Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Halloween travels

Halloween is not a holiday as commonly associated with travel as, say, Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, it can be a great excuse for a weekend getaway or day trip, especially for someone like me who loves Halloween.

Today, I received an email newsletter from Omni Hotels, which included a link to some "spooky stories" from some of their "haunted destinations." Like most ghost stories associated with hotels, these stories more likely originated from a marketing copywriter behind a desk than from an apparition behind the veil. Nevertheless, such stories are a great way to get into the Halloween spirit, especially if your travel plans include a visit to a place reputed to be haunted.

And even if your Halloween plans don't include travel to anywhere further than your living room or a friend's Halloween party, sneak a peek at the clever cocktails concocted by Omni: the Red Widow, Bond's Eye and Red Eye. Spooky sipping!

Spooky Stories

Halloween Cocktails

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bulls Island Campground: review of campsites

Last year, I published a review of specific campsites at a campground in the Catskills, noting that selecting a specific site when making reservations is like taking a shot in the dark. My review included detailed notes on each site to help future visitors make their choice.

When we visited Bulls Island Campground along the Delaware River last weekend, I intended to take notes about each site, so that I could publish a similar review. As it turned out, however, the sites very distinctly fell into two categories: "good" and "great." More specifically, one group of sites are found within a mostly open area that offers little privacy between sites; while the other group are very private (and many sit right on the water).

Refer to the campground map at this link. Then draw an imaginary line vertically between sites 1/2/3 and sites 40/42/43/44. All of the sites to the left of that line are in a mostly open area that offers plenty of shade and beautiful tree cover, but little privacy (as pictured at right). The sites to the right of that line all offer much more privacy and seclusion. Sites 63-69 are the most premium locations, all right on the Delaware River (though sites 56-62 are situated similarly adjacent to the D & R Canal).

In short, there's really not a bad site in this campground. Some are great, but all are good. And this is reflected in the campground's popularity. They require a two-night minimum reservation on weekends, and are booked up well in advance. Tip: Call early on a Saturday morning; if they have availability, you can book for one weekend night (which is what we did).

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Friday, April 24, 2009

US Airways dipping into your wallet again

Since I'm flying on US Airways tomorrow and have to check a bag, I looked up their latest charges for checked baggage (which they conveniently list on a page titled "Baggage Policies" instead of "Baggage Fees"). Starting on July 9, they'll dip their hands into your wallet yet again.

After that date, if you check in and pay your baggage fees at the airport, they're going to charge you an extra $5 per bag (making it $20 for the first bag and $30 for the second bag). Sure, you can avoid this charge by checking in online and paying your baggage fees over the internet. And we're all already used to the idea of avoiding extra charges by doing things online (such as purchasing our tickets).

But what about those of us who don't have access to a computer while we're traveling? Many of us don't have or choose not to bring a laptop, and many hotels don't offer public computers. So this extra $5 fee per bag will be mandatory for many of us much of the time. How fair is that? And if you have more than two bags to check, their policies force you to check in at the airport; so they'll not only gouge you for the extra fees for multiple bags, they'll also ding you the extra $5 for each of those bags.

US Airways has led the way in the new era of airline fees. They were the first to charge for the first checked bag, and the first to be bold enough to try to charge $2 for a bottle of water. What new and creative fee will they dream up next?

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Portland: My favorite U.S. city I've never been to

If you asked me what my favorite U.S. city was, I'd probably say San Diego or Chicago. But there are many cities I've never visited, and of all those, Portland is hands-down my favorite.

Yes, I know this makes no sense: how can I judge a city I've never been to? Well, every time I hear something about Portland, it sounds like the perfect place for me. Mountains, forests and scenic beauty all around. Eclectic, down-to-earth populace. Progressive culture, a great music scene, bike-friendly... the list goes on. If only I didn't have a Wicked Witch of the West-like aversion to rain, I'd probably be living there now.

I hope to someday soon move Portland off the "never been to" list. When that happens, I have a feeling it'll still remain one of my favorite U.S. cities. In the meantime, here are a few links to help you explore Portland:

Touring by bicycle. Fun travelogue from the New York Times Travel section. Note the recommendation to bring a rain jacket, waterproof map and ability to quickly jump off your bike and duck into a cafe when the clouds open up.

Scotland Barr and the Slow Drags. My friend Scot's Portland-based "alt country" band, described by one critic as "what The Wallflowers would sound like if they chewed tobacco instead of bubble gum." Listen to some tunes on their website.

Beer Nutz: Portland. The wacky guys from Beer Nutz go on a beer tour of Portland. "A beautiful, rainy day in Portland," they say in the intro. Isn't that redundant?


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Warm weather and fun in NYC

Those who know me well know that I'm not crazy about living in New York City. Sure, it's one of the world's greatest cities, it's got everything one could want in the way of culinary or cultural experiences. What can I say? I'm just not a city boy; I grew up a beach bum, and that's what I'll always be at heart. Having said that, though, I'm quite excited for spring and summer, and for all the fun NYC activities that the warm weather will bring.

First among these will be the Five Boro Bike Ride, also known as "Bike New York." This May's ride will be my third time doing it since my first ride in 2007 (pictures). As the name implies, the 42-mile ride (not a race) flows through all five of New York City's boros: Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island (where the ride ends). It's a great way to see the city, and a guaranteed day of fun. And in June, the Tour de Brooklyn offers an equally fun ride in my home boro.

By June, the food vendors at the Red Hook ball fields in Brooklyn are also in full swing, dishing out the most authentic Latin American fare you'll ever find in NYC. These vendors started selling food to the Latinos who come to watch the semi-pro soccer games, but the cat got out of the bag a couple of years ago, so now the place can sometimes be a mob scene. The food still makes it a worthwhile destination on a warm summer day, though. And, thanks to the new Red Hook IKEA, Manhattanites can get a free ferry ride to the ball fields.

One of the best ways to spend a summer evening outdoors in NYC is to watch one of the many open-air movie screenings. In Bryant Park, you can sit on the grass, surrounded by Manhattan skyscrapers, watching a movie on the big screen. For an even better view, Brooklyn Bridge Park offers free movies with a view of the eponymous bridge and the Manhattan skyline.

TravelZoo just published a page chock-full of NYC-related travel specials, so what are you waiting for? Come pay us a visit.


Monday, March 2, 2009

TripAdvisor's 2009 Top 10 Dirtiest Hotels

A useful report from TripAdvisor... hotels you'll definitely want to avoid.
  1. Hotel Carter, New York City, New York
  2. Continental Bayside Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida
  3. New York Inn, New York City, New York
  4. Eden Roc Motel, Wildwood, New Jersey
  5. Days Inn Cleveland Airport, Brook Park, Ohio
  6. Days Inn Airport / Stadium Tampa, Tampa, Florida
  7. Travelodge Bangor, Bangor, Maine
  8. Velda Rose Resort Hotel, Hot Springs, Arkansas
  9. Ramada Plaza Hotel JFK International Airport, Jamaica, New York
  10. Days Inn & Suites Gatlinburg, Gatlinburg, Tennessee


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quoted again by Fodors

Fodors likes me. Or at least likes what I have to say. I've been quoted again, this time in the 2009 edition of their Washington, D.C. guidebook. On the intro page to the "Side Trips" chapter, you'll find my recommendation to rent a bike and ride the Mt. Vernon Trail to the home of George Washington (again quoted as "RaymondLuxuryYacht," my handle in the Fodors travel forums).

Now that I think about it, I can't believe I've never written in this blog about the Mt. Vernon Trail, or even posted a Friday Travel Photo from that gorgeous bike trail. It was my favorite thing to do when I lived there, and I'd call it a must-do if you visit our nation's capital. Seeing the National Mall, the Potomac and Mt. Vernon are all common sights to see for most visitors, so why not rent a bike and see them all from the saddle? You can ride along the Mall, stopping to see some of the monuments; cross over Memorial Bridge (which crosses the Potomac between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery); and cruise alongside the river for about 10 miles to Washington's historic plantation home. Along the way, you'll travel through lush green tunnels of trees on a smooth and well-marked bike trail.

In fact, why not pick up a Fodors guidebook now and plan your trip to D.C.? While you're there, maybe you can talk some sense into our leaders, so they'll get our economy back on track.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Quoted in Fodors Paris 2009

I just learned that I was quoted in one of the "Word of Mouth" sidebars in the 2009 edition of the Fodor's Paris travel guide. My quote concerned the Catacombs, a place of darkness that is ironically one of my favorite places in the City of Light. The quote, attributed by Fodors to "RaymondLuxuryYacht" (my handle, with apologies to Monty Python), doesn't offer much info, so I'm not sure what prompted them to select it. By all means, go out and buy a copy of the guide, especially if you have plans to visit Paris, but I also invite you to read my more in-depth impressions (pardon the pun) of the Paris Catacombs.

On an unrelated note, I've put this time away from blogging to good use, and just succeeded in meeting the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. I still have to slog through more pages to finish the first draft, but I achieved the necessary word count to be called a "winner" of the "contest."

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Airline fees and other useful charts

Awhile back, I posted a chart outlining the various fees that airlines charge for taking your pet aboard your flight. Today, I came across a treasure trove of other useful charts on Bookmark this page as a jumping-off point to these charts when planning your air travel, as AirfareWatchdog appears to be updating these charts on a regular basis.

Frequent flyer fees. How much will that "free" ticket really cost you?

Baggage fees. These new fees change so often it's hard to keep up with them.

Miscellaneous fees. When it comes to finding new ways to steal your money, the airlines are more creative than Congress.

Shipping luggage vs. checking fees. Yes, Virginia, sometimes it really is cheaper to ship your suitcase.

Rule 240 comparison chart. Which airlines follow a post-deregulation version of Rule 240 to get you on another flight (even on a competing airline) at no charge if they screw up?

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wine regions across the U.S.

California has the best-known wines in America, and the state's Napa and Sonoma Valleys are its best-known wine regions. But they're hardly the only wine regions in the state—or the country.

I'm lucky enough to have parents who live in the so-called "southern wine country" surrounding Paso Robles on California's Central Coast. To me, the wine produced in that region is just as good as Napa/Sonoma—especially the zinfandels, for which the area is known—and the wineries are much less crowded. I recommend the area to anyone I hear considering a trip to Napa.

You'll also find that the "southern wine country" extends further south, into the Santa Ynez Valley and on toward Santa Barbara. This is the area featured in the popular "wine movie" Sideways. If you've seen the movie, you know the region is known for its pinot noirs.

But wait—there's more! Continuing south, you'll come upon another wine-producing area: Temecula Valley, north of San Diego County. You're not likely to find good wines here (except maybe a sparkling wine), but it's a popular place for limos and tour buses full of tourists looking for a day of wine tasting.

And finally, if you venture across the border into Lower California, that's right—you'll even find a little wine country in Baja! On the inland highway between Ensenada and Tecate (about an hour's drive south of San Diego), you'll reach Guadalupe Valley, where Mexico produces some pretty decent wine of its own.

Since relocating to the East Coast, I've also been shown that, while California may be the best-known wine region in the U.S., it's hardly the only one. As it turns out, Virginia (where I lived for two years) has quite a robust wine-producing area. The wine I tasted in my explorations was really hit-or-miss, but I certainly found a few good wines.

Here in New York, where I now reside, the Hudson Valley also hosts a number of small wineries (including, apparently, America's oldest winery). I have not had the luxury of visiting them yet, but I've tasted a number of local wines. Again, some are surprisingly good.

While the word "surprisingly" may sound snobbish, it's not that I think California wines are superior. I know how big a factor weather is when it comes to growing good vines and fruit, so it is a bit of a surprise to learn that good wine can still be made in the Northeast, where the weather can swing radically from one extreme to the other.

Last Sunday's New York Times published a story in the Travel section about exploring another wine country... in Colorado, of all places! I had no idea that Colorado—a state I associate with mountains and snow—also produces wine. But that only shows how incomplete my wine education is. Where else in this great country might I find more wine regions?

Pass the bottle opener, we're going to Nebraska!

L.A. Cetto winery, Baja's biggest wine producer


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Six hours in San Diego

I occasionally enjoy reading the New York Times, and their Travel section in particular is typically well worth a read. One of the more interesting regular features is their "36 Hours" column, which offers up a sample 36-hour itinerary for a given destination.

Their most recent "36 Hours in San Diego" feature, however (published in tomorrow's newspaper, but available online now), showed sufficient lack of "insider knowledge" that I'd guess it was written based on a 6-hour layover reading travel brochures, not a 36-hour visit talking to locals.

Go read the article now, and then come back here to read the locals-only tips the Times missed.

1) EASE ON DOWN. Good: Walk on the Embarcadero. Better: Avoid Seaport Village. What the Times missed: "Free" concerts in Embarcadero Marina Park. The concert venue is not free, but the music is amply audible in the park right outside the fence, so bring a blanket and cooler and enjoy some free live music.

2) GASLAMP GLAMOUR. Good: Avoid the hipper-than-thou W. Better: The abundance of frat bars is "depressing." True dat. What the Times missed: The Ivy?? Recommending an L.A. icon's San Diego satellite as the place to go is beyond lame. The bolder choice would have been to warn people away from the overcrowded and overrated Gaslamp to begin with. Or at least recommend a true San Diego Gaslamp original like Croce's or Cafe Sevilla.

3) CULTURE CLASH. The Casbah is a good rec, but if you're really musically adventurous, go to Brick by Brick, a 10-minute drive away in the seedy Morena Blvd. district. Alanis Morrissette would get her ass kicked there.

4) GREENSWARD GIANT. Good: "No visit to San Diego is complete without taking in Balboa Park." Better: The recommendation to take a walk or drive, probably the best way to sample this large park in a very brief 36-hour trip. What the Times missed: Um, everything? They can be forgiven here, though, because you could spend your entire 36-hour stay in Balboa Park alone and still miss a lot. But, as worldly as the Times likes to think of itself, you'd think they would have at least mentioned the International Cottages in passing.

5) CALIFORNIA PAST. Good: Mention of the Old Town Mexican Cafe where, contrary to their advice, the food is decent. Better: Mention of the "tortilla ladies" at same. What the Times missed: No mention of the Whaley House, San Diego's famous haunted house? Or the Presidio and site of the very first Spanish settlement in 1769? That is why they call it Old Town.

6) TACO TREAT. Sigh. The Times just shouldn't have gone there. New Yorkers don't know tacos. Okay, if you're already in Old Town, grab a bite at the rebranded "Plaza del Pasado" (I'll always know it as Bazaar del Mundo, but the business people behind Plaza del Pasado were willing to pay more when the lease came up for renewal). If you want the best tacos in San Diego, go to Robertos. Or Albertos. Or Aibertos. Or any hole-in-the-wall taco shop with the suffix "-ertos," named by the many Robertos imposters. Better yet, get in your car in Old Town and drive 5 minutes away to Jimmy Carter's Mexican Cafe for the best Mexican food in the whole city.

7) BEACH BUM. Good: Recommending O.B. over one of the other, more frat-boyish beach communities. Better: The Antique Mall, several blocks' worth of antique stores, something even some locals don't know about O.B. What the Times missed: When you talked about tacos in the previous paragraph, how can you possibly not mention the uber-famous fish tacos at O.B.'s South Beach Bar & Grill, just a short stroll from those antique shops?

8) SALTY SEA AIR. Good: Sunset Cliffs, along with La Jolla is indeed one of the jewels in San Diego's coastline crown. Better: Brief mention of tidepooling, one of the best ways for those not familiar with the sea to get up close and personal with the ocean and its denizens without getting anything more than their hands and feet wet. What the Times missed: Cruising the streets above Sunset Cliffs to see some amazing, multi-million-dollar homes, and then keep driving a bit further to the crest of Point Loma and the million-dollar views of the city.

9) DINNER AT A DINER. Good: Recommending some casual dining, which better suits San Diego's personality. Better: Corvette Diner is a lot of fun. What the Times missed: Corvette's burger with peanut butter. To those adventurous enough to try it, you'll never stop talking about it. Yum.

10) THE FOX ROCKS. Good: Mentioning a quality dive bar, of which San Diego has many. Better: The Red Fox is one of the best. What the Times missed: Ould Saud, the Lamplighter, the Alibi, NuNu's, the Morena Club, to name a few.

11) IF THEY BUILD IT. I'm sure Legoland appreciates the nod. The place needs all the buzz it can get. There's a reason why it's not crowded, though as the Times mentions, it's worth a visit if you have kids. But a "hot and dusty" snub of the deservedly "world famous" San Diego Zoo? Three letters: WTF? Well, okay. If you're a New Yorker, then I guess all that open space and nature can get on your nerves real fast. Maybe one of the monkeys threw poo at the writer.

If you've got more than six hours to spend in San Diego, I hope these tips help you enjoy your stay.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Travel insurance: protect against the unknown

Some people I know are planning to spend next week on a liveaboard dive trip in the Bahamas, and now their trip is in jeopardy. Hurricane Hanna (now a tropical storm) blew through the Bahamas today, and Tropical Storm Ike, expected to strengthen in the coming days, could hit the Bahamas Saturday (the day they're scheduled to arrive).

Needless to say, this sucks for them. It also underscores the risk of planning a trip to the Caribbean during hurricane season. More often than not, you'll enjoy great weather and off-season rates. But if you're unlucky, you could lose a lot of money—if you don't buy travel insurance.

So I guess you can also say my friends' experience also underscores the importance of purchasing travel insurance. It's not just a good idea when planning a dive trip to the Caribbean during hurricane season. It's an all-around smart thing to do when booking any travel that's more than you can afford to lose.

Many things besides hurricanes can interrupt a trip: illness (yours or a loved one's) that prevents you from even going on the trip; flight delays or cancellations that the airline blames on weather (and therefore may not be liable for), lost luggage and belongings that you need to replace at your own expense; an accident or illness while away that requires expensive medical evacuation (your U.S. medical insurance may not cover you outside the U.S.); and many other scenarios.

As with other forms of insurance, you have to weigh the potential risk against your investment and make the decision based on your own personal risk tolerance. There certainly may be some vacations you don't want to insure.

One of the great attractions of travel is an exploration of the unknown. When you travel, you want to ponder questions like "will I meet someone special on the cruise ship?" or "will I see a whale shark on one of my dives?" With travel insurance, you won't have to wonder "will I lose thousands of dollars if something unexpected happens on this trip?"

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Airlines: Pet-friendly or money-hungry?

Last night, a friend told me about the fees she had to pay recently to book a flight on Delta with her Chihuahua as a carry-on companion. I was shocked to learn that the dog's round-trip fare was more than the human's.

According to her experience, Delta's fee for pet travel was only $50 two years ago (it's now $150 each way). So it appears the airlines are also raising pet travel fees in their quest to cover rising costs (read: make more money).

The fees and rules for pet travel are varied and arcane for different airlines, so I advise you to research your preferred airline in depth if you plan to travel with your pet. For example, some airlines don't allow pets as checked baggage during the hot summer months, and many restrict the total number of animals on any given flight.

Following is a summary of the one-way fees (as of this writing) that some of the more popular airlines charge for pet travel. It's clear that, other than pet-unfriendly Southwest, the airlines are making a lot of money on pet travel.

Delta$150 in cabin / $275 as checked baggage
Continental$125 in cabin (does not allow pets as checked baggage)
United$125 in cabin or checked ($250 checked for large kennels)
American$100 in cabin / $150 as checked baggage
U.S. Airways$100 in cabin (does not allow pets checked as baggage)
JetBlue$100 in cabin (unclear on whether they accept pets as checked baggage)
Northwest$80 in cabin / $139-$359 as checked baggage, depending on size of kennel
SouthwestNo pets allowed (except service animals)


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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Painkiller: A Caribbean traveler's cocktail

My first taste of the cocktail called the "Painkiller" crossed my taste buds in 2006, during a visit to the Virgin Islands. That was the Beginning and the End. I've never gone ga-ga for sweet tropical drinks, the kind that have hunks of fresh fruit and an umbrella dangling from them. But when it came to Painkillers, it was love at first taste.

Maybe it's because the concoction, when made right, is not overly sweet or acidic. Besides rum, it's made with a mix of pineapple and orange juices and cream of coconut. But the fruity acidity of the juices and the creaminess of the cream of coconut offset each other, so it's neither too acidic or too creamy. And something about the mix disguises the rum, so you don't know just how much pain you're actually killing.

Painkillers are the signature drink of the Virgin Islands (both U.S. and British ones), and rumor has it the cocktail got its start at the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke in the BVIs—so named because you have to swim to shore to get to the bar, thereby getting your dollars all soggy. Perhaps that's why I like them so much; the drink is so tied to the identity of these islands that I feel like I'm in the Caribbean every time I sip one.

If you want to take a "spiritual" trip to the Virgin Islands yourself, here's the Painkiller recipe (which, as you'll see below, I put to use last weekend in Maine).

4 parts pineapple juice
1 part orange juice
1 part cream of coconut
2, 3 or 4 parts golden rum, depending on desired strength (don't use light or dark rum)

Mix well, then serve over ice cubes. Don't forget the final step: grate fresh nutmeg on top!


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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Review of camp sites at Woodland Valley Campground

Previously, I wrote about how choosing a campsite online is a bit like taking a shot in the dark. A good campsite is scenic and private—but how can you tell online whether a site is either of these? How useful it would be, I thought, if a website offered reviews on each site in a campground?

So when we stayed at Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia, located in the Catskills, we jotted down some impressions for each site. Such a reference is too late to be of use to me—and, with 300+ campgrounds in New York state alone, it's a drop in the bucket—but if at least one person finds it useful, then this blog posting was worth the time. (Please post a comment if you find this site and use this info to select a site.)

Download the Woodland Valley Campground map, and then compare the notes below with the sites listed on the map. Happy camping!

1, 2, 3 - Tiny, near road
4 - Next to road, but decent size
5, 6 - Small, close to each other, no privacy, but grassy
7 - Somewhat secluded
8 - Big and shady, nice view of stream, possibly nicest site in campground
9, 10 - Shady, nice, on stream, but right next to each other
11, 12 - Small, no privacy
13, 14, 15 - Lacking privacy
16, 17, 18, 19 - All good sized, but lacking privacy from each other
20 - Private, shaded, near stream
21 - Grassy, some shade, on the small side
22 - Small, across from bathroom
23 - Small, no shade, across from bathroom
24 - Pretty good
25 - Secluded, shady
26 - Nice site
27 - Shady
28 - Shady but close to road
29 - Big, partly shaded
30 - Big but no privacy
31 - Good size, shady
32 - Big but no privacy
33 - Big and shady but right next to road
34 - Pretty good
35 - Small
36 - No privacy
37 - Pretty big but next to road
38 - Nice, shady
39 - Partly shady but small, next to bathroom and road
40 - Next to road but nice
41 - Partly shady, nice, private
42 - Small
43 - Small but next to stream, pretty shady
44, 45 - Lacks shade but private and next to creek
46 - A bit small, lacks shade
47 - Small but shady, next to trailhead
48 - Very small and mere feet from road
49 - Tiny!
50, 51 - Small, lacks shade, on road
52 - Very small
53 - No grass, small
54 - Shady, woodsy, flat
55 - Small but shady
56 - Very small, right at entrance
57 - Grassy, nice trees
58 - Small, next to road
59 - No privacy, lacks shade
60, 61 - Next to road but very shady and good size
62 - Next to road but shady, good size, woodsy
63 - Small, next to road and recycling station
64 - Very small but woodsy
65 - Secluded, woodsy, very nice
66, 67 - Secluded, woodsy, very nice but not private from each other
68 - Good size, shady
69 - Good shade but next to road and ranger residence, lacks privacy

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Tree house at Lodge Kura Hulanda in Curacao

Cassie and I have made plans to spend a week scuba diving in Curacao this September. We're both very excited, and while we've booked our plane tickets, we have yet to decide where to stay.

The west side of the island seems most compatible with our personalities and the style with which we want to spend the week: off the beaten path, quiet, laid back. We narrowed down our options to two choices: All West Apartments, which offers a low budget, no frills vacation; and Lodge Kura Hulanda, a more luxurious resort.

Save money or live it up? A tough decision... but then we learned that Kura Hulanda also has a budget-conscious "Tree House," a rustic, $100/night accommodation that appealed to our sense of adventure and our wallets. How cool would it be to live like the Swiss Family Robinson for a week?

The answer: we didn't know. We combed the entire World Wide Web, but could not find a single photograph of the Tree House. So when it came to putting down our money, we were reluctant to book the Tree House for a week sight-unseen.

Enter Scubaboard, an online message board for scuba divers. We hooked up with "ffixer," a diver who happened to be spending a week at Kura Hulanda. He was gracious enough to shoot some photos of the arboreal accommodation and email them to us. Because these might be the only photographs of the Tree House known to exist online, I felt a duty (with ffixer's permission) to post them here.

Having now seen the rustic Robinsonian retreat, we are now leaning toward the hard-to-turn-down offer that All West made to us. Nevertheless, we will probably spend at least one night in the Tree House. A day in the depths and a night in the branches? Sounds like an adventure to me.

The Tree House

Trapdoor to Tree House platform

Private terrace outside the safari tent

Safari tent on the Tree House platform

Elegant furnishings inside the safari tent

Outdoor shower and privy

The "yard" outside and around the Tree House

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

You can still check luggage for free

If you follow this blog, you know I've said plenty about the new airline fees that are cropping up like weeds this year, even calling 2008 the "Year of the Fees." So when I booked plane tickets to Curacao late last week on Air Jamaica, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the airline still allows two pieces of checked luggage per person (I'm hoping they still serve complimentary champagne too).

That got me wondering what other airlines commonly serving U.S. travelers are still fee-free when it comes to checked baggage. Here's what I found:

No charge for first TWO checked bags under weight limits:
Aer Lingus
Air France
Air Jamaica
British Airways

No charge for first checked bag under weight limits (fee for second bag):
Air Canada
Virgin America

If you don't see your preferred carrier here, they have probably partnered with Nickel-n-Dime Airlines.

Note: The new baggage fee policies have many exemptions, not all of which apply only to elite mileage club members (for example, you get a greater baggage allowance for international flights on some airlines). Be sure to check the policy of your specific carrier.

And, if there's one thing the Year of the Fees has taught us, all of the foregoing is subject to change.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Tree houses in Curacao

While doing research for a possible trip to Curacao, I found out that Kura Hulanda, an eco-friendly lodge on the quieter, more remote west side of the island, just opened a new "Tree House Mansion."

For about $1,000 per night, you and yours can live like the Swiss Family Robinson. A wooden spiral staircase leads up to the 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom suite, which features an open-air living room, Balinese bridal bed and flat screen TV. The decor is furnished with a wide variety of tribal artifacts collected by the resort's owner.

Okay, so maybe it's not quite like living like the Swiss Family Robinson.

The resort also features a more rustic, $100/night Tree House, a little-known accommodation that is apparently available "on request only." The Tree House (note the absence of the word "Mansion") consists of a wooden platform reachable by a ladder and trap door with a full-size safari tent equipped with a king-size bed and electricity (for lights, a fridge and TV). I've already called ahead, and this budget Tree House is available during the dates we're considering. Hmmmm......


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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Seen on House Hunters International: Mérida, Mexico

Tonight's (repeat) episode of House Hunters International, one of our favorite shows on HGTV (which is our new favorite network), featured an American looking for a new home in Mérida, capital of Mexico's Yucatan. Apparently, Mérida is growing in popularity with expats, many of whom are artists attracted by the city's thriving art and culture. With a location just next door to the state of Quintana Roo (home to resorts and the diving mecca of Cozumel), I can imagine the place attracting more than just artists. Might be worth a closer look....


Monday, June 30, 2008

Finding a good campsite online

When it comes to camping, the internet is a double-edged blade. While it enables you to get lots of detailed information about campgrounds—and even check real-time availability and book campsites via ReserveAmerica—picking a specific site or even a campground is in some ways a shot in the dark.

Much of the joy of camping comes from communing with nature and being in a peaceful, scenic setting. So there's nothing so disappointing as getting stuck in a noisy, crowded campground that looked good on the internet—or a crappy campsite in an otherwise good campground. There's no substitute for driving up to an uncrowded campground, taking a leisurely look around, and picking out the best vacant site. But in the areas within weekend camping reach of New York, booking online ahead of time is a necessity, especially during summertime.

So when Cassie and I made plans to go camping in the Catskills two weeks from now, I searched the internet for any site recommendations as soon as we settled on a campground (Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia, New York). While the campground map could display locations of sites, it couldn't show how scenic a given site is, or whether it has ample shade. Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed (though the search revealed an unexploited niche that an enterprising, web-savvy travel writer could fill... hmmm).

I'll have to wait until after our visit to publish recommendations for the campground's best sites. Based on a phone call with a park ranger, however, I can report to you and Google's spiders that sites 4, 5 and 6 lack shade of any kind, as does site 49; sites 33 and 35 have no trees in the actual site to which you can lash ropes, though they do have shade from overhanging branches; site 40 has only partial shade; and site 31 has both shade and trees (so I booked it).

Of course, looking at the campground map, you'll note that there are many other sites right along the creek. I'm sure those will make my Top 5, but for the weekend we're going, they were already booked.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

San Diego diving recommendations

A member of my dive club, Oceanblue Divers, solicited questions about scuba diving in San Diego on the club's message board. Being an avid scuba diver and a San Diego native, I didn't hesitate to offer my recommendations. Since my comments could be useful for others interested in San Diego diving, I thought I'd repost them here.

Boat Diving
Generally, there are three areas where dive operators do day trips: Wreck Alley, Point Loma Kelp Beds and Los Coronados. Wreck Alley is a short, 15-minute ride from Mission Bay, where the dive op I've always used in the past (Dive Connections) is located. In Wreck Alley, you'll find the Yukon, a very large Canadian destroyer, as well as several other fun wrecks, including the strawberry anemone-covered Ruby E.

The Point Loma Kelp Beds are an area I am disappointed to admit I've never dived, though I've criss-crossed over the lush and thick beds countless times on boats topside. I've done warm and cold water diving, everything from the fish-filled waters of Bonaire to the murky depths of the Northeast, and my favorite diving hands-down is kelp forest diving. Anyone who went on our Channel Islands trip last fall will describe the kelp forests with glassy-eyed wonder.

If you do only one boat dive in San Diego, Los Coronados is the must-do. You're almost guaranteed to share the water with tens of sea lions, who will buzz you and maybe even take a love nibble on your snorkel. They're very playful, and will keep you company through most of the dive (till they get bored, anyway). Here's a trip report from my first trip out there.

Shore Diving
On thing that San Diego—and SoCal in general—has in abundance is good shore diving. In San Diego, most shore divers find their way to La Jolla. The entire bay around La Jolla is a protected underwater preserve, and there's plenty to see. If you enter in or around La Jolla Cove, the underwater topography consists of reefs covered in eel grass, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore (and the ubiquitous garibaldi). And you can also explore kelp forests (keep your eyes open for giant sea bass) and some shallow caves.

La Jolla Shores, where most Open Water checkout dives are done, is all sandy bottom, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to see. You'll find countless sting rays (and the occasional halibut) on the bottom, and during summertime, you'll see hundreds of leopard sharks and guitarfish in the shallows. There are also vast beds of sand dollars, and you can explore the rim of (and descend partly into, but watch your depth) La Jolla Canyon, an offshoot of Scripps Canyon, both of which go down several thousand feet. Near the rim, you're likely to see bat rays (watch for clouds of silt, as they burrow into the sand looking for food).

Beyond San Diego
If you have the time and inclination, board a boat out of Long Beach (the Sundiver is a good one I've been on several times) and take a day trip out to Catalina. The visibility and marine life offshore will be much better than what you'll see inshore. Or, if you want to stick to shore, there are some great dive spots in Orange County (Shaw's Cove is one of my favorites).

If you're a scuba diver with other San Diego diving suggestions, please post a comment!

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Carry-on bag buyer's guide

With all the new checked-bag fees, your carry-on bag can not only save you time upon arrival, but now it'll save you more than a little money (assuming, of course, you can find room these days in the overhead bins). just published a great carry-on bag buyer's guide, so check it out if you're ready to upgrade your carry-on.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Take the bus

I'm not saying anything revolutionary, original or even surprising when I say "Air travel sucks these days!" Skyrocketing fares have already killed a trip my parents were going to make to the East Coast, and Cassie and I will probably cancel a big fall trip to Mexico that we've been planning. Airlines are nickel-and-diming everyone, and cuts in routes and flights will make cheap flights and on-time service a thing of the past.

It's time for me to say "Take the bus" with a straight face—and time for you to seriously consider it. In the past, if you'd planned to travel anywhere within driving distance, you probably would have driven your own car—until gasoline prices also started bloating. But don't simply stay home now: take the bus!

Before Cassie and I lived in the same city, we would often take one of the so-called "Chinatown buses" to visit each other. The most well-known of these is the Fung Wah bus, but a variety of copycat bus lines operate between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C (GotoBus, Boltbus). Our NYC -D.C. route on Eastern (one of the GotoBuses) only cost about $30 round-trip—far cheaper than actually driving—and provided a perfectly comfortable motor coach experience (and was a lot less stressful than driving).

If you don't live in the Northeast corridor, Megabus services Chicago and other cities in the Midwest, and along with GotoBus, claims to offer service between a variety of other major cities across the U.S. And yes, you might even consider taking the Greyhound. According to Arthur Frommer, the bus line is upgrading some of its buses and terminals.

I previously blogged about the airlines becoming "the new bus." Well, it seems that bus travel may become "the new airline."

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fodors travel forums: pure online travel gold

The Fodors travel forums are a gem among online travel references. The site offers different forums for every major region in the world, and the community that visits and communicates in these forums is huge, active and vocal. If you have a question on virtually any travel-related topic, you can either find an answer with a quick and easy search of the forums, or you can post your question and get 10 answers in as many minutes. It's like having thousands of knowledgeable friends at your disposal at any hour to answer whatever question you may have.

But watch yourself: these "Fodorites" aren't just overflowing with knowledge—they're also full of opinions, and they aren't bashful about sharing them. Nor are they shy about putting you in your place, whether or not you're deserving of their frequent scoldings. They'll just as soon tell you that your itinerary is all wrong or that you should have searched the site instead of posting a frequently asked question as they will offer advice or help you find that cheap hotel or great restaurant.

No matter the idiosyncrasies of some of the Fodorites, though, the forums are pure gold when it comes to travel research. Just take care in how you present yourself and what you say—which I suppose is good advice for any traveler in a strange land.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

A treasure trove of business travel tips

While I frequently visit for the latest news headlines, I rarely check that site for travel information. However, they just published a great feature chock-full of travel tips from business travelers, so I highly recommend checking it out.

Here's a peek at what you'll find:

> A report on the new Diamond Lanes program, an "express lane" for those airport security checkpoints.

> "Confessions of an Airline Agent," an enlightening look behind the airline counter.

> Tips on tipping internationally: if you're in a restaurant in Fiji, Malaysia or South Korea, should you leave a tip?

> Four scams from rental car companies, including the apparently widespread gas gauge scam.

And much more... including the common sense business traveler tip I never would have thought of: When you arrive starving at your destination because your airline didn't serve a meal on that cross-country flight, call ahead to your hotel and place a room service order to be waiting in your room for you.

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Saturday, May 3, 2008

TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice Awards

TripAdvisor is one of my favorite travel sites, and I never book a hotel stay without first reading reviews on that site (though I sometimes have to keep a few grains of salt handy while reading).

This week, TripAdvisor published their 2008 Travelers' Choice Destinations Awards (download PDF), in which they named the top 100 world destinations (and the top 25 for every region) based on reviews from their site.

Such lists are always subjective—my own top 100 list would certainly look different (I would not have placed Charlotte Amalie in the #6 spot, for example!). But I still found myself going through the list, counting how many I'd been to (25 of the 100, which I guess is pretty good). And reaching the end, I had mentally added a few new destinations to my "top 100" wish list.

How many of these places have you been to? What destination not on the list should have made the cut?

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Claims to fame

A little while back, I read an article about Abu Dhabi that called the capital of the United Arab Emirates "the richest city in the world." I spent several days of R&R in that city back in 1991, after serving in the first Gulf War onboard the USS Ranger. My chief memories of that visit are the difficulty of finding a place to serve us alcohol (it was Ramadan), and spending a day snorkeling around an offshore island.

When I read that I'd been to "the richest city in the world," it got me wondering... What are some of the other claims to fame of places that I've visited? Thanks to Google, it wasn't hard to find some answers.

World's Most Expensive City: Tokyo (CNN)
Admittedly, this claim is several years old; the latest surveys name Moscow as the priciest city in the world. But having lived south of Tokyo for two years, trying to make a sailor's meager salary stretch beyond its capacity, I felt this outdated claim deserved mention. (London is the current #2 on this list, another claim my wallet is painfully acquainted with.)

World's Densest City: Manila (
I didn't spend any significant amount of time in Manila, but what I saw when passing through on my way to Pagsanjan Falls (where part of "Apocalypse Now" was filmed) makes this claim easy to believe. That was a long time ago, but I remember it seeming to take forever to get through the city.

World's Most Courteous Big City: New York (Reader's Digest)
While I've only lived here in the Big Apple since last summer, I find this one hard to believe. By no means does New York City deserve its historic reputation for rudeness, but I wouldn't say the pendulum has swung all the way over to the other side.

World's Most Popular City for Tourists: Paris (Ask Yahoo)
Based on my own personal experience with Paris, I'd venture to say you could award many other titles to the City of Light. Most Romantic, Most Beautiful, Most Sophisticated, to name a few. The sci-fi nerd in me has always thought that if Planet Earth ever becomes part of a greater galactic civilization, necessitating the need for a "planetary capital city," I think Paris would deserve to be that capital.

World's Longest Cave System: Mammoth Cave National Park (NPS)
Mammoth Cave is largely a "dry cave"—it was created by underground rivers, not by the percolation of water through strata. So it lacks many of the dramatic mineral formations of places like Carlsbad Caverns. Nevertheless, its sheer size and depth inspired awe, and it deserves its claim as the world's longest cave system.

Best City Skyline in the World: Hong Kong (
I had the fortune to enter Hong Kong by water, rather than by air, so I had an excellent vantage point from which to see that amazing skyline for the first time. The contrast of the endless skyscrapers against the green hills beyond, with the boat-filled harbor in the foreground, was simply stunning. Of all the places I visited in Asia, this was my favorite.

World's Smallest Country: Vatican City (
When I visited the Vatican (in the heart of Rome), I followed the advice of my guidebook and sent a postcard home from the Vatican Post Office. My father received it within a week. About the same time, I sent another postcard home from a Roman post office. That one didn't make it to its addressee for another nine months. So, if nothing else, the world's smallest country has a very efficient postal service.

What are some of the claims to fame of places you've visited?

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Via ferrata

This video clip, depicting a nail-biting hike along El Chorro's Camino del Rey in Spain, seems to be making the rounds via email. If you haven't seen it yet, take six minutes out of your day to watch it—but make sure you're sitting down, especially if you're afraid of heights!

My father sent me the link, along with the comment that I should add the location to my travel plans. I couldn't tell if he was joking, but if I found myself in the vicinity, I would definitely want to hike this trail! Sure, it looks dangerous as hell (according to Wikipedia, "many" people have died hiking it), but you can clearly see the guide wire onto which you can harness yourself as you go.

Which reminds me of a place in West Virginia I never got around to visiting when I lived in Virginia: Nelson Rocks. There, they have a "via ferrata," a so-called "iron way" that is common in Europe: a system of iron footholds, ladders and lines (and a harness) to make even the most challenging rock-climbing faces accessible to the average person [photo].

Now that the weather is warming up again, Cassie and I are casting about for potential camping destinations, so maybe we'll get our chance to check out the "via ferrata" this summer.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Weird Rome: The Capuchin Crypt

When I spent a week in Rome back in 2001, I had a lot of time to myself to explore the Eternal City. I found priceless Caravaggios hidden away in unassuming chapels, I ate a panino on the steps of the Trevi Fountain, I even stayed in a hotel situated in a wing of a 15th century palazzo. But the most memorable sight—for its weirdness—was probably the Capuchin Crypt.

Beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Via Veneto, near Piazza Barberini), you'll find the mortal remains of over 4,000 Capuchin monks. They aren't neatly buried in a church cemetery; the bones are out in the open, on display for all to see.

But wait: this isn't like the Catacombs of Paris. You won't find simple piles of human bones here. No, you'll witness the most bizarre, macabre artwork you've ever seen in your life. Bones nailed to the walls and ceilings in intricate designs. Whole skeletons assembled into forbidding poses. Functioning light fixtures made of bones.

My guidebook made only the slightest of mention of this attraction, but having a morbid interest in such things, I made it a point to visit the crypt. I had low expectations, and suspected a tourist trap with a few bones scattered about. But the warped imagination on display turned out to be as impressive as the artistic genius splashed across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Make no bones about it: the Capuchin Crypt is a must-see for any visitor to Rome.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What makes good travel writing?

Great travel writing tells a compelling story, makes you feel like you're right there with the writer. It paints colors with words, pulls you through the pages and into another world. As author Stanley Stewart said, "Good travel writing needs much the same ingredients as any good story—narrative, drive, characters, dialogue, atmosphere, revelation."

It seems a certain Lonely Planet guidebook author followed such guidance a little too enthusiastically: his guidebook on Colombia was a work of fiction. What writer Thomas Kohnstamm apparently didn't understand is that Stewart's advice about narrative and characters referred to travel literature, not travel guidebook writing. Kohnstamm, apparently disgruntled about how much Lonely Planet was paying him, wrote his guidebook in San Francisco, without ever visiting Colombia. With the help of his Colombian girlfriend, he plagiarized or made up vast portions of the guidebook.

Now he's about to publish a book about what he did. Which got me thinking: a travel writer is a writer who travels... which means Kohnstamm is not, strictly speaking, a travel writer. But if he writes about his fake travel writing, does that in fact make him a de facto travel writer? Truly a twenty-first century conundrum.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Nemo33: Now that's a swimming pool

What is it about those wacky Europeans? Last Monday, I debuted a new weekly feature to showcase weird and wacky travel, and my first selection was "Tropical Islands," a gargantuan aquatic playground south of Berlin, by way of the Caribbean. This week, we go next door to Belgium, to another monolithic waterworld reminiscent of never-subtle Las Vegas.

Nemo33 is a "swimming pool," kind of like the White House is a "house." The facility, located just outside Brussels, is a playground for scuba divers who can't escape to open water. It features several platforms for training, as well as the eponymous 33-meter pit for deep dives.

Being a diver living in the Northeast, lacking what I'd call desirable diving close-at-hand (though I have friends who'd argue that), I have no trouble understanding what would drive otherwise reasonable adults to spend a day playing in a 100-foot-deep swimming pool. I myself have wasted more than one day diving in flooded quarries, where the water temperature peaked at 42 degrees and the visibility extended to a whopping 3 feet.

There's truth in the adage, "The worst day diving is better than the best day working." So when it comes to scuba diving in weird and wacky places, the Belgians don't corner the market. Though I have to admit they do it with a lot more style.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Minimizing the pain of air travel published a useful article today that included advice on ways to minimize the pain of air travel. I recommend reading it, but here's a quick summary:

Flight stats. We all know to check our flight's status before going to the airport, but checking its historical on-time performance before booking a flight can help you avoid a flight that is chronically late. and are two sites where you can find such data.

Fly in the morning. I've learned this one firsthand over the past two years that I've lived and flown on the East Coast. The earlier in the day you fly, the less you're likely to be affected by delays elsewhere in the system—and the better your chances of getting on another flight if your own flight gets canceled. This is especially important during the summer months, when thunderstorms play a bigger role in flight delays. Which is more painful: getting up early for that 6:00 a.m. flight, or sitting in the airport for several hours (or worse) because of delays?

Carry-on. This one's a no-brainer. I think everyone knows by now that carrying on your bags will eliminate the possibility of losing your bags—and is an especially appropriate tip, now that many U.S. airlines charge $25 per flight for checking a second bag.

Know your rights. Or, more specifically, know what you're not entitled to. If the airline cancels your flight because of their own mistake, they have to put you up in a hotel. If it's out of their control (for example, weather delays), you'll be sleeping in the airport. Read your Contract of Carriage.

As air travel becomes ever more painful, my best advice to you is to seek out alternatives whenever possible. While the price of gasoline might not make driving all that attractive either, check out trains and buses where feasible. Having ridden both on a number of occasions in the past year, I can highly recommend them as a relaxing leisurely transportation alternative.
[video clip from my Amtrak window last December, passing San Clemente]

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

33 of the best dive sites in the world

I recently came across an online collection of "33 of the best diving sites in the world." Of course, as most seasoned divers know, any list that claims to feature the "best" dive sites should be served with a grain of sea salt. Such claims are subjective, and the "best" dives are almost always made memorable by the marine life that you see—which is never the same from dive to dive. (Though I was gratified to see that Catalina Island made the list.)

Nevertheless, this list serves as a passport for the armchair diver to virtually travel to these 33 dive sites, so for that reason alone, it's definitely worth a visit. For any divers reading this blog, what site do you think should have been on this list?

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Monday, March 31, 2008

No Reservations for this non-foodie

When it comes to travel, I'm not a "foodie" (someone for whom sampling the local fare is the raison d'etre of travel). So if you, like my friend Carlton Lear, are a foodie, you're not going to find a lot of food blogging here.

Don't get me wrong; I love to eat, and I dig trying the local cuisine wherever I may find myself. I'm just not a picky eater, and I don't have a very discriminating palate. And often I'm too busy exploring the local sights and sounds to give much thought to appeasing my hunger.

Having said all that, however, my favorite show on the Travel Channel (and possibly my current favorite TV show overall, except for "Battlestar Galactica") is Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations." If you have not seen this show, stop reading this blog and go turn on your TV (it's on tonight and every Monday at 10 PM—and the Travel Channel reruns old episodes at various other times).

Being a New York chef-cum writer, Bourdain's show focuses on the food in the places he visits around the world. But the reason he became a best-selling author is also what makes his show so great. Unlike many travel programs, which can often seem as bland as a watered-down cocktail at an overpriced poolside bar, Bourdain's show goes down like a shot of top-shelf tequila. His writing brings out all the colors in the places he visits and the food he tastes, and his personality makes even the most ostensibly mundane locations seem worth a visit (such as his shows on Cleveland and New Jersey).

But just as any program about food can take you only so far—you gotta taste it for yourself—this blog can only sing his praises so much. You gotta watch his show for yourself.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Vagabonding and other travel philosophies

I'm currently reading "Vagabonding," a book by world traveler Rolf Potts that calls itself "an uncommon guide to the art of long-term world travel."

I first heard about this book and its author when researching travel podcasts. One of the podcasts I listened to featured Potts, and his interview awoke my inner vagabond. I put his book on my Amazon wish list, but it stayed there for a lot less time than many of the other books that are still there.

The book's back cover defines "vagabonding" as "taking time off from your normal life—from six weeks to four months to two years—to discover and experience the world on your own terms." But what impresses me most about this book so far (I'm only two chapters into it) is that it's not a "how to" book. Instead, it discusses the philosophy of vagabonding, which seems so at-odds with the "normal" way of thinking in our contemporary society.

That "normal," very American philosophy has us all locked into a cycle of working hard to buy stuff, and then having to work harder to make the payments on that stuff, and working still harder to protect and insure our stuff, and then fitting in a week or two per year to go sit next to a pool somewhere. And along the way, we add on a few more hours to our work week to put money away for a far-off time when we "retire" from this cycle and live a life closer to what I'd call "normal."

Thoreau (quoted by Potts) questioned this wisdom of spending "the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it." I too have often thought such a lifestyle seemed at odds with true happiness, and even suggested in a former blog that we upend the cycle by retiring till we're 50 and then working till we die.

In the first chapter, Potts briefly mentions fear (as he puts it, "our insane duty to fear") as one of the factors that keep people from acting on their dreams of long-term travel. Though he goes on to discuss other factors, I think it's all about fear. Not so much a fear of the unknown—what we might encounter out there in the wide world if we go out and experience it—but a fear of the known, a fear of giving up that lifestyle that society tells us we must have, a fear of the uncertainty that "dropping out" (even if only temporarily) entails.

While I still have most of a book to go before I fully acquaint myself with Potts' philosophy, I already subscribe to a philosophy of a different type: that if I want to do something, I can find a way to make it happen. I've certainly done it before. And that philosophy goes a long way toward conquering any fear that society tries to instill in me.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Is Arthur Frommer getting senile?

I saw Arthur Frommer at last weekend's Travel Show. While he's getting up there in years, he seemed mentally sharp as ever. But while browsing the travel blogosphere this morning, I came across something that made me wonder: is Arthur Frommer getting senile?

In his blog, Frommer asks his readership to explain the attraction of travel to Dubai—specifically, why anyone would want to visit: "What reason is there for vacationing in Dubai? ... What does one do there?" He also comments on the restriction of certain freedoms in Dubai, as if to suggest that's reason enough not to visit.

A few lines down, one of his readers offers the brilliant reply "
Ask the editors of 'Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel.' They had a big article on it a couple of years ago." I did a quick Google search, and sure enough, Frommer's magazine published at least two articles on Dubai in the last few years, in 2005 and 2007.

After I stopped laughing, I thought about why Frommer would post such a blog article. He's nearly 80 and is a travel writing superstar, so I can't imagine he has much day-to-day oversight over the travel publications that bear his name. Still, I can't imagine why someone in full possession of their mental faculties would write something that makes themselves look so dumb. It would be like Jim Cramer recommending a specific stock, and then later asking his readers/viewers "Why would anyone own this stock?"

So I ask again: is Arthur Frommer getting senile?

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Travel podcasts

Podcasts—digital programs (typically audio) made available online for free download to your computer or iPod, usually by syndication/subscription—are nothing new. But it wasn't until recently that I started checking out the many travel podcasts available on the internet. Now I spend my time on the subway exploring the world.

You can find hundreds (thousands?) of hours of free programming on just about any travel topic or destination. Here are my brief impressions of some of the more popular podcasts: podcasts consists of in-studio interviews with experts, and you'll get the same quality of information you can expect from their guidebooks. What I've found most useful about these podcasts is the range of topics they cover; rather than focus on profiling destinations, the programs discuss the latest travel news and issues, which is a great way to stay informed.

By comparison, most Lonely Planet podcasts feature profiles of travel destinations, and most are recorded on location. The mix of on-the-scene interviews and polished sound effects adds so much color that you almost feel like you're watching instead of just listening. Check these out if you've got a trip planned and want some in-depth info on your destination.

Europe-on-a-shoestring expert Rick Steves offers several types of podcasts. As the Europe expert that he is, his Italy and France walking tours podcasts are the highlight: you can download these programs to your iPod and take Rick along as a virtual guide. He also podcasts his radio show, and recent programs cover such non-Europe destinations as Nicaragua, South Africa and Afghanistan. Like podcasts, the format typically features interviews of experts.

Rough Guides podcasts mostly feature interviews of guidebook authors, and provide additional information about the topic of the authors' books. While these can be valuable if you're interested in that particular destination or topic, they can sometimes be a bit dry.

Finally, if you're looking for a podcast that will virtually take you away to a destination, Travel in 10 does just that. These 10-minute podcasts are recorded as if you're right there with the host, and provide a wealth of information on a particular destination. It's almost too much information; I sometimes found myself disoriented, wanting to see what the host was talking about.

Travel podcasts mentioned in this posting: | Lonely Planet | Rick Steves | Rough Guides | Travel in 10


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Saturday, February 16, 2008

jetBlue now serving LAX

jetBlue has long been serving the Greater Los Angeles area with flights to/from Long Beach Airport, but they just started flying to/from LAX—and are offering some pretty decent fares to promote this new service.

The airline also offers some cool city guides on their website that include crewmember blogs and recommendations for "best" things to do. Currently, they offer guides for New York, Houston, Orlando, San Francisco and Pittsburgh.


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