Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Have nephew, will travel (Part III)

J.J. and I did very little the day after we hiked Samaria Gorge.

“We need a day off” I said. He probably thought I was referring to physical recovery, but I meant mental, too, because we were about to embark on the rental car portion of the program. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Richmond and whose only experience on the roads in Greece consisted of a couple of cab rides, J.J. didn’t know what awaited us, but I did.

When Mom and I went to Greece in 2002, we had rented a car without a worry in the world. We were seasoned veterans of Beltway combat who’d seen it all and knew how to react. A driver cuts you off? Yawn. Tailgates an ambulance to get a few hundred feet ahead? Cast a disgusted glare and move on. Eats tomato soup while steering with their knees? Roll down the window and hurl a grilled cheese at them. We couldn’t be fazed, or so she and I had thought until we picked up our rental car in Athens.

I expected getting out of the city to be tough, and it was — if not for Mom’s calm and stellar navigating skills, we might still be there –but it wasn’t the hard part, it was only a hard part. Driving through the outskirts and into the countryside, where there aren’t highways so much as two-laned roads, I soon learned Americans do shoulders all wrong. In the U.S., we treat the shoulder as a place to pull off and do something, like change a tire or switch drivers. In Greece, it’s the slow lane. Why waste a perfectly viable driving surface? You also need not waste a moment worrying about getting stuck in the slow shoulder. In Greece, you don’t have to commit to one lane-ish or the other at all, you just lazily straddle the two. This leaves plenty of room for motorcycles to pass you on both sides simultaneously. And lines are neither the preferred driving formation nor boundaries painted upon a road: in both cases they’re just suggestions. All of it had taken some getting used to, but by the time Mom and I left, I was almost enjoying it.

I wasn’t sure how J.J. would feel about the driving, but I had no such worries about the car we’d rented: it cracked him up. No wider than his wingspan and just a few inches longer, it had all the sex appeal of a hair dryer, and a far less powerful engine. As I merged us into an amoeba of traffic of downtown Chania, the lack of order left my nephew aghast. I gave a dismissive wave.

“It all works out somehow,” I said, “so get used to it and watch the phone.”

Rarely do you have to tell a modern 18 year-old to pay more attention to an iPhone, but I was depending on that device, and my nephew, for navigation. He couldn’t have guided us on an actual map as Mom did — he, like most of his peers, has no idea how to read one in real time– but the kid knows his way around an iPhone. So I put him in charge of directions and holding down the A/C button, which seemed to believe it had signed up only for shift work.

He did both with calm and aplomb as we made our way out of Chania and toward Knossos, home of ancient Minoan ruins. Though only 150 km away, the drive involves a fair amount of winding and climbing. The car approached these ascents with the alacrity and land speed of a cow, leading us to dub it “Bessie.” Two hours later, J.J., Bessie and I pulled into the parking lot of the ruins.

Said to date back to 7000 B.C., the site draws mixed reviews. On the one hand, you feel real wonder as you walk on stones that remain from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and learn how advanced those ancient civilizations were, as evidenced by water and sanitation IMG_3415 (2)systems. On the other, the early 20th century work of archaeologist Arthur Evans included not just excavations but elaborate reconstructions of the palace as he imagined it would have been, so it doesn’t necessarily feel authentic. That ruins the ruins for some people, but we knew to take it with a grain of salt, and the controversy seemed to intrigue my nephew. We spent the night in Agia Pelagia, a charming seaside village where we stayed at a hotel that resembled Melrose Place and ate at a restaurant that had what we needed: good tzatziki.

The next day we drove back to Chania. This time we established our base at Agii Apostoli, a pretty beach area about 15 minutes from the center of town. Though the area lacks the charm of old town Chania, our hotel more than made up for it: situated right by the water, its terraces offered gorgeous views and its staff incomparable hospitality, and a refreshing swim in the Sea of Crete awaited mere steps away. During our stay, we also had the good fortune to meet Scott and Jennifer, two wonderful New Yorkers who made a big impression on me and J.J., and about whom I’ll write more later. We could have wiled away our last few days at Agii Apostoli in perfect contentment, yet I wanted to make sure my nephew (and I) didn’t leave Crete without seeing at least two more of the world’s most fabled beaches.

After breakfast the next day, I told one of the hotel staff what I had in mind.

She smiled and said, “Ah, you’re adventurous. This is good!” I hoped to prove her more than half-right. She set me up with a map, snacks, towels and an umbrella, all of which my nephew and I loaded into Bessie as we set out for one more road trip. Two hours and many (many) windy roads later, J.J. and I arrived at Elafonissi beach, whose allegedly pink sands I needed to see for myself. We encountered a crowded parking lot, not my favorite sight, but one look at the beach told us why: it’s dazzling. A swath of crushed shells colors the sand coral as you step into perfect turquoise water. J.J. and I couldn’t get enough of it. When we were’t swimming, we lazed on one of the many rocks that dot the sea, never tiring of watching the water flow over and around us.

Though we could have looked in amazement at the scenery forever, after a few hours we set off for Kendrodasos, a nearby and more remote beach the hotel staff had mentioned. A crow could have flown there in moments but took us more than half an hour. Bessie struggled over dirt ruts meant to pass for roads –what would we do if we blew a tire here? –and then we ditched her to walk the remaining several hundred yards to a beautiful and nearly deserted cove. We laid our towels on low-hanging tree branches and headed straight for the water, which somehow looked even bluer than at Elafonissi. An open water swimmer’s paradise, I once again had to drag us away after a few hours so we could start our trip back. We returned to Agii Apostoli by way of a glorious waterfront meal at Sunset Tavern in Sfinari, a pebbly but lovely beach area. After dinner we paused our drive one last time for a pit stop at Falassarna, yet another famously beautiful shore.

As I was lamenting that we didn’t have enough time to truly appreciate it, J.J. said, “I guess we’ll have to come back.” I like the way the kid thinks.

The sun had set by the time we pulled into the hotel parking lot. Tired but happy, we agreed that we’d gotten our money’s worth out of Bessie, whom the rental agency picked up the next day.

We didn’t miss the car, having planned to spend our last day on the island enjoying the beautiful beach right in front of us. Instead of going out for lunch, we walked to the mini market at the end of our street and cobbled together a very respectable picnic lunch of bread, feta, cold cuts, olives and tzatziki (what else), which we enjoyed on our terrace in between swim sessions. And then there was our last sunset in Chania, which I could not miss. More than just an everyday miracle, sunsets there are a reliable but ever-changing tableau of orange, pink, magenta, purple and blue. I tried to capture a few of them with my camera, but I just watched the final one, cementing its place in my memory.

As J.J. and I cabbed to the airport the next day, my heart felt heavy. I loved the people, the food, the scenery, and the incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences I shared with my nephew (because who wants to go on a barf-inducing hike twice?), and I didn’t want to leave. Sure, I missed my people at home, but couldn’t they just come and meet us on Crete?

I guess it was too much to ask just then, but here’s hoping that question won’t always be rhetorical.

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 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 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.




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…