Friday, July 17, 2015

Viking to Revive Ukraine Cruises

Next year Viking River Cruises (www.vrc.com) will bring back its Ukraine cruises along the Dnieper River and through the Black Sea to Odessa. And if you book soon, you can get free air fare even from Canadian gateways, which would offset to some extent the fact that cruise prices were quite a lot lower before the recent hostilities in Ukraine.

The minimum price for an 11-day cruise now is $4099 per person, a hefty sum. I sailed with Viking along the Dnieper and to Crimea and Odessa in July 2010, and you can read about that trip by scrolling back to posts from August and September 2010. It was a fascinating voyage to a region I had long wanted to see. It was relatively affordable because the old ship Viking used then had tiny but totally adequate single cabins.

The 2016 cruises will be quite different--a new deluxe ship that lacks single cabins, and no port stops in Crimea, now controlled by Russia. Instead, there will be four nights in Odessa, and several stops along the Dnieper south of Kiev. For travelling couples, the free air fare offer could, to a large extent, make up for the higher cruise price.

There is no question that river cruises tend to be costly. However, they also usually include many land tours, all meals and free wine or beer with meals as well as on-board entertainment. And the pleasure of not having to pack and unpack frequently makes them a popular option, especially with older travellers.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Air BnB Competitor

If you enjoy homestays but for some reason don't like www.airbnb.com, the elephant in the private accommodation room, consider www.homestay.com. This is a newer competitor that guarantees your host will be there to greet you when you arrive at the homestay, and will be there during your stay.

Some people apparently own several places and rent them out through airbnb, turning the homestay into a more impersonal experience. On the other hand, booking a place through airbnb seems to be quite easy based on the Website. You just enter your destination and dates, and can browse through listings available for those dates with prices in U.S. dollars.

On homestay.com, it wasn't clear at least to me exactly how you would book as a guest. Perhaps my computer is too old to work well with their Website. And for the listings I could find, prices were listed in local currencies usually, which adds an extra step for the user. And not all prices were low--a homestay in Playa del Carmen, Mexico costs $100 per night for one person.

Homestay.com is a start-up, so it is unlikely to have as many members as its big competitor. But if you want to be assured of a personal experience and are willing to jump through some hoops, it could be a good choice.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Trois Rivieres, a Remnant of New France

Sometimes you don't have to go far for an interesting travel experience. I've lived in Montreal for many years, but only recently visited the city of Trois Rivieres for a day. This is a very old settlement on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, about half way to Quebec City, the provincial capital. It is a fairly industrial town, but with a vibrant old city dating from the era of New France.

It's not widely known in the U.S., but New France used to include much of the interior of the U.S. At one time it stretched west of the Appalachian mountains to far beyond the Mississippi River. Prior to the American Revolution, France controlled the Ohio territory which stretched as far as Minnesota. In 1803 the U.S. purchased the Louisiana territory in the interior south and west from France. Today the only remnants of New France in North America are the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, an overseas department of France off the coast of Newfoundland.

 The old part of Trois Rivieres is easily covered by walking, though you may have to pay to park near the Musee Populaire--$9 for the day. The Musee Populaire itself is a modern building with rotating exhibits and many kid-friendly activities. At the moment there are items relating to Quebec strong men such as Louis Cyr, 20th century toys, and the history of a French-Canadian family that lived on an ordinary street in the town. Exhibits are labelled in both French and English.

The most fascinating though creepy part of the museum is a prison tour. The prison next to the musem was active from the 1820s until it was closed in 1986. A guided tour, available in both French and English, will show you where inmates lived during their usually fairly short stays, and where a few of them ended their days by being hanged. Conditions were appalling, so it is fortunate that few prisoners stayed more than a year or two.

Admission to this museum costs about $20 Canadian, so be sure to time your visit to coincide with a prison tour if you want to get the most out of it.

Another museum, and totally free, is the Manoir Boucher de Niverville. It is the refurbished home of the Seigneur who controlled the land around Trois Rivieres under the old regime. Seigneurs were similar to European nobility, and were given land grants by the king of France to help in the settlement of the territory. Exhibits here show how the privileged class lived in the 17th and 18th centuries.

If you have any concern with church architecture, don't miss the Cathedral of the Assumption, a neo-Gothic building with beautiful stained glass windows. I was surprised to learn that the windows date only from the period of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, though the church is a lot older. Its size and beauty are a potent reminder of the strength of the Catholic Church in Quebec until the 1960s. Nearby, you can see plaque marking the birthplace of Maurice Duplessis, Quebec Premier during the period of the 20th century many people call "La grande noirceur" or the Great Darkness.

I had just one meal, lunch, in Trois Rivieres at an Irish pub-style restaurant called Le Trefle. A club sandwich with french fries and coffee came to about $18 with tax and tip.

For more on Trois Rivieres, consult www.tourismetroisrivieres.com/en.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Save on Cruises to South America, Asia, Russia

If you want to see a lot in comfort and in a short period of time, a cruise is the way to go. You unpack only once, are fed plenty of food and entertained while you sail between various exotic ports. And, if you are careful, you can travel for a base price of around $100 a day per person.

Cruise Ship Centers (www.cruiseshipcenters.com) is advertising some unusually low rates for cruises that frequently cost a lot more. For example, the cruise around Cape Horn in South America is normally costly, but by sailing on the Zaandam of the Holland America Line this December the 14-day cruise price can be less than $100 per day. This is a cruise for nature lovers, with stops at glaciers, fjords and the Falkland Islands and the passage around the often stormy Cape Horn.

If southeast Asia is more your style, a voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore with stops in Thailand and Vietnam has a similar minimum price for two weeks. The popular Baltic cruise from Copenhagen that visits a lot of northern capitals and the former Russian imperial capital is somewhat more expensive but still less than $125 per person.

Of course, you need to add air fare, tips, and excursions to the basic cost, but with careful planning a cruise can still be a budget vacation. If river cruises are more your style, Viking River Cruises (www.vcr.com) is offering free air fare on all its Russian cruises this summer.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Report on Life on a Greek Island

Check out a report by my friend Ann Diamond, a Montreal writer, on what it is like for ordinary people living on the Greek isle of Lemnos during Greece's economic crisis. It's at www.henrymakow.com.

This isn't one of those rosy reports encouraging people to retire abroad and take advantage of a lower cost of living, but a frontline account of actual conditions on an island Diamond knows well. It is devastating--shops closing, people committing suicide, others being paraded through the town for not paying their bills, many living mainly off the produce from their gardens if they are lucky enough to have gardens. Even nature, which used to bless Greece, is unreliable now--the seas are fished out, the sunshine not as abundant as it once was.

I was most affected by her report of the situation of an American friend who has lived in Greece for decades. The friend is now 76 with a small house but no pension, and survives by fasting for three days a week.

Greece does still benefit from beautiful beaches and cheap wine, but transportation can be unreliable. According to Diamond, the Greeks believe their situation will be reflected across the developed world in the near future. We can only hope they are wrong.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Trouble at Allegiant?

A report today in the Tampa Bay Times says that Allegiant Air (www.allegiantair.com) has cancelled six flights recently that were scheduled to leave from the airport at St. Petersburg-Clearwater, and has had two emergency landings at that same airport this month.

According to the newspaper, the budget airline has been experiencing a lot of difficulty during this summer season of heavy travel. It has one of the oldest fleets in the U.S., with an average age of 22 years, and it has been the subject of complaints by both pilots and mechanics.

I hope the airline gets its act together, since it offers some of the lowest air fares around, sometimes less than $50 for a one-way flight. It often costs more than that to get a cab to the airport. There were no problems with the one Allegiant Air flight I took several years ago, from St. Petersburg-Clearwater to Plattsburgh, NY. However, someone else I know flew from Plattsburgh to St. Petersburg, and reported that because of mechanical problems the plane had to fly a lot lower than its usual cruising speed.

I don't want to discourage anyone from travelling with Allegiant--the FAA wouldn't let them keep flying if there were serious problems-- but it is good to be aware that there could be some hassles this summer.

Guide to Eurailpass Travel

There is an interesting article about travelling with a Eurailpass on a site called www.maphappy.org.
It is written by a young woman who travelled the continent with a three-month pass, so she had a lot of experiences, mostly good ones.

A Eurailpass lets you travel throughout a number of different countries in Europe for one fixed price. It can be a good way to see a lot in a relatively short amount of time, and in my view train travel is far superior to flying as a way to experience Europe. It may also be more expensive, but use of train passes such as the Eurailpass can reduce the cost.

I've used Eurailpasses several times, but not in recent years. Now many long distance trains require seat reservations in addition to the pass, so that can be a hassle. You may not be kicked off the train without a reservation, but could find yourself standing in the corridor outside the washroom. One time when this happened to me I enjoyed talking with an older man in the same predicament, a German who had emigrated to Peru after World War II.

The article presumes that you are travelling with a smartphone and can use the Eurail app, which handles a lot of sitations. How one does this economically is another article in itself. Eurailpasses generally are sold only to residents of countries outside the European Union.

In any case, the article is worth a look if you are considering rail travel in Europe. Map Happy has a number of other useful stories on reducing the cost and wear of travel, including one on how to haggle for lower prices on www.airbnb.com.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

News from the Front in Ukraine

Ukraine has generally fallen out of the headlines in North America. However, the fighting continues there in the eastern part of the country known as the Donbass, which used to be the most prosperous area of Ukraine. For up to date information on what is happening there, check out the blog http://milakovsky.livejournal.com.

Written by a young American who is volunteering with an organisation that aids refugees from eastern Ukraine, he writes about the hardship being endured by ordinary people on both sides of the current line of demarcation. According to Milakovsky, the Kiev government is making it harder and harder for people in the region to get back and forth across the line. Many of them are elderly folks  with very limited means who must use public transit to collect their pensions in the other zone. He quotes church leaders who speak of actual starvation among civilians caught up in the conflict.

There is talk of tensions heating up in this region now that summer is nearly here. In all the geopolitical maneuvering, as usual it is the regular citizens who are forced to pay the price for their leaders' ambitions. Let us hope that Ukraine, which has experienced
so much tragedy in its history, will be spared further bloodshed.

The image above is from central Kiev, the Cathedral of St. Sofia.