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Sognefjord

Norway’s Spectacular Sognefjord

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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

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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

The Somme Battlefields

By | Cruising, France | No Comments

Site of savage World War I battle in France moving part of Seine River cruise

The Arizona Republic — August 19, 2018

VILLERS-BRETONNEUX, France – For such a stunningly beautiful part of the world, it’s hard to fathom the horrific carnage that took place here more than 100 years ago on the Western Front during World War I.

Somme cemetery

The flags of France (left) and Australia overlook the Normandy countryside in a military cemetery at the World War I Battle of the Somme

Amidst the rolling hills in Normandy bearing golden wheat fields, apple orchards and tiny medieval villages, are the remnants of what’s been called by historians the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war ever fought by mankind.

For more than four-and-a-half months beginning July 1, 1916, Allied troops, led by soldiers from France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, fought the Germans in the Somme region of northern France spanning both sides of the Seine River.

My visit to the Somme battlefields was one of the most impactful and emotional days on a week-and-a-half cruise on the Seine River on the Scenic Gem that started and ended in Paris.  Like many Americans, I was reasonably well-informed about the D-Day invasion in World War II and had previously visited the Normandy landing beaches.

But I knew far less about the first World War, which was idealistically – and naively — referred to at the time as the “war to end all wars.”

The battle of the Somme was mostly fought under horrific conditions in trenches by armies just a few yards apart, separated by “no-man’s land.”  Venturing outside of a seven-foot-deep trench on the front lines often meant instant death.  The Somme also marked the first use of tanks on a battlefield, although the British armored vehicles used at the time were unreliable and yielded only mixed results.

Somme trenches

Visitors walk through the trenches at the Somme battlefield

“In the trenches, it was almost impossible to reach the other trench without being killed,” says Nathalie Lefevre,” a history teacher in Normandy who came onboard the Scenic Gem to give a lecture about World War I the day before the ship’s 86 passengers visited the Somme.  “And this is why the battle was so deadly.  Plus, the new weapons that were invented made all battles during World War I very bloody.”

By the time the battle of the Somme ended on Nov. 18, 1916, more than one million men were killed or wounded.  In comparison, that’s more than double the causalities suffered in the World War II D-Day invasion and the entire battle of Normandy in June 1944.

There are numerous military cemeteries, many of which contain the graves of soldiers who were never identified, scattered throughout the Somme.  Even though the battle was fought more than a century ago, the trenches are still visible and some have been paved so that visitors can walk through them.  The area still contains undetonated shells from the war and after a hard rain, it’s not uncommon for locals to spot the remains of soldiers in the mud, whose bodies were never recovered.

While Allied forces are considered the victors in the battle of the Somme, they gained little territory in the process.  But the battle seriously weakened the German army.  America entered the war a year later and its fresh troops helped the Allies gain the upper hand, ultimately culminating with Germany’s surrender in 1918.

Scenic Gem

The Scenic Gem docked on the Seine River in Honfleur, France

The cruise also included a visit to the moving American military cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach on France’s northern coast, site of the D-Day invasion which turned the tide turned during World War II and led to Germany’s surrender to the Allies in 1945.  The cemetery contains the remains of more than 9,000 Americans.

In stark contrast to the grim reminders of the first two world wars, the cruise also included visits to some of the most beautiful and tranquil settings in Europe, including the famous Giverny Gardens on the right bank of the Seine.  The famous Impressionist painter Claude Monet lived in Giverny and we visited the water-lily ponds that were the focus of much of Monet’s work during the latter part of his life.

We spent a day in Deauville, a seaside resort on the English Channel known as a playground for French high society.  Deauville features numerous half-timbered buildings, a trademark of Normandy’s traditional architecture.

Our visit happened to coincide with France’s Bastille Day, which commemorates the turning point of the French Revolution in 1789.  We were treated to a magnificent fireworks show from the top deck of the Scenic Gem while docked in a small village on the Seine.

Monet water lilies

The famous water lilies in Giverny that Claude Monet painted during the last 30 years of his life

We also enjoyed a unique light show at the Gothic cathedral in Rouen, the administrative capital and largest city in Normandy.  Consecrated in 1063 in the presence of William the Conqueror, the cathedral was the tallest building in the world for a several-year period in the late 1800s

The light show chronicles the church’s tumultuous history, including Viking invasions, fires and lightning strikes.  It’s just a 10-minute walk from where the river ships dock and is offered free after dark during the summer months (see video shot by the author: Rouen cathedral light show).

All told, we sailed about 400 miles roundtrip on the winding Seine from Paris to the picturesque port of Honfleur near the English Channel, leisurely meandering past numerous castles, cathedrals and chateaus.

Built in 2014 specifically for the Seine, the Scenic Gem is one of only a handful of the 19 ships now sailing the Seine that can navigate the river’s numerous locks and sharp turns and make it all the way to Honfleur.  Cruising the Seine is a relaxing way to explore northern France and by eating meals on the ship, you’re immune from the exorbitant costs of French restaurants.

Honfleur, France

An artist paints the picturesque harbor in Honfleur, France

The weather during the trip was spectacular – sunny most days with highs in the 80s.  The only exception was our day spent at the Somme battlefields, when it was cold, windy and rainy.  It somehow seemed fitting given the horrible loss of life that took place in northern France more than a century ago for so many soldiers from all over of the world.

“Many of the men who fought were volunteers, so they chose to cross the world and come to our country and help us and the other Allies win the war,” says Lefevre.  “This is always very impressive for me.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Pickleball Hits the High Seas

By | Cruising, Sports Abroad | No Comments

Holland America leading the way in adding the sport to cruise ships

USA Today.com/The Arizona Republic — April 1, 2018

SOUTH CHINA SEA – Pickleball, one of the fastest growing sports in America, is now starting to make a splash on the high seas.

Pickleball at sea

Pickleball being played on the Holland America Volendam in the South China Sea

The sport, hugely popular in Arizona, especially in active-retirement communities, has recently been added to the stable of sports offered on all 14 of Holland America’s ships.  And the line’s newest ship, the Nieuw Statendam, which debuts next December, will feature the game as well.

Other cruise lines, including Princess and Regent Seven Seas, also have added pickleball to some of their ships.

Pickleball is a racket sport that combines elements of tennis, table tennis and badminton.  Paddles are made of wood or composite materials; the ball resembles a wiffleball.  The sport can be played with either two or four players, although doubles is far more common.

Pickleball was invented in the 1960s in Washington state, but only recently has seen a huge growth in popularity; it now routinely attracts more players than tennis in 55+-housing developments.  In fact, the U.S.A. Pickleball Association (USAPA), which is headquartered in Surprise, calls it “the fastest growing sport in North America.”

Pickleball paddles and ball

Pickleball paddles and ball

Erik Elvejord, Holland America’s director of public relations, says adding pickleball to the company’s ships was a no-brainer “because of many requests we were getting from guests.”

As an avid pickleball player myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see “meet for a game of pickleball” in the daily program on the first day of a recent 14-day Asian cruise on the Holland America Volendam.

I quickly ventured up to the ship’s sports deck and saw that Holland America had retrofitted a court that formerly had been used for mini-tennis to pickleball.  The costs for the cruise line were minimal – put down some yellow lines on the court, buy paddles and balls, and lower the tennis net a few inches.  The courts are surrounded with netting to keep stray balls from landing in the ocean.

The nets may not quite be to exact specifications and the swirling winds can blow a well-executed shot off course.  But despite some of the onboard challenges, I was delighted – after years of cruising — to finally have the chance to experience the game at sea while working off a few extra calories from the Volendam’s overly tempting desserts in the process.

Holland America Volendam

The Holland America Volendam docked in Shanghai, China

Jack Thomas, the national president of the USAPA and a Scottsdale resident, says it’s about time cruise lines started hopping on the pickleball bandwagon.

“I think the cruise industry has figured out that pickleball is a very inexpensive way to attract and entertain their passengers and will soon become a must-have onboard activity,” he says.  “It is super easy to learn to play, great fun for all ages and creates camaraderie among fellow shipmates.”

Tino Carrillo, the Volendam’s assistant cruise director who overseas all of the ship’s onboard sports – table tennis, shuffleboard, basketball, and pickleball – says the latter has been a hit with the ship’s mostly older clientele.

“You typically play doubles, so it’s less tiring than some other sports,” he says.  “It’s more accessible for everybody.  It’s something fresh and new that more and more people are enjoying playing.”

This particular sailing of the Volendam started in Hong Kong and ended in Shanghai, with stops along the way in the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan.

Many of the ship’s nearly 1,400 passengers – representing 34 countries – had never heard of the sport.  But there was a hardcore group of pickleball fanatics who would show up on sea days for open play or tournaments.  And some passengers came out of curiosity to check out a game they knew only for its rather peculiar name.

“My wife and I are in the early stages of planning our first cruise adventure,” says the USAPA’s Thomas.  “We are not even considering ships without pickleball.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

The Magical Mekong

By | Cambodia, Cruising, Vietnam | No Comments

River cruise offers unique glimpse into Vietnamese, Cambodian cultures

The Arizona Republic — February 18, 2018

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – “Can you please pass the tarantula?”

Deep-fried tarantula

Deep-fried tarantula is a Cambodian specialty

I was joking – sort of – at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, after the waiter brought two of the large and hairy deep-fried arachnids to the table following the main course.

At first, I mainly just wanted to photograph the dish popular in rural Cambodia, attractively presented on a serving plate with a lime and spicy dipping sauce.  But the rest of our group dared me into taking it a step further.

I bit.  Literally.  In two bites, I downed the creature – eight legs and all – to the laughter and applause of the group.

Welcome to the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, which offers an unvarnished and fascinating glimpse into the fabric of an exotic and welcoming culture that has changed little over the centuries.

Scenic Spirit

The Scenic Spirit anchored on the Mekong River near Tan Chau, Vietnam

I recently spent a week cruising the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia aboard the Scenic Spirit, a 2-year-old 68-passenger ship owned by Scenic Cruises, an Australian-owned high-end line with a growing presence in North America.  Most of our passengers were from Australia and England; I was one of five Americans on the trip.

Mekong cruises offer a chance to sail past ancient hilltop pagodas, floating villages and seemingly endless fields of rice, fruit plantations and sugar cane.  And you’ll do so in relative solitude compared to cruises on more heralded rivers in Europe like the Danube, Seine and Rhine.

Indeed, during the Vietnam portion of the trip, we didn’t encounter even one other cruise ship, a pleasant difference from river trips in Europe where there are often so many ships parked in port at one time, you need to walk across several other vessels to reach your own.

View of Mekong River

View of the Mekong River from the Wat Hanchey Monastery in Cambodia

Known as Southeast Asia’s “rice bowl,” the Mekong is the lifeblood of hundreds of millions of people in the region, who use the river for trade, transportation, farming and fishing.  The river traverses six Asian countries – starting in China’s Tibetan Plateau before meandering through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.

We leisurely covered about 180 miles over seven days on a small portion of the river, sailing upstream from My Tho, about a two-hour bus ride southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, and disembarked in Kampong Chan, Cambodia.  Most of the ship’s passengers also booked post-cruise land tours of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, in northwestern Cambodia.

Aside from the tarantula, I sampled rice wine infused with a venomous cobra snake (the locals call it “Vietnamese Viagra,”) and a fiery red chile-pepper I picked right off the vine that made a jalapeno from back home taste like a bland cucumber in comparison.

As most of the villages we visited didn’t have docking facilities for large boats, the Scenic Spirit would drop anchor in the Mekong and we would take sampans – long, narrow wooden boats – into towns along the river.  Once on land, we rode rickshaws, tuk-tuks and ox carts to see the sites.

Cambodian monks

Monks chant a blessing at the Oudong Monastery in Cambodia

We visited an outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam, where they peddle everything from live roosters to fresh red snapper to roasted rat meat.  It’s where the locals go to buy their dinner each day, unlike the touristy floating markets you’ll find in Thailand.

There was a trip to a rural school, a silk factory and the opulent Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where the country’s 64-year-old King Norodom Sihamoni resides.

I especially found meaningful a visit to the home of a 70-year-old man who had fought in the South Vietnamese army alongside Americans.  After the war, he was sent to a “re-education camp.”  It was a stark reminder of the region’s tragic past.  Despite all they have endured, I have found the Vietnamese some of the friendliest people on the planet, always quick with a smile.

As far as any lingering anti-American sentiment from the war years, we never experienced the slightest hint of it.  Duc Ho, one of our Scenic tour directors, says attitudes of the Vietnamese people changed dramatically in 1995 when – thanks in large part to the work of Arizona Sen. John McCain — the two countries re-established diplomatic relations.

Sa Dec market

Produce vendors at the outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam

“Before, people were really angry toward Americans,” says Duc. “The younger generation now thinks differently.  It’s over.  It’s history.”

While we waited on the Mekong to clear immigration at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, Scenic brought onboard a local dance troupe, which performed a traditional acrobatic Vietnamese lion dance. It’s believed the dance brings good luck and fortune, not to mention a chance for the ship’s passengers to admire some delightfully animated costumes (see video shot by the author: Vietnamese lion dance).

At Phnom Penh, we veered off the Mekong to the Tonle Sap River to visit Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia and home to the country’s largest monastery.  Cambodia is a devoutly Buddhist country and it was fascinating to learn about the lives of the hundreds of monks and nuns who live in Oudong.

In fact, one of our Scenic guides, Mao (nicknamed “The Chairman,”) had spent six years himself as a monk and offered our group unique insights into the faith and the integral role it plays in Cambodians’ lives.

Mekong sunrise

Sunrise on the Mekong River in Vietnam

At the monastery, we sat on the floor of a temple for a private blessing as two monks wearing traditional saffron robes chanted Buddhist prayers and tossed jasmine flower petals at us (see video shot by the author: Buddhist monks chant blessing).

We also visited a monastery on a hilltop overlooking the Mekong called Wat Hanchey, home to novice monks, most of whom are teenagers.

The Mekong is ideal for travelers looking for a less-crowded, more authentic experience than is found on many other river cruises.  This year just 19 ships catering to foreign tourists are cruising the river; most hold well fewer than 100 passengers.

As for the tarantula, I survived without even a hint of a stomach ache.

More importantly, after a week on the Mekong, I’ve had a memorable taste of rural life in a culture so remarkably different from our own.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Cruising Russia’s Volga River

By | Cruising, Russia | One Comment

Despite political tensions, cruising gaining steam on Europe’s longest river

The Arizona Republic — August 13, 2017

MOSCOW, Russia – A political pariah?  Perhaps.

Scenic Tsar

The Scenic Tsar docked on the Volga River

But are Russia’s geopolitical controversies, heightened tensions with the United States and reports of election meddling keeping Western tourists away?

If you look at the recent surge in cruising on the Volga River, the answer is clear.

Nyet.

Traffic on the Volga, Europe’s longest river, has rebounded sharply in the past two years, as we learned on a recent two-week cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  Travelers looking for a more adventurous trip than is offered on Western European rivers like the Danube and Rhine are finding the Volga a compelling alternative.

We were sailing on the Scenic Tsar, a 112-passenger ship chartered by Scenic Cruises, an Australia-based line that also markets its trips to North Americans and Europeans.

Volga River

Scenery on the Volga between Moscow and St. Petersburg

Scenic, along with Viking, Uniworld and other cruise lines, is increasing its presence on the Volga.  Last year, Scenic offered four cruises on the river.  This summer, the number jumped to 10 with passenger capacity close to 100 percent.  And next summer, Scenic will have 12 sailings from May through October; 60 percent of the cabins already are sold.

The growth in the Volga’s popularity is easily visible.  There were as many as nine cruise ships at one time in some ports along the route.  Indeed, to return to the Scenic Tsar after a day of sightseeing we often had to cross through the lobbies of several other ships that were triple- and quadruple-parked by the pier.

Diana Lapshina, our Russian-born cruise director who has worked for Scenic since it first started sailing the Volga in 2012, says travelers aren’t deterred by negative media coverage of Russia.

“You go, you see, you taste, you experience, and only then you can tell whether the mass media was right or wrong,” she says.  “You have to see it yourself.”

River cruising makes a lot of sense in Russia, where English is not widely spoken and getting around by bus or train can be challenging.  Moscow’s hotels are some of the priciest in the world.

Red Square

Moscow’s Red Square on a rainy afternoon

The trip started with three days in the Russian capital, Europe’s most populous city with 18 million residents in its metropolitan area.  Traffic is a mess as Moscow’s infrastructure is undergoing extensive construction in preparation for next summer’s FIFA World Cup soccer finals.

We visited the Kremlin and walked past the office of President Vladimir Putin, then dodged the rain in nearby Red Square with its iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral.  We saw the internationally renowned Russian circus, attended a show featuring 50 dazzlingly costumed folk dancers and toured the State Tretyakov Gallery, which houses one of the largest collections of Russian art in the world.

I especially enjoyed the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, where the Russians trumpet their many accomplishments during the space race with America, including putting the first man into orbit in 1961.

After touring the museum, we were given a private audience with Alexsandr Leveykin, a former Soviet cosmonaut who spent six months on the Mir space station in the 1980s.  I asked what his reaction was in 1969 (he was 18 at the time) when he heard the news that U.S. astronauts had landed on the moon.

Peterhof Palace

The upper gardens of Peterhof Palace near St. Petersburg

“I did not have any disappointment and was very happy people made it to the moon,” he said through an interpreter, adding that America’s achievement received little coverage in the Soviet media.  “With no competition, there is no progress.”

After leaving Moscow, we stopped at several villages along the Volga and its tributaries, where we experienced a more tranquil side of Russian life.  In Uglich, a town of about 35,000 people believed to be more than 1,000 years old, we attended a mesmerizing concert at an Orthodox church in which a small choir was accompanied by Russian balalaikas (see video shot by the author: Uglich church concert).

Onboard the Scenic Tsar, we took Russian language classes, learned how to paint matryoshka (nesting) dolls, attended lectures on Russian history and sampled vodka and caviar.  As much as I tried, I just couldn’t develop a taste for borscht, a bright red beet soup that’s a Russian staple.

The cruise ended with three days in St. Petersburg (called Leningrad during Soviet times), considered Russia’s cultural capital.  A popular stop on Baltic Sea cruises, St. Petersburg is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world.

Lake Ladoga

Sunset over Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake

We also visited two of the most magnificent palaces outside of Versailles — Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace, the summer residence of Russian tsars.  Scenic also treated us to a private ballet performance at a downtown theater, complete with a champagne and caviar reception.

All told, we sailed about 1,100 miles between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Along the way, we visited four UNESCO World Heritage sites, traversed the largest lake in Europe — Lake Ladoga — and did our best to more fully understand a country that continues to be a source of angst and fear for many Americans.

“This is a trip about learning, not sunbathing,” cruise director Lapshina says.  “Here, you have to see something and contemplate it.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

The Romantic Rhine

By | Cruising, France, Germany, Netherlands | No Comments

40-mile Rhine gorge highlight of rainy river cruise on Scenic Opal

The Arizona Republic — July 17, 2016

MIDDLE RHINE VALLEY, Germany – Even under perpetually gloomy skies and unseasonably steady rain that caused flooding and disrupted the itineraries of numerous river cruises, it’s still easy to see why Germany’s longest river is widely known as the “romantic Rhine.”

Koblenz castle

A rainbow arches over the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress following heavy rains in Koblenz, Germany

The most idyllic portion of the Rhine is a 40-mile stretch in western Germany flowing north from Rüdesheim to Koblenz.  Called the Rhine Gorge, the region is liberally punctuated with remote chapels, terraced vineyards, about 60 villages nestled beneath jagged peaks, and a medieval castle at virtually every bend of the river.

The Middle Rhine has been romanticized over the centuries by numerous poets, painters and composers.  Noting that the gorge “graphically illustrates the long history of human involvement with a dramatic and varied natural landscape,” UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

In short, the gorge is a storybook blend of nature and manmade wonders.

The four-hour passage through the gorge was the highlight of a week-long Rhine River cruise in June on the Australian-owned Scenic Opal, a 169-passenger luxury “Space Ship” that was launched in 2015.  It is one of 15 ships in the Scenic fleet, 13 of which are sailing on European rivers this summer.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle appears to be drifting down the Rhine, its tiny patch of land obscured by high waters

The cruise was supposed to have started in Basel, Switzerland, and then head north on the Rhine through France and Germany before ending in the Netherlands, where the river empties into the North Sea.  But heavy rains spanning several weeks in the region led to high waters and made southern portions of the Rhine unnavigable for larger vessels like the Opal.

Numerous boats that ventured too far south were stranded — stuck up the river without a proverbial paddle.  Fortunately, our captain made a strategic decision three days before the cruise started to park the Opal farther north in Mannheim, Germany, where we were bused after arriving by air in Zurich, Switzerland.  So instead of visiting our first two ports by boat, we were taken there by bus.

It made for a chaotic and exhausting first couple of days of the trip but we were able to see all of the ports on our itinerary, including the city of Strasbourg, located in the Alsace region of northeastern France on the French side of the Rhine.  Strasbourg’s medieval city center, featuring an ensemble of historic houses, museums and churches, is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Strasbourg France

The medieval city center in Strasbourg, France, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

We also spent a day exploring the university city of Heidelberg, Germany, which was largely spared from bombing during World War II and thus retains its baroque charm.

By the third day, we were back on schedule and set sail from Rüdesheim through the Rhine gorge.  It didn’t take long to see the impact of the heavy rains and flooding.

The famous 14th century Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, built on a small island near the town of Kaub, appeared to be aimlessly drifting down the Rhine, its tiny patch of land totally obscured by the high waters.  The Rhine has long been a vital transport hub in Europe and the castle used to function as a toll booth for ships.

We later passed the stunning Marksburg Castle, built in 1117 to protect the town of Braubach.  Marksburg is the only castle on the Rhine that has never been destroyed, having survived the Middle Ages, the rule of Napoleon and two world wars.

Koblenz flooding

A popular pedestrian promenade on the Moselle River in Koblenz was several feet under water

Our trip through the gorge ended in the city of Koblenz, located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.  Finally, the sun peeked out for a few minutes and we were rewarded with a resplendent rainbow arching over the impressive Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, built high on a mountain in the early 1800s and now connected to the city by a cable car over the Rhine.

The following day we took a walking tour of Koblenz and once again witnessed the flooding that has caused so much havoc in the region this season.  A popular pedestrian promenade on the Moselle was several feet under water.

“We have never had so much rain as this year,” said Homeira, our Koblenz guide, describing an unusual weather pattern that has impacted much of Europe this spring, even leading to a several-day closure in June of the Louvre in Paris after the River Seine reached its highest level in more than 30 years.

Kölsch beer

Kölsch beer in a Cologne pub

While the rain was an annoyance, the surprisingly cool temperatures – highs most days were in the 60s – were perfect for sightseeing.

In addition to the sightseeing tours, Scenic did a good job of immersing the 153 passengers onboard – about two-thirds of whom were Americans and Canadians — in German culture.  There were German language lessons, a performance by a local brass band featuring a long alpenhorn that looked straight out of a Ricola commercial (see video: German brass band), and a lecture about German beer.

We learned about kölsch, a light, all-barley ale brewed only in Cologne, our last German stop on the itinerary and the largest city on the Rhine, with a population of more than 1 million.

Kölsch, produced by more than a dozen breweries in the Cologne area, is typically served in small distinctive glasses called stange.  They are designed as such so that the beer can be consumed before it goes flat.

Scenic Opal

The Scenic Opal docked on the Rhine River in Rüdesheim, Germany

Kölsch is the Lay‘s potato chip of Rhineland beer.  As we noticed during a visit to a Cologne pub, it’s rare to see a German drink just one.

Our cruise concluded with a full day in Amsterdam, where we ventured into the countryside to see the lovely Dutch villages of Volendam and Edam and tour a cheese factory.  The following morning, we were bused to the airport during yet another downpour.  By then, we had grown used to it.

Despite the inclement weather throughout the week, the historic – and romantic — Rhine River gorge had single-handedly made the trip unforgettable.

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited here in the late 1820s and wrote: “Beneath me flows the Rhine, and, like the stream of time, it flows amid the ruins of the past.”

Nearly 200 years later, what Longfellow admired is now even more historic and every bit as magnificent.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Myanmar: Southeast Asia’s Undiscovered Treasure

By | Cruising, Myanmar | No Comments

Cruising an ideal way to visit this emerging democracy

The Arizona Republic — May 22, 2016

YANGON, Myanmar – Democracy is slowly coming to this little-known country in Southeast Asia of more than 50 million people, and with it, so are the tourists.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda

Isolated from the rest of the world for a half-century under a repressive military junta, Myanmar is now letting visitors explore its wondrous Buddhist pagodas, ancient archaeological sites and stately British colonial architecture.

I recently spent three days in Yangon, the largest city in this country formerly known as Burma.  The visit to Myanmar was the highlight of an 18-day cruise called “Imperial Treasures” on the Oceania Nautica that started in Hong Kong and ended in Mumbai, with other stops in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Cochin, India.  All told, we sailed more than 5,000 miles.

For me, the most coveted treasure on this exotic itinerary was the port call in Yangon.  Within five minutes of boarding a tour bus taking the ship’s passengers on a one-hour drive from the pier to downtown Yangon, the sense of excitement among the locals was palpable.

“The whole country is very happy,” our guide Khin said when discussing the country’s first democratically elected parliament, which assumed power in February.  The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and national hero Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory and now controls the parliament.  However, the military hasn’t completely relinquished its grip on power and Myanmar still faces a long road to full democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi portrait

A street portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi in downtown Yangon

The new political era has led to a dramatic jump in tourism.  According to government statistics, the number of international visitors has nearly quadrupled in the last five years to more than 3 million travelers in 2014.  Projections are that foreign arrivals will reach 7.5 million by 2020.

In that sense, Myanmar evokes comparisons to Cuba.  If you want to visit before the country becomes overrun with tourists and loses some of its character, now is the time to go.

Yangon, called Rangoon under British rule, is a congested city of more than 5 million people who seem welcoming to the relatively new influx of visitors – and the foreign currency they are bringing to this impoverished nation.

The city’s must-see attraction is the spectacular 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, a monument to Buddhism that was built on a hilltop in the center of Yangon.  Its glorious stupas, shrines and sculptures sprawl over 12 acres.  The pagoda’s glistening center dome is covered with thousands of priceless gold plates and other precious gems.

According to Buddhist tradition, visitors are asked to remove their shoes and socks before entering the Shwedagon complex.  In the mid-afternoon, when temperatures soar past 100, strolling barefoot on the hot pavement makes exploring uncomfortable, so it’s best to go early or late in the day.

Karaweik Royal Barge

The Karaweik Royal Barge on a Yangon lake

From Shwedagon, it’s a 15-minute walk to the surrealistic Karaweik Royal Barge, a floating palace on the eastern edge of Royal Kandawgyi Lake.  Built in the shape of the mythical karaweik bird, the barge is a stunning example of traditional Myanmar architecture.  It is used as a restaurant and also hosts cultural performances.

The Nautica’s passengers were treated to a performance of one of Myanmar’s most famous folklore groups, when the Ta Khaing Lone Shwe Dance Troupe was brought onboard for an evening show in the ship’s theater.  The performers wowed us with their grace, beautiful costumes, unusual musical instruments and intricate dance moves (to see a video clip I shot onboard the Nautica, click on this link: Myanmar folklore show.)

Interested in the country’s political landscape, I visited the home of the 70-year-old Suu Kyi, where she still lives and once spent 15 years under house arrest for her opposition to the government.  Even though the inside of the home is closed to visitors, it is viewed by many Myanmar people as a shrine.  A large portrait outside the complex honors Suu Kyi’s father, who was the driving force behind the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.

Novice Buddhist monk

A novice Buddhist monk at a Yangon monastery

Nearby, I also visited the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, which sells Aung San Suu Kyi merchandise such as posters, calendars and books to raise money for the pro-democracy movement. For $2 (U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Yangon), I bought an NLD hat.

About 90 percent of the country’s population practice Buddhism. Oceania arranged to take us to an authentic “noviciation” ceremony, in which three six-year-old boys were inducted as novice Buddhist monks at a Yangon monastery.  After having their heads shaved, the boys donned their purple robes for the first time.  Most males in Myanmar serve as monks for at least part of their lives.

Oceania, an upscale Florida-based cruise line with a fleet of six midsize ships known for high-end cuisine and off-the-beaten-path destinations, has been calling on Myanmar since 2011.  Two Oceania ships – the 684-passenger Nautica and her sister ship, the Insignia, make two-or-three day stops in Yangon several times a year.  The Yangon River is only navigable by midsize and smaller vessels, which precludes the mega-ships from reaching the city.

Oceania Nautica

The Oceania Nautica docked in Phuket, Thailand

Our sailing was nearly full with 652 passengers, about 80 percent of whom were Americans and Canadians.

Having been closed off from the rest of the world for so long, the tourism infrastructure in Myanmar is still lacking.  English isn’t widely spoken, roads are in poor condition and sanitary conditions are sometimes less than ideal.

All this makes cruising an ideal way to explore Yangon, particularly for less-experienced travelers.

At the end of a full day of experiencing Yangon’s hectic pace, backwater charm, emerging democracy and relatively uncrowded sites, nothing beats returning to an air-conditioned ship, a delightful meal with a glass of good wine and a clean bathroom.

© 2016 Dan Fellner