Friday, December 30, 2011


For nearly a year now, I have been following the news - with alternating elation and deep concern - about the Arab Spring as it manifested in Egypt and especially Egypt's fascinating, maddening, engaging capital city, Cairo.

Concern has been trumping elation lately. Never more so than today, when I read this paragraph in a Washington Post ( news story about Cairo:

"Since the spring, the (Egyptian) military chiefs have allowed or ordered major crackdowns on protesters that have left as many as 100 people dead, and they have sought to enshrine their powers in a new Egyptian constitution, but so far have failed. Now, the generals seem to be using civil society groups as scapegoats, accusing them of using foreign funds to support nefarious efforts to destroy Egypt.''

This after the military raided 17 Cairo offices of pro-democracy groups, confiscating documents and equipment and accusing the organizations - some of which are based outside Egypt and receive some funding from abroad - of, well, as the Post story puts it, "attempting to destroy Egypt.''

I visited Cairo in 2009 and 2010. I met some interesting people there and because I have done that, I know a little more and care a lot more about what happens in Egypt. Travel can do that for you. It was clear to me that there was a pent-up demand for democracy, repressed under since-deposed president, Hosni Mubarak. Such people don't want to destroy Egypt, they want to build Egypt. Now, it appears that Egypt is being burdened with Mubarakism without Mubarak. In place of an aged and out of touch dictator stands a xenophobic, anti-democratic army that may well be trying to restore a military dictatorship.

I hope the brass hats fail. And I hope non-violent resistence to their aggression will succeed. Only then can the millions given some measure of hope by what started in Tahir Square on 25 January 2011, return to building a free nation. And only then will gates to travel and tourism be fully reopened. Most foreigners are understandably skittish about visiting Egypt right now. In line with that, two of my frequeent U.S. freelance outlets cancelled commissioned travel features I was to have written about Cairo. That's a small annoyance for me. It's far more important for a poor populace that depends on revenue from Egypt's crucial tourism industry - think the pyramids, the sphinx, the Nile, the Red Sea, Luxor - to earn a living wage.

Here's to them. Here's to them in 2012, and beyond.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Inn on the Alameda, Santa Fe

I just signed on as a contributing editor to the New York-based Web site, where I'll be contributing the occasional piece on hotels, resorts and, as the site's title infers, airlines. It's a newsy site, especially if you fly a lot and most especially if you fly a lot internationally.

My inaugural piece is a review of the Inn on the Alameda, a charming getaway property in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is the top of the review:

"The Inn on the Alameda's general manager looked on as I checked in at this gorgeous Santa Fe boutique hotel and said "You look familiar. You've stayed here before, haven't you?' I had, once.

''In 2003.''

For more about the inn, go to - and check out for more travel features, news and reviews.

And Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you, too.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rest for the Weary

Quick, a show of hands: How many travelers think airplane pilots - some with hundreds of lives in their hands - should get enough sleep to fly safely before they take off? No one? Nah, I didn't think so. Me neither.


I think we can agree that pilots should be rested. Disagreement comes about on what 'rested' means, with airlines traditionally pushing pilots hard to keep working and pilots pushing back, saying they are tired, need more rest between flights and shorter working days. Recently, this long-running debate has taken place against the frightening backdrop of a fatal Colgan Air regional commuter jet near Buffalo, New York, in February 2009 that killed 50 people. Federal Aviation Administration investigators said pilot fatigue played an important role in the crash.

Yesterday - nearly three years after that terrible accident - the FAA ( issued changes to work rules for U.S. airline passenger pilots that had last been overhauled in the mid-1980s. Some rules date back to the 1960s. A good deal more is known now about the effects of sleep deprivation and the challenges posed by night flying, which is when UPS, FedEx and other cargo carriers do a lot of their flying. Controversially, the new FAA rules exempt cargo carriers, over the objections of cargo plane pilots.

It's taken nearly three years following the Buffalo crash to hammer out new rules primariy because airlines argued that stiffer regulations will cause scheduling problems and the subsequent operational changes would cost money. The FAA weakened the new rules in response, reducing the FAA's projections of additional costs to $297 million USD over 10 years, down from an earlier estimate of $2 billion USD.

The airlines have two years to implement the changes. Put that together with the nearly three years that have gone by since the crash of the Colgan Air jet - operating as a Continental Connection flight - and the delay will reach five years. That's a real sense of urgency for you.

As reported by the Associated Press in today's Washington Post ( "Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the Airlines for America trade association, said that the group is reviewing the new requirements. "We support changes to the rule that are science-based and that will improve safety,' she wrote in an e-mail.''

For those who track such things, Airlines for America, or A4A, is the new name of the U.S. trade association that used to be known as the Air Transport Association (

Just what are the rules changes?

According to a Reuters report published 22 December on, "The policy ... would reduce the maximum work day from 16 hours to 14 hours per day. Pilots would get at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis, a 25 percent increase over current policy.

"The rule also sets a 10-hour minimum rest period prior to flight duty, a two-hour increase over the old rule.

"The FAA imposed a 'fitness for duty' standard on pilots, who would have to certify before starting work that they are well-rested.''

According to media reports, the captain of the doomed Colgan Air flight logged onto a computer in the wee hours in an airport crew lounge - he apparently didn't get any sleep the night before. The first office flew overnight in a cockpit jumpseat to Newark, N.J. from Seattle, so she could get to work. Both pilots could be heard yawning on audio tapes recovered by investigators.

The AP noted in a line that is moving and chilling in equal parts: "Families of the dead have lobbied relentlessly for more stringent regulations to fight pilot fatigue.''

Monday, December 19, 2011

CD Cafe, Beijing

The year was 1996. It was my first trip to China - to Asia, actually. I just flew in to Beijing from Detroit on Northwest Airlines (when they were independent - remember?), hadn't slept a wink and was exhausted. Nevermind. A gaggle of Chinese artists and fellow U.S. journos wanted to go out that night for reveling purposes.

We motored from the highrise China World Hotel ( to an unprepossessing joint on the eastern Third Ring Road and tumbled out of the car. It was the CD Jazz Cafe, a local hotspot, a place, we were told, to hear live jazz. It looked from the outside like a cluster of cabins stapled together. Inside, it was cozy, soft-lit and - true to the name - a jazz band - a good one, composed of talented Beijing players - was holding forth on the small stage.

We settled-in with some surprisingly good local red wine - Dragon Seal. It was a good evening, if foreshortened by fatigue. When we later indicated with drooping eyelids that it was time to go to our pillows at the China World, an energized Beijinger exclaimed in astonishment "Americans!'' Yeah. Party-poopers.

Exactly a year ago, I was back in Beijing, staying this time in a smartly designed hotel called the Opposite House (, a stylish outpost of the Hong Kong-British outfit Swire Hotels (, where roaming staffers check you in on their iPads. Located on Santilun, the erstwhile Bar Street - largely transformed from an strip where visitors bought DVDs for one dollar U.S. into a high-end retail center where visitors and locals throng a big, glassy Apple Store - the Opposite House is just a short walk to the Third Ring Road. Pulling a wool cap down on my head, tugging on my gloves, I strolled through the neighborhood, past foreign embassys with their alert Chinese guards and over a highway overpass and there found, to my astonishment ... the CD Cafe, looking as tumbledown as ever. It's still here, I marveled. I was so wiped out on my first visit, I had no real idea where it was and I hadn't returned since '96.

I am pleased to report that this old favorite is indeed still there and evidently going strong. Called the CD Jazz Cafe for a long time, it served as a venue for touring jazz musicians such as Wynton Marsalis. Recently, it has been rechristened the CD Blues Cafe and Bar, because the place is now featuring - yes- blues bands. Small but mighty, the CD Blues Cafe and Bar is listed on cool Web sites such as Local Noodles ( and in Beijing publications for foreigners such as The Beijinger ( It also crops up in some guidebooks. Should you find yourself in Beijing, it is very much worth a visit.

Hope they're still pouring Dragon Seal.

The CD Blues Cafe and Bar ( is located in the Chaoyang embassy, fashion, shopping and drinking district near the east Third Ring Road. It's on the east side of the busy road, just south of the sprawling Agricultural Exhibition Center. It opens late and closes late. Local phone number is 6506 8288.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cell Phone Flap

The United States is working itself into a lather - something Americans so enjoy doing - over this week's proposal by the National Transportation Safety Board to ban all mobile phone use by drivers of cars. Some of the nation's 50 states already ban handheld devices. But the proposal by the NTSB (, a branch of the oft-reviled federal government, would ban hands-free devices, too.

It's America's Outrage du Jour.

This proposal will fail, for two reasons: First, it makes too much sense. Logic suggests that texting, talking or e-mailing from behind the wheel of a two-ton moving vehicle might be a tad dangerous. But logic has nothing to do with it, which brings us to the second reason for imminent failure: It would be seen as infringing on the individual rights of Americans, among the most individualistic people on earth. Some of my countrymen would rather be dead than allow Big Gov'mint to tell them what to do, even if it would serve the greater public good. And so, with the continuing explosion of smart-phone use by drivers, some soon will be.

But why sweat the small stuff? There is already push-back by phone-makers, states-righters, and don't tread on me types, and predictions are being made that any laws passed will be laws not enforced.

This is the time of year when travel-watchers predict what the coming holiday will be like. The American Automobile Association ( produces one of the most closely followed forecasts. This holiday season, encompassing Christmas and New Year's Eve and running from Dec. 23, 2011 to Jan. 3, 2012, will see 91.9 million Americans travel more than 50 miles, predicts the AAA. Some 83.3 million of them will drive, driven to their cars by rising air fares, crowded airports and airplanes, famously limited U.S. train service and slightly less expensive gasoline.

Think just how good it will be to have a teenage driver drinking and driving on New Year's Eve and texting something along the lines of "U cool? I had awesome cupcakes at grandma's'' while sharing the road with you.

Hold that thought, and Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Battersea Power Station

We bounce around the magnificent ruin, packed into a golf cart, yellow hardhats bobbing on our heads, as mist comes through where the roof used to be be and our guide points out the nesting place of the only known pair of peregrine falcons in central London. Someday, he promises, this place will be a chic dining, drinking, shopping and partying destination, served by a fleet of water taxis and up and running for the 2012 London Olympics.

"This place'' is the Battersea Power Station, located hard by the River Thames on the south bank just outside central London. The year is 2005. A Hong Kong investor has big plans for revamping the old power plant, a fixture on the river with its four towering smokestacks since 1933 and abandoned since 1983.

That was then. This is now: The battered old site is up for sale again, the Hong Kong investor having sold in 2006 to an Irish group that couldn't keep up with ballooning costs of redevelopment. The banks want their money back. The whole complicated, on-going story is detailed at in a terrific, if slightly saddening, New York Times story by Julia Werdigier, posted Dec. 9.

As it happens, my wife was born in and raised in Battersea, the gritty, gradually gentrifying neighborhood that surrounds the former power station - designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who, the Times story reports, "also designed London's red telephone boxes and the power station that now houses the Tate Modern museum ...''

Locals - and interested non-locals, like me - have been hoping for some time now to see a similarly glorious new chapter for the enormous Battersea Power Station - commanding even in decrepitude. My wife and I were briefly hopeful after our tour in '05, transfixed by a developer's vision that included putting a bar in the Art Deco control room, with its parquet floor and view of the vast former turbine hall. If that bar is ever built, it will become the coolest bar in London the day it opens.

Much rides on redevelopment of the listed building and its 40-acre site - including, apparently, whether Battersea will get two planned subway stations on the London Underground. Incredibly, this long-time working class area - now also a favorite of artists, architects and estate agents - does not have a Tube station to call its own. This must be unique for a district this size so close to central London. Posh Chelsea sits directly across the Thames.

I'd say Stay Tuned - one of those stock cliches so beloved by journalists - but you may have to stay tuned for an awfully long time to find out what's going to happen to this brooding old building.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

SAS Biz and Premium Economy

I recently traveled on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) between the United States and Sweden, flying premium economy from Chicago to Stockholm on the way to Sweden and business class from Copenhagen to Chicago on the way back. It was a good journey.

It will not come as a Stop the Presses moment for frequent fliers to read that business class is better than premium economy class on the same airline. That said, SAS's Economy Extra is a superior example of an increasingly popular type of service perched midway between biz and coach class. This past week, SAS won the annual award for best long-haul premium economy in a poll of frequent fliers for the U.S. monthly magazine Global Traveler ( It's not hard to see why. Unlike offerings by airlines that serve up premium economy with heavier doses of economy than premium-quality product, SAS features service that borrows more from Biz.

As the airline notes, "Economy Extra passengers on SAS's long-haul routes are seated in a separate cabin in seats that are one inch wider and offer six inches more legroom than in Economy. Other features include laptop computer power outlets at every seat, greater choice of meals and drinks and personal video screen with audio and video on demand. Economy Extra customers may use the Business check-in, have an increased baggage allowance, and access to Fast Track security, where available, and earn more EuroBonus points.''

Speaking of business class: It's good. I flew SAS biz class once before, in May 2007. It was fine then, but seems to have been upgraded, with better in-flight entertainment choices and enhanced food and drink menus. Surveys of frequent fliers show that most people care most about their seat and about on-time arrivals and departures. I care about those things, too. But on flights that can last 10 hours or so, I also care about amenities that some travelers consider frills: Namely, food and drink and ways to make the hours fly by when you're not sleeping or working: music, movies, games, TV.

As a corporation, SAS is a rather ungainly bird. The airline - which flew 25.3 million passengers in 2010 and was rated the 10th-best airline in the world by Skytrax ( that year - is jointly owned by the governments of Norway, Sweden and Denmark with 50 percent of shares plus one more share. The rest is privately owned. None of this matters in the sky, where service from a smoothly multilingual staff nicely strikes a tricky balance between attentive and unobtrusive, polite but not fawning.

About those food and drink offerings: SAS stocks the caraway-flavored Scandinavian liquor aquavit (Aalborg Jubilaeums), savory meat (lamb on my flight), fish and vegetarian entrees and open-face sandwiches. The wine list was short but well-chosen: One of the two whites was the French product Alain Grignon Viognier 2010; one of the two reds was a good pick from Chile: Falernia Reserve Carmenere 2009.

One more thing: SAS was cited as Europe's most punctual airline in 2010 by the respected research outfit FlightStats, which tracks such things.

In sort: Good airline, good ride.

For more information:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Japan's Travel Road to Recovery

Virtually every sentient being on the planet knows that northeastern Japan was devastated by a powerful earthquake and tsunami and severe damage to nuclear power plant facilities this past March. Sadly, the loss of life and damage to property was substantial. In line with that, travel to Japan - including parts of the country that were not affected by the tragedy, which is to say, most of Japan - fell off a cliff.

What many people may not know is just how successful Japan has been at restoring services and tourist amenities. Not everything is back to normal. Most seriously, the restricted area around the damaged power plant on the Pacific in the stricken Tohoku region will be off-limts for visitors and former residents for quite some time to come - but many services are running at near-normal levels in Tohoku. Travelers should also be aware that radiation levels in Tokyo are running below measured levels in many other world capitals.

Japanese tourism authorities are understandably eager to convey the message of near-normality. Constantly changing conditions are updated on the Web site of the Japan National Tourism Organization ( Another good source of current information about travel to Japan can be found here:

As a journalist who writes about Japan and a traveler who finds Japan one of the safest and most interesting countries in the world, I, in turn, have been eager to learn more about what things are like nearly nine months after the tragedy. To that end, I had lunch in San Francisco recently with Midori Yamamitsu, consul and director at the Consulate General of Japan, and her colleague Takeshi Kurashina, vice consul.

They told me that the Tohoku region is well-known in Japan for its succulent oysters, rice cultivation and fine sake, all of which help draw visitors to the region. Nowadays, these and other products are being monitored for radiation, to ensure that unsafe products don't reach the marketplace.

Over our lunch, I sipped a glass of Koshi no Kanbai, a clean, smooth sake that, I later learned, is one of Japan's premium sakes. (Thank you, Google.) It's called Pure Realm in English. Made in Niigata Prefecture in the Hokuriku region, it is an artisan sake that can be hard to find, even in Japan, but well worth it if you can.

Even amidst all the devastation of last winter, the beloved Matsushino island cluster has survived, I was told. Small, uninhabited rocky islands covered with pine trees, Matsushima'a 260 isles are counted among Japan's natural treasures. Local ferries are running again, though some long-distance ferry service is not. Also, the airport has been repaired and is up and running, though with fewer international flights. Tokyo's massive Narita and Haneda airports were never seriously damaged and are operating long-haul international flights as they always do.

The JNTO site states that no additional power blackouts are expected, though visitors may find the famous bright lights of Tokyo to be less bright in the near-term and some escalators in airports and train stations may not be operating.

It would be a stretch to say things are perfectly normal - just business as usual - but the rip-tide of fear that put the entire, and very diverse, island nation off-limits for travelers this year shouldn't be allowed to run rampant into next year.

Japan is still traveling down the road to recovery. The good news is the pace of that recovery is accelerating and the traveler's path is smoothing out.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sonoma's Blessed Olives

Olives - after wine grapes - are the second-most important crop in California's Sonoma - an unpretentious getaway destination and prime agricultural area. Sonoma is actually three overlapping places in the north central part of the Golden State - town, valley and county.

During the otherwise slow, rainy winter months, Sonoma puts on an annual three-month-long Festival of the Olive ( Local chefs feature the fruit in their dishes, bartenders vie with one another to fix the perfect 'dirty'' martini - spiked with olive juice and flecks of fruit - wineries set out olive oil tastings, hotels offer off-peak deals and the area generally celebrates all things olive.

As it happens, my wife and I are amateur olive growers. We have a few slender, young trees on our property and in recent years have home-cured olives we hand-picked from our trees. The goal is to make our own olive oil when we get a big enough crop.

So it was that we motored yesterday to the town of Sonoma for the blessing of this year's commercial olive harvest. The event took place before a hundred or so olive fanciers in the nearly 200-year old Somoma mission and church - the northernmost and youngest of the chain of missions built from Mexico's Baja California deep into the U.S. state of California from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Founded by Jesuit and Francican friars from Spain, the missions introduced olive trees to California. The variety - or cultivar - the padres planted is known today as the mission olive. This is the variety we have out in back of our house.

This 11th annual blessing of the olives was a lovely event, staged to the sounds of an acoustic trio playing (mostly) Mexican music in the long, deep, narrow nave of the old mission, which is still used for Roman Catholic church services. The blessing was performed in a soft, lilting Irish brogue by Rev. Michael Kelly.

Outside the church, in what is now a state park, mature olive trees flourish, providing, in the warm months, a sheltering canopy for picnicers (admission $3 USD). The church's full name is Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, and it humble but beautiful, with whitewashed walls, narrow windows and a weathered roof supported by wooden pillars.

Wendy Peterson, of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, MC'd, as half a dozen speakers extolled the health benefits of olives, spoke of the millennia-old olive oil trade born in southern Europe, the Near East and north Africa, proudly recounted the painstaking revival of historic, long-neglected olive groves at the California missions and hailed the modern American trade in olives and olive oil. California produces well over 90 percent of U.S. olive oil. In recent years, the state's growers have become mainstays of the organic, slow food, locavore movement.

Sadly, the nonprofit group that spearheaded the worthy work of reviving the old groves - the Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration and Education Project - disbanded after yesterday's ceremony. After 13-years of volunteer labor, its trove of knowledge is headed to the University of California at Davis and other educational centers where it can be cared for and developed.

If you visit Sonoma, be sure to sample some olive oil. If you have time for only one olive-inspired stop, check out the Olive Press shop ( at the far southern tip of Sonoma Valley. Then, sip some local wine. Combined, the olive and the grape provide a true taste of Sonoma - and California.

For more, phone toll-free in the U.S. 866.996.1090, or, when you're local, go to the visitors' center in the handsome brick building in the town of Sonoma plaza: 453 First Street East, Sonoma, CA 95476 USA.

Friday, December 2, 2011

What's in a Name? Myanmar or Burma?

What's in a name? When it comes to Burma - or is it Myanmar? - plenty. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discovered this on her visit to the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation, where what name you use indicates what your politics are or even what ethnic group you come from.

I, too, found this out when I ventured there a decade back in search of a travel story. I wasn't supposed to go, following the argument that tourism gives the corrupt government more revenue, while travel sanctions would weaken the regime. But the regime simply cut deals with neighboring powerhouse China and took in even more money that way. With tourism, at least some money makes its way to local working folk. When I was there, they averaged $1 USD per person per day in income. So, I went.

Burma is the older name. Myanmar is the name the ruling military junta, in power since the early 1960s, gave the country maybe 20 years ago. That makes it bad, right? My former newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, was among a number of Western media outlets whose editors thought so. The Examiner style gurus refused to use Myanmar, so my every reference in the travel section cover story I wrote after my trip was struck and changed to Burma for publication.

But things are not as simple as that. Burma is a name bestowed on the country by British colonial rulers. The Burmese are the largest ethnic group, but there are minorities fighting border wars with the authorities of long duration. Calling the country Burma is like saying most people in the United States are Caucasian so the country should be called the United States of Caucasia. Problem: It's not inclusive.

People who object to Myanmar do so because they don't think the junta should be free to rename - or rebrand, in marketing-speak - the country. But Myanma, without the R, was the name of a bygone kingdom in the vincinity; it refers to a place, not a group, and its use is more progressive than the name it replaced, despite the rotten reputation of the junta - which may be liberalizing at long last.

So, I'm sticking with Myanmar - even as I lament the name-change from the lovely Rangoon to the rather flat-sounding Yangon for the country's largest city. Happily, the city of Mandalay is still called Mandalay.

BTW, when I asked English-speaking locals in Yangon/Rangoon and Mandalay how the name of the country is pronounced, they told me the final R is silent. Imagine a southern American drawl, then say ''ME 'n ma,'' and you've pretty much got it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My story in Napa Sonoma magazine

If you are traveling in Northern California anytime in the next four or five months, check out my profile of Napa artist Gordon Huether in Napa Sonoma magazine. In time, the piece, headlined "Civic Artist,'' will be possted at, but for now, it is available in ink-on-paper form.

Here is the lead paragraph - the lede, in journalistic lingo:

"Walking around downtown Napa with Gordon Huether is not unlike taking a stroll with a hipper, artier Mr. Rogers. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and Huether, who owns an eponymous gallery on First Street, seems to know everyone: shopkeepers, restaurateurs, tasting-room servers.''

Page 30, if you're looking.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

AMR in Chapter 11

At last, years after fellow U.S. carriers went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization to cut costs, AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines, filed Chapter 11. It could - and arguably should - have been done long ago. (

For travelers, the impact won't be felt strongly, at least not at first. AMR's new chief executive officer, Thomas Horton, says that American - the world's third-largest airline - will over time trim its route structure and reduce the number of flights. The airline is operating normally and AA flights are landing and taking off at hub airports at Los Angeles LAX, New York JFK, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Miami and Chicago. Tickets are being honored as per usual. The airline's frequent flier program has not been affected, nor have its code-shares and other forms of cooperation with oneworld alliance partners Japan Airlines and British Airways.

The big losers in this filing are AA employees, who number 78,000, and now face layoffs and deep cuts to their defined-benefit pensions. AMR shareholders are simply sunk. The company's stock, which soared north of $40 USD per share in 2007, fell to 33 cents today. The Chapter 11 filing makes the stock worthless.

AA lost $162 million USD in the third quarter of this year; it was the 14th time in the last 16 quarters that the company has lost money. According to a report in today's Washington Post (, AMR has lost $20 billion USD since 2001. That number sounds high but if true, that is about half the combined worldwide losses of all airlines in that time-frame. It's an enormous amount of money, brought about by a combination of low-cost competition, volatile fuel prices and the high cost of servicing pensions.

Under Horton, who replaces longtime CEO Gerard Arpey, American has a chance to straighten up and fly right. The changes will be painful for workers and shareholders but, long-term, travelers will probably benefit from a streamlined, modernized airline. This is especially true as AA starts to take possession of the 460 new planes it has ordered - an order the company says will not dwindle as it makes its way through bankruptcy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Santa Fe's Kakawa Chocolate House

When I asked Peter Wolf, co-founder and owner of Kakawa Chocolate House, what got him into the business of making and selling chocolate, he smiled and replied without hesitation: "The buzz.''

I can see why. On a blustery, rainy morning in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when a power failure knocked out the lights, it was Kakawa's chocolate creations that proved illuminating. Nestled in an intimate former private home in the high-desert state's capital city, our small group peered through dim natural light at delicious-looking, house-made chocolate bars and chocolate truffles in their display cases.

The buzz Wolf alluded to made its presence felt when I sampled what he aptly described as an elixer. The naturally occuring caffeine and modest amount of sugar provided a pleasant lift, perfect for an inclement day. I was sipping a rich, dark, thick, largely unsweetened brew derived from a drinking chocolate favored by Thomas Jefferson. Served from a blue and white cup and saucer, it was unbelievably good, velvet-smooth. Kakawa whips up other chocolate drinks inspired by historical sources (as well serving its own, strictly modern creations). Some of these elixers are as close as we can get these days to the drinking chocolate enjoyed by Aztec nobility in pre-Columbian Mexico or, later, in the shops and cafes of Old Europe.

Wolf, a contractor when he's not selling chocolate, is a cocoa proslytizer. He knows, and cares about, the natural and cultural history of chocolate. A section on Kakawa's Web site is entitled "Cosmology.'' Kakawa's chief chocolatier, Ariana Rossi, has the chocolate molecule tatooed on her forearm.

If all this sounds a little bit precious, don't be put off. The quality of Kakawa's products justifies any explanation or marketing claim made for it. If you find yourself in the lovely desert town of Santa Fe anytime soon, go.

Kakawa Chocolate House is located at 1050 E. Paseo de Peralta (near the popular shopping street Canyon Road), Santa Fe, NM 87501 USA, tel. 505.982.0388,

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Misery Air: United

It's Thanksgiving Day in the United States, and I know I'm supposed to feel thankful, but when it comes to flying United Airlines - the big carrier at my main airport, San Francisco International ( I just can't.

My feeling about United ( can be summed-up like this: Misery, thy name is United Airlines.

My wife and I flew Chicago-based United from SFO to Washington Dulles International earlier this month, paying a bit extra for Economy Plus, to get a little extra legroom. That worked out OK, but what didn't go well was the passenger-flight crew relationship. Simply put, the crew on our flight couldn't have cared less about the comfort and convenience of their customers.

The main source of tension was the overhead luggage bins. By the time most passengers clambered on board the needle-thin, single-aisle aircraft - following frequent fliers, military people in uniform, and people who needed help boarding - the bins were full. Seated in row 7, I, for example, had to stow my carry-on in the bin over row 35. I was lucky to find a spot.

This situation has come about because airlines, led by money-bleeding United, have reduced the size of aircraft on many routes, slashed the number of flights and instituted extra fees for everything from extra legroom to checking bags, in an attempt to finally return to profitability. Hoping to save money in tight times, many passengers are, not surprisingly, opting to carry on their bags. The rub: There is not enough space for them. So, passengers struggle with their bags, increasingly frustrated, the boarding of aircraft is delayed and take-off is delayed, compounding frustration.

Rather than help, United flight crews such as the sarcastic, snickering bunch of flight attendants on our overbooked flight, all too often stand idly by, amused by the frustrations of their customers.

"Come on, honey, try again, honey, move it, honey,'' one FA said loudly as a diminutive woman struggled to find space for her bag. Later, in voices, loud enough to be heard by passengers, the FAs gathered in a tight knot and talked, laughing all the while, about a passenger who went fruitlessly from one side of the aisle to the other, trying to find a space to stow a bag. Another FA on the intercom said in a hectoring voice that the plane could not take-off until all the overhead bin doors were closed and if we wanted an on-time flight we had better get the lead out.

Blame the customers - it's the customers' fault for a situation United itself created.

United's largely notional idea of customer service came about several years back when staff had to give back benefits and wages to management bent on downsizing. Employees couldn't strike back effectively at management so they have taken it out on people they can push around - their customers - who, it must be pointed out, are the only reason these disgruntled employees have a job in the first place.

Back on Oct. 1, 2010, United merged with Continental Airlines, creating a new company, United Continental Holdings Inc. In recent years, Continental had forged a reputation for a generally well-run and traveler-friendly company. When I flew Continental in November 2009 from London to Newark, near the end of a round-the-world trip, I was pleasantly surprised by how good Continental was.

The merger has yet to fully finish-up, however, and the can-do Continental culture has not replaced the miserable United culture, even though chief executive officer Jeff Smisek came over from Continental to run what is now the world's largest airline. As a useful piece in the 24 November Chicago Tribune by reporter Gregory Karp points out, the new United hasn't received an SOC - single operating certificate - from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving the merged company permission to cross-crew its flights. Until that happens - Karp reports it should come soon - the customer-friendly Continental staff can't blend in with their United counterparts. (

As it is, the frequent flier programs of the two heretofore separate airlines will fully merge Jan. 1, 2012, and the company will soon take additional steps to become one in the coming months. As I and other long-suffering United customers can attest, it can't happen a minute too soon.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving a Travel Turkey?

The Thanksgiving holiday season begins in earnest today in the United States, where Turkey Day might just be a travel turkey again this year.

Why? Let us count the ways.

1. Crowds. No way to avoid them. Along with Christmas and maybe Fourth of July weekend, this is the busiest leisure travel window of the year in the U.S. Expect crowded airports, long lines at security and everything that goes with that.

2. Crowded planes. The airlines have been cutting back service, flying fewer routes and using smaller planes, since Sept. 11, 2001, and aviation downsizing has continued apace since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

3. Jammed overhead luggage bins. Smaller planes, combined with a three-year trend for U.S. carriers to charge extra fees for checked bags - Southwest Airlines is a notable exception - means passengers try to carry it all on, quickly filling the limited storage space in the smaller planes. As passengers struggle with luggage, it takes more time to board the plane, creating additional frustration.

4. High costs. Orbitz Worldwide Inc. reports that the average round trip air fare in the U.S. from today through Sunday, 28 November, has risen 11 percent to $373 USD from Thanksgiving last year. For road warriors, gasoline is also up and there will be crowded highways; the American Automobile Association forecasts 4 percent more people will drive to Grandma's place this Thanksgiving than last. Think it gets better at hotels? Nah. According to TravelClick Inc., the average nightly rate for U.S. hotels is 5 percent higher than last year at this time, at $126.35 per night.

What can be done about all this? Not a lot, but you can make incremental improvements, using loyalty points, paying extra for flying premium economy class and trading that SUV for a vehicle that sips, rather than chugs, fuel.

Short of that, well, just perservere. Getting there will not be half the fun, but when the turkey reaches the table at Grandma's, it'll be alright. Hey, it's still Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Road to Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, PA. - The road to State College - home of Pennsylvania State University - passes through wrinkled, weathered mountains, down long valleys flanked by tree-covered ridgelines, past modest farmhouses with satellite dishes in the yard and, finally, winds down into a hill-ringed bowl called Happy Valley. The enormous football stadium - Beaver Statium seats nearly 108,000 fans - is overlooked by Mt. Nittany, namesake of Penn State's Nittany Lions sports teams.

These days, the road to Penn State - which I drove with my wife and relatives last weekend for a fraught football game against the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers - is more like the road to purdition, and Happy Valley is far from giddy with joy.

As most people in North America know - and all fans of U.S. college football are aware - a high-profile former Penn State assisant coach is under arrest for alleged child molestation. Moreover, two senior Penn State officials are in custody for supposedly covering up the offenses and lying to a grand jury. The university president has been deposed. Penn State's legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, has been fired. Some of the alleged abuse occurred while the accused worked for Paterno and several alleged assaults occured on university property. Paterno is not charged with any crime, but the famously morally upright coach has been slammed for following only the letter of state law, passing on information about the supposed assaults to his university superiors but not calling police, himself. He resigned, effective at the end of the season, but was fired just hours later. By phone.

It was an intensely emotional time to be at Penn State at last Saturday's game, on a visit I had planned long before the current storm broke. I visited a community suddenly - and, it can be argued, belatedly - introspective. I saw people deeply saddened about the apparent experiences of at least eight abused boys and determined to rebuild their university's honorable reputation. The Nittany Lions football team walked arm-in-arm onto the field at the start of the game in a slow processional and knelt at midfield with their Nebraska opponents prior to kick-off. It was a moving moment. Nearly all 108,000 spectators observed a long moment of silence. One jerk yelled out "Play football!'' "Shut up!'' a woman retorted. After a few titters, the huge crowd was absolutely silent. There was eloquence and dignity in the silence.

After that, the game - won by the visitors, 17-14 - seemed anticlimatic. People understand there is more at stake than football. For Penn State fans, it was a singular experience, partly because of the seriousness of the charges of child abuse and partly because Joe Paterno was no longer on the coaching staff he joined as an assistant in 1950. It's hard to overstate how revered JoePa, is he is called, is in Pennsylvania. Back in the '80s, I strolled into one of the many lackluster "family'' restaurants that dot the state and nearly walked into a life-size cardboard cutout likeness of Paterno. I almost expected the coach to show us to our table. Last weekend, after wandering through lingering fall color on PSU's leafy campus to the hugely popular campus Creamery, I noted that Peachy Paterno - vanilla ice cream with peaches - is still on the menu. Well, for now, anyway.

Today, more sad news: Paterno's family just announced that the 84-year-old has lung cancer, supposedly treatable. Let's hope so.

There's a lot of accountability to be established, a lot of healing to be done and a long road ahead for Penn State - and there's a lot of thinking to be done about the wisdom of falling in love with a sport, a coach or an institution without also bringing a measure of scrutiny along for the ride.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Carmel, California's Aunt Fairy Bird

I lunched recently at Casanova restaurant, in Carmel, California, where I came across this short history of the restaurant's cottage-like building - rendered in what I'd call Carmel Hobbit architectural style - as printed in a local newspaper, the Carmel Pine Cone. I am reposting the undated item because I find it charming:

"Some years ago, we were walking along Fifth between San Carlos and Mission, when we suddenly heard a gentle "hello'. The sound came from behind a screen door in a tiny house, the worse for wear, just past the Shell station. We approached the door (which never opened) and met Aunt Fairy Bird, a small black lady who had lived there for over 50 years.

"Her house, situated as it was in downtown Carmel, was in truth a shack, but it was coveted by nearby landowners. She lived there alone for many years. When she died at nearly 90, not long after our only encounter, her house and a lot were the object of spirited bidding in an estate sale. We learned that she had once been the cook for Charlie Chaplin, that her husband Tom had been a popular handyman in Carmel, and that she was a handy-lady for several Carmel families.

"While cleaning uup her house, her executor found a great many Social Security checks that she had saved, hidden in the pages of newspapers and magazines. With him we helped open her safe deposit box and found a gold watch and two $2 bills. Aunt Fairy Bird's place is now occupied by Casanova Restaurant. Approach it with some reverence.''

Actually, Casanova is worth visiting not just for history but for cuisine. Run by a Belgian family, it is now a destination restaurant in this popular seaside town and is known for country French and Italian food.

Casanova is located on Fifth Avenue between San Carlos & Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California USA. Tel. 831.625.0501.

Travel Bug, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Just back from Santa Fe, New Mexico, with the smell of burning pinon pine still in my nose, and a sharp memory of 20 degree F weather and flying snow, in my head. To get in out of the cold - and just for fun - I stopped by Travel Bug, a welcoming and well-appointed travel books, map and travel accessories shop, right near the 400-year-old town plaza. After spending some time browsing, and buying just two of the many appealing books I saw there, I'm adding Travel Bug to my short list of great travel book stores, where it joins New York City's Idelwild ( and London's Stanford's (

Simply put, Travel Bug ( is terrific. You can sip an espresso or nosh on snacks at tables topped with topographic maps laid out under glass; pick up a GPS device or warm socks, a Tilly hat or an inflatable globe of the world. If you're in this ruggedly beautiful part of the world, be sure and stop in. Travel Bug is global in scope but locally rooted and independently owned. If you do stop by, don't forget to pick up a guidebook or street map of Santa Fe ($5.95 USD), an eminently walkable town, even if winter does sometimes arrive in early November.

Travel Bug is located at 839 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, NM 87501 USA, tel. 505.992.0418.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Five Cool Things About Stockholm

There are far more than five cool things about Stockholm, of course, but here are some I especially liked on a recent visit to the Swedish capital:

1. Ostermalmshallen Market. This spacious indoor market occupies a heritage building, and it is a beauty. Stocked with bakeries, fishmongers, cheese sellers, coffee makers, sweet shops, produce vendors and more, it's a great place to snack, shop or have lunch, and a great place to people-watch. On my first visit, a sharp-eyed local called my attention to Benny Andersson, the former member of ABBA, walking the aisles with an environmentally sensitive string bag. Shoppers and workers pretended not to notice him. Benny bought some cheese. Which is only appropriate when you consider how much cheese ABBA sold. Located on Ostermalmstorg.

2. The Royal Dramatic Theatre. In Swedish, the Dramaten. This ornate structure is the showcase for high-art, theatrical division. The great filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, also an accomplished man of the theatre, was artistic director there after he retired from filmmaking. Public tours, including the extensive costume department, are available to the public, and the classic, horseshoe-shaped main auditorium and marbled halls are impressive. Nybroplan.

3. Kvarnen. In English, "The Mill.'' A well-appointed, spacious tavern with a full, bustling bar and busy kitchen, this is the fictional hangout for Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson's insanely popular trilogy of crime novels - you know, the one that begins with "The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo'' and concludes with "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.'' I didn't see the tiny, punked-out Salander there or anyone who looked like her, but the fish is fresh and tasty, the schnaps and beers are cold and this is a lively spot to hoist a few and eat casually and well. It has a stylish edginess to it; when the manager gave me his business card, I saw that it is made of metal. Tjarhousgatan 4,

4. Gamla Stan. In English "Old Town.'' This is the narrow-laned part of town where Stockholm began in the 13th century. The heart of the district is perhaps unavoidably touristy but locals visit, too. The Royal Palace, the enormous and grand official residence of Sweden's kings, is in Gamla Stan, just off the water. In warm months, people sit outside drinking coffee - Swedes consume copious amount of coffee - or licking ice cream cones. Swedes supposedly eat the most ice cream of any people in Europe. Yet, Sweden is chilly. Go figure.

5. The Red Room at Berns Salonger. The Red Room is, incongruously for a stately European hotel and performing arts venue, a pan-Asian restaurant, albeit an Asian restaurant that also serves Swedish staples like the rich moose meat I sampled at lunch. Story goes: Some Chinese were stranded in neutral Sweden when China was invaded at the start of World War II, and couldn't get home. If you have a lemon, make ... dim sum. The Red Room was transformed into the first Chinese restaurant in Sweden. Before that, it was a haunt of artists and writers, including August Strindberg, a regular, who set a short story in the restaurant - then more like a private club, and pre-Asian - and entitled it "The Red Room,'' natch. Berzelii Park,

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


My aunt Sis Armstrong had another, given first name, but absolutely no one called her anything but Sis. I suppose that's because this late-blooming, intrepid traveler felt like kin to so many people. Sis passed away the other day, an unconventional person from a conventional background, who had an insatiable curiosity about the great world.

Sis didn't travel seriously until late middle-age, but by the time advancing years kept her from the road in her early eighties, she had seen first-hand parts of the world she only glimpsed in photos and dreams during her younger years: Spain, London and parts of southern England, Italy, much of Canada and the United States. In her later years, she typically traveled on customized tours with the estimable group Elderhostel, where professors and other experts gave talks and led tours of places visited.

She traveled independently, too, especially after she retired from a career in retail and work for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A working-class woman who didn't go beyond high school and lived her whole life in the small city where she was born, she largely educated herself.

At age 70, Sis and my mother - who, at the same age, had never been on an airplane - flew from Pennsylvania to my home in California. Once on the ground, they trekked all over San Francisco on the city's less-than-stellar public transport system, never deterred by unknown territory or inconvenience. Sis walked right up San Francisco's famous, and steep, hills with robust strides.

When she was nearly 80, Sis went with a group from her church to the Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where she served as an unpaid volunteer teacher, building bridges between cultures. Inquisitive, intelligent, fearless and possessed of a keen social consciousness, she was a remarkable woman in many ways. Engaged with her community, she was known to many, a beloved figure. Sis was one of life's true travelers.

Rest in peace.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ingmar Bergman's Projection Room

Near downtown, on a stately street near the university, through a handsome arched doorway, across the theatre lobby, nearly to the framed and mounted poster advertising "Fanny and Alexander,'' then up a few steps, is the modest projection room where Ingmar Bergman learned to love cinema.

The theater, a lovingly restored 1914 structure in the Swedish university town of Uppsala, is called the Slotts Biograph (in Swedish: Slottsbiografen). Bergman served as an upaid assistant to the projectionist while growing up in Uppsala, his hometown, in the 1920s and 1930s. The room, small but neat, is much like it was then.

The cinema,with its traditional single screen and non-traditionally comfortable seats, is a pleasure to visit. It still shows movies, including silents, though Slotts is no longer a commercial cinema. Rather, it is an arts center with a special emphasis on film. Theatrical performances, music, readings, meetings, even weddings for the heritage-minded, also take place there. The theatre operated as a commercial moviehouse until 1991. It was declared a monument in 1994. Extensively restored, it was reopened in 1996. With just 130 seats, about half as many as during Bergman's boyhood, it is more comfortable now than back in the day.

Visiting the Biograph was one of the highlights of my recent visit to Sweden and Finland. It provides a physical link to Sweden's rich cultural past and to Bergman, an Old Master who is to the movies what Rodin is to sculpture and Rembrandt is to painting. It's easy to imagine the boy Ingmar lifting a new reel of film and offering it to the projectionist, peeking out of the projection room at flickering black and white images on the screen of this marvelous, three-dimensional magic lantern and trundling home after the show to his grandmother's apartment.

She occupied an entire floor in a handsome building that still stands. This was the home fictionalized in Bergman's late masterwork "Fanny and Alexander,'' released in the early 1980s. Before that, making pilgrimmages to see Bergman pictures such as "Wild Strawberries,'' "Smiles of a Summer Night'' and "The Seventh Seal'' were artistic rites of passage for many filmgoers, including myself. His works survive as touchstones of 20th century European art cinema.

After retiring from filmmaking, Bergman (1918-2007) served in Stockholm as artistic director of the magnificent Royal Dramatic Theatre. Tours are offered in that cultural mainstay of central Stockholm and they are well worth taking.

Still, there is something innocent and beguiling about Slotts Biograph. It is easily reached from the central train station in Uppsala, which is only 40 minutes from the capital by train. If you get the chance, go.

Slotts Biograph is located at Lower Linnankatu 6B, 753 09, Uppsala, Sweden. Tel. 018.101101, e-mail

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Five Cool Things About Ventura, California

There are more than five cool things about the city and county of Ventura, in California. But here are some sterling places to go and things to do that especially appealed to me on my recent visit to Ventura, my first:

1. Downtown Ventura Historic District. This is an eminently walkable area filled with vintage buildings, many of them refurbished and repurposed, used for shops, bars, restaurants, museums and more. The heritage building where Earl Stanley Gardner, creator of "Perry Mason,'' had his law office and the old county courthouse just up the hill, now City Hall, are especially worth seeing.

2. Watermark on Main. Occupying parts of the building where Perry Mason's creator once worked, is the sumptuous Watermark restaurant and its rooftop bar, W20. Owned by the husband and wife team of Kathy Hartley and Mark Hartley - Mark's talent management company manages Olivia Newton-John and country music stars Brad Paisley and Clint Black, among others - this is a gorgeous tricked-out restaurant downstars with superior versions of California comfort food, along with live jazz. W20 was added-on upstairs and expertly blended with the heritage architecture. It has a lovely bar, really jumping at the weekend. Mark Hartley told me there are something like 16 venues that offer live music within a several block area weekend nights. 598 Main St., Ventura, Calif., tel. 805.643.6800,

3. Patagonia showcase retail store. The upmarket climbing and outdoor gear company has its mother ship in the restored and renovated Great Pacific Ironworks building, in downtown Ventura city. With a helpful, enthusiastic staff and row upon row of top-quality gear in a handsome redbrick building topped with skylights, this is the place to get in touch with your inner Sherpa. 235 W. Santa Clara St., Ventura, Calif., tel. 805.643.6074,

4. Santa Cruz Island. The largest island in Channel Islands National Park, and the largest island in California, this rugged, rocky redoubt for seabirds and rare wild foxes is reached by ocean ferry from an hour to an hour and a half from Ventura city harbor with the well-run Island Packers company. En route, you may well see swarming birds, leaping dolphins and the occasional whale; blue whales, the biggest creatures to ever inhabit the planet, have been spotted here. The island is largely bereft of tourist amenities but that is by design. It has sea kayaking and hiking paths galore. I did the strenuous 7.4 mile return hike from the pier to Smugglers Cove, with its sandy beach, gnarly-trunked mature olive trees and now-abandoned ranch house, to have a picnic and rest my weary bones. National Park visitors' center 1901 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura, Calif. tel. 805.658.5700,

5. The final cool thing is, er, actually two cool things, both located down the highway south of Ventura city in the town of Santa Paula. The California Oil Museum occupies the ground floor of a 19th century building downtown. It is loaded with old oil producing equipment used in the early days of the oil fields of Southern California and has venerable knick-knacks such as tall, spindly gasoline pumps from the earliest gas stations. Upstairs, fitted-out with period furniture, is the original headquarters of Union Oil Co., now part of Chevron: 1001 E. Main St., Santa Paula, Calif., tel. 805.933.0076, A short walk from the oil museum is the Museum of Ventura County Agricultural Museum. Opened in late September 2011, this fine new museum, located in a converted railroad warehouse, has old farm equipment, exhibitions on farm life, a strong interactive component to appeal to children and a clear, steady focus on the still-active agricultural life of the county, one of the United States's leading producer of fresh strawberries and its major producer of fine juicy lemons: 100 E. Main St., Santa Paula, Calif., tel. 805.525.3100,

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beam Me Up, Scotty

There's nothing like flying domestic in the United States - and especially flying domestic in coach - that makes me want to crib a line from the old "Startrek'' TV show and say "Beam me up, Scotty!'' If only it would work.

It's no secret to any frequent traveler that domestic flying, especially in the back of the bus - er, plane - suffers by comparison with long-haul transcontinenal or trans-oceanic flying, especially in the front of the plane where first- and business-class is located.

That gap is widening, especially in the U.S. - burdened as it is with airlines that have only recently resumed making money - and that could be temporary, given the state of the national and global economies. Old fleets, shrinking the size of planes used to create packed flights, cutting routes, charging extra for most anything - this is the legacy of a lost decade for U.S. carriers. An antiquated air-traffic control system and overcrowded airports racked with delays add to the problems.

I am fortunate enough to fly often in business and occasionally in first class on long-haul flights by top international carriers. When I fly domestic, though, I often fly coach. This was the case last week when I flew with United Airlines from Los Angeles (LAX) to San Francisco (SFO). It was situation normal all fouled up - again.

What went wrong? Well, no United employee appeared at the designated gate until the scheduled 4:35 p.m. departure, and then only to announce a gate change and a delay. New departure time: 4:58 p.m. Opps! Did we say 4:58? We meant 5:15. All three departure times turned out to be fiction. In fact, the flight went wheels up at 5:53. We left 68 minutes late for the 53-minute flight.

The personable pilot did his best to lighten the mood for frustrated passengers. "This is United flight 460, with eventual service to San Francisco,'' he announced as we sat on the tarmac awaiting permission to take off.

The various reasons cited for the delay were: plane arrived late at LAX; minor mechanical problem; air traffic backup at SFO due to bad weather; and, finally, the need to take-on some extra fuel lest we be ordered to circle before landing in San Francisco. (We weren't.) There was, of course, no room to cross one's legs or retrieve items stored under the seat in front, given how tighty packed the rows of narrow seats were. The bad food for sale on the plane? Don't ask.

Well, so, you might say: What's the big deal? This is absolutely normal. And that's true. That's my point: It's absolutely normal.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Argentina's Santa Julia (+) Wines

Four years ago, my wife and I visited the Southern Cone countries of South America: Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. Most of the trip was first-rate, never more so than in Mendoza, the high, arid province where 75 percent of Argentina's affordable, world-class wines are produced. Over several days, we visited maybe half a dozen wineries - bodegas. We wound up our touring at Familia Zuccardi, a sprawling, family-owned spread at the foot of the magnificent Andes - which were still wearing a spring cloak of snow when we visited.

While touring the property with a company guide, we spied a table in the vineyards, set with cutlery on white linen. "Wouldn't it be incredible to have glass of wine there?" I said to my wife, nodding toward the table. "You will,'' our guide interjected. "That's your table.'' So, we did have wine there - Zuccardi wines, of course - some made from grapes grown in that very vineyard, along with fresh bread, cheeses and Mendoza olive oil.

Yesterday, I did the next best thing to traveling back to Mendoza; I attended a press luncheon in California for Zuccardi Wines. Zuccardi's vintages are becoming increasingly available in the United States, which the company counts as one of its primary global markets. Chicago's Winesellers Ltd. ( imports the wines, which retail in the $9-10 USD range in the U.S.

Over lunch at the South American-themed San Francisco restaurant Destino, we tasted sustainably produced vintages - some of them organic - from the winery's new Santa Julia (+) line. It wasn't the same as being in Argentina, to be sure, but the presence of Julia Zuccardi - the line's namesake - helped bring a bit of Argentina to us. Julia, fluent in English, heads up the winery's active tourism division ( and plays a key role in marketing. Also on hand to help out with the meal was Argentine chef Ana Rodriguez Armisen, from Famiia Zuccardi.

The wines were supple, rounded and, as the saying has it, fruit-forward, with a smooth finish not often associated with wines in that modest price range. They were also markedly better than most organic wines I have tasted - which are finally getting better, as more producers gain experience making them. Her family's winery, Julia Zuccardi says, has been embracing sustainability for 10 years, making Zuccardi one of the earlier exponents of "green'' winemaking.

We tasted Santa Julia (+) Brut Rose, a Torrontes, a Malbec and a Santa Julia Organica Cabernet Sauvignon and Santa Julia Organica Chardonnay, among others.

Back when my wife and I visited Familia Zuccardi, we followed our wine and appetizers in the vineyards with a full lunch and tastings in the bodega's restaurant. All told, we tried no fewer than 14 wines at lunch that September day. (We had a hired car and driver to take us around.) I didn't try that many wines yesterday, but the California luncheon - organized by Zuccardi's U.S. public relations agency, Folsom and Associates - did as much as anything could to bring back the flair and generosity we experienced in Mendoza without my actually being there.

That, I hope, will happen another day.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Wanted Man

Abdel Basset al-Magrahi, a Libyan convicted of masterminding the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie bombing that killed 259 travelers and 11 people on the ground, is reportedly still living in Tripoli after returning to a hero's welcome in 2009. Released on compassionate grounds by blinkered Scottish authorities because he was supposedly on the verge of death from cancer, Magrahi was giving self-serving interviews to the international media as recently as Oct. 3 of this year.

Magrahi maintains he didn't do it and that the facts about the Lockerbie bombing will soon emerge. A Dutch court disagreed with his profession of innocence, which is how he came to be imprisoned in the first place.

As for the convicted mass-murderer's decrepitude, it should be noted he has been dying any day now for more than two years. A Reuters report published in the British press this month reported that while Magrahi held forth for the media, "An oxygen tank stood nearby, but he did not use an oxygen mask during the interview.''

The Dec. 21, 1988 bombing, one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks on travelers in modern history, numbered among its victims 189 Americans - including 36 students at Syracuse University, my alma mater, who were returning from studies in Britain for their end of the year holidays.

The United States opposed Magrahi's release by Scotland and his return to Libya and is seeking his extradition.

"He does seem to have made a miraculous recovery ... he never should have been let out of jail,'' the Reuters dispatch quotes U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland as saying. "We continue to believe that the right place for Mugrahi is behind bars and we will continue to make that case to the Libyans.''

Good luck with that. The present, hopefully transitionary leaders of Libya demonstrated their commitment to justice and compassion on Thursday in videos showing the beating of the deposed dictator Moammar Khadafy. In an earlier announcement, the victorious rebels - who beat Khadafy on the battlefield thanks to military help from the West, including the U.S. - have said Magrahi will not be extradicted from Libya.

Khadafy's ghost will continue to haunt long-suffering, good-hearted Libyan people in many ways for many years. It will continue to haunt the West, too, especially so long as Abdel Basset al-Megrahi remains at liberty.

Friday, October 21, 2011

23 Years, 270 Deaths, One Dictator

Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy's capture and apparent execution yesterday comes nearly 23 years after agents of his government bombed Pan American World Airways flight 103, killing 270 people in the air and on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland, in late 1988. It was a brutal end for a man ultimately responsible for one of the most vile acts against travelers in the modern era.

His departure does nothing, of course, to erase the pain that lingers after all these years - nor does it offset the celebratory images from Tripoli several years ago, when a Libyan convicted of the crime returned to a hero's welcome after being released from a Scottish jail, supposedly because he was terminally ill. At last report, he was living in a comfortable villa in an upscale section of Tripoli.

That said, images of the dictator's last moments do nothing to inspire confidence that the North African nation will suddenly evolve into a kinder, gentler society. As for the rebel leaders saying the strongman died in a cross fire, their claims seem debatable at best. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? It's easy to see it happening.

Monday, October 17, 2011

My California in the Fall story for Alaska Airlines Magazine

If you're traveling with Alaska Airlines this month, check out my piece on California in the Fall, headlined "Golden State Grandeur,'' in the airline's monthly in-flight magazine. It begins like this:

"I'm cruising with the top down, the convertible engine humming, music turned up, feeling the caress of a light breeze under clear, blue skies. My route skims the coastline between San Diego and Los Angeles, past many beautiful beaches. In other parts of the country, this experience wopuld be possible only on a summer day. But this is California: It's an October day, and the temperature is a perfect 75 degrees.''

The story is a round-up of good things to do between now and early December, from San Diego north to San Francisco and the Bay Area. If you're traveling in that part of the world, it will hopefully give you some fresh ideas. Interested? The article starts on page 87.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Chateau Montelena at the Westin St. Francis

I attended a swell event last night at the vintage, circa-1904 Westin St. Francis Hotel, in San Francisco, to mark the grand opening of a rare hotel winery-branded tasting room. Located just off the lobby in a former jewelry shop opposite the grand staircase, the new arrival is an outpost of Napa Valley's well-regarded Chateau Montelena Winery.

Actually, "well-regarded'' may be an understatement. Chateau Montelena ( justly celebrated for its Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. It was this winery's 1973 Chard, in fact, that beat out high-end French white Burgundies in a blind tasting by French judges. This is the now-famous 1976 Judgement of Paris showdown dramatized in the 2008 movie "Bottle Shock''.

Last night, the winery took over an ornate first-floor ballroom in the St. Francis ( to pour half a dozen of its fine wines, from a welcoming glass of Reisling through Chardonnays, a Zinfandel and on to a big Cab. Scrumptious canapes from the hotel kitchen matched up splendidly with the wines.

Of course, you don't have to visit San Francisco and the Bay Area to drink Chateau Montelena wines, but if you are in town, the snug tasting room (open from 1-8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday) is a good place to get a taste of Napa Valley. Chateau Montelena Winery is located in the town of Calistoga, at the north end of Napa Valley, about 90 minutes drive north of San Francisco.

The tasting room is a nice place and, as far as I have been able to determine, the only winery-branded hotel tasting room in this wine-mad city. I'm not aware of any other winery-specific tasting rooms in any hotel, though I wouldn't swear that there aren't any. In any case, buy a bottle of Chateau Montelena in the tasting room and they waive the corkage fee in the St. Francis's Oak Room, a handsome, traditional dining room in the hotel, so you can drink it with dinner.

The St. Francis, a grande dame hotel on San Francisco's bustling Union Square, is old school in the best sense. It pays a lot of attention to food and drink, with the top of the food chain being occupied by Bourbon Steak, an elegant steakhouse run by accomplished San Francisco chef Michael Mina. Bourbon Steak, too, is located just off the hotel's Powell Street lobby, right by the new Chateau Montelena tasting room, in the space formerly occupied by the chef's namesake Michael Mina restaurant. If you're in the neighborhood, check it out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Finnish Made Easy

Jet-lagged and puffy-eyed, I looked down at the placemat on the breakfast table in my Helsinki hotel the other day, and laughed out loud. On the placemat are printed a number of phrases in English, with translations into Finnish. A few lines are serious but most are tongue in cheek, meant to provoke a giggle.

Such as: "Is that stuffed reindeer for sale?''

And: "My hovercraft is full of eels.''

Not forgetting: "I'm so lost.'' (Olen hukassa).

The hotel is delightful in lots of ways. Nicely appointed and attractively designed guest rooms. Good location walking distance from Helsinki's vibrant Design District and eye-pleasing, tree-linede Esplanade. A cool (though lighty used during my visit) lobby bar. A healthful, bountiful breakfast buffet.

The hotel's name? I thought you'd never ask. It is the Hotel Fabian, located at 7 Fabianinkatu 00130 Helsinki, Finland. tel. 358 9 6128 2000,

On the room card, another message is printed: "We don't mind if you stay longer.'' I wouldn't mind either.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Graham Greene, My Plane and Train Default Author

Graham Greene, the late, masterful British novelist and well-rounded man of letters, is the writer I most enjoy reading when I'm on the road. I'll be taking two Greene novels with me on my upcoming trip to Sweden and Finland: "A Burnt-Out Case'' and "No Man's land.''

Greene was also superb at crafting non-fiction. One of my favorite travel narratives is his "Journey Without Maps'' (the Vintage Classics edition). When I'm on a plane or long-distance train, Greene is my default author. He's whip-smart, a gifted descriptive writer and accomplished storyteller. Greene's books run like well-oiled, beautiful machines. The characters in his novels - think of "The Quiet American'' or "Our Man in Havana'' - always seem to be in over their heads, enmeshed in complexities they don't understand.

In "Journey Without Maps,'' Greene's first travel book (1936), Greene, himself, is in over his head. In Liberia for a month-long walkabout in the backcountry, he is woefully unprepared. In a sympathetic but clear-eyed preface, Paul Theroux observes that Green was afraid of moths and birds, didn't know how to drive a car and didn't know how to read a compass. He also, as the old journalism saw has it, didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Exaggerated or not, this darkly humorous account of rugged walks in the bush, drunken European expats, unfamiliar tribal customs and local despots is an addictive read. Greene may not have known how to read a compass, but he could read people, and he is a lodestone for travelers.

To Scandinavia and Finland

I'll shortly be going back to Sweden for the first time in four and a half years, and onward to Finland, for the first time ever. It's a travel-writing trip and I am looking forward to it.

I'll be taking Scandinavian Airlines to Sweden and back to the US of A - my second time flying with Star Alliance-member SAS. It'll be my first time on oneworld alliance member Finnair. I'll be winging it to Helsinki with them.

Needless to say - although it appears that I'm saying it anyway - there will be travel articles and blog posts in this space as the trip unfolds, and for a while afterward.

How do you say "See you later'' in Swedish? Not sure. Maybe I'll find out.

Anwar al-Awlaki

My first reaction on hearing the news today about the death of U.S.-born radical Muslim cleric - a terrorist who sometimes targeted travelers - from a drone attack in Yemen was it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

There is much wringing of hands in the United States over whether the U.S. government should be in the business of killing U.S. citizens; this assassination, a truly exceptional case, will probably feed the paranoid fear and loathing of the federal government in some circles. It shouldn't.

Let's be clear about who this man was. He had a bloody hand in recruiting unstable, violent people to kill innocents, especially innocent Americans. Traditionally, in many cultures throughout history, treason has been punishable by death. What are attacks on state targets, fellow citizens and civilians, if not treason? Among his targets in failed bomb plots were the passengers of a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day, tourists and locals in New York's always jammed Times Square and bombs he hoped could be put in parcels in the cargo bays of airliners.

I don't mourn for him, and don't think this fanatic, who cast a long, cold shadow over travel, earned any protection or exemption from justice by virtue of his citizenship.

One traveler's opinion.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Pan Am'' Loses Lift

What hath "Mad Men'' wrought? A silly, pre-feminist romanticization, set in the early 1960s, called "The Playboy Club,'' and a stylish but wafer-thin TV series called "Pan Am,'' also set in the early 1960s and named after the late, lamented Pan American World Airways, which folded its wings in 1991.

Of course, "Pan Am'' - an hour-long fiction series that airs Sunday nights on the U.S. network ABC - has almost got to be romantic. It is set in 1963, when people of means took airplanes and most other people walked, drove or took the bus. Flying was actually fun then, and it wasn't accessible to everyone, so it had a certain snob appeal. Moreover, in that pre-feminist era, there were few good jobs for women. Before women could become CEOs and entrepreneurs and race-car drivers and professional basketball players, a job as a globe-trotting flight attendant - "stewardess'' back then - was considered glamourous. "Stews,'' as they were called, saw the world, met guys and wore snugly tailored, sexy uniforms.

Half a century later, in a largely wised-up era, it's hard to see it all in quite the same light, even though we know the show isn't real. It's fiction, after all, not a documentary. Still, as my wife and I watched the series premiere last night, her lip curled ever so distinctly with disapproval. It's fair to say she has no wish to see women go backward, even in make-believe. "Pan Am's'' retro time-travel might be easier to ignore if the show's writing and acting were first-class, or even premium economy. But even though "Pan Am'' has creative connections to engaging shows such as "ER'' and features recognized performers such as Christina Ricci (as one of the stews), the new show quickly loses what lift it achieved during its quick-step introduction.

The period details - hair, clothes, ciggies, cocktails - are usually right, and the proceedings have an initially pleasing glossy look. But a little of "Pan Am's'' devotion to fashion without substance goes a long way with viewers like us. We tuned out about halfway in, before the subplot about Cold War espionage really took off.

This was just episode one, to be sure. Maybe "Pan Am'' will fly with audiences looking for "come fly with me'' escapist entertainment. I worked a few years ago with some young guys who thought the skinny tie, ring-a-ding-ding style of the perfectly named Rat Pack was cool, too, so you never know.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wedding Bells in Blighty

My wife and I just missed celebrating our wedding anniversary in England on our recent trip to Blighty - her homeland and the place we were married. Still, the slight cooling of the weather brought back memories of our early-autumn wedding. - and the swell country manor-turned-hotel where the ceremony took place.

That would be Pennyhill Park (, still a favorite of couples about to tie the knot and couples returning to remember when they did so. The place is merely wonderful, and historic. The oldest part of the hotel dates back to 1851; a state of the art spa was added in 2004. The outside of the main house was covered with scarlet-colored ivy - Virginia creeper, to be exact - the day we were married. The light rain that fell in the morning cleared up on cue, creating magnificent skies and all-around fine weather - perfect for drinks on the terrace following a simple, beautiful civil ceremony in the hotel's library. The string trio we hired played beautifully while we and our guests from the U.K. and the U.S. sipped Champagne. It couldn't have been better.

Pennyhill Park, located on an old coaching road in Bagshot, Surrey (still quaintly known locally as London Road), is close enough to London Heathrow International Airport to be convenient for international travelers and far enough away to avoid noisy overflights. The hotel has a posh bar known as the Ascot Bar, and a Michelin-starred, fine-dining restaurant called Latymer. Oh, and there's a 9-hole golf course on the property. Home in season to the English national rugby team, the hotel boasts a rugby pitch on the drive from the main road. All told, the property consists of 123 lushly landscaped acres. A private home for most of its existence, Pennyhill Park has been operated as a hotel since 1972.

Consider this an all-in plug for Pennyhill Park. We had a lovely experience there - indeed, anyone can have a good time at this polished 5-star retreat, provided your purse is able to handle it. For our special time, we made it work, and our recent trip to Blighty raised echoes of wedding bells.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cool Tech for Napa's Chilly Grape-Growing Year

California's Napa Valley is world-famous for its justly celebrated wines - and wines, of course, begin with grapes, which brings me to today's post:

Namely, the cool, rainy, late-harvest 2011 grape-growing season in Napa and the growers' response to it. If they succeed in meeting the challenges of such a year, as they believe they will, there's all the more reason to visit the valley to savor its wine and food, lovingly manicured vineyards and pretty towns.

Some 550 grapegrowers and related businesses belong to Napa Valley Grapegrowers, a nonprofit trade organization headquartered downtown in the city of Napa. ("Napa'' is actually three places: city, valley, county.)

Every spring and fall, the association (, founded in 1975, holds a lovely outdoor press conference and luncheon to talk grapes. Journalists accustomed to attending press conferences in windowless hotel ballrooms and beige government offices emerge blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight, like moles on holiday. I attended the spring "bud break'' gathering this year but missed the recent fall press conference, held at Stagecoach Vineyards. So, I caught up with NVG spokeswoman Jennifer Putnum to find out what happened.

Northern California typically gets nearly all its rain in winter, but significant spring rainfall and even rare summer showers - coupled with cool temperatures - have posed challenges to grape growers, she says. Chief among them is what she terms "mildew pressure.'' Lots of mildew could, of course, ruin the harvest.

Eyeballing the vines and using remote sensors and data collection devices allow growers to use cool high-tech to save the grapes in chilly seasons. This includes everything from removing canopies so the grapes can get more warming sun to relying on decidedly non-tech means like just hoping for good weather. The growers got some of that this week when temperatures hit the mid-90s F in Napa Valley. "We can't control the weather,'' she says, "but we can control our response to it.''

One Napa wine-grape grower, Paul Goldberg, of Rutherford Vista Vineyards, notes Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma Valley's presence in a region that also includes Silicon Valley. "We are blessed to be in a region that affords us the opportunity to be innovative with technology. It is extremely important to be able to monitor the various microclimates in the valley in order to be proactive instead of reactive,'' Goldberg says by way of example.''

"An example of innovative vineyard technology,'' the NVG notes in a press release, "is Paul's remote control irrigation system, recently implemented to monitor every aspect of irrigation, including well levels, water pressure, soil moisture and more. Through this system, Paul can also set alerts to his phone to notify him of any unusual changes to the irrigation system ...''

"Some of the vineyards are among the most-measured vineyards in the world,'' Putnam says, adding that Napa growers also work closely with agronomists at the University of California-Davis - one of the leading agricultural campuses in the United States - to deal with ongoing issues such as pests, rootstock and soil analysis.

Growing grapes - and, later, using those grapes to make wine - is part science, part poetry. When it works, it's like bottling magic. We'll have to wait to see if the 2011 vintages are magical, but the grape growers say they are encouraged so far. This year's smaller, less-dense grape clusters are also helping to control mildew, and the growers believe that having several additional weeks on the vine will helping to produce high-quality grapes.

Their bottom line, and why it will matter to wine-loving travelers: This is a smaller than usual but high-quality harvest. The wines should shine.

See Scenic Iran - Shane, Josh and Sarah Did

Today, two years after their arrest and imprisonment and one year after their friend Sarah Shourd was released on medical grounds, American hikers Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were released from prison in Iran and reunited with their families in Oman.

The three were charged with espionage and illegal entry after they apparently wandered into or close to Iran while hiking in a remote region near the border between Iran and Iraq in 2009. The trio, formerly of the University of California-Berkeley and supporters of progressive causes, insisted they were innocent but were held anyway. Their real crime appears to have been hiking while American.

Iran is the inheritor of a rich cultural tradition in the country formerly known as Persia and has a lot to offer international travelers - provided the safety and honor of those travelers could be guaranteed, which it often cannot. This is especially true of the usual suspects in Iranian political and religious discourse, Americans, Israelis and Britons.

Bauer and Fittal were the subjects of a sustained and passionate international campaign for their release, which came at the reported OK of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - one day before he was scheduled to address the United Nations. The release of the two men is said to be a humanitarian gesture. Some gesture. The repellant Ahmadinejad could have released them anytime in the past two years.

One has to hope and believe that - in the long term, at least - Iran will eventually be open again to travelers, including the young, idealistic backpackers who drive much of the people-to-people contact that animates world travel. Until then, we have humanitarian gestures like this one.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fly in Russia? Don't.

Here's a friendly word of advice: If you're traveling in or to Russia, and you're tempted to get on an airplane, don't. I know, big country. But take the train if you can, or drive. The Russian Federation and fellow former Soviet republics now loosely aligned in the Commonwealth of Independent States are among the most dangerous places in the world to fly.

A recent case in point: The navigator of a commercial aircraft that crashed in June, killing 47 people, including the navigator, was drunk on a bit of vitamin V - vodka. This, according to Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee, as reported 19 September by the Associated Press and posted on

"Russia and other former Soviet republics have had poor air safety records in recent years,'' AP reports. "Industry experts say the air disasters are rooted not simply in flying older planes, but in a myriad of other problems, including poor crew training, crumbling airports, lax government controls and widespread neglect of safety in the pursuit of profits.''

Forewarned is forearmed.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My Kentucky Article 'Stop to Savor the Bluegrass'

If you're Web-surfing, check out my Sept. 11, 2011, cover story in the Travel section of the San Francisco Chronicle ( about the Kentucky bluegrass region. It begins like this:

"The first time I saw Kentucky I was behind the wheel of a car. I was in a hurry. I was leaving New York State, bound for California, and as I drove cross-country with my worldly goods, the vastness of America blended into a blur of truck stops, toxic coffee and bleary-eyed days wiping bugs off the windshield. I didn't even stop for gas in Kentucky, but something about the hopelessly pretty, lovingly manicured quality of the countryside stayed with me down the decades.''

If you've got access to the ink-on-paper Chronicle, the story - with a sidebar on central Kentucky's homemade Bathtub Mary yard shrines - appears on page H-1, under the headline "Stop to Savor the Bluegrass.''

Common Sense, Almost

U.S. President Barack Obama today signed a bill providing temporary, four-month funding to the Federal Aviation Administration. That's a relief; it was set to expire today, which would have resulted in a partial shutdown of the crucial agency. Just like the 16-day FAA partial shutdown this summer that furloughed 4,000 FAA workers - not including air traffic controllers - and idled 70,000 construction workers at a time of stubborningly high unemployment.

The bill also extends funding for U.S. highways through March.

This, it would seem, is a triumph for common sense. But is it?

The latest FAA funding extention was the 22nd time a temporary patch was put in place when the House of Representatives and the Senate passed separate bills that they could not harmonize in joint committee. This means the drama will happen all over again in January 2012.

The smooth functioning of one of the world's largest and most crucial aviation systems is one of many things falling victim to Washington gridlock. The ease of movement, safety and efficiency of millions of American and international leisure and business travelers is put at unnecessary, unwanted risk when posturing politicians can't agree.

Next year is an election year. Things don't look good for the triumph for common sense - or the ease of travel for people flying to, from and around the United States.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Flying While Wrinkled

As Americans wade into days of special remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and frequent fliers recount how travel has changed since then, allow me to add one more observation - one not often remarked-upon:

It is now much tougher than it was 10 years ago to pass smoothly through airport security if you are an older person. Why? Because consciously or unconsciously, security screeners want to show that they are being fair - i.e., not profiling or singling out young males, Muslims or most people of color, for fear they will be accused of racism, religious intolerance or discrimination. Result: Elderly people of all backgrounds - whites probably somewhat more often - are given extra attention for pat-downs and additional X-ray screening. This is supposed to make the point that even people who look harmless, mainstream and docile have to pass muster with the guardians of the skies: Not so fast, Granny.

Counter-intuitive, creative security? No, just knee-jerk, spineless bureaucracy.

I watched a long report on the PBS NewsHour last night that showed video of travelers being pulled over in U.S. airports for extra scrutiny. The majority were white-haired, wrinkle-faced elders - some in wheelchairs, with canes or wearing prosthetic devices, though the reporter didn't acknowledge the pattern. He did cite the now well-known case of a 96-year-old woman who was pulled over because her adult-diaper was wet and didn't scan. The truly preposterous will get publicity; the persistent pattern, not so much.

I fly a lot, and I see some truly scary people breeze through security
and zip toward the plane while the oldsters get flagged. Is this protecting travelers from terrorists? I think not.

The massive re-think of U.S. laws and attitudes designed to root out discrimination against minorities or anyone who happens to be different - "driving while black,'' for example - is historically and ethically justified. When thinking stops, and procedures calcify into political correctness - as with flying while wrinkled - justice is not served.

And neither are safety and security.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rick Perry, Traveling Man

To paraphrase John Greenleaf Whittier, Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: Rick Perry.

You might not link the bodacious Texas governor and Republican presidential hopeful with travel and transportation in a word-association test, but Perry and travel are more closely linked than you may think.

For one thing, there is the matter of Perry's own travel, which is considerable. The galivanting govenor is campaigning hard for the GOP nomination, which means hitting the hustlings in state after state. Just how much he's spending to do this - and who is providing the money - he declines to say, which, under Texas's ever-flexible regulatory regime, is legal. (See the Houston Chronicle's take at, posted August 20).

Perry, while not a travel, tourism and transportation wonk as such, has nevertheless built a considerable track record of transit oddities.

Such as:

* He wanted to build a big toll road in Texas but backed off when property owners complained about losing land to eminent domain - that sounds like Big Guv'mint right there, don't it?

* Perry boosted a bill to outlaw full-body patdowns at Texas airports by Transportation Security Administration personnel who use them to keep terrorists off of airplanes; that plan, too, was dropped.

* Campaigning in Iowa, Perry vented about U.S. Department of Transporation rules that require farmers to pay for commercial driver's licenses if they drive their tractors across nearby roads. Just one problem: there is no such rule. Nor is there any such plan, according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was forced to issue a press release to counter the vaporous claim by the potty Perry.

In the meantime, Perry's in-state critics charge that he has let the Lone Star State's highways go to pot by failing to spend enough money to keep them up, let alone build new ones. That might mean taxes, which is, of course, an affront to Perry's tea party supporters.

In fact, government and taxes are responsible for creating America's transportation infrastructure, from the transcontinental railroads of the 19th century, to air-mail contracts and fat subsidies to the fledgling airlines of the 1920s, to the interstate highway system of the 1950s and '60s. Most recently, Washington helped out commercial airlines with government loans when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 caused carriers to lose bags of money in the travel free-fall that followed.

I don't often write about politics in this blog. But, you know, sometimes the real world has a way of intruding into the world of travel.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ken Frank's Bank Cafe and Bar, Napa

Dropping into downtown Napa city on a reporting assignment, my wife and I lunched at Bank, an eatery helmed by chef Ken Frank that serves as a casual, affordable companion to his Michelin-starred La Toque. This proved to be a yummy move.

Like La Toque, Bank Cafe and Bar is located in the riverside Westin Versasa Hotel in Napa's revitalized downtown. Instead of the foie gras and truffles you are apt to get at dinner in La Toque - and boy are they worth it - you might get a really good burger, a salad or something else on the light side at Bank. It was a sunny day, so we ate outdoors in the Westin courtyard. The hotel swimming pool was on one side, balconied courtyard rooms were on the other and a fountain burbled nearby in the middle of the open expanse, happily drowning out some of the cell phone chatter from a worried-looking wedding planner at a table near us.

We shared a crispy shrimp starter, lightly battered, juicy and tasty, placed atop a bed of just hot and spicy enough slaw. Then, I tucked into a grilled vegetable sandwich while my wife lunched on a fresh-cut ham and cheese sandwich. We split a seasonal green salad. The cuisine was simple, fresh and full of flavor. A half-bottle of 2007 Grigich Chardonnay went beautifully with the food and allowed us to feel safe about driving after lunch. We came away satisfied but not boozy or overfed from a lunch that was nicely paced and well-presented by Bank's attentive, young staff. The bill, for $94.18USD, was more than we had been planning to spend. Considering the quality, it was fair value. If we eat there again, as I hope we will, we will order less food; portions are ample, so it won't be a hardship.

Frank made the move two years ago to the Westin from a free-standing restaurant space up-valley in Rutherford, and seems to be making it work. Combined with his dinnertime mastery of California French fare in La Toque, he is one of the brightest lights in a Napa Valley crowded with stars.

Bank Cafe and Bar, Westin Versasa, Napa (, 1314 McKinstry St., Napa, CA 94559 USA, tel. 707.257.5150,

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Boeing Store

Aviation gearheads and nostalgia buffs will think they woke up in heaven should they make to the Boeing Company's store in Everett, Washington. One of 16 listed Boeing stores ( but one of the few open to the public, this fairly sizable, well-stocked, two-level retail outlet is an aviation buff's delight.

I stopped in on a recent visit to Seattle, where Cathay Pacific Airways took delivery of a new Boeing 777-300ER and decided to throw a party to celebrate the sleek aircraft. Some of us journos were on the party list. Part of that entailed a visit to the Future of Flight Aviation Center in Everett, 25 miles north of Seattle. The store is located inside the sprawling center - an interactive aviation museum.

I am not a serious gearhead and I don't memorize minutae like the hottest fighter planes of World War II, but I loved this store. I even bought something - a relative rarity for this confirmed non-shopper. It was a gorgeous $40 hardcover book, profusely illustrated with colorful vintage ads - many by now-vanished airlines like Pan Am and TWA - that airlines commissioned through most of the 20th century to spark air travel around the world. You see the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Diamond Head and many other glamourous sights, all designed to entice travelers onto airplanes. I spent maybe 10 minutes leafing through the volume and couldn't put it down. The title? Oh, the title: ''The Art of the Airways,'' by Geza Szurovy, published by Minneapolis's Zenith Press (

There is, of course, much more merchandise on offer, most of it available online as well as in the brick and mortar store. Items range from a $4USD 1930s Boeing flight
pin to $295USD leather flight jackets. Luggage, posters, caps, the inevitable T-shirts, apparel and much more are available, too. If flying holds any romance at all for you, this is the place. Check it out.

Airheads: Deja Vu All Over Again?

That partial shsutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that happened in July, just before the United States Congress went away for summer recess? It could happen again. FAA's temporary funding extension expires in two weeks and the politicos are butting heads once more.

The issue, according to a timely and in-depth Labor Day report in the Sept. 5 Atlanta Journal-Constitution (, is a provision in proposed FAA authorization legislation that would allow railroad and airline workers to organize and join unions more easily. Major carriers, spearheaded by Atlanta's largely non-union Delta Air Lines, oppose this provision, as explained in the piece by reporter Daniel Malloy.

Travelers within, to and from the U.S. have to hope this doesn't happen again. Although air-traffic controllers were not among the several thousand FAA workers furloughed or the 70,000 contract workers on transport construction projects that were idled when their funding ran out last time, the aviation system doesn't need more disruption. Ten years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. airlines have still not fully recovered, especially with high fuel costs and a lousy economy; a partial shutdown of this important federal agency would be one more headwind for them to face.