Saturday, October 31, 2009

Asia for Beginners

SINGAPORE - If I was advising first-time visitors to Asia where to stop first, Singapore would be the place. The island city-state is well-organized, safe, clean, English-speaking and modern, and things typically work well. Yet, it is deeply Asian, and very much itself, presenting a blend of Malay, Chinese, Indian and expat cultures that still seem exotic to non-Asians. All this makes Singapore interesting to outsiders and relatively easy for outsiders to get accustomed to. Culture-shock is minimal.

That stands in contrast for much of Asia, which can be considerably more challenging for travelers, especially first-timers. So, go to Singapore first, then work your way through other places in the region.

My very brief - not much more than a day - stay in Singapore didn't leave me much time, so I cut straight to the chase and homed in on Singaporean comfort food.

I feasted on stir-fried chili crab, with steamed buns for mopping up the gravy, at Jumbo, a delightfully named restaurant on Singapore's East Coast Parkway (block 1206, not far from Changi airport). Jumbo came well-recommended by several locals and experienced travelers; they were not wrong. Treat number two, savored at a hawkers' court in central-city Singapore (or S'pore, as local publications call it), was chicken rice, sometimes referred to as Singapore's national dish. Brought to S'pore from Hainan, China, the flavorful rice comes in fist-sized balls soaked in stock, and is served with boiled chicken - usually an older hen, sliced up with skin still on it and slightly yellow in appearance. Dipping sauces arrive with the meal, enlivened by the tang of garlic and ginger. This is downhome Southeast Asian comfort food, and it is delicious.

You can find fine expense-account restaurants in this great food town, but the great thing about Singapore is you can eat just as well in no-frills places, like the locals do. For foodies, Singapore is a magical destination.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Old and New at the InterContinental

SINGAPORE - Creature comforts can come in handy when you're on the road. Back in the day, I didn't much care if I had them or not. My attitude was, I'll sleep on the floor, you know? However, I have had an attitude adjustment since then. I don't look to be pampered, but it's good when things work, when they're easy on the eye, the body and the mind.

Which brings me to the InterContinental Hotel, the comfortably high-end hotel where I am staying in Singapore. I'm writing this in the hotel's recently redesigned club lounge, where ambient music is playing, there's a good cup of coffee at my fingertips and the spacious lounge reflects a Singaporean take on Chinese decor: Peranakan.

Peranakan culture is the mixture of fashion, religion, cuisine and decor that evolved when immigrants from the south of China arrived in Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia and married local people. This produced a new hybrid culture. For example, Chinese dishes came to be made with Malay spices, producing an early type of fusion food.

The InterContinental, built in the mid-1990s in Bugis, traditionally a Peranakan neighborhood, kept and refurbished a number of traditional shophouses and worked them into the hotel, a modern, 16-story tower. Thus, parts of Malay and Malaba streets, which run past the hotel, are covered in clear glass and incorporated into into an air-conditioned shopping complex. Lining one side of Malay Street are 1920s shophouses with their trademark wooden shutters, remnants of a bygone age. These have been transformed and are now hotel rooms at the InterContinental; I am presently inhabiting one of them. My room looks directly into the mall. It has a high ceiling inside, a modernized bathroom, a small courtyard entrance in front. It is painted off-white inside and retains calming touches of the colonial era, when the British ran Singapore. Singapore was part of colonial Malaya, then part of independent Malaysia, and then attained independence on its own in the 1960s. The modern city of highrises, big containerized shipping port and clusters of corporate offices sprang up since then, transforming this small island. The InterContinental, with 403 rooms, an expansive lobby lounge, and three restaurants, manages to be part of the new Singapore while evoking the old.

As for creature comforts, I'm sure there are more of them now and they are more widely available than in past eras. Some people find contemporary Singapore too squeaky-clean, but traveling without an overwhelming chance of getting sick seems to me a good thing. If that runs counter to nostalgia, then maybe nostalgia is one luxury we can do without.

For more information: e-mail:, tel. 65 6338 7600, Web:

Winging It to Singapore on Singapore

SINGAPORE - The 9-hour-plus flight from Auckland to Singapore went smoothly, typically so, on Singapore Airlines. It's one of the world's Tiffany carriers and has had a decided halo effect among experienced travelers for years.

Consider: The business class cabin on my flight boasted massive consoles in front of the seat that provide passenger privacy and offer features such as a vanity mirror, a socket for plugging in a laptop and other personal electronic devices, and a large video monitor. The seat folds out into a comfy bed, and if you need anything else to relax, the wine selections by Singapore Air's wine consultants - among them the eminent British wine guru Steven Spurrier - will help.

Raffles class - that's business class, in Singapore vernacular - also has one of the better interactive in-flight program menus in the sky. There are hundreds of CDs on demand, an extensive roster of Asian and Western movies and TV shows, video games and one of those interactive maps that help you track the progress of your flight; the map alternates big-picture looks at the flight path with focused looks at the terrain you happen to be flying over at the time - in my case, that meant the vast interior of Australia, with its mountains and deserts. I've always enjoyed this feature on long-haul flights, returning to it from time to time between building a sampler of tunes from music CDs and turning the pages of the book I'm reading. As I often do, I'm delving into my default author: Graham Greene, and his bittersweet novel "The End of the Affair.''

Singapore Air, as a Star Alliance member, shares a spacious and especially well-appointed lounge with fellow Star member Air New Zealand at Auckland International Airport. The Koru Lounge has two long tables, each table lined with 10 chairs and 10 sockets, for people to plug-in and work: 20 work stations all told. Didn't bring your laptop? There are four free PCs available. There's also a living-room-like space, where I saw people having afternoon tea on a china teaset. Miracle of miracles, the Koru Lounge also has a cell-phone-free zone. Braying mobile phone yakkers are among my prime travel beefs, so I count this quiet refuge as a definite plus.

The lounge food is varied and good. Forget the bags of nuts and cheese squares and crackers you get at many U.S. and some European airports; at Auckland there is soup, fresh green salads and international dishes such as Moroccan chickpea salad. Plus, a coffee machine - I made a "flat white,' the Kiwi term for a capp with an extra jolt of espresso - and a choice of half a dozen NZ wines (typically Sauvignon Blancs) and beers (typically light and refreshing lagers.) If you have some time to spend in this hub airport, New Zealand's largest, this is a nice place to do it.

I plucked a non-alcoholic ginger beer made by Wellington's Mac's Brewery out of the drinks case and out of curiosity began reading the copy on the label. It gave me a farewell taste of Kiwi wit:

"Ginger beer is a great New Zealand tradition. Unfortunately, that tradition frequently involves something that comes in large, fizzy drinks bottles, and has a propensity to explode because your auntie used too much sugar.''

Mac's ginger beer, I am happy to report, didn't blow up in my face. It had a nice balance of sweet and spicy and a lingering taste that stayed with me as I made the long walk across the airport terminal all the way to Gate 15, where a Singapore Airlines jetliner was waiting for the flight to Changi airport.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Road to Singapore

AUCKLAND - Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are nowhere in sight, but I am on the Road to Singapore today, the next stop on my round the world trip on Star Alliance member carriers. Actually, in my case, the road is a flight path. I'll be taking my second Star carrier, Singapore Airlines, to the airline's home in Singapore, the glittering, lush, island city-state.

Singapore is one of the best food towns in the world -befitting a crossroads city, as it's been since the 19th century, when native Malays, Indians, Chinese, British colonizers and - more recently - international corporate expats, put down roots. Humble hawkers' stalls are the glory of Singaporean food - they sell savory, cheap fare in sanitary conditions, something that can't be said of much of Asia, or for that matter, much of the world. Singapore's got it covered at the high end of cuisine, too. And it's a beautiful place to look at, festooned with restored colonial shophouses and modern highrises.

I'm looking forward to getting there, and getting back on the road.

But I will miss Auckland. It won me over right away with friendly, funny Kiwi hospitality, fresh food and drink, and velvety green volcanic nubs poking up amongst urban clusters all over town. There are dozens of peaks within the city limits - but no worries, mate, they are no longer erupting. Best of all is Auckland's beautiful harbor, criss-crossed by high-speed ferries and graceful sailboats. Auckland is known as "the city of sails'' and it's not a misnomer. I'd return to New Zealand - with a road map in hand, to see more of it - in a New York minute.

Hunkering Down at the Hyatt Regency

AUCKLAND - You never really know what you're going to find in a hotel until you get there and check-in. I expected the Hyatt Regency here in New Zealand's largest city to be good. It surpassed my expectations; it's very good.

You know the old line: location, location, location? The Hyatt Regency is located right next to the leafy University of Auckland campus, across the street from lovely hillside Albert Park, a few blocks uphill from Queen Street - the city's sometimes-funky, usually lively main drag - and a 10-minute walk from the gorgeous downtown waterfront.

Rooms? The hotel is finishing up a renovation of public spaces and guest rooms that started in July. It's also bringing in consulting chefs to brainstorm about the menu at The Cafe, the hotel's main dining spot; it's already good. I supped tonight on 10 plump New Zealand mussels - I could only eat five, and that was just a starter - followed by a savory chicken masala and topped off with an espresso - charmingly called a 'short black' in Kiwiland. There's a cool little bar in a corner nook in the lobby and a business center with four wide-screen PCs. For $20 NZ (about $17 U.S.) you can get a two-hour Internet card at the biz center - open 24/7 - or charge wireless service to your room. The Hyatt Regency Auckland has a 70 percent business-traveler clientele, so business travelers are catered to. The reservations desk was lengthened in the re-do, but this is a busy hotel, so you sometimes get a short wait when you line up at the desk.

I started out my three-night stay in a standard room in the 269-room Regency wing. It was fine, but not as nice as what came later, when I moved to one of the 100 suites in the Residences, a 17-story tower with one-and two-bedroom suites, complete with kitchen, dishwasher, sink, possibly the largest flat-screen TV I've ever seen in a hotel, and spacious bathroom with separate tub and shower. I landed in a corner room with wraparound balcony - I walked the length of it, and counted off 24 paces - with a sparkling harbor view. Many of the Residences are central-city condos managed by the Hyatt, but places not occupied by individual owners are rented out as hotel rooms. The Spa at Hyatt, on the lower level, offers a 25-meter-long pool and a range of massages, facials, pedicures, manicures and other treatments.

In other words, not too shabby. If you have plans to visit Auckland, do check it out. The Hyatt Regency is a comfortable hotel, well-run but with just enough of the friendly, funny Kiwi sensibility to make it fun.

For more information:, e-mailing or phoning 64 9 355 1234.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


AUCKLAND - I never would have agreed to a walk around the outside of this city's Sky Tower if I had fully grasped what it entailed: Perambulating outside on a 4-foot-wide walkway, in stiff winds, sans handrails (though with a safety harness and a guide), all kitted out in orange jump suit. When the harness was slipped on, and the light bulb went off in my head, I declined the invitation to, um, skywalk up there, 192 meters (about 600 feet) up. I looked out over the sprawling, waterside city from inside the observation deck, instead.

Of course, the walk is nothing compared to the jump - I said jump - that a chap was doing from the tower while I was there. He was trussed in harness and pulleys, aiming for a bullseye painted far below on a platform, which he approached at 50 to 60 miles per hour.

"It's not bad,'' shrugged Haley McCrystal, an Air New Zealand marketing person who was showing me around her hometown. "The only bad part is when the ground comes up at you so fast.''

Haley, a young, fit New Zealander, has done the SkyJump, as it is called, from Auckland's Sky Tower. She has done the SkyWalk that would definitely have induced vertigo in yours truly had I ventured out on the narrow platform. "I've done it about 20 times.''

She has, of course, bungee-jumped, as well. Bungee-jumping, invented and popularized in New Zealand, has almost the status of a national past-time. "The only thing is, you are upside-down sometimes in bungee-jumping. I lost my stomach,'' she said.

Airborne derring-do doesn't appear to deter many Kiwis, though. Verily, they seem to be a nation of thrill-seekers, and hardy and robust they are, too. The Auckland marathon is coming up this Sunday, and McCrystal is participating, running a half-marathon. It's a long way, but, hey, it's all on the ground.

Still, there's something about jumping.

"We jump off of almost anything,'' she said cheerily. "We like rafting on fast water, too. And there are tour companies that take you along underground rivers. The tops of the caves can be pretty low, you have to duck way down.''

After leaving the Sky Tower, I took a harbor - er, harbour - tour on a mid-sized boat from the Auckland Ferry Building. The craft paused under Harbour Bridge,next to a painted sign on a concrete pillar that said "Caution bungee jumping overhead.'' I thought it was a joke. It wasn't. While we waited, a chap plunged toward the water, to cheers and applause from onlookers, before our eyes.

Another New Zealander. Jumping.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Booking a Round the World Trip with Star Alliance

As mentioned in my most recent post, I am traveling on an around the world trip on board eight Star Alliance member airlines. I booked the journey at the Web site of this global airline alliance - the largest of the world's three airline alliances, with more than 20 members and counting. As I write, the U.S. carrier Continental Airlines is formally becoming the alliance's latest member.

You can book a RTW trip through individual airlines and travel agents, to be sure. But if you are comfortable on the Internet, the entire process can now be done online, a change that Star Alliance effected in July.

My advice to travelers wishing to do this is to, first and foremost, have a reasonably clear idea where you want to go before signing on. This will speed up the process considerably, as there are pivotal decisions to be made, and you want to keep moving forward. I knew where I wanted to go. I booked the trip, down to dotting the I's and crossing the T's, in just under two hours. Net-smart people can probably do it faster. I am a refugee from the Age of Steam, you see.

So, sign on to and click on 'Book and Fly' on the lower right of the home page, then click on 'start now,' which brings up the next page.

Here, you can access links to FAQ in boxed text on the right side of the page. When you've done that, click on 'book a RTW journey' and wait for a short time for the next page to load.

That brings up the third page, where you enter 'traveler details' - chiefly, your country of residence - which will eventually give you a fare estimate in your country's currency - and the cabin class you want to travel in. When you've done that, hit 'next' in the lower right.

By now, you'll have the hang of it. All things considered, it's pretty transparent and straightforward.

On the fourth page, you start to build an itinerary. You'll be seeing some cool maps that show major hubs and other destinations that Star Alliance members serve - an impressively large number - and the regions shown will change as your flight plan advances. Once you've entered your city of original departure in the box provided, you start adding additional places that will take you around the world and back to your original city. Note that you can have up to 16 segments and 15 stopovers. You have a year to use whatever ticket you end up booking.

Once you plug-in the sequence of cities and dates, you'll be presented with rosters of flights operated by relevant Star carriers. Some of the flights are code-shares. As you might expect, popular places served by many carriers give you lots of choices, and lesser-known and less-served destinations offer fewer choices, maybe just one, though that's rare. I try whenever possible not to change planes, but of course, getting nonstop flights is harder and they are not always available. On some flights, you may be told you have to upgrade or downgrade from your preferred class - and again this is most likely to happen with popular destinations - your Romes, your Londons, your New Yorks. Booking far ahead helps, though there's no guarantee, as some cities don't seem to have an off-season.

Once you've gone through the construction process, you can review your itinerary before finalizing it. My wife and I built imaginary wishlist itineraries, so we could test-drive the system. We both clicked on business class. Once or twice, when my wife wanted to omit a choice, she was sent back to the beginning of the process. This didn't happen to me, though I am the more tech-challenged of the two of us. If you decide to book, you'll be asked your personal details, make your payment with a credit card, and then you will get a confirmation.

On our RTW scenarios, we received estimated pre-booking fares of around $10,000 (hers, for a proposed 29,000-mile journey) and $12,000 (mine, for a 34,000-mile trip), though the site notes that these are best-guess figures. This is cheap for journeys of this magnitude and complexity. Note that you do have to be as flexible as possible about travel dates and cabin classes to get the very best deals. Individual member airlines decide how many designated RTW seats to provide, and on which flights and which dates.

Prior to this past summer, Star allowed prospective travelers to build an itinerary online but wasn't set up to actually book the trips and handle payments. Now that it is possible, there is an addditional useful tool on hand for setting up ambitious and exciting airborne global journeys.


Monday, October 26, 2009

With Air New Zealand to Auckland

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - I hadn't flown Air New Zealand in a decade and I had never visited New Zealand - until today, when ANZ flight 7 from San Francisco touched down just before dawn under weepy skies at Auckland International Airport.

I'm glad I rectified the oversight. The Kiwi carrier is the first of eight airlines I'll be taking on Star Alliance member carriers over the next 27 days. I'm on a round the world trip booked at Star (details coming in my next post on good ways to use that site.)

Air New Zealand was real good: friendly, efficient staff, flat-bed seats in business class that were actually flat and actually comfortable (not a given with many airlines), modernity everywhere. Even the food was good, the equal of what you could find on the ground in a good restaurant. That's very hard to pull off at 37,000 feet in a cramped compartment, but ANZ did it well. My dinner was chicken breast stuffed with pumpkin, designed by celebrity New Zealand chef Peter Gordon. It was preceded by a sushi sampler and followed by a cheese course, all accompanied by a nicely structured New Zealand Pinot Noir. New Zealand is best known in my part of the world - North America - for its Sauvignon Blancs, refreshing whites that can nonetheless come on a bit too lemony and grapefruity for my taste. This was a welcome change of pace. It was an overnight flight. I managed to sleep a bit - rare for me - and caught up on some reading. Between reading and snoozing and eating, I didn't set aside much time to sample the in-flight entertainment offerings, but the choice of videos, music, games, et. al looked extensive and well-chosen.

The 13-hour, overnight flight had a few weather-related bumps over the Pacific but nothing really untoward. Mostly, the flight was uneventful - and that's good. We touched down at Auckland's bright, modern, clean and well-organized international airport 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Unlike some airports I have been in during off-peak hours - we landed at 5 a.m. - the international terminal was jammed, and most airport businesses were open. At such moments, I could almost ask myself "What recession?'' Though that would be silly, as we've all felt the effects of it, and the travel biz has taken its share of hits.

The Airbus, which runs between the airport and downtown Auckland, costs just NZ$23 return, departs every 15 minutes, and takes 45-50 minutes to reach downtown. From the stop I got off at downtown, it was a short and pleasant walk around the edges of gorgeous Albert Park to the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where I am staying.

I'll be blogging daily about all aspects of this trip in the weeks ahead. Tomorrow: How to use the booking feature on the Star Alliance Web site, should you want to take a similar round-the-world journey, customized to your interests, schedule and budget.

And more soon about the city of Auckland. From what I have seen at first glance, it is pretty, big enough to be interesting but small enough to get your arms around, defined by its relationship to the water and a love of fun with a derring-do edge. There is a big bungee jumping place right downtown - two jumping places if you include the controlled dives off the landmark Sky Tower, which soars above the city and serves as a landmark on the skyline.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rounding the World with Star Alliance

I am heading off tonight on a round the world trip, booked on Star Alliance member carriers. I'll be blogging here and otherwise writing travel pieces during and after the trip, as well as tweeting:

It's a big trip: 10 countries, four continents, eight airlines, 28 days. It'll be challenging but I don't expect to be bored.

First up: Auckland, New Zealand, on Air New Zealand. It's a 13-hour, all-night flight. But Air New Zealand is a good carrier. I flew with them once before, to Sydney, a decade ago, and liked them.

After Auckland, the journey will take me to Singapore, Mumbai, Cape Town, Cairo, Rome, Barcelona, Lisbon, London and San Francisco.

I booked the trip on the new - it was launched in July - Star Alliance Book and Fly function at Star, which allows you to plan and finalize a RTW trip. You can accomplish the same thing by calling a travel agent, ticket office or airline call center, but I did it on the Web site.

More details on that, and the trip itself, to come.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

What can happen next in U.S. domestic air travel?

Afer a year in which travelers in the United States have seen fatal crashes, dramatic flight delays for planes parked on the tarmac, and a commuter airline (Go, in Hawaii) whose pilots both fell asleep on an inter-island flight, we now have the curiously strange case of Northwest flight 188, which overflew its Minneapolis destination when both pilots on board were out of radio contact with controlers on the ground for more than an hour.

The pilots, who have been suspended, have given conflicting accounts of the flight after they finally landed safely in Minnespolis and one of them weirdly flashed a two-thumbs up signal. First, they said they had been having a heated discussion on airline policy in the cockpit and "lost situational awareness." Then, the first officer told reporters there had been no argument. Many aviation experts believe the two men fell asleep in the cockpit, though they deny it.

Parent company Delta Air Lines and federal authorities are investigating, trying to get to the bottom of what really happened. The pilots deny that they or the three flight attendants or the 144 passengers on board were ever in any danger, but travelers could be forgiven for not having total confidence in this claim.

Some pilots and their union, the Air Line Pilots Association, want controlled napping - when one pilot at a time takes a short in-flight nap, to refresh himself - to be made legal. On long-haul international flights, which can run upwards of 15 hours nonstop, the practice is already fairly common, but these flights carry larger flight crews and thus have wakeful pilots on hand.. How can pilots on short-haul routes need sleep, unless they are overworked and sleep-deprived because of it? No domestic U.S. flights last longer than 6 hours and most are far shorter. Even so, some pilots, unions and airlines are asking the Federal Aviation Administration to revise rules to make in-flight napping legal. (Pilots still wouldn't be cleared to sleep during take-offs or landings.)

Here is a modest counter-proposal: How about revising work rules to give pilots on short-haul routes more rest before and after piloting a flight, not during that flight? Whether or not this latest curious aviation incident was caused by sleeping pilots or weary pilots missing their cues, it presents an opportunity to address a serious issue in a serious way. Lives are at stake.

Bottom line: Air travelers will sleep better when we know the pilots of our airplanes are wide awake.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trouble in Paradise? Not for Travelers

HONOLULU - Whenever something untoward hits Hawaii, journalists inevitably slap a "Trouble in Paradise'' headine on their stories. In keeping with this inglorious tradition, I offer this post about travel and tourism conditions there, as we wait for the long-promised green shoots of recovery to grow the economy and get us out of this ever-so stubborn recession.

Last week, when my wife, Georgina, and I arrived at Honolulu International Airport for a holiday, we initially wondered "What recession?'' The place was packed. Long lines at Starbucks and at the luggage carousel. Long lines at Alamo, where we rented a small, cheapo car - no gas-gulping, SUVs for us, thanks - for driving around town and up to the North Shore of Oahu to watch surfers ride the big waves. The place was jumping.

But first impressions can be deceiving. The recession is real enough. Arrivals from the U.S. mainland and overseas have picked up in recent months but are still below last year - a bad year, remember - according to state tourism officials. A marketing executive at our hotel, the Kahala, in Honolulu, said the hotel had laid off staff last year, though not recently, and that Christmas and New Year's bookings, which are usually solid by now, have not yet sold out. Moreover, the Honolulu Advertiser reports that visitors from the mainland, which supply the majority of arrivals in Hawaii, are spending 17 percent less than last year. The Niketown and Banana Republic shops in Waikiki have shut down. The big losers in retail: jewelry, watches, cosmetics and perfume, which are selling as much as 30 percent below last year's volumes.

But in one of those ironic twists that mark travel, what's bad for local merchants and the travel trade can be good for travelers. The rotten economy has prompted travel vendors to offer deals to fill hotels, restaurant tables, shop aisles and hotel rooms. As mentioned in my previous post, even the prestigious Kahlala is offering fourth and fifth-night free packages for a limited time. The marketing exec I talked to didn't disclose the hotel's occupancy rate, but said repeat business from brand-loyal customers have kept most of the 5-star property's guest rooms filled. Overall, Honolulu hotel rates have fallen 16 percent in the past year, according to Hotwire HotelRate Report, cited in the Advertiser.

In short, Hawaii is on sale. Now is the time to monitor the Web for fast-changing deals. You won't exactly have the Islands to yourself - we realized that on a raucous Saturday night in Waikiki Beach, where a trio of hard-drinking young women in wigs with anime colors were doing their best Girls Gone Wild act, to the bemusement of the crowd at the Moana Surfrider Hotel's beachfront bar. Still, the fine fall weather and a relative thinning-out of the tourist crowds make this pre-holiday stretch a good time to go.

Now, if only the same could be said of London, where I'll be spending a few days next month. The recession hasn't emptied hotels in Londontown and if my preliminary digging is any indication, it hasn't lowered the British capital's sky-high rack rates, either. That won't keep me from going to London - it's my favorite city in the Western world, and my wife's hometown. But I'm going to watch those pounds and pence very carefully. In short, the opposite situation from Hawaii prevails in London; for now, what's good for travel vendors in the city of William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, and Johnny Rotten is not-so-good for travelers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chilling at the Kahala

HONOLULU - We had been working too hard, my wife and I, especially her. So, she suggested we chill out at the Kahala Hotel and Resort, at the ocean's edge on the far side of Diamondhead from busy, busy Waikiki Beach. It's the perfect place to chill out, she said. Who am I to argue? We went. All I can say is mahalo to that. She was right.

Opened in 1964 by Conrad Hilton, himself, this favored reboubt of celebrities was the Kahala Hilton for years. Then it became a Mandarin Oriental. A few years back, it became just the Kahala, managed by Landmark Hotels Inc. and financed by Hawaii investors who poured $52 million into a renovation that is just now receiving the finishing touches. ( All 306 guest rooms were freshened during the re-do, the number of spa rooms were doubled to 10 and colors in hallways, guest rooms and the hotel's gorgeous carpets were lightened up. One thing that didn't change is the Kahala's signature chandeliers, which have adorned the main lobby and expansive adjoining spaces since the 1964 opening. Another is the hotel's popularity with guests who are excitedly tying the knot; we glimpsed half a dozen on-site weddings in the eight days we were at the hotel.

Beautiful it is, with serene, soft colors and a minimum of Island kitsch. Restful it is, with the sound of the trade winds and the sight of tall, thin palm trees bending in the wind, big breakers rolling offshore beyond the reef, and waves gently lapping at the wide, white-sand beach. And educational it is, with a newish 'dolphin encounter' for children and adults that allows you to slip into the hotel's private, enclosed dolphin lagoon, swim right up to one of a half dozen playful bottlenose dolphins, touch them a little and reward them with a fish snack.

Even the resort's more touristy touches are fun; it has a wall of fame in an otherwise workaday hallway near the business center (open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with two PCs for guests to use), featuring framed, wall-mounted photos of famous people who have stayed in the hotel. They include, among many others, Richard Nixon, lei-bedecked and in a business suit, Elton John, Snoop Dog and former Hawaii guy Barack Obama when he was still a U.S. Senator.

Even the food is good - very good. It ranges from a plentiful and high-quality breakfast buffet in the ground-floor restaurant Plumeria, to a casual, on-the-beach lunch place called Seaside Grill for the flip-flops and Aloha shirt set, to Tokyo Tokyo for fresh Japanese fare, to the more formal, fine-dining restaurant Hoku's, one of the best dining destinations on Oahu. We took a number of meals around the hotel and were not disappointed. As with most any hotel, you can eat in your room, too, though we spent most of our wakeful time sitting on our lanai (balcony), reading or gazing out at the clear, aquamarine Pacific waters. You can sink right into the big beds and not want to get up, but then you don't want to miss Hawaii, after all.

As you might guess, this luxury does not come cheap. Even at the Kahala, though, you can save money by taking advantage of special deals. The Kahala still won't be a steal but it will slide into range for more travelers. The hotel is offering a fourth night free with a minimum four-night stay with partial ocean views from $395 through October (rates climb after that), including complimentary breakfast for two, as part of its 'ocean promotion' package. It also offers a fifth night free with a minimum five-night stay as part of its 'Kahala family values' promotion; this deal, from $515 a night per room, allows families to occupy connecting rooms and includes two kids' activities. My wife found slightly cheaper rates at than on the hotel's own site. But be advised if you're thinking about going, that such sale rooms go fast and not all rooms in the hotel are on sale.

In sum, it's pricey but special, and if you can meet the tariffs, the Kahala is a wonderful, restful, romantic place to calm down, chill out and rest up.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wakey Wakey

Hey, wake up!

That's what travelers may want to say to airline pilots in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration studies a rule-change that would allow pilots to sleep during flights. The rationale is by cat-napping during the boring portions of flights, the pilots would be refreshed and better-able to handle take-offs and landings, for which they would presumably be awake.

In today's Wall Street Journal, reporter Andy Pasztor takes a sometimes-scarey look at this proposal, noting that pilots are already permitted to doze on board some international carriers during long-haul flights, so long as wakeful pilots provide back-up. Pasztor notes that "it isn't clear whether the FAA also might consider their use for certain short-haul schedules.''

Now, from the same story, here is the real eye-opener: "Pilots say naps not only make sense, but that they already take them.''

Moreover, the Journal notes, "A recent study reported that a majority of commuter pilots ... revealed that they had fallen asleep at least once behind the controls. It's not unusual for some commuter crews to work 14-hour days flying multiple short hops requiring as many as five or six landings.''

Here is a modest proposal: Reform airline work rules and change flight schedules so that sleep-deprived pilots can get their badly needed rest without putting lives in danger. Let them nap - and let them do it on the ground.

In the meantime, may I suggest this: Do as I do, not just as I say, and don't take commuter flights at all. Small regional carriers have the oldest planes, the most underpaid and undertrained pilots and the worst, fatigue-inducing flight schedules. Several times this year, I have traveled from New York City to my small hometown in Pennsylvania by Amtrak rather than subject myself to a cramped, overloaded, possibly rickety small commuter jet or propeller-driven regional flight.

I'll do anything I can to avoid such airplanes and the subcontractor regional airlines that now - according to a piece in the Journal by columnist Scott McCartney - account for nearly 40 percent of air travel in the U.S. Take the train, take the bus. Drive. Walk if you have to.

Just don't let a sleepy pilot on a dinky airline put your life at risk.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Two Blasts from the Past

Not too long ago, two ideas that have been kicking around in the United States for years - an airline passengers' bill of rights and a registered traveler program - were all but given up for dead. Now, both ideas have resurfaced, with a passengers' bill of rights gaining traction and some form of RT program getting another look.

A passenger bill of rights has been batted around since at least 1999, when numerous flight delays and cancellations raised the ire of travelers and attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress. Airlines vowed to fix the problems on their own. But they haven't. Six hundred thirteen flights were trapped on the tarmac for three hours or more during the first six months of 2009, according to Department of Transportation statistics. About 100,000 travelers a year are stranded on the tarmac, where they can be left without adequate food, water or ventilation.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine) are sponsoring passengers' rights legislation written into the Senate bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. Boxer last month told a private stakeholders' meeting sponsored by the Business Travel Coalition and that federal regulation is all but certain. The Boxer-Snowe bill would allow passengers held on the tarmac to deplane after three hours so long as the captain thought it was safe.

The question underlying this idea - and it would have to be harmonized with a similar bill from the House of Representatives - is whether it would actually work. Airlines hate the idea of being told how to run their operations and warn of dire unintended consequences. We can say this is self-serving, but some academic observers of the travel industry lend a degree of support to the carriers, saying that a three-hour rule would only affect a small number of delayed flights.

The airlines, for their part, argue that delayed flights are statistically insignificant anyway. But this is tone-deaf when it comes to customer relations. I was once held on a plane on the tarmac for six hours at Frankfurt airport during a snowstorm in Germany, and it was agonizing, despite the fact that the carrier, United Airlines, fed everyone and even showed a movie. Statistics are cold comfort when you are one of the statistics.

The registered - or 'trusted' - traveler idea has been discussed ever since the 2001 terrorist attacks using hijacked aircraft in the United States. The first RT program - Verified Identity Pass, Inc., known as Clear - didn't get up and running until 2005. It signed up 200,000 customers at about $200 U.S. per pop, but couldn't make a commercial go of it, suspending operations this past June. By that time, the U.S. Transportation Security Adminstration, deciding the programs - which were supposed to vet travelers by checking criminal records and using biometrics - had no security value. Indeed, Clear and two small rivals were basically airport concierge services, taking members to the head of the security line, where they then had to take off their belts and shoes and take out their laptops like everyone else.

Now, though, major organizations such as the National Business Travel Association are urging a revival and expansion of RT programs, and an investment bank, Henry, Inc., is bidding to buy the assets of Verified Identity Pass. Testifying last week before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, the NBTA's executive director, Michael W. McCormick, called for creation of a next generation of voluntary RT programs, to speed carefully vetted frequent travelers through inconsistent and vexing airport security.

The devil - as we are forever reminded - is in the details. And what eventually emerges from the Capitol Hill maw, if anything does, will be nothing if not detailed. Whether these old ideas will give travel a new face in the U.S. is far from certain, but these once-dead notions are showing intriguing signs of life.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tony Tyler's View from 37000 Feet

Writing travel stories and covering aviation gives me many chances to meet travel-biz executives, some of whom are high-flying visionaries and some of whom have trouble getting their ketchup to find their fries.

Tony Tyler, the CEO of Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways, is one of the good ones. I've interviewed him twice, once in San Francisco and once in his office-with-a-view in Cathay Pacific City, the airline's gleaming headquarters at Hong Kong International Airport. Both times he had interesting and insightful things to say, not just about his airline but about airlines and travel.

I flew last month around East Asia on Cathay and its affiliated carrier Dragonair. I didn't meet up with Tyler, but I did come across a speech he made to the annual Asian Aerospace conference, held this year in Hong Kong. If the agenda he sketched in that speech is followed in the real world, it will change the way we fly by reducing pollution from the world's jetliners and helping to harmonize the crazy-quilt of national and regional regulations by replacing them with a global set of standards. Guilt-free flying? Could happen.

Like everyone in travel, Tyler has a dismal take on the economy. "Hand on heart, I can say this is one of the most challenging times we have ever faced - and I know we are not alone ... I have been in the business for 30 years and seen many highs and lows, but the past year and a half is as bad as it's ever been.''

More to the point, what can be done about it? What has Cathay done about it?

The airline - founded in Hong Kong by two World War II vets in 1946 and now one of the major players in Asia - has reduced its number of flights and done everything it can to hedge fuel prices. Most airlines have done that. What most airlines have not done is keep their staff intact during the downturn. Cathay has done that, cutting salaries and inducing staffers to take unpaid leave, but avoiding morale-busting staff layoffs.

Happily, Cathay has - so far, at least - also avoided cutting back on the premium customer service that make it one of the planet's Tiffany carriers. Tyler pledges to keep it that way, even if the Great Recession changes the way people travel for years to come, as it may.

"One thing I do know is that Cathay Pacific will remain a premium carrier,'' he said. "High-yield business travel might not come back in the same way as before, but there will still be a place for airlines that differentiate in terms of the level of service they provide ... This is especially true in Asia, where people still expect some pampering and special attention on flights that, on average, are longer than those in Europe or in the U.S.''

More broadly, Tyler - this year's chairman of the International Air Transport Association, the global trade group for airlines - is promoting a badly needed 'green' agenda. In December 2007, Cathay followed the lead of British Airways, SAS and several North American carriers by introducing a voluntary carbon-offset program for passengers.

Now, Tyler and the airline industry is looking at what may come out of the climate-change summit scheduled for December in Copenhagen - and trying to modify or pre-empt regulation of airplane emissions. As Tyler correctly noted in his Hong Kong speech, IATA has adopted the ambitious goal of getting its 200-plus members to be carbon-neutral on their flights

"Airlines are the first global industry to make such a commitment, and this will require ongoing investment in fleet renewal, new airframes and engines, infrastructure, operations, biofuels and offset mechanisms such as emissions trading,'' Tyler says.

Of course, getting aviation operations that match high-flying rhetoric is complicated and time-consuming. The world's airlines are not there yet. And the British-born Tyler, like all corporate executives, has a duty to make a profit for shareholders that can be at odds with blue-sky goals. But, Tyler's lofty view from 37,000 feet comes closer to matching the realities on the ground than those of many of his compatriots. Aviation, and travel generally, need more like him.

What Wins the Olympics

So, Chicago was eliminated in the first round of voting in Copenhagen, and Rio de Janeiro has won the 2016 Summer Olympics. Media reports have quoted Chicagoans as being shocked, shocked, that the Windy City didn't win with its four-year, $48 million bid, despite intense personal lobbying by U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Heck, even Oprah Winfrey jetted to Denmark to try to win the Summer Games for Chicago.

Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. But, really, what did anyone expect? Britain's then-prime minister Tony Blair is credited with swaying the Olympic pooh-bahs to award the games to London for 2012, but generally star power is not what wins Olympics. Infrastructure, sexiness and geography do that.

Rio won the 2016 Summer Games at least in part because no South American city has ever hosted an Olympics, and it is their time. It won because of Brazil's legendary, impassioned sports fans and 24/7 party reputation. And I guess the city's infrastructure - backed by billions in guaranteed government money - is good enough, or will be seven years from now.

Ditto with the next Olympics, the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, Canada, scheduled for February. Vancouver didn't get the Games because Canada's top politician or a raft of Canadian celebrities lobbied the International Olympic Committee. It won because it has a modern airport (now connected to downtown by an airport express train), major indoor sports arenas and first-rate mountain sports facilities in the great outdoors. Celine Dion and Dan Ackroyd wouldn't have been able to get it done.

Obama has got bigger things on his plate. Things like a very deep recession, overseas wars and global warming. He - and other heads of state - risk debasing their political currency by jetting abroad to lobby for the Olympics, especially when IOC officials deem certain candidate cities not ready for global prime time.

Look, I like Chicago. I like the food, I like the El, I like the people, I like the blues clubs on the South Side, the river, the justly famous architecture. But much of the financing - reportedly $4.8 billion - was to come from the private sector, and the private sector in the United States, as we have all noticed, lacks liquidity. And as for infrastructure, there is the primary airport in the city of broad shoulders to consider: O'Hare. Need I say more?

One Good Way to Help Asia Pacific Disaster Victims

With the typhoon-spawned flooding in the Philippines, deadly tsunami in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga, a lethal earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia - all striking within a few days of one another - many thousands of people in the Asia Pacific region need our help.

One good way to help them is to donate money for relief supplies. The Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) has launched a disaster relief fund that, combined with other, multiple rescue and relief efforts, can make life a bit easier for people in stricken areas. For the moment, the PATA fund is accepting only paper checks snail-mailed to its bank (details below), but will begin accepting online donations and credit card contributions next week. Updates and donation details will be posted on the organization's Web site,, next week. A nonprofit professional association of tourist boards, hotels, tour operators, airlines, airports and other travel industry vendors, PATA has been around since 1946. Having dealt with PATA as a journalist over the past 15 years, I can vouch that the organization is legit.

For now, donation details are as follows:

Donors can specify what country or region they want their money to reach, or contribute to the general fund. Donations should be made in U.S. dollars.

Account name: Pacific Asia Travel Association
Bank Name: Bank of the West
Bank Address: 505 Montgomery St., San Francisco, CA 94111 USA
Account Number: 773030408
Swift Code: BWSTUS66