Monday, April 30, 2012

An "Abundance Of Caution" At An Airport Named "Liberty"

Sadly and disturbingly, that abundance of caution is why we read headlines like the following in the land of the free and the home of the brave:

Improperly screened baby closes N.J. airport terminal

"Liberty" Airport indeed...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Most Iconic American Monuments? Time For Some Needling

Our morning e-mail reveals that Smarter Travel has compiled yet another list, this one of America's Most Iconic Monuments.

America? That would include a lot of countries but it turns out they're referring to the United States of America.

Of the 10 monuments, we still haven't seen the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, or the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. And we haven't even heard of Chicago's Cloud Gate sculpture.

They really opened the door with the Golden Gate Bridge. Although we agree that's a fitting choice, they justify its inclusion as a monument in part because it's listed as one of the Seven Wonders of The Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Well, New York City's Empire State Building is on the same list, and had already come to mind before we'd read it.

As far as iconic, we'd have to add Seattle's Space Needle. When it was built for the 1962 World's Fair, it was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River, at a current height of 605 feet to the top of the antenna spire, although it's been dwarfed since then by buildings, as well as by copy-cat towers in other parts of the world, including Toronto's CN Tower, standing almost exactly three times as high at 1,815.4 feet and on the civil engineers' list.

The inspiration just had to have been the Eiffel Tower, built as an entrance arch for the 1889 World's fair to a whopping 1,050 feet (at least after the 1957 installation of a radio antenna).

Years ago, we read a critic's comment that the Space Needle, although dwarfed by later towers around the world, was the first such modern structure, and that its lines and height make it the most aesthetically appealing in relation to the city it overlooks.

We think so too. We'd pick the Space Needle over that Chicago sculpture any day of the week.

Friday, April 27, 2012

"The Most Talked About Attractions" And Us

Trip Advisor has just issued a list of worldwide attractions that garnered the most reviews on its site in 2011.

The nine listed attractions that we've visited include Bangkok's Skytrain (the city's rapid transit system), Victoria Peak in Hong Kong (albeit on a foggy day), a cave tubing expedition in Belize (with Kathy's brothers and their families), the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum in Paris, the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas, Sydney Harbour, and the Melbourne City Circle Tram.

It's an interesting list in its own way because these aren't claimed to be the top world attractions, but simply those most written about on Trip Advisor.

You can read the entire list for yourself here, and consider whether we should reconsider the seven attractions we've missed.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Flying With Children

A couple of recent news articles remind us of why we're not as excited as we used to be at the idea of flying our grandchildren off to some interesting destination.

Are we worried about trying to keep them entertained during the flight? Do we fear air sickness?

No, it's actually our concerns over what might happen as we escort one or more through a TSA checkpoint.

Read about the hysterical four-year-old here and read about the seven-year-old here.

Add Another Worry To Flying: Bird Strikes

When birds and planes collide, usually the plane wins. However, a flock of Canada Geese can present a real threat. Just ask Captain "Sully" Sullenberger.

We spotted an article in USA Today claiming that "Reports of strikes in the U.S. shot up after the "Miracle on the Hudson" in January 2009, when US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed his jet on the river after birds crippled the plane after it took off from New York's LaGuardia."

And just recently Vice-President Biden's Air Force Two landed safely after a strike.

The article goes on to state that "Better reporting partly explains the increase. But an FAA report in February said strikes have risen over 20 years because birds have become more plentiful in cities, the number of flights has grown, and planes are quieter with fewer engines.".

You can read the entire article here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Vacation Rental Properties And Extended Stays

One of our first post-retirement travel adventures was a one-month stay in Menton France. We lived in an extended-stay apartment built and operated for tourists by Pierre & Vacances. Judging it on the five-star hotel scale, it was probably about 2 1/2 stars and perfectly adequate for our needs.

The kitchen was quite practical, the apartment was roomy, the employees were friendly, and the property itself was near the center of the city and within walking distance of everywhere we wanted to go.

In Vienna on three separate occasions we spent 10-14 days in little apartments owned and advertised independently by a medical doctor. A key phrase to enter when searching is extended stay.

Our most recent four-night stay in New Orleans with Kathy's brothers and spouses was in a privately owned property that was quite a bit more luxurious. With three couples sharing the costs, our wonderful accommodations at the edge of the French Quarter were a relative bargain.

Some people apparently seek out such properties even for a single night, but we've never tried that, preferring to amass hotel points.

We reminisce because we just ran across an article in Smarter Travel that touts the benefits of this type of accommodation. It also highlights three of the larger vacation-rental websites. Remember, though, that you can run your own search via the Internet and you may find an excellent independently-owned apartment, as we did in Vienna - timeshares properties are sometimes a great bargain as well - thanks Dave!

You can find the article here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bad Views, Ugly Carpets, And Germy Places

As a break from gazing at beautiful travel photos and trying to take our own, we enjoyed visiting, the self-described "hotel tell-all" site, where we can watch slide shows of the 10 Worst Hotel Room Views and the 22 ugliest hotel carpets in Las Vegas.

Strangely entertaining...

And for enlightenment, the Top 8 Germiest Public Places Exposed.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Foreign Wireless Rates: Alarming Data

Scott McCartney,the excellent Middle Seat columnist in the Wall Street Journal, writes a cautionary tale here about travelers getting stuck with large bills after using their U.S. wireless devices abroad. Data usage is scarier than phone calls because, unlike the per-minute rate for a call, you don't know how many megabytes of data you've used until you get the bill. McCartney cites one traveler whose bill totaled $2367 for data downloaded in China, despite his having tracked his usage. Ouch!

Being cost-conscious budget travelers, we look for for free Internet wherever we can. We've installed Skype on our netbook and it works well in, for example, our hotel room. We use our AT&T GSM quad-band phone for text messages at about 50 cents each, or for urgent or emergency phone calls, at a cost of anywhere from $1.29 to $2.00 per minute, depending on the country.

The cheapest way to access wireless service abroad only works if you travel very frequently: You carry an "unlocked" phone (one that will accept any SIM card) and you buy the cheapest card you can find for each individual country in which you're traveling. Where to find the best ones is the subject of discussion in travel forums such as this FlyerTalk thread.

If we ever decide we really need wireless voice or - especially - data service in our pocket, we'll probably buy a package from a specialty outfit such as Telestial. A key feature for us would be free incoming calls in a variety of countries. Buried somewhere in the fine print is the fact that there's usually a time limit on the airtime you buy. If you travel to Europe next week but don't return there for another year, chances are your time will have expired, greatly increasing the actual per-minute rate. You can get fancier and subscribe to an international callback service, which enables you to trigger access to a U.S. callback number and then call the U.S. from, for example, Germany for about 37 cents a minute. Telestial's add-on "Return Call Service" may cut that rate in half, but that's still 17 cents a minute in addition to the per-minute rate on your SIM card.

David Rowell goes into great detail about the plethora of options in a typically detailed multi-part Travel Insider article. The bottom line? As far as we know, there's still no perfect way (for us that means cheap and easy) to access wireless service in foreign countries. The trick is to figure what's going to work for you.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Bouncy Birthday Party

Two hours at the "Bouncy Place" in Sumner WA made for a great combined birthday party for Avery, Lily, and Peyton.

Riley is pleased with her ski-ball technique as Jake and Peyton look on.
Riley tries on the giant boxing gloves.
Lily relishes a pizza break.
The birthday cake...
Lily, Avery, and Peyton get ready to attack the candles.
Taegan and Avery enjoy some birthday cake.
Jake and Blane demonstrate their cake-eating techniques.
Peyton shows the power of concentration.
Back home in Issaquah the three birthday girls open presents.
Riley and her mommy share the fun.
Taegan takes a break from watching her younger cousins.
After playing outside and digging for bugs it's time for a quick bath for three little cousins before dinner.
Blane likes to "hide" as long as others hide too.
He can also show off a healthy appetite at the dinner table.
Lily demonstrates the modern way to eat a dinner roll.
When asked if she thought we'd make it to the birthday party, Lily replied, "I don't know if they'll make it for the party but I sure hope they're here in time for presents." We're glad we made it too, Lily. It was a great day for two grand parents before driving home to Birch Bay.

Mt. Rainier - A Sunny Saturday

Friday, April 20, 2012

Flying Into A Seattle Sunset

And then putting our feet up at the Doubletree at the end of a long day that included an extra 45 minutes sitting on the plane at IAH waiting for a thunderstorm to blow over.

Round Up The Usual Suspects

At the MSY TSA checkpoint, where a woman had packed a set of dominoes in its metal container inside her roll-aboard.

Houston Layover

We're sitting in a United Club at IAH for the next three hours after a fairly short flight from Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) this morning. Brian saw Satchmo perform twice in person back in the 60s, so it was good fun to fly out of the airport named in his honor.

We left the condo at a leisurely 8:00 a.m. By then Kathy's brothers and their wives had probably been in the air for an hour, after leaving in their taxi about 5:00 a.m. After ten minutes of looking for passing cabs, we called and one was there within five minutes, driven by a friendly Pakistani immigrant. It's $33 flat rate between the city and the airport ($12 from the train station), not cheap but certainly a long ride and we knew we weren't being cheated.

We both managed to spot a newly-opened TSA line with a metal detector, although Kathy's roll-aboard, with its suspicious metal box of dominoes was opened and inspected. Free Internet, a decent breakfast wrap and coffee, had us departing with positive feelings.

Last night we dined at Drago's Seafood Restaurant, the "home of the charbroiled oyster" and an acclaimed New Orleans eatery.

Maybe it was the fact they'd moved into the Downtown Hilton after Katrina. Maybe their other location enjoys a better atmosphere. Certainly, all of us were surprised to find ourselves in a cavernous interior with an ambience that reminded us of a middling Las Vegas buffet.

The charbroiled oysters were satisfactory but not as good as those at Acme and Felix's, the other two joints where we'd tried them. The lobsters that four of us ordered included two that were prepared well, and two that were probably both overcooked and held too long, to the extent that Tom asked for and received a refund for them. Kathy's seafood pasta was just fine. Ellyn liked her gumbo. Of course, after accidentally knocking over an icy-cold Margarita right into Brian's, ah, lap while we were sitting in the holding area, she was keeping her guard up.

Our dining experiences in The Big Easy have been mixed, and we've learned that going to a highly-rated restaurant and paying high prices still doesn't guarantee a great meal.

All in all, we had a lot of fun though, as we always do with Tom and Ellyn and Greg and June. People are generally very friendly and we might find our way there again some day.

We should be back in Seattle tonight, ready to sleep hard and get rested up to see all of our grandchildren tomorrow at a combined birthday party for three of them at the "bouncy place." We'll see how much bounce we have by Saturday.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

More Wanderings In New Orleans

We beat the daily lineup with an early lunch at a famous local joint, the ACME Oyster House.

For those who love raw oysters, this is a great place.

In a tribute to extreme oyster lovers, there's even a list of names of customers who've downed 15 dozen in one sitting. Wall of Fame or Wall of Shame? Take your choice.

They also serve Po'-Boys, including shrimp, fish, and pot roast-type beef, a house specialty.

As we leave, we see the daily lineup has started to form.

We wander back toward our condo, taking time to read the street signs...

smell the flowers...

and listen to some musicians.

New Orleans: Mélange Restaurant

Last night Tom found us Mélange Restaurant within two blocks of our condo.

We enjoyed an interesting variety of appetizers and mains - sort of a quasi-continental style - and it made for a pleasant evening. The intelligent, attractive, and saucy waitress grew up with brothers and knew just how to deal with Tom.

Incidentally, our earlier effort at finding a nearby restaurant for dinner found us upstairs over a bar in a well-regarded place called Adolfo's. We put our names on the waiting list and asked the waitress how long it might be. She said it could be ten minutes or three hours and had no idea at all. We'd just have to wait if we wanted to find out.

Buh-bye Adolfo's. No place is worth that kind of uncertain wait, at least to Brian.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Our New Orleans Condo

Nicely furnished, clean and modern, and close to the French Quarter.

Muffalettas? Meh - Irene's? Wow!

Earlier today we walked several blocks for some Central Grocery Muffalettas, for which Tom stood in line for some time.

Without the olive tapenade / spread it was a very basic salami and cheese sandwich on a thick bun.

With the olive spread it was a very basic salami, cheese, and olive spread sandwich on a thick bun.

Maybe a shrimp Po'-Boy will excite us more.

The almond croissants we sampled at the highly regarded Croissant d'Or were tasty, although very sweet.

Our best meal so far was a quite spectacular Italian dinner last night at Irene's Cuisine. The food was very good and Matt, our waiter, helped make it a memorable evening. We've found one place to which we'd all definitely return.

Even Greg was happy that his suggestion of a Chinese buffet was outvoted.

Wandering The French Quarter

In which we stroll from Garden Street all the way down to Dave's timeshare at the other end of the French Quarter after stopping to admire the ginger growing in the entry to the courtyard where our little condo sits.

We find Dave's timeshare at the other end of Decatur Street and his Uncle Greg conscientiously checks the restroom facilities inside to confirm that they're clean and absolutely first-rate.

New Orleans: Brunch At Brennan's

Our first full day in New Orleans featured brunch at Brennan's.

As we clustered around the bar for one of their famous milk punches, we were reminded by the flames in the next room that Brennan's claims to have invented Bananas Foster.

Their milk punches are indeed tasty and pack a punch, so to speak. Of course, they're not cheap.

Once seated, we chose the three-course brunch menu. For the appetizers, we chose among us soups and baked apples in cream. The "main course" features a long list of variations on Eggs Benedict, with the interesting twist that the eggs are served on Dutch rusks rather than English muffins.

Dessert for all but Kathy was, of course, Bananas Foster. Her "chocolate suicide cake" was okay but too sweet to consider ending it all with an overdose of cocoa.

Was the food worth the price? Let's just say we can now say we've had brunch at Brennan's.