Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Surprising Sydney

Life is short. There is simply not enough time to do all that is desired so second chances are hard to come by. The first time I went to Sydney I was there for literally one day. I had 24 hours to see and do as much as possible in this fun-loving city in the land down under. My "power tour" included the Opera House, a ferry across the harbor to Manly and an amateur rugby game but a lot was left on the table.

In the Fall of last year I found myself once again in the vicinity and decided to schedule a return visit to get better acquainted. My big concern in going back was a recent spike in reports of ethnic intolerance. Was the famously irreverent Australian sense of humor crossing the line and either not knowing it or worse, not caring? I tell people all the time that Paris is singularly beautiful with or without the equally renowned attitude of the Parisians themselves. Sydney? We'll see.

Landing at 8:30 at night the arrivals hall at Sydney's airport was all but dead. I made it through in less than 15 minutes on a full flight which kicked things off on a very positive note. Testy immigrations officials are not to be played with, especially in Israel or Australia, in this era of global terror and bio-hazards. They couldn't have been friendlier. Likewise the counter staff at both the car rental service and my hotel.

My first stop was Hyde Park, a well tended green space with reflecting pools, walkways, indigenous trees, monuments and strange birds. Surrounded by offices, hotels and coffee shops it is an obvious draw for the worker bees to relax over a light lunch during the week.

Darling Harbour took a huge page from Baltimore's Harbor Place in re-imagining derelict waterfront property. An abandoned backwater has been turned in to high-end real estate, museums, an aquarium, boutique shops and a full range of restaurants from mall-food to upscale steak and seafood. Water is given the full treatment for its place in Sydney history through a creative series of fountains.

Other treats in the city included Chinatown, the Chinese Garden Teahouse in Tumbalong Park and the Royal Botanical Garden with its classic views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. I purposely skipped over world famous Bondi Beach and went for Maroubra instead, known to be nearly as large but nowhere near as crowded, favored more by the locals than the jet set and glitterati. A "natural" swimming pool was carved among the rocks on the northern edge with retaining walls and poles that allow swimming in some pretty wild surf without being washed out to sea. On this gray, blustery day at the seaside the bathers were nowhere to be seen but the surfers were out in numbers. Carpe diem, dude!

I like Sydney. It delivers on the reputation of diversion, fun and relaxation with a friendly service culture. I missed out on the Olympic Park but that in itself is not enough to draw me back to the city. The rest of Australia remains to be seen, including Tasmania, Perth and the Great Barrier Reef.

Great white sharks and saltwater crocodiles I can handle. Now if only they can do something about those box jelly fish!

Gotta go.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Cloudy Beauty

We've all been there. The winter overcast that just hangs in the sky, blotting out the sun and hovering barely over the rooftops, sometimes just lying there and sometimes swirling and churning with the promise of some kind of deluge, be it ice, rain, snow or a combination of all three. "The Gray Days" they are sometimes called, adding to the misery and depression of an already ugly day. Oh woe are we bemoan the multitudes, when will it ever end? Is there no beauty left in the world, we ask, as we trundle to work listening to traffic reports and ever more worrisome noise from the stock markets.

What a fantastic day for flying! There are simply very few sensations most people can experience that bring a feeling of escape, a rush of breaking free and a true aura of getting away than breaking through a layer of clouds on "climb-out" from the airport. The rush from racing down the runway, the tickle in the stomach at lift off, the mystery of what lies above and beyond the clouds and, finally, the burst in to pure sunlight, blue sky all around and the endless horizon all add up to an uplifting thrill ride, something out of seemingly nothing in the everyday routine of going from A to B.

I can't remember when it was but seeing my first airplane soaring through the air was a life-changing event for me. Actually flying for the first time nailed the love of flying home and breaking through the clouds has always been the signature moment of the entire experience. It says beyond a shadow of a doubt that there has been a change from the familiarity of being on the ground to the alien, potentially hostile yet stunningly beautiful world of the sky. We are visitors to this place for only a little while, the length of that flight and no more. Enjoy it while you can.

Of course, an monotonous stretch of clouds from beginning to end can be about as thrilling as two weeks of open ocean with no ports of call to break up the routine. There is nothing good about flying over the Alps, knowing that they are right below you but covered in that once thrilling and now obstructive layer of clouds. Stars in the night sky, holiday fireworks or the urban lights of a major city are also fun things to see but that also means that once the big breakthrough has occurred the clouds that said you have slipped the surly bonds of earth will be left behind with each additional foot of altitude and increase in speed.

Taking off from San Francisco and heading out over the Pacific probably offers the best combination of all of these things. On a perpetually foggy morning and flying in something the size of a 747, there is the dramatic take-off over Highway 101, entering the cloud layer above Colma and South City before the breakout to the west of Twin Peaks with the Transamerica Tower, Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge exquisitely framed by parting clouds as the coastline recedes ever smaller in to the distance. Bali high!

None of this really matters, naturally, if you are the kind that prefers an aisle seat.

Gotta go.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Mantra From Heaven

I waited a year before booking passage on the brand new Airbus A380. That was a miracle in itself because I wasn't sure at first, like those who first saw the 747 before me, that I wanted to fly on something that big. Having bought a car or two in my time there is good in waiting until they got most if not all of the kinks out of the thing before committing time and body to riding in one. Still, Qantas offered an irresistible fare and my plans dovetailed nicely with booking their A380 service for the return flight to the United States so I said why not? Sadly for them, on this experience I got more than I bargained for.

After a two hour delay followed by a total of five hours of flying our shiny A380 diverted to Melbourne due to a fuel management problem. We cleared customs as "Never Left" travelers then collected our luggage and were trundled off to various hotels in the area to try again in the morning. First Class passengers were sent across the parking lot to the Hilton. It was the closest and they could walk without having to wait for transportation. Business Class were sent to the Holiday Inn while we denizens of the deep in economy were packed off to a local brand of hostelry known as the Mantra.

In a word, it was heaven. Each and every one of us, minus the inconvenience of a 24 hour delay and enduring a bus driver who didn't know how to get there, felt that we received the best of the three accommodations. Only 10 minutes drive from the airport terminal the hotel is a business property despite being miles from downtown and on the edge of a nearby suburb. Check-in was very efficient despite the lateness of the hour and the sudden uptick in business. From the start I had the distinct impression that the Mantra personnel had been through this kind of thing before and knew exactly what to do to move tired and disoriented people with bed and other places on their minds.

The picture of my hotel room should give you an idea of the quality product offered by the Mantra hotel chain. The Mantra was not bedecked in frills and finery being a suburban business oriented but it didn't matter. The king-sized bed was comfortable, including the largest pillows I'd experienced on this entire trip. The bathroom was huge, all facilities and areas were spotlessly clean and the staff completely unperturbed, friendly and efficient in helping this stranded boatload to settle in and get as comfortable as possible for their inconvenience. By 1AM we were all well fed and in bed after a long day of non-flying which for some of us had started the night before thanks to the red-eye from Perth!

Upon check-in at the hotel we were informed that our flight would "try again" at 1PM the following afternoon which gave us an even greater sense of relief. We had no estimated departure information from Qantas leaving us all to wonder if we would only have a few hours of rest before heading back to the airport at the crack of dawn. A full English breakfast awaited us at the civil hour of 9AM with our better informed bus driver returning us to the Melbourne Airport an hour later.

Hopefully the next time, however, the airline will be on schedule and my lodging on purpose!

Gotta go.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ka'Ora, Ka'Ora, Hi !!

The one bad thing about visiting New Zealand is that the Fall and Winter in the northern hemisphere is the Spring and Summer down under. That means traveling there at that time of the year falls smack in the middle of football season in the United States. Dang it! Oh well, there are some fairly solid compensations in giving up gridiron for a couple of weeks in the South Pacific.

One of them is rugby, as passionately followed in New Zealand as the NFL back home. It is the sport, period, end of discussion. The Kiwis treat soccer pretty much the same as their American cousins do, while cricket is followed passionately but a clear and distant second to rugby, the game that New Zealand arguably perfected and has long ruled dating from "The Originals" of 1905. Today the "All Blacks" (the name comes from the all black uniforms) are to rugby what Manchester United is to soccer, the Yankees are to baseball and the Dallas Cowboys are to football, internationally recognized and unanimously despised and vilified but deservedly respected, if grudgingly, just the same.

Rugby is the father of American football only apparently without all the rules and certainly none of the padding developed for the Yankee version of the game. The debate rages over which sport produces the more rugged and physically powerful player though the easiest way to compare the two is simply in the style of play. Football is like repeatedly watching a train wreck in a marshalling yard that involves every car on every track but rugby is nonstop, full on and without pads, a sprint versus a marathon.

While visiting New Zealand last Fall I watched a regular season game played in Japan between the Australian "Wallabies" and the All Blacks. This rivalry ranks with any in the other sports previously mentioned with the exponentially larger Australian nation playing the very uncomfortable role of being the underdog to the more popular and successful Kiwi "side" (side instead of "team"). Tonight's match, broadcast live around the Pacific, would only continue that history and feeling of inferiority for the Aussies who were pasted 32 to 19.

Before every "test" or game the All Blacks perform the bone-chilling native Maori war dance known as the "Haka." It broadcasts a complex set of values and pride while designed to intimidate the opposition. The Haka has an equally galvanizing affect on the fans of both sides who roar as one delirious voice in appreciation for the spectacle but also for the bloodletting to begin.

I tried to play rugby once as part of an organized league. My size made me a "prop," the equivalent of a linebacker who anchors the scrum and opens holes for the runners. I even scored my first "try" (touchdown) and ran half the field untouched and alone. I still don't know if they were amazed and amused that I could or simply didn't want to tackle a runaway train at full speed.

I have that experience to help me enjoy the game but the fact that I could barely walk the next week encouraged me to cut my losses. Can't see the cheerleaders from the playing field, right?

The Haka is way cool, totally cool, but they definitely don't have these in the Land of the Long White Cloud!

Gotta go!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Where Dat One Goin'?

Wanna turn a grown man in to the most excited little boy in the world? Take him plane watching at the nearest international airport and watch the light shine in his eyes for younger days gone by. I used to ask that question as a young child when my parents discovered my love of airplanes and took me to the airport to watch the world fly by. It still happens today because I regularly head out to some observation area or vantage point just to watch the metal move through the air, bringing people and products together all over the world.

There is nothing to stir the imagination as much as watching planes roaring in to the sky unless, of course, you happen to live near Cape Canaveral. The bigger the plane the greater the thrill and the ultimate icing is seeing a foreign flag shining bright and exotic to break up the monotony of one US airline after another, especially if it is the same airline over and over again.

Some airports are certainly better than others when it comes to having a wide variety of airplanes and airlines to choose from. JFK, London/Heathrow, Frankfurt and Tokyo come time mind while some serious international players like Bangkok and Hong Kong bring a particularly exotic feel to the comings and goings, being heavy with regional brands not necessarily seen elsewhere in the world. Combine the major players from every corner of the globe that you would expect to see at Bangkok and then add in the low-cost carriers such as Air Asia and Jetstar and 'tis a heady stew indeed of smells, sights and sounds.

Getting as close to the action as possible is the trick, of course. A zoom lens is fine for the tight shots from a distance but hearing and feeling the "heavies" pounding overhead truly gives the heart a burst of joy and adrenalin. There's a nice village pub on Spout Lane at the western end of Heathrow that offers a pint, pub grub and a spectacular view directly underneath the aircraft whether they are landing or taking off. In San Francisco at the northern end of 28-R is the parking lot to the United Airlines Maintenance Base. The concussion from international widebodies thundering off of this strip routinely sets off a number of car alarms as they head over the sea to Asia, Hawaii or Europe.

Sadly though, the current economy has curtailed this unique and free way to spend an afternoon. On a recent trip to "Funeral Hill" on the south side of Los Angeles International Airport, where the "Asian Invasion" was the highlight of any day, traffic was noticeably down from the glory days. A typical day at LAX used to see up to 12 nonstops a day to Tokyo alone - today I counted two international departures between 11AM and 12:30PM, once prime viewing time at this major international gateway.

There is still activity out there, of course, and thanks to online travel agencies it is very easy to figure out when the best time of day is for viewing at your local airport. Don't be surprised if you're not alone; rather, be uplifted at wondering which is more the child, the little boy playing in the grass and turning his eyes up to watch the next one go boy or the father who brought him as a bonding opportunity for them both or an excuse to go himself.

Gotta go.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 9

I love the new Gateway desktop computer I bought last Fall. Thanks to the 23" hi-def monitor I bought with it I'm sitting here writing this and watching a movie on the same screen, combining two favorite hobbies in to one joint activity. I've always enjoyed the different worlds, real and imagined, that movies can and do take me to , from beneath the sea to the farthest planet in the farthest galaxy or perhaps to some long forgotten battle in some out of the way corner long past any further value to the rest of the world. I've been suspending my belief system with a bag of buttered popcorn as far back as I can remember, always slack-jawed and spellbound for a good story. One day after a particularly good movie the idea for a sequel came in to my head.

Never mind what the story is about, I was then and am now faced with the dilemma of having an idea with no credential, experience or training in putting it all on paper. I looked at websites, bought books and software, all the while fumbling about as best I could in piecing together my first script. How hard could it be, I asked myself in the beginning, to come up with 120 usable pages of material?

Scripts, I have discovered, are blue prints, maps as it were, in word form. Words paint the picture, create the mood and the setting and give voice to the characters resident in the mind of the writer. It has to be written down for the imagined to be realized, the vision to have substance, the musings to have meaning. Oh, and a good script requires a vessel, someone who can put their thoughts on paper first of all and in a strictly standardized format after that.

"If you're going to write, Forrester, just write," said Sean Connery in the film "Finding Forrester." Truer words were never spoke or imagined as it said to me to not worry about structure or format. Just write. Let the words, thoughts, feelings and ideas fly, it said, at any and all provocation and opportunity, the clean up process via editing can come later. Even more it said not to fret about the lack of background but rather more to fear not making the attempt - experience comes with trying.

Item 9 on the Optimist Bucket List is to realize the dream of a lifetime, for it certainly has been and feels like a lifelong pursuit. I would be thrilled beyond reason to sell my first project. To wake up and put together all of these individual pieces together at this point is truly to have come to a personal calling later than most. I know I wouldn't necessarily have scripted things this way.

Now comes the real work which, firstly, is to decide if it is harder to finish the project or get somebody to actually buy it.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lucille's Wasn't A Guitar

Put California and food together in the same sentence these days and it's hard not to automatically envision sculpted or anemic people counting the grains of wheat germ, eating sprouts with chop sticks or spritzing a carrot stick with a light vinaigrette and chasing it with a no-salt daiquiri. "Real food" usually comes with cut limes and a pineapple garnish, clay-oven baked at the most but never - not even tempura - fried. The Redwoods and Sequoias are preserved not from logging but from the locals seeking a high fiber diet to go with their organic tofu.

But I digress. And I stand astoundingly corrected. In Orange County, California, center of the world for barely breathing haute couture - Laguna Hills Mall is not even a mile away - sits "Lucille's BBQ." Despite today's international reputation for "light," "fusion" and organic foods that barely register with the digestive system the history of California cooking comes straight from the comfort cuisine and survival sustenance. From south of the border come tacos, gorditos and burritos while north of Fresno, 49er country, comes grilled meats over an open fire and washed down with pure spring water moonshine!

Lucille's is of the latter ancestry, originating in the kitchen of one Lucille Buchanan who came up at her grandmother's knee in Greenville, California, learning and perfecting the recipes patrons enjoy at a dozen restaurants around the state. My traveling companion and I found the one in Lake Forest while on our way south to San Diego and few road stops were ever worth the time as much as this place.

Never mind the atmosphere, which was typical for a barbecue restaurant with hard woods, nostalgic touches and oldies music. This place knows the money is in the meat and they do not disappoint. Whenever I try a new barbecue joint I go for the sampler plate, wanting to see how things go across the beef, pork and poultry groups. The combo platter was nearly a steal, plain and simple, with a smooth sauce that simply defied belief or expectation while the meats were fork tender and bone clean.

The one thing shared between this restaurant and other establishments right down to the hole-in-the-wall set-ups is "mopping." I don't know if it is a unique West Coast style but where the argument back east is between dry rub and wet sauces, the sauce is typically ladled, poured, infused, steeped or squirted on to the meat from bottles. Californians literally use a clean mop handle to brush paint the sauce over the meat before serving. The longer they use the mop the more saturated it becomes with sauce and the easier and faster it is to serve up one delectable plate after the other.

At first I thought Lucille's referred to a certain famous blues guitar since I'm from back east where the blues and barbecue go together like nothing else unless you add beer. After this meal I can easily believe and recall the glory days of northern California's gold rush but still wonder at the success of the place in Orange County! It's there and it's real so go and see for yourself if you want solid food in or near sexy Santa Ana.

And if you don't believe me, just have some guac with that heaping helping of ginger root and rosemary infused olive oil.

Gotta go!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Roooad

Americans love to drive. I love to drive. I am an American. When I was traveling the world I was quite happy to enjoy unique local treasures, the things that can't be found at or appreciated from home. Now that I'm home more than ever before the drive to drive has come alive. Give me time away from the rest of the world, a good car purring beneath me and a selection of favorite tunes to add shading to the scenery and it just sets the skin to tingling.

My dad had a station wagon when we kids were still in early elementary school and I used to love to ride in the "Way Back" cargo part of the car. When he traded that for a sedan Mom would bring all the pillows in the house to make a bed in the floor of the back seat for the oldest while one slept across the seats and the smallest of the three road in the rear window! No matter where we lived in the country and no matter how far the distance one of my favorite road trips was literally over the river and through the woods to Grandma's House.

U.S. Highway 58 started the anticipation building the closer we got to Grandma's. It rose and fell with the land as if it were some sort of asphalt roller coaster. My dad used to get a kick out of flying over the hills and down in to the gully to elicit squeals of delight from us kids while Mom held on for dear life and watched out as best she could for any of Virginia's finest lurking about. When we made it to the church - of the hundreds up and down that road - that was the signal to turn everybody perked up in anticipation. Mom was that much closer to home and family, my dad was closer to the end of driving, my sisters were closer to favorite cousins and I was almost on...the rooooad.

"Grandma's Road" started for me as a one and a half lane dirt and loose gravel affair. I marked time on that road over the years slowly watching state and county coffers pay up to pave the road little by little, farther and farther back in to the deepest tobacco country of southern Virginia, inching ever closer to Grandma's House. It is paved all the way through today, wide, smooth and two full lanes but that road for me is truly where the love of driving began. My aunt and my cousin, her son, influenced me heavily even before I was old enough to drive just by watching how they anticipated turns, eased off the gas just at the right time so the car would roll through without needing brakes to take the curve.

No, my cousin never ran 'shine but he was famous up and down the road for being one of the fastest drivers in the area. I wanted to command a car with the same level of confidence that he possessed and I wanted to enjoy that feeling over long stretches of pavement and time. Time and Grandma have passed but to this day I look forward to the next opportunity to "shoot" Grandma's Road, to move with it as it bends and rolls with the land, the car and I rolling as a single being and locked in rhythm with the pavement.

That and a rockin' tune by Jr. Walker & the All Stars to bring it all back to the day! Shoot Grandma's Road and "Shoot Your Shot!"

Gotta go!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Her Royal Rock Goddess

Music concerts have never played that large a part in my entertainment life but the ones I have enjoyed have been nothing short of once-in-a-lifetime events, including two spoken-word opportunities to hear Bill Cosby at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and Miss Maya Angelou at the Myerson Symphony Hall in Dallas, Texas. Well, "hear" Bill Cosby might be a misnomer as my younger sister and I spent most of the evening doubled-over and crying tears of laughter during the famous "Dentist" routine.

A friend of mine took me to see Stevie Wonder "In the Round" at the old Reunion Arena in Dallas for my birthday one year while the highlight year for me was 1997 when I saw five different acts, including Bruce Springsteen at the Oakland Coliseum, the Prince "Emancipation" and Fleetwood Mac "Dance" tours within days of each other at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California and the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson's "HIStory" tour at Wembley Stadium in London, England.

It was particularly hard to choose which of these was the best of the best since each offered a different style of music, evoked different personal memories and feelings and presented different levels and values of production. They all fell short, however, of the original Rock Goddess, Miss, Lady, Her Histrionic Highness, Dame Tina Turner. Where music is a highly personal choice and some do not prefer her body of work there has always been the consensus that her story of survival is at least among the most compelling and miraculous of them all.

I missed the "Private Dancer" and "Break Every Rule" tours and wasn't old enough to see the decidedly adult shows that she fronted during the "Ike and Tina Turner Review" days in the late 60s and early 70s. My first audience with Her Musical Majesty was the "What's Love" Tour, an Americanized version of the "Foreign Affair" production that had taken all of Europe by storm. I was on the lawn in general seating at the Shoreline Amphitheater but felt as if I was the only one in attendance, certainly not the last time I would feel that way in her presence. I sat in the outer section of reserved seats at the same venue for her next visit and arguably high-water mark, the "Wildest Dreams" Tour at the tender age of 57. Fifty-seven? To this day an aunt of mine laments that she and Ms. Turner share the same age but by no means the same genes!

The Year 2000 found me in London, England on business for my employer at the time. I had contacted a cousin who had never been to England to join me for a few days over the weekend because I had a big surprise planned for her. My colleagues in London had presented me with tickets to Tina Turner's "24/7, One Last Time" Tour on the very day of my birthday. I told my cousin my plans were only to take her through Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath for our one day out in the countryside.

The performance was the first music event at the brand new Millenium Dome in Cardiff, Wales and the shocked look on my cousin's face remains a treasured moment to this day. And Her Rockness did not disappoint.

The seats were the closest I'd yet come to the stage, I discovered a new band from Australia, "Taxiride" who did a solid job as the first of three acts on the bill, to be followed by John Fogerty himself, author of Tina's signature song, "Proud Mary." We were breathless when she invited him onstage for the opening "nice and easy" part of the classic song and out of breath indeed when it was all over.

Of course I saw the "50th Anniversary" Tour, her last, in 2008; as if! And for me, finally, after all these years of respect and admiration, I got as close to my wish as anybody in a 20,000 seat venue (The United Center at Chicago) could hope for. I met her.

Sort of. Saying her good-byes to the audience at the end of the evening, she walked over to my side of the arena and, pointing to me, Anna Mae Bullock, "Miss Tina Turner" blew me a kiss, waved and was gone.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Farewell, Fare Lady

“If I build it will you buy it?”
“If I buy it will you build it?”

That famous phone call between Pan Am and Boeing begat one of the most revolutionary airplanes of the past 50 years, the 747. While it has become harder and harder to find in the Americas the 747 remains the flagship of more than a few international airlines in Europe and Asia. With new technologies on the horizon and the harshest economic realities of nearly a century, however, the writing is on the wall for this aviation stalwart.

The first time I ever flew on one was in the mid-70s when I was about 11 years old. It was also the first time I would be flying by myself, off to visit a friend in Texas. I couldn’t contain my excitement about being “grown” and not having to sit near Mom to make sure that I behaved. I was also on Cloud Nine about flying the biggest passenger airplane in the world, even if the entire flight would last no more than an hour and a half on Delta Air Lines between Atlanta and Dallas.

Since that initial experience I’ve enjoyed this miraculous machine with Pan Am, Lufthansa, Air France, Malaysia, All Nippon, Northwest, Qantas, Air New Zealand and United Airlines. They have collectively operated the -100, -200, -300 and -400 versions and powered them with Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Rolls Royce engines. Not once in nearly 40 years was a 747 flight I had booked interrupted, cancelled or had to have equipment substituted because of a breakdown.

It’s been a pleasure to experience First Class, Business Class and Economy Class, both upstairs and down. First Class was particularly special in the very first row where the angled windows offered a sense of looking straight ahead - that plus the feeling of arriving at the destination ahead of the pilots, even if only by a micro-second or two. The last row of coach had its treats as well in being far enough behind the engines to see the contrails whipping along and providing a true sense of speed in flight. My favorite seat was just behind the 2nd boarding door so I could see, hear and feel the engines roar and watch the massive, deeply swept wing bend and flex as it lifted us into the sky.

The shortest flight was a one hour hop on Pan Am from Washington/Dulles to JFK while the longest was 15 hours from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on United when both the airplane and the airline were on top of the world. The stand-up bars, piano lounges and Sky Dining restaurants were all long gone by the time I started traveling as an adult but I certainly welcomed the First Class Suites that brought contemporary touches to the Pullman sleepers of old.

No in-flight child birth or mile-high club experiences to report either; my adventures on this grande dame involved little more than a weather diversion to Brisbane once when Sydney was closed for thunderstorms. Still, time and economics are the two cruelest task masters. For the 747 it is undeniably near that time. Commercial airplanes are not weekends-in-the-garage hobby toys to tinker with after their economic usefulness is over no matter how beloved “the ol’ girl” may be; the desert, the chop and the A380 are all waiting. The memories and the adventures, however, will surely live on.

From Tahiti to Japan, Mainland China, India, Australia, Great Britain, Hawaii, Thailand, Hong Kong (both airports), Okinawa, Germany, Malaysia, New Zealand and all over America, thanks for the safe and solid good times.

Gotta go.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Dutch Fish Bowl

Pennsylvania has some wonderful rolling country-side to enjoy, particularly off the main highways. It's not hard to step back in time to Benjamin Franklin or even before that with little effort outside of the main cities.

Last May I had the opportunity to enjoy a driving tour from Philadelphia over to York where the eldest daughter of a friend from high school was getting married. Yes, it's that time of the season when the kids of the kids I went to school with are starting out on their own.

What better way to mark the passage of time than rolling through the southern Pennsylvania wilderness, a journey back in time in and of itself? On this day the road to York rolled right through the heart of Lancaster County, Amish Country.

A favorite film of mine, "Witness" captured the invasive and abhorrent commercialism yapping at the heels of this genteel society like some rabid dog nipping for scraps from the table. While I didn't see local hoodlums roughing up the farmer folk or some overbearing tourist from the Midwest in horned rim glasses shoving a camera in anyone's face I did see all along the main road through Amish Country what amounted to the kind of trashy gift emporiums and souvenir shops one would expect on the road leading to Disneyworld.

What seemed more astounding while driving this choked tourist-trap of a road was seeing a blue-shirted man driving his horse and buggy blithely in the opposite direction while chattering away on his cell phone! Had the plain people finally caved to the most sinful of all conveniences? It was later explained to me that the blue-shirted man might have been a Mennonite instead of an Amish. Such subtleties were lost on me, I must admit, as I was as much an "English" tourist as anyone else on that road. I couldn't get out of the area fast enough and had the excuse of my friend's wedding for motivation.

The exposure to this small slice of Amish Country around Lancaster led me to conclude that the true Amish experience lay deeper in to the hills and farms of the area, way off the beaten path. That same thought told me that I would never venture those bucolic byways in search of the authentic Amish any more than I would knock on the gates of Buckingham Palace and ask to use the facilities. They have farms to run and families to raise. I couldn't see myself driving over hill and dale trying to find the most authentic and picturesque Amish farm as if hunting for the perfect fish to go in my aquarium back home. Apple butter notwithstanding, they certainly don't need me at the door, either, gawking and asking why they haven't at least switched to zippers from hooks and eyes.

I finally made it to York where the wedding was right out of the 20th century. The nuptials were held in a turn of the century theater with the theme being favorite films from Hollywood.

My table was Jurassic Park.

Gotta go.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Seafood, San Diego Style

I must admit to being somewhat spoiled when it comes to eating out. As a military brat I grew up in the heart of Europe and became accustomed at an early age to what authentic foods should taste like, from hearty German fare to Italian and even plain but discerning fish and chips. As adult I've lived in several regions of the United States which has only served to heighten that level of expectation to the point of simply not eating some foods unless I happen to be in the part of the country where the dish first came from. Lobster in Boston, Cuban in Florida, Tex-Mex in Texas and deep dish pizza in Chicago come readily to mind. I'm just happy barbecue is pretty much unique all across the country!

Obviously the good thing about this strategy is being reasonably guaranteed that an authentic dish won't be "regionalized" according to local preferences for more or less spice or whatever. The downside, though, can sometimes have those reasonable expectations disappointed just as easily for whatever reason, too much hype or just a bad day in the kitchen.

My boss and I had recently wrapped up a very successful trip together to California, doing meet-and-greets at several office locations around Southern California. While casting around for a place to dine that evening it was decided that Anthony's Fish Grotto would be a nice, per diem friendly place to mark all of our hard work. Well situated on the waterfront overlooking Coronado with central downtown just behind, Anthony's is one of the more popular restaurants in San Diego, having drawn a faithful following for over 60 years.

Boss-Lady and I felt that these people must know good seafood and what better city than to experience it than San Diego where a nice mix of traditional mixed with Baja offerings might be in the cards. Boss-Lady also happens to be of fisherman stock in Florida so she is finely attuned to what acceptable seafood is and is not. Both of us were in a forgiving week regarding our seating as the prior week had been taxing in itself. At the height of the dinner rush and with no reservations we took the offered side table along the main corridor instead of waiting an hour for a table by the window.

While we accepted lower-tier seating we were not impressed with the rushed service from our waitress. No time to smile it was the kind of service that stopped long enough to take drink orders on the way to doing something else. The drinks were brought along with more hurry-it-up attitude as we placed our dinner orders from the lengthy but surprisingly uninspired menu.

We would have done better with fish tacos from Wahoo's, a local fast food chain famous for these Baja treats from right near the border. The cod was unremarkable, the calamari appetizer ordinary and the king crab cold and tough. At least the drawn butter was hot and golden.

San Diego is a delightful city and we both allowed that tonight must simply have been an off night. Neither of us live there, however, so a repeat visit to San Diego might be in the cards but turning up at one of Anthony's competitors seems a guarantee.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Southampton, Simply

There are a ton of day trip options outside of Greater London that the packaged tour crowd rarely have an opportunity or interest in seeing. Dover, Canterbury, Bath and Stonehenge are most likely the big four that attract day trippers from the English capital with a few stragglers maybe showing up at Leeds Castle or down to Salisbury Plain to see the great cathedral there. Each of these attractions has a tourism infrastructure to support what business comes their way.

One city, Southampton, does not enjoy much business unless you're catching a cruise ship heading somewhere else. I decided that since I'll probably never dive to the wreck of the Titanic then I can at least go to Southampton to view some of the touch points, markers and memorials erected in the city to honor this great vessel and tragedy.

The "M3" Motorway southwest of London speeds you straight to the city on the southern coast of the country in hardly an hour's drive. At the time of the tragedy few residential streets in Southampton were spared the loss of life as fully a third of those lost came from this working class city by the sea, in most cases the sole breadwinner for the household which, often at crew wages, wasn't much to begin with. Those homes are still there today along with a few pubs frequented by both workers and passengers alike.

The grandest building, the South Western Hotel, also still stands though it has since been converted to private condominiums and flats. First Class passengers arriving from London on "the Boat Train" stayed here the night before the sailing. They could look out their windows to view the Titanic lying at anchor and finishing up final provisioning.

Holyrood, the Sailors Church, was bombed during the Second World War and preserved in that state; it contains a small memorial to the Titanic's Stewards while elsewhere is a small plaque honoring the 1st Class Band who's musicians famously played on during the sinking on April 14th. The hulking Engineer's Memorial in East Park seems barely noticed by passersby today where 100,000 attended the unveiling barely eight days after the tragedy. Beyond a doubt for me, however, the most telling marker wasn't even a memorial, plaque, tower or monument at all. It was the mooring bollards along Ocean Dock #44 that marked location of the ship prior to its one and only sailing.

The RMS Titanic berthed here and not even a wind's whisper on this calm day to tell the tale. #44 is a commercial use pier, as lacking in beauty and sentiment as any other seaport dock would be. No one travels from London to see a single, ugly, empty pier; there's nothing to see! Sometimes history cannot be seen but can surely be felt as I gazed at the stretch of concrete and up to the blue sky, smelling the smells and tasting the sea air around me. This being England there still remained traces of coal in the air as it would have been for the coal-burning Titanic and other vessels of the period.

No gift shops, no guided tours, no city ambassadors or others engaged in an effort to preserve the history and legacy of the city and the shipping of Southampton. For that I felt saddened. I saw one other thing on the way back to London, however, that gave me a shot of inspiration:
The Mayflower Memorial.

Gotta go.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Black and Gold

Exactly how does one end up choosing a preferred car rental company? It's not as straightforward, say, as choosing a favorite airline for most of us. The airlines concentrate at large cities and hubs but get spotty in smaller markets which contribute to the selection process. Cars, however, are represented in equal measure at just about any airport with a runway longer than 5,000 feet so how, again, does one decide which will be the chosen instrument of road transportation. In my case Hertz was the chosen provider of a former employer of mine and I've largely been with them ever since.

Corporate travel budgets have shrunk and I never traveled that much for work even during the glory days but that has done little to alter my preference of Hertz for personal use. While traveling recently in the South Pacific Hertz came through for me in a way the other car provider I employed did not. Price is still the final determinant when arranging travel and Hertz was not able to match Europcar on the Australian leg of my journey but I'll get to that in a moment.

Hertz was the vendor of choice for the heavy driving I planned through the North Island of New Zealand. At the downtown Wellington Hertz office I was presented with an orange Toyota "Yaris." Orange? I razzed the counter girl good-naturedly for giving me a large pumpkin of a car and only 1600CC to run around in but the car was otherwise faultless. Neither was it Europcar's fault that I hardly used the little silver "Getz" by Hyundai that awaited me outside of immigrations at Sydney's airport. Damp and rainy weather curtailed most of my driving plans which was fine because Central Sydney is perfectly suited for walking and public transport. No, the trouble I had with Europcar, affiliated with Alamo was upon returning the car.

Most rental companies only validate or take out a small hold against your credit card at the time of pick-up but Europcar charged the entire rental right from the beginning! I wasn't aware of this when I landed which is my fault for not fully understanding how the charges were to be handled but it is a complete lack of sophistication on their part not to be able to alter the form of payment on the last day of the return. I appealed to Alamo when I got back to the U.S. who deferred to Europcar, basically sending me back to the scene of the crime.

Why all the fuss? Not knowing how much of a hold I expected them to take I used my credit card to preserve my liquid cash, planning to pay in full with my debit card when it was all over. They didn't whereas Hertz did. The last straw for me with Europcar was that they did not even honor my AAdvantage frequent flyer program for mileage credit on the rental.

Hertz did, and helped me over the hump to the next elite status level in the process. The Black and Gold!

Gotta go.