Christmas Markets in Britian

 

(Recently published in the Independent)

It may be five weeks until Christmas, but Britain‘s festive markets have already started opening their doors. Here are some of the best options for mulled wine, traditional wooden toys, ice rinks and much more.

Bath

November 23 to December 10

This is a bumper market with over 200 stalls lining the streets of Bath around the wonderful Roman Baths and the Abbey. Nearly all the items and produce on sale are from the local area, or made by local suppliers. Ceramics and glasswear, clothes, toys and homeware are among the items on sale – as well as food and drink. When you’ve done enough shopping, head for the ice rink (open until January 2, 2018) and glow-in-the-dark crazy golf course at nearby Royal Victoria Park, take a tour of the Roman Baths, or watch a performance at the Theatre Royal.

bathchristmasmarket.co.uk;  visitbath.co.uk

Bath travel guide

London

November to January (various dates)

Visitors can take their pick from several markets throughout London, from the traditional Nordic inspired Southbank Centre Winter Market (November 14 to December 30) at Royal Festival Hall Riverside, to the festive extravagance of Hyde Park Winter Wonderland (November 18 to January 2), with its giant observation wheel, ice rink, circus shows and ice bar alongside the Christmas market. The pop-up town of Winterville will take over part of Clapham Common from November 23 to January 1, with an indoor market and entertainment including a Street Feast food area, big wheel, crazy golf and roller disco.

visitlondon.com

London travel guide

Hate Christmas? | Here’s how to skip it entirely

Edinburgh

November 19 to January 7 

Edinburgh has a host of festive markets and fairs taking place into New Year. Visitors can choose from the Christmas market in East Princes Street Gardens with a big wheel and Star Flyer chair ride (ends January 6) and another in George Street, with Santa’s Grotto and a new Ice Adventure feature (ends December 24).

edinburghschristmas.com

Edinburgh travel guide

Birmingham

November 16 to December 24

Frankfurt Christmas Market in Birmingham is the largest German market held outside Germany and Austria. Visitors can soak up the village atmosphere in Victoria Square while enjoying a range of German fare – from mulled wine and beers to meats and pastries. The Christmas Craft Fair next door extends onto Chamberlain Square, featuring various handmade gifts from local artists.

birmingham.gov.uk

Belfast

November 18 to December 23

Belfast‘s City Hall gardens are transformed into a village setting for its Christmas market. Visitors can wander around its stalls, sampling festive treats from Belgian chocolates and French tarts to various cheeses and German sausages. As well as authentic continental food, you’ll find clothing, arts crafts and decorations from across Europe and Santa’s Grotto for children.

belfastcity.gov.uk

Belfast travel guide

Manchester

November 10 to December 21

Manchester hosts several markets throughout the city, from a European market in Albert Square, a German-style market at St Ann’s Square and French-themed stalls at King Street. You’ll find boutiques and some great food outlets at Exchange Square, and arts and crafts at Brazennose Street with a globally-sourced selection of jewellery, leather goods and speciality foods. There are fairground rides in Cathedral Gardens and more stalls in New Cathedral Street and Market Street.

manchester.gov.uk

Manchester travel guide

15 of the best Christmas markets in Europe

Glasgow

November 9 to December 22

The Glasgow Christmas Market continues at St Enoch Square, with an international array of goods on offer. Visitors can sample Bavarian beers and mulled wine as well as hog roasts and French crepes. The additional Christmas market at George Square (November 25 to December 29), features craft gifts as well as live entertaiment and funfair rides.

glasgowloveschristmas.com

Glasgow travel guide

How long until Christmas 2017?

Cardiff

November 9 to December 23

There’s a great range of artwork on sale at this traditional market in the centre of Cardiff – from collage and photographic prints to posters and cards. Other stalls sell children’s toys and outfits, glassware and ceramics, knitwear, jewellery and much more. Beyond the market there’s a funfair and ice rink at Winter Wonderland and Santa’s Grotto in the atmospheric setting of Cardiff Castle.

cardiffchristmasmarket.com;  cardiffswinterwonderland.com

The best hotels in Wales

Exeter

November 16 to December 17

Devon‘s cathedral city hosts its Christmas market on the historic grounds of Cathedral Green. Locals showcase a variety of hand-crafted gifts and foods including roast hog, baklava, Belgian chocolates, crepes and speciality cheeses.

exeter-cathedral.org.uk

Devon travel guide

Brighton

November 25 to December 10

Brighton does things slightly differently. Over three weekends in November and December, local artists will open their homes, studios and workshops to sell a range of arts and crafts direct to Christmas shoppers in the Artists Open Houses scheme. Openings – at around 60 venues – will take place on weekends between November 25 and  December 10. Items for sale include paintings, prints, upcycled goods, knitwear, jewellery (pictured) and sculpture and textiles. Several artists will hold workshops with drawing classes, craft activities and puppet shows.

Brighton travel guide

Winchester

November 20 to December 22

The lovely medieval city of Winchester has one of the largest Christmas markets in the south of England, with around 100 wooden chalets in the Cathedral Close, alongside an open-air skating rink. Stalls sell a range of ​craft items, including Christmas decorations, jewellery, hats, belts, artwork and ​wooden toys and there’s a German theme to the food and drink offerings, with mulled wine and bratwurst.

If it gets too crowded (and it can do) wander beyond the Close into the centre of town; just a short walk away are The Square and Parchment Street, both with a range of interesting independent shops – and there’s more shopping and lots of cafes and restaurants in the surrounding streets.

winchester-cathedral.org.uk

Cirencester

December 2, December 16 and 17

This lovely Cotswolds town is full of Christmas activities and events, with the Sparkles Advent Festival and Market on December 2, when the festive lights are switched on, and a Christmas Market selling a range of food and gifts on December 16 and 17. Both will be held in the newly regenerated Market Place.

christmasincirencester.org.uk

Cotswolds travel guide

13 beautiful places in Britain you’d never thought to visit

Nottingham

November 17 to December 24

Nottingham‘s Victorian-themed gift and craft market (ends December 24) is full of festive delights, from roasted chestnuts, cider and mulled wine to carol singing. The market is spread over Smithy Row, Albert Street and Lister Gate. Visitors can also enjoy Nottingham’s Winter Wonderland (to December 31) on the Old Market Square, with winter-themed bars, including a new ski lodge style bar, a traditional carousel, children’s rides, an ice rink and live music.

nottinghamwinterwonderland.co.uk

Leeds

November 10 to December 24

Christkindelmarkt, a German Christmas market set in the heart of Leeds at Millennium Square, offers over 40 stalls and delicacies including bratwurst sausages, goulash and schnitzels and carousel rides. There are free children’s activities every Sunday between 11am and 1pm, including face painting and games. Look out for winter wonderland princesses and other costumed characters. The Ski Hutte bar in an alpine chalet-style setting aims to create an apres ski-inspired atmosphere with music.

whatson.leeds.gov.uk

Salisbury

November 23 to December 22

Held at Guildhall Square in this lovely medieval city, Salisbury’s Christmas market will host over 100 exhibitors this year. Look out for street entertainers, musical performances from choirs and local schools, as well as a colourful Christmas lantern parade on November 30. Take a break from the market to see the Magna Carta exhibition in Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House – one of only four remaining copies of the document is housed there.

salisburychristmasmarket.co.uk

Canterbury

November 28 to December 24

Visitors to Canterbury‘s small traditional market can enjoy the festive spirit in an intimate setting at Whitefriars Square, from German mulled wine and sausages to Christmas music and hand-crafted gifts from its colourful cabins.

christmas-markets.at

Historic houses and castles

(November and December)

A Christmas Gift Fair is held in the grounds of atmospheric Leeds Castle, which has been decorated for Christmas with cinnamon and orange wreaths, pine trees and sparkling lights. The market will feature live music, children’s rides ,reindeer,  a Victorian carousel and other fairground attractions. The market is open on November 25 and 26, December 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17.  The Country Homes and Interiors Christmas Fair will take place on the lawns in front of Stonor Park in Oxfordshire from November 23-26 – and again the house itself has been decked out in festive style. A Christmas Fair and Fine Food Market will run at Burghley House in Lincolnshire from November 23-26.

 

 

 

 

How to Skip lines at the Airport

 

(recently published in USA Today)

As federal officials continue to tweak passenger security screening at U.S. airports, more people could avoid hassle if they joined programs that let them use expedited lanes at checkpoints.

Better yet, there are ways to get that privilege without spending a dime. For example, some premium credit cards reimburse the $85 application fee for TSA Precheck or the $100 fee for Global Entry. Membership in these federal background-check programs lasts five years before you need to reapply.

Travelers who use the fast lanes typically say they’ll never go back, says Joe Brancatelli, a business travel writer and founder of travel site JoeSentMe.com. That’s the case even for infrequent flyers, he adds.

“I don’t think I can overstate the value of these programs,” he says. “And the more you travel, the more valuable they are.”

Over the summer, tightened airport security rules meant travelers in standard checkpoint lines had to remove electronics larger than cell phones from carry-on bags and place them in a separate bin for X-ray screening. Travelers in TSA Precheck lanes could leave electronics in their bags.

But the bigger advantages of the speedy security lanes are shorter waits and less intrusive screening; you can leave your shoes on, for example. In September, 96% of TSA Precheck passengers waited in line less than five minutes, according to the Transportation Security Administration. To date, more than 5 million people have enrolled in the program, which is available at 200 airports via 37 airlines.

Which program to choose

Global Entry costs $15 more and is less convenient to apply for: It requires a passport and an interview, available at fewer locations than TSA Precheck. But Global Entry includes TSA Precheck and offers expedited entry through U.S. customs when you return from a foreign country.

The cost difference — just $3 a year on average — probably isn’t that much of a factor, but convenience might be. Those who have a passport and live near a Global Entry interview center — typically larger airports — should consider that program. If you don’t live near a Global Entry center, don’t have a passport and rarely travel abroad, TSA Precheck may be the better option.

Application details are on the Global Entry and TSA Precheck websites.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, says he can’t imagine traveling without a trusted traveler program. “These services have helped me save anywhere from five to as much as 20 minutes waiting in security screening lines,” he says.

A survey his firm conducted this year found that 91% of business airline travelers said expedited airport screening was “very important” or “somewhat important.” A similarly high percentage said expedited border crossing programs, such as Global Entry, were important.

Use a credit card to apply free

Several premium credit cards reimburse your application fee if you pay it with the card.

“I don’t know that it would swing your choice of credit card per se, but it is nice to know you had an elite card that rebated your fee,” Brancatelli says.

However, many such cards have high annual fees. A sampling:

●       Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card. Annual fee: $95.

●       U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card. Annual fee: $400.

●       Citi Prestige Card. Annual fee: $450.

●       Chase Sapphire Reserve. Annual fee: $450.

●       The Platinum Card from American Express. Annual fee: $550.

Also, some credit card and travel loyalty programs will let you use travel credits or rewards points to pay the application fee. And some airlines might offer reimbursement if you have elite frequent flyer status with them.

Fingerprints and photos

Besides cost and effort, another consideration with trusted traveler programs is your comfort level with handing over more information to the U.S. government, including fingerprints and a photo.

However, provided their personal information is kept secure, 81% of U.S. business passengers said they feel comfortable sharing it with airlines and other travel-related organizations if it results in better, less stressful journeys, according to Atmosphere Research Group’s study.

“The government knows all this stuff about you already,” Brancatelli says. “You’re not really giving up anything more.”

Sicily, Italy

(recently posted by Rick Steves)

 

It may lack the Botticellis, Guccis, and touristic icons of Venice, Florence or Rome, but Sicily still packs a punch. This island — a little smaller than Massachusetts — is home to some of Europe’s most important ancient Greek sites, the most active volcano in Europe, and some of Italy’s most intriguing architecture and tastiest food.

While part of Italy, Sicily really is a world apart. Midway between Africa and Europe in the middle of the Mediterranean, over the last 2,500 years it’s been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards. Its complicated past makes it distinct — with spicier food, a more festive lifestyle, and people who are Sicilian first, Italian second. Italian Americans have a special bond with the island; almost one-third of all Italians who arrived in the US between 1880 and 1930 were from Sicily.

This past spring, I found Sicily had changed quite a bit since my last visit. Years ago I considered Palermo, the capital city, seedy and sketchy. My latest visit demolished my lingering Mafia images. The city is still gritty and colorful, yet its bustling center feels safe and trendy. Quattro Canti, the fountain-filled intersection of Palermo’s two main thoroughfares, is a fine focal point to a pedestrian area where people enjoy their evening passeggiata. As I strolled, I found that thriving marketplaces abound in the morning and squares in nearly every neighborhood are lively and inviting after dark.

The Cathedral of Monreale (just outside of Palermo), one of Sicily’s greatest art treasures, is something that hasn’t changed. While dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this massive church was built to show off the power of the Norman King William II. Famous for its exquisite 12th- and 13th-century mosaics, each panel tells a story: Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent, angels climbing Jacob’s ladder, and Noah building his arc.

Palermo also offers a great “bone” experience — skull and shoulders above anything else you’ll find in Europe. Its Capuchin Crypt is a subterranean gallery filled with 8,000 “bodies without souls.” For centuries, people would line up to be “not buried” here. They’d actually choose their niche in death and even stand there getting to know their macabre neighborhood. Then, when they died, dressed in their Sunday best, this is where they’d end up.

On this year’s trip, I made a point of exploring the entire island. On the west coast, I sailed through salt flats and across a lagoon to the humble little island of Mozia. This salt-making region was a Carthaginian stronghold centuries before Christ, and you can still see Carthaginian ruins amid Roman ruins: Here, like elsewhere on the island, you’ll enjoy many layers of history.

Near Sicily’s south coast is Agrigento, with its “Valley of the Temples.” the largest, best-preserved collection of ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece. Its top temple rivals the Parthenon — not a surprise since Agrigento was one of the richest Greek colonies and a thriving democracy 2,500 years ago.

One of Sicily’s most famous sights is Taormina, a spectacular resort city on the east coast. It hangs high above the sea, with handy cable car access to the beach. Taormina’s setting impressed the ancient Greeks, probably more for its strategic location than the view. Its Greek-Roman theater must be the most dramatically situated theater from the ancient world, and it still hosts open-air concerts. (Paul Simon, Tony Bennett, and Elton John have performed here.)

Nearby looms Mount Etna, Europe’s biggest volcano at over 11,000 feet. It’s anything but extinct — a serious eruption comes about every three years. On my visit a gondola swept me up into a barren land of spent lava flows. At the edge of the volcano, I surveyed the landscape: The flows seemed to rumble like big black buffalo toward Sicily’s second city — teeming Catania. In the distance, a crescent beach stretched all the way to Taormina — Sicily’s romantic cliffside haunt of aristocrats at play. And to my right was the hazy, high, and harsh interior. In a vineyard on the slopes of this steaming volcano, I was served a glass of full-bodied red wine by a woman who could have been Sophia Loren’s younger cousin.

In addition to the wine, the food is what nearly all visitors rave about. The cuisine is Mediterranean and rich in seafood. Along with pasta, you may see couscous on the menu — a reminder that this island is just 100 miles from Tunisia. And for dessert: cannoli, which tastes best here in its homeland, Sicily. Connoisseurs of cannoli insist on having one freshly filled — not with cream, but with sweetened ricotta cheese. I now know why they say, “Holy cannoli.”

Sicily — with a culture enriched by wave after wave of conquerors — is one of Europe’s most fascinating corners. If you love Italy, I’d call Sicily “Italy in the extreme”… and much more.

(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)

Travel Alert verses Travel Warning

(Recently published in Travel and Leisure Magazine)

 

9The U.S. State Department frequently issues advisories for travel to countries around the world. When an alert or warning includes a destination you were planning to visit, you likely have questions and concerns. But before you imagine the worst case scenario and cancel a trip, here’s what you need to know.

First of all, a travel alert is different from a travel warning, and the biggest difference between the two is time. According to the State Department, an alert is issued when the government recognizes “short-term events” they think you need to be aware of when visiting a country. Temporary situations, such as a disease outbreak or a public demonstration, are among the things that could lead to a travel alert.

More ongoing issues, like a civil war or a rise in crime, are typically what call for a travel warning. When that happens, the U.S. State Department wants you “to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all.”

For example, the South Pacific’s tropical cyclone season recently got an alert, while Venezuela’s ongoing issues with crime and shortages in food and medicine got a warning

Although this information should never be taken lightly, understanding the events behind both alerts and warnings will give travelers context for planning their own itinerary. One thing to remember is that not every part of a continent or country with a travel advisory is dangerous.

“Countries generally don’t fit in a one-size-fits-all category,” John Rendeiro, Vice President of Global Security and Intelligence at International SOS, told USA Today last year. “Variable levels of risks exist within countries, as there are safer and more dangerous parts of the United States as well.”

As an example from personal experience, I recently visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although the U.S. government advises “to avoid unnecessary travel to the DRC because of ongoing instability and sporadic violence,” I visited the country’s Virguna National Park, but I didn’t blow off the recommendations. Prior to finalizing my plans, I e-mailed the park directly, and through our correspondence, a ranger assured me that a member of the park’s team would escort me into the Congo at the border and I’d be accompanied by an armed guard throughout the entire trek. Overall, the park was extremely well run and I had no issues doing what I came to do: see the gorillas.

After being a few feet away from a gorilla family and watching one of the babies spin from a tree branch, I’d say it was one the best experiences I’ve ever had.

No matter where travelers go, they should always prioritize their safety and exercise caution. When in a foreign country, keep in mind the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and the long list of U.S. embassies worldwide, which are there to help and inform citizens of how to handle themselves when visiting other countries.

Perth, Australia

Kookaburras laugh at me from downtown gum trees as I slip off the little black stilettos that saw me through a five-star, local-wine-paired tasting luncheon of aboriginal-influenced cuisine at Perth’s uber-chic rooftop Wildflower Restaurant.

I trade them for sneakers in my handbag.

Less than 15 minutes later, I’m trekking across a glass-floored treetop walkway in Kings Park among the lofty upper reaches of a eucalyptus and karri forest amid flitting cockatoos and shrieking lorikeets.

Perched at the edge of the Outback and surrounded by nature, Western Australia’s state capital of Perth has long been considered a laid-back provincial backwater (W.A. jokingly meant “Wait Awhile”). For me and countless others over the years, the city was merely an international airport stop en route to the fine-wine Margaret River region to the south or snorkeling with whale sharks in Ningaloo Marine Park to the north.

However, I recently began noticing Perth topping lists of the world’s most livable cities. They listed an upgraded river waterfront, 19 white-sand Indian Ocean surfing beaches within the metro region, vast green spaces, spotless urban trains, free downtown buses and a newly flourishing “hip” scene.

Perth also boasts the most sunshine of any Australian capital, an average of nine hours a day.

Was this far-flung city of 1.7 million finally worth enduring an extra five-hour flight west from Sydney for jet-lagged international travelers? In March I decided to find out, booking five days in Perth en route to visiting nearby Margaret River.


Even before I reach my hotel, it’s clear massive renovations have changed Perth’s face. A disfiguring rail line splitting the city in two had just been buried and replaced by parkland. The downtown core was now extended toward the Swan River bank — where black swans glided — with the new Elizabeth Quay, an open-air entertainment and leisure space with fantastic public art and architecture, bike paths, waterfront bars and restaurants.

Even the once-abandoned 1878 Treasury Building — one of a complex of three historic state buildings in Perth’s Central Business District — had been elaborately revamped and was now home to a heritage cluster of cool bistros and boutiques, a wine bar, craft beer magnet and luxury hotel.

Born amid the 1880s gold rushes, Perth’s skyline is dominated by the glittering skyscrapers of this boom-and-bust city’s oil, gas and mining industries, but at their feet is a charming collection of people-size colonial architecture including a maze of pedestrian-only streets, cafe- and shop-lined laneways, and charming arcades including the Art Nouveau Trinity and Tudor-styled 1937 London Court.

That evening I join a bar and foodie walking tour through the once-seedy Northbridge neighborhood, literally on the wrong side of the former railway tracks. It has morphed delightfully over the past five years into a bustling, quirky hive of artsy murals, small creative restaurants like the popular Hummus Club (started as a falafel stand in the farmers’ market), funky gin or rum bars and 1920s speakeasy-style hideaways with names like Sneaky Tony’s. The Perth Cultural Centre complex is also here, complete with the state’s art gallery, Institute of Contemporary Art and two theaters.

There is regular open-air music at Elizabeth Quay and at Kings Park, where I stare up at the stars during a classical evening concert in one of the world’s biggest urban parks, a 1,000-acre oasis of grassy parkland and botanical gardens with two-thirds of the total space conserved as native bushland including rarely seen Outback wildflowers. Eighty indigenous species attract bird-watchers from around the globe.

Just a 30-minute drive downriver, Perth’s history-rich port suburb of Fremantle on the Indian Ocean is a rare gem of 19th century streetscapes now packed with organic restaurants and coffee shops, the best-loved area being nicknamed “Cappuccino Strip.” Its collection of heritage buildings dates back to the 1830s and includes the 1852 Fremantle Prison, which convicts had to build for themselves, with tiny 7-by-4-foot cells. Shockingly, it was in maximum-security operation until 1991. It’s now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


From Fremantle it’s a 35-minute ferry hop to Rottnest Island, an idyllic 7-square-mile nature reserve. Howling winds don’t seem to bother either the ferry captain or the dozens of sailboats whizzing and bouncing across whitecaps — Perth is the world’s third windiest city and has the country’s highest rate of boat ownership.

“This is nothing,” the captain chuckles, spinning the wheel to keep the bucking boat on track. “There’s a reason we snatched the Cup from the Yanks — we call this a light breeze.”

Main street in the historic downtown of Fremantle. Photo: James Hutchison, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: James Hutchison, Special To The Chronicle

Main street in the historic downtown of Fremantle.
Main street in the historic downtown of Fremantle.

It was in 1983 that Perth first hit North America’s radar when, for the first time in 132 years, the United States lost the America’s Cup to the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s Australia II before the Stars and Stripes won it back again off Fremantle in 1987.

Rottnest Island was named in 1696 by a Dutch captain. He had spotted what he thought were cat-sized rats and called it “Rotte nest,” meaning “rat nest” in 17th century Dutch. Actually, they were quokkas, a small indigenous wallaby-like marsupial.

Before I even have time to grab my rental bike in the island’s original hub of Thomson Bay, I meet my first quokka, a cute critter with a funny “smile” that made quokka selfies go viral on the Internet a few years ago. One guide tells me that quokkas and their quirky selfies alone attract tourists all the way from Japan.

I spend the day cycling along white beaches, past lighthouses and trying not to run over very tame quokkas ambling across the country roads. I finish with a cold local Little Creatures beer and an Aussie meat pie overlooking a turquoise bay at the end of the day.


Before I’m really done with Perth, it’s time to head south 168 miles to the Margaret River, my favorite Australian premium wine-growing region. It’s a rural farming, cheese-making, craft beer and wine mecca known for its tender local Arkady lamb, truffles that conveniently ripen during the Northern Hemisphere’s dormant season and seafood, including the delicious local freshwater crayfish called “marron.” The epicenter of all things edible and artisanal is the weekend Margaret River Farmers’ Market.

I settle into a farm cottage 3 miles from the sea and sip morning coffee watching kangaroos and parrots graze alongside the neighbors’ sheep in my eucalyptus-scented backyard field. Then I head off to winery-hop — Vasse Felix for a tasting and lunch overlooking the vineyards; Cape Mentelle to lie on the lawn watching an outdoor evening movie with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend in my hand. At some vineyards I can even hear the world-class competition surf breaking on nearby beaches.

Every day I put in some time walking sections of the Cape to Cape Trail that spans 84 miles between the lighthouses at the tips of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. A low-key bush trail that blends into the environment, it meanders through Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park’s coastal forest and along headlands and pristine beaches where charming cliff-top cafes like the White Elephant serve some of the planet’s best fish and chips.

When I reach the Trail’s southern terminus, I treat myself to a three-hour, six-course gastronomic marathon at Voyager Estate Winery.

Though still more conservative than other Aussie cities, Perth has become more sophisticated, funky, creative and intriguing while remaining outdoorsy and relaxed. I’m hooked, already planning my next trip back — stilettos, sneakers and all.

Travel insurance

If you’re reading this, chances are something horrible has happened while you’re on vacation ― a health scare, a disruption, even an unexpected death.

Maybe you’ve phoned your travel insurance company and the wheels are now in motion for a claim. And you’re wondering: What now?

I’ve written more than a few stories that offer general strategies for filing a claim. But I never thought I’d find myself in a position to write about my own claim until it happened. I have an annual insurance policy through Allianz Travel Insurance, which is a supporter of my family travel blog. (I pay for the policy with my own money; it’s worth the peace of mind)

At the end of a lengthy road trip this summer, I woke up one morning with a painful eye infection. I had to give a speech in only a few days and I looked like an extra in The Walking Dead. I needed to get patched up quickly.

Call first. You first have to determine if your event is covered by travel insurance. A quick call to your insurance company can establish that. Calls are recorded, so you can rely on what a representative tells you. My rep told me the eye infection was covered by my annual policy.

Ask: What’s next? If you have an urgent situation like a trip disruption or a medical situation, you’ll want to find out what to do next. The company can help with that too. In my situation, I needed to see what my primary health care provider would cover. Travel insurance, I was told, would take care of the rest ― acting as “secondary” coverage.

Get the paperwork requirements. Now the bad news: Nothing is automatic. Your travel insurance company will have paperwork requirements for your claim. For a medical claim like mine, that would be an itemized bill, the M.D.s notes and a description of coverage. Getting that information from my health insurance provider, United Healthcare, was like pulling teeth.

Fix the problem ― and file After you’ve visited the doctor or rebooked your flight, it’s time to file your claim. Collect all of your documents and figure out the fastest way to get them to your company. My insurer offered a web form or email option.

Fix the problem ― and file After you’ve visited the doctor or rebooked your flight, it’s time to file your claim. Collect all of your documents and figure out the fastest way to get them to your company. My insurer offered a web form or email option.

Prep your docs I found the fastest way to file my paperwork was by taking pictures of the invoices and sending them by email. You’ll want to pay attention to the file size. Your insurance company’s mail server or website may have a size limit, which could cause problems. My advice? Send the docs at a lower resolution to ensure they all arrive at their destination.

Patience … Claims can take one to two weeks, although smaller claims of less than $100 typically move at a faster clip. You may need to furnish your company with direct-deposit information or give them a debit card number for payment. My claim was fully processed in less than a week.

By the way, you can avoid all of this paperwork by purchasing a policy through a travel agent. I know agents who will handle all of the paperwork for you and one who even has a perfect track record with claims. Remember, if your first claim is rejected, you can always appeal. Odds are, you’re just missing a form or two.

There’s a lot of paperwork when it comes to claims, but you’ll get your check in the end. And if you don’t? Well, you know

Azamara Adds Third Ship

 

(Recently posted in USA Today)

The first new Azamara Club Cruises ship to debut since the line’s founding in 2010 will spend its first winter in South America — a continent rarely on the line’s schedule.

Arriving in August, the 690-passenger Azamara Pursuit will operate a series of voyages around South America out of Lima, Peru; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Santiago, Chile starting in November 2018, Azamara will announce today.

The sailings will include trips to Antarctica and the Chilean Fjords — both firsts for the line. There also will be voyages to Brazil that will place the vessel in Rio de Janeiro around New Year’s Eve and during Carnivale.

“We’re going to plug into New Year’s Eve right off the Copacabana,” Azamara president and CEO Larry Pimentel told USA TODAY. “That is an extraordinary experience.”

RELATED:  Azamara Club Cruises ship emerges from major makeover

Speaking in advance of today’s announcement, Pimentel said he and his itinerary planners purposely designed a schedule for the new ship that would take it to places the line has rarely if ever visited. Pursuit will be the first Azamara ship to arrive in South America in three years, and it’ll be the first ever to sail along the west coast of South America, he noted.

“For us, it was about adding more (new itineraries) because the guests are destination collectors,” Pimentel said. “All of sudden we’re able to throw an immense amount of new at them.”

In advance of the South America sailings, Pursuit will operate more than half a dozen Europe voyages that include a 15-night trip out of Southampton, England to Iceland, and several Greek Islands voyages that focus on off-the-beaten-path stops.

Pursuit will debut on Aug. 3 with a 10-night sailing from Barcelona to Southampton, England.

Pursuit is an existing ship that Azamara is buying from British line P&O Cruises and upgrading in a massive overhaul scheduled to take place between March and August.

Originally built in 2001 for now-defunct Renaissance Cruises, the vessel is a sister to Azamara’s two current ships, Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest. Journey and Quest also originally sailed for Renaissance.

With just two ships, Azamara has been one of the smallest cruise lines that markets to North Americans. The addition of Pursuit not only expands Azamara’s capacity by 50% but also allows it to operate a far more diverse array of voyages, Pimentel noted.

In all, Azamara’s destination offerings will expand by 40% after Pursuit’s arrival with the vessel sailing to 61 ports in its first year that aren’t currently on the schedules of the other two ships, Pimentel said.

Pursuit’s initial cruises will include visits to 15 places that no Azamara ship has ever visited before. They include Agadir, Morocco; Antofagasta, Chile; Fowey, United Kingdom; Callao, Peru (the port for Lima); Maceió, Brazil; and Monemvasia, Greece.

Since debuting seven years ago, Azamara has carved out a niche in the cruise world by focusing on “destination immersion,” a term the company has trademarked and that revolves around its ships staying far longer in ports than is common in the industry. The line is known for itineraries with lots of late night and overnight stays in ports, and it also offers a rich array of shore excursions that include multi-day outings and once-a-cruise, exclusive AzAmazing Evenings events.

The new Pursuit itineraries will include 48 late night stays and 26 overnights.

“We spend a lot of time curating what we do on the ground,” Pimentel said. “That’s the reason to go on the product.”

Among unusual offerings available to passengers on Pursuit’s South America sailings will be a two-night stargazing experience in the super-dry Atacama Desert near Antofagasta — known as one of the best locations on Earth for viewing stars. Also built into the South America schedule is the opportunity to do yoga in the Paracas Desert near Pisco, Peru.

Avignon, France

Our excursion three hours or less from Paris last month brought us to Avignon, in the south of France. Just two hours and forty-five minutes by TGV train from Paris Gare de Lyon railroad station, Avignon is the gateway to the blissful Provence region.

Avignon has ancient roots as far back as 600BC and in 120AD the Romans arrived and ruled. The most important historical structure is the Palais de Papes/Popes Palace, the seat of Roman Papacy from 1309 to 1348, where seven successive popes resided. The city was then owned by Joanna I of Naples, and still under Papal control till 1791, during the French Revolution. Today the Palais de Papes is the main attraction of the old quarter of Avignon and a UNESCO Heritage site.

Our late September visit brought us magnificent weather, with unusually warm temperatures in the high 70s. We strolled the ancient cobblestone streets and passageways of Avignon bordered by the towering walls of the Palais de Papes. Hungry for lunch, we dined at L’Epicerie, a café nestled in the corner of a quiet square, where we savored Provencal specialties and chilled, local white wine.

After lunch, we strolled over to Collection Lambert, an art foundation located in two converted 18th century mansions. Yvon Lambert ran a highly successful contemporary gallery in the Marais area of Paris for over forty years, representing a stable of international, renowned artists. Collection Lambert opened in 2000 with over 500 works from Lambert’s private collection from artists such as Cy Twombly, Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, Nan Goldin, Jean Michel Basquiat and Donald Judd. Today it hosts temporary exhibits along with pieces from the permanent collection. The outdoor café in the courtyard is a lovely, tranquil spot for lunch or a drink.

Another UNESCO Heritage site we visited was Pont Saint-Bénézet, a bridge connecting the Rhone River and Avignon, constructed between 1177 and 1185. The story of the bridge is based on a legend; a young shepherd from Villard in the Ardeche, while herding his sheep, was said to have had a calling from Jesus Christ to build a bridge in order to cross the river. Mocked and shamed by the townspeople for his futile dream, the shepherd miraculously lifted a huge block of stone by himself to start the bridge. Now receiving unwavering support by the town, he formed a Bridge Brotherhood to oversee the construction. Later a chapel was built into the bridge in his name.

The big cultural event in Avignon is the international Avignon Festival in July. One of most important and prestigious performance festivals in Europe, it attracts major artists, performers, dance and theater companies from around the world, which perform in many languages. The festival, founded in 1947 by actor and theater director Jean Vilar, which only had one show in its first year, has now expanded to include over 1,000 shows in the official festival and “Off” festival in a period of three weeks.

Our stay at La Mirande Hotel was the highlight of our trip. A five-star hotel with the highest standards, La Mirande is a privately owned by the Stein family, a rarity these days. We were fortunate to have Mr. Stein give us a detailed historic tour of the hotel. Located directly across from the Palais de Papes, La Mirande was originally built in the early 1300s as an annex for the palace to house religious figures of the time. Parts of the initial building were destroyed in 1410 and in the late 1600s it was reconstructed as a private palace. The Stein family purchased the property in 1987, taking three years to transform it into a luxury hotel.

La Mirande has the rare combination of elements only a handful of hotels contain: an impressive historic building, lavishly appointed rooms and furnishings, flawless service, and a sublime restaurant.

Our delightful room was decorated in the local Provencal style with floral design wallpaper, starched white cotton bed covers with natural linen bed skirts, gold framed portraits and landscapes, a handsome dark wood writing desk and a marble bathroom outfitted with old fashioned faucets.

The next day we were invited to lunch on the terrace overlooking the lush garden filled with late summer flowers, vines, greenery and blooming fruit trees. Starting with three amuse bouches even before we ordered our meal, we knew were in for a special experience. Twenty-nine year old Chef Florent Pietravalle astounded us in the next two hours with his intricate but not fussy flavors, tastes, textures and knock out presentation.

Please note that the train from Gare de Lyon stops at the Avignon TGV station, which is not in Avignon. You must board a local train from the same station, which takes about seven minutes to Avignon center. You can also take an Uber or taxi, approximately 20€. Trains run almost every hour.

Passengers Want More Control Over Travel Experiene

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has announced the results of its 2017 Global Passenger Survey (GPS), which revealed that passengers expect technology to give them more personal control over their travel experience.

Based on 10,675 responses from around the globe, the survey provided insight into what passengers want from their air travel experience. Topping the list were:

  • Automation of more airport processes
  • A single identity token for all travel processes using biometric identification
  • Real-time information sent directly to personal devices
  • More efficient security – without having to remove or unpack personal items
  • More seamless  border control
  • Ready to go digital

Digital travel processes are the expectation and passengers want more. The GPS found that 82 percent of travelers would like to be able to use a digital passport on their smartphones for as many travel activities as possible, from booking flights to passing through the airport. Biometric identification systems were the technology of choice with 64 percent favoring biometric identifiers as their preferred travel token.

“Passengers want to use one single biometric identity token for all their travel transactions from booking flights to passing security and border control and picking up their bags. IATA’s One ID project is rapidly moving travel towards a day when a face, iris, or fingerprint will provide the key to a seamless travel experience. The technology exists. Its use in aviation needs to be accelerated. Governments need to take the lead by working with industry to establish a trusted framework and agreeing the global standards and security protocols needed to use the technology. One ID will not only make process more efficient for passengers but allow governments to utilize valuable resources more effectively” said Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president for Airport, Passenger, Cargo and Security, in a written release.

Passenger in Control

Passengers want to be able to do more of the airport processes themselves by taking advantage of the latest digital self-service options. Baggage was the top activity that passengers wanted more control over. The GPS found that 68 percent of those surveyed want to self-tag their bags with electronic bag-tags being the preferred option. In addition 48 percent of passengers wanted to self-drop their bag.

The survey found that the number of passengers using automated immigration gates and kiosks increased by 6 percent in 2017, reaching 58 percent with a satisfaction rate of 90 percent. Boarding the aircraft was another area in which passengers wanted to have more control with 72 percent of passengers preferring to self-board, an increase of 2 percent over 2016.

“Passengers have never been as empowered as they are today. Self-service solutions range from mobile check-in and bag drop, to self-boarding and automated border control. Smartphone- and tablet-toting, passengers want to use these mobile devices to control their travel experience. They expect easy access to the information they want, exactly when they need it in the travel process. Airlines and airports that make the most use of technological innovations will be giving a better travel experience to their customers,” said Pierre Charbonneau, IATA’s director Passenger and Facilitation.

Well-informed Passengers

Passengers want airlines and airports to keep them informed throughout their journey. The survey found that 85 percent of passengers want to be able to check the status of their flight and 50 percent want to track their bag throughout the trip. Passengers also wanted more information to help then plan their passage through the airport with 51 percent wanting to know wait times at security and border control and 58 percent wanting to know wait times at arrival customs, a 17 percent increase on 2016.

Providing more real-time information was also identified by 63 percent of passengers as the key to improving their experience during travel disruptions.

SMS messaging remains the preferred option for receiving travel notifications. However this trend is reversing with 28 percent of passenger preferring communication through smartphone apps and 26 percent through email.

“Passengers expect to get up-to-date information on all aspects of their journey with minimum effort, through their preferred channel. Offering this level of personalization is reliant on capturing, managing and understanding passenger data. But no single member of the travel ecosystem has the capability to optimize the end-to-end journey on their own. A global coordination framework is needed on how passenger data is shared, controlled and protected. The IATA personalization program aims to provide customers with trusted, accurate real-time information from all travel service providers throughout their journey,” said Charbonneau.

Passenger Pain Points

Passengers once again identified airport security and border control processes as two of their biggest pain points when travelling. The top frustrations were the intrusiveness of having to remove personal items (60%), the inconvenience of having to unpack electronic devices in carry-on bags (52%) and the variation in security screening procedures at different airports (47%).

To make security and border control areas as safe, effective and hassle-free as possible for passengers, the industry needs to embrace new Smart Security technology, the IATA said.

Bring Your Own Device

The GPS found that 42 percent of passengers, would prefer to use their own devices- Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) – to access inflight entertainment options. Greater connectivity promises to be a win for both the carriers and the passengers they carry.

“The importance of smartphone technology, the demand for more automation and personalization throughout the travel process and desire to stay connected is not new to aviation, however the GPS highlights the extent of the opportunities on offer and the need for airlines and airports and to invest significantly in this area. To satisfy travelers, airports and airlines will need to work together to provide passengers with easy-to-use mobile services, self-service options and one-stop security checks to make sure they meet this demand. But industry can’t achieve this alone. Government support is essential to change antiquated regulations before the industry can fully transform,” said Careen.

The latest IATA Global Passenger Survey (GPS) analyzed the comments from passengers from more than 152 countries across all regions in the world.

Source: IATA

History of St. Petersburg

by Tribune Content Agency and Rick Steves, Rick Steves Travel – PBS, October 24, 2017

A former imperial capital and the home of the czars, St. Petersburg is Russia’s most tourist-worthy city. Pastel palaces, bucolic gardens, commanding statues and graceful waterways evoke romantic images of Peter the Great and the Romanov dynasty.

But travelers can also find memories of St. Petersburg’s darker history: In 1917, the Russian Revolution started in the streets, ultimately doing away with the czars and ushering in the Soviet era.

In February of that year, Czar Nicholas II was ousted and a provisional government took over. Just months later, in what’s now called the “October Revolution,” Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks grabbed power. Not long after, the Bolsheviks executed Nicholas and his family.

In today’s Russia, there’s little official recognition of the centenary of these turbulent events. Still, St. Petersburg’s Museum of Russian Political History (www.polithistory.ru) tells the story in detail, and you’ll find other revolutionary sights around the city.

Start with the battleship “Aurora,” docked on the Neva River (and now a museum). According to popular history, this ship had a key role in the revolution: It was a shot fired from the Aurora that signaled the start of the October uprising.

On that fateful day, the anarchists’ first move was to storm the czars’ Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum), where members of the provisional government had holed up. Imagine them worriedly looking out over the huge Palace Square as it filled with masses of angry workers, inspired to action by the promise of a better life under Bolshevism.

The seeds of this discontent had been planted a half-century earlier, in 1861. Nicholas’ grandfather, Alexander II, freed Russia’s serfs. Suddenly free but with no land and no livelihood, the dumbfounded peasants rioted. Meanwhile, extremists, dissatisfied with the pace of reform, began plotting. In the end, an assassin tossed a bomb at Alexander, killing him on a St. Petersburg street in 1881.

The Romanovs built the onion-domed Church on Spilled Blood to commemorate the very spot where the czar fell (even preserving the bloodied cobbles). With its gilded domes and dazzling mosaics, it’s a fairy-tale image of Russian tradition and history, and one of the city’s most popular sights.

But the very theme of the church — honoring an assassinated czar — was an insult to the Bolsheviks. They looted it with gusto during the 1917 revolution. In the communist era, the church was used for storing potatoes, and the streets around it were named for Alexander’s assassins.

Other churches suffered similar degradations. Mobs overran the Peter and Paul Fortress, ransacked its cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, and desecrated the Romanov tombs there. Some churches were made into ice-hockey rinks, swimming pools, and so on. The Kazan Cathedral, repository of the treasured icon of Our Lady of Kazan, for years functioned as a Museum of Atheism.

Today, the churches and Orthodox religious practices have made a comeback. It’s particularly meaningful to see the beautifully renovated cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Glittering with Orthodox imagery, it’s filled to the brim with dead czars and czarinas, including the last Romanovs: Nicholas II and his wife and children. Things have changed so much that they’re now considered martyrs, and were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ironically, St. Petersburg’s museums owe some of their wealth of western European art to the revolution. The urbane aristocrats of turn-of-the-century Russia patronized French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, buying paintings in Paris (especially from newcomers like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso) and sending them home to St. Petersburg.

After the October Revolution, the state confiscated those private collections and designated them to state museums. The owners, meanwhile, fled abroad. Today the very paintings that once hung in St. Petersburg’s palatial townhouses are viewable in the galleries of the Hermitage and the Russian Museum.

Perhaps the most storied “reclaimed” artworks in St. Petersburg are the Easter eggs crafted by the illustrious House of Faberge, made on commission for czars Alexander III and Nicholas II. Fourteen Easter eggs — nine of them imperial — are on view in the Faberge Museum, itself housed in the beautifully restored Shuvalov Palace.

The final imperial egg (on view in the museum) was given by Nicholas to his mother in 1916. When she fled Russia three years later, it was this egg — with miniature portraits of her murdered son and grandson — that the dowager empress carried out. The Bolsheviks kept the rest, and over time, the Soviets sold the eggs to fund their government. The Faberge Museum (with the help of a deep-pocketed oligarch) had to buy the eggs back on the open market.

A century after the revolution, most tourists come to St. Petersburg for its resurrected aristocratic opulence. But its 20th-century upheavals were every bit as transformative as the age of the Romanovs — and are just as enmeshed in the city’s cultural fabric.

IF YOU VISIT…

EATING: Pelmeniya is a great place to sample dumplings (and variations from around the world). The modern interior overlooks the Fontanka River (Fontanka 25, tel. 7-571-8082). Cococo serves up traditional dishes with a modern twist in a laid-back, mellow cellar (Nekrasova 8, tel. 7-579-0016).

SLEEPING: Alexander House is a boutique hotel in a historic building, with 20 homey rooms in a quiet neighborhood near the Mariinsky Theater (splurge, www.a-house.ru). The basic M Hotel has 61 central rooms tucked away in a utilitarian courtyard near the city’s main avenue, Nevsky Prospekt (moderate, www.mhotelspb.ru).

GETTING AROUND: Most sights (and the dense urban core) are on the south bank of the Neva River. Use the cheap, easy Metro system. Buses and trolley buses help bridge the (sometimes long) gaps between sights and Metro stops and can save tons of time. The useful online English-language journey planner covers Metro and surface transport