Sunday, December 28, 2008

Chongqing, China

We didn't get to see too much of Chongqing. We arrived after dark and it was raining.

Chongqing is a huge city. So big, in fact, that it is now its own province. It is built in the mountains and most of the buildings are built into the mountainsides. The roads, of course, are very steep and, instead of bicycles, we saw lots of motorbikes.

The city is dominated by rivers. It is here that the Yangtze River joins up with its largest tributary. It is a very large tourist city and the riverside is crowded with buildings that are brightly light up at night.

Our arrival at the pier was quite interesting. It was very dark and there were really no lights. We are introduced to what we will find all along the Yangtze: well worn concrete steps with no handrails. Here we have about 50 steps to get down, in the dark, in the rain, with our carry on luggage.

Ship staff is strategically located along the stair case to offer a helping hand and, if necessary, to pass our carry ons from one to another. We arrive on the pier, finally, and are directed to our cabin. Our first impression of the ship and staff is very positive.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Asian Vs Western - Toilet That Is

I have to admit I didn't do a tremendous amount of research for this trip. I knew that the only free time we would have would be in Beijing and Shanghai so I researched those two cities before we left by reading Beijing & Shanghai by Eyewitness Travel.

So I have to admit I was totally unprepared for the bathroom situation in museums and restaurants that we visited. Oh, yes....I had my personal stash of toilet paper. I never travel without a bunch of sheets tucked into a snack sized ziploc bag. That wasn't the issue.

As us ladies entered the bathrooms, we had to decide whether or not we wanted a Western toilet or an Asian toilet. What's a Western toilet? Easy. If you live in a developed country, go into your bathroom. That's a Western toilet and what we had in all of our hotels. We had a bunch of elderly women in our group and that's what they required. And many bathrooms had only stall with a Western toilet.

So many of us, including myself, learned how to use an Asian toilet. Good thing I go to exercise class and have decent leg muscles.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Terracotta Soldiers

As seeing the Great Wall was for Jerry, seeing the terracotta warriors was the highlight of the trip for me.

The first pit discovered was an accidental discovery by a farmer who was digging a well. Apparently, many terracotta pieces had been discovered earlier by other farmers who felt the pieces were bad luck and discarded them. This farmer, though, informed the government of his find and the rest, as they say, is history.

The largest pit is Pit 1 and it is the most reconstructed. For the archeologists working on this it has been a jigsaw puzzle, putting together the pieces of soldiers and horses that have been found in the pit. To me it was an overwhelming display. Every soldier’s facial features were different. They had different clothing and different hairstyles. The only consistent feature were the feet as the ‘warriors’ were constructed bottom heavy so they would stand.

The first thing that hit me as we entered the museum was the sheer volume. It is huge! The second thing that hits you is the dust from the red soil. Pit 1 is still being worked on as is Pit 2 and Pit 3. And there are suspicions that even more pits exist.

I had a few surprises. One, as mentioned, is the size of the pit. I was also surprised to find out that there statues of horses. I didn’t know that and had assumed there were only the warriors. With a walkway all the way around the pit, it was easy to get multiple views and I really couldn’t get enough of it. I could have hung over the rail and stared for hours.

The one negative part of this visit was the luncheon we were served. It was awful. I was hungry so stayed and ate but, in retrospect, should have left and just gone back to Pit 1 to continue to ‘absorb’ the spectacle there.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Review: Golden Flower Shangri-La Hotel - Xi'an

In Xi'an, we stayed at a hotel in the Shangri-La chain called the Golden Flower.

It is considered a luxury hotel and by Xi'an standards it probably is. But it was certainly a step down from the Beijing Westin.

That being said, there really wasn't anything wrong with the hotel. The room was comfortable, with a nice firm bed. And a thermostat that actually responded to my desire to get the room temperature below 70 degrees.

The breakfast buffet, while not as large as the one in Beijing, was certainly more than adequate and had several new-to-me items. Service in the buffet area was a bit below par as items on the buffet were not replenished as quickly as they should have been, nor were our coffee and tea cups kept full.

That said, we were there for only one night and for one night it was OK.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Xi'an China and The Tang Dynasty Show

Our next stop was Xi'an, flying there from Beijing. We had no problem getting through security at the Beijing airport and the wait area was pretty comfortable which was good since our flight was delayed.

The Xi'an airport is about an hour outside of the city of Xi'an. When we arrived it was warm and sunny. But as we approached the city, the smog got worse and worse. Xi'an has a population about half that of Beijing but in a much smaller geographical area. Plus, they have no subway and, therefore, the main means of transportation is a car. That means smog and that means lots of traffic.

Because of the traffic we did not make it to our hotel first but had to go directly to the theater for the dinner and show. Because we arrived late, our dinner was rushed but the food was very good.

And the show? FANTASTIC! Beautiful costumes and staging. It was like a Las Vegas show and even more. It really was worth the 'price of admission'.

(Once caveat here: Before the show, CDs of the music were presented for sale. We were given the impression it was the same music as the show. It wasn't and it was of poor quality. Don't buy it.)

That aside, please enjoy these video clips of the show:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rules For Flying Within China

The rules for flying within China are unlike rules we've experienced anywhere else.

Per our pretrip literature, we were instructed that we could have only one carry each and that carry on could not weigh more than 11 lbs.

This sent my husband into a panic as his camera equipment weighs more than that and, obviously, he wanted to carry it all on. After some discussion, he decided there were one or two items that could go into the checked luggage. So after much playing around with his equipment while home, and weighing and reweighing his bag, he felt confident he had things under control.

And then we get to China and our first internal flight. Per our guide, David, there is NO limit on carry ons AND they don't weigh them. He said he's never seen a carry on weighed.

BUT, there are two important things we need to be aware of.

1) NO liquids of ANY kind in our carry on...and that includes the little travel sizes allowed in the U.S.

2) NO batteries in the checked luggage. So all extra batteries, flashlights, etc now go into our carry on.

So much for our research and for being prepared. Oh, least nothing like our Antarctica trip.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Our Visit To A Silk Rug Factory

Our next stop was a silk rug factory. Many of the world travelers in our group had already had this type of experience but for us it was a new one and I found it very interesting.

We saw rugs being made and had a small lesson on quality. Silk thread being used as the base, versus cotton, made the rug more expensive. Add to that the number of threads/knots per inch and the detail in the design...such as the rug in this video....and you end up with an expensive piece meant to be used as a wall hanging.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Beijing Hutong

Our morning was a rickshaw tour of a Beijing hutong.

Hutongs are the old typical neighborhoods of Beijing. At one time, all of Beijing looked this way but then the developers came in with bulldozers and the hutongs fell one by one. Finally, it was realized that a very important part of old Beijing was being destroyed and the remaining hutongs were protected from development.

A hutong is kind of a city within a city. From the main streets, a hutong is entered through a gateway into one of many alleys. Off of these alleys are gateways to courtyards. And around the courtyards are the rooms and apartments where the residents live.

Our visit included seeing a 'typical' hutong apartment. We certainly enjoyed our visit and the hostess was delightful but the fact is there was nothing typical about this apartment, which is why I have not included any photos.

For one, we entered off of the alley of the apartment instead of coming in through a courtyard. At the opposite end of the apartment we could see the doorway that exited through the courtyard but we did not use that doorway. The reason given was that when the 'lady' decided to open her home to foreign visitors, she didn't want to disturb her neighbors in the courtyard and so opened her apartment to the alleyway. Plus, by current standards, her apartment was very large for one person.

In the past, she had lived there with her mother and brother. Her brother moved on. Her mother died. She now lives there alone, with her poodle, and has taken down the walls which divided the apartment into several small rooms. Our hostess was a retired government worker and there is no doubt that her standard of living was higher than others in the hutong.

That aside, we were able to ask questions which 'the lady' graciously answered in Chinese for our guide to interpret. After enjoying a cup of tea, we reboarded our rickshaws for the rest of our tour.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs

Our final stop for the day was the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs. This is a beautiful walk through willow trees, with the walk lined with bigger than life size statues of military officers and animals.

Each statue had a match on the other side of the walkway. And what was interesting about the animals is that there were actually four of each...two the same standing and two the same lying down. That way the pathway was always guarded since there was a pair to 'watch' while the other pair rested.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jade Exchange

Lunch today was at a jade exchange. Again served lazy susan style, it was pretty much thrown at us since they, of course, wanted us on the selling floor as soon as possible. At least the food was tasty.

We had a short lecture on jade and how to tell it from plastic and glass (jade is translucent and cloudy). We also had an opportunity to see how the pieces were made by both watching the carvers and, if we wanted, watching a brief film (I did watch the film and found it quite interesting.)

The selling floor was HUGE! And it was like wandering through a jade museum. Which I absolutely loved doing. I had no plans on buying anything and didn't see anything I had to have.

But a lot of the pieces were absolutely stunning and I just enjoyed wandering and admiring.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Shopping In China

Wish I had packed a suitcase within a suitcase. If I had only known how cheap stuff really is in China....I would have definitely come back with a lot more than I maybe it's just as well....what would I do with all of it?

But seriously, shopping in China is serious business. There are two very important things to know. The first is that it is standard to bargain and to bargain hard. And the other is to make sure it doesn't look like you've fallen in love with that piece of jade or porcelain or silk. If you want to get a good price, you need to be willing to walk away.

And I mean that literally. We discovered two methods that worked very well for us. One was a showing of total disinterest on my part. If I couldn't get it for the price I wanted to pay, I walked away and chatted with my husband, or another person in our tour group, showing no interest at all in the item, or any other item. And each time the salesperson came to me and agreed to my last offer.

The second way was my husband looking annoyed, as the bargaining went on, and saying sternly 'Let's go!'. That usually got an 'OK, OK.' from the salesperson.

And the most interesting part? Where the 'bidding' started. The salesperson would quote a ridiculously high amount, either in English, or on a piece of paper or punched into a calculator. I countered at about 20% of that number. I usually got an immediate brush off.

So I'd turn away and then there would be a tap on my shoulder with the calculator, or pen and pencil, handed to me. So I'd go up a little, they'd come down a little, until finally I reached the maximum I wanted to pay and then I'd get stubborn. In the end, I usually made the purchase for anywhere from 60-75% below the starting price.

(Would like to put an addendum long as the topic is shopping.....If you'll be doing any shopping at Amazon, please check out my web site and click on my Amazon link. Your purchase through my Amazon link would be most gratefully appreciated.)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving and Family

Lots of cooking. Lots of family. And no time for putting up posts. Please bear with me a day or two until I can get my act together again and continue my China posts.

Hope everyone had a great holiday.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Great Wall

We got lucky. The lousy weather the day before had turned, during the night, into a rain storm with strong winds that blew the clouds away. Our day for the Great Wall dawned chillier but clear and sunny.

There are several places of the Great Wall that are within driving distance of Beijing. The most restored and most visited is the section at Badaling which is where we were headed.

I knew this area was built up with hotels and shops. There was even a rumor about a Starbucks on top of the Great Wall (not so). And I had heard stories about not even being able to get to the Wall without being chased by vendors selling things like silk scarfs. Also not so.

Our bus let us off by one of the hotels and we had to walk (uphill) from there. Past a sign displaying The Great Wall, there were very few vendors. We reached a plaza and waited while David bought the tickets. Our first stop after going through the entryway was a group picture, available for purchase, of course. (We did decide to buy it as a souvenier of our visit.)

And THEN we had a chance to climb to the top of the Wall. David had advised we head left (east) as the climb is a bit easier and it is usually less crowded. He was right about the crowd and with the sun also off to the east, it gave us a great view and great photo ops of the Wall as it stretched out to the west.

It was very windy and very chilly. The Wall is a hard climb. The top varied from almost flat to almost vertical. Some of the more vertical areas had steps but many just had ridges. A tough climb.

After strollling in the eastern direction, I insisted we also walk on the western slope. We did that too and found it even more difficult. Finding a quiet corner in one of the watchtowers, we rested, enjoyed the scenery, and watched the people walking back and forth.

It was a great morning and being able to walk on the Great Wall was a highlight of the trip for Jerry.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: Eagle Creek Undercover Hidden Pocket

My husband and I both travel with this Eagle Creek Nylon Hidden Pocket. We position it behind our side pants pocket. That way, any bulge simply looks like we have something in that pocket. In that position, it is safe and also comfortable and easy to access.

Yes, we tried over the neck pouches and no matter what we did, they were still obvious to any casual looker. And we tried waist pouches too. I gave up on mine pretty fast once I bought the Eagle Creek Travel Gear Undercover Hidden Pocket . Took my husband a bit longer. But now he loves his too.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Beijing Opera and Peking Duck Dinner

With no rest for the (very!) weary, we were back at the hotel for about an hour to get ready for dinner and the opera. Dinner tonight was a special Peking Duck banquet.

Having had Peking Duck several times in the U.S., we were really looking forward to this evening. Unfortunately, the dinner was not as expected. It was all served lazy susan style (as was to be all of our Chinese meals) and the duck was not particularly tasty. All in all, that part of the evening was a disappointment.

Not so the opera performance. If one were expecting a typical European opera type performance (which fortunately we weren't), they would be very disappointed. Highlights of Beijing Opera are the face paints which are used to depict different types of characters, and the characteristic singing, which some people equate to a screech. We saw several short performances, each one explained by a lighted display on the side of the stage. Everything from costumes, to face paint, to acrobatics (movements) to the singing has a lot of significance. I really enjoyed this.

Then back to the hotel where everyone collapsed. Early departure tomorrow: The Great Wall!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is about an hour from the Forbidden City. It is where the Emperors went to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of summer in Beijing. It is all man-made, including the lakes and lagoons.

The weather was getting even more threatening. And like most of what we had already seen in Beijing, it was very crowded. It is one place I wish we had more time and better weather, as I love gardens.

The Summer Palace is known for The Long Corridor, a covered walkway famous for both its length (about 1/2 mile) and its more than 14,000 paintings.

Like the colors in the Forbidden City, I was quite taken with the colors and paintings on the ceilings and posts within the Long Corridor. As I walked along the corridor, one painting after another grabbed my attention. Yes, I definitely dawdled here. I could have spent my entire visit in at the Summer Palace simply strolling the Long Corridor.

We had our one, almost major, mishap at the Summer Palace. David told us to walk to the end of the Long Corridor and he would meet us there. Our San Francisco friends, Carol and Bill, did just that. I would have also but Jerry was walking on the outside and spotted that David had stopped at the pier where one could board boats to 'cruise' the lake. He had gotten tickets for the group to do just that and we all boarded, with Jerry and I picking up the rear. As David usually does, he counts the group members to make sure everyone is present. He came up short.

With several separate areas on the boat, Jerry and I didn't notice that Carol and Bill were missing. (We thought they had boarded before us.) The boat headed back to shore. Fortunately, it didn't take long for Carol and Bill to find us. They had followed David's instructions and, yes, they had walked all the way to the end of the Long Corridor. Upon realizing no one else from the group was there, they traced back their steps. Very smart on their part. Without too long a delay, but admittedly a very nervous one, we were soon on our way again.

The boat ride was nice and, of course, would have been nicer if the weather had been better. But the best part for me was this adorable little girl that I sat next to.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Check Baggage Allowances Before Flying

Before flying (and maybe even before purchasing a ticket), be sure to check the airline's baggage allowances. The rules on luggage are changing faster than I can keep up with them, which is why I'm not simply listing the information here.

Keep in mind that for domestic flights (within the continental U.S.), most U.S. airlines are charging at least $15 for the FIRST piece of checked luggage and $25 for the second piece. Weight allowances shrunk a while back from 70 lbs per bag to 50 lbs per bag so don't try to stuff everything into one checked piece. You might find the charge on your overweight piece costs even more than checking a second bag.

In addition to this, the allowable size of carryons has also shrunk. Many airlines allowed 51 inches (length + width + height). Now that number is down to 45 or 46 inches.

There is still an airline or two that don't charge for checked luggage. Southwest is one of them. So check out the baggage charges before buying a ticket. I don't know about anyone else but if the price is the same for an airline that charges and one that doesn't, I, of course, will be buying my ticket from the airline that doesn't charge.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is often described as a 'city within a city'. After our visit there, I most definitely agree.

As the Chinese imperial palace from the mid-Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Forbidden City is located in the middle of Beijing, literally. For almost 500 years, it was the home of the Chinese Emperor and his household, and the ceremonial and political center of the government. Today, it is now open to the public and is the home of the Palace Museum.

Entrance to the Forbidden City can be through one of 3 gates. In the time of the Emperor, only the Emperor and his Empress entered through the center gate. Each of the large doors has 81 'knobs' on them, 81 = 9 x 9. Nine was the royal number and there are many places, within the Forbidden City, to see signs of this, such as a display of 9 small dragons on a roof.

After passing through the doorways and short corridor, we found ourselves at the top of the stairs to the first of several huge squares.

We climbed stairs to view inside the large pavilions. It was very difficult to see inside the one housing the throne room. Besides being very dark inside, the crowds made it very difficult to get to the front to see. We, literally, had to push and shove our way to the front. I've never been in a situation like that and it got scary as I found myself being carried along by the crowd.

It was amazing as we walked from one huge courtyard to another. One area even had its own canal.

We were constantly awed by the architecture and the colors. Yes, we had a very cloudy (smoggy?) day, but the colors in the artwork were still beautiful and, fortunately, we were able to capture some of this.

We then had the opportunity to really find out why the Forbidden City is called a city within a city. There are doorways all along the outside walls of the plazas. Most lead into rooms off the plaza that now house the exhibits that make up the Palace Museum. But some of these doorways lead into small courtyards.

And off those small courtyards are living quarters and doorways leading into other courtyards and alleyways. Without our guide it would have been extremely easy to get lost in this part of the city within a city.

To My Subscribers

I want you all to know that I am putting up photos and videos from our trip to China. I know that these often don't come 'through' on email subscriptions.

So if you want to see the full post, just click on the title of the post (like 'To My Subscribers') to be taken to the original post.

Hope you enjoy!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Review: Beijing & Shanghai by Eyewitness Travel

I purchased this book in preparation for our trip to China. The reason I limited it to these two cities is because, according to our itinerary, these would be the only cities we might have some free time.

I found the content very easy to read and very thorough. It provided me with a very good understanding of the two cities, with excellent maps and photos. The advice on shopping and bargaining was worth the price of the book alone.

I did feel, though, that the book had two strikes against it. The first is that the book is heavy and not one I'd want to carry around in my purse. (So I left it home.) The second problem, for me, were words written in italics. The typestyle used in the book made it difficult for me to distinguish between the letters 'b' and 'h'. Certainly not an issue when reading English but a big problem when I tried to learn some of the Chinese words listed in the back of the book. However, I have to add that for younger eyes, or eyes not needing new reading glasses (like I do), this probably won't be an issue.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square, known to many people as the place of the massacre in 1989, was our first stop for the day. David, our Viking guide, warned us to stay very close, especially when crossing the street. He told us it would be very crowded and to try and stay in sight of his Viking Cruises flag.

We were all issued small receiver boxes. These worked wonderfully and without them we would have missed a good portion of David's commentary. They are about the size of a deck of cards with a neck rope and an ear piece for the left ear. The reception was usually good up to about 25 feet away which allowed us freedom to look around and to wander a bit, instead of just trying to concentrate on what David was saying.

The first thing we noticed was the line of hundreds of Chinese, zigzagging in an orderly manner around the square. They were lined up to get into the mausoleum that is Chairman Mao’s tomb. I had read about the tomb but had no idea how big the building really was. It looks more like a huge fancy villa than it does a tomb.

We wandered a bit around the Square, overwhelmed by the size of it and the number of Chinese. And then it happened….what David had warned us about. The Chinese tourists like to take pictures with us Western tourists. With sign language and waving of cameras and much laughing, one of the Chinese tourists would stand next to us with their arm around us while a friend took a picture. And then they’d trade places. It was a lot of fun.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Westin Hotel - Beijing - Financial District

Our accommodation for three nights was at the Westin in Beijing's financial district. This is truly a 5 star hotel with luxurious accommodations and rooms filled with amenities including things like slippers and robes.

The hotel has several restaurants but the only one we ate in was Senses. And it was fantastic. While items are available a la carte, the restaurant is really set up for a buffet. We had three breakfasts there and one dinner.

The selection was enormous, including both Asian and Western type foods. For dinner, besides some typical items like salads and cheeses, there was a soup/noodle station, a carving station and a sushi station. In addition to that, there was an area where the diner could get cuts of meat or chicken cooked to order. There were piles of prawns and spring rolls. In the hot food section were woks filled with meats, fish, vegetables and soups. Of course there were gorgeous looking deserts and loads of (EXCELLENT!) fruit.

Service was top notch with teacups being kept full, dirty dishes being whisked away and our napkins being refolded when we stepped away from the table.

Front desk service was also excellent and I converted some U.S. dollars to yuans. As our guide said, the exchange rate at the hotel was very fair and I didn’t have to go in search of an ATM machine, although there was one way in a first floor back corner of the hotel.

My only complaint about the hotel itself was the temperature control in the room. It was warmer than I would have preferred and couldn’t get it reset lower. I mentioned this at the front desk and, when we returned from a day out, I noticed that the thermostat was now set lower. It must be something controlled by housekeeping and the adjustment was made.

My other comment (not really a complaint) had to do with the location of the hotel. Since it was in the financial district, it was surrounded by other business buildings and the area was not conducive to an evening (or early morning) stroll. It’s not that we would have felt unsafe. But when I stroll in a foreign city I want it to feel foreign….not like I’m walking about the financial district of any major U.S. city.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How To Pack For a Trip to Antarctica

I know this is a bit off the current topic of our trip to China, but I've been contacted by people heading to Antarctica in January and February 2009 and they all want to know what to pack.

The big question is, essentially, how to pack for the hot temperatures of Buenos Aires and the cold of Antarctica. The answer is layer.

My husband and I travel, if we at all can, with only carryons. This included our trip to Antartica. We both have backpacks that we use for essentials, like medicines. We both also have carryon size rolling suitcases.

Over the years we have developed a wardrobe of travel clothes that include supplex nylon pants that, typically, dry overnight. And most of our shirts are coolmax and will also dry quickly. So our usual wardrobe, on a casual trip, is two pairs of pants and 3-4 shirts, each.

Taking advantage of coming from the cold Northeast, we wore to the airport one pair of long pants, one of our quick dry T shirts, a fleece long sleeve jacket, then a fleece vest over the jacket, topped off with our gortex jackets. Of course we peeled off most of that when we boarded the plane.

Packed in the suitcase was a folding bag I had purchased on sale at LL Bean. When we deplaned in Argentina, I pulled out the folding bag and all of our winter stuff went in there. In short sleeved coolmax and our supplex pants, we were ready for hot Buenos Aires.

In our suitcase were additional pairs of wool socks, two pairs for each of us of sock liners, ditto on silk long underwear, a scarf, a hat, gloves/mittens and glove liners, windproof/waterproof pants (to slip on over our regular pants), and thin waterproof mittens (to slip on over our gloves/liners). We did not need to pack boots as the ship provided them. We also received waterproof/windproof shells on board ship.

With the ship typically on the cool side, our daily wear was usually the long underwear top under a T-shirt. (My red long underwear top under a blue or beige short sleeved shirt made a great fashion statement. BG) When we went ashore, or on deck, we simply layered everything on.

For a trip to Antarctica where there will be landings, what we took worked out perfectly for us. For a ship that just cruises Antarctica, if the plan is to spend a lot of time on deck, I would definitely recommend packing similar clothing as the fierce cold winds need to be considered.

For a trip not going any further south than Ushuaia, I would recommend checking current temperatures before departing. We found the temperature in Ushuaia much higher than normal and short sleeves were fine.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Arriving in China - Beijing Airport

Our visit to China started in the Beijing airport. Going through immigration did not take very long but it was obvious that the immigration agent made a point of checking our passports for our China visas.

Getting through Customs was even quicker and easier as we just walked through the Nothing To Declare lane. I did not bother looking for an ATM to get yuans as I was assured we could exchange cash at our hotel at a reasonable rate. (This proved to be accurate.)

As expected, we were met by Viking personnel. Several planes with Viking guests were arriving close to each other and we had to wait a short time before departing the airport.

And, as we walked out of the terminal to our bus, that's when we had our first experience with China smog! We could barely see the terminal next to ours. The sun glowed a strange orange color. While no one noticed any bad odors, nor had difficulty breathing, this was just the beginning of what we experienced during most of our stay in China.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

More On Gold Rush Country, California

We had another full day in California Gold Rush Country. We stopped at a huge winery, Ironstone. Truthfully, we were more impressed with the grounds than the wine. The grounds are huge and, in addition to holding weddings and other catered events, there is also an open air amphitheater for concerts. We began to wonder if perhaps wine was now a secondary money maker to the concert and catering business held there.

As we continued our drive through Gold Rush Country, we stopped and strolled through small towns like Placerville, Auburn (where we spent the night) and Nevada City. We stopped at Sutter's Mill on Sutter's Creek where it all began.

And then back to San Francisco after a very full 3 days of scenic touring. One more full day in San Francisco, and then off to China.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Columbia State Park, California

Columbia State Park preserves an old mining town. Besides the typical shops, restaurants and historic buildings, they also have two historic hotels and a playhouse. This was our destination for the evening as we had a package that included a night at the Fallon Hotel, dinner, play and breakfast the next morning.

As expected, our room at the Fallon was very small. We had a double bed with one side of it pushed up against the wall. In the room (literally) was the sink. And a small 'closet' for the toilet. No telephone. No TV. Shower down the hall. It was very quaint and we figured we'd manage just fine for the one night.

Our included dinner was very good. We had a limited menu to choose from but there were enough choices. Dinner included soup and salad, excellent bread, champagne or sparkling cider. My husband and I had strip steaks and they were excellent.

The play we were seeing was called The Big Bang. It's about two writers looking for backers for their 12 hour play and they provide a synopsis in 1 1/2 hours, using furnishings found around an apartment as props. It was rolling on the floor funny.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown, California

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is located in Jamestown, California. We had stopped in Jamestown to stroll the streets and pop in and out of the antique and gift shops.

As a last minute decision we decided to check out the railroad museum. As a California state park there was no charge for admission. It turned out to be quite interesting, with some neat (all working) locomotives

and a roundtable that is used during the 'season' when train rides are available.

There is a really great gift shop where I bought some books for my grandchildren. (My way of supporting the park.) In my opinion, Railtown 1897 is a must see for any rail buff.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

More Holiday Gift Ideas

Have you started making your holiday gift list? Does it get harder and harder every year? Does it get longer and longer every year?

Well I found a way to make it easy for myself. I found a great looking gift idea at Nature's Nook, New York.

Click on Soaps and scroll to the bottom of the page. Take a look at the wrapped soap/soap dish combo! What a great idea. This is suitable for both men and women!

Order several to make gift giving easier for you this year. Order some extras to have on hand for that 'last minute party invitation' house gift or for those late additions to your gift list.

I have personally used these soaps and the aromas are fantastic. Your gift recepient will love them!

Hilmar Cheese Company

Hilmar Cheese Company is located in (surprise!) Hilmar, CA. As part of our trip to San Francisco before heading off to China, we spent a few days visiting the Gold Country, the area of the California Gold Rush.

Hilmar is the world's largest single-site cheese and whey manufacturing facility. They make colby, jack and cheddar, most of it for private branding. There is an area where you can see some of the production and they also have a short video describing the cheese making process. We found the video quite interesting.

Afterwards, of course, we sampled our way through the gift shop. If you ever get to Hilmar's, be sure to try the Squeakers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Newark Airport Shuttle Bus

On a recent trip that took us through Newark Airport, we were very pleasantly surprised to find a shuttle bus available to take passengers from the end of Concourse A to the beginning of Concourse C.

We had 1 hour between flights and by the time we got off our first leg, we had a lot less than an hour and I thought we'd have to run for the monorail. Not so.....not only were we fortunate enough to spot the shuttle bus sign but also lucked out on the other end....shuttle bus drops passengers at Gate 71 in Concourse C and we were leaving from Gate 73.

Our flight was boarding when we got there but we made it just fine. If we needed to depend upon the monorail, we could very well have ended up missing our flight.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Review: Viking River Cruises - China

Our trip to China began with an advertisement I received from Viking River Cruises.

I had been keeping my eye on their China's Cultural Delight itinerary. This trip is all inclusive. Not only are all meals included but so are many items that are optional with other companies. So while not the cheapest trip available, I felt it offered the most value.

Then the ad came.....air from the west coast to Beijing and then back from Shanghai for $320 pp!!! We have friends in San Francisco and when I told them about this trip, they immediately decided to join us AND invited us out a week early to do some California sightseeing with them. We had offers we couldn't refuse.

I immediately contacted my travel agent, Ellen, ( and in no time all was professionally booked and we had our cabin assignment for the river cruise portion of the trip.

Viking River Cruises runs a first class operation. Our land hotels in Beijing and Shanghai were top of the line. The hotel in Xi'An was 5 star for that area but, admittedly, was not quite the level of the hotels in the other cities.

The ship (Viking Century Sun) is a beautiful ship. It was kept spotless and the service was excellent. The crew was friendly and accomodating.

We did have one complaint. With outside temperatures running around high 60's, the Captain used fresh air throughout the ventilation systems, including the cabin systems. With the weather we had (rainy and damp), the cabins were chilly. Many complaints from the passengers finally persuaded the Captain to use the air conditioning which removed the moisture from the air. But, unfortunately, it wasn't something we could depend upon. While all of the passengers were off the ship on a shore excursion, it was obvious, by the feel of the cabins when we returned, that the A/C was shut off while we were gone.

That said, if the weather had been more typical for this time of the year, the above would never have been an issue. We had an excellent tour leader and excellent local guides in the areas we visited. Our cruise on the Yangtze River was 9 nights, allowing us to stop along the river and visit places not normally visited by other vessels.

As typical of a small ship, there were lectures on board and evening entertainment was music and/or things like a crew talent show which was excellent.

We really have no major complaints and would not hesitate to take another river cruise through Viking.

To China And Back

My husband and I just returned from a 3 1/2 week trip that took us to San Francisco for a week and to China for the remaining time.

It was a wonderful trip. I kept a diary and have lots of new material for this blog (VBG).

I'm going to try and get new posts up as quickly as possible but dealing with time zone changes, a cold and the normal getting-back-into-routine stuff, I'm not sure how fast this will all happen.

So if you don't want to miss any of the posts as they happen, be sure to Subscribe to the blog.

Or if you'd just like to check back every now and then, that's OK too. All the posts will be accessible by clicking the China link in Categories on the right sidebar.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Delta vs Continental Across the US

I recently had the experience of flying Continental to California and returning using Delta. They are code share partners and this was all part of one reservation.

Some interesting differences. The Continental flight out of Newark, departing at around 2 PM, offered in flight movies and a free snack...and I don't mean just peanuts. Wasn't a full meal but it was enough to keep us happy for the flight. For the movies and TV program segments, an earset was $1.00. The movies were shown on a screen pulled down at the bulkhead seats or on small overhead monitors.

I returned on the red eye, departing at 11 PM. I had saved my headset from my international trip (more on that ... a lot more... later) which was good as Delta wanted $2 for a headset. I got excited as I browsed the inflight magazine and saw how many movies were available for me on the screen built into the seatback in front of me. Great! I could watch a movie I wanted when I wanted.

My elation deflated as I brought up the movie I wanted and discovered that there was a $6 fee to view it. Actually, there was a $6 fee to view ALL the movies.

And food?? Peanuts or a small package of two cookies.

I don't know how the Delta/Northwest merger will shake out but, right now, all things being equal, I'll fly Continental.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

American Back With Kayak

Back in July, I posted about American Airlines leaving the airfare site Kayak.

Well, it appears that whatever their differences were, American and Kayak have managed to resolve them. So AA is now back on Kayak.

Which makes me very happy as I think Kayak is one of the best low airfare search tools out there.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dog Keeps Airfield Free of Birds

Collisions between aircraft and wildlife is dangerous and costly. Some airports use a variety of tools to keep birds away such as the recordings of seagulls screaming in distress used by Tampa International.

Several airports have now started using dogs. Watch one in action on this USAToday page.

Friday, November 7, 2008

With A Bad Economy Comes Great Travel Deals

The stock market drops. Houses are foreclosed. U.S. debt is up, both government and personal. And people are not spending like they used to.

Which makes it tough for companies in the travel business who depend upon clients spending 'disposable income'. But cruise ships still sail. And to fill those cabins, cruise lines have been offering great deals.

For instance, Carnival has dropped prices on some cruises by 20% and has suites starting at $669 PP Plus tax leaving from both coasts.

If you are considering taking a vacation in the near future, be sure to check out these great rates.

Rome, Italy Alert

Travelers are being befriended by locals on trains and in train stations and offered a drink. The drinks turn out to be drugged. The tourists fall asleep and awake to find their belongings stolen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Travel Newsletter Subscription

I recently posted a review of International Travel News. This is a monthly news magazine that I have subscribed to for years. If you have an adventurous, international traveler on your gift list, I'm confident a gift subscription to ITN would be very welcome.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

US Luggage Wide Body Computer Portfolio

(Note: This post goes along with my The Holidays Are Coming post.)

"It took me a long time to find the right travel bag. Since my laptop is so valuable to me, I never like it to be very far out of my reach. This bag holds my laptop and all other essentials.

It has tons of compartments for all the accessories, papers, discs, etc one would need to carry on a business trip making it perfect for business travelers.

I love the fact that it holds my computer plus all the other materials which I use in connection with my computer operations. It has plenty of space, and it is easy to carry.

It has a padded computer compartment to protect my laptop. It holds everything securely so things do not get jumbled or out of place during travel. It contains several organizers which allows me to find things as they are needed. I don't have to hunt for hours for any item regardless of its size.

It is a great travel case available at a reasonable price."

Review Link

Friday, October 31, 2008

'Little Ways' Tips - Some More

If a digital camera or other electrical item gets wet while traveling and stops working, put it in a bag of rice overnight. The rice will draw out the moisture and you could end up with a working item in the morning.

Magnets! Ugh! Not only can they erase your pictures from your digital camera's memory card, they can also mess up hotel keycards and mass transit fare cards. Keep magnets well away!

Besides soap and shampoo, it is possible to find shower caps in many hotel rooms. Throw these little packages in your camera bag. Use them to protect your SLR camera on drizzly days.

A great solution for hotel room clutter is a shoe organizer. Hang one over the bathroom door and it is not only a place for shoes but also for toiletries, room keys and travel docs.

Need but don't have a lint brush? If you checked your luggage, pull off the airline's luggage tag and use the sticky side.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Budget Travel Is Still Possible

Still want to or need to travel? I turned up this article from USAToday on travel sites aimed at those looking for a bargain.

Budget travel sites to keep you out of the red

Monday, October 27, 2008

How To Choose A Trip To Antarctica

Want to go to Antarctica? We did and we were able to make this wish a reality this past January. So I’ve put together, here, a few things to think about if this is on your wish list.

First, a decision needs to be made whether or not to actually make landings in Antarctica or to just cruise the waters. Main stream cruise lines like Holland America and Princess have itineraries that cruise the waters of Antarctica. To actually set foot on the Antarctic continent requires looking off the beaten path.

Assuming you want to be on a ship that makes landings, there is then a second decision to be made and that has to do with the size of the ship and the number of passengers. There is an international treaty of tour operators for Antarctica and it requires that no more than 100 people are ashore at the same time.

Therefore, most tour operators to Antarctica use ships that hold less than 100 people. These ships are small and typically are either old research vessels or luxury ships. Either way, because of the smaller number of passengers, the cost per person can be quite expensive.

The alternative is to go on a larger ship, holding more people, which use staggered landings to bring the passengers ashore. The negative part of this is usually less time ashore. The positive side is usually a less costly trip.

We chose the later, using Hurtigruten for our Antarctic trip. I really wish I could recommend Hurtigruten. They have a great product and we had a wonderful trip. Once we got going that is… can read my Hurtigruten Overbooking post to find out more.

If you really feel that Hurtigurten is the right choice for you, my suggestion is to book it through Vacations To Go. I know absolutely nothing about Vacations To Go except that their group made up about 50% of the passengers on board our sailing and following sailing. I could almost guarantee that every VTG client that wants to go gets a cabin.

There’s another alternative that can keep the cost down and that is G Adventures. I have been on three of their itineraries and would not hesitate to go on another. Actually, we seriously considered GAP for our Antarctica cruise but I wanted the longer itinerary offered by Hurtigruten. Live and learn.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rand Mcnally Road Atlas Review

(Note: This post goes along with my The Holidays Are Coming post.)

"With today's technology, many don't think of picking up an actual road atlas book before they head out on a long road trip. I highly suggest that you do. I have always purchased a Rand McNally road atlas for my travels. Yes, I have the GPS, the cell phone, the laptop with Mapquest, but the Rand McNally road atlas has always been helpful to me.

The price you pay for a decent quality road atlas from Rand McNally is acceptable. The books also include many travel tips to popular destinations, useful discounts and coupons, and phone numbers to tourist destinations. The books that I purchase from WalMart also have a useful list to all of the store's locations throughout the country. Rand McNally releases a large print version for those who need it.

Once you purchase your book, register it online so that you can get all the necessary updates to road construction, map changes, and a variety of special features. "

Review Link

and for those of us who need a little help, there is a Large Scale edition

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Hamilton Beach Single Serve Blender (with travel lid) (Gift Idea)

(Note: This post goes along with my The Holidays Are Coming post.)

"I won't be dumping my regular blender for this, but I do use it frequently for my lighter and smaller blending jobs. I decided to get this when I was out looking for the Magic Bullet. Fortunately, the store didn't have any so I started looking at the other small personal blenders and decided on this one. I generally use it to puree onions and garlic for various marinades. It does a really good job. I occasionally find a stray piece but not often. I also use this sometimes in the morning when I want to make a quick drink without having to wash anything. Just drop in the ingredients, blend, put on the travel lid and go. The blender makes perfectly acceptable smoothies or other drinks as long as the directions are followed. I usually keep frozen bananas in my freezer to play the additional role of ice. For under $20, this little gem is a bargain. I have had mine for well over a year and it's still going strong! "

Review Link

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Insect Protection Clothing

Looking to add to your collection of travel clothes?

If you'll be traveling to parts of the world where biting insects are a problem, take a look at ExOfficio's Insect Shieldclothing. The fabric used to make this line of clothing is treated with a proprietary permethrin formula.

Unlike using the sprays that can be bought to treat clothing, ExOfficio's Insect Shieldclothing does not smell, is not sticky and looks great! The clothing is also lightweight, comfortable and quick drying. These clothes would make a great addition to any travel wardrobe.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sony Vaio Neoprene Sleeve Review

(Note: This post goes along with my The Holidays Are Coming post.)

"If you own a laptop and you travel a lot, I think a laptop case or sleeve is needed. The Sony Vio Neoprene Sleeve doesn't just fit the Sony laptops. I have a Dell 700m and it fits perfectly. It's designed to fit the smaller 12 inch screen computers. It's plain black with a rubber thing on the front that says Sony. I dont like that part, but it's easy to overlook. The zipper goes around the top and I've never had a problem with it sticking or snagging. The case itself is squishy and stretches a bit, which is nice when I have my extended battery on my computer. The case comes with a seperate smaller case to put your power cord in as well. It's a nice case and is very useful. "

Review Link

Monday, October 20, 2008

How About A Trip For A Holiday Gift?

A while back I did a review on GAP Adventures.

I know couples sometimes 'give a trip' as THE holiday gift to each other. If you don't need 5 star accomodations and want to travel for a great price, a GAP Adventures trip could be just what you are looking for.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Good Reason To Belong To A Credit Union

I belong to a local credit union and have been a member for many many years. Long time ago I discovered that if I needed to get some money from an ATM, if I went to the ATM at any local credit union, there were no fees.

During our trip to the U.S. Northwest, we did the same thing. As we passed through a small town, if we spotted a credit union, we would stop to use their ATM. And we never had a fee associated with the withdrawal.

I certainly can't tell you if this is standard across the entire U.S. but if you belong to a credit union and want to withdraw funds from an ATM with the possibility of no fees, use the ATM of a local credit union.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chewing Gum On An Airplane

True or False: Chewing gum on an airplane helps prevent ear pain while flying

Answer: True, but......

Chewing anything will help. It's the jaw movement and the swallowing action that actually does the job of helping to minimize pressure in the ear.

So, yes, chewing gum can help. But it's the action of swallowing that activates the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube. So letting a mint or hard candy melt in your mouth also works. So does yawning.

If yawning and swallowing are not effective, unblock your ears as follows:

Step 1: Pinch your nostrils shut.

Step 2: Take a mouthful of air.

Step 3: GENTLY, using your cheek and throat muscles, force the air into the back of your nose as if you were trying to blow your thumb and fingers off your nostrils.

When you hear the 'pop' in your ears, you know they've been unblocked.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Another Post of 'Little Ways' Tips

If you've got some 'must see/do' activities, don't wait to do them on the last day. If you wait and something unforeseen happens, you won't be able to reschedule.

Take pictures of signs. They will help you with identifying the places you've visited. Love a restaurant or hotel? Take a picture of the sign.

When visiting a zoo, aquarium, museum or science center, check out the cost of annual membership before you get to the ticket booth. It might be cheaper for a couple or a family to buy an annual membership than to pay for individual tickets.

An added advantage of an annual membership is free (or reduced cost) reciprocal admission at other zoos or museums. We have a local zoo and science center membership and they have both saved us significant dollars when we visit similar facilities in other cities.

If you'll be checking luggage, put itinerary information (including contact info) inside your suitcase. If name and flight tags end up missing, the airline can still get your bag to you.

If you'll be using an ATM in a foreign country, be sure the money you need is in your checking account. Some foreign ATMs don't allow access to savings accounts.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Beware E-Mail Ticket Invoices

It seems scammers have been sending out e-mails that look like ticket invoices. Opening the attachment results in the computer being infected with a virus.

This news comes from Delta, Hawaiian, Midwest, Northwest and Sun Country airlines.

The e-mail states that a ticket has been purchased, references a credit card and says the 'receipt' is attached. If the attachment is opened, the virus steals data from the computer and sends to a server in Russia.

Most airline confirmation e-mails contain all necessary information in the body of the email itself. There is no attachment. Plus, these scamming e-mails are coming with spelling and grammatical errors.

If you receive a suspicious looking e-mail, don't open the attachment. Call your airline first. And be sure to keep an eye on your credit card, watching for unauthorized charges.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fly In A Day Early For Cruises and Tours

My husband and I have always made it our practice to fly into our cruise/tour departure city at least one day early. This is especially important when leaving from our area in the winter, where we are subject to flight cancellations and delays because of ice and snow.

But timely flights can be a problem in good weather also. On one trip, our flight was delayed because the ground crew was not able to disconnect the airplane from the terminal (at the gate, the plane is 'plugged' into the terminal for power).

Another time, our flight was delayed because one of the pilot's windows had a crack and time was taken to determine if it needed to be replaced before the plane could fly safely.

For us, the cost of a hotel room and/or payment of an air deviation fee is worth it to protect us from the stress of a missed ship or tour departure.

And, unfortunately, even if the air was orginally booked by the cruise/tour line, they cannot be counted on to help if it is necessary to rebook air due to missed connections. Air delay is the problem and responsiblity of the air line.

Of course let the cruise/tour company know of the delay and what city you will fly into to catch up with the tour so they know to expect you. And, if you purchased travel insurance, (you did, didn't you?) be sure to get receipts for every expense and make notes of who you spoke with and when to help with any insurance claims you may make.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Travel Business Drying Up??

My very good friend and travel agent, Ellen of Sea4Sail, told me that when the stock market started dropping her business came to a screeching halt.

On the other hand, travel companies, well aware of the situation, have cut prices and she has been receiving loads of emails and faxes with incredible price specials, particularly on close bookings for November and December.

So if you still plan on traveling, these specials are a great opportunity. Where do you want to go? I saw Antarctica specials for 50% off on Clipper. That's a GREAT deal!

Check with Ellen, or your own TA, to find out what fantastic specials are coming over the fax.

How About Commercial Airplanes?

It’s no secret that I fly a lot. Certainly not as much as some business people but still a lot. While I consider flying safe, one thing does consistently bother me and that is the recycled air I breath on the airplane.

The air inside the cabin is a mixture of both outside air and recirculated air. But at 37,000 feet, that pressurized, recirculated air could be contaminated with hydraulic fuels, de-icing fluids and engine oils. Not to mention pesticides used on some international flights. And, of course, germs!

Ever find yourself not feeling well because you are in a poorly ventilated office building? It can be the same in airplanes, only worse, since the requirements for recirculation are less than that for sealed office buildings.

So I was particularly interested when I came across this article about EcoQuest Intl space age material. EcoQuest has a new ‘Fresh Air’ technology. It was developed working with NASA as a way to clean the air in spacecraft. Now I wonder if the same technology can be used to clean the air in airplanes.

Friday, October 10, 2008

United Charging For Meals Between Dulles And Europe

I knew this was being considered by United but thought the feedback was SO negative that the idea had been dropped. Looks like I was wrong.

On a trial basis, starting October 1st until the end of the year, United is charging economy class passengers for meals on flights between Washington Dulles Inernational Airport and cities in Europe.

For a 'fresh food' meal the price is $9.00. A 'snack box' costs $6.00. As of now, United is the first and only U.S. carrier to stop serving free meals on overseas flights.

I think this is a pretty lousy way to do business.

Just for the heck of it, I logged into Orbitz and, picking random dates, checked the cost of air from Dulles to London. United came in at $669. USAirways, Continental and Delta all came in a few $$ lower.

Lufthansa is a few dollars more but guess what...their flight is code shared with United. Does that mean if I book the Lufthansa flight I get a meal but if I book through United I don't????

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"I Love Your Blog" Award

Kiki, at Kiki'sCorner has just given me the "I Love Your Blog" award! I am honored and want to send a big Thank You out to her.

There are some rules for this award:

1. The winner can put the logo on his/her blog.
2. Link the person you received your award from.
3. Nominate at least 7 other blogs.
4. Put links of those blogs on yours.
5. Leave a message on the blogs of the persons you've nominated.

So I'm now passing this along to 7 blogs that I regularly read. Please take a peak:

The Life of an Unbalanced Libra
Live, Laugh, Blog
Stepfamily Sanctuary
Nature's Nook
Quest for Individuality
Syn's Life
~Witchy Momma~

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Please Don't Stiff Your Restaurant Wait Staff

I wonder if most people are aware that wait staff make less than minimum wage. It is expected that they will make up the difference (and hopefully more) with their tips.

Of course lousy service should be tipped appropriately. But don't penalize your waiter or waitress for something that is not their fault.

For instance, I was out to dinner with my Dad and step Mom when in Florida. After sitting at our table for over five minutes with no service, I went up to the hostess and politely asked to speak to the manager. I explained our lack of service. He apologized and said he would check it out.

In no time, our waiter was at the table. The manager explained that our waiter had been assigned a job out of site of his station and the hostess did not know this. As soon as our waiter was made aware of us, we received excellent service and tipped him appropriately. (And, btw, we also received a complimentary appetizer from the manager as an apology.)

At a more recent restaurant visit, my husband received a dish he was not happy with at all. The waitress very politely removed it and took his order for another entree. The manager came over and apologized and admitted that they had changed suppliers recently and have had some complaints about the dish.

My husband's new entree was fine. When the check arrived, it was less than we expected. Upon close inspection, we realized that the manager had comped my husband's dish. Mentally we added the cost of the dinner into the check and tipped the waitress appropriately. She had handled the situation pleasantly, promptly and had informed the manager of the problem. She did her job. She deserved to be tipped on the full value of the meal.

So next time you have a restaurant problem, politely inform the manager. And don't stiff your wait staff if they were not part of the problem. Chances are, they'll be a part of the solution.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Inexpensive Overseas Phone Calls

If you'll be calling from the continental U.S. (except Alaska), check out the rates at TelecomUSA (

A land line or fax must be used. This service won't work with a cell phone. The caller needs to dial 10-10-987-011 + country code + phone number.

The rates are great without having to commit to any type of plan or buying a phone card.

The charges will be on your regular phone bill as most telephone companies have a working agreement with TelecomUSA.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Kensington International Travel Plug Adapter Review (Gift Idea)

"This adapter works wonderfully with my laptop wherever I travel. The travel plug adapter for all three different plugs were built into one piece. I can easily select by just sliding out the plug I wanted. This is much easier than those that have separate adapters which I usually ended up misplacing them. I also love the sleek design and color of the adapter. It is small and lightweight which is easier to bring around in my laptop case. The built-in fuse can be easily replaced if it burnt out by removing the end of the adapter. This gives an extra protection to my electronics if the wall voltage exceeded the maximum operating voltage of my device. This compact international travel adapter is a must have for frequent travelers. It gives me a trouble-free experience wherever I go. "

Review Link

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Spain Got Its Name From Rabbits!

Came across this tidbit of information...Spain got its name from the Carthaginians who called it Ispania meaning 'land of the rabbits'


Lima, Peru Warning

If you'll be heading to Lima, Peru for a conference or special event, be especially careful of your personal possessions.

Criminals have been posing as hotel guests at events held in 5 star hotels and watching for opportunities to sneak away with laptops, purses, cell phones and other valuables.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Alitalia Can Continue As The Worst Airline Ever

After a long struggle, the last of the Alitalia unions finally gave in and made financial concessions that will help keep the airline flying.

Now the Italian investor group that is trying to keep the airline alive will be able to get to work. The result is to be a new Alitalia, with its potential profitable parts merged with its domestic rival, Air One.

Big question now is who will end up buying a minority stake in the airline: Lufthansa or Air France/KLM or maybe both.

Leading Hotels Of The World

Leading Hotels of the World is having a special promotion to celebrate their 80th anniversary. There is a special rate of $19.28 (1928 being their birth year) and their web site is overwhelmed with people trying to take advantage of this special.

I'll save you the time trying to get information right now. Here's what comes up when you click on their link "Take me there...."

Due to the overwhelming number of consumers participating in this promotion, we have indeed experienced technical difficulties. Despite our efforts to carefully manage and prepare for this worldwide promotion, we were unable to meet the demand.

Please accept our sincere apologies. You will be receiving another opportunity to participate in this offer shortly via the email you provided to register for this promotion.

In the meantime, please rest assured that we will not be saving your email address in our database for any future solicitations.

Thank you for your understanding.

The Leading Hotels of the World, Ltd.

So it looks like the thing to do now is just sign up for their newsletter. (Will that also sign me up for the promotion????) You'll find the box to enter your email at the top of the page, right in the middle.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rosh Hashanah - Happy New Year

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins Monday night at sundown. It is the start of a 10 day holy period that ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I was going to write a detailed post on the holy day. But, as I was doing some research, I found a post that already does a pretty good job: Rosh Hashanah .

Tomorrow night we will sit down with friends and family for what I can only describe as a feast. And on the night of October 9th, we'll again join friends and family as we break, together, the Yom Kippur fast.

My Apologies To My Subscribers

Did you just get dumped with three posts...empty with only a title?? Sorry about that...way too fast on the Enter key.

Memorex Mini Travel Drive 2.0 Review

(Note: This post goes along with my The Holidays Are Coming post.)

"I had seen these travel drives for sale but never tried one. It seemed like a very good way to store and transfer my digital photos to share with my friend who lives out of state who has a computer, so I bought one to give it a try. I was amazed at how much a 512 mb holds! It was really easy to use too. Just plug into the usb port and copy what you want over to the drive. I jam packed it full of photos I've been meaning to share and enclosed it in a bubble wrap mailer and sent it to my friends address. Plus the great thing is she can burn them to cd and she has a nice travel drive as a gift that she can keep and use, or mail me her photos she wants to share. Either way, it's a good compact way to share and store not only photos, but music and files and more. "

Review Link

The Holidays Are Coming

Yes, I know it's only the end of September. And Halloween stuff, which has been on display since August, still hasn't been replaced with Christmas items. But the fact is a lot of us go through this year after year....all of a sudden the holidays are around the corner and panic sets in.

So I'm going to try and make it easier this least for those people that have a frequent traveler in their life. I'm going to set out to find reviews on travel related items and will post the reviews here.

Please keep in mind that these are not like the other Reviews I've written on this site which are from personal experience. These reviews will have been written by other people. I will post the review in quotations and will include a link to the original post.

All will have the Gift Ideas label so that if you'd like to read all the posts, just click on the Gift Ideas label below.

To get started, I'm including a link here to a review that I did write....1000 Places To See Before You Die in the USA and Canada . Have fun shopping!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

More 'little ways' tips

If you are going to the United Kingdom, most British post offices will change foreign currency without any commission charge. This is great for exchanging into pounds sterling and, if you need, back to your local currency if it is available.

Stay healthy by carefully checking the caps on the bottled water that you buy. Particularly when you are buying from street vendors. It is not uncommon for empty water bottles to be refilled from the tap and then sold to unsuspecting tourists.

For those that get seasick and use Bonine, check the availability at your local pharmacy for the generic version. The main ingredient is meclizine. Ask at the pharmacy counter to make sure you are getting the right tablets with the right dosage. The generic version is significantly cheaper than the name-branded Bonine.

If the hotel you are staying at only offers valet parking, check the area around the hotel for alternatives. You might find a less expensive garage or lot right around the corner.

If you use public transportation when traveling, and find yourself constantly staring at itineraries on train station walls or bus kiosks, take a picture of it with your digital camera. That way you can take the itinerary with you and refer to it when needed by using the zoom feature on your camera.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Alaska Airlines And Prayer

The major U.S. airlines are looking for at all possible sources for revenue. One of the sources is advertising ON the plane. The plane I last flew had an ad on the tray table. Some of the airlines are looking at putting ads on the outside of the storage bins.

Alaska Airlines has been doing a type of 'advertising' for years. Did you know that Alaska Airlines includes a prayer card on every tray table?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Autumnal Equinox Means Grape Pie

Today, Monday, September 22, 2008, is the last day of summer in the northern hemisphere. Summer officially ends and autumn begins at 11:44 am EDT. Today, the sun is above the equator and there will be approximately 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night.

So far, in Western New York, we really haven’t had the type of days that signal the approach of Fall. Yes, the nights have been quite cool but no killing frost and daytime temps are still rising into the 70’s.

We live near the Finger Lakes wine growing region. There are many festivals this time of year, celebrating the grape harvests. We can buy Concord grapes at farmers’ markets and a Fall road trip in the Finger Lakes region will provide an opportunity for sampling grape pie.

We’ll make a drive once the leaves start to change. With the steep hillsides above the Finger Lakes, the colors can be stunning. We’ll take some pictures, sample some wine, and check out this season’s grape pies.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


I never was much of a beer drinker. Still aren't. But after going to a brewpub with my son one night, I got a new appreciation for beer. I had never realized how knowledgeable he was about the stuff. He could talk about where beers are made, what makes one different than the other, etc., etc. and he wasn't talking about major beers but stuff made by microbreweries around the U.S.

So by making me, a non-beer drinker, more appreciative of the stuff, I can certainly understand why brewfests are a huge draw. And there are loads of then going on around the U.S. over the next couple of months.

The WOW Brewfest is going on now. (I am not knowledgeable about World of Warcraft so I admit the details in this site are beyond me.)

However, for the rest of us, if you are going to be in Denver, CO around Oct 9-11, don't miss what is advertised as the 'Nation's Largest Beer Festival: The Great American Beer Festival

Wonder if you should bring your own bottle opener?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hertz: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

A bunch of years ago, my husband and I flew into LAX and rented a car from Budget. It was cheap. The experience was awful. We said never again...we got what we paid for.

Fortunately we don't have to rent a car too often but this year has been different. I've been to Florida twice to visit my Dad (who now no longer drives), we went to a wedding in LA that called for a rental car, and then our stop in Denver on the way back from LA meant another one.

My first Florida experience was fine. Ditto for the rental experience at LAX. Actually that turned out to be great as the agent asked me if we'd like to have a free upgrade to a Prius. That was The Good.

Then it started to get Bad and Ugly. When I got to the counter in Denver I learned that I had been 'upgraded' from a sedan to an SUV. Not a problem until I took a look at the car and saw that it had no 'window shade' to cover whatever was in the trunk. All of our luggage, etc would be exposed to anyone who might walk by. Not good. Back I go to the rental counter. I had to wait while they cleaned one but I can get a sedan.

The Denver car is fine except I didn't notice until we were well on our way that all of the extra keys I was given were all together on a keyring that wouldn't open. So much for a spare key that my husband could carry. Not to mention the weight of all those keys that I was now carrying around.

Fast forward to Florida. This time I used the check in kiosk at the Hertz airport counter. Mistake. I didn't notice until I got onto the shuttle bus that I had been 'upgraded' to a Trailblazer. I took one look at the vehicle, with a running board to climb to get into the car, and decided this was not going to work for my 88 year old Dad or my 86 year old step-Mom.

Back I go to the rental counter and nicely explain why I need a sedan. A very understanding agent immediately got on the telephone to get a newly washed sedan for me.

I want to know why Hertz (or any other car rental company?) automatically upgrades a customer. Perhaps, as in my case, there is very good reason why I reserve a specific type of car.

Oh...and this sedan that I got ... with only 2400 miles on the odometer....the remote doesn't work......

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Alitalia Flying Into The Sunset?

The Italian airline Alitalia has been in trouble for a long time. Things seem to be getting worse.

The Alitalia unions, in an effort to protect all of the employees, won't agree to any kind of restructuring that would cut into wages and cause some job losses. So instead they chance losing all of the jobs? Makes no sense to me.

But it makes sense to Lufthansa who might step in and buy Alitalia.

In the meantime, if you'll be flying to Italy, there is a very real chance Alitalia could go the way of Eastern and TWA. Play it safe and book a different airline.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Today's USAirways Experience

I flew USAirways today. I'm in Florida, making a visit to my 88 year old Dad.

This was the first time I've flown USAirways since the new charge-for-a-drink rule went into effect. Soda, juice and water is $2.00. Coffee or tea is $1.

I didn't see much money being made on beverages. Admittedly USAirways saved a lot of money by not handing out free drinks. But the coffee, at $1, was ‘advertised’ as ‘fresh brewed’. So if one person wants coffee, do they make only one cup? Or do they have to make a full pot?

Some people joked about how the airline would carry fewer beverages and, therefore, save fuel by carrying less weight. If there is anything to that, I didn’t see any indication of it, as the beverage cart looked full to me.

On the positive side, I saw pillows and blankets available free.

On the negative side, I wonder if a new fuel saving strategy is not heating the air inside the plane. I don’t get cold easily and yet I was freezing on both of the flights I was on today.

Big kudos to my ROC to CLT pilots. Weather into Charlotte was very turbulent and the pilots definitely had their work cut out for them. Obviously we came through it safely.

Monday, September 15, 2008

International Travel News

International Travel News is the name of a monthly travel 'magazine' I subscribe to.

I put the word 'magazine' in quotes because it really isn't. It's the size and shape of one but more like a newspaper. It is writen mostly by fellow travelers with a few regular columnists.

There is nothing fancy about this newsletter. Printed on newsprint in black and white, comments and articles by travelers tell it like it is.

If you travel internationally and are looking for something worthwhile to read, then check out International Travel News at You can even request a complimentary sample copy.

Be prepared to want to pack your suitcase after reading your first issue!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

It's A Small World

As we travel, we discover that the world keeps getting smaller and smaller. How many 'small world' experiences have you had?

Many, many, many years ago, when I was in college, I traveled to Europe. On a boat from Naples to Capri I struck up a conversation with another woman. She turned out to be very good friends with my next door neighbor.

On a trip to San Francisco over February school break, while our daughter was still in high school, we were strolling along Fisherman's Wharf and came face to face with her current year gym teacher.

We took a cruise out of Aruba a bunch of years ago. As is typical on the first day, lunch is served buffet style and the dining room has open seating. As passengers walk in the door, they are seated, filling up one table after another. Shortly after we sat down, another couple was seated across from us. We struck up a conversation. They were from California. We were from upstate New York. That type of thing. The gentleman said he was familiar with our area as he had a brother in a nearby town. Long story short: my husband fished with our fellow passenger's brother

We just recently attended a wedding in California. While we knew most of the guests at our table, one couple was new to us. As we chatted we discovered that not only had the husband and I grown up in the Bronx, but we had also attended the same junior high school (that was grades 7-9).

Have you had a 'small world' experience? Please leave a Comment and tell us about it.