Thursday, May 30, 2024

World War II European Tours
Memorial Day was this week and in a few days we’ll note the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of occupied France that within a year would lead to the surrender of Germany and the end of World War II in Europe.

            Because of that special date, 2024 will be one of the biggest for WWII-related tourism in Europe, which has been on the rise in the last decade or so. As more and more veterans of the war pass away, modern Americans want to connect with the Greatest Generation by visiting the beaches and fields and towns where they fought against tyranny.

            In the fall of 2022, my husband and I visited France, and the most memorable day of the trip was our visit to Normandy, the northern region where American, British, Canadian and French troops came ashore on June 6, 1944. Fighting their way inland against heavy German resistance, the Allies sustained horrendous casualties, but within a few weeks they’d pushed the enemy out of Paris and then from France altogether.

            It was a beautiful fall day as we journeyed by bus through Normandy’s small towns and hedgerow-lined fields. The bus was filled with our traveling companions from our Avalon river cruiser; after this outing, we would meet the boat in the coastal city of Le Havre and then go back upriver on the Seine to Paris. The mood was upbeat and relaxed, as we’d had a fine cruise so far and anticipated yet another day of good weather and interesting sights.

            We got a lot more than we bargained for.

            From the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, which U.S. Army Rangers climbed under fire in a desperate mission to take out enemy gun emplacements, to the vast reaches of Omaha Beach itself, we saw where the men—most of them barely out of high school—risked everything for their families back home and for future generations, for us. Many of us shed tears when we visited the Normandy American Cemetery, where long rows of white crosses represented nearly 10,000 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in the campaign.

            The whole experience was emotional, humbling, but also uplifting. We saw many French schoolchildren on tour, learning first-hand about the men who came here to restore liberty to their great-grandparents. My husband said, “Every American schoolkid should come here.” And while that might not be practical, groups of Americans are making good use of WWII-themed tours that will take them to Normandy and the sites of other battles, along with staging areas in England.

            Fans of the TV series Band of Brothers can follow in the footsteps of Easy Company with Band of Brothers Tours, offering 9- and 11-day all-inclusive tours that take you from Normandy all the way through the Battle of the Bulge sites of Belgium, into southern Germany to the Dachau concentration camp and to Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” hideaway in Austria. Other companies like Overlord Tours offer shorter trips to various sites where visitors can really dig into the history of the campaign.

            Perhaps one of your own ancestors fought in Europe. If you’re ready to retrace his footsteps, give us a call. It’s sure to be one of the most memorable trips you’ll ever take.



Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Cruise Ships through the years

It was 30 years ago that my husband and I took our first cruise, on a Carnival ship out of Miami. We visited Key West and Cozumel during our 5-day sailing. I don’t remember the name of the ship, although Dave tells me we had a cabin with a window, not a balcony. It didn’t matter. We were cruising, enjoying the whole experience—the dinners, the onboard pool, the shows, and yes, even the breakfast buffet. Those were the early days of global cruising—remember Kathie Lee Gifford singing in Carnival’s TV ads?—and it looked like the next big thing in vacationing.

            It sure was. Back in 1994, only about 5 million passengers boarded cruise liners. This year, projected numbers reach 35 million. Companies like Carnival have absorbed smaller lines and created new, innovative ships that are designed to give passengers not only exotic itineraries, but incredible onboard experiences. Royal Caribbean and Carnival are neck-and-neck in the number of passengers carried per year, at about 2.6 million each. Now, the race for passengers is not about the places the ships will visit, but the ships themselves. Princess Cruises, a Carnival subsidiary, has introduced something designed to give passengers a magical experience on board—literally.

            Travel Weekly’s Andrea Zalinski recently wrote about her sailing on the Sun Princess, one of the signature vessels of Princess Cruises. She was one of the first to take part in Spellbound, the newest specialty venue offered by the line. Created in conjunction with Magic Castle, a private club in Hollywood for magicians and magic enthusiasts, Spellbound “envelops guests in an early- to mid-20th-century place, time and mindset with the help of a specialty dinner, creative drinks and magic.” Guests who get reservations—which go fast, since only thirty are allowed in at a time—are asked to wear cocktail attire. They begin the evening in a secluded area of the Horizons dining room, with a menu not featured anywhere else on board. Following dinner, guests are led to a black door. Behind the door is Spellbound.

            When they’re allowed in, guests begin an immersive experience that includes several rooms, specialty drinks like the Artemis, served in a golden owl, and Escape from Houdini’s Chest, a cinnamon-and-strawberry-infused vodka drink with St-Germain and lime that has to be retrieved from a smoking box. The rooms feature d├ęcor based on the Magic Castle itself. At the bar, a magician performs card tricks. In the library, visitors can actually be “shushed” by the books if they’re talking too loudly. Each room features different treasures that can be explored by guests, including a rotary telephone that might just have someone else on the line if you pick up.

            The evening concludes in the theater with a magic show heavy with audience participation. For Zalinski’s cruise, the magician asked a guest to call a friend who was elsewhere on the ship. Once the friend was on the line, the magician instructed the guest to tell the friend to think of a specific card in the deck and keep it to herself. Moments later, the magician announced the friend was thinking of the queen of hearts, which the astonished friend confirmed over the phone.

            Magic Castle supplies all the magicians who work at Spellbound, and the cast will rotate every few cruises. Many of them have been learning their trade at Magic Castle since childhood, and it shows in their performances. That’s just one way Princess has been going all-out to make Spellbound one of the signature guest experiences on any cruise line.

            Currently the experience is by reservation only at $149 per person, with children aged 13 and up permitted. There are three shows per evening except on embarkation day. The line eventually plans to open a Sunday brunch experience that will allow younger visitors.

            Early indications are that Spellbound is a big hit for Princess, yet another entry into the rapidly growing world of onboard passenger experiences that run the gamut from go-karts and laser tag to old-school arcades and virtually anything in between. Ready to get out there and experience it yourself? Give us a call and start packing!


Thursday, May 9, 2024

 The return of the motel

            Road trips have been a staple of American family life since the late 1940s, when returning veterans began the tradition of piling the wife and kids into the family Buick and heading out to explore Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, and up and down the Eastern seaboard. When the interstate system started construction in the ‘50s, motels became even more ubiquitous, popping up at interchanges on the outskirts of cities and towns.

            The first motel was built by architect and developer Arthur Heineman, who abbreviated the words “motor hotel” to “mo-tel,” in San Luis Obispo, Cal., in 1925. After the war, Heineman’s innovation took off, with I-, L- or U-shaped structures that typically stuck to one or two stories, making it easier for guests to unload their suitcases. Unlike hotels, where rooms are entered through interior doors, motel rooms always offer exterior doors.

            Most motels in those days were individually owned, with proprietors looking for new and inventive ways to attract guests. This gave rise to brightly-colored neon signs, exotic names, and occasionally plastic palm trees and kidney-shaped swimming pools. A single road trip might include a night in a Polynesian village, then a stop at an Italian villa—or at least that’s what they appeared to be, sort of. A little cheesy, sure, but to our parents and grandparents it was a welcome getaway from daily workaday life and an adventure for the kids.

            The emergence of chains like Holiday Inn, Travelodge and Best Western in the ‘50s started the slow decline of the mom-and-pop motel. The rapid increase in air travel meant city hotels began grabbing much of the U.S. traveler’s lodging dollar. Motels started being known as places that were run-down and crime-ridden, thanks in part to TV shows, which always seemed to show fugitives holing up in dingy motels. Even those who remained clean and relatively comfortable all seemed to be cut from the same mold.

            That trend is changing, though. In the last decade or so, local investors have begun buying older motel properties and reimagining them as boutique properties. A recent article in Smithsonian magazine gave three examples of these new-era motels:

·         Pacific Motel, Cayucos, Cal. In a little surf village that calls itself the “last of California’s beach towns,” Ryan and Marisa Fortini bought a rundown motel called the Dolphin Inn in 2020 and spent the next two years transforming it into a boutique property that offers amenities like parachute linens, botanical skin-care products in the lobby and handbags made by Mexican artisans.

·         Campfire Hotel, Bend, Ore. The revamped 100-room motel opened in 2020 with an eye toward being very different than motels of yore. Its “camp vibes meets urban lifestyle” aesthetic features rooms done up in browns and oranges like a ‘70s campground, all surrounding a heated saltwater pool. Orange lights are strewn among the property’s tall trees for unique nighttime illumination.

·         Blue Fox Motel, Narrowburg, N.Y. Nestled in the beautiful Catskills, this rustic ‘50s lodge was renovated by Meg Sullivan and Jorge Neves with an eye toward preserving the region’s history. The motel’s restaurant has become a destination itself, and the property’s pickleball court is open to the public with access via many hiking trails through the neighboring woodland.

Many of these boutique motel properties are incorporating restaurants and bars that make the place a destination for local residents, too. With fresh ideas like these, the motel is slowly re-emerging as the unique American experience it once was.

            Ready to get out there and find one or two of these gems? We’ll help you with your road trip planning. Give us a call!

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Added measures in Italy with increasing tourist flows

 Italy is one of my favorite countries to visit, from the ancient wonders of Rome to the charming countryside of Tuscany to the exotic Amalfi Coast, around the boot into the Adriatic and up to Venice. I’m certainly not alone; 65 million foreign visitors arrived in Italy in 2019, and the country is recovering quickly from the pandemic, with 2022 visits back up to 50 million. Those guests spend millions of dollars that are vitally important to the national and local economies, but they also pose challenges, stressing the local environment and municipal services, especially during peak periods.

            Italian tourist hot spots are now taking steps to reduce that stress. Last week, Venice became the first city in the world to introduce a payment system for visitors who are not staying overnight in the city. Day trippers will now have to pay a 5-euro tax (about $5.35) for visiting between 8:30am and 4pm. Residents of the city are exempt, along with students, workers and homeowners. Visitors aged under 14 and tourists with hotel reservations will need to register but won’t be charged the tax. Starting in June, Venice will also limit tour groups to a maximum of 25 people and prohibit the use of loudspeakers by tour guides.

            Venice is a beautiful city and virtually unique in its geography; it’s composed of 126 islands, situation in a lagoon on the northeast coast of the Italian mainland. The main island is crisscrossed by canals, and nearly 500 bridges help connect the various areas of dry land. The international airport, Marco Polo, is on the mainland, with arriving guests using tenders to get from there to the city. Until recently, cruise ships docked at Venice itself, but then UNESCO threatened to put the city on its endangered list unless ships were prohibited. Environmentalists said the liners were causing pollution and eroding the foundations of the city, which suffers from regular flooding.

            Cruise lines were initially supportive of the decision, and started using adjacent ports on their itineraries, using tenders to get their guests to Venice. But recently, NCL has cut Venice from its 2024 and ’25 itineraries entirely. This year, NCL will replace Venice with stops down the coast at Ravenna or at ports in Slovenia and Croatia. Next year, it’ll be another port or a day at sea.

            By the way, some hotels in Venice recently decided to deal with another environmental threat: seagulls. The birds have been a problem for years due to their aggressiveness in snatching food from the hands of tourists or even off tables on the street or balconies. One hotel decided it had had enough when a seagull grabbed an entire steak as a waiter was placing it on a diner’s table. Guests have been issued bright orange water pistols to fight off the birds, but often they don’t have to actually pull the trigger; bird experts say the color itself is a deterrent to the gulls. The birds’ status as a protected species keeps authorities from using more permanent methods to deal with them.

Across the country in Florence, short-term residential rentals on platforms like Airbnb have been banned in the city’s historic center. The Uffizi Gallery, the city’s most famous museum, offers discounts to people arriving before 9am. (Michelangelo’s David, perhaps the world’s most famous sculpture, is in another location, the Galleria dell’Accademia.) Farther west, on the coast, the Cinque Terre region on the Italian Riviera is charging a 15-euro tax to walk most celebrated coastal path that connects the five scenic villages of the region. Also, the path can only be walked in one direction. Another scenic area, the island of Capri off the coast of Naples, has doubled the entry fee charged to ferry passengers, and severely limited the use of automobiles by non-residents.

            Even with these extra charges and restrictions, there’s no doubt that Italy will remain one of the top destinations for Americans, including many of our clients. Ready to go? Give us a call and we’ll get you there! Arrivederci! 

Friday, April 26, 2024

Traveling with limited mobility

Many folks with mobility issues from age, surgery or other reasons are reluctant to fly, fearing that they’ll never be able to negotiate a busy airport, much less the aircraft itself. But airports and airlines have long offered services to help these travelers, which last week included my husband. So, how well do these services work?

            Dave underwent surgery on his right foot on April 11, and three days later flew to Arizona to visit his family and see his mother during her final illness. The trip couldn’t be put off, so on the day of his outbound flight, I drove him to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. He was flying Sun Country, so we used Terminal 2. After letting him out, I parked the car and then returned to help him with his rolling suitcase as we went inside to the check-in station. Dave gets by on crutches well—previous knee surgeries gave him plenty of experience—but we still arranged for him to get a wheelchair once his checked bag was on its way.

            It went very well. An aide was standing by with a simple wheelchair, like the ones in the photo, and whisked him directly to security. The TSA agents were very helpful (having TSA Pre-check certainly helped speed things along) and the “pusher,” as a wheelchair aide is called, went through the checkpoint with Dave and took him directly to his gate.

            Once on the plane, the flight attendants were very helpful as well, storing his crutches and stowing his carry-on overhead. Upon arrival in Phoenix, there was another wheelchair and a
pusher waiting to whisk him to baggage claim. On the return flight, Dave asked his pusher to stop at a coffee shop on the way to the gate, and the gentleman was happy to help Dave get his chai tea “fix” for the day.

            Overall, he said it was a very efficient and helpful experience, and he was happy to provide gratuities to each of his pushers. “It was well worth it,” he said, adding that he hopes he’ll never have to do it again!

            Federal regulations require airlines to provide travelers with disabilities extra services like these, including first-to-board privileges at the gate, but the airlines have embraced it with the goal of providing superior service to handicapped travelers. After all, the airlines want them on their planes, and these folks want to travel, so it’s a win all the way around. Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation announced plans for new regulations that would enhance existing rules, noting that millions of Americans use wheelchairs and most of them would love to travel, just like most everybody else does. The DOT estimates that the number of passengers with a disability traveling by air in 2021 was about 18.1 million, and that number has surely increased in the years since.

            If you’re concerned that mobility challenges might limit your ability to travel, we’ll help you get on board. Give us a call and get packing!    

Thursday, April 18, 2024

 Air taxi's may take off sooner than you think.

First-time American visitors to the United Kingdom are always unnerved to see cars driving on the “wrong” side of the street, even though they’ve seen it in the movies many times. Actually getting behind the wheel over there can be daunting, especially since that wheel, and all the controls, are on the wrong side of the car. Fortunately, most of the world—about 70%—drives on the “right” side. But why do nearly a third of the world’s drivers still drive on the left?

            In Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte had something to say about driving on the right, while Conestoga wagons drove the decision over here. As to the Brits, well…

            We’ve all seen them in the movies—creaky, cloth-covered wagons, pulled by horses or oxen, carrying a family and all its worldly goods as the wagon train headed west, looking for a new start on the American frontier. They were Conestoga wagons, developed by Pennsylvania carpenters and blacksmiths to carry goods to market in the 18th-century colonial metropolis of Philadelphia. The early wagons didn’t have a seat up front; they had a “lazy board” that extended out of the side. But often, the wagon driver walked alongside the horses, pulling levers and ropes to keep the team on course. And since most people are right-handed, he would walk on the left side of the wagon. That meant, of course, the wagon itself was on the right side of the road.

            The first major highway in the U.S. was the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road, opened in 1795, and one of the rules written in the charter required all traffic to stay on the right. In 1804, New York became the first state to dictate traffic to stay on the right side of the road. A century later, Henry Ford put the steering wheel of his hugely popular Model T on the left side of the vehicle, because horse-drawn wagons and carriages had been driving on the right side for a long time. Ford wanted his drivers to be close to the middle of the road.

            In Europe, foot traffic on roads was on the right, with the left side of the road reserved for carriages and those on horseback, which meant the upper class. During the French revolution, the government ordered all traffic to be on the right, as a way to help equalize the classes in society. A few years later, Napoleon’s armies, marching on the right, rolled through continental Europe, enforcing the right-side French tradition on everybody else. Except in England, of course, where riders had been riding on the left, as they preferred to keep their right hands toward oncoming traffic, to wave a greeting or maybe a more unflattering gesture, and occasionally wield a sword or pistol.

            In New York City, traffic drives on the right, of course, but there’s lots of it, and that can cause a problem when people want to get to the airport. It typically takes an hour or more to drive from midtown Manhattan to JFK International Airport or vice versa…but what if you could fly? Well, sometime next year, you’ll be able to find out.

            Joby Aviation has already tested its electric air taxi and plans to put it in service by mid-2025, following FAA certification. The ALIA-250’s flight from JFK to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport will take seven minutes. The four-passenger craft recharges in five minutes, so by the time a new group has boarded and strapped in, it’ll be ready to take off again, vertically like a helicopter, but producing only one-tenth the noise and virtually no emissions.

            What will it cost? Early estimates are that one-way fares will be about the same as using an Uber black, or about $200 per seat. Blair Air Mobility, the company that is bringing the air taxi to the Big Apple, has ordered 20 of the aircraft, with plans to expand landing sites throughout the New York metro and eventually bring the air taxi to other major American metro areas.

            Your trip in 2024 or even next year may not include an air taxi ride, or a drive on the left side of the road, but maybe it will. Give us a call, and we’ll get you out there!

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

 Final portion of our Switzerland adventure

We returned from Switzerland last week after a wonderful visit to this Alpine country in the heart of Europe. It takes awhile to get there, and to get home, but it was worth it. Last week’s newsletter was about our stay in the charming, Italian-centric city of Lugano, in the extreme south of Switzerland. This week, it’s about our post-conference visit to Engelberg, right in the midst of the Alps.

            We departed Lugano on the morning of the 25th, once again availing ourselves of a leisurely ride on the train. Joining us for the leg from Lugano to Lucerne was Maurus Lauber, the CEO of Swiss Railway System, who told us of the line’s colorful and innovative history, going back to the 1880s. Our ride was about 3 hours long but the time flew by, with Herr Lauber himself serving us delicious hot chocolate from the dining car!

            Engelberg is a charming town of less than 4000, nestled in a valley at the base of Mt. Titlis. We checked into the historic five-star Kempinski Palace Hotel and accompanied our guide, Claudio, on a walking tour of the town. We visited Kloster Engelberg, a monastery that opened in the 12th century, and a cheese shop that provided us with delicious samples. After dining at the hotel’s Cattani Restaurant, we relaxed for the evening in anticipation of our journey up the mountain the next day.

            Tuesday the 26th dawned with gorgeous views of the Alps, but as we prepared for our excursion, word came that high winds at the summit would keep us from going all the way to the top at 10,623 feet, which meant we wouldn’t be able to experience the rotating gondola that lifts skiers and hikers up the final few thousand feet. But we were able to take a more traditional gondola all the way up to 5900 feet and the Berghotel Trubsee, a charming boutique hotel and restaurant with easy access to the ski slopes. A number of skiers were already there, many of them children, and we couldn’t resist snow-tubing down a short slope (a couple of times) and a ride on an electric snowmobile.

            It was an exhilarating day, but it wasn’t over yet. That evening, Claudio took us to what he described as a “rustic” restaurant, and he wasn’t kidding. A van picked us up at the hotel shortly after sunset and we proceeded up onto a mountainside, along a narrow, switch-backed road—with no guardrails—to Bergrestaurant Fluhmatt, nestled into the side of the mountain, a small chalet operated by the lady who lives upstairs. I had the specialty of the day: Alplermagronen mit Apfelmus, which is a dish with penne pasta, cheese and fried onions, with apple sauce on the side. It was delicious. My husband Dave had the Wildbratwurst mit Zwiebelsauce, which is a wild game sausage (venison, mountain goat and wild boar) with a red onion sauce, and French fries. A glass of red wine during the dinner really hit the spot, and we chased it all down with shots of Luzerner Kirschbrand, a Swiss cherry brandy. As Dave, the German speaker, said, “Ihren Mahlzeit war ausgezeichnet!” (“Our meal was excellent!”)

            Our final full day in Switzerland was in Lucerne, a leisurely half-hour train ride from Engelberg. We joined a new guide for a walking tour of the Old Town district, and then inspected the Mandarin Oriental Palace, another five-star hotel where the couple we were traveling with, Sandy and Mark DeGonda, would be staying for a couple of nights after departing Engelberg the next day. We had a sumptuous lunch in the hotel restaurant and then availed ourselves of some shopping, in spite of the chilly and rainy weather. Dave was on the hunt for a Swiss army knife, and he found one for himself and another for our grandson.

            The highlight of the Lucerne visit came later in the afternoon, when Claudio took us to Max Chocolatier, a genuine Swiss chocolate factory. Our hostess explained the process to us and served up samples of the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted. We had a delightful time touring the factory and watching them make chocolate Easter bunnies.

            Back to Engelberg on the train, we retired early so we could rise before dawn and catch our ride to Zurich, an hour away. By nine a.m. we were in the air, and by nine that night, Wisconsin time—nearly 24 hours after our alarm went off in Engelberg—we were settling down for the night at home. Our transatlantic flights on Delta, both ways, were about 8 hours long but more than tolerable, thanks to our seats in the Premium Select section of the plane. I highly recommend it for your own travels to Europe.

            We enjoyed Switzerland tremendously, and we already miss the gorgeous Alps. Want to see them for yourselves? Give us a call, and “Gerne organisieren wir Ihre Reise!” (We’ll be happy to arrange your trip!)