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.