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.