Sunday, February 27, 2011

Where's Your Sense Of Yuma?

Where's Your Sense Of Yuma? was long one of Brian's favorite punch lines, always guaranteed to elicit groans from our kids.

It turns out that a variation of this, Experience Our Sense of Yuma, was at one time actually the official tourist slogan of that Arizona city, although no longer.

Some people didn’t like the slogan so it’s no longer official,” says Ann Walker of “But it still pops up because lots of people will always enjoy a really good, cheesy pun.”

A really good, cheesy pun? Our kids would agree with the "cheesy" part.

To read about this and other city slogans, click here.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Should Elephant Rides Carry Warning Labels?

Don't count on that happening at Thai elephant camps such as the one we visited during our most recent trip to Thailand.

Still, the recent news coming out of Thailand about tourist injuries and one death shows that ignorance is bliss.

We're grateful that our elephants seemed so happy and peaceful. Maybe it was the bananas that won them over. Have another banana, Baby.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

Alaska State Senator Chooses Long Ferry Ride Over TSA "Pat-Down" at SEA

We place "pat-down" in quotes because the TSA description of the procedure is not accurate. It's actually an invasive and groping search.

In this morning's Seattle Times is an article about an Alaska State Representative, Sharon Cissna, apparently on her way home after medical treatment in Seattle, who gave up her flight and took the Alaska Ferry after the SEA TSA demanded she submit to a search after going through the scanner. Why?

The scanner image allegedly revealed that she'd undergone a mastectomy and the TSA required a detailed body search.

This woman is at least fortunate she was allowed to leave. It's the understanding of frequent travelers that you're subject to arrest and a fine up to $11,000 if you try to leave once the process has begun.

The entire Seattle Times article may be found here.

Finally, in the can-you-top-this department, here's a video in which it's alleged this woman and her young sons are getting screened after getting off a train. Runaway train? No, runaway TSA.

We'll cheerfully and quickly post any reasonable explanations for this apparent travesty.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Budget European Carrier, Condor, Lands At SEA

When WN (Southwest Airlines) enters a market prices can drop. We're hoping the same happens for flights to Germany out of SEA as we read this morning that Condor, a European low-cost carrier that already flies out of YVR and some other North American airports, will be starting twice-weekly seasonal flights in June.

The Seattle Times article may be found here.

There's nothing like a little healthy competition for our travel dollars, is there?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Counting Countries: 2011 Update

How many countries have we visited? What exactly is a country?

The Travelers' Century Club , established for those who have visited 100 or more countries and want to, well, flaunt it, says of the 320 places it lists, "Although some are not actually countries in their own right, they have been included because they are removed from parent, either geographically, politically or ethnologically."

How many countries have we visited? Updating our October 2010 count of 76, with January's addition of Jamaica (and catching Tahiti and Madeira, both of which we'd overlooked) we have now visited a total of 79 countries on the Century Club's list.

Another couple on a cruise once struck up a conversation with us. Almost immediately, the topic became how many countries they'd visited. They'd visited well over a hundred and seemed very pleased with themselves. We hope never to become quite that boring.

The statistic seems to us at best mildly interesting and about as significant as the old counting-state-and-provincial-license-plates game on road trips. That's why we always say, tongue in cheek, who's counting?

Pacific Ocean
French Polynesia (Tahiti,Tuamotu, Austral, Gambier)
Hawaiian Islands
New Zealand
North America
U.S. (continental)
Central America
Belize (British Honduras)
Costa Rica
South America
Antigua & Deps. (Barbuda, Redonda)
Cayman Islands
Dominican Republic
Leeward Islands, French (St. Martin)
Puerto Rico
St. Barts
St. Kitts
St. Lucia
St. Maarten (formerly Netherlands Antilles)
Turks and Caicos Islands
Virgin Islands, U.S. (St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas)
Virgin Islands, British (Tortola, etc.)
Atlantic Ocean
Azores Islands
Cape Verde Islands
Europe and Mediterranean
Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Minorca)
Czech Republic
Ireland (Eire)
Ireland, Northern (Ulster)
Turkey in Europe (Istanbul)
Vatican City
Senegal (plane refueling)
South Africa
Middle East
Indian Ocean
China, People's Rep.
Hong Kong
Turkey in Asia

Our Jamaican Bobsled Ride In Ocho Rios

Our Western Caribbean cruise is far from port-intensive, but we should disembark at least once to set foot on Jamaican soil for the first time. We's signed up in advance for a half-day tour that includes Dunn River Falls and two rides at Mystic Mountain Ocho Rios.

We walk ashore and are herded into queues, where we await our turn to board a mini-bus. We're reminded again of why large tours, especially cruise-ship tours, are best avoided. Baaah...

The tiny bus is uncomfortable, although the driving is exciting, and our first impression of Jamaica is somewhat negative, sad to say. Almost everybody we encounter has his or hand out for a tip and the job of herding groups of tourists leads to brusqueness bordering on rudeness, rather than the laid-back attitudes we've found elsewhere in the Caribbean.

As to Dunn's River Falls, it doesn't help that it's swarming with cruise-ship tourists (but how can we complain?). After stopping to rent water shoes (we didn't bother to pack ours), our bus careens up to the parking lot. From there we're escorted a quarter of a mile to the Falls. A friendly guide meets us and escorts us in our large group of about 20 up the falls. We don't fall down, we get some exercise, and we cool off in the hot and humid weather between the walk to and from the bus.

Mystic Mountain, which for us is a little bit more fun than Dunn's River Falls, starts off with a scenic ride up a chairlift. Who'd have thought we'd be riding a ski lift in Jamaica?

There's the Eurodam...

Along the way we can keep an eye on Tom and Ellyn, who check on us once in awhile to make sure we haven't fallen off.

We enjoy the beautiful views as we climb the Jamaican version of a mountain.

No, really, Brian's enjoying himself thoroughly.

We disembark and then it's time for, guess what, another line to ride the world renowned Jamaican bobsleds. Haley and Hannah are raring to go.

Tom and Ellyn are next out of the starting blocks. Tom has instructed Ellyn to take a lot of pictures of him as he steers their bobsled down the mountain. Whee, look at me everybody...

Then it's our turn. No photos of us but this YouTube video shows the exact route we followed, except for the climb back to the top.

It's essentially a mini-roller coaster that you start from the top and a surprisingly short ride.

Okay, what else is there to do? Look, there's a spider.

We stroll around for awhile longer, looking for views to block.

Now let's ride back down the mountain on the same chairlift.

It's a lush and leafy ride to be sure.

How many times do we have to say it, Ellyn? No pictures (actually we're flattered)...

Another new experience: It's the first time we've ever been asked for a tip by a lift attendant.

On the way back we slip away from the mini-bus at a mini-mall stop and wander around a fairly dismal Ocho Rios for awhile before Tom's nose leads us to an authentic looking restaurant where we enjoy some jerk chicken and Jamaican beer before reboarding the ship.

Maybe we'll give Jamaica another try sometime.

Our Caribbean Caper On The Eurodam

Way back in January, before Hawaii and Italy, we set sail on a Western Caribbean cruise aboard Holland America's Eurodam with Kathy's brother Tom, wife Ellyn, daughter Haley, and Hannah, Haley's college friend.

Cruise ships leave Fort Lauderdale by slipping through a quasi-canal out to the open water, during which we can spot some of the other floating palaces from our balcony.

We take our turn with the other ships and watch this Royal Caribbean behemoth, the Allure of The Seas, turn around before taking our turn behind it in the convoy out to the open water. It looks similar to the Jewel of The Seas, which we enjoyed on our September 2009 transatlantic cruise. We don't spot a climbing wall on the Allure though.

Finally we're out to sea and Tom and the rest of us are admiring the lights of Fort Lauderdale.

Sisters-in-law Ellyn and Kathy are already having a good time.

Our travel agent learned that HAL was offering last-minute bargain prices for suites on this six-night cruise. There were several hundred fans aboard for the purpose of watching singer Johnathan Coulton, better known as JoCo, on their own JoCo Cruise Crazy voyage. This also guaranteed we wouldn't be the only geeks aboard. As a result, for the first and probably last time in our cruising careers, we enjoy the suite life, just down the hall from Mr. Coulton and his family. Aren't we special?

We treated ourselves to some terrific lunches and dinners in the Asian specialty restaurant, the Tamarind, we watched shows, shared the odd cocktail on our adjoining balconies with Ellyn and master-bartender Tom, played Spades, strolled around the decks, and had a splendid time, just as we always do when we travel with Tom and Ellyn.

What an excellent start to our 2011 travel year.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Economy Plus To Remain On New UA

As United and Continental move toward amalgamation, those of who fly UA were pleased to read today that the new combined airline will maintain Economy Plus seating.

It might seem surprising what a difference those few extra inches can make, but it does, especially on those occasion when we're not upgraded on long foreign flights.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

UA 757s Grounded

We started to hear the news from our travel websites earlier today and now it's hit the news. United has grounded every Boeing 757 in its fleet at least until tomorrow.

UA apparently learned it hadn't complied with all of the steps required by the FAA to check the modifications it had made to on-board computers.

We flew DEN-SEA on a 757 yesterday and feel sorry for all of the passengers whose flights will be delayed and disrupted. There are quite a few 757s in the UA fleet, and they carry more passengers (172) than the Airbus 319s and 320s, so there will be a squeeze for seats until each plane has undergone the 50-70 minute check.

Wednesday update: Flight schedules are returning to normal now that the mandatory checks have been completed on the 96 757s in UA's fleet.

Sehome Sweet Home Again

We enjoyed a pleasant flight on a 757 DEN-SEA yesterday and landed in time to catch the Express Lanes and beat the afternoon rush on I-5 North.

It's always fun to return to our snug home on Sehome Road. Our mailbox was overstuffed with nothing overly important, the most interesting item being a threatening and completely false "collection agency" bill scam from an outfit called North Shore Agency. No, we don't owe FedEx $89.10 and Brian took pleasure early this morning in reporting the fake bill to the police chief of Palatine IL (the p.o. box where the check is to be sent), the FedEx fraud department, and the USPS postal inspectors.

Sad to say, an Internet search reveals complaints about this outfit at least as far back as 2004 as well as a 2007 lawsuit, yet apparently it's still a profitable business.

Today, after a reasonable night's sleep between about 7:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., it's time to unpack, shop, and refine our cappuccino-making skills.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Pleasantly Unexpected Overnight In Denver

We accepted a "bump" from our overbooked DEN-SEA flight. UA has compensated us with travel credits ($400 each), $15 each in food vouchers, and overnight accommodation at the quite nice Renaissance Denver Hotel.

We found our way to the shuttle bus and only had to wait about 15 minutes. From there it's 17 miles and about a 25-minute drive. Since tonight's flight was already delayed by about a half hour, the thought of climbing into bed now, at the 24-hour mark since we awakened in Rome, is very inviting, compared to arriving in SEA 2 1/2 hours later.

Updated next morning... We enjoyed a comfortable night's sleep, and we're on our way to breakfast in the restaurant. This is actually quite a lovely hotel and one of the nicest hotels we've stayed in on an airline "bump."

It's off to the airport on the 8:30 a.m. shuttle. Last night's very nice gate agent snagged the last seat in F for Kathy (Happy Valentine's Day) and Brian has an exit row seat on the aisle in the 757. If all goes as planned, we'll be driving up the I-5 Express Lanes toward home by mid-day.

The Terrible Transit At Dreadful Dulles - Not that Bad Today

We've had some annoying experiences landing at IAD but today wasn't one of them. Our flight from FCO (Rome) was very pleasant and we each caught some sleep.

The Immigration line wasn't that long, and the Customs line although slow and backed up, didn't take as long as it seemed. There's always the thrill of roll-aboarding past the crowded baggage carousels.

The TSA line wasn't all that bad either, once we'd taken advantage of the line for F customers.

We stopped off in the C Gate Red Carpet Club closest to the gate for our next flight but it was crowded (international flights departing) so we've walked the equivalent of a couple of blocks down to the RCC near the D Gates where there's more room.

It's always nice to be back and we have a leisurely layover here before boarding our next flight to DEN in another half hour. There's a small chance of a bump on our final flight today, but we're doing well either way.

A Quiet Sunday At FCO - Aeroporto di Roma

We left our Hilton Garden Inn on the 7:30 a.m. shuttle. Kathy in particular had a terrible night's sleep on the fancy Sleep Number bed in our room. We adjusted it but it didn't change from the saggy setting reminiscent of a genuine flea-bag hotel and we quickly discovered it was not plugged in to electrical power.

When we mentioned it to the desk clerk this morning, he said that it adjusted "manually." We told him that was not the case. We wonder if all Italians haven't figured out that these beds require electrical power or just the folks in this hotel.

It's a quiet day at FCO. The UA check-in clerk tore up up the boarding passes we printed in the hotel last night and issued us new ones. Her printer wasn't working so that process took about five minutes. We breezed through security with no line at all and no searches - just a magnetometer walk-through.

We followed the signs up an escalator to G gates. A train was in the station and we hastily hopped on. A young couple with a baby followed us. We then realized that the escalators up the gate were behind us but we couldn't get off. At the other end, some kind of police officer politely but firmly told us we had to get off and couldn't simply ride back. So downstairs we walked and went through security all over again, fortunately without lineups or complications.

We then walked back upstairs, got on the same train, and went back to G gates. This is all in Terminal 5, which seems more or less reserved for flights to and from the U.S. We said farewell to the young couple with the cute baby and apologized once more. An Italian woman in front of us had made the same mistake so we don't feel as silly as we otherwise might have. If the subway hadn't been in the station we would have taken a moment to look around and would undoubtedly have spotted the signs and the escalator up to G gates. All's well that ends well.

Kathy figured out that we could get wireless in the contract lounge by using the Alitalia lounge's signal at a cost of 50 Euro cents. Our Capital One credit card just informed us that a charge of 68 US cents has been made on our card, so it's proven to be a good deal. This lounge wants to charge 3 Euros an hour or 5 Euros a day, which is a little excessive for our short visit.

We're scheduled to board our flight to IAD in about 45 minutes, at 10:00 a.m. local time, and look forward to those lie-flat business seats after last night's saggy mattress.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

On The World'sLargest Cruise Ship...

The sea is an afterthought, according to this charming article in the New York Times about Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas, with its twin, the Oasis of The Seas, the two two largest cruise ships built to date, each with a capacity of 6296 passengers.

That's a lot of Baked Alaska and Meclizine.

Soriano To FCO And The Rome Airport Hilton Garden Inn

We said our goodbyes to the friendly employees at Palazzo Catalini and took one last walk down the steep hills to the bus stop.

For a change, the schedules seemed to be working in our favor today. Since it's Saturday, there are no buses between 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. but that fitted right in with our schedule.

We caught the 11:00 a.m. bus, arrived at the Orte stazione about 11:45 a.m., giving us ample time to catch the train to Rome. A train that runs directly to the airport (taking about the same amount of total time however) left a few minutes earlier, but the ticket offices are closed weekends so we stuck with our original plan.

The Rome termini makes for an interesting transfer from the incoming train from Orte at binario (track) one or two, to the airport train at track 28. If we could simply walk across the tracks it wouldn't be more than a five-minute walk. However, since that is both illegal and extremely dangerous, we instead walked all the way to the enclosed station, no less than a quarter-mile. We then bought two tickets (15 Euros each!) and hiked back out almost the same distance to catch the next train. We managed to accomplish all that in about 35 minutes and the train pulled out for its forty-minute trip about five minutes after we boarded.

We got off the train, walked to Terminal 5, took the elevator down to the arrivals level, and found the hotel bus parking area to the right of the Emperor Armani building across the way without too much trouble.

A bored bus driver picked us up and transported us back to the hotel, about a ten-minute ride.

We're now sitting in our cozy and modern room and looking forward to a quiet evening and smooth flights in the morning FCO-IAD-DEN-SEA.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Soriano Nel Cimino: Taverna Dei Frati

The Taverna Dei Frati (Friars' Tavern) made for a glorious gustatory finale to our week in Soriano. Our two previous attempts to try the Taverna had found it chiuso (closed) but we're glad we persevered.

While enjoying a glass of wine and chatting with other couples last night in Palazzo Catalini's quaint little bar, we started talking about food and restaurants. Another couple mentioned how impressed they'd been by the Taverna and said they were returning. Since it's less than a five-minute walk from the hotel and stands at one edge of a parking lot and underground parking garage, that was enough to convince to try one last time.

The restaurant's exterior and interior are certainly the most elegant in town but you can't always tell a book by its cover. We entered to find a beautifully decorated high-ceilinged interior and sat down next to another couple we'd met early in the week at the Palazzo. They told us it was their third time there and loved it. That was enough for us.

To make up for lost time, we ordered the 26-Euro degustazione (tasting) meal. With a choice of fish or meat, we chose meat.

Executive Summary: The entire meal was delicious and our only regret was that there was too much!

The plate of hot and cold antipasti was easily the best we've had this trip. This was followed by a subtle plate of cheese ravioli covered by an immensely smooth sauce - chestnut? It was decadent. Next came another plate of pasta, penne in a meat sauce. It was great but we had to push our half-eaten plates away almost tearfully. We just had to leave some room.

Finally the meat course arrived: a lamp chop, pork, and veal, all nicely grilled. Another time we might remember to request rosa (pink), but the well-done meats had a nice char to them. The accompanying bowls of roasted potatoes were also a delight. One thinks always of pasta and risotto in Italy, but the Italians do a good job roasting potatoes when they're in the mood.

The grand finale of our meal was two large portions of tiramis├╣. At that point we surrendered and the server boxed it for us to take to our hotel for a lovely breakfast the following morning. We ended the meal with cappuccinos, savoring our discovery of this establishment. With a bottle of the house red wine at five Euros, our entire bill for this extravaganza totaled 57 Euros.

The quality of the food was superb and we can now look forward to tiramis├╣ for breakfast as we say arrivederci to Palazzo Catalani and Soriano nel Cimino, and undertake our next (and hopefully easiest) railway adventure to Rome, FCO, and the Hilton Garden Inn Rome Airport, from which we fly home Sunday after 12 days of savoring the pleasures of Lazio Italy.

A Villa Fit For Popes: Villa Lante, Bagnaia

We spent an hour or so in Bagnaia today, visiting its main attraction, Villa Lante, a fantastic property originally built in the 1500s, consisting of formal gardens complemented by fountains and other waterworks that were probably engineering marvels of their time.

The fact that it was passed by inheritance from one church official to another, and only in recent years was taken over by the Italian government, doesn't diminish from its aesthetic glory. It's a study in symmetry.

We do think some serious money will have to be spent at some point when the Italian taxpayers have some spare change to properly preserve the property. A lot of the stones are covered in moss and frescoes in a couple of places have deteriorated badly, but the hydraulic engineer who was brought in to establish the water supply for the fountains would still be rightfully proud of his achievement.

This was an outdoor dining table...

Bagnaia's Beautiful Bambini

A Nona (grandma) enjoys seeing babies and little children, and asking parents and grandparents if she can take a photo of their gorgeous little ones.

Notice how heavily bundled these beautiful babies are. No wonder even European grownups like well heated rooms. They learn early.

Italian Trains: The Strain and Pain

We've had some, ah, interesting transportation experiences on this trip. Our experiences the day before yesterday only made us more determined to visit Viterbo on the little train that runs through Soriano between Viterbo and Rome.

Today we showed up with our tickets and boarded at the Soriano train station after looking around and resisting the temptation to pull the switches.

We want to get off at Bagnaia to visit the Villa Lante. We get off and visit the Villa, then find out the next train to Viterbo doesn't run until mid-afternoon. We walk back into town across the bridge.

We ask for advice at the friendly cafeteria from whom we'd bought a cappuccino. A nice lady shows us when and where to catch the next bus and we do.

On the way back, having deduced wrongly that the trains were running on a weekend schedule, we show up at the Viterbo Met.Ro. station about an early, spending a quiet 45 minutes sitting on the train before it pulls out for the relatively short trip to Cimino.

It was a cute little train ride, somewhat reminiscent of the trains that run around Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, and it was worth the inconvenience and nuisance to have experienced the ride.