9.18.2017

Lack of Communication: A Travel Writer’s Frustration With United Airlines.


So, I'm a travel writer.  I've written for Forbes Travel guides, I’m the author of five travel books (Moon, Reedy Press), and was one of the travel writers for the Santa Barbara News Press. The point is that I travel frequently - domestically and internationally - so I understand delays, occasional lost luggage, mechanical and computer malfunctions, and other odd delays like the time an airline literally forgot to put gas in the plane. And as a travel writer, I’m also a writer, so I understand deadlines, specificity, communication, and details.

I’m flying out of San Francisco to go home in April, 2017. On the way to the airport I get a text that my flight on United Airlines is delayed. What began to unravel at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) with United was nothing less than mystifying, and it’s all about communication, or rather United’s lack of it.


Once at my gate began a series of gate changes and delays. But it wasn’t just my flight. It was 70% of all United’s flights that Sunday. You can see in the photo I took of the monitor the most egregious was the 4-hour delay for the poor folks trying to get to Salt Lake City - and 10 of the 14 flights shown in the photo were delayed. The gate agents were unhelpful in supplying information for people in the United Terminal. As is my usual custom, I turned to Twitter expressing frustration specifically that my wife was leaving town the day after I was to get back from San Francisco and I was bummed to now have less time with her.

Replying to @michaelcervin
We certainly do not mean to keep you waiting. We completely understand how frustrating delays are.
7:32 PM - 30 Apr 2017

Oh, thank you, United. Glad you “understand.” But as is my nature, I’m curious as to why so many flights were delayed and why we were not notified earlier. I find out that SFO was repaving their landing strips. Huh. I guess that needs to be done, never thought about it before. So I contacted SFO inquiring about when all this planning to shut down various landing strips began. A very nice man named Doug Yakel, Public Information Officer, Marketing & Communications at SFO, wrote me back.
“Runway 28L. We have been meeting with our airlines since summer 2016 to discuss the project and make a collaborative decision on when to conduct the closure. The consensus from the team was that the weekend was the preferred time, as many airlines have reduced flight schedules on Saturdays and Sunday mornings. On our end, we’ve used press releases, the dedicated page on our website, and social media to get the word out.”

So…summer 2016, it’s now April, 2017. Not to mention my flight was Sunday night. Disconnect. United had lots of time to communicate with their passengers given they knew when the delays were coming. Did they tell anyone? No. Had I been aware, and certainly everyone else who was delayed, we could have adjusted our schedules so as to not waste time at SFO. But United didn’t care about communicating with their consumers.


(As a side note I tried getting on another United flight to home but Mr. Arrogant Gate Agent would not allow me to move to a different plane, even though there were seats – no, he wanted to charge me a $75 “change fee,” this in spite of the fact that I didn’t cause the delay, seats were available and United clearly was not focused on helping their passengers get to their destinations!)

To be fair, United’s website did offer this disclaimer, buried deep where few would find it:  San Francisco runway construction: Customers traveling through San Francisco International (SFO) may experience flight delays and gate changes through the summer due to runway construction work. We encourage you to check your flight status and gate number for any changes, and allow extra time for any flight connections. For more information, please visit FlySFO.”

But do you look for hidden info on an airline website? Probably not, yet they clearly could have forwarded that information based on ticket purchases and flight times. But no. United felt it was not an important issue to effectively communicate on. And this is where United fails. Sure, other airlines fail too, but United has had a crappy year, as Forbes recently reported:  Who wasn’t perplexed by the long list of recent PR debacles committed by United Airlines? First there was the strange situation of barring two girls wearing leggings, next the forcible removal of a paying passenger, then like a sequel to the movie “Snakes on a Plane,” except this time (in real life) a man was stung by a scorpion while in-flight, next an unhappy Easter surprise when a healthy prize-winning bunny died upon landing, and to top it off – a real emergency when an engine blew out mid-flight. What a string of PR nightmares!

Sure, people will still fly United because it’s cheaper, but that strategy will only work for so long before the public turns against United in tangible ways. Bottom line, United Airlines? You. Need. To. Communicate. Better. Starting now.



6.19.2017

Images of UKRAINE


I visited Ukraine in May of 2017, mainly to visit vodka and brandy producers for several global wines and spirits magazines. However, like anywhere I travel, I get a chance to explore, mainly with my camera. So here are images of Ukraine, covering an amazing diversity of an amazingly diverse country.
 FIRST STOP: ODESSA
Ukrainian money is pretty cool and colorful, and it's rather inexpensive to visit. The exchange rate for the US dollar is about 26 to 1. What does that mean? I had a Heineken for 75 cents. Full dinners about $15.
  

There are churches and chapels everywhere. I popped inside this one to get a feel for it, while the carnival happened across the street. Click this link for a 20 second video from inside! https://www.facebook.com/michael.cervin.1/videos/1418833068177610/
 The M1 Club Hotel located on the Black Sea. Good place to stay.





3.04.2017

Tidal Bores, Trains & Tatamagouche: Navigating Nova Scotia


These boats will soon be buoyed by the Bay of Fundy
NovaScotia is linked inexorably to the sea and water defines this easternmost province of Canada. Located east of Maine, Halifax is the capital and is easily accessed by major airlines and the whole of the province is a great vacation idea as they have come into their own with a thriving culinary scene, wineries, micro-breweries, an impressive arts community, and a strong fishing heritage. Halifax is also the resting place for 150 souls who perished on the Titanic, buried in three cemeteries near the city center, including J.F.P. Clarke, the bass player from Titanic’s band.

Water, Water Everywhere
The Bay of Fundy is the most dominate water force that bears down upon Nova Scotia, one inch at a time. It is here where the world’s highest tides have been recorded and where they create a natural daily phenomenon. Given the Bay of Fundy’s location, the gravitational pull of the moon, and the natural order of things, this area claims incoming and outgoing tides of over 25 feet each and every day – boats rest on land inly to be fill fully afloat when the water rises. Visible stretches of ground are covered with water even as you watch water levels rise before your eyes, and birds cling to exposed rocks only to be forced alight in minutes. 

Nowhere is this better expressed than at the Tidal Bore Rafting Park along the Shubenacadie River, a two-hour drive from Halifax. At first it seems like a feeble marketing claim, “tidal bore rafting,” and frankly how much fun can it be since you’re not really rafting at all? An inflatable Zodiac with a 60 horsepower engine takes you up river. Well, ‘river’ in this case also appears misleading, as what you see on the Shubenacadie is shallow and muddy. Yes, the geology is beautiful and you can clearly see high water marks along the shore, but it seems impossible the water can reach that high. There are bald eagles all along the river, 75 to 100 of them and though you won’t see that many, you will easily spot at least three or four. At one point our guide jumps into the river to demonstrate that the water is only waist high, and on one occasion the motor got stuck with mud, it’s that shallow. You’ll be taken into a massive mud flat and will get out of the boat still unsure of what the fuss is all about. Then, in the distance, you see a small wave coming towards you, a mild little thing, which seems to pack all the power of a ripple in your bathtub. It’s generated as the tides rise into the Bay of Fundy and work their way up river. The call to get back in the boats means the water is fast approaching and as it gets closer you can see it more clearly, though it’s still unimpressive. But within 10 minutes the mud flat is engulfed in water and the rush of the incoming tide gains strength and power. It is the collision of the river running out to sea and the seawater running up river, which becomes a stunning experience. 
The singular force of these two bodies of water forced through the narrow canyon slamming into each other creates waves of eight, ten feet, and even higher. We grab on to the side ropes on the Zodiac as instructed and plunge head first into the “washing machine,” a spot of consistent waves that crash upon us, one after the other, sheets of muddy water pummeling us mercilessly. We grab a breath in between sheets of water cascading down, get tossed about but manage to hold our own. As we finish, drenched and pitiful-looking as a bathed cat, we look down at the Zodiac which is filled with water and in that brief moment, we wonder: where’s the boat, are we going to sink? The motor kicks on and the force hoists the front of the Zodiac out of the water and the excess water drains out the back. We sigh, then turn around and head purposefully into another series of waves that push, force and smack us around, and we laugh and joke and realize this is hard core fun. This is not for the timid: you will be soaked from head to foot with ochre-colored water and it will stain your clothes, you’ll probably be sore the next day, but you will have had a totally unique experience.

At the Train Station Inn, north of the Shubenacadie, whimsical meets clever at Tatamagouche. The inn began in an old brick railroad station from 1887 and it’s still intact with a few rooms upstairs as well as a gift shop and breakfast area, all peppered with train memorabilia. But the quaint brick building soon became the lesser sibling when James LaFresne assembled 7 cabooses, all sitting on their rails and retrofitted them into accommodations. The rooms have TVs, coffee makers, a fridge and bathrooms and they are fun, and if the rails are a source of inspiration, or if the romance of a bygone era is appealing, or you simply want to spend the night in something completely different, then you’ll be ideally situated to visit here You can dine in a 1928 dining car, sleep in a box car, and wake up like a well nourished vagabond.

12.15.2016

5 Sure-Fire Tips To Help You Travel Like An Idiot


Want to travel but hate the inconvenience of dealing with other countries, their customs and language, their people and their stupid laws? This easy-to-use guide will insure you can be left alone while you travel the world exactly as you see fit.

I would never have discovered this wine!
TIP #1—Always eat and drink things you’re 100% familiar with. New foods, weird-o spices, unpronounceable ingredients? Nah, that’s a waste! Only order foods you’ve had a 1,000 times before so there’s no chance of accidentally trying anything new.
OR – When I was staying at Fairmont Montreux Palace in Switzerland I was having dinner and ordered the local duck, which came with local veggies and had a glass of wine from La Cote, a wine region near Geneva. The guy next to me, clearly an American, ordered a chicken Caesar Salad and a Heineken. Seriously, why would you prefer the mediocre to the regional food/wine/beer/coffee, etc. of the very place you’re visiting? It doesn’t mean you’ll always like it, but your palate needs new experiences too.







At the Great Wall: nǐ hǎo.
TIP #2—Never learn to greet anyone in his or her own language. Learn a few words in the country you’re visiting? Way too hard. Speak exclusively your language. That way you always understand, at least, yourself.
OR – Learn a basic greeting and how to say thank you. It opens doors, shows respect for other people and makes you cool. When I was walking the Great Wall in China I routinely said hello to people in Chinese – very simple – but very effective and if nothing else, people smiled at me and greeted me back, making my experience all the more rich.






Out of the way Moai
TIP #3—Only stick with the obvious tourist attractions. Getting off the beaten path is no doubt the surest way to get beaten up, right? Side trips are for sissies – stay with the crowds.
OR-While on Easter Island I certainly visited the main moai attractions, but I also had rented a car and seen nearly all the moai on the island because I sought them out, including several that were rarely visited, including this one near a small harbor, far from the center of town. Listed on the map? Nope.






The serene beauty of morning at Vina Vik

TIP #4—Immerse yourself in your iPhone, ear buds and laptop. There’s no need to ever look up from a travel app or unplug from your virtual world because you might miss something, right?
OR—Lose the electronics in favor of authentic experiences. On a visit to Vina Vik, a very cool boutique winery/hotel two hours south of Santiago Chile, I took a morning hike over trails on its 11,000 acres. As this pix suggests, I would not have been so captivated by the morning sun penetrating the fog if I was listening to music. Instead I heard the birds, saw the sunrise and watched the distant snow capped Andes open up before me.

Austria's pristine beauty
TIP #5 – Treat public places, parks and wildlife refuge areas like it’s your very own back yard - a place to dump everything you don’t want.
OR – Cultivate a respect for the natural world since that’s probably why you’re visiting a city or country in the first place. When I was in Austria, it was clear the people there have a profound respect for their natural surroundings, taking great pain to keep it clean. Since we humans are at the top of the food chain, it is our responsibility and obligation to treat the other animals on this planet with respect, including the natural world around us. The more you see yourself as a part of the world rather than the focus of it, your life will be much better, and so everyone else’s.




11.14.2016

Solage Resort - Wine, Water and Wappos


Hot springs, Wappo Indians, Spanish Missionaries, wine – it’s all part of Calistoga’s history. Located in the upper end of the Napa Valley the town has long been a resort destination and Solage Resort is nearly synonymous with Calistoga.

 

The first health resort opened in 1862 and today there are more than a dozen, of which Solage is one of the premier resorts. Before Solage became Solage, it was 22 acres of horse pasture -inauspicious beginnings at best, but the current appeal of Solage is its proximity to charming Calistoga and the surrounding leafy green vineyards. Solage has also won a bunch of travel awards not to mention their excellent restaurant, Solbar, a seven-time Michelin Star-rated restaurant.

Solage has the feel of an organically grown resort. Rooms are set up as adjoining cottages surrounding an open green space, and each room has its own patio and rock wall shower, local coffee in your room was roasted down the street. Each room also offers bicycles for your own use like the 6-minute pedal into Calistoga, or just cruising along the Silverado Trail past historic vineyards. Solage also offers daily complementary classes from Pilates to meditation, spinning, and yoga, and a host of other wellness and fitness classes for a fee. There are two bocce ball courts, and two outdoor swimming pools - both heated to 98° - along with a decked out fitness room.

Me, Mudsliding
But folks come for the spa. Given this is Calistoga, known for their geo-thermal waters (and the smaller, much less well-known Old Faithful geyser) Solage has capitalized on water; heck, even the Wappos had typically one or two sweat lodges in each village around the Napa Valley to take advantage of the local waters. The Solage Spa takes full advantage of this in offering a variety of treatments of which the Mudslide is the most well known. I’m not a spa kind of guy – I get antsy with things - like this but the Mudslide was a very cool experience. There are single and double rooms available so you can do treatments solo or as a couple. The Mudslide is a detox treatment beginning with a mix of volcanic ash and South American mud, mixed specifically for you depending which of the four essential oils you want added to your mud. Those include the Stress Relief with lavender, tangerine, bergamot and geranium; the Revitalizer with spearmint, honey, sandalwood and lime; the Mood Enhancer with orange, mimosa, rose to the Muscle Soother with birch, eucalyptus, rosemary and ginger. 
Once the mix is made you are lead to a room to self-apply the mud and let the detox begin its work. This is a 20-minute process and after the mud is slathered on you it's time to relax in the 104-degree warmth. Then you shower it off and head next to the mineral soak - 10 minutes sitting inside a tub filled with geothermal water from the on-site well to rehydrate you as the mud mix dries out your skin. After that it’s the power nap, about 20 minutes, wrapped in a comforter in a zero gravity chair. But this not just any recliner. Music is piped in through noise canceling headphones (yes, put them on) but is also fed through the chair itself so that you can feel the vibrations of the music resonating through the chair. If you fall asleep you wake up feeling great. If you merely relax the vibrations of the music and the chair is a very cool sensory experience. 
Sound appealing? As a non-spa guy, yes. Yes it is.
Ballooning over Calistoga!
Solage was designed to be the truest expression of a health resort, devoid of artificial experiences. You don't have to be healthy and fit to stay here, - hell, I’m not - and it's not all Lulu Lemon, Birkenstocks and Namaste greetings. It is a modern wellness retreat patterned after its European counterparts (my article on an Austria wellness resort is HERE) and succeeds in offering a counterpoint to a stressful world.

Nearby Visits:
Bennett Lane Winery for killer Cabernet Sauvignon
Cliff Lede Winery for wine and art
Calistoga Balloon for amber-hued sunrise flights over the Valley
Sam’s Social Club for a jumping, hip food spot.
Fresh pressed Cabernet at Bennett Lane Winery


10.02.2016

The Middle of Somewhere – Of Wine, Virginia, and Red Fox


First off, no, this is not about Redd Foxx.
Second - I grew up in California where I still frequent Musso & Frank Grill, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, having first opened in 1919. So when I'm on the east coast I try and look for restaurants that also have longevity. There’s something unique and very cool about eating at the same place that people have eaten at for hundreds of years; a connection to our collective past by way of a gathering place of food and drink. I have dined at places like Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria (started in 1770) and Sobrino de Botin, the oldest restaurant in Madrid, Spain (1725), and the amazingly cool Berggasthaus Ascher in Switzerland (1840s), tucked into a rock in the Alps. So when I was recently in Virginia I knew there would be compelling choices.

The Interior at the Red Fox
The Red Fox Tavern was built in 1728. The Tavern, originally known as Chinn’s Ordinary, it has gone through many iterations through the years. It was called the Beveridge House in the early 1800s, renamed the Middleburg Inn in the late 1800s, and finally renamed again as the Red Fox Inn in 1937, and it has provided food and lodging more or less non-stop for almost 300 years. The current owners have operated the Red Fox since 1976. It is situated in Middleburg, Virginia. Not familiar with Middleburg? Neither was I. An odd name at best - however it was a practical solution as it is the halfway, or middle, point between Alexandria and Winchester on John Mosby Highway, hence its monotonous moniker.

The Country Benedict
But the tedium ends there. The narrow doorways and low ceiling of the Red Fox remind you this was built many moons ago when people were smaller of stature. The local stone on the interior is painted a thick white, there are fireplaces in both rooms that illuminate and warm the convivial space. Colonial style wood chairs and wide plank flooring complete the visual with lots of paintings of horses and hunting dogs.
I stopped in for brunch and all brunches start with a plate of warm pastries made at a bakery nearby but they are light crisp and delicate. Also warm bread is provided and whipped sweet butter, which sets the stage for a two or three course prefix menu for brunch. But it is the peanut soup for which they are known. Served warm, add a bit of cracked pepper for an extra dimension of flavor. Peanut soup is pretty much peanut soup in that it tastes like, you know, peanut, and this iteration is mild and creamy and something most of us never try (the recipe is listed below from the restaurant), with a long history in the region. I do suggest The Country Benedict also, which offers a delicate, lemony Hollandaise.


Surrounding Middleburg, are numerous wineries adding to the already 230 wineries in Virginia. Best visits include GreenhillWinery nearby who make a delightful all Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc sparkler as well as several red blends. The tasting fee is $14 for 7 wines. The tasting room opens up to a covered porch and freestanding tables and chairs on the lawn. You'll also find local cheese, honey from the bees on their property and packaged frozen Charolais beef to take with you from their own cows. They also offer carriage rides through the vineyard.

Down the road is Chrysalis, a sleek and modern facility perched on a hill overlooking a small valley. Tastings are done both inside and outside which means dogs and kids are welcome. Jennifer McLeod was one of the first to plant Viognier in Virginia, and Viognier is now the state’s signature white wine. I originally wrote about this winery a decade ago for a magazine and now ten years later the Viognier still holds up well with lively nice acidity, notes of honey, apricot and lime.  Also you need to make a stop at 50 West who is turning out some stunningly good reds from grapes grown in Virginia including a very cool 100% Chambourcin Port called Dusk. And every Sunday they have hot mulled wine for $5 a glass. So if you're passing through this middle ground take time on either end of you trip to check out the charming Middleburg area.
The carriage rides at Greenhill Winery
Red Fox Tavern: Peanut Soup, 15 Servings
2 quarts chicken broth, 3 tablespoons flour
Small diced onion
1/3 teaspoon celery salt
Quarter pound butter
1 teaspoon salt
Two stalks celery diced
1 pint peanut butter
Half cup cream
Ground peanuts for topping
Melt butter add onion celery sauté for five minutes but don't brown.
Add flour and mix well.
Add heated chicken broth cook for 30 minutes.
Remove from stove, strain, add peanut butter and celery salt. Thicken with cream, top with ground peanuts, garnish with parsley.






8.21.2016

Walking Geneva – The City’s Historic Sites

Geneva, Switzerland (photo: Geneva Tourism)
Geneva dates back to at least 58 BC when the Romans established it as a settlement. It finally became an independent republic in 1536, but only really gained autonomy in 1602. Filled with lots of historic sites, the majority of which are located in the Old Town, a historical walking tour can be done at your own pace and time frame as not everything is clustered together. Considering the history of Geneva it makes sense to stay at Geneva’s very first hotel, the stately neoclassical Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues, which dates to 1834. The building hosted the first assembly of the League of Nations in November 1920. There is also the Beau Rivage, which opened in 1865. Regardless of where you stay, Geneva is ripe with history…

Maison Tavel
The Maison Tavel (house of Tavel) is the oldest private residence in all of Geneva. In spite of a fire destroying it in 1334, it was rebuilt and is a classic example of medieval architecture, actually meant to identify with its original construction in the 11th Century. Currently it houses the Museum of Urban History and Daily Life of Geneva, featuring a number of relics from Geneva’s past including engravings, paintings and models. The attic contains an impressive scale model of pre-1850’s Geneva when it was still a walled city. Medieval graffiti in the basement of the house is a must see.

Pont et Tour de I’lle
A small island located in the Rhone River (directly in front of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel), this nondescript chunk of land was once a checkpoint for commuting between Northern and Southern Europe. It was accessed by bridge, however Julius Caesar destroyed the original bridge in 58 BC. A château was built here in 1219, although it too was demolished in 1677, and the tower is all that remains today of its historical past. The château was used as a prison and place of execution by the counts of Savoy.

Cafe Papon's Interior: (Photo: Cafe Papon)
Café Papon
One of the oldest cafes of Geneva, Le Café-Restaurant Papon opened in 1808. A restaurant, creperie, tearoom, and cafe, it has been hosting drinkers and diners under its vaulted ceilings and a terrace that stretches out onto the medieval fortifications of the Old Town for over 200 years. Papon has complemented its historical roots, conspicuous in the beautiful stone cellar in which it is located, with modern Swiss style. The menus draw on local, seasonal produce and if available, sample the monkfish cheeks and foie gras.

Courtyard of Hotel de Ville (photo: Geneva Tourism, Olivier Miche)
Hôtel-de-Ville
Though we define a “hotel” differently now, the original meaning included a place where kings and royalty convened. The Hotel-de-Ville in Geneva served as the seat of government as far back as the 15th Century. Its Baudet Tower, the only original structure left, was constructed in 1455 and the building has a cobblestone ramp instead of a staircase, still an architectural oddity and a unique element. Notable accomplishments of this power center; the Red Cross originated here in 1864, the first convening of the Geneva Convention occurred here, and it hosted the early meetings of the League of Nations in 1920.

The Canon and Mosaics (photo Geneva Tourism)
The Arsenal
This arcaded structure dates from 1634 and in the courtyard of the building is a cannon that was cast in 1683. It also houses several pictorial mosaic scenes, each depicting a different moment in Geneva’s history, created by Alexandre Cingria in 1949 including one illustrating Caesar's arrival in Geneva in 58 BC. There are a total of five cannon in all, which were still in commission (though never fired) up to the beginning of the 1800s. They all bear an inscription in Latin, which translates to, “light after darkness,” an homage not only to John Calvin and his impact on Geneva, but also what Switzerland has come to mean to a global population – civility and a lack of violence.

Place du Bourg-de-Four
Bourg-de-Four is the oldest square in Geneva and this spot was first a Roman forum and later a medieval town square. The Palais de Justice here was built in 1707. There is some evidence to suggest it was occupied by an East Germanic tribe in the 5th century, though not confirmed, but we do know it was once a cattle market. Today the square is made up of cafés and bars, each with umbrella-covered terraces. There is a constant hum of activity here, and the neo-classic fountain where six streets converge today was once a Roman aqueduct that brought water from the mountains to the city.

This house-museum is dedicated to the life and works of Voltaire. The museum is housed in Les Delices, which was Voltaire's home from 1755 until 1760. The property was bought by the city of Geneva in 1929, and the museum opened in 1952. It contains about 25,000 volumes on Voltaire and the 18th century as well as a collection of paintings and prints from the period, many depicting Voltaire, his relatives and acquaintances. Tours are available and the gardens are open year round.

Towering over the Old Town in the heart of the city, Saint Peter's Cathedral is Geneva's oldest and most impressive architectural treasure. The Cathedral was begun in 1160 and took over 400 years to complete, suffering numerous makeovers and fires throughout the years. The north tower offers incredible panoramic views of the city, while the basement houses an Archaeological Museum chronicling the excavation of artifacts found beneath the Cathedral, some dating back as far as 350 AD.