Archive for February, 2009

A birthday shoutout to two awesome ladies

February 28, 2009
Diane's two favorite senior ladies

Birthday girls Kitty and Roxy

Happy birthday to my two favorite senior ladies! They would be Kitty and Roxy. While Roxy is a dog (the foxy doxy with moxy), Kitty is not a cat, but my Mom (short for Catherine).  And the truth is that today is neither one’s birthday. Mom doesn’t even get a birthday this year, because she’s a Leap Year baby. In LY age, she’s 22.25, but being born in 1920 makes her 89.

Roxy is best friends with Kitty especially when being served premium cat food

Roxy loves her grandma, especially when treats are involved

As for Roxy, when I adopted her, I didn’t have a birthdate, so I decided to match her with Mom’s. But then I figured she’d want one every year, if she had the choice, so Roxy’s unofficial birthday is Feb. 28. She is 14. Of course then there’s the whole dog age vs. human age debate. It’s not accurate to “multiple times seven,” because so much depends on the dog’s weight. (The smaller the dog, the longer their lifespan.) Based on what I’ve read, I’m figuring that Ms. Roxy is around 70.

Kitty with co-resident Callie

Kitty with her kitty, co-resident Callie

Roxy and Mom are great pals, especially when Mom has treats for her granddog. But, truly, the apple of Mom’s eye is Callie, her Maine coon cat. We named her Callie because we ignorantly thought she was a calico. Um, not even close. (Of course she’s not from Maine, either.) Mom adopted Callie in 1997, and they’ve been inseparable since. The wonderful Vineyard Inn, where Mom lives in Florida, allows her to keep Callie there. (The Vineyard is neither a vineyard nor an inn, but a terrific assisted living facility in Seminole.)

So while nothing in this little report has been straightforward, I can say, without disclaimers or explanation, that I love them both very much. Mom, I’ll see you soon! Happy Birthday from your daughter and son-in-law.

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One wiener dog is never enough

February 26, 2009
Sabrina feels totally comfy in almost any situation

Sabrina wastes no time getting comfy in her new home

Following the wiener-dog lover’s credo of “you can’t have just one,” Wessel and I adopted 8-year-old Sabrina from Dachshund Rescue a few months after my late, great Lucy met her maker. Roxy, my 14-year-old angel, took it all in stride. That was a year ago this weekend. We loved Sabrina immediately, but we had a problem. She weighed in at 18 pounds, when she should have been much less. At the time I wrote: “She’s a porker. An overstuffed sausage. A block o’ dach.”

Pet portret Q-kitty (left), Sabrina the Briener, Roxy the Doxy

Pet portrait: Q-kitty, 'Briner the Wiener, and Roxy (the foxy doxy with moxy)

Being overweight is good for no one, but for the wiener dog it can be fatal, as their short legs and loooong backs aren’t made to carry a big load. So, as I recounted in “The Biggest Loser: Wiener Dog Style” entries (part 1, part 2, part 3), we put ‘Briner the Wiener (hat’s off to Krispy for our favorite moniker) on a breakthrough diet. You know the one: eat less, exercise more. For months now, Sabrina has been holding steady at a svelte 12 pounds. She looks mahvelous.

Roxy and Sabrina are completely relaxed during a kayak trip in Virginia

Roxy and Sabrina take a break from their naps during a kayak trip in Virginia

Sabrina has fit right in with the family, too. One minute she’s playfully barking at and chasing Q-Kitty, while the next they’re side by side on a pillow. She even allows Q to give her a Q Signature Tongue Bath on the top of her head. As for Roxy, unless she and Sabrina are arguing over who gets what treat first, they get along swimmingly. Not that they like to swim, but they do love to go kayaking.

Sabrina shows off her new obedience skills during the graduation ceremony

"Sit... stay.... good girl!" Sabrina earns her graduation cap at PetSmart ceremony

During our first glorious year together, I had one more challenge for Sabrina: learning a few manners. Sabrina wasn’t out of control, but she wasn’t controllable either. Taking a dog to obedience class is one of the best ways to bond with your pet, plus dogs like to know the rules. Thanks to Rhonda at the Durham PetSmart and us doing our homework, Sabrina became a model student. Her “sit-and-stay” is smashing, though her “come” can admittedly use a little work. Still, Sabrina was a star pupil and absolutely earned her diploma in “beginner education.” Not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, they can teach you stuff, too. Like, you’re never too old to fall in love. Happy anniversary, Sabrina!

Untours is unparalleled in the travel industry

February 24, 2009
Sampling Dutch street food is among the Untours travel experiences

You, too, can sample street food in Leiden (in this case, herring) on an Untours trip

Even before I knew much about Untours, the Pennsylvania-based (un)tour company, I loved their travel offerings and attitude. Untours supports longer-term travel with a home base, so visitors have a chance to dig deeper than the usual surface tourist activities.

They provide accommodations for one or two weeks, mostly in Europe (they just added a couple North American locations). For a reasonable fee, you get lodging (with a kitchen), air travel (rare) and an English-speaking local host (unheard of). It’s similar to independent travel, but with someone to hold your hand if needed.

Rome is among the travel destions in Italy

Rome is among the destinations in Italy

Also terrific are Untours’ off-the-beaten path destinations. In Holland, untourists stay in the charming university town of Leiden instead of the big city of Amsterdam, in Greece it’s Nafplio instead of Athens, and in Switzerland Untours offers up Ticino, Oberland and villages between Interlaken and Lucerne. It doesn’t ignore big cities completely, especially in Italy and France, the top destinations. Italy choices include Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also Sicily and Amalfi. It’s similar for France. You can choose among Paris, Normandy, Alsace, and more.

I was surprised when Untours, now in its 34th year, recently added New York City and Quebec City to its offerings. Makes me wonder what’s next. Exciting!

Paris at night with its monuments bathed in illumination

"The Eiffel Tower at night is magical," reported one Untours traveler

While I haven’t traveled with Untours, I’ve interviewed several people who have, and they’ve all loved the experience of feeling like they were living in a community instead of merely passing through. For those of you who just have to be on the move, there are ways to combine destinations with Untours “Samplers.” Untours aren’t cheap, but from what travelers tell me, they’re a bargain when you factor in meals, airfare, etc. Check out the prices for yourself and let me know what you think.

Hal Taussig on his daily ride to work

Hal Taussig on his regular ride to work

Like I said, I’ve already loved Untours for years because I had a great feeling about them and their business practices. So I wasn’t surprised but I sure was impressed when last year I learned about Untours founder and president Hal Taussig, 84. Despite his very successful business, he and his wife live in a modest home. Since 1992 they’ve given $5 million in profits from the business to the Untours Foundation, which they founded to help enterprises around the world that create jobs that improve the lives of the poor. Untours has been engaging in “travel philanthropy” way before it became de rigueur. Hal has gotten some great press lately, but you can tell that he’s not in it for the publicity. Thank you, Hal, for inspiring us as travelers and as human beings!

Alas, my LUV affair with Southwest dims

February 20, 2009

There’s an update to this here. I’ll link to the new posting as soon as I get it up. Southwest is back in my good graces. Well, except for that stupid Sports Illustrated swimsuit-decorated plane. What were they thinking?

Dear Southwest,

You probably don’t know how many times I’ve sung your praises, but it’s been often and it’s been in print. Well, now I have a criticism and a big disappointment.

My husband, Wessel Kok, and I were planning to use our Rapid Rewards Awards in April 2009 before they expired. But then we had to change our plans. So we decided to take you up on your kind offer to extend the expiration date “for a year” for an additional $50. Wessel’s Award was to expire on April 25, 2009, and mine on May 15, 2009. We already decided we’d likely use them for a trip to Boston in April 2010. (We’re so happy you’re adding Boston!)

When I called to extend mine I was told that the one-year extension started the day I requested it, so would expire Feb. 19, 2010. That is not good customer service! That would be in effect cutting three months off my rewards time! So I chose to wait and call back mid-May, so it would be good until May 2010.

The LUV affair with Southwest is fading

The LUV affair with Southwest is fading

I called Wessel to warn him. Too late. Not only had he already extended his a few hours earlier, he specifically verified that the new extension date was April 25, 2010. “Are you sure,” I asked him twice. “Yes,” he said. “Well, if I were you I’d call back and check.” Sure enough, the new representative he got told him the expiration date is Feb. 19, 2010. Not only did he lose two months on his award period, they said they couldn’t change the date or issue him a refund. So there goes our awards trip to Boston in April. Even I called and pleaded his case, to no avail, though I was encouraged to write a letter to Customer Service. And so here it is.

To your credit, I see that you do have something on your website (the rep helped me locate it) that says “Awards are reissued with a new, 12-month validity period that begins on the date that the request is processed.” Funny how that one rule is listed in bold type, when the others aren’t. That leads me to believe this happens to many customers, and I’m sure they’re as unhappy as we are.

The crazy thing is you also have a very generous Award policy on the flip side. If a customer doesn’t use or renew an Award, he/she has up to two years to still extend it for $50. Now that sounds like the Southwest I know and LUV. So on one hand you’re in effect giving some people extra years, while on the other hand, you’re short-changing those of us who are trying to plan ahead and didn’t read the fine print or, even worse, were given the wrong information.

What I’ve often praised Southwest for is making it easy and affordable to make changes. In this instance, you’ve fallen very, very short. At least by a few months. I’d LUV to hear how you justify this consumer-unfriendly rule.

Sincerely,

Diane Daniel, a very loyal customer

This family is silly for Segways

February 18, 2009

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Jan. 18, 2009, in the Boston Globe)

Bob, Ginny, and Chris McDermott on the Venice Beach Pier,

Bob, Ginny, and Chris McDermott on the Venice Beach Pier in California

WHO: Bob McDermott, 63, his wife, Ginny, 59, and their son Chris, 17, of Sudbury, Mass.

WHERE: California.

WHEN: A week in August.

WHY: To take guided Segway tours.

CATCHING SEGWAY FEVER: Bob McDermott’s first time on one was in 2003, when his mother, now 93, requested a trip to the company’s headquarters in Bedford, N.H. “She said, `Before I die, there’s something I want to do.’ I thought it would be a trip to Paris or the Grand Canyon, but she said, `I want to buy a Segway.”‘ She did, and so did McDermott. She has since given her self-balancing, electric personal transporter to her son.

TREAT FOR THE FEET: Since 2004, Bob and Ginny have spent many hours touring Sudbury and neighboring towns by Segway. His fondness for the Segway is practical. “I’ve got really bad feet,” he said. “I can’t walk around much. With the Segway, it’s like walking, only faster. And you can go right up to things.”

Bob (left), Ginny, and Chris McDermott at Angel Island State park in San Francisco Bay.

Bob, Ginny, and Chris at Angel Island State Park in the San Francisco Bay.

OFF-ROAD RIDING: Bob McDermott located three tours in the San Francisco area alone. The first was around Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay, where they tooled around on all-terrain, fat- tire Segways. “I thought it was going to be a flat piece of land, but we started at a beach and then kept going up and up and up, with better and better views. The island has a history going back to the Civil War, and it was used as an immigration receiving area, where they’d quarantine people coming over from China and the Pacific.”

Bob and Ginny traveling down Lombard Street in San Francisco.

Bob and Ginny make their way down famed Lombard Street in San Francisco.

ADVANCED DEGREE: With Electric Tour Co., they went on an advanced- rider tour up and around Telegraph Hill and also down the famed hairpin-turn section of Lombard Street. “The Segway automatically slows to 2 miles an hour on a downhill,” McDermott noted. “At Lombard, there were cars of all sizes and bikers lined up for about a quarter mile to go down. When we came up, seven people on Segways, everyone was taking our photos and saying, `Look at those people.”‘ The trip with City Segway Tours, from dusk to dark, was quite different. “It was all flat, and we went through the financial district and down to the waterfront.”

GOING FLAT OUT: While the McDermotts enjoyed all their tours, their favorite was farther south, along Venice Beach and Santa Monica, with Segwow. “The guide put walkie-talkies on the handlebars so we could communicate without having to stop. He’d give commentary about the architecture and things. We were on this flat, smooth bike trail that went for miles, so we were able to go fast and see a lot of things.”

She lights up my life with best-ever baseball cap

February 16, 2009

I used to think the headlamp was the world’s greatest  invention. No more holding a flashlight while trying to do things with your hands. Now there’s something equally exciting, less expensive, and more comfortable — a baseball cap with LED lights in it.

Nancy Jordan with headlamp during Girls getaway in the 1990s

Nancy Jordan (foreground) dons headlamp during "Girls 24," circa 1997

My friend Nancy Jordan, purveyor of all things camping, was the first to impart her wisdom about the L.L. Bean Pathfinder LED Cap. Sure, it helps that she lives “on “in Cape” — that’s Cape Elizabeth, Maine, to you non-locals, which is only a hop, ski, and a jump to L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport. But, also, Nance just has the knack for these things. First it was the headlamp. Then, during one of our “Girls 24” getaways with pal Kristin Thalheimer, Nance set up her folding canvas camping chair, another amazing invention we’d never seen before which is now ubiquitous. Kristin and I were so envious that Nance got us each one for the next getaway.

Reading books in the dark. One of teh many uses of the baseball cap with LED lights

Reading in the dark is one of the many uses of this baseball cap with LED lights

This year, Nance was at it again, giving Kristin and me baseball caps that light up. I’ve had mine less than a month and already have used it for grilling, reading in bed when Wessel wanted lights off, bicycling at night (under my helmet) and participating in a search for a lost wiener dog. (The dang dachshund was hanging out under a bed all along.)  I don’t even usually wear baseball caps. Nance, you get another feather in yours.

Wessel got an orange Pathfinder LED Cap

Wessel rakes leaves in his fashionable cap

Of course Wessel had to have a Pathfinder, too, so we got him an orange one, to honor the Dutch national color. Mine is a subdued tan color.

While a headlamp has more features, the caps don’t slide off your head and bonk your nose, and the elastic band doesn’t wear off. And, let’s face it, they’re a whole lot more fashionable. And warmer, too. Oh, and I did I mention the price? A mere $20. There’s a little replaceable battery inside the band, which you can’t feel on your head at all. I don’t think you should give up on headlamps, but the caps offer the perfect camping (and more!) complement.

Because it was Nancy who introduced us to these, I predict they will sweep the nation. No, the world!

Still falling in love

February 14, 2009
Wessel's first snow shoe experience

Wessel's first snowshoe experience

I remember it so clearly. On our first date, Wessel arrived at my house in his boxy 21-year-old Mercedes Benz with his rented snowshoes and recently purchased cross-country skis. I was living in Quincy, Mass., near Boston, and Wessel lived a little south of me, in Hull. He’d moved from the Netherlands only a few months earlier for work (medical diagnostics).

Wessel is a big long-distance ice skater, but he’d only recently learned to ski, and he’d never snowshoed. That winter of 2002-3 had been wonderful for snow sports, and I often went to the nearby Blue Hills Reservation to take it all in.

We had first met on Valentine’s Day 2003, at the Delta baggage carousel at Logan Airport in Boston. Two weeks later, we met up for coffee, but mostly it was for an interview for the little ditty I wrote about his crazy ice-skating odyssey for my Boston Globe travel column. Our first “real” date was on March 8, 2003.

Diane takes a break

Diane takes a break

The activities were my idea. Since he’d only recently begun to ski, I figured we’d be equals on the snow, as I’ve skiied like a beginner for a decade now. And, of course, anyone can snowshoe.

The day was perfect, with deep snow, brilliantly blue skies, and little wind. We skied first, gliding slowly over the mostly flat trails, flanked with evergreens and bare branches. The snow sparkled. We talked and laughed and shared life stories.

Out in the Blue Hills as long as daylight allowed us

We didn't leave the Blue Hills until the moon started to rise

The snowshoe portion was all laughs. Wessel thought the sport, featuring giant foot coverings like tennis racquets, was pretty hilarious. We walked through the woods, creating our own trails as we went, then climbed up a hill to a rocky outcrop, where we could see the Boston skyline. We sat on a huge slab of granite to eat our sandwiches and I remember feeling the energy zing between us. I didn’t want the day to end. We left under a rising moon.

I invited Wessel to stay for dinner, figuring, sadly, that he probably had other plans, or had had enough for one date. Instead, he said yes. Woo-hoo! I cooked a simple pasta dish, and we shared a bottle of red wine. We talked and talked and hugged and hugged, and Wessel left around 1 a.m.

We started falling in love that day, and it hasn’t stopped.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my dear. Happy Valentine’s to all.

Tiptoe through the tulips with us

February 13, 2009
Dutch tulip fields nearby the Keukenhof in the Netherlands

Tulip fields nearby the famed Keukenhof display garden, south of Amsterdam

Why buy roses when you can have tulips? I love wild roses and garden roses, but the kind sold in stores leave me wanting … for tulips. So when you’re shopping for your sweetie for Valentine’s Day, consider the tulip, the best Dutch treat on the planet. I’ve long admired tulips, but now that I’m in a half-Dutch household, it’s our official flower.

Flowers are cut for preservation of the tulip bulbs

Most Dutch tulip farmers cut the blooms in order to later export the bulbs

Here’s a short history. The tulip was originally a wild flower, growing in Central Asia, and first cultivated by the Turks as early as 1000 AD. It was introduced in Western Europe and the Netherlands in the 17th century by Carolus Clusius, a biologist from Vienna. He became director of the Hortus Botanicusthe oldest botanical garden in Europe, one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe, at the University of Leiden, where, incidentally, I studied Dutch in 2005. (Notice I didn’t say I learned it.) His plantings marked the beginning of the incredible tulip bulb fields still famous in Holland today. If you’ve never seen them, add that to your life list.

200902_21_tulips

This year's Valentine's tulips

In case you were wondering, the word tulip comes from the Turkish word for turban. The Dutch word is tulp and the plural is tulpen. (Wow, I remembered!)

Wessel and I bought our Valentine’s tulips today. Orange, the Dutch national color. What color did you get?

Paint this hotel bright green

February 11, 2009
The Proximity hotel has 100 solar panels on the roof

The Proximity hotel has 100 solar rooftop panels and oversized windows

Below is a little ditty I wrote for “The Boston Globe” (it ran Feb. 8, 2009) about what could these days be called North Carolina’s most famous lodging: Proximity Hotel, about a hour west of Durham, where I live. Its image even graces the cover of the state’s 2009 travel guide. Proximity’s claim to fame: the country’s most energy efficient hotel, with a LEED Platinum rating. What I have to admit surprised me when I visited in December was its hipster factor. In Greensboro? I had no idea. 

 Office-park setting belies this hotel’s No. 1 green ranking

The US Green Building Council awarded its only platinum award to the Proximity hotel

US Green Building Council awarded its only lodging platinum to Proximity

GREENSBORO, N.C. – It’s a happy coincidence that the greenest hotel in the country is on Green Valley Road in Greensboro.

Last fall, Proximity Hotel was rated the hospitality industry’s most energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable building, earning the US Green Building Council’s only platinum award given to a hotel.

The hotel lobby

Sweeping view of hotel lobby

While the hotel’s setting in an urban office park doesn’t scream green, its construction and operation do, allowing it to use 40 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than a comparable hotel, according to owner Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels, a local company. Proximity’s dozens of sustainable features include oversized windows for natural light, 100 solar rooftop panels, and an elevator that generates electricity on its way down.

The City Suite

The "City Suite," one of the largest rooms

Even its popular restaurant, Print Works Bistro, has risen to the challenge with such innovations as the use of geothermal energy for the refrigeration equipment and oven hoods that use sensors to set the power according to the kitchen’s needs.

The unsuspecting guest or diner will see only a high-design ultrachic hotel and restaurant, but the hotel staff is happy to give a behind-the-scenes tour. It’s almost enough to forgive Proximity’s use of disposable toiletry bottles instead of dispensers.

Proximity Hotel and Print Works Bistro, 704 Green Valley Road, Greensboro, N.C., 800-379-8200, 336-379-8200, http://www.proximityhotel.com/. Doubles start at $249.

The worst speed traps? They’re in Florida

February 9, 2009

Billboard on US Highway 301 S. warning drivers about Lawtey's speed trap

Danger, danger. If you’re among the flock of snowbirds driving from the Great White North to Florida this winter and you wisely opt for the scenic, less-trafficked route along US Highway 301 South from Baldwin to Gainesville or Ocala, beware that you will pass two notorious speed traps.

Before you reach the towns of Waldo and Lawtey (20 miles apart), which use speeding-violation fines to fill their coffers, you’ll see billboards giving fair warning. While unsigned, the billboards are paid for by the American Automobile Association.

Police officer with speed gun just over Lawtey city limits. We took this in September 2010.

“Waldo and Lawtey are the only two municipalities in the US recognized by AAA as traffic traps,” Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South, told me today. While AAA designates some other towns as a “strict enforcement” area for speeders, only Waldo and Lawtey have the not-so-complimentary speed-trap label.  “The distinction comes when the municipality exceeds a certain level of its budget funded exclusively by traffic tickets. We’re not sure exactly what theirs is, but we know they’re high.”

Earlier newspaper reports have put the towns’ ticketing income at a third of their budgets. And an ABC News report last July said that in Lawtey, population 700, police officers in 2007 wrote nearly 9,000 tickets, netting the town $300,000. That’s more than 25 tickets a day!

The police response is always “We’re just making sure people are safe.”

According to earlier articles, AAA pressed the Florida Department of Transportation to at least give drivers more warning. Now there are markers saying “speed strictly enforced.” In Lawtey and Waldo’s defense (though I think they deserve their bad reputations), they’ve erected pre-speed signs highlighted with brightly colored reflective strips that warn of impending speed reductions, from 65 gradually down to 30. I drive this route enough to know they’re not kidding.

If you get nailed, see hints on fighting speed-trap tickets at the National Motorists Association’s site at www.speedtrap.org. And of course we’d love to hear your speed-trap stories.