Tag Archives: Vancouver

CRUISE: Double your pleasure

SD cruise ships

The right choice of port to begin or end your cruise can give you two vacations for the time and cost of one.

Even if you’ve never left sight of land in your life, you already know that all cruise ships are not created equal.

Well, neither are all cruise ports.

At some port cities, there isn’t much to do other than board the ship at the start of the cruise or leave town once your cruise ends — in both instances, as soon as possible. No disrespect to Bayonne, NJ or Long Beach, CA, but neither is likely to leap to your mind while planning your next vacation.

What about New York City? Miami? New Orleans? San Francisco? Vancouver? That’s more like it, yes? Or maybe London. Paris, perhaps? Rome. Barcelona. Rio de Janeiro. Shanghai. Now, you’re on point, and the point is this:

When the departure or termination port for your cruise happens to be one of the world’s more attractive and popular travel destinations in its own right, that’s your chance to effectively double up on your vacation fun.

So rather than stressing yourself out trying to time your flight arrivals or departures to get you into town just in time to board your cruise ship or leave just enough time to get back to the airport for the flight home, try this instead:

Arrive a day or two before your ship sails, or stay a day or two after the cruise ends.

So many cruise travelers treat their departure or return ports as an afterthought in their vacation plans, if they think of it at all. and considering the places that a lot of the world’s cruise ships call home port, that’s kind of a shame. Some of the world’s major cruise ports just happen to double as some of the world’s great cities, with a nearly endless number of delightful things to do/see/experience.

If you told your family and friends that you were going to spend your entire vacation in San Francisco or the NOLA or Hong Kong, no one would think you were crazy. If anything, they might be a bit envious.

Want to really see them turn rainforest green? Tell them you’re going to spend a few days in one of those cities…just before or after your cruise.

Two days before a week-long sail last years across the northern Mediterranean, I spent a couple of days in Barcelona, which happened to be the departure port. Spent a third day after returning there before flying home.

Within hours of arrival, even at the height of the summer heat and the tourist season, I fell head-over-carry-on in love with the city and its proud, friendly people. Had the cruise line cancelled the sailing and compelled me to spend the entire week in Barcelona, I would’ve shed nary a tear.

I could say the same of a dozen different cruise ports around the world, and I’ll bet you could, too.

With a little careful planning and budgeting, spending a few extra days in your port city need not break your vacation budget. In fact, when you consider how cost-effective the cruise part of your trip will be, the combination of cruise and port stay could actually cost you the same as, or even slightly less than, spending your entire vacation on land

With a little imagination and planning, even less likely vacation destinations like a Bayonne or a Long Beach can work in your favor. Being off the tourist radar can make a town less expensive than its more glamorous neighbors, and thus a bargain base for exploring those pricier travel hotspots.

There’s another benefit to a short pre-cruise or post-cruise port stay, one that’s perhaps best measured not as much in dollars as in blood pressure readings.

Cruise travel should be to be fun and relaxing, but for more than a few cruise travelers, the start or end of a cruise vacation is anything but. They’ve driven themselves crazy trying to time their flight arrivals to get into port just in time to board the ship. Often, they’re among the last to board, arriving just before the gangway is withdrawn.

Those same cruise passengers will also be the ones who see scrambling to be among the first to leave the vessel when the cruise ends, desperate to round up their bags and grab the first cab to the airport. Let the least little thing delay their departure, and their stress levels go into orbit.

This is a vacation?

If you arrive in town a few days early, you can explore the city and environs, then arrive at the dock relaxed and in plenty of time to board. At cruise’s end, you don’t have to worry about the mad, crowded dash to leave the ship. You’re not joining that mad dash to the airport. You’re going to your hotel. Drop your bags. Do a little exploring at your leisure. No bum-rushing the airport for you.

The cruise lines themselves play right into this strategy. Most cruises leave in the afternoon, so you can take your time checking out of your hotel, have a leisurely breakfast, maybe even see one last sight before heading to the port a little after noon to check into your cabin in time for your mid-afternoon departure.

It works the same way when it’s time to leave the ship. Since your cruise is likely to end in the early morning, you can check in to your land-based lodging and have the whole day to enjoy ashore. Fly home the following day after a fun day ashore…and a good night’s sleep.

Now that’s a vacation.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.


My other “bucket list”

Coast Starlight 2014

When it comes to the world’s great destinations, regardless of what or where they are, one visit — or ten — may not be enough.

Just about everyone has a so-called “bucket list,” that mental registry of must-see destinations they want to visit someday. Not me. I don’t have one.

I have two.

One is your standard traveler’s wish list of places to go and things to see. The other list is of the places I’ve already been, to which I want to return.

That’s the problem when your traveler’s soul takes over. Even as new destinations beckon, so many of the old ones keep calling you back.

To grow, we need to learn new things, meet new people and go to unfamiliar places. And we will leave a lot of those new places glad that we came, but feeling no real need to return. One and done.

But even as new places await our arrival, there are other places we feel compelled to revisit, again and again.

The reasons for wanting to return to a destination can be as varied as the destinations themselves.

Maybe you didn’t get a chance to experience enough of a place to develop a true “feel” for it. In the world’s mega-cities like New York, London, Shanghai or Mexico City, it’s easy to leave after a week or even a month feeling as if you scarcely penetrated beyond the tourist veneer.

That’s especially true if you’re following a fixed tour itinerary that leaves little or no time to explore on your own, like on all-too-brief day tours in a Costa Rica or Nicaragua.

Sometimes, after an absence of years or even decades from a city like Tokyo or Hong Kong, you feel the need to return to see how the place has changed, and whether for the better or the worse.

You may discover that you have changed more than your destination, but that’s a discovery worth making, no?

It could be that all your senses were so overrun in a place like Beijing or Berlin or Buenos Aires or Senegal or the Gambia or Hong Kong that you feel the need to return, just to put the place in sharper focus in your mind.

Or it could be simply that you fell in love with a place — a San Francisco, a Vancouver, a Paris, a Venice, a Yosemite.

The tug-of-war between old and new destinations can leave you feeling torn, even a little guilty. There’s so much world out there waiting to be experienced, even in the places you’ve been before. So how do you solve this dilemma?

Honestly, that’s easy. You don’t.

You just point yourself in the direction of the call that your traveler’s heart finds the most seductive — and you go. No rationalizing, no self-justifications required.

I have friends who return almost yearly to London and England’s Lake District. They’ve been doing this for about two decades now, to the point that they’re de facto residents. But after all the years and all the visits, they still love them both.

And that’s all that really matters in the end.

When it comes to a destination, you love what you love, whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the fiftieth. It’s your journey, no one else’s.

So when you find a place that most loudly and clearly speaks to your soul, be sure to listen to it.

And then…Go. Just go.


the IBIT Travel Digest 2.3.13

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel


When you’ve finished overdosing on Super Bowl hype, chips and dip, come refresh your mind with a peek at what’s happening in the world of travel

We are soon to find out, because according to Travel Weekly, the Federal Trade Commission has signed off on Priceline’s bid to buy the popular travel search engine for $1.8 billion.

That pretty much makes the sale a done deal, which could go down as soon as next month.

Snapping up Kayak gives Priceline a powerful search tool to tie in with its existing travel sales service. Less clear is how this marriage will benefit the traveling consumer.

On the other hand, Priceline has said that Kayak will to function as an independent entity, so we’ll see what happens.


You know that a new way of doing things really works when the big, old-line corporations start diving into it. That’s what has happened with car sharing.

Car sharing is kind of the automotive version of couchsurfing. It got its start in Switzerland in 1948 and took hold in the rest of Europe in the 1970s.

Once you become a member of a car-sharing service, you can rent a car for an entire day, a few hours or even a few minutes, if that’s all you need. You pick up the car in town, use it around town, drop it off in town. Cheaper and often more convenient than conventional car rentals, more flexibility and independence than taxis.

The concept doesn’t appeal only to travelers. Some people who don’t need a car full-time every day are actually getting rid of their own wheels (and the costs that go with them) and resorting to car sharing instead.

It’s also a good way to get a real-world feel for operating an unfamiliar vehicle type, whether it’s a pick-up truck or an electric car — without having to put up with a car salesman.

One of the pioneers in this field has been Zipcar, available in 34 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Ontario and Vancouver in Canada, as well as Barcelona, Spain and five cities in the United Kingdom.

How well does this concept work? Well enough for some of the rental car industry’s biggest players to take notice.

Hertz is answering its challenge by creating a car-sharing service of its own which it calls Hertz On-Demand. Enterprise followed suit with what they call WeCar. Even U-Haul has jumped into this game with U Car Share.

Avis, too, is buying the Zipcar concept. It’s also buying Zipcar…for $500 million.


At this point, I’m not sure if the cruise industry’s shipbuilding binge is entering its second decade or its third. The one thing I do know: It’s not stopping.

Royal Caribbean, locked in mortal combat with Carnival for the dominant share of the market, is showing every sign of both expanding and updating its fleet super-sized cruisers.

They’re already moving to trademark the names of six new Oasis-class vessels that haven’t even been built yet.

The Oasis-class — led by its namesake, the Oasis of the Seas — is currently the largest cruise ship afloat, maxing out at 5,400 passengers.

But Royal Caribbean isn’t stopping there. The line also is working on a new, slightly downsized cruise ship, the Sunshine-class, designed to transport and entertain a mere 4,100 passengers at a time.

This ship is so new, the first one hasn’t been named yet, much less built. But according to Travel Weekly, Royal Caribbean has already committed to building a second one.

I have no idea how the folks at Carnival will respond to this, but you know that they will be respond. It’s like an arms race, only with oceanview suites, water slides and Bahama Mamas.


If you were (or perhaps still are) a regular viewer of the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H, you might vaguely recall lots of occasional references to some mythical town or village whose name sounded like “Wee-John-Boo.”

Well, it turns out that Uijeongbu is no myth. It’s a real place, where the real Mobile Army Surgical Hospital operated during the Korean War. And in South Korea, its legacy extends far beyond film and television.

The people of Uijeongbu, desperately hungry during the war, made meals of whatever they could get their hands on. The result was a dish the locals called budaejjigae, Korean for “army base stew.”

Basically, it combined traditional Korean ingredients with whatever leftovers the locals could scrounge or smuggle from U.S. Army mess tents.

The shooting eventually stopped (the Korean War has never formally ended), but “army base stew” remained a staple of Uijeongbu — and Julie Wan of the Washington Post took advantage of a visit to her family in Seoul to seek out this most unconventional dish in its birthplace.

And as you’ll see when you read her story, she found it.

If you know the origins of things like gumbo, barbecue or fried chicken, you can relate to budaejjigae. Cookbooks today are full of dishes devised by poor, hungry people who tossed anything and everything into a stew pot and used a slow fire, a lot of spices and their imaginations to create something unforgettable.

If I ever find myself in South Korea, I may need to make a small side trip to Uijeongbu.


And now, here’s The Digest:

from Travel Weekly
JetBlue experimenting with an expedited security service that could — maybe — speed you past regular airport security lines. For a fee, of course.

from Smarter Travel
Visual advice on how to dress for air travel. Aimed mainly at women, but the fellas can learn a few things from this, too. SLIDESHOW

from Smarter Travel
The TSA shuts down an airport terminal in Atlanta because of an unattended…toothbrush? You can’t make this stuff up. I mean, those Colgate bombs can be deadly…

from Smarter Travel
Did you know that fresh oranges, in addition to being healthy for you on the ground, can help keep you hydrated in the air? These and other healthy food tips for air travelers.

from Travel Weekly
Hertz now letting its Gold Plus Rewards members upgrade their rental cars via their smartphone app.

from Travel Weekly
Carnival cancels Belize port calls for two of its biggest ships through 2013. The cruise line says the port is overcrowded with ships.


from Tanzania Daily News (Tanzania) via allAfrica.com
Serengeti National Park, already a UN World Heritage Site, wins a prestigious international tourism award.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
The German cruise ship MV Astor makes a historic port call at Lamu, setting aside fears of kidnappings by Somali bandits.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Are British Army units training in East Africa arming and equipping poachers?

from CNN Travel
Today’s Super Bowl is more than just a battle between two pro football teams. It’s also a tale of two cities, Baltimore and San Francisco, and how they play. SLIDESHOW

from NBC News
New York City’s Grand Central Terminal celebrated its centennial last Friday. The Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty may be great monuments, but if you want to locate New York’s beating heart, you’ll find it here.

from the New York Times
Yes, you can send an email to the Bahamas, but a mail boat can send you there.

from Travel Weekly
Haiti officially protests the latest U.S. State Department travel advisory on visiting the island nation, which reads in art: “No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender or age.” State denies trying to discourage Haitian tourism.

from Yomiuri Shimbun
Deep in a forest, well away from the mad urban bustle of Tokyo, a village of Japanese craftsmen hand-builds elegant wood furniture with skills honed over 15 centuries.

from France 24
Missed out on the New Year’s Day festivities Jan. 1? Well, there’s still Chinese New Year coming up on Feb. 10, and the place to party is Hong Kong.

from CNTV
A small lake fishing village in China’s Yunnan province becomes a hidden tourist gem.

from the New York Times
Feel yourself choking on mobs of tourists in Venice? Find a way to go eat with some of the locals.

from Lonely Planet
Is this the world’s most beautiful train ride? It’s in Norway.

from Travel Weekly
The Waldorf-Astoria hotel chain is making a serious move on Europe. With hotels already in London, Rome and Versailles, the luxury brand is now opening a Waldorf-Astoria in Berlin. And they’re not done. SLIDESHOW


the IBIT Travel Digest 12.2.12

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

Catalina sunset
Sunset off Catalina Island | ©IBIT/G. Gross

If you love rail travel — or just loathe air travel — The Guardian newspaper in London has one of the best resources for planning a fantastic rail vacation.

It’s created its own Web page dedicated to great rail journeys around the world.

Stories about terrific train trips on almost every continent, planning advice, suggestions from readers, photo galleries, it’s all there.

One such trip that’s definitely on my list is aboard The Canadian, a train that travels across virtually the breadth of Canada, from Toronto in the east to Vancouver on the Pacific coast.

It’s not a high-speed train, but given the beauty of the land, including the Rocky Mountains, you won’t want to go that fast, anyway.

Even if you don’t actually use it to plan a train trip, you’ll probably learn some interesting things from it.

For example, thanks to the English Channel tunnel, it’s now possible to travel not merely from London to Moscow, but from London all the way across Europe, Russia and Siberia to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean — crossing ten time zones and nearly 8,000 miles — without ever stepping onto an airplane.

Not that you’d actually want to, but you could.


There’s a truism in the fashion world that says if you wait long enough, everything comes back in style. That may be the case among the airlines, as well.

About a decade ago, I joined my first airline mileage program. The airline of choice was American. The reason? Back then, American touting the fact that it was removing seats from its aircraft to create more legroom between rows. When you stand 6’3,” you pay attention to things like that.

Sure enough, a few years later, the airline decided it needed the money, so it put all those seats back into all those planes. Bummer.

Fast-forward to November 2012. An email from American Airlines pops up in my inbox:

“Good things do come to those who wait.

Earlier this year, we mentioned that extra legroom in the Main Cabin was coming. We’re happy to tell you that Main Cabin Extra seats have arrived. You’ll enjoy the following benefits when you purchase a Main Cabin Extra seat:

• Extra space to stretch out
• Group 1 boarding to settle in early
• Seats near the front of the plane so you can get on and off the plane faster”

Legroom is back. Cue the Kool and the Gang music. “Ce-le-brate good times, come on!”

Well, not entirely. There are a couple of differences this time around.

A decade ago, the extra legroom was spread through the entire cabin. This time, it’s being limited to the Main Cabin Extra section at the front of a selected group of new jets.

The other difference is one you’ve probably come to expect by now. If you want a seat in Main Cabin Extra, and you don’t have elite status with American, you’ll have to pay for it, anywhere from $8 to $118 per flight, according to American’s Web site.

On the other hand, you won’t be paying hundreds or thousands of dollars extra for a First or Business Class seat.


If I had a dollar for every unsolicited credit card application that turned up in my mailbox in the last five years (and went straight to the shredder), I could probably fly someplace nice… in Business Class. But here’s one Visa card I wouldn’t mind having.

It’s called the KQ Msafiri Visa credit card. It’s result of a joint venture between Barclay’s Bank of Kenya and Kenya Airways.

Not only do your purchases with the card earn miles toward free Kenya Airways flights, but you also get priority check-in and boarding, and up to $56,500 in travel insurance, free.

Cool. But what I’d really love to see would be for outfits like Kenya Airways, South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines or Arik Air to partner up with some American banks — preferably some black-owned American banks — to create a credit card whose purchases would build miles toward travel to Africa.

That’s one credit card application I wouldn’t shred.


This last item sounds like a punchline, or maybe something from the satirical news Web site, The Onion…but it’s neither.

Starting this weekend on selected international flights, Japan Air Lines will be serving its passengers in-flight meals featuring…Kentucky Fried Chicken.

That’s right, JAL is hooking up with KFC. According to the JAL press release, it’s to be called “Air Kentucky.”

Greasy fried chicken at 35,000 feet? Neither I nor my bowels know quite what to make of this. Believe it or not, however, it does make a certain amount of sense, although perhaps not for the reason you’d expect.

It would be logical to presume that JAL is doing this to placate those Western passengers whose faces turn unnatural colors at the very thought of eating sushi. But you would be mistaken.

According to the press release, “KFC is widely popular in Japan, particularly during the Christmas season.” And according to CNN, it ties in with a JAL gimmick of partnering with restaurtant chains popular in Japan, such as “MOS Burgers, Yoshinoya beef bowls and Edosei pork buns.”

And there you have it. Pass me the sushi, please.


And now, here’s The Digest:

from Smarter Travel
A holiday gift from your friends at ST, the ten airlines that give you the best legroom in Coach — or as I like to call it, Sardine Class. SLIDESHOW

from Travel Weekly
Flying to the Caribbean from anywhere in the world? No problem, mon. Flying among the Caribbean islands on regional airlines? Big problem, mon.

from Travel Weekly
Delta to begin flying between Seattle and Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport, which is closer to the city than its other airport, Narita. But Seattle’s gain will be Detroit’s loss.

from Smarter Travel
The ST crew highlights the cold-and-flu season by pointing out the 10 Germiest Places You Encounter While Traveling. Their title, not mine. Never mind that, just take their advice and stay healthy going into the New Year. SLIDESHOW

from CNN
First, the bad news. Hotels are now going the way of the airlines and hitting their guests with hidden “resort fees.” The good news? The feds have taken notice.

from Smarter Travel
Five off-season travel destinations that are really cool, and not just because it’s winter. SLIDESHOW

from Travel Weekly
Ridership isn’t the only thing growing at Amtrak. Look for a larger number of Amtrak Vacations packages in 2013.

from Travel Weekly
Houston has had a gleaming new cruise ship terminal since 2009, but no cruise ships ever made port calls there. Starting next November, that will change.

from Travel Weekly
More life preservers, better tie-downs for heavy equipment aboard ship and standardized procedures for bridge officers are among the safety changes being proposed within the cruise ship industry as a result of the Costa Concordia disaster.

from CNN
How do you “undiscover” an island?


from Travel Weekly
British travelers recently declared Cape Town, South Africa to be their favorite city in the world — and it looks as if Europe’s international airlines are getting the message.

from the South African Government News Agency via allAfrica.com
A cultural, historical and anti-poverty industrial center dedicated to the memory of anti-apartheid martyr Steve Biko opens in South Africa. The Steve Biko Heritage Centre is expected to become a major tourist attraction.

from The Star (Kenya) va allAfrica.com
With foreign tourism starting to dry up, mainly over security fears as Kenyan forces tangle with Al Qaeda-aligned terrorists from neighboring Somalia, the government tries to boost domestic tourism to compensate.

from CNN
The ravages of Superstorm Sandy are not preventing holiday visitors from pouring into New York City.

from CNN
Take a look at Detroit through the eyes of its mayor, former NBA superstar Dave Bing.

from SFGate.com
Up in the Napa Valley, you can find restaurants that design menus around the finest local wines. Not down in Monterey. This beautiful seaside-scenic town, a two-hour drive south from San Francisco, has gone nuts over local craft beers — so much so that several local restos now feature entire dinners built around local brews.

from the Los Angeles Times
Memories of the California gold rush live on in Yreka.

from China Daily
Have you ever seen any of those ancient Chinese paintings depicting incredibly beautiful landscapes, towering bullet-shaped limestone mountains that couldn’t possibly be real? Well, they’re real, all right, and Guilin is the place that inspired a lot of those paintings.

Travel Weekly
With cruise sales leveling off here and sailing over their own “fiscal cliff” in Europe, the cruise lines are turning to Asia to pick up the slack. Singapore has already built a new ocean terminal large enough to dock the world’s biggest liners, and more are coming.

from CNNgo
Paris? New York? San Francisco? Madrid? You can all sit down. The Michelin Guide to the world’s great restaurants has crowned the gourmet capital of the world — and it’s Tokyo…still.

from Travel Weekly
Canada’s Four Seasons becomes the latest luxury hotel chain to plant its flag in China with a new 313-room luxury tower in Beijing.

from The New Yorker
Paris, that gastronomic capital of haute cuisine, is going ga-ga over its newest craze. Brace yourself: It’s American hamburgers. We’re not talking Mickey D’s, either.

from Cisco
The next time you find yourself in one of those classic London cabs, whip out your smartphone or your iPad and see if its wifi is working. Cyberspace is coming to the hackney carriage.

from Reuters
It’s no big deal anymore to find a Muslim mosque in Paris. A gay-friendly Muslim mosque in Paris? That’s a very big deal.

Edited by P.A.Rice


TRAINS: Bring back the North American Rail Pass

old train station
© Josefhanus | Dreamstime.com

A month-long pass for rail travel between the United States and Canada? It seemed like a great idea. So why did Amtrak decide to kill it?

Anyone who’s even explored the possibility of traveling in Europe has probably heard of the Eurailpass, which lets you travel between a certain number of European countries in a month, or allows you a certain number of train travel days per month.

It’s a great, economical way to see Europe, with the comfort and convenience of train travel as a bonus. And as an absolute fan of rail travel, I sure wish we had something like that here in North America.

So it came as a somewhat unpleasant surprise to learn that, until relatively recently, we did. It was a cooperative venture between our Amtrak and Via Rail of Canada. For one set fee of $423, you could travel for 30 days in both countries.

It was called the North American Rail Pass and it was a great idea. Until 2008, when Amtrak unilaterally discontinued it.

You can get a USA Rail Pass good for 15, 30 or 45 days of rail travel, or a California Rail Pass good for 21 days up and down the state, but those obviously are good only in the United States.

Likewise, you can get a Canrailpass from Via Rail good for coast-to-coast travel across Canada, but only Canada.

The idea of a rail pass that allows travel between the two neighboring North American giants, with all their beautiful scenery and great cities? Gone. Dead.

It wasn’t Via Rail’s idea to kill it off. Amtrak did that. I just don’t know why.

To make it easier for U.S. and Canadian rail passengers to travel between the two countries by train made so much sense for both sides.

Canadians could do a lovely little loop from Toronto south through Chicago and Memphis to New Orleans, then back north via Atlanta and Washington DC aboard the Amtrak Crescent before crossing back into Canada and hitting Quebec City and Montreal on the return.

Americans, meanwhile, could head north from Los Angeles aboard the Coast Starlight up to Vancouver, BC, where they could head east across the Rockies and the great plains, then past the Great Lakes to Toronto before heading south to New Orleans, only this time swinging west aboard the Sunset Limited back to LAX.

So far, I haven’t found anything that gives a clear explanation for why Amtrak decided to do away with this. What was Amtrak afraid of?

If it wants to emphasize USA Rail Passes, fine, but why not offer both? Rail travelers who wished to confine themselves to the US or Canada would simply buy one of the national rail passes in either of those countries, while travelers who wanted to ride the trains on both sides of the border would still be able to do so for a great price. Everybody wins.

Or they did…until four years ago.

Especially in this era when so many people find air travel to be such a miserable experience, wouldn’t it make sense for Amtrak to seize on every opportunity it can find to encourage travel by train, even if it meant sharing some of the proceeds with its northern neighbor?

If I ever find out what Amtrak’s rationale was behind killing the North American Rail Pass, I’ll be sure to share it with you. Meanwhile, we fans of rail travel can hope that sanity one day returns — and brings back the North American Rail Pass along with it.

I’ve reached out to Amtrak’s public affairs people to see if anyone will tell me why Amtrak chose to unilaterally do away with the North American Rail Pass. When I get an answer, IBIT will publish it.

Edited by P.A.Rice


CATHAY PACIFIC: A good airline gets better

© Maurie Hill | Dreamstime.com

After upgrading their Business Class section, one of Asia’s best airlines is turning its attention to the back of the airplane, all in response to competition from regional rivals.

According to the British airline rating site Skytrax, there are exactly seven airlines in the world worthy of a 5-star rating. One of them is Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, which flies throughout Asia and across the Pacific.

Having recently remodeled their Business Class cabins, they’re now turning their attention to the back of the airplane in a big way. And if you’re going to be on one of those 14- or 16-hour trans-Pacific aerial ordeals, that’s good news, indeed.

Especially when it comes from an airline whose reputation for cabin service is among the best in the world.

I flew this airline many years ago between Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok. That reputation was well-deserved then, and judging by their Skytrax rating, it still is.

CP’s plan for their economy seats is a two-parter. Part 1 is to create new cabins in Coach on their long-range Boeing 777ERs and Airbus A330s. That’s the good news.

The bad news? The Coach seats aboard their older planes, such as the Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s, won’t be upgraded.

This is why you need to pay as much attention to the airplane you’re flying on as the price of your ticket.

CP had tried this kind of Economy upgrade five years ago, replacing the traditional reclining Coach seats with hard-back seats that slid forward to recline, similar to the hard-back, lie-flat seats you find in many Business and First Class sections.

But they didn’t sit well with a lot of passengers, so it’s back to the future with old-school reclining seats in Sardine Class.

I had my own experience with hard-back, lie-flat seats early this year on British Airways between LAX and London Heathrow. Absolutely, positively, hands-down the most miserable two flights of my life.

The amount of legroom in the new Cathay Pacific economy seats — measured by what the airlines call “seat pitch” — will remain at 32 inches. That’s more or less standard industrywide, and for most passengers, it’s decent.

(I’m hoping they give those seats just a touch more hiproom as well, but I doubt it. That’s where the real misery is these days on long flights — and not just because I’m as wide-bodied as any jumbo jet.)

What will be different will be the amount of recline in each Coach seat. You’ll be able to lean back an extra two inches. The airline also is promising more personal storage space in Coach.

For those who have trouble sleeping in Coach on flights of any length, that extra two inches of recline should be good news. For those who like to use their laptops while the passenger in front of them sleeps, maybe not so much.

What can I say? In life, there are tradeoffs.

The other half of their plans involves creation of a new Premium Economy section on its long-haul flights. Wider seats, with a generous 38 inches of seat pitch.

Anyone shorter than, say, Yao Ming should be able to stretch out in grand style.

Add in a touch-screen video monitor for entertainment, wi-fi Internet access and outlets for Apple digital devices, along with CP’s usually glittering cabin service, and you may be reluctant to get off the airplane.

Naturally, you’ll be paying extra for the comforts of Premium Economy. How much extra, the airline didn’t say in their announcement yesterday.

This is all due to take effect starting next March — first on flights to/from Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver and New York. The rest of their long-haul routes,including Los Angeles and San Francisco, will follow.

(NOTE: When it comes to flying to Asia from the West Coast, San Francisco often is somewhat cheaper than LAX, and Vancouver may be cheaper, even substantially cheaper, than both of them. That combination can create some intriguing vacation opportunities).

Cathay Pacific is facing heavy economic pressure from Singapore Airlines and China Southern. Both are flying the double-deck Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet, which carry more passengers per plane than anything else flying.

Cathay Pacific’s way of fighting back, as explained by CEO John Slosar, is “providing a superior experience in all classes of travel.”

If you’re accustomed — or perhaps more aptly, resigned — to the way US-based airlines treat their passengers, you may find that statement more than a little eye-opening.

Facing increasing competition from rivals, airlines in this country typically respond by cutting back on the number of available seats, or reducing seat pitch to cram in a few extra seats, or raising ticket prices — or charge for services that had always been free in the past.

How many would try to meet the challenge of competition by offering all their passengers — not just the high rollers in First or Business Class — a better flying experience?

Am I the only one who thinks our airlines could learn a lot from these guys?


TEXAS: I’ve been railroaded

© Nico Smit | Dreamstime.com

I was certain I’d never want to visit the state for fun — until I found out about the Museum of the American Railroad.

When it comes to our preferences, we can be pretty extremist. We like what we like, we loathe what we loathe and that’s that. The older I get, though, the more of a flip-flopper I’m becoming.

As a kid, I sternly rejected an invitation by friends in San Francisco who wanted to introduce me to this Mexican food called tacos. It would be almost a decade before I relented.

That was many years — and many tacos — ago.

I was just as absolutist about music. On my transistor radio (ask your grandfather what a transistor was), it was R&B, rock ‘n roll and jazz. In that order. Period.

Classical? Not really. Folk? Not so much.

Country? Oh, HELL no!

Then I heard the guitar of Andres Segovia. The protests inspired by the Vietnam war introduced me to folk music. And I eventually learned that some of my favorite R&B songs by artists like Ray Charles drew their inspiration from country tunes, and vice versa.

That’s when I realized that if you listen to any musical form long enough, you’ll hear something you like.

What’s this got to do with travel? Simply this: Absolutes apply just as much to places.

There are places we fall in love with. I mean that helpless, hopeless, head-over-heels variety of love. And if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know some of mine. San Francisco, London, Paris, Vancouver, Amsterdam.

It works the same way in reverse. There are places where we would sooner spend a night curled up in a cactus Snuggie before we’d spend a day of vacation there.

At the top of my list: Texas.

Too big. Too flat. Too hot and too dry — unless, of course, it’s too humid.

Above all, too Texan.

Texas is where I annually lost my mind as a kid during my family’s summer drives across the state — and back.

How bored was I? When you start memorizing AAA road maps while lying on an ice chest behind the front seat of a 1958 Buick, you have reached the ultimate in desperate circumstances.

Unlike the Beatles song, Texas to me was a long road that didn’t wind.

Texas is where my cousins in Houston taught me to look forward to summer downpours — so we could go play in the flooded streets.

Texas is where I played in the surf at Galveston, and came out with shorts stained by tarballs from offshore oil wells.

Texas is where a wasp crawled up my shirt sleeve and stung me in the armpit, where I broke my thumb in a car crash — and I wasn’t even driving.

For a long time, I wondered why California got earthquakes and Texas got barbecue, when it clearly should’ve been the other way around.

After the crash, I was about ready to rename Texas the Leave Me Alone Star State. And I fully expected it to stay that way for the rest of my life.

In hindsight, I should’ve known better.

It started with an item that turned up on my Facebook from TrainWeb. An announcement:

“Museum of the American Railroad ready to break ground and move to Frisco.”

I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. One of my favorite things in the world — trains — was coing to one of my favorite places in the world — San Francisco — in the form of a major museum?

Mentally, I was already making air reservations to SFO, planning my BART ride into The City and trying to decide whether I wanted to stay in a hotel on Nob Hill, in the South of Market or in Fisherman’s Wharf.

I was so happy, I was even willing to overlook TrainWeb’s reference to San Francisco as “Frisco,” which for more than a few San Franciscans, marks you as a tourist and a legitimate target for disdain.

Then I clicked on the link and read the Dallas Morning News story. the museum was indeed moving to Frisco.

Frisco, TX. A suburb of Dallas.

A moment earlier, I’d been dying with excitement. Now, I was just dying. The crash of my disappointment probably tripped seismographs in a dozen western states.

Grudgingly, I checked out the museum’s Web site.

Wow, these guys are serious! Steam locomotives, electric and diesel-electric locomotives of the old streamlined types that my generation grew up seeing.

Cabooses. Every kid I went to school with — the boys, anyway — at some point in their adolescence fantasized about riding in one of these.

Pullman sleeper cars of the type one of my great-uncles worked on from the age of 15 as a Pullman porter out of New Orleans.

(That part of American railroad history resides in Chicago at the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. If you’re interested in the history of the Civil Rights movement as well as American railroading, you owe it to yourself to check it out).

It all harkens back to the days when trains were not only the best way, but the only way to move around the country efficiently and in any degree of comfort.

If nothing else, it’ll give you an idea of just how goos our rail system used to be — before freeways, airlines, Congress and Amtrak, among others, nearly killed it.

Even better, the new museum is being built in the style of one of America’s grand old railroad stations, the North Station in Boston.

Oh yeah, I can get into this.

So here I sit, facing the harsh realization that I may have to rethink my perpetual dismissal of Texas. People who like trains this much much can’t be all bad.

You think they have decent barbecue in Frisco?


Home Sweet Homes

Want to know when you begin to cross over from being a tourist to becoming a traveler?

It’s not when your first passport arrives in the mail, nor even when an immigration officer in a foreign country stamps that passport for the very first time.

It starts the moment you pick up the rhythm of life in a different place, and realize that it is also your rhythm. The moment when something in these streets, these places, these faces and voices, resonates with you in ways the travel agent back home never told you about.

“You know what?” you tell yourself. “I could live here.”

And your self doesn’t argue.

That’s when it happens.

If you’ve traveled at all in your life, there’s a good chance you’ve already got your own list of such places in in your memory.

This is mine:

Technically, this is cheating, since I actually did live here once. Whatever. I’ll just sue myself for an obscene sum of money and go do comedy shows in the Midwest.

What the hell, it worked for Charlie Sheen…and I’m sober.

I have a kind of love/hate/indifferent relationship with New Orleans. Sometimes, I love it. Sometimes, I hate it.

The NOLA? It doesn’t give a damn either way.

In its personality, the city is a bit like the significant other who has an unfailing ability to drive you crazy, in both good and bad ways.

Heat, humidity, pounding rain, high crime and all manner of low people in high places — New Orleans is at time aggravating enough to make the Bible’s Job go postal.

Then you sample the food, the drink, the music. You get a feel of the human spirit in the city that created all that. You walk through Audubon Park. You ride the St. Charles streetcar. You jog along the top of a levee, stroll in the shade of oaks and magnolias and willows.

And you wonder why you’d want to live anywhere else.

New Orleans may be big, but she’s hardly easy, and if you fall in love with her, it will be strictly on her terms.

The first time you touch down in New York City, you understand why this had to be the United Nations headquarters.

The whole world is already here.

It’s got a rhythm, a pulse, a heart rate which, in a human being, might be cause for a trip to the hospital. When you find it in a city, it’s energizing. It lifts you up and gets you going, if only to keep you from getting run over by all those New Yorkers coming up behind you on the sidewalk.

New York is the guy in the park, jogging at a pace obviously faster than yours, who silently challenges you to keep up. You may or may not succeed, but you benefit a lot just by trying.

But all that is Manhattan, just one of the five boroughs that comprise New York City — Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island — each with its own vibe. And within each borough, multiple neighborhoods of individual personalities.

I’ve got a lot more of NYC left to get to know.

The city with the conceit to think of itself as “The City” — and the beauty, romance and vibrance to vindicate all that attitude — is a bit of a tease.

There are two places in the world where you need to a see a sunset before you die. Key West is one. This is the other. Whether from the top of Coit Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge or the middle of San Francisco Bay on Treasure Island, it really doesn’t matter.

Not a lot of malls in this town, but a lot of commercial streets, packed block after block with little shops and restaurants of every cuisine, ethnicity and price range.

Right around the corner from these streets are neighborhoods that let you actually walk to do your shopping. It’s incredibly civilized.

But if you entertain the thought of actually living in one of those neighborhoods, the reality of the cost-of-living in San Francisco slaps you in the face like…well…a slap in the face!

Take all the beauty and charm of San Francisco. Subtract The City’s preening self-consciousness. Add the traditionally laid-back attitudes of Marin County or Santa Fe, NM.

Vancouver is more or less what you get.

Vancouver is so pristine that it feels more like a movie set that real people happen to live in. You have to work to find a neighborhood that doesn’t give you an oh-my-God! view of mountains or water or both.

How many other big cities in North America can you go down to a waterside park and watch airplanes take off from and land on a gorgeous bay, with occasional stops at a floating gas station? Even the airport’s on an island.

We won’t even get into the ferry runs between Vancouver and Victoria. What the rest of the world would call a scenic cruise, these folks call a commute.

It’s not just the view. People in Vancouver at times seem almost impossibly nice. Up there, rudeness marks you as a visitor, most likely from the States. It’s also extremely bike-friendly.

I’m almost afraid to sleep in Vancouver, lest I find out the whole thing was just a dream…and I wake up in Los Angeles.

Hyper-tense, but in a good way. New York’s equivalent in terms of pace and energy, minus the collective neurosis. A sprawling world capital, but built to a human scale, for people, not cars.

Spend one day navigating around via the London Underground, aka “the Tube,” and you feel as if you own the whole town.

Just “mind the gap.”

Fresh and familiar all at once. Everything old and everything new. History and happenings, all wrapped up in the same 24/7 package. You always get the feeling that something cool is always happening somewhere — just around the way or outside the next Tube stop.

Plugging yourself into the rhythm of this global capital is easy; the hard part comes when you have to disconnect.

London just might not let you.

The major downside: You may have to rob several banks — or own one — to afford to live here.

All big cities on the planet, no where where you find them, share one quality. Turn off almost any of their huge, sprawling, impersonal, traffic-clogged “grand boulevards” and you’re liable to find, within a block or two, a quiet, livable neighborhood.

It’s just that Paris seems to have more of them than anywhere else.

This is a city where people just know how to live. You find a cafe with the vibe that suits you and you make it your second home, your detached living room, dining room, parlor. You linger over lunch, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. You check out the passing parade. You talk, discuss, debate, argue.

When you don’t feel like sitting, you stroll the parks, you stroll the Seine. Peruse a newsstand, browse a bookshop. You savor the string of good moments.

In between, you work and sleep.

Yeah, I could do that.

For all its history, attractions and charms, the biggest draw in Paris for me is that it seems to be a city whose people have their priorities straight. Life, and loving life, come first.

It’s no accident that I prefer staying in apartments over hotels when I’m in Paris. Perhaps more than any other metropolis in the world, you want to feel like you live here.

That’s my list.

What’s yours?



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

© Criber | Dreamstime.com

This Christmas season, give yourself a priceless memory — a trip to West Africa for the International Roots Festival in February.

These days, the news out of West Africa is dominated by ominous and tragic events — the tense political standoff in the Cote d’Ivoire and religious violence (also politically motivated) in Nigeria.

But West Africa has other stories to tell that you’re not as likely to read about in your RSS feed or see on cable TV news. Stories of tranquility, cooperation, celebration. Displays of history and culture being preserved. People living together in peace and working to move their nations forward.

The only way you’re going to hear about these stories is by going there and seeing them played out for yourself. And by coincidence, you’ve got a great opportunity coming up in February to do just that, when the International Roots Festival is held in the Gambia.

Actually, it’s a chance to visit two West African countries where the news is largely upbeat, the English-speaking Gambia and its much larger French-speaking neighbor, Senegal. From the United States, the easiest international air connections to Banjul, the Gambian capital, are made by way of Dakar, capital of Senegal.

You’ll see for yourself the fortresses that were headquarters for the slave trade and the ports from which millions of Africans were shipped in shackles to the New World. If you’re of African descent and living in the Americas or the Caribbean, there’s one chance in four that your ancestors passed this way.

But the festival is not just a first-had presentation of a bitter legacy. It’s also a celebration of shared heritage that spans both oceans and eras, an extended cultural family that, slowly but surely, is coming back together.

Beyond that, you’ll see people working to build better lives for themselves and their respective countries, people of different ethnic backgrounds and religions living together in peace. No dictators. No incumbents who refuse to step down after their opponent wins an election. No terror in the name of God.

In other words, none of what the Western world treats as more or less the only things worth reporting extensively in Africa.

The International Roots Festival will be held Feb. 4-8 in and around Banjul. Think seriously about giving yourself the gift of West Africa, and a better understanding of a promising land, in 2011.

One of the ways the airlines justify all their add-on fees is by saying it saves passengers money by letting them pay only for the services they want. They’ve even dressed it up in a fancy name: a la carte pricing.

Well, the folks at Smarter Travel did a little check, comparing old-school all-inclusive airfares of years past with the current a la carte fares on the same routes.

Their conclusion: Not only are you paying more for the same flight, but you’re actually getting less in return for your money.

You can see the Smarter Travel comparison chart for yourself here.

Meanwhile, as we’ve already reported here, the airlines are raking in record amounts of cash, in no small measure due to all those add-on fees. Not only that, but airlines such as American are raising their base fares, as well.

The airline industry said they were charging us all those fees to keep their base fares down…remember?

What can you say about an industry that not only lies to you straight up, but manages to insult your intelligence at the same time?

Actually, there’s probably a lot we could say, but in the spirit of Christmas, we won’t say it here.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:

from JohnnyJet via Frommers
Eight tips for surviving the airport during the holiday crush. SLIDE SHOW

from USA Today
First, American Airlines pulled its fare information off Orbitz. Now, you can’t find American fares on Expedia, either. Only this time, it was Expedia that pulled American’s fares…in solidarity with Orbitz. Fasten your seatbelts, folks; things are about to get bumpy.

from Smarter Travel
Some folks handicap the NFL draft. ST’s Christine Sarkis handicaps the hote travel destinations for 2011. Take a look and see which ones give you the urge to start packing. SLIDE SHOW

from Associated Press via USA Today
Don’t look now, but people are buying RVs again. It could be a sign that the recession actually is winding down, or it could mean that folks are really fed up with flying. Either way, those big vacation buses and trailers are making a comeback.

from Smarter Travel
The Web has almost done away with the need for travel agents, but not quite, in the view of ST’s Ed Perkins. He has some ideas on when the help of a good travel agent might be the better way to go.

from Frommer’s
Some folks can’t imagine a better time than an Alaska cruise. How about an Alaska cruise that’s tax-deductible?

from USA Today
The U.S. Coast Guard says that fire knocked out the engines aboard the cruise ship Carnival Splendor because the ship’s firefighting systems failed.

from Agence France Press
For the sport fisherman, Angola means a difficult trip heavy on hassles and light on infrastructure in a country where a two-hour drive might take you eight. The reward, a catch to do battle with one of the world’s feistiest fish, the Atlantic tarpon.

from Rovos.com
South Africa claims to have the most luxurious train on the planet. See if you agree.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
If you’re looking for gorgeous scenery from the comfort of your seat, seriously consider a western Canadian rail trip between Vancouver and Banff.

from the Wall Street Journal
If you suffer from digital withdrawal symptoms while traveling in Japan, a cure may be at hand: The Japanese have plans to install free wi-fi at tourist-heavy locations around the country.

from the New York Times
A city of 32 million souls, Chongqing — the Chinese megalopolis we used to know as Chunking — is big enough to swallow your consciousness whole — and ask for seconds. And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

from the New York Times
Turkey. Is it Europe? Is it Asia? Is it the Middle East? All of the above, or none of them? It takes a lot more than a map to define this country. But when you see how much there is here in terms of history, culture, food, art, architecture and nightlife, you may not care where it is, as long as they let you come back.

from the Guardian (London UK)
Portugal is one of the cheapest cities in Europe for the budget-conscious traveler, and Porto is one of the cheapest cities in Portugal. And unlike the rest of Europe, you can actually get there now.


AVIATION QUEEN: Passport = Freedom, Part Deux

© Val Bakhtin | Dreamstime.com

One of the bad things about my continued march into middle age is that I can’t remember things the way I used to.  In my last post, I wrote about all the places I visited on my old passport, which expired April 12.  But I was going on memory, which was a really bad idea. 

Why? I missed some of the other great places I visited!

I went to Berlin twice. During my first trip, I was smack in the middle of the filming of “The Bourne Identity.” Let me tell you, Matt Damon is a really nice guy. 

I also got to take a tour of the now-closed Tempelhof Airport.  It was a pre-World War II monstrosity that became a symbol as the staging point for the Berlin Airlift. At the time I visited, it was a shell of its former self, mostly being used by private jets and low-cost, European-based airlines.

I went to Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, Canada.  All three cities were unique, and I’d visit all of them again in a heartbeat.  I went to Jamaica –okay, but I probably won’t go back.  Same with the Bahamas.  I went to Puerto Vallarta, where I was chased by people trying to sell timeshares to “rich” Americans. Not pleasant at all. 

And I went to a private jet air show in Geneva, where I had a grand time at the Patek Phillipe watch museum.  I’m going back to Geneva at the end of the month, so look for a post from that trip.

But there were two trips that I should have highlighted in the last post. 

I watched the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and fell in love with the city.  I swore I’d get there some day, and I went in November 2005.  It did not disappoint.  The people were wonderful, the food fantastic, and I continue my love affair with sangria made with cava.  I am a huge Picasso fan, and Barcelona has what the artist considered his favorite museum.  And you can get in for free on the first Sunday of the month.

Barcelona was very easy to navigate, with a great subway and train system.  The city is filled with iconic buildings by hometown architect Antonio Gaudi.  Buildings you must see include La Sagrada Familia temple; La Pedrera residence; Casa Batlló (which looks like it’s made of skulls); and the Park Guell.

The other big trip was to Seoul, South Korea, where I was doing a series of stories on flag carrier Korean Air. 

I was really excited to land at Incheon International Airport, since the facility has won numerous “best airport” awards.  After visiting, I now know why.  It was light and air and very easy to navigate.  It has world-class shopping, free shower/arrivals lounges for all travelers, free wi-fi and free computer stations, places to take tours or play a round of golf during a long layover and a free Korean museum where you can make your own crafts.

While I was there, the city was celebrating Buddha’s birthday, so there were celebrations everywhere.  The local flea markets and crafts areas are a shopaholic’s dream, and I made a point of not eating Western food.  The highlight for me was having lunch at Sanchon, a restaurant owned by Buddhist monks serving “temple” cuisine.  It was a lovely oasis in the city that served all-vegetarian fare — and I am NOT a vegetarian — and wonderful teas.

So go ahead — apply for your passport.  Having one can spur you to find your own adventures!


The working man's cruise

Ferries were created as basic transportation for water-bound communities, but they can offer a great experience — and great value — to the traveler.

When it comes to cruising, January is a hot month. Snowbound Americans start thinking about sunny holiday cruises, while the cruise industry touts the arrival of new, bigger and better ships.

According to the folks at CruiseCritic, no fewer than 15 new vessels are expected to hit the waves in 2010.

This time, though, I want to bring up one of the more overlooked aspects of water travel, but one that can offer a traveler some serious value.

I’m talking here about ferry travel.

When many of us think of ferries, we see something small, slow, ungainly-looking, a barge to get you and/or your car from one side of the river or bay to the other, and not much else. Strictly utilitarian. The working man’s (or woman’s) cruise. A floating city bus, with seats to match. And you’d be right.

You’d also be wrong.

Many of the world’s ferries — and at last count, there were more than 240 ferry lines around the world — ply sea routes covering hundreds of miles. Increasingly, they are state-of-the-art vessels, some of the fastest and most technologically advanced in the world.

The larger ones often come with cabins, restaurants and shopping arcades that surpass those found on cruise ships only one generation back. In fact, you may have a hard time distinguishing some of them from cruise ships — until their bow opens up and the cars, trucks and buses start pouring out.

In many parts of the world, ferries often take you to interesting, picturesque destinations that can only be reached by water. They also may take you deep into a country’s heartland without the need to resort to planes, trains and automobiles.

At the same time, even on some of the big seagoing ferries, fares can be comparable to or cheaper than what you’d pay on a cruise ship to visit the same places.

The fringe benefit — some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth.

I found that out in British Columbia, on a ferry crossing the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver to Victoria.

Prior to this, my ferry experience had been limited to crossing the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans to the suburb of Algiers, and later the old bay ferry between Oakland and San Francisco. Both those runs, lasting only minutes, were delightful to a child, but neither of them prepared me for that crossing in British Columbia.

Blue Pacific waters stretched to a horizon dotted with craggy islands of every size, virtually all of them mantled with thick pine forests that covered them almost to the water’s edge.

Back then, bald eagles were an endangered species in the United States. If you saw one at all, it was usually on a TV commercial, or a postage stamp. Now, up here off western Canada, you could see them perched on tree limbs in two’s, three’s and half-dozens. And when they stretched out their wings to soar overhead, your spirit soared with them. It was magical.

But it’s only the smallest taste of what you can see from a ferry.

Norwegian fjords. Whitewashed Italian and Aegean cliffside villages. Thousands of tropical islands. Go from a coastal desert of Baja California to coastal jungle on the Mexican mainland in one hop.

My friend, former colleague and fellow blogger Anna Cearley recently did just that, and you can read about her experience here.

Ferries can give you all of that, and without leaving you stuck on a cruise ship for a week or more. For some folks, a day or two on the water is enough.

So if you’re planning to spend some time on an overseas trip that’s going to take you to multiple destinations, consider the ferry as a more relaxing and scenic option for traveling between points.

And while you do, consider another of those fringe benefits: You can quietly gloat over the fact that most of your fellow passengers are commuting…while you’re vacationing.

Whoever thought a bus could be so much fun!

Ocean-going ferries are generally quite safe, but seagoing ferries in the developing world demand extra precautions. Some ferry lines dangerously overload their vessels. Others have been known to sail in bad weather, usually packed with locals anxious to get home.

In recent years, the “capsized ferry tragedy in the Philippines” has become almost an annual event.

Being relatively high vessels with shallow draft, ferries are not the best boats to ride out turbulent seas. So if the forecast along your route looks ugly, consider delaying your sailing until the storm passes. And always try to schedule your passage when the ferry is less packed. You’ll embark and debark a lot quicker, and with fewer safety concerns.



Take the most pristine alpine setting you can conjure up — mountains, blue sky, water on all sides. Add city. Stir.

The first time you see Vancouver, you may think your eyes are deceiving you. They’re not. This place rreally is as beautiful as it looks. A picture postcard on steroids.

Water is the element that dominates and defines Vancouver. Rivers, inlets and bays paint some part of the horizon a liquid blue in nearly every direction. Even the airport sits on an island.

Even if you’ve never set foot in Vancouver, you’ve already seen a lot of it. The city’s nickname is “Hollywood North.” One of the more prolific film producers and special effects houses, Lions Gate Entertainment, got their start here.

Film and video crews spend so much time “on location” in Vancouver, shooting everything from feature films and documentaries to TV series and commercials, that some hotels and restaurants use their popularity with the film-making caste as a selling point.

The one blight on the landscape is all the skyscrapers. Towering office and apartment high–rises fill the city center, as if all of Vancouver insisted on having a scenic view — and got it.

But honestly, can you blame them? I mean, really, when was the last time you could peer over a balcony — and look down on seagulls in flight?

And yeah, I’ve done that.

You can reach Vancouver by road, rail, air or cruise ship. The drive from Seattle is about two hours and change, a shade longer than it takes to drive between Los Angeles and San Diego. But that doesn’t count the wait time to cross the border, which can add an hour or more.

Vancouver is served by major U.S. airlines. The airport code for Vancouver is YVR. You can also take the Amtrak Cascades train. Several cruise lines sail into Vancouver, which also is a major starting point for cruises to Alaska.

To cross to/from Canada by land or sea, you’ll need either a U.S. passport or the newer PASScard. If you’re arriving by air , it’s passport only. The PASScard won’t work.

The currency is the Canadian dollar, but many Canadian business accept U.S. dollars.

My home base in Vancouver is a neighborhood known as the West End, which sits at the base of a small peninsula. The tip of that peninsula is taken up by the gorgeously green Stanley Park, whose perimeter you can walk around at water level.

Here, youth can be your calendar age or your outlook on life. Gay can be an alternate lifestyle or a joyful attitude a la the word’s original meaning. Turn down Denman Street or off Davie Street to English Bay and the smell of the sea engulfs you.

Even mundane sights take on a fascination, like the seaplanes that take off from and land on English Bay. I’ve yet to take one of those floating/flying tours around Vancouver, but you know it’s on my to-do list!

The West End, like most Vancouver neighborhoods, is rendered to a human scale. There are plenty of stores within an easy walk. Whole counties have been fatally “malled” in the States, but the corner grocery store is alive and doing business here.

Just on the other side of the West End is Granville Island. rundown industrial area on False Creek has been turned into something reminiscent of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, with shops, restaurants and entertainment.

Actually, the music and nightlife scene is vibrant citywide.

But maybe the most beautiful thing about Vancouver is her people. The city has always had a large Asian population, which swelled even more in the years leading up to Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China. But the population here is diverse enough to make any visitor feel comfortable.

And if the human rainbow here doesn’t put you at ease, the residents themselves probably will.

This is the anti–New York. Folks here don’t rush, don’t push. There’s a mellowness among people here that seems to have nothing to do with the production and smoking of “BC Bud.”

Drivers are actually…polite. Perfect strangers may actually speak to you on the street — without an ulterior motive. Shopkeepers strike up conversations with you just for the hell of it. Cyclists and drivers actually seem to respect each other here.

Taken altogether, it’s mind-blowing, without the chemical enhancement.

Rudeness instantly marks you as an out–of–towner.

Driving here may take a different mindset from what you’re used to. Vancouver takes pride in its lack of freeways. This is not the place to try to get somewhere at the last minute, unless it’s within walking distance.

If you bring the Los Angeles mentality with you to British Columbia, you’re in for some serious culture shock.

Speaking of driving, the ferry run between the City of Vancouver and the island of the same name has got to be one of the world’s most beautiful commutes.

Up here, bald eagles aren’t on coins or patriotic advertisements. They’re perched in trees or soaring overhead, almost as common as sparrows.

It all makes for an atmosphere that’s more serene, more contemplative, than you usually find in North American cities.

At the outdoor cafe tables and on the giant logs that serve as beach benches on English Bay, the conversations run to art and music, philosophy and religion. You can go a whole week without hearing gangsta rap or the names Britney Spears, Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan.

That alone is reason enough to adore Vancouver. And I do.