Antwerp, Orlando, Biloxi, and How It All Ties In

Antwerp, Orlando, Biloxi

Daughter of Irving Berlin playing his piano at the Red Star Line Museum

Really? Oh yes, it does!  I travel for work and at times for fun. Most of the time work becomes fun and very often fun becomes work. My work for VisitFlanders takes me to many a place, and on September 27th I took a group of 15 travel writers to the opening of the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp. It was a press trip long in the making. Years of preparation and anticipation finally came to a fruitful end when, in the presence of King Philipe and Queen Mathilde, the museum was opened under the auspices of none else but fashion Queen Diane Von Furstenberg. Journalists praised the museum and reported nationwide about it.

Between 1873 and 1935, the Red Star Line brought 2.6 million people from Antwerp to Ellis Island. Among the passengers was Israel Isidore Baline and his family, fleeing the increasing anti-Semitic violence in Russia. His family settled in New York’s Lower East Side, and he became Irving Berlin, the author of classics such as “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” And it was non other but Beyer Blinder Belle, the architect firm behind the restoration of Ellis Island, who transformed the historic buildings of the Red Star Line into a contemporary museum facility.

Ship Island, Biloxi - Mississippi

Ship Island, Biloxi – Mississippi

Only a few weeks later I attended the SATW convention in Biloxi, Mississippi, and went on a day trip to Ship Island. A boat, operated since 1926 by the Skrmetta family, provided us passage. Pelican and dolphin sightings made the one-hour sailing especially enjoyable.

Upon arrival on the island we were treated to a tour of Fort Massachusetts. Eighty-eight-year-old volunteer guide Jack Madison, a one-of-a-kind storyteller, soon had everyone spellbound. The island has rare deep-water anchorage and therefore became an important port for French Louisiana. Later known as Plymouth Rock, Ship Island was port of entry for many a colonist. The fort was the point of rendezvous for 60 British ships during the War of 1812; in 1862, Admiral Farragut’s Union invasion fleet set out from Ship Island in an attempt to capture Mobile and New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina whipped Ship Island severely. West Ship Island received most of the damage due to a 30-foot tidal surge, which wiped out all facilities on the island. In 2008, Hurricane Ike, followed two weeks later by Hurricane Gustav, brought more devastation to the island. In 2009, reconstruction of the visitors and park service facilities began. Today, Ship Island, which also overcame the 2010 oil spill, is back in business. Ship Island is 11 miles off the Mississippi Coast and offers pristine beaches for swimming, shelling, hiking, and bird-watching. The sand dunes and the beaches are among the best I have ever seen. The National Park Services provides tours of the fort March through October. And while there were Park Rangers around when I visited, I also know that–due to budget sequestration and government shutdown–the island has not seen many rangers over the entire summer and continues to depend on wonderful volunteers such as Jack Madison. I sincerely hope that sufficient funds and attention are given to Ship Island to preserve this historic and natural treasure for future generations.

The Red Star Line Museum and Ft. Massachusetts are both journeys into the past and an encounter with the present. Migration might have a different face these days, but it’s still as relevant as ever.

Florida Sunset

Florida Sunset

So now you will wonder how on earth Orlando ties into all of this? Well, it really all comes naturally! Orlando and Florida generally are home to “Snow Birds;” while I am not yet one of them, I am regularly visiting for my work on the Unofficial Guides and to cover runDisney events. My latest article about running the Twilight Zone of Tower 10-Miler was published by www.undercovertourist.com.  Having lived close to 30 years in the North I understand the wish for warmth and sun. One day I will spread my wings and follow the flock down South. In the meantime, I delight in telling stories, celebrating the path that leads me there.