Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Junk in the Trunk

So did you hear about the latest scandal? No, not those nude pictures of Prince Harry from his recent "private holiday," although I guess that is pretty juicy. I thought what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas? I guess that doesn't apply to royals caught playing "strip billiards," whatever that is. No, I am talking about the airlines' plan to shrink the amount of legroom in coach seating. Again! Southwest has already done it, and now JetBlue and Canada's WestJet have announced plans to do the same.

Now to be fair, the "shrinkage" adds up to about 1 inch per row, down to 31 inches from your seat to the back of the seat in front of you. And I am pretty sure they take this measurement when both seats are in the upright position. What are they doing with this newly eliminated legroom, you ask? Why they are giving it to other customers who are wiling to pay more for a seat with... wait for it... 38 inches. Are you kidding me?! Now if you are like me, and I really hope you are not, you're thinking that taller people should pay a little more for legroom. But why does it have to come from my seat? According to airline news releases, however, it would seems that there is a class of regular-sized travelers that cannot afford - or their employer won't pay for - business class, and coach is just a little too cramped for them. In a reverse Robin Hood move, the airlines are going take some of your legroom (while charging you the same old price), and sell it to another customer who has a little more money than you do. Call it a "sub-business-but-still-not-sitting-with-the-shmoes-in-coach-class" seat. Jet Blue alone is projecting $150 million in additional revenue from this little switch-a-roo. Nice.

I know the airlines are a business and they have huge costs in terms of equipment, fuel, safety regulations, and more. And I suppose I should be thankful that I can hop on a plane in New York and be in California or even Hawaii later that day. But they just keep taking, and taking. First the free baggage and now the legroom, which by the way, they call "buttock-to-knee distance". And have you seen the in-flight snacks these days, if you get one at all? I got a mylar pack of peanuts on Southwest recently that literally had four nuts in it. There were probably more calories in the packaging. And would it kill them to let me have the whole can of soda, without having to make a scene about it? I fully expect them to start coming down the aisle with a bucket and a dipper to pour some water into your cupped hands. They could take the savings on plastic cups and buy crystal glasses for the first-class folks.

But what are the alternatives? Depending on where you live, the train is certainly an option. Amtrak seats are huge, often have free Wi-Fi, and even have sleeping car options. Plus it is a heck of a lot cheaper. However, if you are outside of the D.C. to Boston corridor, Amtrak does not own the track, and therefore the right of way. So it is entirely likely to get stuck behind a 2-mile long coal train chugging along at 40 mph. And even at top speeds, you're probably not going too much faster than you can drive. But getting to the airport 2 hours early to stand in a TSA line for a flight that may or may not actually be there is no picnic either. Now if you happen to be traveling the East Coast Corridor, and are looking to stay at a downtown timeshare location, then the train opens up lots of possibilities. Trains typically deposit you right downtown near public transportation, and where more and more timeshares are being developed. Washington, D.C., Alexandria, VA, New York City, and Boston all have timeshare rentals and great public transportation systems. So you could save on your transportation, lose the rental car, and save a bundle on lodging as compared with in-town hotels.

Of course trains can get you only so far, and the only other option is driving. The "staycation" has become a popular alternative. Sure the kids would love Disney, but maybe Hershey Park or Six Flags Over Texas are closer to home. Or how about visiting a national park? Did you know that The Great Smoky National Park is within a day's drive of one third of the U.S. population? But there are limits on how much driving you can really do with your family. I think behind drunk driving, family car trips are the leading cause of vehicular deaths. Okay I just made that part up, but who hasn't wanted to kill a family member on a long road trip?

Anyway, I am off to the fitness center here at Carlsbad Seapointe Resort to work on some squat thrusts before my flight home tomorrow. It would seem that you can reduce your buttock-to-knee distance by working some of the maximus out of your gluteus, if you catch my drift.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

So what weighs about a thousand pounds and has 230 teeth? No not the Kardashians, but that's not a bad guess. I am referring to Carcharodon carcharias, a.k.a., the great white shark. I know this because it is the 25th annual Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. I have to be honest and say that I don't watch Discovery all that often, but it seems that it is always Shark Week on Discovery. Sort of like how the History Channel is more or less the World War II Channel. Regardless, I have been pretty much glued to my TV whenever anything about the great white comes on.

I can still remember the summer of '75 - that's 1975 and not 1875, wiseguy - and the release of Jaws. Like the millions of other people who saw the film that summer, I was terrified the next time I went swimming in the ocean. But I also became fascinated with this creature that I previously hadn't ever given a thought to.

In the movie the great white is portrayed and a man-eating menace with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. This is of course not true, but made for a much better film. The fact is that humans kill way more great white sharks than the other way around. However, it is the case that great whites will from time to time attack and kill humans without provocation. This almost never involves a shark consuming a person entirely, of course. Instead, they usually take a "test bite" as it is known, and discover that we are way too boney and muscular (some of us anyway), as compared with the blubbery seals and other fish that make up the bulk of their diet. Combined with the fact that humans spend very little of their time in the ocean and that sharks don't frequent your local Walmart, any real conflict between the two species remains unlikely and totally lopsided in favor of humans.

The movie Jaws was based on the best-selling Peter Benchley novel of the same name. As you may recall, the town of Amity relies on its beaches and the tourism they bring in for its residents' livelihoods. Unfortunately, the arrival of the Fourth of July weekend has found a "rogue" great white shark on the prowl for human flesh in its waters. The mayor and others persuade the police chief to keep the initial shark attack quiet, and the rest is history. And while there is an awful lot of "poetic license" employed, Benchley based much of the premise on a series of real life shark attacks at the Jersey Shore. Unfortunately these attacks occurred in 1916 and did not involve any of the cast members of the television show with that name. Nonetheless, five people were attacked in various locations in coastal New Jersey from July 1st to July 11th, and all but one of them died. Obviously it was the work of more than one shark, but reports at the time made it seem as though a singular "killer shark" was on the loose. Steven Spielberg, who was not yet "Steven Spielberg", stayed true to this theme when he decided to make a movie based on the novel. The production was beset with troubles, most notably that the mechanical shark didn't work properly, and ran more than 100 days and $3 million dollars over budget. But as it turns out, not being able to show the shark as much as was originally intended resulted in a much more suspenseful film, and one which ended up grossing more than any other film up to that time. It was also the first of what we now think of as the summer blockbuster: an action-packed, heavily promoted, one-dimensional thriller. For better or for worse we've been stuck with it, and Steven Spielberg, ever since.

The town of Amity featured in Jaws is fictional, and the film was shot almost entirely in Martha's Vineyard on Cape Cod. Besides being home to lots of timeshares, Cape Cod was considered by the filmmakers to be more "homey" and "blue collar" than New York's Long Island, which has a town called Amityville, and seemed to be the setting of Benchley's novel. Spielberg thought it was important to have the townsfolk and their reactions to the attacks be like those of regular people, and not the champagne and caviar set. A Cape Cod summer vacation is something everyone should experience at some point, and movie buffs can seek out shooting locations from the film and hear from local residents who were cast as extras. And while Long Island was passed over as a filming destination, both Jaws and great white connections run deep in Montauk, at its eastern most tip. Montauk was home to the famous shark hunter, Frank Mundus. The Jaws character Quint was based on Mundus, and aboard his boat the Cricket II, he caught a 3,427-pound great white... with a rod and reel. Are you kidding me?! Not only is this the largest documented shark catch, it is still the largest fish ever brought in via rod and reel. In his later years, Mundus came to regret the senseless killing of sharks, and became a vocal advocate for preserving shark species. A timeshare rental at Gurney's Inn Resort & Spa will put you right in the heart of Mundus's old stomping grounds, as well as great horseback riding, bird-watching, hiking, boating, and of course swimming. Just watch the midnight skinny dipping.

Well I am off to go cage diving with some great white sharks. Seriously. For over 10 years, Shark Diver has been operating great white shark encounters at their Isla Guadalupe White Shark Cage Diving location. They are going to take me out and drop me into a shark-proof cage to get an up close look at the numerous great whites that call these waters their home. Several are such regular visitors that they have nicknames like Shredder and Bruce. I know it sounds totally crazy, but the folks at Shark Diver assure me that I have a much better chance of being killed by the ongoing drug cartel wars in the area than I do during my great white encounter. Which doesn't exactly ease my mind.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rocky Mountain High

So what's a buck-toothed cow say? Moof! Gosh I love that joke. What exactly does that have to do with timeshare travel, you ask? Nothing really, but my location this week in Banff, CA, always makes me think of it. Banff is located in the Canadian Rockies in the province of Alberta, within Banff National Park. It was first Canadian town to incorporate within a national park and is also home to the second highest peak in Canada at 4,800 feet. It is one of Canada's most popular tourist destinations - attracting over three million visitors a year - and after about five minutes here one can easily see why.

The town was first settled in the late 1880s during the construction of the Canadian transcontinental railway. Some railroad workers discovered a series of hot sulfur springs nestled among the mountains, and reported it up the chain. Two years later a federal reserve was established around the site, and two years after that, Rocky Mountain Park became Canada's first national park, and the second in the world after Yellowstone. The president of the railroad at the time was a fellow by the name of George Stephen who hailed from Banffshire, Scotland. He decided to rename the area Banff in honor of his birthplace, and the railroad built a series of luxury hotels around the new train station. It was an instant success, as well-to-do European and American travelers streamed in for the fresh mountain air and rejuvenating hot springs. In 1930 the park's name was officially changed to Banff National Park, and in 1984 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The town itself is small and compact, with most of it easily accessible on foot or via public transit. You'll definitely want to take a a walking tour of Banff and saddle up for one of the many horseback excursions available in the area. A ride on the Banff gondola is also a must. It takes you up over 7,400 feet the peak of Sulfur Mountain, which would be worth the trip for the views and trails alone. But it is also home to the Banff Upper Hot Springs. There are a number of other hot springs in the area, but this one is the sole reason that the town and park exist at all. It is operated by the parks service and offers 100% natural mineral water, modern amenities, a children's area, cafe and snack bar, a spa, and views you just have to see to believe. Now you might wonder how spring water makes its way 7,400 up to the top of a mountain, and it turns out that it had scientists puzzled for a time. Seems that there is a giant crack in the rock called the Sulphur Mountain thrust fault (sounds like a new dance craze in the making). Heated water from the earth's crust travels the whole way up, cooling as it goes, and emerges in the pools at the peak. So unlike springs at lower elevations, Upper Hot Springs temperature fluctuates widely with the seasons, but perhaps not in the way you might think. It's hotter in the winter, and colder in the summer. Sort of like San Francisco. This time of year, it is running about 82-85 degrees.

There's way more to Banff than hot springs and gondola rides. In the winter it is home to all manner of alpine sports, from skiing and snowboarding to sleigh riding and snowshoeing. Warm weather brings with it mountain biking, canoeing, hiking, and some seriously good golfing. Plus there are numerous art galleries, historic sites and museums, and the Banff Summer Arts Festival, which is going on right now. The festival runs for over a month, and features over 1,000 international acts in nearly 200 events. Most events are held at the Banff Centre, but others take place in and around the streets of town. This week alone you could catch a recital by acclaimed opera tenor Adrian Thompson, a chamber music recital by some of Canada's best young emerging musicians, an opera adaptation of The Secret Garden, and an Emmylou Harris concert. I've had a bit of a crush on Emmylou since about 1974, so you know where I will be Thursday night. What, can't a fellow dream?

My timeshare rental at the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort features 2-bedrooms, 2-bathrooms, indoor swimming pool, indoor/outdoor hot-tubs, a full gym, sauna and massage therapy, and tennis and squash courts. It's the only timeshare resort in the park, and is pet-friendly. Unlike a lot of resorts, the laundry facilities are not in-room, and there is no conventional oven; just a microwave and stove-top. So if you normally cook a lot of meals in your unit, you'll have to adjust the menu. Redweek members give it 4-stars and have added some nice reviews.

Well, I am off to visit the Merman of Banff. No it is not an Ethel Merman tribute revue - which would be totally awesome - but rather a petrified example of the male of the mermaid "species". It's located in a back room of the Indian Trading Post - Banff's oldest tourist trap originally opened by Norman "Mr. Banff" Luxton. I know, I know, there's no such thing as mermans. But this little bugger has drawn visits from the likes of Neil Young, William Shatner, Julia Roberts, and even Joltin' Joe DiMaggio. Is it that far-fetched to think Emmylou might drop by to sneak a peak as well?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Going for the Gold

Well another fours years have passed, and the pageantry and spectacle of the Summer Olympics are upon us. Couldn't make it to Merry Old England for the games? Me neither. Between the airfare, event ticket prices, and the crush of humanity, I am just as happy to catch the games on TV, even if it means enduring hours of filler between the few moments of actual sport. I've taken to visiting the site of previous Olympics instead, and this year I am going for the gold in Olympic Valley, CA. Sure there are no sporting events, but there are no lines or badminton cheaters either.

You may know Olympic Valley by its other name, Squaw Valley. And if you are as old as I am, which may not even be possible, you will recall that it played host to the 1960 Winter Olympics. That was the first Olympics ever televised live, and was also the first time the U.S. mens hockey team ever won gold. Sometimes referred to as the "Forgotten Miracle" in reference to the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," this team won all seven of its matches and took home the hardware for the home team. The Squaw Valley games were also notable for being the smallest locality to ever host the games, the first athletes' village, opening and closing ceremonies produced by Walt Disney (the man himself), not having the bobsled event, and being dominated by the U.S.S.R. Today it is home to one of largest ski resorts in the country - the Squaw Valley Resort - and attracts over 600,000 skiers annually.

So what am I doing here in the summertime? Well that's a very good question. For starters, the aforementioned 600,000 skiers are not here. So unlike the wintertime, there are no crowds or lines anywhere. And with its location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, just 10 miles from Lake Tahoe, it is an outdoor adventurists dream. From hiking to biking, zip-lining to paint-ball, this area has it all. A nice way to kickoff your trip is a ride on the Squaw Valley Resort's aerial tramway. Originally built for the games, it takes visitors from the base of the mountain (6,000 feet up) to High Camp, at over 8,200 feet. Besides the breath-taking views of the High Sierras up there, you will find a roller rink, disc tennis, geocaching, paintball, hot tub, and a pool with an island and a waterfall. You can also rent a bicycle and set out on numerous paths of varying degrees of difficulty, take in self-guided hiking trails (or go with a group), as well as play on some seriously nice golf courses.

I happened to arrive right at the tail end of the July Wanderlust Festival. Wanderlust is a traveling festival of leading yoga teachers, top musical acts and DJs, renowned speakers, top chefs, and winemakers. If that sounds like a strange combo, it is. I managed to catch both self-help guru Wayne Deyer (the bald guy from the PBS fund drives) and Ziggy Marley, take a standup paddle-board yoga class on Lake Tahoe, and enjoy a "chakra-aligning" farm-to-table dinner at 8,200 feet up in the mountains - all in the same day. Paddle-board yoga not your thing? How about poetry or screenwriting? For 43 years, Olympic Valley has played host to the Squaw Valley Writer's Conference, which brings in top writers from all genres for workshops, conferences, lectures, panels, readings, and more. I've got this screenplay I've been trying to pitch to Hollywood types for years, and I am thinking about perhaps trying to sell it here instead. It's about a guy who travels the world staying in exotic timeshare locations, but secretly longs to be in cabaret. But I digress.

I am renting a timeshare at the Olympic Village Inn, appropriately enough, just a quarter of a mile from the original Olympic site. The resort features two different floor plans (mine's a one-bedroom with one bath), indoor/outdoor pools, a hot tub, and complimentary bicycles for getting around on. RedWeek members give it 4-stars, and I have to agree. As one of our reviews says: "It's not luxurious, but it has everything you might need."

Well I am off to strike it rich at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. It's a California state park about two hours away, and the site of the find that kicked off the California Gold Rush in 1848. Their Eureka Experience Interpretive Programs teaches you how to pan for gold, and lets you keep anything that you find. At $1,600 an ounce, I figure I'll be laughing all the way to the bank. Of course I also have a serious side bet on the outcome of the badminton medal round, just in case.