The stereotype of the avid birdwatcher is classic: a well-equipped enthusiast wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest lens, peering into the trees through the most expensive binoculars, traveling to all the most exotic corners of the globe to be able to check another bird off the official life list.
But there are just as many of us who simply want to be where the birds are. We carry our mid-priced super-zoom cameras and our mid-priced binoculars and we take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color.
That’s what drew me to McAllen, Texas. As one of the premier birding locations in the country, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is home to 9 World Bird Centers. Thanks to the region’s temperate sub-tropical climate there are more than 400 species of birds which live in or pass through the area and, for the most part, you don’t need anything more than a good pair of eyes to see them.
Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, just 5 miles from McAllen, is a birder’s delight. The 760-acre park adjoins another 1,700 acres of federal wildlife refuge. Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.
But the thing Bentsen offers that makes all the difference for the casual birder is a bird blind strategically placed near a feeding station. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities. Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. This makes it possible to get a pretty good photo with a point-and-shoot camera or even, if conditions are right, with a cellphone. All you have to do is sit and watch the show.
January and February are prime months for birdwatching and we were there on an unseasonably cold (for Texas) November day, during a weather event that had most of the country in the deep freeze. Temperatures hovered in the high 40s and the sky was overcast. But the birds kept coming to feed. I sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter again and again without disturbing the birds. Great Kiskadees swooped down in front of me and drank from the small pool of water. Green jays postured and fluttered at the feeders. A golden-fronted woodpecker fed at the peanut butter log. It was great fun.
When the trolly came around I surrendered my seat in the bird blind knowing I’d managed to get one or two good photos with what I had on hand. I don’t have a formal list, but I could have checked off a few that day:
Green jay. Check
Great Kiskadee. Check.
Golden-fronted woodpecker. Check
All for the price of the park’s $5 admission.
Birding can be an expensive hobby. But, in the right place, it can simply be great fun at little expense. I can see now how the whole enthusiast thing gets started, though. The one bird I’d heard so much about but didn’t get to see was the beautiful Altimira Oriole. I saw a nest that had been blown down in a storm but no bird, so I feel like I didn’t quite finish what I started. I guess I’ll have to go back to McAllen. With an official list.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at email@example.com
They are one of the first signs of the holiday season: bright red cranberries in a sauce or compote on the Thanksgiving table. Sometimes they’re part of the centerpiece or decorations and they’re there all the way through Christmas.
It used to be that when the holidays were over, the cranberries were gone. But that was then. In the last decade cranberries have moved out of the holiday-only aisle and into the year-round pantries of most Americans. Now they’re baked into cookies and scones, sprinkled on salads and eaten as a quick, healthy, snack.
Most of us grew up with a kind of Norman Rockwell-inspired image of New England as the only place cranberries grow but that isn’t true. Wisconsin has been growing and harvesting the berries for 140 years and since the mid-1970s has produced more cranberries than any other state. Today, more than half the cranberries grown and consumed around the world come from Wisconsin, with Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington trailing.
In the last few years a new industry has grown up around the Wisconsin cranberry harvest: Agritourism. Now you can tour the marshes and get a glimpse of the unique processes involved in growing and harvesting one of the three fruits that are unique to North America (the others two are blueberries and concord grapes.)
I was curious and joined a tour at two Wisconsin cranberry farms: Glacial Lake Cranberries and Elm Lake Cranberry Company.
At Glacial Lake Cranberries we boarded a bus and drove along the narrow pathways between flooded marshes. The iconic image of cranberry fields is a flooded bog filled with floating berries, but they don’t grow that way and the low-growing vines are perfectly acclimated to the sandy soil acidic soil left behind Wisconsin’s ancient glacial lakes. From June through late September they form and ripen. Then, during harvest the marshes are flooded and red-ripe cranberries are scooped off the vines by special tractors (this used to be back-breaking work done by hand) and, thanks to the four small hollow chambers in each berry, float to the top of the water.
Like any kind of farming, growing cranberries is hard work, subject to the whims of nature and the ups and downs of volatile markets. It’s easy to forget the hard work behind the berry when in the fall the cranberries ripen and the beds are flooded to create a temporary marsh.
At Elm Lake Cranberry Company, the rich crimson color of the berries, contrasted against the vivid blue of the sky and the brilliant gold larch trees reflected in the water, was as pretty as a postcard.
With slow, graceful, movements, harvesters dressed in hip-high waders walk the circle of berries corralled by a yellow plastic boom and I watched as a man stretched out his arms, extending the wooden rake in his hands to gather and pull toward him the bright red cranberries while a vacuum swept them up onto a conveyor belt and into the deep bed of a waiting truck.
I know it’s intense and a lot is riding on getting the berries to market without bruising them, but he made it seem like water ballet.
Most of the berries are taken to a nearby processing plant where they will be frozen before being processed into juice, sauce or dried sweetened berries. Only a very small percentage of Wisconsin’s cranberries are packaged fresh for holiday sales.
Like every other behind-the-scenes look I’ve gotten into the heart and soul of any kind of farming—usually thanks to the agritourism movement— I came away with a deeper appreciation for the small red berry that has always been such a big part of my holiday table. And now, in ever increasing ways, a part of my everyday diet.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Every year, usually some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I bring out all the good stuff. I put out an assortment of foods I’ve picked up as I traveled in the months before and brought home to share with my family.
Some years it has been a feast of German chocolates, Wisconsin cheese and Pecans from Texas. Other years I have jams and jellies and sauces from around the country, around the world.
This year when my children come home for the holidays it will be all about the taste of Tennessee.
I spent two autumn weeks in East Tennessee this year and I came home with a suitcase full of tasty souvenirs: two kinds of honey—a raw wildflower honey from Appalachain Bee, a woman-owned artisanal honey company in Ocoee, and a bottle of sourwood honey I picked up on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have rich buttermilk cheese from Sweetwater Valley Farm in Philadelphia, Tennessee and a box of Ole Smoky taffy from Gatlinburg, a sweet treat I remembered from childhood trips to the mountains. And I couldn’t resist a box of mini Moon Pies from Chattanooga, another childhood favorite.
But this year I brought home the bacon. It isn’t just any old bacon, it’s Benton’s bacon. Walk into any upscale restaurant, coast to coast, and there’s a good chance Benton’s Smoky Mountain Ham or bacon will be on the menu. It’s sold in gourmet markets and it can be pricy, but when you stop by the smokehouse in Madisonville,Tennessee, they’ll pull it right out of the box and sell it to you for just about the same price the chefs pay.
The store is plain and no-nonsense with not much more than a display case and a cash register. And there’s usually a line leading from one to the other.
From the front, you can see smoked meats hanging on racks in the back of the building and I watched as a woman packed big boxes of bacon to ship out to restaurants across the country. Men were busy, moving meat from the smokehouse to the slicing room.
The man at the counter told me they sometimes struggle to keep up with demand. but that wasn’t always the case. Allan Benton bought the smokehouse in the late 1970s from the man who started the business in 1947 and he’s been making ham and bacon in the traditional way—dry cured or hickory smoked—since then.
The business struggled at times until several years ago when Blackberry Farm placed an order. A few days later Allan Benton got a call from the chef saying he wanted more. Word got out quickly and it wasn’t long before leading chefs around the country had Benton’s on the menu. Suddenly, Smoky Mountain bacon and hams were flying out the door.
“We smoke it and ship it, the man behind the counter told me. “And when it’s gone, it’s gone. You just have to wait ‘till we catch up.”
I wasn’t taking any chances. I bought three pounds of bacon and put the package in my suitcase. (Benton’s meats are cured so they don’t need to be refrigerated to ship.) If I’d had room for one of their country hams, I would have put one of those in, but I did buy a couple of ham steaks—my husband’s favorite— and brought them home especially for him.
So, when we all get together in a week or two, I’ll have delicious things from other places to share with my family—dried cranberries from Wisconsin, a bottle of Champagne I brought home from France, and more—but I have a feeling Mr. Benton’s bacon will steal the show.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
I’m fortunate that my work takes me to Europe several times a year, but I try to go on my own at least once each fall or winter. Sometimes I travel with my husband or accompanied by one of my adult children, and that’s always fun. But I’m just as happy to go solo, to walk down streets that have seen the cultural history of the world unfold and come home richer for the experience.
In the past I looked for a direct flight to Frankfurt or London or Paris. But the 10 or 11 hours in the air, flying directly to or from Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles, took their toll on me. Especially on the way home. For a week or more after my return, I was fatigued and weary, fighting the confusion and physical effects of jet lag. I couldn’t get a lot done.
I began to talk about this with other travelers who live on the western side of the country and I realized I wasn’t alone. Jet lag, when returning from Europe, seems to hit us harder.
It finally dawned on me that maybe a direct flight isn’t necessarily the best idea. I may save a little time but I pay for it in other ways. If I give myself a few extra days on the east coast—usually New York City—to adjust before continuing my trip further west, I come home more rested and less likely to suffer from extreme jet lag.
I have put this theory to the test several times now and it makes all the difference. Now, whenever possible, a trip to Europe ends in one of two ways: an extra night or two in New York or a few days on a short cruise out of New York. Then, at the end of my mini-vacation, I catch a flight home with only a 3-hour time adjustment.
For my return from a recent assignment to write about France’s World War I western front, the Millennium Broadway Hotel’s “Fall into Autumn” package was perfect. I had some additional WWI research to do at the library and a couple of private museums, and I wanted to see a show or two while I was there. I booked a room for three nights in early October.
My Air France flight arrived at JFK Airport just after 4 p.m. After clearing customs I hopped in a taxi and took the 45-minute (rush hour traffic) ride to the hotel. Once there, I checked in, showered, and made myself a cup of tea. By that time it was almost 8 p.m. My room was on the 45th floor and overlooked Times Square. It was fun to watch the crowd with a bird’s eye view as I rested and answered the emails that had jammed my inbox after two weeks away. I had two more nights so I didn’t feel pressured to immediately go out and play. I made another cup of tea, fished around in my bag for an energy bar for dinner and went to bed.
The next morning I woke up early, still on Paris time, and watched the sunrise paint the skyscrapers surrounding the hotel. I’d slept well and I was ready to get to work.
The Millennium Broadway sits between 44th and 45th Streets and the location is perfect. The lobby is always a hive of activity, but the rooms are quiet and spacious ( especially by Manhattan standards.) The hotel is right in the heart of the theater district and within easy walking distance of all the other places I wanted to visit while I was there. The exercise revived me. Each morning, after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee in the lobby restaurant, I felt ready for anything.
By the time I flew home I’d adjusted to the time difference without any jet lag and I was far more productive than I would have been without the Big Apple break.
The Millennium Broadway Hotel’s “Fall into Autumn” package runs through November 30. If you’ve ever wanted to be there for New York’s annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, here’s your chance! (Note: The discount increases for a stay of three nights or more.)
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I had a lot of miles ahead of me. I was about to depart on a 3-week solo itinerary that would take me from the Northwest to Paris to New York City to a cruise along the New England coast before coming home in mid-October. My husband was staying home for endless meetings and first-of-the-month reports.
That just didn't seem fair.
I'd worked a lot of extra hours finishing the assignments that would be due while I was gone and I was stressed out and irritable. And, to be honest, I felt a little guilty about leaving my husband with the house and the pets to care for while I got to see some wonderful destinations. So I treated us both to a little getaway before I got away and booked one of Cedarbrook Lodge’s custom “Mancation” packages .
Cedarbrook Lodge is sheltered by 18 acres of wooded property that includes a restored wetland. Just five minutes from SeaTac Airport, minutes from downtown Seattle, the 99-room resort caters to business travelers but it’s ideal for couples and families who want to be pampered. The rooms are quiet and spacious with incredibly comfortable beds and a pillow menu that allows you to build a custom “nest.”
We drove over on Friday and had lunch with our son in Seattle, who was just back from a trip to India, before driving on to the resort. We checked in and walked along the shaded path to our room on the Northwest side of the “Spruce” building. The wide window opened right into the treetops, giving us a “treehouse” feeling of isolation and solitude.
While my husband settled in and explored the grounds (His first stop: checking out the unlimited chips, candies and cups of Haagen Dazsin the “living room” of our building) I went directly to the spa. My first appointment was with the friendly Sunshine for her sea salt scrub. The combination of massage, aromatic essential oils, and the exfoliating properties of the salt salt made me feel like a new person. Then, still pre-treating for intense travel, I spent a quiet hour with Jamie getting the spa’s hydrating facial. I left feeling like I'd shed all the tension I'd been carrying and could handle anything the next three weeks brought my way.
We reunited for our dinner reservation at Copperleaf, the lodge's premium restaurant focusing on French-inspired Northwest cuisine.
The Copperleaf menu is creative and the food is delicious. I had the scallops and they were fantastic. Perfectly caramelized and paired with fresh locally-sourced vegetables, the dish was one I would come back for again and again.
My husband opted for the decontructed chicken pot pie, with the chicken and seasonal vegetables arranged separately on his plate. He ate every bite.
Tiny demitasse cups of the restaurant’s signature vanilla cream hot chocolate accompanied by miniature donut holes were the perfect finish. No other dessert was needed.
Saturday was his “Mancation” choice and he opted to take the Road Dogs Brewery tour. We joined the Road Dogs van downtown and spent the next three hours tasting beer at three outstanding Seattle breweries: Georgetown, Hale’s and Hilliard’s. Our driver, Jason was a true beer enthusiast and a lot of fun. Tip: Even if you sip and pour at each stop, you will taste a lot of beer on this tour. We booked a Town Car to take us into the city and pick us up and we were glad. No need to fight for Seattle parking and no worries about drinking and driving. At the end if the tour the car was waiting for us and whisked us back to Cedarbrook Lodge.
For Saturday night’s dinner we indulged in Copperleaf’s unique tasting menu and wine pairing. It was an outstanding evening of delicious food and fine wines.
Sunday's noon checkout allowed me to get all my work wrapped up and have a relaxing morning, lingering over coffee and the lodge’s continental breakfast before my husband drove back to Spokane and I prepared to fly to Paris the next morning.
It was my first stay at Cedarbrook, but it won’t be the last. The 99-room retreat is only minutes from the heart of Seattle but it feels as though you’re completely removed from the noise and traffic of the city and the airport nearby. It’s the perfect place to recharge before or after a long trip—like a cruise from the Port of Seattle.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap can be reached at email@example.com
Several weeks ago my daughter, a marine geologist who works off-shore assignments around the world, left for a 6am flight out of Spokane. It was the first of leg of a grueling multi-flight journey that would end when she arrived in Italy late the following day. She sent me a text to say the she was on board and we said our goodbyes. Then, a few minutes later she sent another text. This one was accompanied by a photo.
The picture was a “selfie,” taken with her phone and the expression on my daughter’s face made it clear something was wrong. I quickly saw why she’d sent it. Just beside her left elbow were the bare feet of the passenger in the seat behind her. The woman had stretched out and pushed her feet into the space beside my daughter’s armrest and the wall of the plane. My daughter’s expression said it all. Yuck.
A 6am flight is not easy on anyone. It means waking up at 4am or earlier to get to the airport for the inescapable check-in and security requirements. When you finally make it to your seat the first thing you want to do is settle in and relax, maybe even make up an hour or two of lost sleep. But there are limits to just how comfortable we’re entitled to get. Or, at least there used to be.
I sometimes feel like I’m the only one on the plane wearing shoes.
Once, halfway into a long flight across the country, I began to feel something move against my, uh, backside. It felt like there was some kind of small animal in my seat. Unnerved, I reached back and caught the wiggling toes of the passenger behind me, a young woman who’d burrowed her feet into the space between the seat and seat back. Her bare feet must have been cold, but that wasn’t my problem. I had to ask her to get them out from under me.
On another flight, a man sat down in the seat beside me and before he buckled his seatbelt, he reached down and pulled off his shoes and socks and pushed them under the seat in front of him. He rubbed his feet back and forth on the carpet, giving them a good scratch before he opened his book. Later, absorbed in the book, he reached down and absentmindedly rubbed his toes as he read.
I took an Advil.
Humans evolved from ancient barefoot nomadic wanderers. Now, it almost seems that here in the 21st Century we’re going through some kind of peripatetic de-evolution. We’re wandering without shoes again, only this time on flying machines. I guess once flip-flops became streetwear it was a short fall.
Sometimes, I like to sit and look at old ads from the golden age of air travel. The women are wearing gloves and hats. The men are dressed in suits and ties. The children are in their Sunday clothes. And everyone, everywhere, is wearing shoes.
We spent an October weekend at Walt Disney World several years ago, and every year around this time I wish we were back. Fall is a great time to visit Disney World or Disneyland, and it’s especially fun if you are in the park after-hours for Mickey’s Not-so-scary Halloween celebration.
So the introduction of Disney Cruise Line’s Halloween on the High Seas was too good to resist and we booked a 3-day cruise over a late-September weekend.
I love nothing better than being on a big ship. It’s the best way to sail away from the stresses of work and everyday life. It’s also the perfect way to enjoy time with the family.
After summer has come and gone, fall is a great time to travel. But finding a good time to get away, especially if you want to gather up far-flung family members for a mini-reunion, can be complicated. Thanksgiving is the busiest travel weekend of the year but flights are expensive and oversold and airports are jammed. The weather can also be a bit tricky. The weeks before and after the Christmas holiday season are filled with parties, recitals, final exams. Airfare and room rates are back up to peak.
Disney Cruise Line’s Halloween on the High Seas is perfect.
The 3-day itinerary—sailing out on Thursday and returning on Sunday—was ideal for us. Just enough time away without interfering too much in work and school demands.
We met our 19-year-old daughter, a college sophomore who flew in from her campus, in the terminal at Port Canaveral and checked in together. We settled into our balcony stateroom on the Disney Dream and from that point on it was everyone for themselves. (My first act may have been to check on the location and selection of the soft-serve ice-cream machine.)
During the cruise the 19-year-old caught up on her rest and shut out all thoughts of college classes and upcoming exams. My husband and I turned off our phones, got lost in books and soaked up the sunshine knowing the gray Northwest winter is only weeks away. We met each evening for dinner and the evening’s entertainment.
We all had a great time watching tiny princesses in gauzy dresses and tiaras line up to meet their idols, and little boys in pirate gear chase one another around the deck, but what many people still don’t realize is that just because it’s a Disney cruise doesn’t mean it’s all about the kids.
Sure there are plenty of ways to amuse any member of the family, with separate hangouts for babies to teens, but thanks to Disney’s attention to detail and famed customer service, there is no better way for adults to cruise. With adults-only decks, restaurants, lounges and events, it’s possible to spend a romantic week at sea on the world’s happiest ship.
I wish every cruise line would adopt Disney’s stateroom design philosophy. Their separate shower and toilet compartments are the most practical for families. There is a lavatory in each compartment so while Dad’s in the shower the kids can brush their teeth or Mom can put on her makeup. With foldout bunks, more storage than you could possibly use and a small refrigerator, the staterooms make it easy to spend time together without getting on one another’s nerves.
Food and Wine
“Hello, I am Corinne from France. I will be your server tonight.”
Our server’s elegant accent and knowledge of wine and cuisine only added to our date-night in Palo, one of the Disney Dream’s two premium dining options. We watched the sun set while sipping excellent wine and the meal was outstanding. From the antipasti platter prepared by our server to the grand finish, a chocolate soufflé that will live on in my dreams, Palo equaled any fine dining experience on shore.
An Island in the Sun
Disney always does it right. The three-night itinerary put us on Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, on Saturday and a fine time was had by all.
Clean, uncrowded and stocked with plenty of ways to enjoy the day, Castaway Cay is reason enough to take a Disney cruise any time of year. From biking island trails to the water slide to snorkeling, there’s plenty to do. We opted for the adults-only beach for a quiet day reading and relaxing in the sun. The teenager spent hours snorkeling around the shore observing underwater creatures and spotting shells.
Halloween on the High Seas offered plenty of seasonal entertainment options. We put on our pirate gear and joined Mickey’s Mousequerade Party and watched spooky movies in the Buena Vista theater.
There are adults-only options, of course, including costume parties and a “Creepy Cabaret.”
For more information about Halloween on the High Seas cruises go to
His story was not uncommon but that only increases its bittersweet quality.
In late September, 1918, just weeks before the end of the Great War that had decimated parts of France and Belgium and effectively destroyed an entire generation of men in Europe, Sergeant Headley Williams, a young man from Lebanon, Missouri, did as he’d been trained.
As a runner in Company C’s 129th machine gun battalion, he carried messages between commanders and artillery, and on September 28, according to the document awarding him the Silver Star, after penetrating enemy lines and securing important messages, Williams was killed by a high-explosive shell in the Argonne woods.
At that moment, a world away, although she would not know it for some time, Jessie Williams became a Gold Star Mother. The blue star on the banner she would have hung from the window to signify the family had a son in the war, would be covered by a gold star to signify his death.
Later, she would receive several photos. One showed two simple wood crosses in a muddy field, one of which marked her son’s grave, and another was of a man, by accounts her son’s commanding officer, kneeling before
the two graves.
Williams, who lived to be 100, was only one of so many mothers who lost a son to a war somewhere in
France. After the war the families of those who’d died were asked whether they wanted their dead returned or
to be buried in a dedicated American cemetery in Europe. The majority requested the return of their loved ones
but more than 30,000 were left in the land where they fell.
The world moved on, but something interesting happened. In 1928, a decade after the war’s end, Gold Star
Mothers across the United States organized and became a solid, and in some ways fierce, lobbying group.
They began to demand the government take them to the battlefields where their sons had fallen. The women mobilized and effectively turned what had been such a powerful tool of motivation and domestic propaganda
into a demand: You’ve told us there is no bond like that of a mother and a son, no sacrifice like the loss of a
son, they lobbied. Now, take us over there.
Eventually the U. S. government capitulated and by 1933 more than 6,000 women— Gold Star mothers who
fit the narrowly-defined criteria —were taken to the American cemeteries in Europe on all-expenses-paid
pilgrimages to see the last resting place of their sons. That was only a fraction of the number who lost sons
(and daughters) to the war, but even the pilgrimages provide a window into American culture at the time.
African American mothers were also eligible but their tours were segregated. The white mothers traveled on
liners, the black mothers on freighters.
At American cemeteries in Europe, comfortable rooms, essentially parlors with comfortable furniture and a
homey decor, were created for the visiting women. In March, when President Barak Obama addressed the press on a trip to Belgium, he did so from the Gold Star room at the WWI Flanders Fields American Cemetery. I stood
in that room a few years ago and found it impossible not to think of the women who’d been there and the war
that had taken their sons.
In 1936, by presidential decree, the last Sunday in September would from that time on be known as Gold Star Mother’s Day. And today is that day.
Of course, the war that was to end all wars didn’t. Each year more women still become Gold Star Mothers because men and women still go into service and lose their lives. But in an age where every day is dedicated to something—Chocolate Chip Cookie day, Pet Your Dog Day, National Coffee Day— Gold Star Mother’s Day gets lost, a forgotten monument to a forgotten war.
So today, National Strawberry Cream Pie Day, by the way, maybe we should take a minute to think about something that isn’t sweet. About soldiers who went over there, soldiers who still go over there, and mothers (and fathers) who are left with only a golden star.
Most hotel rooms come with a few amenities, things like tiny bottles of shampoo, scented soap, a shower cap, a miniature sewing kit and occasionally some fragrant shower gel or body wash. But, because travel always seems to bring unexpected complications, I’ve learned how to make those hotel amenities serve more than one purpose.
Here are five ways you can get more out of hotel freebies:
Body Wash: Usually more gentle than shampoo, body wash works well for hand-washing clothing when you’re traveling light or discover a stain or spill on your shirt. (Of course, this is for washable fabrics.)
Shower cap: The ubiquitous plastic shower cap do more than keep your curls dry in the shower. The thin plastic, edged in elastic, can be a photographer’s friend. I’ve tucked one around my camera while shooting in bad weather. They also come in handy for wrapping leaky bottles, covering muddy shoes and wrapping items you want to protect in your purse or luggage.
Shoe mitt: You can usually find a soft flannel shoe mitt tucked on a shelf in the hotel room closet or wardrobe. The flannel pouches make a good jewelry keeper or a sunglasses case on-the-go.
Stationery. Some luxury hotels still provide stationery, although I’d love to know when the last guest sat down to write an actual letter. But I’ve used a hotel envelope to hold earrings and other small items so they wouldn’t get lost in my purse. The envelope is also handy for organizing all the receipts from your stay. Simply tuck them in and seal.
Laundry bag: In a pinch, the disposable plastic laundry bag hanging in the closet is perfect for wrapping a bottle of wine before you tuck it into your suitcase. I’ve also slipped my tall boots into the bag before packing them in my suitcase.
Soap: Not too long ago, I dressed for a meeting only to discover my jersey dress and my tights didn’t want to play nice. I was a staticky mess. I hadn’t packed any anti-static spray but I picked up a bar of soap and smoothed it over my tights. Like magic, the dress let go and I was static-free for the rest of the day.
Portions of this column previously appeared in INB Catalyst Magazine.
When my plane landed in Brussels in the spring of 2012, I was stupid and dazed from lack of sleep. I'd slept only a few hours in the last couple of days, having worked late into the night on Thursday and then pulled an all-nighter on Friday to get everything written and filed before my 6 a.m. departure Saturday morning.
Most people would have buckled up their seat belts and caught up on lost sleep during the long flights, but I have some kind of airplane insomnia. I find it almost impossible to stay asleep on a plane. It didn’t help that we flew over so much unsettled weather (tornadoes across the Midwest) that the flight was too bumpy to rest easy. I was still too keyed up to much more that doze on the international flight, waking at every movement of the passengers around me.
A couple of hours after I landed in Belgium on Sunday I took the train to the city of Ieper. I didn’t dare sleep on the train because I was afraid I would not wake up at my stop, so by the time I stepped off at the Ieper station, I was barely functioning. There were no taxis available so I studied the city map and then pulled my rolling suitcase behind me, bumping over cobblestones, as I made my way to the hotel. I slumped over a bowl of soup while I waited for my room to be ready and when I finally unlocked the door, I was finished.
I usually power through the first day in Europe to better adjust to the time change. This time I closed the door, stripped off the clothes I’d been wearing for more than 24-hours, crossed to the bed and collapsed. I didn’t wake up for 6 hours, and when I did, I was famished. Unfortunately, by that time most of the shops and cafes were closed.
As I walked up and down the narrow streets near the marketplace looking for a bodega or bistro with late hours, I thought about what drives us to go and see and explore, about what compels us to endure crowded, bumpy flights, grating security annoyances and the harsh physical effects of long-distance travel. But when I turned a corner and caught sight of the Menin Gate I realized, again, that the answer, as is so often the case, was right in front of me.
The Menin Gate is a massive monument to the more than 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the Great War (World War 1) but whose remains were never found. It sits on the edge of the city center and marks the route to the Belgian Western Front. Still, a century later, buglers from the local fire brigade mark the “last post” in a short but moving ceremony each night. A ceremony only interrupted by the Second World War.
The gate is striking in its simplicity and its size. At night, illuminated by spotlights, especially if it is your first glimpse, the gate is an arresting sight.
I was in Ieper because as the site of unimaginable devastation during the First World War, it is the epicenter of a period of history that illustrates, heartbreakingly so, the flawed and all-too-human story of our human history. It was something I needed to see.
Over the years I’ve had the same experience in so many other places around the world. Travel is exhausting. It eats at our resources and frequently requires us to step off the edge of our comfortable lives. And in that way travel changes us, sculpts us, enriches us in incomparable measures.
I guess the truth is we go because there is so much to see. And we don’t want to leave this world without having experienced as much of it as we possibly can. We go because there is nothing as powerful as standing in a place you've only read about before and opening your mind and heart to the lessons of history and time.
It early spring, when the Spokane River was a wild spectacle, swollen with snowmelt and spring rains, thundering over the jagged basalt falls, pouring through the deep canyon at the edge of downtown, I could not stay away. I kept going back to stand on one of the bridges or walk along the trail that follows the river’s path through the city.
Sunday morning was my favorite time. There were fewer people around and I usually parked and walked along the north bank of the river on the newest section of the Centennial Trail beneath the Monroe Street Bridge and through the Kendall Yards development.
At one point, near the base of the big bridge, the construction of the trail extension had left broken soil on both sides of the path, an open scar of freshly turned dirt, sprinkled with grass seed that had not yet sprouted. As I walked I noticed a few pieces of debris that had been exposed by a scraper or the year’s unusually heavy rains: shards of white crockery, pieces of old china decorated with roses and other flowery designs, bits of glass that had turned lavender from decades of exposure to the sun. I was intrigued. I bent to pick up one piece and then another, and for a while I forgot about the river. The more I looked, the more I found.
I remember reading somewhere that the riverbanks on either side of the bridge, and the bridges that were there before the current span was built in 1911, had been expanded with fill, dirt and detritus pushed over the edge, a practice that continued for decades. A good bit of it was probably the result of the 1889 fire that decimated the heart of the downtown district at that time.
Now, having been plowed and pushed and scraped, yet again, time was upended and the evidence of the city’s human past was exposed revealing old patent medicine bottles, dishes that had broken and been discarded, tiles from houses and buildings.
Knowing that in a few weeks, with the return of warm weather, the grass would grow quickly and obscure this mosaic of the ordinary lives of the men, women and children who upon which the future had been built, I went back as often as I could. Not with a shovel or an eye for any kind of treasure, just to walk with my head bent and my eyes on the ground at my feet. Sure enough, once the grass grew thick and green, the bits and pieces disappeared.
The river in summer is more docile so I’m not there as often. But when I do walk the trail these days I am more aware of what is under my feet, that with every step I am walking on the hidden traces of other lives and other times.
Travel seems to get more complicated every year. With all the new TSA requirements, confusing flight options and fares, crowded airports and seasonal weather cancellations, it can be hard to keep up and stay on track.
Fortunately, the list of iPhone and Android applications is constantly expanding. In addition to my preferred air carrier options (Delta, Alaska Airlines, etc.) I depend on certain apps to keep me on time and on the go.
Here is a short list of popular travel apps including a few of my favorites:
Tripit: (iPhone and Android) This is my personal favorite. Tripit automatically creates an itinerary with flight confirmation numbers, airport terminal gates and hotel addresses. It also syncs to your calendar and you can share your itinerary with friends and family. Basic service is free. I opted to upgrade to the premium service and it's been worth it.
GateGuru: (iPhone and Android) This handy worldwide app provides airport guides and listings for restaurants, shops, shoe shine kiosks, spas, lounges, A.T.M. service and free Wi-Fi.. www.gateguru.com
FlightStats (iPhone and Android.) FlightStats’ live flight tracking app lets you access realtime status of worldwide flights by flight number, airport or route. The app also updates weather conditions.
Uber: With service available in more than 100 cities, including Spokane, Uber lets you order a car, gives you an arrival estimate and then notifies you by text when you’re car is on its way. Uber is a no-cash service, using credit cards only.
Kayak: Listing most major airlines, Kayak is my go-to app for searching for flights and fares and allows me to search for cheaper days to travel.
CheckMate for Travel (iPhone) CheckMate is a relative new app that allows you to check in to your hotel from your smartphone. You’ll get a call when the room is ready so all you need to do is stop by the desk and pick up your key.
MyRadar (iPhone and Android ) MyRadar provides realtime weather and radar displays enabling you to see weather that is coming your way that might impact flights and airline schedules.
Planning for two days in New York—including a night at the theater and a lot of sightseeing—a 7-day transatlantic cruise on the Queen Mary 2 with at least two formal nights, and then another three days hoofing it around London before flying back home, made packing—especially in a small suitcase—a challenge. I had to pack a gown and cocktail dress for the ship’s formal nights, a raincoat for the changeable English weather, and the right combination of comfortable shoes and clothing for a variety of situations. And I was determined to fit it all into my 21-inch Travelpro carry-on bag.
Having chased lost luggage on a multiple-destination trip before, I’ve become wary of checking my bag, especially when I’m going to be on a cruise and my shopping options to replace lost clothing will be limited.
Fortunately, I've figured out a packing system that lets me get a lot in a small bag.
Here’s what I took along: One evening gown, one cocktail dress, two pair of black microfiber slacks (hand-washable,) one linen blazer (also hand-washable) five blouses, two long sleeve t-shirts, one lightweight cashmere sweater, a raincoat and tiny umbrella, a lightweight fleece, yoga pants, and PJs. I added a folding tote bag and a compression bag to create space for any souvenirs I wanted to bring home.
Here’s how I did it:
Hang Ups: My dresses, including the evening gown, are jersey. They can be rolled tightly in my suitcase but after hanging a few hours and a spritz of Downy Wrinkle Releaser be ready to wear when the occasion arises. I don’t know how the wrinkle releaser works, it just does. I keep a travel-size spray bottle in my kit. The shirts were packed fresh from the dry cleaners, still in the thin plastic bag which prevents wrinkles.
Cube Control: Everything is sorted into Eagle Creek packing cubes (purchased at REI) which make living out of a suitcase easier. I know right where to look for what I need, no need for digging through a messy suitcase. On the ship I put the dresses, blouses and slacks on hangers in the closet and put the rest of the cubes on the closet shelves for both privacy and organization.
Happy Feet: The right shoes can make or break a trip. I brought along one pair of dressy heels, my black Clark’s booties (the best travel shoes I’ve ever owned,) one pair of day-to-evening black flats, and one pair of lightweight Ecco slip-on walking shoes.
The Little Things: My makeup, lotions and toiletries were all separated into see-through mesh pouches. My petite travel flatiron (for taming my hair in the humidity) comes in its own travel pouch. Since my clothes are usually neutral—black plants and white or beige shirts- and a natural linen blazer for summer-I always pack five or six folded silk scarves in a plastic zip bag. This lets me add color to my wardrobe without any additional weight.
Tools of My Trade: I usually travel with my laptop, and/or my iPad, my iPhone and a camera (sometimes two cameras.) All the various chargers, cords, batteries and accessories are sorted into more see-through mesh bags and everything (including my purse, to meet the “two pieces only” airline carry-on regulations) goes into a lightweight rolling backpack.
As it turned out, I had everything I needed for the two-week trip, but was still well under the luggage weight and size limit. My husband had no qualms about checking a bag so (full disclosure) I knew I had room to expand if absolutely necessary, but I’m proud to say I was able to make my small-bag system work.
Note: New airline carry-on luggage size restrictions went into effect this spring. To avoid having to check your bag, be sure it does not exceed a maximum of 14 inches wide by 22 inches high by 9 inches deep.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a Spokane-based travel writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
After our June transatlantic crossing on the Cunard Queen Mary 2, we spent an additional three days in London before flying back to Spokane. That’s not a lot of time in one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities, but with a map, a plan, and a good pair of walking shoes, it’s enough time to make wonderful memories.
Make the Most of Every Minute
After leaving the ship in Southampton, we arrived at Victoria Station coach depot around noon and walked around the corner to catch the train to our Kensington hotel. Since we were there just days before Wimbledon, rooms were in short supply and rates were high. Knowing we wouldn’t be spending much time at the hotel, and not willing to pay a premium price for a luxury hotel, we’d booked a room at the Holiday Inn Forum in South Kensington.
After checking in (we got lucky and a room was ready so we could take a minute to freshen up) we dropped our bags and we were on our way.
Here are a few ways we made the most of a short stay:
The Pedestrian Route
Since we were in the neighborhood, our first stop was Kensington Palace. We had already decided most of our time in the city would be spent at major museums so we passed on the formal palace tour and spent an hour exploring the gardens, ponds, meadows and pathways surrounding the home of Will, Kate and little Prince George as we made our way across town. It was a warm day and at every turn we found people luxuriating in the sun. Children chased ducks, couples dozed on blankets and pedestrian commuters strode past us briefcase in hand.
From there we made our way through the park toward the heart of the city, past ice-cream trucks and pony clubs trotting on bridal paths, eventually landing at the National Gallery’s weekly extended hours evening. London is home to some of the best museums in the world and most are free and, like the National Gallery, have extended hours at least one evening each week. This gives you added flexibility if, like us, you’re trying to see as much as possible in a short amount of time.
Happy Hour at the Pub
London is expensive and dining out can make a big dent in your budget. Since we were planning to be on the move most of the day, we opted for starting the day with a full breakfast—including a made-to-order omelet—at the hotel’s buffet (included in the hotel reservation package,) skipping lunch and then stopping to eat and rest our tired feet at around 5p.m. After walking miles each day we were more than happy to sit down to a pint and a plate of cheese, pickles, chips and sausages at Happy Hour. It still wasn’t cheap but was certainly less expensive than a restaurant meal on a busy weekend and we took advantage of sidewalk seating to soak up the ambiance while we drained our glass.
The Oyster is a Pearl
We did a lot of walking but sometimes you need a faster way to get around. My travel agent suggested an Oyster Card and it was a smart move. The pre-paid transit card is the fastest and most efficient way to access the Underground and allows you to move quickly and safely from one place to another. It’s easy to monitor the balance on your card and to add more money at kiosks at each Underground station.
Take the London Pass
The pre-paid London Pass lets you skip the long line at ticket booths at some of the premier attractions ( Including the London Tower, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey and more.) Each pass is good for two days after the first use so we activated ours the morning of the second day—our first full day in the city. (There’s free WiFi at the London Pass ticket kiosk on Charring Cross road!)
At the end of our whirlwind tour of London we were exhausted but satisfied we’d seen as much as we could in such a short time. We’d watch the guards change, admired beautiful works of art and architecture and stood in the places where world history was made. After one last stroll across the Thames, a cone of Mr Whippy soft-serve ice-cream in hand, we watched the sunset paint the sky over Big Ben. We had a plane to catch in the morning but we were already working on another list of things to see and do on the next trip over.
This time of year there are a lot of people wandering around Tuscany, tasting wine in the hot Italian sun. And just as many snapping photos of the beautiful lavender fields in Provence, France. While I can’t be at either of those places at the moment, I do have a favorite destination just a few hours away that will give me both experiences.
Woodinville, Washington, is just 25 minutes from Seattle but the small town stands large in the burgeoning Washington wine community. With more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms it’s possible to taste the best of the state without traveling more than a few miles. And right now, through the month of August, during the height of the lavender season, you can book a stay at Willows Lodge that lets you add a bit of aroma therapy and agritourism to your wine-tasting experience.
In the seasonal Lavender Harvest package, Willows Lodge will take you to the nearby Woodinville Lavender’s beautiful field where you can help cut and bundle the fragrant blooms. While there you can pick up tips on growing your own lavender, watch a demonstration of the oil-distilling process and sample the farm’s unique scented and edible products. When you’re done the lodge will bring you home to soak in a lavender-scented bath.
While the summer concerts at Chateau Ste. Michelle always draw a crowd, more and more people from this side of the Cascade Range are starting to add the small town to the schedule as they drive to and from Seattle. It’s worth a stop any time of year, but the Willows Lodge Lavender Harvest package is an incentive to spend a night or two right now, enjoy the spa and a meal at The Barking Frog, and bring home the fragrance of Provence.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap can be reached at email@example.com
If I told you I’d gone to the city to see a few shows, listen to some impressive live music, catch a cutting-edge film festival, spend time in world-class museums, and chow down on an astonishingly diverse and multicultural dining scene including Cuban, Ethiopian, Mexican, Italian, Asian and Turkish food, you’d probably assume I was talking about a big city. Somewhere like Chicago or Seattle or New York.
Ann Arbor, with a population of around 116,000 and home to sports and academic powerhouse, University of Michigan, rivals big urban destinations in terms of food, entertainment, and culture.
I spent a few days looking, tasting, and exploring. Here’s a roundup of my favorites:
Feed Your Mind
Ann Arbor boasts a number of superior museums. The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) offers an impressive collection of fine art and artifacts. Two of my favorite pieces were the Samurai armor in the Asian collection and John Stanley’s “Mt. Hood from the Dalles”, a beautiful landscape painted in 1871 with an iconic view of Mt. Hood from the Columbia River.
Another fascinating stop is the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This state-of-the-art facility, housed in an exquisite Victorian-era Romanesque building complete with turret and Tiffany window, is centered around the late-19th Century and early-20th Century collection of it’s namesake, Francis Kelsey. Some highlights of the more than 100,000 artifacts include Roman glassware, Egyptian masks, and an elaborate sarcophagus. The coffin’s owner, the missing Mummy Djehutymose, has his own popular Twitter feed and Facebook page.
The nearby Gerald Ford Library Museum and archives is also worth a visit. Primarily a holding place for more than 25 million pages of historical documents pertaining to Ford’s political career and the Cold War era, the center offers an intriguing view of the man, including the story of Ford’s birth and childhood.
Taste the World
My first meal in Ann Arbor, a Cuban burger and batida ( a frozen concoction of mango, pinaeapple, scoop of ice cream and a splash of dark rum) and a basket of what may be the best fries I’ve ever tasted, at Frita Batidas, set the tone for the rest of the week. Everything was delicious and often unexpected. Some of my other favorites were the Ethiopian Injera (soft bread) and Gomen (collard greens cooked with spices, onions and jalapeno peppers) at Blue Nile and lamb-stuffed grape leaves and cold vegetable salads at Ayse’s Turkish Cafe. Of course, no visit to Ann Arbor counts unless you stop by world-famous Zingerman’s Deli. For beer lovers, there are a growing number of microbreweries in the area and you won’t regret a day spent tasting local brews.
Football may draw the crowds in the fall, but Ann Arbor hosts large events throughout the year. Seasonal favorites include the winter Folk Festival, a springtime FestiFools puppetry and public art festival, and a three-week summer festival with art, music, food, and film.
The number of antiques, collectibles and vintage shops within walking distance of Main Street was a nice surprise. Treasure Mart, in the Kerrytown area near the farmer’s market and Zingerman’s Deli, is a rambling historic building full of all kinds of interesting things. Some of the rooms are decorated and arranged like an antiques mall, others are crammed with goodies strewn on tabletops or piled in corners just waiting to be discovered.
Located in the Nickles Arcade, a 1918 covered passage lined with unique shops that make the place feel like a bit of Paris in the mid-west, The Arcadian antiques is a jewel box. Crystal and china line the shelves and the store stocks fine antique furniture, but the highlight is a collection of beautiful estate jewelry. I watched a couple shop for wedding rings, trying to choose from trays of lovely old diamonds and gemstones.
I did a lot of window shopping but I didn’t come home empty-handed. At Antelope Antiques and Coins, a funky store on the lower level of a downtown building. I plucked an autographed photo of Woody Herman ($10) out of a box of old photos and postcards, and did a little happy dance when I found a Waterford goblet in my (somewhat obscure) “Kylemore” pattern, for only $15.
Like most travelers, I have a fantasy “I could live here” list in my head made up of places I’ve been and couldn’t forget. After this first visit, Ann Arbor moved to the top of the list. A robust arts scene, a vibrant main street, an energetic farm-to-table movement and a cosmopolitan foodie-friendly ethos, paired with a dedication to preserving the past, makes Ann Arbor, Michigan hard to resist.
After I’ve run the security gauntlet, after I’ve shown my ID, after I’ve exposed the contents of my bag to whoever is manning the scanner, after I’ve emptied my pockets and made my way through, the world shrinks to the faces and voices I hear in the airport.
An airport is a collection of every kind of human and there is no better place for watching people. The strangers in the crowd are rich, poor, kind, crude, happy and unhappy. They are young. They are old. They sprint down the concourse or they ride in chairs pushed by others. We all hurry and we all wait. We move forward and stand in line. Some speak languages I don’t understand, but at that moment we all have one thing in common: We are all trying to get from here to there.
I stop to buy some fruit for breakfast and beside me a man sits hunched over the bar, his overnight bag at his feet. His face is strained and his mind is far away and I wonder if more than his drink is on the rocks.
As I walk past the “spa” another man stares off into the distance as he massages the neck of one more anonymous passenger who’s bought a little time in the chair. He is a robot with strong, warm, hands.
I find an empty gate and stop to charge my phone before I depart. A few rows away a pilot, his luggage piled beside him, is talking on the phone and after a few minutes I realize he’s talking to his wife and they are discussing the terms of their upcoming divorce. His voice is thick with anger and pain and, embarrassed to have stumbled into the scene, I unplug my phone and move on.
When my flight is called, people immediately crowd the gate, jockeying for position too early, dragging heavy bags behind them, anxious to get on the plane as quickly as possible before all the overhead bin space is filled. One couple works as a team. She edges forward, slipping between people who are distracted by last-minute emails or texts, their attention on their iPhones instead of what is going on around them. Once she’s in place she motions for him and he slides in beside her. Another mans silently gauges the diligence of the gate agent and I see him decide to slip into the priority line, hoping the harried agent won’t notice. She doesn’t.
On the plane two elderly women, their white hair permed, pink scalp showing between the tight curls, settle into their seats and, delighted to have an empty seat between them, forget we haven’t even taken off. They drop the middle seat-back tray and set up the picnic they’ve brought along, just like they’re on a train. They pull out sandwiches brought from home, wrapped in aluminum foil and tucked into folded paper plates, then settle back into their seats. Moments later the flight attendant comes by, sees what they’ve done, and gently—like she’s speaking to her own grandmother—tells them the tray must be up for takeoff. They’re embarrassed and hurriedly put everything away but something in me responds to their sweetness, their homemade picnic and the gentle way they do as their told.
Once all passengers are on board, just before they close the doors, a woman tries to switch to an empty seat a few rows up but it’s in an upgrade section and the flight attendants won’t let her. “It wouldn’t be fair to those who paid extra to sit there,” they tell her. The woman goes back to her assigned seat, with a few less inches of legroom, and turns away to look out the window.
Sometime during the flight we pass over the Rockies and the air becomes rough. The man across the aisle smooths his palms over his knees again and again in a soothing motion. His face shows nothing but his hands keep moving until the worst is over. I wonder what he would do if I reached out and covered his hand with mine, the way I would do with one of my children.
The women eat their picnic.
When we land everyone jumps up and starts dragging bags out of the bins, piling them into the aisles and around their feet, anxious to get away, to be part of the prisoner exchange that happens each time a plane rolls up to a gate.
It’s like a movie. All hours of the day, in airports around the world, the scenes are repeated as passengers file in and passengers file out. Each of us carries more than a bag, more than a boarding pass. We all bear the invisible weight of a story.
A man and this three sons, each holding an ice-cream cone, lunged forward like the wind had reached out and given them each a shove. The youngest—maybe four years old, definitely no more than 5—was so full of big news he didn’t care that he didn’t know me.
He ran up to me and said, “We saw the tail of a whale!”
I was impressed. We’d left Seattle the afternoon before and it was just the first morning of our Alaska cruise.
“Is this true?” I asked his father. “Or is this just a whale of a tale?”
The man laughed and said it was true. They’d been walking along the deck when the whale popped up and showed his fluke, his whale tail, before disappearing back into the sea.
The little boy couldn’t contain himself.
“The whale breathed up (his arms shot up in the air and the ice-cream wobbled on its cone) “and then he dived down like this” (he scooped his free hand up and then down) “and then his tail came up!”
As an afterthought he added, “Daddy let us have ice cream for breakfast.
Wow. A wave from a whale and an ice cream cone for breakfast. The little boy had just described my perfect day.
I asked the man if this was their first Alaska cruise and he said it was. He said they live in Texas and they’d come to see Alaska. And whales. They really wanted to see whales and here, just a day into the trip, they’d already had their own private show.
Several years ago, after my first cruise up the Inside Passage, I decided I want to make the trip every summer. For the rest of my life, if I can swing it. No two Alaska cruises are ever the same. People from around the world plan and save for years and travel a lot of miles to get there. But living in the Northwest, we’re already halfway there. It’s easy to get on a ship in Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, to spend a week looking at some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
I’m working on my Alaska-every-summer plan. This year I was solo but in the company of people of all ages: men, women and children—(lots of children) and large family groups, all ready to go see the sights. And we were off to a good start.
The boy’s happiness was contagious. I looked at my watch. It was still early, they’d be serving breakfast for another couple of hours… I filled a cone with vanilla ice cream and stepped out onto the deck. The wind whipped my hair as I licked the cone and swept my eyes across the horizon.
I’d already decided it wasn’t going to take much to turn this into a perfect day. I had my ice cream cone. Now all I needed was a glimpse of the tail of a whale.
And like the little boy, I didn’t have to wait long at all.
Our crossing. Such an elegant phrase. Even today, in an age of mass travel, it perfectly captures the tradition of boarding a big luxurious ocean liner and sailing across the Atlantic. Before we catapulted from one continent to another, we crossed. And the phrase still brings to mind the golden age of travel, of movie stars and royalty transiting in comfort and style, of ordinary men and women sailing toward new lives.
I just made my first crossing from New York to Southampton aboard the Cunard flagship the Queen Mary 2, and I’m afraid it has forever changed the way I will look at travel. I’m not sure I can go back to the hurry-wait-hurry circus of modern air travel without a deep longing to sail again.
When we walked up the gangplank onto the beautiful ship and settled into our stateroom, the experience was nothing like most trips overseas. Security was tight but it was unobtrusive and gentle. The soft strains of classical music soothed us and we joined the other guests on the top deck to toast the Statue of Liberty as we sailed out of the harbor.
During the sailing the first thing we discovered, as we were surrounded by art, beautiful architecture and an understated but sophisticated decor, was that the greatest luxury was time. Every minute belonged to us. We woke without an alarm and went to bed when we felt like it.
Truly relaxed for the first time in months, our days, unbroken by ports of call, were spent walking the promenade deck, listening to the speakers brought on board or watching the afternoon movie. There was even an onboard planetarium. A planetarium.
At night there was more music, more theater, more movies.
Another luxury was space. We weren’t fighting for legroom in a crowded plane. We had room to roam and breathe. Every day we discovered another quiet corner, another comfortable chair in front of a window. We spent hours in the library located at the front of the ship, surrounded by thousands of books in rows of glass-front shelves. We browsed titles, and caught up on our reading.
We hadn’t known it when we booked our trip, but director Wes Anderson was also on board, accompanied by some of the actors that regularly appear in his movies. Tilda Swinton, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman joined Anderson on stage each afternoon to talk about one of his movies and then screen it for us. I can’t imagine having that kind of opportunity anywhere else. When not in the theater they were passengers like us, strolling the promenade deck, taking photos of the sunset, sipping tea in the lounge.
There was a time when travel was graceful and calm, but today that kind of experience is heartbreakingly uncommon. It is rare to find yourself in a situation where the journey is the experience. Or, at the very least, as much a part of the experience as the destination. But that’s exactly what we had on our time on the Queen Mary 2.
We didn’t just take a trip. We weren’t catapulted across the sea. We crossed and it was grand.
When I was asked to write the Eastern Washington feature for last month's Alaska Airlines Magazine's annual Washington section, I was given only one note: Show us what you like best.
I wish all assignments were that easy. I ran out of space long before I ran out of words to describe this beautiful part of the state
I opened with one of my favorite things to do: standing on a pedestrian bridge over the Spokane River watching Spokane, the state's second-largest city, wake up and come to life on a summer day. I wrote about the beautiful Palouse, the wine and arts culture in Walla Walla and the magnificent landscape of the Columbia River. I crisscrossed the region from the Tri-Cities to the Colville National Forest.
I got a lot of emails from local flyers who'd seen the piece. If you'd like to read it, you can access the annual Alaska Airlines Washington State feature here. The Eastern Washington feature begins on page 38