Thursday, December 31, 2009

One Down, Nine Decades to Go

"And then," he continued enthusiastically, "for New Year's Eve we're renting out the entire convention center in Santa Ana just for our members. Won't that be great? You wouldn't want to miss out on a party like that!" The tone of his voice was Grade-A Choice sales pitch - not only would I be a fool to pass up a chance to get in on the ground floor of the pyramid scheme he was pitching but I would also be a complete social outcast if I didn't want to spend Y2K in Orange County with 10,000 other converts, believers and snake-oil suckers.

That conversation was somewhere around 1997 and suffice to say that I did not sign up for a motivational cable network that required members only access and bought its air time from other providers during the late evening and wee hours of the night. Whether or not their plans for the Orange County Convention Center ever panned out either, don't know, don't care. I knew one thing about Y2K and that was where I wanted to be to ring in the new Millenium.

Flights and hotel secure, I arrived in London, England on the morning of New Year's Eve, 1999. The plan was to arrive in time to turn around and high tail it back to America if New Zealand did in fact black out, signaling a worldwide technology meltdown. If that happened I hoped that the systems on my side of the planet would work long enough to get me home. With my plan in place I made it to my hotel near Earl's Court, caught a quick nap and woke up to television images of Auckland, New Zealand ablaze with lights and revelers in the streets celebrating the first developed nation to ring in the new year. Good!

Greenwich Mean Time was to me the official start of the new year and that's where I wanted to be, not ahead of it or behind it, first or last; "GMT," or as close to it as possible. Some in London chose to be right where the gold line is embedded in to the pavement, symbolizing positive and negative time. I was content with being right under Big Ben at Parliament House along the Thames River at Westminster Bridge. I wasn't alone...not by a long shot.

London was cold and overcast - big news flash there, it was the middle of Winter! There was some rain but not enough to keep anyone indoors or deter us from this cosmic moment in time. Touring the city wasn't part of the agenda for me, either, as I'd been to London many times before including one other New Year's occasion at Trafalgar Square. Since I planned to fly home the very next day my one full day in London was all about resting from the flight over and saving my energy for Midnight.

I figured if I got to Parliament by 10PM I'd have a good choice of viewing spots while not having to stand around on my own for too long. Uh...not. Police estimates were in the range of four million gathered along the Thames from the brand new Millennium Dome in the Docklands to Vauxhall Bridge home to MI6 and the farthest point west of Parliament where it can still be seen from the river. I only made it as far as the intersection of St. Margaret and Bridge Streets, well back from the river but still largely underneath the famous bell tower. Westminster Bridge had been closed to additional visitors for safety reasons so I took up a spot on the island supporting the traffic light and waited for unforgettable, once in a lifetime magic to happen.

It did. Happy New Year!

Gotta go.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Schmeckt Gut im Wisconsin

For the first time in my life I was ordered to the great state of Wisconsin in late August on business. I'd lived three years in Chicago and had only traveled to the Land of the Cheese twice, once for dinner and once for a weekend at Lake Geneva. That dinner trip was to a German restaurant in Kenosha that a co-worker's family ordered. The most memorable thing about that trip was that the restaurant was in the same neighborhood as the Jockey underwear factory.

This time around my business was in Milwaukee, home of countless brands and traditions of beer in addition to at least Laverne, Shirley and the Cunningham gang. I was expecting one smoke belching factory after another lining the shores of Lake Michigan wedged in between row upon row of two-story brownstones. What I found was a surprisingly charming city with an attractive downtown area, upscale clubs and restaurants along the canal and row upon row of pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants along Old World 3rd Street. One highly recommended eatery on that road was Mader's German Restaurant.

Traditional German food is not for the faint of heart or the heart healthy so I wasn't expecting so upscale an establishment. Still, the old world, hardwood decor lined with the to-be-expected selection of animal heads, exposed beams and beer steins welcomed me warmly to a country I have long considered a second home. Waitresses in traditional bosom boosting dirndls flitted about the place bearing plates of food and flagons of beer - the only thing missing was the German language itself. Equally and thankfully missing was the polka band, which to me is always out of place anywhere other than a beer hall.

I had had a hankering for Cordon Bleu for the longest time and my taste buds were unequivocally set on the dish of pan-seared veal or chicken breast stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese. Imagine my surprise, then, when this signature dish was nowhere to be found on the menu. The other staples were there, including a hearty goulash, several varieties of sausages and schnitzels, rouladen and roast chicken but no cordon bleu. Imagine my delight when, upon sensing my consternation, the waitress returned to my table after telling the chef of my dilemma and informed me of his decision to prepare my request off-menu and from scratch!

For all of the things Mader's didn't have they truly have it where it absolutely counts the most: ultimate dining flexibility. The food was hot and plentiful with strong presentation and every measure of taste and flavor that I expected. With German food I don't want mild, subtle or suggestive hints of old world goodness. It has to be full bodied, robust and hearty to the last morsel, taking me back thru decades of good memories from nearly every corner of the country.

I went back to Milwaukee three weeks ago on business again for only one night. There was only one choice for supper that evening and this time, half an hour before closing time, the Wiener Schnitzel was even better than the Cordon Bleu.

Gotta go.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

There is a saying that says planning for next year's vacation should begin as soon as you get home from this year's. There is another saying that says be thankful for the one just ended because there may not be another for quite some time. For the moment let us allow at the end of this year, in the holiday season that only good things will come in the New Year and that there will be time and resources for at least one good vacation.
I have my favorite corners of the world, including New Zealand, Hong Kong and much of western Europe but there are new frontiers to cross as well. I've lamented for years never having gone to Turkey, Italy, Russia, South Africa, even Portugal. The Iguassu Falls of Brazil and Argentina are very high on the list of things to see as well as the remote corner of the Philippines known as Taclaban City, the site of MacArthur's return to the nation during the Second World War. I don't need to climb the thing but I wouldn't mind waking up and seeing Mt. Everest outside my window, either.

More than merely the destination, however, I'm debating the style of vacation as well. One recent conversation told of a traveler just returned from six weeks in Africa which was preceded by several weeks of immunization against three types of Hepatitis, Malaria, Yellow and Sleeping Fever! After all of that, however, he's ready to go back next year to witness the wildebeest migration across the plains between Tanzania and Kenya, something I've dreamed of doing since "Born Free" was in wide release.

I'm not inclined at this stage in my life to consider an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean along the lines of Club Med. They seem a bit too one-dimensional, honestly, and not necessarily a true reflection of the host countries they are located in. At the same time, however, I've been seriously studying the multiple options available on cruise lines around the world.

No, I am not contradicting myself in saying I'm interested in a cruise. I still am looking for an open-sea voyage, preferably along the lines of a transatlantic sailing and I've found one that very nearly fits the bill: a 12-day sailing in early November, next year, from Barcelona to Galveston by way of the Azores and the Bahamas. It nearly retraces the steps of Columbus, sails thru Gibraltar and then practically drops me at my door step in Dallas when it's all over! There's still another that has truly caught my eye as well, a 12-day sailing from Hong Kong to Singapore through the South China Sea, the coast of Vietnam and Thailand. Oh man!

So many things to do in so many styles but only so much time (off) and money to go around. Next year I will have nearly six weeks of vacation next year after the carry-over of unused leave from this year so time is not an issue. As with all things, cost will be the deciding factor on what choice I make.

What to do? I'll let you know! Heck, I haven't bought a television in 20 years, either and those new LEDs are looking gooood!

Gotta go!

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Favorite Holiday

Merry Christmas one and all! While I am certainly hoping you are all enjoying the merriest of holidays and spending quality time with your friends and family I offer this short post in case any of you arrive here after all the presents and pudding. Rather than go in to some self-aggrandizing article on what the holiday season means to me or what I feel it should mean to others I'll simply share a particular favorite.

One year my mother decided it would be a great idea to take the kids to Garmisch-Partenkirchen near the Austrian border and just underneath the Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain. The Alps were unimaginable to a girl like my mother who grew up on a farm in rural Southern Virginia. Never had she imagined anything as spectacular as the mountains of Southern Germany and to this day we continue the debate on whether any other view is as comparable.

Off we go on the train from Stuttgart where we were living at the time to Munich for a local connection that took just as long to reach Garmisch, seemingly stopping at every town with a platform along the way. With weather out of a postcard, the valley wore its best winter finery with snow capped peaks in every direction under a royal blue sky, pastel murals on white washed buildings and surprisingly few people around. It was busy but not "chocka" or gridlocked at all.

Why the Winter Olympics have not returned here is beyond me. The setting is idyllic and mom was certainly in heaven itself. She made one mistake, though. Staying on the military kaserne in the area to save money we had to drive by the base movie theater to get to the Patton Hotel. Lo and behold that very afternoon they were screening "The Wizard of Oz."

Even then in the early 70s we knew "Oz" only came around on television once a year in the Spring and very rarely at all did it make the theaters. We wanted to go, Mom wanted to see the mountains, the battle was joined.

"We wanna see The Wizard!"
"We came to see the mountains!"
"YOU came to see the mountains!" Duck. Whoosh!
"Don't get smart. We didn't come all this way to sit in a movie theater."
"But we're not gonna climb the mountains and they aren't going anywhere. We can see 'em next year but the Wizard may not come again at all!"

We won. And in the theater, of course, at any age "Oz" is simply breath taking. True to her word, though, Mom dragged us back to Garmisch the following Christmas. When we got back to Stuttgart from this first trip, however, we found that "Oz" was due to play there the following week!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Statement

"Crikey, mate, I've never been there!" I call it "The Statement" and it speaks volumes in both directions of the conversation. There's appreciation for traveling to a given destination mixed in with a measure of regret and envy in never having taken the trouble. On the other hand there is the sense of having unintentionally shown up the local in their own home town, state or country. To be sure, there is also a darker side to "The Statement" as well, of the "Why on earth would anyone want to go there" variety.

Recently I was in New Zealand on vacation and had planned to explore new parts of the country that I'd not seen on previous visits. Included on this trip was a visit to Cape Reinga at the far northern tip of the Northland peninsula. The Cape is where the Maoris believe their spirits leave the country in the afterlife for their original home islands of Hawaii. It is also the place where the Pacific collides with the Tasman Sea in sometimes violent and spectacular fashion. The friends I was staying with in New Plymouth tilted their head to one side...and gave me The Statement!

San Franciscans rarely set foot in the East Bay unless on their way to a sporting event in Berkeley or at the Coliseum. Typically, though, they're passing through at top speed to the playgrounds of Reno and Lake Tahoe. In their minds Oakland has nothing that San Francisco doesn't have in spades so if for some strange reason a tourist mentions visiting Oakland as part of their itinerary, they'd get "The Look" AND The Statement. The once eager and now bewildered tourist has lost respectability just because they were curious about Lake Merritt and Jack London Square.

Even in one's hometown it's possible to receive both envious and disapproving reactions to go along with The Statement. Certainly it is never expected that anyone would travel in to questionable neighborhoods if they don't actually live there yet I can't count how many times I've heard something like the following: "You know, in all the years I've lived here (Chicago/Boston/Washington D.C.) I have never been there (the Sears Tower/Martha's Vineyard/Arlington Cemetery)!"

I have always had a hard time imagining that any place of personal interest hasn't already been explored by everybody who lives there. Visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris is a lifelong dream for millions of people yet to say one has been to France yet never visited the tower is the ultimate travel-related non-sequitur. How could you not? Then I discover that Parisians themselves avoid it like the plague all summer long because it is infested with foreign tourists and even worse, provincials from the rest of the country!

It is a tall order indeed to try and visit every landmark, attraction and place of interest in the world. I am blessed to live in a country rich in natural and architectural beauty but I admit to never having seen the Fall colors in Vermont, Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. Yet. When it's my turn to utter The Statement rest assured I speak with admiration and excitement for the traveler making the journey. Then I add a little extra, to let them know they've met a kindred spirit by simply saying:

"It's on the list!"

Gotta go!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Flying on the New A380

I have flown the new Airbus A380 aircraft and I must say that it raises the bar in passenger comfort for economy class passengers. On this airplane the cheap seats feels like premium accommodations on other aircraft so I can only imagine what it's like in the upper berths.

Intended to both replace and surpass the venerable 747, the A380 is bigger in just about every measurement that counts. Longer, taller, wider, heavier and quieter than the Boeing, the only thing it is not necessarily is as beautiful to look at. One observer likened it to a fat sausage with wings, bulky and bloated with only the sweep of the wingtips suggesting any true grace at all. Like any sausage, though, it's what's on the inside that entices, scintillates and satisfies.

I flew the beast twice on two different airlines with completely different configurations and approaches to customer service. Upon boarding there is a sense of boarding a ship as I was faced with a solid vertical wall of white paint with a massive doorway swallowing other passengers whole in front of me. There is plenty of room just in the foyer area to be received by the cabin crew with no squeezing past jump seats, emergency equipment or the like.

The second thing I noticed was the extreme height of the ceiling, coming in at nearly 10 feet above the cabin floor. No worries about stooping in this airplane but while headroom is great for standing and such it means diddly when sitting down for up to 15 hours at a stretch. Legroom in steerage is up to the individual airline which I am happy to report was generous at 34" of pitch.

What I truly found to be wonderful was the spacing between my window seat and the side wall of the aircraft. With about four inches of additional room between the outer armrest on my seat and the wall there was plenty of room for me, once the seat was reclined, to truly stretch out and cozy up to the window instead of my neighbor. I stand 6'3" and where I'm used to sitting nearly straight up this added bonus definitely gave me and my fellow passengers room to enjoy our own seats in the back of the bus. I can't say enough about how I really appreciated and enjoyed that extra room.

On the first flight, courtesy of Emirates' configuration, I sat in front of the wing which I chose on purpose to see if those massive egg-beater engines were truly as quiet on take-off as advertised. They were; my car makes more noise on a cold start in the winter. The real difference for me was sitting behind the wing on the Qantas flight back to Los Angeles. The massive amounts of air being forced OUT of the engines made about as much noise as any other airplane. The strange thing is that while sitting in the back the plane just plain feels heavy. Groaning, swaying and roaring down the runway, fighting for take-off speed, everyone gasped noticeably when we finally lifted in to the air but once airborne it was smooth sailing and church-house quiet. Nothing but a big ol' drama queen!

When the A380 was first announced my national pride via Boeing was wounded. I even said I would not go out of my way to fly on the thing, actually having nervous jitters about so large a machine (1.25 Million pounds) actually making it off the ground. Then Qantas offered an irresistible sale to the South Pacific and I did both on the same trip - I set aside my worries and went out of my way to fly the monster...after it had been in service nearly a year.

I said once before that, given the money and a good reason, it's possible to make an old DC-10 look and feel just as good. The pictures here tell the story about how one airline versus the other dresses up the interior and approaches food service. Regardless of how it's tricked out on the inside, however, the Airbus A380 stands on its own.
And I can't wait to take another ride.

Gotta go.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 6

I am at one of life's crossroads where limitations are becoming more and more defined. Some things you simply are no longer supposed to do but you can either use the rejection as motivation or can the whole idea because the rules won't change at the end of the day.

In every amusement park on the planet there are signs that tell the youngsters they have to be this tall in order to ride the big kid rides. In their case they simply have to be patient, wait a few years and add some poundage before they can tackle the "Devil's Pet" or some other such rollercoaster thrill.

I'm middle aged. Not young anymore but not yet ready for the knackers' yard either so age isn't the issue here. I'm also fat but here again this is not necessarily the primary concern for what I want to do. I can lose the weight I'd love to be rid of but would probably still come in as simply being too big for what I want to accomplish. I want to go sky diving.

In the film "The Bucket List" Morgan Freeman's character famously yelled at Jack Nicholson for being completely out of his mind for talking him in to going sky diving. Then he screamed like a school girl as he and his tandem partner jumped out of the airplane. Freeman's character is concerned with living out the remainder of his time on Earth with grace, humility and dignity for past accomplishments. He's content to rest on his laurels; he's old and he's proud of it. Old people don't do crazy things like jump out of airplanes. They don't get to be old by doing dumb sh-tuff.

Item 6 on my Bucket List is one of the few that I share with the film. For a one-time jump including instructions and a tandem diver I have yet to see the cost exceed $300. A favorite expression of mine is having "wasted more money on a whole lot less" so expense is not the issue either. No, it was reading further in to the fine print that I found my institutional rejection: most diving companies will not accept candidates greater than 250 pounds.

You've seen the cartoons - the chute opens at the critical moment only to find it is actually an ACME anvil or perhaps to shred beyond repair, snap its lines and go skittering in to the atmosphere, leaving Daffy Duck screaming for Jesus all the way down to the ground. Where's Bugs "Ain't I a Stinker" Bunny? Floating blithely to the ground chewing a carrot and holding a pair of scissors. Scissors or no, for me the effect would be the same.

Injuries are common occurrences when it comes to novice sky divers who didn't get the landing quite right. They broke a bone, so what? Those injuries and stories are common-place; they lived and they have one heck of a memory to share. Few companies, however, are interested in risking their equipment, employees and reputation to heft the likes of me in to the sky unsure of whether or not I will pancake myself and my diving partner several feet in to the dirt as soon as we touch down. Think Wile E. Coyote crawling from the crater he made at the bottom of the canyon.

Clearly I have some work and convincing to do. Maybe when I show up for my dive I'll bring Mrs. Butterworth with me.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Single Supplement

Last year one of my nephews informed me he was marrying his high school sweetheart. They had decided to celebrate their nuptials on a cruise out of Miami to the Bahamas and would I be interested in going with them and the rest of the family?

Let's skip the no-brainer decision and get right to the one big issue I had with the cruise line industry, the single supplement. Having chosen to travel by myself I was forced to pay double the rate to cover the cost of the entire cabin. While I understand the logic from the perspective of the cruise lines I don't like the fact that the supplement is essentially pure profit: I'm paying twice the cost to a company charged with nothing to do. The ship will sail anyway and the amount of food will not drop by so much as a chicken so why do cruise lines get away with what to me is high seas robbery?

They'll say the cabin, as opposed to an airline seat, is private, intimate space and there is a minimum operating cost for the cabin as a whole. They'll say that customers have the option of traveling in pairs, applying to share the cabin with a stranger or paying more for the extra privacy. They'll also say that, like airlines and hotels, they're not charging customers for completely empty cabin but only for the shared or whole space of their choice.

They're saying a lot of nothing! The demand models they use clearly justify the behavior and no company bean counter will turn down free money if their opportunity cost is negligible and they can create a sense of value around it; I understand all of this. The question is: Who do you know throws away that kind of money for absolutely nothing extra in the way of tangible, touchable service? To the cruise lines the "service" is the privacy. Please.

For my cruise to the Bahamas which by all measures is the "bucket market" of the industry, loaded with quick getaways and cheap rates, I paid $800 to be the sole occupant of my ocean view cabin. That doesn't sound like much but it was still twice the $400 they advertised for that sailing and that's still the low end of the boat. The suite for a cruise in October, same time of year as my cruise last year, is $689 for the 4-day sailing per person so double that number if you want the cabin to yourself.

Want an even bigger number, go for a longer cruise on a more complicated itinerary on an upscale ship. It is entirely possible to drop $180,000 for the Queen's Grille Suite on Cunard for a cruise lasting 108 straight days! Double occupancy or not, that is the published price of the cabin for three solid months at sea. Chump change for Tom Cruise.
What do I want? A price break, plain and simple. For the lower cabins and all inside berths I'd have no problem in continuing the single supplement at 100% of the cost of the cabin. Starting at maybe deluxe cabins with balconies and up, however, at least drop the supplement to 50%, then 25% for the mini-suites and no supplement at all for top of the house. A 21-day cruise on Norwegian around the Mediterranean still fetches nearly $5,000 per person for the largest suite onboard.

One person surely cannot consume $5000 worth of food in three weeks and the drinks are never free anyway. No cruise line will admit it but I doubt quite seriously cabins at that level actually get single supplements. They're probably just as vulnerable to half-off sales as the cabins just above the engine room.

Gotta go!

Monday, December 14, 2009

On Demand Is Grand!

Not too long ago I wrote a comment in a different blog that I felt onboard entertainment provided by the airlines was over rated. Even with wood trim, large screen monitors - up to 23" on some airlines in First Class - and all manner of movies and music there didn't appear to be a thing offered by the airlines that could match my own private library. One word: iPod. Another word: laptop.

Onboard entertainment started with those smart enough to bring their own newspaper. The first regular film entertainment began with TWA in only 1961. It was a huge deal to offer two different films on the same flight which involved a lot of cooperative seat swapping in coach if you wanted to see one movie or the other. Throughout the pneumatic headsets were the standard and no one ever programmed more than an hour of music on any given channel.

The first innovations in "On Demand Entertainment" came in First Class with private DVD players and mini-cassettes so passengers could watch what they wanted when they wanted. The only problem was how to prevent theft of the tape or the player! Either way, I still felt that, with enough battery life or a power supply on board, I could enjoy my own, unedited selections at the touch of a button and typically with much better sound quality through my own headsets.

Then I flew Emirates and Qantas and realized that international airlines offer a product the cash-strapped and perpetually stingy US carriers simply can't or refuse to match. Where the 747s on United still have "main screen" films for the entire coach cabin, Emirates and Qantas offer the absolute latest in entertainment options for all classes, steerage included.

On a 14-hour flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles I was able to select from literally hundreds of films, from recent release, old favorites and classics, including both of the first two "Godfather" titles. Television shows ranged from "The Office" to "Are You Being Served" and "Two and a Half Men" and complete CDs featured complete operas to Eric Clapton and Michael Jackson. Then there were the myriad number of video games available. I'm not a video head but I was nonetheless very impressed with the option to "seat share" with anyone else on the plane up to and including creating an onboard "community" of players to play against throughout the flight!

Wow! I don't care about who built the system any one airline is using, I'm just very glad some airlines have them and are including us folks in the back of the bus. The only difference from one class to the next is the size of the screen but even there I was able to enjoy a 10" screen that tilted out from the seatback in front of me. You'd think that on a 14-hour flight there would be plenty of time to sleep? I spent all but two hours of that service watching TV, films, the Air Map of course and generally just playing with the system and getting as much out of it as I could.

Finally, the system even came with the ability to shop for duty free from the comfort of your seat without waiting for the trolley to come up the aisle. All very impressive indeed but if they're smart no airline will allow texting on board.

Can you imagine? "The text is coming from inside the airplane!"

Gotta go!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dallas' Decade of Decline

Despite being in First Place in their division as of this writing, for the first time in their history the Dallas Cowboys are irrelevant. Never have they gone an entire decade with absolutely zero tangible success to show for it and while I am a die-hard, blue blooded, grape Kool-aid drinking, long-live-the-Dallas-Cowboys fan I have simply gone beyond the gut-wrenching agony of dreams destroyed to being numb from disappointment.

In the 60s they went from 0-11-1 that first season to infamy at the Ice Bowl in less than a decade.
In the 70s they battled with the Pittsburgh Steelers for supremacy, showing up at five Superbowls.
In the 80s they were bridesmaids to the 49ers and Redskins but were never counted out.
In the 90s they were the best and worst of everything the NFL stood for: arrogant and hedonistic but champions just the same.

Since 2000 this team has chewed through three head coaches, at least a dozen starting quarterbacks and produced a grand total of four playoff games, three wildcards and one division round, all losses. The shortest comparisons since the NFL/AFL merger to that are these:

56 Playoff appearances up to now, six ahead of #2 Pittsburgh.
20 Division Titles, one more than Pittsburgh who has been around 27 years longer.
14 NFC Championship games, including four in a row in the 70s and 90s plus a three-peat in the 80s.
8 Superbowl appearances and five Lombardi Trophies, one less than Pittsburgh.

Simply amazing, and more than that, amazing how much money has been spent along with high hopes and great expectations set in the past ten years…for one division title. The team anthem "The Boys are Back in Town" started playing in 2003 when Bill Parcells took Quincy Carter and company to a 10-6 record after three straight years of 5-11 under Dave Campo. Overall, though, a better soundtrack might say "Couldn't Get it Right."

The practice facility roof collapsed this past summer and permanently disabled one of the staff which I instantly took as an omen for the current season given how poorly the last campaign played out. That anemic effort included an embarrassing final game at Texas Stadium against Baltimore and The Humiliation at Lincoln Field against the Eagles. Here we are in December of 2009 and sitting on top of the division at 8-4 with four games left against two fierce division leaders, a vicious wild card hopeful and a bedraggled but proud division rival always itching for a chance to knock Dallas off its playoff pedestal and high horse in general. I predicted 7-9 for the Cowboys at the start of the season; 8-8 and out of "The Dance" again is entirely possible.

Through it all Dallas has had one Owner/G.M. who's famous meddling fired a legend and built a dynasty before turning the factory from one that cranked out championships to the league's version of a different G.M. Like that once all-powerful brand the Cowboys franchise is a shell of itself with an onfield product mocked by some, feared by none, unwanted by others and unconditionally believed in by fewer still.

The truest and best thing that can be said is that Jerry Jones has always and will continue to try and find the perfect storm, that magical winning combination everyone associated with the team wants, expects and now desperately needs. But history is stacked against us: there is a revolving door at the front office which feels like a prairie wind from all of the savant coaches and savior players who have come and gone either to greatness at cable networks and other franchises or have flamed out in the lap of excess and presumed privilege or inglorious retirement.

The ones I truly feel sorry for are the Jason Whittens, Demarcus Wares and Marion Barbers of the team, upstanding private citizens with the work ethic of a Paul Bunyan or John Henry. They, like other marquee players before them, have performed, entertained and inspired fans and peers at the highest level for nothing up to now. If their skills do not abandon them first then their salaries will eventually expose them as less and less valuable in the unforgiving long-term reality of every human enterprise that demands fresh legs for less money.

This season isn't over yet and I believe that the Dallas Cowboys will rise again. I know they will. I'm just putting all of my hopes in the next decade because here, at the close of this one, other than the emperor's new clothes all we have to look back on is the phenomenal house of cards that Jerry built to match.

Move over Washington, and stop hogging the sofa!

Gotta go

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Broken Barrel

I was in the middle of yet another week long trip around the country and had considered myself to be winding things up in Tampa when the call came from boss-lady. I was "invited" to stay on in Florida for another six days and pay visits to our operations centers in Melbourne and Jacksonville. The company was picking up the tab, I'd never been to either place and it would be a chance to see both sides of Florida in the same trip.

Well, I apparently didn't miss much in the translation between eastern and western Florida and the drive between the two was decidedly one of the most un-scenic I'd ever experienced in a state world famous for exactly that - its beaches and scenery! I call the area of central Florida (outside of Disneyworld, of course) marshlands trying to be forest but not quite making it because the trees weren't really tall enough. Sort of like a bald-headed man who wasn't really bald but whose hair wasn't long or thick enough to qualify for any other description.

But I digress. I'm from Texas and we love good barbecue. Driving south along Babcock Road I noticed "Memaw's" Barbecue. I didn't stop but when I got to the office I enquired about the place with building security and was advised that it was merely "ok." Better was available according to the guard in his neck of the woods but that was 20 miles farther north. One of the administrators overheard our conversation and all but ordered me to dine at The Broken Barrel Tavern instead only a few miles to the south in Palm Bay.

Was it ever worth it! Melbourne isn't the biggest truck stop on the highway and if you stayed on either US-1 or I-95 on your way somewhere else you'd miss it entirely. It looks and feels as if it were built to serve a wide variety of purposes, from banquet hall to big-screen sports bar with tables and chairs thrown in beside a room for darts and several pool tables in the back. Center stage to all of this is a massive serving bar that boasts over 340 types of beer in bottles and on tap from 15 countries throughout Australia, Europe (seemingly more from Belgium than anywhere else), North America and Asia. Prices by the glass ranged from suburban swill to hops haute cuisine for anything from Singha to Schlitz and Samuel Adams to Sapporo, Becks and back. One that caught my eye was a concoction called "Youngs Double Chocolate Stout?!" I'm just glad I don't drink!

No one working seemed over the age of 25 or particularly concerned about their appearance but the service was quick and the recommendations right on target. Who'da thunk to actually smoke chicken wings but theirs is done in a dry rub typically reserved for Memphis-style ribs with equally scintillating effect. My waiter admitted to never eating a fried wing again once he'd tried the house specialty and I couldn't disagree. Choose from one of four unique barbecue or hot sauces served on the side to dip ("Cuz ya won't really need it!") and this non-descript hole in the wall beside the Goodwill Store truly serves up Solomon's gold.

Melbourne in November is a ghost town compared to the volumes it must receive in the high season. I even asked what anyone would visit Melbourne for that couldn't be found in Daytona, Palm Beach or Miami. It is the closest major town to Cape Canaveral but that didn't convince me since it is possible to day-trip there from Orlando. What none of the other towns have, though, is the Broken Barrel: smoked wings (plus 340 types of beer) that should NOT be the best kept secret in town!

Gotta go!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor and the Bottom Line

The same can be said in reverse; what is travel without history. Growing up in Europe both were very much a part of my early life and continue to be defining personal characteristics today. My family traveled constantly around the United States and across the Atlantic thanks to my father's career in the military. We lived in Germany, a nation saturated in castles, cathedrals and human catastrophe. On the first plane ride I can remember my mother and sisters traveled to Hawaii to visit my father on shore leave from Vietnam. I was five years old the first time I ever saw the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

I've been back at least three times since then. Bottom line for me is, I can't pass up a chance to travel and I certainly can't pass up a chance to visit compelling history.

Today is December 7th, an ordinary Monday for much of the world yet only one calendar day removed from that infamous Sunday 68 years ago. Almost by tradition the event gets maybe 90 seconds of coverage on news networks at the end of a scheduled broadcast, maybe including an interview with a surviving veteran, a cook, a gunnie, signalman or some other average Joe just waking up to find the world as he knew it had changed forever.

In its day, December 7th was to the United States what September 11th is to contemporary culture, a brazen attack on American soil, early in the morning and when the country least expected it. No one believed it could happen, the country was safe across two oceans and secure behind a massive military arsenal that few antagonists in their right mind would provoke. War in 1941 may in fact have been imminent but it was never supposed to happen here.

Pearl Harbor is a working United States naval base but that is not what it's known for. It is the command center of the largest single military operation area of any navy in the entire world but that is not what it is known for. The name derives from its history as a center of pearl harvesting but that also is not what it is known for. The name is synonymous, nearly interchangeable with that of the U.S.S. Arizona still lying on the bottom of the harbor and straddled by the Arizona Memorial.

It is a stunningly beautiful place. Clear water laps gently at the shores and the sides of the ship while overhead maybe a few clouds provide contrast to the blue sky that never fails to draw the eye as visitors look to the heavens trying to imagine the air filled with shrieking bullets, whistling bombs and diving aircraft while concussion impacts and full on explosions wreak devastating havoc in every direction around the base. The complex today includes a documentary theater, a submarine museum and landscaped grounds with information pavilions as well as the ship itself. The lucky few will see an active ship returning to port, the entire ship's company standing in attention and saluting their 1100 fallen brethren still buried in the hulk of the Arizona 30 feet under water.

The truest, most haunting sight of all are without question the tear drops of oil still bubbling from the bunkers of the Arizona. The ship continues to "bleed" or "cry" today with several thousand tons of oil slowly seeping to the surface, stirring gut-wrenching emotions from visitors and hot debate from environmentalists worried about the damage to the harbor eco-system. Even on the sunniest, brightest day in memory, no one comes away untouched by their time at the Memorial.

Many do not see the point in taking vacation time in paradise to visit a national tragedy; why get all depressed when we're just here to have a good time, they ask? Some avoid Oahu all together, preferring the Eden-like environs of Kauai or Maui to the hustle of Honolulu. Certainly for those who have never been to Hawaii it is not the main selling point of the tourist boards. All of that is regrettably understandable.

I live in Dallas, a city still trying to come out from under the shadow of its most popular attraction, The School Book Depository from where Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy. All the same, I would no more visit Southfork Ranch and skip Dealey Plaza where the assassination took place than I would travel all the way to Hawaii just for the surf and sand. The last time I went a new addition was there to greet me: the U.S.S. Missouri moored just to the south of her older sister, protecting her. Where one ship started the war for the United States, the other ended the war for the world in Tokyo Bay.

Waikiki, nothing! It's a beach! The Arizona Memorial is history, and it's only at Pearl Harbor.

Gotta go!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Air Alone

“Geez, man, we’re sorry,” they started. Sorry for what I ask? “That you’re not going to be able to go to Heidelberg because of us.”

I looked at them like they were completely out of their minds. Humans are pack animals, instinctively favoring “herding” or gathering in groups versus being out on their own in most things. The interesting thing for me has always been that for some it is a given that if the entire group cannot attend an event, go to the movies, dinner or travel, then naturally no one else can or should go.

Why not?

One of my closest friends often comments that he is "reserving" Fiji for his honeymoon. Another friend decries the desire to see Paris only in the company of her beloved. Ain't neither ONE of them dating anybody long-term so what the hay? I subscribe to the school that says go when and while you can.

a) You may meet somebody with no interest in ever leaving the country or possibly even home.
b) Go before meeting your soulmate and you'll know your way around and can act as guide.

"Oh, I think it will be so much more romantic if we discover it together for the first time" she said. Right. Like two people on their honeymoon spend much time outside of the room?
c) Start a family and the last thing you may see for at least 20 years is (fill in the blank)_____!

Death and taxes are guaranteed and time waits for no one. I've enjoyed many a trip escorting friends and family to places they've never been or discovering a country for the first time together. At the same time, when an opportunity presented itself to travel to Thailand and no one I knew was interested or able to go I admit to being intimidated the night I arrived; after that it was like riding a bike, Thai style!

In the case of Heidelberg my friends and I were actually planning on traveling to Scotland but circumstances led to the entire thing falling apart right at the curbside of the airport terminal. While others tucked tail for home I marched in to the lobby, swapped the Scotland ticket for one to Germany - yes, this was back when such things could be done on the fly and for free - and was airborne to Dusseldorf a couple of hours later.

I enjoyed a leisurely two-hour train ride down the Rhine before pulling in to Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof along the Neckar River with a gorgeous view of the castle. Down to the main square I went for a fantastic luncheon at one of my favorite restaurants from childhood, "Der Wienerwald." Over a bowl of goulash and a plate of schnitzel the waitress and I carried on a rusty (me) conversation in German about how her native daughter married an American who took her back to the US to live. When "Mutti" arrived for a visit she discovered not a single American woman she met knew or was interested in learning how to cook for their man!

The weather was agreeable, the castle was beautiful as ever, the food as hearty and memorable as always and the singular moment of friendly conversation with my "Bierfrau" of a waitress added up to a moment only I was able to enjoy.

I wish my friends had come along but I didn't mind telling them about the adventure when I got home, in between their stories of cleaning out the garage and hosting the in-laws.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Volksmarsch im Welt Und Wald

I’ve always had strong legs. Many is the time I’ve said they’re my favorite part of my body as they have never failed me, always willingly done my bidding through tens of years and tens of thousands of pounds of work done and weight lost and gained.

In the picture I’m about four years old during my family’s first tour of Germany. Clearly my lederhosen was one of those "cute outfit" things parents do to unsuspecting children but I seemed to have enjoyed this one and so far only experience wearing them. Those legs got me to thinking of the Volksmarches I used to enjoy on some weekends to wile away the hours.
Germany offers one of the greatest and most varied histories in Europe but it has always been far more than the mere sum of its monuments, castles and biergartens. Germany is all about the people and there is no better way to meet and interact with Germans than a leisurely stroll thru hills truly alive with the sound of music. All that walking and they sometimes find time to sing!
Marches are largely held early in the morning on Saturdays and are little more than organized walks through the countryside. Nobody actually marches, everyone is simply out to take the air and a little bit of exercise. Walks are offered in 10, 20 and up to 40 kilometer circular trails and measured in stages across varied terrain from flatland to fairly challenging hills.

Checkpoints offer refreshments, medal validation stamps and first aid if the course is slightly more than expected. Anyone can walk the course for free but the fun is signing up for the prizes at the end of the course which were invariably cheap pewter medals. Still, they were always uniquely designed and collectible. Lederhosen are atypical but a good, stout walking stick would not be out of place.

Volksmarching is one of the best ways in the world to burn a few hours over the weekend, meet new people, spend time with family and friends and be outside at the same time. Of course, my perspective today realizes this but as a kid I just wanted the medal! It was all just a laugh and – naturally – one big race between buddies to see who could finish first. We all crossed at the same time, though, cuz usually only one parent drove and no child was ever left behind.

At the height of Spring and Summer only the tourists are ever indoors or trying to find mystery and history on the Romantic Road. Off the beaten path is where the pulse of Germany beats strong and true for they are either at the beaches of Sylt or up in the hills of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg. Go on in to the mountains with the locals and earn that beer!

Those shorts? I wish I could say I outgrew them but I sprung a leak in them one day and they got tossed!

Gotta go!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bonito Brasil

"Dallas is not available," my managers stated flatly. It was June and the end of the one year assignment I had taken in Los Angeles. They were now trying to find new homes for each of the six of us on the team and after telling me my first choice was off the table made me an offer: San Francisco.

"Give me the weekend to think about it," I countered. Neither city offered a cheap cost of living but I knew I didn't want to stay in L.A. Taking the position meant secure, high visibility employment. Turning it down started the 30-day clock for me to find something else within the company or leave. I needed to think and I had to act fast.

I took the rest of the afternoon off, dashed to LAX and hopped a flight to Miami from where I picked up a connection to South America. Some 17 hours after leaving Los Angeles I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, the legendary Brazilian party town that I was about to experience in legendary fashion.

After arriving at the hotel I immediately signed up for a half-day tour. Our itinerary included the beautiful stained glass cone of the Sao Sebastiao Cathedral. The design of the building allows naturaly light to shine in from all sides but the most memorable moment here for me was being scolded by the tour guide for wandering off to get a better picture angle. Rio's opportunistic street urchins were everywhere and any tourist was fair game.

The biggest lesson I learned was that Carnival is indeed a citywide event but only after each samba "school" competes in tournament at the Sambadromo, a mile long boulevard where performances are staged in front of judges and high society. This quiet, unassuming stretch of concrete dead-end comes alive in ebullient grandeur once a year but otherwise sits empty. We ooh'd and ahh'd politely at the canyon like risers around us but the thrill is definitely of the need-to-be-there variety.

A drive by of the massive Maracana Stadium sufficed as a visit on the tour as we motored on to the statue of Christ the Redeemer high above the city. Words only minimize the impact of the view. Religious or not, even Christian or not, the site, the statue and the setting never fails to bring the strongest emotions to the fortunate visitor. We could have stayed the rest of the day but had to press on.

The beach culture being what it is in Rio it seems natural to include at least one on the tour. Unexpectedly, though, we were taken to a fairly quiet section of a park and down a path through some greenery to a forlorn, sand-pitted stone statue. This impressionistic earth-toned carving, intoned the guide, was as important to the rhythm of Rio as Carnival itself.

It was Yemanja, goddess of the sea. Afro-American traditions across the ocean identify her as the queen of the ocean, protector of children and the essence of motherhood, from whom all life comes. Every New Year's Eve, citizens of Rio in the millions come to the ocean to honor her spirit and then, of course, they party, in sort of a just for family warm-up to the international madness of Carnival.

The last stop for the afternoon just as the sun was beginning to wane belonged to Sugarloaf Mountain, the bookend to Corcovado as an international symbol of Rio. Looking like half of an American football sticking out of the sand, Sugarloaf sits at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, guarding sun-soaked beaches laid out in all directions and stocked with speedos and T-back thongs. The mountain offers panoramic views of the ocean, city and mountains; the trouble is getting to the top for that world class view.

Rock climbers help themselves, the rest of us take a hanging cable car. The fight scene from "Moonraker" playing in my mind, the contraption sailed quickly and smoothly to the summit where the view exceeded its billing, as everything in Rio does. Facing west we viewed a textbook golden sunset over the city, the welcoming arms of Christ the Redeemer enveloping us in warm silhouette. Later, sighs of relief at reaching solid ground mixed in with sighs of satisfaction at the end of probably the best half-day city tour I've ever experienced.

And the timing was perfect, too. Back at the hotel I changed clothes, caught the shuttle back to the airport and flew back to Los Angeles that same night. Thirty-five hours of flying for barely 12 hours on the ground in Rio? It was worth it, and I made my decision about San Francisco, too.
Gotta go.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Upgrading for Nothing

Recently I had an opportunity to wrap up some business in the middle of an extensive series of trips around the country. That meant that I could leave from where I was, in this case Rochester, New York and fly to my next destination a day early. Here begins the problem.

Gone are the days when a simple call to the airline would rebook the ticket and often at no charge. My continuing ticket on Continental Airlines was, according to the travel agent, no longer worth the paper it was written on - the $150 change fee of plus the additional cost in fare based on what was available for the time I needed to travel was over twice the remaining value of the original ticket. I had to start from scratch.

That being the case I discovered a thru-flight on Air Tran that fit my plans beautifully and for less than the cost of Continental's change fee alone. I'd never flown Air Tran before so that added to the small sense of adventure I was having. The additional cost to the company in having to buy a plane ticket at the last minute was virtually negligible and I was getting a lot done and in less time than anticipated. Things were going great and were looking even better when I got to the airport.

For only $49 I could upgrade to First Class on the first segment of the thru flight or both segments for $20 more. The company wouldn't pay for the upgrade but I didn't mind shelling out of pocket myself to experience a more comfortable level of service at such a reasonable rate. Sold. I had a smile on my face right up to the time we took off when things went downhill from there.

First Class on Air Tran in my estimation is much ado about nothing. The seat was fine, of course, but the service added up to little more than anything Southwest Airlines might offer. I don't drink so I don't care about the free booze while the pretzels, cookies and hard candy were an open disappointment for me where I was expecting at least a cold plate service of some kind. The extra room was nice, yes, but all I really got that was different from the coach experience was free servings of Fuze soft drinks.

Uh...not. If I were a more frequent customer I would at least be accustomed to the true nature of the upgrade product. Air Tran is not strong in my home town and my business travel will not ordinarily take me to any markets where they compete. The flight attendant and the seat were both fine but even for less than $70 the upgrade doesn't add up to anything I would voluntarily pay for again.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

MCT, Don't You See?

“Blue Sky.” Not only is it a weather outlook but it is also an often-used phrase at the airlines. Not only are blue skies ideal to fly in but they also imply the “best-case-scenario” that every airline wishes it had on any given day of the year. One of the critical components of a blue sky operation is being able to connect traffic at any collection point on the system.

Each airport publishes a minimum connect time or “MCT” that outlines how much time is needed to connect between one flight and another. Herein lies the start of the fun: if an airport says the customer needs at least 25 minutes from one plane to the next then that means from the time the 1st plane is scheduled to arrive and the 2nd is due to depart. In that calculation is the time required to deplane, get to the next gate plus any security or immigration formalities and re-board for an on-time departure, checked baggage included. Note that I did not mention time to use the restroom, make phone calls, check e-mail, shop or get refreshments along the way.

That’s a lot of business to handle in 25 minutes even for a smallish airport and definitely under blue sky conditions but are you ready for the real meat-n-potatoes of it all? Like anything else this straightforward guide is loaded with exceptions that all airline schedulers, schedule writing software and reservations systems read and interpret in order to create the choices you enjoy (sic) all over the world today.

BOS DD- .30( 1) DI- .40( 2) ID-1.30 II-1.30
ORD DD- .35( 3) DI- .35( 4) ID-1.10( 5) II-1.10( 5)
DFW DD- .40( 6) DI- .40( 7) ID-1.10(7a) II-1.00
LAX DD- .30( 8) DI- .40( 9) ID-1.30 II-2.00
MIA DD- .40(10) DI- .45(10) ID-1.35 II-1.20
JFK DD- .35 DI- .40 ID-1.15 II-1.15
RDU DD- .25 DI- .35 ID- .55 II-1.00
STL DD- .30(14) DI- .35 ID-1.30 II-1.30

DD = Domestic to Domestic
DI/ID = Domestic to/from International
II = International to International

Similar to DNA, these are the four genetic building blocks that create “valid” airport connections around the world. The real devils, however, lie in the numbers in parentheses that typically denote even more time for connections between widebody flights, commuter flights or particular destinations. The chart above, a partial listing of American’s major cities, includes “(8)” at Los Angeles which says that connections to American Eagle need five extra minutes while connections to Hawaii need 40 minutes instead of 30! Where no airline has a major presence all airlines simply use the airport guidelines.

Is th brain fried yet? The bottom line is this information, available online, is how airlines and airports try and ensure an on-time operation across the entire global system. Now, go take a look at their on-time dependability record, remember how long it took to get off the plane and clear customs at Los Angeles and then do what I do:

Take whatever the airline says is the minimum and double it – at a minimum!

Gotta go!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not The Best Day At Best Buy

I needed a new computer. My first home computer was a Compaq Presario, a gift from family to support my aspirations in becoming a published writer. It had Windows ME for an operating system yet still lasted eight years. The laptop I bought to replace it died over a month ago with maybe two and a half years under its belt. I set out shopping.

Recently my employer sent me on a marathon three week business trip around the country. Trying to find the sweet spot of sales tax and bargain pricing I shopped a dozen retailers across half a dozen states from Wisconsin to Florida and back by way of New York, California and Ohio, learning and researching what I needed in terms of processor, graphics card, memory and even optimal operating speeds and temperatures. By the time I made it home to Dallas I knew what I wanted and promptly set out to hesitate from cold feet at the last moment!

Bargains were all over the floor since the hard-driving "Back to School" buying season was winding down but we're still talking a decent sum of money here. I didn't care if it was on "clearance" since any machine would be "obsolete" within six months but still automatically better than the dead one on my office floor.

I found the holy grail at a third Best Buy in Southlake, Texas. After literally thousands of miles across the country and more than a few indifferent experiences with Best Buy I ended up staying with them simply because of the sweet price that I had found on a Gateway tower and not the Toshiba laptop I had traveled the country hunting down. Go figure!

I could have been hustled in to an inadequate machine or a grossly over-powered one anywhere but the Best Buy deal tossed in the 23" monitor virtually free at only $100 over the cost of the base unit. That killed every other option on the spot, including a custom built machine as suggested by two of my more computer savvy friends in Arizona.

It was all nearly ruined at the cash register. The apparently new girl overcharged my credit card and left a large sum of money suspended on my account that no amount of phone calls or yelling by her supervisor at my credit card company could fix. I would have to wait 48 hours for the charges to clear from one system to the other before I could get my machine.

Not. Fuming, I went home, resigned to my fate and intending to firmly but politely rip in to my card company. Surprisingly, they sent me back to the store, all charges reversed as if nothing unusual had happened at all. My package of products was right where I'd left them 45 minutes earlier and the bug-eyed supervisor who'd tried her best couldn't believe I was able to get something done that she, the retailer, couldn't.

They say the last best impression of any service is often at the door on the way out of the establishment. With a massive choice of retailers within 15 miles of my house it is entirely within my prevue to decide who gets my hard earned money either across different companies or different stores within the same corporation. Best Buy was going to get my money because I still couldn't beat that price. I went back to the Southlake store to give them a chance to redeem their register screw up entirely because of the hard work and stellar service I'd received on the sales floor.

Gregory is his name. He knew his business, cared about me as a customer and taught me a lot all at the same time. And I love my new Gateway, too. The only thing he messed up was not being at work the day I bought the machine like he said he would!

Gotta go!

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 5

In Sunday school I learned of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, Ur of Chaldea and Ramoth-Gilead. I imagined the "sacred waters" of the three great rivers, Jordan, Tigris and the Euphrates flowing through Mesopotamia and Judea. As a young child I read the stories and saw the Ray Harryhausen films of Baghdad, Joppa, Phoenicia, Damascus and the great city of Persepolis. My head spun with the tales of Darius, Xerxes, Sinbad, Scheherazade, Aladdin and Gilgamesh. Flying carpets, Genies, one-eyed Cyclops? Are you kidding? When can I go? Shazzan!

I've had to visit each of these lands either through the 24 hour tragedy of CNN or the don't-go-or-you'll-destroy-it beauty of National Geographic. On one hand I can't go because of the political environment on the ground. On the other I shouldn't go because as a clumsy, heavy-footed tourist I'll unwittingly step on some holy pebble in the road and crush it to powder or bend a blade of grass that flowers once every 30 years and permanently alter the eco-system that relies on that particular variety of weed. Whaddya gonna do?

I wanna go!!! Item Number 5 on the Traveling Optimist Bucket List is to see the Middle East, a long-hidden and often forbidden part of the world. I've been to Israel and Egypt and I am free to travel to Jordan whenever it suits me. I wish for the day, however, when traveling to the big three, Iran, Iraq and Syria will be as routine as going to Greece.

How I have long envied citizens of other countries who are not restricted by their governments from traveling to these uniquely historic lands. Canadians can travel to Cuba and flock to the island nation in droves each winter. I can't. The French fly to Syria and Lebanon as a matter of course. Why not me?

How is an American tourist going to overthrow President Assad when all I want is Syrian tea, bakhlava and an afternoon at the bazaars? He's two years younger than me, probably speaks better English and looks like someone who enjoys a mean game of tennis or racquetball.

Thanks to Google Maps I can see an aerial image of Persepolis, to the northeast of Shiraz in central Iran as plain as day but I'm not physically there, on the ground, smelling the air and keeping the sand out of my eyes. From the comfort of my living room I cannot fully imagine great hosts of warriors and exotic merchants coming and going across the eastern desert plains.

Thanks to National Geographic I am able to view gloriously rendered images of mystic lands complete with erudite narrators and award-winning writers to enlighten, entice and tease me with the places they've been but I am as yet not permitted to travel. Reading the yellow bordered magazine in bed with a light snack and a glass of water before lights out does not give me the immediacy of life on the Tigris with bleating goats and giggling street urchins running from frazzled mothers wrapped in burkhas while shopping for the daily meal.

I'm no fool. I know full well that, if nothing else, my personal safety is not an assured thing in this part of the world. I know of the political differences between nations which keep the borders closed as well. It has always been interesting to me, however, that journalists, photographers and film crews from "The Great Satan" can safely travel and report from beneath the veil in the course of their duties where an average tourist armed with little more than a camera, credit card and curiosity cannot. When?

Gotta go.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Hubs in "The Heart of it All"

Sometimes things pop in to the mind that give one pause, a moment to scratch their heads, reflect a little bit and ask…why is that? One such moment kicked in to my head the other day and that is why no airline has ever successfully operated a hub in the great state of Ohio.

Many will immediately jump and point at Cincinnati as being the lone example but truly successful hubs do not close. In my mind they grow, evolve and cement themselves naturally in to the collective traveling conscious. Despite all efforts to make this happen at “CVG” it never seemed to really catch fire.

But let me not digress. Ohio is a stalwart guardian and contributor to the significant history of this country. It is home to several major corporations, the birthplace of seven presidents and a key bellwether state for every presidential campaign. Nearly 12 million people live in the state while tourists flock its cities for everything from the Soap Box Derby in Dayton and the NFL Hall of Fame Ceremonies in Canton to apple festivals and home games for the Indians, Cavaliers, Bengals, Buckeyes, Reds and Browns. So why have they not been able to hold on to a hub?

Over the years various airlines have built and dismantled large operations at Dayton (Piedmont), Columbus (America West), Cleveland (United and Continental) and Cincinnati (Delta). Cleveland once operated nonstop flights to Hawaii while Cincinnati is clinging to the last handful of flights to Europe. In that time America West and Piedmont were folded in to USAirways who then pitched and later folded its tent at Pittsburgh, United put its eggs into Chicago and Cleveland plays third string in Continental’s world to Houston and Newark.

That leaves Cincinnati. At its peak Delta fielded around 300 flights per day at Northern Kentucky International Airport, not counting service by its regional affiliates. These days one is lucky to count 80 “mainline” Delta flights at a field that had built a fourth runway and new midfield concourses to improve overall operations – read: specifically for Delta. It is an inevitable no-brainer for the new Delta to keep Detroit over the Cincinnati hub.

This column is not generally inclined towards industry watching of this kind as there are plenty of other sites that gleefully live and die by the high drama provided by the airlines. It is nonetheless an interesting irony to me that a key transportation center of the country, laced with interstates, waterways and rail systems linking it to every corner of the country has never produced a sustainable hub of significant size. Ohio has the people, the facilities and the location, key ingredients all, to make a hub work. Sadly, unless a brand new start-up comes along with nation building ambitions, it won’t happen for some time to come.

Gotta go.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Optimist's Optimum

The kind of vacation I just returned from makes it difficult to try and encapsulate the entire experience in one article. At the same time if I were to share my experience regarding every facet of the adventure I would probably be posting articles will in to June of next year! Then the idea came to me that would fall somewhere in between those extremes. Publications such as Conde Nast Travel are constantly ranking service providers in a myriad of categories so I thought I would do something similar.

Below please enjoy the listing of service providers I employed to get me to, from and around both New Zealand and Australia while also keeping me in lodgings and fed in most cases. The links are to their individual websites but for the more noteworthy in each category please look for an article to be posted in the near future.

I give you, "The Optimist's Optimum"

Best Airline:
American Airlines
Qantas Airways
Jetstar Airlines

Winner: Emirates
Why: I flew their trans-Tasman service between Auckland and Sydney on the new A380. The flight was on time, the aircraft roomy, the 34" pitch the most generous of all the flights and a full hot meal service that was included in the price of the ticket. Laptop power and a USB port at each seat beat Qantas by nose (shared power) and an entertainment system designed for flights longer than 12 hours - we were in the air for less than three. The Emirates system came with its own directory booklet that featured not only how to use the system but all of the games, music, television and movie programming on offer, including numbered codes for each item to punch in to the satellite phone controller to take you directly to your selection instead of scrolling through the endless listings one at a time. On-demand technology finished off the icing by allowing passengers to choose what and when to stop and start their programming. Oh, and how about the wood trim in the coach!?

Best Airport
Dallas/Ft. Worth
Los Angeles

Winner: Sydney
Why: This one was close between both Australian airports, really. Melbourne almost got the nod simply because the airport featured one terminal for both international and domestic operations, similar to Wellington. Both of those airports, however, are smallish affairs. Between them, Melbourne would get the nod although Wellington offers views and approaches over the water that are challenging to pilots and exciting for plane watchers.

That was the edge that Sydney got over the others in the same class. All featured separate terminals either for airlines or between international and domestic flights but Sydney wins overall. The terminal was easy to navigate, distance between gate and runways fairly short (sorry DFW) and, while DFW is the only one that has a dedicated observation area, the views of Sydney airport across Botany Bay from the beaches along General Holmes Drive are second to none.

Best Car Rental

Winner: Hertz
Why: Very simple really. Hertz allowed me to receive credit for my AAdvantage frequent flyer account, Europcar did not. More heinous than that, however, Hertz allowed me to change the form of payment at the end of my rental, Europcar did not. Both cars were similar, the Toyota Yaris at Hertz and the Hyundai Getz at Europcar, both were clean, ran well, sipped gasoline and the counter staff were helpful and pleasant. Not getting mileage credit or particularly being allowed to alter payment, however, are hard to get over.

Best Restaurant
The Meat and Wine Company

Northerner Motor Inn
Daniang Dumplings
Tony's on Wellesley
Bordeaux Bakery

Okurukuru Winery

Winner: Tony's
Why: The surprising contender was the Northerner Motor Inn in rural Kaitaia, New Zealand. The attached restaurant served enticing food thoughtfully prepared and in a nouvelle style quite unexpected in a city of only 6,000 and heavily dependent on the summer tourist trade which was still a good month away.

Tony's is a favorite because of the old world decor and the generous cuts served in unique styles, from a fiery peppercorn and cream sauce to the "Pacific" which includes crabmeat stuffing and lobster sauce topping succulent fillets. My choice, the "Scotch Fillet" was a bit more rare than the medium/medium-rare I preferred but both meal and service were otherwise par excellence.

Best Hotel
Sydney Travelodge
Wellington Mercure Willis Street
Rendezvous Auckland
Mantra Tullamarine
Northerner Motor Inn

Winner: Rendezvous Auckland
Why: With the exception of the Mantra and the Northerner I booked the other three online through either Expedia or Orbitz. Rendezvous was one of the ones that was paid in advance but the rate was less than $70/night. What a steal! A member of the Clarion/Choice chain of hotels, this was a former 4-star property that still in my mind deserves the rating. Queen bed, marble vanities, separate glass shower, Jacuzzi tub and a location in the heart of the city, barely two blocks from the Sky Tower. This is "the" new address for me in Auckland whenever I return, on par with any Hyatt or Hilton to be found in the United States.

Best Tour
Harrisons Cape Runner
Host Family - Taranaki

Winner: Host Family
Why: Always go with a local if they are willing to take you around. There is no time limit on how long to stay at any one location, no scheduled "rest" breaks at gift shops on the take who also happen to have restrooms. Even better, as in the case of this picture here, sometimes the views and locations are better than any place the scheduled tour can reach. This particular view is enjoyed by wedding parties who wish to use the mountain above the lake as a backdrop for their nuptials. Had I driven around the Taranaki region of New Zealand on my own or as part of a tour I would most likely have not enjoyed anything this spectacular.

Harrisons offered a solid, comprehensive nine-hour tour of Cape Reinga and Ninety-Mile Beach out of Kaitaia in the Northland region of New Zealand, about five hours north of Auckland at the very tip of the island. They offered access to Ninety-Mile Beach I wouldn't have dared with a rented car so kudos to them for that. Like any guided tour, however, they were on a schedule which meant short visiting windows at some of the attractions along with the "rest stop" at the town gift shop and artifacts emporium which means they share the receipts for any sales made between them. If it weren't for Ninety Mile Beach alone I would have never signed on but this is what happens to cars that venture on to the sands and stop in the wrong places.

Best Internet
Gloria Jean's
Rendezvous Auckland
Melbourne Airport

Winner: Gloria Jean's
Why: A large internet cafe featuring more than 60 workstations, some with CD and DVD burn capability is attached to one of this chain's stores in central Sydney. What I liked was being able to establish a user account by paying in as little or as much as I liked, including come-and-go privileges for unused internet time. I did not have to use all my paid time in one sitting and could pay to add as much time as I liked without fear of being timed out and logged off in the middle of critical e-mails or other work. The charge? An astoundingly cheap Australian $5 bought me over 3.5 HOURS on the web!

Melbourne Airport offered $5 but only for 30 minutes, knowing there were only so many options at an airport and especially once past security. Rendezvous offered a similar rate, $5 for 30 minutes but also only up to 10mb of downloadable material. I blew threw the meter several times while trying to watch sports highlights from back home without knowing why I was timing out well short of my limit. Not good.

Best Music Store
Real Groovy
JB Hi-Fi

Winner: JB Hi-Fi
Why: First let me say that I love Real Groovy. It is a very large and funky record store that would fit right in with Rasputin's or Amoeba in Berkeley, California, featuring new and used CDs, DVDs, vinyl LPs, printed and tie-dye tee-shirts and all the usual trappings one might expect in a music store of this kind. What caused me to choose a more conventional chain such as JB Hi-Fi, however, was the fact that they had the music I was looking for but also a very helpful stock clerk who knew her inventory and her music. The ding against Real Groovy this time was the performance stage/runway they added in the back of the sales floor, ostensibly to showcase up and coming local talent as well as bring in potential new customers at the same time. This was a bad thing because a local band cranked up a short set list in full volume just when I was trying to sample a new band at a listening station. Can't do both at the same time and in this case I was pressed for time. Kinda hard to feature new releases at listening stations while a one-off band is playing music others in the store may not care to hear.

Gotta go!