Alaska Airlines sets Seattle/LA/Havana, Cuba flight schedule


It's official. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines has been awarded the right to operate commercial service between Los Angeles and Havana, Cuba. The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) officially approved Alaska’s application to begin service to the Cuban capital, which still must be approved by the Cuban government before tickets can go on sale.

“We applaud Secretary Anthony Foxx and the team at DOT for their thoughtful and impartial approach toward opening U.S. commercial service to Cuba,” said John Kirby, Alaska’s vice president of capacity planning. “As the only carrier to be awarded daily nonstop service from the West Coast to Havana, we’re excited to be one of the first airlines to serve Cuba on a scheduled basis in more than 50 years.”

Once Alaska receives official approval from the Cuban government, the airline will determine when to begin service.

The Alaska Airlines flight will originate in Seattle with same plane service to Los Angeles and then Havana. No word yet on pricing. Another question: Will the flights qualify under the airline's rules for free companion fare flights earned when signing up for its credit card.?

Here's a  tentative schedule of the new daily service:

Seattle-Los Angeles
Departs 5 a.m.
Arrives: 7:40 a.m.

Los Angeles-Havana
Departs: 8:50 a.m.
Arrives: 4:55 p.m.

Havana-Los Angeles
Departs: 5:55 p.m.
Arrives: 9 p.m.

Los Angeles-Seattle
Departs: 10:50 p.m.
Arrives: 1:28 a.m.

Eight American carriers— most with flights departing from the Miami and New York metropolitan areas — earlier received tentative approval from the Transportation Department to operate direct flights to José Martí International Airport in Havana. Alaska is the only airline that plans to operate flights from the West Coast.

Berlin: Prenzlauer Berg's Village Vibe

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
 and Erich Honecker, head of the former Communist
 German Democratic Republic

Most people don't realize it, but most of Berlin's famous monuments, museums and war memorials are in the former Communist-controlled Eastern part of the German capital. The photo above hangs in the DDR Museuma museum on the Spree River dedicated to depicting life in the German Democratic Republic when the East was controlled by the Soviets until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The East is also where you'll find some of Berlin's most interesting neighborhoods. Prenzlauer Berg is one of my favorites. A working-class neighborhood popular with dissidents, it was largely neglected by the GDR which never got around to replacing its elegant, 19th century buildings with concrete block structures. I first discovered Prenzlauer Berg on a trip to Berlin with a group of journalists in 1999, then rediscovered it again last April for a story in the current issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine.  


A sophisticated village vibe in a neglected part of the former Communist East, now a gentrified neighborhood of tree-lined streets and restored 19th century buildings, most of which survived bombing during World War II. 

"After the wall fell, a lot of people from West Berlin came to Prenzlauer Berg for cheap rent and artistic scene," a local travel guide author told me.  So many young couples sought out the neighborhood that it earned the nickname "Pregnant Hill." Today it houses some of the city's most expensive residential real estate. About 15 percent of residents are foreigners, the majority French. 

I recommend spending a day here. Come for brunch and combine a a walk around the neighborhood with a trip to the Thursday and Saturday organic farmers' market, or a visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial. Find local designers at the Mauerpark Sunday market, and learn about life under the Soviets at the Museum in the Kulturbrauerei, a free museum inside a brewery turned cultural center. Best are the streets fanning out from pretty Kollwitzplatz square. Follow the couples pushing strollers along wide sidewalks to cafes and restaurants, many with outdoor terraces facing traffic-free streets.

The Wasserturm Prenzlauer Berg is Berlin's
 oldest water tower, completed in 1877.
It now houses apartments


Berliners love a leisurely breakfast. Order it anytime on the terrace (blankets provided) at Cafe Anna Blume (Kollwitzstraße 83). Share the three-tier platter piled with fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, smoked salmon and veggies.  Anna Blume was named after a poem by Kurt Schwitters, and doubles as a flower shop.

Patissier Guido Fuhrmann creates edible works of art at  Werkstatt der Süße (Husemannstraße 25). Choose from 20 types of tarts made with seasonal ingredients such as lavender and wild blueberries. 

The refined Gugelhof (Knaackstraße 37) was President Clinton's choice for a traditional meal when he visited Berlin in 2000. Candles and roses decorate rustic wooden tables. Classical Alsatian specialities include asparagus cream soup and fresh trout braised in Riesling wine. The neighborhood has lots of ethnic options - Tibetan, Thai, Indian etc. - as well, along with a few vegan and vegetarian restaurants. 

Afternoon in the PraterGarten


Chestnut trees shade long, yellow tables at PraterGarten, (Kastanienallee 7 – 9), Berlin's oldest beer garden. Tourists mix with families and local workers relaxing with their Prater Pils. 

More intimate is Bryk Bar (Rykestraße 18; 49 -30 381-00-165). Ring the bell and enter a dark and cozy bar with a few tables looking out onto a street lined with pastel buildings and restored facades. Parsley-flecked popcorn accompanies cocktails spiked with fruit vinegars and fresh herbs. 

Bryk Bar 

Candles flicker atop marble tables at cozy Kaffeehaus SowohlAlsAuch  (Kollwitzstraße 88). Warm up with hot chocolate laced with rum or tea infused with whiskey and whipped cream.  Twelve types of espresso are on the menu along. It's not unusual to see reserved signs on the window tables. Locals meet friends here in the morning, or linger over a newspaper and glass of wine in the late evening. 

Kaffeehaus SowohlAlsAuch


Find silver and gold pendants, rings and bracelets hand-crafted by Matthias Frank at his Schmucklabor gallery and workshop (Husemannstraße 4). Sven Peter sells photos of more than 100 city scenes at his DulceMedia stall at the Sunday Mauerpark flea market (Bernauer Str. 6). Shop for limited edition dresses made by an in-house seamstress at Kleid and Schuh (Dress and Shoe), Sredzkistraße 34.


Two of Berlin's best hotels are in the former East. Overlooking the Brandenburg Gate,, the Hotel Adlon Kempinski first opened in 1907 as a luxury hotel. It was rebuilt in 1997 with 382 rooms and suites. Book a yoga lesson, borrow a bike for a ride in nearby Tiergarten park, or sample currywurst and champagne on the terrace facing the U.S. embassy rebuilt at its original location after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For more on what it's like to stay here, see my earlier blogpost

Adlon lobby 

With 195 rooms and suites, the 20-year-old Regent Berlin faces the domes of two historic churches and the Berlin concert hall on Gendarmenmarkt Square. In-room information includes suggestions by hotel doormen, chefs and housekeepers  on how to spend a perfect day in Berlin. Don't miss afternoon tea served fireside in the lounge.

The restored Gendarmenmarkt Square

How Safe is Travel to the U.S.?

New Zealand warns of U.S. travel risks

How safe is it to travel in the United States?

People ask this question about other countries all the time. Now the shoe seems to be on the other foot. 

Tourism promoters jump into action when it appears governments might have reason to warn their citizens to think twice about travel. In some cases, the lobbying works. In others, it doesn't.  The U.S., of course, usually receives kid-glove treatment from other countries. And besides, why would anyone feel unsafe about traveling in the U.S.?

As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons. Fear of police violence, Muslim hate crimes, firearm possession and anti-gay legislation are just a few. Last week, the Transportation Security Administration said it discovered a record breaking 78 firearms in carry-on bags around the nation. Sixty-eight were loaded.

Just as many U.S. citizens ask whether it's "safe'' to travel abroad, many foreigners are now asking the same about travel to the U.S.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's calls for a temporary travel ban on foreign Muslims and people from countries where terrorist groups operate has added to the woes of would-be visitors, USA Today reports.

In an advisory issued last July, the government of the Bahamas warned residents, nearly 91% of whom are black, to be aware of potentially volatile situations if they visit the U.S. 
"In particular young males are asked to exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police," the advisory said. 

Possible hate crimes against Muslims are causing concern in Middle Eastern countries. After a man from the United Arab Emirates who was in Ohio for medical treatment was falsely accused of being a terrorist because he was speaking Arabic on the phone, the U.A.E. cautioned its citizens to avoid traditional dress abroad "to ensure their safety."

Anti-LGBT legislation passed in Mississippi and North Carolina caused the United Kingdom to issue a travel alert warning gay Brits traveling to the United States to exercise caution. 

"The U.S. is an extremely diverse society and attitudes towards LGBT people differ hugely across the country," the British Foreign Office said in a statement issued in April. "LGBT travelers may be affected by legislation passed recently in the states of North Carolina and Mississippi. Before traveling please read our general travel advice for the LGBT community." 

The UK also warns visitors not to sleep in their cars by the roadside or in rest areas. "Try to stay on main roads and use well-lit car parks," it advises, and warns of gas stations near airports ripping people off with high prices, especially those "near the Orlando International Airport."

Australia reminds citizens that  "The United States has more violent crime than Australia, although it rarely involves tourists. Mass shootings continue to occur in public places in the U.S."

New Zealand advises caution when traveling to the U.S. due to the threat of terrorism.

"The United States remains a likely target for terrorist activity by domestic-based extremists and internationally-trained individuals and groups, and we continue to receive reports that terrorist groups are planning attacks against the United States," it says.

"Wherever you are, you should keep yourself informed about the latest alerts and stay aware of your surroundings in areas where large numbers of people congregate, such as shopping malls, markets, monuments, tourist destinations, demonstrations, public events and on any public transport. There is the potential for attacks to be conducted with the intention of targeting the general public."

When it comes to overall crime, New Zealand warns "there is a higher incidence of violent crime and firearm possession than in New Zealand."

Closer to home, even our Canadian neighbors find reasons to be cautious.

"The possession of firearms and the frequency of violent crime are generally more prevalent in the U.S. than in Canada," the government warns. "Within large metropolitan areas, violent crime more commonly occurs in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods, particularly from dusk to dawn, and often involves alcohol and/or drug consumption."

Canadians living in holiday homes have been the victims of break-ins and burglary, the government says. "If you are staying in either private or commercial accommodations, ensure that windows and doors are securely locked at night and when you are away."

No travel alert for Thailand

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, continues to add to a long list of countries it urges citizens to avoid. North Korea is the latest. Parts of Mexico, Israel, Turkey, Colombia, El Salvador, and most of the Middle East are the subjects of official travel warnings. Not on the list are France, Belgium or Germany, the sites of recent terrorist attacks. Neither is Thailand, where bombing incidents occurred last week. 

Washington's habit of assigning "risk" to some countries and not others (often important trading partners or friends who rely on tourism to sustain their economy) is one reason why it's a good idea to find out what other governments are telling their citizens.

Example: The Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade last week advised travelers to Thailand to exercise a "high degree of caution," following bombings on August 10 and 11, and to avoid travel to the areas of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla and Yala. The Government of Canada published similar advice on its website. 

The U.S., on the other hand, did not add Thailand to the list of countries it warns citizens to think twice about visiting. Nor did it issue a travel alert "issued for short-term events we think you should know about when planning travel to a country." 

Thumbs up for Thailand

How did the State Department expect a traveler to learn what the U.S. had to to say about safety after the bombings? He or she would have had to type in "Thailand'' in a box called "Learn about your Destination,"  then click on "U.S. Embassy Bangkok." There, in a yellow bar, across the top of a photo of U.S. agricultural officials meeting with seafood importers, was a "security message," urging citizens to avoid affected areas.

Travel schemes designed to dupe

It seems easy enough to make money in the travel business, so why do companies exploit their trusted bands with schemes meant to confuse and mislead their customers?

A few of my pet peeves:

*Dynamic currency conversion: This scheme involves a hotel, rental car company or merchant taking a fee - usually around 3 percent - for converting a credit card charge made in a foreign currency into U.S. dollars. You have the right to refuse this "convenience'' and pay in euros, yen or any other currency IF you are aware this is happening. Visa and MasterCard say they require merchants to offer the option, but many get around this rule by using small print in a contract to dupe you into approving the conversion. Europcar did this with a rental contract my husband and I signed while in Italy. Another way merchants dupe their customers is by requiring them to actively change the "default'' currency from dollars to euros (in effect at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport) when inserting your card into the machine for a purchase. 

You might not even realize you are paying extra because the charge is hidden in the currency conversion rate used to calculate the final bill. 

Europcar's extra currency conversion charge

I didn't notice Europcar's charge until we arrived home, and saw that EuRopcar converted our bill from euros to dollars at a rate of $1.17 instead of the current rate of $1.13, reflecting a 3.25 percent "currency conversion" fee and a charge of$148.51 instead of $144.38. Best advice: Always verbally clarify that charges will be processed in the local currency. 

*Advertisements made to look like real content: Search hotel reviews on, click on "Sort by ranking,'' and what pops up first is not the top-ranked hotel, but rather a hotel that paid to be go to the head of the line. The only indication of this is an orange label that says "Sponsored." Wouldn't "Paid advertisement" be more accurate? 

"Sponsored" ads make it to the top on TripAdvisor

Also annoying is TripAdvisor's habit of defaulting to a list of hotel choices based on your perceived preferences ("Just for You"), forcing you to actively take the extra step of clicking on "Ranking'' to see how they line up in overall popularity.

Airlines search sites have their own methods of steering customers off track. Search for an airfare on, and the result that appears at the top is not the lowest fare, but an airline ad designed to look like a search result complete with a "View Deal'' box to click. The word "Ad'' appears in small, faint, grey letters at the bottom. Forget to uncheck a box marked "Priceline,'' the company that owns Kayak, when you begin your search, and the results will bring you there for booking. 

A paid ad made to look like a fare deal on Kayak. 

*Hidden taxes and fees that hike room prices far beyond the quoted price. Airbnb is a big offender. Its own non-refundable service fee plus cleaning fees charged by some hosts, can boost an initially-quoted price by $100 or more. Example: A three-night stay in studio apartment in Honolulu high-rise, with pool and an ocean view, starts out at $122 a night, but climbs to $156 when you plug in dates, and see a new price reflecting a $52 Airbnb service charge and a $50 cleaning fee. 

Cruise companies and hotels do this all the time, of course. Why was I not surprised to see a $219 per night rate at the LA Hotel Downtown in Los Angeles jump to $253 when I hit "price breakdown" in small print to the left of the booking instructions.  No mention of the $35-per-day parking. 

Shopping for the best air fare deals requires savvy sleuthing

What if you could save several hundred dollars on a round-trip ticket to Paris, London or Rome by driving 150 miles north and flying out of Vancouver International Airport instead of Seattle?

Would it be worth it to take an extra vacation day during the Thanksgiving holidays to save $180 on air fare by returning on Tuesday instead of Sunday?

If is so cheap, why is a round-trip flight between Seattle and Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines in October $10 more than the price quoted on the airline's website.  

Finding the best deal on air fares is more like shopping for a custom-made suit than a one-size-fits all wardrobe. Where and how you search, when you fly, which airports you use and when and how you book can all affect the bottom-line price. 

With the consolidation of online travel agencies (Expedia last year swallowed up Orbitz and Travelocity), and airline websites cluttered with confusing one-way fares and upgrade offers, shopping for the best summer and fall fares will take some savvy sleuthing. Here's my report which appeared recently in The Seattle Times.


As clunky and cluttered as some airline websites are, they are usually where you will find the best fare and flight combinations if you plan on flying exclusively on that airline. Otherwise, it pays to comparison shop on the online booking sites such as Expedia or Priceline and the metasearch sites such as Kayak (owned by Priceline) or Google Flights, which owns ITA Software, the company that powers most of the search sites. 

While online travel agencies such as Expedia and Priceline sell tickets directly, the metasearch sites direct buyers to the airlines for purchase, or in some cases, to online consolidators such as and These agencies are sometimes able to negotiate discounted fares on international flights, but with more restrictions and higher change fees than the airlines impose.

Rarely will you find an online ticket seller able to offer a discounted a fare for domestic travel. What these sites allow you to do is see a wide range of possible options that would be hard to find on your own, including piecing together two one-way fares on different airlines - "hacker Fares'' - as Kayak calls them. 

"Sometimes there’s just one magic combination of dates that is hundreds less than all the others, " says George Hobica, founder of the airfare alert site

If price is your priority, you'll need to filter for that, although to do so, you may have to manually switch from the default search, such as "best match'' used by Delta or "best flight" used by Google which automatically choses an itinerary that takes into account a combination of price, flight time, number of stops, etc.

A warning to Kayak users: Don't be tripped up by clicking on the listing that comes up at the very top of the search page. This is usually an ad designed to look like a search result. Hitting "view deal'' will link you to an airline or booking site which placed the ad, not necessarily the one offering the best deal. 


The price of an airline ticket can vary by the minute, based on computerized tracking of demand by the airlines and search sites, the day of the week you plan to fly (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the cheapest), whether or not you're flying non-stop and which airports you fly in and out of. 

Flights to and from some European cities can cost substantially less out of Vancouver, B.C. than Seattle. Speculation as to why ranges from more competition among airlines in Vancouver (There are fewer international flights out of Seattle than Vancouver) to demand or a willingness to simply pay more. I Seattle flights are in particular demand by business travelers for major companies headquartered here such as Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft.

"Airlines never price fares rationally from one national market to the next," says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the business travel newsletter

"It's all a calculation of perception and market forces. Most airlines judge that Canadians will pay less for travel then U.S. flyers, based on demographics and other economic factors."
The decline of Canada's currency against the U.S. dollar is also having an effect, Brancatelli says. "As the looney (Canadian dollar) declines, the fare gap increases in Vancouver's favor."

Whatever the reasons, Seattleites willing to make the trek to Vancouver will benefit, assuming the savings is worth the extra time and cost of getting there. 

Prices vary by the airline, with Delta showing some of the biggest fare differences. Checking the same August dates for flights to London, Delta's website showed a fare of $1,590 for a non-stop out of Seattle and a return through Amsterdam vs. $845 out of Vancouver with a stop in Seattle in both directions. A Seattle-Paris non-stop on Delta/Air France for October was $1,347 vs. $993 out of Vancouver. United Airlines' price on a round-trip Seattle-Rome flight for September was $1,251 vs. $998 from Vancouver.

No matter which airports you use, flexibility during busy periods will help, especially for holiday travel. Hit the "flexible date" key on any search site to see the difference in price for flying anywhere within six-day window of the dates you have in mind.

Example: A search for a United flight between between Seattle and Cincinnati, departing on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and returning on the Sunday after, turned up a price is $712 vs. $532 for returning on the following Tuesday.  

 here are other ways to save.  While most airlines now offer "premium economy'' seats with more legroom, priority boarding etc. for an extra fee, more are expected to follow Delta's move to offering "basic economy" fares on some routes. The savings is usually $40-$50 off the normal price, but comes with trade-offs. Seats are not assigned until after check-in, no changes or refunds are allowed after 24 hours from booking, and earn fewer frequent flyer miles.   

How likely is an airline or online travel agency likely to track your searches, and base the prices and/or itineraries you see on that information, generally tracked by "cookies,'' small files of data stored in your computer that can be accessed by web servers?

"There have been some documented cases of websites discriminating on price based on perceived preferences," says Brancatelli. "If you are concerned, start your fare searches with ITA (the software owned by Google Flights), or Kayak to see what prices really are. Once you know what prices are on offer, it's harder for an airline or an OTA (online travel agency) to upsell you."

 Finding the the best deal on air fares can feel like spinning a roulette wheel. Sometimes you get lucky and find a good fare, then wait a few days to book, and poof, it's gone. 
When it comes to when to buy, "There isn’t a magic day," says  Hobica. "Over the last 20 years I’ve been tracking airfares, the only thing that’s predictable is the unpredictability of airline pricing managers. A sale can pop up at any moment, and last for hours or days," the reason he recommends setting up e-mail fare alerts.

If you find a good fare, you can jump on it and cancel within 24 hours with no penalty. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to allow you to hold an airline reservation—at the quoted fare—for at least 24 hours.

Beyond that, some airlines will let you to lock in a fare for up to up to a week. American Airlines, for instance, charges $11.89 for a 7-day lock, $9.99 for five days and $7.99 for three days. Hawaiian Air charges $8.99 for a seven-day hold and $6.99 for three days. 


If you're thinking of flying in and out of Vancouver International Airport, check the transportation options before booking your flight. Make sure you have time to arrive at the airport three hours ahead. 

QuickCoach Shuttle , BoltBus and Amtrak travel between Seattle and Vancouver at varying times and prices. Park 'N Fly Vancouver offers long-term airport parking. 

If booking online, be aware of whether you're paying in Canadian or U.S. dollars. Airline websites quote Canadian fares in Canadian dollars. Search sites such as Kayak and Expedia will show prices in U.S. dollars. If you're paying in Canadian currency, avoid using a credit card that carries a high foreign currency transaction fee. 


*Use the online sites to comparison shop, but unless the fare is significantly lower than you'll find through the airline, you're better off purchasing your ticket directly.

"It makes it simpler to arrange seat assignments and upgrades,'' says Seattle-based Scott Mackenzie who blogs about the airline industry at Travel Codex.   "It’s also much, much easier to fix canceled or delayed flights when things go wrong. "

Cross-check your searches before buying to to make sure you're seeing all the possible fares and flight times available, and keep in mind that a few airlines, notably Southwest, post fares only on their own websites.

Google Flights, says Mackenzie, "is an excellent tool for most travelers. 

 "The main advantages are that you can quickly compare alternate dates and even alternate destinations,'' he notes. "If Maui is too expensive, look at the map to see if Oahu or Kauai — or even Cancun — might be cheaper."

*Beware of restrictions and higher change fees on discounted fares sold by third-party consolidators. Airlines exclude some discounted fares from earning frequent flyer miles, and making changes can cost more., for instance, charges a processing fee of $100 to change a ticket, in addition to airline change fees.

* Just because an online ticket seller puts the word "cheap'' in its name doesn't mean it will have the lowest fares. Example: A search for a Hawaiian Air flight to Honolulu in October showed the fare at $508 on the airline's website vs. $518 quoted by, Priceline, JustFly and other third-party sites. 

*Consider using low-cost foreign airlines (EasyJet, Ryan Air, Air Asia etc.) for flights between cities in Europe or Asia, but keep in mind that most restrict the weight and size of carry-ons, and charge for checking bags and other services. 

Turkey's culinary delights

Sweets for sale in Gaziantep

Gaziantep, 40 miles from the Syrian border in Southeastern Turkey, has been in the news lately as a staging ground for journalists covering the war, a sanctuary for Syrian refugees, and a gateway city for ISIS recruits.

"It’s a destination for spies and refugees, insurgent fighters and rebel leaders, foreign-aid workers and covert jihadists—all enmeshed in Syria’s multisided war," is how the New Yorker's Robin Wright described the city in 2014. Perhaps this was the case then more so than today, although the U.S. State Department still warns against traveling here and in other  areas in Southeastern Turkish including the Kurdish cities of Sanliurfa and Diyarbakır. I went to all three cities in 2011, and would visit again in a heartbeat for their unique cultures, history, and of course, food.

Before the war, Gaziantep or "Tep" as the Turkish call it, was best known as the culinary capital of Turkey.  Its claim to fame was being home to the world’s finest baklava, the honey-soaked pastry. People from Istanbul came for the weekend, the way we might go to Portland or San Francisco. The old city is filled with beautifully-restored 16th century mosques, inns and 19th century stone mansions....and shops selling nothing but baklava and a sister-sweet called kadayif, a delicate pastry with shredded wheat and cheese, butter and honey. Both are made with pinkish, half-ripe pistachios harvested locally.

Kadayif with a side of pistachio ice cream 

There are more than 150 of these shops, one or two every block it seems. Imam Cagdas, a big busy shop founded in 1887, ships its baklava worldwide, but I prefer the smaller, one-man shops where you either order a box to go, or eat it there at one of a few tables in the back. Most keep things simple and offer little else besides water or tea. If it's coffee you're looking for, maybe you will be lucky as I was a few years ago to run into a traditional coffee seller carrying a copper urn.

Starbucks not

Men dress up like this in Istanbul to pose for pictures with tourists, but no one in Gaziantep puts on a show just for tourists. This guy was for real. Notice the string of paper cups around his neck. He opened the lid on the urn to show me hot coals in the bottom keeping the coffee hot. The coffee, called murra, was thick, sweet and scented with spices. I was about to buy a cup, when the coppersmith on the left, bought one for me, the posted for a photo with his cat.

Like many of the cities in this area, Gaziantep was an important trading center with its Middle Eastern neighbors and China. It was a stop on what was known as the second Silk Road that went to China via Iran and Afghanistan. Much money has been invested in restoring the Ottoman-era bazaar quarter filled with spice and nut sellers. A few of the old mansions have been turned into boutique hotels. At the Asude Konak where my husband and I stayed, it took the owners 10 years to restore the 108-year-old house into a five-room inn on a pedestrian street above the town center.

Kabab party

The owners love to cook and guests can arrange to have dinner here. It was Mother's Day, so they  invited us and another couple to join in a family kebab party - sort of like a Sunday barbeque. They made a half-dozen different kinds of kebabs, including our favorite, eggplant and lamb. The table was filled with plates of fresh greens and mint, yogurt dips, bread and salads. Some drank Raki, a high-powered anise liquor that produces a cloudy drink when mixed with water. Others had Ayran, the refreshing yogurt drink made with water and a dash of salt. Antep is surrounded by fertile farmland and has a climate ideal for growing olives, pomegranates, many types of fruits and vegetables and raising sheep.

Urfa's Fish Lake 
Sanliurfa (Urfa) is another lovely town of about 400,000 near the Euphrates river. The outskirts are settled by Kurdish, but it's mostly Turkmen and Arab Turks in the city center, and there's a distinct Arabic feel, with many men wearing flowing red and white checked turbans, and women (and some men) in traditional violet or purple head scarves  decorated with delicate white flowers.

The town is a major center of religion and an important pilgrimage site for Muslims, and even some Christians. Legend has it that Abraham, the prophet, was born in a cave here. According to the story, the king ordered him burned to death for refusing to worship pagan gods. But God turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. Abraham was hurled from a hill, but landed safely in a bed of roses. The whole scene is recreated in a peaceful, park-like area on the edge of town. The lake above is filled with well-fed carp. It's considered good luck to feed the fish, but try and catch a fish, and you'll risk going blind, or so the legend goes.

Anyone who's been to Morocco or Egypt, or even the touristy parts of Istanbul will find being in this part of Turkey refreshing. There are no touts, and even in the bazaars, there's no pressure to buy. No one who offers help ever expects a tip. Its bazaar dates to the 16th century. A walk through the little streets wakes up all the senses. Bread baking. Skewers of lamb roasting on outdoor grills. Copper-smiths pounding away in little stalls. Tea vendors scurrying about.

Urfa spice vendor

We become regulars at the shop below that does a “sandwich'' of sheep's milk ricotta and honey in a fresh, sesame seed bun. One way boys try to make money is to walk around the streets carrying scales and offering to weigh people. They don't get many takers among the tourists!

A young simit seller

Simit sellers are everywhere. Simits are rings made of bread dough topped with sesame seeds. Turks like to eat them as a late afternoon or evening snack which makes for a perfect after-school job. This boy was just learning the crucial skill of balancing a tray on his head.

More sweets, of course

Diyarbakir is a 5,000-year old city, 200 miles from the Iraq border and about 100 miles from Syria. Considered the unofficial capital of Kurdistan, it has been the center of conflicts between the Turkish government and militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.  Even in 2011, Turkish people we knew warned us not to go there, but we did, and we were glad did. We looked as "foreign'' as we might in China or India, yet I can't think of a place where we met and taked with so many people in so short of time.

Hassan Pasa Hani 

We spent most of our time in Diyarbakir's old city, a busy area enclosed in three miles of high black walls, built by the Romans, from black volcanic rock called basalt. Cobblestone streets lead to old homes and former inns hidden behind stone walls decorated with white stripes, a trademark architectural characteristic. Above is the Hassan Pasa Hani, built in the 16th century as an inn for traders and their camels, now a spiffed up collection of coffee houses, tea gardens and shops. Diyarbakir was once home to a large Christian population of Armenians and Syrian Orthodox, and the city has several historical churches as well as a collection of 500-year-old mosques. Sadly, the  Turkish government recently seized the historic Armenian Surp Giragos Church, a number of other churches and large swaths of property, saying it wants to restore the area but alarming residents who fear the government is secretly aiming to drive them out.

Yogurt and cheese bazaar
We met this man in the yogurt and cheese bazaar, and enclosed market filled with individual stalls selling various types of white, mostly sheep's cheese, some of it twisted like a braid. He proudly cut us some free samples. Later for dinner, two local women whom we met earlier led us down a little lane to the Cafe Izgara inside what was once a Jewish home. We sat under a ceiling carved with the Star of David, and ate our best meal so far- kababs, tomato salad, bread, tea, Ayran, the frothy yogurt drink; and boiled sweets with honey- all for about $18 for two, tip included. Diyarbakir's speciality is sheep liver kababs. We reluctantly tried a skewer, then went back the next night for more.

Tourism is down all over Turkey, but especially in these areas. To go or not is a personal decision, hopefully one that will get easier as time goes on. Helpful are some thoughts posted here by veteran traveler Tom Brosnahan author of the Turkey Travel Planner.

Fed up with airport security lines? Here's a PreCheck primer

While thousands of travelers moving through U.S. airports are waiting in long lines at security checkpoints and missing flights, others are breezing through special PreCheck lanes in minutes.

Anyone who flies frequently should by now have the Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck expedited security clearance which allows passengers to sidestep the long lines, and walk through special lanes with no requirements to remove shoes, jackets, belts or liquids from carry-ons.

PreCheck has been around for several years, but the program is only now catching the attention of some travelers due to out-of-control wait times at airport security checkpoints  nationwide. Passengers who apply provide some personal identity information and fingerprints. Once vetted as low-risk, they are PreCheck approved, meaning, with some random exceptions, they will find TSA Pre✓ printed on their boarding passes, making them eligible to join the special lines.  

There are three ways to apply, all with fees attached. The most streamlined is the online TSA Pre✓ program, good enough for people who never fly internationally. For those who do, two other programs offer better benefits.  

Here's what you need to know, and here's a link to a handy chart comparing requirements, costs and benefits. 

TSA Pre✓ Program: 

What it does: Authorizes PreCheck expedited security clearance at U.S. airports.

Cost: $85, good for five years. 

How to apply: Complete an online application, then schedule an in-person appointment at a local application center by calling 855- 347-8371. At the time of your appointment, you'll be  fingerprinted. You'll also need documentation proving your identity and proof of citizenship or legal residency. Bring your current U.S. passport, enhanced driver's license, Green Card, or if you don't have those, a regular driver’s license (or other government photo ID and birth certificate). In the Seattle area, application centers are at  4123 4th Ave. South in Seattle and 15015 Main St. in Bellevue.  Unfortunately, TSA does not have an application center at Sea-Tac Airport although it does at some other U.S. airports. 

International travelers will find the best way to obtain PreCheck clearance is by applying for either the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection's Global Entry program, or the Canadian version, called Nexus. Both come with expedited PreCheck clearance.

Global Entry

What it does: Allows expedited entry into the U.S. from another country, including Canada. Air travelers avoid lines at customs and immigration by running their passports through special kiosks and verifying their fingerprints. Global Entry cards have radio frequency identification, which enables their use at SENTRI (Mexico) and NEXUS  (Canada) expedited travel lanes entering the U.S. Global Entry cards are not valid for entry into Canada via the NEXUS lanes and kiosks. 

Cost: $100, good for five years.

How to apply: Click here, fill out the online form, then wait for notification of an in-person interview. You'll have your picture taken and fingerprints scanned, and be notified of approval shortly after.


What it doesAllows for expedited airport entry into the U.S. and Canada from other countries and for land and sea border crossing into the U.S. and Canada. 

If you live near the Canadian border, this is your best bet because 1) It's half the cost of Global Entry) 2) It comes with PreCheck clearance. 3) It allows you to use fast-pass lanes when entering and leaving Canada by car, while a Global Entry card allows you to use the fast-pass Nexus lane only when leaving Canada. Yes, it's hard to wrap the brain around the idea that it's a better deal for U.S. citizens to apply for Canadian Nexus clearance than our own Global Entry, but indeed it is.

Cost: $50, good for five years.

How to apply: Same as above (The U.S. and Canada have reciprocal agreements). 

Nexus members can use PreCheck lanes at U.S. airports. In Canada, they can use "trusted traveler" airport security lanes, but must first submit to an iris scan (available at no cost at Canadian airports). I had mine scanned the last time I was in Vancouver. It took only a few minutes, and now I'm good to go.  

With demand increasing, expect a wait to be approved for any of these programs. Meanwhile, allow plenty of time at the airport to clear security this summer. Wait times have been brutal, leaving airlines and passengers fuming due to missed flights and connections. Some airports, Seattle-Tacoma included, have started taking the situation into their own hands.

The Port of Seattle recently hired 90 private contractors to assist passengers in a move to alleviate TSA's security checkpoint mess. With the summer travel season approaching,   Sea-Tac and the airlines became pro-active in taking steps to avoid a fiasco such as the one at Chicago's O'Hare International recently when 450 passengers missed their flights due to long waits at security checkpoints.