Above: Morning mist obscures anglers on the White River, Arkansas. The late-morning mist is burning off the White River, letting the people in the flat-bottomed boats see where to cast their baited hooks for brown and rainbow trout. The view for 360 degrees is the […]
Above: Passengers get a mini-concert by a driver on his button accordion.By Robert N. Jenkins Gougane Barra, Ireland –“It’s all about getting into the landscape,’’ driver/guide Deidre “Dee’’ Harman advises as she wheels a 14-pasenger Mercedes Benz minivan through southwestern Ireland. “When we are out […]
Above: Beer kettles dominate the ground floor of Freiberg’s 250-seat Hausbrauerei Feierling. TRIER, Germany – Located on the banks of the Moselle River, whose vineyards produce the grapes for Riesling, the No. 1 industry in ancient Trier is winemaking. Indeed, there are five vintners within city […]
Above: The Scenic Jade is docked across the Danube from Hungary’s spectacular Parliament buildings, in Budapest.
MELK, Austria – The question is not who created the design. Perhaps not even who executed the idea. No, what grabs your attention is HOW the artist reached the ceiling in the famed Melk Abbey to paint the glorious images, at once delicate, lively and even forceful.
The busy scene above the abbey’s Marble Hall includes mythical Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, being drawn across the blue heaven in a chariot pulled by lions. To one side of her is mighty Hercules, bashing a three-headed monster.
Elsewhere in the clouds and sky, dozens of figures — winged angels and humans dancing together, cherubs flitting, and other gods, demigods or mortals — show exuberance, joy or fear.
The masterwork, finished in 1731 by Paul Troger, is symbolic of the artistic and historic surprises awaiting visitors such as those stepping off the riverboats on the Danube.
Indeed, taking a riverboat cruise in Europe is one smooth history lesson.
You’ll tour splendid, even spectacular, palaces, government halls and cathedrals.
You’ll stroll or bike along cobblestone lanes laid before Columbus set sail.
You might decide to climb to the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was held captive by a former ally in the Crusades. Or perhaps you want to stand where Adolph Hitler did when watching the carefully choreographed parades of tens of thousands of troops.
You might even wander the mountain tunnels of what was constructed to be a WW II hospital but under later Soviet occupation became a nuclear-bomb shelter.
All the while your floating hotel and restaurant is docked nearby, perhaps with a view of a charming, centuries-old, village or a verdant vineyard – or both.
So many riverboat companies operate on the same handful of waterways that often the vessels of competing companies tie up side-by-side at the docks. Passengers simply walk through or across the boats to reach the shore or their own ship.
That provides a brief chance to see what the competing companies offer in their reception area or open upper deck.
And this was the only occasion when I thought my boat company, Scenic Cruises, came in second. That is, the reception area on the Scenic Jade is a one-level, smallish lobby designed to be functional, not impressive: It provides access to the three decks of staterooms, entrance to the boat’s only bar and lounge, its main dining room and top deck.
Nor does Scenic Jade’s reception area boast seating arrangements, a multi-deck atrium or chandeliers with crystals of varying colors, as I saw on other boats.
Nonetheless, the 169 passengers aboard the Scenic Jade, launched in May 2014, seemed to have the best elements of a riverboat voyage – and then some.
The company promises an “all inclusive, five-star, luxury’’ experience. Which means all of your alcoholic beverages are included in the fare, even those you have asked to have stocked in your cabin mini-fridge (it is re-stocked daily). There is butler service for every cabin, on a sliding scale, so that passengers in the most-expensive cabins can have their luggage unpacked and re-packed.
Also included in the fare are dinners with a select Italian cuisine and an elegant fixed-menu/wine-pairings meal.
Ashore, such as in this classic shopping street in Salzburg, Scenic Cruises provides each passenger with a third-generation radio receiver for guided tours:
Not only does it receive broadcasts by tour guides, but each of these “Tailormade’’ devices contains narrations for dozens of specialized tours within each city.
Select one of these tours for your own walkabout and a GPS system within the Tailormade plays 2-minute discussions of the sight you have reached. The place is also located on a map shown on the Tailormade’s screen, as is a photo of the attraction.
Along the popular Danube route, Scenic Cruises has about 600 sights whose narration again is triggered by the GPS. If you aren’t listening but are in your cabin, the narration, as text, will be flashed across the cabin’s 32-inch flatscreen TV.
Helping passengers with the history lesson is Scenic’s own paperback travel guide, provided to each traveler to consult and then take home. The guide for the popular Amsterdam-Budapest route – 18 ports of call, 38 Tailormade pre-recorded tours — is almost 430 pages.
Because history is the thrust of most riverboat companies’ itineraries, the passenger demographics tend to skew to curious retirees. (Scenic Cruises will not accept passengers younger than 12.) And recognizing that many folks want more activity than a slowly paced walkabout or museum tour, riverboats carry dozens of bicycles for individual or group excursions.
Again, Scenic Cruises has gone the extra measure, outfitting most of its bikes with electric-assist motors. As you pedal, you can select any of six gears to boost the power. That greatly aids on the cobblestone streets or occasional distance rides.
But you’ll be a pedestrian again as you explore the museums and palaces, or the sprawling Melk Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage where you can marvel at the innovative museum that discusses its centuries of existence and presents marvelous artisanry in religious objects. Then there’s the multistory spiral staircase that descends into darkness.
The history lesson goes on and on …
If You Go
Scenic Cruises does charge significantly more than such major competitors as Viking, which has 50 ships to Scenic’s nine (each line plans to launch more ships in 2015). Scenic, however, provides at least two tour options in every port, whereas Viking typically offers one tour.
For instance, on the standard eight-day itinerary between Nuremberg, Germany, Budapest, Hungary, Scenic offers 16 guided tours; Viking offers six.
Fares for Scenic’s cruise start at $3,625 per person, while Viking’s fare start at $1,856.
Among other items Scenic’s higher fare covers that Viking does not:
/ All tipping, including for onshore staff.
/ Liquor and Champagne; Viking includes only wine and beer.
/ Butler service.
/ Balconies measuring roughly 33 square feet, for 84 percent of its cabins. Viking ships have far fewer true balconies.
/ Airport transfers. Viking includes these only if airfare is purchased through the cruise line.
Many passengers figure they can do without all these inclusions, so they fill the cabins aboard Viking and several other less-expensive lines. Recognizing this, Scenic Cruises spun off a less-inclusive/less-costly brand, Emerald Cruises, with two ships in 2014.
A note for those who have not taken a riverboat trip: Most of the vessels carry about the same number of passengers, 150-169. Those numbers are arrived at because of limitation on the length and height of the vessels, which must transit several locks and pass beneath low bridges.
Scenic Cruises does claim that its staterooms have roughly a quarter more space than its competitors. But some of that space aboard other ships is used for more or larger public areas such as bar/lounges, fitness rooms and spas than the Scenic ships offer.
For more information, go to:
Or type into a search engine, European riverboat cruises.
Robert N. Jenkins has sailed aboard about 70 ships to write about them.
LACOMBE, La. – While time on the water – fishing, boating, paddling, gaping at ‘gators and birds – is a constant theme in southern Louisiana, the serendipity of life, and the celebration of food, hover in the background. But not too far back. Driving away […]
A glacier-carved “hanging valley” in the rugged Glencoe. PORT APPIN, Scotland — Alastair Allward is celebrating a golden anniversary this year, but he’s not getting much back from his love. That’s how it goes with 700-year-old castles – strong but silent types. Dominating an […]
ARUSHA NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania — Seeing me fumble for a seatbelt in his Land Rover, safari guide/driver Peter Kibwana (cq) advises, “You don’t need to worry about using a seatbelt: You are in the bush.’’
I’m setting out on my first game drive in the African bush. I quickly understand the chance of a collision between vehicles is zero, but what I don’t grasp – can’t possibly grasp – is that the hours-long trips are about the creatures that roam thousands of square miles of national parks and game preserves, grazing on the grass and trees or on each other.
Thus, I was unprepared to see, perhaps 20 feet away, a leopard on a tree branch. She was dining on her kill, an oribi antelope. I could hear the leopard rip the oribi’s flesh, see her lick a bloody area on its haunch.
Nor was I prepared to watch, from about 35 feet away, a parade of 16 elephants heading toward a water hole.
And I never imagined having to swivel in my seat to take in six young lions near another water hole:
In the shade of a tree, three were chewing on parts of a wildebeast. Another lion was dragging a zebra’s haunch away from the water. A fifth lion crouched to get a drink, temporarily ignoring the remnants of a wildebeest carcass lying behind him.
All the while, the sixth lion, a young male, patrolled the shoreline, effortlessly keeping from the water hundreds of thirsty but wary wildebeest. His muzzle was soaked in blood, so the lion wasn’t hungry, safari leader Rob Barbour explained: He was merely practicing his stalking techniques.
Go to college to go outdoors
I met Rob, Peter (everyone in Tanzania is on a first-name/nickname basis) and other driver/guides during a nine-day trip through northern Tanzania’s bush country.
Many of these guides have spent years in college studying wildlife management. Thus, while driving their safari clients around, the guides decipher shapes, movements and sounds, then explain what and where that critter is.
Considering its noises and even the direction it is facing, a guide can tell if this animal is issuing a caution to its mates because a predator is nearby.
The guides often imitate animals’ sounds, explain their habits and daily activities, and flip open illustrated wildlife catalogs for their passengers.
Vehicles of choice are Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers — rugged, open-sided, open-top vehicles that require some agility to clamber into the third and fourth rows of seats. Each row is built several inches higher than the one in front of it, to provide better lines of sight.
Although animal viewing can be done on foot, mountain bikes, horses and hot air balloons, most visitors ride in the specially reinforced vehicles.
Herbivores are the most frequently seen: wildebeest, zebra, elephant, Cape buffalo, giraffe, various antelope species — which are the most likely to dash away, occasionally with graceful leaping.
Still other, less-numerous, critters accent the viewing:
A lone hyena, cautiously stepping about a water hole before bending down to drink. Four hippos climbing out of one pond and waddling, single-file, to another. A family of baboons, an infant clinging to its mother. Slinking or dashing about are black-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes and mongoose. Ambling ponderously, a rare black rhino.
On the prowl with Laser Eyes
And a variety of birds unknown to our hemisphere – ostrich, tawny eagle, lilac roller, secretary bird, gray crowned crane, the oddly named kori bustard – stalk the prairie or fly over it.
The guides are remarkably sharp. I nicknamed Lazarus, Laser Eyes, after he spotted that leopard and her kill in the tree, later found an adult male lion relaxing in a depression by noticing the lion twitching its ears to get rid of flies.
Still even the bush veterans can be surprised. Sam, a 24-year-old Brit managing one of the camps, was driving us down to cross a dry creek bed when we startled an old bull elephant.
He stared at us and, to my alarm, Sam turned off the ignition.
I gauged the distance to the elephant and tried to calculate how quickly the Land Rover engine would turn over, move us across the sandy bed, then up the slope of the opposite bank.
Both my concern and mental math were unnecessary. The bull, probably pushed away because he was too old to defend his group of females against young males, was more hungry than he was angry at our intrusion. He returned to eating leaves.
Taking it pole pole
On another trip, 50 years or urban driving experience made me doubt the guide’s driving ability. As we approached a steep, deeply pitted river crossing I thought, “Good lord, those ruts could swallow a motorcycle!’’
But the driver easily maneuvered this way and that to skirt the worst of the grooves in the sunbaked soil. Same process going up the other side.
Our reward? Nothing, at first. But then we found lions dozing in the grass beneath a tree.
This happened in the northern reaches of the Serengeti National Park, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. At 5,700 square miles, Serengeti is about 60 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park and is one of Africa’s most-famous game reserves.
The word Serengeti comes from the language of the native Masai tribe and means “endless plain,’’ though it is also translated to the more picturesque “land that goes on forever.’’
It certainly seems to. It stretches to the horizon, seeming as flat as any farmer ever plowed. Sometimes the landscape is dotted by a single tree or granite boulder.
A phrase visitors learn is the Swahili pole pole (po-lay po-lay), meaning “Take it slowly, slowly.’’ Which is how most game drives proceed — the ride, not the destination, is the objective.
Adjacent to the Serengeti is the 16- by 21-mile Ngorongoro Crater, a vast volcanic caldera. There is permanent water in the crater, which means it has green grasslands year-round. Water and food draw animals.
So Henry, my driver on this day, took us across the crater in a leisurely 2 ½ hours – pole pole — during which we paused to watch and photograph herds of zebra, Cape buffalo, wildebeest and elephant.
Right place at the right time
Now that was a game drive. But a visitor doesn’t always need to leave the lodge or tent-sided camp to see animals. A large bull elephant had more or less adopted the posh-for-the-bush Ngorogoro Crater Lodge, wandering quite close to the dining room doorway one night and into the staff office parking lot the next morning.
And no sooner had I finished lunch by the infinity pool – not all amenities are missing in bush accommodations — at the splendid Mwiba Lodge than I counted about a dozen elephants coming to drink and bathe in one of the natural springs.
Called “ellys’’ by the guides, this group was below the porch around my villa, constructed against granite outcroppings. Within minutes another six ellys came along to squeeze out the earlier crowd.
Elephants, of course, are on the traditional safari bucket list, The Big Five, along with lion, leopard, rhino and Cape buffalo. On my trip, I saw them all. And only the rhino was in a number so small that I could keep track: I saw just one of these rare creatures, from a great distance.
My only disappointment was that I was not in Tanzania between June and mid-October, the traditional period of the Great Migration. This is an epic event.
After the rainy season and the birthing of offspring, an estimated 1-million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra, 300,000 antelope and many other herbivores — and those carnivores that prey on them — move north toward the now-greener plains grasses that can reach 4 feet tall.
Seeing “a kill’’
Even viewing tens of thousands of these animals pass by within a few hours is often not the high point for safari-goers. Instead something from humankind’s early years takes over – we watch for predators to grab their prey.
Actually seeing “a kill’’ while on a game drive is usually being in the right place at the right time. But during the Migration, the hoofed stock crosses rivers in places they instinctively recall. And just as instinctively, huge crocodiles attack the helpless animals.
The crossing spectacle can last four hours, drawing dozens of safari vehicles to nearby bluffs.
The crossings can be so mesmerizing that the visitors may forget to watch without looking through a camera viewfinder.
Too bad. While their still images and videos can amaze their friends or YouTube viewers, the safari-goer himself may have missed the thrill of appreciating, live, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: A convenient approach to tour the several parks in northern Tanzania, which are relatively close to the southern border of Kenya, is to fly from the U.S. to Amsterdam, and then on to Kilimanjaro Airport, in the city of Arusha. The city is within an hour’s drive of Arusha National Park. Another possible route from the U.S. flies through Istanbul.
ON THE GROUND: You will need to arrange your safari details before buying the plane ticket. I traveled with Epic Private Journeys (http://www.epicprivatejourneys.com), which operates customized safaris: “We ask first what animals the guests want to see, then what their budget is, then what else they might want to do, such as a hot air balloon trip,’’ explains Epic guide and company executive Rod Barbour. “Then we match the animal areas and the variety of lodges to the guest’s budget.’’
The alternative to customizing a la Epic is to find the companies that operate small chains of bush camps, perhaps lodges in three or four locations. A typical safari-goer from the U.S. would be here for nine days and would usually be moved, either on the ground on in single-engine planes, to at least two camps.
Prices can easily run $1,000 a day, per person; that would include all meals, most beverages and game drives. But all levels of comfort are available, from tent-sided camps with chemical toilets to villas with solid walls and both indoor and outdoor showers. Or maybe you’d like to splurge on a nine-day helicopter safari, for about $45,000 per person.
To help you plan, rather than just using your search engine, consult a knowledgeable travel agent – someone who has been to Africa more than once. I met three of them on my trip:
Cathy Holler, firstname.lastname@example.org
Katja Casson, email@example.com
Steve Jermanok, firstname.lastname@example.org
Above: Locals and visitors stroll among the compact, centuries-old streets of Quebec City’s Lower Town. CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island, Canada — Cameron MacDonald, who never met Edward Palmer, is busy trashing the man: “He was a politician, and a landowner who taxed his tenants, and he […]
Above: On the tundra, a bear decides it wants to continue coming toward us.
North of Churchill, Manitoba – Moments after I clamber out of the single-engine plane and realize just how cold it is on this frozen edge of Hudson Bay, Andy MacPherson breaks my heart.
“To be safe,’’ MacPherson says, “we will keep you about 50 meters from the polar bears as we walk about.’’
MacPherson is saying more to the other guests at the Seal River Heritage Lodge, but I am processing that number. I do notice the 12-gauge shotgun slung over his right shoulder, I do hear the word “safety.’’
Yet all I can think is that the distance he has given means my single-lens Nikon probably won’t be able to capture any decent pictures of the predators I have flown 2,300 miles to see.
I stand on the graded gravel runway, now cold AND grieving. But that second part turns out to be premature, and unnecessary:
That’s because MacPherson had presented the wilderness lodge’s procedures the day before “Bones’’ ambled, pigeon-toed, right towards us along the shoreline. It was also before “Greenspot’’ moseyed around the outside of the lodge – and well before “Bob’’ opened his jaws to poke them through a large hole in the lodge’s backyard fence.
Actually, the guide’s announcement came before all the contacts we would have with the magnificent bears in the next four days. And the only times we were 50 meters from the bears occurred if we were that far away when MacPherson or fellow guide Tara Ryan first sighted them. Then, the guides herded the guests toward the bears.
Typically, the bears – usually one at a time – appeared as large ivory splotches resting or sleeping on the rock-strewn ground, where withered shore grasses provided a pale gold accent to the landscape.
MacPherson and Ryan, both in their early 40s and veteran wilderness guides, occasionally would lift their binoculars to find us bears.
But every day, the bears found us.
After breakfast and lunch each day, the guests at the lodge (one of four owned by the Churchill Wild company) would head out on walks of about three hours. We would seldom trek farther than 1½ miles from the lodge, walking the frozen shoreline or the gentle ridges that in summer define bay beaches.
Destinations for us includes the large freshwater lake from which the rustic, yet modern, lodge draws its water (it is treated before being served) and an archaeological site with rough circles of stones, used to anchor the flaps of teepees erected thousands of years ago.
But always the goal of our walks was to see polar bears. During October and November, they are waiting for the surface of the bay to freeze so they can walk on it to hunt seals. During these months, the males and non-pregnant females are in “walking hibernation,’’ using as little energy as possible because they probably have not eaten meat since the summer. Instead, they subsist on stored fat, wild berries, even kelp.
This is when Seal River operates “photo safaris.’’ There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 bears in this part of Manitoba, so they can seem relatively plentiful.
While they are not social animals – the mothers of new cubs must protect them from males – on my trip we saw as many as three bears at once, lumbering in a widely spaced follow-the-leader train. We also saw two males lying down together, apparently satisfied that they posed no threat to each other.
Other times the nine of us, including our guides, would find a bear on the move, and the guides would have us walk a route to intercept it. That typically produced the exciting interactions the guests valued.
Guests had usually been walking in single file, with a guide in front and back. When we encountered a bear, we would fan out behind both guides. We wanted photos, and the guides obliged us.
But if the bear should be coming toward us, it had to be diverted. The routine: One of the guides would talk to the bear, as if it were a domesticated animal. These first sounds were to get the bear’s attention away from the rest of the group.
The bears are curious but cautious. They would rather change their course slightly than walk to the strange noise. If a conversational volume did not deflect them from the group, the guide would raise his voice.
Further escalating the auditory experience, MacPherson would reach into his parka, pull out fist-sized rocks and clack them together — a sharp sound not familiar to the bear.
Twice, the guides actually kicked snow toward bears, which also worked. We never saw more than these minimal steps utilized to turn a bear – and only once, when the grizzled old male called Bones, short for Bag of Bones, came directly toward us, was I apprehensive. The guides had told us Bones was a no-nonsense type that the younger bears avoided.
Each guide also carries a small pistol, from which they can fire noise-making shells but without projectiles.
And the guides carry 12-gauge shotguns. The first shell is a blank, with the expectation that the sound of the percussion would frighten away a bear. Finally, the guide would fire a loaded shell toward the ground in front of the bear, so that the noise and ricocheting shot would turn the bear for good.
MacPherson said that in 20 years, Churchill Wild has never shot a bear. Shooting polar bears is banned on provincial lands not occupied by the aborigines, who are allowed to hunt bears and walrus, which they eat.
Once our guides were certain we would quickly obey the calm instructions to get out of harm’s way, Ryan and MacPherson allowed us to get closer to the bears.
Which left me wondering how I could describe to readers just how close I had been to a 700-pound carnivore. We were careful to give Bones plenty of room. We were less concerned about the four other males and two females we encountered, although it seemed that at least one of them, whom the guides had named Bob, wanted to hang out with us.
That was obvious one morning when I went into the fenced backyard of the lodge – the only fencing anywhere. Perhaps five yards from the fence was Bob, estimated to weigh 600 to 700 pounds and to be about 7 years old.
The thin wire fence had holes large enough to allow a camera lens through. As I took off my outer glove and turned the camera on, Bob came toward the fence. And he kept coming. Finally he settled down almost against the fence – and he opened his mouth and put his enormous upper and lower jaws around one of the holes.
I snapped some photos, had my picture taken by other guests. As long as we spoke to Bob, he kept opening his mouth and clamping it gently on the fence – flossing, the guides jokingly called this.
So I had a new standard of my proximity to the bears: No longer was my closest encounter to a bear about the length of a parking space. No, now I felt his breath and could have petted a bear.
And I did want to reach out to touch the top of Bob’s white muzzle. But his canine teeth were easily as long as my thumbs. And I wanted to keep my thumbs, all of my fingers. So I rejected the idea of communicating with Bob through the sense of touch.
If he kept flossing, then I could keep admiring him … an arm’s length away.
If You Go
The owner-operators of Churchill Wild, Jeanne and Mike Reimer, have had 20 years to expand and renovate the Seal River Heritage Lodge, which accommodate 16 in a variety of rooms sleeping two or more.
(The three other Churchill Wild lodges are busy at different times of the year depending on what critters you most want to see – beluga whales, mother bears with their cubs – or to fish for.)
With both a chef and pastry chef at Seal River, the meals always featured hot entrees, often a choice of soups, and incredibly rich desserts. Guests tend to burn off the calories during the 5-6 hours of frigid-weather walkabouts each day.
Cocktail hour begins about a half-hour after the afternoon walk ends. Hot hors d’oeuvres, cheeses or hummus are offered, as are wine, beer and liquor (also offered at dinner, the alcoholic beverages are included in the price of the lodge experience, as are three meals a day and flights on both small jets and single-engine planes, to reach the isolated lodge).
Cocktail hour passes quickly, as the guests compare notes on that day and display their new photos on laptops. After dinner, guests sit or sprawl on the huge leather couches and recliners in front of the wood-burning stove in the lodge’s lounge for presentations and slide shows about the region’s history, animals and how the Reimers and staff re-stock the lodge using a tractor to haul a huge sled for 36 hours over the Hudson Bay ice.
For more information on the Churchill Wild options, including prices and times, go to www.churchillwild.com
The Churchill Wild trips are typically four days in the lodge plus a day in the village of Churchill, about 40 miles south of Seal River. The price for 2014 trips is about $9,560, including two nights in a Winnipeg airport hotel before and after the lodge trip, and roundtrip flights to the lodge.
A cheaper (about $1,400 U.S.) one-day alternative is offered by longtime Winnipeg tour operator Don Finkbeiner. After a two-hour flight on a twin-engine plane from Winnipeg to Churchill, passengers climb aboard a purpose-built Tundra Buggy, which rolls high above the snow. The driver takes the Buggy along prescribed routes where bears sightings are frequent; the buggy has large windows, is heated and restroom equipped.
This trip involves a small breakfast on the plane to Churchill, and dinner in a village restaurant before returning to Winnipeg.
For more information on the one-day trip, go to www.heartlandtravel.ca .
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