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In a close-to-home example of the cruise industry's recent rough seas, Sun Country Vacations is offering deals on Alaskan cruises that have not yet sold out. Prices for a 7-night cruise on the Star Princess, departing June 22 from Seattle to Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay National Park, Ketchikan and Victoria begin at $1009 (based on double occupancy), including airfare from MSP. There's more: A Royal Caribbean Rhapsody of the Seas 7-nighter from $1139 (departing July 12 & 26); Holland America Oosterdam 7-night Alaskan cruise for $1145 (departing June 16, 23 and 30); and a similar cruise on the Norwegain Pearl starting at $1199 (departing June 30).
Deals sometimes seem tailor-made for Minnesotans. The latest in that category comes from American Cruise Line, which sails the Queen of the Mississippi. This summer, the company is offering a $1,000 saving per stateroom on seven-night Upper Mississippi sailings. The deal is good on 10 sailings in June, July and August. Itineraries include cruises traveling between St. Paul and St. Louis; Memphis and St. Louis; and St. Louis and Cincinnati. Amenities on the paddlewheeler include a putting green, a calliope and some of the largest staterooms on the river, with 150 rooms on four decks. Rates start at $3,695 per person double after discount, plus $250 port charges. Book the deal no later than April 19 at 1-800-814-6880.
I always wondered about a cruise line that sells rooms for almost less than it costs to feed a person in a week. But now is not the time to dump on Carnival Cruises. The company is doing its best to right itself in troubled waters. Its most notorious mishap — when the Carnival Triumph lost power and stranded passengers in squalid conditions for five days — was followed last week by the Carnival Dream stuck in St. Maarten with engine trouble and the Carnival Elation hampered by steering problems. These mishaps prompted the company to review its fleet. One result: It is canceling 10 sailings on the Carnival Triumph and two European sailings on the Carnival Sunshine. Such hopeful, perky names. I only hope that any future ship will be called Carnival Miracle. That may be just what the cruise line needs.
As we left Dubuque, Iowa, at 1:00 p.m. yesterday, calliope music rang out on the river. At each departure and every lock, the Riverlorian, Travis Vasconcelos, cranks up the festive, high-pitched music. Usually, he plays tunes from the early era of steamboat travel, but from time to time, he confessed to me earlier, he throws in "Material Girl" by Madonna or a medley from Phantom of the Opera (which once garnered him tickets to a Phantom show playing two blocks from the boat).
The Calliope -- a set of steam-powered whistles played on a keyboard -- was first introduced in 1855 by an inventor in Worcester, Mass. His idea was to replace church bells with what he called “the American patented steam piano,” a new way to summon worshipers to church. Worshipers preferred the stately bell to the goofy calliope, and so the inventor's instrument eventually wound up in a barn.
But the inventor’s brother, who plied a boat on the Hudson River, decided it would be just the sound to announce his arrival in various ports, and so the unusual musical instrument was dusted off and placed aboard. Other boats raced to find their own calliopes and the instrument's use on boats, particularly on the Hudson, grew.
In 1870, P.T. Barnum of circus fame heard the instrument, and put one on a wagon at the end of his circus parade, welcoming people to the big top. He decided that the patented steam piano wasn't a name befitting the circus, so he christened his a calliope, after a muse of Greek mythology.
By the early 1900s, though, the music was best known on the river, where it became what Vasconcelos called “the calling card of showboats.”
It is a sweet sound -- but loud. To take the photograph of the pipes, I donned ear plugs. But not before I heard a Mississippian ask Vasconcelos in her sweetest Southern drawl, “Will you play ‘Dixie’ for me? You played ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy," so it only seems fair.”
Good morning, Iowa! I awoke this morning in Dubuque, where I’ll see some Grant Wood art and visit the historic Mathias Ham House, which the American Queen brochure says evokes the glory days of the steamboat travel.
I’d say these are the glory days, except that wi-fi is spotty. I wrote what follows yesterday, as we were departin La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’ll post it now instead, with apologies for not getting it out on the internet yesterday.
If I have a connection, I’l write again this afternoon....
I awoke this morning to a shock: As I poured myself a cup of coffee in the Front Porch of America, aboard the American Queen, I witnessed Mark Twain use a smart phone.
The person I saw--with his curly grey hair and mustache, wire-rim glasses and suspenders--will be tomorrow’s performer during “Showtime in the Grand Saloon,” and I trust he’ll keep the cell phone turned off for the event. That nightly show is one of many ways you can pass time on the boat, beyond eyeing the shoreline for wildlife.
Days on board have a routine, of sorts. In the morning, awake in a new port. There, you can either hop aboard a free bus that brings you to interesting sights in town, take one of the “premium” tours for which you pay (an $89 trip to Norskedalen Heritage Center from La Crosse was on offer today), or strike out on your own. I spent the time in La Crosse on an hour and a half boat tour through the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge with Mississippi Explorer Cruises. Venturing into the shallow backwaters of the Mississippi, we saw a beaver dam, got up close to an eagle’s nest with it’s winged architect perched nearby, and had a surprise visit from a kingfisher.
Once back on board, there’s lunch. And then a collection of activities of your choice. Bingo is on tap for tomorrow afternoon. There’s a spa where you can be pampered with the likes of massage, facials, manicures and pedicures. The “riverlorian” gives a chat every day about the river system and the history of steamboats. There are games, movies and non-stop cookies in the grand communal space known as The Front Porch of America at the front of the boat. Anytime of day or night, you can descend the stairs from the Engine Room Bar into the bowels of the boat to learn how steam is created using Mississippi riverwater and harnassed to turn the paddlewheel.
Mostly, though, I like to take my laps around deck four (seven times around makes a mile), watch the passing scenery and enjoy a leisuely dinner. Tomorrow, though, I’m definitely going to his Showime in the Grand Saloon to see the Mark Twain impersonator. I’ve spied him around. He’s always wearing Twain-esque stuff such as suspenders and longjohn shirts. And I promise not to scold him for using a cell phone aboard the American Queen. After all, I’ve been told that the real Twain embraced technology. His was among the first homes in America to have a telephone--the old fashioned kind.
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