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Updated 10/12/08

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                                  skateboarding dog, Manly Beach, Australia
Welcome to the online home of travel columnist Donald D. Groff, who has dispensed advice  and stories since 1988 in such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, The Kansas City Star, Newsday, Salon, Condé Nast Traveler, Consumer Reports Travel Letter, The Boston Globe, and Endless Vacation magazine.


Observations & commentary

Flight 93 Memorial -- Go now. If you think you will visit the Flight 93 memorial in your lifetime, go now, before the full-fledged memorial forever reshapes the terrain and the atmosphere of the place.  Millions of dollars already have been raised and plans have been laid, but however grand the final memorial years from now, it will never match the simple poignance of the makeshift tribute that rose in the weeks after 9/11.

Erected and nurtured mainly by the people of Shanksville and Somerset County, Pa., who hold the place in their hearts, the memorial began with a swatch of chain-link fence upon which visitors left mementos — baseball caps, T-shirts, belt buckles, hand-scrawled signs, all sorts of personal items. In time the gestures became more elaborate, with bronze and granite markers and benches etched with the names of the 40 who perished that day.

On-site work has not begun on the big memorial — disagreements remain over the design and the purchase of some key property. The National Park Service now is entrenched. The land is unchanged, but already things have shifted.

In July 2008 the memorial was moved across the road. In the photo above, the new location is marked by the flags on the right. The earlier location is marked by the two flags on the left, next to a bare lot.

While the new site preserves much of the ambience of the old, it is more orderly and orchestrated than the original. The original was an open wound in the months after 9/11, with visitors scrawling prayers and vows of revenge on every available surface, including the metal guardrails around the small parking lot. In the moving of the memorial, items were warehoused and those that were transported now have a tidiness that was not there before.

I imagine that heartfelt graffiti is no longer allowed — if you want to have your say, there is a book available for writing comments.  Security guards are on hand during the daytime.

It is surprising that seven years after 9/11, the  “real” memorial has yet to be built.  Plans call for it to be dedicated on Sept. 11, 2011.  But for those of us who have visited this site, the makeshift tribute will always be the “real” memorial.  The inadvertently good news is that others still have time to visit the site before bulldozers move in, as did more than 150,000 other people in 2007.

Local residents will tell you one more tidbit: that for a short time just after the federal investigators finished clearing the crash site, a memorial existed much closer to the point of impact, visited by families of the victims. But in a short time it was moved a few hundred yards up the slope to where it is today. (Oct. 12, 2008)

Gas pump absurdity in Delaware. Driving south to D.C. on the Delaware Turnpike on May 19 I was drawn to the state's only I-95 service plaza by the $2.99 gas -- the cheapest I'd seen all day. I pulled up to pump 18 near the cashier's booth, unscrewed the gas cap, slid in a credit card and winced as "sale cancelled" scrolled across the display window. Another card brought the same message. So I walked to the cashier's window and asked for $20 of cash gas. 

"That pump's broken," the cashier said without a hint of regret. 

"Why don't you put up a sign saying it's broken so your customers don't waste their time?"  I asked. 

She informed me it was illegal to put a handwritten sign on a gas pump. 

"That doesn't make any sense," I said. But she insisted it was true and offered a small apology.

About then the pump behind me came open so I crawled into the car, backed up a couple car lengths, got out, walked around to the gas cap -- then saw the handwritten sign that said "Cash only."

Had someone lit a match at that moment, the fumes around my head would have combusted.  

I saw no point in pointing out the absurdity to a disinterested service-plaza cashier, so I pulled to another pump, filled up without further delay, and drove away, convinced that on this day the state's tourism slogan should be not "It's Good Being First," but maybe "A State of Aggravation."

A week later I spoke with someone who said he once had a job pumping gas and he had heard something about a rule prohibiting handwritten signs.  If anyone can explain the logic of that, let us know and I'll post it here.  

Meantime, if the service station manager could just put a pylon at that broken pump ...
(May 30, 2006)  

Caskets with connections. The Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky., is renowned for the fruitcakes, fudge and cheese made there by the Trappist monks, but what caught my attention in the gift shop was the casket tucked along one wall, lid up. It was good-looking, as coffins go, if unusual for a gift shop.

The framed sign sitting on a lace doily atop the casket offered an explanation:

“This casket was made by the Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey in eastern Iowa. With wood from their own forest and a devotion to vintage craftsmanship, each Trappist casket reflects the values of the men who made it: integrity, simplicity, and reverence for nature.”

Who could argue?

Trappist monasteries everywhere are obligated by the order to support themselves, and each has a specialty. Their gift shops cross-sell each other’s products, which is how the Iowa casket ended up in Kentucky .

Two weeks later I found myself driving out of eastern Iowa and by coincidence my route took me within a few miles of New Melleray Abbey, near Dubuque.  I yielded to the call of the coffin and after driving a loop road past a wonderful woods was soon standing in the abbey’s own gift shop, which had not one but six caskets.

The three rooms of the gift shop were en route to the chapel and were unstaffed during my half-hour visit. A sign provided a phone number for questions about the caskets.  The big question everyone has when I describe my shopping find is How much?  That and more was answered in color brochures stacked on a table in the coffin room. They are convincing.

“Our labors are not hurried – we take our time and do things right. Expertly crafted caskets are the result.

“Our caskets are made at our monastery by monks and hired staff. We devote careful attention to each step in the process; from patiently managing our hardwood forest, to the final detailing and upholstering of the caskets.”

I’m a little wary of that phrase “hired staff,” but otherwise who could quibble that anyone is more qualified or desirable as a casket-crafter than a monk?  If you need someone with good connections to the Almighty, you could do no better.

Would you rather have a cherry casket available at Costco for $2,700, or the premium rectangular casket in walnut offered by the brothers at Melleray for $1,825?  Your choice as you prepare to go to your final reward: a guy with a Costco sales smock or a guy wearing a monk’s habit from a monastery that’s been in business more than 150 years?  With its own forest.

You won’t find simple pine caskets on Costco’s shelves, but at the monastery they are available for $775. 

“For urgent requests, we ship caskets for on-time deliveries throughout the country, next day if needed” continues the brochure.  “For those who like to plan, caskets can be purchased in advance of need and stored by us until shipment is required.”

The Trappist caskets price list, dated May 2005, looks like this:

  • Premium rectangular caskets, walnut $1,975; oak $1,825.

  • Premium shaped caskets, walnut $1,725, oak $1,595.

  • Simple shaped caskets, pine $875, oak $995.

  • Simple rectangular caskets, pine $775, oak $845.

Most next-day deliveries cost $125 to $295, depending on destination.

The forest at New Melleray Abbey, Iowa

The good brothers also offer walnut or oak cremation urns and ceramic urns for $245.

It’s not fruitcake or fudge, but by just about any standard the monks’ handiwork is a sweet deal. 

They have a Web site,, and a toll-free number, 1-888-433-6934. 
(Sept. 15, 2005)


Dream towns.
Long ago a graduate school classmate dissed Davis, Calif., where she had attended UC-Davis, and thereafter I had a negative impression of the place -- until I saw the August issue of Outside magazine with its "Where to Live Now" cover story that names Davis one of 10 dream towns for adventurous, eco-smart living. Sounds good, too, with its 50 miles of bike lanes, 31 parks, 20 greenbelts, and a manmade wetland. 

Also in the Top 10 are Salt Lake City; Littleton, N.H.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Charleston, S.C.; Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Madison, Wis.; Buena Vista, Colo.; Pasadena, Calif., and Portland, Maine.

City ratings are staples of many magazines, whether Outside, Money or Men's Health, and there often is a contrived quality to them. Looking at this list there's a balance between  East, West, South, middle, places you knew fit the category (Portland and Portland!), some you never heard of, the requisite Big City for small-towners looking to upgrade, and a few tiny places for urbanites looking to downsize. 

Contrived though they be, such feature stories are irresistible, and it's no wonder magazines churn them out. Not only do they appeal to our thirst for places that seem to be doing things right, but they also speak to our grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side impulses.

And you can add them to your list of potential vacation destinations. Every one of them could keep you entertained for a week, and every one has a Web site aimed at visitors or newcomers. 

The summer of the frozen water. As in much of the United States, it's been a sizzling summer in Philadelphia, and street vendors have risen to the occasion by offering -- more often than I've ever seen -- frozen bottled water. It's almost uncanny how they pop up everywhere, including along the traffic lanes outside 30th Street Station ($2 a bottle) and between the Pattison Street subway station and Citizens Bank Park, where the $1 sidewalk price seems irresistible when you know that inside the ballpark unfrozen water goes for $3 per bottle. But top honors for the best deal go to a woman selling frozen water from a cooler in Atlanta's sprawling Piedmont Park. Her price? Fifty cents a bottle.  She must have low overhead. (July 31, 2005)

Luggage deals too good to be real deals. Friends called me from the luggage department of an outlet store to ask if the rolling duffel they were about to buy was any good.  Fortunately they were looking at brands I knew and I was able to assure them that the $200-plus price tag was, in their case, reasonable.

But buying luggage is like buying mattresses -- so many models and submodels and advertising come-ons that anyone can have moments of uncertainty at the last minute.

More certain, though, is this: Those luggage sets where you get three to five pieces for some amazing price -- often under $100 for the lot -- probably are not a good idea if you plan to do any serious, checked-bag traveling with it.  And just because it has a name brand doesn't mean it will endure.

That's the conclusion of a report in the August issue of Consumer Reports, which tested six sets of luggage from various stores and found they all lacked durability. The testers simulate rough handling by filling the bags with 35 pounds of towels and tossing them into their luggage tumbler. 

On CR's rating scale of excellent, very good, good, fair and poor, two of the luggage sets rated fair for durability, four bottomed out at poor. 

Rating fair were the three-piece Optima Rolling Set from E-Bags and the four-piece Pierre Cardin Expandable from Sears.

Rating poor were the three-piece Sonoma Express from Kohl's; the five-piece Ridgecrest Worldbound from Target; the four-piece American Tourister from Wal-Mart, and the five-piece Skyline Venetian from Wal-Mart.

Most of the Consumer Reports online content is for subscribers only, but it has free content, too, including a report on Summer Road Trips.  (July 31, 2005)


In the Aruba missing teen case, a spokeswoman's dual roles

By Donald D. Groff
Posted June 7, 2005 

Taking a Caribbean spin.
There was something uncanny Monday morning about NBC Today Show anchor Matt Lauer’s questioning of a new spokeswoman for the family of Natalee Holloway, the 18-year-old Alabama high school graduate missing for a week in Aruba.

Positively upbeat
From the Today Show, Monday June 5, 2005:

LAUER: Tell me how Natalee's parents are holding up in particular in light of this development over the last 24 hours that these two men have been taken into custody in connection with Natalee's disappearance?

 CACCAVALE: Matt, any development is a positive one. It gives the family hope, and it reinforces the fact that authorities are working really hard to bring Natalee home. Beth, Natalee's mom, is an amazing woman. She is very, very strong, and when people say, `Where are you getting your support during this time,' she simply says, `Because I'm Natalee's mom.'

Each question was swiftly met by a response so smooth, reassuring, and positive that the normally agile anchor seemed barely able to keep up with Carla Caccavale, whom he identified at the opening as “a spokesperson for the Holloway family.”

What Lauer and his producers did not mention, if they  knew, was that Caccavale is also a partner in a New York City public relations agency, Quinn & Co.,  that in August 2003 was awarded a three-year contract, reportedly worth $150,000, to promote Aruba tourism in the United States for the Aruba Tourism Authority.

Anyone who knew Caccavale was wearing two hats couldn’t help but listen with two sets of ears: Which of her comments were serving the family’s interests and which were serving the broader interests of the Aruba Tourism Authority?

For media observers, the operative phrase is “anyone who knew.” We’ve been through this discussion many times before, when the person in front of the camera isn’t exactly what he or she appears to be.

Carla Caccavale

Monday’s interviews raise two possibilities for NBC and a handful of other media outlets – CBS, ABC, CNN -- that interviewed Caccavale: That they didn’t know she was wearing two hats, or that they did know and decided not to mention it to their audiences.  

In a phone interview from Aruba, Caccavale said that she was asked by the family to help out and that she considered herself a volunteer just like the many other volunteers. "I have personally given full disclosure to everyone," she said. "All the media here know exactly who I am."

Let's be clear: Aruba has an obligation to defend its reputation as a Caribbean tourism destination, and Caccavale has an obligation to act in the best interests of her clients. The media also have an obligation to their readers and viewers. Guess which of these three parties has failed to live up to its obligations.

Among those networks, apparently only CNN ever identified Caccavale’s tourism interests, and then only during Monday morning broadcasts at 7 and 10, based on transcripts. Later in the day, her repeated appearances on CNN programs identified her only as a family spokesperson, including during the evening Headline Prime program with Nancy Grace.

Caccavale’s comments superbly represented the family, but they also subtly and

Acknowledging the tourism connection

Caccavale's appearances on Monday were confined almost entirely to the networks and CNN.  She was not quoted in Associated Press reports, which were the basis for most print coverage, including at USA Today.

Besides Lauer on the NBC Today show, Caccavale was interviewed by Charles Gibson on ABC’s Good Morning America , Hanna Storm on the CBS Early Show, and multiple CNN programs.  

Transcripts of two CNN news airings early Monday mention Caccavale’s connection to the tourist authority:

During the American Morning broadcast starting at 7 a.m. , anchor Soledad O’Brien introduced Caccavale this way:

O'BRIEN: Carla Caccavale PR firm handles the Aruba tourism account. Natalee Holloway's family has asked her to act as their spokeswoman. Carla, good morning. Thanks for talking with us.

During CNN "Live Today," a 10 a.m. show, a “Now in the News” segment included a taped interview with Caccavale, after which anchor Daryn Kagan noted:

KAGAN: And that woman, Caccavale, is serving as the family spokeswoman. She also works for Aruba 's Tourism Authority.

Both Monday and Tuesday, identified Caccavale solely as a spokeswoman for the family.

unwaveringly protected the interests of Aruba and cast it in a favorable light despite the grim circumstances. Not a negative word was spoken.

From the Today Show transcript:

LAUER: Carla, you talk about any--any development being a positive development, but when we're talking about the arrest of two men, or two men being taken into custody, do they not see it all as an ominous sign, especially as we hit the one week mark here since Natalee was last seen?

CACCAVALE: Well, we're hoping with these men in custody, they can tell us where Natalee is. And as far as the passing of time goes, the family is so focused on the goal of bringing Natalee home that they're not letting time bring them down. It's really one long day for them.

In fact, the spin control on the Aruba situation could well become a textbook example of how resort islands and other destinations can wisely handle a nasty situation.  I don’t recall ever hearing of a local government giving thousands of municipal employees the afternoon off so they could take part in search efforts.

That is a public relations coup if ever there was one, especially when viewed more closely:

From a CNN transcript for the 1 p.m. "Live From" program, with host Kyra Phillips:

PHILLIPS: And joining me now on the phone from Aruba is the spokeswoman for Natalee Holloway's anguished family, Carla Caccavale.

Carla, can you bring us up to date on how the family is doing?

CARLA  CACCAVALE, FAMILY SPOKESPERSON: Yes, absolutely. The family is very, very upbeat today, because as you probably heard, the government of Aruba has released all government employees from 2 p.m. on this afternoon to -- to do a massive island-wide, nationwide search for Natalee Holloway.

That is a stunning mental image, and it's possible Caccavale truly expected that to happen. But according the Associated Press, the government let 4,000 employees off work, and about 700 volunteers joined in the search. They also searched not the whole island, but just the southeastern tip of the island.

Despite the heartbreaking tragedy that seems to be unfolding here, when it is over, the lasting impression of Aruba will be of an island full of compassionate, caring residents who truly felt the pain of the young woman’s disappearance and the anguish of her family.

Exactly the image you want to burnish if you are in the tourism business.

Compare that to, say, the U.S. Virgin Island of  St. Croix, where repeated crime a few years ago led in part to cruise lines bypassing its port; to Jamaica, which struggles constantly to overcome reports of violence among drug gangs; to Mexico, where each time the U.S. State Department issues a crime warning, as it did recently for Cancun, the Mexican government fumes and plays down any problem.

Those cases differ in scale and theme from the Aruba situation, but the bottom line is this: When the Holloway case is over, however it ends, many American viewers and readers who have been inundated with the heavy coverage will walk away with a positive view of Aruba and its people.  

Regardless of Aruba's strengths as a destination, by not fully identifying Caccavale, some of the media have again aided and abetted the spinmeisters and failed to serve their readers and viewers. (June 7, 2005)


The shad gets short shrift. Forgive us for noticing, but the clouds hanging over the Lambertville (NJ) Shad Festival on Sunday seemed to be figurative as well as literal, and the shad gods can't be happy about it. 

The festival was held a month later than usual, well after the shad normally run. Once upon a time, shad taken from the river were served, but years ago that practice gave way to imported shad as the festival crowds grew and the supply of local shad became unreliable.

A decade ago I watched with scores of others as a boat pulled a net into the river and, working with a shore crew, pulled it toward the shoreline where we waited expectantly. Everyone pushed forward to get a good look, but when the bottom of the net reached the bank it held about six tiny fish, flopping pitifully. 

At the food court this year, there was barely a mention of shad. The Triumph Brewing Company tent offered "shad-seafood chowder," but when a man asked why not just shad chowder, a woman behind the table told him: "Shad by itself isn't any good."

Shad sandwiches and steaks could be found at a single booth along Bridge Street, near the bridge and away from the food court. It looked as if the fish had been banished, that the other food stalls -- London broil sandwiches, taco salads, chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks -- did not want the competition. 

The shad stall had dispatched youngsters wearing sign boards to the food court to drum up business. One placard-bearer returned to the mother ship to report with youthful disbelief that the crab sandwich booth was telling those who asked about shad that there was no shad to be had. Her colleagues simmered like the North Carolina shad on their open grill, where at times there was no customer line at all.

At the food court, business was brisk, but the light turnout on a comfortably cool afternoon had stall workers barking like vendors in an Italian market. "Ice tea, lemonade, shad punch, no waiting," shouted one woman at a drink stand. 

Fleet Wing Fire Company 3 was selling batter-fried Oreo cookies, six for $5, for the second year, having nabbed the concept from the Jersey shore. Asked whether such artery-challenging treats might be good for the rescue business, the firemen demurred, except for one colleague who offered: "It could be all genetics, too," a line that sounded suspiciously identical to a TV ad for an anti-cholesterol drug. 

One man, commenting on the absence of shad, said he didn't think it mattered that much. "People just come because they want something to do," he said.  

That may be, but it's risky business for a shad festival to lose its focus. If it's not going to be a shad festival, call it a river festival, or whatever. But here's hoping this year's afflictions of spring flooding and other drawbacks will be overcome in the future. 

In the crafts area, a booth offering "Shad-i-gras" beads did a good business, judging by the many people who wore them. I got the feeling they were grasping for something to salvage the shad element of the Shad Festival, tenuous though it was.  (May 26, 2005)

A pizza star goes out. In May Philadelphia lost one of its finest pizza restaurants -- in fact, its finest, according to pizza guru Ed Levine. After seven years, Lombardi's on 18th Street near Sansom became the victim of a condo project, and family matters beckoned owner Mike Giammarino home to New York, where the original Lombardi's Original Pizza continues to satisfy palates at 32 Spring Street (Spring & Mott) in SoHo.

The Philadelphia location's final day of business was May 22, and a couple days earlier a packed house of farewell diners was joined by Levine, whose new book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven: The Ultimate Guide and Companion (Universe, 2005) heaps praise on the Lombardi's dynasty.

Levine spent three hours holding court, savoring the pizza and signing books, then posed smiling with Giammarino in front of the coal-fired brick oven the restaurateur built with his own hands.  

Mike Giammarino (left) and Ed Levine 

Levine could afford to smile -- half an hour later he caught the train home to New York, where he has easy access to the original Lombardi's, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its being licensed by the city.
(May 27, 2005)


Solving the beluga whale riddle. The whale swimming in the Delaware River lately is the reincarnation of Benjamin Franklin, it now appears. Using a special spectre-graphic lens, a marine biologist shot a photo that provides a plausible answer to the question, What's up with the whale?  

In addition, a forensic reconstructionist noted the shape of Franklin's head bears an uncanny resemblance to the shape of a beluga's head.

Speculation is that Ben the Beluga has come upriver to call attention to observances marking the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth, Jan. 17, 2006. A year-long celebration is planned in Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities worldwide starting late this year, including a roving exhibit that opens at the National Constitution Center in mid-December.   

The 12-foot beluga's 130-mile voyage up the Delaware to Trenton calls to mind another whale curiosity last spring off Vancouver Island, British Columbia. An Indian tribe there maintained that a lone orca whale swimming offshore was the reincarnation of its chief who had died days earlier. The Canadian government ran afoul of the tribe when it announced it would try to return the whale to its pod far to the south.  (April 14, 2005)

Notes from opening day at Citizens Bank Park: The home team won on April 4 and the Phillies fans in Section 114 along the right field line were delighted. Still, Philadelphia moments abounded.

As the game began, the park announcer made the usual comments about the dangers of foul balls and that fans were expected to behave. But there were a few new twists, including the threat of a $300 fine if you were ejected for bad behavior and the remarkable announcement that ushers would seat fans only during breaks in the action. It was a subtle mention, but if the Phillies actually enforce this policy it will shift the stadium into a new arena of protocol, like the Kimmel Center or the Academy of Music. (Sorry sir, you can only be seated between movements once the program begins.)  

To some extent this isn't a bad idea. Even in the Diamond Club behind home plate last year there were times when fan restlessness was distracting. Perhaps this effort will bear fruit and Citizens Bank Park will become a paragon of gentility. But c'mon, it's a ballpark. And Philadelphia isn't St. Louis or Cleveland.

The Phanavision screen has a new feature, too -- pop-up ads, sometimes coordinated with ads on the stadium's many other video screens. XM radio was prominent, with its logo showing often, then morphing into a full-screen image. For computer users who constantly battle such advertising on the Web, this new stadium feature can't be welcome.

Joann Leszczynsky aptly points out the contradiction of building a stadium that hearkens to an earlier, purer baseball era -- then bombarding people in a way that makes them feel not so much like sports fans but like a target audience for advertisers. Ballpark advertising has a rich history. I fondly recall the Anheuser-Busch eagle flapping electronically across the Busch Stadium scoreboard when Cardinals hit home runs. But no one wants to feel like they're being bludgeoned by ads, and that's exactly what new Phanavision advertising does. 

When in the 6th inning the Philly Phanatic was driven onto the field with his hot-dog cannon, the crowd along the right-field line responded with cheers, which turned to boos moments later when the first dog virtually dribbled out of the cannon's bun-disguised barrel. A few attempts later it became clear the cannon's air pressure wasn't enough to hurl the hot dogs to crowd-pleasing heights and the Phanatic beat a quick retreat as play resumed. The cannon couldn't go the distance, and fans were left with the suspicion that the device had not been used -- or tested -- since last October. 

When Terrmel Sledge lined a home run into the right field stands in the seventh inning -- the first ever for the Washington Nationals --  the fan who snagged the ball threw it back onto the field, to cheers. But the guy behind me in Section 114 barked to his pal that the fan was "an asshole." It was the first Nationals home run ball, he noted. "That's worth a lot of money."

When ace closer Billy Wagner took the mound his first pitch -- a strike -- was followed by a few boos. Why? The scoreboard speed monitor showed the ball went 92 mph, and the fans wanted to see his patented 95 mph hurling. He obliged on the next throw.  (April 5, 2005)

jayschwartz.jpg (52728 bytes)

Jay Schwartz

Fans of Jay Schwartz's Secret Cinema in Philadelphia time-traveled last week during a program of 10 vintage travel shorts, dating from the 1920s silent era to a 1954 Pan Am film promoting New York to London service aboard the new Boeing 707. Several films reflected superior Western attitudes that today wouldn't pass the PC test;  "His idea of luxury is a hunk of raw meat" was how natives of one country were described. Ethiopians were called "indolent by nature." Cairo was "where the tourists' bankroll is painlessly extracted."  In South Africa, "the natives are friendly, childlike people." 

While past imperfect depictions brought cringes from the crowd at Moore College of Art & Design, the final film, 6 1/2 Magic Hours, invited whimsical ridicule as Pan Am prepared audiences for the launch of transatlantic passenger service. "You arrive with no travel fatigue," the assuring voice of the narrator insisted. 

The film establishes that even in those innocent days, the airlines already were overselling the product. Even a 6 1/2-hour flight -- and it's curious that New York-London is more like 7 hours today -- would not have been as fancy free as this film made it seem. Even in the context of that era, the scenes are too much. Smiling flight attendants lighting a passenger's cigarette, bringing games to the family sitting in a comfy lounge, gourmet dining. It was inevitable that such spacious fun would evaporate once the genre caught on. In a final promotional tease, this one for  "seven hour" New York to Paris flights: "Once more you've landed refreshed." 

That was before my time; for all I know people were hardier in the 1950s and felt refreshed from a flight across five time zones. But I doubt it. In any case, everyone enjoyed the Secret Cinema screenings, as they do each month. Vintage film connoisseur Schwartz never fails to put together engaging themes of movies you've never seen and probably never will again. He says he has many more travel segments, but it will be at least a year before he repeats the theme in a regular show.

Secret Cinema movies are all 16mm -- "not video, not ever," Schwartz proudly notes -- and coming program and a mailing list signup can be found at the Secret Cinema site. (March 29, 2005)

reststopflowers (Small).jpg (38410 bytes)The N.J. Turnpike's genteel side.  The Jersey Turnpike takes a lot of flak for congestion and cut-throat motoring, but even hardened truckers must melt when they discover fresh-cut flowers in the men's room at the rest stops. I came across the blooms at the Richard Stockton service plaza, and there's no doubt the shock value is almost as impressive as their natural charms.  A dozen service areas are scattered along the 118-mile turnpike, six for the southbound lanes, five for the northbound lanes, and one accessible from both directions. Food options and other services at each area are described here. To check for backups in North Jersey, view the turnpike's eight traffic cams. (March 29, 2005)

Who smoked 20 cigars a day? Mark Twain, that's who, according to the animated guide who led me and a small group on a tour of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn. The cigar scent has faded since Twain's death in 1910 at age 74, but the house very much retains the author's aura. The mansion and the adjacent museum are well worth a stop for anyone who cherishes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, or other classic works by the ace observer and travel writer. 

Many of Twain's best-known works were written in the sprawling red-brick building designed by Edward Potter, who specialized in churches. Its beguiling  entry hall is the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Twain sold the house in 1903, but many of the original furnishings have been recovered over the years, and it is packed with personal touches that reflect Twain's pixie spirit, including a milkable toy cow in his daughters' bedroom and tiles depicting cock robin's death. His third-floor study contains a billiards table that doubled as a work surface for spreading projects, and papers litter the floor, as they did in the late 1800s when breezes blew in through the balcony door.

Our guide -- Matthew Waterhouse -- was excellent. He clearly reveres Twain, and his delivery was a performance in itself, which made sense when I later learned he is an actor who once did a one-man show based on Huckleberry Finn. (He also had a prominent role in the Dr. Who series.)

Adult admission to the house and museum is $12. The property is open daily. For details, or to find what days Matthew Waterhouse is conducting tours, contact the Mark Twain House & Museum, phone 860-247-0998. (March 29, 2005)

  Aboard Amtrak's Crescent. When I e-mailed a French friend in Atlanta that I was headed his way aboard Amtrak, he wrote back, “I thought George Bush had ended Amtrak.”  Not just yet, and on this day it was a good thing. Had I been flying today, I would still be at the Philadelphia airport, delayed by snow and high winds. And I would have spent the past two days wondering if I was going to get out of town. Most of the aggravation we now associate with air travel doesn’t show its face with train travel, and it adds a layer of ease to the whole train experience, a bonus.  (If it were an airline, they’d figure some way to assess a fee for that.)

All the passenger cars on this train are full, except for the last car, which holds only passengers bound for Atlanta, and is a bit more than half full. That gives it a more spacious feel, combined with the roomier seat arrangement. The train arrived and departed Philadelphia on schedule, and at least on my car there is a congeniality among passengers, gained partly from knowing we’re spending 16 hours together to reach a common destinations. Most everyone has a cell phone, but we hear none of the blaring voices common in the Northeast Corridor commuter trains. It seems everyone has a head set, video player, or a laptop. Each seat pair has an AC outlet to keep the juice flowing.

The atmosphere is easygoing. A young man brings his guitar from his seat up front to the midsection, where he sits next to a young woman headed for Augusta, Ga., and tells her about its mahogany construction, strumming softly. Three times he raises the long neck out of the aisle, toll gate style, to let people pass by. You won’t see guitar play on a plane.

Late in the afternoon an attendant brought pillows for anyone who wanted one. At 10:30 p.m. the main car lights are switched off and a half dozen seat lights flicker on. It’s quiet and peaceful. It’s also a little warm, at least from the midsection back. To cool things off, the back door is wedged open and as the evening wears on the rest of the car loses its stuffiness and eventually gets too cool. An occasional whiff of brakes makes its way through the car. The passages between cars are spattered with swirls of ice and snow, fading evidence of the nasty weather farther north.

By the time we reach northern Georgia, most of that has melted, and when the car empties at Atlanta’s minuscule station about 9 a.m., winter thoughts are far behind us literally and figuratively. (March 8, 2005)

Amtrak’s Julie.  If you’ve dialed Amtrak’s toll-free number in the past year, you’ve probably met Julie, the automated reservation agent who is so sweet and well programmed that you can start to like her if you’re not careful. Unlike the automated airline operators, who make me immediately hit zero.

I’ve come to appreciate Julie’s talents, though I must report she has at least one pronunciation impediment.  Last fall I found myself waiting for a train in Staunton, Va., which is pronounced “Stanton,” not “Stawnton,” by the people who live there. When I asked Julie when the train would arrive in Staunton, she said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”  So I tersely repeated Staunton, pronouncing it properly as STANton.  This time she said, “Let me see if I’ve got this right, you want to go to Hampton Roads.”  

Eventually I hung up and started over, this time intentionally mispronouncing the city as STAWNton.  This time, Julie recognized the name and provided the arrival time.  (Unfortunately, no one had told Julie the train was more than three hours late, but that’s another story.)

It seems that Amtrak could program Julie to recognize both STAWNton for those not in the know, and as STANton for those who are.  Or maybe Amtrak’s programmers don’t know.  Should we tell them?
(March 13, 2005)


Rick Steves

Creeping conservatism pops up in strange places, including the travel world. Last week I watched Rick Steves, the irrepressible travel tutor whose series is a PBS staple, offer a surprising aside during an on-air fundraising session. He said that when his European travel shows are made available to stations around the country, the segments with naked statues -- yes, classic sculpture -- are red-flagged so that stations in sensitive parts of the country are not taken by surprise.  The implication was that local stations can excise the offending portions, although no mention was made of whether that actually has happened.

It's a new twist on the naked statue theme, which gained the spotlight in 2002 when the Justice Department spent $8,000 on curtains to hide the "Spirit of Justice" statue during news conferences by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Spirit of Justice, a toga-clad woman with one breast exposed, is located in the department's Great Hall.

Steves' travelogues, guidebooks and tours promote the idea that travel should be a culturally broadening experience and that the world becomes a better place when people rub shoulders instead of just taking snapshots. In his soft-spoken but insistent way, he also takes swipes at political currents that undermine that theme.  Steves' company is called Europe Through the Back Door, and his philosophy gets an airing in one chapter of A Sense of Place, a book of interviews with notable travel writers by Michael Shapiro (Travelers' Tales, 2004). (Feb. 6, 2005)

Magazine note. "Travelers may now face a new security problem. They could set off radiation detectors meant to detect smuggled nuclear-bomb material but that also sense the small amounts of radioactive elements used in exercise stress tests and other increasingly common medical procedures." So begins an article on page 8 of the March 2005 Consumer Reports, raising an issue that deserves attention given the large number of radiation-related medical procedures and the thousands of radiation detectors installed in U.S. cities since 9/11. The magazine urges people who have undergone any kind of treatment involving radiation to carry a note from their doctor. How widespread is this problem? "To date," says the report, "there are no figures for the number of people who may have been stopped by these detectors." 

Is this just a hypothetical situation? The CR report is phrased in a way that makes you wonder. But it turns out these stops actually are occurring.  A short article in a December 2002 issue of the New York Times said: "Such reports are flowing into doctors' offices, physicians in the metropolitan region and elsewhere say."  The article can be found at the site of the Society of Nuclear Medicine. The topic is covered at greater length in a 2004 story in The Philadelphia Inquirer. If the reports are so common, it's curious that no one is offering more extensive figures. But as with airport security details, officials are loathe to willingly provide statistics that they think would be compromising. So would-be terrorists and the public are left guessing.
(Feb. 6, 2005)

Many musicians know the sting of playing clubs or bars where they have to compete with chattering crowds or sports TV even as they try to perform. That's not the drill at World Café Live, Philadelphia's latest venue where both the audience and performers get a break. Last night during Amy Correia's final encore, an a cappella version of "Starfishing," the guy next to me at the bar ordered a Petrone, shaken with ice. The bartender put the tequila in the shaker then turned to the customer and said, "I'm going to wait till she's done to shake it up." He didn't want the sound of the ice to mar the song. That took a few minutes, but no one seemed to mind, and it was refreshing to be in a place where the music is at least as important as the social scene. 

The main act was Chuck Prophet, who quipped that he and the band had flown in from San Francisco to put World Café Live "on the map," then launched into a splendid 17-song set, including most of the tunes from his latest CD,  Age of Miracles.

World Café Live opened in October 2004 and seats up to 500 people on three levels. It's located at 31st and Walnut Streets, within walking distance of 30th Street Station and the University of Pennsylvania Campus. The cafe is in the complex housing WXPN, the Penn radio station whose syndicated World Café program gave the place its name, and a 100-seat bistro/performance space called Upstairs, which offers free acts almost daily. Performance lineups and menus are at the World Café Live site.  (Feb. 2, 2005)

Reggae fans, rejoice: The U.S. State Department cares. Or so it would seem, judging from a Jan. 28 public announcement offering advice for attending the Bob Marley 60th birthday observance this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The reggae king died in 1981, but Ethiopian officials estimate 500,000 people will attend the celebration Feb. 1-15. 

"Americans traveling in Ethiopia during this time are reminded that traffic and public transportation in the vicinity of the festivities concentrated in downtown Addis Ababa are likely to be affected," says the advisory.

"Ethiopian authorities plan to enhance security measures for the celebration. The security enhancements will include increased checks for illegal weapons and drugs at ports of entry and border crossings. Possession of marijuana is punishable by up to six months in prison. Americans traveling in Ethiopia during this period should be prepared for security checks and should have their valid U.S. passports available at airports, ports, and border crossing points."

Thanks for the warning, Uncle. But does anyone really think there could be a Marley celebration without weed? Maybe there's an official wink wink going on here, noting increased checks "at ports of entry." Once inside, you're on your own. The full public announcement is here.

Details on the celebration can be found at the Bob Marley Foundation site. (Feb. 2, 2005)

A few years ago I checked in for a flight at the St. Louis airport with a meat cleaver in my carry-on bag. It was a Christmas gift from my brother, and although I knew there was a chance the X-ray might detect it, I left it in its plastic  wrap and figured if I got stopped I'd simply check the bag and go on. But the bag sailed through the X-ray machine and a few days later I was hacking chicken for stir fry. 

Today, of course, no sane flyer would gamble on a cleaver getting through -- or on security officers being benevolent -- which was driven home recently when again I was faced with heading to the St. Louis airport with another gift from my brother: an iridescent conch shell, its tip clipped so it could be blown like a trumpet, islander style. Cupped in the hand, though, it seemed the perfect bludgeon, and I questioned if it would clear security. The TSA's list forbids brass knuckles, and the conch was at least as menacing as those. I didn't want to face a delay for my 7 a.m. flight, so erred on the side of caution and mailed the shell home.

As it turned out, delays were plentiful at the Delta Air Lines counter at St. Louis International Airport at 5 a.m. on Dec. 29. All the other airline desks seemed normal, with few or no passengers waiting, but at Delta more than 100 people were barely able to contain their panic. Delta's computers were not working, so the staff was having to check in each person by phone. 

But what caused the panic was how Delta handled the situation. A hoarse staff member periodically climbed to the front of the counter and shouted that flights were being handled in sequence. Those on the 6 o'clock flight should line up here, those on any 7 o'clock flight over there. In the middle were people awaiting even later flights. This didn't sit well with those who had arrived two hours early; it meant they were risking missing their flights even though they had followed the airlines' instructions.

And after the counter wait, there was still the security line. 

The clincher, though, was that after waiting in one assigned line for, say, the 7 o'clock flights, passengers were instructed to move to another location at the opposite end of the counter  when the counter staff finally was ready to service that batch of flights. Predictably, those who had been in that line for half an hour or more balked at losing their place to those who leaped into line at the new location. What followed was a scrum of sorts, where those in the original 7 o'clock held their position but surged forward with righteous indignation.

But the most surprising twist was what happened at counter. You handed your I.D. to an agent, who confirmed by phone that you were indeed booked on a flight. Then they hand-scribbled your name on a blank boarding pass, with your gate number. And that was it. So much for security. A piece of cardboard with a scrawl was all that stood between passengers and the gate. 

In the security line, a woman who checked my I.D. against the boarding pass was especially amusing. With an air of authority, she decided the counter agent's handwriting was not sufficiently clear and that she should rewrite my name in her hand. 

The real lesson in all this: Whenever possible, print out your boarding pass at home so you don't have to deal with the desk at the airport. I had no access to a printer at my holiday destination, but to avoid all that would have been worth a trip to Kinko's the night before.

Travel Questions often reflect the day's headlines, but this is the first season readers have asked what it takes to move to another country for political reasons. They started a couple of months before the election, mainly from Kerry supporters nervous about their candidate's prospects. Top inquiries from would-be expatriates: Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. However good it might sound, it's not that easy. For a rundown on possibilities, check

You know that feeling in a fast-food restaurant or store when the employees are schmoozing and carrying on their social life behind the counter and seem not to be paying attention to you? It's even more vexing in the airport security line. This happened twice in rapid succession at PHL's Terminal E a few days before Halloween, which made me wonder whether it was a TSA trick or treat joke. At the first checkpoint, two female agents were gabbing away, one eating a doughnut, and I stood there for a few seconds as it registered with them that a passenger had arrived. Finally one of them said, "Oh, where's my pen?" as she shook doughnut crumbs off her fingers, then signed off on my boarding pass. Down the chute to the X-ray machine, two male TSA workers were talking finance. I heaved my carry-ons to the edge of the conveyor and moved through the magnometer.  But even though I was the only passenger in sight, the front-man did not immediately push the bags on through. As I stood waiting, the X-ray operator said to his colleague: "If I get four hours in of overtime, I get $1,200." 

Shotgunlights.jpg (58203 bytes)What strange lights adorn yon craft booth? Big Bang Party Lights, that's what. At Atlanta's Candler Park Fallfest the last weekend in October, the shotgun-shell lights were strung along a pottery-jewelry booth run by Debbie Fraker of Dirty Girl Pottery.pottery.jpg (24229 bytes) The lights are the handiwork of Joan and can be ordered by writing to They're $25 for a 50-light strand, $40 for 100 lights, and custom orders can be placed. 

Frontier Airlines began new service from Philadelphia on May 23, and while its smaller operation did not generate the scale of attention that Southwest Airlines’ PHL startup did two frontierfox.jpg (45738 bytes)weeks earlier, one segment of the flying public is certain to prefer Frontier’s jets: kids. Each of Frontier’s Airbus and Boeing 737 aircraft has a wild animal painted on the tail. Some are baby animals and are irresistibly cute. Besides the delight of young passengers,  parents who are veterans of the Denver-based airline say that when they phone home before or after landing, their children always want to know which "species" of plane they are on. At Denver International, the hub where planes converge at rush hours, the Frontier jet line's menagerie is an eye catcher.

karen.jpg (37937 bytes)High expectations is the name of game for Karen McCaslin of Collegeville, Pa., a Phillies fan whose devotion makes the face-painted fans seem half-hearted. About the seventh inning of an early May game my pal Dave noticed her in the section next to ours, changing jerseys each time a new Phillies batter came to the plate.  You read that right. She carries with her a personalized, autographed jersey for every player on the team, pulling them out of plastic bags tucked around her, slipping them over her own jersey, name side facing forward. She has the choreography down perfectly, readying the jersey of whoever is in the on-deck circle, neatly folding the jersey of the most recent batter and returning it to storage. When the Phillies are in the field, she dons the jersey of the pitcher. After the Phillies had lost dramatically in the bottom of the ninth, she told us she started the routine in the 2000 season and had jerseys for every player except one new acquisition. Later that evening Roberto Hernandez autographed the jersey bearing his name and number; she also had Shawn Wooten’s signature already. 

Using your cell phone abroad can be less expensive if it has a replaceable chip in it – called a SIM card – that paves the way for you to be charged for air time at a local rate. Not everyone whose phone is capable of such a money-saving switch knows about it, but neither did a customer service rep for my cell  phone company, T-Mobile. While most people with multiband international phones are delighted by the convenience alone, you can save a substantial amount in air time charges by acquiring the SIM – subscriber identity module – card.  The cards are available in cell phone shops; check your service provider’s Web site for affiliates in your destination. In London I located a T-Mobile affiliate where a friendly employee opened the  back of my phone and inserted a test chip to see if it was compatible. It was, and I bought for £10 (about $17 at the time) a Virgin Mobile card that included £5 in airtime credit. With that card inserted, the cost of each call was cut in half -- about 50 cents a minute instead of the 99 cents that even local London calls would have cost me using my home chip. With the Virgin Mobile chip came a local mobile phone number, and additional value could be added using a swipe card at a shop or by phone or online. Competitors offer different deals and it may be worth asking around before buying. … To get text messages and check e-mail sent to my usual T-Mobile accounts, I had to swap in my home SIM card. … I called T-Mobile recently to ask if it served Nicaragua. The young rep on the other end of the line responded: “What’s the ZIP code there?” I explained it was a nation in Central America, and she sweetly said she had never heard of that country. 

 I took a Chinatown bus on a Saturday afternoon in late January 2004 from Philadelphia to New York to see what it was like, and the ride was flawless. The one-way trip was $12, it left on time and arrived a bit ahead of schedule under two hours later. Every seat was filled. The inside temperature was comfortably warm on a frigid day. I had none of the complaints that some correspondents have reported – no fights over seats, no loud movies, no penetrating odors from carry-on food.  The only drawback was that the drop-off point in New York’s Chinatown means additional travel time if you are making your way to Midtown or elsewhere in the area. The drop-off point is at 88 East Broadway beneath the Manhattan Bridge; the closest subway station is the East Broadway stop located two blocks east. From there it took two trains and 45 minutes to reach my Upper West Side hotel. … The return trip the next day was on a packed Amtrak train -- $47 with AAA discount. Ironically for a trip that costs quadruple the amount, my coach was uncomfortably cold, with a breeze moving through the car at foot level.  For the Chinatown bus schedules, visit For Amtrak,

We drove into Nashville at midafternoon on New Year’s Eve day with a guaranteed hotel reservation and were tempted to tour downtown before checking in. Instead, we went directly to the Comfort Inn and what happened next illustrates the value of arriving sooner than later, even when a credit card has guaranteed your room at the inn. When we got to our room it had the telltale odor of cigarettes, though we’d requested a nonsmoking room. I picked up the room phone and asked that we be moved. The hotel was booked solid, the receptionist said, what with the Music City Bowl drawing thousands of college football fans from Auburn and Wisconsin . That may be, I responded, but we really would like a nonsmoking room. It took nearly half an hour and a second phone call to nudge the harried receptionist along, but we ended up in a suitable room. It put the whole visit on a better footing, and I thanked her when we ventured out. “I robbed Peter to pay Paul,” she said somewhat guiltily, noting that someone else would end up in that smoky room.  The moral: Be polite but firm, and mindful of timing. Had we tried to switch rooms a few hours later, we probably would have been forced to light the sage we carry – our own tactic for combating foul vapors.

Don’t you love it when an agency tries to steer your inquiries to a Web site, then the Web site fails you?  That happened last week when I looked at the State Department site to locate an “acceptance facility,” a nearby post office that could help me renew my passport. The site has a search engine for plugging in your Zip code and getting a list of nearby offices. But repeatedly it gave only an error message when I tried it. When I explained the problem to an info agent at State’s toll-free passport hotline (which opens with a recording urging you to use the Web site), the agent said: “That link is up and down like an elevator.” She quickly provided the information I needed, but fretted over rumors that she and her colleagues were going to be switched to same site used by regular citizens – leaving her in the lurch as well. . . . The DS-82 passport renewal form still lists an old pay-per-minute phone number for the National Passport Information Center that was replaced last August by the toll-free number, 1-877-487-2778.

When the TSA’s man in charge of security at Philadelphia International Airport, James B. Golden Jr., was removed from his position in December, news accounts cited “improper hiring and lapses in security.” The Transportation Security Administration said that he "has been placed on administrative leave until further notice.”  Golden denied any wrongdoing and predicted he would be vindicated. Whatever the outcome, something damning sticks in my mind: In an airport interview just before the Thanksgiving holiday crunch, Golden told a Channel 29 reporter that passengers should help speed the security process by leaving their nail clippers at home. Trouble is, nail clippers are not on the TSA’s list of forbidden items, and haven’t been since the period just after 9/11.  The TSA Can I Take It? guide says nail clippers and files are acceptable for both carry-on and checked luggage. If the head of security doesn’t know what’s on the list, how can the TSA expect passengers to know?

PHL passengers who carry laptop computers have had it drilled into them that they must remove their computers from their bags and pass them through the X-ray separately. So conditioned, I dutifully took out my machine while departing London ’s Gatwick Airport . The security man tending the X-ray conveyor looked at me like I was a troublemaker and told me I should have left it in my suitcase. “Oh, sorry,” said I, deciding he was probably not interested in how it was done in Philadelphia . But it was a small example of how differing policies leave us wondering what the heck is going on.


  • A tribute: Consumer Reports Travel Letter, 1986-2003

    • Consumer Reports Travel Letter died early in 2003,  andCRTL final issue b.jpg (267893 bytes) anyone who cares about travel should be wearing a black armband. In the final issue, editor Bill McGee noted that CRTL's circulation had been hurt by the many other sources of travel information now available. But none do what the Travel Letter did so well, and it is unlikely any publication will step in to snugly fill its shoes. 

      Other shuttered
      travel publications:
      * Travel Holiday
      * Expedia Travels

      In its 17 years, the newsletter set the standard for objective examination of consumer travel issues. It provided huge quantities of data that helped subscribers make informed decisions on everything from selecting the roomiest airline seats to choosing among interstate hotel chains to booking the least-queasy cabins on a cruise ship.

      It took our impressions – hotels seem to be charging more for phone calls, airlines can’t be spending much on these meals – and put a face on them, doing the nuts-and-bolts reporting that provided comparisons, confirmed impressions, and gave consumers a grip on issues and how to wisely proceed. The newsletter was steeped in common sense and the conviction that travelers deserve to be treated fairly. While its accumulation of data strived to be objective, its editorial voice had the guts to take stands and recommend courses of action. It gave voice to a traveling public that often grumbles, but often has trouble finding ways to fight back effectively against the dynamics of mass marketing.

      Consumer Reports Travel Letter was not the only publication looking after the traveling public’s interests. But it was unique in many ways, and with its voice silenced, the traveling public has lost a champion.

      The champion’s spirit is not likely to rest in peace.


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