Top Three Mediterranean Cruise Ports

By David Dickstein  |  2017-01-05

Built nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman Colosseum is the most famous monument to have survived from the classical world. 
--Photo by David Dickstein

Depending on the itinerary, a Mediterranean cruise can be the Whitman’s Sampler of journeys. A taste of Santorini here, a nibble of Naples there, a morsel of Mykonos this day and a bite of Barcelona that day. And, in keeping with the candy analogy, like a box of chocolates first-timers never know what you’re gonna get. That is, unless you either do your research or take the advice of those who have.

Having returned from two 10-day Mediterranean cruises within two months of each other, experienced on different cruise lines, I offer my Top 3 ports with recommendations based on personal experience heavily guided by hours of pre-planning and tips from the shore excursion directors of the Carnival Vista and Celebrity Reflection.

 

#1: Rome

Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t even try seeing it in a day. Unless the Eternal City is your port for embarkation or disembarkation, about 8 hours is what you may get to explore Italy’s magnificent capital, factoring in the 90 or so minutes it takes to get to and from the dock in Civitavecchia.

When in Rome … must-sees are all bucket list mainstays: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. With so much to do in so little time, let professionals be your guide to navigate with optimum efficiency. Carnival Cruises offers a “Rome at its Best & Inside the Colosseum” excursion ($176) that lasts 11 hours and a lifetime. Other cruise lines provide identical tours by different names. By motor coach and hoof, Rome’s “greatest hits” are explored (the Colosseum and St. Peter’s amply, albeit without a visit to the Sistine Chapel) or given a drive-by, which is adequate for the Forum and the site of Circus Maximus, where the chariot races were held for nearly a millennium.

If visiting Rome is a bona fide once-in-a-lifetime experience for you, consider splurging on a licensed private guide, as I did on the second of my back-to-back Mediterranean cruises. Everything is personalized, from the itinerary to historically accurate storytelling. Eyes of Rome, highly rated on Trip Advisor and now by me, more than accommodated my requests for a top-notch non-smoking guide with perfect English. Katie Farrar, a California-raised ex-patriot, led us on an 8-hour whirlwind of a day that included all the must-sees, including the overwhelming Sistine Chapel, overlooked Parthenon and overrated Spanish Steps, in addition to views and restaurants that weren’t overrun with tourists.

#2: Athens

It’s almost sacrilegious not to give even a full day to explore the birthplace of Western civilization, democracy, medicine, literature, theater, astronomy, philosophy, mythology and, oh yeah, the Olympics. Not to worry – as one of the world’s busiest cruise destinations, Athens understands the time restraints a sea-arriving visitor is under. Ground transportation from the port of Piraeus to downtown Athens can be as quick as 30 minutes, even when multiple megaships are freshly anchored.

Checking off the city’s two must-sees – the Acropolis and National Archaeological Museum – can be done with a single excursion booked directly with the cruise line. Carnival offers a 5-hour tour ($100) that comfortably takes busloads to the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity anywhere. From one most important museums in the world to the most important ancient site in the Western world, next up is the Acropolis, the sacred rock of ancient Athens graced by the Parthenon, amazing views and so much more. The climb takes about 10-20 minutes, slip-resistant shoes and a lot of patience on busy days. And they’re all busy days.

Arriving early to the Acropolis helps avoid crowds and the mid-day heat, so it’s wise to choose the first departure if opting for a cruise-booked excursion, as I did on the Carnival Vista trip. Two months later, I booked a private driver through Athens Tours Greece. Four hours for 150 Euros (about $160) is prudent and fair. A 7:30 a.m. pick-up at the ship had us beating the shore excursion busses at the Acropolis, and made the second visit to the National Archaeological Museum a dream. Our driver, who just might be Greek with the name Vassilis Papadopulos, isn’t licensed to give tours inside either major attraction. Most private drivers aren’t in the city, but between your guidebooks and abundant signage in English, a human guide is unessential. Our driver packed a lot into the remaining 90 minutes, including an ominous swing past the capital city’s Syrian refugee camp, a glimpse of Hadrian’s Arch and a stop at the House of Parliament to watch the colorful changing of the guard staged every morning at 11 sharp. He pulled up to the front with one minute to spare. That Papadopulos fella is gooooood.

#3: Naples

Pish-posh to tourists who dis Naples for its sprawling grittiness and high rate of petty crime. Just focus on its enthralling side, mind your valuables and become one with southern Italy’s largest city. But if that isn’t possible, get outta town and take a scenic drive to the tony Amalfi Coast.

Activities that were booked for both visits are enthusiastically recommended.

Daniela Ibelo, the licensed tour guide retained through ToursByLocals.com, was given a list of 12 points of interest in advance. Not only did she expertly navigate us through the city to check off each one, all but two via walking, she surprised us with such memorable moments as meeting a master lute craftsman in his shop. So generous was maestro liutaio Giuseppe Manna, he treated us to a private rendition of Italian standard “Funiculi Funicula.” Priceless. Also special were popping into magnificent 14th and 15th century churches on a lark and visiting a depressed part of town to meander through the eerie Fontanelle Cemetery teeming with real human skulls. Caloric highlights ranged from sfogliatella, Naples’ signature sweet pastry, washed down with Neapolitan espresso, of course, to lunch at Di Matteo, considered one of the top places to eat pizza in the city where it was invented. This was the only misstep. Next time it’s Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba or Da Michele. Booking a guide that does not double as a driver will save you money. As a guideline, expect to spend about $300 for an 8-hour tour at that level of service. Up to seven people can tour at this price, so if you’re traveling with family or friends, even those you just met on the ship, you’ll have more Euros for shopping if you get them to chip in.

A favorite shore excursion out of Naples is a drive to the postcard-worthy Amalfi Coast. Big-ship cruise line offers a wide selection of options, several that include the fascinating ruins of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. That appealed for the second visit. Good call, too, as the “Exclusive Amalfi Coast, Positano, Sorrento & Pompeii” shore excursion offered by Celebrity was 9 1/2 hours and $355 per person well spent. Going cheaper is easy, but bear in mind that tours that cost about half as much use large buses that can’t reach the quaint village of Positano due to the narrow, windy roads required to get there. Also, a 16-seat coach makes for intimate sightseeing and usually with the better guides and drivers. Splurging also means more time to shop (there’s no “where’s Bob?!”) and an upgraded lunch in Sorrento. The Imperial Hotel Tramontano, overlooking the most beautiful section of the Gulf of Naples, did not disappoint the nine of us gastronomically or aesthetically. Skipping the line to go inside Pompeii also was heavenly, proving that “going small” is huge when touring the Amalfi Coast or Pompeii.

So that’s my Top 3 Mediterranean ports, but please consider it merely a sample of what this amazing region has to offer. We’ll round out a Top 10 next time, covering Kusadasi, Rhodes, Santorini, Florence, Mykonos, Barcelona and Marseilles. A couple of dishonorable mentions also will be thrown in. Sorry Sicily and Crete.

If You Go

Carnival Cruises
www.carnival.com;

Celebrity Cruises
www.celebritycruises.com;

Eyes of Europe,
www.eyesofrome.com;

Athens Tours Greece,
www.athenstourgreece.com;

Maestro lute craftsman Giuseppe Manna:
www.artistiliutai.it;

Tours By Locals,
www.toursbylocals.com;

Imperial Hotel Tramontano,

www.hoteltramontano.it

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Carnival Sets Bar with Newest Ship

By David Dickstein  |  2016-09-15

Carnival Vista docked in Rhodes.

Clearly, the Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades Carnival Cruises has been making fleet-wide since 2011 are just a tease for something bigger and better. That something, the freshly christened, bar-raising Carnival Vista, comes to America in November.

It’s indeed bigger; Carnival’s first new ship in four years is the largest in the fleet for both passenger capacity (3,954) and tonnage (133,500). As for better, subjective as that descriptor is, the Vista makes a strong case having on one ship all the Fun Ship 2.0 refurbishments being added to the older vessels, ranging from concept bars and upgraded dining options to inventive entertainment offerings, along with industry firsts among the many new features on board.

At Carnival’s invitation, I checked out the bright, shiny ship one sail after its maiden voyage. Exploring and observing from bow to stern, starboard to portside, here are observations made during the 10-day Mediterranean cruise:

First Impressions: Disconcerting as it was to walk onto a Carnival ship and not be awestruck by towering glass elevators, the three-story, vortex-shaped DreamScape is a grand replacement of the atrium’s signature piece. The HD LED tube changes graphics several times during a cruise, and is just gorgeous. True to its name, the Vista was designed with views in mind; several dining venues have indoor-outdoor seating. Carnival’s fun for all ages reputation is bolstered by new offerings for often underserved older teens and the cruise line’s first-ever raft and watertubing adventure called Kaleid-O-Slide.

Industry Firsts: Carnival has found an innovative way to combine excitement with exercise with its brand-new, no extra cost SkyRide. Created by the founder of Rollerblade, it’s like riding a bike, only you’re pedaling while suspended on a rail above the deck. And the view! Breathtaking vistas are found inside the ship as well on the three-deck-high screen of the first IMAX at sea. The 187-seat IMAX, combined with the intimate Thrill Theater, a separate screen showing exhilarating multi-dimensional, shorter-length movies, makes the Vista the first nautical multiplex. The first brewery on a North American ship also is onboard, offering three craft beers.

From 2.0 to New.0: Besides cool industry firsts, Carnival Vista offers a “greatest hits” of the line’s newest features. SportsSquare, already on the Breeze, Magic and Sunshine, is a fresh and colorful take on such shipboard recreational mainstays as basketball, mini-golf, foosball and ping pong. The equally all-ages SkyCourse, also on those other three ships, is an elevated ropes course featuring two levels of challenge. The best of the Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades are all present and accounted for. Branded bars specializing in rum and tequila drinks, and a cocktail “pharmacy” called Alchemy Bar are popular watering holes, and the best burgers on the high seas come off the grill at Guy's Burger Joint, created in partnership with celebrity chef Guy Fieri.

The Food: Nothing on the ship beats those burgers, not even the surf and turf at the steakhouse, but if your heart is set on trying other fare, newer choices include Seafood Shack, serving up New England-style dishes for an upcharge at lunchtime. On the menu until its gone are fish caught on port days in indigenous waters, and you can even have that fish prepared for that night’s dinner wherever you decide to dine. Dishes representing the region you just visited are part of nightly “Port of Call” specials in the main dining room, and not once did the fish or lamb selections disappoint. While the upcharging JiJi Asian Kitchen and Bonsai Sushi Bar failed to impress due to ill-trained staff and so-so food, what did wow were the premium Fahrenheit 555 steakhouse (grilled double-cut lamb chops were sublime) and Cucina del Capitano that serves up eggplant parmesan, braised short ribs and fried calamari rivaling the best land-based Italian restaurants.

That’s Entertainment: Playlist Productions-branded shows, coming out of Fun Ship 2.0, put an end to cheesy stage shows with dazzling use of LED screens, contemporary choreography and actual music from this decade. Playlist’s newest production, the movie-themed “Flick,” had a triumphant world premiere during our sail. Standards from over 25 movies, including “Titanic,” of all films, are sung and danced to with a mystical bent in Cirque du Soleil style. The talented cast and a live seven-piece Cuban-inspired band kill with “Amor Cubano,” a hot new show featuring a refreshing playlist of Latin and Caribbean numbers. “America Rocks!” the third new show on the Carnival Vista, invigorates well-worn cruise show favorites from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Kiss and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Even if the songs are tired at least the technical aspects and high-octane energy of the singers and dancers are mind-blowing.

Unique Accommodations: Carnival debuts two nifty “neighborhood” concepts with Vista. Family Harbor on Deck 2 offers staterooms that sleep up to five people and an exclusive lounge stocked with large-screen TVs, games, refreshments and a concierge. Carnival marketing says the new Havana Cabana suites (for guests 12 and older) on Deck 5 will make you feel like you’re staying on an island resort. Believe the hype. The sense of going tropical is complements of special décor, a private lanai and exclusive access to the lively indoor-outdoor Havana Bar that serves complementary Cuban-style food during the day along with specialty coffees and cocktails.

Development Areas: For a new ship with the latest systems available, ventilation inside the casino is surprisingly poor. Exacerbating the problem is the inability to walk around the cloud of smoke when heading from the lobby to key food and entertainment venues on Deck 4. I can’t recall another megaship that doesn’t have an alternative path to circumvent the gaming area. Also, opting against traditional stadium seating in favor of individual chairs, the design of the 1,400-seat Liquid Lounge where the big production shows are staged is problematic. Without stationary chairs, people were configuring rows that essentially created barricades, removed natural aisles and gave some folks no leg room – a potential fire hazard. Also, only the two back rows are tiered and fastened, so line of sight was lousy for all but the very tall and those in the first rows.

Bon Voyage: Carnival’s new flagship will spend the remainder of her inaugural season cruising the Mediterranean before embarking on a 13-day repositioning voyage to New York on Oct. 21. With the ship’s second cruise out of the Big Apple in November, Carnival Vista will arrive at her new home of Miami to offer year-round Caribbean sailings. For additional information, contact any travel agent, call 1-800-CARNIVAL or visit www.carnival.com.

Bottom Line: Over-brimming with novel features and others that improve on the familiar, Carnival Vista sets the bar for the company. Casino notwithstanding, the fleet’s biggest and brightest is a breath of fresh air, and ranks among the best ships this frequent cruiser has sailed.

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Celebrity Reflection Mirrors Excellence

By David Dickstein  |  2016-08-18

Celebrity Cruise

Ground chuck makes for a delicious burger, but if you’re the type of consumer who will spend a bit more for the quality of sirloin, let me introduce you to premium cruising. I’m assuming you’ve never had the pleasure as only 15 percent of American adults have ever cruised at all, let alone treat themselves to the “better” class of cruise lines in the good-better-best marketing model. After taking 19 voyages on “good” ships, I finally tasted the sweet life of “better” and it was delicious.

What a difference spending 25 percent more makes. That was the takeaway after this self-paying travel writer took a 10-day Italy & Greek Isles cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection out of Rome. Don’t get me wrong: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and other Big Ship-category players generally offer a solid product at economical fares. In fact, the ship, crew and service were so good on the new Carnival Vista in May, at times it felt like premium-class cruising. But on the Celebrity Reflection, with few exceptions, there was zero interruption of excellence.

Celebrity is to Royal Caribbean what Lexus is to Toyota. Premium ships, marketed as a more personalized alternative for an upper-middle-class demographic, are typically smaller, and that holds true here; the 3,046-passenger Reflection is the newest and largest in Celebrity's fleet, yet dwarfed by every Royal Caribbean ship launched in the past decade. The next generation of Celebrity ships is scheduled to debut in 2018, and it has big hulls to fill thanks to the feature-rich Solstice class now gracing many of the Seven Seas. When Reflection debuted in 2012, it immediately set itself apart from its four older siblings with an additional deck, more staterooms and roomier restaurants, lounges and theaters.

Food, Glorious Food

With over a dozen eateries, including six specialty dining venues and a buffet that blows away those on the megaships, going hungry is one activity never on the daily program. Bright and cheery Oceanview Café is a buffet that gets it right, offering sumptuous made-to-order pasta, pizza and stir-fry alongside other international fare. The carving station actually has leg of lamb, and nearby is hand-scooped gelato ranging in flavors from pistachio to tiramisu. We climbed the mountain of shipboard buffets, yet things only went higher from there.

Two-level Opus is the main dining area. Elegance without pretentiousness, a vibe running throughout much of the ship, welcomes all passengers. Like the main dining rooms on less expensive competition, Opus’ menu includes prime rib, salmon, pork chops, escargot – you name it – but the quality of ingredients, preparation and plating is noticeably higher.

Well above average for “regular folk,” dining on Celebrity gets kicked up a notch, along with service, at the two restaurants dedicated to passengers splurging on AquaClass or suite accommodations. For suite guests, Luminae serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in an intimate, opulent atmosphere. The gourmet selections and slightly lower density of the table configuration are appealing. Blu, open for breakfast and lunch, befits the AquaClass brand by serving spa cuisine that is appropriately portioned, high in quality, taste and flavor, and nontraditional. Breakfast selections include a smoked salmon and asparagus frittata, and for dinner, it’s out with heavy béarnaise and in with a truffle vinaigrette on cuts of tender steak. Not all is perfect in Blu, however. One evening’s dessert menu contained a misprint: It said the to-die-for Café Pot de Crème has no sugar added. Yeah, I’ll believe that when I see Nacho Cheese Doritos on my sushi.

Of the Reflection’s specialty restaurants, the most unique is easily Qsine ($45 cover), serving up a whimsical “dining journey” that begins with ordering from iPads and ends with picking your own chocolate-covered strawberry from a field of grass strapped to your “tour guide” (don’t call them servers at Qsine). In between are the shareable courses of tasty tapas you selected, but how they come out is out of your hands in this guided journey. When the effervescent Nathan scampered to our oceanview table, bringing with him a tray of signature sushi lollipops, I pointed to two of them that were dusted with some sort of orange powder. “What’s that?” I asked. “Nacho Cheese Doritos,” he replied. They were incredible. So were the pulled pork spring rolls served upright in springs, and M’s Favorites that comes to your table in an open-air case with 12 compartments, each containing a sample of Mediterranean dishes.

Other specialty restaurants of note include the posh Murano ($50) for a contemporary bent to classic French cuisine, the Italian steakhouse Tuscan Grille ($45), the open-air Lawn Club Grill ($45) where you can be the grill master, The Porch ($25) for fresh seafood, and Sushi on Five (a la carte pricing).

Put Down the Fork

In between meals are many non-caloric ways to get your fill, starting with the impressive array of entertainment. “Broken Strings” is a standout production show, featuring a talented, tireless and attractive cast singing and dancing to music from this actual decade – a rarity on cruises. Mainstage shows still feature a live band, and consider yourself fortunate if trombonist Mike Daigeau is your cruise’s band director. The affable “Big Mike,” who just left the Reflection for a new contract on the Celebrity Silhouette, is a three-time Grammy winner with a crazy-impressive resume. Cruise director Sue Denning is no slouch, either, having got her start as a teen singing star in the U.K. and as an adult performed in movies alongside such A-listers as Michael Caine. On each cruise she performs a one-woman show that even Millennials were heard raving about the next morning. Catering to a more adult demographic, evening entertainment includes Liquid, more a theme than a show, transforming the usually tranquil Solarium sanctuary into a Miami Beach-style nightclub complete with DJ, pulsating music and seductively costumed eye candy in and out of the pool. Who ordered the hot mermaid?

If You Go

Through at least spring 2018, Celebrity Reflection is making Italy and Florida home. Six months of 7-day Caribbean cruises out of Miami begin on Nov. 5, then she returns to Rome for Mediterranean itineraries of 10 to 15 days from May to October 2017. Reflection resumes service in Florida, this time Fort Lauderdale, in November 2017 with a range of itineraries to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. Information on staterooms and bookings is available by calling Celebrity Cruises at 800-647-2251.

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Rolling Stones Exhibit Rocks Music Fans

NewsUSA  |  2016-05-24

Music fan maximizes London visit.

(NewsUSA) - Sponsored News - For a Rolling Stones fan, what could top meeting the band in person? New Yorker Alex Emanuel met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood inside the Recording Gallery within the Rolling Stones retrospective exhibit, Exhibitionism, at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

After handshakes and back slaps with the band, Alex recalled, “It’s going to sound silly, but for a moment I thought I was a member of the Rolling Stones. It’s not every day you get to meet your idols.” He added, “The show has given me a unique glimpse of the city through the eyes of the Rolling Stones.”

Exhibitionism is a Rolling Stones treasure trove, and includes 9 themed gallery spaces with 500 items from original stage costumes, rare instruments, lyric books, backstage and touring paraphernalia, album art, photography, stage designs, personal diaries, and never-before-released audio and behind-the-scenes footage.

Celebrating the Stones’ artistic collaborations in music, art and design, fashion, and film, Exhibitionism also features original works on display from an array of artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Alexander McQueen, Prada, Dior, Ossie Clark, L’Wren Scott, David Bailey, Michael Cooper, Jeff Koons, Walton Ford, Shepard Fairey, and Martin Scorsese.

“The exhibition offers the most in-depth insight into The Rolling Stones and their incredible career,” says Thea Jeanes-Cochrane, Director of iEC (International Entertainment Consulting), the company behind the exhibit. “We’ve worked hard to create something utterly breathtaking and it’s very pleasing to see the fans reactions.”

Chris Gottlieb, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at VisitLondon.com adds,“Alex’s Rolling Stones tour of London shows how the city is steeped in the history of one of the world’s greatest rock bands.”

Alex was taken on a Rolling Stones-themed, once-in-a-lifetime trip to London after the city’s official tourism body, Visitlondon.com, identified him as a “super fan” of the band.

Alex visited many iconic Rolling Stones locations, including Edith Grove, Chelsea, where the band lived together; Regents Sounds in Denmark Street, where they cut their first albums; the 100 Club, where they played an impromptu gig in 1982, and Olympic Studios where “Sympathy for the Devil” was recorded.

Tourism initiative Fans of London -- devised by Visitlondon.com and supported by the GREAT Britain Campaign, British Airways, and Hilton -- celebrates many special events across London this year including the Rolling Stones exhibit, Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday celebrations, and 400 years of Shakespeare’s legacy.

Exhibitionism runs until September 4 at London’s Saatchi Gallery. Tickets are available at www.stonesexhibitionism.com. Want to win a trip to London for your own music fan fantasy?

Visit www.visitlondon.com/fans.

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The Big Showdown Over Fingerprinting Uber and Lyft Drivers

NewsUSA  |  2016-05-24

(NewsUSA) - Even some Sunday school teachers are subject to it. So why are Uber and Lyft so averse to having their drivers fingerprinted that they just suspended service in a major U.S. city?

Fingerprints are widely considered the best way to weed out criminals, but checking them costs more than the simple name-based background reviews the app-based ride-hailing companies have fought hard to continue using across the country.

So a few months after the City Council in Austin, Texas, voted last December to require them anyway for public safety reasons, Uber and Lyft spent $8.6 million on a campaign blitz -- described as full of “dicey misdirections” in the city’s largest newspaper -- to get voters to overturn the regulations.

It wasn’t even close.

By a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, voters said: Hell, yes, we want your drivers fingerprinted, just like cabbies and limousine drivers are.

And why wouldn’t they? Consider the following:

  • Ride-hailing drivers have been accused of a string of rapes, murders and other crimes across the nation.

  • Uber agreed in April to pay as much as $25 million to settle a lawsuit in California that accused it of misleading customers about the strength of its background checks on drivers. “Laws designed to protect consumers cannot be ignored,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon declared.

What makes the Austin vote all the more amazing is that people went to the polls knowing that Uber and Lyft had threatened to pull out if the rules weren’t loosened.

“The threat brings to mind what was, for my generation, a famous (humor) magazine image,” an Austin American-Statesman reporter wrote, referring to a 1973 National Lampoon cover of a man pointing a gun at a cute little dog’s head. “‘If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog,’” the headline said.

“Lyft and Uber told Austin, essentially, pass our (favored) regulations or we’ll kill your dog.”

The “dog,” in Austin’s case, the reporter went on to clarify, being their customers and as many as 15,000 (at least temporarily out-of-work) drivers.

Public safety advocates are hoping the Austin vote marks a turning point in the ongoing effort to get the Ubers of the world to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“Until all municipalities require suitable background checks for drivers of these ride-hailing services, we fear continued disastrous consequences as a result of digital hitchhiking,” said Scott Solombrino, co-founder of the National Limousine Association (www.Limo.org).

Meanwhile, Austin Mayor Steve Adler has offered to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a compromise, and both Uber and Lyft are urging Austinites to contact their City Council members if they want the services to resume.

And, oh, yes, at least one small, start-up ride-hailing company named GetMe -- apparently sensing an exploitable opening -- has said it has no problem complying with the fingerprinting requirement.

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Lessons Learned On a Date

Story by Alona Thomas  |  2016-05-06

I truly have so much fun exploring and writing about my discoveries for the Gold River Messenger. The stories that begin with just an inquiry about how someone gets started as an entrepreneur or what is the process that brings something delicious to our table is always a stimulating adventure. 

On a recent mini-vacation to Palm Desert I was determined to visit a date farm. Dates are wonderful by themselves and I love to use them many ways including a very easy appetizer. However, I did not know how they got to my plate.  My wish was granted by the Pato’s Dream Date Gardens located in the Coachella Valley. 

Guinea hens announced my arrival at this five acre farm which was fairly obscured by Palm trees.  Douglass and Debbie Adair, have owned and operated this organic farm since 1977. As we walked and talked about date farming, I realized I was meeting with an individual that has a very interesting life. Mr. Adair joined the United Farm Worker’s Union of America in 1965 at 22 years old after graduating from UC Berkeley. His up bring was academia, but his love of the outdoors and the hard physical work of farming brought him to the fields where he picked peaches, plums and grapes. He was beside Gilbert Padilla and Ceasar Chevez during those years of strikes and organizational struggles.  After my visit I could not wait to google him to find out the story and realized I had the good fortune to meet with a man who walks with history.

Douglass purchased the farm with nine palm trees. His intention was to grow grapes, but a friend offered to help him with the date trees and 40 years later “we grow our dates as they were grown in the times of the Bible and Koran”. Dates have a sex life — there are male and female trees and no figs will happen unless the two should engage. The female tree flower must be pollinated by the male tree pollen. On Pato’s farm this is done by a professional Pollinator which climbs the female tree and distributes the pollen by hand. There are spikes on the trees which can make this a very sticky endeavor. The water source is the Colorado River and when irrigation is required, Douglass orders the water and then regulates it between the farmers above and below his property to provide for his trees.   Palm trees are prolific and develop shoots that are cut from the mother tree and then replanted. The clone of the mother Medjool is thought to be the great, great grandchild of a single oasis in Morocco. Because they use no pesticides or artificial chemicals, the Pato dates are completely natural.

 Today, the farm is almost fully populated by date palms. Douglass only sells his dates at farmer’s markets and direct through the mail. Medjools, Halawis, Khala, and Mariana’s are all available at harvest time. It is possible to purchase a frond with dates and have them hang in the kitchen and pluck at will as they become softer over time.  They also sell the tall palm to landscapers that will need a tree of a certain height. They come to the farm, measure the tree for the exact requirement and then dig it up for a future at a resort or home driveway. 

It was great day to not only learn about dates, but to meet Douglass Adair also known as Pato.

Alona’s hobbies are food and delicious times. Contact Alona at: alonathomas@gmail.com

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Spring into Summer in the Lone Star State

Brandpoint  |  2016-04-26

(BPT) - When it comes to spring and summer vacations, Texas is full of possibilities, boasting more than 600 miles of coastline, scenic mountain ranges, historic sites and more. With activities like dolphin watching, deep sea fishing, bird watching and hiking, visitors will never be bored.

For a Gulf Coast adventure, Corpus Christi is a must-see and one of the world’s top kiteboarding destinations. Just down the road from Corpus Christi is Port Aransas, a coastal town where chartered boats with local guides and equipment are available for deep sea fishing experiences that will have you reeling in red snapper, wahoo, blue marlin and more in a matter of hours. Galveston, a unique 32-mile beach town, offers everything from soft sandy beaches to one of the largest, most historically significant collections of 19th-century buildings. Additionally, Galveston is one of the top locations for birding in the United States as the island is home to more than 500 species of birds.

If you prefer mountains to waves, West Texas is the place for you. You’ll be amazed by the beauty of the Big Bend National Park in Big Bend, the Davis Mountains State Park in Fort Davis and the Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso. In addition to hiking through scenic mountain ranges, West Texas is home to many outdoor activities. Take a dip in the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, Balmorhea, horseback ride, white water raft on the Rio Grande River, kayak, canoe, stargaze at the McDonald Observatory and more.

Another popular state park, Palo Duro Canyon, cuts through the heart of the Texas Panhandle just south of Amarillo and is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Texas. At roughly 60 miles long, up to 20 miles wide and around 266 yards deep, it is the second largest canyon in the country. Further South in the Texas Hill Country, Enchanted Rock is an ancient pink granite dome that has attracted visitors for thousands of years. A variety of outdoor activities are sure to keep visitors busy, including hiking, camping, rock climbing, birding, geocaching and stargazing. In fact, Enchanted Rock is one of two Texas state parks designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Want to make a splash? Take a swim in one of Austin’s swimming holes. Barton Springs Pool is one of Austin’s famous landmarks and easily the most popular swimming hole in the city. Spring fed, Barton Springs Pool is over three acres and remains 70 degrees year round. Another famous swimming hole, Hamilton Pool, was created thousands of years ago when an underground river collapsed creating the sunken grotto. With a 50-foot waterfall spilling from an outcropping of limestone into the jade green pool, it is a site to behold.

South of Austin in New Braunfels, Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort has been named the best water park in the nation for 17 years. With tube chutes, water coasters, a sea creature cove, lazy rivers and more, visitors of all ages will have a blast at an affordable price.

Not near New Braunfels? Don’t worry! There’s plenty of fun to be had in Arlington at one of the biggest theme parks in the state, Six Flags Over Texas. Its claim to fame is The Texas Giant, while the kids will enjoy Bugs Bunny Boomtown. Across the street, more than 3 million gallons of water await at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor. In San Antonio, Six Flags Fiesta Texas offers a variety of musical performances and shows in addition to rides. The park is home to Batman: The Ride, a new world class 4D Free Fly Coaster that thrusts riders into an immersive, high-speed Gotham City adventure.

Perhaps the most important theme park of all in the state of Texas is Morgan’s Wonderland. Located in San Antonio with inclusion as its guiding principle, Morgan’s Wonderland was designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built for everyone’s enjoyment. The 25-acre, completely wheelchair-accessible park features more than 25 attractions.

Not to mention, San Antonio is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site San Antonio Missions. The state’s most iconic mission is the Alamo, however, Spanish priests established five additional Catholic missions: San Antonio de Valero, San José, Concepción, San Juan and Espada, along the San Antonio River. The traditions established by the mission’s friars still influence the culture of San Antonio today.

With great weather and plenty to do, you can't go wrong when spending your spring and summer in Texas. For more information about travel experiences in the Lone Star State, visit www.TravelTexas.com and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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