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.