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

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Where I'd rather be: Via Krupp on Capri

Again I find myself looking out at a gray and gloomy Sunday. Spring is limping along here in New York, having a hard time escaping the grip of a dying winter. So naturally my mind wanders again to dreams of warm and sunny climes far away in distance and time. I find myself thousands of miles and eight years from here, on the Italian island of Capri.

I came to Capri in 2001, an unplanned escape from a planned visit to Naples. Little did I know I was traveling to a place that remains to this day my favorite spot on the planet. Dramatic cliffs rise from turquoise waters, and hidden alleyways lead to tranquil piazzas. And limoncello... this is where I first tasted—and fell in love with—the drink that I have ever since called "sunshine in a bottle."

With clear skies and hot weather, the clear blue water called loudly to me. Near the villa where I was staying, a footpath called Via Krupp led down to the sea on the back side of the island by way of a series of switchbacks. I wasted no time, and set out to take a dip in the Mediterranean for the first time in my life.

On a tip from my hotel's proprietor, I hopped over the locked gate and made my way down. (The path only reopened last year, after being "officially" closed for 30 years due to falling rocks and other safety issues.) Besides being a fun way to get down to the water's edge, the path presented fantastic views all the way down that heightened the anticipation of jumping into the azure waters. At the bottom, I clambered over the rocks and staked out a spot for the afternoon, where I took this shot (but not before jumping in):

Isle of Capri, Italy
[Take a virtual walk down Via Krupp with this slide show.]

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Travel to Mexico still safe

I've been intending to blog about the safety of travel to Mexico, but this editorial pretty much covers what I would have said. My friend Francisco Ussel, a Tijuana resident and business owner, has told me the same things that the Rosarito Beach mayor says in the editorial: that the violence, while serious, is largely taking place between rival drug gangs, and that tourists are not targets. Yet media reports and the general perceptions of Mexico by Americans have been tremendously damaging to Mexico's tourism industry.

Let's be honest: it has never been 100% safe to travel to Mexico. The federal police, or federales, have a well-earned reputation for corruption. The current problems with drug gangs have highlighted the reasons: they can stay uncorrupted, earn $5,000 a year, and get killed by the gangs; or they can work with the gangs, make more money, and stay alive. There are systemic things behind the corruption that need to change. But it has never been 100% safe to travel anywhere.

The same rules of travel that apply elsewhere (even to travel within the U.S.) apply to Mexico as well: Stay alert, be aware of what's going on around you, try to blend in as much as possible. And if you're going to Baja, try to avoid driving after dark (common sense advice that applied long before the drug violence erupted last year). Put things in perspective: as the Frommers article points out, New Orleans had far more murders per capita than any city in Mexico last year.

I'm not necessarily advocating travel to the border towns of Tijuana (sorry, Francisco) or Ciudad Juarez, but if I lived in San Diego again, I'd still spend the occasional weekend driving through Tijuana for points further south. There's just too much natural beauty, great food and adventure to be had, and by all accounts that I trust, it's as safe as it ever was.

Overlooking the bay of La Bufadora, near Ensenada

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Twitchhiker

Big hats off to Paul Smith, a.k.a. the Twitchhiker. This creative traveler has taken online social networking to new heights—or should I say, to faraway places. Whatever the proper wording for the metaphor, this guy is my new travel hero.

Harnessing the social power of Twitter, Smith set out to travel from his home in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK to a small island off the coast of New Zealand (the exact opposite side of the globe) within 30 days. The rules for his expedition: he had to travel strictly via free offers of travel and accommodation that he received from other Twitter users; he could only make plans less than three days in advance; and if he received no offers within 48 hours, he would have to return home.

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, it's a microblogging site where users post very brief messages about whatever they're doing at any given moment (as those of you who use Facebook do when you update your status). Smith set out on March 1, and he's already in New Zealand. Simply astounding. And proof positive of the sense of community that social networking sites like Twitter create.

Read more about his story; it's quite impressive.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Where I'd rather be

Spring has still not sprung here in the Northeast, so as I stretch my virtual legs to do some virtual traveling, I naturally seek out warmer climes. Today, I find myself kayaking the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez, the arid landscape of Mexico's Baja peninsula providing a counterpoint to the 32-degree weather outside my door.

I hope, within the next year or two, to paddle those waters for real, and explore more of Baja California's 1,000-mile desert playground.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Check-ins of the future

I've had some interesting hotel check-in experiences. At the W Times Square in New York City, the lobby was not on the ground floor. Instead, I boarded an elevator just inside the ground-floor entrance, went to the seventh floor, and stepped out into a nightclub lounge. Tucked away off in a corner, I eventually found the front desk and checked in.

At the Omni Hotel in San Diego, I had barely stepped into the lobby when a waiting clerk greeted me and asked my name. Before I even reached the front desk, the clerk handed me a key and guided me to a nearby elevator. No lengthy credit card verification or reservation confirmation; just "welcome" and "here's your key."

While those check-in experiences impressed me, I would sure like to try checking in at an Andaz, Hyatt's answer to Starwood's hip W brand. At Andaz, you don't walk up to a check-in counter; you take a seat in a comfortable chair, and they come to you, checking you in via a handheld computer.

Of course, I look forward to the day when embedded chips in my luggage and wallet enable the following check-in scenario: I get out of the taxi and drop my bags at the entrance, where they'll be scanned and automatically routed to my room. As I walk through the entrance, a scanner reads the chip in my wallet and checks me in. I stroll to the elevator, where a scanner detects my chip, displays my room number on a screen, and takes me to my floor. When I reach my room, I wave my wallet against a card reader to open the door. Now that's a fancy check-in.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

"Year of the Fees" here to stay

I've blogged aplenty about new airline fees for everything from checked baggage to pillows, even calling 2008 "The Year of the Fees." However you may feel about these fees, get used to them—they're apparently here to stay. This New York Times article outlines ways in which the airline industry is standardizing and codifying these a la carte fees. They wouldn't be doing that if they considered these fees a temporary, stop-gap measure to recoup losses.

So, I hope you've learned some useful skills this past year to avoid these fees—carrying on all your luggage, packing your own snacks, bringing your own pillow—because you'll be using them for the foreseeable future.

Happy flying.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Warm weather and fun in NYC

Those who know me well know that I'm not crazy about living in New York City. Sure, it's one of the world's greatest cities, it's got everything one could want in the way of culinary or cultural experiences. What can I say? I'm just not a city boy; I grew up a beach bum, and that's what I'll always be at heart. Having said that, though, I'm quite excited for spring and summer, and for all the fun NYC activities that the warm weather will bring.

First among these will be the Five Boro Bike Ride, also known as "Bike New York." This May's ride will be my third time doing it since my first ride in 2007 (pictures). As the name implies, the 42-mile ride (not a race) flows through all five of New York City's boros: Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island (where the ride ends). It's a great way to see the city, and a guaranteed day of fun. And in June, the Tour de Brooklyn offers an equally fun ride in my home boro.

By June, the food vendors at the Red Hook ball fields in Brooklyn are also in full swing, dishing out the most authentic Latin American fare you'll ever find in NYC. These vendors started selling food to the Latinos who come to watch the semi-pro soccer games, but the cat got out of the bag a couple of years ago, so now the place can sometimes be a mob scene. The food still makes it a worthwhile destination on a warm summer day, though. And, thanks to the new Red Hook IKEA, Manhattanites can get a free ferry ride to the ball fields.

One of the best ways to spend a summer evening outdoors in NYC is to watch one of the many open-air movie screenings. In Bryant Park, you can sit on the grass, surrounded by Manhattan skyscrapers, watching a movie on the big screen. For an even better view, Brooklyn Bridge Park offers free movies with a view of the eponymous bridge and the Manhattan skyline.

TravelZoo just published a page chock-full of NYC-related travel specials, so what are you waiting for? Come pay us a visit.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Philly Beer Week: Just a taste

Philly Beer Week ended yesterday. Called the largest beer event in the country, the 10-day festival featured hundreds of individual events at dozens of venues around Philadelphia: tastings of special releases, presentations by brewers, multi-course beer-pairing dinners, and much more. In recent years, I've developed an enthusiastic taste for craft beer, so the event was a great excuse for a weekend trip from NYC to Philly.

Some of the best events took place on weekdays, making me wish I had enough vacation time to spend the entire week in Philadelphia. I did manage to sample quite a bit during the short visit, but I left feeling as if I'd taken just a couple sips of what the entire event had to offer.

Some highlights of the visit:

Victory Beer Brunch: We enjoyed a hearty meal at Marathon Cafe themed around the malty offerings of Pennsylvania's Victory Brewing Company. Starting with a "Bloody Victory" (Bloody Mary made with Victory Prima Pils instead of vodka), I then had Golden Waffles (made with Victory Golden Monkey) and Prima Potatoes (fried up with Victory Prima Pils and crusted with gruyere cheese—absolutely amazing!).

Oskar Blues. My current favorite—introduced to me by Cassie—is Dale's Pale Ale, made by Oskar Blues out of Lyons, Colorado. At one of the weekend's events, we not only got to try two different Oskar Blues brews aged in whiskey barrels (Ten Fidy, an imperial stout; and Old Chub, a Scotch ale), we also had the opportunity to hang out and chat with Marty Jones, cofounder of the brewery (to whom I couldn't resist asking "can I steal your life?").

Standard Tap. No special events were going on when we visited Standard Tap, in funky Northern Liberties, but we instantly fell in love when we stopped in for a beer. Situated in a restored historic building, the establishment features several distinct bar areas, each with their own personality, and many cozy alcoves where you can curl up with your favorite ale. It reminded us of a comfy British pub, and made us lament the absence of such a place in our own Brooklyn neighborhood.

I've spent much of this past week sampling more tasty craft beer in the comfort of my own home, trying to recapture that brief flash of beer magic we experienced in Philly. Fortunately, the popularity of craft beer is growing, so it's becoming increasingly easy to find that magic no further than your nearest beer store.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where I'd rather be

In the interest of breathing some new life into this blog, I'm going to start a semi-regular feature, "Where I'd Rather Be." While I'm not suggesting that I'd rather be anywhere other than "right here," a little escapism can be exercise for the imagination. And, in the current economic climate, it might be the only kind of travel some of us can do right now.

What I'll do is virtually travel through the internet until I find an entrancing picture of someplace "I'd rather be," and then post the picture here for you to share. So, in a way, we'll get to virtually travel together.

Today, here's where I'd rather be:

Pool at Bishops' Court B&B, Cape Town, South Africa

This picture caught my imagination while I surfed the net over my morning coffee, the image of an infinity pool and lush landscape on a sunny day quickly pulling me away from an overcast and gray Brooklyn day.

See the rest of the photo gallery in the New York Times' Travel section.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

TripAdvisor's 2009 Top 10 Dirtiest Hotels

A useful report from TripAdvisor... hotels you'll definitely want to avoid.
  1. Hotel Carter, New York City, New York
  2. Continental Bayside Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida
  3. New York Inn, New York City, New York
  4. Eden Roc Motel, Wildwood, New Jersey
  5. Days Inn Cleveland Airport, Brook Park, Ohio
  6. Days Inn Airport / Stadium Tampa, Tampa, Florida
  7. Travelodge Bangor, Bangor, Maine
  8. Velda Rose Resort Hotel, Hot Springs, Arkansas
  9. Ramada Plaza Hotel JFK International Airport, Jamaica, New York
  10. Days Inn & Suites Gatlinburg, Gatlinburg, Tennessee