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Crown Cruise Vacations | October 4, 2015

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Shore Excursion: Catacombs, Venus de Milo & much more on Milos, Greece

September 29, 2015 | Jackie Sheckler Finch

MILOS, Greece – It gave me shivers just to be standing here. Tucked into a hillside on the Greek isle of Milos are the graves of early Christians. These catacombs are from the 1st century AD. It is mind boggling to consider what took place here and how long ago it happened.

“The catacombs are considered to be the most important early Christian monument in all of Greece,” said guide Andreas Belivanakis. “Milos was declared a ‘Holy Island’ by the Greek church because of the catacombs. We believe the catacombs of Milos are older than the ones in Rome.”

The small volcanic island of Milos is beautiful and dotted with thermal springs considered to have therapeutic benefits. It is filled with intriguing history and has about 70 beaches for great swimming, fishing, hiking and boating.

Sporting his “Milos is for Lovers” logo shirt, Belivanakis explained when we arrived for our morning tour that the island got its nickname because it is where the famous statue of Venus de Milo was discovered. The ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty was found in 1820 buried in a hillside by a farmer looking for marble slabs to build his house.

“The farmer was disappointed when he found the statue because he thought it was useless. What he wanted was marble for his house so he started covering the statue back up,” Belivanakis said. “An officer in the French navy saw it and offered to pay the farmer to continue digging it up.”

The base has an inscription with the sculptor’s name – Alexandros of Antioch, Belivanakis said. “No arms were ever found. The arms may still be buried here but it is not a priority for archeologists to dig up this area.”

The famous armless sculpture of a woman is now housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris. “All we have is the sign here to show where the statue was found,” Belivanakis said.

Located next to the discovery site of Venus de Milo are the ruins of an ancient Greco-Roman marble theater along with the remnants of the walls from the old city. You can also enjoy a magnificent view of the bay of Milos from this position.

                                                   CHRISTIAN CATACOMBS

But back to the Christians catacombs. Those were discovered in the 1830s by children playing in the area. “They were first excavated in 1834 but tomb raiders had already been here years before and taken everything, including the bones,” Belivanakis said.

The catacombs were used by the early Christians first as a burial site and later as a place of worship and a refuge from persecution by the Romans. Only three sections of the sizable necropolis have been uncovered but it is estimated that as many as 2,000 Christians may have been buried here.

“The small chambers above the larger ones were used for infant graves,” Belivanakis said. “You can still see the inscriptions on the walls used by the early Christians, used as passwords for each other … You can see the symbols for Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end of the Greek alphabet. For Christians, Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end.”

Although the Bible doesn’t name Milos as the place where Saint Paul was shipwrecked on his way from Athens to Crete, Belivanakis said that scholars believe from the descriptions that the island must have been Milos.

“It is like we are an undiscovered island for most people,” Belivanakis said. “We are a little gem out here by ourselves.”

Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Seeing menu items helps passengers make dining choices

July 30, 2015 | Jackie Sheckler Finch

Ever peruse a cruise ship menu and have a difficult time choosing what to order? Do you look around at other diners to see what they may be eating?

Iceland ProCruises has a helpful way to make choosing a bit easier on its cruise ship, the Ocean Diamond. Several of the evening’s menu offerings are placed on a decorative front table as passengers enter the ship’s dining room. Seeing the beautifully presented dishes can sometimes make or break a menu choice.

Often in a restaurant, I have looked at a companion’s dinner and thought it looked better than mine. But by then, of course, it was too late. The Ocean Diamond lets diners see what some of the specialties on the night’s menu are before they place an order.

The first Icelandic-owned expedition cruise line set sail in June 2015. The new company offers round-trip cruises on the Ocean Diamond from Reykjavik during Iceland’s summer months of June through August.


Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

New circumnavigation cruises of Iceland now offered by Iceland ProCruises

July 20, 2015 | Jackie Sheckler Finch

If Iceland is on your list as a “must-see” destination, the adventure has become even more enticing. The first Icelandic-owned expedition cruise line is now offering circumnavigation cruises of the spectacular country.

Iceland ProCruises set sail June 2015 on its 224-passenger, 105-crew super yacht Ocean Diamond. The 10-day cruises from the capital city of Reykjavik will be offered through Aug 6 in 2015 and from May 24 to Sept. 2 in 2016.

Cruising around Iceland means that guests will not have to pack and unpack to stay in different hotels, will not have to drive long distances between attractions and will not be seeking good restaurants for daily meals. All of this will be taken care of by the beautiful Ocean Diamond. Travelers can just sit back, relax and enjoy intriguing Iceland.

Although a new company, Iceland ProCruises is a subsidiary of Iceland ProTravel – a leading DMC in Iceland. Owners Gudmundur Kjartansson and Anne-Cathrin Brocker are seasoned veterans in Icelandic travel and tourism bringing their expertise to each cruise.

About the size of Kentucky, Iceland is a country like no other: 15 active volcanoes, 10,000 thundering waterfalls, 800 hot springs, immense lava fields, glaciers covering 11.5 percent of the country. Then there are the whales, puffins, fuzzy Icelandic horses (don’t dare call them ponies), erupting geysers, postcard-pretty fjords, Northern Lights and Midnight Sun.

The ship carries its own Zodiacs for shore excursions. Due to the size of the Ocean Diamond, the vessel is able to navigate through smaller areas of Iceland giving passengers a closer experience than larger cruise ships are able to offer.

The ship also has a specialized Icelandic expedition team to lead tours and present programs about what we will be seeing and doing. This is a great bonus because passengers will probably have many questions concerning unusual Iceland.

Story by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Photos courtesy of Iceland ProCruises


Shore Excursion: Ruins of ancient Ephesus in Turkey

June 22, 2015 | Jackie Sheckler Finch

Carved into stone, the drawing of a footprint may be the first public billboard advertisement ever recorded in history.

“It pointed the way to the local brothel,” guide Bulent Yurttas said, leading us around the ancient city of Ephesus. The dots on the stone represent the number of prostitutes in the brothel and the heart carving means the women are eager for love.

Never know what you are going to learn on a shore excursion from a cruise ship.

When my Celestyal Crystal docked in Kusadasi, Turkey, I was looking forward to seeing the ruins of the historic Ephesus. I had learned about the city as a kid in church. But my Sunday school teacher never mentioned anything about the footprint or brothel. Mostly we studied about the apostle Paul and his preachings in Ephesus.

“Walking through Ephesus is like walking through history,” Yurttas said. “So much happened here.”

The streets of Ephesus were once trod by such important historical figures as Androcles of Athens, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra who is said to have brought her beloved cats to the city.

St. Paul reportedly lived in Ephesus for three years after the death of Christ and St. John wrote his gospel here. Some believe that Ephesus is the place where Mary, the mother of Jesus, spent the end of her days on earth after his crucifixion.

Ephesus was built by Greek colonists. The city flourished when it came under the control of the Romans in 129 BC. The city’s famed Temple of Artemis was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Although only an estimated 15 percent of the old city has been excavated, it is obvious that Ephesus was a very large and rich place. It is said to be the largest collection of Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean. At its peak during the 1st and 2nd century AD, Ephesus was a center of commerce and education, second only to Rome. An estimated 250,000 inhabitants lived here at the city’s peak of importance.

Before we left, our guide Yurttas pointed out a sculpture that shows how advanced the Ephesians were and how items from the past that are patiently unearthed can answer questions – and also create even more questions. The remnants of a statue honoring Emperor Trajan who ruled the Roman Empire in the 2nd century show a large ball with a foot on top of it.

“The statue meant that he ruled the world.  His right foot is on the globe,” Yurt’s said. “That meant that they knew the world was round long before later men said it was.”

Shore Excursion: Paducah, Kentucky, floodwall highlights local history

May 12, 2015 | Jackie Sheckler Finch

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


Shore Excursion: Mesmerizing Mykonos a major mecca for travelers

May 4, 2015 | 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



Shore Excursion: Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee

March 24, 2015 | Heidi

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.”

For more information: Contact Sun Studio at or the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau at

Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

The ‘Pole Flying Dance’ in Cozumel, Mexico

November 17, 2014 | Heidi

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.

The Chickens of Key West

October 28, 2014 | Heidi

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