Living History

On a recent trip to coastal Norway and the Arctic Circle, my husband and I spent some time in Southampton before embarking on our cruise. The port city on England’s southern coast is delightful and welcoming, well worth a visit. As we discovered, it is full of history that we knew little about. It was the departure port for the ill-fated inaugural sailing of the Titanic, and it was also the port from which the Mayflower sailed in 1620 with its 102 passengers and 30 crew members.

It is a charming city, and there was a distinctive air of festivity when we were there, buildings festooned with the Union Jack and banners in the streets. Smiling likenesses of Queen Elizabeth II greeted us everywhere we went, and the mood was distinctively celebratory. The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was officially proclaimed for the long weekend of June 2 through 5, with special events planned to continue for at least a month. We arrived in Southampton on Sunday, June 12.

When we returned to Southampton 17 days later, we found that little had changed. England was still celebrating the queen’s 70 years on the throne. We found that to be true as we journeyed north to Suffolk and spent a few days in London before boarding our return flight to the United States on July 5.

Little did we expect that only about two months later, we would hear the news of the queen’s death. And we could not imagine, at the time, the outpouring of grief from around the world that would greet that news. As I watched news coverage from around the world in the days before the state funeral on September 19, I was pleased that we had been fortunate enough to visit Elizabeth’s England while she was still queen. Sadly, we did not take a tour of Windsor while we were there. But, watching the funeral procession make its way through London, I recognized many of the streets we had so recently traversed.

I felt, oddly enough, that I had been witness to history simply by being there. Forty years or so have passed since a previous trip to London. But, like Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and other world capitals, London is an eternal treasure. Much of it remains the same, but it is more diverse and infinitely more crowded than when I was last there. Modern steel and glass buildings, whimsical modern art, the London Eye and the London Shard, and both the cable cars that whisk passengers above the Thames and the RIB boats that carry passengers at high speed on the river somehow complement rather than compete with slow-moving river taxis. They have become nearly as iconic as double-decker buses and traditional black cabs.

London may be unique in the world. For one, it is the home of a monarchy that, by all accounts, seems alive and well, especially today after its record-setting ruling queen has passed the crown, along with the orb and sceptre of the title, to her son, King Charles III.

I watched the ceremonial events of the past week in awe, with an awareness that an event of this magnitude will not happen again in my lifetime, perhaps never again. I was up early to watch the funeral on my large-screen TV, along with an estimated four billion viewers worldwide, deemed to be the largest global television audience in history.

Some of us around the world watched the queen’s coronation on early black and white television; many more have tuned in to watch royal weddings and funerals of world leaders in real time and full color. But this was different, somehow.

More than one million Britons lined the procession routes to pay tribute as the cortege bearing the queen’s flag-draped coffin made its way from Balmoral, Scotland, to Edinburgh, and later from Buckingham Palace through London to Westminster and back, and, finally, to Windsor

There were poignant moments amidst the traditions and prescribed ceremony. The outpouring of public love and respect was acknowledged by the royal family as they greeted well-wishers who laid flowers outside various palaces. They endured public scrutiny and performed their prescribed roles tirelessly and flawlessly for 11 days. The military, church leaders, government officials, and representatives of other nations, rose to the demands of duty and tradition.

And now we will all move into a future that is still to be written, by a monarch who has waited a lifetime to become king surrounded by family members who have demonstrated that they are, in a very real sense, as human as the rest of us.

That’s something to be remembered, within and beyond the United Kingdom.  

Serendipity: Making Music, Standing Together

Magic sometimes happens when one is in the right place at the right time. In this case it was slightly before 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 25, when three local musicians set up to play a brief concert at a tiny post office in a shopping center adjacent to Hot Springs Village, Arkansas.

There was no advance notice given, the musicians weren’t collecting for a cause, and they didn’t pass the hat. Nor did they attract a large audience. Their reward was simply a smile or two, from those who came to mail packages, buy stamps, or check their postal boxes. The trio did it for the joy of making music together and to express, through that music, the concern they and many others feel right now for what is happening half a world away.

Dr. Millie Gore Lancaster, an accomplished clarinet player, published author and retired teacher, and her long-time clarinet-playing friend, Sharon Daughters, both of Hot Springs Village, were joined by Phillip Wilson, also a retired teacher and published author, of Tucumcari, New Mexico, on the baritone horn, for a performance that both began and ended with the Ukraine National Anthem. Wilson, known as “Papa,” is a lifelong friend of Mrs. Lancaster, in Hot Springs Village for an extended visit. While here, he also serves as guest conductor of the Village Strings.

The Totally Unauthorized Fully Vaccinated Post Office Pop-Up Band: from left, Phillip “Papa” Wilson, Dr. Millie Gore Lancaster, and Sharon Daughters.

It was the kind of serendipity that doesn’t often occur, and this small community with a large population of retirees is not really a place where the unexpected regularly happens. However, the Post Office Pop-Up Band is not a one-time phenomenon. According to Lancaster, it was an idea that sprung out of an incident three days before Christmas in 2018. Some people waiting in a long line for service were irritable, and a few at the postal service windows became abusive when they learned their packages would not arrive at destinations on time.

Lancaster spoke up: “I’m going to bring my clarinet and play music to remind everyone to be kind to each other,” she announced. She didn’t do it that season, but when spring arrived, she and Daughters, who is a fellow clarinetist, began playing happy music like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Bare Necessities,” just for the fun of it, outside the same post office.

That was in 2019.

They sat out 2020 due to the pandemic, she notes, but began playing again in the spring of 2021. It was time for good friends to “get out and play,” making music together once again. They became the “Totally Unauthorized, Fully Vaccinated Post Office Pop-Up Band.” However, the wind blew their sign down and their sheet music away one too many times, so by Christmas they were popping up once again inside the postal office. When “Papa” Wilson came to visit, they were a trio.

Why the miniscule U.S Post Office as a venue? Because, says Lancaster, she still remembers that Christmas when it was not pleasant to be there.  

In addition to the Ukrainian National Anthem, which is said to be the most popular piece of music in that nation, the trio played “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from Toy Story, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from The Lion King, and a poignant Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The concert could have been longer, but the musicians had another agenda. They were moving on to the main post office in Hot Springs, some 13 miles away, hoping to delight postal patrons there.

A simple sign, in Ukraine’s flag colors of blue and yellow, proclaimed simply, “Stand with Ukraine.”

Lancaster said, “We were inspired this time by the musicians in Ukraine whom we saw playing alone amidst the rubble, a cellist once, and a pianist another time. We thought we would join with our brother and sister musicians in solidarity a half world away.”

When it was adopted by the citizens of the independent Ukrainian National Republic following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the anthem had three verses, and slightly different words. It was adopted in its present form, a single stanza with a repeating chorus, in 2003. The opening line proclaims: “Ukraine’s glory and freedom which haven’t perished . . .” Today, the emphasis is “on vanquishing the country’s enemies and the fresh breath of freedom that citizens so cherish, as they now seek to defend it.”

Indeed, it’s good to make music, to listen to that music, and to stand together.

Why Travel — Take Two

Today I’m sharing, with a bit of nostalgia, some of my favorite photos from the past three years; 2019 took us to Bermuda, Alaska, Maine, Cuba, on a Mediterranean cruise, and then on to a delightful road trip through Croatia, with a final couple of days in rainy, flooded Venice before flying home on Thanksgiving Day. We were thankful to be home, sharing turkey and reheated stuffing with family after a long journey.

This past November we spent a few brief hours on Thanksgiving Day with dear friends on Florida’s Gulf Coast. We met them years ago on Cabbage Key — but, that’s another story. What is pertinent and what seems fitting is that just as one chapter in our book of travel stories ended on Thanskgiving, the next began to take shape with a similar celebration. For us, it was another reason to be thankful, despite the somewhat complicated travel timing and logistics.

We are hungry for new experiences since the world shut down in March of 2020, and we have no fear of becoming satiated. This year, our travel plans — yes, we’ve made tentative plans through early 2023 — will take us to both familiar destinations and entirely new places.

Had previous plans jelled the way we hoped, we would now be packing for a voyage from Buenos Aires to Antarctica, followed by calls at Rio de Janeiro and several other Brazilian ports, before a trans-Atlantic crossing to Barcelona by way of Cabo Verde, off the coast of West Africa. But plans do not always work out the way we envision them. Sadly, that entire itinerary was scrapped more or less at the last minute because South American tourism has not yet fully rebounded from the global pandemic. As you know if you follow my blog, bookings were changed multiple times during the past two years, as (at last count) 16 cruises were canceled or altered so drastically that we decided to forgo them.

If we have learned anything through it all, it has been to embrace possibilities, to grab at every chance to be with family and friends, to not put off trips for no good reason, and to never give up on dreams. Opportunities to travel are sometimes fleeting, and there is no journey not to be savored.

I look forward to what is to come. But, during the past 20 months, I have also looked backward, back to past journeys as well as at some of the trips not taken. My husband and I are now reconsidering some of those itineraries. Our trips closer to home have been interesting and fulfilling, and we are happy to have had an opportunity to explore our new home state and its neighbors. We plan to do more of that!

It has been interesting. Not in any cosmic, earth-shattering way, but from a personal perspective. I came across a tattered, aging journal as I was sorting travel memorabilia, with notes from a driving trip through France and Spain many, many years ago. I was in Tarragona, a medieval Mediterranean port city in northern Spain. I was living in France at the time, and had not long before returned from a trip through the Middle East.

The entry is dated May 31, 1966. I read the words with wonder:

“I passed through Andorra, one of the smallest countries on earth, and thought, ‘I could be happy here.’ This happens often — the feeling passes in time, and even more quickly if I stay to try to shape reality from the dream. . . .”

It was just a brief entry, and it surprised me.

My younger self had not yet become a storyteller. I like to believe that the intervening years have taught me. Reading what I wrote then, I wondered about the circumstances. I cannot now recall them, except to say that I had hoped to return to Andorra briefly this spring, when a planned road trip through the Basque country of France and Spain would have put us close enough for a side trip to that intriguing small nation in the Pyrenees. That trip is one of those that has not yet materialized.

For many reasons, I am eager to be on the move again. Time seems to move faster today than it once did, and 24 months, for me at least, seems far too long to be essentially “at home.” My realization is that I am at least partially defined by the places I travel. Getting gone seems even more essential now. The road trips, brief flights and short cruises have simply been teases.

I have changed in the years since I first visited Andorra. I wonder if it has. Would I still be happy there, or was that the illusion of a younger me, a dream now withered and unimportant?

What about you? Are you ready to travel again? Do you yearn to meet new people, savor new sights, taste new foods and make new friends? I hope so, and I wish you safe travels and lasting memories, no matter where you choose to roam.

But, I hope you’ll continue to come along with me as I pack my bags for distant destinations.

Hungry for the tastes of travel . . .

More than the rush of excitement that greets us when we near a port, more than the thrill of sitting in a winged torpedo on the tarmac waiting for clearance, more than a sunrise on the horizon that signals another day in another place — what surpasses all of that, in my mind, is the variety of food that traveling allows us to experience.

The colors and flavors of foreign treats — whether a great meal, an after dinner “digestif,” or a perfect little chocolate on the pillow — these are the pieces of the travel experience that are hard to duplicate at home. The thrill of a new taste in an unfamiliar place is hard to describe. If you’re traveling close to home, it’s really no different. Keep your eyes open for the unexpected — we have discovered some of the best food in the unlikeliest of places — sublime fried catfish at a general store in back road Arkansas, for instance, an unforgettable steak dinner at an aging saloon in Ingomar, Montana, for instance, and the best fried green tomatoes ever at a ramshackle marina in the Florida Keys.

And, one lucky summer, an absolutely wonderful lobster roll at, believe it or not, a McDonald’s in a small Maine village. The only thing better than the taste was the price!

Traveling lifts us out of our ordinary existence into a realm of wonder that we want to repeat again and again. The cities, the food, the people, the monuments and the history, the natural beauty of different locales, the promise that no matter how many times we return to the same place, each experience will be different — that’s why we travel.

But, when we travel, the simple acts of sampling unique foods and sharing distinctive experiences with fellow travelers and with strangers destined to become newfound friends is an immense pleasure. Yes, we enjoy visiting renowned restaurants and seeking out special taste treats from unique cultures. “Peasant food,” however, the everyday fare of real people in diverse destinations, is what truly draws us, as do street fairs, farmers markets, food trucks. and Ma and Pa eateries.

People, of course, are always a part of the best food experiences, whether we’re ordering something from a food cart or a market stall, or struggling to make sense of a menu in a foreign language. We have perfected the art of pointing with a questioning expression — it always works! Being just a bit unsure of what it is we have ordered is truly part of the fun. And we have found locals typically quick to help translate and interpret.

Another aspect of the fun, for me at least, is my attempt to recreate some of the dishes we have enjoyed on our journeys once we return home. On a trip through Portugal in 2019, I was enamored of that country’s tomato soup in all its regional variations. I discovered an infinite variety of great tomato-based broth during our three weeks there. From the coasts to the cork forests, and from north to south, Soup de Tomate is a Portuguese staple on nearly every menu. It can be a hearty, filling stew with sausage and beans or a richly-flavored broth topped with poached eggs.

Other versions range from a nicely-spicy dish of seafood and rice to a simple, creamed tomato puree served as a starter course for a family dinner. Made with fresh, flavorful tomatoes, the various tomato soups were always tasty, filling and uniquely satisfying. Accompanied by crusty bread, cheese and olives, those meals were often “write home about” memorable. I asked for recipes whenever it was possible, and I am still trying to decide which is my personal favorite!

Global versions of “fast food” have their own kind of appeal — not the golden arches sameness or “choose your own filling” sandwich shops that Americans seem to favor — but the traditional, quick and easy street foods that sustain busy people throughout the world. One can get a slice of pizza, an empanada, a taco, a burrito, an egg roll, or a gyro in great cities around the globe; roasted corn, hot roasted chestnuts or fries with unique dipping sauces in European capitals and isolated villages. Ice cream, gelato and fruit smoothies are staples at casual stands and walk-up windows in warm climates, and open-face sandwiches and pastries are almost magically available from a world-class airport to an isolated beach along the Mediterranean. Food is a universal need, as well as a treat that brings people together to experience the joys of life.

So, I hope to lure you into the habit of sampling local fare wherever you may roam. It takes little effort to seek out distinctive food experiences, whether you’re in a world capital, visiting a charming small town, or traveling a country lane. Usually, these delightful destinations have no neon signs. Instead, a hand-written menu on a chalkboard may offer the only clue to treasures that lie within. Put aside the guidebooks and pay little heed to online reviews.

Peek through the windows of a diner, or step inside a tiny bistro. If seats are full, and people are smiling, join the crowd. On a road trip, we often pull into the parking lot of a local diner filled with local pickups and a smattering of 18-wheelers. Eagerly embrace your personal spirit of adventure, and you’ll likely reap the rewards of good, wholesome food served with a smile.

In the same way, wherever you may live, pay special attention to the push-cart vendors, the food trucks and the out-of-the-way lunch counters and snack bars. You may not always be delighted. There’s no guarantee.

But, if nothing else, you’re likely to have great stories to tell. And the best travel souvenirs, by far, are the stories you can repeat over and over again.

Traditions . . .

This has been a year — or at least a few months — for examining past traditions. When the future seems uncertain, there is something comforting about remembering the past, getting lost in nostalgia, and returning to happier days full of memories of family, friends, fun and tradition.

It has been especially true during all the holidays of the year: Valentines Day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Years — many of those special times normally full of family celebrations and traditions have passed us by since 2020.

In the days leading up to fall holidays, few of us would have believed that the “norm” in 2021 would once again be another scaled-down version of Thanksgiving dinner. It may not have been potluck shared by extended family at socially distanced outdoor picnic tables in a state park, (yes, that happened the previous year), but for most it was, once again, a small table not heavily laden.

Many of our holiday celebrations, those that actually were held, have been accompanied by masks and elbow bumps, but no hugs. Who would have predicted that we would spend last Christmas alone, despite the hopeful news in 2020 that two effective vaccines were ready to be delivered nationwide? Who then would have believed that “the abundance of caution” against large family gatherings would continue for a second Christmas? Who could have imagined yet another mutated virus wreaking havoc with family get-togethers and travel plans now and for the foreseeable future? Yet, that is exactly what has occurred.

May you live in interesting times . . .

Depending on your upbringing and mindset, that phrase has alternately been considered a blessing or a curse. Although there is little evidence that it originated with the Chinese, and even less that it stems from a Yiddish expression or a rabbinical interpretation, it persists in the minds of many of us as a warning that we should never get too comfortable. Life is not to be taken for granted.

Our times — this past year and three quarters, and still today — are nothing if not interesting.

Many of us are still hopeful that we will once again be free to travel freely. But, with the return to mandated masking in many places, extensive travel disruption attributed to ill employees, and persistent warnings about travel, gatherings and testing, we are again uncertain. We hope that we will continue to care for others, by being mindful about where we go, what we do and how we act. But, as this last year has taught us, life is fragile. I am now even more convinced that we must savor the traditions that have brought us here.

For me, that means being with friends, not via face time, Skype or Zoom meetings, but up close and personal. It means sharing good times, welcoming the births of new babies and celebrating graduations and promotions. More importantly, it means being together to comfort one another during sadness and hard times. Working remotely may not be a great hardship. But, being continually remote — from family, friends and business associates — is devastating.

This past year, I lost several acquaintances to COVID. Many others in my circle of friends and family have been ill with the virus. Others, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, have tested positive recently, with varied symptoms and severity, with — presumably — the Omicron variant. I am learning more than I ever wanted to know about the SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as COVID-19.

Humans were not meant to be solitary animals. That is only too evident today, with increasing concerns about not only mental health, but the economy.

The path forward seems clear. We must not forget these past months, nor the shutdowns, the fear, the toll it has taken on lives and livelihoods. But, we also must not give up hope. Let’s don’t ever forget what makes life worth living. Let’s all honor those traditions that we missed so much in 2020 and were hesitant to resume in 2021. Let’s not return to the place of isolation and alarm. Let’s be smart rather than complacent, but let’s go on living our lives with confidence

Yes, COVID-19 is a scary disease. But all diseases are scary. And those who are sick need to be comforted, not left alone. No matter what or how you celebrate the special days that are to come this year, may holidays that are meant to bring us together in the coming months continue to bless you, uplift your spirits and prepare you for what lies ahead.

That is my wish this second day of the new year.

Out in the world again . . .

Once again, each day dawns with new reports about Coronavirus mutations, infections and restrictions. Just a few weeks ago it seemed as if all that was in our past. Today, once again, COVID-19 is big news, at the top of the list of concerns for those of us who delight in travel and for others with holiday travel plans. COVID has had a personal impact for me and my family this year as well. Our holiday travel plans were altered because a member of our family tested positive. We experienced some anxious moments about his health and, although his symptoms were relatively mild, quarantine was the order of the day — or, more precisely, quarantine for 10 days, tests for members of his immediate family and, of course, no guests for the holidays.

Flexibility is today’s reality, for sure!

Still, it’s time to think about past and future destinations, and the differences we can expect.

In late September, we had the opportunity to “dip our toes in the water,” literally and figuratively, on a four-night cruise out of Galveston. We were more than eager to experience new travel protocols, and this seemed the perfect opportunity, with a single port call at popular Cozumel on the Mexican coast. Passengers were free to disembark and to explore freely. Shops and restaurants were open and taxis were abundant, but masks were required of all citizens and visitors.

Our Royal Caribbean ship, Independence of the Seas, sailed at less than 30% capacity: 1,260 passengers, with probably close to the same number of crew. It was quiet, but it was a wonderful experience. It whet our appetites for more and longer itineraries, held so long in check by the pandemic.

So, in mid-November, we flew to Fort Lauderdale to embark on three distinctive bookings on two different cruise lines. First, we visited the Caribbean ports of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten, and the beautiful island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We sailed on the impressive Celebrity Edge, a modern ship designed to carry 2,908 passengers, but during our seven days on board, there were not quite 1,300 passengers. Then, after a few days in Florida, we set sail again on Emerald Princess, bound for the cruise line’s private beach resort on the island of Eleuthera. We sailed with fewer than 900 passengers. It was quiet and restful. That three-day excursion ended once again in Fort Lauderdale where, following a negative result to yet another COVID test administered by the ship’s medical team, we were authorized to remain aboard for another 10 days.

Our itinerary included passage through the Aqua Clara Locks of the Panama Canal, and our ship, designed for 3,080 passengers and more than 1,200 crew members, sailed with 1,374 passengers. Following an initial stop in Nassau where three other ships were in port, our captain set a course for Cartagena, Columbia, on the way to the Canal. Following our day spent traversing the locks and once again being awed by the marvel of the century-old engineering feat that changed the face of global commerce, our final port calls were in Costa Rica, and Jamaica, prior to returning to Fort Lauderdale to disembark.

It was quite an experience! We had previously visited five years ago, entering Gatun Lake through the old two-chamber locks which still operate perfectly, as they have since 1914. The new locks can accommodate much larger ships, of course, more than doubling the ability of the canal to facilitate shipping. It’s fascinating and impressive. Panama has changed during the intervening years, but despite the economic boost from the new locks, Panama and other Central American countries have suffered during the pandemic.

We agreed with other passengers that, as much as we have missed traveling, our disappointments do not compare with the hardships of crew members, some of whom were literally stranded at sea for up to four months prior to being transported back to their home countries. Nor did our “stay at home” time compare to the economic hardships faced by residents of these port cities that depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

Sharing pandemic experiences and future dreams with the staff and crew, and with residents of the countries we visited, became the most important takeaway from these trips. Each ship sailed at far less than full capacity, making it easy to get to know bartenders, cabin stewards and dining room servers. To a person, we found all crew members, including senior officers and maintenance personnel, more than accommmodating, and eager to interact with passengers. To be sure, everyone we met was happy to be back at sea. And those we met on shore during our excursions were delighted to once again welcome us to their countries.

If you’re planning a trip — sooner or later — we would urge you to go. But be smart about it: Get your vaccinations, submit willingly to the tests, abide by the rules (and know that the rules can change quickly), talk to the people you encounter, and enjoy every moment.

The world is different, but it’s still welcoming, and there are good reasons to get out and experience it!

We found that talk about our collective pandemic experiences, our fears and our heartaches, brought us together. Ask people about their families, about how the pandemic affected them and about their hopes for the future. Connect on a personal level. We have always found that to be the best part about traveling. It’s especially true now.  

At the same time, however, I cannot help but be disturbed by the news that European countries are again closing borders and that more stringent rules are in effect for travelers arriving in the U.S. from foreign cities. I am appalled — and worried — by the rising numbers of positive tests throughout our country and around the world, and by daily reports of rising numbers of positive tests on cruise ships, and of cruise ships and passengers being turned away from world ports.

If you have recently been on a cruise or taken a trip abroad, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, not only about your experiences, but about any future plans you may be considering.

We felt perfectly safe as vaccinated travelers; we fell naturally into the routine of masks in public places, limited passengers in an elevator, social distancing and constant handwashing and sanitizing, although we sometimes did it all with wry smiles and perfunctory observance. We also appreciated (and took advantage of) every opportunity to shed our masks, even if only for a few breaths of fresh outdoor air, or when nursing a cool drink in the company of others.

One final thought: I have to hope that none of us will easily abandon our travel plans. Travel is the single most valuable step we can take to learn about this world we all inhabit, the best way to forge understanding of different cultures and ideas, and the only way to become truly educated citizens of the world we all share. Travel enriches us all.

Let’s don’t give up on that idea. If you’re thinking of a cruise, a guided tour, a flight to an exotic destination, even a cozy stay at a B&B across the state line, go for it. Plan it, do it, enjoy every moment and return home safe, refreshed and full of the wonder of it all.

I do not know what the future holds. Perhaps, as 2022 dawns, what we must all hold onto is hope. May the new year be better for all.

To echo the words of Rick Steves: “Keep on travelin’.”

Eureka: What an experience

I don’t quite know what to say about Eureka Springs. It’s equal parts history, natural beauty and distinctive character. And for a quick weekend getaway, it’s a delight! There’s a lot to like about this small town (population only about 2,100) in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. It’s unique, and in some ways it feels stuck in time. That, too, is part of its mystique. It has charm, for sure.

Eureka Springs was first settled in 1879, and named on July 4 of that year. There are wonderful old homes — many of them now B&Bs — that rival San Francicsco’s “painted ladies.” Log cabins, imposing stacked stone family homes and simple, single-story cottages exist along steep inclines and winding lanes. There are pizza places galore. There are casual diners and a few fast-food outlets; there are fine dining places with white linen tablecloths and attentive waiters. Old-fashioned bars attract a biker crowd come to ride the high curves and twisting back lanes. A local brewery and plenty of watering holes with more than their share of character and characters attract lively, friendly crowds.

On the labyrinthian streets, you’ll find historic buildings housing trinket and t-shirt shops, underground grottos from which the “healing waters” once flowed freely, an old-time photo parlor that proclaims “Weddings Performed” and distinctive hotels and eateries. Street art and street musicians coexist in the small downtown. Public sculpture and old memorials are much in evidence, as are the public buildings and hotels with historical plaques.

A well-preserved Carnegie Free Library is a commanding presence on one of the main streets, and it’s still in use. The old depot and railroad roundhouse are attractions at the edge of town; a popular excursion takes visitors on a four-and-a-half-hour trip over restored Eureka Springs and North Arkansas track. You can also book a lunch or dinner expedition ride to enjoy a trip into the past in a restored dining car. Along the way are extraordinary scenic vistas.

For a first-time visitor, an orientation ride on the “hop on-hop off” Eureka Springs Transit is a must. Ride the four different routes for an overview of Eureka Springs. It’s as much a local public transportation staple as tourist aid, taking passengers almost anywhere in, and out of, town. Its price is more than reasonable at $6 a day for unlimited time and distance. You’ll rub shoulders with local residents toting grocery bags, and others on their way to work or heading home after a long day.

The varied routes are perfect for exploring at your own pace, and it certainly beats walking up and down steep hills on foot, or trudging long distances in unfamiliar territory.

Drivers are helpful and knowledgeable, even willing to “bend” the schedule a bit so a rider can hop off and grab a free paper, or snap a cell phone photo of a giant sculpture from just the right angle! Stops are plentiful along each route and trams run every 20 to 30 minutes all day long, so there’s ample time to explore a site — or several — should you choose to do so.

We drove to Eureka Springs — it’s a pleasant four hour trip from our home. We traveled through pretty country on curving two-lane state highways. But, once there, we parked the car and rode the tram. It brought us to Thorncrown Chapel, where we were entranced with the architecture and the story of this inspiring place. The soaring wood and glass structure is perfectly integrated with its natural surroundings. The tram also brought us to the famed Passion Play site, with its recreated ancient Jerusalem stageset and other themed attractions. The 65-foot high Christ of the Ozarks statue, reminiscent of similar works in Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon and Havana, towers above the surrounding forest, but is perhaps more impressive from a distance than it is up close.

The downtown trolley station is well-situated for a walk around town. Visitors can enjoy lunch, browse funky shops, visit the historical museum or simply admire wall murals and interesting architecture. Spend as long as you like, knowing that another tram will arrive within just minutes. On a walk about town or in any neighborhood, you’ll find something wonderful around almost every corner: a grotto carved into a hillside, an iron fence dripping with flowering vines, the suggestion of a face in a towering old oak, a lush garden with a bubbling fountain, whimsical yard art decorated with strings of lights, or a house clinging to a cliffside over a massive boulder. There is beautiful statuary and whimsical signage.

We could have disembarked for a visit to the Crescent Hotel, built in 1884 and known for its resident ghosts and always-fully-booked ghost tours. Its site, at the crest of the highest hill in Eureka Springs, is reason enough to want to spend some time there (which we did, later the same day, when we returned for pizza at the fourth-floor Sky Bar. The view was mystical, with a haunting landscape of moving mist that shrouded the mountains all about us. Gleaming white in the distance, the Christ of the Ozarks watched over the setting with outstretched arms.

Although experiencing Eureka Springs can feel a bit like entering a time warp, being thrust into the long-ago culture of a small town is magical, if a bit disorienting. Residents insist that everybody knows everyone else, and that no one bothers to lock their doors. We stayed just two nights at The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B conveniently located on Spring Street. Its location put us only a few steps from the trolley stop, and we were greeted by waves from friendly passengers as we enjoyed breakfast on the front porch, served with a smile by Innkeeper Will Lawlor, who is himself a relative newcomer to Eureka Springs. We enjoyed chatting with him, and sharing our impressions of this interesting historic destination.

Is Eureka Springs worth a visit? Absolutely. It’s nothing if not unique!

Leaving home, again and again . . .

Leaving home, again and again . . .

When I’m traveling, I try to ask other people why they travel. It’s a good way to strike up conversations with strangers, and every trip is better when experiences are shared with other people. Beyond that, though, I am deeply interested in why people leave home and family with a desire to see unknown places. The answers are telling, running the gamut from “Because I can,” to “It’s fun,” to “I’m checking another place off my bucket list!”

Some say they travel to see things; others because they have an interest in food or nature, in art or history, in geography or the geo-political and cultural qualities that both unite and separate us. Some simply have the time, energy and funds to be away from home as much as possible. A few enjoy collecting “travel trophies.”

My personal favorite? “I’ve never been here before.

Whatever the underlying reason, there is no doubt that more people travel to more places more often than ever before in history. At least they used to — before COVID-19. As restrictions are lifted and confidence in the efficacy of vaccines and effective treatments grows, travel is sure to rebound.

U.S. airlines and foreign carriers serving U.S. destinations carried an all-time high of 1.1 billion systemwide (domestic and international) scheduled service passengers in 2019, 3.9% more than the previous annual record high of 1.0 billion reached in 2018.

In 2018 alone, according to The Maritime Executive, 28.5 million people booked a cruise. That number rose in 2019 to 29.7 million. And then, in early 2020, the cruise industry shut down, virtually within days, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, the Los Angeles Times reported one year ago that bookings for 2021 were up more than 40% over 2019. Today, even though cruising has resumed only marginally in the United States, and only a few ships are sailing from foreign ports, there is much demand.

Cruise line schedules are now available for the 2022, 2023 and even 2024 seasons. Undoubtedly, new records will be set, and each reintroduced itinerary becomes a reality. Right now, prices are low, and ships are not filled to capacity, so if you’re considering a cruise, book now.

There is little dispute about the enormous pent-up demand. “Other places” now seem more appealing than ever before. World travelers and families who have been too long without a vacation are once again looking at places to go, whether they be budget getaways or luxury resorts. If you relate more to “getting gone” than to coming home, as I do, then you no doubt know the feeling.

The Realities of Cruising in a Post-Pandemic World

With that in my mind, I recently booked a quick four-night cruise out of Galveston, Texas, as a “dip my toes in the water” experience. Just before the world shutdown, my husband and I had sneaked in a short Royal Caribbean cruise out of Galveston to Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico, so it was fitting that we should pick a similar itinerary for our return to cruising. I am happy to report that, although this journey was much too short to qualify as a dream vacation trip, it was a good experience. I can now say with conviction that I am ready to begin traveling again in earnest; to once again anticipate the thrill of new ports and foreign destinations.

Cruising is different today, to be sure. One of the most noticeable differences right now is the reduced numbers. On Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas last week, a ship with more than 1,900 passenger staterooms meant for at least two occupants per cabin, there were just over 1,200 guests. There were probably an equal number of crew members. The ship was not empty, but it was quiet. There were other differences as well; Some venues had reduced hours and there was no buffet dining available for dinner. But the atmosphere was upbeat, and the service was impeccable. Ship’s crew and port staff were attentive, informed and obviously happy to be back at work.

Read more in coming days about our experiences on this short cruise.

Cleaning and sanitizing protocols are extensive and enforced; all crew is masked at all times; and guests are required to don masks in public areas and encouraged to wash hands and/or sanitize often. Surfaces are frequently cleaned and wiped, and the percentage of vaccinated guests is near 100%, except for children under 12. I am certain the same is true for all cruise lines. All passengers were required to show proof of a negative COVID test performed no more than two days prior to boarding. My travel companions and I felt perfectly safe and protected on board.

In case you’re wondering, I have already booked other trips — for later this fall and early next spring. So, when the time is right to leave home once again, where is it that you will go?

As Jack Kerouac wrote, “All of life is a foreign country.”

I hope you’ll come along with me to see the world through my lens. And I can’t help but hope that you’ll also venture out to see the world for yourselves.

Rubber Duckies: Back at Sea

Note: This post was first published as “Rubber Duckies and the Road Ahead” in August 2016; it has been revised slightly and updated to reflect new information about the continuing duck craze!

Several years ago I wrote a column about rubber duckies, discussing the pervasive fascination with that familiar childhood bathtub toy. Who doesn’t love a rubber duck?

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A personalized rubber duckie was one of the first gifts I bought for my grandson — that turned into a progression (and a collection) of rubber duckies of various colors and costumes. The obsession spilled over into gifts for my then high-school-teacher son (Professor Duck) and various other family members, with ducks for each succeeding holiday. Then, like other enthusiasms, my duck-gifting phase ran its course to echoes of “Enough, Mom, enough.” 

Rubber Duckies are available in all sizes, a few varied shapes, numerous colors and with all sorts of “costumes” and personalities.  However, the perennial favorite is still the yellow version, with bright orange bill and black eyes. Many collections feature “one of a kind” or limited-edition duckies; Stories are circulated about duck adventures, and tales are told of lost or rescued ducks.  Ducks are used in NASA glacier-tracking experiments, and there are still sightings of some of the group of “globe-trotting” ducks that “jumped ship” in the Pacific in January of 1992.  Really.

Rubber Duck Races, generally to benefit local charities, are held from Seattle to the Ozarks, from Washington, D.C., to Crested Butte, from Texas to Tahoe.  One of the largest duck races is in Hawaii, and some of the most informal are held in small town creeks, canals and even in swimming pools.

I am still tempted when I see an especially appealing little duck in a store window. And I gasped with delight at news photographs of a giant rubber duck making its way through Lake Superior at a Tall Ships Festival in Duluth, Minn. In August of this year, a 25-foot-tall mystery duck with the word “JOY” emblazoned on its chest appeared mysteriously, to the delight of local residents, in the harbor in Belfast, Maine. Then, just as mysteriously, it disappeared.

So, imagine my surprise when I encountered a stylized rubber “duckie” with mane and tail in the middle of Virginia horse country during a summer road trip.

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I was immediately smitten, not only with the little rubber horsie that perched on the edge of the Lexington motel room bathtub, but with the motel itself. After the whoops and the grins — and the picture-taking — I thought about the marketing genius that played to the playfulness of tired travelers.

The clerk was accommodating, more than willing to let us pick a mate for our little rubber traveling companion, only exacting a promise that we would honor the commitment to snap pictures as we traveled on. That we did, and the little horsie-ducks happily sat on the dashboard — a pair of cute mascots — for the next 3,000 or so miles of our journey. They traveled through city traffic, along country roads, into Quebec and Ontario, skirted along several of the Great Lakes and sat under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It proved, I think, that we are never too old for a little silliness in our lives.

Our little companions abandoned their perch on the dashboard when the temperature soared regularly above 100 degrees back home in Texas. But they accompanied us on several other adventures; today they spend most of their time perched happily on a shelf in my office, joined by a sizable “paddling” of ducks collected from many places over the years.

Just recently, during a quick weekend visit to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B, had a pair of ducks perched on the edge of the jetted tub in our bathroom. I was delighted, but I allowed them to stay to greet future guests.

Rubber ducks on cruise ships, some with “passports” and others with “tickets” and messages from previous owners, were regularly hidden on cruise ships prior to the cessation of cruising in early 2020 due to the pandemic. They had gained a large following aboard major cruise lines. Now, we understand, the craze has gained new life, and there are numerous cruising ducks pages on Facebook. It’s a phenomenon of the times, with a number of spinoffs — crocheted ducks, duck jewelry and key chains, duck towels and duck art — for fun-loving children, and equally fun-loving “adult children” at sea and on land.

Some cruise lines have embraced the fun, selling ducks and duck-themed gifts in onboard shops. And some crew members are enthusiastic collectors as well! Rubber duckies don’t take up much space or make a mess; they are exceedingly patient and compliant travelers, requiring no special accommodations or food. But they did, do and will continue to make us smile! So, if you come across a duck in your travels, feel free to befriend it and take it home. Or let it remain in its hiding place to bring a smile to another face. Post a photo on one of the online groups, if you choose, or rehide it to give someone else the pleasure of finding it. Release your inner child, and just enjoy the experience. I have only found one duck on board a ship, but you can bet I’ll be keeping my eyes open next time I sail.

*Multicolored duck photo by Jo Naylor/Flickr; others by Adrienne Cohen; The motel was the Comfort Inn Virginia Horse Center, Lexington, VA, and The Bridgeford House B&B is located at 263 Spring St., Eureka Springs, AR.

Two decades ago . . .

Over the past 20 years I have written many times about the events of September 11, 2001, and about feelings and my memories of that day. There is no need to write more. Twenty years is a long time; and still today the stark reality of what occurred that day is as sharp and as painful as ever. Today, I will spend some time remembering, as so many of us will. It is one of those life events that simply cannot be set aside.

Whether we would choose to or not, we who lived through the hours of 9-11, and the long days that followed, can never forget. So, today, as I gather with new friends to commemorate the loss and the sacrifices of that day, I thought I would repost just one piece from the past. As the note at the end explains, it was prompted by the reaction of a then-11-year-old boy who was upset by a morning radio report. I wanted to give him some comfort and some hope at the time. I can only hope it did, and that, in some small way, it might comfort others as well.

Here, then, with just a couple of changes, is what I wrote on September 11, 2019:

Dear Children:

Posted on September 11, 2019 by Adrienne Cohen

Some days are just not like all the rest. They can be different from all others for just one person, for a family, for a whole country, and sometimes for the whole world. Days worth remembering can be happy days or they can be sad days.

Often, good things happen even on sad days.

On September 11, 2001, something terrible happened in New York City. Two skyscrapers were destroyed; two separate airplanes flew into the buildings. People in New York watched in horror. Others around the country, even in other countries, watched via television, and were stunned.

You have probably heard people say, “Never forget.” On the world’s clock 18 years ago, time stopped for some people. The details aren’t quite as important as the feelings and the memories that people have of that day. It started much like any other, with families waking up, having breakfast, and getting ready to go to work, or to school, to take a trip, or to have fun with friends.

But then it all changed — and it changed very quickly from a normal day to one that would be remembered in a very different way. In New York City, and in Washington, D.C., and in a field in Pennsylvania, four separate airplanes crashed, three of them into buildings filled with people. Many people in those planes and in those buildings died.

It was, and it still is, a very sad day.

Never Forget

Your parents and grandparents, and the parents and grandparents of your friends who lived through that day and the weeks that followed have many different reasons for wanting to remember. Some want to honor friends and family members. Others want our country to remember, so that nothing like this will have to happen again. Some look at the day as a piece of history that ought to be studied. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before.

It was a sad day. But it was also a time when many strangers helped and hugged one another, and when an entire city, a whole country, and most of the world came together in shock and sadness, and almost immediately began to take steps that would prevent something similar from happening again.

If you feel like crying today as you hear some of the stories, or if you don’t understand why all adults can’t just agree that it’s over and move on, or if it makes you afraid in some secret place in your head that something bad might happen to you, know that you are not alone. Adults sometimes feel all those things too. Everyone does! 

The truth is that people sometimes act badly, and life can be cruel. But more often, when truly terrible things happen, most people react differently; they act in really good ways. They try hard to keep others safe and to make them feel better. That is exactly what happened on this day 18 years ago. Some very normal people almost became superheroes on that day.

The adults who lived through 9-11 are getting older now. But their children, and the children whose fathers or mothers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors and friends were hurt or killed on 9-11, are growing up, and they continue to help other people and to help mend the world in ways they might not have done otherwise.

That’s what we should remember. So, when you hear those words, “Never forget,” know that sadness has another side, and hope and goodness really do exist.

Always.

It’s okay to remember the sadness of 9-11, but we can all go on, working to make all tomorrows better, brighter and happier for us all. That’s exactly what we need to do now. We need to go on and work hard to make tomorrow not only different, but better and brighter for everyone.

Note:  What prompted this? I  heard this morning from my grandson’s mother that he had a “pretty emotional reaction” to a morning radio show mention of losing friends on 9-11. She also noted that her memory of that day centers on morality and resiliency, and that she would share this video with him. I’ll share it too, for anyone else who needs something inspiring and uplifting today. 

Read the original post here.