Tag Archives: European Union

the IBIT TRAVEL DIGEST 11.11.12

© Has1sue | Dreamstime.com

The good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

RETURN OF THE SLEEPER
Back in the 1860s, a fellow named George Pullman felt that overnight trains were well short on comfort, so he decided to do something about it. The sleeping car he created would make his name synonymous with luxury rail travel for the next hundred years.

Pullman is long gone, but according to Yahoo Travel, the company that bears his name is bringing those cars back.

Pullman Rail Journeys is now offering rail excursions in fully restored sleeper, dining and lounge cars between Chicago and New Orleans.

If you love rail travel, and especially if you love the idea of following the Mississippi River by rail from the Second City to the land of “laissez les bon temps rouler,” this one needs to go to the top of your bucket list.

But this also is a trip back into “our” history, because Mr. Pullman’s plush railcars also gave rise to the Pullman porters, who played one of the most important — and least-known — roles in the black American struggle for civil rights.

You can learn about that struggle in Chicago with a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum.

What about the other end of the journey, you ask? This, I can tell you from personal experience: A train is one of the two most enjoyable and satisfying ways to arrive in or leave New Orleans (the other being via cruise ship).

For more details, visit the Pullman Rail Journeys Web site here.

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WHEELS OF FORTUNE
Actually, more like wheels that will cost you a fortune. NBC News serves up its list of the world’s ten most scenically glorious, luxuriously glamourous — and heart-stoppingly expensive rail journeys.

Not surprisingly, four of them are in Europe, with two in the Asia/Pacific region and one each in North America, South America and Africa. And on each, the trains are practically destinations in themselves.

Keep this list handy for that day when you hit the lottery. SLIDESHOW

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LIGHTEN YOUR LOAD
In the ongoing struggle to get travelers to pack less — for the sake of their backs as well as their wallets — the folks over at Smarter Travel started looking at what travelers typically bring with them.

The goal, to identify things you should leave at home and buy during your trip.

They came up with seven items, which they put in a slideshow.

Doing this not only can lighten your luggage, but if approached in the right spirit, can become a mini-cultural adventure. You can learn a lot about a place when you go shopping in a different part of the world for something other than souvenirs.

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PRICELINE SAILS OFF WITH KAYAK
The consolidation in the online travel industry continues. After Google bought up the Frommer’s travel Web site, online travel auctioneer Priceline now joins the party by purchasing price comparison site Kayak for $1.8 billion.

Travel planners aren’t likely to notice much difference at first, so long as Priceline sticks with its plan to allow Kayak to continue to function as an independent entity. Sooner or later, however, all of these massive mergers are going to make a difference in how we shop for travel online — and how much we pay for it.

You can check out the details in this USA Today story here.

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RHINO POACHING — LOCAL TRADE, ORGANIZED CRIME
In southern Africa, the ongoing tragedy of rhino poaching not only continues unchecked, but is accelerating to tragic levels, driven by well-financed organized crime.

African Arguments reports that Asia’s growing middle class has more disposable income to spend on folk medicines made from rhino horn and increasingly is doing so, ignoring all scientific evidence that such medicines have no medicinal value at all.

The poachers aren’t quite having it all their own way, though. At least one poaching kingpin recently got 40 years in prison.

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AND FINALLY…
When someone says “Greenland,” what comes to your mind? Frozen tundra? Glaciers melting under the effects of climate change? Icebergs floating menacingly offshore in the Atlantic?

I’m guessing the one thing you don’t think about is fine dining. But Greenland — which, under all that melting ice and snow, actually is green — has this new cadre of creative chefs who would love to change your mind about that.

The London daily newspaper, The Guardian, sent one of its writers, Tim Moore, to see if there was anything to this notion of one of the coldest nations on Earth as a hot foodie destination. Did he find culinary nirvana? Did he stay warm enough to taste anything, or did his frozen fork get stuck to his hand?

Read the Guardian story and find out.

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AND NOW, HERE’S THE DIGEST:

AIR
from Travel Weekly
Congress is siding with US airlines that are balking at the European Union’s plan to charge airlines a carbon tax.

from Smarter Travel
Free concerts. Yoga room. Golf course. Brewpub. A slide four stories high. All this and more at…the airport? If you’re at the right airport, yes. SLIDESHOW

from Travel Weekly
Flight attendants at Southwest Airlines approve a change in their contract that will allow Southwest to fly over water. What does that mean to you? For one thing, it means Southwest is one big step closer to offering flights to Hawai’i.

from Smarter Travel
Has your flight in Europe been cancelled or delayed more than three hours? You have rights, including the right to “get paid.” How do I love thee, European Union? Let me count the euros

from the BBC
Is supersonic passenger air travel poised to make a comeback? If you’ve ever flown from LAX to Delhi or Papeete to Paris, you’re praying that the answer is yes. Check out the possibilities.

LAND
from Travel Weekly
Tour operator Tauck and PBS documentary filmmaker Ken Burns are teaming up to create an 11-day Mississippi River tour package, including a week-long steamboat cruise.

from the Los Angeles Times
The Space Needle is now a half-century old. If you saw it when it was new, that thought might be a little scary. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a good excuse to visit Seattle. That and the coffee, of course.

from USA Today
Ten places to get away from the cold-hearted winter wrath of Mother Nature. SLIDESHOW

from the New York Times
A Caribbean Carnival crawl, one island at a time.

SEA
from Travel Weekly
Cruise lines are increasingly going “green” these days. A surge in environmental consciousness after years of fouling the world’s oceans, or outreach to increasingly eco-conscious passengers?

from USA Today
When the cruise ship formerly known as Carnival Destiny emerges next spring from its $155 million makeover, it will have been renamed Carnival Sunshine and its attractions will include…wait for it…a water park.

AFRICA
from the Washington Post
Want to see the real East Africa? Bag the safaris and head for the cities, because these days, the “real East Africa” is urban.

from allAfrica.com
The Lonely Planet travel writers vote the ancient Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa as Africa’s top travel destination. See if you agree.

from allAfrica.com
A group of adventure travel enthusiasts is traveling the length of the Mother Continent by motor convoy — from Cairo to Capetown. They’re now in Tanzania.

from allAfrica.com
Uganda is world-famous for its rare mountain gorillas. As a tourist attraction, however, they’re gradually being eclipsed…by birds. Surprised? Don’t be. Birdwatching is huge in Africa.

AMERICAS
from the New York Times
Another chocolate tour — this time of the Caribbean.

from the Los Angeles Times
Ecuador is making a strong push these days to draw more visitors, and one of their lures is the old colonial charm of the newly freshened historic center in the capital, Quito.

from the New York Times
The Corn Islands off Nicaragua have no glitz, no glamor, no huge over-the-top resorts. They’re keeping it real out there. Real, rustic, tranquil Caribbean ambiance.

from the BBC
Can a man be buried in two places at once? Two intriguing travel destinations, one on each side of the Atlantic, claim to be the final resting place of Christopher Columbus.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from CNNgo
Go big or stay home. South Korea is planning a massive — and I do mean MASSIVE — new city devoted entirely to tourism and aimed straight at the Chinese market. If it’s built — and its projected pricetag of $275 billion makes that a very large “if” — there will be nothing else like it anywhere.

from CNNgo
A food writer goes on a six-food foodie odyssey in China, and comes back with a list of favorite cities for favorite dishes. If you’re planning a China trip, keep this list handy.

from the BBC
Chimelong Paradise is China’s largest theme park. Amusement at your own risk.

EUROPE
from Travel Weekly
Up a lazy, intimate, luxurious river. Barge cruising in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.

from Rick Steves via SFGate
How to enjoy — and survive — a European road trip.

from Typically Spanish News
If you get sick or hurt while visiting the Spanish city of Málaga and you don’t speak Spanish, you might want to avoid Carlos Haya Hospital. They just fired their seven staff interpreters, whom they plan to replace with…a telephone service? What we may have here is an unhealthy failure to communicate.

Edited by P.A.Rice

IBIT TRAVEL DIGEST

A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media.

Pacific sunset
Sunset from San Clemente, taken from the Amtrak Surfliner | ©IBIT G. Gross

TELLING YOU WHERE TO GO
Travel writers love making lists. We all do it. And so does the New York Times.

They’ve published a list of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012.”

At the top of their list is a place near the top of mine, Panama. Vibrant, a growing economy, small enough to explore, and a mix of indigenous, Latin and African cultures.

It’s an extremely eclectic list. It must be if it includes Myanmar and Oakland, CA in its top ten. And that’s just part of what I love about it.

SPEAKING OF LISTS
Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has his own list of places to go if you want a better understanding of the rapidly changing world we face. Top of his list, India and China.

He especially recommends breaking away from the big cities like Beijing and Mumbai and getting out into the countryside in both those countries. Good advice, but tough to do when you have only a handful of days “in-country.”

Your best bet is to do some research, decide what interests you the most, and focus on that.

COFFEE, TEA OR BEATDOWN?
London’s daily Telegraph is reporting that one of China’s four main airlines, China Eastern, has just trained 20 of its flight attendants in kung fu. The company considers the pilot project so successful that they will now train up all 2,600 of their attendants.

The idea, apparently, is to enable them to act as the first line of defense against an on-board terrorist attack, and give the air marshals (who are on every Chinese flight) extra seconds to intervene.

You can read the entire Daily Telegraph story here.

Don’t be surprised if the other three major Chinese air carriers — Air China, China Southern and Hainan Airlines — adopt similar measures.

DUELING TRAVEL SHOWS
For years, Los Angeles traditionally has hosted a major travel show each winter bringing together tour companies and travel experts with would-be travelers. This year, there will be two.

The Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show, which had been held for the last couple of years at the Los Angeles Convention Center, is moving back to Long Beach, where it had been held in years past. That one’s scheduled for this weekend.

Then there’s the Los Angeles Times Travel Show, which will be held at the LA Convention Center Jan. 28-29.

Confused yet?

The Times, after several years of co-sponsoring the other travel show, decided to break off and do its own thing.

Each will have its share of high-powered presenters with the likes of Andrew Zimmern, Samantha Brown, and Rick Steves. But my two favorites are always the man I call the Godfather of Travel, Arthur Frommer, and his daughter, Pauline, herself an accomplished travel writer.

This is the kind of overload I like!

A DIFFERENT LOOK
Believe it or not, one of my favorite travel activities is to watch television. You can learn a lot.

One of the things you learn is that there’s a lot of great stuff being aired around the world that will never make its way to the States. Another is that network news elsewhere in the world is not the joke it has become here.

While in Paris, I was able to compare CNN, the BBC, France 24 and Al Jazeera during their coverage of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Al Jazeera blew them all away — thorough, professional, level-headed, fresh.

What made me think of this today is word that a six-part mini-series is in the works about the life of Nelson Mandela, an international production to be shot in South Africa. It’s to be called “Mandiba.”

You can pick up more details about the series from The Guardian story here.



And now, here’s this week’s Digest:

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AIR
from We Blog the World
Here’s a thought: Instead of donating money to charity, why not donate some of your frequent flier miles? Yes, you can do that.

from Eurotriptips
Some tips for avoiding add-on fees on low-cost European airlines.

from Budget Travel​
Another day, another fee. Airlines are adding a $6 fee to cover a “carbon fee” imposed by the European Union. Still, considering what US airlines charge to check a suitcase, it’s hard for me to get too upset.

LAND
from the New York Times
Another list from the Times, this one of useful Web sites for saving money on flights, lodging and a whole lot else. Many of them are the “usual suspects,” but you’ll find a few new names, as well.

from USA Today
Before we write off airport security as a total joke, TSA screeners say they’re finding an average of four guns a day at US airports. Say WHAT?

from Pushing the Limits
His name is Andy Campbell. He’s paralyzed. And he’s out to travel 30,000 miles around the world…in a wheelchair. What was your excuse again?

SEA
from Smarter Travel
The ST crew gives you their outlook for cruise travel in 2012. The good: new ships, refurbished ships, a big year for river cruising. The bad: smaller cabins and more add-on fees.

from USA Today
The comeback continues. Cruise ship sailings are breaking marks set prior to Hurricane Katrina.

from Travel Weekly
After three years’ absence, Royal Caribbean resumes cruising the Panama Canal.

from USA Today
Have you heard of or seen a “5-D” movie? The next new Carnival cruise ship will boast a 5-D movie theater.

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AFRICA

from the East African Business Week (Uganda)
Hundreds of elephants and other wild animals are stampeding out of Uganda’s largest wildlife reserve and into inhabited areas, trashing farmers’ crops and generally raising hell. The suspected culprit: oil exploration inside the park.

from the Citizen (Tanzania)
Tanzanian tourism officials crow after their country cracks the top ten of the NY Times’ list of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012,” and look to build on that momentum.

from the Herald (Zimbabwe)
Tourism minister rails against “shylocks” whom he says charge exorbitant prices at the country’s tourist resorts, inhibiting tourism growth in the country. ​

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AMERICAS/CARIBBEAN
from USA Today
If you live within easy travel distance of a US national park, the upcoming Martin Luther King holiday weekend would be a good time for a visit. Admissions are free.

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ASIA/PACIFIC
from the Los Angeles Times
Turning ice into art in the Chinese city of Harbin. SLIDESHOW

from the Quirky Traveller
Hanoi is emerging from the shadow of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) as a tourist destination.

from the Telegraph (London UK)
A massive snowfall in Austria strands thousands of skiers. ​

from CNN
North Korea. Rogue state…cult of personality…tourist destination? Really?

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EUROPE
from msnbc
Cheapest European cities to hit in 2012.

from Budget Travel
How to fly around Europe for ridiculously small amounts of money. One key advantage, low-fare airlines. Another, smaller airports. The tradeoff, a longer cab, bus or train ride to your destination.

from the Guardian (London UK)
Brussels may not get as much respect as Paris when it comes to cuisine, but these folks know how to throw a food festival. For one thing, theirs lasts most of the year. Turn a tram into a resto? A dining room suspended from a crane? Top that, Monsieur Michelin!

Edited by P.A. Rice

IBIT TRAVEL DIGEST

A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media.

THE TRAVEL HORIZON
This is the time of year when travel experts and industry observers offer up their forecasts for the new year.

The folks over at Travel+Leisure are expecting a lot of new cruise vacationers this year — and with all the ships coming out or already sailing, they’ll find no shortage of waiting cabins.
More on that later this week.

Over at Fox News, they expect more travelers to opt for vacation rentals over hotel stays, something IBIT has been advocating since we started up three years ago.

Meanwhile, the budget travel specialists over at About.com look for more travelers to opt for less popular destinations and less travel spending, especially in the face of what they anticipate as an upsurge in travel-related taxes and fees. Lovely.

They also see travelers zeroing in on countries whose currencies are more stable, which makes sense. It’s no fun waking up on the other side of the world to find out that the value of the local funds in your wallet has bottomed out overnight.

As for destinations, South America is hot, and not just for the climate. A lot of travelers are discovering they can find almost everything they look for in Europe by heading south instead of east, be it an urban experience or adventure travel.

Meanwhile, a lot of black American travelers are increasingly connecting with black Latino cultures in South America and the Caribbean as they realize how much of our history is also theirs. You’ll be seeing more about that here, too, in the coming days and weeks.

Another hot travel ticket for 2012: Asia. Between Asia-based airlines scrambling for more passengers and tour companies offering package almost too cheap to be legal, travel to Asian and Pacific destinations should be a strong draw in 2012.

DEPARTMENT STORE DINING
One of the things that was lost with the “malling” of America was the concept of the department store food court.

That’s not the case elsewhere in the world, which explains why multi-story mega-stores like Harrods in London and the KaDeWe in Berlin are as famous for their food courts as they are for their clothing, jewelry and fine furnishings.

Department store food courts are mini-arcades, featuring fresh and canned goods from around the world, along with counters where the hungry shopper can sit down to some incredible cuisine. It’s the best of everything, carefully prepared and lovingly presented, or it’s not there.

They’re seldom cheap, but what you get for the money is usually well worth it.

The Frommers Web site offers a slideshow of some of its favorite food courts around the world. If you find yourself salivating by the time you finish it, that’s quite all right.

SHAKING THINGS UP
Lastly, 2012 in Japan came in not with a bang, but a tremor — a magnitude 7.0 earthquake off the coast, deep under the Pacific Ocean. Tokyo apparently got a good rattling, but no reports of damage or injuries early on.

And just as well, since the country is still recovering from last year’s devastating quake disaster. But when your nation makes its home on the Ring of Fire, you can’t expect any breaks from Mother Nature.

Japan’s New Year’s Day shaker is one more reminder that when you travel, you might actually want to figure out your own plan for getting out of the hotel in an emergency.



And now, here’s this week’s Digest:

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AIR
from USA Today
2011 was the safest year yet for air travel. That sound you hear is me, knocking on wood.

from the Wall Street Journal
the Christmas holidays may be over, but winter air travel may still give you lots of close encounters with cold and flu bugs. How to get through winter travel in good health.

from fastcodesign.com
Would to take a nap in a box in the airport? There’s a Russian outfit that’s betting you would, and you may one day start seeing their Sleepboxes in departure lounges.

from the National Geographic
NatGeo’s list of its favorite airports and why.

LAND
from the MSNBC
Is Southwest Airlines slipping? How do you let a 9-year-old girl fly unaccompanied by an adult, then basically lose the child for five hours? Not good.

from YouTube
Chris McGinnis explains about “dead weeks” and what makes them the best time to find travel bargains.

from the Age (Australia)
There’s a new Ferrari on Italy’s roads — its railroads. And like its four-wheeled namesake, it’s red, and it’s fast. Very fast.

from Bike Radar
Bike garages…in Los Angeles? Is Southern California finally beginning to cool on its love affair with the automobile?

SEA

from USA Today
There’s a lady in Indiana suing Carnival Cruise Lines. Reason: she said the ship was going too fast. You can’t make this stuff up.

from the Travel Weekly
San Francisco is going all in on an $86 million spruce-up on its waterfront, and a new cruise ship terminal is part of the package. If sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t on your bucket list, it should be.

from the Luxury Daily ​
Celebrity Cruises plans to offer more cruises this year with themes designed around food and wine. They’re called “Excite the Senses” cruises.

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AFRICA
from allAfrica.com
Two hotels in Rwanda earn five-star ratings.

from allAfrica.com
Could medical tourism work for Africa the way it has for Asia? Some folks in Kenya are starting to look at it.

from This Day (Nigeria)
Want to know why African regional air travel suffers such a bad reputation? This is one example.

fromThis Day (Nigeria)
The Calabar Festival, Africa’s largest street party.

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AMERICAS/CARIBBEAN
from the New York Times
How to spend a hip weekend in Trinidad.

from the Guardian (London UK)
Are you one of those folks who believes the world is going to end this year? Would you like to meet the folks whose ancient culture produced that prediction? If so, head for Guatemala.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
Moderately priced hotels in Hawaii. That’s right, I said it!

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ASIA/PACIFIC
from Nomadic Matt
Get your grub on like — and where — the locals do in Bangkok.

from the BBC Travel
The 2010 World Expo may only be a memory now, but Shanghai isn’t slowing down one bit — not in its growth, not in its swag and not in its rivalry with Beijing.

from the San Francisco Chronicle​
There’s more to French Polynesia than Tahiti and Bora Bora.

from Globetrooper
Train travel is one of the best ways to experience India, but you need to choose your berth with care. These guys will tell you how.

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EUROPE
from the Guardian (London UK)
Each year, the European Union selects a city as the EU’s Capital of Culture. The bet here says you’ve never heard of it, and in some ways, that’s a good thing. Hint: it’s in Slovenia.

from the Girls Guide Paris
I can’t imagine wanting to ever get out of Paris, but if you need a quick getaway from the City of Light, the Burgundy region is a good candidate — and not just for the wine that bears its name.

from the Los Angeles Times
In any other city, an ATM machine will give you money. In Paris, the bread you get from an ATM may be warm and crusty and good with a little olive oil.

from the Huffington Post
​Do London like a Londoner.

the SUNDAY TRAVEL DIGEST

A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’ best travel media

You already know about last week’s bombing by an al Qaeda terrorist of a popular tourist cafe in Morocco. Guys like this want you to think they represent the real Islam, which they don’t — except perhaps in some lunatic parallel universe.

But there’s one thing about Islam they really don’t want you to know about: The Muslim tradition of hospitality.

After the bombing, I went cruising the Googlesphere to learn more about it. This is some of what I found:

  • “A tradition within Islam actually stipulates someone is allowed to stay in your home for 3 days before you can question why they are staying and when they will leave.”
  • “Families judge themselves and each other by their generosity to guests when they entertain.”
  • “Among the Bedouins, whoever sees a stranger coming from afar and exclaims, “Here comes my guest!” has the right to claim him.”
  • “Failure to be hospitable is one of the sins of the Arab world.”

It all may sound a bit “over the top” to us, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The region that gave birth to Islam is one of the most unforgiving desert environments on Earth. Nomadic life was common, and settlements offering food, water and safety were few and sporadic.

In conditions like these, “the kindness of strangers” was how you stayed alive. It still is.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all preach hospitality, but Muslims treat it as a duty, a matter of honor.

I experienced this firsthand in Senegal, where the daughter of our group leader insisted that we couldn’t leave the country before she prepared a meal for us of thieboudienne, the country’s national dish.

(That’s her up there on the right, holding one of her children, standing next to her father, our team leader, Ogo Sow.)

Thieboudienne

That meant taking time from her factory job to gather up the needed ingredients, then spend God-knows-how-long preparing this huge stew of spicy fish, vegetables and rice, served with green tea and mint. All this for her father and six non-Muslim American strangers.

We truly didn’t want her to go to all that trouble for us, but he made it clear that it wasn’t our call, or even his.

Indeed, had we just gone straight to the airport, I think she might have tracked us down in Dakar, 124 miles away, and fed us her wonderful thieboudienne.

Is this the mindset of people who reflexively hate foreigners? That is the lie that the Morocco cafe bomber and those like him are trying to sell you.

Resist the urge to buy.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:

AIR
from Smarter Travel
Too early to start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas travel? JetBlue doesn’t think so. Apparently taking the view that it’s never too early to start filling seats on your airplanes, they’re stealing a march on their competition by opening their booking window through the end of the year. So far, Southwest and JetBlue’s other rivals aren’t matching the move, but you’d better believe they’re watching. Does the early bird get the holiday bargain?

from USA Today
A former Miss USA says she was “molested” by the TSA during one of their enhanced patdowns. Actual rape victims might take exception to the “molest” claim, but she does she have a point?

LAND
from the New York Times
Airlines aren’t the only ones beating down your travel budget with fists full of add-on fees. The rental car agencies are doing it, too.The NYT’s Frugal Traveler, Seth Kugel, shows you how to avoid the money traps.

SEA
from USA Today
A glut of cruise ships this year in European waters plus unexpectedly low demand equals nervous cruise lines…and maybe some unexpected Euro-cruise bargains?

from USA Today
Counting the vessels of rivals it has bought up over the years, Carnival Cruise Lines now has 100 ships. That’s more large ocean-going vessels than a lot of navies.

AFRICA
from Der Spiegel (Germany)
An influx of refugees from North Africa is causing European Union members to consider restoring border checks. It’s a touchy subject that’s having an impact on relations among EU member states.

from the Telegraph (London, UK)
The Rift Valley of East Africa is the only part of the Earth’s geography that you can see clearly from the moon. It would be a lot easier, cheaper and more worthwhile to see it from Kenya and Ethiopia.

AMERICAS/CARIBBEAN
from the Los Angeles Times
The State Department updates its travel advisory for Mexico as bodies start turning up in unmarked graves in border towns torn by violence between rival drug cartels.

ASIA
from the New York Times
Singapore — staid, stodgy and utterly uptight. You haven’t been here lately, have you?

from CNNgo
The Seven Deadly Sins — and the Asian city that best symbolizes each.

EUROPE
from the New York Times
Want to find classic Italy and lose the tourist mobs at the same time? Find Trieste.

Brussels

Atomium structure from 1958 Brussels World Fair | © Greg Gross

In a country whose history is weighed down by layers of tragedy and strife, the national capital is an island floating on the possibilities that come with peace.

This is not one of those cities where you’ll find yourself looking around in quiet desperation for someone who looks or sounds like you. Brussels is a truly cosmopolitan place, almost as much so as London or Paris.

Every continent is represented – and representing — here. Every shade of the human rainbow. Soccer jersies and black business suits, miniskirts and Muslim chadors. They’ve come here for a chance at peace and prosperity — and they’ve brought their cuisine, their culture and their music with them.

That makes Brussels a kind of very large frontier town, only without the border — perhaps the greatest of Europe’s cultural crossroads.

Brussels is a very city in a very dense country. The entire national population is only about 10 million, of whom 2 million live here.

The hills here remind you a bit of San Francisco, except that there are more alleyways off the main streets, lined with brasseries and shops. Perhaps as many outdoor cafes as Paris. Streets are narrow and often cobbled.

Traffic in the city center is heavy and tight. Trams and the Metro definitely are the best way to get around.

You’ll find some huge and gorgeously green public parks, along with the obligatory museums, cathedrals and statues that populate the capitals of Old Europe.

Brussels also hosts several governing bodies of the European Union, making it one of the capitals of the New Europe. The architecture of those EU headquarters reflects the attitude behind the EU itself — forward-looking, broad-shouldered, innovative, hopeful.

Cross the city’s major canal, though, and a different Brussels emerges, one that not only shows the city’s age, but seems to be sagging under the weight of Belgian history.

When you look at that history, you see a lot of suffering. Internal strife. Popular members of royalty dying in accidents. Horrific bombardments and cruel occupations.

A lot of that suffering was brought on by Belgium’s place in Europe. Literally.

Belgium is wedged in between France, Germany and the Netherlands, with Britain just across the English Channel. That pretty much put Brussels dead-center on almost every major European trade route. Belgian merchants, who could read a map as well as anybody else, took their cuts — and got obscenely rich.

Location, location, location.

But the geography that made Belgium prosper also made it a target. This country seems to have been invaded by everybody but the Jackson Five. And those European armies that weren’t marching on Belgium were marching through it — without asking permission from Brussels.

Belgians today take great delight in simple joys — a shady outdoor cafe, a lovely park, good food., good drink, good music. It’s as if they take nothing for granted, because their history tells them it all can be gone at any moment.

The other thing that drives Belgian reality is language. Belgium itself is divided — sometimes angrily divided — between Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

This may be the one country in Europe where nobody minds if you only speak English. It makes you a neutral.

That linguistic division is reflected here in Brussels. Everything here seems to be printed in a minimum of two languages. Your hotel clerk may speak four languages — Flemish, French German and English — fluently and without trace of a foreign accent.


Indeed, when you’re here, you hear so much about Flemish this versus French that, that it may make you wonder after awhile: What actually is Belgian?

The only thing I know for sure is that two days in this country won’t be nearly enough time to find out.

The ultimate travel document

The diaspora visa, an idea whose time is coming — gradually

African tourism, despite the lingering recession, continues to rise — but the Mother Continent wants more. In particular, African countries are targeting diaspora travelers — black Americans, black Caribbeans and African emigres who haven’t been home for awhile — and they’ve come up with an intriguing idea to help lure them.

The diaspora visa.

It’s an idea that was discussed at the recently concluded congress of the Africa Travel Association, held this year in The Gambia. And if it ever comes to pass, it could revolutionize travel and tourism in Africa. Basically, it’s a visa that would allow Africans in the diaspora — the descendants of African slaves in the United States, the Caribbean and elsewhere — to visit needing only their passport.

Ghana began five years ago offering a diaspora visa for black Americans wanting to visit that West African country, waiving the regular requirements (they also offer dual citizenship to black Americans who commit to long-term investment in Ghana).

But as African emigre, broadcaster and ATA director Ogo Sow explained to me, the idea discussed at this year’s congress goes much, much further.

“We talked about creating a diaspora visa that would allow you to travel all over the continent without a (regular) visa,” he said.

Currently, for every country you wish to visit in Africa, you need a separate visa from that country — and have to pay their separate fee each time. Depending on how many nations you want to visit on a single trip, it’s a huge headache, and expense, for the traveler.

With a diaspora passport, your black face and your U.S. passport would give you diplomatic entree to visit any or all of Africa’s 53 nations.

The impact of this for African tourism, were it actually to take hold, would be immense.

The concept itself is not new. One of the most popular things the European Union did when it came into being was to eliminate national visas among its member nations — and dump those same visa requirements for visitors from friendly lands. Which is why today, any American visiting Europe gets one visa stamp in his passport when he first enters the continent — and that stamp is good to enter any other EU country.

“In Europe, you can got anywhere you want to on one visa,” Sow noted.

I saw this in action for myself the day we crossed the Rhine from Strasbourg, France for a brief day-trip to the small German town of Kehl. No one was stopping vehicles to check anyone for papers. The checkpoints on either side of the bridge were long gone.

We crossed from France to Germany and back again on a Strasbourg city bus — and no one on either side thought twice about it. Commerce between the city of Strasbourg and the town of Kehl moved back and forth just as easily. It was a beautiful thing.

If it can work in Western Europe, the thinking goes — and clearly, it does — why not Africa?

It’s all part of a larger push to get the rest of the world, especially Europe and the United States, to see Africa and her 53 nations more favorably as a collective travel destination.

“After 50 years of independence,” said Sow, “we should now really start being part of the world in terms of tourism.”

Don’t look for this to happen in the next few months. The EU had its share of technical and political difficulties, not to mention centuries of conflict and mutual distrust, to overcome before streamlining Europe’s visa process. There’s little reason to expect Africa to have it any easier. And cutting bureaucratic red tape is but one of the challenges to boosting African tourism.

But if Africa’s governments can come together and make this work, it could go a long way toward encouraging black Americans to cross the Atlantic Ocean and connect with their African heritage first-hand, something that would greatly benefit African-Americans and Africans alike.

It’s an idea that deserved to be studied — and encouraged.

Strasbourg Christmas lights stand

Where your Christmas comes from

STRASmktlights
Place Broglie, where locals go to shop for Christmas trees, decorations and goodies.

Want to get to the root of our Christmas traditions? Don’t bother with the Holy Land or the North Pole. Head for France, the birthplace of a delightful European tradition called the Christmas market.

Okay, so you know all about Christmas, but do you know where the bulk of your Christmas traditions come from? Not from the Middle East, but from Europe, and many of them aren’t even Christian.

To get to the bottom of this, you have to head for that part of eastern France known as the Alsace. Its capital — and perhaps the capital of Christmas as we know it — is Strasbourg.

It’s a political center of the European Union, whose parliament meets here. France’s largest university is here, with nearly 50,000 students, of whom maybe 20,000 are from other countries, including the United States. At any given moment. you may hear a dozen different languages on the street.

Our Lady of Strasbourg Cathedral, nearly 500 feet tall. Took two centuries to build.

The vibe here is young and cosmopolitan, relaxed and friendly. If it were bigger and more self-conscious, it would be Paris. Then again, if Paris were more modern, better-educated and mellow, it would be Strasbourg.

The city sits just across the Rhine from Germany. That fact of geography has produced a lot of grief here. Strasbourg itself has changed hands more times than a Hertz rental car. People can still point you to Place Broglie, the square where Nazi troops used to goose-step through their daily drills in World War 2.

Today, you can take a French city bus to the German town of Kehl and no one on either side of the Rhine will even ask for your passport. But people don’t flock here in December from all over Europe to commemorate the Battle of the Bulge. They come to celebrate Christmas.

Every December, cities throughout Europe fill their main squares with what are known as Christmas markets, The first, and many say still the best, is in Strasbourg.

IF YOU GO
You can fly into Strasbourg or take the TGV high-speed train from Paris. The flight takes an hour, the TGV two and a half, but the train trip is more comfortable and view a lot nicer. Hotels during the Christmas market season book solid months in advance, so book early!

You’ll want to stay on or close to the Ile Centrale to be within easy reach of the Christmas action. If you have to stay farther afield, Strasbourg’s public transportation system is a joy to use. Their trams run about every four minutes, sleek and quiet, with huge windows. The automated ticket machines operate in your choice of five languages.

It’s also cheap. For about than US$8, a single pass lets up to three people ride for 24 hours. This is how you do mass urban transit.

The biggest Christmas markets in Strasbourg are around le Cathedral on the ile Centrale, the central island formed by the rivers Ill and Rhine.

Families stroll among the stalls with their dogs. Street musicians play. The night streets glow with Christmas lights. Steam from cooking pots and vats of hot drinks fills the frigid air. A towering Christmas 80 feet high, festooned with decorations the size of soccer balls, stands in the middle of Place Kleber.

There’s also a temporary ice skating rink. It’s next to le Cathedral, which is highly appropriate; a lot of those would-be skaters are in dire need of prayer!

Le Cathedral is massive. You can’t get lost in Strasbourg as long as you can see it, and you can see it for miles. It was once the tallest cathedral in the world and for a small fee, you can climb the stairs to the top of the spire. People say the view is breathtaking.

I’ll take their word for it.

Back in 2000, a group of Muslim extremists wanted to blow up “le Cathedral.” When German police foiled their plans, they settled on a different target a year later.

A couple of high-rise buildings in New York City.

The Alsace has been fought over by France and Germany for centuries. It explains why so many towns around the city have German names, and so many homes are built in the old German style, with timbered supports showing on the exterior.

Strasbourg itself, however, was spared the brutal house-to-house fighting that went on elsewhere in the Alsace during World War 2. That explains why you’ll find its charming little old town, the former tanners’ quarter now known as la Petite France, still intact.

Christmas market vendor in Strasbourg. And yes, it really IS as cold as it looks!

They drink everything hot here in December, — even orange juice — and for good reason! The most popular drink is mulled wine known in French as vin chaud.

Alsace has its own unique regional cuisine, things like buckwheat crepes, choucroute garni and tarte flambeé. Gingerbread here is full of big chunks of ginger and covered with molasses.

Few associate beer with France, but the biere de Noël from the Kronenbourg brewery could give Mexico’s famed Noche Buena some tough competition. And the brewery does tours.

One thing that may surprise you is that, while you’re awash in all things Christmas, there’s little reference to Christ. As it turns out, many of our Christmas traditions are actually pagan rather than Christian — starting with your Christmas tree, which was invented in Strasbourg back in the 1600s.

This is where you find out that pagans weren’t necessarily the wild-eyed, drunken, sex-obsessed heathens we’ve been taught. Those actually came later.

We call them college kids on spring break.

There are reasons enough to visit this city the rest of the year, but it’s during the Christmas season that Strasbourg truly shines.