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Travel: History Lives at Belgium’s Menin Gate

Sept. 2, 2014 9:35 a.m. - Updated: 9:38 a.m.

When my plane landed in Brussels in the spring of 2012, I was stupid and dazed from lack of sleep. I'd slept only a few hours in the last couple of days, having worked late into the night on Thursday and then pulled an all-nighter on Friday to get everything written and filed before my 6 a.m. departure Saturday morning. 

 

Most people would have buckled up their seat belts and caught up on lost sleep during the long flights, but I have some kind of airplane insomnia. I find it almost impossible to stay asleep on a plane. It didn’t help that we flew over so much unsettled weather (tornadoes across the Midwest) that the flight was too bumpy to rest easy. I was still too keyed up to much more that doze on the international flight, waking at every movement of the passengers around me.

 

A couple of hours after I landed in Belgium on Sunday I took the train to the city of Ieper. I didn’t dare sleep on the train because I was afraid I would not wake up at my stop, so by the time I stepped off at the Ieper station, I was barely functioning. There were no taxis available so I studied the city map and then pulled my rolling suitcase behind me, bumping over cobblestones, as I made my way to the hotel. I slumped over a bowl of soup while I waited for my room to be ready and when I finally unlocked the door, I was finished. 

 

I usually power through the first day in Europe to better adjust to the time change. This time I closed the door, stripped off the clothes I’d been wearing for more than 24-hours, crossed to the bed and collapsed. I didn’t wake up for 6 hours, and when I did, I was famished. Unfortunately, by that time most of the shops and cafes were closed.

 

As I walked up and down the narrow streets near the marketplace looking for a bodega or bistro with late hours, I thought about what drives us to go and see and explore, about what compels us to endure crowded, bumpy flights, grating security annoyances and the harsh physical effects of long-distance travel. But when I turned a corner and caught sight of the Menin Gate I realized, again, that the answer, as is so often the case, was right in front of me.

 

 

The Menin Gate is a massive monument to the more than 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the Great War (World War 1) but whose remains were never found. It sits on the edge of the city center and marks the route to the Belgian Western Front. Still, a century later, buglers from the local fire brigade mark the “last post” in a short but moving ceremony each night. A ceremony only interrupted by the Second World War. 

 

The gate is striking in its simplicity and its size. At night, illuminated by spotlights, especially if it is your first glimpse, the gate is an arresting sight. 

 

I was in Ieper because as the site of unimaginable devastation during the First World War, it is the epicenter of a period of history that illustrates, heartbreakingly so, the flawed and all-too-human story of our human history. It was something I needed to see. 

 

Over the years I’ve had the same experience in so many other places around the world. Travel is exhausting. It eats at our resources and frequently requires us to step off the edge of our comfortable lives. And in that way travel changes us, sculpts us, enriches us in incomparable measures.

 

I guess the truth is we go because there is so much to see. And we don’t want to leave this world without having experienced as much of it as we possibly can. We go because there is nothing as powerful as standing in a place you've only read about before and opening your mind and heart to the lessons of history and time.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 
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Urban Archaeology: Unearthing pieces of Spokane’s past

Aug. 27, 2014 12:44 p.m. - Updated: 12:50 p.m.

 

 

     It early spring, when the Spokane River was a wild spectacle, swollen with snowmelt and spring rains, thundering over the jagged basalt falls, pouring through the deep canyon at the edge of downtown, I could not stay away. I kept going back to stand on one of the bridges or walk along the trail that follows the river’s path through the city.

 

     Sunday morning was my favorite time. There were fewer people around and I usually parked and walked along the north bank of the river on the newest section of the Centennial Trail beneath the Monroe Street Bridge and through the Kendall Yards development.

 

    At one point, near the base of the big bridge, the construction of the trail extension had left broken soil on both sides of the path, an open scar of freshly turned dirt, sprinkled with grass seed that had not yet sprouted.  As I walked I noticed a few pieces of debris that had been exposed by a scraper or the year’s unusually heavy rains: shards of white crockery, pieces of old china decorated with roses and other flowery designs, bits of glass that had turned lavender from decades of exposure to the sun. I was intrigued. I bent to pick up one piece and then another, and for a while I forgot about the river. The more I looked, the more I found. 

 

    I remember reading somewhere that the riverbanks on either side of the bridge, and the bridges that were there before the current span was built in 1911,  had been expanded with fill, dirt and detritus pushed over the edge, a practice that continued for decades. A good bit of it was probably the result of the 1889 fire that decimated the heart of the downtown district at that time.

 

    Now, having been plowed and pushed and scraped, yet again, time was upended and the evidence of the city’s human past was exposed revealing old patent medicine bottles, dishes that had broken and been discarded, tiles from houses and buildings.

 

    Knowing that in a few weeks, with the return of warm weather, the grass would grow quickly and obscure this mosaic of the ordinary lives of the men, women and children who upon which the future had been built, I went back as often as I could. Not with a shovel or an eye for any kind of treasure, just to walk with my head bent and my eyes on the ground at my feet. Sure enough, once the grass grew thick and green, the bits and pieces disappeared.

 

    The river in summer is more docile so I’m not there as often. But when I do walk the trail these days I am more aware of what is under my feet, that with every step I am walking on the hidden traces of other lives and other times.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 
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Cruise and Travel: Stay on time and organized with these apps

Aug. 20, 2014 12:44 p.m. - Updated: 12:44 p.m.

Travel seems to get more complicated every year. With all the new TSA requirements,  confusing flight options and fares, crowded airports and seasonal weather cancellations, it can be hard to keep up and stay on track.

Fortunately, the list of iPhone and Android applications is constantly expanding. In addition to my preferred air carrier options (Delta, Alaska Airlines, etc.) I depend on certain apps to keep me on time and on the go.

Here is a short list of popular travel apps including a few of my favorites: 

Tripit: (iPhone and Android) This is my personal favorite. Tripit automatically creates an itinerary with flight confirmation numbers, airport terminal gates and hotel addresses. It also syncs to your calendar and you can share your itinerary with friends and family. Basic service is free. I opted to upgrade to the premium service and it's been worth it.

GateGuru: (iPhone and Android) This handy worldwide app provides airport guides and listings for restaurants, shops, shoe shine kiosks, spas, lounges, A.T.M. service and free Wi-Fi.. www.gateguru.com 

FlightStats (iPhone and Android.) FlightStats’ live flight tracking app lets you access realtime status of worldwide flights by flight number, airport or route. The app also updates weather conditions.

Uber: With service available in more than 100 cities, including Spokane, Uber lets you order a car, gives you an arrival estimate and then notifies you by text when you’re car is on its way.  Uber is a no-cash service, using credit cards only.

Kayak: Listing most major airlines, Kayak is my go-to app for searching for flights and fares and allows me to search for cheaper days to travel.

CheckMate for Travel  (iPhone)  CheckMate is a relative new app that allows you to check in to your hotel from your smartphone. You’ll get a call when the room is ready so all you need to do is stop by the desk and pick up your key. 

 

MyRadar (iPhone and Android )  MyRadar provides realtime weather and radar displays enabling  you to see weather that is coming your way that might impact flights and airline schedules. 

 
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Travel: Luggage tips: Pack right and carry on

Aug. 17, 2014 12:32 a.m. - Updated: 12:32 a.m.

Planning for two days in New York—including a night at the theater and a lot of sightseeing—a 7-day transatlantic cruise on the Queen Mary 2 with at least two formal nights, and then another three days hoofing it around London before flying back home, made packing—especially in a small suitcase—a challenge. I had to pack a gown and cocktail dress for the ship’s formal nights, a raincoat for the changeable English weather, and the right combination of comfortable shoes and clothing for a variety of situations. And I was determined to fit it all into my 21-inch Travelpro carry-on bag. 

    

Having chased lost luggage on a multiple-destination trip before, I’ve become wary of checking my bag, especially when I’m going to be on a cruise and my shopping options to replace lost clothing will be limited. 

    

Fortunately, I've figured out a  packing system that lets me get a lot in a small bag. 

   

Here’s what I took along: One evening gown, one cocktail dress, two pair of black microfiber slacks (hand-washable,) one linen blazer (also hand-washable) five blouses, two long sleeve t-shirts, one lightweight cashmere sweater, a raincoat and tiny umbrella, a lightweight fleece, yoga pants, and PJs. I added a folding tote bag and a compression bag to create space for any souvenirs I wanted to bring home. 

    

Here’s how I did it:

 

Hang Ups: My dresses, including the evening gown, are jersey. They can be rolled tightly in my suitcase but after hanging a few hours and a spritz of Downy Wrinkle Releaser be ready to wear when the occasion arises. I don’t know how the wrinkle releaser works, it just does. I keep a travel-size spray bottle in my kit. The shirts were packed fresh from the dry cleaners, still in the thin plastic bag which prevents wrinkles.

    

Cube Control: Everything is sorted into Eagle Creek packing cubes (purchased at REI) which make living out of a suitcase easier. I know right where to look for what I need, no need for digging through a messy suitcase. On the ship I put the dresses, blouses and slacks on hangers in the closet and put the rest of the cubes on the closet shelves for both privacy and organization.  

 

Happy Feet: The right shoes can make or break a trip. I brought along one pair of dressy heels, my black Clark’s booties (the best travel shoes I’ve ever owned,) one pair of day-to-evening black flats, and one pair of lightweight Ecco slip-on walking shoes. 

 

The Little Things: My makeup, lotions and toiletries were all separated into see-through mesh pouches. My petite travel flatiron (for taming my hair in the humidity) comes in its own travel pouch. Since my clothes are usually neutral—black plants and white or beige shirts- and a natural linen blazer for summer-I always pack five or six folded silk scarves in a plastic zip bag. This lets me add color to my wardrobe without any additional weight.

 

Tools of My Trade: I usually travel with my laptop, and/or my iPad, my iPhone and a camera (sometimes two cameras.) All the various chargers, cords, batteries and accessories are sorted into more see-through mesh bags and everything (including my purse, to meet the “two pieces only” airline carry-on regulations) goes into a lightweight rolling backpack.

 

 

    As it turned out, I had everything I needed for the two-week trip, but was still well under the luggage weight and size limit. My husband had no qualms about checking a bag so (full disclosure) I knew I had room to expand if absolutely necessary, but I’m proud to say I was able to make my small-bag system work.

 

Note: New airline carry-on luggage size restrictions went into effect this spring. To avoid having to check your bag, be sure it does not exceed a maximum of 14 inches wide by 22 inches high by 9 inches deep. 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a Spokane-based travel writer. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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Travel: London in a Weekend

Aug. 4, 2014 8:41 a.m. - Updated: 8:41 a.m.

After our June transatlantic crossing on the Cunard Queen Mary 2, we spent an additional three days in London before flying back to Spokane. That’s not a lot of time in one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities, but with a map, a plan, and a good pair of walking shoes, it’s enough time to make wonderful memories. 

 

Make the Most of Every Minute

 

After leaving the ship in Southampton, we arrived at Victoria Station coach depot around noon and walked around the corner to catch the train to our Kensington hotel. Since we were there just days before Wimbledon, rooms were in short supply and rates were high. Knowing we wouldn’t be spending much time at the hotel, and not willing to pay a premium price for a luxury hotel, we’d booked a room at the Holiday Inn Forum in South Kensington. 

After checking in (we got lucky and a room was ready so we could take a minute to freshen up) we dropped our bags and we were on our way.

Here are a few ways we made the most of a short stay:

 

The Pedestrian Route

 

Since we were in the neighborhood, our first stop was Kensington Palace. We had already decided most of our time in the city would be spent at major museums so we passed on the formal palace tour and spent an hour exploring the gardens, ponds, meadows and pathways surrounding the home of Will, Kate and little Prince George as we made our way across town. It was a warm day and at every turn we found people luxuriating in the sun. Children chased ducks, couples dozed on blankets and pedestrian commuters strode past us briefcase in hand.

 

From there we made our way through the park toward the heart of the city, past ice-cream trucks and pony clubs trotting on bridal paths, eventually landing at the National Gallery’s weekly extended hours evening. London is home to some of the best museums in the world and most are free and, like the National Gallery, have extended hours at least one evening each week. This gives you added flexibility if, like us, you’re trying to see as much as possible in a short amount of time.

 

 

Happy Hour at the Pub

London is expensive and dining out can make a big dent in your budget. Since we were planning to be on the move most of the day, we opted for starting the day with a full breakfast—including a made-to-order omelet—at the hotel’s buffet (included in the hotel reservation package,) skipping lunch and then stopping to eat and rest our tired feet at around 5p.m. After walking miles each day we were more than happy to sit down to a pint and a plate of cheese, pickles, chips and sausages at Happy Hour. It still wasn’t cheap but was certainly less expensive than a restaurant meal on a busy weekend and we took advantage of sidewalk seating to soak up the ambiance while we drained our glass.

 

The Oyster is a Pearl

We did a lot of walking but sometimes you need a faster way to get around. My travel agent suggested an Oyster Card and it was a smart move. The pre-paid transit card is the fastest and most efficient way to access the Underground and allows you to move quickly and safely from one place to another. It’s easy to monitor the balance on your card and to add more money at kiosks at each Underground station.

 

 

Take the London Pass

The pre-paid London Pass lets you skip the long line at ticket booths at some of the premier attractions ( Including the London Tower, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey and more.) Each pass is good for two days after the first use so we activated ours the morning of the second day—our first full day in the city. (There’s free WiFi at the London Pass ticket kiosk on Charring Cross road!)

 

 

At the end of our whirlwind tour of London we were exhausted but satisfied we’d seen as much as we could in such a short time. We’d watch the guards change, admired beautiful works of art and architecture and stood in the places where world history was made. After one last stroll across the Thames, a cone of Mr Whippy soft-serve ice-cream in hand, we watched the sunset paint the sky over Big Ben. We had a plane to catch in the morning but we were already working on another list of things to see and do on the next trip over.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 
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Travel: Lavender, luxury, and fine wine in Woodinville

July 30, 2014 1:32 p.m. - Updated: 1:34 p.m.

  This time of year there are a lot of people wandering around Tuscany, tasting wine in the hot Italian sun. And just as many snapping photos of the beautiful lavender fields in Provence, France. While I can’t be at either of those places at the moment, I do have a favorite destination just a few hours away that will give me both experiences.

 

   Woodinville, Washington, is just 25 minutes from Seattle but the small town stands large in the burgeoning Washington wine community. With more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms it’s possible to taste the best of the state without traveling more than a few miles. And right now, through the month of August, during the height of the lavender season, you can book a stay at Willows Lodge that lets you add a bit of aroma therapy and agritourism to your wine-tasting experience.   

 

   In the seasonal Lavender Harvest package, Willows Lodge will take you to the nearby Woodinville Lavender’s beautiful field where you can help cut and bundle the fragrant blooms. While there you can pick up tips on growing your own lavender, watch a demonstration of the oil-distilling process and sample the farm’s unique scented and edible products. When you’re done the lodge will bring you home to soak in a lavender-scented bath. 

 

   While the summer concerts at Chateau Ste. Michelle always draw a crowd, more and more people from this side of the Cascade Range are starting to add the small town to the schedule as they drive to and from Seattle. It’s worth a stop any time of year, but the Willows Lodge Lavender Harvest package is an incentive to spend a night or two right now, enjoy the spa and a meal at The Barking Frog, and bring home the fragrance of Provence.

 

 

Read more about Woodinville and the Willows Lodge in my travel column in the latest issue of Spokane Cd’A Woman magazine 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 
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Travel: Explore Ann Arbor

July 27, 2014 1:03 p.m. - Updated: 1:03 p.m.

    If I told you I’d gone to the city to see a few shows, listen to some impressive live music, catch a cutting-edge film festival, spend time in world-class museums, and chow down on an astonishingly diverse and multicultural dining scene including Cuban, Ethiopian, Mexican, Italian, Asian and Turkish food, you’d probably assume I was talking about a big city. Somewhere like Chicago or Seattle or New York.

 

    When when I tell you I did all that in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you should pay attention. 

 

    Ann Arbor, with a population of around 116,000 and home to sports and academic powerhouse, University of Michigan, rivals big urban destinations in terms of food, entertainment, and culture.

 

    I spent a few days looking, tasting, and exploring. Here’s a roundup of my favorites:

 

Feed Your Mind

    

    Ann Arbor boasts a number of superior museums. The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) offers an impressive collection of fine art and artifacts. Two of my favorite pieces were the Samurai armor in the Asian collection and John Stanley’s “Mt. Hood from the Dalles”, a beautiful landscape painted in 1871 with an iconic view of Mt. Hood from the Columbia River. 

    Another fascinating stop is the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This state-of-the-art facility, housed in an exquisite Victorian-era Romanesque building complete with turret and Tiffany window, is centered around the late-19th Century and early-20th Century collection of it’s namesake, Francis Kelsey. Some highlights of the more than 100,000 artifacts include Roman glassware, Egyptian masks, and an elaborate sarcophagus. The coffin’s owner, the missing Mummy Djehutymose, has his own popular Twitter feed and Facebook page.

    The nearby Gerald Ford Library Museum and archives is also worth a visit. Primarily a holding place for more than 25 million pages of historical documents pertaining to Ford’s political career and the Cold War era, the center offers an intriguing view of the man, including the story of Ford’s birth and childhood.

 

 

 

Taste the World

    My first meal in Ann Arbor, a Cuban burger and batida ( a frozen concoction of mango, pinaeapple, scoop of ice cream and a splash of dark rum) and a basket of what may be the best fries I’ve ever tasted, at Frita Batidas, set the tone for the rest of the week. Everything was delicious and often unexpected. Some of my other favorites were the Ethiopian Injera (soft bread) and Gomen (collard greens cooked with spices, onions and jalapeno peppers) at Blue Nile and lamb-stuffed grape leaves and cold vegetable salads at Ayse’s Turkish Cafe. Of course, no visit to Ann Arbor counts unless you stop by world-famous Zingerman’s Deli. For beer lovers, there are a growing number of microbreweries in the area and you won’t regret a day spent tasting local brews.

 

Always Entertaining

     Football may draw the crowds in the fall, but Ann Arbor hosts large events throughout the year. Seasonal favorites include the winter Folk Festival, a springtime FestiFools puppetry and public art festival, and a three-week summer festival with art, music, food, and film.  

 

Treasure Hunting

    The number of antiques, collectibles and vintage shops within walking distance of Main Street was a nice surprise. Treasure Mart, in the Kerrytown area near the farmer’s market and Zingerman’s Deli, is a rambling historic building full of all kinds of interesting things. Some of the rooms are decorated and arranged like an antiques mall, others are crammed with goodies strewn on tabletops or piled in corners just waiting to be discovered. 

    Located in the Nickles Arcade, a 1918 covered passage lined with unique shops that make the place feel like a bit of Paris in the mid-west, The Arcadian antiques is a jewel box. Crystal and china line the shelves and the store stocks fine antique furniture, but the highlight is a collection of beautiful estate jewelry.  I watched a couple shop for wedding rings, trying to choose from trays of lovely old diamonds and gemstones.

    I did a lot of window shopping but I didn’t come home empty-handed. At Antelope Antiques and Coins, a funky store on the lower level of a downtown building. I plucked an autographed photo of Woody Herman ($10) out of a box of old photos and postcards, and did a little happy dance when I found a Waterford goblet in my (somewhat obscure) “Kylemore” pattern, for only $15.

 

    Like most travelers, I have a fantasy “I could live here” list in my head made up of places I’ve been and couldn’t forget. After this first visit, Ann Arbor moved to the top of the list. A robust arts scene, a vibrant main street, an energetic farm-to-table movement and a cosmopolitan foodie-friendly ethos, paired with a dedication to preserving the past, makes Ann Arbor, Michigan hard to resist. 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 
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Travel: Scenes from an Airport

July 24, 2014 2:54 p.m. - Updated: July 25, 11:59 a.m.

    After I’ve run the security gauntlet, after I’ve shown my ID, after I’ve exposed the contents of my bag to whoever is manning the scanner, after I’ve emptied my pockets and made my way through, the world shrinks to the faces and voices I hear in the airport. 

 

    An airport is a collection of every kind of human and there is no better place for watching people. The strangers in the crowd are rich, poor, kind, crude, happy and unhappy. They are young. They are old. They sprint down the concourse or they ride in chairs pushed by others. We all hurry and we all wait. We move forward and stand in line. Some speak languages I don’t understand, but at that moment we all have one thing in common: We are all trying to get from here to there.

 

    I stop to buy some fruit for breakfast and beside me a man sits hunched over the bar, his overnight bag at his feet. His face is strained and his mind is far away and I wonder if more than his drink is on the rocks.

 

    As I walk past the “spa” another man stares off into the distance as he massages the neck of one more anonymous passenger who’s bought a little time in the chair. He is a robot with strong, warm, hands.

 

    I find an empty gate and stop to charge my phone before I depart. A few rows away a pilot, his luggage piled beside him, is talking on the phone and after a few minutes I realize he’s talking to his wife and they are discussing the terms of their upcoming divorce. His voice is thick with anger and pain and, embarrassed to have stumbled into the scene, I unplug my phone and move on.

    When my flight is called, people immediately crowd the gate, jockeying for position too early, dragging heavy bags behind them, anxious to get on the plane as quickly as possible before all the overhead bin space is filled. One couple works as a team. She edges forward, slipping between people who are distracted by last-minute emails or texts, their attention on their iPhones instead of what is going on around them. Once she’s in place she motions for him and he slides in beside her. Another mans silently gauges the diligence of the gate agent and I see him decide to slip into the priority line, hoping the harried agent won’t notice. She doesn’t.

 

    On the plane two elderly women, their white hair permed, pink scalp showing between the tight curls, settle into their seats and, delighted to have an empty seat between them, forget we haven’t even taken off. They drop the middle seat-back tray and set up the picnic they’ve brought along, just like they’re on a train. They pull out sandwiches brought from home, wrapped in aluminum foil and tucked into folded paper plates, then settle back into their seats. Moments later the flight attendant comes by, sees what they’ve done, and gently—like she’s speaking to her own grandmother—tells them the tray must be up for takeoff. They’re embarrassed and hurriedly put everything away but something in me responds to their sweetness, their homemade picnic and the gentle way they do as their told.  

 

    Once all passengers are on board, just before they close the doors, a woman tries to switch to an empty seat a few rows up but it’s in an upgrade section and the flight attendants won’t let her. “It wouldn’t be fair to those who paid extra to sit there,” they tell her. The woman goes back to her assigned seat, with a few less inches of legroom, and turns away to look out the window.

 

    Sometime during the flight we pass over the Rockies and the air becomes rough. The man across the aisle smooths his palms over his knees again and again in a soothing motion. His face shows nothing but his hands keep moving until the worst is over. I wonder what he would do if I reached out and covered his hand with mine, the way I would do with one of my children.

    

    The women eat their picnic.

    

    When we land everyone jumps up and starts dragging bags out of the bins, piling them into the aisles and around their feet, anxious to get away, to be part of the prisoner exchange that happens each time a plane rolls up to a gate. 

    

    It’s like a movie. All hours of the day, in airports around the world, the scenes are repeated as passengers file in and passengers file out. Each of us carries more than a bag, more than a boarding pass. We all bear the invisible weight of a story. 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 
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Travel: Alaska cruise brings a tale of a whale

July 18, 2014 12:10 p.m. - Updated: 12:10 p.m.

   I was standing in an alcove on an upper deck about to step out onto the deck of the Carnival cruise ship, the Miracle, when the doors opened and a family blew in. 

 

   A man and this three sons, each holding an ice-cream cone, lunged forward like the wind had reached out and given them each a shove. The youngest—maybe four years old, definitely no more than 5—was so full of big news he didn’t care that he didn’t know me. 

 

    He  ran up to me and said, “We saw the tail of a whale!”

 

    I was impressed. We’d left Seattle the afternoon before and it was just the first morning of our Alaska cruise. 

 

    “Is this true?” I asked his father. “Or is this just a whale of a tale?”

 

    The man laughed and said it was true. They’d been walking along the deck when the whale popped up and showed his fluke, his whale tail, before disappearing back into the sea.

 

    The little boy couldn’t contain himself.

 

     “The whale breathed up (his arms shot up in the air and the ice-cream wobbled on its cone) “and then he dived down like this” (he scooped his free hand up and then down) “and then his tail came up!”

    As an afterthought he added, “Daddy let us have ice cream for breakfast. 

 

    Wow. A wave from a whale and an ice cream cone for breakfast. The little boy had just described my perfect day.

 

    I asked the man if this was their first Alaska cruise and he said it was. He said they live in Texas and they’d come to see Alaska. And whales. They really wanted to see whales and here, just a day into the trip, they’d already had their own private show.

 

    Several years ago, after my first cruise up the Inside Passage, I decided I want to make the trip every summer. For the rest of my life, if I can swing it.  No two Alaska cruises are ever the same. People from around the world plan and save for years and travel a lot of miles to get there. But living in the Northwest, we’re already halfway there. It’s easy to get on a ship in Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, to spend a week looking at some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. 

 

    I’m working on my Alaska-every-summer plan. This year I was solo but in the company of people of all ages: men, women and children—(lots of children) and large family groups, all ready to go see the sights. And we were off to a good start.

 

    The boy’s happiness was contagious. I looked at my watch. It was still early, they’d be serving breakfast for another couple of hours… I filled a cone with vanilla ice cream and stepped out onto the deck. The wind whipped my hair as I licked the cone and swept my eyes across the horizon.

 

    I’d already decided it wasn’t going to take much to turn this into a perfect day. I had my ice cream cone. Now all I needed was a glimpse of the tail of a whale. 

    And like the little boy, I didn’t have to wait long at all.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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Travel: Transatlantic cruising on the Queen Mary 2

July 13, 2014 7:32 a.m. - Updated: July 14, 6:50 a.m.

    Our crossing. Such an elegant phrase. Even today, in an age of mass travel, it perfectly captures the tradition of boarding a big luxurious ocean liner and sailing across the Atlantic. Before we catapulted from one continent to another, we crossed. And the phrase still brings to mind the golden age of travel, of movie stars and royalty transiting in comfort and style, of ordinary men and women sailing toward new lives. 

 

    I just made my first crossing from New York to Southampton aboard the Cunard flagship the Queen Mary 2, and I’m afraid it has forever changed the way I will look at travel. I’m not sure I can go back to the hurry-wait-hurry circus of modern air travel without a deep longing to sail again.

 

    When we walked up the gangplank onto the beautiful ship and settled into our stateroom, the experience was nothing like most trips overseas. Security was tight but it was unobtrusive and gentle. The soft strains of classical music soothed us and we joined the other guests on the top deck to toast the Statue of Liberty as we sailed out of the harbor.

 

    During the sailing the first thing we discovered, as we were surrounded by art, beautiful architecture and an understated but sophisticated decor, was that the greatest luxury was time. Every minute belonged to us. We woke without an alarm and went to bed when we felt like it.   

   

    Truly relaxed for the first time in months, our days, unbroken by ports of call, were spent walking the promenade deck, listening to the speakers brought on board or watching the afternoon movie. There was even an onboard planetarium. A planetarium.

 

    At night there was more music, more theater, more movies.

 

    Another luxury was space. We weren’t fighting for legroom in a crowded plane. We had room to roam and breathe. Every day we discovered another quiet corner, another comfortable chair in front of a window. We spent hours in the library located at the front of the ship, surrounded by thousands of books in rows of glass-front shelves. We browsed titles, and caught up on our reading.

 

    We hadn’t known it when we booked our trip, but director Wes Anderson was also on board, accompanied by some of the actors that regularly appear in his movies. Tilda Swinton, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman joined Anderson on stage each afternoon to talk about one of his movies and then screen it for us. I can’t imagine having that kind of opportunity anywhere else. When not in the theater they were passengers like us, strolling the promenade deck, taking photos of the sunset, sipping tea in the lounge.

 

    There was a time when travel was graceful and calm, but today that kind of experience is heartbreakingly uncommon. It is rare to find yourself in a situation where the journey is the experience. Or, at the very least, as much a part of the experience as the destination. But that’s exactly what we had on our time on the Queen Mary 2.

 

    We didn’t just take a trip. We weren’t catapulted across the sea. We crossed and it was grand.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

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