River Cruises Are Not Just for Old Folks

As I boarded the plane to Basel, Switzerland to catch my Viking River Cruise, I swore on a stack of Bibles I would be bored to death among all the ‘old’ people on that cruise. I’m ashamed to say that was my perception of what a river cruise offered; no casino, no bars, no shows, no pool all equated to boredom. Well as Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise.”

I walked onto the Viking Kvasir in Basel to smiling faces and helping hands. I was led to my stateroom, which had a lovely balcony and ample room for my two large suitcases (to this day I still don’t know how to travel light). Eager to explore my new surroundings, I freshened up and headed to the main room of the ship. There I found the one and only bar with guests already ensconced. And lo and behold, they were young. I pulled up a stool and became fast and furious friends with the bartender and maitre d’.

So, here is what I found to be one of the many perks of a river cruise- it’s your own floating Cheers. Everyone knows your name. No matter where I went on the ship, I was not only greeted but also engaged in conversation. The staff was always so willing to assist in anyway possible, right down to the pianist who would play well after his time was up. Ok, I bribed him with a drink but he cheerfully stayed.

If you are looking for and expect that big cruise ship feel, don’t book your ticket on Viking because that is not what a cruise like this is about. What it is about is that feeling of being ‘home’, it is small without all the distractions, guests will mingle with each other more and the staff is pretty entertaining. They spend time with you and do the little things that you don’t get on a huge cruise ship. For example, one day after an excursion, we all came down the walkway and some of the staff were on the upper deck with a banner that read “Welcome Home” and singing and clapping. This is the type of thing that makes a river cruise so memorable.

Speaking of mealtime, the food was outstanding. The menu was fabulous each and every day down the Rhine. The service was impeccable and my wine glass was always full.

My cruise took me through four countries and 9 cities. My first port of call was Breisach, Germany where I disembarked to explore the magical Black Forest. Next stop was Strasbourg, France, which made me feel like I had stepped into a fairy tale. I visited Strasbourg Cathedral and rode the carousel that sits in Cathedral Square. Day 4 found me at Heidelberg Castle and enjoying traditional German food and music at a tavern in Rudescheim. Day 5 was spent cruising to Koblenz, Germany where I was completely enthralled by the little towns, castles and ruins that dotted the riverbank. I headed to Marksburg Castle and yet another glimpse into a time gone by. Day 6 was Cologne, Germany where I was awe struck by the gothic cathedral. Day 7 was a drive into the picturesque Dutch countryside to see the nineteen, mid 18th century Kinderdijk Windmills.

The next morning I said goodbye to all my new friends and disembarked for three days in Amsterdam (another story for another time). Drifting off to sleep on the plane back to Miami, there was only one thought on my mind. How could I return to my little floating ‘home’ on the Rhine?


National Museum of the History of Immigration

(Recently published in National Post)

After the terrorist attacks of November 2015, attendance dropped at most Paris museums. A fall in tourists, combined with locals’ avoidance of large and crowded spaces, reduced the number of visitors to the Louvre, the Chateau de Versailles and the Musee d’Orsay.

Not so, however, to the National Museum of the History of Immigration.

After the violence, perpetrated partly by descendants of North African immigrants to France and Belgium, visitors came to the museum to learn about the circumstances of immigration from North Africa, according to Benjamin Stora, the museum’s director and a leading historian who specializes in Algeria. “People came to see what had happened in this history,” he said. “What was this complicated history? So our visits didn’t fall.”

France has never thought of itself as a nation of immigrants. The French model has stressed the assimilation of new arrivals over American-style multiculturalism. The museum seeks to present a version of French history that highlights immigrants’ contributions to the country from the 19th century, when it received Germans, Italians and Belgians, to postwar migration from France’s former colonies.

The museum is organized thematically — with sections on immigration status and documents, stereotypes and immigrants in the French labor movement, to name a few — and displays historic photos and documents next to objects and contemporary works of art inspired by the same themes.

National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris
Visitors survey one of the exhibits at Paris’s National Museum of the History of Immigration, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Jean-Jacques Castaing / Palais de la Porte Doree

One display highlights the 500,000 people who flooded across the border from Spain in the weeks after Gen. Francisco Franco’s rise to power. It juxtaposes exiles’ photos with identity documents and pages of a graphic novel on life near the border in the detention camps that were created to house them.

A contemporary sculpture by itinerant Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo, “Residence Permit,” includes four giant, wooden stamps in roughly the shape of African drums. Another, called “Dream Machine,” is by artist Kader Attia. Attia grew up, like many children of immigrants in France, in large social housing projects in the suburbs — the banlieues — of French cities. In his piece, a vending machine sells items representing the tension for second-generation immigrants between the desires to integrate into French consumer culture and to retain cultural identity. On offer: halal Botox and condoms, and a self-help book on how to lose your banlieue accent.

This year marks the museum’s 10th anniversary. It opened to relatively little fanfare, without the usual presidential ribbon-cutting. The new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was focused on pushing through campaign promises to limit immigration.

Its home, the Palais de la Porte Doree, was built at the eastern edge of the city for the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition. Originally intended as a permanent museum to the French colonies, it still houses a tropical aquarium in the basement.

The art deco building’s most striking feature is the “stone tapestry” covering the exterior. The enormous frieze depicting the contributions of the French colonies to France took two years to create. Inside, elaborate murals in the main room on the ground floor depict France’s contributions to its colonies. Much of this iconography, particularly inside, has become profoundly dated, a relatively unmediated window into the thinking around racial hierarchies at the time of construction. For those reasons, this central hall was closed to the public for many years.

“Making it visible to people, one hopes, provokes a certain discussion,” observed University of Sydney historian Robert Aldrich, who has written a book about monuments to colonialism throughout France. “In a way,” he mused during a visit to the building, “closing it off is hiding the past.”

Apart from the main exhibition, the museum also hosts temporary exhibits and special events. (A recent one focused on the current refugee crisis.) It also welcomes between 30,000 and 40,000 students a year. Stora considers them an important part of the audience.

He tries to feature popular themes in each special exhibition to get more visitors in the doors. Last year, the “Fashion Mix” show highlighted immigrants who made it in French couture, including Elsa Schiaparelli and Karl Lagerfeld. An exhibition on Italian immigration from 1850 to 1960 runs through September.

While the museum acknowledges famous immigrants to France, its collections focus more on less prominent arrivals. This is most striking in the donation gallery, which curates items given to the museum by immigrants and their descendants. These include treasured mementos brought from home and artifacts of life in France — such as an Algerian tea pot passed from mother to daughter and boots worn by an Italian immigrant during his French military service during the First World War.

Helene Orain, director of the Palais de la Porte Doree, is particularly fond of this part of the museum.

“The object has a story but it’s also the story of the person,” she explained. “Behind the objects, the dates, the events, there are people who are flesh and blood. They had hopes. They sometimes had huge obstacles.”

Another area devoted to the history of the building also displays items — a plastic water jug, a prayer rug — left behind by undocumented workers who occupied the museum in 2010 to protest immigration policies.

While open only a decade, Stora said, the museum has seen a momentous shift in attitudes about immigration. When planning was underway, “people were still saying in certain circles that immigration was an opportunity for France,” in both economic and cultural terms. The political debate was about whom to admit to further those goals — limiting family reunification in favour of skilled immigration, for example.

In this moment, he said, his museum has an important educational role to play: “To prepare the generations to come,” he said, “to explain where we come from, the origins of the nation.”


– The art deco palace houses the National Museum of Immigration and the Tropical Aquarium in the basement. Open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Ticket sales end at 4:45 p.m. on weekdays and 6:15 p.m. on the weekends. Regular admission costs about US$5 and about US$7 during temporary exhibitions.

Are Older Aircraft Safe?



(recently published in the Telegraph)

A Boeing 737 belonging to Jet2 has made two emergency landings in as many weeks, leading some commentators to question whether the advanced age of the aircraft is affecting its reliability.

The plane was forced to land at Barcelona on July 16, as it flew from Ibiza to Leeds/Bradford. Twelve days later, on July 28, it made another forced landing at Frankfurt en route from Newcastle to Prague.

The airline is investigating both incidents but claims passenger safety was not compromised on either flight.

Nevertheless, commentators have been quick to point out the age of the aircraft – registered as G-CELI. It was manufactured in 1986, making it almost as old as this reporter. But are older planes really more likely to go wrong?

Not according to Patrick Smith, a US pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential.

“Commercial aircraft are built to last more or less indefinitely, which is one of the reasons why they’re so expensive,” he told Telegraph Travel. “It’s common for a jet to remain in service for 25 years or more.”

Smith claims that as planes get older they come under ever greater scrutiny. “Inspection criteria grow increasingly strict,” he said.

So if planes are built to last more or less indefinitely, why are they retired after just 30-odd years – or in many cases sooner?

“Planes are sold, traded or mothballed not because they’ve grown old and are falling apart, but because they’ve become uneconomical to operate,” said Smith.

Are these the world’s worst airlines?

“Aircraft are tailored to particular roles and markets, and there’s a fragile balance between whether it makes or loses money. Poor performance means quick exit to the sales block. To another carrier with different costs, routes and needs, that same aircraft might be profitable.”

An aircraft’s dwindling economic value tends to be related to its age – and with a slew of new fuel-efficient aircraft coming onto the market, maintaining older jets often makes less financial sense.

Modern jets also tend to be quieter, more comfortable and equipped to a higher specification than their predecessors, which usually means a better experience for passengers.

So which carriers have the oldest planes? According to airfleets.net – a website which monitors most major airlines – of the world’s 30 largest carriers (based on passenger numbers), Delta Airlines has the most mature planes with an average age of 17 years.

Air Canada and United Airlines are reckoned to have the second and third oldest fleets, with an average age of 14.2 and 14.1 years respectively.

Data is approximate and is not available for all carriers, including Turkish Airlines, which is considered one of the world’s largest airlines.

At the other end of the spectrum is Aeroflot, which has the youngest planes with an average age of just 4.2 years; Hainan Airlines and China Eastern Airlines have the second and third freshest fleets with an average age of 4.9 and 5.3 years respectively.

At a glance | Which major airline has the oldest fleet?

With a few exceptions – including Ryanair and EasyJetEuropean and North American airlines tend to have the oldest jets, while Asian and Middle Eastern carriers generally boast the youngest.

Incidentally, Jet2 – which was involved in the aforementioned forced landings but is not considered one of the world’s 30 largest airlines – has a fleet age of 16.8 years, which is at the older end of the spectrum.




Carnival To Stay in Mobile

Carnival Cruise Line has signed a contract extension with the city of Mobile, Alabama, that will see the Carnival Fantasy continue to homeport in Mobile through December 2018.

Carnival Fantasy is presently based year-round in Mobile and operates a mix of four- to 10-day cruises to Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the Panama Canal, a representative of the cruise line tells Travel Agent. We are very pleased to be continuing and further building upon our outstanding partnership with mobile.

We continue to build the momentum of the growing cruise industry in Mobile and are committed to expanding the cruising options and destinations both in and out of our port, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said in a statement provided to Travel Agent. The agreement will be placed on the City Council agenda for approval as soon as possible.

Carnival began operating cruises from Mobile onboard the Carnival Fantasy in the fall of 2016 following an absence of a few years. The ship underwent a multimillion-dollar refurbishment prior to its deployment to the port, adding a number of Fun Ship 2.0 amenities such as Guys Burger Joint, developed in tandem with Food Network star Guy Fieri, two poolside watering holes, the RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar, and the BlueIguana Cantina Mexican-themed eatery.

Since the Carnival Fantasy returned to the port, the City of Mobile Cruise Terminal has generated over $4.7 million in gross revenue, according to the Mayors office. Over the course of the full calendar year, the terminals gross revenue is expected to exceed $6.4 million, and over 190,000 cruise travelers will spend more than $18 million in Mobile, with the overall direct impact expected to exceed $35 million.

2018 will see Carnival add a number of new, longer-length voyages from Mobile, the line reported in April. The new itineraries will include two six-day cruises to Cozumel and Grand Cayman or Mahogany Bay (Isla Roatan), as well as two new eight-day voyages.

Ways to see Eiffel Tower

(Recently posted on CNN)
(CNN) — Picture Paris and you conjure images of the Eiffel Tower soaring above the city.
It was only supposed to be a temporary structure, but the wrought-iron icon has become as much part of the fabric as the River Seine.
Designed as the red-painted centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution, the tower was meant to be dismantled after 20 years — much to the relief of Parisian artists and intellectuals who protested the “monstrous” blight on the elegant city skyline.
Luckily for us, the edifice proved indispensable for scientific experiments (like early radio transmissions) and the edifice — all 10,000 tons of it — has stood the test of time.
Today “La Dame de Fer” (the Iron Lady) looms large in imaginations across France and around the world.
And the lore surrounding it borders on mythology. Did you know that con man Victor Lustig once “sold” the landmark to a scrap-metal dealer? Not once, but twice?
And that Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower, kept a private office at the top, welcoming guests like Thomas Edison? (The inventor arrived bearing gifts: a gramophone, what else?)
Often imitated but never duplicated, the Eiffel Tower has inspired numerous copycats.
There are mini versions all over the globe — from Prague to Shenzhen, not to mention Sin City. But there’s only one original, and you can’t come to Paris without going to the top. A visit is de rigeur.
Here’s how to make the most of it.
The Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks.

Planning your visit

The Eiffel Tower is open every day of the year, from 9 a.m. to midnight in summer (mid-June to early September) and from 9:30 a.m. until 11:45 p.m. the rest of the year.
If you’re the spontaneous type and don’t want to plan ahead, keep in mind that it’s best to avoid weekends and the period between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Another option for sportifs is to walk up the stairs (count them, 704 steps to level two), as the line is always shorter. (Price is seven euros — around $8 — for adults.) This is a great workout, and also provides perspective on the tower’s construction with interesting information boards along the way — not to mention the bird’s-eye views.
Note: You can’t climb all the way to the summit. You must buy another ticket for the elevator from the second to the third floor.
Pregnant women get automatic cut-the-line access, but if you’re not expecting, the best way to get coupe-file priority is to order tickets online. These pre-ordered tickets indicate an exact time slot, and you must arrive within 30 minutes of that time. (Prices to access the top are 17 euros for adults and 14.50 euros for youths between 12-24 years.)
Avoid third-party resellers, who often mark up the price heftily. Even if you have a ticket in hand, check the official website and Twitter account for up-to-the-minute information regarding weather and security. In some rare instances, the Eiffel Tower’s opening can be delayed, in which case, if you purchased tickets through the official website, you will receive an email suggesting an alternative time for the visit. Otherwise, tickets can be refunded.
Arrival by metro at Trocadéro (lines 6, 9) affords the opportunity to gape at the Iron Lady from a privileged vantage point above the Seine. This is also a top spot for watching the Bastille Day fireworks and the dazzling show when the Eiffel Tower sparkles on the hour. From here, it’s a 15-minute walk across the Pont d’Iéna.
Alternatively, the Bir-Hakeim metro station (line 6) is a 10-minute walk along the Quai Branly, and the École Militaire metro station (line 8) is 15 minutes away. The Champ de Mars-Tour Eiffel stop on the RER C line is the closest, but note that RATP (the Paris transit authority) is undertaking construction projects on the line through August 2017.
The Eiffel Tower stands on the south bank of the River Seine which cuts through Paris.

Did you know?

The Eiffel Tower isn’t immune to rumors — some true (oui! a zipline was set up during the French Open this year), and others false (non! a wall is not set to go up around the landmark, though a new glass partition will be erected in the gardens to improve the visitor experience and to enhance security).
The best way to get the inside scoop, and hear insightful anecdotes, is with a private guide. Offered by Cultival, this “behind-the-scenes” tour provides access to areas usually closed to the public, like the original machinery room and the “bunker” under the Champ de Mars. The guide will also point out interesting features not usually visible to visitors, such as the new wind turbines, camouflaged with the same paint color as the Eiffel Tower.
Other fun new novelties include the transparent glass floor on the first level — not for the faint of heart — where an ice skating rink is set up in winter. And if you’re visiting in March, you might catch a glimpse of a unique race called “la Verticale de la Tour Eiffel” in which runners sprint to the top of the tower (all 1665 steps).
The first level features a glass floor and turns into an ice rink in winter.

Photography tips

The Eiffel Tower steals the show on Instagram as one of the most photographed attractions in the world. Popular spots for snapping pics of the Eiffel Tower include the Trocadéro and the Champ de Mars.
But photographer Mary Quincy, who has more than 122,000 followers on Instagram, keeps a tally of lesser known spots to snap the Eiffel Tower. “From the Avenue de Camoens, it’s a nice perspective to take photos — especially if you want personal portraits with the Eiffel Tower in the background and no one else around,” she says.
Her other tip is the Square Rapp, which “offers an original view of the Eiffel Tower between two buildings.”
The Normandy-born photographer also suggests the Rue Saint-Dominique, when you’re walking from Invalides to the Champ de Mars; the top of the Sacré-Cœur basilica; and the top of the Arc de Triomphe because of its relative proximity to the Eiffel Tower and the impressive panoramas.
The view from the observation deck at the top of the Montparnasse Tower is also sublime. (Price 17 euros for adults).
Some of the best views of the Eiffel Tower can be seen from the top of the Montparnasse Tower.

Where to eat nearby

If you can’t splurge at Le Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse’s magnificent Michelin-starred restaurant perched on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, there are a few nearby eateries that aren’t tourist traps.
Inside the newly renovated Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) on the Trocadéro, the Café de l’Homme has one of the city’s finest terraces where you can indulge in the Eiffel Tower views paired with creative French cuisine showcasing seasonal products (like heirloom tomatoes and summer truffles).
The Eiffel Tower views are also dynamite from Les Ombres, the rooftop restaurant on top of the nearby Quai Branly museum, and the seasonal Krug Terrace at the Shangri-La Hotel.
Philippe Excoffier, head chef at the American Embassy for 11 years, runs an eponymous bistro that’s just a 10-minute walk away from the Eiffel Tower. You’ll notice a devoted crowd of regulars tucking into the prix-fixe lunch.
A note to diners: In Paris, it’s always best to call/email ahead for reservations. If you didn’t get a chance to do that, the famous Rue Cler market street is also a stone’s throw away, and you can pick up picnic items at the specialty food stores lining this pedestrianized thoroughfare.

Botswana Safari


(this article was recently in the Miami Herald)

We were eyeing one another. I didn’t blink. Wrong move, Elicious said. Leopards leap at stares. Good to know, I said somewhat annoyed at myself, after all as former director of program acquisitions for Animal Planet and Discovery Channel in Canada, I thought I had learned the do’s and don’ts of animal “etiquette.” Not so! Watching these magnificent beasts on TV, film or in a zoo, is light years away from seeing them in the wild. My seat in an open safari vehicle beats the couch at home, hands down. Eyes somewhat averted, my guide and I watched in silence as the glint of the evening sun turned the leopard’s eyes to a burnished amber and his muscular body to rippling silk. He scrutinized us warily, but did not move.

It was my first ever safari, and Elicious, my guide, had spotted the leopard in the Okavango Delta (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) of the landlocked southern African country, Botswana. One of the world’s largest inland deltas, it’s shaped like a hand generously opening to long narrow fingers of water nourishing the vast and varied ecosystem.

Here is where andBeyond, an international luxury experiential travel company, owns several safari camps and lodges, as well as 25 others throughout Africa. Their motto – “Take care of the land, take care of the animals, and take care of the people” – was evident during my six-day safari in three of andBeyond’s five-star accommodations in Okavango. AndBeyond is renowned for training its guides and trackers. Elicious was the first of six I was fortunate to travel with.

Backtracking a bit: I flew from Johannesburg to the city of Maun in northwest Botswana. From there, despite being a white-knuckle flyer, I boarded a seven-seater plane that landed 15 minutes later on a landing strip in the bush, where we were met by warthogs, baboons and our charming safari vehicle driver. For 45 minutes we rumbled along past the termite mounds (towering, white sculptures), a dazzle of zebras, impalas, kudus and giraffes. An elephant glided by, silently, as if he were on a pulley – his grace belying his size. The pungent smell of sage permeated the air and several of the 450 bird species in Botswana displayed their vocal colors. (One species sounded like castanets on steroids).

All this before we even arrived at the canal for our short boat ride to Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp. As we approached, motoring through swathes of water lilies and within earshot of the deep grunts of the hippos, the genuinely warm-hearted Batswana staff, singing and dancing on the wharf, signaled our arrival at this secluded oasis.

I was met by my butler, Lesedi, who escorted me along a winding path to my suite (one of only nine). They are well spaced, a sense of complete privacy prevails, but so too the ever present realization that in this unprotected camp wild animals have the right of way. Walking to and from my suite to the main lodge took a bit of courage on my part, and Lesedi’s philosophy (“Everything we want is on the other side of fear”) helped, although so did the fact that he accompanied me in the early mornings and evenings, as were all guests with their respective butlers.

The three andBeyond properties were designed by Fox Browne Creative from South Africa, each imprinted with its own signature theme. Xaranna: soft palette of pink, khaki and white enveloped in natural wood and canvas riffed on the water lilies, reeds and hippos. Kudum Lodge, a boat ride away, Xaranna’s male counterpart, with its chocolate and ebony hues reminisced with playful recycling touches in repurposed tires, old Mokoro canoes and liberal use of rough-hewn chunky timber. On first sight, Kudum was a disappointment, not as visually inviting as Xaranna, but I soon learned to relish my split-level lodge with its treehouse look-out. Like Xaranna, the luxurious bed is surrounded by fine mosquito netting while a deep soaking bathtub claims center spot in the vast bathroom with its clever use of partitioning for the indoor showers. Outdoors, a second shower, near the plunge pool and adjacent cabana area, provides private relaxation.

After an evening safari, and dinner at Xaranna, I returned to my suite to find the bathtub foaming with bubbles and aromatic scents; at Kudum on another such evening, dozens of votive candles lit a path from the front door to the bathtub, this time with a bottle of Amarula (a cream liquor from South Africa) seductively leaning in its own bath of ice cubes. I barely was able to get out of the tub after the heat of the water and the intoxicating drink!

How the chefs managed to create such truly excellent meals with the finest of ingredients way out in the bush was a magician’s secret. Each day the blackboard announced what was on the menu for both lunch and dinner, and I can honestly say I was always impressed and couldn’t wait for the next chalk temptation.

Mornings began with a gentle knock on my door and a tray laden with hot tea with cookies, at 5:30 a.m. A half hour later, again a knock at the door and out I go into the darkness to breakfast: porridge, fresh fruit, yogurt, and fellow guests gathered around the Boma (meeting place) for sustenance before our five-hour safari outing. The rising sun illuminated the paths where the tracker and guide scanned for visible signs of wildlife: foot imprints, insect tracks (scorpions cross only at night, for example), which way the wind is moving, the smell of urine, feces droppings … all signs observed to determine which animals are around and where. This all paid off big time when we came upon a den of eight lion cubs waiting for their parents to return. Priceless!

About midway through the morning, we stopped for a snack set up under a tree. Out came the metal table, tablecloth, hot tea, coffee, cold drinks and bowls filled with candied ginger, cheese, crackers and various sweets. No animals decided to join us, mercifully. Returning home, a herd of elephants entertained us with a mud bath roll, the little ones so endearingly protected by the matriarch and “aunties.” During an afternoon siesta at andBeyond Kudum, I was awakened from my snooze by rustling sounds just beyond the screened-in porch a few meters from my bed. Two bull elephants decided to grab a little acacia tree snack. Transfixed, I watched them tussle with one another while intermittently tucking the leaves of their dexterous trunks into their mouths.

It is both incomprehensible and reprehensible that humans slaughter them, as well as rhinos, for their tusks and horns. I must applaud the Botswana government, as they have zero tolerance for such heinous acts and poaching is prohibited as well as game lodges where wealthy hunters can fly in and “bag” their prey for the fun of it. A large percentage of Botswana’s revenues comes from tourism, not torture.