Monday, November 29, 2010

Hawaii, Remembered Right

I recently returned home from one of my favorite travel destinations: The Hawaiian Islands, in this case, Hawaii, aka the Big Island. As always, it was a delight to be there and now it is a delight to remember.

I'll be posting some thoughts and accounts of my travel to the Big Island 'ere long, encompassing the island's sights, mountain coffee plantations, restaurants, postcard-pretty drives and the gorgeous Fairmont Hotel, where my wife and I stayed.

Until then, here is something to share: Mark Twain's prose-poem about the Islands. This memory was composed in a rush of rapture by Twain, aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who visited Hawaii just once, in 1866, only to languish off-shore on his only return voyage, prevented from making landfall by a cholera epidemic in Honolulu.

Here is a passage from Twain, just for the sheer beauty of it:

"No alien land in all the world has any deep, strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of the surfbeat is in my ear, I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the splash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished 20 years ago.''

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Opting Out of 'Opt-Out Day'

I am opting out of National Opt-Out Day - the protest over full-body scanners that are increasingly used in major U.S. airports - by not flying today. But then, I wasn't going to fly over the typically frenzied U.S. Thanksgiving holiday anyway. I know better.

Sensibly, most Americans are foregoing the airport protests that Internet organizers of National Opt-Out Day were calling for. Media reports say most U.S. air travelers are understandably more interested in getting to their destinations than in opting for intimate pat-downs - also criticized as invasions of privacy - in place of X-ray scans. If lots of people chose the time-consuming pat-downs, it would lead to prolonged delays at airports at an already-busy time.

Sensibly, too, opinion polls show that most Americans understand that the Transportation Security Administration - which handles U.S. air passenger screening - performs an essential service and is well-meaning, even it it does exhibit a decidedly tone-deaf approach to customer service and public relations. Imagine if no one was screened for your flight and a terrorist simply waltzed onto your plane. Dying in a terrorist attack could spoil your whole day.

TSA's security techniques need to be reviewed and improved, and public opinion should play a role, but civil disobedience or de facto slowdowns are not the way to make that happen.

The most sensible comments I found about this ill-conceived National Opt-Out Day come from the Business Travel Coalition, which notes:

"Airports have been high-value targets of terrorists for some 35 years. On Dec. 29, 1975 (New York City's) LaGuardia Airport was teeming with holiday travelers when a bomb exploded, killing 11 and injuring 75. Today, security best-practice around the world includes moving passengers from the non-secure to the secure sides of airports as expeditiously as possible. To promote actions that impede holiday travelers at non-secure airport checkpoints is irresponsible; to advertsie it in advance to terrorists is reckless.''

Another smart observation from the BTC, a leading trade group of corporate travel-planners:

"Treating all passengers transiting the aviation system as if they are equal threats to national security represents worst-practice because it is ineffective, costly and distractive of better practices.''

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tripbase Favorite 100 Travel Writers

It's always good to be pleasantly surprised, yes? Sure. That just happened for me - I joined some pretty fast company by being named one of Our 100 Favorite Travel Writers by the useful and engaging Web site They said some nice things in citing me, which I'll refrain from quoting out of (false) modesty, even in a baldly self-promotional post.

Seriously, it's an honor, especially given the quality and utility of the site. If you haven't checked it out yet and you're thinking Who Dat? click on over to and see for yourself. Basically, it's an encyclopedic and easy-to-use travel planning site and idea factory, as you'll see. Travel writers and bloggers share some of their secrets with readers, there are fact-rich directories of destinations, flights, hotels and more, and it's a good place to touch down early in the process if you're planning to travel anytime soon.

I don't have any connection to the site or its owners and operators, by the way, I just think it's good.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Travel and Myanmar/Burma

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release today from her latest house arrest at her lakeside villa in Yangon took me back to my visit to Myanmar (also known as Burma) at the start of the decade, and sparked renewed thoughts about the interplay of travel and politics.

I published some thoughts about that in a travel piece I wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, which the paper published as the Sunday travel cover story back on Oct. 22, 2000. Re-reading the piece today, I see very little I would change - including my comments about Suu Kyi's support for a trade embargo and total avoidance of travel by foreigners to her country.

Below are excerpts from that story for the Examiner. (Which was, by the way, then a professionally produced daily newspaper owned by the Hearst Corp.. Save for the name, it bears no relationship to the giveaway tabloid published today by other owners and written in large part by unpaid or barely paid aspiring writers):

YANGON (RANGOON) - It's mid-afternoon in the beating heart of the city. Traffic rumbles around the downtown park in the dry, baking heat. Local people stroll by, snacking on grilled meats at sidewalk food stalls, nibbling slices of fruit and cupping tins of cold water - captured from big chunks of ice that drip in the heat.

Burma is a beautiful country lost in time.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a woman of courage - demonstrated anew in September (2000), when she tested the limits of personal freedom by attempting to leave Rangoon for a political meeting, as she has done several times in recent years. The military, as it has done every time before, stopped her car, detained her, brought her food and water for a week, then forced her to drive back to Rangoon, where she remains under de facto house arrest, physically unharmed but also not free.

Viewing these struggles, I am hopeful that Suu Kyi and people like her will prevail and that deomcracy will come. But, in the meantime, as a journalist, I want to see things for myself and write about a wide variety of experiences. If I wrote only about people and places I approve of wholeheartedly, I would publish far fewer stories.

Most importantly, I am not convinced that tourism necessarily has to legitimize the status quo. In poor countries, it may well do the opposite - provided visitors deal directly with independent merchants and ordinary people outside official circles. In Burma, the average yearly income per person (circa 2000) is $300, one of the lowest in the world. Putting some money into their hands counts for something.

Moreover, tourism puts local people in contact with the outside world, easing their isolation - and lessening our blinkered provincialism. That counts for something, too. Burma/Myanmar calls itself the Golden Land, but in most of the world, it is more like the Unknown Land.

At my request, a senior U.S. diplomat in Rangoon explained U.S. foreign policy, which seeks to isolate Burma. He related some sobering facts: The junta closed the universities for four years because they were hotbeds of dissent, and it gunned down 3,000 protestors in the streets of Rangoon in 1988. To weaken the junta, Washington imposed an embargo in 1997 on new investment by American corporations (though not on Americans traveling to Burma).

But politics are rarely clear-cut, and sanctions and embargoes are not simple matters.

In the ''Lonely Planet Guide to Burma,'' a prominent dissident imprisoned by the military for three years takes strong exception to the U.S. embargo. Ma Thanegi writes:

"Two Westerners - one a prominent academic and the other a diplomat - once suggested to me that if sanctions and boycotts undermined the economy, people would have less to lose and would be willing to start a revolution ...

"Burma has many problems, largely the result of almost 30 years (now 40) of isolationism. More isolation won't fix the problems and sanctions push us backward, not forward. We need jobs. We need to modernize. We need to be part of the world. Don't close the door on us in the name of democracy.''

Ma Thanegi made me think about sanctions. Nelson Mandela credits international sanctions with helping to bring down apartheid in South Africa. If so, score one for sanctions. But the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, in place since 1962, has only impoverished Cubans and has not accomplished the announced goal of toppling Fidel Castro. And sanctions against Iraq don't appear to have harmed Saddam Hussein, just Iraqi children. Saddam, still in power (until 2003), seems to get all the goodies he wants.

As for staying away from countries with pariah governments, I think I smell a double standard. America resumed trade and travel to China shortly after the Tiananmen Square shootings of 1989. And Mexico, where students were mowed down in the streets of Mexico City in 1968, was a one-party dictatorship for 71 years before July 2000, but Mexico has not lacked American tourists.

Is Burma worse? I don't think so. I think it's smaller, weaker and farther away. It's easy to demonize.

I decided to go.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Barack Obama's Classy Move

There are bigger things on the agenda during U.S. President Barack Obama's Asia trip than symbolism, but symbolism counts, even if it's hard to quantify. That's why it was important that Obama stayed in the Taj Mahal Hotel and Tower when he and the First Lady visited Mumbai on the first leg of the tour. The Taj was the best-known of several targets during the horrific terrorist attacks of November 2008 by Pakistan-based Islamic militants on innocent people in Mumbai.

The attackers also understood the importance of symbolism. That is why they included the Taj - India's most famous hotel and a world-reknowned symbol of its travel and tourism industry - on the short list of targets. More than 160 people died in a three-day seige in which 10 heavily armed and well-trained killers held off Indian police until commandos stormed the building, putting an end to the assault, known in India as 26/11.

I stayed in the Taj during my visit to Mumbai, almost almost exactly one year ago. (My blog posts are achived under November 2009.) It was still being rebuilt and repaired at the time but parts of the hotel were nevertheless open for business. To say that security was heavy is an understatement. Yet, for the most part the hotel didn't feel tense and staff there had a let's-get-on-with-it air of determination and defiance. The hotel GM lost his wife and two children in the attacks, yet he still works there. Such bravery is hard to imagine and deserves respect.

It was that kind of spirit that Obama honored by checking in, becoming the first foreign head of state to stay there in the two years since the attacks. It was a classy move on his part.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hotel Melia, Bilbao, Spain

BILBAO - My home base during a recent visit to Bilbao - the biggest city in northern Spain's Basque Country - was the stylish Hotel Melia, a branch of Spain's Sol hotel chain. It's a fine central-city hotel, not quite as geared up to welcome international visitors as homegrown ones, but fine nonetheless.

You know how they say location, location, location is key to the success of brick and mortar businesses like hotels, yes? It's certainly key to the success of the Melia, comfortably located between compact, nice-to-look-at Dona Casilda Park and the Nervion River, which flows through the heart of Bilbao. Frank Gehry's brilliant Guggenheim Museum, the emblem of Bilbao since it opened in the 1990s, is a five to 10 minute walk away, depending on how often you stop to gaze at the high-quality sculptures along the riverside promenade and how long you linger. A modern, clean, swift and efficient public tram system runs right outside the hotel.

My room was on the ninth floor of the 10-story hotel - an angular, massive, modern building softened with glassy banks of windows. My room overlooked the park, which was bordered on the other side by a nondescript commercial district and beyond, in the middle distance, by rugged hills that shoulder onto the outskirts of town and help contain urban sprawl. The spacious terrace outside my room gave me a better look at the outdoors and was painted hot-pink.

My standard room had a so-so-size desk set up for Wi-Fi connections (which cost extra), a clean, mid-sized bathroom, a minibar, a good King-sized bed - in short, the amenities one would expect from a four-star business hotel, which is what the Melia is during the week. At night and on weekends, it becomes more of a social destination with a trendy bar that opens at 7:30 p.m.. One minus: There is no dedicated business center in the hotel. Rather, there are two PCs set up in the lobby at a raised desk at the entrance to the bar. Good luck if you want to work there late, unless of course you have a good deal of tolerance for noise. Newspapers can be delivered to your room for a fee, though I found none in English.

Aizian, the Melia's prime restaurant, is a good place to have breakfast, offering views of the park and a buffet. In summer, the restaurant spills out onto a terrace at the lip of the park, a well-kept greensward good for people-watching. Just down the road, toward the Guggenheim and its swooping titantium roofs, a highrise under construction takes shape, designed by 'starchitect' Cesar Pelli.

Indeed, this riverside area, which served as the main port of Bilbao until the mid-1980s - the port is now on the Atlantic at the river's mouth - is a brilliantly redeveloped central city. It is walkable, safe, clean and pretty, with several nearby bridges spanning the Nervion.
The Melia, located across the street from a large, engagingly designed (but not fully occupied) shopping mall, fits in seamlessly to this brightly renewed urban fabric.

Hotel Melia can be contacted by e-mail at, by telephone from outside Spain at 34 94 428 000, on the Web at

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lounging About With Fairmont

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts launched the first of what could be many tres-trendy Intersect media lounges the other night atop Nob Hill at the Fairmont San Francisco. I say 'could be' because - as regional vice president and general manger Thomas Klein told me at the opening reception - the San Francisco space is something of a trial balloon. If it works, Klein says, "Intersect will be rolled out across the brand.''

The Fairmont brand is spreading all over the world. The Toronto company is on a growth spurt that has prompted it to open plenty of new properties and tweak many old ones. Fairmont reopened the venerable Savoy Hotel, in London, last month after a massive renovation, and it has also renovated the vintage Peace Hotel (also formerly known as the Cathay) in Shanghai.

The San Francisco Fairmont, which opened in 1907 practically in the ashes of the cit's devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, was the first Fairmont. The high-ceilinged, marbled main lobby still has a rich traditional look and feel. That all changes when you descend one floor to Intersect.

Intersect is called a media lounge because it practically vibrates with big screen TVs - including one cool screen that shows a picture visible from both front and back. It also has a full bar and a screening room for videos and films, plus club-like mood lighting and low, designer-driven furniture, some of which is more fun to look at than to sit in.

Fairmont execs see Intersect as a way of modernizing this historic property while quietly containing the modernization within the beautifully classic "old bones' of the original structure. This it does very successfully. When you leave the lobby for Intersect, you're immediately in a different world. You can play video games in that world, certainly sip cocktails, enjoy little nibbles, order room service, take a meeting or just hang out. Initially, Fairmont execs say, the space - divided into three rooms - will be used chiefly for private events booked in advance, but the company is keen for customer feedback and the concept will probably evolve over time.

Fairmont partnered with well-known entertainment industry names to design and trick-out the space. Among them: Bang & Olufsen, Electronic Arts and EMI Music.

If you're in San Francisco and want to book Intersect, I'm told you do that through Catering.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Post-Election Travel Wishlist

Now that the dust is settling, sort of, from the U.S. mid-term elections, could we talk?

We need to talk about what resident Americans and international visitors alike need in ample measure: Transport infrastructure and a travel security system that work. Getting these things from a polity that is so fractured and self-righteously angry will not be easy. But the country that once had the finest travel infrastructure in the world is going to have to retool and rebuild if we want to get ourselves and our products from one place to another safely and in good time.

Politicians of all stripes always say they want to heal not divide and create jobs not destroy them. Transport is a good place to start doing these things. It is not as controversial as hot-button social issues and, as noted, transport upgrades are badly needed.

Yes, it will require raising revenue and spending some of it. But it will also pay for itself, as Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood back in the 1950s, when he authorized construction of the interstate highway system and generated thousands of construction jobs and countless more business opportunities for vendors and suppliers.

So, here is a shortlist of badly needed projects:

Highways. Ike's dream network needs to be repaired. After 50-plus years of use in some spots, it is in decidedly bad shape. I have seen much better highways in places as far-flung as Malaysia, South Africa and Spain. A stretch of interstate near my home in California that was supposed to be repaved in 2009 has still not been touched. Rutted, cracked and badly patched, it is in even worse condition now than it was in '09. Nearly everyone in car-crazy America drives on these roads.

Rail. We need improved and expanded passenger railroads, high-speed and otherwise, to take people out of cars, ease congestion in airports and be kinder to the environment. Japan, China, France, Taiwan, Germany and other countries show America it can be done.

Air travel. We need the long-promised next generation of air traffic control at U.S. airports. We are lucky there haven't been more fatal accidents brought on in part by antiquated, radar-based and over-extended systems. We need a GPS-based Next Gen system that will bring the world's largest aviation market into the 21st century.

While we are at it, could we have a sane, balanced air travel security system? I mean, employ the latest in technology - isn't the U.S. supposed to be a leader in tech? - and combine that with rational screening and, yes, a passenger profiling system built with a variety of criteria. Someone in addition to Caucasian grandmothers needs to be pulled over in airport security lines from time to time. Americans have a laudable desire not to scapegoat entire races and religions and envelop all their members in a cloud of suspicion. This is good, but people need to understand that political correctness and bending over backwards so as not to offend must give way to a more common-sense approach. Americans seem horribly afraid to offend people - including people who are trying to kill them.

Given the gridlock in Washington these days, it may be hard to get any part of this list put into play. But we can hope, right?