Tuesday, August 30, 2011

If You Don't Like the Weather, Wait Five Minutes

One of my favorite trivial pursuits while I'm on the road is catching British weather reports and forecasts. They are masterful evocations of ambiguity.

Consider, for example, this recent summary, culled from London's Daily Telegraph:

"General Situation: An area of low pressure over the central part of the United Kingdom will bring scattered showers to England and Wales today. To the north, rain will fall during the afternoon across Scotland.''

Hmmm. Do you reckon this means it's going to rain today, except when it doesn't, all around the country, except in places where it remains dry?

Or consider this Outlook, from the same report:

"Scattered showers will occur across England and Wales on Sunday. Occasional rain will fall across Scotland. Spells of rain will fall across England on Monday. An isolated shower will occur on Tuesday.''

Hmmm again. Scattered showers, occasional rain, spells of rain, an isolated shower - four ways of saying the same thing, all swept into one short report.

Got to admit, it's a marvelous bit of writing in its not-exactly-precise way. And it certainly illustrates the old saying "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes.''

Monday, August 29, 2011


One of the storylines coming out of Libya is a widely disseminated report that the convicted Lockerbie bomber, a Libyan man responsible for destroying Pan American flight 103 over Scotland on Dec. 21, 1988, is terminally ill - still.

This is the same person who was released on compassionate medical grounds by Scottish authorities in August 2009 because Scottish doctors gave him only three months to live due to an advanced case of prostate cancer. Today, 24 months after his release, he is apparently still not feeling well. The mass murderer's brother describes him as frail, resting in a villa in what media reports characterize as a wealthy section of Tripoli.

Libyan rebels - who demand justice for themselves at the end of a gun - have rejected extradicting him to Scotland, which has in any case not asked to have him back, despite repeated requests by the United States and the national government of Great Britain that he be sent to a Western prison to serve out his term.

Pan Am flight 103's destruction accounted for one of the darkest days in the modern history of travel. All 259 passengers and crew perished in the explosion, as did 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie. Two-thirds of the victims were Americans, many of them university students heading home for Christmas vacation.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Wondrous Wembley

It rises from the flat suburban plain, a big bowl topped by a soaring metallic arch: Wembley Stadium, aka National Stadium, the citadel of English football, home of the football finals in next year's Olympic Games.

Together with my wife - who attended sporting events on the now-demolished 1923"old'' Wembley on this site as a girl growing up in London - I checked out the 2007 "new" Wembley as part of the research for a package of newspaper articles I am doing on London in the run-up to the Olympics. Of course, Wembley, also home to mega-musical concerts, major rugby matches and an annual American National Football League game, is about much more than the Olympics. It is the spiritual home of British team sport, much like Wimbledon is the spiritual home of British tennis and St. Andrews is the spiritual home of British golf.

We took the half-hour Underground ride on the Jubilee line westward from Central London, got off at Wembley Park station and took the short walk to the stadium along Olympic Way, pausing before the heroic statue of Bobby Moore, legendary English footballer of the 1950s and '60s. Then we joined a guided public tour, lasting 90 minutes and costing from 8 GBP (about $13 USD) to 15 pounds ($25 USD).

The stadium, built at a cost of nearly 800 GBP and seating 90,000 spectators, is one of the msot expensive sporting venues ever built. It is a magnificent structure, partly covered by a retractable roof that leaves the playing pitch open to the elements but covering the fans in inclement weather - not that English weather is ever off, mind you. I'm speaking purely theoretically. Seats are actually plush, padded, wide enough for 21st century bottoms and surprisingly comfortable.

Wembley is owned by the Football Association, the national governing body of British football - soccer, in North America. As such, a great deal of attention is naturally paid to professional football in Britain, with authentic memorabilia galore and plenty of merchandising on-hand and offered for sale. I am a mildly engaged soccer - er, football - fan, so I suspect the visit meant more to the hardcore British fans that traipsed with us behind our affable, pony-tailed guide than it did to me, but their excitement was at times contagious. This was especially so when our tour entered the changing room of the English national team, where the shsirts of star players are displayed - David Beckham (17), Steven Gerrard (4), Wayne Rooney (10).

There are planned photo opportunities at various points along the way, including some corny touches like allowing visitors to sit in the hot seat in the press conference room where the England manager holds forth after a match. There is also a chance, which we skipped, to have a photo taken with a replica of the FA Cup; the real one, given to the champions of association football every year, resides elsewhere.

If you're not a fan, you can safely skip this tour. But wondrous Wembley is well worth visiting for football fanatics and devotees of the Olympic movement.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

'Rules' Still Rules

Rules Restaurant, founded in 1798, is said to be London's oldest continuously operating eatery - it stayed open throughout the Blitz, if for only two hours a day - and as such, you would expect it to be Old School. That it is, gloriously, sumptuously, memorably.

Rules, as its Web site informs the prospective diner, specializes in "classic game-cookery, oysters, pies and puddings.'' In other words, classic British cooking, before mushy peas, beans on toast and corn flakes, and well before the cutting-edge fare of Modern British cuisine. You might therefore expect Rules to be stodgy, with leaden food. There, you would be wrong. Rules, as my wife and I rediscovered last week on our sixth or seventh visit to the restaurant, is correct but not stodgy, and serves food that is hearty and intensely flavorful but far from leaden. Unlike many a traditional favorite, riding on reputation, Rules is not tired.

It must be said that this venerable destination restaurant, located near Covent Garden, bang-on in the heart of central London, is not cheap, either. Indeed, our recent meal there was our splurge, and at 177 GBP ($288 USD) for two, all-inclusive, it was our most expensive meal in London. Rules adds a thoughtfully discretionary 12.5 percent service charge to your bill; you can amend the charge or remove it.

Dear reader, it was worth every farthing, every tuppence, every shilling and guinea and quid.

We started off with gin and tonics (Tanqueray), the attentive but never intrusive waiter pouring the gin at table, followed by a smidgeon of the tonic; that way, you can add more tonic or not for a stronger or milder drink. For starters, my wife tucked into a sublime rabbit and mushroom dish on toast, while I savored a rich grouse broth. We shared an enormous main course: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. It could have served four people and couldn't have tasted better. A good portion of the bill (45 pounds) came courtesy of the bottle of robust red wine we chose to stand up to the beef, sourced from Rules's own country estate. Dessert? But of course; this was a shared pannacotta - airy-light, yummy, just right. On past visits, we have plunged into the signature sticky toffee pudding but we are weight-watchers these days, and thought that might be a dessert too far.

The main attraction of Rules is the food and drink, but the ambiance, infused with history and traditional touches, is part of the appeal, too. Antlers poke out the walls, there are stuffed pheasants here and there, there is gilt and plush and dark, polished wood. You can read the walls: caricatures, theatre bills, posters, photographs, old menus, you name it, covering virtually every inch of wall space.

To dine at Rules, then to take a London black cab to after-dinner entertainment or back to one's hotel - this, to me, is travel bliss.

Bottom line: Rules still rules.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sofitel's Engaging "Literary Escapes''

One of the most novel and engaging ideas I've seen on the hotel front lately is a partnership by the French newspaper Le Figaro and the French hotel chain Sofitel that has brought forth a joint publishing venture called "Literary Escapes by Sofitel.'' Together, the newspaper and the hotels sponsor a handsome tabloid magazine, published on high-quality newsprint, in color and festooned with travel hotographs and short fiction inspired by Sofitel's far-flung hotels.

Well, not the hotels themselves, necessarily - rather, the places where Sofitel has hotels: Big cities like New York, Hanoi and Lyon, and exotic resorts such as Sofitel Luxor Winter Palace, in Egypt, which serves as background and inspiration for a short fiction called "The Dreadful Death of Victor Hugo,'' by the French television journalist Patrick Poivre D'Arvor. It is one of half a dozen pieces in the current issue of of the publication, which, as far as I can tell, is published every several months in English and French editions. The magazine is distributed free in Sofitel hotels - it is not sold anywhere as far as I know.

I picked up my copy in the lobby of the handsome Sofitel London St. James, parts of which are being refurbished in advance of next year's London Olympics. Fortunately, most parts of the hotel - located in a former bank - are finished; when I visited last week, the main restaurant and bar were closed for renovation. It's a fine hotel, located on Whitehall Place, just off Lower Regent Street, in the heart of the British capital. Le Bar, the smaller of the hotel's watering holes, is open. I found it an ideal late-night place to share wine and chat with English friends.

I'm not sure if other hotels have picked up on this idea or have literary ventures of their own, but I like this one. Sofitel picks well-known francophone authors and media personalities, installs them in selected Sofitel hotels and encourages them to write expansively. Every once in a while, the hotels host real-time, in-person salons where readers and hotel guests can share a drink and conversation with the writers. It's all very civilized, and a different way to market hotels.

Oh, and the publication (www.literary-escapes-sofitel.com) reads well, too. Light, compact and smartly produced, it made good airplane reading on my 11-hour flight home to California.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Five Cool Things About London

There are more than five cool things about London, of course - as well as uncool things, like congestion and cost - as this great city offers so many things to savor. Among them:

1. Black cabs. London has the world's best taxis, the old-school, roomy, sturdy, handsome black cabs that navigate the capital, especially central London. With room enough for five passengers, including luggage, and two nifty pull-down seats to go with a three-person couch, they are incredibly spacious. And London may have the world's best cab drivers. They aren't as polite as Tokyo's white-gloved cabbies, but they are funny and they really know the city. Even in the age of GPS, most drivers of black cabs have memorized the maze of streets in this sprawling city and take you almost anyhwere you want to go without consulting a map or, worse, asking you how in blazes to find your destination. They are a capital service for a capital city.

2. World-class food. London and the UK generally, have a lingering reputation for bad food. The reputation is undeserved. London may be the most internationalized city in the world and as such, it has everything, though often at significant cost. Used to be the only reliably good food was Indian. No longer. Gastro-pubs and chefs specializing in modern British cuisine have restocked Blighty's larder. And if you know where you are going, you can even save money. I recommend the Pret A Manger sandwich and salad shops that operate on every other street corner in central London. For five pounds or less, you can eat fresh, tasty, healthful fast food - a real deal. If you don't eat well in London, it's no one's fault but your own.

3. History. I like New York a lot, but I've never understood the reflexive boast of Americans and some others that New York is - all together now - "the Greatest City in the World.'' No it isn't. This is true mostly for people who don't travel the world. As my friend and fellow travel writer Patti Nickell points out, London has everything New York has, plus 2,000 years of history. Wake up, Americans. Especially you, New Yorkers.

4. Free museums. The finest museums in town - meaning some of the finest in the world - often carry free general admission. You will indeed pay to see the temporary, mega-exhibitions by name-brand artists like Rembrandt or Picasso, but the extensive permanent collections of leading museums, usually no. This is another good way to avoid spending a fortune in London, which you can do if you're not careful. But you definitely don't have to.

5. Hidden gems. The metropolis is loaded with them and many of these, too, are free. Central London is walkable - again, costs nothing - and places such as Green Park, St. James's Park, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Regent Park are finely made for browsing and exploring. And, again, there's all that history, often best experienced on foot. In the Seven Dials area, tucked between Covent Garden and Soho, is a historic blue marker on the wall of a building that once served as home to the comic geniuses of Monty Python. In a hidden courtyard near Buckingham Palace, just outside the 51 Buckingham Gate Hotel, is a gorgeous outdoor frieze depicting Shakespeare's characters; just look up, and there it is in all its glory.

It's London's rich cultural layers and manifold opportunities for discovery, more than anything, that make London my favorite city in the Western World.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Back in Blighty

The last time I was in the United Kingdom, it was shortly before Christmas, and London's Hyde Park was ablaze with decorations and holiday lights. Re-vsiting London this month, I came back to find the city ablaze - this time with arson fires. It was no holiday, except for the gang members and hangers-on who looted, burned, assaulted innocent passers-by and ran amok for three days before finally submitting to a belated beefing-up in the number of police.

My London-born wife arrived several days before me. She said she never felt threatened but was depressed by the scenes of destruction in South London precincts she knew well as a young person - Battersea and Clapham Junction. By the time I arrived, it was all over and the post-mortem of self-examination, anger and courtroom confrontation had begun.

I have traveled to the U.K. maybe 40 times. I know it fairly well but am keenly aware I am an outsider there. Moreover, I come from the United States, which has seen its share of civil strife and violence, so I am reluctant to pass judgment on what is still a fascinating - and, now, safe once again - place to visit.

That said, the U.K. seems to be suffering a social meltdown. It has raised a generation of feral youth with no stake in the system and no belief in the future. Youth unemployment is rampant, many kids have grown up in households where an adult has never held a job, and class and racial barriers to social harmony are formidible. Add to this, the ruling class's amoral materialism and lack of ethics in the phone hacking scandal that has shaken Rupert Murdoch's media empire and forced out top officials at Scotland Yard - London's once-esteemed Metropolitan Police Force - and you have a society facing serious challenges.

And yet, and yet ... Britain, especially England, and its great capital, London, remain marvelous places to visit. Tourists largely escaped the chaos of last week, and when I walked the streets of the capital with my wife and our English friends, I felt perfectly safe. Londoners had already started displaying the resiliance for which they are well-known. Plans for next year's Olympics and Paralympics are continuing apace, and neighborhood broom brigades were already cleaning up the mess.

Serious underlying problems remain, not least the burning anger of working-class and middle-class Brits - some of whom were terrorized in their beds by hooded, masked thugs who invaded their homes, demanding money and jewelry. The call for stiff sentences for convicted rioters are being heard, and the anger behind them is justified. Whether strong prison sentences, coming at a time of severe cuts in social services prompted by global financial weakness, will create conditions for full recovery remains to be seen. It is bound to be a tough go.

As a friend and fan of the Brits, I wish them well. I am a watchful traveler, but I don't plan to drop the U.K. from my travel plans. There will always be an England, and there will always be a London. London has survived the Conquest of 1066, the Great Fire of 1666, a civil war, the Blitz of World War II, the terror campaign of the Irish Republican Army, the subway and bus bombing by jihadists on 7/7 (July 7, 2005) and more. It will survive this.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hotel Chutzpah: A Guest Bites Back

Did you hear about Rodney Harmon, the Californian who has sued Hilton Hotels Corp. for charging him 75 cents a day for a newspaper he didn't ask for? Silly, huh? Guy gets a copy of USA Today left outside his room, he doesn't read it, so he sues - a sign 'o the times in a society far too eager to litigate, right?

Not necessarily. Not entirely. Suing is extreme, to be sure. But Harmon's lawyer has been quoted in press accounts as saying the ticked-off hotel guest was riled by the sheer chutzpah - effrontery, presumptuousness - of a hotel charging for unwanted services. Hilton, like many other hotels, allows guests to get refunds on unwanted newspapers at check-out. But the catch is, you have to read the fine print and know, first, that you are being billed, and, second, that you can get that money back if you ask. Most of us are in a hurry at check-out and aren't that attentive.

This is small change, you rightly figure, but it's the principle of the thing, too. Businesses often do put the burden on the consumer - rather like having to find and check the 'unsubscribe' button at the bottom of unsolicited e-mails. The business gives the chore to you, and, hey, maybe you'll forget to do it.

Undergirding this seemingly petty squabble is something old and something new in business.

The something old is a practice that allows publishers to inflate circulation and thus charge higher rates to advertisers. USA Today gets half of its daily circulation of 1.78 million copies by cutting deals with hoteliers, according to Forbes writer Jeff Bercovici.

Back in the day, I covered media for the old, Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner, and one of my steady sources was newspaper financial analyst John Morton. Forbes talked to Morton, who estimates maybe 90 percent of the charges on hotel bills for newspapers go unnoticed, allowing hoteliers, and the paper, to keep the change. It adds up. Bercovici estimates those hotel copies generate $82 million USD a year in circulation revenue.

This could be done fairly, as some hotels do, by asking guests at check-in if they want a newspaper and telling them then that they will (or won't) be charged.

The something new in business? Fees and surcharges for everything. Airlines charge for checking bags, for carrying bags on the plane, for sitting in aisle seats, for ordering meals in economy class and so on. They spin it by calling it customized or even bespoke service. But loss-making airlines need the money in a world of relatively low fares and high fuel costs. They still need to disclose fees more transparently at booking, but there is a rough market justice governing airline fees.

But artful, near-invisible fees at hotels and elsewhere in the travel "space''? Not so much.

It's enough to make a guy sue.

Quote of the Day

Re: the London riots, here are a few chosen words from Kit Malthouse, London's deputy mayor in charge of policing, quoted in today's New York Times (www.nytimes.com), ascribing ill intent to free-floating youth who are:

"... intent on violence, who are looking for the opportunity to steal and set fire to buildings and create a sense of mayhem, whether they're anarchists or part of organized gangs or just feral youth, frankly, who fancy a new pair of trainers.''

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Airheads: An FAA Agreement, Sort Of

U.S. President Obama signed on Friday a deal to end a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration caused by lack of funding. Some 4,000 furloughed FAA workers can begin returning to work Monday. Another 70,000 laid off construction workers, who were working on airport expansions and upgrades before the money ran out, can filter back to their jobs.

So, all is well, right?

Well, no. This latest temporary extension of funding for the crucial agency - the 21st of its kind - lasts only till mid-September, after Congress returns to Washington, D.C. Then the whole comic opera can begin again.

There is still no resolution of the labor dispute over airline union-certification elections - one cause of the partial shutdown. There is no long-term settlement of the subsidies given to small-market communities, which media reports say run $163 million USD a year. Uncle Sam has lost two and a half times that amount - about $400
million - in lost air fare tax revenue when the taxes could not be collected during the partial shutdown. Some savings.

Now, the Internal Revenue Service says there will be no IRS refunds to consumers who paid higher fares when airlines decided to raise fares during the tax holiday. To be fair, loss-making airlines need to make money. Still, once again, the long-suffering little guy has been left at the gate.

When this dysfunctional Congress, rent by partisan divides - some calculated and carried out with extreme recklessness by Republican freshmen in the House of Representatives - gets back to work in September, the political gridlock will leave the FAA scuffle looking like a day at the beach. It would be nice to think it gets better, but it's hard to see how.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Deals, Defaults, Double Dip

The United States, with its sagging transportation infrastructure and partially shuttered Federal Aviation Administration, took an accelerated path toward Third World status with the debt-reduction deal passed today by the U.S. Congress and approved by President Barack Obama.

The deal avoids a once-unthinkable U.S. Government default by just 12 hours. As always, the devil is in the details. Travel and tourism is just one piece of an enormously complicated agreement.

However, in reviewing media accounts of the intensely partisan, emotionally charged deal, travelers cannot be reassured. There is no money for upgrades of transport infrastructure that has seriously declined in efficiency and safety over the past 20 years, no assured money for research into change Obama claimed we can believe in such as high-speed rail, and no progress in sight on the long-promised, often-delayed GPS-based next generation of air traffic control to replace the outdated radar-based system we have now.

To add insult to injury - actually, injury to injury - members of Congress are leaving Washington, D.C. today and tomorrow for their all-important summer break, leaving the FAA to limp along with inadequate funding until Labor Day. This is the essential agency that oversees one of the planet's most complex aviation systems. Air traffic controllers are still on the job, but another 4,000 FAA employees have been furloughed since July 23, while 70,000 construction workers have since been laid off during a period of high unemployment because there is no money to pay for airport expansion and upgrades.

Speaking of those fun-loving, sleepy-eyed scamps, the air traffic controllers, Bloomberg Business Week has a dismaying story in its August 1-August 7 issue showing that of 140 controllers the FAA attempted to fire for a variety of reasons only 82 were actually forced to leave. Well, just so they're not inconvenienced.

America's political gridlock and money woes hurt more than public confidence and comfort - they cost money. According to a story by Washington Post reporter Ashley Halsey III in the July 27 Post (www.washingtonpost.com),
delaying repair of infrastructure such as bridges, roads, railroads and airports costs the U.S. $129 billion a year in added operational costs and travel delays. The story cites a recent study conducted for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

This cascade of bad news has slowed U.S. economic growth to an anemic 1.3 percent in the second quarter of 2011, following barely visible 0.4 percent growth in the first quarter. The three major credit rating agencies are still talking about downgrading the nation's sterling AAA rating. Additionally, U.S. consumer spending fell 0.2 percent in June, the latest month for which statistics are available. Add on the coming effects of reduced federal spending and employment, and the world's largest economy could tumble into a double-dip recession, imperiling not only the United States but the rest of the world.

When will America straighten up and fly right? Not anytime soon, evidently.