Last-Minute Travel Deals Still Exist — If You’re Patient

April 12, 2010 at 9:54 am | Posted in air travel, car rental/hire, consumer travel, cruising, travel and technology, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

last-minute travel dealsVacationers and business travelers alike are booking travel later in the game than ever these days — often a week or less from departure — with the dicey economy accelerating a trend that’s been building for years. This higher demand for last-minute travel, together with the yield management systems used by many of the big players, means rates that are more than ever in flux up until the 11th hour. It also means that “deals” are no longer a sure thing.

Oh, and did I mention that the currently downsized number of flights and rental cars is also tightening unsold inventory? Sadly, all the above ads up to not a lot of breaks for the last-minute travel shopper.

Best Travel Websites for Last-Minute Deals
The good news: All is not lost. Such breaks do still pop up, because the fact remains that vendors with unsold inventory — whether it’s bundled air-hotel packages or individual components — will always need to unload it. What you’ll need is a spot of patience and perseverance — and willingness to spend a fair bit of time online doing comparisons, because that’s where most of the action is these days. And there are certainly myriad choices, including the likes of and last-minute sections of familiar sites like TravelZoo, Travelocity, and Kayak. I’ve found particularly good ones are, and of course where after checking the going rates on other sites you can try submitting (reasonably!) lower bids.

Apart from trolling these various sites, in the case of airfares especially I’d sign up for alerts, both from individual airlines (United tends to have the largest selection, coming out each Monday, but doesn’t email them anymore, so you have to check and airfare info sites like, which blasts out individual and grouped alerts according to airport or route. For car rentals, some companies list last-minute specials, but check out as well, a comparison site which also features a “Deal of the Week.” And this summer, excess cruise line capacity will pretty likely mean awesome late deals on certain itineraries — especially in the Caribbean.

Twitter Travel Alerts
Finally, as this blog pointed out last year, Twitter has not only been coming on like gangbusters in general but has increasingly caught with airlines, hotels, tour operators, and other vendors as a dandy way to unload late inventory and for consumers to monitor deals by following them. Just a handful of other airlines that tweet news and fare specials include Air France (@Air_France), American (@AAirwaves), British Airways (@BritishAirways), Cathay Pacific (@cathaypacific), Continental (@Continental), JetBlue (@JetBlueCheeps), Singapore (@SingaporeAir), Southwest (@Southwest), Spirit (@SpiritAirlines), and United (@UnitedAirlines). You can also keep track of fares on sites like (@airfarewatchdog), (@dealsonairfare), and (@LowestAirfares_).

Example: Type “#travel” into the Twitter search box and you’ll come up with hundreds of same-day results. But say you want to go to Orlando. A recent search for “#Orlando #travel” yielded, among many other items:

  • For $289, a three-night stay for four at Silver Lake Resort, plus two adult day tickets to Disney World, Universal Studios, or Sea World (@SLResortOrlando).
  • News of an upcoming crafts and collectibles show in the quaint nearby town of Mount Dora (@roritravel).
  • A list of top free attractions in the Orlando area (@GotSaga).

Crack your knuckles and get surfing!

photo: iStockPhoto

Hungary For A Little East-EuroPop?

April 9, 2010 at 8:20 am | Posted in Europe, Hungary | 3 Comments
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by Tripatini staff

Meet Gabriella, Ádám, and Zsolt, Budapest thirtysomethings who formed the electro-pop group Unique in 1997 — and who’ve been music-obsessed ever since they were mini-Madyars. Blonde Gabi, for example, made a splash way back in ’92 when she walked away with “best solo singer” on the Hungarian TV show Teenage Star Search. With her on vocals and her pair of wingmen on keyboards, the trio persevered finally hitting the big time in 2001, when a Unique tune was picked as the theme for the country’s first reality show and they released their first recorded single. Now five albums and various singles and remixes later, they’re a fixture in the top tier of Hungary’s pop music scene, and here’s their latest hit single, Hiszed vagy sem. Its music eminently danceable (as usual), in this video Gabriella dons racoon makeup and a shimmery dress and swans around a dark, glistening pool of water while crooning about a girl dreaming of her departed significant other. We’re told there’s an English-language version of this, with the ungrammatical, slightly garbled title “Unhappy Ending Dream,” but the actual translation of the Hungarian original is “believe it or not.” Confusing? Well, whatever — it’s the most kick-butt boo-hoo we’ve seen in a while, that’s for damn sure…

Fab Day Trip from Shanghai: Zhujiajiao, China’s Venice

April 7, 2010 at 8:39 am | Posted in Asia, China | Leave a comment
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by Indra Chopra

Heading to Expo 2010 in Shanghai this summer or fall? Let me tell you about a great day trip. We didn’t intend to visit the “water town” of Zhujiajiao when in the area in this past summer; instead, we’d planned on a side trip to Suzhou, famous for its silk and embroidery. But that would have meant cutting short our visits to other attractions, so we boarded tourist bus no. 4 at Shanghai Stadium for the one-hour ride to a 1,700-year old Chinese mini-Venice, a magnificent maze of canals and historic buildings.

The drive through rice paddies, waterways and canals to Lake Daishon is a balm to sore eyes blanched by the hustle-bustle of Beijing and Shanghai. The bus dropped us at Zhujiajiao’s new bus station just north of the historic district, with five hours to explore the town before the heading back. Map in hand, we followed our instincts, crossing bridges to what appeared to be a city under construction. This was the new section of Zhujiajiao, which has been developed in the old style in time for the World Expo, which runs May 1 through October.

The fact that Zhujiajiao grew up beside several converging rivers helped it become a hub of rice and textile traders. The merchants then extended the rivers to their warehouses, which is why the city is criss-crossed by canals. Of course, there are also streets and alleys, most of which are lined with whitewashed, tile-roofed two-story buildings, some dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). But one building north of the old town center towers above all the others: the five-story edifice topped by a pavilion in Ke Zhi Yuan garden on Xijie Street; designed in 1912 with both European and Chinese influences, this garden is a national landmark.

Bridges, Ancient Bridges

Crossing a few bridges, we finally entered the old town. Zhujiajiao has 36 of these ancient stone bridges, some with marble or wood elements. All 36 are still in use, but the most famous is the Fangsheng over the Cao Gang River, at the northeast edge of town. Erected in 1571, it stretches 230 feet (70 meters) and, unlike any other bridge in the Shanghai area, rests on five arches. Its Dragon Gate Stone depicts eight dragons encircling a shining pearl, a reminder — as if you needed one — that you’re not exactly in Venice.

Our tour bus ticket served as an entrance ticket, so we walked into the maze of stone paths, bridges, wooden boats tied to the shores, and fishing poles hanging from drooping arms, with children and pets playing in dirt and the occasional cyclist trying to weave through narrow passageways Gondolier on canal in Zhujiajiao Chinaand children and pets. This was the Zhujiajiao we were looking for, the traditional town of the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368 A.D.). The ups and downs of dynastic rule had long turned this town into a backwater; only in 2000 did Zhujiajiao start inching its way into the tourist map and into Shanghai’s “One City Nine Towns” promotional campaign.

Since Zhujiajiao has more canals than roads, boats are a major means of transport. We took a tourist boat ride, and our “gondolier,” a cheery, middle-aged woman, skillfully glided us through waterways and under bridges through the old and new sections. We didn’t find the empty courtyards of the new section of town particularly fetching or interesting, so we asked her to return to the ancient core. At one point, seeing our bored looks, the gondolier broke into a song. Must be part of the package, we figured, as her lilting melody intermingled with the willows and the deserted canals.

A boy was fishing below one of the bridges, and seeing us approach, made a great show of catching a fish. Wonder if he really did. At another point we saw a man contemplatively washing turtles. Pets or dinner?

Chinese Postcards and Punk Rock

Back on land after our 80-minute ride, we walked along National Street and its arterial stone slab alleys with tea shops, eateries, and curio shops selling handicrafts, embroideries, calligraphy, and other items. A shoemaker almost turned violent when he caught us trying to photograph him, but otherwise, we were swept up in a Shopping street in Zhujiajiao, near Shanghai, Chinacornucopia of art and antiques. At one point we followed a tour group into a nobleman’s house, a maze of courtyards and rooms with wooden furniture and artifacts.

Other attractions include the Memorial Hall of Wang Chang, one of the Seven Scholars of the Qing Dynasty, the No. 1 Tea House, and the Qing Dynasty post office, which displays evocative old postcards. There are also places where ancient culture intermingles with modernity. For example, the Books Tearoom, at 35 Caohe Street, offers traditional teas, 21st-century organic dishes, and thousands of books and DVDs. Zher, at 118 Xijing Street, may be a Chinese beer parlor, but it’s run by a punk rocker, and that’s reflected in the décor and the sound system. FYI, Zher’s owner is not the only bohemian type to have settled hereabouts; quite a few refugees from Shanghai’s rat race have moved here, creating an appealing mix of old-fashioned and avant garde residents.

In addition to old-new hybrids like the Books Tearoom, Zhujiajiao has plenty of traditional eateries where you can enjoy rose-flavored fermented bean curd, dark-rice zongzi dumpling, or roasted soybeans. There are several guesthouses in town, too, such as 1, 2, 3 (yes, that’s its name) and Cao Tang, but we didn’t have time to overnight on this trip. Next time, for sure — but for now, our five hours were up, so we boarded bus No. 4 and headed back to Shanghai.

Photos: Indra Chopra

Kansas City Jazz Still A Hot Ticket

April 5, 2010 at 8:30 am | Posted in culture and museums, Kansas, Missouri, music, United States | 1 Comment
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by Diana Lambdin Meyer

Jazz in the Blue Room at the Jazz Museum, Kansas CityJazz in Kansas City is not like jazz in New Orleans or in any other great American music city. It’s a little more bluesy, a little heavier on the keyboards and bass, not so bold with the brass. They call it “cool jazz” here, jazz that’s a little gentler on the spirit.

In case you didn’t know, Kansas City is where jazz grew up. After its birth in the Big Easy, the music migrated to KC and became a smart-aleck teenager, with attitude and a vision for the future. That’s what they say in the clubs, anyway. They also tell a good story about how it got here. Anybody who’s lived in this town for very long — and I’ve been here more than 25 years — has heard about Tom Pendergast. He was our Al Capone, our Bugsy Malone — our crime boss back when crime still paid (or maybe it’s just that America’s big-time crooks today are on Wall Street instead of the Mob).

Not a lot got in Tom Pendergast’s way. Certainly not a little thing like Prohibition, that “Noble Experiment” from 1920 to 1933, when alcohol consumption in the United States was illegal. Prohibition just wasn’t a big deal in Kansas City, so when the juke joints elsewhere shut down, when there was no more booze — an integral ingredient of a good night of jazz — the great musicians ended up here. Louis Armstrong. Charlie “Bird” Parker. Ella Fitzgerald. Jay McShann. Duke Ellington. Count Basie. That’s when the local music scene erupted. At one point, more than 200 juke joints operated 24 hours a day.

A Kansas City Jazz Tour
The city, in the heart of America’s Midwest, is bisected north and south by the Missouri River, and east and west by the Missouri/Kansas state line. Many popular attractions, such as the 18th and Vine Historic District, the high-end and high-rise Country Club Plaza, several museums, the former warehouse district that’s now the Crossroads Arts  District, are on the Missouri side of town. Funky little neighborhoods in between these major districts provide an alternative to the ever-expanding suburbs on the Kansas side.

The Blue Room, American Jazz Museum, Kansas CitySome 40 jazz clubs once thrived in the 18th and Vine neighborhood. Today, this district struggles to regain its vibrancy, but come the evening hours, especially on weekends, the vibe changes as music pours out onto the street from joints like the Blue Room, part of the American Jazz Museum. Opened in 1997 in conjunction with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (see below), the jazz museum tells the tale I just told, only in greater detail. It also allows you to become a part of the music — to sit in on keyboards in a jam session or choose the rhythm or chords of a particular piece via various listening stations and composition rooms. It’s a place where you come to understand jazz terminology and, in particular, the feel of Kansas City jazz.

During museum hours, the Blue Room (at top and left) is another exhibit, its walls, bar, and cocktail tables trimmed with old playbills and album covers. But at night, the entrance through the museum is closed, and access to the Blue Room opens from 18th Street. Considered one of Kansas City’s earthier jazz joints, it charges no admission Monday and Thursday nights, and on Friday and Saturday nights the cover is just US$10.*

Across the street is the historic Gem Theatre, where a number of music events are held, including the “Jammin’ at the Gem” jazz masters’ concert series. And just around the corner, the Mutual Musician’s Foundation, part union hall, rehearsal hall, and jazz joint, really gets hopping in the wee hours of the weekends. On Saturdays at midnight, it’s also the site of a live jazz radio show.

One of the edgier clubs in town is Jardine’s on Main Street near the Country Club Plaza; it’s a little louder, a little hipper than other jazz venues. Two of the classics (and my favorites) include the on West 8th Street and the nearby Phoenix Jazz ClubMajestic Restaurant over on Broadway. For an overview of who’s playing at these and other clubs, visit the Web site of the nonprofit group Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors.

Hotels From Hilton to Bargain
Many legends — Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra — have played the Drum Room at the recently renovated Hilton President Kansas City. This hotel is right in the center of everything, and rooms begin at $175.

A nice independent property is the Southmoreland Bed and Breakfast on Country Club Plaza, with 12 rooms named and decorated in honor of local historic figures (from about $130). Or if you’re really on a budget, try the Best Western Inn on Southwest Boulevard, where you’ll pay less than $75. That leaves you plenty of money for barbecue, steak, some Boulevard beer, and other soulful flavors of Kansas City.

More Kansas City Sights
Skyline & Union Station, Kansas City, MissouriThere’s plenty else worth coming to town for these days. A downtown redevelopment effort has created a sports arena and performing arts center to rival any in the U.S. The once-abandoned warehouses of the Crossroads Art District are now home to one of the largest First Friday art walks in the country, and the recently expanded Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art dazzles with its Chinese art, American Indian gallery, and Hallmark photo collection.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum tells of the time when baseball was a segregated sport, and how some of the game’s best players came up through the Negro Leagues. The College Basketball Experience, which isn’t really a museum, celebrates history, too. The men’s NCAA basketball tournament was founded in Kansas City, and 11 Final Fours have been held here.

Containing the most comprehensive collection of World War I artifacts in the world, the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial honors veterans and General John Pershing, a Missouri native who was head of U.S. forces. Exhibits include uniforms, weapons, other gear, a bombed-out French farmhouse, and a hand-dug 90-foot trench. Finally, don’t miss the Arabia Steamboat Museum. In 1856 the grand Arabia riverboat hit a snag in the Missouri River and sank. The boat and its treasures are now displayed in the River Market area — on dry land.

*To convert this and other U.S. dollar amounts to other currencies, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk.

photos: 1-2 Bruce N. Meyer. 3 iStockphoto

Iceland to Relocate to Costa del Sol

April 1, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Posted in Europe, humor, Iceland, Spain, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Las Chapas, Spain (Tripatini NewsWire) – Spanish Prime Minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero and Prime Minister of Iceland and former Loftleidir flight attendant Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir today announced the official launch of Operation Sól og Fjara (Sun and Beach) at a beachfront signing ceremony that concluded a six-month negotiation for the purchase of a strip of aging condominium buildings in the town of Las Chapas on Spain’s Costa del Sol. Under this unprecedented plan, the entire population of the North Atlantic island nation, currently estimated at 317,000, will be transferred in stages to their new home, which will enjoy full sovereignty under the terms of the agreement. Sources close to the negotiators have hinted at a figure in the billions of krona, not counting a 20-year installment plan of barter payments in sardines and backstock whale blubber.

“It just makes sense,” said Ms. Sigurdardóttir, who admits that her name is sure to confound her new Spanish neighbors. “We have bad weather. They have good weather. Honestly, we’re sick of the cold and the puffins.”

Mr. Zapatero, whose name will likely confound the average Icelander as well, added, “The Brits have bailed on so many condominiums, and that whole coast is way overbuilt. Sól og Fjara is good for Spain too.”

Every Icelander pitched in to make the purchase possible, according to the Icelandic prime minister. “Even the little children dug into their piggy banks. We’re proud to say that we are all founders of the new Iceland.”

In a cordoned-off area nearby, an angry mob of Spaniards burned codfish, an ancient symbol of Iceland, in protest. The resulting smell caused several onlookers to pass out. At last count, a young couple and a teacup chihuahua had been hospitalized.

“What’s the difference?” Zapatero asked. “This coast is overrun with foreigners anyway. We managed to upsell the Icelanders on our ‘Full Sovereignty’ package, and that’s a good thing for our bottom line. Discussions are currently under way with the Canadian territory of Nunavut for a similar deal.”

Gudmund Gudmundsson, a bystander who flew down from Reykjavík for the occasion, commented with tears in his eyes: “I know I speak for my countrymen when I say, I cannot wait for swim in January! So long as Mediterranean freeze not, we will make a party.”

Some Icelanders, understandably, will miss their homeland, which has reportedly been sold to Donald Trump for development of a Santa Claus-themed casino and spa complex.

The April Fool’s Day celebration concluded with the consumption of a rotting shark’s head, a traditional Icelandic delicacy. By that point, Prime Minister Zapatero had conveniently departed for an urgent meeting in Nunavut’s capital of Iqaluit.

Wiring Funds to Foreign Travel Vendors: Save, but Safe?

March 31, 2010 at 10:43 am | Posted in consumer travel, travel industry | 1 Comment
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by Max Pesling

wiring money overseasBack in the day, you’d stroll into a travel agency, get face-to-face advice, and leave with an armful of color brochures and a paper ticket. Then the Internet came along, but for a long time consumers were slow to warm up to paying online with a credit card. That’s mostly history now: Most will happily divulge those 16 digits in return for the savings that online competition and the elimination of the travel agent middleman have brought about.

All well and good, for the most part, when it comes to travel vendors in your own country. Increasingly, though, travelers are tempted by overseas companies — now easily found online — which offer more intriguing options or deeper travel discounts. The catch: Many if not most of these vendors charge cardholders around 3 percent for the transaction. As if that weren’t bad enough, cardholders’ banks clobber their customers with another fee of 2 to 3 percent for the foreign currency conversion, pretty much wiping out any savings from booking travel online.

My friend John Lamb, a New York City lawyer, recently faced this very dilemma while planning his upcoming honeymoon, a two-week luxury safari in Tanzania. The itinerary John liked best was sold by a tour operator in South Africa, but the combined 5.7 percent credit card and conversion fees amounted to several hundred dollars, money he’d rather spend elsewhere. The tour operator suggested he wire the funds directly instead (total cost: $35 at John’s bank).

John was tempted, but understandably concerned: Would it be safe to wire what’s essentially cash to an unknown vendor halfway around the world? If something went wrong (e.g., the company went under), would he have any recourse? Racked by doubt, John dashed off an email seeking advice from a trusted travel writer and friend, a.k.a. yours truly.

YT, however, had no surefire answer, never having been in a comparable situation. I could’ve offered general tips to help my pal protect himself, but in the age of the Internet I was able to consult my online brain trust. I posted the question in the Tour Operators group here on, and within 72 hours had amassed a considerable body of travel advice from experts as far afield as India, Tanzania, and Nebraska. Three top tips to wire funds safely to overseas travel vendors emerged:

  • Check their reputation. John Tavera of North Carolina-based Marnella Tours says, “Do your homework. Check that the company you are sending funds to is legitimate and in good standing with the local or national tourism association.” Nayaz Noor of Safir Tours in India also suggests that you can vet the company with the destination’s tourism office in your country of residence.
  • Ask fellow travelers. Fatema Zavery of Zed Safaris in Tanzania suggests you “check reviews from other travelers who have used [the company’s] services.” Indeed, in the age of user-generated content, it should not be difficult to find enough reviews of just about any travel provider to help answer your doubts.
  • Buy insurance. If doubts are still nagging, buy travel insurance, says Peter Walter of It costs a fraction of the money you’ll save by wiring the funds, and will give you peace of mind, whether the vendor takes flight with your money or goes out of business before your trip — or, more likely perhaps, you get sick and have to cancel.

With the proper precautions, wiring funds directly to an overseas travel vendor can be a safe and effective way to save money – which is exactly why my friend John decided to do it after reading the experts’ advice here on Tripatini. As a final note, I was pleased to see that not a single one of the tour operators who offered advice tried to sell John anything. Several, in fact, outright confirmed that his vendor is a reputable company in great standing. It’s reassuring to see that, at least in some cases, you can find unbiased advice on transparent online travel forums.

And John, by the way, is now happily looking forward to his honeymoon.

photo: iStockphoto

6 Top Toronto Dining Deals

March 29, 2010 at 9:49 am | Posted in Canada, culinary/food & drink, Ontario | 1 Comment
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by Ed Wetschler

After telling a friend about a good dining deal in Toronto — her own home town — she said, “I’ll have to go there; I don’t know that place!” Understandable. Canada‘s largest city is as rich in restaurants as it is in museums, galleries, theaters, boutiques, clubs, and more clubs.

You can always find affordable restaurants in Kensington, the St. Lawrence Market, and Chinatown, but you already knew that. So here are a half-dozen spots, some of which even locals may not know. (BTW, note to Yanks in particular about the exchange rate: Right now, US98¢ buys one Canadian dollar — close enough so that you can just think in terms of generic dollars and keep the change.)


Four, with its dark, sleek furnishings, looks like a conventional business district restaurant, but it isn’t. No item on chef Gordon Mackie’s menu exceeds 650 calories—yet the cuisine is exquisite. The shrimp fusilli (CA$18*, left), for example, combines tender shrimp, bran fusilli (!), Grana Padano cheese, and walnut pesto into a flavorful, deceptively rich entrée that tastes like 2,000 calories.

Dhaba, at the west end of downtown, is well-regarded for its updated Indian cuisine, which features bright, vibrant—not necessarily hot—spicing. The slow-cooked mountain goat (CA$17.95), for example, makes me wonder why I seldom eat goat meat (answer: because I can’t cook it as well as Chef P.K.). But here’s a secret: Dhaba’s lunchtime buffet (CA$11.95) may be the best dining value in downtown Toronto, because this is that rare, all-you-can-eat deal that features fresh, thoughtfully prepared cuisine.

Mill Street Brew Pub is the obvious mid-price pick in the historic Distillery District, but I like Pure Spirits Oyster House. The main dishes in this cavernous brick-walled bar and restaurant are not cheap, but you can get around that: Pure Spirits calls its hearty poutine (CA$10, or $14 with bacon, $16 with crispy fried oysters) and fresh Prince Edward Island mussels with a garlic-and-cheddar-smeared baguette ($15) appetizers, but they’re really stealth entrées. And this is the most flavorful, perfectly timed poutine or mussels you’ll ever eat.


Caplansky’s Deli, on College Street north of Kensington, is known for its sandwich of “smoked meat” (CA$8). Whazzat? The owner calls it “the bastard child of pastrami and corned beef” — a hand-rubbed brisket that’s cured two weeks, then smoked ten hours. Caplansky’s also uses this tender, peppery invention in a hash-and-eggs breakfast ($10) that’s served all day, including dinnertime. “Do you like it?” Caplansky asked. Like it? I’ll never eat conventional corned beef again.

The Gardiner Ceramics Museum Café has somehow convinced star chef Jamie Kennedy to produce elegant soups for CA$6, sandwiches for $9-11, and cookies for $2. FYI, you could visit the nearby Royal Ontario and Bata Shoe museums, eat here, and skip the Gardiner itself, but don’t: This museum and its programs will open your eyes to art forms many of us don’t think about very often.

West Queen West Art & Design District

This hot neighborhood has umpteen resto-bars, and its anchor, the Drake Hotel (above left), boasts almost as many lounges and restaurants as guestrooms. Chef Anthony Rose’s Blue Plate Specials (about CA$18), such as fish ‘n’ chips, are born-again classics, but here’s an even better idea: Order the sushi pizza with avocado, roe, and salmon (CA$14, right),
a delicious patchwork of flavors, from subtle to wasabi sharp, and textures, from silky to crispy crisp.  By the way, the Drake serves a Canadian cab-merlot blend and a Bordeaux-style chardonnay with a private label that’s perfect for this crowd — or part of it, anyway: It’s called Starving Artist.

*at press time, about £11.75 / €13 / AU$12.60 / ZAR85; for updated rates, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk

photos: Ed Wetschler

Turkish Pop Heartthrob Tarkan Still Popping

March 26, 2010 at 9:40 am | Posted in Middle East, music, Turkey | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

German-born Tarkan Tevetoğlu, 37, has been compared to a cross between a Turkish Elvis and Michael Jackson in terms of his impact on his country’s pop music scene, and he’s achieved a measure of fame abroad, as well, particularly in Europe. The dude garners A-list coverage from Turkey‘s media, of course, for almost everything he does, whether it’s verbal gaffes; groundbreakingly racy video scenes; temporary military draft-dodging; shilling for Pepsi-Cola; scary run-ins with the paparazzi; a tiff with PETA over fur-wearing; or is-he-or-isn’t-he-gay. Vay Anam Vay is from Tarkan’s sixth and most recent album, Metamorfoz (“Metamorphosis”), released at the end of 2007 and less than critically acclaimed but still a commercial hit. The choreography’s slightly goofy and the lyrics fairly trite love-song yadda-yadda (“If she said die, I’d die for her / the arrow went straight into my heart”), but whatever — it’s a very club-ready, infectious bit of electropop with just a touch of Eurasian musical exoticism.

Like it? Buy it here!

Cuzco’s Top Luxury Hotel

March 24, 2010 at 7:53 am | Posted in history, lodging, Peru, South America, travel and health | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

Peru, cuzco, monasterio hotel, luxury hotel cuzcoPicture it: the atmospheric onetime capital of the Inca Empire, high in the Andes of Peru. I’d stepped off the plane from Lima fully aware of soroche, aka altitude sickness, and its unpleasantries. After accepting the standard paper cupful of coca tea — meant to help acclimate me to suddenly transferring from sea level to 11,000 feet (3,350 m) — my friend and I spent what little was left of that afternoon strolling around Cuzco’s colonial core, admiring Baroque churches, grand gold and silver altars, and Cyclopean Incan walls. Then we went to dinner on the central square, the Plaza de Armas.

We were so tempted by the menu we proceeded to do precisely what we knew we should not do: overeat. Already feeling a mite unsteady as we paid and left, by the time we embarked upon the two-block walk uphill to our hotel, we were both gasping for breath, our heads were pounding, and believe it or not, it was a struggle to even walk upright.

cuzco, inca wallSo thank Inti, the Inca sun god, we had the best digs in town to coddle us as we lay stunned in bed that night and, as I recall, a good part of the next day. In Cuzco there’s probably no hotel quite as grandioso and histórico as the 126-room Hotel Monasterio. Built as Franciscan monastery San Antonio Abad in 1592, just 60 years after Francisco Pizarro’s marauders had barged in and sacked the Inca capital, it was converted into luxe lodgings in 1995, now owned by über-upscale Orient Express.

As you might expect, it ain’t cheap; nightly rates are mostly north of US$400.* And though for that you don’t even get the usual high-end perks like pool, spa, and workout room, there’s no question the rooms are hardly monastic anymore, and for that my friend and I were especially grateful. Fortunately we managed to get through our misery without having to resort to a snort from the oxygen tank kept on hand for guests in soroche distress.

Now, you may wonder: Is this place worth the price tag? Well, to bunk in such a palatial setting in such a special city, a splurge might well be in order, at least for one night. Just to be in one of these guest rooms, a lesson in mixing Spanish Colonial-style antiques (like our huge wooden armoire) with modern amenities is an eye-opener. But even if you don’t stay there, it’s well worth a visit to ogle the magnificent courtyard and painting-adorned Baroque chapel, or to spring for a meal, including local specialties like alpaca and cuy (a relative of the guinea pig) in the Monasterio’s fine-dining restaurant. Just be smarter than we were and do keep the stuffing of the face to a minimum on your first night — and you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

*at press time, about £267 / €296 / CA$408 / AU$437 / ZAR2,939

photos: Hotel Monasterio, iStockphoto

On Safari in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater

March 22, 2010 at 7:34 am | Posted in Africa, ecotourism, safaris, Tanzania | Leave a comment
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by Fyllis Hockman

Africa Tanzania Ngorongoro CraterFor people contemplating an Africa wildlife safari, the first place that comes to mind may well be Kenya. But many aficionados favor Tanzania, thanks to its vast Serengeti plains and a nearby volcanic caldera called Ngorongoro.

On my trip to this East African country not long ago, Ngorongoro was far and away the star. Occupying just 102 square miles (264 sq. km), this 2½-million-year-old collapsed volcano is a virtual microcosm of this region of the continent, home to some 30,000 examples of every conceivable species — a distinction that makes it unique in the world. And this means that unlike in some other game parks, here you can spot and snap the “Big Five” (lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, Cape buffalos) and dozens of other species without high-powered binoculars or a huge telephoto lens.

Moreover, Ngorongoro’s creatures seem surprisingly tolerant of sharing space with each other as well as with humans. Hyenas, zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, elephants, lions, warthogs, hippos, baboons, cheetahs, and leopards all exist within view of each other. These days in Africa it’s not always easy to spot cheetahs and leopards, except for here.

Of course, such a concentration of fauna does have its consequences: With the number of visitors increasing each year, conservation and sustainability issues are becoming more and more a concern. Efforts are in the offing to either restrict access or increase entrance fees.

Wildlife Up Close

From hatch-roof jeeps 11 of us gawked, ooh-ed, ah-ed, and snapped picture after picture while the critters studiously ignored us. It’s hard to describe the wonder of being ten or so paces from an elephant that’s 12 feet (almost 4 meters) high at the shoulder, its tusks practically reaching the ground. Or a black-maned lion baring its teeth, or half-a-dozen adolescent zebras cavorting around a water hole.

Then, of course, there was the highlight: spotting the black rhino, of which there are only 4,000 left in all of Africa. For such a large (second only to the elephants) and dangerous animal, I found the rhino doesn’t seem to do much. This one just stood there, neither grazing nor charging, simply looking unimpressed with its surroundings—especially us.

The loping antelope, by contrast, are much more graceful and spirited. “Antelope” is actually a generic term covering a wide range of animals, from 11-pound (four-kilogram) dik diks to 2,000-pound (907-kilo) elands. In between are the springboks, riverbucks, hardebeests, wildebeests, impalas, topis, gazelles and others, with horns from curved to straight, twisted to rippled, rounded to wavy.

Leopards & Cheetahs

We got lucky. Not only did we see two leopards virtually indistinguishable from the tree branches they were wound around, but also a family of cheetahs frolicking nearby. Four cubs romped and rolled over each other, periodically returning to mom for grooming and reassurance.

Mama, though, was eyeing several gazelles about a quarter-mile away. They played a little cat-and-gazelle game, with the leopard debating whether or not to fetch some lunch. Prey and predator eyed each other, each evaluating its position. You could feel the tension, irrevocably caught up in the life-and-death dance that forms the essence of their existence. I was both relieved and disappointed when the cheetah decided against take-out.

And sometimes success — depending upon one’s perspective — is obvious. Case in point: the lion that was so close, I could see its whiskers tremble. The creature’s stomach was distended, clearly indicating how well it had feasted the night before. Observed our guide, Joseph Ndunguru, “Thirty to forty pounds of raw meat will satiate him for four or five days.”

One of the most intriguing photo ops was of a flock of flamingoes numbering in the thousands and occupying most of Lake Magadi, at the bottom of the crater. They resembled a feathery pink blanket stretched out along the shoreline.

Ndunguru could turn anyone into a solid amateur zoologist. Before long, members of the group were identifying a previously generic starling as a Ruppells long-tailed glossy and the ubiquitous antelope as a hardebeest or Grant’s gazelle. By the sixth day, it was, “Don’t bother getting up, it’s just another elephant.”

Luxury Safari

A travel story is often enhanced by the obstacles overcome, but this trip didn’t really present any, in good part thanks to the fact that I was traveling with luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent. The sun was brighter, the game lodges a mix of luxury and rustic décor, the flies relatively subdued, and the dust lighter than it might have been. I actually returned to my hotel with clothes still resembling the colors they’d started out with.

The roads were another story, a hardship that can’t be avoided unless you walk, which was definitely discouraged. Anyone with back problems — or allergies, for that matter — should think twice about this sort of trip.

Seated on the balcony at the Serengeti Sopa Lodge in Arusha the last morning, I listened to a concerto of birdcalls while two Thompson’s gazelles romped with a topi. A flock of guinea hens grazed within 50 yards, assiduously avoiding a passing warthog.

But what especially struck me was the presence of all the other animals, hidden in grass and shrubs, that I knew I was not seeing. Occupying those endless plains were millions of hoofed  creatures continually on the move in search of pasture, constantly watched and pursued by predators whose own survival depends upon feeding off them. For awhile, I watched for the slightest movement, as a hungry predator might do as it seeks its next meal. Then I reluctantly left for the airport, knowing (or certainly hoping) that this strange combination of imposing terrain, tenuous commingling of wildlife — and, yes,  inevitable brutal killings — will continue long after I’m gone.

For more on Africa wildlife excursions, see this blog’s Safaris 101.

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