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Alaska’s Jewelry Wars Continue

If you’ve ever been to Juneau, then you have some idea how many jewelry stores there are within walking distance of Alaska cruise ships. If you’ve ever gone to a shore-excursion presentation on a ship, you also know how there is almost always one about the jewelry stores.

As passengers who generally avoid both, we’re hardly experts on the subject of “cruise jewelry.” However, we’ve been around long enough to know that the presenters on ships seem to be directing you to specific stores. Not all of them, maybe, but most seem to zero in on a few jewelry shops.

Now we know why.

There’s currently a battle going on between a few Juneau jewellers and the “port lecturers” on cruise ships. According to a story in the Juneau Empire, one jewelry store owner alleges he overheard a port lecturer telling one of his customers — in his store — there would be a “better price” at Diamonds International.

The reason?

Ports lecturers are paid by commissions. No jewelry sales, no income.

The Alaska story is complicated, but interesting, and it’s all available here at the Empire’s website. The store owner has filed a complaint with the state’s “fair trade” laws and an assistant attorney general has been in touch with the company responsible for port lecturers (they don’t work for the cruise lines, they work for independent contractors, just as art dealers do). Both sides have complaints against the other so to some extent it’s another “he said, he said” confrontation.

Similar situations may exist in any number of ports in the Caribbean, but it seems more intense in Alaska, with such a short cruise season. This issue will probably be resolved, one way or another, before the next ship sails to Alaska, in 2016.

Either way, it’s unlikely to have any impact on the number of Juneau jewellers…nor the number of jewelry “lecturers” on ships.

In the news…

• Silversea announces that Silver Cloud will move to expedition fleet next year
• Norwegian Escape leaves Germany shipyard and heads for sea trials in North Sea
• Celebrity Solstice to increase (by two) stops at Vancouver Island port of Nanaimo

Today at portsandbows.com: Hurtigruten leads explorers

Norwegian Sky
4 nights
November 9, 2015
Miami (return): Grand Bahama, Nassau, Great Stirrup Cay
Inside: $199
Cost per day: $49

FlyOver Canada At Cruise Terminal

FlyOver Canada-Alexis

To experience FlyOver Canada, as many cruisers are during stopovers in Vancouver, we decided to take an expert. Her name is Alexis, she is our 10-year-old granddaughter and she has done this — to quote her — “a million times.”

If you’ve never heard of FlyOver Canada, you should. When your ship is docked in Vancouver, half the passengers will be able to see it from their balconies. It’s at the north FlyOver Canadaend of Canada Place, Vancouver’s main cruise terminal, and the ticket booth is right where the hop-on, hop-off bus stops…talk about ideal!

You can walk to it easily during a stopover or, if your cruise originates there, complete your check-in and then walk off with plenty of time to return before departure. 

It’s a short trip, as is the “flight.”

Once you’ve watched the pre-flight movie and completed security checks, you’ll be strapped down for an Imax-type experience that will show you as much about this country of 30 million people as you can see in eight minutes. The Ultimate Flying Ride, as it’s FlyOver Canadacalled, is phenomenal. You actually feel like you’re hovering over a herd of horses on the plains…flying through snow-covered mountaintops in the Rockies…watching the spectacular Northern Lights from close range…passing through the jet stream of the famous Snowbirds.

The sensation is that you’re suspended from a helicopter as Canada goes by below. That sensation includes feeling the wind and the mist when applicable, such as over Niagara Falls…but no harsh Canadian winters!

The eight-minute trip is as much about this incredible technology (and the people who master it) as it is about the sights and sounds of Canada, taking you to places you would never go: deep into the forest as the colors are changing, over the CN Tower in Toronto, hovering above remote rivers and streams.

It costs $20 (adults) because that’s what Imax-type experiences go for these days. If we have a criticism, it’s that the flight is too short, not because you don’t get your money’s worth but because you don’t get to see enough of Canada, none of which is identified as you sweep over it. Another minor complaint is that one of the guides was hard to understand, given that her native tongue was not "Canadian," but that’s always a can of worms, isn’t it?

Our 10-year-old Alexis was excited about seeing it again and wearing a huge smile at show time. Even though we couldn’t take pictures (that’s taboo), she was still beaming happily eight minutes later, when she’d finished watching FlyOver Canada for the millionth and first time.

In the news…

• Costa to build two more 5,000-passenger-plus ships by 2020
• Windstar waives or reduces rates for solos on select cruises
Mexico Riviera deals on Princess for West Coast residents

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Star Princess
7 nights
September 12, 2015
Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, Vancouver
Inside: $569
Cost per day: $81

Getting To Know Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh statueARLES, France — For most of our lives, the name Vincent Van Gogh was little more than that, a name. We knew he was a painter, perhaps because of jokes connected to his famous last name, perhaps because it had been buried in textbooks we tried hard to ignore. We knew he was a favorite of the art community, of which we have always been non-members.

Well, that was then.

Thanks to a shore excursion from the Costa Diadema, moored an hour down the road in Marseille, things have changed. Here in the French town where he painted some of his finest works and where 125 years after his death he remains something of an industry unto himself, we learned more about Vincent Van Gogh than we ever did in school.

That’s what travel does for you. That’s what cruise-ship excursions do for you. And that’s what Arles and the nearby town of Saint-Remy did for us. It is, indeed, true that you’re never too old to learn.

A troubled man all his life, Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888, just two years before he died. His works — and we’re by no means experts at this — changed dramatically with the bright sunlight of Provence and his paintings reflected that with more brilliant colors, specifically yellow. He even lived in the “Yellow House,” now merely a roundabout long after it was destroyed at the end of World War II. One of his Van Gogh-Starry nightmost famous works — called The Starry Night — is of the night sky illuminated by his yellow paint.

Our guide, Pascale Maisonneuve, happily showed us the Saint-Remy “insane asylum” in which Van Gogh spent 10 months. From the courtyard of what is now a museum adjacent Van Gogh windowto a still-functioning mental hospital, we could see the window of his room. This is where, in 10 months, he painted more than 300 landscapes and subjects, including himself in what is believed to be his last of a series of self-portraits.

His painted selfies, as it were.

Many of his prints are displayed on the walls and on pedestals, and there’s a statue.  His is not a big industry in 2015 (a small fee to get into the museum that on this day has open doors with nobody home), but it’s a regular stop for the tour buses. Guides like Pascale actually get excited at the prospect of meeting the patients of today.

“Welcome,” she said, laughing, “to this crazy place. Yes, yes…the patients are very interested here. They want to participate and it can be very funny.”

On this day, there were no open doors to the hospital and, perhaps alas, no patients. Its most famous patient, who shall live forever on these grounds, was more than enough to satisfy us.

And to teach us, too.

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Norwegian Pearl
5 nights
May 2, 201
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Victoria, Vancouver
Inside: $299
Cost per day: $59

A 'Must-See' Museum In Willemstad

Kura Hulanda-2 copyWILLEMSTAD, CURACAO — Never having visited this part of the Caribbean before, our maiden voyage on the Carnival Freedom was fascinating, in part because of a tip from a fellow member of the cruise media. Nancy Schretter of the Family Travel Network suggested — no, insisted — that we visit Kura Hulanda Museum in the heart of Willemstad. She didn’t tell us much about it, only that it was dedicated to (her words) a history of slavery.

She only said we wouldn’t be disappointed.

The most interesting visual was in the courtyard, in the heart of the 15 buildings. When you look at it head-on, as we initially did, it appears to be a giant mask. Now, nobody will ever accuse us of being art critics, or even aficionados, but this piece first resembled a king-sized version of some of the artifacts we’d seen on our first half-hour of meandering Kura Hulanda-1 copythrough room after room of bowls and knives and skeletal remains and drums. Frankly, after a while, they were all starting to look the same. How many 1,000-year-old bowls can you look at with un-expert eyes?

Then we walked around the side of the “giant mask.” Do you see what we saw?


Even as art neophytes, that commanded our attention. It triggered our interest. It was the face, if you will, of the rest of Kura Hulanda, which you could say is a history of the Colored-cum-Negro-cum-Black-cum-African American people except that it’s so much more than that. It’s global. It is, as our colleague said, a history of slavery. By the time we left, we were anxious to get our hands on a copy of the movie, Amistad.

Why Curacao? Why Willemstad?

Historians have educated us to the point that we know the slave trade came to North America through Caribbean countries or islands. Curacao was one of them, part of the Dutch Caribbean. The aptly-named Willemstad is the capital. Sixteen years ago, a Dutch entrepreneur, Jacob Gelt Dekker, was granted permission to turn a derelict part of the city Jacob Gelt Dekkerinto what it is today, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a chronology of the slave trade…warts and all, and there are plenty.

The 66-year-old Dekker is a self-made millionaire. Perhaps his greatest financial success was buying 200 rental cars from Budget for $20,000 and turning it into a business he sold 15 years later for $600 million. A philanthropist, a cancer survivor and a passionate “serial entrepreneur” he visits the museum from time to time, employees say. In 1998, two years after first setting foot in Willemstad, he raised $6 million to fund the construction and the acquisition of the largest collection of African art in the Caribbean. Visitors pay $10 to tour 16,000 square feet of the museum, dedicated to “acquire and exhibit collections related to the cultural identity of the people of Curacao, the Caribbean and the Atlantic Rim.”

Seeing it is sobering and educational. The bowls and knives and artifacts evolved into the stories of real people, and the conditions in which they lived, not just in Curacao but throughout the Caribbean. We spent two hours there and, had we chosen to read all there is to read, we could have spent three times as long.

In the end, Nancy Schretter was so right, and now we insist…

If you ever cruise to Curacao, go to Kura Hulanda. You won’t be disappointed.

Today at portsandbows.com: Regal Princess debut in Caribbean

Caribbean Princess
5 nights
January 17, 2015
Fort Lauderdale (return): Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios
Inside: $349
Cost per day: $69

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

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