Sunday, December 5, 2010

Back from Celebrity 'Constellation'

Back home after two weeks on board the beautiful cruise ship Celebrity Constellation and, with the suitcases now unpacked, I wanted to start posting a synopsis of the trip and acknowledging some of the people that made it such a terrific experience. This 14-day, 3,400-nautical-mile cruise made nine ports of call, including Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Kralendijk, Bonaire; Oranjestad, Aruba(seen here is Constellation from near the port area); Willemstad, Curacao; Castries, St. Lucia; Bridgetown, Barbados; St. George's, Grenada; St. John's, Antigua; and Phillipsburg, Dutch St. Maarten (to see synopsis of all these ports of call, go to Cruising the Southern Caribbean on the Celebrity 'Constellation').

I served as one of the “Beyond the Podium” speakers on board the vessel, where I gave presentations on “Blockade Running During the Civil War,” “The History of St. Maarten,” “The ABCs of the ABC Islands,” “Exploring the Bermuda Triangle,” and “Ghosthunting Florida.” The other speaker, Chicago lawyer Peter LaSorsa, gave great talks on both baseball and forensics.

Thanks to the great staff and crew who made this cruise possible, including cruise staff Rich Clesen, Mike Gibbons, and Mike Siebenthal, and all the terrific passengers who have taken the time to chat, drink, and otherwise interact with me and my wife Diane! Thanks also to the many passengers who took the time to come to my talks and chat or have a drink with me after them; good turnout and attendee interaction are what make a program like this a success and we had plenty of that.

People we especially enjoyed spending time with included our tablemates Helmut and Gaby Proske and Frank and Mel (seen here with us in a picture sent to me by Gaby), our drinking buddies Karel and Koen, cruise commentator Richard Wagner, art auctioneer Tommy Varzos, comedian Jason Chase, our waiters Carlos and Nixon (the picture below by Gaby is of Diane harassing them), and the sommelier chicks at Cellar Masters and the main dining room!

Very special thanks are also due to Charles and Teresa Baltzell from the Acupuncture center! I injured my foot a few days before we headed out for the cruise and was in a lot of pain my first day on stage and their treatments made the rest of the experience much more enjoyable for me, both because I could stand comfortably and was able to easily walk around our various ports of call. They are also both terrific people, with a great philosophy of life and a generous nature, and Diane and I were grateful for the time we were able to spend with them. We certainly hope to cross paths with them again one day in Texas.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Varhola's Non-Fiction Books

A number of people on the most recent cruise on which I spoke, Celebrity Constellation, asked me about the various books I have written, chatted with me about them, etc. Following are the various non-fiction titles I have either authored or co-authored. For anyone who might be interested, most or all of these are available through online sites like Signed copies of some are also available through the retail site run by my own Skirmisher Publishing LLC and I have provided hotlinks back to them.

Everyday Life During the Civil War
Fire & Ice: The Korean War, 1950-53
Ghosthunting Maryland
Ghosthunting Virginia
Life in Civil War America
Shipwrecks & Lost Treasures: Great Lakes
Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder & Mayhem in the Lone Star State
Armchair Reader: Civil War
D-Day: The Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944 (co-author)
Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference (co-author)

Fort Lauderdale International Airport has Free Internet!

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA -- Always pleased to discover an airport that has a good free Internet connection! About half of them -- the best half -- seem to and Fort Lauderdale International Airport falls into that category.

Availability of free wi-fi is not usually the kind of thing that can be taken into consideration when making travel plans but, whenever travelers can, they should be sure to give positive or negative feedback about it! This is a good way to acknowledge the good airports that do offer this and might eventually start inducing some of the others to follow suit.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Varhola Cruise History

While sitting in our stateroom aboard our most recent cruise, on Celebrity Constellation, my wife Diane and I were trying to remember which cruises we had taken over the last 12 years and where they went. Maybe needless to say, it took us a little while to reconstruct this! She has a pretty good memory, however, and I think we did a pretty good job. Some of the entries might be missing ports or even inadvertently had incorrect ones added that we are remembering from other cruises, and not all sea days are reflected, but we are confident that it is pretty accurate overall …

August 1998: Royal Caribbean, Majesty of the Seas, seven day, western Caribbean (Fort Lauderdale/Miami; Labadie, Haiti; Kingston or Montego Bay, Jamaica; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; private island, Bahamas; Fort Lauderdale/Miami). This was pretty typical of a "starter cruise" in terms of length, line, and itinerary.

January 2002: Royal Caribbean, Radiance of the Seas, seven day, southern Caribbean (San Juan, Puerto Rico; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; St. John’s, Antigua; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; Bridgetown, Barbados; Castries, St. Lucia; San Juan, Puerto Rico).

December 2002: Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), Norway, seven day, eastern Caribbean Miami, Florida; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; maybe other ports … private island, Bahamas; Miami, Florida). My parents, Mike and Merrilea Varhola, accompanied us on this cruise. Launched as SS France in 1962, Norway was reminiscent of a classic ocean liner and, of all the ships I have been on, was my favorite. Sadly, she was badly damaged by a boiler explosion in 2003 and was eventually dismantled at an Indian scrapyard in 2008.

December 2004-January 2005: NCL, Norwegian Wind, 13 day, Hawaii & Kiribati (Oahu; Hilo or Kona Hawaii/Big Island; two ports in Maui; Kuai; two sea days directly south; Fanning Island, Kiribati; two sea days directly north; Hilo or Kona Hawaii/Big Island; Oahu).

September-October 2006: NCL, Norwegian Jewel, 13 day, Aegean, Adriatic, and eastern Mediterranean (Athens, Greece; Corfu, Greece; Olympia, Greece; Crete, Greece; Santorini, Greece; sea day; Alexandria, Egypt two days; Mykonos, Greece; sea day; Kuzadasi, Turkey; Istanbul, Turkey. Best itinerary ever! We did an excursion in every port except Corfu, including an overnight trip to Cairo while we were in Egypt. We also spent one night in Athens before the cruise and three nights in Istanbul at the end of it.

January 2007: Princess, Regal Princess, 10 day, Panama Canal (Acapulco, Mexico, to San Juan, Puerto Rico). This was the first cruise on which I served as the ship’s lecturer. This image is from one of the man-made lakes that are part of the Panama Canal and which our ship crossed during the cruise.

May 2007: Royal Caribbean, Empress of the Seas, seven day, Bermuda (Norfolk, Virginia, roundtrip).

c. October 2007: Azamara, Journey, seven day Bermuda, (roundtrip from Cape Liberty, New Jersey).

c. November 2007: Azamara, Journey, seven day, Bermuda (roundtrip from Cape Liberty, New Jersey). This one I did on my own after the cruise line asked me to stay on board and lecture for an additional week and Diane had to return to work! I spent a lot of the five days in Bermuda exploring the interior of the island, the highlight of which was a nine-mile hike along with historic Rail Trail (part of which, near one of the historic lighthouses toward the east end of the island, appears in this photo).

January 2008: Princess, Coral Princess, 10 day (?), Panama Canal (roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale). My details on this one are a little fuzzy because I took my daughter, Hayley, with me instead of my wife, who serves as my institutional memory. We took three excursions, including a horseback ride in the Costa Rican rainforest, a canoe trip to a native village in Panama, and a bus trip to a number of historic sites in Kingston, Jamaica (an image from the first of those excursions, of Hayley on her Costa Rican forest stallion, appears here).

September 2008: NCL, Norwegian Pearl (?), six day, New England & Canada (roundtrip from New York City/Manhattan). This one was different than the norm in that it took us north instead of south! We did not take any excursions but did independently explore all our ports of call, to include visits to a number of museums and at least one fort.

October-November 2008: Celebrity, Constellation, 11 day, southern Caribbean (Cape Liberty, New Jersey, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida).

November 20-December 4, 2010: Celebrity, Constellation, 14 day, southern Caribbean. This was our longest cruise to date and included three ports of call we had not yet visited, including Bonaire, Grenada, and Curacao (from which this picture was taken). No excursions but we are wishing we had taken one to a beach at some point early in the cruise.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cruising the Southern Caribbean on the Celebrity 'Constellation'

I have just come off the Celebrity Constellation, where I was serving as the educational speaker during a two-week cruise through the southern Caribbean! Following are images from our various ports of call, starting with those most recently visited and working back toward the earliest ones. I have yet to post images from Kralendijk, Bonaire, and Oranjestad, Aruba (and did not take any either starting or ending in Fort Lauderdale), but have currently got four each from Willemstad, Curacao; Castries, St. Lucia; Bridgetown, Barbados; St. George's, Grenada; St. John's, Antigua; and Phillipsburg, Dutch St. Maarten. Pictures of more and additional text to come!

Kralendijk, Bonaire
Bonaire is much less developed than many of the Caribbean islands but, like most of the others run by the Dutch, feels more Europeanized than many of them. It is also very flat, even moreso than Aruba, with sporadic highlands scattered around the island. Pictures here are a type of traditional local fence made from live cactuses (which I have talked about in some of my lectures but never before seen such a good example of); the port area as seen from an upper deck of Constellation; a Lions Club time capsule sealed in 1964, added to in 2004, and due to be opened again in 2044; and the creepy mascot of a local eatery that my wife posed with.

Willemstad, Curacao
This was much more of a real city than many traditional cruise ports and had a very European feel to it. Images here are of the historic district; part of the "floating market" of fish, produce, and crafts brought up by boat each week the 40 miles from Venezuela; the Queen Emma Bridge, a pontoon span that gets moved to allow boat traffic through; and a view past one of the many forts that still have remnants throughout the city. Internet: For a good free -- if you're drinking -- connection, check out the cute and brand-new little KubaKor cafe right next to the cruise ship docks.

St. George, Grenada
This was a much more interesting and charming island than we expected it to be and we will keep our eye out for future itineraries that include it. Internet: for customers there is a good free connection at the bar just inside the cruise ship terminal.

Bridgetown, Barbados
Following are images of Lord Nelson at Hero Square; the Parliament of Barbados; the Oberon 5009 Sea-Axe megayacht escort vessel; and a view of the Bridgetown cruise terminal at night on our way out of port. We had a great tour of the houses of Parliament while in Bridgetown, courtesy of Facilities Coordinator David Best!

Castries, St. Lucia

St. John's, Antigua
Views of the port from and looking toward our ship; the local cathedral, currently under renovation and not open to visitors; and the Celebrity Constellation itself! For anyone who is interested in ghosthunting and related subjects, I have also posted some pictures of the probably-haunted graveyard graveyard of the cathedral on the America's Haunted Road Trip site, at

Phillipsburg, Dutch St. Maarten

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Texas Bucket List

In its March 2010 issue, Texas Monthly magazine ran a wonderful feature about an 83-item “bucket list” of things submitted by its readers that people in the Lone Star State should do at least once before kicking the bucket.

A list like that is subjective, of course, and there were many things on it — including some I would otherwise not been aware of — that I will definitely make a point of getting out and doing. There were certainly a handful of items that I was just not interested in and which did not need to be on my bucket list, as well as a number of personal “musts” that did not make the magazine’s list.

The primary function of lists like that should be to inspire rather than dictate anyway, and it certainly did the trick with me. Accordingly, I started to compile my own “Texas Bucket List,” a few initial items of which appear below. (The numbering system presented here is for purposes of this article only and is not intended to represent a qualitative rating).

#1) Visit Canyon Lake. It is amazing how often I meet people from other parts of Texas who have never heard of Canyon Lake, much less visited it, and it thus seemed like a good place to kick off this list. Visiting the lake any time of the year can be rewarding, but my first impressions of it — during a blazing summer when the still waters of lake were spread out below a cloudless blue sky and the limestone rim around the shoreline was almost too bright to look at — are likely what will always come to mind when I think of it.

“Canyon Lake, in my opinion, is the most beautiful lake in Texas," said Seth Warnick, co-founder of Operation Float a Soldier, which brings wounded warriors out to the lake. "I haven’t been to every lake in Texas but I’ve been to a lot of them and am absolutely totally in love with Canyon Lake and go out there often. You get [wounded warriors] out of the hospital and out on Canyon Lake and it’s such a beautiful place that they just forget about their injuries and their rehab, and it’s part of their healing. It’s just such a great mental break.”

#2) See as much of the Guadalupe River as possible. As a resident of Canyon Lake, I have the pleasure of being able to drive across the Guadalupe on a regular basis, both the brown, rolling river above the lake and the more placid teal stream below it. It is amazing the extent to which this river, which rises in the Kerr County Hill Country to the west of Comal County and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, changes along its course. Spots along it I have yet to visit include its North and South Forks converge to form the main body of the river near Hunt, and where it splits near its mouth to flow separately into San Antonio Bay as the North Guadalupe River and the South Guadalupe River.

#3) Eat pork asado at Chuy’s in Van Horn. When the publisher of the newspaper I edit, Karen Russell Holmes, recommended my wife and I eat at Chuy’s restaurant in her hometown of Van Horn during a recent trip through west Texas, I admittedly took her words with a grain of salt. To say that the establishment’s savory, hot, red chili pork asado is very possibly one of the best things I have ever tasted would in no way be an understatement. And if you don’t eat pork for some reason, then try the delicious catfish pecado instead.

#4) Become a Texas Master Naturalist. If you live in the Lone Star State, there is probably no better way to obtain an understanding of its plants, animals, geography, geology, and everything related to them. I graduated from the year-long training course in November 2010 and am currently working on my certification for it.

#5) Visit Natural Bridge Caverns. To say that the two networks of caverns associated with this attraction north of San Antonio are a world-class natural wonder would certainly be an understatement. Located near a well-known natural rock bridge, the caverns were discovered by four adventurous college students in 1960. (I have also posted an entire feature about the caverns on this site, titled Natural Bridge Caverns: Bridge to Another World.)

That is probably a good start on my own Texas bucket list and, hopefully, it will inspire you to start thinking about your own. And if you would like to share the top one or two things from your list with the other readers of this TravelBlogue, go ahead and send them in!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pittsburgh International Airport, et al

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA -- On my way back from the Origins Game Fair 2010 in Columbus, Ohio, where I was exhibiting on behalf of my Skirmisher Publishing LLC and strategic partner Dark Threads, and am waiting for my flight in the "Steel City."

Have to say I am very impressed Pittsburgh International Airport, starting with the fact that is has free wi-fi, which is a big plus for travelers. There are also plenty of clean, well-organized, drinker-friendly restaurants in the security area, another big plus. Having a much better experience here than at either Austin Bergstrom or Detroit, both of which are much less user-friendly.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Aurora UFO Incident

Just got back from a trip that included a stop in Aurora, Texas, to do some research on a local legend that claims there was a UFO crash near the town -- in 1897! This partially in support of a chapter on the incident, whether it be hoax or fact, that will appear in the book I am currently working on, Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Lone Star State.

One of the following pictures is of the marker at the supposed site of the the "spaceman's" grave. The other is the official Texas Historical Commission marker mentioning the incident.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

'True Grit' in Blanco, Texas

BLANCO, TEXAS -- Film crews, a pair of famous directors, and even a few stars descended on the historic town of Blanco in May 2010 to film some of the scenes that will appear in the upcoming remake of the 1969 film True Grit.

Modern trailers, old-fashioned wagons, and other equipment filled the town square; people clad in period garb struck poses in front of the old courthouse; and Blanco County sheriff’s deputies and police officers from nearby Johnson City redirected traffic on a detour around Main Street/Highway 281 and kept crowds of locals from getting in the way of the shoot.

Filming took place in Blanco Tuesday and Wednesday, May 11-12. In the scene being filmed the afternoon of the final day, a couple of wagons and some horsemen kept going back-and-forth along 4th Street, while aromatic smoke billowed, for some unexplained reason, out of strategically-located braziers (and only once did the director have to yell “Clear the set!” at a reporter who did not vacate the scene quickly enough.)

“You never know what you’re going to see,” said Blanco Postmaster Charles Landry, whose post office is right across the street from the courthouse. He said that the crowds had been pretty consistent since filming started and that people were interested in what was happening with the filming. That is not too surprising when you consider that this is the first time in his experience that anything of this sort has happened in Blanco.

And he was not the only one who was interested in what was happening.

“They’re here every day, and are just trying to see what’s going on and if they can see anybody,” he said of some of the locals who have been turning out the watch the filming. At least one of the film’s stars — Jeff Bridges, who is reprising the role of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original — was believed to be on the scene. (One pair of local women were indeed keeping an eye out for Bridges, who they believed to be inside the courthouse, and were somewhat indignant that he would not come out and talk to his fans at least briefly.)

“For the most part, they’re just milling about and seeing what’s going on ... and how long it’s going to take,” Landry said. “Some of them just want to get back to their normal routine” and drive through the town square rather than detour around it.

True Grit is based on a 1968 novel by author Charles Portis and is about a young girl who recruits the aging and cynical Cogburn to help her track down and bring to justice the man who murdered her father. Wayne won a Best Actor Oscar for his depiction of the roll.

The new adaptation of the film is being directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and being filmed at a number of locations in Texas and New Mexico (as was their 2007 release No Country for Old Men, which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem).

Bridges recently won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in the 2009 film Crazy Heart. Also starring in True Grit is Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Ultimatum, Ocean’s Eleven), who plays Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, and who has recently been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the 2009 film Invictus. The film will also feature actors Josh Brolin (W., Planet Terror, No Country for Old Men) and Barry Pepper (Seven Pounds, Saving Private Ryan).

True Grit is scheduled for release on Christmas Day 2010.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gruene, Texas

Anyone who has visited the historic village of Gruene on any given Saturday or evening in the summer, when it is thronged with tourists and local revelers alike, might be surprised to learn that it was once a genuine ghost town. Gruene was, however, virtually abandoned for more than two decades, from around 1950 until the early 1970s, when it was restored as a tourist attraction.

Located along the Guadalupe River at the north end of New Braunfels, the once-independent community was founded in the 1850s by German farmer Ernst Gruene and his sons, who purchased 6,000 acres of surrounding farmland, which they planted with cotton.

Gruene — both pronounced and meaning “green,” like the color — attracted two or three dozen sharecropper families and grew into a thriving commercial center. It was aided by its location along the stagecoach route between San Antonio and Austin at the point where it crossed the Guadalupe and, in the 1880s, by the establishment of the International-Great Northern Railroad line. Originally known as Goodwin Community, the town was eventually renamed for its most prominent family.

By the early 20th century, Gruene was a significant cotton ginning and shipping center that had two freight rail stations. But the good times were not to last indefinitely. A marker titled “Gruene Cotton Gin” that was placed by the Texas Historical Commission in 1989 sums up the early history, economic basis, and namesake of the village — and the cause of its initial demise.

“Built on the site of an earlier grist mill, the Gruene Cotton Gin was constructed in 1878 by H.D. Gruene,” the marker reads. “Powered by the Guadalupe River, the gin was steam-operated and served to process the vast amounts of cotton grown in the area. The gin played an important part in the economic development of Gruene, a community dependent upon the cotton crop. The gin was destroyed in a 1922 fire, and only part of the boiler room remains. A new electric gin was built at another location and served the community until the cotton crop was lost to a boll weevil infestation in 1925.”

The Great Depression followed hard on the heels of the weevils, a combination that was too much for Gruene, and all but one of its establishments — Gruene Hall — went out of business. Post-World War II highway construction bypassed the town, and within a few years it was almost completely deserted.

Gruene enjoyed a renaissance beginning in the 1970s, with the restoration of Gruene Hall, the old store, and a number of other local buildings.

When You Visit
Today, the bustling little community features a half-dozen restaurants, among them the sprawling Grist Mill, established in an old industrial structure; about two-dozen specialty stores of various sorts, making this a great place to hunt for gifts with local color; Gruene Hall, which today styles itself “the oldest dance hall in Texas;” and a couple of river rafting and tubing outfitters. Many of these businesses operate out of the village’s original structures.

There is almost always something going on in Gruene and the historic town sponsors a variety of special events throughout the year, including many food- and music-oriented activities and Old Gruene Market Days the third weekend of every month except December and January.

From Interstate 35, take Exit 191 and head west on FM 306 for 1.5 miles to Hunter Road. Turn left on Hunter Road and go about a half mile. When you see Gruene Hall and the Gristmill, you will know you are there!

Gruene, Texas

Friday, April 23, 2010

Photo Updates

Despite the fact that I carry a camera with me almost religously and take regularly take photos for a number of publications, I have not been nearly as good about posting images to this site as I should be! I will try to be better about that and, accordingly, have just posted three photos to my piece on "Driving the Devil's Backbone" (

And here is a picture I took this week, of the some of the native Hill Country cactuses in bloom.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Best Western/Swiss Chalet Inn & Suites (Pecos, Texas)

PECOS, TEXAS -- Suffice it to say, my wife and I were surprised to discover such a big, beautiful hotel just off of I-20 in this dusty little city on the west Texas plains and, when we asked if it was a conference hotel, were told by the clerk that it was not but that many people asked the same question. Our room was big and comfortable and included a number of nice features, including sinks in and outside of the bathroom, a microwave, and a refrigerator.

By the time we woke up Monday morning and started getting ready to leave, we were very pleased and I almost posted a 5-star review here and on Yahoo Local (my inclination being to ignore the first of the annoyances listed below). We did experience a couple of odd things at the the Best Western/Swiss Chalet Inn & Suites, however, which made our stay their less than perfect.

* We were pleased to discover the place had a government rate of $80. That seemed a little steep for Pecos but fine for this hotel so we accepted it. The desk clerk went on to tell us, however, that she had to charge us an additional $10 because my wife was going to have someone else in the room with her (i.e., her husband -- me -- who also has a government ID card). Pretty bizarre and something I have never experienced elsewhere.

* Breakfast looked very promising and the hotel has a large area set up for these purposes and a nice selection of food. When we went to eat, however, we were greeted with NO coffee, NO forks, and NO napkins. We had to specifically ask the slow-moving attendant to make more coffee. We then watched as she shambled out of the kitchen every few minutes to deposit a couple of mugs or stir the food in the serving dishes, oblivious to the fact that we and other guests were eating our bacon with spoons and had no napkins. A manager eventually showed up, but she didn't notice any of these deficiencies either -- and counseled the attendant only about some other things that seemed to be affecting her own breakfast!

Overall, the Best Western/Swiss Chalet Inn & Suites has a lot of promise, and maybe its staff and management will get their act together and make the place a success, but they are not there yet. As always, keep your eye on this space for updates (which, as always, may include direct feedback from the reviewed establishment, which I not just allow but encourage).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

International UFO Museum and Research Center (Roswell, N.M.)

ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO -- A special treat for Diane and I during our roadtrip home from Las Vegas was the opportunity to stop at the UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico.

Alright, so the exhibits are a little melodramatic and at times a bit redundant, but the place really is a labor of love and its organizers have done a great job with it. And the attached research library is a bona fide public service to anyone interested in any sort of in-depth study of the subject.

This latter feature was all the more useful to me, of course, in that I actually did do some research while at the center, for my upcoming book "Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Lone Star State."

Yes, the 1947 UFO incident in Roswell did, in fact have a Texas connection! In short, the remains of the craft -- whether it was an alien spacecraft or merely a wrecked weather balloon -- were transported to Carswell Army Air Field in Fort Worth. And the opportunity to event peripherally include this famous incident in my own book is too much for me to resist.

The staff at the center were friendly and very helpful and I am looking forward to working with them as I move ahead with Texas Confidential and other projects.