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.

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.

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!

Taking to the seas, skies and roadways once again: Be smart, and enjoy the trip!

More people today travel to more places more often than ever before in history. At least they did, before the world came grinding to a halt due to the COVID pandemic. When restrictions are lifted once again for worldwide leisure travel, the experience will undoubtedly be changed.

What will it look like? As yet, we’re all a bit uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Americans and other nationalities will continue to travel, very probably in record numbers.

It’s not just the numbers, but also the percentages of people traveling that has skyrocketed in recent years. More than 28.5 million people took to the seas in 2018, according to Cruise Lines International Association, the world’s largest cruise industry trade association, and 2019 was expected to reach or exceed 30 million, once all numbers were tallied. Cruises regularly discharged passengers into crowded ports around the globe for visits that spanned only a few hours.

According to figures from the U.S. Travel Association, “U.S. residents logged 1.8 billion person‐trips* by air for leisure purposes in 2018,” and a record number of Americans, more than 93 million, traveled outside the country that year, according to data supplied by the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Office. A fair portion of those flights brought travelers to foreign ports so that they could board cruise ships.

*A person-trip is defined as one person on a trip away from home overnight in paid accommodations or on a day or overnight trip to places 50 miles or more [one-way] away from home.

All Those Ships

The cruise industry had become a major economic factor for many nations, impacting an astonishingly broad spectrum of goods, services and specialties. It is one of the largest worldwide employers, and the shutdown has affected broad segments of the worldwide economy.

The statistics are sobering:

It is estimated that 8.75 million passengers missed their cruises as of October 31, 2020. Between mid-March and the end of September last year, approximately 334,000 cruise-related jobs were lost. In the United States alone, the lost revenue was estimated to reach about $26 billion by the end of October 2020. And those figures don’t begin to count what has happened since.

There’s no doubt that it was “big business,” but there is even less doubt that the number of travelers will continue to increase, according to cruise industry spokespeople. Despite the worrisome statistics, bookings for future travel are up for the coming year, and for succeeding years, pointing to significant future demand. Travel is not expected to return to the “old normal” soon, perhaps not ever. But those who miss traveling and are eager to set off once again, for the most part, will embrace airline and cruise travel no matter what new restrictions may be are imposed.

About 7,000 cruise passengers were quarantined aboard their ships, in Japan, other Asian ports and various other parts of the world, including some ports in the United States in the early days of the pandemic. and other places in Asia. However, bookings for future cruised were not canceled in large numbers until the cruise industry ban on travel became a reality across the globe. Today, based on reports from all cruise lines, bookings are up for 2021, 2022 and already for 2023, even though only a handful of ships have actually begun to carry passengers.

“Stay Nimble!”

The prevailing attitude of passengers booked on a Transpacific sailing scheduled to depart Yokohama, Japan May 10 was “wait and see,” until the final moment. The cruise, of course, was canceled, but a high percentage of those passengers affected by the cancellation immediately transferred their deposits to another sailing on a future date. Refunds and incentives for future bookings were attractive, and most cruisers seem willing to wait it out.

My husband and I are among those who have had multiple cancellations. We are eager to see the return of cruise ship travel. As others in the same boat, we had little idea that the ban would persist for an entire year. We certainly did not foresee longer than a year!

Now we are encouraged not only by recent rulings that will allow ships to travel from U.S. ports to Alaska for a part of the summer, bypassing British Columbia. We are even more encouraged by the news that other U.S. ports will be embarking passengers this summer for short itineraries to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Mexico and the Caribbean.

We currently have deposits on three cruises — one this fall, one for January 2022, and another for June 2022. This is new territory for us to navigate: We seldom plan that far ahead. Typically we are much more spontaneous in our bookings. But by booking early, we have taken advantage of lower prices and additional perks. We still have dreams to hold on to. We have practiced living with hope for far too long.

Fears and Facts

Major concerns still exist. Will the logistics of future travel become more difficult? Will insurance continue to cover financial loss due to a world health scare. Will the spread of Coronavirus finally be contained. Will we be able to travel without masks, but with proof of vaccination? We realize that these concerns may seem frivolous in the face of illness and death, financial woes and the other pain associated with a worldwide pandemic, political unrest and continuing uncertainty about the future.

But for many of us, the ability to meet new people, enjoy new experiences, and explore new ideas through travel is nearly as vital as breathing, eating and sleeping. So, the questions remain.

If you love traveling, are you currently making plans for the future? Where — and how — will you be traveling? When will you deem it safe to leave home, to fly to a destination half a world away, to be on a ship at sea with thousands of other people and no immediate access to comprehensive medical care. Is taking a road trip across the United States now a viable alternative to other forms of travel?

These are important questions that each person and every family must answer from an individual perspective. There are no right answers. What are your thoughts? I would love to hear from you.

Until we can all meet up in some foreign port and share stories around a friendly table, just stay curious and be safe. Be ready to pack up and go when it becomes possible!

Thinking about what lies ahead

Over the past several months — months when I felt increasingly trapped at home due to a virus over which humans seem to have no control — I searched for some sort of meaning to it all. I certainly found it hard to write about travel and good times; I seriously considered renaming my blog.

Good Places in Long Ago Times came to mind, or Distant Memories of the Faraway.

Now that there are some hopeful signs that the world will once again open up, albeit not as quickly or totally as I would wish, I am consumed by thoughts of what the future will hold. Will we, months from now, still be hunkered down, focused on the perils that may await us if we travel too far and too fast, both figuratively and literally?

Have we learned anything over the past 13 months? And just what are the lessons that we could or should learn from this modern-day plague?

I, for one, have learned that being with others is always better than being apart. A year of separation from loved ones has not made us better. If anything, this year has induced in many of us a kind of stupor, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Some of those I know truly believe that we will be wearing masks in public for the rest of our days.

Can you imagine not ever again seeing a smile on the face of a stranger?

Others are still filled with fear for themselves, but mostly for loved ones and coworkers — and, yes, fear for the teachers, the caregivers, the first responders. It is a paralyzing thought that keeps them homebound and alone. That is far from the “good life” that I choose to embrace. There is much sadness around us these days.

Bitterness, anger, rebellion, distrust and angst — these are the symptoms of perilous times. There are medical authorities and social scientists who firmly believe that the collateral damage of this pandemic will constitute a growing future crisis of far-reaching proportions.

It was with all that in mind that my husband and I planned an early April visit to see relatives in Maine. I might add that we booked the trip only because we, and those we planned to visit, had been totally vaccinated, and because we had an airline credit that would cover our flight costs. But it had been far too long since we had seen and laughed with our cousins, who are very good friends as well as relatives.

We were all ready for a brief reunion. It has been a difficult year for all of us in individual ways, and we needed some respite in the form of togetherness. The four of us were together nearly two years ago for a glorious two weeks touring Portugal and the Azores, and we were eager to repeat that experience on home turf.

Masked travelers were no surprise; crowded airports were.

Flying out of Little Rock National at 7 a.m. was easy. There were few flights scheduled, fewer passengers waiting. The plane was small — 2×2 seating and half empty. But changing planes in Charlotte proved to be a totally different experience. Normally a large and busy airport, it was especially chaotic this time. We attributed the crowds to Spring Break and Easter travelers, but still we were surprised that although officials are still warning against unnecessary travel, so many would choose to fly.

The flight was filled — shoulder to shoulder, middle seats as well. We were greeted with a hand sanitizer packet, offered by a blue-gloved hand, not by smiles and words of welcome. There was to be no beverage service and no snacks. Along with seat belt and emergency oxygen instructions, we were admonished to keep our masks on for the entire duration of the flight. We settled in with our books for the next two and a half hours, noticing that even the in-flight magazine bore a “sanitized” label.

There were no huge crowds in Portland, Maine, our destination; just a steady stream of masked travelers. The mood was quiet, almost somber. Visitors to Maine from beyond the neighboring New England states who are not fully vaccinated still must provide proof of a negative test or undergo a voluntary 10-day quarantine. And masks are required still in all public places.

In our newly-adopted home state of Arkansas, the mask mandate and social distancing were relaxed by the governor effective March 30. However, many local businesses still required masks when we departed. We returned to a different world. Although we still carry our face masks with us, many of the signs have been removed from public places. I attended a meeting this past week that did not require them, and I was able to sit next to friends without three feet of space between chairs.

Coming home to relaxed rules is refreshing

Last night my husband and I joined a friend for dinner at a casual pizza place near our home. All the signs have been removed, and only one or two patrons entered with masks. Even most of the servers were unmasked and smiling. I asked about that, wondering if the younger, unvaccinated employees were nervous about increased exposure.

The answer: “No, not really. But would you like me to put on my mask?” So, the thought is still with us — with us all — that we have not yet returned to normal. More importantly, perhaps, none of us quite knows what normal means anymore. And we still receive somewhat conflicting advice from our leaders. We can’t help but wonder if we are moving too fast, or in the wrong direction as we hear more news reports about growing numbers of infections in other states.

For now at least, each one of us must set personal boundaries. I’m not sure what they will be for me, going forward. What I do know is that seeing the smiles on the faces of friends and family is important. And I look forward to the time when it will no longer be a question of wearing a mask or seeing a smile.

I still hope that the time will come sooner rather than later. I can now believe that the day is approaching when I can book a trip without also having an option if it is canceled. I look forward to making future memories in those faraway places, and to sampling, once again, all the good food that is waiting to be enjoyed.

No, I have decided not to rename the blog, but rather to continue to search out new experiences in interesting destinations.

In a year’s time . . .

Note: One year ago today, the World Health Organization upgraded the status of a spreading virus, dubbed COVID-19, to a global pandemic. That announcement changed our lives forever. Today, as I write this, approximately 118 million cases have been confirmed around the world, and 2.62 million individuals have died. The United States leads the world, unfortunately, in total deaths, almost 530,000 to date, but not in “deaths per million” of population. Yet, however, it is measured, this pandemic has been deadly. The good news, if there is any, is that nearly 70,000 million people worldwide are deemed to be fully recovered, and that a handful of vaccines are currently being administered around the globe. They seem to be effective in preventing serious illness and death. That fact alone is reason for hope. The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continues to decline, at least in the United States. The hope, as expressed today by leading medical authorities, is that perhaps by fall citizens of this country might expect a return to some sort of normalcy.

For me, that means a return to travel.

Just a little over one year has passed since I was first affected by COVID-19. The pandemic was not yet big news, but we were notified in February 2020 that a cruise we had booked for May of 2020from Tokyo to Vancouver, British Columbia, would be cancelled due to “an abundance of caution” surrounding the growing number of infections, on cruise ships as well as on land. All of us who lived through this past year know how the cancellations, shutdowns and stay-at-home orders progressed.

We had returned to the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day 2019, following a trip to the Mediterranean, and we had taken a short voyage to Mexico in January to celebrate an anniversary. Life looked good at the time, with many more trips already taking shape in our minds. We were confident that modern medicine and early warnings would be effective against the spread of a new virus, and that we would soon be traveling again.

How mistaken we were.

Little did we realize at the time what the coming months had in store. When our planned North Pacific crossing was canceled, we immediately began looking for other itineraries. We boldly booked several. Over the years, we have had to postpone other trips due to illness and we have cancelled others because of a simple change of plans. We have occasionally missed a flight; we have adjusted travel plans to adapt to changing conditions and reworked schedules based on circumstances beyond our control.

Our previous trips have been memorable. And we have the memories of those journeys. But this year, to date, we have had 11 planned cruises canceled by various cruise lines, the most recent just last week. As have others, we have accrued a handful of future cruise credits, rebooked some itineraries for the following year, and opted to have other deposits returned in cash. As have others, we had flights canceled as well, and we still have a handful of travel vouchers for future use. We are beginning to plan how we will use them.

In conversations with representatives of three separate cruise companies this week, we have been given little hope of being at sea again this summer. We remain hopeful about the fall, but we are not yet confident. We have to believe that our plans for 2022 will, indeed, materialize. Down deep, though, we hold on to the thought that, with the vaccine now available, we just might be able to walk up the gangplank of a ship for a quick getaway before year’s end. Maybe sooner? Some cruise lines still have May 31 marked as the date their schedule will resume. In the meantime, we have begun to plan some road trips within reasonable driving distance of our home.

And, because of the vaccine, we felt quite confident booking a flight to visit family in Maine at the end of the month. An island somewhere in the world continues to beckon us for a fall visit.

We look forward to the time when we all can venture out without fear to see family and meet friends, to enjoy restaurant meals and to take advantage of the cultural and educational opportunities all around us. There are many places we have not seen, and others we are eager to see again, many within a few hours of our home.

The truth is that staying at home has been hard, and not every journey has to be a long one. Road trips have their own distinct appeal. We’re looking forward to exploring more of Arkansas, our new home state.

But, when the infection rates come down, and a high percentage of the world’s population is vaccinated, watch out! We continue to hope that day comes soon, and you can bet we’re making plans right now to travel to those exotic destinations that have been waiting for us.

Are you?

Pizza — the ultimate comfort food?

My January/February issue of Food Network magazine arrived recently. Looking at the cover, I had to smile. Prominently displayed in mouthwatering color is a pizza with what appears to be some distinctly non-traditional toppings. I was eager to sit down with this new issue and explore ideas presented by some of my favorite television chefs.

And as I did just that on a chilly day when it was prudent to stay indoors, I was reminded of the pizzas I have ordered and consumed in faraway places . . . Here are some of my favorites from the previous few years of sampling good food in unique places! Pizza does indeed seem to have universal appeal!

Pizza, whether shared with friends, prepared at home, or ordered by the slice as a quick snack, always seems appropriate. The fact that it’s so versatile — and so varied — is a large part of its appeal. No matter how you enjoy your pizza, at home or abroad, with a soda, a glass of wine or a beer, chances are good that others will share your opinion and be willing to join you for a slice of goodness.

Because it’s still impossible to take to the skies, the seas or the highways across the globe, the next best thing — for me and for many others this year — has been to spend time in the kitchen, savoring new taste treats inspired by our globetrotting of the past. That has taken me, at least, on some unexpected journeys — recalling previous trips and wonderful food experiences — as well as into past times when life was at least as difficult as it is today and good food was hard to come by. I have become captivated by some of the dog-eared recipes in my grandmother’s recipe box.

More about those in coming days — It has been an insightful few weeks, and I’m eager to share some thoughts.

I realize how lucky I am to be alive today, in these times, as hard as it has been to be at home and not on the road during this pandemic. There’s a reason I chose to write about good food and far away places. Cooking and travel are both art forms in their individual ways. Each brings joy.

One of the travel realities that continues to surprise me is that it’s possible to find pizza on a menu almost anywhere on the globe. The “pandemic hours” that I spent organizing photos and notes of my travels have confirmed that good pizza is not confined by geography or defined by a particular culture, that the love of pizza transcends borders, and that it can be both a satisfying “street food” consumed on the run and a full meal elegantly presented. Or anything in between! Also, almost anything can become a pizza topping! From the delightfully simple basil and mozzarella-topped classic in a tiny Neapolitan trattoria to an oversize and overloaded game day pizza delivered direct to my doorstep, pizza is a beloved tradition, and a treat that only seems to gain favor with each passing year.

One shouldn’t miss the classic Pizza Margherita when visiting Naples! But there are many other pizza choices in other places. On our European trip in late 2019, we enjoyed pizza several times in distinctive locations, from a seaside restaurant with a stunning view of the Adriatic to a cozy small-town eatery tucked into a centuries-old building in Pula, Croatia. Pizza is a staple at airports across the globe, and during this summer’s pandemic shutdown, a required motel stay in Texas brought us “no contact” pizza delivery from a local take-out-only chain pizza parlor. It was our only option, and we were happy to have it!

I also found among my photos a shot of the familiar Domino’s sign in Barcelona, with a crowd of people awaiting their own orders, testimony to pizza’s universality!

Dessert pizzas have also become popular, and they are definitely worth a try. In addition, I have discovered how much fun it can be to make pizza at home; not only is it a great way to introduce kitchen skills to younger children, but there is nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating a hot and satisfying meal out of leftovers and “refrigerator finds!”

No matter how you slice it, it’s entirely possible to enjoy pizza wherever you may roam. By the way, the magazine photo that attracted my attention was of a non-traditional Brussels Sprouts Pizza Carbonara by Chef Ina Garten. Instead of red sauce, it features a white Bechamel sauce, ricotta cheese, Italian pancetta and thinly-sliced Brussels sprouts. Here’s the recipe. It’s one I’m going to have to try.