Five Places To Anchor Yourself In Titanic History

“Titanic” 3D hit cinemas this week just in time to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the ship’s fateful voyage. But the box office isn’t the only place you can pay tribute to the ship. Two new Titanic museums are opening up just in time to celebrate the ship’s anniversary, and there are many other places that are keeping the ship and its passengers’ legacy afloat. Below are some places where stories of the Titanic live on.

Titanic Museum Attraction
Branson, Missouri
You can’t miss the Titanic Museum Attraction in Branson, Missouri mostly because of its massive size and shape (even among all of Branson’s other over-the-top attractions). The exterior is designed to replicate the ocean liner, complete with an iceberg at the museum entrance. Inside, guests receive a “passenger boarding ticket” with the name and story of an actual Titanic passenger (the idea is to find out if you survived or perished through the course of your stay). The museum also has displays about what each class looked like, as well as plenty of authentic Titanic memorabilia including lifejackets, deck chairs and letters. The museum will hold a special musical tribute to the Titanic on Saturday, April 14, the 100th anniversary of the night the ship fatally struck an iceberg. Descendants of actual Titanic passengers are expected to attend and there will be a lighting of an eternal flame during the tribute. The attraction also has a sister museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.Maritime Museum, Southampton
Southampton, England
The goal of this soon-to-be-debuted museum is to tell Southampton’s side of the Titanic story. One of England’s largest passenger ports, the Titanic left from Southampton on its maiden voyage and the city lost 500 residents when the ship sank. The museum will explore the lives of the working-class crew as well as the impact their tragedy had on families back home in Southampton. Visitors follow the careers of cooks, stewards and watchmen, and the tour culminates in a teary-eyed video featuring recordings from survivors.

Titanic Belfast
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Another newbie to the crop of museums is the Titanic Belfast Visitor Center opened last Saturday to celebrate the birthplace of the Titanic. The museum is located in the heart of Belfast on one of the slipways where the ship was built. Now the world’s largest museum dedicated to the Titanic, the $160-million center looks similar to the Sydney Opera House with four prows of the ship jutting out in different directions. The museum houses exhibits where visitors can learn about the construction of the ship as well as the rich story of Northern Ireland’s maritime heritage. At the time of writing, tickets were already sold out through April 16.

Titanic Historical Society Museum
Indian Orchard, Massachusetts
The oldest Titanic museum in the U.S. is the Titanic Historical Society Museum in Massachusetts. At the entrance of the museum visitors are greeted with a 9-foot model of the ship. Inside, Titanic fanatics will find artifacts from the ship and its passengers, many of which were donated by survivors. Highlights include the lifejacket of the wealthy John Jacob Astors, original blueprints of the ship, a rivet from the ship’s hull, a carved oak chair from the ship’s dining room and even the wireless message received by the Titanic that stated the location of the fatal iceberg (it never made it to the bridge of the ship).

The Jane Hotel
New York, New York
For a little slice of Titanic history that is closer to home for many of our readers, stop by the ballroom of the Jane Hotel. Known for small, ship cabin-esque rooms and discount prices, the hotel is actually anchored to the ship’s past. Back when it was known as the American Seaman’s Friend Society Sailors’ Home and Institute, the hotel put up surviving crew members after disaster struck. A private memorial was held in the hotel on April 19, 1912. Today it remains a respite for weary travelers. The hotel will be offering two signature cocktails that commemorate the Titanic anniversary in its ballroom: the Bourbon-based “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” in honor of the only woman to row a boat to safety after the tragedy, and the Champagne-based “ST-705,” named as such for the 705 passengers that survived.

Images (top to bottom) courtesy the Titanic Museum Attraction, Titanic Belfast and The Jane Hotel.

Is BKG the most charming airport ever?

Hectic. Annoying. Uncomfortable. These are just a few words that normally come to mind when talking about airports. An airport can be scenic (like Wyoming’s Jackson Hole) or design saavy (like Amsterdam’s Schiphol), but rarely do you ever land at an airport and immediately want to take pictures, let alone leave the place feeling charmed by it.

But that’s what’s different about the Branson Airport in Branson, Missouri. It’s unlike any airport I’ve ever been in. In most airports, travelers sit for hours in intolerably cramped chairs staring at computer screens or carpet stains. In Branson, there are plenty of picnic tables and oversized, comfy chairs to sit in and more country kitsch to look at than there are hours in the day. The entire place is outfitted like an Ozark outpost, which includes plenty of wood paneling, pine trees, rustic signs and exposed beams.Adding to the airport’s appeal it its simplicity. Don’t expect miles upon miles of corridors in this place, which is comparable in size to a Target shopping center. From the luggage conveyors to the car rental stand, every detail is reminiscent of a log cabin. Instead of a Hudson News, Bass Pro Shops operates a “General Store.” Replacing the usual McDonalds is a Famous Dave’s made to look like an old mill–complete with a water wheel on the side with koi swimming below. There’s even a one-seater airplane suspended overhead. Does is get more charming than that?

Maybe it’s simply good old Midwest hospitality, but one really feels welcome here. Would you believe that an airport exists where the personnel actually takes the time to wave goodbye to each and every aircraft that departs? It happens in Branson. Even the customer service representatives and TSA agents were friendly. So friendly, in fact, that I didn’t even bat an eye when an TSA agent spotted a horseshoe-shaped door knocker I had purchased as a souvenir (please don’t ask, it’s just what you do in Branson–particularly if you can’t find a suitable pair of cowboy boots to take home) and made a joke asking if I was “the one with the knockers.” I swear, if I was in the hellhole known as JFK I would have nearly slapped him and then marched over and filed a complaint in two seconds flat. But in Branson, I actually kind of giggled a little bit.

As it stands, Branson Airport is the only privately owned, privately operated commercial service airport in the United States. And believe me, the private investors who developed the place knew what they were doing. Instead of treating the airport like some sort of glorified bus station, they turned it into point of entry that offers an exciting first glimpse of a place. The Branson Airport is about more than taking off and landing–it’s a place where even the people stopping over for connecting flights leave curious about what’s out there in the Ozarks.

The good, the bad and the tacky: Six things to do in Branson, Missouri

It was mostly curiosity that led me to one of America’s favorite destinations: Branson, Missouri. I had heard the tiny town in the middle of the Ozarks was famous for its over-the-top roadside attractions and had more theater seats than Broadway, but I wanted to see first hand what could possibly bring in over 8 million people per year. So off I went.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out the two main draws: nature and neon. The natural beauty was noticeable as soon as our rental car made it out of the airport parking lot and cut through the limestone, tree-covered hills. But once my boyfriend and I hit town and found ourselves driving down Branson’s version of ‘The Strip,’ we finally understood. Water slides and four-story go-kart tracks hugged the road, while some of the other diversions included a two-story rooster hanging out in front of a big red barn-shaped restaurant, a museum made to look like the RMS Titanic (complete with iceberg), a revamped version of Mount Rushmore that included John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, and King Kong hanging off a mockup of the Empire State Building. Its no wonder we only saw one car accident while there.

Everything in Branson begs to be noticed. Each attraction razzle dazzles visitors, claiming to be the world’s first, biggest or best. Its a place where the dinosaur museum has to couple with a haunted house to bring people in, and where the Mexican and Chinese restaurants merge together (although, in this town, it seems like steakhouses and buffets rule the roost). But what is there for two twenty-somethings to do in a town known only for good clean fun? We explored Branson and found out.

The Track: As with most things in Branson, go-karts are taken to a whole new level. Four levels, actually. The “Heavy Metal High Rise” at The Track could be mistaken for a parking garage, but its actually an upwards spiraling track for go-karts. Once you reach the top, you zoom down a three-tiered slope back to the ground (I’m pretty sure my go-kart was airborne at least once on the way down). There’s also bumper cars, an arcade, and all the other things you expect at a family fun park. Fittingly, Andy’s Frozen Custard is also nearby.

Silver Dollar City: With thrill rides, kids areas, a bunch of talented demonstrating craftsman, and even a cave to explore, this pioneer village theme park is the most visited attraction in Branson. My favorite stops at Silver Dollar City were the old time ice cream shop and candy store, but whether you like roller coasters or singing and dancing, this is one place that has something for everyone.

Shepherd of the Hills Homestead: Branson’s tourism boom actually began at Shepherd of the Hills, when a book by the same name was penned by Harold Bell Wright in 1907. People began coming to the Ozarks in search of the characters from the book, so an outdoor production of the story took to the stage in 1960. The show still runs today (complete with 90 actors and a log cabin that burns every night), but you can also see the desk where the book was penned, take in a country western dinner show, or even zipline from the top of a sightseeing tower that claims to be the tallest launch point for a zipline in the world.

Branson Belle: At times, Branson gets a little carried away with its folksy, homey advertisements and attractions. Case in point: there really is no reason why Branson needs its own paddlewheeler to glide around the nearby reservoir, Table Rock Lake, except for the fact that the showboat is something different that will draw a crowd. We decided to hop aboard the Branson Belle and were pleasantly surprised by the food, the live band, the views from the deck, and the show, which not only includes a singing boy band but also the world’s only aerial violinist. She’s one of those things you have to see to believe.

The Titanic Museum: I thought the Titanic Museum was going to be a ho-key, outdated trip through a museum that just rode on James Cameron’s coat-tails, but it actually turned out to be a boat load of fun. When you enter, you receive a passenger boarding ticket with the name of an actual Titanic passenger and their personal story. You pass through the museum to find lots of authentic Titanic memorabilia (letters, lifejackets, deck chairs and more) and set-like reproduction of what life was like in each class. After dunking your hand in a bucket of water that is the same freezing temperature of the sink site, you find out whether you survive or perish. It really was chilling.

The Landing: At the end of ‘The Strip’ and just past downtown Branson is a collection of restaurants, bars and shops known as ‘The Landing.’ Much like a boardwalk, this part of town sits adjacent to Lake Tanneycomo, and right in the middle you can see the fantastic $7.5 million waterworks of the ‘Water and Fire’ fountain. This outdoor mall is the place to go if you want to just sit back and have a nice dinner and drinks to get away from the over-the-topness of the rest of Branson.

Legends of Kung Fu: A visit to Branson wouldn’t be complete without a show, but seeing as my boyfriend and I aren’t really the song-and-dance type, we decided to go see Legends of Kung Fu. A martial arts extravaganza with a little Cirque Du Soleil thrown in, this was the main show of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and it did not disappoint. In fact, to ensure I didn’t miss anything I pretty much sat with my eyes wide open the whole time, muttering “wow!” a few dozen times throughout the show.

[Photo by Libby Zay]

A travel guide to the 2011 Oscar movies

The 83rd annual Academy Awards are coming up in a few weeks and the Oscars race is on. This year’s nominations contained few surprises, with many nods for Brit period piece The King’s Speech, Facebook biopic The Social Network, and headtrip Inception. While 2010’s ultimate travel blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love failed to made the cut, there’s still plenty to inspire wanderlust among the Best Picture picks.

Read on for a travel guide to the best movies of 2010 and how to create your own Oscar-worthy trip.

127 HoursLocation: Danny Boyle’s nail-biter was shot on location in Utah’s Blue John Canyon near Moab and on a set in Salt Lake City. Go there: Should you want to explore Moab’s desert and canyons while keeping all limbs intact, check out Moab in fall for bike races and art festivals.

Black Swan
Location: Much of the ballet psychodrama was shot in New York City, though the performances were filmed upstate in Purchase, New York. Go there: To see the real “Swan Lake” on stage at Lincoln Center, you’ll have to hope tickets aren’t sold out for the New York City Ballet, performing this month February 11-26.

The FighterLocation: in the grand tradition of Oscar winners Good Will Hunting and The Departed, the Mark Wahlberg boxing flick was filmed in Massachusetts, in Micky Ward’s real hometown of Lowell, 30 miles north of Boston. Go there: For a map of locations in Lowell, check out this blog post and perhaps spot Micky Ward at the West End Gym.

InceptionLocation: The setting of this film depends on what dream level you’re in. The locations list includes Los Angeles, England, Paris, Japan, even Morocco. Go there: There are plenty of real locations to visit, including University College London and Tangier’s Grand Souk. Canada’s Fortress Mountain Resort where the snow scenes were shot is currently closed, but you can ski nearby in Banff.

The Kids Are All Right
Location: Director Lisa Cholodenko is a big fan of southern California, she also filmed the 2002 Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Go there: Love it or hate it, L.A. is still a top travel destination in the US and perhaps this year you can combine with a trip to Vegas, if the X Train gets moving.

The King’s SpeechLocation: A prince and a commoner in the wedding of the century. Sound familiar? This historical drama was shot in and around London, though stand-ins were used for Buckingham Palace’s interiors. Go there: It might be hard to recreate the vintage look of the film, but London is full of atmospheric and historic architecture and palaces to visit. If you’re a sucker for English period films or places Colin Firth has graced, tour company P & P Tours can show you around many historic movie locations like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

The Social NetworkLocation: Another Massachusetts and California movie, this very academic film shot at many college and prep school campuses, but none of them Harvard, which hasn’t allowed film crews in decades. Go there: If you enjoyed the Winklevoss rowing scene, head to England this summer for the Henley Royal Regatta June 29 – July 3.

Toy Story 3 – Location: The latest in the Pixar animated trilogy is set at the Sunnyside Daycare. Go there: Reviews are mixed, but Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a new Pixar parade, to let fans see their favorite characters in “person.” Visit any Disney gift shop to make your own toy story.

True Grit – Location: The Coen brothers western remake may be set in 19th century Arkansas, but it was filmed in modern day Santa Fe, New Mexico and Texas, taking over much of towns like Granger. Go there: If you’re a film purist or big John Wayne fan, you can tour the locations of the original film in Ouray County, Colorado.

Winter’s Bone – Location: Many moviegoers hadn’t heard of this film when nominations were announced, set and shot in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri. Go there: The difficult film centers around the effects of methamphetamine on a rural family, but travel destinations don’t get much more wholesome than Branson, Missouri. Bring the family for riverboat shows and the best bathroom in the country.

[Photo by Flickr user Lisa Norman]

Virgin America lets loose in Cancún

Virgin America just can’t sit still these days. In the past two months, they’ve launched service to Dallas/Forth Worth (and added frequency from both LAX & SFO), placed an impressive order for 60 new A320’s (to be delivered starting in 2013), said adiós to Toronto for the time being, and launched service to two cities in Mexico; Los Cabos and now, Cancún.

Everything about Cancún seems like a good fit for the airline. It’s sunny. It’s flashy. It’s exotic. It attracts a young crowd and has high seasonal traffic with a significant need for competitive nonstop options from the West Coast.

But Cancún is a destination that has a way of polarizing travelers. For most Americans born after 1975, it’s notoriously synonymous with Spring Break, loud nightclubs, and excessive resorts as far as the eye can see. For some vacationers, these are the only reasons to go. For others, they are the reason to never even consider going. Yes, the beaches may be spectacular and the attractions plentiful, but the rush to develop and commercialize both has left most of the city devoid of a single trace of ‘authentic’ Mexican culture – a fact that managed to earn Cancún the top spot on Gadling’s list of places not to go in 2011.

With that in mind, allow me to be the mediator here and tell you exactly why you should go (or at least fly to) Cancún in 2011…

Simply put, Cancún is an affordable, accessible, and a safe gateway to the larger Yucatán peninsula. Yes, it may be an overdeveloped tourist mecca with little soul or culture in the eyes of true travelers. But the vivid blue waters, white sand beaches, and Mayan ruins of the outlying areas offer an entirely different world that’s only six hours away.

Before taking Virgin America’s inaugural flight from LAX to CUN, the farthest I’d ventured in Mexico was Puerta Vallarta. I didn’t really have high expectations for the Mexican Riviera, since my association of it was a blur of generic beach scenes from a decade-old MTV Spring Break broadcast. Which is ironic in hindsight, considering that our flight was the backdrop for an episode of VH1’s Top 20 Countdown; complete with an in-flight performance by the Goo Goo Dolls.

The 5 hour flight itself was great. The margaritas were festive and the atmosphere was as playful as all Virgin America’s inaugural launches are. The only hitch that passengers will encounter in the ‘complete’ Virgin America experience is the lack of in-flight WiFi after crossing the US-Mexico border – an issue that Gogo and Aircell will hopefully address with coverage expansion in the coming years.


Upon our arrival, our Virgin-worthy accommodation was the gorgeous and brand-new Live Aqua. If you’re accustomed to hotels with two white Rolls Royce Phantoms parked outside, chic interiors filled with hip ambient music, extensive spa services and an array of tasteful eateries, then this is the place you’ll want to stay. It is plausible that you could forgo leaving the hotel grounds and be perfectly content with relaxing by the beach for your entire trip. And for the price of an all-inclusive stay, that’s exactly what I would do.

But, it turns out there are actually things to do around Cancún besides lounging and clubbing. Escape the herds of tourists and head south to quieter beaches at Playa del Carmen, where you can hop across to Cozumel and explore Mayan ruins. Or venture west and check out the ‘authentic’ colonial town of Tizimín on your way to catch a boat to the tiny but charming Holbox Island (and swim with whale sharks in the summer).

If you’re short on time but looking for adventure, then look up one of Cancún’s best day trips; Selvatica’s zip-line & ATV jungle excursion. In the span of a half day, you can fly through the trees on seven different zip lines, drive your own ATV, and swing from ropes into a beautiful blue cenote (Spanish for giant swimming hole).

I can understand why people dislike Cancún. It’d be very easy to come expecting authentic Mexican charm and leave never wanting to lay eyes on another beer-toting American again. But keep your time in the developed area of Cancún short, and you won’t be dissapointed.

Needless to say, my only regret is that I didn’t have more time to explore the outlying areas of Cancún. For a sub-$500 flight that’s just under 5 hours from LAX, or roughly 6 hours from SFO, it’s an easy trip that I certainly plan on making again. Especially if Virgin America can keep their fares low, which they usually do for recently launched destinations. Better yet, enter to win one of three VIP trips that the airline is giving away right here.

If you have your own crazy stories or suggestions about why or why not to go to Cancun this year, leave them in the comments section below!