Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Inn Above Tide

SAUSALITO, California - When I first heard the name of this splendid hotel The Inn Above Tide, I thought "Well, I hope so.'' That it's above the tide, I mean, not waterlogged.

No worries. The stylish boutique hotel, which bills itself as the only hotel actually on San Francisco Bay, is located right at the water's edge. Balconies outside the pricier bayside guest rooms hover a few feet out over the water. If you get clear weather, as my wife and I did at times during the Bay Area's typically foggy summer, you get a sparkling view of San Francisco from the hotel. Much nearer to the hotel, Golden Gate Transit and Blue and Gold Fleet ferries come and go, transporting commuters and cyclists with their bikes, along with plenty of sightseers. It's a lovely spot, insulated just enough from the hordes of visitors that throng Sausalito in summer, to feel private.

We stayed two nights, down from the originally planned three nights - not because we didn't adore The Inn Above Tide, but because we didn't adore its prices. Rooms fall mostly in the $400-$600 USD range, putting it into the 'special occasion' category for many people, including us. It should be noted, though, that it includes a full breakfast and a nightly wine and cheese reception (excellent cheese, OK wine) at 5:30 p.m.

We had a bayside room, so we got the extras, which included the aforementioned sweeping view of the bay, the city, the ferry docks, Angel Island, even glimpses of the industrial span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and slices of the East Bay. Our room came with a decent-sized bathroom, a Jacuzzi and a distinctive oval-shaped mirror. We also had a fireplace, generously stocked with that increasingly rare commodity: firewood. Wood fires are frowned upon, understandably so, in this age of climate change. If and when they are banned, we will willingly comply. Until then, there's nothing like the crackle and fragrance of a real fire. Gas flames, candles flickering in the hearth and hologramic "fires' are just not the same, and can't be.

The hotel doesn't have a full-service restaurant, so when you want lunch or dinner, you go out. There are plenty of eateries along Bridgeway, the town of 7,500's main street, several of them quite good, so leaving the hotel for a bite is not too arduous. Most of Sausalito's shops are short walks away. Oh, and the beds in the guest rooms are fabulous: spacious, with a good balance between soft and hard.

If the budget allows, and you're fine with staying across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, rather than in San Francisco proper, The Inn Above Tide is a fine choice.

The Inn Above Tide is located at 30 El Portal, Sausalito, CA 94965 USA. Tel. 415.332.9535. E-mail: Web:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Daniel Schorr

Back in 1981, when my first book was published, I hit the road to promote it. This gave me my first serious taste of business travel: the airports, airplanes, hotels, taxis, rental cars, bad coffee, worse food and blend of excitement and fatigue familar to road warriors. Those book tours foreshadowed the travel writing I do now - with additional time spent talking about the book in newsrooms, green rooms and television and radio studios thrown in.

It was frequently exhausting. Two things kept me going on my road trips to promote the book, a history and analysis of media and politics entitled "A Trumpet to Arms.'' One motivator was political: My hope that socially conscious writing like the kind that informed my book could have meaning. The other was personal: I was buzzed on words that Daniel Schorr, the distinguished broadcast journalist and writer, who died today, contributed to the dust jacket:

"This is a wholly admirable book,'' Schorr wrote in his blurb, "disciplined in its scholarship, balanced in its approach, edifying in its information, penetrating in its perceptions.''

Daniel Schorr passed away, aged 93, in Washington, D.C. this morning.

My hope is that he will be remembered for a long time. Schorr was tough and smart and kind. His words meant a lot to a young writer just starting out. More importantly, his work touched millions in a career that spanned some 70 years, beginning as a college stringer for New York newspapers and ending as a senior political commentator for National Public Radio, with lengthy and distinguished careers at CBS News under the legendary Edward R. Murrow and Cable News Network back when CNN was pioneering 24-hour, all-news television.

Along the way, Schorr, who didn't suffer fools gladly, irritated his bosses at CBS and CNN and was therefore pushed out of both places. He took on and deeply discomfited disparate and powerful people like Nikita Khruschev, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, William S. Paley and Ted Turner. He scooped the New York press with news that a little place eventually called Lincoln Center would rise on Manhattan's West Side. He covered the Watergate scandal with energy and probity. He controversially slipped a copy of a secret House of Representatives report on murky Central Intelligence Agency activities to the Village Voice newspaper when mainstream media didn't want anything to do with it. He made Richard Nixon's enemies list. He was enemy no. 17 and had the distinction of reading his own name on the air when he got hold of the list, drawn up at the behest of America's most paranoid president.

Between reporting jobs, Schorr had a short stint as a college journalism professor. His real teaching, however, was manifest in his own reporting and commentary. He set an example for everyone. Matching his example isn't easy for anyone. But Daniel Schorr, b. 1916, d. 2010, made it clear that engaged journalism, done with intelligence and fairness, can have meaning.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Grumbling Over Unbundling: Transparency Needed

Several years back, when the global economy went south, U.S. airlines started unbundling fees - that is, they began charging separate fees for things that used to be included in basic air fares, such as fees for checked baggage, fees for meals and so on. The airlines were losing billions but consumers got so used to cheap air fares - thanks to the emergence of low-cost carriers - major legacy airlines were not able to raise fares enough to recover costs, let alone make money.

Commercial airlines are just that - commercial, which is to say they are businesses. They need to make money. Problem is - as travel agents, corporate travel planners and just plain travelers have discovered - finding out what those fees are and how much they cost has proven to be complicated. Thus, the report this week from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), concluding that the federal government should step in and require airlines to be more transparent about fees.

The airlines hate this prospect and don't think it's necessary. A spokesman for the trade group the Air Transport Association responded to complaints by saying plenty of information is listed on airlines' own Web sites. Maybe so, but many people are finding the pertinent information difficult to, er, find. Which is to say, the sites are not sufficiently user-friendly.

The consequences are not small.

A Consumer Travel Alliance study released July 13 found that hidden fees can raise the cost of an airline ticket by as much as 54 percent. This was the highest of a number of estimates in the report that tracked fares and fees on selected U.S. routes for hypothetical travelers flying with one checked bag, two checked bags, etc.

Last week, Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, said that "100 percent of corporate travel managers indicated (in a BTC member survey) that unbundling and extra fees have caused serious problems for their managed travel programs,'' adding that "86 percent believe that airlines, absent government rules, will not make fair, adequate and readily accessible disclosure of their add-on fees and charges ...''

The upshot: it looks like new rules forcing airlines to be more transparent are coming.

Many critics, including the BTC, emphasize that they are not against unbundled fees per se, recognizing that airlines need to generate more revenue. They just want to know what the fees are without poring through arcane fine-print and spending inordinate amounts of time doing it. "That's why a reasonable measure of government support is needed,'' the BTC concluded, "to ensure that all airlines jump in together for the benefit of consumers.''

Industry lobbyists may yet halt transparency rules. The more traveler-friendly approach would be to sit down with regulators and determine what will work best for all stakeholders: airlines, agents, planners and, not least, business and leisure travelers. If information is power - as we are often reminded - travelers need to be empowered. And they deserve to be.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


If you follow the news in or from the United States, you may may have heard reports about a mob running amok in Oakland, California, in the wake of a court decision.

The reports are true. A mob did run amok in this city due east of San Francisco after a white former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the New Year's Day 2009 shooting of an unarmed black man; the officer testified he meant to use a Taser, not a pistol. Many people demonstrated peacefully early in the evening last Thursday, convinced the eventual sentence won't be heavy enough to fit the crime. Most kept their cool. A relative handful took to the city's streets after nightfall, looting a Footlocker store, burning trash bins, breaking shop windows and running around, pursued by Oakland Police Department officers.

After all that, a traveler might wonder why anyone would want to visit Oakland. In fact, there are good reasons to alight in Oakland, especially if you have visited San Francisco before and want to see something new in the Bay Area. Although it is riven by class and race - like the rest of the U.S. - and can be dicey in some spots at night, Oakland is an ethnically diverse, unpretentious, real-world city that travelers can enjoy. It's a 10-to-15 minute BART ride from San Francisco, accessible by ferry on San Francisco Bay - and by car, of course.

Here are some highlights for travelers that I - a long-ago Oakland resident - can recommend:

* Uptown, an entertainment district along Broadway just north of downtown, between roughly
17th Street and 24th Street. Uptown features the beautiful Fox Theatre (1807 Telegraph Ave., tel. 510.302.2277,, renovated a cost of $75 million after being shuttered since 1966, and reopened in 2009. If you're in the neighborhood, Neil Young is playing solo shows at the Fox on July 12 and 14. Nearby, on Broadway at 23rd, is Pican (2295 Broadway, tel. 510.834.1060,, a toothsome restaurant and bar that features top-shelf bourbons, bourbon cocktails and elegantly reimagined Southern specialties such as fried chicken that's been marinated in spices for three days before being battered and cooked. It falls off the bone. BART station: 19th Street.

* Lake Merritt. As old as Uptown is new, this downtown jewel - formed in the late 19th century when a tidal pool was sealed off from from San Francisco Bay - is a key stop on migratory bird routes for species such as snowy egrets. Lake Merritt, 3.4 miles around, is a brackish mix of fresh and salt water; you can rent kayaks at the Lake Merritt Boathouse, go jogging, skateboarding or rollerblading or just chill out. The vintage Grand Lake cinema and shop-lined Piedmont Avenue branch off from lakeside. BART station: Lake Merritt.

* Rockridge. A shoppers' and foodies' haven in North Oakland that snuggles up with neighboring Berkeley, Rockridge has some of the best food and drink in the Bay Area, matching more famous places in Napa Valley and San Francisco in quality. One of the Bay Area's most innovative restaurants, Oliveto (5655 College Ave., tel. 510.547.5356,, serves California Italian fare, has a great (if pricey) wine list, and is located in the European-inspired Rockridge Market Hall, where fresh produce, fish and flowers are on offer. Also on College Avenue is the accomplished deep-dish pizza source Zachary's, the admirable independent bookstore Pegasus and Pendragon and a cluster of antique shops and other locally owned businesses. The commercial district stretches 14 blocks from the Berkeley city line on the north to the intersection with Broadway in the South. BART station: Rockridge.

There is more, of course. I could mention the lavishly restored Paramount Theatre, the up-and-coming foodie favorite Temescal district, the local politicans' fave soul food restaurant Lois the Pie Queen, and many others.

Oakland's delights don't, and perhaps can't, surface in quickie news reports about the violent side of the city. But just for context, local media reported several days after the mob rampage that just 19 of 78 people arrested by police were actually from Oakland. Most of the rest were self-described anarchists who use any pretext to loot, break things and protest the world as it is.

"On Thursday,'' reported a local newspaper, "people in the Oakland crowd were incessantly texting, and hooligans who smashed store windows were stopping to snap photos and record videos of themselves to share with their friends.''

Decency and common sense didn't stop these people from having their fun in Oakland. No reason why the sporadic actions of a few should stop us from having our fun in Oakland. This soulful, gritty, working-class city by the bay deserves a chance, and a good look from travelers.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

San Francisco Resets and Rebuilds

San Francisco is one of the world's top tourism draws, but the city and surrounding Bay Area seem as eager as any Nowheresville to launch new projects and become even more popular.

That much became clear the other day when the nonprofit San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted its 100th annual luncheon, attracting nearly 1,000 travel-biz types to Moscone West, in the downtown convention center. Once they squeezed inside, the luncheon guests swilled wine and sipped cocktails - I didn't have any but they looked like martinis to me - this, at mid-day, before heading back to their offices. Woo-hoo! Let it never be said that San Francisco doesn't know how to party.

Beyond the centennial celebratory mood, though, matters were serious, as befits the city's biggest industry. Tourism generates $7.8 billion per year in revenue, according to the SFCVB's numbers-crunchers. Forty-four percent of visitor spending comes from international travelers, drawn to what many of them say is America's most European city. (Are they flattering us? Maybe. But we like to think it's so.) Moreover, the travel industry employs tens of thousands - more than any other business in town, even San Francisco's vaunted high-tech sector. But, as people around the planet have noticed, the world in still in the grip of a deep recession, so being nimble and inventive is crucial now, past successes notwithstanding.

I was surprised to learn that one item on the agenda of the bureau's new Centennial Project is choosing a new name for itself - maybe. I'll leave it to greater marketing minds than mine to decide whether this is necessary. Other cities, such as New York, with its NYC agency, have done this, but 'Convention and Visitors Bureau' has the virtue of telling people exactly what the organization does. Still, San Francisco authorities seem intent on rebranding the city, to keep up with or out in front of competitors. That's the 'resets' of the headline on this post.

"Rebuilds' is of more interest to me and, I suspect, visitors to San Francisco - as well as many of the 7 million people who live in the region. And there is tangible progress on this front, especially when it comes to travel and transportation infrastructure. To wit:

* A long-awaited cruise ship terminal, needed to replace outmoded facilities at a vintage wooden finger pier on San Francisco Bay that once served the old Matson Line ships, is being mooted for completion in 2014. San Francisco is not in the same league as Vancouver or Hong Kong as a cruise stop, but some 250,000 cruise ship customers visit the city annually and local tourism leaders think there is potential for many more.

* A wholly new Transbay transit terminal, to replace a delapidated and depressing facility opened in the 1930s, is on the agenda, too. It is scheduled for completion in 2017, at a cost of $1.81 billion. This will be the hub of the city's bus and tram system, which many visitors rely on to get around town, as do commuters. It may also serve as a terminus point of California's proposed high-speed rail line, which has received state voter endorsement and some needed federal funding. The system could be decades away, but at least a start has been made. At present, with the partial exception of the U.S. Northeast, America's train system - let alone high-speed rail - is a national embarassment. Changing that should be a high priority.

* In the short term, travelers will see a revamped and reopened passenger terminal at San Francisco International Airport, the Bay Area's busiest. This is the former international terminal, closed to passengers since late 2000 when a sparkling new international terminal was opened, and used for storage and offices ever since. The target for reopening - for domestic traffic this time - is spring of next year. Over the past decade, this has been SFO's version of the Arabian peninsula's Empty Quarter. It will be nice to see it humming and busy again, filled with updated facilities for travelers.

The Great Recession is a challenge to everyone, but an invigorated San Francisco is still very much on the travel map, and showing signs of staying there for some time to come.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day

When my English-born wife was growing up in London, she liked to look at the map of the world in her schoolroom. She was particuarly fond of gazing at the nations tinted pink on the map, signifying that they were part of the British Empire.

One big swath of territory that was not pink was, of course, the United States, which began a painful separation from England and its King in 1776 and completed it nearly a decade later by force of arms. This once-wrenching departure has long since become a subject of good-natured joking between Yanks and Brits, including my wife and I. Two hundred thirty-four years is a long time to nurse a serious grudge.

"You were spoiled brats,'' she told me this morning, with a glint in her eye. "Still are.''

"Yes, and now there are 320 million of us,'' I said.

Things have gone pretty well in the post-pink era between the U.K. and the U.S. Oh, there was the unpleasantness of 1812, when the British Army occupied Washington, D.C. and burned the White House. Talk about sour grapes. But matters haven't been so bad since then, as the Empire has softened into the Commonwealth and America grew up in fits and starts to become great.

The Englishwoman who became my wife arrived on these shores at age 19 the same way so many others did before her: by ship, after a stormy crossing of the Atlantic to New York harbor, in February. She is a whole-hearted traveler who has visited many places I haven't, and may have traveled more miles for pleasure and business than I have. We two didn't meet on the road but we could have, so intrepid a globetrotter is she. She is also one of the few people outside the travel biz who understands that travel writing is a job, not a hobby or a holiday, though its fascinations are many. We have traveled together to far-flung places - Hong Kong, Argentina, Japan, Uruguay, Chile - to nearby places - Canada and around the U.S. - and, of course, back to the U.K.

I think this July 4 - or 4 July, as the British would write it - we'll tune out those stressful times of 1776 and 1812, and the bombs bursting in air. We'll grill some burgers out back and drink some wine. We'll be grateful that the only explosiveness between our two countries in the post-pink era are Independence Day fireworks in the night sky.

Friday, July 2, 2010

That Herbert Hoover Feeling

The news comes these days in twos, with good news on one hand and bad news on the other - and major implications for travelers and the travel industry.


The American Automobile Association predicts that 34.9 million Americans will take a car trip at least 50 miles from home over this U.S. Fourth of July holiday weekend. That's a leap of 17.1 percent from the 29.8 million who took car trips over the same holiday last year.

The International Air Transport Association, the airline trade group based in Geneva and Montreal, reports that passenger traffic on the world's airlines jumped 11.7 percent this May from May 2009, while air cargo shipments soared 34.3 percent over May 2009. IATA also forecasts a profit of $2.5 billion USD for global airlines this year, a big upgrade from the $9.9 billion USD loss the airlines suffered in 2009.

Just as this welcome news arrives, however, the larger economy in the U.S. and Europe seems to be grinding to a halt, if not sliding backward. A tepid U.S. jobs report yesterday depressed markets, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average back below 10,000 - down 5 percent for the week in the steepest drop since the near-depression in October 2008. Moreover, U.S. consumer confidence, as determined by New York research firm the Conference Board, plummeted to 52.9 percent in June from 62.7 percent in May, driven by concern over a lack of jobs and Congress cutting off benefits to the long-term unemployed.

"Economists pay close attention to measures of consumer confidence as a proxy for consumer spending, which drives the bulk of the U.S. economy,'' explained a June 29 report on

There's more: The New York Times's Web site,, today stacked no fewer than six stories on the home page tracking economic slowdown and decline.

Times columnist Paul Krugman, a Noble Prize-winning economist, took it a big step further:

"We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression,'' he wrote, referring to the Great Depression of the 1930s and a long depression in the U.S. after the Panic of 1873.
"And this third deprssion will be primarily a failure of policy. Around the world ... governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending. ... Both the United States and Europe are well on their way toward Japan-style deflationary traps.''

Reading these signs and portents is enough to induce a sinking feeling - that Herbert Hoover feeling, to be exact.

Hoover, of course, was the U.S. President who presided over the Wall Street crash of 1929 and whose policies only made matters worse. Things improved under his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, but then Roosevelt slowed stimulus spending in 1938, leading to relapse in an economy not yet recovered from the collapse of 1929-31. We all know what happened next: World War II. If that tragedy hadn't occurred, we might still be in the Great Depression, for it was only wartime spending that ended the depression - at huge human cost.

What does all this macro-economic stuff and political history mean for travel? Plenty.

For one thing, even the good travel news contains signs that not all is actually well.

Giovanni Bisignani, the outspoken IATA director-general, said of the rise in the civil aviation business, "This is good news, but it is only a 0.5 percent margin. We are still a long way from sustainable profitability.''

Even the seemingly buoyant AAA forecast is not as encouraging as it looks at first glance. More U.S. motorists will hit the road this holiday weekend, but they are expected to spend less: a median spend of $644 USD this year, down from a median of $693 last year. Motorists seem drawn to the highway partly by the lure of relatively cheap gasoline (a U.S. average of $2.70-$2.80 per gallon) and because they don't want to spend money for airfares, which are up 13 percent in the U.S. from last year. They are not in an expansive, let's-spend-it mood.

If international economies stop recovering or even contract, travel will be among the first to feel it. Fewer people will travel. Those who do will spend less. Already stressed hotels, cruise ship lines and airlines will cut capacity, have to cut their rates and lay off staff. By some measures, tourism is the world's leading industry by production of revenue, and most travel-industry employees are working-class people - many of them living in developing countries - who will quickly fall on hard times if we really are in a third depression.

Sorry for the gloomy, foreboding tone of this post. But the first step toard dealing effectively with crisis is to see it for what it is.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Plane Stupid, Indeed

No sooner had Britain's new Prime Minister, David Cameron, moved into No. 10 Downing Street, than his government cancelled long-mooted plans to build a third runway at perennially congested London Heathrow airport. For good measure, Cameron decreed that no new runways will be built at London's secondary but still large and busy airports Gatwick and Stansted, either. The government cited reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and reduction of aircraft noise as the main reasons for scuppering new runways.

The decision has been hailed by British environmentalists such as the anti-flying group Plane Stupid as a solidly 'green' move. But is it? Is opposing the expansion of flying in a major developed nation that serves as a world transport hub desirable and practical? Cameron has proposed funding high-speed rail projects instead of building new airport runways. That's half-right. High-speed rail is indeed needed, but must it be either/or? Why not have both?

Don't get me wrong - I am a fan of high-speed trains, and rail is a fine mode of transit in densely populated Britain and continental Europe. But can land transport provide the efficiency, volume and speed needed in an interconnected global economy when aviation is constrained? When ash from the Iceland volcano disrupted European aviation this past spring, we saw what happens when aviation is crippled: Just-in-time deliveries that weren't, fruit and flowers rotting, millions of travelers grounded, their plans dashed. Cancelling the badly needed runways in London won't have a similarly sweeping effect, of course, but it will hamper transport at a time when modernization is needed.

There are additional sticking points: Some travelers will find nearby airports more attractive - Amsterdam, for example - and fly anyway. Others will drive to British destinations, increasing accident rates, further tying up already congested British roads - and, ironically, pumping more carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than those emitted by aircraft. Aircraft, which are becoming markedly more fuel-efficient, account for 2 percent of global greenhouse gases. In developed nations, that figure is more like 6 or 8 percent, but that is still relatively low compared to motor vehicles - not to mention dirty factories and polluting power plants.

David Cameron's decision is undoubtably well-intended, but the price that will be paid for this flawed version of environmentalism is dear. Plane stupid, indeed.