Journeying where dark skies present the most spellbinding panoramas; embarking on an odyssey of discovery of ancestral lineage; cruising to destinations of mystery, adventure, spiritual awakening. These are the top three “most interesting cruise trends” for 2019, according to CruiseCompete, an online cruise marketplace.
Here is CruiseCompete’s projection of three such trends for 2019:
1. Dark Skies
Cruising – You do not have to be an astronomer to find a dark sky cruise
the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute indicates that 80% of
Earth’s land mass suffers from light pollution, and 99% of people in Europe and
the USA view a night sky that is obscured by artificial lighting. As a result, opportunities
for true constellation admiration are few and far between.
Cruising is the ultimate vacation to give stargazers access to spellbinding panoramas for star-gazing, as the open sea has low light pollution, and some cruise lines have designed itineraries specifically for this purpose. For example, Princess Cruises offers stargazing nights that are led by an astrophysicist.
Or, perhaps you would like a special kind of star-gazing cruise, one that explores the Northern Lights. It’s one of those magical experiences on nearly every traveler’s bucket list. You can simplify the logistics of viewing those shimmering colors in the nighttime sky by booking a northern lights cruise. Cunard offers just such an opportunity on their November 2019 12 Night Norway and Northern Lights roundtrip from Southampton.
2. Exploring your DNA may offer memorable travel that will give treasured connections to family experienced through travel.
According to ABC News, genealogy is the second most-popular hobby in the United States, surpassed only by gardening. The study of our family trees and DNA testing has a universal appeal, because most of us have a history that extends far beyond the nation where we’ve been born and bred.
We live in an information age which allows us to document our family history with a high degree of accuracy, but does it tell us where we really come from? A true connection to history and heritage can only be experienced through travel, where names on paper become real people and foreign locations become ancestral homelands filled with the treasures of family history.
2019 will see a surge in travel that reflects people’s desire to visit the cities and countries that feature prominently in their family history. Ancestry.com, for example, will offer an 11-Day Irish Ancestry Tour that visits Dublin, Cork, County Kerry & Galway in August 2019. This special tour, designed with The Irish Ancestral Research Association, allows for research time in archives/libraries and would be perfectly complemented by a 25 Night British Isles Grand Adventure From Dublin, Ireland to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Or, explore on your own terms with a pre- or post-cruise visit that allows you to study a region in even greater depth. Expand PONANT’s Sep 27, 2019 In the Wake of General MacArthur: The Legacy of World War II cruise, with tours of the cities and countries, reflects your personal history.
Are you adventurous enough to take a mystery trip? One where you won’t know where you’re going, what you’ll see, where you’ll stay or what you’ll be eating? Earlier this year, Intrepid’s first ever trip of this kind, the Uncharted Expedition, sold out virtually overnight with 10 travelers choosing to journey 3,500 kilometers from Kazakhstan to Mongolia reminiscent of the bygone days of Genghis Khan. Imagine your journey on roads not yet mapped by Google and where there is only intermittent electricity and WIFI, a few cold showers and fermented mares’ milk as a treat along the way!
Also finding favor with seasoned travelers for 2019 is the “mystery cruise”. Saga has one such cruise scheduled, and Fred Olsen has three slated this year. Expect to see a sharp rise in popularity of mystery cruises, fueled by people’s sense of adventure and delight in being surprised by the unknown.
Then there is a different kind of mystery, one deeply spiritual in nature: cruise itineraries that provide access to sacred places.
Sacred Places: Spiritual Sites That Can Be Visited Via Cruise Ship
There are more than a hundred cruise itineraries that transport travelers to sacred places – sites of healing, guidance, and divine inspiration across the globe. The significance of these hallowed places cannot be expressed in words or pictures – to understand their impact, the faithful must visit them in person, to experience healing, guidance or draw divine inspiration.
While many of the world’s most sacred sites have historically been inaccessible to all but the hardiest of travelers – those who were able to make arduous overland journeys – travel experts at CruiseCompete say travelers will find that today’s cruise itineraries make many of these locations surprisingly easy to visit.
Consumers come to CruiseCompete to research and book cruise
vacations. More than 1.5 million users have generated close to 4 million
requests from consumers, and agents have delivered almost 17 million quotes
since 2003. They can compare offers from travel agents, see consumer reviews of
agents and agencies responding, then contact travel agents directly for more
information and to book cruises. CruiseCompete is a member of the Family Travel
Association, a leading authority and resource for family travel information and
is home to the Sea Tales 2018 Family Cruise Travel Planner at Travel Resources.
(CruiseCompete is an Iowa limited liability company, is not a travel agency or
owned by a travel agency.)
CruiseCompete CruiseTrends™ offers monthly
stats for an inside look at consumer trends and
what consumers want in cruise vacations.
CruiseCompete received honorable
mention in Travel + Leisure’s “Top 60 Best Apps and Websites for
Travelers” and the site has won praise by the Wall Street Journal (“Best
Cruise Travel Site”), The New York
Times, Kiplinger and The Washington Post.
My 23-year old daughter Jenny and I have carved out two weeks to travel together, something we haven’t been able to do since she graduated high school. Setting our sites on Greece and Croatia, we decide a cruise will let us see the most with our limited time—and still be relaxing. We select a ten-day sailing from Athens to Venice on Windstar Cruises’ 218-passenger Star Breeze motor yacht (www.windstarcruises.com); it maximizes the time in each port, often staying on long after the larger ships depart, and goes places larger ships can’t. Plus, Windstar Cruises’ partnership with James Beard Foundation promises (and delivers) gourmet cuisine.
We fly to Athens two days before the ship’s departure and check into the elegant Grand Bretagne Hotel (www.grandebretagne.gr) in time for a late breakfast at its rooftop terrace restaurant, where the views of the Acropolis are as amazing as the extensive buffet spread, which even includes spanakopita. At 11 a.m., our waitress suggests we look across the street and we catch the formal changing of the guard at the Greek Parliament building. Conveniently located on Syntagma Square, the hotel also is within walking distance of everything we want to see in Athens, and we enjoy being able to stop back “home” in between sightseeing for a cool drink in the lobby or a refreshing dip in the pool.
After settling in, we head to the Acropolis, but lines are long, so we go to the Acropolis Museum at the base of the site. The museum displays original treasures and finds from the Acropolis that were moved inside for safe-keeping. That evening, we join a free 2.5 hour walking tour (www.athensfreewalkingtour.com) with Euphrosyne, an excellent guide who is both informative and entertaining and gives us great touring tips.
Taking her advice, the next morning, we are at the side entrance of the Acropolis at opening and find virtually no line and have the site almost to ourselves for almost an hour, and on our last morning, we take her suggestion and walk up the wooded trails of Philopappu Hill for amazing views of the city. We also love strolling through Plaka, Athens’ old town, especially the picturesque Anafiotika area with its steep narrow streets lined by white-washed houses with brightly painted shutters. It’s especially pretty at night when strings of light twinkle about the small restaurants and shops.
We are sad to leave Athens but excited to board our ship. Our standard cabin is much larger than we expected; there’s a true walk-in closet, a marble bathroom with a full-size tub, and sleeping and living rooms that can be separated by a curtain. We also are happy to find there are no assigned dining times and tables and surprisingly, five different places to dine—plus room service. Throughout our cruise, we enjoy meeting our fellow passengers, and it seems the crew somehow learns everyone’s names almost spontaneously.
The next morning, we are excited to wake up and find our ship docked in the center of Nafplio. We will be here from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. We start with a pre-booked four-hour tour to ancient Epidaurus, where we learn that theater was considered integral to good health in ancient Greece–just one of the fascinating tidbits our guide Elsa shared. Most of the temples and buildings are in ruins, but the Theatre of Epidaurus, among the largest and most beautiful of the ancient theaters, is still in use today. Guides usually demonstrate the near-perfect acoustics, but we are lucky. Just when Jenny and I reach the top row of the theatre, a group of German students stand in the center of the stage and sing, their lovely harmonies reaching us loud and clear.
Back in Nafplio, we accomplish our daily workout at the Venetian-built Palamidi Fortress, which fell to Ottoman control when the architect, who the Venetians neglected to pay, got his come-uppance by showing the Ottomans the way in. The fort is accessible by bus, or via stairs from Old Town; locals tell us there are 999 steps but we lose count! We quickly realize how hard it would have been to conquer. Once scaling the nearly 800-foot outer walls, intruders would reach not one fort, but a maze of enclosures. Areas that seem like they will connect, never actually do. Many times, we follow a path that seems to link to the next area only to reach a huge chasm or high wall, forcing us to retrace our steps. Our frustration is offset by the ever-changing and stunning views of Nafplio, the Aegean Sea, and the surrounding hills.
Old Nafplio, the first capital of the modern Greek state, (from 1823 until 1834, when the capital was moved to Athens) is one of our favorite ports. We visit the site of the first Greek parliament. Saint Spyridon church and the small Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation museum, but what we most enjoy is strolling amid the pretty Venetian architecture, with its characteristic red roofs and colorful windows. We dine at Kastro Karima, tucked into a back street. It has scrumptious moussaka, and at reasonable prices.
Our next two ports of call are the ancient sites of Delphi and Olympia, which served as unifying forces for the many independent city states that made up Ancient Greece. Both were places the ancients would gather to pray, make offerings to the gods and compete in Pan-Hellenic competitions. As at Epidaurus, our Windstar Cruises excursions featured knowledgeable guides who shared insights with our group (about 20) about ancient and modern Greece during bus rides as well as at the sites.
Built on a high mountain slope guarded by steep jagged cliff faces, the site of Delphi is as awe-inspiring for its natural beauty as its temples. The extensive site is best known for the Oracle of Delphi, where people came from around the ancient world seeking advice. The Oracle’s messages often were cryptic and could be interpreted to provide opposing meanings, so accuracy was high.
In ancient Olympia, walking through its open-air park strewn with marble pillars, platforms and statues, our guide reconstructs the site and events of the past. We learn that ancient athletes also cheated by doping and that their traditional race attire was none (nudity) and only men could enter the athletic competitions.
The hills surrounding ancient Olympia are striped with olive groves and vineyards. We see them up close at a complimentary all-ship lunch at Magna Grecia Farm, a family-owned operation producing olive oil and wine. We see how olive oil is produced then have a family-style feast with tastings of olive oil, wine, ouzo, wonderful local sausages, tzatziki and a zesty chicken and rice dish. After lunch, a traditional Greek dance troupe performs and then leads us all in a line dance around the room that seems right out of the movie “Zorba the Greek”.
At Corfu, our last port in Greece, we hit our first bad weather on an island bus tour and walk around the beach in the rain before heading back to Corfu’s Old Town, guarded by two forts. Fortunately, the rain stops as we explore Old Fort and the pretty marina at its base, and then slowly shop our way back to the ship.
Rough seas delay our departure for Kotor, and after taking off, we hit the only rough seas of the trip. I get a bit seasick but once in bed, the rocking is no problem. The next morning is clear and the approach to Kotor through the mountain-framed “fjords” (geologically a once-submerged river-carved canyon) is thrilling. Everyone is on deck, taking photos of gleaming white cliff-top churches and small villages nestled into rocky coves backed by steep mountains. Around a final bend is the walled city of Kotor, its ramparts rising in hairpin-turns to a mountaintop fort.
Picturesque Perast comes into view as we sail through Kotor Bay (photo by Geri Bain)
Before exploring Kotor, we head to the nearby maritime town of Perast and its famed Our Lady of the Rocks, a powder blue domed Catholic Church and museum on a man-made island a short boat ride off shore. According to legend, a lame fisherman was cured by an idol of the Virgin Mary he found at the bottom of the bay. In reverent gratitude, the town built an artificial island over the spot and to this day, sailors make offerings here and in an annual ceremony, fill their boats with rocks to add to the island.
Back in Kotor, we are happy to find that the entire walled Old City of Kotor is a pedestrian zone. Its twisting medieval streets are easy to navigate since all roads lead to the main plaza, Arms Square, with its iconic Clock Tower or the square of the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, consecrated in 1166. The town traces its history to Roman times but it was the Venetians whose influence we see and we enjoy spotting the Winged Lion of St. Mark, symbol of the Republic of Venice emblazoned around the city, especially on its Baroque and Renaissance style palaces.
For our daily workout and photo op, we climb the fortified path to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy where the views of Kotor’s red-roofed Venetian homes and the fjords beyond are amazing. We’d planned to continue on to San Giovanni Castle, a bit higher above the city, but the sun is setting and we return to see the city lights reflected on its marble streets and sidewalk restaurants filling with patrons.
We wake up the next morning at 8 a.m. anchored just off Dubrovnik. We have 12 hours here and have decided to explore it on our own. After breakfast, a five-minute tender shuttles us to the dock right in the heart of the Old Port, where Fort St. John guards one end of the harbor and Fort Revelin, the other. A walled cliffside city, Dubrovnik is stunning for its setting as for its pretty red-roof topped buildings that climb up and down its hilly streets.
The entire Old City is a pedestrian zone and despite massive bombings by Serb and Montenegrin soldiers in 1991, Dubrovnik has rebuilt itself back into the spectacularly frozen-in-time city you see today. No wonder Dubrovnik was selected as the setting for so many famous “Game of Thrones” scenes. We marvel that for a relatively small city, Dubrovnik packs in a lot of museums that can offer fascinating perspectives, often in bite-size 30 to 60-minute visits. Among my favorites was the Jewish Synagogue. (Note, if you plan to walk the city walls and dip in and out of museums as we did, check out the Dubrovnik pass.)
The other thing about the city is its extreme hills. I wish I’d worn a Fitbit because by day’s end, we must have climbed up and down at least sixty flights of stairs following the guard’s walkway around the walls of the city, climbing the stair-stepping streets of the city, and exploring St. Lawrence Fort, which defends one of the ancient harbors from a promontory facing the city walls. The walls, reinforced by towers, forts and bastions, started in the 10th century and improved right up until the 17th century, rise to over 80 feet in places and we make a point of mounting each of them. All those vantage points make for stunning vistas—one more amazing than the next—and a great workout.
Our final stop before Venice is Hvar, and we are only there from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. so we make sure to get up and out early. Our ship anchors a short distance offshore from Hvar, a small gem with its marble streets and Venetian architecture. Despite being a trendy destination these days, it feels like a small town. We see children walking to school and locals chatting in waterfront cafes.
Of course, we have to hike up to the mountaintop Fortica Španjola (Spanish Fortress). Like the town, most of what is standing was built under Venetian rule, which lasted from the 15th to 18th centuries. Then we pick up towels and water at the Windstar launch and walk to a recommended beach, just outside town. The water is calm and refreshing and the beach is beautiful.
The next morning, we are up at 6:30 a.m. so we can be on deck as we cruise into the city of Venice, just as explorers and traders traveling routes like ours had done in the heyday of the Venetian Empire. We are greeted by thick fog and I feared we wouldn’t get to see the sail in. I needn’t have worried. Everything stops when the fog is too thick. After a leisurely breakfast, we wait. Finally, the captain announces we will be sailing into Venice shortly and soon, we are sailing past St. Mark’s Square.
Nafplio, Kotor, Corfu, Dubrovnik and Hvar were all strongly influenced by the Venetian Republic for centuries and by the time we arrive in Venice, we recognize the grand buildings, richly-decorated churches and marble streets that characterize a Venetian city. Each port is stunning, but as we take in the splendor of the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Square, and the ornate architectural details at every turn, it is obvious that Venice was the capital of the Venetian Republic in every way.
Looking back at our cruise, Jenny and I are happy with our choice of ship and itinerary and marvel that we could comfortably explore nine different ports in ten days. We never visited the small casino and apart from the well-attended, informative port talks, our favorite entertainment was the lively Crew Show. Like the ship, the show was sophisticated yet informal, mirroring much of what we enjoyed about Windstar. We also enjoyed getting to know our fellow passengers; while they tended to be more my age than Jenny’s, the ship’s friendly, low-key ambience was just right for a mother-daughter cruise.
Nantucket, a porkchop-shaped island just 14 by 3½-miles with just a few thousand inhabitants, hangs 30 miles out to sea off Massachusetts’ mainland. That creates a special kind of isolation and 350 years ago, made for a special incubator for culture and industry.
“Nantucket has been a microcosm of America for 350 years, a magnet and unique laboratory for some of our most powerful impulses…People around the globe knew of Nantucket whalers,” says the narrator of a documentary, “Nantucket” by Ric Burns. Nantucket, he says, has a history of reinventing itself.
“Nantucket was created by sea. In as little as 400 years, it will be taken by the sea. We are on borrowed time.”
That alone sets up the drama before our visit to Nantucket. The documentary is an evening’s activity aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe, and now, we sail into Nantucket’s harbor in a dense fog, on the last day of our week-long voyage that has taken us to the New England islands.
This tiny place, we learn, became a global powerhouse because of whaling, which itself required technological innovations and produced a revolution in the way people lived: “Nantucket was the first global economic engine America would know.”
Indeed, here in Nantucket, we realize how revolutionary candlelight was, extending people’s days into the darkness of night. “Nantucket sperm oil made the Industrial Revolution happen.”
It also proves to be a lesson in the importance of globalization and immigration.
“In 1820, Nantucket entered its golden age. The entire Pacific its backyard, America as world power.” The square-rigged whaling ships we think of as quaint today “were state of art, decades into development, a perfect factory ship to render oil. They could go anywhere, withstand horrible conditions, serve as the home for dozens of men for three to four years at a time. They were vessels of exploration, the space ships of their day, they could travel to unknown worlds…Nantucketers were astronauts of their day.”
But here on Nantucket, we are introduced to another aspect of the story: Quakerism and feminism.
Whaling, it turns out, became a thriving industry because of the Quakers who settled Nantucket, peacefully coexisting with the Wampanoags who had lived here for thousands of years (their numbers were decimated, though, by the diseases the Europeans brought). The Wampanoags knew how to harpoon whales that were beached and introduced the English to whaling.
But it was the Quakers’ open-mindedness, their values of modest living, hard work and practice of reinvesting money into the industry rather than on lavish living that produced the innovations. Even more significantly, Nantucket could become so successful in whaling because of the Quaker sense of egalitarianism, seeing women as having equal ability. How else could Nantucket men go off for years at a time, leaving their home, business and community to be run by the women they left behind (one street is known as Petticoat Row because of all the women-owned businesses)? Quaker women, including Lucretia Coffin Mott (who was from Nantucket) became leaders of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.
So it is no wonder that Nantucket enabled a woman, Maria Mitchell, to thrive.
Born in 1818 on Nantucket, Maria Mitchell became America’s first woman astronomer (famous for discovering a comet in 1847, which was named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”), the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850). She was Vassar’s first professor of astronomy, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, and active in the Women’s Suffrage movement.
We first are introduced to her on “Gail’s Tours” of the island, then when we visit the Whaling Museum which has a whole gallery devoted to her, and after, I am so fascinated with her, I follow a self-guided “Walking in the Footsteps of Maria Mitchell” which takes me to the Quaker Meeting House. (Ironically, Mitchell was too skeptical and outspoken for the Quakers and “written out” so she joined the Unitarian Church instead, which today shares its building with the Congregation Shirat Ha Yam, “a pluralistic Jewish congregation”).
Nantucket has a land area of about 45 square miles (about half the size of Martha’s Vineyard), yet seems larger, somehow, to get around. The best way to experience Nantucket when you only have a day and when mobility may be somewhat limited, is to take an island tour.
So we take the launch boat into Straight Wharf (this is the only stop on the New England Islands cruise where we anchor instead of dock), and walk along the cobblestone streets about half-mile to where Gail Nickerson Johnson has her van parked in front of the Visitor Center.
The first impression of Nantucket is how much it looks like a movie set with its quaint shops and cobblestone streets. Indeed, the one square-mile National Historic District is the largest concentration of antebellum structures in the United States. I take note of a mural on the side of a building that shows how many miles from places like Iceland, Pitcairn and Cape Town are from Nantucket, as if the center of the world.
We have been recommended to Gail’s Tours, and what a find this is. Gail, it turns out, is a 6th generation Nantucket native, descended from the Nickersons (her family line includes the Gardners, Coffins, Foulgers), was raised here, and knows just about everybody and every house we pass. She took over the tour business from her mother, who, she says, used to summer here before marrying her father. Her mother used to take visiting friends and relatives around in a woodie, and then got the idea to turn it into a tourist business, which she ran for 40 years.
Gail points out all the local sights:” I remember when….” “We used to ….,” “When we were kids….” “That used to be ….”
She notes that some 10,000 to 15,000 people live on Nantucket year-round, quite a jump from the 3,000 people who lived here year-round when she was growing up.
Gail jokes that Nantucket is on shaky ground – it is predicted to be under water in 400 years time. “In 300, I’m outta here.”
We pass all the important sights: the island’s oldest house, built as a wedding present for Jethro Coffin and Mary Gardner Coffin in 1686. It has been restored after lightening struck the house, splitting it in two; the Old Windmill (1746); the Quaker cemetery where there some 5,000 people are buried but few headstones, so it looks more like a rolling field; the Maria Mitchell Observatory; cranberry bogs; the Life Saving Museum.
She points to the house that Frank Bunker Gilbreth owned – the efficiency expert depicted in his son’s book, “Cheaper by the Dozen.” “They found among his papers Morse code for how to take bath in 1 ½ minutes.” The family still owns the house. She points to where Peter Benchley (“Jaws”) lived, the house where John Steinbeck stayed when he wrote “East of Eden.”
We stop at Sankaty Head Lighthouse so we can get out for a closer look. The 70-foot tall lighthouse was built of brick in 1850 and automated in 1965; its beacon can be seen 26 miles away. It had to be moved and was re-lighted in its new location, just next to the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Course in November 2007.
The tour finishes just around the corner from the Nantucket Whaling Museum. We pick up phenomenal sandwiches from Walter’s, have lunch on benches outside the museum.
We had been to the excellent New Bedford Whaling Museum and now come to the renowned Nantucket Whaling Museum. Interestingly, the presentations and focus are very different – so the two are like bookends that add to the telling of this dramatic story.
We arrive as a historian is describing the hunt for whales, and then join the docent-led highlights tour, which is sensational.
The sperm whale oil, she says, “is a light source, power source and lubricant and could be used in winter. Artificial light in winter revolutionized life for 3 to 4 months of the year. It was used throughout the United States and Europe, prized the world over.”
The earliest whaling industry was created by Quakers, who were austere, not vain, and reinvested income into growing the industry. Portraits were not permitted (the portraits that decorate the entire wall are made later), but by the 19th century, they were not practicing Quakerism. She points to one of the earliest portraits which, without a tradition of art education in colonial America, was probably made by a housepainter, and probably an authentic representation of her likeness without artifice. She has one blue and one brown eye, which was a genetic trait among some of the earliest Nantucket settlers.
She points to a portrait of Susan Veeder, one of the women who accompanied their husbands on a whaling voyage. She kept records of the day-to-day life. “Her journals are anthropological, whereas the men’s journals were mainly about weather, tides and number of whales caught. She is the reason we know so much about life on whaling ship.” The docent adds that Veeder delivered a baby daughter while on board, but it died. “While British whalers had to have a surgeon on board, American whalers were not required to. The ship had a medical kit with numbered vials and instructions. But if they ran out of #11 vial, a captain might just add #5 and #6 together.”
Another painting shows a wife standing beside her husband seated at a desk. “It’s a rare image. Women had roles in Nantucket – they ran the town, home and business. Her husband was a whaling captain who brought back artifacts; she set up a display in house and charged admission fee and told stories. This was the first museum on the island. The contents went to the Atheneum and now are part of the Historical society collection.”
She points to a jaw bone that is the height of the room. It would have come from 80-ft whale such as rammed the Essex (the event that inspired the story of “Moby Dick”).”For people of Nantucket (most of whom had never seen a whale) would have been seen as a sea monster. For the captain to make the decision to keep this onboard for two years or so of the journey, taking up precious space on ship, speaks to how important it was.”
We go into the part of the museum that was originally a candle factory, built by the Mitchell family immediately following the Great Fire of 1846, where there is the only surviving spermaceti lever press left in the world.
She explains, “When the ship returned to Nantucket harbor, filled with as many as 2000 barrels of oil, each holding 31.5 gallons apiece, the oil would be put in storage.
“They would wait for winter to begin processing because only highest quality oil would remain liquid in winter; then process the lowest quality in spring and summer. They kept the lowest quality in Nantucket and sold first and second pressings.
“The best oil was used for lighthouses. What was left was used for spermaceti candles.These were the best candles – they burned with no odor, no smoke, no drip. They were prized throughout US and Europe. They changed the quality of life because of having a reliable light source.”
At its height, there were 36 candle factories in Nantucket.
You become aware of hearing sea chanties in the background.
She leads us up to the second-floor Scrimshaw gallery (those who have difficulty with steps can ask to use an elevator). “It was a way for captains to keep their sailors entertained and occupied (so they didn’t get into fights). They would soak whale teeth, burnish with shark skin (like sandpaper); sharks would be attracted to ship when processed whale – and they would kill sharks for food and use the skin.
“Sailors may be illiterate. They would trace designs from newspaper images and advertising. Victorian woman a common subject for scrimshaw because they were commonly used in fashion ads they traced.”
Some scrimshaw was functional – like pie crimpers. The men would fashion corset stays as tokens of love (they were worn close to heart). Only captains would have the space to make swifts – tools to wind skein of yarn.
Today, she says, the scrimshaw is priceless.
She notes that the Essex was not the only ship that was sunk by a whale: the Ann Alexander also was sunk by whale, but the sailors were rescued the next day and returned home.
“Another ship in the Pacific found a whale with a harpoon from the Ann Alexander in it – killed the whale and made scrimshaw out of its teeth, known as the Ann Alexander teeth” that we see here in the gallery.
There is a small room devoted to Essex story, and we come upon a storyteller retelling the story of the Essex, sunk by a whale – the event that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” – from the point of view of the actual events as documented in Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, “In the Heart of the Sea” which ended with the men so desperate, they committed cannibalism.
The cabin boy on the Essex who 30 years later wrote his memoir, was Thomas Nickerson (one of Gail’s ancestors? I wonder).
This was the first known incident of an unprovoked whale ramming a ship. But, he says, they now believe that it was hammering to quickly repair one of the chase boats used when they go after the whale, that caused the whale to charge.
Melville, it turns out, only visited Nantucket for the first time in 1852, after he wrote Moby Dick.
Most interesting is the room devoted to Maria Mitchell’s Legacy, where we are introduced to her biography and achievements.
The Nantucket Historical Association which operates the museum also operates several other attractions which are included on an “all access ticket”($20/adult, $18/senior/student, $5/youth 6-17): the Oldest House & Kitchen Garden (the 1686 Coffin House); the 1746 Old Mill (you go inside and meet the miller); the Old Gaol (1806), the Quaker Meeting House (1836), the Fire Hose Cart House (1886, the last remaining 19th century fire hose cart on the island); and Greater Light.
Nantucket is dramatic, of course, because of the whaling industry – an invention that revolutionized life by bringing light into winter’s darkness and what the oil meant to enabling the Industrial Revolution.
But for me, the most fascinating thing is being introduced to Maria Mitchell – we are shown important sites associated with her on the island tour and at the museum. I am so inspired that I follow a self-guided walking tour that is delightful to give structure to exploring the town.
I meet her again in a storefront display dedicated to her, and then follow the Maria Mitchell Foundation sites: the Nantucket Atheneum (she became the first librarian, at age 18); the Pacific Bank where her father was president; the Unitarian Universalist Church which she joined after leaving the Quakers; Mitchell’s House where she was born, the Observatory built after her death in 1908 and the natural history museum operated by the Maria Mitchell Foundation (mariamitchell.org).
This leads me to the Quaker Meeting House where I have a most unexpected – and fascinating – discussion of Quaker religion sitting in a pew.
“Quakers were the social cement of the community.” You couldn’t do business without being Quaker, but you could pretend to be Quaker.
“Quakers were seen as activists, the hippies of their day,” because they were free thinking and were egalitarian in their treatment of women and people of other races.
The Quakers were considered heretics and banned by the Puritans because they believed in an “inner light”. They refused to pay taxes to the church or accept authority, or take oaths (for this reason, they couldn’t become doctors or lawyers). It went counter to the control mandated by the Puritans, Anglicans.
“They would show up naked at an Anglican Church,” she tells me which sparks a thought: why isn’t Quakerism being revived today? It seems more consistent with modern-day approaches to organized religion.
Most heretical of all: they did not require those they sought to convert to accept Jesus. “They did not require personal knowledge or acceptance of Jesus, just to find God through Inner Light.”
“The Quakers were hanged, branded, their noses split.”
But they found safe haven in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, because in 1661, Charles II ordered that all trials of Quakers had to take place in England. “They were safe in America since they wouldn’t be shipped back to England.”
And over time, the Quakers toned down the “dangerous” rhetoric.
“They were excellent businessmen. They valued education (to this day): boys were educated to 13 or 14 when they were expected to join the whaling ships; but girls were educated to 17 or 18, so they had more formalized education than men.”
The women, therefore, were left in charge of home, businesses and community when the men left for their whaling voyages. Centre Street was nicknamed Petticoat Row because women owned all the businesses.
On the other hand, Maria Mitchell must have stepped over the line, because in 1843, even though her father was an elder, her “skepticism and outspokenness resulted in her leaving Quaker Meeting and being ‘written out’ by the Society.”
The decline of Quakers in Nantucket followed the decline of the whaling business. A great fire in 1846 destroyed much of Nantucket’s infrastructure and the livelihoods of 8 out of 10 Nantucketers. When gold was found in California, in 1849, scores of whaling ships sailed for San Francisco and were sunk in the harbor there rather than return; when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859 as a cheaper, easier fuel, scores of Nantucketers went there. The ships, which had to be built bigger and bigger for the longer journeys, had trouble coming into Nantucket’s harbor because of a build-up of silt. Then the Civil War came – more than 300 Nantucket men joined the Union and 73 were killed; the whaling ships were easy targets for the Confederates. The last whaling ship sailed from Nantucket in 1869.
“By that point, Nantucket well out of picture,” the “Nantucket” documentary notes. “The city in the middle of the ocean was evacuated. It went from a population of 10,000 to 3000 in a matter of decades, like a sleeping beauty castle, waiting 100 years with only the memories of whaling.”
Now, the docent says, there is only one full-time Nantucket resident who is Quaker. “We get 5 to 8 people for Sunday meeting.” During that time, people sit and meditate; they do not even read a Bible.
I stop in at the Research Library where there is a stunning exhibition of needlepoint on display.
There is so much more to see; I make notes for my return visit:
Cisco Brewers (5 Bartlett Farm Road, 508-325-5929, http://ciscobrewers.com/ . The brewery operates its own free shuttle, noon to 6:30 pm daily on the half-hour, from Visitor Services at 25 Federal Street downtown.)
Bartlett’s Farm (33 Bartlett’s Farm Road, 508-228-9403, https://bartlettsfarm.com/; located about 10-minute walk from Cisco Brewers.)
The ever-shifting sandbars lurking beneath the waters around Nantucket have caused between 700 and 800 shipwrecks, making lighthouses necessary navigational aids. Besides the Sankaty Head Lighthouse which we have seen there are two others that are worthwhile visiting:
Brant Point Lighthouse, standing at the entrance to Nantucket harbor, is the second oldest lighthouse in North America, first built in 1746 (the oldest is Boston Harbor Light c. 1716). Over the years, it has been moved and rebuilt more times than any other lighthouse in the country. The present lighthouse is the ninth one built on Brant Point. It is 26 feet tall wooden tower topped with a fifth-order Fresnel lens that was built in 1901. Still in active use, it is owned by the US Coast Guard and closed to the public, but you can visit the grounds (www.nps.gov/nr/travel/maritime).
Great Point Lighthouse (also called Nantucket Lighthouse), New England’s most powerful lighthouse, sits at the extreme northeast end of the island. A wooden tower was quickly built and the station with a light was activated in October 1784 (and destroyed by fire in 1816). The following year a stone tower was erected which stood until toppled in a storm in March 1984. The Lighthouse was rebuilt again in 1986, the stone tower was built to replicate the old one, and still remains in operation today. Modern additions include solar panels to recharge the light’s batteries, and a sheet pile foundation and 5-foot thick concrete mat to help withstand erosion.
Nantucket also offers miles upon miles of beach open to all. And thanks in large part to the early efforts of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, nearly half of the island’s 30,000 acres are protected. A network of beautiful cycling paths wind through the island.
Contact the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, Zero Main Street, Nantucket, MA 02554, 508-228-3643.
Now it is time to return to the Grand Caribe. (they make it very easy to step from the launch boat onto the stern of the ship through an open bay).
I’m back in time for the farewell cocktail reception, an open bar with delicious hors d’oeuvres. Dinner is lobster tail or prime rib (both fantastic); vanilla gelato or crème brule.
We are eating dinner when the fog starts rolling in most dramatically. Within minutes, it is difficult to see even the boats anchored nearby. The foghorn blasts every few minutes – which is funny as we sit in the lounge watching the movie, “Overboard,” when the blasts seem coordinated. (Jasmine, the cruise director, has opted for this romantic comedy instead of the movie “Perfect Storm.”)
It will be a nine-hour sail back to Warren, Rhode Island where the Blount Small Ship Adventures is based. Captain Patrick Moynihan tells us to anticipate three to four foot seats for about an hour when we reach Rhode Island waters.
Each time I visit Newport, Rhode Island, the guided tours of these Gilded Age mansions get better and better, more immersive into the lives upstairs and downstairs, more intriguing, and the relevance to society today more apparent. The gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this great since Cornelius Vanderbilt II built his palatial summer “cottage,” The Breakers.
Newport is still a playground for the rich – it is the reason it is the home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and considered the sailing capital of the country, why it is so associated with classic cars – but the interesting thing is you don’t have to be rich to play, too.
This most recent visit to Newport comes as a port of call on the second day of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ week-long voyage to New England islands. We have a full day to explore, and sailing in gives a very different perspective.
We also are able to experience Newport from the perspective of how well the destination accommodates visitors with mobility issues.
Our ship, Grand Caribe, docks at Fort Adams State Park, “America’s largest coastal fortification,” a short stroll to a launch or a water taxi to the “downtown”.
Many of our fellow passengers are taking the island tour that the ship offers, which will include a stop at The Breakers, and the cruiseline had also arranged a 2-hour sail aboard an America’s Cup classic yacht (which had to be canceled because of weather). But I have some particular goals for our day in Newport.
We are met by Andrea McHugh from Discover Newport who has organized an itinerary to maximize our time gives us our own island tour (as well as the gossip of which tech billionaire has just bought which house, and how Jay Leno, who visited and attended events at the new Audrain Automobile Museum (which we will visit), passed an oceanfront mansion he liked and bought it on the spot, and now is seen regularly tooling around).
We drive along the magnificent 10-mile long Ocean Drive with its scenic views and rocky shore, and pass the driveway into Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss estate where Jackie married John Kennedy. It used to be open to the public with a fantastic exhibit of the Kennedys but was acquired by Peter Kiernan (notable for the Robin Hood Foundation, funded by John Jr.), and is no longer open.
We pass Beechwood, a mansion once owned by the Astors and for many years, where actors played their parts in period dress. It is now owned by Larry Elllison (Oracle), who, we are told, is planning to open part of the mansion as an art museum.
We pass Belcourt, once owned by Oliver H. P. Belmont (who became the second husband of Alva Vanderbilt), which was purchased in 2012, by Carolyn Rafaelian, who has spent a considerable sum on a multi-year restoration and has reopened it for public tours.
We arrive at The Breakers, probably the most famous (and emblematic) of the Newport Gilded Age mansions that line Bellevue Avenue. It has a new visitor center which is really well done – barely visible from the street, it blends in wonderfully architecturally while affording a very comfortable (air conditioned) place to pick up tickets (take advantage of the multi-ticket options offered by The Preservation Society, which operates 10 of these glittering Newport Mansions, each with special exhibitions and presentations (see NewportMansions.org), refresh at a delightful café (sandwiches, $9.95), and utilize accessible restrooms (before, it was difficult for people with mobility issues to access a bathroom on property).
Each time I visit, I find new things to appreciate and understand– audio-guides, for example, which replace the scheduled docent-led tours so let you tour at your own pace, are endlessly fascinating with opportunities to click on specialized topics. (A free app, Newport Mansions, let you download the commentary on a smart phone even when you aren’t touring the property.)
(The audio-guide lets you know that people who can’t climb the stairs can ask a docent to escort them upstairs in an elevator.)
Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (the grandson of “The Commodore,” the founder of the fortune, who turned a ferry boat into a shipping empire into a railroad empire), this breathtakingly grand, eye-popping, 70-room Italian Renaissance “cottage,” designed by Richard Morris Hunt, replaced a wooden structure that burned down. This was 1895, and the United States was jockeying for a position as an industrial power on the global stage. Hunt, the commentary relates, had a vision for an architecture expressing an American Renaissance, one that was classic, grand in scale, but that which reflected the hope and optimism of America.
It is mind-boggling to recall when you see the gilding, the carefully carved wood, the marble, the artwork, that this palace (they called it a “cottage”) was only used about eight weeks of the year, during “the season.” The Breakers would have had 40 staff in summer (Newport had 2,000 servants, mostly immigrants).
The Breakers is as much an architectural and artistic treasure as a touchstone to social, cultural and political currents of the Gilded Age.
We learn about the family and the social structure of Newport: Mrs. Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt’s bedroom, for example, also functioned as an office from which she ran the home.
Newport was actually run by women, we learn. These grand homes were designed to present their wealthy daughters (heiresses) to be snapped up for a favorable marriage.
Dressing was important. Women would have to change something like seven times a day (a riding habit, tea gown, bathing outfit, tennis, golf, sailing). Newport was the first place women played outdoor sports; whole new fashions were created.
The Breakers had 15 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms (we see one bathtub, carved from a single block of marble that was so cold, it had to be fully filled and drained several times before it would be warm enough to bathe in.)
We see the servants corridors, hidden closets and back stairs. “Female servants were invisible.”
When we arrive in daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom, we learn that she was upset to learn she was an heiress. She preferred to be an artist, and became a sculptor, an art collector and patron and, in 1931, founded the Whitney Museum. (Here, I click the audio guide for more detail on specific things: Gertrude was on the forefront of the New Woman, an educated girl. The idea to become an artist came to her in a dream.)
We come to the mezzanine overlooking the grand staircase. (People who cannot climb stairs can ask to be escorted to an elevator.) “Gilded Age Newport was built, managed, and maintained by women. It was the backdrop for the presentation of women” at a time when a woman’s fortune depended upon making a favorable marriage.
We learn that the grand staircase stairs were built (and even rebuilt) to be two inches shorter, so the young debutantes could be presented in their gowns without fear of tripping.
At this portion of the tour, you can click on the audio guide to hear more detail about how the Vanderbilt’s attained such wealth and privilege (but it is really, really hard to keep the players straight without a scorecard – so many have the same name like British royalty).
The Commodore left the vast majority of his enormous fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt (“Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it,” Cornelius Vanderbilt said.) Though he outlived his father by just eight years, in that time William doubled the Vanderbilt wealth from $100 million to $200 million.
In the oddest quote on the audio-guide, William Henry Vanderbilt explains why he sold controlling stock of the Vanderbilt empire to a syndicate headed by JP Morgan: “The care of $200 million is too great a load for any brain or back to bear. It is enough to kill a man. I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with the terrible burden.” The commentary adds, “Without a single visionary leader like the Commodore, there was no one to invest in the next new technology. Automobiles and airplanes replaced the railroads, the once vast fortune was split and shared among generations of descendants.”
When we visit the kitchen, we get to appreciate some of the modern innovations of the house. The first Breakers burned down so when Cornelius II rebuilt it, he had the kitchen separated from house and no burners. Zinc, the stainless steel of its day, covered the worktable. There was a separate, smaller room which could be kept cool, for preparing pastry.
It is worthwhile to appreciate that as we see the trappings of obscene wealth, privilege and power, we also get to appreciate that the servants – who were mainly immigrants – saw their position in these mansions as improvements, and many were able to embrace the American Dream and move up in station and class. The Breakers’ chef, we learn, started as a kitchen boy and became known as the Omelette King.
The Butler’s pantry, a two-story affair, had a safe for the butler to lock the silver away. The butler, we are told, was like the captain of ship.
Leaving The Breakers, we walk down to the Cliff Walk, the most visited attraction in Rhode Island, and for good reason. This is a delightful walkway along the cliffs (mostly paved and accessible for someone who uses a cane or, as I urge instead, hiking sticks), behind the grand mansions such as The Breakers, and free to enjoy. It extends 3.5 miles all the way to Doris Duke’s Rough Point (where the walkway becomes more scrappy). Today, we only get a taste of it, in order to conserve time and energy.
If The Breakers is about patriarchal wealth, power and privilege, Marble House, built before The Breakers by Cornelius II’s sister-in-law, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, tells the story of burgeoning feminism and what happens when a smart, ambitious woman has few outlets for her vast talents beyond making an advantageous marriage.
Marble House (which we reach by hopping Newport’s delightful trolley-style bus) was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed The Breakers). Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House was built between 1888-1892 at a cost of $11 million of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. When it was finished, William Kissam Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s grandson, gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present.
Alva built Marble House to be “a cottage like nothing Newport had ever seen.” As it turns out, Alva Vanderbilt was also like nothing Newport had never seen.
The Gothic Room featured an important Gothic collection from Europe, which Alva purchased “en bloc” – the whole caboodle. “She considered herself equal to European collectors but didn’t want to collect over generations.” The room was designed and executed in Paris – then reassembled here piece by piece.
At a time before there were public museums, this room became a private museum.
The most revealing room into Alva’s soul is the library (the “morning room”), where you see photos of Alva’s children and a portrait of Harold, born when her oldest, Consuelo was 7, who came back one day to find she had a baby brother and was told “God had sent him to us.”
The room is Alva’s feminist declaration, decorated with images of goddesses representing beauty, wealth and power. She wove into the frame and the fabric of the room images of women’s accomplishment – women holding a quill pen, Cleo, the Greek muse of history, female images of learning and the arts – the four corners showing (mythical) women in chemistry, botany, astronomy.
“In education, women have made tremendous strides,” she said. “It is not so long since women freed themselves from their man-made belief that it was unwomanly for a woman to have an idea of her own.”
She also said, “A man’s brain is not half a brain and we are the other half. Blending of the two will make a better whole.”
Her bedroom also was a display of the power she coveted – a bed on a throne-like platform, and images of Athena – goddess of wisdom and war.In this period, though, she saw social standing – that is, marriage to wealth – as a woman’s only means to power and independence. She applied this to her daughter, Consuelo, and raised the child to marry royalty.
Consuelo seems to have been Alva’s obsessive focus. You hear how she was groomed to be married off to European royalty – from childhood forced to wear a steel rod from her neck to waist with a strap around her shoulders, to force her to sit up straight.
From her quotes, Consuelo seems to be fully aware of how she was being dominated by her mother, yet was a dutiful daughter, very close to her mother and understanding. We visit her austere room decorated by her mother which, she says, “reflected in my mother’s love of me.”
We see the guest room – the only one in this fabulous mansion – decorated in rose silk, with an 18th century bed. The most famous guest was, of course, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo’s intended. We learn there is only one guest room in the house because people who would visit the house either had their own “cottage,” rented for the season or stayed in a hotel. “Marble House is built for the family.”
Consuelo “reluctantly accepted a proposal from the Duke of Marlborough.” She was one of the “Dollar Princesses,” American heiresses who married foreign royalty.”Consuelo Vanderbilt not the first or the last, but she was the best known.”
These marriages, “were a melding of the old world and the new world. They enabled royalty to maintain property and palaces for another generation.”
Indeed, the Gilded Salon – literally painted in 22 carat gold, the very epitome of Gilded Age – had a featured role in Duke’s marriage proposal.
But after Consuelo was married off to British royalty, Alva acted for herself, divorcing William K in 1895.
My favorite quote from the audio guide, “I was the first of my set to marry a Vanderbilt and the first to get divorced – but not the last.” Alva Erskine Smith of Alabama felt herself a pioneer for her class, a female knight reassuring others. “Mine was the first, but the first of many.”
She ditched William K. Vanderbilt to marry her husband’s best friend, Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt.
After Belmont’s death, Alva reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs. She became active and a major donor to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, holding rallies in 1909 at Marble House.
She raised money for the cause by opening Marble House to the public: “Shop girls could mingle with socialites” for the price of a $5 ticket (which would have been equivalent to $500 in today’s money).
Alva insisted, “Women shouldn’t marry until we get vote,” a pronouncement considered hypocritical for a twice-married woman.
Following her mother’s example, after 26 years as Duchess of Marlborough living in Blenheim Palace, Consuelo ended her loveless marriage in 1921, giving him $2.5 million a year, and married “for love” a French aviator, Jacques Balsan. (More about these personal relationships in a fantastic photo gallery in the basement.)
In stark contrast to the grand (albeit austere) bedroom that Consuelo occupied, her brothers’ rooms were tiny and spartan; Willy K Jr.’s room was occupied by Marble House superintendent, William Gilmour, who joined the household when he was 16 to be Willy K’s companion.
We visit a trophy room (that had been converted from two dressing rooms that were between Alva’s bedroom and Consuelo’s), that recognizes sons William K., Jr.’s role in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America (he created the Vanderbilt Cup auto races and built the Vanderbilt Parkway which starts across from where he had a home in Lake Success); and Harold Stirling, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times and invented the game of contract bridge. Notably, as chairman of the board of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Harold supported integration.”He wanted to be associated with positive, progressive thinking.”
In the basement kitchen (capable of feeding 100), we see yet another side of Alva in a quoted segment complaining “how the rich are exploited. When a shopkeeper learned my address, he said he made mistake of the price and added 50%.” This at a time when she paid a French chef (after all, you had to have a French chef), the massive sum of $10,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today).
We see in the cupboard silver trays etched with the children’s names and china made with “Vote for Women.”
In Marble House, too, people who have difficulty climbing stairs can ask to use an elevator, and the docents will find a place to sit and rest, as necessary.
In summer, the Preservation Society has 10 properties open, all with distinctive presentations and exhibits.
Rosecliff, the 1902 “fantasy in terra-cotta”, is presenting “Bohemian Beauty” celebrating the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, personified by Oscar Wilde who visited Newport twice, with furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, glass, silver, paintings and clothing (thru Nov 4).
In addition, there are the homes and heritage sites operated by Newport Restoration Foundation including Rough Point and Whitehorne Museum (51 Touro St., Newport, RI 02840, 401–849–7300, newportrestoration.org).
Tennis, Classic Cars
Between The Breakers and Marble House, we take in some of Newport’s other distinctive attractions:
The International Tennis Hall of Fame, which features the original grass court where American tennis began. The museum features 2,000 artifacts spanning hundreds of years of tennis history (such as the patent for the game of tennis signed by Queen Victoria in 1874), displayed in redesigned galleries with some interactive exhibits. One of the newest, most novel exhibits features a hologram of tennis legend Roger Federer who offers the top 10 reason why he loves tennis. The Hall of Fame honors hundreds of the most accomplished champions, inducted since 1954. After touring the museum, you can explore the seven-acre historic grounds of what the Vanderbilts’ would have known as the Newport Casino (the Tiffany clocktower and Shingle style building was originally developed by architects McKim, Mead & White in 1880), grass courts of the Bill Talbert Stadium and newly built indoor courts (you can even rent time to play on its grass courts). Here, too, we are able to request the use of an elevator to get up to the exhibits on the second floor. (194 Bellevue Avenue, www.tennisfame.com).
Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars (every one in working condition), from 1899 to modern day, as well as special events. Ever changing exhibits display 15 to 20 cars at a time around a theme. We had just missed the “Muscle Car Madness” exhibit featuring cars of the 1950s and 1970s, accompanied with surf boards and original art.) On view now are some intriguing cars I had never seen before: Messerschmidt, which after World War II when Germans were no longer allowed to build airplanes, used airplane parts to create a micro-car that basically looks like a cockpit with wheels. A French version is also on view. “They aren’t great to drive,” says the young docent who drove it and says all the cars on display have to be in working condition. (Audrain Automobile Museum, 222 Bellevue Avenue, 401-856-4420, audrainautomuseum.org)
We enjoy a marvelous lunch at Annie’s bistro café (176 Bellevue Ave., anniesnewport.com) – elegant dining in a casual atmosphere and the best New England clam chowder anywhere –before hopping a trolley-style bus for a short ride to Marble House (you can see the schedule on googlemaps.com on your smartphone).
Andrea returns us to the Grande Caribe, where it is too late to explore inside the fort, but I walk along the Bay Walk (a 2.5 mile loop with gorgeous views of Narrangansett Bay and Newport Harbor) before returning to the ship for the cocktail hour and dinner. (Blount Small Ship Adventures, 800-556-7450, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com).
This was what you could do with one full day in Newport. There is so much more to do, and so deserving of a return multi-day visit. Top on my list: Doris Duke’s Rough Point (newportrestoration.org); Touro Synagogue and Loeb Visitors Center (tourosynagogue.org), Redwood Library and Athenaeum (opened in 1750 and has a collection of more than 200,000 titles, www.redwoodlibrary.org), and The National Museum of American Illustration (americanillustration.org), to list but a few.
See more and plan your visit: Discover Newport, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 800-326-6030, 401-849-8048, www.discovernewport.org.
We belong to the backpack generation that bought a Eurail pass and traveled around the continent with “Europe on $5 A Day” as our Bible. No once-in-a-lifetime, “If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium” grand tour for us, travel has been integral part of our lifestyle, forming a worldview that bursts the borders of our own provincial anchors.
But we are reaching a point where one or both have limitations. Travel can be physically challenging. Still, we crave the excitement of discovery, the adventure of new experiences, serendipitous encounters, that mental and physical exhilaration of travel.
A perfect prescription is small-ship cruising. There are now several cruise companies operating a score of small-ships that ply rivers, canals, seaways and some designed to tackle the pounding waves of oceans have arisen, and carry us directly into ports, minimizing the hassle of travel and maximizing the enjoyment. And an ideal destination to explore is America itself – the port cities, towns and islands that harbor fascinating history, natural wonders and cultural charms. What is more, the cruises are easy to access, avoid many of the hassles of foreign travel and long airplane flights, and allay any concern about getting timely medical attention if necessary.
We are just back from Blount Small Ship Adventures’ week-long cruise of New England islands – a trip that could only be accomplished with a ship that enabled visits to places you might normally visit individually but woven together in one fantastic itinerary: Newport, New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket – destinations that offer wonder and interest and importance to the discovery, exploration and development of America as the towns you visit along the Danube.
The voyage proves ideal for accommodating people who have physical limitations (not recommended for wheelchair-bound, though), ideal for a three-generation reunion of 13 family members coming together from Dallas and Nashville to share this Yankee adventure; ideal for a couple where one is blind; ideal for a daughter traveling with her mother who walks with a cane; ideal for me and my brother who also has somewhat limited mobility. Indeed, the passengers come from as far as California, and as close as Boston; one couple had taken Blount’s cruise to Guatemala and Belize, another is on their third New England Islands cruise with Blount.
The Grande Caribe is very accommodating for people with somewhat limited mobility (there are even stair lifts for those who cannot do stairs) – and an itinerary that gives maximum amount of time to enjoy each port with minimal hassle, while allowing for passengers to be as active or as sedentary as they liked. It is unpretentious and comfortable, having everything you would need.
Each of the New England destinations in this itinerary is a jewel, but can only be visited in this compressed amount of time by cruiseship – cutting out the point-to-point driving (traffic!), ferries, parking, packing/repacking, checking in/out. Rather, every minute of this trip is part of our voyage, our vacation experience. Significantly, all the sights we visit – the grand mansions, museums, historical sites – are accommodating for people who have difficulty climbing steps. (I’m seeing many more people using hiking sticks in place of canes or walkers to get around.)
We sail in before breakfast, and in each port but Nantucket (where we use a launch service), we are at a dock so we can come and go as we please all day long. We depart in the night, so we have a full day to explore.
The cruise line offers various shore excursions (island tours and such offered at very reasonable cost), and on some itineraries, has bikes or kayaks to rent.
Our strategy is to take an island tour, then visit a couple of attractions. When one of us has enough and wants to relax, it is easy to return to the ship while the other continues to explore.
Because of bad storms at sea, Captain Patrick Moynihan makes a command decision to change around the itinerary, which otherwise would have gone first to Nantucket, which is 30 miles out to sea where there are 10-foot swells. He warns that it is possible we won’t be able to visit Nantucket at all. But we hold out hope.
No one second-guesses his decision when safety of the ship is concerned and sits in rapt attention during the safety video before we depart that shows us what would happen in an emergency. (Also, each day the ship is “sanitized” and there are hand-sanitizing stations as well.)
In the end, we spend an extra full day in Martha’s Vineyard (sensational) and make it to Nantucket on our last full day, but bypass Block Island.
Blount’s specially designed small ships make this itinerary possible; these ships are nimble, even have a patented bow ramp (this is used in places like Belize and Guatemala) and a retractable pilot house (so they can go under bridges on the Erie Canal), both inventions of Luther Blount, who founded the company and was one of the innovators of “small ship cruising” more than 50 years ago, and can come close to shore.
Jumping from island to island, port to port, we experience these places as they were intended – the sea is what made these destinations and made them powerhouses in the national and global economy. Tiny Nantucket, with a population in the thousands, was known the world over (I love the wall showing distance markers to points around the world); New Bedford sent out hundreds of whaling ships, half of all that sailed the globe, and had 10,000 men at sea at any one time.
We embark in Warren, Rhode Island, which is home base for Blount and where they have been building ships and ferries since 1947. With the change in itinerary because of the weather, our voyage starts in Bristol, then Newport, New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard (2 days), Nantucket, before sailing back to Warren RI. I have visited all these places in the past, but on this trip, I see them from such a different perspective, it is as if seeing them for the first time.
The days pass so pleasantly: there is an early bird breakfast put out at 6:30 am (coffee and freshly baked goods), breakfast at 8 am. Touring and exploring. Lunch at 12:30 pm (if you want to return to the ship). 5:30 cocktails (it’s BYOB except for welcome and farewell cocktail parties with an open bar and delicious hors d’oeurves); 6:30 dinner; then an evening activity at 8:30 pm– a movie, live performance (we had a trio on one night and a Martha’s Vineyard native, folksinger Mark Alan Lovewell, doing sea chanties before we came to Nantucket), and one night when we played a rollicking game of “LCR” (everyone puts up three $1 bills, rolls dice, and at the end, whoever still has a bill, wins the pot).
To be candid, many of the large cruise ships have such busy schedules that it always seems you are rushing here to there; but on this ship, it feels much more relaxed, not hurried, but with enough to do (or as little as you wanted) that it is never boring. There are always interesting conversations going on, I hardly have any time to read my book. (There is a ship’s library and board games available.). Some itineraries also have guest lecturers and some offer photography workshops.
The food on board is excellent and the menus, which reflect the region and use locally sourced comestibles, feature New England classics: a lobster bake with clams & mussels was a definite highlight; New England clam chowder; lobster bisque). The baked goods including fresh breads and scones, are outstanding. Three meals are provided daily. There are beverages and snacks available all day. Dietary restrictions are accommodated.
We are encouraged to Bring Your Own Beverages aboard which we can put in a cooler or at a bar, and each evening there is a 5:30 cocktail hour when all the fixings are provided (house wine and beer are provided at no charge at lunch and dinner), but there is also a welcome aboard and farewell cocktail party with an open bar and delectable hors d’oeurves.
The ship is modest, unpretentious, but is very comfortable, very clean and well maintained (it was refurbished in 2009), and has everything you need. There is a pleasant lounge ringed with windows; an expansive dining room (also with windows along the walls on both sides) an open sitting area (with fitness machines) on the back deck, and an open air top deck with lounge chairs and a canvas cover for rain and sun.
The ship offers four categories of smoke-free cabins, all with individual climate-controlled air-conditioning systems, private bathroom and adequate storage. Our cabin (56B) on the upper deck literally down the hallway from the lounge, had a large picture window which we could open for fresh air; air conditioning which we could set; a toilet and sink in a cabinet and a separate shower, two outlets for plugging in.
The Captain lets us know when to expect rocking and rolling and for how long, and to suggest for those so inclined to take advantage of ship’s supply of Bonine or Dramamine. But even though I have been prone to motion sickness, the worst of rocking (one night it was five or six foot seas for about a hour) feels to me like being aggressively rocked in a cradle.
We can follow the ship’s progress on a navigational map on a big screen TV, like watching your plane’s route.
The ship, with a capacity for 84 passengers, has Interesting people from all over the country – as far as California and Texas, Midwest (Illinois, Tennessee) and North Carolina, as well as New Jersey, Long Island, Boston. But this style of small-ship cruising, and this itinerary in particular is ideal for travelers from abroad to really see America in a compressed timeframe.
The intimacy means you not only get immersed in the destination (versus the floating resort-style cruiseships where the ports are almost an afterthought), but with fellow passengers.
Each evening we are told about the next day’s itinerary – when we sail, where we dock, how to get into town, when and where to go for the shore excursions. There are guides, maps, and various tourist literature laid out. The day’s schedule is posted. Much of this is repeated at breakfast, and Jasmine, the spry cruise director, is very accessible to ask additional questions.There are shore excursions offered at each port – island tours that are conveniently arranged for a pick up at the boat, lasting about 1 ½ hours, at reasonable cost.
It is remarkable to me how they not only had to switch around the itinerary, but organize dockage or mooring, shuttles, switch around the shore excursions, and do it so that it all seems seamless to us.
Our original itinerary from Warren, Rhode Island, the home base of Blount Cruises, to Cuttyhunk, MA, to New Bedford, to Nantucket, to Martha’s Vineyard, to Block Island, to Bristol, RI, to Newport and back to Warren – is completely revamped because of the 10 foot seas we would have to sail through to reach Nantucket.
Instead, we sail from Warren RI to Bristol to Newport, New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard (where we stay two full days instead of one), to Nantucket and back to Warren RI.
Sailing into Bristol
On Sunday, after departing Warren, after a short sail we pull into Bristol, Rhode Island (coming this way, I didn’t recognize this town which is at the end of the East Bay Bike Path from Providence that I have biked several times in the past). Just across from where we dock, there is a fascinating boat museum, the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame. It is a shrine to yacht racing and where eight consecutive America’s Cup defenders were built.
The museum houses dozens of sailing yachts, some that you can climb aboard. A local on the dock walking his dogs tells me that this boatyard is where many of the America’s Cup sailboats were designed and built in the 1930s by John Brown Herreshoff, who was blind, but would create these models based on feel.
According to the museum, “In 1878, John Brown Herreshoff, a blind boatbuilder from Bristol, Rhode Island, who had been in business since 1863, went into partnership with his younger brother, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, a naval architect and steam engineer.
“Between 1893 and 1914, for the defense of the America’s Cup, Captain Nat designed and built seven of the largest, most complex and powerful racing sloops the world has ever known. Of these, five were selected to sail as defenders, and all five were victorious. The firm also launched many hundreds of custom designs, both large and small, and a number of one-design classes (among them Herreshoff J12’1/2- and 15-Footers, S boats, and New York 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s) that have never been bettered for all-around sailing excitement and pleasure.” (http://www.herreshoff.org)
He also encourages me to visit Linden Place Museum, an 1810 Federal-style mansion with a stunning spiral staircase and Hollywood connections: stage and screen star Ethel Barrymore summered here (her movie memorabilia is on display), plus scenes from the 1974 version of “The Great Gatsby” were shot here, with the exterior used as Daisy Buchanan’s parents home. (Alas, it is closed by the time I get there.)
There is also Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum, located just outside of downtown, but I don’t make it that far when it starts to rain.
I note the red-white-blue stripe down the center line of the main street: Bristol boasts the oldest Fourth of July celebration in the United States, held continuously since 1785, and it displays its patriotism year-round with the painted traffic lines, as well as flags and such on many of the houses.
The Blounts were in the oyster business for generations until the 1938 hurricane destroyed Rhode Island’s oyster beds. Luther Blount was in college at the time studying engineering, and realized he had to set a different course for his future. He moved back to Rhode Island, and promptly invented a way to steam clams that was so efficient, his brother Nelson’s company became the supplier for Campbell’s Soup’s Clam Chowder.
By 1947, Luther had become the Vice President of E.B. Blount and Sons, and began building boats, beginning with an oyster boat. By 1964, he had built over 100 vessels (including Circle Line boats that take tourists around the Statue of Liberty, and the ferries that one of our passengers from Long Island uses for his Fire Island ferry business). He even had a few patents to his name — patents that would one day become the signature of Blount Cruise ships.
Over the course of 20 years, Blount would personally sail the globe to the ships he built. In 1966, Luther decided that he wanted to show his friends and family the places he had been exploring and began building passenger boats. Soon he was offering these trips for others, coining the expression “small ship cruising”.
“He created itineraries for explorers, for those who wanted to tread lightly, going beyond the usual tourist meccas finding experiences you can only have when you get to know a place through its people.”
Meanwhile, Luther, who passed away in 2006, worked to bring the oysters back to Rhode Island, starting with Narragansett Bay. He donated to a local university, charging them with cultivating new oyster beds. He bought Prudence Island to be used as an oyster regeneration project funded by his foundation.
Today, Luther’s daughter Nancy is at the helm as president of Blount Small Ship Adventures; daughters Marcia and Julie are president and vice president of Blount Boats.
The design of the Grande Caribe and its sister ship, Grande Mariner, enables Blount to bring travelers to places that larger ships simply cannot go. They explore remote islands and traverse scenic waterways like the Erie Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway. They dock where private yachts dock (in fact, our ship is about the same size as the more extravagant yachts).
This style of cruising appeals to people who are curious, casual, adventurous, who appreciate the ship as transportation for the purpose of exploring destinations, learning about cultures and heritage and communities. The atmosphere is very casual, laid-back, unpretentious, welcoming – as if you were sailing on a friend’s yacht.
Interestingly, even though we visit places that are literally overrun by tourists this season, we dock away from the crowds, and simply slip into the everyday pattern – hopping a local bus, for example at Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs or a local beach. The three-generations family of 13 split off for different activities – cousins going one direction – pooling photos on an online album.
Blount Small Ship Adventures offers overnight small ship cruises in the United States, Canada, Central America, Caribbean and Cuba, with itineraries ranging from 7 to 16 days. (View complete schedule on www.blountsmallshipadventures.com).
Regent Seven Seas’ Navigator had just come in from a month-long voyage. Docked at Pier 88 on the Hudson River in New York City, as passengers for its next sailing – a 12-day cruise up to Halifax, Nova Scotia and down to Bermuda (fall foliage and eternal spring combined in a single journey) we got to tour the ship and see why Regent boasts being the “most inclusive luxury cruiseline.”
In style, feel, and philosophy, Regent Seven Seas harkens back to the glory days of ocean cruising – elegant, luxurious, intimate, a hunger and excitement to explore places.
RSSC specializes in longer cruises and a focus on destinations with longer stays in port to give more time, more in-depth visits, multiple nights in port, and free, unlimited shore excursions. It lists some 450 ports of call among its itineraries, which include a 137-day circumnavigation of the world, and longer stays in port to give more time, more opportunity for in-depth visits. Regent’s smaller ships can access ports that bigger ships cannot, and therefore are less frequented and less overrun (Check out www.rssc.com/destinations).. For this reason, unlimited shore excursions among a long list of inclusive features
Regent Seven Seas offers a sophisticated, refined ambiance and casual elegance, and a premium on pampered service – the staff to guest ratio is 1:1.5. This isn’t the cruise for a family looking for rock-climbing walls, water slides, flow-riders or supervised children’s activity programs. But it’s a cruise for families who want that sense of discovery, of immersion into cultures and heritage
Because of the longer itineraries, cruisegoers tend to be of retirement age, who want “good food and beverage and bucket-list destinations.”
So a really significant all-inclusive feature of Regent Seven Seas Cruises are free unlimited shore excursions in every destination, as many as you like in a day. There are a limited number of optional tours, Regent Choice Shore Excursions, that because of their special content or limited availability or high cost, like heli-touring, require a discounted supplementary charge.
Free unlimited shore excursions (you can take multiple ones a day) is just the beginning. Also included are two-for-one fares; free roundtrip business class air on all intercontinental sailings or free roundtrip air on domestic flights; free unlimited Wifi; specialty restaurants with no surcharge; free unlimited beverages including fine wines and premium spirits; free open bars and lounges; in-suite mini-bar replenished daily; free pre-paid gratuities; free transfers between airport and ship; and free one-night luxury hotel package in concierge suites and above.
When you calculate the inclusive features, the unabashedly pricey fare becomes more of a value proposition. And, on top of that, there are special offers at RSSC’s site:
For example, the June 12, 2018, 12-day London (Southampton) sailing to Copenhagen on Seven Seas Explorer has two-for-one fares from $12,499 (with the discount) but children 17 or younger sail for $1,299.
The July 6, 2018 12-day Reykjavik to Dublin voyage on Seven Seas Navigator, priced from $9,799 pp, features a bonus savings of $1400 per suite.
A featured offer on an 11-day sailing on Seven Seas Explorer, Monte Carlo to Barcelona on April 12, 2018, with fares from $10,099 pp, features bonus savings of $2800 per suite.
Return to World Cruises
This year, Regent Seven Seas Cruises offered its first world cruise in six years on Seven Seas Navigator, beginning and ending in Miami on a circumnavigation of the globe in 128 nights, calling on six continents, 31 countries, 62 distinct ports and exploring 29 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Navigator is also the ship for the 2018 and 2019 world cruises; Mariner, which accommodates 700 passengers, will be the ship for 2020.
World Cruises come with a slew of additional inclusive features, including roundtrip air, full medical care, and visa and passport services.
Navigator is refinement, elegance and grace, a destination in itself. Accommodations are all-suites, nearly all with private balcony. With only 490 guests, and a staff to guest ratio of 1 to 1 ½, you feel pampered.
Regent Seven Seas refurbishes ships every 2-3 years; and in 2016, Regent initiated a two-year fleet-wide $125 million refurbishment program to bring its ships up to the standard of its newest, Seven Seas Explorer, which has been hailed as “the most luxurious cruise ship” ever built.
Navigator had just gone through a bow-to-stern refurbishment in the first phase of the renovation project and we were able to see the fresh, warm color schemes, contemporary design, plush furnishings and amenities.
A popular space is the Galileo Lounge on Deck 11 with a décor that conveys a celestial feel, beginning with its tempered glass double-door entrance trimmed with an abstract design reminiscent of the solar system and featuring a decorative sun-shaped handle. That theme extends inside the 132-seat cocktail lounge, where a night-black oval-shaped ceiling twinkling with fiber-optic “stars” overlooks the inlaid wooden dance floor.
Navigator Lounge / Coffee Connection: By day, these intimate Deck 6 venues – connected by a central walkway – are bathed in natural light from a bank of windows overlooking the sea. By night, the Navigator Lounge transforms into a small night club, with a Steinway piano as the centerpiece. Adding to the elegance are leather-wrapped columns with a copper-topped capital and dark wooden base.
The theater is a stunning affair – sofas and easy chairs with small tables, a beautiful stage where there is nightly entertainment – Broadway reviews and Las-Vegas style entertainment performed by a small cast of 4 to 6, plus onboard lectures from the Smithsonian Collection by Smithsonian Journeys .
There is also a small casino in the style of the French and Italian Riviera, as opposed to Las Vegas glitz and noise.
The Library is gorgeous (there is wireless access throughout the ship, free wifi).
There is an onboard Canyon Ranch SpaClub® offering various spa treatments; as well as a fitness room and yoga rooms – with free classes (stretching, pilates, yoga, spinning) offered throughout the voyage.
The outdoor pool is lovely; there is also a jogging track and miniature golf.
Regent Seven Seas is also known for its cuisine. In Compass Rose, the main dining room, the menu changes daily with a selection of offerings that reflect the destination, along with popular Continental cuisine standards, a selection of Canyon-Ranch healthful items, vegetarian and Kosher. The specialty restaurant on board, Prime 7, is a classic American steakhouse.
La Veranda, a lovely casual restaurant for indoor and al fresco dining with incredible ocean views, is the casual restaurant serving smorgasbord-style for breakfast and lunch that transforms into a fine dining venue, Sette Mari La Veranda, for dinner featuring regional specialties and Italian specialties.
The Pool Grill offers casual dining al fresco and a popular Burger Bar. There are culinary demonstrations and wine tastings.
Suites with Benefits
Regent Seven Seas prides itself on being the most inclusive luxury cruising experience afloat, but as the suite category increases, so do added benefits:
The Concierge Suite Category, 356 sq ft with 55 sq ft balcony, adds free one-night pre-cruise luxury hotel package that includes ground transfers, breakfast, porterage; priority online shore excursion and dining reservations; binoculars; Espresso Maker & cashmere blankets, commemorative gift plus the rest of the amenities.
The Penthouse Suite category, 356-476 sq. plus 55-60 sq ft. balcony adds in personal butler; daily canapés; Guerlain bath amenities; in-suite I-Pad; personalized stationery; complimentary pressing on first night.
The Navigator Suite category, ranging from 414 to 495 sq ft with balcony, adds a welcome bottle of Veuve Clicquot and fresh flowers; personalized in-suite full-liquor bar set-up; in-suite caviar service; delivery of up to three daily newspapers and world atlas; in-suite Blue-ray Player; selection of Fig & Tea Leaves Bath Salts; luxe fruit arrangement, plus all the amenities provided in Penthouse, Concierge.
The Master Suite category, ranging in size from 1021 to 1173 sq ft with 100 sq ft balcony, some with full wrap-around and the Grand Suite Category, 539 sq ft., plus 200 sq. ft balcony, some with full wrap-around balcony, adds on Dinner with the Captain; guaranteed reservation each night in specialty restaurant of your choice; in-suite dining menu; complimentary 25 minute personal fitness session at the Canyon Ranch SpaClub® Fitness Center; in-suite complimentary cocktail party for eight; Guerlain Box; Bottega Veneta bath amenities (in addition to the others) and Tea Forte set-up.
The suites are have big-screen TVs; walk-in closets equipped with plush terry robes and slippers; umbrella, hats, bag; bathroom well stocked with a selection of top-flight toiletries; an amenities box of everything you might think of (with a plush bear); liquor set-up; coffee-maker.
And, in the category of “they think of everything”, each deck has a launderette that is available to guests – extremely popular, especially on longer cruises.
Events at Sea
With just 245 suites, Navigator is the smallest ship in Regent Seven Seas’ fleet, and its size, equivalent to a luxury boutique hotel, makes it ideal for corporate incentives, meetings and events.
In fact, organizations can charter the ship –about $1.2 million might do it – for a three or four-day sailing and RSSC will alter the itinerary, bring the ship to you, and customize the cruise, while incorporating all the inclusive features (shore excursions can include team-building activities).
The ships are ideal size for corporate meetings, incentives, or events, and a cruise is ideal because everything is included, the participants spend their time together, there are venues for meals, entertainment, and it has the allure of being luxurious, glamorous, special and an experience that cannot be duplicated.
Everyone who sails on Regent Seven Seas is automatically inducted into the Seven Seas Society, a loyalty program that comes with exclusive rewards and benefits such as priority online shore excursion and dining reservations, free garment pressing and WiFi.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises is part of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., a leading global cruise company which also operates Norwegian Cruise Lines and Oceania Cruises. With a combined fleet of 22 ships and around 45,000 berths, these three brands offer itineraries to more than 520 destinations worldwide. The company is introducing five more ships through 2019.
Norwegian Cruise Line is an innovator in cruise travel, most notably with the introduction of “Freestyle Cruising,” which revolutionized the industry by giving guests more freedom and flexibility. Also, The Haven, which is a luxury enclave with suites, its own private pools and dining, concierge service and personal butlers.
Oceania Cruises offers immersive destination experiences with destination-rich itineraries spanning the globe and the finest cuisine at sea.
Regent Seven Seas and Norwegian Cruise Lines have both undertaken fund-raising campaigns to help the recovery in Caribbean islands so badly damaged by the recent hurricanes.
Nine of the line’s itineraries have had some adjustments – six replaced calls at San Juan with St. Kitts.
For more information about Regent Seven Seas Cruises, visit www.RSSC.com, call 844-4REGENT (844-473-4368) or contact a professional travel agent.
We are only a few miles to the last lock before Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, and the French landscape, though still predominantly countryside, becomes more and more populated and commercial as we come closer.
After breakfast on board the Caprice, our charming barge hotel, we take bikes and explore a village.
Back on board the Caprice, Chef Herve treats us to a cooking demonstration – he is preparing salt-encrusted salmon, which is the lunch entree, along with a variety of salads.
The wine is a 2010 Musadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie, from the Loire Valley, with a fresh, sharp, neutral flavor to compliment fish; and a 2010 Burgundy red, Saint Armour, named for the village which was named for a martyred Roman soldier, with a fruity flavor of currants.
The last bridge before we enter Dijon’s port is one where we all have to duck – it seems the barge uses every inch of space above.
We come into the port of Dijon, where we will stay overnight.
Guy, who has been our guide and bus driver throughout our journey, takes us for a guided tour into the Dijon’s old city, the climax to an incredible week-long journey into Burgundy’s countryside. Dijon is the crowning jewel.
The historic district is just a 15-20 minute from where the Caprice is docked, so we can return on our own and have a couple of extra hours to explore.
As always, Guy, who is a former journalist, is fascinating, illuminating with stories and anecdotes what we can appreciate visually.
He reminds us of the popular Burgundy drink, Kir, which was named for a mayor who served from 1946-1960, was a priest, a canon, and a member of Parliament- the famous drink is named for him. “He did nothing in Dijon – that was reason it is well preserved.” The current mayor, on the other hand, wants to modernize, and is constructing a street car (light rail).
Dijon is a household name because of the mustard, which is still produced here, but these days, they import seeds from Canada. It is also a center for artificial flavors and fragrances.
Dijon is the capital of Burgundy – hospitals, university, administrative services (government), and the main stop between Paris and Lyon.
Burgundy was an independent state, and allied with Britain against France. The last Duke was killed 1463 – his enemy was King Louis XI of France, known here as “the Sneaky One” because though France had a treaty with Burgundy but the King still invaded Dijon.
One of the highlights is the main indoor market – a marvel of steel architecture that goes back to Eiffel, though his colleague finished the project.
It is just across from the church of Notre Dame with a marvelous bell clock. “The King of France tried to bribe a town in Burgundy to rebel, and when it did, the Duke besieged it and as punishment, in 1673, took the clock. At the time, it only had a man with the pipe; then in 17C, the people of Dijon (who have a good sense of humor), added a woman so the man wouldn’t be lonely, and in 18C, added two children.” The man strikes the bell on the hour; the woman on the half, and the children on the quarter hour.
Notre Dame has stunning gargoyles, but Guy tells us that a usurer was killed when a gargoyle broke off and fell on him. As a result, the “corporation” of loan sharks demanded they all be taken down; but finally, they were cleaned and replaced in 18C. Notre Dame was defaced during the 1793 Terror, and the anti-religious furor that swept through.
The Plaza Royale was renamed Place de la Revolution, and the avenue renamed Avenue de la Liberte.
What is astonishing is how many famous people are associated with Dijon: the architect of Versailles, Jules Mansart, also designed the Plaza Royale; Francois Ronde, who designed the Arc d’Triomphe in Paris, is from here.
I wander on my own, and am fascinated with the street names, many with biographical information
Rue Danton was named for “conventionnel organisateur de la defense nationale, ne en 1759, mort sur l’echafaud en 1794.” I am fascinated and subsequently learn that Georges Danton was a French Revolutionary leader and orator, often credited as the chief force in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic (September 21, 1792). He later became the first president of the Committee of Public Safety, but his increasing moderation and eventual opposition to the Reign of Terror led to his own death at the guillotine.
I come upon Eglese Saint Philibert, originally built in 12th century, and destroyed in the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. It is now undergoing a restoration.
I am so happy that I will have two extra days in Dijon (see story).
I walk back to the Caprice in time for our gala farewell dinner.
The last night of our cruise is a gala dinner (we “dress” in our finest, that is what we have with us) – the table, in a U-shaped banquet formation, is set magnificently, with fresh lilies and zinnias.
The menu consists of foie gras with leek salad with a sweet fig jam; filet de boeuf with red wine sauce, potatoes from Noirmoutier and mushrooms.
The 2007 Sainte Croix du Mont, a Sauvignon Blanc, Tina tells us, is produced at a vineyard on right bank of Bordeaux in southeast France, where there are early morning mists (usually not good for wine) is difficult to produce. “You need a lot of luck. The grapes have to develop a ‘local rot’ – a fungus – which actually produces a bursting sweetness. The yield is small – you have to pick the grapes by hand when ripest – a lot of work. It’s lighter than a dessert wine but full bodied.”
The red is a Grand Barrail Larose St Emilion 2009, a Bordeaux.
The cheese tonight is a Roquefort – the quintessential sheep’s milk blue cheese from Avignon in the south of France, owes its distinctive character to a mold found in the soil of local caves
The second cheese is a Brie de Meaux, from the Ile de France, a creamy cow’s milk similar to Camembert. “King Louis XIV had 3 passions: poetry, wine and cheese,” Tina, the general manager, says. “He would send a damsel a cheese with a poem”
The dessert is a Chef’s surprise (actually a birthday cake for one of the guests).
Friday morning, after breakfast, we depart the Caprice. The whole crew, wearing their Barging Through France shirts, line up to greet us and bid us farewell. It is that most amazing and gratifying feeling that only travel provides when you get to realize how everyone has bonded and formed friendships in just a week’s time.
Incomparable Value in France Canal Cruising
In reflection, I think this is as perfect a trip as it could have been, vastly exceeding my expectations – in terms of the sights we have seen, the interesting attractions and excursions, the quality of the wining and dining, the cruise experience – France Cruises, the American agent for Barging through Burgundy which owns and operates the Caprice, really offers superb value for money.
The passengers onboard have really bonded – gives you plenty of opportunity – we are not on top of one another, but the meals, where you basically sit where you want or where there is room, so the table groupings always change, and you get to know one another, or when walking or biking along the canal, or on the bus or walking through the villages during our excursions, or in the evening sitting around in the lounge or on deck… people came from all over and many different backgrounds, but shared an interest and eagerness to learn and experience things, and we each shared from our own experience and knowledge base.
The immersion into French food and wine – especially with the selection of wines and cheeses at lunch and dinner – has been very satisfying and also interesting, since food and wine are so inextricably linked to culture and heritage of a place.
The size of the boat and the service makes it ideal for families, family reunions and groups of friends traveling together. There are barge boats that a single family can hire and guide themselves , though it seemed to me to be tricky process to go through the canals – some were automatic, operated by sensors, some had attendants, but some involved hand-cranking the bridge or pulling a chain to activate the doors.
Many people have the concern that you can get bored on a barge cruise or feel confined, but we are never bored or stir crazy – because of the opportunity to go off the boat and explore, especially by bike, and also the excursions. Those who want a more sedentary experience can have it, as well.
This size boat and the itinerary are perfect for us – not too small that you are forced to be on top of people or lacking in level and quality of service, and not too big.
The daily excursions are marvelous and interesting and take you to places you might not have known to visit, and into the essence of what the region is -particularly the visit to the Chateau Rully with the Count – just seeing the portraits on wall of his ancestors, the very mug his 14th century ancestor had drunk from (that he still uses), the personal artifacts of the family were amazing.
Considering all that is provided, and the high level of service, the experience fulfills France Cruses’ boast that this cruise affords some of the best value in canal cruising in France (particularly with the special offers and packages that are available from time to time). I am a believer.
These next two days aboard the Caprice barge hotel, we cruise to a spiritual center, which is in the capital of Burgundy’s wine region, the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune, and the next day to the “mother church,” as it were, of Burgundy wine, the Clos de Vougeot, seat of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, the Burgundy wine society.
I get up early enough to have another walk in this picturesque village of Chalon sur Saône, before the barge pulls away at 8:30 am. We sail down the River Saône as we enjoy breakfast.
We spend a lazy morning, sailing on river – this part more typical of a cruise. We sit and read, chat with our traveling companions, and look out at the pleasant landscape – riverside homes, and occasional heron or egret.
Before we know it, it is time for lunch – “charcuterie” (a cold meat platter), green bean salad, tomato and feta cheese salad, green salad, and lemon tart.
The wine is 2010 Macon Villages, a Burgundy white Chardonnay that is light, fruity, and perfect for lunch; and Cotes du Rhone, 2010, of Lyon, fruity flavor of cherries and red berries, a blended Gambon Cabernet, light wine for lunch
We arrive at Seurre, a lovely riverside town with a 16th century church and beautiful brick houses from the 17th century and travel by bus 26 km to visit the famous city of Beaune.
Beaune is the wine capital of Burgundy most famous for the magnificent Hôtel-Dieu, a charity hospital founded in 1443. The most important monument in Burgundy, it boasts the finest Burgundian-Flemish architecture in the world (and I believe it) and the largest roof of colored, varnished tiles, its opulence seemingly contradicting its purpose.
The Hotel-Dieu was built in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe-le-Bon. Rolin was in charge of finances (collecting taxes), and lo and behold, became extremely wealthy. At the end of his life, he had a great desire to “give back” to community (and buy a place in heaven). In 1463, King Louis XI, said, “This is a beautiful thing to do with all the money he stole.”
Remarkably, though no longer a hospital, the Hotel-Dieu is still a retirement home – with the longest waiting list in France. It is a wealthy institution from tourist revenue and donations over the centuries in the form of the vineyards and the wine that is produced. The home owns 60 hectares of most prestigious Bourgignon vineyards. At the annual wine auction, the wines typically fetch far more than wine is worth, to give “donation”.
The “new” part dates from the 17th century.
During June and July there are concerts here.
Inside, we see a vaulted gothic ceiling – how the hospital room would have had beds, with red velvet curtains for privacy, lining each side of the room.
We see where “Seule etoile” is spelled out in floor tiles, an expression of love from Rolin to his wife, meaning “only star,” which comes from the way he referred to his wife, “The only star of my heart.”
The kitchen has a huge dual-hearth Gothic fireplace, with its original accessories; the floor of the hearth is tiled with the “Seulle star” motto. Most interesting is the steel spit, made in 1698, which is turned by a little “robot,” Maitre Bertrand, dressed in the traditional costume of large floppy boots, white breeches, red jerkin with gold buttons and a white cap with turned up brim.
The glass bottles still contain “specifics” with names that sound like they have come out of Harry Potter: woodlice powder, eyes of crayfish, vomit nuts powder, elixir of property.
The piece de resistance of the hospice is the Polyptych, kept in a darkened room which you enter through a glass door. These are unimaginably stunning panels commissioned by Rolin in 1443 and completed in 1445, attributed to Flemish artist Roger Van der Weyden. Representing Last Judgment, it was placed above the altar of the Chapel, but was only allowed to be seen by the sick on Sundays and feast days.
The detail is so exquisite, there is even a large magnifying glass that makes sweeps over the panels. You see St. Michael weighing souls, Christ, Virgin Mary (trying to alleviate judgment), St. John, apostles. The people who are damned are on the right; the left has people who will go to heaven.
Then you walk through a room of tapestries – the largest series of seven tapestries, woven at Tournai at the beginning of the 16th century, tells the parable of the Prodigal Son. Another series of Brussels tapestries dating from the end of the 16th century, tells the story of Jacob.
Our walking tour continues in Beaune – the church of Notre Dame, dating the 13th century, has a magnificent stained glass window, rare for its grey and yellow coloring, dating from 16th century.
This being the capital of Burgundy wine, there is a Museum of Wine (we visit an outdoor display of ancient presses) and walk through ramparts from the 15th century.
After Guy’s guided tour, we still have two more hours to explore Beaune on our own before returning to the barge by bus. It is a bustling city, with loads of wine cellars and shops and cafes, befitting a wildly popular tourism center.
Back at the Caprice, I go off to explore Seurre, which dates from 1278.
The “new” town hall was built 1771, with neoclassic façade.
L’Eglise Saint Martin dates from the 13 C-14C; it was damaged in 16 and 17C but restored. The chapels were built for the most revered families of 15 and 16 C. The largest chapel was for the Bossuet family, the most influential family in the city. Some were elected city magistrates and mayors of Seurre, but the family had humble beginnings as wheel wrights. (There is a Rue Bossuet in Dijon.)
Dinner consists of a marvelous gazpacho soup with crayfish; codfish in a delicious lobster sauce served with artichoke, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes; and for dessert, a grape tart.
The cheese selection, Comte, is from the Franche-Comte region, and Sainte Maure is a masterpiece of Touraine goat cheese, rolled in black wood ash, recognized for the long straw through the middle (which facilitates handling).
We see scores of barges here, including many live-aboard barges that people either rent or own. I don’t envy their effort to get through these locks on their own.
Today’s shore excursion takes us through the Cotes de Nuits region, famous for its vineyards, to Clos de Vougeot, where wine has been produced by local monks since the 12th century. It also is the seat of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, the Burgundy wine society.
The 12th century monks of Citreaux transformed winemaking, turning their vineyard into a model for “scientific” pruning and cultivation.
In 1790, during the French Revolution, the Abbey and its annexes including the Vougeot vineyard, were confiscated and declared “Property of the Nation”. For the next century, the domain changed owners frequently. It was gradually broken down until 1889, when the buildings and remaining vineyard came into the hands of Leonce Bocquet, a Burgundian owner, who saved the edifice from destruction and spent vast amounts of money restoring it.
Etienne Camuzet, acquired the chateau in 1920 and made it available to the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, an association of wine growers, in 1934.
In 1944, it became the “spiritual” home to the Confrerie, which became the caretaker of the Clos de Vougeot, turning the chateau into a kind of Acropolis of Burgundy where pilgrims from the world over come (www.tastevin-bourgogne.com, [email protected]).
The association wanted to elevate Burgundy wine, which had fallen in prominence to Bordeaux wine. The society was meant to market the wine, but they did something quite clever: they invited popular entertainers (like Maurice Chevalier) and important diplomats to become Members of the Society. It worked, and they brought back Burgundy as a major player in the international wine industry.
On the walls, we see the annual photo of the Society members, looking regal in their sashes.
The motto here: “Jamais en vain; toujours en vin” (“Never in vain; Always in wine”)
From here, we go to a private wine tasting in Nuits St Georges before we return to Caprice.
Along the way, we see fields of sunflowers browning – used for fuel – and solar panels on “ancient” houses.
Meals are an Event
Meals are an event on the Caprice. The tables today are decorated with colored napkins, beautiful place settings. Tina waits for everyone to be seated, and then makes a presentation of the menu, the wines and the cheeses, telling interesting stories about them.
The lunch menu consists of feuillete de tomatos – sundried tomatoes and goat cheese in pastry; wild rice and tuna; celery root salad; green salad ; and for dessert, crème brule.
The wines are Cotes Chalonnaise and Cotes de Provence Rose
After lunch, we bike along the tow path of the canal.
The gatekeeper at lock 62 shows us his museum of collections – everything from postcards to wine to coins.
Dinner this evening includes melon with cured ham and St. Croix du Mont wine; Duck breast served with a peach sauce, Provencale tomatoes and sugar snap peas; and for dessert, almond cake with a lemon tea mousse and passion fruit.
The wines are a 2009 Saint Veran, a rich buttery white Bourgogne and, befitting this morning’s visit, a Bourgogne Hautes Cote de Nuits, a rich red, fruity wine.
The cheeses today are Morbier, a cow’s milk cheese, sometimes known as night/day cheese becasue one side is made from morning milking and the other is evening, Tina says. “With a good palette, you can tell the difference -stronger tasting side is the morning milking, more flavor.”
Valencay is a goat milk cheese in the shape of a truncated pyramid, with a salty flavor and crumbly texture, coated in wood ash to preserve the flavor. Tina tells us the story of the cheese, which dates back to Napoleon: it was made in his honor in the shape of a pyramid, expecting Napoleon to be victorious in Egypt. Instead, Napoleon, who lost in Egypt, was offended by the point of the cheese, so it is always made with a truncated pyramid “so not to offend his relatives” (it is fantastic).
He explains that the family name has changed over the centuries, when ownership transferred through the female line. The main family names have been Rully, Saint-Léger (until end of 16th century), Montessus (into the 20th century) and nowadays Ternay. Most fascinating are the portraits of these ancestors that line the walls.
Ternay took over when his father passed away 16 years ago; the family must maintain the chateau without any state support, so 10 years ago, he opened it up to visitors.
This is so much different than seeing a castle, but having some sense of the people who lived in it. But there is no denying, the structure is formidable.
This medieval fortress was built around a 12th century square keep (Donjon), the oldest part of the chateau that remains. It reveals some interesting features of medieval military architecture with its parapet walk, battlements, machicoulis and loopholes.
During the 14th century, the defense system was improved a path round, the battlements, with crenellations for firing weapons, merlons for protection, and loopholes for archers. A dry ditch (moat) was built around the château to reinforce the defense – the only way in was a drawbridge.
As we walk in, Ternay explains that the dry moat was removed by his great grandfather at the end of the 19th century, after he fell in.
We walk past a statue of Saint Mary. He tells us that the chateau was occupied by Germans during World War II for only about two months before D-Day, but for most of war, his great grandfather managed to keep them out, insisting that the historic building would be bombed if they occupied it. His grandmother installed the statue of Saint Mary, for having survived World War II.
It makes you think about how this building managed to survive through all the tumult over the centuries.
The current appearance of the chateau was designed in the 15th century with the addition of a small courtyard and North and East wings, turning the fortress into a manor house. Outbuildings, and the great and lower courtyards were added in the 18th century. An 18th century building boasts Burgundy’s largest stone roof.
The Chateau is by no means a museum and very much a private home, he tells us, so we will see a television among other modern accoutrements, and family photos – which to me, makes it all the more interesting.
We enter the home, where he tells us the main staircase dates from the 17th century – the weight is concentrated on the walls, making for an open entry space.
“The staircase doesn’t creak,” he says, joking that he could sneak into house when he was younger.
We are ushered into a beautiful salon, which he says is used very few times a year because of the fragile furniture. There are two mirrors, made in two different eras: a 17th century mirror made in six parts because that is what the technology allowed (the Chateau de Versailles has same kind of mirror); the second was made in the 18th century, in two parts, because of the technological improvements.
Most fascinating to me are the portraits we see of his ancestors – the great grandfather who protected the castle in World War II.
But most interesting of all is the portrait of Marie Ferdinande Agathonge de Vaudrey. Born in 1740, she was 16 when married and had 15 children by the time she was widowed at 32. She was imprisoned as an aristocrat during the French Revolution, but the local people protested and demanded her liberation, and finally, the authorities said, “Take her and get out.”
She spent much of the Revolution in the castle, protected the castle, and was largely responsible for keeping it in the family, he says.
He points to a stunning wood cabinet that was made in 1899 by his great-great-grandfather, a master wood maker and artist, made of mahogany from Cuba.
We are brought into the kitchen – an amazingly massive room with vaulted ceilings built in the original keep, and a massive 1771 fireplace. It was “modernized” in the 19th century with a stove and the fireplace was no longer necessary. The stove itself, is fascinating to behold.
We return to the Caprice for lunch: salads of carrots and coriander, lentils cooked in orange juice, a wonderful Quiche Lorraine, chocolate mousse for dessert; and enjoy Pinot Noir – Bourgogne 2009 and Pinot Gris Van D’Alonso 2009.
We float down the canal as we dine. You chat amiably, savor the flavors, and see the scenery flow by in slow motion.
I am relishing the benefits of a cruise style of trip: you have all the relaxation and comforts of a resort-style vacation, with all the interest and variety of a sightseeing-style trip, and without the packing. We are, after all, immersed in a foreign country with a storied history. But the character and size of this barge makes it all the more special, and river cruises are particularly special because of the pace of the journey, and the fact you are always seeing interesting landscapes on both sides.
We float into Ville Chalon sur Saône: you really appreciate arriving in the city by water: the view is stunning, dramatic, with the ancient city on both sides of the water, spanned by an elegant bridge.
Chalon was built alongside the Saône about 3000 years ago. It was a naval base even during Antiquity, hosted large fairs during the Middle Ages, and was a trading center into modern times. It has a magnificent old town, which is so revealing for the way the street names, etched in stone, have been replaced.
Chalon was important during Roman conquest of Gaul – Julius Caesar, 52 BC. This was last navigable port from Mediterranean. Roman ships carried wine northbound; that’s when the vineyards were started.
Chalon was part of Burgundy, which in the 12 C was an independent realm governed by a Duke (Dijon was the capital). Burgundy allied with England in the Hundred Years War. this brings up the story of Joan of Arc: in 1429, Joan of Arc began her quest to unite the French behind the future Charles VII and drive the English out of France. Joan was captured by Burgundian troops and handed over to the English, who burnt her as a witch (for wearing men’s clothes), at English-held Rouen in 1431. English Henry VI was crowned king of France in Paris.) We see what remains of a fortress.
Guy guides us through the town for the first hour – his commentary is absolutely fascinating and the town has wonderful architecture. Soon we are in front of Niepce’s house, where he lived in 1765, looking probably much the same as when he left it, on a picturesque narrow street he would have loved to photograph.
We see how street names have changed with political tides – there is Rue Voltaire, named during the Restoration, in the 1820s.
We come upon the St Vincent Square, unchanged in centuries. The centerpiece is an 11th century cathedral – the façade has been replaced after it was destroyed, but even then, the “new” facade dates from 1780. The base of the tower dates to the 12th century; the base of the Church is Romanesque; the gallery is Gothic; the organ is Baroque. There are some magnificent examples of centuries-old tapestries.
After our walking tour, we still have an hour more to explore on our own before returning to the Caprice for dinner.
This isn’t just an old city, it is a bustling town of 80,000 with a vibrant shopping street, and if you cross the bridge, you get to a modern residential area.
The dinner, Monday, is another extraordinary event: escargots a la crème d’ail (snails in garlic sauce); breast of guinea fowl served with a honey and saffron sauce, baby vegetables.
The cheeses tonight are Brillat-Savarin, developed in the 1930s in the north of France and named after a renowned 18th century food writer Brillat Savarin.
Also Epoisses, a local Burgundy unpasteurized cheese from the village of Epoisses in the Cote d’Or, halfway between Dijon and Auxerre; the rind is washed with Marc de Bourgogne, a local pomance brandy.
The wines are a Petit Chablis and the red is a Moulin a Vent, a Beaujolais made from the Gamay grape which, we learn, has a thin skin and is low in tannins.
The desserts are an assortment of traditional Burgundy sweets.
Chalon is such a beautiful city, after dinner, we walk down the gangplank, up the Medieval stone steps back into the town to walk about the old city. Yellow lights hit the stone of the buildings, making the most stunning shadows, shapes and textures. (We need to return by 11 pm, because they take up the gangplank.)
We have arrived where the Caprice is docked at St. Leger Sur Dheune after about 1 1/2 hour bus trip from Dijon. Dijon is an enchanting Old City, just a few hours outside of Paris, that I bless my good sense to have planned to stay over at the historic Sofitel Hotel when we return (the cruise alternates routes; this is the northbound route that ends back in Dijon).
During the course of the next week, the canal and river cruise of Burgundy on the Caprice proves to far exceed my hopes and expectations – everything from the creature comforts onboard, the fine dining and wining, the pleasant company of our fellow travelers, the picturesque landscapes and fascinating attractions, the opportunity to bike and explore storybook quaint villages, the relaxed and casual atmosphere that is eminently more satisfying than lounging on a beach.
The biggest surprise for me are the excursions. Each day we are taken by bus to some really fascinating place, with our own guide.
The Caprice was built as a commercial barge, carrying grain, timber and coal, and converted to a passenger ship 25 years ago. It has a “boatee” shape – not squared off, flat like other barges – designed for rivers as well as canals.
The upper deck of the Caprice has a two-tiered sundeck with tables, chairs and umbrellas. and is decorated with pleasing flower pots. The indoor salon has comfortable upholstered seating and large picture windows, and is separated from the dining area by a bar stocked with beverages and ice. The dining area has lovely picture windows that let in light and let you see the countryside float by as you linger over your meal.
We gather together in a comfortable lounge for an orientation to the barge and our cruise, meet the staff, enjoy a welcome drink of the traditional Burgundian Kir Royale and meet our fellow travelers.
Our group is extremely diverse and comes from all over: Colorado, Connecticut; Cleveland, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan; Ft Lauderdale, Florida; Vancouver, England, Australia, and New York.
Tina, the general manager, is from the UK, who we come to know as incredibly pleasant, efficient, and good-humored, welcomes us with a very helpful orientation to the boat and the program, and introduces the staff: Chef Herve, hostesses Sophie (who is now married to Herve) and Molly, Roger, the first mate and Captain Willy.
Tina gives us a wonderful orientation to what we will experience.
The boat floats so slowly along the canal, “a toddler can toddle at the same speed,” she says, so we can walk along side, and get back on at the next lock, or bicycle the towpath that goes alongside, or take the bike to explore nearby villages. (We just have to give some advance notice to Roger, the first mate, to hand us down the bike).
During the course of our cruise, we will go through some 21 locks. Going through the locks is a main source of interest and excitement.
“We make it look easy but there is only two inches of space – so don’t stick your limbs out.” At the point the barge is level with the shore – just a few moments, really – that’s when we can get off and walk or bike along the towpath, or even bike into nearby villages, catching up with the barge further on (they give us an approximate time schedule).
She warns us that some of the bridges we go under are extremely tight space – and may even brush the top of the boat, so if we are standing on the high terrace, “be aware, you may have to duck.”
There are windows in cabins, but we need to close them when we are moving – because water will come in like waterfall.
The water on the Caprice is potable, but bottled water is provided, as well, and we can help ourselves to a chilled supply in the refrigerator, where there are also sodas and beer.
Wines – red and white – are served at lunch and dinner, and there is also a bar – you run your own tab by simply marking down what you have consumed.
Coffee and fresh fruit are set out all day long, and a platter of cookies is there for us when we return from our afternoon excursions.
A bell is rung 5-10 minutes before lunch and dinner, and to signal when we need to get ready for excursions.
Breakfast is more casual. We can help ourselves to a marvelous buffet, available from 7:30-9:30.
Biking on the towpath along the canal.
Everything is extremely well organized: Each day, they post the list of the locks we will be going through, with the distances to the next one, mostly half to one-mile apart (that lets you know when you can get on/off), and also post the menu, and the schedule for the day, and each day they tell us what we will be seeing the next day.
Each day, we arrive in our new destination for the night around 4:30-6 pm and dock, giving us time to explore these quaint villages and towns by walking or biking.
We will spend the first two days on the Canal de Sange – traveling about 8 miles – then join the River Saône, spend one full day on river, and then the next day, start on the river and end on the Canal de Bourgogne which will take us into Dijon.
Tina tells us that after 11 pm, the crew goes to sleep and “the last person in locks the door.” If we want to stay out later, we need to take a key to open the door.
The decor on the Caprice is extremely pleasing – nautical with rich blues and polished wood and brass fittings.
Below deck, Caprice has 10 cabins averaging 82 sq. ft. with (big surprise) private bathrooms. The cabins are cozy and comfortable, with warm wood paneling, a window, decent lighting, and good storage.
Our bags have already been brought to our cabin – we spend just a couple of minutes and then rush off. We have just enough time before dinner to explore so we immediately take off on bikes and along the towpath. This turns out to be some of the most picturesque countryside of the trip, and the late afternoon golden light makes it that much more enchanting. The farms dot the rolling countryside, we come upon some of the most contented looking cows I have ever seen, and some donkeys. The evening is picture perfect as the sun goes down.
Everyone is seated at dinner by the time we return and we take the last open seats. Tina has waited for all of us before she starts the presentation of the menu, describing the courses and explaining the wines and the cheeses with fascinating insights.
This first night’s dinner lets us experience Chef Herve’s genius at combining flavors and textures: a salad of goat cheese with whole grain mustard greens, pine nuts and black current; the entree of Cod with balsamic reduction, red tomato (so full of flavor) and saffron risotto (texture is exquisite). The presentations are stunning – worthy of the finest restaurant. A feeling of absolute contentment rushes over me.
Indeed, the cruise is not just a “heart of Burgundy” itinerary, but a food and wine itinerary, and during the course of our journey, we really take a journey into French food preparation, and wines and cheeses (though I am pleased that the preparations are not as rich as they could be, and overall, you do not feel guilty enjoying the meals).
At lunch and dinner, there are both a white and a red wine and a couple of cheeses – different each time, so during the course of the cruise, we have had an amazing tour of French wines and cheeses.
This first night’s wine selections are Sancerre and Brouilly, served with a flourish.
The cheese is a delectable Camembert, one of France’s most famous, originating from Normandy, where cows graze on rich soil scattered with apple trees. Also, Fourme d’Ambert, from the Auvergne region, and one of the oldest cheeses in France, dating back to Roman times; it is one of the mildest blue cheeses with a creamy flavor and nutty finish. This cheese, Tina tells us, is injected with wine to help with ripening and for sweetness.
In these kinds of trips, the most interesting part is getting to know your fellow passengers, and each meal, we sit where we like (or where there is still an open seat) so over the course of the cruise, we get to spend time with everyone.
We meet Sidney, 90 years old, who tells us that she took her first trip to Europe when she was 16, in 1937, sailing across the Atlantic to Paris on the Bremen, a German war prize, operated by Cunard. She tells us how she arrived the day before July 14, Bastille Day, and stayed with a woman whose fiancé was killed in World War I. In Connecticut, she started a school, became a reading teacher, and then opened a bookstore. “Amazon.com killed it,” she says, and that’s when she started traveling again. At another meal, we learn that Sidney’s aunt married Teddy Roosevelt’s son; that one side of her family came on Mayflower while the other came in chains from Scotland.
Sunday, Market Day in Chagny
Breakfast is served fairly casually – a buffet that is set out between 7:30-9:30 am, satisfying both early and late risers.
We begin our cruise on the Canal until the bell rings signaling that we should assemble for the bus, and we are taken on our first excursion, to the charming town of Chagny, where the weekly Sunday market is underway (each of the cruises visits one of the local markets).
It seems everyone has come from throughout the region – there is every manner of food – cheeses, breads and pastries, luscious looking fruits and vegetables, meats, plus clothes, CDs, housewares. There are amazing aromas and sounds, colors and textures. There must be a mile of stalls. It is exciting, vibrant, and marvelously colorful.
At one stall, there is a selection of chickens still with the heads on, ducks, and some other unidentifiable fowl.
I love seeing the French words on signs, hearing French and feeling my French jog back to memory in my brain.
We return to the Caprice for a delightful lunch of baked ham with Chablis sauce, broccoli salad, prawn and pasta salad, and green salad. The food is all delectably fresh – Herve shops twice a week at markets such as these.
The wine is a Bourgogne Chardonnay, and a Saumur Champigny.
The dessert is a creamy but solid white cheese, doused with a currant sauce that is magnificent.
We notice many live-aboard barges – some are rentals – and have an amazing appreciation for their skill in managing going through the locks, which often are just big enough for the barge. Most of the locks are self-service – some of the locks open automatically but others have to be hand-cranked.
We don’t stay on the barge long – every opportunity we grab the bikes and ride along the tow path or veer off into nearby villages.
In the afternoon, the Caprice ties up to give us time to explore a charming village, where we are able to bike around, enjoying the traditional architecture.
This evening’s dinner: a quail salad (with beet shoot sprout that gives it a remarkable texture), delectable roasted lamb in a rosemary sauce with potato, all with a gorgeous presentation. The dessert, a passion fruit shortcake.
The wine selections are a 2010 Pouilly Fume, from the Loire, with a wonderful dry, citrusy, fresh taste, and an Hautes Cotes de Beaune (where we will visit tomorrow), a medium bodied wine from grapes grown on high slopes.
The cheese selections are Chaource, is a triple creamy cow’s milk cheese that melts in your mouth like snowflake, and Cantal.
I am appreciating Chef Herve’s cooking – a young fellow, he is a master at unusual combinations of flavors and textures – his selections are always surprising.