The Buffalo News - Travel Latest stories from The Buffalo News en-us Fri, 18 Apr 2014 18:49:21 -0400 Fri, 18 Apr 2014 18:49:21 -0400 <![CDATA[ On the wild side in Costa Rica ]]>
To sample this extravaganza of biodiversity, we had risen early each morning of our vacation. So when our guide informed us that he would be taking us out at 4:30 a.m. to witness the rain forest waking up, I – the motivating force behind, and thus bearer of responsibility for, this trip – glanced apprehensively at my family and swallowed hard.

“We’ll be up!” I said brightly.

I had shepherded Sasha and my husband, Scott, to Osa in hopes of a tropical wildlife experience that was, in fact, wild. But as we crawled into our tent that night, the beaten path from which I had so resolutely steered clear was starting to look more inviting.

Costa Rica, home to large tracts of untouched yet accessible rain forest, had seemed the obvious place to immerse ourselves in nature for a week in February. But as I researched where to go in the West Virginia-size country, I began to suspect that its popular ecotourist destinations might not quench my yearning for the untamed. On TripAdvisor, phrases like “well-developed” and the less-charitable “Disneyfied” arose in regard to the storied Monteverde Cloud Forest in the central highlands. Manuel Antonio National Park on the central Pacific Coast was reportedly better for nightlife than wildlife.

The more people who can enjoy the rain forest without destroying it the better: The 70,000 or so who visit a sliver of Monteverde each year help pay to preserve the rest of it. But the remote Osa Peninsula, which juts into the Pacific Ocean from Costa Rica’s southwestern corner, seemed to hold an increasingly rare chance to observe the rain forest in all its fecund, carbon-storing, oxygen-producing glory, without quite so much human company.

To get there requires a second flight or a seven-hour drive from San José. And while the draw is the 160-square-mile Corcovado National Park, accommodations there are limited to a few dozen bunks and a tent platform at the Sirena Ranger Station.

Our first stop, Bosque del Cabo, was a 40-minute ride by taxi from Puerto Jiménez, the biggest town on the peninsula with a population of 1,780. I had chosen one of the two cabins at Bosque just steps from the rain forest, at the edge of a large clearing planted with native trees and plants. These “garden cabinas” are reached by a trail through the forest that crosses high above a river over a suspension bridge.

Bosque itself sits on 750 acres that encompass some primary-growth rain forest and large swaths of “jungle,” rain forest that has grown back on land that had once been cleared – in Bosque’s case, for cattle grazing. We would have virtually no chance of seeing a tapir on the hotel’s trails, the staff told us candidly (even in Corcovado, we were told, our chances were 50-50). But we spotted poison dart frogs, lizards and monkeys dozing in the sun. A wild pig called a peccary often visited the lodge’s modest pool, where we cooled off and sipped ginger lemonades.

When we landed the next morning at the ranger station, the headquarters of Corcovado park, it quickly became apparent that there would be no distractions from the natural world. Other than lounging on the shaded porch of the low-slung ranger station, there was really was nothing to do but be in it.

Our guide, Nito Paniagua, who met us in Puerto Jiménez for the 15-minute charter flight, lost no time snagging us a spot on the tent platform at the station and heading out on a trail to the river.

Unlike the many hardy backpacker types who had walked 12 miles or more to camp at Sirena, we were not big hikers. But the walk down to the river where we ate lunch was not so much strenuous as it was intense. It took two hours only because we stopped every few steps for a new creature: the bird with the small heart, the carnivorous cricket, bright blue butterflies, the notorious fer-de-lance snake.

And because Nito had quickly divined that we were keen to see tapirs, he brought us to a spot where they are known to nap.

That we were lucky enough to see two of them through the trees from perhaps 50 feet away was one reason for the collective groan that night when Nito announced the 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.

What else, we wondered, did we have to see that couldn’t wait until dawn?

In my grogginess I left the tent without my glasses and had to run back to get them while Scott, Sasha and Nito waited for me on the grass beyond the porch of the ranger station. We stopped to admire a spider web at the start of the dirt trail, then traipsed on toward the beach where Nito wanted us to watch the sky grow light.

That was when the tapir came crashing out of the forest right in front of us. My heart beating hard, I held my breath, wishing I could freeze the moment. Scott and Sasha, too, stood transfixed. For just a split second, the large, strange animal seemed to register our presence. Then the tapir lumbered away from us, down the trail, toward the river as we followed, until it veered off into the darkness.

I didn’t know it until then, but this, more than anything, was what I had hoped we would find on the Osa Peninsula. It wasn’t like seeing an animal lured to a spot by human guile, or to where all the guides know it’s likely to go on its own. If I hadn’t forgotten my glasses, we might well have missed it.

It felt wild.

We might have been happy staying longer at Sirena had our tent been pitched on the lawn, rather than the platform, which was hot and crowded at night. The ticks, albeit not disease carrying, were also not a plus, especially for Sasha, who pried five off her legs.

As it was, we were happy to get to our final Osa destination, La Paloma Lodge on Drake Bay, after an hourlong boat ride from Corcovado that afternoon. It felt good to take a hot shower and to enjoy the rain forest as a view from the hotel’s elegant dining room, set high on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean.

On our last day, we went on a decidedly human-manufactured, 13-zip-line canopy tour arranged for us, a highlight of the trip for Sasha. But when Scott asked her which leg of the trip she would eliminate, if she had to lose one, she couldn’t choose. Like her parents, she could have happily lived for decades in our first cabin. She wouldn’t give up zip lining.

“And I can’t take out Sirena,” she said. “Because that’s where we saw everything.” ]]>
Thu, 10 Apr 2014 15:40:10 -0400 By Amy Harmon

New York Times

<![CDATA[ When your luggage fails to make a connection ]]>
After making several dozen calls, Jorgensen got American Airlines to return his bag. But the Michigan dairy farmer was not happy. The airline “passed me around on the phone like a hot potato,” he said.

The good news is that airlines worldwide eventually recover 97 percent of mishandled bags.

That is one of 10 surprising facts about flying with luggage that came out of a new study by international air transport technology specialist SITA.

The total number of bags that were lost, delayed or damaged by airlines around the world dropped 17 percent in 2013 to nearly 22 million. But airline travel increased about 5 percent last year, so the rate of mishandled bags dropped 21 percent to about seven per 1,000 passengers.

Of all mishandled bags, 81 percent were simply delayed, 16 percent were damaged or pilfered and 3 percent were declared lost or stolen and never found.

The cost to airlines to find, deliver or replace mishandled bags was $2.09 billion in 2013, a 20 percent decline from 2012.

The top cause for delayed bags was when baggage handlers made errors transferring bags from one airplane to another. That accounted for 45 percent of mishandled bags.

The worst year for mishandled bags in the last decade was 2007, when airlines lost 47 million bags. The rate was nearly 19 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.

Since 2007, the rate of mishandled bags has dropped about 63 percent.

Airlines in Asia have a lower rate of lost bags (nearly two per 1,000 passengers) than North America (three per 1,000 passengers).

In 2013, airlines took an average of 36 hours to return delayed bags to their owners.

Airlines worldwide collect about $10 billion from checked bag fees but spend about $31 billion to move luggage from airport to airport.

More than 60 percent of airlines say that by the end of 2016 they expect to send luggage location updates and allow travelers to file missing bag reports via smartphones.

Flight attendants want permanent knife ban

Under pressure from lawmakers and flight attendants, the Transportation Security Administration backed off last year on a plan to allow knives on commercial planes.

But flight attendants want to make sure that the ban that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks stays in place indefinitely. The Association of Flight Attendants is backing a bill to prevent the TSA from ever lifting the ban.

“A permanent ban would ensure that we never again have to fight this common-sense issue,” said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the association, which represents about 60,000 flight attendants.

The bill by Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y, was introduced last week and referred to a homeland security committee.

A TSA spokesman declined to comment on the bill and would not speculate on future changes to the knife ban.

“The administration reversed its earlier decision and nothing has changed,” said TSA spokesman David Castelveter.

Travelers like airlines’ websites

Airlines in the U.S. don’t have a very good reputation among travelers. Maybe those ever-multiplying passenger fees and ever-shrinking economy seats play a role in that.

But American carriers can at least take solace in the news that travelers are pretty happy with airline websites.

An annual customer study – the American Customer Satisfaction Index – found that airlines ranked near the bottom among all industries, with a rating of 69 on a scale of 1 to 100.

But the same index found that airline websites got a satisfaction rating of 80. In fact, airline websites ranked slightly higher than websites for online travel businesses such as Travelocity, Expedia and Priceline, which got a score of 77.

The highest-rated websites were for credit unions (86), consumer shipping companies (85) and banks (85). ]]>
Thu, 10 Apr 2014 15:19:16 -0400 By Hugo Martin

Los Angeles Times

<![CDATA[ Drink in the capital of the Champagne region in France ]]>
Reims (pronounced like “rance”) has a turbulent history: This is where French kings were crowned, where champagne first bubbled, where World War I devastation met miraculous reconstruction, and where the Germans officially surrendered in 1945, bringing World War II to a close in Europe. The town’s sights give you an informative, entertaining peek at the entire story.

Start at Reims Cathedral, a glorious example of Gothic architecture and one of Europe’s greatest churches. Built under the direction of four different architects, the church was started about 1211 and mostly finished just 60 years later. Thanks to this quick turnaround, it’s remarkable for its unity and harmony. As a royal coronation site, it is to France what Westminster Abbey is to England.

For a memorable experience, join the crowd in front of the cathedral for a free, 25-minute sound-and-light show on most summer evenings. I’ve struggled with the idea that some of Europe’s wonderful Gothic church facades were boldly painted in the 13th and 14th centuries. In Reims, the sound-and-light show did a good job of helping me envision how they might have looked to a medieval peasant. Sit directly in front of the cathedral or settle more comfortably into a seat at a café with a clear view through the trees.

When wonderstruck by Gothic cathedrals, I often contemplate the lives of the people who built these huge buildings back in the 13th century. Construction on a scale like this required a community effort: It was all hands on deck. Most townsfolk who participated donated their money or their labor knowing that they would likely never see it completed – such was their pride, faith, and dedication. Master masons supervised, while the average Jean-Claude did much of the sweaty work. Labor was something that even the poorest medieval peasant could donate generously.

In addition to spiritual nourishment, Reims offers a more earthly delight – champagne. Though many wine-growing regions in France produce sparkling wines, only the bubbly beverage from this region can be called Champagne. While the ancient Romans planted the first grapes here, champagne was not “invented” until the late 17th century, and then it was by virtue of necessity – the local climate and soil did not produce competitive still wines. Today it is commonly regarded as the finest sparkling wine in the world.

Reims offers many opportunities to visit its world-famous champagne cellars. All charge entry fees, most have a several daily English tours, and most require a reservation (only Taittinger allows drop-in visits). Which should you visit? Martel offers the most personal and best-value tour. Taittinger and Mumm have the most impressive cellars. Veuve Clicquot is popular with Americans and fills up weeks in advance. All told, Mumm is closest to the city center and train station, and offers one of the best tours in Reims. Reservations are essential, especially on weekends.

As you stroll across town to a champagne cellar, keep an eye open for “Biscuits Roses” – light, rose-colored egg-and-sugar cookies that have been made here since 1756. They’re the locals’ favorite munchie to accompany a glass of champagne – you’re supposed to dunk them, but I like them dry (many places that sell these treats offer free samples).

Allies probably celebrated with champagne on May 7, 1945, after Germans signed the document of surrender for all German forces. World War II buffs enjoy visiting the Museum of the Surrender (Musée de la Reddition), the place where it happened. The news was announced the next day, turning May 8 into Victory in Europe (V-E) Day. The museum’s extensive collection of artifacts is fascinating, and it’s thrilling to see the war room where Eisenhower managed Allied operations – and where the European part of the war ultimately ended.

While World War II left the city unscathed, World War I devastated Reims. It was the biggest city on France’s Western Front, and it was hammered – around 65 percent of Reims was destroyed by shelling. Parts of the city center were entirely rebuilt in the 1920s. You’ll see the stylized features – geometric reliefs, motifs in ironwork, rounded corners, and simple concrete elegance – of Art Deco. If it looks eclectic, that’s because the mayor at the time said to build any way you like – just build.

With its breathtaking Gothic cathedral, historic cityscape, and beloved champagne cellars, eims is intoxicating. My time here reminded me of how much fun it is to enjoy modern French culture in a sizable city that isn’t Paris.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at and follow his blog on Facebook. ]]>
Thu, 10 Apr 2014 15:19:12 -0400
<![CDATA[ Five places to get up close and personal with dinosaurs ]]>
It didn’t matter that these stars were the famous dinosaur fossils at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City ( If you think kids outgrow dinosaurs by kindergarten, think again.

“The dinosaurs were amazing. It is astounding that these creatures once roamed the Earth,” said Khaliq Sanda, a high school senior.

I was chaperoning the group of high school boys who attend our suburban high school under the auspices of A Better Chance (, a national college preparatory schools program, and they pronounced the museum’s famous Dinosaur Halls their favorite at the massive museum, thanks to the stalking T. Rex with its 4-foot-long jaw, the 65-million-year-old Triceratops and the Apatosaurus, collected in the late 1890s and a focal point of the collection since it went on view in 1905.

“When you stand next to a model or fossil of a dinosaur, seeing how they were so much bigger than you, it’s the first step for kids to realize how different the world was, explained Christopher Morales, a high school sophomore. (For more interactive exhibits, check out the museum’s science website for kids

The American Museum of Natural History, of course, houses the largest and most scientifically important dinosaur collection in the world, along with wonderful interactive exhibits, and its free app – Dinosaurs: American Museum of Natural History Collections, – makes it more fun for paleontologists of all ages to explore the museum’s famous fossil halls.

The museum’s latest dinosaur exhibit – “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs” – opened this month. It highlights rare fossils, life-size models and, as is standard these days, interactives to make the science fun.

At the same time, the popular Dinosaur Safari is returning to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo ( in April for the 2014 season with more than 30 dinosaur species that will move and roar, as well as a field site complete with a kids’ fossil dig, the chance to take a picture with a T. Rex and a fossil museum.

Of course, you don’t have to be in New York or in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (check out their new Is Apatosaurus Okay? app from Ocean House media for $1.99) to get your dino fix. Here are four others museums I’ve visited that are guaranteed to please:

• The Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles ( is the only place to see a baby, juvenile and teen T. Rex in such a growth series, as well as a 25-foot-long Triceratops you can literally look in the eye. Walk underneath the 68-foot Mamenchisaurus.

• Meet Sue, the largest, best preserved and most complete T. Rex fossil ever found at the Field Museum ( in Chicago. She’s 42-feet long and 13-feet tall. Check out her 600-pound skull. Spend the night “Dozin’ with the Dinos,” an interactive experience complete with special family workshops; travel across the globe with a Field Museum team as they search for what life was like before dinosaurs in the exhibit “Before the Dinosaurs: Tracking the Reptiles of Pangaea.”

• The Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University ( is just 90 minutes from Yellowstone in Bozeman, Mont., and is famous for its extensive collection of dinosaur fossils – the largest T. Rex collection anywhere – and the paleontology work of Dr. Jack Horner, known for his discovery of the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere.

• Jane, the most complete juvenile T. Rex, and Homer, the most complete adolescent Triceratops, rule at the Burpee Museum of Natural History ( about an hour northwest of Chicago in Rockford, Ill.

Whether you are heading to a huge, world-class museum or a smaller regional one to learn more about dinosaurs, encourage the kids to lead the way. Take a virtual tour of the museum’s dinosaur exhibits before you go and decide what you want to see first. Encourage each of the kids to find one weird and fun fact about dinos to tell you when you’re there. Download an app for the exhibit, if there is one.

Most important, leave when the kids have had enough. Don’t be discouraged or disappointed if you can’t see everything or can’t spend as much time as you’d like. The dinos aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be waiting for you next time. ]]>
Thu, 10 Apr 2014 15:20:28 -0400 By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

<![CDATA[ Mark Twain is a good reason to see Elmira, but it’s not the only one ]]>
Of course a trip to Elmira would not be complete without paying homage to author Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who wrote many of his well-known works here. Clemens and his family spent their summers here, as his wife, Olivia, was an Elmira native. Other notables who hail from Elmira include astronaut Eileen Collins, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and news anchor Brian Williams.

What is now the City of Elmira was originally formed as the Village of Newtown in the 1790s. The first white settler, John Hendy, arrived in 1788. In 1808, the town officially changed its name to Elmira, after the daughter of local tavern owner Nathan Teall. In 1833, the Chemung Canal running from Elmira to Watkins Glen was completed, making the town a regional hub for commerce. When Chemung County was formed in 1836, Elmira became the county seat. Prior to the Civil War, Elmira remained a relatively small town with just a handful of manufacturers. It also was home to the Elmira Female College, which opened in 1855.

At the outset of the Civil War, Elmira was designated as one of New York State’s three mustering points and was later chosen as a military depot. Over the course of the war, Elmira’s population nearly doubled to just more than 12,000. New businesses sprang up to cater to soldiers and military contracts. The City of Elmira was officially incorporated April 7, 1864.

To learn more about area history, stop by the Chemung County Historical Society, 415 E. Water St., Elmira, (607) 734-4167, Two of its permanent exhibits include “In the Valley of the Big Horn,” which looks at Chemung County history from early Native Americans until the 21st century, and “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” which focuses on Elmira’s influence on the writer. An upcoming exhibit on the Elmira Civil War prison camp will begin in July.

Celebrating 150 years

A number of special events celebrating Elmira’s 150th anniversary are taking place this year. The signature “Celebrate 150” event will take place Aug. 2 along East Water Street in downtown Elmira featuring music, fireworks and a collection of items for “The Time Capsule Project.”

Other upcoming events in Elmira include the 10th annual Riverfest on June 7, a family-friendly community event, the Elmira Blooms garden tour July 13 and the Elmira Street Painting Festival on July 19-20 ( For more information about events in Elmira this year, visit

Mark Twain

Clemens was a familiar figure in Elmira during the summer months, when he and his wife, Olivia, spent time with her family, the Langdons. While visiting here, Twain wrote a number of his most famous works, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

Samuel and Olivia Clemens, along with their children, son-in-law and granddaughter, are buried in the same family plot as the Langdon family in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Clemens got his pen name, Mark Twain, from a term that was used on the Mississippi to indicate the depth of the river. The height of the monument near his grave is the height of the measurement, mark twain. Woodlawn Cemetery ((607) 732-0151; 1200 Walnut St., Elmira.

The Mark Twain Study, which is now located on the campus of Elmira College, is where Clemens did his writing. The octagon-shaped study was a gift to Twain from his sister-in-law and her husband. It was built in 1874 at their farm, Quarry Farm, and moved to the college in 1952. During the summer, the study is open for docent-led tours. For more information, see

Tours of Elmira

Clemens spent quite a bit of time in the Near Westside Neighborhood, which is reputed to have the highest concentration of Victorian homes of any neighborhood east of the Mississippi River. This 20-block area, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, has about 480 homes; many of them magnificently restored High Victorians. The Chemung River, College Avenue, Second Street and Hoffman Street border the area. For more information, visit Included on the website is a self-guided walking tour of the area.

Several years ago, my husband and I took a day trip to Elmira to learn more about the history of the district, the unusual architecture and its connection to Mark Twain. While you could walk around the neighborhood yourself, the best way to see it is to take a personalized guided tour of this area led by Samuel Draper, who has been giving tours of this district for more than 20 years.

Going on one of Draper’s tours is more like being shown around town by a personal friend than taking your usual tour of a city. Everyone we met on the street seemed to know him by name and he is most knowledgeable about both the architecture as well as the folk history of the area.

Historic Near Westside ((607) 732-1436; Public tours 11 a.m. Friday and Saturday, April-October. Other times by appointment. Group and individual tours are available.

During July and August visitors to Elmira can enjoy a one-hour, narrated trolley tour of historic Elmira. These tours focus on Elmira’s past as well as Twain’s legacy. Tours depart from the Chemung Valley History Museum on the hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (607) 734-4167.

If you go

For general information on Elmira, see


From Buffalo take the I-90 (New York State Thruway) to the I-390 South. Follow that until it becomes the I-86 and head east. For downtown Elmira, get off at exit 56. ]]>
Thu, 10 Apr 2014 15:20:20 -0400 By Christine A. Smyczynski


<![CDATA[ Consider all travel costs before booking vacations ]]>
When looking at hotel rates, remember: The more expensive the hotel, the more incidentals will cost.

Saving on food

Look for room specials with free breakfast; hotel breakfasts can cost $20 per person. When I’m traveling with the family, I usually stop by the local supermarket for soda and snacks on my way to the hotel so we don’t pay for the mini-bar or room service. One soda from the mini-bar can cost $5.

Another way to save on food costs is to look at condo-style hotels and chains that offer kitchenettes. You can save a bundle on food by making your own and having your own snacks available day and night.


If you go somewhere by car, you’ll have to find a parking space once you get to your destination, and it won’t be cheap. You really don’t need a car when you visit cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas because of the good public transportation options. For example, if you stay on the Strip in Las Vegas, you can ride the Deuce bus for $8 per day.

Europe has great public transportation systems, so you can see a lot without the expense of a car. If you hate paying $3.50 for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S., you really won’t like paying $9 per gallon in Europe. To save even more on public transportation, get multiday passes and discounts for seniors and students.

If you do need a car for a few days, weekend rates are often much cheaper than weekdays, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.

We looked at the price for a one-week car rental in San Francisco in July; the cheapest rate we found was $331 for a compact car. If you stayed at a hotel downtown, you could pay $53 or more per day for parking, which adds up to another $371, plus tax. You’d be paying more than $700 for that car.

Instead of renting for the week, take the BART train to downtown San Francisco. If you do need a car for the day to go to Sonoma or Napa Valley, see what the rate is at the hotel, or call for a rental.

Choosing an airport

If you are going to take a taxi from the airport, you can save by choosing an airport that is closer to your hotel.

A friend of mine came to Dallas and stayed downtown. He spent $70 each way on a taxi from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to the hotel. He could have paid less than half that if he had flown into Love Field.

Many of us concentrate on finding the best airfare, which is important, but as you can see, doing a little extra homework on your hotel, car rental and transportation also can shave a lot of money off your travel expenses.

Tom Parsons is CEO of ]]>
Thu, 10 Apr 2014 15:13:47 -0400 By Tom Parsons

Dallas Morning News

<![CDATA[ An insider’s guide to the best food, shops, entertainment, beaches in Santa Cruz ]]>
You’ve been my hometown for 26 years, and this is my Insider’s Guide to you, the city of Santa Cruz, the jewel of California’s Central Coast.

The Westside

Five minutes from downtown, this neighborhood has taken off, and much of the activity centers on Swift and Ingalls streets (just off Mission Street, the main drag). Visit the micro-boutique wineries (, a whole cluster of them, offering tastings and surrounded by cool shops selling designer clothes, high-end lights, high-end yarn, fancy meats. Enjoy one of the seasonal ales at the all-organic (and often crowded) Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing (402 Ingalls St.). Linger over a creamy bowl of polenta at Kelly’s French Bakery (402 Ingalls St.), which shares a spacious patio with the surrounding shops, a favorite gathering spot for locals. Turn the corner and shop for French linens at Vero France (330 Ingalls St.).

I know, I know. Too much laid-back stimulation (it’s that betwixtness, again), too much comfort – and just another day on the Westside, which has become a hot spot for dining. Check out these restaurants: O’mei (the Cui Pi orange beef! the eggplant! the flavors!), Bantam (gourmet pizzas, thin-crusted and wood-fired), West End Tap & Kitchen (great burgers), Ristorante Avanti (chicken cacciatore like grandma made), and Your Place (which just opened and has exceptional sand dabs, delicately breaded and lightly sauteed).

But the best parts of the Westside are outside:

Begin at nearby Seymour Marine Discovery Center: Touch a swellshark, view the 87-foot skeleton of a blue whale, walk the cliffs (100 Shaffer Road, Next activity: Stroll the length of West Cliff Drive – a dramatic (and mercifully flat) oceanside jaunt – from Natural Bridges State Park to Mitchell’s Cove Beach, which is dog-friendly and filled with curvaceous rock formations, easy to climb, at the base of Sunset Avenue.

Continue to Lighthouse Point to watch the surfers in Steamer Lane, to listen to the barking sea lions on Seal Rock and to explore the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum inside the Lighthouse (

Follow West Cliff Drive all the way to the end, and you’ll be at the Santa Cruz Wharf (where Riva Fish House, at No. 31, has the best calamari in town) and on the fringes of downtown (where the Santa Cruz Warriors, an NBA development team, play through April 5 at Kaiser Permanente Arena, 140 Front St.) You’ll also be next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park. Giant Dipper time! (Check boardwalk hours and events here:


The business corridor along Pacific Avenue has taken a rap for its aggressive panhandlers. Far from the quaint place it was years ago, it remains a fascinating place; it’s got life to it. And in the mornings, it still can be quiet and calming in a small-town way. Try the “Mike’s Mess” with home fries and cornbread at funky Zachary’s Restaurant, the most classic of the city’s breakfast spots (819 Pacific Ave). I’m also partial to the Bagelry (try the hummus or egg salad toppings, or the “Moxie”; 320 Cedar St.) and the tucked-away Hidden Peak Teahouse, where you can sip unusual blends and purchase cool vintage teapots; no cellphones allowed (1541-C Pacific Ave.).

And don’t forget: You’ll never “get” Santa Cruz without spending time in its downtown cafes, of which there must be more per capita than anywhere in California. These are some definitive ones: Caffe Pergolesi, aka “the Perg,” a bide-your-time hippie place in an old Victorian (418 Cedar St.); Lulu’s at the Octagon (118 Cooper St.), where friendly baristas serve up specialty drinks in an eight-sided landmark building (next door to the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St.); and trendy Verve Coffee Roasting, which owns the current scene; brewing a cup of coffee is theater at Verve (1540 Pacific).

There’s fine dining, too: With its deep wine list and delectable small plates, Soif Restaurant Wine Bar and Merchants (105 Walnut St.) is my favorite dining spot in Santa Cruz, though romantic little Gabriella Café (910 Cedar St.; and oh, the risotto with chanterelles!) isn’t far behind. For a handcrafted dessert, cross the street to Penny Ice Creamery (913 Cedar St.), where lines often are out the door. And, oh yes, there are blocks and blocks of shops: Artisans Gallery (1368 Pacific Ave.), O’Neill Surf Shop (110 Cooper St., at Pacific Avenue), Sockshop & Shoe Co. (amazing deals on outdoor sale days, 1515 Pacific Ave.) and Chefworks (1527 Pacific Ave.) are some of the most interesting.

I’ve left the best for last: those locally owned bookstores, which have outlived the Borders invasion and bankruptcy. If you love books, then while away the hours at Bookshop Santa Cruz, among the nation’s leading independents (1520 Pacific Ave.); at tiny Literary Guillotine (204 Locust St.), impossibly crammed with volumes; or at Logos Books & Records (1117 Pacific Ave.), a mecca with inventory stretching over two floors.

Dave Iermini, one of Logos’ veteran buyers, tells the story of a friend who was at a party in London, where he met Bruce Thomas, who played bass with Elvis Costello and the Attractions. “Where are you from?” Thomas asked, being polite. “Santa Cruz, California,” the friend answered. “Oh!” shouted Thomas, in his broad British accent. “Logos Books and Records!”


East of downtown lies Midtown (some refer to it as the Eastside), a neighborhood that’s reaching critical mass along Soquel Avenue: shops, restaurants, cafes, grocers. At night, indie bands pack the Crepe Place (1134 Soquel Ave.). The Rio Theatre (1205 Soquel Ave.) books an intriguing mix of events: Leo Kottke, Bela Fleck and Ursula K. Le Guin are among the coming attractions. The Buttery (702 Soquel Ave.) has the best baked goods in Santa Cruz; kill me with the carrot cake, please. It’s worth braving the lines at Tacos Moreno (1053 Water St.) for the al pastor burrito and chile verde tacos. And you cannot beat the breakfast scrambles at Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe (542 Seabright Ave.), only a few blocks from one of the sweetest (and least touristy) beaches in the city, Seabright State Beach at the foot of Third Avenue.

It’s also in Midtown that I’ve discovered a new breakfast and lunch place, Midtown Cafe (1121 Soquel Ave.), which opened in January. It’s sleek and airy, with community tables in the front room and a sunny back patio where I recently sat down with owner Zac Creager. At age 30, he already has had a couple of careers: as a trekking guide in Chile and as a manager of local farmers’ markets. He describes the food in his cafe as “soulful and simple.”

I’ll go with “soulful,” but simple? I had the pork confit, generously mounded in the center of my plate, topped with a perfectly fried egg, served with a potato pancake and bordered by slivers of roasted golden beets, locally sourced, of course. It was delicious, it cost $8, and the cafe had a buzz; the patio was quickly filling up with couples and young families. Coltrane was playing on the sound system. “Soulful,” I thought to myself. “This is my new place.” ]]>
Thu, 3 Apr 2014 15:56:14 -0400 By Richard Scheinin

San Jose Mercury News

<![CDATA[ Follow these tips to minimize the cost of a European trip ]]>
But you have to view this recommendation in perspective. The differences between fares in May and fares in July may be only $100 or so, and that amount may not be large enough to sway you if you really want to visit in peak season. Although CheapAir doesn’t say so, avoiding destination high prices and crowds may be more important than fare differences as the prime motive to travel off season.

Although the posted report lists five “tips,” buy early is the key news here. The others are perennials but still worth repeating.

Be flexible on travel days is one of the oldest such tips and, of course, it’s old because it’s right. Fares do vary day-to-day, and that’s one of the reasons that so many search engines – oddly, not including CheapAir – offer a “my dates are flexible” search option. Some of the better ones give you a full month of dates. In general, weekday fares are a bit better than weekends, but a quick check of a few key routes shows not much consistency. And a new study from Hopper says that day-to-day variations are narrowing to near-trivial levels.

Consider alternate airports is another golden oldie. From the United States, says CheapAir, try to fly to/from a major hub, where fares are lower than at outlying airports, even if that means a longer drive to the airport. Many search engines offer a “search alternate airports” option. Overseas, CheapAir suggests checking out the possibility of preferring a low-fare city. It points out that an average low fare to Dublin, at $1,183, is $150 to $300 less than flying to Brussels, London, Frankfurt or Paris. But you should keep this, too, in perspective: If you really want to see Venice before it sinks, flying from the U.S. to Dublin, then to Venice, would add another full day of travel, each way, plus stiff airfare, even on a low-fare line. After all, your time is worth something, too.

Go early, go late is yet another hoary tip, but it begs the question. By definition, flying before or after the peak-peak season is less expensive – in destination costs as well as airfare. But midsummer is the peak season, in part because of personal vacation limitations. Clearly, if you have no constraints of work or school schedules, going off-season is a no-brainer.

Fly into one city, out another sometimes makes sense if you want to visit two relatively distant European areas. With an “open-jaw” ticket, you can do that, usually for the sum of the half-round-trip rates, and avoid doubling back to your arrival airport. One suggestion CheapAir doesn’t add is to avoid returning from the U.K., if that’s an option, to avoid the notorious “air passenger duty” that adds at least $170 to each ticket.

CheapAir missed out on another suggestion: Consider a connection. When you check fares from, say, Chicago to Paris, you find the cheapest nonstop in mid-July is $1,499 round trip, but you can cut that to $1,269 if you’re willing to stop and connect at Dublin on Aer Lingus. But the cheapest connections often involve long connecting times – maybe even overnight.

Another recommendation is to make sure you check on code-share flights. That cheapest Chicago-Paris trip I mentioned earlier is on a flight operated by American but ticketed on Finnair or Iberia as code-shared flights. Of course, a third-party search engine such as CheapAir automatically reveals code-share prices, but you’d never find that deal on American’s own site.

My overall take: Yes, the CheapAir suggestions make sense. But don’t compromise your ideal itinerary too far just to cut the cost a few bucks.

email: ]]>
Thu, 3 Apr 2014 15:53:33 -0400 By Ed Perkins

Tribune Content Agency

<![CDATA[ Getting the jump on mosquitoes ]]>
I turned to scientists who study mosquito behavior to find out. They took a break from investigating neurons and odor receptors to offer travel advice.

“Mosquitoes are able to seek out a human being like a guided missile,” said Anandasankar Ray, a scientist at the University of California, Riverside.

But back to you and your needs.

Taking cover

To protect yourself, you must know where and when the mosquitoes that carry debilitating diseases – malaria, filariasis, yellow fever, dengue – bite.

“If you’re in Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia – all of these places that are the most beautiful travel destinations, it’s really a concern,” said Leslie B. Vosshall, a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York.

Dengue and yellow fever are primarily spread by Aedes aegypti, mosquitoes that live in tropical and subtropical areas – though they are increasingly found in urban areas – including Africa, Asia, North America, the Caribbean and Latin America. This species bites during the day. Feeding typically spikes a couple of hours after sunrise and late afternoon, Ray said.

Each year about 50 million to 100 million people get dengue fever, a viral infection that often requires hospitalization and can develop into deadly hemorrhagic fever, according to the World Health Organization. There is no vaccine and no cure. Bed nets, Ray said, are a must.

Aedes aegypti also can transmit the chikungunya virus, which causes fever and joint pain. Chikungunya has hit Asia, Africa, India, Europe and the Americas (and into the eastern Caribbean this winter), according to the WHO. While there is no cure, most patients recover.

Another species, Culex, may carry lymphatic filariasis, an infection that can result in elephantiasis. Places most at risk include Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Nepal, Philippines and the United Republic of Tanzania. Culex mosquitoes also can carry West Nile virus, found in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America and West Asia. These mosquitoes prefer birds but will bite humans, too.

“They will try and descend on you while sleeping,” Ray said. Use a bed net.

Anopheles gambiae, mosquitoes that can spread malaria, often bite at dusk and late at night, Ray said. The WHO says travelers are at risk of malaria infection in 99 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Yet unlike dengue and chikungunya, malaria can be prevented, even treated, with medication.


“The gold standard of insect repellency continues to be DEET,” Ray said. Developed by the Army in 1946, DEET is a chemical that can melt your nail polish. That said, the Environmental Protection Agency does not consider it to be a health concern if it is used infrequently and properly.

DEET is sold in concentrations from less than 5 percent to 100 percent. Wearing long sleeves and pants will reduce the amount you need to use. Still, covering up is not foolproof. “If they’re very desperate,” Vosshall said, mosquitoes will “bite through jeans.”

An alternative is Avon Skin So Soft with picaridin, a synthetic version of piperine, the active component of black pepper.

What about natural botanical repellents that rely on plant extracts?

“It smells better and it doesn’t melt your sunglasses,” Vosshall said. But “the scientific evidence that those things work is weak to nonexistent.”

Certain unconventional techniques can help, like taking showers (mosquitoes are drawn to sweat that has been on your skin for a while, Ray said) and, for reasons that remain unclear, avoiding alcohol.

“When people drink alcohol they become attractive to mosquitoes,” he said.

There are also spatial repellents, which you should buy if you are vacationing in a country with mosquito-borne diseases and your accommodations do not have window screens. The safest of these repellents release a low amount of insecticide, like ThermaCELL lanterns, which use butane cartridges to heat mats saturated with repellent that then rises into the air. The effect of long-term exposure, however, is not clear.

Citronella candles and oils “work somewhat,” he said. So does having someone around whom mosquitoes find irresistible.

“Many different groups have tested this idea that some people are more attractive than others and it’s absolutely true,” Vosshall said. “But we don’t exactly know why.” ]]>
Thu, 3 Apr 2014 15:53:27 -0400 By Stephanie Rosenbloom

New York Times

<![CDATA[ Florida’s Charlotte Harbor charms on the cheap ]]>
Charlotte Harbor’s preserved oceanfront parks, community concerts, secret seafood hangouts and century-old working ranches offer a taste of vintage Florida not easily experienced elsewhere. And with direct flights from locations like Asheville, N.C., Cincinnati and Allentown, Pa., you don’t have to live in a huge metropolis to have easy access. As an added bonus, it’s also an extremely affordable place to visit. Following are some of my favorite high-value travel tips for visiting the area.

Food: With dozens of indie restaurants, prevalent outdoor entertainment included with evening meals and abundant access to fresh-as-it-gets fish, the prize for best area food scene goes hands down to the town of Punta Gorda. If hip and trendy suits your venue preference, head to Trabue Restaurant. It offers a fresh Florida vibe while still blending nicely into the town’s historical atmosphere.

The lunch menu offers a number of plates and appetizers starting at less than $10, with rotating items including fun finds such as Kalamata olive hummus or shellfish served in a garlicky wine broth complete with tomatoes and crusty bread. The biggest steal however is its weekly wine dinner that features three full courses – each with its own wine pour – for $40 a head. The chef also will accommodate vegan requests with a bit of advanced notice.

Prefer a more traditional experience? Head to Peace River Seafood. Housed in a period cowboy shack with outdoor picnic tables, strung lights and its own parrot, the restaurant serves up freshly processed seafood with newspaper for placemats and hammers serving as the main utensil. Favored by locals and outside of the typical tourist circuit, you’ll need to leave the center of town and head into the sticks a bit as you make your way there.

Serving up all-you-can-eat blue crab daily, this is a roll-up-your-sleeves restaurant located a parking lot away from the processing facility where the fishermen drop off their catch. It doesn’t get much fresher than that. The price for this decadent crab coma? Just $20. Other menu items worth the splurge include their lobster bites, gator gumbo and Key lime pie.

Fun: Looking for a day of educational family fun? Head to Babcock Ranch to experience Florida’s cowboy history in an authentic setting situated on 91,000 acres of rustic wilderness. Started 100 years ago by patriarch Edward Vose Babcock, the ranch is still home to a thriving cattle population, extensive sod farm and a timber harvesting operation.

You’ll hop on a bus-sized swamp buggy and cruise past cows still herded by actual quarter horses, see some of the preserved original buildings and stop at a number of wildlife viewing spots worthy of a photo session. Baby alligator cuddling and a walk through the cypress forest are also part of the experience. End your visit with a quick tour of the miniature ranch museum movie fans will recognize from the film “Just Cause.” At $24 for adults and $16 for children, it’s a one-of-a-kind vacation memory you won’t find at any theme park.

A number of free nature experiences are provided through the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, including wading tours to explore coastal wildlife, guided hikes and pontoon cruises interpreted by naturalists. has full details on the center’s complimentary activities.

Fitness: Charlotte Harbor’s blueway trails are extensive, offering an affordable framework around which to build your vacation itinerary. Not only do they provide a fairly immediate way to work off most of those vacation calories, they’re also a great way to include Rover in your day-to-day activities and work in a little birding. With nearly 200 miles of waterways mapped for kayakers and 57 separate trails rated for ability level and access, there are plenty of routes to choose from. has a full brochure available for download in their community service section, including a full spreadsheet of which trailhead access points charge parking and launch fees and which ones don’t. Since many of them are fee free, penny pinchers arriving with their own kayaks in tow can enjoy a frugal getaway indeed.

The town of Punta Gorda also has an excellent free bicycle-lending program. Look for the canary yellow bikes available at loaner stations throughout town. Pickup locations include a number of marinas, providing a convenient transport option for those arriving by boat. For those traveling with their own wheels, the city also boasts a free bicycle repair station. How cool is that? If you are in need of marked routes and ideas for places to ride, be sure to pick up the “Punta Gorda Pathways” and “It’s a Free Ride” brochures from the visitor and convention bureau.

Fur: Pets are definitely welcome in Charlotte Harbor with a number of multiuse paths, off-leash dog parks and even a souvenir shop designed to meet the needs of furry family members. For example, Edgewater Dog Park in Port Charlotte offers picnic tables, a playground and restrooms. Similarly, at the Hounds of Henry Street, separate areas are provided for both large and small breeds along with a water station featuring a hose for full-body cool downs.

Looking for a puppy present? Salty Paws features retail gifts for both kitties and canines, and hosts a popular Muttini Mingle on the first Thursday of every month where people can socialize along with their pets. Dog-friendly accommodations can be had at Microtel Inn and Suites, with a nominal pet fee of only $20. Their suites come with a microwave and small fridge for supplementing vacation meal costs, and continental breakfast is complimentary. ]]>
Thu, 3 Apr 2014 15:52:40 -0400 By Myscha Theriault

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

<![CDATA[ When in Rome, there is no shortage of things to see ]]>
Rome is the birthplace of the Baroque style – and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who lived and worked here in the 17th century, is considered its father. Bernini transformed the city in the 17th century, ornately ornamenting grand fountains, squares and churches – and attracting pilgrims to the center of Catholicism. After the intellectual nature of the Renaissance, Baroque tapped into the heart rather than the head – and the Church used it to encourage emotional responses to the faith.

Even seemingly insignificant Roman churches like Santa Maria della Vittoria hold important treasures – such as Bernini’s best-known statue, St. Teresa in Ecstasy. Bernini invigorates reality with emotion, depicting Teresa just after being stabbed with God’s arrow of fire. Now, the angel pulls it out and watches her reaction. Teresa swoons, her eyes roll up, her hand goes limp, she parts her lips ... and moans. The smiling, cherubic angel understands just how she feels. You can simply feel, imagine and see the lessons via the art – emotion going directly from your eyes to your heart. Don’t reflect. Be awed, amazed, moved.

Emotions are tapped again inside the Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, often called the “Pearl of the Baroque.” Here, Bernini’s altar painting depicts St. Andrew being crucified on his X-shaped cross. He gazes up toward the light. His soul seems to follow the bronze angels above him, up through a light-filled shaft. Then he reappears – now as a marble statue – above the altar. He bursts through the pediment, ascending on a cloud, into the golden light where he joins his fellow saints in the dome of heaven.

Bernini makes all these elements come together. The pink marble columns color-coordinate with the pink frame of the painting. A bronze angel rests his hand on the painting’s marble frame. The delightfully backlit cherubs at the base of the shaft playfully look down on the action. And the suffused light filtering in from the dome brings all the colors together. Multitalented Bernini combines sculpture, painting and architecture into “un bel composto” – a beautiful whole.

Bernini’s many talents are also evident in St. Peter’s Basilica, the greatest church in Christendom, representing the power and splendor of Rome’s 2,000-year domination of the Western world. Built on the memory and grave of the first pope, this is where the grandeur of ancient Rome became the grandeur of Christianity. While Michelangelo designed the dome, Bernini designed the square out front a century later. Its ring of columns symbolizes the arms of the church welcoming everyone. Topping the columns are Bernini’s 140 favorite saints, each 10 feet tall.

Bernini also worked on the church’s interior, including much of its marble floor decoration, the massive statue of lance-bearing St. Longinus, and the altar area’s seven-story bronze canopy (God’s “four-poster bed”). The canopy “extends” the altar upward and reduces the perceived distance between floor and ceiling.

While Bernini was religious, he also embraced pagan subjects. Outside the city center and set in the greenery of surrounding gardens, the Borghese Gallery holds some of the finest examples of these. This plush museum was once a cardinal’s lavish mansion, filled with the finest art money could buy – including Bernini’s. It’s hard to believe that a family of cardinals and popes would display so many works with secular and sensual – even erotic – themes. But the Borgheses felt that all forms of human expression glorified God.

Bernini’s statues here merge realism with the dramatic myths. David’s body – wound like a spring and lips pursed as he prepares to slay the giant – shows the determination of the age. Bernini was just 25 when he sculpted this – and the face of David is his.

The Borghese also holds my favorite statue in all of Europe, Apollo and Daphne. Bernini froze this scene at its most emotional moment – just as Apollo is about to catch Daphne and she begins to sprout branches from her fingers and roots from her toes. Apollo is in for one rude surprise. (The statue is now in particularly fine form, having spent two years in restoration.)

The flamboyance of Bernini’s art continued to influence Rome’s style even a century later. Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain – dating from the 1700s – is a watery avalanche of Baroque. While the architect who designed it had no inkling of electrical illumination, it seems made-to-order for floodlighting, which heightens the drama. It’s said that if you throw a coin into this fountain, you will return to Rome. Every day, tourists test this superstition, trying to ensure their return to this Baroque-filled city. It sounds silly, but I do this every year and it seems to work.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at and follow his blog on Facebook. ]]>
Thu, 3 Apr 2014 15:48:03 -0400
<![CDATA[ DIY Africa ]]>
Much as I wished I could watch them for an hour and then double back, I was late for curfew at Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp, 15 miles ahead, and at South Africa’s Kruger National Park in February, vehicles must be off the roads by 6:30 p.m.

The prudent approach seemed to be to inch forward, slowly. If a Fiat could tiptoe, this is what it would look like.

The two closest lions kept on snoozing, ribs heaving so rapidly they must have been racing after a delicious impala in their dreams. Then, at 10 feet, the female jumped up and stared straight at me. Juggling my camera, the steering wheel and the (left-side) stick shift, I hastily backed up and was edging forward again when, heart pounding, I realized my window was open.

When most people imagine their bucket-list African safari, they’re in the back of an open 4x4, nothing to worry about but their cameras, as their expert guide keeps an eye out for cheetah tracks and rhino dung. Then it’s back to the luxury lodge to doff their pith hats, enjoy a sundowner and relive the day’s sightings.

Such comfort is far beyond the scope of many travelers, and certainly of the Frugal Traveler. But as South Africans already know, there’s a cheaper alternative. By driving yourself, cooking for yourself and camping, you can do Kruger for around $100 per couple per day, including everything but airfare. Prefer a bed? Reserve a “safari tent” instead and make that $120.

The self-drive safari wasn’t the only cheaper alternative during my 16-day trip to southern Africa in February. I chose the simple charms of a $14-a-night mountain camp in Swaziland over the usual draws of that tiny monarchy – the touristy attractions in the Ezulwini Valley, home to its polygamous King Mswati III. I stayed in feisty Durban instead of its famously dazzling cousin up the coast, Cape Town.

The result was perhaps rougher than a traditional itinerary – traveling in Africa can often be a challenge – but also more rewarding, and rarely lacking excitement.

Where was I? Ah yes, facing a ferocious lion with my window wide open. I rolled it up and temporarily backed away. Now that everyone was awake, I drove through, hugging the opposite side of the road as the lions trotted into the bush. My heart continued to pound as I replayed the scene again and again. That lasted about two minutes, until three giraffes ambled onto the road in front of me.

It was the closest encounter I had with wildlife but not by much. With no guide and using only maps, tactical advice from a whiskey-drinking Afrikaner in the tent next to mine and (when cell coverage allowed) the occasional tweeted tip, I saw thousands of impala, hundreds of zebras, dozens of elephants and giraffes and blue wildebeests, six white rhinos and plenty of half-submerged hippos. Then there was a troop of baboons, some with babies hanging from their underbellies or riding piggyback, that took over the road like a swarm of locusts.

Friends who heard I’d be camping in a game reserve had alternatively romanticized it (“Sleeping under the African sky, epic,” one wrote me) or imagined me trampled by elephants. But really, the two spots I camped in were not unlike those I’ve stayed in in Sweden or New Zealand. I set up my two-man tent among friendly Afrikaners who invariably had far more luxurious setups. On a third night, I opted for a safari tent, a rustic but permanent structure with comfortable twin beds, a porch and refrigerator.

In Swaziland, I eschewed the standard itinerary – game parks, casinos and the Ezulwini Valley, home base of the monarchy – in favor of Shewula Mountain Camp, in the country’s far northeast; it had been highly recommended by someone I met in Kruger as a rustic resort run by villagers with a very light touch. The price was light, too – 150 rand for a dorm bed in a rondavel, a modernized thatched roof structure. (The Swazi lilangeni is pegged to the rand and both are accepted all over the country.)

It took just minutes to like Swaziland. First, there were the infinite shades of green, sometimes layered one upon another in the same panorama, from the yellow-green of withering sugar-cane leaves all the way to the deep, shadowy green of distant mountains. And then, turning up the 10-mile rutted, burnt-orange dirt road that led through Shewula village to the camp, things took on a surreal look of another time: Children waved as I passed a mix of traditional thatched houses and more modern concrete structures.

Of course, what you see is rarely the full story. I was not surprised to hear from Kayise, the woman who greeted me at the camp, that the village was very poor and ravaged by AIDS.

The mountaintop camp itself was tidy and modest – until I got to its edge, where I found a sweeping view of mountains and valleys stretching out below. Saving two of the camp’s few activities (a 100-rand traditional dinner of chicken and peanut sauce and a 40-rand village tour) for the next day, I decided to simply wander into the village.

Just a couple of minutes down the road, I came across a field of kids in a full-scale pickup soccer game. They practically pulled me into the game; I handed my camera to a 14-year-old named Myeni, showed her how to shoot video and made my first appearance as a goalkeeper in 18 years.

I had chosen coastal Durban as an alternative to Cape Town because it was supposed to be less beautiful but more diverse and friendlier. I am always wary of entire populations being described as friendly, but in the day and a half I spent there, a stranger bought me a beer during lunch, a taxi driver abandoned the cab line to lead me to his favorite local restaurant, and even a convenience-store clerk – often the surliest of professions – perkily asked where I was from and wished me a good stay.

Durban’s main attraction is the Golden Mile, a strip of beaches and piers linked by a palm-lined, runner- and biker-friendly promenade. Although it lacked the sheer beauty of the Cape Town coast, it was a world to itself. Nowhere is the city’s diversity – blacks and whites and Indians and Muslims and tourists – more evident. Joggers in tank tops and running shorts breezed through, a woman in a hijab trotted after her daughter in a summery red dress, Indians crowded the boardwalk restaurants, a leather-skinned middle-age white surfer emerged from the water, a black soccer team trained on the sand.

There were downsides to taking the alternative route. I found out later I had missed Swaziland’s Marula Festival, which celebrates its namesake fruit and the “beer” made from it, at the very royal residence I had purposefully avoided.

But as for finding yourself utterly alone on a winding dirt road, eating your lunch as the rhinoceros 10 yards ahead eats his, I’m not sure there’s an alternative to that at all. ]]>
Thu, 27 Mar 2014 15:47:23 -0400 By Seth Kugel / New York Times

<![CDATA[ Flying out of New York City? Better leave your guns at home ]]>
Following Transportation Security Administration guidelines, the 65-year-old Alabama engineer locked his unloaded Ruger .22 in a hard-sided container, put it in a checked bag, handed it to the ticket agent and told the agent the weapon was inside.

That’s when he was slapped with handcuffs, arrested on a felony weapons possession charge and hauled off to jail.

Connolly was one of 25 gun-packing out-of-towners charged last year with traveling armed at New York’s busy LaGuardia and Kennedy airports. They were hardly nefarious gun runners. Most were otherwise law-abiding gun-owners who mistakenly thought they had appropriately packed their heat for travel. Over the years, a pro boxer, a Fortune 500 company CEO, a former body guard to the prime minister of Canada and a woman who was seven months pregnant have been arrested under similar circumstances.

Such strict enforcement of one of the nation’s toughest gun laws is intended to send a message not to bring firearms to New York in the first place, and that message may be getting through. Officials say increased awareness may be part of the reason such arrests at the city’s airports were down by more than half in 2013 from a high of 51 in 2006.

Still, those who have been arrested say New York City’s zero-tolerance, no-exceptions enforcement doesn’t seem fair. Police who patrol airports in Massachusetts and Connecticut, other states with tough gun laws, said they couldn’t remember any cases where travelers were arrested at the check-in counter after presenting their appropriately packed weapons.

Unlike most other gun-possession cases in the nation’s biggest city, the airport cases are often reduced to noncriminal violations if the owners can prove there’s nothing criminal about their ownership, stay out of trouble for six months, pay a $250 fine and forfeit the guns.

But before that can happen, the defendants usually have to spend eight to 12 hours in jail, hire a lawyer and foot the bill for travel to New York for court dates – costs that can add up to a couple thousand dollars. Lawyers say settling is the best option, because the initial charge is a felony that carries a mandatory 3½-year prison sentence and could bring as many as 15 years.

“Occasionally, you have a client who quite justifiably is very upset and wants to fight,” said Martin Kane, a Queens defense attorney with a website that advertises his expertise in airport gun cases. “You probably could convince a jury not to convict you. But if you lose, your life is over.”

Queens Executive District Attorney Robert J. Masters, who oversees the cases in the borough that is home to both airports, is unapologetic about the arrests.

He said it is up to visitors to know that New York has tough gun laws and doesn’t recognize permits issued in other states. The TSA also warns that, while appropriately transporting a firearm is legal, travelers should always check the gun laws of states they’re traveling in and out of.

“There is, frankly, an element of irresponsibility,” Masters said. “They’ve traveled. They realize that licenses are different around the country. … They still have this fear, even though this is the safest big city in America, and they think, ‘I’m going to bring the gun with me just in case.’ ”

The practice has been for police at the airport to arrest everyone with a gun, regardless of the circumstances, and leave it to prosecutors to determine how to handle the cases, Masters said.

He said that high-profile cases – such as fighter Robert Guerrero, who eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for having an unloaded handgun in a lockbox at JFK – drive home his oft-repeated advice: “If you love your gun, you’re better off leaving it at home.”

Nick Johnson, a Fordham Law School professor and an expert on gun laws, said such arrests generate how-to stories in gun magazines and websites.

“When these cases get publicized in the gun culture media, there actually are recommendations of how to travel,” he said.

Last year, the TSA confiscated 1,813 firearms discovered in the carry-on bags of travelers in the U.S., he said.

For Connolly, of Madison, Ala., being arrested, spending a night in jail and paying out about $4,000 on plane tickets and legal fees has been beyond frustrating. He can’t wait for his June court date, when he hopes to have his case sealed.

“Who puts handcuffs on a 65-year-old man for having a gun that’s already locked up?” huffed Connolly, who says he grew up with guns and owns a number of them. “I don’t get it.” ]]>
Thu, 27 Mar 2014 15:36:13 -0400 By Jake Pearson

Associated Press

<![CDATA[ Bag fees let airlines lower fares – slightly ]]>
But a new study concludes that the nation’s airlines quietly lowered airfares slightly to make the bag fees more palatable to those fliers who would get stuck paying the new charge.

Still the airlines are profiting because the drop in fares was so small it did not totally offset the added cost of checking a bag, the study found.

“The fact that the airlines are doing it must mean they are coming out ahead,” said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine who co-wrote the study with other economics experts.

A trade group that represents the nation’s airlines did not dispute Brueckner’s theory, saying fares are lower now that airlines are charging fees for extra services.

The nation’s major airlines began to adopt checked-bag fees about six years ago when a spike in fuel costs and the country’s financial crisis squeezed the airline industry’s already thin profit margin. Bag fees started at $15 a bag and grew to about $25 each. In the first nine months of 2013, the nation’s airlines collected $2.5 billion in bag fees, according to federal statistics.

When the airlines added the bag fee, they faced downward price pressure – the resistance of budget-minded travelers to pay more, the study said. In response, airlines dropped fares slightly, by about $7 for most lower-priced tickets, according to the study.

Airlines didn’t lower fares for first-class and business-class fliers who are usually exempt from bag fees, the study concluded. But for travelers who do pay the extra cost, Brueckner’s study found the drop in fares offset only about half to one-third of the cost of the added fee.

Even more bang for your buck

More and more air travelers are buying expensive first-class and business-class seats, and airlines are coming up with some creative amenities to keep those big spenders happy.

That includes scented pillows and chauffeured SUVs.

The number of passengers buying expensive premium seats jumped 4 percent in 2013 and continued to grow thanks to improved business conditions around the world, according to the International Air Transport Association, the trade group for the world’s airlines.

To serve well-heeled travelers, United Airlines recently announced it is expanding a service that takes elite fliers straight from one plane to a connecting flight in a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz SUV.

The service that has been offered at airports in Chicago, Houston and New Jersey will be expanded this spring to San Francisco International Airport.

Meanwhile, Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, has launched a program to improve sleep for long-haul fliers. It offers mood lighting, hot chocolate and herbal teas, noise-canceling headphones and pillows spritzed with lavender and camomile. ]]>
Thu, 27 Mar 2014 15:35:51 -0400 By Hugo Martin

Los Angeles Times

<![CDATA[ Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a new ticket than to pay the airline’s change fee ]]>
If he called the airline to make the change, he would have had to pay a $200 change fee, plus an additional $145 because the ticket price had gone up, so he would have had to pay $345 to change his ticket.

Since the friend wanted to keep the same departure flight from Newark to Atlanta, the problem was the return. We priced a one-way ticket from Atlanta to Newark, and Delta wanted $398.

But on Southwest, there was a ticket for $141, with a connection. This was more than $200 cheaper than paying the change fee and fare increase on the original ticket. He threw away the return portion of that original ticket and paid $279 total – for the original ticket plus the new one-way return ticket.

American, Delta, United and US Airways all charge a $200 fee if you have to change or cancel a ticket for a domestic flight.

Any ticket on those airlines that’s $200 or less is a throwaway ticket if you have to change or cancel because the fee will cost you more than buying a new ticket.

If you fly on an international ticket, the price to change the ticket could be even higher, with many airlines charging $300 and some as much as $450, depending on the itinerary.

There might be times when it’s worth paying the change fee. You’ll definitely want to do the math to decide whether to throw away the ticket and start over.

One thing to note is that you can make a same-day change for a much lower fee, as long as your origin and destination remain the same. These fees are $25 to $75, depending on the airline, and you don’t have to pay an increase in fares.

There is one airline that doesn’t charge a change fee and will be offering tons of nonstops in and out of Dallas beginning Oct. 13. That airline is Southwest. One thing to remember is that you do have to contact the airline prior to departure to change or cancel your nonrefundable ticket or you will lose 100 percent of the value of your ticket.

Southwest will let you use the value of the ticket for a future trip as long as you cancel at least 10 minutes in advance. Other airlines also require that you contact them in advance when changing or canceling.

Most airlines make you pay the change fee upfront, even if your ticket value is more than the change fee.

In many cases, you will have to pay the change fee and, if the new ticket is less, the airline will either give you a voucher for the remaining value or you could lose the total value of the remaining portion of the ticket.

This information is listed in the fare rules prior to booking, so it’s important to read the rules on changes, cancellations and other policies.

If you have enough miles accumulated, you should consider using a frequent-flier ticket when there’s a good chance you’ll have to change your ticket. One thing to note is that while you can still make changes to award tickets without incurring fees, if you cancel your trip, you could pay up to $150 to redeposit your miles.

Before you buy your ticket, make sure you think the whole trip out.

If you want flexibility, I would suggest using miles or buying two one-way tickets. If you need to make a change on the return, you can throw away the ticket and buy a new one.

You might have to make a stop to get the best price on a new ticket, but you’ll have flexibility and you’ll avoid paying big fees. ]]>
Thu, 27 Mar 2014 15:35:44 -0400 By Tom Parsons

Dallas Morning News

<![CDATA[ If you’re looking for fun in Scotland, go to Glasgow ]]>
A century ago, Glasgow was one of Europe’s biggest cities, an industrial powerhouse producing 25 percent of the world’s oceangoing ships. In the mid-20th century, though, tough times hit the city, giving it a run-down feel. Today Glasgow is on the rise again. Its flair for art and unpretentious friendliness make it more popular than ever to visit.

You can sense Glasgow’s wonderful energy on its streets and squares. At the heart of the city is George Square, decorated with a Who’s Who of statues depicting great Scots, from Sir Walter Scott to James Watt, who perfected the steam engine that helped power Europe into the Industrial Age.

Nearby is Buchanan Street, part of a pedestrian shopping zone called the Golden Zed (Brit-speak for “Z,” named for the way it zigzags through town). Glaswegians also refer to this district (with the top shops in town) as the Style Mile. It’s a delight to just stroll up this street – listening to buskers, enjoying the people-watching and remembering to look up at the architecture above the modern storefronts.

It’s also worth meandering through the Style Mile’s alleys, which are filled with huge, fun and edgy murals. Rather than letting graffiti artists mess up the place with random or angry tagging, the city has given top street artists entire walls to paint. These murals are almost sightseeing destinations in themselves.

Glasgow’s artsy vibe can also be seen in its architecture. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Glasgow-born architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh brought an exuberant Art Nouveau influence to this otherwise practical, working-class city. Travelers can enjoy his work (and a meal) at the Willow Tea Rooms, a delightful black-and-white space that Mackintosh designed right down to the furniture, lighting and cutlery. But his crowning achievement is the Glasgow School of Art. Still a working school, it’s only viewable via a guided tour. From a fireplace that looks like a kimono to the remarkable forestlike library to windows that soar for multiple stories, the building is an Art Nouveau original.

Near the Glasgow School of Art is the Tenement House, a perfectly preserved 1930s-era middle-class residence. This typical row home was owned by Miss Agnes Toward, who for five decades kept her home essentially unchanged. The kitchen calendar remains set for 1935, and canisters of licorice powder (a laxative) still sit on the bathroom shelf.

Two excellent museums are worth the trek away from the city center. Housed in a grand, 100-year-old, Spanish Baroque-style building, the Kelvingrove is like a Scottish Smithsonian, with everything from a stuffed elephant to fine artwork by the great masters. The Riverside Museum focuses on transportation, featuring stagecoaches, locomotives, a re-creation of a circa-1900 street and a shipping exhibit that commemorates Glasgow’s shipbuilding era.

At night, I enjoy the hip, lively West End district, including the fun eateries and bars lining Ashton Lane. A great place to end a West End evening is at Òran Mór, featuring an atmospheric bar, outdoor beer garden and brasserie in a converted 1862 church (the former nave is decorated with funky murals). Downstairs, there’s a nightclub with everything from rock shows to traditional Scottish music nights.

Despite recent improvements, there still is a rough-and-tumble side to Glasgow, and locals seem to come in two stripes: those who live to drink beer and cheer their soccer team, and those who are hardworking, cosmopolitan and cultured (even though they don’t sound like they are, given their hard Glaswegian accent). If you venture into a rough neighborhood after dark – as I did one night – it seems the entire world is populated by angry people with dead-end lives. Crammed into bars, they leer at passers-by who don’t want to join the mosh pit. But the next morning, with the sunshine comes a world of that second type of Glaswegian: people with a vision for renewing Glasgow.

Edinburgh may have the royal aura, but I find Glasgow’s down-to-earth appeal captivating. One Glaswegian told me, “The people of Glasgow have a better time at a funeral than the people of Edinburgh have at a wedding.” In Glasgow, there’s no upper-crust history, and no one puts on airs. In this revitalized city, friendly locals do their best to introduce you to the fun-loving, laid-back Glaswegian way of life.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at and follow his blog on Facebook. ]]>
Thu, 27 Mar 2014 15:35:35 -0400
<![CDATA[ Make kids part of the vacation planning process ]]>
He had spent a lot of money to take his wife and three daughters on an adventure trip to Costa Rica – idyllic remote eco lodges, nesting sea turtles, monkeys in the trees, butterfly gardens. As adventures went, it hit all the buttons for my 13-year-old niece and her pal – we were on that same trip from Thomson Family Adventures (

Unfortunately, this dad’s three tween and teen daughters didn’t think so. They had wanted to go to Maui, and a Costa Rica adventure vacation couldn’t be any more different than the big, fancy beach resort they’d envisioned. It wasn’t a question of cost either – Maui might even have cost less. It was what their dad had wanted them to experience. He was very excited about the trip.

Too bad those kids weren’t happy campers, complaining about everything from the lack of air conditioning to the bugs. That, of course, meant their parents weren’t happy either. The kids weren’t spoiled brats; they just hated being dragged along somewhere they had no desire to be. It was, after all, their vacation too.

The lesson: Take the kids’ opinions into account when planning a family getaway, whether it’s a big-ticket adventure, a trip to Orlando, a camping trip or a weekend exploring a city. Believe me, if the kids aren’t happy, you won’t be. That holds too for grandparents planning a multigenerational trip for grandkids they may not see that often. I admit I’ve been there – like the time I dragged my wilderness-loving daughters to an all-inclusive in Mexico. Thankfully, they didn’t whine, but they only perked up when we left the resort to explore a cave or a nearby beach town.

These days, according to new research from the 2014 Portrait of American Travelers, there’s a lot more discussion with the kids about vacation and I’m glad to see it. Sixty-six percent of those polled who have kids living at home report the kids are influential in their vacation planning and decisions. That’s a more than 20 percent jump from 2011. (Take note marketers: Kids now have an important and growing say in where families go and what they do when they get there!)

As you plan your next family getaway, ask the kids:

• See dinosaurs at a natural history museum or take part in a hands-on art experience at an art museum?

• Hike to a waterfall or a lake?

• Eat Chinese, Sushi or Italian?

Create pin boards on Pinterest to collect everyone’s ideas. Pinterest recently released an app, “Place Pins,” that is very popular with family travelers who want to share their ideas. It’s even got an interactive online map to help find new places and get directions.

Of course, talk about budget with the kids.

You’re not going to Atlantis in the Bahamas or on a cruise if your budget can only handle a few days at a modest place a drivable distance from home. And make sure everyone in the family – even the youngest – gets a say in the itinerary. (Alternate their picks for first-ride-of-the-day in Orlando, for example.)

To help steer all of you on the path to Family Vacation Nirvana, here are six tips from kids:

1. Plan together. “Do research on the computer before you go,” suggests Elsa, 8, from Chicago. “It really helps when you get there,” especially at a big theme park!

2. Always be prepared. “Have a reusable water bottle and Band-Aids in your backpack,” suggested Rebecca, 11, who is from Orlando.

“Bring snacks like animal crackers,” said Allison, 11, who is from Los Angeles.

3. Cut the itinerary so you have plenty of downtime. “Have a picnic,” suggested Dylan, 12, from Los Angeles.

4. Have a souvenir strategy in advance. “Kids should save up before they go,” suggests Lexie, 10, from El Paso, Texas.

Parents should suggest kids “get a souvenir that they can see and use every day that will remind them of their trip,” adds Alexia, 14, from San Diego.

5. Skip fast food in favor of new flavors at local eateries. “It’s very fun to try food from different cultures,” said Michael, 9, who is a big fan of Chicago’s summer Taste of Chicago festival.

6. See a museum from a kid’s perspective. Try some of the interactive family activities, whether you’re exploring a science art museum or an aquarium. “I like to look at all the different types of art in the past and compare it to modern art,” said Chris, 14, from Los Angeles. ]]>
Thu, 27 Mar 2014 15:36:19 -0400 By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

<![CDATA[ Public transportation is an inexpensive option in many cities ]]>
Chicago (;

Subway base fare is $2.25 per ride; $5 from O’Hare; bus $2 per ride. Unlimited subway and bus pass: $10 for one day, $20 for three days, $28 for seven days. The one-day pass pays off only after five rides; the three-day pass is a better bet. Senior fares about half off; register for RTA reduced fare permit at around 200 centers in the area. Subway serves O’Hare and Midway.

Metra suburban rail fares based on distance; unlimited weekend pass, $7, no weekend service on some routes. Senior fares about half off; RTA permit required.

Las Vegas (;

Bus on “residential routes” base fare $2, $5 for 24-hour pass; half price for seniors, requires special ID card, apply at transit office. Bus along “Strip” $6 for two hours, $8 for 24 hours, $20 for three days, no discounts.

Monorail: Base fare $5. Unlimited passes: 24 hours $12; two-day $22, three-day $28, four-day, number 36, $5-day $43, seven-day $56; no discounts. Monorail is more fun but less convenient than Strip bus.

Los Angeles (

Subway, light rail and bus: Base fare $1.50. Unlimited day pass $5. Senior day pass for travelers 62 or over $1.80, single ride 25 cents off-peak, requires Senior TAP card available in advance by mail (forms online).

New Orleans (

Streetcar and bus: Base fare $1.25, senior $0.40. Unlimited passes one-day $3, three-day $9.

New York City (

Subway and bus: Base fare $2.50; senior fare $1.25. Unlimited passes seven-day $30.

Long Island and Metro North Regional rail: Base fares based on distance; seniors pay 50 percent of peak fares (about 33 percent of off-peak fares).

People-mover plus Long Island or subway serves JFK, people-mover plus heavy rail serves Newark.

Portland, Ore. (

Light rail and bus: Base fare $2.50, $1 senior. Unlimited passes one-day $5, $2 for seniors; seven-day, $26 regular, $7 senior. Light rail serves airport.

San Diego (

Light rail, bus. Base fare: $2.50 for rail, $2.25 for bus; senior 60 or over half price. Unlimited passes one-day $5, two-day $9, three-day $12, four-day $15, one-day including heavy rail, $12.

San Francisco (,,

Light rail, bus: Base fare $2, $0.75 senior. Cable car $6. Unlimited passes, including cable car, one-day $15, three-day $2, seven-day $29.

Regional rail: Fares Bart fares based on distance, seniors 62.5 percent off. CalTrain fares based on distance, day passes double one-way fares, seniors pay half price. BART serves airport.

Seattle (

Light rail, bus: Base fare $2 to $2.80, depending on distance; $0.75 for seniors requires ID issued in advance or online. Day passes cost twice one-way fares. Light rail serves airport.

Washington (

Subway: Regular fares $1.70 to $5.75 per ride, based on distance and peak/off-peak times, pay $1 per ride extra without preissued SmarTrip card. Bus base fare $1.60 with SmarTrip $1.80 without. Senior discounts roughly 50 percent off require Senior SmarTrip card issued on arrival at Metro Center station. Subway serves Reagan/National airport.


In Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, seniors travel free on subway, light rail, and bus and for $1 per ride on regional rail within Pennsylvania.

For other cities, Google “city public transit” for details.

email: ]]>
Thu, 20 Mar 2014 12:49:42 -0400 By Ed Perkins

Tribune Content Agency

<![CDATA[ A winter taste of Iceland’s lager liberty ]]>
Yes, the dying days of winter are traditionally a time for chattering Northeast residents to flee for southern warmth. Beaches. Sunburns. A cold Corona in one hand and a Jimmy Buffett request in the other. So why would anyone of this particular predilection want to instead escape the season’s final sucker-punch of snow for a volcanic and geyser-laden Nordic landscape?

There’s the otherworldly glacial scenery surrounding the country’s bustling capital of Reykjavik. There are morning visits to geothermal-heated lagoons, evening servings of Arctic char, multitiered museums dedicated to fascinating Viking history. On March 1, it’s all for the taking.

And so is Iceland’s annual Beer Day, a ragtag affair celebrating the country’s 1989 legalization of barley beverages after nearly 75 years of country-enforced banishment.

Now in its 25th year, the event has fanned out across Reykjavik’s rousing nightlife scene, encouraging celebrants to devise their own “runtur” (or pub crawl) throughout participating locales while enjoying sights and scenes of Icelandic culture. Interested in tasting home-brewed Christmas stouts while gazing across a picturesque landscape? There’s a place for you. Would you rather taste thin vacation beers in a bar devoted to a Jeff Bridges-carried cult classic? Mark it down, dude. Or would you rather wade knee-deep into the country’s budding craft beer scene? I know a place.

Grab your coat and let’s go for a walk – or hop – through the silver anniversary of Iceland’s Beer Day.

Kex Hostel

There’s no Reykjavik location more responsible for the growth of Beer Day into its current festival state than Kex, a former biscuit factory turned seaside hostel that’s more hipster Hilton than last resort. Its front lobby features a rustic bar, hanging Mason jar lighting and overhead clocks noting the times of Havana, Berlin and Pittsburgh. Front windows expose visitors to breathtaking views of coastline and inactive volcanoes; a rear patio hosts guests on refurbished benches and “Antiques Roadshow”-ready furniture; and the hostel’s PA system plays the Icelandic Sagas audiobook on a loop through bathroom speakers.

Early Beer Day celebrations consisted of Icelanders guzzling limited brands of limp swill that would make Hamm’s look like Ommegang Hennepin. Now, thanks to a growing interest in craft brewing and innovative local breweries like Borg, Gaedingur and Olvisholt Brugghus, residents and visitors expect more – and Kex provides. The hostel now hosts free tastings from these and visiting brewers as part of its intimate, four-day Icelandic Beer Festival they’ve developed as part of Beer Day.

But if you’re used to connecting the words “beer festival” with “unhinged inebriation,” bad news: The Kex affair is a cordial event, with most relaxed attendees looking like they’ve just returned from a Fleet Foxes concert. As I sipped smooth farmhouse ale from Olvisholt, I watched young travelers and tourists in down coats, Chuck Taylors and thick-framed glasses savor selections from small brewers like Fagun under the echo of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.”

Ironic, as Kex is somewhere you absolutely need to be on Beer Day.

Lebowski Bar

If you’re looking for the oddest transition available from the backpacking ethos of Kex, you may want to stroll into the delightfully nonsensical environs of Laugarvegur Street’s Lebowski Bar, a must-visit for any Beer Day stroll.

Yes, the joint’s retro, tiki bar flair’s inspired by the Coen Brothers classic, “The Big Lebowski.” Yes, it features a bar accented with sections of the Dude’s rug, a trippy bowling alley built sideways, and a chandelier made of empty Kahlua bottles – all once essential in aiding the bar’s detailed White Russian menu. And yes, Lebowski Bar features ridiculously cheap beers to mark Iceland’s annual toasting celebration.

This year’s occasion featured pints of local favorite Egils Gull for 25 ISK (which translates to roughly 22 cents) from 6 to 7 p.m. To drink any beer while surrounded by photos of Presidents Obama and Harry Truman handling frames provides its own satisfaction. But when you’re saving money on what could be an expensive jaunt through Reykjavik, even better. Most non-happy hour or Beer Day-adjusted selections – even for interchangeable lagers like Gull, Boli or Viking – can cost visitors anywhere from 850 ($8) to 1,200 ($11) KR. That’s why Lebowski’s prices should have started a small-scale riot, serenaded by the Gipsy Kings’ version of “Hotel California.”

Thankfully, they did not. Instead, they enticed 20-somethings into pleather-coated booths surrounded by 1950s pin-up girls, photos of Steve Buscemi, and an illuminated Sound Leisure jukebox, cranking timeless hits from Fleetwood Mac and Whitesnake. As I leaned back in a booth for the latter’s “Here I Go Again” and a sip of Boli, I laughed at how universal some bar comforts can be.

Micro Bar

After choking down a few bargain Gulls, you may want to cleanse your pallet within Reykjavik’s finest draft haven, Micro Bar. Tucked into the back of the City Center Hotel, the beer-lovers bastion features only local craft selections on tap, as well as more than 180 bottles from across the world.

Opened in 2012 by Gaedingur, the bar not only provides visitors a relaxed, intimate pub vibe, but also a preview of where the country’s headed in brewing from both an offering or appreciation standpoint. Whether Gaedingur’s refreshingly sweet IPA, its smoky imperial stout or Ovisholt’s popular Earthquake (a California Common-style lager), selections provide a great introduction to Iceland’s growing craft community. And, the bar’s expansive menu not only includes selections from the region’s handful of local breweries, but also a cavalcade of American beer geek favorites like Green Flash Double Stout, Rogue’s Yellow Sun IPA, and 11 different selections from Brooklyn’s Evil Twin Brewing.

The bad news? Nothing on Micro Bar’s menu is cheap, with local pints hovering around 1,100 KR ($10) and a 22-ounce bottle of Evil Twin’s Biscotti Break checking in at a cool 6,200 KR ($56). The good news? Within the warm barroom and conversational level of commotion, you can do what I did: Order a Gaedingur Imperial Stout, find a high top and bask in the splendor of Iceland’s flowing freedom.

This is March 1 in Iceland. Orchestral performances take place within Reykjavik’s bedazzled Harpa concert hall. Harbor crafts take tourists on whale watches under the season’s scheduled sunlight, and hungry students visit Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a bustling hot dog stand famous for its remoulade-soaked fare favored by President Bill Clinton.

But for those interested in complementing these options with a taste of the country’s on-tap liberty, there’s Beer Day. Pack your North Face gear, raise a glass – and leave the sandals at home. ]]>
Thu, 20 Mar 2014 12:49:30 -0400 Michael Farrell
<![CDATA[ Cruise ship vacations: Which size ship is best? ]]>
For the sake of argument, in the “big” category I’ll put the very large ships that can carry 3,000 passengers or more. Some, like the leviathan Oasis of the Seas (and its sister ship, the Allure of the Seas), can carry more than 6,000, plus a crew of almost 2,400. In the “small” category I am including cruise vessels that house fewer 1,000 passengers. However, most of the boutique ships carry far fewer, usually 300 to 600 passengers.

Pros of a big ship

So many choices: “Mega ships absolutely give more options than any other ship – with a wide range of cabin sizes, configurations and price ranges, to many dining options” says travel broadcaster Sandy Fenton. For example, the Norwegian Breakaway, which went into service last year, has 33 separate onboard dining venues.

Family-friendly: “For families, this can be an ideal vacation, as kids and hard-to-please teens will be entertained,” says Fenton. The Oasis of the Seas, for instance, has teen-only sessions in the FlowRider wave and surfing pool and a huge rock climbing wall. Norwegian’s Breakaway has a miniature golf course, a bungee trampoline and a 24-foot enclosed climbing cage.

Lots of cabins: On ships with thousands of cabins, guests have a wide range of choices and price ranges. They come in various sizes, configurations, with or without balconies – even in different neighborhoods.

Entertainment galore: Big ships really go all out on entertainment, with giant, state-of-the-art stages and Broadway shows such as “Mamma Mia” and “Rock of Ages.” Others offer music cruises such as The Moody Blues Cruise, with guest Roger Daltrey, on the MSC Divina next month. Big vessels tend to have big casinos, too.

Value cruising (with a caveat): The big cruise lines regularly offer great sales on various voyages. But, beware — all the small charges can add up (see below).

Cons of a big ship

How big is too big?: You’ll be traveling with 4,000-plus new friends, so if you don’t like crowds, this isn’t for you. For peace and quiet, look elsewhere.

Kids, kids, kids: If you aren’t a kid-friendly person or just prefer the company of mostly adults, you’ll be out of luck. With the value-pricing options and programs aimed at children and teens, there will be kids aplenty aboard big ships, particularly in the summer.

Embarkation and disembarkation: With so many passengers getting on and off at the start of a cruise, during shore visits and at the conclusion, this process can be extremely tedious.

Nickel and dimed: Large ships are not all-inclusive – meaning passengers will pay for virtually every item, and not just alcoholic beverages. The cost of tips and shore excursions quickly adds up, and the bill at the end of an “inexpensive” cruise can be quite a shock. Onboard drink packages can save a lot of money.

Dining and service: With thousands of hungry people to feed every day – the Oasis of the Seas’ Opus Dining Room can seat 3,096 – quantity often trumps quality. And those buffet lines can be ceaseless. The same goes for service; the endless stream of passenger faces, requests, issues and complaints can wear down even the friendliest crew.

Pros of a small ship

All-inclusive: In some instances, that means virtually everything. Regent offers free round-trip air, free shore excursions, all gratuities, most wines and spirits, and included specialty dining on every cruise. You’ll rarely need to tip or sign a bill.

Luxury and top notch service: Many of the smaller, premium lines have experienced butler service for all suite guests. Sanjay, my butler on a recent Silversea cruise, went above and beyond, lending me a pair of cuff links so I didn’t have to buy a pair. Embarking on these voyages is usually a stress-free boarding experience that ends with a glass of champagne. Servers will remember your preferences and bring you your favorite appetizer or drink without asking.

Fine dining: Smaller ships offer gourmet cuisine in the dining rooms and at the alternative dining restaurants such as Silversea’s La Terrazza aboard the Silver Spirit – the first and only Slow Food-approved restaurant at sea.

Exclusive itineraries: Smaller cruises offer language and cultural programs, and some present posh culinary classes, art and literature courses, enrichment programs with world-famous lecturers and wine-themed cruises.

Peaceful and luxurious: Smaller ships generally do not cater to families, and there will be few, if any children aboard. The cabins are appointed with high-end amenities and the vessels often display beautiful and expensive artwork throughout the ship.

Cons of a small ship

It’s too quiet: Most smaller ships close up early and do not have much in the way of late-night bars, nightclubs or gambling. Most restaurants and dining stations close around 11 p.m. – so no midnight buffet.

Limited entertainment options: Options consist of less-elaborate shows, solo entertainers, film screenings, trivia contests, bridge clubs and lectures.

Kids may be bored: Smaller vessels have few options devoted to children and teenagers. The ships do have pools, but normal youthful play around them is discouraged. Onboard sports options usually are limited to golf practice, Ping-Pong, shuffleboard and gym workouts.

We will meet again: Since the size of the ship is small and the overall number of guests low, it is likely you will meet each and every passenger more than once. If this is a problem, you may want to sail on a larger ship.

Itineraries are longer: Many luxury cruise lines have itineraries beginning with 8-day voyages and longer. This can be too long or expensive for some travelers. Seabourn is one of the luxury carriers that runs shorter trips. ]]>
Thu, 20 Mar 2014 12:43:09 -0400 By Bob Ecker