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A Visit to St. Petersburg

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By Marian Betancourt

I had long wanted to visit this fabled city by the sea built by Peter the Great in 1703 to open Russia to the West.  Inspired by the country’s great novelists and poets and Robert Massie’s splendid biographies of Peter and Catherine and the Romanovs, I was determined to get there someday. My chance finally came this summer, but no sooner was my travel booked, when the crisis in Ukraine occurred.  I kept my fingers crossed and sighed with relief when I learned my tour was still a “go.”

St. Petersburg tourism officials acknowledge that the crisis has caused a drop of about 15 percent in American tourists, a group this city appreciates because we spend more than others. Tourism is the leading industry in this city and there are so many large tour groups following a guide with a raised paper flag or umbrella, huge crowds at museums, and massive traffic jams on the roads, it was almost as if I hadn’t left New York.  But this was definitely not New York. There are no skyscrapers here, just palaces, lots of them.


Everything you want to see is housed in a palace and most were built on the embankments or the city’s many rivers and canals. Palaces are pastel colored, I am told, because this creates a “sunny” aspect to counter the long dark winters. Over the span of Russia’s 20th century history many of these palaces were turned into war rooms, hospitals and offices for Soviet bureaucrats, but in recent years they are being restored to their imperial glory.  Best of all, you can actually stay in a palace.


Lion Palace is a majestic yellow building with white colonnades and stone lions guarding the entry. It was built in 1820 by Prince Alexey Lobanov-Rostovsky, a diplomat, writer, and art collector close to Czar Alexander I, who wanted something built on the unsightly empty triangular plot of land next to the magnificent gold-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The Lion Palace served as an apartment building for royalty until the revolution in 1917 when it became the Ministry of War. Today it is a gracious Four Seasons hotel with 177 elegant rooms and suites and a multi-lingual staff including a Michelin-star chef.

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The nearby Hermitage and adjoining Winter Palace is a complex much like Russia itself, so enormous and spread out that it would take a lifetime to see it all. I most enjoyed the room full of Rembrandt’s including Return of the Prodigal Son, one of his last and most emotional paintings. A large collection of Impressionists includes Gaughin’s earliest paintings from Tahiti.  My only disappointment was that the large Matisse collection was temporarily unavailable.

Shuvalov Palace, built on the Fontanka River embankment at the end of the 18th century, is now the exquisite Fabrege Museum. The Link of Times Cultural Historical Foundation, established in 2004 with the mission of repatriating Petersburg’s lost cultural valuables, bought back all the unique Fabrege Easter eggs that had been amassed by American businessman Malcolm Forbes, and brought them home to the city where the artist Peter Carl Faberge (1846-1920), lived and designed the eggs for the last two Czars.  Looking at the beauty of these oval treasures made with diamonds, pearls, agate, and gold, it’s easy to understand Forbes’ interest. Fabrege jewelry collections are also exhibited and the palace itself is a big attraction with its red-carpeted grand white marble staircase.

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Yusupov Palace on the Moika River embankment was the center of intrigue before the fall of the last Czar. Wax figures stage the plot to murder of Grigori Rasputin, the mystic whose influence over Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandria, angered the nobility, who thought that influence was ruining the country. You can feel the plot thickening as Felix Yusupov who was married to the Czar’s only niece, and his fellow accomplices set the stage in the wine cellar with a table set with petit fours laced with cyanide as well as poisoned wine. Rasputin accepted the invitation to the party but did he eat the cake or drink the wine? You can tour with an English-speaking guide to find out what happened and who dunnit!

Catherine’s Palace, an enormous sky blue complex in the suburb of Tsarskoe Selo, was built by Peter’s daughter Elizabeth to honor her mother (the first Catherine and Peter’s true love) in 1752. Catherine the Great later expanded the collections of art and furnishings. The room once used for celebrations is about the size of the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal. A team of servants would march in at dusk and light 700 candles simultaneously. (Trying to imagine this feat boggles the mind.)

Elizabeth created the famous Amber room to display the panels given to her father by Wilhelm I of Prussia. During World War II the Nazi’s took all the amber tiles down and they were never found until 2002, when a few pieces were discovered in Potsdam. A recreation of the room began 1979 with Germany donating some of the funds. Students come here to learn the technique of working with amber, and the gift shops have an amazing array of amber jewelry.

With its intersecting rivers and canals, Petersburg is often called the Venice of the North but rather than gondolas, modern hydrofoils speed you to Peterhof and other palaces on the outskirts. You can sit comfortably and watch TV and have a drink, but do go on deck and watch the colors of sea, sky, and clouds create a constantly moving tableau over this low-lying landscape. I yearned for some paint and canvas to capture what a camera just could not do. A major portion of the city’s tourists arrive by sea and the city has just completed one of the largest and most modern cruise ship terminals in the world.

Peterhof was Peter’s summer place, his version of Versailles, which he began building in 1714.  This inventive Czar created a system that did not require the pumps needed at Versailles. Instead, water comes in directly from the Gulf of Finland through scores of fountains and water jets.  It is the only place in the world where the sea is part of the park. And it is a stunning park. Peter also had a sense of humor so visitors on Fountain Road, might without warning be sprayed by hidden water jets. Today visiting kids have fun trying to outguess the spray from those jets. There is also a lovely restaurant here, The Standard, where you can enjoy lunch.


Russians know a thing or two about vodka and the Russian Vodka Museum, while not in a palace exactly, is part of Tavrichesky Palace complex, an 1801 building that once housed the Czar’s horse guards and their steeds. This is a fascinating exhibit of objects, photos and life-sized models, but the labels are all in Russian so you need to arrange for an English-speaking guide.  (Go for the vodka tasting, too.) I learned the quality of the water is the most important element in making good vodka, with water from Siberia being the best. Always drink vodka neat (so much for my martinis) from a shot glass with a short stem, which makes it easier to toss back.  Follow the shot with a bit of food, such as duck fat on black bread, a piece of pickled herring, or a sour pickle (to lessen the effect of the alcohol).

In the same building is the Stroganoff Steakhouse, which calls itself a Russian American steakhouse because the owners consider the United States the motherland of steak.  Chef Maxim Shalavin toured American steakhouses to perfect his craft. Until the recent sanctions, the restaurant bought their beef from us, but now rely on Argentina and Australia.


This is a warm and welcoming place to enjoy a first course of a the traditional zakuski, a selection of cold appetizers served family style, including pickled herring, caviar, and Russian Salad of  diced vegetables, pickles, chicken, egg, and mayonnaise. Special from the grill is the 16 oz New York steak and there’s even New York cheesecake for dessert.

Podvorye, a restaurant in the suburbs near Catherine’s Palace, is like a country dacha with a brown bear (not real) greeting you inside. While it is obviously meant to attract tourists, the traditional Russian food is authentic and quite unforgettable, especially the pelmeni, those delicious little meat dumplings served in a bowl of warm beef broth with sour cream on the side. Sour cream is a staple here and it wasn’t until I visited the open air Kuznechniy market in the center of Petersburg that I became aware of the many kinds of sour cream. Vendors from the countryside sell their fresh products here. My favorite was a woman I call the pickle lady who offered samples of pickled wild garlic, carrots, cabbage, and many things I never thought of as pickled.


Before we left the Lion Palace, Chef Andrea Accordi prepared a special Russian dinner for us that included borsch served in a bowl carved from a round loaf of borodinsky, a dark rye sourdough bread, pan fried pike perch from nearby Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake, served with dill flower, apple, and chanterelle mushrooms, and much more.

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I enjoyed one last breakfast of blini with red caviar and sour cream.  I rather liked living in a palace and enjoying the friendliness of Petersburgers so I plan to return. There is so much more to see, the many historic cathedrals, and haunts of Dostoevsky and Pushkin.  Alexander Pushkin, in his famous 1833 poem, The Bronze Horseman, included some lines about my temporary palace:

New-built, high up in Peter’s Square

A corner mansion then ascended;

And where its lofty perron ended

Two sentry lions stood at guard like living things,

And kept their ward with paw uplifted


P.S. The Bronze Horseman itself, in the park opposite Lion Palace, attracts many tourists and you will often find one of the city’s many Peter the Great re-enactors here. There are as many Peters here as there are Ben Franklins in Philadelphia.

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If You Go

Cruises passengers are guaranteed a 72-hour visa-free entry. Arriving any other way, however, you need a visa, which you can apply for once you have booked a hotel. The hotel receipt serves as your “invitation” to travel to Petersburg. You can complete an application online at www.russianembassy.org/page/general-visa-information, bring it along with your hotel receipt to the Russian Embassy (or affiliated agency) in your city.

St. Petersburg City Tourist Information Bureau, www.visit-petersburg.ru

Ivanova Nadya of Versa, www.versa.ru can help plan your trip; email is incoming@versa-travel.com.

The Lion Palace Four Seasons Hotel, www.fourseasons.com/stpetersburg


Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel & Leisure, Irish America, and many others. She is the author of several books, and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. She is a contributing editor for Promenade magazine and lives inNew York City. Visit www.marianbetancourt.com

Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel & Leisure, Irish America, and many others. She is the author of several books, and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. She is a contributing editor for Promenade magazine and lives inNew York City. Visit www.marianbetancourt.com

Aboard Hurtigruten’s Norway Coastal Cruise

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Hurtigruten's MS Midnatsol cruises through the narrow Trollfjord. Photo Monique Burns

Hurtigruten’s MS Midnatsol cruises through the narrow Trollfjord. Photo Monique Burns

By Monique Burns

From the rugged frontier outpost of Kirkenes, a stone’s throw from the Russian border, south to Bergen, gateway to the western fjords, Norway’s coast stretches some 2,500 miles.  From the North, Norwegian and Barents seas, and from countless fjords, rise hundreds of sun-dappled islands and islets, topped with fishing villages and farms, as well as major ports like Trondheim, site of medieval Nidaros Cathedral, and Hammerfest, the world’s northernmost city.  Sea eagles, with eight-foot wingspans, and flocks of gulls cleave the air while, inland, herds of reindeer gambol across miles of tundra.

Aboard Hurtigruten line, anyone can savor Norway’s charmed coast.  The company, which celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2013, began transporting freight, mail and Norwegian commuters along the coast in 1893.  Today, its 12-ship fleet also carries vacationers between 34 Norwegian ports.

Some travelers go in winter to see the Northern Lights.  Others choose summer when the Midnight Sun stays up till dawn.  Spring, when the green landscape emerges from its snowy blanket, and fall, when the forested islands are cloaked in brilliant color, have their devotees, too.  Choose one-way sailings of 6 or 7 days, starting in Bergen or Kirkenes, and traveling north or southbound.  Or take an 11 or 12-day round-trip cruise that travels both north and south between Bergen and Kirkenes, allowing you to see every port, by day and night.

I signed on for Hurtigruten’s six-day coastal cruise in late summer, when the Midnight Sun stays high in the sky through much of the night.  After a couple of days in Oslo, treating myself to Edvard Munch’s work at the National Gallery and the Munch Museum, and innovative New Nordic cuisine at waterfront D/S Louise and at Ekebergrestauranten high in the hills above the Oslofjord, I made the two-hour SAS flight north to Kirkenes, six miles from the Russian border.

A quiet day in this small frontier town turned into a full-fledged adventure when I joined a King Crab Safari, one of Hurtigruten’s many shore excursions.  Dressed in bulky black and neon-yellow survival suits, I and eight other adventurers hopped aboard a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or RIB, and were soon speeding across the glassy blue waters of the Bøkfjord, which ultimately leads to the Barents Sea.  Along with the sheer joy of being out on the water, buffeted by the cool crisp air, came the excitement of experiencing new sights: a family of reindeer atop a bluff, abandoned World War II Nazi batteries jutting from rocky cliffs, giant tankers hugging the shoreline, little wood-frame cottages painted traditional red and white.

Our guide, a witty young fisherman named Michael, stopped to draw giant red king crabs—also known as Kamchatka crabs—from his traps.   Once ashore, he steamed their three-foot-long legs in big aluminum pots, and, before long, we were devouring crabs by candlelight in his rustic, tin-roofed fishing shack and swearing, between bites of the sweet succulent meat, that we’d never eat any other kind of crab again.

But the day wasn’t over.  Aboard a long wooden dory and dressed, this time, in royal-blue, black and white survival suits, we cruised up the Pasvik River to the Russian border.  A guide pointed out the respective border poles—red-and-green for the Russians and black-and-yellow for the Norwegians—and the nearby hills where, she said, Norwegian and Russian soldiers waited, guns at the ready, to take down anyone who crossed into the wrong territory.   Chastened, we sat down to another fine meal of wood-grilled salmon.

By the time I fell asleep that night at the fjordside Thon Hotel Kirkenes, I’d already had so much fun on the pre-cruise excursion—or “pre-excursion” in tour lingo—that I could have happily headed home.  But, I realized gleefully, I hadn’t even boarded ship.  Six more days of adventure awaited me!

Streaming down the Norwegian coast at a comfortable 15 knots per hour, I’d take my adventure in style, cossetted aboard the gleaming red, black and white MS Midnatsol, a medium-size ship carrying 1,000 passengers.  I’d stroll the open-air top deck, relax in art-filled lounges with big picture windows, and enjoy sumptuous buffets of baked cod, golden cloudberries with whipped cream, and other Norwegian specialties in the big, sunny dining room.  I’d work out in the fitness room and take saunas as the seascape streamed by.  And, if I wanted to make a night of it, I’d join fellow passengers in the piano lounge to hear a Norwegian pianist croon American classics from the 70s and 80s.  When the long day was done, and the Midnight Sun still cast its moonlike beams over the sea, my fellow passengers and I would fall asleep in comfy compact cabins with desks, couches and bunks, or roomy suites with sitting rooms, TVs, and bay windows or outdoor decks.

Hot buttery waffles at Trondheim's cozy Baklandet Skydsstation. Photo Monique Burns

Hot buttery waffles at Trondheim’s cozy Baklandet Skydsstation. Photo Monique Burns

Each new port brought new perspectives on Norwegian culture.  In Trondheim, after touring medieval Nidaros Cathedral, a pilgrimage site rivaling Santiago de Compostela, I walked to one of the oldest parts of town to snack on platter-sized golden waffles, with fresh cream and strawberry jam, and cups of steaming hot cocoa at Baklandet Skydsstation, as cozy as grandma’s house with china plates on the walls, and cheery waitresses in red-and-white polka-dotted dresses and blue-and-white embroidered aprons.  In Tromsø, the “Paris of the North,” a gifted baritone, pianist and trumpeter transported us into the heart of Norway at a midnight concert of Edvard Grieg and other composers in the stunning, contemporary-style Arctic Cathedral.  In tiny Vardø, the seaside Steilneset Memorial, completed by the late French artist Louise Bourgeois and the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor in 2011, featured a long black tunnel with fabric “plaques” recalling hundreds of local women executed for witchcraft between the 16th and 18th centuries, and a separate black cube with a single flaming metal chair inside.

It felt liberating to walk through a port city for an hour or so, but even a brief stop was exciting.  Hearing a new port announced on the loudspeaker, I’d rush to the top deck to photograph the harbor and wave back at the townspeople waving far below.  In ports big and small, sailboats, fishing boats and even freighters came out, as if to greet us, when we arrived.  In Kristiansund, so many gleaming red, green and blue tankers swelled the tiny harbor that it looked like it would burst.

Stony beach along Norway's coast. Photo Monique Burns

Stony beach along Norway’s coast. Photo Monique Burns

When the ship wasn’t cruising into a new port, it was streaming through miles of splendid scenery.  There were little islets and skerries topped by tiny red-and-white lighthouses, and quaint waterfront villages with tiny harbors where sailboats and fishing boats, painted the brightest blues and reds, bobbed in cobalt-blue waters below sunlit cerulean skies.   There were natural wonders, too.  The sawtooth peaks of the 3,000-foot-high Seven Sisters mountain range extended along one island.  Rising atop another was dome-shaped Torghatten Mountain, pierced by a huge 520-foot-long hole produced, legend has it, when Hestemannen, the horseback-riding troll, shot an arrow while chasing the beautiful maiden Lekamøya.   In Øksfjord, the glistening tongue of a glacier, one of Norway’s largest, spilled across granite cliffs.  And there was the thrill of crossing the Arctic Circle, marked by a metal sphere atop a tiny island.

Not surprisingly, the Norway coastal cruise has been called “the world’s most beautiful voyage.”  But the folks at Hurtigruten don’t mind gilding the lily by offering scores of optional excursions year round.   On “Reindeer Spotting Under the Midnight Sun, ” I joined a small group at 1 a.m. to ride a ribbon of hummocky road in search of reindeer grazing the grayish-green tundra.  Whenever, our guide, Ruan, sighted a herd, we’d hop out of the van to photograph it.  Among the grayish-brown adults, and the knobby-kneed calves, with their short, stubby antlers, we’d sometimes sight rare white individuals.  Back at Ruan’s hilltop camp a few hours later, we sat on reindeer skins around an open fire, roasting reindeer meat, and enjoying berry yogurt and chunks of fresh-baked bread.  Just six hours later, after a bus excursion to the North Cape, the world’s northernmost point, we were posing for photos atop the same high bluff that once drew 19th-century explorers.

Riding along the beach at Hov Hestegard in the Lofoten Islands riding under the Midnight Sun. Photo Frode Hov

Riding along the beach at Hov Hestegard in the Lofoten Islands riding under the Midnight Sun. Photo Frode Hov

Another day, on a “Sea Eagle Safari,” a sightseeing boat took us through the high granite walls of the Trollfjord where enormous white-tailed sea eagles, cousins of our American bald eagles, swooped down for fish amid flocks of chattering gulls. That same evening, we were off on yet another adventure to the Lofoten Islands, and Hov Hestegård, a seaside horse farm where we rode trails around white-sand beaches, rocky strands and high round hills.

Finally, we cruised into Bergen, at the confluence of several fjords and surrounded by seven mountains.  An early Hanseatic port where dried cod was once processed for sale around the globe, Norway’s second-largest city is now a cultural capital.  Fine art museums line a lakeside park, and there’s an annual festival dedicated to composer Edvard Grieg, whose nearby country estate, Troldhaugen, includes a charming Victorian-style house, a little cabin where Grieg once worked and a waterside concert hall where free lunchtime concerts are given in summer. Make a pilgrimage into the surrounding woods where, blasted into the granite mountainside, is the lofty, rock-girt tomb of the composer and his wife.

We couldn’t have wished for a more fitting climax to our coastal cruise than a visit to Bergen.  But had I been granted one final wish it would have been to turn right around and head back up the coast for another six days.  On my six-day cruise, I’d seen a lot of Norway’s coast, but I knew there was much, much more to experience.



Hurtigruten, P.O. Box 451209, Sunrise, FL 33345, (866) 552-0371. www.hurtigruten.us

To stay before or after your cruise, consider:

Thon Hotel Oslo Panorama, Rådhusgaten 7B, N-0151 Oslo, (47) 23-31-08-00.  www.thonhotels.no/oslopanorama

Thon Hotel Kirkenes, Johan Knudtzens Gate 11, N-9900 Kirkenes, (47) 78-97-10-50. www.thonhotels.no/kirkenes

Comfort Hotel Holberg, Strandgaten 190, N-5004 Bergen, (47) 55-30-42-00.  www.nordicchoicehotels.no


Before and after your cruise, a few good places to sample New Nordic cuisine:

D/S Louise, Stranden 3, Aker Brygge, N-0250 Oslo, (47) 22-83-00-60.  www.dslouise.no

Ekebergrestauranten, Kongveien 15, N-0193 Oslo, (47) 23-24-23-00. www.ekebergrestauranten.com

Jacobs Bar & Kjøkken, Kong Oscarsgate 44, N-5017 Bergen, (47) 55-54-41-60.  www.jacobsbergen.no


Sample waffles, fish soup and other Norwegian comfort food ashore at:

Baklandet Skydsstation, Øvre Bakklandet 33, N-7013 Trondheim, (47) 73-92-10-44.  www.skydsstation.no


Monique-Burns-Journaliste-300x201    Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents.  A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia.  After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.

Active Travels: Adventures in Puerto Vallarta

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The other side of Puerto Vallarta

By Steve Jermanok
Last Wednesday in Puerto Vallarta, I took a fast zodiac boat ride with the family across glorious Banderas Bay. Led by the outfitter Vallarta Adventures, we landed on the docks of the seaside village of Quimixto. We walked the cobblestone streets past the sleeping chihuahas and soon made our way to a pack of horses that were waiting to take us up the mountainous hillside. We got out of the saddle, only to walk to a hidden waterfall where we swam in the cool waters. After horseback riding, we snorkeled with a slew of angelfish and then had a delicious lunch on a quiet beach farther south in Pizotita. Our guide, Poncho, made a helluva margarita for the adults, while the kids were served coconut juice. Life was bliss and we laughed when Poncho said “Where are all the bandits in their big sombreros and guns blazing?” It was so peaceful here that my daughter wandered over to a hammock and took a nap.
The next day, a busload of passengers from a Celebrity cruise ship were on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta, on their way to a nature hike, when they were robbed at gunpoint by a bandit. I was stunned. I had just spent the past two days in Puerto Vallarta, walked the Malecon, the broad boardwalk down by the ocean, had an excellent meal of authentic Mexican fare at Old Town’s Margarita Grill, and felt perfectly safe my entire stay in the region. But then the robbery happened. This being Mexico, which already faces a huge media blitz about crime and their drug cartels, it can only add salt to the wound. Yet, let’s be realistic. There’s crime in every city in America, so why wouldn’t a city of over 400,000 people like Puerto Vallarta face some adversity. I feel horrible for the people on that bus who were robbed of their cameras, money, and cell phones. Hopefully, the robbery was an anomaly and the city can go back to doing what it does best, making guacamole tableside with homemade salsa. For that dish alone, I wouldn’t hesitate to return.
  Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels. Follow him @activetravels

Active Travels: Cruise the Great Lakes

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Sail the Great Lakes

Anyone who’s walked the steep sands of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the largest sand dunes west of the Sahara Desert, sea kayaked and camped on the secluded white sand beaches of the Apostle Islands, and hiked the trails of one of the least visited national parks in America, Isle Royale, can tell you firsthand the beauty of the Great Lakes. The problem has always been inaccessibility, especially to the northern fringes of these vast waters. Not anymore. Great Lakes Cruising has just announced that their spanking new 138-passenger vessel, the MV Yorktown, will sail Lake Huron, Lake Superior, and Lake Michigan, along with sister ships Grande Mariner and Niagara Prince the summer of 2012. The eight to eleven-day itineraries include stops at Mackinac Island, Charlevoix, Sturgeon Bay, and Apostle Island. This comes on the heels of the opening of the new $21.5 million cruise pier in Detroit that opened last June, already expanding from 2 to 13 cruise ships in 2012.


Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life.His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels.

Crystal Cruises: The Floating Executive Suite

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Crystal Symphony

By Ian Keown

“This was a wonderful opportunity to get up to speed with my computer skills,” exclaims Boston-based lawyer Jay Grayson, enthusing about his private software lessons — aboard a cruise ship, of all places.

For Robert Jayson and Lynne Grayson, having access to computer lessons was an important consideration in whether or not to take a cruise.  Grayson heads up his own law offices but considers himself “a dinosaur” when it comes to technology.  “I plan to take a private lesson every day — and surprise my team when I get back home,” he tells me on the second day of an 11-day cruise aboard the sumptuous Crystal Symphony, “Christine is a genius.”


Crystal Symphony's Computer University at Sea


The genius in question is one of a cadre of three dozen computer instructors on call for Crystal Cruises Computer University@Sea.  This 14-year-old program is available on each of the line’s two ships, the 940-passenger Crystal Symphony and the 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity; in the case of the Symphony, which my wife Susan and I boarded for a Caribbean/Panama Canal cruise, it consists of a dedicated classroom with 25 Dell 27-inch monitors for students.  Each cruise offers a selection of free and private courses during days at sea and on this Canal cruise the courses included Introduction to Computing, Digital Photography, Basic Excel Spreadsheets, Perfecting People in Pictures and How to Research Stocks.

Being something of a dinosaur myself, I had planned to tackle a few of these free courses to brush up my own sketchy skills and had assumed (like many others, I suspect) that since no one goes on a cruise to take computer lessons I could wait until I boarded to choose my topics and hours.  Wrong.  By the time I had checked into my stateroom every class had a waiting list.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people seem to sneak off here to learn computing skills,” Christine tells me.  “We get a mixed group all the time.  Some have lots of experience with a particular program but want to try out new software; others have only basic skills and just want to be able to communicate with their children and grandchildren.”

Looking around the group gathering for a lecture on Working with Files and Folders, I could understand her point – these eager students included singles, couples, clusters of ladies traveling together, at least one family of four with teenagers and others who looked like brokers, doctors or lawyers (passengers with high public profiles often have their lessons in the privacy of their suites – room service tuition).


And there are other diversions onboard Crystal ...

The Crystal Computer University@Sea complex also incorporates a 15-station cyber room with internet access round-the-clock (and savvy – but oh-so-patient! — attendants, on duty from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.).  Most parts of the ship are Wi-Fi zones, staterooms have Internet access, passengers can set up a direct shipboard e-mail address, receive messages by Blackberry and, once the ship is beyond the 12-mile limit, receive telephone calls on the ship’s state-of-the-art satcom systems.


There are times, in fact, when the Crystal Symphony seems like a glorified executive suite at sea, with a few extra perks you probably don’t find at head office.  The ship’s team of concierges (full-fledged members of the international Clef d’Or society) becomes surrogate personal assistants and the 491-square-foot Penthouse Suites come with personalized stationery and butlers who can be godsends when inviting newfound friends (or newfound potential clients) over for cocktails.  There’s even a seagoing version of the executive dining room, the elegant, wine-lined oasis called the Vintage Room, where executives can host private evenings of wine tastings with matching cuisine.  And how often do executives get to travel with a private medical center on call around the clock?  One of Symphony’s briskly professional registered nurses told me: “On our last weekly drill I made it from the hospital to the Lido Deck in three minutes 92 seconds – lugging all my emergency response gear.”  Five floors in under four minutes – ‘way faster than midtown traffic!  Crystal Symphony’s medical team attends mostly to the minor aches and pains among the 545 members of the crew but it’s also reassuring for passengers to learn that the ship’s up-to-the-minute equipment can also cope with deep vein thrombosis and advanced cardiac life support.

Passengers without pressing health concerns can keep themselves in shape in “the executive gym” (adjoining the Crystal Spa’s saunas and steam rooms) or by striding around the capacious promenade deck with WOW, or Walking on Water, a program in which passengers don special vests with pockets for adjustable weights.

The battery of diversions on Crystal Symphony goes well beyond those traditional ocean-going pastimes like paddle tennis and shuffleboard to include keyboard lessons by Yamaha, language lessons by Berlitz and lectures on wellness and heart care by specialists from the Cleveland Clinic.  Two practice nets on the Lido Deck invite passengers to walk up, grab the latest TaylorMade clubs (the ship carries six sets, including lefties’ and ladies’ clubs) and whack away to their hearts’ content.  A PGA pro (on our cruise John Clark, a veteran of 50 cruises) offers free clinics and private lessons to keep swings grooved, a fine opportunity for competitive executive golfers to put in a few hours of stealth instruction in preparation for their upcoming pro-am tournaments.  “Good cruise,” Clark told me at the end of the trip, “we had an average of 30 people at the clinics and no fewer than 22 private lessons.”

Diversion is, of course, the primary goal of today’s cruise ships — and there’s the rub.  Were it not for all the distractions, I might have become an accomplished techie. Like Jay Grayson, I ended up taking computer lessons (private, at $75 a pop), hoping to learn how to put together a basic website; but I was persuaded that there were not enough days at sea on this cruise, so I settled for a quickie course in Power Point Presentations.  I acquired the basics but, more important, I ended up with a newfound confidence in what I could achieve on my own, if only I would set aside the time to learn.

Lawyer Grayson summed it up best: “I feel I’m not just taking a cruise, I’m accomplishing something.”

(For more information on Crystals Cruises worldwide itineraries, log on to www.crystalcruises.com.



Ian Keown is currently a contributing writer for Caribbean Travel & Life over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (8 as a contributing editor), Gourmet (5 as contributing editor), Diversion (5 as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera.

His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”.   He is the recipient of the first Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.

Alaska: Where the Good Life Meets the Wild Life

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Holland America's Zuiderdam in Alaska

by Ian Keown

Veteran cruisers who have circumnavigated the atolls of Polynesia and slithered on the ice of Antarctica often scoff at Southeastern Alaska (“the waters are too calm,” “you’re never out of sight of land,” and so on) but one family on a graduation cruise revels in the mix of whales, huskies and Gold Rush relics with piano bars, fine dining and Bulgari china

Some corners of this globe seem to have been carved out expressly for cruising.  Southeast Alaska is one of them, a land of fjord-pierced, glacier-gouged, peak-encircled landscapes.  Most of the people who live there depend on ferryboats and floatplanes to reach the outside world and bring in supplies (when Wal-Mart opened a store in Ketchikan, the stock sold out the first day and it took a week to restock) so just about the only way, short of adventure kayaking, for vacationers to explore is by cruise ship.

The Keown family (myself, my wife Susan and my daughter Shanna) is far from being novice cruisers but we were excited about the opportunity to explore what was for us a new corner of the globe, impressed by the sheer variety of diversions – and the opportunity to introduce Shanna to the culture of the native Tlingits and relics of Gold Rush days.  The trip was originally planned as a reward for Shanna, who had recently graduated cum laude from an exacting college; but with cruise values being so appealing these days my wife Susan and I decided to go along too, making it a sort of family-graduation gift in return for four years of  late-night calls for editing aid and morale boosting.  We settled on an Inside Passage” cruise with Holland America, a manageable seven days round trip from Vancouver north top Glacier Bay National Park aboard the 1,900-passenger Zuiderdam.

At times, the Inland Passage weaves through channels so narrow you wonder how a ship this size — 936 feet stem to stern, 106 feet at its widest point — can maneuver between all those rocks and islets without scraping the gleaming black paint off its hull, past lighthouses and higgledy-piggledy fishing harbors, past freighters and the ubiquitous float planes landing and taking off in every direction.  It seems almost like being on a train rolling slowly and smoothly through the countryside, and at times we felt like voyeurs rather than voyagers, snooping into other folks’ down-to-earth, hardscrabble lives with their unkempt yards and utilitarian architecture.  But beyond these sea-girt smallholdings and townships, beyond these endless miles of mountains flanked with Western hemlock and Sitka spruce lie millions of acres of raw nature (Tsongas National Forest, the largest in the U.S., alone covers 17 million acres), and by the time we reach the virtually un-peopled vastness of Glacier Bay with no fewer than tidewater glaciers, 3.3 million acres and the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Captain Werner Zimmer parked Zuiderdam a quarter of a mile offshore from Lamplugh Glacier for several hours one sunny morning so that we could lounge on deck chairs, transfixed by the 10,000-year-old majesty of  the St.Elia Mountains, while a National Parks ranger brought us up to speed on isostatic rebound and other geological minutiae.

Holland America's ships still feature a classic promenade deck, such as this one on board the Zuiderdam


Every hour, every bend brings us dramatic, primordial panoramas.   Among the plusses of a modern cruise ship like Zuiderdam are the multiple opportunities for enjoying the passing panoramas from so many vantage points, even indoors.  No peeking through portholes here.  The floor-to-ceiling, forward-facing windows of the ship’s gym let guests survey the entire seascape of islets, lighthouses, marinas and fishing boats, and Susan and Shanna spotted whales from their treadmills while your reporter was exercising in a more traditional manner, pacing Zuiderdam’s capacious promenade deck (Holland America, bless ‘em, with a long heritage of transoceanic voyages, still believes in proper promenades that go all the way round their ships). From our dining table, we could keep track of lonesome bears scrounging for lunch along rock-strewn shores while we dined off almond-crusted salmon served on Bulgari china. Sitting on our private balcony we were surprised one day by a pair of puffins serenely hitching a ride on a mini ice floe the size of a breakfast tray, their own version of a cruise ship.  And during a “Walk for the Cure” (nine times around the promenade deck) Susan and Shanna caught sight of frolicking orcas.

Ah, yes – the whales.  “There are five times as many whales in these parts than there were when I first came here 25 years ago,” our knowledgeable captain tells us one evening over cocktails. He is trying to reassure a group of nature-loving passengers that even with all the seagoing traffic and cruise ships the whales are seemingly unperturbed. “It would be very hard to come into contact with a whale, they tend to keep their distance.”

The literature that appears on our beds each evening is sprinkled with place names like Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau that conjure up chilly visions of Yukon and Klondike, of boisterous bars and grizzled prospectors.  Sure enough, when we go ashore there’s plenty of gold but we quickly discover it’s not in them thar hills but in them thar fancy boo-teeks  (even the Skagway Starbucks has a jewelry store in one corner), alongside diamonds and Tanzanite, designer watches and fancy jewelry.  The merchandise bears an uncanny likeness to what you find at cruise ports throughout the Caribbean and, sure enough, many of these boutiques shutter up in October and ship their stock back to St.Croix or St.Maarten).

Sea kayaking off Ketchikan

Beyond the boutiques and the reconstituted saloons and bordellos (known in these parts as “houses of negotiable affection”, we were informed by sassy costumed guides with whiplash, wisecracking delivery a la Palin), Holland America passengers are almost overwhelmed by more than one hundred sightseeing options.  Browse and you’ll find everything from reenactments of Gold Rush days to rides on a historic railroad, from museums of Tlingit totem poles to mountain gold mines to flight-seeing trips on helicopters or float planes.  Susan and Shanna loved their mornings paddling a canoe around an eagle preserve and riding mountain bikes through a rain forest; our afternoon visit to a musher’s camp brought us snout-to-snout with 16 yapping, yelping, biting-at-the-bit huskies — a memorable encounter even although the “sleds” turned out to be modified golf carts on a dirt path (but this was, after all, August and the locals were as impatient as the huskies with the 60-degree heat wave).

These shore excursions, more varied than usual, sparked scores of breathless conversations when our fellow passengers returned to the embracing bonhomie of Zuiderdam.  I often hear people say: ”I wouldn’t want to be on a ship with so many passengers” (just over 2,100 on this voyage, since many other parents were doubling up with their children, some of them also celebrating graduations of one sort or another) but a ship as grand as Zuiderdam has plenty of quiet corners — in fact, it’s passenger/deck space ratio is better than most.  True, you might have to wait for an hour to sign up for tours if you don’t book in advance and, true too, things can become scrum-like negotiating a food-laden tray in the Lido Restaurant at breakfast; but if you book your tours in advance by computer there’s no need to stand in line or if you head for the main dining room rather than the self-service Lido, you practically have your pick of the tables.  In the evening, three dining rooms and occasional buffets around the pool spread the passengers around.  We were often struck by the fact that whenever we wanted a quiet corner to cozy up for am after-dinner chat with new friends, we could always settle into the under-utilized Explorers Lounge or the Ocean Bar and enjoy the music of a string quartet or jazz trio.

Zuiderdam in Tracey Arm


Those veteran world cruisers probably get one thing right: the seas along these cruising grounds are too calm and therefore perfect for first-timers and families; give me the bucking North Atlantic any time but 2,017 nautical miles later we decided that our graduation cruise was one of our most intriguing, most scenic, most varied and most convivial vacations ever, a perfect blend of the good life and the wildlife in America’s accessible northern wilderness.

Holland America (877-932-4259) features no fewer than 76 seven-night Inland Passage and Glacier Bay cruises in 2011, fares beginning at $799 per person double occupancy, from May 2 through September 22.


Ian Keown is currently a contributing writer for Caribbean Travel & Life over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (8 as a contributing editor), Gourmet (5 as contributing editor), Diversion (5 as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera.

His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”.   He is the recipient of the first Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.


Steve Jermanok’s Active Travels: The Marquesas

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When people find out that I’m a travel writer, they inevitably ask, “What’s your favorite trip?” It’s silly to distill the past two decades of work down to one locale so I try to evade the question. If they’re persistent, I’ll usually mention the Marquesas. In 1994, I took a 16-day cruise with my wife that ventured 750 miles north from Tahiti to the archipelago most distant from any continent. The only way to visit all six of the inhabited Marquesa islands was aboard the Aranui, an upscale freighter that offers air-conditioned cabins and three French meals daily. The ship’s main function, however, is to transport goods to the local residents. She comes bearing bricks and cement, pipes and tractors, fishing nets, medicines, and food, all the necessities for an isolated existence; and returns to Tahiti with copra, dried coconut meat that is processed into oil, soap, and cosmetics.

Since there are very few adequate docks in the Marquesas, travelers go ashore in wooden whaleboats to meet the locals. Burly crew members guide passengers on and off these boats quicker than they can toss a sack of rice to each other. Obviously, this is no normal luxury cruise ship. There is no shuffleboard, no stage where entertainment continually bombards you throughout the day, and no dress code for meals.

In its place, you’ll visit the island Nuka Hiva, where a 22-year old sailor named Herman Melville jumped ship and wrote about his experience with cannibals in his first book, Typee. Paul Gauguin’s gravesite rests on the neighboring island of Hiva Oa. Sitting under a plumeria tree on a hillside over the bay, the stone is simply inscribed, “Paul Gauguin, 1903.” A three-hour cruise from Hiva Oa brought us to the verdant island of Fatu Hiva.  Here, you can take a ten mile hike into the stunning Bay of Virgins, the most majestic site of the voyage. Towering, storm-worn basalt rises from the ocean’s depth, forming a v-shaped buttress that’s illuminated by the sun’s yellow-green rays. In the distance, serrated ridges, cloud-piercing peaks and impassable gorges stand as a monument to the centuries of volcanic fires that formed this fantastic landscape. That sight is hard to forget.

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Is the MS Europa the Best Ship in World?

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A balcony on the MS Europa.

By Dalma Heyn

When I tell you that the MS Europa is the only cruise ship on the high seas awarded not just five stars by the 2010 Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships, but five stars plus, I know what you're going to ask.

    "What's the plus for?"

    Well, I found out when my husband and I boarded the 480-passenger, 28,890-ton German cruise ship early last November for six days of a 12-day cruise embarking at Barcelona, moving down to Casablanca, and ending up in the Canary Islands.  The "plus" begins with lovely particulars like a terrace with every suite (and every cabin IS a suite), inside which is a perfectly appointed bathroom with both bathtub and separate shower, a walk-in closet and a full, free, mini-bar filled nightly with beers, waters, juices, fruits, health bars and candies. It means fascinating, diverse itineraries and, once at a destination, the finest possible shore excursions. A spa that only the finest international hotel could boast.  Flexibility in dining choices and hours. But beyond this slew of niceties that you can find out easily on the ship's website, the "plus" refers to a unique onboard lifestyle Berlitz designates as beyond "Luxury" (which is so five star), and dubs "Utterly Exclusive."


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Bermuda Cruisin’

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By Mary Alice Kellogg

I’m a sucker for tradition, graciousness in large quantities, dressing appropriately for this-could-be-a-movie moments, for scenery that makes my mouth water. All are reasons I’ve fostered a love of the rituals of cruising … and why I’ve also visited Bermuda on a regular basis for more than three decades.

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