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!

About Arkansas

It’s called the Natural State, or sometimes the Diamond State. After moving to Arkansas in the midst of the pandemic, my husband and I have now been residents of this state for a full year. We have settled into a new routine, and now we’re more than ready to venture out to see what prompted those labels for Arkansas. Within minutes of our home are both a national park and a national forest. Numerous state parks, mountains, lakes, rivers and historical sites are not much further afield. Getting to them is easy by car, and we have already enjoyed quick road trips on back roads to learn the lay of the land, as they say.

We like what we see.

We also just acquired a “new to us” vehicle, purchased with the sole intent of having fun as we explore some of the interesting highways and byways of our adopted home state. It’s a convertible, so we can feel the wind in our hair on pleasant drives when weather permits. As anyone who knows me knows, I typically try to avoid interstate highways, much preferring back roads and curvy lanes where it’s easy to catch a glimpse of wildlife, wildflowers in the fields, odd signs and old buildings.

We like pulling off the road to have a closer look if we see something interesting, and we have been known to follow hand-lettered signs to classic car shows, country stores, out-of-the-way fudge shops, charming churchyards and old battlefields. Bear that in mind as I take you to some unique destinations. We have found also that there are plenty of friendly folks in smaller towns, folks who, for the most part, are only too willing to stop whatever it is they’re doing and tell us about what we’re about to discover.

Sometimes we pack a picnic, or we’ll stop for a quick bite and a cool drink anyplace that seems a little quirky. We might look for a quaint B&B or a rustic cabin, but many of our jaunts don’t require an overnight away from home. Most of the time we don’t make reservations. We are footloose and fancy free at this point in our lives. Until we are free to travel globally again without restrictions, warnings (or masks) we will probably stay closer to home. We have decided that’s okay for now, so we’re busy planning more regular getaways. I hope you’ll come along.

Here’s a peek just to whet your appetite for what’s to come. I take lots of pictures, so they’re the focus right now — the stories will come later; I’m saving my words for later and longer trips. For now, I’ll just share some Hot Springs sights, beginning with random shots around Hot Springs and the home turf that we have come to love.

In case you’re wondering, the hot springs still flow . . . and, like many other locals, we make a weekly trip to the city’s free spigots to fill our water bottles. It’s nature’s gift to us, and it’s really good water!

We want to explore Hot Springs more fully, and we will do that this winter, when it becomes somewhat quiet again after summer tourists leave. The National Park that encompasses the city just celebrated its centennial. Land that contains the natural thermal springs was set aside as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, but the area was mapped initially under an order to explore the southern Louisiana purchase, issued by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804.

The sprawling Ouachita National Forest extends westward from the Hot Springs area throughout much of Arkansas and into eastern Oklahoma, and it too is only minutes away, with all its natural beauty. We want to get out to the forest more as well. And Arkansas state parks, judging by Petit Jean where we spent a wonderful couple of hours not long ago, is not only delightful, but it’s an easy day trip!

The art of sipping port

The mention of Port Wine has always, for me, prompted a vision of wood-paneled rooms filled with leather settees and impeccably-groomed men holding a glass in one hand and a cigar in the other. It’s a movie-set vision, I know.

Port still seems a bit mysterious. Like sherry, it has never really been a mainstream experience for most Americans. I was aware that port was produced in Portugal, while sherry is associated with Spain, but I knew little else. So, when my traveling companions and I had the opportunity to take part in a port tasting on a rainy day, we seized it. We were in Cascais, a delightful seaside city not far from Lisbon.

Port is produced only in a specific region in the country, and its designation is strictly regulated. Bottled in several varieties, there are expensive aged ports and sought-after vintages, but surprisingly smooth, rich and reasonably-priced options are also available. Stringent standards govern a port’s bottling and labeling. But all true port wine comes from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. It bears what is termed a “controlled” appellation. Although other regions produce liqueurs and similar fortified wines, true port is distinctive and distinctively satisfying.

My brief experience in the tasting room certainly does not bestow expert status, but I feel confident that I would not embarrass myself by ordering an after-dinner port in a restaurant. For me, that’s a triumph. I also know now why so many people enjoy sipping port. I have a favorite, but the four different varieties we sampled were all pleasant. To my surprise, I learned that there is white port; and that it is, indeed, very good.

The cool, drizzly day presented us an opportunity to cozy up in a wine bar in the all-but-deserted marina area of Cascais. The proprietor beckoned us in, offering temporary shelter from approaching dark clouds. Within minutes, places were set, bottles arranged, and the learning commenced.

The tasting became a highlight of our two-week driving trip through Portugal. When we returned home, one of our first purchases was a bottle of Tawny Port. We savored it, both for its taste and for the memories it evoked.

A European trip the previous year filled in some gaps in my knowledge about sherry during a tasting and cooking class in the Spanish city of Jerez. I remember that experience fondly as well. Today, bottles of the two unique fortified wines share space in my home’s cocktail bar, offered as complements to good food and good times shared regularly with friends.

One of the best reasons for traveling, of course, has always been to experience new things. The tastes of new and previously unfamiliar food and drink rank every bit as high on my list as visual adventures. Even though, today, there is a temporary hold on my travel plans, the enjoyment lingers, the memories are sweet and fresh, and sharing past experiences keeps every recollection alive.

Oysters . . . and other Adriatic adventures

I had never developed an appreciation for raw oysters; nor for oyster stew or oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving, for that matter.

I have been known to order Oysters Rockefeller because that seems a “classy” choice at an upscale restaurant, on the same culinary level as escargot or whole artichokes. I love showy foods, and I admit that I enjoy demonstrating that I know how to deal with such dishes. I have, on occasion, skewered a salty, smoked oyster for a cracker.

But as for raw oysters. No, thank you. I do not love oysters.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoys oysters any way they’re served, but preferably right in the shell, cold, salty and fresh from the sea.

It was a preference he worked hard to cultivate, ordering oysters on the half shell several times in his early 20s. He initially discovered that the slippery oysters didn’t slide so easily down his throat, no matter how much he tried to disguise them with cocktail sauce and and Tabasco. Those first few times, he admits, were less than pleasant experiences.

But he persevered. At a tiny cafe in Brittany, with a view of the oyster fields just out the window, he ordered an oyster. One fresh-from-the-Atlantic oyster. The lone half shell on ice, accompanied by lemon and course sea salt, was brought to the table with a flourish by an ever-so-proper French waiter. It prompted curious smiles from those seated at nearby tables.

The waiter stood by expectantly, awaiting a reaction.

I was there, cheering him on.

Other diners also waited, and nodded approval as he downed that first cool slippery oyster. It was a personal triumph. And it started a trend. He has since ordered oysters in Maine, in numerous Gulf Coast eateries, and in fine restaurants in cities across the globe. He does, you see, love oysters.

After many years, we returned to that same restaurant in Cancale, France. It had changed a bit over the years, but the oyster fields are still the same, and this time my husband ordered a half dozen and enjoyed every one. In fact, he considered ordering another half dozen.

Today, he rarely passes on the opportunity to order oysters on the half shell when we’re near an ocean that allows them to be delivered fresh and cold from their habitat. He still asks for extra horseradish and hot sauce.

I resisted for the longest time, until we visited the Adriatic three years ago. Sitting on the open deck of a vessel anchored only feet from the oyster beds, I was prepared to enjoy the local fare along with the white wine promised as part of a half-day excursion from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had planned to say no to the oysters. But I was curiously enthralled as I watched the servers expertly open the shells and plate up the briny treats. Before I took much time to think about it, I was repeating “I can do this” to myself. I accepted my plate with a bit of trepidation, but I knew my mate would help me out if I couldn’t finish my share.

I sprinkled the smallest oyster with lemon juice, added just a drop of Tabasco, and closed my eyes. My first sensation was memorable. I sensed the cold, and tasted the sea. Then I swallowed. It was a whole new reality.

I actually liked the sensation. I was pleasantly surprised by the silky texture, the intense fresh flavor, and the saltiness. I felt close to the sea and its bounty in profound ways.

It was a lesson. It was delicious. It was unforgettable. Not only was it an eye-opening confirmation of the bounties of the sea, but it was the beginning of a love affair with Croatia. The time we spent there was all too short. Last November we returned to see more of the country.

I did not sample any more oysters, but I did partake, willingly, of other Croatian treats! The food is special, as are the people. To say we loved our two short visits to Croatia is an understatement. I still have no great love for oysters, but Croatia captured our hearts. This Thanksgiving I cannot help but think again of those trips.

I am thankful that we took those trips when we did. When the world is once again healed, we will return. I look forward to it.

And I am sure there will be more stories to tell.

Revisiting Rouen

Last May I wrote about a 2018 visit to this city in Normandy against the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing. We were still in the early days of the pandemic. Two months ago, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Today we are engaged in another battle against a formidable virus. On November 11, we honored those who serve or have served in our military. Today, we still await a definitive answer to the question of who will be our next president. Through all of this, I cannot help but remember my visit to Rouen. It serves as a reminder that generations of our forebears survived wars, devastating plagues and years of civil unrest. They endured. And so will we. Rouen adds new perspective to contemporary history. Perhaps we should learn from it.

The heart of a great city

William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066 following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, and the course of history was forever altered for two nations, if not for the entire world. Known today as William the Conqueror, his coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, but soon after his investiture, he returned to the capital of Normandy.

Considered a military genius, he was a descendant of the Viking Rollo, was uneducated, lacked culture, and spoke little English. He returned to England to quell periodic uprisings, but he spent most of his reign on the continent. He died near Rouen at the age of 60, in 1087, and is buried near the coast, at Caen, France, in the The Abbey of Saint-Étienne which was founded in 1063.

Another Duke of Normandy, who also held the titles of Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, and Count of Anjou, was born in England, the fifth son of King Henry II and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. He led a turbulent life, rebelled against his father the king, and formed an alliance with the king of France, along with two of his brothers.

Richard I was crowned King of England in 1189, but spent little time there. Like William the Conqueror, he may not even have spoken the language, but he was educated, enjoyed music and the arts, was personable but temperamental and quick to anger. He was also obsessed by the Crusades. He reigned for less than 10 years, and is best remembered for his exploits in the Holy Land, fighting Saladin and the Saracens during the Third Crusade.

Richard the Lionheart, not quite 42 years old, died of an infected arrow wound in 1199. History recounts that he had always “held Rouen in his heart,” and his embalmed heart rests in Rouen’s Cathedral, while his body is entombed “at the feet of his father” at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. His younger brother John succeeded him on the English Throne, and Phillip II of France gained control over Rouen, assuring that Normandy and Brittany would remain under French control.

I knew of the historical ties Rouen has with these renowned English kings, but it was yet another historical figure that beckoned me to Rouen. The Maid of Orleans met her destiny in Rouen in 1431. She was tried for heresy, witchcraft and other offenses ranging from horse theft to sorcery. She was burned at the stake by the English in a square that still serves as the site of the city’s public market. Her bones and ashes were gathered and thrown into the river.

History recounts that Joan of Arc did indeed hear voices and see visions. She believed they were signs, but modern authorities suspect she suffered from a medical disorder, something akin to epilepsy or perhaps schizophrenia.

Although characterized as a warrior, she actually never fought in battle, choosing to simply accompany the troops carrying a banner to urge them on. Nonetheless, she is credited with turning the tide of battle and securing a French victory over English forces in Orleans in 1429.

Joan was originally charged with 70 crimes which were later narrowed to 12; it is said that she signed an admission of guilt in exchange for life imprisonment, but days later violated the terms of that agreement by, among other things, once again donning men’s clothing and admitting that “the voice” had returned to guide her. She was subsequently sentenced as a “relapsed heretic,” according to historical records.

Joan of Arc — the name stems from her father’s surname d’Arc, even though she was simply known as Jehanne or Jehannette. During her trial, she referred to herself simply as Jehanne la Pucelle (translated as Joan “the maid”).

The young peasant girl became a national symbol, a uniting influence on French forces during the latter part of the bitter 100 Year’s War that lasted from 1337 to 1453. There actually was no victor in the war; the English simply retreated, finally realizing that the cost was too great, and the conflict ended.

Twenty years after the war ended, Charles VII, the French king who owed his position to Joan, held a posthumous retrial to clear her name, and she became not only a folk heroine, but also a mythic symbol of French nationalism.

As a child I was fascinated by her exploits, and by her brazen defiance of existing norms. I am still fascnated, and I wanted to see for myself the place where she met her fate.

For centuries, there was no monument to mark the spot of her demise in Rouen, just a simple cross in commemoration of the 19-year-old’s martyrdom. Today, a large modern Catholic church stands to honor Saint Joan; it was completed adjacent to the square in 1979.

Joan, by all accounts, never doubted that she had been chosen by God for her role in history, but it was not until 1920 that she was canonized as a saint. Today she is revered as the patron saint of France.

Then and now

Rouen is filled with good restaurants, small cafes and local bakeries. It boasts boutique hotels tucked away on narrow streets, within walking distance of major sites, a newly-redesigned and attractive riverbank that beckons river cruisers and bicyclists, picnickers and artists. Prior to the pandemic, visitors from across the globe arrived in the city during every season, seeking their own fulfillment. Rouen’s cultural appeal is catholic, and it resonates on different levels depending on one’s personal interests.

But Rouen offers something else as well. Visit the city during the off-season, and a uniquely personalized view of the city is your reward. The pace of life in this part of France is easy-going and friendly, surprisingly subdued. Indeed, if you stay in the medieval quarter or the university district, the slice of life that presents itself is distinctively “common.” It’s truly delightful, relaxed and unpretentious.

One can walk seemingly endlessly through the narrow cobbled streets of the Medieval quarter. We marveled at the clock, standing under its archway one dismal, chilly late afternoon. We lingered, snapping pictures, studying the artistry of its face and enjoying the music of its chimes. We knew that darkness would soon descend, but we hesitated there, unwilling to break the mood.

It’s impossible to be in Rouen and ignore its past. Napoleon visited textile factories in the city in 1802, helping to build that industry in the region; he also is credited with commissioning the Corneille Bridge and both Lafayette and Republic Streets. In Rouen, it is impossible to escape the emperor’s historical influence. In numerous ways, the history of France is tied to the history of Rouen.

Seeing it all unfold during a walking tour of the city is spellbinding. The most enduring memory, however, is of being alone in the courtyard of Rouen’s ossuary, the “Plague Cemetery.” It is an experience seared into my consciousness, as the world faces an unknown future besieged by a seemingly unstoppable virus.

Later, we ducked into a small brasserie for a cup of hot cafe au lait, and exchanged small talk with the proprietor and two other patrons who were as happy to speak a few words of English as we were to practice our French. We were immediately transported to the present, and we were buoyed by the charm and vivacity of the city’s modern vibe.

We left, strolling the almost deserted streets in search of an informal place to eat. Arriving too early for dinner, we were led upstairs to a warm, cozy nook that suited us perfectly for an early-evening supper. We sipped good red wine, dined on burgers and fries served in true French style, and conversed with the establishment’s friendly proprietor about contemporary life. It was a perfect finale to a day of immersion in the life of Rouen.

We will long remember our visit to Rouen, for any number of reasons.

An escape from quarantine

The hills and valleys of central Arkansas seem an unlikely location for the largest gated residential community in the United States, but that’s exactly what Hot Springs Village is. Stretching across two counties and encompassing just over 53.5 square miles, this unique development was begun in 1970, a vision of developer John A. Cooper Sr.

Since then, it has mushroomed into a thriving “small town” with a population exceeding 13,000, characterized by individual communities that center on a network of lakes and golf courses. Hot Springs Village has the feeling of a leisure-oriented community, but it is not age-restricted. Indeed, yellow buses transport approximately 1,000 children to one of two school districts outside the gates during a normal school year.

One enters the village, situated approximately 16 miles from historic Hot Springs, through one of two main gates. Visitors are issued temporary dashboard permits, and are immediately introduced to another world. Tall pines, lush greenery and an abundance of birds and wildlife dwell here in the Ouachita National Forest. There are deer, squirrels and chipmunks, occasional bears and red fox, and a resident bald eagle. Humans live in harmony with the creatures, and fishermen routinely pull large fish from the recreational lakes. It seems far removed from touristy Hot Springs.

Hot Springs Village is an incorporated township with paved streets, city sewers, dedicated water supply, its own police and fire departments, and many of the advantages of an urban lifestyle. However, within its gates, it has a distinctly rural feeling and an ambience all its own.

Churches, banks, restaurants and a handful of small businesses exist within the gates, along with healthcare offices and other signs of modern life, but they do not scream their presence. There is no neon. Residents can gather for morning coffee and doughnuts, but must venture outside the gates to shop for groceries. However, a thriving farmers’ market operates during the season, and additional commercial development is part of the master plan for the community.

My husband and I had an opportunity to visit old friends in Hot Springs Village for two brief days last week. Both Texas and Arkansas have begun to relax the Coronavirus quarantine procedures somewhat. We did not know what to expect, but a break from “stay-at-home” orders was in order.

We drove our own car, booked two nights in a thoroughly sanitized condo, wore masks in public, toured the village, and enjoyed our meals at properly-spaced tables on outdoor decks, attended by congenial masked and gloved servers.

We had wonderful meals, reminisced about old times with our friends, enjoyed a leisurely pontoon boat ride around the perimeter of Lake Cortez, one of 11 within the boundaries of Hot Springs Village. We shared our concerns and perspective about Coronavirus recovery, and acted somewhat like children on holiday.

We visited golf courses and watched socially distanced players practicing their swings , drove past now-mostly-empty tennis and pickleball courts, watched the antics of friendly chipmunks and listened to birdsong. The community’s indoor pool and fitness center, library and performance venue are still closed, and the restaurants that have reopened are limiting hours as well as patrons.

It was a much needed break from the quarantine routine, and a temporary glimpse of “almost normal” lifestyle. Normal is still unattainable in the here and now, but it seems even more vital now to move beyond the fear. Back in Texas, we are again aware that these are unusual times for everyone, but the reality of the past two months has begun to feel overly restrictive.

We learned, once again, that faraway can be a matter of mindset as well as distance, and that two days spent in an out-of-the-ordinary manner can be a much-needed tonic. We both look forward to scheduling that first haircut, and to more excursions to places both near and far. We returned home with a sense of hope and a renewed purpose.

Hopefully, the time is not too far away that we can travel unrestricted, give family and friends real hugs, and get on with the business of living well.

Ode to February

Saturday, in north central Texas, my day began grey and chilly, with a temperature reading just below freezing. The sun appeared later in the afternoon, but I never warmed up. Sunday was sunny and the temperature hovered in the mid-70s. By midweek, another dip into the 30s, with possible snow, was expected. That may be the norm this time of year, but I was happy to hear that Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow Tuesday, giving me hope that soon I can put away my fleece-lined moccasins and go back to flipflops!

My husband and I did just that the end of January as we snuck off for a few days of R&R. I feel as if I’m still playing catch up from November’s travels, but that didn’t keep us from running away to the sea and sun south of the border. Five days aboard Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas, sailing out of Galveston, were a tonic that let us return home refreshed and renewed, even if we did return to cold.

A getaway trip to sun and warmth

It was another of those whims when I booked the cruise several months ago — a deal just too good to refuse, with the benefit of an easy drive to the port rather than the hassle of a flight to a distant coast.

Our quick getaway to Cozumel and Progreso was not timed for lazy days on the beach, but a pampering routine aboard a mid-size cruise ship, Enchantment of the Seas, felt good. We came home with a fresh outlook and boundless appreciation for the cruising lifestyle, as always. However, in tiny Cozumel, we were certain that tourists outnumbered residents. There were seven ships in port the day we called at the island! Ours appeared to be the small one!

We delighted in the lack of schedule. We took full advantage of the “luxuries” offered: A dedicated staff to cook and serve, no alarm clock, afternoon naps, and plenty of time to do absolutely nothing. We enjoyed the food, the shipboard shows, and simply walking around the ports. We finished a book each, started reading new ones, and engaged in lively conversation with fellow cruisers. I even squeezed in a few hours of work!

Keeping busy on board

We participated in a sushi-making class offered on board, and enjoyed sampling our efforts for that day’s lunch. We participated in an All-Access ship’s tour another day, relishing a walk through the “belly of the vessel.” The behind-the-scenes activity and inner workings of a large cruise ship are captivating. We learned that there are four full decks below the water line, with ample food and drink stores on board to serve the 3,000 plus passengers and crew for an additional seven days, should it ever become necessary.

In view of the current news about passengers quarantined aboard another cruise ship off the coast of Japan, that becomes an important fact.

We were duly impressed with the high-tech engine control room, the procurement and storage areas, and the ship’s systems, including a busy laundry and highly-orchestrated kitchen. We visited the bridge, where ship’s officers on duty around the clock stand watch, monitoring the course as well as the weather.

The effort expended to make cruising an enjoyable experience for all passengers is truly impressive. Every aspect of cruise ship operation is superbly planned and executed, and it reinforces the value of this kind of vacation.

Looking to the future

Perhaps soon the temperatures will cease pingponging between seasonal norms and unwelcome cold. All too soon, I may once again complain about Texas heat and reset the air conditioning.

I have not forgotten the stories I promised to tell about our November trip to the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. I realized that the days have flown by when I looked over a post I began on December 1. We arrived home on Thanksgiving Day, and somewhere between the pumpkin pie and New Year’s Eve toasts, I got lost.

January passed all too quickly, as had December.

So, to whet the appetite for what is to come, I’ll just post a handful of photos from last week. And then I plan to get busy writing all those other stories, and looking forward to upcoming adventures.

Come along, won’t you? Follow me to receive email notifications of each new post, and visit me on Facebook and Instagram.

The gift of the unexpected

Call it grit. Call it fortitude. Call it experience, acceptance, resignation — any number of descriptive terms can be applied. The truth is that every one of them is appropriate.

We were witness to the pluck and determination exhibited by Venetians during the recent record-setting rainfall, flooding and tides that washed over the lagoon and gained worldwide attention in late November.

Daily life and commerce were affected, to be sure. But daily life and commerce continued apace. Much seemed normal to a casual observer during a time when conditions were anything but normal.

Planes, trains and buses ran on time, waterbuses continued their scheduled routes, and other boats, including barges filled with building and clean-up materials, plied the canals, supplying goods and services to residents, hotels, restaurants and shops. Most gondolas and their gondoliers seemed at rest, waiting for sun and more forgiving water.

Portable boardwalks were repeatedy set up and subsequently removed along the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares. Christmas lights and decorations were much in evidence, and shoppers toted bags along with umbrellas, testimony that seasonal spirit and daily life intertwined.

Venetians donned their “Wellies” and rain hats and went about their business. Shopkeepers placed heavy mats inside their doors. Tourists snapped up “fluorescent-colored “cellophane boots with no quibbling over the 10 euro price, pulling them on and wearing them with no embarrassment.

Venice has a full-time population of only slightly more than 50,000, but up to 30 million tourists visit annually. We purposely chose an end-of-season cruise, hoping to encounter fewer crowds at every port, especially in Venice. We succeeded, but the city was by no means deserted!

Through it all, there was a pervasive air of unexpected good humor.

Venice was the last planned port of our 12-day cruise itinerary. Until almost the last moment, we were uncertain whether the call in Venice, scheduled as a three-day visit, might be canceled. When the captain announced that the water levels were receding and lower tides were predicted, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Disappointment turned to anticipation, even as we were advised that although St. Mark’s Square had reopened, the renowned basilica would remain closed.

Our arrival in the city was delayed by morning fog, with canal-hugging buildings shrouded in mist as our ship slowly made its way to its designated dock. It made for mystical photo opportunities. Ship stewards passed coffee and pastries in the early dawn light to awed passengers pushing against deck rails even as the drizzle turned to pounding rainfall. The panoramic windows of interior lounges were equally crowded. The day dawned grey and chilly, but then a rainbow appeared. We had arrived in Venice.

Getting to the heart of Venice

From the port, the trip to the heart of the city involved a journey on foot to the modern tram known as the “People Mover.” Later we transferred to a waterbus where we joined other people — commuting businessmen, shopkeepers, local residents, office clerks, laborers, shoppers, students and visitors of many different nationalities — bound for stops accessible only by water.

The journey was instructive. We were surprised at how high the water was, still lapping at building doorways and bridge foundations. We were astounded at the visible watermarks that confirmed how much higher it had been in recent days. We remarked on the efficiency of the still-operating pump systems that continued to drain standing water from lower levels of Venetian buildings. We arrived at San Marco station in light drizzle.

As it turned out, the sun emerged as we made our way to St. Mark’s square. This was my first trip to Venice. I was not prepared for the sensory overload of entering the square. Any description seems quite inadequate. I can only imagine how it must feel when crowded with tourists. I am so happy to have had the chance to see it in its stillness.

I was — I still am — spellbound.

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The Basilica defies description

I don’t know how many photos I snapped. Everywhere I looked, from ground level to soaring roofs, held a view I wanted to remember. I stood in the center of this vast square and was completely captivated. I still have difficulty comprehending the size of the plaza, the opulence of each building’s architecture, and the magnificence of every vista.

And then, the final wonder of the day: Visitors were being welcomed into St. Mark’s Basilica. I am overwhelmed by my overwhelming emotional reaction. I honored the posted signs that prohibit photographs and videos of the interior, although I was sorely tempted to sneak at least one cell phone shot.

However, although many others did grab their shots, I hold only my vivid mind pictures of the mosaics, the glistening gold ceilings, the tapestries and the carvings. I also have a sense of how the musty, damp odor combined with the scent of candle wax to heighten the aura of sacred mystery. I am certain that this incredible structure will once again dry out, continuing to inspire future generations of faithful worshippers and curious visitors.

We wandered along the city’s uneven paving stones for a time, stopping for a late lunch at an inviting restaurant. Then, in the late afternoon, we found our way back to our starting point, boarded a waterbus, and settled in with Venetian commuters for a winding canal journey to Plaza Roma. We transferred once again to the train for a quick ride back to the port and our waiting cruise ship, our floating “hotel.”

My husband and I would disembark the next day. Our plans called for us to pick up a rental car and spend a few days exploring Croatia, before returning to Venice.

The introduction to Venice was not at all what we had expected. It was more than we had hoped.

Surprises in the off-season

The experience was reminiscent of our trip to France in late January and early February of 2018. That year we flew into Paris at a time when the Seine was flooded, and departed two weeks later with snow blanketing the city after a paralyzing blizzard. It was a memorable time, for some of the same reasons.

Paris and Venice. Though distinctly different, both cities boast an abundance of architecture, art, history, culture, food and drink — enough to satisfy the appetite of any traveler. But to experience the cadence of life during imperfect times is an opportunity that not every visitor receives. My husband and I treasure that gift.

Coming posts and photos will chronicle our all-too-short visit to Croatia, as well as the “small-ship experience” aboard Pacific Princess, and our impressions of other ports along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts.

Please join me for the journey.

After the storm . . .

Our Boater’s Diary, dated Sunday, April 12, 2009, contains the following entry:

We did 512 [nautical] miles in the Abacos from the time we left here — quite something! We’re back where we started one month and two days ago — oh, the stories we can tell.

The “here” in that entry was Old Bahama Bay Marina, West End, Grand Bahama Island, then a frequent first stop for Bahamas-bound boaters. Our journey had begun in Palm Beach on March 10, as we set a course east across the Gulf Stream at 7:30 a.m. and left the beachfront high-rise condos of Palm Beach behind. We arrived a little after 3 p.m., and our adventure in a completely different world began.

It has been more than a decade now since my husband and I cruised the northern waters of the Bahamas. Our history with the island chain extends back further than that, however, and our memory bank is full of the good times we had, the places we traveled, the people we met.

And then Dorian pummeled those places that we enjoyed so much and remember so well.

I cannot even imagine the force, power, and destructive energy that accompany a Cat 5 hurricane. We were there during some heavy rainstorms; we weathered some rough seas, with stronger winds than were really comfortable, even on a sturdy motoryacht. But never did we face hurricane force gusts; no storms pounded us with heavy rain for more than 30 hours without a break, nor did we encounter flooding.

I have never personally experienced a major disaster, natural or otherwise. But over the course of many years spent on the water, in vessels small and large, I have seen weather in many forms, and I know how quickly conditions can change. I have known fear, and weathered unexpected squalls with high winds, rough seas and accompanying discomfort. But I have never experienced raw terror.

The sparsely populated, small northern islands of the Bahamas are isolated and uniquely beautiful. Surrounding seas have unpredictable currents, and are generally shallow. Boaters must be diligent when plotting courses, selecting anchorages, and navigating shoals. And then there is the weather. Squalls form quickly in the islands. Typically, they pass quickly as well, but not always.

And, sadly, islands have distinct limitations for leaving quickly when weather conditions turn threatening.

Today, hearing the names of the cities and towns, cays and harbors that have been largely destroyed brings tears: Green Turtle Cay, Treasure Cay, Great Guana Cay, Baker’s Bay, Hope Town, Marsh Harbour, Freeport, West End. And then there are the outlying islands whose names I did not note in the log. Which, if any, of those have survived unchanged?

The wonder of it all is that other islands of the chain suffered minimal damage. Nassau, the capital and currently the staging center for evacuation, damage assessment and recovery efforts, was spared the brunt of the storm. The world is responding to the need for assistance.

Chef Jose Andres has set up shop in Nassau to prepare meals needed by survivors and rescuers. As we have witnessed following other natural disasters, generosity is once again apparent], with private vessels, individuals, governmental agencies, and non-profits all offering aid in diverse forms and limitless amounts.

The U.S. Coast Guard, as always, is on the scene, and major cruise lines have pledged not only money, but ships and crew to help deliver relief supplies, food and medical necessities.

As news photos of the destruction become available, I cannot help but review some of my pictures of the time we spent cruising those waters. The sadness grows as I realize that my images reflect a time that may never come again. But, Bahamian citizens are strong and resilient and I am certain that, in time, the cities and towns will be rebuilt. I look forward to the time when, once again, marinas will be filled with private vessels and smiling people enjoying life and good times in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In the meantime, donations to agencies offering aid are welcomed.

I understand the sun is shining once again in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island, and that tiny Hope Town once again may live up to its name. I have not learned the fate of the red and white lighthouse that has stood there since 1862, one of the last kerosene-fueled, manually-operated navigational lighthouses in the world. I climbed to the top of it 10 years ago and savored the view surrounding Elbow Cay. I hope it will still be there if, and when, I am lucky enough to return.

Prime Minister Hubert Minnis expects the death toll to rise over the coming days, and notes that up to 60 percent of the homes in Marsh Harbour, the largest city in the area, have been destroyed. Airports are unusable and life will not return to “normal” for a long while, if ever.

And now, the massive, slow-moving hurricane has turned toward the Outer Banks along the eastern shore of the United States. We can only hope that residents heeded the calls to evacuate and that damage will not be as extensive as currently feared.

Just as a postscript, our return to Florida 10 years ago was delayed for three full days because of stormy weather. We were relatively comfortable at Old Bahama Bay Marina, surrounded by other mariners who also longed to set sail for other places. Finally, on April 15, we did just that. On the crossing, we were boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard; but that’s another story entirely.

The log notes:

“It was quite a crossing. After last night’s storm, it was a bit nervewrackng to check the weather forecast this morning and find that the prediction was for stronger winds from a different direction and more chop than we would have liked. But the weather is supposed to deteriorate again for the next several days, so we are taking our ‘window’ and leaving — as are most other boats, whether they’re heading east or west. We made the cabin secure and watched the power boat ahead of us bob and sway — and we followed.”

Our journey back to Florida spanned eight full hours, until we dropped anchor in the calm waters of Manatee Pocket in Stuart.

We remember it well.

Excursions to the ends of the earth . . .

There is something infinitely exciting — energizing and dream-worthy — about standing on those spots that have been associated with the ends of the known world, the jumping off places for exploration, or the remote repositories of forgotten knowledge.

There are enough of those sites on our globe to satisfy even the most inveterate traveler; I confess that I harbor a penchant for visiting those spots. I especially like standing by the sea and looking into the distance, imagining what it must have been like to step into a journey beyond the boundaries of existing knowledge.

Finding the faraway

It was with that in mind that our group set off from our rental villa in Albufeira, Portugal, to visit the small town of Sagres. Located at the very tip of the Iberian peninsula, Sagres is a storied gateway to the beyond. Once home to a school run by Prince Henry the Navigator, a lighthouse now operates on a nearby point that is the most southwestern tip of land in all of Europe. In Prince Henry’s day, the navigational guiding light was still far in the future; at the time, there was a Franciscan monastery.

It’s my my kind of place, and I can imagine all the voyages, and voyagers, who have passed by over the centuries. As the waves of the Atlantic far below pound the cliffs, I thought of the dreams those early explorers must have held, and the motivation that propelled them to sail on.

The drive from Sagres to the lighthouse is a short one, and there are throngs of visitors, even on windy days. Enthusiastic, able-bodied adventurers make their way to the bottom of 60-foot cliffs to surf the crashing waves. There is little else to see, except for the crumbling walls of a long-abandoned fortification. Near the lighthouse, souvenir sellers set up temporary booths to hawk key chains, postcards, t-shirts, pottery, bottle stoppers, sweaters, baseball caps and assorted “end of the earth” souvenirs. It’s quite a spectacle.

Cabo Sao Vicente

As the travel brochures attest, the spit of land where the lighthouse sits is wild and windswept, and high above the sea. Views are mesmerizing. Built in 1846 on the lonely promontory, it is said that the light itself can be seen from approximately 50 kilometers out to sea. Today, it is automated, and the beacon still guides commercial tankers, shipping vessels, cruise ships and fishermen arriving from far away, those who travel the coastline of Europe and Africa, and those bound for Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. The former monastery was badly damaged by earthquake in 1755 and never rebuilt.

It was chilly and breezy the day we visited, but we gazed in every direction out to sea, before taking our leave. Somehow, it felt as if we had actually arrived at one end of the world!

Back in Sagres at midday, our hunger demanded that we seek out a local eatery. Once again, as always in Portugal, we were in no way disappointed by our choice! ASagres Restaurante offered just the right kind of welcome, with a casual ambience, smiling proprietors, delicious food and a friendly mix of locals and tourists. We sampled local wines, filled up on fresh-caught seafood, and had a wonderful time, perfectly happy to let lunch go on for hours!

Afterward, we wandered the small town for a bit, before heading back to our temporary home base in Albufeira.

Cabo da Roca

Later in our journey, and further north in Portugal, west of Lisbon, we had another occasion to venture out from Cascais to a different edge-of-the-world location. We went with the intent of visiting Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe. Unfortunately, the day was cool and drizzly. By the time we made our way along the narrow, winding coastal road, the fog was so thick we could barely see 20 feet in front of our vehicle.

We did see the sign pointing to the lighthouse and the Cape, but because we were unfamiliar with the road, and because we knew the point lay on another high headland above the sea, we decided to forego that particular adventure. Instead, once again, we were drawn to a tempting small cafe situated right on the highway. Again, we made a fortuitous choice. At 3 Gomes Restaurante, we enjoyed a longer-than-planned lunch, warmed by a blazing fire and a roomful of people enjoying good times and good food together.

Often, it’s the unexpected choices that are, by far, the most memorable. I had a chance to sample fresh-caught octopus, and traded bites for samples of the grilled lamb and seafood stew that my traveling companions had ordered. It was actually another perfect day, despite the fog. And it was another time we felt no need for dinner!