Archive for the ‘Consumer rave’ Category

The dish on visiting Replacements in NC

May 24, 2014

I’d always wanted to do a story on Replacements, but had no idea it would be sooooo much fun! Here’s my article, which originally ran in the Washington Post on April 27, 2014, and has since been reprinted in several other newspapers. Details for visiting are below the story. The kicker: I was cleaning out the basement after this ran and discovered yet another box of inherited crystal, worth enough money to warrant a return visit. This time I’m making a point of meeting owner Bob Page. Can’t wait!

By Diane Daniel

Replacements’ 12,000-square-foot retail store and museum near Greensboro, N.C., is open to the public, with free guided tours through the warehouse

Replacements’ 12,000-square-foot retail store and museum near Greensboro, N.C., is open to the public, with free guided tours through the warehouse

When Laurie Oliver, running the sellers’ counter at Replacements, Ltd., said that it might take 90 minutes to process my six plastic tubs of china, silver and crystal, my first thought was, I’m pretty sure I’ll need more time than that.

For years, I’d driven past the gigantic showroom and warehouse (“the size of eight football fields!” according to the Web site), visible along Interstate 85 just east of Greensboro, N.C., thinking that I wanted to drop in. Not because I like to shop (I don’t), but because the scale and mission of the place fascinate me. The aptly named company maintains the world’s largest inventory of old and new china, crystal, silver and collectibles – some 12 million pieces representing more than 400,000 patterns. Broke your Margarete Bridal Rose salad plate? Look no further. Want some cash for your Spiegelau Aida water goblet? Step right up.

The bulk of the company’s dealings, both buying and selling, occur online, on the phone, and through parcel delivery. But for more than 55,000 annual visitors, Replacements transforms into much more than a center of commerce. I experienced it as a dog park, a gay rights center, an inventory-handling machine, a tableware museum and a place of worship – or at least profound appreciation – for benevolent leader Bob Page.

The rainbow flag flies under the Replacements logo. Owner and founder Bob Page is known as a gay rights leader locally and statewide.

The rainbow flag flies under the Replacements logo. Owner and founder Bob Page is known as a gay rights leader locally and statewide.

I started my unofficial tour in the back parking lot (non-selling visitors typically use the front door). I’d dutifully made the recommended sellers’ appointment and had identified my inherited china patterns. But I’d also brought a hodgepodge of indeterminate crystal and items that I hoped were actually silver. (Prices are based on supply and demand.)

The first thing I noticed was the tall pole holding two flapping flags – one stamped with the Replacements logo and the other covered in rainbow stripes, the universal gay symbol. Owner Page, once closeted, is now known as a gay rights leader locally and statewide, a bold proclamation for a mainstream business owner in these parts.

As I was unloading my boxes onto a cart, two employees passed by, one walking a black Lab and the other a Pomeranian, lending truth to the sign on the door that reads, “Well-behaved pets welcome.” Staffers told me that though dogs rule, visitors have also brought cats on leashes and even a pot-bellied pig.

After Oliver explained the drill, she cut me loose to play. I followed the yellow tape on the floor down a long corridor in a warehouse toward the retail showroom, passing row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with china, crystal and some collectibles. (Hummels, anyone?)



FatCat Travel Charger is the cat’s meow

October 7, 2012

One of the themes of my last cycling/camping trip was the ongoing search for outlets to charge my iPhone. I couldn’t believe how many Massachusetts state forest campgrounds didn’t have outlets – even in the restrooms!. So every time we’d stop to eat anywhere, I’d plug in for as long as I could. It was stressful! A fellow rider had packed a portable travel charger, which I coveted all week. (He did generously offer to let me borrow it.)

FatCat Travel Charger recharges iPhone

So what arrives in my email a week later but an invitation to test a FatCat Travel Charger. This is an offer I couldn’t refuse! The series includes three options, the ChargeCard ($49.95), a 2-ounce card that gives a smart phone one full charge, a PowerBar 4200 ($69.95), weighing 4 ounces and good for two and a half smart phone or iPod charges, and a PowerBar 9600 ($119.95), made with iPads in mind and charging iPhones three and a half times. Of course it works on non-Apple products, too.

I tried the PowerBar 4200, and, yes, it works well (charge/usage lengths are accurate), and it’s even stylish (not essential but a plus). My challenge now is deciding where to keep it. I have chargers in my cars and at home, so I might keep it with my oft-used travel gear. I plan another bicycle/camping trip next summer, and you can bet that the FatCat will be along for the ride.

My iPhone took a trip without me

September 8, 2012

UPDATE: Never got news of phone, so replaced it with another 4s, though so tempted to get a 5! Every bit of my data was saved! Woo-hoo!

Well, my iPhone 4s went on a little adventure without me. I’d love to know the places it went and the people it saw. Siri, fill me in!

Frank and Sabrina, in a rare moment of calm here, agreed to accept partial blame in exchange for a treat

I traveled from Tampa, FL, to my home in Durham, NC, in a day, which is about 11 hours of driving, including the slowdowns during the notorious speed-trap zone along US 301 in Florida. I was operating on three hours sleep because my dang dogs were restless all night. In fact, I’m blaming the entire fiasco on them, because they distracted and exhausted me all day and because they’re dogs, so they can’t read this and disagree.

I stopped for gas near Florence, SC, and did the usual routine. Gas for the Honda, bathroom for me, bathroom and a walk for Frank and Sabrina, another bathroom stop for me, and then I decided to crack open a Dr Pepper to perk me up. Somewhere along the line I’d put my phone on the hood of the car. Uh-huh, you know where this is going.

Diane shows off her durable but not at all snazzy waterproof iPhone case

Accelerating back onto I-95, I heard a crack on my back windshield and saw an oddly shaped thing bouncing on the pavement. “Weird, I thought. That came out of nowhere.” A few miles later, I glanced to where I keep my phone. Empty. Not good. I fished around, realized I needed to go back, then remembered that unidentified flying object: my phone, of course. The good things were: I knew roughly where it fell and my phone is protected by a heavy-duty waterproof and shock-resistant case.

I had to go 12 miles back to the exit. Just as I was exiting off the highway I saw that a man had pulled over right where I think my phone bounced. It appeared he had just picked something up in the street and was getting back into his pickup truck. I pulled over. I honked. I screamed. But there was no chance he could hear me over six lanes of rushing traffic and a highway median. Do I know he got my phone? Nope. Coulda been a coincidence. I went to the scene of the crime and saw nothing. Maybe it bounced into tall grass? Maybe the guy had it? I have my contact info on the back of my phone, but no one has called. I took another exit and a nice hotel clerk let me use the phone. I called my lovely Lina, who went through the iCloud system and blocked data access. Later I called AT&T and deactivated my number. I did try the phone location service, but it said the phone was “off line” even though it rang.

Things I did right: Block access as soon as possible. Subscribed to iCloud from the beginning. My contacts are all updated online and I can load them onto a new phone. Most of my photos had been downloaded by Lina. Still I lost some. Put ID on my phone, not that it helped this time.

Things I did wrong: That’s easy — leaving my phone on the car roof! And maybe that I didn’t get insurance, but iPhone prices are falling very soon with a new model coming out, so that’s a silver lining!

Warm mouse, warm hands, warm outlook

December 19, 2010

ValueRays® Warm Mouse

Finally, relief!

I’ve written before about my cold extremities, partly due to Raynaud’s Syndrome. My toes and fingers can get nearly frost nipped at home, with the heat on. It’s crazy. Of course sitting at my desk is the worst because I’m just sitting there. Last year I acquired heated booties (via USB cord), which has helped greatly. I still might some day get a heated foot pad.

ValueRays® Mouse Hand Warmer

This year I tackled the hands, and I’m now the proud owner of a heated mouse and a blanket pouch for said mouse. I did not get the heated version of the blanket pouch, but there is one of those too and I’m pondering another purchase. The company, called ValueRays, also sells heated keyboard wrist pads, mouse pads, and other computer peripherals, all emitting USB infrared heat.

I had a brief exchange with the owner, Anna Miller, who lives in California, who first introduced the mouse in October 2008. She’d run an e-commerce business for years, all the time with cold hands. When she started specializing in heated computer gadgets, folks told her she was crazy. Hmmm, must have been those warm-blooded men. Now her products are used by regular folks as well as sufferers of Raynauds, arthritis, carpal tunnel, and a host of other ailments.

Not to sound too dramatic, but my mouse and blanket have changed my life! I first discovered the mouse on eBay, and here’s Anna’s website with all the products. Happy (and warm) shopping!

You’ll get a charge out of this

November 29, 2010

The Fatcat ChargeCard

I don’t do much product testing, because, frankly, there are just way too many products out there in the world. But the Fatcat ChargeCard distributed by Mango International appealed to me, and so I gave it a try.

The just-under 2-x4-inch device, billed as the lightest, slimmest portable charger available, allows you to charge your gadgets on the go, especially helpful if you can’t find a power source, don’t have time to sit there while charging, or are in a country or outdoor setting where power is unavailable. The card weighs 2 ounces and is a quarter of an inch thick. It has a 2000 mAh lithium battery, twice the capacity of the typical cell phone battery, and comes outfitted with tips to fit a variety of popular cell phones, smartphones, iPods, GPS units, etc.

When I opened the bag that came with the card, the array of plastic connectors made me shudder. Yep, we have way too many products and gadgets and not enough standardization.

So after giving it a try, here’s what I’ve concluded. If you are usually working on the road, this is a product to consider purchasing. I’ve seen it sold online from $30 to $50. Of course you have to keep the charger charged, and you have to remember to bring it with you. If you’re not on the road that much, it’s probably not worth the hassle, except in those cases where you wish you had it with you. That’s the thing with gadgets.

Cold feet? The answer is in the bag

December 1, 2009

The `voetenwarmzak` is the perfect antidote for cold feet

Wessel’s parents have the most amazing solution for cold feet of the literal kind — an electric “voetenwarmzak” — a “warm sack” for your feet. I borrowed it when we visited the Familie Kok in the Netherlands last week and was in heaven. And now I’m trying to find a similar product in the US, which uses 110 voltage instead of the 220 the Dutch version come in. Can anyone help me?

Here’s a new Dutch model online, for $47. When I Googled all sorts of word combinations of English words, I found nothing close to the “sack.” I could, of course, buy the Dutch version and use an electrical converter, but that’s not the safest option.

Moon boots and a space heater are the currently used protective methods

Moon boots and a space heater are the currently used protective methods

In case you’re wondering, my feet are generally fine except when I’m sitting at my desk not getting any circulation, which is a lot of the time. I wear Sierra Designs puffy boots, which we call  my moon boots, but even they don’t do the job. I also use a space heater and sometimes rest my feet on a heating pad, but nothing has kept them truly warm — until the voetenwarmzak! I must find one!

When Mother Nature checked in for the night

July 30, 2009

I arrived at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Concord, NC, (just north of Charlotte) last week all happy. I had my work planned out for the next day and life was good. I’m not sure I’d ever stayed at a Hampton Inn, and I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was. Funky little artistic touches, everything was clean, the free wireless worked, the lobby was inviting. People were even hanging out there.

Man balances on his heels wading through the water

Guest entering second-floor room practices feet-raised-through-puddle maneuver

About half an hour later, a giant storm blew up, first thunder and lightening, then driving rain, and then hail. Being a storm lover, I had to go see it for myself. I was on the fifth floor, the top, and took the elevator down to the lobby. I was alone, save for a guy puffing away on his cigarette. Rain poured down in sheets and lightening crackled. I clung to the cement post, thinking, if this were metal, I would not be out here.

The storm waxed and waned a couple times and finally I headed back to my room, commenting to the desk clerk, “That was a great storm!” She said something like, “are you kidding me?” Then she relayed what I said to someone else behind the desk.

All hotel guests were evacuated after the fire alarm went off

All hotel guests were evacuated until firefighters could check out the situation

Soon, I understood her reaction. Further down the hall, water was pouring down a wall. Pouring. A guest in the hall said, “you should see the second floor.” I walked toward the two elevators and one had water dripping down the outside. I took the stairs. The hallway was under water. Not a lot at all, but still. Ick. Thirty minutes later the fire alarm went off and we were all evacuated for 30 minutes or so until firefighters arrived to decide whether we could stay.

Guest are leaving for dryer grounds

Some guests had to leave for a drier hotel

One couple I talked to had taken the elevator pre-evacuation and once they reached their floor, the doors wouldn’t open. Somehow they managed to pull them open. Yikes! I used to have major elevator paranoia, so the thought of that freaks me out. Meanwhile, several of the ceiling panels buckled under the weight of the water from the second floor, which now had fully flowed to the first-floor hallway and part of the lobby.

The firefighters has a busy night in Concord

The Hampton Inn was but one of the many stops firefighters had on this stormy night

Long story short, the firefighters gave us the OK to return to our rooms, though most people on the first two floors had to go to a different hotel, which the Hampton Inn folks arranged for them. I heard different theories as to why the leaks occurred, but never anything official. Bottom line: too much water came down in too short of a time. There were flash floods all over Concord, as well as a few other evacuations.

I was in bed by 1 a.m., thinking, no way will we be getting breakfast. Wrong. In the morning, except for damp carpet and barrels under holes in the ceiling, everything was in order, with fresh coffee brewing and food laid out. Amazing. I heard several customers checking out, with the desk clerk offering them a full credit for their stay —  and several of them refusing! That is a powerful testament to the notion that if you treat customers right, they’re much less likely to be cranky. (Airlines, take note.)

Giant fans and dehumidifiers were used to dry the hallways

Industrial-strength fans and dehumidifiers were used to dry the hallways and rooms

By the next morning, a disaster-response company called Advance Catastrophe Technologies  was there in full force, drying the hallways and rooms with giant fans and dehumidifiers. It was a class act. Because the Hampton Inn is a franchise operation under the Hilton umbrella, I can’t speak to others, but the Concord site did things right. Though no one, of course, can control what happens when Mother Nature checks in for the night. 

She can’t believe it’s accessible

June 30, 2009

I share my blog today with Candy B. Harrington, a fellow member in the Society of American Travel Writers, who is an expert on accessible travel, from people using wheelchairs to slow walkers. Her slogan: Have Disability, Will Travel, and she’s giving us a Top-10 list of little-known accessible places. I haven’t met Candy, who writes from California, but for years I’ve been impressed with her work and uncompromising dedication to her topic. In the world of travel, staying uncompromised is a major feat. She recently released the third edition of her classic book “Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts And Bolts Guide For Wheelers And Slow Walkers.” From the book site, you can check out Candy’s own blog. Photos (except Lake Powell)  are by Mr. Candy, aka Charles Pannell.

Heeeeeere’s, Candy:

Candy Harrington with her favorite chicken Agnes

Candy Harrington with her favorite chicken, Agnes

During the past 16 years I’ve traveled the world in search of appropriate vacation choices for my readers. Although they have a wide range of tastes, preferences and budgets, my readers all have one thing in common; for the most part they are physically disabled — slow walkers to wheelchair-users.

Over the course of my travels I’ve seen a good number of accessible hotels, attractions, resorts, spas and even bus tours, but I’ve also discovered some unconventional accessible finds along the way. These are the things, that really made me step back and say “Wow, I can’t believe they made that accessible.” And although I keep adding to my wow list, here’s my current Top 10.

View of Yaquina Head Tidepools

Walkways lead to Yaquina Head tide pools

Yaquina Head tide pools

Located just three miles north of Newport, Ore., this Bureau of Reclamation project features barrier-free access on paved walkways down into the Quarry Cove tidepool area.


Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens

These gardens in Richmond, Va.,  feature a cool treehouse with ramped access to all areas. Think Swiss Family Robinson on steroids.

White Water Rafting

In Northern California, everyone can enjoy white water rafting on the American River, thanks to the folks at Environmental Traveling Companions. This San Francisco based company can accommodate wheelchair-users (even folks who use a power wheelchair) and slow walkers on their exciting white water rating trips.

Aerial view from Lake Powell (photo Wikipedia)

Lake Powell (photo Wikipedia)

Houseboating on Lake Powell

Forever Resorts  offers a wheelchair-accessible houseboat on Lake Powell, in Utah. You can rent the houseboat for a few days or a week. The accessible model features level boarding, a bathroom with a roll-in shower, an oversized master suite complete with a portable hoyer lift, elevator access to the top deck and a beach wheelchair.

C&O Canal Boat

Docked at the Great Falls Tavern, near Potomac, Md., the replica Charles F. Mercer canal boat features incline lift access to both decks and an accessible restroom on the lower deck. The canal boat is pulled along by mules and offers passengers a colorful look at 1870s canal life.

Baja Sport Fishing

Larry Cooper designed his En Caliente  sport fishing boat with access in mind. Docked in Los Barriles, Mexico, it features removable lockdowns, hoist access to the flying bridge and custom tackle designed for anglers of all abilities.

Wheelchair-accessible back country lean-tos at John Dillon Park

Accessible lean-tos at John Dillon Park

Adirondack Camping

John Dillon Park , near Tupper Lake in upstate New York, features wheelchair-accessible back country lean-tos.

African Safari

Endeavour Safaris  offers wheelchair-accessible safaris in a ramped Toyota Landcruiser, through Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa.

In a Cavern

Billed as America’s only ride through caverns, Fantastic Caverns  features ramped access to their tour vehicles. Just roll-on and enjoy this cool site near Springfield, Mo.

Bungy Jumping

If you want a little adventure, the folks at Taupo Bungy  in New Zealand can accommodate you. It takes very little adaptive equipment, but a whole lot of guts!

Thanks, Candy. The world of travel (and beyond) needs you and your advocacy work!

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.

This Alamo is worth remembering

March 23, 2009

Remember the Alamo?

I’ve done enough grumbling about rental car agencies that it’s a relief to have something nice to say for a change. A couple days after I got home from a trip to Florida, I realized my credit card was missing. I remembered throwing it on the seat of my rental car after getting gas on the way to return the car, and that’s the last time I’d seen it. 

I called Alamo Rent A Car at Tampa International Airport, where I’d turned in my car two days earlier, to see if the card had been returned. I assumed absolutely nothing would come of the call, until, that is, I spoke with Wini McKee, a customer service rep who organizes the lost-and-found department. Wini said no one had turned in the card, as I expected, but then she went above and beyond to track the car using my reservation number, call the people who were then renting it (!), and ask if they had found the card. They had! They were turning the car in the next day and said they would turn in the card. Wini mailed my credit card back to me immediately.

A little aside. When my card was turned in, Wini had initially forgotten I was the one she had talked to about it. So she called me to say my card had been found. Which is to say, even I hadn’t known it was lost, Wini would have tracked me down to say it had been found.

Some of this is about Alamo’s policy, not just Wini’s. But it takes conscientious employees to follow a company’s policy. Wini has worked at the company for 15 years, and in Tampa for about five, around when Alamo decided to have a bona-fide lost-and-found. Before, “it was a complete disaster,” said Wini, who ably whipped things into shape. Some of the items she’s reunited with their owners: wallets filled with cash, digital cameras, glasses, retainers, and hearing aids. “I find that most customers are honest and will report things found in the cars.”

Thanks to Wini, Alamo, and their honest customers for inspiring me to write a positive car-rental story for once.