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 jwooldridge@MiamiHerald.com.

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 Hotels.com, Venere.com and Lastminute.com. 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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