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!

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?

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.

Great Portugal Excursions: Tour a Cork Forest

Even though five generations of his family have held title to the land that claimed Phillip Mellon’s heart, his own journey to living on that land was circuitous. The attachment, though, is obvious and strong.

On a two-and-a-half-hour classic Jeep safari of the 540-hectare (more than 1,300 acres) Portuguese farm that he occupies with his wife and two young boys, he recounted the story of how his passionate love for the land unfolded. He admits that he is the first of his family to actually live on and work the land. His forebears, he explains, were “gentleman farmers” who held the property as a sort of vacation retreat from life in the city and other professional pursuits, hiring caretakers to tend the cork oaks, supervise the harvest and care for grazing animals.

Learning from the Land

During the tour, Mellon tells of the farm’s history, how it was that he found his way home, literally, to build a new life on his land, and of his hopes for the future. It’s a fascinating story of adaptive land use, and a continuing effort to build reality from a dream.

Phillip Mellon is a totally modern man, with deep Portuguese roots and ties to the culture. He was reared in the city, near Lisbon and the sea, but he says his happiest times were the school vacations and summers he spent at the farm in the country’s Alentejo region.

Mellon’s father, an attorney, still lives in the city, as do his siblings. Phillip himself had no early intentions of becoming a farmer. He was educated in England, then lived and worked both in Australia and Canada before finally returning to Portugal to settle on the family land. Noting that he really knew little about farming at the time, he has seized on opportunities as they presented themselves, learning by doing, and not averse to trying out new ventures.

In the year 2000, he embraced the idea of planting grapevines; today the vineyards produce award-winning wines. He says, laughingly, that he is a bit undisciplined in his pursuits.

Cork: A Major Industry

Driving east from Lisbon, we did not at first know what to expect. The scenery is dramatically beautiful, pastoral and calm, with scattered small towns punctuating the green hills. Large trees became more common, but we did not immediately recognize them as cork oaks, until we spotted large stacks of bark drying in the sun.

Luckily, our rental car had a superb navigational system; we were to meet our guide “in front of the museum in Redondo.” After only a few wrong turns and some good-natured advice from local residents, we arrived right on time, met Jose Inverno and our tour-mates, and were escorted to the farm for a sip of strong espresso in the sunny courtyard of the main farmhouse.

The surrounding forests in the Alentejo region and further south in Algarve province have been producing Portugal’s noted cork for centuries. The story of cork is a fascinating one. Portugal is the world’s major supplier, now accounting for approximately one half of the annual global harvest. A tree must be at least 20 years old, often much older, before it can first be harvested. It is said that the best bottle corks come from trees at least 50 years old. Then, by law, the bark of a cork oak may be stripped only every nine years. At this farm, Herdade da Maroteira, the rotation is once every 11 years. It is not a pursuit for the impatient!

Today, Mellon not only supervises the annual cork harvest, but is also planting new grape varietals. The farm offers informational walking treks and motorized tours through a subsidiary company managed by Jose Inverno, and has recently ventured into agri-tourism, with simple, but charming, accommodations available by the night or for an extended stay.

In addition, there are olive trees that produce oil for the farm and some limited sales, as well as beehives to supply fragrant honey. Sheep and cattle graze on the land, and Mellon partners with an Iberian black ham producer, allowing the distinctive long-legged pigs to fatten, during season, on the nutritious acorns that fall from the abundant oak trees.

The pigs, however, had not yet arrived on the land; the sheep seemed shy, but the cattle were unfazed by our presence. Farm dogs accompanied us everywhere.

An Individualized Tour Opportunity

Our Jeep safari followed dirt paths winding through the oaks, past fields of lavender, yellow and white wildflowers, adjacent to vineyards planted with a variety of grapevines, and across the hillocks of the foothills of the Serra D’Ossa range. At the highest point, we breathed in the spectacle, as Mellon pointed out the boundaries of his working estate down below.

We passed other groups of trekkers, each one accompanied by a congenial guide, and Jose also escorted a second driving tour in his car. We made frequent stops to listen to Mellon’s dialog, and the photo ops were superb!

The area invites exploration, from the evidence of ancient settlements to scattered ruins and well-preserved medieval walls and churches. The time passed all too quickly, and following a visit to the farm’s small shop, we returned to Redondo for a long, relaxing, traditional country lunch, included as part of our tour.

Sunday Dinner Far From Home

It was a Sunday and Restaurante Serra d’Ossa was filled with locals, all genial and smiling as they were greeted by Mellon. They, in turn, greeted us warmly, and we felt at home. The proprietors took care of us as if we were family, and the bountiful food and wine was brought to our table family style. We had a wonderful time getting to know our fellow “trekkers” better, and the food itself was delectable.

The menu included a variety of interesting appetizers served as traditional Portuguese “couvert,” followed by amazing tomato soup with poached eggs, and “green soup” for one of our group allergic to tomatoes. The entree was a mixed platter of pork prepared several different ways, and fresh salad, followed by a selection of tempting desserts, all of which disappeared quickly.

We assume that the cadence of life exists in this small town much as it always has, and we were delighted to be a part of it, if only for a day. Mellon told us that few of the other cork farmers have an interest in opening their forests to visitors or in diversifying into other enterprises. So, for the time being at least, Herdade da Maroteira offers a unique experience for travelers to Portugal. It is one that we will long remember, and one we highly recommend.

Because we were there in late April, we missed the harvest, which typically occurs in late June or early July, but we can visualize the buzz of activity it must generate at the farm.

Other available treks and tours take visitors to explore the ancient “dolmens,” burial mounds in the surrounding hills, on leisurely countryside walks and birding tours, and to visit the museum and ancient buildings of Redondo.

Perhaps one day we’ll return to do it all.

*Note: Some Portuguese cork factories also welcome tourists, but we chose to forgo the opportunity because of time constraints and distance. We left Alentejo headed south to the Algarve for a week near the sea. In future posts, I’ll chronicle other wonderful excursions for Portugal travelers.