Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Booking a Round the World Trip with Star Alliance II

As I mentioned in my previous post, I just finished taking a round-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 groupings, with more than 20 members. The story of what happened on my 28-day trek is detailed in my last 49 posts.

What I want to do now is tell travelers how they can go about booking trips of their own.

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 about where you want to do 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.

So, sign on to and click on 'book and fly' on the lower right of the home age, 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 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 and what class you want to travel in - which will give you a fare estimate in your country's currency. When you've done that, hit 'next' in the lower right.

By now, you'll have the hang of it.

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, 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 entering additional places that will take you around the world and back to your original city. Note that you can have up to 16 flight 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 afford you a lot of choices, and lesser-known 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 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 revisit your itinerary before finalizing it. My wife and I built imaginary wish list itineraries so we could test-drive the system. We both selected 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.

In our RTW scenarios, we received estimated pre-booking fares of about $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 passengers 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 additional useful tool on hand for setting up ambitious airborne trips.


Well, it's round.

Having just finished my globe-girdling trip, always heading westward, I arrived in the same city I first departed from. I didn't fall off the edge of the planet, surrounded by scary monsters. Inexplicably, the Flat Earthers got it wrong.

I am home after 28 days in the sky - and eight airlines, nine countries, 11 hotels, 11 flights, 34,000 air-miles, 84 meals, 49 blog posts and 65 tweets.

It was a travel epic, it was fun, there was always something interesting going on. On occasion, it was physically challenging; sometimes all those time zones leap up and bite you in the chest. But for a trip with so many moving parts, it was agreeably smooth. Of course, constructing a big trip through a global airline alliance helps immeasurably with connectivity.

Interested in taking a trip like this? I'm going to re-post my earlier piece "Booking a Round the World Trip with Star Alliance'' as an FYI.

I loved my trip, and I love being back home. It is Thanksgiving eve, I am finally unpacked, and there is a turkey to be stuffed and roasted. If you are in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving. Wherever you are, here's wishing you the best of the end-of-the-year holidays.

P.S.: Right after the Nov. 26 holiday, I'll be back writing travel news, features, tips and product reviews on this blog, and on Twitter. I will post some fresh, less time-dated material on my Web site,, as well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Going Transcon with United

NEW YORK - The last of 11 flights I took on my round-the-world trip aboard Star Alliance carriers, United Airlines flight 15, carried me to San Francisco from New York. I have flown United many times, but this was my first experience with the airline's p.s. (for premium service) offering, which operates between New York and Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco.

Like much of the airline industry, especially airlines in the United States, United has been burdened financially this decade. It spent more than two years reorganizing in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has bled several billion dollars in losses due to a powerful combination of yo-yoing fuel costs, security worries and expenses, flu fears and, since 2007, the Great Recession. This has inhibited the airline's ability to invest in new products, with a few exceptions. The p.s. offering, aimed at high-yield business travelers, is one of the exceptions.

As a showcase product, p.s. has received investment and attention from United's Chicago parent company, UAL Corp., and it shows. The cabin crew on my transcontinental flight was experienced and friendly, the seats in business class were comfortable and had plenty of pitch - the space between rows. Even when the passenger in front of me put his seat all the way back, I was not crowded, a rarity in a business class without hard plastic scallop shells to establish perimeters.

Moreover, United was rolling out its new in-flight Web surfing and e-mail program, which first-time users on my flight were allowed to use for free. The system, Gogo Inflight Internet, is available on a number of U.S. carriers. For flights of more than three hours - this flight lasted about six hours - most carriers charge $12.95. So far, United has put Gogo only on its New York-San Francisco-Los Angeles p.s. flights.

It was a good flight. I have used Gogo on other carriers; I didn't use it this time. I did check out United's in-flight entertainment program, which included 64 pop music albums, plus classical, country, jazz and world music, and some 40 movies, as well as TV shows and games. Flight attendants passed out portable media players to use instead of seatback screens or pull-out screens. Lunch was served, and it was presentable. I had a good Argentine Malbec, that country's signature red wine, to go with chicken in morel mushroom sauce. The flight took off 25 minutes late from JFK International Airport, due to the customary congestion in New York area airspace, but our pilots were able to make up for it en route; in fact, we arrived at San Francisco International Airport nearly half an hour early after flying above the clouds in the East and rust-red deserts in the West.

This was United at its best. Candidly, the Red Carpet Club in JFK terminal 7 was considerably more modest and spare than the airport lounges of most other Star Alliance member carriers I have flown with. But once United got airborne, the experience was a good one. It was a gratifying capstone to a colorful, engaging trip around the planet.

The Pierre, New York

NEW YORK - There's nothing like ending a long journey on a high note. I did that by spending the last night of my round-the-world trip at the Pierre, the famed Beaux Arts luxury hotel on New York's Central Park.

Opened in an elegant, Georgian-style building in 1930, the Pierre has changed hands several times in its history. At one point it was owned by oil zillionaire J. Paul Getty. It was operated for years by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. In July 2005, management was assumed by India's Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, which operates 5-star properties in Asia. I stayed at the company's flagship, century-old Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, in Mumbai, early in my RTW trip. Shortly after taking over the Pierre, Taj started refurbishing the property. By the time the re-do was finished this past summer, Taj had spent what it says was $100 million U.S. on the Pierre, remaking the interior of the guest rooms, updating the bathrooms, expanding and brightening the lobby reception area and opening the first branch of the London destination restaurant Le Caprice outside the United Kingdom as the hotel's fine-dining redoubt.

My wife and I stayed at the Pierre during its soft opening in early June. It was clear then that the hotel would return to excellence, but soft openings are by definition uneven and incomplete. Le Caprice wasn't open yet and there were still traces of the construction done throughout the hotel, which left apparently unwashed windows in a handful of spots. The ensuing five months of operation have taken care of all that. The place gleams from top to bottom, the hospitable and personable staff have got their act polished to a high sheen, and Le Caprice - which opened in September and has its own entrance onto Fifth Avenue - looks great, done up in black and white Art Deco-ish style, with lots of mirrors to catch the light.

The 41-story Pierre, in its present configuration, has 189 guestrooms, including 49 suites. I stayed in one of the suites. It didn't have the park view of the room that my wife and I stayed in five months ago, but it was much roomier, boasting three wall-mounted flatscreen TVs, formal but comfortable Old World furniture, an expansive, marvelous bed covered in high thread-count linen, a spacious bathroom with separate shower and bath and a big desk in the 'living room.' I set up my laptop on the desk and spent several productive hours writing and Web surfing.

The Rotunda, on the ground floor, has lovely murals painted on the ceiling. Located right nearby is Two E, the Pierre's stylish, edgy-in-the-good-sense bar, with its smart-set clientele. Le Caprice, where I had a Sunday morning breakfast of Scottish salmon, scrambled eggs and good coffee, can be accessed inside the hotel through the Rotunda.

The physical property is impressive, befitting a hotel of the Pierre's stature and history, but what I really like about the hotel is the warm service and a lack of pretention that is not always found in grand hotels. Abby, the young woman who checked us in back in June, checked me in again, greeted me by name and remembered me, lo, these months later. All the hotel elevators are run by elevator operators - a traditional touch that brings an air of graciousness.

In its short time back in business - the guestrooms were closed for months while they were being refreshed - the Pierre earned a 5-diamond rating from the American Automobile Association, one of 113 hotels and resorts in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean to win that coveted rating. Now that the hotel is operating at full-service, it has special holiday promotions and a package keyed to the Winter Antiques Show on offer.

In short, the Pierre is back. I felt fortunate to stay there. I slept like a baby on the last night of my month-long, globe-girdling trip, went for a brisk morning constitutional in Central Park, just across Fifth Avenue, before check-out, and left New York feeling like a million.

For more information: The Pierre is located at Fifth Avenue and East 61st St., New York, NY 10021. Web: Telephone: 212.838.8000.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

NEW YORK - Getting to New York was the hard part. Not in the air, where Continental Airlines did a fine job bringing me to the USA from London - on the ground, where cab fare, Lincoln Tunnel toll and tip for the ride from Newark Liberty International Airport set me back $90.

After that, things could only get better. And they did, with gratifying speed. After checking in to the grandly restored Hotel Pierre, on Fifth Avenue, across from the southeast corner of Central Park, I set off on foot to have a look around town. It was Saturday night, Thanksgiving was nearly at hand, Christmas was not far off, and Manhattan positively glistened. Night had fallen, but it wasn't cold - maybe 50 degrees F, and dry. The sidewalks were alive with people.

Fifth Avenue was electric, figuratively and literally. Lights and decorations everywhere. The Cartier store wrapped in an electronic "ribbon'' for the shopping and gift-giving season, and every shop illuminated inside and out. I people-watched and walked. At Rockefeller Center, I strolled off the avenue and stopped by the ice-skating rink, which went in Nov. 18. The icy surface was ready to receive skaters but literally no one was skating - only crowding round the outside of the rink, as though expecting something exciting to happen any minute. Maybe Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump were making themselves ready to come out on skates, or maybe Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding were set to re-enact their 1990s battle as part of a fond reunion tour, I dunno. The place looked great but nothing was happening just then. I soaked up the mood for a New York minute and moved on.

I passed a long line outside Radio City Music Hall, and pushed on to Times Square. It was absolutely jammed, with tourists sitting at the cafe-style tables that the city put out in blocked-off portions of the famous intersection this past summer. What's a little frosty November weather? The tables and chairs are still there, and still occupied. Huge outdoor video screens and neon advertisements throbbed and looked ready to explode. The city seems to have amped-up and at least trebled the available wattage from five years ago. You could read a newspaper by the overhead lights, if people still read newspapers.

Sunday morning, I had a lovely breakfast at Le Caprice, at the Pierre, and then went for a walk in Central Park. It was a sunny, crisp, breezy morning. The sky was a clear blue of the type seen best in Fall on the U.S. East Coast. It was about 9:30 a.m. The horse-drawn carriages were fully booked and making their aromatic way through the park. Joggers were jogging, dog-walkers led pooches around. Chestnuts were roasting on grills and buskers were already busily busking. It was a delightful way to start the day.

When it was time to head out to JFK airport for the last leg of my round-the-world trip - home to California - I returned for a thankfully brief time to Taxi Purgatory. This time, fare and tip were a measly $60. I, having been overseas for a month, was short of cash and wanted to pay with a credit card. When we got to the airport, the cabbie mournfully informed me that it was to be cash-only; his credit-card machine was "broken.'' I informed him it is illegal to operate a yellow cab in New York without a working card-reading machine. He shruggged. In New York, as elsewhere around the planet, the taxi-driving tribe continues to wage its long-running war on the world's travelers. There are two sterling exceptions: The polite, scrupulously honest, white-glove-wearing cabbies of Tokyo, and the super-informed, witty drivers of London black cabs.

I was on the curb outside the terminal. "Home, Jeeves,'' I wanted to say. But of course this was to be an airplane journey, and Jeeves doesn't fly. I strolled, wheelie and briefcase in hand, into JFK terminal 7, sailed through security and headed to United Airlines' Red Carpet Club, boarding pass in hand.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Across the Atlantic with Continental Airlines

NEW YORK - I crossed the Atlantic Ocean yesterday - restfully, uneventfully, right on time - on board Continental Airlines, the newest member of the Star Alliance group of carriers.

Continental's late-October shift to Star is so recent, it has yet to fully play out. When I arrived at London Heathrow airport's terminal 4 for my flight to New York, I was directed to a lounge run by SkyTeam, the alliance Continental left so it could join Star. I imagine full integration into Star Alliance is proceeding apace and that this lounge arrangement will soon cease. Indeed, airline locations at Heathrow are changing quickly as it is. After Heathrow terminal 5 went into operation in March 2008, the multitudes lightened up at terminal 4, which, like much of Heathrow, is undergoing extensive renovation for the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

We flew west with the sun, passing over the symmetrical walls of Windsor Castle. Minutes later, clouds shrouded the Irish Sea, not clearing until just before we landed at Newark Liberty International Airport. During the 7 and a half hour flight, Continental flight 111 hummed right along. The U.S.-national staff was friendly, funny and off-hand in the way that Americans typically are. When a young mother and her 2-year-old daughter sat down next to me, attentive flight attendants promptly moved me to another seat, so I could have a comfortable flight. I hoped, too, to give the mother a seat of her own, so she would not have to hold her little girl throughout the trans-oceanic flight. Late in the journey, I noticed a bleary-eyed Continental pilot on break occupying the seat I had vacated. The long-haul flight included two meals. The wines were not identified on the business class menu, but when I ordered beef, a flight attendant poured a decent French red to accompany the meal.

Like other major U.S. carriers, Continental has lost millions in recent years, buffeted by an economic storm of volatile fuel costs, deep recession, flu fears and security costs. Continental does a good job in straited circumstances; indeed, it is often cited by aviation pundits as the most highly regarded U.S. legacy carrier. It is widely regarded as the U.S. airline most competitive with global leaders - some of which have not been hit as hard as airlines in the United States during the current crisis. In this case, SkyTeam's loss is Star Alliance's gain.

The Metropolitan Hotel, London

LONDON - My home-away-from home during my three-day stay in London has been the Metropolitan Hotel, a stylish modern hotel favored by rock bands and fashionistas that, remarkably, manages to be long on warmth and short on attitude.

Operated by Como Hotels and Resorts and opened in the mid-1990s, the Metropolitan is located on Old Park Lane, across from Hyde Park. It occupies a distinctive glassy cube amidst a cluster of hotels, including a highrise, fortress-like Hilton, an InterContinental and a Four Seasons (currently closed for remodeling). The original Hard Rock Cafe is a block away. The Green Park and Hyde Park Corner tube stations are walking distance from the hotel. COMO also runs the delightful Halkin Hotel in London, and the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok.

I had a comfortable third-floor room overlooking busy, busy Park Lane and the eastern edge of Hyde Park. The usual joggers, dog walkers and horse riders have been joined by a temporary 'Winter Wonderland' exhibition of shops and night time lights put up for the season. My guestroom had a spacious bathroom with separate tub and shower, a nice, long desk, comfortable bed and free Internet hook-up - a boon for the traveler, especially a business traveler like me. Small surprises await in the desk drawer: A package labeled Indulgences includes, among other things, a mini-vibrator and a condom. Hey, the Metropolitcan cares, and wants you to have a good time.

But while the guestrooms are comfortable and large for London, the Metropolitan sells more than rooms. Indeed, the hotel is a favored haunt of Londoners as well as visitors. The capital's first Nobu restaurant is on the property, dishing up nouveau Japanese cuisine, and the Met Bar is a frequent venue for parties and events. Jo James, the hotel's high-energy public relations person, told me it had originally been conceived as a whisky bar, but evolved into a private members bar. The Met Bar often invites people it has in mind to become members, but travelers can become members, too, James said. After 9 pm, the bar is members-only, though anyone can have a drink in the spacious, welcoming lobby at virtually any hour.

Indeed, activity at the Metropolitan goes on pretty much 24/7, as it is a favorite of night owls. When I did a late check-in shortly after 11 p.m. on a Wednesday upon my arrival from Lisbon, the Met Bar was going full-blast and a number of other travelers were checking in and out, too. To ease the stress from all this activity, the hotel offers its spa program, Shambala, which James describes as not just about pampering yourself, but detoxifying the body and building a healthy lifestyle through nutrition, yoga and other types of work-outs.

Modern, of-the-moment hotels often age badly and date quickly, but this does not seem to have happened with the Metropolitan. It is still a very popular, lively hotel that has kept its edge in an intensely trend-conscious metropolis.

For more information: Web: Telephone: 011 44 20 7447 1000.

This Realm

LONDON - Happiness gives way to wistfulness whenever I leave England, especially London, with its depth of culture, arts and history - and, now, even great food. Yet, leave I must, to New York, the last stop on my round-the-world trip before returning home to California.

I used the last of my time in London soaking up current offerings in major museums, which the British capital has in abdundance. The Royal Academy of Arts is currently mounting a major exhibition of work by the British artist Anish Kapoor. Over at the National Portrait Gallery, running into January, is a photography exhibit called "Beatles to Bowie,'' which highlights the role photographers played in constructing the public identities of famous pop stars in the 1960s.

Both exhibitions are well worth seeing. But then, so are so many other things in London.

I took-in some scheduled shows and events, but mostly I wandered. This is my favorite thing to do - going on urban walkabout - in big cities, at least those that are pedestrian-friendly. For the most part, despite its ferocious street traffic and congestion, London is hospitable to walkers. This most agreeable to me, as I don't always have a plan in mind when I come to London. Indeed, I don't have to be 'doing' anything to enjoy London.

I am a foreigner here, yet have always felt at home. For my wife, who was born and raised in London, the city was home before she emigrated to America. It's not likely that another former Londoner, William Shakespeare, had the Beatles or Bowie or Twiggy or the Rolling Stones in mind when he wrote lyrically (in "Richard II") of ''this realm, this England,'' but that is the magic of charismatic cities like this one. Trends come and go, but the city's magic endures down the years.

Friday, November 20, 2009

'Tis the Season in Londontown

LONDON - As I look out the window of my parkview room in the Metropolitan Hotel, I see flashing lights of green, red and blue illuminating the trees of Hyde Park. They are part of a big seasonal display, complete with artificial snow, in the famous park during the long approach to Christmas and end-of-the-year holidays.

I haven't seen London so done up in Christmas gear before, though I have been here at this time before. Big shopping arteries such as New Bond Street sport overhead electronic bows and ribbons, and name-brand shops such as Fortnum and Mason have holly and boughs from Christmas trees in front. At the posh Burlington Arcade on Piccadilly - or in Piccadilly, as the Brits say- glittering seasonal decorations abound. I am mainly window-shopping this far ahead of Dec. 25 - for me, as an American, the season doesn't really begin until after Thanksgiving - so all this is eye candy, but it's still fun.

I am not a churchy person, but I do enjoy the cultural, non-commercial side of Christmas, and London, a world center of art and culture, has that covered, too. The British, like those other masters of Christmas, the Swiss and Germans, open up churches to all for music and art celebrations of the season. One such moment provided a highlight of my current visit to London.

Like most visitors, I had been outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields many times, standing on the steps between its dignified columns to gaze out over London and take-in the sights of Trafalgar Square. But, oddly, I had never gone inside. I rectified that last night, to hear a program of, chiefly, Vivaldi compositions played by the accomplished Feinstein Ensemble. The church pews were hard enough to challenge anyone's faith, but the acoustic renditions of Vivaldi with flute, recorder, oboe and other sonorous instruments were inspirational. To complete the picture, St. Martin's lights were dimmed and the beautiful, vaulted interior was lit largely by candlelight.

When I left the performance for the nighttime walk back to the Metropolitan, I felt I had been blessed, not in the overt religious sense, but simply by virtue of being enveloped by such loveliness.

Christmas in London can do that.

More Travel Tips from SAS Crew Guides

LONDON - I began dipping into SAS Crew Guide's 2009 edition for travel tips as soon as I hit Barcelona, kept going in Lisbon and am now checking out their leads in London.

The 'back story' - as they say in Hollywood - is detailed in one of my Nov. 14 posts. Suffice it to say here that the Crew Guides are annual paperback books from Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and several fellow Star Alliance members on where to go and what to do in cities served by those airlines. Widely traveled airline crew members are the tipsters.

Just before I left Lisbon earlier this week, I found a good seafood restaurant in the central city, thanks to the 2009 guidebook. (The 2010 edition will be issued at the end of this month and is available online for 15 euros from The restaurant in question is called Solar dos Presuntos, located on a narrow commercial street downtown, at 150 rua das Portas de Santo Antao. It occupies the ground floor of a tile-fronted, four-story building and is marked at the entrance by a fishtank with live lobsters for seafood lovers to inspect before ordering. The food is sumptuous, if a bit pricey for generally affordable Lisbon, with entrees generally a bit north of 20 euros (about $30 U.S.).

Here in London, I have been tucking the eminently portable book into a coat pocket, pulling it out to thumb through the pages. I know London pretty well, having made more than 30 visits, and it is my wife's hometown. I was pleased to see the wonderful travel book and map bookshop Stanford's (12-14 Long Acre, near Covent Garden) included, as well as a backpacker's favorite restaurant, the Stockpot. At the Stockpot outlet on Panton Street opposite the Comedy Theatre, I saw a three-curry dish on the menu for 4 pounds 50 pence (a bit over $7 U.S.) and a gammon steak with fried egg for 7 pounds (roughly $11 U.S.). I love London, but it is not cheap. The Stockpot, popular since the 1950s, is a no-frills choice, but it is good value for money. For inexpensive, good-tasting, healthful food, I have to say I prefer the many Pret a Manger outlets around town, but it was good to be reminded of the tried and true Stockpot.

The book also told me something I didn't know about a place I do know: Namely, that the good Waterstone's bookshop at 203-206 on Piccadilly has a toothsome cafe on its top 5th floor, with views down toward the River Thames and the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, it does, and thanks to the Crew Guide, I found out about it. As a bibliophile, I'll be back to the bookshop, and when I want a little nourishment for the body to match the nutrition for the mind that I'm getting from books, I'll have a bite at Waterstone's, too.

Lisbon to London on TAP Portugal

LONDON - Portugal's leading carrier, TAP Portugal, brought me to London, the second-from-last stop on my round-the-world journey on Star Alliance member airlines. It was a happily undramatic trip. Departure and arrival on time, staff courteous and professional - all to the good.

Two things distinguished my trip on TAP from most flights I have taken:

First, the carrier presents a nice array of three Portuguese white wines and three reds in business class - not just the country's justly celebrated port wine. The wines aren't as well known as they deserve to be outside Portugal, so this could help raise their profile a bit.

Second, TAP has a seating feature I like: Namely, a space, bordered by armrests and at seat-level, located between the window and aisle seats in business-class. This gives passengers more room to spread out. I liked this a lot, especially given that I was seated in a bulkhead row - thus, there was no place under the seat in front of me for storage. No problem, though; I sat my briefcase into the space between seats, and had ready access to notebooks, magazines and other items I wanted to use during the flight, which lasted just under three hours before touching down at London Heathrow's terminal 1. The English wind was strong as we landed, but otherwise, it was a smooth ride all the way.

Lollygagging in Lisbon

LISBON - People in Spain told me to expect a more laid-back mood once I arrived in Lisbon. Big city or no big city, capital city or no capital city, it is a relaxed place, they said.

They were right. The locals were friendly and casual, unfailingly helpful and more-often fluent in English than I expected. I began with a checklist of places I wanted to see - the castle, the heritage monastery in the Belem district, the rakish bohemian neighborhood of Bairro Alto - and more, besides. I saw many of these places, but as time went by, I spent more and more of my waking hours lollygagging - just wandering, looking around.

Lisbon is relatively cheap - I don't have confirmed stats in front of me, but as a general observation, I'd say prices in Lisbon are two-thirds of what you'd pay for the same good or service in, say, Rome or London.

My wife booked me into the central-city Hotel Avenida Palace. She had stayed there on her own some time ago, and loved it. I swapped rooms at check-in so I could get a double bed, which probably put me into a smaller room, but I was fine with that. The hotel, restored in in the late 1990s to its century-old, Belle Epoque style, was closed while Lisbon prepared for the world's fair Expo 98. It is a traditional hotel, with a grand, curved central staircase, a quietly splendiferous bar, high ceilings and carpets and gilt trim. Right outside the six-story hotel is the Estacao do Rossio, the big train station. On the other side of the Avenida Palace is the Restauradores plaza, big, busy, filled with traffic. On the square, not 100 meters from the Avenida Palace, is a helpful tourist information office, marked with the small letter i and signs that read Ask Me Lisboa. The staff are multilingual and polite. Maybe 10 minutes by foot toward the river is the brand-new Museum of Design and Fashion, installed in a former bank.

It rained but once on my four-day visit, so I took advantage of the Avenida Palace's location to step out and explore the central city on foot. Lisbon is hilly, but downtown is reasonably compact and easy to navigate. The historic building fronts of Centro are listed, and thus protected, but the interiors of many structures have been gutted and modernized. The waterside multi-modal transport center, Cais do Soche, has a gorgeous Art Deco exterior and up-to-the minute facilities for river ferries, subways (the Metro) and light-rail on the inside. A transport museum, installed in March 2009, depicts the history of the city's efficient, cheap system, which includes, among other things, delightful, small, yellow and white trams and funiculars that run on tracks and climb the steepest of Lisbon's hills.

To get a broader sense of the city, I took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour for 15 euros. Recordings in eight languages tell you what you are looking at. There is a red line and a blue line. Each tour, if you stay on the bus, takes about two hours. There is not another tour bus for another hour, so don't hop off unless you really want to see and do something. The 24 hour ticket is good for both lines. If you have time enough for just one line, my advice is to take the red line: It goes to waterside Belem, and passes traditional and modern landmarks such as Lisbon Tower, the historic monastery with its fabulously detailed doorway, and the striking new architecture of the Belem Cultural Center; the center includes a good art museum. The blue line, which I took the day after my ride on the red line, includes the Expo 98 site, where modern Portuguese architects were given freedom to create, and came up with angular, vertical 'statement' buildings.

At the end of my lollygagging, I was pleased to return to the Avenida Palace, to its correct quietude and historic decor, and turn-in, dreaming of stops to come on my round-the-world journey.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two good cafes in Lisbon

LISBON - One of the joys of traveling in European cities is savoring European cafe life. In continental Europe, cafes supply food and drink, of course, but not only that. They are great people-watching places, often have engaging ambience and in a number of ways serve to give a traveler the flavor of the place he is visiting.

I found a goodly number of good cafes during my visit to Lisbon on my round-the-world trip. Two, in particular, stay with me in memory.

The wonderfully named Caffe Ritual, in the Rossio train station, in the historic city center, is one. I enjoyed a macaroon and a small cup of strong espresso there for just 2 euros and 70 cents, while rail commuters streamed by on their way to work. I say wonderfully named, as having a coffee and a bite in a place like this is nothing if not ritualistic.

The white exterior walls of Rossio station are beautifully detailed with 19th century decorative touches; two horseshoe-shaped archways at street level comprise the largest entryways and are trimmed a little incongruously with bruised-purple paint. Inside, the station has been completely retooled and modernized. Upstairs, on the second level, there are automated ticket kiosks and staffed ticket booths for passengers, along with buzzy newsstands, flower shops and the aforementioned Caffe Ritual, which occupies a hole-in-the-wall space close by the automatic ticket-taking machines where passengers board their trains. There must be a hundred cafes in Lisbon just as good, but not many can boast such an entertaining location.

Another cafe I liked is Suica, located on the main Rossio plaza, downtown, with its gorgeous fountain, dignified 1840s National Theatre and wavy charcoal-grey and white paving stones. Caffe Nicola, on the opposite side of the plaza, is much prettier to look at, with big wall paintings and an Art Deco interior, but Suica, while utterly lacking in the decor department, is cheaper and relaxed. While there, I had the best sardines I have ever tasted, grilled and served in an open-face sandwich with pickled vegetables. Before I left Barcelona, workers at my hotel smiled when I told them where I was going. One said, "Ah, Lisboa! Portugal has the best fish." Judging from the freshness and grill-toasted crunch of the sardines I savored in Lisbon, he wasn't kidding.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lisbon Airport, the Star Alliance Lounge

LISBON AIRPORT - When in a crowded airport, it is always a relief to chill-out in a nice lounge. That is what I am doing now, sitting before one of the six free PCs in the Star Alliance lounge operated by TAP Portugal, as I await my flight on TAP to London.

It is a nice lounge, designed to the max, operating on split-levels. The downstairs level has good food on offer, including little veal pies, a selection of wines and spirits, a good coffee-making machine, bits of fruit and assorted pastries. Upstairs, TV channels projected onto the walls show Eurosport, fashionista updates and news. Bamboo grows along one side. The whole place has mood lighting like you would expect to see in a club. Upstairs, elegant leather chairs and couches provide comfort; downstairs are cherry red and lime green modular furniture out of `The Jetsons.´

The business-class VIP lounge is found past security but before Customs and passport control, so it is good to leave it a bit early for flights, especially if you have a far-away gate. Finding the lounge can be a challenge. I squiggled around through terminal 1, up a flight of stairs, down hallways, around corners. It took a while, but the signage is good, and I soon settled in.

Next stop, London, destination number eight on my round-the-world trip. London is my favorite city in the Western world, so I am more than ready to get back there.

Incidently, a TAP Portugal ( check-in worker graciously checked me in, even though I arrived four hours before my flight, the designated check-in desk for that flight was not yet open, and he was manning another station. It was a nice gesture that helped a weary traveler get access to the lounge, and with plenty of time to enjoy it.

Hooker for the Barbarians

LISBON - I have been in cell hell many times, when mobile phone yakkers felt secure enough to share information about their lives with whomever was around, whenever the mood struck them. This happened most recently on the otherwise estimable 15 euro hop- on, hop-off big bus tour that takes people around Lisbon. There is nothing more touristy but it gives you the lay of the land in a new place - then you can go back to places you liked.

Anyway, imagine you are inadvertently overhearing hearing this in the middle of an otherwise interesting city tour:

`Hello, Mary, hello, hello. Can I ring you right back? Hello.

`So, you went to the game? How was it? A draw. Well, that is good, iddnt it? I mean, that way nobody wins and nobody loses, everybody happy.

`You will want to see Thomas play next time his team are in town. You know, he has got a new girlfriend, and it must be serious, she is coming over to live with him. Yes, he is playing hooker for the Barbarians. They will be in town on the 5th.

`Thank you, Mary, thank you. Hello? Oh, you are breaking up. Ring you back, luv.´

I believe hooker is a position in rugby, is it not? Of course, in some cultures, hooker for the barbarians has a different connotation, though it may still be classified as a sport.

To Portugal with Portugalia

LISBON - I flew to this busy capital city on my first visit to Portugal on board Portugalia Air, part of a code-share with Star Alliance carrier TAP Portugal. I had not flown on either airline before, so it was all new, and it turned out to be a good introduction. The flight left Barcelona on time, and it arrived on time under glowering, leaky skies. Hey, this is November.

Flight TP745, was on a mid-sized, single-aisle Fokker 100. Another first; I had not been on a Fokker before, either, as far as I remember. The eight-seat business class was cozy but comfortable. The flight crew got their work done while also being chatty and casual. Airline food is frequently derided by frequent travelers, and often with cause, but lunch was good. The main dish was salted white fish Portuguese style, served with a custard tart for dessert - a popular dessert on the ground here, as I was later to discover. Somehow, the fish was moist and flavorful - not a given, considering it had to be heated in a cramped airline cabin.

Lisbon International is a mid-sized airport with a modern arrivals hall. Lots of construction going on, though I am not sure at this point what is being built. Unlike major airports that are far removed from the city, Lisbon airport is just a 20 to 30 minute ride, depending on traffic, from the city center. A taxi costs 10 to 12 euros. The best way to go between airport and city is the Aerobus, which makes a number of central-city stops - identified by recorded announcements - and costs just 3 euros 50 cents (about $5 U.S.) one-way. This is quite a bargain in often-pricey Western Europe, though Lisbon seems on the whole less expensive than Rome, Paris, London.

Glad to be here. Lisbon offers a good mix of history, with its vintage downtown core, and modernity, with the futuristic Expo 98 site on the east side of town, right on the wide Rio Tejo. Good cafes abound all over. Vasco da Gama is the big man on campus. The famous navigator is the namesake of a bridge, a tower, a boulevard and a shopping center.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Highly Recommended: The Hotel Arts Barcelona

BARCELONA -The Hotel Arts, my highrise aerie during my lamentably short recent visit to Barcelona, lives up to its name.

The hotel, a gorgeous seaside property managed by the U.S.-based Marriott Corp. and its Ritz-Carlton hotel group, showcases eye-catching contemporary Spanish art throughout. It makes an art of cuisine, as well. There are five in-house restaurants, ranging from casual outdoor dining by the terrace swimming pool in summer, to year-round fine-dining at Enoteca, whose chef has earned a Michelin star, and classy tapas at Arola, helmed by a two-star Michelin chef. There are no formally awarded stars at Cafe Veranda, as far as I know, but the breakfast buffet there is sumptuous, with the likes of Iberian ham and pork loin, fresh whole figs, a wide selection of cheeses, dishes such as Eggs Benedict with shaved black truffles, and first-class coffee.

The Hotel Arts also benefits from a prime location. It overlooks Port Olimpic, a once-benighted stretch of land along the Mediterranean Sea that was reclaimed for the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. This is now coveted waterside real estate. From my corner suite on the 27th floor, I enjoyed sweeping views of the Mediterranean, the wide, white-sand beach fronting the sea, and - off in the cityside direction - a panoramic view of the Barcelona cityscape, bordered in the distance by dramatic, rugged hills. The suite came complete with two flatscreen TVs, a spacious bathroom with separate shower and bath, an elegant espresso-maker and a bed so comfortable it took a city as enchanting as Barcelona to lure me out of it.

It is something of a cliche to say that the most important asset of a business is its people, but in the hospitality business, it happens to be true. The Hotel Arts has a friendly, efficient staff. They are fluently and smoothly multilingual and ready to help the jet-lagged traveler. They orient you, they help you get grounded and they are a fount of local knowledge about Barcelona.

I stay in a lot of hotels, in a lot of countries, and I like them more often than not. However, few are in the same league as Hotel Arts Barcelona. Highly recommended.

For more information: Web: Telephone in Spain: 34 93 221 10 00.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Star Alliance Lounge, Barcelona Airport

BARCELONA AIRPORT - Star Alliance member Spanair runs a sparkling biz class lounge in the new terminal 1 here. The terminal, just 6 months old, boasts polished floors, a plentitude of windows and a high roof admitting natural light. It is one of the largest and nicest-to-look-at terminals I have been in anywhere.

The lounge, with wraparound views of the main concourse through floor to ceiling first-floor rooms, is a beaut. It has a full bar, an espresso-making machine, six free, wide-screen PCs and dozens of work stations in their own set-aside space for plugging-in laptops. Wood paneling and polished floors, with low couches and chairs arrayed around the space, complete the picture. The lounge is spacious, big enough to handle all but the largest crowd. There is no hot food, but a wide range of baked goods, nuts and crackers help to make up for it. If you are going to be in an airport, its a nice part of the airport to be in.

I am awaiting word of takeoff on TAP, the major Portugese carrier, for Lisbon - my first visit to what is more properly called Lisboa. It will also be my first flight on TAP.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


BARCELONA - I feel a bit wistful about leaving this lovely, pretty seaside city after just two nights and a day and a half. It is populated by stylish, quietly self-assured people, as good-looking as the beautiful people I saw in Rome, but seemingly less inclined to use fashion to Make a Statement. The locals are justly proud of the splash their city made while hosting the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, but Barcelona doesn't seem to be resting on its laurels. The place is lively, friendly and very much worth a visit. I just wish I could stretch it out.

Like every visitor to this Catalan metropolis tucked away in the northeast corner of Spain, I made a pilgrimage to see Sagrada Familia, the unfinished cathedral started by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. I could see the spires from my hotel, the Hotel Arts. I walked 40 minutes to get there, passing by a childrens' soccer game - er, futbol match - a butcher's shop with beautiful hams hanging in the window, pigs' feet still attached, and innumerable sidewalk cafes. Nearly all the tourists on hand seemed to be on bus tours. Elderly men and a few women played what appeared to be a local version of bocce ball in a vestpocket park facing the cathedral, oblivious to the tourists taking photographs and recording videos.

Although I made this tourist pilgrimage, I am not a true believer in Gaudi (1852-1926), whose name sounds somewhat like the English word "gaudy.' ' Appropriately so. The enormous building (adult admission 11 euros, 15 euros with a guide) is way over the top and way busy as design. Indeed, it theatens to give kitsch a bad name. I know Gaudi is a local hero, and I'd like to like him better, but Gaudi strikes me as an eccentric uncle with a budget.

So, that was a bit underwhelmng. But I loved everything else about Barcelona. The food, for one thing, is outstanding - fresh and flavorful, centered on seafood, sausages, ham and rice. I lucked out with temperate fall weather and dry skies, with days of hazy sunshine. I walked the Rambla Santa Monica and watched locals and visitors consume paella and enormous glass mugs of beer and sangria; they drank the sangria through straws. Mimes and street artists were everywhere, as were hawkers of apparel, keepsakes and artworks. Off on the sidestreets, things occasionally got grotty: a tatoo- and piercing-shop here, a peep show there - but for the most part, it was a fine-looking, popular, relaxed central-city promenade. Along the walkway by the sea, Rambla de Mar, sea breezes cleansed the air and families strolled to the city's aquarium and wandered along the wide, white-sand beach. Across the thrumming boulevard from the beach, big government buildings such the ornate, historic headquarters of the Port of Barcelona dominate the horizon. In the middle distance, rises a cylindrical building that is the spitting image of London's Gherkin. In the warm evenings, people are out late, enjoying the city.

It's an exceptionally fine place, Barcelona. Next time I come here, I hope to stay a good deal longer.

Friends in High Places: SAS Crew Guides

It figures that people who fly a lot would tend to know about great places to eat and drink, things to do, places to hang out, yes? Sure. Proof of this is in the useful annual Crew Guide paperbacks published by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), with a little help from their friends at other Star Alliance carriers, among them bmi, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Austrian, TAP and LOT.

SAS has quizzed thousands of flight crew members and pilots since 2004 for inside information, which is then boiled down and recounted verbatim from contributors, who are identified by job title, first name and the initial letter of their family name. The series is subtitled "The best-kept secrets of cabin crews and pilots.'' I am using the 2009 edition. The 2010 edition is coming out at the end of November, according to SAS public relations guy in the United States, Tom Fredo. The book retails for 15 euros (currently about $22 U.S.) and is available online from

I used the book for the first time when I arrived yesterday in Barcelona. It's working for me. I booked into a hotel in the marina district, at the water's edge of the Mediterrranean, so I followed tips from the SAS Crew Guide for this part of town. I checked out Shoko, at 36 Paseo Maritimo de la Barceloneta, and found it just as described in the book, a "sexy restaurant and bar at the beach and the Olympic Village.'' Then, I drifted over to another spot nearby, Aqua, at no. 30 down the beach. The book recommended the outdoor terrace; it was sunny and warm when I dropped by, so I took advantage, watching people stroll by on the boardwalk. Tomas W., a pilot for SAS, raved about Aqua's ''great Mediterranean food.'' That was dead-on, too.

So far, the Crew Guide is two-for-two. I'll be thumbing through it some more, looking for local knowledge, throughout the rest of my trip. If I find something great, I'll hip you to it, too.

Swiss Air: In the Air and in the Lounge

BARCELONA - Swiss Air - full name: Swiss International Air Lines - was new to me before this trip. I'd heard of it, of course, but had not flown with Swiss, a Star Alliance member, until my current round the world journey.

I am glad I got to make their acquaintance. I rode with Swiss to Barcelona from Rome via Zurich. After taking the Leonardo Express train at dawn to Rome's Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, I checked in smoothly and headed off to the Swiss lounge, located upstairs from departures.

It is a large lounge, featuring a spacious central area with abundant seating and sockets along the outer wall for plugging in laptops. I didn't feel like hauling out my laptop, so I plopped down in one of the three free PCs the lounge has to offer. Here, I encountered something new: I and other passengers were required to ask permission of a lounge staff member to use a PC (it is swiftly granted), then hand over our passports for photocopying (the original passport is promptly returned). Formalities taken care of, I sat down at my work station, a staff-made espresso on the desk along with a mini-croissant, and pecked away industriously, tweeting on Twitter and working my e-mail.

Then I had a look around. Unique to airport lounges I have seen, the Swiss lounge in Rome has a Wellness Company Technogym - several pieces of workout equipment - to go with a good selection of international newspapers and magazines and a full bar. It being ungodly early, no one was working out, or drinking, but it was nice to know that you could. I looked some more. Wrapped around an interior wall are two quiet zones. In one of them, a glamourous-looking lady was sitting alone. She was the spitting image of Sophia Loren.

A few minutes later, at the gate, the sophisticated lady, escorted to the boarding gate by no fewer than three Swiss lounge workers, boarded first, several minutes before anyone else. I could have sworn it was Sophia Loren. Once on the plane, I got a better look. A definite resemblance, but I don't think so.

I settled in to my bulkhead business-class seat. I liked the distinctively Swiss touches on-board: announcements in German, French and English, the white cross on a red background (the Swiss flag) on the tailfin of the Airbus A320, the pieces of Swiss chocolate offered by the flight attendants at the end of the meal. We crossed the Alps and I saw from my window seat that they had a satisfactorily thick-looking blanket of snow. No time to check out the lounge in Zurich airport, as congestion in Rome mandated a delayed takeoff. I went straight to the gate. Again, the flight went smoothly, we followed the rugged coastline of Spain after leaving Switzerland and put down in Barcelona airport's gigantic new-ish international terminal: a true cathedral of flight.

I was safe. I was comfortable. I was on-time, like one of those fine Swiss timepieces. I was in Barcelona.

The St. Regis Grand Hotel, Rome

ROME - Back in 1890, Cesar Ritz himself - the namesake for all those Ritzs and Ritz-Carltons - founded the Grand Hotel in the urban heart of Rome, just off the Piazza Della Republica. All these years later, it is still grand. The hotel drips ornate Belle Epoque style, and comes complete with a grand staircase and stratospheric ceilings. It underwent a $35 million U.S. renovation recently. Thankfully, the re-do freshened the property without modernizing it in an awkward way.

I spent two nights there on my round the world trip aboard Star Alliance carriers. The main lobby and bar and central meeting space look much as they must have looked a century ago. Guest rooms, too, are swank. Mine had plush carpeting, a mural painted above the bed, and included a two-person lovebird couch, plus a desk and a chair with an ottoman. The bed was spacious and comfortable; it conveyed me to dreamland straight off. Only one more touch needs to be added: sound-proofing, to shield guests from the round the clock buzz and roar of central-city street traffic. The lovely vintage windows and wooden shutters were fine, no doubt, for the horse and buggy era, but not now.

In the morning, the St. Regis puts out a generous breakfast buffet in Le Grand Bar. Not far off, located just behind reception, the St. Regis - a high-end brand of U.S.-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts - operates a well-staffed, well-equipped business center. It is open and staffed 24 hours a day - an especially nice touch for a gracious heritage hotel, and a boon to the contemporary business traveler, like me.

For more information: Web: Telephone (Italy): (39) (06) 4709.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Random Roman Notes

ROME - The Eternal City has been perhaps the richest stop on my trip for history and culture. Also the priciest. But in any case, I think it may prove the most memorable.

Here, in no particular order, are some random thoughts on being a traveler in Roma in late 2009:

The Trinity of tourism in this city are cigarets, cameras and cell phones. Locals provide the cigs and the phones, visitors bring the cameras.

The omnipresent buzzing motor scooters of Italy are as numberless as ever. Mosquitoes with wheels, they shoot around corners and race down the narrow streets when you least expect it. You can count on it.

Roman fast food has the fast food in my part of the world, North America, completely outclassed. At home, it is typically burgers and fries and coffee that is just OK. Here, I have lunched - standing up and in a hurry, to be sure - on good panini and top- notch coffee for as little as 3 euros, less than $5 U.S. Ronald McDonald is all over the place in Rome, too, but it beats me why anyone here would ever sit down to sup with Ron.

I took only two taxis in Rome and was punked by both of them. I read in the guidebooks that cabbies do not expect much of a tip. That they are happy just to round up to the nearest euro. Uh-huh. Tell that to my first driver, who smilingly pocketed change amounting to a 20 percent tip and was off before I could say, uhh, hold it a second. Or to my second, who winced when I asked if I could pay with a credit card, then swiped my card repeatedly, claiming it did not work, though it works everywhere. When I mimed the motion of punching in the numbers, he acted like he did not see it. No tip for this guy, but given that he had already padded the fare, it hardly mattered. My advice: walk, take the Metro (fare: 1 euro), do what you have to do to minimize the use of taxis on your Roman holiday.

One more tip, given to me at the Hotel de Russie, that proved useful: You can avoid long lines at the Vatican Museum by going at 2 p.m. on weekdays. It is less crowded just after the traditional lunch hours on those days. It worked for me. Finding the Sistine Chapel, down stairs and around corners, felt for a long while like a snipe hunt, but I eventually got to crane my neck and feast my eyes on world-famous masterpieces. And I barely had to wait in line.

Now, off to the next stop on my round the world trip: Barcelona.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sixties Serenade

ROME - I returned to the Spanish Steps on a sunny morning to see if I could view the elegantly cascading stairway unimpeded following the installation of a replica Berlin Wall for 20th anniversary celebrations on the night of Nov. 9. The installation, complete with sound and light (the latter only at night) is still there, so I have not been able to get the classic view.

It looks like the celebration - well-earned and enjoyable - will go on for a while yet. This is a big deal in Europe, bigger, I suspect, than in other parts of the world. While snapping photos and wandering up and down the steps - you can still do that - the milling crowd in attendance was serenaded by recorded 1960s hits over a powerful sound system. There was the metallic whine of the young Lou Reed doing "Heroin'' (the song, that is) with the Velvet Underground, Peter Paul and Mary belting out "If I Had a Hammer,'' John Lennon in his late-Beatles phase performing his half-serious, half-satirical call-out "Come Together.''

It seemed a bit incongruous at first, this 1960s open-air concert, given that it is celebrating events that erupted in 1989. But then, I recall that the Wall went up in 1961. Moreover, a generation of political leaders in the 1980s and 1990s - think of Havel, in Prague, who loved Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - took inspiration from the social movements of the 1960s, not least from their music, and it makes sense. Certainly, the fall of the Wall and the riptide of political change that raced through Eastern Europe signaled the ascendancy of communal capitalism and self-empowerment. There is a strong connection between those cultural and commercial changes ano the way we live now, including the triumph of global companies that embody these changes. Apple, for example. Google, for another, and the Whole Foods supermarket chain.

Besides, the songs were good and I liked hearing them. So, I settled back and listened to the music, my eyes sweeping over the rooftops for views of the Eternal City.

An Italian Oddity: K-9 Versus Twitter

ROME - To readers following my tweets on, an apology: A filtering system called K-9 on the hotel Internet service declares, correctly of course, that is a social networking site - and then makes it unavailable to users. Thus, my tweets about my round the world trip on Star Alliance carriers has met an unexpected and temporary interruption.

This is indeed an oddity. I have met the Great Firewall of China, which shut off my access to this very blogging service during my week-long visit to China in September. It also blocked access to Twitter. (Poor Twitter - what has it done?) All I can say for now is that my tweeting will resume as soon as K-9 stops growling, or I escape its purview, whichever comes first.

Hotel de Russie, Rome

ROME - When I arrived in Rome by train the other day, I passed by a cluster of rather forlorn-looking but certainly affordable backpacker hotels arrayed near Termini station, the main rail center here. Back in the day, I would have plopped down my backpack and bedroll and stayed in one of them. These days, I opt for more comfort. It costs more money to do that, to be sure, but the higher-end hotels offer beauty, restfulness and attentive staff.

I am writing this at the Hotel de Russie, a brilliantly designed, art-filled 5-star located between the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo. I am in the business center, where two free PCs are on offer in a snug, well-equipped center that is staffed 24 hours a day. It is a stylish property, said to be favored by celebrities, both Italian and international. I am not a celebrity-seeker, having been cured of being starstruck by serving as a movie feature writer on the film festival circuit some years back, when I worked for the San Francisco Examiner. But judging from the hotel customers, who look like they have just stepped out a glossy magazine pictorial layout, I can believe this place is the haunt of the stars.

The hotel watering hole, Stravinskij Bar, and the spa, dubbed Wellness Zone, are haunts for Romans as well as hotel guests; 60 percent of the spa customers are Romans. The Wellness Zone employs all manner of therapies, including seasonal treatments keyed to color (green for spring, orange for fall, etc.), and couple massages and includes a small but well-equipped gym. The fine-dining restaurant Le Jardin de Russie features al fresco dining on warm, long Roman summer evenings, but it is chilly here this time of year, with dusk setting in about 5 p.m. No matter. You can have nibbles at the Stravinskij Bar with your drinks, and they are quite good. Last night, my 13 euro ($19 U.S.) glass of Chanti Classico came with no fewer than four plates of unanticipated sides: they included a variety of olives, addictive potato chips and a de facto salad of assembled crispy carrots, endive, celery and tomato with cheese. It served as a light evening meal.

My room looks out on a spacious terraced garden that is restful to behold. There is a grotto with trickling water in the garden - a soothing respite from the congestion and bustle of Rome. Just off the garden, the breakfast room offers a sumptuous buffet with eggs made to order, fine selections of ham and cheese, irresistible breads, fresh yogurt, fresh fruit and more. When you order coffee, it comes with hot milk without you requesting it, a nice touch. It is hard to linger over morning coffee when the drink has turned cold.

There is much more, but you get the picture. This is an elegant hideaway. It is part of the Rocco Forte Collection, a privately held company headed by Sir Rocco Forte, the British entrepreneur and member of a family of hoteliers who originally hail from Italy. The group of 13 city hotels and one resort (in Sicily) includes Browns, in London; the Lowry, in Manchester; and the Amigo, in Brussels. A far cry from my old budget backpacker haunts, to say the least, but a nice place to come back to after a hectic and tiring day of touring Roma on foot.

For more information: Web: Toll-free telephone from USA: 1.888.667.9477.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Leonardo Express

ROME - My Egyptair flight from Cairo banked left and swooped down over blue water edged in brilliant aquamarine to land smoothly at Rome Leonard de Vinci International Airport. To get into the city, I took the delightfully named Leonardo Express - the train - to Termini Station, then hopped a cab to the palatial Rocco Forte Collection property here, the Hotel de Russie, located 5 minutes walk from the Spanish Steps.

The Leonardo Express is the fastest and cheapest way to get from the airport to Rome. If you are coming here, I recommend it. To use the train, you take one of the three rather slow-arriving lifts from the arrivals hall and choose among several clearly marked commercial agencies that sell train tickets. They cost 11 euros for adults and there is generally a 1 euro charge for handling. Do not forget to use one of the yellow machines at the head of track 2 at the airport to punch your ticket; otherwise, you risk a fine if the conductor discovers you have not punched it. This is the Italian system for train travel. Go figure. The 12 euro ($18 U.S.) charge, plus whatever you pay for your taxi, still puts you below the 40 euro set fee from the airport to central Rome and well below what most hotels charge to send a car for you. Heading back to the airport, you take the long walk out to Track 25 and buy the ticket at a tiny ticket table operated by the rail station; same price, same validation process.

After I settled into my garden-view room in the Hotel de Russie, I strolled out into a rainy dusk, umbrella in hand, and walked down the wet cobblestones, occasionally running into a tangle of umbrellas with other walkers. At the Spanish Steps, a temporary replica of the Berlin Wall had been erected, a band was playing, and a crowd had gathered. I had stumbled upon the altogether satisfying celebration that the city of Rome has mounted to mark the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the signal event that symbolized the end of the Cold War in Europe. It was a satisfying moment, joining history and politics and romance in this intensely romantic city.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cairo International and the Star Alliance Lounge

CAIRO - I left my hotel, the just-opened Fairmont Nile City, at 6:55 this morning for Cairo International Airport and my flight to Rome. By 8:10, I had checked-in at the special first and business class station at one end of the new Terminal 3 concourse, passed through security and found the lounge that Egyptair shares with its Star Alliance partners. Here, I found four free PCs; I am writing this post on one of them. This all took 75 minutes; not bad.

Travel is splendid when things work as they're supposed to. As all travelers know, this is not always the case, but so far Egyptair and Cairo International have made it easy. I've got a freshly brewed coffee at my side, an incredibly good Egyptian sweet with chopped nuts and honey and a wedge of tasty goat's cheese. The lounge is relatively modest in size but well-appointed and well-run. Staffers are attentive without being obtrusive, there are big portholes in the wall facing the runway, admitting welcome natural light, plentiful places to plug-in laptops, rows of chairs facing a wide-screen TV that's showing the news in Arabic (naturally).

The main concourse of the several-month-old terminal has a soaring roof and plenty of room for standing, strolling, shopping in the expansive and brightly lit mall ... and lining up. This is good because the place is packed this morning. The terminal handles both international and domestic flights and is a definite upgrade from the airport as I experienced it just over a year ago on my first visit to Egypt.

So, farewell to Cairo, with its minarets, palms, jaw-dropping drivers, rubble, fantastic antiquities and of course the majestic Nile. And to the Egyptians, who have impressed me as being among the warmest and most welcoming people I've met on my travels.

Now, onward to the Eternal City.

Busy Being Born: The Fairmont Nile City

CAIRO - If the old line "location, location, location'' holds true, the Fairmont Nile City Hotel, which began its soft opening Oct. 1, has a bright future. The highrise tower is located just across the street from its namesake, the fabled River Nile, and is part of the Nile City office and shopping complex, one of the most modern, forward-looking developments in Egypt's capital.

Like any property in a soft opening, the hotel is a work in progress. Most guest rooms are yet to be open, as are most of the planned restaurants and bars - though the hotel's California-style eatery, Napa Grill, is up and running and shows real promise. The two top chefs came to the Nile City directly from the San Francisco area, where they worked most recently at Silks, the Mandarin Oriental's fine-dining establishment. The hotel's director of food and beverage has California credentials, too; he lived in the Golden State for 26 years.

When Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels and Resorts made the Nile City its third Cairo property, and the first one in central Cairo, Fairmont decided to do an American-style hotel. That's where the California smart-casual connection comes in. Nile City executives told me they didn't want to do a French or Italian restaurant and they didn't want to do a steakhouse. They wanted to differentiate the property. So, in addition to Napa Grill, Nile City will open a Vietnamese restaurant, to be called Saigon Bleu, install a rooftop bar called Sky Bar right next to the rooftop swimming pool and extend the current tea-and-coffee lobby lounge by adding a bar. The lobby is stunning, with a soaring atrium, updated Art Deco styling and three waterwalls interspersed between glass-walled elevator shafts.

I say "will'' a lot - as do the hotel's executives - because much remains to be done. The hotel operators have set March 2010 as the time to wrap things up and open officially, with a gala likely next summer. As it is, I had a generally comfortable stay in a river view room; I was moved from another room, without asking, so the hotel could give me a bigger room with a desk. Indeed, the staff spares no effort to be helpful, and their positive attitude helps smooth out some of the awkwardness and language and cultural hurdles between local staff and international guests.

When you're this new - barely six weeks old - there are bound to be glitches. The front desk apologetically told me they didn't have any city maps. The chair I am sitting in as I write this has a tag still attached underneath. It has taken several hours of back-and-forth talk to arrange a car to take me to the airport for an early morning departure, something that is routine at hotels that have had time to hone their act.

The Nile City is already very good in some ways - with well-intentioned, hard-working staff, good food and drink, a handsome look - and there's that location. It's almost unfair to evaluate the hotel this early. But soft opening or no soft opening, I want to alert travelers that a new, high-end hotel has entered the market in this fascinating city. In the months to come, I expect the Nile City will reach the high standards set by parent Fairmont and come together nicely.

For more information: Web: Telephone: international toll-free 1 888 310 2323. E-mail:

The Real City that Never Sleeps

CAIRO - Certain people - mainly Americans and especially New Yorkers - are given to calling New York "the city that never sleeps.'' To which I say: Fuggitaboutit. You want to know the real city that never sleeps? This one, Egypt's capital and largest city.

With a population variously estimated at 15 to 20 million, Cairo has at least two times as many people as New York, almost three times as many. But that's not the reason it never sleeps. Cairo is up at night in part because it is very hot most of the year, and people like to do things after sunset when the temperature drops. Add to that the habit of taking a nap after work, and the codification of that habit, and you have a metropolis that's ready to go when the moon is high.

Mahmoud Abdelsattar, the witty, worldy concierge at the Fairmont Nile City Hotel, where I spent three of my four nights in town, knows the line about New York. "People say New York is the city that never sleeps. New York sleeps. Cairo doesn't. The best way to see Cairo is at night. That's when it is at its best, when local people are out. I tell visitors "Don't go to Khan El-Khalil (the 600-year-old bazaar) in the morning, go at night.' That's when it's really alive.''

Another reason Cairo is best at night: You see the glimmering city lights and not the air pollution that turns the sky beige in the daylight hours.

On my first visit to Cairo, last summer, I was returning to my hotel in a shuttle bus from a nocturnal show and party Star Alliance and Egyptair put on at the pyramids. It was about 1:30 a.m. The shuttle was slowly making its way through rush hour-like traffic on a roundabout. As we crawled forward, I glanced at the big dirt field inside the roundabout, rimmed by traffic. There, I observed entire families, wide awake, doing normal things: eating, talking, laughing. A group of boys were kicking a soccer ball around. Locals tell me that's perfectly normal. And these folks are not wraith-thin young clubbers, mind you; they are a cross-section of society.

When I got back to my hotel well south of midnight, I thought back not only on the people in the roundabout but how thick the traffic is nearly round the clock, and how unmindful locals are about walking right through traffic jams or even dodging speeding cars. People walk along busy elevated freeways at night; they cross downtown streets anywhere, hopping over concrete lane dividers. Wait for the light to change? I saw very few traffic lights in Cairo. (Just as well, because where they do exist, they seem more like a wink than a command to Cairo drivers.) Some places have sidewalks, of course, but many don't. Thus, the nocturnal highway ramblers and jaywalkers.

I tell you, for nighthawks, it just doesn't get any more all-encompassing than Cairo.

Iconically Iconic Icons

CAIRO - Are there any more overworked words in the North American version of the English language than "icon' and 'iconic'? More than 'awesome,' 'cool' and 'like,' I mean. As in"Like, that icon is awesome and, like, absolutely cool, totally.''

Well, I have just set eyes on the pyramids and the sphinx - ancient monuments that actually deserve to be called iconic. My wife, who shares my aversion to overuse of certain words, came up with the tongue-in-cheek description 'iconically iconic icons' to poke fun at the tendency to describe everything from signature restaurant dishes, to B-list movie and pop stars, to perfume and hair styles, as iconic or icons. Motoring west of Cairo proper to the Giza plateau, where the sphinx and the pyramids stand, is the quintessentially tourist thing to do in Egypt. But putting up with the photo hustlers, the hustlers who push camel rides (often the same people), the blowing sand and the heat of the sun is worth it, just to see these, uhm, iconically iconic icons.

The place is crowded, to be sure. With my hired professional guide Mohammed Abdelmaksoud ( showing the way, I paid 60 Egyptian pounds (about $12 U.S.) to pass through the security perimeter surrounding the site. The ground was hard and rocky, though there are some raised sidewalks on the walk to the Great Pyramid and paved roads traverse the site. I posed for the obligatory tourist snap after clambering up a few short sets of steps, at Mohammed's suggestion. Click! I walked back down. "It's hazy today,'' he said. It sure was. One could hardy see Giza City just a few hundred yards away, but that was just as well. It's not the prettiest part of Greater Cairo. Buildings are often jerrybuilt, fresh camel and horse dung marks the streets near the tourist sites.

There are actually nine pyramids at the heritage site, not just the three large ones you see on the postcards. I ducked and descended a paved shute bordered by handrails into the stifling, unadorned room at the bottom of the Queen's Pyramid, a small pyramid. "Just to say you went inside a pyramid,'' Mohammed said. Then we looked around some more, popping into the Solar Boat Museum (slightly overpriced at 50 Egyptian pounds) to view a reconstructed, sizable, two-prowed wooden boat that sailed the River Nile in ancient times. It is believed to be the oldest surviving boat in the world.

Onward to the sphinx, smaller than I expected and flanked in places by scaffolding - part of an attempt to protect the aging structure, which is incredibly weathered and apparently in some danger of returning to dust, but still impressive in its antiquity. The three major pyramids, too, are weathered but they are larger and quite imposing. The massive stone blocks used to build the pyramids by the brilliant engineers of ancient Egypt once had an outer skin of white limestone, but nearly all of this is gone. It must have been beautiful.

This is actually the second time I've seen the pyramids, but the first time I got close to them in the daytime. I visited Cairo in the summer of 2008, to cover the admission of Egyptair to
Star Alliance, the global grouping of airlines I am flying with now on my round the world trip. Back then, airline and alliance joined forces to put on a party for the ages at the pyramids, complete with a night-time lightshow and a performance by a British all-woman singing group called Bond. Whenever the MC called out their name and shouted "Bond!'' the jokesters at my table turned to one another and said, sotto voce, "JAMES Bond.'' The pyramids at night have a spooky quality; you are keenly reminded after dark that they were built as tombs.

Before returning to the Fairmont Nile City Hotel - I booked my tour through the hotel - I saw some actual icons (or ikons) in the original sense. These were paintings and other depictions of Christian religious scenes, handsomely mounted in the recently re-opened Coptic Museum, in Old Cairo. The gated museum, protected by heavy security and run by the Eyptian government, is a semi-hidden gem. It had few visitors when I was there - the better, for me, anyway - to enjoy the collection of textiles, sculptures, even a 4th century A.D. bible. Now, that's iconic.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Sun Shines on Fairmont Towers Heliopolis

CAIRO - Hillary Clinton checked out the day before I arrived at the Fairmont Towers, in the aptly named Heliopolis (city of the sun) district of Cairo, but the hotel staff was still abuzz about the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State and an entourage that included 50 security officers.

But then the two-year-old, light-filled hotel - a 247-room business redoubt near Cairo International Airport - sees frequent visits by high-profile people. One reason is its proximity to the airport, which sports a handsome new terminal (terminal 3) just several months old. Another reason is this is Egypt's governmental district; the presidential palace is here, as are other walled government buildings, interspersed with highrise apartments, along a broad, beautifully landscaped boulevard that runs between the airport and the congestion and bustle of downtown Cairo. Heliopolis is on the eastern side of the megalopolis (estimated population: anywhere from 15 to 20 million), and prime tourist attractions such as the sphinx and the pyramids are in Giza, on the western edge. Old Cairo and the River Nile are halfway between.

I tumbled off my 6-hour Egyptair flight on a sunny, breezy day and settled into my room: large, well-appointed, with a big, sparkling bathroom, a comfortable bed - covered with Egyptian cotton, of course - and a good-sized desk. My room looks directly out into the hotel's defining feature: a 5-story atrium, complete with skylight, a bar area, an indoor stream and clusters of tall palms and ferns. The business center is right off the main lobby, along with a good place to have a French-press coffee and croissant, which I did. Just past the reception desk in the lobby is a plush area tucked away behind closed doors: Fairmont Gold, a lounge with food and beverages and comfortable, modern furniture reserved for the Fairmont's best customers.

Hillary Clinton and her posse may have been gone, but the hotel was packed. Most of the property's guests are business travelers, according to hotel executives, and the meeting rooms below ground level were humming and crowded. My only complaint: smoking is allowed in the public rooms, so billowing clouds of tobacco smoke are abundant. This is a cultural feature in much of the world, including the Middle East, where smoking restrictions, let alone bans, have yet to widely catch on. Hence, the hotel goes with the flow. Otherwise, Fairmont Towers Heliopolis is a lovely property with a friendly, attentive staff; it earns its five-star rating.

For more information: Web: Toll-free telephone in North America: 1 888.0707. E-mail:

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Plans of Mice and Men

You know the old saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men. How things are known to go awry no matter how hard you labor over them? This just happened to me.

I am a seasoned traveler, no stranger to the road, but I had to scramble to make a new flight plan. The details are mundane; it was a perfect storm of a missed phone call, middle of the night departure time, heavy traffic to the airport ... you get the picture.

I was sad to miss the South Africa leg of my round the world trip on Star Alliance carriers, but heading there following the missed connection would have given me just one night in Cape Town. Too far to go for so short a time. So, I was unable to fly the blameless and well-recommended South Africa Airlines. I took a deep breath and re-learned the most important lesson for a traveler: flexibility.

I don't know about you, but when things go wrong, I prefer to speak to a live human, or failing that, start pinging e-mails to live humans. I found booking my RTW ticket online relatively easy, and I know the Internet is our friend, but I relied on the helpful folks at Star to help me get another flight the next day, this one to Cairo; they came through beautifully. Egyptair, which I was going to fly a few days later in any case, stepped into the breach for the ride from Mumbai.
(FYI, see my Oct. 27 post "Booking a Round the World Trip with Star Alliance.'')

Actually, Egyptair brought me on my first ever visit to Cairo, last summer, and there was a Star Alliance connection then, too. Egyptair was joining Star as a new member, and hundreds of airline employees and aviation pros jammed into a massive, air-conditioned tent at Cairo International Airport for the admission ceremony. The joy of the airline employees assembled there was genuine. They weren't blase, they were happy to be recognized as an international standard carrier.

The recognition was well-earned. I had an event-free flight to Cairo - the way I like them - a good lunch of spicy beef and rice and settled in for a good read on the 6-hour journey. I'll be flying Egyptair again on the next leg of my trip a few days hence.

Mumbai Memories

MUMBAI - The best way to learn the lay of the land in a new place is to hire a professional guide on your first full day and have a look around. See the places you like best, find out where they are. You can go back later and spend more time in the places you like best.

In India's largest city, with a population variously reported at 18 million, 20 million and above, this proved to be a sound strategy. I spent $72 U.S. for an air-conditioned car (important - it's hot in Mumbai), with a driver and the services of a professional guide from the India tourism offices. It was money well spent. The guide was good. In a bit of plug-o-la, I want to mention her and how to reach her; she is allowed to take freelance clients:

(Ms.) Ranjana Jain, e-mail, tel. 9833015701.

In a city the size of Mumbai, there are many things to do, and many things that stay in the mind. Two memories I'll take away: my visit to a central-city Jain temple, and hearing my guide clue me in to the city's enterprising, grassroots lunchtime delivery service.

The incense-scented temple, located in a busy, leafy midtown district, is a place of worship for Jains, 4 million strong, adherents of a religion founded in India by a contemporary of Buddha. My guide, whose surname is Jain, didn't identify herself as a believer, but she knows a lot about the religion. Basically, Jains believe in causing no harm and leaving the smallest-possible footprint on the planet.

"They don't eat root vegetables, because pulling out the plant means you kill the plant,'' she explained. "Also, you'll see people wearing surgical masks.'' Indeed, I did. "That way, they believe they will breathe-in fewer microbes. Also, they won't breathe germs on the statues in the temple, which are sacred.''

I thought my family and the school nurse when I was a kid were germ-adverse, but I had no idea.

Moving on around town, my guide pointed out a man pedaling a heavily laden bicycle.

"Are those his belongings?'' I asked.

"No, they are lunchboxes,'' she explained. Most Mumbai workers are men, and they live in the far suburbs and commute to work by train. The trains are so crowded, passengers can't even think of carrying anything. But many commuters like fresh-made lunches from home, not restaurant lunches. So, the wives pack a home lunch, these riders - called dabbawallas - pick them up in the suburbs and pedal back into town. The boxes are color-coded and marked with symbols - helpful in a country where many people are illiterate. The customers are regulars, they pay by the month. The dabbawallas drop off the lunchboxes at the work sites, pick them up again later and take them back to their owners' home. The next day it all starts again.

"This is unique to Mumbai,'' she said. "They are always on time, very punctual, very regular.''

In fact, the service - run by a private, 100-year-old organization with 500 stakeholder-riders, is so well-regarded, "Many management schools in India invite them to lecture on time-management.''

When you are in a place as crowded as Mumbai, necessity really is the mother of invention. Even in the heart of the city's apparent chaos, you must look closely: Sometimes, there is unseen order hidden just under the surface.

Terror Tourism?

MUMBAI - I read this in the Times of India the other day... Leopold's is a cafe that was shot up - with customers and staff killed - last November in a terrorist attack that also targeted hotels, the main rail station, and a Jewish cultural center:

"Leopold's has not shied away from taking advantage of this sentimentality (among tourists who want to see the site) and has monetarized its moment in history by creating memorabilia that customers can buy and take away with them. The cafe has been selling coffee mugs with an image of a bullet shot at 300 rupees ($6.60 U.S.) a pop. To date, the cafe has sold close to 4,000 mugs.''

Never-say-die example of the unquenchable human spirit or stunningly crass example of terror tourism? Your call.

FYI: I go more deeply into terrorism and travel in a section on my Web site,, called Soapbox. The piece in question is headlined "The Elephant in the Room,'' if you're interested.

The Taj Reborn, and the Elephant Race

MUMBAI - A few more details about the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower's rebirth after last year's terror attacks on Mumbai emerged in a chat I had last night with the hotel's public relations manager, Nikhila Palat.

I sipped masala tea sweetened with milk in the Sea Lounge, a Mumbai institution and romantic spot for generations of the city's courting couples and matchmakers, while she filled me in on the latest developments: The 260-odd rooms of the 1903 Palace wing are still being repaired and modernized, but some will be available for occupancy by the end of this month. Some parts of the hotel will take longer. For example, the ballrooms, which are acquiring licks of fresh paint, will be fully renovated and repaired "by March, hopefully,'' Palat said. The club rooms for the hotel's best customers, temporarily installed on the second, third and fourth floors of the Tower wing, will move back into the Palace wing "by April, hopefully.'' Already, the grand staircase in the Palace wing that leads from the ground floor to the Sea Lounge and various function rooms is fully restored; it is a beautiful, dignified entryway.

I could still hear some drilling and see workers moving about, putting the finishing touches on the Palace wing, parts of which are draped in netting and scaffolding. Presently, all guests are being put up in the circa 1972 Tower wing, the first part of the hotel to reopen after 26/11. It's quite nice, but it doesn't have the grandeur of the heritage part of the hotel, which Taj recognizes. "We want to give people the experience of staying like royalty,'' Palat said. But in the first year after the attack, "We had to lodge them in the Tower wing because of the situation.''

The good news is "the situation'' is nearly resolved. By next summer, the work will be wrapped up, and the Taj Mumbai will officially reopen with a gala party. It's good to see this famed hotel coming back - and given the enthusiasm and flair that Mumbai people display when they party, the gala should be a party to remember.

It's not related to her work at the hotel, but Palat tells a funny story about a festival in her home town that features an elephant race. For years, she recalls, a male elephant owned by her family won that race, and as a reward, the big guy was allowed to hold the cup that symbolized victory. But age caught up with him and one year, he didn't win. No matter. The elephant went over and picked up the cup anyway. None of the judges had the heart to tell him no. Or maybe they just weren't big enough.

It's a sweet story, and it says something about Indian culture. In my country, we have dogs. In India, elephants.

For more information: Web: Telephone (India): (91-22) 6665 3366. E-mail:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Reborn

MUMBAI - The service is gracious and calm at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. High-speed elevators whisk guests to the higher floors. Ceiling fans whirl and relaxed-looking people swirl chilled drinks at poolside in the courtyard Aquarius Lounge. Executives sip hot, spiced masala tea in the beautifully appointed business center, which occupies most of an entire floor and stays open and staffed 24/7.

During most of the hotel's 106-year history, these things would be unremarkable. Since its founding as Mumbai's (then Bombay's) premier 5-star hotel in 1903, the property has set standards of elegance. What makes it remarkable now is that all this comes less than a year since the Taj, the Oberoi Hotel, a popular nearby cafe and the landmark central railway station, packed with commuters, were attacked by politicized religious fanatics from neighboring Pakistan. The attack killed 183 people and resulted in a plunge of tourism to India. International arrivals fell off nearly 20 percent in the prime travel month of January following the attack, one of the most lethal assaults ever on tourist destinations (not to mention local civilians).

These days, the Taj is skillfully performing a delicate balancing act - balancing hospitality and security. The numerous staffers - the hotel has one of the highest staff-to-guest ratios I've ever seen - couldn't be kinder, and damage to the 1972 tower wing and 1903 palace wing has nearly all been repaired. Still, security is highly visible, and my guess is that it is meant to be, both to reassure guests, who are crowding the hotel again at the start of the Indian tourist season, and to deter anyone who might be thinking of launching an encore performance.

A necklace of hardened barriers and parked cars rings the outside of the hotel. Most entrances have been sealed off. Squadrons of security forces and police man the main entrance, which comes equipped with a walk-through screening machine; luggage is also screened. Just across the street, virtually in the shadow of the signature Gateway of India arch, the Mumbai police maintain a significant presence, parking a battlewagon labeled "Marksmen'' and a big blue bus. The Gateway will be the scene of a planned citywide commemoration of the Nov. 26, 2008, attack - "26/11,'' as it is known here - and Indians are debating how large the event should be and exactly what tone it should strike.

Inside, the hotel, the events of 11/26 - which has joined 9/11 (the USA) and 7/7 (London) in the numerology of terror - are neither played up or played down. Visible through an enormous picture window in the tower lobby is a lovely water wall; in front of the wall is a commemorative marker inscribed "In Loving Memory of,'' followed by a list of 31 names of staff and guests who lost their lives. "Now and forever, you will always inspire us,'' the inscription reads. Uniformed security men are posted at key points throughout the hotel.

All of which may sound intimidating or unwelcoming, but I haven't found this to be the case. People are enjoying this beautiful hotel again and the security presence helps assure visitors that it is alright to do so. The Taj is reborn, and it is a delight to the senses. A sumptuous breakfast buffet features the likes of sweetlime juice and assorted Indian and Western morsels. The rooftop restaurant Souk scores with desserts such as rose petal ice cream. Guests splash about in the pool and glide by with their wheelies, checking out and checking in.

As I headed off to the business center today, looking for an open PC, I passed the picture window in the lobby. A young man snapped a photo of his girlfriend, who sat demurely in front of the water wall. Overstuffed Western tourists passed by, heading out for city tours of bustling, vibrant, hyper-congested Mumbai. The rituals of travel and tourism are returning.

For more information: Web: Telephone (India): (91-22) 6665 3366. E-mail:

Monday, November 2, 2009

It's in the Stars

MUMBAI - You talk about your full-service hotels, consider this, on offer at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, in Mumbai:

"Destiny Planner: Our in-house astrologer is available from Monday to Friday 13:00 hrs-16:00 hrs. For appointments, please call the Business Centre on Extn: 3372.''

For those moments when PCs, printers and secretarial support is just not enough.

Touchdown in Mumbai

MUMBAI - First impressions of the megacity of Mumbai, population 18 million:

The airport needs an upgrade, but that seems to be coming. One big construction project is a forthcoming 5-star hotel. Also needed: a new terminal, to keep pace with growing traffic.

Flying low over the city, I am impressed by its sheer size: stretching in every direction, bordered by the busy harbor jammed with freighters, grey-sided navy ships, sailboats and mid-sized pleasure craft. At first, I think the flecks of blue I see across the city are backyard ponds; in reality, they are blue tarps serving as rooftops on improvised homes of the poor. Some 55 percent of the city's swelling population lives in slums, giving rise to the nickname 'Slumbai.' The driver taking me from airport to hotel points out the city's largest slum, then, shortly after, the jerrybuilt community, smoky trashpiles burning, where "Slumdog Millionaire'' was shot.

Motoring on into town, the traffic - motorscooters, two-wheel bikes, tiny black and yellow cabs, a man riding a white horse, ancient buses, a boy leading a goat down the street - is intense. We cross a new, 6-kilometer long suspension bridge that cuts driving time between airport and South Mumbai, where most foreign travelers go, to an hour from 90 minutes. We pass by a tall, new building. "The most expensive building in Mumbai,'' the driver says. Another massive structure: "Headquarters of Air India.'' A patch of green, men in their whites playing a game of cricket. A larger-than-life statue in a small park: Mahatma Gandhi, in his homespun and rimless eyeglasses. "Just 20 minutes to the hotel now,'' the driver promises. The ornate exterior of the British-built High Court and, finally, the graceful dome atop the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and, maybe a hundred yards further on, at the water's edge, the high ceremonial arches of the Gateway of India, fenced off and fronted by a milling, peaceful, almost festive crowd. "What the Statue of Liberty is to New York,'' the driver smiles, nodding at the seaside arch.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chillin' in Changi Airport on a Passage to India

SINGAPORE - Changi International Airport is routinely voted at or very near the top of world's best airports list every year by experienced world travelers, and you can see why. It took me all of 10 minutes this morning to whisk through check-in and security, ending in Singapore Airlines' Silverkris Lounge. Of course, it was only 5 a.m., but, still...this is an airport that works.

Changi, the home base of Singapore Airlines, recently opened a state of the art terminal 3; I flew into that terminal almost exactly a year ago when I traveled from my home in California to Singapore for an airline wine event hosted by the carrier's trio of wine consultants. I flew this year into and out of terminal 2 from my previous stopover in Auckland.

Terminal 2 is older but scrupulously maintained. It is graced by a marvelous indoor tropical garden, complete with a wooden walkway through the ferns, oversized flowers and other flora, and is enlivened by a sizable koi pond. Showers, a swimming pool and clusters of stand-up PCs for free Internet use are scattered through the smartly carpeted terminal.

In the Silverkris Lounge, where I waited for my flight to Mumbai on my first-ever passage to India, were dozens more free PCs, a good coffee-making machine, sumptuous Asian and Western food, and an array of free alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Large video monitors blinked overhead with flight information, and muted television screens showed BBC and CNN news.

How tuned-in to customers is Singapore Airlines? When I arrived early this ay-em, before the airport check-in desks were formally open, rather than make me wait, a reservation agent opened her station 7 or 8 minutes early to check me in. I can't think of many airlines that would do that, or many airports where it would happen.

Now, onto Mumbai, next stop on my round the world journey with Star Alliance member airlines.