by Christopher Gray

If there's one thing we love to do in America, it's travel! Whether it's from Seattle, Wash. to Portland, Ore. or from Portland, Maine to Boston, Mass., we're a country on the go. Much of this travel is done by car, though for those of us who are blind or visually impaired, quite a bit of it is done by train or bus as well by necessity. In our cars, buses and trains, though, we're missing something. In fact, pun intended, we're missing the boat.

Think back now to a time when people traveled constantly up and down the great riverways and lakes of our country like the Mississippi River or Lake Michigan. Consider a time when the transatlantic crossing was viewed with a mixture of skepticism, romanticism, and with an eye to luxury and escape. Think of the allure of great monuments to human engineering such as the Panama Canal, or of cities based significantly on water travel such as the romantic and beautiful canals of Venice, Italy.

There's no question that travel by water is something we've tended to forget and downplay in the past several decades. However, did you know that boat travel is experiencing a resurgent growth both here and abroad? Have you heard perhaps from friends about the possibilities of traveling in the United States and abroad on luxury cruise liners that bring back the best parts of 19th century ocean liner travel? Believe me when I tell you that such possibilities exist, and ACB can help you experience them. You may find it hard to believe what is possible today, and affordable, too. I certainly did.

My first ACB cruise was put together by an ACB visionary, Robert Acosta, and took place on the SS Emerald Seas right after the 1987 ACB national convention in Los Angeles, Calif. My parents and I, along with almost 50 other ACB members and friends, took a leisurely cruise down the Pacific Ocean into Mexico and back to Los Angeles for three fun-filled and relaxing days. Cruising today is not just about traveling from one place to another, it's about entertainment, eating well, and, if you like, taking tours of the areas you visit.

We didn't have another ACB cruise until 2003, but from then on, these have become an annual event for our organization. Recently, Marvelena and I had the opportunity to attend what may be the longest and most incredible cruise we've had to date, a trip along the European Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, taking in Italy, Croatia, France, and Spain. It was a truly incredible trip, and almost 50 ACB members and friends along with nearly 20 of their guide dogs enjoyed a 12-day experience that will go down as a significant event to be remembered!

There was a time, not so long ago, when cruise lines hesitated to take blind and visually impaired cruisers. They expressed safety concerns, feared problems with guide dogs, and were generally ignorant about what blind people could do and how we could be independent and self-sufficient. In the past 10 years, through the efforts of ACB and many others, several cruise lines have been educated about these matters and have become far more welcoming of all disability groups. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision against one particularly resistant company created an environment that is not only tolerant and accepting of blind and visually impaired cruisers, but that invites and welcomes us onto their ocean liners.

In addition to this, companies that operate these ships are extremely interested in expanding their business and attracting all segments of our country into their vacation packages. Today, one meets 10-year-old cruisers along with their 90-year-old grandparents, enjoying an environment that can entertain all age groups and that has activities to meet everybody's preferences. Whether it's water sports in an outdoor pool, or a fierce game of bridge or canasta, whether you want pizza and beer on an outdoor deck or an elegant tea with a classical music ensemble, these events are there for the enjoying on any reputable cruise liner today.

On this most recent ACB cruise, we began by touring the Vatican in Rome. You don't need to be a Catholic to enjoy and appreciate the incredible amount of history contained in this tiny, self-contained country. I was truly inspired when visiting the public areas of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and I was equally inspired and awed when standing in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and in St. Peter's Square from where so many Christmas masses have been transmitted throughout the world.

Attached to these historic holy venues is a huge Vatican museum. On this tour, we were taken to gallery upon gallery of statuary, primarily made up of statues showing heads and torsos, animal representations, gargoyles, and religious symbols of all sorts dating back to the 4th century B.C.

Due to months of negotiating, done by Damar Travel on behalf of ACB, we were allowed to touch all of this wonderful, historic stonework, and we were provided with information about its approximate time of creation and historical genesis. The detail of this stone work, truly discernible by touch, is simply unbelievable. Not only can one feel the body stance and the clothing, but it is easy to tell by feel the movement of the clothing, carved into the stone, showing a person running and causing their clothes to billow out behind them. We were shown and could feel the differences between the Greek human abstractions based on ideals and perfection as opposed to the Roman realism of carving that distinguishes each technique from the other.

A second matter distinguished this tour, though we didn't know about it at the time. It seems that our tour marked the first time that people have ever been allowed to bring animals into the Vatican. A strict prohibition against this has existed for centuries. Thanks again to the careful preparation of Damar Travel, this restriction was lifted. Because of both the acceptance of the guide dogs and our being allowed to touch the statuary, you can imagine the presence and excitement of the local press. For us, this was only the first day, and only the first tour. You can imagine the excitement felt by all of us there.

Time does not permit me to give you a description of each port of call or each tour. I wish it did. Such venues as a Croatian farm, a gondola ride in Venice, eating tapas in Barcelona, each can lead to a story of its own. And all of these things are in addition to what is available on the boat itself. We cruised on the Liberty, a huge boat containing for our trip 2,997 passengers and approximately 1,000 crew as well. That's a lot of people! It's mind-boggling even to think of how all those people get fed three meals a day, let alone pizza 24 hours a day and several buffets as well, all included in the base price.

ACB cruising is definitely a wonderful way to spend some vacation or leisure time if you're already retired. Not only will you have fun, but when enough people cruise on one of our trips, this acts as a great fundraising vehicle for the organization as well. It's one of those true win-win situations. Others who attended this cruise may write about it in future issues, and I certainly wanted to share my experiences with you while they are fresh in my mind.

In conclusion, let me tell you about the next two upcoming cruises to whet your appetite. The first cruise is in the southern Caribbean. Personally, this is one of my favorite areas to visit. The people are incredibly friendly, the music is energetic, and the warm water is unbelievable. The cruise takes place Feb. 4-11, 2007; it departs from San Juan, Puerto Rico and travels to St. Thomas, Dominica, Barbados, and Aruba. Prices start at $750 per person for the seven-day event. That's less than $220 per day for a couple and includes room, tax, meals, and so much more. All rates include seven-day cruise, port charges, government fees, and gratuities.

The second cruise for 2007 goes to Alaska and takes place Aug. 29- Sept. 5, 2007. The cruise departs from Whittier, Alaska which is near Anchorage, and travels to Prince William Sound, the College Fjord, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, the Lynn Canal, Ketchikan, sails the Inside Passage and then travels on to Vancouver, British Columbia. Prices start at $1,075. Again, prices include the seven-day cruise itself, port charges, government fees and gratuities. For reservations, call ACB's representative at Damar Travel, Dave Kronk, toll-free at 1-800-999-6101 or e-mail him at [email protected].

This is truly a wonderful way to take a great vacation, relax, get a great perspective on the world, and take advantage of one more increase in the civil rights for blind and visually impaired Americans. Better yet, you can do it with other ACB members, and you have personnel at Damar Travel who know our needs firsthand, and who really do a great job for our organization and its members. Happy traveling and cruising!

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