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.

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?

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.

The travel bug and what to do about it

It’s a recurring malady. I take a trip and come home. It’s nice to be home. But then I see an ad, watch a movie, flip through my photos, talk to a friend, read a new travel blog, hear a newscast about lower air fares — and I’m off again, at least in my mind.

The planning begins anew, and I find myself putting together itineraries, daydreaming about places, reading up on cultures, sampling recipes — all those things that make planning a trip so much fun.

Invariably, I book another trip.

On the spur of the moment . . .

This is by way of saying that we were recently off again — my husband and I — this time on a short trip, but one that took us — for the briefest of stays — to a place we’ve been wanting to visit for some time now: Havana, Cuba.

It was a last-minute excursion, another “too-good-to-resist” deal, this time for a five-day cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas, booked scarcely 30 days in advance.  It took only a glance at each other and a quick nod to make the final arrangements. It’s all about spontaneity, after all, isn’t it?

And this time, that happened, including a low introductory fare offered by Sun Country Airlines for new DFW-Tampa service. After flying with them on this inaugural route, we hope they like DFW as much as we like them; we were pleased by more than just the low fares, and would certainly consider flying with this Minneapolis-based airline to other sunny destinations!

When the details fall easily into place, it seems like destiny.

Details and more details

A visa is required for travel to Cuba, at a fee, of course. Forms stating the purpose of the trip must be filled out in duplicate by each person; approved categories of travel include “Support for the Cuban People” cultural exchange tours.

Last year, it was possible to qualify under a “People to People”category and simply spend time walking the streets of Havana, enchanted by old cars, local rum and cigars, music and dancing, dining out or searching for evidence of Ernest Hemingway.

Not so anymore.

Today, once again, visitors must participate in some sort of organized tour or program, or make arrangements before leaving home for well-choreographed and documented personal encounters with Cuban citizens. Records — including a daily journal — are to be kept for a period of five years, and there are restrictions, both on how and where Americans go and how they spend their money.

Reliable sources say that there is little chance of being checked, but the requirements are in place, and could be enforced. Still, in 2017, more than 600,000 Americans visited this island nation that has been essentially off limits since 1960. And 2018 promises to attract even more Americans, now that’s it’s possible to fly via scheduled airline directly from the United States to Havana.

U.S. government rules pertaining to Cuba travel are fluid. They were altered more than once even as the Obama administration first made it easier, then once again imposed additional restrictions on individual travel. Today it’s still impossible to go as a casual tourist, but it is relatively easy to book a flight or to arrive via cruise ship. American credit cards, with some exceptions, do not work, and currency must be exchanged for the local equivalent of the dollar, the CUC. Cubans still use the Peso, and the dual monetary system can be confusing.

It’s not as easy as crossing the border to either Canada or Mexico. But  the impediments did not dampen my enthusiasm.

Havana — Street Food and Vintage Cars

Planning for the journey could not have been more fun. We made contact with fellow travelers via the internet, and even booked a street food tour with another couple, along with their teenage daughter and Spanish exchange student. What fun to think about “fast food” in Havana!

The trip itinerary includes Key West, a much-loved destination since our days aboard our own cruising yacht. Returning to a well-known old eatery for a leisurely “back home” breakfast, snacking on conch fritters at a familiar beach bar and listening to a local musician at another casual waterside cafe are good enough reason to look forward to a quick stop in a favorite city.

A stroll to the “Southernmost Point” seemed in order to remember the times we previously posed there, looking towards Cuba and anticipating the day we could depart under our own power for the quick crossing. Traversing the 90 miles to dock in Havana would have been easy. Sadly, it was not to be.

This time, Key West was to become the jumping off point to Havana adventure, but with a big ship to take us there.

We were eager to experience it all!

A total of 12 hours in a foreign country might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this trip seemed to offer a perfect sampler — the best possible way to evaluate if, how and when we would return. Or, alternatively, to conclude that a single sip is enough, and then to turn our sights toward other shores and begin planning for other trips. Either way, I knew from the beginning that the trip would hold some special memories and result in plenty of stories to tell.

Read my initial impressions of Cuba in The After Story on Sunday, October 28.