Archive for May, 2009

I’d love to get paid to go on vacation, too

May 28, 2009
A peak behind-the-scenes of a travel writer

Does this look like a vacation?

I really appreciated this piece  “Frugal Traveler” Matt Gross wrote for his New York Times blog. Titled “Research: The Traveler’s Best Friend,” it’s an exhaustive list of his favorite sources, from books to online sites to friends and friends of friends. I could certainly relate to his strategies.

But here’s what I really liked about it. As someone who teaches travel writing, and as a writer who often has to respond to people who say: “You have my dream job!” Matt’s piece gives some insight into what a travel writer actually does. Namely, a lot of researching. Sure we travel, and I’m not complaining about that. But like every “glamour job” (actor, chef, TV anchor), there are so many misconceptions about the work involved. It’s hard work, crazy hours, and a lot of behind-the-scenes dirty work. It’s work! Fun work, but absolutely work.

Diane works on her notes during a camping trip in early April

Taking notes while camping in a swamp for a story on Roanoke River Paddle Trail

So the next time someone says to me, “I’d love to get paid to go on vacation!” (like you do, Diane) well, I’ll, I’ll … send them to Matt’s post and say, does that sound like a vacation to you? And Matt was just writing about before the trip, not the hours of interviewing during the trip, the photographing and sometimes taping, all the fact checking, and, oh yeah, sitting on your butt and writing for days on end. Also, many/most writers aren’t reimbursed for all or even some expenses. Having written for the Times, where I was in fact reimbursed fully, I assume Matt is. (While it’s true that some writers take freebies, there are also some of us who don’t ever, or rarely do.)

Taking of notes never stops

Writing while riding on Tammany Trace bike trail in Louisiana. (Oops, no helmet!)

A few other morsels from Matt, these during a Q&A with fellow career vacationer, I mean travel writer, Rolf Potts,  at his blog, Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding:

Rolf: What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?

Matt: There’s no way I could do this job if I weren’t married to a woman with a good, stable job. I’d be homeless. Seriously.

Diane (not that Rolf asked me): I don’t agree that travel writers need partners, but it would be a harder life, especially if you wrote only about travel. Which leads me to another thing Matt said, which I also disagree with.

Rolf: What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?

Immersion journalism for story on hot-springs pool in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

Immersion journalism for story on hot-springs pool in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

Matt: Go into travel before you go into travel writing. You should know how to cross a land border, book plane tickets in a language you don’t speak and befriend the old lady who squints evilly from the second-story window at everyone who passes by. In other words, if you’re just after paid vacations, then you’re going to have a tough time.

Diane: I shouldn’t say I completely disagree, but what I would say is: Go into WRITING before you go into travel writing. Travel writers are writers. Writers can (and often want to) write about most anything. During different points in my 25-year writing career, I’ve written about (and sometimes still do write about): music, art, food, personality profiles, environmental issues, and more. Learning the beat, in this case travel, is the easy part. Learning to research, interview, report, fact-check, write, edit, edit some more … not so easy. 

As for the paid vacation part, believe me, if you even attempt to write about a vacation for publication, it won’t feel like a vacation anymore.

I love my work, but it’s work! So if you figure out how to get paid to go on vacation, please let me know!


To Delta: it shouldn’t be so difficult

May 26, 2009

I’m fuming about Delta‘s online SkyMiles redemption, which took us 2.5 hours to complete. That was half our afternoon.

Amsterdam, a pie in the sky?

How hard could it be to get to Amsterdam on the same flight? Very, it seemed.

Wessel and I tried to book November flights to Amsterdam  by sitting side by side at our respective laptops, plugging in the same information. On most tries different flights were showing up on our screens. We’d try again and then a new set of flights would show than before, and again different on each of our screens. Ridiculous. So we called to make reservations on the phone — for $20 a pop. We were still working online as well, and voila, we each got the same flights on our screens. So we decided to go ahead and book our flights online. We were plugging in our info. and I was actually ahead of him. Just as I entered my credit card info., it said the flight was no longer available. However, it went through on his end.

Booking two Delta tickets online turned out to be a  heavy lifting activity

It takes heavy lifting to book two matching Delta awards tickets online

So now I was locked out and he had a flight. I tried a few more times. Nothing. So I called customer service and asked if we could change his flight and we’d start over with a new itinerary and book both our flights on the phone. To change his flight would be $100, they said, and they wouldn’t waive it, though they had the power to. I spoke with a supervisor who finally, after hearing me cite “total unfairness” a dozen times, said “since you booked online, the online department can void the transaction.” Um, thanks for telling me — finally!

Of course, who knew if the the online department *would* cancel the transition. Guess what? They did! I think mostly because Wessel is a “silver platinum member.” That seemed to impress them.

Good Goes Around! Really?

Delta should practice what it preaches and spread a little goodness around

So, we started over. This time on the phone. No way were we going through that online hell again. I got a totally on-the-ball agent who, after going through some similar frustrations we did, booked us tickets. Wouldn’t you know that the number of miles needed went up on one of them. Just like that.

Here’s what really bugs me. Delta charges $20 to book on the phone instead of online, but it’s impossible to book two matching tickets online. Grrrr….

Moral of story: if you’re trying to get on the same flight but paying separately, HOLD one, don’t buy it, until you know you can get the other. However, does a hold really guarantee a price? I have my doubts.

Bottom line: It shouldn’t be this difficult. It’s disgusting to charge $20 to book on the phone when booking online seems impossible. This is why I fly only Southwest when possible. No fees for changing flights. No phone fees. No second-bag fee, for that matter. I LUV Southwest even more now.

America’s most famous farm welcomes you

May 20, 2009
Polyface is located in Swoope, VA nearby Staunton

Polyface is near Staunton, Va., in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley

UPDATE for 2010: There’s now a tour fee of $10.50 for everyone age 13 and higher, and now more tours. Well worth it!

Want a guided tour of, arguably, the country’s most famous farm? Well, it’s yours for the asking, and for free if you plan way ahead.

Many folks have heard of Polyface Farm, run by the Salatin family. Patriarch Joel has become a broc star (get it? though, OK, it’s not a produce farm) after being one of the featured farms in Michael Pollan in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a critique of industrial farming. Polyface will be known even further and wider with the release next month of the documentary “Food, Inc,” which paints Joel, once again, as a prophet among demons.

Daniel Salatin welcomes visitors on the farm tour

Daniel Salatin welcomes visitors to Polyface's first free farm tour of 2009

While I’d read much about Joel and Polyface, only when I went deep into the farm’s website did I see that, along with fee-based tours, they give monthly freebies. Also, visitors are welcome to the farm any day but Sunday to do a free self-guided tour. But that’s not half as fun as being escorted by a Salatin and sharing the experience with 80 or so other devotees, including other farmers, groups of college students, and just regular curious folks like us.

Childhood friend Cindy Quick (right) joined Diane on the farm tour

Childhood friend Cindy Quick Wilson (right) joined Diane on the farm tour

I thought the tour would make a great story, and was lucky enough to snag a Washington Post assignment. I made reservations months in advance. We were joined by my childhood friend Cindy Quick Wilson, who lives near Roanoke. That was a very awesome addition to the day. I used to stay on her family’s farm as a young ‘un.

Well, here’s the bad news. After my article was published, on May 6, the free tours for the rest of 2009 filled up. Sorry folks! But if you make a note and in January sign up for a 2010 tour, you’re in!

80-some visitors enjoyed a free farm tou

Some 80 visitors joined the tour

Our tour, the first of the season, on March 20, was led by Joel’s son, Daniel, who was totally engaging and almost as animated as his father is. Joel usually leads these tours himself, but he was off on one of his many speaking engagements. We went from the open-bottom broiler cages to the pig-aerators (exciting!), then to see grass-fed cows in pasture, and, finally, to the brooder (chicken nursery), teeming with 3,000 adorable day-old peeping chicks. In three weeks, these broilers would be out in the fields. Five weeks later, they’d be ready for slaughter. Let us not forget where we are.

If you want to read the Post story, it’s here. Tour sign-up and area travel info is here. If you’re itching to see a  farm photo slideshow by my wonderful photographer and partner Wessel Kok, that’s here (along with a few Staunton photos and what-not). And if you want to tell us about other great farm tours, please do so! If they’re in North Carolina, I’ll consider them for my upcoming guidebook, Farm Fresh North Carolina.  Keep our farms alive!


I’m back in LUV with Southwest

May 18, 2009
Diane is back in business as Southwest's ambassador

Diane is officially back in business as Southwest's ambassador

If you’ll recall from a previous posting, Wessel, and I had Southwest Airlines dividend miles we couldn’t use before they expired in early May. Then we learned that one can extend the miles for a year for $50. Not a bad deal!

When I called to extend mine in Feb. I was told that the one-year extension started the day I requested it instead of a year from the expiration date, so would expire Feb. 19, 2010. That would be in effect cutting three months off my rewards time! So I chose to wait and call back in May, so it would be good until May 2010.

Southwest airplanes at Tampa International Airport

Airplanes at Tampa International Airport

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. Even I called and pleaded his case, to no avail, though I was encouraged to write a letter to Customer Service.

Meanwhile, being a travel writer and all, I complained about the policy to a Southwest media relations person. What I loved about his response was 1) he didn’t try to gloss things over and 2) he wasn’t offering me special favors. I always hate when I’m offered a favor because I’m “press.” What I want is for policies to change for everyone. Special treatment to me doesn’t help anyone but me.

Here’s part of his reply:

Apologies were expressed for a policy not in the `Spirit` of Southwest

A forgiving customer service department honored the spirit of Southwest

“The truth is, we don’t receive many complaints about this policy, and it is very unusual for one of our Agents to misinform our Members of the expiration date. (He also later apologized for that misinformation.) In fact, we often hear from our Members who praise us for the generous policy of extending the Awards for a $50 fee. …. Unfortunately, we can’t make an exception to our rules — if we did it for one, in all fairness, we would need to do it for all, and I’m afraid that’s not something we can do. We’re terribly sorry we’ve disappointed such a long-time, happy Customer, and we hope that you and Wessel will have the opportunity to take a trip before your Awards expire.”

200905_34_SouthwestJust for fun, I wrote a letter to Customer Service anyway, as a customer not a media person. A week later, they called! They gave Wessel the extra time! They made an exception for a loyal customer! That was cool. Even the media guy was surprised when I later emailed him with the news.

All is forgiven. I’m back to LUVing Southwest. Phew.

Forget blue, what about Carolina oranje?

May 12, 2009
The Netherlands has had queens for more than a century

The Netherlands has had queens for more than a century

While the Dutch celebrate Queen’s Day in the Netherlands on April 30, here in the middle of North Carolina the Dutchies celebrate it when they have a nearby available weekend.

Here what it’s called in Dutch: Koninginnedag. I have yet to master that pronunciation. Want to give it a try after listening to this lesson?

Diane and Queen Beatrix go head to head at Dehullu sculpture park in Gees

Diane and Queen Beatrix go head to head at Dehullu sculpture park in Gees

We don’t have anything in the US to compare to Queen’s Day. It’s a day that the royal family, who represent the “House of Orange,” which is a family line and not an “oranje huis,” or house painted orange, come out and play with the common folks. (Sadly this year’s festivities were marred by a loony-toon who drove into a crowd in the city of Apeldoorn, killing seven people and himself.) The whole country parties, but Amsterdam really goes wild.

Though the Royals once took an important leadership role in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, they now are largely symbolic though still admired. Queen Beatrix especially still plays an important part in uniting the country in times of turmoil. And of course the royals keep the paparazzi and gossip rags busy.

Orange was the dominant color during celebrations of De Wieken

Orange dominated De Wieken feest

So every year, no doubt in Dutch clubs around the world, expatriates gather to celebrate their homeland. On Saturday, Wessel and about 40 others from De Wieken (wings of the windmill) Club gathered in Raleigh in their finest orange to dine atop orange tablecloths, and wave the Dutch flag, which in fact is red, white, and blue. They played Dutch trivia (Wessel’s team won!) and then sjoelen (pronounced SHOE-len), a century-plus-old shuffle-board type game.

Special cake to celebrate Queen's Day

Special cake to celebrate Queen's Day

Next on De Wieken’s list is our favorite event, the yearly rijsttafel, featuring Indonesian dishes that the Dutch first started eating after they invaded and colonized the archipelago in the 1600s. Regular readers will recall that Wessel won top prize for his “hete eieren,” or hot eggs. What will he cook up this year? He’s not even telling the royals.

Lang leve de koningin! Hoera! Hoera! Hoera!

Sweets for the sweet (that’s you!)

May 6, 2009

This just in (June 2009)! Dean’s Sweets won  a “Best of New England 2009” award  from Yankee Magazine and a “Best of Portland” 2009 award from the Portland Phoenix. Yee-haw!!!!

Dear Chocolate fans (i.e. the world),

Truffles from Dean`s Sweets

They're as good as they look

I know this is hard to believe, but I’m going to keep this short and sweet, just like Dean’sSweets’ “extraordinary hand-dipped” truffles.

That description is taken from the ad copy, yes. But it’s true! These amazing truffles are sold at a store in the historic seaport of Portland, Maine, and online. Dean’sSweets says Mother’s Day is a great time to buy truffles. I say: ANY day is a great day to buy truffles.

Kristin Thalheimer and Dean Bingham in their new store on 82 Middle Street in Portland, Maine

Dean Bingham and his lovely assistant, Kristin Thalheimer

Now here’s my full disclosure. I know Dean (Bingham) and his sweet and lovely wife, Kristin. But here’s my other disclosure. If I didn’t love Dean’s truffles, no way would I be singing their praises. And I’m not doing it to get a free lifetime supply of truffles because, guess what? I already basically have one. In fact, I’ve been wanting to write about the “new” store, which opened in November, but it’s taken Dean and Kristin this long to get photos to me. Why? Because they’re so busy making and selling truffles, of course!

I’ve always loved, loved, loved chocolate, and when I tasted my first Dean’sSweets truffle, I was in heaven. But then I thought, maybe all truffles taste like this and these are nothing special. So I started tasting truffles at every opportunity. And here’s the outcome of my reporting: Dean’s are indeed very, very special. Dean, a professional, working architect, is as precise and artistic with his little chocolate creations as he is with his much bigger buildings.

Kristin and Dean in their new store on 82 Middle Street in Portland, Maine

Kristin and Dean are waiting for you at 82 Middle Street in Portland, Maine

Dean makes a bunch of flavors, including cinnamon, ginger, orange, coffee, cayenne, and many, many more. For a while I was hooked on cayenne, cinnamon, and ginger. But lately I’ve been loving plain old plain — just the chocolate, thank you. Another of his draws is he uses NO nut products. Personally, I’m nuts for nuts, too, but I realize many of y’all are allergic, and that is a crying shame.

Nicole Chaisson`s Hausfrau graphics decorate the store front

Nicole Chaisson makes her mark at Dean`sSweets

Here’s a cool aside, or maybe even a main/Maine event for you. Artist, and author Nicole Chaisson of Hausfrau Muthah-zine fame, will have her art and ‘zines on the walls and on hand at the shop for a spell. Nicole has a Hausfrau graphic novel coming out next month. Woo-hoo!.

So, OK, this wasn’t so short, but it was sweet. Visit Dean and Kristin in Portland, or order some truffles online. I swear to the goddess of chocolate, you will not be disappointed.

With Troubles over, Northern Ireland thrives

May 4, 2009

“Where They Went,” by Diane Daniel, published April 12, 2009, in the Boston Globe

Trish Gannon (left) and Jean Mello (right) with Paddy, Black Taxi Tour driver in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Trish Gannon (left) and Jean Mello with Paddy, Black Taxi Tour driver in Belfast

WHO: Trish Gannon, 43, of Winchester, and Jean Mello, 43, of Dublin.

WHERE: Northern Ireland.

WHEN: Three days in October.

WHY: Gannon took the opportunity to visit Mello while Mello was living in Dublin as part of her job for a Boston-area bank. The two have been friends since attending College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

GIANT STEPS: Because the weather was nice when Gannon arrived in Dublin, they decided to head right away to Northern Ireland, where one of their prime destinations was Giant’s Causeway, a lunar landscape of interlocking basalt columns and the country’s top tourist destination.

COASTING: ”We booked a coach tour that took us up the coast of Antrim and stopped at sights along the way,” said Gannon, whose ancestry is Irish. “We stopped at castles and sea villages. The coastline was really dramatic.” About half the travelers were American, including US soldiers visiting from their post in Germany. “About 2 miles from Giant’s Causeway, our goal, this nice new bus ran out of gas.” Luckily, they were at the crest of a hill and coasted a mile down to Bushmills, home of the 400-year-old Bushmills Distillery. “We went straight to the gas station and filled up,” she said.

Trish at Giant's Causeway, Antrim Coast

Trish at Giant's Causeway, Antrim Coast

MILITARY INTERVENTION: ”Apparently when any vehicle, especially diesel, runs out of gas, it’s hard to start. It turned out one of the military folks was a maintenance guy for Apache helicopters, and he got it going,” Gannon said. “We took a vote on the bus and decided to skip the distillery and head straight to Giant’s Causeway. Luckily we got there before dark. You could walk all over the formations. It was really amazing.”

Trish Gannon at Belfast Botanic Gardens

Trish Gannon at Belfast Botanic Gardens

BANKING ON TOURISM: The friends stayed at the Hilton Belfast in a newly redeveloped waterfront area. Having visited the city briefly a decade earlier, Gannon was impressed with the progress made in Northern Ireland since the peace accord. “It’s officially a tourist destination now. It’s so hopeful and encouraging. They’re even capitalizing on being where the Titanic was built. There are a lot of new hotels and restaurants, but also the city has a lot of beautiful Victorian buildings, including banks converted to hotels and restaurants.” One of their favorites was the Merchant Hotel. “It was so opulent I couldn’t believe it had been a bank.”

TROUBLES SIGNS: They took a Black Taxi Tour to see political murals and other sights around West Belfast, the center of the Troubles, the decades-long conflict between the country’s nationalist (mostly Roman Catholic) and unionist (Protestant) communities. “It was good to see that some of the murals have been painted over with more contemporary political issues. Many of the schools are integrated now, and there’s more integration in the workplace.”