Faraway is close at hand . . .

It recently occurred to me that the small town in Texas I now call home is the “faraway” to most of the world’s inhabitants. It’s still true that most places on earth are totally unfamiliar to most of us, even though we refer repeatedly to “the shrinking planet.” There are enough faraway places to keep me occupied for several more lifetimes!

In preparation for the next getaway, I have lately been googling “best things to do in . . .” as an attempt to separate “must do’s” from “possibles.” I’m trying, as always, to jumpstart trip-planning. It’s a task I never finish in advance, but half the fun of going is facing the unexpected. The other half is the anticipation of what’s already decided!

Learning about home . . .

On a whim, I plugged in “best things to do in Burleson, TX.” It was more than just interesting, just short of enlightening. I have started a new mini-list of places to go and things to do right here in my own faraway place. I still qualify as a new arrival, at least in the eyes of born-and-bred local friends.

There are plenty of newcomers to Burleson, drawn by proximity to Fort Worth, reasonable prices, good schools and a distinctive small-town aura. There is a unique vibe — a progressive attitude with pervasive ties to the past — and no shortage of friendly people. This dot on the map was established in the early 1880s as an interim stop for the railroad running south out of Fort Worth.

Later, in 1912, an interurban rail line from Fort Worth to Cleburne also operated a station in Burleson. That depot still stands today. It is, in fact, a cornerstone of the town’s historic district, the focus of a cosmetic redevelopment plan that extends several blocks in each direction from city hall. The historic depot and two early interurban passenger cars will figure as prominently in the city’s future as they did in its past, when trains rumbled through 10 times each day.

Freight trains still run twice daily, sounding mournful whistles and stopping traffic at local crossings. I like that, because I’ve been a lifelong fan of trains and train whistles. (Can you guess why? Because they take people to faraway places, of course!)

Where commonplace and uncommon meet

During my online search, I learned:

There is a periodic ghost tour that makes at least five stops at local “haunts.” There may be no regular schedule, but that tour is on my list!

There is a Coldstone Creamery — how I’ve missed that, I do not know, but I am no stranger to other ice cream shops and numerous pizza parlors!

In 1920, the population was 241. The 2010 census reported 36,690 residents, and next year’s count is likely to exceed 50,000. Whether that is good or not depends largely on one’s point of view.

There’s at least one popular sports bar that features karaoke nights. I will probably continue to miss that attraction, a decision regulars there will surely applaud!

Learning new things about the place I call home made me stop and think about the other places I’ve been recently, those with histories that span many centuries. Burleson is only a child on the world stage.

But my small Texas city is charging forward, growing and taking giant steps to build a sound, healthy, connected community that is good for business, good for residents, supportive of its students and its seniors, welcoming to newcomers, and attuned to citizen wants and needs. It is progressive in all the best ways, and still manages to cherish its past.

It is comfortable.

Reality is the intruder . . .

There are still working farms within Burleson’s borders, along with golf courses and city parks, a creek-size tributary of the Trinity River, a stocked fishing pond, and two local wineries. Its previous rural character is still evident, and getting anywhere in town takes only minutes.

It remains small-town enough to boast large turnouts for summer music and movies on a blocked-off downtown street, for local holiday parades, and for patriotic observances at the city’s Veterans Plaza. It is a place where one can stumble upon painted rocks, left in public places by the volunteer artists of Burleson Rocks. They are meant to be found and treasured by passers-by. And several of its buildings are enlivened by colorful, larger-than-life murals.

It is a place where friends can meet for a spontaneous dinner out without making reservations, and where the sounds of live music drift from a local craft brewery/eatery’s rooftop deck on pleasant evenings. The drumbeat of high school marching band practice punctuates early mornings in the early fall, and local high school football games attract Friday night crowds.

Rabbits and possums are regular backyard visitors, and finding Texas longhorns, horses, donkeys, and even young camels grazing in a field is not entirely unusual.

Even though a busy Interstate runs through it, my city is not a tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination. But if you find yourself in Fort Worth for business or pleasure, Burleson is only about 20 minutes south of the high-rise office buildings and hotels, and it beckons to visitors with the promise of an entirely different Texas experience.

Graffiti: Art free for all

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I may represent the minority, but I am enthralled by street art and graffiti. I always have been. Wall murals attract my attention, and I secretly believe that the cave drawings and petroglyphs we work so hard to protect were simply the graffiti of past times.

Fanciful expressions of modern culture that grace rail cars, empty warehouses, bridge girders and old water towers, decaying barns and even bus stop benches, and the colorful tags and “signatures” along highways and byways never fail to attract my attention. Portugal was a visual feast!

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In urban settings, I adore oversize murals on random buildings. They add color and design to sometimes bland and boring walls. Occasionally, advertising masquerades as art, and it’s true that graffiti speaks a message all its own. But, more often than not, graffiti is just for fun. And I like it!

When I travel, I typically have a camera in hand; I come home with as many photos of graphic graffiti scenery as of people, historic sites and natural beauty. I snap the shutter from a moving vehicle window, a building’s balcony, or when out for a stroll.

While traveling in Portugal, I was amply rewarded. Graffiti seems almost a national pastime; in my eyes, it’s a national treasure. Nowhere else in my previous experience has the graffiti been so pervasive, nor quite so memorable.

Sometimes obvious “tagging,” Portuguese graffiti is, seemingly, respectful of both private property and public monuments. Although it is clear that graffiti sometimes supports a cause or is otherwise prompted by local issues, we saw little that could be considered outright defacement or the work of vandals. There seems to be no concerted effort to paint over or erase existing graffiti.

Sometimes it is hauntingly beautiful. Occasionally simple and childlike, the work can be stunning in composition and in execution. There are true artists at work along the highways, in small towns and large cities, in farm country and in fishing villages. And, while larger than life murals are not graffiti in the strict sense, they are certainly unexpected; sometimes they are inspiring.

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I know that not all the graffiti is officially sanctioned, but we were told that local and national authorities grant permission in certain areas for graffiti artists to transform crumbling walls and cracked stucco into something more interesting and colorful. Driving along freeways bounded by industrial-grade barriers, the graffiti was welcome, a colorful display of creativity for what would otherwise have been mile upon mile of sameness.

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Portugal has other art as well — serious art — statuary and sculpture in city squares and parks, in front of public buildings and private apartment complexes, in gardens and on the beach, as well as dramatic, oversize centerpiece art in vehicular “roundabouts.”

It’s a phenomenon. There is little need for visitors to pay admission fees to art museums: The best art is free for viewing all around!

If pictures are worth a 1,000 words, this is a “book’s worth” of my favorite images.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. In a future post, I’ll share some of the notable public art we encountered throughout this unique country.

The Azores: Volcanic rocks in the pond

It was a spectacularly gentle touchdown on the runway that stretched along the coast of Sao Miguel Island. So smooth, in fact, that it prompted applause from the passengers as a slightly-longer-than-four-hour non-stop flight from Boston set us down on a small volcanic island in the Atlantic still about 900 miles from mainland Portugal.

It was also only 6:30 in the morning local time, and the island looked sleepy in the slightly drizzly dawn. We had boarded in Boston at 9:20 p.m. the preceding evening, thinking that we could get some sleep on the flight, but dinner service with complimentary wine and coffee, along with a growing sense of excitement, combined to keep us awake. Any nap would have been brief.

We looked forward to picking up our rental car and were hoping to enjoy a traditional Portuguese breakfast prior to making our way to the lodgings that were to be our home for the next three nights.

An unexpected greeting . . .

Our plane stopped on the tarmac some distance from the terminal. Surprised to realize that there would be no modern jet bridge, we gathered our belongings and deplaned down the aircraft stairs, walking through the drizzle to retrieve our checked luggage in the still quiet terminal building. Even customs and immigration officials seemed less than fully awake, but they obligingly stamped our passports as they welcomed us to their island home.

A row of smiling men with hand-lettered signs awaited our arrival, and our group was transported quickly and efficiently by mini-van to pick up our rental vehicle. Once there, we were offered a home-baked treat — a cross between pound cake and tasty breakfast bread. Our hopes for a nearby eatery and a hearty early-morning breakfast, however, were dashed.

Island life, it seems, does not begin early. And, by any reckoning, 7 a.m. in vacation land is early! However, other delights followed in quick succession as we were invited to follow the man who had greeted us at the airport. He willingly led us in his own vehicle to our reserved seaside villa, even transporting some of our luggage and waiting with us until someone with a key could be located. “No problem,” he insisted, “I live nearby.” We felt welcome and already “at home.” We were charmed by the accommodations, the lush landscape, the seaside view, an outdoor covered patio, and a resident rooster!

When Afonso Mela, who manages the family-owned property, arrived, he won us over by also bringing juice, milk, crackers and local beer along with iconic Portuguese WP_20190428_07_08_50_Pro (2)pasteis de nata to accompany our morning coffee. For the next two weeks, those custard treats would be a staple of our daily diet, for breakfast and at other times during the day.

Unfolding an adventure . . .

The four of us had picked Portugal as a vacation destination for a long-awaited “cousins trip” because neither couple had been there before. It was as simple as that; akin to the way we traveled in our younger days, choosing destinations by throwing darts at a map. We knew only that Portugal is still relatively inexpensive, and that English is widely spoken.

The reason for a stopover in the Azores was equally simple. It was a logistical solution to the dilemma of getting two couples, one from Texas and the other from Maine, to a destination half a world away at the same time. In checking flight schedules, we found that Azores Airlines allows a no-extra-charge stopover in the islands for travelers who book a flight from Boston to Lisbon. We couldn’t say no to that! Besides, we knew no one else who had previously visited the Azores.

About these islands . . .

It is said that each of the nine islands in the archipelago has a distinct personality, as well as the similarities of black volcanic stone, pleasant climate, hot springs, whales and dolphins in the surrounding waters, and no shortage of friendly people.

The Azores are part of an island group that stretches across about 370 miles in the North Atlantic. They have been known since the 14th Century and were depicted on early navigational charts, notably the Catalan Atlas, drawn in 1375.  Today, the Azores constitute an autonomous region of Portugal, as do several other island groups.

Life is lived simply on this island. Tourism is increasingly important to the economy; some major cruise lines have added calls to Ponta Delgada to their itineraries. Traffic is manageable, even in the largest city. Ubiquitous “roundabouts” regulate the flow of vehicles, rather than traffic lights. Driving the island’s highways and back roads, we never heard a horn; nor did we see an accident, or encounter any speeding.

The architecture is unique. Black and white churches seem unlikely and jarring at first encounter, then beautifully appropriate. They are visible from far off in the craggy landscape, even on the slopes of steep hillsides. Every village has at least one, and they seem just waiting to be explored.

Apart from the churches and an occasional impressive municipal building, predominantly low-slung homes and buildings grace narrow streets. Some have colorful stucco walls and clay-tile roofs; others are white with simple metal roofing. Most homes and public spaces display colorful, lush flowers and gardens. Commercial buildings are typically functional and nondescript. Congregated in larger “warehouse-like” structures, “one-stop shopping” seems convenient and efficient for groceries and the basic needs of daily life, including clothing, electronics and banking.

A charming introduction to Portugal

Green hillsides, terraced and manicured, grace the landscape; the sea is everywhere close at hand, and there is an almost total lack of hustle and bustle.

The cadence of life is comfortable. People stop to chat along the streets, or sit on seaside walls and benches just to enjoy the sunshine and the sounds of crashing surf. Locals smile at strangers, and everyone we encountered was helpful, despite our trouble with pronunciation of Portuguese words. Diners linger over lunch, and waiters never present a bill unless asked for one. Restaurants close for the afternoon, reopening again around 7 p.m. for dinner. Getting around is easy, if confusing at times, but getting lost on a small island is almost impossible.

Three days on Sao Miguel were not only a suitable introduction to Portugal, but an open invitation to return. Because of the location along the Atlantic gulf stream, the climate is moderate, and Azorean vacations have been perennially popular with British and European vacationers. Although we did not see all that the island offers, we understand why travelers return again and again to savor island life.

The appeal extends beyond the natural beauty and the welcoming vibe. There is an ambience that exists only in rare places. We all felt privileged to enjoy a few days on a unique volcanic island. I, for one, would be happy to return to the Azores, and I heartily endorse the stopover offered by an accommodating airline.

Note: We arranged our stay at Casa da Cancela in Vila Franca do Campo on San Miguel Island through booking.com, and found the property to be exactly as described. Based on comments by other guests, it consistently lives up to its ratings, and we do not hesitate  to recommend it. Although I book lodging often with this company, I am in no way connected, nor do I receive consideration in any form from them, from the airline, or in any other manner for the mention. 

Pushing the Reset Button

I readily admit that I am still not entirely comfortable with wireless technology. I miss long curly telephone cords and purring electric typewriters. They felt solid and grounded, and I felt in control. I still keep track of appointments with a book-like calendar and I make notes on random slips of paper.

Today, I spend undue time worrying that my smart devices will outsmart me. I am uncomfortable with a car that reminds me to buckle my seatbelt, a navigation device that tells me I am not following directions properly, and a cell phone personality that questions my directives.

I am used to being in charge, and I want my technology to obey my commands and respond to my needs without being coddled.

At the very least, I hope to win ongoing battles without the need to call in reinforcements – read “young technicians who make me feel like an idiot because of my inability to solve the problem myself.

I regularly forget that the way to bypass periodic operational hiccups with both my portable devices and my desktop computer is simply to turn them off, wait a few moments and reboot them. It may be akin to sending an unruly toddler to the corner for a time out, but it seems unnatural and unnecessary to me.

Unfortunately, in other areas of life, I also tend to undervalue the power of pushing the reset button.

A Spring Resolution

I recently returned from a quick overnight in Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. A short cruise out of Los Angeles offered sun and warmth, gently rolling seas and good companionship. I savored long, lazy days aboard ship with no agenda, no schedule, no daily deadlines – all equally beneficial for body and soul. I was served interesting food and adult beverages, enjoyed good stage shows and movies, caught a few spectacular sunsets, and watched cavorting whales, sea lions, pelicans and gulls.

We strolled the Cabo waterfront, listened to music, sampled local Margaritas and street tacos and thoroughly enjoyed leisurely time ashore.

As a writer, I am acutely aware that creativity is fueled by new experiences, interesting people, beauty, good food, and even a bit of personal indulgence. But the crush of daily life sometimes gets in the way.

Vacations, especially if they are short, simple and relatively unplanned, are invigorating. Even day trips can be memorable. As much as I love exotic destinations. I have come to believe in the restorative benefits of simple getaways. Unfortunately, those simple excursions don’t happen often enough. But they’re an indulgence I have promised myself more frequently this year.

Getting out in the world is – in my universe – the human reset button.

New Spring in My Step!

I returned to my desk this week with a fresh appreciation for the work I do. Freelancing is, in many ways, a dream job. I understand fully that I have the luxury of being able to escape to far horizons on a fairly regular basis. The flip side of that coin is that, more often than not, I take some work with me.

After all, those portable electronic devices have changed my world, for better or worse. Unless I disclose my whereabouts, there is no reason for anyone to know that I am not slaving away at my desk.

But this time, I chose not to work while in Mexico. Other than checking email occasionally, I did not write a single word. I did not check, nor did I post to social media.  But I returned home with a mind alive with ideas, and a determination to work harder to tell the stories that I find interesting.

So, my promise – to myself – is to get back to work with renewed zest and spirit, and then to walk away much more often. That’s motivation I can embrace.

I pushed the reset button!

Life is a celebration . . .

Note: The news earlier this week of the death of Ed Lowe, renowned Dallas restaurateur, came as a shock, not only to his family and friends, but also to those who loved the family dining spot on Lovers Lane. I couldn’t help thinking of the last time I visited there. It turned out to be a much better experience than I had hoped, thanks entirely to the staff of Celebration Restaurant. Although I sent a note to the restaurant at the time, I’ll share the whole story here. I think Ed Lowe would like it, just as I am certain that his spirit lives on at his restaurant with every meal that is served.

There may be no better way to celebrate a special occasion than with a family group sitting around a table laden with good food. And, sometimes, going out is better than cooking at home.

So, it was with high expectations that I chose a place we had not visited for years, but known for decades, as the perfect surprise for a special birthday luncheon. It represented, in some ways, a trip down memory lane.WP_20180311_14_17_57_Pro (3)Celebration Restaurant on Lovers Lane in Dallas is known as the city’s first true “farm to table” enterprise. It has been serving up good food and good times for 46 years in a location not far from Love Field. It still exists in the same sprawling Bluffview neighborhood home where it originally opened. It has been expanded over the years, and now includes not only an outdoor patio, but also an adjacent retail market.

It’s homey in all the best ways.

Tables are set in rooms of varying sizes. There are private rooms available to accommodate groups large or small. The atmosphere isn’t trendy, but rather as familiar as a visit to Grandma’s house.

The food is much the same: No sushi, fusion or “nouvelle” anything here; just good honest beef, pork, chicken, fish and a choice of freshly prepared sides. The veggies, which vary by season, are served in family style bowls, a choice of three for each table. Every meal carries a choice of starters — soup, salad or fresh fruit; and desserts are too good to miss, even though ordering them reaches the borders of glut.

The concept was unique in the mid-70’s when Celebration opened. Now, after nearly five decades, it is still unique in a market that prides itself on its growing roster of award-winning chefs and innovative eateries.

Celebration is low key and pleasant. Children are welcomed, but the children’s menu contains “adult” food. Portions are reasonable rather than “super-sized,” but seconds on most entrees are available, and cheerily served. No one ever leaves hungry.

On our recent visit, there was a slight glitch with the reservations — some of our party arrived a bit early only to find that there was no record of our request for a large group. On a Sunday, the restaurant was already filled to overflowing. I learned of the problem when I arrived with my husband, the honored “birthday boy,” at the appointed hour. Needless to say, I was upset. We did not want to wait for two hours, and we did not want to go elsewhere. It seemed as impossible situation.

However, with only a few words exchanged and a delay of just a few minutes, we were made welcome at a table hastily set on the patio. Luckily, it was a pleasant, early spring day in Dallas, and overhead heaters warmed our bodies. The pleasant views of  fountain, fireplace and greenery warmed our spirits, as did the friendly smiles and attentive bustling of the servers.

I could go on about the impeccable service, the variety of the food, the courtesy of management. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that Celebration Restaurant is an example of the way it ought to be. There is no doubt that Ed Lowe’s visionary eatery is still in business after all these years because it consistently “gets it right!”

Would that it will continue in that tradition.

 

It’s the people, not the places . . .

It’s good to get away, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter where the journey takes us; it’s the break from routine that’s important.

This time, though, it was all about the place. My husband and I, as those who know us (and those of you who read the previous post) know, spent the better part of a summer in Alaska 13 years ago. We traveled the Marine Highway of Southeast Alaska and numerous watery byways that led us to out-of-the-way villages and secluded coves. We went north to Skagway and Haines, west to Glacier Bay and Sitka, spent delightful days in Hoonah and Petersburg and bobbed gently “on the hook” with only stars and lapping waves for company. We visited Juneau, the capital, several times, and we had good times in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “first city.”

At the end of August we returned to the 49th state, arriving in Anchorage on a Friday evening to spend a few hours prior to embarking the next day on a seven-day voyage aboard Golden Princess. The trip would take us past impressive Hubbard Glacier and into Glacier Bay before visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan on a journey slated to end in Vancouver, British Columbia, the following Saturday morning.

It was not a trip we spent a lot of time planning. It was, in fact, a snap decision, made with a “why not” attitude, but with low expectations. We sandwiched it in between short trips to other destinations during August.

Some initial observations:

What we experienced surprised us. We were less than enamored by Anchorage, home to fully 40 percent, if not more, of Alaska’s residents. But, to be fair, we spent only a few hours there and during our brief visit we encountered delightful people. The city, however, is not pretty, apart from its surroundings.

Our appreciation for the spectacular natural beauty of Alaska emerged fully intact. Looking down on the Anchorage area from our airplane and seeing snow-capped distant peaks towering above the clouds was duly impressive. The water and the coastal vistas are incredible and the vast land seems to extend forever.

And the flowers — before I visited Alaska, I would not have believed there were flowers in what I considered a cold and desolate place. How wrong I was. They were — and still are — everywhere. Wild flowers and flowers in public parks; flowers on window sills and in shops, flowers filling huge municipal planters; flowers in airports and on the docks. Wildflowers along the highway. Gorgeous, colorful flowers. Everywhere!

On Saturday, we boarded a bus for the short drive to Whittier, a year-round deep-water port at the head of Prince William Sound. The trip allowed us a glimpse of white Beluga whales in the waters of Turnagain Arm and a herd of Dall sheep navigating a craggy bluff on the other side of the highway.

It’s exciting, to be sure, to wear jackets and knit caps in August, even if we did have to don rain gear as well. We visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see wood bison and musk ox, wolves and porcupines, bear and moose, deer and foxes.

We continued on through the engineering marvel of a tunnel that gives the only land access to Whittier. It is shared (on a one-way basis) by passenger vehicles, buses, trucks and the train!

A floating city . . .

Once aboard, we began to settle in to the life of a floating city with 2,600 other people — not difficult, actually, with the wealth of activities and the pleasant mix of public and private spaces. Every day seems a celebration on board a modern cruise ship.

What we knew we would miss was the feeling of being close to the water — the sound of the waves, the experience of cold fingers and blasts of wind as we dropped anchor or secured the lines of our vessel to the metal cleats of well-worn wooden docks. We missed the camaraderie we felt with fishing boat captains as they put away their gear after a long day; and we missed the hot coffee and good conversation that was always available in cluttered dockmasters’ offices.

We also missed seeing whale spouts and fish jumping just above the swells, gulls and eagles trailing fishing boats and circling above small docks, the occasional family of sea otters looking for refuge in a marina, and eye-level contact with those splashing waves and floating chunks of ice. Looking down on the water from a deck 70 or more feet above it, or searching for native wildlife through binoculars and behind protective glass has nowhere near the same effect.

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What we enjoyed was the companionship of other passengers, especially our delightful dinner tablemates, talking with fellow travelers from not only other states, but from Australia and New Zealand, from Germany and England, from Mexico and from Asia. We appreciated the perfectly prepared fresh fish and seafood that was offered at every meal, the smiling service of bartenders and waiters, the helpfulness of the crew, the variety of outdoor deck space from which to view changing vistas of glaciers and icebergs, mountains and clouds.

We were blessed with sunshine for at least a part of every day, somewhat unusual for this part of Alaska.

We also appreciated having the assistance of other eyes to help spot whales and otters, eagles, bears, seals and porpoises. And, yes, we did spot some, although we yearned to see more! The ship reverberated with a chorus of delight for each occurrence. We were thrilled once again to visit Glacier Bay. The naturalists and Park Rangers who came aboard were interesting and knowledgeable. It was a learning experience, and it was good to have their input.

We heard the “thunder” of glaciers as they calved, and realized anew that listening to the natural sounds of Alaska is mesmerizing.

‘Tis the season . . .

We could have done without the proliferation of t-shirt and key chain shops, furriers and jewelry stores, harborside kiosks and lines of tour buses and waiting guides. But then we realized that they were very much a part of port life 13 years ago as well.

As Alaska residents acknowledge, the season is short and it’s tourism that turns the wheels of commerce in the ports of Southeast Alaska. Life after October settles back into familiar patterns and the majesty of the land becomes once again the personal domain of those who call Alaska home.

Travel is enlightening in many ways. But it’s not the places; it’s the people one meets.

We sought out those people on this trip. And we were rewarded tenfold! Friendly residents are more than willing to talk about their lives, their cities, their families and their experiences. As always, we were fascinated to learn about daily life as it is lived outside the pages of guidebooks.

We always asked for local recommendations for food. In Anchorage, we were directed to a popular local brew pub, and were immediately befriended by a local resident only too willing to share his views on everything from oil drilling to recreational cannabis, from the Northern Lights to politics. The next morning we had cafe au lait and warm croissants at the charming Paris Cafe, a short stroll from our hotel.

In Skagway, there was a wait at “the best place in town to eat,” but the wait was worth it — and we were notified by text message when our table was ready. Skagway may be small and remote, but there’s no shortage of technology! WP_20180821_12_44_28_ProWe were rewarded with perfectly prepared fish, crispy chips and superb local brew.

We took a short bus ride to White Pass, following the path traversed by miners with gold fever, and snapped photos at the border between the United States and Canada, “Gateway to the Klondike.” We walked around Skagway for just a short time before retreating back to our ship as it began to rain. Skagway has changed little, but with four cruise ships in town, it was crowded!

That afternoon, before slipping lines and heading south to Juneau, a program by “real Alaskan” Steve Hites, one of the 1,057 full-time Skagway residents, was a highlight of the trip. Accompanied by guitar and harmonica, the 64-year-old songwriter, storyteller and tour operator charmed listeners with a 40-minute history of “his” Alaska, and the small town he knows so well.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, once again we asked for local food tips and were given the names of two eateries slightly beyond the tourist mainstream. At both, The Flight Deck in Juneau, and again in Ketchikan at The Dirty Dungee, we devoured fresh-caught Dungeness crab, and couldn’t have been happier!

About traveling to Alaska . . .

My heartfelt advice to anyone considering an Alaska cruise?

GO!

My husband and I realize that we were privileged to be able to experience the state as we did — on our own — and that trip will remain in our hearts as a unique experience.

We remember how small we felt while on our boat, especially one morning in Juneau as we awoke to the presence of a massive cruise ship snuggled against the dock directly in front of our vessel.

101_0747As luck would have it, on this trip Golden Princess occupied that slip, and we wondered if the private yacht owners felt as dwarfed as we had that long ago morning.

The allure of Alaska has not diminished for us. We shared the excitement of first-time visitors on this cruise. And we understand clearly the sentiments of those who return again and again. There are many ways to travel to this unique state, from “big-ship” cruises to private vessels, land-sea combos, fly-in fishing or sightseeing trips and active expedition cruises. The Alaska State Ferry runs north from Bellingham, Wash., year round, the the Al-Can Highway provides an unparalleled opportunity for those who love road trips. There are summer work opportunities for college students, and the tourist industry brings part-time residents every season. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for visiting Alaska.

Absolutely, go to experience the place — the stunning scenery with majestic peaks and pristine water, the wilderness, the waterfalls and the icy blue glaciers. Look for wildlife, of course, and marvel when you spot a whale or a group of bears on shore, eagles in the trees, or otters in the sea. Eat your fill of freshly-caught fish and seafood. Snap Selfies. Take tours. Buy trinkets.

But go especially to meet the people! Dinner companions often become lasting friends. At the very least, casual encounters with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, tour guides, ship’s staff, and the people you stop to talk with on the street linger as lasting reminders of the trip  even when memories of specific sights begin to fade.

Cruising is invariably a pleasure, no matter what the ports.  And Alaska still lives up to its moniker as the American “last frontier.” It’s a big adventure!

So, yes, go to Alaska!   

Will we return? Perhaps not. But we would not hesitate to do so. It’s that good!

 

Venturing beyond borders . . .

101_3594Have you ever taken the time to read your passport?

I hadn’t — not until today, when on a whim I checked its expiration date, and was struck by the fact that there are so few visa stamps on its pages.

I remember my first passport! Its pages were nearly filled with stamps before its expiration date rolled around, and it was only valid for three years if I remember correctly. Today, I am happy to report, I have several more years of traveling left before I have to think about a renewal.

But, sadly, I doubt that those pages will be nowhere near as colorful nor evocative of adventure as my original passport’s were. The world’s borders have, in many cases, been erased over the preceding decades.

In the past two years or so, I have set foot on three continents, visited several island nations and spent time in a score of different nations. I have nary a passport stamp to show for the miles, save one from Amsterdam Shiphol, earned because of a plane change that entailed only a leisurely stroll from one airline gate to another!

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Customs and immigration agents are not nearly as concerned about stamping a page as they once were. After all, all the information now needed is computerized and captured by security cameras! How comforting.

How disappointing! As the world shrinks and becomes more homogeneous, does it become less interesting?

There is something about crossing national borders that was once thrilling and unique.

I always found it exciting to arrive at a national border, even while crossing on a train in the middle of the night; I did not resent the delay, nor the inconvenience. Instead, it seemed a rite of passage, a confirmation that I was about to embark on another venture that would broaden my understanding and fill my journal with memories.

I cannot adequately express the disappointment I felt when I first drove across the border between Italy and France with nary a road sign to note the occasion. It was only when I stopped for coffee that it became obvious: café rather than caffè.

I still have not reconciled euros with traveling through vastly different European nations; I found it refreshing last October when prices in Croatia were quoted in Kuna, the local currency, even though the Euro is accepted and residents seem to have little trouble with the exchange rate!

But I digress . . .

I checked my passport’s expiration date because of upcoming foreign travel plans, but passports are in the news for another reason as well. Residents of some states may soon be required to show better identification than a local driver’s license in order to fly even domestically. Today, only slightly more than one third of Americans possess a passport. But that may change, as soon as January.

American passports are little gems of home-grown philosophy. As one turns the pages, the boundless pride and enthusiasm of a country full of optimism seem evident — through stylized graphics of distinctly American scenery and the quotations that appear at the top of each double truck, passports express what is, somehow, the essence of American pride and determination.

A sampling: Pages 16 and 17 depict a paddlewheeler making its way along a mighty river; I’m guessing the artist had the Mississippi in mind. A formation of geese fly overhead, and homes and hills stretch out in the distance.

The written words:

“This is a new nation, based on a mighty continent, of boundless possibilities.” Theodore Roosevelt

There are other drawings and words of note in this little book that offers me the opportunity to freely travel the world, both in my mind and in reality:

“We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” George Washington

John F. Kennedy: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”

The stuff of dreams:

It’s not only the words of leaders and presidents that speak from passport pages, though.

The words inscribed in 1869 on the original Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, in Utah, echo through time: “May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

And, then:

 “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds . . . to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”  Ellison Onizuka.

This is the final page of the little blue book, along with a stylized depiction of two worlds together in vast space, along with a circling manmade satellite.

If you don’t know him, Onizuka was an American astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded in 1986. He dreamed bigger and traveled farther than most.

As Americans, we have always enjoyed the ability to cross state borders without worrying about foreign currency, unfamiliar signage or a different language. If a passport becomes required to do that, it will be a new experience for many of our citizens, but it will not change our ability to travel freely in this country.

Across the globe, it was not so until just recently. It still is not the norm in many parts of the world.

Take the time to read that little book, and to think about the implications. It offers a new perspective on the world, whether it’s full of visas and border crossing stamps or not.