Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fawlty in Sonoma

If, like me, you are a Fawlty Towers fan, then you treasure the meager 12 episodes than ran on the BBC starting in 1975.  Written by and starring Monty Python's John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, the show also featured famed English actor Andrew Sachs as a hapless Spanish waiter.  

In the farcical series, tense, rude Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) and his bossy wife Sybil run the fictional Fawlty Towers hotel on the sea at Torquay (South Devon in England).  Mr. Fawlty appears to despise most of his guests, without regard to whether they are normal or demanding.  The British Film Institute (all industry professionals) voted Fawlty Towers the best British TV series of all time in 2000.

I can understand the accolade.  Fawlty Towers is available as a complete DVD boxed set, and every episode is hilarious.  Basil Fawlty, exercising his deep loathing for hotel guests, rains down a torrent of misery upon himself and everyone.  

John Cleese said in interviews that he based his character on a real-life experience with just such a curmudgeon at a small hotel he visited similar to Fawlty Towers. I've often wondered what it would be like to run into a Mr. Fawlty, but I mostly stay at large chain hotels where the HR departments have been careful to screen out candidates fraught with misanthropic tendencies for customer-facing positions.

However, on a recent two-night stay at a small B&B in the vicinity of Healdsburg, California (Sonoma County), I finally came across Fawlty in the flesh, this time in female form.  I won't name names or call out the exact B&B, but the stories are true and accurate.

This is the same expensive B&B I mentioned in my post last week.  The normal rate is an eye-popping $350 per night (I mean, after all, it's just a B&B), but my San Francisco friends' wine club membership entitled us to half price.  It still seemed expensive to me at $175 a night. 

My three friends and I arrived at the B&B in question two days after Christmas.  It was late afternoon and very cold.  We were tired from the drive up from San Francisco and from the several Sonoma wineries we'd visited along the way.  Our hostess and her husband, the owners, at first greeted us warmly.  

Then one of my friends, a charming man loved by all, erred slightly in pronouncing the first name of our hostess.  "Thank you, Laura," he said, acknowledging receipt of his room key.

"No," she said sharply, staring intently at him with pursed lips, "It's Laura."  Her smile had vanished.

I could have sworn she said, "Laura," but it was obviously not right.

My friend asked her how to spell it.

"L-U-R-A," she said, still staring at him with a frown, as if he had broken wind.

"Oh, Lura," said my friend in a friendly tone.  "That's an unusual spelling."  He'd meant to break the curious tension.

But his effort failed.  Lura said nothing, just continued to stare at him, obviously unhappy with his offhand remark about her name.  Her frown deepened, and the room felt chillier.  I could see from the creases around her mouth that it was a well-practiced look.  We shrank from her presence to find our rooms.

We all remarked on the creepy incident, but didn't think more of it until the following morning.  

My nice-guy friend, whose name is Ken, went out for an early morning walk and fell flat on his face, breaking his nose.  He showed up at my door a few minutes later with a handful of bloody towels clutched to his face.  After collecting his wife, we were off to the ER.  Several x-rays and stitches later, we returned to the B&B.  It was just before 10:00 AM.

Our fourth companion, whose name is Susan, had explained to Lura and her husband about Ken's accident when she went to have breakfast.  Lura had explained the night before that breakfast would be served daily eight until ten only.  

Poor Ken, his face one big puffy black-and-blue bruise with bloody nose bandaged, walked in the kitchen door of the B&B at 9:58 AM. Rather than offer any words of consolation, Lura rushed furiously up to him, Ken's wife, and me, her face almost as red as his, looked accusingly at her watch and shouted, "Well, I guess you'll all expect to be having breakfast, huh!?"  A few guests were just finishing up and looked shocked.  I know we were.

Ken, though, brushed off her affront, and asked politely if there was anything to eat that wouldn't be too much trouble, like cold pastries.  Lura's husband, having heard his wife's confrontation and seeing Ken's injury, told us in a kind tone to sit down and feel welcome.  We did, and he proceeded to cook us a fabulous hot breakfast.  Lura disappeared out the back door in a huff, and we weren't sorry to see the back of her.

Ken's fall and ER visit got us off to a late start along the wine roads of Sonoma, but we made up for lost time and had a great day tasting many of the county's finest Pinots, Cabs, and Chards. We arrived back at the B&B right at 7:00 PM that evening.

As we debarked from the car, Susan said, uh oh, we'd missed the B&B's wine-and-cheese offering.  It ended, we'd learned from Lura's husband that morning, each evening at 7:00 PM.  We decided to go in anyway to see if any cheese might be left over.

Guarding the living room table like a pitbull, arms folded and with a scowl upon her face, stood Lura.  "Wine and cheese time is OVER!" she informed us loudly, in case we were hard of hearing.  Only thing missing was a rolling pin with which Lura could bash in our heads.

Susan, a state supreme court justice who isn't intimidated by anyone, and certainly not by someone to whom we are paying hundreds of dollars for accommodation, blithely ignored Lura's foghorn growl and began to help herself to the dregs of cheese and tidbits of food left on the table.  We remaining three followed her example of passive resistance and joined in to graze.  

Ignoring Lura ignited her ire: it was war!  Lura countered our ploy by nimbly grabbing a serving plate off the table while we were still collecting odd bits of food from it and stomped off to the kitchen.  We picked up our grazing pace and filled our small plates with this and that before she returned to get what remained.  

While Lura was busy lugging the last load of leftover victuals to the kitchen, Susan helped herself to a healthy pour of insipid red wine from the sole open bottle on the table before that, too, was whisked away.  Lura's glower of disapproval and her body language spoke volumes.  It was clear from her non-verbals that she despised us.

Not wanting to press our luck, the four of us returned to our rooms.  There we found we couldn't turn on the electric fireplaces for heat with the remote control as we had been able to do the previous evening.  The rooms were freezing with no heat.  This forced me to return to find Lura and ask her for help.

Instead of coming to our rooms to offer assistance, Lura let out an exaggerated sigh of impatience, shook her head as if speaking to an idiot, and informed me in a high-pitched, irritated voice that the controls were inside the front panels of the electric fireplaces.  "We turn the main switches off each morning," she said, sounding as if she suspected her guests of stealing electricity.  "The remotes don't work unless you turn the main switches back on!" As if we were supposed to know.

OK, I thought.  Any normal hostess would have apologized and come to our rooms to demonstrate.

The second morning Susan and I went to breakfast just before eight to make amends for my tardiness at breakfast the previous day when I'd been at the ER with Ken.  Since we were checking out that morning, we thought Lura would approve.

But we were wrong.  I entered the kitchen through the back door at 7:59 AM and walked through to the dining area just beyond.  There I encountered Lura, standing with arms folded as she had the previous evening, with a now-familiar pinched look on her face.

"I suppose you expect to have breakfast EARLY, then?" she burst out.  I noticed about eight other guests sitting quietly in the living room where Susan and I assumed she had sequestered them.  At the sound of Lura's screeching, they all craned their necks timidly to see what was the matter.  They looked cowed.

Susan and I, however, were not cowed.  By now we expected Lura to be in a perpetual foul mood, and so we politely answered, "Yes, we would like breakfast, thanks," to her question and seated ourselves.

Turning to the eight folks in the parlor, Lura blurted out, "Well, you might as well join them!" before stomping off again to the kitchen.  The other guests did come and sit down with us.  Lura soon brought out the first course her gourmet-cook husband had prepared.

It was a beautifully-rendered martini glass full of what I thought must be layered fruit, but I wasn't sure.  There was a drizzle of something red on top, and so, without thinking, I asked Lura if it was all fruit.

"No, it's HAMBURGER," she shouted, again turning heads among the guests.  She stomped back to the kitchen without saying if it was fruit or not.  I tasted it; it was indeed fruit, but I never did identify the red drizzle on top. 

Susan was fuming, and I thought she was going to say something to Lura, but she thought better of it.  By then I had become inured to Lura's bad behavior and expected the worst.

I wasn't disappointed, either.  When Lura came to collect the martini glasses from the table, she curtly instructed several guests to move the martini glasses to the exact center of the serving plates on which they sat and to replace the spoons and forks they'd used to eat the fruit in precise positions on either side of the plate at the base of each martini glass.  Lura gave me the same instructions, too, gritting her teeth as she hissed at me not to lift the plate.  Susan looked at her like she was crazy.  I assumed it was an extreme case of OCD.  On top of Lura's consistently bad attitude, it wasn't pretty to watch or pleasant to experience.

We were glad to have to deal only with her nice hubby on check-out.  He seemed to have a sunny disposition all the time, a welcome contrast to Lura.  I couldn't help wondering how he could possibly tolerate Mrs. Fawlty day in and day out.  Maybe he drinks a lot when nobody's looking.

Would I go back there?  Yes, definitely.  How often do you get sincerely insulted by your hostess morning, noon, and night?  At least she didn't poison me, and her husband was a delight, not to mention being a damn fine chef.  My Mrs. Fawlty experience was more fascinating in its way than the dreary sameness of the Hilton Union Square on O'Farrell Street in San Francisco, my next stop.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sick in Sonoma and San Francisco

Sometimes what sounds like a good idea for a pleasure trip takes an unexpected turn.  My wife planned to visit her family in the Twin Cities, taking our kids with her, on Christmas Day for five nights.  She wanted me to go, too.  It sounded OK on the face of it.  That is, until I heard that it was going to be a lot like Chevy Chase's house in the movie Christmas Vacation:  Thirteen relatives bunking together with nowhere to go in the ice and snow, no rental car to take you there, and cots set up in the basement.  All the scene needed was a rusty RV in the driveway and Randy Quaid with a dog named "Snots."

I politely demurred and instead planned my own mini-vacation separate from the family to visit good friends in San Francisco.  Another old friend I've known since childhood, now a Supreme Court justice in the State of Washington, decided to join us.  The four of us would drive up to Sonoma for a couple of days and nights to enjoy the wine country, an experience to be made especially delightful thanks to my San Francisco friends' memberships in a number of Sonoma wine clubs.

My American Airlines connection on Christmas Day took me RDU/JFK.  I found it utterly bizarre to be at JFK on Christmas night waiting for AA177 to SFO, though I felt fortunate to have been upgraded.  The aircraft was a three-class 767, one of a peculiar dedicated fleet AA keeps just for Transcon service (JFK/LAX, JFL/SFO). 

On board it was like being in a time machine back to the 1990s.  The aircraft was fitted with two rows of ancient First Class seats in a 2-1-2 configuration, the ones that are real wide but don't recline fully flat.  This was followed by four or five rows of old style Business Class seats (just realized I didn't count the Business rows) in a 2-2-2 configuration.  

I opted for seat 7G in the first row of Business.  The seats were quite narrow and cramped, but far better than coach, of course.  The plane wasn't full, so I had an empty seat beside mine which made the flight even more comfortable.

I later learned from Joe Brancatelli that AA's three-class Transcon configurations are indeed about 20 years old and will be replaced in late 2013.

Boarding Champagne was served (OK, the bubbly was from Spain, but it was tasty) in Business and First--a happy surprise--and a light snack was served en route which was edible if not memorable.  Flight attendants distributed Samsung tablets loaded with movies and the newest generation of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.  I had two books with me, too.

With all those diversions, it was a fast six hours, or close to it.  Got in early to SFO but had to wait 30 minutes for a gate. Then it took another half hour to get from the gate to the Airtrain to the remote rental car facility. 

With no GPS in my Hertz car, I had a hard time finding the Hilton Union Square on O'Farrell Street in the dark and rain. But by the following morning early, I was up, showered, dressed, packed, and ready for our trip to Sonoma.  

Because the weather was overcast, breezy, and chilly, I was too lazy to leave the hotel to find a restaurant for breakfast and made the mistake of eating in the Hilton's modest breakfast cafe.  Thirty dollars lighter after pancakes, bacon, and a Coke Zero, I squinted at the bill and was about to leave a tip despite the outrageous bill when I noticed that I'd been charged 17.5% already for "service."  Since when did hotels start adding service to bills for single diners?

Another high cost was parking.  The night before when I'd arrived in the cold rain after being lost for a half hour the hotel had directed me to the self-park parking around back.  There I was told it would be $57 to park from then (just past 10:00 PM) until early the next morning (we were leaving before 8:00 AM).  

"How much would it cost if I just stayed an hour?" I asked.  

"$57," came the answer.

Way too much when you are on vacation and paying for it out of your own pocket, I reckoned.  Funny how you are not sensitive to such high costs when you are on business and being reimbursed.  

I drove around the block and found a private 24-hour parking garage where the $25 overnight charge seemed like a bargain.

My three friends and I took off north over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, bound for Sonoma.  By midday we were tooling around the northern wine country and sipping tiny amounts of mighty fine Pinots, Cabernets, and Chards at every winery.  We had brought cheese, olives, and sandwich material and had a mid-afternoon picnic while imbibing even more wine.

By evening we were well-soused and ready for dinner and bed.  Our friends from San Francisco had reserved rooms at a nice bed-and-breakfast in Healdsburg, the name of which I will withhold for the moment (explanation to come).  My friends' wine club memberships got us a 50% discount, so the rooms were half the normal $350 per night (plus tax).  

My jaw dropped at the stratospheric price: $350 for a B&B?  My Bay Area friends patiently explained that they'd looked into buying a house in Healdsburg and had discovered that modest 2,000 sq.ft. places (old construction, not modern) sell for $850,000.  I would guess that makes Healdsburg homes some of the most expensive real estate in the country.  It's more than twice what the toniest residential areas of Raleigh go for.  No wonder, they said, that a Healdsburg B&B has to charge so much.

It made me wonder if the richest, so-called "one percent" of our population might be larger than 1%.  Who the hell can afford such prices, especially considering that for most Healdsburg buyers, this would be a second home, used infrequently?

We stayed two days and nights at the pricey B&B, during which time we had some bizarre encounters with the “Mrs. Fawlty” who, with her husband, owns and runs the place.  It seemed to all of us that she was intent on making our guest experience a sort of low level misery while in her care.  Those stories deserve their own separate blog post, perhaps next week.  I will be discreet and use pseudonyms.

The morning we were to head back to San Francisco I suddenly and without warning became ill.  One minute I was OK, and the next I was feverish, coughing, wheezing, with my sinuses running like Niagara Falls.  

Whatever it was, I came down with something terrible out there and spent the next three days on my back once checked in again at the Hilton Union Square.  Our entire family had flu shots last fall, but I couldn't help wondering as I lay there, weak and helpless, if I hadn't somehow come down with influenza despite the vaccination.  

Being laid up and incapacitated for three days in a hotel room a long way from home was a unique experience for me.  After more than three decades of nonstop travel as a consultant, I have certainly had my share of colds and occasional stomach viruses while on the road.  But nothing like this.

I barely had the energy to sit up and read occasionally.  Mostly I rested, though with the fierce coughing, I don't recall much sleeping.  I must have dozed a lot.  The hotel cleaning staff came and went; I hardly noticed them.  I drank a lot of fluids and took a lot of Alka-Seltzer Plus Cold medicine.

My friend the Washington State Supreme Court justice kept tabs on me day and night; she didn't want the maids to be the first ones to find my body if I died.  She went out and about San Francisco doing all the things we'd planned to do together, having lots of fun, while I lay in the room watching the sun move slowly across the horizon.

I thought about how I was paying a lot of money for that Hilton room, and for the rental car, and for the daily parking for the rental car, all money that was going down a rat hole while I suffered.  I thought about the irony of how much I always enjoy being in San Francisco--right out my window--and yet I might as well have been a million miles away.  It was surreal.

To save money I'd booked a red-eye on American back to the East Coast, and when the night came to leave, I mustered my strength and drove to the airport.  After returning the Hertz car, I sat exhausted in the Admirals Club for several hours, dozing and bleary-eyed, waiting for the late evening departure. At the very last minute the Club staff took pity on me and upgraded me again to Business Class.

I barely remember the flight back to JFK on an identical 762 to the one I'd flown out on.  I felt deeply grateful to American Airlines for providing me with a comfortable seat in which to rest at a time when I really needed such a seat.  I spurned all offers of Champagne or food. I drank a lot of water and slept when I wasn't coughing my lungs out.

Once home, I high-tailed it to my doc, who tested me for the flu (came back negative) and explained about the many nasty non-flu germs going around this winter.  He said what was ailing me was persistent and enervating.  

Three prescriptions later, I am finally back up to an almost full energy level.  It’s been years since I was laid so low.  The purgatory of that San Francisco hotel room when I was at my weakest will be a lasting unpleasant memory.  

Nonetheless, as an inveterate traveler with sixty years of experience wandering the globe, I know it'll become a good story to laugh about with friends and family for years to come.  

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

St. John Bliss, Part 2:
Paradise (Soon To Be) Lost

On January 1, we received the following message from the good folks who run Maho Bay Eco-Camps on St. John:

Dear Campers, Staff, and All Interested,

We have just discovered that the property which Maho Bay Camps sits upon has officially been sold.  The only information that has been released, is that a direct sale to an unknown buyer took place on 12/27/2012 for $13,950,000.  No one is releasing any more details.  We do not know who they are or their intentions.  All we know is that we are only taking reservations until we close on May 15, 2013.  We will continue to update you as we find out more.

We hope you have a blessed New Year and get to come visit us one last time.

For reservations please call 1-800-392-9004

After operating in harmony with the surrounding forest and beach since the 1970s, this simple paradise on St. John's premier beach is soon to be lost.  This was the view from our tent cabin A7 during our visit over Thanksgiving week:

Its closure signals the end of inexpensive accommodation options on St. John.  Maho Bay Eco-Camps off-season rates are just $85 per night for each tent cabin like the one above.

We were told that the original asking price for the property was $32 million.  Last we heard the price had been reduced to $19 million.  Yet it sold for just $14 mil, less than half off list.  It's the bad economy, they said.  

But St. John is the place the 1% go to play.  It's all but immune from the economy.  I can't help but think that in future years people will wonder how this remarkable parcel of land sold so cheaply.

Here's a view of Maho Bay Eco-Camps from the road on the distant  hill in the above photo looking back towards the camp:

The white dots on the point are some of the tent cabins (including A7) sticking out from the surrounding forest.  That's Big Maho Bay on the right, the place described in my previous post as having excellent big turtle sightings as they feed on the short grass growing on the bottom.  

Little Maho Bay is to the left of the point, and it's separated by another smaller point from Francis Bay, another great place to see big turtles.  Just barely visible over the top of the hill in the distance are the British Virgin Islands.  

All these St. John beaches are pristine and beautiful.  I'm telling you:  This place is as close to paradise as one is likely to find on this earth.  Here's a view of Little Maho Bay with the Maho Bay Eco-Camps SCUBA boat just returning from a dive trip and the yellow island sloop"Pepper" in the distance:

Thank goodness we made it back for one final visit. We are now looking into VRBO rentals elsewhere on St. John for a future trip, but we'll never find a deal like Maho Bay Eco-Camp again.

Sad though we were, we nonetheless let the bliss sink thoroughly in and enjoyed all St. John had to offer.  Well, except for shopping and fine dining.  We opted for simpler forms of relaxation and leisure: snorkeling every day, sometimes twice a day, swimming, sailing on the "Pepper" to more remote snorkeling sites, driving into Cruz Bay for some barbecue pork, watching our son take a glass-blowing class and later a pottery class, and venturing to the Caribbean side of the island to eat some of Vie's scrumptious garlic fried chicken and conch fritters at Vie's Snack Shack:

Life doesn't get much better than sipping a cold lager while chowing down on her delicious garlic chicken, though I did feel just a little bad for the bantams scurrying underfoot looking for a handout, wondering whether they might be tomorrow's meal for someone.

The week went by too quickly, as vacations do when things go right.  In the first three days, between swimming and snoozing, I finished a nonfiction book I'd been trying to read for months and got most of the way through another long book.  It rained a lot, but conveniently almost altogether at night.  Sometimes the downpours leaked in a little.  We didn't mind.  The rain prompted a plague of flying termites to explode from their nests as they do from time to time, leaving dead termite bodies everywhere the next day.

But we didn't mind that, either.  We took it all in stride, because we were in that state of perfect bliss--a complete relaxation of the mind, body, and soul that's hard to reach and even harder to describe.  We just were, for the entire week. 

Leaving St. John at the end of the week, we were ready to join the real world again.  It's a place we will endeavor to go back to.