Walking ashore at Paducah, Kentucky, I saw a bittersweet image.
There on the floodwall is a beautiful painting of the three sister riverboats – the Delta Queen, the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen.
The mural depicts an actual event. On a historic July day in 1996, all three of the mighty steamboats docked at Paducah at the same time. The painting commemorates that gathering as local townsfolks welcome the queens and passengers.
As a many-times cruiser on all three boats, the painting brings back memories. Bitter memories because two of the queens are no longer cruising. The Mississippi Queen was torn apart in 2011 and sold for salvage. The Delta Queen is permanently docked in Chattanooga as a floating hotel. And the American Queen was pulled from the rivers in 2008.
Sweet memories because the American Queen was bought by a new company and began cruising again in April 2012. The beloved passenger boat now makes regular stops again in Paducah – a glorious sight for riverfolks and local people.
“We are delighted to see the American Queen back in Paducah,” says resident Betty McManus. “We have really missed all three of the boats.”
In fact, some shops in the little towns along the rivers went out of business after the boats stopped cruising four years ago. For the first time since 1811, there were no overnight steamships on America’s rivers.
“It does help our economy when the boats bring passengers here,” McManus notes.
Founded in 1815, Paducah was named for Chickasaw Indian Chief Paduke, known for his kindness and generosity to those traveling down the river by keelboat and flatboat. The famous floodwall is a work of art but the wall is actually the result of a disaster.
In 1937, the Ohio River at Paducah quickly rose above its 50-foot flood stage, cresting at 60.8 feet on Feb. 2. With 18 inches of rainfall in 16 days, along with sheets of swiftly moving ice, the ’37 flood was the worst natural disaster in Paducah’s history.
For nearly three weeks, the town’s 27,000 residents were forced to flee to stay with friends and relatives in higher ground. Buildings in downtown Paducah still bear plaques that show the high water marks.
Because Paducah’s earthen levee was ineffective against the ’37 flood, the United States Army Corps of Engineers was commissioned to build the floodwall that now protects the city from the ravages of flooding.
“Then we decided to paint the wall to make it look better,” McManus says. “Now we have almost 50 murals that show the history of Paducah.”
Started in 1996 by mural artist Robert Dafford and his team, the scenes on three city blocks of the floodwall were created over the next 10 years. One final panel was added in 2010 to honor the 100-year anniversary of the local Boy Scout troop.
“The paintings are touched up each year,” McManus says, explaining why scaffolding blocks the three Queens mural that I was trying to photograph.
Each mural panel has its own spotlight and an interpretive plaque with a short history lesson on the scene depicted in the panel.
Along with the three Queens panel, one of my favorites is a 1938 scene when the Ohio River froze solidly completely across. The huge freeze brought barge traffic to a halt. It also provided a winter playground for Paducah residents and schoolchildren freed from school by the freezing weather. Look closely and see a black dog scampering over the ice. Reminds me of my own Pepper at home.
Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
I could never understand what Jackie Kennedy saw in Aristotle Onassis. But I can certainly see why the former First Lady fell in love with the Greek island of Mykonos.
Mesmerizing Mykonos is definitely one of the most popular and most-visited Greek isles.
“The first cruise ship docked here in the 1920s,” tour guide Amaryllis said.
But jet setters really put the spotlight on Mykonos in the 1960s. Some say Jackie Kennedy and other luminaries like Grace Kelly, Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando helped introduce Mykonos to world travelers.
Today, Mykonos has a year-round population of about 10,000 and draws almost 1.8 visitors a year, Amaryllis said. July and August are the busiest months and, although the island has a reputation for partying, you can still find a quiet place to watch one of every day’s highlights – the sunset.
People begin lining up hours beforehand at their favorite viewing places, usually with drinks in hands to watch the sun slip from sight. According to mythology, Mykonos was formed from the petrified bodies of giants killed by Hercules. The island took its name from the grandson of Apollo – Mykonos.
The island even has a mascot, Petros the Pelican. The story goes that a pelican was found wounded by a local fisherman after a terrible storm in the 1950s. When the pelican was nursed back to health, the bird decided to stick around. He was given the name of Petros or Peter and soon was a beloved sight around the island.
On Dec. 2, 1985, however, Petros was hit by a car. The island went into mourning until, it is said, Jackie Onassis donated a replacement pelican. Anyway, the newest Petros can usually be found surrounded by a group of tourists with cameras clicking away.
Mykonos is a very walkable island and that is probably the best way to see it. Visitors stroll through Mykonos Town where the streets are lined with little shops, boutiques, art galleries, cafes, stylish bars and restaurants. There’s also Little Venice, an 18th century district with grand sea captains’ mansions whose balconies perch over the sea. Most visitors make sure to walk up to the lovely windmills set on a luminous blue backdrop on the hillside above.
“We have had windmills on Mykonos since the 1500s,” Amaryllis said. “We have over 330 days of wind on Mykonos each year. The winds come from the north and are a lifesaver. They keep us comfortable.”
Jackie Kennedy’s favorite boutique hotel called Theoxenia is still a popular place to stay. It was June 10, 1961, to be precise, when America’s First Lady set foot on Mykonos for the very first time. She was said to be there for a quiet visit courtesy of Greek Prime Minister Constantine Karamalis.
Theoxenia is also where Jackie and Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis had an affair, according to the hotel clerk who showed me around. Truth? Who knows.
After John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, his widow did marry Onassis on Oct. 20, 1968, on Skorpios, Onassis’ privately-owned island.
Theoxenia itself seems stuck in the ‘60s. It felt very pleasant and sort of weird to be walking around the hotel. Built about half a century ago, Theoxenia is a very plush place as befitting all the celebrities who have stayed and continue to stay here.
Theoxenia has 52 rooms with Pop Art and dramatic colors like orange and deep turquoise. It also has a restaurant, named simply The Plate, plus the Breeze Out pool bar and Breeze In indoor bar. The BHealthy Club has exercise equipment and offers personal fitness training as well as spa treatments and the original impossibly-blue swimming pool outside. Of course, the hotel has all the modern amentias that weren’t available in the ‘60s, like large flat screen TVs and speedy WiFi.
The hotel name is said to honor a theme in Greek mythology of extending hospitality to any guest as though he or she might be a deity in disguise. Theoxenia décor is rather simple and sixtyish as though Theoxenia knows that it can’t compete with the natural beauty of Mykonos. And it shouldn’t want to. After all, the views on this island are amazing and the hotel has one of the best sites on Mykonos – right next to the famous windmills overlooking the Aegean Sea.
It isn’t hard to sit here in a comfy lounger sipping whatever cocktail the young waiter is serving and imagine what it must have been like back in the ‘60s. Serene and stylish, Theoxenia seems a portal to another time.
Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When 18-year-old Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studio for the first time, he was asked who he sounded like. His reply, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
When he sang, “That’s all right, momma,” listeners agreed. Sun Studio became known as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
“It was phenomenal,” said studio tour guide Mic Walker. “You’re walking on hallowed ground when you come in here.”
On July 5, 1954, Presley recorded his first single, “That’s All Right,” at Sun Studio in his hometown of Memphis. A popular shore excursion for riverboats, Sun Studio has changed little through the years. It has the same acoustic ceiling, the original lights and the old floor that so many legends once trod — Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, among others.
Radio engineer Sam Phillips started the Sun Label in 1952 and shared his tiny office with his secretary Marion Keisker. Legend has it that Keisker is the one who was working when a young Presley plopped down $4 to make his first recording.
On a hot summer day in 1953, a shy Presley stopped by the studio to make a recording of “My Happiness.” Local lore says the recording was intended as a birthday present for his mother. More likely, Walker said, the teen was hoping to be discovered. He was yearning for stardom.
And that’s exactly what he found — more than anyone could ever dream.
So impressed was Keisker that she kept a back-up tape of Presley’s singing. In the studio log, Keisker noted Presley was a “good ballad singer.” The story goes that Keisker pestered Phillips until he gave a listen to the unpolished Presley tape. The rest was history.
In the small studio, you can peek into the control room and stand behind the same microphone Presley used. Playing in the background on an old Ampex tape deck are bits of songs recorded at Sun. Old instruments are scattered around the room. A guitar with a dollar bill stuffed between the strings is how Cash produced the “chuffing” sound to imitate trains on his recordings.
Ringo Starr has been quoted as saying, “If it hadn’t been for what happened at Sun Studio, there wouldn’t have been a Beatles.”
There also might not have been an Elvis.
At the time, Presley was delivering electrical appliances for Crown Electric. “He probably stopped by here while he was out delivering or maybe after work,” Walker said. “Crown Electric was less than a mile from here so it was easy for Elvis to come by.”
Without Sun Studio, would Presley have made that first recording? Would someone have noticed his talent and given him a chance?
“That’s something we’ll never know,” Walker concludes. “What happened at Sun Studio was history.”
Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
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