By Monte Lazarus
Here on Marco Island, America Travel Arrangements has promoted river cruises ever since this form of relaxing travel became popular in Europe. The company was one of the first to take a group of Americans, most of them from this area, on the “Voyage of the Czars” itinerary from Moscow to St Petersburg when that became possible in the former Soviet Union.
Several weeks ago America Travel staged a dinner presentation on Marco Island in cooperation with Europe’s largest operator of river cruises, Viking River Cruises. The outstanding dinner presentation by the Regional Director for South Florida, Darren Dolan, was not only fun for a lively audience, but also featured excellent food and drinks. Darren, assisted by Marc-Allen Barker from Viking’s head office in California gave a fascinating presentation of the extensive river cruise program offered by their company.
Ewout & Jill de Vries, proprietors of America Travel, accompanied by Linda Causer and Michelle Wegman from their office, are offering the Viking program to Marco Islanders. Linda has been with America Travel for 24 years, and Michelle came to America Travel from a cruise-only company 17 years ago. Ewout will tell you that the two associates are indispensable to the company’s business.
De Vries explained that you cannot compare a river cruise to a regular ocean going cruise. There is practically no water movement. The ships are much smaller. Most have three decks of outside cabins on either side of a corridor in the middle of the ship. Lounges and restaurants – one seating – occupy the front and rear of the ship. There are no large crowds getting on and off, as most ships carry from 120 to 160 passengers, with a few exceptions in Russia and Asia. Instead of casinos and Las Vegas style entertainment, river cruises offer local performers coming on board in different towns; and many times a piano player will entertain at cocktail hour and play dance music after dinner.
There is no more peaceful way to see natural and historical treasures than from a river cruise along world famous waterways – The Rhine, Danube, Moselle, Nile, Yangtze, Amazon, Mekong Delta and others. River cruises glide past beautiful scenery on both sides while guests relax on board. When the ship stops, included are excursions planned to visit historic sites, local entertainment, special luncheons and dinners. Or, some guests explore by themselves. Most times cruise boats dock in the heart of town making sightseeing and shopping very convenient.
Viking’s wide selections of itineraries will be expanded with as many as ten additional new ships over the next two years. These new ships, designed by the same architects as the premium deluxe ocean going vessels of the Yachts of Seabourn, are revolutionary in the world of river cruises. For the first time they will offer cabins with balconies, two bedroom suites, and even a master suite at the rear of the ship with 270 degree views. The new ships will have lounges that can be converted for outside dining and entertainment.
Both Darren and Marc-Allen mentioned that there is still some space left in 2012, and stressed that the cruises are so popular that in order to get a first choice itinerary and cabin the ideal booking period is almost a year in advance.
For Ewout and Jill de Vries, the European inspired evening brought back memories of Europe, and the earlier days in their careers in tourism that brought them together in the famous medieval city of Bruges, Belgium. Ewout, born in The Netherlands, finished university there while working as a tour guide during the summer months. “It brought in the money to finish my studies, while enjoying traveling around Europe,” he explained. The tourism bug had bitten him, and soon after he finished his studies he went into tourism full time and worked in all facets of management for two large European tour operators. While reorganizing a motor coach operation in Belgium for a Swiss-English company he met Jill. She had come to Europe after her studies at the University of Maine, and worked as a tour guide as well. At the time they met she was general manager of a Belgian tour company. When Spanish dictator Franco died in 1975, Ewout was sent to Spain to reorganize operations, and he persuaded Jill to join him and help manage charter flight operations from the United Kingdom to the Spanish coast for his company.
As Ewout and Jill smilingly recall: “The rest is history that began 37 years ago. We’ll always remember our first lunch in that cozy romantic restaurant in Bruges.” They have worked together ever since, setting up a US operation for a Belgian-English company in New York City and, from there, starting their own operation taking care of European visitors to the United States: hence the name “America Travel Arrangements.” Two years later a European friend and business associate asked them to take some time to visit a place called Marco Island to investigate a real estate development deal. Ewout and Jill came over the bridge and were sold on Marco Island, built the Chamber of Commerce Plaza, and opened their office in the back corner in what is now part of Taray International.
They changed their operation to that of a retail travel agency, selling ocean and river cruises and tours to their local clientele, and a growing client list throughout the United States and several European countries. They became involved in the local community through the Chamber of Commerce and held numerous volunteer positions promoting beautiful Marco Island. Many of the “old timers” probably remember the British Airways supersonic Concorde. Ewout and Jill had it brought to the island and it flew slowly and gracefully in low circles over the Marriott Resort. Shortly thereafter they also created their own special “Soft Adventure Luxury” tours they still operate today. These journeys catering only to small groups have encompassed safaris in Africa, travel all over India, Bhutan, the Himalayas and from Russia to China and Antarctica. “We have clients who have traveled with us 26 times,” Ewout commented. Ask him about their river cruise on the Mekong Delta in October, or the safari in 2013 to Botswana. It is already almost sold out because of the popularity of the small luxury lodges offering some of the best game viewing in Africa.
Much has changed on Marco Island as Jill and Ewout traveled the world, but they always appreciate returning as they cross over the Jolley Bridge on their return home.
Their two sons, Chris-Heijn and Nico, grew up on the island and have moved away, but visit often with their wives and Jill and Ewout’s first grandchild, Meadow, born three months ago. “This is home and always will be.” In their office one can see the fruits of Ewout’s original study and work in photography and journalism, and Jill’s eclectic collection of travel memorabilia. Many have commented that it is a destination in itself!
America Travel is located in the Chamber of Commerce Plaza at 1116 . North Collier Boulevard and can be reached at (239) 642 – 6616 or on one of their websites: www.americatravelarrangements.com or www.photodevries.com