When I first Eurailed across Europe when I was in college, I was among the minions clutching Arthur Frommer’s “Europe on $5 a Day.” A new budget travel guru, Matt Kepnes, has come on the scene with a tome for today, “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day (Travel Cheaper, Longer, Smarter)”.
Kepnes shared his strategies for traveling on a shoestring at the 2017 New York Times Travel Show, in his talk, “12 Easy Ways to Save Big Money When You Travel” to a standing room/sitting wherever you could find floorspace audience, in which he shared tips on how to bank smart, save on flights, book quality budget accommodations, eat for cheap, and save on transportations and attractions.
Here are Kepnes’ key strategies:
Use Your Money Wisely:
Avoid ATM fees
Buy in the local currency
Never exchange money in airports (Travelex is bad)
Never use travelers checks
Never use random ATMS
His recommendations: CapitalOne, Fidelty, CharlesSchwab (open an account and get a card), Global ATM Alliance
Collecting points or miles to fly free is an art that lately has stymied even travel experts. There is even a term for it, Kepnes says: Travel Hack is the art of collecting points/miles that can be used for free flights and hotel rooms (see nomadicmatt.us/HackTravel)
Kepnes offered these strategies, beginning with the notion that you can get 50,000-100,000 points as a bonus just for signing up. He says he recently took a flight from Germany to Austria for just $7 out of pocket.
Get a Travel Credit Card
Get a card that gives something back, even if you only travel once a year
That offers consumer protection
That avoids foreign transaction fees
Use everyday spending to amass points or miles
Pay your taxes to the government on a credit card (to accumulate points).
Get a new card and pay your taxes on it
His favorites: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink, American Express SPG, Barclaycard
Find Cheap Flights
Be flexible with date/time/destination
Fly budget airlines: WOW, Norwegian Airlines (Ny-Oslo-Bangkok for $400)
Ignore the “myths” (such as the best day of the week to book is a Tuesday)
Search in other currencies (choose a weak currency, like New Zealand and search in that currency; often, prices cater to a local market)
Search as one person
If you are a student or educator, you can take advantage of discounted travel at such sites as. STATravel for students and teachers; ISIC (he says he traveled Athens to Bangkok for $350).
Best sites to find flight deals:
HolidayPirates – great for Europe
The FlightDeal – out of US
Cheap Flight resources:
Kayak (Don’t book through kayak, he says, just use for reference and get a second opinion)
Momondo (search websites around the world)
SkyScanner (search websites around the world)
Stay in Hostels:
Hostels are budget friendly
Made for socializing and meeting people
Have a kitchen to cook your own food
Usually offer the option of a private room and private bath
Knowledgeable staff (know what’s going on, where to go)
Hostels have really upped their game, Kepnes says. They are nicer, typically offer WiFi, rooms are cleaned daily, offer breakfast, and even organized tours
Hostels offer a social aspect even if you are staying in a private room (because there are communal facilities and the people who stay tend to be outgoing)
“Cheapos stay in hostels so the staff are experts about cheap restaurants, what to do for free or inexpensively.”
Bypass the traditional travel industry
Gives access to locals using their own assets and skills to become small tourism companies with cheaper prices.
Locals know where to find
A Camp in My Garden (which directs you to places where you can pitch a tent in someone’s backyard)
Where to stay with locals (for free) – these sites do vetting and offer reviews:
Kepnes notes that these kinds of shared accommodations are not just for youthful backpackers; a lot of families take advantage as well, and see it as an opportunity to expose their kids to other cultures.
Eat cheap, skip fancy meals, don’t eat out every meal; cook your own meals; take your own water bottle.
Avoid eating near tourist areas (he has a five-block rule)
“Don’t ask ‘Where should I eat?’ (because you are a tourist). Ask ‘Where did you eat?’ That’s how you find the local, cool restaurants.
Use apps to find local hotspots, like FourSquare, OpenRice, Yelp
Sharing Food Economy:
CoLunching (feed your network)
Get Around Cheaply:
Use public transportation
Ask hostel staff for timetables and cheap transportation options
Get a train pass (ie. Eurail, or in-country pass)
Ride Sharing sources include:
Kepnes says he hopped a ride from Geneva to Zurich with a father who was driving his son back to school, which cost him $10)
“You save money and meet people in a way you wouldn’t if you just booked transportation.”
Seeing Things/doing Things
City Tourism Cards, which you can find through tourism offices and/or online, often provide admissions or discounts to multiple museums and attractions, city tours, public transportation, restaurants, shopping.
You typically purchase these by the number of days, (1, 3, 5, 7)
CitizenCards: Some places have passes only for country, county or city residents, like London restaurants for UK residents, Kepnes suggests you can get around this by using your AirBnB address.
Find Free or Inexpensive Activities
Ask tourist offices (and go online) and hostel staff
The Local (Europe)
Take free walking tours (New Europe; Free Tours By Foot)
Google It! (Use as terms “free things to do in…”; “free activities in….”; “cheap events in…”, “what do locals do for fun in NYC?”)
Tour with Locals
Connect with local guides (for example, Athens tourism bureau matches you up with a volunteer guide, myAthens.org; Big Apple Greeters through the NYC visitor bureau connects travelers with a local tour guide)
These tend to be small, intimate groups and offer quirky experiences like
Hidden Treasures of Paris
Florence: Bike the Local Backroads
A Photojournalist’s NYC
Melbourne’s Street Art
San Francisco: Urban Night Hiking
Istanbul: Learn to Bargain
Sources:ShowAround, Rent-a-Guide, Vayable
Where to Meet Locals:
Lonely Planet’s forums
Couchsurfing (host travelers; stay with locals; grab coffee with travelers/locals; travel events)
Sources: Couchsurfing, TravelMassive, Meetup
Matt Kepnes (nomadicmatt.com) is the author of “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day” (Travel Cheaper, Longer, Smarter), nomadicmatt.us/amz50nm; Instagram.com/nomadicmatt; Facebook.com/nomadicmatt; Pinterest.com/nomadicmatt; Twitter: @nomadicmatt
The New York Times Travel Show, which just marked its 14th year, is the largest and longest-running trade and consumer travel show in North America, featuring the Travel Industry Conference, Consumer Seminars, and an interactive Exhibition including more than 500 exhibitors from Africa, Asia, Australia/South Pacific, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, Mexico and the United States. In addition to discounts and special offers, the show provided educational seminars and live entertainment for families, individuals, couples and seniors. Seminars focused on home exchange and rentals; festivals and markets as a window into the soul of a place; wellness travel, family travel, global travel tips for women, LGBT travel, traveling solo, senior travel, cruising, planning the perfect African Safari, Italy, Japan, Cuba; ethical travel; choosing a travel agent, travel photography, travel writing; Expecting the Unexpected-Planning ahead for When Disaster Strikes (nyttravelshow.com)
They are the CLIO awards of the hospitality and travel industry – a gigantic segment of the US economy and culture which people don’t readily recognize as being so integral to everyday life. But these are the campaigns that excite, engage, inform and ultimately spur millions of us to venture out and experience new places and people. At the same time, travelers bolster local, state and national economies, create an economic underpinning that sustains heritage, culture and the environment.
The Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI) presented the 60th Annual Adrian Awards at the New York Marriott Marquis, recognizing excellence in travel advertising, digital marketing and public relations, and the leaders behind the work.
“It’s always wonderful to be able to celebrate the innovators of our industry. Their outstanding work challenges and inspires the rest of the profession,” said Robert A. Gilbert, CHME, CHBA, president and CEO of HSMAI. He added, “Tonight was a special milestone—the Adrians have now been recognizing excellence in the hospitality industry for six decades.”
Dating back to 1956, the Adrian Awards applaud marketing achievements in hospitality across multiple segments of the industry. Award winners are selected by senior industry and media experts from more than 1,200 entries, for three main entry divisions: advertising, digital marketing and public relations. Gold Award winners across these three categories were recognized during the Adrian Awards Dinner Reception, which was co-sponsored by HSMAI and Google. Platinum winners were selected from the standout Gold Award winners. Winners were selected from 1000 entrees.
The judges speak of authenticity, engagement, blurring of lines among media, emotionality, innovation and creativity, visual beauty, quality of content, storytelling, and most significantly measureable results in distinguishing the winners.
The stakes are huge: these advertising, marketing and public relations campaigns are a key part of the travel and tourism industry that generates $2.1 trillion in economic output (2.7% of the nation’s GDP) from domestic and international visitors (includes $927.9 billion in direct travel expenditures that spurred an additional $1.2 trillion in other industries through a ripple effect). Travel expenditures support 15 million jobs (8 million directly); account for $221.7 billion in wages, and generate $141.5 billion in tax revenues to federal, state and local governments, levels that increased significantly over the past eight years, helping to lift the nation out of the Great Recession.
For example, Bermuda, which won “Best of Show” in Public Relations, undertook its campaign to reverse a decline in tourism that is such a large part of the country’s economy.
Best of Show Awards, the highest honor of the evening, were bestowed upon a Platinum Award winner from each of the three divisions—advertising, digital marketing, and public relations:
Advertising “Best of Show” – NFL Father’s Day Video – Courtyard by Marriott – IMG and Marriott Content Studio
Digital Marketing “Best of Show” – From Brake Lights to Rested Nights – Red Roof Inn and its agency, 360i
Public Relations “Best of Show” – Bermuda: Finding an Island’s Adventurous Side – Bermuda Tourism Authority and its agency, TURNER
The following are Platinum Award winners in the advertising, digital marketing, and public relations divisions:
Advertising Platinum Winners:
Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism; Target
Visit Seattle; Publicis Seattle
Hilton; Fold 7
Courtyard by Marriott; IMG and Marriott Content Studio
Digital Marketing Platinum Winners:
24 North Hotel; Travel Tripper
Visit Seattle; Publicis Seattle
Marriott International; Facebook & MEC
Aruba Tourism Authority; Concept Farm
Caribbean and Latin America Resorts Cluster; Marriott- Caribbean and Latin America
Best Western Hotels & Resorts; Ideas Collide & 11 Dollar Bill
Red Roof Inn; 360i
Public Relations Platinum Winners:
South African Tourism; Sparkloft Media
Omni Hotels & Resorts; LDWWgroup
Gold Award winners’ submissions were shown on digital displays at the Adrian Awards Dinner Reception and featured during the Gala stage presentations. “The honorees in this year’s competition displayed innovation, creativity, and demonstrated measurable results and return on investment that were noted by this year’s judges as being exceptional,” said Fran Brasseux, HSMAI Executive Vice President.
Additionally, the distinguished careers of two industry leaders were celebrated with HSMAI Lifetime Achievement awards. Randy Smith, Chairman & Co-Founder, STR, was honored with the 2016 Albert E. Koehl Award and Melanie Brandman, Founder & CEO, The Brandman Agency, was honored with the 2016 Winthrop W. Grice Award for Public Relations.
“It is an honor to be a member of this illustrious group of industry leaders,” said Brandman, at the awards ceremony. “I would like to dedicate this award to my father and my mother, for raising me and my siblings to be global citizens, and instilling in us an unstoppable desire to experience the world and share whatever wisdom we pick up along the way.”
“It is truly an honor to accept this award,” stated Koehl Award recipient Randy Smith, who was unable to accept the award in person. “I have been incredibly fortunate throughout my career in the hospitality industry in working with smart and talented people.”
The winner of the seventh annual Leader in Sustainable Tourism Award, presented by HSMAI and National Geographic Traveler, was Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau for “Clean Beaches and Sea Turtles.”
“Presented in conjunction with National Geographic Traveler, the Leader in Sustainable Tourism award recognizes a person, company, or community for demonstrable leadership and innovation in preserving and communicating an authentic sense of place through a wisely managed tourism program. Nominees are judged by how their efforts preserved the environmental, cultural, and historic integrity of a destination, and how the program demonstrated leadership, innovation and accomplished its goals.”
The Pioneer in Visual Storytelling Award, presented by HSMAI and Libris by PhotoShelter, a new award presented for the first time at these Adrian Awards, went to Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism and their agency, Target.
“The Pioneer in Visual Storytelling Award celebrates a brand in the travel and tourism industry that has shown consistent commitment to using visual assets creatively in marketing and communication to tell its story. Nominees are evaluated based on high-quality production value of images and/or video, compelling storytelling across platforms, use of forward-thinking formats, innovative distribution and demonstrated impact on their audiences. Successful entries use visual assets to inspire an emotional response, motivate audiences to take action and help the brand meet strategic objectives.”
Randy Smith. Melanie Brandman Honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards
The Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association (HSMAI) presented its 2016 HSMAI Lifetime Achievement Awards to Randy Smith, Chairman & Co-Founder, STR, honored with the 2016 Albert E. Koehl Award. Melanie Brandman, Founder & CEO, The Brandman Agency, received the 2016 Winthrop W. Grice Award for Public Relations.
The HSMAI Lifetime Achievement Awards recognize individuals who have spent a major portion of their careers in the hospitality and travel profession and have contributed to the betterment of the industry in a significant and lasting way, over an extended period of time.
Melanie Brandman, honored with the Winthrop W. Grice Award for Public Relations, is the founder & CEO of The Brandman Agency. With offices in New York, Los Angeles, London and Sydney, Brandman is recognized as one of the most credible travel and communications experts in the business. She has ensured that The Brandman Agency has remained at the forefront of the industry by being an early adopter in the ever-evolving digital and influencer space. Prior to establishing The Brandman Agency, she served as Vice President, Corporate Affairs for InterContinental Hotels Group based in London. Brandman’s other successful ventures include Travel Curator, an online travel website, content development, and distribution platform targeted to an affluent, forward-thinking audience of global travelers. The site was voted one of the 10 Best Luxury Travel Blogs by readers of USA TODAY and 10Best. This past year, Brandman was named ‘Most Compelling Woman in Travel’ by Premier Traveler magazine.
The Winthrop W. Grice Award was named in honor of Winthrop W. “Bud” Grice, CHME, a long-time senior marketing executive with Marriott, who was the award’s first designate. Other winners include: Howard Feirertag, Mary Gendron, Vivian A. Deuschl, Laura Davidson, Yvonne Middleton, Peggy R. Bendel, René A. Mack, Lou Hammond, Bunny Grossinger, Herbert D. Kelleher, Steve Wynn, Richard Kahn, Gordon Lambourne, and Geoffrey Weill.
Randy Smith, the recipient of the Albert E. Koehl Award, co-founded STR in 1985. STR provides clients from multiple market sectors with premium, global data benchmarking, analytics and marketplace insights. With just over 300 employees, STR maintains a presence in 16 countries around the world with a corporate North American headquarters in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and an international headquarters in London, England. Prior to starting STR, Smith was Director of Research for Laventhol & Horwath. He has been recognized by Business Travel News, Lodging Hospitality magazine, ALIS, Industry Real Estate Financing Advisory Council, Florida State University College, and the International Society of Hospitality Consultants.
The Albert E. Koehl Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Marketing recognizes individuals who have spent a major portion of their careers in the hospitality and travel profession and have contributed to the betterment of the industry in a significant and lasting way, over an extended period of time. The award is named in honor of Albert E. Koehl, a pioneer in hotel advertising. Past Koehl award recipients including: David Kong, Roger Dow, Eric A. Danziger, Sol Kerzner, Ian Schrager, Barbara Talbott, Barry S. Sternlicht, Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, Horst H. Schulze, John J. Russell, CHME, Michael A. Leven, CHME, Richard Branson, Christopher J. Nassetta, and George Aguel.
“HSMAI is proud to honor Melanie and Randy for their impressive careers marked by innovative contributions to the global hospitability industry,” said Robert A. Gilbert, CHME, CHBA, president and CEO of HSMAI.
Top 25 Extraordinary Minds
Selected by a panel of senior industry executives, The HSMAI Top 25: Extraordinary Minds in Hospitality Sales, Marketing, Revenue Optimization for 2016 were honored by HSMAI in a reception co-hosted by Questex Hospitality + Travel and also recognized on stage during the Gala.
The HSMAI Top 25 Extraordinary Minds for 2016 are:
Justin Barnette: Manager, Marketing & Communications USA, South African Tourism
DC Becker: Principal & Co-Owner, Titan Group of New York
Josh Belkin: VP & General Manager, North America, Hotels.com
Patrick Campbell: Director of Advertising, Best Western Hotels & Resorts
Lisa Checchio, VP, Brand Marketing and Insights, Wyndham Hotel Group
Britton Cordill: Director of Marketing & eCommerce, Marriott International
Santiago Corrada: President/CEO, Visit Tampa Bay
Chris Flatt, EVP of Hotel Sales & Marketing, Wynn Las Vegas
Isaac Gerstenzang, Assistant Vice President, Corporate E-Commerce, Two Roads Hospitality
Jennifer Hill: Regional Director, Revenue & Distribution, Highgate
Daniel Hostettler: President and Group Managing Director, Ocean House Management Collection
Danny Hughes: Senior Vice President & Commercial Director, Hilton Worldwide
Victoria Isley: Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Bermuda Tourism Authority
Cherry Kam: Director, Marketing Communications/Americas, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
Lynn Kaniper: Owner/President, Dana Communications
Leora Halpern Lanz: Lecturer, Boston University School of Hospitality Administration
Michael Lau: Regional Director of Revenue Management, Accor Hotels
Lisa Ross: President and Partner, rbb Communications
Ed Skapinok: Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Hostmark Hospitality Group
Edgar Tapan: Head of Industry, Travel, Google
Paolo Torchio: VP Digital & E-Commerce, Two Roads Hospitality
Vicki Varela: Managing Director, Utah Office of Tourism, Film & Global Branding
Daniel Wise: Founder & Chief Product Architect, revcaster – a Rainmaker company
“HSMAI is proud to recognize an outstanding group whose impressive achievements define success and inspire their peers in the hospitality industry,” said Robert A. Gilbert, CHME, CHBA, president & CEO of HSMAI. “Their deep knowledge, nimble response to changing markets, and innovative solutions have driven their success and strengthened our industry.”
The Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) is committed to growing business for hotels and their partners, and is the industry’s leading advocate for intelligent, sustainable hotel revenue growth. The association provides hotel professionals and their partners with tools, insights, and expertise to fuel sales, inspire marketing, and optimize revenue through programs such as HSMAI ROCET, Adrian Awards, and Revenue Optimization Conference. HSMAI is an individual membership organization comprising more than 7,000 members worldwide, with 40 chapters in the Americas Region. Connect with HSMAI at www.hsmai.org, www.facebook.com/hsmai, www.twitter.com/hsmai and www.youtube.com/hsmai1.
According to travel expert Peter Greenberg, that dreaded four-letter word “fear” could actually work out to the benefit of Americans who want to explore the globe..
That, in combination with a strong dollar against just about every other currency, means that Americans have a buyers market in a “brave new world of travel” characterized by “disruption.”
Americans who travel abroad, though, tend to be open minded, able to adapt to different situations, and open to adventure and the unknown.
As it turns out, only 37% of Americans have passports (and, Greenberg notes, only 42% of members of Congress and Senate – a revealing aspect at why some have such an insular, provincial view, or who hold so ardently to the myth of American Exceptionalism. It’s easy to imagine America to be exceptional when you don’t actually see anything else first hand.)
“How can you make global policy if you have never left Kansas?,” Greenberg, a best selling author and TV travel commentator, asks the standing-room crowd attending his seminar, “The Brave New World of Travel,” at the 2017 New York Times Travel Show at the Javits Center in New York.
The Travel Show took place just as Trump’s Muslim/Travel ban was causing havoc and bringing out thousands of protesters at international airports across the country, an anathema to the people attending the show who clearly valued international travel as a bridge between peoples, cultures and politics.
The “disruption” that is at the heart of the “Brave New World of Travel,” is that there are more international airlines, creating more competition, more services, and keeping fares from rising, more competition among hotels and cruiselines. Even the uncertainty (insecurity) around global affairs creates a buyers’ market for intrepid travelers who see more reward than risk.
Since 2006, he says, there have been 75 new routes from such carriers as Turkish Airlines. Condor Airlines used to be a charter carrier, now is a scheduled carrier. Norwegian Airlines has really rocked the market with low fares.
It’s a buyers market in the hotel industry also, though it is harder to see why, with mergers and acquisitions like Marriott & Starwood giving a single entity even more control of the marketplace. It could be because after making their deals to sell inventory through online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, now the hotel companies are trying to incentivize customers to book direct. “Why click around? They will give free WiFi and a donut.”
A boom in building new cruise ships – there are 56 cruise lines – has resulted in excess capacity. Last year, there were 18 new river cruise ships, and this year 10 new cruise ships.
How can you benefit? Greenberg says don’t book the newest ships (they aren’t discounting their fares); rather, “book the 2-3-4 year old ships that are just as good but have excess capacity.” Norwegian for example has fares as low as $65/night. “You can’t wake up in Brooklyn for that.”
“Now you know you can go, the question is how do you go.” When he asks people to raise their hands if they make their reservations online and most people in the room do, he comes back, “You’re all losers,” with a smile.
“You’re operating on myth that all inventory is online. But only 52% of inventory is online because that all the inventory that travel providers want to make available online.
“I know why you book online –because you can do it at 3 am and you don’t have to talk to anyone. You’re very happy to hit a key and book. But now you have disenfranchised yourself with 40% of inventory.”
He derides the “lost art of conversation,” and says, “it’s okay to research online, but don’t book online.”
That’s because the computer remembers you, appreciates a supply/demand market and can pitch you a higher fare. “Clean up your cookies or use somebody else’s computer.”
“When you have a conversation with an airline rep or a cruise rep, you may think it is about getting the best rate – losers! –It’s not about the rate, it’s about the value. The internet does nothing creativity, thinks literally, it can’t answer the questions you should ask.
“You might get a good rate online, but when you have a conversation directly with a hotel, you can ask for the hotel to throw in free WiFi, get rid of dreaded resort free, get the kids to stay free, eat free.
With a cruiseline, “it’s not about the cost of cabin, it’s about onboard credits, which excursion should or should not take.” [In this respect, you are much better off booking through a travel agent, who can usually get free upgrades, free drinks, perhaps even a shore excursion thrown in.]
Where do You Want to Go?
“Where do you want to go?” he asks. “This is where you get into trouble – how many have bucket list? He asks, and a few people raise their hands. “Loser,” is his retort.
“Everyone wants Paris, Hawaii. There are 196 countries in the world. Pick one. There are only four I wouldn’t go to (my metric is ‘Who is in control.’ – There are four countries where nobody is in control.)
He says he wouldn’t say no to going to North Korea (I know who is in control), Iran [which is actually become a hot destination for Americans, up until Trump’s election and the travel ban]. I would even go to Northern Iraq, because it is under control of Kurds, every airline goes there and is safe.” [Which might have been true before the Trump travel ban which Iraq retaliated against in kind.]’
“‘Fear’ is a four-letter word. Don’t be motivated, don’t be driven. How many read US State Department travel advisories – you should read them but when people hear there is an advisory, they don’t go.”
The State Department’s travel advisory for Turkey advises travelers that Turkish drivers pass on the left and on the right. “Have they been on Southern State Parkway?” he jokes. “I was in Turkey 48 hours after the New Year’s Eve nightclub shooting. I did not feel threatened or afraid.
“The best time to go anywhere is after natural disaster, civil disturbance, terrorism.”
[Indeed, six countries have travel advisories against the United States because of the epidemic of gun violence.”
“Tourism creates jobs – these destinations that have been hurt by natural or manmade disasters are desperate to have you there. And who wants to stand on line? Go to a place that is happy to have you, a great deal, an amazing experience. And it sends a statement that we will not be beaten by that.
He notes that 707 Americans have been killed in acts of civil unrest of the past 28 years. “Put that in perspective: every week in this country 800 citizens are killed or injured in accidents in their bathtubs. People worry about shark attacks –after 1 person is attacked. More are killed in auto accidents abroad; the second greatest cause of death is by selfies – people fall off cliffs, are hit by trains – 100 people are killed by selfies. Put the numbers in perspective.”
“All these passport holders, you love to travel. Now you’ve got to use them – you are in the drivers seat – the most beneficial position.
“It’s not seasonal – there will be deals all year long because economies are taking longer to recover – Italy, France, Turkey – you can go anywhere – Brazil, Argentina. Then, there are the deals airlines are doing with stopovers, hotels, tours.
“Now think of what’s on your bucket list, burn it and figure a place where you can have great experience.”
Beating the Airlines at Their Own Frequent Flyer Game
Airlines have radically changed their Frequent Flyer programs. “If you didn’t pay a lot [for a fare] you don’t get much [in points]. It’s not just hard to earn miles but hard to redeem them.”
In fact, Greenberg notes that there are some 23 trillion unredeemed miles outstanding.
“Airlines, he notes, are free to constantly change rules for using frequent flyer miles to their advantage because there is no regulation by attorney general. They are protected by deregulation and can change the rules any time, which means every day, they have outstanding miles as a liability but they don’t want to displace revenue passengers.
“There is no such thing as a free ticket anymore; every plane is full.”
But miles are great to use to “figure a place you’ve never been, never wanted to go, and go there. Pick 330 days out and go.”
Still, you may just want to go to Hawaii and Paris and use your unredeemed miles to get there.
Greenberg proposes a rather adventurous way to beat the restrictions that make it almost impossible to use frequent flyer points,
“Let’s say you want to go to Hawaii a week from today and have enough miles based on eligibility– The carrier indicates you can’t have the fare at 12,000 points, but you can at 50,000 (extortion).
“You call up the airline to redeem miles. ‘When in my lifetime will there be a seat?’ The airline tells you after Thanksgiving. ‘I’ll take it.’
“Then pick an arbitrary day. But now you have a ticket that has the flight and the cities just not the date you want. So you hang up and call the regular reservations number. You tell them you want to purchase six seats on that flight. You just want to know there are 6 seats on the flight.
So you send your bags ahead by Fed Ex, he says.
“You know there are seats – every day you call, you pick the first flight of the day – go down on the day want to fly, NY-Hawaii – 5 am with ticket – fly standby, no bags. If there is a seat on the plane, they will let you on. Or if that is full, the next or the next (there are many flights during the day).
“If you ask if you can fly standby with a Frequent Flyer ticket, they will say no, but the counter agent will say yes.”
[I find myself thinking this is all well and good and wonderfully adventurous, but how would this work for the return flight?]
“The rule is – don’t hoard miles. There is no upside.” On the other hand, you are a full if you redeem your miles for a magazine subscription.
“54% of all miles earned is earned on the ground – that means that to get 25,000 – you spent $14,000, not counting the 11,000 miles you paid for when you flew.” If the magazine subscription wants 2500 miles, you spent $1200 to accumulate those miles, or for 6500 points, Delta will give you a $40 box of Godiva chocolates, but you spent $3800, or $190 each bite.”
“Don’t succumb to those offers. Instead, think 333 days out and beat the airlines at their own game playing by their rules.”
With the US dollar so strong, it isn’t just that the dollar has more purchasing power abroad, but that travel to the US becomes more expensive for people to come here. That means that it will be harder for airlines to fill their seats coming here.
(Of course, this, combined with the travel ban means that US inbound travel, a key export that contributes to a favorable trade balance and supports millions of US jobs and economic activity, will also be depressed, perhaps for Americans to fill the vacuum with domestic travel.)
“In a world of disruption, you get to disrupt. You have the knowledge. You can always go to Paris or Hawaii, but the world is open and [destinations] are ready.”
Travel expert Pauline Frommer, of the Frommer Guides and radio show, says that 2017 is probably the best year for Americans to travel abroad because of a surging dollar, competitive pressure on international airline fares, and an international climate where destinations are thrilled to have foreign visitors.
But she began her presentation to the 2017 New York Times Travel Show counseling travelers to be skeptical of technology that is transforming so much of how people travel and even where they travel – how online search engines can force you into purchasing more expensive hotels and airlines based on the profile that previous searches create, and, as a corollary, the intrusion into privacy.
“Often the answers you are going to get through an online search aren’t necessarily the answers you want.” This is especially true because of the way the search engines keep track – through cookies, for example – and will provide listings that seem to conform to previous searches.” The cookies might be in your computer after you did a search for a hotel or a business trip where the boss pays, so you book a $400/night hotel. “So when you try to find a hotel for a family holiday, in your search, all the expensive hotels come up first. It’s more difficult to find the least expensive.”
This is true for flight searches on popular sites (like expedia.com), where if you log off, then go back, you might find that the flight is $200 more. The way around it? You have to either clear your browser of cookies, or go online again on a different computer, or “even go to Starbucks and use their WiFi.”
Based on research that Frommer commissioned from a freelancer, Frommer recommends a couple of websites for airline searches:
She also counsels that the cheapest days of the week to book are Saturday, Tuesday & Wednesday flights.
And based on a study of 26 million airline transactions by the Airline Reporting Corporation, which acts as middleman between airlines and travel agencies (online and storefront), there are trends in fares (she warns won’t always be true and likely not for traveling on Christmas or SuperBowl weekend). Nonetheless, to get the best fares, she advises:
Book on a weekend, 19% savings
Book 57 days before travel for domestic tickets,10% savings
Book 176 days before travel to Europe, 11% savings
Book 77 days before travel to the Caribbean 5% savings
Book 160 days before travel to Asia/Pacific 13% savings
Book 144 days before travel to the Mideast, Africa, 24% savings
Book 90 days before travel to Central/South America, 10% savings
Frommer (as well as travel expert Peter Greenberg) warn buyers to beware of the new category of “basic economy fares” which American Airlines recently introduced, following on heels of United and Delta. Averaging $25 less than regular economy, the airlines have tended to offer them in markets where carriers have competition from low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit.
“But these are really, really ugly. You will never get to choose your seat, which means you are likely to wind up in a middle seat. This is a problem if you are travel with children – if there is a plane crash, how could you leave the plane if your kids are in different seats. I don’t think will be brought up soon with current administration.” On American and United, the austerity goes beyond (and is even parodied by comedians): you don’t get to use the overhead bin, you can only bring on board the plane what you can slip under your seat; if you need to check luggage, it costs $25. Another disadvantage: you don’t get any loyalty points when you buy a basic economy seat (though loyalty doesn’t mean much of anything, anymore, she adds).
“Rethink loyalty. Loyalty has been devalued by the airlines now. In the last year, you would get points for how many miles you traveled; now it’s for how much money paid, that is multiplied by how high you are in their system. If you are a big-time business traveler, your money is multiplied by 5; if you only travel only twice a year, it is only multiplied by 2 – not greatest system. It will cause major fights at the gate.” American, she says, is soon going to use its new Loyalty standard to determine where you get on a list to upgrade (it used to be, as an elite member, first-come, first serve, now the airline will look how much money you spent to get elite membership).
The only way to make the points game work in this climate, she advises, is to use credit cards.
Good news for travelers: airfares in the US have stayed stable, and airfares abroad are dropping dramatically because of new players like Norwegian Airlines (offering $499 fare each way to London), WOW airlines, XL Airlines (operating to Paris, www.xl.com/us/, which used to only concentrate on French travelers, but now Americans, too); Thomas Cook Airlines, Eurowings, AirAsia, Emirates, and soon, JetBlue, adding, “Any airline flying into the United States has to adhere to our gate standards.”
Emirates Airlines, which has been offering low fares, is not new but going to a lot more places in Europe for a lot less money. “Now Milan is the cheapest gateway in Europe because of Emirates.” And the international scene may get a new competitor, as JetBlue is looking to starting to fly to Europe.
Also, AirAsia has started flying to Asia, pushing fares down 25% from last year.
How do you find great ways to sightsee besides using Frommer guide? All around the world, you can find local walking tours led by starving graduate students. “These are people who go to places like Venice, Rome, New York, Chicago to work on dissertations and to make a little extra money, often lead walking tours. They know they have to be really entertaining or they won’t get a tip (which is all they make). The best walking tour in Rome, Through Eternity, is led by a woman writing her dissertation on Michelangelo, who had been studying letters his assistants on scaffolding had been writing the Pope. From those, she learned that Michelangelo, who was from Florence, believed Rome’s water was poisoned and because of that, did not bathe for the 10 years he was in Rome. That’s what his assistants were writing about. This woman really knew and was passionate about what she was speaking about.” Such tours can also be a refreshing change from tour guides who, because of limitations on purchasing licenses, have been at it for decades, and “sometimes are so bored telling about Hadrian’s Gate for the 10,000th time.”
Atypical tour companies include:
G Adventures, Djoser, Intrepid Travel all are designed around small groups, never more than 12 people, use locally owned guest houses, local transportation to keep green [and provide a closer, more authentic experience], provide a lot of free time to explore on your own, and tend to be much cheaper than the competition. G Adventures is based in Canada, Djoser in Holland, and Intrepid is an Australian company so you are not just traveling with other Americans, but people from all over the world [which is also a special experience].
“I took an Intrepid family tour with my kids in Morocco. It was the most wonderful tour because of our group. We had a German family, 2 British families and a family who lived four blocks away from us in Manhattan. Explore!, an interesting British company, does hardcore tours of places that are otherwise difficult to get to on your own – the Stans, deep Africa, deep south Africa. Context Travel hires erudite guides – it is the most expensive on list, but they run really smart learning vacations to major cities. It started in Italy, now everywhere. Road Scholar (used to be Elderhostel) is for seniors, offering smart tours, hub and spoke so you stay in one place and take day trips; tours are often led by professors, educators.”
Under the category “Solo travel with a safety net,” Frommer cites Women Welcome Women (a UK-based international membership network started by a woman who was jealous of son being able to do exchange, http://www.womenwelcomewomen.uk/article/home.aspx; which is not a travel agency or travel company, but basically network women traveling to other cities).
Greeter Tours are free tours run by local who love showing their home town to people from around the world. (in NYC, Chicago, Houston, Paris, Lyon, Bangkok, Delhi, Cordoba, Grenada, Sydney, etc. (GlobalGreeetersNetwork.info)
Accommodations. There’s been a sea-change in accommodations – AirBnB now has more beds in its inventory than all the major hotel chains combined. “Last year, [hoteliers] were saying AirBnB wasn’t affecting prices because a different person uses AirBnB. But this year, they are saying it is affecting prices. It used to be hotel chains would know they could raise prices sky high for a major holiday; now they no longer have that kind of security [control].”
The best search sites for accommodations, she says, are HotelsCombined.com (#1 for prices 92% of the time, according to a study, but Hotelscombined doesn’t actually sell from inventory, it just Googles), followed by Trivago (which is owned by Expedia; expedia gets inventory from the major chains).
In terms of OTAs (online travel agents), booking.com wins (not just the big hotel chains), followed by Asia specialist Agoda.com (best prices for Asia).
The best Booking Blind sites are: Priceline.com, hotwire.com, and biddingtraveler.com.
For lodging rentals, she recommends:
Homeaway.com (owns Rentals.com, owned by Expedia, massive corporation)
Sea Changes in Cruising: The cruise industry is seeing a sea change in technology. Frommer is skeptical about where technology is leading, particularly the juncture of privacy and marketing.
Carnival Cruises, for example, is very excited about a new medallion that replaces a key card, credit card, and knows if you are scheduled for a yoga class or a show or have a restaurant reservation.
“Medallion or Horcrux? They hook you up to an app. They know where every member of your party is, open your door, order a drink, and will sell you things. I find this disturbing – from the point of view of the lack of privacy –a large corporation is going to know everywhere you are. They will be able to up-sell you. You may be glancing at a list of shore excursions and somebody will appear at your side to tell you why you should take a shore excursion.”
But one good trend in cruising, she says, are the lines that have responded to complaints about getting into a port at 9 am and leaving at 2 pm. Some are changing itineraries to allow more time in port, and some make it a focus. Azamara Club Cruises (which pioneered overnight stays, even 2-3 nights in a port so you can really get to know a city, but the trade-off is fewer sea days to relax) and other lines where they give you more time in port, like Oceania, Celebrity Cruises, Costa, MSC, and Holland America, so you can experience nightlife in a place and you don’t have to rush back to ship).
Cruiselines also are introducing new ports to their itineraries such as in Ireland, Australia, Asia, Scandinavia).
Frommer has a bugaboo about how much shore excursions cost: “They scare guests to take them when they don’t need to. They say if you don’t, the ship can leave without you. I say, get a watch. In most cases, you can wander off the ship and see as much as the shore excursion.
But, you can purchase less expensive port excursions than the ones offered by the cruiseline through such agencies as CruisingExcursions.com, ShoreTrips.com, Viator. CruisingExcursions.com and ShoreTrips.com offer 12-person vans and usually charge 2/3 of cruise ship costs. Viator is more of a marketplace for city tours will give you guarantee that if you miss the boat they will pay to get you to next stop.
There are tremendous differences in cruiselines – aesthetics, what the experience is like. “When you take a cruise, the ship is your vacation, so get the best ship for you. Use a travel agent. This is one area where you are foolish not to use travel agents – those who specialize in cruises, get special discounts they can pass along, complimentary upgrades, shipboard credits, bottle of wine. They know their boats [and typically have toured the ship and have worked with the line]. Not all travel agents are equal. Ask questions. Make sure the travel agent represents all lines or, at least, the ones you are interested in. They can suggest the best cabin for the price you are willing to pay.
River Cruising has become extraordinarily popular, largely due to the success of Viking River Cruises. “For centuries, the rivers of Europe, Asia, America were the arteries that people used to get place to place, so you are in the middle of everything. You step off the boat and in front of you is the cathedral, the historic square.” (Frommers has a guidebook just on river cruising.)
But not all river cruises are alike, she notes.
In the category of Over the Top, most luxurious: Uniworld, Tauck, Scenic. “Uniworld has a designer that Marie Antoinette would approve – crystal, silk wall paper; it’s over the top extravagance. Tauck is as luxurious but a little more contemporary in décor, well known for shore excursions. The dirty little secret of river cruises is that all the river cruises except Tauck and Gate 1 share the same guides on shore. Scenic gives all its guests headphones, so can hear commentary about what you are passing on shore; it is an Australian company so you are traveling mostly with Australians and blasts Olivia Newton-John at night; it offers fun trips (and also owns a budget river cruisline, Emerald Waterways).
Luxurious:AmaWaterways, Viking River Cruises, Avalon Waterways. Avalon and Ama are trying to attract younger crowd with more active experiences – kayaking on river; Ama carries bikes on board.
Budget – Emerald Waterways, Grand Circle, Croisie Europe. “Croisie Europe is the second biggest river cruise company in the world after Viking, but you probably never heard of it because the line only marketed to Europeans until recently – so in Europe, you are surrounded by Europeans. Croisie tends to have very reasonable prices, but some Americans aren’t comfortable because of a language barrier. “Grand Circle, in contrast, only markets to Americans so you will be on ship with Americans, have burgers at every meal if you want, but in their defense, they do a lot on the educational side, bringing on educators, so the cruises are more erudite, but cheaper than the others.”
Family friendly – AmaWaterways has partnered with Disney to do tours for families. “These are wildly popular and very well done (not surprising, Disney). There are no characters onboard, but they have activities to keep kids busy on land and river. It’s great for multigenerational.” Tauck is another with family-friendly tours.
Best rivers (for first timers):Danube (variety – castle, spas, vineyards, interesting trip), Mississippi (variety, start or end in New Orleans, plantations, Civil War sites, Mark Twain sites); Mekong (because you go to many places you couldn’t otherwise get to except by river cruise).
Where to Go
The US Dollar is strong pretty much everywhere, “whooping every other currency.”
Brexit tanked the British pound
Euro that cost $1.45 in 2012 costs $1.05 in 2017.
Japanese yen lost 1/3 of value against the dollar from 2012
“It’s never been a better time for Americans to travel abroad (at least from a strong-dollar point of view).
As for where to go, Frommer (and Peter Greenberg as well), also tell Americans not to be discouraged by terror attacks in places like Paris, which has lost 30% of its tourism, a vital economic component. “In certain rooms in the Louvre, I was alone; I didn’t make advanced reservations at restaurants, some of most coveted in Europe; the hotel room, everything was cheaper,” Frommer, who visited Paris in June, says., “And Parisians are happy to see Americans. There’s never been a better time.”
But she points out that a lot of the discomfort for Americans, who see headlines and have little comprehension of geography, is perception:
“What do the UAE, Bahamas, France, New Zealand, United Kingdom have in common? They each issued travel warnings against coming to the United States because of gun violence. We are New Yorkers. We know what it is to bounce back [after a catastrophic event].”
But if you are looking for a city like Paris but has bagels? Montreal is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year. The home city of Cirque d Soleil will be the scene of the craziest, most surreal celebrations – 40 foot tall marionettes marching through streets, 3D projections on the river; you can download a free app of the historic district and as you go through, suddenly there is a Sound & Light show.
Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands; the people changed back the name to the original First Nations name) “has everything that Alaska has – fishing, wilderness areas, First Nation’s culture but without the crowds and 30% cheaper. I highly recommend visiting before it is better known.”
Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world. “Open the doors. Go there but not necessarily Bali – that is over-loved.” She recommends Sula Wessy – an island of incredible culture, architecture, bright green rice paddies, the smallest monkeys on planet, and fascinating cultural rituals. In
Bali, outsiders can go to weddings and funerals, where welcome; in Sula Wessey, funerals are so elaborate that when people die, they are mummified similar to Egyptians, and left in the house; the mummy lives with the family for years because it takes that long to raise money for the funeral. They have elaborate processions, feasts, dances, and water buffalo sacrifices, then finally the body is buried in rock caves. It is fascinating to visit and less touristic than Bali.
Northern Lights. This is the year to see the Northern Lights, a phenomenon caused by storms on the sun that shoot particles into the Earth’s atmosphere. It goes in a 10-year cycle and 2017 is the last year of the cycle. It will be spectacular this year and crumby for the next. There are inland places in Norway, next to Arctic Circle, where there are no worries of fog from the sea obscuring as well as dog sledding.
Pantanal, the largest inland wetland in the world – twice the size of Iceland, is straddles Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay (?). A decade ago, you couldn’t go in, because it was too difficult, but now river boats go in and for nature lovers it is spectacular because all the foliage is low to the ground so you can see more easily than Amazon – 500 species of birds, jaguars, tapirs, giant otters, fascinating wilderness. It is becoming more popular, so go now.
Nashville – hot – wonderful city – 120th anniversary of Ryman, 50th of Country Music Hall of Fame – every kind of music – get off the plane, live musicians. Foodie scene. Parthenon-replica [Nashville considered itself the Athens of the South], – which sounds silly until you visit – it is the symbol for the city which has many universities, a major medical center, a whip smart population. You will meet great people.
Bermuda – will be home to the America’s Cup this year, undergone millions of dollars of infrastructure rejiggering. Martin Samuelson opening restaurant, great chefs opening. The Hamilton Princess has undergone a multi-million renovation. “More than fun in sun, Bermuda has interesting culture (British, high tea, Bermuda shorts without irony) –a really interesting place, historic sites.”
She adds as a “bonus place” to her list: Cuba. “President Trump has said he will shut the door there and he can with sign of pen. It was opened by President Obama by executive order so can be closed down just as quickly. But Cubans are smart, when Trump was elected, they fast-tracked port rights to Carnival and 5 other major lines, fast tracked hotel building permits to Marriott and Hyatt and are trying to get Corporate America on their side so Trump can’t undo relations. But go to Cuba while you can and before the changes that would inevitably come.
Connect with Pauline Frommer at Frommers.com, @frommers, on Facebook Frommers.
New York City’s Chinatown celebrated the Year of the Rooster with its 18th annual Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade & Festival.
US Senator Charles Schumer of New York was the Grand Marshal.
All along the route, Senator Charles Schumer gave a shout out to the largest ethnic Chinese community in the US, to Chinese immigrants, to all immigrants, and finished with a declaration “Immigrants make America great. We need more,” eliciting cheers from the crowd each time, as the parade wound its way along Mott Street.
Periodically, he would make his way to personally greet parade-goers, which included many people from outside the community. The most frequent comment that he heard had to do with somehow torpedoing the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary. “She’ll be terrible,” he said. “We need one more vote. I’m working on it.”
Occasionally a few in the crowd would shout an anti-Trump remark, but in general, the crowd was in the spirit of the Lunar New Year.
This is the Year of the Rooster, the tenth in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac sign. The Years of the Rooster include 1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029.
“The Rooster is almost the epitome of fidelity and punctuality. For ancestors who had no alarm clocks, the crowing was significant, as it could awaken people to get up and start to work. In Chinese culture, another symbolic meaning of chicken carries is exorcising evil spirits,” according to the travelchinaguide.com site.
New York City’s Chinatown, two square miles in lower east side of Manhattan, is the largest Chinatown in the United States and the site of the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere. Manhattan’s Chinatown is also one of the oldest ethnic Chinese communities outside of Asia.
Schumer’s encouragement for immigrants was understandable in Chinatown. With a population estimated between 70,000 and 150,000, Chinatown is the favored destination point for Chinese immigrants, though in recent years the neighborhood has also become home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos among others, according to Sarah Waxma, who writes about the history of Chinatown on the Chinatown-online.com site, which is also a source for planning a visit and touring.
“From the start, Chinese immigrants tended to clump together as a result of both racial discrimination, which dictated safety in numbers, and self-segregation. Unlike many ethnic ghettos of immigrants, Chinatown was largely self-supporting, with an internal structure of governing associations and businesses which supplied jobs, economic aid, social service, and protection. Rather than disintegrating as immigrants assimilated and moved out and up, Chinatown continued to grow through the end of the nineteenth century, providing contacts and living arrangements — usually 5-15 people in a two room apartment subdivided into segments — for the recent immigrants who continued to trickle in despite the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,” she writes.
In remarks that sadly resonate in today’s headlines because of Trump’s Travel Ban on seven predominantly Muslim nations, she notes that “The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), to date the only non-wartime federal law which excluded a people based on nationality, was a reaction to rising anti-Chinese sentiment. This resentment was largely a result of the willingness of the Chinese to work for far less money under far worse conditions than the white laborers and the unwillingness to ‘assimilate properly’.”
There is none of this dark history on view today, only celebration.
At the Lunar New Year, Chinatown becomes a fantastic street party with vendors, food and festivities, and heritage and ancient traditions on view.
“Lunar New Year is the liveliest and most important celebration in Chinese culture and Chinatown is the place to experience it!
The Museum of China in the Americas (MOCA) offers a walking tour that takes visitors through Chinatown to learn about holiday traditions and customs observed by Chinese households. Witness how the neighborhood transforms itself in preparation for the New Year and discover the characteristics that make this holiday unique.”
Tours are conducted in English and are led by MoCA docents with personal or family roots in the neighborhood. In case of inclement weather, tours will be held in the galleries. Advance reservations are required. For information and reservations call 212-619-4785 or purchase tickets online, www.mocanyc.org. (Museum of Chinese in America, 215 Centre Street New York, NY 10013, 855-955-MOCA).
Set along the south shore of Lake Tahoe straddling the California/Nevada state lines, Heavenly Mountain Resort offers one of the most unique ski experiences anywhere, combining stunning views, epic runs, and purist California vibe with the casino hotels and nightlife of Nevada.
Heavenly, which is one of the Vail Resorts, hosts on-mountain aprés ski parties with DJs, dancers, and “Heavenly Angels”, or you can enjoy the entertainment and gambling of the casino hotels at the base of the mountain. The unparalleled views from Heavenly Mountain to the pure blue glacial lake on the California side, and the sweeping desert on the Nevada side are what most entices us city folk to Heavenly.
We come to Lake Tahoe in December, of course, for the epic skiing. Heavenly straddles the California-Nevada state line and is a mountain for everyone, from hard-core tree skiers to pure vista-lovers which even beginner skiers can enjoy. On a single run, you will marvel at sweeping views of snowy mountains and the majestic Lake Tahoe on the California side, juxtaposed with desert vistas on the Nevada side. Intra-run breaks with beer, brats and sun-tanning at Stein’s at the foot of Powerbowl Express and BBQ at East Peak Lodge round out the experience.
For us, the best way to start our day is to drive the seven or so minutes from Hard Rock Hotel, where we are staying, to the California Lodge parking area, stopping for a sumptuous, home-style breakfast at Driftwood Cafe in Heavenly Village. We suit up and secure our rental gear from the base lodge. Heavenly has rentals for the beginner, intermediate, and pro skier, and their staff is incredibly helpful. These days, with airline baggage fees and the hassle of transporting skis and snowboard equipment, renting at the ski destination is often a wonderful opportunity to test out the latest equipment.
Once we have our boots, skis, helmets, and poles, we head right outside to the base of the Gunbarrel and take the Gunbarrel Express lift to head up the mountain.
In mid-December a few of the slopes and ski-lifts are closed, but we are still able to explore most of the mountain, thanks to some incredible snow dumps early in the season. There is a great mix of blue and black runs at Heavenly, with the easier greens still exhilarating because of the incredible views. Ridge Run on the California side is spectacular for cruising and sightseeing; Skyline Trail, a relatively easy blue starting at 10,040 ft elevation, takes you over to Nevada and is one of our favorite runs for its desert views. We start off with spectacular views of the lake and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We ski along the ridge of the mountain and suddenly end up with the sweeping panorama of the Nevada desert and big open sky in the distance. It is truly breathtaking to have this expansive view of such opposite terrains within seconds of each other.
Advanced skiers can dip into Milky Way Bowl where — even if you are en route to the experts-only Mott Canyon — it’s hard to not pause to take in the other-worldly environment.
Stopping to take in the other-worldly environment on Milky Way (photo by Dave E. Leiberman/Travel Features Syndicate).
The action continues in Heavenly Village, where we find apres ski cocktails, live music, and incredible pizza. Basecamp Pizza offers inventive and delectable pies, fire pits, craft beer with great happy hour specials, corn hole, and an Americana band tonight. The vibe is great and the place is packed, even the high-tops by the bar. We luck out and snag one just as a family leaves, and we enjoy the multi-sensual experience. The “Base Camp” specialty pie couldn’t more perfectly hit the spot, even for a couple of New York pizza snobs.
Nightlife Abounds at Hard Rock Hotel
We arrive at the Hard Rock Hotel on the Nevada side of south Lake Tahoe after a long and exhilarating day skiing at Heavenly Mountain Resort. On your way to our room, we are greeted by a wall-sized photo of a huge concert audience opposite the elevator, placing us in the role of performer as soon as the doors open.
That is nothing compared to the breathtaking view we have from our room on the 12th floor. From this height we have a 300 degree view of Lake Tahoe and the panorama of mountains behind. In early December it is surprisingly warm enough for us to watch the sunset from our private balcony.
The room itself is spacious and newly renovated. The room decor continues to make you feel like you’ve just left a rock concert–swanky, sleek, and edgy. The extremely comfortable king size bed and the big flat screen TV are perfect for unwinding after an active day on the slopes.
Then it’s time to explore. The Hard Rock Hotel is filled with Rock memorabilia, and it is fun to search around for autographed guitars from the Monkeys, the Sex Pistols, and Paul McCartney among others, glass cases with famous outfits from tours and other paraphernalia from popular performers.
Our favorite part of the Hard Rock Hotel (besides the room) is The Oyster Bar (the first-ever raw seafood bar of its kind on Tahoe’s South Shore!). We are amused by the fact that, as New Yorkers accustomed to consulting Yelp to find a top restaurant, the Hard Rock’s Oyster Bar is what came up. The Oyster Bar has amazing reviews, and a perfect location on the first floor of Hard Rock Hotel. With only about 20 seats at the horseshoe-shaped bar, there is often a line to get seated. We are lucky both times we visit and are seated right away (yes, we are at Heavenly for two nights and we eat dinner here twice, it is that good).
The seafood-packed Bouillabaise is insanely flavorful and big enough for two to share. Even coming from spending a month in New Orleans, this is perhaps the best Bouillabaisse we’ve ever had. The New England Style Clam Chowder is perfectly creamy and clammy, the Caesar Salad (also huge) has a hint of lemon and is delicious even without the optional added protein, and the Lump Crab Cocktail with Dijon Aioli is perhaps the most generous portion of fresh crab this Baltimore girl has seen. The food is so good it makes you forget that you’re sitting about 5 feet from slot machines. It should also be mentioned that the prices here are extremely reasonable, or even cheap considering the portions. It is in a casino, after all.
The Hard Rock also offers Prime, a modern steakhouse complete with a sophisticated bar, live music, stylish atmosphere and premium dishes. The Park Prime menu was inspired by the Park family, owners of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe and cattle ranchers in northern Nevada, and features local grass-fed, free-range beef, premium seafood, shareable appetizers, an approachable wine list and specialty cocktails in a cozy lounge and bar setting.
The Hard Rock Hotel also has one of Lake Tahoe’s South Lake Tahoe’s newest and hoppingest casinos: 25,000 square feet of casino floor featuring more than 500 state-of-the-art video gaming machines and table games, including Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Three Card Poker, Pai Gow. The lively casino fills the ground floor with energy any time of night.
It also offers a major entertainment venue with a calendar chock full of events. There is a large heated outdoor pool, which, alas closes at 5pm so we weren’t able to use it ourselves.
The Hard Rock Hotel is well located in South Lake Tahoe, walking distance to Heavenly Village (and most importantly, the central Gondola that whisks you up to Heavenly Mountain with a spectacular view down to Lake Tahoe), and about a 7 minute drive to California Lodge. For us, because we have a car, the California Lodge is the easiest and quickest way to get to the mountain and affords us the convenience of parking our car just a few yards away from the lift.
(Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe, 50 Highway 50, Stateline, NV 89449, 844-588-7625, hardrockcasinolaketahoe.com. Inside secret: the Hard Rock Hotel has a special department that offers discounted ski-and-stay packages, 877-518-7768, but the allotment sells out.)
Zalanta Luxury Condo Opens this Season
After our last day on the slopes, we are lucky to get a sneak peak of Zalanta Resort at the Village, Heavenly’s new luxury ownership condominium development right in the center of town, scheduled to open February 2017, which is also the first lodging in South Lake Tahoe to come under Vail Resorts management. Just across the street from the Heavenly Gondola, Zalanta’s central location and lodge-like architecture feels perfectly integrated into the fabric of Heavenly Village.
On the bottom floor of the property, there is a storefront with about 20,000 square feet of retail space that fits right in with the stores along Lake Tahoe Boulevard, as well as an 8,000 square foot restaurant. Residents and guests enter through the spacious lobby with windowed facades showcasing both the lobby and pool area out back. Also on the first floor is a large yoga and workout room that shares beautiful views to the pool oasis.
The units are incredibly spacious and range in size from pool-view 2-bedroom suites to 4-bedroom suites with wrap-around decks and mountain views. At the time of our tour, there were slated to be 20 two-bedroom units ranging in square footage from 1140 to 1700 sq. ft.; six 3-bedroom units between 1600 to 1800 sq. ft., and two 4-bedroom units around 2290 sq. ft. Every unit has washer/dryer, at least one fireplace, and almost all have a private deck. Most of the units have an open plan kitchen and living room with 18 foot ceilings at the tallest peak and 10-ft ceilings in the kitchen and bedrooms to create a cozier home ambiance.
In keeping with the luxury lifestyle feeling of the development, each unit is complete with high-end finishes. The kitchens each have beautiful hard wood cabinetry, marble backsplash, grey slate countertops, and energy efficient Kitchenaid appliances. Every aspect of the climate and location has been taken into consideration during the planning stages of the condominium. The 2nd floor carpeting, 3rd floor wood flooring, and double-paned glass windows in each unit offer maximum insulation and shield against the noise from the bustling Heavenly Village outside. There are even heated sidewalks throughout the property.
On the opposite side of the building from Heavenly Village, the pool area creates a quiet oasis away from the action of the town. The pool area, open year-round, features 2 wading pools, 2 hot tubs, and of course a large central heated pool. There is also a private lakeside beach just 3 blocks away, to which all owners and guests have access.
Zalanta, which means “spiritual mountain”, embodies the Heavenly experience, at once luxurious and rustic, majestic and cozy, the best of all worlds.
EpicMix Time Expands to Lake Tahoe
This season, Vail Resorts expanded its EpicMix™ Time to Heavenly Resort, Northstar and Kirkwood (also Lake Tahoe), as well as Park City Utah, which let’s you access real-time lift line wait times so you can better navigate the mountain and make the most out of your ski and ride experience. EpicMix Time uses proprietary technology to calculate and display up-to-the-minute chairlift and gondola line wait times. This innovative application of crowd-sourcing technology debuted last year at the Vail Resorts’ four Colorado resorts, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone.
EpicMix is an online and mobile application that allows you to digitally capture your ski and ride experience, and share it with friends and family. This is all possible through radio frequency (RF) technology loaded onto all hard card passes. State-of-the-art RF scanners are installed at all 10 Vail Resorts so you can seamlessly keep track of your vertical feet, days skied, special accomplishments.
Jet Blue from JFK to Reno/Tahoe
It is easier than ever to get to Heavenly from the New York area: JetBlue offers a nonstop direct flight from JFK into Reno-Tahoe Airport (RNO), which is 40 minutes drive away (will be cut down to 20-30 minutes when the high-speed highway is completed); local companies offer shuttle service. The flight departs JFK at 7:30 pm, arriving RNO at 11:01 pm and returns RNO at 11:52 pm, arriving JFK at 7:59 am; the flight is not daily so check jetblue.com for schedule.
Now we set out to travel south along what has come to be known as the CA Highway 1 Discovery Route, a scenic 101-mile stretch of Highway 1 along Coastal San Luis Obispo County, from Ragged Point to the dunes of Nipomo, with scores of picturesque villages, uncrowded beaches, state parks and wilderness areas, and bountiful wine regions.
Our destination is Avila Beach, an inlet cove off the Pacific that features several piers, a fabulous beach, golf course and a great wine trail in downtown Avila, hidden among the restaurants and shops.
We make it to Kelsey See Canyon Vineyard just before sunset. Through an unintended series of adoptions years back, over 200 peacocks now roam the winery. This is not your typical wine tour stop and we suggest budgeting extra time for Kelsey. The Vineyard is family owned and these are some of the friendliest and most welcoming hosts you’ll meet anywhere. If you are not into wine, come for the art or the newly developing hard cider production. During much of the year the family hosts local musicians and barbecues on site for local patrons and club members, taking advantage of their spacious outside seating area. Over the years this place has grown with both membership sales and local popularity and is bustling when we visit during the off peak season.
This is truly a family business in all senses. They’ll make you feel so at home you won’t want to leave. The roots of their story about how they got into wine go way back. Originally the family was involved with abalones and through a series of industry transformations they became wine producers. Colleen, the Kelseys’ niece, is an artist whose latest endeavors include jazz-inspired paintings which often appear on the wine bottles. Her most iconic piece – referencing the family roots of deep sea abalone diving and her love of mermaids, originally painted on a surfboard – is the Kelsey signature.
Leading our tour is Jac Jacobs, an industry veteran who’s worked at many vineyards, but has found what seems like a second family here at Kelsey. Jac is the most down-to-earth, knowledgeable winemaker we’ve ever met. You will leave feeling like you can explain wine to others without sounding pretentious.
One of the most amazing things about Jac is that he had never had cider before starting to work for Kelsey. But when they asked him to make cider he said, “Sure.” He used his novel approach and invented a new cider. Typically, the sweetness in cider comes from the apple’s natural fermentation process, but early on, Jac adds a little bit of sugar to the mixture, creating a unique cider that is neither too sweet or too bitter. When it comes to apples, Kelsey is most known for their Golden Delicious Chardonnay, a crisp white wine that is dangerously drinkable. Although the heart of this operation is at their winery in Avila, their online shop lets you enjoy Kelsey wines from other parts of the country as well.
(Kelsey See Canyon Vineyard, 1947 See Canyon Road San Luis Obispo, CA 93405 www.KelseyWine.com)
After our wine and cider tasting at Kelsey, we check into The Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, the perfect destination for a relaxing and romantic getaway and our babymoon. Each guest room and suites features a terrace with its own mineral springs hot tub. On a cool winter night, it’s a perfect way to unwind from an active day. We stay in “Heavenly”, a 2-bedroom, 2-bath Suite. There is one queen bedroom and an even larger master bedroom with ensuite bathroom, both with access to the private terrace. The setup is perfect for a family or (in our case) for two couples. The living room is spacious and comfortable with a large modern flat screen TV and electronic fireplace to help set the mood. The large table in the dining area is a nice place to share a dinner and really makes you feel like you’re home. If you do decide to cook, this suite offers a fully equipped kitchen with a large wooden cutting board even built into the countertop. The Sycamore is just a few steps away from the Avila Valley Barn and a quick 4-minute drive from some incredible restaurants on the beach.
The Sycamore is a destination for both locals and tourists. It has a Yoga Dome with daily fitness classes included with your reservation. If you want to bump it up a notch, treat yourself at their award winning spa. For daytime guests, there are also 23 open-air naturally heated mineral spring hot tubs on the hillside around the property, as well as a private Oasis Waterfall Lagoon, all rentable by the hour. If you end up renting Pedego bikes nearby, this would be an idyllic pit-stop. The gift shop is worth a quick look and accompanies the relaxing paradise perfectly.
(The Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, 1215 Avila Beach Dr San Luis Obispo, CA 93405 805-595-7302, www.sycamoresprings.com.)
The Ocean Grill, right on the water, is a dining experience not to be missed. The pleasant aroma of wood fire greets you as enter this three-year-old restaurant. The restaurant went through a few different chefs and iterations of the menu before it found its current niche, which seems to hit all the right notes. This is one of a few local high-end places that is both accessible to locals and tourists.
Everything we try is delectable and we’ll tell you exactly what to order. The Brussel sprouts are crispy, roasted just perfectly to a slight char and accompanied by a balsamic reduction, goat cheese, and orange sauce. If you don’t love Brussel sprouts this could change your mind. The mussels are another not-to-be-missed appetizer with a garlicky broth that may make you want to lick the shell when no one’s looking and grab more of the focaccia bites to dip in. The basil pesto risotto with burrata (to which we add shrimp), is succulent and not your everyday risotto. Since we skip the salad this time, we opt for the side of pan roasted garlic broccolini.
Our helpful waiter Jake recommends the scallops. Scallops and calamari are two local favorites we see at many of the restaurants in the area. The Normand wood fired white pizza with brie, sliced apples, arugula, and garlic cream sauce had us licking our fingers. The local Morro Bay blackened cod with miso-glaze and Thai-inspired sauce and salad is incredibly flavorful. The texture is perfectly flakey and this is possibly the best fish we have on the entire trip.
But now, as far as the best anything anywhere, we’ll tell you about the desert. Eating the brown butter chocolate chip skillet cookie with ice cream and hot fudge is a race against time; from the moment you smell it coming out of the kitchen to the 60 seconds before you get to the last bite (because you will eat it that fast). Save room. The combination of hardened chocolate shell on top of the creamy, cold pure vanilla ice cream on a sizzling freshly baked chocolate chip cookie is perfect. As we finish our dessert Jake comes by and asks: “Should I load you up another?” If your waiter asks you this, the obvious answer is yes. We almost finish the second one before our friend makes it back to the table.
This is a family friendly restaurant perfect for foodie families. We see a number of children during our visit who may actually be convinced to eat their vegetables here. Definitely bring a bottle or two of wine from Kelsey Vineyards up the road which pairs great for the meal. Like most restaurants in this area you can bring the wine from your recent wine tasting and for a small corkage fee have your waiter pair your dinner with your own bottle(s). At Ocean Grill, you can eat in the more casual bistro area near the bar or enter into the more intimate dining enclosed porch area overlooking the ocean with heat lamps to keep you cozy in the winter. We enjoy a nice stroll on the beach after dinner seconds away while listening to the waves crash against the shore. It is the perfect ending to a perfect meal.
We eat a quick breakfast at the Sycamore. The vegetarian omelet with roasted kale and asparagus is good as are the eggs Benedict with crab. It is one of the better Benedicts we’ve had on the Pacific. The fresh juice bar is great with some interesting combinations of fresh fruit and vegetables. The sausage has a ton of flavor with a hint of fennel. The breakfast burrito is quite filling but you could put it down in ten minutes if you need to.
E-Bike Adventurein Avila Beach
We arrive at Pedego Bikes in Avila Beach and are greeted by the super friendly Brunsting family. They introduce us to Pedego electric bikes, a really fun way to get to know any area. Pedego offers a variety of bikes to fit all shapes, sizes, and fitness levels (this works perfectly for our babymoon). Some of the newer models offer pedal assist, the “cruise control” for biking. Debbie, one of the owners, offers just enough guidance so you feel comfortable on these electric bikes, and has great suggestions and tips of what things/places you might want to check out on the bikes. She gives you a notated map and excitedly emphasizes that anywhere you wander in this area will be worth it and that the adventure is yours to create. It’s easy to quickly get the hang of the electric bikes. However, after zipping up the coasts and hillsides it may be hard to go back to a regular old manual bike, even with 21 gears. Pedego Bikes also offers vouchers for Kelsey Sea Canyon Winery and another winery next store.
(Open Daily: 10am-5pm, Pedego Bikes, First Street, Avila Beach, CA 93424, 805-627-1414 425 www.pedegocc.com.)
We start our electric bike adventure on The Bob Jones Trail. This beautiful walking and bike path leads right to the Avila Valley Barn.
First started in 1985, the Avila Valley Barn is a local favorite for the freshest fruit and vegetables of the area. Not only will you find wonderful fresh produce you can pick up home baked pies, bakery treats or unique gifts. You can visit a farm pet area, where you can feed goats, pigs, horses, sheep, and donkeys. Hayrides are also available every weekend.
(Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.Avila Valley Barn,560 Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach, CA 93405 (805) 595-2816;www.avilavalleybarn.com.)
Biking the trail is an ideal way to spend a few hours in Avila Beach and get to see both the beach side of the town as well as the hills and natural beauty. At the barn, so many cute farm animals greet you as well as more surprising ones like the emu and strange looking chickens. Shell beach and Pismo Beach is right around the bend, where you can park your bikes and gaze at the beautiful, rugged coastline. If you catch the tide when it’s low, there are various sea creatures like the abalones hanging out in the tidal pools. It’s also fun to watch the surfers splashing around in the cold water in their wetsuits.
After a short ride up the hill and the coast, assisted by the electric batteries, we cross a bridge bringing us to the dock on the Port San Luis Harbor, where people gather to watch the active seals, fish, and enjoy the 360 degree water view. Vendors flayed fresh fish on the dock as we arrived at Mersea’s.
Mersea’s on the Pier in Avila Beach (photo by Dave E. Leiberman/Travel Features Syndicate)
We enjoy our fresh seafood lunch at Mersea’son the Pier and highly recommend this stop when you are in Avila Beach. Atmospherically, it’s a memorable lunch stop. The seals bark and fight for valuable real-estate on the floating dock near this seaside-perched restaurant. At Mersea’s you order at the window from their extensive menu of seafood, sandwiches, and other local favorites. They had some good looking bloody Mary’s and beer options as well. If you get the taco’s we recommend the shrimp. The fried oysters and chips were delicious as were the raw oysters, which were bigger than our fists. It’s a pretty great spot for Instagrammers.
(Mersea’s on the Pier in Avila, 3985 Avila Beach Drive Avila Beach, CA 93252, 805-548-2290.)
Morro Bay and the Highway 1 Discovery Route, between Los Angeles and San Francisco, are packed with wonderful places that put the emphasis on relaxed adventure over the frenetic pace of their book-ended cities. The tranquility and peacefulness of the California’s central coast offers a level of intimacy that is difficult to find in San Francisco and L.A. The mix of outdoor activity, fine dining, and relaxed pace makes for the perfect getaway for two couples from New York City and Atlanta, whether for a babymoon, a reunion of friends, a romantic getaway, or an anytime retreat.
For more information on planning a trip contact Morro Bay Tourism, 695 Harbor Street, Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-225-1570, www.morrobay.org; For more information on Highway 1 Discovery Route, visit highway1discoveryroute.com.
By Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Maya Kessel, Andrew Kessel
We are four friends, two couples, from different cities, who get together as often as we can, although not as often as we’d like, to go on adventures. With the first baby expected in our group, we thought we’d take one last adventure before the greatest adventure of all. Hence, our first “babymoon.”
Our adventure takes place in Morro Bay and along California’s Highway 1, a gorgeous Pacific coastal road that embraces the mood of dreamers and wanderers who tend to find themselves there. Before this trip some of us hadn’t even heard of a babymoon or Morro Bay (except in the recent movie “Finding Dory”). In thinking about winter holiday destinations, Zika prevented us from considering many Southern spots while a ski trip for a 6-month pregnant woman was similarly a bad choice.
Instead, we set our sights on the Central Coast of California, easily accessible from Los Angeles airport while still providing a great escape from the wintrier East Coast. We did not know what to expect. What we discovered was an amazing combination of outdoor sports and nature, wine, gastronomic delights featuring some of the best seafood we’ve ever had, and so much more, all nestled in beautiful California coastal towns.Highway 1 is famous for its windy roads beside perilous cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The 101-mile-long Highway 1 Discovery Route is situated between San Francisco and L.A. attracts 3 to 4 million visitors a year. Along the route you will find such popular attractions as the Hearst Castle, the Elephant Seal Rookery, dozens of wine vineyards (11 just in the 40 minute drive from Rock to Castle), oyster farms, and charming coastal towns. This region is remarkably diverse, yet it’s a compact area, ideal to satisfy the wanderlust of our expectant mother who is otherwise more inclined to climb a mountain than sit back and stare at it.
Our home base for the first 3 days is Morro Bay, a picturesque and friendly fishing town on the bay that is home to a state and national estuary and bird sanctuary. Once a remote fishing village, Morro Bay is still a busy harbor with an active commercial fishing fleet. Most impressive is how Morro Bay as a community is leading the way in sustainable small fleet fishing practices nationwide, helping support this thriving fishing community. Sustainability and respect for the environment is a theme that carried through our adventure.
Food & Wine
This is a bountiful wine region and our first stop on our adventure in Morro Bay is the Chateau Margene, one of 10 wineries located along the Pacific Coast Wine Trail, for wine tasting. They have two different wine flights to try and the tasting fee is waived if you buy 2 bottles. We loved learning about the Mooney Family and the production of each of the wines we tried. This boutique, micro-winery produces only 3,000 cases a year of luxury award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends, as well as Pinot Noir. Owner Michael Mooney co-founded the Cab Collective out of Paso Robles highlighting the many award-winning Cabernets found in the region that rival Napa. One definite perk is that it’s open late and right in the center of town (the only winery nearby open past 5), making it a great spot to hit up just before dinner. If wine isn’t your thing they also have superb infused olive oils and local vinegar samples. (Chateau Margene, 845 Embarcadero, 805-225-1235, www.chateaumargene.com).
Next stop, dinner at Windows on the Water, a fine dining restaurant that has a gorgeous panoramic view of the bay and a friendly atmosphere. They also have a lively bar area, live music many nights, and regular weekly specials including $5 martini Mondays, $.75 oyster Tuesdays (elsewhere around town we hear that Tuesdays are the big crab night), and Sliders & Beer Wednesdays and $1 Taco & Tequila Thursdays. Windows, like a few of the other restaurants we visited, emphasizes the season-driven approach to continually changing menus.
They take pride in their sustainably raised livestock and seafood and locally sourced produce, so you can feel good about how your dinner was caught and prepared while savoring in the delicious freshness of the food. Their wine flights highlight local vineyards and an extensive wine list showcases the expertise of their in-house sommelier, Chris Battles.
There is something on this menu for everyone. Starters and salads range from $10-20 and are small, but packed with flavor. Entrees are between $25-39 and fairly large. Our waitress Elizabeth recommends the local halibut and pork loins. Windows is famous for its local sand dabs (a lighter white fish maybe similar to a flounder, but sweeter), so popular, that it is sadly sold out by the time we arrive. Their bread and own garlic and herbs olive oil and vinegar dip is so good, it is hard not to fill up on it before dinner. We enjoy the very crispy, full-of-sprouts crab cakes with a fresh arugula salad pre-entree. For dessert we taste the three homemade ice cream scoops, which, like the rest of the menu, rotate with the season (in the past they’ve had lucky charms and peanut butter chocolate ice cream). We enjoy a vanilla, toasted coconut, and egg nog ice cream perfect for the season. One of the best vanilla ice creams we’ve ever tried. (Windows on the Water,699 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-772-0677, www.windowsmb.com).
We head to our accommodations, 456 Embarcadero Inn and Suites, wonderfully well located in the central part of town, with spectacular views of the coast and the great Morro Rock, so we can just park our car and leave it for the duration of their of our stay in Morro Bay. The front desk staff goes above and beyond. They even offer us blankets for our whale watching tour. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and even feature a gas fireplace. The inn offers 33 boutique guestrooms, each with a panoramic view of the bay and the iconic rock from a private deck. Showers come with dispensers, which are appreciated over the typical wasteful bottles of shampoo and soap provided at most hotels. The hot tub is a welcomed, very modern styled amenity, snuck away in a nook on the second floor. Breakfast comes complimentary and is a nice filling way to start the day. The inn is family-owned and operated and pet-friendly.
(456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites,456 Embarcadero Blvd., Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-772-2700, www.embarcaderoinn.com).
Early the next morning we set off for the whale watching adventure with Sub Sea Tour Whale Watching. The staff is professional, courteous, and very friendly. The small boat carries about 20 of us for the 3-hour trip. We sail passed the iconic Morro Rock for a great photo op and stop by the half-mile beacon mark on our way out as well where seals tend to gather.
The famous Morro Rock, now a State Historic Landmark, is the most distinctive and recognizable landmark of Morro Bay. The 576-foot tall mass of volcanic rock rises above the Pacific Ocean, separating the inviting sands of Morro Strand State Beach from the blue waters of Morro Bay Harbor.
While the seas were a bit choppy the lighting was perfect for spotting whales as our guide shared interesting facts about the area and its wildlife. In fact, mid to late December marks the beginning of the great migration of the Gray Whale. Unlike New England and other places famous for whale watching, December whale watching in Central California is very doable. Seeing wildlife, including whales on a tour is always somewhat of a gamble (they report sightings on 90% of their trips). Unfortunately, we are in the 10% and don’t get a whale sighting. Be sure to dress in layers since it can get chilly (and windy!) out at sea.
After whale watching, we have lunch just a few feet away at Blue Sky Bistro. We sample a variety of items on the menu including the lobster bisque, clam chowder, Mahi Mahi sandwich, California burgers, and Sailor Benedict eggs. Blue Sky is picturesque, affordable, filling, and the service is friendly.
Next up is the famous castle on the hill about 40 minutes north of Morro Bay: Hearst Castle. The 40,000 acres of ranchland was originally purchased by George Hearst for family retreats. Newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst inherited the land in 1919, by that time having grown to more than 250,000 acres. He dreamed of building a retreat for friends and a place to house his immense art collection. He hired the first woman architect in California, Julia Morgan, and together they built “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill) into what is now the 165-room Hearst Castle. To tour the castle and its surrounding property, you must buy tickets in advance, as they often sell out. A bus with an audio introduction leads visitors up the gorgeous winding road to the top of the “Enchanted Hill”. The views from the top of the hill alone are worth the trip.
We take the Grand Room Tour, where the knowledgeable docent leads us around the property and through the Assembly Room, the Refectory, Billiard Room, and Theater, getting a sense of what it would have been like for guests who visited W.H. Hearst. Sitting at 200-year old Italian wood tables amidst sterling silver candles and scepters from Ireland, and medieval hand-painted silk banners from Siena, Italy overhead, diners would use paper napkins, Heinz Ketchup bottles and yellow mustard, as the media mogul believed a casual atmosphere would make his guests (often celebrities and politicians) more likely to open up and share stories.
Beginning building his San Simeon retreat in the 1920s, Hearst was able to capitalize on the many European collectors desperate to sell after WWI had left much of the region in shambles. Every surface of the rooms is decorated with pieces from his collection (about 25,000 artifacts). Not one to follow advice of art dealers or others, his collection represents his own eclectic taste, which encompassed everything from 15th Century BC Egyptian statues, 16th Century Spanish and 18th Century Italian ceilings, 6th Century BC Greek terracotta pottery, Renaissance paintings, Flemish tapestries, 15th Century Gothic fireplaces, 15th century religious painting, and much more. For most of the 20th century, the estate even had the world’s largest private zoo, with guests driving up alongside bison, elk, zebras, llamas, kangaroos, camels, sambar deer from India, African and Asian antelope and other exotic animals.
With Hearst’s public opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal, and Union strikes and boycotts of his properties, the financial strength of his empire began to suffer. Even amidst the declined circulation of his major publications, Hearst continued his outlandish purchases of expensive art and antiques. Ultimately Hearst went into millions of dollars of debt (when a million dollars really meant something), had to sell his exotic animals to the Los Angeles Zoo, stopped construction on his estate, leaving parts of the exterior unfinished, sold off much of his art collection and had to pay rent to live in his San Simeon castle.
Just up the coast from Hearst Castle is a famous breeding ground for elephant seals. You can’t call this a hidden gem as it is a well-known attraction but everyone is able to get great views of the playful seals doing their thing. We have a first-hand look at young males sparring for dominance while others sleep undisturbed, groan loudly, flip sand onto their backs or cuddle. Watching these enormous surprisingly cute creatures play, it’s easy for us to forget to look out at the beautiful pacific sunset behind them.
The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar is recommended to us by the captain of our whale watching tour as the place to go to really treat yourself, “especially if you want incredibly fresh seafood”. The Galley has a wall of windows overlooking the Bay, warm, modern decor, intimate tables and cozy booths for larger groups. Highlighting their belief in serving only the finest and freshest, their specialty is their “Naked Fish”, with a trio of light sauces served on the side. We share a series of dishes: a perfect Caesar salad with Spanish anchovies, Ceviche, the Original Galley Clam Chowder (their same secret recipe since 1966), Pan Seared Scallops, Blackened Pacific Rockfish (Naked), and a New Zealand Rack of Lamb with Kalamata olive tapenade. The portions are well sized and even the appetizers are ample enough to share. The Blackened Pacific Rockfish was cooked so perfectly it seems to melt in your mouth, and indeed, is so flavorful there is no need for the delicious sauces offered on the side. We top off our meal with their Grand Marnier Creme Bruleé. With nice size portions, the freshest ingredients, distinctive flavors, and attentive service, we love every minute of our dining experience at The Galley. (The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, 899 Embarcadero Morro Bay, CA 93442)
Kayaking in the Morro Bay Estuary
After breakfast at The Embarcadero, we set out for our next great outdoor adventure kayaking in the Morro Bay Estuary Natural Preserve. We meet Craig, our guide from Central Coast Outdoorsfor the tour, who provides an intimate and comprehensive account of wildlife in the area as well as the relationship of the local people to it. The Morro Bay Estuary Natural Preserve and its 800-acre wetland are home to more than 250 species of land, sea, and shore birds, both migratory and resident, and dozens of endangered species. The great blue herons and the great and snowy egrets roost all year at the Heron and Cormorant Rookery located near the entrance of the Museum of Natural History. (The tours are complimentary but it is customary to tip your guide.)
The weather is perfect and the estuary waters are calm, unlike the open waters of the bay next to it. This is a perfect activity for our expectant mother, who reclines in comfort while getting some exercise in between guided stops and her husband at the back of the two-person kayak.
He takes us along the Estuary with stops to view the countless species of local birds spiraling around us. We spot dozens of bird species and lots of adorable harbor seals. If you’re a fan of these guys, this is one of the best ways to have a close encounter, as a few seal friends traveled alongside our kayak with their pups for a while (just be careful not to get too close so that you don’t disturb their natural habitat!). We learn that estuaries are an ideal natural breeding ground providing protection from larger predators, and we got to see this firsthand.
One of the most memorable sights is seeing the natural fireworks as the birds circle around, rapidly alternating between camouflaging into the background and suddenly reappearing as their white feathers turn towards you. Additionally, despite (or perhaps because of) its historically-dependent marine economy, Morro Bay has taken important steps, even leading-edge techniques that are considered a model, to protect their wildlife. The Limited Entry fleet targets ground fish using non-trawl gear (hook and line, trap, long line). They’ve taken measures to maintain clean waters so that agriculture and nearby homes do not cause any environmental degradation of these important waters.
Every tour is unique and Craig considers the weather conditions of the day, tidal patterns, rider abilities, and timing to piece together an ideal tour. Craig also leads bicycle, hiking, and other tours for Central Coast Kayaks.
After Kayaking, we have a wonderful lunch at Bayside Cafe, just opposite Central Coast’s dock. Originally started in 1986 by a Cal Poly grad as a walk-up cafe, it quickly became so popular that it had to expand to include a casual bay-side dining area with a large outdoor terrace. The restaurant is bustling with a line out the door from the time we enter to the time we leave. Not a bad place to wait for a table, as you can easily kill time hanging out on the benches, dock, or grassy areas along the water. Bayside has an extensive menu filled with local ingredients and both foodie and kid favorites alike. Some food highlights are their fresh salad with grilled catch-of-the-day, amazing thick calamari strips that are meatier than any calamari we’ve had, salmon tacos, and their ever popular fish & chips (definitely get the large!). To cap off our lunch we indulge in their huge serving of homemade mudpie. Hard to choose from their list of pie specialties, but if you like chocolate, this one is not to be missed! On top of the very friendly service, big portions, and awesome food, the vibe here is familial and relaxed, the view beautiful from any seat. This is the perfect lunch spot to rest and indulge while exploring Morro Bay.
(Bayside Café, In the Morro Bay Marina across from Morro Bay State Park Campground, #10 State Park Rd, Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-772-1465).
Morro Bay also has some distinctly interesting shops and attractions:
Junque Love (699 Embarcadero) specializes in an eclectic mix of vintage and repurposed goods, and represents the heart and soul of old coastal California, featuring artists from all over California that repurpose vintage items into new goods; (805-821-1154; www.facebook.com/Gatheringjunquelove/)
Morro Bay Skateboard Museum preserves the complete history of skateboarding,from the early 1930′s to present day, featuring more than 200 skateboards from all eras with rotating exhibits from extensive private collections (601 Embarcadero Road; 805-610-3565; www.mbskate.com).
The Estuary Nature Center located upstairs in the Marina Square Building at 601 Embarcadero is free and provides a place to experience the beauty of the estuary and learn about protecting habitats and wildlife (805-772-3834, www.mbnep.org/Learn/nature_center.html).
After our satisfying meal at Bayside Cafe, we hit the road and continue south on our adventure along the Highway 1 Discovery Route. First stop is the Kelsey See Canyon Winery.
For more information on planning a trip, contact Morro Bay Tourism, 695 Harbor Street, Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-225-1570, www.morrobay.org. For more information on Highway 1 Discovery Route, visit highway1discoveryroute.com.
When RJ Rosegarten left Great Neck 17 years ago, where he had gone to school, raised a family, had a career in advertising and served as Mayor of the Village of Great Neck Plaza, he was finally free to pursue an ambition from childhood: to be an artist.
He returns to the Gold Coast Arts Center in Great Neck Plaza – which as mayor he helped bring fruition – with a show, “Lost & Found: the Art of Assemblage” which draws upon his strong sense of design and construction. The exhibition is on view through March 12.
“Assemblage involves the thoughtful combination of elements to create something new and original,” states Jude Amsel, the curator who installed the massive exhibit of some 50 works.
RJ Rosegarten (better known by Great Neckers as Bob) claims that the pieces are not intended to hammer home a theme or message or story, that he approaches the work from the point of view of design, color and form, meticulously choosing objects that together form the image he has conceptualized in his mind.
At the end of it, he says, he comes up with a title. “That’s often the most difficult part,” he says.
His humor comes through with the titles (“it’s Great to be King”), but don’t read in a theme or moral – it’s for the beholder to find your own meaning.
But if the piece is built around an aesthetic, the choice of objects – each with their own meaning – the title, in fact, broadcasts a mood, emotion or message even if was subconsciously in Rosegarten’s mind, or resounds in the viewer’s own head. The design captures your attention, but then you keep going back to explore and discover and your head forms its own patterns and themes.
These aren’t objects. These aren’t randomly selected. Each element is meticulously chosen – sometimes involving longtime searches.
He describes his effort obtaining just the right red delicious apples (so realistic you think they are actual fruit), for his piece, “Legacy of the Red Apple,” (2016). He had two heads that he fused into one, like Siamese twins. Why apples? “In the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge had fruit.”
He can tell you the provenance of each object in the piece – where he obtained the silver head in “Sarah Silverstone Presents” and how it took a long time before he found just the sunglasses he wanted for the piece, how the drawer it is assembled in came from a factory (the writing is on the side). He sees Sarah as a person, referring to Sarah as “her”. Indeed, the two gauges and thermometer evoke her personhood, even symbolically.
There is a story behind every piece – about how I got there, where the pieces came from – can tell you where every piece came from – glasses – looked for it a long time – looked for a long time where to put – fit on Sarah – gauge, knew where it would go – design them, lay them out, do not glue them, leave for a week, come back and keep looking at them, move around, put pieces in/out, then glue, last stage – once glue, sign name, over – can’t go back and say I wish I put a ball in there.
“Sarah Silverstone has a twin sister,” he says, explaining that he bought two of the metallic faces. “Sarah represented to me the absolute woman, a sexy woman; her sister is so sexy, every time I pass her, I talk to her, ‘Hope you have a nice day.’”
He has the same personal connection with the “Wizard of Odd” and the “Thought Collector”.
The personal connection is manifest in his work, Dorzi/Dorzi, built around a vinyl record, but not just any 1950s 45rpm. His friend made the label to suggest it was made by the Bobby Randall 3 band. You learn that Bobby Randall, he explains was non-ethnic name Rosegarten was going to use when got out of college and was going into advertising. (He was discouraged from changing his name by his grandmother.) There are 3 hands – for the three band members, in a pose as if they are snapping their fingers to the beat.
His grandmother and grandfather appear again in small photographs that are embedded into a series of four “Junk Drawer” works.
Junk Drawers may look like a hodgepodge, but are not random, he says.
“I visualize what junk drawers have,” he says. “Everyone has junk drawers – in bedrooms, kitchens, desk drawer, basement.” He chooses the items that fill the drawers (which he builds) independently, and over time, lays them out and photographs them. “Then I take everything out and glue back the items one by one.”
The Junk Drawer series each has a photograph of grandmother and grandfather at Rockaway Beach.
One of the boxes has a plastic Howdy Doody figure, while another has the Princess character from the show. He says he goes for colors, shapes and looks for holes.
“It’s not nostalgia,” he insists. But as he knows the provenance of every piece – some have personal connection, like the photos of his grandparents and a John Lennon/Imagine photo.
“Every time you look, you see something else.” Or actually, you “find” something new.
But looking at the items, it is hard not to become nostalgic as you find items that spark memories of your own past. The Junk Drawer series and his Americana series are like mini-Smithsonians of American cultural icons of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and so forth.
Rosegarten says he loves making the Junk Drawers and would customize for someone on commission. “I would go to your house and if you didn’t have the elements I wanted, I would ask if I could use some of mine.”
The pieces he chooses are specific – he combs particular shops (he has his favorites for manikins in the Garment District), antique stores, flea markets, garage and barn sales, which “are entertainment in the country and have become an essential part of my new work with found objects. One day I might find a rusted scythe with a broken wooden handle; the next day a box of glass dolls’ eyes or a red View-Master. I put the material in labeled boxes and store them to be rediscovered.
“When I select objects for a new composition, I may sit with them for days, moving them around like pieces on a chessboard until they take shape. Placement and balance are key. I remove pieces; add others, balancing shadows, shapes, textures and color until I know instinctively that the work is completed: the new composition has taken on another dimension, a unity of its own and gained strength and character.”
Rosegarten, who grew up in Great Neck (he graduated high school with movie director Francis Ford Coppola), now lives “in the country” in upstate New York, in a house he built 17 years ago where he has a 30 x 30 ft studio off his bedroom that opens to a deck and pond, and a 2500- sq ft basement work area.
His collected objects are neatly organized in labeled tubs under tables – machine parts, metal parts, extra toys, manikin hands.“Everything has a place, a place for everything.”
Often, he visualizes the entire piece in his head before he starts his assemblage.
“I just finished a piece Thursday. It doesn’t have a name (or does it have a name): The Quick Brown Dog Jumps Over the Lazy Fox. Why? Because part of the visual – a box,with 2 white hands, at the top has the keyboard of a very very small typewriter –a vertical piece, a piece at bottom, a nodule on top hands,. The sense of design is perfect. It was in my head.”
“I never went to art school, except for a month at the Art Students League, Bruce Dorfman, teaching there since early 60s – he said, push the envelope. It’s ok if off-center, if you don’t have anything there and want it to sit there.”
Indeed, it is so ironic considering that most people move to Great Neck from New York City because of the public schools, that his big regret is that when his family was still living in the Bronx, he was accepted into Music & Art, but before he could attend, his family moved to Great Neck.
“I should have gone to Music & Art. I would have had an art background and the chances are I would have gone to Pratt, School of Visual Arts, or Cooper Union.” He said his father was not keen on Rosegarten going into advertising, but had he had an art background, he would have been on the creative side, instead of a “suit.” “I would have been more Don Draper than the account guy.”
He was doing painting until 1990s, then, around 2000, he went to an antique show on 6th Avenue and came upon wooden patterns which were used to make metal parts in the early 1900s. “I bought 20 of them –they were inexpensive – I didn’t know what I would do with them. I washed them off, That’s when I started.“
It fit into his overarching philosophy of reuse, repurpose, renewal – “an ability to use things that have been tossed away and have them come back and serve another purpose – Lost and Found (is what I call it). I’m not interested in what is sold in dollar store but things that have age, patina, character. Snapshot” is built around an antique folded camera and tractor parts.
“I take individual pieces that by themselves are utilitarian and they become a “body” – a personality. Each has its own personality.”
The exhibit also includes Rosegarten’s paintings, which have the look and vibe of Pop. “Just as I have reinvented myself a number of times in the past 30 years, so too has my art undergone a metamorphosis. Over the last ten years, it has moved from post-Pop paintings to a more muscular sculptural medium, where form and design take precedence over color.”
Regina Gil, Founder/Executive Director of the Arts Center, writes in her introduction to the catalog:
“In this latest chapter of his creative life, RJ Rosegarten draws upon the rich fabric of his imagination, strong art and design skills, and solid knowledge of carpentry that lets him execute what he already sees in his mind fully formed. And the results are impressive.
“Here is a man who grew up in a small town, absorbing all the qualities of civics, ethics, and community values that one associates with such an upbringing. He married young, had three sons and led the life of the American Dream. He even went on to work in the advertising world; that fabled Madison Avenue bastion of the creative idea sellers; but not as an artist, as a ‘suit’. So, without knowing it, he was adding to his arsenal of skills by including leadership, salesmanship, and public speaking to his repertoire. But he was fascinated by and engaged with the artists and designers.
“When he left advertising, he became a beloved and respected mayor of that same town, bringing his love of the town and business acumen to the job. He demonstrated that the world of politics and government were new fields on which he could impose his creative eye. As a result, the town grew and he was elected and re-elected time and again.
“It was only when he left the town again, retiring from public life that he began to fully realize his longtime dream of being an artist in his own right. And he is an artist in the fullest sense of the word. Not only are his technical skills the very best; but his thoughts, ideas and vision are on display, inviting the viewer to enter his carefully constructed world; challenging the viewer to understand his point of view, to embrace it or to disagree. A lifetime of thinking and living, of humor and wit, of deep, serious emotion and also of playfulness; the full range of the human experience in a construction of wood and found objects.
“As a longtime friend, I am delighted to see RJ ‘Bob’ Rosegarten come home to Great Neck. Without his friendship and assistance, mentoring another dreamer through the shoals of politics, fundraising, and community engagement, it is doubtful that this Gold Coast Arts Center could have found its home here. It seems fitting that we honor him with this exhibit that introduces the people he served as mayor to the man he is now — the artist.”
“RJ Rosegarten, Lost & Found: The Art of Assemblage” is on view through March 12 at The Gold Coast Arts Center, 113 Middle Neck Rd, Great Neck, NY, 516-829-2570 or www.GoldCoastArts.org.
The Pushkar Horse and Camel Fair and Festival of Brahma takes place over a 10-day period in October/November every year, timed to take place during one of Rajasthan’s holiest festivals; the exact date varies on the western calendar but always falls during the full moon of the Indian lunar calendar month of Kartik. Pushkar is the only place in the world where Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, one of the Holy Trinity, is worshipped. A place of pilgrimage, the camel and horse fair developed out of this massive annual gathering.
The fair is a kaleidoscope of color, a swirl of motion, a cacophony of sound, unexpected up-close encounters (as with a camel), the crush of crowds.
One of the greatest spectacles anywhere, in my mind the Pushkar Camel Fair is a combination of state fair, carnival and pilgrimage with a smidgeon of circus thrown in. There are snake charmers, musicians, dancing horses, magic show, ferris wheels. You can buy anything and everything – household items, decorative reins for camels and horses; street vendors selling drinks made from sugar cane, merchants selling every manner of goods from stalls and from blankets sprawled out on the road.
Traveling by Train
Our trip to the Pushkar Camel Fair starts with a fantastic six-hour train journey from New Delhi, enhancing the movie-quality of the experience.
We speed through the streets from the Sheraton Hotel, dark and amazingly vacant at 5 am compared to the chaotic snarl of traffic we navigated through when we arrived the evening before from Kanha National Park, flying from Jabalpur to New Delhi.
We pull in across from the train station and out of nowhere, fellows appear who will porter our luggage (on their heads) to the train. We follow briskly after – going through the airport-style security that we have come to expect at every hotel – and are immediately grateful for their help when we realize how we have to climb up stairs to a bridge that takes us to our track. We have time to wait – there are hundreds of people who have basically camped out on the platforms.
Our train departs just after 6 am. A porter comes through our first class car with newspapers, then tea and coffee, and then breakfast (the omelet was very good). Our Royal Expeditions guide creates a WiFi hotspot for us.
Our guide who will take us around the fair, Thurka Durga Singh, comes aboard and begins orienting us to what we will see at the fair. He is a regal looking gentleman, descended from the Warrior Class, who carries himself with grace and dignity. His voice is sonorous, and I soon discover, he is very much a poet and a storyteller, steeped in India’s traditions and culture.
Indeed, as he would describe himself, Durga “is a keen observer of history, culture, religion, current affairs, and is a bank of knowledge so vast that he has a point of view on anything under the sun. He is what one could call a modern traditionalist, actively seeking the use of modern technology and methods to support the principles of traditional living. The inquisitive can have endless conversations with him on a number of his projects like rain – water harvesting, biogas plant, solar heating and, even, healthy cooking.” It only takes a simple question for him to launch into an entrancing narration.
“Before trains, buses, cars, all citizens traveled by animals – camel, horse. From the 11th to the15th day of the waning moon, pilgrims would come by the thousands on horses and camels from near Delhi to have a holy day. A fair developed. If you come during the first eight to 10 days of the Pushkar Camel Fair, you see more animals; in the last three days, there are more pilgrims. (Indeed, Dugar had just come from guiding a horse-riding safari to the fair.)
Rural farmers still use camels and horses as work animals and the Pushkar fair is one of the biggest camel, horse and live-stock fairs possibly anywhere, attracting buyers and sellers from all over the country, as well as visitors from around the world. At the peak of the fair, there might be 11,000 camels and 400,000 people coming from far and wide, dressed in their traditional and regional clothes. For days before the fair and after, you can see herders driving their camels and horses along the highway.
”At the fair, everything is everybody’s business. Our sense of privacy is different. Eavesdropping is a custom of the fair. People standing around give their unsolicited opinion – ‘Good horse’.” (We actually find ourselves doing this exact thing). “Now the deal is getting serious. Now the seller and the buyer don’t want others giving opinion. They clasp hands to clinch deal. Now bystanders have even more curiosity. ‘What is it your business?’ ‘I just wanted to know.’”
An ancient tradition is that when the horse is sold, it is never given with reins “because that would declare he would never have that horse again. So the buyer puts his own reins on [you can see stands that sell decorative reins.] Then the seller has money and gives a little money back, to get the horse extra food, a parting gift to the horse.
“In the western mind, business is business, there is no sentiment [recall the expression: It’s business. Not personal.]. In the Eastern mind, it is etiquette to offer tea. A Westerner would feel obligated to buy, but not an Easterner.
He gives us a tutorial on the different types of camels and how they are still used as work animals and why the reputation of camels as being mean and spitting isn’t really fair. One kind “can go sunrise to sunset, 60 km and has more stamina than horse. It can go without water for weeks. Camels live 26 years; 4-16 year olds work, 16-24 year olds still work but not as hard. Five minutes before it drops dead, it still doesn’t refuse work, then it drops dead.”
I ask how much a camel costs: a young camel, 2 ½ years old (they start training and work at three years old) might cost 14,000-15,000 Rupees ($205-$220); a grown, trained camel might cost 55,000-100,000 rupees ($735-$1500).
“The camel is God’s blessing to us. It browses, eats species that others don’t, like the thorny bush. He doesn’t compete for food, but he is plow, car, tractor.”
But things are changing, he says. Alas, “Young people don’t want to be stuck with an animal. They prefer a tractor…. It’s likely the Pushkar Camel Fair will disappear in 10 years.”
In India’s cash economy (they don’t use credit cards or checks), there may be 15 million rupees in cash at the fair, in bags, clothes. “There are no locks, no safes.” So men wear a vest that has a hidden pocket and put a shirt over that. “A man may have 1 million rupees and no one knows. He can’t be pick-pocketed.”
The state must collects its tax, but since there are no written records of transactions, the tax department charges a flat rate when people enter the fair.
This year, is unusual, he says. We are there just as the Modi government without warning canceled the 500 and 1000 rupee bills in circulation that are the basis for an economy that still runs on cash.
“The Fair has gone into a difficult time. There are many unsold animals, owners sitting desolate. They spent money to buy the animals but have no money to bring them back. Many will leave the animals behind.”
We should also look out for the camel’s haircut. “They decorate their camel like fellows decorate their motorcycles. You wine and dine the barber – it can cost 2000-3000 rupees. The Barber used to make lovely design – a lotus flower – but the Barber has gotten quite old, he is about to go to heaven. He made peacock design; an Islamic barber makes a geometric pattern. Now you see a Sikh shearer from Punjab who works fast.”
Farmers used to collect the camel wool to make rugs, sacks; “Now nobody collects.” Well at least one group does, who we come upon in the market, Camel Charisma.
He bemoans the disappearance, one by one, of traditions (“20 years ago, women would sing folk songs. No more: girls go to school now and don’t learn folk music”).
If you come during the first eight to 10 days of the Pushkar camel fair, you see more animals; in the last three days, there are more pilgrims. “Now pilgrims come in jeeps, buses – groups of pilgrims, in different dress.”
He paints pictures of what else we will see, and lo and behold, when we arrive at the fair later that afternoon, we see for ourselves exactly what he has foretold:
“When you go to cinema, you eat popcorn – well, for desert people, sugar cane is big – trucks and trucks of sugar cane come in from the neighboring state of Pradesh.” We see stalls (a little like cotton-candy machines) crushing sugar cane into a juice add lemon and ginger.
We will see the “normal” food of the Indian countryside. “Who goes to the countryside? Hunters, nomads, pilgrims and animal trader and armies. They have to cook and eat in countryside. So they will collect dried cow droppings for cooking fuel (it’s free) [but you can actually buy cow dung patties on Amazon, I’m told] to prepare balls of wheat flour, served on a plate made of leaves.
“You light up a cow dung fire. When the fire dies down, you roast bread on the embers. It’s clean because after a half-hour of cooking, the cow dung is sterilized. Stores sell this round chat-patti fried wheat bread. It’s street food. The village pilgrims relish this food.”
The camel fair also involves a sprawling market (like a flea market), with all manner of goods for sale.
He also alerts us that we can photograph regular people –they don’t take money – but there are also “professional” photo subjects – they dress like in various costumes and you are expected to pay 100-200 rupees to take a picture (kind of like the naked cowboy in Times Square).
He warns us that “skunks” spoil the visit for Indians and foreigners. They solicit money – “Mafia like” =saying they want to take you to the lake. Tell them ‘We have been to the lake.”
He says he will take us to the roof of a restaurant to see the lake and watch the rituals.
The beauty of the fair is its randomness, a kaleidoscope of colors, a swirl of activity, he says. “No guidebook will tell you this aspect.”
His narration has made the hours spent on the train fly by. Before we know it, we pull into Ajmir.
Ajmir, A Holy City
We arrive in Ajmir and once we are underway in our van for the half-hour ride to Pushkar, Durga has us join in reciting a Hindu blessing, since Ajmir is one of the holiest places for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.
The story goes that when Sati died, Shiva cried so much and for so long, that his tears created two holy ponds – one at Pushkara in Ajmer in India and the other at Ketaksha, which means “raining eyes” in Sanskrit.
One of India’s first cities, Ajmir was the Chahamana capital ruling all India until the defeat of Prithviraja lll in 1192 when the city came under Muslim rule. And when India was under British rule and divided into 526 Maharajah states, the Viceroy, the direct link to the British Crown, was based in Ajmir.
Ajmir also has one of the most important Sufi shrines, “next to Mecca and Medina, one of the holiest for Muslims.”
Moinuddin Chishti, an important Iman practicing the Sufi form of Islam, came to Ajmir from Iran, developing a large following, and gaining the respect of the residents of the city. Chishti promoted understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Sufism is a Muslim movement which arose in the 8th-9th centuries, whose followers seek to find divine truth and love through direct encounters with God. Sufis, Durga explains do not believe that nonbelievers are infidels (like the more extreme Wahabis). Every individual is God’s children. Music is an important part of worship, connecting worshippers to the divine. He has as much a following among Hindus as Muslims. Many Muslims live here.”
In some ways, it seems Ajmir is like Jerusalem in that it is the confluence of these different religions.
During our brief ride, Durga explains reincarnation, predestination and freewill (no mean feat), connecting reincarnation to Darwin. “Darwin talks of physical evolution, Einstein of the soul transfiguring. There is a zero balance account when you are born – that’s free will. Now you start creating your karma; that brings you back again and again. The aim of life is to go back to the Godhead, to break the cycle of birth and rebirth.” Reincarnation, rebirth and nirvana, he says, is not that much different than Christianity’s belief in resurrection and heaven. “There are many commonalities.”
Free will and destiny are not contradictory. “Destiny is that you find a note, then free will is what you do with it. You receive your past and create your future – that is the secret of happiness. In the East, there is no place for guilt” because actions have repercussions in future life.
As for why cows are sacred, it basically comes down to a very practical reason: people depend on the cow. “The cow was revered before it became holy.” We see cows with their horns that had been painted for the Diwali Festival.
We make our way slowly through a snarl of humanity, traffic cops doing their best to organize. Because of the traffic during the fair, we are led the long way around, traveling around the lake and over Nag Pahar, the Snake Mountain, separating Pushkar from Ajmer. We don’t mind at all because we get to see more of the city and landscape.
Coming into Pushkar, we bypass the entrance to the fair – it is wall-to-wall people, since it is toward the end of the fair now mostly pilgrims as opposed to camel and horse buyers – enroute to the Royal Tents, a luxurious tented camp set up by The Royal Jodhpur Camps specifically for the fair, where we stay.
The Royal Jodhpur Camp is set up as a traditional “shikar” style camp: at a time when only royalty was allowed to hunt, these camps were set up to accommodate them. Ours consists of rows of elegant and luxurious twin bedded tents with verandahs with deck-chairs in front and attached bathrooms with running hot and cold water (even a shower), set out over an expansive sandy plain. There are electric lights, an electric heater, rugs on the ground. There is also a spacious Mughal-style dining tent and a recreation tent which serves as a lounge. It is set on expansive private grounds surrounded by rolling mustard fields in flower and rocky hills, a walk or camel ride away from the fair.
It is the ultimate in glamping. We can tie a triangular flag to a rope outside the tent to signal if we want service (room service, hot water). We can order coffee delivered in the early morning.
We feel much as the royal entourage who would come on hunting expeditions and stay in these elaborate camps. The operative word is “royal.”
Indeed, The Royal Jodhpur Camps actually has a family connection to Royal Expeditions, the tour company that has organized our Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure and this extension to the Pushkar Camel Fair, Jaipur and Agra. Royal Expeditions was founded by a royal family of Jodhpur related to a Princess who also served in Parliament and as India’s Minister of Culture, and the Royal Jodhpur Camps is her brother’s enterprise. It makes it all the more fantastic. And like our other accommodations – the Pench Tree Lodge and the Kanha Earth Lodge during our time doing wildlife safaris in the national parks – it enhances our Camel Fair experience.
We have a superb lunch in an enormous dining tent (complete with ceiling fan), before setting out for our visit to the fair.
Day into Night at Pushkar Camel Fair
Durga has timed it so we arrive at the fair in the afternoon and will be here after dark, to get the full color and atmosphere.
Soon we are caught up as we watch a transaction for a horse, just as Durga foretold we would during our train ride: “At the fair, everything is everybody’s business.” And just as he described, we watch a fellow eyeing a horse. And just as he described, soon we find ourselves chiming in as if it is our business, “Oh, that’s a fine-looking horse.” And just as Durga had described, moments later, the seller grabs the customer’s hand and pulls him inside the tent, where he most likely will be plied with tea so the negotiations can commence out of the gaze of prying eyes and gossipy critics.
Durga leads us through a vast market with just about every item you can imagine for sale: shoes, scarves, household items; saddles and decorative reins and leashes for the camels and horses.
We see albino horses for sale, which Durga says are used for weddings. He introduces me to Bakshu, a prominent horse breeder he knows from Gudrash, and Raika, a professional camel breeder.
We pass by a tent where there is magic show on our way to the market.
He takes us to what is probably the most distinctive shops at the fair, Camel Charisma, where you can buy paper out of camel dung; scarfs form discarded camel hair (and silk), 2500 R ($36), fresh camel milk, camel milk soap and just about anything you can imagine from camel. We taste chai made of camel milk. He takes us to his favorite textile stall (I’m still kicking myself for not buying an embroidered wool wrap for $25).
He takes us passed temples, jam-packed with worshippers, to where we can go to a rooftop to look down on the holy lake and the religious rituals underway. We watch as the sun sets, the lights come on and a super moon rises over the Pushkar Lake.
Pushkar is the only place in the world where Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, one of the Holy Trinity, is worshipped. The Brahma Temple, which officially is dated from the 14th century but is believed to be 2000 years old, is set on the lake, and during the night, lights of changing colors come on. In the distance, on a hilltop, we can make out the Savitri Temple, dedicated to Brahma’s consort, Savitri, but to visit involves an hour long trek uphill.
Around the lake are numerous bathing ghats, where thousands of pilgrims take their holy dip in the sacred waters of Lake Pushkar, as religious chanting and pealing bells resound. We get to peer down on these activities from our perch on the roof, watching people gather around open fires.
We make our way back through the market and the carnival, now lighted up and festive, with five giant ferris wheels looming over the fair. We pass a crowd watching a dancing horse.
When we return to the tented camp, where we have a marvelous dinner (with Sula champagne!).
We comment on how good the papadom is – a seasoned dough made with mung bean flour fried or cooked with dry heat. “In my grandmother’s day, they used to invite women for lunch, sing, everyone came with a rolling pin, they would sing and make the papadom and put it out in the sun to dry,” Durga says.
There is a fireeater, musicians and dancers to entertain us around a bonfire.
I return to the fair the next morning by myself. Durga has arranged for the driver to pick me up at 7 am. As we pull up, I watch as a hot air balloon rises over the fair. (Hot air ballooning is a relatively new adventure activity in India and the desert state of Rajasthan is the most popular place.)
I get to the fair and just wander around – I am one of a scant few Westerners at this point. It is amazing to me how busy it is even this early in the morning. There are only a few camels left for sale and I watch what looks like the end of a transaction.
Leaving the fair, I see pilgrims arriving in open-back trucks, and in trucks that have been outfitted with bunkbeds.
Durga has told us that it can take 10 days to travel from Agra with the camels, and that we will see people in their camel carts traveling along the highway, as we drive to our next destination, Jaipur. And we do!
In Jaipur, we learn more about this regal gentleman and his family, when we visit his boutique guesthouse, Dera Mandawa – his family’s century-old estate which, back in the day, accommodated dignitaries when they visited the Maharajah. The family lost their property and position when India nationalized such estates in the 1949, and families like his were forced to turn their estates and palaces into commercial enterprises or see them torn down. Instead of the path of a warrior as his ancestors would have taken, Durga has been involved in tourism for 35 years. (www.deramandawa.com)