Sisimiut Greenland

Greenland: Full of Stunning Scenery, Surprises

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Hurtigruten Fram explores west coast of world’s largest island

The Arizona Republic — August 14, 2011

UUMMANNAQ, Greenland — At the foot of a stunning heart-shaped mountain in a remote village on the west coast of Greenland, 375 miles north of the Arctic Circle, our small group of visitors from the Hurtigruten Fram cruise ship sits riveted to the words of a local hunter and fisherman.

Uummannaq, Greenland

A Hurtigruten tender shuttles passengers back to the Fram in Uummannaq, Greenland

Speaking in his native Greenlandic language, translated into English with the help of a fellow townsman, 61-year-old Ole Qvist leans on his dogsled and discusses the centuries-old techniques he uses to hunt seals, whales and the numerous types of fish in Uummannaq’s waters.

Suddenly, Qvist’s description of using seal-oil lamps to keep warm during the frigid Arctic nights is interrupted. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a ringing cellphone. While he chats for a couple of minutes, his fellow Greenlander takes out his phone and begins texting. Our group finds the incident hilarious and no one minds the brief high-tech hiatus.

Greenland is full of surprises. Only 56,000 people live on the world’s largest island, more than 80 percent of which is covered by ice, yet there are 55,000 cellphones. There are only about 100 miles of paved roads in the entire country, yet Greenland has one of the highest Internet-penetration rates in the world, even higher than the United States.

When it’s dark 24/7 and bitterly cold for several months of the year, cyberspace is a much easier way to stay connected than a dogsled.

Sisimiut Greenland

    Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest city

For travelers, there are other surprises. I was expecting the jaw-dropping beauty of fjords, icebergs, glaciers and scenic villages with brightly painted houses.

But I didn’t expect such a rich and welcoming culture. For the first time ever on a cruise, I felt as if the locals living in the small ports invaded by the Fram’s 226 mostly European passengers were as genuinely happy to see us as we were to see them.

And perhaps most surprisingly of all, I came home with more of a suntan than when I left. The June Arctic sun was strong, never set, and the gloves, scarf and hat I packed went unused until the final day, when a cold front blew in and dropped temperatures from the 50s to below freezing.

Sisimiut Greenland children

Children in Sisimiut take advantage of the mild summer weather

Greenland brings new meaning to “You can’t get there from here.” Technically, it is part of the North American continent and, at its closest point, is only 12 miles from Canada.

But there are no commercial flights to Greenland from North America. The only way to get there by plane is via Iceland or Denmark  (In 2012 Air Greenland added twice a week service from Nunavut in northern Canada during the summer months). 

To reach the Fram, a polar-expedition ship owned by the Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten, I flew to Copenhagen and caught a charter flight on Air Greenland to Kangerlussuaq, the country’s main international airport that was built by the American military during World War II.

The Fram was waiting for us anchored at the head of Kangerlussuaq Fjord, a 15-minute bus ride from the airport.

Hurtigruten Fram in Greenland

    The Hurtigruten Fram anchored amidst the icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland

Greenland had long been high on my wish list of places to visit, even more so than Antarctica. Both offer spectacular scenery and wildlife, but only Greenland has an indigenous culture, with both Inuit and Scandinavian influences.

I guess I’m more interested in learning about people than penguins.

Various Inuit cultures have lived here on and off for the past 4,000 years, surviving on hunting and fishing. Scandinavians started arriving at the end of the 10th century; Greenland became a Danish colony in 1814 and still belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark, although it now enjoys almost complete autonomy. The currency is Denmark’s krone, and most people are bilingual, speaking both Danish and Greenlandic.

Greenland children

Greenlanders are an interesting blend of Inuit and Danish cultures

Cruising is the most economical and practical way to see Greenland, as there are no roads linking the towns and flights within the country are sporadic and expensive. Hurtigruten is the leading player in the Greenland cruise market, with weeklong itineraries offered in summer that go up and down Disko Bay on the west coast. Some of the bigger cruise lines, including Princess and Holland America, make brief stops in Greenland on transatlantic sailings.

The first stop on the Fram’s itinerary was Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest “city.” Population: 5,200. The hub of the town is a fish-processing plant, Sisimiut’s leading employer. Hurtigruten organized a two-hour “Hike Back in Time,” which took us to ancient Inuit graves and hunting grounds. At the end of the day we were treated to a kayak demonstration in the harbor.

Sisimiut was the only stop on our itinerary that had a pier large enough to handle the Fram. For the rest of our stops, we dropped anchor and the ship’s tender boats — “Polar Cirkels” — shuttled us back and forth to the villages, or “settlements” as they are called here.

Greenland school children

Elementary school students on a nature walk in Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland

In the town of Qeqertarsuaq, on the volcanic Disko Island, we were on a guided hike through a valley watching humpback whales feeding in the harbor when we encountered children from a local elementary school on a field trip. Their teacher, Pilunnguaq Broberg, said nature walks are an essential part of the Greenlandic curriculum because so many of the students will end up making a living from hunting and fishing.

“Nature is very important to the Greenlandic people,” she said. “We get our food from nature.” She said the staples of their diet are fish, seal, whale and reindeer.

Our Hurtigruten expert lecturers repeatedly reminded us that we were on an “expedition,” not a cruise. They also taught us the Greenlandic word for “maybe” — immaqa. That meant nothing is certain in Greenland and that we should expect possible changes in the itinerary due to unpredictable weather and ice conditions.

Ilulissat iceberg

 A large iceberg near Ilulissat, Greenland

Indeed, too many icebergs in the harbor forced us to cancel a stop in Illulissat, home to the most productive glacier in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scientists believe an iceberg that calved from the Illulissat glacier likely sank the Titanic. Although we weren’t able to see the glacier, we spent a marvelous morning viewing the icebergs up close on rides in the Polar Cirkels.

In addition to whales, we saw wild muskox, which look like hairy goats on steroids, and Greenlandic dogs. These are working sled dogs, not pets, that closely resemble huskies. In some of the towns we visited, sled dogs outnumber people.

Greenlandic sled dogs

 Greenlandic sled dogs in Itilleq, Greenland

Polar bears typically aren’t found in this part of Greenland. But as we stopped at an island overlooking the Eqip Sermia glacier, Janus Kleist, a native Greenlander and a member of Hurtigruten’s expedition team, stood guard at the top of a bluff with binoculars and a shotgun, just in case a polar bear emerged from the water.

“Better safe than sorry,” he said.

Our final stop was perhaps my favorite. Itilleq is a town of about 100 people just a few hundred yards north of the Arctic Circle. The villagers welcomed us into their homes for a Greenlandic custom called kaffeemik, a social gathering in which visitors are served coffee and homemade cakes.

Eqip Sermia Glacier

Hurtigruten passengers gaze at the Eqip Sermia glacier

Afterward, a team of the ship’s passengers played soccer against the locals on a grassless field overlooking the harbor. The team from Itilleq prevailed, 6-4. I was the only American on the Fram side and no doubt reinforced the stereotype that soccer isn’t our best sport.

No one on our team seemed to mind losing, though. We had just spent a week cruising around one of the most remote — and ruggedly beautiful — places on Earth.

© 2011 Dan Fellner

Cruising Briare Canal in France

Barging Through France on French Country Waterways

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Eight-passenger Princess offers a luxurious and slow-paced way to experience provincial France

The Arizona Republic — September 16, 2012

LOIRE VALLEY, France — Never before has traveling so slowly brought such a huge rush.

French Country Waterways' Princess on the Briare Canal

The Princess slowly traverses the Briare Canal

We’re cruising the Briare Canal in the Loire Valley south of Paris on a small barge and are being passed by pedestrians taking a leisurely stroll on a gravel path next to the canal. Our top-speed on this six-day cruise never exceeds 3 mph, and during the entire trip we traverse a grand total of 30 miles.

Our dawdling pace is fine with us. As the barge drifts by small villages, vineyards and medieval chateaux in the French countryside, a tout de suite mentality seems as out of place here as a sprawling shopping mall.

Barge cruising is a little-known offshoot of the growing European river cruise market. Barges tend to be smaller than their riverboat cousins, carry fewer passengers, and are able to navigate narrow canals that give cruisers a more intimate and rural traveling experience. Some also offer food and wine worthy of Louis XIV.

I was on an elegant barge called the Princess, one of four vessels cruising this year in the fleet of French Country Waterways, the only American-owned barge cruise company operating in France.

French Country Waterways's Princess

The Princess was built in 1973 for a billionaire shipping magnate

In addition to the Loire Valley, FCW barges – none of which carries more than a dozen passengers — cruise through canals in the French regions of Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine.

The Princess, originally built in 1973 as a private barge for billionaire shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig, can hold up to eight passengers and an additional six crew members. It feels less like a cruise ship and more like a floating bed-and-breakfast — with lunch, dinner and top-shelf French wines and cheese thrown in as well.

It’s the only time I’ve been on a cruise in which I memorized everyone else’s name – including the crews’ – by the second day. Half of the six crew members were from England; the rest were French, but everyone spoke English.

At the beginning of the week, our captain and tour guide, Joanne Padbury, picked up our group of four couples at a Paris hotel and drove us in a van about 60 miles south to the ancient walled-town of Montargis.  There, the Princess was waiting for us moored in the Briare Canal.

Montargis, France

Montargis is known as the “Venice of Gatinais”

One of the oldest canals in France, the Briare opened for traffic in 1642.  In those days, barges were pulled by horses on towpaths.   Before trains came along, river and canal barges were one of the safest and most efficient ways to transport both people and goods in Europe.

But their importance waned over the centuries, and now French barges are used primarily by vacationers and the canals maintained by the government for their historic importance and scenic beauty.

The towpaths still remain and we used them to take walks and ride bicycles stored on the back deck of the Princess. While we were cruising, Padbury would drive the van each day through the nearby villages to pick up fresh croissants at boulangeries for breakfast and ingredients at other shops that our French chef, Jean-Yann Attica, would whip into wonderful meals. Padbury would also use the van to take our small group on sightseeing excursions.

Loire Valley wildflowers

Wildflowers in the Loire Valley

Montargis, with a population of about 60,000 including its suburbs, was easily the largest town on our itinerary. We took a walking tour through its historic downtown and saw how the “Venice of Gatinais” earned its nickname.

Like Venice, Montargis has a large network of waterways cutting through the heart of town and there are 131 bridges — many adorned with beautiful flowers – that cross them. At the end of the tour we were treated to a praline-tasting at a candy store, at which Padbury bought our supply of chocolate goodies for the week.

The next two days the Princess was moored in the village of Rogny-les-Sept-Ecluses, named for its seven locks that were built in the 17th century. These locks, which resemble a large staircase, are no longer in use but remain an intriguing site for visitors.

Numerous other lock stations in the canal – every few hundred yards or so — still function. The aquatic elevators are needed to compensate for changes in elevation in the Loire Valley.

Loic, our pilot, would steer the Princess into a lock station with the precision of a surgeon, as there were just a few inches to spare on both sides of the barge. A lock keeper, who typically lives in a home adjacent to the station, would then close a large door behind the vessel. If we were going up, water would pour into the lock, enabling the Princess to rise several feet, just as a rubber duck rises when a bathtub is filled.

Chateau de Chambord

The Chateau de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Watching the process unfold over and over again never got boring. The lock stations also were a convenient place for us to get off the barge for walks and bike rides.

While moored in Rogny, our crew taught us to play the popular French game of petanque (pronounced pay-tonk). Contested on a gravel field with hollow steel balls, petanque is somewhat similar to the Italian game of bocce. The slow-paced and cerebral game seemed a perfect fit with the laidback tone of the cruise.

In terms of sightseeing, the highlight of the week was a trip to the largest and most famous chateau in the Loire Valley, the Chateau de Chambord. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chambord was built in the early 1500s as a hunting lodge for King François I.

It has 426 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 77 staircases, including a unique double-spiral staircase that links the chateau’s three floors. Some historians believe Chambord was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Pont de Canal

Entrance to the Pont de Canal

We also visited an even older chateau in St. Fargeau, which dates back to the 15th century. And there were excursions to a winery in Chavignol, a pottery factory in Gien, and a cruise through an engineering marvel called the Pont de Canal.

This watery bridge takes the Briare Canal high across the Loire River. Designed by Gustave Eiffel – yes, the same Eiffel best known for the Paris tower – the Pont de Canal was the longest navigable aqueduct in the world from 1896 until the Magdeburg Water Bridge opened in Germany in 2003.

Our forays into French life were punctuated each evening with delightful four-course, three-hour dinners, which included presentations from the crew about the French cheeses and wines we were served – many of which had attained prestigious Grand Cru or Premier Cru status. At the captain’s dinner our final night aboard the Princess, we were presented with copies of the menus, wine labels, and a cheese list for the connoisseurs among us who wanted to enjoy the same wines and cheeses back home.

Princess chef Jean-Yann Attica

Chef Jean-Yann Attica prepares a meal

We had been concerned about cruising with such a small group of people. What if we weren’t compatible? With only eight passengers aboard, lunches and dinners are eaten together at one table. There’s no place to hide.

But our fears proved to be unfounded. The three other couples – two of whom were American, the other Australian – were delightful travel companions and our mealtime conversations were as interesting and enjoyable as the passing scenery.

“Some people come onboard with a bit of trepidation, realizing that you’re only going to meet three other couples,” said Padbury, who has worked for French Country Waterways for 10 years, the past four as a captain and guide.

“But I personally like the intimacy. I like the fact that I get to know my clients by the end of the week, about their families, their jobs, even how they take their coffee. There’s a connection.”

Princess captain Joanne Padbury

Joanne Padbury, captain of the Princess, leads a sightseeing tour in the Loire Valley

At the end of the cruise, we climbed into the van once more and Padbury drove us north back to Paris via a four-lane highway. It took us less than a half-hour to reach Montargis, where the Princess had started its journey on the canal six days earlier.

The trip going south on the barge had been much slower, but a lot more enriching. We had taken the same mode of transportation along the same route the locals had used nearly 400 years ago – and gotten a wonderful taste of French culture in the process.

© 2012 Dan Fellner

Swaziland children

Swaziland or bust!

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It’s not easy to get to this small African kingdom

 The Arizona Republic – March 4, 2009

LOMAHASHA, Swaziland — I had just returned to the Silversea Silver Wind after a day of sightseeing in Maputo, Mozambique, when the voice of Capt. Gennaro Arma came over the ship’s public address system.

Mozambique women

Mozambican women carrying produce on their heads

Along with about 200 other passengers, I was midway through a 16-day cruise on the luxurious Silver Wind, which started in Cape Town, South Africa, and ended in Mombasa, Kenya. Thus far, it had been an amazing cruise.  I had seen lions, rhinos and zebras on mini-safaris during prior port stops in South Africa and learned more about the native Zulu culture.

In a thick Italian accent, Capt. Arma announced that there was a bad storm in the Mozambique Channel to the north, in the direction where we were scheduled to sail that evening. Therefore, the Silver Wind would be forced to stay docked in Maputo for another 24 hours.

One thought immediately popped into my head: Swaziland or bust.

I had wanted to visit the small Kingdom of Swaziland that day, only about 50 miles from Maputo, but was unable to find a reliable and reasonably priced car and driver to make the trip.  Now with an unexpected extra day, I hoped I could make the necessary arrangements.

Why the fascination with Swaziland?  Well, for one thing, there was something exotic about the name that had always intrigued me. And I knew it was one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, meaning the King has complete power.  Also, one day was more than enough to spend in Maputo, a congested city with few tourist attractions and pesky hawkers constantly in my face trying to sell tacky souvenirs.

Finally, it would be a chance to check another country off the list. I have long wanted to join a fairly exclusive group called the Travelers’ Century Club.  To be eligible, you have to visit at least 100 countries.  I’ve now been to more than 90 and a visit to Swaziland would get me one step closer to membership.

Flat tire in Mozambique

Dudley changes a tire, attracting a small crowd in the Mozambican countryside

I approached Mr. Rudy, the local port agent on board.  Did he know someone who could take me to Swaziland the following day? I told him it was essential that the car be reliable and comfortable and that the driver speaks good English.  He nodded and said he would have the details for me the following morning.

I spent the evening trying to recruit fellow passengers to join me. There’s always safety in numbers and sharing the cost would be nice, too.  After a bit of cajoling, I was able to get commitments from Linda, a retired accountant from Georgia (and a fellow country-counter), and Bob, an attorney from Illinois.

The next morning Mr. Rudy said he had lined up a reliable car and driver. “Of course,” he said, when I asked him if the driver spoke English.  We agreed on the fare — $400 — which Linda, Bob and I would split.

As we left the ship at 10 a.m., we were reminded by a Silver Wind staff member that the ship would be sailing that afternoon for Madagascar at 5 p.m., with or without us.  We only planned on a four or five-hour trip, so that gave us plenty of time to spare.

Mr. Rudy drove the three of us to the port entrance about a mile from the ship where Dudley, our driver, was waiting in a white Toyota four-door Land Cruiser.  We were off on our adventure to Swaziland.

Or so we thought.

Dudley drove a few blocks through Maputo’s chaotic traffic and abruptly pulled into some sort of service station.  The next thing I knew someone was adding oil to the engine and replacing a bald front left tire.

Mozambique traffic jam

Traffic jam in Mozambique: Waiting for cows to cross the road

I looked around the vehicle.  There were no seatbelts in the backseat (more a problem for Linda and Bob as I had grabbed the front seat next to Dudley), no air conditioning (temperatures that day were in the high 80s with humidity to match), and a cracked windshield with a wiper dangling from its holder like a broken twig.  I think my window was the only one in the car that actually moved up or down.

This definitely did not appear to be a reliable and comfortable vehicle as Mr. Rudy had promised.  From the backseat, Bob suggested that perhaps Mr. Rudy hadn’t deliberately misled us.  By Mozambican standards, maybe this was a reliable and comfortable vehicle.  Bob also suggested that we consider aborting the trip and scrap our sojourn to Swaziland.

But it was too soon to give up.  I did voice my discontent to Dudley, who simply smiled and said, “It’s okay.” By now, the tire had been replaced and Dudley tried to start the engine but nothing happened.  He yelled something out the window, two guys came over to give us a push, the Land Cruiser sprung to life, and once again, we were on our way.

Not an auspicious beginning to our trip.

After another stop for gas, we were finally headed out of Maputo into the Mozambican countryside.  But I checked my watch and it was already 11 a.m.  Our unexpected stops had cost us an hour’s worth of precious time and we were only just underway.

As for Dudley’s English, that also left something to be desired — a lot, in fact.  The longest sentence he was able to string together during the course of the day was, “I like Obama,” which he said with a huge smile when I asked him about the new American president.

But Dudley did understand the word “stop,” which we would utter from time to time so we could stop and take pictures along the way.  I was especially fascinated by the site of Mozambican women carrying huge loads of produce in baskets on their heads as they walked along the side of the road.  No wonder they all seemed to have such excellent posture.

One time, though, Dudley pulled the Toyota over without our prompting.  He got out of the car and I heard him utter something that must have been a curse word in his indigenous language (Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique, reflecting the country’s history as a colony of Portugal, but a number of indigenous languages are also spoken, including Swahili).

Swazi children

     Swazi children

I got out and took a look for myself.  That same front left tire that had been replaced back in Maputo had gone flat.

Dudley got to work changing the tire. We were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but within minutes, several children appeared to watch Dudley put on the spare.  When you can’t afford an Xbox and video games, I guess this sort of thing makes interesting entertainment.

By now, the three of us were quite concerned.  What if another tire would go flat? Dudley had already put on the spare.

I had visions of being stranded in the middle of nowhere at 5 p.m. while the Silver Wind sailed away.  I had planned to eat in La Terrazza, the ship’s specialty Italian restaurant that night.  Would the grilled veal I craved end up on someone else’s plate?

Also, it would most likely cost a fortune to fly to Nosy Be, a small island off the coast of Madagascar that was the Silver Wind’s next stop on our itinerary.  In fact, did planes even fly there?

Undeterred, Dudley put the spare tire on and we were ready to resume our journey.  Soon, the countryside changed from flat to mountainous, with lush green hills as we headed southwest to Swaziland.  At one point we had to stop for a herd of cows to cross the road.

Sensing our apprehension about the time, Dudley picked up speed and as it was starting to drizzle, I got a bit nervous as the Land Cruiser negotiated the road’s twists and turns.

It was now past noon and Swaziland was still nowhere in sight.  Finally, we drove into the Mozambican border town of Nemaacha, where vendors selling fruits and vegetable lined the roadside.

Mozambique-Swaziland border

   The sign I thought I would never see

We pulled into the immigration office for what we hoped would be a perfunctory process.  I had done some research and knew that Swaziland did not require a visa.  But the problem was with the Mozambican side of the border.  With our passports laid out in front of him, a border official was lecturing Dudley about something.  Sternly shaking his head, he kept saying the same thing over and over again in a language we couldn’t understand.

“This couldn’t be good,” I said to Bob and Linda, wondering if it was time to consider deploying the universally used tool known to work at border crossings all over the world — the bribe.

Turned out that anything under the table was unnecessary, Dudley told us.  We just needed to pay $25 each for the privilege of leaving Mozambique.  We would also have to pay $25 to reenter the country.

This trip was starting to get expensive.

But we had cleared our last obstacle, and when the bar was raised at the border crossing to let the Land Cruiser drive onto Swaziland soil, I felt like Sir Edmund Hillary at the summit of Mount Everest, with Dudley as my Sherpa.

Portrait of Swaziland's King Mswati

Portrait of Swaziland’s King Mswati on the wall of a Lomahasha shop

Swaziland, at last!

By now, though, with delays due to car problems, picture stops, cow herds and bureaucracy at the border, it was already time to head back to Maputo to catch our ship.  We had time only to take a quick peek at Lomahasha, the Swazi border town.

We popped into a shop and saw a portrait of the ruler of Swaziland, His Majesty King Mswati III.  He was born in 1968, four months before Swaziland became independent from Great Britain, and succeeded his father as absolute monarch in 1986.

From what I heard, the King, who has 14 wives and 23 children, has some pretty tough challenges to deal with in the country, including an HIV infection rate near 40 percent, highest in the world.

All told, we spent about 45 minutes in Swaziland.  The only souvenirs we could find were some coins in the Swazi currency, known as the lilangeni.  But Swazi t-shirts or fridge magnets were nowhere to be found.

On Swazi soil

          Our intrepid group standing firmly on Swazi soil

All we needed was a quick bathroom break (and to pay another $25 at the border crossing) and we were ready to head back to Maputo.  Bob and I had to pay $1 to use a bathroom that was two-inches deep in water — at least we hoped it was water. Unfortunately for Linda, the women’s bathroom was out of order.

The Land Cruiser needed another push to leave the border area and when Dudley asked Linda if she wanted to stop at a hotel on the way back to use the facilities, she politely declined.  We knew that each time we stopped, we might not be able to start.

With about one hour to spare, we arrived back at the ship.  It had been a true African adventure and after a bit more turmoil and stress than we would have cared for, we had reached our destination and safely returned.

My Swaziland dream had come true. And I had set foot on the soil of another country, if only for a few minutes.

Now back on the ship, it was time for some grilled veal and a stiff drink.

© 2009 Dan Fellner
Holland America Digital Workshop

Teaching High-Tech on the High Seas

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Digital Workshop a huge hit with Holland America’s older clientele

The Arizona Republic — June 13, 2010

NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN — It’s my first day at sea aboard the Holland America Veendam on a week-long cruise sailing from Manhattan to Bermuda.

Holland America Digital Workshop

“Techspert” Lauren Murphy conducts a class in the Digital Workshop aboard the Veendam

While many of the other 1,300 passengers are lounging by the pool, playing slot machines in the casino, enjoying a spa treatment or jostling for position at the Lido buffet, I have more enlightening pursuits in mind.

I’m attending computer boot camp for the digitally challenged.

It’s a series of courses — several offered onboard each day — that the Holland America Line calls the Digital Workshop Powered by Windows. The cruise line now offers the program on 13 of its 14 vessels.

Indeed, computer courses at sea are now becoming almost as ubiquitous as the towel animals cruisers find on their cabin beds at night.  Several cruise lines, including Celebrity and Princess, two of Holland America’s leading competitors in the high-end mass-market segment, also offer computer classes.

On the Veendam, I arrive a few minutes early in a classroom right next to the Rotterdam Dining room equipped with 16 laptops and claim one in the back row. By the time the class starts, it’s standing-room-only and some participants need to double-up on computers.

“Techspert” Lauren Murphy, 26, teaches our eager group of mostly beginners, some of whom are close to three times her age, how to download pictures onto the computer. Other hour-long sessions that day cover how to edit photos and then turn them into a movie.

“Click fix on the top menu,” Murphy said, explaining how to auto-adjust color and light in a photo using Windows Live Photo Gallery.

“Click what on what now?” a gray-haired gentleman asked from the second row.

At first, I think the courses are a bit too basic for me, and I’m not particularly computer-savvy. But before long we’re learning how to “stitch” images together to make a panoramic photo, remove that annoying red-eye that often mars indoor portraits, and other techniques I had no idea how to do. I find myself eschewing movies, bingo and other shipboard activities to repeatedly return to the Digital Workshop.

Cruise lines, especially those like Holland America that attract an older clientele, have found these courses to be hugely popular with their passengers, some of whom come onboard without even rudimentary computer skills but want to learn basic tasks like how to email their vacations photos to their relatives.

Holland America Veendam

  The Veendam anchored off the coast of Bermuda

“I’ve had lots of people come in who never used a mouse before and didn’t even know how to turn on a computer,” said Murphy, who quit her job as an accountant in Texas two years ago and is now teaching classes on her eighth Holland America ship. “They have kids and grandkids that know how to do this stuff, but they don’t know how to do it themselves and nobody has time to teach them.”

Carol Clippard, a 76-year-old passenger from Tucson, attended a session on the Veendam with her husband Buck called “Put Your Best Face Forward,” a primer on digital editing tools.

“I didn’t even know I could do photo editing on my computer,” she said. “I have 7,000 pictures on my computer and I have to learn how to do something with them.”

Holland America offers its Digital Workshop in partnership with another Seattle-based company — Microsoft. The computer-software company provides the laptops, course materials and trains the instructors.

In return, Holland America agreed to showcase Microsoft products to an important market — affluent seniors. The cruise line also offers all the classes for free, making it the only entirely complimentary technology program of its kind at sea.

Erik Elvejord, a Holland America spokesman, said the partnership has worked out well for both companies. “It’s a plus for Microsoft, which is engaging an audience that might not otherwise engage in computer technology,” he said. “These are folks that will probably use more and more computers and applications as time goes on.

“For us, it gives us an activity that we know people are interested in. The average age of our guests is around 55 and these are people who are looking to learn this technology. It keeps them involved and active. It’s complimentary, which is fantastic, and it has been a huge hit.”

While Microsoft promotes its Windows products to Holland America cruisers, its rival, Apple, isn’t sitting by idly ashore. The producer of Macintosh computers has a partnership with Celebrity Cruises in which passengers can take classes at sea using Macs and other Apple products. Some of the Celebrity courses are free; most have a $20 fee.

Murphy, the Holland America “techspert,” said that on some sailings, as many as 50 people have crowded into the classroom at one time. “It sometimes gets really packed in here,” she said.

Hamilton, Bermuda

View of downtown Hamilton, Bermuda

Not surprisingly, the Digital Workshop on the Veendam had much larger turnouts on sea days than when we were docked in Bermuda, when most of the ship’s passengers were off exploring the island.

In addition to teaching three or four classes a day, Murphy offers an hour each day of “techspert time,” in which passengers can come in and look at their photos and ask questions about anything related to computers. On some cruises, more advanced courses are offered, including how to blog and even set up your own personal Webpage.

Murphy said that on the Veendam’s sailing the week before, one of her students was a 90-year-old woman. “She didn’t know anything about a computer,” she said. “She came to about every class and by the end of the week was able to stitch together her photos. She just loved it.”

Not everyone, though, who attends the Digital Workshop is a novice. On my sailing, Mike Meffert, 72, of Bridgewater, Va., came to a session called “A New Window Into Your World,” an overview of Windows 7. He was trying to decide whether it was worth upgrading to the new operating system.

Meffert, who considers himself more computer literate than most people his age, bought his first computer — an IBM — way back in 1982.

“I paid $4,200,” he recalled. “I had a friend who was working at IBM at the time. He told me, ‘Buy this computer and you’ll never need another one.'”

That was 15 computers ago.

© 2010 Dan Fellner
silversea silver wind

Cruise industry well-equipped to deal with potential pirate attacks

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New task force making Indian Ocean waters even safer

The Arizona Republic – February 22, 2009

INDIAN OCEAN OFF THE COAST OF EAST AFRICA — “If they come, we will deal with it.”

It is 6:30 a.m., just after sunrise, and a security guard is on Deck 9 peering out over the railing on the Silversea Silver Wind, a luxury cruise ship carrying 400 passengers and crew.  Two of his colleagues are patrolling other decks.  Armed only with two-way radios, they have been walking in circles around the ship’s decks the entire night.

We’re sailing the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, only 200 miles from Somalia, and the Silver Wind is on the lookout for pirates.

A Silver Wind security guard watches for pirates in the Indian Ocean

The security guard stops for a minute to answer my questions. He tells me nothing unusual happened during the course of the night, but if an unidentified vessel were to come too close to the Silver Wind, the ship had procedures in place to fend off would-be intruders. He wouldn’t specify what they were, but cruise ships have been known to use everything from high-pressure hoses to sonar weapons to repel attacks.

No such measures are needed on this particular voyage and the Silver Wind docked uneventfully later that morning in Mombasa, Kenya, completing a 16-day journey that began in Cape Town, South Africa, with stops in Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania.

Somali pirates have attacked hundreds of cargo ships off the coast of Africa, raking in an estimated $30 million in ransom last year alone. Earlier this month, pirates made off with $3.2 million in ransom after releasing an arms-laden Ukrainian freighter, one of their biggest hauls ever.

As for cruise ships, pirates have tried, but have yet to successfully land a floating five-star hotel, which could potentially reap an even bigger payday.

    The Silver Wind anchored off the coast of Madagascar

Our ship of 200 affluent mostly European and North American passengers was carrying enough bling and cash to make any band of pirates drool, not to mention the enormous ransom a luxury cruise ship could fetch.

In late November, the Oceania Nautica was attacked in the Gulf of Aden by two small boats carrying armed Somali pirates.  Shots were fired but the Nautica was able to outrun the bandits and no one was hurt.

And three years ago, two boatloads of pirates on inflatable speedboats armed with grenade-launchers and machine guns were thwarted in an attack on the Seaborn Spirit on its way to Mombasa 100 miles off the coast of Somalia. According to passenger accounts of the attack, one grenade actually landed in a stateroom without inflicting injuries.

The cruise industry is taking the threat seriously but continues to sail in the region. “We haven’t altered any of our itineraries,” said Silversea spokesman Brad Ball, who was aboard the Silver Wind’s Cape Town-Mombasa sailing. “These waters are pretty well protected.  In addition, we have our own well-trained crews and security personnel on board our vessels, and we’re continuously developing, increasing and enhancing our response capabilities to potential piracy attacks.”

Some German cruise lines have gone so far as to fly passengers in the region from one port to the next so they won’t be onboard when the ship transits the Gulf of Aden, a pirate haven that links the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung in December accused cruise lines that sail in that area of risking the lives of their passengers.

But the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the Florida-based trade group representing the cruise industry, defended the continued sailing through the Gulf of Aden, saying that cruise ships that traverse the area do so within a prescribed “Maritime Safety Protection Area,” which is patrolled by military forces from several countries.

“All CLIA members have thorough security protocols in place including anti-piracy measures that help to ensure the safety of their passengers and crew while they enjoy a cruise vacation,” CLIA said in a statement. ”

Additionally, CLIA members maintain an extensive network of intelligence gathering among government and private sources.  Based upon this monitoring, our industry is constantly assessing this information and any potential risks for member lines.”

All factors considered, cruise ships make much more difficult targets for pirates than cargo ships. Taking over a slow-moving container ship with a handful of crew members is one thing, but capturing a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers would be a logistical nightmare.

Pirates normally like a one-to-one ratio of captives to captors so that they can maintain control of the vessel while ransom talks take place. Cruise ships are also faster and carry a wider range of non-lethal weaponry than most cargo ships. Plus, their tall hulls make it harder for pirates to throw hooks over the side and board.

Ball said that the piracy threat hasn’t hurt bookings. “Guests who book Silversea are pretty seasoned,” he said. “They know that, unfortunately, something can happen five minutes from your house or five thousand miles from your house.”

Indeed, the passengers I spoke with seemed more worried about what time to make dinner reservations in La Terrazza, the elegant Italian restaurant onboard, or whether to forego a lecture on African politics for a dip in the pool. Even crew members who will be aboard in April when the Silver Wind is scheduled to transit the Gulf of Aden said they weren’t overly concerned.

And the only pirates I encountered during the trip were vendors at London’s Heathrow Airport on the flight home who were asking $10 for a stale sandwich or $4 for a bottle of water.

Making the region even safer is a new task force, led by the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which just started counter-piracy operations in January. U.S. warships are now working with naval vessels from 14 different countries, including Great Britain, Russia and China.

“We want to see our industry continue to grow, so if it gives people peace of mind knowing that there’s a task force out there that is watching the seas in a known trouble spot, we support it 100 percent,” said Ball.

                                                                                                   © 2009 Dan Fellner — Plan a Cruise, Save Money, Connect with Cruisers

Moorea atoll French Polynesia

Moorea: Oui, Oui

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French Polynesian island offers spectacular scenery

East Valley Tribune — February 25, 2001

Chances are, you’ve experienced the natural beauty of Moorea without even knowing it.

Moorea's famed Mount Mouaroa

Moorea’s famed Mount Mouaroa is the French Polynesian island’s trademark

The French Polynesian island’s dramatic scenery of jagged peaks towering over lush valleys, turquoise lagoons, coral reefs and white-sand beaches has appeared in numerous movies.  Hollywood producers know a good thing when they see it.

So do the thousands of tourists who visit Moorea (pronounced Moe-oh-ray-ah) each year, making it French Polynesia’s second-most popular destination, behind nearby Tahiti.

Many of them arrive by cruise ship, which is the easiest and financially savviest way of seeing French Polynesia, one of the most expensive places on earth.

Hotels here can easily cost more than $500 a night.  And food — aside from locally grown fresh fruist — is no bargain either.  But the cost of lodging and food is included in the price of a cruise, so your only out-of-pocket expenses are for shore excursions and shopping.

We were aboard Renaissance Cruises’ R3, a 1999-built midsize ship that sails out of Papeete, Tahiti, and visits four other French Polynesian islands — Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Huahine — over the course of 10 days. (Note: Renaissance Cruises filed for bankruptcy in 2001; The R3 was purchased by Princess Cruises in 2002 and now sails under the name “Pacific Princess.” Several of the other R-class ships are now operated by Oceania Cruises).

Tahiti is the commercial center and the largest and best-known island in French Polynesia, while glamorous Bora Bora is the destination of choice by the rich and famous.

But we found our two-day visit to Moorea to be the highlight of the cruise.  It is much cleaner and quieter than Tahiti, and less touristy and jaded than Bora Bora.  And its scenery is spectacular.

Moorea, which means “yellow lizard” in Polynesian, covers an area of 51 square miles and is home to about 12,000 permanent residents.  About 300 of them commute each day to Tahiti, which is 12 miles to the east.  It’s a 30-minute ferry ride, although Polynesians not in a hurry have been known to swim between the two islands, which can take about eight hours.

French Polynesia consists of about 130 islands in the South Pacific.  It is officially called an “overseas territory” of France, meaning the people can vote in French presidential elections and elect representatives to the French parliament.  There has been some talk of seeking independence from France, but our guides said most of the locals prefer the status quo.

French and Tahitian are the two predominant languages here, although English also is widely spoken.
While tourism is key to Moorea’s economy, it has not engulfed the island and jaded its residents.  I’ve never seen so many local stop where they’re doing to smile and wave as our bus traversed the island.

There are just a few luxury hotels on Moorea, and only three relatively small cruise ships — Renaissance’s R3 and R4 and Radisson’s Paul Gauguin — sail these waters year-round.  It’s a far cry from the Caribbean, where you can sometimes find a half dozen mega-ships docked in the same port at the same time.

Polynesian legend has it that Moorea was created when a magical fish swam from the lagoon of a neighboring island and turned into Tahiti.  It apparently was a large fish, as its second dorsal fin became Moorea.  Geologists have a somewhat different view.  They believe the island is what remains of a massive volcano.

Polynesian family bathes in a Moorean river

  A Polynesian family bathes in a Moorean river

If Moorea has a trademark, it would be the cathedral-like Mount Mouaroa or “Bali Hai Mountain,” also known as “Shark’s Tooth.”  It is best known for its appearance in the movie “South Pacific.”  The stunning peak also can be seen on numerous postcards as well as on the coins of the currency of French Polynesia (CFP).

Indeed, the mountain scenery is as striking as you’ll see on any tropical island, prompting the famed author James Michener to once call Moorea “a monument to the prodigal beauty of nature.”

The island owes its beauty to the long-extinct volcano, whose crater has eroded into the majestic peaks that resemble the profile of a daredevil’s favorite roller coaster.  They rise above two scenic bays — Cook’s and Opunohu.

It was Opunohu Bay that was the setting for 1983’s “The Bounty,” starring Mel Gibson.  It tells the story of Capt. William Bligh, who sailed these waters in the late 1700s before running into a bit of trouble with his subordinates.  Appropriately, the close-circuit television system on the R3 continually showed both “The Bounty” and “South Pacific,” not to mention episodes of “Gilligan’s Island.”

There are numerous ways to see Moorea’s sites, and we experienced as many as time permitted during our two days on the island.  A good way to get your bearings is with a bus tour.

You’ll take a winding road up to perhaps the most breathtaking lookout point in all the South Pacific — Belvedere.  There, you’ll see gorgeous views of Bali Hai Mountain and the valleys and bays below.

On the way up to Belvedere, you’ll pass shrimp farms and a 400-year-old marae, or stone Polynesian temple.  While Moorea has several maraes, they aren’t as well restored or extensive as those on some of the other islands, particularly Raiatea.  Still, they provide an interesting glimpse into Polynesia’s past, and you’ll hear stories of human sacrifices that once took place at these sites.

There’s also a visit to the Jus Fruits de Moorea, a factory where you can watch locally grown pineapples, grapefruit, papayas, mangos, coconuts and bananas be converted into juice and liquors, which are sold throughout French Polynesia and exported to France.  They give free samples.

If you want to learn more about Polynesian culture, spend some time at the Tiki Theater Village, built like an ancient village.  You can watch locals create traditional arts and crafts and observe tattooing demonstrations.  In fact, French Polynesia is the birthplace of the tattoo, and you’ll see more tattoos on these islands than at a Motley Crue concert.

Deserted atoll near Moorea

     A deserted atoll near Moorea

For those who don’t mind a few bumps in the road, a four-wheel drive “safari” tour is an idealway to see Moorea’s bamboo forests and fruit plantations and learn about the island’s flora and fauna.  We sampled fresh-picked pineapple — the sweetest we’ve ever tasted — and grapefruit, bananas and passion fruit.

A visit to Moorea wouldn’t be complete without spending some time on a deserted atoll, or motu,that you’ll find near all of the French Polynesian Islands.

You can visit a motu on your own or book a tour, in which a catamaran will drop you off for a few hours of snorkeling, sunbathing and a buffet barbecue lunch, complete with native music.  After dessert, there’s a coconut tree-climbing demonstration, and you can mingle with the friendly stingrays that swim in the lagoon.  Gilligan never had it so good.

Of course, Moorea is a playground for lovers of water sports.  There’s deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, jet skiing, water skiing, windsurfing, speedboat rentals, glass-bottom boat cruises and dolphin and whale-watching excursions.

Moorea parasailing

Parasailing is one of the many water sports offered in Moorea

I tried parasailing for the first time in Moorea, which looked a bit too dicey for me when I watched braver tourists do it in Mexico.  There, you take off from land as a speedboat pulls you into the air.  If all goes according to plan, you land in the same place, into the arms of the operators who help brace your fall on the beach.

In Moorea, parasailing is so much easier.  You take off from a boat, sail 200-feet into the air to enjoy the awesome views of Cook’s Bay, then are safely reeled back into the boat like a tuna or marlin found in the sea here.  Nothing is left to chance.  It’s pricey, though — a 12-minute ride costs $60.

It’s not difficult to figure out why “Conde Nast Traveler” magazine voted Moorea the sixth-most romantic island in the world.  Nor is it hard to see why the island’s scenery is used in so many movies.

But don’t wait for Moorea to once again appear in a theater near you.  The silver screen can’t come close to doing the place justice.

© 2012 Dan Fellner
Cruising small ships Tahiti

Small cruise ship offers pluses a big one doesn’t

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Oceania and other lines give passengers wide choice of itineraries

East Valley Tribune — February 25, 2001

FRENCH POLYNESIA — Whoever said that size doesn’t matter hasn’t been on a cruise ship.

While the newer, highly touted mega-ships — massive floating hotels that can accommodate 3,000-plus passengers with every amenity imaginable — attract more attention and bookings, many experienced cruisers say it’s the less glamorous smaller vessels that offer the best overall cruising experience.

The R3 in French Polynesia

  The R3 in French Polynesia

They may not have all the bells and whistles of their larger counterparts, but smaller ships give passengers greater flexibility, a wider choice of itineraries, less time spent waiting in lines, and ultimately, a more intimate and relaxing vacation experience.

Still, the industry trend has been to build bigger and bigger ships.  Of the 50 new cruise ships on order for delivery in the next four years, 27 will accommodate more than 2,000 passengers.  Conversely, only nine will carry fewer than 1,000

After sampling a half-dozen ships over the years that carried anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 passengers, my wife and I recently sailed through French Polynesia aboard Renaissance Cruises’ R3, a cozy, elegantly appointed 18-month-old French-built ship that holds just 684 passengers, not including the crew and staff. (Note: Renaissance Cruises filed for bankruptcy in 2001; The R3 was purchased by Princess Cruises in 2002 and now sails under the name “Pacific Princess.” Several of the other R-class ships are now operated by Oceania Cruises).

Renaissance is carving out a niche in the midsize cruise ship market.  It has 10 ships in service around the world — none accommodate more than 700 passengers.  And two of its vessels are relatively tiny all-suite ships that carry only 114 passengers.  The company believes that smaller ships translate into more return customers, meaning it can spend less on marketing.

“Today’s cruise passengers are more demanding,” said Brad Ball, a spokesman for Renaissance (Brad is now the spokesman for Silversea Cruises, a high-end cruise line).  “They want choices.  They’re looking for a complete range of onboard amenities, as well as shore excursions that provide unique experiences while in port.  However, they don’t want to vacation with 3,000 – 4,000 other travelers.  With our ships, we provide all the amenities that consumers want, but without the crowds of the mega-ships.”

We noticed the difference as soon as we arrived in Papeete, Tahiti, after an eight-hour, nonstop Renaissance-chartered Hawaiian Airlines flight from Los Angeles.  Getting from the plane to our ship’s cabin took a scant 30 minutes, the shortest embarkation process we’ve ever experienced.  There were no lines — just the ship’s cruise director to personally greet each passenger.

It was a prelude to what awaited us during the next 10 days.  Waiting in lines is as much a part of the mega-cruise experience as the midnight buffet.  But on the R3, there were virtually no lines at all, except an occasional queue to board the tenders to take passengers into the ports where the ship couldn’t dock.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the large and smaller cruise ships involves the activity that is farm more important to some passengers than visiting exotic ports of call or soaking up sun by the pool — eating.

On many large ships, you must specify before the trip which one of two dinner seatings you prefer.  The first seating is typically at 6:30 p.m. and the second follows two hours later.  You are assigned to a table for the duration of the trip, and you have the same dinner companions night after night.  If you tire of their company, there’s usually an option to eat at a buffet, but the food is a step down in quality.

Smaller ships, on the other hand, are able to provide much more flexibility.  On the R3, you can eat dinner anytime between 6:30 and 9 p.m., depending on your mood.  Want an intimate dinner one evening with your spouse?  No problem, ask for a table for two.  Or, if you meet some people during the course of the cruise that you want to dine with, that, too, can easily be arranged.

There’s also more flexibility on where you eat.  In addition to a main dining room and the obligatory buffet, the R3 offers two specialty restaurants — the Grill and Italian Restaurant.  Both serve up excellent cuisine in elegant surroundings.  The only drawback is that you need to make a reservation a day or two in advance.

We also found the quality of food to be a notch above most of the larger ships we’ve been on.  Quite simply, it’s easier to demonstrate culinary excellence when cooking for a few hundred people versus a few thousand.

The R3 cruise ship captain

  The captain on the navigation bridge of the R3

And the best part of all is that you never have to get dressed up.  Smaller ships tend to be more informal.  The R3 had no “formal” nights, which would have required a jacket and tie.  Instead, “country club casual” attire was acceptable every night, meaning no jeans, shorts or tennis shoes.

Packing for a cruise was never so easy.  The informal dress code, plus the fact the ship has a self-service launderette that enable us to replenish our wardrobe halfway through the trip, meant that my wife and I were able to get by with just carry-on luggage.  Not bad for a 10-day cruise.

The informality of smaller ships carries over into other aspects of the cruising experience.  For instance, there are fewer disruptive announcements over the public address system than on a typical mega-ship.  After awhile, you tired of hearing about the jackpot bingo being offered in the Mermaid Lounge or the shuffleboard tournament on Deck nine.

Some smaller ships even have an “open bridge” policy, allowing passengers to visit the navigation bridge at almost any time.  We enjoyed watching the captain, perched behind the ship’s steering wheel, directing his crew as we sailed away from one of the French Polynesian Islands.

More diversity in ports-of-call is another advantage.  Smaller ships can go to smaller and more exotic destinations simply because they can sail through narrower passageways and dock in more confined ports with shallower water.

On a recent cruise through the Baltic Sea, our 2,000-passenger ship had to dock an hour’s bus ride from Stockholm, Sweden, and 20 minutes outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  In both ports, we noticed smaller cruise ships docked right in the heart of town, within walking distance of the main attractions.

That’s not to say, though, that large ships don’t have their pluses. They perform better in bad weather, as they have the bulk to withstand rough seas. That can be vitally important if you’re prone to seasickness.

And they generally offer the widest range of activities and facilities. There’s always something to do, whether it be a ballroom dancing class, table tennis tournament, art auction or ice-carving demonstration. And the entertainment is typically better, with larger performing casts and all the glitz you’ll find in a Las Vegas floor show.

For those, though, who want a vacation that is a bit quieter and more laid back, try sailing aboard a ship that holds just a few hundred passengers. You’ll still have plenty of company and more than enough things to do – just not as many people to rub elbows with as you do it.

© 2009 Dan Fellner

Barbados synagogue

A secret in the Caribbean

By | Barbados, Cruising, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Barbados home to historically significant Jewish sites

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 6, 2012

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados – It may be one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean.

Barbados, known best for its spectacular white-sand beaches, posh resorts and a rich British colonial heritage, also happens to be home to one of the most historically significant Jewish sites in the Americas.

Barbados synagogue

The historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados

I recently visited Bridgetown, the picturesque capital city of Barbados, during an 11-day southern Caribbean cruise on the Holland America Maasdam.  Barbados is the easternmost island in the Caribbean, with a population of about 286,000.  It achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1966.

After a leisurely 30-minute walk from the Maasdam to downtown Bridgetown, I reached a street called Synagogue Lane, turned right and soon found myself in a small courtyard, marveling at several centuries of Jewish history.

In this quiet complex five blocks north of the Barbados Parliament building, visitors can see a reconstructed Sephardic synagogue called Nidhe Israel (“the scattered of Israel”).  The original building dates back to 1654, making it the earliest constructed synagogue in the Western Hemisphere still in use today.  There is also a Jewish cemetery with more than 300 graves, an interactive museum chronicling the important role Jews played in the island’s history, and a recently discovered 17th-century mikvah, or ritual bath.

Barbados Jewish museum

Museum Manager Celso Brewster discusses the history of the Barbados Jewish community

I had previously visited historic synagogues on the Caribbean islands of Curacao and St. Thomas, both of which are famous for their sand-covered floors.  Those two shuls may be better-known and attract more visitors than their Barbados counterpart, yet Nidhe Israel is the only one of the three dating back to the 17th century.  (The Curacao synagogue, consecrated in 1732, has the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.)

Celso Brewster, who has been the manager of the Nidhe Israel Museum since it first opened in 2008, showed us around the facility. Our port-stop in Barbados happened to fall on a Sunday, and with the museum normally closed on weekends, I was afraid I would not be able to see its exhibits.

But I had contacted Brewster in advance of our visit, and he was kind enough to open up the museum and synagogue for me and several other passengers on the Maasdam, including a rabbi whom Holland America brought onboard to lead Shabbat and Hanukkah services during the cruise.  (Contact Brewster by email at and he will gladly arrange weekend viewings.)

Inside Barbados synagogue

The sanctuary inside the Nidhe Israel Synagogue

Inside the museum, we learned that Jews first arrived on Barbados in 1628, driven from Brazil by the Inquisition.  They brought with them expertise in growing sugar cane and in windmill technology.  As noted on the exhibit greeting visitors at the museum’s entrance:  “For these Jews and their descendants, coconut milk and sugar cane were the milk and honey of the land promised to the people of Abraham.”

With Nidhe Israel as its anchor, the Jewish community in Barbados prospered under British rule.  The synagogue was destroyed by a hurricane in 1831 and later rebuilt.  But the number of Jews living on the island slowly dwindled over the years due to emigration and assimilation. It is believed that the last of the Sephardic descendants of the Brazilian Jews left the island in 1929.  The synagogue fell into disrepair and was sold.

The community was slowly re-established in the 1930s by Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe who built another synagogue, Shaare Tzedek, in a residential neighborhood. However, Nidhe Israel remained neglected and unused as a house of worship.  The Barbadian government announced plans to demolish it in 1980 to make way for a new Supreme Court building.

But Paul Altman, a prominent Jewish businessman whose grandfather was buried in the cemetery adjacent to Nidhe Israel, pleaded with the prime minister of Barbados to save the historic building.

Barbados Jewish cemetery

The restored Jewish cemetery has a gravestone dating back to 1658

“He went to the prime minister armed with photographs taken in the 1800s of the inside of the synagogue,” said Brewster.  “And the prime minister then relented and told him that if you can raise the funds to save the synagogue, the government will return the synagogue to Jewish hands.”

Altman launched an international fundraising campaign and was able to raise more than $1 million to restore the synagogue.  After being dormant for nearly 60 years, Nidhe Israel was rededicated in 1987.  The two-story pink building, with beautiful Gothic arches, features stunning chandeliers, and an ark and bimah crafted with Barbadian mahogany.  The building is now owned by the Barbados National Trust.

From December through March, the synagogue hosts Friday night services for the island’s nearly 100 year-round Jewish residents, not to mention the scores of Jewish tourists who flock to Barbados during the winter months.  Members of the congregation conduct the services, as there is no rabbi.  Shaare Tzedek, which is air-conditioned and has a kitchen, is used for services during the rest of the year.

Barbados mikvah

The recently discovered 17th century full-immersion mikvah

The Jewish cemetery, which has a gravestone dating all the way back to 1658, was also restored.  And in 2008, a 260-year-old building in the same complex – originally a Jewish school – reopened as the Nidhe Israel Museum.  Its main hall includes several interactive exhibits as well as a floor with glass panels covering sand embedded with artifacts from the cemetery.

The final attraction was discovered in 2008 when archaeologists were digging in the site’s parking lot looking for what had been the rabbi’s house.  Instead, they unearthed an ancient full-immersion mikvah, believed to have been built even before the synagogue.  But at first, they weren’t sure what it was.

“We thought maybe it was a flooded storeroom filled with ancient rainwater,” said Brewster.  “Then one day, two Israeli tourists came, looked over the top, and said, ‘Oh, you have a mikvah.’  That is how we knew for sure.”

Bridgetown Barbados

Bridgetown, the colorful capital city of Barbados

Brewster said the museum averages only about seven visitors per day, a number he believes will steadily grow as word spreads of the historical treasures awaiting Jewish tourists to Barbados.  He especially hopes to attract a larger share of the nearly 500,000 passengers who arrive each year at Bridgetown’s cruise terminal.

“This has been called the greatest secret in Bridgetown,” he said. “Even Barbadians don’t know we exist.

“It is a very, very historical site, not only for Barbados, but for the Jews who fled the Inquisition, both in Europe and South America. It represents a new beginning, and so therefore, everyone should know about it.  Everyone should see it.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner


Cape Town South Africa

Cruising Jewish Cape Town

By | Cruising, Jewish Travel, South Africa | No Comments

Cultural sites underline contribution of influential community

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – February 20, 2009

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –With the dramatic flat-topped Table Mountain and Twelve Apostles mountain range looming over white-sand beaches and a stunning harbor, Cape Town, South Africa, has rightly earned a reputation as one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world.

It’s also been a hospitable home to Jews, who arrived in waves from Europe in the late 19th century, later played a leading role in the fight against apartheid, and today give more money per capita to Israel than any other Jewish community.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Cape Town and see its Jewish sites during a 16-day cruise aboard the Silversea Silver Wind that sailed from South Africa to Kenya.

Cape Town's Table Mountain

Cape Town’s dramatic Table Mountain overlooks the city’s harbor

Most of the important Jewish sites, including the South African Jewish Museum, the Gardens Shul, Cape Town Holocaust Center, and Gitlin Library, are located in the same complex on an outdoor square in the heart of downtown Cape Town, just four blocks from the South African Parliament.

My first stop was the Jewish Museum, which attracts about 15,000 people a year.  Visitors get a sense of the history of the Jewish community even before entering the building.

The entrance to the museum is through the exterior of the first synagogue built in South Africa, which was consecrated in 1863. Inside are the original wooden ark and mosaic floor and other artifacts from the synagogue.

I had arranged in advance to meet Shea (pronounced She-uh) Albert, the museum’s executive director. She was kind enough to show me around and pointed out that every window in the museum has a view of Table Mountain, which is what the Jewish immigrants first saw when arriving in Cape Town by ship.

cape town Jewish museum

The original wooden and mosaic floor from South Africa’s first synagogue

The museum depicts what life was like for those immigrants and does so with high-tech and interactive exhibits, including a bank of touch-screen computers where visitors can research their family roots.

“Other museums usually say, ‘Don’t touch,'” said Albert. “We say, ‘Please touch, please engage, please experience what the history really means.'”

I especially enjoyed a reconstructed shtetl from Riteve, Lithuania in the 1880s. Interestingly, more than 80 percent of the Jews now living in Cape Town have ancestors who emigrated from Lithuania. The shtetl exhibit features a scale model of a school, shop and modest house. Inside the home, the table is set for Shabbat dinner.

“People come to the shtetl and they actually cry sometimes because they can realize how it must have been and thereby feel closer to their grandparents,” said Albert.

Cape Town Gardens Shul

The Gardens Shul in Cape Town is South Africa’s oldest active synagogue

The museum also showcases the role played by Jews in the struggle against apartheid, including Isie Maisels, who was Nelson Mandela’s defense lawyer during the 1963 trial that led to Mandela’s incarceration for treason, and Helen Suzman, who for many years was the sole anti-apartheid voice in the South African Parliament.

Mandela was at the museum’s opening in 2000, and there is a quote from his autobiography displayed on one of the museum’s walls: “In my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Next door to the museum is the Gardens Shul, also known as the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. It opened in 1905, making it the oldest active congregation in South Africa. It can seat more than 1,400 people.

Cape Town Holocaust Museum

Cape Town’s Holocaust Center, the only Holocaust museum in Africa

About 15,000 Jews now live in Cape Town, which has a dozen synagogues. Many of them live in an area of town called Sea Point, a suburb about 15 minutes from downtown that has numerous apartment buildings overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I rode a tour bus through the area, which has a kosher butcher and deli.

Albert calls it “a cohesive community” that is deeply committed to the state of Israel and looking after its own sick and needy. “In that, it mirrors Jewish communities everywhere,” she said.

I also visited the Cape Town Holocaust Center, the only Holocaust museum in all of Africa. The Nazis’ rise to power is chronicled and there are vivid displays depicting concentration camps.

The facility also looks at the Holocaust from a South African perspective, comparing early Nazi Germany to the racial injustice of apartheid. To its credit, the government of South Africa now requires Holocaust education in all public schools.

The last stop on my tour of Jewish sites in Cape Town was the Jacob Gitlin Library, also housed on the campus adjacent to the Jewish Museum. Gitlin, who immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania in 1902, was a leader in the South African Zionist movement.

Silversea Silver Wind

The Silversea Silver Wind docked in Cape Town

The library contains about 20,000 Jewish-themed books, periodicals and audio-visual material in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The library also gives non-Jews a chance to learn about Jewish history, culture and traditions.

Once the Silver Wind departed Cape Town and sailed on to other ports in South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya, I focused on seeing animals in their natural habitats and learning more about the indigenous cultures in the region. But it wasn’t an end to my Jewish-related activities on this trip.

I was pleased that Silversea arranged Friday night Shabbat services for its passengers, providing prayer books, kippot, Shabbat candles, wine and challah. There were only about 200 passengers aboard this particular sailing, but we still had minyans on both Friday nights at sea. One of the Silver Wind’s senior officers, a Jew from Florida, prayed with our group of Americans and Brits.

Silver Wind Shabbat services

 Shabbat services onboard the Silver Wind

Indeed, I have found many cruise lines to be more than accommodating to Jewish passengers. Silversea, for instance, in addition to arranging Shabbat services, has a rabbi on board to host a Passover seder and to conduct services during the High Holidays.

“A good percentage of Silversea’s guests are Jewish,” noted Brad Ball, the company’s director of corporate communications, who was onboard our sailing.

For me, it meant a lot being able to recite familiar prayers with fellow Jews sailing the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa.  It made the distance from home seem not quite so far.

© 2010 Dan Fellner
Puerto Vallarta Mismaloya Beach

A minyan in Puerto Vallarta

By | Cruising, Jewish Travel, Mexico | No Comments

Couple creates Jewish community in Mexican resort town

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 2, 2009

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico –When Mel and Barbara Bornstein started looking more than a quarter-century ago for a place to retire so they could escape Chicago winters, they had two requirements – a home on the beach and Jewish fellowship.

Mel and Barbara Bornstein

The Bornsteins on the back patio of their home in Puerto Vallarta

“It is difficult, as a Jew, not to have Jewish friends,” Mel said, explaining the latter requirement.

The Bornsteins, who celebrated their 60th anniversary last July, chose Puerto Vallarta, a popular tourist destination on Mexico’s west coast. They live in a beautiful condo with a back patio overlooking Banderas Bay (Bay of Flags) in the shadow of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The scenery is magnificent, the weather sunny and warm year-round, and with more than 2 million visitors each year, Puerto Vallarta offers great shopping, restaurants and cultural attractions.

But Jewish fellowship? That may have been a problem when the Bornsteins started coming here 29 years ago. Now, thanks largely to their own efforts, Puerto Vallarta has a cohesive and growing Jewish community with well-attended events to observe the major holidays.

I spent a day with the Bornsteins last month in Puerto Vallarta during a stop on a Mexican cruise.

I had visited the area for a full week several years ago and enjoyed its main attractions – a charming Old Town with colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, the 11-block seaside malecon, or boardwalk, known for its unique sculptures including the iconic bronze figure of a boy riding a sea horse, and Mismaloya Beach, where the 1963 movie “Night of the Iguana” was filmed.

It was that movie, starring Richard Burton (Liz Taylor came along, which attracted hordes of paparazzi), that helped put Puerto Vallarta on the tourism map, transforming a quiet fishing village into what is now a teeming resort destination with a population of more than a quarter-million people.

Puerto Vallarta Passover seder

Passover seder in Puerto Vallarta (photo courtesy of Mel Bornstein)

On this visit, I hoped to revisit some of those same sites, but also wanted to learn what it’s like to be Jewish south of the border. Are kosher foods available? What about anti-Semitism? Can Jews from different places and varying levels of observance come together to form a community?

It was easy to get in touch with Mel. Before I left, I did a quick Google search of “Jews in Puerto Vallarta” and came across several references to Mel and the events he organizes.  I made arrangements to meet when we disembarked the cruise ship.  He and Barbara were kind enough to show me the city, including their lovely home, take me to one of their favorite restaurants for fish tacos, and tell me why they spend so much of their time organizing Jewish events.

“It started because no one wanted the responsibility and that made it a challenge for us,” said Mel.

Added Barbara, “We’re keeping our Jewish ties, which are very important to us.”

Mismaloya Beach

Puerto Vallarta’s scenic Mismaloya Beach, where “Night of the Iguana” was filmed

Mel estimates that 200 Jews live in Puerto Vallarta during the busy winter season, most of them Americans or Canadians.  A Hanukkah dinner he orga nized last month at a local restaurant attracted 148 people. They lit Hanukkah candles, sang songs and feasted on beef brisket, roasted chicken, more than 500 latkes and rugelach for dessert.

For Passover last year, Mel brought in two Chabad rabbis from Brooklyn, N.Y., rented out a local restaurant and had kosher food shipped in from Mexico City.  The seder was attended by 88 people.  A Chabad rabbi from Guadalajara officiated at High Holiday services last fall, which were held at the Puerto Vallarta Holiday Inn.

Mel keeps Jews in the area informed about upcoming events via a 400-name e-mail distribution list.  “You know Schindler’s list?  He has the Bornstein list,” joked Barbara.

Seahorse statue in Puerto Vallarta

 The iconic bronze seahorse statue on the malecon

He regularly gets e-mails from observant visitors wanting to know if kosher food is available.  While there are a few items for sale at the local Costco and Sam’s Club, most kosher food is shipped in from Mexico City, where there are 23 synagogues and about 37,000 Jews.

“You order it today, and tomorrow you have it in Puerto Vallarta,” said Mel.

Indeed, Mel is the go-to guy for all Jewish needs in Puerto Vallarta.  Need a minyan to say the mourner’s Kaddish?  No problem, Mel can organize it in a hurry.  Looking for a mohel? Mel knows where to find one.  He was even asked to locate a klezmer band.  If Mel can’t find it, he’ll find someone who can.

As to the reaction of the local Mexican population, Mel said they have accepted the Jews with open arms.  “There is no anti-Semitism here,” he said.  “There are no fears of terrorism.  It’s a good safe place to be.”

There are a few Mexican Jews living in Puerto Vallarta, some of whom have taken part in Mel’s events and learned more about their Jewish identity.  “There are Mexicans who are Jewish who are coming out of their shell now,” he said.  “They didn’t know why they were supposed to light candles on Friday night.  Now they know why.”

Mel refers to the group as the PVJC – Puerto Vallarta Jewish Community.  But he wants to add another “C” to the end of the acronym – Center.  He’s trying to raise money to buy a building so that Jews will have a place of their own for religious services, weddings and b’nai mitzvah, social events, classes in Judaism and kosher meals.

But he needs a benefactor to step forward if a Jewish community center is to become a reality.  “We are open to offers from anybody who wants to name it after themselves, their father or some other family member,” he said.

If you’re looking for a warm and sunny place to retire with a backyard overlooking the sea, Mel makes a strong case for Puerto Vallarta.

“People who are thinking of retiring to Mexico should know that there is a fellowship of Jews down here and that as time goes on, there will be more and more Jews,” he said.  “With the ocean and the scenery and the people, there is no place in the world that we have ever found that compares.”

Editor’s note:  I’m sad to report that Mel passed away in 2013.  Donna Feldman ( is now organizing Jewish events in Puerto Vallarta.

© 2009 Dan Fellner