Friday, December 30, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Inn on the Alameda, Santa Fe

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

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

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

''In 2003.''

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

And Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you, too.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rest for the Weary

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Just what are the rules changes?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

CD Cafe, Beijing

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

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

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

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

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

Hope they're still pouring Dragon Seal.

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cell Phone Flap

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

It's America's Outrage du Jour.

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

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

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

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

Hold that thought, and Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Battersea Power Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

SAS Biz and Premium Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In sort: Good airline, good ride.

For more information:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Japan's Travel Road to Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sonoma's Blessed Olives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2011

What's in a Name? Myanmar or Burma?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My story in Napa Sonoma magazine

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

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

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

Page 30, if you're looking.