3 safety tips every traveler needs to consider before a big trip

Travelers should know the safety risks of a destination before they plan a trip, including where (and how) local thieves may target unsuspecting tourists.

When it comes to travel, maybe some of us have encyclopedic knowledge of every country on earth — e.g., its attractions, potential for problems, etc. — but most of us don’t.

In the interest of helping out those of us in that latter group, heed these three simple warnings before heading off to an exotic destination.

#1. Don’t fail to consider health threats.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a section for travelers; look for notices or warnings about such things as the Zika virus or yellow fever outbreaks in places you be visiting (in both the U.S. and abroad). The CDC offers a wealth of practical information for protecting yourself from a range of health concerns — and what to do if you fall ill while traveling.

Florida battled 2016 outbreak with spray and awareness; Phil Keating reports.

#2. Don’t fail to consider the wrath of Mother Nature.

Unfortunately, bad weather can mess up flight schedules — blizzards and thunder and lightning storms alike — so it’s a year-round problem. Plus, there are lots of other unusual natural events that crop up with little or no warning until we hear about them on the news, like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, and each can result in canceled flights and closed airports. Before you fly, double-check to make sure your airline has your contact information so they can reach you with any warnings or updates. Even better, follow your airline on Twitter, which can be the speediest method of communications, or just visit the airline’s website and look for posted travel warnings. Many airlines waive change fees in advance, which is your signal to change flights to another that suits your needs; it you don’t take action, the airline will usually put you on the next available flight, which may not be one you want.

Mount Agung volcano in Karangasem, Indonesia sparks evacuation orders for 100,000 people, forces the closure of the island's airport.

#3. Don’t fail to consider the potential for danger.

If you’re traveling outside the country, check the travel section on the State Department’s website; it’s just been given a complete makeover, and it has all kinds of useful features like a color-coded map showing the world’s most dangerous countries (i.e., war zones). Or, choose a country to learn about specific problems; for example, in Yemen, “terrorist groups continue to plot and conduct attacks” while in the United Kingdom tourists are warned to “be vigilant, as pickpocketing, mugging and ‘snatch and grab’ theft of mobile phones, watches and jewelry can occur.” Those heading to Ireland, too, are cautioned about distraction techniques at ATMs in busy areas, during which a local criminal may distract an ATM user after the PIN has been entered, and “while the ATM user is distracted, another person will quickly withdraw cash and leave.” And yes, snatch and grab thefts and distraction attempts have been seen in the U.S. too. (Learn more about safety when visiting the U.S. here.)

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Most of these threats are threats you’ll never ever have to worry about — your odds of getting involved in a fender-bender on the way to the airport are probably about a zillion times higher than running into yellow fever. Even still, it’s nice to know the information is out there, so that if you do have a problem, you know how best to sort it out.

Alaska’s Iditarod sled dog race to begin amid turbulent year

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The 46th running of Alaska’s famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off Saturday amid the most turbulent year ever for the annual long-distance contest that spans mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and dangerous sea ice along the Bering Sea coast.

Among the multiple problems: a champion’s dog doping scandal, the loss of major sponsor Wells Fargo, discontent among mushers and escalating pressure from animal rights activists, who say the dogs are run to death or left with serious injuries. The Iditarod has had its ups and downs over the decades, but the current storm of troubles is raising questions about the future of the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) race that for many symbolizes the contest between mortals and Alaska’s unforgiving nature.

Leo Rasmussen, one of the race’s founders, predicted the Iditarod is heading for extinction within the next few years, given an “extreme lack of organization” from its leadership. “You can only burn so many stumps, you know, and you’re done,” he says.

Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley acknowledged organizers have weathered a dark time but disagreed the race faces an uncertain future. “There’s always going to be an Iditarod,” he said. “I consider this more of a growing process than anything else.”

The Iditarod’s governing board disclosed in October that four dogs belonging to four-time winner Dallas Seavey tested positive for a banned substance, the opioid painkiller tramadol, after his second-place finish last March behind his father, Mitch Seavey. It faced criticism for not releasing the information sooner.

The Iditarod said it couldn’t prove Dallas Seavey administered the drugs to his dogs, and didn’t punish him. Since then, the rules have been changed to hold mushers liable for any positive drug test unless they can show something beyond their control happened.

The younger Seavey, who denied administering tramadol to his dogs, also came under scrutiny when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime race critic, complained about a kennel operated by the musher based on allegations of sick, injured or dead dogs. Local investigators said they found no evidence of animal cruelty in the matter.

Dallas Seavey is sitting out this year’s race in protest over the handling of the doping investigation. Instead, he is in Norway to participate in another sled dog race, the Finnmarkslopet, which begins March 9.

The deaths of five dogs connected to last year’s race also played a role in increasing pressure from animal rights activists. Three of the deaths occurred during the race, and two dogs died after being dropped from the competition. One got loose from a handler and was hit by a car, and another died as it was flown to Anchorage, likely from hyperthermia. The race went without dog deaths in several recent years.

PETA says that for the first time, about a dozen of its members will protest the race in person at the ceremonial and competitive starts and at the finish line, in the remote coastal town of Nome. They plan to bring five headstones with the names of the dogs that died in 2017.

By PETA’s count, the dog deaths bring the total to more than 150 over the Iditarod’s history. Race officials dispute those numbers but have not provided their own despite numerous requests from The Associated Press.

“If the human participants want to race to Nome, have at it,” PETA spokeswoman Colleen O’Brien said. “But don’t force these dogs to run until their paws are bloody and they die on the trail.”

Race officials blame activists for using manipulative information to pressure corporate sponsors like Wells Fargo, a longtime backer that severed ties to the Iditarod last spring.

Mitch Seavey, who is seeking a fourth Iditarod championship, said his son is the happiest he’s seen him in months, and is reveling in heavy snow in Norway. The elder Seavey said he himself is not going to be distracted by “all the noise,” but is focusing on his dogs and the race ahead.

“There’s been a lot of craziness, but it’s the people who are insane,” he said. “The dogs aren’t crazy.”
There’s one bright spot for organizers: Optimal trail conditions. A warming climate in recent years has caused significant disruptions, including the rerouting of the 2017 and 2015 races hundreds of miles to the north because of dangerous conditions. As always, the race will begin with the customary ceremonial start in Anchorage, but the competitive portion beginning Sunday north of

Anchorage will follow a southern route for the first time since 2013. Traditionally, southern and northern routes are alternated every year.

The late timing of the Iditarod Trail Committee’s disclosure of the doping matter prompted the race’s major sponsors to commission an independent consultant late last year. The consultant’s report said the committee took months to release the information, causing concerns among many about a lack of transparency.

The consultant called on organizers to develop a plan to rebuild trust with mushers and sponsors.
“Both of these partner groups are on the verge of withdrawing their support for this race as a result of their distrust in this board,” the report states.

More recently, a group of mushers named the Iditarod Official Finishers Club has called for the resignation of the Iditarod board president and other board leaders it says have conflicts. It also has criticized the board in its handling of the doping scandal. Hooley, the race CEO, said conversations are underway to replace some members.

Four-time winner Jeff King said he sees room for improvements after the doping controversy caught organizers “flat-footed,” and he is ready for a significant change in the board leadership. But he doesn’t believe the Iditarod is nearing the end of its lifespan, and laughs when asked about it.

“You can count on from me, and many mushers that I would bet my life on, that we will continue to do the best we can for our dogs and the event,” he said.

Secret codes, subliminal messaging on world’s biggest cruise

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At a time when travellers are feeling more precious than ever about “authentic experiences,” the cruise industry is doubling down on the exact opposite: completely manufactured fun. Leading the pack is Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., whose mega-ships are destinations unto themselves: Its restaurants, casinos, Broadway-caliber musicals, silent disco parties, skating rinks, karaoke, dance clubs, and escape-the-room experiences are such strong lures, some guests don’t even bother to look up where the ship is docking.

So when Royal Caribbean International invited me to join the ranks as temporary director of its largest ship, Harmony of the Seas—which is as big as five Titanics—I knew I was signing up for the most manic week of my life. As cruise director, my primarily responsibility was seeing to the happiness of 6,322 passengers and 2,200-plus crew. Over the course of a week, I had my hands in every department, from ship activities and entertainment to onboard revenue, making sure that everyone and everything worked in, well, harmony. From stocking the world’s biggest buffet and staving off gastrointestinal disasters to hosting celebrity guests, everything is 10 times crazier when you’re mayor of a city that’s floating in the middle of the sea.

There is a secret cruise code language

It’s crucial for the staff to have code words so that passengers don’t get freaked out if something goes wrong. A “30-30” means the crew is asking maintenance to clean up a mess; three times during my stint I called in a “PVI” (public vomiting incident). An “Alpha” is a medical emergency, a “Bravo” is a fire, and “Kilo” is a request for all personnel to report to their emergency posts, which happens in the event of, say, a necessary evacuation. Be wary of “Echo,” which is called if the ship is starting to drift, or “Oscar,” which means someone’s gone overboard. A crew member told me he’s had only four or five “Oscars” in 10 years of cruising.

Drunk guests can’t outsmart the on-board bartenders

If you thought those all-you-can-drink beverage packages were directly correlated with drunk debauchery at sea, think again. Only eight to 10 per cent of passengers purchase unlimited booze packages—Royal Caribbean’s guests are largely family travellers—and those who do are carefully monitored. Every single alcoholic beverage is poured with a jigger. Intoxicated passengers can have their SeaPasses (onboard credit cards) temporarily disabled, barring them from being served at any of the ship’s bars. As for the most popular alcoholic beverage ordered on board? It’s a cinnamon fireball shot.

According to Ivan De La Rosa, the ship’s senior doctor, the biggest issue involving alcohol is when the ship is docked in Cozumel, Mexico. Mix an afternoon of unregulated drinking on land at Señor Frogs with tropical heat and a few glasses of Mexican tap water, and you’ve got yourself a guaranteed “PVI.”

Cruise staffers regularly engage in subliminal messaging

The first thing guests are likely to see in their cabins is a gleeful jingle about hand-washing looping on their television screen. It’s catchy as a Katy Perry song and meant to steer you toward Purel pumps around the ship, each carefully positioned at high-traffic junctions (think entrances to the main dining halls and theaters) by senior staff. Along with the emcees’ banter at large group events—“Have you washed your hands 50 times today? I have!”—the jingle is part of the crew’s unwavering effort to stave off a potential Norovirus outbreak.

But sanitation is just one aim of the frequent subliminal messaging. Special promotions around the ship encourage passengers to scatter when certain areas become congested, and moving guests around the ship subtly encourages them to diversify (and increase) their onboard spending. If casino revenue is low, for instance, senior management might host a raffle or karaoke event at the far side of the slots to drive foot traffic and encourage passengers to linger (or better yet, play) a while. Activities managers will even film their daily newscast about onboard events with Starbucks iced coffees in hand, as a quiet reminder that passengers can get their venti latte fix on Deck Six. Often times, these veiled announcements are aimed at boosting the ship’s bottom line.

There is a cruise ship burn book

Dru Pavlov, veteran cruise director and my mentor during this Royal Caribbean stint, keeps a hallowed book of stupid comments and questions; passed down from one cruise director to the next as a right of passage, it makes great vamping material for event emcees.

The book Pavlov bequeathed to me included such doozies as: “Where’s the elevator to get to the front of the ship?” Others include “Is the toilet water drinkable?” and “How long does it take the crew to get home every night?” My favorite contribution came three days into my tenure, when a passenger stopped me to complain that she could no longer find her cabin. The ship had been parked backwards, she claimed.

All cruise guests basically eat the same things

Freezers on board Harmony of the Seas are the size of New York studio apartments—and stocking them is an art form. Before each sailing, the inventory team receives enough ingredients for 20 different dining venues, plus servings for the 2,000-member crew. (The total cost, including such other consumables as paper towels, is about $800,000.) Overestimate the order, and the voyage becomes less-profitable (and wasteful); underestimate, and you’ll risk a riot over coconut shrimp.

Luckily, passengers’ eating habits are fairly predictable. On the average week-long cruise, Royal Caribbean estimates its guests will be 80 per cent American, consuming around 3,000 bottles of wine, 7,000 pounds of chicken breast, and almost 100,000 eggs.

If more than 80 per cent of the guests are American, the crew orders extra ketchup. When the percentage of Chinese passengers increases, they bump up the supply of sliced fruit, seafood, and rice. Latin Americans consume more red meat and Coronas (which also requires additional limes). And family-prone Spring Break cruises require three times as many chicken nuggets. The one thing that never changes no matter who is on board? Toilet paper. Around 9,600 rolls are used each week.

Every ship has an “Outbreak Prevention Plan,” with a hair-trigger

Nothing is scarier to cruisers than a Norovirus outbreak—which ship doctor De La Rosa says is almost always caused by a passenger who has brought the illness aboard, rather than poor sanitary conditions on the ship. The US Health Department requires that every ship maintain a detailed OPP, or Outbreak Prevention Plan. On Harmony, regular sanitary conditions are called “OPP1,” and they get ratcheted up to “OPP2” when there’s a “6 in 6,” or six passengers reported ill in six hours. (You’ll know OPP2 is in full gear when the crew gets less subliminal about its “wash your hands” messaging.)

If the incidence rate escalates and the situation reaches OPP3, guests lose the ability to handle their own food. The entire crew, from the ice dancers to the synchronized swimmers, is recruited to the buffets to help serve, and all restaurants and guestroom linens are put in red biohazard bags and obsessively laundered in a special facility on land.

If you want to avoid Norovirus like, well, the plague, stay away from short sailings, says figure skater and veteran crew member Chris Mabee. “Those trips tend to be the least-expensive, attracting both older passengers, who are prone to getting sick, and the young booze cruisers, who forget about hygiene.”

As for the most common diagnoses at sea? They include upper respiratory infections, bruised bones, and the odd Viagra mishap. UTIs are also frequent, thanks to frisky honeymooners, and prescribing antibiotics can be hairy when passengers are committed to their all-you-can-drink packages.

Crew members are trained to deal with handsy passengers

Sleeping with a passenger will get you “chicken or beef,” as Pavlov puts it—“That’s what a flight attendant asks you when you’re put on the first flight home.” The zero-tolerance policy seems to be an industry-wide standard—at Royal Caribbean, there’s even staff training on how to defuse an escalating situation. More often than not, it’s a vacationing guest trying to seduce a crew member. “Whenever I take photos with people, I always give a thumbs up,” notes Pavlov. “My hands are visible, so no one can claim any inappropriate behavior.” And with cameras covering virtually every nook and cranny of the ship, it’d be easier to rob a bank than take a bite of some forbidden fruit. (Though some crew members still use Grindr or Tinder to get a sense of who’s on board.)

…But the staff quarters are a genuine love boat

With 2,200 crew, the staff quarters are a village unto themselves, with cabins, bars, a mess hall, shop, and gym set across decks 0, 1, 2, 3, and 12. (Most services are set off a second-deck corridor dubbed “I-95.”) Among the crew, dating is not just allowed but tacitly encouraged—they live onboard through the entirety of their contract without days off, often 10 months a year. They have their own calendar of daily events that range from karaoke sessions to poker games and foreign language classes. And since Wi-Fi is pricey, romance is very much analog.

Coupling up on the ship is like dating in dog years: Things move about seven times faster. Several crew members recounted instances when they put in a request to share a cabin with their new boyfriend after only a month of dating, or dropped the “I love you” bomb within the first week of meeting someone. And since relationships often end once one person leaves the ship, cruise couples tend to become “lifers.” (Almost everyone I met in upper management met their spouse onboard.)

The ship has genies, and they can perform magic

Although bargain-basement discounts draw plenty of travelers to big-ship cruising, procuring Royal Caribbean’s VIP status can offer a true luxury experience. The easiest way to get it is by booking into the Royal Suites Star Class; the company’s crème de la crème offering includes 10 state-of-the-art apartments on Harmony of the Seas, with privileged access to pleb-free parts of the ship and butler-style service from a coterie of “Royal Genies.” The Genies are trained to cater to your every whim, but with limited resources at sea, this can require real creativity. Daniel, one of the genies, once had a couple ask for their suite to be filled with flowers. Unable to secure real bouquets, he had the pastry team bake dozens of petal-shaped cookies and scattered them around the room. And when one family got locked out of a peak-season December sailing, genie Andrei surprised them with an early Christmas by decorating their suite and putting wrapped presents under a makeshift tree.

“The hardest thing to do is host a celebrity on board,” says Andrei, who has served a slew of A-listers and their families, including Kelsey Grammer, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen. To give them privacy amid thousands of cruisers, he says, “We usher them into shows after the lights go dark, and we grab them to leave five minutes before the show is done.”

No matter how you earn your VIP status—or if you’ve earned it at all—my time on board proved that the crew will always bend over backwards to make sure you leave satisfied. Want to thank them? Tipping is great, but comment cards that explicitly name standout crew members make more of a difference. Your praise gets noted on their permanent record, earns them such onboard perks as free Wi-Fi, and helps secure promotions down the road.

Workers comb snowy field for clues to Russian plane crash

Wading through knee-deep snow, hundreds of emergency workers searched a vast field near Moscow on Monday for remains of the 71 victims from the crash of a Russian airliner, and aviation experts began deciphering the jet’s two flight recorders.

Investigators quickly ruled out a terrorist attack in Sunday’s crash of the An-148 regional jet bound for Orsk in the southern Urals. The air disaster has reignited questions, however, about the twin-engine plane that was developed jointly by Russia and Ukraine but phased out of production amid the political crisis between the neighbors.

The model has a spotty safety record, with one previous crash and a string of major incidents in which pilots struggled to land safely. The carrier, Saratov Airlines, has grounded several other An-148s in its fleet pending the crash investigation.

The plane crashed several minutes after taking off from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, and all 65 passengers and the crew of six were killed when the aircraft hit the ground and exploded in a giant fireball.

The Investigative Committee, Russia’s top agency for looking into such disasters, said that before the crash, the plane was intact and there had been no fire on board. Officials would not speculate on possible causes.

The plane’s fuel tanks exploded on impact, gouging a deep crater and scattering wreckage across 30 hectares (74 acres), according to the Emergencies Ministry, which used drones to direct the search. Pieces of the plane and human remains were buried in deep snow; some debris was found in nearby trees.

Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich told a Cabinet meeting that emergency teams found both flight data and cockpit voice recorders, which will be significant to determining the cause of the crash. Investigators said they have started working on them.

President Vladimir Putin put off a planned trip to Sochi and stayed in Moscow to monitor the investigation Monday. The Kremlin said U.S. President Donald Trump called Putin to express his condolences.

Officials said the search for victims’ remains will take a week. The passengers ranged in age from 5 to 79, according to a list from the Emergencies Ministry. Most victims were from Orsk, where authorities declared Monday to be an official day of mourning.

Saratov Airlines said the jet had received proper maintenance and passed all the necessary checks before the flight. The plane was built in 2010 for a different airline that operated it for several years before putting it in storage. Saratov Airlines commissioned it last year.

The captain had more than 5,000 hours of flying time, 2,800 of them in an An-148, the airline said. The other pilot had 812 hours of experience, largely in that model.

Another Russian operator that uses the plane, Angara, based in eastern Siberia, said it would keep flying them. The Defense Ministry and other government agencies that also use the aircraft haven’t grounded them either.

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine also has used that model of plane for some of his trips.

The An-148, developed by Ukraine’s Antonov company in the early 2000s, once was touted as an example of Russian-Ukrainian cooperation, but it fell into trouble as relations between the two countries unraveled following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Most of about 40 such planes built under the cooperative agreement were manufactured by a Russian manufacturer in Voronezh, with Ukraine providing the engines and many other components.

Its production in Russia was halted last year, and media reports indicated that some carriers, including Saratov Airlines, experienced a shortage of spare parts. Some airlines reportedly had to cannibalize planes to keep others airworthy.

Alexander Neradko, the head of Rosaviatsiya, the state agency overseeing civil aviation, said it will make a detailed scrutiny of Saratov Airlines’ operations, but he added that the company had a decent record.

Some regional carriers in Russia reportedly have cut corners on servicing aircraft.

Pilot Andrei Litvinov told independent Dozhd TV that the government should help smaller carriers that are struggling to stay in business.

“They are trying to save money on maintaining their planes to prevent going under,” he said.

One An-148 crashed during a training flight in Russia in March 2011, killing all six crew members on board. Investigators blamed pilot error.

In 2010, another An-148 operated by a Russian carrier suffered a major failure of its control system, but its crew managed to land safely.

In September, one engine of a Saratov Airlines An-148 shut down minutes after takeoff, but it landed safely. And in October, another An-148 that belonged to a different Russian carrier suffered an engine fire on takeoff but also managed to land. Engine shutdowns have occurred on several other occasions.

The last major airline crash in Russia occurred on Dec. 25, 2016, when a Tu-154 operated by the Defense Ministry on its way to Syria crashed into the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi. All 92 people aboard were killed. The investigation into that crash is ongoing, but officials have indicated it was due to pilot error.

Hawaii’s cesspools are posing a problem for beaches and coral reefs

If you heard that one U.S. state has a problem with thousands of cesspools filled with untreated human waste, would Hawaii come to mind first?

Brace for the gross, hidden reality of the Aloha State.

It seems that Hawaii has about 88,000 such cesspools, and the seeping sewage is posing a genuine threat to beaches, coral reefs and drinking water, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Specifically, health authorities are worried about rising nitrate levels in groundwater, which are approaching or already exceeding the legal limit in parts of the state. “Additionally, cesspool effluent contains nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, that can disrupt the sensitive ecosystems of Hawaii,” per a state health department report cited by News.com.au.

So why the cesspools? Much of Hawaii is mountainous, making it difficult and expensive to lay sewer lines. As a result, many homes have long pumped their sewage into cesspools, a solution becoming increasingly troublesome as the population grows. The state has outlawed the creation of new cesspools, but replacing those already in existence would cost an estimated $1.75 billion, per state health officials.

HawaiiBeachReuters1

The state’s health department has said that rising nitrate levels linked to the cesspools, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus, “can disrupt the sensitive ecosystems of Hawaii.”  (Reuters)

Lawmakers are reaching out to engineers for help, as the problem takes an ever more tangible toll. Around Kahaluu Bay, for instance, “skin infections consistent with sewage-contaminated surface waters have been documented in this area,” says the health department. (Another apparent safety risk in Hawaii: snorkel masks.)

JetBlue offers free flights for school shooting victims’ families

JetBlue is offering free air and ground transportation for families affected by the Florida school shooting.

JetBlue Airways is offering free flights to Fort Lauderdale for family members of those affected by the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School shooting last Wednesday afternoon

The airline said volunteers from JetBlue are available in the Family Assistance Center to book free air travel for victims’ families trying to travel to Parkland, FL. Volunteers are also there to help assist in setting up free ground transportation with Lyft.

The airline is the largest carrier at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport and is “honored to be able to offer assistance to the Parkland community during this difficult time,” JetBlue wrote in a blog post.

In addition to free transportation, JetBlue will also be teaming up with the Florida Panthers hockey team to host a blood drive at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, FL, on February 22.

The Florida school shooting was one of the worst school shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012. Seventeen people lost their lives Wednesday afternoon, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire on the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High.

Delta Air Lines sends its last Boeing 747 to Arizona ‘boneyard’

ABOARD DELTA FLIGHT 9771 FROM ATLANTA — Passengers wrote on the cabin walls. There was free champagne for all onboard. And there was a wedding in economy class.

Delta Flight 9771 was anything but ordinary, and that was by design.

The Wednesday flight from the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta to a remote salvage yard in southern Arizona marked the last time that Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet would fly for a U.S. passenger airline.

United retired its last 747 in November, leaving only Delta. Some foreign airlines — including British Airways, Lufthansa and Korean Air — still use the 747 for passenger flights, though numbers of the aircraft flying non-cargo flights are on the decline.

In the U.S., Delta operated its final regularly scheduled flight on the jet in mid-December. The 747 lingered on at Delta for two more weeks, flying charters — mostly for college and pro sports teams.

That era officially closed this week. Delta flew its last 747 charter flight on Tuesday (Jan. 2), bringing the Clemson University football team home to South Carolina following the 2018 Sugar Bowl game in New Orleans.

With that, there was only one mission left for Delta’s last remaining 747: a flight to the “boneyard” — a salvage facility where retiring planes are sent to be stored or scrapped.

That was the mission for Delta’s unusual Flight 9771 Wednesday, when the airline sent its 376-seat jumbo jet on one last flight. On board were just 48 people, a combination of the flight crew, media and other Delta employees and family members with ties to the 747.

During the flight, passengers used permanent markers to write farewell messages on the plane’s seats and cabin walls.

Mike Vetter, himself a former Delta 747 pilot, had just spelled out his name above the arm rest at seat 10D. He added the date along with the words, “LAST FLT” — an obvious abbreviation for the plane’s “last flight.”

“No, never!,” he exclaimed when asked if he had ever written on the inside of an airplane before. He let loose with a laugh, adding that such a move might be grounds for termination on a normal flight.

On this particular plane, however, Vetter had a lot of company. Even before the retirement flight took off from Atlanta, its interior already bore graffiti from several previous sports charter flights. Delta spokesman Anthony Black said passengers on those flights were told of the plane’s impending retirement and were encouraged to leave their own farewell messages on the side of the plane.

The Clemson football team appeared to be the most prolific of the message-leavers, though the plane’s unique graffiti also suggested the presence of the Buffalo Bills NFL team and an untold number of Delta employees.

On Wednesday, the mood was festive throughout the four-hour flight — perhaps most so during a wedding that gave new meaning to “walking down the aisle.”

The in-flight ceremony joined Delta 747 flight attendant Holly Rick and Delta 747 pilot Gene Peterson, who fittingly met nine years ago while working on 747 military charter flight in the Middle East. The couple considered several spots for their wedding, but ultimately chose the so-called “Queen of the Skies” for their ceremony.

Aisles in Delta’s economy section were gussied up with white lace bunting and rose petals in the aisle. The bulkhead separating Delta’s Economy Comfort seating from business class doubled as a backstop for the altar.

“This is my dream wedding,” Rick said. “I’m on my favorite place to be in the world.”

For Delta flight attendant Chris Fincher, Flight 9771 was both a first and a farewell.

Fincher, 32, said he had never flown on the jet prior to Wednesday, despite working for Delta for about 3 ½ years.

“It’s unbelievable,” the West Virginia native added about finally making it onto the 747, saying the plane had lived up to its billing.

On the 747’s upper deck, another Delta flight attendant stood, taking in the moment with friends and co-workers.

Unlike Fincher, Nancy Cobb said she’s been on the 747 before. Many times.

Somehow, she says, she ended up working the 747 on her first-ever flight for Northwest Orient back in 1985. The carrier — later Northwest Airlines — merged with Delta in 2008.

“I’ve spent my whole life flying this plane,” said Cobb, now based in Detroit.

Like nearly everyone else on the flight, Cobb said it was “bittersweet” to witness the end of the 747 era at Delta. But she said she also was determined to look ahead, noting that Delta’s new state-of-the-art Airbus A350s have already begun arriving to the carrier.

“It’s time for something new,” she said. “I think it’s going to be great for our customers.”

But on Wednesday, there was one more day to savor the iconic 747.

“She’s special to us,” Cobb said.

 

Honeymoon guide: Romantic resorts on Mexico’s Caribbean coast

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The resorts along Mexico’s Caribbean coast have enough variety to please the most demanding honeymooners. Here they’ll find luxury resorts, eco-chic properties, resorts that hum with activity, and those that have a more subdued, sophisticated vibe. They can keep things simple by choosing an all-inclusive resort, or choose a pay-as-you go property, which encourages getting off-resort to explore the locale.

Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita

If Dos Equis’ ”The Most Interesting Man in the World” were to go on vacation, he’d pick a place like Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita. It’s a high-end all-inclusive luxury resort with a five-diamond AAA rating, stunning beachfront setting and public and private spaces showcasing museum-quality art. On arrival, guests are greeted by huge Balinese dragons — authentic pieces of art. As a person moves through the resort, it just keeps getting better, with amazing décor and interior furnishings collected from around the world in all 90 suites. While Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita is an all-inclusive resort, it operates at a higher level. Dining is top-notch, rooms have Bvlgari amenities, and the spa specializes in thalassotherapy treatments using seawater, seaweed and marine mud. Included in the rate is a shopping trip by boat to nearby Puerto Morelos, as well as a complimentary sunset catamaran ride. Honeymooners will find Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita to be a luxurious oasis, and the resort offers a complimentary Art of Romance Honeymoon Package with $1,800 of credits and amenities.

Viceroy Riviera Maya

If the Mexican Caribbean has a center of hipness, it would have to be the beach town of Playa del Carmen. Travelers from all over the world jet in for the nightlife, dining, shopping, and the town’s first-rate beach. The adults-only Viceroy Riviera Maya is an elegant resort located just outside Playa del Carmen, in Playa Xcalacoco. The beachfront property has 41 palapa-roofed villas furnished with canopy beds and hand-carved stone dining tables. Villas also have their own private patios, hammocks and plunge pools. Honeymooners may want to consider booking one of the beachfront villas, which open right onto the beach. Viceroy Riviera Maya also has a spa, a lagoon pool with sundeck, daily Hatha yoga classes, and two restaurants serving a fusion Mediterranean/Mayan cuisine. The Viceroy is perfect for couples who want to combine a luxurious resort stay with easy access to the social swirl of colorful Playa del Carmen. Online rates around $655 a night.

Azulik

There’s bespoke luxury — the type a person would find at a Ritz-Carlton — and then there’s rustic luxury, where natural materials such as stone and wood are assembled in such a way that a feeling of well-being abounds. This is what guests will find at Azulik, a villa beachfront resort in Tulum, further down the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Azulik is adults-only and gay-friendly, with an eco-conscious spirit. The property’s 15 luxury villas feature sea views and some have their own stairways directly to the beach below. The Azulik Honeymoon Villa is three stories high, with two private decks, an outdoor plunge pool, a Balinese bed and a shower (the only villa with a shower; the rest have mosaic tile bathtubs). The resort also has a spa, daily yoga classes and an onsite restaurant. The beach is clothing-optional, something to definitely know about in advance. Choose Azulik if you’re a couple looking for rustic high-style and a close-to-nature vibe at a non-inclusive resort. Online rates around $545 a night.

NIZUC Resort & Spa

While NIZUC Resort & Spa in Cancun is a large resort (274 suites and private villas), it still manages to provide a sedate and sophisticated beach vacation experience.

Punta Nizuc, where the resort is located, is a luxury enclave just south of Cancun’s hotel zone.

If relative peace and quiet are desired, the resort’s Ocean Suites are kid-free. Honeymooners will also want to take a close look at NIZUC’s Private Pool Villas; these have rainfall showers, outdoor showers and their own infinity pool and waterfall. Altogether the resort has five pools, an award-winning ESPA spa, a cigar lounge and six restaurants serving Mexican, Asian, Mediterranean and Peruvian cuisine. NIZUC Resort & Spa is a good choice for honeymooners looking for an extra measure of luxury and sophistication. Advertised rates $790 a night.

Hard Rock Hotel Cancun

It’s difficult not to crack a smile when staying at the Hard Rock Hotel Cancun. There’s a constant soundtrack of Billboard’s greatest hits playing in the background, rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia is everywhere, and spirits are high. If romantic-minded travelers enjoy a high-energy all-inclusive resort and they don’t mind sharing the scene with families with kids, then the Hard Rock Hotel Cancun is a great choice. The 601-room resort has five restaurants, seven bars and lounges, a gigantic pool overlooking the beach, and a full-service spa that includes outdoor palapa-style massage areas. A fun new touch is the addition of turntables in each room, giving guests the option to spin vinyl for a retro experience. Honeymooners should consider booking the Rock Royalty Level, where they’ll receive such services as a 25-minute complimentary couple’s massage, and the attention of their own Rock Royalty Personal Assistant. Hard Rock Hotel Cancun is offering up to $3,600 in resort credits that couples can use for spa visits, tours and upgrades.

British man lost in Israeli desert may suffer from ‘Jerusalem Syndrome,’ authorities say

Oliver McAfee went missing in November. Police initially believed he got lost in the desert, but new evidence suggests he went there intentionally.

A British tourist who went missing in an Israeli desert in November may be suffering from “Jerusalem Syndrome,” authorities said after discovering a makeshift “chapel” and a trail of Bible pages left behind.

Oliver McAfee, a 29-year-old pious Christian from Northern Ireland, vanished on November 21 while cycling through the Negev desert in southern Israel.

“At the end of October, Ollie went on a cycling trip to Israel to explore and visit the Holy Land,” read a Facebook page created by the man’s friends aimed at finding him. “He intended to stay for five weeks and return at the beginning of December, but missed his return date.”

The so-called “Jerusalem Syndrome” manifests in having religious delusions, including believing one is the next Messiah or a Biblical figure, or merely heading to holy places while leaving everyone behind.

The condition is often triggered by a visit to Jerusalem and can affect anyone, including those who have not shown any signs of mental illness before, according to The Times of Israel. It normally ends once a person leaves Israel.

Oliver McAfee 1

Oliver McAfee  (Facebook)

Authorities initially presumed McAfee simply got lost on the trail as most of his items, including bike and laptop, were found near the trail by his friends.

But following the search and rescue operation that found a trail of pages taken from the Bible weighed with stones, authorities now believe the British man may be suffering from the so-called “Jerusalem Syndrome” and went into the desert intentionally, the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported.

As well as pages of the Bible, handwritten scriptures and references to Biblical stories like Jesus’ fasting in the desert were found.

The search teams also discovered what they believe was as an improvised “chapel” allegedly made by McAfee, featuring a circular clearing in the sand and flattened by a bicycle tool.

One of the leaders of the volunteer search team, told the paper: “He seems to have been doing all kinds of ceremonies that we don’t really understand.”

A former psychiatrist and expert on Jerusalem Syndrome, Dr. Moshe Kalian, said that according to the news, it appears that McAfee is indeed involved in “some kind of religious experience in the desert” resembling the syndrome.

Strolling the ancient hillforts of southern England

The western ramparts of Maiden Castle, Dorchester, Dorset.

They stand in a clear line along the Wiltshire Downs facing north: perhaps facing an enemy whose identity we do not know. In the bright sunshine of late spring, I could see the hillforts stretching away along the escarpment – Barbury, then Liddington, and finally Uffington, with its famous chalk white horse. They may have been begun in the bronze age, but reached their apogee in the iron age, in the first millennium BC.

As a nation, we’re not very good at appreciating our prehistory. We can just about take in Stonehenge, but prefer our history to start with the Romans – more manageable and all written down.

Perhaps it’s the time I spent in Peru exploring its pre-Columbian past that led to my fascination with Britain’s iron age hillforts. But until now, it has not been shared. On the long walks I’ve done in the past few years – 400 miles across southern England from Dorset to Norfolk and, more recently, 200 miles across the north – almost all the hillforts were completely empty. The only people who used them regularly seemed to be dog walkers – perhaps because there’s usually a car park and they make a perfect constitutional canine circuit: once round the earthworks and no need to scoop.

But that may be about to change. This summer sees the launch of a new website dedicated to finding and exploring the UK’s numerous hillforts, coordinated by the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford. With the help of the public, they have created a database of over 4,000 hillforts across Britain and Ireland, which will make these sites far more accessible.

Some have survived better than others. Barbury is one of the best-preserved, with impressive ditches and double ramparts. Their purpose seems clear: defensively sited on the northern slopes of the downs, the better to aim slingshots at enemies, and with space inside for an entire village to shelter.

It is far from clear that “hillforts” were all primarily military: some, like Maiden Castle in Dorset, are too large and may also have been places of congregation and prestige. More may have been like iron age “community centres” – although that doesn’t sound so exciting.

Long after its use (or not) as a fort, Barbury was the location of one of the most significant (yet forgotten) battles in British history. In 556AD, Cynric, leader of the West Saxons, fought a decisive engagement with the Britons at Barbury Castle. The Britons were defeated and the Saxons went on to create Wessex, enslaving many of the remaining Britons.

It is almost too cinematic to be true, given that the hillfort had probably been built a good 1,000 years before the battle – as if a climactic episode of the second world war took place at Agincourt, or a machine-gun battle inside Rome’s Colosseum.

I arrived on a beautiful, crisp morning. The trackway from Avebury curled around the hills, lined with cranesbill and elderflower. There was a wind in the trees. Just walking round the earthworks took a while: they enclose some 13 acres. The line of the downs turns here from north to east, and in doing so opens up views in every direction; Barbury Castle is on the precise point of the turn.

I became conscious of the incessant calling of rooks from the stand of trees beside the castle. Iron age man was obsessed with these birds. Archaeologists have often found rooks and ravens, the largest of the corvids, buried at hillforts alongside humans.

What made them so fascinating to prehistoric man? The raven has always been a creature of myth, for its intelligence, longevity (living 25-40 years, Tennyson’s “many-winter’d crow” had the life expectancy of any human in the iron age) and capacity to mimic or follow human behaviour. But not necessarily for its loyalty – a raven is not like a dog. Corvids are cunning, and capable of stealing from an iron age camp.

In ancient Europe, from Greece to Celtic Britain, raven calls were thought to be messages from the underworld. One can see how: that “caw” has the rasp of death – and prophecy. Apollo is said to have listened to the utterances of a raven. The Celtic raven god, Lugh, was told by his fellow ravens when enemies approached. In Celtic mythology, ravens were one of the creatures thought to be used by shape-shifters, themselves often old women dressed in black rags, known as Morríghan or harridans. Some ravens may have been domesticated by their Druid handlers, like the ravens at the Tower of London today. It would be an arresting sight, the priest with a large raven on his shoulder; for they are large birds, bigger than buzzards.

But above all, iron age man practised what modern Parsees call “sky burials” and archaeologists, more ponderously, “excarnation”: the exposure of a corpse on a platform or hill so that the bones can be picked clean by scavenging birds, of which the raven would be the largest and most predominant. Only then would the bones be buried, sometimes with some of the birds. There has been academic speculation that at the time of death the Druids may even have summoned the ravens with a special call, much as vultures are summoned by Parsee priests.

As I stood on Barbury Castle, whose own bones have been picked clean by time to reveal the bare stones of ditch and rampart, and with the ravens calling in my ears, I reflected on how rich and strange the iron age hillforts are. And how little, until now, we have appreciated them.