Thursday, April 26, 2007

MIA: Tell us how you really feel

As I travel around the globe, it's not unusual for me to get an earful on Miami International Airport. And what I'm hearing is rarely good.

Lousy signage, poor food choices, boring retail, dingy lighting, cranky personnel are common complaints. And I'm sorry to say that it rings true for me.

I'm a frequent airport user ... of MIA, FLL and plenty of others as well. Like any frequent user, I know too well that nothing is perfect (just as no person is perfect.) But MIA may be less perfect than most.

Some of its drawbacks are with good reason: It's an older airport retrofitted to modern needs, and that's a tough magic trick for any facility. The land its built on -- once in the boonies -- is now practically mid-city, and there's no room for stretching.

But my laptop is filled with half-written columns on MIA moments: Poor food served up by rude people, cranky taxi-queue directors who bark at you, an appalling lack of mass transit, oft-broken escalators, baggage delays that make nearly every other world airport look like Roadrunners. When you find yourself cheering that the airport has finally opened an Au Bon Pain outlet -- and you reroute your drop-off so you can walk by it on your way down to check-in -- you know things are seriously askew.

This is not to bash the people who work there, who have made progress in recent years (like the Au Bon Pain, art displays, Starbucks.)

And there is a plus side: MIA is brilliantly located near downtown (whereas getting to LAX involves serious negotiation through traffic or the subway, which often doesn't go where you need to.) And MIA is the launch pad for flights to some incredible places, like Istanbul, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires.

But in my view, the progress made -- and that planned under the we-hope-it-opens-in-our-lifetimes expansion terminal -- doesn't move us into the world-class leagues.

What do you think? You can post a comment here, or go to our new Travel Hot Button feature. Each week we'll post a new topic there (don't worry, we'll get to Fort Lauderdale Hollywood Airport soon!) Good and ugly, we want to hear about your experiences -- and your suggestions for the future.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Coming to Universal Studios

Hey, theme park fans!

Universal Studios has announced a new Simpsons ride opening in 2008 at both its Hollywood and Orlando theme parks.

The premise: Krusty the Clown has dreamed up his own fantasy theme park, and Bart, Marj, Homer, Lisa and Maggie are guests.

According to Universal's press types, ''Currently the longest-running sitcom on television, The Simpsons will air their historic 400th episode in May 2007.'' (I gotta admit: I don't watch enough TV to know.)

Caribbean deal

Yup, it's that time...lots of deals are popping on vacations to the south.

Here's one that looks good:

The Westin St. Maarten Dawn Beach Resort Casino & Spa offers summer rates starting at $199, with fall rates of $149 -- nearly 60 percent savings over its high-season rates.

The caveats: You must stay four nights or more. The $199 rate applies to resort-view rooms from April 30 - Aug. 31; the $149 rate is offered Sept. 1 - Nov. 1. All are subject to limitations and availability (aren't they always?)

Info:; 011-(599)-543-6700.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A sweet deal

The e-mail bag fills up on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and cool deals pop up. Here's one I like:

Book by April 30 for packages to Puerto Rico or St. Thomas from Changes In L'Attitudes. Packages include toundtrip air from South Florida plus three nights hotel. Valid travel dates: May 1- June 30.

In St. Thomas, you'll stay at Marriott Frenchman's Reef. The price of $499 per person is a bargain; in high season, a room alone at the resort goes for $350 plus.

The same rate applies at the Sheraton Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.

Prices are per person, double occupancy, with mid-week economy roundtrip air from Miami and include hotel taxes and fees. Air taxes from $44.00 - $48.00 not included. 800-330-8272.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Your dream vacation

What's your dream vacation?

Mine varies, depending on my mood. Just now I'm planning a trip for a mega birthday, and I'm thinking an African safari in either Kenya or Tanzania.

Have you been on one? Got other suggestions?

Share your tips and ideas here. I need them!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Safety First

The recent cruise ship disaster near Santorini, Greece, is a reminder to pull out your ear buds and actually listen at the next safety briefing on a ship or plane. While both cruise ships and airplanes have strong safety records, things can go awry … and you need to know what to do, where to go, what to bring. Don't wait for an emergency to discuss your family plan of action in case you get separated.

Don't tarry, don't panic.
If you're near your cabin, grab your life jacket. If
not, go directly to your muster station.
Bring medications, your glasses, cellphone, identification, room key and credit cards, and a jacket. Wear shoes.

Follow the attendants' directions.
If the oxygen mask drops, put it on yourself before you try to help children or someone else.
Count the number of rows between you and the nearest exit; if the cabin gets smoky, you'll need to "feel" your way out.
Keep your cellphone and wallet handy; if evacuation is required, you won't be able to snag them from the overhead locker.

When you first get to your room, locate the nearest exit; study the floor plan on the back of your room door.
Keep a robe and shoes handy; you don't want to end up in the street barefoot or naked.
Put glasses, medications , room key, car keys and your wallet together in case you need to make a dash.
Don't take the elevator.

Postcard from the Caribbean

As a vacation, my husband and I spent a week on board the Wind Surf, a Windstar cruise, in the southern Caribbean.

My report: There's a lot to like aboard, especially the warm crew. Crew members hail from Indonesia and the Philipines, and they are, simply, superb.

The facilities, too, get high marks. Cabins were spacious aboard the sailing ship, and even though we were just above the water line, we found it quite comfortable. Amenities included a DVD player (movies available in the lounge), an iPod docking station (iPods available if you didn't bring your own), and a desk large enough to work at if you're incapable of turning off your brain (that would be me.)

The Windstar ships are intended to be low-key; activities beyond shore excursions are fairly minimal. We took a morning stretch class each day and particularly enjoyed the crew show and buffet late in the cruise. The ambiance is decidely casual; the highlight of most days was tea and cocktails at 4 p.m.

Disappointing: The food and the value. While we found shore excursions fairly priced, we were disappointed to find we were charged for items included on other high-end lines, such as lemonade at lunch ($2.95) and yoga classes ($10). Though some individual dishes were yummy, the food wasn't up to the standard we expected for a cruise that retails for $3,500-plus per week. The line has just been sold, and new owners promise an increased "value proposition.''

Some destination notes from our trip:

Bequia: This small island that is part of the Grenadines is a charming, lazy hideaway, and we'd go back. In winter, islanders still hunt whales -- one of the few nations still permitted to do so -- as part of their traditional culture.

Tobago: Authentic and charming. We moored at the east end of the island, in Man o' War bay, near a cozy fishing village, and went snorkling across the island from Speyside, near the friendly Blue Waters Inn. The reef -- reached by boat near an island that's for sale for a reported $1.5 million -- offers terrific formations.

Dominca: Ziplines … canopy tours where you zip along through the
upper reaches of the jungle along a super-strength steel cable … have become almost commonplace as cruise shore excursions. But the Wacky Rollers challenge in Dominica is a canopy tour on steriods.

On this tour, ziplining is the reward for tackling two dozen Survivor-type challenges, from skiddling along a high wire you're hooked in for safety, and you've got other lines to hold onto) to walking along a moving windchime … a series of vertical logs on strings, hoisted 20 feet above the ground. It definitely works up a sweat … but when I started whining, the very nice canopy guide told me he'd had an 82-year-old woman complete the course. Serves me right.

Several cruise lines offer the Wacky Rollers as an excursion, or you can go on your own.

Grenada: "The Spice Island,'' nailed by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, is making a comeback. Though historic churches in the capital of St. George's are still without rooves, there's a new spice market, and the town seems generally fresh. Sure sign that the island is making a comeback: Shipping magnate Peter de Savory, who created Skibo Castle(where Madonna wed), The Abaco Club and the Carnegie Club, is investing $555 million in luxury resorts, retail, marina, an eco-resort and more.

And, don't miss river tubing, organized by Adventure Grenada. Wet but fun!