

In the case of the vintage cars, this means keeping the vehicles freshly painted, the chrome fenders sparkling, and the gas-guzzling engines running with spare parts from anywhere Cubans can find them.

“The locals say that if you open the hood, you can find the United Nations in there,” he says.  “Because there are parts from all over the world.”

Many of the almendrones are used as taxis; like most cabs around the world, negotiate the fare before you hop in.  It’s hard to beat a drive in a 1950s convertible on Havana’s famous Malecón, a 5-mile seaside promenade that begins in Old Havana one block from where the cruise ships dock.

Cruising is a relatively safe and convenient way to visit Cuba.  The tours offered by the Veendam are designed to conform to the “people-to-people” State Department requirements.

In Havana, we were taken to see a community center that houses the work of local artists, with proceeds benefiting the poor.  And while the tour guides are employed by government-owned travel agencies, they didn’t inundate us with pro-Castro propaganda and freely answered our questions, even about Castro’s colorful private life.

Cienfuegos, Cuba

The historic center of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

I was expecting to see Castro’s image plastered all over the city.  Not so.  One of our guides told us that before he died in 2016 at the age of 90, the Cuban dictator decreed that he didn’t want his likeness used for political or commercial purposes.

Instead, billboards and political posters of another Marxist revolutionary who helped Castro rise to power – Argentine-born Che Guevara – are seen throughout Havana.  Merchandise with Guevara’s likeness fills souvenir shops.  In Revolution Square, where Castro was known to give speeches that lasted up to eight hours, a steel memorial of Guevara dominates the façade of the country’s Ministry of Interior building.

In addition to Havana, we also spent a day in Cienfuegos, a city of about 150,000 people on Cuba’s southern coast. Dubbed La Perla del Sur (“Pearl of the South,”) its historic city center has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you can tolerate the heat and humidity, now is an excellent time to visit Cuba.  The door to visit the country is partly open and can swing either way.  If it closes shut, Americans will no longer be able to visit.  If it swings wide open, the island will likely be overrun with tourists and lose much of its authenticity.

“There are no McDonald’s, no Wal-Marts, no Starbuck’s,” noted Gonzalez Larumbe about the country he has visited some 50 times.  “Yet.”

                                                                                             © 2018 Dan Fellner