Sunday, June 30, 2013


Sometimes works of fiction can tell us more about a destination than even the best travel guidebook. “Snowdrops” by A.D. Miller is such a book.

Set in Moscow in the 2000s, it is a tale told by a young British lawyer writing to his fiancé about his time abroad. The protagonist is, like many of those who have flocked to Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, a deeply flawed character but nevertheless sympathetic. In recent decades Russia has tended to attract foreigners in search of sex with willing, often beautiful women, steamy nightlife, and dreams of adventure and riches.

The hero of “Snowdrops” is such a person. The title of the book refers to the term Russians use to describe the corpses who are uncovered after the end of a long winter, dead from exposure, alcoholism or foul play.

Miller’s writing and descriptions of Moscow and its characters is wonderful. His story of the misadventures of the lawyer will, I expect, hold your attention from the first page. While travelling by Metro, he encounters two young women who claim to be sisters, and develops a relationship with one of them. They in turn introduce him to an older woman, their aunt, who dreams of exchanging her central Moscow apartment for a quieter place in the suburbs.

The complications that ensue entangle the lawyer in nefarious doings of which he is ultimately quite ashamed. Even his day job, writing contracts for oil executives with connections, is one he finds lacking in meaning .But at the end of the book, after he has left the country, he admits that his primary emotion is not guilt but loss, loss of the magic of Moscow.

A.D. Miller writes for The Economist ( and his book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in England. If you can’t make it to Russia this year, reading this book may be the next best thing.


Friday, June 28, 2013

Home Food in Italy

Some friends who visited Italy a few years ago were disappointed in the restaurants in that country renowned for its cuisine. They said they had eaten better Italian food here in Montreal.

Now travellers have an alternative to restaurants, a chance to share an authentic Italian meal with an Italian family at home. The program is called Home Food ( and while it is somewhat pricey, it includes not just several courses made from local ingredients but appropriate wines to go with each course. The cost is 50 euros per person, or about $65.

In North America it is easy to spend this much for pretty mediocre food and a glass of wine or two.

The places where you can enjoy home food are scattered around the country, from Lombardy to Sicily. A video on the Website features two women who rave about their experience in Bologna, known as "La Grassa," and considered to be one of the gourmet centres of Italy. Although I seldom could afford to eat in its best restaurants, Bologna certainly lived up to that reputation during the nine months I spent there.

If you want to sample Italian hospitatily through this program, you need to book ahead since there is a limited number of hosts and most accommodate eight guests at most.

I learned about the Home Food program through a post on the Website www.classetouriste,com, a blog with unusually beautiful pictures.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Florida Summer Deals

When I was a kid, Florida was a place you went in winter or spring, but never summer. That has changed, and now summer is high season in parts of the state like Clearwater Beach that attract mainly families.

This year, when rain is plentiful in the north, a holiday in the Sunshine State may have more appeal than usual. In addition, there are some good deals available on vacation rental properties. Florida Beach Rentals ( is offering reduced prices on a number of its condos and houses for the months of July and August.

The price for a 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo starts as low as $2510 per month. Many weekly and weekend rates are also cut, but they work out more expensive generally on a per day basis than longer rentals. I have rented several times from this company and have always had good experiences. They have an especially user-friendly Website.

There are also good fares to Florida with Allegiant Air ( this summer. One way fares to Tampa -St. Petersburg, the gateway to Clearwater Beach, start as low as $49 from Chattanooga TN. From Buffalo NY the rate is $100, while from Plattsburgh NY it begins at $155.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Lufthansa Contest

If you are one of those lucky people who easily falls asleep on planes, you can share your tips on how you do it and possibly win a free trip to Europe with Lufthansa (

I used to sleep readily on planes, but rarely do so now. Perhaos it's because I'm not flying as much as I did at one time. To enter the contest, become a fan of the Facebook page of Lufthansa USA, or follow Lufthansa USA on Twitter. The information on how to enter is on the Facebook page, but you are probably too late to get one of the free travel kits Lufthansa is offering. The promotion is in aid of poublicizing their flat seats, available in first class.

Lufthansa is a good airline even if you can't afford first class. When I can, I fly with them.

For a different view of flying and an excellent account of a very scary experience, check out the latest blog post on Don, one of the authors. writes well about the terrible time they endured in trying to reach Srinagar in northern India. After several attempts and incredible turbulence that made most passengers scream, the plane diverted to New Delhi. A few hours later, they were able to complete the trip.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

St. John's/Midsummer Day

St. John's or Midsummer Day, which occurs this weekend, is to a large extent the warm weather counterpart of Christmas. Everybody knows about Christmas, the Christian feast that celebrates Christ's birth and falls very close to the winter equinox. In modern times, it has become mainly a feast of shopping.

St. John's Day, also known as Midsummer Day some places, is less well-known. It is a major holiday in several Nordic countries (Finalnd, Sweden and Norway) as well as in Lithuania. As with Christmas, it is a Christian feast, the birthday of St. John  the Baptist, that falls very near an equinox. It signals the start of summer.

I remember being in Helsinki a few years ago on St. John's Day, and marvelling at the evergreen boughs that draped all the light poles downtown. In Scandinavia, the day is often marked by heavy drinking and cavorting outdoors, but it is also a religious celebration. For Finns, Midsummer Day is one of 14 official public holidays. and Finns also get 30 days of vacation after they have worked for a year.

In Lithuania, the day is known as Jonines and marks the beginning of the haying season. It is the successor to an earlier pagan feast day marked by rituals to protect the harvest and other fertility rites. The Baltic countries came to Christianity quite late, For more information on the holiday in Lithuania, consult the Website

If you can't make it to Northern Europe to mark midsummer, consider the province of Quebec. Here St. Jean Baptiste Day is known as the Fete Nationale, and st celebrated across the province. Even my small, mainly English-speaking suburb of Westmount has activities planned. The main celebration occurs in the eastern part of downtown Montreal at Parc Maisonneuve near the Olympic Stadium, with many Quebec vedettes appearing in a large, free event on the night of June 24th.

St, Jean Baptiste is the patron saint of Quebec. Many of the early settlers of Quebec came from the French province of Normandy, which was originally settled by Vikings. I wonder whether there is any connection between these facts and the modern reality that Quebec and several countries in Scandinavia are the main places where this festival is celebrated today.

In any case, however you celebrate it, have a happy St. John`s or Midsummer Day.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summer Deals on Air Fare

I have a friend who travels frequently between New York and Montreal, and who complains that the usual air fare between these not very distant cities is too high. She may be pleased to learn about Air Canada's ( Web-only sale on cross-border flights.

This sale reduces the one-way fare between the two cities to $164, provided you book ahead and book by July 7. Travel must take place by October 31 of this year. Similar reductions also apply for a number of other cities, such as San Diego to Edmonton for $161 each way, or Portland OR to Vancouver for $152 one-way. The advance purchase requirements vary from city to city, but are at least 7 days.

Within the United States, there are even better deals. Travelocity ( quotes round trip fares starting at $90 on Frontier Airlines ( Round trips for less than $200 are available on some domestic routes of Air Tran ( Virgin America ( and American ( American is also cutting fares on some international routes to Asia, the Caribbean and Central America.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Some Airline News

Jet Blue (,) the low-cost carrier based in the U.S., has announced that now airline miles earned in its True Blue program will never expire. By doing so, it becomes just the second U.S. based airline to offer this privilege.

Delta Airlines ( is the other airline with this feature on its Sky Miles program. Non-expiration of mileage is a big advantage, because it is so easy to forget and let your miles expire through inactivity on most other airline loyalty programs.

There were screeches from passengers several years ago when Air Canada ( introduced regulations that required activity on Aeroplan accounts every year to retain the miles. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to fly with the airline, since Air Canada and many offer lines have tie-in deals with partners which you can use to keep your miles active. Still, it is a bother.

Star Alliance, the airline group that includes Air Canada, Lufthansa ( and many other airlines has a new member, Taiwan-based EVA Airlines (

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lessons from a Frugal Traveler

One of the great resources for budget travel is the New York Times ( Frugal Travel column. It is well worth following this blog, now being written by Seth Kugel. However, I was interested in a post from his predecessor Matt Gross on lessons he learned during four years of writing the blog.

You can access the whole post by searching on the Times site for the May 25, 2010 post of this article. Gross concluded that he learned three main things--first, frugality is in the eye of the beholder; second, anywhere can be frugal; and third, friends are worth more than $. I agree with him on these points, though I would say the lessons I have learned from many years of budget travel and budget ttravel writing are somewhat different.

The most important point he makes, I believe, is about the need to prioritize. Even with lots of time and money, you would have to make choices. When money is limited, priorities are even more important. You will need to choose whether to splurge on decent accommodation, on sight seeing, on meals in restaurants or special events. If your budget is really tiny and you want to visit expensive places, you may have to economize on all these items or limit the length of your stay severely. If that is the case, remember that even one or two days in Rome, London or Moscow is light years better than no time, and with planning you can cover a lot in a short time.

If you want to go public with your travel priorities, you can list them on the Website It can be useful to have a written record of priorities in case you are tempted to go back to a favourite place once again, rather that venturing somewhere new.

Gross's point about reaching out to friends is important, though my take on it is a little different. Much of my travel was in the pre-internet, pre-high security era, when it seemed to be easier to meet interesting people at random while travelling. Today with even most public transit passengers buried in their smart phones, I suspect even people of Gross's generation can have trouble meeting people on the road.

It may be a question of personality, but I still enjoy the serendipity of venturing into unknown territory on my own from time to time. I think you learn a lot more when you have to rely just on your own devices, unassisted by friends or even friends of friends. It can get lonely at times, but loneliness is all part of the travel experience.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Step Back in Time

If you have ever wondered what life was like 100 years ago, a stay at the Roycroft Inn ( in East Aurora, New York will give you a good idea. Although it has been updated with all the mod cons such as internet for guest use and large bathrooms, it still looks as if little has changed since the inn opened early in the 20th century.

This inn is a must if, like me, you are a fan of Art Nouveau and its cousin in the English-speaking world, Arts and Crafts. This was an artistic movement at the turn of the 20th century that reacted against industrialization and wanted to return to an idealized past of small communities close to nature where craftmanship was taken seriously. It is characterized by low ceilings, organic shapes and natural materials. In Britain, William Morris and Charles Rennie Macintosh were the principle proponents of the movement. In America, Frank Lloyd Wright was its main architect.

The Roycroft is a three storey structure of grey green set amid trees in the attractive town of East Aurora, a suburb of Buffalo. There are a number of substantial homes built in the Roycroft style nearby, and a museum about its founder, Elbert Hubbard. Still today, the artisan community Hubbard founded persists, and you can purchase authentic copies of the furniture, china and silverware you find at the inn (provided you have deep pockets.)

You will also need a fairly substantial bank account to stay at the inn, especially in summer and on weekends. During the week a  large double room goes for about $190 including tax at this time of year. If that is too expensive, just stop by for a meal. The food is American style and tasty, and lunches are an especially good option. Try to get a seat overlooking the beautiful courtyard, where a purple rhodendron  the size of a tree and Japanese magnolias flourish. My only complaint about the Roycroft is that the interior is fairly dark, and even the guest rooms are low on reading lights.  Lighting could be improved.

The Roycroft is small, so if you plan to visit on a weekend it pays to book in advance. Otherwise, you may not fiud a room.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Deals on Norwegian Star

I have found some amazing deals on the Norwegian Star, one of the ships of Norwegian Cruise Line ( To get the best prices you have to leave from Copenhagen this month, on June 21 or June 30, for a nine-day Baltic cruise that includes stops in Germany, St. Petersburg,  Helsinki, and Stockholm.

An inside cabin goes for as little as $399, provided you book it through If you prefer to wait until July, the price rises to $599 for an inside cabin, still quite amazing.  Even when you add on extra costs for shore excursions, tips etc. you can probably still get away for not much more than $100 per day per person.

In St. Petersburg you can take "approved" excursions without a visa for Russia, starting at about $100 per day. I remember reading a story by someone who had taken off on his own in Petersburg, but don't remember whether he had a visa or not. He did walk a long ways to the Metro, as I recall.

If time at sea appeals, you might consider the TransAtlantic crossing on Norwegian Star from Copenhagen to Miami on October 1, which stops at Ponta Delgado in the Azores. Rates for an inside cabin start at $536.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Eurailpass vs. Individual Tickets

Very little about calculating travel costs is simple today. Fares vary for virtually every type of transportation, and so do costs for hotel rooms based on time of year, demand, etc.

One of the advantages of a Eurailpass is that it offers unlimited travel for a set price and a set time period in a certain number of countries. However, even it does not cover all costs of rail travel in Europe--there are extra charges for seat reservations, required on many trains, and for overnight accommodations.

There is a good discussion of the cost of a pass compared with buying individual tickets on Nomadic Matt's blog today--the reference is In it he compares a specific rail journey from Lisbon to Berlin using a railpass and buying individual tickets at the last minute.

The individual tickets win, but not by a huge amount. He took two overnight trains with sleeper accommodation, so that added significantly to the cost even with a pass. (Of course, he also saved on hotels for those nights.)

His conclusion is that a railpass may be worthwhile in certrain cases. It seems that it could be more valuable in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe, since fewer trains in the former require reservations even when you have a pass.

For my part, I miss the days when with a Eurailpass you could go anywhere within the system without reservations. You did risk having to stand in a corridor (and I did that more than once,) but I found that OK compared with the hassle of making reservations.

 I would recommend the Eurailpass mainly for those who really love train travel, and aren't too concerned about cost. European trains really can be wonderful, it's just too bad they screwed up a system that used to work well.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Floods Show Need for Insurance

The Danube River, one of the premier rivers in the world for cruise boats, has been experiencing record flood levels recently. Flooding has also affected the Elbe. I was curious about what is happening to all those cruise ships and the cities where they dock, and found some information on

It appears that many cruises have been cancelled, and even after the flood waters subside damage to certain cities and structures may require changes to itineraries. Torrential rains in Florida may also impact some cruises, since Florida is a major hub for Caribbean cruises.

To me, all these weather events point to the need for insurance when you travel on a cruise, particularly if that cruise involves air travel (and most do.) While the lines are required to compensate passengers when cruises are cancelled, they may not cover the cost of air fare to the destination unless it was booked as part of a package.

Friends of mine from Ottawa greatly enjoyed their Danube cruise earlier this year. They are avid travellers, and had booked the cruise and another trip to Peru and Ecuador through a travel agent. In cases of difficulty, it can be very helpful to have a travel agent in your corner. While the internet is great for a lot of travel planning, if you are taking an expensive cruise or package it won't cost any more to book through an agent, and may save you a lot of grief if things go wrong.

The difficulty now may be finding a good travel agent. Many experienced agents left the business in recent years, so you may have to search for a while.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Olive Garden Good Value

I've seen a lot of ads on television for Olive Garden ( restaurants, but only recently have I had a chance to try one. In general I'm not a fan of chain restaurants, but in this case I will make an exception.

A friend and I enjoyed dinner at the Olive Garden in Watertown, NY with a glass of wine each, and the bill came to $42 including tax but not tip. The food was good and filling, the service pleasant and the decor pretty. We both had the three course menu for $12.95, which includes unlimited soup of salad and breadsticks, a choice of several entrees (I had the pasta with shrimp,) and a small dessert or special coffee. We were especially fond of the mixed green salad, though we stopped at one generous portion.

Olive Garden has a Tuscan theme, and from my memories of Tuscany the food choices seemed pretty authentic. The decor was more homey than that found in most Italian restaurants, which at least the last time I was there tended to the modern and barren. It is strange, but many North Americans are disappointed with Italian restaurants when they visit Italy.

I don't think you will be disappointed by the Olive Garden, though. It offers very good value for money, in my view.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Casino Restaurant a Winner

I recently enjoyed lunch at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino ( restaurant in Hogansburg, NY. This casino is truly in the wilds of northern New York--the closest town of any size is Cornwall, ON across the St. Lawrence River.

The casino advertises its Harvest Buffet widely, and that probably is a good deal if you are really hungry--it goes for $12 at lunch, $18 at dinner during the week, a little more on weekends. However, I just wanted something light and was able to share with a friend a large bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich served with tasty French fries, a cup of homemade soup and two large soft drinks, all for $14 at Sticks, a smaller restaurant just inside the entrance. There is also a food court on the premises.

You can stay right next to the casino, either at a Comfort Inn ( or at the Casino's own Indian-themed resort. There isn't a lot to see in the immediate area, but it is an opportunity to gain a little insight into Mohawk culture. The Akwesasne reserve is unusual in that it spans both an international (U.S.-Canada) and a provincial border (Ontario-Quebec.) I've long thought that it would be an excellent place to set a thriller, with lots of opportunities for smuggling and money laundering.

Casinos are rumoured not to be big engines of economic growth, but the Akwesasne area looked more prosperous than it did the last time I drove through several years ago.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Exploring Europe

When people start travelling, Europe is usually one of the first places they want to see. It is popular for good reason, with an enormous amount of spectacular architecture (mostly castles and cathedrals,) a tremendous variety of scenery from the near deserts of Spain to the tundra of northern Scandinavia and Russia, from the beaches of Italy to the highest peaks in the Alps.

Best of all, Europe packs a large variety of cultures into a small geographic area. I’m not sure how many different languages are spoken in Europe, but it is a large number. Not just English, French, Spanish,  German and Russian, some of the major languages, but Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Swiss Romansch, Icelandic, the Finno-Ugric languages (Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian) and many others.

Now that many European countries belong to the European Union and use a common currency, it is easier than ever to travel on the continent. For a first trip, I see nothing wrong with taking a bus tour or cruise covering several countries to get a quick overview. Or you may prefer to travel on your own with a Eurailpass.

In my opinion, if you are reading this blog you will probably want to visit Great Britain, where our English language originated. Britain is a small country geographically, but big on attractions from castles and cathedrals to the theatres of the West End in London and the British Museum. The problem is that Britain is one of the more costly countries in Europe.

 To minimize the damage, combine a stay in pricey London with time spent in a more rural setting where you can get an idea of the way England used to be. An area I particularly like is the West Country—Winchester, Salsibury, Bath. Bed and breakfasts are widespread across the country, and a stay in one will give you a view of real British hospitality  along with a very filling breakfast.

Another top choice for those of us of European ancestry is often the country or countries of our forefathers and mothers. With the ease of genealogical research today through sites like or you may be able to establish contact with distant relatives in your homeland. It can be very interesting to meet family abroad and to speculate on what your life might have been like if your ancestors had never left. Even if you can’t find any relatives, you will be able to visit the places your forebears lived.

France is the No. 1 tourist destination in the world, and with good reason. Fine food and wine, a tremendous appreciation of the arts and the art of living and a unique culture make it a special place. As with Britain, you can stretch your dollars by spending more time in small towns than in costly Paris.

The same applies in Italy, one of the cradles of Western civilization. Rome, Florence and Venice are wonderful but high-priced and filled with tourists, especially in summers. Seek out smaller places, particularly south of Rome, and your money will go a lot further.

Sunday, June 02, 2013


That is not just an unfortunate travel situation, but the title of a new and very interesting book by Elizabeth Becker which examines a number of different aspects of the travel industry.  Becker, as a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, has great credentials for this task.

The book is subtitled “The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism,” and it sheds light on an under-reported industry.

Becker has some of the prejudices common to mainstream journalists with regard to travel writing and reporting. She notes the overwhelming preponderance of positive stories in travel sections, and the fact that stories that appear there are often the result of sponsored trips. She remarks that tourism, by many measures the largest industry in the world, is also the least examined.

Having been both a business and a travel reporter, I agree with a lot she says on this topic. It is a rare business section of a newspaper that takes travel or tourism seriously. Somehow, tourism never seems to generate the excitement among business editors that  aerospeace, high tech, or even mining and manufacturing do.

The thing I found hardest to believe in her book was the amount that waiters made on her Caribbean cruise with Royal Caribbean Line ( They make $50 a month plus room and board, and are required to work continuously for about 12 hours a day, seven days a week. In other words, customers are expected to tip heavily to bring the wait staff and housekeeping staff up to even a minimal standard of living. It is no wonder that all these positions are filled by young people from poor countries, and even so, staff turnover is high.

. So if you wonder why cruise prices tend to be lower than an equivalent land-based holiday, that is part of the reason. Another part is that while you are aboard most cruise ships, you are constantly subjected to shopping temptations. In addition, the shore excursions offered on board usually have a very high markup, with the profit going to the line. Even some of the shops onshore have tie-ins with the cruise companies. While Becker sailed with Royal Caribbean, I suspect most of the other large cruise lines employ similar practices.

Another unsavoury side of the tour industry is sex tourism and especially child sex tourism, which is widespread in the Third World, especially in countries such as Cambodia. Becker, who previously reported from Asia, examines this subject  in depth..

The environmental impact of tourism also concerns her. She uncovers one tour company, associated with National Geographic ( which offers in-depth eco-cruises of the Central American jungle that meet with her approval. They are, of course, a lot more costly than the usual cruise.

It doesn’t always make for pleasant reading, but this is an important book that provides insight into the impact of mass tourism on our world and a lot of food for thought.