TRAVEL ITCH RADIO #369, Dennis Cox, cruise author, June 4, 2020. Hosts are Dan Schlossberg and Kita Roberts.
DS: Welcome to the 369th episode of TRAVEL ITCH RADIO, the show that lets you scratch your lust for travel from the friendly confines of your home. I’m your host, Dan Schlossberg, along with my terrific co-host Kita Roberts, also known as Girl Carnivore because of her creative and colorful culinary expertise.
KR: We know you can’t travel yet but also know that things will change, hopefully sooner than later. In the meantime, we’re continuing this weekly show so that a half-hour of armchair travel will take you back to the good old days and help you understand that they will come back soon.
KR: First of all, Dennis, warm congratulations upon publication of your 14th book of gorgeous photographs. No wonder you were selected Photographer of the Year for 1997 by the Society of American Travel Writers. When did the book come out?
COX: He responds: Dan, Kita– It’s nice to be with you, if only on the radio.
It’s only been out now less than a month.
KR: Please tell our listeners about the book – how big it is, how many pictures it contains, and how long it took to assemble.
COX: The book is a limited edition of just 2,000 copies. It’s a large format coffee table type book of 208 pages filled with 535 photos, although there are several full page photos included throughout the book.
Putting the book together was an ongoing process. It started out with some of my favorite photos of ocean and river cruise ships in my files…. and that kept growing as I went on more cruises. It seriously began to take shape after I became the official photographer for the website AllThingsCruise.com about five years ago.
When I got the idea to do a book, which was only 2 or 3 years ago, I began looking through my files of stock photos that have accumulated over the years from various trips. That’s when I got the idea to expand my definition of what constitutes a cruise to wherever there is a body of water with vessels that carry passengers.
DS: We understand that the book features photographs from more than 77 different countries and seven different continents. Since you couldn’t have taken them all on one trip, how many years do those photos span?
COX: There are some photos that go back as far as 40 years ago to a trip to Africa I made with the writer who did the text for the book, Clark Norton. Clark and I were friends in high school in Greencastle, Indiana, and we’re both members of the Society of American Travel Writers. Clark had an assignment to do an article for Rolling Stone on newly independent Zimbabwe, so he asked me to go along to collaborate on some stories on Lesotho and Lamu, Kenya, as well as Zimbabwe.
After we witnessed the first parliament session in Salisbury — now Harare — we drove a rental car around the country viewing damage from the war – and even picked up some ZANU-PF army guerillas hitchhiking. – Eventually we made it to Lake Kariba where we had a boatman take us on a cruise around the lake dodging hippos. That’s the first cruise photo included in the book. There are also a couple of photos from our last stop in Lamu on the Swahili coast were we did a story on the launching of a large traditional dhow. I recently photographed more dhows in Zanzibar that are used for sightseeing cruises. Dhows apparently never change.
While there are a few more older photos, most of the book was shot in the last decade or two. The last 2-3 years have been a flurry of cruises and road trips to gather photos to fill out subjects in the book, some geographic, and some about recent developments and innovations in cruising… like the megaships.
DS: How many different vessels are included and have you tried them all? I once had the experience of taking a Venice gondola ride alone, with the gondolier serenading me, and lots of people laughing at me as you passed under foot-bridges.
COX: There are 37 kinds of vessels in the book…and no, I didn’t go on a gondola. I was on a budget… and I was too busy shooting them to get in one.
A couple of the ships in the book that I cruised on are particularly noteworthy. The small ship Le Ponant is the only ship hijacked for a ransom by Somali pirates. This was after I had sailed on it, fortunately, and no passengers were on it when it was hijacked.
Another ship I was on that visited Cuba is Fathom Cruise Lines’ Adonia, which made history in 2016 when it was the first cruise ship to dock in Cuba in more than half a century.
DS: Talking with Dennis Cox, author of Cruising the World – From Gondolas to Megaships.
KR: Do the boats you describe come in all shapes and sizes — from ancient dhows to high tech megaships? Which do you prefer, large or small?
COX: Actually the smallest vessels in the book… the bottom of the ladder… are bamboo rafts in Jamaica. It then scales up to the largest megaship, which is currently Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class… the Symphony of the Seas… that has a maximum passenger capacity of 6,870. Other cruise lines like MSC, Carnival, and Norwegian are all in close competition to see how many passengers they can pack onto megas.
The entertainment on these ships is amazing. They have become like complete cities with amusement parks…next to a resort…next to a shopping mall…next to a hotel…w/ restaurants all around the neighborhood.
For many cruisers the megas are a bit over the top and much too large… and they prefer the older model of simply a floating hotel with great formal dining rooms and nice public spaces…like uncluttered decks with pools…and quiet places to lounge about. So some cruise lines are countering the megas with more luxury and all- inclusive cruises…. such as Viking Ocean Cruises and Richard Branson’s recent start-up… Virgin Voyages.
KR: What are some of the more unusual vessels?
COX: Well, megaships with surfing, go-karts and bumper cars are fairly unusual. Some unusual boats where you can stay overnight that have been converted are the junks at Halong Bay in north Vietnam, house boats that were originally for hauling rice on the Backwaters of Kerala in southern India — and commercial canal barges in the UK and France that have now been converted into luxury cruisers. But my favorites are ones I went out of the way to photograph, the colorful trajeniras at the floating gardens of Xochimilco near Mexico City.
KR: Is it true the trips you depict range from fast to slow – from the currents of an Antarctic expedition to a barge through French wine country?
COX: I’m not sure what speed the expedition ship I went on to Antarctica was going, since I stayed flat on my back in my bunk because it was a really bumpy ride going through the Drake Passage to get there. There were four or five passengers onboard who broke bones bouncing off the walls on the way down and had to go ashore in Zodiacs holding crutches. That ship was an old Russian research ship – probably a spy ship – with a Russian crew and Canadian staff. 3 of the Canadians were women who had cross-country skied to the South Pole… I was amazed by their photographer who made spectacular photos of their trip under extremely horrendous conditions.
As for the barge in France – it’s possibly my favorite cruise because it moved so slowly that you can get off at a lock and walk faster than the barge moved. So you can shoot photos of the barge with continually changing backgrounds as it goes through the countryside… and then you can get back aboard at another lock. The cuisine and wine on the barges is usually very good… it is France after all… and there are tours of several chateaus and wineries along the way.
DS: Personally speaking, I especially enjoyed several cruises on riverboats like the American Queen and Mississippi Queen. Some people might not consider them to be actual cruises but what’s your take? And are they included in your book?
COX: Those paddlewheel steamboats may be the only cruises Americans can go on this year if they can’t leave the country and get back in. In my book I have a few of them, including the American Duchess of the American Queen Steamboat Company that I photographed on the Ohio River – including some shots onboard – when it made a stop in Louisville. I also photographed the century-old Belle of Louisville while I was there. It’s the oldest operating steamboat in America – a really beautiful boat to photograph. Cincinnati has three paddle wheelers that I also photographed on the way to Louisville and I included the Natchez from New Orleans and three more in the book.
DS: There are ferry boats are over the world – from New York to Seattle and throughout Southeast Asia. I love the Lewes-Cape May ferry that cuts driving time on the Delmarva Peninsula here in the Northeast. Do you have a place for ferries in your book?
COX: There are a couple dozen pages with ferries throughout the book. My favorites are the Greek Isles ferries. I once led one of my Photo Explorer Tours that used almost entirely ferries for transportation on the tour out of Athens. They are very a convenient way of getting to Santorini, Mykonos, and some of the lesser-known Cyclades islands.
I also included a sidebar in the book about Baltic Ferries. Reputedly the 24-hour ferries on weekends between Finland and Sweden are known for being the scene of wild parties with heavy drinking, especially on weekends and holidays….although some regulars on those ferries have disputed that.
DS: One of my favorite cruises was a trip through the Galapagos on a luxury yacht with 10 cabins. Have you ever had a chance to try that?
COX: I hadn’t intended to include the Galapagos Islands in the book since the book was supposed to be completed last November at 200 pages. However, I got an invitation from Latin Trails in Ecuador to do a luxury cruise in the Galapagos in January, which was when their two yachts there would be fully refurbished. So I didn’t want to pass up having the Galapagos in the book even though it delayed publishing the book and required adding pages. As it turned out the timing was good… as I finished the book just in time ahead of the travel ban.
Since I’m not a wildlife photographer, I decided to photograph and write mostly about the yachts and Zodiacs that take passengers ashore to the islands. Most tourists book cruises on yachts that are 16 passengers each with each using two Zodiacs. A few other larger yachts operate with up to one hundred passengers….which is the maximum size allowed in the islands. All of the yachts must be owned by local residents and are only leased by tour companies operating tours there.
As for photographing the wildlife… the Galapagos has to be the easiest place in the world to get photos up close. Sea lions, iguanas, and even the birds — like the Blue Boobies – are so accustomed to people that you can get up very close to shoot them…my kind of wildlife photography.
DS: Major cruise lines have often featured “theme cruises” to attract patrons with particular interests. I’ve hosted two-dozen baseball cruises, for example, and invited star players and Hall of Famers to join. Do you have any experience with themes on a cruise, like Country Music, Food & Wine, or Colonial America?
COX: I haven’t been on any, but my writer, Clark Norton, was the theme cruise columnist for Porthole Cruise magazine for six years. One column he did was on a nude cruise…. I’m not sure I’m sorry or glad that I missed that one.
DS: Talking with Dennis Cox, author of Cruising the World – From Gondolas to Megaships.
KR: Cruising the World is a great title, Dennis, especially for people whose lust for travel is currently on hold. Is it fair to say it’s the “perfect book for armchair cruising?”
COX: Yes, you can definitely say that. Hours could be spent going through the photos in the book while you’re tucked away safely in your bunker. And the book is also a good read thanks to Clark.
KR: This is certainly a coffee-table book, with pictures that seem to jump off the page, making readers feel they are actually at the places you describe. As a photographer, is it true that a picture is worth 1,000 words?
COX: Well, that’s a cliché that I’ve never quite agreed with. There are photos — great and bad – that would take more than a thousand words to explain. And I’ve seen photos that made me speechless. Hopefully, there are some of those photos in this book. Or at least some that make you say “wow.”
DS: You’re listening to TRAVEL ITCH RADIO with Dan Schlossberg and Kita Roberts. Listen live on iTunes or BlogTalkRadio.com or check out the archived show on Facebook.
Talking with Dennis Cox, author of Cruising the World – From Gondolas to Megaships.
KR: We’re dying to know: how did you get started as a photographer and especially as a travel photographer?
COX: I got started after college when I went flying in a small plane with my roommate and he handed his Canon camera to me to shoot a winery on Middle Bass Island in Lake Erie. I soon bought my own camera… a Minolta… 20 dollars cheaper than the Canon. I was a social worker in Detroit at the time and began doing some traveling, as well as doing some photography as an editor for my local union newspaper.
My first foreign trip was to England in the early 70s when a friend I worked with invited me along as a volunteer chaperone for a high school group. I shot my first photos on the trip that later ended up in a stock photo agency. This friend and I subsequently did tours in following years to Scandinavia and Russia and around South America.
In 1976 a trip to China with an invited delegation of the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association got me started on photographing China. I have since been there over 50 times, have a Chinese wife, and have done four small books on China, plus an extra large format one for a French publisher. That one was a coffee table book heavy enough to break a coffee table.
As this is June 4th, I’m reminded that I had completed a book on how Beijing was changing rapidly in the late 80s… It was to be called The Imperial City Transformed… It was all ready to be published when the massacre in Tian An Men Square occurred on June 4th, 1989. That was not the transformation I had in mind when I did the book, so it was never published.
Early on in my China travels I wrote about Chinese photography for some photo magazines, including articles on one of the original photographers of China Reconstructs… a magazine founded after 1949 by Madame Sun Yat-sen. And I also wrote about a photographer, the late Wu Yinxian, who is considered to be the father of Chinese photojournalism. Wu had photographed Mao Zedong and the other communist leaders on the Long March and at their revolutionary base.
I subsequently was a photo agent for Wu and also for Mao’s personal photographer, Lu Houmin, and I still have a file of their historic photos.
Backing up a bit, the trip that first got me started as a professional travel photographer was one to Cuba in 1978. I went there with a group of academics and business types from the Detroit Council on World Affairs. It appeared at the time that diplomatic relations were in the offing and charter flights for tourists from American cities had already been announced. Prior to that trip I had queried travel magazines about their interest in photos and a magazine that responded was Town & Country. The editor had mistakenly thought I had pitched a writing assignment and had given me one. After a lot of struggle – writing and several rewritings – I submitted the article: It was titled Havana: Hemingway, Hijackers and Hospitality. To my great surprise it was published … but for only $300. Disappointed that a major magazine would pay that little, I came to the conclusion that travel writing was too much trouble for the money and I should stick to photography.
As for the hijackers — in case you’re wondering – they were two young black men… Americans… that a friend in the group and I had met in a park. They had hijacked planes to Cuba and had served time in Cuban prisons. Although they were free and had jobs, they wanted out… wanted to come back to the U.S. One of them, Byron, had hijacked a plane ostensibly for political reasons…. he had been an activist in the Black Power Movement… but the other guy…. who wasn’t too bright… was just a copycat hijacker.
After the trip… back in Detroit, we told our story to a reporter at the Detroit Free Press who wrote it up. The story was then picked up nationally which led to the two — along with nine other hijackers stuck in Cuba — being shipped back to the U.S. where they all went to prison. A bit later, Byron called me to invite me to visit him in a federal prison in nearby Milan, Michigan. Since I’d never been in a prison, I went to see him… Later, when he was married and working in Ohio, he sent Christmas cards to me for several years.
KR: Has your work appeared in newspapers, magazines, and online outlets in addition to your 14 books?
COX: I did a lot of assignment work in the 80s and 90s for magazines. US News & World Report, Forbes, and several other business magazines… plus occasionally I shot for Newsweek, Time, Smithsonian, and others. I also had some corporate magazine assignments that paid really well. As for travel assignments, it was mostly just regional. I did a lot of assignments for fifteen years for Midwest Living magazine around Michigan and northern Ohio while also working on books and calendars that I did on Michigan.
For travel, I shot mostly for stock. I had my own stock agencies… ChinaStock for my China photos… plus hard-to-find photos supplied by several Chinese photographers… And WorldViews, which was for my world travel images. Some magazines that have published my stock photos were Travel & Leisure, Islands, National Geographic Traveler, GEO and several inflight magazines. I also had some credits in Chinese publications, such as China Reconstructs magazine… I’m the only foreign photographer to have had a photo on the cover of that magazine.
KR: You obviously travel a lot – except perhaps not now during the pandemic. If all things were equal, how often would you be on the road?
COX: I generally traveled in spurts. On the busiest years… when I was doing Photo Explorer Tours… I might do 6-8 major foreign trips per year. After the last two years shooting for this book… after several cruises and road trips… I was ready for a good break… but I didn’t necessarily expect it to be several months in quarantine.
DS: Do you pick your own destinations, work on assignment, or both?
COX: Except for when I was shooting assignments for Midwest Living and occasionally for other publications… I mostly chose my destinations and made all of the arrangements. For the photo tours…. which went altogether to about 25 countries over the years… I would work with local travel companies in the destination countries to have everything booked by them.
DS: Do you prefer to travel solo or do you enjoy press trips?
COX: I haven’t gone on many press trips, except some before and after SATW travel writer conventions. Obviously since I’ve led numerous photo tours, I enjoy traveling with groups. I frequently travel with my wife now and always with her on cruises. She has a good eye as a photographer and is my back-up. Two full-page photos in the book are hers.
DS: Talking with Dennis Cox, author of Cruising the World – From Gondolas to Megaships.
KR: Dennis, since you truly have spanned the world, what is your favorite destination and why?
COX: Lately I’ve been answering that question by saying it’s the one I haven’t been to yet. China was a favorite for a long time, but now it’s become too much like the rest of the world…
For a while I liked South Africa so much that I was ready to buy a house in Cape Town overlooking the ocean…. partly because the exchange rate with the rand was so good. But then the Brits and Germans all came down and snapped up the bargains.
There is an attraction that I have for Africa that’s primal. I recently went to Uganda and the Serengeti in Tanzania, which is mystical. I also get those feelings from Ireland and Wales… probably because I have Scots-Irish and Welsh ancestry.
The cities I particularly like are ones with great architecture and easy walking, such as Prague and Lubljana in Slovenia.
For photography, I think my favorite destinations would be Rajasthan and Burma… both are fabulous for their colorful subjects.
KR: How about your favorite ship and cruise line?
COX: I’ve done blogs for AllThingsCruise.com on three Holland America ships and been on five cruises with them altogether. They seem to do everything well from great food to friendly service to a variety of entertainment. I once told the hotel manager of the Westerdam that the captain of the Eurodam had told me that his ship was the friendliest dam ship in the fleet. He responded that all of the Holland America ships are friendly. He said that everyone on the crew was expected to always greet passengers with “good morning” or “hello.” I told him that one of his crew failed to say anything to me when I passed him the other day…. He just laughed and said… “who is he, I’ll fire him!”
KR: As host of the Girl Carnivore web page, I’m curious to know where to find the best food and wine in the world. Any personal recommendations?
COX: I’m not the best guy to ask that, Kita…. I thought the British chef on the French canal barge that I was on last year served good food. I was joking with the group that to get French food, we’d have to go on a barge cruise in the UK.
Speaking of French food…. one of the best hotel restaurants in Europe is reported to be in the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassone. My wife and I stayed at the hotel when I was on assignment shooting in France for Tauck Tours. Tauck had reservations for us in the restaurant, but we decided to get a pizza in an outdoor café on the street instead because the town was so neat…. and we were a bit tired of having gourmet French meals every night. I’m still asking myself: “what was I thinking?”
Years ago – in the early 80s — I had a great experience in Kyoto when an American who worked for Minolta named Dick Bryant, took me to a traditional Japanese restaurant called the Ashiya that was owned by an American airman who stayed in Japan after World War 2. The owner….Bob Strickland was his name…. had flown with the famous Black Sheep squadron of Colonel ‘Pappy’ Boyington. Strickland had married a small Japanese woman named Tokiko who ran the restaurant with their two sons… who were the chefs. Our meal of drunk chicken…chicken grilled in saki as an appetizer… was followed by their famous Kobe beef… the most expensive meat in the world that comes from cows that supposedly are fed beer and hand- massaged daily. Small dinners, with a half pound of beef I think, were $95 and larger portions were $125. I went back a few years later with some members of a photo tour group and the prices had nearly doubled…. but it was still worth it… at least once. What I remember most about the first visit is that when we were ready to leave I went to sit down to put my shoes on when tiny Tokiko… looking very traditional Japanese in her kimono… stuck a whoopee cushion under me. I heard that she had pulled the same prank on Bill Clinton.
KR: And how about restaurants that you can’t wait to return to?
COX: I would have gone back to that Japanese restaurant when I was in Kyoto again a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t remember its name at the time.
DS: Dennis, in your opinion, what is the very best thing about cruising? I’m guessing sunrise, sunset, the sound of lapping waves, or the serenity of sitting on deck under a full moon.
COX: I love all of those things… walking on a panorama deck after dinner is great.
Cruises are a great way to get around the world to see new places fairly efficiently…. meaning there’s no need to change hotels and not a lot of thought is required about where to eat every day. Since I’m a workaholic, I really enjoy photographing on a ship, from a ship, and shooting the ship itself while it’s in port…and shooting the ports too.
DS: Talking with Dennis Cox, author of Cruising the World – From Gondolas to Megaships.
KR: You’re an honored member of the Society of American Travel Writers. How does membership in SATW help you and do you belong to any other associations?
COX: I’ve been a member of SATW since 1993. It’s been very useful in networking… and winning awards in the annual photo competition has been helpful in getting recognition. For one thing my contacts in SATW led to getting invited to be the official photographer of AllThingsCruise.com … and I wouldn’t have been able to do this book on cruising without the doors that All Things Cruise opened up for me.
As for other associations…. In the past I was a member of ASMP… the American Society of Media Photographers… and the American Society of Picture Professionals and Editorial Photographers.
KR: In addition to the coveted SATW award, what others have you won?
COX: My first major award was back in 1984 when I won an Award of Excellence from Communication Arts magazine for a portfolio on China that was the cover feature of a Minolta Mirror annual. In addition to SATW’s Photographer of the Year in 1994, I was runner-up… silver portfolio awards… for three additional years… and the first time I entered, I won bronze. I also won a gold portfolio award from SATW in 2015 for single subjects with a photo essay on the Calgary Stampede.
DS: Is there anything we haven’t asked that you would like to add?
COX: I think we’ve covered my entire life….
But I’d like to thank all the listeners tonight… especially the avid cruisers stuck on land… and I’d like to promise them that if they see my book, they’ll love it.
DS: Where can TRAVEL ITCH RADIO listeners find your photographs and also how they can buy a copy of your beautiful book Cruising the World – From Gondolas to Megaships?
COX: There are links to my photographs on my website…DennisCox.com. And at this time the book can only be ordered at DennisCox.com. You’ll probably want a copy for yourself… and since it makes a great gift, want a copy to give to a friend. It’s a limited edition of only 2,000 copies and there are 30 million passengers that cruise. So don’t wait too long to place your orders at DennisCox.com.
DS: Our guest tonight has been Dennis Cox, author of Cruising the World – From Gondolas to Megaships.. Thank you for joining us on TRAVEL ITCH RADIO.
COX: Thank you, Dan and Kita, for inviting me. And practice safe cruising everyone.