COZUMEL, Mexico – The five costumed men danced around the tall wooden pole. After tying ropes around their waists, the dancers climbed to the top of the pole. Once seated on platforms at the top, the dancers looked at each other, gave some kind of signal and then four of them flung themselves backwards.
The cruise ship crowd gathered below gave an audible gasp. The dancers dangled upside down going round and round the pole until they finally reached the ground.
The fifth dancer stayed atop the pole on a platform playing flute and drum as the dancers descended to loud applause.
“I saw it on TV but it is much more exciting to see in person,” said Marilyn Anderson of Florida. “No way would I do that.”
The Mexican Pole Dancers is a popular performance when cruise ships dock in Cozumel. Many of the tours offered as shore excursions include a chance to see the dance and tip the daring dancers.
The Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) or Palo Volador (Pole Flying) is an ancient ritual still performed in a modified form in various parts of Mexico.
According to one tale, the dance was originally created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. Supposedly, the dance was done, rain did fall, the drought ended and crops grew again.
The ceremony has been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO to help the ritual survive in the modern world.
Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
Cruise Trivia: Can you name the American Queen godmother? Hint: This godmother once lived in a graceful Memphis mansion.November 3, 2014 | Heidi
Choosing a godmother for a vessel is a great responsibility. When the boat is christened, that is the official start of the vessel’s life.
For the christening of the American Queen, the event in April 2012 was celebrating not only the new launch of the vessel but also the rebirth of the legendary riverboat. Built in 1995, the American Queen was once part of a trio of beautiful sisters. Originally owned by the Delta Queen Company, the American Queen – along with the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen – ruled the rivers. Devoted travelers eagerly awaited each year’s itineraries.
Then hard times hit. In 2008, the Majestic American Line, which then owned the American Queen, went belly up. The historic Delta Queen was permanently docked in Chattanooga as a floating hotel. The Mississippi Queen was torn apart for scrap. And the American Queen was put in the custody of the United States Maritime Administration. The luxury steamboat sat in mothballs for years. Her future seemed dark.
Then a newly formed company, the Great American Steamboat Company, bought the American Queen for $30 million and put another $6.5 million in refurbishment.
Listed at a whopping 418 feet long with a passenger capacity of about 435, the American Queen is said to be the biggest steamboat ever built. With her elaborate gingerbread trim and six decks, the American Queen looks like a fancy floating wedding cake.
The new company chose Memphis as the homeport for the American Queen. That brings us to the trivia question –what famed lady with Memphis connections was chosen to the godmother of the American Queen and to preside at the new christening?
Don’t look a the answer below until you have formulated your own. A hint – this godmother once lived in a graceful Memphis mansion.
(Answer:) Does the name Presley ring a bell?
Priscilla Presley, the one-time wife of Elvis, is the godmother for the American Queen. Priscilla used to reside just a few miles from downtown Memphis at Graceland. The place where Elvis lived, died and is buried, Graceland is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Tennessee.
In 1979, Priscilla Presley became co-executor of the Presley Estate. Under her direction the estate grew into a phenomenally successful organization. In announcing Priscilla Presley as the American Queen godmother, the company noted that her efforts in leading Elvis Presley Enterprises exemplify grace and dignity, two adjectives that also befit the American Queen.
KEY WEST, Florida - He strutted down the street like he was cock of the walk.
“He’s beautiful. And he knows it,” a woman said, watching me try to take a photo of the confident rooster.
I think she was right. Perhaps this preening critter knew that he was a popular sight on cruise ship stops and that he could come and go as he pleased – protected by the laws of Key West.
Where else do chickens have such legal jurisdiction? Among its many idiosyncrasies, Key West takes care of its feral fowl or Gypsy Chickens as they are sometimes called.
A bartender along Duval Street told me that the scrappy little birds wandering the streets, yards, taverns, restaurants and everywhere else in this Florida community are descendants of ferocious fighters.
When Cubans came to Key West to escape troubles in their country in the 1860s, they brought their chickens with them. The birds were raised for meat and eggs. The roosters also were prized for their beauty and cockfighting prowess.
Even more chickens came when thousands of Cubans fled to Key West in the 1950s as a result of the Revolution. However, cock fighting was outlawed in the 1970s and many of the no-longer-wanted birds were turned loose. With easy access to meat and eggs in supermarkets, the backyard “grocery stores” were no longer necessary so those chickens also hit the road.
With few predators on the island (except hawks and feral cats) the “wild” chickens thrive on a diet of native insects and lizards. Several generations later, it is estimated that between 2,000 to 3,000 of these birds still roam freely throughout the island.
Although tourists like the colorful birds – and local artists have capitalized on that with chicken paintings, T-shirts, ceramics and even chicken jewelry – many locals are weary of the marauding creatures. Whoever thought roosters only crow loudly at the break of dawn is sadly mistaken. Passing headlights, flashing porch lights or any disturbance can set a rooster off on a loud concert long before daylight. Warnings from awakened sleepers to “shut up” seem to increase the crowing even louder.
The birds annoy homeowners by scratching up yards, flowerbed and vegetable gardens and by leaving “little gifts” on cars and lawn furniture. Territorial mother hens can seem a bit scary to unaware strollers. The chickens are regarded by some as a nuisance and a danger to public health.
But efforts to control the “invasive species” have met with strong opposition in notorious live-and-let-live Key West. To me, the scurrying chickens and preening roosters are a colorful part of the fabric of this unusual cruise stop.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
We seem plunked down in a different world. It looks like something from the depths of history. Or maybe from planets beyond our orb.
Great shards of ice glisten like diamonds in deep sapphire waters. Tidewater glaciers sweep like rivers of ice down massive mountain valleys. Mountains, some as high as 15,000 feet, rise straight out of the ocean. Snow draped peaks tower over sparkling fiords.
“It feels like you are going back in time, back to the Ice Age,” said Ranger Fay Schaller as our cruise ship enters Alaska’s Glacier Bay. “We are traveling on one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Accessible only by sea or air, Glacier Bay National Park is recognized as a biosphere reserve, as established in 1986 under the Man & Biosphere program of the International Coordinating Council. In 1992 the 3.3-million-acre park also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Aboard the Wilderness Explorer, we will spend three days in Glacier Bay, not merely cruising past the astounding scenery but actually stopping to go ashore, paddle a kayak or ride in a skiff. To see Glacier Bay is to enjoy nature in its primary stages.
First, our ship stops at the Glacier Bay Ranger Station headquarters in Gustavus, a town with less than 500 year-round residents and the official entrance to the park. Here we pick up Ranger Fay who will be with us for our entire visit in Glacier Bay. Some passengers and crew make a quick visit to the Glacier Bay Lodge to use the Wi-Fi for a last check of Internet and cell phones. During the rest of our cruise, we will have neither.
But, oh, the beauties we will see. No technology can compete with what Mother Nature has to offer.
In the 1960s cruise ships began entering Glacier Bay regularly. Today, entrance to Glacier Bay is closely guarded in order to protect the delicate environment so cruise lines must apply for permits to visit. A limited number of permits are issued each year for ships which meet the strict criteria.
The scenery is spectacular. The park includes 16 tidewater glaciers with 12 actively calving icebergs into the bay. Wildlife abounds, from sea birds to shore-bound birds. Whales cavort in the waters. Steller sea lions trumpet their songs from icy islands. Orca killer whales patrol for prey. Wolves and bears prowl the shores. Goats nestle in the rocky crags.
Even though we edge near the icy creations on the Wilderness Explorer and in our kayaks and skiffs, we don’t get too close. Without warning, columns of blue ice can smash into the sea with a primeval roar. Known as calving, the falling ice can create strong waves and toss house-sized chunks of ice.
“The Tlingits have a name for caving,” Ranger Fay said. “They call it ‘white thunder.’”
Seems like a very descriptive name for an almost indescribable feature of Glacier Bay.
Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
If you happen to see the American Queen cruising along one of America’s rivers, take a close look at that name beneath the big red paddlewheel.
Proudly posted on the back of the riverboat is the American Queen’s new homeport – Memphis, Tennessee.
“We are very happy to be the new home of the American Queen,” said Jonathan Lyons, public relation manager for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Our city officials worked hard to get that honor.”
A major part of those efforts to please the American Queen and it’s passengers, Memphis recently constructed Beale Street Landing. The ambitious docking facility can accommodate 50-foot shifts in the Mississippi River’s height.
After a decade of design, planning, construction and a difficult budget, the Riverfront Development Corporation’s $43 million Beale Street Landing project officially opened June 28, 2014.
Beale Street Landing’s dock, where passengers load onto the American Queen and other riverboats, is made from barges so it can rise and fall with the river. Passengers can reach the boat by walking down the landing’s ramp. For those with mobility problems, golf carts are available to get to the boat.
And the new Beale Street Landing should get plenty of use, Memphis officials said. The American Queen docks here 13 times a year. The Queen of the Mississippi docks 15 times a year. The Grande Mariner and the Grande Caribe from the Blount cruise line both dock here four times a year. A local sightseeing cruise boat, the Island Queen, takes passengers on cruises twice a day.
Next to the landing is a small park with gardens and seats where people can sit and watch the river flow. A playground, restaurant and gift shop also are part of the project.
With such a great landing and such a marvelous homeport, cruise passengers might want to plan to spend a couple of extra days in Memphis before or after a cruise.
Story by Jackie Sheckler Finch
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Andrew Jackson loved his home so much that he chose to be buried there with his beloved wife Rachel. Some say that the man known as “Old Hickory” still keeps watch over his Tennessee plantation.
The Hermitage is preserved today almost as it was during the days of the man who became an American icon. Built between 1819 and 1821, the home has almost all its original furnishings including the wallpaper, which dates to the early 1800s. Today, the site is a popular shore excursion for riverboat passengers.
Jackson was born March 15, 1767, on the South Carolina border. His father died in a logging accident before Jackson was born and the family had to move in with relatives in order to survive. Both of his brothers died in the Revolutionary War and his mother died when Jackson was 14. The penniless youth tried his hand at the saddlery trade and school teaching but was drawn toward the law and became a lawyer in 1787.
Then he came to Nashville and found his future.
Staying in a boarding house, Jackson fell in love with the owner’s daughter, 21-year-old Rachel Donelson Robards who was trying to deal with a rocky marriage. Believing that her husband Lewis Robards had obtained a divorce, three years later Rachel and Andrew were married.
Then they found out that Robards hadn’t gotten a divorce after all. They were legally remarried in 1794 but the scandal plagued them the rest of their lives.
Jackson’s political star rose quickly and the 37-year-old Jackson bought the Hermitage property outside Nashville during this time. The War of 1812 gave Jackson a chance to rack up a string of victories that gained him a reputation as the country’s foremost commander in the field.
Then came the Battle of New Orleans. In 1814, Jackson and his ragtag army marched into New Orleans against the British. The British suffered more than 2,000 casualties. The Americans reported fewer than 20.
The victory confirmed the Louisiana Purchase, led to the acquisition of Florida, lent respect to the Monroe Doctrine and created a healthy regard for America’s independence. The victory also made General Jackson an instant legend and propelled him toward the White House.
But his past came back to haunt him – and eventually claimed his wife. The 1828 presidential campaign set a record for mud slinging and name-calling. The worst attacks in the campaign were those on Rachel’s reputation, accusations of adultery and bigamy that hurt Jackson and his ailing wife.
Jackson won the election, of course, but Rachel never lived to be in the White House. Rachel died three weeks before the inauguration.
On Dec. 22, 1828, Rachel suffered a massive heart attack. Jackson blamed his wife’s death on the nasty campaign of 1828 and the stress of the imminent move to Washington. On Christmas Eve, Jackson laid Rachel to rest in her white inaugural gown in the garden at the Hermitage, surrounded by weeping willows.
Shrouded in grief, Jackson then made his way to Washington. For the next eight years, through two tempestuous terms in office, Jackson made his mark on the presidency and the nation.
In 1837, Jackson at last retired to the Hermitage at the age of 70. While in the White House, Jackson had a permanent temple made of limestone created for his wife’s grave and his own. The structure resembled a Greek-style gazebo.
Lines from the epitaph he chose for her tombstone describes “a being so gentle and so virtuous slander might wound but could not dishonor.”
Every day, he visited Rachel’s grave. He missed his wife so much that he had a painting of her put in his bedroom so that she would be the last thing he saw at night and the first thing he saw in the morning.
On June 8, 1845, the 78-year-old Jackson finally joined his wife in death. The former president died of kidney failure and was buried beside his beloved Rachel in the Hermitage garden.
Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
When I told a friend I was cruising to the Conch Republic, he looked a bit puzzled. “Is it in the Bahamas?” he asked. “Or maybe Hawaii?”
Good guesses. But wrong on both. The Conch Republic is located in the good old USA, in Florida, in fact. Conch Republic is the nickname for Key West.
How did the far tip of Florida get that moniker? From what might have been the shortest the shortest naval battle in history.
“We declared war on the United States and threw stale Cuban bread at a Navy officer,” Key West guide Robert said. “It lasted for about a minute. Then we surrendered and asked for $1 billion in foreign aid to rebuild. We’re still waiting for that $1 billion.”
A popular stop for cruise ships, Key West knows how to make cruisers feel welcome. When my ship docked for the day in Key West, many of us climbed aboard a Conch Train open tram to tour around the unusual community. Driver Robert pointed out sites of interest and told us stories of Key West’s past and how it got its nickname of the Conch Republic.
“You are in the Conch Republic,” he said, gesturing to a Conch Republic flag on a porch. “We are proud to be Americans and we are proud to be Conchs. Our local high school sports team is the Fighting Conchs.”
The problem began in 1982 when U.S. Border Patrol set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the Florida Keys so agents could search cars for contraband. Since the checkpoint was on the only road into and out of the island chain, traffic was brought to a standstill. A 17-mile-long traffic jam resulted.
The roadblock angered residents, visitors and Keys officials who complained that the Keys were being treated as a foreign country. Citizens should be able to come and go more freely, they argued.
When their protests were ignored, Keys residents decided to secede from the Union. On April 23, 1982, the southernmost point in the continental United States did just that. They seceded from the United States of America and formed the Conch Republic.
“The roadblock was quickly removed,” Robert said. “That is why our motto is ‘We seceded where others failed.’ We celebrate that.”
In fact, a 10-day Conch Republic Independence Celebration is held every April. In a town known for its parties, the annual celebration is legendary. That is one thing I quickly learned to like about Key West.
In addition to its colorful characters, laidback atmosphere, renowned Key Lime Pie, balmy weather, many museums, fishing fun and fascinating history, Key West is the only place I know that publicly celebrates the end of every day. Folks gather in Mallory Square to salute the sinking of the sun and to watch for the famed green flash – a special glint of light in the water at sunset.
I think I could get used to that. Celebrate every day and live life to the fullest. Good philosophy to have no matter where you are.
Story and Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
Carnival Cruise Lines’ new shore excursions best price guarantee- now all you have to do is choose a tour!June 12, 2014 | Heidi
Shore excursions are part of the fun of cruising. Going ashore and taking a tour is an exciting option on cruises. And, almost always, there are more tour options than I can do. Makes for hard choices.
But Carnival Cruise Lines has now come up with a cruise industry first to be sure passengers get the best shore excursions possible. Carnival just announced a guarantee that guests who book a Carnival shore excursion and find a comparable tour at a lower price will receive an onboard credit of 110 percent of the difference.
“Many of our repeat guests who have booked Carnival shore tours previously are already knowledgeable on the outstanding value our tours provide,” said Mico Cascais, vice president of tour operations for Carnival Cruise Lines.
“However, our research indicates that many others, particularly first-time cruisers, are interested yet concerned as to whether or not they are getting the best deal,. The best price guarantee program will assure our guests they are getting both the highest quality and the best value on all of our tours.”
I’ve long known that the shore excursions offered by a cruise company are the best way to go. The excursions have to be well organized, reasonably priced, safe and interesting or the cruise line would not keep offering them.
I once saw a couple returning to our cruise ship shaking their heads and vowing never TO take a Jamaica tour again. The problem was not Jamaica and it was not the tour, it was the tour company. The poor couple had booked it with a tour company after they got off the ship and saw a cheap tour offered in Jamaica. Never ever do that.
CHOOSE CRUISE COMPANY SHORE EXCURSIONS
Stick with the cruise company excursions. They offer the best protection and now the best price. I was very pleased with my Bob Marley tour when the Carnival Breeze docked in Jamaica. But I don’t think I would have wanted to take the tour with any company other than the one backed by the Carnival company.
Of course, with Carnival’s new excursion protection plan, cruisers are guaranteed to get the best deal from a Carnival excursion. Sounds like a great program.
Guests sailing on a Carnival cruise who book a shore excursion through the cruise line can be completely confident they are getting the best price and best value with the introduction of a new shore excursion best price guarantee.
The only guarantee of its kind in the cruise industry, the program is now available fleet wide for all Carnival Cruise Lines shore tours on ships sailing from North America.
Under the best price guarantee, guests who find the same tour offered by another operator at a lower price than their booked excursion either before or during their cruise can complete a claim form to receive 110 percent of the difference in the form of a shipboard credit.
The guarantee is available for excursions booked prior to or during a cruise. If guests pre-book an excursion, then find a comparable tour advertised online at a lower price, they can complete an online form up to seven days prior to the cruise to invoke the guarantee. Guests can also complete a form during the cruise either before or after their excursion has taken place. Claims are typically processed within 24-48 hours.
DON’T MISS THE BOAT
Guests who book their excursion through Carnival enjoy the convenience of having shore excursion tickets delivered to their stateroom, 24/7 access to shipboard staff to answer questions and obtain assistance, and an assurance that they will receive a refund or the excursion time will be adjusted as needed based on weather or other issues affecting a ship’s scheduled port of call visit.
I heard a faint gasp during my Carnival Magic orientation meeting in December when Magic Cruise Director James Dunn told cruisers what would happen if they booked a shore excursion not offered by Carnival and didn’t return to the ship in time for its sailing.
“We will leave you,” Dunn said. “We’ve done it before and we will do it again.”
Of course, that is no problem when you book a shore excursion with Carnival. I’ve never been late getting back to the ship on a ship-arranged tour excursion. But if something were to happen with a Carnival tour, Dunn said, the ship would wait.
Ongoing communication between tour operators and shipboard staff ensures that the cruise line is aware and can make necessary changes to a ship’s departure time when a tour is running late or unexpected circumstances arise, Dunn said.
Sure worth the peace of mind to me.
The online and onboard claim forms require guests to provide the name of the competitor offering the comparable tour, excursion name, where the tour was advertised and the duration, price and any items included in the tour such as lunch, drinks, transportation or admission fees.
The best price guarantee is applicable to shore excursion matches on the same date as the tour purchased from Carnival.
Story and Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
If you’ve ever cruised on this vessel, you might have relaxed in this very spot and watched the sun set on a beautiful day.
For a bit of cruise ship trivia, see if you can recognize this popular vessel. Don’t look at the answer below until you have formulated yours.
A hint: Mark Twain was fond of this form of travel.
If you recognize it, good for you. If you don’t, make plans to book a cruise. Rolling on the river is an unforgettable experience any time of day or night.
(Answer:) Despite the odds, the lovely American Queen is cruising the rivers once again.
Her improbable tale started when the youngest of three sister ships was constructed in 1995. Listed at a whopping 418 feet long with a passenger capacity of about 435, the American Queen is said to be the biggest steamboat ever built. With her elaborate gingerbread trim and six decks, the American Queen looks like a fancy floating wedding cake.
Once owned by the Delta Queen Company, the American Queen – along with the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen – ruled the rivers. Devoted cruisers eagerly awaited each year’s itineraries.
Then hard times hit. In 2008, the Majestic American Line, which then owned the American Queen, went belly up. The historic Delta Queen was permanently docked in Chattanooga as a floating hotel. The Mississippi Queenwas sold for scrap. And the American Queen was put in the custody of the United States Maritime Administration. The luxury steamboat sat in mothballs for years. Her future seemed dark.
However, three steamboat lovers – Jeff Krida, chief executive officer of the original Delta Queen Steamboat Company; Christopher Kyte, founder of the travel firm Uncommon Journeys and formerly the top seller of Delta Queen Steamboat Company cruises; and John Waggoner, president of HMS Global Maritime – decided they couldn’t allow the beautiful boat to be destroyed.
In 2011, they joined forces to form the Great American Steamboat Company and bought the paddle wheeler for $30 million. After a $6.5 million facelift, the American Queen is back where she belongs – on America’s rivers.
In April 2012, the American Queen left her new homeport of Memphis for an inaugural cruise. Priscilla Presley did the honors of formally rechristening the boat with a bottle of champagne. Since then, the American Queen has been drawing passengers with her charms of bygone days.
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
For all you dedicated travelers and book lovers, here’s a tough cruise destination question. This is the tomb of a well-known writer. For a bit of trivia, where is the tomb located and who is buried there?
A hint – he was a “divine” author.
Don’t look at the answer below until you’ve formulated your own response. Congratulations if you are correct. If not, you sure are not alone. Some passengers on my cruise went to the wrong place looking for this burial spot. So we live and learn.
(Answer) This is the great Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, Italy. Although Dante was born in Florence and dearly loved that city, he spent the last years of his life in Ravenna after being exiled from Florence for his political beliefs.
It was in Ravenna during the end of his life that Dante wrote “The Divine Comedy.” He died in 1321.The mausoleum is quite small on a narrow lane and easily overlooked. I walked to it with no problem but heard back on the ship that some passengers couldn’t find it.
Don’t mistake a mound of earth next to the mausoleum as Dante’s final burial place. Another photographer did that and was showing me his photos of what he thought was the grave. That is actually where Dante’s urn was moved and buried from March 1944 to December 1945 because of fears that his tomb might be bombed during World War II. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
Story and Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch