New Cruise Ship Adds Old Ship Feature

cruiseRecently, major cruise lines have been taking popular features of new ships and adding them to older vessels, giving them a new life as a relevant travel option. Onboard dining and entertainment features on today’s newest ships are a big hit on older ships, at one time the latest and greatest of all passenger vessels. One cruise line though, is going a different direction and looking back in time to the 1880s for a feature that should prove popular with today’s cruise traveler.

Honoring its river-going past, American Cruise Lines acquired a 132-year-old Nichol steam calliope to be placed aboard its new 150-guest paddlewheeler, Queen of the Mississippi.

“The instrument perfectly suits our new paddlewheeler,” said Timothy Beebe, Vice President, American Cruise Lines, in a statement. “Blending both old and new, Queen of the Mississippi provides a truly authentic and nostalgic cruise experience, while offering the best and most comfortable accommodations ever available on the Mississippi River. Guests will be truly delighted with the addition of this impressive piece of history.”

When ships go through dry-dock maintenance, clever cruise line operators add new dining venues and onboard programming options like state-of-the-art communications with the outside world, destination-specific lectures and enrichment programs and more.The vintage 1880 calliope, built in Wheeling, West Virginia, will serve as a reminder of the golden era of steam boating. Dismantled in 1938, American Cruise Line will rebuild and use the fully functioning steam-powered instrument to play familiar songs as Queen of the Mississippi makes her way up and down the Mississippi River.

Once owned by St. Louis-based Streekfus Line, the purchase of the calliope includes its original brass whistles and valves, keyboard, recordings and books. Unique to this steam calliope only, is one elevated whistle, which sits above the rest, an uncommon feature not known to be on any other existing calliope.

Not sure what a steam calliope is? Check this video:


[Photo credit -Flickr user w rollins]

The Southern Road: 6 Tips For A Car Plant Tour

I just love visiting factories. After finishing my Southern Road trip, I’ve now been to 99. I went on my first plant tour when I was 8 years old, and my family went to visit Ford’s Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

Like me, you can visit many of the car plants that have been built in the South over the past 20 years. (See here for a list – and companies are adding tours all the time.) But, what are you actually going to see?

Here are some tips to help you understand what to look for.

1) Robots. Hands down, people who go on plant tours want to see robots. And you’ll see plenty at Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Pretty soon, it will have 1,000 robots in its body shop. It has some of the most interesting uses for robots of any plant in the South. It actually hands them upside down, so they’re easier to repair and maintain. Robots do a variety of things on the assembly line, but they’re primarily used to weld things together. Don’t let the sparks scare you.

2) Organization. Felix Unger of the Odd Couple would love going on a plant tour. It’s the primary example of how things are organized to reach an outcome. When you’re on a plant tour, look at how parts are arranged on the side the assembly line – and also look to see whether there are many parts at all. In some plants, big pieces of a car, like the dashboard, are now delivered to workers in one module.

3) Atmosphere. Is the plant well lit? Is it hot, or cool and does it smell? Odor is a problem in engine plants, like Toyota’s factory in Huntsville, Alabama. The women who work there don’t bring their purses inside, because the smell gets into leather. (That odor is coolant, which is used because there is so much metal being processed.) On the flip side, I don’t think I’ve ever seen cleaner plants than Toyota in Tupelo, Mississippi, BMW in Greenville, South Carolina, or Mercedes.

4) Flow. Car plants have a particular flow. The biggest ones, like Hyundai, in Montgomery, Alabama, start with stamping plants, where they make the hoods and sides and trunks from big coils of steel. All the metal pieces get put together before they go through the paint shop. Then, car companies take the doors off so that workers can get inside and underneath to add parts, without damaging the hinges (or themselves). You’ll always see a “wet test” at the end where the car gets sprayed with water to test for leaks.

5) Staging yards. Outside the factory, you may notice a huge lot filled with vehicles – rows and rows of them. This doesn’t mean the cars aren’t selling. These are called staging yards, where the cars are lined up to be put on rail cars and transport trucks. They’re busy places, with cars zooming out of the factory and into the yard. It’s fun to see how many different colors are being made and which models are the most popular.

Finally, one last piece of advice FOR you, not about what you’ll see.

6) Don’t touch anything. You’re not in danger of having anything fall on you, but please keep your hands out of the assembly line and don’t push any buttons. Also, don’t feel like you can help yourself to a free Mercedes emblem or a BMW hubcap. These things are expensive. And, many parts are lined up in sequence. If you somehow walked off with a rear-view mirror, you might wind up delaying the assembly line, and that would be some plant tour to remember.

The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial America

If you’re not from the American South, you probably have an image of it in your head. It might have squealing pickup trucks and Daisy Dukes. Or hoop skirts and cotton plantations from “Gone With The Wind.” Maybe the streetcars of New Orleans, or the twang of Paula Deen.

What if I told you that the American South has become a land of opportunity, where people no longer have to leave home to find their fortunes? What if you knew that more than a third of all the cars sold in the United States are made there? And that its population is no longer just white, black, and Hispanic, but European and Asian?

In August, I traveled 4,000 miles over two weeks across the New Industrial South. I plotted a road trip that took me to all the car and truck plants between Mississippi and South Carolina that have been built in the past two decades. I talked to autoworkers and managers, chefs and mayors, university officials and farmers, wait staff and retirees.

And I came away thinking that people up north have no idea what’s happened below the Mason Dixon line. Thanks to the auto industry, and everything that came with it, the South is full of cities where there’s been growth, where people buy new cars and homes, and send their kids to new schools and to play on new skate parks. Towns have new city halls. Instead of selling the past, economic developers are salivating over a new future.

If you only visit one of these places, say, Birmingham, Alabama, you see some of this, but not all of it. Driving the entire region, however, fills in the picture in a complete way.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be exploring the impact of the South’s new industry in “The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial South.” We’ll have lots of tips to help you plan your own southern road trip.

Most of all, we’ll provide impressions. And this was my main one.

Traveling the Southern Road made me think this is what it must have been like in Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh for our parents and grandparents. While those cities are striving to write their next chapters, you can go see the story of the new American economy playing out right now, all across the South.

%Gallery-164205%The contrasts are striking, beginning with terrain. My trip began in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once I passed Lexington, Kentucky, en route to Greenville, South Carolina, I found myself driving around sweeping curves and up and down hills. As I crossed Tennessee and North Carolina, I was in mountains. And the geography stayed interesting as the miles clicked up, reminded me quite a bit of New England, only lush and verdant in a different way, with live oaks, moss and pines.

The variety was staggering. If you prefer to stay in luxury hotels and dine at some of the country’s top-rated restaurants, you can do that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now the home of Volkswagen’s new plant. Or in Birmingham, Alabama, which has Mercedes-Benz just west of town and Honda within an hour’s drive to the east. Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, bustles at night, in no small part due to the BMW plant right by the airport.

Do you want to couple history with your auto town visit? Then head for Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Hyundai built its first American factory, only 10 minutes from the spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a brand new Toyota factory a few exits down from Elvis Presley’s birthplace and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.

Perhaps you’d like to see what happens to a small southern town when a car plant becomes its neighbor. Canton, Mississippi, fits that bill. So do Lincoln, Alabama, and West Point, Georgia. These towns also have gorgeous lakes and recreational areas only a stone’s throw away.

Many of the plants are open for tours, and the most elaborate, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and VW, have visitor centers where you can drop in even if you’re not going to see how the cars are built. Several of the plants have gift shops, where you can buy golf balls, shot glasses, T-shirts and picnic baskets. (Too bad Kia’s gift shop isn’t open to the public because it had the cutest souvenirs – the toy hamster and sock monkey that have appeared in its ads.)

Other plants don’t allow the public to visit, but even if you don’t set foot in one of the factories, it’s easy to spot what happens when one of these big auto plants comes to town.

The first thing you might notice is new highway exits, new overpasses and new roads around the plants. They’re often part of the incentives that the states paid to land these factories.

The next thing to look for is development. Fast food restaurants and new hotels are the first signs of growth. But you’ll also see billboards for new subdivisions, and you’ll notice even more in the way of smaller factories – these have been opened by the suppliers to these big car companies. Often, they’re set next to the freeway a few miles down, because they often sell parts to more than one automaker.

What I found on the Southern Road is that the impact of these factories goes a lot deeper than what you can see on the surface. When you have newcomers from Germany and Japan and Korea, their culture comes with them.

That’s why you’ll find the makings for a Japanese breakfast, like miso soup and steamed rice, on the breakfast buffet at the Lexington, Kentucky, Residence Inn. That’s why you can now rent a loft apartment for business entertaining at Soby’s, the popular restaurant in Greenville – because BMW and other European companies wanted a private place for a small group.

To be sure, the South hasn’t become one big Manhattan, and no one would mistake any of these cities for Los Angeles. Southern culture is still widely apparent, from men automatically holding open doors for women, to gas station lunch counters and lots of fast driving. Divert from your Mapquest directions, and you’ll find long stretches of farmland and dusty roads.

But you can stop for Starbuck’s on the way to your plant tour. And you might even wonder, “What would it be like to live here?”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Setting Up Your Trip:

These are some of the car companies that have public tours or facilities for visitors.

BMW Zentrum, Greer S.C. (plant tours, customer delivery center, and more). Open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 1-888-TOUR-BMW or www.bmwzentrum.com

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center, Vance, AL (museum and plant tours). Museum open daily, tours given Tuesday-Thursday. Call 888-286-8762 or www.mbusi.com

Volkswagen, Chattanooga, AL. (gift shop and tour) Eight tours a week, Tuesday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 pm. Inquiries: tours@vw.com

Hyundai, Montgomery, AL (visitors center and tour). Tours given Monday, Wednesday, Friday, also a Thursday evening tour. Call 334-387-8019 or www.hmmausa.com

Nissan, Canton, MS (gift shop and plant tour) Tours by reservation. Call 601-855-TOUR.

Honda, Lincoln, AL (plant tour) Tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. By reservation at www.hondaalabama.com/

Stand up paddling the length of the Mississippi River

Stand up paddling the length of the Mississippi RiverAt more than 2400 miles in length, the mighty Mississippi is one of the longest rivers in North America. The iconic waterway, which has become an indelible part of American folklore, stretches from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through the heart of the nation in the process. Over the years, the muddy waters of the Mississippi have been explored by every kind of watercraft from steamboat and simple river raft to kayaks and modern motorboats. Now, British adventurer Dave Cornthwaite is attempting to become the latest person to travel the length of the river from source to sea, but he’s doing it on a stand up paddle board.

In recent years, stand up paddling (SUP) has become a popular activity amongst outdoor enthusiasts looking to spend some time on their local rivers, lakes, or even ocean. The sport is a combination of surfing and paddling, that has participants standing on a surfboard while using an oar to help maneuver and generate forward momentum. Most stand up paddlers restrict themselves to relatively calm bodies of water, but the more skilled athletes have taken to challenging themselves on big waves and wild rapids.

Back in early June, Cornthwaite traveled to the headwaters of the Mississippi located at Lake Itasca, and started his southward journey. By last week he had arrived in Minneapolis, having already covered approximately 500 miles. That leaves him with more than 1900 miles yet to go, and he expects that it will take him well into September before he reaches the finish line in New Orleans, where the river enters into the Gulf at last.

This stand up paddle adventure is just the latest long distance journey that Cornthwaite has undertaken. He has already traveled from Vancouver to Las Vegas on a tandem bike and kayaked Australia’s Murry River – a distance of nearly 1480 miles. Even more impressive, he once went 3618 miles coast-to-coast across Australia using only a skateboard. All of these trips are part of his Expedition 1000 project, during which he hopes to complete 25 unique journeys of at least a 1000 miles in length, while only using non-motorized forms of transportation. Along the way he also hopes to raise £1 million ($1.5 million) for charity.

So what’s it like for Dave while he’s out on the water? Check out the video below for an idea.




[Photo courtesy of Dave Cornthwaite]

Trail rides and wagon trains converge in Houston to kick off world’s largest rodeo

trail rides HoustonIn a salute to the Old West, 13 trail rides and wagon trains–some coming from 336 miles away–have converged to mark the start of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which runs through March 20th. The world’s largest exhibition and rodeo entertainment show was developed to “encourage and promote the breeding, raising, and marketing of better livestock and farm products at public fairs and to promote and maintain research and educational functions within the livestock industry.” I recently posted about a similar agricultural and livestock fair in Paris, so happily, these events are global.

Three thousand participants rode from five days to three weeks to reach Houston, carrying on a tradition that began in 1952, when a small group of men started a trail ride to help promote the rodeo. The riders and wagons pay tribute to the heritage of the frontier, and the animals and individuals who made the settlement of the West possible. But the ride is also a form of education. In addition to the settlers, some trail rides are dedicated to honoring the history of black and Hispanic cowboys, which many are unaware of.

Macon.com’s blog interviews a number of participants, some of whom have annually made the ride since childhood, or are second- or third-generation riders. One 15-year-old girl was actually born on the ride. Eighty-year old Mac Goldsby of Houston has been doing the Valley Lodge Trail Ride since its founding in 1959. “To me, it’s walking history,” he says. “There’s so many people that don’t know about horses, mules. If anything, it might inspire them to read history.”

The Houston event has inspired others to host trail rides to promote their shows and educate the public, such as the Dixie National Livestock Show and Rodeo in Mississippi, and the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Hats off to preserving America’s Western heritage, and keeping tradition alive.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Bill Gracey]