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Communication Matters

I recently got a Facebook message from a friend who’s about to go on a two-week trip to Ireland and Croatia and wondered if I had any advice for him on staying connected while he was there. As it happens, I got that message while sitting in Edinburgh Airport, waiting to get on the first of three flights which, with any luck, will get me home today after a sixteen-day vacation in France, Ireland, and the UK, where connectivity was a constant concern. And as I write this post, I’m sitting on BA 297, currently at 38,000 feet over Greenland, completely (and happily) disconnected. So I am more than willing to give advice about connectivity in Europe.

There are three parts to this rather long post:

I hope this helps you stay as connected as you want to be on your next trip to Europe.

My general recommendations

There is no single best answer for everyone – you have to weigh cost, convenience, and reachability. But here’s my advice anyway.

  • If you don’t need voice or text, just data, and are OK with intermittent connectivity, put your phone in Airplane Mode, turn wifi on, and use hotspots (McDonalds and Burger King are both good choices for this, if not for food). (Thanks, Lisa Strand.)

  • Using your carrier’s international bundle plan is by far the easiest way to go, both for you and for people who want to call you. Estimate your usage and buy the appropriate package – find out what will happen if you go over the package limits (you don’t want a $20/megabyte surprise). Forward your phone to a US voicemail number before you leave if you don’t want people to call you.

  • If you only plan to use your phone in an emergency, go with your carrier’s default plan. Forward your phone to a US voicemail number and turn off data roaming (or all cellular data) – you do not want to pay $20/megabyte.

  • If you are only going to one country and have an unlocked phone, a local SIM can save you money (but realize that there can be considerable hassle involved, depending on the country, and that you’ll have to give your contacts the foreign number if you want to be reached). Do the research to see how much pain is involved for the particular country you’re visiting.

  • If you’re going to more than one country, the hassle of local SIMs is multiplied, and the savings are reduced because of breakage.

Plans and Realities

Our trip this year was complicated. We started with six nights in Paris at an apartment with excellent wifi (thanks, Airbnb!), followed by eight days on a cruise ship:

  • Two days in France
  • One day at sea
  • One day in Dublin
  • One day in Wales
  • Three days on small Scottish islands

The Plan

I intended to pick up a Lebara SIM for France at the airport and a UK SIM in Wales. I expected to be disconnected at sea (the ship offered slow, pricey wifi via satellite) and was willing to take my chances in Dublin.

The Reality

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. And there was.

In France

I didn’t see anywhere to get the SIM before I left the airport, and when I asked for Lebara SIMs at shops in my neighborhood in Paris, no one carried them.

Our apartment had great wifi, and I had a Paris tour app with a good offline map; I was also able to find wifi at various stores and restaurants in Paris. I kept looking for the Lebara SIM without success – on our fourth morning, I found a cellphone shop in Les Halles which might have had one, but they only spoke enough English to point me to the Orange shop down the hall.

Orange sold me a “mobicarte” SIM for 10 Euros plus another 10 Euros for 500MB of data which took care of my communications needs (voice, text, and data) for the rest of our time in France (including the time on the cruise ship). If I’d bought that SIM on the first day, I probably would have had to add another 10 Euros to get another 500MB of data – as it was, I used over 400 MB of data in the time I had it.

In Dublin

I found free wifi at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Guinness Storehouse, and outside a Burger King. That was all I needed that day.

In the UK

I never even looked for a UK SIM – we did have a little time in shopping districts, but looking for a SIM was much lower priority than looking for other things. I found free WiFi at the port in Holyhead, Wales, and in Tobermory, Scotland, but was basically disconnected most of the time until I got to Edinburgh Airport this morning. If someone had really needed to reach me, they could have called the French phone number – voice coverage was OK.

So it all worked out, just not as I’d expected.

The Option Game

There are many ways to stay connected while traveling out of the US. I’m going to look at several of them in some detail, and I’m sure there are even more choices.

Your Cellphone Carrier’s Default Plan

If all you need is a few minutes of voice and a few texts, your cellphone carrier’s default plan may be just fine. They charge something like $1.50/minute for calls (incoming and outgoing), and about $0.30/text (outgoing), with incoming texts probably being free. Data is prohibitively expensive, though – AT&T would have charged me over $20 per megabyte, so you’ll need some other way to get to the Internet.

Advantages

  • Your US phone number works – anyone who has it can call or text you as if you were at home. They pay nothing extra.
  • You don’t need an unlocked phone.

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can call or text you as if you were at home. This includes junk callers.
  • Callers probably won’t realize that you are many timezones away.
  • You can’t afford to use cellular data. Really. $20/megabyte is $20,000/gigabyte.

Variations on the theme

  • Forward your cellphone to your home phone (if you have one) or a Google Voice number; that way, people can leave voicemail and you can retrieve it when you have a data connection and reply at your convenience.

Conclusion

Go this route only if you don’t plan to use your phone on your trip unless there’s an emergency.

Your Cellphone Carrier’s International Bundle Plan

Your carrier probably will sell you a bundle of data (or data and calls) at a more reasonable price than the default plan. AT&T, for example, offered me 120MB for $30, 300MB for $60, or 800MB for $120, and I know they have packages which include voice and text for a bit more money. This can be a good deal if you’re going to be in more than one country.

Advantages

  • Your US phone number works (as above)
  • You can use your bundled data (and calls) in more than one country
  • You don’t need an unlocked phone

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can call you and won’t be aware of the time zone issues (as above)

Variations on the theme

  • Forward your incoming calls (as above)

Conclusion

This is probably the best choice if you want to be easily reachable from the US (if not, forward your calls to a voicemail service), especially if you’re going to be in more than one country. In hindsight, this is what I should have done.

Get a local SIM

If you have an unlocked phone, you can get a Pay-as-You-Go (PAYG) SIM from a local provider. I did this in France on this trip, and have done it in the UK on previous trips. If you’re really clever, you can get the SIM in advance (I wasn’t that clever).

Advantages

  • This is the lowest-cost route (well, other than going without a phone). I paid 20 Euros (about $27) for an Orange PAYG SIM in France, which got me a local phone number, 500 MB of data and 5 Euros of credit for calls and texts. Incoming calls and texts were free. Outgoing calls in France were about 40 cents/minute, calls to the US (if I’d needed them) about $1/minute, and outgoing texts were pretty cheap, too. If I’d run through my credit, it would have been easy to recharge the SIM, either over-the-air or at almost any grocery store or tabac.
  • I gave my French number to those who I wanted to be able to reach me. Anyone calling my US phone got voicemail.
  • I could use my phone for calls and texts in other European countries for a reasonable price (50 cents/minute for outgoing calls, 15 cents/minute incoming calls or outgoing texts, incoming texts free). Data while roaming would be expensive, but packages were available.

Disadvantages

  • I didn’t have my French phone number until I bought the SIM, and it will expire in a few weeks.
  • I had to find an Orange shop. Fortunately, there was someone there who spoke English, knew the plan I needed (mobicarte) and was able to set me up so that I had voice and data before I left the shop (hint: bring an ID – a driver’s license was fine). I had tried an SFR shop but no one there that day knew English, and my French was definitely not up to this task.
  • If you’re going to more than one country, you will have to repeat the process in each country. And it will be different in each country.
  • You need an unlocked phone.
  • Your US phone number goes dead when you swap SIMs. You can forward voice calls (as above), but I don’t think there’s any way to forward texts.
  • The local plans may have interesting wrinkles; as an example, the plan I used in France disallowed VOIP (Skype), Usenet, and POP3 access to mail (but the Gmail app worked fine).

Variations on the theme

  • In some countries, there are vendors who specialize in catering to travelers (for example, Lycamobile or Toggle in the UK, and Lebara in France). If you can get their SIM at the airport (or even order it in advance), that could be a big win.
  • If you don’t have an unlocked phone, you could buy a new PAYG phone instead of just getting a SIM.

Conclusion

  • If you’re going to spend most (or all) of your time in one country, this is a very cost-effective solution.
  • If you’re going to make repeated trips to the same country, you can probably buy enough credit to keep your local number active between trips.
  • This is much easier if you speak the local language!

International SIMs

There are companies who will sell SIMs which charge more-than-local but less-than-roaming rates all over the world; I think they’re primarily intended for voice and text, not data. I didn’t research this for my trip, since I cared more about data. If you want more information, Google is your friend.

See Ron Woan’s comment for more info on Telestial’s International SIM.

iPhoneTrip.com

If all you need is data, this company offers a variety of plans ranging from $8-$16/day for “unlimited” data (they seem to have a 500MB/day soft cap, though). The price varies depending on whether you need one country, one continent, or the whole world. I used them last year for our trip to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Advantages

  • You set the whole thing up before you leave the US.
  • You pay a fixed price per day.

Disadvantages

  • You need lead time – they send you a special SIM, and if you need it in less than a week, the shipping is expensive.
  • You need to figure out what countries/regions and dates you need because you have to set it up in advance.
  • You need an unlocked phone; last year, they supported AT&T-locked phones, but this year, such phones seem to need their “world” plan (at the highest price per day, of course).
  • They only support data, not voice (although they do allow VoIP). And when you put their SIM in your phone, your US phone number goes dead (as above).

Conclusion

I used them in 2012 and was happy. Enough had changed in 2013 to make me go elsewhere. Check their website and talk with their help desk before making a decision.

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Amsterdam Dos and Don’ts

Amsterdam Dos and Don’ts

We recently spent a week in Amsterdam before taking a river cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium; I will eventually post photos from the trip, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some possibly-useful tips for others travelling to Amsterdam and environs.

Money

  • DO tell your credit/debit card companies that you will be using your card in the Netherlands and when you’ll be there.
  • DO get money from ATMs rather than buying it before you leave the US; there are ATMs at the airport and all over town and you’ll get a much better rate.
  • DO expect to find some shops which only accept cards and will not accept cash.
  • DON’T get the Travelex “Cash Passport” Chip and PIN card – the exchange rate is hideous and they demand your Social Security number.
  • DO expect to be able to use your US credit card when you are dealing with people – even though the Dutch all have Chip and PIN cards, every credit card machine I saw in a shop could also accept a US magstripe card. [1]
  • DON’T expect to use your US credit card if you’re dealing with an automated kiosk (such as the ticket machines for the railway)
  • DON’T take the option of paying in US Dollars using your credit card. The rate is probably not as good as your card company will give, and if your card has a surcharge for international transactions, you’ll have to pay that surcharge even if the transaction is in US Dollars.
  • DO carry a few Euros in change with you at all times for small purchases and toilets – many public toilets charge between 20–50 cents for access.

Getting into town from the airport

  • DO take the train unless you’re staying far from the city center.
  • DON’T wait until you’re at the airport to buy your train ticket.
  • DO buy your train ticket in advance from Belgian Rail; print it at home and bring it with you.
  • DO have Euro change in pocket if you need to buy your train ticket at the airport, or go to the ticket window if you need to use currency or a US credit card. The machines ONLY take change or PIN cards.
  • DO buy Second Class tickets for this trip unless you have a lot of luggage or can’t manage four steps up or down stairs.
  • DO know that the trains to Centraal Station leave from Schiphol platforms 1 and 2.
  • DON’T get on a “FYRA” train at Schiphol – it will cost you! You want to get on an “IC” train. The trains are marked on the sides of the cars; both use the same platforms.

Getting around town

  • DO walk if you can – the touristy part of Amsterdam is small, and everything of interest is within a 45-minute walk (mostly less). Take public transport only when you’re in a hurry.
  • DO watch out for bicycles and motorbikes, especially when crossing a bike path (and every street has bike paths). Treat them as you would any other fast-moving dangerous vehicle.
  • DON’T be surprised by motorbikes (or bicycles) on the sidewalk, either, though they are usually going slowly there.
  • DON’T worry about having exact change on trams; the conductor gives change. I don’t know about busses.

iAmsterdam card

  • DO buy the iAmsterdam card.
  • DON’T buy it at the VVV office at Centraal Station – there are long lines. If you must buy it there, use Line 6, not the “full-service” lines.
  • DON’T pre-purchase the card over the Internet, which means picking up the card in person at the VVV office – in that same long line, of course.
  • DO buy it at one of the other locations; if you plan to start with a canal tour, buy it at their counter (you’ll have to go there anyway to get the ticket that’s part of the pass).
  • DO be strategic about the time of day that you activate the pass. It is valid for 24/48/72 hours, not 1/2/3 days. If you activate a 24-hour pass at 11am on Wednesday, you can use it all the rest of that day and then enter a museum before 11am on Thursday and stay there the whole day. This works best for major museums, like the Maritime Museum or the Van Gogh, of course. If you’re really hardcore, you could go to the Maritime Museum at 10am on the last day of your pass and get a ticket, immediately go to another nearby museum and see it, then return to the Maritime Museum because your ticket is good for the entire day.
  • DO realize that the museum pass and the travel pass are completely separate after you buy them; you need not activate them at the same time (or even on the same day).
  • DO realize that the discount offers in the booklet are valid even after your card expires (I think they go to the end of the year); you just need to bring the card and the booklet.
  • DON’T plan to go to the Rijksmuseum or the Anne Frank House on the iAmsterdam card.

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll

  • DON’T be afraid of walking through the Red Light District (of course, be aware of your surroundings, just as you would anywhere else).
  • DON’T take photos of “red rooms” or the women working in them.
  • DON’T go to a coffeeshop for coffee.

Eating and drinking

  • DO expect the inside of restaurants to be non-smoking (both kinds of smoke).
  • DO expect a lot of [tobacco] smokers just outside of a restaurant.
  • DON’T expect free refills on coffee.
  • DON’T expect free tap water.
  • DO expect service charges to be included in your bill; round up to the next Euro or two if you’re especially pleased. I ran into one restaurant where service was marked as “Not Included” on the bill and tipped about 10% – I have no idea if that was right or not.

Staying connected

  • DON’T use your US cell carrier’s international data plan, even by accident. AT&T’s price is $20/megabyte; other carriers are similarly exorbitant.
  • DO consider using iPhoneTrip.com if you have an unlocked device or are on AT&T. I paid $17/day for unlimited data anywhere in Europe and used about 50 megabytes/day, which would have cost $1000 on AT&T.
  • DO look for “Free Wi-Fi” hotspots; many small restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. One near our hotel gave us the password when we stopped to look at their menu and told us the service was available 24/7. We wound up having breakfast there four times!
  • DO look for free Wi-Fi from free-hotspot.com if you’re near a fast-food chain like McDonalds, Burger King, or Subway.

    Language

  • DON’T expect to need to know much (if any) Dutch. All tourist-oriented businesses are completely English-friendly, and almost everyone in the Netherlands seems to speak and understand English.
  • DO try to sound-out written Dutch if you need to figure out a sign; it looks unlike English, but I found it fairly easy.
  • DO say “Dank U Well” (“thank you”).

  1. I did find one ice cream shop which said it would only take PIN cards or change (no bills) – I don’t know if their machine would have taken a US card or not.

     ↩

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Credit where credit is due

We just got back from a wonderful Alaska cruise on Silversea’s Silver Shadow. I wasn’t sure that my 16GB memory card would hold the photos and video I’d be taking during the cruise, so one of the last things I did before leaving was visit Fry’s to pick up a spare.

As it turns out, 16GB was plenty (especially since I took my computer along and unloaded the camera nightly), and so I never even opened the package for the new memory card. Fry’s has a 15-day return policy for memory, and I decided I’d exercise it while running post-cruise errands today. Diane came with me, armed with a book to keep her busy while waiting, and a smile to make me feel better.

But Fry’s surprised us. We were in and out of the store in well under 5 minutes; I’m not sure she even opened her book!

Oh, and the pictures? I’ve posted some on a public album on Facebook, with more to come. Most of the ones that I’ve posted so far were posted live from my iPhone during the trip (AT&T’s 3G service in Juneau was nothing short of amazing — I wish it were half as fast here), but I’ll be adding more soon.

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A trip to Banff National Park (the final day)

We knew we’d have to get up fairly early on Monday to make our flight home, so we decided to practice by setting an alarm clock for Sunday morning, too. It wasn’t too painful.

Since Yelpers had praised Melissa’s breakfast, we decided to go there — our timing was great (maybe the clock was a good idea after all), since we didn’t have to wait at all, but by the time we finished, there were at least a dozen people waiting for tables. The food was OK (next time, I go for the waffle with blueberries), and the coffee was very good.

On our way back to the hotel, it started to rain — just a couple of drops, but as soon as we got to our room, the skies opened up. So we packed and checked out, borrowing an umbrella from the hotel for the rest of our time in Banff (and it worked wonderfully — we didn’t see another raindrop when we were outside…of course, we spend most of the time inside). We wandered around and did some shopping (not much buying, though); then we had lunch at Evelyn’s Coffee Bar. I thought about having dessert there, but I’d had my eyes on Cows the entire time we’d been in Banff; they had reviews in their window calling them out as equal or even better than Bertillion in Paris, and I was ready to put them to the test. They didn’t come close to living up to the reviews, but the ice cream was perfectly acceptable; nonetheless, I’m going to go elsewhere next time I’m in Banff.

And with lunch and dessert finished, we decided it was time to hit the road. Our rental car, a Toyota Matrix, didn’t have a cargo cover, so I was reluctant to go anywhere busy, but we weren’t quite ready to go to the airport, either. We decided to drive the Minnewanka Loop, which turned out to be a nice way to cap off our visit. We drove to Lake Minnewanka. We didn’t have the time (or the cargo cover) for the lake cruise, but just walking around the section of the lake near the parking was very enjoyable and scenic.

When we left, we decided to finish the loop instead of driving right back to the highway; we didn’t get very far before running into a goatjam on the road, so we parked and took a few photos, too.

We made one more stop on the loop, near mountains whose name I don’t know.

And then it was time to return to civilization. Soon enough, we were back at Calgary Airport and ensconced in our room at the Delta Calgary Airport Hotel, which was pleasant enough, though the views left everything to be desired after three nights in Banff. We’d returned our car, so we were limited in our dining options; the airport didn’t entice, so we ate dinner at the Compass Restaurant in the hotel, which was somewhat overpriced and too noisy (thanks to the TV in the YYC Lounge, adjacent), but tasty enough.

And that was basically the end of the trip; Monday morning, we walked across the road to the terminal, checked in, cleared customs, and flew back to SFO, picked up our car, had lunch, and drove home. No excitement, no photos.

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A trip to Banff National Park (day 3)

Saturday dawned early, I think; we didn’t.

We decided to try somewhere else for breakfast, and, based on the bartender’s suggestion on Thursday (and some Yelp and Frommer’s research), we settled on Coyote’s. The place was nearly full when we got there, but there were spaces at the counter, so we squeezed ourselves in and enjoyed a tasty meal. I had, and can recommend, the Smoked Salmon Scrambled Eggs; Diane went for the Vegetarian Frittata, and she seemed happy about her choice, too. By the time we left, there were a few people waiting to get in — go early (in our case, that meant 9am).

After Friday’s excursion, the last thing we wanted to do was take a long drive, so we chose a target closer to hand — Tunnel Mountain. We parked at the lower trailhead and climbed to the upper one; that was probably the steepest part of the climb (and the least attractive, too).

Once we’d gotten to the “real” trail, the views improved.

The single biggest human-created artifact that we could see was the Banff Springs Hotel.

But, of course, there were much larger and more majestic objects visible!

After a while, we climbed high enough that the trail took us to the back side of the mountain, and we could see the other half of the Bow Valley, including the Fairmont’s golf course, which looked awfully appealing (and I don’t golf)!

Eventually, we made it to the top of the mountain.

And, a bit later, and after more nice views of Mount Rundle

we eventually found ourselves back at our car, in search of lunch. We drove back to the hotel and walked into town, unsure of what we wanted, but hungry. We wound up at Balkan, drawn in by the lunch specials on the blackboards outside. The food was OK, but not outstanding — but the prices were very appealing!

We decided not to have dessert in town; instead, we walked to the Fairmont to look around, especially in the terrace garden

and enjoy afternoon tea, which more than made up for any calories or money we might have saved at lunch. It’s not something I’d want to do every day, but it was fun!

We’d picked up a Banff trail map while we were downtown, and decided that rather than walk back on streets, we’d explore the Bow Falls Trail. We walked down to Bow Falls

and then retraced our steps towards downtown.

We weren’t quite ready to go back to the hotel, and the map showed that if we followed the Bow Falls Trail through downtown, we could walk all the way to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, which sounded interesting (our hotel had a pool modeled after the Cave and Basin).

But we didn’t get there. We had just left the Banff Recreation Grounds and turned onto the trail to the site when we encountered an elk.

We decided he had the right-of-way and headed back into town, and trekked back to our hotel…and then back into town again for dinner, along with thousands of other tourists. We looked at a few places, but the lines were long, and eventually settled for Tommy’s Neighbourhood Pub, immediately beneath Balkan. The food was simple (I had a buffaloburger; Diane had elk (I think she wanted revenge!)), the beer was decent, and the service reasonably quick. I’d go back.

One final trip back to the hotel, and we were ready to call it a night. The pedometer read over 34,000 steps for the day — that seemed like enough!

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A trip to Banff National Park (day 2)

Friday, we enjoyed not setting an alarm clock, but still woke in plenty of time for the hotel’s continental breakfast, which was OK but no more. The weather looked promising, so we took off for a full day of exploring, with the Columbia Icefield as our goal.

We left Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway and made excellent time until we hit the construction zone — they are “twinning” the highway through the rest of Banff National Park, and there’s construction between Banff and Lake Louise. But it wasn’t too bad, and soon we were at the Parks Canada information station in Lake Louise. The view from the parking lot wasn’t too bad, either.

A few minutes later, we were on the way again, turning onto the Icefields Parkway, which would take us the rest of the way. Even though it was a two-lane road, it was easy driving (I’d hate to try it in a storm, though!), and the scenery was nothing short of spectacular.

Eventually, we pulled into the Icefields Center, our goal for the afternoon. The Athabasca Glacier was just across the road.

We had a quick, overpriced, mediocre lunch at the Icefields Cafeteria, then purchased our tickets for the tour to the glacier itself. After a brief bus ride, we boarded our Ice Explorer.

The warning sign on the vehicle reminded me of Star Tours, but this was not a simulation. And we did jounce a lot on our way to the glacier itself, where we disembarked and frolicked in the cold and rain for a few minutes.

As advertised, the glacier itself seemed blue at times, and there was some melting.

There was even more melting outside the graded area where we were let off, and some people drank the meltwater — I might have, but I didn’t feel like freezing my lips!

Outside the graded area, you could really see the contours left by weathering.

And you could also see the moraine left by the glacier.

But soon, we were back in the car and heading south. This time, we were in even less of a hurry, and so we made more stops to enjoy the scenery, including one at the “Weeping Wall”.

And another stop near Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, where we had a good view of Crowfoot Glacier.

If you search the web, you’ll find thousands of photos of Lake Louise. Here are four more.

From Lake Louise, we took the Bow Valley Parkway back to Banff. It, too, was beautiful, but we didn’t take any pictures (or stop, for that matter) — and the only wildlife we saw was a couple of birds.

After a brief stop at the hotel, we hoofed it to Melissa’s Missteak for dinner, which was definitely the best meal we’d had all day, though ordering dessert wasn’t the best choice we could have made. Finally, we walked back to the hotel (via downtown Banff), and called it a night.

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A trip to Banff National Park (day 1)

About three years ago, I participated in a workshop at CSCW on “Revisiting Online Trust.” When the workshop ended, we left with plans to work on a special edition of a journal, but that didn’t happen. What did happen, though, was that I was thoroughly impressed with the venue, the Fairmont Banff Springs, and its setting, Banff, and thought it would be great to come back some day, with my family.

Time passed.

This year, we discovered that the IBM Silicon Valley Lab, where Diane works, would be closed for an extra day to do some major power work, so that she had a four-day weekend. And IBM Yorktown, where I get my VPN connection for the Mac, would also be closed for the long weekend, while they did major power work, too. We tossed around a few ideas, and eventually settled on a trip to Banff, which had the extra advantage of renewing our United miles for another 18 months.

We left on Thursday, arriving at SFO with plenty of time for a leisurely lunch and trip through the
Wright at Home: Modern Lifestyle Design” exhibit before boarding our Air Canada flight to Calgary. Calgary was suffering from very strong winds, but we had a pretty smooth flight — however, flights had stacked up and we had to wait about 45 minutes in the line at the Canada Border Services Agency. On the other hand, our luggage was waiting for us as soon as we’d been cleared, and Customs itself took the usual 12 seconds.

Hertz slowed us down again — the first car they gave us was almost too filthy to drive (those strong winds had brought a dust storm), and then it turned out that it had been smoked in, so I swapped it for a Toyota Matrix (nice car, but I wish Hertz had sprung for the cargo cover so we would have been able to stop without all of our stuff being exposed) and we set out for Banff.

Most of the Trans-Canada Highway in Alberta is a four-lane divided highway — except, of course, for the section in Calgary, which is a busy urban street with badly synchronized traffic lights (it reminded me of Stevens Creek Boulevard, in fact). But eventually, we left Calgary behind and headed to Banff at 110 km/h (or so).

We’d chosen The Fox Hotel & Suites based on reviews from Frommer’s and TripAdvisor; it was pricey (but everything in Banff is pricey), but very comfortable, especially after we moved to a room that didn’t face Banff Avenue. The hotel is about a 10-minute walk from the central business district; they offer complimentary bus passes, but we didn’t feel the need to take them up on that. The hotel’s restaurant was a Chili’s — we don’t eat there at home, and didn’t see any reason to do it in Banff, either, so we set forth for dinner, planning to go downtown. But we didn’t get there; instead, we stopped at The Meatball and had a pleasant dinner (and a very pleasant bottle of wine) — then we walked the rest of the way into town, looked around, and headed back to the hotel.

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A blast from the past (or something like it)

A long, long time ago, I put my first personal website on GeoCities, for the simple reason that it existed, it didn’t get in my way, and it was free. Over time, the second of those reasons became less true, and I switched to blogging, first at editthispage.com, and then to here. I never bothered moving the GeoCities pages, because that would have been something like work.

But now that Yahoo is going to turn off the lights on GeoCities sometime this year, I decided I didn’t want to lose my earliest web efforts (or at least not the travel stuff), and so I copied all of the actual content to this site.

The only pieces that might be of interest to anyone outside my family are my 1998 trip reports: Australia (mostly for WWW9) and the beginning of a never-completed trip report from Hursley and Paris. I wonder what I was going to write about rugby?

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Eating our way through New York

Tonight is our last night in Manhattan, at least for this trip. I’m not ready to go home, but circumstances (like the need to earn a living) leave me no choice.

The original plan for the trip started when the National Trust for Historic Preservation sent Diane a flyer for a Hudson River Leaf-Viewing Cruise, optionally preceded by a five-day trip to “New York City: A Work in Progress”. Diane’s been a member for a few years, and we normally toss the travel brochures, but this one caught our eyes — and we realized that:

  1. I had to be in Orlando for the IBM Academy of Technology meeting the week after the New York City tour, so the travel made some sense, and
  2. We could go, because Jeff was going to be away at school.

So we sent our deposit in and waited for more information.

The deadline for final payment passed with no word, so I called the travel coordinator, who said that they were having a hard time getting enough people together for the trip, and asked us to be patient. It’s fairly easy to be patient keeping money in my hands instead of sending it away.

Finally, they called while we were in Denver for Worldcon — the trip was almost certainly on. So we did some research on flight options and when we got home, they confirmed the trip and I booked Diane’s flights both ways and my flight to New York — I had to wait for the Academy travel information to book the rest of my trip, though. Eventually, that came in, and we were all set.

Then the credit crunch hit, and the Academy meeting got cancelled. So I had to scramble to book my flight home to match Diane’s (if I’d been thinking, I would have tried to move to a later flight home, but at least our flight is at 9:45am and not a really early flight). All was well.

Until Diane got an infected toe the week before we were to leave. Her doctor put her on antibiotics and wanted her to come back in a week — when she told the doctor about the trip, the doctor was dubious. And two days later, Diane returned, because her foot was looking worse, not better. But the doctor doubled the dose of antibiotics, and Diane improved, so we flew out last Sunday.

Sunday

Since we had to leave a day early to meet the first activity on the trip, we decided to take advantage and go visit Diane’s mom’s grave at Calverton National Cemetery, out in Suffolk County. And the smart thing seemed to be to stay at the Marriott Long Island in Uniondale; Marriott hotels are always reliable.

Not this time. We had to change rooms at 3am due to noise and a bad bed, after arguing with the night supervisor who wanted us to repack so we’d only have one room. I finally won that argument, and eventually, we got to sleep, but I am not a happy customer, and have a letter of complaint to write when I get home.

Monday

The trip to Calverton was uneventful, fortunately, and we even got a cache in after the visit. That ate into our time, though, so we didn’t make the other pilgrimages I’d planned, to Ralph’s or to Diane’s old house (though I have to admit that I was slightly worried about the latter, given the difficulty the buyers had had in getting a mortgage — I didn’t want to see the house vacant). We did manage a diner for lunch Baldwin Coach Diner, but it wasn’t anything special. A quick dash to JFK to return our car and a quick taxi ride later, and we were at our home for the next week, the Roosevelt Hotel.

And a short time later, we met our group in the lobby for our first activity, a walk to and tour of Grand Central Terminal and the surrounding area.

GCT's clock

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Then back to the hotel for a welcome reception — the wine and cheese were tasty, but insufficiently filling, so we took one of our companions’ recommendation for a quick, cheap, fairly tasty dinner at Curry in a Hurry; naturally, we walked both ways.

Tuesday

Tuesday dawned early, and we had our first of many breakfast buffets at the Roosevelt. I’m glad I didn’t have to think about the bill (it was included in the cost of the trip), but the food was good, and there were many choices — in fact, I never did try everything I wanted (the lox and bagel were just too good to pass up). Then it was into our “private motorcoach” for the longest day of the trip.

We started with a failure — we were supposed to have a tour of Masonic Hall, but the volunteer guide never showed up, so about all we saw was a waiting room, the restrooms, and this plaque.

Masonic Hall plaque

We couldn’t wait, because we had an appointment with another volunteer guide, this time for a tour of City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse. Fortunately, this guide volunteers for the city, so she showed up. But first, we wandered around City Hall Park, where I saw the day’s first reminder of 9/11:

Science marches on

City Hall Park was very pleasant; I especially enjoyed the fountain.

Fountain, City Hall Park

City Hall and Tweed Courthouse were interesting, but not terribly picturesque. Then we walked down into the financial district and had lunch at Les Halles. This was the first of our group meals, most of which had semi-set menus in the interest of speeding the meal along (not really rushing us, but keeping on schedule). I’d go back happily.

Lunch was well-timed, because it had started to rain just before we got to the restaurant, but the storm was over by the time we left for Federal Hall, Trinity Churchyard, St. Paul’s Chapel (where we saw the 9/11 exhibits), and finally a tour of the area around Ground Zero with volunteers from the 9/11 Tribute Center. One of the volunteers had worked on the 102nd floor of the South Tower but had changed jobs a few weeks before 9/11; he still lived in the area, and suffers from respiratory problems as a result. Of course, that wasn’t the most moving part of his story, but it’s all I can relate without distortion.

By the time we’d finished, it was 6pm, and our “private motorcoach” had a lot of traffic to fight on our return visit — I’m not sure but that the subway would have been a better choice. We got back to the hotel far too late to go to a show, so we went to dinner instead, at Angelo’s Pizza on Second Avenue, choosing the place by its four-star Yelp reviews. I wasn’t terribly impressed, and added my own review to help others in the future — there was nothing wrong with the pizza, but I was sure we could have done better.

Wednesday

We started Wednesday with a tour of the Tenement Museum, which included an interactive interpretive session; I got to play the role of the paterfamilias of a turn-of-the-20th-Century Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant family, asking questions of a teenaged Sephardic Jew who’d been in the country for a couple of years. It helped me appreciate what my grandfather had gone through when he came to America.

Tenament Museum (97 Orchard Street)

Then we walked down Rivington Street to Schiller’s Liquor Bar for a “light lunch” (only two courses); the neighborhood was a bit on the quiet side because it was Simchas Torah (Ashkenazi spelling deliberate, given the area), so some of the stores were closed. Schiller’s was fun and filling, but not so filling that I wasn’t interested in making a stop at Economy Candy, where I bought more than I should have but not as much as I wanted to.

Back on the bus for a trip up the East Side to Gracie Mansion for tea (and dessert) and a tour. We just missed the Mayor, who’d been there for a reception for the Consular Corps. Gracie Mansion is worth the trip; in previous years, the tour omitted the upstairs private quarters, but since Mayor Bloomberg decided to live in his own home instead of at the Mansion, the whole house is shown. And now that New York has lifted term limits, the odds are good that there will be four more years where you can see the whole place.

We returned to the hotel with plenty of time to visit TKTS and score tickets for Spamalot. They’d announced that they were closing in January earlier that day, so I’m glad we went when we did (I hadn’t known about the closing until I saw it printed on our ticket). On the other hand, I have to say that comparing the play with the movie shows the value of a limited budget — I far preferred the movie.

We tried to go to Akdeniz Turkish Cuisine before the show, but they were full, so we went next door to McAnn’s, which was a perfectly serviceable bar, with decent food and beer.

Thursday

Thursday was downright chilly and windy, which was a shame, because our first stop was outside, at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens.

Artist at work!

Michael Berens gave us a great tour of the exhibit (EAF08: 2008 Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition, there until March 1, 2009); his comments and energy added a lot to my appreciation of the exhibit and kept me out in the wind until we were dragged away to join the vast majority of the tour, who were waiting patiently on the bus for us.

We made a quick stop in Astoria Park to admire the underside of the Triborough Bridge

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We then continued on to the Noguchi Museum, where we had a low-energy tour.

Lunch was at Taverna Kyclades in Astoria. It gets rave reviews on Yelp and in Zagat, but I thought they were only average; being in a group didn’t help, I’m sure, but the salmon was overcooked, and that didn’t jibe with their reputation. I might try them again, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so.

And that ended the organized portion of the day; we had decided to go see The 39 Steps if we could get tickets at a decent price. The lines at TKTS were long, but we’d found a half-price flyer on the way over, so we hiked the extra three blocks to the box office and took care of our business that way. Then we took advantage of IBM’s corporate membership in MoMA and went in for a short visit (because two museums just aren’t enough for a day in New York). After that, we cast about for dinner and ended up following a Twitterpal’s recommendation for Bukhara Grill, which was quite tasty but more expensive than I expected (note to self: if the menu in the window has opaqued prices, beware). I wish we could have brought our leftovers back, because they were too good to abandon — but without a refrigerator, abandonment was the only option.

The 39 Steps was great fun, though a bit hard to follow at times; I guess it would have helped to have seen the movie or read the book first.

Friday

Friday was the northern day of the tour. We started at Van Courtlandt House in the Bronx, not far from where the subway ends; then we visited Poe Cottage, which is about to undergo significant restoration, and then the Bronx Museum of the Arts where we had a well-guided, but too short, tour of the “Street Art/Street Life” exhibit.

After that, we journeyed to Harlem for lunch at Londel’s. They failed badly on the service side (Diane didn’t get her meal until 20 minutes after the rest of us were served, which was about an hour after we’d sat down), as well as not having the sweet potato pie that had been prearranged. And the food wasn’t very exciting anyway. I did enjoy the “local” Sugar Hill Beer while I waited for my food!

The slow service cost us the chance to walk around Striders’ Row, but we finished the afternoon at a high point, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, including an interesting ghost story.

Then it was back to the hotel to rest for a bit before the grand finale, a trip to Top of the Rock

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and a farewell dinner at the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center.

Saturday

We had our last “tour” breakfast at the hotel and said goodbye to a number of folks who we saw there, then set out for a day of touring Manhattan on our own. There was much geocaching in the morning, not all of which was successful.

Lunch was at an old haunt of mine from my 1980 trip to the late, lamented IBM Systems Research Institute. Well, almost. In 1980, it was known as the Electra Coffee Shop; now, it’s the Morning Star Cafe, but it’s still a great New York diner.

After lunch, we walked up to Central Park for more geocaching, and then to the Metropolitan Museum (thanks, IBM!) to admire some European paintings and the current Chinese landscape exhibit, along with some quick trips through the Egyptian collection, the “New York, N. Why” exhibit, and some shopping.

Then we walked over to Beyoglu for another shot at a Turkish dinner; this time, we had no deadline, so, of course, they seated us immediately. This was another Yelp pick, and it was a winner — the vegetarian meze plate was great, as was the doner kabob. I’d go back cheerfully.

We decided against baklava for dessert in favor of Pinkberry for Diane and Sedutto for me — that was probably a mistake, because it had started raining while we were at dinner, and the rain really picked up while we were at Pinkberry. It eased up by the time we left, and wasn’t too bad on the way to Sedutto — but then the wind hit. My umbrella didn’t survive, and I wound up throwing it away before we got back to the hotel (sure, we could have taken a taxi — there were plenty available, despite the rain — but what fun would that have been?), and we were quite soaked. But it was fun anyway, and I felt virtuous, having walked over 30,000 steps for the day (which probably didn’t make up for the caloric intake).

Sunday

Today, we decided against the hotel breakfast; instead, we walked a block to Smiler’s, where Diane and I had breakfast for under $10. Total.

We had another reason for eating at Smiler’s instead of the hotel; we were having brunch with an old friend at Noho Star. After Saturday, we didn’t want to walk quite as much, so we picked up a MetroCard Fun Pass for the day and took the subway to NoHo, arriving early enough to do more geocaching (again, not all successful).

Brunch was very pleasant, as was catching up; Ed said that if the day was clear, we could do worse than to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and so that’s what we did (with a not-so-quick detour to the hotel to pick up my jacket).

I took a ton of photos on the bridge and in DUMBO, posting many of them on Twitter as they happened; Ed saw my tweets and arranged to meet us again, giving us some very useful tips on the local area, including the suggestion of having pastries at Almondine.

After that, we made a brief visit to Bloomingdale’s, and finished the evening with stops at two pizza places, Portofino on Second Avenue and Two Boots in Grand Central. Portofino was much closer to “real” New York pizza, at least given my choices (mushroom slice at Portofino, “Earth Mother with cheese” at Two Boots). And then a little Ciao Bello sorbetto to top off the evening.

Tomorrow, we get to see JetBlue’s new Terminal 5 — it’s going to be the first Monday the facility has been open. I hope security there works better on a Monday morning than it does at San Jose.

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Oregon Wine and News

When we went college shopping in Oregon last May, we did some last minute wine shopping at the Made in Oregon store in the Portland Airport.

One of the bottles we picked up was King Estate 2006 Oregon Pinot Gris, which we had with dinner recently. We liked it a lot; it was crisp, with lots of fruit (I’ve gotta get better at writing down descriptions of wines while drinking them instead of waiting a couple of days!).

Sadly, we only bought one bottle. But we should have the opportunity to buy more; we already have planned a trip to take a closer look at Willamette, and now Jeff’s been accepted at the University of Oregon. We’d bought the Willamette tickets before hearing from U of Oregon, so it’d be expensive to change them; I think we just might have to make another trip instead.

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