Monday, April 16, 2012

Miami Libre?

Miami Marlins manger Ozzie Guillen is set to return to his baseball team Tuesday for a matchup with the Chicago Cubs, following a five-game suspension for sort-of, kinda praising Cuba's maximum leader, Fidel Castro, in Time magazine.

Feelings about the Castros - Fidel and brother Raul - run high in Miami, as I was reminded recently on a trip to northern Spain with a group of journalists that included two Cuban exiles. Their families originally came from northern Spain, so it was a sentimental journey for these two ladies. They were not, however, one bit sentimental about the Castros, whom they blame for forcing their families to flee communist Cuba. Exiled as teenagers, they now live in Miami.

I have long had mixed feelings about the Cuban Revolution and the exiles that oppose it. The Castros are repressive and dictatorial.Their predecessor, Batista, was a dictator, too, however, and the fierce, fixed positions of the Cuban exile community of South Florida are not always attractive. On the other hand, I haven't had their experiences, and if I was forced to leave my homeland, I imagine I'd be angry, too, perhaps for a very long time.

The Marlins have built a brand-new baseball stadium in Miami's Little Havana, and Cuban American fan support is important to the team, so Guillen's comments were inflamatory and ill-considered, to say the least. A long-time manager of the Chicago White Sox and a fine shortstop as a player, the Venezuela-born Guillen has a long history of crude, off the-cuff remarks. This latest transgression, coming at the beginning of his first season with the Marlins, is no real surprise.

Many people who follow major league baseball more closely than I do think the guy is a jerk. Maybe, but jerk or not, he was suspended by the team solely for voicing an unpopular, tactless political opinion, not for anything he did in the clubhouse or the dugout. Political speech in the United States is supposed to be protected speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Freedom of speech means nothing if it does not apply to unpopular speech, too.

Guillen's suspension leaves a sour taste. Over the years, people have rallied to cries of "Cuba Libre!'' Fair enough. What about "Miami Libre''? It might be a good idea to opppose repression in Cuba by also supporting freedom outside it.

Oh, and it might be a good idea for Washington to lift its ineffective and unfair ban on leisure travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, too.

In the meantime: Play ball!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Westin Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

When the Missus and I last alighted in Washington D.C., a few months ago, we wanted to stay in or near Georgetown, our favorite part of the capital city. After a bit of Internet research time, my wife zeroed in on the Westin Georgetown. We had some Starwood Preferred Guest points - Starpoints - so we booked the hotel. Overall, it was a good choice.

The Westin Georgetown, it should be noted, isn't actually in Georgetown, but it's just a jot away. About 5 minutes on foot along M Street puts you there. Georgetown is one those lively places that strikes a fine balance between touristy and local. Mostly, it's a good place to eat, drink and hear live music, and the redbrick buildings and leafy side streets of the neighborhood are lovely.

Location is one of the Westin's strengths, but not the only one. The hotel staff is unfailingly helpful and polite, willing to go the extra mile. This quality goes a long way to make up a hotel's shortfalls. And the Westin Georgetown does have some.

Our room was, well, not roomy. It was all we could do to walk around the bed. Ditto with the bathroom, though it was spotless and modern. Our room had an adequate-sized desk for use by business travelers and there was, of course, the obligatory flat-screen TV. The king Heavenly Bed - a Westin Hotels and Resorts trademark - was just soft enough, just firm enough, just big enough and just cosy enough - in a word, heavenly. On the down side, we discovered a $2 charge listed for phone calls, whether the call was completed or not. Fortunately, we, like many travelers these days, use our mobile phones when calling from hotel rooms. There is also a fee for in-room Internet service, which we didn't use, either.

In addition to being located just outside its namesake neighborhood, the Westin Georgetown is close to the Foggy Bottom Metro station, Dupont Circle and a cluster of restaurants. We bypassed the beery taverns in the neighborhood and went two nights in a row to RIS Restaurant, an eatery with the animated air of an American bistro and toothsome food three minutes walk from the Westin.

For what it's worth, the hotel earned three stars out of five in nine Google reviews. It did rather better on Trip Advisor, where it averaged four and a half out of 5 stars in 537 reviews and ranked 17th of 124 ranked Washington, D.C. hotels reviewed on the site.

The Westin Georgetown is located at 2350 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037 USA. Telephone: 202.429.0100. Web:

East-West Center: Information One-Stop

In the wake of yesterday's failed ballistic missile shot by North Korea, I was reminded of the value of the East-West Center. The EWC provided a timely analysis of the domestic political context in the hermit communist state, written by North Korea specialist Marcus Noland, who blogs about that country at, and posted his thoughts yesterday.

Who or what is the East-West Center? Glad you asked.

The EWC was founded in 1960 by the United States Congress, with the aim of promoting mutual understanding among the countries of the vast Asia-Pacific region through exchange visits, sharing of information and ongoing conversations. These days, it is a thriving, non-profit think tank and academic institution with a 21-acre campus bordering the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, and an office in Washington, D.C. I turn to the EWC ( often to gain context and insight that informs my travel journalism.

The center is independent and non-partisan, funded by a combination of private and public sources. Among them: The U.S. Congress, corporations, non-profit foundations and private individuals. It is not a branch of the U.S. government in case you're wondering, but does have excellent contacts with Uncle Sam, as it does with dozens of governments, academics, politicians and media people. I spent a month under EWC auspices a decade ago as a Jefferson Fellow; the Jefferson Fellowships bring professional journalists from around the region together for seminars, classes, and trips. I visited Japan, China and Vietnam with my Jefferson group at the EWC.

So, consider this a plug. For me, the EWC is an information one-stop. It's definitely worth checking out the Web site (see above), to see the latest and greatest about this dynamic, fast-growing and volatile part of the world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Myanmar, Reconsidered

There's an interesting piece posted 10 April in the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times. The story ( says that pro-democracy activists and tourism-industry commentators in Asia fear the opening of the long-isolated country Myanmar, also known as Burma, to international tourism.

They are worried chiefly about two things, according to the story: The potential spread of Thailand-style sex tourism and a dependency on handouts among poor local people, especially poor children.

As a traveler and journalist who visited Myanmar/Burma in 2000, when few outsiders were doing so, I'd say these are valid concerns. There are downsides to travel - and especially mass tourism - but the greater risk lies in isolation, which fosters ignorance, among both locals and foreigners, and inhibits economic development.

When I visited, I met a friendly, attractive populace - one that existed on about $1 USD per person per day, however. The nation's major river, the Irrawaddy, had exactly one bridge along its 1,200-mile length. I saw maybe a dozen mobile phones in five days in-country. People were already commonly asking for money - in markets, at the country's many brilliant Buddhist shrines, on street corners - and many of them were children, impoverished by decades-long rule by the harsh military junta that was made worse by international sanctions against the regime.

Since the recent elections and cautious loosening - not abandonment - of control by the junta, tourists are starting to visit the country for its unique properties. Indeed, Myanmar/Burma struck me as being about 40 years behind most of the world, including neighboring Asian countries, when I visited. The erstwhile capital city, Rangoon, also called Yangon, looked like a big Asian city must have looked in about 1960. Going there is like taking part in time travel.

Many sectors of the tourism industry are reportedly controlled by elements of the regime and other well-connected insiders. That is at the high end, however. Cab drivers, many tour guides, restaurants, food sellers and keepsake sellers, small merchants and others can be paid in cash directly by travelers, and that is money they need. Not all of it needs to go through the establishment or contribute directly to its upkeep.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? It's hard to know for sure, but I think it's half-full. The regime is letting go its grip, gradually, to be sure, and this legendary Buddhist land is cautiously returning to the world. Right now, Chinese and Thais are the most numerous visitors. Personally, I'd return in a heartbeat.

Footnote: The regime renamed the country Myanmar, after an ancient local kingdom, to rid the nation's name of colonial associations. Burma is a name bestowed by the British and refers to the multicultural country's largest ethnic group, the Burmese. Much of the fighting in border regions in recent decades has been between Burmese and national minorities. English-speaking locals told me during my visit that the name Myanmar is pronounced ME 'n ma - the r on the end is silent.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Luxury Lodges of Australia

You have your bush camps, you have your harbourside urban design hotels, you have your backpacker haunts in the likes of Sydney's King's Cross. Australia has all that when it comes to lodging. More than that, it has luxury digs, too, superb 5-star luxury resorts and lodges, growing in number, sprinkled around the country.

I discovered this first-hand in February, when I ventured Down Under to check-out three high-end, beautifully realized lodges there. I went first to Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, just west of the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales; then, to the wine-growing region in the Barossa Valley, South Australia; and finally to the Saffire, on the east coast of Tasmania - "Tassie,'' as I'm learning to call the island. I could hardly have hoped for a better time.

At the Louise, I sat down with Penny Rafferty, executive officer of Luxury Lodges of Australia ( This is a joint marketing group of high-end places, all of them resorts or resort-like, formed in November 2009 to shift the perception among foreign travelers like me of just what is on offer at the high end of the market in Oz.

There are, at last count, 17 member properties, from Queensland, near the Great Barrier Reef, to the west coast near Perth, to the middle of the country, near Ayers Rock (Uluru).

"In the last decade, the luxury experience has changed dramatically,'' Rafferty told me over drinks in the Louise's snug, buzzy bar. "Australia has always been a welcoming and safe destination, but people haven't associated it with luxury.''

And yet, they should. International luxury hotel chains such as Four Seasons, Shangri-la and Ritz-Carlton have got city properties and resorts in Australia. Increasingly, home-grown operators are also going upmarket, both in-town and in-country.

Me, I ate freshly harvested salt-water oysters and drank sparkling wine while standing in a gently flowing tidal river near the Saffire, in Tasmania - er, Tassie; went to a lively farmers' market in the Borassa with Mark McNamara, the gifted chef at the Louise's fine-dining restaurant, Appellation; and accompanied the acutely knowledgeable food and beverage chief cum executive chef at Wolgan Valley as he visited artisan purveyors of food and wine near his resort. In every case, these excursions were fine ways to see the surroundings and learn about local culture, not to mention seeing the flora and fauna that Australia is rightly known for.

Luxury does cost more, to be sure. If you can meet the initial rates and fees, you typically get meals and special, customized spa treatments, walks, boating trips and other ventures included in the overall expense. Since many luxury lodges are located far from towns of any size, this can end up being a surprisingly good deal, as well as being convenient.

Like other elements of the travel industry, luxury took a hit over the past few recessionary years. However, "luxury is coming back sooner,'' Rafferty reports. Besides, she adds, properties like those in her non-for-profit group enable travelers to access "unique Australian experiences.'' As I can attest, she's right.

A Few (Swedish) Chosen Words

I was in Sweden recently, researching travel stories on Stockholm and the university town of Uppsala, a lovely place just a 40-minute, $11USD train ride north of the Swedish capital. Uppsala is where the late, great filmmaker Ingmar Bergman was born and where he shot exteriors for his 1982 memory play and farewell to cinema, "Fanny and Alexander.''

Flipping through a book about Bergman, I came across this passage - translated from the Swedish for unilingual film fanatics and travel addicts like me - that Bergman has the grandmother recite in "Fanny and Alexander.'' In the movie, she is quoting the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg's "A Dream Play'':

"Anything can happen; anything is possible and likely. Time and space do not exist; on an insignificant basis of reality, the imagination spins and weaves new patterns.''

Friday, March 30, 2012

Air Scare, Again

Three days after a JetBlue Airways pilot had a midair meltdown and had to be restrained by passengers, prompting an emergency landing, industry analysts are talking about stress.

Stress on flight crews prompted by declining salaries, packed airplanes, fears of terrorism and more. No one is excusing the pilot's shouting, incoherent rants about Jesus, 9/11, the sins of Las Vegas (where the plane was headed) and his subsequent wrestling match with passengers, but this is the context, commentators emphasize, in which the frightening incident took place.

All true enough.

Stress falls on passengers, too, though. And unlike airline employees, air travelers are not trained to handle energencies or paid to be there. Rather, they file onto crowded planes, where they are charged extra for every little thing, try to pile luggage in too-small spaces to avoid checked luggage fees, struggle to open a laptop or a newspaper when the person in front of them pushes their seat back.

That's the state of domestic U.S. air travel, the glamour of flying long gone for most fliers.

Oh, and passengers pay to endure this. And that's after enduring long airport queues, frequent flight delays and the bullying of TSA screeners swelled up with too much self-importance and too little sensitivity.

What is to be done?

For starters, revamped psychological screening for the most important person on any airplane: The pilot. Meltdowns by flight attendants - like the one onboard an American Airlines flight just two weeks ago - are bad enough. But when the person with the lives of dozens if not hundreds of other people in his hands goes beserk, it's much worse.

As for the captain in question, he is facing up to 20 years on charges of interfering with a flight crew. He may be troubled, he may have had a very bad day, but this is a person who should, at a minimum, find another line of work. Legal authorities will rule on the charges; if he is found guilty, the authorities should throw the book at him. JetBlue CEO Dave Barger said in an interview on NBC's "Today'' show that he knows the pilot personally and finds him to be "a consummate professional.'' Enough of cliches, please, and enough of denial.

Fortunately, the co-pilot on JetBlue flight 191 was calm, cool and collected and landed the plane safely in Amarillo, Texas after barring the cockpit door.

Airlines eternally announce that safety is their number one priority. Indeed, it should be. Commercial aircraft are not hotels or spas or restaurants. They are narrow metal tubes hurtling through the air at 500 miles per hour, 35,000 feet off the ground. The confidence of the U.S. flying public has been shaken. The airline industry needs to regain and solidify public trust, not with marketing gimmicks and denial but with training and policy changes, informed by what they have learned from these scares in the air.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Say It Ain't So, Joe

In this blog, and on, where I am a contributing editor, I have weighed in about United Airlines, a once-great carrier that is struggling to turn itself around.

Now comes travel-business writer Joe Brancatelli, who runs the lively, punchy Web site,with a post today on United's continuing problems with its reservations system. I'd say say it ain't so, Joe, but it is so, and worth repeating.

From an e-mail that Brancatelli sent out to his site's members:

"Well, surprise, nothing's changed. The airline's phones are clogged and the waits continue to last for upwards of two hours. That's if the system doesn't just hang up on you. The super-elite lines are answering faster, but then you face long, long holds to get your problems fixed - if they can be fixed. The Web site was down and/or nonfunctional for several hours yesterday (Monday 26 March). The upgrade situation is still inexplicably broken. United continues to offer no timetable for when the data transmission they originally claimed was nearly flawless will be fixed. It continues to offer no apologies and no make-goods, even for its best customers. As I said last Tuesday, it's time to book away. No airline is worth this kind of grief.''

I couldn't agree more. Outside the Commonwealth of Independent States - i.e., Russia and its former (kinda) satellites - United (aka Misery Air) is the worst major airline in the developed world when it comes to customer service.

And getting even worse.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Westin Verasa Napa

For years, the city of Napa - located near the southern tip of California's Napa Valley winemaking region - was a place to refuel the car and drive on. Now, sprouting savory restaurants, art galleries, live music venues, the foodie-favorite Oxbow Public Market, ever-more places to taste and buy wine, and several new hotels, it is becoming a destination in its own right.

Napa city is still a work in progress but progress is being made, due in part to the emergence of hotels that fill the space between upscale bed and breakfasts and downscale motels and motel-like lodgings. The most notable newish place is the 2-year-old Westin Verasa Napa ( My wife and I stayed there over the predictably rowdy St. Patrick's Day weekend.

Our stay was simultaneously both terrific and awful.

Awful because the rowdies filled the hotel and, fueled by alcohol, turned the elevators and hallways into verbal free-fire zones. Awful because sound-proofing inside the guest rooms was poor, letting all the noise from the hallways in, barely muting talking, weeping and laughing between rooms and failing to muffle traffic noise from the busy roadway outside the hotel. Awful because our bathroom was small and old-fashioned with a shower inside a small tub and not enough shelf space. Awful because there was a flat-screen TV in our room but, man, was it small. When city taxes and hotel amenity fees were tacked-on to the bill, the price rose from the listed $249 to an actual $306.


Terrific, too, because we had a lovely meal in the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, the Michelin-starred LaToque, helmed by the talented chef Ken Frank. Terrific because our standard room came complete with a sink, dishwasher, drawers filled with cutlery, an empty refrigerator, a microwave and a coffeemaker; we weren't staying long but if we had, it would have been a comfortable room to hunker-down in. Terrific because the hotel has a swell location walking distance from Oxbow Market and Napa's riverfront promenade and downtown. The Wine Train's Napa city station is across the street from the Westin. Terrific because the double king bed was commodious and comfortable.

So, it's fair to say this is a classically mixed review.

Some of our problems were due to happenstance, to be sure - St. Patrick's Day, for example - not the hotel. But the Westin also made an inexplicable error. It came at check-in, when the desk jockey gave us our room keys and wrote out the room number on paper while repeating it verbally. Three times, we tried opening the door at the room he told us about, using changing sets of keys. Finally, the front desk figured out that the original guy keystroked the wrong room number into the hotel's computer system, so when the keys were magnetized, they were programmed for another room.

All this may sound like this seasoned traveler is saying to other travelers: Don't stay there. Indeed, our experience is enough to prompt me to consider other options next time, but I'm not saying don't stay there. The Westin is not cheap considering it is a somewhat standard cookie-cutter hotel, but Napa city and valley are not cheap. The hotel's location is good and the staff was friendly and tried hard. Just know that there are some flaws and factor them in if you are planning a trip to this late-blooming but increasingly attractive city in northern California's Wine Country.

The Westin Verasa Napa is located at 1314 Mckinstry St., Napa, CA 94559 USA. Tel. 707.257.1800, toll-free reservations at 800.937.8461, Web:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Wolgan Valley Resort Review

If you are interested in high-end travel and interested in Australia, check out my fresh review of Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa posted at's hotels section. It begins like this:

"Emirates is an airline known for posh service, state-of-the-art infrastructure and attention to detail. Those qualities are showcased splendidly in the Dubai carrier's owned-and-operated Australian luxury retreat, Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa.

"Wolgan Valley - the valley itself and the namesake resort on the valley floor - are reached by a three-hour drive through the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales, west of Sydney.'' includes a number of pretty-to-look-at color photos with the piece. You can find information directly from the resort by going to

Sunday, March 18, 2012

My CA Wine Country Piece in Alaska Airlines Mag

If you're flying Alaska Airlines this month, check out my feature story "Rich Bounty: Sampling artisanal foods in Sonoma and Napa.'' It begins like this:

"Gently I swirl the golden-green liquid, admiring how it catches the light, inhaling the floral aroma. Then I take a sip, letting the pleasantly grassy, peppery notes soften into a mellow aftertaste.

"I am in the tasting room of Long Meadow Ranch Winery & Farmstead, in Napa Valley's St. Helena, but I am not tasting wine. I am sampling Prato Lungo extra-virgin olive oil - one of two types of oil produced here - made from olives harvested in Long Meadow Ranch's restored, 140-year-old olive groves ...''

The magazine does not post much material online, but if you are flying Alaska Air this month, you can find the story on page 28 of the California Traveler Planner in the March issue.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Throw the Book at Her

Remember the American Airlines flight attendant who went off a few days ago while on a plane at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, ranting over the plane's public address system that she couldn't be responsible for the plane crashing? What ever happened to her?

Far as I can determine, nothing. Police and DFW authorities announced at the time that no legal charges would be filed against the flighty flight attendant, and no news reports I've seen have said they were. Her employer seems to be keeping quiet about the matter. No public word on whether the ranter - who terrified passengers on-board an AA flight scheduled to take-off for Chicago - has been fired, suspended, fined, slapped on the wrist or sent to her room.

This decidedly non-professional professional should be sacked at a minimum and possibly charged. If a passenger had done this, the TSA would be all over him or her, and rightly so. Why any less for an airline employee?

The FA, who has not been identified, was caught by cell-phone videos going on and on for some 15 minutes before passengers shut her down and she was escorted off the plane. The flight took off 80 minutes late and no passengers were hurt. That's good, but two other flight attendants were reportedly taken to hospital for treatment.

Coming, as this incident does, not so very long after a JetBlue Airways FA cursed passengers, swigged a beer and deployed an emergency exit chute at New York JFK Airport, it gives a frequent flier pause. At least that guy was fired and had to show up in court to explain his antics. Why not this person? With memories of Sept. 11 painfully fresh, this type of disruption is more than an inconvenience to passengers.

Cabin crew are, after all, trained to remain calm in stressful situations and paid to help, not frighten, customers. There must be consequences for incidents like this. Throw the book at her.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Few Chosen Words

"Make way for the self-researched know it all, fresh from reading opinions and online hotel reviews by mystery shoppers, sometimes using phony names and even phonier claims to product expertise.''

Travel Weekly contributor/travel agent Richard Turen's die-Internet-scum dart.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My United Biz Class Review

Check out my fresh review of United Airlines BusinessFirst long-haul, international service at

"Just before take-off on United Airlines, passengers see a video of Jeff Smisek, chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc., extolling United's commitment to customer service. When pre-flight drinks are rolled out, the message is reinforced; paper napkins arrive with these words imprinted: "Planes change. Values don't. Your priorities will always be ours.''

Oh, yeah? (continued)...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Wolgan's White Wallabies

Three weeks ago I was luxuriating at Australia's Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa, a posh property surrounded by national parks just west of the Blue Mountains. It's about a three-hour drive from Sydney and is owned and operated by Emirates Airline (

Luxury can be defined in a lot of ways: cosmically comfortable bed, gourmet food, pampering spa and more. It can also be characterized by access to rare sights in the natural world. Wolgan, a 2-year-old property in a dramatic setting that reminds some travelers of the floor of America's Grand Canyon - except much lusher - has that, as well the the beds, the food, the spa, etc.

One of the coolest things that happened during my recent three-night stay at Wolgan ( happened when I strolled out on the big, wrap-around wooden verandah outside the main lodge, and had my attention called to a white wallaby by the guy who was showing me around. There, in the middle distance on a grassy hillside a little joey - snow-white, in contrast to the usual grey or brown - was hanging out out with Mum.

The animal was too far away for me to get a good photograph with my rather basic camera (and rather basic photography skills). But you can see images for yourself by doing a Google search under 'white wallaby.'

What's a wallaby? Glad you asked, mate. Wallabies, while not kangaroos, look to me a lot like small 'roos; they also have a touch of rabbit, with pink noses and more pink inside their long ears. Of course they have a powerful tail and hind legs, and, like kangaroos, they get around by hopping.

"There are three white wallabies on this property,'' I was told. "They're extremely rare, about one in 25,000 births.''

You can see them, usually at dawn or dusk, in Wolgan Valley's heavily wooded, sometimes rugged expanse.

Now, that's luxury.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Coming Aviation Trade War

It pales in seriousness next to the showdown between Iran and the West, to be sure, but there is another war brewing. This is of the non-shooting variety. It is a trade war between the 27 member nations of the European Union on one side and the United States, Russia and China on the other.

The trigger is a carbon tax that the EU has slapped on all airlines flying into, out of, and around the EU.

The Europeans say the tax is needed to offset rising atmospheric emissions from civilian airliners that contribute to global warming. Everyone, they say, has to pay their fair share.

Opponents of the tax, which formally went into effect 1 January, 2012, counter that it amounts to an extraterritorial power play that extends EU authority over non-EU airlines. Additionally, they say, it will prove ineffective, as solutions to a global problem have to be global, too.

The EU counters that counter-argument by holding that the aviation industry has been foot-dragging for years, and we have to start somewhere.

The threat of a trade war comes in, in the event that the U.S., Russia and China - which has forbidden its airlines to pay the tax - decide to retaliate against the EU, whether targeting its airlines for punishment or retaliating in some other way.

Commercial aviation accounts for just 2 percent of the world's carbon-heavy emissions and is superceded by trucks, cars and other sources. Moreover, the aviation industry has made great progress in recent years, building lighter, more fuel-efficient planes that pollute less than did their predecessors. Nevertheless, aviation's share of emissions is expected to rise to 3 percent because the fast- increasing number of flights is more than off-setting the savings on individual flights.

And there the matter stands, with both sides trying to stare down the other and international diplomats trying to come up with a, well, diplomatic solution that will allow all parties to back away from the brink of a trade war and save face. Just how to do that remains a mystery.

Personally, I can see the points being made by both sides. The Europeans are right that something has to be done and it needs to begin ASAP. Critics of the tax are right, too, in that the aviation industry is getting greener - albeit under pressure from environmentalists and regulators. The industry, as represented by groups such as the U.S.-based Airlines for America (A4A) and the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association (IATA), are right in saying solutions have to be global. Emissions, like airplanes, fly across national borders, oceans and continents.

What to do? Can we split the difference? It's hard to see how. Modern-day Solomons, please step up. And do it soon. The clock is ticking.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

News From Oz

My trip to Australia this week and last was my fifth or sixth time Down Under. I've always had a good time but none better than this.

Surroundings had something to do with it. I stayed in posh resorts in gorgeous locales - all members of Luxury Lodges of Australia ( most of the time. When I wasn't doing that, I was in a chic city hotel: Blue Sydney, a Taj Hotels, Palaces and Resorts property right on the water ( Everywhere I went, the hospitality was sterling, the food was toothsome, the wine was great. What's not to like?

I'll have detailed accounts and reviews on this blog in the weeks ahead, as well as links to my published articles on paper and on the Web. In the meantime, just a few observations about travel in Oz:

Australia is still very friendly and safe for international visitors, yet there are fewer of us right now than in recent years. There are several reasons for this, led by the lousy economies in Europe and the United States, which are causing people to stay home.

Another problem is the strong Australian dollar (AUD), which trades at $1.08 USD - way up from 64 U.S. cents just a few years ago. China is buying all the coal the Aussies can dig from under their mineral-rich land, and the booming mining export sector has driven up the value of the Aussie dollar. The takeaway for travelers: This once-affordable continental country is now pricey.

The inbound arrivals numbers tell the story. U.S. visitors were down 4 percent in 2011 from 2010, British travelers declined 11 percent, Japanese tourists dropped 16 percent and arrivals from the continental countries of the European Union plummeted by a jaw-dropping 40-plus percent. This, as reported in the national newspaper The Australian.

The weather isn't helping. This year's Southern Hemisphere summer has been a bust in some of the most tourist-friendly parts of the country. Friends and associates in Sydney - the main gateway from North America - told me it's been humid and rainy all summer. "Bucketing,'' as they say of heavy rain in Oz. Indeed, the city was muggy, foggy and showery when I arrived - though it was comfortably warm, dry and sunny the day I departed. That allowed Sydneysiders to go back to being their outdoor-loving selves, if only briefly.

Up the east coast, Queensland is still recovering from last year's typhoon and disastrous floods. The inevitable government inquest is looking into the failure of a dam and I got the feeling someone is bound to lose his job over that.

So far, so dismal. But Australia is never down for long. It remains an amazing destination, with its unique flora and fauna, dramatic landscapes, dynamic cities and the aforementioned friendlies, food and drink.

I'll be highlighting the pleasures of the places I visited: Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa (, a luxury retreat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney owned and managed by Emirates Airline; The Louise, a charming countryside compound surrounded by vineyards in the wine-producing Barossa Valley ( northeast of Adelaide; The Saffire, a drop-dead gorgeous waterside getaway on the East Coast of Tasmania (; and the Blue Hotel Sydney.

Much more to come on all this, mate.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

2012 Travel Guide to California

Toronto company Globalite Travel Marketing Inc. has published its 2012 Travel Guide to California, which includes my feature story on California cities, headlined "Where the Action Is.'' The piece, found on pages 14 through 19 of the 168-page print version of the guide (price: $6.95 USD), is also available online at It begins like this:

"Famous for its beaches, mountains, deserts and vineyards, California has yet another treasure that makes the Golden State shine: its cities. In cities, culture meets commerce, producing world-class dining and world-renowned movies, music, television and digital media - not to mention major arts venues and major-league sporting events. Nowhere are these attractions on more engaging display than in California's most traveler-friendly cities: Los Angeles, San Jose, Palm Springs, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento.''

If you are interested in Caalifornia travel, the glossy, color-splashed guide is worth checking out. Dining and wine, family fun, guides to the mountains, deserts, and destinations such as Yosemite, Big Sur, Death Valley and Lake Tahoe are covered by a variety of California-based travel writers - accomplished pros, all.

Wise Words

When I visit Hong Kong, I always steal at glance at Apple Daily, the brash, color-splashed tabloid newspaper published by the brash, colorful entrepreneur Jimmy Lai. I don't read Chinese, so it's strictly a visual experience for me, but still worth it, as enough vivid energy comes through to make the paper entertaining.

Traveling in Australia this week, I came across an interview with Jimmy Lai in The Australian, the national newspaper Down Under. As usual, Lai was interesting. Among other things, he had this to say - wise words I thought I'd pass along:

"Nothing is ideal. The world is destroyed by people who have ideals more than by pragmatists. The dreamers are mostly devils in disguise. People who want to be saviours want to play God. And we all get into trouble then, because God is jealous.''

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Off to Oz

I'm heading back to Australia tonight, for travel-writing purposes. It will be my first return to Oz since last April. I'll be staying at - and writing about - a cluster of fine resorts, all of them members of Luxury Lodges of Australia. Watch this space, and Twitter and elsewhere, for details about my trip, and for leads you may find useful for one of your own.

My SF Chronicle London Feature

Check out my London before the Olympics Sunday Travel section cover story on paper in the 5 February San Francisco Chronicle, or online at

"This is London: Yellow construction cranes tower over inner-city building sites; popular gathering spots rumble with earth-moving equipment, along with the usual heaving masses of shoppers and sightseers; venues for the 2012 Olympic Games pop up around town like mushrooms on a wet cricket ground, from rebuilt Wembley Stadium in the west to 'starchitect' Zaha Hadid's glassy aquatic center in a resuscitated part of the East End.

"Not since the slow-motion reconstruction of London after World War II has the British capital undergone such widespread physical change ...''

Saturday, February 4, 2012

My Vancouver Airport Marriott Review

This was posted 1 February on

"Happily for frequent fliers, the dark, dank, cramped, downright depressing airport hotel is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Oh, places like that still exist, of course, especially in smaller markets. But in major markets of the developed world, global hotel brands are providing major upgrades in consumer choice.

"A good case in point is the Vancouver Airport Marriott Hotel, located in Richmond, British Columbia ...''

If you're interested, go to For now at least, the story is flagged on the home page. Click on 'read more' and it will carry you directly to the review, or find it under "Hotel Reviews' downpage.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

5 Cool Things About Richmond, B.C.

There are more than five cool things about Richmond, British Columbia, of course. A city of 190,000 just south of Vancouver, Richmond is considered by many to be the most Asian-orientated city in North America. About half the residents are recent or long-established immigrants from Asia, especially Chinese Canadians. I recently visited Richmond to check out its vibrant Chinese New Year's celebrations.

You may know Richmond as the home of Vancouver International Airport (YVR). There is much more of note there than the airport, however. Here is my shortlist of five cool things, in no particular order:

Food Street - Formally, Alexandra Street, this is home to dozens of mainly Asian restaurants spread over several blocks and standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. B.C. residents consider Richmond Food Street to be the best place in this gorgeous western Canadian province to eat Asian food, and who am I to argue? I didn't try every place, of course, but one I particularly liked was the Jade Seafood Restaurant (8511 Alexandra Road, The cuisine, which included a whole fish the night I dined there with a group of 16, is intensely flavorful, imaginative and varied. You'll want to keep that tabletop lazy susan spinning your way if you eat at Jade Seafood. There's a good international wine list, too, a rarity among Chinese eateries, in China and overseas.

Parker Place and other Asian shopping malls - The dining, shopping, exploring and, again, eating, is fine in this most Asian of Richmond's indoor malls, which comes complete with an active Buddhist shrine in the parking lot. Inside are herbal, candy, trinket and butcher shops and a savory food court, where you can sample the likes of dragon beard candy (the rough equivalent of cotton candy) and sweetened bubble waffles. Parker Place (2035-4380 Hazelbridge Way, is far from the only Asian-influenced mall in town. Among the others: Yaohan Centre, with its enormous Japanese-style supermarket Osaka, Landsdowne Mall and Aberdeen Centre. Many of the malls are helpfully located near TransLink stations. Which brings us to ...

Trans Link SkyTrain - An automated, driverless, elevated light-rail system in Richmond and environs and a subway in Vancouver, SkyTrain is a wonderfully efficient and inexpensive (no fares from Richmond over $3.75 CAD) public transport network. It has three lines; the Canada Line joins downtown Richmond to downtown Vancouver via a pleasant, 20-minute ride. (

Richmond Olympic Oval - This is an architecturally stunning legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics held on B.C.'s Lower Mainland and centered in Vancouver/Richmond and Whistler. The $178 million CAD Oval hosted long-track speed skating competitions. These days, it is an expansive and well-used community sports and recreation hub. Situated on the banks of the Fraser River, the sparkling facility includes two Olympic-sized skating rinks, indoor soccer fields and basketball and volleyball courts. Oh, there's plenty of workout equipment, too. (6111 River Road,

No. 9 Restaurant - This nondescriptly named, 24-hour dining spot is indelibly local, reasonably priced, boasts an enormous menu and is popular with Asian Canadians who flock there for comfort food. I had breakfast at No. 9 and was able to finish at best a quarter of my huge bowl of chicken and mushroom congee. I sipped Chinese tea, then switched to a local specialty, called yin-yang - a hot drink (in winter, anyway) composed of roughly half coffee and half black tea and flavored with cream. It tastes better than it sounds and is a sustaining way to finish a meal.(812-5300 No. 3 Road,

For more information, contact Tourism Richmond, tel. 604.821.5474,

No Comment Dept.

This, posted 31 January by the London newspaper the Daily Mail, on its Web site

"TSA (Transportation Security Administration) officials have been blasted for "outrageous'' bungling after it emerged that they found two possible pipe bombs in a passenger's luggage at New York's LaGuardia Airport yesterday - but waited six hours before telling the police.

"The suspicious objects were kept in a public area used by hundreds of passengers and at one point were left casually resting on a radiator.''

Monday, January 30, 2012

Oakland CA and the 1 Percent of the 99 Percent

We in the United States hear a lot from the Occupy movement about the 1 percent (the rich, ruling elite) and the 99 percent (everyone else). Now, with the latest eruption of street violence in Oakland, California, attention is also turning to the 1 percent of the 99 percent. These are the activists - often self-described anarchists - who think that trashing buildings, burning flags and throwing projectiles at police advance the cause of the disenfranchised.

Oakland's tourism authorities recently launched an Oakland Restaurant Week to call attention to the northern California city's varied, affordable, toothsome eateries, but this news was lost amidst the turmoil and international media coverage of the Occupy movement.

Occupiers forced their way into City Hall over this past weekend and, according to local and national media reports, trashed parts of the building. Occupiers blame the heavy hand of the Oakland cops for fomenting trouble, and indeed the U.S. federal government agrees that the Oakland PD used excessive force against city campers and protesters several months ago, when Oakland's version of Occupy Wall Street was just getting started. Since then, there's been plenty of blame to go around.

Occupiers have already twice partly shut down the Port of Oakland, where jobs are generated and exports and imports pass through the San Francisco Bay Area's largest seaport. This past week, they threatened to do it again - along with shutting down Oakland International Airport, an essential part of the blue-collar city's economy and a vital lifeline for business travelers, leisure travelers and cargo shippers. The airport, too, is a job-creator in a city where very many people are unemployed or underemployed.

Embattled Oakland Mayor Jean Quan - criticized by the political Left as a supposed tool of the Establishment and by the political Right for not cracking down hard enough - has rightly characterized her city as a home of the 99 percent. But Oakland is experiencing a home invasion by the 1 percent of the 99 percent who'd rather fight than think.

The other day Quan said "Young people, think about your tactics. Think about who you are hurting. Oakland is not your playground.''

Until the 1 percent of the 99 percent stops - or is stopped - Oakland will continue to be in trouble. And one of the toughest jobs imaginable will continue to be the job of marketing Oakland to travelers and conventioneers. The paycheck for taking that gig just can't be big enough.

In the meantime, travelers will continue to miss out on the parts of Oakland that are worth visiting: Among them, Lake Merritt, the lively Uptown configuration of restaurants, clubs and bars, the California Oakland Museum, the foodie haven of Rockridge and more. It's a pity.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: Wingate by Windham, Mechanicsburg, PA

My wife and I recently ventured to central Pennsylvania, home of a foodball-mad populace and caloric fave foods such as peanut butter-flavored pie and sliced Lebanon baloney. There are a handful of bed & breakfasts in the area, but they are typically pricey. The biggest of the big-name hotels in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital city, is the Hilton, but it was booked when we visited.

What to do?

We booked a Wingate by Windham - part of the group that includes Ramada, Days Inn and TraveLodge - in suburban Mechanicsburg. Or, rather, we thought we did. Upon arrival at nearly 11 p.m., road-weary and wanting to fall into bed, we were informed that we had cancelled our reservation, which was news to us. In fact, we had done no such thing. Someone cancelled our reservation but it wasn't us. Evidently, it was someone on staff.

The hotel was fully booked and there were no available rooms. Or were there?

Heads were put together. Supervisors were consulted. In the end, we got a room. Actually, it was in effect a suite, as we occupied two adjoining, rarely used rooms on the top floor of this nondescript modern building, barely removed from the busy, noisy Pennsylvania Turnpike. The rooms overlooked the hotel parking lot from above the main entryway. But, hey, we had an adequate bed and two empty refrigerators that we used for bottled water, juice and milk, and we had a place to stay.

The place is - how to say this? - odd. The lobby reeks with the smell of chorination, as the doors are left open to the hotel swimming pool. There is breakfast just off the lobby but it is decidedly bland: Think tasteless yet fatty, waxy miniature muffins, small cartons of cereal, borderline drinkable coffee and the like. It doesn't taste good but it gets you going. Staff were nice and tried to be helpful, though they had that undertrained quality common in roadside inns in the United States.

Well, you get what you pay for, right? We paid $69.30 USD per night for our king bed room, breakfast included, with no extra charge for use of the second room - which also meant we had a second bathroom and second smallish closet that allowed us to spread out. The hotel also offers free Wi-Fi and in-room microwave ovens.

The Wingate Mechanicsburg is painfully far from being a destination hotel, but if you're passing through and tired of driving, it's an option.

Wingate by Windham is located at 385 Cumberland Parkway, Pennsylvania Turnpike exit 236, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055 USA. Tel: 717.766.2710.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cool Move by Lufthansa

Lufthansa, Germany's largest airline, said today it plans to expand its automatic check-in service to some 400 routes in the 26-nation European Union. Furthermore, the carrier will roll out this service globally "in the coming months,'' according to Lufthansa's Americas office, in New York.

Sounds like a cool move to me.

This is how Lufthansa characterizes its automated check-in:

"Passengers with an existing booking are automatically checked-in 23 hours prior to their departure and will receive an electronic boarding pass with their reserved seat number shortly after, which they can choose to have sent to them by e-mail or to an Internet-enabled mobile phone. The service is available to all members of the Miles & More frequent flier program who have selected the automatic check-in option under "travel services' in their customer profile. In the event of a change in travel plans, passengers with a re-bookable ticket have the option of cancelling their online check-in at or by calling the Lufthansa Service Center.

"Passengers traveling with luggage can check in their bags at a baggage drop-off counter or at a check-in kiosk on presentation of their boarding pass. Seats can also be changed online via a mobile phone or at a self-service check-in kiosk.''

When can we in North America, and other travelers outside the EU, get access to this convenient-sounding service, pray tell?

Soon, they say.

"In the coming months, Lufthansa expects to expand the automatic check-in service across its global route network and make it available for all flight bookings, thus allowing passengers who are not Miles & More members to take advantage of this popular service.''

Bring it on.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

19 Money-Saving Travel Web sites from NY Times

It's a couple of weeks old now, but easy to miss amidst the New Year's hoopla - and the information is still current: Namely, New York Times reporter Michelle Higgins's piece "19 Web Sites for Travel Savings in 2012.'' If you missed it, I highly recommend tracking back and finding the story on

The hard-working Higgins highlights sites that can save travelers money on flights, hotels, cruises, car rentals and home exchanges, and provides thumbnail descriptions of each. Her piece was published on paper Jan. 4 and posted online Jan. 8. Just do a byline search for the writer.

Higgins singles out sites such as,, and, among others. If you're planning to be on the road this year, some due diligence on the Net can definitely save you money. This is a valuable, helpful piece that shouldn't slip by.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Misery Air: United (cont.)

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, asked to cite examples of major decisons his vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, participated in, famously replied "If you give me a week, I may think of one.''

That is how I feel when I try to come up with a major virtue of United Airlines (aka Misery Air): If you give me a week, I may think of one.

I flew United ( twice in the past few days between San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia on a travel-writing trip. Nothing terribly untoward happened and United's infamously cranky cabin crews - the carrier's "friendly skies'' era is long gone - at least stayed out of passengers' faces. That's something, I guess. The last time I flew United, flight attendants openly mocked passengers and blamed travelers for the overstuffed overhead bins,

This time, little things went awry. I flew in economy class, everyone's favorite. The passenger in front of me put his seat all the way back, nearly knee-capping me. He kept it there during take-off and landing, which is supposed to be a no-no. I didn't say anything because I didn't want to get into it with a fellow traveler. Neither did the flight attendants, although enforcing safety regulations and seeing to the comfort of all their customers is their job.

On the way back from B.C., on-board another crowded, narrow-body, single-aisle Airbus A320, more little things went wrong. Although I was one of the first passengers in the way-back of the plane, when I went into a washroom well before take-off, I found a messy unflushed toilet. Early in the flight, I flicked on the overhead light at my seat so I could read. It winked on, and then it winked off. And then it winked on again. And then ... I turned it off for the duration of the flight. I squinted and read in semi-darkness.

No big thing, you may say, and you would be right. Both flights arrived safely, and one of them was even on time. But as the old song says, little things mean a lot. And little things add up. United still has a lot of work to do to make its customer service more than notional.

The Woz Wuz on my Plane

I am not much of a celebrity hound. Eight years as a movie critic and arts and entertainment feature writer at a daily newspaper saw me conduct dozens of personal interviews with superstars and your just plain stars, and that pretty much helped purge me of any tendency to be star-struck.

I was pleased, though, to see The Woz - Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak - on my plane while flying between San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia - twice - when I flew to Richmond, B.C. to cover that intensely Asian Canadian city's Chinese New Year celebration. Whether The Woz flew there to mark the Year of the Dragon, I am not sure. But there he was, without any entourage, flying commercial - albeit in first class - locked into his handheld device before takeoff and after landing. He was clad in sneakers that looked like - well, inexpensive Chinese knockoffs - and traveling without that celebrity aura of leave me alone, you riff-raff.

The other passengers, including me, did leave him alone. Maybe The Woz lacks the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs's charisma, I dunno, but it's hard to image the brilliant, high-powered Jobs traveling that way. Wozniak is brilliant, too. His is the high-tech genius that created the Apple I and Apple II computers, launching what is now one of the richest and most famous companies in the world.

I interviewed Jobs in the '90s, when he was waging a charm offensive to rally public opinion behind his controversial use of a noisy helicopter to commute to his job as the head of Pixar; this was after Jobs's exile from Apple and before his triumphant return. I have never interviewed Wozniak but I've always liked him and was pleased when San Jose, California's worthy The Tech - the Silicon Valley high-tech museum - renamed a short street in its downtown location Woz Way ( Wozniak has his own Web site, natch:, and it provides some updates on the latest doings of this famous, refreshingly down-to-earth, traveler.

And, hey: Gung Hay Fat Choy, everyone.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Obama's Good First Steps for Tourism

Hopefully, the Fantasyland locale is not a portent.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced several welcome steps to boost international tourism to the United States, in a speech delivered yesterday at Disney World, in Orlando, Florida. Meant to address the fall in U.S. market share to 11 percent of world tourist arrivals in 2010 (from 17 percent in 2000), Obama outlined a number of policy initiatives in a new executive order. (You can read the order in its entirety at Among them:

* Expand the U.S. visa-waiver program to more nations, including defacto nations such as Taiwan
* Send 100 additional consular officers to Brazil and China, to help shorten backloads of visa applications that can drag out for months, and thus speed the arrival of more free-spending foreign tourists to the recession-racked U.S.
* Promote U.S. national parks and monuments and rural areas as worthy tourist destinations, to go with urban stand-bys such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles
* Expand Global Entry, a system that eases re-entry into the United States by American citizens to 24 U.S. airports from 20
* Appoint the inevitable government task force to ponder the matter further and get back to him

Some things can be done on a national level by the federal government that can't be done by the welter of state and local tourist boards and hotel, airline and hospitality companies - and especially so compared to pure marketing plays.

An example of the latter is Brand USA, a tourism promotion board created by the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, which Obama signed. It's not clear that Brand USA's efforts could have helped arrest the decline in U.S. tourism had the board been in existence during the past decade. Indeed, Obama's executive order notes that changing global travel patterns, the rise of large middle classes in China, Brazil and India and stepped-up U.S. security measures after Sept. 11, 2001, have all lessened the U.S. role in world tourism. New marketing slogans and advertising campaigns, absent traveler-friendly policy changes, aren't likely to do much good.

Campaign-watchers did not fail to note that Obama made his announcement in tourist-friendly Florida. Not coincidently, Florida is a perennial swing state in American elections. Obama, running for re-election, is spinning his orders as job-creators - an obligatory move in any election but especially so during tough times.

Still, there are concrete policy changes afoot, and this is good to see. Nothing revolutionary, mind you, but these are steps in the right direction.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Parallel 37 at Ritz-Carlton San Francisco

I have to admit, I was worried when I heard San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel had replaced its classic fine-dining restaurant The Dining Room and replaced it with a new place called Parallel 37. Then I heard that The Dining Room's gifted chef, Ron Siegel, was in charge at Parallel 37. Right away, I relaxed.

I was right to feel renewed confidence. Siegel - who worked for Thomas Keller at the famed French Laundry and Michael Mina at Aqua, cooked in New York, was the first non-Japanese to win the original "Iron Chef'' competition and was head chef at Masa's - has a list of skills as long as his resume. Boiled down to essentials, he works wonders with the fresh fish, meats and produce of the San Francisco Bay Area, bringing a subtle French touch to American food. Moreover, Siegel not only talks the talk of local, seasonal and sustainable, he walks the walk.

The restaurant, located just off the lobby as you walk in, opened in December 2011. It is one of several recent and future changes at the 20-year-old San Francisco Ritz-Carlton. The splendid Lobby Lounge, home of fine afternoon teas and live evening entertainment, is undergoing renovation. Presently sealed off for construction, it is expected to reopen this spring.

Parallel 37 - named for San Francisco's latitude - is designed to the max, 21st century stylish, loud and frequented by a jeans-wearing but appearance-conscious crowd. I miss the elegant classicism of The Dining Room, but Siegel's revamped menu - including but not limited to - the obligatory small plates, is flavorful, inventive and delicious.

I dined with fellow travel writer and friend Patricia Nickell, who was in-town on assignment. Patti is mostly a fish person, as am I oftentimes. But this time I followed the recommendation of our personable and funny server - he reminded me a bit of the actor Owen Wilson - and ordered the succulent slow-cooked pork entree with braised greens, flageolet beans and madeira sauce. It was wonderful. Patti liked the beans so much she ordered a side for herself. We started our feast with flutes of Champagne, then moved on to Merry Edwards Pinot Noir, a very tasty and versatile California vintage.

If you're in-town, check out Parallel 37. It's very good and with luck will last as long and operate as well as the vanished Dining Room.

The Ritz-Carlton is located at Stockton Street at California Street, San Francisco, CA 94108 USA. Tel. 415.296.7465. Web: or

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My Hotel and Airline Reviews

I mentioned in a post a few days ago that I have signed on as a contributing editor at, a New York-based site that operates in what we journos rather wonkishly call the travel "space.''

Over the past 10 days or so I've crafted hotel reviews and one airline review (the latter is about Cathay Pacific Airways's trans-Pacific business-class service) for the site. The hotels in question are Inn on the Alameda, in Santa Fe, New Mexico USA; Shangri-la Hotel, The Marina, in Cairns, Queensland, Australia; The Opposite House, in Beijing, China; and the Conrad, a Hilton hotel in Tokyo, Japan - that one hasn't been posted yet but I'm told it will be by this weekend.

If things go according to plan, there'll be more.

These are professional reviews, not the rants and wet kisses of social media. The pieces are intended to be thorough, reporting-driven and helpful to travelers. If you want to check them out, go to the site's home page, where you'll see the name of the hotel (or airline) and the words By Contributing Editor. Click on the headline to read the full story, which appears under my byline. If a review has rotated off of the A&D home page, you can look it up under the hotels or airlines category.

I'm going to be writing more reviews - as well as the usual mix of travel features, news and commentary - right here, too.

As things roll along at A&D, I'll give the occasional heads-up here, as well as on Twitter, where I tweet as Armstrongtravel.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

RIS Restaurant, Washington, D.C.

RIS initially sounds like it might be one of those Washington, D.C. alphabet-soup agencies - you know, like the FAA, FBI, NSA or TSA. Not so. It's the first name of this excellent, popular restaurant's co-owner and head chef, Ris Lacoste, who opened the namesake venture in Washington's West End in 2010 and for some reason decided to put the name all in capital letters.

Here's another initially odd thing about RIS, and Ris - her food can best be described as elegant American comfort food. Sounds like a contraction. But again, not so. Lacoste cooks seasonal American fare, using fresh ingredients in often-familar-sounding dishes and giving them her own inventive touch. The result is a smashing success, combining fine-dining with casual small-plates. The atmosphere is lively but just quiet enough to allow you to converse with your dining companions. Washingtonian magazine named RIS one of its 100 Best Restaurants for 2011.

My wife and I were introduced to RIS on a recent trip to the U.S. East Coast by our friends Ellen and Joe, who work in the District. The four of us sat at the bar and drank wines by the glass, then my wife and I repaired to a small table and had a light evening meal. We liked it so much we returned the following night, taking the very short walk from our hotel, the Westin Georgetown, this time occupying a cosy booth for two. Again, it all worked - just the thing for two traveling Californians who were a tad overfed on heavy food (think peanut butter pie and dumplings and fried fare) a few days before in Pennsylvania, land of the thickset consumer.

We started with a Grey Goose vodka tonic for her and Tanqueray gin martini (dry, up, with olives) for me. The missus had succulent mussels and crispy fries while I feasted on oysters Rockefeller, a classic dish made with a light touch. We ended with two excellent farmhouse cheeses - one cow's milk, one sheep's milk. A nicely balanced French wine, Simonent Febve Chablis, complemented the entrees.

Prices are reasonable for a restaurant of RIS's calibre in the capital city: $10-$25 USD per person for Monday through Friday lunch, $25-$50 USD per person for Monday through Saturday dinner.

The creator of RIS's toothsome cuisine came to it in an interesting way. Born in Massachusetts, with a degree in French from the University of California at Berkeley, Lacoste cooked in France, then came home to cook at the restaurant Georgetown 1789 before going out on her own. Her food, like her education, is well-rounded and refined.

RIS is highly recommended if you're in D.C. as a leisure traveler or a road warrior, or if you live nearby but haven't found your way there yet.

RIS is located at 2275 L Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20037 USA. Tel.: 202.730.2500. E-mail: Web: Discounted self-parking is available at Circle Parking (1120 23rd Street, NW) with validation from RIS. Nearest Metro stops are Foggy Bottom-GWU and Farragut North.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Some news for the New Year: I just signed on as a contributing editor at I'll be writing occasional reviews and features for the New York-based site, which is just over two years old and growing at a nice pace. I'll be doing some writing about airlines and probably a bit more about destinations - including worldwide attractions such as hotels and resorts.

I'm happy to be doing it. AirlinesAndDestinations's co-owner, co-founder and editor, British expat Christian Kjelgaard, is a respected, Scottish-born aviation journalist who served as editor at when that site - owned and operated by an entirely separate company - was a going concern. I wrote for him there, including a twice-weekly column called David Armstrong on Air Travel. That site was a victim of the Great Recession. The independent AirlinesAndDestinations is Chris's creative response, and has a broad scope, meant to align aviation with places people fly to for business and pleasure.

I'll be flagging pieces I write for them in this blog, which will not be slowing down at all. Do check out AirlinesAndDestinations for its sake, too. It is a bright site, with 65 percent of regular readers living in the United States and a healthy 35 percent in more than 100 countries around the world - a truly global digital venture.

Oakland and The List

Ah, list-making time again. How precious.

Every year at about this time - which is to say, the end of one year and the beginning of the next - travel media line up to draw up their lists of what's in and what's out, and share their wisdom about what destinations you absolutely have to visit. You know, be there or be square, Where to Go Now, etc.

Ths year, the upmarket, Ivy League New York Times ( puts at no. 5 of its 45 must-see places of 2012 a place I know pretty well: Oakland, California. Not suprisingly,, whose melancholy task it is to promote tourism to this interesting but gritty (and occasionally scary) city across San Francisco Bay from San Francisco is sending out e-mails to tout the recommendation.

The Times touts Oakland chiefly for the revitalization of its Uptown district - actually centered near downtown at roughly Telegraph Avenue above 20th Street - and the most expensive restaurants by celebrity chefs it could visit on the parent company's expense accounts. Uptown is indeed an interesting area, worth your time if you're in the Bay Area. Other places, such as Temescal, the restored Victorian Row of houses and restaurants downtown and especially Rockridge, on the northern city line with Berkeley, are worth a visit, too.

I used to live in Oakland and I like some things about it very much, but as a long-time Bay Area guy, I have to level with you and say it is not most people's idea of a tourist paradise. Most of Oakland is not pretty, some of it - especially West Oakland, east Oakland, downtown's streets after dark and long blocks of murderers' row along International Boulevard are visited at your own risk. Some Oakland BART transit stations and especially the parking lots are high-risk.

I suspect the Times flagged Oakland because the writers and editors like to play with a frisson of fear and see themselves as hip and pioneering, very cool trendspotters, if they do say so themselves. It could be a reaction to the Gray Lady's longtime reputation as an authoritative but dowdy Establishment sheet. Not any more, the Times's hipsters want us to know.

OK, if you say so. Bottom line for travelers: Don't avoid Oakland, just keep your eyes open and explore it on your own, within the broad guidelines cited above.