Flight museum offers a ride to the past

Galveston features a number of attractive features for travelers. In the Texas island town over the weekend for the US debut of Carnival Cruise Lines new Carnival Magic, Gadling got to sample a few of them. One that stands out as a must-do for aviation buffs is the Lone Star Flight Museum. This rare collection of restored war aircraft ranks as one of the finest and most rare in the world. Uniquely, many of the museum’s historic aircraft still fly today and were flying while we were there.

Tours of the museum that can take as little as a hour ($10 per person) for the “just curious” or far longer (and far $more) for “this is my dream come true” aviation fanatics. That later group might enjoy a ride in one of these “warbirds” and for them, the price may be well worth every penny.

The B-17 Flying Fortress ($425 per person with group rates) was flying while we were there and was an Army Air Corps heavy-duty bomber in World War II. The four-engine aircraft flew strategic bombing missions over Europe armed with .50 caliber machine guns and five thousand pounds of bombs. 13,000 B-17’s were produced over the course of the war, of which only 13 still are airworthy today. The aircraft flew around Galveston Island while we were there, offering a birds-eye view and perspective not possible driving in from Houston. The Flight Museum’s B-17 is painted in the colors of ‘Thunderbird’, an aircraft with the 303rd bomb group which flew 116 missions during World War II.

Another prize of the collection, the B-25 Mitchell was a versatile medium-duty bomber which flew in both the Pacific and European Theaters during World War II. The Flight Museum’s B-25 was the official aircraft of the Doolittle Raiders. It honors the 80 brave men who flew 16 land-based B-25s off the USS Hornet in the first raid against the Japanese on their own soil. A ride on this one runs $375 per person with group rates.

Probably one of the best parts of a visit to the museum is the walking tour led by aviators who have flown these aircraft and offer a unique perspective on their contribution to the wars they were used in.

“The logistics of even being able to fly these aircraft in a European war are staggering” said Larry Gregory who heads the museum. “Some of these burn 200 gallons of fuel an hour, would fly four hour missions, and thousands of them could be in the air at any one time, all very far from the United States. Getting them there, keeping them repaired and loaded with fuel and ammunition was an immense job, a tribute to American ingenuity and one of the main reasons the US prevailed.”

The internationally recognized Lone Star Flight Museum contains an award winning flying collection of over 40 historically significant aircraft that also includes a P-47 Thunderbolt, F4U Corsair, F6F Hellcat, Spitfire and Hurricane.

Photo: Chris Owen

When in Pisa, do as the Asians do

We stopped in Pisa, Italy this week on a tour of the Mediterranean to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In contrast to lots of other landmarks and places of interest that we had seen in Italy, the tower and surrounding attractions were surprisingly well kept. Beautiful actually. I guess I had expected it to look like other things we had seen on our journey, which, over time, had become respectfully known, to us as “more old stuff”. Apparently we were not alone.

I saw this coming early on in our 9-day tour on Carnival Cruise Line’s new Carnival Magic and thought “I wonder how long it will be until we start saying dismissively: “Oh, more old stuff” but continued shooting photos, more than 1200 so far, to record what we had seen.

Recording our time at major landmarks with historical significance required that we be in the shot. Otherwise we could simply Google it and choose from a number of other photos, most of which would be better than mine. So off to what I thought was the good side of the tower, the one professional photographers would have chosen, to take our personalized photo we went. The plan was to be really inventive and use trick photography to make it look like I was holding up the tower. It’s really technical, I came to find out.

Before I had visited the tower I thought getting a shot like this would be relatively easy. The tower is not going anywhere so that leaves the subject (me) and the photographer (my wife Lisa) as the variables that can move to make it all work. Visualizing what this would look like through the lens, I positioned myself at an optimal place and instructed Lisa where to go. I figured a few tweaks here and there and this should be a wrap quickly then we would go find a nice wine bar to park at for the rest of the day.

Today I learned that it is difficult to tell “the photographer” what to do as they are the ones that are actually looking through the camera lens. When that photographer is your wife who has a new, well-deserved camera and takes some fabulous shots without your input, the moon and the stars align to make for a situation that can go sour really fast.

Such was the case as I tried to direct this scene with the sun at my back.

All I got out of that was the looming meltdown that has to happen on every journey, just to get over the regular life vs. travel life tension in the air. One blow-up and we are propelled into the next dimension, the one that allows us to move along and enjoy traveling.

Suddenly I found myself wishing I had paid more attention/tattooed on my body the helpful photo tips of Gadling’s Dana Murph which I had read but was having difficulty recalling right now in the heat of battle.

Moving to the other side of the tower, the side where the light was good, it was obvious that this was where we needed to be to take this photo.

I wanted one of the photos you may have seen before. One with the tower being held up, pushed over, or coming out of the pants or heart of somebody.

I was not alone.

Apparently the desire to be attached to the Leaning Tower Of Pisa is a universal one that transcends all ages, races, colors or creeds.

It did look like Asians are big on showing themselves pushing the tower over while other peoples of the world seem to want to hold it up and/or have expressions of horror on their faces as they attempt to make it look like the tower is falling on them.

I’m not sure if that means anything. If I had more time I might have polled these people with a battery of qualifying questions but we had just one day here.

I settled for a photo of my open hand holding up/stroking the tower, the open hand being universally accepted as a non-threatening symbol of friendship.


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A day in Naples, Italy

Naples, Italy is the place to be if you want to see the ruins of Pompeii, one of the best examples of a Roman town. It’s the fourth stop on our tour of the Mediterranean where we see 8 different places in 9 days, each for just one day. Of all the places we would visit, delivered by Carnival Cruise Line’s new Carnival Magic, this was one I actually knew something about and visiting would complete a dream that started in eight grade.

Pompeii is possibly the most famous excavation in the world, drawing 15,000 people every day, almost as many as lived there before the horrifying eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was a topic covered long and hard in my 8th grade Social Studies class teacher, Mr. Hoobing, years ago to the point that it had a permanent place on any bucket list I might have floating around someplace.

The drill in 8th grade was to hand-draw exact replicas of famous archaeological sites as a method of reinforcing information about them…or so I figured out years later. The point was well-taken though; these sites had huge historical significance and told of a time long ago that while vastly different as far as technology goes, was fueled by some of the very same human emotions that rule today.

The 45-minute bus ride from Carnival Miracle through Naples and on to Pompeii came with a running commentary by a tour guide who got most of the facts right. Never mind that he erred 100 years either side of when the big event occurred from time to time; his conclusions were accurate: the site offers a rare glimpse into what Roman life was like back then.


If you are an armchair fan of archeology, this place takes you back to a time when prostitution was legal, rich citizens ruled and perhaps gave insight to the fall of the Roman empire and all it stood for. If you are not a fan, this is not the place to visit but if you’re in the area anyway, you probably should. There is a lot to be learned here about life long ago that can have some answers to the world of today. Maybe. If you want it to. If you go to Pompeii and find yourself thinking “Oh great, more old stuff”, you are in the wrong place.

Naples offers a bunch of great cafes, shops, and other sites to see as well as some of the best Italian food in the world. It would be a shame to be in the area and miss this one. Off a cruise ship there are a bunch of excursions one can take. Count on them all to be crowded/clogged with people. After hundreds of years, these attractions are still a huge draw to travelers from all over the world.

I think Mr Hoobing would be happy I went. I’m happy I paid attention in 8th grade.

Photos: Lisa Owen

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Carnival Magic: experience is the name of the game

New cruise ships seem almost commonplace in recent years, with several cruise lines pumping them out quickly. Worldwide economic concerns slowed down new orders but ships still emerge with more features and more attractions than ever. One could say that Carnival Cruise Lines new ship, Carnival Magic, is a bit light on the bells and whistles expected of a big new ship today. One would be wrong.

If features on a ship are the ingredients that go into making a good cruise experience, new 130,000 ton Carnival Magic would come up short. You won’t find a rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, Broadway show or a dozen different restaurants to choose from.

What you will find is a very nicely appointed ship that has everything one might need to have a great cruise experience, a cruise line that knows how to deliver it and is now talking about it.

“We’re encouraging our guests to try something different, to go outside their normal comfort zone” said Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill, on board the Carnival Magic this week for the ship’s inaugural sailing.

Gadling is along for the ride too. Our focus after the Inaugural Ceremony that began this voyage has been on the intense itinerary and exploring the notion of using a cruise ship as merely transportation between places for Gadling readers, much like one might take a car, plane, train or bus.

Let’s just go ahead and give that test a passing grade right now.

One might do a whole lot worse than visiting 8 different places in 9 days via cruise ship for a fair sampling that might result in a future, longer visit. Of the ports visited so far, Dubrovnik in Croatia plus Sicily and Naples, in Italy, I have captured enough information make future plans. (We will be going back to Dubrovnik) We still have three more ports to go, Rome and Livorno in Italy then Monaco and Barcelona, but to give “by cruise ship” a thumbs-up for a way to get there works.

To stop right there though would only tell a small part of the story. There is something a whole lot bigger and better going on with Carnival on the new Carnival Magic.

Carnival Magic is like an artist’s blank canvas, waiting for us to create life-changing experience.

I know, that sounds too good to be true, but this is where we get right down to the true nature of today’s cruise vacation. It’s an experiential form of traveling like no other that has earned at least a look if not a try from even the most anti-cruise people among us. Cruise fans will love this one too.

Yes, Carnival Magic does have bingo, a hairy-chest contest and a buffet; standard elements one might find on any ship. What makes this one different is that Carnival, unlike any other cruise line, is talking about what was a pretty closely-guarded secret up until now.

Before, only those passengers who completely immersed themselves in the cruise experience, chose not to sweat small inconveniences that come along with any kind of travel and really “get into it” gained a life-changing experience.

They got it.

By immersing themselves in what was being offered on board, they were able to put their heads in a place that heads need to go sometimes: away. From sailing away on the first day of any cruise until the last night at sea, cruise lines made available all the elements to make that happen, they just did not directly tell you about how it all worked. Still, many got it and came away refreshed and renewed, surely a goal of any vacation.

Now, Carnival Cruise Lines is talking. They are telling guests right up front that “we have your life-changing experience right here” IF they embrace the programming on board. The line then encourages guests to jump in with both feet.

Following their past success, Royal Caribbean added an almost theme-park feel to their new Oasis-class ships. They find themselves wondering “What will we add next?” to the extent that the next new ship from them is a secret, buying them time to gauge the market, size the ship and add features appropriately. They don’t quite get it but they are close, close enough to realize “big is not always better so let’s rethink this shall we?”

Following their past success, Norwegian Cruise Line went for first-class entertainment options for their newest ship, long-desired solo cruiser accommodations and top-shelf alternative dining options. They went overboard and find themselves in the familiar profit doghouse once again.

Building on their past success, Carnival paid attention to their guests and got everyone in their organization on the same page saying “we create experiences” and, new with this ship; “we will show you how to make this work for you”.

That’s the significant part that nobody else is talking about. Allowing those experiences to happen is the secret ingredient that only those who managed to fully immerse themselves took advantage of.

In our family of four, we almost always came away from a cruise as changed people in some way. I always thought it was the mark of a good vacation; to come back home and have the clarity to break up with that boyfriend, quit that job, go after that next goal or simply define us a little bit more. We went on vacation, we relaxed, and we were ready to resume real life, perhaps with a fresh look or from a different perspective.

When we first started cruising our then teen, now Gen Y kids always agreed: a cruise was the best vacation ever. But a lot of changes go on in teen years so being able to attribute that “I always feel a little different after a cruise” feeling to anything other than growing up was hard to do. Teens feel different every 12 seconds. That ambiguity was no problem for us: we got it. Others had to be told, led to the experience and shoved into it.

If they were lucky enough to have someone there to do that, great, they had a chance. If not, they often amused themselves complaining about stupid things that don’t matter/you can’t do anything about like slow service in the dining room. Someone into the whole experience would either use that slow service time to engage others in conversation or break away and do dining differently, maybe on their own in a variety of venues.

We have noted before that a cruise is what you make it and that there is a cruise for everyone. Recalling the essence of that and a story we did not long ago about theme cruises, helps make the point.

Every sailing of every ship is like that blank canvas, waiting for us to create a one-of-a-kind travel experience. Carnival Magic makes that easier by having all the elements needed for a good experience in place AND providing a crew that knows what to do with them.

In other words: Carnival is giving away the big secret. That is actually the easy part.

The big trick to this magic will be to see if the cruise line can keep crew in place that will deliver the experience.

A year from now, the ship, ocean, ports and other elements will be pretty much the same. The single most important factor to continuing this grand plan of immersing their guests is the crew. Right now, the ship is staffed with a high percentage of the best crew members from other ships around the fleet. At some point the best, happiest, most productive crew members will rotate out and a regular crew will be left.

Can Carnival reproduce this in your face “we got the experience for you” thing fleet-wide?

Time will tell. Let’s take a brief look at how it is playing out right now.

The Red Frog Pub is a perfect example of the listening and delivering Carnival is up to on Carnival Magic that can lead to a life-changing experience. Yes, other lines have many more alternative dining venues. But to fund those, a cover is charged, up to $50 per person extra on top of the cruise fare paid. There is no cover for the Red Frog Pub and typical bar food is offered at a truly nominal price of $3.33.

“We don’t want to nickel and dime our guests” says Cahill, leading a unified management team on board Carnival Magic who all echo exactly the same credo. That’s huge news to cruise lovers who have tried multiple cruise lines and are quick to observe that the all-inclusive nature of a cruise vacation is not what it once was. The cruise fare that used to cover about 85% of the total cost of a cruise has covered less in recent years on many lines. Carnival’s experiential focus brings that back.

For the most part, we won’t pay extra like we might on a different cruise line for what is included in the reasonable price of a Carnival cruise which can be exactly what we want it to be.

If what we want is simply a way to get from place to place, that’s a good reason to choose a cruise that helps fulfill your travel plans. We were glad to see our familiar ship at the end of an exhausting day sampling various ports.

But if what we want is an experiential travel experience like no other, Carnival is partnering with us to make that happen and Carnival Magic has what it takes.

The question we asked back in January: “Can Carnival capture the magic?” has been answered: Absolutely, and then some!


Sicily in a day

We have just one day in Messina, Italy to see what we can. The plan is basically the same as our last stop of Dubrovnik, Croatia on what we call our “sampling of the Med” tour that started in Venice, Italy and will end nine days later in Barcelona. We know we can’t see everything and would rather spend some quality time with something or someone of interest. Here the plan was to go to Taormina perched high above on Mount Tauro, which dates back to the 3rd century B.C. Again, flexible plans allow for a rich travel experience.

You could accurately say that Messina in the Sicily region of Italy is barely 100 years old. A massive earthquake pretty much leveled the place in 1908. That’s a sharp contrast from Dubrovnik which I will remember as the place that built a wall around it to keep away enemies, a veritable fortress against harm. Messina opens up right out to the ocean with few visible relics of a time when oceanfront defenses were a necessity.

To make the 45 minute drive we took a shore excursion offered by Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Magic that we are sailing on and reporting from this week. The excursion is basically a prepaid bus ride that will be sure you make it back to the ship on time. That’s important because ships leave at a pre-determined time, with or without you. Recent news of a pending strike by a transportation-related union in Italy caused concern. The cruise line had done its homework though and assured us that strike or no strike, their drivers would be operating.

Once there, the tour group headed off to see the impressive Greek Theater and we headed the opposite direction to whatever might lie ahead. At this point we had about two hours before the tour group would make it back to the rendezvous point so off we went.

Granted, two hours is not a lot of time but it is amazing how immersed one can get in a culture just parking at a busy intersection of any given town. Such was the case for us today in Taormina.

Tourists who came off of three different cruise ships dominated the town square but local residents went about their business as they might any other day. Old ladies met for a glass of wine like they may have for years. Merchants chatted with customers in their stores and cursed those outside taking photos then moving on. (Apparently that is frowned upon) Neighbors, an occasional car, dogs and visitors came and went while we sat at the Mocambo Bar, drinking it all in.

The short amount of time we had did not allow any extensive adventures but our time was well spent as we looked out across the beautiful vistas that surrounded the area. The drive back to the Carnival Magic took us into Messina and a different kind of action, that of a modern world with all the noise, honking, and organized chaos of a modern city.

Back on the ship it took me a while to get it, what we had just seen up in the mountains. We had just walked on streets that has been there for hundreds of years, saw and talked to people who’s ancestors had walked those streets and sat watching it all happen much the way it might have back then.

As I looked back at Messina from the balcony of our cruise ship cabin and snapped a few last photos, I realized that the images I was taking were from an angle and elevation not possible when this city was first built. Ten-story-high cruise ships did not stop by back then.

But between volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and the sometimes angry weather that being by an ocean brings, here was an area that survived all that to flourish in today’s world. There’s got to be some lessons there, ones I hope to explore as we continue sampling ports of the Mediterranean.

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Chris is being sponsored by Carnival Cruise Lines on a nine-night Mediterranean cruise and is free to report anything he experiences on the journey without bias