Travel and Adventure



Tame birds sing of freedom. Wild birds fly.  –John Lennon

Last week, Gunter and I watched the series 1833, the prequel to the Yellowstone series, which is set in contemporary times. A group of pioneers had traveled from the Eastern U.S. to take advantage of free land at the end of the Oregon Trail. One of the wagons was called Prairie Schooner. The pioneers dreamt of freedom, of that first glimpse of the Pacific. The heroine, Elsa, wasn’t into mountains and destinations, though. For her, that feeling of freedom was the journey, riding her horse through new lands by day and sleeping under the big sky at night. Her freedom was moving on. 

The film brought back memories of our own quest for freedom.  We had already “gone west” to California, Gunter from Germany and I from Wisconsin. In San Diego, we had accomplished the American dream, founding and building a biotech company, taking it public, and becoming financially independent. But we weren’t free. During those years, we preserved our sanity by dreaming of our future. It would be a better life—one in which we would be truly independent and self-sufficient, answering to no one. 

We would go to sea!

We would escape to another world—a world in which we could control our own destiny—as free as eagles soaring through the sky. We would sail with the wind and when that wasn’t blowing, we would use solar energy stored in our battery bank. We would be our own self-contained municipality, with a water maker to convert sea water to fresh, and high-tech communication and navigation systems. Best of all, we would have no Board of Directors, shareholders, or stakeholders telling us what to do.

We had a 43-foot Catana catamaran built for us in the south of France. When it was finished, we sailed the Med through the Strait of Gibraltar to the Canary Islands, on to Cape Verde and across the Atlantic to St. Lucia. There, we spent the 2000-2001 holidays. Afterwards, we sailed through the Caribbean to Los Roques, Venezuela and the ABC islands, on our way to Cartagena, Colombia. 

During a Force 10 storm, the four of us on board feared for our lives. That shook us to the core. This is what I wrote about that feeling of freedom then:

“Some say the sea is cruel. I agree. I say it is without mercy. Freedom at sea? Independence, managing your own municipality? Ha! Leave the shore, and you leave behind a certain degree of freedom; you must live by Poseidon’s rules, pawns to the sea god’s whims. And you’re left with a burning question: Is the cruiser experience worth the loss of control over your life? Must it always be like this? Must I always live life on the edge? Rollers slap against the hulls of Pacific Bliss as she heaves onwards, while answers elude me like slippery eels.”  ─Maiden Voyage, Chapter 8, page 125. 

Despite the danger, Gunter and I decided to go on. We sailed for seven more years, until we “crossed the line” and became part of that rare breed called “World Circumnavigators.” Then we returned to Canet, France to the same dock where it all began. 

Nowadays, living on our beloved acre of land in rural Northwest Wisconsin during its bucolic summers, I often go out to view the night sky. I contemplate the Big Dipper beaming over White Ash Lake while reminiscing about the freedom of those night watches at sea under the Southern Cross. We have a certain measure of freedom at our lake home, and even less during winters spent at our condo in San Diego. 

What is freedom? Freedom can be an illusion. Freedom can be lost. Freedom can be addictive; once you have a taste, you will yearn for more. You can find freedom in many different ways: by going west, by going out to sea, or by taking a hike in the mountains, forest, or plains. Just know this: no matter how you define it, freedom is precious. If you’ve escaped boundaries—whether restrictions set by yourself or others—you can now roam free. You can say, “I am my own person, because this is who I choose to be.” 

“Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used.”  ─Hunter S. Thompson

Special Offer: To learn more about the first voyage of Lois and Gunter Hofmann, encompassing the first third of their sail around the world, purchase a digital copy of Maiden Voyage by clicking here.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon and on her website.


Florence is one of the world’s great art destinations—with famous museums, galleries, churches, palazzi and piazzas. This small city is easy to walk, with all of these destinations crowded into a compact centro storico. Fresh, seasonal, and local, Tuscan fare is a haven for foodies. I’d admired this historic city since childhood and dreamt of going there. But somehow, fate intervened and even though I’d sailed the world and visited over 100 countries—including three visits to Italy—Florence still remained on my Bucket List. Gunter, who was born in Munich only 660 kilometers away, had never been there either. We vowed to change that in September 2022, during our first international trip since the Pandemic. 

We celebrated Gunter’s birthday with relatives in Munich on September 9th and took a short flight on Air Dolimiti to Florence the following week. Gunter’s sister Helga and daughter Simone, who organized the trip, accompanied us. It was a perfect day to fly, with deep blue skies and fluffy cumulous clouds. I used my iPhone to take pictures over Tuscany and Florence.

Flying over Tuscany
Flying over Tuscany
in Florence
Gunter, Helga, Lois and Simone

We took a cab to our centrally-located Hotel Continentale, checked into our rooms, and met in the lobby to decide on a restaurant. Where to go first? It was a big decision. My guidebook, Fodor’s 25 Best Florence, explained the difference between Trattoria and Osteria: “Trattoria are usually family-run places and generally more basic than restaurants. Sometimes there is no written menu and the waiter will reel off the list of the day’s specials. The food and surroundings in a ristorante are usually more refined and prices will reflect this. Pizzerie specialize in pizzas, but often serve other dishes as well…Osterie can either be old-fashioned places specializing in home-cooked food or extremely elegant, long-established restaurants.” That puzzled us.

“Let’s just walk and see what we find close by,” Gunter said. “I’m starving.”

Right around the corner, we found Trattoria Ponte Vecchio, complete with square tables, red-and-white checked tablecloths, menus in English, and a friendly staff. Problem solved! Dimmed by travel fatigue and delicious red wine, none of us remember what we ate that first night, but each of our meals were deeply satisfying. 

After dinner, we rested in our rooms for less than an hour, eager to go up to the rooftop bar to view the city at night. We were not disappointed. How fortunate we were to have that stunning view only an elevator ride away! 

Florence at night, rooftop view
Florence at night, rooftop view
Duomo by night
Duomo by night
Rooftop bar in Florence
Enjoying the rooftop bar

Day Two: Galleria degli Uffizi and Piazzas in The South Central

Simone had purchased tickets in advance for our gallery tour. It was fortunate she did, because throngs of visitors flock to the Uffizi to admire the greatest collection of Renaissance painting in the world. The gallery displays the paintings in chronological order and by school, starting way back in the 13th century when the first stirrings of the Renaissance began. The display ends with works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Canaletto from the 17th and 18th centuries. We spent our morning there. Some of our favorites are shown in the photo gallery below, along with views from the museum.

Florence is all about art so we enjoyed watching artists who painted while selling their art. After walking for hours in the gallery, though, we needed a cappuccino stop before continuing. 

Caffeine provided a welcome boost of energy. We sauntered past shops and along a narrow walkway that opened up to the most magnificent city square in Florence, the Plaza della Signoria, the home of the towering Palazzo Vecchio. With its fortress-like castellations and commanding 311-foot bell tower, the building has been the city’s town hall since it was completed in 1302. When Florence was briefly the capital of Italy (1865-1870) the building housed the Parliament and Foreign Ministry. The palace-like structure conveyed a message of political power backed by military strength.

The town hall of Florence, Palazzo Vecchio
The town hall of Florence, Palazzo Vecchio
The town hall of Florence, Palazzo Vecchio
The bell tower of Palazzo Vecchio
Florence Italy has narrow walkways open up to grand plazas
Narrow walkways open up to grand plazas
The plaza near Palazzo Vecchio has many restaurants
The plaza near Palazzo Vecchio has many restaurants

Full of sculptures bristling with political connotations, this plaza has been the hub of political life since the 14th century. I wished I’d had the time to stay another week or more to understand the history! That statue of a man triumphantly holding someone’s head up to the sky, for example, what is the backstory? “Perseus holding Medusa’s head, 1554” didn’t tell me enough. Originally, the statue of The David was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio as a David-versus-Goliath symbol of the Republic’s defiance of the Medici. It was moved inside to protect it from the elements. Yet, erecting the sculpture The Neptune (1575) celebrated Medici maritime ambitions. Go figure.

Day Three: Duomo, Churches, and Piazzas in the North Centro

On the third day, we walked toward the Galleria dell’ Accademia past the line that wound around the block, and right up to the front. We had tickets! No matter, that line was for visitors with tickets. There were no exceptions; we would have to go to the end of the line and stand in it for two hours or so. 

“You saw the replica of The David yesterday in the plaza…” Simone began. 

“And we can go back to photograph him again in more detail,” Helga added.

Gunter resolved our dilemma. “You can always buy postcards. Let’s go enjoy ourselves.” 

Soon we were sipping cold drinks and cappuccinos in a delightful coffee shop. Determined to have a no-stress, easy-does-it vacation, we felt good about giving our tickets to a group of students. There was plenty to see in the North Centro. Wherever we walked, the huge bulk of the Duomo dominated the city skyline. The cupola is covered with terracotta tiles with white ribs for contrast. The Gothic cathedral is quite ornate, made of pink, white and green marble. Built at the end of the 13th century; its colossal dome was not added until the 15th century and the façade was finished in the 19th century.

Wonderful architecture wherever you look
Wonderful architecture wherever you look
One of many bridges over the Arno River.
One of many bridges over River Arno.

One edifice I didn’t want to miss was the beautiful octangular Battistero. Referred to by Dante as his “bel San Giovanni,” it is dedicated to the city’s patron saint, St. John the Baptist. For many centuries, it was the place where Florentines were baptized. The building is gorgeous, covered by green and white marble, added somewhere between the 11th and 12th centuries. I loved the doors made of bronze! The east doors, called the “gates of paradise” by Michelangelo, depict familiar Old Testament scenes.

Bronze door of the Battistero

Day Four: Shopping, Food and a Carriage Ride

Our last full day in Florence was a wrap-up day. We shopped for gifts, leather goods, and even those postcards Gunter wanted! We treated ourselves to that wonderful gelato we’d been resisting. We visited the Plaza della Signoria to view The David up close. And we visited one more church, the Chiesa di San Firenze. For a grand finale, we treated ourselves to a horse-and-carriage ride throughout the city.

Chiesa di San Firenze

Towards evening, we walked to Osteria Vecchio Vicolo for our final dinner in Florence. This was our second meal there, so we knew the menu well. This time, we all ordered seafood. We lingered over our food and wine, reminiscing about “the good life” we’d experienced. This is a city you don’t want to leave. There’s always so much more to do and see.

Day Five:  The Ponte Vecchio and Departure

We were fortunate to book a hotel so close to Ponte Vecchio. We crossed that bridge many times, appreciating a different view each time. Shops have existed on the Ponte Vecchio since the 13th century. There have been all types of vendors, but butchers, fishmongers, and tanners added a rank stench to the bridge and dropped their waste into the river. That had to change. So in 1593 Medici Duke Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewelers were allowed on the bridge. 

After breakfast, we finished packing, and checked out. Our friendly hotel staff would to store our luggage until our departure for the airport. We strolled along the historic bridge and then along the Arno. I’ve never seen so much gold and jewelry in one place! After a while though, it all looked the same. We ducked past a shop and into an alley that led to a secluded café near the river. All alone, we took in the splendid view of where we’d been just minutes before. Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge) was to the side while we faced the Arno. What a memorable setting!

A boat passes under the arches
Postcard from Florence, Italy

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon and on her website.


The Role of the Mississippi in the U.S. Civil War. Our Lower Mississippi cruise began in Memphis, Tennessee, where Gunter and I met my sister Ret Ekdahl and her husband John Ekdahl. Founded in 1819 by Andrew Jackson, James Winchester, and John Overton, Memphis was named after the ancient capital of Egypt located on the Nile River. “Birthplace to the Blues” is the city’s modern claim to fame.

The four of us arrived at the Graceland Guest Hotel, part of our Cruise Package, the evening before our departure for Vicksburg.  We were surprised to find that Graceland Hotel was not located at Graceland, Elvis’s iconic mansion.  But no matter. We enjoyed a wonderful creole stew—a foretaste of the sumptuous Southern cuisine to come. And we didn’t miss Elvis; his songs were streaming continuously on the hotel TV—one channel each for the fifties, sixties and seventies—and his portraits filled the hallway walls.

After breakfast, we were called by groups to a hotel room set aside for Covid tests. Following that, we boarded buses to our cruise ship, American Melody. Our reserved staterooms on Deck 1 had been upgraded to Deck 2, so a set of passengers with disabilities could be closer to the dining room. We loved our larger suites with sliding doors to private balconies. On the wall behind the king-size bed hung three drawings, encompassing the entire Mississippi and its tributaries. How cool! We had only begun to check out the view of the Mighty Mississippi and the shining Memphis Bridge when we were called to muster on the lower deck for safety drills. Finally we were underway to Vicksburg. The river was much wider than the Upper Mississippi. We met the longest lines of barges I’d ever seen—two wide—pushed upriver by a lone towboat.

The view of the Memphis Bridge from our balcony
The view of the Memphis Bridge from our balcony
Artwork above the headboard depicts the Mississippi and its tributaries
Artwork above the headboard depicts the Mississippi and its tributaries
Towboat pushes a line of barges that seems to go on forever–upriver.

We docked on Levee Street at 1:30 pm the next day, eager to explore this historic city high on a bluff on the east bank of the Mississippi. Built by French colonists in 1719, Vicksburg survived an attack by local Natchez Indians ten years later. The city was incorporated in 1825. By1860, Vicksburg, at 4591 souls, was the second largest city in the state. (Natchez was the first.) The current population is more than 26,000.

Gunter views the levee and Vicksburg above
Gunter views the levee and Vicksburg above.

Gaining sole control of the Mississippi River was vital to winning the Civil War. The river not only brought strategic military advantages but also allowed for easier transport of supplies and soldiers to the Western Front. When the war began in 1861, the Confederacy controlled the entire Mississippi below Cairo. We knew, of course, how the Civil War ended. But we didn’t fully understand the role that Vicksburg had played. 

We would be docked in Vicksburg for two days. The four of us were unanimous: the National Military Park would be our first tour. After that, we’d explore the town. For the second day, we signed up for a tour called the “Antebellum Vicksburg Experience.”

Vicksburg was Vital to Victory. Although the nation was divided, both sides agreed that Vicksburg was the key to winning the war. For Jefferson Davis, this town overlooking a river bend was “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” Confederates fortified strategic river points such as Vicksburg with artillery batteries and a ring of forts whose 172 guns guarded all land approaches, including swamps and bayous. The river was the South’s lifeline for supplies and troops.

But Vicksburg could be the North’s lifeline. The Federals could pass supplies to the South by river, road, or rail. By cutting off Confederate supplies and recruits, they could isolate Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Union navy and ground forces gained more control of the river as the war progressed, fighting north from the Gulf and south from Illinois—closing in on Vicksburg.

President Abraham Lincoln understood the value of Vicksburg. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” 

The Federals captured post after post. Then they set their sights on Vicksburg. That battlefield is what we were about to see. Our tour bus driver took a 16-mile route that put the campaign and the siege of Vicksburg into perspective. At various stops, we left the bus to follow a park ranger past cannons, grave markers and memorials, and on to various to lookouts. Amazingly, the ranger made the battles come alive as he demonstrated the placement of Union and Confederate troops. I highly recommend this tour.

Each state that participated in the war contributed a monument to be erected at Vicksburg National Military Park. This is the Wisconsin statue.
Each state that participated in the war contributed a monument to be erected at Vicksburg National Military Park. This is the Wisconsin statue.
Confederate General John C. Pemberton
Confederate General John C. Pemberton

Another stop was the USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum where we boarded a restored gunboat that had been sunk in the Mississippi River. I was amazed to see a huge wooden boat clad with sheets of iron! Named after towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers, seven formidable-but-shallow gunboats prowled the Mississippi River and tributaries. They preyed upon Confederate supply lines and shore batteries.

Restored USS Cairo showing armor and cannon.

Among the most important legacies of the Civil War was the addition of three Amendments to the Constitution, promising freedom and full rights of citizenship to African Americans. Racism, however, delayed the full implementation of the amendments. Mississippi was readmitted to the union in 1870, but a century passed before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally outlawed racial discrimination. Even so, struggles for civil rights continue until this day.

These tours taught us that the viewpoints of those legacies differ from north to south and vary from person to person. Even in our small group, opinions differ. I was raised in the Midwest; my education echoed the Union position; I was fascinated to hear the other side.  Ret and John also grew up in the Midwest, but moved to Texas in the 1970s, as adults. They’ve picked up the Southern dialect and use y’all  in their emails, but retain Midwest culture and values. Gunter was raised in Germany, but immigrated to the U.S. in the late ‘60s. His perspective is not that of a Northerner or Southerner, but of a European/Californian.  

Back on board American Melody, our differing opinions made for interesting conversation as we four relaxed and enjoyed the cruising life with cocktails, dinner and an evening performance. It felt wonderful to be waited on! 

Antebellum Vicksburg Experience: Touring the Duff Green Mansion. The following day, we took a walking tour through Vicksburg, including a visit to the Christ Episcopal Church. The rector pointed out the two Tiffany windows and compared the current church to that of Vicksburg during the 1800s and 1900s. From there, we walked to The Duff Green Mansion, now a Bed & Breakfast.  Built in 1856 by a local cotton broker for his bride, the mansion was designed for entertaining in the grand antebellum lifestyle. When war reached Vicksburg in 1863, that lifestyle was cut short. Duff Green is credited with saving his neighborhood, including the nearby Christ Episcopal Church, by designating his home as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers. Most of the town’s homes were demolished by Union cannons, but from Reconstruction to the Great Depression, this former Soldiers Rest Home was again used as a Grand Home. During the next fifty years, the mansion fell into disrepair while being used as a boy’s orphanage and later, a Salvation Army Headquarters. The mansion was meticulously renovated by Mr. and Mrs. Harry Sharp in the mid-1980s to the Grand Home we visited.

The presentation by our docent, a descendant of the original owners, was among the best I’ve ever heard. Delightful, entertaining, and knowledgeable, she held us spellbound! The mansion, accurately restored to pre-Civil War elegance, was filled with period pieces that evoke the spirit of the Antebellum South. I especially loved the pastoral paintings and the elaborate vases.

We all listened with rapt attention to the docent’s emotional story. She described how the families of Vicksburg survived the final 47-day siege of Vicksburg. While their young men were off fighting the Union troops in hills and valleys of what’s now the Military Park, women, children, and elderly men lived in caves. These were natural caverns in the Mississippi’s bluffs or manmade structures. Over 500 caves (which the Union soldiers called Prairie Dog Village) were dug into the hillsides. During the day, women would go back into the town to scavenge for what food they could find. During the evenings—with cannons exploding—they cooked and slept in the caves, while caring for their children. The presentation reminded me of stories Gunter and his siblings have told about surviving the bombing of Munich during World War II. It also reminded me of Ukrainians currently escaping bombing by living in the basements of homes, schools, and railway depots. 

The 47-day siege of Vicksburg eventually gave control of the Mississippi River to the Union. It was part of the Union’s Anaconda Plan—a naval blockade, a thrust down the Mississippi, and the strangulation of the South by Union and naval forces. The plan worked. On May 16, 1863 Ulysses S. Grant defeated a force under General John C. Pemberton at Champion Hill, twenty miles east of Vicksburg. Pemberton retreated, and Grant sealed the city by the end of May. In three weeks, Grant’s men marched 180 miles, won five battles and captured some 6,000 prisoners. The town of Vicksburg would not celebrate the Fourth of July for 81 years.

Anaconda, Scotts Great Snake

Scott’s great snake. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress
The Siege of Vicksburg

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon and on her website.


How my dream of cruising the Mississippi began.  I grew up near the St. Croix River, a tributary of the Mississippi. I didn’t know much about that river until elementary school. There, we learned to spell M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i and some of us even learned to spell it backwards: I-p-p-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-m. Settlers learned the word from Indian tribes living along the river banks, who gave the river various names such as Mis-ipi, Michi-sipi, Kitchi-Zibi, and my favorite, Mee-zee-see-bee.

When I was seven years old, my parents took my brothers and me to Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi in the headwaters area of central Minnesota. This small glacial lake is 1.8 square miles, 1,475 feet above sea level. It is located in Itasca State Park, established in 1891 and Minnesota’s oldest state park. In this 32,000-acre sanctuary, the Mighty Mississippi begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. “Just walk across on these steppingstones,” my dad said as he held my hand. “Remember this. You are walking across the very beginning of the Mighty Mississippi!”

My next exposure to the river that’s woven through the fabric of America was reading Mark Twain’s books. I especially liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck and Jim bravely raft down the great river. “I will do that someday—when I grow up,” I vowed.

Life, children, and jobs interfered but I did manage to boat down that river when I was way grown up—in my forties. Divorced and proud owner of a 20-foot powerboat made by Cruisers, Inc., I spent most summer weekends on the pristine St. Croix River, upstream from the muddy Mississippi.  As a tribute to my fascination with Greek mythology, I named my boat Thetis, after the sea goddess who married Peleus and became the mother of Achilles. That didn’t work. My friends called me the “River Queen,” and before long they were calling my boat River Queen as well.

The St. Croix RIver, a Perfect Place to Camp
The St. Croix River, a Perfect Place to Camp

Often, I camped along the banks alone, sorting through my life. Later though, I invited a few of my girl friends who loved being on the water as much as I did. During my second summer on the St. Croix, my friends and I talked about taking River Queen further down the Mississippi. Did we dare?  Finally, we drummed up the courage to plan a women-only cruise from Prescott—where the boat was berthed—down the Mississippi to LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  We spent an adventurous weekend there. On Monday, we motored upriver back to Prescott, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the St. Croix.

The Confluence of the Mighty Mississippi with the St. Croix River Credit, Pete Howard 2010

There was a reason for returning on a Monday. A major obstacle to cruising the upper Mississippi is the lock and dam system. Boaters cruising down the Mississippi were often stuck in the river’s locks for two-to-three hours per lock.  From Prescott to La Crosse, we would go through two such systems—Lock &Dam #3 near Red Wing and Lock & Dam #4 in Alma. Commercial barges transiting the locks sometimes took precedence. That policy changed after boaters reported being stuck for up to four hours in the system, forced to return upriver in the dark on a Sunday. (Some boaters used that as an excuse to miss work on Monday!) The state of Minnesota eventually succumbed to pressure. Barges were no longer allowed to run on Sundays.

Lock and Dam 4, Alma, Minn. Upper Mississippi River mile 752.8
Lock and Dam 4, Alma, Minn. Upper Mississippi River mile 752.8

The lock and dam system is a marvel of engineering that travelers along the Great River Road enjoy without the hassle of navigating that system. Built along the upper Mississippi River from St. Paul to St. Louis are 29 lock-and-dam structures, creating a “stairway of water” filled with pleasure boats, tour boats, and commercial barges. The change in elevation is significant: for example, the route from St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis, to Granite City, Illinois represents a 420-foot drop. You won’t find locks and dams on the lower sections of the Mississippi though. Why? Farther south, the Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and Ohio rivers flow into the Mississippi, making the river naturally wider and deeper. The barges I detested need a lot of river to operate. A “full tow” is made up of 15 barges, arranged three wide and five deep, pushed by a single towboat. Together, these connected barges stretch as long as 1200 feet! 

Lock and Dam system, Upper Mississippi
Lock and Dam system, Upper Mississippi

Undeterred by barge traffic, I again vowed to go down the Mississippi to New Orleans, not by raft, but in my own powerboat. I ordered a complete set of maps of the Mississippi, including all 29 locks and dams.

But before I could realize that dream, life again interfered. By the end of the ‘80s, I had sold my house and boat in Minneapolis and moved to San Diego for work. I had graduated from motor boats and learned to sail. Sailing became my new passion. The following year, I met Gunter and the rest is history. He had a dream of sailing around the world and that suited me just fine. After we retired from the business we’d taken public, we commissioned a Catana 431 ocean-going catamaran in the south of France. We sailed directly from the factory dock around the world and returned to that same dock eight years later. Boating down the Mississippi was a distant dream, long forgotten.  

When we completed our circumnavigation and purchased a second home in Wisconsin, however, that dream was revived. We were less than 30 miles from the St. Croix River, not far from my birthplace. We added a Mississippi Cruise to our bucket list.

The American Cruise Lines Lower Mississippi Cruise. Gunter and I received brochures from American Cruise Lines every year. We always had bigger, better travel plans, it seemed. But during the Pandemic, our interest in traveling the U.S. increased. With international travel closed, why not see some of the United States? As soon as river travel opened, we decided to make the leap. We chose an April “shoulder” cruise downriver from Memphis to New Orleans. A longer (22-day) river trip would begin in St. Paul, Minnesota and that wouldn’t be offered until June. By then, we’d be settled into planting and enjoying our gardens at Northern Bliss. 

On April 7, 2022 we flew from San Diego to Memphis, Tennessee to begin our Lower Mississippi Cruise on American Melody. Ports of call would be Vicksburg, Natchez, St. Franksville, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Over Easter weekend, we’d enjoy the sights and sounds of NOLA from our hotel in the French Quarter. Mississippi—here we come!

Part II:The Role of the Mississippi in the U.S. Civil War is next.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon and on her website.


Update on Tonga Relief:

Thank you, readers, for your interest in Tonga. International humanitarian aid continues to arrive by air and sea from Australia, China, France, Japan, and New Zealand.

  • Initial Damages Assessment (IDA) data has been completed and being is collected and analyzed by Tonga’s National Emergency Management Office (NEMO).
  • “28,900 people have received water, sanitation and hygiene assistance throughout the country.” (“TONGA: Volcanic Eruption”)
  • “Some 1,000 people (204 households) have received shelter assistance.” (“Tonga: Volcanic Eruption Situation Report No. 3 (As of 3 …”)
  • The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has supplied about 1.5 tons of maize and a variety of vegetable seeds to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Forests.
  • Donors and international organizations have committed some US$ 27 million in financial assistance plus a considerable amount of in-kind support to the relief effort in Tonga. (“Tonga: Volcanic Eruption Situation Report No. 3 (As of 3 …”)

This Polynesian country of over 170 islands has intrigued me ever since I viewed a TV broadcast of Tongans on the beach greeting the new millennium on January 1, 2000. Their feverish dancing was contagious. Later that year, I was captivated by the news that the 440-pound King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV had gone on a diet-fitness program and lost one hundred pounds! Gunter and I vowed to include this charming island in our circumnavigation plans.

Now, my heart continues to go out to the people of Tonga as I reflect on the few months that Gunter and I spent there during our travels. We sailed our catamaran Pacific Bliss to Tonga from Palmerston Island and arrived at Port of Refuge, Neiafu on August 28, 2002. I wrote this in my journal:

“The Kingdom of Tonga. The name evokes mystery, a sense of the exotic, perhaps because I have never been here before. Or perhaps because it is one of the few remaining absolute monarchies in the world. Tonga has a fierce reputation: It is the only island in the Pacific that was never colonized.”

Friendship, Tongan style. Captain Cook called Tonga the Friendly Islands because the inhabitants welcomed him warmly and graciously provided him with the supplies he needed. We cruisers enjoyed the warmth of the locals as well. One Tongan who became my friend was Lucy, the owner of the Unisex Hair Salon. Her salon was the best because it was the only one in town! A mother of seven, she didn’t sit around—even though she’d had a stroke three years earlier. “Do what you love,” a wise Tongan doctor told her. “You will gradually improve.”

A hairdresser to the Royal Family, Lucy talked about them unceasingly while she did my hair. “We love our princess,” she gushed. “She is a princess of the people. She is beautiful, like Diana.” Lucy continued to let water run through my hair. “And she comes to all our functions. She likes us.” 

I told her that we can’t let the water run that long on our yacht. “We make our water from the sea, so we have to use it sparingly.” 

“You can come here and use my shower any time you want,” she said. That’s the way they are on those islands!

Dedications in Tonga are a big deal. The first one I experienced was shortly after we arrived in Tonga when I attended the dedication of an elementary school. Gunter and I arrived at the stated time, but these events run on island time. And island time means take your time. Being early, we had the privilege of watching the preparations. Teachers decorated the speaker’s podium with Tongan mats, then they fastened them in the back with rolls of duct tape. King Tupou IV was in attendance, but a pole holding up the canopy hid him from view! We changed our seats so we could see him clearly. 

Tonga
The King of Tonga (left) and President of French Polynesia (right) speak at the dedication of a new school in Vavau.

A few weeks later, I attended the dedication of the new Arts and Handicrafts Center. The princess Lucy had praised took her seat on the stage and with a desultory stare, fanned herself during the monotonous dedication speech and long-winded prayer that followed. Halfway through the speeches, an intermission allowed us to walk around the hall and study the handicrafts for sale. The governor and princess dutifully rounded the tables. I watched them walk up to each display and talk with the artist. The ceremony continued. The princess spoke in Tongan and then English. “We have so many guests visiting us in Vavau. Welcome! May you enjoy your stay here.” Her warmth was contagious. I was impressed. After the princess spoke, groups of dancers performed, facing the princess—with their backs to the audience! 

Tongan children dancers
Boys pose after they dance for the Princess.

At the end of the performances, we all rose as the princess and royals stepped down from the dais and walked along the aisles toward the rear of the hall, shaking hands. I was seated on the aisle. The princess reached out and grasped my hand with a firm, confident handshake as she looked me right in the eye. Her smile was genuine, warm, and inviting. I began to understand why the only Polynesian monarchy continues to exist.

These stories, and many more, are told in the second book in my “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss” trilogy, “Sailing the South Pacific.”

  • Catholic Church, Colonial Style, Neiafu
  • Hut in Vavua, Tonga
  • Whale watching in Tonga.
  • Dance in Tonga
  • Boy dancer, Tonga
  • Cruising yachts

The death of King Tupou IV in 2006. The King died on September 11, 2006. Gunter and I were on a passage from Bali to Singapore and didn’t know about it until we read the Singapore Times at Raffles Marina. We realized that was the first King either of us had met. We were sad but weren’t surprised; he was 88.He had been the King of Tonga since the death of his mother, Queen Sālote Tupou III, in 1965. His son was sworn in immediately as King Tupou V, but the coronation would be held in 2007 after an official six-month mourning period. That made sense to us. What blew our minds were the Tonga Riots of November 2006. By then, we were in Yacht Haven Marina in Phuket, Thailand, pre-occupied with preparing Pacific Bliss for our January Indian Ocean crossing. As we worked, we wondered: Why would the peaceful, law-abiding Tongans storm their capital, Nuku’alofa?

The Tongan Riots. Tongans expected democratic reforms under the new monarch; after all, the government had formed a committee to do so following a 2005 strike by government workers. They demanded that a vote on at least some of these reforms take place before Parliament adjourned for the year. That didn’t happen. So on November 16, 2006, a pro-democracy rally of several thousand marched to parliament in Nuku’alofa. After the peaceful march ended outside parliament, an irate crowd of 2,000-3,000 took to the streets. The rioters spanned all ages, from children to the elderly; however, most were young men. As they rampaged through town, they tipped over cars, attacked government buildings, smashed windows, looted businesses and then set them on fire. For many Tongans, it was like a Christmas give-away bonanza that had come early. By the night’s end, the mob had burnt down a remarkable 80% of the Central Business District of Nuku’alofa. Six people were dead, and damage totaled millions of Pa’anga (the currency of Tonga). 

Building burns in Tonga during 2006 riots
Building burns in Tonga during 2006 riots.

The Tongan government, fearing that it was facing a revolution, quickly requested armed assistance from Australia and New Zealand to quell its unruly subjects. About 150 Australian and New Zealand troops and police officers arrived. After a few weeks, over 570 people were arrested, most of whom were beaten by soldiers and police.

Tonga’s Transition to a Constitutional Democracy. The ceremonial accession of King Tupou V was deferred to 2008 due to his decision to focus on the reconstruction of the damaged capital. 

Two ceremonies marked Tupou’s coronation. The first was a Taumafa Kava(Royal Kava Ring Ceremony). The king sat on a pile of handwoven pandanus mats facing the sea while 200 Tongan nobles and chiefs wearing woven skirts and seashells marched around him. He wore a garland of flowers and the traditional Tongan ta’ovala (woven mat skirt). Hundreds of baskets of food and seventy cooked pigs were presented to the King and his assembly of chiefs and nobles. Later that night, schoolchildren carrying 30,000 torches lit the sky to proclaim the coronation. 

A second, European-style coronation ceremony took place on August 2, 2008 in the Nuku’alofa Centennial Chapel, attended by royalty and nobility from around the world. Archbishop Bryce presented Tongan regalia: the ring, scepter and sword; then he placed the Tongan Crown on the monarch’s head. 

As a Crown Prince, King George had been in favor of a gradual transition to democracy. He said that the Constitution of Tonga protected free speech. After his coronation, he announced that he would relinquish most of his power and follow the recommendations of his Prime Minister, who would manage day-to-day affairs. The King also sold off lucrative business interests and announced parliamentary reform and elections in 2010. The royal palace spokesperson announced, “The Sovereign of the only Polynesian kingdom … is voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people … [The people] favour a more representative, elected Parliament. The king agrees with them.” 

In July 2010, the government published a new electoral roll and called on Tonga’s 101,900 citizens to add their names to the document so that they could take part in the historic vote on November 25. King George would lose his executive powers, including the ability to appoint the prime minister and ministers, but he would remain head of state. Unfortunately, a year later, Tupou V died from cancer. Friends and political leaders from around the world sent condolences. “He believed that the monarchy was an instrument of change and can be seen as the architect of evolving democracy in Tonga,” said New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. “This will be his enduring legacy.”

The politics of Tonga currently takes place within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. The King is the head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The Prime Minister is appointed by the King from among members of Parliament, after having won majority support of its members. Executive power is vested in the Cabinet of Ministers. Legislative power is vested in the King through the Parliament, and judicial power, in the Supreme Court. 

The “Kingdom of Tonga” we experienced during our circumnavigation is no more. Tupou VI, the younger brother of the late King George Tupou, is now the King of Tonga. The current prime minister is Siaosi Sovaleni, elected on December 15, 2021.

King Tupou VI
King Tupou VI

“If a boat ends up on a reef you don’t blame the reef;
you don’t blame the boat;
you don’t blame the wind;
you don’t blame the waves;
you blame the captain.”

— Tongan Saying

(Tongan riots, 2006 – libcom.org)

The Tongan monarchy eventually got it right. The country may have floundered on a reef temporarily, but now it is solidly on course.

In case you missed them, click to read my Tsunami in Tonga Part I and Part II.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


Icelanders are at odds with each other, and they are split 50/50. This battle has nothing to do with politics; it has everything to do with aesthetics, conservation, and the color purple.

Lois with lupines
Lois with lupines

The Alaskan lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) is under attack. Warriors head for their battlefield in Eastern Iceland, armed with long knives and weed whackers. Their enemy? Purple lupines, stretching high into the mountains above—alien invaders that carpet gorges, sprawl over lava fields and climb the very mountains trekkers used to climb—without pushing through meter-high plants. These Icelandic warriors found that if they slash lupines during their peak blooming season in June, when all their effort goes into the blooms, they have a better chance at killing the enemy. Under the cover of twilight, Lupine Defenders, their pockets full of lupine seeds, visit the scene of devastation to spread them among the fallen, hoping they will rise again. 

Iceland botanicals

Defenders have a point. Tourists and half of Icelanders think the lupine fields are breathtakingly gorgeous. Plus, Lupine Defenders say lupine beauty goes well beyond skin deep. They point to conditions before lupines were introduced by the Icelandic Forest Service. Up to 40% of Iceland was covered by forest before the settlers arrived. Today, there are very few trees, and those that remain are small and twisted. A common joke among Icelanders goes like this: “What do you do if you’re lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up.”

After 1,100 years of settlement, much of the island was ecologically exhausted from overgrazing and slash-and-burn agriculture. Less than 25% of the island’s green cover remained and strong winds were blowing the remaining soil into the sea. In 1945, Hakon Bjarnson was sent to Alaska by the Forest Service to find plants suitable to revegetate his country. He returned with Alaskan lupine in his luggage, along with a clever plan. Besides reducing erosion, lupines would improve the soil at almost no cost. That’s because—as part of the pea family—they are “nitrogen-fixers.” The plants host bacteria that gather nitrogen from the air, transferring the gas to its root nodules and providing nourishments for other plants. 

Those plants grew quietly around Reykjavik for 31 years until 1976 when an initiative was made to spread the seeds throughout the country. The objective: to improve the soil so trees could grow. When tall, their shade would dominate the three-foot lupines. 

Iceland
Field of lupines Iceland
Field of lupines near Reykjavik.

The plan worked well—too well, detractors say. Scoops of lupine seeds to spread were made available at gas stations! Lupines are tall and dense, so they can starve small plants and moss of crucial sunlight. When I visited Iceland with my granddaughter in late July, 2018, we missed most of the early summer lupine season. When we drove the Ring Road, Route 1, we saw lupines growing alongside a stream, in a few fields, and at the botanical garden in Borganes (Skallagrimsgardur).  Along the way, we talked to many friendly locals and the divisive subject of lupines never came up. We were amazed, however, at the 600-plus species of moss! These lichens draw their nutrients from the environment and are easily contaminated. They grow slowly—about one centimeter in length each year. I’d hate to see any precious moss fields overtaken! 

There are over 600 species of moss in Iceland.
There are over 600 species of moss in Iceland.

Lupine Creep. “Exponential growth is the nature of an invasive species,” says Pawel Wasowicz, a botanist and lupine expert at the Institute of Natural History. The growth curve, he estimates, will peak in the next two decades. Eastern Icelanders have experienced lupine creep in real time. Over the past 17 years, the plant has spread up to 35-fold in areas of East Iceland. 

“We are at the point of no return,” says Arni Bragason, director of Soil Conservation Service of Iceland. “The best thing we can do is reach a consensus about where the plant should be. That has been hard too.”  In the spring of 2018, his agency, the one that introduced lupine decades ago, called for its eradication. After 42 years of providing seeds to the entire country, the agency terminated its lupine project. Grabbing a free scoop of seeds at gas stations is no more! Most of the culling of plants, however, is carried out by volunteers. Cities and towns have been hesitant to allocate money, given the controversy that would entail.

Meanwhile lupine slaughtering parties, followed by determined lupine seeders, continue to roam the landscape.

Lupines along stream Iceland
A stand of lupine alongside a stream.

Do lupines destroy the view? The question is also a point of friction among Icelanders. Old-timers don’t care all that much about revegetation and reforestation. They care about image—and memories. They show visitors an iconic picture of Neil Armstrong salmon fishing in Iceland in 1967, two years before he made history with one small step on the moon. They’re proud to tell you that nine of the twelve astronauts who walked on the moon came to Iceland first. “They were there because in the middle of Iceland’s highlands, NASA had found a landscape that paralleled the lunar: no vegetation, no life, no colors, no landmarks. The entire area was essentially a natural gravel field,” wrote Egill Bjarnason, in his recently-published book, “How Iceland Changed the World.”  

“The term ‘lunar landscape’ is a phrase often used to describe the boundless Icelandic deserts shaped by volcanic eruptions and covered in different shades of lava…their very barrenness is an asset,” Egill continues. 

Magnificent Desolation is the phrase Buzz Aldrin once used to describe the moon. Some Iceland homeowners love that view and regret that their magnificent desolation has been replaced by the color purple. Farmers, on the other hand, appreciate the lupine cover. They recall roads blocked by sandstorms many times every year. 

Magnificent Desolation in Iceland
Magnificent Desolation.

And so the debate continues. If you were an Icelander, which side would you take?

Stories about Iceland: 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


Pain in Paradise. The first half of June has passed in a whirlwind of activity. Due to a drought enveloping Wisconsin and Minnesota this spring, the unexpected happened: I had to water—not only the new plantings, but everything—trees, bushes, perennials, annuals, and yes, even parts of the lawn! As I trudged around our entire one-acre property called Northern Bliss, dragging a hose during sweltering, record-setting 90-plus-degree heat, I wondered “Where is the bliss?” Other summers, I’ve divided my time between gardening in the morning pursuing creative projects during the hotter afternoon. This June, I’ve spent the mornings watering and the afternoons recovering. For two weeks, muscles aching, I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. 

The local evening news was filled with stories of the unusual Upper Midwestern drought. After the first nine days of temperatures over 90, the talking heads exclaimed: “Our record in here for all summer is 13 days over 90! So far, we’ve had nine days and counting.”

 

Gunter and I chuckled at first. It never rains in Southern California, where we spend our winters. And here, the locals complain of the heat when the temps climb over 80! After 5 more days, we quit laughing. The temperature kept breaking records, the nearby St. Croix River descended to record lows, and even the Great Mississippi shrank under the bridges crossing from Wisconsin to Minnesota. Here at White Ash Lake, one could walk on the shore alongside the riprap that prevents dashing waves from destroying shoreline. 

The local electric company chose the middle of a drought to rake and sow grass to repair the parts of the lawn damaged by burying electric cables last October. We appreciate the good job they did, but their timing was way off. “Just make sure to water those two sections and you’ll be fine,” a worker told me as he climbed into their truck and it rumbled off.  Those sections are at the far corners of the property. Reluctantly, I joined hose lengths together to reach them. More watering! I ordered more sprinklers from Amazon (the local Menards—similar to Lowes or Home Depot—was 100% sold out). With sprinklers spread like octopus legs from the house and cabin, the two well pumps ran all day. The next morning, still in my PJs, I moved and reset them before the sun rose high.  But after 30 minutes, the 1946-era cabin pump had enough. It blew its fuse. 

“Better call Mike,” we said simultaneously.  (He’s our son-in-law and “fixer.”) He found that the pump had burned out—probably because the sand point well was depleted due to receding groundwater. 

“Better call a well driller,” Mike said. Well drillers here are busy, as are plumbers, builders, electricians, and handymen in this part of rural Wisconsin. They are “backed up” until late fall or early spring. Fortunately, we have no visitors booked for the cabin this summer and we do have water in our main house, so we’re okay. Besides, drilling a new well at the cabin would mess up my perennial garden. As for the grass, watering was no longer an option. We would just have to wait for the elusive rain.

Day Tripping. “Let’s blow this pop stand,” I said last Saturday morning. “The forecast is for rain on Sunday—Father’s Day. God knows the farmers need rain more than any other gift they could receive. I think it will happen.” We threw a bag with snacks and water bottles into our Equinox and we were off to Crex Meadows, a wildlife area north of Grantsburg, less than 40 miles away

Crex Meadows is known known as a staging area for Sandhill cranes, but they would have already migrated; however, there’s always something to see. The Meadows encompass 30,000 acres, with wetlands, brush prairies, and forests scattered across a gently rolling landscape. It’s part of the Northwest Wisconsin Pine Barrens. These “Barrens” extend from northern Polk County (where we live) to southern Bayfield County (where we visited last fall); it covers 1500 square miles. This huge, sandy plain was left when a glacier retreated about 13,000 years ago.  The southern part of the Barrens where Crex is located contains huge marshes, part of ancient Glacial Lake.  

The 30,000 acres of Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area is managed by the Wisconsin DNR, Bureau of Wildlife Management. This habitat is now home to over 280 bird species, 720 plant species, 96 butterfly species, and a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Amazingly, every species of mammal found in Wisconsin has been on the Crex property at some point; even moose and mountain lions wander through occasionally.  You can download a map here. 

The Visitor Center wasn’t open when we drove through, but we picked up a map and bird checklist outside in a box to the right of the entry door. In addition to a number of small birds, we saw hundreds of trumpeter swans. Even though we have a resident pair on White Ash Lake, seeing flocks of them was exhilarating! Some swans were close to the overlooks and dike roads, so hiking wasn’t necessary to take these photos:

The Burnett Dairy Cooperative. This co-op has piqued my curiosity ever since I read an article in the local press about how they helped the farming community. It was the last week in March, 2020. Covid-19 had shut the country down.  Within a few weeks of the U.S. lockdown, Gunter and I escaped San Diego to wait it out in the country. With Wisconsin schools shut down, farmers here had lost a valuable distribution outlet. Milk and cheese were a vital part of state school nutrition programs. Restaurants also closed, causing the cheese market to dry up. And shifting butter production from tiny packets for restaurants to large blocks for grocery stores couldn’t happen overnight.

With distribution channels decimated, local farmers were forced to dump most of their milk. “Milk is being disposed of because of a massive and sudden loss of markets — more than half the nation’s restaurants are closed, sales of cheese are down 70 percent and some 44 percent of the nation’s cheese is sold through food service channels,” Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin announced.  Burnett Dairy, a vertically integrated cooperative, came to the rescue: “The Burnett Dairy Cooperative and our member farmers recognized an opportunity to make a difference during an extremely challenging time for our country and the dairy industry,” said Dan Dowling, CEO and president. “Farmers have always been the backbone of the national food supply, so we felt a responsibility to marshal our resources — and a little ingenuity — to fight hunger in our communities….” Cooperating farmers donated milk, Burnett Dairy made it into cheese, and Chell Trucking of Siren, Wisconsin donated refrigerated trucks to distribute cheese to food pantries and other nonprofit  organizations supplying free meals—including the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.

Dumping milk

Burnett Dairy was on our way back to Northern Bliss—that is, if we took the Hwy 70 route from Grantsburg. From the highway, we couldn’t miss the humongous dairy with its sign supporting Wisconsin farmers. As we entered the retail section, we couldn’t believe our eyes! The store is designed with an array of tempting eye-candy islands. It has separate sections for cheese, deli meats, souvenirs, and snacks. In one corner, customers were lined up for scoops of every flavor of ice cream imaginable. Grouped around the perimeter were coolers full of milk, cream, cheese, sausage and pizzas topped with mozzarella, Gouda or cheddar gruyere. The store was packed with families—a destination in its own right. The goodies are also available online. Go to the SHOP NOW section on their website to have cheeses, snacks, puddings and gifts delivered right to your doorstep. We tried the potato pork sausage: excellent!

Support Wisconsin Dairy Farmers sign
Burnett Dairy Coop
Burnett Dairy Cheese Board

Upon returning home, I had the urge to water, but I refused to give in. It WILL rain, I told myself. Sunday, I woke to the sound of a light, gentle rain—perfect for settling all that dry dirt. And later, the rain came down in torrents—a real soaker. Yay! A multitude of prayers were answered. The cold front brought a windy Monday but as I write this, the weather is perfect. The drought isn’t over, but this is a great first step!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


In the United States, a big vaccine-fueled domestic travel surge is already underway. This summer season will be crowded, and ticket prices are already closing in on the expensive summer of 2019. Internationally, though, the recovery hasn’t taken off yet.

U.S. Travel—Planes. Airport screenings are up 715% from the first half of 2020, which isn’t surprising, due to Covid-19. But they are only 35% down from the 2019 rate. Traffic is rapidly recovering, especially to destinations in the South, the Rocky Mountain States, and Hawaii. One year ago, 56% of the planes at the four largest carriers—American, United, Delta and Southwest—were in storage. As of mid-May, only 21% of those planes were in storage. Some areas are already increasing airline seats: Key West, Florida will have a 141% increase above 2019 levels in June, Sarasota, Florida will be up 136%, Bozeman, Montana, 78%, and Fort Meyers, Florida, up 62%. The Salt Lake City and Orlando hubs are scheduling more seats. Guess which U.S. city will have the biggest loss in seats in June: down 51%? San Francisco. Apparently, this city is no longer a popular tourist destination!

Photo Credit: Bibhash Banerjee from Pexels

U.S. Travel—Hotels. Occupancy rates remain below 2020 levels and way below 2019. During the week of May 2-8, only 56.7% of rooms were occupied. More hotels are reopening anyway; for example, 284,000 additional rooms were available in the first week of May.

International Travel: The European Union took a big step to reopen their borders for fully- vaccinated travelers on May 19. Ambassadors from the 27 EU members agreed to these conditions: Final shots must be taken two weeks before travel from providers approved by WHO or the EU’s medicines regulator. Vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J are all allowed. (The U.S., they say, will soon be added to the “safe” list.) The U.K. standards are different: it has the world divided into red, amber, and green countries. The U.S. is on the amber list: Visitors must test negatively for Covid-19 no more than 72 hours before departing and twice, on the second and eight days after arrival to the U.K.  A ten-day quarantine is still required, though after five days you can take an additional Covid test to get out early.

It’s complicated. European countries not part of the EU─such as Switzerland, Norway and Liechtenstein─are all expected to follow the EU commission’s recommendations. Iceland already opened to vaccinated tourists in March. If you’re interested in going there this summer, refer to my blogs about my visit there in 2018: Iceland, a Country Rich in Culture and Legend, Iceland’s Ring Road, and Discovering Iceland’s Southeast Coast.

Sculpture in morning light at Borgarnes, Iceland.
Sculpture in morning light at Borgarnes, Iceland.

Some countries may still be under curfew. Italy, for example, recently reduced a longstanding nationwide curfew to begin at 11p.m. instead of an hour earlier. By June 7, that curfew will be extended until midnight and then erased entirely by June 21. France has a nationwide curfew that begins at 9 p.m. Some areas of Germany, Spain, and Greece still have curfews as of this date. Shops, museums, and restaurants in most countries are open, but some restrictions still apply.  For European travelers coming to the U.S., it’s also complicated. In mid-June, my sister-in-law is flying to MPS from Munich, Germany via Iceland Air. She’s fully vaccinated, but will need a Covid-19 test 3 days before leaving. The U.S. required a letter from Gunter, her brother, explaining why she needed to come, as well as a copy of his passport!

Family Reunions. The overwhelming cause of travel booked so far this summer is for family visits or reunions. These represent 32% of group travel plans. Weddings represented another 15%. Some top group vacation destinations are seeing a doubling of reservations for June, July and August compared to 2019. If families had been seeing each other every other month, as in other years, their trip wouldn’t be considered a “reunion.” Now, families are making up for lost time.

Cruises. Cruise enthusiasts have endured a year of suspended cruises in North America and much of the world.  Since the “no sail” order was lifted, cruise lines are following the CDC guidelines for conditional sailing and implementing the changes required. Cruise lines have been releasing their new itineraries. There are strong bookings for Alaska and Europe, in addition to Caribbean cruises, which are always popular. You may want to book now for the next year or two—especially if you have a future cruise credit. Balcony cabins are more popular than ever. Note that cruise fares can usually be adjusted right up until the final payment date and cruise lines are offering flexible cancellation policies.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Traveling with Disabilities. Whether you have a temporary disability, such as recovering from a recent surgery, or a permanent disability, there are travel options for you. Wheel the World has more than 40 travel destinations and tour packages in North America, Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Travegali.com is an online platform that specializes in accessible tourism. See The Travel Channel for tips for traveling with disabilities. 

My husband and I attended my brother’s 70th Birthday Event at Lake Conroe, TX while he was recovering from knee surgery. I was also using a cane because of a femur fracture that was still healing. We planned on using the courtesy carts to manage the long distances to the gate. But “due to Covid” the volunteer services were no longer active. The airport offered wheelchair service instead. We also used complimentary wheelchair services on our return trip and again, during our trip to our summer home in Wisconsin, where we are now. Don’t let disabilities get you down!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


“Kindness is the mark we leave on the world.”

Do memories of a place you’ve visited come back to you with a yearning, an ache, that pulls you back? You just may decide you’d love to re-visit that location that tugged at your heartstrings.

Why? At first, landscapes come to mind. You have visions of sweeping vistas, gurgling brooks, snow-capped peaks. But then your mind focuses in and you realize that it is the friendliness of the locals that make you want to return.

During our world circumnavigation, Gunter and I came across powerful places and friendly people who pulled us in and caused us to fall in love.

Local Women of Waterfall Bay

Two local women walk along the shores of Waterfall Bay collecting shellfish. Sailing the South Pacific, page 254.

The Propeller Thank You Party in Vanuatu. One place that stole our hearts was Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), an archipelago of 80 Melanesian islands. Gunter and I had recently attended week-long festivities honoring the installation of a new chief at Waterfall Bay, in Vanua Lava, one of the Northern Banks islands. We left fond memories those villagers behind and anchored in Vureas Bay on our way back to Luganville. As soon as we were settled, rowers came to welcome us. We recognized the men from the festival and remembered that they had to leave early because of a faulty prop. Gunter had looked at it there and tried to fix it, as had other cruisers.

     “How is the prop?” Gunter asked.

     “Still broken. We cannot trust it to go out to fish,” our friend Graham replied.

     We’re concerned. A setback like this could be disastrous for the village.

     Gunter offered them our dinghy’s spare prop. The villagers were surprised to see that it was shiny, black, and brand new.

     “Such a good prop, just for us?”

     “We will not need it. Soon we will leave from Luganville, sail past New Caledonia and on to Australia. We will leave our yacht there during the cyclone season,” Gunter explained.

     Grateful for the prop, the locals invited us to a thank you party.

From Sailing the South Pacific:
When we arrive, we’re amazed at the setting. A fish line has been strung between two lines and a post. Draped over that line is an abundance of tropical flowers and long plant leaves. Inside this boundary lies a western-style, rooster-print tablecloth covered with many mats and containers, all bursting with food: manioc with nuts, yam laplap-and-coconut, baked papaya, chicken with vegetable greens, and prawns.

“Sit,” an auntie commands us. She is a large, plump woman, wearing a flowered muumuu housedress. We settle onto the grass. About a dozen villagers gather around, but they all remain standing. I motion for them to sit on the grass, too. They shake their heads no.None of the locals—including the children—will take their own food until we begin to eat.

I say grace and then they pass the food to Gunter and me. We receive glass dishes and spoons. “Sorry, we don’t have forks,” our host apologizes. The village nurse, another guest, is offered food next, followed by a couple of men. Our host and hostess and the ladies who prepared the food all stand to the side, smiling. They say they will eat later. After we’ve eaten, the men tell us how much they appreciate the new prop. The nurse makes a speech telling us how much she and the village appreciated the bag of prescription glasses and sunglasses we had given them during the festival.Then she hands us a huge hand-woven basket filled with six eggs, one coconut, two pumpkins, and a huge green cabbage. “For your return voyage. Thank you from all of us.”

I’ll never forget this precious moment!

Tomorrow we’ll face the elements and whatever else is in store for us. But tonight, I glow in the happiness and joy that flows from this wonderful group of islanders.

We talk with them about our goal of sailing around the world. Graham asks, “Why would you want to do this?”

“To see how different people live around the world. And to experience happy moments like this one you are giving to us today.” Gunter says.

They smile and nod in understanding.

I may never return to the Northern Banks Islands of Vanuatu. These islands are accessible only by boat. But the locals we met there will always hold a special place in my heart.

Vanuatu hut

Gunter enters a hut in Vanuatu.

Welcome Week in Bundaberg, Australia. Another one of these powerful places was Bundaberg, a small town on Australia’s northeast coast. We had entered the Port2Port Rally from Vanuatu to Australia. Greg and Pat Whitbourne, Aussies we had met in Vanuatu, shepherded us into their country.

From Sailing the South Pacific:
The next day, when I come on watch at 0300, I can see the lights of Bundaberg glimmering on the horizon, as if the town is expecting us.

Australia, the long-awaited Land of Oz!

I make a pot of coffee. Then I sit at the helm taking it all in. A shooting star streaks across the sky. Surprisingly, a white tern appears from nowhere; it circles the bows and then lands on the pulpit seat for the ride on in. I view both events as a sign of good luck. Ahead—to our starboard—the running lights of Rascal Too bounce through the waves. Our new Aussie friends, Greg and Pat, are magnanimously leading us into their country.

Never before have I felt such a sense of elation and destiny upon arriving at a foreign port!

Lois and Pat wearing their hats for the contest

Lois and Pat wearing their hats for the contest.

Pacific Bliss won the Best Dressed Yacht contest.

Pacific Bliss won the Best Dressed Yacht contest.

Lois on board Pacific Bliss.

Lois on board Pacific Bliss.

That elation continued as the town put on a Welcome Week celebration for the arriving cruisers.

Pat and I entered the Melbourne Cup Hat Day contest, scrounging for items from our respective yachts. The four of us entered the Brain Strain, Passage Story, and lethal Bundy Rum Drink contests. Finally, Gunter and I entered our catamaran, Pacific Bliss, into the Best Dressed Yacht competition, with the theme: We Love You, Aussies! We won.

Why wouldn’t we want to revisit such a friendly town?

La Dolce Vita at Vibo Marina, Italy. Our sojourn in Italy did not get off to a good start. While approaching the Strait of Messina, Pacific Bliss was caught up in drift nets, due to illegal bluefin tuna fishing—a modern-day La Mattanza.  Reggio Calabria, a port of entry, was jammed, with no room for yachts-in-transit. We were relegated to a commercial quay to wait while authorities took their time checking us in. Meanwhile, we found that all nearby Italian marinas were fully booked in July, disregarding the 10% international rule for yachts-in-transit. We felt like the Flying Dutchman, destined to travel the seas forever! Finally, we finagled a berth at Tropea for “one night only.” From there, we hired a taxi to drive us down the coast to search for marinas. The Stella Del Sud Marina, owned by an Italian-Canadian couple, was our best bet. The next afternoon, we arrived amid flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder. We approached the breakwater as two men in a dinghy motored toward us. We knew where we’d be berthed so Gunter inched forward. One of the men yelled, “Stop!  We didn’t expect a catamaran. You’re too big!”

I visualized the Flying Dutchman scenario again. We’d be sailing another 40 miles to the next harbor in a thunderstorm. And who knows what we’d find there?

Gunter stands behind Angela and her husband, owners of the Stella del Sud Marina. The Long Way Back, page 410.

Gunter stands behind Angela and her husband, owners of the Stella del Sud Marina. The Long Way Back, page 410.

Angela, the Canadian, came to our rescue. Soon her husband was standing at the end of the dock, gesturing and directing three dock boys, who pushed and pulled on a mess of mooring lines. Eventually, Pacific Bliss was cleverly tied to the end of the pontoon dock with two mooring lines holding the bow in place and two crisscrossed to hold our stern still.  There she stayed, straddling the end of the dock. The passerelle was set up for us to exit from the starboard swim steps. We never saw anything like that, but it worked! We had settled into a sleepy, laid-back Calabrian town. What a relief!

In my third book, The Long Way Back, I wrote about how we fell in love with this place and its people:
We are settling into the sweet life, la dolce vita, in Italy. This little town is growing on us. Vibo Marina is somewhat of a utilitarian place: the buildings aren’t grand—they’re simply old. The streets aren’t paved with ancient cobblestones—they’re simply narrow. The town is stuck in time, situated between two touristy locations: Tropea to the south and Pizzo to the north. And it’s just what we need!

After a week here, we know where to find the best gelaterias (on the beach front road), the best supermarket (Sisas, under the overpass—they even deliver), take-out pizza (a few blocks inland) and high-grade engine oil in four-liter jugs. We’re gaining some familiarity with Italian customs and the language—because we both speak some Spanish, and Italian is similar. But it’s the people who make life here a delight. Angela is becoming a valued friend; her family is gracious and helpful. And the rest of the marina staff treats us wonderfully.

I hope you’ve fallen in love with some special places as well. I’d love to see your comments.

You may also enjoy: Breaking Bread with the Locals

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


Winter? Bah Humbug!

That’s what I used to think when I was living and working in the Midwest. Then, winter meant donning layers upon layers of outer clothing, shoveling snow, starting and warming a cold car, and driving to work in heavy traffic, fearing for my life on icy roads—all work and no play. Even after Gunter and I retired and purchased Northern Bliss, our lake home in Wisconsin, I never dreamed of going there in the winters. It was our daughter-in-law Sabine who missed Christmas snow and suggested that we spend every other Christmas there. We consented because family trumps frigid weather. 

Frosted Evergreen

Wisconsin farmhouse

Holidays in the Snow

This past holiday season was our third, and best, Holidays-in-the-Snow event. Three of our four children and their families attended. We planned to spend as much time as possible outdoors. 

Amazingly, the weather cooperated. It was just cold enough to snow, but warm enough for winter fun, such as sliding, making snowmen, ice fishing, taking walks on the lake, and photographing the geese and trumpeter swans swimming on the open waters of the Apple River. 

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Winter fun in Northwest Wisconsin.

Mike, our son-in-law, brought corn to lure deer from the nearby woods over to our yard. At first, they were shy, but as we spread the corn closer to our home, they followed, and by the end of our three-week stay, came right up to our patio where we could watch through the sliding glass door!  

Deer

Feeding Deer

Feeding Deer

Deer outside window

One deer peers through the window of our house.

For Christmas, I presented Gunter with an edible birdhouse. We placed it on the birdbath near a pine tree. Eventually, winter birds found it and began to eat its sunflower roof and birdseed walls. Our pair of pileated woodpeckers appreciated the suet we hung at the feeder on the lake bank. They weren’t as skittish as they had been last summer.

Deer by edible birdhouse

Curious deer at edible birdhouse.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker at lake feeder.

With plenty of helping hands, even work was enjoyable. The men shoveled snow and kept the outdoor furnace stoked. Inside, the women baked cinnamon rolls and candy-cane coffee cakes and prepared scrumptious, steaming-hot meals.

Shoveling snow

Grandson Brett shovels the driveway.

Outdoor furnace

My son Jeff loads wood into the outdoor furnace that will heat the entire two-story home.

Rime Ice and Hoarfrost.

As if to refute my derogatory comments about past winters, nature put on a spectacular show that frosted our holiday cake! It’s not that often that this happens—fog and snow and hoarfrost all at once. During this special season, however, we were blessed with many days of this winter miracle.

Hoary is an Old-English word that means “getting on in age.” But hoarfrost brought out the poet in me. One day, I awakened to a calm, cold morning and looked out to see the entire world draped with lacy, feathery crystals that glinted in the low morning sun. A magical fairyland! I knew that this ephemeral, enchanting world would disappear as the sun rose high, so I jumped into my SORELs, threw on my Lands’ End parka, and grabbed my iPhone. Outside, hoarfrost trimmed the porch rails in dainty bridal lace. Woolen gowns clothed frozen flower heads, left in place for “winter interest.” Gleaming ice crystals snuggled barren tree branches. As I walked down the snowy driveway, I met a wonderland of pure white, a pearly blanket spread across the landscape. The earth exhaled and hoarfrost crystals formed on her breath. Dancing and sparkling, hoarfrost grabbed the sunlight and threw it about like a thousand diamonds. Hoarfrost turned our tall spruce, heavy with flocking, into delightful Christmas trees with delicate, blinking ornaments. A low fog, softer than breath, had turned our icy footbridge into an enticing path I dared not enter. Out there. Alone with Jack Frost.

Snow covered woods with sun

I returned to an animated household fueled by caffeine and full of laughter. A few of us crammed into vehicles to see more of this day that Jack Frost had built. We drove past idyllic scenes of farms covered in quilts of down, with only their red barns and pastel houses coming up for air. We passed an old, converted church hiding behind a massive snow-laden evergreen. And we stopped repeatedly to photograph each new scene—many of them monochromatic—in black and white and shades of gray.

Farm in snow

 

Converted church

Forest Road with hoarfrost

Later, my curiosity got the better of me. I heard a TV weatherman use the terms rime ice and hoarfrost and interchangeably, so I wanted to understand both terms. Here’s what I learned: Both produce exquisite ice deposits, but they form in different ways. Rime ice needs super-cold water vapor and wind. Liquid water in the air freezes into crystals on the windward sides of surfaces, such as trees and structures, building up and up in spongy, porous layers. Dramatic ice sculptures are formed from fog banks about 3000-7000-foot elevations under high winds. 

Rime ice can be dangerous. Ships can be disabled by freezing ocean spray. Planes flying at hundreds of miles per hour into a super-cooled, moisture-laden cloud can pick up ice that affects their lift. 

Hoarfrost is a direct deposition of atmospheric moisture in the form of ice crystals on objects like tree branches, plant stems, wires, and poles without the moisture ever passing through the liquid phase. It typically forms on calm, clear nights and gives objects their fairyland appearance, especially when illuminated by low-angle sunlight. “Hoar” is the frosty coating. Calm air conditions allow the complex, lacy layers to form. Hoarfrost requires a supersaturated column of cold air extending well above the surface of the ground. Moisture in the air condenses around nuclei, e.g., particles of dust. Once that starts, the moisture goes from a gas to a solid with ice crystals building up on everything. 

Lois and Fiona

Lois hangs out with Sabine’s dog, Fiona.

Family is everything. That’s our primary reason for our holidays-in-the snow event. This was the year, however, that I finally learned to love winter. Is it “the most wonderful time of the year” as the holiday tune claims? I wouldn’t go that far!  In a few months, I’ll be pining for spring and soothing that urge to dig in the dirt by planting my garden. 

Read more about Northern Bliss in Lois’s past blogs:

Tornado Disaster at Northern Bliss

Recovery from Natural Disasters

Returning to Northern Bliss: Fifty Shades of Green

Fiddlehead Ferns Unfurling: My spring garden explodes in 50 shades of green.

Wise Old Oak

The Miracle of Autumn

Wander Birds: Migrating North

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.

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