Tuesday, March 29, 2011

No Comment Department

I was traveling in the South last year when the massive BP oil spill befouled the Gulf of Mexico, and I have followed the media coverage ever since, including some of the commentary and reporting online. Speaking of which: Here is a brief excerpt from The New Yorker's big take-out on the spill, in the magazine's March 14, 2011 issue:

"At one point during the spill, a blogger wrote on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site, 'I was disturbed to get another anonymous tip that Corexit 9500 (a dispersant used to help clean up) also has dihydrogen monoxide, but I can't confirm this because Nalco will not reveal if dihydrogen monoxide is in fact a secret ingredient in Corexit 9500.' The blogger explained that the chemical was 'really bad and nasty stuff,' used in explosives and poisonous compounds. 'It mutates DNA, denatures proteins, disrupts cell membranes, and chemically alters critical neurotransmitters.' Dihydrogen monoxide - better known by its chemical symbol, H2O - is plain water.''

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tastes of Australia

Absent an airplane, ship or train, one way of getting to a place is by bringing the senses into play even when you are stationary. The peaty, smoky smell of certain English and Irish inddustrial cities transports me there in a limited but sharply defined way. The smell of burning pinon (pine) takes me back to northern New Mexico on a crisp winter night. The taste of food and drink associated with a place does the same thing.

I recently returned from a travel-writing trip to Australia, a visit in part defined by taste: chunky slices of crocodile sausage, refreshing sips of Crown Lager and Victoria Bitter, nicely grilled barramundi filleted fish. Some of the most evocative tastes of Oz - and among the easiest to find in my American home town, so far from their points of origin - are snack foods. And chief among these are the intensely flavorful Violet Crumble candy bars and irresistible Tim Tam chocolate-covered biscuits.

Ah, Violet Crumble: chocolate-covered honeycomb with their crunchy sweetness. Made since 1913 by a company since absorbed by Nestle, they were named for the wife of the Aussie who first created them - her name was Violet, of course - and packaged in purple wrappers because that was her favorite color. They are still packaged in purple and they are still good.

Tim Tams aren't as venerable - they've been made in Australia only since 1964. But they, too, are melt-in-your mouth good. With a cuppa - tea or coffee - Tim Tams are the perfect snack. Named for the 1958 Kentucky Derby winner, a horse called Tim Tam whose name caught the Arnott Company founder's fancy - they consist of two biscuits separated by creamy filling that is flavored with vanilla, butter and chocolate; the biscuits and the cream filling are covered with high-quality milk chocolate. They're made in a variety of flavors, including dark chocolate or caramel, but as a classicist, I prefer the original milk chocolate. In the U.S., Tim Tams are distributed by Pepperidge Farm and sold online at Amazon.com and at some Target stores.

Health foods they are not. But one bite of Violet Crumble or Tim Tams and I'm back Down Under, if only for the moment.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Look, a Flying Saucer!

Imagine my surprise when, during the long flight from Los Angeles to Australia on VAustralia, I lifted my tea cup and saw a complete printed sentence on the saucer. As I squinted my weary eyes, surprise turned to amusement: "Look, a flying saucer!'' I read.

But then I should have expected the unexpected - even whimsy - on V Australia, a member of the far-flung Virgin-branded airlines. Like its airborne cousins -Virgin Atlantic Airways being the best -known - V Australia puts some of the fun back in flying. I say "some'' because airlines can do nothing about airports, and necessary but often-clumsy security rules. But while not neglecting to fly safely and efficiently, V Australia - the long-haul, international arm of Australia's number two carrier, Virgin Blue - reflects the UK's Virgin Group founder Richard Branson's roots in the entertainment industry: it never forgets to entertain.

A few words of explanation. Ten-year-old Virgin Blue and two-year-old V Australia are minority-owned by Branson, the media-savvy British billionaire and floppy-haired entrepreneur. Like Virgin America (www.virginamerica.com) in the United States, Virgin Blue and its affiliates - collectively known as the Virgin Blue Group of Airlines (www.virginblue.com.au) - license the Virgin brand from Branson, who forgoes operational control and harvests revenue from his stake. But while Branson doesn't run these airlines, clearly his corporate DNA is in them. And that's a good thing.

There is, for example, the stand-up, six-person bar in V Australia's business class. There are the stylish black, V-necked PJs, also in business class. There is the wide-ranging and easy to use in-flight entertainment system - important on those 13- and 14-hour trans-Pacific flights between Australia and North America. There is the cool mood lighting that makes you feel you've just strolled into a club. And there is a really charming touch when the interior cabin lights go down: small pinpricks of light appear in an indigo background, creating a starry night-time "sky''.

All this is, of course, by design. "We wanted to take a fresh look at long-haul,'' Virgin Blue's Liz Savage told me in a telephone interview on my recent visit to Sydney and Cairns. "What really makes a difference is the service quality,'' said Savage, the airline's group executive commercial. "We have a very different mindset. We're a bit more up-to-date, a bit more light-hearted, as well.''

As a later entrant into the market, Virgin Blue and V Australia strive to differentiate themselves from the 800-pound gorilla in that market, Qantas. Qantas is itself a high-quality airline and it has a decades-long head start. In Australia's continental domestic market, Qantas has two-thirds of the market, to Virgin Blue's one-third, said Savage, speaking from Brisbane, where Virgin Blue Group of Airlines has its headquarters. Still, that's good for a young company and is reflected in what Savage says are 90 percent domestic load factors.

Like all airlines, Virgin saves its pampering for high-yield, business-class fliers and long-haul intercontinental service. I flew Virgin Blue between Cairns and Sydney, where the product is more than respectable, though not posh. There is not much pitch - airline-speak for legroom - and food is offered for sale, as it is on virtually all U.S. domestic carriers in economy class.

This reflects Virgin Blue's roots as a domestic, low-cost carrrier targeting fare-conscious leisure travelers. It is now going after more free-spending business travelers - and this is especially true on international routes with fledgling V Australia.

"We are very successful in small- and-medium-sized markets,'' Savage says of the domestic operation. "Virgin Blue was an LCC; now, we're focusing on the corporate market.''

Like other Virgin-branded airlines around the world, Virgin Blue/V Australia is staying outside the three big global airline alliances and striking bilateral deals. Its major new initiative is with Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways and the Aussie company is moving closer to Air New Zealand. V Australia last month launched service between Sydney and Abu Dhabi, where it is establishing an international hub, giving it greater access to the burgeoning Middle East aviation market and to Europe. Savage praises Etihad's high-end product as a good fit for V Australia. Having flown with both airlines, I agree.

Both have exceptional customer service, for one thing.

"We don't call our customers 'passengers,'' Savage says, "we call them 'guests.' '' Of course, so do some other airlines, and even government departments in some countries have taken to calling - sorry, 'rebranding' - members of the public "customers.'' More important than branding in this instance is employee training, and both V Australia and Etihad have tuned-in, attentive staffs that seem to know what you want before you realize you want it. That in itself helps both carriers stand out - although their young fleets don't hurt, either.

Meanwhile according to Savage, the company will seek more international bilateral deals even as it tightens its relationship with Etihad. Coordinated schedules, shared lounges and, eventually, shared frequent-flier miles will enable travelers "to earn and burn,'' Savage says.

Like other airlines, Virgin is being hurt by the cascading crises that have hit the Asia Pacific region this year: A cyclone in Queensland followed by flooding, the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand and the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks in Japan. That's not to mention the rising cost of oil, driven in part by the fighting in Libya. Like its competitors, Virgin Blue is hedging fuel prices, adding surcharges and raising fares.

Sensitive to the situation, Savage expresses tempered optimism. Of the rains that brought mud and floods to Virgin's hometown of Brisbane, Savage remarks "I don't want to underplay it,'' adding that, as fast as they can, people and companies are getting back to normal. "Queensland is 98 to 99 percent open for business,'' she says. "The message is "Come and enjoy.' ''

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Shangri-la Hotel, The Marina, Cairns

You know what they say about what you need to make it in retail: location, location, location. The same holds true for hotels. Of course, top customer service, impressive physical facilities and a wide range of options like restaurants and a professional business center don't hurt.

The Shangri-la Hotel, located at the water's edge by the Marlin Marina, in Cairns, Australia, has all those things going. Only a few minutes walk from the passenger terminal for boats to the Great Barrier Reef, and with views of Trinity Bay and the mountains beyond, this resort-like city hotel has what is probably the best hotel location in Cairns - the biggest city in the tropical north of Queensland (pop. 150,000). Unlike most resorts, the Shangri-la (http://www.shangri-la.com/) also has a sizable cluster of PCs for guest use on the ground floor, plus a serviced business center - er, centre - on the Horizon Club executive floor - up one from the ground floor on level one. Just across the hallway is the Horizon Club Lounge, where drinks and light meals are served at no extra charge.

Another handy aspect of the hotel's location is the shopping complex of which it is a part. You can enter the mall right off the lobby. Although I did notice how early the shops - not the pubs and restaurants - in the mall closed on a recent Friday evening when I was there. The locals were already out of the office, bypassing the shops, to start their weekend drinking, I was told. Australia, you know? Of course, many visitors were doing the same thing, so there you go.

The Shangri-la, Cairns and Queensland generally are anxious to get out the word that they are open for business. The January cyclone that was seen on TV around the world slammed the southern parts of the state hard, including Brisbane, the state capital. In the northwest coastal regions, where Cairns is, practically everything is operating normally. They'd love to see you.

A few more words about the hotel, a 5-star, luxury property with 255 guest rooms and suites: The staff is what I call anticipatory - that is, they don't wait to be asked for something; they see you and move pro-actively. Rooms are spacious and most have views of the water. My room facing the marina had a sizable roofed terrace, making the room seem bigger than it was; ditto, the window at the head of the bed that allowed light to seep into the expansive bathroom. The shower - strong, with plenty of hot water - came in handy after a long, hot day of touring.

The conceirge and other staff are helpful, with tips about what to do and where to go - though I should say that I had an extra benefit, being part of a small group that was shown around by the hotel's affable and knowledgable director of sales and marketing, Gavin Weightman. With Gavin guiding, I got to see a wide range of cool places on my short (three days) jam-packed visit.

Among them: the Tarzali Lakes Smokehouse, with Aussie specialities that include tasty crocodile sausage (http://www.tarzalilakes.com/), and Paranella Park, a long-abandoned upscale retreat built in 1930 and only recently dug out of the rainforest. Paranella Park is not luxurious anymore - there is a caravan camp, not guest rooms, on site, although it has a good, casual eatery. However, it has an abundance of nooks and crannies to explore on the hilly grounds, comes complete with a waterfall, and comes enveloped in a strangely romantic bare-ruined-choir meets-the-mosquito-coast ambiance. These days, it's mostly a museum.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Japan Air Travel Update

Leisure and business travel to Japan continue to plummet, as the damaged nuclear reactor continues to leak radiation and scare Japanese and non-Japanese alike. According to Argophilia Travel News (http://www.argophilia.com/), international companies - most of which are deferring non-essential staff travel - report cancelling planned business trips to Japan at rates that range from 60 to 95 percent.

This despite the fact that airlines say they are operating safely during the crisis. The various disruptions of daily life - reduced electrical power, shortages of gasoline, water and food in the northeast of the country, earthquake aftershocks, psychic shock - are overwhelming what good news is coming out of Japan - and, happily, there is some.

Here, edited slightly for length, is the latest statement from the International Air Transport Association (http://www.iata.org/), released over the weekend at IATA's Geneva headquarters:

"The International Air Transport Association welcomed the joint statement issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Maritime Organization (IMO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meterological Organization (WMO) on the continued safety of air transport operations in Japan. These five organizations confirmed that there are no restrictions to normal air transport operations at Japan's major airports, including both Haneda and Narita (Tokyo's international airports).

"Safety is our number one priority. If it is not safe, we won't fly. Today's joint statement by the five most authoritative United Nations organizations on air transport, nuclear energy, shipping, health and weather confirms that it is safe to operate in Japan,'' said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general and chief executive officer.

"The ICAO statement further confirmed that there are no health reasons that would require the screening of passengers emanating from Japan. Moreover, the organizations confirmed that there is no health risk associated with increased levels of radiation that have been detected at some airports. Although not recommended by the UN organizations, several states are implementing screening programs for passengers and flights from Japan.''

The IATA statement continues: "The situation is evolving quickly and is being constantly monitored. Today, the advice is that normal operations are possible. If the advice changes, the industry will comply and transparently keep all informed of the developments,'' said Bisignani.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Joost Bakker's Greenhouse: Recyclable Restaurant

SYDNEY - Practically in the shadow of the looming, modernist Overseas Passenger Terminal on this city's Campbell's Cove sits Greenhouse, a temporary, pop-up restaurant built with recyled materials that is destined to be recycled itself once it's dismantled.

And that won't be long. The building, built in three weeks for an undisclosed sum and made of corrugated steel, bales of hay, glass and plywood and covered on outside walls with potted strawberry plants, will stand only until March 31. Then it will come down, its construction materials recycled and reused. Its principal designer and operator, Dutch-born Aussie Joost Bakker, will decamp to Milan to do it all over again - again using local recylables and byproducts and again running the next Greenhouse for just a matter of weeks.

Following that, Bakker, a tall, blond, blue-eyed man who lives in Melbourne and proslytizes for sustainability, will see where else he wants to take the resto-cum-bar-cum demonstration model. London is another likely stop. "We have an offer to do one in Trafalgar Square,'' he told me and several fellow U.S. journalists early this week. "That's a very interesting offer.''

Over a long black coffee and whole-meal breakfast cake, Bakker - clad in jeans and a t-shirt adorned with the outlined image of a red kangaroo, his two young blond daughters smilingly scurrying about - explained the idea behind Greenhouse. It's a place to grow, grind, cook and serve healthful, locally sourced food, he explained, in surroundings made of cast-offs and in ways that won't harm the natural environment.

My short time at Greenhouse - there's a permanent Greenhouse, in Perth, and may be a second permanent Greenhouse in Sydney later on if things can be worked out - gave the impression that it is almost more an idea of a restaurant than a full-fledged eatery. But then I wasn't there at dinner, and I didn't sample Greenhouse's 24-year-old wunderkind chef Matt Stone's most heralded concoctions, such as his way with Pacific fish mullet - a name I've always associated with a bad haircut.

We sat on chairs that Bakker made from aluminium irrigation pipes and ate off tables topped with reused billboards. Bits of philosophy, thank-you's and the restaurant's menu and drinks list were written inside on the walls. Natural light from the magnificent Sydney Harbour streamed in. Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House fairly glowed in morning light right nearby.

Bakker - variously described in press clippings as a floral artist, florist, artist, and architect - took a small hand-grinder made from metal and wood, poured whole-grain oats into it and began to turn the handle. Fine-ground oats fluffed out.

"We grind our coffee, why don't we grind this?'' he said, meaning: Why don't people do this at home. Of Greenhouse, he said, "Wheat, oats, rice - we grind everything fresh and make it fresh.''

A waitress came to our table with coffee, water and orange juice, all served in glass jam jars. Another server took a specialty of the house to another group of eaters - that well-known health-food, doughnuts. At least it wasn't the American mania for cupcakes.

Bakker shrugged when asked what set him on the path to sustainability. "I've always sort of questioned everything,'' he grinned.

He led the way up interior stairs to the rooftop garden. A bar stood at one end - it is, after all, Australia - and boxed borders of living green herbs bent slightly in the breeze coming off the water. The mix of vintage and modern architecture that characterizes The Rocks district was close-by on the foreshore. It was in fact, the Sydney foreshore authority that invited Bakker to install Greenhouse there at the water's edge.

There are no trash bins on-site, Bakker said, because leftovers and fuels at Greenhouse are reused.

"This is exactly the size of the average Australian house,'' Bakker said. "This whole building can be recycled when it's taken apart - it's a no-brainer.'' Of the roof garden, which produces vegetables and herbs for the restaurant, he remarked "It just makes sense to grow your own food where you live.''

"I use a very basic set of skills,'' he went on. "What was done 200 to 300 years ago? How did they get crops without using pesticides?''

Lessons from the past. What of the future?

"I hope,'' Joost Bakker said, "that people will do this 10 times better than me.''

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Erin Go ARGH!

I've borrowed this headline from a 2006 article in the National Review, heralding a dyspeptic view of St. Patrick's Day - a view I share. If ever there was a cartoonish version of a nation and its people - and a not-too-flattering cartoon at that - St. Patrick's Day is that cartoon.

Growing up in the United States, "St. Paddy's Day,'' with its green beer, drunken driving, sentimental minstrelry and "Kiss Me, I'm Irish!'' buttons, was pretty much all I knew of Ireland. Imagine my surprise when I went to Ireland for the first time and found out that it little resembles the caricature I see in America every March 17.

St. Patricks' Day originated in Ireland as a religious holiday, not a boozefest. It wasn't celebrated with a big parade and boisterous demonstrations of ethnicity on the Auld Sod until the 1970s, when Irish tourism promoters realized they could sell an exaggerated version of themselves to foreigners - especially Americans, Canadians and Australians - who claim Irish ancestory and want to go back to their roots, however tinged with fantasy their voyage may be. Truth to tell, people do drink a lot in Ireland, where centuries of tribal warfare and economic ruin - save for one magic decade of prosperity, now well and truly gone - have given people reason to drown their sorrows in a pint. Overseas Irish, romanticizing the old ways, have deepened the Irish reputation for love of drink.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade originated in New York City - not in Ireland - in 1762, when Irishmen serving in the colonial British Army decided to remember the old country with a march. These days, every ambitious politician of every ethnicity, along with the usual gaggle of pugnacious professional Irishmen, dominate the New York parade.

My dim view of cartoon Irishness is shared by some Irish and Irish Americans I have met.

On one of my visits to Ireland, a bemused Dublin resident recounted his experience at an American college football game, played in Ireland between Notre Dame and Navy (the U.S. Naval Academy team). "Notre Dame brought a guy dressed as a leprechaun, who tried to organize cheers,'' the gent recalled, "thinking we would of course support the 'Fighting Irish.' But that seemed corny, and besides the players were black, not Irish. By the end of the game, we were pulling for Navy. Ireland has a maritime tradition, and we felt kinship with that.''

An Irish American acquaintance gave his disgruntled view of the holiday one March 17 in San Francisco over lunch - and, no, we weren't having corned beef and cabbage. "The Irish are the only people in the world whose identity is synonymous with drinking,'' he said. ''I find it depressing that people think they have to be drunk to be Irish."

"Are you going to hoist a few today?'' I asked.

"I am going to be at home with my family and have one shot of Jameson's,'' he replied. "And I'm going to avoid driving on Geary Boulevard.'' Geary is a busy street in San Francisco thick in spots with Irish pubs - they're always swarmed with loudly inebriated revelers on March 17.

Another friend, a former bartender, told me there were two holidays he really dreaded when he was working behind the bar: New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day. "It's amateur hour,'' he said. "Everyone thinks they have to get hammered.''

There is one difference between the two holidays, though. On New Year's Eve, everyone, regardless of background, can play the fool. On St. Patrick's Day, tomfoolery is associated with stereotypes of just one people - stereotypes more lovingly nurtured abroad than back home in Ireland.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


It has been less than a week since an unholy trifecta of a 9.0 earthquake, a tsunami and radiation leakage has hit Japan, and the fast-moving situation is yet to fully play out. Yet, some trendlines are already clear:

* Airlines are taking strikingly different postures. Japan's major carriers, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, are flying their normal international flight schedules - at least so far - apparently unaffected by the no-fly zone declared by Japanese authorities near damaged nuclear power plants. American Airlines, which just started service from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Tokyo Haneda airport, is maintaining its schedule, as is Delta Air Lines, which flies to Haneda from Los Angeles and Detroit. Unchanged, too, are the schedules of Cathay Pacific Airways and Emirates. However, Taiwan's EVA Airways says it will cancel flights to Tokyo and Sapporo through the end of March. Lufthansa continues to fly to Japan is but diverting flights from Tokyo to Osaka. British Airways is still flying to Tokyo Haneda and Naritia airports but it is offering travelers who planned to fly before April 30 a chance to change travel dates through Sept. 30. The Malaysian Atomic Energy and Licensing Board is scanning flights from Japan for radiation once they arrive in Malaysia, according to a Reuters report posted Mar. 16 at http://www.airwise.com./

* Media reports say European multinational corporations are giving employees the option of going home, moving to other Asian countries or staying put in Japan, while bookings on private jets by foreigners seeking to leave Japan are soaring.

* An unspecified number of travelers are cancelling or postponing leisure and business trips to Japan, according to an Associated Press story in the Mar. 14 New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/). The Japan National Tourism Organization doesn't yet have hard figures. Nearly 10 percent of the 8.6 milion international travelers who visited Japan in 2010 are from the United States, according to the JNTO. With on-going scary radiation stories and tourism infrastructure that will take months or more to rebuild, it's highly probable that in-bound travel to Japan will slump this year - but also that subsequent campaigns to woo travelers back will result in some substantial deals in travel to Japan by year's end.

* Japan's cherry-blossom season - a prime time to visit, as my wife and I did two years ago on a delightful sakura-gazing trip - begins next month, but foreigners are likely to give it a pass this year. Of course, travel is two-way, and Japanese tourists are less likely to venture outside their country in the short term. This will hurt traditional overseas favorites such as Hawaii, which hosted nearly half of the 2.9 million Japanese who visited the U.S. in 2009. According to MarketWatch, "There have already been reports of significant cancellations, with a Starwood (Hotels and Resorts) spokesman telling Hawaii's KITV on Monday (Mar. 14) that several large tour groups, representing thousands of travelers, had cancelled their plans without booking new dates.'' (http://www.marketwatch.com)./

There is no way - and no point - in denying it: This is a terrible situation, with repercussions that go well beyond travel. Even the 24/7 pulse of Tokyo has slowed down, albeit temporarily. "In just four days,'' reports the Washington Post (http://www.washingpost.com/) "the city's metabolism has dropped, as in hibernation, preparing for the long fight ahead.''

Five Cool Things About Sydney

There are, of course, more than five cool things about Australia's largest city and media center, but here is a short-list, taken from my visit to Sydney earlier this week:

1. Circular Quay and Sydney Ferries: An obvious but undeniable best-of choice. Sydney has one of the finest water transport systems on the planet, centered on this busy hub in the historic Rocks section of town. Sitting outside near the tip of a ferry bound for Manley Wharf, I got drenched by a rogue wave, but that's OK - the ride to dinner at the stylish Manly Pavilion restaurant was still fun. A fast ferry cuts this trip to 18 minutes, down from the standard 30.

2. Ginger beer. Actually, I think it's available Australia-wide. Provided it contains real ginger, this widely available soft drink has a beneficial effect on the stomach. So I was told when I developed a stomach bug. I swigged a trusty, tasty ginger beer, and, sure enough, soon felt better. G'day, indeed.

3. A schooner of Victoria Bitter at the Fortune of War, a welcoming George Street pub in The Rocks that claims to be Sydney's oldest, founded in 1828. If there's Australian-rules football (''footie'') on the telly, so much the better.

4. Altitude, the 36th-floor fine-dining restaurant at the Shangri-la Hotel, where I stayed while in town. True to its name, the resto provides sweeping highrise views of Sydney Harbor - er, harbour - and Altitude's Canadian-born chef Steven Krasicki dishes out outstanding fare. One highlight on the tasting menu I sampled: Rare roasted Hahndorf venison, with pine mushrooms, Mount Buffalo hazelnuts and burnt cinnamon jus, accompanied by a 2005 Castano Hecula Monastrell wine from Yecla, Spain. Yum.

5. The Writer's Walk, back at Circular Quay. Smartly sponsored by the New South Wales Ministry for the Arts, this creative twist on the Hollywood Walk of Fame features circular brass seals inlaid on the concrete sidewalk, each marker being devoted to a writer with connections to Sydney. Among them: art critic Robert Hughes, feminist author Germaine Greer and entertainer Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage). Each plaque includes a brief biography and excerpt from the writer's work. Here's one I like by Clive James, who left Australia for England in the early 1960s:

"In Sydney Harbour, the yachts will be sailing on the crushed-diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gives us the energy to leave has every right to call us back.''

Friday, March 11, 2011

Five Cool Things About Cairns and Queensland

I'm in the city of Cairns, state of Queensland, my first time in this part of Australia. Here are five cool things about the region I've discovered over the past few days:

1. Crocodile sausage. This can be seriously good. I had some for lunch the other day, just after reading about a giant croc that bit off a fisherman's finger and grabbed his legs to try to pull him underwater. Happily, one of the angler's friends rescued him in the nick of time. So, I don't feel that bad about crocs transformed as finger food. Serves 'em right.

2. The Esplanade, a verdant walkway through parkland along the water's edge in downtown Cairns, a prime seaside jumping-off place for the Great Barrier Reef. It reminds me of the seaside parks in Hawaii, but tidier - a great place for a run, a stroll or a picnic.

3. The Shangri-la Hotel, the Marina, Cairns (www.shangri-la.com). Nearly 300 rooms, a good restaurant and bar, spacious guest rooms with individual terraces, a very good Horizon Club executive floor and a great location at the edge of the city marina.

4. The Great Barrier Reef. I was there today, my first visit. Sadly, chunks were broken off here and there during the January cyclone that devastated central Queenland (although things are undamaged from Cairns north). But it is still important, still beautiful, still a popular destination for cruises and touring ships like the one I took with Ocean Spirit. Lovely sand cays, brilliant tropical fish, water that ranges from green to aquamarine to deep blue.

5. Platypuses. They're hard to spot, but these incredibly strange, duck-billed, egg-laying mammals are a delight. I saw one yesterday, at a distance. It was zipping along the surface of a pond, a rare treat available in very few other places on Earth.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cathay Pacific's Stylish New Biz Class

If you're flying on Cathay Pacific Airways this month or next, you may get a chance to try out the Hong Kong carrier's stylish new business class. Cathay is rolling it out this month on its Airbus A330-300s on some flights to Sydney, and next month on its Boeing B777-300ERs on some flights to New York, Los Angeles and London. It costs millions and takes months to retool a fleet of aircraft; by February 2013, CX expects to complete the upgrade across its fleet.

I saw a mock-up of the new biz class on a recent trip to Hong Kong at a glittering event called "Light Up the Sky'' at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, with several thousand of Cathay's closest friends. I flew in on the soon-to-be-phased-out biz class on flights provided on a complimentary basis by the airline. It's not like the old business class is so shabby.

What didn't they think of in the redo? Not much.

There's more space, for one thing. On both the A330s and the B777s, the usuable part of flatbed seats grows to 75 inches from 71. Usable bed width grows to 26.4 to 27.6 inches on the A330s from 23.5; on the B777s, it grows a bit more: to 26.6 to 29.5 inches from 23.5. The in-seat width grows two to three inches on both varieties of aircraft, too.

The amenities are especially good: a vanity mirror at your seat, storage space on the side for handbags or laptops, a shoe locker, a lovely wing-back chair, a full flat-bed, with outboard seats angled toward the windows; that last point is an improvement on the outgoing biz class, where window seats are angled awkwardly away from the window.

Hong Kong designer Eddie Lau has subtly revamped the simple elegance of cabin crew uniforms, and the serenly abstract paintings of artist Maria Lobo grace the cabin, as do fresh-cut orchids.

But are there enough in-flight entertainment diversions on those trans-Pacific long-hauls? Not to worry.

"On board ... a personal 15-inch widescreen TV and a noise-canceling headset will provide access to our in-flight entertainment system, featuring a library of 100 movies, 350 TV shows, 888 music CDs, 22 radio channels and select programming in up to nine languages,'' Cathay attests.

The food's not exactly boring, either. This is a very good product that's getting better.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Is Jordan Next?

To many of my fellow Americans, Jordan is a famous former basketball player or maybe a famous river in the Holy Land. To travelers, Jordan is a country that deserves to be better-known for its natural and cultural treasures. It may now also be a nation at risk.

I refer, of course, to the anti-government protests that have roiled countries in the Muslim world - countries as diverse as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. Media reports say reform-minded demonstrators took to the streets today in the Jordanian capital city Amman to demand, among other things, a constitutional monarchy with King Abdullah II as its titular head in place of the present near-absolute monarchy. The demonstrators - who count among their number the disciplined Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood - are also protesting rising prices, the profound gap between rich and poor and Jordan's reputation for corruption.

So far, the protests have been largely nonviolent, excepting street clashes that injured eight protestors last month. Crowds running in the low thousands have not rivaled in size the massive demonstrations in Cairo's now world-famous Tahrir Square. With discontent rising, and protestors not satisfied with the King's appointment of a new prime minister, that could change.

One can only hope that Jordan is able to manage peaceful, equitable change.

It is an often-beautiful country, rich in Roman, Jewish, British and, of course, Arab history and antiquities. It is also rich in rugged landscapes, some with scriptural associations: the supremely salty Sea of Galilee, the gorgeous Wadi Rum (where much of "Lawrence of Arabia'' was filmed), the beautiful pre-Roman, rose-red lost city of Petra, and the River Jordan itself, smaller and more sluggish than I'd imagined. Also different than what I'd imagined are the country's Palestinian refugee camps; with their two- and three-story concrete buildings topped with protruding rebar, they look like established towns. Everywhere outside the cities are rocks, ravines and lonely country roads. Who, I wondered, during a late-night highway stop in the desert, is the Jordanian Hank Williams? Who captures the loneliness and vastness of this place?

When I visited, in January 2002, there were few Westerners in sight. At a carefully preserved old Crusader fort, a representative of the Jordanian Tourist Board went up to a touring American couple and thanked them for coming; the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were the unspoken subtext.

Only once did I engage in a conversation about Sept. 11; this at a dinner with well-educated, well-spoken Jordanian business executives at an Amman hotel. After a good meal of lamb kebob, hummous, rice and cardamom-tinged coffee, several of my fellow diners allowed the attacks were a terrible thing - and wondered why the Israeli intellience agency Mossad attacked New York and Washington and how they got word to all the Jews who worked at the World Trade Center not to go to work that day. There was no convincing them that did not happen, that Arabs chiefly from Saudi Arabia carried out the attacks.

That's what happens where there is no free press, no unbiased reporting, little public debate or political give and take - and where not enough travelers bring news and beliefs from the wider world. Establishing free media would be a good start for the reformers - which will hopefully include the intelligent, seemingly decent King Abdullah II. Nonviolence and respect for diversity are other things to hope for. If they become everyday realities, maybe more travelers will come to know Jordan.

Germs on a Train

If you want to read something disgusting - and, really, who doesn't? - click on over to www.nytimes.com and check out Zusha Elinson's March 5 story about Bay Area Rapid Transit, the San Francisco area light-rail system. The story is headlined "On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria).''

Thanks to the Bay Citizen, a local news organization, and a San Franciscio State University biology laboratory, public transport riders now know what they have long suspected: The stained, moldy, cloth-covered seats on BART trains are contaminated by an impressive variety of virulent bacteria, some of which are resistent to antibiotic drugs. The 40,000 seats are cleaned or replaced from time to time, but not enough to make much of a dent in the problem

One paragraph, deep in the copy, provides a key to understanding why the problem persists. Elinson quotes a BART spokesman's e-mail about the behavior of BART passengers: "Last year, the BART police received 1,051 complaints of smoking, eating and drinking, 245 complaints of urinating or defecating, and 56 reports of spitting.''

I started riding BART back in 1973, the year after the regional system opened. In what I estimate to be several thousand train trips since then, I have seen fellow passengers drinking enormous soft drinks, sipping coffee, wolfing down sandwiches, eating crunchy snack foods and dropping crumpled plastic bags on the floor and the seats and carrying hot, reeking boxes of pizza and chicken. Oh, I've seen passengers clipping fingernails and toenails on the trains, too, and leaving cuticles to fall where they may.

In all this time, not once - not once - have I seen a station agent refuse boarding to a passenger with food and drink, even though a number of signs posted in stations and on board trains expressly forbid eating and drinking. In other words, BART doesn't enforce its own rules, and the American slobocracy embraces a degraded notion of democracy that holds that people can do anything - OK, not anything, but almost - wherever and whenever. To deny them this would infringe on their rights and thus be too much bother for authorities to enforce.

So, we have broadly interpreted individual rights - and we also have health hazards in travel that come about as a direct consequence of some travelers ignoring the presumed right of others to ride in a clean, disease-free environment. Some countries - Japan and Singapore, among others, quickly come to mind - don't have this problem because eating food on the street or on the train or bus is considered bad form by passengers themselves.

This is one custom I'd like to import into the United States.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why Airport Security Lines May Get Longer

So much brainpower and treasure have been expended since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States using hijacked aircraft that not enough attention has been paid to security on the ground at the world's busy airports.

The latest indicator that airport security - not just passenger screening ahead of flights, but control of the physical space at airports - is still too lax, is the shooting of four U.S. military airmen by an Islamic militant at Frankfurt International Airport who may or may not have acted alone. Two of the victims died, with the other two seriously wounded. The accused attacker, a 21-year-old German Muslim whose family came from Kosovo, worked in a post office at the airport.

This comes hard on the heels of last week's conviction of a former British Airways worker, a Bangladeshi man who emigrated to the United Kingdom five years ago, for plotting to sabotage BA computers or smuggle explosives onto an aircraft. His aim: to kill as many innocent people as possible in the name of politicized Islam. The would-be killer had Al Qaeda connections.

Just the week before that, another would-be bomber who had hoped to blow up fuel tanks and pipelines at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, was sentenced to life in prison. The 67-year-old plotter, also an Islamic militant, is a former worker at the airport.

That is not to forget, of course, the deadly bombing in Moscow's prime international airport in January that took still-more lives at an arrivals area just outside the airport security perimeter. That attack was blamed on separatists from Russia's restive far south.

This is not a political blog but it must be noted that while such attacks are occuring and being planned, the budget-cutting majority in the U.S. House of Representatives proposes freezing the budget of the Department of Homeland Security at last year's levels.

If that happens, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano warned Tuesday, the department will have to scale back plans to install more-modern explosive detection equipment and full-body X-ray scanners at U.S. airports. "It will probably result in increases in wait times for passengers in the air environment, and those could be significant,'' she told a U.S. Senate appropriations subcomittee, according to Reuters.

The miserable airport experience has become a fact of life, especially at U.S. airports. Extensive, sometimes intrusive and not always smart security measures aimed at protecting airliners from attacks has become a major turn-off for travelers. Yet, fair-minded people can see why extensive measures are necessary. No one wants to scapegoat entire nationalities or religions for the actions of a few extremists. Problem is, airport security workers have little clear idea in advance who may pose a security risk - thus the need to screen. Anything that makes it harder for them to do their jobs imperils travel security and coarsens the comfort of travelers.

If some airport workers are themselves armed and dangerous - whether members of organized groups or as vengeful lone wolves - it makes things even worse.

Reuters again - this time as posted on the useful Web site Airwise.com:

"Chris Yates, an independent British aviation security consultant, said he had been arguing for years that airport security had been neglected in the rush to stop terrorists from getting onto planes.

" 'Many airports are wide open to anyone walking in and blowing themselves up. It's as simple as that,' he said.''

Then, this chilling coda:

"Some of the post-September 11 airport measures such as body scanners and intensive frisking spawn long queues, which in themselves offer a tempting, ready-made target for an on-ground militant attack, counter-terrorism specialists say.''

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Growth Takes Wing at Korean Air

For all its rapid growth and high quality, many travelers may not yet be aware what a player Korean Air has become on trans-Pacific routes. Held back by a shaky safety record in the 1990s, Korean admirably reinvented itself and now has a strong safety record - along with gracious and attentive customer service in the air and on the ground. Relatively quickly, it has become the airline with the most destinations in Asia on flights from the Americas.

I flew with Korean two years ago for the first time. I went from California to Kuala Lumpur and back to California with a stayover in Seoul. I was impressed. I recommend checking out Korean (http://www.koreanair.com/) if you're going to or coming from that part of the world.

As this year's summer and fall travel seasons approach, Korean is ramping up service in North America. The SkyTeam alliance member is launching new routes, flying new aircraft and taking advantage of its home hub airport - the superbly run Seoul/Incheon International, which wins or challenges for no. 1 in traveler polls every year as the world's best international airport.

I sat down recently with Korean Air's Ashley Chung and independent public relations exec Amy Goldsmith, who helps spread the word about the carrier with business partner Penny Pfaelzer. We chatted about what's on the airline's flight plan this year.

A lot, it turns out:

* On May 9, for example, Korean is going to daily flights, up from five a week, on reconfigured Boeing 777s between San Francisco International Airport and Seoul/Incheon, even as it goes daily, up from six times a week, between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Seoul/Incheon International.

* In June, Korean will launch service to Tokyo and Hong Kong on the superjumbo Airbus A380

* In July alone, Korean will: bump up frequencies to five a week, from three, at Dallas-Ft. Worth; fly 10 times a week from daily (along with and first- and business-class upgrades) at Chicago; go daily from five a week in Vancouver, Canada; launch service to Bangkok on its new A380s; and launch a new night-flight five times a week from Los Angeles International Airport.

But that's not all they have in mind.

* In August, Korean will fly A380s three times a week from New York's John F. Kennedy International, then ramp that up to daily in September. That will make Korean the first airline to use the superjumbo between the United States and Asia.

Still more:

* Korean will launch daily A380 service from LAX in October.

Korean says its 400-450 seats - along with biz-class only on the A380's enormous upper deck - will make its product the roomiest A380 in the sky. Although it's just speculation, aviation-watchers have predicted since the aircraft entered service in October 2007 that some airline is bound to cram 800 people or more onto the plane. It evidently won't be Korean.

One would have to think an uneasy economic recovery in the U.S. and volatile oil prices during the present Middle Eastern and North African turmoil could slow all airlines' growth. To date, at least, Korean appears determined to implement its plans. As it is, the Asia-Pacific region has been leading the global recovery, according to metrics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Sydney's Center for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA)

Oh, and did I mention the company has a business-jet service, too? These flights connect with Korean's regularly scheduled mainline flights. Chung said the service, while not brand-new, has flown largely beneath the radar so far - a fact the company desires to change. You call Korean, decide when you want to fly, book it - and pay them, of course - and you're good to go. The Flex Jet service is operated by Korean on snazzy small jets with a passenger capacity of eight.

It's all very ambitious, but Korean has pulled off strong growth and simultaneous upgrades in comfort and safety over the past decade. All told, this is an airline that's going places.