Matt Hannafin
writer / editor / percussionist

I've been out of town.

Since 1997, I've written literally thousands of travel pieces, from 200-word blog posts to 700-page guidebooks. Here are a few examples.


Atomic Oz on the Kansas Prairie

(Original version; an edited and vastly less trippy version was later published in 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die, 2007)

For being so verifiably “heartland,” Kansas is also an odd place, so flat and featureless that early settlers sometimes went bonkers from a kind of apeirophobia — the fear of infinity. It’s the center of the country (literally: the geographical center of the contiguous USA is in the town of Lebanon), was a central player in America’s Wild West myths (Abilene was the railhead at the end of the Chisholm Trail, and briefly had Wild Bill Hickok as marshal), and today it’s the country’s breadbasket (numero uno in U.S. wheat production, scything more than 315 million bushels annually). Come 1890 it was the birthplace of our thirty-forth president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and nine years later was stand-in for all of American home life in Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was made into a Hollywood classic forty years later. During the Cold War, Kansas began to take on an additional identity as home to scores of huge, impregnable nuclear missile silos, positioned out among the wheat and sunflower fields, some not too far from a Cretaceous-age sandstone formation known as the Mushroom Rocks — or Mushroom Clouds, if you let your imagination run free. It was a different time, with different attitudes. In 1958, a story in the Topeka Capital bore the fortune-cookie headline “Missile Base Is Viewed with Joy.” Within a few years, Kansas was the nation’s number-one launching pad for intercontinental ballistic missiles as its citizens learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Today, with the Cold War behind us, all of those silos have been decommissioned, with many of them sold off to individuals and businesses. One, in the town of Holton, has been transformed into the local high school. As if to demonstrate how far we’ve come in our relationship with the former Evil Empire, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson tells the story of the U.S.-Russian space race through a collection of artifacts second only to the National Air and Space Museum in DC. It’s got the Apollo 13 command module (“Houston, we have a problem”), a Soviet Vostok capsule and Soyuz descent module, a U.S. SR-71 spyplane, and many displays on the human story of space. About sixty miles north, in Abilene, the Eisenhower Center tells the story of the man who was president during the first phase of the Cold War and the space race, with a museum and presidential library, Ike’s boyhood home, and he and Mamie’s graves. Keep going another fifty miles northeast and you’ll come to Wamego, home to the Oz Museum and its 2,000-item collection of Oz memorabilia.

So how does this all fit together, you ask?

Simple: drugs.

In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West plants a field of poppies in Dorothy’s path, seducing her to sleep before she can reach the Emerald City. Poppies, of course, are the source of opium, a drug of which none other than Wild Bill Hickok is said to have partaken. During the Eisenhower administration, a secret CIA mind-control project called MK-ULTRA introduced LSD to America’s youth, leading to the birth of psychedelic music. In 1972, the psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd played Wichita’s Henry Arena as part of their seventh U.S. tour, and a year later released their seminal album Dark Side of the Moon. If one starts playing this album at the same time the MGM lion roars during The Wizard of Oz’s opening credits, strange and mysterious synchronicities will occur — one of the many reasons Oz is considered one of the great “head films” of all time. Tying it all up, in October 2000 DEA agents raided a former Atlas missile silo turned drug lab in Wamego and seized enough chemicals to produce about 60 million hits of LSD, enough to keep every man, woman, and child in the state high for the better part of a month.

And thus, it all becomes clear . . .

Where: Central and eastern Kansas. Best time to go: Before the big tornado hits and the cloud burst thunders in your ear.


Here Be Monsters: The Secret Story Behind Cruising’s Most Cherished Traditions

(Originally published on, February 17, 2010. Winner of a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award in the Marine Travel category)

Time has a way of softening things. Traditions become so engrained that we forget what awfulness inspired them in the first place — the handshake being the classic example: now a rote greeting, it was once a way to make sure your new friend wasn’t packing a club.

So should it come as any surprise that many of the endearing traditions we honor aboard today’s cruise ships — traditions harking back to the Golden Age of 20th century ocean liners and beyond — actually have their origins in fear, superstition, loss, and even human sacrifice? It should not.

Read on . . . if you dare.

The Ship Christening; or, Appeasing the Gods so They Won’t Kill You

The sea is a great mystery even today, so how much scarier must it have been for the first mariners as they set off into the unknown, terrified they’d drop off the edge of the world? In that kind of situation, you need some insurance, and the best insurance in those days was the favor of the gods — those being the same gods who wouldn’t think twice about smashing your ship to bits if you didn’t pay up.

In the Chaldean story of the Great Flood, which dates to around 2,000 B.C., Hasisadra, the Chaldeans’ own Noah, details his preparations for launching the world’s very first cruise ship:

To the gods I caused oxen to be sacrificed;

I established offerings each day.

In the ship, beer, food, and wine

I collected like the waters of a river.

Sacrifices continued to be an element of ship christenings for many centuries, culminating in the Viking period, when a human sacrifice was de rigueur for the launch of a new longboat. As part of the process, the unlucky victim’s blood was smeared on the bow. Later, Christianized boatwrights swapped the blood for wine, and when the marketing men of 19th-century France succeeded in popularizing Champagne, that became the christening beverage of choice.

There seems to be no good reason why ships today are christened almost exclusively by godmothers rather than godfathers. Until the early 19th century, ships were generally named by men, and preferably men of royal blood or patronage. Perhaps the change was influenced by classicists’ fondness for Helen of Troy, who possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships” — and we all know how that turned out.

The Sail-Away Party; or, Bon Voyage, Hope You Don’t Sink

It’s embarkation day. You find your cabin, get yourself oriented, and then, as the sun begins to set, you head out on deck with your fellow passengers to bid the land good-bye. You’re off to sea, and your troubles are over! All that’s missing is the streamers you could have thrown to your friends and relatives on shore if this were the early 20th century and you were sailing on, say, the Queen Mary or Normandie.

If only it were all such sweetness and light. In reality, today’s sail-away parties and yesteryear’s bon voyage celebrations originated with one cold, hard fact: The ocean was a vast and dangerous place, and when your sister, brother, aunt, or school chum sailed away, you might never see them again.

In her 1877 volume Ocean Notes for Ladies, Kate Reid Ledoux offers sage advice for those taking passage: “Say au revoir as cheerfully and as bravely as if you were only going for a short journey. Do not sadden others who are trying hard to be brave too. Leave yourself and them in God’s hands, for he will be with you though the trackless deep lies between.”

And you wonder why the cruise lines push umbrella drinks during sail-away? It’s to combat the existential sadness.

The Captain’s Cocktail Party; or, Thanks for Not Sinking Us

On many of today’s cruise ships, the next-to-last night of a cruise is given over to the Captain’s Gala, an occasion for passengers to don their formal dress, sip champagne, and maybe do a quick meet-and-greet with the master and his officers. It’s all so civilized, you imagine ships have been doing this kind of thing for centuries — and you’d be right, up to a point.

In the earliest days of steamship travel, and possibly earlier, passengers would celebrate the end of their long, hazardous journey by throwing a testimonial dinner for the captain — thanking him for seeing them all safely across the sea. In later years, as trans-ocean travel became safer and more commonplace, these parties retained their dress-up character while also assuming a decidedly goofball aspect, which is why we still participate in . . .

Goofy Onboard Games; or, What Happens at Sea Stays at Sea

Picture, say, your great-grandparents: paragons of uprightness, stern and hard-working. Now imagine that they’re on an ocean liner, among strangers, hundreds of miles from shore. This is their big chance. It starts when Grandpa agrees to wear a silly hat, and it devolves from there. Soon Grandma is pressed up against a suave Frenchman, trying (no hands, please!) to pass him the naval orange she has clamped between her chin and neck.

Those kinds of goofy onboard games got their start fairly early, originating from two simple facts: Ocean crossings took a long time, and shipping lines had not yet invested in the variety of professional entertainments that are a hallmark of today’s cruise ships. Translation: People got bored, and would do just about anything for diversion. This was particularly true of Europeans in the early 20th century, who were known to pelt each other with champagne-soaked cotton balls, attempt to whistle popular songs while eating soda crackers, and knock each other off the ship’s cargo booms using feather pillows.

It’s a testament to man’s need to release his inhibitions that such games still thrive on today’s ships, side-by-side with modern alternatives like Wii computer games, surfing simulators, and karaoke. On Costa’s ships, the “Election of the Ideal Couple” game requires participants to prove their worth by, among other things, bursting a balloon on their partner’s lap by sitting on it, hard — a seagoing tradition that’s at least a century old. A few years ago, a manual for Holland America’s entertainment staff listed the rules for a team water-bottle relay in which one person chugs a bottle of water and then “puts it in their swim suit.” The other team members each get a sponge, which they use to fill that bottle with ice water from a bucket located some distance away. Another game was described with admirable succinctness: “Two teams battle to see who can stuff the most spoons down the swimsuit.”

Less goofy but still fraught with history is shuffleboard. Otherwise known as shove-board, shovel-board, and shovel-penny, the game’s origins go back to at least the 16th century, when it was known in England as shovillaborde and was played in miniature using coins or other small disks. The game was probably brought to sea in the 1880s aboard ships of the White Star Line, which was pioneering the concept that people might actually want to be comfortable and have fun on a transatlantic voyage. The game was enlarged in its seagoing version, which employed a long, shovel-like stick to propel a flapjack-sized puck across the deck into a triangular area marked with four score zones. Apparently perfect in its simplicity, the game has remained unchanged for more than 120 years, and can still be found aboard nearly every cruise ship at sea. Which is also true of . . .

Baked Alaska; or, We Do It Because We Must

Cruise veterans, how many times have you had this experience: You’re at dinner, and it’s approaching dessert time. Suddenly the lights go down, the music comes up, and a phalanx of waiters starts dancing around the room, trays of flaming desserts in one hand, twirling napkins in the other.

Oh yes, it’s the Baked Alaska Parade, and its origins are as mysterious as its staying power.

Variations on the dish itself go back to the early 19th century, though the form we know today — a mix of ice cream and sponge cake, topped with meringue and then heated or flambéed — may have gotten its start (and its name) at the New York restaurant Delmonico’s in 1867, coinciding with the U.S. acquisition of Alaska from Russia. When it made the jump from land to sea is a matter of some dispute. In his classic The Only Way to Cross, John Maxtone-Graham describes a dinner on the maiden voyage of Hamburg-America Line’s 1905 Amerika in which “the lights were dimmed and from the kitchen came squads of waiters bearing overhead a sizzling combination of fire and ice.” While well-received that night, Amerika’s big dessert didn’t catch on in the wider cruise world until the late 1950s or early 1960s, when basic, unevolved versions of the Baked Alaska Parade began appearing on ships. The parade didn’t achieve its fianl, perfected form until 1987, when singer David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter) released what would become its vital if unofficial soundtrack, the dance tune “Hot Hot Hot.”

So there you have it: Human progress in a nutshell. Little over a millennia ago, men were making sacrifices to the gods so they’d be safe on ocean voyages. Today, we willingly douse a dessert with rum, light it on fire, and parade it around a crowded room out in the middle of the wine-dark sea.

We’ve come a long way, baby.


Wild Colonial Boys, Home from America

(Originally published in the Boston Herald, November 2003)

It started as a gifting problem.

My father was turning 70. Not your run-of-the-mill birthday. A landmark. The usual gifts — a history book, golf shoes — just wouldn’t cut it.

Then a lightbulb went off: a trip to Ireland. The old country. He’d always wanted to go. And it seemed so simple: I’d pen a gift certificate (“This entitles you to one trip to Ireland, with chauffeur”), pop it in the mail, and wait for the goodwill to flow. Out on the West Coast my brother Brian, also stuck for a good gift, signed on too. Dad got choked up when we told him. We had a hit, and we’d take it on the road come summer.

Now, Ireland and me are old friends, going back to my student days there in the 1980s, and though I’d only been back briefly since, I was, after all, the travel professional. I began to sketch out a route.

But my father, I found, had his own plans.

On his side, our family is 100% true-green Irish, immigrants who settled in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood at the turn of the 19th century. On my mother’s side, the blood may only be half Irish but the temperament is nothing but.

And, my father knew, we still had relatives over there. Letters — at least a few of them over the last quarter century — had proved that. Two we even had addresses for, and would contact. It was just a matter of finding the others.

D-Day, July 28: US Airways flight 70 touches down at Shannon Airport, and we hit the road. Our route would take us south to counties Limerick and Kerry, then hug the west coast northward to Galway (with a side-trip to the Aran Islands) then continue north to Donegal. From there, we’d cross into Northern Ireland to visit the scenic Antrim Coast, then shoot southeast for a short visit to Dublin before flying home. It was an ambitious itinerary, but still allowed time to linger in all the counties from which our ancestors had emigrated. And to find those cousins, of course.

But we didn’t have to: They found us.

The message was waiting at our first B&B, which we’d reserved ahead of time. Sean O’Sullivan of Drumcolliher, County Limerick, requests the honor of a visit from his American cousins.

And three hours later, jet-lagged and dazed, there we were: meeting his family, sipping tea in his kitchen, looking through family photographs, examining century-old marriage contracts, connecting our stories. Then an inspiration, and we’re making the short drive from his farm to another, where we unlatched a gate, drove down a long, muddy path, and found ourselves standing at the homestead where Lizzie McCarthy was born. My great-grandmother.

There wasn’t much left. One thick stone wall, facing rolling farmland. To one side, a stone kiln where they baked lime into whitewash for their walls. I imagined the thatched-roof cottage that once stood here. That’s how my great-grandmother lived.

“I couldn’t stop thinking,” my father said later, “what a beautiful place she’d left, and how her life changed when she emigrated.” From there, she went to a slum in New York, where she raised her five children and four foster kids all by herself, after her husband died. My father shakes his head. “She was a strong woman.”

The following day, we met Paddy McCarthy, age 82, son of Lizzie McCarthy’s brother Bill Dan, son of the legendary Big Dan.

“You take after the old McCarthys,” he said by way of greeting, looking up at the three of us. “Oh, they were powerful big people.”

He was the first embodiment of old Ireland we met, a living genealogy with a tweed cap, a walking stick, and a memory that held onto every member of the family going back 200 years. He spoke as if he’d known them all, and at Knawhill (“The Hill of Bones”) he led us to their graves and told their stories.

He talked of those who had emigrated to the States and then come to visit over the years, and of them all he said the same thing: “They came home.” Us too: We’d come home. As if even though our people left a century ago, and we ourselves had been born in America, we’d only really been visiting there. Our real home was here, in this place.

It’s like the old joke about an Irishman proposing marriage: “Mary, how would you like to be buried with my people?”

It was a strange sensation, this sense of roots, made stranger still when Paddy would point from the window toward a house along the road and say, “Those people over there, they’re your cousins too.”

It was a motif that repeated throughout our trip.

In Castlemaine, County Kerry, setting of the Irish ballad “The Wild Colonial Boy” and home of the Hannafin family, B&B proprietor Mary Murphy took us aside after we checked in. “I know your family,” she said. “Your great-grandfather’s brother James lived right down the road.”

And sure, he had. And sure, there were people in town who remembered him. Richie Boyle, owner of Boyle’s Hardware, was a boy when James (“We called him Hayes, because he was a great fan of a footballer by that name”) came to work for his family.

“We were in the pub one night,” he recalled, “and someone remarked how a certain player had kicked the ball in a match that week. Hayes, he said, ‘Sure, it wasn’t like that at all,’ and he jumps up, takes a two-pound sack of sugar he had, and drop-kicks it to show how it was really done.” He paused, laughing at the memory. “Oh,” he said, spreading his hands wide, “sugar flew aaaall over the room.”

Far from having trouble finding our roots, they were fairly reaching out to snare us.

Aside from the emotional high this kind of travel inspires, we soon realized that planning an itinerary around these kinds of small towns has another advantage: exclusivity. Often, we were the only visitors, and thus privy to an Ireland far removed — and far more authentic — than the country’s more popular tourist cities and towns.

Bustling Galway, for instance, is a vibrant, international city that could be anywhere in Europe. But twenty miles to the north, somewhere outside the small city of Tuam, our maternal cousins Roger and Joseph Glynn were living as if the 20th century had only just arrived, never mind the 21st.

“You’re going to visit Roger and Joseph?” said Mary Harlowe, a second-cousin who’d learned we were in-country through some mysterious Irish bush-telegraph, and had tracked us down at our B&B. “You’ll never find it. I’ll have to lead you.”

And she did. Down unmarked back roads, past the ruins of a castle where my mother’s grandmother played as a little girl, all the way to the farm where that little girl’s nephew, now age 84, lives with his son.

They greet us at the door, both dressed in rough work clothes and boots, both courtly though — or maybe because — they receive so few visitors. We exchange stories, Roger’s going back to the days of the Black-and-Tan paramilitaries, sent by the British in 1918 to suppress the Irish rebellion.

They sit for a photo, both ramrod straight in their wooden chairs. We show them our old pictures, and Roger squints at one through poor eyesight. He point to a child of two sitting beside his grandmother and younger brother. “That’s me,” he says.

That night, we meet Mary again for dinner. She and her husband are my age, hovering around 40, and live in a modern Ireland far removed from Roger and Joseph’s rural time-machine. Yet even in them there’s that powerful sense of home and connectedness, most evident when Mary takes us for a visit to her uncle Patrick’s farm. There, behind the house, we stand looking out over forty acres of fields that stretch over a hilltop and out of sight.

“This is our place,” she says.


I Ching: Zen Tourism in Oregon’s Rose City

(Originally published on, June 2007)

I’ve spent a lot of time lately not knowing where I am. In November, my wife and I moved from my longtime home in New York to Portland, Oregon, which I’d only visited twice before. For the first three months I was completely disoriented, but then I began to get the hang of it, to recognize landmarks and establish my trade routes — those day-to-day trails we all blaze to get from home to work, to market, to our favorite restaurant, to the park, the pub, the bakery, or the bookstore down the block. Soon I was driving and walking around the city looking as if I knew where I was going — but in fact I knew (and know) only a very small part of this place. I know my Portland. Other peoples’ Portland is still terra incognita.

And that got me thinking: Most peoples’ daily lives are fairly circumscribed, their routes determined by a mix of habit and curiosity — and our curiosity is determined by our particular likes and dislikes. But what if we could take free will out of the picture and explore without an agenda? Just take a day (or two, or three) and travel based on a roll of the dice, the flip of a coin, or reading the leaves from the bottom of our teacup? Would we see things we’d never otherwise see? Meet people we might not otherwise meet?

I decided to put my question to the test. I would take one day, make a list of rules that would govern the way I got around, and follow them precisely. Since Portland is a terrific walking and public-transportation town, those would be my methods of travel, and these would be my rules:

1. I’d begin at the nearest light-rail stop, where I’d buy an all-day pass.

2. I’d take first train that came along, whichever direction it was going.

3. I’d take the train ten stops and get off.

4. From there, I’d walk in the direction the train had been going, and at the first corner I’d flip a coin. Heads, I’d turn right; tails, I’d turn left.

5. I’d then walk in that direction for ten minutes, then look around. If I saw a public transit stop — whether for light rail, streetcar, or bus — I’d go there and take the next transport that came along. If no stop is within sight, I’d keep walking and flip a coin on every corner until I found one.

6. I’d then repeat steps 2 through 5 until (a) I found myself at or very close to home again, or (b) the sun went down and I had to call for a ride.

I had one major sub-rule: I could stop for anything that caught my attention, whether it be a museum, a shop, a work of public art, a street performer, a friendly dog, a good view, an interesting pattern of light and shadow on a building, an interesting person, good graffiti, or what have you. When I was done being transfixed, I’d just flip my coin again to determine the next phase of my route.

A Portland Primer

Portland is a compact and human-scaled city, with just over a half-million residents in its city borders and another 1.5 million in its metropolitan area. It’s a warren of small neighborhoods, but for day-to-day purposes people divide the city into a quadripartite arrangement delineated by the Willamette River (which divides the city east and west) and Burnside Avenue (which divides it north and south). Northwest is the toniest part of town, home to the trendy Pearl District, the vibrant and historic Nob Hill neighborhood, and wealthy residential areas that snake up into the hills. Southwest holds the city’s vibrant downtown business district, the University of Portland, the city’s primary concert halls and museums, a sprawling riverfront that includes parks and residential developments, and, at its edge, lovely Washington Park. Trendy Northeast Portland combines pockets of high-, middle-, and low-income residential areas with islands of cool commerce and stretches of industrial grit. Southeast is Portland’s hippie-meets-hipster wormhole, with Hawthorne Boulevard functioning as the city’s equivalent of Greenwich Village or the Haight-Ashbury, with an ironic overlay of waffle restaurants, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and vintage flannel. At the end of the Hawthorne District, Mt. Tabor is a dormant volcano that’s now one of the city’s best parks. Up the Willamette River, North Portland is the city’s “fifth quadrant,” where people go when they want to escape inner Portland perceived gentrification — unless they were just there to begin with, in which case they’re mad at being gentrified.

Hitting the Road

I began in Northwest just after rush hour, paying $4.25 for a day pass that would cover all the buses, light rails, and streetcars of Portland’s TriMet system. Within minutes, a train pulled in headed east and I was off, passing through downtown and crossing the Willamette. After ten stops I debarked in a mixed business and retail area of Northeast, then walked my rule-mandated ten minutes. I found myself in a web of small residential streets, with no public transportation in sight, and so began flipping my coin, which directed me first left, then right, and right, and right again — putting me back on the same corner where I began. Figuring the odds wouldn’t keep me in a loop forever, I kept flipping, walking three more lefts, a right, and another left before coming out at the corner of Northeast Broadway and 12th Avenue, from which I could spot a bus stop in the distance.

This is where I had Philosophical Realization No. 1: Though one might be tempted to consider the possibility of having to walk the same streets multiple times a drawback to the coin-toss system, it in fact worked right into the “see new things” theme of my expedition, and forced me to look in a different way at everyday distractions: noticing the detailing and bright Pacific Northwest paintjobs on the area’s many ornate little homes, pausing to pet the black cat that crossed my path, seeing a “lost pet” sign and wondering if it was the same cat (it wasn’t), and marveling at the height of a bicycle that rode past — so tall I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a circus clown on top.

Back aboard public transportation, I found myself heading back west across the Willamette, then into Portland State University, under an arch that reads “Let Knowledge Serve the City.” I debarked and found myself on a landscaped walking path that led among University and residential buildings, coming out at Keller Fountain, designed by San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin in a modern, stair-step pattern that mimics the waterfalls and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest — or so I learned later on. It was, in fact, the first time I’d laid eyes on this fountain, despite the fact that it takes up an entire small city block in one of center city’s most beautiful sections. Live and learn.

Continuing further along the walking path, I came eventually to a streetcar stop and hopped the first one that came along, headed south.

Up, Up, and Away

Portland’s Southwest Waterfront is a rapidly growing area, its older industry and businesses giving way to residential towers reminiscent of downtown Vancouver, all dotted along the Willamette and linked by park and path. Five-hundred feet above it all, on Marquam Hill, is the main campus of Oregon Health and Science University, a combo medical school and hospital complex. Until just a few months ago patients, students, staff, and view-seekers had to drive up a long, snaking road to get to the upper campus from OHSU’s riverside Center for Health & Healing. Today, though, they can ride Portland’s most high-profile new attraction, the Portland Aerial Tram.

I saw the tram in the distance as my streetcar described its drunken Z-shaped route through western Portland, but didn’t realize until we arrived that the streetcar’s southern terminus is right at the tram’s base. Kismet! As I’d not yet reached ten stops by that point, I decided to count the three-minute, 3,300-foot ride to the top as my final leg, and for $4 enjoyed the best views of Portland I’d yet seen, with downtown’s towers right at my feet, the nine downtown bridges just beyond, and Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens off in the distance. At the top, OHSU itself offers more stationary views from several terraces.

Down and Back Again

One of the drawbacks to setting a rule like “Walk for ten minutes and flip a coin at the next corner to determine your direction” is that you can end up walking a very long way if you find yourself on a road with no side streets. Such was the case with the long (and very non-pedestrian-friendly) road down to town from OHSU.

After scuttling through ditches and hugging guard rails for half an hour, I finally emerged from the forested hill and was back in civilization, whereupon I hopped on the first bus I saw, settled in, and discovered Philosophical Realization No. 2: Sometimes fate makes you revisit your past, even if that past only happened a few minutes earlier — which is to say that the bus I’d boarded was taking me straight back up the hill I’d just walked: past the same daredevil turns, past the lilac gardens in Duniway Park, and past the bull terrier puppy I’d stopped to play with during its afternoon walk.

This kind of situation is where the counting of stops becomes exciting. After reaching the heights of Marquam Hill, the bus began depositing patients and employees at the various facilities, slowly emptying out until there were only a few passengers aboard. This worked in my favor: On a bus, the fewer passengers, the fewer stops are called. By stop #7 I was back at the top of the tram line, but from there the bus descended back to town without making even a single stop. By the time stop #10 was called, I was back near the river.

By the time I’d hiked my obligatory ten minutes, I was deep in the heart of the South Waterfront’s RiverPlace complex, a work-in-progress residential/retail development perched just south of downtown on the banks of the Willamette. At the river, I flipped a coin and headed south along a riverfront trail that eventually curved back westward and placed me at a streetcar stop — which brought me right back to the southern terminus at the base of the aerial tram. As luck would have it, another streetcar was waiting across the platform, pointed in the opposite direction, which saved me having to head up Marquam Hill for a third time. Instead, I boarded the streetcar and began counting off my nine remaining stops, a route that took me back into the Portland State campus, then deposited me right at the entrance to the Portland Art Museum, a place I had never before visited. The oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest, it holds outstanding collections of Native American art and Northwest regional art, plus a surprisingly good modern/contemporary collection that includes works by personal faves o’ mine Richard Serra and Dan Flavin.

Back on the road after a dose of culture, I flipped my coin and began walking in a northerly direction, and at the corner of Burnside flipped once more and headed west one block. There, at the corner of Burnside and 10th, is one of Portland’s great cultural and commercial treasures: Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore, with new and used books shelved together in a warren of rooms spread over three floors and stretching across a whole city block. This was familiar territory to me. It was, in fact, one the primary selling points my wife used when trying to convince me to move to Portland, and since our arrival it’s been a virtual second home. A quick trip in yielded treasures: a two-volume, $24 book on the history of twentieth-century architecture, a nice dark-roast coffee at the store’s cafe, some good people-watching among Portland’s various well-read tribes, and a break from the hot May sun — the latter a stunning thing after Portland’s generally misty, overcast winter and fall, but (according to locals) a harbinger of the city’s beautiful, temperate summers.

Loaded down with books and within a few blocks of home, I chose to call it a day, but my short sojourn into the coin-flip/public-transit method of travel had been all I’d hoped. It had brought me places I’d never been and forced me to look at things I might not otherwise have looked at — and all within a few miles of home. As an unexpected bonus, it had also forced me to forget all about schedules, “must see” attractions, and all the other things that can suck the soul out of travel, turning it into a paint-by-numbers landscape. Instead, my day had become a game, a playful adventure that reminded me of exploring the woods behind my New Jersey home when I was seven years old. Though probably only a quarter mile square, those woods drew me in like a fairy tale, luring me from tree to tree and clearing to clearing, turning me to stone as I watched deer feeding in the bushes, and drawing me down to explore the tiny forest in a patch of moss. I had all the time in the world, and no one was telling me what was important and what wasn’t. I could go anywhere and do anything, and it was all good.

Which leads me to my final philosophical conclusion and grand travel advice of the day: When you don’t know where you are, any direction is the right direction.

Now go get lost.


The Small-Ship Industry, Post–Cruise West

(Originally published in Porthole Insider, 2011)

The small-ship cruise segment has never offered an easy operating environment, either for new or established players. Case in point: last September’s shuttering of onetime market leader Cruise West, which capped a decade that also saw the demise of Majestic America Line, Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Clipper Cruise Line, Glacier Bay Cruiseline, Canadian Sailing Expeditions, RiverBarge Excursions, and others.

Cruise West Chairman and Managing Director Dick West blamed the line’s collapse on “the current tight financial market” and an inability to secure outside investment, but sources close to the line also cite bad management decisions — principally, taking on too much debt and expanding into new regions with a high cost of going to market, all while the economy was in free fall. Said one source, Cruise West management “failed to right-size the company and make changes that other business executives made during this time of uncertainty.”

Sick Branches, Healthy Tree

Despite the recent high-profile failures of Cruise West and Majestic America, executives at competing lines don’t see an inherent problem with the small-ship model. “I don’t think the small cruise ship industry is hurting,” says Charles A. Robertson, chairman and CEO of Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines. “I think those companies hurt for very identifiable reasons: They were undercapitalized and they were trying to operate very old equipment that wasn’t competitive with the newer equipment.”

Unlike most small-ship companies, American Cruise Lines operates a fleet of newer, more spacious and amenity-filled vessels, all purpose-built over the past eight years by affiliate company Chesapeake Shipbuilding of Salisbury, Maryland.

Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, also sees the recent failures as individual cases. “I believe [small-ship] companies will continue to come and go,” he says. “This is a business with many, many moving parts, and people continue to underestimate its complexity.”

As part of its response to the economic crisis, Lindblad Expeditions took on investors who now hold part ownership of the company. That financial cushion, says the company’s founder, has allowed it to “stay current with commissions and invest in hardware, development, human resources, and innovation.”

The Hardware Question

In contrast with Lindblad, Cruise West’s financial troubles forced it to lay off staff as early as November 2008 and forego necessary vessel upgrades, which left much of its fleet looking dated and worn — a difficult sell considering the high rates charged by CW and almost every other small-ship line.

“I think Cruise West chose to invest in expanding their footprint rather than reinvest in their vessels,” says Hunter H. McIntosh, COO of conservation-oriented Alaska line The Boat Company. “We make sure that we back up our prices with a luxury setting. You can’t market to the higher end, small-ship cruise passenger, charge higher prices, and use outdated vessels.”

American Cruise Lines’ Charles Robertson sees the hardware question in Darwinian terms: “Old ships just don’t sell very well because they’re not competitive with new ships, so companies with new ships are going to thrive — unfortunately, at the expense of those with older ships,” he says. “That’s something the big ship companies like Carnival and Royal Caribbean learned ten or fifteen years ago. But the small ship companies, with the exception of ourselves, either didn’t learn that lesson or didn’t have the capital to build new ships.”

Captain Dan Blanchard, CEO of luxury adventure line American Safari Cruises, concurs: “Other companies charge nearly the same rate as American Safari Cruises, but on vessels without high-end features such as balconies and Jacuzzi tubs, on-deck hot tubs and saunas, and with guest capacities four to ten times higher.”

Blanchard’s other small-ship venture, InnerSea Discoveries, is a different animal entirely. Set to sail its inaugural season in summer 2011, the line will offer active-adventure, all-wilderness cruises at rates substantially below the small-ship norm — a proposition made possible by the vessels themselves, the former Wilderness Adventurer and Wilderness Discoverer of Glacier Bay Cruiseline.

“The former Glacier Bay vessels were available for a song, and we jumped on the opportunity,” says Blanchard. “Small-ship cruise prices have been too expensive and out of the reach of most people, so we passed on the great deal we received on the boats to our guests.”

At InnerSea, the unfancy, utilitarian Wilderness Adventurer and Wilderness Discoverer will operate essentially as they did for Glacier Bay, as floating base camps for long kayaking, hiking, snorkeling, and wildlife-watching excursions that are included in the line’s rates.

“These boats are perfect for this type of expedition,” says Blanchard. “For InnerSea Discoveries, the ship is the means to an end, a way to get to places that would otherwise be inaccessible.”

Sven-Olaf Lindblad has similar views. “The ships are incidental,” he says. “The key to success in this business is culture and rooted principles.”

Having good friends and cool toys helps too: Since 2004, Lindblad’s alliance with the National Geographic Society has brought Society experts and photographers aboard the line’s ships, both to lecture and conduct research. On its upcoming Galapagos sailings, Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour will be deploying a remotely operated sub, working with Galapagos National Park to study undersea life up to 500 feet below the surface. Findings will be shared regularly with the ship’s guests.

Knowing Your Guests, Your Niche, and Your Numbers

The Great Recession and its aftermath were at least partly responsible for the demise of Cruise West, Majestic America, RiverBarge Excursions, and Canadian Sailing Expeditions. But one line found it an opportune time to enter the market.

Island Windjammers was incorporated in July 2008 with a straightforward business idea: provide a vacation option for loyal clients of tall-ship line Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, which had collapsed spectacularly the previous year. After purchasing the 12-passenger brigantine schooner Diamant from Galapagos tour operator Federico Angermeyer, Island Windjammers began offering weekly Grenadines cruises in November 2009.

“We knew exactly what type of product we wanted to offer,” says the line’s founder and CEO, Liz Harvey. “Although the bad economy was, and still is, a factor in how we modeled our launch, we were confident that with careful planning, the first newcomer to gain a foothold in this niche was very likely to be successful.”

Knowing the guests was key: A longtime Windjammer Barefoot vacationer, Harvey had organized a fundraising effort among her fellow repeat passengers, helping crewmembers get home after the line’s sudden demise left them stranded on their ships without aid or pay. In the months that followed, that Internet-based effort morphed into the idea for a new cruise line. According to Harvey, the recipe works.

“Because we offer such a specialized experience, have a limited capacity, and have identified and keep in regular communication with our client base, we’re able to price our sailings where we can make a profit without having to discount,” says Harvey. “Couple that with a very manageable debt load, and investors who are also loving clients and enthusiastic supporters, and we’re doing well after our first year.”

Blount Small Ship Adventures (formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line) is the opposite of a newcomer in the small-ship market. Founded in 1966 by Rhode Island shipbuilder Luther Blount, the line forged a slow, steady business, offering small-scale river and canal cruises in New England, plus itineraries in the Great Lakes, the Intracoastal Waterway, the Caribbean, and Central America. The vibe is BYOB, the demographic skew old, and the ships — all designed and built at the line’s affiliated shipyard, Blount Boats — are no-frills and utilitarian.

“We were built on a simple idea my father had, of bringing people to places they couldn’t get to on a large ship, and today that remains our mission,” says the line’s president, Nancy Blount. “We are somewhat of a conservative company. We’ve always been, and continue to be, family-owned and -operated. We have no debt and there are no outside investors. And we don’t need to grow fast and furiously — we’re happy with the kind of moderate and continued growth we’ve experienced.”

“For our guests, what matters is the experience, hands down. They don’t need or want luxury, and they don’t stop traveling — it’s in their DNA,” says Blount. But in 2009, with the financial crisis affecting bookings, the line began to re-imagine itself for the future, changing its name and branding to target both mature and boomer-age adventure travelers, renovating its ships, and creating new and enhanced cruises. “And as a result,” says Blount, “we began to see our bookings rejuvenate in double digits.”

In Alaska, another established operator, The Boat Company, weathered the financial crisis by being the sole operator in a unique niche: nonprofit cruising. Founded in 1980 as a program of the McIntosh Foundation (created by heirs to the A&P supermarkets fortune), the line offers intimate, small-scale cruises focused completely on nature, with days spent wildlife-watching, fishing, kayaking, and hiking. Its two vessels carry just 20 and 24 passengers.

Though the financial crisis affected the company, it was primarily a matter of guests booking last-minute, rather than not booking at all.

“Our client base tends to feel the current economic downturn less than most of us,” says Hunter H. McIntosh, the line’s COO, “but we have had to work a bit harder for the sale because everyone is comparing prices from everyone in our segment. In any case, The Boat Company is financially stable and secure regardless of the economy, because we have the support and backing of our past clients as well as a private foundation.”

Vacation experience aside, The Boat Company’s powerful hook for potential customers is its nonprofit status, through which all revenues after operating expenses get channeled back into conservation efforts in Southeast Alaska. Because of that, says McIntosh, “our clients as well as foundations and other organizations are able to make tax-deductible donations to us for general overhead operating expenses or even program-related issues” — that is, you can write off a portion of the trip cost on your taxes, often as much as $2,500 or more.

“We don’t discount,” says McIntosh, “but when folks find out about our tax-deduction program, most book.”

Black Ink and Crystal Balls

Across the board, small-ship executives interviewed for this article expressed confidence in the market’s future, with Windstar Cruises noting a significant increase in advance bookings for 2011, American Cruise Lines and Lindblad Expeditions claiming 2010 as their most profitable year ever, and sales at American Safari Cruises up 67 percent.

“The downturn was very difficult in late 2008 and 2009,” says ASC’s Dan Blanchard. “However, we did make a small profit in 2009 and did very well in 2010. I think the future for us is very bright. We’ve purchased vessels responsibly, have experienced staff and crew, and most importantly, we’re financially conservative in our business moves.”

Nancy Blount sees the small-ship market as a potential beneficiary of current trends. “I believe the small-ship industry is just now coming into its own,” she says. ”If you look at the trends in travel and in life, everything is getting smaller: Cars are smaller, computers are smaller, phones are smaller — and the travel companies that promote small groups are getting bigger. People don’t want to travel in herds anymore.”

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