Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Driven Crazy

With the summer driving season upon us, the American Automobile Association predicts motorists in the United States will jump-start high summer by taking to the highways by the millions on the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. In fact, the AAA ( expects cheap gas and the desire to avoid the hassles and rising prices of modes of transport such as flying will prompt a whopping 17.1 percent increase in domestic driving over last year's Independence Day holiday.

All the more reason to drive carefully, yes? Speaking as one who feels lucky to have walked away from an accident two years ago when my wife and I were rear-ended by a drunk, speeding 20-year-old, this sounds abundantly obvious.

Yet, this morning's inbox contains a press release touting the results of a study commissioned by an organization called the National Motorists Association (, advising drivers which of the 50 U.S. states are most likely to ticket drivers. The assumption behind the release is that the tickets are unjust. Indeed, the release states the organization "has been helping drivers fight their traffic tickets for over 25 years.''

But as I can attest, not all traffic tickets are unjust; I'll bet you can verify that fact, too. The organization in question doesn't have any way of establishing whether its "fighting'' on behalf of innocents or scofflaws. Moreover, 'traffic ticket' is a broad term, covering a wide range of charges, such as DUI, speeding, running redlights and ignoring stop signs, as well as non-moving violations such as illegal parking. Are all traffic tickets created equal? I don't think so.

Intrigued if puzzled, I read on. Florida is the state most likely to ticket, I was informed, followed by Georgia and Nevada, which finished in a dead heat, so to speak, for second place. The state least likely to ticket? Montana. Wyoming and North and South Dakota are slow to hand out citations, too, according to the study.

All very interesting. But useful? What are motorists to do with this information? Not drive in the states that pull people over? Lead-foot it over to the states that don't?

"Nothing can ruin a vacation more quickly than an undeserved traffic ticket,'' the press release claims. Actually, something can: A traffic accident, whether it's your fault or not. A fatal traffic accident could end your vacation.

Maybe instead of keeping an eye peeled for cops, drivers should just slow down, look before changing lanes, use those ever-less-employed turn signals more often, exhale and enjoy the ride. The accident rate - not just the rate of ticketing - would go down.

It's summertime and the living is easy. Let's take it easy and live.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's a Small World After All

The sugary, often-quoted Disney song "It's A Small World After All'' actually seems to correspond to reality every once in a while. That's certainly true during the FIFA World Cup tournament, when eyes around the planet adhere to the television screen to see who will rule the world of international football for the next four years - and World Cup tourism pours needed revenue into countries such as South Africa, this year's host nation.

Indeed, a report from Visa Inc. says that South Africa's tourism revenue in the period right before the World Cup 2010 tournament started, and during the first week of play, soared 54 percent over the same time last year. Visitor spending was led by travelers from the United Kingdom, followed by the United States, Australia, France and Brazil. More than "90 percent of spending was in typical leisure and business categories - accommodation, restaurants, retail, automobile rentals and air travel,'' according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

My home country, the United States, is both part of this quadrennial sport and travel ritual, and not. Football - or soccer, as we call it in the U.S., to differentiate it from its distant descendant, American football - enlists many boys and girls in youth leagues. But on the professional level it is at most the fourth most popular sport, after American football, basketball and baseball - maybe fifth, counting ice hockey. American women have won a World Cup, but American men have developed only fitfully on the pitch and still don't seriously challenge the world's top national sides, regardless of what U.S. media cheerleaders say.

America's push to join the world of football is both aspirational and delusional. It's a good thing, I think, to want to share the excitement of what most of the world calls "the beautiful game,'' but delusional on America's part to think our national team is good enough to do that. It's not - not yet.

The men's side, bounced from the tournament by Ghana, 2-1, in extra time, was forced to end what a U.S. national newspaper hyberbolically termed "a thrilling run to the World Cup.''

Excuse me, did you say run? The U.S. played four times and won once. The Americans were lucky to draw in their opener against unexpectedly weak England on a goalkeeper's error, had to rally to tie a team they were expected to beat (Slovenia), had to rally again to win in penalty time on Landon Donovan's dramatic goal to beat another team they were expected to beat (Algeria), then lost their first and only match in the field of 16, scoring their sole goal on a penalty kick. Ghana punched in two no-doubt-about-it goals on strong, athletic runs downfield. In 390 minutes of tournament play, the U.S. led for just three minutes. This was not a good team.

America has flirted with football before. In 1950, the U.S. stunned England, 1-0, in what is still America's finest hour in the World Cup. The old New York Cosmos, featuring stars like Franz Beckenbauer and the legendary Pele in the twilight of their careers, drew crowds of more than 70,000 fans in the 1970s before the stars twinkled out and the Cosmos (and the North American Soccer League) vanished. In 1994, the U.S. proved a competent and enthusiastic host to World Cup play, selling out venues around the country for that year's tournament. Bringing the World Cup back in the next decade might help close the deal with American athletes and sports fans.

Football's growth in the U.S. continues to be steady but slow, absent a breakthrough experience. Major League Soccer, founded in 1996, in a feel-good era following the 1994 World Cup, is a developmental league, corresponding to triple-A pro baseball at best in calibre of play. Gifted players leave the U.S. to play for money and glory in Europe. MLS clubs like the grandly named Los Angeles Galaxy generally play small stadiums in places like Carson, California, a nondescript suburb - not in starry L.A.

As an American and a fan, I hope this sporting-world version of what political scientists, in another context, call American exceptionalism will end. I'd like to stop calling it soccer. I'd like to be able to go to a match like the one I caught in Hamburg during the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, when Germany hosted. There, I saw polished football, full of grace and strategy and speedy, pinpoint passing, as host Hamburg SV took on (and lost to) VfB Stuttgart in a Bundesliga showdown before a large crowd. That quality of play doesn't exist in my part of the world.

For now, I'll watch the World Cup tournament on television, and dream on about joining that small world the Disney carolsters sing about.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"A Gift from the Desert'' Exhibition

LEXINGTON, Kentucky - There may be no place on Earth more dedicated to the commerce and culture of the horse and that magnificent animal's relationship with human beings than this city in central Kentucky. So, it is fitting that a sweeping and ambitious exhibition of art and artifacts tracking that relationship over time would be held here.

The exhibition, "A Gift from the Desert,'' opened at the International Museum of the Horse (, located in the Kentucky Horse Park, set amid more than 1,200 verdant acres on the edge of Lexington, in late May. I was fortunate enough to get a preview of "A Gift From the Desert'' from the big show's co-curator Cynthia Culbertson and curator Dr. Sandra Olsen, and a walk-through with the museum's president, Bill Cooke. It is a magnificent exhibition, and I recommend it to anyone who travels to or lives in the area or has the slightest degree of interest in horses: riding them, watching them race, learning about the key role they played in the spread of civilization from the Eurasian Steppes, to the Near East and beyond. Horses dramatically changed human culture everywhere they were introduced.

"A Gift from the Desert,'' subtitled "The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse,'' celebrates the role of the sleek but sturdy Arabian horse in commerce, transport and warfare. Perhaps not coincidently, the main underwriter and sponsor of the exhibition is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation. Chevron and ExxonMobile, whose leaders may or may not know a lot about horses but indisputably know a lot about petroleum, also chipped in. The exhibit runs through Oct. 15, closing shortly after the time the World Equestrian Games (Sept. 25-Oct.10) comes to the New World for the first time. The games will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park and telecast in part in the United States by NBC.

"A Gift from the Desert'' is the third major international show the museum has mounted, following the success of 2000's "Imperial China'' and 2003's "All the Queen's Horses'' - the queen in question being Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who keeps thoroughbreds near Lexington. This exhibition, which draws heavily on holdings from the British Museum, tapped other museums, galleries and private collectors, too - 28 lenders in all, from 19 countries. There are 406 objects for viewing, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, armor, swords, spears, saddles, a recreation of an Arabian desert camp, and the actual traditional Arab garb and dagger of T.E Lawrence - the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.

The art and artifacts on view are accompanied by signs and text explaining context and providing background. (There is also a handsome catalog on sale in the museum gift shop.) Most of the writing is useful and interesting, though the prose occasionally turns a shade of purple and seems driven nearly as much by present-day political agendas as by historical scholarship. Of the Islamic invasions of neighboring lands out of Arabia, the text notes "Conquered peoples welcomed the balance that generally characterized Arab rule ... revolutionary in that era for its (embrace) of human rights for both men and women.''

Uh-huh. And now?

To my eyes, the most impressive item in the exhibition is the Standard of Ur. This is a smallish, painted, 4,600-year-old box, remarkably well-preserved and fascinating to behold, depicting men, horses and chariots and dating back to Ur, the Mesopotamian city believed to be the world's first metropolis. Made of wood and adorned with shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, it is ordinarily kept in the British Museum. Simply put, this artifact is magnificent. Its antiquity alone would make it worth seeing, but the Standard of Ur is artfully made, as well. By itself, it would be worth the price of admission, but the other 405 objects are not too shabby, either.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Flying Blind in Berlin

Earlier this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her government intends to impose a new tax on air travelers departing from German airports. The amount of the tax - expected to add from 8 to 16 euros per ticket to air fares - will be calibrated "depending on factors such as the flight's noise level and fuel consumption,'' according to the Berlin government. In other words, the levy is being positioned as an environmental mitigation tax.

Predictably, top executives for the world's airlines - gathered in Berlin to attend the annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association and the Berlin Air Show - were appalled.

Airlines, like other businesses, have probably never met a tax they like. But while the airlines' immediate negative reaction is predictable, it is not wrong. Although the tax - expected to raise 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion USD) for Germany's general fund - was introduced as a green measure, Berlin hasn't revealed any details of how it will use the additional billion to help our ever-imperiled environment. In short, this is a deficit-reduction measure, not a green measure. The environment provides political cover for the tax.

The United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands have imposed aviation taxes of their own, citing environmental protection as the rationale. But the UK's monies haven't been funneled specifically to environmental protection as far as I have been able to discover. The Netherlands actually repealed its tax after just a year; it collected 300 million euros, but found that travelers were booking flights out of neighboring countries instead of paying rising fares at Dutch airports.

IATA's director general, Giovanni Bisignani, rightly characterizes Merkel's move as "a cash-grab by a cash-starved government.'' Efforts to go green should be global, not national or regional, he says, and a new tax will damage struggling European airlines. In 2009, the world's airlines lost more than $9 billion USD; it was the worst year in aviation history. In 2010, IATA expects airlines to earn $2.5 billion globally, but German and other European carriers - hammered by weak economies and the Iceland volcanic ash cloud - will lose $2.8 billion USD.

The new tax will make their recovery even harder than it already is, Bisignani argues. German carriers fear they'll be at a competitive disadvantage and won't be able to pass the full cost of the tax along to their customers. If that proves true, the carriers will have to eat the cost.

"This tax is a body blow to the weak economy and a fragile industry,'' Bisignani says. "And it is a kick in the teeth to travelers at a time when they can least afford it.''

The bottom-line is this: Everyone wants to protect, and if possible heal, the environment. Civil aviation contributes 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions - less than cars and trucks and much less than heavy industry - but that percentage is expected to grow to 3 percent as air travel itself continues to grow. Travel and aviation must do their share to bring things under control. The question is: What is the best way to go about doing it?

Not this.

Bisignani was sardonic about the German new tax, fuming "What will this do for the environment? Absolutely nothing.'' However, his criticism has a constructive side, as well. "If the chancellor is serious about aviation and climate change,'' he has said of Merkel, "the focus should be on finding a globally coordinated solution at the International Civil Aviation Organization in advance of the climate talks in Cancun.''

He has a point. The airlines have their own interests at heart, to be sure - as they must - but there have got to be more comprehensive and imaginative ways to deal with climate change than slapping on a vague new tax. And, I may add, more honest and straightforward ways.

For now, at least, it looks as though Berlin is flying blind.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Parc 55: Renovated and Reflagged

In 1984, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Leonid Brezhnev were in power, there was no Internet and no e-mail, and no one had taken a photograph by using a mobile phone. 1984 was also the year the Parc 55 Hotel opened in center-city San Francisco. The hotel is still there, but it is much changed from 26 years ago - the biggest changes coming just recently following a $30 million renovation and a brand-new afilliation with the Wyndham Hotel Group.

I took a look at the 1,000-room, 32-story highrise - San Francisco's fourth-largest hotel - following a swell party for a hundred-plus of the hotel's closest friends. Managing director Rob Gauthier showed me around and related what $30 million bought. Actually, $30 mil is not big money as these things go, especially considering the 4-star Parc 55, a favorite among business travelers, redid every one of its guest rooms and corridors in addition to revamping public spaces.

"We added 9,500 square feet of meeting space,'' Gauthier told me as we walked out of a second floor meeting room into what had been a three-story-high atrium. Extending the second floor into former open space enables the hotel to lure corporate business and could help the Parc 55 go for what Gauthier considers an ideal mix of guests: "40 percent meetings, 30 percent transient, 30 percent corporate.'' The just-inked deal with Wyndham (see my previous post) was also done with business travelers in mind.

The big re-do - officially completed last year with an epic, 55-hour party and still being tweaked - also involved moving the main lobby up one level from the ground floor and giving the new lobby an airy and inviting contemporary design. The Parc 55 installed a cool cocktail lounge and a restaurant called cityhouse - written all in lower case - just off the lobby. Cityhouse, Gauthier said, is proving popular with guests, as well as locals who want a drink and a bite to eat after work. "It's also definitely increased our hotel capture,'' he said - referring not to the taking of hostages but to encouraging hotel guests to eat and drink, and spend, in the hotel instead of going out for a night on the town and spending their money elsewhere.

Alas, there's only so much anyone can do with the outside of the building, a nondescript mid-'80s highrise. But inside, the hotel sparkles.

I checked out the sweeping views of San Francisco and San Francisco Bay from the club floors and club lounge on the upper floors, and alighted on the anti-allergen 28th floor. Anti-allergen because the Parc 55 has installed in every guest room on that floor a small metal filtration device made by New York-based Pure Solutions; the manufacturers claim it filters out 98 percent of dust and other items that make sensitive people sneeze, wheeze, weep and sniffle. The new product is called Wyndham CleanAir.

The hotel's redesign was led by Gensler, the accomplished San Francisco-based architecture and design firm, and from what I saw, Gensler and its associates did a good job. I liked the high-thread count of the bed linens, the sharp look and subdued but far from dull color scheme, and the guest-room desks, which come complete with "jack pack'' power strip along the side. To underline its green credentials, the Parc 55 has installed low-flush toilets that save three gallons of water with each use. "That also saves us $250,000 a year,'' he said.

Along with its new look, the hotel has got a new, and rather long, new name: Parc 55 Wyndham San Francisco-Union Square. A hotel by any name is likely to find business tough in the Great Recession, however, and Gauthier allowed that this is so for his spruced-up property.

"We're seeing that the economy is coming back quite a bit on the East Coast,'' he said. But in California, where the subprime mess hit hard and official unemployment hovers close to 13 percent, "the group (travel) market is significantly still down and convention business is still off. It's very, very difficult for large hotels in San Francisco.''

Gauthier figures business will come back in a big way when the recession eases for real and in a sustained fashion. Until then, it's renovate, repair and prepare, with hopes of good times ahead for this nicely redone hotel.

Parc 55 Wyndham San Francisco-Union Square Hotel is located at 55 Cyril Magnin Street, near Fifth and Market streets, San Francisco, CA 94102 USA. Tel. 001 415.392.8000 or toll-free in the U.S. at 800.595.0507. Web:

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wyndham Meets the Parc 55

The Wyndham Hotel Group does not lack for size. The New Jersey-based unit of Wyndham Worldwide manages 12 hotel brands in 65 countries. There are a staggering 7,100 hotels in the group's portfolio; between them, they account for just over 593,000 rooms. That's a lot of heads in beds.

That's why it came as some surprise to this hotel industry observer that Wyndham made a big deal of partnering with San Francisco's renovated, highrise Parc 55 hotel, a formerly independent property just a block off the city's famed cable car line and two blocks from the shopping nexus of Union Square.

The 1,000-room Parc 55, which opened in 1984 and just spent $30 million modernizing and redesigning its interior, threw itself a party yesterday to mark the raising of the Wyndham flag. There was a hot Latin band, cool cocktails and heaps of good food to celebrate the occasion, and Wyndham's president and chief executive officer Eric A. Danziger was on hand for it all.

Given its global reach, doesn't Wyndham have enough rooms? I asked Danziger.

Not in San Francisco, he replied. The Wyndham brand has been absent from the city by the bay, and the company wanted to rectify that. "This is a vibrant and important city, and the Parc 55 has a great location,'' Danziger told me. "It's a great fit. We see opportunities especially for group business and transient business.''

Danziger's ebullence was matched by enthusiasm from the Parc 55's manging director, Rob Gauthier, who told me in a separate interview about the renovation and showed me around the hotel. (More on this shortly in another post.) Of Wyndham, he said the group's global reservation system should help immensely with bookings, while the Wyndham Rewards program - which allows for room upgrades and other perks - is bound to prove a plus with Parc 55 loyalists, who didn't have access to such a big program until now.

And make no mistake, Wyndham is not only big but getting bigger by the second.

Last week, Wyndham Hotel Group bought the Tryp hotel brand from Spain's Sol Melia, and now has plans to expand that brand globally. As mentioned, Wyndham already has 12 brands. Among them are Days Inn, Ramada, Howard Johnson and Travelodge. The Wyndham brand itself is the most upscale of the lot. In this it fits well with what has now been renamed the (deep breath) Parc 55 Wyndham San Francisco-Union Square Hotel. The Parc 55 is a 4-star property.

"We're expanding very fast internationally,'' said Danziger, a former CEO at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, who took the top job at Wyndham in late 2008. "We have opened 12 higher-end Ramadas in Japan. In China, there are 11 Wyndhams. There are a number of elaborate '6-star' hotels in China now. We saw an opportunity in the mid-market in China, where we are opening our Super 8 brand hotels.''

How about the Middle East, I wondered. There, too, Danziger said.

"We have 14 Ramadas in the Middle East, including Dubai, and we have positioned them at the high end.''

It's all part of global growth for Wyndham, which continues to push forward, even in the teeth of a stubborn global recession - which has, of course, hit some places far harder than others.

"Forty percent of our pipeline right now is international,'' Danziger said.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Five Cool Things in Zurich

ZURICH, Switzerland - There are more than five cool things to do and see in Switzerland's largest city, to be sure. Nevertheless, this is my list - short, subjective, necessarily incomplete - but helpful, I hope, for visitors to this lovely place.

1. Bathhouses - According to the informed sources at Zurich Tourism, there are some 40 public bathhouses in Zurich. Arrayed along Lake Zurich and the city's rivers, they are favorites among the locals and accessible to the public for a fee. The covered baths are for swimming in the day time. When night falls, the structures are transformed into happening bars and spaces for art exhibits and musical performances.

2. Kunsthaus. This is Zurich's accomplished museum of fine art, located on a hillside, sprawling across several floors and built around open central staircases. The museum has a superb permanent collection of painting and sculpture, spanning the generations from Old Masters to edgy, contemporary art. The Kunsthaus' Buhrle Collection includes first-class Impressionist work by the likes of Monet, Cezanne, Manet and Van Gogh.

3. Bahnhofstrasse and the new district. Bahnhofstrasse, an urban boulevard maybe three-quarters of a mile long, is pedestrian-only along much of its length and lined with designer shops and speckled with top international brands. Running from lakeside to the Baahnhof main rail station, the Bahnhofstrasse, served by electric trams, is a great place to stroll and browse. The cavernous rail station is filled with travelers and perfumed by cigaret smoke from stressed commuters at the busiest times. In late November and December, the Bahnhof is magically transformed into a popular Christmas market complete with a towering evergreen tree dressed with crystal stars. The expansive construction site outside the station will give rise to a new city district, dubbed Europaallee, scheduled for completion by 2019.

4. Zurich West. This former industrial zone of warehouses and factories is morphing into concrete-floored, high-ceilinged spaces for galleries, performances, restaurants and bars. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but once you step into the interior spaces, all becomes more lively. Housing is also being built in the area. Additionally, cosy new shops are going in beneath the arches of an overhead rail line and a covered market 1600 feet long is being installed. This is an area where young Zurich hangs out.

5. Marc Chagall's stained glass windows. Installed by the artist in 1970 inside the 13th century Fraumunster, a landmark church beneath a soaring clock tower, Chagall designed five 30-foot-high stained glass windows with depictions of scriptural scenes. Get there on a sunny morning to see the full, glowing effect of these color-washed masterworks. The church's older interior frescos, made by other hands, are not too shabby, either.

Oh, here are two more cool things - or, rather, cool events.

Zurich Festival (Zurcher Festspiele). Running this year from Thursday, June 18 through July 11, this three-week festival is an exhibition and celebration of concerts, drama, dance, opera and theater, at venues around town.

Picasso Exhibit. At the aforementioned Kunsthaus, from Oct. 15 through January 30, 2011. A revived exhibition of 70 paintings by Pablo Picasso, chosen by the artist himself for a show in this museum in the 1930s, will go on display for the first time in nearly 80 years. This is THE big art event in art-rich Zurich this year, and sure to be a hot ticket.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The New Biz Class on Swiss

As domestic air travel in my part of the world - urban North America - grows more pinched and ever more tedious, it's good to know that flying can still be fun sometimes, somewhere. Generally, this means long-haul flights on well-run, profitable carriers, and even more specifically, it means flying in the front of the cabin on international routes.

Why? Well, this is where most major airlines make money. Catering to high-yield business and corporate travelers who can pay for good service is good business.

One of the very best premium services I've experienced recently is the new business class on Swiss International Air Lines. Swiss, a unit of the profit-making Lufthansa Group, has just started to reconfigure its business product. I flew the old business class from San Francisco to Zurich last week; it was far from bad, but the new product is better - an upgrade in the sky. This is in keeping with Swiss' recent track record. The airline, which carried 13.8 million passengers last year, is one of Europe's best upscale boutique carriers.

I flew the new business class on my way back to California from Zurich on board an Airbus A340, the biggest aircraft in Swiss' 77-strong fleet. The first thing I noticed was the unusual, and unusually attractive, seating arrangement: 2-2-2 or 2-2-1. Every seat in the cabin is either at a window or on an aisle. I had a window, which I always prefer, and did not have anyone sitting next to me, which gave me room to spread out. My seat, like all the others in biz class, was backed by a hard plastic shell; so, when the passengers in front of me inevitably put their seats back, then all the way down, on our 11.5 hour flight, there was no intrusion into my space. I was, of course, able to do the same.

Swiss has a true flatbed, reclining to 180 degrees, not one of those inclined seats that makes you feel you'll slide right out onto the floor if you don't wear your seatbelt the whole time. That said, a seat is not a mattress. Passengers are able to tweak the hardness and softness of the aircushion seat, which helps a lot, though you can feel, slightly, the component parts of the seat. Movement in the cabin, aircraft noise and anticipation of arrival usually prevent me from sleeping on all but the most exhausting, middle-of-the-night flights. This was an afternoon flight. So, I didn't sleep. My fellow passengers didn't seem to have that problem; they were off in dreamland. Everyone I talked to afterward said they loved the new seats, and I found them decidedly better than what you usually find in the sky, even onboard top international carriers.

Then, there was the food. Airline food has long been the butt of complaints and jokes. In my days as a newspaper comedy critic, I heard comedians crack wise about airline food in nearly every stand-up show I reviewed. But, surprise. The food on Swiss is good. True, the airline ran out of my first choice on both flights, a minor annoyance that has happened on many airlines I have traveled with. Shouldn't customer surveys alert airlines about which of their main courses are most likely to be most popular, so they can order more? I missed the veal in cream sauce created for the airline by a Swiss celebrity chef. This was not entirely tragic. The moist salmon that I did have was more than acceptable, and I liked the emphasis the airline puts on fruity, fragrant Swiss Pinot Noir and mild Swiss Chardonnay. For dessert, there was good cheese and fruit salad but I, of course, also went for the fine Swiss chocolate, as who wouldn't?

The amenity kit came in smart, zippered Navyboot fabric bags and included the basics: eyeshade, earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste. An enclosed card told male passengers that a shaving kit is available on request, as are other items such as a shoehorn and sewing kit.

The in-flight entertainment system was very good, offering a wide range of choices for video on demand, TV, games, movies, many genres of music, a changing electronic map showing the progress of our journey - in short, the long menu of electronic distractions international business- and first-class passengers have come to expect. Creature comforts are, as always, nice, but I especially appreciated the work of the flight crew. The pilots often shared information - not a given at many airlines - and the seasoned flight attendants were friendly without sacrificing efficiency; there wasn't a grump in the bunch. That stands in sharp contrast to the attitude of too many FAs on U.S. carriers, where a sense of resentment mingled with a sense of entitlement has replaced hospitality; United Airlines, I'm looking at you.

Swiss is a member of Star Alliance, the largest of the three global alliances of airlines. Travelers on the twentysomething Star member-carriers can not only use airline code-shares to extend their routes, but also use other members' airport lounges. In Zurich, that's a good thing, as the sparkling, two-level Swiss lounge is a lovely, spacious place to unwind before or between flights. One suggestion: If the airport agrees, the lounge should be moved from before security to beyond security; travelers never know how much time they will spend in screening lines, and this would ease anxieties.

Swiss International Air Lines is based in Basel, Switzerland. More information can be found online at or by toll-free telephone in the U.S. at 1-877-FLY-SWISS.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Baur au Lac Hotel, Zurich

ZURICH, Switzerland - Back in 1844, the Baur family opened a newly built grand hotel on the shores of Lake Zurich. It was criticized at the time by local burghers because it was far from the center of the city - today's Old Town - and because it faced the lake; they couldn't figure out why a hotel would turn its back on the city just to provide views of some water.

Today, the Baur au Lac Hotel is 166 years old, still on the lake and still operated by the same family - now in the sixth generation. But what is most notable about the venerable Swiss property is not its longevity but its quality. The Baur au Lac, renovated in 2009 and featuring amenities like WiFi and a 24-hour business center, is unlike some heritage hotels in that it still has a palpable sense of history without looking or feeling worn. The multilingual staff is first rate, the hotel is lovely - especially inside - it has a great location near the shopping-mad Bahnhofstrasse and a classical concert hall, and the green expanse in front of the hotel is beautifully landscaped and manicured. There has been no shortage of celebrity guests at this Zurich landmark, from King Ludwig I of Bavaria, to Richard Wagner, Thomas Mann, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn. Actors Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere and Daniel Craig are regulars. I didn't spy any stars, but I am not an enthusiastic celebrity-spotter, so I wasn't disappointed.

Oh, and the hotel serves up awfully good food, too, both in its canalside Rive Gauche restaurant and bar, and in the fine-dining Pavillon, with its beautiful, circular main room. The restaurant lays out a sumptuous breakfast buffet from 6:30 a.m. and pours light, fruity Swiss and international wines at dinner. Pavillon also features toothsome menu creations such as a slightly sweet-fleshed monkfish entree that I dined on the first night of my two-night stay. There are no fewer than 700,000 bottles of wine stored off-site for use by the hotel, which distributes vintages from 60 producers throughout Switzerland and Liechtenstein. There is no wine - but there is good beer - in the guest room minibars. And in an unusual twist, the minibars are free; that may be unique in my hotel experience.

One of the best things in this upmarket, tradition-rich hotel is also free - namely, walking around the sumptuous public spaces and just looking at things. Hotel stairwells feature lovely stained glass windows, public rooms are graced with period furnishings, and a majestic black Rolls Royce owned by the hotel sits outdoors by the compact, well-appointed main lobby. The top-floor fitness center has an outdoor terrace with views of Zurich and the lake.

Just before I checked out to head for ultra-modern, spotless Zurich International Airport and my return flight, I heard peppy brass band music emanating from a vestpocket park across the street and saw a bandshell and people sitting in rows of chairs, listening to the music in the June warmth. It was a sunny morning in Switzerland, and a more serene scene would be hard to find.

The Baur au Lac Hotel is located at 1 Talstrasse, 8001 Zurich, Switzerland, tel. 41 (0)44 220 50 20, fax 41 (0)44 220 50 44, Web:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Talk With Swiss Air CEO Harry Hohmeister

EN ROUTE TO ZURICH - Aboard Swiss International Air Lines' flight 039 en route to Zurich from San Francisco, the first order of business after the pre-take-off flute of Champagne is a tete a tete with the carrier's CEO. For this I moved up to first class where, Harry Hohmeister, a tall, lanky 46 year old, was sitting.

This LX 039 was the first-ever Swiss flight to Zurich, the Swiss financial and technology center, from San Francisco, the titular capital of California's Silicon Valley high-tech whirl. Hohmeister made it clear that business travelers are driving the new, six-day-a-week, nonstop service.

"Ideally, what percentage of business and corporate travel would you like to see on this route?" I asked.

"100 percent,'' Hohmeister shot back, smiling. Realistically, he added, it will probably be about 35 percent. But given that business travelers typically pay premium prices, filling a third of the new Airbus A340 - the biggest plane in Swiss's fleet - with high-fliers will not be too shabby.

Swiss is now a member of the Lufthansa Group, having gone belly-up as an independent carrier in 2001. Hohmeister is himself German, but he emphasized in our interview that Swiss retains its corporate identity, its livery - a white cross on a backdrop of red, i.e., the national flag of Switzerland - and a bit of wiggle-room within Lufthansa, Germany's major airline. Lufthansa, which also encompasses Brussels Air, the British carrier bmi and Austrian Airlines, prefers to have a suite of brands rather than just one. This enables Swiss to offer direct service between San Francisco and Zurich, rather than forcing passengers to change planes in Frankfurt - and it leverages Switzerland's reputation for hospitality and efficiency.

As for those business travelers, Hohmeister pointed out that Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche purchased Bay Area bio-engineering company Genentech last year. E-Bay and Google also have significant corporate operations in Zurich, Switzerland's largest city.

"We like San Francisco and the Bay Area - it has a lot of important technology companies and environmental engineering. Also medicine and electronics. There is a high degree of linkage with Zurich's pharmaceutical companies.''

The pretty, hilly region around Zurich and its scenic lake is an incubator for "small and medium-sized environmental businesses, small start-ups,'' he told me. Switzerland is, for example, a leader in the production of commercial solar technology, and the whole Lufthansa cluster of companies is focusing on becoming more environmentally minded, experimenting with biofuels and flying lighter, less polluting and more efficient airplanes.

Although the parent Lufthansa mainline carrier is taking possession of its first Airbus A380 superjumbos, Swiss will not be flying the huge new planes. "Our own market is too small for the A380s,'' he said.

As for the other potentially game-changing new aircraft - the lighter, composite-material, fuel efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner - Swiss is taking a wait-and-see approach. "The 787 decision-making will not be this year, but we are in contact with Boeing.''

As it is, Swiss has done up an A340 is swirling, psychedelic-style designs, recalling the flower power age in hippie-era San Francisco, when the Haight-Ashbury district was briefly the center of the universe. The design was chosen by 30,000 voters in a contest by a Swiss newspaper.

There's nothing retro or nostalgic about the new Swiss business class, which I flew on the way back to San Francisco, on flight LX038. (I'll write about that in another post shortly.) With seats that convert to true flat-beds, plenty of personal space and an advanced in-flight entertainment system, the new Swiss business class - being rolled out over the next year or so -"is a very good product that is Swiss-based. You will not find a better business class anywhere.''

Hohmeister also weighed in on political matters dear to the heart of European airline executives. Like most of his counterparts, Hohmeister - a former Lufthansa and Thomas Cook executive who became CEO of Swiss last July - supports creation of a unified continental air-traffic control system. Known in aviation shorthand as "a single European sky,'' such a reform could cut operating costs on some routes by up to 25 percent, he said.

Hohmeister looks with disfavor on a new tax on air travel that Germany plans to institute this year as one means to pare its budget deficit. The tax could generate up to $1 billion USD a year in revenue for Berlin, German government officials estimate.

The industry opposes "taxes for environmental reasons that are going to the government. Where is the money we spend going to go?" If it was to go directly to environmental agencies and causes, and not into a general fund, it might be acceptable. "Then I would not be against it,'' he said.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Gratz Park Inn

LEXINGTON, Kentucky - I stayed in the renovating, century-old Gratz Park Inn for four nights on my first-ever visit to Kentucky's horse capital. I liked it - with one exception, noted shortly. The place is pretty, graced with flowers outside, and a warm, clubby bar and lobby inside, with antique reproduction furniture in the guest rooms and an unbeatable location.

Indeed, the hotel's location, location, location is a prime reason for staying there. (To wit: 120 W. 2nd St., tel. 859.231.1777, www.gratzparkinn). You can walk to the lively bars and restaurants in downtown Lexington, and the lovely, historic Gratz Park neighborhood is right there.

Unlike most heritage hotels, the inn is well-soundproofed; I heard little street noise or sound between rooms. Moreover, my room had a large, really comfortable four-poster bed with a first-rate mattress, set high off the floor.

That said, this vintage hotel - a member of the Historic Hotels of America trade association -
inevitably shows signs of age. The double latch on the door to my room didn't work (though the secure chain did), and I found it difficult to strike a balance between cool and warm; I never did figure out how to turn off the fan and keep the constant flow of air off me, though that's mostly my fault, as I should have just asked for help. The hotel staff was unfailingly polite and helpful.

The Gratz Park Inn falls somewhere between a three-star and a four-star property: a 3.5 maybe. The rating could be higher if a few things were fixed - and they may be when the current renovation is finished.

The aforementioned flaw has to do not only with the physical plant but also with the food: Specifically, breakfast. Served in a low-ceilinged, windowless room in the basement, with a big-screen TV playing, the breakfast was uninspired and service slow. I found the coffee, served with non-dairy creamer, undrinkable. But then, I'm a coffee snob.

This is a puzzlement, as the hotel hosts a first-rate fine-dining establishment: Jonathan's at Gratz Park; it is open only for lunch and dinner. The chef, Jonathan Lundy, looks like a college kid, but be not deceived; he is accomplished. Lundy's food is full of flavor, robust and hearty, and the restaurant has a good wine list with a fine selection of California wines. A Kentuckian, Lundy likes to tweak and update traditional Kentucky fare. He put his best recipes into an obligatory celebrity chef cookbook: "Jonathan's Bluegrass Table: Redefining Kentucky Cuisine.''

So, the hotel isn't perfect. I didn't expect it to be, and I didn't find its flaws off-putting. Not even the resident ghost that reputedly haunts the premises. In any case, I didn't see any ghosts, just generally well-satisfied guests, in this enjoyable heritage hotel.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Prince of a Fellow

LEXINGTON, Kentucky - Saudi Arabia is bankrolling most of a big new art and archeological exhibition about the long relationship between man and the horse - and to promote it, a Saudi prince came to this central Kentucky city to talk Arabian horses and Saudi soft power.

The thirtysomething royal, grandson of the country's founder, is head of the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation. Thus, Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal Bin Fahad Bin Abdul Aziz's interest in the exhibit, called "A Gift From the Desert,'' which opened at the Kentucky Horse Park's International Museum of the Horse ( May 26 and runs through Oct. 15.

I interviewed the prince, with Reuters writer Verna Gates, at a downtown Lexington hotel the day of the opening. Prince Nawaf entered in full desert regalia, accompanied by an entourage of watchful Saudi men nattily dressed in Western-style business suits. Gates and I were right on time. The prince was not, arriving 40 minutes late in the mode perfected by U.S. politicians and Hollywood movie stars. Once on the scene, though, he was affable and available, speaking largely through an interpreter whose English was not as good as his; the prince studied at UCLA.

We, who had been touring Kentucky horse farms, were not neatly dressed for the interview, but it was a rather quick invitation, almost a summons. We decided to go, despite our casual look; it's not every day that you chat with a prince. Not wishing to provoke an international incident, we lobbed softball questions and the prince stepped up to the plate.

Saudi Arabia, run by the hundreds-strong Saud family, decided to put this splendid exhibition - subtitled "The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse'' - in Lexington, because, Prince Nawaf said in so many words, Lexington is just so darned horsey. It bills itself as "the horse capital of the world.''

"With its history and knowledge of Arabian horses, putting it in any other city would, in my opinion, be a mistake,'' he said.

So, Lexington it is. The show (I'll write more about it in a future post) is magnificent. If you're in or near Kentucky, it is well worth seeing. Some 400 objects are on display, with the oldest going all the way back to the ancient city of Ur, 4500 years ago.

Ironically, though he is intensely interested in the sturdy, beautiful breed of horses developed on the Arabian peninsula, the prince doesn't ride - not anymore. "I used to be a rider, but after an accident I had on the horse, I stopped riding,'' he told us.

In theory, "A Gift From the Desert'' could have been put on anywhere, but it has been mounted in the U.S. the prince explained, because "Saudi Arabia and the people of the United States have a long-time relationship. Some do not know of this relationship. We want to enhance the connection between the United States and Saudi Arabia outside of the political phase.''

That has got to be a good idea, given the sometimes close but fitful relationship between these two very different nations. Both nations do, however, have a lot of people who know horses and care for them, and both have thriving breeding and racing traditions.

The prince opined that "a very limited number among U.S. people realize this fact,'' but said he feels "The ruling government of the United States realizes the friendship.'' Indeed, Prince Nawaf added that he considers U.S. President Barack Obama to be an interested and friendly head of state, and "all the people around the world'' have high hopes for Obama.

"I had the pleasure to meet him in Copenhagen,'' the prince said of Obama. "Although it was a short meeting, the way he greeted me showed that he really loves Saudi Arabia.''

I asked the prince if the Saudis would consider taking "A Gift From the Desert'' to other cities and countries if it is a hit here. He said they would.

One more thing about Arabian horses, and their importance in Saudi history and tradition: "The founder of Saudi Arabia, my grandfather (King Abdul-Aziz lbn Saud), unified the country from the back of a horse.'' Meaning, he rode far and wide in military expeditions, resulting in the creation of the modern Saudi state, in 1932.

With that, a smile, a handsake and a sweep of his robes, the prince was gone. That night, we would see him again at the show's opening gala, with its fashion show, Araby-meets-disco sound track, non-alcoholic wine (i.e., grape juice) and some very fine displays of jewelry inspired by Saudi traditional designs. And, of course, by horses.

Doughnut Nation

LEXINGTON, Kentucky - Nearly every culture has its own take on a basic staple snack: fried dough. In North America, doughnuts have been the fried dough of choice for generations, during which time people have formed firm opinions about who fries, shapes, sweetens and sells dough best. In this town, the capital of Kentucky's verdant horse country, that would be doughnuts from Lexington's own Spalding's Bakery.

A Lexingtonian described the glazed doughnuts at Spalding's, a local champion founded in 1929, as "Krispy Kreme on steroids.'' Spalding's may not have the nationwide fame that Krispy Kreme, another product of the South, enjoys across the United States, but it definitely takes pride of place here. Patrons line up early outside and inside the nondescript building across from the Jif peanut butter plant on Winchester Road, all to get an early start on the first doughnut of the day. I waited about 40 minutes last Saturday, and locals told me that was nothing.

But perserverance furthers. I took my first bite shortly after leaving Spalding's and savored it with a cup of coffee in hand. It was a glazed. It was sublime: sweet, aromatic and light considering the unavoidable calorie content. I'd recommend it to anyone. I am recommending it.

Spalding's had to close once, after spending 70 years at the same, too-small location. It reopened in new digs across from the Jif plant about 18 months later, after sending central Kentuckians into a frenzy of sugar withdrawal. Things are fine now. The customer lines are back, and you are as likely to see a judge waiting patiently to make his purchase as you will a man or woman in a blue-collar job. The family-owned bakery makes cakes, pies, cupcakes and other treats, too, but it's the doughnuts that prompt the line-ups.

These days, you have your muffins and you have your bagels, but doughnuts are not going away. Americans still love them - glazed, covered in chocolate, crusted in sprinkles, filled with jelly or cream - or should I say creme. Even so, the USA cannot claim the mantle of Doughnut Nation. That distinction falls to Canada. I have lived twice in Canada and can attest that Canadians have a love of doughnuts second to none. They eat twice as many doughnuts per capita as any other nation - maybe the cold weather and all that ice hockey makes doughnuts more essential. The top chain in Canada is Tim Horton's, named for a former hockey star, natch.

Americans don't have to cross an international border for their doughnut fix, though. If you're in the neighborhood, just head to Spalding's. It's located at 760 Winchester Road, at the intersection of Walton Avenue. It's closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Otherwise, Spalding's opens at 6:30 a.m. (7 a.m. on Sundays) and stays open till noon. (

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Way We Fly Now

Travel news in-boxs are filled with word of new, first- and business-class service on long-haul, international routes - where the world's major airlines make their money. Meanwhile, domestic, short-haul service in the United States, which used to lead the world in civil aviation, just gets worse.

Latest case in point: A trip I took this past week between California and Lexington, Kentucky, a city I liked. Getting there, however, was not half the fun.

I flew both ways on United Airlines between San Francisco International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The flights were packed. The seats back in steerage, where I flew, were lumpy, narrow and had almost no pitch - i.e., room between rows. The food for sale during the flights looked barely edible. The cabin crews were superannuated and often grumpy. Occasionally someone smiled.

Then it got worse. For flights between O'Hare and Lexington's delightfully named Blue Grass Airport, I transferred onto needle-thin regional jets contracted out by United to ExpressJets and operated as United Express. Think one flight attendent, even less room than on the mainline carrier and very limited space for carry-ons. I had to check my bag, something I almost never do, as it wouldn't fit into the Lilliputan overhead bin; at least, there was no checked-bag fee. Coming back, it was more of the same. And not a single empty seat - the result of fewer flights and smaller planes that United and other major airlinjes have put on domestic routes throughout the past decade, as they have been losing money and have thus downsized with a vengence.

Before the return flight from O'Hare to SFO, I bought a three-berry muffin at Starbucks. It was so lacking in flavor and loaded with sugar, I tossed it. Still hungry, I bought a tomato caprese sandwich at the rather grandly named Stefani's Tuscany Cafe in O'Hare. I figured it might be better than the food sold on the plane to economy class passengers.

Right after take-off, the passenger in front of me put his seat all the way back, and thanks to the usual paucity of pitch, it nearly became a windpipe-crusher. Then, oops! I dropped the fully wrapped sandwich on the floor; it bounced under my seat. Wiggle, bend and stretch though I may, there was no way I could pick up the wandering sandwich; there was simply no room. A United flight attendant made a sickly, sorry-about-that face and continued pushing the beverage cart down the single-aisle of the plane, not offering to help. Nearly four hours later, when we landed in San Francisco, I was finally able to retreive the sandwich.

So much for lunch. But, hey, I'll chow-down at home. Mistake. The tomato caprese 'wich ($8.35) was soggy and tasteless, threatening to give bland a bad name. I ate maybe half and dumped the rest; it had been like eating a fistful of Kleenex.

Ah, well, at least Lexington was interesting and fun. The way I see it, it's still rewarding being in new places, but more and more, I have come to dread taking air or land transportation in the U.S., with its neo-third world infrastructure and couldn't-care-less notion of hospitality.

Just another day in the sky in the United States of America, 2010.