Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

No pain

Do I really need to describe this photo and what it represents? Cocktail hour at sunset on Curacao? Painkillers, the fruity cocktail equivalent of ambrosia? Our own private deck overlooking the Caribbean Sea, less than 10 degrees north of the Equator? Kicking up our feet after a day of swimming with eagle rays, sea horses, sea turtles, barracudas (not the Alaskan kind) and many other sea creatures? Shall I continue? I think not....


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Monday, September 29, 2008

Eine kleine nachtmusik in Curacao

Moonlight and a little music can be magical on any night, but when it's your first evening on a tropical island, and the music emanates from a cute church right across the street from where you're staying, you feel like you've entered a fairy tale.

I couldn't put my camera away on that first day, even when the sun had long since set. When I peeked out the front door to investigate all the activity outside, I found this lovely little scene of Saturday evening church service.


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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fishy Curacao

The house reef at All West Apartments, where we stayed in Curacao, has seen some impressive visitors in the past year or so—if we are to believe what we were told. Pods of dolphin, a passing manta ray, even a random whale shark! So on each dive we made, not just on the house reef but everywhere, we kept glancing away from the reef, out into the blue, in the hopes we might see something big.

Ultimately, we didn't spot anything bigger than a really fat barracuda. But we still saw plenty. As this picture shows, Curacao was plenty fishy.


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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Diamonds and Tree Houses

The following story is presented by reader request.

Back in July, when we were still planning our recent week-long vacation in Curacao, I blogged about our decision-making about where to stay. My posting included pictures of the Tree House at Lodge Kura Hulanda that we were considering. Ultimately, we decided to stay at low-budget All West Apartments for most of the week, and then spend our last night in the Tree House.

The Tree House turned out to be exactly what we'd hoped for and expected, a perfect blend of romance and adventure. While not strictly a "tree house" in the sense of being built in a tree, the Tree House did sit amongst trees: a wooden platform on stilts holding a safari tent, with a wooden roof over the structure. Inside the tent, luxury furnishings belied the rustic accommodations. The platform outside the tent (reached by a ladder) offered a table and chairs where we could sit and watch the parrots, hummingbirds and iguanas all around us.

A brief but heavy rainstorm (the only one all week) delayed our check-in at Kura Hulanda, so we hurried off to the pool as soon as we got settled in the Tree House. I conveniently "forgot" to bring my book, which gave me an excuse to run back to the Tree House while Cassie lounged poolside. I quickly inflated about 30 white balloons, nearly passing out several times despite good breath control from scuba diving. I also stopped by the bar and arranged to have champagne delivered to the Tree House.

Returning back to the pool area, I relaxed with Cassie like everything was business as usual, enjoying a fruity cocktail and cooling off in the pool. As the sun headed west into late afternoon, we grabbed our snorkeling gear for one last exploration of Curacao's reefs. We weren't disappointed, encountering a school of about 30 squid, the most we've ever seen at one time.

Back on land, we toweled off and climbed back up into the trees. The balloons and champagne surprised Cassie, but not nearly as much as the question I proceeded to pop. She answered "Yes," so we popped the champagne cork too. As the sun set on our final day in Curacao, parrots serenaded us and the sun's last rays sparkled on Cassie's new jewelry. We ended the trip with a beginning!


Friday, September 26, 2008

Playa Lagun: A wonderful little dive

One thing Curacao has over nearby Bonaire—the so-called "Diver's Paradise"—is lovely little beaches like Playa Lagun, pictured below. We pulled our pickup truck up to the sand here, strapped on our tanks, and wandered into the clear water. Though we enjoyed a nice dive on the reef, out beyond the mouth of the narrow bay, it was within the bay itself (in snorkeling depths) that we saw the most interesting sea life: a group of squid on the swim out, and a green sea turtle and large barracuda on our return.

On the cliff overlooking Playa Lagun sat a cute little complex of residences, Bahia Apartments (the composite photo below was shot from their deck). Like All West Apartments, where we stayed, it seemed to serve mostly divers. We might have to check that place out if (when?) we return to Curacao.

(Click for full-size photo)

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Willemstad, Curacao

The iconic waterfront of Willemstad, Curacao, architecture that earned designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only about a million other people have taken this exact same photograph.

Stay tuned... the Week of Travel Photos continues.


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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Underwater photography with a point 'n' shoot

As expected, Curacao provided a wealth of fantastic photo opportunities both above and below the surface. And like other dive trips, this one gave me the chance to further hone my underwater photography skills.

I think I'm approaching the limitations of what my point 'n' shoot camera and housing can do, but with practice and patience, it's possible to get decent macro shots with a point 'n' shoot camera using the built-in flash. Still, might be time to finally take the plunge and get a digital SLR with real strobes.

Here, a shortstripe goby hides out inside a tube sponge.


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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Curacao: Gorgeous sunsets

Those of you looking forward to this blog resuming its normal publishing schedule may have to wait a bit longer. I haven't even touched my luggage, and unpacking will also involve the laborious task of washing the dive gear (which would be far easier if I had a garage or yard).

Until things settle back into something of a routine, I may take the lazy route and post some pictures instead of writing much. Today, I'll share one of the gorgeous nightly sunsets we enjoyed from our private oceanfront apartment in Curacao.


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Monday, September 22, 2008

Flying back in time with Air Jamaica

We just got back from a week in Curacao. Yes, it sucks to fly in this Year of the Fees. Yes, United Airlines has started charging $50 for the second checked bag. Yes, because I was scuba diving on this trip, I had to check two bags.

But all is not lost. We flew on Air Jamaica, which in a way was something like a flight back in time. Remember when you didn't have to pay to check two bags? Remember when you got served a free meal? Remember when you got a free glass of champagne when flying coach? (Okay, maybe the last one has always been an Air Jamaica exclusive.)

I felt a bit like I was in a time warp on this trip. I had no problem checking two bags for free, but it's been so long since I got a free meal on a flight, I couldn't help carving an excited message into my "omelette." Sure, it was inedible. Sure, it was made of something other than eggs (I'm not sure what). But it was FREE!


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Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday travel photo and vacation!

I'm on vacation, which means so is this blog!
We're off to Curacao, in the Dutch Antilles,
for a week of diving and relaxation.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

The airlines are drinking like sailors

I've been beating this term into you, so chime in: What is 2008? That's right, it's the "Year of the Fees." The airlines have faced some pretty major challenges with high fuel costs and a bad economy, but they've done a fantastic job of passing on those costs to us travelers. A story today reports that Continental expects to bring in $100 million from its new $15 fee for a traveler's first checked bag alone. The airline is seeing fewer people fly, but is making a lot more off those that are.

So what happens when fuel costs fall and the economy improves? Do you honestly think these fees will go away? Hell, no. The airlines are drinking like sailors when it comes to the sudden revenue from the many different new fees. They're drooling over the balance sheets and the projected numbers. No, you might as well try to take the crack pipe from the addict.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

$50 voucher for travel on JetBlue

Want a $50 voucher good for air travel on JetBlue? This offer won't help a lot of people, but if you are already planning to fly on JetBlue this fall and early next year, then it might work for you.

The details: Register now for the offer, book a flight by September 21 for travel between October 15 and November 15, and JetBlue will give you a $50 voucher—but the voucher can only be used on flights booked for travel between January 8 and February 9, 2009.

Like I said, probably not useful to most, but hopefully one of you will be able to take advantage of the offer.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Who rewards your loyalty?

Who rewards your travel loyalty? And, the corollary to that question, Who deserves your loyalty? Airline mileage loyalty programs are nothing new—American Airlines started the first of such programs back in 1981, and other major airlines quickly followed suit. Next came airline-branded credit cards that earn you airline miles for each dollar spent. Now, many credit cards offer you the chance to earn miles that can ostensibly be used on many different airlines.

But just how useful or valuable are such rewards? The answer: their value and usefulness are going down the toilet. In 2008, the Year of the Fees, major airlines have instituted new fees and increased existing ones for redeeming your airline miles. That airline mileage program pioneer, American Airlines, will begin charging a minimum fee of $50 for mileage upgrades. US Airways charges $25 for you to redeem miles. Nickel-and-diming Continental won't even give you a minimum of 500 mileage miles for flights shorter than 500 miles (now, you'll just get actual miles flown).

All of the above assumes, of course, that you're even able to redeem your miles for an award. I won't waste words talking about what a fantasy that is. So I ask you again: who rewards your loyalty? Are all of your airline miles a real reward if you can't use them?

A few years back, I discovered the Starwood Preferred Guest program. It basically works the same as an airline loyalty program, but you typically use your points for free hotel stays at Starwood properties (Sheraton, Westin, W, Le Meridien, St. Regis). The key difference: no blackout dates. If they have a room available, it's yours. They also offer a branded American Express card, which lets you earn Starpoints just like those airline credit cards earn you miles.

And the SPG program just got even better with the debut of SPG Flights. Now, members can redeem their Starpoints for flights on most airlines the same way they do for hotel stays: that is, no blackout dates—even during holidays or last-minute travel. If there's a seat available, it's yours.

So I'll ask you one more time: who rewards your loyalty? An airline that places so many restrictions on the redemption of loyalty points that it's nearly impossible to use them, and then charges you for the privilege when you can? Or a program that lets you redeem your points whenever and however you want, for a hotel stay at a huge network of excellent properties or a free flight on just about any airline?

And lest you pose a question to me, since this reads like an infomercial: no, I am not affiliated with Starwood in any way. I'm just one satisfied member.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Birthday travels

Last year, I spent my birthday on a dive boat, anchored in Pirate's Cove at Catalina Island in southern California.

The year before that, I celebrated my 40th birthday at La Diferencia, my friend's restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico.

In 2005, I visited New York City for the first time on my birthday, having no idea that I'd be living there in the near future.

Back in 2001, I found myself in Parma, Italy on September 7, enjoying some fantastic Italian food.

This year, I did not travel anywhere on my birthday—but a week from now, I'll enjoy a belated celebration in Curacao, an island in the West Indies off the coast of Venezuela.

And next year? Who knows where I'll be? That's what's so exciting about the future!

Mariachi serenade on my 40th in Tijuana, Mexico


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Six hours in San Diego

I occasionally enjoy reading the New York Times, and their Travel section in particular is typically well worth a read. One of the more interesting regular features is their "36 Hours" column, which offers up a sample 36-hour itinerary for a given destination.

Their most recent "36 Hours in San Diego" feature, however (published in tomorrow's newspaper, but available online now), showed sufficient lack of "insider knowledge" that I'd guess it was written based on a 6-hour layover reading travel brochures, not a 36-hour visit talking to locals.

Go read the article now, and then come back here to read the locals-only tips the Times missed.

1) EASE ON DOWN. Good: Walk on the Embarcadero. Better: Avoid Seaport Village. What the Times missed: "Free" concerts in Embarcadero Marina Park. The concert venue is not free, but the music is amply audible in the park right outside the fence, so bring a blanket and cooler and enjoy some free live music.

2) GASLAMP GLAMOUR. Good: Avoid the hipper-than-thou W. Better: The abundance of frat bars is "depressing." True dat. What the Times missed: The Ivy?? Recommending an L.A. icon's San Diego satellite as the place to go is beyond lame. The bolder choice would have been to warn people away from the overcrowded and overrated Gaslamp to begin with. Or at least recommend a true San Diego Gaslamp original like Croce's or Cafe Sevilla.

3) CULTURE CLASH. The Casbah is a good rec, but if you're really musically adventurous, go to Brick by Brick, a 10-minute drive away in the seedy Morena Blvd. district. Alanis Morrissette would get her ass kicked there.

4) GREENSWARD GIANT. Good: "No visit to San Diego is complete without taking in Balboa Park." Better: The recommendation to take a walk or drive, probably the best way to sample this large park in a very brief 36-hour trip. What the Times missed: Um, everything? They can be forgiven here, though, because you could spend your entire 36-hour stay in Balboa Park alone and still miss a lot. But, as worldly as the Times likes to think of itself, you'd think they would have at least mentioned the International Cottages in passing.

5) CALIFORNIA PAST. Good: Mention of the Old Town Mexican Cafe where, contrary to their advice, the food is decent. Better: Mention of the "tortilla ladies" at same. What the Times missed: No mention of the Whaley House, San Diego's famous haunted house? Or the Presidio and site of the very first Spanish settlement in 1769? That is why they call it Old Town.

6) TACO TREAT. Sigh. The Times just shouldn't have gone there. New Yorkers don't know tacos. Okay, if you're already in Old Town, grab a bite at the rebranded "Plaza del Pasado" (I'll always know it as Bazaar del Mundo, but the business people behind Plaza del Pasado were willing to pay more when the lease came up for renewal). If you want the best tacos in San Diego, go to Robertos. Or Albertos. Or Aibertos. Or any hole-in-the-wall taco shop with the suffix "-ertos," named by the many Robertos imposters. Better yet, get in your car in Old Town and drive 5 minutes away to Jimmy Carter's Mexican Cafe for the best Mexican food in the whole city.

7) BEACH BUM. Good: Recommending O.B. over one of the other, more frat-boyish beach communities. Better: The Antique Mall, several blocks' worth of antique stores, something even some locals don't know about O.B. What the Times missed: When you talked about tacos in the previous paragraph, how can you possibly not mention the uber-famous fish tacos at O.B.'s South Beach Bar & Grill, just a short stroll from those antique shops?

8) SALTY SEA AIR. Good: Sunset Cliffs, along with La Jolla is indeed one of the jewels in San Diego's coastline crown. Better: Brief mention of tidepooling, one of the best ways for those not familiar with the sea to get up close and personal with the ocean and its denizens without getting anything more than their hands and feet wet. What the Times missed: Cruising the streets above Sunset Cliffs to see some amazing, multi-million-dollar homes, and then keep driving a bit further to the crest of Point Loma and the million-dollar views of the city.

9) DINNER AT A DINER. Good: Recommending some casual dining, which better suits San Diego's personality. Better: Corvette Diner is a lot of fun. What the Times missed: Corvette's burger with peanut butter. To those adventurous enough to try it, you'll never stop talking about it. Yum.

10) THE FOX ROCKS. Good: Mentioning a quality dive bar, of which San Diego has many. Better: The Red Fox is one of the best. What the Times missed: Ould Saud, the Lamplighter, the Alibi, NuNu's, the Morena Club, to name a few.

11) IF THEY BUILD IT. I'm sure Legoland appreciates the nod. The place needs all the buzz it can get. There's a reason why it's not crowded, though as the Times mentions, it's worth a visit if you have kids. But a "hot and dusty" snub of the deservedly "world famous" San Diego Zoo? Three letters: WTF? Well, okay. If you're a New Yorker, then I guess all that open space and nature can get on your nerves real fast. Maybe one of the monkeys threw poo at the writer.

If you've got more than six hours to spend in San Diego, I hope these tips help you enjoy your stay.

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Friday travel photo

Chapel of the Holy Cross
Sedona, Arizona

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fall travel deals

Lacking time to write anything substantial tonight, I thought I'd share some fall travel deals that came through my Inbox today from Travel Zoo.

Caribbean & Mexico From Across the U.S.
Fares start from $80 for travel through December 10 (book by September 12).

Fourth Night Free at El Conquistador

Some great deals at one of the nicest resorts on Puerto Rico (also book by September 12).

Virgin Atlantic to London as Low as $226 Each Way
I didn't price out a sample ticket, so I don't know what these low fares will actually amount to after taxes (which can add a lot on flights to London), but this is still really low for fares to London that I've seen in recent months.

Low Fares to Central America
Considering that Central America is a fantastic budget destination in these harder economic times, this looks like a great way to put together a cheap trip to somewhere like Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatamala or Nicaragua.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Travel insurance: protect against the unknown

Some people I know are planning to spend next week on a liveaboard dive trip in the Bahamas, and now their trip is in jeopardy. Hurricane Hanna (now a tropical storm) blew through the Bahamas today, and Tropical Storm Ike, expected to strengthen in the coming days, could hit the Bahamas Saturday (the day they're scheduled to arrive).

Needless to say, this sucks for them. It also underscores the risk of planning a trip to the Caribbean during hurricane season. More often than not, you'll enjoy great weather and off-season rates. But if you're unlucky, you could lose a lot of money—if you don't buy travel insurance.

So I guess you can also say my friends' experience also underscores the importance of purchasing travel insurance. It's not just a good idea when planning a dive trip to the Caribbean during hurricane season. It's an all-around smart thing to do when booking any travel that's more than you can afford to lose.

Many things besides hurricanes can interrupt a trip: illness (yours or a loved one's) that prevents you from even going on the trip; flight delays or cancellations that the airline blames on weather (and therefore may not be liable for), lost luggage and belongings that you need to replace at your own expense; an accident or illness while away that requires expensive medical evacuation (your U.S. medical insurance may not cover you outside the U.S.); and many other scenarios.

As with other forms of insurance, you have to weigh the potential risk against your investment and make the decision based on your own personal risk tolerance. There certainly may be some vacations you don't want to insure.

One of the great attractions of travel is an exploration of the unknown. When you travel, you want to ponder questions like "will I meet someone special on the cruise ship?" or "will I see a whale shark on one of my dives?" With travel insurance, you won't have to wonder "will I lose thousands of dollars if something unexpected happens on this trip?"

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Monday, September 1, 2008

What a difference a water release makes

In July, we spent a weekend camping in the Catskills, and went tubing down Esopus Creek. We had such a great time that we decided to do it again for Labor Day Weekend. The first time, the scheduled water release from an upstream reservoir was canceled, but we still got a fun ride through the rapids. This weekend, another water release was scheduled—and this time it wasn't canceled.

What a difference! Where the first trip gave us a fun ride, we got the aquatic version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride this weekend. It took every ounce of balance and maneuvering for me to stay in the tube, and even that wasn't enough. On our second run down the creek, I fell off within the first few minutes, barely hanging onto the tube and scraping skin off my side in the process.

I brought home a battle scar, but what fun we had! Quite the opposite of the lazy Shenandoah, the only other river I've tubed on. Everyone should try it!

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