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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Of Country, Crabs and Cars

Details for those of you who watched my appearance on NewsChannel 8 about nearby getaways.

Goodstone Inn, Middleburg, Virginia:  This luxurious country inn in the heart of Virginia's wine and hunt country is pricey (rooms range from $300'ish to $800 a night). Still, it's the perfect place (if your pocketbook acquiesces) to eat up Farm-to-Fork, a Loudoun County celebration of locally-sourced food and fine wine.
Goodstone Celebrates Farm-to-Fork Loudoun   July 25-August 5
10% off rack rates/one night; 15% off rack/two nights, plus full country breakfast each morning, $25 gift card for the restaurant, and other value-added goodies.

The Inn at Perry Cabin, St. Michaels, Maryland: This Eastern Shore favorite offers 40% off a third night through August 30.

Feeling crabby? The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort can cure what ails you. During the luxury property's Third Annual Crab Week, running from August 17-31, guests can learn how to catch and prep crabs; how to eat crab; and how to race a crab. Additional activities include local craft beer tastings, crab-inspired cookie decorating, and the crab de grace--a crab cake eating contest.

What's more, with the Hyatt Free Time package, guests who stay two nights get a third night free. Just mention offer code FRTIME when reserving a room. So, don't be a hermit and come to Cambridge to celebrate Maryland's state crustacean.

If you prefer car racing to crab racing, wait until Labor Day weekend and drive yourself to Baltimore. The Second Annual Grand Prix of Baltimore zooms through the streets of the city and the Inner Harbor from August 31-September 2. Hotels on the Inner Harbor have the inside track for auto aficionados. The Hyatt Regency Baltimore; The Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards, and the Sheraton Inner Harbor (the official hotel of the Baltimore Grand Prix) are all offering packages including tickets for the race and rooms with a view.

Monday, July 23, 2012

God Bless Bieber, God Save the Queen, and God Knows What Else is in SkyMall

This post was originally conceived as a piece about helpful items to bring on a two-week TransSiberian Express adventure. However, a change of itinerary left me merely armchairing SkyMall on a plane rather than giving berth to an article on train travel.

Having never read SkyMall cover to cover, I took the opportunity to do so on a flight from Washington, DC to San Francisco. Below are some of the items that intrigued me, amused me, or otherwise unhinged me.

Let’s start with the erudite. I never mind a little in-flight education, unless it comes via a boring seatmate. The best way to learn and to shut out said space interloper at the same time is to throw on some earphones and listen to your lovely Complete Works of Beethoven, only $169.00 on SkyMall.  Or opt to learn a language via Rosetta Stone. Courses cost between $179.99 and $499.99 and they include an app for that.

All images from SkyMall Catalog
If your body is aching in flight, as mine was, the appeal of the SomaWave Helmut ($79.99, batteries not included) beckons. Sure, you’ll look like a space alien or an escapee from an insane asylum as you don the metal cap.  But the catalog copy insists it’s “like having thousands of tiny fingers stimulate your scalp“ and  its "euphoria-inducing waves may produce sleep or a trance-like state of consciousness."  If it sounds too good to be true, note that the product reviews tell potential purchasers to wave bye-bye to this flight of fancy.

A little less high-tech is the ReLeaf Neck Nest ($19.99). You’ll look like a stylin’ Catholic priest wearing a black dickey highlighted with royal blue. Unlike U-shaped pillows that plop your head forward, this clerical collar keeps you on the straight and narrow. And you can fold it up and throw it in your carry-on.

Now, if a long plane flight has your spirits down, SkyMall believes there might be some magic in star power. Take, for example, Justin Bieber Singing Toothbrushes. You have two choices. One plays Baby and (appropriately) U Smile, while the other plays Somebody to Love and Love Me. Each tune lasts two minutes, which is optimal brushing time, according to nine out of ten Canadian dentists. Vibrating brushes range in price from $14.99 to $27.99, although you can also buy a mute manual Bieber brush for the bargain bounty of $2.99. And just in time for food stuck between teeth--mint-flavor Bieber floss ($2.99).

For those with a little more class, how about a Diamond Jubilee Solar-Powered Queen? A solar battery in her purse ensures that familar steady steady wave ($21.95). If you like, you can accessorize the monarch with a solar-powered corgi ($14.95), who will nod his head happily. Prince Philip not included. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Daily Suitcase Goes on a Week-Long Adventure

Literally. My suitcase has, in the past week, been spotted around the world. At times, it has been seen at two different places at the same time. I either have a magical suitcase or one that is experiencing binary fission.

To recap my worldly bag's itinerary:

On July 4, I flew from Washington National (DCA) to San Francisco (SFO). I was supposed to travel on to Beijing (PEK, BTW), but fell ill on the plane (long story). As soon as I disembarked, I, the ever responsible traveler, alerted the gate agent of my condition and he said the bag would be pulled from the Beijing flight.

After taking an hour to schlep over to the SFO Travel Clinic, which was closed for the holiday, I wandered down to United Baggage Claim's "Help" Desk. One agent was manning the desk. The line had about four people ahead of me. Twenty minutes later, the line was down to one person in front of me. Unfortunately, that person shanghai'ed the staffer and took her away for 40 minutes. No replacement came as the line behind me grew steadily. Finally, after an hour, I was attended to, and told my bag was somewhere at SFO.

I was at the airport another hour (I arrived at 11:00; my flight to Beijing was to leave at noon; it was now 2:00). I went back to the service desk, where a manager insisted the bag was in the airport and in fact, on its way to the service desk at that very moment. Half an hour later, it still didn't arrive, so I left with a friend who rescued me from the airport.

On the morning of July 5,  I called United Baggage Claim and learned the bag was in Beijing. How it got to Beijing, unless it was never pulled from the noon flight the day before, is a mystery (and remember, it was reportedly in San Francisco when the flight to Beijing took off). I requested its return to San Francisco.

On the morning of July 6, the bag was still in Beijing. At that point, with a glimmer of hope that I might actually get to Beijing, I asked United to hold the bag in China until further notice.

On the evening of July 6, pretty sure I would not be flying to China, I called again. Agents told me the bag was last reported in Washington, DC at DCA on July 5. Imagine my confusion.

On the morning of July 7, definite I would not fly to China, I checked on the bag and it was still said to be somewhere in Washington, DC. This, of course, didn't make sense because it had been reported both in San Francisco and Beijing since July 5.

As my plane landed at Washington Dulles (IAD) at 10:30 PM on July 7, I figured that I might as well check at United Baggage Claim at the airport since I was there (feeling oh-so-lovely, BTW). The guy there said the bag was in Beijing. He gave me a non-toll-free number for United Help in Houston, saying the people staffing that number were more likely to provide decent service. HA!

At 11:30 PM on July 7 in the cab going home, I called said number. The woman said the bag was on a plane flying to Washington, DC.

On July 8, the bag was still in Bejing. It then went MIA for a few days.

On the afternoon of July 10, the bag was reported to be at DCA in Washington. It was to be delivered to my house within hours.

On July 11, the bag was reportedly on a flight to Washington IAD. And as there are no flights from IAD to DCA (given that the two airports are a mere 20 miles apart), it was apparent the bag was never at DCA the day before....nor, for that matter on July 5 or 6.

On the morning of July 12, the bag was reported at Dulles.

4:00 PM,  July 12: Home Sweet Home.

Now, if only I were a singer, I could actually make lemonade out of this lemon, like this guy did. Granted, my guitar wasn't broken (although I am sure it would have been if I have one in the suitcase), but my story is certainly worthy of a country song. If any songwriters would like to tackle it with me, I'm up for the ride.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nine Things I Learned During My Non-Trip to China and Russia

Call this column Birthday Therapy. I was supposed to be somewhere in Mongolia on this special day aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. However, a mystery malady caused me to cancel the trip after the first leg. Said leg landed me in San Francisco, where I was stuck for three days, hoping to feel better so that I could travel over the Pacific. Alas, I ended up back in Washington, DC, where I am currently on hold with United Baggage Claim (see below) as I write this.

1. First, not a lesson learned, but one reinforced. When traveling, always fill a carry-on bag with necessary toiletries, medications, and clean undies. My fabulous new collapsible carry-on from Biaggi was packed with enough stuff to get me through three days in San Francisco without need to repeat outfits nor undergarments.

(One aside on underwear--just before leaving, I got a press release from Travel Guard with ten packing tips. One was: Bring extra underwear and throw it away along the way so you will have more space in your luggage for things you buy. I've seen this tip before and it always make me chuckle. Because, seriously, unless you are packing elephant-sized granny pants in your trunk (note pun, please), I don't see how throwing out underwear gives anyone extra room. Butt I digress).

2. Despite the fact that airlines say bags do not fly on overseas flights unless matched to on-board passengers, the experience of my luggage suggests otherwise. My duffle spent four lovely nights in the Beijing Airport, without a visa and without a matching passenger.

3. If you want a ticket agent instead of a disembodied voice on the United Help Line, say "agent" when first prompted to "press 1 for this, press 2 for that." The voice will then say, "I think you want an agent, but first, let me see if I can help you." Then, the voice starts the "press 1" routine again. At that point, repeat "agent"  and you will be connected to a real person--or at least you will be put on hold to speak to a real person.

4. While it is not any faster, I was told by an in-the-know United baggage representative (I have met many along this journey) that if you call (281) 821-3526, you will be connected to the Houston Help Desk, versus being routed to an outsourced aid line.

5. United charges $200 to reinstate frequent flyer mileage (I had booked my Moscow to DC return flight via MileagePlus). Boo.

6. Health care is better in San Francisco than it is in Washington, DC.

7. Although www.agoda.com is owned by Priceline, it seems to have more flexible refund policies.

8. It pays to increase your word power. While updating those involved with this trip about my daily status, at one point I noted that "the odds of traveling to China this afternoon are at 5%. But if you see pigs or vacas/cows in the sky around noon-time, I am likely China-bound." This riff on "when pigs fly" left me wondering--what do they call that kind of phrase?  It's an adynaton, a phrase about which I will be writing further soon (now that I have time on my hands).  

The definition: Hyberbole so great as to be an impossibility. 
Other examples--
In Italian, it's Quando gli asini voleranno (when donkeys fly) 
In Spanish, it's Quando las vacas vuelen (when the cows fly) 
In Chinese (sigh), they use "除非太陽打西邊出來" (when the sun rises in the west) and
In Russian, (sigh again), it's когда рак на горе свистнет (when the crawfish whistles on the mountain). 

None of the above occurred. I am now back home in Washington, DC, which I'd only prefer to China/Russia quando as galinhas tiverem dentes.

9. ?

I welcome your suggestions for filling out #9. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Don't Take Freedom for Granted

This article, which appeared in Julie van de Zande's A Broader Life last month, seems particularly appropriate to re-post on Independence Day. 

Life Learned Abroad Interview: Laura Powell

What is the most valuable life lesson you’ve 
learned traveling or living abroad?  
Laura: The most profound experience I have had while traveling took place 27 years ago. During winter break from my graduate school studies in England, a friend and I decided to head to West Germany. The itinerary included a visit to West Berlin, physically located in East Germany.
The train ride from West to East was a precursor of things to come. When we crossed the border, armed guards came through the train, overturning seats and diligently checking passports. Outside, the scenery changed from modern landscapes to barren land.
Upon arriving in West Berlin late on a misty, chilly night (a scene somewhat reminiscent of an old Cold War spy novel), my friend and I, as I remember it, walked over to look at the Berlin Wall. The site was a shock. The graffiti-splattered Wall on the West German side (designed, I learned later, to keep the West Germans in as opposed to keeping the East Germans out) served as a stark personification (if an object can be personified) of the proverbial Iron Curtain.
Between the sight of the Wall, images of American military vehicles rolling down the streets of West Berlin, and the “You are Leaving the American/French/British Sector” signs, I was creeped out, for lack of a better term.
But what really sealed my unease was an excursion over to East Berlin–my first journey into a Communist land.
Images: The eastern part of the Wall (there were actually two walls between the two cities–divided by a mined No Man’s Land) unmarked by graffiti, but topped with barbed wire and overseen by guard towers. The contrast in the Christmas Markets between East and West–the West’s rampant with consumerism; the East’s marked (so to speak) by long lines of shabbily-dressed locals waiting desperately to buy a pair of gloves, some socks, or other basic necessities. The difficulty of spending the 25 marks we were forced to exchange upon going into East Berlin. The long waits in the passport lines at the border.
From all of this, the life lesson–don’t take freedom for granted. Seeing a Wall separating people; keeping people from moving freely–for the first time, it struck me how lucky I was to be an American. And, to this day, that image informs my political view and perhaps my career, which is based on being able to travel freely anywhere in the world.
The side lesson: Even though the Christmas Markets in West Berlin were vibrant and colorful, while the ones in the East were grey and depressing, I was, nonetheless, somewhat disturbed by the crass consumerism in the West. Perhaps it was the stark contrast between two places just miles from each other in distance, but world’s apart in terms of philosophy and lifestyle. But it did strike me, at that time, that the Western focus on consumption was a bit vulgar and empty.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Laura Lands in an Airline Magazine

That's quite a feat, no?

Please enjoy my first story for Emirates OpenSkies Magazine. The nine-page spread on Washington, DC starts on page 102. Let me know what you think. Personally, I love the illustrations that accompany the piece.