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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

On holiday

This blog is officially on holiday. That doesn't mean this blog is done, that I'm calling it quits. It just means that I'll blog when I feel inspired, rather than forcing myself to maintain the daily blogging schedule that I've managed to keep going since February.

During the past nine months, I worked long hours to manage a large website redesign project at work, and I gave countless additional hours to serve as my dive club's communications director—and somehow managed to keep blogging every day. Now, the website has launched, we've wrapped up a busy scuba diving season, and I am quite simply burned out. So I'm keeping myself to normal working hours, I stepped down from my dive club post, and now the blog is the next to go.

Don't stay away—I'm stepping back from the daily blogging grind, but I'm sure inspiration will strike on a regular basis. I won't stop traveling, and the airlines are sure to continue to give me material to write about. For now, happy trails!

(Incidentally, purely by random chance, this is the 200th post of this blog.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hurricane Omar brushes Dutch Antilles

Last week, a late-season hurricane named Omar swept through the Caribbean. The election-frenzied American media barely gave it a passing mention, and I didn't pay any attention myself.

So imagine my surprise to learn tonight that the storm brushed Curacao, the island in the Dutch Antilles where I proposed to Cassie last month. I quickly emailed Sunshine, a friend we made down there, who described destructive waves, flooded homes and widespread damages (though fortunately no loss of life).

Back in August, when flooding wreaked havoc on Havasu Falls in Arizona, I posted a before & after set of photos. Sunshine sent me links to pictures of Omar's fury, and I found one that showed waves pounding Playa Lagun. Check out the before & after pics below. I shot the first one during our visit; the second was taken last week. It's no tsunami, but keep in mind that Curacao is supposedly outside the hurricane belt, and the seas are flat 360 days a year.

I'm glad the people are okay. I hope the coral fared as well.


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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Airline fees and other useful charts

Awhile back, I posted a chart outlining the various fees that airlines charge for taking your pet aboard your flight. Today, I came across a treasure trove of other useful charts on Bookmark this page as a jumping-off point to these charts when planning your air travel, as AirfareWatchdog appears to be updating these charts on a regular basis.

Frequent flyer fees. How much will that "free" ticket really cost you?

Baggage fees. These new fees change so often it's hard to keep up with them.

Miscellaneous fees. When it comes to finding new ways to steal your money, the airlines are more creative than Congress.

Shipping luggage vs. checking fees. Yes, Virginia, sometimes it really is cheaper to ship your suitcase.

Rule 240 comparison chart. Which airlines follow a post-deregulation version of Rule 240 to get you on another flight (even on a competing airline) at no charge if they screw up?

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Road Trip: Buffalo, New York

This blog focuses on travel, not sports, so it offers no clue (with one exception) that I'm a die-hard San Diego Chargers football fan. I'm no crazy sports freak—football is the only sport I follow—but I've been a Chargers fan my whole life.

Last weekend, I traveled with several other Chargers fans from New York City to Buffalo to see the Chargers face down the Buffalo Bills. If you judged the trip solely based on the outcome of the game, then it was a failure—the Chargers lost.

Buffalo Road Trip
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But to the contrary, we had a fantastic time despite the game's outcome. With fall colors peaking along our route, it was the best weekend of the year to make the drive. We arrived in Buffalo with enough time to visit Niagara Falls. And the internet enabled us to coordinate with a legion of other Chargers fans—even John McCain made an appearance—so we spent yesterday morning tailgating with 50 other fellow fans.

If I had a larger travel budget, I'd be on a plane for London, where the Chargers play their next game.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday travel photo

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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Southwest flies into the red

The hard times in the airline industry in particular, and the broad economy in general, finally hit that bastion of airline profitability, Southwest Airlines. Today, they posted their first loss in 17 years—an amazing streak that has finally come to an end.

It's no surprise. With the crazy economic times we find ourselves in, even a savvy, creative company like Southwest is going to find it challenging to maintain profitability. I'm hardly the poster boy for these hard times—I make a decent living, I'm not a homeowner, and I haven't cut back much on my traveling—but even I am trying to fly less. I abandoned several potential trips earlier this year because the air fares were too high; I'm driving to Buffalo this weekend instead of flying; and we're using a combination of auto and train travel to go to Indianapolis for Christmas.

I'm not sharing anything new when I say that the reasons for flying less are more than economical. In my opinion, the airlines might not be having quite as bad a time if they'd tried to offset higher fares and new fees by increasing the quality of customer service. Any reasonable person understands the business need to raise prices when costs increase. But to do so in a way that negatively affects the service experience ($2 for water?) is just dumb. And to not try to ease peoples' pain by offering better customer service (which costs nothing, except for perhaps additional training) is even dumber. You're already turning people off with the higher prices; why push more of them away with bad service?

So again, it was no surprise to read that Southwest went into the red. The real surprise is going to be the news that an airline posted a profitable quarter. Who knows when that will happen?

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday travel photo

St. Willibrordus Church and cemetery in Curacao

Photo by Cassie Craig

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Plan for New York airports ready to take off

In case you didn't hear about it yesterday, the Bush administration finalized plans to auction off slots and cap the number of flights at the three major New York City area airports. The Port Authority, airline industry and key members of Congress oppose the plan, saying it won't solve the problems, and that it'll hurt already-hurting airlines.

I have no idea if the plan will work. But the fact is that our three crappy, overcrowded airports are responsible for two-thirds of all the flight delays in the country. Even if you're flying nowhere near New York, chances are good that your flight started its day here, or flew through here. They pack too many flights in here, and when the inevitable weather issues throw a wrench in the gears, the effects ripple all the way through the system.

As usual, the opponents of this plan complained loudly but offered no alternatives. If you don't have a better plan, then sit down and shut up. Maybe this plan won't work, maybe we travelers will pay the price when the airlines pass on the auction costs to us through ticket prices and surcharges. But at least someone's trying something.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wine regions across the U.S.

California has the best-known wines in America, and the state's Napa and Sonoma Valleys are its best-known wine regions. But they're hardly the only wine regions in the state—or the country.

I'm lucky enough to have parents who live in the so-called "southern wine country" surrounding Paso Robles on California's Central Coast. To me, the wine produced in that region is just as good as Napa/Sonoma—especially the zinfandels, for which the area is known—and the wineries are much less crowded. I recommend the area to anyone I hear considering a trip to Napa.

You'll also find that the "southern wine country" extends further south, into the Santa Ynez Valley and on toward Santa Barbara. This is the area featured in the popular "wine movie" Sideways. If you've seen the movie, you know the region is known for its pinot noirs.

But wait—there's more! Continuing south, you'll come upon another wine-producing area: Temecula Valley, north of San Diego County. You're not likely to find good wines here (except maybe a sparkling wine), but it's a popular place for limos and tour buses full of tourists looking for a day of wine tasting.

And finally, if you venture across the border into Lower California, that's right—you'll even find a little wine country in Baja! On the inland highway between Ensenada and Tecate (about an hour's drive south of San Diego), you'll reach Guadalupe Valley, where Mexico produces some pretty decent wine of its own.

Since relocating to the East Coast, I've also been shown that, while California may be the best-known wine region in the U.S., it's hardly the only one. As it turns out, Virginia (where I lived for two years) has quite a robust wine-producing area. The wine I tasted in my explorations was really hit-or-miss, but I certainly found a few good wines.

Here in New York, where I now reside, the Hudson Valley also hosts a number of small wineries (including, apparently, America's oldest winery). I have not had the luxury of visiting them yet, but I've tasted a number of local wines. Again, some are surprisingly good.

While the word "surprisingly" may sound snobbish, it's not that I think California wines are superior. I know how big a factor weather is when it comes to growing good vines and fruit, so it is a bit of a surprise to learn that good wine can still be made in the Northeast, where the weather can swing radically from one extreme to the other.

Last Sunday's New York Times published a story in the Travel section about exploring another wine country... in Colorado, of all places! I had no idea that Colorado—a state I associate with mountains and snow—also produces wine. But that only shows how incomplete my wine education is. Where else in this great country might I find more wine regions?

Pass the bottle opener, we're going to Nebraska!

L.A. Cetto winery, Baja's biggest wine producer


Monday, October 6, 2008

My photography in La Jolla

A few weeks ago, a large map was unveiled at Kellogg Park, the public space at La Jolla Shores in San Diego. Made of lithocrete (a mixture of concrete and recycled glass), the map covers some 2,300 square feet of ground, and depicts the La Jolla Underwater Preserve as a way to bring the undersea world to beachgoers who might not realize what lies under the waves.

Accompanying the map is a wall of photos showing the various marine creatures that live in the nearby waters. This fish ID board identifies everything from sheephead and señorita to lobster and octopus. The creators of the lithocrete map solicited the local dive community for images to place on this wall, and as luck would have it, they selected my photo of a white sea bass. I'm not a professional photographer, and this particular photo was hardly my best work, but apparently few images of this shy fish exist. I got this particular shot a couple of years ago, while diving La Jolla's kelp forests on a visit to San Diego. This fish kept following me around, keeping its distance but apparently curious. I snapped a photo unaware of what kind of fish it was—and having no idea the photo would eventually end up on an art installation at nearby La Jolla Shores!

So next time you travel to La Jolla Shores, whether you're a local going for a day at the beach or a tourist visiting San Diego, be sure to stop by Kellogg Park and check out the map and fish ID board. And see if you can find my name!

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Underwater pumpkin carving

Cassie and I met two years ago at Dutch Springs, a flooded quarry in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that is now a scuba diving park. Our respective dive clubs—from D.C. and NYC—organized a joint camp & dive event, and she and I both went for the whole weekend. Cassie was a new diver at the time, so the founder of her dive club suggested she buddy up with me for the weekend. The rest is history....

This weekend, two years after that first meeting, we returned to Dutch Springs for their annual "Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest." Pumpkins are buoyant, so I didn't know how difficult it'd be to carve one 30 feet below the surface. But it turned out to be much like carving one topside, once I put a 5-pound weight inside.

Below are all of the participating pumpkins—all of which were carved underwater. Mine is second from left on the bottom row (I got overly enthusiastic with my dive agency's logo).


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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel

Picture a Ferris wheel. Now imagine that each carriage is an enclosed room, not simply a seat. Inside, each carriage is furnished with a dining table, chairs and fancy table settings. Wrap-around windows provide the view one would expect from a Ferris wheel.

Sound like a fantasy? It's not—such a thing exists, and it's possibly the most romantic way to have dinner in Vienna, Austria. Think engagement, milestone anniversary, that kind of thing.

I haven't been on the Wiener Riesenrad (aka "The Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel"). I haven't even been to Austria. But I fell in love with the idea of this unique restaurant the first time I heard about it from Cassie's brother and sister-in-law. They were lucky enough to spend an evening having dinner in one of the luxury carriages.

So I'll add the Wiener Riesenrad to my list of things to see. Anyone else got a unique or weird place that I should see?