Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Slow Down

Its Starting to Look a Lot Like Christmas.......

Today I spent a full day admiring the architectural offerings from Chicago's amazing Merchandise Mart. This is the giant private shopping center facing the Chicago River where architects go to shop on behalf of their clients. After a full day spent admiring the elegant fabrics, amazing hardware, and beautiful furniture found on floor after floor, I emerged to see that downtown Chicago had been blanketed with a thick fresh coat of snow. This most energetic of cities was now reduced to a crawl.

Nature just worked its magic, gently refocusing me. 

Time to put work aside and be with those you love.  

Time to celebrate Christmas.   

Holiday Lights Over the Galena Street Bridge 
Aurora, Illinois 

Wishing you the best!

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Come On Get Over It!

Count To 100

Somewhere once I read that Thomas Jefferson had advised that before replying in anger one should "always count to 10, and if very mad, count to 100".

Recently as I was taking my place in the stands for a show at Sea World I overheard a young women with two small kids two rows behind me being politely asked to scoot down in her row. She simply looked at the dark haired, bearded man with his two kids and said "no, I won't and why don't you just take those two kids and go back to your own country". It was kind of like going to a funeral and trying to ignore an open casket, you want to turn away, but feel compelled to turn and look.  When I looked I saw a middle eastern man whose face was morphing from frustration into anger. He simply took a kid in each hand and moved on.

The defiant blond woman who raged at him, just smiled at her kids and said "like I'm gonna move for him!"

As I turned away and I reflected on the heartbreaking lesson four kids had just learned, I was overcome by sadness.

When I travel I am constantly amazed at the little kindnesses shown me when I am obviously lost and befuddled. I worry about the message we as Americans convey to the world's visitors when they come here.

On a recent trip as I walked through O'Hare airport I turned to go down a side corridor to go to a restroom only to find a woman by the phones crying.  Her clothing made it clear she was an international traveler.  When I came back, she was still there. My first inclination would normally be to respect her private moment of sadness. After the events at Sea World, I thought about it, and decided instead to stop and ask her if she needed anything. She looked at me and I"m not sure she understood exactly what I was asking. But judging from the expression I got, she clearly understood what my heart was saying. She nodded a slow no and we sheepishly traded somewhat awkward smiles. It took less than a minute. 

The act seemed entirely appropriate as we enter a season celebrating the birth of the one who instructed us to simply "love one another". 

I believe we can overcome a lot just by being kinder to each other. The alternative is to become that very bitter woman who will eventually be sitting in a row all by herself at Sea World.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Some New Finds

Foodie Stuff

Traveling lately I found a couple of gems to share.

• San Diego

In addition to Point Loma Seafood I am happy to add a few other places for your consideration whilst enjoying San Diego.

First is the San Diego edition of the Oceanaire chain of seafood restaurants.  Located in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter it prepares a fresh sheet of specialty seafood every night.

I have now enjoyed dinners in the Oceanaire's in both Denver and San Diego. I have to say both were great.  The waiter in San Diego was a bit regal, but the food was once again first rate.

In Denver they had Dinah Washington on the muzak and my favorite fish: sablefish (sometimes called butterfish or black cod), so it might be my favorite of the two so far.  I will digress and wax rhapsodic about sablefish. This fish is the perfect replacement for chilean sea bass (which I'd beg you to avoid as it is now a fishery in serious risk of collapse).  In San Diego I had a nice true cod in miso.

One word of advice. Be aware that any one order of salad, any side dish, or desert comfortably feeds THREE hungry folks!  If you avoid a bottle of wine and their overpriced cocktails and divide your appetizer, sides, and desert by three, this place is actually pretty reasonable.

My other find in San Diego is Da Kines Plate Lunch shop in the historic Decatur Building at Liberty Station (which is comfortably near Point Loma and the airport).

Da Kine's has other San Diego locations (some of which get real spotty reviews locally) but I have been to this location four times now and the Kalbi rib plate lunch is darned good. This is an order, sit down, and wait for your food kind of place. It is perfect for take-out.

Another find is Cafe 222 for breakfast. It is walking distance from the convention center and has wonderful waffles and pancakes. It is one of the few places in California where you can get Joe's Special (the mega frittata made famous at Original Joes in SF). The lines for breakfast are a bit frustrating, but that is what happens to a good restaurant in any big city when everybody finds out it is good!

The last of my fav's in San Diego is the Island Prime restaurant. This restaurant is run by the same company that runs the beautiful Prado restaurant in Balboa Park. Island Prime and its casual sidekick "C" Level are walking distance from the airport and because of it's shelter Island location has the best view of San Diego's waterfront of any SD restaurant. I've only had lunches here, but everything was hearty, fresh and well thought out. A truly wonderful appetizer to share (don't tell the cardiologists) is their deep fried artichoke hearts. Don't be confused the Open Table internet reservation site that always says the restaurant is not available for lunch, it is, just go.

• Richmond Virginia
Richmond is not usually on my "places I want to go to eat" list, but I have found a few spots I think are real finds, and frankly I saw some others that I am eager to try on my next visit to the Commonwealth of Virginia's Capital City. After years of being away I found that the Zeus Gallery Cafe in the beautiful "Fan" district still has bright and knowledgeable people delivering creative and tasty fare. The prices have certainly climbed into the stratos over the years, but its comfy and funky hole-in-the-wall location offers an out of the way place to take a client or relax with good friends.

Another good place to eat in Richmond is simply called "Comfort". It is located downtown on Broad Street which is slowly becoming home to quite a few new hip places to eat.

Comfort lives up to its name. While immaculately clean, it has a wholesome "worn" feel. The meals are built around good old comfort food staples like macaroni and cheese and meatloaf. My desert was called banana pudding. It was actually a creme brulee with banana slices over a wonderful custard that was (thankfully) a little less rich than what is usually found in a typical creme brulee. The maitre' d and our server were both efficient yet seemed completely devoid of any hint of personality or warmth. Thankfully the food made up for it. If you get a chance after dinner walk a block behind the restaurant and take a look at the old dairy building complete with 3 story milk bottles built into all four corners of the building!

I also had a chance to go back to The Tobacco Company. This is the old Richmond standby where locals take their out of town friends visiting for the first time. It is perfectly located just as the capital district slides on into Shockoe Bottom. The place is huge, is scattered through many floors, and has character for days. It has to be the last restaurant in America where cigar girls still walk around selling cigarettes and cigars. The food was good, but the menu needs some serious updating.

As the economy crumbles, restaurants tend to suffer first. Go out to eat.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Park City Images

The Aspens at Empire Pass

Rail To Trail Bike Trail

Main Street Bus Hub

From Sundance to Olympic Dreams

Park City, Utah

OK, Lets just admit it, Park City is perfect.  

It has world class skiing in Winter and perfect dry, not-too-hot weather in summer. It is also a breeze to get to via a beautiful all weather freeway from the Salt Lake Airport. 

While I have enjoyed family winter breaks to ski in winter, I must admit I enjoy it most as a break from hot old Phoenix in the summer.

I really like renting mountain bikes and riding the abandoned railway corridor. Although the altitude can sure sneak up on you (my poor daughter found that out the hard way). Another option is to carry the bike up the mountain on a chair lift and then ride it down a cat track.  

In the fall, just before the snow descends, the aspen trees lining the mountains around the city just twinkle.

For the skier there is something for everyone.  From the family oriented ski hills: The Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort, to the elegant snowboard free "skis only" runs at Deer Valley Resort where ticket sales are monitored to assure that there will never be any lift lines. Deer Valley valets take you your skis from car to mountain and will inform you if the condition of your favorite ski attire is inappropriate to the resort.

At the complete other end of the spectrum is Park City itself. This is a town where the Town Lift allows you to ski to and from the very foot of Main Street. In fact when the town lift starts each day the power in businesses on Main Street flickers. School children in Park City go straight from school to the lift. 

When you mention its role in the 2002 Olympics to a resident they turn very wistful. It was a life affirming and unforgettable event that they obviously took great pride in hosting.

As one would imagine, there are world class lodgings in each of the various ski venues and lots of condos for rent (as long as you don't try to come over a the Christmas/New Year holiday or during the Sundance Film Festival).

Park City started life as a mining town so Brigham Young advised his followers to avoid it. This has given Park City a different character from the rest of the state. It is still a work in progress. From the ski-in multi-million dollar estates emerging at Empire Pass at Deer Valley to the mixed use hotel, condo, retail, entertainment developments near Kimball Junction. So far development has not gotten as tacky the way many Colorado ski areas have gone. So I have high hopes that it will remain livable and beautiful.

As for favorites. For a hotel, the best is the Stein Erickson Lodge. Its huge comfortable rooms offer views, fireplaces and big soaking tubs. While the lodge is starting to show the signs of its age, the staff here is first rate. Its rates are as breathtaking as its altitude in winter and it is a complete bargain in the off season.  Its layout makes it feel intimate. 

The Hotel Park City is also first rate. It lacks the mountain hugging location of Stein Erickson but has direct access to golf in summer. 

The incredible new kid on the block will soon be the amazing new Saint Regis presently under construction in Deer Valley. This hotel will actually be two large european style chalet style hotels connected by an elaborate funicular railway.  

For families their are two very nice ski-in Marriott timeshare / hotel properties in Park City itself. I have stayed in both and appreciate their abundant features, but I find the rooms in both suffer from really poor sound isolation. The lock-out feature for the timeshare function means you get to hear EVERY noise created in the adjoining unit.  The full service Marriott hotel itself is pretty tired. 

At The Canyons the Miners Club is the by far best place to stay. It has its own lift and offers huge, ranch elegance, condo units. The Grand Summit Hotel is a big timeshare resort and is way overrated and way overpriced. The Sundial Lodge is a bit more modest, but actually much more family friendly.

Restaurants change with the seasons.  Most all of the restaurants on Main Street will empty your wallet and leave you feeling ripped off.  They are trendy, over priced and marginal. The exception is the Wasatch Brewery that serves fairly priced, hearty food and great beer. Yes they do sell Polygamy Porter..........

I really like the Windy Ridge Cafe. Don't let its industrial park locale put you off. The Mexican food at El Chubasco is first rate. It is in a strip mall not far from Windy Ridge. The best restaurant in Park City is probably the Middle Eastern fare at Reefs Kitchen. A small family run cafe where everything on the menu is an adventure that tastes wonderful.  Frankly, when we get to the end of our rope in Another option is to just graze the Whole Foods Market deli in Kimball Junction. 

When I win the lotto I will buy a house here.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

DC Images

FDR Memorial

Einstein Memorial

Lincoln Memorial


Vietnam Memorial

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Where the Zip Codes Start

This week we watched an amazing ritual. After what felt like a decade of campaigning, Americans turned out in record numbers and cast their votes. In some places they waited many hours. It was a moment that should fill us all with national pride. Whether it was our preferred candidate that won or lost, we all made our voices heard. Now, in the most powerful country in the world, we will soon witness another completely peaceful transfer of power. This is the true miracle of democracy.

The elegant simplicity of democracy in action reminded me of our national treasure and capital; Washington DC.

This is the city we love to hate. We casually discuss how this city "corrupts" and "ruins" the otherwise good people we send there. Of course blaming a city for the sins of its residents is perfectly ludicrous. Quite the opposite, when one spends any time in Washington they typically come to realize the essential core of democracy.  The fact those in the world that despise us cannot grasp: we are American's, we may differ on opinions, but when adversity strikes, we are one.

This is the one city in America that everyone must come to at least once. They must come and spend enough time to fully absorb it. And they must bring their children.

Actually I find myself inspired and filled with pride on each trip to DC. I don't see how anyone can walk through any wing of the Smithsonian or the National Archives and not be moved. 

It is hard to define a perfect trip to Washington DC, so I'll just describe the places I find special. 

• A City of Memorials
The City was laid out initially by Pierre l'Enfant. He is the one to blame for all those diagonal streets. If you despise them, take heart he was fired and never paid for his work. He is, however, also the one to thank for a city whose very fabric is designed so well for memorials.

To me the most emotional acre of DC real estate is the Vietnam Memorial. Three decades after its construction, Maya Lin's controversial tribute to our fallen soldiers is recognized as a modern masterpiece. Yet, when initially selected, her plan was widely criticized by veterans groups and politicians alike. No one really anticipated how strong its interactive nature and ability to strike raw nerves would really be. Anyone that walks from one end to the other will walk among family members rubbing the name of a loved one and witness the daily offerings of toys and momentos left to commemorate lives surrendered too soon.

Nearby is the Lincoln Memorial. The site where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his world changing "I have a dream" speech. The very act of climbing its steep steps makes us realize that perfecting democracy is hard work. While at the top, and while under Mr. Lincoln's gaze, take the time to read the text of the gettysburg address. The pure elegance of this speech (which Lincoln felt was "not very good") is soul stirring.

Also in the vicinity are the new memorials devoted to the Korean War and FDR. The Korean War memorial is stunning, especially after a fresh snow, when it looks like there truly are cold and weary soldiers moving among us. FDR's memorial is probably one of the best of all. It has the power to teach and takes us through a series of carefully crafted outdoor rooms.  These vignettes describe American life during the great depression and our greatest world conflict. The memorial is carefully linked together by a flowing stream that culminates in a larger than life sculpture of FDR himself in his draped wheelchair with his loyal dog Fala at his feet.

Like America itself our capital is always a work in progress. As you proceed down The Mall take a careful look at the Washington Monument and notice the difference in stone where the monument was stopped when funds to build it ran out.  When restarted a quarter century later, the stone to finish it had to come from a different quarry. It initially looked the same and then after weathering changed to a slightly different color.

Don't miss the classically inspired new World War Two memorial and the Jefferson Memorial at the nearby Tidal Basin. If you are lucky enough to visit during the spring this is where the cherry blossoms will be found.

Across the Potomac above the Pentagon is the striking and sparkling new "Missing Man" Air Force memorial.

Tucked in the trees the Marine Core Iwo Jima war memorial is sacred land to any Marine. Every Tuesday in summer this is the site of the "Sunset Parade" a nightly performance of the Marine Band and Silent Drill. This is the official band of the President. It was once led by John Philip Sousa and has performed since August 21, 1880. On other days in summer check the performance schedule (other nights of the week the band performs at the historic Marine Barracks). The Marine Band and the amazing "Silent Drill" are witness to the pursuit of perfection.

While many other memorials abound, the only other ones I'll mention here are the Albert Einstein Sculpture at the National Academy of Sciences (across Constitution Avenue from The Mall) and the National Police Officers Memorial located just outside the National Building Museum at Judiciary Square. It too is simple, yet soul stirring. 

In Washington we are constantly reminded how many hero's have leaned into their fears in service to the rest of us.

• The Museums
Our national museum's in DC are peerless. I remember on my first trip to Washington I planned to spend "a whole day" at the Smithsonian. Of course I entered the History Museum in the morning and had to be shooshed out at closing time. It had so many things Id never thought I'd see. From its buzzing display of roadside southwest neon signs to the first ladies gowns (the day I was there was actually the day Betty Ford delivered her gown). This museum is truly wonderful and recently reopened after a two year refurbishment!

Years later my family experienced the same thing at the Natural History wing. They joined up with their Uncle Jerry and all went in and wound up staying till it closed. Of course Air and Space is the favorite of most people. But I actually find it kind of tired.

My simple point is that the Smithsonian takes days.

Another special place for me is the National Building Museum. This grand building was constructed as the HQ for the National Pension Fund and took five years to build (completing in 1887) and features one of the largest spaces in Washington DC and (because of its cavernous interior) plays a role in every presidential innaugeration.

The most intense museum in DC is the Holocaust Museum. It delivers raw emotional power. Carefully designed so that kids (or short people) cannot see the most horrible images, the rest of us come out tearful, drained, and changed. A must see.

The most fun museum is probably The Spy Museum. I have lots of friends raving about that one, although I have not personally had the chance to go there yet.

• Pure History
The White House Tour is probably the number one ticket in the District. With a little preplanning, you can frequently request VIP tickets from your local elected official. SImilarly this is available for the Capital.

The FBI offers tours of its headquarters, but alas the world famous crime lab is no longer on the tour as it is now located in its new digs at the campus of the FBI National Academy in Quantico. I know all that as the new lab was one of my firm's projects!

The National Cathedral is amazing.  Look to see if you can find the bust of Darth Vader (I'm not making this up), that was the last icon chiseled into the cathedral.   

Fords Theater, site of Lincoln's assassination is an amazing place. Opened in 1861 it suffered a fire and was rebuilt and re-opened in 1863. When John Wilkes Booth murdered President Lincoln the public demanded that the (then only two year old) theater be closed.  It remained closed almost 100 years. In 1968 it was reopened for plays and as a museum. So, aside for about 4 years, the theater has actually served its original purpose for only the past four decades. It is now once again undergoing restoration and will reopen in the winter of 2009. After reopening I'd sure put this one on my list to see. 

While the idea of visiting a graveyard while on vacation may be foriegn to some, Arlington Cemetary is the exception. Right in the middle of the cemetary is the Custis Lee Mansion. Originally built by George Washington's adopted grandson George Washington Parke Custis. After his death, his daughter Mary Anna then lived in the house with her husband Robert E. Lee. When the Civil war erupted Mary Anna left the house. Union troops were then garrisoned on the site and Brigadier Montgomery C. Meigs, frustrated and distressed, decided to render the house and its property uninhabitable should the Lee's ever return. So he decided to "plant the fruit of war in Ms. Lee's rose garden".

The Capital is a must stop in DC. Tours are continuous and if the legislature is in session you can peek into the viewing galleries. Look at the wonderful state sculptures and go check out the famous whispering spot. 

Washington's home at Mount Vernon is a wonderful day trip from DC.

• For Kids
The National Zoo is free, fun, and has panda's!

• Food
With lobbyists seemingly everywhere it makes sense that excellent restaurants abound seemingly everywhere in DC.  My favorite is the Old Ebbitt Grille.  Steps away from the White House, they serve the best crabcakes in DC period.  

• Hotels
The Mayflower Park and The Willard are traditional favorites. There are also lots of hotels near National Airport in the hideous "blade runner" hotel/office ghetto called Crystal City. To me this cold disorienting place is truly the scariest place in the DC region. 

I very much like the new Hilton in Alexandria and it is right on the Metro.
• Getting Around
Park the car somewhere else and ride Metro. It is safe, clean, and efficient. It serves all of DC except (strangely) Georgetown. The only place you will need a cab is the National Cathedral. The only place you will need a car is Mount Vernon.

You can fly into any of three airports, National, Dulles, or Baltimore. I personally love the convenience of National Airport with its in terminal Metro stop.  Dulles is the least convenient, but is home to the most international connections.  Baltimore is actually a long way from DC but has a direct Amtrak and commuter train connection to DC's gorgeous Union Station where you can then catch the Metro. I usually avoid Baltimore when I plan to rent a car as their new consolidated car rental facility seems like it is 5 miles from the airport.

Come see where democracy gets re-tooled every day. Visit DC. Come jaded, leave proud.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Images of Vancouver

Gargoyles at the Grace Condominiums

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

The Capilano Treetops Tour

The Celebration of Light

Stanley Park Aquarium Resident

The Market At Granville Island

Water Taxis from Granville Island

A Cruiseship View of Vancouver

Vancouver British Columbia

The Treasure of North America

Residing on the north side of the worlds longest unguarded border is the best neighbor anyone could ever have - Canada.

Having traveled and worked in much of Canada I have a special fondness for its people, culture, natural beauty, integrity, and its marvelous cities. 

Arguably Vancouver British Columbia is the most beautiful city in North America. It is the premier city in the province anchoring a metro area of 2,000,000.

Quite simply, Vancouver has everything. That is probably why it is now one of the most sought after locations for the motion picture and television industry.

Named after Captain George Vancouver who explored the region in 1792, Vancouver is cloaked by a cape of mountains that drape all the way down to kiss the sea.  The city itself simply rolls up and down over the many hills within its city limits. This results in seemingly everyone getting a mountain view. These are the mountains that hosted Winter dreams at the 2010 Olympics.

Vancouver has water everywhere. With its many bays and inlets you are never far from water. This strategic location results in international commerce, magnificent seafood, and lots of transportation challenges. It also means that everyone also gets a view of its many bays and inlets.

It is dense. Vancouver has some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in North America. In fact, for over thirty years it has stressed the concept of "compact housing". This philosophical approach to land use and city planning has produced a dazzling array of truly walkable neighborhoods. 

Vancouver has no freeways. Let me repeat that one. It has no freeways. Vancouver is living proof that when appropriate urban density is combined with safe, efficient, mass transit, freeways are not needed.

It is green. Vancouver pays a price for its greenery and sees more than its share of gray and rainy days.

Vancouver is diverse. But then, diversity is in Canada's DNA. While the US frequently boasts of being the worlds "Melting Pot". Canada is the nation where all of its residents came (and stayed) because they wanted to.

It plays well with others. It adopted the metric system decades ago and is comfortably bilingual. Canada has never felt the need to go around the world picking fights, but it never backs down from a fight when provoked. All of these qualities provides it's residents the superior ability to participate fully in global markets. This is why so many of Hong Kong's wealthiest citizens chose to relocate to Vancouver.

Vancouver has style. With terrain, cultural diversity, views, density, and access to a stunning array of natural resources, Vancouver's architects have much to work with. This has led to a distinct sense of style and the creation of some of North America's best buildings. This fact becomes evident from the moment you land at Canada's second busiest airport. 

Wonderful architecture abounds seemingly everywhere. From Townley and Matheson's marvelous art deco City Hall, to the timeless multi-block long provincial courts building, government buildings in Vancouver are exceptional. Vancouver sports everything from the knife sharp roof of the Hotel Vancouver, to the park structures in Stanley Park, to the playful Grace condominiums, and sleek office buildings.

So here are the things I love.

I love the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (the UBC). This is, in my opinion, Arthur Erickson's masterpiece. Although small, and clearly academic, this building demonstrates Erickson's gentle, masterful, use of concrete. Or as he put it "the noble stone of the 20th Century". It discloses itself in small, measured, steps leading its visitors from the region's first documented habitation in 500 BC all the way through its complex intertwined history of scientific and mythology.

I used to love Vancouver's annual fireworks competition: the Celebration of Light. My family went to it two years in a row and absolutely loved it. Now, I have been told it is no more. That is a terrible loss. For nearly two decades each summer in July or August, Vancouver invited two different countries to showcase their best fireworks. The countries changed each year, but the quality of the pyrotechnical displays just got better and better. The displays were choreographed with music and conducted over English Bay.  The culmination was a grand finale with special displays from all of the invited participants. 

I love Stanley Park. This is Vancouver's Central Park. The amazing thing about the park is that this urban oasis adjoins one of the highest density neighborhoods in North America. It has an aquarium (in serious need of refurbishment), seawall, totems, playfields, formal gardens, bicycle / running trails, and huge swimming pools. 

I love Granville Island. The former industrial island directly below the Granville Bridge. The island now houses a spectacular farmers market, wonderful shops, and numerous artist's studios. Plan to enjoy it for a picnic lunch. 

I love watching kids cross the capilano suspension bridge and run from treetop to treetop at its touristy "treetops adventure".

I love Queen Elizabeth Park. This is a typical perfect hilltop garden, the kind that Canadians do so well. As a kid I was nearly killed here. My mom and I had been sitting on a park bench enjoying the view then just as we stepped away from the bench, a car parked right behind us, jumped the curb and smashed through the bench and a guardrail before lurching over the cliff and landing well down the hill. I remember my dad literally leaping over the cliff to run down to the car. The driver had turned around in the running car in an attempt to put a seat belt on his kids in the back seat and inadvertently hit the gas instead of the brake. Everybody was pretty well shaken up. But amazingly no one was seriously hurt.

Vancouver takes its food seriously and restaurants continuously jockey for position as best in the city. I am out of the loop on the current best of the best.

My family frequently stays at the Hilton at Metrotown in Burnaby. It is not the newest hotel or the most chic. What it has is location. It is quietly located above a mall with dozens of wonderful asian restaurants and food stalls. It is across the street from the huge Metrotown shopping center. Metrotown is a major stop on Vancouver's wonderful Skytrain, so you can leave the car at the hotel and go pretty much anywhere downtown with ease. There is a skateboard park about a block away that my son found and thought was very cool.

While almost perfect, the city does have a blemish or two. Its formerly wonderful Chinatown has somehow slipped into a condition of despair, feels unsafe, and should be avoided.

Consider beginning or ending a cruise to Alaska here. Or better yet, start before embarking on a tour of the magnificent Canadian Rockies!

Roadboys Travels © 2008/2011

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Strip Mall America

New American Cities Have Lost Their Heart

OK. This blog entry is a rant. 

If you don't want to read a rant, I understand, and you have been warned. 

Otherwise, wade on in.

Anyone who travels throughout America as much as I do can't help but conclude that modern American city planning (the last three to four decades) has been a complete unmitigated failure. 

It has delivered ugly sprawl. The spaces it created will never become special. They will never be loved.

Our older cities had a town square and were served by a cartesian grid of streets with sidewalks. They were walkable and traffic moved well in them. Sometimes the grids were imposed so rigidly that it was kind of crazy (like the streets in San Francisco that go straight up and down its steepest hills).

Conversely, our new suburban cities have no heart and no core. Their defining planning features are simply wide, traffic choked, linear arterials. Super slabs that serve gated communities and strip malls. They don't work at all.

In older American cities the heart or core would include a town square or a courthouse square. It might have a compact walkable Main Street. Or even many blocks of retail shops and restaurants bound by a common theme such as the wonderful circa 1922 Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. 

All essential services for the community were located at the core. You knew where you were. You knew where to go for basic services such as the city hall, the courts, a post office, the library, and houses of worship.

Modern city planning now disperses all retail and major services for the convenience of the automobile. Even in small or medium sized communities, without a core everything is served from a six or eight lane arterial with a wide median running down the middle. There are no practical sidewalks. In fact, recently when in suburban Virginia, I attempted to cross a street to get to a restaurant. Thinking "its a nice day I'll just walk there", I soon realized there was no sidewalk or crosswalk. It had been inconceivable to the County planner that anyone might ever want to walk along or near that busy thoroughfare. 

In Texas many main arterials are now flanked with one-way frontage roads. As such, the distance from the driveway fronting on one frontage road to the driveway "across the street" may well be a quarter mile of pavement.

I'm convinced it isn't that we don't want to walk to get around. The very places we say we love are all walkable (and many - like Portland and San Francisco - feature great mass transit). Most of us simply opted for the developer's / planner's vision of utopia and now live in places we really can't safely walk anywhere. 

We totally miss the ball.  Instead of walking we just assuage our guilt by trading in our cars for evermore fuel efficient versions. The problem is we just drive our fuel efficient cars more and more and more.

I was amazed to learn that residents of smog choked New York City have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the nation. Oh, Yeah! They walk a lot.

In old neighborhoods kids walked next door and played in the street. In todays suburbs, kids are loaded into urban assault vehicles and driven to "play dates".

Modern city planning really poses the big question. When did we give up on our cities and decide we needed to hide behind the walls of gated communities? When I ask residents that question they cite the need for "safety". That answer is, of course, simply "code" for choosing to live in economically and racially homogenious neighborhoods.

Lets face it, the whole idea of gated communities polarizes society. They isolate age groups (think "Sun City"). They isolate racial groups. They isolate the "haves" from "have-nots". 

When working with the Police Department in a City filled with gated communities I was told they routinely blindfolded their rookie officers and dropped them in the middle of these communities. They then let them drive aimlessly around simply trying to find there way out without maps. 

The police also found that many of these communities had remarkably similar crime profiles as the non-gated communities in the same city. The crime in the gated communities is just committed by insiders; frequently the drug addled latch-key kids of its residents.

So go ahead and think of every city you have ever truly loved. Maybe it was London or Paris. Maybe it was Chicago, or New York.  Maybe it was Winter Park FL, Portland OR, or San Francisco. Maybe it was the old parts of Franklin TN, or Glen Ellyn IL, or Spokane WA, Santa Fe NM, or Prescott AZ. 

My bet is you will have identified a place that defies almost all modern precepts of city planning. Yet, you found it livable and a lot of fun. 

It had lovely sidewalks with canopy trees. You could walk or ride a bicycle safely. It had houses with front porches. It had a piazza, or town square, or a compact main street. I bet the part of town you loved did not feature a Super Target or a Macaroni Grille. 

As we move into the next phase of urbanization in America we have a chance to rethink city planning. We can indeed try to return to the idea espoused by Jane Jacobs; walkable, live/work 24 hour neighborhoods. 

While my generation looked for big ranch houses with a lawn. Our kids are drawn to lofts. We liked covered suburban shopping malls. Our kids like outdoor lifestyle malls. The trend is clearly swinging.

I guess we can breathe a sigh of relief as the current generation of city planners collapses into retirement. Their damage is done.  Lets hope the next generation of planners realizes they must ignore the unsustainable failures of the past thirty-five years. It is time to make a big leapfrog back in time to reclaim and rework many of the planning structures we so recently abandoned. The ones we now have come to realize we loved. 

The ones that worked.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Scenes From Venice

The Worlds First "Secret Witness" 
Citizens Could Anonymously Report Criminal Behavior to the Doge

Carnivale Masks Range from Eerily Lifelike to Complete Whimsy

The Island Reserved for Funerals

The Hilton Molino Stucky

Lobby of the Hilton 

Piazza San Marco Waiting for a Storm

Piazza San Marco from the Canal

The Magnificent Campanile

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Fragile Venice

A Stop on The Grand Tour

With 2011 Updates

During the Victorian era the aristocratic classes of Europe and the new world made time at least once in their lives to make the "Grand Tour".  The stops on those tours typically hit all the major sites and cities of the world. They travelled up the Nile to see the pyramids, explored India and the Taj Mahal, celebrated Paris, London, Venice, and Rome.

All places that still beckon us today.

For this posting however, I want to focus on one of the most fragile of the worlds treasures, Venice. Venice is actually a city built on more than 100 islands in the Venetian Lagoon off the coast of Northern Italy. 

Once the watery capital of one of the largest economic empires in the world, it thumbed its nose at Rome. While Rome adopted Saint Paul, Venice purposefully adopted Saint Mark. While Rome ruled with an iron hand and gladitorial zeal, Venice derived its power by developing a global web of economic trade. Rome had Roman law and the Emperors, Venice had a completely different way of addressing laws and administering justice via the Doge.

Today, while scientists have successfully stabilized the leaning tower of Pisa, they puzzle over a solution for a sinking and crumbling Venice. Speeds of power boats have been reduced, but until some perfect solution becomes a reality, the future of Venice now seems to hang on the success of its new sea wall designed to temporarily raise levees to isolate the Venetian lagoon during extreme high tides.

As of this writing I have visited Venice twice, once as a poor student and once as a not-so-poor adult. Venice still welcomes millions of both each year.

My first bit of advice. Without planning Venice will prove to be clutch-your-heart expensive. With planning it can be very manageable. Secondly, carefully time your visit to avoid the heat and crowds of summer.

An "off season" visit (early fall or late spring) may require a coat and umbrella, but it will preserve your sanity and allow you absorb this most beautiful of cities comfortably using Venice's comprehensive system of public pedestrian ferryboats called vaporettos. 

You can arrive in Venice by train across the Ponte della Liberte (Bridge of Liberty) to Venice's Santa Lucia station from pretty much anywhere in Europe.  Alternatively, you can fly direct to Venice's Marco Polo airport (which is about 4 miles from the center of Venice). 

Transfers from the airport to Venice itself may be made by public water shuttle (the Alilaguna Waterbus). A bit pricey, but it gets you very close to your hotel. You can also opt for a fabulously expensive private water taxi which will take you direct to the private pier of your hotel. Or you can take a big, comfy, and cheap, ATVO shuttle bus from the airport across the causeway to Piazzale Roma where you catch a vaporetto to your hotel. One bit of advice, once you arrive at Piazzale Roma there are no remotely helpful signs to guide you to the vaporetto slips. So, just look for the stunning new "glass bridge" (that finally links Piazzale Roma with the Santa Lucia train station). Don't cross the bridge, as the vaporetto stops are just beneath it. With a little homework the vaporetto's will soon become your best friend in Venice.

In college I stayed in a convent in Venice that was convenient, cheerful, and clean. Returning for my most recent trip I opted for the uber luxury of the new Hilton Molino Stucky. This new hotel was fashioned from the crumbling ruins of the 100 year old Molino Stucky pasta factory. 

The Hilton was everything we hoped for. It is located on the Guidecca island across from the main part of Venice. This makes it wonderfully quiet and actually allows you to stay in a part of Venice that is pretty much otherwise only inhabited by Venetians. The hotel operates its own fleet of beautiful wooden motor launches that take you from the hotel directly to Piazza San Marco at no cost. Update 2011: the free shuttle still exists, but the beautiful wooden motor launch has been replaced by a kinda dirty boat operated by Alilaguna. The hotel is only one of two (the other being the Cipriani - also on the Guidecca) in Venice with a swimming pool. The pool is small and located on the rooftop. We stayed in a lovely canal facing room and the views were amazing. The chandelier in the room was Murano, the coverlet on the bed was pleated Fortuny, the drawers in the furniture all gently closed by themselves (I dig that stuff!), the plaster walls in the hallways were as smooth as a newborn baby's butt. So, if you can afford the nearly $700 / night price, go for it. Also, if you are an HHonors diamond member you gain access to the private concierge lounge where the breakfast and snacks were sublime and free. Update 2011: the quiet and lovely upstairs Executive Lounge is now a fenced off part of the main lobby restaurant. Selections are plenitful on food and drink, but the quality is much, much lower. While the food was great at the hotel, it is so far beyond wildly overpriced ($40 for a modest breakfast). Update 2011: Breakfast at $40 each was ridiculous in 2008. So seeing is closing in on $55 today was a little laughable. Instead, take a walk to one of the local cafe's on the Guidecca or, better yet, take the hotel motor launch and eat any non-concierge lounge meals in Venice itself.

Venice has a number of "Must See" attractions. I won't spend a lot of ink on the most famous of them, they are world renowned.  Sufficeth to say go see Piazza San Marco. This is the center of Venice and the only square large enough to carry the title "piazza". There are shops, galleries, gelato, and lots and lots of pidgeons to feed.

If your heart is strong climb the Campanile di San Marco at sunset. Wait in line for access to the Basilica di San Marco as its use of venetian tile is unmatched on the planet.

Whatever you do, while at Piazza San Marco, do not miss a tour of the Doges Palace. The huge globes of the world and the heavens, the golden staircase, and the ability to cross the Bridge of Sighs make this worth the time and the lines. It is remarkable that during the rein of the Doges the building never had to be surrounded by spiked fences or secured by heavy locks.

Then go explore. Cross the Rialto Bridge. Shop! Buy handmade eyeglass frames from Danilo Carraro boutique (a bargain). A wood sculpture from Loris Marazzi, glass beads, or a carnivale mask.

Explore the churches. Seemingly every plague to hit Venice resulted in Venetians pledging to build a new and more stupendous church. The Church of Santa Maria della Salute is one of those (it was being restored and was covered in an amazing lattice of scaffolding). Update 2011: See my 2011 Venice updates.




The restoration is complete and turned out wonderful!

We enjoyed watching the famous gondola's ply the canals. It was truly stunning to realize that today's fat multi-tasking gondoliers can simultaneously smoke a cigarette, talk on a cell phone, and oar their slender boats so deftly around the canals. One fact I had never noticed before was that these lovely boats have a slight curvature to one side or the other to counterbalance whether the gondolier is right or left handed. 

If you hire a gondola be wary, after 7 pm they run about $200 for the first 40 minutes. They do seat six, however, so a ride with five friends might actually be a bargain!

If you can, take in a tour of the recently restored Fenice Opera House or Peggy Gugenheim's estate with her modern art collection.

Another "must do" item for us was taking a vaporetto to the Lido (try to time it to arrive for lunch!).  Then return via the vaporetto that circles the entire circumference of Venice.  It passes the docks, hospitals, and the private island used exclusively for the funeral and burials of Venetians. 

Venice is expensive, fragile, and still remarkably beautiful. It is still a must stop on anyone's World Tour.

Roadboys Travels © 2008/2011

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Scenes from Bologna

The Interior of San Petronio

A Typical Bolognese Courtyard

The Freshest Foods are Everywhere

One of the Ancient Gates to the City

Bologna's Towers Have Leaned Precipitously for 800 Years 


The Place to Eat!

When I graduated from high school I took all the money I had made working on parking lots in Jack London Square and went to Europe with a student study tour.

It was a life changing event. 

Someone at the study tour company had the idea they could mix our blue collar high school group with a totally middle class group from Castro Valley, and the boys from an exclusive private school in Orinda.  

So we had my group mostly made up of kids of hourly workers and first or second generation American's mixed with a bunch of spoiled Orinda boys with nicknames like "Biff". Our group saw europe on the $5 a day plan. Their tour leader had pre-arranged dinners for "the boys" at places like La Tour d'Argent in Paris. So it all kind of turned into a cultural slam dance which added a new dynamic to the trip. I think this is time time when I developed my lifelong aversion to all things Ralph Lauren......

Anyway, during our month we toured nearly all of Europe's major cities aboard a wonderful bus. The trip was narrated by our tour guide Wolfgang (a college student from Austria) and was piloted by our superb driver Gus from Amsterdam.

One of the stops we made was Bologna. The stop was off the itinerary and completely unscripted, but highly recommended by Wolfgang and Gus. All they told us was Bologna was "where Europe goes to eat".  After we diverted the big bus we wolfed down a most amazing lunch of lasagne and pasta bolognese.

Over the years I have had the chance to venture back to Europe many times and have returned to many of the places I remember from that student tour. Earlier this year I returned to Bologna and found it still one of the "missed opportunities" of Italy.  

In short it is a wonderful city. It is home to Europe's first University and remains a hotbed of progressive politics. But more importantly it is not part of the standard Italian tourist itinerary. Frankly, it benefits from that. It is an intellectual city filled with youth that feels real. It is a city of art, beautiful cathedrals, fine little bed and breakfasts, and being the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, it is still a danged good place to eat.

For those that might not consider including it on their itinerary, consider this: it is easy to get to, a perfect place to stop on any tour that includes Venice and Florence, and did I mention it is a very good place to eat?

The architecture of the city has been a work in progress since 189 BC. What we see today is the city the Romans built. A city famous for its two ancient (and leaning) brick towers, the half finished Basillica of San Petronio (the Pope decided to divert its remaining budget to other projects in Rome - go in and look for where the sun denotes the time and the season on it expansive floor), Town Hall Palazzo Comunale on the Piazza Maggiore (with its huge Neptune fountain). 

A new attraction in Bologna is the MAMbo (museum of modern art).

Because of the intense summer heat, and to increase usable space, nine centuries ago the city came to require all buildings to extend over the sidewalks creating shady arcades. Many buildings feature lush courtyards that can typically be glimpsed through beautiful wrought iron gates along the sidewalks.

The food market stalls spread throughout the core of the city offer the worlds most amazing variety of cured pork products (the reason why those cuisine conscious English came to call lunchmeat "baloney"). Perhaps the best is the regions amazing mountain-air cured proscuitto. Eat it all here since you can't import it back to the US (a damned shame in my book). The pasta here is also the best in the world. Almost a lost art when the laws of the EU made the centuries old methods of pasta making illegal, the fine quality of the homemade sfoglia (sheet) pasta has now returned as wise Italians simply decided to ignore a stupid law.  

The gelato in Bologna is wonderful throughout the city (although our favorite is still found at GROM in Florence).

Our favorite place to stay here is the Il Convento dei Fiori di Seta. Out of the noisy city center it has just a few rooms and was stylishly created from an ancient convent that fell into disrepair (and was even used for car repairs for some time). It is an easy walk to everything. The knowledgeable owner speaks fluent english and will map out walking tours for you and her young staff literally ran to get our bags up to our room and make us comfortable.

If you can - go ahead and add Bologna to your Italian itinerary. Wolfgang and Gus were right.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008


The City of Big Shoulders

My mom hails from Chicago, so I heard lots of stories about it while I was growing up.  She talked about putting coins on the track for the sleek Burlington Northern Silverstreak to glide over as it passed behind her two story apartment.  She was dazzled by the 1933-34 Century of Progress Worlds Fair, and she loved the Brookfield Zoo.

Of course as a kid from California when I finally saw Chicago in the late 1960's from my Great Aunts mothball infused apartment on Diversey Street I was stunned. Stunned by how old everything was. Stunned by the sweltering heat of her stifling apartment. Stunned by the amount of poverty and grime I saw.

I was also disoriented when we ventured into its suburbs where there were so many trees and everything was so flat. In my world, their were always mountains to the east and water to the west. Here water was on the East! 

But she brought me back again and again and showed me a little more each time. And as each complex layer of this incredible city pealed away I came to see why she loved it so. It is truly an American treasure.

From an urban planning standpoint it is stunning. After it's great fire of 1871 it embraced the "Burnham Plan" that created  a framework for a rational and sustainable city. A mere 22 years after the fire Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition welcoming 21 million people during its run and, from the standpoint of world population at the time, must be recognized as the most successful world's fair in history. 

Architecturally, Chicago is perhaps America's most inspirational City. From the beautiful 1869 Water Tower to the present, Chicago has taken the quote of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to "dream no small dream" seriously.  It was home to the world's first skyscraper; the 1883 Montauk Building by Burnham and Root. It then followed that only two years later with William LeBaron Jenney's Home Insurance Building which was the first skyscraper to use a structural steel frame. The architectural milestones go on and on. The commercially based "Chicago School" gave way to Frank Lloyd Wright's residentially focused "Prairie School".

I remember on one trip to Chicago my mom described in detail how during the depression a chauffer driven limo had pulled up to her elementary school class.  A fur draped matron emerged to come to her class to select a few little girls to come play with her grandaughter. Mom was one of them. This all came to light as I was driving her to see Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece the Avery Coonley House in Riverside. 

She said the women was named Kroehler and she was heir to the furniture empire. Mom said the house she had visited was very modern and a little gloomy (dark). It had brown floors and a separate playhouse for kids with sparkling stained glass. 

As I triangulated in on the Coonley house she stopped talking and was clearly speechless. In a twist of irony our stories had meshed as it turned out the Coonley's sold the house in 1917 to the Kreohler's. The "dark modern house" mom had played in as a kid was indeed the Avery Coonley house.  As we stood on the sidewalk, my 50 year old mother was able to describe the house to me in detail from memory. Four decades later she could remember her day there right down to the peeled grapes they had as a snack.  Heady stuff for a kid who lived above a bakery.

Chicago continues to reinvent itself with creative new downtown housing, new public buildings, museum's and parks. It never fails to inspire the best architects in the world to do their best. This is particularly evident in Frank Gehry's Millennium Park.

Children Play Beneath the 4 Story High Moving Faces in the
Fountain in Millennium Park

This is a City that has maintained its vibrant retail and financial core in "The Loop".  The "L" trains running above and the Metra trains running below keep people moving smoothly. This downtown is alive year round with theater, conventions, and sporting events. 

Besides being a feast for the eyes, it is kind to the tummy as well. With its roots in the meatpacking industry this is a city where you can always get a great steak. One of my favorite places for steaks is Gibson's on Rush Street. Housed in the space made famous as Mr. Kelley's, it has the proverbial "brag wall" of nearly every significant american icon of the last few decades. My family and I found it completely by accident (while my wife was looking for a bead shop). When we walked by we got an intoxicating whiff and dipped in around 4:00 pm.  Being early, we were seated quickly and proceeded to enjoy one of the best meals of our lives. When we left a couple of hours later the line was out the door and down the block.

This is not the City for vegan's. It is the City for Red Hots, deep dish pizza, Italian beef, and wonderful frozen custard.

While tourists flock to Pizzeria UNO where you stop in, order, and then take a stroll while it cooks. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the deep dish type of pizza, so I cross the street and go to the Weber Grill.

Like San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York, wherever you land in Chicago the food will probably be great.

Chicago's Museum's house stunning art (Chicago Art Institute), natural history (The Field Museum), and history (The Museum of Science and Industry). I love them all, but have a special place in my heart for the Museum of Science and Industry. What other museum has a full size german submarine, a full size Boeing 707 suspended from the ceiling, and a whole room filled with steam train engines. The scale of the place is just phenomenal.

This is not a City to spend "a day or two". It is a destination to absorb. While there also make sure to explore its close in "suburbs" and the legacy left by Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park.

Beyond Chicago venture out to wander the Morton Arboretum, the Brookfield Zoo, its college towns, and the lovely cities up and down the beautiful Fox River Valley.

Robert AM Stern in PBS's remarkable "Pride of Place" series called Chicago's suburbs "Arcadia for Everyone". He got that one right. I marvel at their streets with canopy trees, wide parkways, alleys with garages in the back, and those big old houses with wide "wave-at-your-neighbor" front porches with screened sleeping porches above. As I hear architects wax rhapsodic about the "new" concept of neo-traditional neighborhoods popping up around the country, I think of Chicago's burbs and chuckle a bit.

When you visit Chicago somewhere in heaven my mom is smiling.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The New Embraer 190

Nice Job!

You know you fly too much when you can identify the seating pattern for nearly all commercial aircraft.

As the airlines seek to maximize profits many seem to be relying more and more on smaller jets. I am not opposed to that trend as long as they are comfortable, safe, and dependable.

The smaller jets seem to have their own definite personalities. The Fokker is good in storms. The CRJ's may be practical, but typically do not have a first class section and are downrght uncomfortable for anyone over 5' tall. In fact I can't even look out a CRJ's windows without ducking weirdly.

So as the new Embraer 190's come on the scene I have to say Bravo! Made in Brazil, these are nifty planes. In the past few weeks I have now flown on 3 of them and have found each to be great. They have (at least on US Airways) a big first class section. They have NO middle seats! They have big luggage bins. They are quiet and smooth. I note on their website they even feature a whole narrative on ergonomics! Think of that an aircraft manufacturer that expresses actual concern about the comfort and ergonomic needs of human beings!

With so many negatives associated with commercial airline travel lately, I'm pleased to report that this new aircraft is a welcome addition to the skies!

Roadboys Travels © 2008