Thursday, April 28, 2011

Author's Note

Recently, I had a couple of travel friends comment that I had not been writing on nor updating my blog. They were certainly correct as I had not added anything, nor written anything on the blog since 2009. When I went back into the blog, it took me some time to even remember how to write on and navigate the blog.

It has been my intention for some time to put all of my travel articles on to the blog, so anyone could have access to them, and print them off as needed if traveling to somewhere I have written about. Other than on my computer, they have been scattered if published. Some were published by the American Bar Association Judicial Division, some by the ABA Senior Lawyers Division, some by The Good Life magazine, and nearly all by the Chelan County (Washington) Employee newsletter.

So I have posted all 55 (as of this writing) articles on the blog, all appearing now under the 2011 date on the right side. As I write new articles (two are in the thought process) I will add them to the blog at the same time that I distribute them to all my travel friends.

If you are interested in my in depth daily blogs from our past long visits to various countries, just click on the past years:
                Panama - 2009
                New Zealand - 2008
                San Miguel de Allende & Mexico - 2007

All of my "Time Off The Bench" and "A Lot of Time Off The Bench" articles have been copyrighted at one time or the other. Please feel free to print any of them for personal use. If anyone would like to publish an article, please contact me for permission which I can assure you will be freely given. Enjoy your travels. Judge Tom Warren


San Miguel Redux

      Tom reading Attencion in the casita living room

Sometimes I actually do something right! Mary Ann was groaning (maybe even approaching whining) this past fall about not having any trips planned during what was shaping up as a very cold Chelan winter. Having no trips planned around here is pretty much of a crisis. We have not been planning the long trips in the winter lately because of my having got overextended with community volunteering as Rotary President, city planning commission, and joining the hospital commission. Alas, I needed to find a solution.

On to the internet for a long look at San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We had spent 10 weeks in SMA in 2007 right after retirement and just fell in love with this high altitude central Mexico city brimming with art, culture, warmth, and great cuisine. I had looked last year, trying to find a casa, but because of the amazing popularity of San Miguel in the winter I was unable to find a casa to rent. This year I lucked out, even though I did not start until mid-November . Fortunately, a property came on to VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) following a remodeling. I was able to rent it and keep it a secret for Mary Ann's Christmas present. You can check it out at which includes my review published at the bottom.

The rental and trip was for two weeks in January, and it was a great renewal of our past love for San Miguel. As usual we lucked into interesting native festivals, continuing research in 15 wonderful restaurants, a lovely casita in the heart of the historic centro, a great parade celebrating the 242nd birthday of Ignacio Allende, and making the world's greatest shopper very happy. Needless to say, we had to ship home two boxes of handicraft purchases and a wonderful new painting which is showing off above our fireplace.

Travel often makes for some interesting contacts and this trip was no exception. I have developed a fun email connection with the owner of our casita. Cheryl Finnegan is an international acclaimed jewelry designer from San Miguel. We have discussed by email, books about San Miguel and Mexico, art including that of her husband, writing, and renovation of wonderful properties in San Miguel. Mary Ann and I visited her studio, which was around the corner from our casita, and ate in a restaurant (Café Rama) that she is a partner of. Interestingly, she was a featured local personality in a December article in Smithsonian Magazine. You can check her out, and what Smithsonian thinks of San Miguel de Allende at:

Well, needless to say, we are hooked. We thought, wouldn't it really be neat to share this wonderful place with all of our family, so rather than wait until November, I went to work and found what looks like a wonderful three bedroom casa for a month over Christmas and New Years. Now I am a hero with Mary Ann - and all the kids! Check it out at:

Which one was best: the phone booth or the McDonald's Bathroom?

              Making friends in a TGV train vestibule!

Sometimes the highlights of a foreign country can remain just a little bit elusive as the headline above will reveal. In a few of my prior travel articles I have advocated that if a few things don't go wrong it must have been a pretty boring trip. It is the mistakes and problems that really create discussion when safely back in the comfort of your living room. In this age of internet travel scheduling I have always prided myself on meticulous planning and scheduling, and many of our travel companions have likewise appreciated these efforts. We have laughingly referred to this as Tom's No Fees-No Commission Travel Agency. After our last grand trip it is now referred to as the No Fees-No Commission-No Sleep-No Seats Travel Agency. Read on for the exciting details!

Our recent trip to Europe was a wonderful three week experience, but was a bit complicated with different travel segments involving planes, ferries, trains, metros, boats, cars and ultimately just a few little (in my opinion) glitches. On various parts of the trip our companions included Les and Carol Cooper of Chelan and Tom and Mall Boyd of Leavenworth. Each had an opportunity to experience a "glitch" or two.

So Les and Carol arrive in London ahead of us and check into the hotel I have arranged. Can I account for the fact that they were put in the basement with a view of a concrete wall and a shower made for midgets? When we arrived we of course had a beautiful room on the second floor with real windows, a view and perfectly acceptable shower. I just do not know how this happens! Now I am aware that the Cooper's do have some bad luck with room assignments. The classic was when we went on an African Safari together. This was their plan and had bought us the same deal at a charity auction. How could I account for management assigning us the lodge suite with surround windows viewing the savannah, walk-in closets, hot tub, animals walking outside our windows, while they received a room about the size of our closet. Go figure!

I think Les really has a perspective problem. As he travels around the world for his employer he of course only travels business or first class and stays in the five star famous hotels. He just does not get out and mingle with the people enough, or find out how the rest of world, and frugal world travelers, really live. On this trip it just was not my fault that I planned ahead, way ahead, for Mary Ann and I, and we were able to make our first visit to Europe with all of our flights being first class or business class. When you use frequent flyer miles you really do have to work at it months ahead. Is it my fault that Les seems to procrastinate! By the time they booked their tickets, unfortunately Les could not find any upgrades even though he has a jillion frequent flyer miles and is a preferred super duper mvp whatever on numerous airlines. So they have to fly in steerage. It is just not my fault!

On occasion I do arrange some really early bookings! The difference on a European train leaving at 5:30 a.m. and one leaving at 8:00 a.m. can be as much as $100 a ticket or more. I am just looking out for their ultimate retirement and I am sure Carol appreciates this, even thought Les might be just a bit spoiled. I am not cheap, just frugal. So maybe we did have a little problem with the ticket machines in the train stations. My travel planning does not have guarantees. You pay for what you get. Travel crises are what makes a trip memorable. Who can account for different machines for different types of trains. Wow, only the French could think up that one. So we miss a train or two. This just gives us a chance to help the French trainmaster and his assistant speak English. How did I know many trains were going to be cancelled because of this little wildcat strike problem over the French pension issue. Besides, quit whining, we did get on the TGV train, albeit in the vestibule between cars, and we did sit down…on our luggage. And really, it was only a three hour train trip and it gave us a chance to meet a lot of very nice French citizens, shoulder to shoulder, who found themselves in the same predicament.

After another wonderful self drive yacht cruise on the canals in France, this time in the Aquitaine region of Southwest France, we were off on a road trip to the Pyrenees' and Northern Spain with Tom and Mall. I do have a little (?) quirk about adding countries to my world travel list, so this journey was going to add at least the small remote mountain country of Andorra to the list. Following a beautiful mountain drive from Luchon, France to enter Andorra, we came upon an immigration and customs center. Mary Ann says to me, do you have the passports? Huh? This trip I was in charge of those little gems, ostensibly in my handy dandy neck pack. I said no, I thought you had them. Tom Boyd, with his laid back travel attitude, without a hesitation pulls the car to road edge. Mary Ann goes to the trunk and looks through all the luggage. Nothing. There was no actual check at the Andorra border, so as we enter the first town we pull over at the next phone booth we find. We of course can't make the phone work when trying to call our previous hotel in Luchon, but with the help of some great office people nearby, we connect. Cheers break out all around when the delightful owner says has found a lot of things left by his guests, but this was the first time he has found passports, which had slid down the edge of an extra bed. Thus my experience in Andorra was the use of a phone booth, then using the bathroom at the McDonald's across the street. This country experience obviously beat just buying gas in Luxembourg. I now believe our passports hate each other. You might remember when Mary Ann was carrying them in Johannesburg and had her purse stolen. We are now each carrying our own passports!

Have You Read Any Good Travel Books Lately? 3rd Edition!

I confess, I am addicted to travel literature, as well as traveling every chance possible. It is time to again share with you some of the books I have recently completed and which I think you might enjoy. As you review my selections, think back on some of the travel literature that you may have enjoyed, then send me an email suggesting what I might read next!

Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck with Erol Munuz (Broadway Books 2007)

Five Stars by both Barnes and Noble, and Amazon  This is not just a travel book about the French and Italian Mediterranean coast, but also a book that will appeal to those who love cook books, and like to sail. David Shalleck was a San Francisco and New York Chef, who decided he needed European cooking experience. After four years of interning in Italian restaurants he signed on for the summer season as Chef of a classic sailing yacht owned by one of Italy’s most prominent couples. He then spent five months cooking out of a small galley for the rich and famous while sailing in and out of the great Mediterranean ports of France, Italy, Sardinia and Corsica. The book contains all of his delightful Italian food recipes and the great experiences of the summer. I heartily recommend the book as did Amazon and Barnes & Nobel, who both gave the book five stars.

the media relations department of hisbollah wishes you a happy birthday by Neil MacFarquhar (Public Affairs 2009, paperback edition 2010)  A Washington Post and Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year

I have to admit that my understanding of the problems of the middle east and the impact of Islam have been lacking. We have traveled to Israel and Egypt but, alas we were pursuing Christian education rather than paying a lot of attention to the developing politics of the region. Neil Macfarquhar was raised in Libya and after a Stanford education became a mid-east correspondent for the Associated Press. He then became the bureau chief for the New York Times in Cairo. Neil brings an interesting perspective to the stress and trauma from Morocco to Iraq and everything in between. He speaks fluent Arabic and his long tenure covering the wars, dictators, fatwa’s, and growth of extreme religious governments has given a unique look at the current situation in the Arab and Persian countries. He gives many stories of his contacts with dissidents and their struggle for human rights. Neil pulls no punches with criticism of the U.S. government in their foreign policy and dealings with these countries. For a real eye opening travel/history/politics book about the middle east this is a great place to start.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Penguin Books 2007)  #1 New York Times Bestseller

I know, I know, I probably was one of the last readers of this book in America. I had seen it on the bookstore shelves for years and for some reason could just not get interested in it. When I did buy it, my reading of it was pretty slow, as the first few chapters really seamed to bog down. Eventually, though when you get into Greg Mortenson’s efforts to create schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and battle the Taliban to educate girls where no education had ever happened before, it literally brought tears to my eyes. As a result of his work he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His foundation to help build and fund additional schools has become one of our new charities. He has become quite a world famous humanitarian. I now have his new book “Stones into Schools” and will be embarking on it soon. Greg is speaking to the Rotary International convention in Montreal this summer and we plan to not miss his presentation.

I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do): Living in a small village in Brittany by Mark Greenside (Free Press 2008)

For those of you who have previously read my travel book recommendations, you know I really do have a soft spot for stories of expatriates living in France. I swear, they just jump out at me off the book store shelves (and Half Price Books). Maybe I am looking for successes of foreigners who can conquer the difficulties of traveling and living in France. This book is a really funny story of one problem after another of a guy who buys a house in Brittany having never lived in France, did not speak French, and ultimately ends up being continually rescued by his neighbors. Naturally, he ends up falling in love with his rural town and the people in it. There are so many incidents in the book that you will recognize if you have ever traveled in France, that it is really fun to read. Presently I have loaned the book to one of the couples that have traveled with us to France, so they can also chuckle through it. So, you will have to buy your own copy!

Cruise Characters

Cruising is an interesting way to travel. It has become a real cult for some people and they book their cruises nearly as an exclusive way to get away from home. It is a very comfortable and safe way to be pampered, with just a bit of exploration. A cruise takes all the hassle out of travel and if you have cruised before you know what to expect. We have had four cruises now, and I have to say that I have observed some very predictable characters that you will find on just about any cruise ship. No one falls into just one category, but see if you recognize yourself in any of the following:

The Shopper: The cruise lines tempt you with their shops and sales. The world’s greatest shopper seems to always buy a new watch on every cruise. Each day of the cruise there will be a special sale of some class of items you cannot live without. These include perfumes, gems, cruise line logo wear, watches and the list goes on. The objective is to have you spend all your shipboard credits (used to entice you on to the cruise) and then get you into spending new money. As wonder woman can attest you can go through a lot of those credits by using the spa. A massage, manicure, pedicure, and leg treatment (whatever that is) can make a big dent. The bigger the ship the more shops and opportunities to satisfy that buying urge. Everyone has a bit of shopper in them!

The Sun Worshiper: As you walk on to the pool and hot tub decks you immediately see signs everywhere that say not to save the deck chairs and lounges. Ha! If you arrive after 8 a.m. the place is covered with books, towels, hats, and related paraphernalia, but very few people. Obviously, this is a very tough issue for the cruise staff. They don’t want people to be left out of the sun worshiping, but they also do not want to irritate their guests by being deck police. Oh heck, I get bored lying in the sun anyway.

The Professional: In the back of my mind I knew that some people were really addicted to cruises, but I had no idea to what extent. On our recent cruise to the Caribbean, we were by ourselves, so at every meal we asked to share a table. Thus we talked to a lot of people and found out how really serious some people were about this travel “genre”. Over half the people on our ship had traveled on this cruise line before. We talked with many people who were on their 20th, 30th, or even a higher number of cruises. Our cruise line, Oceania, has only been in existence since 2002, and there was a lady on board who was on her 18th cruise with Oceania. Figure out how many cruises a year she must take!

The Impaired: You always hear a lot of comment about how cruising is for those really “old” people! On our previous cruises I really did not feel the guests were really old, just maybe middle aged. Needless to say we are not traveling on the “young family” cruise lines like Walt Disney or Carnival. However, on our recent cruise there were some really, really old people there. I am going to attribute this to their always escaping from the cold of the northeast to the warmth of the Caribbean and just haven’t bought a condo or mobile home in the Florida tornado alley! And how did I know there were so many old people? It is a tip-off when you see a whole lot of people on a ship with walkers, canes, wheel-chairs, and motorized scooters. Thank goodness there is a doctor and nurse on the ship because there were always people falling down on our shore excursions.

The Players: On a cruise, especially on “at sea” days, there are so many things you can find to do. My idea is to sit down and read a book or take a nap. Others however, are constantly going from one playing activity to another all day long. The options seem endless. You can partake in golf putting, shuffleboard, ping pong, team trivia, wine sampling, martini sampling, dancing lessons (preferably before you sample wine and martinis), mahjong, bridge lessons, political and history lectures, computer lessons, and for total addiction just sit down all day in the casino.

The Affinities: A good part of the ship population can be taken up with the affinities. These are groups who have booked together and have something in common. They tend to stick pretty much together and have special events such as before dinner cocktail parties that we weren’t invited to. On our most recent cruise these groups included the Texas A&M alumni, the Victoria, British Columbia, ballroom dance club, and a group of 50+ who always book together from Sun Tours in Albuquerque. You sure couldn’t miss the “Aggies” as they were always wearing lanyards with ID cards and had signs on their stateroom doors that said “Aggie on Board”. They are obviously not traveling incognito.

The Drinker: Speaking of wine, martinis, and cocktail parties, there are just an incredible number of ways on a cruise to hit the booze. If you sit down in any public area expect to talk with a cocktail waitress. You can drink in any of the four restaurants, pool deck, casino, cocktail lounges, entertainment lounge, your room service, and in the disco club. My, you do have to pace yourself, but keep in mind you have to use up all those shipboard credits!

The Staff: One of the really fun things about a cruise, particularly on a smaller cruise ship, is meeting and talking with the staff. On Oceania every staff member wears a name tag which includes their country of origin. They are more than willing to talk about themselves, their work experiences, and the pride they have in their cruise line. The staff was very international and really there are very few Americans. However, they all speak excellent English and had received excellent training.

The Eaters: You cannot discuss a cruise without visualizing all the characters that are eating - seemingly all the time! It must be a contest between cruise lines as to who has the best and the most eating experiences. To start with, you have 24 hour room service and so you might never leave your room while eating all the time. It was surely more fun to eat breakfast in the grand dining room enjoying white tablecloth breakfasts and choices from smoked salmon to breakfast steaks. Being still hungry you could go to the cooking class taught by the Executive Chef and sample all the food demos. Then move on to lunch and you could go formal or casual. You could eat gourmet sandwiches, pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, or full multi-course lunches, or an 80 foot buffet. In the mid-afternoon why not enjoy the ice cream and milk shake bar! Certainly you can’t make it all the way to dinner so take in the 4 p.m. tea, with all the little sandwiches, and elegant desserts. You could then roll right out of the tea into happy hour so you can wash down all the food and satisfy your appetite with peanuts and pretzels! Finally you could fill yourself up with a five course (at least 2 ½ hour) dinner. The choices were endless with the formal grand dining room, the steak specialty restaurant, the Italian restaurant, or the Tapas buffet. And please don’t forget the wine and drinks at dinner so you can work on those credits! And to complete the day, don’t forget to enjoy the mint left on your pillow, next to the Tums you placed on the nightstand.

Check out the Caribbean Photos:  

Our Favorite Barcelona Experiences!

                    Mercat de La Boqueria

In my last travel article you discovered why you should make Barcelona, Spain, one of the first destinations of any visit to Europe. Now I want to share with you what you should plan to see in this cosmopolitan city. Of course travel is more than just seeing “things”. As you know from many of my prior articles (I have now written 51 of them, not counting my travel blog) Mary Ann and I often have some very often unplanned travel luck experiences. Whether it is seeing the President of Ecuador, escaping a stampede of animals in Mexico, or sheep shearing competitions in New Zealand, we often seem to have some of these “over the top” events. In Barcelona it was arriving, unbeknownst to us, during the biggest festival of the year. It is called the Festes de la Merce, and is a week long very riotous festival honoring the patron saint of Barcelona. For us this festival resulted in thinking no one worked, and they all were spending all of their time with the paseo (the stroll), as there were literally thousands of people on the streets. We enjoyed this fun with seeing street parades such as the parade of the giants and many of the squares filled with human pyramids, and the Plaza blasting out live music and dancing. Our last two days were after the end of the festival, so we did get a perspective of what normal life was like.

Now on to sharing our favorite “things”:

La Rambla: The strolling boulevard is one of a kind. You experience music buskers; local artists; flower and bird stalls, book stalls; human painted statues; open air restaurants, and at each cross street you can enter the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic) on the narrow alleys and streets into the original city of Barcelona. At the end of the street you are at the Port Olympic and Rambla de Mar. The waterfront has been completely modernized and has shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, trams to Montjuic (the Olympic site), trade centers, and a great pedestrian bridge to the boat harbor.

Mercat de La Boqueria: This has to be one of the best food and flower markets in all of Europe. It is about midway down La Rambla and off to one side. It is a huge covered collection of hundreds of fruit, meat, poultry, and every other kind of stand you would need to satisfy your fresh food shopping. It is very photo friendly and there are a lot of little stands to buy fresh food snacks.

Antoni Gaudi: You can hardly go anywhere in Barcelona without experiencing the influence of Gaudi, a modernist late 19th century architect who designed some really crazy stuff. You can see his buildings on the Passeig de Gracia (the shopping boulevard), along La Rambla, the Park Guell (don’t miss this), and the Sagrada Familia church. Even apart from the specific Gaudi buildings and designs, he influenced much of the Barcelona architecture. A building not to be missed is the icon of Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia Church. It is #1 of the tourist stops. It was only partially finished by Gaudi’s death in 1926 and is not expected to be complete until 2030. Good luck!

Barri Gotic and La Riberia: These two neighborhoods are the historic central district of the city. You can spend days wandering the narrow lanes and it is mostly vehicle free other than an occasional motorbike trying to skewer you. These areas contain not only some interesting tourist sites, but also many quaint craft shops. The world’s greatest shopper spent many hours here, while I leaned against walls in the lanes enjoying the people watching. In these neighborhoods you also will find the exceptional Picasso Museum which concentrates on his early works, and the huge Barcelona Cathedral which currently is getting a needed cleaning and is covered with scaffold.

Parc de la Ciutadella: This was an amazing first find for us. A former fortress (Ciutadella) converted into a huge public park near La Riberia and not far from the waterfront. This is where the zoo and the Catalan Parliament are located. I am sure there is no connection there! It is pleasant quiet park with some outstanding fountains and lakes. A good retreat from the busy city.

Montjuic: This is one of several mountains overlooking the sprawling city. It is the location of several major tourist venues which will require more exploration by us when we return again. Located on the mountain are the Olympic stadium and other Olympic venues, the Catalunya National Art Museum, the Joan Miro Museum, the Spanish village and much, much more. You always need to leave some things unexplored giving a great reason for a return visit.

For a complete look at the selected photos of the trip to:

                              Gaudi Buildings everywhere

(Published in the Winter 2011 issue of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division The Voice of Experience Newsletter)

Could Barcelona be just about the best city in Europe to visit?

                 A beautiful visitor to Montserrat

When you have traveled a lot, many people ask what is your favorite place to visit. This is always a hard question, as rarely do we not like somewhere we have traveled. However, a good test of a favorite is whether we have made a return trip to the destination. A few years ago we enjoyed a Mediterranean cruise and it happened to start with a couple of days in Barcelona, Spain, a favorite beginning of many cruises. At that time we thoroughly enjoyed our short visit in Barcelona, and always thought it would be a great place for a more in depth visit.

This thought became a reality this fall, when we booked a full week in Barcelona. So what makes this city worthy of such an investment in time and travel? The city has all the characteristics of what great travel is all about. It is walk-able and the Spanish citizens enjoy being out on the streets at all times of the day and night, so it is a great people watching place. There are wonderful sights to check out with the influence of the architect Gaudi and the city having been made very clean and safe as a result of the Olympics a few years ago. Barcelona is known for its cuisine so there is great eating and socializing.

Barcelona is located on the northeast edge of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. It is proud of its Catalan heritage and language and the citizens consider themselves Catalan first and Spanish second. Because of its geographic location the weather is pleasant with very few extremes. Our visit in October had constant temperatures in the high 70’s. You can always enjoy a city in more depth when you conquer the public transit system. Walking into a subway and trying to figure out how everything works is always somewhat intimidating. The subway stop near our hotel was an important one with two lines crossing so they had people who were very helpful in showing us how to buy and use the ticket system. We bought a multiple day ticket so we were good to go all over the city, thus gaining access to many interesting unique tourist sites.

As you know from previous articles, I am a big believer in taking a city tour on the first full day after arrival. Barcelona has two excellent choices with hop-on and hop-off open top bus companies. This gave us the orientation we needed and gave us the options for later exploration. Even without exploring out from the city center there are wonderful things to do in the downtown area. The city center is bisected by two amazing boulevards. The first is La Rambla, which is a pedestrian walk along the edge of the Gothic historical quarter going from the main city square (Plaza de Catalunya) to the waterfront. Thousands of people walk it, sit in sidewalk cafés, and enjoy the ambience of street performers and some of the best people watching in Europe. The second is the magnificent shopping boulevard called the Passeig de Gracia which goes the opposite direction from the Plaza. This magnificent tree lined street rivals Paris’ boulevards for shopping and beautiful unusual architecture. Many of the Gaudi buildings are on this street.

We had enough time on this visit to spend a day on a tour outside of the city enjoying exploration of the Catalunya countryside. Our all day tour started with a visit to one of the famous local wineries, the Torres family estate winery. Needless to say we sampled even though it was about 10 in the morning and brought back some to sample later. Next it was on to the famous mountain area of Montserrat and the remote Benedictine Monastery at the top of the mountain. We arrived at the monastery by an excellent modern cog railway. It is quite a tourist destination and the Benedictines are reaping the benefits of tours, shops, and restaurants. The views from the mountain are spectacular and worth the visit. We then drove around the mountain range on roads certainly not built for 40 passenger buses, and then on to the seaside town of Sitges which is about 50 miles south of Barcelona. This is the summer destination of the wealthy and chic Barcelona citizens. It is a gem of a beach town with great beaches, historic homes, shopping, and beachside seafood restaurants. This is a place you would like to return to for a longer stay.

In my next article I will share with you our favorite Barcelona sites and why you must visit this easy to enjoy city.

(Published in Summer 2010 issue of ABA Senior Lawyers Division The Voice of Experience Newsletter)

Eastern Europe? Let’s Go!

               Checking out the square in Krakow

When checking out travel opportunities recently, I was reminded that many destinations in Eastern Europe are now travel hot spots, and at some very reasonable prices. We have traditionally traveled in the fall, spring, and early winter for the reasons of reduced prices and fewer tourists. Our trips have included November in Vienna, Thanksgiving in Tuscany, and Poland in the spring. Mary Ann and I have enjoyed generally good weather, although certainly not beach temperatures.

Prices for such locations are so cheap you can hardly stay home. Checking on two different websites I found that starting November 1, you can head for Budapest, Prague, Vienna, or Moscow for $1,500 for two persons from New York City and $1,900 for two starting from Seattle. These prices include airfare, hotel (usually for six nights), breakfast, and in some cases, transfers from and to the airport. Our travel pattern has been to often use these city destination city packages, and on occasion have added days when we wanted to stay longer. We always start with a city tour to get our bearings, and then explore on our own for the rest of the stay. Mary Ann has enjoyed these vacations as you get to stay in the same hotel for the week, and you don’t end up in a rat race of changing hotels each night with the unpacking and repacking that you sometimes find with on a traditional guided tour that often tries to include too much in too short of time.

As I thought back about the trips we have made, I realized I have never written about our trip to Poland. That adventure included a week split between Warsaw and Krakow, connecting the two with a train journey. The two cities are completely different due to their experience in World War II. Warsaw was nearly completely destroyed by the Germans and the Russians, and so the current city was completely rebuilt since the 1950’s. They have even rebuilt the “old town” as a replica of what was historically there. The old town and its connection with the “new town” are easily walkable and can be explored and enjoyed at a leisurely pace. There are a lot of tour opportunities (which we took advantage of) so you can visit the World War II memorial sites, the Royal Route connecting the very nice parks, and the public buildings to include the Parliament, Warsaw being the capital of Poland.

The train trip to Krakow was a real pleasure as it gave us the perspective of what the rural Poland was like, and the agricultural plains that tempted so many conquerors to overrun to the country. Krakow is very different from Warsaw. It has the feeling of a small town. This city has become the new discovery tourist destination supplanting the lure of Prague, Czech Republic. Krakow is a university town so it is loaded with beautiful Polish young people. The city was never destroyed in the war so it is quite a delight to explore. The old town portion is ringed with the city wall, and the moat has been made into a walking park around the entire historic section. Inside and outside the old town are the historic markets, churches, squares, castles, cathedral and a lot to discover. We thoroughly enjoyed Krakow, and if you have to make a choice between Warsaw and Krakow, Krakow is the one to visit. Krakow is clearly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The region around Krakow, in the southern part of Poland, is one area we would definitely return to for a driving visit.

If you are contemplating a trip to Eastern Europe and I can provide any insight or help, please send me an e-mail to So many places to travel and so little time!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Exploring Central Colorado

                      Pikes Peak Cog Railway

It is amazing how many things you can see and do when you do not have to attend meetings! Our trip to Denver was just for unadulterated fun with no commitments to anyone or anything. Some cities are very difficult for arrival, but Denver is a breeze. The airport (, if you have not been there, is a real wonder (one of the newest in the country). It is easy to get around, easy to get to the car rental areas, and easy to drive into downtown. You realize early on that Denver is built on the plain, not in the mountains and they thus have a very efficient and well built freeway system.

Our full three days in Colorado were sort of planned to explore a lot of territory. On Friday we headed to Boulder to check out the gorgeous University of Colorado (I just love visiting colleges) and all of the stone colors of the city.

We then headed west up Boulder Canyon enjoying the roaring creek and then cut north to Estes Park, the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Of course I had left my senior lifetime park pass (an old guy perk) at home, so now Mary Ann also has a pass. We can now enter the parks free with two cars and all the passengers! When traversing the park we realized we had never visited this park before and were enchanted with the mountains and views.

Our route took us over Trail Ridge Road (US 34) through the arctic tundra, crossed the continental divide, and reached 12,183 feet. The park loop took us to the three lakes area, to Winter Park, and back to Denver on Interstate 70. A great day and the little Chevrolet Cobalt rental car just hopped over the mountains.

While driving through Winter Park, which looks like a great ski area, Mary Ann saw that the next day that they were going to have an outdoor art show. She also heard on the radio that a big show was also on Saturday in Greeley, and she suspected correctly that I would not retrace our trip to Winter Park. So on Saturday we drove north to Greeley (, on the great plain of eastern Colorado. Yes, you thought right, it is named after, and was founded by Horace Greeley of “Go West Young Man” fame. Their summer art show called the Art Picnic was a great event with about 200 artists, food and music. I escaped with the world’s greatest shopper making only one modest purchase. I thought it was going to be page one of the great pay-back for that air flight scheduling fiasco! In the afternoon we returned to explore downtown Denver and then go to the Rockies baseball game. I had bought some very good tickets with good food areas, good view, and covered from a little bit of rain. Mary Ann did not complain at all, and I suspect she is now becoming a baseball lover. Probably because the Rockies won. Oh Right!

For Sunday I had made reservations for taking the cog railway trip up Pikes Peak just outside Colorado Springs. It is a beautiful drive to Colorado Springs and the railway trip ( up the mountain was fascinating. The trip took about three hours round trip and saved the Cobalt from what would have been a real struggle driving up that mountain. Our timing was excellent as a real cloud buster hit right after our return. This made us miss the Garden of the Gods, but you always need something to bring you back.

                  Rocky Mountain National Park

The whole long weekend was a wonderful visit and well worth the potential payback! Ouch, that first class ticket for Mary Ann next time will hurt.

Does Denver count as a trip?

Is a Colorado Rockies game reason enough to go to Denver?

I know I should take a trip when I have started dreaming about travel. Obviously, I have been at home too long (hmmm, at least since April)! Now when you live in a summer resort it does not make a lot of sense to leave during the best part of the year. I guess I am just hooked on a change of scenery on a very regular basis. This spring we did get away for long weekends to Vernon, British Columbia and Hood Canal on Puget Sound, but that hardly counts as real travel. Thus wonder woman and I began discussing maybe a 4 or 5 day trip.

We did not want to preempt a real fall trip, so how about using up some frequent flyer miles, and go to a city that for some reason we had never spent time in? In all our American Bar Association trips and multiple crossings of the country we never spent any time in Denver. Summer would obviously be a great time to enjoy a long weekend. So the great travel planner goes to work. For some reason Mary Ann always has more travel miles than me. Huh, maybe she used her credit card more than me? So first I had to transfer miles from her account to mine. This cost $100. We decided to fly from Spokane as we never have used Spokane International. I booked my ticket on United, stupidly not booking both frequent flyer tickets at the same time. I immediately went back in to book Mary Ann’s ticket and uh, oh, the next available free ticket was at 11 p.m. and routed through San Francisco. I was flying at 2 p.m. For some reason Mary Ann just did not think much of this plan. I could buy a ticket on my flight for her, but I am cheap and found a nice ticket on Frontier Airlines for a $150 less than United. The only problem was that she left two hours before me on both the departure from Spokane, and returning from Denver.

I now knew I was in big trouble, especially when my next purchase was for tickets to a Colorado Rockies baseball game. So lets see now, with the cost of transferring miles, and the $90 for baseball tickets, my clever plan to save money seemed to be a bit suspect. In the long run, I was sure Mary Ann wouldn’t mind traveling separate from me, waiting for me for hours in airport terminals, and surely would come to love baseball, just as I do. I really fear a serious payback! To top it off, neither Mary Ann nor I had ever flown on Frontier, but fortunately she really liked her flights. The planes had more roomy seats, are clean, and gave you free refreshments. So even though they were in bankruptcy, everything went just fine. Whew!

To start rebuilding my credibility with my travel partner, I did book a very nice suite in a Residence Inn very near downtown Denver, with easy access to the freeway (thus avoiding getting lost and having travel direction arguments), and a very cute and colorful Chevrolet compact rental car. Am I out of the doghouse yet? I will fill you in on the details of our very nice visit to Denver in the next article.

Comment from Mary Ann: After spending 8 additional hours in airports and having to handle all the luggage by myself I feel I deserve a first class ticket on the next trip!

WOW, Quito, Ecuador is really high!

        Andes mountains viewed from our Quito hotel

We have always wanted to go to Ecuador. I think this desire came about because of stories from Katy when she backpacked through South America and had such a good experience in Ecuador. I don’t know if the name is a derivation from the word “Equator” but in fact the country straddles the Equator, and Quito the capital, is just 40 miles south of the equator. The country is on the west coast of South America (most cruises take off from Guayaquil on the coast for the Galapagos Islands), is bordered on the north by Columbia, the south and east by Peru, with the Andes Mountains running down the middle with part of the Amazon basin on the east.

All of the guide books warn you about the altitude of Quito. Take it easy for the first couple of days and drink a lot of water, in order to acclimate to the altitude of 9300 feet, and to get used to the weather. We really did not have a problem with the altitude. The city is surrounded by volcanos, so when the clouds clear the views of the Andes are spectacular. Those mountains are perpetually covered with snow, but Quito and its long slender valley never has any snow. The weather is the same year around due to its equator location. The daily temperatures are generally in the 70’s and it is very green due to a daily late afternoon hour long rain freshener. We learned early on to carry umbrellas.

From our arrival we learned how friendly and helpful the Ecuadorian people are. We were to be met at the airport and taken to our hotel. That reassuring guide with your name on it just wasn’t in the arrivals hall, but all the other taxi drivers, tour guides, and staff were very helpful in trying to track down our tour company. Eventually, one of them took us to our hotel, where we found that there was a problem with our reservation due to some renovations, and the company eventually moved us to a very high end international hotel, albeit in a different part of Quito. But once very comfortably settled we were ready to explore.

Quito is long and slender, and contains about two million citizens. It is incredibly clean (maybe the rain helps!) and for a large city has very little graffiti, which is now seen the world over. The main tourist areas are the old town (where we were first booked) and the new town (where we actually stayed). They are actually only a couple of miles apart and it is really easy to get around. Cabs are plentiful and only cost $2 to $5 depending on your location. Oh, by the way, Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency so shopping and money issues are no problem. As is our pattern when visiting cities, we started the day after our arrival with a city tour to get our bearings. We thus drove and walked all over old town and then went on to La Mitad del Mundo, “the middle of the world” for the obligatory photos of standing with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the south.

After the tour we were on our own for the rest of the week. For the “Worlds Greatest Shopper” it was handicraft heaven. The Ecuadorian natives are world famous for their woven goods, pottery, and crafts in general. Katy told her to buy a lot to help the poor natives and she always does what her children ask her to do! We had a great private tour to Otavalo, about 60 miles north of Quito, which is known worldwide for its crafts market. Our guide and driver were great and helped me egg on Mary Ann in her bargaining for enough stuff to start a retail store back home. Because of an early arrival in Otavalo we also were able to attend the animal market where the natives are selling and bartering every animal imaginable. Thank goodness Mary Ann held off on buying anything there.

The other must-do area of Quito is the Old Town. It is a terrific restored district with all the historic churches, public buildings, and magnificent squares, We spent at least three days just criss-crossing the neighborhood from one end to the other, visiting museums, churches and just enjoying the ambience of the area and the fun of watching the people. They really do wear the native costumes. Often we just luck out and we walked into Independence Plaza for the Monday changing of the guard in front of the Presidential Palace, and found the President actually reviewing the pageant. Well, the national election was coming up in a couple of weeks!

This was a great week. I might mention that it was not a difficult flight. We flew Copa Airlines (the Panamanian airline) from Los Angeles to Panama City and then directly on to Quito. To my grief Mary Ann found out it did not take forever to fly to Panama City like we did on frequent flyer miles in January. I thought for sure you had to fly to Seattle, to Miami, and then to Panama City. Go figure?

             The Presidential Guard near the palace

Have You Read Any Good Travel Books Lately? 2nd Edition!

I am sure you know, from prior travel articles, that I am addicted to travel literature, as well as traveling every chance I have. A few years ago I wrote an article about travel books that I enjoyed. As my bookcases fill up, it is time to again share with you some of the books I have recently completed and that I think you might enjoy. As you review my selections, think back on some of the travel literature that you may have enjoyed, then send me an email suggesting what I might read next!

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There by Rolf Potts. The author is a prolific writer and shows up frequently with travel articles in the major travel magazines and the annual travel anthologies like The Best American Travel Writing. This book is his second book and is a compendium of twenty travel stories collected from his previous writings. It also has an interesting feature as the author puts end notes at the end of each story, telling about incidents that were not included and writing tips on how he came to structure the story. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and after the fact found that others likewise enjoyed it as the previous purchasers on Amazon gave it five starts. Travelers Tales. ©2008

A Town Like Paris by Bryce Corbett. I am a real sucker for travel books about France and Paris. We have been to France three times, but that really doesn’t account for this affliction. Maybe it is because a fellow judge and good friend has bought a one month time share flat in Paris. Or could I just be jealous? The subtitle of the book is Falling in Love in the City of Light. It is all about an Australian who takes a job in Paris, just really to have the experience of discovering the delights of Paris. The book is a good romp through his experiences of many aspects of living and loving in Paris with all of his new friends, both expats and Parisians. My judge friend has me to keep her continually excited about Paris, as I send the French books on to her after I have finished them! Broadway Books ©2007

A Year in the Merde and In the Merde for Love by Stephen Clarke. As long as I am on a roll with the French travel books, here are a couple of more. I had seen the Stephen Clarke books in the travel literature sections of book stores for years, but for some reason resisted buying. The first book was an international best seller, so I should have read it. When I did read (both of them) I did enjoy Stephen’s experience of trying to start a British tearoom in Paris and all the trials, troubles, and tribulations that result. He is a very funny writer. To obviously protect some of the key players, this is an “almost true” memoir. Bloomsbury ©2004 & 2006

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux. In the opinion of many, Paul Theroux is the best travel writer of all time. He certainly is prolific in that he has written fourteen travel books and twenty-seven fiction books. In March he showed up in an interview in National Geographic Traveler and he has a short story about Turkmenistan in The Best American Travel Writing of 2008. Theroux is pretty much inescapable in the travel writing genre. The most recent Theroux travel adventure that I had read was Dark Star Safari where he traveled from the top of Africa to Cape Town, South Africa. This was a great read and I highly recommend it. I was not aware he had written a new book until I spotted it in Wide World of Books in Seattle’s Wallingford District. Due to a gift certificate I actually bought Ghost Train to the Eastern Star in hardback! Many of you might remember The Great Railway Bazaar which was his very first travel book and written 33 years ago. It was a train journey across Europe, through the mid-east, down the length of India, through Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Viet Nam, and then skipping to Japan and with a grand finale of the Trans-Siberian across Russia and back to London. His new book is a return to the same locales, mostly by train, and viewing and commenting on the changes over those 33 years. It has Theroux’s usual detail and it is quite a read. The reviews are a bit mixed on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but I thought parts of it were very good, particularly about India, Georgia, Turkmenistan and Myanmar. Houghton Mifflin Company ©2008

The Panama Adventure – Part II

                Miraflores Panama Canal Lock

In my last travel article (expose’) I discussed how we selected Panama and found our condo. We spent 30 days in Panama and so we explored a lot of things, mostly in or near Panama City. We did not do the ecology tourist “thing” and head for the jungle or the outlying islands. Maybe if we had a better experience with driving we would have gone further afield. In any case it was, as any new country experience can be, a wonderful discovery of a different life style and culture. You can get an in depth feel for our “discovery” by reading the travel blog which is cited at the end of this article. As a brief snapshot of what we enjoyed and discovered the following are our “top 10” Panama experiences:

(1) The Canal, the Canal, the Canal: Whenever you think about Panama, the first thing that clicks into your mind is the canal. The same happens in Panama. It is such an integral part of life here (and for tourists) that it is about the first thing you do when visiting. We visited the locks or the canal four times while here for our 30 days. And it is a great spectacle which kind of mesmerizes you as you view the activity. The tourist authorities here justifiably call it the 8th wonder of the world.

(2) Casco Viejo: I have not been to Havana, but I suspect that Casco Viejo might be similar. Old Spanish buildings, narrow streets, classic old homes and a lot of ambience make visiting a must. Because of the native craft shopping opportunities for the “world’s greatest shopper” we visited the old town four times, the last time just to get those once in a life time family gifts.

(3) Panama Viejo: Although the first Panama is in a state of ruins, the clean up and restoration of several of the buildings has been a first class archeological effort. The site and the museum give you a good perspective on the founding of modern Panama (1519) and the life of the conquistadors. Visiting Panama Viejo sets you up very well for enjoying the second city of Casco Viejo.

(4) Zoom, zoom criss-crossing Panama City by taxi: After we aborted the idea of a rental car, due to the chaos of driving with out stop lights, stop signs, and street signs, we became daily users of the thousands of taxies here in Panama City. Depending on the time of day, the zoom-zoom can become crawl-crawl which just makes it a challenge for the taxi drivers to find a quicker back street. Rarely did a cab fare exceed $5, unless you were headed to the airport or to the Miraflores locks on the canal.

(5) Restaurants: In the downtown areas where most of the gringos are staying, including us you can hardly walk a hundred feet without another restaurant or café. We probably ate at 30 or more different places and had a lot of fun doing it. Native Panamanian dishes are a bit suspect, but like all over the world Italian food is a hit, and we ate in at least four or five different pasta or pizza places. Do you want Mexican, no problem? Steaks or international cuisine, there are many options. If you see photos of us on the blog or web album, you can be assured we have not lost any weight!

(6) Relaxing at the condo: So what is a vacation for? If you are staying in a comfortable new condo on the 16th floor of a new building with fantastic views, you should spend time there. Besides I need a lot of time for writing or surfing the net, and Mary Ann has books to read!

(7) Walking our neighborhood: I don’t think you could stay in a better neighborhood than El Cangrejo. Via Argentina is as good as it gets with a tree lined median, a lot of restaurants and businesses, a public park, and beautiful Panamanians around all the time. Just a short walk to the west is the hotel district and one block to the south is Via Espana, one of the major cross town thoroughfares. We walk somewhere in the area every day and there is always something new and fun to see.

(8) Enjoying the culture: As you can tell, if you read my travel blog, I try to view how different people live. I thoroughly love trying to figure out their politics, read their news, watch and enjoy the children and the handsome men and beautiful women. For someone who likes to cultivate his skills of observation, maybe it will even improve my skills of description.

(9) Isla Taboga: It was fun and a change of pace to take the daytrip to the island south of the city in the Pacific Ocean. We had a kick laughing about our problems of finding a Panama beach. This venture also was neat as we met and talked with a lot of other travelers and learned their perspective on the “Panama Experience”. Taboga is a beautiful pristine island and lives up to their slogan of Island of Flowers.

(10) A beautiful modern city: This city is just exploding with new buildings and they all seem to be going straight up. The city itself is not really very large, but it sure is increasing their density. When you view the skyline, from any direction, it is hard to believe that it isn’t just a mirage. I suspect that the same feeling comes from viewing Dubai. Hmmm, maybe we should check that out next.

For a more in-depth look at our vacation and adventure in Panama check out my travel blog at, If you just like to look at the pictures, Mary Ann, with her love of children and flowers, has put together an excellent web album on the internet that can be found at:
You can view it as a “slide show” by clicking “slide show” just below the bold Panama Web Album 2009.

                      Amazing Panama City Skyline

The Panama Adventure – Part I

                Our condo building - Congrejo 507

Our travel addiction does have some structure to it. Prior to retirement we decided that we did not want to go the same place each year, nor be tied into a condo in Arizona, or a time-share in Mexico. Our plan was to go to a different country each winter, preferably to a location where the average temperature was not 30 degrees Fahrenheit, like it seemingly is in Chelan during January and February.

Our requirements for a destination condo have been pretty simple. We require a washer-dryer, a safe location (within reason!), a kitchen, a second bedroom so our friends can visit, a neighborhood with a lot of restaurants and things to do, and of course high speed internet access. So far we have been doing pretty well. In 2007 we totally enjoyed San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; in 2008 we travelled and stayed all over both islands of New Zealand; and in 2009 we have had a lot of fun in Panama City, Panama, a country we had never visited before. Who knows what the future will bring? Do you have a suggestion for our destination next year? If so, send me an email ( with your suggestion.

So, why did we select Panama this year? During the summer and fall planning time, I was somewhat concerned with the strength of the dollar versus the euro and the British pound. Little did I anticipate that the dollar would make great gains (or did they come down to the weak dollar) against both currencies because of the worldwide economic downturn. Panama, although its official currency is the Balboa, actually operates on the U.S. dollar. Panama looked like it would have lots to do, with the growth of Panama City, the canal, and its history. The country is considered the safest in Central America and is touted as having no more of a crime problem than the United States. Panama was picked by Budget Travel Magazine as one of the top 10 travel destinations for 2009. Two bonus factors in our decision were that we could fly here with Alaska Airlines partner frequent flyer miles, and it is warm, warm, and hot!

We were delighted to find a very comfortable condo in the El Cangrejo neighborhood of downtown Panama City. This year I used a website called VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner). This site is great for finding short or long term apartment and condo rentals all over the world including the United States. The web pages generally give you the price of the rental and a calendar to check on availability. You deal directly, either by phone or email, with the actual owner of the unit. Our owner lives in Silver Springs, Maryland and was very helpful with local suggestions, and the bonus of Enrique, who keeps track of the property and provides airport pickup and departure service.

Our condo was a two bedroom, three bathroom unit on the 16th floor of a brand new high-rise in a neighborhood with a tree lined boulevard, a nearby park and many of the top rated restaurants in Panama City. The building has a swimming pool on the roof (23rd floor) and it has been fun to watch people and furniture moving in as the building has been filling up. You can look at photos and details of Unit 16A by going to the VRBO webpage at:

In Part II of the Panama Adventure, I will tell you about what we thought were the Top 10 things we enjoyed in our months’ stay in Panama City. For an in depth look at our vacation in Panama check out my travel blog 2009 postings at

For those of you who just like to look at the pictures, Mary Ann has put together a web album on the internet that can be found at:

You can view it as a slide show by clicking “slide show” just below the bold Panama Web Album 2009.

        Tom pounding out all those words on the blog

My Favorite U.S. Cities

Since my involvement with the American Bar Association starting in 1995 I have had the opportunity of visiting a lot of cities all over the United States and Canada. The ABA has two major meetings a year, and in addition, I enjoyed many more planning meetings and the chance to teach ABA judicial classes in several different states. When counting up all the trips I have visited 36 different cities on ABA business. The test is whether you would want to return to a city, just for fun, even though business is involved. In looking at this list of cities, the following are my top five:

Chicago, Illinois – It always seems that there is so much happening in Chicago and it is so easy to get around the downtown center. You can handle Chicago easier than the crowds and many of the neighborhoods of New York City. The proximity of Lake Michigan and the many parks and venues stretched out along the lake and rivers make this a beautiful city to explore. The wonderful restaurants, world class museums, and theatre options make it a great place to visit, whether in the winter or in the summer. I never tire of visiting Chicago and their fun loving attitude.

San Diego, California – Maybe it is the water! It could also be the pleasant breezes from the Pacific and warm weather. Although I am not a beach person (I can last dormant on the sand for about 30 minutes before looking for something to do) visiting the San Diego waterfront and walking the beaches and parks is an enjoyable way to explore a city. The city also has an interesting cultural mix. I always appreciate Latino influences and the general laid back nature of lower Southern California. San Diego also has a great art scene that we enjoy and if you want a lot of kid stuff to do, this is a great place to visit.

Boston, Massachusetts – Boston is just a gem of a city. It is easy to walk around. Great history with not only the history walk, but you can visit all the colonial sites along the walk. Even with the many times I have been in Boston, it is always fun to take one of the hop on-hop off city tours. You always see something new. The city has a wonderful downtown library where you can enjoy architecture and history and a terrific art museum featuring many early U.S. masters. It has the first public library in the United States. The world’s greatest shopper also enjoys the great shopping. We both enjoy the Italian restaurants and some very nice downtown hotels which are not too expensive. And to top it off you can hopefully catch a Boston Red Sox game to make a perfect visit.

Santa Fe, New Mexico – When we lived in El Paso, Texas we made weekend trips to Santa Fe, which was the delight of living in the Southwest. It claims (along with St. Augustine, Florida) to be the oldest city in America. You can’t help but enjoy the Spanish adobe architecture and western art that is to die for. Much of our love of art and a life long habit of art purchases was nurtured in those early visits. As the state capitol, there is a lot going on and the Spanish and Indian culture is fun to observe and enjoy. It is a bit hard to get to, as you can no longer fly into Santa Fe, so fly into Albuquerque and rent a car for a reasonable drive north to Santa Fe.

San Antonio, Texas – The Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio is a real hidden gem. The city diverted the river so it wandered around the downtown, encouraged the building of restaurants and hotels along the river and ended up with a great city experience. It is a Spanish motif with a lot of Mexican restaurants and evening music. It is a very nice convention destination. Along the river they have open river boats cruising along enjoying the mild temperatures, trees drooping over the river and often free music from public amphitheaters along the river. And don’t forget, San Antonio is famous for the Alamo and the founding of the Texas Republic. The fort is just a short walk from the river.

Cruising – An Interesting, Relaxing & Carefree Experience

                The Nautica, Oceania Cruise Line

Judging by the growth of the cruise industry over the past few years most people reading my article may have already had a cruise experience. On the other hand if it is true that only 10% of Americans have passports, maybe you have not been on a cruise. In either case read on for new information or just compare my comments with your own previous cruise experience. A cruise is really an easy way to travel. No driving, most of your travel decisions have been made for you, no unpacking every night, and good food all the time. If you use a travel agent (you should as this is the last bastion of free travel service) all of the details, flight arrangements, hassle, and thinking has been taken care of by your travel expert. It is an obvious popular way to vacation as the industry, and the number of ships, is quickly growing, while travel in general has been declining.

You can customize your cruising choice, as certain ships and cruise companies cater to individual tastes. Mary Ann and I prefer smaller ships with fewer passengers, with a lot of port stops. With fewer passengers, the ports visited do not become so overwhelmed by the visitors. Other ship options can include history emphasis, party ships, ships for children, college alumni groups, long ocean trips, and the list goes on. Recently, we completed a 13 day cruise (our third cruise) in the Eastern Mediterranean with Oceania Cruises on the “Nautica”. Many cruise passengers are older and our cruise was no exception. The average age was 68 (hooray, we were below the average), there were no children on board, and all the activities and entertainment were focused on this age bracket. The Nautica had just 684 passengers, but there were 400 members of the crew to spoil us. Oceania Cruises is a pretty high end operator and pride themselves on unusual ports of call and very few “at sea” days.

The Nautica was truly elegant, and exceedingly well run. Their business plan must be working as the company has two more ships under construction. There was a completely international crew from over 30 countries (all speaking English) and were very well trained to spoil and pamper you. The cuisine, in both quantity and quality, was exceptional. We had our choice of five restaurants, plus throw in high tea in the lounge, appetizers with happy hour, and 24 hour room service all adding up to serious eating. The cruising food formula does not let you pay for anything while on the ship, except for alcohol and wine.

Judging by the mailings I receive, the cruise industry is targeting affinity groups like universities and professional associations. Our cruise on Nautica was in that category as there were 62 Notre Dame Alumni passengers. However you select a cruise, I think it is more fun to have some friends along. We have had friends with us on two cruises, and we were alone on one. On this trip four couples traveled together and I think we all had a wonderful time. If you are not an aggressive new friend maker, traveling with a few friends just shares the fun (and the conversations). Uh, oh, I am now probably in trouble with wonder woman. I am sure I really like talking to her all the time!

Living on the ship gives you a lot of options. These included a casino, art auctions, cooking classes, computer classes, wine tasting, history lectures, martini tasting, exercise gym, spa, many choices of evening entertainment, and all sorts of deck sports including hot tubs and swimming pool. However, the main way the cruise line supplemented the cruising flat fee was to encourage shore tours when in port. Depending on the tour length, from four to eight hours, you could end up paying from $80 to $175 per person per tour. We carefully picked and chose from the extensive array of tours and selected four tours over the 13 days. At several ports where the pier (or tendering from the ship) was right in a downtown area, we just walked off the ship and explored or shopped on our own.

Even for someone like Mary Ann and I, who mostly like to travel and explore on our own, cruising once and awhile is a lot of fun and a nice change of pace. Our three cruises have been spread over 15 years, and they seem to be getting better and better (maybe that is because we are getting older and older). There are hundreds, if not thousands, of prices and choices available from the many cruise lines. Check out the brochures and cruise materials from a travel agent and start dreaming. Many of the itineraries offered these days are very exciting and in some exceptional parts of the world.

“Doesn’t Everyone Want to go to Albania?”

           Waterfront promenade in Sarande, Albania

I have to admit, that I may be a bit strange. Our kids think Mary Ann and I are just plain crazy, but surely they are just exaggerating. My slight quirkiness may have exhibited itself on a recent cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. Was I hyped about stopping in Rhodes, Milos, Santorini, Corfu, or Dubrovnik? Of course not, I was excited about a stop in Saranda, Albania! Anybody can go the Santorini.

Now just how often in your lifetime do you have a chance to visit Albania? This little country emerged from the dark ages of a very repressive form of communism only eight years ago. Very few U.S. citizens have ever been there, so how could you not have this right at the top of your travel list? For some perspective there is only one international airport (Mother Theresa International – she was a native daughter of Albania) located in the capital city of Tirana. There are only three paved airports in the entire country. Where is Albania? On the east it faces the Ionian Sea opposite Italy, Greece on the south, Macedonia on the east, and Serbia, and Montenegro on the north. It is physically a small country with 3 ½ million people and the poorest economically in Europe. For a full overview of Albania and its current situation take a look at the profile of Albania :

Fortunately, in order to satisfy my travel quirk, our cruise line had a port stop in Saranda, Albania (hmmm, we were the only cruise ship in Saranda while there were 12 cruise ships in Dubrovnik, Croatia – go figure!). Saranda is one of the main (only?) resort towns in Albania with about 40,000 residents. It is trying hard to emerge from the 46 years of communist suppression resulting in a totally isolated country. Currently there is 25% unemployment which explains why 7 million Albanians are living elsewhere in the world. There was a lot of construction in Saranda, but much of it was abandoned or unfinished. There were a few upscale hotels and a very nice waterfront promenade. There was not yet a lot of tourist infrastructure.

The rumors were that if you took a tour out of Saranda, the buses would be without springs, there would be no air conditioning, and any bathrooms would be the proverbial hole in the ground. This did not seem to be very appealing to “wonder woman”, but it certainly was not a deterrent for me! We took a tour to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 12 miles south of Saranda. The road was a narrow one lane highway, but it was paved. For goodness sake, what more could you ask for. The bus was up to our air conditioned soft ride western standards. It did take some time to travel the 12 miles as everyone had to stop at wide places on the road so either the bus or the oncoming traffic (usually old Mercedes) could pass by. You see a lot of trash and litter about, but no more than in many emerging and developing countries.

Butrint is an amazingly restored archeological site that goes back to the Greek occupation in the 3rd Century B.C. The ruins then trace the subsequent Roman occupation up through 500 A.D. and finish off with a Venetian fortress atop the hill from about 1500 A.D. The entire site is set on a peninsula which juts out into Lake Butrint which is connected to the Ionian Sea. Helen of Troy is rumored to have been a one time resident, but she did not seem to be around when we were there.

Following our walk about the restored and excavated ruins, and having completed our tour around the entire peninsula and up to the fort, we had time for refreshments at a perfectly respectable café just outside the gate. Mary Ann assures me their restroom was very acceptable, modern and clean, and certainly not just a hole in the floor. All I can say is that those passengers on the ship who did not take advantage of this rare chance to visit Albania certainly missed out. World travelers must be brave and ready to experience some less than ideal conditions. It would be interesting to see how Saranda might have changed by returning in a few years!

                          Sarande, Albania