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Caribbean Collaboration

We’ve got some good news for the environment as the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), the leading organization of the hoteliers and tourism in the Caribbean, and the Diving and Equipment Marketing Association (DEMA), the worldwide trade association for the recreational diving and snorkeling industries, have decided to put environmental awareness in the forefront of their missions.

Amanda diving

The two organizations agreed to collaborate on creating artificial reefs in the region and to partner with organizations working on reef restoration and coral regeneration. They’ve also decided to increase their focus on employment of local populations in both the hotel and dive industry. DEMA is also working with CHTA to promote diving as a year-round activity. The two trade organizations have renewed an effort to find ways to increase communication about hurricanes and other natural disasters’ effects on the industries in the region.

A healthy coral system is very important — and not just to the diving and tourism industries. The reef systems also mean healthy fisheries. Approximately half of all federally managed fisheries depend on coral reefs and related habitats for a portion of their life cycles. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a government agency associated with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is over $100 million. The economic impact of thriving reefs on local economies is estimated in the billions of dollars due to diving tours, recreational fishing trips, hotels, restaurants and other businesses based near reef ecosystems.

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Dear New York Times

I am the experienced, educated, and adventurous travel writer you are looking for. I love travel, experiencing new places and telling people about them. My wife and I launched this blog more than five years ago as a way to share our experiences with everyone.

I have a simple philosophy on travel: Even when visiting a sun-soaked paradise for a quick stay during a long northeastern winter, don’t spend your time at a resort. You will never get an accurate sense of a place if you don’t visit the places where local life happens.

I penned my first travel journal on a cross-country trip with my family. I’ll admit it wasn’t the greatest prose and at times I was reluctant to write. My second great journal detailed my pilgrimage to Greece to walk in the steps of my parents and grandparents and form a deeper bond with my heritage. I find the journals are a great way to keep my memory honest and not let me gloss over the details — like shivering all night long on a ferry to Crete.

That trip to Greece was more than 20 years ago and I’m pleased to report my writing and I have both matured. I spent most of my professional life as a journalist, starting at a community newspaper, working in college radio, then in small-market and large-market television as a photojournalist. I even published a novel. I became an investor in a vineyard and a sailboat and am working toward earning my amateur sailing certification. I’m also living out a childhood dream: Getting paid to watch cartoons. I’m working for a Japan-based anime blog reviewing shows. And that’s all on the side; the main focus of my professional life is creating educational videos for healthcare staff at a hospital system in western Pennsylvania.

Zeke takes a moment to write about some of his adventures in Tanzania

The need to explore our world has always been a constant calling over these years, leading me to Egypt where I stood under the pyramids and piloted a ferry across the Nile, to Italy where I fell in love with Florence and my wife, to Greece where I strengthened the connections with my roots, to Mexico where I went scuba diving in a cenote and swam among the mangroves, to Canada where I watched hockey and ate poutine, to Tanzania where I slept out on the savannah and listened to the leopards in the trees and the hyenas sniff around our tents at night, to the Bahamas where I ate conch and talked to a cab driver about his journey through addiction and into recovery, and to the US and British Virgin Islands where we explored the little-known beaches and out-of-the-way restaurants and cafés.

The daily grind of a deadline-driven life won’t be new to me. I can visit a place and quickly get a sense of it beyond what’s often seen by tourists. I’m a storyteller and an observer by nature, skills that every photojournalist should have, and can combine engaging prose with photos and videos to deliver a compelling story.

I use social media as a tool for work and even completed a year-long certificate course in social media management. I have wanderlust in my soul and I’m ready to take a year to explore the world and share the experience with your readers on all of your platforms.


Zeke Changuris

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Etelman Observatory, St. Thomas, USVI

A visit to a tropical island to watch the sun set and the stars come out can be quite the romantic night and at the Etelman Observatory you can get a up-close look at those celestial bodies. The Etelman Observatory is located on top of Crown Mountain on the island of St. Thomas in the USVI. The observatory sits at a 1,325-foot elevation and is operated by the University of the Virgin Islands, the College of Charleston, and South Carolina State University. The other-worldly  observation post is kept running by an army of volunteers. The Etelman Observatory is open to the public once a month and gives the visitors the chance to look through their automated Cassegrain Telescope. You may get the chance to take a good look at our moon, Jupiter, a globular cluster and other galaxies.

Etelman Observatory, St. Thomas, USVI

Etelman Observatory, St. Thomas, USVI

The observatory was one of the facilities that  took part in the direct observation of gravitational waves caused by the collision of two neutron stars. A neutron star is the extremely dense core of a long dead giant star and is only about 12 miles in diameter, or as they point out the size of St. Thomas. A spoonful of neutron star would weigh more than the largest cruise ships. The observation of the collision has given great insight into the creation of many elements such as gold and platinum.

We most recently received an update on the observatory from its director, David Morris, about how they fared in the hurricanes.

Etelman Observatory suffered some roof damage to the science center building which has led to new water leaks, but the dome survived and as far as they know, the science instruments are probably ok. They don’t know for certain because they are without power and haven’t been able to test them since the storms. They hope to have power and do a more complete systems check sometime in the next month or so.

In the meanwhile, and until they have regular power restored, they won’t be able to open the observatory to the public. Hopefully they’ll regain power soon and then can go back to their regular open observing events. The meteorologic events won’t stop the astronomy and they will begin holding public outreach astrophysics events on the UVI campus using their new portable planetarium which was recently acquired by a new physics faculty member, Dr. Antonino Cucchiara, through a grant program. The observatory hopes to begin semi-regular planetarium events that will continue on after the observatory is re-opened to the public.

The university, like a lot of the Virgin Islands, needs a little help recovering. If you would like to contribute to their work, donations can be made by check to UVI with a notation that they are designated specifically for the Etelman Observatory (in the check notation line). Send your check to: 2 John Brewers Bay Road, St. Thomas, USVI 00802 C/O David Morris, College of Science and Mathematics.

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Your Islands Update

The restoration of power on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John is a slow process because in many cases the primary lines are down and need to be reconstructed. According to the Water and Power Authority, the reconstruction has to happen before the power can be sent to the lines, even if undamaged, that connect to homes and businesses.

The Water Division continues to work with electrical crews to power the remaining pump stations. The restoration of the pump stations will facilitate the resumption of water service to areas including Contant Knolls and Savan. The Lindbergh Bay pump station was returned to service in the last few days.

We have some great news that The Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix reopened to commercial flights on October 5th.

USVI Governor Kenneth Mapp believes that cruise ships will return to the islands in the coming days. He’s been told by business leaders that Main Street in St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie and the Havensight Mall area are ready for customers.

The pier where the cruise ships dock was largely undamaged, according to the head of the West Indian Company Limited, which manages it.

You can also turn on the blue light because Kmart is open at all three locations in St. Thomas and St. Croix.

Some of the public schools will begin reopening on St. Thomas and more schools will open as repairs are complete and recovery efforts continue, according to Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum. The Army Corps of Engineers is installing generators in the remaining structurally sound schools.

Some Saint Thomas schools are back open and providing meals to students

We have some good news on the hotel front as well. Cruz Bay Hotel did not sustain any damage, which seems like an actual miracle. They are currently hosting FEMA and Red Cross workers who have booked the hotel through the end of October. The hotel says they are fully operational, running on generator power and city water, but only accepting new reservations beginning November 1st.

Other hotels weren’t so lucky and won’t be reopening any time soon.

Caneel Bay will not reopen for the 2017-2018 season and has laid off all of its staff through June 30, 2018. Bolongo Bay Beach Resort is currently looking to reopen in the second or third week of December as the resort is housing people in need and a multitude of workers trying to help the island. Bluebeard’s Castle Resort sustained major damage. Marriott Frenchman’s Reef  and the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas have advised the resorts are closed until further notice. Both resorts are waiving hotel cancellation and change fees for specific arrival dates. Customers should call 1-800-228-9290 (US) for more information about their reservations. Those in countries outside of the United States seeking information about their reservations should call the Marriott toll-free number in their country.

Sailing on Winifred between St. Thomas and St. John, USVI.

We also received confirmation of some very sad news this week. The sailboat we’ve loved since our first trip to St. Thomas, the Morningstar (previously named Winifred), is a total loss. We received an email from Captain Mike updating us on their status.  He and his family are safe and sound but our instinct was right, the boat on the cover of the New York Times with its hull split open in Cruz Bay was the 60-year old sailing vessel. He acknowledged that she is a loss. Captain Mike wants to rebuild the business and get out on the water again. He has a lot of hurdles topped with red tape to overcome but is determined to sail again. He said she was the last to break from her moorings as the Cat. 5 rolled over them. Morningstar Charters is accepting donations as they work to rebuild their business and get back on the water.

We plan to keep these updates going because we don’t want anyone to forget that recovery takes a long time and the help of others. We’ll let you know more when we hear it and are still planning on visiting the islands in late November and will give you a first-hand progress report.

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Cruise Line Community Comes Together to Care for the Caribbean

The storms have passed but there is still a lot of work to do in the Caribbean. The good news is that the cruise lines, the same companies that have introduced many of us to the USVI, are taking a share of the lead in the relief efforts.

Carnival Cruise Lines has set up a long-term relief effort for the Eastern Caribbean, using 11 of its ships to bring supplies to the ports impacted by hurricanes Irma and Maria. They’re also paying contractors to make deliveries. The “Fun Ship” is providing the necessities like food, water, clothing, diapers and generators. The USVI aren’t the only ones getting the love, the Carnival Fascination has also delivered food, water and other needed relief supplies to the islands of Barbuda, St. Maarten, Antigua and St. Kitts. Carnival’s financial contribution is also substantial with a $10 million donation through the Micky and Madeline Arison Family Foundation.

The Norwegian Sky, owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, helped coordinate the evacuation of nearly 1,000 stranded visitors, displaced residents and their pets on St. Thomas. NCL also delivered 35 pallets of supplies such as food, ice, bedding and clothing. 15 pallets of other essential items like toiletries and clean clothing came from crewmembers’ personal donations.

The president and CEO of NCL Andy Stuart said, “The question wasn’t if we could go, but how fast we could get there… In my 30 years of working for Norwegian Cruise Line, it was my proudest moment.”

NCL is also partnering with All Hands Volunteers to rebuild schools in communities devastated by the hurricanes. The company chose All Hands not only because they were one of the first NGOs to respond, but also because they have committed to staying on the islands for the long haul of rebuilding. The cruise line plans on committing $2.5 million in relief funds over the next 2 years to the islands of Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Tortola, Cuba and the Florida Keys.

Royal Caribbean stepped up big time. While the mainland government was still finding the Caribbean on a map, they were already evacuating 1,700 people from St. Thomas and St. Maarten.

September 9, the cruise line announced that they would be deploying four ships for relief efforts. The Adventure of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas evacuated 1,700 people, pets and employees from the Eastern Caribbean.

The most telling aspect of the effort is the cruise lines didn’t just use ships that had sailings canceled by the storms for the effort. The ships involved wouldn’t have been sitting empty. Royal Caribbean canceled two planned sailings, one for Empress of the Seas and one for Majesty of the Seas, in order for them to participate in the relief efforts.

At some point in my life, I created an unfavorable opinion of cruise lines, viewing them as corporate, soulless businesses that just load people up and out. After seeing these efforts, that opinion may be due for an update.

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Harvest Time

The weather on the east coast has finally turned to fall. We were enjoying an Indian summer that in my opinion was a filled with more summer weather than most of the actual summer. When you own a vineyard you look forward to the fall because it’s the beginning of the picking season. Amanda and I made the three-and-a-half hour journey from Pittsburgh to Maryland for the harvest of our Regent and Cab Franc grapes. We spent the morning reaching into the grape leaf canopy with sheers to hand trim the best clusters. You give the purple bunches a good visual inspection and with the practiced hands of a picker trim away any ruined grapes or bugs before dropping them in your basket on the ground. You work your way along the vines kicking baskets along with your boots until they’re filled and you move on to an empty basket.

The baskets are then collected by a small tractor with a cart and taken to the de-stemmer team. A group of people do a second visual inspection of the grapes, getting rid of any rotten or bug infest bunches that were missed. The remaining grapes are dumped into a large machine with a cork screw at the top that pushes the bunches into a mechanism that seems like a rotating colander. It strips the grapes from the stems and dumps them out into large vats. We let the grapes sit in the large vats with the lids on and store them as the first stage of fermentation begins. The work is hard and we have a lot more to do before the day’s effort ends up in a bottle. But you don’t grow grapes because it’s easy; you do it for the love of the challenge and the love of wine.

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The Passengers are at the Gates… and Their Friends are, too

You can now share the joys of going through airport security and not even go anywhere. The days of the hurried kiss-and-go in the loading zone that have been with us since September, 2001 are gone — at least at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT).  You now have the option to park your car and walk to the gate with your loved one to see them off or welcome them home. The official statement from the Pittsburgh International Airport reads, “in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration, [the airport] announced today that it will become the first airport in the country to allow the public to access shops and restaurants beyond the security checkpoint without requiring an airline ticket and no reduction in security.”

You will have to do a handful of things before walking the concourse and shopping at the news stands. The first thing you’ll have to do is check in on 3rd Floor Ticketing Level (across from Allegiant). You will need a valid photo ID (e.g. a driver’s license or passport). You will have your name run for a quick background check and if you get a green light you’ll get a stamped myPITpass. You then get to travel through the security checkpoint just like the ticketed passengers. YES, the same rules that apply to carry-on luggage apply to myPITpass holders, so no knives, liquids over three ounces, etc. The hours for issuing passes will be Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The pass is only valid on the day of issuance.

“Since I started here, people have been asking about shopping and dining at the airport. We have worked closely with the TSA on this program,” Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis said in a press release. “This program builds on our successful Holiday Open House program and Airside access for guests of the airport Hyatt hotel.”

Additional information is available at www.flypittsburgh.com/myPITpass.

We also hope know and hope that we’ll get to see the return of scenes like this…