Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

When it comes to travel, the people make the place.

“The people make the place,” I told my nephew J.J. during our two-week trip to Greece last summer. He seemed to grasp this intuitively, loving Athens for the warmth of its inhabitants as much as the magnificence of the Acropolis. Yet I felt compelled to voice the thought anyway, because it encapsulates a travel and life philosophy I hoped he might adopt.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly all of my 46 years, and I have a long and dynamic list of things I love about the physical place, including: jogging the length of the Mall, strolling through the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, singing along to the likes of Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap, taking in any of the Smithsonian museums, having a lazy brunch somewhere on 8th Street and then wandering around Eastern Market, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the Air Force Memorial, or driving 90 minutes west to hike Old Rag. It’s all familiar, in the best possible way.

But I also have a long-running list of beefs about this area, such as: traffic, soulless sprawl, politics, short-timing posers (you know the archetype: a windbag who isn’t actually from here and kicks off every conversation with, “What do you do?” as a way to gauge whether you’re worth talking to), short tempers, total inability to deal with more than three flakes of snow, and a ridiculously high cost of living. It’s all familiar, in the worst possible way. But even when the D.C. area serves up its very worst, it still has the greatest concentration of what matters to me most: my family and friends. Without those relationships, this place, while full of beauty, culture and history, would feel empty to me.

I take the same view when traveling: the way the people make me feel when I visit a place matters as much to me as the surroundings, if not more. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do the people enhance the enchantment of stunning scenery as they do on Crete. I wrote that Cretans are so genuinely friendly they make Athenians seem aloof, and it’s true. But of the people we encountered on Crete, my two favorites weren’t even from Greece, much less Crete. They were a pair of New Yorkers, Jennifer and Scott, who happened to be relaxing at our hotel’s seaside pool when I settled into an empty chaise lounge right next to them.

Jennifer said a friendly “hello” immediately, a scary opener to an introvert like me, who doesn’t always relish small talk with strangers. But after nearly two weeks in the company of an 18 year-old, I felt a bit starved for peer conversation and engaged without hesitation. It soon proved to be one of my better decisions. When I explained that I was traveling with my nephew, she wanted to know all about J.J. and listened intently as I gushed about how lucky I feel to be his aunt. Then we got to talking about the market near the hotel and discovered we both love to go to little local stores like that and shop for regular stuff, like toothpaste.

“I just like to see how it’s different,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Me too!”

Scott heard this, shook his head, and chuckled. We were off to the races.

Jennifer and I soon learned we also share a love of  handwritten letters and beautiful paper. When I write a letter by hand, I choose the writing surface carefully, the thoughts I place on it even more carefully, and the recipient most carefully of all. It takes time and effort, making it one of my favorite and most heartfelt ways to express affection. I cranked out letters weekly until the early 2000s, when the digital age nudged most of my correspondents, and me, in the direction of emails and texts. Jennifer bucked that tide. For her entire adult life, she’s been writing letters, notes and postcards to let people know that she cares about them, that she cherishes their connection.

In 1988, while traveling with Scott in Malaysia, Jennifer wrote a thank-you note on a postcard of New York for the kindly rickshaw driver who’d taken them on a tour through a town called Melaka. The impact of that note rippled beyond the driver, who saved it, and extended all the way to Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer who encountered both driver and postcard nearly twenty years later. Rolf relays the story, and its significance, beautifully:

Early in 1988, a newlywed couple from the States was traveling in Malaysia. While in the ethnically diverse, historical treasure-trove of a town called Malacca (Melaka), they hired the services of a 60-year-old rickshaw driver named Peter Ong. Thanks to a simple act of thoughtfulness on their part, Peter remembers them still today.

I met Peter myself in late 2007, when he also offered his rickshaw services to me. Pulling out a handful of postcards from previous customers, he seemed particularly happy with one from New York and invited me to check out the back, which read:

Dear Mr. Ong,

You’ve been a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide through Melaka. You were kind and thoughtful (thanks for the bag of bananas!).

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

The card was dated January 30, 1988, and friction had so worn the front cover that New York’s skyscrapers seemed to be chain smoking. Though I didn’t take Peter up on his offer—I needed to stay on foot to get the pictures I was after—we did talk for several minutes while waiting under an awning for a rain shower to pass. I learned that Peter was born in January 1928, that he’d been driving a rickshaw for 40 years, and that he had seven grown kids living in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

Months later I would google Scott and Jennifer and see their 1987 wedding announcement in the New York Times. Other than what I read there—he was a doctor and she a nurse—I know nothing about them. Except, I suppose, that their tangible thoughtfulness is still remembered two decades later by a man in Malacca, and has probably helped that man grow his business.

When Peter Ong holds up his postcard, then, he is not just showing us New York; he is reminding us that in travel, even when we give in small ways in a town through which we are so briefly passing, it matters.

I read the blog post while sitting next to Jennifer, its insightful last lines completing the lesson I hoped to impart to my nephew. I told J.J. the story over dinner that night.

“Are you serious?” he said, his face a study in astonishment. “That’s pretty damned amazing.” J.J. had liked Jennifer and Scott –they were the rare adults who managed to show interest in him without being nosy –and I could tell the story raised their stock in his eyes exponentially.

I pulled up Rolf’s blog post on my phone, read the final paragraph aloud, and said, “Remember what I said about how the people make the place?” J.J. nodded. “Well, those people who make a place special won’t know they did that for you unless you tell them. So whenever you can, find a way to let them know they made a difference.”

I resolved to redouble my own efforts in that department. After Jennifer and I became friends on Facebook, we cemented the connection by going old-school and exchanging home addresses. Since July, a trip to the mailbox holds the prospect of not just another $5 coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond but also one of Jennifer’s wonderful notes. Any time one arrives, I’m transported to Crete for a few happy moments and reminded that friendship borne out of travel is an incomparable souvenir.

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…

 

Have nephew, will travel (Part II)

[When last we left our heroes, my nephew J.J. and I had spent a few days in Athens…]

My favorite dialogue of the entire trip happened while J.J. and I were riding in a cab for the second time. We had left our hotel in Athens before 6 a.m. –hours ahead of my nephew’s normal wakeup time –and were headed to the airport to catch an early morning flight to Crete.

As we whizzed through the city in the dark, J.J. said, “Will the airport have someplace where I can brush my teeth?”

“Yes,” I said. And because sometimes you ask a question when you already know the answer but want it to be different, I said, “Why, though? Didn’t you do it already?” He shook his head.

“I never brush my teeth before breakfast. I don’t see the point.”

I understood his logic: he was just trying to be efficient. Why brush your teeth and spoil only your breakfast when, by not brushing and merely exhaling, you can jeopardize meal enjoyment for everyone within a five-foot radius?

At the risk of making the kid feel like he’d been sent not to Greece but to finishing school, I laid down the second rule of our trip: If you’re gonna have breakfast in public, always —always –brush your teeth first.

That stinker had the nerve to say, “And don’t forget your napkin.” Apparently I’m the only one who cares if the kid ever lands a second date.

He brushed, we boarded, and an hour later we had landed on Crete. It didn’t take us long to discover that Cretans treat you with such warmth they make Athenians seem aloof, and that Crete’s natural beauty rivals the manmade magnificence of the Acropolis. We once again began with a taxi from the airport to the old town of Chania. We might have found the lack of traffic-related excitement disappointing had we not been so busy gawking every time we got a peek at the turquoise sea framed by mountains and rugged rock formations. Though we’d only just arrived, I already knew I wouldn’t want to leave.

We spent our first day in Chania at the Venetian harbor, where we ate breakfast by the docks, walked along the rocky seawall to the lighthouse, and refined J.J.’s bargain-hunting skills in the shops that line the cobbled alleys of the old city. IMG_3198Though my nephew had loved everything we ate in Athens, the food on Crete blew his mind. Our first meals were unfussy but beautiful and delicious, expertly prepared with ingredients that had been freshly picked or fished from someplace nearby. And, just as we had done in Athens, we continued to eat our body weight in tzatziki at every meal but breakfast.

To increase the chances that our clothes would still fit us by the end of the trip, I signed us up to hike the Samaria Gorge the next day. I’d heard it was spectacular and that the 16-kilometer hike, while taxing, is pretty much all downhill. Both rumors turned out to be true, though the people who recommended the gorge so highly had said nothing about the bus ride to the park entrance. To get there, you have to pass through, around and over a whole bunch of mountains, and there’s just no easy way to do it.

We were still in the relatively flat part of the bus ride when the guide, who had a heavy accent but looked like a middle-aged Jeff Spicoli, mentioned he had plastic bags on hand in case the last part of the ride made anyone feel queasy. I gave J.J. a “don’t you dare” look. I love my nephew, of course, but just a year earlier I’d gotten stuck holding the proverbial bag for my niece, Emily, as my sister Lynne sped us to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I had no desire to repeat the experience with better scenery.

Thirty minutes of hairpin turns followed and the bus pulled into the park entrance. My equilibrium felt a little off, but J.J. looked positively green. Small wonder, then, that his immediate reaction to the gorge was to disgorge: the poor kid threw up everything he’d ever eaten. Future meals, too, from the sounds of things.

Though glad he’d managed to avoid tossing his cookies on the bus, I felt terrible for subjecting him to such misery. I immediately offered him an out, but he insisted he wanted to do the hike. With some reluctance, I agreed, and we proceeded slowly.

After we’d stopped for three barf breaks in the span of 45 minutes, I began to worry about dehydration and said, “I think I’d better tell Spicoli.”

J.J. got no further than “Aunt Wheat, please…” before he hurled again. I knew he didn’t want me to say anything, but I faced a true aunt’s dilemma: on the one hand, my sister Suzi would kill me if I let anything happen to him. On the other, I understood that J.J.’s ego might suffer a mortal wound if word ever got out that he traversed Samaria Gorge on the back of a donkey, which happened to be the only form of rescue transport available. I agreed to give it a few more minutes, but only a few more minutes.

My nephew used those few minutes to marshal his life forces and mount the most miraculous rebound I’ve ever witnessed. By Kilometer 5, the color of his face had improved from lime green to chalk. By Kilometer 7, he was nibbling a Clif bar, sipping Gatorade, and remarking that the way the sunlight changed the color of the rocks as we went made the gorge “magical.” My nephew is not given to Thoreau-like observations, which made me think he was suffering from heat stroke after all and that I should hail the next donkey. But he managed to convince me he really was just impressed.

IMG_3252.JPGAnd who wouldn’t be? Wild, immense, and majestic, Samaria Gorge is enchanting. It offers spectacular scenery, with towering walls that at times stand 1000 feet above you and only 15 feet apart. Lovely greenery abounds, and a near-constant stream of spring water means endless and refreshing refills.

The hike ends just before the village of Agia Roumeli, where the perfect reward awaits: a swim in the sapphire waters of the Libyan Sea. IMG_3271.JPGWe cooled off, stretched our limbs, and then relaxed on the sand for a while before taking a ferry and then a significantly less-nauseating bus ride back to the Chania harbor. We arrived in time to catch our second Cretan sunset, whose colors and resplendence overwhelmed me to the point of tears.

“Can we go eat now?” my nephew said, breaking my reverie. He was well within his rights, because there was more tzatziki to be eaten, by God, and this time we had earned it.

[To be continued…]

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Have nephew, will travel (Part I)

Years ago, in a fit of fantastical thinking, I promised each of my nephews and niece a trip for their high school graduation. It was the sort of idea that seemed so far off in time and financial viability that I treated it as a mirage, kinda like my retirement. But late last fall, my nephew J.J.‘s college acceptances started rolling in and I realized the conversion of the trips from dream to reality was not only happening, it was imminent. (My retirement remains a mirage.)

During Yanksgiving, J.J. and I talked possible destinations. Taking into account his love for great scenery, physical activity, and good food, as well as my unwillingness to fly more than 10 hours one way, I offered him three choices: Iceland, Costa Rica, and Greece. I’d never visited Iceland, but Philippa and other friends had, and they assured me it wouldn’t disappoint. I’d been to Costa Rica and Greece, the former in early 2016 and the latter in 2002 when I took a post-bar exam trip there with Mom, and I had loved them both.

I tried not to weigh in as J.J. debated the possibilities with my sister Suzi, yet I couldn’t help but hope he would choose Greece. The two weeks I spent there in 2002 gave some of my favorite memories ever, such as watching Mom go snorkeling for the first time in her life at age 60 in the Aegean Sea. She and Dad had given me that trip as a law school graduation present, an experience so life-changing it inspired me to do something similar for my niece and nephews. On top of that, Greece played a pivotal role in developing democracy and western civilization as we know it. That last point, and the fact that no country stays on top forever, seemed worth emphasizing at a time when disturbing political chasms have formed in our own country.

“How ’bout Greece?” J.J. said, reading my thought bubbles perfectly.

Before Suzi had a chance to remember that I’ve never chaperoned competently for a day, much less two weeks, I booked an itinerary consisting of two-and-a-half days in Athens, eight days on Crete, two days in London on the way home, and a travel day at each end of the trip. It looked perfect, but I wondered how it would go. My nephew and I love each other, of course, but we’d never spent more than a day or two together at a time, and always with other people around. I encouraged my parents and siblings to warn J.J. about my quirks, and they never got further than my enormous affection for napkins. (They refer to it as an obsession, because they are cave people, but I know it’s just a healthy attachment to the fabric of civilized society.) No one bothered to tell him I snore, because anyone who’s ever slept within a two-mile radius of me and has functioning ears has already picked up on that.

He packed that knowledge into the one carry-on suitcase I allowed him to bring, and on the evening of June 30, we boarded our Virgin Atlantic flight at Dulles. Once we settled in to our seats, the flight attended handed out overnight kits containing red-eye essentials: an eye mask, a tiny tube of toothpaste and paper-thin socks.

J.J. looked surprised, as if he’d been honored with a great gift, and said, “I get to keep this?” If this normally nonchalant kid was impressed by an airline freebie worth $0.14, I could hardly wait to see his reaction to the Acropolis.

It was late afternoon on July 1 before we landed in Athens, where a countrywide heatwave made it feel like Hades. I grabbed a taxi to take us downtown, allowing J.J. to experience baptism by cab ride. For 30 minutes we rode in a car that responded to the pressing of the A/C button by sending smoke and hot air through its vents. To distract us from the fact that we were riding in a toaster, our driver kept things exciting on the road: he pulled up to an automated toll gate only to realize his transponder had no funds on it, rocketed backwards and across four lanes of traffic in reverse, and then shot forward to a manned booth. I glanced at my nephew, expecting panic, and saw instead the face of someone trying desperately not to laugh. I knew right then and there we were in for a great trip.

Though exhausted, we summoned enough energy after checking in to our hotel to stroll through Plaka, eat an early dinner –J.J. pronounced his gyro delicious despite the fact that it bore no resemblance to the dish that goes by the same name in the U.S. –and marvel at the nighttime view of the Parthenon from our hotel’s rooftop terrace.

We woke up the next morning on Greek time and spent a lazy Sunday wandering the maze of the Athens flea market, where my nephew was in his element. He never tired of hopping from shop to shop and stalking bargains with the patience of a seasoned predator, unlike his aunt, who’s perfectly happy to shoot the first thing she sees and call it a day. The heat wave still gripped the city, sending temperatures up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and forcing the closure of the Acropolis for long stretches of time. We decided to conserve our energy and take a low-key tour of local landmarks by way of a hop-on/hop-off bus that we hopped off exactly once, when it stopped right by our hotel.

The next morning, our last in Athens, dawned a good 10 degrees cooler. It felt downright pleasant as we spent the morning on a food tour, eating our way through the city’s neighborhoods with the help of a local. That afternoon found us with with an archeologist who took us through the incredible Acropolis museum –something that didn’t exist during my and Mom’s trip –and then through the complex itself, offering expert insights along the way. Over dinner that night, J.J. told me he didn’t want to leave: he liked the city’s density, appreciated its sights, and loved the food. Most of all he enjoyed the people, who, though visibly and deeply impacted by a financial crisis with no apparent end, still seem to look for reasons to laugh and who treated us with unwavering warmth. The kid was Paying Attention: he noticed the Greeks put people, and especially family, first.

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I couldn’t pass up the chance to wax philosophical about money and happiness to a kid who’s just beginning to build his life as an adult. I told him I want him to become self-sufficient, of course, but I also hope he won’t be self-centered, and that he’ll make nurturing his relationships just as important as nurturing his career. Because let’s be honest: someone’s gonna have to take care of me when I’m 92.

[To be continued…]

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I’d rather be lucky than good, but do I really have to choose?

“I’d rather be lucky than good” is a saying that holds special weight for my family when it comes to travel.

My parents, siblings and I are people who prepare for travel. As lifelong subscribers to the “early is on time and on time is late” school of thought, we show up to airports and train stations way ahead of scheduled departure times. We are morning people who rarely need to set an alarm, much less worry about sleeping through it. And you won’t see us sprinting through a terminal unless something entirely out of our hands has gone seriously awry. In short, where travel is concerned, we are good.

But we are not lucky. I have been delayed and/or stranded more times than I can count, often on allegedly routine trips to Atlanta. The flights my brother takes struggle to get going, converting someone who was once a minor league pitcher to a major league tarmac-sitter. My sister Suzi lives in Richmond, which means not only connections but abundant opportunities to miss them. My father’s luggage got lost in Cairo. (In the suitcase’s defense, it’s pretty easy to get lost in Cairo.) My sister Lynne, who’s wrestled with motion sickness her whole life, inevitably winds up on flights that ride the skies like a hapless toddler in a moon bounce. If you find yourself sitting next to grown woman who uses the barf bag in flight, yes, it’s my sister. Mom’s luck might be neutral but for the fact that she usually travels with one of us.

The good-to-lucky ratio reverses when it comes to my brother-in-law Paul. He’s a laid-back, genial type who brings a“things will work out” attitude to just about everything in life, including travel. Though a sunny person overall, Paul and mornings do not get along, so he avoids travel before noon. Sometimes it can’t be helped, as was the case when he, Lynne and the Roommates traveled to the Florida Keys for a wedding. Their flight was scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. Somehow the joint forces of my sister’s anal retentiveness and palpitation-inducing amounts of caffeine combined to get my brother-in-law out of the house and leading their family of four into a security line at the airport by 5:15 a.m. Those forces were not enough, however, to get Paul’s wallet into the act. As he reached the counter he realized he had no wallet and, thus, no form of ID. This is the kind of oversight that will earn a person a very low rating on the Yank scale of traveler goodness.

As Paul was asking, “Will I still be able to get on the plane?” my sister was moving ahead with the kids, because the “no child left behind” rule comes with a “but to hell with the spouse” corollary.

Somehow Paul made it through security, including a search that would probably have left him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had he actually been awake. He reunited with his family at the gate, whereas a stranded and ID-free Yank would have gotten to the gate just as the door to the jet way had closed. Moments later, Paul’s name was announced over the intercom, followed by a request that he check in if he happened to be in the area. This struck my sister as odd, since Paul had not only checked in but done so in style. When my brother-in-law got to the desk, he learned someone found his wallet in the parking lot and turned in. The even better news? The finder happened to be on my sister and her family’s flight, so the wallet had been turned in to the very gate from which they were departing.

I think you’ll agree that Paul really learned his lesson, and I know I learned mine: it actually is better to be lucky than good. So as I travel on this Friday the 13th with my parents to Frankfort for the Kentucky Book Fair, here’s to being lucky.

 

Inspirato: if you have to ask what it means, you can’t afford it

Today’s snail mail included a letter from Inspirato, a vacation club company, and it began as follows:

Dear Karen Yankosky,

Allow me to extend this personal invitation for you to consider membership with Inspirato.

All of my closest friends greet me on the street using my full name, so I knew right away I’d received a very personal invitation, but the bold print really brought the point home and made me feel special. The extension of this very personal invitation also sent me to Google, because I’d never heard of “Inspirato.”

For all I knew, Inspirato could be a reputable brand saddled with a name hatched by a focus group that had done one too many tequila shots, like Accenture, or it might be a benign-sounding name that conceals a more nefarious business purpose, like Amway.

Imagine my relief upon learning that “inspirato” is Italian for “inspired,” not “pyramid scheme.”

Why did I even waste my time trying to figure out what this was about instead of tossing the whole thing in the trash? Because the letter contained a plastic card with an alluring photo of an ocean and pool at sunset. My mind has a weakness for anything travel-related, so the minute it saw that card, its bags were packed.

See? How could I possibly resist?

See? How could I possibly resist?

Besides, I was intrigued by the letter’s claim that Inspirato is “a private vacation club for travelers who enjoy the luxury and amenities of a five-star resort and understand the value of simple moments with family and friends.” It sounded like a cross between the Four Seasons and Wal-Mart. I had to know more.

As I read on, I learned that Inspirato has partnered with American Express, which, for me, gave it a whiff of credibility. Further googling led me to customer reviews, which provided way more information than the one-page letter my pals at Inspirato sent. I found this entry on flyertalk.com particularly helpful:

Just received a mailer from Amex inviting me to join Inspirato and pay no initiation fee ($17,500 savings), annual membership fee of $2600 ($400 discount) and one annual guest pass each year ($5000 savings). I have no idea what this is and whether it’s worth it or not, or what a guest pass is.

My personal invitation didn’t mention the potential for upwards of $25K in costs. This struck me as a salient omission, but maybe such unseemly money talk would’ve been getting just a little too personal. I also learned those fees just give you “privileged access” to the properties, which really means you’ve earned the privilege of paying still more to actually inhabit them.  Unlike the flyertalk.com contributor, I don’t wonder whether it’s worth it or not, I wonder why in the world I got this invitation.

Inspirato really should have had a chat with AmEx before they sent me that letter. AmEx knows my biggest expense this year didn’t involve exotic travel and only got me privileged access to a new sump pump. And that wasn’t very inspirato at all.

But I like the way Brent Handler, Inspirato’s CEO, put it when he wrote, “There’s so much to see and do out there. It’s time to change the way you experience the world.” I’ll get right on that, Brent, just as soon as I get out of the basement.

 

 

 

Anchorage: You Could Do Worse

Alaska is wild, beautiful, vast and…really far away.

Getting to Anchorage, the starting point for my and my parents’  adventures in Alaska, required about nine hours of air travel.  We flew on United, which regular readers know is my very favorite carrier.

If you haven’t haven’t had the pleasure of flying United in a while, you might not know that it has totally revamped its in-flight entertainment.  Gone are the days when you had to spend a long flight watching some crummy movie you’d never waste good money to see in a theater.  Now you can waste perfectly good money to watch crummy programming you’d never pay to see at home.

This win-win was made possible by United’s recent partnership with DirecTV, allowing airborne consumers to watch TV shows live via satellite, a content delivery system broadband is pushing towards  obsolescence.  With this kind of forward thinking, it’s just a matter of time before United equips each seat with its own VHS player.

My parents and I forked over $7 each for in-flight entertainment privileges anyway, knowing that we faced a six and a half hour flight from Chicago to Anchorage. Only after the programming had begun did United mention in passing that coverage might be interrupted once we left the U.S., a useful thing to know when you’ll be spending the majority of your flight passing through Canadian airspace. Still, at least we got to Anchorage on time, if thoroughly bored.

We arrived at Pork Barrel International, er, Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage late on the evening of May 18 and cabbed straight to the Hotel Captain Cook, our home for the next two nights.  I had not researched the property ahead of time, but based solely on its stratospheric rates, I felt certain a vision of luxury awaited.

We pulled up to a complex consisting of three stark towers whose exteriors were mustard-colored with brown trim.  The sight did not evoke luxury so much as the color scheme in my parents’ kitchen, cerca 1975.

The Captain was built in 1965 and may well have set the standard for grandeur in its day, but since the ‘60s were days when a big chunk of the population stopped shaving and otherwise got a bit lax about hygiene, the grandeur bar was set a little low.  Today, the Captain still proclaims itself  Anchorage’s only “true luxury hotel,” which sounds better than “Acnhorage’s Crown Jewel of  Institutional Architecture.”  It’s a nice enough place on the inside, don’t get me wrong, but if that’s true luxury, I think I’ll stick with the fake kind.

Over breakfast the next morning, my parents and I traded sections of the Anchorage Daily News.  Whenever I go to a new city, I pick up the local paper because I feel like it gives me a window into the place and its people. I perused that day’s edition and found an article about how to handle a bear encounter. (Bears, moose and other wildlife do sometimes take to the streets in Anchorage.)

I read aloud the first piece of advice: “Spot the bear first.”

“Whoa, that’s deep,” said my mother.

The article did not elaborate on how one might go about spotting the bear first, so the second and final tip should have been: “Notify next of kin.”  But instead of relaying any truly useful advice, the author blathered on about running, making noise, and doing all sorts of things that wouldn’t stand a chance against the simple force of Darwinism.

Confident that we were as well-equipped to encounter a bear as we would be to gold medal in figure skating, my parents and I set about exploring Anchorage. Tourists don’t usually linger in Anchorage and instead use it as a jumping off point for excursions to Alaska’s more famous attractions.  At one time, the city’s official motto was “The Air Crossroads of the World,” which narrowly edged out “Just Passing Through” in a slogan-off.

The city is home to roughly 300,000 Alaskans, which represents more than 40% of the state’s total population.  I suspect it also boasts the nation’s highest number of moose per capita.

Anchorage might not offer jaw-dropping views when compared to places like Denali, but the city’s natural scenery still makes for some very happy wandering.  Six mountain ranges are visible from town, and an eleven-mile coastal trail gives walkers and runners a chance to enjoy both forest and ocean.  On a good day, you can even see Denali off in the distance.

Though our five mile journey on foot was nowhere near as ambitious as James Cook’s exploration of the Alaskan coast in 1778, it still left us pretty tired and hungry.  With the aid of Yelp– a tool I use far more expertly than a compass–we discovered Sack’s Cafe, an outstanding little restaurant I’d be thrilled to see in D.C.

We left Sack’s at 9:30 p.m. and headed to the Hotel Captain Cook, our way lit by a bright sun that wouldn’t think about setting for at least another hour.

The three of us agreed that our day in pretty and unassuming Anchorage had been outstanding by any standard, and especially so if measured by the number of bear encounters.

Next up: The Three Moosketeers Take on the Kenai Fjords!

The Hotel Captain Cook, in all its mustard and brown glory.

 

Alaska v. United Airlines: The Last Frontier Takes On the Unfriendly Skies

One’s enjoyment of a vacation often varies inversely with the quality of the trip back home.  With that principle in mind, I’ve decided to begin the stories of my adventures in Alaska at the end.

My parents and I had spent roughly two weeks in Alaska, one on land and another at sea on a cruise ship.  The ship’s final destination was Vancouver, and I was scheduled to fly back to D.C. from Vancouver at 11:15 a.m. on June 1.

I had booked my flight using frequent flyer miles on United Airlines.  (Yes, United is a known vacation saboteur, but I have a good reason for continuing to fly with them. I paid for my divorce using my United credit card, which means I need to fly the world’s circumference at least six more times before I’ve put a serious dent in my miles. )

The following timeline describes how my return trip went.

  • 9 a.m.: I arrive at Vancouver Intl Airport for 11:15 a.m. departure on United.
  • 9:45 a.m.: Fully checked in for my flight, I shop, wanting to spend my remaining Canadian dollars.  I purchase maple-glazed peanuts for one friend, dark chocolates for another, and ice wine for a third.
  • 10:45 a.m.: We board the flight.  As passengers busy themselves trying to wedge carry-on bags the size of dumpsters in the overhead bin, a constant drilling sound emanates from somewhere near the wings. I am vaguely aware that this might not be a good thing.
  • 11:30 a.m.:  The drilling sound has not abated since we boarded. Like most of us passengers, United was trying to ignore it, but eventually they are forced to investigate. We remain on the plane.
  • 12:15 p.m.: The pilot tells us they’ve found a problem with the hydraulics.  (Hydraulics matter only if you value a crash-less flight more than an on-time departure.) United cancels the flight.  A full load of passengers is barfed out of the plane and back into the gate area, swamping the two agents assigned to deal with the canceled flight.  The gate agents, seeing an opportunity to cut the line in half by doing exactly nothing, suggest that passengers use their phones and call customer services instead of queuing.  (I’d seen this coming and had called United before I’d even deplaned.)
  • 1:15 p.m.: I finish tussling with a customer service representative who struggled to understand why I might not want to take an 8 p.m. flight that would send me back to DC by way of Los Angeles, tacking on 6 hours of waiting time in Vancouver, an extra 4 hours of flight time, and a red-eye.  She reluctantly puts me on a 2:45 p.m. flight to Chicago that gives me 10 minutes to connect. I’m happy with this, knowing that I won’t make my connection but that my chances of getting home quickly are way better from Chicago than LA.  I ask where my bag will go. She tells me I have to get in line to find out.  New flight arrangements in hand, I hang up and take my place as the very last person in the line.
  • 1:16: United announces that they are getting a new plane for the canceled flight, and what do you know, we can all just hop on that plane, and head for Chicago at 2:30 p.m. like none of this ever happened.  Unless you already rebooked yourself, that is, in which case you have to un-book yourself from the new flight and re-re-book yourself on the old one. (Airlines love to punish passengers who show initiative.) I do this and get a reservation on the “original” flight, still hoping to make my connection at 9 p.m.
  • 1:50: I arrive at the new gate somewhat peckish but without time to buy something to eat. I break into the maple-glazed peanuts, convincing myself that if I only eat a few, maybe I can still give them to my friend. I’ll just need to find alternative packaging when I get home.
  • 2:45: Our plane has not arrived, much less departed.  I continue to eat the peanuts.
  • 3:15: Our plane shows up and we begin to board; however, United’s computer system has gone down.  What with passengers having un-booked, re-booked and re-re-booked, the crew has no idea who is supposed to have seats on this bird. TSA won’t let us leave until United figures this out.  United resorts to a manual method and breaks out pencils and an abacus. I’ve eaten so many peanuts that the remaining quantity would fit in a shot glass with room to spare.
  • 4:45: United finishes the manifest. I finish the peanuts. The chocolates sense that they are in imminent danger.
  • 4:46: Air Traffic control puts us in a hold. There’s Weather in Chicago. I break into the chocolates.
  • 5:25 p.m.: We leave Vancouver.
  • 6:45 p.m.: The flight attendants come through, offering meals for purchase. I refuse on principle and dine on dark chocolates, which I chase with ice wine.
  • 11:15: We encounter more Weather in Chicago, causing a slight reroute.
  • 11:45 p.m.: We land in Chicago and are instructed to go to United Customer Service for an Important Update.
  • 11:55 p.m.: The agent at United customer service importantly updates me that United has “courtesy rebooked” me on a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., and they have graciously gotten me a hotel room a 10-minute shuttle ride away.  I point out that a 6 a.m. flight requires a 4:45 arrival at O’Hare, which gives me 4 hours and 45 minutes to sleep if I go narcoleptic mid-sentence, and 20-30 minutes of shuttle logistics will eat into that, whereas the airport Hilton is just a few steps away. A supervisor overhears this conversation and, fearing that I might do worse than go narcoleptic at that moment, wisely offers me a room at the Hilton. United also offers me not one, but two, meal vouchers for my troubles. Because we’re not allowed to get our bags, United has given us an overnight kit. It is “eco-friendly,” guaranteeing that I will not wind up feeling clean even if I weren’t wearing the same  clothes I’ve had on for the past 16 hours, which I am.
  • 12:15 a.m.: I check into the Hilton. I request a 3:45 a.m. wakeup call. Again feeling slightly peckish, I pull out the vouchers, intending to call room service. That’s when I see that the combined total of said vouchers is $14. Knowing that it costs more than that just to consider calling room service, I decide that United won’t mind if I pillage the mini-bar snacks.
  • 4:30 a.m.: I return to O’Hare.
  • 5:00 a.m.: I blow the entire $14 on a latte, an apple and a banana.
  • 5:30 a.m.: I board.
  • 6:00 a.m.: The plane takes off, precisely on time.
  • 9:00 a.m.: I land at DCA. My prodigal bag, which was brand new before this trip and in outstanding shape when I dropped it off in Vancouver, returns with pieces of plastic hanging off of it, handle stuck in the partially upright position. It looks every bit like I feel.  Armed with nothing more than three hours of sleep and yesterday’s clothes, I start my work week.

I think social media consultant and blogger Karl Hakkareinan had it right when he said, “No vacation goes unpunished.”  As I share more stories from my time in Alaska, I’ll let you decide whether my punishment fit the crime.

The Meal Vouchers

Two meal vouchers totaling $14…Looks like I *will* have to spend it all in one place…