Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

Willkommen/Bienvenu/Welcome

The next time you travel to an international destination, wouldn’t it be fun to meet a local who could speak your language and would take you on a themed walking tour, telling you all about their beloved home town?

When I stumbled upon the International Greeters Association website during our recent trip to France, I immediately loved the idea. When I found out the service is free, I loved it even more.

The first chapter of what would become IGA was founded in New York in 1992 by Lynn Brook. According to Big Apple Greeter: “On her extensive travels around the world, Lynn realized that almost everyone she met wanted to visit New York City, but some were a little intimidated. She wanted the world to know New York City as she did: a great big small town with diverse neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help a visitor feel welcome.”

The concept was a resounding success and the organization now covers 123 destinations, with over 3500 greeters.

The IGA has the following core values:

1) Greeters are volunteers.

2) Greeters welcome individuals and may serve small groups of up to six people.

3) Meeting a Greeter is free of charge.*

4) All visitors and volunteers are welcomed without discrimination.

5) Greeter organizations support sustainable tourism. Programs respect natural and man-made environments, bringing both cultural and economic enrichment to local communities. Programs aim for a lasting positive image of each destination.

6) Greeter organizations create a mutually enriching opportunity for cultural exchange; create links between people in creating a better world.

I connected through the Loire Valley Greeters site, where they feature hosts from six Loire cities, including Amboise, where we were staying. I was also able to specify my language of choice (English, because I’m an ignorant North American monolinguist) and a theme (history). Other themes included literature, architecture, local products, nature, and shopping. Once all those filters were applied, the site offered me several greeter options. I picked a friendly face and sent through my request for a date/time.

I quickly received a confirmation and a contact for our greeter, Charles.

Charles was a delight, full of enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of Amboise. He was well prepared for our visit and even carried a binder with visual materials to illustrate some of his stories. Together, we wandered through the old streets, with Charles chatting about specific houses or the general history of the area. We peered into courtyards and poked around in one of the lovely old churches, Église Saint-Denis. We had the opportunity to ask about things that had puzzled us. It was really like a stroll with your favourite teacher.

We were thrilled to discover this organization and to visit with Charles. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it earlier in our trip so that we could have met greeters in some of the other towns we visited.

*I was contacted later by the Amboise group to solicit feedback and to request a donation. I was happy to provide both, but it’s your option whether to donate.

Calidris Reads: Less

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Less

Andrew Sean Greer

Read for: A quick and pleasant break from a round of historic novels I’d been ploughing through.

First sentence: “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

A while back, I wrote about books that found me on my travels. As a perfect example of this, picture me and my stalwart companion noshing down at a trendy café during a recent trip to Lynnwood, Washington. One wall of the restaurant was covered with shelves and a couple of those shelves housed books, the kind of random mix of used volumes that usually signals a take one/leave one collection. I wasn’t really looking for anything, but as I gazed idly from my table, one book caught my eye.

Only the spine was visible, but it called to me from across the room, seducing me with its soft, retro-turquoise colour and enormous letters L-E-S-S.

Look at me, it whispered. I am beautiful. I am mysterious. I am intriguing. You will love me.

Resistance is futile. Drawn to the shelf like a puppet on a string, I pull down the book. Am I influenced by cover, celebrity endorsements, awards won? Yes (a clearly comical drawing of a man falling through the air while scribbling on paper), yes (Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant, whose work I admire, says she recommends it), and yes (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Wow.).

Good comic novels are hard to find and this one is about a writer who goes travelling. Too perfect, eh? Picaresque is the word that springs to mind (defined by Wikipedia as “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road.”) There are brief but evocative descriptions of the places Arthur Less visits, including Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, Italy, Morocco, India, and Japan, as well as accompanying transport: airports, airplanes, buses, and camels.

It struck me mid-way through the book that this might be the first book I’ve read about a gay main character where that is not the central feature of the book. Certainly, Less is gay and has homosexual romantic/sexual adventures throughout, but that’s just one facet of his character among many. In other words, he is a character who is a writer and a traveller and a person turning 50 and a man who believes himself fluent in German when he is not, who also happens to be gay. At least that’s the way I see him. I’d be curious to know what a gay reader would say.

There wasn’t anything about this book I didn’t like. Less the character grows on you: the more you get to know him, the more you like him. His foibles become endearing rather than pompous. I enjoyed the travel tales and I found the writing both clever and engaging.

A good read, whether you’re on a journey or in your own comfy chair at home.

5 knots: Highly recommended (I’m sure the Pulitzer Committee is relieved to know that I agree with their decision.)

In Search of Folk Music: Port Gamble WA

Spanaway Bay performs at the 2019 Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival

Are you familiar with the famous “blanket run” that opens the Vancouver Folk Music Festival each year? When the official gate barriers come down, thousands of crazed music fans race to the main stage area to lay down blankets and claim a prime spot for the evening concert. Within minutes, every patch of grass within a hundred metres of the stage is guarded by tarps, towels, hampers, coolers, sleeping bags, beach chairs. I haven’t yet seen razor wire go up or chained hounds employed, but the possibility exists.

The Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival in Washington State does not have a blanket run. To be honest, it does not have a gate or barriers, because it is free. The festival music starts at noon and when we arrived at 11:55, there were two people in camp chairs lording it over the entire site, a small, grassy hillside tucked between two historic buildings.

We considered our options. The Camp Chair People were clearly canny veterans, having chosen the best spot on a tiny level area halfway up the hill. We had to settle for second-best, about ten metres directly in front of the stage and higher up the hill.

By showtime, another dozen people had added themselves to the throng. At mid-afternoon, I counted about 40 audience members. Passersby, hearing the music, wandered in and stayed. It was, shall we say, an intimate festival.

I loved it.

Historic building beside festival site.

We did not need binoculars to see the performers. We did not need to stand in a half-hour line to use a smelly port-a-potty. When nature called, we ambled across the street (which was inevitably free of traffic) to the post office to use the restroom. If we wanted a hot or cold drink or ice cream, one of the buildings flanking the site sold those things. If further nourishment was required, a few steps down was the town’s restaurant. Apparently, organizers had a contingency plan to move indoors to the local theatre (also across the street) in case of inclement weather. Fortunately, despite continuous rain throughout the morning, promptly at 11:00, the showers ceased, the clouds began to dissipate, and blue skies prevailed.

It was a bit of a festival miracle and just one more thing that made the day a delight.

Admittedly, getting to Port Gamble is a challenge. Unless you live on the Kitsap Peninsula, you will likely have to take a ferry. Coming down from British Columbia, we stayed overnight in Lynnwood to facilitate an early start on festival Saturday. Next morning, we lined up for the Edmonds-Kingston ferry just as the 7:55 am sailing chugged off. By the next sailing at 8:50, the line-up behind us was impressive.

The Northshore Ramblers.

Once you make it to Kingston, however, it’s only a 12-minute drive to Port Gamble, and—Be still, my beating heart!—there’s lots of free parking in town.

Wiki tells us that: “The Port Gamble Historic District, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, covers one of the nation’s best-preserved western lumber towns.”  As we sauntered around that morning, we noted the many historic plaques on buildings dating from the mid- to late nineteenth century. We dropped in on the friendly quilting shop, where I managed to resist the urge to buy a quilt pattern simply to maintain the pleasant fiction that I might actually sew one someday. We ate a late breakfast at the Scratch Kitchen, by a window overlooking the bay, then walked the few metres back to the festival site.

The music runs from noon until 5 pm, with four feature acts plus presentation of the songwriting contest winners and a grand finale that brings all the performers back on stage leading singalong sea shanties. Oh, the harmonies! It appeared that all the performers were more or less local and most seemed to know each other, judging by the joking and camaraderie during the finale. I was impressed that all the performers stayed 99% on the maritime theme, albeit with occasional dashes of Bluegrass and pop styles to keep things lively.

From our perch on the hillside, we looked down past the stage to the sparkling water of the ocean and the serene forests of the opposite shore. A variety of birds put on an aerial show: gulls soaring, kingfishers diving, eagles hunting, Canada geese arriving en flock to rest on the beach below.

As the final strains of the last shanty—“It’s time for us to leave her”—were carried away by a fresh breeze, we headed for the ferry. Luck stayed with us and we were one of the last cars to make that sailing, arriving back at our snug anchorage in Lynnwood in time for a tasty Japanese dinner at Wild Wasabi.

Verdict: Live, local, accessible folk music FOUND in Port Gamble. Thanks, folks!

The Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival takes place in August. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. This year’s performers included Spanaway Bay, the Northshore Ramblers, the Whateverly Brothers, and Curlew’s Call.

Ruby chocolate revisited

Brief follow-up to my post on the new ruby chocolate….

I finally laid my greedy hands on some ruby chocolate. At $9 for a large bar, it’s about twice the price of decent Belgian chocolate. I imagine that’s the novelty factor and the price will come down over time.

It was a beautiful, deep pink colour, pretty close to the photo (that’s my own photo). Light fruity fragrance, nice snap and bite to the bar. Mouth feel was similar to good quality white chocolate.

The taste was very distinctive: not at all “chocolaty,” but, rather, like tangy berries or perhaps a bit of citrus. As such, to me, it was more like candy than my beloved chocolate. I could only take a small amount at a time. Maybe that’s a good thing!

In any case, well worth trying out. It’s not my new favourite, but it might be yours.

Ghirar-disappointment

Mine was not as nice as this.

I don’t generally use this blog to slag products or businesses. My mother’s angelic form tends to be perched on my shoulder, reminding me “If you can’t say something nice….” And I know a bad review can hurt a small business, so I try to be kind—or, at least, silent.

But when it comes to a giant like famous chocolate maker Ghirardelli, the gloves come off.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I visited Ghirardelli­­ Square, the 1893 headquarters of the chocolate company. It’s a pleasant place that is, according their website, “considered the first successful adaptive reuse project in the country.” It’s on the National Historic Register. There are pricey shops and places to sit and play. All good.

It’s also home to the original Ghirardelli ice cream and chocolate shop, where they scoop notoriously decadent hot fudge sundaes. Yum. For a chocolate worshipper such as myself, a pilgrimage was definitely called for.

Sadly, the experience was a disappointment from beginning to end. You start by standing in line to order and pay at a busy and indifferent cashier. No smile or greeting sets the tone for your visit. State your choice, hand over the cash (ka-ching: Cdn$18!) and move on through, clutching a number.

Now you must find a place to sit. Although it is a weekday afternoon, the cafe is jammed with people. All tables in sight are claimed and there is no one to help you locate a seat. Hmm…perhaps if one knew that before ordering, one would demur. But, of course, now you’ve paid, you’re on the hook.

My companion and I wander through into what appears to be the party room, as it’s a screaming, chaotic space of bouncing children at a ratio of ten to each harassed adult guardian. Ah, but there’s a table! Grab it with relief.

As we wait for our order, I am reminded of the stanza in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

All the Who girls and boys
Would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys!
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

The sound level is deafening. I watch the servers moving between the tables, searching for those identifying numbers, carrying ice cream creations that are supposed to be finely balanced combinations of hot and cold ingredients. But the longer it takes for them to find you, the slushier your sundae will be. I knew America prides itself on being a melting pot, but this is ridiculous.

I observe that about 95% of the diners are white, while 95% of the servers are not. I wonder if the white kids will grow up thinking brown people serve.

At last! My sundae has arrived, somewhat liquidy. Another literary tidbit leaps to mind, referring to Boxer the horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm: “His answer to every problem, every setback, was ‘I will work harder!’”

Or, as in the current crisis: “I will eat faster!”

Within a few bites, the hot fudge is exhausted, leaving a naked mound of plain vanilla ice cream to finish. After all that I’ve gone through—not to mention the $18 price tag—I expected a superlative treat. This was a true letdown.

I know, I know: first-world problems, right?

My excuse for whining is that I want to save others from what I see as a ripoff. Personally, I won’t be buying another Ghirardelli sundae. And I don’t think their chocolate is so special, either.

So there.

PS If you want a better hot fudge sundae, try this time-tested recipe from our kitchen:

250 ml half-and-half (about 10% milk fat) cream
300 g semi-sweet pure chocolate chips (we use Chipits)
1 tbsp corn syrup (optional; we use white corn syrup)

Place all ingredients in the top part of a double boiler with an inch of lightly simmering water in the bottom. Slowly melt and stir until sauce is smooth and thick. Do not overheat or the sauce will seize.

Pour over good-quality vanilla ice cream; add peanuts, bananas, whipped cream, and a cherry, if desired.

Tired of blogs about chocolate? I’ll try to find another topic. Meanwhile, let me know what you think about Ghirardelli’s products. Do you stand with me or agin me?

Joust for Fun

Arizona Renaissance Festival 2019 Photo by Marian Buechert.

Years ago, I stumbled across something online called the Renaissance Festival Podcast. This was in the very early days of podcasts and I had never heard of them. How cool to have a whole bunch of music in a genre you liked instantly accessible! While I was already very keen on folk music of all types, the podcasts were my introduction to “Ren Faire” music, which is a mix of serious, beautifully performed ballads and tunes along with a lot of rollicking, frequently bawdy, sometimes downright dirty songs.

The podcasts were also my first window into the quirky world of Renaissance festivals. I was astonished to discover that there are over fifty regular Ren events across North America and more in Europe and Australia. Ye innocents, take heed: this is happening all around you—your neighbours and co-workers are dressing up in corsets and codpieces and congregating in places where they can kowtow to a monarch, drink mead, and shout “huzzah!” for knights and clowns alike. My kind of people.

Hence, I was excited when I found that the Arizona Renaissance Festival would be happening while we were down south, and not too far from Phoenix, one of our stopovers.

The Arizona festival has 32 years under its belt and it shows: this is no fly-by-night, two-days-per-year event. They run every weekend in February and March and they have a permanent site, complete with buildings, streets, 14 stages, and, most impressively, a jousting stadium. It’s extremely well organized, from food to entertainment, and things seem to run like clockwork. If you bring even a modicum of willingness, you will be jollied, cajoled, and nudged into having a good time, as the cast rouses up the audience at every performance to “ooooo!” when something dangerous is attempted, “ahhhhhhh!” when it succeeds, and applaud at every possible opportunity. Spectators at the jousts are expected to take sides and cheer “their” knights while booing the opposing team.

You may see a gaggle of Harry Potter characters sporting robes and wands and Star Wars stormtroopers in white armour, all rubbing shoulders with the Queen of England in full Elizabethan glory. Historically accurate, it ain’t, but the time-tested joy of “dressing up” carries the day. One could even argue that, when you get right down to it, what we’re really doing is finding different ways of portraying archetypes. Fantasy people get that Darth Vader is just a tech-savvy Black Knight, and that the Wise Mentor can choose to put on his Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore robes at will.

The rides at the faire are simple, old-fashioned, and entirely human-powered, usually some variation on being swung, twirled, rocked, or bounced. I don’t know how genuinely medieval these are, but I certainly enjoyed the sight of small children perched in wooden dragons, screaming in excitement while a couple of burly guys in peasant shirts worked the cranks to make them “fly.”

There are streets full of stores that sell costume clothing, armour, drinking vessels, metalwork, leatherwork, woodwork, blown glass, dragon masks, fairy wings, and anything else your historical/fantastical heart might desire. You can hire the village insulter to recite your own personal insult, written on the spot, or buy a blossom for your lady love from a flowerseller.

The jousting is impressive, featuring knights in shiny metal armour tilting at each other on horseback with ridiculously long wooden lances. Between rounds, the knights parade before their fans (preassigned by seating section) to preen and boast. Colourful pennants stream in the wind, a member of the royal family presides from a high box, and you find yourself wedged between a steampunk pirate on one side and a Dr Who (4th incarnation, of course) on the other. You can even get married at the faire, afterward feasting in medieval style and viewing the joust from a seat of honour.

Onstage, the comedy is broad and often raunchy and the songs are full of double-entendres. Acrobats, fire jugglers, and storytellers pull patrons from the audience to add spontaneity and entertaining awkwardness to their shows, then pass the hat. There is falconry and “live mermaids,” roasted turkey legs for lunch and a bullwhip-cracking adept to watch while eating them.

An excursion into the Renaissance festival world is a day of delight where, with a bit of imagination and a willingness to play, all ages can enjoy themselves—without clicking buttons or staring into a screen.

Swoop for Less: Yes or No to Cheap Flights?

Fares on ultra-low-cost airlines can be mighty tempting. I spotted return flights from Abbotsford to Las Vegas for C$150, taxes included. Wow! But having watched the classic video “Cheap Flights” numerous times on Youtube, I was cautious. Was this deal actually bookable? Would extra charges suddenly pop up? What would Swoop be like? Would we have to pedal to keep the plane airborne? Would they tie the doors closed with twine? (I witnessed this on Yemen Airlines back in the ‘70s.) Would there be bathrooms on board? Seatbelts???

I’m happy to report that overall, Swoop—Westjet’s ultra-low-cost line—was perfectly fine. No, you don’t get free beverages or food aboard. Yes, you pay for every piece of luggage, including carry-on. You are allowed one “personal item” about the size of a laptop bag and that’s it. We opted to pay for one large checked bag and stuffed everything else into our “personal items” to avoid paying for carry-on.

There were friendly cabin personnel, there were seatbelts, there were even bathrooms. There was no entertainment system unless you paid, but that didn’t bother us, as the flight was short anyway. Booking the flights was easy and prices were as advertised, other than the charge for baggage, which I expected, and the usual urging to pay extra in order to get two seats together. I ignored that.

Some of the issues I did run into during online check-in:

1/ When I tried to check in using Internet Explorer, the first question was “which airport?” No options were given and clicking produced nothing. You couldn’t write in the box or choose an option. Total fail.

I tried again on Chrome and—wow—amazing! Now it works.

Okay, I’ve been warned and threatened online many times that my Internet Explorer is “no longer supported” and will soon be completely defunct. Bleah. But I strongly suspect that I’m being “encouraged” to switch to Chrome by The Powers That Be through them deliberately undermining IE. I don’t like it, so I’m docking Swoop marks for having a site that doesn’t work in IE. So there.

2/ Filled in all the tedious info over several pages and finally got to the end. It asks do you want to download, email, or print your boarding passes? I choose email. It gives me a message that says to ask a Swoop agent at the airport for my boarding pass. I try choosing “download” instead. Gives me the same message. So obviously, YOU CAN’T GET YOUR BOARDING PASS ONLINE. Why don’t they just tell you that? Or better yet, forget about forcing us to check in online, since you can’t get your boarding pass anyway?

On the up side, after I ignored yet more encouragement to pay extra for seat selection, I did get assigned two seats together, despite refusing to pay for the privilege. I have heard that some airlines will deliberately separate travellers to punish them for not choosing paid seat selection, so Swoop earns a thumbs up by not doing that—at least in our case.

Processing at the airport was par for the course. Once we settled in to wait, however, we glanced at the Departures board only to be plunged into the traveller’s nightmare: Flight delayed. The first few flakes of snow began to drift down. This did not look good. Apparently, although our plane was sitting by the terminal, our flight was delayed because other flights coming in were late due to bad weather elsewhere. One of those mysteries of airline travel.

We sat in the terminal for about an extra hour, watching the snow get thicker and thicker. At last, we were permitted to board. Remember those quaint old days of flying when you had to walk across the tarmac and then clamber up a rickety mobile staircase to the plane? Well, folks, you can live those days again at Abbotsford Airport. Slithering along on the slushy ground while a howling wind hurls snowflakes the size of toy poodles at your face will give you a whole new appreciation of why they invented the skybridges that, in the twenty-first century, usually allow you to stroll in climate-controlled oblivion from lounge to plane.

But I digress. Neither the weather nor the boarding setup can be held against Swoop.

So we wedge ourselves in our seats. And wait some more. About two hours we sat on the ground. With my window seat, I had a lovely view of the white stuff accumulating on the runway. At least the pilot came on the intercom periodically, letting us know what was happening and expressing his own frustration at the situation. I’m not sure there was anything else the crew or airline could have done, so I’m not blaming them. The story was that there is only ONE de-icing crew at Abbotsford, and all those other flights that were late needed to be de-iced and sent on their way before we could go. Of course.

Long story short, we did eventually arrive in Vegas, three hours late.

In contrast, our return was almost a breeze. Flight boarded on time, departed on time, and arrived on time. Just as we came in for our final approach to the runway, some heavy winds hit us and the plane was thrown around in a manner that made me flash through my Ready to Die list: Will prepared and filed somewhere safe. Check. Executors know where to find it. Check. Power of Attorney created. Check. Clean underwear. Check. Bed made. Dammit.

Fortunately, the Swoop pilot brought us in safely, we “deplaned” (what an annoying idiom that is!), zipped through a shortish customs line, and were in a taxi on our way home in less than an hour.

For $150 return, I figured I did okay. I had low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. I’ve paid high prices on regular airlines and had worse service. The truth is that flying today on most airlines is such a frustrating, uncomfortable endurance test that it’s hard to see what distinguishes an ultra-low-cost airline from the others.

In the song “Cheap Flights,” the hapless passenger attempting to leave the plane discovers “If you haven’t paid to use the stairs, you’ll have to fecking jump.” We were relieved that this was not the case on Swoop. Not yet.

Calidris Compares: Golf carts

Image source: gmauthority.com

I’m not a golfer, but in two places that I’ve travelled, golf carts were the common transport mode: Ko Olina, Hawaii, and Dolomite Camp in Etosha National Park, Namibia. So how did they compare?

 Ko OlinaDolomite
Overview:Cart provided with condo rental at sprawling resort “town” that encompasses several beaches, restaurant, golf course, shopping, etc.Cart as courtesy transport within remote and widely spread safari camp situated along a rocky ridge overlooking flat, arid plains.
Means of propulsion:ElectricGas
Driver:YouThem
Best feature:Allows you to park in “golf cart only” spots at otherwise full parking lots near popular beaches.Gets you from common area of camp to your tent (maybe 600 m) in the dark without being et by a leopard (Dolomite has no fences to keep the wildlife out).
Road hazards:Jealous car drivers and the pool noodle that fell out of the cart in front.Things with big teeth and claws that roar in the night.
Thrill of independence: Oh, yeah! You have to charge up each night, but other than that, the world (or, at least, the resort) is your oyster.None. You must phone to the reception building for a cart to pick you up. Besides, there’s nowhere to go unless you want to joy-ride across the barren plains with lions snapping at your ankles through the open sides of the cart.
Top speed: Slower than you want to go.Faster than you want to go.
Pollution: None, unless you throw litter out while riding in one.Noisy and smelly.
Reliability:Potential to run out of battery power. (Never happened to us.)Frequently break down.*
Fun factor:Roaring down the golf cart lanes at breakneck speed (5 kph?).Clinging to the seats as the driver tears along the bumpy ridge trail at top speed.
Fear factor: Crossing main roads where cars are king.Nearly tumbling out as the cart tilts 35 degrees backward or sideways on steep sections of the trail.

*When we stayed in 2012, the staff continually explained that only one cart was in working order, thus the delays in service. As I read through recent reviews, I was amused to discover that the situation hasn’t changed: there are still issues with the cart service and the staff are still explaining that only one cart is in working order.

Summary: While I’m not sure I’d want to eschew the carts to walk the distances through Dolomite on those uneven, up-and-down paths at night with ravenous carnivores lurking, I do feel there are probably better solutions. In fact, the one thing I really disliked about this camp was the noisy golf carts. From early in the morning, as soon as breakfast is starting to be served, until well into the evening, as the last guests finish their drinks in the bar, the annoying carts roar around. Since everything is built along one path that runs along the ridge, every cart passes by your unit.

Therefore, our Ko Olina cart wins this comparison easily. Now, let’s pack a picnic, throw the towels into the cart, and head to the beach!

Have you visited somewhere that golf carts are the preferred way to get around? Let me know in a comment!

Packing cubes: What’s the big deal?

About a year ago, I started coming across a lot of hype for something called “packing cubes” (PCs). There were blogs touting them and bins of them showing up for sale in various outlets where I shopped. Videos peppered the Internet, calling PCs “revolutionary” and assuring viewers that the gadgets are a “must-have.”

I took a look and couldn’t quite figure out what all the excitement was about.

PCs are basically zippered, box-shaped stash-alls made of nylon, Cordura, mesh, or other strong fabrics. They come in various sizes (often sold in sets of two or three different sizes) none of which weigh very much.

So what’s the point?

PCs are designed for two purposes:

1. They help you stay organized on the road.

2. They help you compress your clothes so you can get more into your suitcase or bag.

When I bought my two sample PCs (two different sizes) at an outdoors store, I asked the cashier what she thought about them. She was vehement in her praise and talked about how using them made it so much easier to find things in her backpack.

Okay, I can see that. If you have your entire wardrobe plus assorted other necessaries (book, flashlight, towel, etc.) all jammed into what is, in essence, a big vertical tube, accessible only through little trapdoors, I’m sure it’s a challenge putting your hands on any specific item, like, for example, a pair of underwear.

But what about in a suitcase? When I open my case, I can see a large cross-section of my stuff laid out before me. It’s not quite like rooting around in a backpack. So do PCs earn their keep in the more genteel context of the suitcased traveller? This was the challenge.

In the past, I had put things into my suitcase higgledy-piggledy. I rolled things and stuffed them in wherever I found room. This meant that I’d often be hunting through the entire contents to find a clean pair of socks. Moreover, as my trip progressed, I would be wondering from day to day how much unused clothing I had left. Unless I pulled everything out and sorted it, I had no way of knowing. This could lead to being caught short, as when I discovered that last clean underwear I was positive I had packed somewhere in my bag was actually just a figment of my wishful imagination. Oops. I guess the Acropolis will have to wait—laundry day today!

With my clothes sorted into PCs, I can locate items quickly and tell instantly how many clean ones I still have and, hence, how soon the laundry emergency bell will ring. Of course, this means that I have to roll, sort, and PC my laundry after the washing is done or the system breaks down, but I don’t find that too onerous.

The second benefit—compression—is a double-edged sword. Yes, you can stuff more into your bag, no question. But compressing your clothes too much can make them unattractively wrinkled. Of course, you could choose to travel with no-iron synthetics. Eeeeeewwww. No, I’ll stick with my comfy cottons and live with the crinkles, but I don’t need to make it worse by putting enough pressure on my t-shirts to turn them into diamonds.

And don’t forget about weight. There’s no point in filling your suitcase so efficiently that it goes over the allowed weight. Clothes are heavy and a case that’s really stuffed tight could easily be too heavy. You don’t want to be that person who ends up beside the bag-check line frantically redistributing contents between suitcases because one is overweight. Or worse, you smugly brought only a carry-on bag, but the check-in attendant tells you it’s over the limit. Now what? You might have little choice but to pay those steep oversize/overweight baggage fees. If you’re really going to try to pack the maximum, you’d better invest in a little scale to check the weight before you head off to the airport.

What’s the verdict? Are PCs worth the bother?

Well, I’m using them every time I travel now, so I must find them useful. Mine are sturdy, easy to locate in my suitcase, and keep some of my gear organized. That’s worth something to me. On the other hand, I haven’t raced out to buy more. Two seems to be enough. So I’d say they’re sort of a travel geek’s toy, for people who travel a lot and seek maximum convenience. Optional for more casual vacationers.