Bodies in the Sand, Tropical Drink Melting in Your Hand

When our daughter Sarah was in middle school, she had a much earlier bedtime than most of her schoolmates (Sarah is about to graduate college, with a math degree that she completed in three years. She is headed to graduate school to get her masters in teaching. You’re welcome Sarah.) She struggled with getting to sleep, and would find one reason after another to come downstairs and talk to Bob or I. She’d often find Bob watching episodes of Seinfeld and in an attempt to delay her return to bed, she’d ask Bob questions about it, who the characters were, what it was about, etc. She got so mad when Bob would tell her the show was “about nothing.

I was reminded of this when reading an article on Afar recently in which the author said she had a hard time doing “absolutely nothing” when on a beach vacation. Everyone’s interpretation of absolutely nothing is entirely different of course, as the Seinfeld analogy details, but I must admit, doing absolutely nothing when on a beach vacation has never been hard for me. beach belizeBob and I often take city vacations, where we’re on the go all the time, walking, eating, and trying to burn a few extra calories so we can eat more. But when we go on a beach vacation, a switch in my brain just seems to turn off, and I can sit in a lounge chair staring at the ocean for hours on end. Sure, I probably have a book or magazine with me, but I don’t always read it. My ideal beach vacation is lounging under an umbrella, with water, a magazine and book at the ready, and slowly sipping on a cold cocktail. IMG_1125And if my girlfriends are nearby, even better. We talk when we have something to say—I don’t know what it is with girlfriends, but we always seem to have something to say—we nap when we’re sleepy, jump in the ocean when we’re hot, and eat things that take the least amount of time to prepare, because we’re on vacation, and cooking on vacation is for the birds. It’s also ideal when there are others at the beach, because people watching is another fun doing-nothing pastime.

Mastering the art of doing nothing is, in my opinion, really not that hard. I try, when possible, to get a little exercise in before the beach lounging begins, so my muscles don’t atrophy. IMG_0027I leave my phone/computer/wifi off, figuring if the world got along without me for so many years before cell phones existed, they can get along without me for a few days when I’m on the beach. And I just let go of the idea that a vacation has to be about doing all kinds of things. A vacation is about what you want it to be about. If that means laying in a hotel room watching movies (I’ve been known to do this with my girlfriends too), that is a vacation as well. If it means reading a dozen Harlequin romance novels, good on you. And if it means laying on the beach in some exotic destination (or even the Oregon Coast) and doing absolutely nothing, you go. And please, take me with you.

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These Streets will Make You Feel Brand New—Walking in New York

by Nancy Bestor

New York City has an endless number of outstanding sites. Whether it’s the view from the Empire State Building, the 9/11 Memorial, the lovely Brooklyn Bridge, the Metropolitan Museum, or any of a myriad of other great stops, there are certainly days, weeks, and even years worth of fascinating Big Apple attractions. But for me, New York is also about walking – meandering through different neighborhoods, exploring architecture, and people watching. IMG_6149On a recent trip with my sister, I did just that. I pooh-poohed the idea of any big attractions, and instead just walked and walked, stopping to take in alluring side streets, appealing shops, and gorgeous hotel lobbies, and enjoying the New York scene. Along the way I managed to sneak in a few snacks, some cocktails, and a half priced off-Broadway show.

One morning, after meeting a New York friend for breakfast near Columbia University, IMG_6141I walked back downtown, a 60-plus block journey along Central Park West, enjoying the dog walkers, the attractive apartment buildings with ornate doors and dapper doormen, and the views of Central Park.

On another occasion I trekked to the Chelsea neighborhood, to enjoy its 1.5 mile long High Line, New York City’s elevated park, located 30 feet above ground level on a former train viaduct. I can’t visit New York and not walk the High Line, and even though flowers were not yet in full bloom, High Line Park’s trees and shrubs were beautiful, IMG_6166as was the city view in every direction. The High Line just might be my favorite thing about New York. Well, one of my favorites anyway.

I also walked through the Garment District and stopped in at another favorite, the free museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. One of the current exhibits examines the relationship between the fashion industry and body politics, with corsets and other garments for women of all sizes throughout the ages on display. IMG_6162There was clothing for pregnant women from the 1940’s and 50’s that did everything it could to hide their pregnancy. Fortunately times have changed, at least in some regards. But don’t get me started.

Later that afternoon, I met up with my traveling companions and we taxied to Chinatown, which with traffic took almost as long as a walk would have taken. We were hungry though, and needed sustenance from Vanessa’s Dumpling House (another NYC favorite!) before we could consider walking any further.

When my steamed dumplings and peking duck pancake had filled my belly IMG_6597and given me the strength to carry on, we wandered around China Town and stopped to watch a few minutes of an intense game of handball, a sport that is apparently very popular in New York City. I thought it would be like the handball games I played in elementary school, but I was mistaken, as it’s taken very seriously. Good thing I figured that out before asking to play.

Afterwards we made our way, this time via the subway, to Times Square, where we waited about 15 minutes in the TKTS play line for half price tickets to an evening off-Broadway play. Here’s a secret, if you download the TKTS app onto your phone, you can see in advance which plays and musicals are being discounted for the day. The ticket booth for evening performances opens at 3, and when we arrived at 2:45, the line for musicals was already nearly two hours long. But the play line, on the other side of the booth, was short. We saw Amy and the Orphans that night, for $50 each. It was a great play and a great price. And we didn’t wait in line for two hours either.

Note:

If you’re a regular reader of our newsletters, (thank you!), you’ll know I’m a big fan of public transportation. And New York’s subway system does not disappoint. I took the subway from JFK airport, and my total travel time was about an hour and half. My sister and her crew arrived earlier than I, and their taxi ride was only about 20 minutes shorter and $60 split three ways. My ride was $9. Single subway rides in the city are $3, and you can buy a pass if you plan to ride more often, which lowers the per ride cost. I find the NY subway full of fascinating people, and by the time I get off at my station, I’ve made up a whole life story for everyone sitting around me.

Every Single Big Ol’ Jet Aero Liner

By Robert Bestor

I love the internet and try not to take it for granted. As we all know, it has everything. And though it has everything, for me, websites can almost all be placed into two categories: 1) those with vital and valuable information and data that allows me to educate myself and make quality decisions, and 2) those that offer little more than mildly amusing, time sucking, and mindless “entertainment” that distracts me from doing whatever it is I really should be doing. 

While that may be a slight over-simplification, I do find it to be true. I also find that, wonderfully, there are some sites that fit simultaneously into both categories. FlightAware.com is an excellent example. It is both highly informative and can be a fabulously fascinating waste of time. On top of that, to me, it’s a mind-blowing example of modern technology.

Simply click this link. On this FlightAware.com page, in real time, you’ll see every single commercial flight currently operating over the United States. Hit the zoom out button a couple of times and you’ll see every single commercial flight currently operating everywhere in the world!

Then click on any one of the plane icons and you’ll get information like departure city, arrival city, elapsed time, time remaining, aircraft type, air speed, altitude and more. How’s that for starters? FlightAware offers much more. I’ve done a decent amount of browsing and am still drilling down and finding new and fascinating data.

It does have practical purposes too. I used it recently to check the on-time history of a winter flight we had scheduled. FlightAware’s data informed us that at the time, the flight had recent history of both significant delays and cancellations. We had a tight connection to make, and due to weather, the odds of us making it were not in our favor. So for a minimal change fee (story in our March e-News) we switched to an earlier flight and removed all doubt. 

FlightAware integrates real-time data from thousands of sources worldwide. And I do not have the brain power to imagine how they tie all together so neatly and seamlessly. But I sure do find it handy, entertaining, and amazing to get the latest data on any flight anywhere on the planet.

Oops. Looks like Tap Portugal flight #22 from Lisbon to Salvador, Brazil is running 22 minutes late. It’s scheduled to land at 9:00 pm local time. I wonder if they’ll be able to make that up? I see that it’s an Airbus A330-200 twin jet currently traveling 526 mph at 38,000 feet. Looks like it’s been late a few times recently……etc., etc., etc,.

Just Be Right There When the Whistle Blows

While Bob and I love to walk when we are traveling, we also enjoy taking public transportation. It feels like we are locals when we take the bus or train with regular folk who are commuting to work, school or the market. And coming from a country where public transit leaves a little something to be desired, it’s really delightful to get on a train in downtown Berlin for example, and five hours later, after watching the countryside slide by, arrive in downtown Prague. Heck if you stop at the market for some yummy treats and tasty beverages, it’s the perfect spot for lunch with a great view. 

On our recent winter trip to Europe, we took advantage of all the public transit we could, from trams in Amsterdam to trains in Berlin and buses in Prague. All were easy to navigate, even when hauling our carry on sized suitcases. I’m not knocking taxis or Uber/Lyft (well, maybe I’d knock Las Vegas taxis), but if I have the choice, I’m almost always going to take public transportation.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I was about seven, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system opened, and I remember very clearly that it was the future. BART trains even went underground, through the San Francisco Bay, into the city. I spent a lot of time on BART in my day. In high school, I took BART home every day from school in Oakland to San Leandro. And once I started my career, I commuted by bus and/or BART to San Francisco from the East Bay on a daily basis. BART has improved a bit since then, but it still doesn’t come close to the public transit options in most European cities. Here are some of the reasons I believe European public transit is better. 

Public transit in Europe is extremely convenient, and serves all cities. We can’t get on a train in Ashland, Oregon without driving at least an hour and a half to Klamath Falls for the Amtrak. Everywhere we’ve been in Europe, we have been able to take a bus or train to a major station and transfer to a train heading to another country. Easy as pie.

When a European bus, tram, or train schedule tells you it is leaving at a certain time, it really leaves at that time. And arrivals happen on schedule as well. We were one minute late getting to an Amsterdam tram stop one morning (I totally blame Bob, but bygones), and sure enough, the tram was disappearing around the corner just a short way past our stop. By comparison, Amtrak trains, specifically long-distance ones, have a remarkably poor on-time performance record.

The purchase of tickets is usually on the honor system and I enjoy not hassling with ticket slots and narrow turnstiles. You buy a ticket, validate it at a station, then get on the train, tram or bus. I’m sure the fines for not having a ticket are steep, and everyone I noticed seemed to have a pass or ticket that they validated. It just seems so much more civilized. And yet at the same time, I don’t think for a minute that this would work in the States. We are, of course, a civilized nation, but I think too many people would not follow the rules. 

Longer train rides are a delight, and so much more pleasant than flying. You can get up and move around. There’s no need to arrive two hours in advance. There’s significantly more leg room, no turbulence and, as mentioned earlier, there are interesting views out the window. There’s often free wifi too! And, with train stations often located right downtown, it’s usually much more convenient to get to the station as opposed to the airport. There’s also something so much more romantic about train travel. I half expect Hercule Poirot to come walking down the aisle, looking for a murderer. Not sure why I equate romance with murder though (watch out Bob). 

Side Note:

Google Maps might be at its best when offering directions from one location to another via public transportation. It tells you exactly when the correct train/tram/bus is arriving, and what time you need to leave your location to catch said train/tram/bus. It also gives exact walking directions to the stop, and then the number of stops to your final destination once on the train, tram or bus. I’m a big fan.

Staying “Fit” While On the Road

This is not an infomercial. I am not going to suggest you buy ginsu knives, even though they come with a six in one tool that chops, slices and peels. I am not even going to link this article to a place you can buy the product I’m about to tell you about, because frankly, I’m just not that business savvy. I am, however, going to tell you why I never travel without a FitBit. 

Like so many things in my life, I came late to the FitBit game. When I was finally getting my own pet rock, my friends had moved on to mood rings. And when I finally got a mood ring, I couldn’t understand why it was always teal (normal), as I really wanted a more exciting mood, like cool or passionate. But I digress. Back to the FitBit.

I knew that a watch that also counted steps and calories burned existed, but I didn’t know much more about it than that. I also didn’t think it was something I needed in my life. It turns out I was wrong. For Christmas I received a FitBit from my husband. You might be wondering if this was a suggestion that I might want to start counting calories in my everyday life. Believe me, I wondered too.

In reality though, Bob and I walk a great deal when we travel, and we often wonder how much we’ve walked on any given day, so the FitBit is a great resource to have when we’re on the road. We took it for the first time on our trip to Europe and Iceland this past winter, and discovered that we do indeed walk a great deal. On this trip we averaged about 9 miles a day. It gave us quite a sense of accomplishment when we were in for the evening and could pat ourselves on the back for all the calories we burned that day. 

The steps walked and calories counted are not the only thing we appreciated from the FitBit on our trip though. It was also great to know what time it was without having to look at my phone. I know watches are quickly becoming obsolete, but it sure is handy to check the time with a quick movement of the wrist, rather than digging into my bag or pocket for my iPhone.

Another cool feature of my FitBit is that it vibrates to notify me when I get texts. It also shows me who the text is from and even displays the beginning of the text, reader-board style. It’s great when traveling to be able to check my FitBit when I get a text to see who it is from, and what the text is about, again, without having to pull out my phone.

There are many styles, sizes and prices of FitBits, all with different options. I’m sad to report however, that it doesn’t change color and tell me I am anything but normal.

In Heaven There is No Beer, That’s Why We Drink it Here

By Nancy Bestor

Prague is a beautiful, albeit touristy, European city. The architecture is stunning, and incredibly well preserved. There are also, however, an extraordinary number of chintzy souvenir shops and over the top “tourist experiences” in the old town, with tacky trinkets and “my mom went to Prague and all I got was this t-shirt” (I kid you not) items, as well as people in all sorts of character costumes in the main square available to take pictures with tourists—for a fee. But, as Rick Steves says, if you can just look past all this, in this case, by looking up, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of art nouveau facades and romantic and charming sites.

And then, of course, there’s the beer. The Czech Republic is known for its pilsners and lagers, so in our three day visit, we were determined to experience all Prague had to offer, namely, by drinking beer in as many authentic spots as we could find. In this endeavor, Prague did not disappoint. 

Our airbnb was right in the Old Town, which was a great central location for exploring the city on foot. On our first evening, we walked over the famous Charles Bridge, with its great views of the Prague Castle, to a basement bar serving none other than one of our favorite beers, Pilsner Urquell. We appeared to be the only non locals in the place, and there was no English menu, but it wasn’t hard to communicate that we wanted two beers—and then two more—after which our waiter, in broken English, was able to break down the few food offerings on the chalkboard. The goulash with dumplings and sausage with potato salad were great accompaniments to the star of the evening, the beer, which cost about $2 per pint.

The next day we visited the Strahov Monastery & Library, above the Prague Castle, to get a look at its Philosophy Hall and its Theology Hall, with their stunning ceiling frescos and more than 200,000 books on their shelves. You can only peek into the doorways of the halls, but it is well worth the $6ish dollar entrance price.

Across the way from the Library is the Klasterni Pivovar, the Monastery’s brewery. Of course we couldn’t miss the opportunity to sample beer made just like the monks made it back in the day, or that was our excuse anyway. FYI—it was delicious. As was the onion soup, goulash soup and brown bread toast rubbed with raw garlic. Yum.

In the afternoon we took an “off the beaten path” walk through Prague’s suburbs between the Strahov Monastery and the Brevnov Monastery, to try, you guessed it, more monastic beer. Although the walk itself was not super interesting, the Brevnov Monastery was lovely, and the beer once again was delicious and cheap.

On our last night we settled in for more Czech suds at Konvikt bar. When we walked in and sat at a table, a waiter walking by nodded hello. Bob held up two fingers, and before we knew it, there were two pints sitting in front of us. There was no asking “what kind of beer do you want.” We got served the beer that was on offer. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the beer was outstanding, and about $2 per pint.

Lest you think we did nothing but drink beer while in Prague dear readers, we did also eat sausages. But all joking aside, we thoroughly enjoyed several walks from our Rick Steves Prague guidebook, the Old Town walk, a walk to the Prague Castle, and the Wenceslas Square walk, which gave the history of several fantastic art nouveau buildings, including one—the Hotel Evropa—where a movie was being filmed out front. A highlight was a self guided tour of the Municipal House (with the help of Rick again). This building has a stunning rotunda, lobby, restaurant, and bar, with beautiful mosaic floors, stained glass and art nouveau light fixtures and signage. The Municipal House is Prague’s largest concert hall, but if you can’t see a show here, a visit is still highly recommended.

And the beer, whatever you do while visiting Prague, don’t miss out on the beer. 

 

Time to Get a Second Opinion

by Robert Bestor

It’s always a good idea to get a second opinion. From doctors, contractors, and even the friend who answers “no” when you ask “do these pants make my butt look big?” Well it turns out you should get one from the airlines too. Recently, I phoned Alaska Airlines four separate times, each time getting a different answer to my question. I finally got the answer I was looking for, but it took four phone calls to obtain it.

For our January trip to Europe, we booked separate tickets to get us from Ashland to Seattle to catch our Icelandic Air flight to Amsterdam. With our flight out of Seattle scheduled for 5pm, we chose a late-morning Alaska Air flight that would get us into SeaTac with several hours to spare.9370826_1280x720

However, in the days leading up to our departure, we started to worry. We did not want to miss our Icelandic Air flight. You see, at this time of year, morning fog often keeps flights from landing at Medford Rogue Valley International Airport (that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?). And because they can’t get in, the planes obviously then aren’t there to fly those mid to late morning departures. On the other hand, the first flights of the day are usually okay, as those planes arrived late the previous evening. After discovering that the midmorning Medford – Seattle flight had indeed recently been delayed or canceled several times, we decided it would be prudent to change to the first flight of the day out of Medford.

To add another wrinkle, we’d booked our Alaska tickets on JustFlycom. So a few days before our flight, I called JustFly, only to find that their change fee would be an exorbitant $318 per ticket. To put that into perspective, our Seattle-Amsterdam round trip tickets, with a stopover in Reykjavik, were $460 each. I then decided to call Alaska to see if they could help me.

Alaska’s reservation agents are very friendly, but because we purchased the tickets through JustFly, they told me they couldn’t make the change. So I hung up and figured we’d have to chance it with the late morning flight. But a few minutes later the same Alaska agent called me back and informed me that I would be able to make a “same day” change for $25. This bears repeating. The same Alaska agent called me back. She also said that because we wanted to change to a crack of dawn departure, “same day” would actually mean after 10pm the night before the flight. She also kindly informed me that there were plenty of seats available on the flight we wanted to switch to. Looking good.

Two days later (about 48 hours until departure) I called Alaska again to check availability and confirm the $25 same day change fee. This time I was told I could call back as early 8pm to get it done. If we did get on the earlier flight, we’d have a 4am wake up, so I was happy to hear I’d get to bed two hours earlier.

The evening before our trip I figured that if one agent told me I could make a same day change at 10pm and the other told me 8pm, I might as well try for 6pm. Because I’m guessing that in actuality, an airline can pretty much make a reservation change whenever they want. But when I called at 6pm, and explained that “I know there are plenty of seats available and it would be really helpful to make the change now so I could arrange transportation and get a good night’s sleep,” I was told that both previous agents were dead wrong and “same day means same day” and I’d have to call back at midnight. I didn’t put up a fuss because nobody had told me 6pm would work. I was just trying to get it done early if possible.

But at this point I had three different answers to a seemingly simple question that I am certain Alaska reservation agents deal with every single day.

At 8pm I tried again. This time I told the agent that I had called earlier and been told to call back at 8. And this time it was no problem. Within a few minutes, we were rebooked on the early flight for a total of $50, instead of $636 with JustFly.

So, what’s the moral of this story? Well, first off, be leery of winter morning flights out of Medford. Second, double-check any information you get from an airline reservation agent. If you don’t like the answer, try calling back and speaking to another agent. Heck, it might even be a good idea to record these conversations, just in case. Lastly, go to Iceland! We’ll have a story about it our Spring/Summer newsletter.