Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gone for the holidays

What does a travel editor do on vacation? Travel!

Here's the view from my room on this snowy night. Guess where I am?

Looking for tips on traveling this holiday season? See our Holiday Travel Survivial Kit at

Have a great holiday!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Home again, home again

At 6:30 this morning I left home. By 9 p.m. I was back. Thank goodness I didn't route through any of the places that got buried today in snow.

Was it worth it? I think so, and I guess the other half-dozen mileage runners I saw on my return might agree.

Tell us what you think by voting in the poll at right.

Already, I'm trying to figure out my likely flights for next year. Best guess is that I'll run short again. Next time, though, I'll look for a longer haul. Sure could use the miles.


To see my original story from The Miami Herald, click here.

Heading east

LA was sunny and slightly cool. The sunny I could see. The slightly cool came from that brief moment on the jetway when I whiffed feel real air.

Now I’m back in the confines of my beloved flying tin can. And yes, I’m in the back of the bus.

When you fly back here all the time, or your upgrade comes at the end of your itinerary, you don’t really notice how cramped economy can be.

Having just come from biz class, believe me, I can tell a difference.

The guy in front of me has reclined onto my laptop, which now has ketchup on it after my dinner with The King – the only grab-and-go food near my gate at LAX. I did get lucky and land a seat with a power plug, but typing in these close quarters seems likely to land me a bout of tendonitis before I get back to Miami. A baby is crying nearby. My seat-back TV doesn’t work.

Good thing I brought Aleve.

On the plus side: My plane is on time, and there are a few familiar faces aboard … familiar from my flight out to LA this morning. Other mileage runners.

They’re obviously already Platinum, because they’re all sitting up in Business. Next year, I will be too.


PHOTOS: Business vs. economy: You know which is which.

Another mileage fiend

I’m not the only mileage-running fiend doing the Miami- LA dash today. Also on my flight: Evie Hirschhorn, who works in the law firm of her husband, Miami lawyer Joel Hirschhorn.

She’s flying to ensure she’ll be Platinum again next year. Since her children moved from New York to Miami, she’s flying less, she finds.

“I’ve been Platinum for several years, but I’m about 7000 miles short,’’ she said. This one, plus another holiday trip already planned, will put her over the 50,000 mile mark.

Husband Joel is also short of his Executive Platinum requirement, so he’ll be making a six-leg mileage run late in the month.

The draw: Free upgrades.

“I travel an awful lot, and the comfort is very important when you’re on a plane a lot of time. ‘’

She, too, got an upgrade for the first flight. “It’s been very relaxing. No one can call me, and I’ve slept and read a book.’’

Yup! I made it!

Yes, I made it to LAX...and soon will be heading back to Miami on exactly the same plane!

Getting an upgrade looks dubious. There are already 10 people on the upgrade request list ahead of me, so I'm not all that hopeful. But we'll see.

Here, at least, the Wi-Fi works. My posts from the first flight appear below. Photos to come soon!

Using those FF miles

One of my closest colleagues, who also works in Travel, allowed the other day that she’s never used her frequent flier miles.


Well, she and her husband can’t plan far enough in advance. And you can’t get the seats during prime time, anyway, she explained.

That’s the rap, sure enough, but it doesn’t have to be true. In the past decade, I’ve used miles to go to Africa (thrice), Bali, Bangkok and Europe – even in Prime Time seasons like mid-summer and at Christmas.

The Husband and I have a method, and along the way we’ve picked up a few extra tips.

1 – Plan as early as you can. Each airline allows a different window for advance award bookings; at American, where I’m a member, you can book free tickets up to 330 days in advance of travel.

2 – Can’t book early? Give it a shot anyway. Some people snag award tickets, then cancel them…and the seats come open. Or bookings aren’t as strong as the airline had hoped, and they release extra seats. (This is more likely to happen when it’s low season in your destination.)

A couple of cases in point: This fall, I sent The Husband to Ireland on a free ticket that we booked just 60 days in advance. Another year, we snagged two free tickets to Calgary, Canada, by traveling on Christmas day.

3 – Use your miles for the most expensive flights.

If you fly only on the least-expensive economy tickets, you’re probably paying less than 10 cents for every mile you earn. If you use your miles for a ticket you can buy for the same price – say, my Miami-to-LA ticket today for $302 – you’re just getting an even trade. But if you use them for a ticket to Asia or Africa that costs thousands of dollars, you’re getting a deal.

Steve Becker, a government chemist in Washington, D.C., doesn’t travel at all for work. But each year he makes “mileage runs,’’ searching out cheap flights that will rack up lots of miles. His average price per mile earned was 1 cent last year, and 1.61 cents this year. This fall, he used miles to snag a business class ticket that enabled him to visit multiple cities in Asia and Australia for 150,000 miles – or a cost of around $1,500, given the price he’d paid to fly his mileage runs. If he’d purchased his Asia/Australia ticket, he would have paid more than $10,000. Now that’s a bargain.

4 – Don’t book award tickets online. Yes, you’ll pay an additional $15 fee for using a phone agent. But a good airline agent can find you routings that will never show up if you’re booking online.

5 – Call back often. This can be a pain – but worth it.

In July, we’re going with a group of friends on a Baltic cruise. All are from Miami, so the competition for the free seats is tough. And because cruises begin and end on set dates, we’re facing competition from the thousands of other Americans sailing on our ship.

About two weeks ago The Husband called. We were able to secure two free tickets to Copenhagen a day earlier than we really wanted to go, but we couldn’t find a return flight. So we asked the agent to hold the outgoing seats for the period allowed – in this case, two weeks – while we hunted for return seats. Sure enough, a few days later, another agent found us a way back.

Becker told me that to get his free Asia/Australia ticket, he called back almost every day for six weeks. The last four weeks, he spent two hours every night on the phone with his airline’s award desk.

OK, that’s pretty extreme (though Becker’s was an extremely complex itinerary.) People with less time and patience can get a travel agent to do the work for them … for a fee. At TraveLeaders in Coral Gables, for instance, clients are often happy to pay $150 to get their office to handle the hassles of snagging a frequent flier ticket, I was told recently by Nina Meyer, the firm’s leisure travel manager.

6 – Find an experienced airline agent to help you.

How? One method is to call back until you get someone on the phone who really likes doing this. It doesn’t take but a minute of chat to figure out that the agent you’re talking with thinks finding you a free seat is a big snore. We end the call by saying, “thank you very much for your help,’’ hang up and call right back (you nearly always get a different agent.) By the second or third call, we’ve got a winner.

Other tips: When The Husband snagged the Europe ticket, he was told that the best time to call is on a weekday morning. More experienced agents get first choice of work shifts, he was told, and those agents are more likely to find you that free routing.

Becker, an American Airlines flier, says he’s been told to call in early afternoons, when the company’s Tucson office opens. That office, he says, is supposed to be the best at finding free seats.

7 – Be flexible. We’ve often paid for a hotel room to make a free ticket routing work. For instance, our last trip to Bali was possible with miles only if we stayed overnight in Tokyo. A hotel room near the airport cost us $100 – far, far less than two tickets to Bali at Christmas time.

8 – Be prepared. Becker checks out every conceivable routing through all of his airline’s partners and puts them on a spreadsheet. When he calls the award agent, he suggests various options instead of expecting the agent to know them all.

For his Asia trip, for instance, he decided he wanted to fly on American’s partner British. But British doesn’t fly west toward Asia from the U.S., and ticket rules wouldn’t let him fly first to Europe, then to Asia. So he routed first to Toronto, which offers a BA flight to Asia.

The Husband and I aren’t quite that organized, but we do try to figure out basic possibilities for partner airlines and routings before we call the awards desk.

Still, we never came up with the routing we finally got: Copenhagen to London, then to Nassau – and then to Miami. For that, we needed an agent.

Never go out in dirty underwear

Your mother told you: Always put on clean underwear; what if you’re in an accident and have to go to the hospital? (Moms never did focus much on the fact that if you ended up at the Emergency Room, the cleanliness of your undergarments was going to be the least of your worries.)

The corollary to this dictim -- never dash out in a grubby T-shirt, because you’re sure to run into someone you know (and they invariably are dressed better!) – is undeniably true.

Now, with a 10-hour-plus day of flying on my agenda, a business suit was out of the question. (And hey, my T-shirt is clean!)

But of course, I did see Miamians I knew. Lawyer Bob Parks and wife Lyn are heading to Vegas via L.A. (“we couldn’t get seats on the direct flight,’’ Bob said.) And art collector Rosa de la Cruz, barely finished hosting 2,000 Art Basel Miami Beach visitors who visited her collection at home, was dashing out to Los Angeles to work with an installation by a favorite artist at LA MOCA, the museum of contemporary art. She’s returning on my flight … but a day later.

Upgrade: Yes!

I’m a back-of-the-bus flier. When I’m traveling on business, the Herald pays for discounted Economy Class tickets. When I’m traveling personally, I pay for discounted Economy Class tickets. And while many of my friends use frequent flier miles to upgrade to Business Class, I use my miles to visit far-away places like Africa and Asia.

The only time I get to ride in the front is when I get a free upgrade. And the chances of that go way up if you’re an elite-class frequent flier…which helps explain today’s trip.

This past year I qualified for Gold, American’s lowest level of elite reached after flying 25,000 miles in a single year. The good news is that I earn free upgrade credits (and I can buy more at a right price) that can be used to upgrade one class of service within the U.S. The bad news is that I hardly ever get to snag a space; the Platinums and Executive Platinum fliers get them first.

Today my requested upgrade hadn’t come through before I got to the airport, and because I was arrived at the gate only 30 minutes before take-off, I figured I was out of luck. But the LA flight rates a wide-body Boeing 707, and just minutes before take-off, hooray! I snagged a biz class seat.

The big plus to biz class is space; your chin doesn’t even come close to your knees. Another bonus is a guaranteed power outlet at your seat (important for a working person like me; I’ll spend the entire 10 hours writing.)

The quality of business and first-class service varies with the plane itself; if you’re on a smaller plane, you end up with a slightly bigger seat than economy, free cocktails (irrelevant if you’re working) and not much more. But on wide bodies, you also get an individual video screen and program (standard in economy on some airlines, but not American), a leg rest, duvet and pillow (often rare in economy), hot towels for cleaning your hands, and coffee served in an actual ceramic mug.

And did I mention food? In business and first class, airlines actually serve hot food, accompanied by real stainless flatware.

This morning’s menu options include a choice of cheese omelet “accompanied by a red pepper hash and roasted peach half” or cereal and fruit with yogurt “served with a banana and fresh seasonal berries.’’ If one is so-inclined, one can wash it down with a Domaine Ste-Michelle Columbia Valley sparkling wine, a Wente San Francisco Bay chardonnay or St. Francis Sonoma County merlot.

Fearing I’d be stuck in economy, I’d already wolfed down Cuban toast and café con leche from an airport Versailles outlet. In the back of the plane, you can buy a few cholesterol-infused snacks to stave off starvation, but believe me, you’ve got to be ravenous before you can bring yourself to eat them.

Go early to airport, or you could be MIA

Don’t laugh, but I got lost on the way to the airport this morning.

Never mind that I was there yesterday to pick up a visiting sister, or that this year I’ll fly a total of 80,000 miles on various airlines – with most of my flights originating at Miami International Airport.

The problem: The airport access coming south from Lejeune Road has changed in the past few weeks, and I missed the cut-off. (I came from a different direction on yesterday’s airport run, so I didn’t see the change.)

To make matters worse, the police have set up a checkpoint near the airport’s entrance. While this might be good for security, it’s lousy for traffic, creating a pinch point and causing slowdowns.

And if that’s not enough, there are the monstrous security lines.

The average TSA security wait at MIA is 25 minutes, the local TSA spokesperson told me a few weeks ago. I beat that record by 5 minutes this morning, but it took dodging my entrance gate – at Concourse E – and running back to Concourse, D, where the queue was about 2/3 shorter than the boa wrap at D. What with running back and forth, the security gauntlet took more than 30 minutes (though I did get my daily dose of exercise!)

Moral of this story: Get to the airport early early early!

We’ve got more tips online in our Holiday Travel Survival Guide at

Jane's on the plane

The good news: Jane is on the plane to L.A., and she got upgraded to Business Class.

The bad news: The wi-fi at MIA is MIA -- so she asked us to post for her. She'll start posting again when she reaches Los Angeles.

Her tip: Get to the airport EARLY. The longs are long and the traffic is terrible.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Getting the most miles

Tomorrow, Thursday, I'll be making a "mileage run'' -- a trip just to snare the miles that will push me into the next level of elite status.

I'm already Gold on American -- which means I've flown 25,000 miles already this year. And being Gold comes with my favorite reward: Instead of standing in the Economy Class lines for check-in, I get to stand in the Business Class line.

Now, you might think that's not so important in an age of electronic check-in, but I travel a lot internationally, which generally involves checking luggage. And I have to show my passport to an agent even if I check in online. So not standing in the hours-long economy line really matters.

So why bother with Platinum? Well, last year I let myself slide 5,000 miles short -- and I was sorry.

On American, being Platinum means you're much more likely to get upgraded.(Those electronic upgrades you earn by flying aren't worth anything if the Platium and Executive Platinum fliers have snagged all the Business seats.) And, you get double miles ... a worthy bonus if you use your miles for snagging free long-haul flights, like I do.

Of course, actually using your miles to get free tickets can take some perserverance. I'll share tips about that in this blog tomorrow. I'll have plenty of time to write....10 hours and 25 minutes in the air, fying from Miami to Los Angeles and back.


PHOTO: Who wouldn't want to go Business? New business class seats on the Airbus 380; photo by Getty Images.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Do you travel just for the miles?

In December, frequent fliers take a look at their mileage statements and, finding them a bit shy of elite status, sometimes make mad dashes just to rack up the miles.

Do you do this, or does someone you know do it? If so, I'd love to speak to you for a story! Please e-mail me at

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Traveling to Art Basel

This week, my travels will be geographically close at hand ... but intellectually all over the place ... as I dash from art fair to gallery to party to exhibition at Art Basel Miami Beach.

Officially speaking, Art Basel Miami Beach is a single fair showcasing modern and contemporary art from 200 galleries worldwide. It takes place Thursday - Sunday at the Miami Beach Convention Center. From Picassos to Dubuffets, everything here is for sale, though for those of us who are financial mortals, the joy generally is in the viewing and dreaming.

Art Basel Miami Beach is an offshoot of the prestigeous Art Basel fair held annually in June in the medieval city of Basel, Switzerland. (That's Basel, as in Basil Rathbone, not BA-sel, as in the herb.) Because the town is small, and because the lifestyle in Europe is more reserved than that in Miami, the Swiss fair is more contained.

In Miami's physical and mental sprawl, Art Basel spreads out, stretching from Miami Beach to the Design District. So, too, does its influence. This year's Art Basel season comes with 24 side fairs, nearly all unrelated to -- but spurred by -- events at the convention center.

You can learn more them, the main fair and daily happenings at the Miami Herald's Art Basel website.

Come along; everyone is welcome. Word of advice: Wear comfy shoes. When it comes to feet, this week is a killer.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Miami Airport: How bad is it?

A letter in today's Readers Forum on the Op-Ed page says it all.

Mortin I. Teicher of Miami writes:

    Why does Miami have to put up with a Third World airport? Miami International Airport is a disgrace. Unlike most decent airports, MIA has few moving walkways to help cover the long distances between arrival gates and baggage claim or between check-in counters and departure gates.

    The few golf-cart-type vehicles in some concourses speed around without passengers and are of no help. Wheelchairs are rarely available. Waiting for luggage after arrival is a disaster. And there is no one to provide information about delays. Finally, the taxi lines are scandalous. Police and dispatchers contradict each other, shouting at cab drivers and giving passengers different information, ignoring any sense of orderly procedure.

    When are we going to get a decent airport?

As just about anyone who regularly uses MIA will tell you, the place is a pit.

I say this with apologies to the many hard-working employees there. (The new manager at the Starbucks on Concourse D is a marvel: Cheerful and efficient!)

But let's face it: the laundry list of nightmares stretches to New York. Travelers worldwide complain about it; I've heard earfuls about our airport in Europe, Asia and South America.

Among my own less-than-cheery experiences in the past year or two:

  • Luggage handling. Last Saturday we waited more than an hour for our bags (after the caroussel designation had been switched thrice.) Not sure whether this was MIA's fault or American Airlines, but the result was the same.

    (While we're on that subject, can someone explain why the caroussel designated is almost invariably the one furtherest from the gate at which you arrived?)

  • Non-moving moving sidewalks. This is not to be confused with non-moving escalators, also a problem.

  • Food choices. You know things are meagre when the opening of the Au Bon Pain in Concourse A was cause for celebration.

  • Cranky workers. I've been snarked at by workers in two languages who pretend not to speak either when it turns out that I can manage both. (Kudos to the tourism promotion folks, who have started a friendliness and service campaign for all workers who relate to tourists.)

To be fair, things are getting (slightly) better, and hopefully will improve with the full operation of the new terminal. And there is one thing I really like about MIA: All the places its flights can take me.

Got a MIA beef? A practical suggestion? Praise? Click to Comment below.

What's new at sea? Glass-blowing

You can bowl, star-gaze, golf and surf and go ice-skating on cruise ships. And when the 2,850-passenger ship Celebrity Solstice is launched a year from now, you'll also be able to watch glass-blowing demonstrations.

The demos will be provided by resident gaffers from the Corning Museum of Glass, who will offer demos, lectures and workshops in their decktop studio. And yes, it will be outdoor.


Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cheap seats to London

Deal of the day: $245 each way buys a roundtrip ticket this winter from Miami to London if you book by Dec. 3 on Virgin Atlantic. Travel is cheapest Monday-Wednesdays. But beware of the whopper taxes and surcharges: On the ticket we tested, that came to more than $300!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sick and far from home

I'm sure there are worse things than being sick when you're traveling, but at the moment, illness is the trauma that's got my attention.

I'm not talking anything major, thank goodness. Just good old fashioned food poisoning.

This bout came in New York. The Husband and I shared lunch at one of the many soup-and-sandwich spots dotting Manhattan. Six hours later, I was running out of a friendly little dinner party clutching my stomach.

You'd think I'd get sick in off-the-track places like Cameroon or Papua New Guinea. No, mostly it's mostly normal places, like New York. Or Las Vegas (another case of food poisoning.)

And mostly, I get sick when I'm traveling alone. In Vegas, for instance, I was A) alone and B) naked, thanks to lost luggage, no hotel bathrobes and tiny bathroom towels.

I'm lucky, because I mostly get either food poisoning or dehydration. Other people get heart attacks and stroke -- the most common serious problem for Americans traveling abroad, according to a medical presentation I saw at a conference last year. Seems that office- and sofa-bound Americans tend to get overly ambitious about their physical abilities on vacation.

Still, being sick on the road alone has taught me a few survival skills. Such as:

  • Drink plenty of bottled water, and carry powdered rehydration salts. (Being dehydrated in a country where you don't speak the language, like China, can be an interesting challenge.)

  • Think you're going to need a doctor? Ask for him or her before dark, when the price goes up. (Plus, the idea of heading off to clinic in Vietnam after dark is more than even I can manage.)

  • Find a friend, and ask him/her to stick with you while the doctor visits. A random fellow traveler who speaks English as a first language is an improvement over visiting the doctor alone.

  • Staying in an apartment or house rather than a hotel? Ask about medical services when you first arrive. (We had to call friends at 3 a.m. in New York one night because we didn't know the location of the closest hospital.)

  • Wear your seatbelt in the taxi and watch when crossing the road. Traffic collisions are the No. 2 cause of serious problems for Americans abroad.

  • Consider a medical evacuation policy or travel insurance policy that includes medical care. I've never had to use them and hope I never will, but I do feel better knowing I've got a back-up plan.

Above all, I take a modest jammies in my carry-on. If I don't get sick, I know for sure I'll get locked out of your room with only a towel as cover.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Watch out for holiday air delays

Chris McGinnis, Expedia's in-house travel info editor, offers the following tips in his seasonal Expedia Travel Trendwatch report, just out.

Get the best deals: The two weeks before Thanksgiving and the three weeks after.

Snag cheaper business-class fares: During the holidays. "Thanksgiving, round trip travel must occur between roughly Nov. 18 and Nov. 28. For Christmas season travel, sale fares are good for roundtrips taken between roughly Dec. 17 and Jan. 6.''

Be prepared for delays: "To gauge where departure and arrival delays are most likely during the upcoming holiday season, all you have to do is look at airline performance last season.

Airports with the most delayed departures in November AND December 2006
· Atlanta (however, recent runway improvements have reduced delays significantly)
· Chicago – O’Hare
· Detroit
· New York – JFK
· Newark
· Philadelphia

Airports with the most delayed arrivals in November AND December 2006
· Boston
· Chicago – O’Hare
· Detroit
· New York – JFK
· New York – La Guardia
· Newark
· Philadelphia
(Source: National Air Traffic Controllers Association)

Christmas travel? I need help!

You may find this hard to believe, or even silly, but...The Husband and I are having a hard time finding a place to go for Christmas.

The parameters: Low-hassle, and non bank-breakers.

The problem is that I have vacation time I have to take, and The Husband can get away most easily at the holidays. In this case, we can even go the week before the holidays.

The problem: Where?

He doesn't want too cold or too hot or too expensive.

I don't want too far away. (My jetlag quotient for the year is pretty well filled.) That let's out our favorite Asian spots (which are also cheap.)

I'd love to go to Rome, but even on a package it's painfully pricey due to high airfares. (We're saving our cash for an Africa trip next year.)

He's aiming for boutique hotels in Colonial Mexico. I'm not convinced, but right now, it's looking like a good idea.

Got another idea for me? Pass it along...

Monday, November 05, 2007

More on Windjammer

From the Miami Herald's business staff:

    Financially troubled Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, which only a week ago had planned to resume sailing the Legacy this weekend, has postponed the tall ship's next two cruises.

    Miami Beach-based Windjammer now says it will have the money to resume sailing the Legacy in Costa Rica on Nov. 17.

    Windjammer has owed money to vendors and crew. None of the company's four ships has sailed in weeks.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Air rant: Rudeness unseated

If you check out Shel Holtz's Road Weary blog, you'll find a post about seat hogs who recline and lie in your lap. (My husband is 6'4'' and admittedly, reclines his seat in coach...but he at least tries not to do it during meals.)

(In case you don't know the blog, Holtz is a web guru who travels frequently for business and blogs about the hassles thereof.)

I can relate. The airline seat nightmare that burns me most is The Kid Behind You.

Either this kid really gets around or he's got plenty of clones, because I hear friends rant about the same.

This is the kid who kicks the back of your airline seat...for hours on end. The parent is either completely inured or worse, couldn't care less. (It might be the same couple who, one night in Miss Saigon, let their kid SCREAM nonstop for more than an hour. When they got up to leave, the entire restaurant applauded. Don't people like this have ANY manners?)

My friends and I are divided about how to handle the Kicking Kid. We all usually start with turning around and politely letting the parent know about the situation. If the parent does anything, it's usually a mild (exasperated) "Johnny, don't do that.''

Of course, the reason Johnny continues is that he's heard this before and knows it isn't followed up by any consequences. (I've noted that parents who have routinely followed up with their kids aren't the ones whose kids drive you nuts on planes.)

Now you, the back-sore traveler, have two choices. You can suffer silently, or you can take action.

One of my frustrated friends once finally grabbed a kid's foot and suggested sternly that he stop it THAT INSTANT. She must look mean, because it worked.

But of course, the parent who wouldn't address this herself was incensed.

So what do you think? Should you just sit there and let the kid harrass you for the next three hours, or should you do something? And what should you do?

Click to Comment below.

What do you want and need?

I'm at a conference of travel writers and magazine editors. The attendees represent some of the best in the field, including editors from National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Continental Airlines magazine, various AAA magazines, Art & Antiques, and AARP, The Magazine.

The buzz among the editors is all about Travel as a Transformative Experience. One example was an article about a couple who travels to Costa Rica to volunteer with a children's program. Along the way readers learn that one of the motivating factors was an attempt to resolve a husband-wife conflict: He wants children, she doesn't.

I haven't read the story, but I can see that this is a heart-rending situation that, deftly handled, would make can't-put-it-down reading...the motherlode for any editor, magazine, newspaper or otherwise.

I'd be the first to agree that travel can, and maybe should, change your outlook, your world view ... and yes, maybe in ways large and small, your life. (Hey, my last Christmas vacation was a trip to Cameroon ... and I promise you that's nobody's idea of a restful layby.) I've shaped a decades-long career to support my personal passion for places less visited and experiences far beyond the everyday.

And yet, I can't help wondering: What about those of us who are plumb worn out. So worn out we can't really even think about the kind of trip that would help us feel soothed and sated and rested -- much less plan one.

I'm not talking about an overpriced hour in the spa. (Nice way to spend a bit of time, but really, is it worth $220?)

I'm talking about something deeper and sweeter. Something that lasts beyond Monday morning ... whatever Monday morning lands us back in our day-to-day lives of meetings and deadlines and dinners and commitments and bill-paying and arguing with the tax assessor.

I know this conversation is rooted in my own dilemma about remaining vacation days and how to spend them. The go-go part of my brain knows I should use the time for research for a book that may never get published; the worn-out part just wants to burrow into some mountain lodge or rental house in the country in front of a fire.

But here's the bigger question: What do you want to read about? Do you want the deep story about the transformative experience, or the simpler tale about the beautiful place or the best beach?

Or do you really want both? I think I do.

Let me know; Click to Comment below.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Long lines at MIA

I came through Miami International this morning, where security lines were beyond painful. (The queue for Concourse “E’’ stretched almost to “G.’’) TSA staffers checked IDs three times in the same queue … a change from my last run through the airport in September.

Now, I'm for security as much as the next person. But if we're honest, we'd all admit the while TSA's procedures are important, there's a ton of potentially dangerous stuff that goes through unnoticed...and it has nothing to do with checking my ID.

When I return next week, I’ll check with TSA to find out about policy changes. Meanwhile, if you know of any, please post them here.

Better yet, feel free to rant about your own airport hassles.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More on Windjammer

If you missed it, check out the Miami Herald story on the latest news regarding Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, at this link:

Bottom line: The son of Windjammer's founder plans to restart sailings on Nov. 3 with one of the company's four ships...if hurdles can be overcome. But a posting from an online reader expresses his doubts, and as he points out, the Windjammer website appears to be selling multiple November cruises.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Time-saver strategies at new blog

I've started at second blog, EXIT STRATEGIES: An Insanely Busy Person's Guide to Getting the Vacation You Need.

Look there each week to find columns on (relatively) quick and easy ways to find the vacation you need.

This week I look at getting a reasonably priced hotel room in New York. (O.K., the price isn't cheap, but it isn't disgusting, either.) In future weeks I'll look at all kinds of trips, from vacations that include horseback riding to family reunions.

This blog will continue to follow issues, deals and my own travels.

Feel free to comment on either blog...the more voices, the better.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Windjammer update

Well, there's not much to update. We haven't been able to get through to our Windjammer contact today, and it seems that his Windjammer e-mail is experiencing technical difficulties...not a great sign.

When we know more, we'll share it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Windjammer woes

Earlier this month, our newspaper, The Miami Herald, reported that Windjammer Barefoot Cruises had cancelled its Oct. 14 and Oct. 21 sailings. You might remember that the cruise company had financial difficulties last summer and stranded passengers in the Caribbean.

An e-mail from reader Al LeBel says that he's booked on a Windjammer cruise in November but can't get through to the company to find out if his sailing is on.

We're following up and will post an update in this blog as soon as we get one. (It will be Monday at least.)

Meanwhile, two thoughts:

- Don't confuse Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, which operates in the Caribbean, and the Windjammer Cruises of Maine, which are individually owned historic sailing ships that operate off the Maine coast. I took one of their trips this fall, and while it wasn't a glam experience -- cabins are tiny, and the head is down the hall -- it was fun and relaxing, bringing together enjoyable people, lovely views and WAY too much good food.

- When you're making a significant downpayment or prepaying a trip, consider travel insurance. But...and this is the fine print carefully. Not all policies cover financial default. Some travel suppliers aren't covered at all. And the circumstances under which you are covered can be severly limited.

My advice: Don't buy insurance from the same company who is selling your travel. Go to a qualified travel insurance company. A great source is Insure My Trip, which sells policies by more than a dozen insurers. Along with online service, Insure My Trip has a live phone staff that can help you find the policy that best suits your needs. (Yes, I've used them, and no, I don't get any discounts.)


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Homeward bound

Tonight I fly back to Manchester, then on to London and the U.S. It's been fun, but a bit wearing. Changing hotels every night for weeks on end grinds a little.

So I know that when I take a holiday in a few months, I'm going to need a real rest. A retreat. Something to truly chill me out...but not bore me.

I'm collecting suggestions. A yoga retreat? Spa? Cabin with a roaring fire and cheesy novels?

Help me out here. Click to Comment below and give me your ideas.

Ireland: Can beer be boring?

In a word, yes.

Guinness Storehouse is the country's No. 1 tourist attraction. Makes sense, given that the 250-year-old brewery consumes 2/3 of the nation's annual barley crop and that some 4 million Guinness pints per day are consumed in Ireland alone.

What doesn't make sense is why so many people wait in line to plop down 14 euros ... that's $21 ... for an incredibly boring self-guided tour.

Yup, it's slick and hi-tech and very, very big....and really really boring. (Even The Husband, who has an affection for both beer and involved technical processes, found it a yawn.)

You will be bogged down in so much detail that you'll miss interesting tidbits like the fact that Guinness once had to build it's own railway to transport the vast quantities of stout required around Ireland.

The best part of the tour is the Gravity Bar on the visitor center's top floor, where you get a free ice-cold pint and 360 views of Dublin.

My advice: Save yourself the time and money. Stop in, get the T-shirt (the shop is before the ticket booth), then wander over to Temple Bar for a pint and some live music. You'll have a better time.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ireland: Best sleeps and worst

So, if you've been following my blog you know I've been testing out the B&B voucher program, sold in the U.S. by CIE Tours. For reasons too complex to explain, we didn't actually use their program, but we used only lodgings on their program, as a test.

We've now seen all five that we chose for our itinerary.

All were clean, had en-suite bathrooms and served a massive breakfast. Most were reasonably friendly; none of the B&B-keepers was nosy or invasive.

Best was actually a hotel, the Seaview House Hotel in Ballylicky. It accepts vouchers plus an additional payment (I think about 35 euros per person, though I don't have the paperwork with me.) WELL worth it.

The hotel -- run by the sister of Miami priest Father Sean O'Sullivan -- is fresh, gracious and traditional without being cloying or precious. Rooms are large and comfortable, staff terrific and friendly. We had dinner in the restaurant, and it was a treat: supremely fresh ingredients cooked in traditional ways, but simply perfect. Fish was light and beautifully prepared, the carrots were actually worth raving about.

Our entire tab for an overnight in a big room, dinner for two and a half-bottle of wine, and a huge breakfast (fresh croissants and fresh berries included!) was 248 euros ... less than I paid last month for a single night of lodging in a Maine B&B.

The least appealing place (near the town of Kinsale) featured a small room and somewhat cranky owners. They also overcharged me...something I didn't notice until later. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt -- everybody has a bad day -- and will e-mail them to let them know about the overcharge and the less-than-savory experience. And I'm going to ask them to donate the overcharge amount to charity.

If they respond in an apologetic way, I won't share their name. But if they don't, well, you can be sure I'll send you a link to their website.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Video no go

I've been trying to upload the video clips from the various B&Bs but no go. So we'll wait until I'm home. I'll post to the blog when they're available, so if you've signed up for the RSS Feeds, you'll get an alert.

If you haven't signed up, it's easy...just click on the link that says RSS at the upper right.

Ireland's Waterford Crystal

Why is Waterford Crystal is so expensive? Stop at the Waterford Crystal factory just outside the historic Irish city of Waterford, and you’ll soon find out. The factory tour – priced at 9.50 euros per adult, but free for children under 12 – offers a glimpse into the intricacies of making fine cut crystal.

Some factories tours are a snore of plaque-gazing and displays, but this is a working factory involving 900 workers, and you get to see them at work, using many of the same methods as 200 years ago, when the Waterford Crystal company first opened.

All the crystal is hand-blown from molten crystal that flows 24/7 at a rate of 20 million tons per day. The pieces are marked with a felt tipped marker with a grid that will guide the cutter, who uses a diamond-tipped wheel to place each cut into the glass. It takes an experience master – who has trained for a minimum of 7 years – to make each cut exactly the same depth and breadth at precisely the right angle. A pineapple-shaped crosshatched vase requires 1.5 hours of cutting work; a custom-designed trophy for a major sporting event might take a cutter 6 full days.

No wonder a wine glass can cost $100. But beautiful…..

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tonight's digs

I’m not staying at Dunbrody House, alas. Instead, I’m just down the road at Glendine House, a B&B on the voucher program.

The place is fresh and delightful, a mix of family home -- complete with appropriately behaved children and a border collie -- and hotel. Guest rooms are off-limits to the kids and dog, as are the guests-only sitting room and the breakfast room. Our own room is comfortable…not large or small…and prettily appointed with antiques.

Unlike a hotel, there's no restaurant, hair dryer or shampoo.

The open-market tab: 60 euros per person, per night, including a hearty breakfast. At the current exchange rate, that’s pretty steep, but the voucher program locks in the price in U.S. dollars in advance, and averages out to a bit less than that.

I do have video but I can’t upload it just at the moment. So tune back in ... I’ll post it when I’ve got a better connection.

New Irish cuisine

If you think of Irish food as corned beef, cabbage and potatoes, you're a good decade behind the times.

This week takes me into the heart of Ireland’s culinary renaissance, County Cork. Tonight I’m just outside the county line, in the town of Arthurstown in County Wexford, just outside Waterford (yes, the place where the glass is crafted.)

I’m at Dunbrody House Hotel, home to superchef Kevin Dundon.

If you haven’t heard for him, you soon will. In Ireland, Dundon is known for his hotel and its restaurant, his books and TV shows. He’s so famous, in fact, that he just appeared on Dancing with the Stars. His Irish restaurant at Disney's Pleasure Island, Raglan Road, is a hit, and he’s opening another restaurant in February in Kansas City because of the availability there of first-rate produce. His Dunbrody House sausage is headed to a Whole Foods near you.

But if you’re in Ireland, don’t miss the chance to dine at the mecca of his inspiration. About 90 percent of his produce is grown within sight of the dining room.

Tonight’s choices: The full-on Iris Tasting Menu (75 euros) including smoke salmon gateau with wholegrain mustard dressing, garden pumpkin soup, terrine of foie gras, champagne and lemon sorbet, grillet monkefish with leek fondu and lemon beurre blanc, roast breast of mallard and chocolate decadence 9white chocolate mousse and tiramisu).

Too much food for me. Instead, I’m going for a two-course menu (48 euros). It’s a tough choice ... scallops or rabbit or foie gras or ravioli of john dory or seasononal greens to start. And for a main: honey-glazed pork belly with pan-seared scallops, fillet of cod, pithivier of forest mushrooms and smoked gubeen cheese, Wexford fillet of beef, pan-seared turbot or confit of barbary duck leg.

Should be here soon. I'll let you know how it tastes!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Ireland: Going for green

Tomorrow I head off to Ireland. I'm led both by my friendship with a Miami priest originally from Ireland (though I'm not Catholic) and by Ireland's relative value, thanks to its bed-and-breakfast voucher program. (In the U.S., you can buy the program through CIE Tours.)

For less than $1,000 total, I'll get a rental car for the week plus six nights lodging with a hearty breakfast.

That's a pretty great deal for two people -- if the accommodations are nice. (For one person traveling alone the price is only about $125 less, so that's not such a bargain.)

I'll let you know whether it's worth it. Each day that I have e-mail access, I'll post a video of my B&B room and bath. (I've only booked lodgings that offer a private attached bath.)

Of course, that's the one drawback to B&Bs: they usually lack web access, and I can't post video and photos with my current cell. (I'm still waiting for the iPhone to hook up with my carrier.)

Still, I'll do my best. So log on. Or make it easy on yourself and subscribe at the button on the top right that says RSS...then you'll get an alert whenever I post to this blog.

Horse-riding on the Loop

Good weather is not a vacation guarantee. (A disgruntled cruiser e-mailed me and a number of other travel editors recently to complain after Carnival changed his sailing itinerary because of -- a hurricane forecast. One of the other travel editors responded with "What, would you have preferred to get hit?'')

So when it poured in Manchester this morning, a group of colleagues and I gamely pulled on our waterproofs and headed out horse riding on the Mary Towneley Loop, a bridleway for horses, cyclists and walkers opened in 2002 in the nearby Pennines.

Mary Towneley was a Lancashire woman who fought for public access for horseriders, though she died of cancer before the path opened.

Public access via horse or foot through lands that are often private is a particularly British idea, but it's a lovely one. Like the paths I walked through the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, the Mary Towneley Loop offers spectacular views across a rural countryside that would otherwise be impassible.

The Loop runs 48 miles, and riding it all takes about five days, we learned from our guide, Chris Thomas, who offers both bed-and-breakfast and horse-riding trips. Thomas saddles guests up onto stout, short-legged Fells Ponies ... a breed now so rare that on some lists they're endangered.

Our own damp ride took us past farms both bucolic and dingy, with a beautiful canter up above the moors and down to a picturesque resevoir. The ponies were calm and cheery, with an easy gait.

English weather is a changeable thing, and before our six-hour trip was over we passed through mist, drizzle and even blinding sunlight.

But the greatest miracle wasn't the clearing skies. As we started out on our journey, we passed a cow with a heavy bladder who seemed to be struggling. When we returned, we watched her newborn calf take its first steps.

Luggage disaster update

My colleague, Carol Waller, finally got one of her bags ... yesterday. That was Day 9 of the trip. One still missing....and she leaves to return to the U.S. tomorrow.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Winning is good!

If you're a travel journalist, the coveted honor is a medal in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition. More than 1,400 submissions are entered from publications including Outside Magazine, Travel + Leisure, The New York Times.

So we're thrilled that we brought home two great awards.

Leonard Pitts Jr., who is one of the world's great writers and even better person, won the gold medal for personal commentary for a moving story called Return to Africa.

A few years ago, Leonard wrote a column about a service called African Ancestry that allows people with African pasts to learn via a DNA test the tribes from which they hail. The column led to our sending Leonard to Africa to find his origins. The resulting stories also won awards. But that wasn't enough for Leonard, who was haunted by the poverty and bravery of the people he met.

So last year, he returned to Africa to find one woman he had interviewed in a shanty town in Sierra Leone. His mission: Send her oldest child to college. The story details his search for her and both the delight and amazement of her family when he went with them to sign up her daughter at the local university.

Stephanie Rosenblatt and I won a silver medal for a blog-print-video-webvote project that you can see by clicking on the icon at the upper left, Where's Jane Today? For 28 days, I drove from Miami to Seattle.

Though I was alone in my car, I had Steph with me all the way. Each day, readers like you voted to tell me where to go next; Steph sent me the votes, then plotted the locations on the map and uploaded the video I'd shot along the way. I blogged the trip each day, letting readers meet the people I found and check out the scenery.

Last year our take was even better. In 2006, I was named Travel Journalist of the Year, our print Travel section won best in its category and I won another writing award.

I hand over my tiara to Tom Haines of the Boston Globe, this year's Journalist of the Year. He's terrific.

To see the other winners, check out the website of the SATW Foundation.

Luggage rant

Have you had your luggage lost? How bad was it?

Have a rant. And tell us how it all ended up. Would you fly the offending airline again?


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Talk to me!

Sometimes I feel like I'm out here all alone. So talk to me! All it takes is to click on the COMMENT button below. If you don't want to register, you can just post as an anonymous commenter.

If you'd like to see this blog without having to come chase it down, just click on the button at the top of this page on the right that says RSS (it's under the XML button). This will allow you to subscribe to a feed that will send you the headlines each time I make a new post.

Bring up any travel-related topic here you like. If I can't come up with a solution, maybe another reader can.

More on the lost luggage

I've asked the colleague with the lost luggage, Carol Waller of the Sun Valley Visitors Bureau, just how she's getting by on Day Seven without her luggage.

Hotel toiletries are key, she says. So is washing out clothes in the hotel bathroom each evening. (Thank goodness for heated towel bars that speed drying.)

And those she still doesn't know how much money she'll be allotted by the airline for replacement clothes, she's been shopping. After all, she arrived in a pair of black pants, shirt, cardigan and clogs...a bit tough at a business meeting.

Her purchases to date: A skirt, two tops, a sweater and two scarves. The tab so far is about $300...and she's been buying on clearance racks and at TK Maxx (as it's called here.) Given the exchange rate, well, even a t-shirt costs a bundle.

"I've never lost luggage in 30 years of traveling...and I was once a flight attendant,'' she said.

The thing she most wants back: Her jewelry. It's not fine jewelry but pieces she made herself. And yes, it was in her checked baggage.

PHOTO: Carol Waller in her new clothes.

Luggage woes

You might think that when you're attending the world's largest meeting of American travel writers, everything goes smoothly.

Not so. One of my colleagues has been in England for a week now...and she STILL doesn't have her luggage. It's lost at Heathrow Airport, she's been told. Of course, she's now been told that every day for a week, and even British Airways' top public relations man can't seem to get her bags back.

The luggage dilemma isn't just limited to one airline, of course. In the U.S., airlines lost about 10,000 bags per day in 2005 ... and the situation doesn't seem to have improved in the past year.

So what to do? Of course, there are the basics: Be sure your bags are well-labeled with your name, phone number and e-mail both inside and outside each bag. Keep your claim stubs.

But what else? Some people send their bags separately, by Fed Ex or UPS. Some try to cram everything into a carry-on. At the very least, be sure you keep medicines, valuables and at least an extra set of underwear in your carry-on. (Never, never ever check jewelry or electronics if you can avoid it.)

Have you got a strategy? Please share it below by clicking on CLICK TO COMMENT.

And send your best wishes to my friend. She's doing her laundry in the hotel sink and running out every day to TK Maxx, as it's called here. And no, she's isn't have fun.

Britain: The Manchester party scene

Manchester rose to fame during the industrial revolution, and thanks to technology, it's enjoying a resurrgence.

But if you're under 25 ... and even if you're not ... you might best know this slightly gritty city as a party place.

Saturday night in Manchester (that would have been last night) the streets were jammed with the Under 25 set, packs of couples and guys in jeans and girlfriends out on the town not in jeans, but in slinky little dresses cut up to there and down to there (fab on some girls, but as my mother would say, don't flaunt it if you don't have it). Bars here run the gamut from Chinese restaurants-turned-late-night bars, sleek Manhattan-like 'tini hangouts, pubs and after-hours raves. We ended up at The Temple of Convenience...a pub jammed into a former underground toilet that, we have to admit, smelled a little rank in the post midnight phase. Still, the locals were friendly.

A few scenes, courtesy of the camera of Rich Grant: A couple of locals, left, and above, an overwhelmed visitor.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Your favorite walk? Tell us

For the next few days, I'll be attending a conference of travel journalists in Manchester, England. It's fascinating stuff...if you're in this line of work...but would make for a boring blog, I suspect. If there's anything really jazzy, I'll share...(tonight, Princess Anne opened our conference, standing elegantly on stage while others rambled on, though she said naught.)

Meanwhile, you take over, and share your own tips and tales about hiking trips.

Is your favorite walk in the mountains of the Carolinas, across the hills of Italy or through the mall? Share your top picks...and tell us why you love them. Just click on CLICK TO COMMENT below.

Britain: Walking on sunshine

The Brits had a lousy summer weatherwise. Cold, rainy, scarcely a day of sun. So perhaps its unfair that when a gaggle of Americans hits the soil, the sun comes out in force.

Still, it's been five glorious days for walking: mostly sunny, 60 degrees, with scarcely an ill wind or bug anywhere that we've been.

And we've been....walking, striding over hill and fell and through dale and along the Roman Road and Pennine Way, past sheep scattering nervously at our approach and cows anxiously guarding their calves and pheasant flushed by our approach. On roads that have transported Romans and Celts and Vikings and Saxons .... generation after generation about documented generation of those would hold this green isle.

And modern-day walkers. The No. 1 leisure activity for Britains is country walking, with 77 percent claiming it as the top pastime, says Mark Reid, author of a popular guidebook series, The Inn Way.

Mark has led us past a millenium-old farm pub, on the springy heath atop limestone shelves, beyond 400-year-old stone barns and along the wide-ranging public access route of footpaths that cross the Yorkshire Dales -- by Reid's reckoning, the prettiest of England's walking landscapes.

"You can't see this from a car,'' proclaimed a fellow walker, and true enough it is. Some of it you might see, but you can't smell the wild garlic or hear the sheep bleat or marvel at the shifting shadows over the patchwork of least not quite the same way.

And you can't quite appreciate the moment when boot-sore feet come to rest before the fire of a centuries-old pub, a half of bitter well-earned at day's end.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

When you don't walk

England's Lakeland is a mercurial place, one minute sunny, the next brooding, the next threatening with wind and lightening. Today the BBC promised rain, and by afternoon, the skies delivered.

Many in our group hiked. Instead, I wandered, then jumped aboard the 100-year-old plus Ullswater Steamers (though now diesel powered) that ply the lake from Glenridding to Howtown to Pooley Bridge and back. Though the lake runs deep and old, it is home to treacherous reefs. Still, the ride is smooth, made easier by the warmth of the staff that serves up coffee and whiskey and local lore, and the locals who ride aboard.

Among the passengers were several dogs, including a pretty border collie who trembled with the wind. Most dogs here are workers as well as pets...but not all. "She's quite nervous,'' explained her mum. "She's even afraid of cows,'' piped in the dad. "She's mostly ornamental.''

Scenes from the day:

Sore feet and rainy days

The beauty of walking a country is in proximity. The bracken ferns swirl just inches from your feet. Ullswater, the second largest of the ponds in England’s famed Lake District, falls serenely to one side, while fells reach to the side along another.

A man with his string of hounds passes you up, nods, keeps moving. A family with a baby too young to walk himself waves at the intersection of the next footpath. Sweet little slippers in pink and poppy-like blooms in yellow line the lane. Cattle guards that are no more than a nuisance in a car become cause for contemplation as you skirt them and slip through the stile instead; are they meant to secure beef cattle or milking ones, woolly maggots (as someone along the way has called sheep) or lambs that may be stewed for dinner?

The air is so clean and crisp that finicky lichens cling to the moist, north side of the trees; it bears no scent save the juniper berries you’ve picked and crushed in your hand, or the spoke from the fire that beckons once you’re finally close to your inn.

The drawback to walking is sore feet and a gloomy day. The misty beauty is alluring and otherworldly…but perhaps best enjoyed from a window by the fire.

Once, that fireside seat might have been the best recourse for the weary and wet. But for the past seven years, there’s been the Rheged Centre, the dreamchild of a local farmer-turned-businessman.

The descriptions make this sound like one of those wayside stop best avoided, but in fact the place is charming: a showcase for local crafts, papers, cards, wines, cheeses, jams, fruits; and a place where you can get a reasonably priced, yummy meal of local ingredients. Or you can watch a large-format film about the region of Cumbria or Everest or the Shacketon expedition, or take children in to the surprisingly expansive play area to paint and fire a pot or draw or try another pastime.

But the exhibit that most drew our attention was the National Mountaineering Exhibit. Cumbria claims bragging rights as the birthplace of rockclimbing, a miniature – by alpine standard – obstacle course of spires and cliff faces. But even if the idea of strapping on crampons and hauling yourself of a vertical cliff isn’t a turn-on, this exhibit may be for you, for much of it is dedicated to Mallory and Irvine’s early attempt on Everest, and stirs the contemplation over whether the pair might well have summitted the peak 29 years before Hillary and Tenzing.

Since Mallory and Irvine died in the attempt, and their camera has yet to be found, there’s no record. But the exhibition includes items found on Mallory’s body when it was chipped from the ice in the late 1990s: the nametag sewn into his shirt, the tailor’s accounting of his outstanding bill, the shoes on his feet.

Robin Ashcroft, who directs the exhibition, thinks it’s quite possible the pair made the summit and died on the descent. But he doesn’t want to know for sure, he says. Mystery is sometimes more satisfying than knowledge.

Monday, October 01, 2007

A good walk

Hiking has always seemed to me like an endurance test with beauty as a side dish. Sometimes the serenity, the solitude and the views are worth it. Sometimes the seasoning seems flat.

Today I and a dozen fellow walkers covered 6 ½ to 7 miles on the moorland of Lancashire, in the Forest of Boland. It’s one of 41 preservation areas designated for its natural beauty.

Our trek took us through muck – it rains 80 inches per year here – up rocky streambeds, over heather-covered hills, along country lanes past cows and black-faced sheep. Through and area of mossy, peat marsh and tall grass that felt, as one of my fellow ramblers put it, like walking on cotton candy.

Was it worth it? On this fine day, yes.

But it wasn’t just the views that stretched for miles – all the way to Pendle Hill,
where herbalist women were once burned at the stake and where, in 1652, George Fox had a vision that led to the creation of the Quaker faith. Or the remoteness that led to a six-week delay between the end of World War I and the transmission of that news to a farm tucked into the hillside here.

It was all that we learned about the area from our guides, David Padley, and Paul Greenall, of the Lancashire County Council’s countryside service.

The dry stone walls that have stood for centuries are built without mortar, wedged into place by through stones and by placing the large ones at the bottom – a ton of stones per yard of fence. Some 75 percent of all the world’s heather grows in Britain, and this is one of it’s strongholds, providing a rare habitat for the endangered owl eagles; 17 of the world’s remaining 20 breeding pairs live here.

Beautiful. But for this desk warrior, a double cocktail of Aleve is in order.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Working now...

At last! Check out the photos on the St. Andrews posting.

And follow along. I'm not sure when we'll be back on line with web access, but I'll post as often as possible.

Technical difficulties

At the moment, at least, the blogger software isn't posting photos...a pity, since St. Andrews is truly beautiful!

I'll try again in the morning (it's late here.)

After that, I may be in out of touch for a few days as I head into the Lake District for a rambling trip. I'll be in touch soon as I can!

The mecca of golf

Over the centuries, St. Andrews, Scotland, has been a place of pilgrimage...first for Christians, who came here to pray before the bones of Andrew the disciple (brought here by St. Rule, it's said) and then by those in search of higher learning at St. Andrews College (from which Prince William recently graduated.)

Now, of course, they come for golf.

That was the draw for Bob Armstrong and wife Linda Aaker of Houston (he the former Assistant Secretary of the Interior under Clinton), who brought son Will as a combo 75th birthday present for Bob and college graduation present for Will.

"It's wonderful,'' said Bob.

"It took Scotland to make me fall in love with golf,'' said Linda.

The trio played King Barnes, Carnoustie and of course, The Old Course.

The Old Course is said to be the first place that golf was played with holes, according to spokesman for the St. Andrews Links Trust. But it's not the only course in town; the Trust manages six currently ... for players from children to the pros...and will open a seventh next year.

And yes, these are public courses. And yes, women are allowed (just not in the private Royal and Ancient Golf Club overlooking the 18th green of the Old Course.)

As a nongolfer, I'm surprised to find myself actually interested in all this. That the sport mastered by Tiger Woods was begun by a bunch of bored shepherds hundreds of years ago who used their crooks to push stones into rabbit holes, well, that's pretty entertaining.

But better is the town of St. Andrews, bubbling with college kids -- about 4,000 of them -- and picturesquely crowned by ruins of a great cathedral toppled in the 1550s after reformationist John Knox incited the masses. And it's still a fishing village (lobster mostly, not that I ever got one.) All in all, quite a place.

Even if you don't care about golf.

Friday, September 28, 2007

To the manor wished

A falcon will go to the highest perch. Which is why I must keep my arm canted upward, the thumb on top. Otherwise Victor, the Harris hawk who is my hunting partner this afternoon, becomes unsettled.

I open my leather-gloved hand and cast a pitch…and he flies off, just as he’s been taught, to a nearby perch, then flies immediately back. The impetus, as falconer William Duncan has explained, is simple. Food. Upon arrival on my glove, Victor receives a bit of steak tartar.

The falcons are kept as close to an ideal weight as possible…so they are a little hungry, but still with plenty of energy for hunting. For that was the purpose of falconry, at least in it’s earliest days … to catch food.

The falconry program is one of many country sports available at Gleneagles, an estate hotel built by the railroad in the early 1920s.

By a sad quirk of fate, I was not to the manor born. Had things been as they should have, I would have been born to a place like Gleneagles.

Patrick, the private butler that goes in the newly designed suites in Gleneagles’ former maids quarters, has just arrived to make me a special cocktail with 15-year-old Johnnie Walker Green, a mint-and-ice concoction that, to a Southerner, seems remarkably like a mint julep. The tray of canapés plays to the salmon theme, with salmon curls, salmon on brown bread with cavier, salmon tartar.

They’re delicious. Too bad I have to save room for dinner.

Seduced by Scotland

My best friend and I have vowed never to take up golf. There are practical reasons for this: long work hours that preclude any frivolity that takes up a full four hours at a go, and a total and complete lack of sports ability.

Yet here I am in the birthplace of golf, touring the finest of the world’s courses: Turnberry (home to the 2009 British Open), Royal Troon (home to eight Opens), Gleneagles (host to the 2014 Ryder Cup) and St. Andrews, frequent Open home often called the Home of Golf, though I’m assured it was actually first played elsewhere.

Here’s the thing: While duffers may golf, there are others of us who may come along … and wish to venture beyond the spa.

“Well, if you’re not into history, there’s no much here,’’ one gentlemen told me, speaking in the Scots' way of the West Coast near Turnberry and Troon.

Not so, I’m finding.

I’m being seduced (yet again) by Scotland…so often that I’m perpetually late to my next date as I stop to ooh-and-ah over the ruins that appear over every rise, the cliffs along the coast, the black-faced sheep and shaggy Highland cattle. Historic castles are as a common as Starbucks at home, and in two days I’ve visited two already, Kelburn Castle, home to the Grafitti Project, a mural by two Brazilian artists on a turret and castle wall, and Culzean Castle, a stately haven to lairds and royalty and, for a bit, a holiday home for Dwight D. Eisenhower in honor of his service to Europe during WW II.

But what I love the best is the people.

A lovely gentleman led me to my B&B, going miles out of his way to be sure I dodged sheep and pheasants – which tend to stand in the roadway and simply gawk at you – to arrive safely.

And at my B&B in Troon, Copper Beech, I was greeted by the lovely Norma. I’d made her late for her dinner appointment, and rather than to be gruff or cranky, she invited me along. And so I spent the evening solving the world’s problems with a trio of Scotswomen in a hotel that was once home to Johnnie Walker. We avoided the whisky … too dangerous, that … but how can you solve problems without a glass of wine?