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Corsica Education From The Diadema

Diadema-Ajaccio

AJACCIO, Corsica — The Costa Diadema is responsible for educating. A vehicle of learning. This newest ship in the Costa Cruises fleet of 15 regularly drops passengers off for a day in Ajaccio, a pretty town on the island of Corsica.

That’s where the education starts?

Among the things we didn’t know until getting off the Diadema:

• It is the third-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, behind Sardinia and Sicily (although we probably could have discovered that by studying a map).

• Unlike the other two, it belongs to France…not Italy.

•  Everything that isn’t named Napoleon is named Bonaparte, or so it seems, in honor of its  most-famous son and the large house where he was born has become, as expected, a tourist attraction.

• Corsicans still don’t like the sea that surrounds them because they associate it with invaders (including malaria-carrying mosquitoes) even though none of them exist today.

• The man Corsicans regard as their greatest hero is Pasquale Paoli, the highly educated leader who was defeated by Napoleon, who wrote the island’s constitution and who was far ahead of his time in demanding equality for all, at a time when women were regarded as unequal.

• People came from all over the world to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s birth in 1969 and they ran out of beer — by 10:30 that morning!

Ajaccio-2Corsica today is mostly French and Italian, as you might expect, in what has for centuries been an uneasy relationship. It’s also divided between north and south, by mountains, and that relationship is regarded as “competitive” today. It’s only 50 miles from Italy and its second language (Corsican) is more Italian than French.

Ajaccio is in the south, the capital of the south, and it’s clear that — 200 years after his death — Napoleon is still an industry in the town where he was born but spent less than 10 years of his life. The statue of the famous French emperor is an exact replica of the one over his gravesite in Paris and a regular tourist stop for anyone who comes here on a cruise or a plane.

More and more Europeans are flying in to experience Corsica’s pristine and rugged geography. Green with pine forests, it’s called Ile de Beaute (which requires no translation) and its interior is a magnet for adventure tourists. Complementing that are sandy, unpolluted beaches all the way around the island, and going from the sea to the interior can take longer than it takes to fly to Switzerland.

Approximately 100 miles by 50 miles, Corsica is home to 300,000 residents, and many come from elsewhere. Our guide, Rollie Lucarotti, and her husband boarded their boat in England, sailed here 43 years ago and Ajaccio-Rollienever left. The first book written about Corsica was penned by a Scottish spinster, Thomasina Campbell, after she toured the island on a cart pulled by a pony, and her pockets were deep enough to build a church and a mansion on what is now Rue Miss Campbell.

Besides spectacular scenery and its ability to remain in something of a time capsule geographically, Corsica is also known for its perfume. Legend has it that the perfume is so unique that Napoleon could recognize the island with his eyes closed just by inhaling it.

Just one more nugget of information about Corsica, thanks to a 3,600-passenger vehicle of learning.

Ajaccio-6Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Carnival Liberty
7 nights
May 10, 2015
San Juan (return): St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten
Inside: $439
Cost per day: $62
www.carnival.com

Friday File: Picture These Cruise Ships

For anybody who likes cruising, and we assume you do, ships make great photo ops. Why else do we see passengers standing on the shore taking photos of the ships they’re traveling on, over and over. In fact, we do it ourselves. What follows this week are some of our favorite ship shots, mostly because of how much we liked the picture, or the situation…

Sky-GSKThis is the Norwegian Sky, from the beach at Great Stirrup Cay, the island the cruise line owns. This is our ship-on-the-rocks picture. The Sky is anchored offshore because, at least when we snapped this, the channel wasn’t deep enough and passengers were tendered ashore.

InfinityThe Celebrity Infinity was heading east in the Panama Canal, passing its sister ship, the Millennium. We knew it was coming so our camera was poised to catch this sail-by in one of the narrowest parts of the Canal, and we think it will still be this narrow when the Canal expansion is finished next year…or the year after…

Freedom-2We spotted the Carnival Freedom “almost on the rocks” during the day and liked the photo so much we came back and took it again at night. The reality is we were in Willemstad, Curacao long enough that we disembarked in the afternoon and, after having dinner 20 miles away, it was dark when we returned. 

Coral-KetchikanThe juxtaposition was irresistible. In the background, the Coral Princess. In the foreground, the statue of a carved eagle that welcomes visitors to Ketchikan, Alaska. This is eagle country and while you won’t find one this large, the real thing is often available to visiting photographers. Still, not a bad substitute.

AllureWhen we took this picture, we hadn’t yet been on Allure of the Seas, not surprising since this was the final waves of its initial Transatlantic crossing from Europe to Fort Lauderdale in 2010. The event was impressive…helicopters, streamers, tugboats spraying water and a plane overhead welcoming the ship to Florida.

Sun-Guat
If we needed a photo to sell friends on taking a cruise, not that we do, this shot of the Norwegian Sun in Guatemala might do the trick. Nobody thinks of this Central American country as a scenic place to visit, until you’ve been there. This was not quite halfway of a cruise to South America and was, frankly, a surprise.
Two shipsPhotographers would never pick this one as a great photo of cruise ships for sure. However, its significance to us disembarking in Port Everglades from Allure of the Seas on the left and boarding the Carnival Freedom on the right. While the ships are nose to nose, the walk was a little longer than it looks — about 15 minutes.

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Carnival Liberty
7 nights
June 7, 2015
San Juan (return): St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten 
Inside: $569
Cost per day: $81
www.carnival.com

Windstar A Winner With Conde Nast

While we’ve talked about it, we’ve never cruised on a Windstar ship…aka, yacht. It’s always been an intriguing prospect, made more intriguing by yesterday’s announcement Windstarthat Conde Nast Traveler readers have rated it as the No. 1 “small ship cruise line” in the world.

The annual Readers’ Choice Awards claim to be the longest-running and most prestigious in the travel industry, the “best of the best of travel.” More than 76,000 readers voted on, among other things, 453 cruise ships.

For small ships, their choice was Windstar.

This is a cruise line that obviously focuses on small ports, for the very good reason that it has small ships. It has six of them, having doubled the fleet last year, and they go all over the world — Asia, the Caribbean, all over Europe, Arabia, across both oceans, Tahiti and through the Panama Canal.

Windstar has been around for three decades and has, like many cruise lines, had multiple owners. Holland America owned it the longest, from 1987 to 2007, and Holland America’s corporate company (Carnival) sold it to Ambassadors International for a reported $100 million. One bankruptcy later, the powerful (and privately owned) Anschutz Corporation picked it up for a reported $39 million and today it thrives under that corporate banner as a high-end cruise line.

And “high-end” is something else that separates it from the traditional cruise lines. Put it another way: for many of us, a Windstar cruise is only a windfall away.

Today at portsandbows.com: Holland America and Christmas

Carnival Liberty
5 nights
November 23, 2014
Port Canaveral (return): Nassau, Half Moon Cay, Freeport
Inside: $189
Cost per day: $37
www.carnival.com

Aruba: The Best Of An Idyllic Place

ORANJESTAD, Aruba — There’s a few things you should know about this idyllic little island if cruising has never taken you this deep into the Caribbean Sea, which is precisely where we find ourselves.

Aruba is not at the end of the Caribbean, but you can see it from here…well, almost. You can see Venezuela on a clear day, so that’s how close you are to South America.

• While the Carnival Freedom is by no means the only cruise ship that ports here, it was the one that brought us, and that was good….because Carnival’s Best of Aruba Island Tour was ideal for Aruba newbies.

• There are spots where you can pretty much see the entire island, like from the top (541 Aruba-Hoybafeet, 520 steps) of the biggest hill — called Hoyba, or haystack — and even from Casibari Rock Formation, a collection of rocks only a third as high.

• Orange is the color here (Oranjestad is Orange Town), since this is one of three remaining Dutch colonies in the southern Caribbean, which also means the principal Aruba-cactuslanguage is “dutch” to visitors like us. Fortunately, English, Spanish and Papiamento are also major languages, although Papiamento is also “dutch.”

• If you think you’ve seen a lot of cactus in the Arizona desert, or inuksuks (or inuksuit: stones of friendship in the picture above) in British Columbia, those places are rank amateurs compared to Aruba. There are 21 kinds of cactus and what seems like a million unukuit.

• And finally, expect to pay a premium for most things (isn’t that what happens on idyllic islands?) for the good reason that most things are imported. Fortunately for us, Mirto Boekhoudt isn’t among them.

A grandfather now, Mirto was the driver-cum-guide-cum-comedian for Carnival Freedom passengers on his bus. He was born here and has never left. While we’re constantly amazed by how much these people know about where they live, his running commentary turned three and a half hours into an entertaining education.

He’s never seen snow, which immediately made his passengers envious since that’s part of the reason they leave northern climes and board cruise ships. It’s 80 to 90 degrees here Aruba-Dividivi-1year-round and “rainy” season from now through January means about 16 inches per year. There hasn’t been a hurricane since 1934 — Aruba’s outside the hurricane belt — and the winds blow hard enough to turn the dividivi trees into compasses.

“They’re a guide to tourists,” he says, “because the wind blows to the southwest and that’s where all the hotels, casinos and ships are. The casinos are like investment centers: Invest your money and you never see it again!”

Cactus is part of the island’s lifeline because it retains water during rainy season to complement what comes from the third-largest desalination plant in Balashi that also provides all the island’s electricity. The steam from boiled seawater powers turbines that become electricity while the water is stripped of minerals to make it drinkable, pumped to storage tanks situated on hills to create water pressure for the homes.

“We call it a Balashi Cocktail,” Mirto quips, without having to explain that its more common name is tap water.

There are golf courses and restaurants with food from Venezuela (nothing grows here) and Aruba-Beach-1seven miles of white sandy beaches, flanked by some of the most expensive hotels you’ll find — how does $850 a night for the cheapest room sound? There are tourist sites, such Aruba-Nat. Bridgeas the Natural Bridge that collapsed (above) in 2005, depriving Aruba of its biggest attraction although it has been replaced by what is billed as the Baby Bridge (below). And Aruba-Baby Bridge-1there’s a chapel which draws more visitors than parishioners, because church service is only on the first Sunday of every month —the 350-year-old Chapel of Our Lady of Alta Aruba-Chapel-1Vista features its outdoor pews, immaculate graveyard and white crosses on the roads to keep you from getting lost…yes, you could.

You might think that’s next-to-impossible on an island paradise that rose from the sea as volcanic ash to become 20 miles long and just six miles wide but it isn’t. Almost everything is at the same height.

In recent decades, Aruba has gone from gold mining to oil refining to just straight tourism as it’s number one industry.

“Seventy-five per cent of the people depend on tourism,” cracks Mirto, “and the other 25 per cent depend on the 75 per cent.”

So do the visitors who step off cruise ships.

Today at portsandbows.com: The latest in cruise news

Carnival Liberty
5 nights
November 2, 2014
Port Canaveral (return): Freeport, Nassau, Half Moon Cay
Inside: $159
Cost per day: $31
www.carnival.com

Travel Insurance: Thoroughness Counts

You can buy insurance for everything. The trick is identifying your insurance needs, and everybody is different. In no part of life is this more difficult than in travel.

As Yogi Berra himself might say: "You don't need it until you need it."

And: "That happens when something happens."

The big ones are medical, trip cancellation/interruption and baggage. All of them require due diligence, lots of research, reading the fine print. Sometimes there's a tendency to think credit-card companies offer what you need. The truth is they probably don't. Not all credit-card coverages are comprehensive, some have limitations and most have conditions and restrictions.

For medical insurance when traveling, it's important to be completely honest when answering the questions, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition. It may mean the cost of the premium is more but — if something happens — it may mean the cost of the treatment is less.

But with all insurance, the best policy is to read the policy, right down to the fine print, so that you know exactly what your coverage is.

Today at Phil Reimer's portsandbows.com: Good deals getting better come autumn

Carnival Liberty
5 nights
September 21, 2014
Port Canaveral (return): Half Moon Cay, NassauFreeport
Inside: $299
Cost per day: $59
www.carnival.com

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