Friday, May 09, 2008

Visit me at my new address

My blog has moved. You'll find me from now on at the new Travels with Jane.

The idea is the same: tips, deals, trip logs, photos and conversations about travel strategies and issues. I hope you'll bookmark the new address and visit often. Make it easy on yourself and sign up for an RSS feed.

See you there!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Affordable spa - a fab find

I've never done the destination spa thing because, well, it's expensive. And, I figured, the benefits wouldn't last. As much as I love a good massage, the rosy glow of relaxation lasts only a few hours before I'm heading back toward Stress Level A.

But when a friend suggested meeting at the Ixtapan Spa in Mexico, I plunked down the credit card. Between a dying parent, wacko workplace, a Zero birthday and The Husband's emergency appendectomy, I needed a break. And the price was right: $830 for a four-night package including a single room, all meals and a bunch of services (three massages, two reflexologies, two golf lessons, mani-pedi and more.) Book a spa day at a top spot in South Florida, and you'll end up with a tab of $785 for the day.

So what did I find? A comfy -- though not luxurious -- hotel in the mountains two hours south of Mexico City, aerobics and yoga classes (I bypassed the morning walks and water aerobics), a sweet safe town, two big pools, tasty food, beautiful golf course (I actually took a lesson) and tennis courts (I passed).

Well worth it -- even when you add in 16 percent taxes and airfare. Transportation can be a killer -- roundtrip from Mexico City costs $360 in the hotel van -- but if you go with a gang, you can split that amount for up to four people, which make it a much more manageable $90 per person roundtrip.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Taking a little vacation

Yes, I'm taking a few days off, meeting a friend of a spa weekend in Mexico.

I can use both the R&R and the girl time. Usually I travel alone or with The Husband. The idea of some wine and bonding seems like just the tonic ... and especially at these prices.

At home I avoid spas for the sheer cost. But this experience at Ixtapan Spa costs $830 for four nights lodging in a single room, a host of spa treatments and all my spa cuisine.

I'll let you know how it goes. And here's to losing a little jeans are stretched to the max.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Buy asap for this fab deal

Spirit Airlines is offering one of it's supercheap deals...36 cents from Fort Lauderdale to Freeport, reports You must purchase by April 30 and travel May 4, 5, 6, 11, 13 or 18.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Surcharges: What do you think?

Given the hyperspeed rise of gasoline prices, it's no surprise that cruise lines and airlines have imposed fuel surcharges. And who can blame them -- especially after Delta Airlines' grim quarterly report of a $6.93 billion loss. Northwest posted a $4.1 billion loss. While both companies took some one-time losses, both said the high fuel costs were part of the problem.

No, it's not the fuel surcharges that have me steamed, it's the way they -- and taxes -- are buried on websites. Whether you're booking a cruise -- Oceania just imposed an $10 per person per day fuel surcharge, following the lead of most other major cruise lines -- ir airline ticket, in most cases, you can't see how those surcharges are affecting the bottom line until you go all the way through the booking process. And that generally applies whether you're booking online or on the phone, I've found.

Worse yet, agree consumer advocates, are hotel surcharges, which rack up a reported $1.6 billion in revenues annually.

You've probably seen them on your bill: "Resort fees'' imposed by resorts, "energy surcharges'' and additional fees for items like in-room safes.

To a traveler, this falls between nickel-and-diming and downright deceit. The hotels have long ago installed both the safes and the resort facilities. In fact, the practice has come under legal fire, and the Wyndham chain is being sued. (Because of pending litigation the company declined to comment.)

Earlier this week I got hit with a $2.50 per night surcharge at a Sleep Inn in Orlando. It was disclosed when I booked on the website as a fee for using the safe. When the woman in front of me asked to have the fee removed at check-out because she didn't use the safe, the clerk refused. And of course, the clerk refused me, too.

That's a no-no, said Rocco Loverro, spokesman for Choice Hotels, which operates Sleep Inn, Comfort Inn, Quality and other brands. And if the hotel refuses, the consumer can contact Choice's corporate headquarter.

Choice recognizes this is a consumer hot-button. Though all of its properties are individually owned, the company is working toward a "seamless billing'' initiative, said Loverro. That means surcharges would be folded into the rate. But there's no timetable for completion.

Have you had a similar experience? What's your view? Click to comment below.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Busch Gardens: Tiger in the Tank

Who knew that tigers like to swim? That orangutans like to paint? Or that there really is a theme park area just for tweeners?

Welcome to Jungala, the new 4-plus acre area at Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa.

The animal exhibits here -- tigers, orangutans, flying foxes -- are all from Asia. And you can get up-close and personal without risking limbs, thanks to some wonderfully inventive see-through barriers and viewing areas that put you right inside the exhibits. (Of course, you can still hear the roller coaster roaring overhead.)

There's a giant rope jungle gym with totaly enclosed byways so kids can't fall through (or get pushed by a sibling), a "zip-line'' ride just for kids and a "surge'' ride that's only 35 feet tall, which is just about right for kids who aren't ready for the 'coaster (and the adults who aren't ready for them either!)

Of all the new attractions I saw this year on my annual dash through the theme parks, Jungala is the one that most captured my imagination. If there's another place you can watch tigers swim just behind a glass, or play tug-of-war with a tiger, I haven't seen it yet.



The Disney report

This year, most of Disney's news happens at the park formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios, now called Disney's Hollywood Studios.

No, we're not talking about new park areas or major changes. There is one new ride on the way -- that's the 3D Toy Story Mania! ride through shoot out -- but it doesn't debut until late May. Meanwhile, Studios offers three smaller but energetic additions. Times for each can change daily so you'll need to consult the park schedule when you arrive.

Last December, the megahit High School Musical 2: Schools Out! literally rolled into the park. Think singers and dancers on a stage that glides through the "streets'', stopping at Mickey's Magic Scorcerer Hat. Kids are encouraged to join in, which means every little girl (and a few big ones too) can have her shot at a moment of cheerleadering glory.

New is the musical parade Block Party Bash. Floats decked with characters from Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and other Pixar faves winds through the park, then stops for a high-energy dance party where -- once again -- pint-sized partiers are invited to join the festivities.

For the smallest park visitors, Playhouse Disney Live offers a chance to learn a few of life's lessons (the importance of friends, everyone can play an important role) in the company of Mickey, Minnie, Tigger and Pooh and Roo. The show offer plenty of chances for kids to clap and dance along -- yes, it's a pattern -- so they won't get bored.

At Epcot, Spaceship Earth has been refreshed -- the story line used to end about 1980 -- with the addition of touch-screen interaction and a new voice-over by Dame Judi Dench. But the most fun may come in the "post-show'' at the ride's end called Project Tomorrow, when parkgoers can make postcards based on photos shot during the ride, explore the human body via a 3-D game and find out what happens during an auto accident -- courtesy of technology by Siemens.

Oh, and lest the Disney PR people bang me on the head for forgetting, the annual Epcot Flower & Garden Festival runs through June 1. (Don't miss the topiaries, which are truly amazing.)


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Simpsons hit Universal

Marge, Homer and the gang have made it to Universal Studios.

That's the big news this summer at Universal, both in Orlando and Hollywood. (Both Disney and Universal are opening attractions simultaneously on coasts east and west --- one has to figure it's at least a little more economical.)

Here's the drill: Our old buddy Krusty the Clown is opening a new theme park, and the Simpsons are getting the first ride. Little do they know that the evil Sideshow Bob has sneaked himself into a character suit and is running amok throughout the park with the idea of destroying it all. Trouble ensues -- hey, this is a theme park ride -- but in the end all's well that ends well. (But you knew that.)

The new ride, which debuts late next month, is stationed in the old Back to the Future space (now that Future is past, so to speak.) You'll hardly recognize the place; just about the only things that are the same are the actual massive building and the mechanical pads that the motion simulators sit on. Yup, this is a simulation ride .... though based on our preview, you'll hardly notice you're not actually spinning in the air.

Tomorrow, we'll catch up on Disney!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Aquatica: Cool new water park

The big news in Orlando is Aquatica, the water park opened in March by SeaWorld (and located just across the street.) Aquatica mixes water slides, lazy rivers, falls, wave pools, a wet jungle-gym type area for little kids -- and animal interactions. There's nothing else quite like it, and mom Deborah Poppe from Long Island rated it the best attraction in Orlando for her kids, ages 4 and 5. "It's amazing,'' she said.

Teens, families and young adults all rated the park as a A-plus -- all except one mom, who came up to the park operations manager while we were talking about complained that she'd be searching for 30 minutes and couldn't find a place to sit with her baby and two other children. Aquatica is on the case, said operations manager Bryan Nadreau. He's already added 1,000 chairs since the park opened, and another 500 are on order.

Park officials say the signature attraction is Dolphin Plunge, which allows riders to zip through a tube atop a wooden tower down 250 feet of clear tubes that run through the habitat of four Commerson's dolphins. Lines were long, lasting about 45 minutes. But a few riders we spoke with thought it wasn't worth the wait. "I couldn't see anything,'' said Erin Cottet of Orlando. But the rest of the park got a big thumbs up.

A really great steak

Theme parks aren't known for their culinary prowess, but every now and then you get surprised. Tonight I had a meal at Le Cellar, the steak house in the Canada area of Epcot.

Report: Killer Prince Edward Island mussells in Thai coconut curry sauces, and one of the best filet mignon I've had in a while...even at The Palm.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Report from Theme Park Central

It's a Sunday night in April, and even on insane I-Drive things are (relatively) quiet. It's a perfect time to be Central Florida checking on the newest offerings from the theme parks.

Tomorrow, I'll visit Universal, the new Aquatica water park near SeaWorld and Disney. Look for my report tomorrow night (or if I get really carried away, Tuesday morning!)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Europe for cheap...well, cheaper

Experts predicted it, and here it comes: Fixed-dollar rates.

European hotels aching for U.S. business are starting to promise rates fixed in U.S. dollars at a substantial discount over what you'd pay at today's eggregious dollar-euro exchange rate. And British Airways is offering discounts for travelers who book in its World Traveller Plus class (that's Premium Economy, with more leg-room but not all the other biz-class frills.)

A few examples:

  • The Stafford in London promises a fixed rate of $1.80 per 1 pound if you book directly with the hotel by calling 011 44 20 7493 0111. That offer is good throughout 2008.

  • Worldhotels is offering a $1 to 1 euro rate for its European hotels booked from the U.S. through June 30. That means a hotel whose rate is 150 euros will charge only $150 during this period when booked in advance from the U.S.

Travel agent Nancy McLemore at Coral Gables-based TraveLeaders is telling us she's seeing more and more dollar-fixed rates offered to travel agents. Word to the wise: If you're looking for a Europe hotel this year, you might want to call an agent first.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The merger: Bad news for travelers?

That's the buzz out in the bloggesphere. The proposed Delta - Northwest merger -- which will create the world's biggest carrier in terms of traffic -- will probably mean a cut in seats on some routes and decreased customer service, reported Travel Mole, an industry report, which wrote:

    The merger was viewed by airline consultant Mike Boggs as a logical one. But he added:

    “For consumers, any time they lose options, that’s not good. Any time competition goes away that’s not good,” Mr Boggs said.

    Skeptics who predicted service would not improve were easy to find. The biggest impact, according to critics, may be the severe toll the merger could take on customer service and competition in the airline industry.

Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott doubts the company spin that the new entity will result in "a stronger, more resilient airline that will be a leader in providing customer service and value.''

On his Today in the Sky blog, USA Today staffer Ben Mutzabaugh reports that a United / Continental merger may be just around the corner.

In these economic times, you have to figure that a merger might be better for consumers than a continuation of the airline shutdowns we saw in recent weeks, when Skybus, ATA and Aloha shut down, and Frontier filed for Chapter 11. But as frequent flier, I can't believe that service will improve.

Free market supporters may argue that the market will win out, but if it does, I'm sorry to suggest that consumers probably won't. If we had a true Open Skies with all airlines around the world competing equally, that might actually happen...but I'm not betting on it. The barriers to entry are simply too high, and some niche markets too small, for a pure "open market'' to yield the kind of service I'd like to see in the skies.

Part of the problem is us. Me. I want cheap fares. And so does most everyone else I know. But I also want reasonable service -- and with consolidation, it's ever-less likely. Which puts me in favor of a basic Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

What about you? Vote at right or click to comment below.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Airline woes will continue

That's the latest from the soothsayers.

The Associated Press is reporting that delays are likely to get worse throughout the summer, though it may not be because of maintenance issues. (New York area airports and those in Chicago (O'Hare) and Minneapolis will be worst hit, they project.)

Randall Travel Marketing, a respected trend watcher, thinks more regional airline carriers may go under in wake of rising fuel costs. They mention a story from Airline Weekly: "Aloha Airlines and Skybus joined ATA in bankruptcy recently. Alitalia is also on the brink of bankruptcy. RTM expects to see this trend continue throughout 2008 due to rising fuel costs and weak management plans. Mostly affected will be smaller, regional carriers."

Get advice and more info from travel advocate Christopher Elliott, columnist for MSNBC.

What to do if you're delayed

Whether you're stuck now in the rash of American Airlines cancellations or plan to travel this summer, chances are good that you'll be stuck at some point.

We've published tips for coping before, but you might not have needed them then. So here they are again:

  • Call ahead to double-check on your flight.

  • Register your cell number with your airline.

  • Bring a cellphone, and keep your airline and/or travel agent's phone number handy. You can usually call ahead to rebook.

  • Have the phone numbers of people you are meeting, hotels where you're staying and car rental agencies, so you can advise them of changes.

  • Book hotels that allow you to cancel. Some online services have 24-hour cancellation policies and will charge you for the first night regardless of the reason for delay.

  • Build in an an extra day between your flight arrival and the departure of your cruise or tour for travel insurance. Compare policies at

  • Keep toys and extra diapers handy.

  • Bring snacks. Airlines rarely offer meals anymore, and airport offerings can be limited at best.

What do you think about air safety?

Is it safe to fly? I have no way of knowing, any more than any other average consumer. But I can tell you that it's not something I worry about.

You can argue all day long about whether the FAA is doing the job it should, whether airlines are trying to cut costs, and whether the current grounding of AA flights is as much about political showmanship -- as some stories have suggested -- as it is safety. If this is like most everything else, there's probably a little bit of truth in all those things.

Personally, I'm more concerned about traffic control in the air and near misses than I am about safety at one publicly-held airline. Market economics have severe limitations, but any airline that doesn't put safety first is going to end up with problems that can wreck the entire company -- and no management team or board of directors is going to be in favor of that.

Will the current mess keep me off planes? Not a chance. While I've had plenty of arguments with AA over the years -- I'm a million miler -- those arguments are related to sometimes surly service, not safety.

For some people, flying evokes a primeval fear, and any turbulence is reason to cling to the ground. Me, I drive regularly in Miami-Dade County. I guarantee you, flying on any U.S. airline is safer.

What do you think? Click to Comment below.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Cell phones in the skies?

If you're flying over Europe, you'll soon be able to yammer away on your cell phone. But not in the U.S. -- at least yet.

The European Union has confirmed what many of us have long suspected: the turn-off-your-cell rule isn't a safety issue per se. But it could be a sanity issue.

Europeans use their mobile phones differently from Americans. They tend to text -- much cheaper in Europe than calling -- and talk briefly. Yes, right, fine, thanks, ciao.

Americans, as we all well know, use their phones as an extension of their personal space. A trip to my local grocery is an involuntary expedition into fellow shoppers' health issues, marital distress, love affairs -- and in amazingly graphic detail. It's not unusual to find someone so engrossed in their business negotiation or gossipfest that they stop in mid-aisle or forget to pull out money at the register.

Now, let's take that scenario to the skies. 3B is yelling about the deal that went south, 12C is placing a bet with his bookie, 14D is making a salon appointment, 16A is chattering about last night's hot date, and the teen in 22C is plotting parental revenge. My husband is the guy complaining -- loudly -- that his Bose noise-cancelling earphones aren't protection enough, and whose stupid idea was this cellphone thing anyway?

With those images in mind, I think I'm in favor of keeping the cell switch turned off in-flight.

What about you? Click to comment below and take our poll at right.

We removed the poll to add our most recent question about airline safety. But the cell phone issue was a hot button: 128 people voted the first day, with 20 percent in favor of allowing cell phones in the air and 80 percent against.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Can travel insurance help?

With the recent troubles at three airlines … Aloha, Skybus and ATA … you may be wondering how to protect your vacation. Travel insurance may provide an answer -- but it doesn't always. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Never buy insurance from the travel provider; instead, go with a reputable third-party insurer. You'll find them at Insure My Trip and Quote Wright . Both firms represent highly-rated travel insurance companies.

  • Be sure the policy you are considering covers the conditions that concern you most. Nearly all package policies include trip interruption, baggage loss, medical evacuation, medical care and trip delay. But coverage amounts vary … and so do conditions. One policy may kick in if your mother dies but not your favorite uncle. Look online, then call to be sure.

  • Check to see your travel providers are covered. Some insurance companies only cover travel firms on a pre-approved "white list;" others won't cover companies on their "black list." (Tip: Look under financial default.)

  • Buy insurance immediately after you book your trip to be sure all pre-existing conditions are covered. But know that you can buy trip insurance as late as the day you travel; you'll simply forgo coverage of prexisting conditions.

  • Ask the insurance broker if your trip is covered if you purchased directly with the airline or other travel supplier. A few policies cover you only if you purchased trip elements through a travel agent.

  • Buy enough coverage to be sure you can get home in an emergency. Buying a last-minute ticket in high season can cost several thousand dollars.

  • Doublecheck hurricane policies. Nearly all policies will cover you if a hurricane actually hits … but most will make you leave on a planned trip even if a hurricane warning has been issued for your home city.

  • Few policies cover civil unrest. When turmoil errupted in Kenya early this year, few insurance policies paid for trip cancellations.

  • Look carefully at terrorism definitions. Many policies will cover a cancellation only if terrorism erupts on a city on your itinerary … but not if it hits elsewhere in the country you are visiting.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Airfare wars

Got the money blues? The airlines must, too, because there's a new round of cheap fares out there.

Our friends at SmarterTravel and Hotwire have alerted us to fare wars at American Airlines and Southwest, and British Airways has also announced a sale.

The rub: The fares are fine, but fuel surcharges and taxes can really rack up the final price. And the best fares often limited to schedules that aren't always convenient, usually on Saturdays and mid-week. You know the drill: Book asap or you're toast.

Here are a few samples:


American's sale includes a dozen-plus destinations from Fort Lauderdale and about the same from Miami.

The price from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles, for instance, is only $218 roundtrip ... but when you add in taxes, etc., the final cost is $260 (which is still a bargain.)

From Miami, you can fly to New Orleans for a fare of $162 roundtrip -- a total of $175 with taxes and fees.


For this sale, you have to book by April 17 with at least 14-days' advance notice. Lowest fares range from $49 to $99 each way. Locally, Southwest serves Fort Lauderdale.

Sample fare: We were able to find a Lauderdale to Las Vegas fare of $241.50, including all the taxes and fees, but we had to hunt around for days when the cheapest fare was available. Lauderdale to Manchester, N.H. (near Boston) priced out at $183.


Book by April 10 for discounts on travel to Europe through May 25. We aren't talking dirt cheap -- we found a Miami-Madrid fare for May for $860 including taxes -- but BA will throw in a $50 discount if you book car rental or hotel through them with your flight.

Hint: You might do better to buy a cheap flight to New York, then purchase a separate ticket from New York to Europe. Case in point: We found a roundtrip fare from New York to London for $544.61; from Miami the cheapest we could snag was $797. But if you do this, be sure to leave plenty of extra time between your New York and Miami flights; if you miss a leg, you could have to pay full fare.Got the money blues? The airlines must, too, because there's a new round of cheap fares out there.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Is the economy shrinking your vacation?

I'm in Asheville, N.C. (more about that later!) at a conference of the Southeast Tourism Society. One of the questions under discussion: How will the economy affect travel this year?

It's a subject we've reported on at the Miami Herald. Our reporting -- along with the research of some pretty smart people -- tells us that vacation time is sacred. Despite the economic downtown, Americans will continue to take vacations this year. But they may scale back, stay closer to home, eat in less-grand restaurants or downscale their accommodations. And they probably won't be going to Europe.

What are you doing? Answer our poll at right or click below to Comment.


Q: Can a "deal'' such as an extra night free or free gas influence your vacation decision?

  • Definitely: 25 percent
  • Possibly: 43 percent.
  • Unlikely: 30 percent.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Airports: The biggest loser

Last week, we asked you to vote on the airport you deemed the worst. We took our choices from a list from US News that ranked the nations five worst as Chicago O'Hare, Newark, San Francisco, Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami International.

Those of you who voted in our poll say US News got it wrong. More than 60 percent of the 226 who voted deemed MIA as the worst. Does that mean it's really so bad, or just that -- as Shakespeare would claim -- familiarity breeds contempt?

You tell us. Click to Comment below.

Poll results

Q: In your opinion, which of the following airport's is the nation's worst?

  • Miami International, 61 percent
  • Chicago O'Hare, 14 percent
  • Newark, 13 percent
  • Dallas/Fort Worth, 6 percent
  • San Francisco, 3 percent

Are you a weekend cruiser?

Hi. I'm looking for people who are frequent weekend cruisers (averaging more than one per year) for a story I'm writing. If you fit the bill and would be willing to talk about what you do (and don't) like about them, please e-mail me at

Sail on!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tibet darkens

In Sunday's Miami Herald and online at our website, we'll publish my story about Tibet. I've been there twice now, once last summer and the first time, in 1991. We had planned to run our coverage about my July 2007 visit in a few weeks, but the sad events of the past week forced us to rethink -- and rewrite.

Most Westerners familiar with Tibet's story side with Tibetans. The Chinese forceably annexed the country in 1950; in the years since, the death toll due to execution, prison camps and suicide has numbered above 1 million, according the Tibetan goverment in exile. The death count in the current uprising varies but reports put it as high as 80.

The situation clearly is a mess. The Dalai Lama -- Tibet's spiritual leader and head of the government in exile -- has decried the violence and requested a meeting with Chinese leaders. Chinese leaders have refused. Meanwhile, young Tibetans and exiles have complained that the Dalai Lama's methods are too tame.

No win seems likely here, but that's what miracles are for. So the world -- Tibetan, Chinese and the rest of us -- will wait and see.

Meanwhile, these websites will help keep you up to date:


Photo by Jane Wooldridge / The Miami Herald

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The World's Worst Airport?

Now, I have to admit that Miami International is high on my list of Places Needing Improvement. Granted, the new South Terminal is pretty spiffy, and the new shops in the old terminal are a huge step-up. Still, there's more than a little work left to be done -- like speeding up the luggage delivery (and seeing that nothing is missing from your bag), fixing the escalators, etc.

But is it among the nation's worst airport? Well, yes, according to a story by US News (reported by TravelMole, an industry news cruncher.)

US News distilled government numbers to come up with an Airport Misery Index, based largely on delay records and load factors. (I'd throw in a few more factors, such as quality of airport staffing. Last trip through MIA, the non-local travelers in front of me were aghast to learn that at the Versailles outlet on our concourse, no prices were posted, the staff largely didn't speak English, only one person seemed to know the prices -- and they were truly outrageous.)

The 10 worst, according to the US News rankings:

  • Chicago O'Hare
  • Newark
  • San Francisco
  • Dallas/Fort Worth
  • Miami
  • Las Vegas
  • Charlotte
  • JFK in New York
  • Atlanta
  • Seattle-Tacoma

Least stressful, according to the report: San Jose.

Of course, none of these compares with some of the international airports I visit. Both London Heathrow -- which blessedly just opened a new terminal -- and Charles de Gaulle can try a traveler's patience to the max. But worst I've ever seen, anywhere: Douala, Cameroon. The place is a dump, the AC doesn't work, the temperatures even in the cool season are hellish and the bribe factor -- well, that's another story, but let's just say you'd better come with cash in hand.



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Europe trip recap

If you're reading this blog and you feel like you've been whiplashed from Italy to Britain to some weird industry event called Seatrade -- well, you have. Due to jetlag, I failed to explain that soon as I landed in Miami I headed right over to Seatrade, an annual industry convention.

And now, I'm back in my office at 1 Herald Plaza, the yellow egg-crate overlooking Biscayne Bay (though not in my personal office, which overlooks the legal and education reporters), busily cranking out a story on Vatican City for Easter and finishing up my tallies for the Europe trip.

Herewith, the final tally. For more details on traveling to Europe this fall, check out Sunday's Miami Herald in print or online. (Hey, it looks snazzier in print, I'm telling you.)

Our report:

    If you're going to Europe this year, travel off-season.

    That was the lesson from my recent trip to Italy and England. Even at a time when the dollar has hit new lows against the euro … ités now trading at $1.53 per euro … prices are manageable if you travel out of season, eat modestly and resist the urge to splurge too often.

    Just what months count as "off-season" may vary according to your destination. But you can be sure that wherever you're going, you'll get cheaper prices if you travel before May 1 and after Sept. 30.

    In Rome, for example, we snagged a clean, convenient hotel room for $115 in February … a price that went up about $20 on March 1. Far from the city, in the southern region of Puglia, the cost for a comfortable room in a B&B was about $75. All had private baths.

    Food-wise, we looked for clean, local restaurants, opting for those with a touch of style but without too many flourishes. Menus posted out front helped us determine costs before we walked in. We resisted the temptation to order everything on the menu and instead opted for a single dish per person, sometimes splitting both an antipasto and a pasta. That proved enough food unless we were ravenous … and cost as little as 15 euros in the countryside and 25 euros in Rome, including a glass of wine and a bottle of water. (Note that bread and "cover" cost extra, as will bottled water; eau de tap simply isn't offered.)

    The same was true in England. London brought big prices; the smaller towns of the south were considerably cheaper. A night in a Winchester motel cost about $120; in London, it was $175 and up.

    In both countries, the stiffest costs were for the rental car. Including taxes and insurance, we averaged about $45 per day for the rental in Italy, slightly less in England. Gas was the real wonker; the day we drove from Rome to Puglia, about 325 miles, we used about $130 worth of gas. The trip average: $85 per day for gas and car rental.

    City museum fees cost 10-15 euros per entry … or $15-$23. In the countryside, museums were often free or cost only $3-$5.

    In Rome, our average cost per person per day, based on double occupancy, averaged out to about $110. In the countryside, where both food and lodging were cheaper, the cost was about the same, even when we added in the rental car (stick, of course) and gas. Costs were similar in

    Of course, none of these totals includes shopping. You may have a hard time resisting, especially in Italy. But at these prices, you might think twice before you scoop up that giant ceramic platter. You can't carry it on board, anyway.

    A few lessons from the road:

  • Hotels are cheapest when booked through websites like, and Prices are prepaid, so we were protected when the dollar dropped during the trip. (When we e-mailed the hotels directly for rate quotes, we found them more expensive than booking with the above sites.)

  • City passes that include public transportation and some museum entries can save money … but they don't always. Think realistically about what youére likely to do before you buy the pass.

  • In cities, public transportation is far cheaper than a taxi. Most cities offer day passes that include both metro and buses. (In Rome, youéll pay about $6; in London, about $7.)

  • Train tickets are often expensive, and even with the price of gas, if youére
    traveling tandem, you may be better off renting a car for that jaunt into the countryside than taking the train.

  • Car rental generally is cheaper when you prepay via a discount car rental site … but not always. It pays to shop around on the Internet.

  • Lodging and food are both considerably cheaper in the countryside than in cities like Rome and London. But you can snag good-quality meals in big cities if you eat your big meal at lunch and avoid the temptation to go gourmet.

  • Small things can add up. When the dollar is trading at $1.53 to the euro, that ice cream costs $2.50, the espresso $3 and parking $4.50. Don't even consider a latte.

    The really good news: Even at the current exchange rates, some things are a bargain. In Italy, good-quality local wines averaged $4.50 for a lusty glass of house red. When you figure a glass of wine in Miami costs $8-15, you might as well keep sipping. It will take the edge off your credit card bill.

Going fast: Air sales to Europe

In the last 24 hours, air sales to Europe have hit the Internet. Most are good for spring and at least part of summer -- something that rarely happens. This means you can save on your airfare, even if the dollar exchange rate drives you to ruin once you arrive.

A few announced sales:

  • British Airways: Purchase by midnight Thursday, March 13, for sale fares to London for travel from May 26 - Sept. 3. Sample fare: $474 each way (about $1,118 roundtrip with taxes) traveling mid-week

  • American Airlines: Purchase by March 26 for fares as low as $390 (plus those whomping taxes and surcharges). Leave by May 15, return by June 14. Sample fare: $776 roundtrip midweek from Miami to Paris including taxes.

Don't see the dates you want? Our advice is to just wait a little while. Given the current economic indicators, we're betting you'll see more fare sales. But they probably won't get cheaper.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The next big cruise destination...

Count on it being Asia. Those are the indications from this week's Seatrade industry convention, where Singapore, Taiwan and Korea have all announced new cruise terminals or other initiatives.

Already, Royal Caribbean has a ship in the east, and so do several other smaller, luxury lines. But the new cruise terminals aren't just aimed at North American cruises -- they're also aimed at people who live in that region, say cruise execs. In other words, before you book your Asia cruise, ask about menus.

Six miles of ships

Crusing is still a deal. That was the message this morning at Seatrade, an annual industry get-together where the CEOs of major cruise lines deliver their "state of the union'' panel.

As proof, Stein Kruse, president of Holland America Line, said he recently looked at cruise brochures from the 1980s, the 1990s and today. Prices for a week-long cruise have remained about the same, he noted -- and that's without adjusting for inflation and other factors.

In real terms, that means the price of cruising has gotten cheaper. (These days, you can often get a Caribbean cruise for about $100 per person per day. European cruises cost a little more, but your costs are set in U.S. dollars -- a bonus at a time that exchange rates are plummeting daily.)

The relative value of a cruise that includes food, lodging and transportation from port to port is one reason that cruise executives remain bullish on their industry, despite the economic slump. About 12.8 million passengers are expected to sail in 2008 on the major lines that are members of the Cruise Lines International Association -- about 200,000 more than in 2007.

Member cruise lines will introduce 36 new ships by 2012, reported Dan Hanrahan, president of Celebrity/Azamara cruises and chief of CLIA's marketing committee. Put them all end-to-end, and they'd stretch six miles long, he said.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Priceless -- at any cost

My time in Italy was business. But as I said in the first posting about this trip, these last days, in the U.K., have been a personal trip to celebrate the wedding of my niece, Kim, whose first backpacking trip was chronicled in The Miami Herald nearly 15 years ago.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Kim met and fell in love with Henry Romero, raised in both England and Spain. They married yesterday in near Winchester, in the south of England, at the 18th century Marwell Hall, once owned by Jane Seymour's family. It's a splendid manor home -- walnut fireplaces, leaded windows, a grand staircase -- that is now the centerpiece of the Marwell Zoological Park.

English weddings are a grand and lengthy business, with a formal legal ceremony followed by champagne and hors d'oeuvres (while the bride and groom were having their photos taken with the zoo's lemurs), a wedding breakfast (this is the name of the meal, no matter the menu or time of day), followed by dancing and more wine and more food. A grand moment.

And herewith, the newly married couple, Kimberly Wooldridge Romero and Enrique Romero. Best wishes!

Stonehenge - worth the price

Nothing in Britain is cheap, but even at the horrific exchange rate, the sites are unbeatable. The adult ticket to Stonehenge costs $13, but even though I've been here twice before, visiting this 5000-year-old stone circle is a moving experience. Legends and theories about the who and why -- Merlin? Giants? The devil? Aliens? -- but more intriquing, said my nephew Rob, is the how. Which of course nobody knows.

"People always say you'll be disappointed by Stonehenge, but I'm not disappointed at all," said sister-in-law Cathy.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Pub lunch is the way to go

Best deal in Britain: a pub meal. A huge plate of fish and chips codt less than $15. A chicken pie with fresh peas and fries: $16.
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Thursday, March 06, 2008

In Britain, sticker shock

Hotel and car rental aren't too appalling; the car is about $40 per day and the chain motel is $120. [that's for a basic room with no phone.] So imagine the nasty shock when the TGIFriday's cheeseburger racked up at $17 at the current exchange rate. Oh, and gas fill up in my tiny manual-shift rental car: $90.
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Don't fly too early

Here's a lesson I learned on a previous trip to Europe -- but forgot.

Avoid that early morning flight. My 7:50 am flight was just early enough that I couldn't take the first airport train, which would have dropped me at Da Vinci airport just an hour before flight time. So instead of a $16 train ride, I was in for a $60 taxi ride -- more than half the cost of my flight to London.
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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Driving in Italy: Expensive!

Today I drove about 275 miles from Trani, in the south of Italy, to Rome. The gasoline tab: $130. Tolls: $40. And tomorrow's taxi to the airport for a too-early-for-the-train flight: $60. Ouch!

In Rome, no minor miracle

Driving in Rome is a job for a gladiator. The place is a warren of one-way streets and general traffic insanity, and I knew that navigating my motorized rollerskate back to the rental car garage near the Termini train station was going to be agonizing.

So I did the smart thing: I Mapquested the route, sending the directions to my handheld and downloading it on my laptop as a back-up. But the directions didn’t send to the blackberry, the download wouldn’t open, and I was left to my own shaky skills to wind my way through the city.

After driving for a week in Italy, I’ve learned that signs to the “Centro’’ sometimes disappear just when you need them most. Other times, they direct you to the “Centro’’ via Acapulco, and in fact I did pass a huge mariachi band in Rome on my way to the station. (Go figure.)

Luckily, I have a decent sense of direction, and I headed down the one street I remembered from the outgoing route. It landed me in a tight lane, and I was sure I was lost. The Google maps GPS feature on my handheld indicated that I was indeed within a few hundred meters of the station (hooray!) -- but I couldn’t see it.

I rounded a corner, and suddenly, just on my left, was the street that runs next to my hotel. And – heavens be blessed – there was actually an open parking space! I wiggled into it – thank you Daddy for those parallel parking lessons – and bene! I was able to dash around the corner and drop off my luggage (a darn sight better than having to drag it through the rain!)

Then it was back to the car. Now I knew where I was, and though it took some backtracking through the one-way maze, I actually found my way back to the parking garage unscathed. This definitely rates as a miracle – and a welcome one at that.

The Power of Eight

It stands stark and imposing on the plain, a stone tower on a hill visible for miles across the Apulian countryside. It is the 13th century marvel known today as the Castel del Monte, a symbol of the power of Frederick II and one of his series of castles. It is believed that Frederick himself never used the castle, though it did serve as prison to one of his descendents. Theories about the octagonal manse abound: was it a mathematical puzzle, an astrological observatory, or something even more mystical? Standing in the open atrium of the octagon, you can believe it was something more – until the tour group arrives that spoils the magic.

Give them the finger

Delicate frescoes cover the walls of Galatina’s Basilica of St. Catherina d’Allesandria: armored knights from the crusades, Christ and his disciples, angels that seem to hover in the vaulted arch above the altar. It all seems so refined, so intricate – especially for a 13th century church that is said to have been built to house the finger of St. Catherine. Legend has it that the powerful lord Raimondello Orsini visited the saint’s remains in the Sinai, bent to kiss her hand and bit off the finger, supposedly now housed in the church museum. (It was closed when we visited.)

Shall we eat donkey?

In the rocky hills of Puglia’s Murge, meat is rare, explains vintner Sebastiano de Corato of Rivera Wines. We’re lunching at the cozy Anticha Sapori de Montegrosso, a Slow Food mecca, and cuisine is largely about vegetables. No matter that the sea is only 15 miles away; when the cuisines here developed centuries ago, 15 miles was beyond the ken.

And so the plates arrive: grilled spring onion in olive oil with sea salt, puffy foccacio topped with local herbs, a wild bulb fried with olive oil, yet another spring onion baked with parmesan, a fluffy fresh ricotta with candied celery that is worth a moment of prayer, broccoli roasted with olive oil (are you seeing the pattern?), a hard cheese with carmelized onion, soup with chickpeas and barley, orecchiette with tomato sauce and braesola. And then the meats of a barren region: tiny lamb chops, smoked horse belly and yes, donkey filet, which is surprisingly tender and sweet. Don’t tell Shrek.

Matera: A place of Passion

Most cities start at the top: A hillside, a mountain, a promontory. Matera swells from the bottom, an ancient series of caves carved into a ravine and expanded by man. It’s easy to believe that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. What isn’t so easy is this: Until the 1950s, the rough scooped dwellings were home to 30,000 people, when the government moved 15,000 out of the caves and into housing above. Today the “sassi’’ or stones are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still home to some locals, churches, hotels and restaurants. If you saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion it will look familiar; some scenes were shot here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Lost often, awed frequently. Fabulous food, good wine. No internet access, tired blackberry thumbs. Goodnight.


Lunch - wow - $45
Too full for dinner
Hotel $53

Total $99
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Monday expenses

Hotel $75
Gas $60
Lunch $4.50
Dinner $23

Total $163
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B&B: bring matches

Many b&bs here have gas hotplates so you can make your coffee in the morning. But they're tricky. The first night, the gas stove came without matches. The second one was self-starting -- but I couldn't find the valve for the gas. Oh well, I don't know how to make stove-top perked coffee anyway.
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Monday, March 03, 2008

Matera charm

This atm machine plays Sinatra's version of "My Way" as you pull out cash
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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Expense report


Hotel $75
Lunch $7.50
Dinner $13
Ice cream yum! $2.70

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Lecce: Evening stroll

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Italy: Images from Puglia

Sweet Pugilese

The town of Galatina is shuttered tight for the Sunday lunch siesta, and save for a few leather-clad men laughing in front of a door, the place seems deserted. I stop to shoot of a photo of a church façade, then turn to read the historical information on a placard out front.

‘’Signora, Signora,’’ a man calls. I cower, wondering what sales pitch might be coming next. He gestures, showing me the church is open; I can go inside.

I step into an ornate Easter egg, rich salmon-colored walls flanking a rich marble altar surrounding a painting of the Virgin Mary on a startling field of blue. And to think I could have missed it.

In Puglia, such helpfulness seems a way of life. The farm hand who opens the gate so I can see the cows, then leads me through the yard and stands me just right so I can catch photos of the goats as they’re led out to pasture. The bar worker who follows me across the plaza to be sure I understand the directions to the cathedral. The police officer who stops traffic to explain that I should go to the “rontondo,’’ then points right so I will understand the directions. The elderly woman in the church who mistakes me for her friend, then touches my face in smiling greeting.

“Those Pugilese, they’re so sweet,’’ said a friend whose mother is Italian before my trip. So sweet, so right.

A great cheap sleep

Tonight and tomorrow I am in a b&b in the old city of Lecce. The location is primo - just around the corner from the city's most fab Baroque church - and the price is 50 euros, about $75. What I get is a comfortable apartment with small kitchen, sitting area and a cozy bed under a vaulted alcove. And private bath of course. No internet connection, no shampoo and no hair dryer - for the price, who cares?


Except for gas, a cheap day

Hotel $75
Lunch $18
Dinner $8
Gas $60 ouch

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Go for baroque in Lecce

The city of Lecce in Italy's southern heel is a testament to unrestrained exuberance. The 17th century church facades are a riot of roses and saints, flourishes and garlands and dragons and popes and monks and lambs -- so much icing on the wedding cake that you scarcely know where to begin. And then you realize - you should begin at the ruin of the Roman amphitheater in the town center. It's a reminder that in Italy, history underlies all.
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Friday, February 29, 2008

Looks like Turkey

If you think the Valle d’Istria area of Puglia looks like Anatolia, Turkey, you’re right. When invaders left here centuries ago, they left their traditional architectural style of “trulli’’ houses topped with stone-covered cones.

The trulli appear atop hillsides, in olive orchards, amid the almond trees now flocked with white blooms, and in towns like Aberobello. The town itself has become something of a tourist trap, with a shop in every trulli, but it’s still a marvelous site.


    It was a splurge day. Calories and budget aren't to be counted.

Puglia: The food's too good!

There is a problem with Puglia, and it is this: There is too much food, and it is too good.

About 50 percent of the vegetables grown in Italy come from this region, and more than 50 percent of the olive oil. The ingredients are so fresh that even the simplest meal will ruin your taste buds for the shipped and processed foods so common in the U.S.
There is a problem with Puglia, and it is this: There is too much food, and it is too good.

About 50 percent of the vegetables grown in Italy come from this region, and more than 50 percent of the olive oil. The ingredients are so fresh that even the simplest meal will ruin your taste buds for the shipped and processed foods so common in the U.S.

That wasn’t the point of my cooking class today at the Masseria Torre Coccara, but it may be the most memorable. That, and the fact that making pasta from scratch is an incredible amount of work. Four of us worked an hour to make enough orecchiette – the “little ears’’ – for lunch.

The other dishes were easier: a sauce of anchovies and broccoli rabe, pastry pockets filled with mozzarella and tomatoes, and a grouper baked with vegetables, capers and olives. Most of the vegetables are grown here on the farm – five minutes from the earth to the table.

And what isn’t grown here comes from just down the road, at small farms where the people gladly show you around even though you aren’t speaking the same language. But then, food and farming are the same language – whatever the words.

That wasn’t the point of my cooking class today at the Masseria Torre Coccara, but it may be the most memorable. That, and the fact that making pasta from scratch is an incredible amount of work. Four of us worked an hour to make enough orecchiette – the “little ears’’ – for lunch.

The other dishes were easier: a sauce of anchovies and broccoli rabe, pastry pockets filled with mozzarella and tomatoes, and a grouper baked with vegetables, capers and olives. Most of the vegetables are grown here on the farm – five minutes from the earth to the table.

And what isn’t grown here comes from just down the road, at small farms where the people gladly show you around even though you aren’t speaking the same language. But then, food and farming are the same language – whatever the words.

Scene from Alberobello

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

In Italy, travel on your stomach

The Husband often describes my travel life as “five stars to under the stars’’ – and sometimes it is literally true. (Think camel trekking in Australia to the Aman Resort at Borobodur and you get the picture.)

On this trip, the range isn’t quite as dramatic. Most of my lodgings are budget, but tonight I’ve splurged at the rustically beautiful Masseria Torre Coccaro, built in a defensive tower dating from the 1700s near the sea in Savelletri di Fasano. Rooms with vaulted ceilings surround a courtyard that is simple but artfully tended – the kind of warm sophistication born of an authentic place and genuine hospitality.

The tower sits on a working farm, and the owners still grow vegetables and make olive oil here. It all ends up on your plate at dinner, which is a spectacular experience of the sweetest carrots and fennel served raw with a basalmic vinegar sauce, red tuna carpaccio with a spicy fig sauce, pasta served with bits of local langoustine and zucchini grown on the farm. The Primitivo wine comes from 50 kilometers down the road, the cheeses next door, the pasta from this very kitchen.

This doesn’t come cheap – appetizers run 13-18 euros, pastas around 16 and main dishes 22-34. But when it comes to value, there’s nothing here to argue about. The meal was, simply, divine.


  • Rental car: $46 per day
  • Gas: $50
  • Toll: $35
  • Splurge hotel: $285 (single)
  • Splurge dinner: $65 (so worth it!)

    TOTAL: $481
    If splitting a double room and car expenses: $200 for the room, about $307 per person

Driving in Europe isn't cheap

Driving in an unfamiliar city is always stressful. Doing it in a foreign country…that’s madness.

But driving is the most flexible way to tour the countryside, so for my trip to Puglia, I picked up a car in Rome. Getting out of town brought on the predictable migraine – the directions given by the rental car guy weren’t exactly right, the traffic was scary, I nearly took out a small van and another car. But finally, I was on the Autostrada doing 140 kph – that’s about 87 miles per hour – and getting passed nonstop.

My route led beneath snow-crusted mountains and across wide valleys green with lettuce, carrots and cabbages. The hills and valleys were lined with vines, squarely plotted with orchards of olives and almonds.

Diversions often bring unexpected pleasures, and so I cut away from the direct route to Bari and headed for the coast. A mistake. I got mired in the overgrowth of a town burst beyond its historic borders, a mad explosion of dusty streets, drab-but-useful shops and cars bolting from every side street. A headache squared.

The really sad news: Driving is expensive. My tiny Hyundai car cost $276 for six days – 46 per day including all the taxes and insurances. I refilled the tank once – 33 euros, or $50. The Autostrade toll: 23 euros, or about $35. Ouch.

Only in Rome

From a papal blessing in the morning to a gladiator lesson at night (more about that later!) -- I must be in Rome.

The dollar dumps

One of the drawbacks to winter travel: unpredictable weather. The day was gray and damp – not quite what I’d hoped for on the day designated for the Colosseum and Piazza Navona.

But it was fairly cheap, thanks to having bought my Rome Pass and paid my hotel before the dollar dumped to a new low.

The Pass covered my bus to the Pantheon, my bus to St. Peter’s for the Pope’s weekly blessing, my metro ticket to the Colosseum. The ticket to the papal blessing is free, of course – you pick it up a day in advance.

But before you buy the Pass, think hard about what you'll be doing, I learned. Day passes on the Metro/bus system cost 4 euros each -- meaning the Rome Pass is only a good deal if you'll be staying a full three days and if you'll be visiting at least two museums. (The Vatican Museums aren't covered.)

Still, I already have mine. So Wednesday's only costs were lunch and dinner. With lousy weather, I lingered at both and ate more than I should have. It was yummy.

Sadly, I never did see the Colosseum. Winter hours were shorter than my guidebook had indicated, and I arrived exactly 6 minutes after it closed. I tried again early this's closed until noon for a workers' rally. Now, couldn't they have posted that yesterday?


  • Lunch: $21 (14 euros)
  • Dinner: $21 (14 euros)
  • Bottle of water: $1.50 (1 euro)
  • Hotel: $115

    TOTAL: $158.50
    (If I’d been sharing my room with another person: $101)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Day two: Rome expenses


A cheap day, thanks to the metro access provided by my Rome Pass.

    - Vatican Museums entry: $21 (14 euros)
    - Pizza lunch at the museums: $7.50 (5 euros)
    - Dinner at a local trattoria (pasta, veal and salad shared with a friend): $24 (16 euros)
    - Hotel (with breakfast): $115

TOTAL: $167.50
(If I’d been sharing room with another person: $115.50 per person)

Rome without crowds

In summer, Rome is wretchedly hot – and its often mobbed. But in February, relative calm reigns.

That was part of the allure for Mainers Helene and Bill Chase, Scott and Patty Ruppert and Dave and Maggie Baribeau. The Rupperts have visited many times before and chose February for both the temps and the relative peace. “Other parts of Italy go on holiday for renovations, but everything in Rome is open,’’ said Scott.

I arrived at the Vatican Museums about 10:30 – and waltzed right in, a luxury unthinkable in June. And while there were plenty of other visitors around – including several school groups – I could easily enjoy the Eyptian mummies, the Raphael-muraled rooms and even the cafeteria without having to elbow for space.

Today’s visit was like seeing the museums for the first time. Before, I took the shortest route to Michelangelo’s staggeringly beautiful Sistine Chapel. Today I took my time, tempted by a relatively new audio guide and other changes in recent years. The result: sore feet, an overwhelmed mind – and five hours that left me wishing for more.

“It’s all so breathtaking,’’ said Antoinette Schifferer of California, making her first visit. “I’m not a very religious person, but I found it moving. I can’t even explain why.’’

But then it was time to dash off to St. Peter’s before it closed for the day. The wait: 7 minutes – and that was for the security check.

A few scenes: